Archive for the ‘On writing itself’ Category

Knock knock, who’s there? Your brain, dummy! We met once, years ago.

October 24th, 2013

My memories of parenting are overlaid with a thick film of slop. When I try to dig around in the trough in an attempt to extract something concrete and useful, my neurological hands get sticky and confused and eventually pull out, memory-less.  I forget which child did what, when, how and why. Trying to recall certain events is kind of like trying to remember a night of bad-beer shecanery in college–the late morning “I did what?!” response, followed by hearty disbelief and a vague sense of amusement. Apparently, when it comes to both parenting and keg nights, the brain punches “delete.” This is why I was excited to recently come across some writing that shed some light on my earlier mothering self.

I had written a couple of chapters for a new novel sometime after my first novel, The Outer Banks House, was published. The ideas for the novel have been marinating for years now, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the material again. Here’s a hint: it has to do with deer hunting, a disfigured woman, and urban sprawl. It’s supposed to be a thriller, a genre I’ve never touched before. I scanned over the (poorly written) chapters yesterday, and who popped out at me from the murky depths of the long, long years? My nine-year-old daughter Katherine, who must have been around four years old at the time I wrote the chapters. (My son, now 13, also makes an appearance.) Yes, it was some Harry Potter-Dumbledore-and-the pensieve kind of magic, to read about my sweet Katherine, apparently having done the same exact things that my third child Ellery is now doing. But it was also vexing to realize that I am repeating myself, over and over again, with no memory of it. I’m like a hamster on her wheel, rolling steadily and happily into nowhere. Warm keg beer anyone? Enjoy part of the (flippantly toned) chapter below:

It is morning. I hate mornings. We rush around, strapping on ammunition and checking our weapons.

“Mommy, I need help!”

“Do it yourself! You’re a big girl now, remember?”

Almost-four-year-olds should know how to wipe their own asses. How hard is it, really? You rip some toilet paper off the roll, reach behind your back and wipe the hole. It’s not like I’m asking her to darn a doily or aerate the lawn. It’s a crack. You wipe it. You flush.

But she really does have a phobia of ass-wiping, it seems. I often find crusty skid marks on the insides of her balled-up Hello Kitty underwear. Which leads to complaints about her sore butt hole. Many times it has brought her to tears, and I have to run for the cream. You’d think the chafing would reason with her, if nothing else.

I have seen this same girl climb up the longest curly slide at McDonald’s, wearing shiny red clogs. They are the opposite of sensible climbing shoes. Similarly shod, she rides a bike with training wheels and even straps a helmet under her chin without pinching the skin. She draws big-headed, smiling stick people, with arms sprouting from the sides of their circular heads. Little potato people. I have heard that these vegetable families are quite a feat for her age.

But she can’t grasp the wiping thing.

I trek down the hallway to the bathroom and stand in the doorway, hands on my hips. She sits on the toilet, completely naked. She is afraid of getting poo on her clothing.

“Let me see you try it, Edda. Just pull some paper off and wipe.”

She paws the roll of paper, unfurling it to the floor. She stops and whines at me.

“You can do this.”

She shakes her head and rests her face in her hands, elbows propped on her bare thighs. She looks tired.

So I do it for her. This is my life now, I think. I wipe asses. I clean up everyone else’s messes, all day every day. Shit, urine, vomit, spit-up. Spills, stray marker marks, scuffs from boots on the hardwood floors, bits of egg in the table cracks.

It is not how I thought things would go for me. But here I am, knee deep in the mess.

I pull her turtleneck over her head for the second time today. I put her legs in the pants holes too.

“Mommy, you have to unbutton my pants.”

“You mean button them. Not unbutton them.”

She blinks at me.

Edda also says the opposite of things. “Close my window!” means to open it. Off means on. And red is green, and vice versa. I thought a few months ago that she was colorblind. But now I think she just has an opposite problem, for lack of a more medical-sounding description.

I understand this, on a deep level.

I attempt to drag a wet brush through Ethan’s hair. Every morning, his strawberry-blonde hair looks like he has been standing on the edge of a pier all night in the middle of a hurricane. Every morning. Even a wet brush doesn’t tame the beast that lives atop his head. He needs a good dunking.

“OOOH, NOOO! Mom! You got my picture wet!” he groans. He lifts up the paper to show me its complete destruction. It is a drawing of a witch, with little cobwebs in the upper corners of the paper. The witch’s face is deformed, because of the water droplets. I think it looks cool.

“I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to. But look how spooky she looks now.”

He doesn’t buy it for a second. “Now I’m going to have to start over. Jeez, mom. Thanks a lot.”

Ethan is a perfectionist, even this early in the day. He wants to be an artist when he grows up. Every picture could be a masterpiece.

“Oh, and mom? Could you double-knot my shoelaces?”

I squat, and my knees snap like green beens. “You really need to learn how to do this. You are seven years old. This is getting ridiculous.”

My words are punctuated with small pulls on the shoelaces.

“But I can’t do it! I’ve tried, and I just can’t,” he moans.

I stand slowly, fighting off a head rush. I picture my son, sitting in a job interview, wearing a nice gray suit and crisp white shirt, a red, silk tie. And his shoe laces hang pathetically, untied. It could happen, and it would be all my fault.

Summer break…yeah, right!

July 21st, 2013

So I decided to take a little break from writing this summer. In early June I finished the sequel to The Outer Banks House (now in the hands of my agent), and I felt I needed a breather. I write when I can, usually when my two-year-old is at preschool or napping, and the hardship of fitting writing into such a confining schedule had worn me down. I thought about plot and character and theme and dialogue and sentence construction all day, even when not writing. It’s enough to make a person go insane. Come to think, it’s very much like living with a toddler who badgers her mother all day for 1) milk, 2) water, 3) another episode of Caillou, 4) Cheezits, 5) potty assistance 6) cookies 7) “stuffing” (which is the actual bag of stuffing from her favorite bunny, torn out and emptied of stuffing. Said bunny is a forgotten carcass in the crib) 8) “mommy carry you” (translated, means “pick me up and hold me, mommy) 9) sunglasses (requested inside or out) 10) shoes, her own or her mother’s…you get the idea. When Ellery is awake, I don’t have thoughts of my own. It’s like my brain has been hijacked, my body put to use only to serve this one tiny and demanding person. Toddlers could really rule the world someday. They would sit on small, fuzzy-animal thrones (that also doubled as potties), their mothers on leashes crouching in fear beside them, boxes of Goldfish and sippy cups of milk at the ready.

So to let go of the novel, to put it in a professional’s hands, was something I’d been looking forward to for a while. Just to give my tired old multitasking brain a rest. I couldn’t wait to curl up during naptime with books written by other people. My very own summer reading list! Or watch movies that my husband would scoff at. Or take a Jacuzzi bath in the dusty master tub. Paint my nails. How decadent! There were also pantries and drawers and closets to organize, digital photo albums to create on Snapfish, cars to wash and vacuum, blogs to write on. Things that I always meant to get to but just didn’t have the time because of my writing. I have already crossed off most of the things on that list and it is only mid-July. Other than the reading, the tasks were not very soul-satisfying.

What is more, I’ve discovered that summer is really about my honing my driving skills for the upcoming school year. I am an underpaid chauffeur, constantly shuttling my children to summer camps, the pool, friends’ houses, tennis matches, while at the same time fitting in frazzled and unplanned trips to 3 different grocery stores, the gym, etc. I must say, I drive by retirement homes with a jealous and wistful eye. Ever since I completed my third novel, I just haven’t felt myself. Kind of depressed even.

Drumroll and trumpet blast, please. I missed writing! Let me rephrase that, because actual writing is difficult, on the best of days. What I missed most, I think, was having a project that fueled my passion. And making up a story, getting to know characters, researching topics, especially historical, is all I ever truly want to do. In a life full with Big Ben pendulum swings, writing a novel is something I can control, do for myself, get right. I’ve found myself thinking about the next project, just little stirrings of wispy ideas, but I’m still forcing myself to go through the stack of books on my beside table before starting to write again. God, summer is hard.

James River Writers Conference celebrates 10th anniversary

October 22nd, 2012

Writing is a solitary profession. That’s why it’s so nice to have James River Writers. The nonprofit group has been hosting its annual writing conference for the past 10 years, and I think I’ve been in attendance for at least 9 of them.

I recall being super excited the first time I went to a conference. I had just started writing fiction, so I was eager to learn, to be a part of an organization that encouraged creativity. I had never taken any creative writing classes, although I was an English major in college, so it was great to hear about the craft from people who actually wrote for a living. I took pages and pages of notes and applied what I’d learned at home. My book slowly came to life, but getting it published always seemed like an impossibility. Getting an agent to represent my work seemed more difficult than winning the Tour de France seven times without performance-enhancing drugs.

And yet, the James River Writers Conference has always put on a little session called “the first five pages critique,” in which a panel of agents and editors listen to an actor read the first five pages of miscellaneous authors’ works and then offer their feedback. I worked up my courage–and jazzed up my writing–to send in the first five pages of my novel for the 2006 conference. After a cringe-inducing five minutes, in which the actor read my submission with a thick Southern accent, the work was received favorably by the panel. One of the agents particularly liked it, so I introduced myself (in a stumbling and awkward monologue) to him after the session. He asked if the novel was complete–it wasn’t!– so he said that he wanted me to send it to him when I finished it. And to make a very long story short, that is how I got my agent, Byrd Leavell. He went on to get my novel, The Outer Banks House, published by Crown (2010), and my e-book, Chasing Eternity, published by Diversion Books (2012).

The James River Writers Conference became like a home to me, much like a vacation home where I could take time off from my hectic life and just devote myself to engaging with other writers and reigniting the muse. The folks that were, and still are, involved with the organization were genuinely happy for my success. They invited me to speak at one of the weekly Writers Wednesday events, then invited me to serve on two panels at the 2010 conference. I had come full circle, and it was quite a satisfying feeling to be able to offer to other writers my own knowledge as well as the hope of success.

I gave birth to my third child soon after that conference, and my life took on a misshapen size that still baffles me. There was a point when I considered not going to the James River Writers conference; there was so much to do on the weekends that attending yet another writing conference–especially after my “full circle” experience–seemed like a waste of precious time. But I knew that there was still much for me to learn, faces to see, muses to tickle. And this year, I wasn’t disappointed. The 2012 conference (at the Greater Richmond Convention Center instead of the usual location of the Library of Virginia) was well organized and peopled with talented panelists and bright-eyed attendees. The cake at the end was the exclamation point following the idea of “Tenth Anniversary”!

And to make the experience even more special, my friend Liz attended the conference for the first time. She is trying to get her first novel published, so she pitched one of the attending agents about her book. I wasn’t in the least surprised (I’ve read the synopsis) that he asked her to send him the entire manuscript! I think I teared up when she told me, because not only was I so happy for her, but I was also reliving my own excitement at getting my foot in the very heavy publishing door. There is nothing quite like affirmation for a writer. It’s also the possibility of reaching an audience, and of seeing your own book–your own hard-won words–bound up in hardback or glowing on a Kindle screen, an offering to the world, both present and future.

Thank you, James River Writers, for giving a physical home to so many of us that live too much inside our own heads. Can’t wait for 2013!

I’m a columnist now!

January 29th, 2012

I am now back to writing a column for the Henrico Citizen newspaper. My friend Tom Lappas owns and manages the paper, now in its 11th year of publication. I used to write a column for this paper six years ago, beginnging soon after the birth of  my first-born, but I stopped it (after my daughter was born) so that I could start working on my novel. I wrote about all kinds of parenting issues: toy guns for children, sending a “young”  (August birthday) child to kindergarten, reading aloud, the coming of a second child, caring for elderly parents while raising children. I met a bi-weekly deadline, but now I only write monthly. It’s a deadline I can live with!

My first column just got published, called “The Son Also Writes.” (Clever title, leave it up to Tom and super-smart friend Patty to come up with killer headlines). It was about my son and his own writing ability and passion. I wondered if he liked writing because he grew up watching me write and was able to see my success at a crucial time in his childhood, or if he just liked writing because of who he is–a creative boy with a gift for the gab. You should read it, if the issue intrigues you! Find it at I enjoy writing about my family–and our family is so hectic that I can’t imagine ever being at a loss as to what to write. Life, however sloppy and stressful, is entertaining to write about! More fun than fiction sometimes, and much truer!

Writing the column and the blog is actually important to my fiction writing, because it frees me to write about things that occupy my daily thoughts so that I can better access my fiction/creative side. I find that once I pen a blog entry or write a column, I feel ready and willing to begin work on my sequel. There is nothing blocking my brain–I can see miles of sandy beach in my mind, endless stormy seas, and Ben and Abby and Eliza are right there, waiting for me to pick up their story. Fiction flows easily after the nonfiction of my life is safely written down and set aside.


December: A month of birth, literally

December 24th, 2011

Please do excuse me, loyal followers, for not posting on my blog in over a month. My baby turned one, my husband turned (ahem…42…sorry honey!) and my other daughter turned 8, all within a week of the wackiest month of the year–December! Not to mention the little thing called Christmas on the heels of all of the family birthdays. It’s Merry Birthmas! Or Happy Christday! I can’t keep track. Children out of school, writing and sending Christmas cards, last minute shopping, turning the $#%@*& window candles and tree lights on and off…I am not feeling festive right now. I am feeling achy and cranky and Scroogy and I just want the whole month over with already. Mrs. Claus is whipped!

Ah, December…I used to love you, oh fair month of holly and mistletoe and Santa and egg nog. You were so lovely to me, so generous and kind-spirited. Plump and jolly and easy–a break from the rigors of life, a light in the darkness. No month has ever been more wonderful to me, and I remember you fondly. But what happened to us, what broke us so far apart? It wasn’t you…it was me. I didn’t plan my family properly, it seems. I never did understand the timing of the sperm and egg and all that fallopian tube mumbo-jumbo. And look what happened because of my ignorance…two children in December! I should have paid more attention in the early spring, when it seems my body is the most ready to make another human being. I cherish my children, of course. But I’d be perfectly happy to swap them out for children born in, say, May…May is lovely. And far enough away from December that I would have gotten my sanity back. And my hangover would have subsided.

But my trusty brain has kept working, even though I haven’t done much writing on the sequel this month. My mind actually percolates best when I’m not actively writing, I’ve found, like a coffee pot in the mysterious dark of an early morning (nice one, right?) . The trick is to relax about the not writing, to just accept that sanity will be had the first of January, that writing will flow once more and please don’t panic, Diann. When I walk (my daily exercise is walking at a good clip  40 minutes through my neighborhood pushing the baby in the jogger stroller while leading the dog on a leash), writing ideas pop into my mind  unbidden, little Christmas presents from my brain. Listening to music, reading fiction, driving, playing with my hyped-up children–these activities also give me ideas when I least expect them. And that is a joyful feeling, to realize that my brain continues to go on with the hard work of writing ficiton. I may not be actually writing, but I’m doing somthing much more important–dreaming, perservering, hoping, even though life is a hazy blur of red and green and tinsel.

Which brings to mind that December is a month of birth, of miracles, of quiet joy…Merry Christmas (or Happy Christday!) to my friends, followers and family. May the month and the new year bring you an unanticipated birth of something you will cherish for a long time to come!


Reading about writing, writing about reading

November 20th, 2011

I subscribe to two writers’ magazines. This may seem like one too many writers’ magazines, but I can’t bring myself to ditch one or the other of them (Writer’s Digest and The Writer). Even in my busy life, I try to read both of them cover to cover, just because I love to learn about writing. But I especially love to hear how other authors approach their craft–it’s kind of like reality t.v. for writers, a bit of literary voyeurism–peeking in the window or hovering over a shoulder to see how a writer writes. In the most recent Writer’s Digest magazine (January 2012), there is an interview with one of my favorite authors, Diana Gabaldon (she is also on the cover.) She is the author of the genre-defying Outlander series-I am currently reading the fifth installment, and I’ve got to say that after all this time (her books are long and I read other, smaller books in between them), the characters seem like friends of mine, their lives seem familiar and real to me. I always wonder how Gabaldon–a writer with no special creative writing training–works her magic.

Now that I’m a writer, I can’t read a book without sort of analyzing the author’s process as I go along. It’s a bit distracting, unfortunately, and I’ve had a harder time losing myself in fiction the last few years. But when the story is really good, I don’t stop to analyze anything until it’s all over, and then sometimes I’ll go back and delve into the story in more writerly detail. But Gabaldon’s books are so complex, I can’t divine how she put the whole thing together without losing her mind. It was fascinating to read the interview that explained her process, which is not chronological. According to the article, she writes sections based around concrete images and dialogue, but doesn’t know quite where they will go in her story at first. I, on the other hand, feel that I must write chronologically, for the most part, so that I can better keep track of my characters’ mind sets and plot development. My life is so chaotic, I don’t want my writing to reflect it!

But Gabaldon, like me, has three children,and already had multiple careers by the time she turned her hand to ficiton. I truly suspect she’s a genius, and therefore all of her advice wouldn’t apply to me! But I really enjoy hearing about other mom writers and how they managed to get anything written when their children were  young. In the article, she says, “You know, everybody wants a piece of you if you’re Mommy. And they want it all the time–everybody wants all of you all the time. And therefore to see you doing something like [writing], I can say they feel threatened–they don’t like it, and they will let you know in no uncertain terms. And so you are constantly having not only to fight off your family, but also your own feelings and guilt.” She was also asked how she achieves balance nowadays, and she responded, “My kids grew up.” Amen to that, sister! Us writer mommies are all in the same boat, squeezing writing into the little time that we have, because we can’t not write. 

I write when my baby naps (less and less these days) because it’s the only time I can focus. And I feel like I’m getting absolutely nothing done! Even as I write this post, I have been interrupted twice by my oldest child–looking for paper, then showing me a word search that he made. Could that not have waited until I was done??

But Gabaldon thinks that being super busy with multiple writing projects helps her to get more done–apply butt to chair and all that–the more you do, the more you get done. But it’s hard for my butt to stay in the chair when my baby is crawling and exploring, when food needs to get shopped for and cooked, when kids need to get picked up and driven about. And I am nobody’s genius. But I do try to find time in the day to either read about writing, or write about reading, or just plain write. When I first started out, a writer friend Dean King told me to strive for an hour a day. And I thought, of course I can do that! That is how The Outer Banks House got written, I swear, with maybe a few longer stints on the weekends, when  my husband took the kids out. And that is how the sequel will get written as well, bit by bit by bit, the way that children grow when you aren’t looking.

Inspirations behind my characters

October 30th, 2011

So my friend from high school wants to know who the inspirations are behind my characters, after reading my last posting called “Book Club.” I get this question quite often, so I’ll elaborate on my answers here.

 When I first started writing, I didn’t have actual people behind my characters. It was just a love story between a Banker and the daughter of a North Carolina plantation owner. I decided to give Abby red hair, to match the fire inside her (very cliche, I know, but it just seemed right to me. I only had a handful of choices available anyway: black, brown, red, blonde. Give me a break!) and to give Ben blonde hair and of course tan skin, since he’s in the sun all day, every day. As I started to write, their faces began to form in my mind. Abby looked sort of like a girl I knew in high school in Newport News, VA. She had gorgeous strawbery blonde  hair but in my memory she tanned well!?! Unlike me, who burned/burns like drumsticks in oil. She was a beautiful girl. Bear with me, I’m going to try to find her on Facebook right now….please enjoy the easy listening music while you wait…it’s Neil Diamond…now it’s the Bee Gees…Found her! She is still beautiful, and living in Utah! Three children and a cute hubby. BUT her hair isn’t red anymore. It’s light brown. One of her children has the same red hair that she did though! Love genetics. Genes live on! I use genetics in my writing all the time. Abby inherited the red hair and fair skin from her father Nolan, but she inherited her bone structure and intelligence from her mother. And Ben looks just like his father. In my mind, he looked like Ryan Gosling  in the movie “The Notebook.”  Abby inherited another of her mother’s physical conditions as well, something that is hard for a marriage to endure…you’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out more.

Abby took on some of the same character traits as red-headed Kate Winslet’s character in the movie “Titanic.” You know, fighting for her own life/love instead of marrying the a** of a rich man her mother wanted her to marry. Ben took on some of the traits of Leonardo diCaprio in “Titanic.” Heart of gold, despite his hard life. I think both of my characters ended up being their own people though. And how they did that, I can’t really say. They are mostly creations of my own mind. All of the movies and t.v. I’ve seen, all of the books that I’ve read, all of the people I’ve met and known in my life– all of these things come to play when writing my characters.

When writing Nolan, I loved to watch the owner of the Gem Saloon, Al Swearengen, in the HBO series “Deadwood.” This man was a smooth operater: manipulative, amoral, foul-mouthed, at times abusive and murderous. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him, he was so naughty and swaggering. But sometimes, a brief glimpse of Al’s tender side was shown, and it made me care about him, in spite of his evil attributes. Genius! I wanted to try to do the same thing with Abby’s father, Nolan. But he was the hardest character I wrote. I felt like all of the dialogue I wrote for him sounded cliche, and how was I to go about showing both a genial, fatherly side and a murdering, racist side? That is difficult writing, in my opinion, and needs the most attention, because if it’s done right, you have an unforgettable Al Swearengen moment!

Uncle Jack is the character most clearly based on an actual person, that of my brother-in-law. He is such a great uncle to my kids and to this other nieces and nephews. He is able to access the child within, and that makes for very fun play dates and sleepovers and holiday visits. Wii, beach football and paddle ball, body surfing and boogie boarding, backyard croquet, movies, hikes, etc. are much for fun with this uncle. And I think that kind of relationship is so special and long-lasting, for all parties involved. Which is why I wrote Uncle Jack as such an important part of Abby’s childhood. I already knew such a relationship could be special, especially if Abby didn’t have good relations with her own parents.

All of the Sinclairs are tall, and I come by this character trait honestly because my in-laws are all very tall people. My mother-in-law is 6 feet 4 inches, my father-in-law is 6 feet 5 inches, and my husband and brother-in-law (not the Uncle Jack inspiration but equally as cool, and I must say a much better basketball player!) are both 6 feet 8! My sister-in-law is the shrimp, at a lowly 6 feet. I am 5 feet 10 inches tall, and I’ve always been able to hold my own in the height department. My boyfriends have usually been tall (over 6 feet) and I am taller than all of my friends but one, and she was an Olympic-class swimmer!  But when I met my husband, all of that height security went out the window. I now have to crane my neck to kiss my husband! Folks are very funny about tall people: they outwardly point at my poor in-laws when they are out and about, like they are escaped circus freaks or something. People ask them how tall they are EVERY DAY! I have seen this phenomenon too many times to count. The question is usually followed by “Do you play basketball??” It embarrasses me, this  personal questioning, executed by gawking short people with round eyes and open mouths. My mother-in-law sometimes gives the measurement in centimeters, to throw them off. I sometimes want my husband to answer the questions with an innocent “How short are you? Are you a gymnast?” But that would be mean…and too personal, right?! But I must say that with all of that height comes an undeniable respect. People are in awe of them, maybe even a little bit scared of them! And it was this attribute that I wanted to utilize, when writing the Sinclairs.

I’d love to hear which actor or actress you think should play Ben and Abby, Ingrid and Nolan, Eliza and Hector, if a movie were made of The Outer Banks House. Try to branch out from Kate Winslet, Ryan Gosling and Leonardo diCaprio!

Background music

October 25th, 2011

I am sensitive to noise. I think the older I get, the more noise bothers me. I can only take so much noise before I start to blow, resulting in more noise. My kids and my  husband would agree. Hubby snores, and I’ve worn ear plugs for years now. I have become a connoisseur of ear plugs. I can tell by touch if it’s going to block noise sufficiently. Too squishy or too hard between my thumb and forefinger and it’s too difficult to shove inside my ear at the precise angle that’s needed for full noise protection. I used to only buy this one brand but lately it’s like the manufacturer poured concrete into the batch of plugs. More often than not, I hear snoring through the darned plugs, and I have to poke my husband in the ribs so that he’ll turn onto his side. Our baby uses a noise machine (I’ve actually considered one for me) because my other kids are loud (like I said earlier) and if I hear the noise machine through the baby monitor while trying to sleep, I have to readjust the ear plugs. I can’t stand that humming noise. So maybe it’s not a good idea for me to get one for the bedroom after all. I’ve always been a little sensitive to noise, I think. Back in the day, my sister used to come into my bedroom when she got scared at night, and the sound of her breathing kept me awake. I eventually protested her nighttime visits, told her she breathed too loudly.  

Some writers like to write with background music. I used to do that too. I wrote The Outer Banks House while listening to the soundtrack to the movie Pride and Prejudice and bluegrass music. But now, I can’t stand to have music playing while I write. I need the silence, and I think it has something to do with my 10-month-old. Her baby noise rakes my nerves, so  when she naps, I finally have silence and time to concentrate. Music just seems one more thing to invade my mind, keep it from functioning properly.  However, I do listen to my ipod when I walk the baby in the jogger stroller. The music and the outdoor exercise seems to help my creativity; I’ve gotten my best ideas during my daily walks.

Steamboats and boatsickness,
flies and neck wounds: Introductions

October 23rd, 2011

I think this will be a perfect post for a cool Sunday morning in October: my favorite sentences/sections from chapter one of the historical fiction novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The language is soothing, rich with (not too much) description. And the first two sentences are doozies, of course. All writers are encouraged to jazz up their first sentences, as well as their first paragraphs, to grab the interest of readers and hook them into turning the page. A writer must also orient the reader to time, place, and even character in these introductory sentences. A tough job with just a few words! Here are my first sentences from The Outer Banks House:

I was the first passenger off the steamboat. My fellow travelers had insisted, for I had spent the duration of the journey in the throes of boatsickness. Everyone, including mama and daddy, had watched me from afar, afraid to get their Sunday best too close to me.

Hopefully the reader was oriented to time (era of steamboats, language: “boatsickness” instead of the more modern term of seasickness, “Sunday best”) and place (the character just took a journey by water and is now disembarking) and character (likely a person not used to traveling by water–a landlubber. Also a person who doesn’t have a good relationship with his/her parents, people who seemed more concerned with appearances than in assisting an ill child). Would you want to read more, based on the first sentences of my book? I hope so! Here are the first sentences from Cold Mountain:

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.

The reader is oriented to place (morning in a hospital) and character (a man named Inman who is suffering from a wound at his neck, he is perhaps familiar with farming due to the reference to roosters).  Neck wounds and flies are intriguing enough to most people to want to keep reading, not to mention the perfectly worded metaphor comparing the flies to a yardful of roosters in their ability to wake someone up.

Here are some more particularly juicy sentences just from the first two pages: The window was as tall as a door, and he imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move his head, and all that kept his mind occupied had been watching out the window and picturing the old green places he recollected from home. Childhood places…The window apparently only wanted to take his thoughts back. Which was fine with him, for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.

Right away we realize that Inman is away from his home, for he is feeling nostalgic. We could even infer, from his reference to the stunning “metal face of the age,” that he has been fighting in a war and has gotten the neck wound in battle.

I wonder how many times Frazier wrote and rewrote those first few lines. As an author, I know that it was likely a few, for our job is to make it all look easy. Those first lines of The Outer Banks House weren’t even the first lines until I had begun editing it for Crown. Here are the first lines that got the book picked up by my agent and then my editor:

Picture this, if you will: A trigger is squeezed in earnest by a crooked Fed’ral forefinger, and a minie ball tears out the rifle’s slender barrel. It screams through the smoky air and slams into my skull bone like an iron stake pushed through wet, rocky dirt. My head explodes so quick I don’t even feel a thing. I just fall down in the brain-splattered thicket, dead forever.

Only, it didn’t happen that way a-tall. While my unit camped in the slushy Virginia pastures, I acquired a bowel affliction that’s slowly roasting the tender insides on the hot embers of its cookfire.

I’d take a minie ball to the brain over this rusty creak toward death’s depot any day.

Kind of different from the first sentence that ended up getting published, right? It’s even from a different character’s point of view–Abby’s Uncle Jack, a Confederate soldier. In fact, the entire chapter ended up getting cut, a fact that disturbed my agent, who loved that first chapter probably more than the rest of the book’s chapters combined. Am I right, Byrd? My editor wanted me to blend the information that I provived in Uncle Jack’s chapter into the new first chapter, written in Abby’s point of view. I used a letter from Uncle Jack to Abby, written in the hospital while he’s dying, to convey some of the love the two have for one another, the history between them. So Uncle Jack died, in more ways than one. You can still read this lost chapter on my website though!!

I am still working on the first sentences of the sequel, but here is a sneak peek for you lucky blog readers:

Mr. Parrish’s case was so heavy, I had a notion to just let fly with it, watch it thud its way on down the staircase. My right arm burned like I’d dragged it through flames. “Shitfire,” I said, and not under breath neither. What on earth was in the damned case anyway, bricks of gold? Just a glance at Mr. Langston Parrish, and I knew he was the richest man I’d ever laid eyes on. Out here in Whaleshead, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was hard pressed to find a man that even owned a pair of shoes.

I won’t tell you whose point of view this is…I have to keep some surprises, you know. Maybe you can figure it out! Leave me a comment if you feel like guessing, and if you guess correctly, I’ll let you in on some secrets to the sequel!

Regarding the novel “Cold Mountain”

October 20th, 2011

Remember in 1997 when the historical fiction book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier was at the top of the bestseller list? Selling over 3 million copies to date, the book  went on to win the National Book Award, and was adapted into a 2003 movie starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. I bought it in hardback sometime after it was published and commenced to reading it, only to find myself falling asleep while reading of Inman, the disillusioned Civil War soldier, and Ada, the similarly disillusioned, recently orphaned minister’s daughter. The tale of Inman’s long journey–on foot, no less–wasn’t what I wanted to plod through at the end of the day, even if Inman was trying to get back to his lover Ada and his beloved home, Cold Mountain. I just wanted him to get there already! The book was praised by critics and readers alike, and I wanted to get it. But I just didn’t. I kept at it, though, just like good old Inman, and (after lots of more fast-paced books in between) eventually finished it right before the movie came out. I went to see the movie with some girlfriends one evening, soon after my second child was born, and I loved it. I think I was still a bit post-partum, but I cried like my newborn at the end of the movie.

Sometime after that, I started to write my first novel, The Outer Banks House. I’d never written fiction before, but I felt compelled to tell a story–a love story, to be exact. You’ll have to read my post entitled “Thank God for deodorant and air conditioning” for details regarding how I settled on Reconstruction-era Nags Head, N.C.,  for the setting. My characters of opposites, Ben and Abby, sprung from the time period and the setting. Then, when I started to write, I alternated between Abby’s and Ben’s point of views (and Winnie’s, but later removed those chapters) to show the development of the love story. The writing at first was difficult for me, for as a reader, I knew what a book should sound like and I kept editing myself. But it was like all of the authors I’d ever admired were whispering  to me, telling me where they thought the story should go, what the characters should say, what they thought my style should be. And I’m starting to have an idea which author whispered the loudest in my mind…

I am now slowly rereading Cold Mountain, and I am struck by the beauty of the sentences, the rightness of the words. I savor the words, the phrases and sentences, like bits of dark chocolate, autumn leaves. Crafted as they are by Frazier, they are things of pure delight. They are never bloated with adjectives and adverbs, or unnessary with details. Each word has its proper place. Each word contains its own truth. Each paragraph contributes to the story, helps define character. And I would never compare such a genius with myself, but I believe  his style influenced mine without my knowing it.

I am also amazed by the pace, which I once believed was slow and tedious, full of flashbacks and transistions and few “cliffhangers.” Inman moved slowly west toward the mountains, and Ada slowly carved out a new way of life on her farm, but they each kept stepping back in their minds to relive past events for the readers. But rereading it, I see how the flashbacks shed light on the characters’ motivations, which in turn moves the story forward. I actually look forward to them now, savoring the slow pace and enjoying the journey they both take.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now, and not in such a hurry. Maybe as a writer, I tend to dissect others’ writing now, without even really wanting to. But I think it’s because the book had such a profound, previously unrealized effect on me–and like uncovering a forgotten childhood memory, I can now see and appreciate its influence. So let me say “Thank you” to Charles Frazier here, and bestow on him the “Diann Ducharme Major Influence Award.” Someday soon I’ll read Thirteen Moons and Nightmoons!

Coming tomorrow: my favorite sentences from Cold Mountain