Like Lawyer-Mystery-Thrillers?

 

 

If you like legal mysteries with a touch of thriller, you’ll love Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard series. I just finished A Crime of Passion, the seventh in the series . (For a literary reader and writer, it’s a bit of an admission, but hey, I’ve read them all.)

Joe Dillard is a practicing attorney in Nashville. He is honest, down-home, has a wife he adores, some trusty friends, and a good family. He has been through the trenches from DA to private practice, to prosecutor and has seen the oily underbelly of all sides the law.

Pratt takes readers on a real romp that even I, with no sense of the law, can enjoy and understand.

I won’t review any of his titles, will just say get your hands on one–preferably the first in the series, An Innocent Client, then thank me for the introduction.

The Seasons of Doubt to release April 2018

Am winding down from a huge effort (for me) getting out my newest novel, The Seasons of Doubt.

It’s been a long slog, even for me, and I am by nature a slogger (my husband calls it stubbornness, I call it persistence). The Seasons of Doubt may be a cautionary tale in support of slogging, no matter how sloggy it is, because the novel  is set to be released in April next year!!!! I can’t believe it.

Getting this far hasn’t been easy, I’ve put away The Seasons of Doubt three times. Over and over I thought I didn’t have the grit to continue, and thought I was done with it. But it wouldn’t stay down.

I think at heart it wouldn’t die because of Mary Harrington, the teller of the story. She is given impossible odds for survival in a truly paralyzing time in America, yet, bless her, she hangs on, she gets somewhere.

Her times and place are Nebraska the last part of the 1800s. When the continental railroad was finished, homesteaders like Mary and her husband took out homesteads and moved to the prairie to make their futures on land they got free. It was not easy, after a year or two–sometimes only a few months–most of them gave up, abandoned their dreams and moved back where they came from.

Mary’s husband is one such dreamer. When an early winter wipes out everything he’s worked for, his dreams are dashed. He gives up, abandons Mary and their 5-year-old son. They wait for his return. Months later they are hungry and penniless. Survival, now, is up to Mary, but how?

Mary doesn’t give up, and she hasn’t given up on me. She only needs to wait a few months more for her story to be told.

One more thing

Well, whodathunkit, The Seasons of Doubt, which I’ve grappled with and put away three times, reared its head again. I’d dusted my hands three times and I thought I was done with it. Well, not.

This novel has been like whack-a-mole; I’d hammer it down and it would just pop back up again and again. I don’t think I know why. I’ve put stuff away before, buried it and never looked back. But this? It’s been like some Persephone I’ve tried to relegate to the underworld, but won’t stay there. I guess I just can’t manage my gods. 

Anyway, I was whining to my best friend a few months ago, how I really wanted to move on with other stuff, but this novel wouldn’t let me. She said, “Why not just get it out and do one thing on it?” That seemed possible, so I did. Then I did one more thing, and one more, until, here I am, The Seasons of Doubt is on Muskrat Press’s docket to be released April next year!

Heaven knows I’ve whined enough. I’ll admit I do feel somewhat less burdened, but am looking at a ton of work before it’s done. Keep you posted (again, and again, and again).

Good Bye

Alas, the time has come to cut bait on The Seasons of Doubt, a book I’ve been working on three years.

We’ve had a rough and uncomfortable relationship this story and me. At times it seemed to want to be told, then wouldn’t cooperate to tell it. Maybe I couldn’t hear it, maybe it was Mary, the woman telling the story, who couldn’t tell it.

We’ve given up on each other twice before and each time we’ve touched noses and started over again. This time I think our relationship is terminal. Part of me is relieved, part sad. I wonder if other writers grapple with this kind of thing.

Adieu, Mary, fare thee well.

Your Place Your Time

I learned something huge from Stephen King: we writers need a place and a time to write. He  means no interruptions, doors closed.

Yeh, right. When you’re rushing to get to work, when the laundry needs doing, diapers need changing, and some robo’s calling for your vote, maybe it’s not so easy.

Years ago, I wanted to write so bad, but it hadn’t been going well, so I gave it a try. In the mornings, I began turning off my phone and closing up in my little space (a landing at the top of the stairs). I resisted the urges to check email and the stock market. Laundry did not exist. The phone didn’t exist. I kept myself cooped up there, hands on the keyboard, rear in the chair and—voila—pages began to get written.

I told friends I wasn’t available in the mornings, but some still called. I felt guilty when I didn’t answer, had to make myself resist.

My friends have since learned I’m not available mornings until after eleven o’clock. And, to a person, they respect my privacy. One, an artist, is the sort who thrives on contact. We share an awful lot in common and can debate almost anything endlessly. He waits, and when the phone rings at 11:02 I know it’s him.

Get your hands on Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He’s a generous master at conveying the behaviors that allow writing to get done. And one of his most important lessons is  we need some place and time for our writing or our stories will never be told.

Thank you, Stephen King.

A Final Critique

Hi, Everyone,

It’s been too long since I’ve posted. I’ll admit I’ve spent the last few months withdrawing from the world and its fracases. And I have been doing writing (escaping? who knows).

So, what’s new? I’m closing in on the completion of two novels. They’re linked (mildly), and they’ve deserved all of me in order to get to know the people telling the tales and getting their stories down.

I’ve come to the phase of writing a novel I’ve never been good at: the great last read.

It’s the time you have to back away and approach your stuff as someone who’s never seen it before and I’ve never been real good at it. I can do that to everybody else’s, but when it’s mine, I just haven’t been able to resist fixing my own pages as I read.

Fixing doesn’t work when you’re supposed to be a reader. And my stuff always has a lot of warts that need fixing. Even Donna Tartt’s stuff had warts, so did Wallace Stegner’s, and Stephen King’s and Irma Frabbish’s (just kidding, I don’t know Irma).

This is the time when the best authors take a step back and take one last looksee before they send their final writing out.

We writers do a lot of critiquing and we learn to be pretty good at it. I have to forget what I know what’s in my stories right now. I want the same distance I can give somebody else’s story I;ve never read.

Good critiquers don’t fix. Good critiquers don’t rewrite. Good critiquers read, take notes, let the author know what they think. Critiquers jot down where the pace lags (the story’s boring), where the writing doesn’t work (is telling too much and is pretty didactic and preachy), places where stuff doesn’t make sense, where it’s redundant.

Easy-peasy when it comes to critiquing somebody else’s manuscript. Not so easy with your own.

Well, that’s where I’m at: critiquing my own stuff. I hope I’ll be able to pick up these two manuscripts and be clear with them like can be with other writers’. I hope I can read them with a critical eye.

I plan to hold to this mantra as I read: “No fixing stuff. Not. Not. Not. You get to fix them later, Jeannie.”

If you’re of a mind to throw some good juju my way right now, I’d be ever so grateful. Maybe one day I can return the favor.

Ta-ta for now,

Jeannie

The Secret First Draft

 

For my class centered on first-draft writings and geared to uncertain or inexperienced writers, the cozy loft at Another Read Through books is perfect: relaxed, inviting and as warm as your living room. Surrounded with books, it’s just the place for us, who long to tell a story, to face the blank page. A blank page can be a devil.

As our guide in the class we’re using Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. King knows how hard it is to write honestly and he insists the only good writing is honest writing. But he gives us a real method to deal with it:

Close the door.

Don’t let anybody see a word of your first draft. He tells us not to succumb to fears someone will  disagree, censure, blame us for political correctness, for our mores, our manners. He tells us in the first draft to let come out whatever comes out. Anything that wants to be said whether it’s sweet, nasty, offensive. lovable, controversial, relevant, irreverent, gets said. ANYTHING.

Most of us want readers to like what we write. So we tend to write what we think will get applause. King says those thoughts kill good writing.

We need to accept that, in the end, not everybody’s going to like what we write. We can’t control every opinion. Every reader brings his/her own experience, taste and prejudice to a piece of writing. Even the most vanilla prose is offensive to some people. Our writing’s never going to make everyone happy. And knowing that can liberate us.

First drafts are often called free writes. Good reason for it. Free writes demand we write freely and that we let ourselves scribble whatever gets scribbled. Free writescoffee cup and tablet mean we don’t judge what comes out. King says these drafts are private, our secret. We show them to nobody.

But even in secret, authentic writing takes guts.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths

Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths

 

 

I think it’s always great fun to discover a new author, somebody I’ve never read, or heard of. It’s even more fun when it turns out to be someone good, someone you want to read more.

I just finished The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, an English detective potboiler by Harry Bingham. And it turned out to be a good one.

In the story, psychotic detective, Fiona Griffiths, gets an undercover assignment to investigate a vast plot to reprogram corporate payroll systems. If successful, the scheme could syphon off billions of pounds and bankrupt many businesses. Fiona is sent to infiltrate. She is perfect for it, yet her boring demeanor hides a psyche that is barely tethered to the world. But her particular detachment and intelligence suit her to both the assignment and the dangers inherent in it.

In a wonderful turn,  Fiona Griffiths’ cover, Fiona Grey, bequeaths her a mental hold on the world she has not had. And it is her cover who carries both of them as “they” are buried in the peril and uncertainty of the investigation.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is a wonderful read.

Tana French I’m a Fan

 

The Secret Place

I just finished Tana French’s The Secret Place. What a read; fun, fast, imperfect.

The action of the story takes place in one day. The day begins when a card is posted on a bulletin board of an elite girls’ prep school. The card is unsigned; it says the writer knows who murdered a boy the year before. Two cops, Moran, ambitious but not sure of himself, and his superior, sarcastic and streetwise Antoinette Conway, are sent to investigate.

In the school, French describes an idyllic place of privilege and she nails the back-stabbing cynical teen girls who are suspect in the killing. These kids are downright snarky. Couldn’t stop hating them. Couldn’t put the book down.

Don’t expect depth, but do expect a good mystery and a bunch of compelling characters to carry it.

 

Anyone for Twitter?

 

Today’s rumination:

As per someone who “knows” and told me I should, I’ve been a tweeting fool the last few weeks. It gives me pause: Does any of my hundreds of followers really care about my 140 characters? Does anyone really read them? And conversely, does anyone actually LIKE tweeting? Particularly someone like me, a lonely work-alone writer who ponders, and ponders, and ponders her words, and who takes whatever time and space it requires to write them.

I think some do care. I think some read tweets for pleasure and perhaps knowledge. But I want some proof, some indication, some sign from the ether it’s so.

Maybe there’s a little birdy to tell me.Twitter bird

Characters Write Their Stories

 

The calendar races toward my upcoming classes at Another Read Through Books. It’s making me think of the ingredients that cook up a good story and it reminds me of the sagest (sp?) advice I ever heard. The advice comes from my mentor, Craig Lesley. The best stories hinge on characters. They make us care about their characters’ conflicts, their longings, and in the end, how everyone in the stories changes. Craig photo

Gifting Books? Great Idea

This year for Christmas, I wanted to give books for my seven nieces and nephews. Their ages range from 4 to 13. I have no idea what kids those ages are reading, so I called my bookseller before I went and asked her to select two or three titles for each age (I sort of knew what the kids were interested in).

Let me tell you, she knew her books, she knew what kids were reading and she had a stack ready for me when I got there. My own personal shopper. It was perfect. The kids probably would rather have Christmas books for kidsvideo games and toys, but I wanted to give them something that would last, like books did for me a century ago.

I came home so happy.

Now….for….wrapping…..

Small Business Saturday

IMG_1519

 

Tomorrow (Saturday) we celebrate the shopping season by supporting smaller, intimate businesses. I plan to join the fun at my favorite bookstore, Another Read Through, 3932 N Mississippi. Another Read Through features every genre of book, including a great selection of children’s books, some new, but most pre-loved and with stunning prices.

Throughout the day Saturday, the store celebrates Small Business Saturday and also joins other independent booksellers in the national campaign, Indies First, which promotes independent book stores. Authors  will greet readers to talk up every kind of book. I’ll be at Another Read Through between 11:00 and 1:00. It should be great fun. Join me, won’t you?

Class for New and Working Writers

Introduction to Writing Novel and Memoir

Maybe you’ve always wanted to write. Or maybe you want to hone something you have been working on. Join us for the perfect place, the perfect setting to make it happen.coffee cup and tablet

Wednesdays, starting January 6, 1:30 to 3:00, Another Read Through‘s cozy loft at 3932 N Mississippi Ave, Portland will host author Jeannie Burt for a ten-week introduction to writing novel and memoir.

Jeannie has been through the writing trenches for many years. Story telling has been what brought her home, allowed her to do what she loved. Her first novel, When Patty Went Away was published last year.

Wednesday’s Classes are designed to teach, support, and bring out the stories all of us have inside. Dip you pens into telling a story or into working on one you have had too long in the drawer; the class is intended for new writers as well as more advanced writers who seek to hone their skills.

Jeannie will lead students in in-class exercises and discussions as well suggest assignments each week to work on at home. (Eek! Homework!)

Jeannie promises a safe place to put away your fears, apprehensions and anxieties in an environment that will allow yourself to write your heart out.

Call Elisa at Another Read Through (503) 208-2729 to join Jeannie. This first class in a series is offered at special, one-time introductory price.

Making it Safely Home

For the last few weeks, I have been traveling (Europe: Paris, Venice and Santa Margherita Ligure). In so many ways it was a wonderful trip revisiting Venice after fifty years and saying another fond hello to Paris after not seeing her for seven years.

I caught cold in Venice. It didn’t seem like much. A couple days later it got worse and went to my chest. For two nights, I coughed all night long. The rest of the trip I dragged along. The 24-hour travel time home was miserable. Three days after I got home, things were not getting getting better, so went to the doctor: I have pneumonia.

I went to bed expecting to take my pills and sleep until everything was good again. Good didn’t happen: yesterday, came the news about what happened in my lovely Paris.

I mourn the city I love most in the world. And I mourn the lives that were taken. This photo was taken just two weeks ago, in an era that was ever so much more hopeful in Paris. I shot it of a wedding party in the Luxembourg Gardens on a balmy, peaceful Sunday.

Will post more a little later when I’m feeling better and Wedding in Luxemborg Gardenthings are looking up.

 

There’s a reason they call this mystery a “cozy”

 

 

Lanvin murdersI just finished Angela Sanders’ mystery The Lanvin Murders. What a romp. If you can possibly find a murder delightful, this is the one.

Joanna Hayworth runs a resale shop in Portland Oregon. She clings to another time, she drinks martinis, she wears silk dresses from the 1950s which she lovingly repairs, and she knows every line, perfume and style of a time gone by.

The hold on her dreamy life takes a turn when, one morning, she finds one of her best customers dead behind her shop counter. The body is wrapped in a coveted Lanvin coat. The murder jettisons Joanna on a  a twisting road to find out what happened, a road that ends up threatening her life.

The Lanvin Murders is an outrageously comforting and quirky tale filled with off-the-wall characters, juicy settings, and a sweet and unconventional protagonist who carries the load.

The Lanvin Murders is a real curl-up-and-read.  I recommend it, for sure.

 

Pavarotti al dente

 

Pavarotti

We just finished dinner. My pasta was a bit too al dente, my salad a bit droopy, but we ate and grabbed the bag of chocolate chips. Then we headed for the TV and to our version of excitement:  Antiques Roadshow.

But, heaven of heaven we were a little early for Antiques Roadshow and caught the end of a program on Pavarotti.

It seems most always our poor lives are gifted with so little of perfection; notes by Mozart, maybe, a painting by Cezanne, an old silk Kashan underfoot, and ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, there’s Pavarotti.

For a moment, we reveled in the purely sublime.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran

A Memoir in Books

Azar Nafisi

It is Banned Books Week, a celebration of censored books that call out to us to read them in spite of  rigid censorship from our societies, our teachers, our leaders, our mentors.

I was asked to post on such a book and, in a billionth of a second, I knew it had to be Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in Tehran was published at a time I was working with a foundation here in the States that built and ran a school in the worst of war-torn Afghanistan. Against Afghanistan’s centuries-old customs of depriving education to women and girls, this school included girls as well as boys.

The first year, the school had twelve students who met in a courageous family’s home. Then word spread and sixty came. More homes opened up to educate two hundred while a school was constructed. That school building was added onto again and again as the student population swelled to twelve hundred, nearly half of them girls.

After seven years, the success of the school posed such a threat to fundamentalists that they brought in bulldozers. Within three days all that was left of the school was a heap of dust and brick and children once again went without education.

Needless to say, the destruction nearly devastated our group here in the States. I think Reading Lolita in Tehran helped solidify and strengthen our resolve to rebuild.

Reading Lolita in Tehran highlights one brave teacher’s effort to educate a handful of girls in a deadly environment. Here is a quote I took directly from Azar Nafisi‘s website:

“Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.”

Nafisi’s outright bravery proves that with courage and dedication nothing can kill education and learning. Reading Lolita in Tehran might unsettle us in our cozy part of the world where we are provided the freedom and the environment for an education. But it might make us cherish what we have, even for just a moment. It is a book that should be read.

 

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Am in the early middle of Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. Years ago I sank my teeth into The Remains of The Day. I remember it like you remember your first crush. It was a wonderful read and it makes a poWhen We Were Orphans Ishiguroignant memory. I remember the story did not blaze along, but still savor the taste of profound changes the war was bringing to England and to the life and realizations of the devoted butler.

When We Were Orphans returns, with the same great voice of the Brits. It weaves back and forth from Christopher Banks’ youth in Shanghai to his adulthood in London. Ishiguro allows you to know something happened in Shanghai, but dribbles it out at such a slow pace I might have given up on it by now, if it were some other writer. I’ll stick with it because of Ishiguro’s rich language, sense of London society and the odd and unusual way Christopher has taken his adult life. But it does make me wonder if many other readers would hang in with it.

 

The Pain of Time Off

I have not written a thing in nearly two months. Writing is my work, and you would think being away would feel like vacation. But is hasn’t. It’s made me feel scattered–ugly scattered.

Some mornings when I AM working, I have to make myself trudge up to my office and then I sit there and dabble at anything to distract myself from it. But it’s times like these–breathers–that slap me alongside the head as if to tell me no matter how hard it is NOT to press forward with writing.

Has time off always felt so rudderless?

Shadow Season–Piccirilli

Shadow Season

 

Just finished Shadow Season a good mystery by Tom Piccirilli. It details recollections and images, fears and obsessions vividly revealed by Finn, a blind teacher at a prep school for girls. In his life previous to the school he was a cop whose career ended violently.

It is one of the few books I have ever read that compels readers to keep on reading, even though there are no sympathetic characters in any of it. It makes you wonder how a writer can do that.  Worth a read.

 

 

Stephen King’s Joy

Stephen King photoIn his book On Writing, Stephen King says that when he has been asked if he writes for money, he answers, “No,” though he admits he has made a lot of it.

And then he adds, “I have written because it fulfilled me…I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”

Can’t help loving that man.

 

 

Selling Our Souls to Amazon

Amazon logo

I came upon this article in the New York Times recently. It describes a very ugly and soulless world of working at Amazon.

Somehow, no matter what spin Amazon puts on this it rings true because of the way Amazon behaves with the rest of us. Might Amazon’s treatment of its employees also translate to its treatment of us customers and authors?

It seems to me Machiavelli could take a lesson or two from Jeff Bezos. As Amazon customers, a good portion of us lay down $100 (OK, $99) a year money to be part of the brotherhood of Amazon’s  “Prime” members. In turn, we get free two-day shipping. Or, if we want to be a “Prime Fresh” honcho it’ll set us back $300.  For what? Still two-day shipping on most stuff. These may pan out if you’re in a rush, or are planning to buy most everything on Amazon. (Maybe if we’re in such a rush, we should just go to the store and buy what we want–even faster than overnight shipping!). In other words, we pay Amazon to buy from them.

And for us authors? Here’s another fun item: In just the last couple of months, Amazon has declared it won’t pay authors when a customer buys one of their ebooks. Instead, Amazon waits to pay until after the customer–who “owns” the book–reads it. In other words, Amazon will only pay authors for whatever a customer reads. Amazon collects whatever the book sells for, but if the reader only reads a tenth of the book, the author gets paid a tenth of whatever price Amazon collected. Authors could come up being paid zip, even though Amazon collected money.

This power scares me, but what scares me more is how we can be so blind as to hand it over. Yet we do for the sake of ease, or immediate savings, and doing so, we sell something of ourselves. It seems we’re going Doctor Faustus, selling our souls to Amazon’s devil. The power we give Google and its omnipresent prying into our privacy also comes to mind.

Is this what we want? I wonder.

Thank You Stephen King

Stephen King On Writing

Decision made. I AM going to put together a writing class. It’s not starting until the first of the year and I am already so jazzed. I had a dream about it the other night, dreamed about a room piled with people writing, tablets in their laps, scraping away with pens; putting out beautiful stuff as I recall. Oh, that this could happen and I be part of it!

Anyway, a dream might be the beginning, but a dream only goes so far. If a class indeed comes together where do I start?

Fifteen years, or so, ago, when I wanted to learn how to write fiction, I set about to read how to do it. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, among others. About that time I also stumbled on King’s On Writing. It gave me the creeps and I didn’t pick the book up for a long time. I had read one of Stephen King’s novels years ago and remembered being so traumatized by it I vowed to never read another. I think it was The Shining. Anyway, my feathers were ruffled and my dreams frightful for days after I finished that book. Some time later–the trauma well in the past– I began  to realize how powerful his writing must have been to have such an effect. You can probably figure out why it took me awhile to actually buy a copy of On Writing and read it.

Well, that book became the most important of any of the writing books I ever picked up. It’s funny, it’s pragmatic, it’s clear, and on a really wonderful level it’s personal. His no-BS approach mimicked my own.

I got my old copy out again in a run-up to planning a class, and what King said fifteen years ago still holds a punch. If you’re like me, if you hunger to write fiction and want someone to take your hand and lead you through the impossible maze of doing it, pick up King’s On Writing. It’s a wonder.

Jeannie

PS yesterday I was writing in a coffee shop. A young man at the next table was bent over,  scribbling away on a tablet, gazing up now and then, then scratching away at more. In front of him sat On Writing. I wanted to make some comment about the book, but decided to leave the fellow alone to do his very important work.

 

The Differences Between Us

The Clothes They Stood Up In

I just finished the novel, The Clothes They Stood Up In by the British playwright, Alan Bennett. I found it a romp which begins one evening when Rosemary and Maurice, an uneventful, ageing, and childless British couple, return from the opera and find their home completely stripped of everything: rugs, clothes, furniture, toothbrushes, even toilet paper. There’s nothing left in the house but bare walls and thudding floors.

I loved this absurdity, and I loved Rosemary’s take on the situation: unlike Maurice, she finds it liberating. But what seems so odd to me was everyone’s reticence, their flat emotional responses, and their complete lack of opening up to talk about it. It seems most characters in English novels behave with this sort of indifference, unlike us Western American types would rant and scream and invect and accuse. Not the Brits, the Brits carry on, stiff lipped, as if something as remarkable as having your home burgled and stripped were nothing more eventful than missing the morning newspaper.

What is it with the British? Or maybe what is it with Americans? Hmmmm.

How Can Such Bad Writing Make Such a Good Read?

I’m reading some book I downloaded from a some promotion. Maybe you get what you pay for. The writing is less than bleh, full of every cliche, tired phrase, and cardboard character in the book (!). Yet, I have stuck with it and am nearly three-quarters done (admittedly skimming a lot) and am curious enough to see it through to the end.

The question is: Why?

As much as the writing stinks, the author has planted so many dilemmas and issues into the lives of characters I can identify with, that I want to find out what happens in the end. This trick, I think, escapes a lot of writers who can lay down beautiful writing but who don’t seem to be able to pin their literary beauty on a mystery or dilemma that holds it together. Those books with their perfect language and little drive are the ones we slap closed and end up feeling uggy about because we should like them. But they… are… so… bo-ring.

I’d love to hear if you have a favorite novel that accomplished both: it sucked you in with mystery, and drama, but was full of stuff you remembered, phrases that stuck, language that brimmed with literary succulence.

Hey, maybe Rebecca? Ah, yes, Rebecca.

Let me hear from you.

Writing 101: I’m teaching it. Now What?

Slaving Over Writing Claass

Slaving Over Plans for a  Writing Class

 

I was going to post about the doldrums today because a couple weeks ago I finished the last draft of my next novel and decided to “treat” myself to some time away from writing.

Time off sounded good when I thought of it, but I soon learned time off from writing is sort of like cutting off your life; it’s depressing and can leave you with no rudder.

Then this came up: at a reading of When Patty Went Away at Another Read Through book store the other day, the owner of the store mentioned she was organizing events in her upstairs loft. I confessed I had been giving some thought to teaching a writing class to start the first of the year. She said why not have it at the store?

What a thrill!!!! I got so excited. I pictured people coming in, seeking advice from their guru (me) who would be able to teach all this stuff, and be able to guide them toward cranking out best-sellers and award winners.

Yeh, right.

Three days later, reality hit: Who did I think I was? What gave me the idea I had anything that would help anybody write? How did one go about teaching a writing class, anyway? It looked so easy years ago when I was a student studying writing. It seemed like my professors sailed through teaching about scene, and character, plot, and story. By golly, how could that be so hard? Well I’m beginning to understand how hard it really is.

I love writing and I love passing on my passion for it. I so want to be the conduit to pass on what I learned from my teachers to others who, like me, want to learn to tell a good story. Beneath this nail-biting, I’ll admit I am really beginning to look forward to it. I am eager to impart what I have learned and seeing how it all pans out when it’s in others’ hands. But between now and the first of the year, learning how to do it makes a job cut out for me.

Rudderless now? Not on your life.

A Mini Celebration and an Idea

Last Thursday the venerable bookstore, Another Read Through, asked me to read from my novel When Patty Went Away. It was an awesome evening, to my way of thinking, a couple dozen people came and listened while I read, and asked some good questions (one of which I didn’t have much of a good answer for).

For me it was an evening to celebrate, not only reading from Patty but just that day I had finished the last draft of my next novel. If anyone saw fireworks earlier that afternoon, they were not the Fourth, but me when I pressed “save” for the last time, threw a kiss to the heavens, and promised myself a few days off.

I should have known.

Before the evening was through, I had promised to teach a writing class at Another Read Through, starting just after the new year. I am so excited. I love writing. I love good writing. And I love writing which shows even the potential to be good. I have worked so hard to learn how to tell a story; it’s meant classes and workshops, critique groups and more classes. I’ve loved every one of them. But I think the thing that I’m most passionate about is passing on some of what I’ve learned and seeing someone’s lights go on, then watching them walk their own journey however they walk it.

I can’t quit thinking about the class, and it’s still six months away. So much for time off.

 

Gluten and the Wheat Farmer

 

So, I was raised on a farm, a WHEAT farm. I love wheat. I love bread. I love wheat berries in soup. I love whole, or white, or anything wheat. When I was young, my breads won prizes at the state fair.  When this gluten-free fad began, I said, “Piffle.”

Well, the last few years I have had small tummy clinches. I thought it was my age, like some malady that sets in when you “advance”, like old folks’ low hydrochloric acid (cute), or some sort of beneficial wrigglies (ugh) which die away when you “advance”.

Anyway, I decided to try knocking out fake sugars when we all heard the news they can promote diabetes. Yay, the tummy liked that, but some clinches stuck around. So, tried the wheat test: cut it for a few days, tummy felt pretty good. Then, on a Sunday brunch I got back into it with some wonderful breakfast-house biscuits and, two hours later, the tummy stuck it to me. Tried a few more days without wheat, all better again.

It’s been two or three weeks now with no wheat (sorry, wheat farmers, my apologies) and the tummy feels great. I need to try wheat again, a time or two just to be sure, but man, I’m afraid to.

Anybody else got some kind of wheat thing going?

Believing

Haruf cover

I read this quote in the newspaper this morning and it brought tears. It is from the wonderful writer Kent Haruf, who died not long ago and whose books, Plainsong, and Where You Once Belonged long ago transported me:

“If I had learned anything over those years of work and persistence, it was that you had to believe in yourself even when no one else did. And later I often said something like that to my graduate students. You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence. I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out.”

My hope is that I can hold this and believe it, and my hope is you can as well.

Tapping Out an author

 

 

I read a lot, always have. It began in grade school with Heidi. No, scratch that, it really began with my mother reading to me way before that. Thanks, Mom.

As much as almost anything else, reading carved out who I grew to be. Reading got into my head in increments; in high school there was Brave New World which bred and solidified a liberalism in me even before I knew what liberalism meant, not long after that Orwell’s Animal Farm which scared the wits out of me about tyranny (to say nothing of 1984). The list goes on.

Like most everyone who picks up a book, you grow to know an author, grow to trust them, to count on them, their stories are escape, and education, and conversation and friendship and a whole passel of stuff. Which is good until you’ve read the last page of the last book one of your favorites has written. When you close that last book, and there is no more there comes this ugly, empty lonesome stretch. It is ugly, ugly, ugly.

I’m there right now. I just closed the last page of the last chapter of Donna Leon’s latest commissario Brunetti mystery (Falling in Love). That’s it. There is no more until she writes one. How can she do this to me? I don’t think I can wait.

Harkness: A High Desert Mystery

Harkness cover

Sometimes an author hands us a character we don’t forget, someone fallible, funny, deeper than he lets on, someone we hate to part with. Author Michael Bigham’s character, Sheriff Matt Harkness is just that. It is particularly notable that a character as rich as Sheriff Harkness comes from a first novel. I read Michael Bigham’s Harkness a couple of years ago it has has stuck with me ever since.

Set in the mid 1970s in the arid and remote high desert of Central Oregon, Harkness is an inadvertent sheriff, laid back, a loner unsure he knows what he’s about, and whose lover is the wife of the powerful Judge Barnes.

Harkness is a man of few needs: downing a good bottle, or two, driving an ancient and recalcitrant truck, and living with Addison, a low-slung wiener dog who simply moved in one day and stayed.

Harkness is the keeper of the town’s secrets, and harbors some deep and painful secrets of his own. For some years he has held his life together in the drone of non-eventful Barnestown. But his peaceful life is yanked from him when two of Barnsestown’s teens are savagely murdered. Solving the murder is dumped on Harkness and all his insecurities. Harkness: A High Desert Mystery is a wonderful story, ripe with the sense of an earlier time. It is, without doubt, the perfect summer read.

Join author Michael Bigham for a reading from Harkness and as he reads snippets from a new work this Thursday, June 4, at 7:00 p.m. at Another Read Through, 3932 N Mississippi. You might fall in love with Matt Harkness as much as I have. Michael Bigham is, for sure, one of our emerging and talented storytellers.

The Voices That Keep Us Down

Dr. Paul O's book

We all harbor voices which steer us one way or another. They make us obey rules, or challenge them. They make us behave as we were taught, or not. We learned these voices early. When we were children, we behaved one way and were punished or ignored for it, and the voices in us said, “Hoo, howdy, I don’t want any more of that.” So we likely didn’t do that again. Or maybe we were praised or awarded for something, and we told ourselves, “You bet I’m going to do that again.” These whispers and shouts carved us into who we became and who we believed ourselves to be, and they stuck with us. Sometimes that was good, sometimes it wasn’t.

A couple nights ago I had dinner with some friends. One of them is a fine editor and reader who has also written non-fiction. We were talking about writing and in passing she said, “I’d love to try writing fiction but am intimidated by the idea.” Now there’s one of those voices of the sort that’s held her down (so easy to see in someone else).

I don’t know where my friend’s voice came from, but I recognize that I have them as well. For me, when it comes to writing, it’s often the voice of my old high school English teacher jerking my chain, “You can’t start a paragraph with ‘and or but’,” “Never end a sentence with a preposition’.” But what if I want to? What if that’s the only thing that will work? Will my old high school teacher’s voice stop me? Hold me back? It used to. Sometimes it still does. And it always pulls down.

Some years ago I discovered an antidote. It is from AA founder, Dr. Paul O, in his book There’s More to Quitting Drinking Than Quitting Drinking.  In one section of the book he writes about the destructive internal voices addicts hear which drive them to keep drinking and drugging. His technique to deal with those voices goes like this:

Picture yourself in a room with a long conference table. You are sitting at the head of the table. You’ve convened the meeting to decide something really important and fulfilling. All around, sitting in chairs, are the voices you often hear, your voices the good along with the bad. All of a sudden one of your voices stands up and shouts, “You can’t do that. You aren’t smart enough, or pretty enough, or strong enough,” or whatever. It’s The Big Thwarter, a voice that’s always held you back.

Ugh.

What’s Dr. Paul O say to do? He says to acknowledge that voice, then to tell it, “Thanks for sharing, now let’s hear from someone else.”

Funny, but it works. It has worked for addicts and it has for me. Over and over, when I get discouraged, and The Thwarter says, “You can’t write,” or something cheery like, “Your writing sucks,”  I have pictured that conference table, have acknowledged the voice and have told it, “Thank you for sharing, now let’s hear from someone else.” And it has bolstered something positive every time. One time at a spectacularly difficult writing session  I screamed out, “Thank you for sharing…..”. Our cat Henry was sleeping beside me snoring, head tucked under. He flung himself up, fuzzed, and kept an eye on me for the rest of the day.

The next time, when some voice of yours wants to thwart you, try Dr. Paul O’s technique, and tell me how it went.

 

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo in 1932, photographed by her father Guillermo Kahlo

Last night I could not sleep. I don’t do that often, but when it happens I often will sneak out of bed and go to a computer to search YouTube for puppies and kittens, or llamas, or artists.

Last night I stumbled on an old, hour-and-half PBS documentary on the life and times of Frida Kahlo. What a discovery.

I have always admired the strange beauty of Frida Kahlo’s pieces, but the story behind them is ten times stranger and more beautiful. She lived with enduring and endless pain. She loved Diego Rivera even through his affairs, taking him back each time after their divorces. She was her own muse in painting almost solely her own image. I have been mulling this all day and am coming to realize that all us artists; dancers, writers, musicians and every other “creative” must follow our own muse and I think our true muse is we ourselves. It is, I believe, what sustains us.

I thank Frida Kahlo and a sleepless night for giving me this.

 

Thank You Oscar Hijuelos

9780060975944_p0_v1_s260x420

I don’t think anyone could say writing a novel is easy. I know, for me, it isn’t. Writing a novel takes more of my brain than any other activity I have ever experienced.

I have been grappling with my current novel for nearly a year. It focuses on the plight of a mother and son, abandoned on the Nebraska prairie in the 1800s, and how they can manage to survive. This work has been particularly hard for me. I don’t know why, exactly. It might be that it’s a woman, Mary Harrington, telling their story and since I have never written from a woman’s point of view I’m tackling how a woman thinks. Maybe it’s that I got a little hurried and careless and have let all the easy, lazy regular language felons creep in; they’re certainly plentiful.

At any rate, I just launched into what I thought would be my last draft of Mary’s story and I found out it’s bleh, blah. Ugh. Big yawn. Realizing it threw me into a crossroads, a depression, a sort of existential staring at my navel about my ability to write anything ever again.

Ah, but…. but.. maybe there is a heaven, and maybe its angel is Oscar Hijuelos.

Four days ago I got my hands on Hijuelos’ recent novel The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (it isn’t for everyone). What can I say about The Fourteen Sisters? That it’s savory? Lyrical? Succulent? Whatever it is, the language, the images, the sense of a home and lives filled with fourteen girls is so present and fleshy you can almost touch them.

Hijuelos knows how to write and he bothers to keep at until it’s done well. No wonder he won the Pulitzer for his The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. I read The Mambo Kings fifteen years ago and I can still remember the brothers’ passion to become mambo stars by playing for Desi Arnaz. I can still remember their home, their struggle, the wife’s fear of “microbios”.

Hijuelosnew book has gotten me off my lazy bu–. It has put me back to the real work of telling a complete story. My Mary Harrington’s life is anything but succulent, but she deserves more than I have given her. She deserves all the effort it takes to listen, to hear, and then to scramble to find the right image, the right noun and phrase to tell her story. This novel deserves the same hard effort  Hijuelos puts into every word he writes.

So, Mary Harrington, sit me awhile longer. Tell me your story. I promise to work harder, to try to get your story right.

Profound Exaggeration

I recently critiqued a novel for a fellow writer, a good friend. In it he grappled with the awful passive voice, the evil verb “to be”. I mentioned another friend to him, Jim, one of the strongest writers I have ever read. Jim once told me every sentence, phrase and paragraph has to accomplish three things. I gagged at what seemed impossible. It might have been an exaggeration, but I know now it’s mostly true.

Here’s a quote I think proves this out, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984).

Writing this way is hard. Get out your best thesaurus. If we want to write something readers will read, every word we put down bears the weight of accomplishing a lot: character, or action, or scene, emotion, smell, voice, and a whole passel of stuff. “To be” is a lazy writer’s sanctuary. As much as we want to suck our thumbs and use it, lightweight “to be” and all its parts “is”, “are”, “were”, will never deliver. Imagine William Gibson writing, “The sky was gray above the port.” Bleh.

Why Men?

A while back, I was pitching a novel to an agent, and she asked why I wrote it from the male point of view. I could see she really wanted stories about women. I danced around why I had done that with that particular story, and she was interested enough to ask for part of the manuscript. She eventually passed on it. But her question made me think: Why do I write from the male viewpoint? And what about men can make a story work?

First, something about my past. I was raised in a tiny community with only three girls (including me) in my class; one was a quiet person who drifted into fantasies to escape her family’s poverty and the other a bully who wielded a powerful load of scripture and judgement she liked to aim my way. For many years, until high school, I believed the Bible wielder truly did know what was right, something that on my own I could never quite figure out.

The boys in my class didn’t seem to have such a great hold on righteousness, so I turned to them. I was lucky, I liked a lot of the things they liked: science, math, building stuff. I had a good arm and could throw a mean ball. It didn’t matter that I had terrible aim and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

It was our sophomore year, I think, that one of the boys looked at me and said, “Hey, you have a mustache.” And, perhaps for the first time in my life I had a comeback. I blurted, “Yeh, aren’t you jealous.” I had spoken their language, and after that I was in. (Though at home I began to make good work with the tweezers.)

I have come to understand our culture doesn’t treat its boys well. It makes them find ways to deal; they turn loud, or angry, or physical, and they do stuff, build stuff, play stuff, brag, shout, act out, in order to cover feelings.

But here is the real thing: I was lucky. The two most important men in my life—my dad and my husband—allowed me in. They opened up to me. To others, they could put on the same front other men did. They could be hard, pushy, brash, sulky, stinky physical, as hard-shelled as clams. But also like clams, they let me see their soft insides, like when they were scared or shed a tear. This dichotomy, this hard outside but tender inside, makes for good storytelling. It is, I think, why men take over my pen when I write.

To me, men are our tender sex. In my experience women are tough. Women hide behind smiles and sweetnesses, but they wave their antennae about for others’ vulnerabilities and wield that knowledge as a weapon. Except for a handful of really close friends, women scare me a bit.

I have three more novels in the works, two from the viewpoint of men. The third has to be told by a woman, and I am finding myself wary of her. This is big, because her character doesn’t deserve suspicion. I hope I can learn from her. I hope she can set me right about women. After all, I am her.

Success Where You Find It

The Beaverton Library Author Fair did come with sun. Attendance was spare. Nothing indoors can compete with sun. People who might have come in on a wet day were  more interested in being outdoors playing with the kids and putting in daisies. The hall was filled with more authors than readers. But here’s the treat: we authors had time to talk, our enthusiasm lifted the place. What a community we make. Delightful.

Pray for Sun

By this time next week, the Oregon Author Fair at the Beaverton City Library will be done and I’ll be able to sleep again. I’m supposed to speak at it. Me? Me. Someone asked if I would want to say a few words, maybe read something from my When Patty Went Away. I said yes, figuring fat chance; there’s a ton of other writers coming, so what were the odds I’d get a precious slot? Well, I did.

Know what a friend asked when I told her? “What are you going to say?” Gah. What do I know?

I didn’t sleep much that night, probably won’t much this week, either. I’ve been writing a long time. It’s meant showing up at dozens of readings from other writers, some famous, some not so. The famous ones have handlers; their readings are sometimes sort of entertaining. But all (OK, maybe just 99.99999%) other readings are from authors more white-knuckled, sweaty-palmed than I, and the readings are miserable to sit through.

Ah, so what if no one came to my reading? Now there’s a comfort. What if it’s sunny and everyone is out yanking dandelions and planting lettuce? What if? What if? Hold that thought.

Well, guess what: Today’s paper portends RAIN!!!

The forecast sent me darting to a copy of my book. I just read out loud a very short piece from it to myself. I feel better. The voice of Jack McIntyre deserves to be heard; he deserves more than my fear and embarrassment. I’ll do it, and I’ll try to do him justice with some gusto.

But still, pray for sun.

You’re Invited! Oregon Author Fair – April 25

2015 (April) author fair flyer - Snaphot_Page_1Join me Saturday, April 25 at the Beaverton City Library from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Oregon Author Fair. I will be meeting with readers and sharing more about my work. At 12:45 p.m., I will be reading from my book When Patty Went Away and discussing my work in the Speaker’s Corner.

I would love to meet you! Hope to see you there!

Twenty-two other Oregon authors will be there sharing about their work as well!

Participating authors include:

CHILDRENS/YOUNG ADULT: Michael Wong Shari Getz Patricia Aguilar Morrissey Christa Pierce

FICTION: Bill Kroger Shelia Deeth April McGowan Melanie Dobson Rita Kabeto Kelly Running Jo Barney F.I. Goldhaber Cindy Brown Barry L. Becker Leslie Gould Jeannie Burt

NONFICTION: Giselle Bawnik Tony Preciado Thomas E. Ziemann D.C. Jesse Burkhardt Karen V. Unger Neal C. Lemery

POETRY Margaret Chula Susan Patterson

Tribal Betrayal, Shame, Banishment

 

One of my favorite novels of all time is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. The Signature of All Things

I read the book a couple of years ago and it still sits with me. It is the story of a woman of the 1700s who forges her own way at a time women had little power, much less independence.

So what do betrayal, banishment and betrayal have to do with the book? Here’s what: The Signature of All Things is the story of  Alma Whittaker who carves her own life in spite of the conventions of her society and what is considered proper for a woman of her time.

Three nights ago, my niece called. She said she followed Elizabeth Gilbert on Facebook and had just read one of Gilbert’s postings and that it was the most important posting she had ever read….ever…ever.

We ended the call and I read what she had gone on and on about. Elizabeth Gilbert’s post was profound. It highlights how someone like Alma Whittaker can mature and move forward in spite of her place outside her society.

For anyone like my niece—and me—who at some important time in their lives was banished from family, community, or society, Gilbert gives us, finally, a reason and with the reason an answer.

I would love to hear some of your own experiences, and I would love to hear how you have dealt with it.

Writing Envy

I have a friend (a spectacular mystery writer) who approaches writing her novels with such intelligence:She systematizes. She outlines. She sketches characters and does I don’t know what else. It’s all just so reasonable.

I have always longed to work like that, to arrive at good writing by some slick scheme. One time I set out to. I got so organized. I listed. I sketched. Honest, I gave it a real effort. It didn’t work. The outlines and sketches became dictators, the writing read like reground plastic. I came to understand my characters don’t like to be fenced in. It was me doing the organizing, after all, not them.When they speak, they whisper and the only hint of structure they give me is a sense of their aches and a vague idea where they might want their stories to start and end. That’s it.

So now, one novel published and two almost-done, the way I do it is still a mess. It means that before a novel gets done, I’ve laid down little writing and whole lot of rewriting and have learned to hit the delete key almost by reflex. Eventually, with great patience on my characters’ part–not mine–they finally get where they want to go.

I don’t know how any other novelists work. If you are a writer and if you have some other slick wonderful way to see your works through to the glorious end, please let me know. I would kiss the toes of anyone who can tell me a more painless way to write a good story.

The mess:

messy Office photo for blog

 

Tapping Out an Author

If you read a lot, you’ll understand how awful it is when you’ve read everything written by an author you love. When you find a writer you adore, you fill your days longing for the quiet to have their book in your hands. You read on the train on the way home from work. You rush through dinner, put the kids down maybe a bit early. Then, finally, you open the story again and let it take you where it takes you with people you’ve come to care about. You consume that book then another until you’ve read everything your author has written.

Alas, when you’ve read them all you dive into a lonely depression, like after a divorce or a death.

That’s about to happen to me right now with Jess Walter. I stumbled on his The Beautiful Ruins inhaling its eccentric tale of love and lust among Hollywood stars set along the coast of Italy. Then came his odd The Financial Lives of Poets. Am reading Land of the Blind, now and find myself counting because he’s only come up with four more titles I haven’t read. I already dread the emptiness.

I can’t imagine I’m the only neurotic reader with this problem. What does anyone else do when you’ve tapped out an author you love?

The Blank Page

I’ve been asked how I face the Blank Page, the Empty Screen, The Great White Nothing at the start of writing a novel. Funny, but it’s never really been a problem. I know everything I write on it will be changed, deleted, edited, or destroyed by the time the thing’s done. A blank screen is safe, it’s not me who’s responsible for what’s in it, it’s my characters. They do all the talking, they know what they’re about. I just need to listen.

But this? A blog? MY blog? No characters to tell me what to say? It terrifies me. What the heck do I have to say anyone would want to hear, anyway? Yo!

This is a journey I’ve been encouraged to take and if I know you will join in, it makes it easier. I have made a promise to post often. I hope it gets easier. I hope you are with me and that we can collude to make the blog interesting, informative and fun. My wish is that we become a team, you, me, our books, our writing.

Here goes………

JeannieHand with pen over blank sheet