owl in winter

owl in winter

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Good Reads

I have to say, I had not heard of Chris Bohjalian before now. And what is even more bizarre, I picked one of his books up off the "editors' remnants" tables at Barnes and Noble and walked away with it on a whim. I had no idea what I was in for.

"The Double Bind." What a mesmerizing tale. I don't know why I found this book or why this book found me. Maybe because I have always felt the plight of the homeless, felt the derision of the mentally ill, wondered where that man walking with a backpack was going to sleep at night, wondered who he once had been and what brought him to the point of grimy hopelessness, the depths of total despair.

The double bind, what does that term mean, exactly? After reading this book and researching it a bit, I believe it means, "being taught to believe in one thing by a superior while the superior behaves in a completely opposite fashion." Just my interpretation, but you understand. According to the experts, this double standard of expected behavior can cause schizophrenia.

Here's the book.

A brutal attack on a young woman in Vermont. She is left alone to die, to bleed to death, along the woods, on a country road. She blocks out the savagery of the attack, believing for years that she escaped with nothing more than a broken collarbone and broken finger. Throwing herself into her job at a homeless shelter, she believes she is putting the whole episode behind her.

A box of old photos, crisp and peeling at the edges, left behind by a mentally ill homeless man, a talented photographer, someone our heroine, survivor of the brutal attack, identifies with and wants to know intimately. Who was Bobbie Crocker? What do these photos mean?

The heroine's quest to first validate Bobbie Crocker and then herself, spirals her into the netherworlds of the mentally ill. This book will entice you, will bring you to the edge of your seat. When you think you know what is happening, trust me, you don't.

Chris Bohjalian writes seamlessly, flawlessly, in this novel. His construction of this entire story (complete with photos), is nothing less than fabulous.

"The Double Bind" is a psychological thriller you need to pick up. I can't wait to read another one of Chris Bohjalian's books.

Switching gears completely now. For some southern sweetness, let's travel to Mullaby, North Carolina, for Sarah Addison Allen's new book, "The Girl Who Chased the Moon." Seventeen-year old Emily's mother passes away and there is no one left to take her in. As a result, she comes to Mullaby to live with her grandfather, an eight-foot giant, in a house where the wallpaper changes with the mood. She soon learns that Mullaby, for all it's sleepy sweetness, is not the town she expected. Secrets, old recriminations, old tragedies whisper through the trees. Her deceased mother's name is a bad word in that town, but why? Mysterious lights appear in her grandfather's back yard. Emily makes a new friend, Julia, who is working through her own secret pain by baking cakes, beautiful, sugary, rich cakes. Julia believes she is calling someone back home with the smell of her baking, but who? The long-buried dream Julia carries- will it come true? Wyn Morgan is the nicest boy in town but carries a peculiar affliction. Will he and Emily be able to be together in the face of his family's strong disapproval?
Sarah Addison Allen is a rich voice, an enchanting beckoning voice. This story, as with all of her stories, will bring you in and hold you in a starry, gossamer, magic world long after you put the book down.

"The Girl Who Chased the Moon" is a beautiful book, full of magic, romance and carrying a strong hint of food. As with all of Sarah Addison Allen's other books, the cover itself is amazing. Just wait until you enter the world of Mullaby. You'll be enchanted, I promise.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Giving Your Characters Dimension

Stories are about people. Stories tell us what they do or what happens to them, how they react, how they resolve the conflict in the end. Without people, there would be no stories.

In talking about this world we carry around in our heads, We must see our characters as real people. This is something I am passionate about in writing and I've said it before, but I believe it bears repeating. You must develop your characters. Without that breathe of life, they will lie there on the table, flat, lifeless, boring.

So, in developing your character, let's think about a couple of things. Your character has a past. You may want to call this "backstory." With that, let's talk about your backstory for a minute. You came from somewhere, right? Were your parents immigrants, bringing customs and traditions from another country? Were there language barriers to overcome? Was there suspicion and prejudice against your family because of your unfamiliar heritage? Listen, there are so many possibilities. Explore them all.

Here is an example of one dimensional characters, and realizing that all of America will stand up in protest, I still must call them out. Ward and June Cleaver, step forward, please.

Have you ever seen such a perfect couple? Here they are, perfectly manicured, well dressed, perfect mirror images of each other. They don't quarrel (not really), they have no differing opinions (about anything of substance anyway); it's Ward and June Cleaver, and they could be clones of each other. They have no hobbies. They seem to have no interests. They seem to have no conflicts, confusions, goals, hopes for the future, nothing. They dispense advice to their goober sons, and then June cooks a pot roast while Ward settles serenely into the couch and reads the paper. They smile benignly at one another as the picture fades. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it will be the same.
I have no idea where they come from, who their people are, what life experiences led them to the point of the tv show. I read somewhere that June had a college education. If so, why is she picking out aprons to match her dress and planning menus everyday? Seriously. Well. Hate to say it folks, but Ward and June, well, they're boring. They are one dimensional characters, the type you want to avoid whenever possible, or just always.

What would happen if...What would happen if, one day, June snuck a cigarette into the house while Ward was at work, and smoked it? What if Ward is secretly harboring a real hatred for his job (whatever that was), played hookie all day long and went to the horse races and then, just forgot to come home for about five years? What if June took up guitar lessons and moved to Nashville to become a country singer? What if, one evening as Ward read the paper, June threw a china plate at his head because she was tired of him sitting on the couch, reading the paper every evening?

Well, we don't know and we'll never know because Ward and June amble on, eating pot roast on nice plates, and reading the paper on the couch forevermore in celluloid land.
I don't have anything against Ward and June. There is a certain coziness in predictability but, I believe you want to up the ante a bit.

Therefore, the preceding is just an example of what you don't want to do. What you do want to do is create characters that readers will bond with. The emotional attachment is the most powerful tool you have. If your readers can't or don't connect, chances are an editor or agent won't either. So, explore your brain. Go back in the murky darkness and pull out a jewel in the rough. Pour it all out on paper and see where your story goes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cutting the Chaff

Ann Aguirre wrote a great post on "Writer Unboxed" this week titled, "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast."(//http://writerunboxed.com/2010/03/10/six-impossible-things-before-breakfast) You should check it out. By the way, WU is a fantastic magazine for those of us who write genre fiction. I've found it to be a wealth of insight and experience for me and I think you will find it will greatly enrich your writing.

After reading, make your list. It might go something like this:

1. Finish, actually finish, the manuscript I am working on. This includes first draft, second draft, edits, polishing.

2. Research the market (very important) for agents who might be interested and send query letter.

3. Eat chocolate, bite nails, check the mail eagerly every day for the next however many months, buy more chocolate, invest in a manicure.

4. Start the next manuscript.

5. Stay in motion. This means, I will keep writing, reading about writing, reaching out to other writers whether published or unpublished.

6. Jump up and down when I get a positive response from an agent.

My list may seem a little shortsighted but, for the moment, I have no plans to travel to Europe, buy a mansion or any of the other gigantic endeavors I've seen on other lists. My desire is to be published. And then published again. Maybe after that, you'll hear from me in Europe or come to my mansion for dinner!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Big Girl

The thing I love about dogs is their unreserved, unrestrained, unconditional love for their humans.

Having said that, what a week it has been.

My beloved lab-charpai mix, Sunny, has been sick. Last Sunday I took her to the Springfield Emergency Veterinary Hospital thinking she may be dying. Doctor there thought she had a urinary tract infection and an eye infection and prescribed antibiotics and eye drops.

She improved some for a few days and then she fell downhill really, really fast.

Both of us, the ER vet and me, had overlooked one simple, obvious fact. She's never been spayed. She's ten years old. I can't blame him any more than I blame myself for overlooking that fact.

So, when I called my regular vet, Dr. Molly, yesterday and told her that Sunny's not eating, she's drinking copious amounts of water, she's peeing like a racehorse, I was told to get her in and get her in now, which of course, I did. Dr. Molly did some testing and came back and said, it could be polymetra or, it could be kidney failure. Polymetra presents certain problems in a dog this age; surgery could be dangerous. Should the uterus be punctured during surgery, all that bacteria could spill into the abdominal cavity and she could die on the table. Kidney failure, not a whole lot going on there that's positive. Let me test some more. Of course, yes, yes. As I sat in the exam room, I felt as if the world was falling apart around me. My dearest and best friend of ten years is stuck in a cage somewhere behind closed doors and this day, the 6th day of March may be the last day I ever know her. Would I even see her again?

I wanted to be brave. I wanted to think that should she leave me, I could say she lived a good and full life and be happy for that. I wanted to be noble. I wanted to be unselfish.

But I really wasn't brave or noble or unselfish in the end. I sat in the exam room, arms tightly wrapped around me, and cried. I grieved for the noble dog, the dog in the next room, who so patiently and lovingly has stood by me these past ten years, never asking for one thing but that I love her. Never judging me for all my indescretions and stupidity, just happy to be with me. Regardless.

Dr. Molly came back and told me the good news is, her kidneys are fine. Bad news is, she must have surgery to get that uterus out and she must have it now. She said, "I could prop her up for a couple more days on antibiotics but quite frankly, after that, there is not much more I can do." So, the decision was made. Wonderful Dr. Molly, who was supposed to have yesterday afternoon off, stayed and operated on my dog.

It is a funny thing, sort of, to think of how I was raised and the whole thought process about animals. Realizing my father equated everything, great and small, with its relation to eternity; in his mind animals were not something to be valued or respected much. He has never believed animals have souls and if they don't have souls, their only value is whatever role they play on earth and that would be the extent of it. I tend to believe that dogs and man were meant to walk together in this life and in the next one and if that is true for dogs, well...has the idea of a soul been wrongly defined? How can a dog give unconditional love and not be next to God? Is there a parallel there?

I wonder...

In the meantime, the Big Girl, as I call her often, is snoozing beside my chair as I type this, having had a dose of pain meds. I am so thankful she is still here.

Do you love a dog? What is your story?