My Ideal Bookshelf

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I found a coffee-table book on my last library visit called My Ideal Bookshelf. The idea is simple: ask artists, chefs, writers, architects, designers, musicians, and other creative spirits to put together a small sample of the books that have had the greatest impact on their lives. There’s no strict limit on number of books–just keep the list short enough to let the books stand or stack together on a short shelf, perhaps half the length of your standard IKEA fixture. Each page spread features an illustration of the books and a brief explanation by the person in question of why he or she picked them. The result is lovely: a lively sort of dialogue begins to unfold, even though the people featured throughout the book may never have spoken to one another.

Some books appear on shelf after shelf; some are famous and many I’ve never heard of. One chef chose a book whose spine was ripped off entirely, with thicker lines of glue on the binding-cloth to show where the connection between book and cover used to be. The cookbook had belonged to her grandmother and was full of notes in the margins. Junot Diaz’s shelf balanced Lord of the Rings over books on torture and race relations. In many cases, it was easy to see how the books people chose had shaped their own work, but there are surprises as well.

Of course, as soon as you crack the spine you want a notepad to start a to-read list, and it’s a matter of pages before you start daydreaming your own bookshelf. A few of mine that would make the list:

  1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. The beauty of the language thrilled me at 13, and as I’ve gotten older, Bradbury has still caught me with his enthusiasm for people, his disregard for genre pigeonholing, and of course the lyricism throughout his writing.
  2. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. People tend to love or hate this one. I love it for making an obsessive, consuming love into both the redeeming quality and downfall of two barely likeable people.
  3. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perleman. I started reading the blog at 19, before it was even about cooking. Over years, I began to understand the deep vein of creativity that lies in making food. Now, cooking, and especially baking, is a hobby and a way to work out my creative kinks. I also credit Smitten with introducing me to artichokes, but that’s another story for another time.
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Reading this book is what led to me meeting my husband, but if that wasn’t enough, I’d list it here for its irrepressible playfulness and as a reminder that flying by the seat of your pants can lead to good writing and a lot of fun.
  5. The Little Prince, by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Because it’s true, and beautiful, and makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
  6. Childcraft, because this is the collection of poems my father read to me.
  7. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Latin magical realism in general has proven to me that magic does have a place in canonical ‘literature,’ something I had hoped but had a hard time believing.
  8. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor. I wish I was her. I love the way the grotesque and the spiritual come together, and the way she saw her writing as a way of communicating her idea of God. She inspires me technically and reminds me to aspire to do more than entertain.
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Diaz doesn’t apologize or slow down his writing for anyone. It keeps his writing smarter, and also more intimate because of the way he assumes you know what he knows.
  10. The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, because it feels like a gift.
  11. Of Mice and Men, by Steinbeck. Steinbeck is able to write short novels that don’t feel forced into economy of language. There is still description and beauty, but the story and characters are kept so tight and clean that a slim little book can tell what others couldn’t do in 400 pages.

The beauty of an “ideal bookshelf” is that it can change over time. I’d love to hear what’s on your shelf right now, or what I should consider adding to mine.

Room Full of Strangers, or Fresh Beginnings

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This past semester was a game-changer. At the beginning of this year, I “finished” assembling a manuscript of seven stories to submit as my graduate thesis and my first self-published book. Over the next few months, I worked with a brilliant editorial group of other authors-to-be, critiquing each other’s stories, offering design suggestions, and pouring more than one glass of wine to get through the stress of the most demanding four months of our academic career.

I cut one piece from my collection, changed endings and beginnings, and pushed even deeper into the heads and hearts of my characters than I had realized I could. For design, I took inspiration walking around the city that has become so much more familiar to me in the past 4 years, and a serendipitous moment of light and shadow striking rowhouses on St. Paul Street became a cover and a home for six short stories about choices and relationships, the moments we feel suspended in a bewildering space where we are strangers even to ourselves.

My book, Room Full of Strangers, has been out for two months to the day, and I am down to the last 20 copies from the first print run!

To celebrate the jump from MFA student to grad and the publication of my first book, I am relaunching this blog, with a few fun changes: I’ve freshened up the design and added a page where you can take a look at (and order) Room Full of Strangers. I’m also excited to announce a new weekly posting schedule:

Mondays: Writing life and the creative process. A mix of nuts and bolts, updates on what I’m writing and how it’s going, and more abstract or big-picture thoughts on how to incorporate an active creative life into the everyday.

2nd and 4th Fridays of the month: What I’m Reading returns with books that will make you think and (hopefully) jump-start your creativity.

A final note: Publishing a book and then trying to rustle up a blog audience is the opposite way to go about things, so my very first step on this relaunch is wrong! (Incidentally, there’s a fun article about writers and failure here–if I’m failing, I’m in good company). So let’s not think of this as a blatant plug for my shiny new book. My ultimate dream for this website would be to make this a fun hang-out spot for writers and any other creative types to talk shop, read good books, and get good work done. I hope this becomes as much your space as mine.

A New Relationship with Writing

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Wow, what a winter break of revisions it’s been! I am proud to say I mostly stuck to the plan I made in December. Starting with an idea of what changes I wanted to make to a story helped keep me from getting (too) overwhelmed when I sat down to work–and I did sit down to work. Almost every day, sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for more than an hour. As a result, I’ve revised 6 of the 7 stories I plan to include in The Book and am considering adding an eighth to the collection, if I can get it done in time.

I’ve also been thinking about the fact that, more than in any other semester, this year’s break has been a sign for what Life After School might be like, writing on my own momentum, fueled by my own desire to put out the best stories I can. It’s changed my mind about my goals for writing this year.

It’s always mystified me to hear people talk of a deep “need” to write, as though their sanity hinges on it. You know that stereotypical artist’s parent who’s contemptuous of the child for not having a “real” career? That’s been me. I don’t like to admit writing can be fun, even when I do it in my spare time, even after I have a good session and my story’s all I can talk about for the next hour. It’s starting to seem ridiculous to keep this grudge against what I do around.

This year, instead of resolving to write every day, churn out a set number of stories, hit time or word goals, or meet similar numerical quotas, I want to accomplish something I imagine will be more rewarding and lasting: I want to take my relationship with writing to the next level. I pledge to do my best to remember that writing is fun and fulfilling, and to approach my laptop at the end of the day with a welcoming spirit. I promise to use quantifiable goals and quotas as tools to encourage me to write, not an end in and of themselves. Most importantly, I promise to keep going after my grad program is over, even if no one’s reading. Sooner or later, if I put joy and work into it, someone will.

The Book, Step 1: Tackling a Revision Plan

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The semester is over! Hooray! And it ended on a high note: my professor left me the most positive review yet of my last story. I’m feeling bold enough to consider submitting it for publication once I put in a few more edits. It’s nice to end the semester with a dash of bravery.

What makes the jolt of self-confidence particularly welcome is that this winter break I will be preparing my manuscript. This past semester gave me a much stronger feeling for what people notice most in my writing and what I might like to highlight, but I’m looking at at least one more pass on every story I’ve lined up. I don’t want the break to slip away from me, so here is my Revision Plan, a guide to help me make the most of my time and relax over the holidays, too:

how i write

  1. Count stories. Count days/weeks. Plan accordingly. Know when to move on to a new story that needs attention instead of picking endlessly at one.
  2. Start by identifying the issues. Note the most common critiques or the areas I see as most in need of revision to avoid wasting time wondering where to start.
  3. Focus on the big stuff first. Minor language edits are easy enough to sneak in at the last minute than character development, a shift in pacing, new dialogue, or even additional scenes.
  4. Spread work out over multiple sessions. I usually get more done in three 30-minute sessions than one 90-minute slog. It helps me to think about the story and come to a more creative solution to a problem during my “off” time and keeps me feeling more focused and relaxed while I’m in front of the screen.
  5. Put in as many days as possible. Ten minutes spent fixing a paragraph means now I have a fixed paragraph. It’s still worth it.
  6. Keep a positive outlook. However tough this project is, I’m working toward my first book, and that’s something to celebrate! Just try to save most of the congratulatory wine sipping for after the night’s editing is done…

Why Do You Buy Books?

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I’m curious–do you (you specifically, not the rhetorical “you”) still buy books? It’s been obvious to me for a while that I get most of my reading material from the library, but it recently hit me that I rarely buy books anymore, except as gifts. I buy cookbooks because I like them as constant references/inspiration and I’m a recipe note-scribbler, but fiction? Three weeks plus renewals is apparently good enough for me.

I feel weird about that as a reader, and concerned about that as a writer and  worker in the publishing industry.

So I’m asking you to make the case for me: how often do you buy books? What kinds of books would you buy versus borrow? What does it take for you to make the leap between “I’d like to read that” and “I gotta have it”? I’m all ears.

Seeing the Light

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I registered for my last grad school class! There are only 3 class sessions left in this semester, and then one semester’s worth of design, editing, and production, and then (knock wood) I’ll burst out the other side of school into a world where I have my degree and all my evenings to myself. Not to mention that I’ll be a published author.

One of the things that excited me most about the program I chose for my MFA was that instead of amassing a manuscript for my thesis, I’ll get to go through the whole process of designing and publishing my work, with instructors and peers there to mentor and support me through the process. It’s an incredible thought after the 8 years I’ve spent studying and practicing writing, and despite my professor’s advice to the contrary, I haven’t been able to help daydreaming about the content, organization, and cover design for my first leap into the shelves.

It doesn’t feel quite real yet. I imagine it won’t until January, after I’ve revised this semester’s work and put together my rough manuscript (once I hold that in my hands I know something is going to click!). But the first rosy glimmers of “this is real” and “I’m going to be done” have arrived. I’m starting to feel more excited than nervous about what the next 6 months will bring.

Why Getting Married is Like Doctor Who

Andrew and I celebrated our fifth, and last, dating anniversary on September 24th. Next year, we’ll be celebrating in a new month and starting the count over at one with our first wedding anniversary.

The home stretch of wedding preparations has been a tumultuous couple of weeks. Family stresses, work demands, and the last few pre-cana videos we’re trying to watch before, you know, the cana all bubble around and beg for attention, and suddenly I find myself thinking a lot about Doctor Who.

Specifically, the tenth Doctor. Even more specifically, some of the things he talked about near the end. My youngest sister best expressed one of the things I love about David Tennant’s interpretation of the character: “You can feel the weight of all the Doctors in him.” This is someone who knows who he’s been before, even knows that this isn’t by far the first time he’s changed. And even so, when he’s told his time is coming to a close, it’s an upheaval.

Even though Time Lords regenerate, the Doctor says, it’s still a kind of death. His face will change. So will his personality. He’ll keep some important parts of himself, but the way they are expressed may be very different. There’s no way to tell beforehand. The Tenth Doctor is afraid going in, and sad, and at least a little angry.

The beautiful thing, though, is the next season starts and we get to see what happens next. The face and voice are different, true. Some people miss the old Doctor. The Doctor himself has to work out what he likes now, how he responds to stress–who he is in this new context. But those important parts that are kept emerge quickly: intelligence, compassion, kindness, a sense of wonder, his memories of everything that has come before. And the new Doctor is more playful, and he is perhaps a bit less guarded with his emotions, and he is maybe more patient than he used to be.

Marriage is a regeneration. I’m starting to really sympathize when I see the Doctor exploding with that orangey-yellow light. I’m bubbling with change. My benefit is I know more about my future than the Doctor gets to, and get to transform in a much happier context than Time Lords do. I’m also guaranteed a pretty snazzy companion.

I do have moments when I think, “I am going to miss my name,” or “I am scared I won’t recognize myself as a wife.” Engaged couples don’t often talk about those moments, or at least not publicly. It feels cruel, or ungrateful considering the unfathomable blessing that it is to find someone you want to love for the rest of your lives. But I think they should.

And then I imagine those first days and weeks of marriage, still crackling with energy, still discovering how people see me differently, how they hear me, what I’ve kept or lost or gained. Nerdy as it is, it helps to see the Doctor flow from actor to actor. New face, new style, but on the most fundamental and important levels, the same wonderful character. I’m not going to start a whole argument about which Doctor is objectively better, but if I could pick which one I would rather be, I’d go with Matt Smith–the Doctor with a marriage.

Tomorrow, at 2:30 pm, I start the biggest adventure of my life. Geronimo.

Reading Dead Writers

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I just finished Micro, a novel “by” Michael Crichton. I use the word “by” a little loosely because Crichton died while writing it, and the book was completed by another writer. It was still okay, but it missed some sharpness. There were summarized passages that I felt sure would have been explored more vividly if Crichton had lived to revise. Reading that last book got me thinking about what happens to manuscripts when the writer has died.

Micro isn’t the first example of a book that was a work in progress (sometimes barely more than a few drafted chapters and some Word files full of notes) that was finished by another writer. I will admit it’s one of the few I’ve read, mostly because a few dips into posthumously completed novels, including some I really love (Douglas Adams comes to mind) has taught me that a lot of what I love in an author’s voice comes later in the revision process.

I’m a voice girl when it comes to reading. Plot and character matter, of course. The premise better be interesting to make it on my favorites list, and the ending should count. But I will forgive a lot of sins on the basis of a great narrative voice, and I’m quick to put down almost any story if I don’t care for the way it’s told. It’s hard to get voice right on a first draft–it’s the kind of plaster or molding (I don’t know enough about carpentry to keep this metaphor accurate–whoops!) that you can only worry about when the scaffolding of the story is in place.

These days, editors don’t have much time to do extensive developmental editing with writers before the book is published. This is in many ways an unfortunate thing–a good editor can help a book cross the last inch (or more!) from a workable manuscript to a masterpiece. But that’s another story for another day. The point is that I think the authors themselves, and their personal communities of hand-selected readers, are the ones shaping most books today. A publisher assigning someone else (hopefully also popular in the same genre, to attract sales and ease suspicious readers’ minds) just isn’t the same to me. The question, then, is should the work stop if the author is no longer alive?

I know there is a lot of important work that happens after the writer is done putting words on the page (I wouldn’t be working in publishing if I thought that wasn’t true!). I know there are agents and even some editors who still take a strong personal interest in a book. But although I can understand the fans’ desire for just one more book and the publishers’ for one last good sale from an author, the writer side of me feels an uncomfortable twinge imagining an unfinished book going out. There is no last chance to review the book, or change it. There’s more possibility for anyone to say “close enough” to a not-quite-polished page. We should be grateful we even have this much, right?

Not me. I want the last book I read by a beloved author to be a proper send-off, with all the qualities I love in the work that got me hooked in the first place. I’ll miss out on a glimpse at the new characters and ideas my favorite writers were creating at the end of their lives, but I want that wonderful voice in my head to stay the same.

Should death be the final deadline for an author’s work to get published, or is it better to find a way to publish what they’ve left behind? I’d love to hear your take.

First Month Results

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In September, I made it to 727 out of my 1000 minutes writing/month goal. I didn’t meet my goal (this time), but here’s what I learned:

  1. Having a goal to push toward works for me, even if I don’t quite get there. I spent just over 12 hours writing last month, which came out to revisions on 3 stories and about 5 pages’ worth of drafting toward a new story.
  2. I like goals that let me daydream. Unlike word count goals, which ultimately only count the moments you’re typing, a time goal allowed me to acknowledge the thought I put into my writing and revising. The ticker keeps ticking while I think about the right way to express a thought.
  3. The flexibility was awesome. Some nights I did 10 minutes. One Sunday I hit 90. Overall, my average comes to a little over 20 minutes a day–not a bad start!
  4. 1000 seems to be the right goal for me to set. It’s clearly tough, but I can think of a few nights when I probably could have put in another 10 minutes or so, and a weekend day or two when I blew off writing to do other fun things. Next time, if I’m going on a day trip with Andrew, I’ll write in the car in 10-minute bursts.

I’m doing a modified goal this month–500 minutes–in light of the fact that the wedding and honeymoon eat up the latter half of my October. After that, I think I’ll keep shooting for 1000!

What Are Your Rules for Writers?

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This week in class, we read Colson Whitehead’s smart and often hilarious advice on How to Write. Based on that, I put together my own list of rules. They’re personal, based on what works for me and the traps I struggle to avoid, but I wonder if some of them might be more broadly applicable as well:

  1. Resist the urge to summarize. Writing should move forward. Summaries, at least in my experience, all too often are safety cushions against a braver ending.
  2. Start with what you know. Fiction by definition wouldn’t exist without improvisation and exploration, but it’s equally essential to ground a story somewhere. Emotions are good starting points.
  3. Never show anyone your first draft.
  4. You know what, don’t even talk about the story until draft 3. It’s so fragile in the early stages. Volatile, too. Anything you say about the story may well be better than anything you’ve written down so far, and you won’t remember it later.
  5. Write the part of the story you’re excited about first, regardless of whether you’ve written it yet.
  6. Be flexible, both inside and outside of the story. Write Every Day only works until the first case of food poisoning. Make rules you can stick to, and don’t write drafts so rigid you can’t follow a better idea.
  7. Have fun with revising. Cutting a story up with scissors is a good way to quickly try out new scene arrangements and keep in touch with the fearless inner kindergartener at the same time.
  8. Write scenes that aren’t even supposed to be in the final version for the sake of getting to know the characters better.
  9. If it’s in because it makes you feel clever, it probably shouldn’t be in.
  10. Writing in any subgenre has the potential to be literature (here’s to you, spec fic).

What writer’s rules do you swear by?