Tornadoes, and sirens, and hail--Oh, my!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's been a pretty crazy day here in Alabama, which I'm sure you're aware of if you've been watching the news. Major tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. At least 58 dead. One of my former students from back when I taught high school is currently missing after her apartment complex was hit, so please keep Loryn Brown in your thoughts. I'm terrible when it comes to keeping up with weather forecasts (I basically just look outside and dress according to the current conditions), so I've been depending on my Facebook friends all day to keep me posted. Some of them have suffered damage to their homes or spent hours hunkered down in a basement, bathtub, or, in a couple of cases, city hall, and the worst hasn't even hit where I live yet. The first rains began falling just a couple of hours ago, and we're expecting the worst part of the storm to hit here in the next few hours. The lights have flickered a few times, it's thundering right now, and the sirens went off once, but I know this is only just the beginning, so I'm not going to bed anytime soon. Luckily, classes ended yesterday and tomorrow is a dead day, so I don't have to get up especially early.

In ROW80-related news, I posted my weekly writing blog yesterday. It's on the importance of setting to fiction and includes a report and pictures from my recent trip to Forks, Washington. Check it out here if you're interested. My book-of-the-week is Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement, and I'll post a review of it this weekend after I finish it. Because I encouraged everyone to do some setting-related exercises in yesterday's blog, I decided I better take my own advice, and I've been doing some fun world-building for The Novel. I'm terrible at any kind of drawing, but I always enjoy making floor plans, street grids, maps, stuff like that when I'm world-building, so I'm working on some of that kind of stuff right now. It helps to see how different places in the story relate to one another spatially. I'm thinking of doing a (much shorter) follow-up to the setting post soon and including some of the floor plans I've drawn.

Hope everyone else is having a good week. Stay safe, and happy writing!


On the importance of setting (Forks, Washington Edition)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Like many children, when I was in elementary school I learned the five basic elements of fiction: setting, characters, plot, theme, and conflict. In every English class I've taken (or taught) since then, I've spent considerable time discussing plot and character development and analyzing themes and sources of conflict, but for some reason setting almost always gets neglected. Perhaps because setting so often gets dismissed as "description" (all those paragraphs describing rooms, building exteriors, tropical sunsets, rainstorms), we feel like there is less to talk about when it comes to setting. Take The Tempest, for example. How interesting is it to talk about Prospero's island, about which we have only a few competing descriptions, when you can talk about the colonization of the island and the enslavement of Caliban, the representation of slavery and savagery, Gonzalo's idea of utopia, the development of Prospero's character, and the role of the Miranda/Ferdinand love plot. Even the structure of the play makes for more interesting discussion than setting, right?

I use The Tempest as an example only because it was the last text I taught in my World Lit I class this semester. And although we did talk about how the setting of the play might have been portrayed on stage (How does one create a deadly tempest and shipwreck on the early seventeenth-century stage?), we didn't give a lot of thought to the choice of setting itself or the importance of the descriptions. We discussed all the topics I've listed above, and we talked about what we can infer about the individual characters based on how they describe the island, but we didn't talk about the setting alone. That, of course, was a failure on my part, but I don't think I'm the only teacher who neglects setting more frequently than I focus on it. And that is something I mean to correct, not only in my teaching, but also in my writing.

Think about it. How important is setting to your favorite stories and novels? Essential, if your favorites are anything like mine. For me, what makes a story stand above the rest is something I abstractly think of as "color." And that color typically comes not from any particular type of character or plot line, but from setting. Alice in Wonderland. The Catcher in the Rye. The God of Small Things. Midnight's Children. The Blind Assassin. The Forgotten Garden. Harry Potter. In all my years of reading, these are some of the stories that I've loved the most, and for many different reasons. I love the clever wit and absurdity of Alice, the angst and voice of Catcher, the beautiful language and artful structure of TGST, the magical realism and postmodernity of MC, the structure and framework of Assassin, the mixture of history and fairy tale in FG, and the suspense and creative attention to detail in Harry Potter. Many of these stories have something in common (TGST and MC are both by Indian authors, Assassin and FG both incorporate a novel within the novel), but for the most part they are all very different kinds of stories. So what unites them? What makes them stand out above the thousands and thousands of other books I've read?

Setting. All of these stories are set in worlds that are so carefully crafted, so artfully drawn, that I become completely immersed in them. They are created in such a way that I have trouble reconciling the knowledge that I've never actually been to Wonderland; to Kerala, India; to Cornwall; to Hogwarts--because in my imagination, (which often feels just as real and maybe even more real than reality), I have been to all of these places. And when I was growing up, that's all I really wanted out of a story--to escape to a different place, to become a part of a world outside my own.

Last month, as part of my Great Pacific Northwest Tour, I found myself in Forks, Washington. Yes, that Forks, Washington, of Twilight-fame. It wasn't that I intentionally went to see the town that Twilight made famous, but passing through Forks is unavoidable if you are traveling Hwy. 101 around Olympic National Park. And Hwy. 101 is the only way around the park. So about an hour and a half after leaving Seattle and crossing over to the Olympic peninsula on the Kingston/Edmond ferry, we drove through Port Angeles, also of Twilight fame, and it looked nothing like I imagined. Granted, my mental image of Port Angeles had been influenced more by its movie representation than its book representation, but still... I was disappointed.

After taking about two thousand pictures of Lake Crescent and taking three thousand more of the rain forest on the hike to Marymere Falls, we arrived in Forks around 1:00--lunch time. Of course, we stopped to take the obligatory picture in front of the town welcome sign, which would have felt really dorky only there were other people doing it and the town has made a place for people to pull off the road to do this, so it's obviously encouraged.

There aren't a lot of places to eat in Forks (no fast food places or chains), so we ended up at Forks Coffee Shop, which is basically a stand-alone diner at the end of the downtown strip. The main strip has been overrun with stores selling Twilight memorabilia and tours, which made me simultaneously sad and happy for the people of Forks. I'm sure they get really tired of Twilight mania (and trust me, half the people I saw that day were vacationing Twihards--some were really obvious, but we made a game out of guessing who were the Twihards, locals, and regular hikers/vacationers), but it's also got to be doing wonders for the local economy. And judging from what I saw of the town, I'm sure they need the economic boost. (With our current economy, don't we all?)

After an unexceptional lunch, we went across the street to Forks Outfitters, a combination outdoor supply store, clothing store, and grocery store--think a more woodsy, small town version of Wal-Mart. This is where we got sucked into at least a half-hour's worth of shopping for Twihard family and friends, buying Forks hoodies and magnets and water bottles. (Now I kind of wish I'd gotten myself a magnet, but at the time I was feeling far too superior to the Twihards to make the purchase. Silly me.)

We had some time when we finished shopping, so I decided we might as well make this a full-fledged Twi-vaganza and go down to La Push, see if we could spot Jacob Black. ;-) The people of La Push have really embraced this whole Twilight phenomenon, so we were greeted upon entering the reservation with this sign:

And then we passed Jacob Black's house, which was so eerily like his house in the book and movie:

There was a shed/garage on the other side of the house like the one Jacob repairs the motorcycles in, and the house's genius owners leaned "Jacob's" motorcycle against the mailbox. I have no idea if Stephenie Meyer saw this house before she wrote what Jacob's house looked like, but whether she did or not, it was so strange to see the house brought to life in this way, to see it exactly as I imagined it but out in the "real world." 

As we continued toward La Push, the landscape became less recognizable because it's really suffered from the logging industry.  Whole sections of forest and hillsides have been completely cleared, so the landscape looks far bleaker and emptier than it's portrayed in the books and movies. (Stephenie Meyer commented on this herself after her first trip to Forks, after at least the first book had been written.) 

My whole point in going to La Push, though, was to see the beach, which isn't something you can just drive to. We arrived at the Third Beach trailhead first, but it was a bit longer than I wanted to hike (we were still planning on hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest and seeing Ruby Beach that afternoon before driving back to Seattle that night), so we drove to the Second Beach trailhead instead. After an extremely muddy hike, we finally arrived at the beach and found ourselves with just a handful of Twihards and backpackers.

The beaches in the Olympic Peninsula are so different from any I've ever seen before: covered in driftwood, surrounded by islands of rock and pine-topped cliffs. But it was here that I finally felt like I had entered the Twilight realm.

After we left La Push and Forks and ventured south to the Hoh Rain Forest, which looks every bit like the forests from Twilight, I started to think more about what I had seen and to appreciate Meyer's choice of setting even more. Critics have questioned how such an ordinary, plain girl (Bella) could attract so much attention from the local boys. But that day I understood. I understood why any sort of change, any new person, would have made such a difference in that small, dreary town. (Meyer says this herself, but once you see Forks, you believe it.) I understood why a girl like Bella would become obsessed with someone like Edward Cullen, why she would also be drawn to the rocky shores of La Push. I could feel how oppressive it must feel to be a teenager in Forks, to be so isolated from everything. I grew up in a small town, hating every minute of it and longing for adventure, for escape, and Forks is so much more isolated than even where I grew up. (Remember: One road in, one road out.) I felt that isolation, that desperation, when I was reading the books, but after touring Forks, I felt like I understood it on another level.  

I tell you this anecdote to emphasize the importance of setting. What would Twilight be without Forks? What would The Catcher in the Rye be without New York? What would Wuthering Heights be without the English moors, or Pride & Prejudice be without the countryside? They wouldn't be nearly as good. So maybe we should start talking about setting a little more, in what we read and in what we write. Maybe it's time to recognize that setting isn't a second class citizen to plot and characterization, but it's just as important, and maybe in some cases (dare I say it?) even more important. So tonight, instead of writing another character sketch or revising your novel outline, draw a floor plan or a map. Sketch a building. Look at pictures of the place you're writing about (or similar to the place you are inventing). Work on making your descriptions more precise, creative, colorful. Your readers will thank you for it.

Olympic National Park--rain forest trail to Marymere Falls.


Room with a View

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten any writing done this weekend--one, because I've been grading World Lit papers that I have to give back to my students Tuesday, and two, because I've been obsessively reading Emma Donoghue's Booker-short-listed novel Room all weekend.

I'll admit that before I began reading this novel, I was a bit skeptical. Even though it appeared on tons of "Best of..." lists last year, I didn't think I would enjoy it very much. First of all, I'm not a big fan of captivity narratives, especially ones involving rape. The premise of the novel--a kidnapped woman is entrapped in a room for seven years and repeatedly raped over the course of that time, birthing a son who is her only companion--sounds far drearier than the book Donoghue writes, in part because the story is not told from the woman's point of view, but from the point of view of her five-year-old son.  The resulting book isn't so much a captivity narrative as it is a touching story of growing up completely shut out from the rest of the world, of beginning to understand "reality," of exploring the mother-child relationship in this most traumatic of circumstances.

What drew me to the novel, then, was the very question it raised about the nature of reality, about the consequence of waking someone to the knowledge that there is a whole world outside their own experiences that they never knew existed. It's a question I'm very interested in in my own writing and especially in the novel I'm currently working on--and in some way, a question I'm exploring in every story I write.  ***Slight Spoilers*** For Jack, Donoghue's narrator in Room, Room is all he knows.  His only companions are his mother and his friends, Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Rug, Wardrobe, etc. For him, there are only two realities, what's "real" (what's in the room) and what's TV (what's fantasy or imaginary). His awakening to the knowledge that what's TV is also what's real, that the children on TV, the police cars and firetrucks, are also real, is skillfully and poignantly rendered.  Donoghue deserves all the accolades she's getting.

I'll admit that for the first 10% of the novel, I still wasn't sure if I was going to like the book.  The narrating voice is a five-year-old's, and although I usually like adult novels told from this sort of alternative point of view, I wasn't sure if I bought Jack's voice at first. I've spent considerable time with two- to four-year-old boys these past few years (mostly friends' children and my fiancĂ©'s two totally awesome, genius nephews), and when I tried to imagine any of them speaking the way Jack did, I couldn't. He simultaneously seemed verbally inferior and superior to every child I knew that age. At times, he thought in a highly developed way, but then he'd also mess up conjugating simple verbs or reordering sentences in a way I felt he should have mastered much earlier, especially considering how much time his mother spends teaching him vocabulary and reading. As I read more and got to know Jack better, though, I realized how judgmental that was. I realized Jack's quirks were not some failure on the writer's part, but were in fact part of what made him special, the same way that all kids have certain things that it takes them longer to master than it takes others. His turning every object into a proper noun (Room, Rug, Remote), which initially grated, eventually became endearing and understandable. I loved every character in this book (other than Old Nick, the kidnapper), probably more because of their flaws. They all felt so extremely real to me, so elegantly and insightfully drawn.  The dialogue (and more importantly, what's not being said) was so well done, so subtle, nuanced, honest, believable. And I have to say the last few pages, when I was wondering how in the world the story was going to end, were handled so beautifully, so brilliantly, so perfectly.

So if you're looking for a new novel to check out, and nothing I've said so far has turned you off, you should definitely pick up Room. If you want to read a little bit more about it first, I suggest this article.

One last thing about the author: one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because Donoghue is also an academic, although I don't think she's a "practicing" one right now. (Meaning, she isn't a professor at a university, and I don't think she's currently doing academic research or writing.)  She holds a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century literature, which is also my field, and on more than one occasion I've been doing research and needed to cite an article or book she or her partner, Chris Roulston, an associate professor in women's studies, wrote. So I felt like I had this whole other connection to her before I ever read Room, and I was really curious to see what kind of fiction writer she was. And she didn't disappoint. I will definitely check out her other novels now.

I hope you guys had a more productive writing weekend than I did. Even if I didn't write a single word, though, I'm feeling inspired and got to read a book I loved, so the weekend wasn't a total waste. :-)


Everything is Better with Tea

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I fully intended to make up for my missed Sunday post by writing an extra-long post today, to talk about hitting (and missing) last week's goals and to review my most recent book-of-the-week, Kirsten Hubbard's Like Mandarin, but the fact is I'm tired. Exhausted even. Wedding planning is taking over my life, even though I feel like I've gotten so little accomplished. I spent all day Saturday dress shopping with my mom, aunt, cousin, and sister, and although I now have an excellent idea of what kinds of dresses I don't like, I'm no closer to finding "the one." The good news is that I've booked my venues and officiant, and I'm signing the contract with my photographer this week, but the bad news is I have to go wedding dress shopping again next week. :-(  (The good news is I'm going with one of my best friends/college roommate, though, and I haven't seen her in awhile, so yay for reunions!)

On top of all the wedding drama, the end of the semester is close at hand, and I spent the last two days conferencing with students. Conferencing always takes a lot out of me, even when I'm really engaged with my students' projects, and I've come home the past two days just wanting to crash into bed and sleep the evening away. So instead of boring you with a recap of last week's ROWing and talking about all the writing I haven't done lately, I'm going to leave you today with a promise of posts to look forward to between now and the next ROW80 check-in:

  • A review of Emma Donoghue's Room
  • A review of the Winter 2011 issue of Southern Humanities Review (my journal/magazine pick-of-the-week)
  • A post on the importance of setting to fiction, with bonus pictures from my recent trip to Forks, Washington. No, I didn't go there because of Twilight, but I did see lots of Twilight-related places (that's unavoidable; it's a small town), so if you're interested in that sort of thing, stay tuned. 
That, along with my writing goals, should be enough to keep me very busy between now and Sunday. Oh, and then there are the sixty World Lit papers I have to grade this weekend. :-P  A very busy weekend, indeed.

For now, though, I'm going to curl up on the couch with my Kindle and my cup of cinnamon-orange tea. A little escapism is always good for the (exhausted) soul.


ROWing 2.2

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Week two of ROW80 is going much better than week one, for sure. I've already posted my weekly writing-related blog post. (It's on rejection and has already sparked some interesting discussion on Facebook.) I'm more than half-way through my book for the week (Kirsten Hubbard's Like Mandarin), and I've already submitted one of my stories five places this week. I'm making (slow) progress revising one of the short stories from my master's thesis into a piece of flash fiction.  Boiling a ten-page story down to less than 750 words certainly is a challenge, but it's been fun, and I'm hoping to finish it up this weekend so I can start sending it out next week.

I'm not sure how much progress I'll make on my other goals this week because I'm going to visit my parents for the weekend. (And going wedding dress shopping! Oh, the horror! The horror!) Their home internet is always iffy, so I hope to be able to post my Sunday ROW80 update, but if I can't, I'll be working hard to give you a good update next week.

It seems like a lot of you draw as much of your writing inspiration from music as I do, so I'll leave you today with a couple of songs I've been playing on loop when writing a big scene in The Novel--Florence + the Machine's "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)" and "Cosmic Love." Hope you're all having a fantastic, super-productive week!


Rejecting Rejection

When I was thirteen, I submitted my first story for publication. After months of reading about cover letters, SASEs, and proper manuscript formatting, I finally polished my letter, printed a clean copy of my short story, bought the proper envelopes, and paid $0.78 to send my baby to the New York offices of Seventeen. Now, of course, I understand how crazy it was for a thirteen-year-old to submit a story to Seventeen, but at the time I didn't know much about publishing and Seventeen was one of the few places I knew of that published YA short stories. I'm sure you can guess what happened next.

A few months later, I got my first rejection letter. At the time I remember thinking how cold the letter was, how impersonal. Not only was there nothing about me or my story in the letter (a simple "Dear Lacy, Thanks for sending 'A New Pain'" would have sufficed), but it wasn't even properly signed. Despite the fact that I'd gone to the trouble to find the appropriate editor's name and address my cover letter to her, the rejection letter was merely signed "Fiction Editor."

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my parents, I dug that old envelope and rejection letter out of the stack of papers my mother has been begging me to recycle for years. Yes, I kept it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never intentionally thrown away a rejection, and I've gotten quite a few over the years. Because I've made more of an effort to publish recently, that number has swelled in the past few months. And the more rejections I read, the more I appreciate the simple dismissal I received years ago from the unnamed fiction editor at Seventeen.

Here is the Seventeen rejection, verbatim:

Thank you for your interest in seventeen.  We're always happy to consider fiction submissions.

Your manuscript has received thoughtful consideration. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite suit our editorial needs.

Again, thanks for thinking of us.

-Fiction Editor 

Aside from the lack of salutation and the anonymous signature, this, to me, is a perfect rejection letter. When I get rejections like this now, they barely faze me. I read them, write "no" and the date under the story title on my little tracking chart, and promptly forget about them. I've developed a pretty thick skin, and these kinds of rejections don't make much of an impression anymore. But occasionally, I still get rejections that prick, that sting, that I cannot dismiss as simply as I can dismiss the one from Seventeen.  For all you editors out there who don't want to discourage writers from ever submitting to (or reading) your journal again, here are a couple of things not to do in a rejection letter:

  1. Don't imply that the story sucked.  I recently got a rejection that said they would not be publishing one of my stories.  Then it said, "Not to say this story is 'bad' by any means, just not what we’re looking for." Okay, I know what the editor was probably going for here, but seriously... it isn't "bad"? I can't help but see that line and interpret it, "this isn't 'bad,' but it certainly isn't 'good' either." Ouch. I know I'm probably reading too much into that, but there's gotta be a better way to tell someone her story isn't right for your journal without implying that her story sucked. (Oh, right, there is. Seventeen showed us that.)
  2. Take the time to say something more than "Thanks, but no thanks." Seriously, it's a form rejection. At least make it sound like you took the time to read what I wrote. One recent rejection simply read, "We're passing on your story, but thanks for sending it." Another said, "We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but we will not be publishing it." Another said, "Thank you for the submission. We're going to pass." The thing is, I got some of these rejections months ago, but they still stung just enough that when I went to find these examples I knew exactly which rejections to look up. And now when I think of these journals, this is what I think about. It's not that I take form rejection personally, it's just that I like to know that the journals I read and admire are kind to the writers that submit to them.
  3. Don't call people by their full names. When I get a rejection that reads, "Dear LACY MARSCHALK, Thank you for sending us RANDOM SHORT STORY," do you know what I assume? That the online submission application or some sort of software filled in my name and the story name, that the editor didn't even take the time to send the rejection him- or herself. I know editors are busy. I understand that they have hundreds and in some cases thousands of rejections to send, but could they at least use a program that makes my name and title appear in the same font as everything else, or that just uses the writer's first name instead of full name? At least pretend that they wrote this little form note just for me?
And that's all I'm asking for really. I'm not asking for personal responses. I understand how overwhelmed editors are. I know how many submissions they get. I've been in their position. All I'm asking for is a little courtesy. I'm not looking for encouragement; I just don't want discouragement (of the "this isn't 'bad,' per se" variety).

That being said, I have to say that I've gotten some fantastically encouraging rejections lately, the kind that are almost as good as acceptances. About one of my stories, Crazyhorse said, "Ultimately, the manuscript was not selected for publication, but we want you to know that we very much enjoyed reading your work. The manuscript was one of the best we've read recently. It was difficult to say no. We hope you will send us another manuscript to consider soon. Since we enjoyed this one, we hope to read more and to give your next manuscript our highest consideration." And about the same story, Mid-American Review said, "Although we have decided not to accept it for publication, we wanted to let you know that we read it with more than the casual amount of interest, that there is much to admire in your writing. We hope that you will send more work our way soon." For all I know, Crazyhorse and Mid-American say that in every rejection letter, but even if they do, I don't care. When I received those rejections, I felt special, like my writing mattered, like even if they didn't want my story, someone would. Those rejections didn't sting one bit; instead, they inspired me--to keep writing, to keep submitting, to keep growing, to get better.

Wouldn't it be nice if all rejections could be like that?


Reading, Writing, ROWing--Week 1

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The first week of my first ROW 80 is over, and I have to say that even though I didn't meet all of my goals, I'm still calling the week a success.  I certainly accomplished more this week than I would have done without my ROW 80 goals, and that's the point, right?

This week I only met my target word count on one of my three assigned writing days, but I still made progress on my novel, so I'm not going to beat myself up about that too much.  I did manage to submit a story to five journals this week and to read one of my writing magazines--the March/April issue of Writer's Digest.  I'll admit I didn't read the magazine cover-to-cover--there were a few articles that aren't of any use to me right now because I don't do freelance work--but what I did read was informative and helpful. I also learned that I shouldn't read a magazine like WD in one sitting, just to meet some sort of weekly goal. In order for the articles to be helpful, I need to give myself time to absorb what I read in an article and even put some of the suggestions into practice before I read the next one. So this coming week I will try to put this "revised" goal into practice. In the mean time, here are a few fun things or insightful ideas I thought I'd share from this month's WD:

Fun thing #1: Oh, look!  It's Alice and the Cheshire Cat.  But that's not all--it's a poster with the entire text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland printed on it!  Pretty awesome, right? And Postertext has tons of these kinds of posters of classic works to choose from, everything from Peter Pan to Crime and Punishment.

Fun thing #2: T-shirts emblazoned with the covers of classic books from Out of Print Clothing.  I really want this Great Gatsby shirt for women.

Insightful Idea: In the "Exercise Your Pen" column this month, Barbara Baig stresses that we should get to know books we are reading on a more imaginative level, "reading for pictures."  Her advice? "When you find a passage that creates powerful images, try to figure out how the writer did that. What kinds of sensory details did he or she use? In what order? Write an imitation of the passage. What do you learn that you might apply to your own work?"  I think this is a fantastic idea, and one that would certainly help me in my own writing. I know sensory details in particular are sometimes lacking in my stories, and I have to make a conscious effort to include them sometimes, so it will be an interesting challenge for me to focus on descriptions both in the novels I read and in my own writing.

Finally, this week for my book/review of the week, I read Beth Revis's Across the Universe, a YA dystopian/sci fi/romance/mystery novel.  I really enjoyed it, for a variety of reasons.  Dystopian novels are big right now, but Revis's novel is very different from all the others I've read recently.  First, it's set on a spaceship, Godspeed, hundreds of years from now, and one of the protagonists is Amy, a teenage girl from Earth who's been cryogenically frozen but is awoken fifty years too early.  The story is told in alternating chapters by Amy and Elder, the future leader of the ship, which I actually really enjoyed.  I'm not usually a huge fan of novels that switch back and forth between two first-person POVs, but I thought Revis did it really well. I enjoyed both characters' perspectives, and both felt necessary to the storyline.

Although the cover of the book suggests that this is a romance, the love story isn't emphasized as much as in a lot of other YA novels, and this is really more of a mystery novel than anything else. This truly is a "whodunit"-type novel, although it is a bit predictable and even the final twist was something that had been nagging me for awhile, so it perhaps wasn't as shocking as it was supposed to be. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book and the characters. The novel is supposed to be the first in a trilogy, and it will be really interesting to see where Revis takes the story. The novel actually wraps up far more cleanly than most of the first-in-a-series novels I've read lately (I'm thinking of Matched and Delirium, in particular), and I thought the book could easily stand on its own. So in conclusion, it's definitely a novel worth checking out if you're a fan of the dystopian genre or spaceships in general, and if you don't feel like investing your time or patience in a series right now, with Across the Universe you don't really have to.


Editing the World

Friday, April 8, 2011

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed a few layout changes made during the past week.  In particular, I changed the banner picture from this... the current picture that I took a few weeks ago at Ruby Beach in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Ruby Beach was the last place I visited on my week-long tour of the Pacific Northwest, and I couldn't have picked a more magical place to end my vacation.  After a day of hiking to waterfalls and through rain forests in Olympic National Park, we timed our arrival at Ruby Beach perfectly, getting there just before sunset.

The tide was receding as we arrived, and the sand had this lovely silver sheen, reflecting the pastel-colored sky.  The beach was divided in half by a stream of icy water racing to join the ocean, with rock formations towering on one side and piles of driftwood on the other.

When we arrived there were only four other people on the beach: a backpacking couple who were obviously planning to camp on the beach for the night, and a father and daughter who were there to photograph the sunset, tripods and all.  It was so nice to have the beach almost to ourselves, and the view was so overwhelming beautiful, the sound of the waves so calming, the landscape so varied and aesthetically interesting, that I could have happily stayed there for days.  Unfortunately, we had less than an hour before the rains came. (You can see the approaching storm in the photograph above.)  Although we'd intended to eat our snack of cheese and crackers (Beecher's homemade Flagship cheese, purchased the previous day at Pike Market Place--amazing stuff) on the beach, we ended up eating in the car at the top of the beach, the rain beating against the glass.  Despite our time at Ruby Beach being cut short, it was truly a perfect way to end the day and the vacation.  Ruby Beach will always be a special place to me, a place that I instantly felt connected to, and it is for that reason I chose to turn one of my pictures from that day into my blog header.

My old photograph was also of a place I felt connected to, but from that picture you couldn't tell it.  While my Ruby Beach pictures are presented almost exactly as I took them (minus a little cropping) and accurately depict the place they represent, the tree header has been edited to the point that it is unrecognizable.  The black and white tree looks (I think) eerie and haunting, but in truth the original picture looks nothing like the above image:

Quite a difference, don't you think?  This is a photograph I took of the famous 370-year-old saman tree at Romney Manor in St. Kitts.  The original, unedited photograph shows how colorful and sunny St. Kitts is, while the edited photo is dark and dramatic.  

So why does this even matter?  Why am I finally revealing the original photograph, after I've removed the edited banner?

To show you the importance of editing, how editing can change everything--perspective, tone, mood. Right now I'm working on a creative nonfiction essay about my visit to the village of Portobelo, Panama.  I'm pretty sure that it's the most beautiful thing I've ever written, but it's also been the most difficult.  It's hard to edit your own life, to edit moments and memories to share them with an audience. We do it all the time, but to put those memories on paper takes a kind of courage I've never had. I've always hidden behind fiction because non-fiction feels dangerous, as if I'm exposing myself to the world and I'm afraid the world isn't going to like what it sees.  

That's why I have to be careful I don't over-edit, that I don't completely change the perspective, tone, and mood of my memories the way that I did in the above photograph.  Non-fiction is supposed to be true, right? I  might take liberties with the truth occasionally (Was the fisherman's shirt really red?), and truth is always going to be subjective, but for the most part, the story is supposed to be real.  And that's what I'm struggling with right now--telling the story as it really happened, and not editing it to the point that someone on that trip with me would no longer recognize it.  

To those of you who write creative nonfiction, I have to ask--How do you keep from over-editing your life, your memories, to fit the story you want to tell?  How do you overcome the fear of exposing yourself to ensure that you are honest about your experiences and not overly worried about how you will be judged for them?


A Slow Start

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Despite my best intentions, my first ROW 80 has gotten off to a *very slow* start.  I've started work on a few of my goals (I'm currently reading Beth Revis's Across the Universe for my weekly book review, and I've started on a blog post about the role of editing in the creative nonfiction essay that will probably be posted Friday), but as far as actual writing goes?  A total FAIL. I think I wrote twelve words yesterday.  So, yeah, I've got a long way to go.

The good news is that I never intended to get a lot done between Monday and today.  During the middle of the week I'm crazy busy with teaching and research and grading (got a big stack of rewrites I still have to tackle tonight), but around the weekends I have a lot more unstructured time.  So I still have time to meet all those goals before Sunday--I just have to get started on them first.


ROW 80 Goals: A New Form of Accountability

Monday, April 4, 2011

What is ROW 80, you might ask?  That's a good question, because I myself didn't know until about a week ago.  I've been following Vicki Keire's blog for awhile now, and I noticed she was doing something called "ROW 80 check-ins" and that she had a ROW 80 banner in her sidebar, but I still didn't know what these things meant.  Eventually I went in search of what this thing was, and I'm so glad I did.  It turns out that ROW 80 is exactly what I'm missing in my life right now--accountability.

ROW 80, or "A Round of Words in 80 Days," is designed for those of us who flunk out of NaNoWriMo in the first three days, who need to be able to set reasonable daily or weekly or monthly writing goals that we can actually accomplish, and who can do so at times of year that accommodate our schedules.  (Unlike NaNoWriMo, which falls at the worst possible time of year for a grad student!)  ROW 80 doesn't ask you to give up your life for a month; it asks you to create better writing habits, to prioritize your writing, and to do so within a safe group of bloggers who are doing the same.  It's a brilliant idea because you get to set your own goals, based on your own circumstances.

Round Two of ROW 80 (the first round ran from the beginning of the year until just a few days ago) begins today, April 4, and runs through June 23.  For those roughly two and a half months, my goals are:
  1. Write 500 words a day at least three days a week.  These 500 words must be related to creative projects--The New Novel, or any short story, creative non-fiction, or poetry projects.  They cannot relate to my dissertation or to any academic publishing projects--that article I'm revising, or book reviews and encyclopedia entries.  Blogging also does not count, but creative revision does, as long as I'm adding 500 new words in the process.
  2. Blog at least twice once a week about writing or related subjects.  I already have to blog twice a week to "check-in" with other ROW 80 writers (look for those updates on Wednesdays and Sundays), but I'd like to post at least two one new blogs of substance a week. (Something more than "I'm doing great, guys!  Meeting all those goals!" or "I'm failing miserably and haven't gotten off the couch in two weeks.")
  3. Read one book a week related to a current project of mine and review it on my blog.  I took this idea from Vicki, and I think it's a great idea.  Because I'm working on a YA novel, this will usually mean reviews of new or classic YA novels (I'm really wanting to revisit Madeleine L'Engle's Austin family series at the moment), but since I'm also working on a couple of travel pieces and a short story, I might also review some collections.
  4. Read one writing-related magazine or a literary journal a week. Since I subscribe to The Writer, Poets & Writers, and Writer's Digest and rarely read any of them, I'm hoping this goal will both improve my writing and knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as relieve some of my guilt about over-subscribing.
  5. Get two new story acceptances.  Now, I realize this is a goal I have limited control over, but I think if I'm doing all this new writing, it shouldn't be too terribly difficult.  I've unofficially set a goal for myself of one new published piece a month, and so far I'm right on schedule--I've had four pieces (one poem, two flash fiction stories, and one traditional short story) accepted since January.  So the goal is to be able to continue this in May and June.
  6. Submit stories at least five new places a week.  This goal is tied closely to the previous one.  Obviously, if I'm going to get two story acceptances in the next two months, I've got to be submitting stories!  The number I've set here is actually a low one, but right now I don't have anything new to send out. (I have one story out for submission right now, but I've already sent it lots of places, so I can't really submit it anymore until rejections start coming in.)  Of course, ROW 80 is going to change that and hopefully help me write and polish lots of new pieces to submit, so soon I should be able to be submitting far more than five places a week.
  7. Go to the gym at least three times a week.  Okay, this one doesn't sound directly related to writing, but it's my way of setting some quantifiable health-related goal that will help my writing.  I write more and I write better when I'm living an overall healthy life, and being active is part of that.  For months now, I've been a real slacker when it comes to the gym, and I feel...rotten.  I feel sluggish, I have no energy, and I get horrible headaches.  My blood sugar has also been giving me a lot of trouble lately.  I believe all of these things are linked, and I'm hoping that being more active will make me feel better, and thus, instead of longing to take a nap every afternoon, I will use that time to write instead.
So that's it!  My six (hopefully manageable) goals for the next 80 days.  They won't be easy.  Over the next month, I have many academic projects that have to be completed (there are only so many times I can tell my dissertation director "I'm working on it" before she calls my bluff); and I have to teach, grade papers, and give finals, in addition to my other part-time work as an editorial assistant and research assistant.  Most difficult, however, will be the month I'm in London (mid-May to mid-June), when I'll be slogging through dusty, moldy archives seven days a week all in the name of academic research.  It will certainly be a challenge to keep my ROW 80 goals then, but if I create the habit now, I have no doubt I'll be able to accomplish all of my goals even then.


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