Tag: Writing

What I’m Doing

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here. I know I only have a few readers, but I keep this as much for my own record of things I’m doing, research, writing progress, and life.

Life has been tough this past year. Globally speaking, I have it easy of course. But personally, I saw my 93-year-old father decline steadily toward his eventual death on March 9. Because he was in Florida and I live in Massachusetts, I spent more time on planes this year than I have in the past ten at least. And other family difficulties abound, reminding me that having children is a lifelong joy, and a lifelong source of heartache and shared pain.

One of the saddest things for me lately is watching as our elected officials seem to be turning their backs on the real health and economic needs of women. Their “alternative facts” are creating our “alternate reality.” I’m scared in a way I’ve never been, having grown up in the 70s, after Roe v. Wade and after a lot of protections for the rights of women were put in place.

Through it all, I’ve been struggling to continue writing. I’ve been working on one novel for about a year and a half, and am on my fourth complete rethink and rewrite. The basic premise is still there, but working with my patient and helpful agent and soul-searching about why none of my six novels was a breakout book, I’m taking a hard look at the craft of writing. I’ll never be someone who can churn out what the market wants at any given time. But I can make sure what I produce is as good as I can make it, when it comes to the writing itself, the power of the story, the strength of the characters, and the structure. I think I’ve always instinctively produced books that are structurally solid and coherent, but thinking more deeply about why has opened up some things to me. I’ve taken a writing workshop with Randy Susan Myers (her latest is The Widow of Wall Street), and an online story structure course. Time has been an enemy, but I’ve done my best to keep up, and have kept having revelations that I think will benefit my book in the end.

Now I’m sitting in a quirky little Moroccan cafe in the center of town. I could have gotten right into my Saturday chores (cleaning, garbage, laundry). Now that I’m once again in a corporate 9-5:30 job, Saturdays are my only day for doing those things. But I decided to take myself somewhere new, somewhere out of my usual environment, and at least write this post.

For anyone who’s interested, I’m still working in 1909 New York. My novel involves the early film industry there, and has been a lot of fun to research. It’s also led me to a discovery about my books: I really don’t think I’m writing historical fiction in the way people generally think of it, which may be why I’ve had trouble catching on with a wide audience. I’m not about the big names and famous events. I’m interested in how different time periods affected the people who lived them, day by day, especially women. My “what ifs” seldom involve marquee names, except as tangential.

So here’s my epiphany: I don’t write historical fiction. I write women’s fiction in historical settings. It’s not quite the same as historical romance, which is romance set in a different time period—often well-researched and well-written—but that same romance could probably be transplanted to another time period and work almost as well. My stories depend on their period to occur at all. I know this for a fact, because I tried shifting the time period of this novel ahead to the World War I era, and it simply wasn’t the same story, or the same characters, conflicts, wants, and opportunities.

If you’re reading this, thanks for still following me! I promise upcoming posts about Vitagraph and Biograph, about Florence Turner and Maurice Costello, about Gladys Hulette and J. Stuart Blackton. And for good measure, D.W. Griffith is in there too. Hoping the best for all of you.

Time and space

My primary mode as a person is doing. If in doubt, feeling agitated or depressed, it’s time to DO something.

That’s the impulse that originally started me writing historical fiction. I found myself unable to get a job teaching at a college, after spending eight years of my life getting a PhD from Yale in music history.

I had to do something with all that knowledge and passion. And I did.

I consider it a bit of a failing that I cannot always simply be. I have just finished the first draft of what I hope will be my seventh novel, and instead of letting myself breathe and think about it, I am a little depressed, feeling that I should now DO editing, even though in my heart I know that a little distance, a little time and space, will be good for it.

No doubt this feeling will pass in the crush of everyday life. My full-time-plus day
job won’t give me a moment to linger over this feeling.

In the meantime I hope my characters are busy both being and doing, and that when I get back to them we’ll get this novel done together.

Sleepless in Northampton

What keeps you up at night?

Worries, definitely. Will I be able to pay that bill? Is the house going to fall down if we have a hurricane? Have I given those I love enough evidence that I love them? Why am I being tormented by nonsense?

But sometimes, if I’m very lucky, what keeps me up is thinking about writing a novel, trying to solve a problem in a current one, or suddenly having a brainwave about something new and completely different.

My question is this: why don’t those moments come when I really need them, like when I’m seated in front of my computer with a blank page in front of me?

And then, why don’t I just get out of bed and write those things down instead of berating myself for not sleeping?

Sigh. That would be too easy. And we all know that writing is the hardest thing there is.

Does Blogging Count as Writing?

This is a serious question. I’m challenging myself to write a modest 500 words a day. I think blogging can be a legitimate means of creative expression, and is certainly a popular medium—perhaps because of the instant publishing gratification.

But if I’m being honest with myself, when I say “Write 500 words a day,” I mean on my current WIP.

Here’s the problem: I have at least two, possibly three, works in progress that I could be writing for. Each is in the early stages, and therefore still gets interrupted by research needs. That means the progress is slow and painstaking. A writer friend described it as snail-like, and he’s absolutely right. I have to coerce myself into opening the document and facing that seemingly insurmountable challenge.

I would posit this, then: For people who are trying to write, blogging doesn’t count—unless it’s an integral part of the book. For just about everyone else (and especially journalists) it does.

Which means I haven’t actually written anything yet today, and you could well not be reading it either…

Taking—and giving—criticism

I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in writing. You’ve worked so hard on your manuscript, sweated over plot points and characters, hoped you managed to avoid cliches and those insidious repetitions that creep in all over the place when you’re not looking. And then you finally decide to let someone read it, or part of it.

What you imagine is this:

“Oh my god! I’ve never read anything so sublime! This is superb, it rivals Tolstoy in its depth of character and mastery of drama!”

OK, a little hyperbole there, but face it writers: we all fantasize about mind-blowingly glowing praise, right?

Instead, what you get is this:

“Why is your character behaving so strangely? Did they really have forks in that period? Too much use of the passive. The plot is a little contrived.”

Even if you’ve prepared yourself mentally, criticism can sting. But here’s the thing: We all know that we are the worst judges of our own work—unless you’re James Joyce or someone like that. As we become more proficient with our craft, some of the beginner mistakes (digressions into unnecessary descriptions, excessive exposition etc.) do vanish or diminish. But there’s nothing like a new set of eyes and a good critical brain to really make you SEE and HEAR your work.

Chances are, what a good critic says will only underscore what you already felt intuitively before but were reluctant to work at for one reason or another.

When I read my colleagues’ works, I often find it inspiring. Not just when something is so close to being wonderful that there’s little to say, but also at the draft stage, when there’s still a lot of work to do. Seeing what others struggle with highlights the faults in my own writing for me, almost as if they’re reading my work at the same time.

So all in all, good criticism is good. I suppose that’s obvious, but I just had to say it.

Of launch days and being a writer

It never gets old, but it’s always a letdown.

Today my second young adult historical novel, Anastasia’s Secret, releases in paperback and e-book. Granted, it’s been out in hardcover for a year now, but these new formats should extend the reach, being both more affordable and more convenient for readers. And my publisher is pretty strict about release days: books aren’t actually shipped from online sellers until they say.

So it should be a big deal. Yet one of my writer friends quoted another of them as saying that release days are “dull thuds.”

I think before I was published, I had the image that choirs of angels would accompany my books to the shelves of bookstores on the day they were released. For my adult novels, I at least had appearances scheduled around the time of the release, and even if only a few people came, it felt special to have my book featured in the window of a bookstore, with a poster of the cover furnished by the publisher.

But the YA world is different, so I’ve discovered. Bookstore appearances are nonexistent, unless you’re a really big name–especially in new York, where I’m living now. My readers are too young to drive, generally, and so they have to persuade a parent to bring them. This only adds to the “dull thud” experience of release day.

What’s hard is keeping sight of the accomplishment, of making sure I don’t subside into actually feeling sorry for myself when in fact I should daily remind myself that I have done something beyond the comprehension of many people, I have not only written numerous books (hard enough in itself) but had five of them published by major new York publishers (soon to be six).

Life is crazy sometimes. Why is it so difficult simply to live in the moment, enjoy the day? Why are we always striving, always trying to do and be more? I guess it’s human nature, part of a survival instinct so fundamental as to be ineffable. I’ve read in some places that our children no longer have those instincts, that we’re becoming a nation of complacent non-achievers because the next generation has reacted against their hyper-achieving, anxious parents, who spent all their time telling their kids how special they are, no matter what. I don’t see it with my daughters, of whom I’m incredibly proud, and who have strivings of their own. Maybe that’s another tendency to guard against: the tendency to generalize because it makes a good sound bite.

In any case, it’s release day, and I’m enjoying it. Even if no one else in the world (aside from my family, Facebook friends and anyone who reads this blog) has any idea. The time is mine. The day is mine.

The Imagination of the Middle-School Girl

I just had the immense privilege of sharing some tips about writing, but mostly gaining wisdom for myself, with a group of ten lively middle-school girls in buffalo, new York.

The event was a writing workshop for prospective and incoming freshmen at the Buffalo Seminary, the high school I graduated from in 1972. I hadn’t been back to visit since then, never even going to reunions, in part because I straddled two classes: I entered in one class and accelerated to graduate a year early. But something made me reach out to my high school Alma mater and see if I could somehow do an event with them.

Aside from the poignant pleasures of revisiting the haunts of childhood and youth, I was eager to make connections with some potential young readers.

One thing led to another, and here I am.

The girls who attended came from a wide variety of schools in the Buffalo area, but they had in common a genuine interest in writing, and a passion for reading. They were all willing to speak up and share their thoughts. They listened to each other with respect and interest. They were attentive to me (although I spent as little time as possible doing the talking), and entered into the discussions and the writing exercise I gave them with true enthusiasm.

It was a heartwarming, encouraging, and enlightening experience. I split them into pairs and gave each pair an envelope with three or four pictures in it of people of different ages and types. They were to work them into a story, then come back together and share their inventions.

Each one was highly imaginative. I could never have predicted what they would come up with. No young person in their fictions had more than one living parent, and in at least one case, it was an evil stepmother. Dead bodies were littered all over the place. There were two cancer sufferers. Romance in most of them. A really inventive tale about an immortal Cleopatra who remained so by living off the life force of successive lovers over the centuries.

It was fabulous. I want to do it again, on a more protracted basis, and have a group write a novel together.

Most of all, everything I’ve done while I’ve been here has reminded me how spirited and imaginative young people are, how giving of themselves, how open and eager. At least these young people, who clearly have families who encourage and support them, and who are motivated and intelligent. Were there hints of darkness and confusion? All those dead bodies and illnesses were a hint. But being able to work through some of those issues with stories over which they had control, and where the outcome could be molded and cathartic, is surely a good thing.

What a responsibility parents, teachers, and mentors have to nurture creativity and self expression, not just because it’s an important intellectual exercise, but because, like creative play, it is part of how teens and preteens learn how to negotiate the world, find their place in it, and leave their indelible, individual stamp on humanity.

Thank you, everyone I met and worked with here in Buffalo.

Travels in publishing

I’m in the airplane on my way to Buffalo to revisit my childhood haunts and meet up with eighth graders at two different schools–both of which I attended.

First on the agenda is Kenmore Middle School, scene of that awkward transition from true childhood to the teen years. In my day it was Kenmore Junior High, covering 7th 8th and 9th grades before unleashing us on e massive local public high school. It was there that I read virtually all of Gone With the Wind during math classes and first experienced the dreaded home ec classes. Awe made lasagna and sewed dresses. That’s all I remember.

Although being a writer wasn’t part of my plans at that time of life (I was going to be a concert pianist) I find it interesting to realize that the only teacher whose name I recall is that of my sev 8th grade English teacher, Miss Fox. And the only other I remember vividly (minus her name) is my 7th grade English teacher.

That 7th grade teacher is remarkable to me because she took it upon herself to teach us grammar, including diagramming sentences, parts of speech, case, tense, mood etc. I don’t think I’d have known anything about grammar except what I learned in foreign language study were it not for that teacher.

She also read aloud to us at the end of the periods. She was a good reader, and brought to life whatever she was reading. While many other of my peers have dreadful memories of Johnny Tremain, I recall that novel with intense affection.

Miss Fox was a lively, amusing young woman who always made English fun. I recall her stewardship of our school literary magazine. I had poems published but at that time couldn’t get my arms around the subtleties of a successful short story. It was a remarkably difficult to make the transition from events strung together and something that had an element of drama. I remember being a little in awe of those few classmates who managed it.

Instead of going to the large, local high school, I (as we’re my brothers eventually) was sent to a private college preparatory day school called The Buffalo Seminary. That’s where I’m going to give a writing workshop for prospective freshmen on Saturday. It’s right around the corner from where I’m staying, in a posh part of buffalo, on parkways oiled with mansions erected by the industrial age robber barons.

It will be strange to visit this city that I was so eager to get out of when I was a teen. I shall no doubt make observations about it all here.

The New Year

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little depressed on the first day of a new year. I wish I could say today was an exception, this January 1, 2011. I’m not sure where this comes from: unlike last year, I’m not in a deadening, abusive day job anymore. I’m involved in an exciting new business venture that engages my imagination, my intellect, my problem-solving skills—in short, really challenges me in a positive way. I have a book coming out in April, In the Shadow of the Lamp, to be published—like my other Young Adult Historical Fiction—by Bloomsbury USA Children’s.

My children and grandchildren are doing remarkably well, including the new granddaughter who appeared on August 10, 2010. I’m deeply immersed in another YA historical that’s exciting and stimulating to write, and am awaiting feedback from my editor on the second manuscript in fulfillment of my two-book deal with Bloomsbury.

Not only that, but next week I travel to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, to pay a short visit to the writing club at my old Junior High School, now called Kenmore Middle School, and give a writing workshop for prospective freshmen girls at my old high school, The Buffalo Seminary.

Really, life couldn’t be better in most ways.

So why is it that, no matter my accomplishments, lifestyle, relationships, I see the year yawning ahead of me and a hollow sadness tugs at my middle? Is it the inevitable result of growing older, of being more aware of the precarious nature of life? Is it lingering regrets about paths not followed, and to which I can never now return? Do I think of those who are no longer here to share this moment with, my mother, my older brother? Friends with whom I have lost touch over the years?

Or perhaps it’s because I cannot help feeling that no matter how much I have done, no matter what I have accomplished, it will never be enough. Alongside the finished manuscripts and research undertaken and digested, the degrees earned, the business furthered, there will always be promises half kept, tasks begun with the best of intentions that have somehow fallen to the wayside. A new year makes me look back, not forward. Memory can be a burden.

I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. When I have, I’ve pretty much forgotten them by the end of January. It seems to me that just getting from one end of a year to another is an achievement that shouldn’t be taken lightly. So many worthy people do not manage that journey.

It would be an honorable thing to get through this next year without hurting people, without compromising my values, without letting anything slip or putting less of myself into something than it deserves.

Perhaps I am hard on myself. But if I’m not, who else will be? No one is standing behind me with a whip urging me on to greater achievements. If I felt entirely complacent, I might not spend the frustrating hours at my computer trying to tell stories that will be meaningful and memorable to my readers, creating characters out of bits hauled from deep inside my own viscera.

New Year’s day is like Sunday at the beginning of a work week, only 52 times more intense. Everything is before me, waiting for me to work at. Once I’m doing it, I feel better.

Perhaps that should be my New Year’s resolution: be kinder to myself.

I’ll let you know how it goes.