Archive | Fiction

Old Longings and New Homes

Old longingsFor my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. The title seemed appropriate, as this is a friend I used to get lost with all the time. We’ve happened upon glaciers in Canada, explored the Mojave desert by moonlight, and wondered through Berkeley on mushrooms. We’re good at getting lost.

Normally, I’m not really into books that just kind of explore ideas without plot or purpose, but this one is so beautifully written that I made it all the way through, underlining several passages along the way.

In one section of the book, she talks about “strays and captives,” people who are far from home, with every intention of returning from where they’re from. She writes about the “stunning reversal” that often happens when, at some point, “they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” She goes on:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized that the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time…

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of stories and how to end them. So many stories are about people with old longings trying to find something or get somewhere, only to realize that what they really needed was right in front of them all along. It’s a satisfying ending.

The transformation of longing into recognition makes for good story because of the suffering that comes between the two. We try to get home, or go back, or find the love lost, but striving only brings suffering. When we let go and recognize that we are home, or that we have what we need, the suffering ends.

This is not true just for story either. It’s something to consider in our lives: the things we hang on to cause suffering. And maybe that’s why it rings so true in fiction.

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Celebrate Milestones

celebrate milestonesWriting a novel takes a long time. As my teacher Mark Sarvas told me once, you have to celebrate milestones along the way, because if you wait to celebrate just one final step (say, publication) you have to wait a long, long time.

So I am very happy to announce that I have finished (yet another) draft of my novel. Yay!

In truth, I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. I’ve been here before. Officially, I think this is the seventh draft I’ve finished, but why bother taking classes if you aren’t going to listen to the advice that gets doled out? Tonight, we celebrate.

Another piece of oft-repeated Sarvas advice is to put your draft in a drawer and leave it there for a while so you can come back to it with a fresh eye for rewrites. I plan to follow that bit of advice as well, but not just yet. I have a few things I want to do before I put it aside. First, I am considering a new opening scene that needs to be written. Second, I want to go through, scene for scene and just make sure that I’m hitting the beats I intended to. Then, once I’m satisfied that it is actually a solid new draft, I will put it in a drawer.

I’m thinking I’ll leave it there all summer. I’m going to take the opportunity to work on my next novel. If you’ve been following along for oh, I don’t know, years, you know I hit a wall with novel number 1 a while back and took a break to outline novel number 2 – a story that’s been gaining steam in my head since way back before I was even a writer. It’s the story that made me want to be a writer. I am very excited to get back to working on it.

Doughnut anyone?

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Goodbye UCLA

UCLA extension writing groupThis evening is my last UCLA Extension class for the foreseeable future. Over the past six months, I’ve taken two extension courses, Novel IV and Novel V, with Mark Sarvas, and they have both been great classes.

I have mixed feelings about being done. Sarvas is offering a revisions class over the summer, but I didn’t sign up. I would have to miss more than a couple sessions, due to travel for weddings and whatnot, and more than that, I just felt I needed a break.

Homework takes up a lot of time, and making it across town to campus once a week takes commitment. With the kids off school, my schedule isn’t going to get any easier. My biggest challenge over the next three months is going to be finding time to write at all, let alone read and give feedback on the writing of others.

Still, these UCLA Extension classes have been a real touchstone for me. It’s been good to have a group of writers to get together with once a week. As you know, my writing group isn’t what it used to be (more on that soon, as promised), and landing in a new town has left me without an immediate group of creative types to share ideas with.

I think that’s where I need to focus my efforts. I am coming up on the end of a new draft of my novel, and I want to find a group of writers on the east side (preferably in La Canada) to work with. It might be time to bite the bullet and try meetup.com. I suppose it couldn’t hurt.

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My Running Coach and Learning to Run All Over Again

running coachI met with Steve, the running coach, on Friday. You wouldn’t think that two hours spent learning to do something that you already do on a regular basis could fly by, but they did.

Basically, I am learning to run all over again. The method of running that Steve the running coach teaches is called Chi Running. It’s based in the principals of T’ai Chi, which I’ve actually never done, but the way Steve explained it, it teaches you to run while being mindful of your center of balance.

You lean forward, so that your center of gravity falls right over where your feet land. Then you focus on landing on your whole foot, and kicking back. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it actually takes a ton of concentration to maintain. Before we met Steve told me: “you’ll start a white belt and finish the session as a white belt.” He was right.

The good news is I’m running again and my knees are not screaming at me. The bad news, I feel like I’m back at square one. This new form uses different muscles, so all that endurance I built up for the half marathon isn’t helping me much. I’m going to have to bust my ass to get my distance back before the full marathon in August.

The other thing that has given me pause is the metronome. The way you hold your body when running like this lends itself to lots of small steps, and it is taught with a metronome. Literally. I now run with a metronome clicking in my ear. I’m at 170 steps per minute and will work up to 180 by race day.

While this helps me keep my pace up, it does not allow me to listen to my audio books while I run, which frankly might be a deal breaker. I love, love, love listening to stories as I run.

So I’m going to do another week with the metronome, to get a feel for it, and then I’m going to switch back to my books. Hopefully I can keep a focus on my form, while still listening to a story. If not, I will be forced to seriously reassess.

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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Reverse Engineering a Novel

When I started my novel, my thesis advisor suggested I check out a book called Winter’s Bone. This was back before it was a movie with the impeccable Jennifer Lawrence staring as the main character, Ree. (Yes, I’ve been working on this novel for a long time, shut up.)

It is a stunning book, stark and bleak with a young woman at the center who somehow brings a warm spot to the prose and makes you turn page after page. I have gone back to it many times to see how the writer, Daniel Woodrell, handled certain pivotal moments, but this weekend I began re-reading it, start to finish, to look at how it works as a whole. It’s pretty fucking amazing.

Chapter 1 is five pages. It introduces all the characters and paints the setting. By the end of page 14, the Sheriff has come to tell her that her dad put the family home up as collateral to post bail and if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will lose the house. “I’ll find him,” she says.

Then we’re off. It’s only 193 pages. It doesn’t need any more. I’m about half way through, marking up the margins with notes and thinking about story structure.

My story is different, of course, but there are some similarities, and it’s interesting to think about how I might use what I’m learning from Woodrell’s minor masterpiece to help shape my own attempt at art.

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Feedback on my New Opening

Last week I got feedback from my class on my new opening pages.

When I finished the last draft of my story, I asked a former teacher of mine, Rita Williams, to give it a read. Her biggest note was that she felt I came into the story too late. In her opinion, the first 100 pages of the story were missing.

There was something that rang true in her feedback, and the more I considered it, the more I decided she was right.

Of course, you can’t just add 100 pages to the beginning of the story and not expect things to shift. So in addition to writing those pages, I am also doing the work of re-writing the rest of it, so that the end matches the beginning.

For this UCLA extension class that I’m taking, I submitted the (new) first twenty pages of my novel for critique. I was a little nervous, as I usually don’t show anyone new pages except for my writing group or my husband. But I got some great feedback.

In general, everyone was very encouraging. It’s a great start, they said. Their biggest note was that I could slow down a little bit. Classic first-timer mistake to try and get too much information in the first twenty pages.

I’ve found it very encouraging, and I’ve been writing up a storm this past week.

On a totally separate note, the moving supplies arrived this morning. We’re trying this service called EcoFastPacks. They deliver a whole pile of plastic bins and other packing materials. We pack and move, and when we’re done with them, the company comes and picks them up again.

I priced it out and it is about $30 more than buying cardboard boxes, but we’re saving trees, and I’d pay that just to not have to break down and deal with all the boxes when we’re done.

Here’s what they look like, freshly delivered:

boxes

I will admit that it made my heart hurt a little to realize it’s actually happening. I take a lot of comfort in my home. To start boxing it up, and to know that the next couple months will have me unsettled until I find a new place for everything in the new house, well, it brings up some anxiety.

But it’s happening. And I am excited for the new home. I just hope I can get through the next few months with a bit of grace.

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Reading as a Parent

Girl Reading

My girl loves to read. Imagine my pride. I find her reading in bed late at night. I find her reading on the playground when I pick her up at school. She actually won a reading trophy at the beginning of the school year for reading half a million words over the summer, and she wasn’t even trying.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop bragging and get to the point. While I love how much she reads, I sometimes worry about what she reads.

Up until now she was into age appropriate books (see the cover the Goddess Girls series in the photo above – totally made for a third grader) and really stupidly popular books like Harry Potter. I never read past the first Harry Potter, but I saw the movies and talked with friends who read it and was comfortable that I knew what kind of story she was getting.

I always told myself that I would stay ahead of her reading. That is, I always figured I would read books before her to make sure that they were appropriate, but she just reads so much, I can’t keep up. Or, I guess I could, but then I wouldn’t have time to read the books I want to read (see my bookshelf in the column on the right there and you’ll get why our tastes don’t completely align just yet, oh, and while you’re at it, look me up on Goodreads, we can be buddies).

Anyhow, this all came to a head last night when my daughter decided to pick the first book in a 4-book series titled Uglies. It’s for grades 7 and up. She’s in third.

Here’s a snippet from the Amazon page:

Playing on every teen’s passionate desire to look as good as everybody else, Scott Westerfeld projects a future world in which a compulsory operation at sixteen wipes out physical differences and makes everyone pretty by conforming to an ideal standard of beauty. The “New Pretties” are then free to play and party, while the younger “Uglies” look on enviously and spend the time before their own transformations in plotting mischievous tricks against their elders.

Clearly, it’s about image. I assume it has a message about image being only skin deep, and doing a bit of homework, I got hints of Hunger Games in that it sounds like a rebellion is coming, but the theme definitely taps into some of my fears about raising a girl in Los Angeles, an insanely image-conscious place.

So I dropped what I was reading to read ahead of her. I got through about sixty pages last night. It’s a good read. I told her she could start it today after school, so I’m going to try to get a little more ahead of her, and then keep reading after she’s asleep, but this whole staying-ahead-of-her thing is proving to be so much more challenging than I thought it would be.

Does anyone else have this problem? I want to encourage her to read, and I’m not afraid of adult topics, I just don’t want her in over her head without having anyone to talk to about what she’s reading. Maybe there are book clubs she could join?

If anyone has any thoughts on this one, I would sure appreciate some input.

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