Book Report: Tan on Tan

51fTaQ5dljL._SY346_It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.

Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.

where-the-past-begins_pg-73_easter-1959---in-the-park-after-church-courtesy-of-amy-tan
Amy with her family in 1959.

The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should.  That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even.  Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.

Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.

On memory and the amygdala:

“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”

“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”

On the work of writing:

“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”

“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”

“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”

On the fickleness of acclaim:

“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”

“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”

On her own fiction-writing mind:

“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”

“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”

Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.61qxtsbLAHL._UX250_

 

 

Advertisements

Trying to find the “Ties that Bind” my novel together

knot on fingerWith some trepidation, I sent a “completed” draft of my novel (working title Ties that Bind) to four friends who had graciously volunteered to be first readers. Three are fellow members of Lone Mountain Writers. One is a member of my book club, although I hesitate to say “just a reader.” Without readers, there would be no writers. Right?

Every page of this nearly 400 page beast has been read, critiqued, and nit-picked repeatedly, but the whole thing all at once? Not until now. I really wanted to know how–and if– it hung together. Two manuscripts are still out, but the two critiques that have come back are so vastly different, I hesitate to make any major changes before seeing the final two. What? Two readers had very different opinions about one piece of writing?! Unheard of! (And where’s that sarcasm font when I need it?)

My “reader” friend had few comments and wondered if I’d finally publish it now. As if it were within my power to hit “publish” and make my book land on the shelves at Barnes and Noble next week. I explained the daunting process of researching and querying dozens of agents, hoping to convince just one to take on the task of selling it to a publisher. That process could take months. Years, maybe. I was recently told that until I had queried and been rejected by one hundred agents, I shouldn’t consider calling my attempts “failed.” Yes, self-publishing is an option, but…

My “writer” friend thought it was fine writing, just not yet a novel. It lacked a through-line of cause and effect to compel the reader. Crap. She also caused me to question my own judgment about the scenes I had deleted when I cut nearly 14K words from the original 112K manuscript. Had I unintentionally cut out the heart of my story? Double crap.

In light of that, I’ve begun rethinking the structure and scope of what I had originally envisioned as a story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. Here’s the most recent version of the blurb:

“Baby boomer, Claire Jordan has spent decades building a satisfying career in international relief while running away from the losses that plagued her troubled youth. However, when she receives news that her one lifelong friend Libby is ill, she books a flight home. Libby too, has built a life, but one tangled in the very ties and expectations that Claire has so 8b3ed867bde576ef92055e9335bd4711scrupulously avoided. Together they will discover if it’s ever too late to change your mind about who you believe you are.”

Too much or too little to drive a novel?

While I ponder that question, I’m re-reading books on craft, especially the sections on plot and story arc. My two much-highlighted and dog-eared sources: Writing Fiction (Janet Burroway) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (Donald Maass).

I remind myself that I asked for this help. And in recent yoga classes, I’ve meditated on remaining receptive to my teachers and trusting I will be able to untangle the many threads I’ve created and weave them into a story.

Stay tuned.tangled

Book Report: Can you make room for hope, faith, and opportunity?

tiger drive

Three cheers for Carson City, Nevada author, Teri Case on her debut novel! I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from a friend.

Teri gets deep and personal in this family drama set in a trailer park very similar to the one in which she and her siblings were raised. The voices of the mother, father, sister, and brother are both vibrant and heartbreaking. Each character demonstrates the damage that poverty, abuse, and addiction can wreak on human beings. To protect themselves, they inflict further damage by keeping secrets from one another. While readers may not like the characters, they will find it hard not to empathize.

“Do you ever think we all would just be happier if everyone worked together and supported each other? I feel like my parents…and my older siblings only take care of themselves. It’s like my family doesn’t think there is enough of a good thing to go around, so they all scrap for the best of the worst, climb over each other, fight over rations, and then boom…they vanish when someone needs them. And that leaves me no better than them and looking out for myself…”

The author successfully paints each character into a corner, where neither they nor the reader can see any way out. Could these characters ever find redemption? Each of them will need to find resilience and the fierce drive of a tiger if they are to survive much less succeed.

More importantly, I believe Tiger Drive reinforces one of the reasons I read–to experience lives outside my own. The characters’ desperate lives and blistering responses to the chaos swirling around them are so foreign to my own life, that I was at first taken aback. Their struggles caused me to reflect on the assumptions and judgments I may have made when I encountered troubled children and families not only in my teaching career, but also in my life. I hope I have at least been kind. As a human being, kindness and compassion should be my first response. My prime directive. It costs us nothing to “make room for hope, faith, and opportunity” in our hearts. Having one person believe in us can make all the difference.

Thanks for a compelling read and the lesson, Teri.

Teri case
Author, Teri Case

Book Report: Two friends, one survivor

51f58wzlTRL

Cat, now a young woman, remembers one difficult year and her friendship with the manic Marlena. With its troubled, reminiscent narrator, this tale goes deep and dark. Divorce, poverty, neglect, alcohol, meth, and the Oxy epidemic all get the “up close and personal” treatment. While the writing is beautiful and rich, the themes make for an emotional journey.

Acclaim (what drew me to this book):

A National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize Finalist
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Named a Best Book of the Year by Vogue, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, NPR, NYLON, Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Barnes & Noble
Chosen for the Book of the Month Club, Nylon Book Club, and Belletrist Book Club
Named an Indie Next Pick and a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick

Just a few samples of the gorgeous, insightful writing because I can’t say it any better than the author, Julie Buntin.

On adolescence

“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
At fifteen, I believed that I would grow up to be the exception to every rule.”
For a teenage girl, a beautiful mother is a uniquely painful curse.”
I loved her, as my mom and as a person, for everything, for being the one who stayed.”

On opioids

“Our universe was limited to each other, hemmed in by the perimeters of Silver Lake and the towns around it, where Oxy had already laid down roots, farmed out by doctors treating pain that most everyone seemed to have.”
There were kids like us all over rural America, I’d find out late; we were basically statistics, Marlena especially, members of a numb army, ranks growing by the day. Alone in our bedrooms, falling asleep in class, meeting in parking lots and the middle of the woods.”
Now it strikes me as a profoundly American thing—an epidemic that started as an abuse of the cure, a disease we made ourselves.”
…but I never tried Oxy, not after watching how it scraped at her with its long fingernails, leaving nothing but a body.”
I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt.”

Like I said, it’s deep and dark, but worth it.

Ties that Bind: Letting Ms. Kindle read my novel mistake(s)

kindle_2366549bIt’s impossible to say how many drafts Ties that Bind has undergone. It’s been in revision since 2008, when I “finished” 50k words during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each sentence, each scene, and each chapter has been reviewed and critiqued countless times by me and the very capable–not to mention very patient–members of Lone Mountain Writers. It’s now about 100k.

This past spring, I printed out and read the whole thing cover-to-cover in an attempt to get a sense of how it all hung together. Or didn’t. The result was a hard copy filled with highlights, sticky-notes, and huge sections crossed out. I’ve since made those changes in my manuscript. Nonetheless, I thought it needed (I needed?) one more going-over before letting a few beta readers take a look. (Obsess much?) And no, the MSWord spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.

Several people recommended reading it aloud to myself. Good idea, but I have been over this beast so many times, I’ve become “error blind.” I do not read the words that are there. I read the words that I think are there. Silly brain.

Then I remembered that my Kindle Fire has a Text-to-Speech feature. I’d listened to e-books while driving, but never used it with a document. I sent the document (a docx file) to my Kindle Fire. If you haven’t done it before it’s pretty easy with your Kindle’s email address. Find yours under “Settings” and “My Account” on your device.

You know what? It worked!

Ms. Kindle’s voice is female and a little mechanical, but certainly clear enough for my needs. I sat at the computer with the document on the screen and the ear-buds tucked in. I listened and made corrections as the nonjudgmental voice read exactly what was on the page. Bless her heart. She read every single typo, every syntax error, and every other embarrassing “little” thing that I hadn’t picked up in my repeated readings. Some errors were the ghosts of previous drafts–you know, tense or point of view changes.

While I couldn’t see them, I could certainly hear them.

 

Still,  as helpful as Ms. Kindle is, she can’t create the tension that compels a reader to keep turning pages. She can’t make my characters believable or likable. She can’t tell me which scenes and details are necessary and which were merely fun to write. Nor can she do the other thousand and one things to make this creation into a book that someone besides my family will want to read. That’s still up to me.

Stay tuned for further developments.

 

 

Ties that Bind: How friends challenged me to write a (better) novel

knot on fingerBless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year. 

That was in 2008.

Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”

Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!

images2
The founder of Lone Mountain Writers, Marilee Swirzcek

I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.

Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.

Here’s what I heard instead:

  • Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
  • “What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
  • “Where is the conflict, the drama?
  • “Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?

Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.

Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.

They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.

What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.

In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.

So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.

Now, where’s my sunscreen?

Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.

The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.

“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.

Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.

310iU7BOqrL._UX250_
Author, Ann Patchett

“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”

I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!

Book report: A book for what ails you

paris-bookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George

Are you in need of enchantment? A long vacation? Good food? Wine? A little romance or the chance of finding it again? Are you in need of a remedy for a small sadness?

Kindly come in. Watch your step.

Jean Perdu, the middle-aged proprietor of The Literary Apothecary has just the thing. His shop is actually a barge on the bank of the Seine and his books are organized by emotion and the needs of the readers. “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They looked after people.”

 “I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor or intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.”

On the power of reading good books:

“…reading makes people impudent, and tomorrow’s world is going to need some people who aren’t shy to speak their minds…”

“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book…he saw freedom on wings of paper.”

But the love of books and the bank of the Seine are just the beginning of this story. When Perdu finds a poignant, twenty-year-old love letter in an old kitchen table, he impulsively unmoors his bookshop and sets off on a quest. As he’s leaving, Max Jordan, a young, reclusive author, jumps aboard.  Yes, it’s a road trip, but the “road” ends up being the system of rivers and canals in France. Along the way, they take on another older man, Salvatore Cuneo, who has been searching for his lost love for decades. So, it is love—or the possibility of love—that sends all three men on this quest. There is a literary mystery to be solved as well.

“We cannot compel anyone to love us. There’s no secret recipe, only love itself. And we are at its mercy—there’s nothing we can do.”

What better place to pursue a quest than the water- and roadways between Paris and Toulon? Author, Nina George’s lyrical and sensuous descriptions will draw you into every village and scene, every meal and glass of wine, every sunset and every tango.  Deep sadness and great love are expressed throughout the book with warmth and compassion. Themes of love and loss, healing and hope permeate this luscious read.

61u6jukitll-_ux250_
Author, Nina George

“All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layer of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. Directly below the surface, we are our former selves: the former child, the former lover, the former daughter.”

I found this book to be perfectly charming. It reinforces the healing power of books and time, while also reminding us not to shut ourselves away, but to live in the world, to really experience it. It also made me want to book a river cruise in France. Or at least drink in the sunset and some good wine with someone I love. Recommend.

Some lighter reading, now and then…

My Best Friend's Girl by [Koomson, Dorothy]        Landline: A Novel by [Rowell, Rainbow]

 

Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff.  And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.

In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.

To her ex, Kamryn says:

“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”

And about Tegan:

“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”

In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.

“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”

“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”

These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.