Tag Archives: fiction

making of harry potter common room

Staring is necessary.

My IB students are reading The Things They Carried now and just finished The Great Gatsby. The order in which you teach books brings to light different aspects of them. I don’t believe I’ve ever juxtaposed these two titles before. So, as we read each vignette of The Things They Carried, the burden of being an observer in war is the thread I keep being drawn to. Both Nick and O’Brien seem to exist as a lens through which to view the story, take little part in the action, only rarely turn that lens on themselves. They are both writers. Go figure, I’m drawn to this persona, the observer. I know just what I’d do if I ever stumbled upon an invisibility cloak as Harry Potter did.
“Stare hard, retard,” people used to say when they caught me staring. And sometimes on my walks to work, I get so caught up in the physical details of the world around us that I just want to keep walking right past work, spend the day collecting images. I did this when I was in high school quite a lot. I’d walk to school, reach the building, decide to keep walking. I grew up in sister cities and I’d walk to the edges of them both, walk between them.
This is at least a part of why I prefer to walk to school even though Chris drives and works at the same place. This is why I prefer spring and summer days, because I can walk and walk without the extra weight of an umbrella or the inconvenience of getting cold or wet. I used to at least try to keep a journal collecting some of my impressions from the day. It’s been difficult to find time lately, but I’d like to try to get back to that practice, just a little writing before bed. *moves journal to night stand
I’ve sometimes felt ashamed of my observer personality (“Stare hard, retard”), but reading O’Brien I’m embracing that part of myself, feeling part of a tribe of storytellers. So, dear writer peeps, if this sounds like you, I have a challenge for you this week:

Spend 10-20 minutes sitting in public just observing everything you can.
Observe and record a conversation between two people you eavesdrop on.
Stare at an object. Stare again. Keep staring until you’ve written a two paragraph description of the thing.

 

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yoga frog

Don’t push it. That’s my advice this week. Happy writing!

Much better this week. Not perfect, but better. I wrote six of seven days. Slowly, but that’s my pace right now. I mostly got to bed by nine on the weekdays, save one or two restless nights. I hope do the same or better this week, but I’m not attached to that result. It doesn’t equal success or failure. Those are long-term, future-focused words that when you break down get pretty muddy in their true meaning. I gave this advice to another writer in my weekly critique group last Monday. I asked her what her goal was for her work and she said to finish it and get published.
Seems like the obvious goal, right?
In my experience, that goal will leave you hamstrung and miserable.
I choose joy.
Each day I sit down to write for all the time I have to offer the work. I am working on a first draft of a second novel in a trilogy of books that take place in Olympia and all feature a central character who is struggling to find his/her path. Around that main character is a cast of quirky characters who sometimes recur between books.
Of course, I want to finish them and publish them.
But I’ve learned not to think of that when I am drafting and revising. I try to take each chunk of writing time as it comes. I try not to set deadlines for when I should be done, because what I’ve found is that I will reach those deadlines. Even when I shouldn’t. Even when the work isn’t ready to be done, I will finish on time. And then after a couple of weeks away, of maybe sending the work out to the world, I’ll read it and see what I didn’t see before, face the truth. And sometimes my forcing the work to completion will have created more problems to fix than before.
I’m learning to trust the work to tell me when it’s done, to not push it with imposed deadlines. I am working on a first draft of a second book, trying to write every day, getting feedback on the first book in my critique group, and when I finish this first draft, I’ll set it aside and start in on draft two of the first book. Then I’ll write the first draft of the third book. I have no idea when any of this will be done.

Happy writing week to you, my friends. May your words flow freely and your heart be light.

 

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lucy barton

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I needed a book like this. An uncomplicated book that in spite of how busy and complicated other aspects of my life are leaning just now, I could drop in easily and stay. When I say it’s uncomplicated, I’m talking about style. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a book that leaves a lot uncovered, and that’s part of its greatness, because the book is in part about the things we keep to ourselves because they are ours and ours alone. There are some moments of metafiction, set up by the fact that this is a story of a writer who comes to write and finds a mentor writer, who finds success in writing. Those moments are spare, but connective. In a sense, this was a story about stories, how we construct them imperfectly as we are imperfect and memory is imperfect. Hopefully though our stories “report on the human condition…tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” The power of this story lies as much in what is not written as what is on the page, the places where Lucy can’t or won’t be specific or explain, where the reader is the one who fills in the gap with his/her imagination.

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first draft editing

Yep. It’s a first draft, all right.

This week, I finished up another draft of a manuscript that is in nearing the publishing phase of the editing process, then finished a read-through of a first draft of a novel I’ll spend the summer revising. A pretty productive week! I had this moment after reading that first draft where I let loose an enormous, heavy sigh. That sigh was me letting go of all the delusions of grandeur I’d let mount over the months I’d spent writing. In fact, in spite of my highest of hopes, it was a true first draft, lacking so much of what I’d intended to be there, including some things I had intended, but that now seem like a pretty bad idea. I’m okay, though, I have a plan.
First, I’ll go through the book again, charting some notes on key scenes, details, conflicts, and motifs chapter by chapter. Then, I’ll write more before diving in and making changes to that first draft. I’ll write new scenes first before going in to delete and change what I already have. Then, I’ll begin weaving it all together into a second draft, hopefully, better than the first. This is how we do it. It’s not magic. It’s first inspiration, then persistence, discipline, and planning.
Tomorrow; however, is Friday, and with all this editing in my life right now, I’m aching for that first draft feeling where it’s all vision and flowing words, and damn, you’re good! So I’ve declared that as for my writing process, my Fridays are going to be something akin to casual Fridays and I will write new words, first drafts.

 

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beach path writing retreat

Learning from a confidence crash: Reflections from a writing retreat.

I started this blog as a way to keep myself writing. It was the same kind of desperate attempt to build good habits that causes people to talk their significants into doing dietary cleanses with them. I needed an audience, some accountability outside my insecure self. It wasn’t enough to just remind myself why I was writing, how I was writing, that I deserved to make time for writing. I needed to shout it out loud.
That’s still true, but over time it has become a creative work of its own. A voice has emerged, a voice I didn’t know I had. A voice strong, confident in the fact that she has something to say that’s worthy of being heard.
I’m in Ocean Shores on a writing retreat now. This is a place I know well. I’ve spent many hours with my cousins on the beach, the adults who brought us sheltered from the wind in the car we’d driven right onto the beach. Yesterday, I drove into town on my own to pick up a few things from the store, get gas, shop for some souvenirs. I went in to pay for the gas, began pumping, sat in the driver’s seat to wait for the tank to fill. That’s when it happened. My self dissipated. What was I doing here? Who was I kidding? What kind of fraud had I perpetrated, masquerading as a writer for over twenty years?
I’m mostly immune to these kinds of identity crises, though as a young writer they plagued me. You see, I’ve built good habits in getting up in the morning to write, keeping this blog, annotating every book I read. I love the work and I’m not so worried about who approves anymore. In the face of this unforeseen confidence crash, I parked my car at the IGA and went for a walk through town, breathing deep and consciously, feeling the straps of my backpack, each stride. I shook it off, remembered I don’t care about that shit anymore. I simply make time and do the work. Beginning my summer vacation with a writing intensive that includes my summer writing schedule (up at 5AM for a run, shower, then pour a cup of coffee and get to work) is likely the cause of the crisis (when you retreat for a week to write the pressure to get work done is great) and now that I’ve recovered, I’m glad I had that moment. Because when I had returned to my body and was breathing freely again, I felt immense gratitude, commitment to do the work, to stay in the room, focused on the goal or two I’ve set for the day.

 

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stepping stones

One true sentence? Considering Hemingway.

My seniors are reading Hemingway, so, of course, I am rereading him too. And thinking about him and his oft-quoted advice to writers. Just one true sentence? The truest sentence you know?

When I first read Hemingway with a writer’s eye (in college), I became enamored with his concision and tried to mimic it. The result was stories that were puzzling. All that human emotion and thought left unsaid, unthought, left for the reader to pluck from the tone of a line of dialogue, the selection of a particular noun or verb. What resulted were stories that were good in parts, but that didn’t satisfy my own sense of what I needed to convey in writing. They weren’t in my voice. Plus, I’m always a little suspect of a narrator who hides entirely, offers nothing to the conversation.

I’ve learned I’m  no Hemingway, don’t desire to be. But I do take his one true sentence advice for a particular use. That moment when you are stuck as to how to get from A to B, one moment to the next. Your girl is standing outside the door about to knock. You are trying to get her inside. The scene that matters is beyond the door. Now is the time to invoke one true sentence. Write a string of true sentences to get you where you want to go.

 

Becca knocked hard, shoved shivering hands in jeans pockets, waited. The neighbor’s mastiff came sniffing into the year, off leash again.

 

Becca stood, moved to knock, paused. A car sped by. She reread the notes she’d written on the back of a napkin. She put on a smile, shook out the nerves, pushed the doorbell.

Any time you are stuck, really. One clean, objective sentence of description. Then another and another. A true sentence? Hold on there, Hemingway. Truth is a funny word that holds power only until you start to probe it. One real sentence? Yes. That works. Write one clean, objective sentence located in the reality of your story. These sentences, for me, act as stepping stones. stepping stones

 

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The Brothers K, by David James Duncan

The Brothers KThe Brothers K by David James Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me just over three weeks to finish this book, and I’m a slow reader. Record set! It’s not that it’s an “easy read”. The sentences are complex, the voices nuanced and differentiated, the motifs deftly woven. The text is rich, to be savored–full of scenes, letters, sermons, narrative insights, allusions, and epigraphs. At times I laughed out loud. At times, I sobbed. Particularly this morning as I sat in bed finishing the last 100 pages, tears just kept coming to my eyes. I went down to get coffee and babbled to my son about how good the book was before darting back upstairs to see what happened next. That part too is part of why it’s such a page turner. The way Duncan keeps the mystery just out of reach, plies you along with vague foreshadowing. Also the way he creates characters you care about. I even mostly liked the parts about baseball. Part epic, part romance, part philosophical fiction. Read it! Read it now. You won’t be sorry.

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My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book OneMy Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book a while ago and have been thinking about what to write here. This book is the first in a series of four and I felt a little jipped in the end when I realized that in order to get to the bottom of some of the books central mysteries I would have to read all four. I am tempted to do this, though as the summer draws to a close and I’m beginning to think more and more of the stories I’ll teach this coming school year and the books I really wanted to read by the end of summer, it may not be right away. When I do read them, though, I hope they’ll be page turners like the first one, that I can read them all in one long binge. The sense of place created in the story, the mystery, and the looming danger did compel me to finish this book at a faster pace. The aspect of this story that I most want to see through to the end is the strange friendship/rivalry between Elena (narrator) and Lila. Their love and envy are rendered hauntingly real. This story begins in the 1950s when the two girls are primary school friends and takes place is a poor community outside of Naples where distinctions of class, gossip and rumors, and old-world values complicate relationships. The two very different paths the two friends take as they move out of adolescence and into adulthood is a central theme.

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