Tag Archives: writing

I couldn’t resist seeing you again.

Miss you IIHey folks. I know I said that the last post was the last post, but I’ve got good reasons for stopping by here again. One, a few readers recently subscribed here, while all the action is happening at the new place over there; and two, a few old subscribers have yet to click on the new site and re-subscribe.

I’m not much of a self-promoter, so really, I wanted to send out this quick post because what you’re missing by not clicking over at the new site is – specifically – an excellent interview with Megan Stielstra, author of Everyone Remain Calm. She’s a writer, the Literary Director and a performer with Chicago’s 2nd Story, a teacher at Columbia College and the University of Chicago, and a mother. All I did was ask a few questions, but what she’s done is share a wealth of writing experience and give readers what feels like a mini-writing workshop.

Really. Go there. Read Part 1 of the interview, where she talks about digital publication and the courage it takes to write – and tell – our stories. Then, study Part 2, because that’s where the mini-workshop happens, where she discusses good days and bad days and what to do with your writer’s block.

I’d hate for you to miss it.

And, if you decide to subscribe to the new site while you’re there, all the more fun!

Last Post, but certainly not The End.

What do Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees, puzzles, and raison d’etre have in common? Find out by clicking over to the new site: ChristiCraig.com.

After today, that’s where you’ll find all the new posts — on writing, on life, on life as a writer (which means more author interviews and more guest posts). I hope you’ll join us!

Wednesday’s Word: Kleptocracy. Say that three times fast, and then write a story.

The last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: about new routines, upcoming projects and books unfinished. Planning, but not so much creating. It seems right, then, to click over to Wordsmith.org and spend some time with the Wednesday’s word of the day* — and my muse.

(I hope she’s listening.)

Today’s word:

kleptocracy. Noun. A government by the corrupt in which rulers use their official positions for personal gain.

A word and definition applicable to many, I’d say.

*****

Head of Household

Under the muted glow of the nightlight, Nora pulled at her lip. In the mirror, she could see a growing line of blood trickle down the inside of her mouth.

“Damn,” she whispered.

“Guess I got a little crazy, huh?” Glen came up from behind her and put heavy hands on her shoulders.

“Crazy!” Nora said. “You bit me.” She wriggled out from under his grip.

“Yeah, just making sure you knew who was in charge.” He slapped her ass. Nora flipped him off and marched back to the bedroom. She heard Glen laugh, but he didn’t apologize.

Glen wasn’t always so rough and crass. It wasn’t until the day after they’d gotten married, when Nora woke to the sour smell of morning breath and Glen’s face staring down at hers, that he started declaring he was now “master of her domain.”

“Good morning?” she’d said, as she’d laughed and pushed him aside. She had thought he was kidding around.

The next week, though, he began claiming her time, telling her exactly how many nights a year she could go out with her girlfriends. No more Happy Hour meet-ups or impromptu coffee dates. And “Ladies night out” was a conspiracy, he said.

During dinners, he got greedy, taking much more than his share and leaving her with scraps some nights. She called him out on it, but he told her she’d just have to start cooking more.

“The King has a right to seconds,” he said on the night she served tenderloin. “And thirds.” He stabbed at the last piece on the platter.

And after the lights went out, he was like an animal in hiding most nights. He waited until she was almost asleep and too tired to fight back and he took her. Tonight, he’d been vicious.

“How’s the lip?” Glen asked as he crawled into bed.

“I can still taste blood…just so you know,” she said.

He patted her head and turned over without saying goodnight. Nora sat up on her elbow and studied the shape of his silhouette. When she heard his breathing slow to a shallow rhythm, she reached out and put her hand on his waist.

She squeezed.

He was growing fat.

*****

They Might Be Giants – Don’t Let’s Start from They Might Be Giants on Vimeo.

* Wednesday’s Word means write something – an essay, poem, or flash fiction – based on Wordsmith.org’s word of the day and post it by midnight. Past pieces from this fun writing exercise can be found under Wednesday’s Word on the sidebar to the right.

Sometimes the words are just meant for me.

I’ve been sitting and studying the potential of this post for the last two hours. I had all sorts of ideas, inspired by an essay I read from Nathan Evans at Hippocampus Magazine.

You should read it.

He talks about first kisses, and the unexpected effects. And, deep in the middle of his essay is a message about the sweet taste of love.

I thought I’d write about my unexpected firsts, about how love came up on me all quiet and sneaky. And how it still comes, in waves.

But the lines read unfinished.
And raw.
And were maybe a study, in events, meant only for me.

You know?

Sometimes when we write, it’s because we have to see the words fall onto the screen, or onto the paper, in a comprehensible way so that our mind really gets it — whatever “it” is, that critical message we’ve been missing for weeks or months on end.

So, the early drafts of this post were an exercise in listening and understanding, and what the last two hours of writing yielded was a gift: that often, the quiet and profound revelations in life show up in unexpected places, even (and especially) when I’m not paying attention.

Where did your writing take you this week?

Welcome Jenna Blum, Bestselling Author of The Stormchasers

Go get him, Karena, he said. You’re the only one who can.

And Karena knew this to be true, from the nights she was the only one who could sing Charles to sleep, the only one who could coax him off the roof, keep him from climbing the water tower, make him stop chanting that song, stop bouncing that ball, stop kicking that door. She ran out into the lot, tasting the dirt in the air, positioning herself…where Charles would either have to stop or run her down….
~ from The Stormchasers

More than once, I’ve fallen victim to the belief that I could save someone: a friend in despair, a parent on the brink, a loved one chasing a false god down a dark road. I’ve set my voice on an uncomfortable high note in hopes that enthusiasm was contagious, played counselor during marathon phone calls,  stood in the way of the inevitable and gotten pinched in the middle. Painful lessons are never pretty.

But in Jenna Blum’s amazing novel, The Stormchasers, we find a story that mixes the agony of mental illness with the beauty of landscape, the power of devotion, and the miracle of unexpected healing. A novel as much about mental illness as it is about storms, The Stormchasers gives readers vivid images of how both phenomena mirror each other in the way danger brews and crescendos, then crashes and leaves a path of destruction.

The main character, Karena Jorge, is driven in her work as a journalist and in her search to save her twin brother, Charles, from himself. She sets out on a stormchasing expedition, one that puts her in danger at times and brings her closer to a different discovery: Charles is not the only one who needs saving.

The Stormchasers, touching and poignant, is a story that I will read again. I’m so honored to host Jenna Blum today for an interview about her novel, about writing, and about karma. At the end of the interview, leave a quick comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of The Stormchasers. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, August 30th, at high noon.

**UPDATE: Because of Irene’s visit to the East Coast, and subsequent power outages over the weekend, I’m going to postpone the drawing for a copy of Jenna Blum’s novel until Thursday, Sept. 1st.**

CC: In a recent and compelling essay on the website, Style Substance Soul, you talk about a childhood fascination with tornadoes and reasons why you chase storms (even after the novel has been published). Did the idea for THE STORMCHASERS stem from your personal experience on the road with Tempest Tours, or was it your research with them that took root and sealed your strong connection with the chasing community?

JB: That’s a great question! I had the idea for THE STORMCHASERS–a novel about a bipolar young man who chases tornadoes when he’s manic and his twin sister, who basically chases him–long before I started chasing storms with Tempest. In fact, I wrote an abbreviated draft of the novel in my graduate MA program at Boston University, back in 1996.  I didn’t have a stormchasing community before I started chasing with Tempest to research subsequent drafts of the novel, and what I didn’t expect were the lifelong friends I would make chasing.  I chase with the same people every year, my esteemed mentors and friends like me who are still learning, and they are my storm family. THE STORMCHASERS continues to introduce me to new folks in the chasing community, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

CC: All of the characters in your novel are written in such a way – authentic and relatable – that readers will think of them long after they close the cover of your book. Do you have a special technique you use, early on in your writing, for developing characters?

JB: Thank you for the generous comment about my characters!  I suppose they come off as real because to me, they are real.  They just happen to exist in a dimension halfway between the ether and the paper, hovering somewhere above my head.  My first job as a writer is to get them out where others can come to know and love them the same way I do.  I’ve been told that my characters are lovable despite their flaws–or sometimes hateful because of them or sometimes just plain flawed–and I take that as proof I’ve succeeded in getting them down as real people.  Because who among us isn’t flawed?

When I’m first getting to know the characters, I start by writing down everything I know about them, which ranges from macro big-picture stuff–basic family history–to the fact that Charles Hallingdahl, for instance, the brother in THE STORMCHASERS, ate only green food as a child. Not all the details make it into the novels.  But because they’re part of the character, I write them down.  More details reveal themselves as I go along, and the biggest struggle is to remain true to the characters’ characters, to not graft behaviors onto them because it suits the plot or it’s something I myself would do.

CC: In your career, you’ve traveled all over and seen a variety of landscape. Do you have a favorite place that you’d love to call home or visit time and again?

JB: Again, a great question, and one that strikes a poignant chord with me these days, because although I’m proud to say I have a home in Boston and a house in rural Minnesota where my mom and grandmother were born, I’ve been on the road at least 300 of 365 days in the past year.  One night, when I was checking into a hotel in Florida, the desk clerk looked at my MA license and said, “Wow, you’re far from home.” I thought: Yes, I sure am, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve traveled and divided my geography so much that I’m not sure where my central home is.  But I love my writing community and friends in Boston.  And geographically, my heart belongs to the heartland.  The landscape of the Midwest and the High Plains makes sense to me and allows me to breathe freely–all that space and big sky.

CC: What are you reading these days?

JB: Galleys!  I have the privilege of reading books before they’re published to supply authors with quotes for their book jackets (you’re like Ah-ha, *that’s* where those come from). It’s a great kind of sneak preview.  I read Rebecca Rasmussen’s incredible debut THE BIRD SISTERS and Kaira Rouda’s inspiring novel HERE, HOME, HOPE.  Three novels I highly, highly recommend for 2012:  Anna Solomon’s THE LITTLE BRIDE, about a Jewish mail-order bride who ends up in the Dakotas.  Nichole Bernier’s THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D., about a woman discovering her best friend’s secret life after that friend’s death.  And Jami Attenberg’s THE MIDDLESTEINS, which is about food, family, love, life, and loss–all the important stuff–and will tell you why it’s vitally important to include cinnamon in pastry.

CC: What advice do you have for writers on the rise?

JB: Usually I would cite Winston Churchill here:  “Never give in, never give in, never give in.” And that’s still true. But in today’s swiftly changing publishing landscape, it’s also important to be open to new ways of doing things. There’s no room for a lazy writer these days (if there ever was!).  Expect to do your own legwork, your own homework, your own promotion.  Use social media. Reach out to and support as many other writers as you can.  It’s good karma, and that must always come back to help you in the end.

Thanks, Jenna. And, for all you readers out there, don’t forget to drop your name in the comment section for a chance to win a copy of The Stormchasers.

JENNA BLUM is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS.  She is also one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers. For more information about Jenna Blum and her bestselling novels, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or Like her page on Facebook.

Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

look downstairs into stairwell whirlWhen it comes to writing, I’m a “pantster,” as they say; I spit out drafts of a story in one forward motion, without looking back.

That’s the kind of writer I started out as, anyway.

The first essay I wrote (and submitted…poor editors) was a cathartic experience, in which I hardly glanced back even to edit. And, the novel I’m working on right now poured onto my computer screen during a frenzied dash to win a NaNoWriMo banner in 2009. Or, was it 2008? It’s a little murky now, sort of like that first draft.

But lately, I’ve been reading James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, and I’m discovering a middle ground between writing a first draft with one eye open and pre-planning a story scene by scene. Bell’s book gives writers a look at the basics of plot and story structure, using a set of principles he calls “the LOCK system.: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.

“That novel,” as I affectionately call it, still needs a lot of work, so I picked up this book with the aim of applying it to my draft — to see what I was missing, figure out what might be holding me back. What I’m discovering is that, even though I haven’t finished Bell’s book, understanding the LOCK system is changing the way I see this WIP (in a good way) and giving me new insight on how I approach all of my fiction.

Seeing how my novel incorporates the four LOCK principles, I’m more confident that the plot can work. More interesting, though, is the new perspective I have on an upcoming short story deadline. I was invited to join a group of writers and contribute a 10,000 word story to an anthology, and now there’s more than a self-imposed deadline looming on my calendar. This short story will stretch my skills as a writer, I’m sure, and I love a challenge (she says, knees shaking). If this were pre-Bell days, I would sit down with a main character and a first line and go with them, face my fears and see what happens. This time, though, I’m brainstorming more before I write, thinking through the lead and his objective, considering confrontations and a possible Knockout ending.

Whether or not pre-planning will change the outcome of the story, I don’t know. And, I’m not giving up on writing by the seat of my pants completely. There’s something about this simple planning, though, that gives me a teeny bit of confidence as I approach this story. And, maybe…just maybe…all the “thinking time” (as Roz Morris calls it in her excellent book, Nail Your Novel) will mean less time at my computer.

Since finding time to sit and write at my laptop seems almost impossible these days, I’ll take the “writing” however it comes.

Has your approach to crafting your stories changed lately?

Keep It Light: Stories that Surprise You

On a quiet morning last summer, I ran my fingers along the row of books on a shelf in our living room. I stopped at one heavy-weight: The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 2nd edition. The table of contents listed over fourteen hundred pages worth of stories by must-read authors: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor.

With pages as thin as a hymnal, the words inside demanded reverent attention, just the same.

So, I was surprised to find “A Giant Step for Mankind,” by Woody Allen, first on the docket. Not that Allen isn’t a great writer, but I hadn’t considered placing him in the same circles with Hemingway or O’Connor.  I also hadn’t considered just how much I would learn from the story, about character description and the effect of a skillful narrative.

Sounds serious, right?

But, Allen’s story is about three scientists who almost discover the secret behind the Heimlich Maneuver. I laughed out loud the first time I read it, with its high register language describing the research done around “dinner-table choking.” I’m still laughing. At passages like these:

This one, describing a character —

Met my two colleagues today for the first time and found them both enchanting, although Wolfsheim is not at all as I had imagined. . . His beard is of a medium length but seems to grow with the irrational abandon of crabgrass. Add to this thick, bushy brows and beady eyes the size of microbes, which dart about suspiciously behind spectacles the thickness of bulletproof glass. And then there are the twitches. The man has accumulated a repertoire of facial tics and blinks that demand nothing less than a complete musical score by Stravinsky.

And this —

Today was a productive one for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was accomplished by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. Shulamith and I made voluminous notes on the experiment. If we can transfer the tail-snap procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.

Taking these quotes out of context doesn’t give the story the spotlight it deserves. Bound alongside “The Metamorphosis” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Giant Step for Mankind” reminds me that writing should vacillate between serious and fun. Because, as a reader, I want a good belly laugh as much as I want a story that brings me to tears; it’s a bonus if the story does both.

Have you read “A Giant Step for Mankind?” What’s hiding between the covers of a book on your shelf?


* This post has been edited from its original version, published in September 2009