Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Romance to the rescue

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how I got through the darker months of winter by listening to melancholy music. This year, I've discovered something else to get me through the long nights—romance!

I've never understood why anyone would voraciously read one Harlequin and then another. I was grounded in the real world, thank you, too busy to read such trifles. And yet now I find myself watching episodes of the BBC show, "The Paradise," again and again. I have watched the episodes as they have aired on Sunday nights and then again during the week while washing dishes or folding laundry; or I sneak in a few minutes at a time on my iPad before I go to bed using the PBS app. I go back and forth, watching Episode 7 and back to Episode 3. It has become an addiction—I think I've watched some of it at least every couple of days.

There is no logical explanation for this. I—who abhors shopping and soap-ish dramas, and who is deeply loved—have totally immersed myself in this 1875 department store world that is full of meaningful glances and sweeping violins. Perhaps I need the escapism since my life is tied up so much now to the computer. And the chillier air is keeping me in more, away from the yard and all the flowers I could be transplanting.

But I think the most compelling ingredient for me is how well the actress, Joanna Vanderham, who plays shopgirl Denise, can convey lovesickness. Just a bob of her head, a tilt of the chin, her eyes widening, and I am convinced that she is infatuated with Mr. Moray, the owner of the Paradise.

How would you write such gestures or describe the emotion she seems to convey in these scenes without making treacle? And how would you write a love scene that would move the reader in the same way?

What about the declaration of love, met and unmet, is so compelling to me? Perhaps to declare one's love is rebellion against loneliness, of being an individual. It is one of the bravest acts we can perform, the consequences life-changing, no matter what the response will be.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How to find the "best" children's books

During a lull at the library yesterday, I began to browse around for "best of" book lists for children, middle-schoolers and teens. I know that such lists neglect many great books, and if you stringently sticks to a list, you might not find the best book for a particular child at a particular time.  However, for me, this is a good starting point/reference tool! 

Preschool and kindergarten
• Caldecott Medal and Honor Books, 1938 - Present
Full list (includes Honor books, book descriptions; divided by decades)
Printable list (Medal books list in reverse chronological order)

• 100 Books to Read Before Kindergarten  (Louisville Free Public Library)
Printable list

Elementary School/Early Middle School

• Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present 
Full list (includes Honor books, links to book descriptions; divided by decades)
Printable list (Medal books list in reverse chronological order)

• (NPR) 100 Must-Reads For Kids 9-14 (chosen by NPR readers)
Full list/descriptions (includes book covers; divided by genre)
Printable list

• Parent and Child/Scholastic 100 Greatest Books for Kids
Interactive bookshelf (Appears on virtual bookshelf; lets you divide by genre, age group)
Printable list (shows recommended reading age group under titles)


• 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels (books chosen by NPR listeners)
Full list/descriptions (includes book covers; divided by genre)
Printable list

* Note: I'll do "Young Adult" books in a separate entry, to better divide them by genre and to include more contemporary YA novels.

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Can you recommend a really good children's book?"

"Can you recommend a really good children's book?"

I hear this at least once a shift when I am working as a substitute reference librarian. An anxious parent wants to excite their kindergartner about reading. Or a parent of a bored eight year old wants to nudge them back into the habit of reading.

How do I determine what a really good children's book is? Or which book, among all the hundreds of books in the library, is the absolute best at this moment for their kid?

I try to remember what I read to my own children when they were young. Arthur? Dr. Seuss? Amelia Bedelia? I am often irritated with myself that I can only remember and recommend old standbys, especially for the younger set.

So many books, so little time, given that I must make a decision by the time I walk to the stacks, whether I will arrive in the A-author section or the Ws, or somewhere in-between. If asked to suggest a book when I'm on the floor (and away from the computer), I rely mostly on my own experience. Has your third/fourth-grader read Holes or The Magic Thief yet? (Books we read aloud or listened to in the car.)

Of course I can google "if you like _______ you might like ______," which I often do before I go back to the stacks (or I can look at recommended book lists on library web sites or Barnes and Noble's Recommended Kids' Books lists.) But what if the request is simply "a really good book." How do you really search for something like that? I am entrusted to make this judgement simply because I sit at a reference desk; sometimes I feel like King Solomon, expected to pronounce my judgement—this book should be taken home, not all these others.

One thing I love about being a librarian, even if only on a part-time basis, is that  I must literally think on my feet, solving constantly changing problems and requests posed by adults and children. And, sure, a lot of it is familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system and simply where things are in the library. But there's also that chance to inspire someone or find him or her the information she or he needed at just the right time. That's a lot more fun than just sitting at a computer all the time.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My life on the screen

I've had a migraine headache for the past 24 hours (my first full-blown migraine ever). It goes away for a time and then seems to get re-sparked if I happen to look at the edge of a bright light, or I bend down or I look too long at a computer screen. (I am typing this now without looking up).

This has made me ponder what life would be like if I never used a computer again. Perhaps I could go back to paper/pen and typewriter for my own personal writing. But I've realized that so much of the rest of my working and social life now depends upon access to a computer screen. I edit publications that are housed only on the Internet; some of the articles I write and/or edit never even make it to paper—there remain forever virtual. And I have also been working occasionally as a substitute reference librarian—spending the majority of my time not walking amid hundreds of shelves of books, as the image suggests (or, please, shushing people), but in front of a computer screen, looking up the whereabouts of book titles and information.

Without access to a computer, I wouldn't be able to earn a wage, at least not in the way I have for the last 20 years. If this headache doesn't go away, I wonder what work remains that is untethered to a computer. I suppose I could weed plants, babysit children or clean houses—things I did in college for money or bartering deals. But I can't think of any well-paying intellectual work that doesn't involve my looking into what right now is this liquid-crystal source of pain.

How strange that so much of my life is confined to this 20-inch display—or that I think I have access to the world when I am really just sitting in my chair, moving my fingers along a small rectangular piece of plastic.

Friday, August 2, 2013

How do you know when you are done: Advice from Mary Amato

Mary Amato was kind enough to respond to my query about how a writer knows when she is "done" with a project:

How do I know when I'm done? Definitely NOT by reading and re-reading and re-reading.

I step away from the pages, from my carefully-crafted sentences and I consider the big picture of the story. I often do this by creating a kind of visual outline or map of the story and then looking at it to see if it all adds up.

I try to show this in my videos that I post on the writing process. [For Mary's tips on the writing process, see the Resources Index on her web site.]

 Usually once I have everything right with the plot, then the voice and the writing comes more easily. Then I know when I'm done if I feel what my characters are feeling in every scene.

 --Mary Amato

[Feel free to send me your ideas on how you know when you are "done" and I'll share them in future posts.]

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why blog? (The unintentional and ongoing hiatus)

Why blog? This is a question I've asked myself recently whenever I guiltily remember that I still have one.

It's certainly not for fame or even the paltriest amounts of money—unless you're lucky and you somehow strike a chord with the public. You write about celebrities or celebrity neckties or the minutiae of parenting or... whatever I'm basically not interested in reading or writing about.

The great thing about having a blog is that it provides an instant forum.Whether anyone else cares about it or not, you can translate a thought into a short essay in a few moments' time and send it out to the Internet universe. There is still something powerful and mystifying and exciting about that for me.

But I, obviously, haven't taken advantage of that lately. I've been busy with multiple part-time jobs—not so busy that I don't have a few moments at the end of the day to collect my thoughts, but busy enough that there is not much to collect at day's end.

I understand now why middle-aged people seemed so boring to me when I was younger. There is a certain worn-out/worn-down quality to this time in life that I haven't entirely escaped. When I was in college, I thought I would always ponder poetry, wonder about the meaning of life in all its quotidian fragments. But, instead, these days I seem to ponder how I will pay the next credit card bill, how many more emails I need to answer, all the things I need to do that never seem to get completely done.

Busy-busy-busy and boring-boring-boring.

So, what we have here instead is blank space—more than five weeks of it. I don't think the Internet universe has missed me. Yet I have missed whatever this is—this silent listening, this momentary audience.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How do you know when you are done?

Before my current gardening binge and heavy editing workload started, a few weeks ago I emailed writer friends and asked them the simple question: How do you know when you are done?

I posed this question because I cannot seem to end stories anymore. My narrator and/or main character wants to just keep chatting away, telling me everything about their lives in that moment, trying to make sense of themselves. I hate to shut them up when it seems that they have been waiting for me to unearth them and give them a voice.

I suppose it's ironic that someone who makes her living as an editor is having trouble editing her characters. But perhaps it's not about editing. Perhaps it's because their voices fill a vacuum for me right now. I work from home and sometimes don't see another human all day except when the mailman drives by, nor talk to anyone except via phone.

Or perhaps it is because to end a story means that I have said everything I could have said, in the best way possible, within the tight constraints of one story. It is a fear of imperfection. Once done, a story needs to make its way out into the world; as long as it is just a "draft" is it my private belonging that no one can criticize or deem worthless.

I'll share in my next post the advice I've received and found about when a piece is "done."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Can beauty co-exist with guilt?

I've been gardening as many hours as I can each day, as I am wont to do in the spring, so I won't be blogging much here as long as the mornings and late afternoons remain relatively cool. Being outside digging in the dirt reminds me of when I was a child, wandering the woods by myself—there is a peaceful solitude to it, though it's tinged sometimes with loneliness. Yet the loneliness is a small price for the  delicious feeling of exhaustion I have at the end of the day—this is what work is supposed to feel like.

(I am writing this post because it was too hot to work this afternoon.) I look forward to writing more consistently when the heat, humidity—and mosquitoes!—return to the Washington Metro area, probably by the end of the month. Until then, I hope to get the oak stump mulch spread on my slopes, repot the basil seedlings, feed the azaleas and plant spring onions.

One of the first things I do each spring is plant the pots on my deck with colorful flowers, which I look out on as I wash the dishes each day. The colors cheer me up in the midst of my dull tasks.

Underneath them I keep a variety of sempervivums in shorter pots to provide additional color. (Sempervivums thrive even with neglect and little watering, making them the ultra-dependable plant). This weekend I repotted my sempervivums from their faded terra cotta pots into some colorful and inexpensive pots I found at Home Goods. I specifically wanted at least one blue pot since it is my current favorite color. The pot I found (seen above) makes a gorgeous contrast to all the other beige and brown pots there.

But as I peeled the "Made in China" tag off the side, I began to wonder about the people who made this pot for me. Did the factory they worked in have natural light and clean air? Were the conditions safe? Were they paid enough to live a decent life?

It is the same, nearly always, in any store I go into. I always wonder about the people who made the clothes and goods I have come to purchase—but the recent Bangladesh factory fire has made me even more aware of this. It is a guilt or awareness I can't turn off, at least while I am in a store—making it difficult sometimes just to buy anything there.

Is something really beautiful if is was forged with a degree of exploitation and danger? I eat food that has been picked by underpaid farmworkers because I need to eat. But do I really need that new sweater or this new pot if getting it here as cheaply as possible meant that safety measures were ignored, that people weren't paid enough for their time and work, that pollution resulted?

I ponder this as I look out at my new pot. I would like to see just its beauty, its blueness—I know my guilt does no one any good anyway. Yet this is part of its essence which I can't seem not to see.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is beauty really all that?

Like many other women, I, too, loved the Dove "Real Beauty Sketches" video on first viewing. My eyes even moistened as I watched the women describe themselves to a forensic artist  in harsh, negative terms. (Is it self-hatred or a culturally inflicted modesty?)

And then the fallout on the Internet began. It was pointed out (on friends' Facebook pages and in online essays) that:

• Unilever, which manufactures Dove also makes Axe, which (you probably already know) offers a stringent ideal of female beauty in its television ads (visualize Tom Wolfe's description in A Man in Full of the female ideal as "boys with breasts").

• That the video is racist because all of the women who talk about the results in the end are white and blonde; the black women shown being drawn early on don't speak about the results.

• That it's sexist because the artist is a man, and their appearance is drawn through a male filter.

• That some women look like the "before" drawings—so how should they feel about themselves? 

At the conclusion of the video, a woman with long blonde hair, who has looked at her before and after portraits, concludes that natural beauty "impacts the choices we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children—it couldn't be more critical to our happiness."

Self-esteem is, of course, important. But the phrasing is ambiguous. Is she saying that not being beautiful can limit our choices in life? This is where I personally must take issue.

I think my horizons widened and my life became more interesting because I was told, sometimes vulgarly, that I was not beautiful when I was a teenager. It became abundantly clear, by the continued harassment/advice offered to me, that I was not meeting the criteria of beauty in the South at the time, which was voluptuous, clear-skinned and submissive (or for those that naturally lacked those attributes, required a daily drag-queen-like artistry I was unwilling to attempt).

Instead I fled a place that seemed to have no place for me, heading to California. I embraced experience. I could walk, mostly unnoticed, through city streets without the burden of "beauty," without being constantly noticed and assessed. I was able to carry myself with an ongoing feeling of liking myself that was not tied to my physical appearance.

Where did I get this feeling of liking myself? It had nothing to do with the soap I washed my face with or the lip gloss I sometimes remembered to wear. I think it came from books, from creativity itself. When I was submerged in a book, or a creative project, I had no awareness of appearance. The important thing was the work, the connection with ideas. I was walking around in my thoughts as much as in a female body, certainly not a female body I was constantly aware of being put on display.

There was still the occasional derisive advice on the West Coast that I'd been met with in the South, but it became more and more inconsequential to me. I realized I really didn't care about the opinion of men who were so focused on superficial appearances and who were mean or stupid enough to share it. I got to the point where I would talk back to them, not in anger, but to ask why they had said what they did. And then I walked on, unflustered, feeling a certain victory in my step.

There is a wonderful beauty in that kind of clear-eyed perseverance. It is the beauty I wish for all young women and girls. God help them—the definition of what is physically beautiful for young females has gotten more restrictive since I was young, and the Internet has amplified what used to be only shout-outs on the street or rude remarks in the school hallway. A campaign for real beauty might work to educate men and women on how ugly/unworthy someone is who engages in such behavior (in an attempt to change them, as well), rather than ultimately just working to sell more beauty products.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The blog post of my dreams

I wrote a blog post in my dreams last night. It was so eloquent, so urgent that it might have been reposted and tweeted hundreds of times. When I woke up, I couldn't remember what it said. The momentum to say something was gone, overtaken by the momentum to get things done.

That is how I write mostly these days—in my dreams.

For the first time in my life, writing has become an activity of my past. I no longer identify myself to myself as a writer. I am not so busy that I couldn't manage to sit down for 10 minutes a day and write something in a notebook, but there are two problems with that: when I get those 10 minutes, I usually waste them complaining I only have 10 minutes to write; and, after spending my working hours on the computer, I don't relish spending any more time there or hunched over paper—my neck, shoulders and fingers hurt; and I need to see people, to breathe fresh air, to exercise so I won't be in pain.

So I have sort-of made the choice not to write right now. Still, my dreams are working to draw me back, enticing me with the appearance of cozy rooms with typewriters, of reporters who want to take down my thoughts, of blog posts that need to be written and revealed to a world that didn't know to be waiting for them.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Print it out!

Elated to find a flash drive a few days ago tucked into a drawer, which contains files of some prose pieces I had never printed out and now thought were lost. But the elation was dashed when I plugged the flash drive into my MacBook and clicked on the files:

(filename) uses a file type that is blocked from opening in this version

Undaunted, I opened Microsoft Word (2011) and clicked on the filenames there. Once opened, the documents appeared like this, all across the page, row after row:

[] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []

I thought all my pieces were all lost—at least everything I wrote pre-2007 that wasn't already on paper. Then, desperate and willing to try anything, I plugged in my old iBook, which I have never had the heart to throw away, despite its appearing to be in the throes of death the last time I plugged it in. Miraculously, at least for the time being, the iBook had healed itself. The screen was clear and visible, no keys were stuck—and, best of all, it opened up the old MS Word files without complaint. It was simply the difference between .doc and .docx—.docx, the newest version of MS Word, no longer cares to open up anything from five years past.

I opened up each file and saved it as a newer version of MS Word (able on the iBook only to take them up to .doc) and then printed them all out, page after page, until I had used up most of a printer cartridge. Sure it's pricey and maybe frivolous to print out pages of things I may yet toss. Yet the alternative is, well, nothingness.

I thought the flash drive would save everything, even if my computer died. And, these days, I rely a lot on Dropbox. But neither backup addresses the problem of evolving technology. Something saved today may not be accessible in ten or even five years.

And so my advice to anyone who writes and might want to read it tomorrow or ten years later is to PRINT IT OUT!

The question, of course, then becomes what to do with all these papers, something I haven't begun to fully answer yet...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why didn't I think of this?

A picture of three Babylit books popped up into my Facebook News feed this morning. "Start your little one off with the classics! BabyLit books for $11.99" it read. I clicked on the link and then went to Amazon to search inside the books.

These are little board books for toddlers that introduce them to "great literature." They are not in any way like Classics Illustrated, which offer concise versions of the original stories along with lavish illustrations. These books seem to merely offer an introduction to the title of a classic and some of its basic ideas. The Moby Dick book, for instance, introduces the main characters on one page and then goes on to very basic concepts/drawings of things found in the ocean.

The Sense and Sensibility book is a book of opposites, with a drawing on one page of "Norland Park" as an example of "BIG."

I think this could be a great way to make kids comfortable with classic stories so that they might recognize them later and not find them intimidating—much the same way that the Wishbone TV show (and CD game) offered that easy and fun introduction to the classics for both of my kids. My worry, however, is that some or maybe all parents who are going to plop this much money down for a board book may view this as an investment toward higher AP and SAT test scores 15 years down the road.

It looks like most of these books were published in the last couple of months, so it's too soon to predict how well they will do or what their overall intent will be.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Down on Downton

I don't know why I kept watching Downton Abbey this season. The plot was such a disappointment—recurring themes that went nowhere and soap-opera-ish, deus ex machina solutions to what could have been life-changing problems/major plot points such as:

  1. We are going bankrupt because of a bad investment decision. We could lose Downton Abbey! My ex-fiancee's father just left me money. I don't want to take it, it wouldn't be right. But, apparently Lavinia knew I was actually in love with harpy Lady Mary and was totally cool with it. So, I'll take the money and give it to Downton. Downton is saved!
  2. Mrs. Hughes has a lump in her breast. Could it be cancer? She is very worried. We are all very worried. She is tired. It must be cancer. The test results are in. No cancer!
  3. Mr. Bates is wrongly accused of killing his wife. He has to go to jail. Jail is very bad; his roommate hates him. But a former neighbor of his ex-wife remembers that she was making a pie crust the day she died; therefore there is the proof that she killed herself—she put poison in the pie. Mr. Bates is free!
This is bad fiction writing, the stuff of wretched romance novels. It was bad enough last season watching Branson the chauffeur mope after Lady Sybil. The actors looked like they were just hanging around the set waiting for an actual scene to occur.

Scene from a 1988 Calgon ad
And yet, last Sunday night, I felt a sudden emptiness as 9PM rolled by. There was no reason for me to go downstairs and sit by myself for an hour. I realized that Downton had become my Calgon moment, even though I usually spent that hour in the cold basement also sorting socks or opening up snail mail. It was a restive pause in my week. The first few familiar chords of the theme song transporting me to... an unnecessary, yet for some reason, guilt-free indulgence. "I'm going to go watch Downton," was all I had to say and then I would disappear.

Apparently, the lovely costumes and the Dowager Countess's quips were enough to  sustain my interest (or for me to pretend that my interest was sustained) for an hour.

Fortunately, the second season of "Call the Midwife" (plot-wise, a superior show) begins at the end of March, so I have only a few empty Sunday nights until then.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why I'm not using voice transcription software (yet)

Cleaning  out my Inbox this morning, I discovered this past experiment with the Dragon Dictation app on my iPhone. There's potential, surrealist prose there, maybe but not much else:

I know I'm talking implicitly fit thinking about what I need to get a day that I joined the spider center group provide normal revision Chucky cleaning up the house child in the housewife dream you were some things I thought about writing for my blog work for essay.

I would like to have more on my personal essays Trisha Vine i one possibility about my blog wondering if I should write something about who wants to be a man they're equestrian with the Manale for Steve's angle and also the fact that I'm doing it everyday of the Lycan I got for now as I write this I'm jogging with Wii fit actually I not writing or typing I'm dictating to something and my iPod you'll see the results after I e-mail it to myself and put it up here so the question is is it possible to ride and walk or exercise at the same time and end up with a readable text. I'm not sure it is but it sure would be great if I could walk in right same time I'd like to try to write dialogs or to speak dialogs without typing get this evening sounds like him and everything will be in my own southern accent elk characters perhaps we'll something!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

An accidental hiatus

This blog has been on a temporary hiatus as I deal with several projects and money-making responsibilities that have hit me all at once. I don't believe I've ever gone this long without posting—nearly a month—since I began it in 2008.

I say this, fully aware that using the word "hiatus" in a blog post title is usually its death knell. Bloggers promise to come back... and then the blog doesn't get updated ever. Saying you're on hiatus is only slightly worse than posting laments like "No one is reading this blog!" To complain about lack of readership is to kill a blog... to let it go willfully on hiatus can be equivalent to letting it die from neglect.

My primary aim here has always been to find shelter for whatever I was thinking about or finding in any particular moment (and possibly to start the fodder for potential, longer stories and essays). It has been cool to witness the surprising ways that people have found it.

And, yes, I realize that this sounds like I am saying good-bye. But maybe this blog needs a reload.

I certainly need a reload in my own life. I have been editing/writing at home for the last eight or so years, and writing/blogging and gardening in my spare time. I take walks in my neighborhood and often never see anyone else I know or who will speak to me. Not such a great lifestyle for someone as extroverted as I am—nor the source of good material for someone who wants to write fiction. In recent years, my stories have been variations on themes of isolation. An editor who looked at my children's novel asked how my 11-year-old protagonist could feel so alone. Most of my characters recently have been written from long-standing memories—I am not seeing people interact enough in the present to know how or what to write about them.

So I need to get out of the house and go back to work in a larger environment, even if for only a few hours a week (which is what I've been working on for the week). This is as important to me now, and as soul-nourishing, as writing has always been for me.

After my current work surge settles down, I hope to return to these pages refreshed and ready to find new things to talk about.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The most interesting fictional characters ever

While writing my last post on creating interesting fictional characters, I attempted to find a drawing (sans copyright restrictions) to illustrate it. In doing so, I realized I wasn't sure which character from fiction I would most like to use. Miss Havisham? (What characteristic made her interesting, exactly, beyond her bitterness?) Elizabeth Bennett? Jay Gatsby?

I found no unrestricted line drawings of great fictional characters, just photos of the actors who had played them, so I gave up. But along the way, I found several lists of most interesting characters, put up by media sites and fan sites. Here are a few:

• 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 (from NPR, 2002). Number one: Jay Gatsby

• The 100 favourite fictional characters... as chosen by 100 literary luminaries (listed in London's Independent newspaper, March 2005)

• The 100 Greatest Fictional Characters of All Time (Fandomania). Number one: Batman (as voted by their readers).

• And, finally, this: on Yahoo! Answers, in answer to the question, Who's the best fictional character of all time?, the answer that garnered the most votes was "Shaggy (from scooby doo). Need I say more?"

Extra: for comic relief (and to see how a character can be summed up in a business card) check out Cracked's 29 Business Cards of Famous Fictional Characters (OK, I confess, I didn't get some of these...)

Note: I don't think Mr. Darcy is the most interesting fictional character ever... I just like looking at Colin Firth with sideburns.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writing interesting characters

In Issue 55 of Writers Ask, Bret Anthony Johnston suggests making characters more likable by giving them at least one annoying habit ("We can't identify, not completely, with perfect characters, so as readers we resist and retreat from protagonists with flawless skin..."). OK, got it—I found this a fun and uninhibited task. My characters began tapping their feet nervously, clearing their throats, or clutching their steering wheels in heavy traffic until their knuckles turned white.

To make them more fully realized and interesting, Johnston also suggests answering a series of questions about each character you're creating. His list of questions included: "What does your character most want?" (some people have said that the answer to this question is the basis itself of a short story), and "What does your character most regret?" But the question I found easiest to answer was this: "What is in your character's wallet/purse?" Unfortunately, every character I have created since reading this has now carries an unusual purse or has an overstuffed wallet—a trait I rarely pay much attention to in real life. It became the first thing I wanted to describe about them when I got around to putting them down on paper.

I'm sure Johnston meant these few questions as a launching point, to inspire writers to pay more attention to detail, and to avoid writing about themselves. To simplify this exercise, you could make a list of intended/planned characters and assign each an outstanding characteristic. Or create some kind of rotating list of questions to answer about your fictional characters (which I will attempt in another post).

The problem for me with all these exercises is that most of my fictional characters don't begin as a visual presence but a voice. They start talking to me as invisible companions that accompany me during the day—like an ongoing internal seance. Perhaps I should try to see what they look like as they speak to me, or ask them what they really want, or what's in their wallets. Yet I'm afraid if I question them, at least while they're still trying to introduce themselves to me, they might vanish. It's probably better for me to write down the conversations (as much as I can remember them), then go back and embellish and add descriptions and stated desires after they've had a sufficient chance to confess their souls.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Writers Ask

I am planning a couple of posts about the newsletter, Writers Ask (WA), published by Glimmer Train Press. I am describing it a little, in this initial post, so I won't have to keep referencing it.

WA continually offers something I had wanted to do on this blog (going beyond my occasional interviews with individual/creative people)—it asks multiple writers about the particulars of their craft. For example, the most recent issue,  Issue 58, asks 13 writers (including T.C. Boyle and Ann Patchett) questions on "Theme."

It's a little pricey—$22 for four issues a year.  I'd thought I wouldn't renew it in the New Year, to save some money. But in that recent Theme section, writer Aaron Gwyn said: "Show me a list of the masterpieces of world literature and I'll show you a list of trouble." He goes on to prove it by describing several novels succinctly in this way, e.g., Ullysses: "you're the only Jewish guy in Dublin and someone is dating your wife and doing a very fine job of it." Just with that little bit of text I realized what is wrong with the fiction I've been writing recently—no trouble, no conflict, no plot.

It was also through WA that I made my way to Michael Cunningham. I had resisted him, for some reason, after watching the movie version of "The Hours." But in Issue 57 (Fall 2012), under the theme "Place and Setting," he was asked about the futuristic, drone-filled world he had created in his novella "Like Beauty." Intrigued, I checked out the audio book for Specimen Days (the novella is part of its trilogy), read by Alan Cummings. The ending of its first novella, "In The Machine," was so good I found myself wanting to get out of the car to stand up and applaud.

The newsletter is maddeningly (at least to this former librarian) unorganized. I wish there was some kind of paper index or online metafilter for the topics and authors that have appeared on its pages thus far (I've asked the editors if they would consider doing that someday). Until then, I'll read every page, and take notes, looking forward to it as a wonderful surprise that arrives in my mailbox every three months.