Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Worth Paying That Fine

I'm only here for a minute--gotta' make a run to the library with an overdue book. I can't renew it over the phone--it's on hold. Somebody else is waiting to read it.

And for sure, I want them to!

But first I had to finish it. And risk a fine in the process. The book is just that good. Lively. Imaginative. Humorous and magical on the surface, but with deeper truths of just how it feels to turn thirteen--and each person's specialness no matter our walk in life--at its foundation. I would have loved to have read this story when I was turning that age.

The book? Ingrid Law's Savvy--middle-grade fantasy, tall-tale, and 2009 Newbery Honor Book. Maybe you're familiar with Savvy but the title only recently crossed my radar screen. For which I'm glad.

So I'm off to the library before I have to pay any additional fines--and so the next reader can get her hands on it. But before I go, let me ask--what book has captured your fancy so much that you'd risk paying a fine in order to finish it?

Monday, June 28, 2010

What a Coincidence

Hubby and I, both college students at the time, met in Chicago-- me originally from Columbus, he came from Cincinnati. What a coincidence that two Ohio natives met in the Windy City. But actually it's conceivable--and coincidental--that our paths crossed before that.

My dad has talked about a family trip we took to Kentucky when I was little. Driving back through Cincinnati, he missed his turn on to the 3C Highway at Kemper Road (pre-interstate days, of course) and ended up in a town at the bottom of a hill. Kemper? Hill? Why, the town must've been Loveland, where hubby grew up. Suddenly everything sounded familiar, and we realized that we had passed future hubby's house that day! Could I, a three-year-old, have looked out the car window and seen him as a seven-year old, riding his bike up Cactus Lane? Maybe. What a coincidence!

(Thus this recent anniversary card. Inside, his note reads: "Remember when you saw me when you were 'threeish'? You didn't know I got this picture of us, did you?")

Stories of coincidences abound. An interesting site on the subject lists the "Twenty Most Amazing Coincidences." Writer Susann Cokal at Glimmer Train Press tells her story of coincidence, one she equates to "living in a novel." She makes a case for how fiction is "a series of such coincidences."

Yet fiction writers should be wary of the overuse of coincidence. Irwin and Eyerly, in Writing Young Adult Novels, noted: "A novelist is allowed one coincidence at the beginning of the story, e.g. coincidentally, your protagonist and antagonist may be in the same place at the same time in order to provide an opening scene of the conflict. After that the writer must rely on cause and effect."

Norma Jean Lutz, "Fiction Tips--the Snare of Coincidence," elaborates: "A plot that relies on fate is a thin plot. It's the 'easy-way-out'...lazy way of writing...a short cut that means less hard work of actual plotting--weaving the story to make it work."

Ah, there's the key. In real life, it's fun to be amazed at what would seem to be improbable and unbelievable circumstances. But in writing, such coincidence is counterproductive to writing a believable story. And therein also lies irony (which is a different subject all together).

Hey, care to share a coincidence in your life--or a tip on how you work around it in your writing? We'd sure love to hear about it!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Suspense in the Night

"If you want to hold your readers, give them something to worry about." --Ayn Rand

One of the highlights of our recent trip (next to seeing the new grandbaby, of course!) was a hike in the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park in the foothills of California's San Gabriel Mountains. There were five of us adults and baby Nicholas snuggled securely in his mommy's carrier-wrap.

The climb was moderate at first, but soon twists, turns, and sharp drop-offs made things more complicated. Still, we were having fun. Other hikers greeted us, joggers nodded, and those with dogs on leashes peeked over at the sleeping baby.

After a time, though, conflict arose. Trail signs proved confusing. The "loop" we thought we were on never looped back. Did we miss the turn? How much farther should we go? How long before nightfall?

And then the baby cried.

In the diminished evening light, it became more and more difficult to see things: dog doo-doo, ankle-twisting ruts, how close we were to the edge. Fewer travelers passed by. The bushes rustled with the sounds of unknown animals. A supplemental bottle for hungry baby emptied all too quickly.

Subplot: a man going up the mountain pushed a stroller, young child strapped in. Where in the world was he going in the quickening darkness?

Crisis. Baby's needs could no longer be ignored--but there was no place along the way to stop. Alone on the mountain, there was only one way out--and that was to keep walking. With the night's curtain dropping lower and lower, Mommy Suzan nursed baby as she cautiously stepped along on the shadowy trail.

Resolution? All downhill from there! We finally emerged in a parking lot bathed in moonlight.

Several vital elements in a good story--complications, conflict, subplot, crisis, resolution--entered into our hike that night. For us, it was suspenseful to say the least!

Suspense, says Tina Morgan at Fiction Factor, is one of the most crucial ingredients in our books. "Without it, there is no reason to continue reading or to continue watching a movie or play." And suspense is vital, she adds, to all genres.

Ironically, my "fun" reading on the plane both coming and going were books by Mary Higgins Clark--an author billed as the "Queen of Suspense."

Suspense. In our hike, it led to a memory that will go down in family archives. In stories, it's what keeps readers reading. How important is suspense to you?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day Favorite

Happy Day! As I get ready to post, it is Father's Day 2010 AND I'm 2000 miles from home celebrating it with not only my husband/our kids' dad, but with our son and his family--him a new father this year. His little Nicholas is now 5 weeks old--and we're having our first visit together. Oh, it's been so much fun to meet--and cuddle--him.

So in honor of all these good things, I'm going to post one of the family's favorite recipes, something we "girls"are going to put together here in a bit for our guys. It is a tradition for special occasions and there's no reason to break the tradition now. Even if we had to come so far to make it.

(By the way, in case son-in-law happens to read this, we will do the same for you when we get back :-)

We call it Spaghetti Loaf, and it is--yes--spaghetti, and cheeses baked in the shape of a loaf (think meatloaf) that, when done, is sliced down and smothered with homemade pizza sauce. Yummm. It's a recipe I came across in the newspaper many years ago. It was an instant hit then, and continues to be a family favorite today.

Here's the recipe:

This may have nothing to do with writing, but the fun is bubbling over, somewhat like a pot of pizza sauce simmering on the stove.

Dessert favorite is Blueberry Cheesecake. But I'll have to share that another time.

Happy Father's Day!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Vantage Point

When I mentioned to a Scottish writer friend that I was going to write about point of view, he immediately quipped: "It's an interesting topic--depending on which way you look at it.'"--Jane Yolen

Here's a view from my office window--a vantage point from which I can see the field next door, the road, and at times a host of animals passing by: deer, turkeys, bunnies, ground hogs, opossum. Once we saw a coyote. The other day when this picture was taken, the clouds in the sky were amazing.

Vantage point: A better position or condition; advantage. Thinking back on the history of the room where this window is located, I'm reminded that the tiny slice of space (it's only 5' wide, 13' long) has served our family from a number of vantage points through the years. First it was a nursery. Then a toy room, sewing room, or "computer" room, depending on what we needed it to be. Finally, it rose to the status of "office," a term that instantly elevated my work from hobby to serious business! It's all in how you look at it.

Chosing point of view for our stories is really nothing more than considering the best vantage point for telling the story. In fact, in defining POV, Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, says, "The first thing to do is to set aside the common use of the phrase 'point of view' as being synonymous with 'opinion.'...Rather (begin) with the more literal synonym of 'vantage point.' Who is standing where to watch the scene?"

Although there are a number of POVs to consider--first person, second, third-person omniscient, third-person objective--I've chosen third-person limited (limited-omniscient) for my WIP. Burroway explains that one of the advantages to this POV is in its immediacy. "Here," she writes, "because we are not allowed to know more than Jane does about her own thoughts and feelings, we grope with her toward understanding." She adds that although this form may seem restrictive, it in fact "has a freedom that no human being can be simultaneously inside and outside a given character."

I'm having fun viewing my story from this vantage point. Do you have a favorite view on yours?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Not Your Normal Saturday Morning

How sad are the stories coming in about the flash floods that tore through the campgrounds in Arkansas. Our hearts and prayers go out to those who have been tragically affected. The little bit of flooding we experienced today is truly insignificant in comparison, but for those who might drop in to take a peek at our little corner of the world, this is what we woke up to this morning... the end of the road...

                       ...heading north...                                                                  ...heading south...

...rescue workers...

...road conditions...

...swift-moving waters...

Not your normal Saturday morning. But we're not complaining.

And the sun is shining now.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Story Sparks

Clover is in full bloom. We saw great spreads of it along the highway on a recent trip up I-71 to Columbus. There's also a patch along the road where I walk.

Clover makes me think of dotted swiss. Do you remember material by that name? It's a rather old-fashioned organdy fabric that's dotted with flocks of threads. And the thought of it brings back memories of childhood: the dark-haired doll dressed in a pale green dotted swiss dress, kitchen curtains in lavender, my grandmother's fancy white apron.

Follow the memories back to Mom at her sewing machine, and Grandma fashioning home-made dolls and stuffed fabric frogs. Oh, that takes me back to stories of Grandma as a child just after the turn of the 20th century and her tales of floods, flu epidemics, and such everyday childhood escapades as singing out doodlebugs and locking old Granny Manny in the privy.

Just the other day, on our trip to visit my parents, an amazing tidbit--one I'd never heard before--came to light when my dad (now in his late 80s) mentioned that his great-grandmother was a cook on a canal boat. The canals were a series of waterways wide enough for boats. The Ohio-Erie Canal linked New York to the Ohio River, and was used from the 1830s to the 1850s to transport goods and produce to market, before the advent of the railroad. The boats were pulled by mules that trudged alongside on the banks.

Though I've always been interested in history, especially local, I never was much interested in the canals--until it became personal. Now I think: "There must be a story here!"

Story. A family of six living in a hollow sycamore tree in 1800? There must be a story there (the book I'm finishing up on now). A barn with the number 1861 welded in wagon wheel rims and mounted above the large door? There must be a story here (book 2). A young girl (later to become my grandmother) rescued out a second floor window into a johnny boat to escape the flooded house? There must be a story here (book 3). And now who was this woman who cooked on the canal boats? Is there a story here?

Stories are everywhere. May we turn our ears to them, pluck them out of the air, get them down on paper, write them the best we can. And hopefully stir, inspire, entertain, uplift, (fill in the blank with your vision) our readers as we go.

Sycamore trees, barns, doodlebugs and dotted swiss are some of the things that have sparked my ideas. What has sparked yours?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cutting Out Dead Wood

We came home yesterday to face a bunch of tree-trimmer trucks blocking the road by our driveway. Crews up in their buckets pierced the air with the noise of chain saws. Lopped-off limbs and chunks of upper trunks thudded to the ground. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and a steel-helmeted man with a reversible "stop/slow" sign directed cars down to one lane. These men had a job to do--trim and clear around telephone lines and cut out dead wood.

You're probably ahead of me, right? How part of our job as writers is to trim dead wood from our stories, and prune anything that impedes the action's progress? There are adverbs and adjectives to cut, backstory, cliches, and passive tense to thin back. Redundancy to delete, telling to lop off so that the showing "shows" through. All kinds of word trimming goes on in our craft.

I found another treasure in the "jungle" of my office book shelf: The Writer's Book of Wisdom, 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft, by Steven Taylor Goldsberry (Writer's Digest Books 2005). Rule #93 states:

          "In the days before computers, a writer would literally have to cut and paste. That's what those commands on your PC refer to, kids, except that back then we used actual scissors and glue.
          "When we cut up a page and transferred the elements, an interesting thing happened: We learned to cut more than paste. And the resulting shorter copy read better.
          "An old formula says that the second draft should be 10 percent shorter than the first. The third draft 10 percent shorter than that...As you revise, try to cut your manuscript by at least 10 percent--that alone should improve the pacing. If you find that for every scene you trim, there's another you want to expand, ask yourself, 'How does this further the plot?'
          "If it doesn't, let it go."

If it doesn't further the plot--let it go. Great words for me this week. How about you? What do you see needs trimmed in your work this week?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Prime the Pump

The act of writing begets writing. --Leonard Bishop
We've all heard the phrase, "prime the pump." This expression, early on in the plumbing business, came to mean the process of getting a water pump back up and running when air somehow got in the line and shut down the process. Thus a "prime"--the pouring of liquid in the line to expel the air--was needed to get back in business.

What about us writers? Do we sometimes need to prime our writing pumps--take an extra step to get words flowing again when they seem to dry up? I think so.

For me--I know so.

Jane Yolen, in Take Joy, A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft (p. 18) says, "There are many ways to prime the writing pump, not all of them pretty. But most of them work. And if you work at your writing every day, you will get better. Exercising the writing muscle is important, because flabbiness is as bad in a writer as it is in a runner."

So what are some ways to prime our writing pumps on days when words won't flow, thoughts are jammed, and nothing seems to be working? On days when, instead of setting prose down on paper, we get--shall we say--a bunch of hot air? Or simply an empty page?

Some "prime" suggestions include:
  • Journaling
  • Freewriting
  • Free association
  • Word prompts
  • Photo inspirations
  • Writing exercises
  • Poetry
  • Daily word or page counts
  • Blogging (which, I must say, has become one of my favorites :-)

Ms. Yolen reminds us (p. 59) of what we've read and heard many others say: "A writer is someone who writes." Therefore, no matter the means, we writers must get the word flow going. Use whatever prime works most effectively.

Of course, none of this addresses procrastination and BIC (Ms. Yolen's famous acronym, p. 84--"butt in chair). That, I think, is a subject for another post.

How about it? What are some of the ways you prime your writing pump when the lines go dry?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bright Spots

Although gardening is not one of my strong suits, I started a little flower garden with high hopes a few years back. It would be my "butterfly" garden, and I would plant flowers that promised to draw said butterflies.

And so I spaded, dug, smoothed, laid walk stones, and studied numerous gardening books to select flowers fit for the space--which included some shady areas under three Ohio cedars at the back. These trees are over 75 years old--most probably planted in 1935 when our house was built. My  Mother's Day gift that year was a bench with a butterfly motif that nestled perfectly under the towering trio.

Fast forward past a few frustrating growing seasons. The coneflowers never made it. The lavender grew spindly and weak. Even the knockout roses--which were supposed to thrive with little maintenance--died. Only some of the herbs have endured(along with a yucca plant I've been told is nearly impossible to destroy). I'm sure several factors played into my problems, one being my own lack of experience. Others probably include not enough sunlight and poor soil, especially acidic from the cedars' needles.

But here's the good stuff. Every year there seems to be at least one bright spot in my garden. This year it is the tiger lily. Even the deer are leaving it alone, allowing me to enjoy its vibrant beauty. Its a great thing to look out at every morning.

Know something else that brightened my little corner of the world here recently? I found out that I was the winner of Lindsey's "Writer Goody Bag Giveaway" over at The Write Words. I was flabbergasted to learn my name came up in the random drawing. Thank you, Lindsey! If you haven't yet visited her site, hop on over. Her "Tip Tuesdays" are great--both for writing tips and links to other helpful places.

Bright spots. We all need them. What are some of yours?