Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Words of Wisdom

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, just posted this on her Facebook page.  It embodies so much about how I feel about writing.  Brilliantly and beautifully stated:

So much of writing is done when you're not writing. It's a hard thing to explain to someone who isn't a writer. But today, for example, when I was walking the dog, I imagined a scene I'll write later. It's January, 1831, and a carriage is pulling away from a country house in the heart of France. A light snow is falling. The woman inside the carriage stares resolutely straight ahead and her husband stands in the circular driveway, his hands at his side, watching her go. 

Doing the dishes, I envision a mole at the corner of someone's mouth, the angle of a kitchen chair at a table, the way the light falls on a bowl of apples. When I'm supposed to be listening to someone in real life, an imaginary conversation often tangles itself in with what they're telling me. I am, as a result, kind of a terrible listener. (But I will always give my guest the bigger piece of pie.)

Whenever I do interviews-- as I did yesterday in advance of the Santa Barbara Writers' conference--and someone asks about my writing process, I find it difficult to answer. It's not a process; it's how you are. I truly do believe that writers are born, not made. If you're a writer, you're a person with a habit of noticing, of being totally captivated by events as small as the sideways drift of falling leaves, by the guy who tosses pizza dough up into the air, by the woman in a kerchief waiting for a bus. You have a need to translate what moves you or angers you or inspires you or mystifies you, into words. You use what you write to explain the world to yourself. Writing happens at the keyboard or on the page, yes. So often, though, it also happens when you're pulling weeds or watching the slow flap of a new butterfly's wings or tossing cheese into your grocery cart or taking a shower. If you're a writer, you sort of never stop working. You always have your invisible basket on your arm, gathering, gathering gathering....

A Different Angle

I was watching an interview recently with Molly Ringwald (of "Sixteen Candles" fame).  She's all grown up now, and was talking about her various interests:  acting, singing, motherhood.

The interviewer asked if she ever watched her own movies, and she said no, she didn't.  She said that making a movie, being in a movie, was a totally different experience than watching it.  And that other people who adore "Sixteen Candles" enjoy it in a totally different way than she did, because she was in it.  She helped to create it.

And it just felt familiar to me, this sensation of being "inside" a creative work, being involved in the nuts-and-bolts process of it, and so, not being able to fully enjoy it the way others do.  Because, as writers, we create this world, these characters.  And though it's an enjoyable process, certainly, it's also a unique one.  Because I'll never be able to read my own books the way other readers will.  I will always have a different experience because I'm so close to that material.  I'll never be able to read my own scenes without wanting to tweak them, or doubting some story decisions I'd made, or remembering the initial seed of inspiration that helped to create them. I don't come to the page fresh, empty-handed, empty-minded.  I come to it with a certain amount of baggage.

It's not a bad thing, of course.  But sometimes, I do wish I could look at my own books as just "a reader."  Not quite so attached, so invested in every word.  That I could enjoy them from that other angle, the reader's angle.  Just to see what it would feel like.

Monday, April 22, 2013

An Author's Legacy Lives On

Today, a beloved children's author passed away -- E.L. Konigsburg.  She wrote, among other works, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

When I was a kid in the 70's, this was easily one of my favorite Top Three books.  I remember reading it over and over again.  I never tired of it.  Maybe it was something about the idea of kids striking out on their own, becoming independent for a brief time, hiding out, relying on each other, and on their own skills.  Well, that, plus the cool setting of an enormous museum where they'd camp out each night.  For this kid from a small Texas town, it was pretty amazing, reading about the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and imagining myself there.

I always think it's particularly sad when an author passes away, because the pen is forever silenced.  But the best thing is--their works become immortal.  In fact, ironically, I bought my nephew a copy of Frankweiler this past Christmas.

As for me, I have no doubt Ms. Konigsburg's book had an enormous impact on my love of the written word -- both as a reader and, later, as a writer. 


Monday, April 15, 2013

Growing in the Wrong Direction

When teaching fiction, I've always told my students that their characters should ultimately "grow, change," move from point A to point Z throughout the length of a piece.  Otherwise, what's the piece for?  What's the point?

It's tricky, though -- in order to stay realistic, it probably isn't good if characters change too drastically, or if their core belief systems or personalities change.  Because in real life, that rarely happens.  So, the growth, even if it's dramatic, should be realistic, should be warranted. 

Tonight, after watching the latest "Mad Men" episode, it struck me.  By "growing" or "changing," we assume that means in a positive direction.  That the characters actually learn something, make improvements in their lives.

But what if they grow in the wrong direction?  What if they continue to fail, continue not to learn from their mistakes?  Isn't that real life, too? 

Don Draper is terribly flawed.  On the outside, he's polished, dashing, handsome, smooth.  But on the inside, he's an absolute mess.  He's insecure and unsure.  He feels threatened and frightened and unworthy.  And he's constantly haunted by decisions he's made in the past, as well as decisions he hasn't made.  The regret is palpable.

But after several seasons of Mad Men, those flaws are pretty much the same flaws--if not even stronger than in Season 1.  He keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.  He hasn't learned a thing.  The only difference I see is a stronger conscience, a stronger awareness of his flaws.  But that awareness still hasn't helped him overcome them. 

It's almost like he's growing in the wrong direction.  As though he's grown more toward his flaws and insecurities rather than away from them.   And--I think that's okay.  I think that's pretty realistic for some people.  There are people who never learn.  They never do crawl out of the self-made holes they've been digging.

So, maybe, as long as our characters aren't standing completely still,  it doesn't really matter which way they grow.  As long as they do. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Advice from a Master

I'm finishing up Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers this week (in my opinion, it's probably THE best example of what women's fiction is:  descriptive, generational, dramatic, romantic, and incredibly well-written on every single page).  She is just a master storyteller/writer.

Well, her son, Robin Pilcher, is an accomplished novelist of....women's fiction!  I found his blog today and was interested in this entry where he mentioned his mother.  Fascinating, to peek inside the mind of a writer that I so admire.  And incredible, the thought of Robin having "access" to that mind for his own work!  Lucky man!

December 4th, 2012

I am a 62-year old writer and consider myself extremely lucky to have a mother who is still alive, let alone one who is a well-known authoress AND completely in touch with everything. My wife, Kirsty, is in France right now, helping to look after our new grandson, wee Dougie, and, myself being a pegleg, I am finding being on crutches doesn’t fit well with leading an independent life. So yesterday, Ros, who is in her late-80’s, drove down from the village to give me my lunch.

Now, I’ve been having a bit of a problem finding one of the ‘voices’ in my new book. It’s that of Violet, a 40-year old woman, who is keeping a diary in 1940, and my agent, Jenny Brown, had said of her that her ‘narrative was rather stilted and the pace too slow.’ I understood exactly what she meant but came up against a brick wall in trying to change it. So, over lunch yesterday, I gave Ros a section of the diary to read and asked her opinion.

Ros, at first, said nothing about it and then left the house to take her dogs for a walk, and I thought to myself, “Well, that was a good idea, wasn’t it?” Three quarters of an hour later, she came back, sat down in my office and said, “Sorry, I needed time to think about it. What you have to do is imagine that she’s writing a letter to a friend. That’s the way to write her diary. It’ll make it so much more personable, and it’ll bring out her character.”

Well, that was all that I needed. Ros had hit the nail on the head. Now I am finding it a joy, rather than a drudge, to re-work Violet’s diary entry.

It was the first time since writing my first book that I have asked Ros’s advice. Maybe I should take greater advantage of her living so close and do it more often…

Source here

Friday, April 5, 2013

In Defense of "Cozy" Fiction

I like to read quotes and advice from other writers.  I enjoy knowing about their work habits, thought processes, beliefs about writing in general.

But I'm seeing a lot of quotes lately, regarding "raw" fiction.  Some writers are saying that if you're not writing something that scares you (and the reader), challenges your own beliefs, or forces you totally outside your comfort zone, then you're not writing true.

Allow me to disagree for a moment.

Sure, I do think there's a place in fiction for a raw quality, for naked truth, for making readers uncomfortable in order to challenge them.  And there are plenty of readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

But sometimes, reading needs to be an escape from the grittiness of real life.  Sometimes, I think, readers want to be drawn into a lovely world.  One with light and beauty and friendships and romance and comfort.  Not to say that the story isn't dramatic, or the characters aren't flawed and interesting.  They definitely should be.  But I think there can still be "truth" in fiction without making the reader squirm with discomfort. 

By writing "cozy" women's fiction, I feel I can provide readers with an escape from their own realities. I can give them a world they can't otherwise reach -- one where things work out, relationships triumph through troubles, characters grow and learn and experience truths.  And yes, where there are happy endings.  And speaking as a reader, I enjoy reading those books (I'm currently reading Rosamunde Pilcher's Shell Seekers for the third time -- a perfect example of "cozy" women's fiction).

So, to those writers who think that the only "real" writing has to be raw and dirty and naked (sometimes literally!) and gritty?  I say phooey on that.  Cozy fiction can still be valuable.  It can still have depth and truth, while providing light and comfort in a dark world.

And I don't see anything wrong with that.  ;-)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I just got out of jury duty -- was thankfully NOT chosen to sit on the panel, whew.  But, it took a few hours before I was let go from that damp, rickety, old building with the sickly florescent lights.  Plus, I had to walk through two blocks of cold, stormy weather outside to get there.

But something magical happened when I got inside the court house and settled in.  I opened up a book.  Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, a book I've read twice before, at least.  When I opened to the chapter I'd left off the night before, I stepped foot into a new place.  A warm, cozy world in Cornwall, the coast of England.  With sandy beaches and pristine skies and warm winds.  And people having picnics and sharing memories and laughter.  I was there.  I wasn't in a musty court room, waiting to hear my fate, but across the globe, on another continent, in another time.

Ever since I was a child, I've been attracted to the idea of books -- the places they can take me, the things they can tell me.  And I'm so glad that, even as an adult, that magic never fades.  That I can still take a book with me anywhere I go, and be transported.  Escape into another world.  It's also why I love to write.  I get to create those places, those characters.  Immerse myself into a different place or time.  There's no thrill quite like it.

I believe it was Stephen King who called books a sort of "uniquely portable magic."  I think he's entirely correct.