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.

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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_

 

 

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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: Pat Conroy sends great love

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“The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”

What a lovely gift my good friend Linda gave me for Christmas. A Lowcountry Heart is a fine collection of the last bits of writing by Pat Conroy, who died in the spring of 2016. His friends and family gathered a few of his blog posts, speeches, and letters and put them together in a lovely tribute to this big-hearted, story-loving, low-country man. Since it’s Pat Conroy, and I can’t ever hope to match his words, I’ve just picked a few quotes to share with you.

On teaching:

“Though I’ve never met a teacher who was not happy in retirement, I rarely meet one who thinks that their teaching life was not a grand way to spend a human life.”
“Teaching remains a heroic act to me, and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.”
“No one warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization.”

On writing:

“…a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out.”
“It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”
“It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.”

On the veracity of his memoirs:

”None of them will be true word-for-word…It’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”
“If a story is not told, it’s the silence around the untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open a secret up to the light.”

He is generous in his praise for other authors and the act of reading widely. Aspiring writers should take note.

On books:

“A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life.”

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Conroy’s troubled early life, schooling, and profound sense of place provided all the material he needed to make a career as a novelist. Like many readers, I’m sad there won’t be any more books by him. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, but these are my favorites. Which ones have you liked best?

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: Do I repeat myself?

WordItOut-word-cloud-2111782I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool at WordItOut. You can easily see my overuse of certain words.

I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses of know. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.

Thanks to Joan Dempsey over at Revise With Confidence for the link and the insights.

Have you tried this with your writing? What did you learn?

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?

Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker

 

Book review: The art of making something from nothing

lucy-bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout  has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness.  At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep.  This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”

While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own.  Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”

When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.

School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.

While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?

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Also an Emmy winning HBO mini-series

Do you believe in magic?

big magic

At first, I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s  latest, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear was only for writers and other artists. But as I read, I found it reminding me that we can all live creative lives. A creative life is simply one that isn’t satisfied with merely working to pay bills. Do you like to make stuff? Do you like to cook, sew, garden, decorate your home, play with model trains, build birdhouses? You are entitled to a creative life. Yes, you! Everyone is.

I’ve included just a few of the many passages I highlighted in bright pink.

Relax and work hard

Gilbert tells us not to worry about being good enough. If the work makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what others think. The work is what’s important.

“We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners.”

“A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat.”

Where ideas come from and where they go…

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form… Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

Gilbert tells a great story about the novel she didn’t write. After getting an idea and starting a novel, some life-altering circumstances caused her to set it aside. Boxes and boxes of research sat idle for years. When her life settled down and she was able to start again, the idea had fled. She was simply no longer interested in it. Later, Gilbert discovered that that idea had flitted into Anne Patchett’s head and that she was now working on it. That idea turned into her book, State of Wonder. Clearly the lesson is, if you don’t do the work, the idea will find someone who will. Get cracking!state of wonder

Success and failure

 “You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”

“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

Live beyond fear, not without it

Gilbert recognizes that a certain amount of fear is necessary for survival, that those without any fear tend to act like sociopaths or out-of-control toddlers. Not people we should emulate. How does she deal with fear? Here’s the letter she addressed to her fear before starting a new project, what she likens to a “road trip.”

“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job… But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Finally…

Big Magic may be my new favorite graduation gift. In spite of the author’s magical thinking the book is loaded with very practical advice for how to live a creative, productive, and happy life. Furthermore, it’s delivered in a direct, cheerful, kind, generous, and encouraging voice. Gilbert values curiosity over passion. She argues against trying to make creativity pay one’s bills. She argues for keeping one’s day job, living frugally, and traveling. She also argues against going into debt to pay for advanced degrees. Pulitzer prizes don’t often go to folks with MFAs.

My advice? Treat yourself so some Big Magic and read this book.

 

 

What’s next?

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After You by JoJo Moyes

My book club chose to read this after finishing the author’s very moving and successful Me Before You. We simply needed to know if Lou Clark ever got a happy ending. The answer is well, sort of.

The book picks up a year or so after Will’s death. Publicity surrounding his controversial decision impacts everyone connected–even Lou’s family.  Lou moves to Paris for a while, but is still struggling to find a way forward. She returns to England and, with money Will has left her, buys a little flat in London and works unhappily in an airport bar. The flat is just a place to sleep. She hasn’t even properly moved in until an unexpected and troubled young girl claiming ties to Will shows up. Out of loyalty to Will, she feels obligated to become involved. And that makes all the difference.

Well, that and the fact that when she falls off her roof she has a “meet cute” with a hunky paramedic.

Moyes has said that this sequel was hard to write because so many people loved Lou and had so many expectations for how her life should turn out.  She understood that some people wouldn’t like it, no matter what she wrote and had to write the story that she felt was true to the character.

Granted, Me Before You is a hard act to follow. While After You is not quite as compelling, it is satisfying. Moyes does a beautiful job of setting the reader in the midst of family and personal struggles as Lou makes uneven progress through her grief. There is humor and sadness and tension and love and letting go. I recommend it if, like me, you need to know the rest of the story.