Sparked by Words

Archive for July, 2016

Y is for Yearn

Friis_Nybo_Girl_Inspecting_Her_Hope_Chest

I don’t write in a dark corner of my garage because I don’t need a reminder of how lonely I often am. I don’t write in a public place both because I don’t own a laptop and dislike trying to work in a crowded coffee shop. Amidst the noise of baristas calling out orders for wrappa frappa chappas, and kids screaming for attention from frazzled moms, and ice being crushed in a blender, I find it hard to concentrate. I write at the desk in my living/dining room on a messy desk with a big personal computer and a large monitor overlooking my ergonomically correct keyboard, music playing in the background. But it isn’t where I write or what kind of machine I use that’s really important.

It’s why I write. I want something important to emerge out of my efforts. I yearn for recognition as an author. I want a woman who’s waited at the bookstore where I’m promoting my book to ask for my autograph because something I wrote touched her heart. I want a man who thought he knew everything about the world to thank me for telling him something new. Among all the celebrity careers I can list – rock star, leading actor, superb athlete – nothing earns my respect more than “writer.”

But the road to publication is harder than ever to traverse, at least for traditional publication. I went to my writing critique meeting last week. One of the members had recently attended a local writer’s group where the publishing industry was a major topic. He reported bad news to us, that the current state of affairs has both editors and agents worried. No one can get a solid handle on what’s going on, at least not a reliable forecast of what can be expected in the industry. A book, once contracted, takes two years to final publication, making it a long shot for heavy sales under the best of circumstances, like a guaranteed best seller from a well known author might generate. Editors and agents are nervous about accepting the work of unknown writers because they can’t promise a devoted audience based on past huge sales. Big production expenses on the part of traditional publication venues and few purchases because of audience disinterest or inadequate promotion equal minimal sales and income loss. Company in the red. Bad investment.

Indie publications take far less time to get into the marketplace. In a matter of perhaps six months, while a topic is hot, with all the work undertaken by the author and whatever professionals s/he can afford to hire, getting a manuscript published and to the audience is far more likely. Traditional publishing can’t compete in a short order marketplace. The time spent trying to flag down and convince an agent to take on a project by an unknown writer and then sell that same unknown quantity to an editor might better be used to prep the same work for more immediate indie publication. A kind of get it to the marketplace quick as you can strategy.

My yearning for writing recognition generates a sweet and sour taste in my mouth. Imagine being able to show my kids something of value other than the handmade Halloween costumes that earned them awards at local competitions, or the Teacher of the Month tchotchkie from one of the schools where I’ve taught. I’m long past the illusion that I might win a literary award, but the honor of speaking at my local library about my newly published book would thrill me.

Despite the unfavorable news about traditional publishing, it’s still my first choice. I’m still trying (working on that query letter) and still hoping. But if it doesn’t happen, I’ll go the indie route as are so many writers.

Yearning for something of value is healthy. It suggests that I’m not done, not too old to try, to try harder, to try again. Fresh ideas and new opportunities await me as much as any millennial out of college. The future belongs to age and experience as much as to youth and energy. As long as I still yearn for my place at the author’s table, via one route or another, my chances for success remain possible. And that’s a great thing for an author who writes in her living room. I’ve kept this asset in my writer’s toolbox, next to my thesaurus and my books about plot and character development and a few critiques.

Yearn: the intense feeling of longing for something:

Sharon Bonin-Pratt, the writer

 

 

Public domain image courtesy: Friis Nybo, Girl Inspecting Her Hope Chest, courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

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Doldrums and Drumbeats

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Perhaps it’s the summer doldrums that have me down, as I wilt in high temperatures and barely move for fear of producing nothing but sweat. All over the blog world, I’m reading about people struggling to write the next word, craft a good sentence, complete a work in progress. Extreme heat and minimal writing output have left me frustrated. I feel myself floating on a sea without wind in my sails, drifting but going nowhere. This isn’t usual for me. I’m the writer who never suffers from writer’s block. Talkative as I am, I also have something to write about all the time. But this last month has seen me produce nearly nothing. I have story to tell, books to write, tales in my head. Still, almost no headway on any project.

It’s been a tough week, and before that a challenging month, and before that a miserable year. I have no energy.

The deep wound: I’ve been betrayed by people whom I’d loved all my life, a story I will not share. And I will not forgive.

The tragedy: My mother continues to decline, her mental and physical health a hostage to a disease for which there is no cure and only moderate pharmaceutical options and routines to intercept its lockstep progress toward her complete destruction.

The job: The last place I worked doing a job I loved closed its doors, a victim of a crashing economy, and left me too old to be hired anywhere else. Yes, it’s illegal to refuse to hire me because of my age, but a hundred other excuses/reasons surface in lieu of the one I know really prevents me from being employed in my field.

The shakedown: For many years I was locked into a business arrangement not of my making but one I couldn’t end. Until I finally did end it legally. About a year later, the other party sent me a threatening letter, demanding money for work he never did. I panicked, for while I have plenty of documentation proving what a lying leech he is, he scares me. I didn’t respond to the email. He sent a certified letter which I refused to accept, and I haven’t heard from him since. I’ll never really know if this shakedown is over because it’s fueled by his alcoholism, and that’s a never-ending problem.

The final blow: I got a rejection letter regarding an opportunity for which I knew I was unlikely to be selected. Still, the you-didn’t-make-it letter punched me harder than I’d thought. I reacted with tears and nightmares. The tears have stopped, the nightmares still torment me.

Other bloggers are writing about their summer blues and their attempts to regain their mojo. They’re adapting new strategies, like detailed outlining, or elaborate character sketches, or trying a writing program like yWriter5. Some are getting in an early morning swim, a late night walk, a slash in carbs, caffeine, gluten, and lactose, or an increase in probiotics, kale, and quinoa.  Many of my writer friends and acquaintances have found a way to proceed, and I wish all of them continued progress. May my losing streak not be theirs.

None of this accounts for my lack of progress. I haven’t written a new article on my blog in a while. I haven’t worked on any of my stories, not creating or editing or querying on their behalf. I feel like my life force has been pumped out and replaced with cat litter. My problems are way worse than everyone else’s. Than yours. That’s the way it is, right? My problems are more deeply entrenched, at least to me; I have so much to overcome. Your novel will launch long before I haul myself out of this slump.

Don’t pity me. I don’t deserve it, don’t need it. It won’t motivate me to get moving. Despite the year of bad tidings, I’ve also been blessed with a loving family, friends, and so many opportunities that the excuses for not writing resemble a teenager’s resistance to drive any car but a brand new one. What do you mean, I’m not getting a new car all my own? Sixteen years on this earth, eating your food, dropping my dirty clothes all over your floor, and you want to give me a used car? I deserve brand new. Lazy and entitled teenager.

I’m behaving like I deserve to find writing easy. Lazy and entitled old lady, me.

It’s already “the next day.” Today, I will write. No excuses. Time to make progress, time to achieve. Not a new car but a story that drums on the inside of my brain, begging to be written.

Badum-a-dump, ching.

 

 

Sea image courtesy: publicdomainpictures.net

Short Story

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A challenge:

Eee – no time!

I struggle,

O, for immutable vowels…

U-turn; re-write.

 

 

 

Pen and ink image, public domain, clipartsign.com

What a Great Place This Is!

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The first words, the first sentence – we writers must get them perfect. It’s the only chance we have with most readers – irritate or confuse them and our story becomes trash. Films have it much easier. An audience held captive, engaged by so many sensory activities at once – compelling music, clever camera angles, images of all kinds, words and names, snappy or threatening dialogue, and all of that in only a few seconds. In the first minute folks know whether or not they’ll stick around for the next two hours, and it’s likely most do. A creation of the labor of hundreds, even thousands of people, films also have the advantage of social interaction. People go to the movies or sit in their homes with their best friends and eager strangers to experience a film as a group, sharing the wit, mystery, danger, silliness, fear, humor, and delight on the screen.

Writers cannot be filmmakers. We don’t make movies with all the multi-dimensional aspects of film. A book must contain every aspect of action, character development, dialogue, and setting with none of the multi-dimensional layering of film. But there’s the problem – if we write too much, we risk boring our readers. The more words and descriptions we put in, filling pages with every possible angle, response, and internal thought of our characters, the more we detract from the action and deflate the power of the story.

Enter one of the most persuasive characters of a story: location. It’s the prime real estate of a book, literally the waterfront property, mountain cabin, or desert hideaway. Lock step with time frame, location confirms the action of a story.

Consider the hidden encampment of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain of North Carolina where Confederate deserter Inman heads home to meet his sweetheart, Ada. The primitive, rugged terrain of Cold Mountain echoes the crude circumstances that Ada and Inman are reduced to living over the course of the book. The more they retreat from civilization, the closer they move toward each other, the more the foreboding character of the mountain informs the plot. Based on the life of Frazier’s uncle, the story could not take place anywhere but Cold Mountain – ominous, dreary, and promising all at once.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone follows the birth, childhood, and eventual medical practice of one brother of a set of twins born in Ethiopia. The country’s twentieth century history of rule by Haile Selassi and the rebellions that attempted to depose him are intertwined with the complex story of the brothers and their divergent life paths. Verghese presents the conflicting world of Ethiopia, a country with a huge Indian population that often supplants the needs and rights of the indigenous people. The despair of Ethiopia provides an echoing backdrop for the conflict between the brothers whose contentious relationship is clinched by their mutual attraction to a young woman.

Frazier and Verghese know their territories well, each having lived and explored where their stories take place. The descriptions of Cold Mountain and Ethiopia are authentic, established with both epic sweep and details that invoke intimacy. Inman sees Cold Mountain as the place that will heal and save him, give his soul respite from the savagery of the war, and grant a future with Ada. Every American kid learns about the Civil War, but Frazier’s retelling turns dry facts into anguish. In Ethiopia, where access to medical help is determined by one’s wealth or constrained by tribal superstitions, a patient assumes he will die of his illness. It’s an idea that is anathema to us in the United States where we expect advanced medical skills to save us from everything. These two stories could only happen on these particular soils.

Creating an authentic sense of place draws from memory and utilizes research. For my own books I’ve been fortunate to be able to recall numerous details of places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve also had the serendipitous experience of meeting people who have personal knowledge of the locations that are crucial to my story, and often know firsthand about some of the events that I write about. Interviews with them as well as photographs, maps, and newspaper articles broaden my grasp of these places. Google Earth even verified for me that an existing hill in Orange County could indeed provide the empty plot for a home to exist in The Tree House Mother. All the streets named in the book can be found on maps except for the tiny street where the tree house was propped in a pepper tree. That one street is a fabrication, a fiction of my imagination. You can drive up to the top of Skyline Drive to find the overgrown lot where the Youngs’ family home once stood. You can tramp the wild chaparral where Andie sat on the side of the access road and watched a parade of cars. The location contributes as much excitement as the plot.

Perhaps the most important part of writing about a particular place is to be enchanted with its terrain and smells, intrigued with its streaming water or exotic flora, curious about its hidden paths. If “X” marks the exact spot on a map, if the GPS can find it, if readers can imagine standing on our plots of virtual real estate, that’s just one more compelling reason to read our stories.

 

Public domain image courtesy Library of Congress