Sparked by Words

Archive for December, 2016

A Snow Globe Season

imagesA glass dome rests atop a wood base; it encircles a tiny steam train. Water and glycerin submerge the train on its track. Shake the dome and sparkles float down on the scene, lending a sense of childhood wonder as the toy train becomes a living world captured in your palm – for a few seconds.

When I was a kid, snow globes imparted a magical experience, a snowing miniature world glittering with whatever fantasy I imagined. Shake, it snows then settles until shaken again. Glitter snow so thick it covers the little train, all details obliterated. Stilled, a slightly different arrangement of the glitter, and I notice the black smokestack is ringed with a gold band. Shake, settle again, and the caboose dangles a pea-size lantern. Didn’t see that before. Enchantment in my palm.

I’ve been shaking up my writing recently, revising my three novels, (and working on a fourth) making sure I’ve written the story I intended. Checking to see that I’ve addressed each character consistently, maintained logical internal chronology, excised every “that” and “very.” Toby jogs around the second novel even though he only lives in the first  – ack. Emily was born in 1989 in one chapter, 1976 in another. Embarrassed me until I realized nearly everyone does it. I assure the story is complete, all loose ends tied up or snipped away, displacing the reign of confusion. Theme carried through, consistent voice, suspenseful surprises in every chapter, plot chasms and traps to make the characters stumble, right themselves, stumble again. An ending no one will expect until they get to the end and exclaim, “Didn’t see that coming!”

Reviewing a work in progress completed a year earlier affords an opportunity to repair and reconsider. A chance to see the lantern on the caboose – nice touch – also the teapot on the smokestack – oops! Delete. Correct – a lantern. Three complete novels banked on my computer, checked, revised, ready to send out to agents.

Now I face the task I most dread: querying. I don’t like writing queries, yet I know ain’t nuttin’ getting traditionally published (my preference) without the hard work of compressing my story into a paragraph of scintillating seduction and mesmerizing mystery. I’ve assessed my resistance to query writing and come up with a list.

  1. My story is 120,000 essential words. How to compress it into one page and still convey its conundrum, theme, clever development? Two hundred fifty words – a phenomenon of literary grandeur. Or a castle whittled to a splinter.
  2. What will capture an agent’s attention? Queries that worked tickle the imagination of a particular agent because of a personal comment (so I’ve heard): “I see you like vodka poured over your dry cereal. That’s exactly how my main character eats hers.” What box of cereal, Dear Agent, will grab you and never let go? Let me send you a case and a bottle of vodka.
  3. How can I be sure the agent is still accepting unsolicited manuscripts? The process is long and arduous. Send query, wait an acceptable amount of time, move on to the next potential agent. How much wait time is acceptable? My clock is ticking – I only have this lifetime.
  4. How much should I include of the story? I know not to give away the final resolution, but how much plot do I inkle? Too little, not enough intrigue foments to excite a stranger. Too much, I’ll give everything away. My toe scribes on the sand a line of perfect distinction – till the sea washes it out to the sharks.
  5. Will my story get beyond the slush pile, the midden of manuscripts tossed over the ledge by interns and first readers? Literature to me, trash to a stranger, my baby thrown out with their crushed soda cans.

The list lengthens, more ridiculous as it adds excuses. Finally I admit I’m stalling. I don’t like writing queries, it’s like tromping over a fence of Medieval pikes. I have to stop putzing around to have a chance of anyone but Mom reading my books. The glitter in the snow globe drifts to the bottom. The train is still, the tiny locomotive and miniature cars curled on the Lilliputian track. A world locked in a glass sphere. The most important task I face is to sit myself in front of the computer and start writing. Not the story but the description of the story to entice the person who may assist at getting it published. I am not a writer if I don’t address this essential part of getting my book into print. Query, baby, query like the glitter won’t stop.

 

 

Snow globe image courtesy Google public domain images: snow globe, Pixabay.com

 

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G is for The Grapes of Wrath

200px-johnsteinbeck_thegrapesofwrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck exposed me to the heart-wrenching human toll of the Dust Bowl and the heartless agriculture industry that treated its impoverished migrant workers as disposable drones. It sucker punched me the first time I read it – I’d had no idea about the backbreaking life of the people who picked the fruit and vegetables I ate. Middle class child that I was, I couldn’t tell you anything about the mechanics of farm to market produce, though I was fussy about how perfect my apple was.

It was another book I read in college, though not for a class. I think I picked it up because it was one of the senior year courses I couldn’t take. My final year of school I was supposed to have priority registration for classes, but found I was nearly last on the list. I didn’t get the Steinbeck seminar or the one for Shakespeare, Hemingway, Jane Austen, or Mark Twain – all of which I would have preferred rather than the one for Thomas Hardy. I signed up for the Hardy seminar as a Hail Mary tactic to be able to complete the English department requirements so I could graduate at the end of the semester. It was the only class with openings. (I ended up loving the Hardy class; he’s a truly great writer.)

So I grabbed Steinbeck’s book to prove I was a contender for the more popular seminars. Who knew that a book written in Tom Joad’s uneducated voice short on grammar but loaded with striking observations could slice my heart into more sections than the four chambers that medicine recognizes? Beginning with Tom Joad searching for his family after being released from prison, we follow the Oklahoma clan as they head west to California. The Dust Bowl that decimated the Great Plains and turned once fertile heartland into parched dirt incapable of supporting a seed, also destroyed the lives of the people who lived on those farms. Left with nothing but grit in their teeth, their determination to seek work, and their pride in their heritage, thousands of folks left the heartland and trekked toward the agricultural communities along the Pacific coast. Chapter by chapter, we accompany the Joads in their run down car as they encounter one dangerous, futile situation after another. Despite working in California fields and orchards laden with ripe food, the children are sick and hungry. It’s illegal even to pick up the fruit fall.

The migrants fight with each other, try to organize into effective governing units, betray each other, leave the camps and the family for better opportunities, and die, their bodies given out to hunger and illness. They also sing and share when possible. Life is not pretty and holds little hope of a better future, but they hold on.

Reminiscent of the ancient Hebrews leaving Egypt in search of the Promised Land, the Joads and other migrant families deal with the demands of a transient life, moving from one camp to another, hoping to make enough money to feed the family for one more meal, to fill the old car with enough gas to get to the next farm. At times dreary, violent, poignant, or infuriating, the book exposes the tenuous circumstances of people who have limited resources other than their family loyalty and their determination to try once more to make things work.

It’s been decades since I read the book but two of the many dramatic scenes are indelibly etched on my heart. The first, toward the end of the book, is when Rose of Sharon births a stillborn infant. With no money for a funeral, the baby is set into the river, its tiny body drifting downstream. Shortly after, Rose of Sharon encounters a man dying of starvation. She does what she can: she nurses him with the breast milk meant for her baby. Melodramatic, yes, but what more promising metaphor of hope for the future could one write?

I wished I’d been in the Steinbeck class where I could have learned from the professor about the political and social entities that destroyed the farming culture as much as the loss of topsoil that blew across the prairies, leaving it without nutrients and people without sustenance. I wanted to know more about the symbolism throughout the story, the historical background of the plot, and the actual people who inspired Steinbeck. Eventually I learned about the efforts of farm and labor unions to protect worker’s rights, but long before that, I began to think about where my apples came from, how they were cultivated, who grew and picked them.

Until a year ago, acres of land devoted to growing seasonal fruits and vegetables lined the 5 Freeway I travel a few times every week. Bent under sun or wind, covered with large hats and long sleeves, dozens of people harvested the crops that next day filled the grocery stores where I shopped. Other drivers might have ignored or not even seen these people, but I always looked, knowing their employment gains were hard won and possibly fleeting. This is what reading a great book does to me: it makes me see.

The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for G:

Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Ghost of Hanna Mendes by Naomi Ragen

The Girl in the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Golem and the Ginni by Helene Wecker

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Great House by Nicole Krauss

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite G fiction books.

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and The Viking Press; artist: Elmer Hader

 

Letting Go a Dream

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I began writing The Inlaid Table the last week of April, 2003 and completed it in early 2009 – the first time. It was my first adult novel, and it placed in the top 250 entries for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – ABNA – competition. Out of 5,000 entries I was thrilled to have done so well. Such heady achievement fortified me to continue to work on it, to seek early readers, and to query. My critique group provided support along with suggestions for improvement and sometimes sharp criticism.

Almost three months ago I suffered a serious injury to my right arm (it’s healing) and used the downtime to undertake an absolute final edit. Nothing could deter me. The final final version satisfied me. Until a few nights ago when I tossed through the early hours of a new day, anxious and battling with my conscience and my intellect, unable to sleep at all. I woke unrested and concluded I will no longer attempt to publish the book. Though I still love the characters and the story, I’ve decided this one will live on my computer and nowhere else. Sometimes you just have to let things go, and for this book, with literally thousands of hours devoted to researching, writing, and editing, it is out of publication contention.

It was a tough decision but one I had to make. The premise of the book is overdone and outdated. Over the last eight years, while I worked on Table and also wrote two other novels, both now complete, the ground for this story turned swampy with politics and emotions. There won’t be the readers I expected, and the book will generate controversy I never intended.

Yes, I cried. Yet other people face more vital, more dire situations than having spent so many years writing a book that will never get ink. I wiped those tears off my cheeks. It was not a complete failure though I probably should have sensed the impending implosion years earlier. I learned a lot from the experience, all the things one should expect from such an undertaking and a few things I never anticipated. The wisdom gained in any endeavor can be applied to trying to write, then concluding it isn’t the right manuscript, it’s not the dream to pursue.

Two of the best attributes of engaging in competitive sports are learning to win honorably and lose graciously. Accepting rules and standards allows games to be played on common ground. Dignity and confidence at trying new challenges are gains measured outside the score board. Persistence regales effort even in the face of failure. Cheering for individual excellence surpasses fawning over athletic super stars. Standing up after you’ve been thrown to the ground reminds you to be grateful you can stand at all.

In the same vein, I’ve grown as a person and as writer. I listen better, think more clearly, share fairly, try harder. I know the value of staying up late to work and getting up early to do the same. My ABNA moment gave me the confidence to go back and do a better job on something I’d thought was finished. I spent my 10,000 hours honing my craft, and my current writing exhibits more mastery than when I started writing Table in 2003.

My biggest regret is that I won’t get to publicly acknowledge the many people who helped me travel the path of writing the first book. Those folks gave me their very best effort with no more expectation than a thanks from me. So here it is: Thank you, dear family, friends, and believers. You made it possible for me to fail with dignity and to stand up again.

While I’ve given up on the dream of publishing The Inlaid Table, I have others to pursue, and I will. I remain determined to see my books to publication, whether via the cachet of the traditional print houses or the more likely, perhaps humbler, independent route.

There is value in letting go this dream. The next one is still viable.

 

 

 

Clip art courtesy: Google public domain mages, (girl with a bubble) Pixabay.com


 

F is for For Whom the Bell Tolls

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I read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway during the late 1960s when the Vietnam War raged. (The book was published in 1940.) To say I was very naïve would be close to truth. To say I was passionate would be just as close. Every morning the newspaper front page showed images still ingrained on my memory: A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the war. A small naked girl running down the road, her body burned by napalm.  A handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner being shot in the head by the South Vietnamese chief of police. A wounded soldier, bandaged and bloody, cradled by his buddy, also wounded. Every night the newsreels showed Vietnamese villagers fleeing in search of safety, cowering in rice paddies, tramping through streams, watching as their huts were torched and blazed. They showed American servicemen hiding in the jungle or marching along dirt roads. Or worse, coming home in coffins. Flag draped, somber in their geometric silence, stark against the airport concrete, one young soldier after another, each having fought on ground thousands of miles from home. From high school through college and the early years of my marriage, the Vietnam War took center stage.

How could anyone not value human life against this bloody panorama? I marched in protests large and small to declare my outrage at the injustice of the war. I gave up a semester of college to campaign for the Twenty-sixth Amendment to lower the voting age to 18, so that young men considered old enough to die for their country as soldiers could also vote. I painted my first serious portrait, of a young Vietnamese girl (I think her name was Nguyen, photographed by Larry Burrows for Life magazine, but I might remember incorrectly) kneeling in front of her hut and looking to the sky moments before her village was bombed. I met Robert Pratt, a young vet home from the war about a year, fell deeply in love, and married him.

Despite that background, I could not understand For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t Hemingway’s fault that I couldn’t align the story’s moral compass with my own. I think he was intentionally vague about which side was right and which wrong, but that posed a problem for me. I needed to see positions clearly demarcated. Even though we read it in a college class, the professor’s explanations and student discussions didn’t assure me of moral certitude. I was just too young and sheltered to comprehend a multi-dimensional world.

The book tells the story of a small group of guerilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War. They plan to blow up a bridge to foil Franco’s fascist army from advancing on the Spanish peasants on their way to conquering the country. They’re joined by American Robert Jordan who intends to carry out blowing the bridge even though the leader of the group argues against what he thinks will be a foolhardy action. Jordan also falls in love with one of the women in the group, and their lusty affair creates a compelling reason to stay alive despite his fatalistic attitude.

Nearly everyone else in the class defended the book on every count: the amount of sex, drinking, and vulgar dialogue; the criticism of Franco and of the guerillas; the unadorned, almost simplistic language of the book. For me, it was a murky view of the world when I was already struggling with the violence of Vietnam. Years later when I read the book a second time, I grasped its equivocal viewpoint as an asset to goad people into making thoughtful assessments of complex situations. But in college, the ambivalence left me befuddled. How was I supposed to think about a war where everyone was as bad as they were good? I was not mature enough to examine the world through a clear lens. I didn’t know how to challenge on any level but emotional context.

One thing that stood out for me with clarity was the passage written by John Donne from which Hemingway took the book’s title:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The metaphor of bells ringing at the death of each person echoed throughout the story. The idea that death was as near and prevalent as the ringing of church bells weighed on me even during my first, ambivalent reading of the book. With the then current Vietnam War played against the book’s images of the Spanish Civil War, I sensed even if I couldn’t accept Jordan’s fatalistic attitude about life and death. For Whom the Bell Tolls is not my favorite F book, nor is it my favorite Hemingway Book. (That would be The Old Man and the Sea.) But it had such a deep and profound impact on my life then and now that it’s the book I had to choose.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for F:

Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Ablom

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite F fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Charles Scribner’s Sons