High Praise from the Other Side

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

“I don’t usually like stories like this, but I really enjoyed reading yours.”

What’s the best thing someone has ever said about your writing? That’s this month’s question from the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a collection of bloggers whose topic is, at least sometimes, the writing life. Support and commiseration from other writers has been so helpful during these first years of my writing “career”—nothing published yet, but I am working on it.

My face-to-face critique group meets twice a month, an ever-revolving batch of local writers with a few core members, of which I’m one. We’ve had submissions of historical fiction, memoir, vampire romance, literary short stories, mortal romance, blog entries, folk tales, military fiction, speculative fiction, fiction for children, and poetry, but the greatest number of writers in the group are working on science fiction and/or fantasy. And then there’s me, with my contemporary women’s fiction and cozy mysteries. No explosions, no aliens, no vampires, and only a little sex.

It’s a valuable exercise for us all to look carefully at evolving stories in genres we’d never pick up off the book shelf. In general, romance novels send me into a diabetic coma. Anything that smacks of post-apocalyptic leaves me cold—I mean, we all face enough tragedy and hardship in real life; why wallow in it? I don’t find vampires at all sexy. Descriptions of military weaponry make me snooze. Fantasy can be so predictable: flying dragons, magic crystals, some chica finds out she’s the hereditary princess and must lead her people in an epic battle against Snog the Despicable… And don’t get me started on YA. After more than a quarter century of teaching teenagers, I don’t want to read about some kid coming of age in predictable ways, whether it’s on Planet Zoltron or in fourteenth-century France. And, other than the occasional female writer around my age, no group member would reach for a lighthearted tale of a middle-aged woman reinventing herself after her kids finally leave the nest.

And yet, good storytelling is good storytelling. My writing is definitely richer from having plunged into all these other genres. I’ve really enjoyed watching these tales of talking animals, mysterious space ships, time travel, epic battles, psychotic breaks, and teenage family drama coalesce into entertaining, moving stories. And when one of the group members tells me that he enjoys my writing despite a lack of interest in the subject matter, I know that I’ve hit the mark. So here’s to stretching ourselves as writers by sharing and critiquing across genres. We have so much to teach each other.

Book Review: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, by Susan Jane Gilman

Ice Cream Queen

What a delight! Give yourself time to savor this bittersweet, funny, snarky immigrant tale, all 501 pages. We meet Lillian Dunkle, née Malka Treynovsky, as her family prepares to flee pogrom-afflicted Russia in 1913. Crippled by a traffic accident, abandoned by her shyster father and her crazy mother, little Malka is taken in by an Italian family in the ice cream trade, and ice cream becomes her guiding star. Sounds schmaltzy? Not at all; this is some of the finest historical writing I’ve read. Feisty, funny, snarky Malka/Lillian is driven by yearning for family, chisel-sharp ambition, and a wounded heart.  We follow her from her New York Jewish ghetto to fortune and fame as the Ice Cream Queen of America and beyond, into her feisty but very complicated old age. A mistress of historical fiction, Gilman plops us right down beside Lillian to experience most of the twentieth century though her eyes, and what a ride it is! Lillian is, at times, not a very nice person, but I still rooted for her as she went after those who’d wronged her along the way. As a bonus, I also leaned quite the arsenal of Yiddish expressions. Such naches I had from this book!

A Few of My Favorite Things: Books on Writing

Book Quote

As part of the promotion process for her newly released book DIY MFA, Gabrielle Pereira has given her “Street Team” of advance reviewers several interesting writing prompts. (Scroll down to see my review of her book and a link to her website.) This week’s question: What are your essentials? What are your go-to “read like a writer” resources?

In her book, Pereira reminds us of the importance of reading widely in the genre we write as well as outside our own genre(s). She calls it “reading like a revolutionary,” but most literature teachers just call it critical reading, which means noticing the effect an author achieves and examining how she achieves that effect. For example: “Wow, this scene really builds suspense! How did she do that? Aha—she used dramatic irony by showing us the vampire lurking in the shadows. Giving the protagonist too much coffee and a tendency to jump at harmless sounds also helps. And look at those short, choppy sentences. Cool.”

The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents falls into the women’s fiction genre, because the story revolves around the female protagonist’s personal growth and a family conflict, rather than solving a mystery, thwarting terrorists, falling in love (though she does that), rebelling against an evil space emperor, battling demons, traveling through time, daydreaming about what could have been while gazing at the endless Kansas prairies, conquering the music industry, etc. In an effort to understand the expectations of this genre’s readers, I’ve joined the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and am reading many women’s fiction titles. It helps—quite a lot.

My collection of reference books for writers

My collection of reference books for writers

Then there’s the question of reference books for writers. Well, here you go: In addition to a pile of magazines, mostly Writer’s Digest, I have quite a collection of reference books and how-to books for writers. I’ve learned something valuable from every one of them, and I pull them out for inspiration when I get stuck or when I’m starting a new project.

In addition to Pereira’s fine book, I also find these particularly valuable:

  • Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
  • Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, by Lawrence Block
  • A Handbook for Fiction Writers, also by Lawrence Block
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig

And, because I also like to write mystery stories:

  • The Elements of Mystery Fiction, by William G. Tapply
  • Don’t Murder Your Mystery, by Chris Roerden
  • Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
  • How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, by Janet Evanovich, with Ina Yalof

Of course, I have the current Writers Market and Guide to Literary Agents. And I haven’t even begun to list my favorite blogs for writers; there are so many!

So there you go. I hope that was helpful to any writers who are building their own reference shelves. What are your favorite references for writers?

 

Feast or Famine

lonely beach

View from near the Cliff House, San Francisco

It’s the beginning of summer break, and the teacher mindset is still firmly rooted in my brain. I can’t help but feel a bit giddy when I see the kids celebrating the end of another school year. On the other hand, there’s a bit of a hollow thunk—echoes of summer loneliness from years past. I taught on U.S. military bases in Europe, and during the school year I had lots of fun companionship: my work friends were my after-work friends. But when the school year ended, my teacher friends scattered, many returning to the U.S. for the summer, leaving me with lots of free time but few companions to share it with.

One of the challenges of starting a new phase of life in a new place is finding interesting people to hang out with. We’re retired, but most of our friends and family are not, and that can make for more alone time that we’d like. Even an introvert like me craves company other than dear hubby from time to time. I continue to explore Meet Up groups in order to meet interesting people, especially newcomers to Tacoma who don’t yet have full dance cards. I’m meeting some very interesting women via a walking group, and plan to jump back into dance classes soon. Still, I must put forth an effort to find companions, and my friend-making skills, never very strong to begin with, have atrophied from so many years of living in a close-knit community. So far, it’s a hit-or-miss process: times when there’s lots of social fun to be had, followed by stretches where the few people I know well are all booked up. This is one of those famine times.

A few weeks ago I was feasting, surrounded by friends and family to celebrate a very happy occasion, my step-son’s graduation from medical school. The G clan gathered in Phoenix: three generations of extended family and friends, plus three generations of his marvelous girlfriend’s family. We rented a huge house where we cooked too much, laughed loudly, played guitars and splashed in the pool. It was a wonderful chance to commune with the family, and I was sorry to see it end—though not too sorry to leave behind Arizona’s extreme heat.

San Francisco

The view from Land’s End, San Francisco

Before that, I spent a week visiting my mother and daughter, who live together near San Francisco. I got to spend a day with the S clan, catching up with my brother and sister and their families. To celebrate my daughter’s twenty-third birthday, we went to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a hilarious musical send-up of current events, featuring outrageous costumes and huge hats. If you find yourself in SF, you must go see this show. We also walked lots: along Land’s End, and through Golden Gate Park, one of my favorite places.

The pagoda at Stowe Lake

The pagoda at Stowe Lake                           

The Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park

The Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park

The rose garden was in full glory, and Stowe Lake drew lots of happy people paddling and strolling. We also took in an exhibit of Oscar de la Renta’s dresses at the De Young Museum, including these two, worn by Sarah Jessica Parker and Taylor Swift. Lovely, eh?

dresses

Makes me want to take up sewing again.

But now we’re home again, and the pendulum has swung back to the solitary side. I must get back to work building new connections. Eventually, I’ll find the right balance between alone and together. May your summer be filled with as much company as you want—and as much solitude.

Book Review: Meet Me in Paris, by Juliette Sobanet

Meet Me In Paris

First of all, let me thank Ms. Sobanet for the free copy of Meet Me in Paris that she sent me in exchange for an honest review. Let me also disclose that I am not a fan of most romance fiction, finding it too formulaic, unrealistic and predictable. But I do love France, especially Paris, and I also love well-written memoirs of audacious women. I swallowed this romance writer’s memoir in one big, juicy gulp and can recommend in heartily to my romance-loving friends.

Any woman who’s been divorced, or who has contemplated divorce, will relate to Sobanet’s painful process of choosing between two men—and beyond that, between two potential lives. Throw her lifelong love for France into the mix and you have a big, messy dilemma. I was immediately drawn in, as if I were listening to a drama-prone friend pour her heart out. I was frustrated by this process; throughout her narrative, Sobanet is so buffeted by her emotions that she makes many self-destructive decisions–again and again, she finds herself sobbing on the bathroom floor. At times, it became tiresome, but something about her writing kept me turning pages.

Perhaps it was her bravery: she doesn’t spare us the details that made her look foolish or weak, and she doesn’t sugar-coat her bad decisions. Certainly, her love of Paris and Lyon shines through in her descriptions and reactions. I enjoyed meeting her fascinating friends, both in France and in the U.S. She also handles her sex scenes gracefully—I never cringed. While she has a tendency to repeat herself, she does finally come to a satisfying conclusion that has more to do with understanding herself than with finding the right guy.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read, and I may even try one of her Paris romances next.

 

Book Review: DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira

DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300

I was delighted to receive a free advance copy of Ms. Pereira’s newly-released how-to book for writers: DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. Have a look here: http://diymfa.com/product/diy-mfa-book

In this volume, she promises the reader the most important lessons from a Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing. After all, an MFA program requires a huge investment in time and money, and seldom focuses on genre/commercial fiction, which is why I’ve decided not to pursue that degree. Pereira is not the first to try to condense the best bits of an MFA into a book; in fact, I have on my bookshelf The Portable MFA in Create Writing by the New York Writers Workshop, published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2006, as well as forty-two other volumes on the craft of writing fiction. Why add another one?

Well, I’m always hoping for new nuggets of writerly wisdom and inspiration, and I found quite a few in DIY MFA. This book would be a good starting point for any writer who’s just beginning her reference library. Pereira doesn’t go into any one facet of the writing world in great depth, but she gives such a broad view of all the aspects of writerly success that every reader would most likely learn something valuable.

In the first section, Write with Focus, Pereira does a very solid job of presenting basic story structure, characterization, tips for busting through writer’s block, and other goodies that fiction writers need to know. Her background is in the design and data analysis, and she’s fond of acronyms and formulas. Her tone can be quite gushing: the book is liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks and phrases like “Awesomesauce.” My favorite nugget from the first section is her technique of outlining a plot in the style of a subway map, which was a great help to me with my current novel in progress.

In section two, Read with Purpose, we see Pereira’s scholarly training. I did appreciate her liberal use of examples from popular fiction: Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games trilogy, and the Harry Potter books. Her explanations of these examples, though, sometimes made me roll my eyes as she belabored the obvious. Her term for critical reading is “Read like a revolutionary”—but every high school student and college English major has done this type of examination of a writer’s technique. If it’s been a while since you’ve examined how a story was put together, you’ll find good reminders here.

It was in section three, Build Your Community, that I found the most value. In fact, I’d recommend buying the book just for this section. Pereira’s advice on critique groups should be read by everyone before they attend their first face-to-face meeting with such a group. Her advice on building your online presence and blogging was also detailed and up to date.

All in all, I found a great deal of valuable information and food for thought in DIY MFA. If you’re a writer in the early stages of your career, this volume belongs on your bookshelf—or in your Kindle. Also, be sure to check out her blog at DIYMFA.com, and her podcasts at DIY MFA Radio.

Writing Fiction from Point Zero

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I’m nearly finished reading Gabriela Pereira’s upcoming how-to manual for writers, DIYMFA. My review will appear here by the end of the week. You can check out the book here:

DIY MFA Book

This week, she’s challenged her team of early reviewers to write about our Point Zero moment, that moment when we first became writers. That’s easy for me; I became a fiction writer when I killed a boy.

Relax. I only killed him on paper, and it was so refreshing, better than any fancy-shmancy therapy.

I was a young high school teacher, only twenty-six, and not yet skilled at defusing classroom conflicts. Bubba, a big, thick jock, landed in my French class. Funny and playful, he was one of my favorite students up to that terrifying day. We’d been doing a creative activity that involved lots of discussion. I needed the class to quiet down for further instructions, but Bubba didn’t want to quiet down. Instead, he bolted from his chair and started shouting at me. I later learned that he was rather dangerously unhinged, but this was my first inkling of trouble.

Anyway, when I asked Bubba to step out into the hallway, he flushed a deep purple and unleashed a torrent of abuse, crazy stuff along the lines of “You can’t tell me what to do, Bitch.” And then he plumped down into his seat, his arms crossed, and glowered up at the clock, waiting for the bell to ring.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The other students gaped at him, and then at me. You know, they don’t teach you about this stuff in college education classes. Quietly, I retreated behind my desk and picked up the phone. “Saved by the bell” has never rung truer as when Bubba stomped out a moment later.

I didn’t cry—I’m not usually a crier, but I was shaking so hard I could barely dial the principal’s office. At the end of the school day, after having met with the principal and the counselor, I was still shaking. When the school’s hallways quieted, I sat at my desk, reviewing what had happened, what I might have said to set him off, what I could have done differently. The kid was suspended for his outburst, but he’d be back. I was a skinny little thing, and he was a hulking brute. How could I protect myself?

And then my eyes landed on the three-hole punch. It was one of those heavy monsters you find in classrooms and offices, five pounds at least, with a convenient handle. If a person were to swing that hole-punch overhead and bring it crashing down on someone’s skull, that would do some serious damage. Cerrunch! I could picture the moment, and it felt good.

I sat down at my computer and slammed out the beginning of a story right then and there: a young female teacher is confronted by a big, angry jock student who threatens her, lunges for her. In a panic, she grabs the hole-punch and crushes his skull. Blood everywhere, soaking into the carpet. Where could she hide the body? She sneaks down the hallway to the janitor’s supply closet and nabs a roll of those heavy-duty blue trash bags…

On and on I went, detailing every move the quaking young teacher made as she hides the body in a vacant locker, planning to retrieve it over the weekend. But when she comes back, late Saturday night, the body has been moved! A trail of ants leads to the gym, where the dead jock has been stuffed beneath the bleachers. Who could have done it?

This was fun! I must’ve hunched over my keyboard for a good hour, my fingers flying. When I finally stopped, I felt—relieved, refreshed, empowered. Whatever happened next, I could face it because I’d already killed that evildoer. As it turns out, he soon left school.

I never finished that creepy little story, but I’ve since written several more, plus two novels, and I’m working on a third. And it all started with the question from which all story ideas come: What if?

Book Review: This Chair Rocks, by Ashton Applewhite

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against AgeismThis Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book I’ll read again and again in order to counter the stupid things people (both youngers and olders, Applewhite’s terms) say to justify mistreatment and disregard of people who are no longer young. This is basically a sociological/psychological study of our fear of aging and of the ageism that results. Don’t worry, though–it’s not a dry tome; Applewhite provides plenty of interesting anecdotes to personalize the issues she examines.

As an old person in training (also her term), I’m determined not to allow others’ ideas of what an older person should be/do/think limit my possibilities, and I’m becoming more and more aware of what a battle that will be. Just as we women sometimes try to keep other women down in order to avoid examining our own choices and assumptions, so do olders sometimes try to keep their fellow olders down in order to justify their own inertia. Reading this book was truly a consciousness-raising experience.

View all my reviews

In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today I’m joining the ranks for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thank you to IWSG for the opportunity to share and learn from your writerly experiences. We post the first Wednesday of the month, but I’m posting early due to family commitments. Check them out here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

A topic much on my mind lately is getting good-quality feedback on my writing. I’ve just finished another (hopefully final) polish of my second novel, and am starting another round of agent queries. It took bloody forever to work this manuscript through my critique group, since we’re only allowed to submit twenty pages per meeting. It’s a fair rule—we’d never get through a meeting otherwise.

I’ve been participating in the same critique group for over a year now, and their bi-monthly meetings are a highlight of my writing practice. It’s energizing to chat face-to-face with other writers. From them, I’ve received lots of valuable advice on refining my cozy mystery and women’s fiction novels. No one in my group writes in these genres, but that doesn’t disqualify them from critiquing my work; in fact, the best writing advice I’ve received so far has come from writers of historical fiction and sci-fi. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

I’ve also exchanged a few online critiques with members of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, and will continue to pursue that avenue. These readers understand the expectations of our shared genre, and a bonus is that some of these critiques come from published writers.

Here’s where the insecure bit comes in: I give more credence to advice from fiction writers whose work has been published, especially those who’ve been traditionally published.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there’s lots of very fine indie-published fiction out there—but the indie fiction I’ve sampled so far has mostly been clunky, unpolished, not enjoyable for a reader like me who expects that level of polish found in most traditionally-published fiction. And that level of polish is what I’m trying to achieve—not just good proofreading, but well-rounded, relatable characters wrapped up in a believable, non-rambling plot.

Back to my face-to-face critique group. Sure, it’s valuable to get feedback from all sorts of writers, and to see the evolution of their works in progress. We all have a great deal in common, and sharing the process of chiseling away the dross from a draft to reveal the gem inside—that’s a great learning opportunity for me.

But the limitations of this critique group are becoming hard to ignore. A few of our best writers have peeled off, dissatisfied with nature of the critiques. They tell me there’s too much nit-picking over mechanics and too little focus on plot, characters, pacing—the meat of the story.  They have a point.

Our group contains some die-hard writing-rule-evangelists. (One actually carries the Chicago Manual of Style to every meeting.) Oh, how these writers cling to their formulas, their cherished edicts about what one must and must not do in order to create a work of fiction. Here’s where I admit to being a retired high school English teacher. I have great respect for grammar, punctuation—all the tools we use to achieve clear communication. But oh, dear reader, there is much eye-rolling when these group members start spouting their rules for this and that aspect of writing fiction. And have these particular group members published anything? Not as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, of course, but still…

Ugly thoughts, I know. And unfair—after all, I haven’t published anything yet either. When I finally do get my work published, whether traditionally or independently, it’ll have more to do with voice and storytelling than whether I’ve followed a certain formula or eliminated all my adverbs and exclamation points. A good storyteller can bend lots of rules and still delight her readers.

I don’t want to leave the security of my little critique group, but suspect it’s time to move beyond its secure borders. It’s time to look for more in-depth feedback than I can get twenty pages at a time. Wish me luck.

Ready for Launch

graduation hats

Eleven more days until graduation! A student has scrawled this joyful message across the classroom whiteboard in two-foot-high letters. I’ve spent the past few days substitute teaching for high school seniors, and graduation is the number one topic. Next week our clan gathers to celebrate my step-son’s graduation from medical school. All this excitement and preparation brings the memories tumbling back—memories of the many (26!) high school graduations I attended during my teaching career, including my daughter’s, and of my own graduations.

The kids I’m working with this week have to fill out a lengthy statement of their post-graduation plans before they’re allowed to “walk” (across the stage to receive their diplomas). I was touched and tickled as I watched the students scramble to complete this requirement. These are AP classes, so most of the students are college-bound. One young man, however, kept exclaiming, “I have no fricken idea what I’m doing next year.”

I feel for this kid. So many students reach this age with no plan for their future—beyond celebrating their freedom from high school. Once that victorious moment arrives, though, they cling to the edge of the precipice, afraid to leave that familiar ground and jump into the unknown. I remember how, after graduation, the ex-seniors of Bitburg High School would return to the school to hang out, only to be chased away by the office staff. “You’re done! Go!” Go where?

Me, I was ready to leap into my next adventure—four years in the army. I was more than ready to be all I could be, to get out of town, and to escape the shame of not going to a four-year college, like all my friends were doing. And yet, I remember that moment right after graduation when we all filed back into the small gym to turn in our graduation gowns. It was like one of those movie scenes; I stood google-eyed in the middle of a spinning blur of happy, crying, hugging, shouting people. And I said to myself, “What now?” It seemed surreal—how could high school possibly be done, just like that? In comparison, my two college graduations were a piece of cake. But then, I had a plan; there was no cliff-jumping when I left college—at least not without a parachute.

For my step-son this graduation is a victory, but I get the feeling he cares much less about the actual ceremony than his family does. His mind is on the next step, residency. But the clan will be there in force to cheer him on. It will be a fine party, worthy of the joyous occasion.

My daughter didn’t have that wall of family to cheer at her high school graduation, and that’s one of my greatest regrets. Her dad and I were in the middle of a very acrimonious break-up, and we sat on opposite sides of the auditorium. We were in Germany, and I couldn’t offer to house visiting family in the war zone that our home had become. And so I sobbed through her graduation ceremony alone, surrounded by big, boisterous clans. I was so proud of my daughter, who celebrated with her friends, despite the chaos at home. She had a plan—a plan that changed, as it turned out, but she’s still making me proud. She leapt into the unknown.

To the class of 2016, I wish you courage, joy, and happy landings.