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Friday, July 22, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Books

One of the best ways there is to learn about good writing is to read it. As an English major, I was assigned so many of the "Great Books," some of which seemed greater than others as I struggled over them in the wee hours of the morning.

Some I loved from the beginning. THE SCARLET LETTER was set in a community I didn't understand with old, often difficult language, but I adored it. Hester Prynne has become a favorite friend I can visit whenever I wish and not even Demi Moore could ruin her for me.

Other favorites grew on me over time. I liked Louise Erdrich's LOVE MEDICINE when I first encountered it, but after years of re-reading and then teaching the novel, I learned what a remarkable achievement it is.

When you're reading as a writer, even bad books can be instructive. I won't name any of them here, but I've read a few I didn't pass on after reading them. I consigned them to the trash, under the morning's discarded oatmeal.

Yet I learned from reading them. Bad books show me what NOT to do to a reader, and I've tried to remember the lessons I've learned.

It's rare that a published book is bad enough to make me give it to the oatmeal before I've finished it, but that occasionally happens. Poor writing and abusive language can combine to make me bury a tome beneath the eggshells. When that happens, I always wonder who would have considered it worth the trouble to publish.

Books are instructive. Books are friends when it's lonely, escape when I need it badly, and great classrooms. Hooray for great books, good ones, and even the less stellar efforts.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Double Describing

Yesterday's tip from the web was on writing description. One trick I'm trying to work with now is a tidy twosome -- describing both the newcomer and the speaker at the same time.

From the beginning of my work-in-progress MAGGIE RISING, here is Maggie's description of the young woman she is just meeting:

She was somewhat shorter than my five-feet-eight, but most women are, and she was fuller than I am, especially through her surgically augmented chest. Her blonde wasn’t natural, either, though her roots weren’t as dark as my near-black curls. Even her coloring, like mine, was more rubies-and-ivory than peaches-and-cream. The rest was easy: sorority chick; more money than brains – all of it Daddy’s; party girl looking for a thrill and probably trying to figure out whether Jason (or Fred or that guy from the fraternity mixer last night) was worth giving it all up for, although from the looks of her, she probably had nothing to give that hadn’t been given and given and given again.

My goal is to show you not only the "gullible little bottle-blonde" (Maggie's words from the next page), but Maggie herself and not only her appearance, but her ideas and attitudes as well.

So how do you think I did? Write and share ideas.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

De-Scribing: The Art of Showing

All writing classes I have ever taught begin early with the concept, "Show, don't tell." If I TELL you, "I was frightened," you have to take my word for it, but if I show you my fear (my trembling hands, my frequent gulps to get air, the pallor of my face, the blue surrounding my lips), you're going to know how terrified I am without my having to say it.

Last week I referred to Susie Henderson's discussion of "How to Write a Novel." This week let me take you to her lesson on description. While she may not have said it exactly the way I would have, I see no need to write another lesson when one this good has already been done.

Happy describing and may the muses be with you.

Try out your skill in one descriptive sentence you write yourself (mine is borrowed), together with a one- or two-word label for the genre where such a sentence might appear.

Example: Literary Fiction: "He turned and looked at her, and when he realized she was pulling his leg, his blue eyes crinkled up and he started laughing so hard that he started to cough at the same time, and she had to bang him on the back." - Fannie Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Little Girls and Dragons

This past Fourth of July my family and I enjoyed the holiday at a small town nearby, the little city of Biggs. Despite its tiny size (the population on the “Entering Biggs” sign reads 1,793), Biggs always raises big bucks and puts on a spectacular fireworks display.

One feature of the show every year we’ve been there is Claude, the fire-breathing dragon.

Claude is the result of his master’s dedicated efforts with a blow torch. Made of every bit of rusting metal the artist could find, Claude sports gun barrels on his body, a tail made largely of horseshoes, plus a concatenation of iron stove lids and oven doors, spurs, hand tools, rakes, hoes, and just about everything else that can be made of iron.

The dragon’s wings are beautiful, splendid, and fold neatly against his body except when he is in full active mode. Then the pneumatic processes inside Claude go to work, his wings unfurl, his head lifts and turns, his mouth opens and closes while a long metal tongue flaps up and down, and he breathes spouts of flame from both nostrils.

A fantasy of a creation, Claude is more than twenty feet long and stands some ten feet to twelve feet tall at the crest of his back. He is splendid.

This year we took our 19-month-old granddaughter with us to Biggs and wondered how she would respond to Claude. We made a point to ease our little one into accepting Claude by letting her touch him while he stood still outside the football field, waiting to come on. Later, when he was looking directly at her and belching fire, we were in the top of the football stands, many yards away.

Perhaps that is why the dragon simply delighted our baby. The little girl beside us was terrified and begged to go home, but Adelaide was thrilled and giggled every time Claude turned his head her way.

Maybe she will grow up to be bolder and more willing to try new things than her gramma always was. Maybe not. Either way I will always have the memory of a cherubic blonde baby squealing with delight as a fire-breathing monster gave her his special attention.

You go, Girl!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Anti-Writing Rituals

Last week I did a couple of blogs on the rituals that get us into the writing spirit. Some invite the muse, some focus our energies, some (sitting down in front of the computer, for instance) just discipline us to work.

Today I want to examine some of the best excuses there are (there ALWAYS are some!) for not writing. What do we have to overcome to make the writing happen?

#1. Inertia. This one is a killer ally when you get it working for you -- as in, I wrote yesterday and the day before so I can write today, too. It is exactly the opposite when you get into a non-writing phase: I didn't write yesterday and the world didn't end; guess it won't end if I don't write today. The truth? Of course the world isn't ending, but your writing efforts just may.

Moral: Don't let the inertia get you. WRITE!

#2. Procrastination. Anyone who has taught at Chico State (or pretty much anywhere, I'm guessing) has heard every possible excuse. When someone tells me, "I write better under pressure," I bite my tongue to keep from answering, "Procastinator! You aren't serious about writing at all." And of course it's true -- for me as well.

Moral: When I find myself saying I can't write yet because I have to scrub the kitchen floor, I KNOW I'm just putting it off and it's time to GET TO WORK!

#3. I'm waiting for inspiration. This is just procrastination by another name. When you sit down and work, the inspiration comes. If you futz around "waiting" for it, the muse may elude you forever.

Moral: Similar to #2: GET TO WORK!

Goodness knows there are more "good" excuses, but most of them fall into sub-categories of these three. I wish you and me both all the best as we beat these stalwart enemies into submission. Write on!

Share your favorite excuses?