Sunday, September 30, 2007

National Novel Writing Month

That time of year is right around the corner, when writers everywhere begin asking one another, "are you doing NaNo?" That is, the National Novel Writing Month challenge to complete a novel during the month of November.

I'm not "doing NaNo", and I never have, but it's had a profound impact on my writing, anyway. I first heard of NaNo five or six years ago, when I was participating in an online writers group for women. Honestly, I thought it sounded kind of gimmicky, and I was pretty busy with non-fiction projects at the time, so I paid it no mind. For about a week. By that point, I'd heard so many people talking about word counts and hours invested and the possibility of reaching the goal that I got curious. I wanted to see whether or not I could write a whole novel in a month. I didn't sign up, but I started writing, and I knocked out just over 40,000 words, edited and with submission materials, in three weeks. I sold it off for a kind of packaging, under someone else's name, and didn't give it much more thought.

At least, not until last year, when a friend of mine announced that she was going to give NaNo another try and I remembered just how quickly that other book had gone. It so happened that I'd started a romance novel a little earlier (okay, was THREE YEARS earlier) and stopped cold at about 9,000 words. Surely that couldn't take any time to knock out. The big difference was that I'd been freelancing the first time around; last year I had a full time job.

Still, I managed to finish the book during November, primarily by handwriting it on the commuter train.

And then...well, you see the pattern, right?

Here we are rapidly approaching November again, and I haven't even made any serious efforts to sell that novel I finished last year. I do, however, have another book that I wrote a few thousand words of and then let fall by the wayside, and I'm game to pick it up and see if I can polish it off during my November commute.

I just hope that I can squeeze in some time somewhere along the way some of these books that are piling up on my hard drive!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Internet is Ruining My Brain!

That may be a bit too strong, but it IS changing the way I read. And that comes as a big surprise to me, because even though I'm well aware of the differences between the way people read online and the way they read print materials, I don't do a lot of reading online. I'm one of those people who shudders when it's suggested that e-books or something similar will one day replace books you can hold in your hand and flip through, and if I have to read anything that's more than a page or so long online, I'll print it out.

So I was very surprised this evening when I found myself looking for text links in a book.

I'm reading the first of Regina Doman's books, on the recommendation of someone who posted a comment on my Catholic Blog in response to my post about C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. I'm only on page 31; I can't give any kind of conclusive view of the book yet. But in the first chapter, there are several snippets of poetry and literary allusions, and let me tell you...I wanted hyperlinks.

I've always thought that the proliferation of links in text shortened people's attention spans and encouraged skimming or reading a paragraph or two and then jumping to something else. In fact, I've seen quite a lot of data that supports that idea. But my own inclination (another surprise) ran in a different direction. I wanted more context. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to stop after a character quoted a line or two from a favorite poem and read the rest of it. A G.K. Chesterton novel I'd never heard of was mentioned; I wanted to have a look at it.

Of course, I'm free to look those things up before I move on (the Internet is still here, after all, even if I'm reading a regular book), but it was an interesting realization, that reading online provides the context to read more deeply if that's what we choose to do, to put things in context and understand the allusions that give a work another layer of texture.

Perhaps that shouldn't have been a revelation--that is, after all, one of the key purported benefits of links in online text. But it's so contrary to the net effect that I see as people become accustomed to reading online that it came as quite a surprise to me--all the more shocking because I'd apparently adopted the habit of clicking on links for context and then returning to the main text without any conscious awareness.

So maybe the Internet isn't ruining my brain, but it seems that it is changing the way I gather and assimilate information.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Join my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog

Just a quick note to invite any of my readers who are also writers to join my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog. The Groups function is new, but there are already a number of very promising groups moderated (if that's the right word) by people who know their fields well and are engaging writers with a history of thoughtful interaction on the general discussion boards.

You'll have to join Blog Catalog in order to sign up, but if you're a blogger you probably want to do that anyway--the community and discussion there is far superior to any other directory or network I've found.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Characters and Character Traits

Recently, a passing comment in a discussion about favorite characters triggered some big questions in my mind--questions I don't think I'd ever considered in all my years as a reader and a writer. Another writer in the discussion seemed to indicate that the same characteristics drew her to a character as drew her to real-life people.

I was surprised, not so much to hear that that was true as to realize that I'd never thought about whether or not it was true for me. I quick mental scan revealed the high probability that it was not.

The writer who made the comment blogs about conversations overheard; perhaps it makes sense that the line between character and real person would not be a very bright one in her mind. She has a real knack for spinning people into characters after hearing only brief conversations.

For me, though, I think the things that make a character interesting and compelling are often things I wouldn't in a million years want to encounter in real life. Popular fiction alone is replete with examples. In fact, I think that the very thing that makes what I think of as "throwaway fiction" so appealing is the taste it offers of a life we'd never live.
  • Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is a walking disaster--and that's exactly what makes it possible to whip through the novels in which she stars in a couple of hours, with a recurrent smile. The sexual tension she maintains with two men, alternately or simultaneously depending upon the book, keeps things interesting. But in real life? She blunders into things she doesn't understand, keeps the people around her constantly worried, and lives her entire life on balanced on the praecipice of infidelity. NOT someone I'd want to hang out with.
  • Robert Parker's Hawk is one of my all-time favorite characters in popular fiction. The contrast between his erudite literary tastes and his unfortunate choice of profession (hired killer) is compelling on paper--and to the string of educated professional women his character dates--but in real life? Hello...he KILLS people? A bit of a stumbling block, anyone?
  • My daughter is quite intrigued by the character of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter series. Bellatrix is, outside the primary villain in the series, perhaps the closest thing to pure, unconflicted evil presented in all of those 3,000+ pages. She has a certain attitude, a certain voice, that's a bit entertaining in that "love to hate" way...but one that would certainly (I hope) inspire disdain in real life.
The same is true, in less blatant fashion, in more literary fiction. One example that springs to mind is the character of Ole, the old man, in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers". Ole, when advised by teenage Nick Adams, that men have come to town to kill him, he simply rolls toward the wall. There's little to admire either in his implied past or in his resignation, but his few simple actions speak volumes.

Often, in fact, it's the things that are most reprehensible about a character, or saddest, or most lacking, or that the character himself is unable to see or to learn, that allow us to learn the most from him. Piet Hanema, in Updike's Couples, provides an excellent illustration.

Granted, these aren't necessarily the things that make a character likable, but they are often the things that make a character memorable, interesting, educational or critical to plot.

From a writer's perspective, that means that the characters we design to be heroes aren't necessarily going to be the ones who hold a reader's attention, or that it might be the flaws and dichotomies as much as the admirable traits that make a character memorable. Is that important to keep in mind? I'm not sure. I've been writing for more than 30 years, and the whole question came as something of a shock to me--but in retrospect, I find that hasn't affected my character development or kept me from creating characters who might not be the people I'd want living next door or working in my office.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just for Fun

I went looking through some very old files this evening, and I came across the piece that I think of as my first blog post ever. I didn't have a blog at the time, but writing this and having no purpose for it inspired me to create a section on my old website called "The Odd Word from Tiffany", which functioned pretty much like a blog except that it was a static page and my poor husband had to update it for me every few days when I had something new to say.

Stark Raving Mad?

I saw a call for submissions today that made me laugh out loud. There is much controversy within the profession about writing for free. My position on that issue can be summed up in one sentence: My first book came about as a direct result of an article that I wrote for free.

There’s a difference, though, between writing for free and paying for the privilege. There’s also a difference between writing for free and writing for free at great length while naked in front of a camera.

Yep, you read that right. The call for submissions I saw this morning was a request for poetry. Poets were asked to submit 3-4 poems for consideration. In the happy event that the poet’s work was accepted, she would then have the privilege of sitting—naked—for a professional photographer. With the poet’s original work and nude photos in place, the poet would then be required to write another poem about being tricked into posing nude…uh…er…I mean, the artistic experience of posing nude.

The publication might or might not choose to publish that poem along with the original poem and the nude photographs. In return for the right to publish the original poem, the nude photographs, and possibly the second poem, the poet would receive…a copy of the publication.

Sorry, guys. Anyone who wants to photograph me in the nude—and I readily concede that this is a very small percentage of the population—has to at least buy me dinner. If they want me to write about it afterward, I am definitely going to need more than the right to buy additional copies at a discounted price.

I believe—and my own experience proves—that there are logical, practical reasons to write for free. If, however, there are logical, practical reasons to write for free, then pose nude for free, then write about posing nude for free for free, I have not yet discovered them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Okay, the moment has finally arrived...

when you get to find out what in the heck I was getting at on Tuesday.

I know you've been holding your breath.

The thing is, as writers we paint images with nearly every line, and the best of us do it in such a way that the reader feels like he's right there in the scene, seeing it happen instead of reading words on a page. But sometimes, the images we evoke aren't the ones we intended. Sometimes, they have more to do with associations in the reader's mind than the pictures in our own.

I really was barefoot in the kitchen making coffee on Tuesday morning, wiping the counters with an orange sponge and waiting for the coffee to brew. And I really was in a gold-trimmed building in the Chicago Loop, and the coffee I was brewing was in an urn provided by our coffee service. There's a health club in the basement and an underground pedway to Macy's, and I really did pause for a moment and wonder whether it was legal to be walking around barefoot.

But when I had that thought, a funny thing happened. I thought the first line I wrote in that last blog post: At 10:56 on Tuesday morning I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I think like that; it's a hazard of being a writer, I guess. I often hear people comment on the difference between the way people talk and the way they write, but for me it's different. The way I write is the way I think, and I sometimes have to translate into more casual, less image-laden language in order to converse. And condense, of course. I tend to think in paragraphs.

And the crazy thing was that when I thought that sentence, I pictured myself barefoot in my kitchen at home, mid-morning, my daughter at school, wearing a sweatshirt on a just-turning fall day.

I was at work. I was wearing a skirt. My high-heeled shoes were under my desk. But the image that sentence evoked in my OWN mind was entirely different.

I read that last blog post to my daughter who, though only eleven, is also a writer. She knows where I work and what it looks like. She knows that I was at work on Tuesday morning. And yet she, too, pictured me in our kitchen. When I got to the orange sponge and gray counters--things we don't have at home--she started trying to picture some previous apartment I might have had, and when I said that I shared the kitchen with a hundred people, she wondered about my college dorm. It wasn't until the last paragraph that she realized that I was at work.

Barefoot in the kitchen making coffee evokes home, apparently--at least for some of us. Even when we know better.

That's an important thing to be conscious of when we're writing--not the coffee thing, but the way that associations we may not even be aware of can color the images our readers will conjure up at our words.

It's a challenge, but it also has great power, if we know how to use it to evoke the images and associations we hope to convey.

Many years ago--I think it was 1986--I went to an art exhibit in the Student Center at Northern Illinois University (NIU). I didn't plan to go, and I didn't know anything about the artist. I was just passing through the Student Center on my way back from class, saw a painting that caught my eye, and walked over. I liked the exhibit, but twenty years later I only remember one painting. It was a small painting of an old pipe sticking out of a wall. Just that.

The wall, if I recall correctly, was that pale green halfway between malt and mint, a shade that hasn't been seen since lead-based paint went out of style. It reminded me instantly, overwhelmingly, of my grandmother's house. I'd never seen such a pipe at my grandmother's house, and she had nothing I could think of in that color, but the association was as clear and strong as if the painting had been of dotted swiss curtains blowing in the breeze over a flower garden or cracked red and black floor tile.

Later, I mentioned the show to my roommate, who was an art major. I thought she might want to see it, but it turned out that she already had. When I told her there had been one painting that had reminded me powerfully of my grandmother's house, she put her hand to her mouth and said, "Was it just a pipe sticking out of a wall?"

Turned out she'd had the same reaction.

My grandmother lived in an attic apartment on the south side of Chicago. My roommate's grandmother lived in Italy. Imagine that. This artist...this stranger...painted a piece of pipe sticking out of a wall and, with an image unfamiliar to both of us, evoked the same childhood memory from two people with very different childhoods. Two decades later, that's still vivid in my mind. That's the goal, isn't it?

Or was she thinking of a pipe in the alley behind an abandoned public school building where she hung out with her boyfriend as a teenager?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Image Association (or Barefoot in the Kitchen)

At 10:56 on Tuesday morning, I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee.

Can you see it?

At 10:56 a.m. on Tuesday, I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I wiped down the counter with a bright orange sponge while I waited for the coffee to brew.

Do you see the sponge? The counters were gray.

At 10:56 on Tuesday morning, I was barefoot in the kitchen, wiping down the counters while I waited for the coffee to brew. I looked absently out over the busy city street, not really seeing the people rushing by. I just heard the muted, delicate ding of the small, gold elevator in the hallway.

Do you know where I am?

At 10:56 a.m., my feet ache already. My black high-heeled shoes are in the other room, under my desk, and I'm barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I glance toward the doorway, suddenly wondering whether it's legal to be walking around the kitchen in my office barefoot, a kitchen shared by nearly 100 people, a kitchen in a building trimmed in gold and glass and equipped with a full selection of water and wine glasses, coffee service, and a dishwasher.

I think this post is going to come in two pieces--the NEXT one will explain why I'm posting this (unless, of course, that's perfectly clear to you...)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A while back, I posted about my inability to control my mental red pen, and how I tend to see grammatical errors as if they'd been pre-highlighted for me.

The premise of that post was that it's not any more fun for me than it is for the people around me--the ones I sometimes can't quite help correcting. But sometimes...well...sometimes it really is good fun.

A few days ago, a friend who is neither a blogger nor a reader of blogs sent me a link to a blog: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks
I'm not afraid to tell you how much fun I had there. You already knew I was a geek, right?

I immediately forwarded the link to my friend Barb, former editor of Austin Family magazine, and started wondering whether I could start a similar blog about the misuse of apostrophes. Dave Barry's comment that apostrophes are primarily used by small business owners to signal that an "s" is forthcoming remains one of the funniest things I've ever heard, and if you haven't read Dave Barry's book on grammar, you must.

But I digress. Barb wrote back right away and said she was linking to this blog immediately and did I think we could start a sister site on apostrophe abuse. It turned out, though, that it was already covered here: Apostrophe Abuse

So I'm taking it all back. It's fun. It's a lot of fun.

There are some other really good links on that "blog", too, and I'd love to tell you about them, but I have some thing's to "do".

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Help, I Can't Cope with My Stats Program!

It's not the mechanics that are giving me trouble, or interpreting the data. The problem is the search strings. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, or maybe because I've spent so much of my career writing consumer information (or maybe I'm just obsessive-compulsive), but I have a deep need to be able to RESPOND to searches.

Today, for instance, someone visited this blog based on the search string "Rick Springfield's daughter".

Rick Springfield doesn't have a daughter; he has two sons. See, it's just such a quick, easy little answer. I want to drop a quick email to the person searching for information on Rick Springfield's daughter and let her know. But I don't know who she was, and she already didn't find what she was looking for on my blog, so she probably won't be back.

It's even worse on my Catholic blog. Over there, I get search strings that are questions, search strings like, "Can a Catholic marry a non-Catholic?"

Well, see, I HAVE the answer to that, but it's not on my blog. And it's a shade more important, I think, than whether or not Rick Springfield has a daughter. But there's nothing I can do about it now.

I'm actually in the process of putting together a Squidoo lens on Catholic marriage purely in response to the number of questions about the subject that are landing people to my Catholic blog. And I'm glad I was inspired to do that,'s not quite good enough for me. Because, after all, the PERSON WHO ASKED THE QUESTION might not see it.

Okay, it's much clearer now. It's definitely the obsessive-compulsive thing.