Mid-week Mischief

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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!

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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?

Love is why I carry a hanky

My Irish grandmother always carried a hanky. She’d stuff it up her sleeve or down her decolletage, what she called her “bosoms.” I thought it was her hay-fever, but now I think I’ve discovered the real reason.

You see, I’ll turn sixty-seven this week, and while I am healthy, I am reminded daily that I am no longer young. Chores and walks take a bit longer. When I look down, it’s my mother’s hands I see. I relish the hour or so I spend stretched out on the couch each afternoon, not sleeping, but simply resting and reading.

Furthermore, I’ve had time to reflect on what this aging business means. You see, I plan to be a very old lady one day. My goal is still to live until my 100th birthday. However, I’m beginning to realize that many of my friends and loved ones won’t be there to celebrate with me. I must learn to balance the contentment I feel each morning with the sadness that yet another dear one has passed. It’s also why my mother advised me to keep making new friends, because the old ones will keep dying.

Last week was rough. Two long-time friends passed away. Two. Both big, strong, active guys–both close to my age–who were simply and quite suddenly gone. Upon hearing the news, I was incredulous, but tried to go about my usual routine. Yoga class. A walk in the neighborhood. I cried during both.

So that’s why my grandmother always carried a hanky!

Still, I know this isn’t about me. The wives and children these men left behind are devastated and heart-broken. They will face each day, diminished is some way, slightly less than they were before. I hope they also know the profoundly positive influences their men had on those lucky enough to call them husband, dad, grandpa, or friend. These were good guys who should have had many more years to go on being good guys. We who loved them are grateful for the gift.missing-you-honest-quotes-about-grief-winnie-the-pooh

Still, the tears come. I have to tell myself that this grief is the price we pay for living and loving each other. For being human.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone through cycles of birthday parties, bridal and baby showers. Now is the time for goodbyes.  Now, whenever I buy a sympathy card, I buy two. Just in case. And that’s why you see me standing at the Hallmark display, sniffing quietly and reaching for my hanky.

Book review: 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.

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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.

Book review: Just who is truly mad and truly guilty?

514kx79myl__sy346_Truly Madly Guilty

First, let me express my love/hate for Liane Moriarty’s ability to suck me in and keep me reading just one more chapter. She made me care about the characters and then she dropped bread crumbs of information at just the right moment. In short, it is pacing perfection.  Or torture.  I like to read to fall asleep and this one kept me awake.  Not scary, but certainly compelling.

Erika and Clementine’s friendship has always been an uneven, uneasy one. As children, Clementine’s do-gooder mother pushed her to be friends with Erika, whose family life was a dysfunctional mess. Erika became a project of sorts that Clementine often resented.   Clementine, a cellist, has always been a little absent-minded, disorganized, and careless. Where did that ice-cream scoop disappear to? Erika, an accountant, is neat, orderly, and conscientious–maybe a little OCD. There is a sense, now that they are adults, that the traits they developed were perhaps in response to one another, as much as anything else.

Something awful (tragic? scandalous?) has happened at a neighborhood barbecue. We aren’t sure what, but it has deeply affected Erika and Clementine. Clementine has taken to giving little motivational speeches about “One Ordinary Day.” Erika has a gap in her memory about the event and keeps trying to fill in that breach. What did she do? Was she to blame?

The question of who’s mad and who’s guilty will lead you through the book. You will suspect just about everyone of something along the way. Moriarty artfully ends each chapter with some little hook to make you read on. And because all these original characters (like the former pole-dancer who is now something of a real estate mogul) tell their own sides of the story, you may have to read a few more chapters to satisfy your curiosity. I just couldn’t stop.

Their spouses, children, parents, and neighbors all play a role and each one feels a bit of guilt for what happened. And I’ll bet you’ll be both surprised and touched by how each person—from the youngest to the oldest– responds in their own way. Recommend.

Others books by Liane Moriarty you might enjoy. I did.

 

Book review: If we could talk to the animals…

indexThe One and Only Ivan, a middle grade bestseller and 2013 Newbery winner, has something to appeal to animal lovers of any age. Inspired by the true story of a real captive gorilla, Katherine Applegate tells of unexpected friendships and kindnesses from the point-of-view of a gorilla.

After being stolen from his family in the jungle Ivan is raised by well-meaning humans until he grows too big to be a pet. He then finds himself caged and isolated from others of his kind for decades in a sad little mall. He spends his days watching TV, painting, and conversing with two friends: Stella, an aging elephant crippled by abusive trainers, and Bob, a stray dog who has made the mall his home. When Ruby, a new baby elephant is brought in to attract more visitors, her sadness causes Ivan to see his domain is for what it is. He promises to help her. With understanding from the janitor’s young daughter, Ivan is able to communicate their plight. You’ll have to read it to find out how.

Quotes:

 “Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”

“I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.”

“I’ve never asked for a promise before, because promises are forever, and forever is an unusually long time. Especially when you’re in a cage.”

“Is there anything sweeter that the touch of another as she pulls a dead bug from your fur?

With its themes of friendship, compassion, and hope, Ivan reminded me of Charlotte’s Web, hence, I happily recommend it to you and any young ones you know.

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Book review: Whom do you trust?

51fhux5OR3L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Delia Ephron’s latest, Siracusa, two couples vacation together in Sicily where their marriages as well as their friendship unravel when flaws are exposed. The story is told in retrospect, with each of the characters giving their own questionable account of a tragic event that is only revealed to the reader at the end when secrets come to light with a bitter vengeance. A literary whodunit.

Ephron (yes, she’s Nora’s sister) lets each of the main characters have their say with distinct voices. While none of them is particularly likeable, they are intriguing.

Michael—an arrogant, womanizing writer of some notoriety, who is a “year behind on a book he isn’t writing.”

Lizzie—Michael’s wife, also a writer, trying to win him back, but doubting her self-worth.

Finn—Lizzie’s former lover, a free-spirited restaurateur who goes on late night rambles striking up conversations with everyone he meets.

Taylor—Finn’s chic, controlling wife, devoted to their beautiful ten-year-old and creepily quiet daughter, Snow who is also on this trip. Snow suffers from (or hides behind) a super shyness “syndrome,” which only her mother believes is real. Snow rarely speaks above a whisper so her mother speaks for her. See? Creepy.

Themes of marriage, friendship, motherhood, secrets, lies, and betrayal weave throughout in a compelling and sinister way.

A few quotes to illustrate Ephron’s wry and stinging observations:

“’Divine the insecurity and compliment it,’ I heard him say not long after he’d used the trick on me.”

“Betrayal of this magnitude is the exclusive province of married couples.”

“The only power worth having is secret power…like having an ace up your sleeve or a gun in your boot.”

Ouch! 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.

A river runs through Miller’s Valley

Are you an Anna Quindlen fan? I am. Her fiction and nonfiction both ring true for me. Her latest, Miller’s Valley, is no exception.

If you are writer, you will notice right away the skill with which she weaves this story, adding just the right evocative and telling details, while making you care about certain characters and be suspicious of others. She never insults your intelligence. If you’re not a writer, you may only notice how quickly and seamlessly she draws you into the story.

The protagonist, a reminiscent Mimi (Mary Margaret) Miller, tells a story beginning in the 1950s, when she is pre-teen in rural Pennsylvania. Through her telling, she drops only a few enticing hints along the way as to the eventual outcome. That’s the trail of breadcrumbs through the forest by which an expert novelist leads us, compels us, to turn the page. Quindlen is good.

The Miller’s family farm and life are under threat of increased flooding, a proposed government water project, not to mention constant financial concerns. Mimi’s own future is in doubt when her father has a stroke and can no longer subsidize their farming operations with his fix-it shop. Mystery surrounds the long-running feud between her nurse mother and reclusive aunt. Mimi shows herself to be smart, hardworking, and devoted to her family. She does make a mistake or two, however, and readers can only stand by and ache with her as she makes difficult choices, learns life lessons, and attempts to  move forward.

Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen, one of my faves

Lessons from childhood:

“I figured that most of being a kid consisted of eavesdropping, trying to figure older people out and understand what they were going to do next, because whatever they were going to do next was surely going to have some effect on you.”

“When I was a kid it seemed like God’s will was always that bad things happened, mostly to nice people. When Eddie got his scholarship, when LaRhonda’s father started to make a lot of money, nobody ever said that was God’s will. With Mr. Venti they mainly said it was dumb luck.”

About an unplanned pregnancy, Mimi didn’t yet think of as a baby:

“I thought of it as an anchor, dragging me down. I thought of it as my mother’s disappointment like a living thing, more real, than whatever has been inside of me…”

And about her beloved but troubled brother, suffering from PTSD after coming home from Vietnam:

“It’s a lot harder to save people that you think it is.”

The essence of family, friendship, love, and home shone through here and left me feeling satisfied. Recommend.