I came home Saturday night from a fantastic week in Utah at WIFYR (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers). My notebook is crammed full of notes I'm planning to blog about--otherwise I'd forget about them--but I thought I'd start with that first morning.
I took Ann Cannon's morning class on the YA novel, and it (she) blew me away. We read 20 pages from each of our 12 classmates before the week began, and I was so interested to find out who wrote all those submissions. The other writers were talented, and I enjoyed their work. More importantly for a critique workshop, they were very perceptive readers, and I came home with lots to mull over.
I volunteered to be the first up for critique. I'm a worrier, and I thought that if on Monday I could stop worrying about getting lost on my way to the conference AND hear my manuscript be ripped to shreds, I just might be able to focus for the rest of the week.
The main theme that readers came back to was that I needed to deepen the sense of place in my 20 pages. I've mentioned before that that's a weakness of mine--I'd say Achilles' heel, except that would imply I only had one--and both my agent and my critique group here at home have pointed it out. It was interesting to hear that same feedback coming from different directions. For example, someone asked how the stones on the church were weathered--let us see them! Another mentioned the often neglected sense of smell and asked if this funeral had flowers, or what. A couple people asked if the mom could see the little boy the main character was talking to. Several of them suggested playing up the weather element to echo the main character's feelings (that's a struggle for me--I had to read Ruskin's essay on the pathetic fallacy back in my school days, and I guess I'm cutting edge for the nineteenth century in my views on that).
They came up with other insights, large and small, that I'm still digesting (I also wrote down "terrorizing sheep" in my notebook--who knows. My funeral scene is sheep-free.).
Ann Cannon gave us all paddleboards and had us write "Time-Space Continuum" on them to remind us to ground our readers in time and space. Great visual--and it's also a great example of how my settings lurch after the ball of my story, trying to give it a spot to land!
I did relax after I made it through that (not even a little bit brutal) critique session. I did, however, manage to keep getting lost that week.
I've been enjoying Twyla Tharp's book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. I think of myself as more of a buckle down and power through woman than a free-spirited inspired type, but I found myself intrigued by many of her ideas.
Yesterday I read her recommendations on improving strengths and weaknesses in writing. I think I'm pretty strong on dialogue. World-building and descriptions, not so much. When I read, I tend to skim through those parts and not slow down to picture the world or savor the descriptions. I picture characters as existing in a bubble, interacting only with each other. That's most likely abnormal, but its effect on my writing is that I can hear everything my characters say to each other without being able to focus on anything in their surroundings. Kiiiind of a problem.
Anyway, Twyla Tharp shares the counsel of sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi. He said: "Never have a favorite weapon." She says, "Warriors know they need to enlarge their arsenal of skills in order to avoid becoming predictable to their adversaries. It's not different when the craft is a creative one, and the stakes are somewhat less than life and death."
So world-building is my set of nunchucks, and I'm off to practice.
For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, my husband and some good friends humored me by going to the artsy theater to see Tim's Vermeer. (They double humored me by not going to the conveniently located Indian restaurant right by the theater. I can enjoy chicken korma, but not on my birthday!) The documentary follows a brilliant billionaire inventor who spends five years replicating Vermeer's masterpiece The Music Lesson through technology available in Vermeer's lifetime: a camera obscura--a lens, really--and mirrors. The film is a bit slow but utterly fascinating. Even if art bores you to tears, Tim Jenison is riveting. His attention to detail (he builds the room that Vermeer painted, including the virginal and the views outside the window) is beyond obsessive, and he is clearly brilliant.
The documentary tries to debunk Vermeer as artist, claiming that, instead, he was merely an inventor, like Tim Jenison himself. I have no problem agreeing that Vermeer might have painted in just the manner Tim suggests, but to me, using technology doesn't detract one bit from Vermeer's brilliance as an artist. His use of light is exquisite, and perhaps he could see it because of the lenses and mirrors he employed. But his composition, subject matter, and calm balance are all his own.
I remember studying in school how Piet Mondrian--this guy--you know him, he's very popular with the preschool art unit crowd--
was influenced by Vermeer. And that's one of the primary things I admire in Vermeer: his balanced compositions. His shapes. You don't come up with that by randomly arranging a room and then spending a year copying it through a mirror.
I'm a writer, not an artist--even if I had a few delusions about making my own masterpieces while watching the film, before I remembered that I have neither billions, years, nor any patience to speak of--but I keep coming back to that line between technology and art. Writers use technology every day: word processors to record and the internet for research, of course. But I've also heard suggestions to use recording devices to hone an ear for dialogue or to video an event and then write down every single gesture people make. Twyla Tharp even suggests typing out classic novels to learn how the masters did it.
While accurate dialogue and gestures do make a story more lifelike, that story is the heart of the writer's craft. And Vermeer's painting is the same way. Whether you interpret The Music Lesson as a commentary on the young woman's virtue or the joys of the arts or a snapshot of class, it tells a story. And the story is told through much more than the tool of the photographic-like lens.
When I write, I have to remember not to get so hung up on realistic or factual renderings that my story gets lost. The story matters; everything else is enhancement. Realism and facts are there to ground my stories, not to take them over.
Tim didn't tell a new story. Even the impressive copy he made of The Music Lesson is merely a copy. I would love to see an artist try his technique and see what she learns from it to enhance her art and the stories she wants to tell. I might read old masters, Austen and Bronte and Shakespeare, and imitate their tools to improve my abilities (again with the patience thing--I'm not sure I'm up to trying Twyla Tharp's advice), but I do it to improve my own abilities. To tell my own stories.
Now if you have a minute or twenty, I can walk you through ALL of my strong food preferences. That's a story worth telling, right? RIGHT?!
Because I just finished reading Eleanor and Park. And WOW. That book brought back all those torrents of Feelings from high school. John Green is right up there with Rainbow Rowell. When I read An Abundance of Katherines, I grinned the whole way through because I felt like I was eavesdropping on the clever nerds I hung out with in high school. There were plenty of nerdy kids in my high school who weren't clever, just out of the social swing of things. John Green's nerds are very, very clever.
Both those authors nail the high school voice. And I'm sure there are others who do, as well. I'm thinking of Stephanie Perkins--her contemporary books don't remind me a bit of my own high school experience, but they're great stories. But mostly, I kind of find contemporary settings . . . boring. When I sit down to read, I want something more magical and fantastic than high school or part-time jobs. I want time travel messing with the universe's fabric or historical settings with perfect details or a murder mystery to solve or some kind of mythological something coming true.
It's quite a feat for a contemporary novel to blow me away. I'm blown.
I've evolved in my understanding of taste over my years writing. I used to feel miffed when agents responded to a query with a, "Sorry, but it's not for me." Why not?! I always wanted to know. I used to think that my stories must have some deep-rooted flaw that I couldn't see.
Yeah, they probably do. But searching for critique partners has given me a new perspective on this. When I first began writing, I connected with three other moms whose kids went to the same gifted magnet school as my daughter. We were all stay-at-home moms and writers, and that critique group rocked for building my confidence, giving me an audience for my writing, and teaching me how to critique kindly yet constructively.
One other member is working on a YA novel, like me, one is writing a screenplay, and one is a journalist with thoughts of a memoir. We still meet, and I still love it. But I realized a while ago that I would never sign up for that sort of critique group again. Now, I'm looking for something different than general support and encouragement.
I have some very specific tastes, now.
I want someone who writes about YA topics that interest me. That usually means some kind of historical, sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery for me. I don't care for straight-up contemporary--although I'll certainly answer the door if John Green or Rainbow Rowell come knocking--and too much hot and heavy romance makes me laugh. And--hand-in-hand with that--I want someone who likes what I write.
Happily, I've found a few critique partners like this.
As I've looked for one more critique partner these last few weeks, I've softened into some sympathy for agents and editors. I have read lots and lots of pitches that are well-written and publishable, but just don't catch my fancy. Just this morning I got an email back from a potential critique partner who let me know that my story's premise just doesn't interest her enough to work together. Fair enough! I've thought the same thing about others and haven't had the guts to tell them. And you know what? Those manuscript swaps usually end up being a one-time thing, because neither of us is enthusiastic enough about the other's writing.
Now, I'm off to place a personals ad for a YA writer whose work could be described as Georgette Heyer lunches with Connie Willis and goes jogging every morning with Brandon Sanderson, who can both love my stories and put her finger on its deep-rooted flaws.
Names are so tricky for me! Not coming up with them--that's a breeze. All that fifth-grade practice drawing elaborate family trees full of K or L names has paid off. Kendall, Kalliope, and Karousel are always there for me to draw on.
No, it's remembering names. I read about four Harry Potter books before I heard someone pronounce 'Hermione.' And it hadn't bothered me one bit. She was the 'H' girl in my head. I can't tell you how many times I've had to sit quiet at book club because I can't figure out who they're talking about when they use, you know, the character's NAME. I need them to say, 'The one with the scissors' or 'The loud one' for me to follow along. I read a fair amount of Russian literature growing up, and what with the crazy nicknames and the patronymics, I was never quite clear on whether we had six characters in a scene or one. Not quite sure why I kept reading without clearing that up. I'd like to think that now it would bother me.
But probably it wouldn't, because I can't keep names straight IN MY OWN NOVELS. Yes, that's right, characters that I dream up and stuff with aspirations and hopes and loves are basically nameless to me. I can't tell you how many times my sister (my first and most enthusiastic reader) or a critique partner will make notes in the margin saying, "Wait, this character is here?" Nope, usually not. Usually I just grabbed one of the female names in the book and stuck it there, and it was the wrong one.
Why, oh why? I'm great with names in real life. They're important. I even take pains not to misspell someone's name when I enter it into my phone (because Lindsey and Lindsay surely care which spelling I'm looking at when they call). But in my OWN BOOKS, I'm toast.
I'm writing a mystery set in the early twentieth century now, and it's mighty slim pickings for male names. They hadn't hit our modern creativity of rhyming names with 'Aiden,' so the ones I picked are fairly generic. AND THEY ARE ALL THE SAME IN MY HEAD. I keep writing John's scenes with William's name and sticking Walter into the middle of Roy's conversations.
I always wonder where blog titles come from, mostly because I knew very little pop culture until I married my husband, so there are gaping holes waiting to be plugged with Beatles' lyrics and '80s sitcoms. This blog title doesn't come from a song or movie or TV show you've never heard of, so take heart!
My husband and I were discussing destinations for an anniversary trip. I have never been to England. Never. Are you as shocked by this as me? It still appalls me. So of course it was on our list to discuss.
But every time I start researching a trip to England, I get this nagging little feeling that I'd really rather tour Georgette Heyer or Dorothy Parker's England. Yes, yes, I get that they're made up. But they're such magical destinations in my head that I'm not sure I could handle seeing cell phones on an actual London street.
So I told my husband that I'd rather go to England in the 1800s, as long as it came with indoor plumbing and liberally applied deodorant. That made him laugh--and I'm always pretty proud of that--and he told me, "Sorry, but you're going to have to write yourself there."
That line stuck in my head. I loved it! I love disappearing into an imaginary world I've created. I think about his words all the time when I'm writing.
But rest assured that I'd be able to overcome any and all qualms about cell phone sightings if you'd like to sponsor my trip to London.