Friday, December 21, 2007

Love and Joy Come to You . . .

I love Christmas, in all its chaos and stress and emotional upheaval. I love the memories and the hopes for the future and seeing little kids giddy with excitement. I love the smell of freshly baked cookies, and the fir tree in my house, and finding my cat snuggled under it among all the presents. I love findng the right gift for the right person and still being able to surprise my twenty-something sons. I love that, through the wonder of stepdaughters, I now have girls to buy gifts for.

I love dropping a five or ten in the red Salvation Army kettle, and I love Christmas carols--the traditional ones and the more modern ones. I love that twice I've heard Springsteen sing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" live in concert. I love the goofy coffee and hallmark and beer commercials that make me cry.

I love the sense of hope and wonder and miracles that this time of year holds--that even when it's gray and wet and cold outside, there's this spirit of love and faith and mystery in the air.

I wish all of you a warm, wonderful holiday season filled with laughter and time for quiet and good food and being with people you love.

Friday, December 14, 2007

First Impressions

Carleen Brice, fellow Ballantine Babe and blogger buddy, tagged me for this meme where you post the first line of the first post for each month of 2007 (since I didn't start blogging until March, I'm getting off easy). . . .

March: I figure that in my first blog post I should introduce myself. And perhaps explain or justify why the world needs another blog.

April: Well, reluctantly, I'm back from a fabulous few days at The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival--and I just have to say, if you haven't been to New Orleans, go now, and if you have ever been, go now.

May: This Saturday morning, I get to do one of my favorite book-related things: participate in a book club.

June: Moments ago I was sitting in my family room, editing my current work-in-progress, loving the quiet hour or so I'd lucked into.

July: I have a dog who howls at sirens.

August: Just a Little Nuts: That would describe me and the week or so we've just had around here.

September: Last Thursday I had one of the best experiences I've ever had as a writer: I was the guest speaker at Ursuline Academy because they'd selected my novel as their whole school summer read.

October: In June 2006, I resigned from teaching high school.

: Last Friday, I drank a few cups of strong coffee, took a deep breath and headed out to the mall.

December: In my Thanksgiving post, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite novels of all time, Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety.

This was a fun meme to do and not just because I'm one of those people who loves to look back over the year. It's interesting for me to look back and think about who I was in those earlier days, what I was worrying about, looking forward to, enjoying. So, I tag all of you--see what was on your mind in February or March or June. Think about what you've accomplished, what's no longer on your to-do list, what's been resolved (or not). In looking over my blogs, it's fun to see that the WIP I was looking over in June is now done. Yes, indeedy. Finished, completed, ready for submission early in 2008. That feels amazing. Twice I mentioned meeting with book clubs and I'm still doing that, have at least two such dates set up for January. That's fantastic. And my dog who howls? Still does. And so do I.

Happy looking back, everybody.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

Today, I'm tickled to be touring Eliza Graham, whose debut novel, Playing with the Moon explores the mystery behind a 1940s inter-racial love affair and the eventual murder of a black GI. It's set in the British village of Tyneham on the Isle of Purbeck, emptied in 1943 to be used in the preparations for the D-Day landings. This is history and mystery all rolled into one compelling tale.

Let's hear Eliza, our friend from across the pond, in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?
I visited a deserted village on the south coast of England that had been evacuated for pre-D-Day exercises during WW2. I was completely overwhelmed by the poignancy of the place and couldn't help thinking about the people who might have lived there and who had never been able to go home again.

I think I first dream up scenes, rather than characters or the overall plot. In my mind's eye I see people sitting on wagons, taking a last look at their homes before they leave them for ever. Or I see someone running from soldiers. Or someone climbing out of a window at night to go somewhere they're not supposed to go.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?
I really like Felix. She reminds me of ladies of a certain age I know in real life: so stoical and with such a sharp sense of humour. They seem to have a resilience I feel I lack personally. Some of them have dealt with world wars and depression and I find their life stories fascinating.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?
I share with the dining room table and chairs and two dogs and two hamsters. We all get along. Well, I get along with all of them but the dogs want to eat the hamsters and the hamsters try to filch pieces of paper out of my in-tray to shred for their bedding. One way of dealing with bad first drafts, I suppose.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?
Those occasional flights of inspiration you get when you can't wait to get to a keyboard before you physically burst with excitement. I don't get them often but they are like literary champagne.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

You need the soul of a child and the hide of a rhino (or was it a hippo?) to succeed. It's so true.

This sounds like a perfect book to have for those cold dreary days ahead. A cup of tea, a bunch of Christmas cookies and a good book. What could be better?

I Took a Break from Eating Christmas Cookies

Real quick: I'm guest blogging over with The Good Girls Who Kill for Money . . . but I'll be back later for a new Girlfriend Cyber Circuit Tour.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Walking in a Winter Wonderland . . . or Not.

One year ago last week, we had an ice storm, and I wrote this. I'd thought about submitting it somewhere, but I got busy with the holidays, so it got pushed to the back of my computer (so to speak). Today, all the trees and houses and roads are glazed over, although the forecast is not suggesting another armegeddon. I remembered I'd written this, and it still seems appropriate. So I thought I'd share it with all of you . . .

I never would have believed that five days without power following an ice storm would help me see how lucky I am, but during a phone call with my mother-in-law Vivian, that’s exactly what happened. When our power first went out Thursday evening, we embraced the adventure. My husband started a fire in the fireplace; I lit candles. We gathered blankets assuming that by morning we’d be making waffles and warming up while we gazed out the windows at the icy wonderland.

By Friday afternoon when the utility company said we might not have power restored until Sunday or Monday, and the temperatures dipped into the single digits, I fell into a survivalist’s mentality. My husband left town on business; I stayed home with my dog. My world narrowed to the living room, heated by the fireplace and the kitchen, where I could use my gas stove. All the hotel rooms were booked, and while friends who had power invited me for meals and visits, I couldn’t move in with them because that would involve bringing along my 2 year-old Golden Retriever, who, while cute and sweet, had never been invited back anywhere he’d visited.

I hunkered down and began to see how victims of natural disasters could become paranoid and resentful. Driving down streets that had been dark but now had power, I’d think, “Why them?” When I saw holiday lights, they seemed excessive. When I called City Hall to see if there was any timetable for the power to be restored and was put on hold, I’d fume, “Are they sitting in the back drinking coffee?” On Monday morning, I took myself out to breakfast, and when the waitress brought me wheat toast rather than the English muffin I’d ordered, I had to fight back the tears. This is more than I can bear, I thought. But then, Vivian called.

I’d just emptied my refrigerator and freezer of spoiled food. The phone rang just as I was coming back in from hauling it out to the garbage. Vivian’s warm voice washed over me. She was worried. And somehow, right then, I knew how lucky I was. I could empty my refrigerator knowing I could refill it without blowing my budget for the month. I could take myself out to eat without worrying about paying next month’s rent. I had gas in my car. Most of the world’s population would trade places with me—even without power. Who was I to complain? My house hadn’t been blown away by a storm or tsunami. No one had died.

And then I started thinking about how easily I often overlooked real storm victims. Sure, I pay attention at first, and if I have a personal connection, I worry and contribute money, but all too quickly I’m caught up in the minutiae of my own life and move on. I knew now that people who had turned on their holiday lights weren’t flaunting what they had; they were simply getting back to normal. So, when my power came back on at 11:18 on the fifth day of our blackout, I cheered and told the utility worker that I loved him rather than ask him what took so long.

What I want to take away from my brief refugee status is not a litany of woes and what I had to do without, but a real appreciation for all that I have. For the friends who took me in and brought me coffee. For the roof I have over my head. For the heating bill I can easily pay.

I want to remember this the next time I hear about people in the cold or the dark, people who are making do with much less during much worse. And I hope it will keep me from immediately changing the channel or turning the page.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Embroidery that is Revision

In my Thanksgiving post, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite novels of all time, Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. I flat out love this book. It's got Madison, it's got a story of an adult lifelong friendship between two couples, it's got a writer/teacher struggling to make sense of his place in the cosmos, and, above all, it's got magical, lyrical writing that I get completely lost in. It, along with a few other stories (The Sound and the Fury and The Things They Carried to name two) take my breath away.

But, I digress.

Here's another quote:

"Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find."

These two women know each other beyond knowing. And, so does Stegner. And that's what I've recently discovered again in my revisions.

With All the Numbers, when I wrote the scene in which my main character has to take her dead son's clothes to the funeral home, I knew I'd found the perfect place to open the book. But, this was actually the very last scene I wrote. Initially, I was surprised that I hadn't started here, but as I thought about it, I knew that would have been impossible. I hadn't yet wallowed in her world of grief to know what that moment would feel like for her. To know what it would mean for her to smell her son on his clothes. And to frantically not want to lose that scent. Until I'd written the rest of her story, I hadn't put in enough stitches. And when I had, it all worked.

I'm now in the final revisions of Unexpected Grace. And I had to do some major restitching of one of the narrative lines. Using completely different yarn. And, if a few months ago, you'd told me, gee, Judy, maybe you need to make that one guy die 8 months ago rather than 8 years ago, I would have panicked. Well, no, I'd have wanted to say (but I'd have been too tongue-tied to do so), I can't do that because, well, it's not how I thought it out and no, it just won't work. But, since I'd completed the story, I knew the characters so well that when it was suggested to me recently, I thought, oh my, that's exactly right. It was as if I'd pulled some threads too tight, and this one suggestion opened up so much more. And it's been incredibly easy. All because I'd thought I was done. I'd gone so far in with my characters; I knew them so well.

I HAD to know those thousand threads of my characters. And I could stitch and sew and pull and knot all I wanted, but until enough threads were present, I wouldn't have the full picture. And I might have to yank out an entire section and restitch. And in the process I'd probably poke my finger and perhaps even draw blood. But in the end I'd have a fully formed piece. Only because I'd allowed myself the luxury of a draft. I'd allowed myself to make a garment, try it on, let it out here and take it in there. Put it on the dummy and glance at it from all angles and under different lights. Revision truly is RE-VISION. Another look. A glance back.

And to go back to the quote--it's something everyone wishes for but many never find. Maybe because it requires a writer's eye.