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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Bonds of Sisterhood

The mildest, drowsiest sister has been known to turn tiger if her sibling is in trouble. -Clara Ortega

So, the last post was all about criticism: When to take it and when to leave it. This post is something of a follow-up to that post; but this time I'm going to focus a little more on criticism and showing versus telling.

I am an older sister. And of course, I think this is important information to you (the reader), or I wouldn't lead with it. Why is it important? Well, because being an older sister shapes everything I do. In fact, the other night I realized that ANOMALY could only ever be dedicated to one person: my sister. The story is, at heart, about a young woman desperately trying to find her sister, risking life and limb for the truth. How could this story not be dedicated to my own sister?

When I put it that way, it makes my previous insistence that the story start in the midst of the action a little weak. Especially considering I just wrote a new chapter one the other night. The truth is, the realization happened when I was writing a scene where Eliza is wondering how she'll ever figure what she's supposed to do without the guidance and support of her elder sister. I felt a pang of sadness that Kate was gone before we ever got to meet her. In that moment, I felt sorrow for Eliza so great that it compelled me to change my former position.

So, were the critics right? Yeah, they were. You can't see it, but I'm hemming and hawing over admitting that one. My readers needed something to connect with. They needed to care about Eliza's loss and to be able to connect with her through it. I know that I get emotional if I think for more than a brief moment about what it would be like to lose my sister. It's unimaginable, heart-breaking, and I refuse to consider it a possibility. In my mind and heart, my sister is an immortal being who disease and tragedy can't touch. That is the only way I can stomach to see her leave my sight-- with the belief that she will return to me without damage. Otherwise, I'd have to pack up and go to college with her. And how embarrassing would that be for her?

During a video chat with my critique group last night we talked about our reactions to crits. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my critique partners admit to being less than welcoming to a hard criticism, because I'm not exactly sweet in my response, either. It seems we all need a good five minutes to rant over the criticism before we can calm down and see the value in it. And for some of us, it takes a month or more to come to the realization that the crits were right on our own.

But what's important is being in a place where as an author, you can *eventually* see the value in criticism. Some writers never get there and that is, in my opinion, the difference between a writer and an author. An author is a professional. At least in front of the public. What we do and say to our computer screens in the solitude of our homes notwithstanding.

It doesn't matter how many times Eliza says that she loves her sister. It doesn't matter how deeply she grieves over the loss. It doesn't matter unless the reader feels it. In this case, Kate needed some screen time. She needed to be shown and have her moment with her sister before she's cruelly ripped away. I had been so focused on the plot and how to further it that I neglected the vital, core relationship in the book: sisterhood... and people call me smart? We'll follow up the idea that you can't see the forest from the trees in the next post when we talk about the importance of a critique group and beta readers. Really, Stephen King may not need them, but I guarantee that you do!

To Terri: You were right. I gave you no reason to care about Eliza or Kate. Hopefully you will now.

To the reader: I leave you with two things.

First, the rough draft of the dedication to ANOMALY.

This book is dedicated to my sister, Brittany—the first person to teach me what it’s like to love someone unconditionally, with unwavering love and devotion. May every woman be so lucky to be blessed with a sister as wonderful as you.

Second, a rough snippet from the new first chapter in ANOMALY. A tender moment between sisters.
“I’m fine.” I tried to reason with her, but that had about as much chance of working as it did any other time she was worried about me. Pulling back, she studied my face and then lowered her voice.
“I worry about you, Lizzie.” Instantly, I felt bad. She’d had every reason to worry. Time and time again I fell ill. And time and time again, she was by my side, trying to cheer me up. Always watching over me. Ever present.
            “I know.”

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.

Last night I found myself in a heated debate with a very good friend of mine. This is a sort of weekly routine for us. One week we'll argue over the merits of spanking children (of which we have none), and the next week we'll be discussing women's rights, which somehow leads into a verbal knock-down drag-out argument over the second amendment. I'm still debating the cause of these debates. Are we politically-charged creatures or do we both just enjoy a rousing debate? And then of course, is option 3: we both thrive on being right and being the most intelligent person in the room. The latter is likely the most honest.

So, about this argument. This friend of mine who is  verging on pseudo-chic in all of her wannabe hipster glory-- with superior intelligence to boot-- argued against an idea for a scene that I have for THE BIRTHRIGHT SERIES. I'm choosing to keep the content of the scene under-wraps, but I do want to talk about criticism: when it's constructive, when it's destructive, and when it's just plain wrong.

Personally, I don't like criticism. It makes me doubt how utterly fabulous I am, and if there's one thing that's true to my personality, I don't like doubting my fabulousity (and no, I don't care that fabulousity is not a word.) I don't like pouring my heart and soul into a piece, fine-tuning each line so it carries the right amount of poetry to it, and delving into the story only to get a critique back where the reviewer is less-than-impressed with my ingeniousness.

Let me share with you a recent experience I had with my critique group. I had just re-worked chapter 1 in ANOMALY, the first in THE BIRTHRIGHT SERIES in its entirety, for the 7th time. That's not 7 tweaks, revisions, or editorial drafts. I mean I rewrote that chapter 7 times. I mean that Miss Eliza Landry went from a frat party in one version to breakfast in another, and at one point she was a high-school student in a version long-lost to good taste.

When I finally found my footing, and I finally found Eliza's beginning, I was thrilled to share it with my critique group. There was no scowl at the computer screen, hoping and praying they would like it. There was no nail biting over being torn apart for a style choice. There was nothing but confidence when I hit the "Send" button. I was flying high.

And then I got my first critique back-- and the e-mail beamed at me with the subject line proudly reading "More Please." And I thought, I knew it! Another very good friend of mine that is in the critique group as well, Brenda Gonet, is actually excited for chapter 2 to be sent her way, she's so thrilled with chapter 1. So there I sat, with a happy heart, waiting for that last critique.

When it finally came in-- from our group's toughest critic, might I add-- I was still confident and proud of my submission. And then, once I read it, my heart fell, my eyes glazed over in frustration, and I gave her e-mail address a look so dirty I'd of been embarrassed for somebody to have seen it. Not a happy camper was I.

This ball-buster (as I like to refer to her in a mostly fond manner) had so many comments-- positive and constructive-- that a tiny vein must have burst in my forehead. But still, I stood by my scene. I stood by Eliza's actions and the set-up. For the first time since I cooked up this series way back in 2009, I didn't doubt the story; I only doubted the way I told it. Once I cleaned up the carnage of my soul, I was able to see that. For once, I got it right.

The truth is that the critique was accurate, polite, and well-meaning. Even though my heart was heavy with disappointment that she wasn't in love with it like I am, I knew that she meant well. I've found that the best thing you can do when you receive a critique you don't like is to walk away from it for a day or two. Let the sting heal, and once it has, go back to it.

I always ask myself 3 questions when sizing up a critique on my work:

Is there a theme in their comments?
Is this a matter of personal preference?
Are they right?

The answer to the questions was a resounding "yes" in all but a few spots. One comment was that she preferred the former version of the story where it didn't start knee-deep in the action. She was right in that the reader gets a more immediate sense of Eliza in the former; but that version wasn't right for the story, the character, or the writer. So, in that case she was both right and wrong. Starting in an intense action scene can lead the reader to question why they should care about the character. But by the same token, most YA readers seem to prefer to jump right in and to get to know the main character after they're hooked on the plot...

Which brings me to one thing I could not argue with her about to save my life: the action scene lacked intensity. As a writer, it's trying to hear that you haven't given the reader enough. Sometimes, it's already taken all I had to write the scene the way it is; and to be asked to pump it up can send shivers of madness down a worn-down author's spine. Eliza, while in a life and death situation, is lacking a strong emotional connection with her situation, and that's my fault. While I think I nailed most of the action, some details are just much too sparse. Not only were these comments helpful, they were also numerous in nature. I can't argue with that assessment one bit.

Occasionally you'll run across a critique of your work where it seems they didn't like anything you'd written. It's happened to me and man, did it hurt. The first thing to ask yourself is how you can make it better. Does the critic want more emotion, more action, less dialogue? So, try writing the scene with inflections of their advice. Is it better or is the scene still not working? Maybe the critic isn't giving you what you need-- and maybe they are and you're unable to see it. Sometimes, we authors do run across a poor critic. Only the author can make the decision to accept or ignore a criticism they have received.

So, last night when I thought I was sharing a poetic, impactful scene with my good friend, and it fell flat, I wanted to scream. It wasn't that she wasn't kissing my fanny-- although I like that, too-- it was that I felt she was understanding the purpose behind the scene. I was convinced that she didn't get it.

A few circular arguments, eye rolls, glares, condescending remarks, and personal digs from both sides later, and we had finally reached a consensus: we're both right, we just have trouble communicating. Sometimes, as the author, I have yet to take an idea out for a lap and haven't quite let it discover its full potential. And how can I be expected to relay its virtues without ever having witnessed them myself? Sometimes, my good friend is just the warm-up I need. She challenges me, forces me to be clear in my explanation, and demands that I be capable of defending myself.

I say that an author should never shy away from a harsh criticism. The harder the knock, the stronger the defense, and the tighter the story. I'd bleed on concrete, wounds agape, unable to breathe if it meant it would help my story. But that kind of thing isn't likely to happen off the page. I'm just a very dramatic character in everything that I do.

This ending would be the perfect time to lead into a discussion about the theory that writers have to have the hide of a rhino or they'll commit suicide; but really, I'm not a sensitive enough individual to be able to tackle that topic. I'll just leave you with this: be sure that whether or not you choose to listen to your critics, that you always listen to your characters.

- JC

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It Gets Better, Right?

Yesterday was rough for me. I'm the first to admit that I avoid the news because rarely is it ever good news. When I do tune in, I'm not treated to heart-warming stories about people who have overcome the odds (they happen, but they're rare). No, when I turn on the news, I'm assaulted with images of police tape lining International Boulevard in Oakland and reports that a 5-year-old boy suffered a fatal gun shot wound; the fourth child to die in this manner in the past year. It doesn't get worse than that, but the reports on the state of the economy, health care, human rights, the Middle East, and gas prices don't help matters one bit. Let's face it, folks: it's tough out there. So, is it any wonder that I prefer to hide under a rock of fiction?

Back to the point: yesterday was rough for me. A seemingly innocuous news story about Paula Deen having finally announced that she is diabetic (really, is anyone surprised by this? The lady actually drank melted butter on TV!) led to a news story about the Italian Captain who refused to go down with his ship. That, in itself, is awful enough. Then, that news report led to a report which triggered my mini-meltdown: Pope Benedict XVI states [that] "Gay marriage [is] a threat to the 'future of humanity." Um. Yeah. That's no way to increase your numbers, Padre. This, in turn led to this and this, and finally, the straw that broke the camel's back.

So, that's a lot for one day. What broke my heart was the story about the Girl Scout who wants to boycott cookie season because a transgender girl was welcomed into a troop. That's right, GIRL! She's a girl! WHY does this one girl get to decide that a small child who identifies herself as a girl can't be a Girl Scout? This goes against everything the Girl Scouts are supposed to stand for.

The Girl Scout Promise

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law

So, maybe I've found the source of the issue here. God. Well, not God himself, but the idea of God. Which brings me to my next issue with this Girl Scout's attempt at protesting over this "issue". She's supposed to help PEOPLE at all times, not just when it's convenient.

It seems to me that this little movement this girl is trying to create doesn't really adhere to The Girl Scout Law, either. She's supposed to be trying to make this world a better place, not worse. And to be fair, I realize that this is likely not her fault. It's very likely that her parents just plain suck. Who on earth teaches their children to be so hateful to another person? Look, there was a lot my own parents could have done better, but this is one thing they got absolutely right. I've never been more grateful than I am today to have grown up in an environment where I didn't know these things were actual issues to some. So today, I thank you, Mom and Dad.

And still, you're wondering what the point of all of this is?

The point is that while I much prefer to hide out from the evils of the world, that doesn't mean they cease to exist. The world still turns, hate still exists, people are born and people die. What I realized last night is that I have a voice that has the possibility to impact people around the world. As a writer, I choose the world I present in my works. I have the ability to create a world that I like just a little bit better than the one I live in now; and on some level, I have the ability to impact the way people think. They may not agree with me in the end, but it will impact them in some way.

So today is a little less rough for me, because I feel a little less helpless. Today, I feel like I can make a difference, even if it's only to one person. And that's all it really takes-- one person to impact another, and they in turn impact another... and the beat goes on; and slowly but surely the world we live in will hopefully more closely resemble the one we want to live in.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Daily Prompt: Bumbly

Daily Prompt Rules: Must be written in third person, past tense. Prompts are decided the day of the exercise. You write until you feel you're done. Minimum-- 200 words.

Picture Prompt: (January 5th, 2012)


A blanket of white snow covered everything in sight. The trees and their branches hung low with the weight of it. The bushes had been covered in the storm overnight, and the grass had long since been buried beneath the snow and sleet. What was it about the substance that made human love it so much anyway?

The dog—though one would do well to avoid calling him that—was not a fan of snow. The snow made his paws cold and wet and then she yelled at him when he jumped in bed like that. He often wondered why she took him out into the wintery slush if she was only going to yell about the condition he returned in. Humans made no sense to Bumbly. He simply could not relate.

This morning she woke up crying, his human. The black thing beside her bed make a shrieking noise before it was even daylight which seemed to have activated Bumbly’s bladder. He was no longer a puppy and thus it was always a balancing act. To eat first or to relieve himself? Much to her dismay, he often may the wrong choice which led to an emergency urination on the bathroom floor. She was a yeller and that sure sent her into a frenzy.

Now, she had taken Bumbly out into the cold, wet snow and had expected him not to whine. She shushed him when a whimper escaped.

Truth be told, Bumbly didn’t dislike her. He cared very much for her in fact. It just so happened that with age, so came crankiness (for them both it seemed). The pair had been together for years. So many, in fact, that Bumbly had seen her go through a variety of people (most of the male variety). The pair had gone from their youth to adolescence (now that was a difficult time for poor Bumbly who had become known as “the leg humper”), and through university. Now, in her mid-twenties, she and Bumbly had left her parents’ house and finally had a home they could call their very own.

Bumbly reminded himself of this daily. Her moods had become tiresome and even Bumbly’s cuddles didn’t do much. Sure, she held him and talked with him, but it just wasn’t the same. She was upset about something—always apologizing to him. She had taken to dragging him to the man in the white coat a lot lately. After poking and proding, they left with her always crying. Bumbly didn’t know how to make her feel better. He was at a loss for what he could do.

They passed Bumbly’s favorite bush and he looked at it fondly. He knew it was his bush even though it was covered in that blasted snow. What wasteful weather, to cover a guy’s favorite bush.

Something slowed him down—a pain he thought. Bumbly’s right front paw ached, so he laid down. It began as uncomfortable, but then it spread. She started crying again, but Bumbly couldn’t move to comfort her this time. Lying there in the snow, all Bumbly wanted to do was to lick her face and make her smile. She wasn’t smiling now. She looked as though she was losing her best friend in the entire world. And she was.

Daily Prompt: Wrigley Field

Daily Prompt Rules: Must be written in third person, past tense. Prompts are decided the day of the exercise. You write until you feel you're done. Minimum-- 200 words.

Around mid-morning one day, you realize that everything that is happening seems really familiar. After much thought you discover that your life has fallen into a terrible rut and now you must take drastic measures to find a way out of it. Write the scene where you make a life-changing decision. (January 4th, 2012)

Wrigley Field

She was tired and annoyed. The bus had been late picking her up this morning. She’d stood at the bus stop, wind whipping at her trench and the grey clouds above her head letting tiny drops of rain fall to the ground. By the time the bus had arrived, her hair—once neat and orderly—had become a frizzy mess. It wasn’t that today had been especially trying; it was that every day was just the same.

She was always tired and annoyed. The bus was always late. Chicago wasn’t called The Windy City for nothing; and her hair always suffered for the ever-changing weather.

It was all the same, always the same. Over the years (and there were many), she’d often fantasized about throwing it all away. She could live off her savings for a good 6 months—a year if she was frugal—she reasoned.

Tucked away in a skyscraper just north of Wrigleyville, she pushed papers and typed keys for a man in a suit who hadn’t once thanked her in her four years of employment with the company. Perfection was demanded and so were psychic powers. It was a shame she couldn’t manage either.

But today, there on the 27th floor of the soulless skyscraper that overlooked the expanse of the southeast pocket of the city, she’d reached her limit. She stood in the copy room, two hours past quitting time, and half past fed up. And she stared out the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows at the lights from Wrigley Field. It was her favorite place in the world, that ball park. Aged, and loved, and full of heart and soul. Wrigley Field was a structure that demanded you take notice; so very unlike the structure she’d been in ten hours now. She could practically feel her life draining away in the neutral landscape, breathing forced air, and the smell of sterility surrounding her. There was no life here.

It was all the same, always the same. She’d promised herself that she’d work at this nameless company just long enough to pay off her student loans. And then she’d promised herself she’d continue working it just long enough to fund that trip to Paris she’d always wanted to take; the same trip to Paris she passed up on because it had been too much trouble. That’s what she told everyone. The truth is that she’d been afraid to travel alone. She was always alone.

The thankless man walked past the door to the copy room, smelling of rich vanilla notes and artificial cherries. She didn’t know why he had returned to the office so late. It was her perfume. Her being the woman he’d left work to see. Her being the woman he’d left the building early to have dinner with. The women changed countless time through the years, but the routine never did. She’d memorized his scent over time and could now easily pick out when he’d optioned out for a new companion. She hated that she’d noticed it. She’d hated that it bothered her. She’d hated him. Only, she didn’t.

His laugh was innocuous, pleasant even. He make the small baritone sound in passing. But it was too late. She’d heard it. That laugh, his laugh, had interrupted a fly ball to center field.

He had torn down her self-esteem. He had choked the very life out of her social life. He had dumped on her, about her, and had demanded etiquette that was humanly impossible. But he’d just crossed the point of no return. He’d interrupted a Cubs game.

Before she thought on it, she’d decided that this was it. This was her moment.

She looked down at the report, in its third incarnation—all 643 pages of it—and picked up the top half. She smiled for what she thought might have been the first time in weeks, and she threw her hands up. The papers scattered. A lighthearted giggle escaped her, and she repeated the act with the rest of the stack. The joy that rushed through her sent her on a high: an office-terror high.

The report had only been the beginning. Soon, pens were being tossed, trays of empty forms were dumped to the linoleum floor, and mailboxes were being emptied. Their contents scattered and mingled. He had gotten so angry when he’d received another employee’s mail in his box. The travesty! Her only regret was that she wouldn't be around to see his reaction to this mess.

The copy room had been enjoyable. Her pulse quickened and her eyes were alight with mischievous. She had a thought to destroy everything in sight. Computers would get dropped, chairs would get thrown, and paper would sail through the insufferable forced air until it dove feet upon feet away from its home. She’d had the thought of destroying everything. But then she’d remembered the cameras. But then, she’d decided she didn’t care.

Weeks later folks would recall that night. They would share gossip that they’d heard. One woman heard that she’d suffered a breakdown after he dumped her. Another woman heard that she’d been pregnant with his child. The men in the company mostly assumed that she had gone all Fatal Attraction on him. And each one of them would recount the tale of how the last place she’d been seen was at a Cubs’ game that night. He had seen her there.

For as wild as the stories were of what caused her breakdown, they never did manage to get it right. And it didn’t matter; because down there in Wrigleyville, in section 204, row 13, seat 5; she sat and she watched. And for being unemployed, and a potential felon (she wouldn’t know, she’d upped and moved); she sat happily in her seat, eating away at her life’s savings, one six-dollar hot dog at a time.

** Please note that this is an on-the-spot writing assignment and while I know a little bit about Chicago, I am aware that this is likely factually inaccurate. 

Daily Prompt: The Double-Yellow Line

Daily Prompt Rules: Must be written in third person, past tense.
Prompts are decided the day of the exercise. You write until you feel you're done.
Minimum-- 200 words.

Your character picks up a hitch-hiker on his/her way home from work. The hitch-hiker tries to persuade your character to leave everything and drive her across the country. (January 3rd, 2012)

The Double-Yellow Line

With the desert stretched before him and civilization at his back, George Danforth let his eyes travel the desolate landscape. The splintering wood and crackling paint of Old Towne whittled away in the spotted rearview mirror of his ’45 pickup.

The wind had picked up sending vats of tumbleweed down the lone stretch of highway. Two lanes was all it was; separated by a decade-old and faded double-yellow line. The line you’re not supposed to cross.
The tumbleweed hadn’t been a surprise. This time of year the winds picked up and scattered what little lived in this part of the country. Back. Forth. Again. And eventually straight up into oblivion. Oblivion was El Paso. George hated El Paso.

George hadn’t been looking forward to the drive. It was long and lonely. Occasionally, he’d see truckers out on the side of the road. Some would be stretching their legs, some would be relieving themselves. And then there were the ones who weren’t doing anything. They’d just stand there, on the side of the road, in the middle of the unincorporated desert. Those were the ones George had made a point of avoiding.

Strange things happened in far out places that local folks didn’t care to mention. You only heard about the disappearances when they were trying to get rid of you. The local folk never did have a problem getting rid of visitors out here. There wasn’t anything to visit.

Yards ahead and across the infamous double-yellow line, stood figure, clothed in a loose-fit white tunic. As George guided the truck onward, the figure in white became clearer, more real.

It was a woman with nothing more than the clothes on her back and well-worn army-grade boots on her feet. George slowed at the sight, knowing that he had to pull over. A small embankment lined the right side of the highway making it impossible to avoid crossing the double-yellow line.

He’d heard stories—wives’ tales—in passing; nothing that earned much attention; though he’d be inclined to turn a more attentive ear now. On the other end of the county, Old Lady Crathbaum had asked George if he’d been following the laws of the road. He’d nodded his dusty head and had given her assurance that he minded his manners. She’d nodded, said he was a good boy, and that it wasn’t likely they’d catch on to him. George’s attentions had been on Old Lady Crathbaum’s use of the word “boy”. It’d been three wars and as many decades since anybody had considered him a boy. For that, George had always held the old lady in high regard.

George crossed the double-yellow line and pulled the truck to a stop. The woman moved slowly, but assuredly, and climbed in the cab. Her movements were deliberate in nature—that much George could tell. He’d wanted to protest. He’d wanted to ask her if she was out of her mind—climbing in the truck of a passerby she didn’t know. Instead, he sat and watched her acclimate herself to the vehicle.

“Go north, George,” she said; confidence in her voice. His eyes grew wide with confusion at the sound of his name coming from her silky voice. Her eyes still hadn’t met his, but he could see they were dark from the corners. Her skin was pale, hair was long, and she was dirty. Her white tunic looked much darker, dirtier, this close.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” George drawled, careful of his tone. “But I’m not heading north.”
The woman stilled in her seat. Her head turned slowly toward him. Her eyes, dark indeed, trained on George’s hair. The brown mess was tinged with grey and clouds of dust that had built up into it since the crack of dawn when he’s begun his day. His fingernails were dirty and his knuckles calloused, giving him away as a working man. He wasn’t a dirty man by any means, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dirty when he left work.

The woman’s body jerked, her dirtied flesh giving way to a dark green sheathing that glistened from the setting sun. George remained stock-still as he took in her appearance. Her eyes glassed over, marble white and her nose collapsed into three tiny slits that set evenly parted between her eyes. At that, George threw himself backward, slamming into the door of the cab; one hand braces on the steering wheel, the other clawing into the leather of the backrest.

“Follow the laws of the road, George,” her tongue, slit in two peeked out from between her lips. “Be a good boy.”

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Comma Chameleon

A few days ago, I finished an urban fantasy series that had consumed me. Still, despite all reports of consumption, it took me forever to get through the five currently published novels. I'm slow. *shrugs*

So there I was on my Nook (my newest toy, most recent love, and late-night cuddle buddy), perusing Barnes & Noble's online store. I don't remember what led to it, but I decided to purchase an e-book copy of Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, which is the first in The Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy.

I remember years ago, reading The Witching Hour for the first time and falling consummately in love with the world Rice paints for us. Her prose is rich with a classic elegance that can only be earned by living and learning. She brings a setting to life in a way that most authors I read are wholly incapable of doing; and above all, Anne Rice makes me feel as though my person has been woven into the tale. I never feel like an outsider looking in. I'm always there, present.

It was late 2007 when I first stepped on Louisiana soil. I fell in lust instantly. It was mid-October, and the weather was balmy, the air humid, and everywhere I turned somebody or something was welcoming me to the pelican state.

The largest airport within driving distance of the city is Louis Armstrong, which is out in Kenner. Kenner is a suburb of New Orleans, divided to the crescent city only by the suburban city of Metairie (both suburbs are in Jefferson Parish). The drive east on I-10 was uneventful. Both Kenner and Metairie are fairly average as suburbs go. There were hotel chains, diners, strip mall, office buildings, and a few signs that promised classy ladies wearing little more than a garter. Though eventually, all of that gave way to the city itself. And I was hooked.

I exited the highway at Carrollton Avenue and headed toward the river. At the time, I think it called it "south", but eventually I would come to know better. A few blocks down, discount gas stations, and fast food joints that line Carrollton Avenue gave way to sprawling oaks, and stately antebellum mansions of yesteryear. A few days later as I was exploring the historic Garden District, and I was careful to pick up my feet lest my foot be caught on a piece of protruding concrete, sending me to the pavement; I was reminded of why I was there.

Somewhere, in the pages of Rice's novel, I had fallen in love with the setting more than I had fallen in love with the story itself. Rice never spared the setting in editing as so many authors often do. Early on in her works, it's easy to see that among Rowan and Michael and the expansive Mayfair clan, the setting is an integral character. Every crack in the pavement, every bougainvillea bush, and every weeping willow drew me back into that world that I'd fallen in love with. That feeling never left me in the three years I called the city home.

I could go on and on, but this post is lengthy enough as it is.

In the end, I'm happy to be re-reading The Witching Hour. It has simultaneously reminded me of a place that I'll always think of as home, and it has shown me how much I've grown. The first time I went through this trilogy, I was an aspiring writer. I had stories to tell and the burning desire to tell them well. Only, I didn't have the tools in order to do so.

This time, I am a writer. Last year I clocked nearly 300,000 words over an expanse of five bodies of work. I recently finished one piece and am nearly completion on another, while a few more sit discontentedly around the second act-- just waiting for continuation. I know more about the English language than I did during the first read; and this time I even have preferences and peculiarities about literature and language. One of those is my loyalty to the Oxford comma. I realize that stylistically its popularity has fallen by the wayside, but I love it. It's how I write and is easier on my brain.

So, I admit to being a little surprised at how few commas appear in Rice's gothic family epic. Anne Rice isn't wrong, not at all. She just has a different style of writing than I do. And no, I don't consider myself on par with her; though I do think I'm knowledgeable enough to garner an opinion.

Now I wonder how many other of my favorite books are stylistically different from what I prefer... hm.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Odd Job to Nut Job

            Writers Digest’s website has published an article entitled ‘The Oddest Odd Jobs of 10 Literary Greats’. The article, while a fun look into the earlier years of some of our favorite authors, also made me think about my own odd jobs.
            I have worked as a: sales girl (clothes, music, movies, books, jewelry, house wares, pet supplies, garden equipment, craft supplies); residential and commercial space planner; food server (ice cream/yogurt, candy, smoothies, ballpark foods); party planner; nanny (various ages); administrative legal support team member (secretary, clerk, and assistant). And those are only the jobs I can remember.
            How do we draw upon what we know? This is an often taught lesson that I think many tend to glaze over in their writing. Writing books often tell budding authors to write what they know as they have the best chance of being factually correct in your writing—and thus the story being more believable and relatable. But, how do we do that when we, maybe, didn’t enjoy the odd jobs we’re being told to draw upon? Let’s face it—I’d rather not go back to my days scooping ice cream if I can help it.
            Disliking a job or not wanting to emotionally return to that place doesn’t mean that you can’t draw upon your experiences and turn the situation around for yourself. In order to do this, you must first ask yourself why you don’t want to go back there.
            For me, it was my bosses. The owners of the small, independent shop I worked at owned the business as a side investment—only it wasn’t doing real well at the time—and neither one had been competent enough to effectively run the place. When things didn’t go the way they had imagined, their first instinct was to point the finger at someone else. Surely, their staff who hadn’t been trained, had no previous work history, and were left alone for hours at a time to make impactful decisions for the business they were unqualified to make, were the reason the business suffered.
            Can you tell that I’m not terribly fond of these folks?
            Well, that right there is the reason I should incorporate my personal experience into my work. Discontent can be a wonderful springboard for a fantastic side story. What better way to get revenge on a pair of inept bosses who made my life a real pain than to write them into a fantasy scenario they may or may not survive? Really, as writers we have the opportunity to kill off people we don’t like. In any other profession, killing people would get you 5 to 10 in maximum security; so why not take advantage of this unique perk to the job?
            Not only does writing about our sometimes colorful work history add an element of realism to whatever you’re writing, it can also make a bland storyline a little quirky. All too often I pick up a book about a doctor or a lawyer and the author just glazes over the profession entirely? They’re popular picks in literature and relatively easy to write about, if you’re writing a gloss piece. But who wants to hear their readers say: “Yeah, it was good. No detail though”? Nobody.
What makes Tess Gerritsen so successful is that she was a practicing physician for many years. When she writes medical jargon it isn’t just fancy crap pulled from a textbook. It feels real and genuine because it is. The same can be said for John Grisham and many other writers. Just because they write what they know doesn’t mean it’s boring or that they can’t branch out and stretch their base of knowledge. You never know when the knowledge you acquire from any of life’s experiences is going to be the very thing that grabs readers in your work.