Monday, September 29, 2014

Robin Sloan at Richardson Reads One Book

by Joan

One of my favorite joys in life is discovering a new author. I imagine a few of you might agree. It starts when you open the cover and dive into the first pages (or listen or scroll). You hope for carefully chosen words, carved into lovely or snappy or funny (or all three) sentences, one after the other until you are hooked. A smile curves your lips. “Yes, this is going to be good.”

But just because an author is a genius on the page doesn’t mean that author can deliver an engaging talk. It’s not a requirement, surely, but I’m wowed by those who can do both. I can’t count the number of author talks I’ve been to—I was just browsing my wide shelf of autographed books yesterday—but I’m awed when a speaker emulates the perfect combination of charm, humor and modesty.

Robin Sloan at RROB
Last week Elizabeth and I went to Richardson Reads One Book, featuring Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. In my opinion, as far as cool writers go, Robin Sloan is right up there with Jamie Ford and Chris Cleave.


Sloan is a rare combination of techie and bibliophile, interested in the concept of “media inventor,” which he describes as “someone primarily interested in content (words, pictures, ideas) who also experiments with new formats, new tools, and new technology. The paperback pioneer Allen Lane was a media inventor. Early bloggers were media inventors. The indie video game scene is full of media inventors.”

Sloan suggests that technology is not an intruder or interloper into the book world, but that it’s been there all along. He described his visit to the Grolier Club, New York City's exclusive group of rare book collectors, where he got to see in person the types of books he had researched and written into Mr. Penumbra’s story. His novel includes a fictional book published by Aldus Manutius, the 15th-century publisher who Sloan considers a pioneer in technology. Manutius, concerned with user experience, published the first small books. Before then, books were too large for laps, meant to be read from lecterns. Sloan considers Manutius’s new format as unique and high-tech as an iPhone.

Read his explanation of the concept of flip-flop, “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back againmaybe more than once.” 

As a former Twitter employee, it’s fitting that the idea for Sloan's book was sparked by a friend’s Twitter feed:
“Just misread ‘24-hour bookdrop’ as ‘24-hour bookshop.’ the disappointment is beyond words.” 

He wrote a short story and from there, the novel, published by Farrar,Straus and Giroux. As someone who’s crazy for bookstores and libraries (hello Bodleian), I added the book to my TBR immediately. But contrary to Sloan’s understanding, not everyone in the Richardson audience had read his book. That night I downloaded his book and after reading the first page, I smiled. “Yes, this is good.” It’s also charming, humorous and unpretentious, just like its author. If you haven’t read it, you should.

From the publisher's website:

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Writing conflict in your story

By Pamela

If you're like me, you avoid conflict at all costs. You see someone at Target you'd rather not speak to, and you dash over to another aisle and head the opposite direction. You exchange terse words with your spouse, and you conveniently find another room in the house to hang out in for a couple hours until the tide shifts. As sensitive human beings, we tend to avoid conflict, but as writers, we have to learn to embrace it for the sake of the story.

My girl had a homework assignment last week. She had to write a few paragraphs and part of the instructions included making sure the story had conflict. She asked me to read through it and then we had a long talk about the conflict missing between two best friends, hanging out on a gazebo roof talking about how they spent their summer apart. "Where's the conflict?" I asked. She shrugged her shoulders. "Well, what is it these two girls want?"

"They want to be themselves," she said.

"Who is keeping them from being themselves?" I asked.

"The popular girls."

"Why would the popular girls care about them?"

"They just do," she said.

And then we talked about true conflict, and I tried to boil it down as simply as I could. Conflict = someone wanting something and an outside force (e.g, person, elements, situations, disease, poverty) is keeping them from it. Conflict in a story also paves the way for a character to step forward and save the day--maybe the main character, maybe someone else.

So we talked about books she had read. Harry Potter, Wonder, The Hunger Games. What did the character want and who/what kept him or her from getting it? It's as simple as that and yet we sometimes struggle to put our characters through the battle. Suppose Harry Potter had been this beloved boy wizard who was the star of Hogwarts and no one ever tried to stop him from being the best student ever to cross the threshold. No Lord Voldemort. No Draco Malfoy. No Dursleys. How many pages of that story would you want to read? Probably not very many.

My first manuscript suffered from a case of conflict deficiency, and even though I attempted to put my two main characters through a series of tests, I never made them too uncomfortable. I mother-loved them so much, I couldn't bear to make them unhappy. Boring stuff that went on for 80,000+ words.

The manuscript I'm writing now is different and not nearly as easy to write. No one is very happy. The marriage is failing. The teenagers are being forced to make grown-up, life-changing decisions. Quite honestly, I find it difficult to see them suffer. But, unlike an early reader, I know where I THINK these people will end up. And while I don't have to wrap it up with "And they all lived happily ever after," I do have to write a resolution. The characters need to have come out on the other side as changed individuals whose lives will go on to even new conflicts. It's up to me, the writer, to guide them through it but not shield them from it.

Yesterday I finished reading Defending Jacob by William Landay--a wonderful story filled with conflict and twists and turns. You should read it. For other books with conflict abounding, I'd recommend Wild by Cheryl StrayedGone Girl by Gillian FlynnThe Giver by Lois Lowry, to name a few. You don't have to read mysteries, sci-fi or any genre that's heavy on action to experience conflict. It should be present in every story including Charlotte's Web. What does Wilbur want? To live to be an old pig. Who's keeping him from it? The farmer who raised him for his meat. What role would Charlotte play in the story if there is no conflict for Wilbur? She's just an old spider in a dirty barn. The conflict allows her to step forward as a heroine to save 'Some Pig' so Wilbur can see himself as 'Terrific' as she does.

So, embrace conflict in your story in a way you don't in your real life. Don't steer your giant red cart in the opposite direction to avoid a messy confrontation. Put your characters through hell and love them enough to let them suffer and grow and change and come out on the other side as changed people. Your reader will thank you for it.


Images from Flickr; fighting wolves by Tambako The Jaguar; mad couple by Ed Yourdon; Target cart by Daniel Oines.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Power of Trying

By Susan

Over the past few weeks, I've had several conversations with writing friends that seem to circle around the same topic: how to piece together an artistic life and pay the bills at the same time.

Some of these friends are recent graduates from MFA programs wondering what comes next, and some are working full-time "real" jobs, desperate to get away. Some are teaching and don't want to be. Some are scattering themselves hither and yon, working multiple jobs and frantically seeking time to write.  Some have completed novels and are looking at next steps. All need to write. All need to pay bills on time.

I'm not sure there is an answer to this quandary. In our American culture, our values line up with fiscal success over the creation of art, literature, and music. Occasionally there is an exception, and an artist reaches the pinnacles of popularity and riches, yet for every superstar author, musician, or painter I would venture to say there are a thousand more producing a high quality of work that goes unrecognized.

This week I took great pleasure in reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. As I read her beautiful prose and marveled at her insight, craft, and language, parts of me felt equally dejected and inspired.  On one hand, I envied her success and talent. On the other, I felt hopeful that one day I could produce a novel that someone else could love, just as I loved this one. And then I came across this exchange between the protagonist, Sarah Grimke, and Lucretia Mott, the well-known abolitionist, suffragist, and social reformer.
 
      'Why would God plant such deep yearnings in us, if they only come to nothing?' It was more a sigh than a question. I was thinking of Charlotte and her longing to be free, but as the words left my mouth, I knew I was thinking of myself, too.
      I hadn't really expected Lucretia to respond, but after a moment, she spoke. 'God fills us with all sorts of yearnings that go against the grain of the world—but the fact those yearnings often come to nothing, well, I doubt that's God's doing.' She cut her eyes at me. 'I think we know that's men's doing.'
      She leaned toward me. 'Life is arranged against us, Sarah. And it's brutally worse for Handful and her mother and sister. We're all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we'll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that's all.'
      I felt her words tear a hole in the life I'd made. An irreparable hole.

Maybe that is why we continue to write when faced with financial stress, unhappiness in our careers, and roadblock after roadblock. We're designed to continue pushing toward our greatest desire. For the artist, the financial payoff may not arrive in the way we hope or expect, but as we continue to try, the artistic life can lead to other, unexpected riches. For me, those riches have come in the friendships of like-minded people, the satisfaction of living a life in line with my values, and the happiness found in the act of writing alone. If one's goal in seeking the artistic life is wealth and fame, great disappointment will most likely follow. There is no failure in the act of creating and producing art. Yet to go against your own heart's desires in order to conform to society's standards could be considered a failure, for certain.

All we can do is continue to try. Perhaps in the creation of art, it can be where we find our greatest joy. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Little Girl Be Careful What You Say

A few of my trophies!
by Elizabeth

A huge part of my college experience was participating in Forensics. Not dealing with dead bodies, but Speech and Debate. My favorite events, and the ones at which I most excelled, were under the umbrella of "Oral Interpretation"--basically taking poems and prose and plays and acting them with mostly my voice.

One of my favorite poems in four years of competition was Carl Sandburg's:


Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
     and words are strong, too,
    stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
     So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
     be careful, be careless, be careful.
     be what you wish to be
 
This came to mind recently when I read a couple of articles about a debut novelist and her work. I'm not going to go into specifics or identify the writer or the novel, because I find that as uncool as what I felt the writer did. The book sounded great, challenging and  with an engaging story and lovely prose. A winner, and I had in mind to get myself a copy when it hits the bookstores soon.
 
But then I saw another article, and in it, the writer made a comment that in my opinion called me boring. Me personally, and thinking about it, really almost everyone in my closest circles. No, she didn't actually say "You, Elizabeth Lynd, are not worth talking to," but she might as well have. Yowza.
 
What really bothered me is that the statement was more or less in self defense, and while I have no problem with that, there was no reason to then dismiss the population who had not shared the writer's experiences. What she said was akin to saying something like, if you have never eaten at a five star restaurant, you have no idea what good food tastes like. Really? When she could have just as easily said, if you have eaten at a five star restaurant, you almost certainly know what great food tastes like. Subtle, still gets the opinion across, and not offensive. If you've never had a child you have no idea what love is. Ouch. If you've had children, you definitely understand love. If you've never survived cancer, you don't understand the value of life. If you've survived cancer, you might have a stronger understanding of the value of life than before you were diagnosed. Et cetera.
 
I don't think the writer was trying to put anyone down. I think she was trying to explain her character, her book, and to a certain extent, herself, and make the point that adversity can create a better person. And I agree with that; but I don't agree that someone who is fortunate enough to traverse the planet less scathed than some of her sisters is somehow inferior.
 
It comes down to words. And as writers, we deal in words, the ones we write, and if we are very lucky, the ones we get to say when that writing is shared with the world. Sure, speaking is laden with opportunities for mistakes--my forensics career taught me that time and again--but we are writers, and we know words matter. The ones we write, and the ones we say. The ones that writer spoke cost her my buying her book, cost her me ever reading it probably. A small thing, but the opposite of what she was speaking out for in the first place.
 
As writers, we will hopefully be called to speak. When we do, we should take care. We should be what we wish to be.
 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Review of Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion

By Kim,

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

A war bride awaits the arrival of her GI husband at the platform…

A Holocaust survivor works at the Oyster Bar, where a customer reminds him of his late mother…

A Hollywood hopeful anticipates her first screen test and a chance at stardom in the Kissing Room…

On any particular day, thousands upon thousands of people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through the whispering gallery, beneath the ceiling of stars, and past the information booth and its beckoning four-faced clock, to whatever destination is calling them. It is a place where people come to say hello and goodbye. And each person has a story to tell.

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

About the authors:

Melanie Benjamin is the NYT bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
Jenna Blum is the NYT bestselling author of Those Who Save Us
Amanda Hodgkinson is the NYT bestselling author of 22 Britannia Road
Pam Jenoff is the bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl
Sarah Jio is the NYT bestselling author of Blackberry Winter
Sarah McCoy is the bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter
Kristina McMorris is the NYT bestselling author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves
Alyson Richman is the bestselling author of The Lost Wife
Erika Robuck is the critically acclaimed author of Call Me Zelda
Karen White is the NYT bestselling author of The Time Between

Review:

I don’t remember the last time I picked up an anthology of short stories, but this one I could not resist. First off, look at that list of authors, several of whom are among my favorites. Second, all the stories take place just after WWII, which is a major selling point with me. Third, I’m in love with the cover.

Let’s talk about that cover a moment, actually, because if a reader were to judge this book solely on its cover, that person may be in for a disappointment. As the title promises, there are love stories in this volume. Not all love stories end well. There are also tales of reunion, though some reunions are more nightmare than bliss.

Grand Central is not a light read. This is a volume filled with stories that made me swoon, filled me with rage, brought on tears, and made me want to reach into the pages to alternately shake and hug a certain character who was about to put herself and her child in terrible danger. (Erika Robuck, I’m looking at you.)

One of the most wonderful things about this collection is that while all the stories could stand on their own, this book was clearly a collaborative effort. That violinist playing in Jenna Blum’s “The Lucky One?” The reader will recognize Gregori from Alyson Richman’s “Going Home.” In Karen White’s “The Harvest Season,” Ginny will see a young woman run through Grand Central calling out the name David. The reader will know that is Ella from Pam Jenoff’s “Strand of Pearls” and, like me, will likely pray she finds her David. Finding connections between the stories became a fun game to play while I read and it certainly kept me from setting the book down often.


Have you read Grand Central? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Adding creativity to your life

by Joan

I love when two unrelated incidents strike in a sort of synchronicity. The first happened when my husband sent me an email with the subject line: Awesomeness. It was a link to LifeHack.org, a cool site with essays and tips on productivity, communication, lifestyle. I clicked and up popped a chart labeled “The Theory of Awesomeness.”

Reflective pool at the Winspear
A simplistic road map to life, the chart suggested that many people chase the wrong goals, following “Brules” (bullshit rules) and chasing money, instead of practicing “Blissipline” (the discipline of bliss) and working toward end goals. Be happy with where you are, practice gratitude, visualize your future, follow your passion, contribute, explore.

“Your true greatness will come when you focus on building a life, not building a career.” This seemed the perfect advice to share with our son, who in his senior year of college is trying to juggle studying and organizational commitments with recruiting season, and becoming ever anxious about life after graduation.

The second random thing happened last week when I joined my husband for a nighttime photo walk with photographer Trey Ratcliff. A Dallas native, Trey was a techie stuck in a cube, day after day, thinking of what he would do with his hour lunch break or free hour at night. What sandwich would he eat, which article would he read in this limited time? He went in search of a creative outlet and is now a successful photographer, writer, speaker, adventurer and blogger. He’s had numerous showings around the world and has been featured on BBC and CBS, among others, and had the first HDR photo to hang in the Smithsonian. Three years ago he relocated to New Zealand, where he’s in the midst of beauty every day, all day. In Trey's view, no matter what your field, fit some form of creativity into your life, wherever you can.
Reflective man, corner of Flora and Olive

As he spoke, I remembered my first job out of college, where I crunched numbers on a ten-key, recorded figures onto ledger paper and prepared tax returns for high-net-worth clients. My desk held file-folders, mechanical pencils, paper clips and those cool gummy erasers, which, to this day, I find alarmingly satisfying. This was my life, but was it life? I often stopped throughout the day to think about what types of cloud shapes were floating above my Connecticut Avenue building, which leaves were oranging up and twirling to the ground, which birds were charming their mates. On my lunch hour I spent my paycheck on a fleeting, stupidly expensive wardrobe, not realizing then the hours I was wasting, when I could have been hacking out a creative life.


Bell Tower, Guadalupe Cathedral
Whether you see the world through a photographic or a literary lens, whether you record it with a pen or a paintbrush, you are fostering beauty. Trey asked why we share what we write or paint or snap? He suggested that we not seek recognition or affirmation from others, for if we find something beautiful then it is. No, rather we share “to make the world more beautiful and interesting.” To spread creativity. To practice Blissipline. I am grateful for clouds and leaves, for the Dallas art's district, for our philosophical son, for my husband, who sends me links to awesomeness and shares with me his creative side.


Photo credits: Rick Mora

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Worthy Cause

By Kim

As many of you know, I will be attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, MA, this November. I am lucky to be able to swing the trip, but there are others who are not so fortunate. A group of women have banded together to try to help five incredibly deserving members of the Writer Unboxed community make it to the conference this year. Here is their story...
Who are the WriterMamas and what is their goal?
The following is adapted from their home page:
We are a group of women writers who have come together to make it possible for five women writers, who are also mothers with young children, to attend the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts, from November 3-7. Without this fundraiser they (like many parent writers, but especially mothers) would not be able to attend. They live in Australia, Spain, and states in America far from Massachusetts, and will require planes and trains to get to the venue. Our goal is to raise enough funds not only to cover travel expenses but also registration, food and lodging, and, most important, child care while these writers are away.
Our initial inspiration to come together for this fundraiser was because we were so excited to meet these five women who are as dear to us as we are to them. We have talked with them daily online for over two years, been inspired by them, and impressed with their dedication to publishing their work and their commitment to writing as a career. When first one, then another, and then three more said the cost of travel and everything involved in attending the event was beyond their financial scope this year, we were dismayed. That’s when the idea of this fundraiser was born.
As writers we know the importance of being able to leave the responsibilities of daily life behind for a short while in order to write without distractions. The Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in November will give our five sister writers that opportunity in spades. This event is designed to maximize time to write every day for four days.
If you would like to help five very deserving women make it to the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, here are a few simple ways to contribute.

Make a Donation

Pop on over to the WriterMamas GiveForward page and make a donation. Even if all you can spare is $5, we would all appreciate it. Of course, you’re welcome to donate more than $5. Any and all donations are gratefully accepted.

Buy cool Writer Unboxed merchandise
This fundraiser has inspired some of the most amazing people to dive in and help. And so you can buy cool caps and T-shirts, and all the profit goes helping our WriterMamas
Check out these great baseball caps, available for a limited time for $30. You can get them in light pink/white, light sky/white, dark red/stone, olive/stone, navy/white, dark gray/stone, black/stone and chocolate/stone.

Or, if you’re not into baseball caps, you can pick up a limited edition Writer Unboxed t-shirt for only $23. They are available in gray or red.



Spread the word
Tell everyone. Share this blog post. Share the individual links. Tweet them, FB them, G+ them, Pinterest them.


If you’re not interested in the merchandise, and you can’t or don’t want to donate, that’s okay. You can still help just by clicking a few buttons to spread the word. The WriterMamas thank you!
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