What we share with oaks

images-1My interaction with the Knoxville Utilities Board over a big tree produced an illuminating view of mortality. It happened like this. We have a red oak near the street which had grown until its bark was rubbing against— actually stripping insulation from— the electrical cable. One day our neighbor noted huge sparks shooting out of the tree. Startling, to say the least.

As a good citizen, she called the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB), which zipped over one of their technicians to tell me the dire consequences to neighbors and passers by. I was to sign a permission to have the tree removed. The tree was dying anyway, he added. I’d get, for my good (or enforced) citizenry, some safer dogwoods and/or red buds. So I signed. There seemed to be little else to do.

A couple days later, another KUB guy, an arborist came by, waving my document, which he had pulled from a stack. I had no need to sign it, he said. Mine was a fine oak tree and “the tech guys” could easily move the wires. He doubted that the tree was dying or even unhealthy.

At this point I called an arborist at the University of Tennessee who grilled me over the phone about the crown, the nature of the bark, the state of the leaves, how the roots met the earth, and so forth. My oak seemed to be passing every test for health, but the first KUB guy had been so sure.

“Well,” I asked finally. “Is my tree dying?”

Long pause. “Ma’am, of course it’s dying!”

“But . . .”

“Your tree is dying. No question. You’re dying, I’m dying. A newborn baby is dying. That’s the nature of organic things. They die!” Had I missed this fact? “Is your question whether your tree is dying faster than it ought to be?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“No, it’s not dying faster than it ought to be. No reason to cut it down.”

My red oak tree is still there, with the cables moved away. I hope we’re all here for awhile more.

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Posted in Just life

Dangers of over-describing

imagesAt a recent literary conference, a speaker was warning of “drivers license descriptions.” That is, the character appears on the scene trailing specifics: “Tommy Lengley, 6’1″, blonde, tanned, well-built, with a faint scar on his left cheek . . . ” Which put me to wondering: do we really know what Elizabeth Bennett looked like? Thinking back to recent novels I admired, I remember intense connection to the character without necessarily having the tools to identify that character in a line-up.

Or, if a physical quality is necessary, rather than the opening catalog, couldn’t the salient quality be demonstrated? The tall guy bumps his head in a doorway; the scar gets carefully camouflaged every morning; at every personal crisis, our hero bolts to the gym for hours. And so forth. If nothing else, these descriptions slow down the action, particularly in a short story, when you have to get the plot engine revved right away.

Another issue: In teaching college fiction classes, I was so, so tired of all the blonde/chestnut/auburn/ebony-haired, perfectly coiffed, flawlessly-skinned, wholly toned heroines I was given, all with fine careers, many friends, and loving families. Pretty much makes the average reader hate these ladies before they even open their mouths. Not that every character has to be a monster, but still, you do want some identification with your characters and most of us aren’t cover girl/boy material.

There are plenty of templates for “getting to know your character” and constant advice to know what your character keeps in his/her pocket. And it’s good. The writer does need to know these things, but perhaps more to shape what the character does than to reel it out when the character walks on stage.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the morning and I welcome commentary.

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Posted in Writing

Putting real people in stories

imagesIn writing workshops, the question often comes up: “What about putting people I know in stories? Is that ok?” It’s an interesting question, touching on issues of decency, law, human psychology, and the nature of narratives.

I don’t consciously import people from my life into stories. A character may be inspired by some quality of someone I know, but the push and pull of narrative structure, plot, and theme will start shaping the character far away from its model. I think that’s good. It’s how narratives work. Most successful fictive characters are amalgamations of characteristics you’ve seen and invented. If you want to be faithful to how Uncle Max “really was,” memoir is probably a better vehicle than fiction.

Which is not to say that people you know won’t see themselves in a character, especially a reasonably sympathetic one. I had an ex-pat female protagonist in a story set in Italy and lost count of the number of female ex-pat friends who assured me that I’d actually modeled my “Helen” character after them. Hum, news to me, but it made them happy. I’m sure every writer has had this experience.

But I do think it’s a problem if a writer starts playing the “I’m a writer” card to even a score with family members, ex-partners, or friends. As in “Robert did me wrong. I’ll write a story that shows everyone what a disgusting scumbag he is with a character called . . . hum . . . Rupert. After all, I’m a writer and I’m sharing my experience. So there.”

Without getting too far into the legal issue of libel, I think a fair moral test would be whether you’d give a free pass on public ridicule to someone on the grounds that s/he was a plumber or physician. Probably not. Being a writer doesn’t give you the right to be a creep.

Naturally, we are shaped by our experience, and the characters we create come from the world we’ve seen and imagined, but I do think that story telling is its own thing. It’s not about using your talent and craft to even a score.  That’s what diaries and journals are for. You can always dis your ex over drinks with a friend—in private. Anyway, a story that exists merely to show that a scumbag gets what’s coming to him/her is usually pretty lame anyway.


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Posted in Writing

Novel writing & bridge building

imagesAt the Southern Literature Conference in Chattanooga yesterday, the wonderful novelist/short story writer, Alan Garganus, had a great analogy on novel (and I suppose short story) building.

Suppose you want to build a bridge over a canyon. You throw a ball tied to a string across the canyon. Then use that string to haul over heavier and heavier cords. In the same way, you identify your theme/main plot line or single defining sentence of your character’s journey. Then, when that’s set, you strengthen it with character, setting, and so forth, building the structure of your novel.

Seems reasonable to me. Writers are often divided into “pantsers” (writing by the seat of the pants, starting a novel without knowing where it ends) and “plotters” who start with the basic plot and build and build on that. I’m a plotter for sure. The canyon is huge and I don’t want to just leap and not know where I’m ending up.

For all three of my novels, I’ve had an image of the first and last scene in mind: who is there, what they’re doing, the mood, the voice. And I’ve got a picture of the first scene. Then to connect them. It’s still scary, but at least I know where the bridge is.

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Posted in Writing

Carnivorous typewriter

cb9890464213aa3a0409dc130387356eAll in the line of research, I found an image of this carnivorous-looking typewriter, circa 1915. Writing is difficult enough, uncertain enough, and imagine if you had to be right up close to this scary thing hour after hour.

Doesn’t it look like something about to bite you, with those pearly teeth and terrible jutting-out slitty eyes?

I’m working on a new novel set about a century ago in East Tennessee, where I live now. My character is using a typewriter and I have made an executive decision that she will not be using this monster but one of the more benign models. I have to save her strength for troubles ahead.

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Posted in Writing

When Apple bonks writer

imagesMy agent Courtney says that her clients divide into pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) and planners (who ignore pants and plan). I’m a planner. By necessity. If I had to worry about plot at the same time as all the rest: theme, pacing, character, dialogue, imagery, setting, diction, etc, etc, I’d absolutely short circuit.

So I plan out what happens in each chapter (a couple lines for each), and then flesh out this into a few pages, sort of a list, before starting a new chapter. That way the first draft goes if not quickly, then more quickly.

I was working away, actually with good speed, on chapter 3 of book 4 when suddenly my Apple begins methodically underlining everything. Grammar wrong. Spelling wrong. In one wild paranoid moment, I took this as Apple’s judgement on the whole novel: it wouldn’t work at all. This is distressing.

I calmed down a tad and checked to see if maybe there was a language issue. Indeed, the language had set itself to Italian. Which is spooky since of all the scores of languages that Apple can be judgmental about, Italian is the only one I know. Except that (Hello, Apple!) I’m writing in English. So I select English (US) and set the default English, start writing, the underlining begins again, but now comes the dreaded whirling rainbow circle which means to the non-geek: “I am not responding to you. I don’t care about you. I will NEVER stop whirling.”

I figured I knew what to do. Shut down and start up. Same problem, response, shut down again. The third (or fourth) time, now Apple will be happy with nothing but Dutch. My first book was translated into Dutch. Does Apple know this?

Despondent, confused, a seat-of-the-pants Apple user, I unplugged and packed up the Apple with the idea that my smart friend Melissa I was meeting for lunch would figure this out. But when I started up the Apple in Yassim’s Falafel House, all was fixed. Was it the smell of falafel?

Come home, happy. But no. The same thing. Back to Italian. Very distressed. I will work on my iPad until my husband comes home. Writing is hard enough without an Apple on your case. To be continued.

Posted in Writing

Prompts for Awakening

imagesI just finished a four-session writing workshop on the theme of awakening with my magnificent poet-friend Linda Parsons Marion. She did two sessions on poetry and I did two on narrative. This being the beginning of spring and all, awakening seemed a good theme.
Here are some of the prompts I used for one exercise. The idea is connect one of these phrases to a moment of awakening in your life (or your character’s) life and write, just write for 10 minutes. Quantity is your goal. Try for a full page in ten minutes. Revise later and don’t pay any mind to that insidious critic voice in our heads. Just open the spigot and write. You’ll be amazed. Personally, I like free-writes with pen and paper—it feels more organic, but tastes differ. Have at it, and enjoy and if you feel moved to share the process or product, I’d be grateful.
I see him/her so differently now
Now I see why
I was so much younger then
This is what parenting really means
I can do this!
I’m free!
Now I’m in (or out of) this relationship
There’s a side of all this that I never saw before
NO! I won’t do this.
This may not look like the place, but it’s the place.
I never thought this would happen. It just did.

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Posted in Writing

Under the Same Blue Sky, publication! May 5, 2015. Launch at Laurel Theater, Knoxville on May 7 @ 7 pm.

Monday, April 6, 2015. Making it Real: Research Techniques for the Smart Writer. Blount County Public Library, Maryville, TN

April 9-11, 2015. Tennessee Mountain Writers Conference. Workshop on historical fiction and panel on agents. DoubleTree Hotel, Oak Ridge, TN

Thursday, May 14. Shell Shock & PTSD: Fiction & Fact. Lawson McGhee Public Library, Knoxville, TN

Swimming in the Moon will be published in German. November, 2015

Recent Review
"A testament to the love and enduring bond between mothers and daughters, childhood friendships and adopted family, Swimming in the Moon is a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters and a historical setting so realistic one would believe they had been transported into another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel. A+" Pittsburgh Examiner

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