Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stitching and Starching My Way Through Story

In the last few weeks, mom has been sorting through her linens, opening up blanket chests, linen closets, under-the-bed storage thingies. Out come the linen table clothes and napkins, the hand embroidered or tatted or pulled-thread finger tip towels, the crocheted throws in some of the most hideous shades of vomit, dad's layette set - all in pink because for whatever reason, my grandmother Gwen loved dad in pink (which in honesty with his dark hair, pail skin and blue eyes, he did look good in pink - or muted red as he preferred to call it), Victorian children's clothing, a cotton and lace underskirt from the turn of the last century which mom promised would look wonderful under a long skirt (...). And it goes on, with representation from both sides of the family. I felt like a Betty Neels heroine counting the linens. Mom has kept a few pieces, but mostly my siblings and I took what we wanted. Because you can never have too many linen table clothes or napkins. And my powder room just screams finger-tip towels.

When I was in high school, I was introduced to the idea that all of history, all the past, everyone's past, gave rise... to me. I could draw on anything and everything for my writing and my creativity. I simply had to own it. The other idea was finding my place to be - which I think was from a poem/short story about the bull in the ring, pitted against the matador, finding his place to finally die. I know, that is one of the random bits I learned in English and creative writing under the mustachioed gaze of Dr. Martin Galvin. (Another was putting in a detail about a character - like he always sat with both feet flat on the floor - to add authenticity. But that is getting off track.)

Some people feel that sense of past when they walk into an old church or cathedral. Others, it comes from walking down a street in Europe or Jerusalem, feeling the footsteps of those who walked before. For me, it comes from handling these old objects, sometimes accompanied with notes. I imagine how proud Grandmother would have been, how carefully she ironed each towel or clothe.  I imagine the frugality of a wise housewife, sewing a small flower applique over a cigarette hole in a tablecloth.

In Kathleen Gilles Seidel's book, Please Remember This, heroine Tess Lanier opened a shop selling vintage linens. That character always rang true with me, because I understood the quiet love for women's handiwork. She wasn't a "big" heroine, who at a relatively young age ran a national chain of stores, or even the type of heroine that everyone wanted to shag. She opened a small store in a small town where she was a stranger and her mother had achieved notoriety. The book was about the relationships of mothers and daughters, and isn't that what linens are all about?

Sure, sure, my brother took one of our great-grandmother's bed spreads because he totally respects the hours of work that went into it. But by and large, these items, particular the very old pieces, were no doubt part of a dower chest, like the one my grandfather made for his bride, with the sheets and pillow cases the young girl started making for her home.  This sense of future, of running her own home and raising her own children, is woven tightly into the pillow cases and dresser scarves. They are haunted, in a sense, by the hands that made them, the hands that used them and the hands that carefully folded them away in tissue paper. 

When I create a character, and write that his foot is always tapping, jiggling, twitching, somewhere in him is a matriarchy that at some point carefully folded away tea-towels. Maybe they were poor, maybe they were unbelievably wealthy, maybe they hated every moment holding the needle. But they were there. I may never, ever mention his feminine antecedents in the whole of the book, but his history is still comprised of them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why "101 Dalmations" is the Perfect Story

One of my favorite books as a young child was the Little Golden Book of “101 Dalmatians.”  It has everything that I love as a story.  The plot is genius.  And there is nothing in it that shouldn’t be there—no extra fat to the story to distract from driving the plot forward.

First, it has a romance.  Pongo and Perdita (the Dalmatian couple), Roger and Anita (the human couple), fall in love.  They “meet cute” in the park, each walking their dog.  Pongo and Perdita decide to help everyone out by getting their leashes hopelessly tangled around their “human pets” and facilitate a meeting that ends in everyone living happily ever after.  Or, so they thought.   But, the author has other ideas.
From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."
From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."
Second, the stakes are high.  Pongo and Perdita have pups.  They are kidnapped by an evil friend of Anita’s and hidden in the country to be skinned for a coat.  This is life or death drama.  If Pongo and Perdita don’t rescue their children, they will die.  The stakes don’t get much higher than that.  The odds seem stacked against the two city dogs as they follow the barking chain (information passed from dog to dog within hearing distance) that leads them to unfamiliar territory to their pups who they must save from one of the creepiest villains ever created.

From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."
This leads me to my third point.  The story has a great villain.  Cruella DeVille.  Even her name is terrifying.  With shocking half and half hair, jagged cheekbones, arrowhead jaw, sunken eyes and skeletal frame draped with fancy clothes, her looks scream “evil” before you understand her intent.  She is a “friend” of Anita’s who spots the pups while visiting and wants to buy all of them for their coats.  Both couples are horrified and send our villain packing.  Cruella, who is unaccustomed to hearing the word “no,” hires two criminals to kidnap the pups. 

From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."
Fourth, the goal of the story is clear and overarching to the story.  Find and save the pups from certain death.  One clear goal drives the story to the finish line, through many twists and turns, obstacles, near misses and the heart stopping ending when the pups are saved and Roger and Anita are reunited with all of them.
From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."

Last, it has a satisfying ending.  Cruella knew that it would take many pups to make a coat worthy of her.  She stole other Dalmatian pups from all over England, keeping them in one place to be slaughtered together when she had enough to make her coat.  Pongo and Perdita rescue all of them rather than leaving the orphans to a certain death.  Roger and Anita realize that their small flat can’t accommodate all of them so they decided to move into the country.  At the end, the reader gets the payoff of a happy ending and learns the meaning of the title.  Ninety-nine pups plus two adult dogs equals 101 Dalmatians. 
From Disney's "101 Dalmatians."

Great children’s stories illustrate that a plot doesn’t have to be labyrinthine to be good.  By possessing these elements, a classic story was created.  Each of these points, when fleshed out in the story, are all that are necessary to keep the reader’s interest and drive the story forward.  As an older child, I read the original story by Dodie Smith, “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians” that the Disney movie was created from.  I recommend it to anyone.

I’ll paraphrase the last line from my first version: “Pongo and Perdita, Roger and Anita, all live happily ever after on a Dalmatian Plantation.”

Girly sigh…

What are some of your all time favorite stories from childhood?  What makes them that way?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sitting in Cars With Girls

My granddaughter is spending six weeks in the area. A miraculous turn of events that has proven to be even more of a gift than I'd expected.

There was a movie a long while back called "Riding in Cars With Boys." I don't remember anything about the movie, but when I realized it was my turn to blog for the R8, the first thing that came to mind was an evening I spent with my granddaughter a week ago.

I know, it looks like the car was moving, but fear not. The car was off and we were in the parking lot waiting for someone to run a quick errand, and the wind was blowing. What does this have to do with writing? Only thisI realized, sitting in that car with that girljust how different she is from me.

That's right, she was hanging out the window shouting at the top of her lungs: "Hell-O PEOPLE! Hey! Hi! Hi BOY!"

Never. Ever. Not in this life or the next would you catch her grandmother doing anything like this, or anything even remotely similar.

I have no idea where this little extrovert came from, but it looks like she's having fun, doesn't it?

That's because, um, she IS. LOL. She didn't care if THE PEOPLE hollered back. But some of them did. And almost all of them waved.

Meanwhile, her grandmother has trouble just updating her author page on Facebook...

I never know what to saybecause every time I do it, it feels like I'm shouting: Hell-O PEOPLE! Hey! Hi! Look at ME!

Of course, it doesn't feel like I'm being shouted at when an author pops up in my Facebook feed.* And when one does, I react the way the people in that parking lot did. Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes I wave back (hit the like button). And sometimes I leave a comment.

So why does it feel like I'm shouting when I update my page? I don't have the answer for that yet. But my mentor (see darling child above) is working on convincing me that if I try doing it more often, it will feel less shouty.

I'll let you know how that works out.

Meanwhile, here's a little shoutout for the brand new hardcopy version of the anthology that includes my novella, The Psychic Detective.

One day soonI PROMISE, Emelle GambleI'll link to it on my Facebook page.

In the meantime, I'll be Sitting in Cars (and elsewhere, sometimes called a splash park) With A Girl...

I hope you all are having a wonderful shouty summer! And if you take the time to shout back, by leaving a comment on this post, you'll have a chance at winning a paperback copy of the Once and Forever anthology.


*Well, all right, sometimes it DOES feel like authors are shouting at me. But I ignore them and if they don't go away, I hide them. Usually they go away on their own. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

Happy 4th of July!

Wishing you an Independence Day filled with 
fireworks & picnics!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Ski Bum

About 15 years ago, I ventured on a solo vacation to Aspen. While I was there, I signed up for lessons - little did I know that the advice my hippie Zen master ski instructor would share would continue to hang about at the back of my mind all these years later, a reassuring mantra.

He had a list of three Important Things to keep in mind while headed down the slope:

1) Gravity Works
2) Breathing Helps
3) You Hit What You Aim For

I've been in a lot of situations since there where these pithy words have centered me and I've been surprised by how much I lean on them when it comes to my writing life.

Gravity Works
In skiing, gravity is what gets you down the mountain, one way or another (hopefully upright and on both skis). In writing, for me, gravity is all about what keeps me grounded to my work. What's my purpose? The more aware I am of my purpose, the more apt I am to align my actions with my dreams. Without gravity, I'm an untethered balloon and any old breeze can blow me off course.

Breathing Helps
Kind a a "duh" point to make, right? Breathing helps with balance, refuels the brain, lowers stress. Important on the slopes, essential in a writing life. Through good news and bad, through a tough slog of revisions or the frothy adventure of a new story, breathing is the number one way to connect with your core self. Gravity may get you down the mountain, but breathing properly will shift the journey from something to white knuckle your way through, to an experience you can, well, write home about.

You Hit What You Aim For
Technically, I think my instructor said, "you hit what you look at, so don't look at trees or kids." Translating that into my writing life, I've taken this to mean that, once you get yourself in motion on the trail you want to break, you'll arrive at your destination sooner or later. So make sure it's really where you want to go. And don't give up before you get there.

Gravity works, breathing helps and you hit what you aim for.

What about you? Have any ski bums given you insights into the world lately? What are you aiming yourself toward?

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Good Idea

My husband is in the medical field.  Often when someone he’s just met finds this out, they describe a pain they’re having or an injury sustained in the past.  He doesn’t really mind but I know that it happens more than it doesn’t. 

The same is true when people find out I’m a writer.  The biggest question they ask is “Where do you get your ideas?”  I know I’m not the only one who gets this question—in fact it’s an inside joke with many writers I know. 

Strong and innovative ideas are the foundation to good writing.  But it’s still a tough question to answer. How do you explain how the things you’ve seen, heard, read, dreamt, and felt mix with your brain chemistry to be communicated through your unique voice? 

It’s a mysterious alchemy to be sure.   I don’t understand how it happens.  Though I do know some of the circumstances that seem to bring it about.

I’m a big daydreamer.  It’s not a problem for me to enter my own world and start the “What if?” game.  In line at the store, riding on a train, or waiting for school pick up are great places for this.  I seldom focus on TV commercials because when they start, I’m daydreaming.  I find that driving alone on country roads has brought me some of my best revelations.  Just not at night.  That’s not so relaxing. 

Traveling often sparks new ideas.  Getting away from your regular routine stimulates the brain.  So does meeting new people, learning something new, or reading a different type of book than you normally would choose. 

I guess I get my ideas from living life—taking the familiar and turning it on its head, adding something new I’ve learned and whisking it together.  And of course, writing itself spawns ideas—those things you just start writing in that moment and didn’t even know were there. 

Writing it down brings all of those ideas to life.  Putting yourself in the chair and writing is the only way to use all those great ideas. 

All roads lead back to getting it on the page.  Isn’t that always the way?  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Writing: How Good Does It Have to Be?

by Misha Crews

As I re-read the title of this blog, it sounds like a joke. But I hear this from people all the time: “I really want to be a writer, but I just don’t know if I’m good enough.” And that begs the question: just how do we define “good.” And how good is good enough?

Ask ten people how they define good writing, and they will probably give you ten different answers. One may be obsessed with grammar and punctuation (“You used approximately 4.5 adverbs per page; that’s 2.75 more adverbs than recommended!”), one may talk esoterically about “art” (as in: “It’s okay writing, but it’s not art.”), and one or two may simply say, “Anything that I can’t put down is good writing to me!”

So what is Good Writing?

Now, this is a touchy subject, and to be honest I hesitated to tackle it, because I’m afraid it will seem that I’m either defiling the hallowed rules of grammar or bruising the tender flesh of art. But I’ve done a lot of reading lately, from both published and unpublished writers, and I’ve come to realize something important:

“Good writing” is writing that creates an emotional connection with the reader.

And that’s it. (Almost.)

Good writing makes you laugh or cry, makes your skin crawl, arouses your passion (for good or evil). It communicates something to you. It brings you into its particular universe. It makes you feel, and that’s the primary mission of “good writing.”

A long time ago I started to read a book which I found to be constructed of pretty bad writing. I won’t go into detail, but I’m sure you’ve all read enough poorly-written books to know what I’m talking about! But even with its technical flaws, I found myself becoming absorbed by the story. I wanted to know what was going on. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, and when I finished it, it stayed in my mind for a long time afterward. And you know what I call that? Good writing! You know what I call the technical flaws? Bad editing. *smile*

The way I see it, if this writer had had a better editor (or a better grammar teacher), this book could have been a best seller. Because it created an emotional connection. And the fact that it was able to have that affect in spite of poor use of language just highlights how deep that emotional connection was, and makes me realize anew that the author was indeed a very good writer.

Good writing doesn’t have to be technically perfect. But it does have to be technically correct enough that it doesn’t detract from the emotional connection.

What makes writing technically correct?

Here’s what technically correct writing is made up of (in my humble opinion):

• Grammar and punctuation.

• Proper spelling (of course!).

• An understanding of – and comfort with – language. Not just for dialogue purposes, but also because the rhythm of language varies from age to age and from place to place.

• Story structure: the highs and lows, ebbs and flows of your story.

• Characterization: the hardcore techniques of bringing your people to life.

I’m sure I’ve left out a few things, there but those are the basics. All of these things are important: Grammar, punctuation, language – these are your tools, your instruments. Story structure and characterization – these are the beams and girders of the world you are building. But none of them should ever become more important to you than forging an emotional link with your readers.

So how do you go about creating an emotional connection? And how do you know when you’ve done it?

Here’s what I think: How do you create an emotional connection? Start by feeling it yourself. Fall in love with your characters – even the bad guys (or especially the bad guys, as the case may be!). Make sure every part of your story fascinates you, and if it doesn’t, change it! Because if you’re not interested in any part of your story, I don’t see how or why the reader would be!

And how do you know if you’ve actually achieved the emotional connection? Have someone read your work. Or several someones. They should be people you trust (especially when you start out!), people who aren’t afraid to be honest. Are they “feeling it” when they read your story? No? Ask questions, figure out what’s going wrong and change it. Yes? Well then, you’ve got something good going!

(Oh, this is very important: they should be people who enjoy the genre in which you’re writing. I once had someone get very critical about my writing. Eventually I found out that this guy never read “women’s books” and in fact hardly ever read fiction at all! So save yourself some time (and heartache) and don’t give your romance novel to someone who hates romance novels, LOL!)

So what do you call Good Writing?

If you’re still not sure that your writing is good, don’t be afraid to indulge in a little self-examination. Just ask what you, yourself, consider to be good writing. Shakespeare? Okay, are you trying write like Shakespeare? No? Oh, you just want to make people feel the way you feel when you read Shakespeare?

Okay then, you have now established what kind of emotional connection you’re trying to forge with your readers: the same kind old Will forged with you!  And that’s a good place to start! Just remember, William Shakespeare didn’t start out as an Immortal Poet. He didn’t just pick up a quill pen one day and scribble rough winds do shake the darling buds of May on a piece of parchment. He honed his craft. He learned how to make art by making art. He learned by doing.

And I hope that this blog has made you feel like doing! So quit reading, and go write. (You can start by leaving a comment, if you like!)

So how do YOU define good writing?