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Walking Away with Small Caps

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One sign of how much Sir Terry Pratchett's work affected this reader/writer that a day after his passing, I still tear up when I read others' tributes. His death has affected me more than that of any other writer I have admired--there's a sense of tremendous loss.

I think it's because Terry Pratchett offered something rare. Neil Gaiman gets at it in his wonderful revelation "Terry Pratchett Isn't Jolly. He's Angry." Reading his novels, particularly once Discworld was firmly established, that is easy to see. Carpe Jugulum, Monstrous Regiment, Thud, and Snuff are filled with the same sort of anger-inspired satire as Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal."

In an age when anger overtly fuels politics, religion, and in far too many cases, social media, destroying trust and severing ties that should connect, Terry Pratchett offered the sort of laughter that comes from recognition, laughter that makes sometimes bitter truth much easier to swallow. He reminded us that human beings are strange and complex creatures, simultaneously marvels and dupes, fearful and brave, petty and honorable. What distinguished his heroes from his villains was that his heroes were capable of rising above their less admirable impulses and doing what needed to be done, even as they recognized the cost.

His Death, who always spoke in small caps, claimed him. He might have been ready; we were not. We needed that voice. We still do.

Word for 2015 - Persevere

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2014 was a year of change, as I went from being a graduate student receiving monthly feedback from a faculty advisor on my writing, to being a graduate who didn't need to share material until she was ready.

That had advantages and disadvantages. While I completed revisions on one novel that meant it was ready to submit--and is being submitted--I struggled when it came to the more major overhaul my current project, which was my creative thesis, needed. When I set it aside in late November because of end-of-the-semester grading, I was feeling frustrated, spent, and downright discouraged.

I knew I wouldn't be able to get back to it until after finals, and I was fine with that, but I also knew I needed to feel like I was still writing, so I gave myself permission to play with a new project (to be known here as nameless for the nonce or NFN, first mentioned here), and that's what I did. On days I rode the bus, I'd jot ideas. When I had an hour at home, I'd pull out my notebook and do more concrete digging and note-taking. With no pressure, it was fun, and a shape--characters, conflict, plot elements--are slowly emerging.

Somewhere along the way, the noodling turned into an eagerness to get back to the revisions. Yesterday I refreshed my memory with a reading of the last 60ish pages and this morning I sat down and got to work. A few words out, a new scene begun. It's a start. Tomorrow I'll try to do a little more, athough it is a holiday and I may not, but Friday I will begin work in earnest, and I will continue until it is ready.

Days I don't have time to work on it--when I leave home at 7 and don't return until 6--I'll still play with NFN.

Most of all, in 2015, I will persevere. I will continue to submit until I get to yes. I will make this project beta-reader ready and will continue to revise until it is ready for the pros. I will bring NFN to a draft.

I will keep on writing, because that is what writers do, and I will submit, because that is what potential authors do.

It's the only way.

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Top Ten Books of 2014

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I read 98 books in 2014. This does not include books I started but abandoned. (That would bump the total up to about 110.) The list also doesn't include picture books like Shaun Tan's Rules of Summer or Peter Brown's Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, both of which I really enjoyed.

I'm also not including titles I read as ARCS for books that won't be out until 2015, but let me say that Jo Knowles' Read Between the Lines and Andrew Smith's Alex Crow are books to be on the lookout for.

My top ten books are all titles that will stay with me long after this year is through. (All cover images via Barnes & Noble.com)

10. Stories of My Life by Katherine Paterson. Not a memoir, the author insists, but what the title suggests. This is one of my top ten because of the individual stories, like the one of her friendship with Eugene, that stay with you long after you've read the book.


9. More Than This by Patrick Ness. Time-ish travel, mystery, grief, robots, new alliances--this novel works on so many levels. Worth reading and re-reading.




8. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. Movies, mystery, romance, and LGBTQ in a lush setting--this novel had so much going for it. A beautifully told story of figuring out who the right one is. The movie industry may not be theater, but it's close.



7. The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. I'm a sucker for caper flicks, from The Sting to Ocean's 11, 12 and 13, and this novel pulls out all the stops in a most-satisfying middle-grade spin on the classics. Best of all, the characters are distinctive and entertaining. I hope they'll be back for another go.



6. Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. This is not the only middle-grade novel on this list that involves theater. It is the only one that involves goblins in a slightly mysterious world that mixes magic with steampunk. The writing is as strong as the characters--I can see why this won a National Book Award back in 2012. It's companion, Goulish Song, is in my TBR pile.



5. OCD Love Story by Cory Ann Haydu. This is not one of those novels that's all about learning to lead a "normal" life in spite of [Name of Problem]. It's about figuring out how to manage--life, relationships, roads, the problem (OCD). Everything is interconnected. Bea meets Beck in a support group for teens with OCD, and they get interested in each other, but in order to be together, they have to navigate both their own disorder and the other person's. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear how varied OCD can be.



4. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Alternating points of view, two time periods, twins who were once close, but are now estranged. And, like life, it gets a lot more complicated. However, unlike life, all the threads come together for a very satisfying conclusion that involves art, and several generations of conflicted relationships.



3. Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King. Nobody nails the push-pull of being a teen like King. In this case, in a novel that considers what it means to be a woman, whether to be your own woman or the woman society wants you to be, all through the lens of two central relationships--Glory's friendship with next-door neighbor Ellie and Glory's quest to understand her mother, who committed suicide when Glory was four. There's so much to love here, so much to return to again and again.



2. Better Nate Than Ever and its companion, Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle. Add musical theater and coming out to standard middle-grade themes like changing friendships and coming into your own, mix with a voice that wobbles between hope and despair, confidence and self-doubt without ever losing its exuberance. And ok, my love for this book might be a little bit colored by my own love for musical theater and by the fact I'm now familiar enough with Queens to know the details are right. But even without that, Nate would still have stolen my heart.



1. All the Truth That's In Me. Julie Berry. This YA novel took my breath away. I both wanted to see how it came out and didn't want it to end because I didn't want to leave its world, which was truly unique. Speculative fiction with overtones of Puritan New England and a young woman who is both brave and courageous, both for her community and herself.

Why High School is Like Reading

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I'm exploring a new project, which shall remain nameless for the nonce (nickname--NFN). In the process, it seemed advisable to explore a subject area I remember taking in high school. Although remember might be the wrong verb.

I can describe the space--a small science lab with the requisite black-topped benches, bunsen burner connections, cabinets of equipment, and tall stools. I can describe the teacher--tweed jacket, balding with a longish fringe of what was once likely ginger hair, and a trimmed beard that matched--the closest thing to professorial in the school. I can name a few of the students--Carolyn, Val, Mark, Paul.... I can describe one experiment, but only, I suspect, because it was a repeat of an experiment we had done in 8th grade.

And that's the thing.

I remember nothing about what we learned. Okay, so maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But if I do recall something, it is only the vaguest of vague general principles.

I've long known that I didn't really learn much in high school, despite the grades I received--grades that allowed me to attend an excellent college. (In my case, grades were definitely no indicators of learning.) At one point, I'm sure I thought it was because I wasn't taught very well. It was, after all, the '70s, and rural Vermont.

But today, digging around a science curriculum and finding little that was familiar, I also realized why. I was so caught up in my own misery--isolated, alone, and, though I didn't recognize it at the time, angry--that I didn't have the mental space for real learning. English and music were the classes I most enjoyed, because they allowed me escape. (Not that I learned that much about music as a system, alas.)

This realization lead to another: The triad of teacher-curriculum-student bears more than a passing resemblance to the triad of author-book/story-reader. Just as the teacher can't guarantee student learning, an author can't guarantee reader enjoyment. Not every class is for every student, not every book is for every reader. All we can do is have faith that our work will connect with some reader, somewhere, as long as we use all our craft to tell the best story we know.

David Mamet on Why Action is Important

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One thing I discovered during my time at VCFA: Writers can learn a great deal from theater and movie people. Much of the time, it's movie people (McKee, Truby), but Sandra Nickel's graduate lecture helped me think about how to create non-cliche gestures for my characters, and theater greats like Stella Adler can help us create characters from the inside.

David Mamet doesn't hold with the Stanislavsky method for actors, so he's not much help on the character end of things. However, what he has to say about action in his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (New York: Pantheon, 1997) struck me as crucial:

  1. "Action has got to be simple. If it's not simple, it can't be accomplished."

  2. Action has to have an objective. "We all know what it means to truly have an objective. To get him or her into bed, to get the job, to get out of mowing the lawn, to borrow the family car. We know what we want, and therefore, we know whether we're getting closer to it or not, and we alter our plans accordingly. This is what makes a person with an objective alive: they have to take their attention off themselves and put it on the person they want something from." ( p. 73-74, underlining added.)

It's so easy when we write fiction, which does have the gift of being able to share the interior life of a character in a way that theater and movies can't, to get lost in that interior life (especially if we are character-driven writers). But we have to remember, these characters have desires, and those desires will only be accomplished if they do something, which largely means coming up with a plan to get something from someone else, whether that something is a cheese sandwich or love.

Mamet also offers writers of fiction useful advice when he tells actors that the best way to think about a scene is as a unit containing one simple action. "Each scene has its own task" (76)

Thank you, David Mamet.

11/11/1918

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GrampaQuimbyinUniform

I know where my grandfather was, 96 years ago today.

It seems so strange to be able to say that, but it's true.

On November 11, 1918, at 11:11 a.m., James M. Quimby was in Paris. I know this because of the one story I ever heard him tell about World War I. It seems that in the celebration when that hour arrived, "'some little ma'mselle' snatched my cap." (The photo shows why she might have--he was a good-looking guy.)

"What happened?"

"Oh, I got my cap back."

That was a day of joy and celebration, although I imagine the days before had been something altogether the opposite. Grampa served as a member of the Royal Engineers (why he was with a British unit I never knew). He may not have been in those horrible trenches, but I'm sure he saw his share of destruction.

This morning, at 11:11 a.m. EST, I stood outside, in warm sunshine, in the hills he loved so well. I heard the farm machinery and a circular saw. I heard birds. And I thought how silence must have felt after years of artillery and rifle-fire, in that moment before bells began to ring.

The British call this Remembrance Day, to remember a generation lost. This year, in particular, I'm calling it that, as well. It seems fitting, one hundred years on.

That was the "The War to End All Wars," but clearly it was not. This year, I also remember my uncle, James M. Quimby, Jr., who served this country in World War II, and I honor my father, Richard Malcom Quimby, who is still very much with us, at 88. They did their duty and returned home to raise families and live out their lives in peace. Thanks, also, to all those who continue to make the peace of this place possible.
hooded me
Galway Kinnell died yesterday at 87. He was old enough to be my father (in fact, my father is a year older), but that's not why I'll miss him.

I'll miss him because he was the first writer who made me think that my landscape might offer the stuff from which writing--poetry, stories, what have you--might be drawn.

It was the spring of 1977 or 1978 and I was taking a course in "Contemporary" Poetry. We weren't writing it, but we were reading, everything from Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and W. B. Kinsella to Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found many voices I still hear to this day, some of them literally--"Going from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box" comes to mind often as I grocery shop--and I wrote the usual papers that took poems apart to see how they had been put together. And then Bob Gillespie, our long-haired, free-spirited instructor, offered us the option of reading one of half a dozen poetry volumes published by a single author in the last few years for our final paper. I have no memory of what the other choices were, but I chose "The Book of Nightmares" based on its title and medievalish cover, because I was the dark and angsty type before angsty before angsty was a word.

It wasn't quite what I expected, but it spoke to me--not the poems of married life, or even sex, because that wasn't who I was then (see dark and angsty), but the swamps and bogs, the hemlocks and tamaracks, the bear. I didn't know who this poet was, but he used images I knew, he talked of a landscape similar to the one I knew in ways I could understand, without always turning it into metaphor the way Frost had.

All semester long, no matter how I struggled to improve my grade, every essay received a B+/A-. I no longer remember what the topic was, but the essay I wrote on that book--in the midst of struggling to understand a lost friendship (dark and angsty, remember)--finally tipped the balance to pure A-. I remember the pleasure--and surprise--of that grade. But even more, I remember, not long after that, running across some resource with information about contemporary poets. On a whim, I looked up Galway Kinnell's name. That's how I discovered that he lived at least part of the year less than 50 miles from where I grew up. No wonder his imagery was familar.

So Galway Kinnell became one of those poets I turned to when I needed poetry.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear him in person, when he gave a reading in Glover, Vermont, and I had the pleasure of taking my daughter, at that time almost the same age I was when I first discovered his work. It was a marvelous evening, in a packed room in one of the older, wood-paneled public spaces that can be found in so many Vermont towns. And I came to appreciate him as a poet even more, for along with poems like "The Bear" and one of the "Fergus" poems that speak to all of us, he also shared a poem best appreciated--perhaps only appreciated--by those who have made the drive from one part of the remote Northeast Kingdom to another. His poem plays with a familar description of a route that requires inclusion of most of the prepositions, but elevates it, too, so that the result is not doggerel, or light verse, but something that left listeners both laughing and moved.

Galway Kinnell brought poetry home to me, and for that, I will miss him.

777 Challenge Accepted

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I've been tagged by Jenn Bishop in the 777 Challenge. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do the same: Post the first full seven lines of the seventh page of your work in progress, starting seven lines down.

My work-in-progress is a contemporary YA currently called More Than a Stage, the story of Broadway-babe wannabe Heidi's summer of drama on and off the stage, as she wrestles with a long-distance girlfriend, a crush on one of her fellow members of the company, and the chance that she just might have caught her big break.

"Steven may be in a meeting or on the phone with a potential donor. Even if he isn’t, when the door is closed, we do not interrupt him. Is that clear?”
What is this, Beauty and the Beast?
Like Belle, (even though I’m totally wrong for the part), I nod.
Gina waves the pink message pad. “Have you used these before?”
“I spent the last three summers working in my mother’s office,” I remind her. “Maybe I forgot to mention it in my interview?”

Review: Read Between the Lines

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Jo Knowles next book, Read Between the Lines, comes out officially in March, but I'm lucky enough to take part in her ARC tour, and lucky to get to read this glimpse into the complicated thing that is life for small-town teens.

From the moment we meet Nate, whose broken middle finger not only gets him out of much-hated gym class but also allows him to flip off all the bullies in his life, raised middle fingers unify characters filled with all the insecurities, anger, and misunderstandings, and doubts so typical of teen life. One of this novel's great beauties is that the many different perspectives allow us to view one relationship--say the cheerleader who dates the closeted basketball star--from multiple perspectives. The reader, unlike the character, is able to understand how tricky and difficult a situation is for all involved.

Back when I was a German major, I specialized in Austrian literature, and one of the works that lingers in memory is Reigen, a play by Arthur Schnitzler that follows a series of interconnected sexual relationships through the social classes. (The play is also known as La ronde; a film based on the concept, 360, appeared in 2012). I found myself thinking of that play again as I read Jo's novel, but the more I thought, the more I realized the comparison was inadequate. While the play traces a circle, the novel gives that circle three dimensions--it traces a complete, complex world.

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Reading Raves

Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)

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