Friday, October 26, 2012

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I spied my 19-year-old son reading ON WRITING by Stephen King this summer and asked him to give me his copy for my birthday once he has finished it.  Of course, by the time he got the book to me it looked like it had fallen out of his backpack into a puddle of mud and was run over by a car, but that didn't take any of the enjoyment out of reading it.

First off, let me say that Stephen King is a funny man.  Funny, funny, funny.  Flat out hilarious.  In this day and age with lousy luck tripping me up at every intersection in my life, I don't find a whole lot of things to be funny anymore, but I got a good deal of belly bounces and guffaws out of this read.

ON WRITING is not a textbook on the English language, but a memoir on the craft.  It begins with scattered memories of King's childhood experiences flowing into his adult life.  Famous authors are always being asked about their secrets to success by those who want to follow a similar path, but King is wise enough to know there is no special recipe to cook up a gifted writer.  The best he could do is share pieces of his life and how they shaped him into being a writer.

He offers background information on his experiences of writing, revising and publishing books that many of us have read.  Ultimately, this a very humble approach to this kind of book.  What he's saying is that he doesn't hold the key that will open the door for struggling writers to realize their dreams, but he can give us a little inside information on how things worked out for him, offer some word crafting advice, and express to us a good attitude to utilize along the journey.

He touches on a lot of thoughts I've had over the years as a reader.  For most of my life, my main focus was on reading and writing poetry.  However, unless someone is being forced to read your work in a classroom, I find that very few people nowadays go to a bookstore in search of poetry.  Back in the 1990's there was a boom in poetry anthologies and many bookstores carried a poetry section as tall and wide as any other genre, but over the years I've watched that section shrink down to a couple of shelves containing nothing but the well known works of classic poets.

Poetry may be one of the finest, most respected forms of the writing craft, but most of us are too busy to put the effort into reading it.  When I expect to be sitting in waiting rooms all day, I don't take a book of poems with me.  I used to do that, but found that every cough, every crying child, every ringing phone, every door opening drew my attention away from the page.  Now I take a suspense novel with me, because fast moving stories have a way of drawing you in so that you can shut out everything around you.  When I get called in for my appointment, my name usually has to be called multiple times if I am engrossed in a really good book. One day the lady next to me shook my shoulder, because there were only two of us in the waiting room and she knew they weren't calling for her.

King talks about this, and I'm glad he addressed it, because I, personally, am sick of buying fiction and yawning through the first 40 pages that contain nothing beyond mostly unnecessary description.  No action what-so-ever.  Readers need to get hooked with the first line.  There are subtler ways of offering pertinent background information without describing the main character's personal history and statistics before approaching the actual plot or story.

I remember critiquing a student work in college in which the first chapter consisted of all the characters stepping out of a carriage one by one, taking the hand of the driver for support, and paragraph after paragraph listing their names, ages, occupations, educations, parent's names...  It read like an application form.  The author of this piece forgot one important thing:  The reader doesn't give a damn about such details.  The reader hasn't connected with the characters or invested any interest in the characters at this point in time because the reader hasn't shared any experience with the characters yet.  They are as flat as crepes.  The reader may as well be sitting on a bench in a mall gazing in boredom at passers by.   Everyone knows that you can't hire a person based upon his job application alone.  You have to sit across from him, listen to his choice of words when he speaks, observe his body language, see if he laughs at your jokes.  Then you can either take a chance on investing more time into him, or you can hold the door to escort him out.

People in today's society appreciate fast-moving stories.  There's no need for writers to get all highfalutin in their descriptions and word choices.  It's really not about impressing some professor with the breadth of your vocabulary and how you can artistically arrange such rare words into unique sentences.  It's about respecting the reader's lack of time and desperate need to escape from all the hassles of everyday life.  If you want to sell books, a reader shouldn't have to keep a dictionary within reach to understand your work.

With that said, King does recommend that you store vocabulary and grammar in your toolbox, but he teaches you practical ways to use them to construct an interesting story, and sometimes, especially with dialogue, it is more interesting to break the rules of vocabulary and grammar.

I also love his hierarchy of writers.  Think of a pyramid.  On the bottom are bad writers.  Lots of them.  Moving up you find competent writers, followed by very good writers, and at the tiny peak are the one-of-a-kind geniuses.  King says that "while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."

If you have spent a lot of time in creative writing classrooms and writers' groups, this will make perfect sense to you.  This book is a keeper.  I'm sure I'll be reading it a second time when I'm either in need of inspiration or just a really good laugh.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hardbacks and Paperbacks and Ebooks! Oh My!

At the beginning of the ebook revolution, my attitude was this:  You can't take a hardback book into the bathtub, because after a while it gets too heavy and you drop it in the water.  You can't take an ereader into the bathtub, because electronics and water don't mix.  So, by default, paperback books win as my format of choice.

Now that I have had to move 50 years of personal belongings for a family of 4, plus 2 dogs and 3 horses 760 miles across state lines, I have learned that the lighter the load, the better.  My family must have sold, donated and thrown away a small bookstore on our way out of town.  It took a lot of energy to dig through every bookshelf in the house and decide what to keep and what to give up.  There were books that we loved, but we had to consider what the chances were that we would ever read them again.

I realized that if I had these books in electronic form, I wouldn't have to debate their fate.  I could carry them everywhere because they weigh no more than the hardware device that displays them.  There's something magical about being able to open up the same book cover and find a different book to read within it each time. 

Though I'd be saddened to see the end of hardback and paperback books, and the whole bookstore and library experience, having little storage space or always being on the move are good arguments in favor of the ebook format.  I also like the way I can pump up the font to a size I can read just in case I forget my glasses.  I've never understood how I can be examined by an optometrist, be given prescription reading glasses, and still not be able to read the print in paperback books.  I swore that publishers were making the print smaller, but subconsciously knew that in reality my eyesight was failing me.  Thank goodness for progress.  It came right in time for me to keep on reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pretty Little Projects All in a Row

In addition to my interests in creative writing and photography, I got involved in the fabric arts about 14 years ago.  Each time I found a fabric or pattern or thread or tool that I liked, I bought it.  Each cashier, without fail, asked, "What are you making?"

"I don't know yet," I'd say.  "This is just for my stash," until one day when a cashier looked at me with anger in her eyes and said, "I wish I had the luxury of stocking up on supplies before I start a project.  I usually have to wait for some spare change just to buy what I need to finish a project."

I winced at her suggestion that I was being insensitive to the plights of others, but then realized that while some of us are short on money, others are short on time, and my lack of free time was the cause of me being a consumer, but not making much progress in the project completion department.  I could have told this lady that the fact that she even is able to complete projects is something she has that I don't.  I suspect that I probably would have traded the money I was making from my 60 to 80 hour a week job for the free time she was given working in a job part-time.

I have this lovely, colorful fabric stash piled on a plastic shelving unit, and every day I look longingly at it as I pass by it between chores.  I think about designing and piecing together my next project, but then remember that king-sized monstrosity lying on my bedroom floor waiting to be finished.  Years ago I started piecing together a Storm-at-Sea bed quilt for our king-sized bed, only to discover that it was too large to quilt in my industrial quilt rack with my long-arm sewing machine.  The only alternative was to quilt it by hand.  Quickly tying the layers together wouldn't do.  I had to hand-stitch swirly wave-like motions to fit the Storm-at-Sea theme.

I have this huge oval quilting frame to hold the fabric taut, and it takes about two hours to fill one frame.  I love the quilt and consider it one of my best efforts, but the act of hand-stitching bores me to death.  I can only do the same repetitive movement for so long until I have to move on to something else.  As a result, I can't seem to finish the quilt.

I'm very much in the same place with my current novel.  I'm happy with all aspects of the work, but it is a monstrosity.  The book is going to be much longer than the average novel, and when I look ahead to all the character development and plot that still needs to be recorded, I feel overwhelmed.  My mind begins wandering to the possibilities of starting a new novel, but I stop myself and insist that I must stick to my current project, follow it through to the very end, before starting anything new.  I must exercise self-discipline -- rein in that monkey mind.

It's easy to get caught in this trap towards the completion of a major project, because I've already written the book in my head, but to sit down and actually get it on paper feels tedious and repetitive.  I think all authors probably have wished, at one time or another, to be able to hook up a mind reader to their head and just let the book appear in an electronic format on a computer screen, skipping past that whole bothersome part of moving one's fingers across a keyboard.  But writing is hard work, and it requires time.

Until such a luxurious device is invented, I will continue pushing back thoughts of new projects until my monsters are complete and take on a life of their own.  I want my little Frankensteins to leave the nest and serve their purposes of keeping us warm on cold nights and entertaining readers, but the time just isn't quite ripe.  Whether one stitch in front of the other or one word in front of the other, I plod on.  If we keep going in the correct direction, we will eventually cross the finish line, but if we veer off course... well, that's a risk we take.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Long Overdue Update

Since moving in May, I have only had a few hours of quiet time to work on my current novel.  Getting settled is more difficult than it might seem.  I've been caught up in a flurry of activity ranging from dealing with home repairs to sorting through mountains of paperwork that somehow manage to wind up on my desk each day.  My file cabinets are bulging and my paper shredder is over-heated after my attempt to clear enough space on my desk to begin a novel writing routine.

The house we moved out of has not sold yet, and trying to get contractors to make repairs and fix that place up turned into a rat's nest of problems, disappointments, and miscommunications.  The process ended up taking way more time and money than originally estimated as more problems were uncovered along the way, and I lost a buyer for the house after having it in escrow for a month.  Then everything started breaking down in our new house, and the barn I had built for my horses went way over budget thanks to the permit process.  Unfortunately, this means that we've had more than our fair share of expenses over a very short period of time, and I will have to start looking for work outside the home, limiting the time I will have to write.

Knowing what I know now about the moving process and the real estate market, I would never move again if I could help it.  It's very disruptive to say the least, and you have to rely on so many different people to do their parts or you suffer the consequences.  With each week, I just keep telling myself, "If I could just get past this next thing, then I can start a daily routine and concentrate on writing my novel again," but then there's another thing after the next thing, and if you open your eyes wide enough, you see things that need your attention stretched out to and beyond the horizon, and then you start losing hope.  You discover that you've become a slave to your new life circumstances, and that old life you had where you were able to do what you love is gone.

I've been posting on one of my blogs regularly, because that's something mindless that I can do while people and voices swirl around me, and alarms go off telling me to feed the dogs and give one dog her insulin shot.  I can write a blog post while eating my breakfast or lunch, in between feeding the horses, doing laundry, washing dishes, mopping and scrubbing floors, answering the phone and the door, and paying bills.  Writing a novel requires complete concentration, though -- no multitasking, no bells ringing, no buzzers buzzing, no chores hanging over your head.

I've come to the realization that until my life drastically changes, I'll never be at that point again.  There is always someone trying to contact me and always something that needs my immediate attention.  I guess that's why writers need retreats.  Yesterday alone I had four unexpected people show up on my doorstep.  The interruptions are relentless.

I'm scared to contact any people or businesses, because somehow every simple phone call has to turn into dozens of phone calls and text messages and emails and letters coming through at all hours of the day and night.  Our society's obsession with repetitive communications is out of control.  Do I really need five reminders that my prescription is ready or that I have a medical appointment coming up?  Really?  Is this necessary?

My goal is to get my new life on auto-pilot, so my time can be freed up to do what I love.  The first step is to move everything to paperless, which I have been doing over the past year, but I keep discovering that paperless is never 100% paperless, because as soon as you switch something to paperless, you receive all these papers confirming that you were the one who switched to paperless, and anytime that any status is altered in the slightest, you receive a notification on paper.  Then there are all these other people in the world who are making decisions that affect me, and I have to be notified via more paper and fill out reams of legal forms so that they are clear on where I stand on the matter. 

After flying over Oregon years ago and seeing bald patches of land in the mountains where trees were cut down in clumps, I don't like seeing paper or wood wasted.  I don't like seeing any of our natural resources wasted.  Despite passing away one year and four months ago, my mother's mail has followed me through three different addresses, even though I did not notify the senders of my new addresses.  I'm fed up with having to throw out stacks of paper every day that keeps getting mailed to someone who is no longer alive, so I write notes back to these people asking them to remove her from their mailing lists.  I use their return address envelopes and their letters to save on paper, but I occasionally have to foot the bill for a stamp.  That's not exactly how I like to spend my time, but if it saves a few resources in the end, perhaps it is worth it.

Beyond going paperless, the next step will be to block out all the uninvited communications that take me by surprise and monopolize my time.  Those who know me well will learn that I am no longer answering my door or my phone when I am working.  Those who don't know me will learn that it is a waste of their time to try to get in touch with me, because I won't respond.

The biggest challenge is finding solutions that work to stave off the various problems that I face living in a completely different environment -- problems I could not have foreseen and do not have enough experience with to know how to handle.   I moved from a Nevada valley at a 5,000-foot elevation just below a snow-capped mountain range to the Arizona desert.  Over the 20-some years I lived in the mountains, I figured out ways to deal with ice and snow and high winds.  The only animals that were a nuisance were skunk, deer, bears and mountain lions, most of which were only encountered on rare occasions. 

Now I find myself crossing paths with desert wildlife every time I walk outside, and so many of these creatures are either destructive or dangerous.  We're sharing our space with scorpions, rattlesnakes, poisonous lizards, tarantulas, hoards of rabbits, rats, coyotes, termites, and more holes in the ground than your ankles can tolerate rolling in.  People say not to worry about the rattlesnakes, because they don't strike unless you try to pick them up or step on them.  The silly thing about that statement is that those people don't know how easy it is to accidentally step on a rattlesnake when your yard is infested with them and you spend a lot of time outdoors doing barn chores.  All you have to do is walk.  There are so many sticks on the ground that your eyes can't differentiate between sticks and snakes.  I set up optometry appointments for all of us after a couple of near misses.

We haven't been bit, but we do spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to avoid getting bit or stung or having our house, vehicles and landscaping destroyed by critters.  It's an ongoing battle.  I know the best thing I can do is to clear my yards of any debris, rocks, sticks, weeds, bushes, etc., but until the temperatures drop below 100 degrees, that's not going to happen.  It seems that on a weekly basis dead hikers are being found out in the desert.  People don't last long in this heat.

So, that's where I'm at, and unfortunately, the speed at which I write my next novel depends upon my availability.  I'm hoping everything will just fall into place soon... I say as my phone starts ringing at 8:00 in the morning.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A New Space

A quick note to explain my long absence from my blog:  In February I went house hunting and went into negotiations on the purchase of a new home 760 miles away from my old home.  In March and April the house went into escrow, so we began packing and fixing up our old house to get it ready for the market.  In May we moved from Nevada to Arizona.  We are still unpacking, but someday soon I hope to return to working on my novel and updating my blog.

With new spaces come new inspirations.  I now have two covered patios from which I can write, so unless I have to start working for a regular paycheck right away to pay the bills, I expect to become more prolific than ever.  Imagine yourself writing with an unobstructed view of one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, the only sounds being a variety of birds calling out, and wild bunnies nibbling on desert brush at your feet.  That's where I'm at.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Raising by Laura Kasischke

I have a shelf full of unread books that I hope to read before my life concludes. I randomly pick a book and try to read it, always hoping for the best. Sometimes I just can't get into a story, and end up putting it back on the shelf unread. That almost happened with "The Raising" by Laura Kasischke.

Each time I picked up the book, I either lost interest and started some other activity or instantly fell asleep after reading just one or two pages. After carrying it around for literally months without getting past the first 50 pages, I was about to give up on it and swap it out for another unread book.

However, something told me to hang in there. The writing itself was excellent, but the beginning of the story and its characters just didn't grab me. The plot seemed straight forward enough. A popular, perfect sorority girl was killed in a car accident and her obsessive, impulsive boyfriend was being blamed. The book was so thick (461 pages) that I couldn't imagine what more could be written on the subject. I worried that it might turn into a drama -- something I don't need, because I've already got enough drama in my own life.

However, I became intrigued with the craftiness of the author when the story began jumping around in time, revealing a little bit more in each scene, introducing some new characters in such great detail that I felt I knew them personally, while leaving other characters as puzzles for the reader to piece together. What I thought was an obvious plot at first turned out to be quite unique. I found myself swept away in the story, feeling disappointed when I had to set the book down to live my own life.

About three-fourths of the way through, the plot began to feel a bit like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the reader being jerked around in all directions, not knowing if that wall ahead she's about to crash into will open up into a new room or result in the little car she's sitting in swinging away toward another door. The story definitely picked up enough steam to keep everything moving along after such a slow beginning, however somehow the supernatural aspect of it became more believable than the sociological and psychological aspects.

The ending will either impress you or frustrate you. For those readers who want everything spelled out for them like at the end of mysteries when the hero explains it all to a room full of suspects, the ending of "The Raising" will leave a lot to be desired. For those who want to let their own beliefs contribute to the story, your wish is granted.

The book has its X-rated moments, so consider the person you are buying it for if you get it to give as a gift. The characters literally study sexuality, death, and rebirth.

Having been in a couple of sororities myself at a couple of different universities, I can vouch for Kasischke's more commonplace descriptions of the rituals. I still have my black gowns and white formals from the 1980's hanging in my closet. I even hyperventilated while holding a candle during one lengthy ceremony and passed out.

I always know I enjoyed a book when I Google the author for summaries and reviews of her other works. I'll be reading more by Laura Kasischke in the future.