Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zealous

Are your characters zealous? Do they want things and go after them? Are they enthusiastic?

My work in progress is told in 3rd person limited. I like my main character: she's smart and sensitive. But I realized that I hadn't revealed enough about OTHER important characters, in part because my main character wasn't active in that sense.

To balance that, about a month ago, I started writing from another main character's point of view. This one has more zeal. Enthusiasm. Initiative.

Tomorrow or the next day, I'll write a reflection on this blog challenge. (I'm currently on my lunch break, composing on my phone!) For now, thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Y is for Yesterday

Yesterday was another rainy day, but the sun broke through enough times to create some awesome skies.
Just outside the condo, a double rainbow! And then we went to the park. It was cold and rainy, but the sky was awesome. We could still see the bottom of one of the rainbows, but I'm not sure if it came through in the panoramic shot.

By the way, I reached my word-count goal yesterday around 5pm. I now have 30,009 words in my work in progress! I plan to have 40,000 by the end of May.

X is for eXpectations

I know, I know, I know. A horrible cheat. But I remember as a kid, that alphabet choo-choo train surrounding my room, and feeling annoyed that "X" was always "Xylophone." Obviously "X" can represent the "Z" sound at the start of a word, but a child learning his or her letters is much more likely to encounter an "X" at the end of a word -- "Max," "relax"--or inside of a word--"exciting," "exit." The "x" there isn't the "z" sound but "ks." At least, that's my logic in doing expectations instead of xenophobia.

My goal this month is to reach 30,000 words. I'm raising my own expectations for what I can accomplish in a day or a week. It had taken me five months to write my first 10,000 words, and less than two months to write my second 10,000. Now, I have until the 30th to get from 28,226 to 30,000 - this would be far less daunting (to me) if I didn't have work all day Friday and Saturday. So instead, I'm going to raise my expectations once again to write those 1774 words today. I know it doesn't seem like a lot, just six double-spaced pages. But it's more than I've written in a day since undergrad, when I had an 8-10 page paper due in twelve hours and I hadn't slept.

There's that saying: Shoot for the moon - even if you miss you'll still be among the stars. I always thought that was kind of hokey, but I think it's relevant here. Always push yourself. Always strive for better, for more. The success is in the striving.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Watching

As a child, I was especially fond of corners. On the school playground, where two chain-linked fences met at a 90-degree angle, I crouched and watched—who played with whom?—who teased whom? I catalogued their gestures and their strange and natural ways of speaking. Everything for them seemed so spontaneous, and this fascinated me. I was too shy to join them, but by observing and recording, I shared in their experiences.

This is what watching became for me—a way to participate. Years later, writing serves that same purpose.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is one of those words I've read or felt I understood, but never really knew the definition. I see "verisimilitude," and I think "very similar."

But the dictionary definition is more precise: the appearance or semblance of truth, as in "The play lacked verisimilitude." (Had I studied Latin, I would have noticed verum=truth, similis=similar).

In fiction, writers give their stories verisimilitude, for example, by crafting realistic dialogue and by using specific details to describe a setting. Verisimilitude makes it easier for a reader to suspend disbelief and enter a made-up world. That doesn't mean that all fiction has to be grounded in real life's messiness. Growing up, I loved reading Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles," set in the future, and Jean M. Auel's "Clan of the Cavebear," set in the past. For a great post on the different kinds of verisimilitude in fiction, check out

Here's a challenge: use "verisimilitude" in a sentence and not sound pretentious!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

U is for Umbrella

If April showers do, indeed, bring May flowers, then Southwest Ohio is due many flowers in a couple weeks. Every day, it's rain. This post is an ode to my favorite umbrella. It had been a gift from my mom -- I had requested an "artsy" one. She picked out a neat umbrella with the image of Caillebotte's "Rainy Day,"and I loved it until it was lost in Wilmington, North Carolina (I let someone borrow it; argh).

The forecast for the next week calls for lots and lots of rain. On the plus side, the grass is really green.

Side note, not A-Z related. Today I visited my grandmother for Easter. She had given up candy for Lent, and at 1:30 Sunday morning, she bit the head off a chocolate bunny. Ha, she deserved it :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Thinking

I know, I know, the "Th" kind of ruins the awesome alliterativeness of the challenge. But clearly I've been doing too much thinking. For the second morning in a row, I've woken up while it was still pitch dark outside, and haven't fallen back asleep. My mind circles the characters in both the novel I'm writing and the novels I'm reading.

Thursday I finished "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese. It's long--six-hundred pages--and sprawling. It travels from the Yemen in the 1940s to New York in the 1980s and Ethiopia in the 2000s. The story is told from the point of view of Marion, half of a pair of identical twin boys born to a Catholic nun under mysterious circumstances. Verghese is a doctor, and this is his first novel. The book is well-written with fully-formed characters, and you can tell that Verghese wishes to fit their entire world within the pages of the book.

Another book I'd started a week or so ago, "The Uncoupling," by Meg Wolitzer, is very different in tone and theme. Her story takes place in a New Jersey suburb that is considered livable and progressive. But a spell comes over the town one winter causing the women (of all ages) to lose any desire for men. We jump points of view, learning the stories of the women, and see how this spell affects them. I'm two-thirds through the book and fully engrossed in the characters. Not unrelated, the school (to which all the women are connected) is set to perform the Greek play "Lysistrata," by Aristophanes.

I recommend both books.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Six

Six minutes before I have to leave for work, so I'll try listing a quick six random things about myself.

1. In 2009 I visited Australia for the first time and France for the third time. I love traveling and wish I had the time and money to do more of it.

2. I went to a creative arts school from 7th through 12th grade. We auditioned as 11 and 12 year olds to decide our majors. I scored 9/10 in art, and became an art major, while I only scored 4/10 in creative writing. Irony is awesome.

3. I love baseball and the Cincinnati Reds. My grandfather played minor league ball and probably would have been tickled that my brother and I enjoy it so much.

4. My favorite subjects in high school were math and chemistry. I tested out of those classes in college, instead taking more arts classes. I often wonder what would have happened if I pursued the sciences.

5. My younger brothers are straight edge. No drugs, no smoking, no alcohol. Me, I go to weekly wine tastings. Love me a good malbec or cabernet sauvignon.

6. When I was 9 I got on the wrong school bus home (first day of 4th grade). I was too shy to tell the driver so I got off at the first stop and started walking.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Reading

According to my mom, I started reading when I was four years old. From then on, I always had a stack of books at my bedside. I read everything from the classics ("Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White and "Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Patterson) to popular series by Ann M. Martin and R.L. Stine. [Side note: What is with authors and initials?]

But even though I was a reader, I wasn't much of a writer during my teen years. While I could craft decent sentences and could spell (more important in the years before word processing programs became the norm!), I didn't consider myself a creative writer.

Luckily, I kept reading. Even though I wasn't writing stories, I was internalizing the shape and language of novels. Today it feels like a gift--trying to emulate these authors I've loved yet developing my own ideas, my own style.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Queasy

Of course queasy feelings can come from that giant bowl of fettuccine alfredo you ate too fast, or from having one too many freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. But for me, the worst kind of queasy comes from doing or saying something you know isn't right. My conscience lies not in my brain (I can rationalize and twist logic to fit any scenario) but in my stomach.

I also have a horrible poker face. I think something, and it manifests itself in my expression. Maybe it's a slight smile or a raised eyebrow. It's nothing I do consciously, but it's something that keeps me honest. Maybe that's why I've had an easy time writing fiction lately than nonfiction: I get to exercise all those lies that have been building up!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Perfect Sand

I thought I'd take the opportunity today to explain the name of my blog (and twitter handle).

On an unusually warm early November day, my best friend and I were playing in her neighbor's sandbox (she had the awesome above-ground pool, swing set, and basketball court, but her neighbors had the sand!) We began filtering the sand, trying to get rid of twigs and rocks and anything else that marred its consistency. We spent hours in that box. (We were also prone to set up museums, obstacle courses, and pen collections). We decided that every November 9th would be "Perfect Sand Day," dedicated to the removal of imperfections in a sand box. I don't remember if we ever celebrated our made-up holiday again.

More than ten years later, I wrote a story (quoted at the top of my blog) in which an eight-year-old character makes "perfect sand" in her own backyard.

Five years after that, when I decided to create a blog to hold my pictures and track my journey as I figure out what I want to do with my life, that name--"perfect sand"--just came back to me. It ties both to my nostalgia for childhood and my writing life. What could be better?

How about you? What led you to choose your handle or blog name?

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Objective

objective, being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject. Adjective.

(As opposed to the noun objective -- goal, target).

Two my favorite short story authors are Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Both used a sparse and minimalistic style. They shared only details that were relevant to the story. Neither painted a picture with his words; rather, they gave me, the reader, an outline and let me fill in the rest. I liked that they didn't tell me what to think about the characters and their situations. I had to construct my own meaning and understanding.

Early in college, when I started writing fiction, I tried to emulate their style. I pretended I was a fly on a wall capturing events as they unfolded. I could describe what people said, what motions people made, and what color the room was, but I couldn't describe what someone was thinking. I tried to be as objective as possible--besides, who was I to tell a reader what to think?

I hope that this tactic helped me develop as a writer--by limiting myself to what can be observed, objectively, I had to think about the actions that moved my characters and story along.

But it's so much more fun--both as a writer and as a reader--to go inside a character's head. As I've grown more confident, I've let the narrator carry more of the load. By using third-person point-of-view, I can stay somewhat detached; but by allowing that narrator to be limited omniscient, I can go into the main character's head. I want to understand what she is thinking about and how she is processing that information. I want to be right there with her as she faces and (hopefully) overcomes challenges. Subjectivity is much more colorful than objectivity.

* Click on "Ernest Hemingway" and "Raymond Carver" to read my favorite story by each author!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Nana Stories

Long-time readers know that a few months ago I began interviewing my grandmother about her life (my "Nana Stories," I called them.) I asked her about her childhood in San Francisco, her experience in the army during World War II, and coming to Cincinnati and being treated so badly by her new husband’s family. Of course, I wanted to know all the bad stuff. I wanted to write about how rotten people were or how many doors were closed because she was a woman.

But my grandmother always returned to the good. The blessings. The holy. And so I wrote the story I thought she wanted me to tell. Here's how I concluded it:

Sundays, after church, Barbara goes with her friends, many ten years younger and in worse health, to breakfast. Her friends like it when she drinks regular coffee with breakfast: she’ll excitedly entertain them with stories about meeting Sammy Davis, Jr., of selling magazines as a child, and of nearly missing a train while somewhere in Texas. She’ll talk about the time when she heard God’s voice saying to her, “Rejoice my child, God forgives you,” bringing her to tears, or she’ll describe the miracles she’s experienced in her life.

This December 24th, Barbara will turn ninety. In her long life, she’s only had one birthday party. She’s always had to share the day with Christmas Eve, and her family, which visits Christmas Day, regales her with phone calls on the 24th. But this year, she says, she wants a party. She wants her friends, her son, and her grandchildren to be with her on that day, celebrating her ninety years.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Mom

A coworker somberly asked me--after I'd worked at that library for a number of months--if my mom were deceased.

"No, no!" I immediately replied. But I realized that I had mentioned my dad and his travels quite a few times; I'd shown pictures from his blog of him and giraffes and houses made of mud. I hadn't talked about my mom.

She's taught in the public school system for over twenty years now. Kindergarten, first-grade, second, and now third. She's an excellent teacher, Nationally Board Certified, with a Masters degree in reading. You show me a kid who can't read, and I'll give you my mother. When the Wisconsin governor and Ohio governor yelled about teachers and unions and all their benefits, I thought about my mom, staying in her classroom hours after her students left, grading papers in the evenings, planning lessons on the weekends. But she does it because she loves teaching.

I'm proud of both my parents. In my eyes, they're heroic, each working to make a difference in the lives of others.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Lahiri

One of my favorite authors is Jhumpa Lahiri. Born of Benghali immigrants in London, she moved with her family to the U.S. when she was just three. Her stories and novels are set mostly in the United States, focusing on first- and second-generation Americans. Her first story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize, while her first novel, The Namesake, was adapted into a movie. But it's her next collection, Unaccustomed Earth, that is my favorite of hers.

In an interview with The Atlantic Magazine, Lahiri is asked about her approach to short stories versus her approach to novels:

I don't make a huge distinction in terms of what they require because I think an idea is either working or it isn't. And it can work—or not—at long or short or medium length. It depends on what the story I want to tell needs. I always think first about the nature of the story. When I had the idea for The Namesake, I felt that it had to be a novel—it couldn't work as a story. With this new book [Unaccustomed Earth], as opposed to the first collection, I worked on many of the stories for years while they kept evolving and evolving and evolving. One difference is that in The Namesake each piece was contributing to a larger whole.

Lahiri's style doesn't seem to change from short story to novel. She creates interesting and complex characters and describes them in prose that is "un-self-conscious." She says,

I like [my writing] to be plain. It appeals to me more. There's form and there's function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn't comfortable. I don't want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.

This statement is extremely appealing to me as a writer-in-training. I love the idea of plainness as a virtue. "Plain" is not a synonym for "boring" or "simple." Rather, I take it to mean (borrowing from William Zinsser) stripping the writing of superfluous adjectives and adverbs, those "adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kingsolver

I fall in love with books the way others do with guys. Some I won't even look at--too popular, too slick. Spare me the Pattersons, the Graftons, the Coulters--give me Kingsolver and Krauss. Give me the Booker Prize winner, not the bestseller.

I start two or three books at the same time. I read a few pages, then move onto the next and give that a sample. While I enjoy reading both, I'm afraid to commit to either. There are so many great books available! Libraries, stores, dedicated to them!

But as I get to know one book better, I set the other aside. I can't put down my chosen book. I tell everyone about it. Read this! It's awesome!

Alas, by halfway through--maybe later--I see its faults. I note the sloppy characterization, the descriptions that go on far too long, and I'll second-guess my commitment. I still want to finish the book, but I also notice that other one I'd started. It nags at me like an ex-boyfriend inviting me to lunch.

Luckily, there's nothing wrong with two-timing a book.

(Tongue fully in cheek;)

Monday, April 11, 2011

J is for Justice

"I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date."

So begins an op-ed piece in Monday's New York Times. John Thompson had been falsely accused by another man arrested in the same shooting; he was convicted based on eye-witness testimony. The defense attorneys did shoddy work, and the prosecution hid evidence.

A few years ago, Thompson sued the D.A.'s office and won $14 million dollars, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling. He writes,

I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.

Where's the justice?

I is for Impatient

It's been four days since I've gotten to work on my story. Four days since I let my mind disappear into the fictional world I created. Right now, Monday morning, the characters are in limbo. They can't move and they can't speak until I get back to them.

I'm a little impatient, and I bet they are too. I say that in jest, but there are times when I think of them as people with free will. They have the capacity to choose their actions and their speech, and it's my job to capture it; of course, I nudge them in one direction or another. But when I don't have my document open, we're all static. A movie on pause.

In writing class last week we did a short exercises in which we took a teacher's name, a subject, an emotion, and an age, (each supplied by a different woman) and turned it into a short story. We only had fifteen minutes, so the final piece had fewer than 300 words, but I enjoyed it; in a tiny pocket of time, we created something interesting.

It also gives me something to think about: just because I don't have an entire day off work doesn't mean I can't work on my writing. I can take a lunch break and sketch a character; I can take an hour before bed and write a tiny story.

But I have 30 minutes before I have to leave for work. I'm going to savor my coffee and catch up on my blogs.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Home Birth

My brothers and I were born at home. Me, then Zachary, then Jonah. Midwives guided my mom through labor and birth, and our grandparents, a priest, my mom's sister, and maybe more were there for each birth to welcome us to the world. I have vague memories of Jonah's birth - I was four at the time - though the most concrete image from that day is of walking downstairs and finding two-year-old Zach asleep on the couch. It felt dark, like nighttime, though I know my youngest brother was born in the morning. I also know the bed broke when he was born; maybe when I was, too.

We grew up on a rather busy street in Cincinnati, adjacent to a giant cemetery. On the occasions that I drive by the small house, now painted yellow, I wonder about the people who currently live there. Do they still deal with water bugs and the occasional mouse? Have they recarpeted the living room and dining room? (It had been wall-to-wall brown; sometimes I sat on the floor, cross-legged, watching Sesame street, and I'd "trim" the carpet with scissors as if I were mowing the lawn). Have they had bikes stolen? I notice they've removed the chain-link fence that I guess only offered a semblance of security. And do they know that three babies were born there?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

G is for Gratitude, Girls, and GEMS

Gratitude, the act of being thankful. Noun. As in, she expressed her gratitude with a hand-written note.

No, "gratitude" wasn't one of the vocabulary words I gave to my adult students, though the first couple quarters we read an article about the benefits of writing "gratitude letters," letters thanking people in our lives who have helped us. The article was hokey but well-meaning. Kind of like me.

Most days I feel nothing but gratitude for my life and the people in it. That thankfulness only increases when I hear difficult stories. Yesterday morning, I listened to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. Her guest was a young woman, Rachel Lloyd, who had previously been exploited in the commercial sex industry and now runs a foundation in New York City that supports teenage girls (some as young as eleven!) who have been similarly exploited. 75-90% of girls who enter the commercial sex industry (i.e. prostitution) have been abused in their life. The typical story (as described on the show): the girl runs away or is kicked out or discarded, and within the first 72 hours is approached by someone. In exchange for sex, she can receive shelter. Protection for the night. At first, the guy is kind, suave, boyfriend-like. Before she knows it, she's prostituting herself for money. And if she doesn't give this guy the money, he beats her up. Or maybe he beats her up anyway. He's her pimp, but because she doesn't know better, she loves him and trusts him. Lloyd has a book, "Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World in Which Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself."

Lloyd made clear that boys and transgender teens are victims of sex trafficking as well, though she focuses on girls. I felt sick listening to the show. I think about this subsection of society. Voiceless. Lloyd started out ministering to adult women in jail or half-way houses who had been involved in the sex industry, but by talking to them, she noticed a common thread: they entered this industry as children. She started her foundation, GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), to address that. It helps victims and also performs outreach to girls who may be at risk (low-income, group homes).

Imagine, from the time you come out of the womb, being told you're worthless. Being victimized by someone who's supposed to love and protect you. Being sexualized before your first period. How jaded would your perspective be? What would you think about yourself? About men? About society? Nearly 300,000 American girls, according to Lloyd, are trapped in this industry, though it's hard to come up with an exact number. How difficult will it be for them to "reenter" society?

Without a lot of money, Lloyd is saving girls' lives. Contrast that with these CEOs, giving themselves millions of dollars in bonuses, even as their companies lose money, even as their companies lay of thousands of workers. I'm not sure how to wrap my mind around this. I don't even know if it's fair to link those ideas. But I know that I'm grateful for people like Lloyd who see a need and work hard to meet it. I have gratitude for my parents, my grandparents, who, from the time I came out of the womb, told me I'm worth something.

F is for Fun with (Ph)otos

Earlier this year I bought a fancy phone. It has a touch screen, full browser, and can tell me, pitch by pitch, how the Cincinnati Reds are doing (5-0 to start the year!!!) Yesterday, my boyfriend and I took advantage of the gorgeous weather and visited a local park, Voice of America. My super-doooper phone has a panorama function: in this mode, take one picture and slowly move the phone in a single direction; it will automatically take pictures and stitch them together.

The big landscape of the park was perfect for these types of shots. Tall objects, like telephone poles and water towers, also created a neat effect, appearing like something out of a Salvador Dali painting.

Once home, we continued the fun.

Happy Thursday, everyone - we've finished 6 out of 26, 23% of our marathon :)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Enunciate

When I was a child, I had a behaviors that my grandmother tried to help me "correct": she thought I walked on the inside of my feet, so she made me practice walking on the outside of my feet (it was as awkward as it sounds, but at age 8 or 9, it's a game); I tended (still tend) to furrow my brow, and she kindly yells at me to stop, else I'll have wrinkles when I'm old--stick tape on my forehead if I need to, she says; finally, I had a tendency to mumble, so she stated loudly, eNUNciate!

Whether her corrections or just confidence from age and education, I speak much more clearly now. Still, I'd much rather express my thoughts in writing than in speech. The words in print do the enunciating for me. On a related note, I love reading out loud, whether it's my own work or the work of other authors. I love giving voice to words that were previously dormant on a page. Even in school, when I was otherwise frightened about speaking aloud in class, I loved being called on to read.

Tonight for writing class, we're supposed to select 2 minutes (or less) of something we wrote to read out loud. This comes out to about two-hundred words; I hope to have something new, so I better get to work!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Daydreamers

Would it be wrong to assume that most quiet kids are daydreamers? While everyone else is playing kickball or foursquare, the shy little boy or girl hovers at the edge of the playground, his mind on a story he read or an alternate world he envisioned. Or maybe she's found herself in a nearby field, tying together dandelions into a crown; she's imagined herself a princess or a fairy.

As a child, my daydreams were generally tethered to reality. I relived a snippet of conversation, though my responses were always funnier and more intelligent in my head. Or I imagined a future conversation: banter came so easily in these hypothetical future conversations!

Lately, as an adult, my daydreams tend to focus on what I've written most recently. I'll replay a scene in my head and feel the same tension the characters feel. Sometimes, though, I'll drift to a conversation, real or imagined. I feel cozy, for lack of a better word, when the world is quiet except for my thoughts.

I wonder: Are loud kids daydreamers too? Can you be extroverted and still get lost in your thoughts?

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Craft

Writing is a craft. The more you do it, the better you get at it. As one of my writing friends wrote, "I understand that my next novel will be better, and then the one after that will be better than the last." This is one of the things that excites me about writing: it is--and I am--a perpetual work-in-progress. We have room to grow and improve and develop new techniques.

Acknowledging that we have room to grow--that not every sentence, every paragraph, every page will be perfect--allows us to continue this crazy task of making stuff up and putting it down on paper (or screen). An article at discusses writer's block (and Hollywood's fascination with it). Its author, Laura Miller, quotes a study that suggests that "beyond a certain point, the more difficult a writing task, and the more you think it matters, the more likely you are to become blocked." Writer's block, therefore, is "more likely rooted in fear."

Getting over that fear, getting over that desire for perfection, is what finally allowed me to start and continue my writing projects. My creative writing teacher freshman year used to say, "Kill your darlings" (and he was quoting another giant, Mark Twain or William Faulkner). If there's something that you've written that you love, it's probably out of place; there's a good chance it interrupts the flow of your writing. Get rid of it, these men suggest. (Of course, like any rule, there are exceptions. Sometimes I like ending a chapter on a "darling." Sometimes I want a sentence to linger in the reader's head, echoing like a ghost.) But, more importantly, they imply that writing isn't sacred. Until a reader comes along to bring meaning to these squiggly symbols, there is no story; there is no novel.

So practice your craft. Experiment with point-of-view and narrative voice. Create characters you don't like. Be a better writer today than you were yesterday, and be a better writer tomorrow than you are today.

Friday, April 1, 2011

B is for Breakthrough

Because I started writing my novel with a general outline, I knew exactly what would happen. The book is a mystery but, more than that, it's a story about how grief, guilt, and regret affects us; I thought I had the mystery solved and plotted. But Thursday, as I was editing a scene, adding details and dialogue, I had a breakthrough: by tweaking the plot and resolution, my characters become so much more dynamic. And now I can't wait to write it and have people read it.

In writing class last week, we discussed process. What gets you going as a writer? Do you have a routine? A ritual? Do you write at home or a coffee shop? I mentioned that, for me, it depends on the type of writing. I write a blog post when I have something to write about (or if I've committed to writing one every day but Sunday for the A to Z Challenge); I write in my journal when I need to write but can't share it with anyone.

But for my larger projects, like the novel, I set weekly goals. That gives me some flexibility--maybe I write a lot Tuesday and none Wednesday--and it also allows me to have small victories along the way, like crossing the 20,000 word mark; like figuring out a major plot point.

I've enjoyed meeting so many dedicated writers in real life and online the past couple years. It's interesting to see how we each go about creating our fictional worlds--luckily, I've discovered, there's not one right way. Each of us figures out what works best for us.

A is for Alacrity

Alacrity, a cheerful eagerness. Noun. As in, the dog ran with alacrity. As in, the man demonstrated great alacrity, even on his first day.

I gave my students--back when I had students--a list of vocabulary words each week. Students defined the word and used it in a sentence. (I started out calling them "SAT words" until an end-of-quarter evaluation pointed out that none of them were in high school anymore.) One student combined all sentences in one unified paragraph, beginning something like this: "My girlfriend opened the door with alacrity, but I quickly saw that the situation was anything but mundane..." I also received sentences that indicated the student had no idea what the word meant or how it should be used: "She felt ostensibly about hurting him"; "He will extricate in the morning." What??? But for the most part, sentences were correct and well-conceived; it wasn't a difficult exercise.

There are things I miss about teaching: those rare moments when all the students are engaged or when a student asks a difficult question that I know how to answer; the knowledge that I am constantly accountable to thirty, fifty, or seventy students; being able to discuss literary works that I love (Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Hemingway's "Soldier's Home," Amy Bloom's "By and By") and hear new interpretations, new connections. And I miss many of the students. They could be hilarious, intelligent, and resourceful in ways that constantly surprised me.

Of course, there are many things I don't miss: for every eager student in the front, taking notes, raising hands, there were three in the back, their bags perched on the table blocking the view of a cell phone or a textbook from another, harder class. For every student who read the assigned story was another who didn't. And even though I knew better, I took much of that personally.

So it is with alacrity that I've tackled this new phase of my life. It is with alacrity that I approach this A to Z April Challenge. And it is with alacrity that I become a writer.