Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Life's Rusty Tools, A Quote by Anne Lamott

October walk 2018
"It's funny, I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools--friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty--and said 'do the best you can with these, they will have to do.' And mostly, against all odds, they do." --Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

As a kid, I had similar ideas, thinking that once we were all grown up we'd act, well, we'd act like adults. We've got a lot of learning to do, don't we--all the way through life. So as one month ends and another begins, especially one which focuses on thanksgiving, I propose we add gratitude to Ms. Lamott's toolbox--a very-grownup tool that never gets rusty or bent, or goes out of style.

Agree? In addition, what tool of choice would you add to the mix?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Elizabeth Varadan's Carnival of the Animals, and An Interview

One of the best parts of blogging over the past few years has been the meeting of people who share in the passion of writing. Getting to know them—even if it’s only through cyberspace—and follow them in their journey to publication is an added bonus. When one of those now-friends announces the exciting news that their book has been published, we celebrate with them.

Today I am pleased to help celebrate the publication of my blogger-friend Elizabeth Varadan’s latest book, The Carnival of the Animals (Belanger Books, 2018). The Carnival of the Animals is a story collection for children based on Camille Saint-Saëns’ 19th century musical fantasy, The Carnival of the Animals. Although geared for readers grades 2-5, the book is ‘layered’ so that older readers can enjoy it as well. There are thirteen tales based on the thirteen animals in Saint-Saëns’ work, and they all take place in different countries.

I caught up with Elizabeth to ask her about her book and her journey to publication.

Welcome, Elizabeth! First may I say I read your first book, Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, a MG mystery that included none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, and enjoyed it very much. You obviously write in varied venues. What inspired you to write The Carnival of the Animals? 
The idea of a collection of stories occurred to me one night over dinner when my husband and I were talking about music. We both like all kinds of music, and Saint-Saëns’ musical fantasy is one of his favorite pieces of music. I said, rather flippantly, “I should write a story about each animal. Afterwards, the idea started growing on me. I love to do research, so the challenge I gave myself was that each story had to happen before the date Saint-Saëns wrote the music.

Of the thirteen animals you wrote about, which is your favorite?
Oh, gosh. That’s really hard to say. I liked each one as I wrote them, and each is so different. I like them all.

I know that you and your husband spend a period of time each year in Spain. Have any of your travels inspired one or more of the animals in Carnival?
Actually, “The Burro from La Mancha” was inspired by our visit in 2005 when Spain was celebrating the IV Centennial Anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I had seen the musical The Man from La Mancha years and years ago, and the idea popped into my head, “What about a burro from La Mancha? A burro who hears a poet relate the tale of Don Quixote and then sets off to have adventure of his own . . .? So that was great fun. I actually read Don Quixote for this story, and I must say, it is a truly funny novel. 

What is one highlight you experienced in writing this book? A challenge?
A repeating highlight was finishing each story. As I say, each one was so individual. It was like writing 13 separate books. Which was also the challenge. As much as I love research, I had no idea how much research I would end up doing. Each story called for its own special research. I suppose another highlight was how helpful people were when I contacted them for special information. It’s wonderful how supportive of writers people are.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Ha-ha-ha. I really don’t have a typical day. I have days when I read all day for information or inspiration. Other days when I write for a few hours. Some days when I write all day like a maniac. Other days when I just journal. And some days when I don’t write anything at all.

You’ve now published four books for children along with short stories and poetry. What piece of advice might you share with aspiring authors just starting out in their publication journey?
Follow your own dream, not someone else’s. Try everything. Find good writing groups that are both supportive but hard-nosed. And read! Nothing improves your own writing like reading terrific writing by masters. Most of all, persist. Keep writing your stuff and sending it out.

Congratulations again, Elizabeth, on the publication of The Carnival of the Animals, and thanks for sharing with us some insights into your writing journey. Wishing you all the best as The Carnival of the Animals makes its way into the hands of children in the days ahead!

“Thanks to Elizabeth Varadan, you will roar with the lion, bound over clouds with the unicorn, dance with the tortoise, weep with the elephant, feel the friendship of a magical bird, know the enduring love of a swan…and more. Best of all, you will enjoy the genuine magic of this carnival of creativity!’ –T. A. Barron, author of The Merlin Saga

“In the Carnival of the Animals, Varadan takes us through a colorful world of animal stories that will entertain readers of any age. Her whimsical style and effortless storytelling allows her three-dimensional characters to leap off the pages, causing the reader to feel for and love the characters she’s created. These stories beg to be read aloud to children again and again. The subtle morals of her tales give hints of fables while introducing young readers to well-known characters like Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s Puck. Since Carnival’s characters are from all over the world, these stories will spark discussions with young children about cultures, languages, and even animal habitats. Truly a wonderful work of art.” –JaNay Brown-Wood, author of Imani’s Moon

“The stories in Elizabeth Varadan’s The Carnival of the Animals are a wonderful tribute to Camille Saint-Saëns’ musical suite. Children will be drawn to the clever, charming narratives and come away with a real appreciation for both the stories and the music that inspired them.” –Steve Richardson, author of Canlandia and Lavender Blue and the Faeries of Galtee Wood.

“A beautifully penned tale inspired by the musical suite The Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saëns. The story and its settings will delight children of all ages. Varadan’s magical menagerie is marvelous!” –Victoria Lindstrom, author of The Tale of Willaby Creek

Read an Additional Interview with Elizabeth:

Visit Elizabeth at:

Links to Elizabeth's Books:

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Spiderwebs, Katherine Paterson, and Words to Ponder

late September morning 2018
"A friend of mine who writes history books said to me that he thought that the two creatures most to be pitied were the spider and the novelist--their lives hanging by a thread spun out of their own guts. But in some ways I think writers of fiction are the creatures most to be envied, because who else besides the spider is allowed to take that fragile thread and weave it into a pattern? What a gift of grace to be able to take the chaos from within and from it to create some semblance of order." --Katherine Paterson

The spiderweb that revealed itself in the morning light the other day sparkled and begged to be photographed--which I was happy to oblige. Later, curiosity prompted me to seek out words and ideas that might have been written comparing spiderwebs to the writer. I was not disappointed. Ms. Paterson expresses the thought magnificently in the above quote--that of taking fragile threads (our ideas) and weaving them into a beautiful pattern, and creating order from internal chaos. What a great way to describe the challenges a writer faces. Love it!

Ironically, I'm currently reading one of Katherine Paterson's books: Gates of Excellence, On Reading and Writing Books for Children, a classic first published in 1981. We know Ms. Paterson best as author of the Newbery Medal winners Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, and Newbery Honor Book  The Great Gilly Hopkins. Overall she has written more than thirty books, sixteen of them for children. Along the way she has graciously shared insights from her life and experiences. For example...

On Writing Novels:

"A novel is not born of a single idea," she is quoted as saying. "The stories I've tried to write from one idea, no matter how terrific an idea, have sputtered out and died by chapter three. For me, novels have invariably come from a complex of ideas that in the beginning seemed to bear no relation to each other, but in the unconscious began mysteriously to merge and grow. Ideas for a novel are like the strong guy lines of a spider web. Without them the silken web cannot be spun." (See, there's the spider web again!)

On Reading:

"Read for fun, read for information, read in order to understand yourself and other people with quite different ideas. Learn about the world beyond your door. Learn to be compassionate and grow in wisdom. Books can help us in all these ways."

"The gift of creative reading, like all natural gifts, must be nourished or it will atrophy. And you nourish it, in much the same way you nourish the gift of writing--you read, think, talk, look, listen, hate, fear, love, weep--and bring all of your life like a sieve to what you read. That which is not worthy of your gift will quickly pass through, but the gold remains."

On Life:

"What I have come to believe is that joy is the twin sister of gratitude. I am most joyful when I am most grateful."

"It seems to me that there are two great enemies of peace--fear and selfishness."

"You don't have to fight dragons to write books. You just have to live deeply the life you've been given."

And to think all of these thoughts and words-to-ponder grew out of one simple unassuming spiderweb that twinkled its way into the day and awakened us to a moment of beauty. It was a good day.

Any one quote by Ms. Paterson that resonates the most with you?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ansel Adams and September's Inspiration

Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, by Ansel Adams, a print (Amazon
"I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite." --Ansel Adams

We finally made it, hubby and I, to the Ansel Adams exhibit at Cincinnati's Taft Museum before the exhibit's closing date. We would have missed a great treat if we had let this one slip from our fingers. I've always admired the iconic black-and-white photos of nature, particularly of our national parks, that Mr. Adams is famous for, but to try and absorb the genius, beauty, and compelling images all assembled in one place as these were, was a tremendous opportunity.

Cincinnati Taft Museum
Ansel Adams, A Photographer's Evolution was on view at the Cincinnati Taft Museum most of the summer, ending September 16. Billed as a showcase of a career-spanning collection of the photographer's work, the display attempted to "trace the evolution of Adams' magnificent style," beginning with rare early scenes from the 1920s and progressing to later prints he made shortly before his death (source). "Spanning the photographer's entire career," words displayed for the visitor at the beginning of the tour stated, "this exhibition reveals Adams as a poet of light both in the field and in the darkroom." The exhibit featured 42 of these marvelous photographs. Mesmerizing and instructional at the same time. Image poet and photographer in the same package. I loved it.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), photographer and environmentalist, was born in San Francisco. He experienced the aftershocks of San Francisco's great earthquake as a four-year old in 1906. He contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic and became seriously ill, taking several months to recover. He aspired at first to a musical career after years of studying the piano. But ultimately, after his father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, after his first visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916, he turned to photography as his passion and purpose. "The splendor of Yosemite," he wrote of his first view of the valley, "burst upon us and it was glorious...One wonder after another descended upon us...There was light everywhere...A new era began for me" (source).

And so, as I often do, I took a look at this man, Ansel Adams, and what he might have left behind in words as well as art. Highlights of my discoveries:

--"Suddenly I saw what photography could be: a tremendously potent, pure art form, and austere and blazing poetry of the real."

--"Photography is not only what you see, but also what you feel."

--"When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."

--"How high your awareness level is determines how much meaning you get from your world. Photography can teach you to improve your awareness level."

--"I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music."

--"Today we must realize that nature is revealed in the simplest meadow, wood lot, marsh, stream, or tidepool, as well as in the remote grandeur of our parks and wilderness areas."

--"I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us."

--"Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum."

And finally, a quote we writers can identify with:

--"One of the most important pieces of equipment, for the photographer who really wants to improve, is a great big wastepaper basket."

"In 1975," the exhibit noted, Adams "ceased making fine art prints for the open market. He selected 70 negatives he saw as his most important works--known collectively as the Museum Set--and began printing them for placement in museums." Six images in the Taft's gallery were among the 70 Adams selected, chosen from a field of over 2500 photographs attributed to his seven-decade career (source). What an agonizing process that must have been, to narrow such a wide range of images into only a few dozen for display. How does one choose one equally beautiful photograph over another?

September's inspiration: Ansel Adams, photography, poetry in photography, beauty in our world, dedication, passion. What artist--photography or other medium--inspires you? What has been September's inspiration for you so far?

Friday, August 31, 2018

Flowering Lantana and the Writer in August

in an August garden 2018
"If a hot, dry spot is a problem in your garden, lantana may be your solution. This hardworking plant with colorful flowers thrives with little moisture in full, unyielding sun. It's also easy to grow and pollinator-friendly!" --Better Homes and Gardens online

With a mix of hot sun and then some rain, the lantana my husband planted is thriving. And as August 2018 draws to a close, the above description of this flower speaks, it seems to me, of the writer and her seasons, too. Hardworking, yes. Colorful results, hopefully. A few blooming words despite dry spells (writer's block) and driving heat (seasons of burnout). Are we, like lantana, pushing through those things that might hold us back in order to bring forth fruit in our writing gardens? Our words may not be easy to grow like lantana, and we may struggle to nurture them through rocky days, but we can aim to be 'pollinator-friendly,' growing ourselves and offering something of value to others.

Celebrating summer's end by marveling at the remaining colors of the season's beauty. Have your words blossomed this summer or suffered from drought? Are you anticipating a productive season ahead? Can you identify with the characteristics of the lantana flower?

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Revisiting the Basics: Throughline

photo courtesy google images
"The best fiction has a line of compulsion as strong as a hawser running through it. The reader is compelled because the characters are compelled, each equipped with a 'through-line,' an actor's term for what he 'wants' overall, what he 'wants' in a particular scene. These through-lines are the strands of the hawser, but, complicating the figure, they run at cross-purposes with each other and with circumstances, creating conflict and opposition." --Oakley Hall, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing

...hawser (n.):  a large, stout rope or thin steel cable, used for mooring or towing ships... 

The term "hawser" was a new one to me, not being familiar with boating or, on a bigger scale, towing ships. But now it's a word I've added to my vocabulary. Can't you just see how the braided strands of rope work together to make a stronger product, strong enough to pull a ship, keep it headed in the right direction, and help get it safely to its final destination?

Mr. Hall has certainly come across an apt metaphor for a story's throughline, a subject I've taken more of an interest in following the latest critique of my manuscript, one in which the throughline was mentioned as needing strengthening (thanks again, Cathy :-)

And so I went back to the basics again--to review, chew on, digest how to make improved revisions to my story's throughline and, ultimately, the story itself. I found the following sources helpful:

From Nancy Lamb in her book, The Art and Craft of Storytelling (p. 72): "The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline--the driving force of the book that you set up in the opening pages--and refuse to let go."

Again from Ms. Lamb (p. 76): "From beginning to end, the throughline is the constant in your story. You can have any number of other things happening in the book. But the matter of what drives the hero and compels him to act is never in question because the throughline is there to maintain the reader's attention and to pull him through the story."

She also elaborates on these thoughts in the online Writer's Digest article What Is The Throughline of a Novel (And Why It's Important You Have One). Here she says, "Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character's conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative."

Author Nancy Kress, interviewed at Writer UnBoxed, was asked "What is a 'throughline' and how can you use it to make writing the middle of a manuscript easier?" Her answer: "Draw an upside down 'U.' Left-hand leg (call it A) is the state of the character and the situation at the start of the story. The right-hand leg (B) is the story's end, where character and situation have changed (if they haven't, you usually don't have much of a story.) This is the throughline. Your task is to create and relate all the incidents that occur to plausibly turn A into B." Other writers have described the throughline as an invisible thread that binds your story together.

So a throughline? A hawser or rope that pulls the reader through the story. A line of compulsion. The story's driving force. A character's personal hunger. An upside down U that shows the character's growth, change. An invisible thread that binds it all together.

How to strengthen that hawser, that's the question! Ms. Lamb gives insight on the subject in a section of her book subtitled, "Take a Ride on the Throughline," where she lists a series of questions to consider including:

  • What is the primary throughline of my story?
  • What are the secondary throughlines of my story?
  • What does my hero want, why can't she have it, what is the driving force that makes her do, endure, overcome?
  • How does each throughline pull the reader through the story?

And so another revision calls. You can bet I'm going to cast that hawser out there in hopes of pulling a stronger story through the waters to its final port and make it a more engaging ride for the reader at the same time. Let's hope!

How would you describe "throughline"? Any tips on how to capitalize on it so your WIP sails forward with purpose, and not drift into troubled waters?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

On Generosity, Critiques, and Valued Feedback

July 2018
"You may wish you knew then what you know now, but remember sometimes...the things you know now were learned from what you didn't know then." --Terri Amshey

Can we speak of generosity? I have a couple of people to thank. Thanks to an agent who gave of her time and resources to read my manuscript and give me much needed advice. Thanks to a friend whom I've come to know and appreciate through blogging who generously offered to read my work and then took precious time to offer a detailed critique that far exceeds anything I've received in the years in which this book has taken shape. 

Both of these responses have come in just the last few weeks. Both were like a bouquet of flowers: a collection of sweet words of encouragement entwined with words rooted in growth and change. Seeds have been planted to make the whole experience of writing a book so much better. And I'm grateful.

Yes, I could say, "if only." If only I knew then what I know now. But then, as Ms. Amshey (above) says, those things I know now came from what I didn't know then. In my case they arrived by way of generous and open hands from those who offered a fresh perspective. I think too many times we seek writing advice, read books on writing, dip into the myriad blogs on the subject of writing, only to come away with a sense that yes, something isn't working but what is that something? When someone then comes along to cut through the fog, we realize what a gift we've been given.

So to Irene and Cathy (you know who you are!), I say thanks. I'm compiling a list of terms of issues that you called out, things like conflict/tension, throughlines, depth, 'episodic.' Then there's an ugly weed that I didn't understand at first but now see more clearly: 'insufficiently digested research'! It just goes to show the old adage, you can't see the forest for the trees :-)

To help along the way, I offer links to a few more articles I will visit in the next round:

10 Tips for (Re)Writing a Novel, by Jolina Petersheim
What I Wish I'd Known, by Cecil Murphey

What has been your experience with critiques--encouraging, constructive, or otherwise? Anything you're particularly grateful for at the moment?