Friday, May 23, 2008

Novel 101--and an evening with two stars

Last night, I was lucky to get to listen to Ann Hood and Elizabeth Berg speak about books and writing, and then I got to hear them read. I love listening to writers read their own words. Left Bank Books, one of those fabulous indie bookstores that are becoming far too rare, hosted them at an event celebrating book clubs. It doesn't get much better than that.

The best part, though, was when the moderator asked them if, when they start writing, they know what the ending will be. I was on the edge of my seat. This question is one I wrestle with. To know or not to know? I like knowing. It makes me feel in charge. Or at least not completely lost, grasping for a lifeline. But, sometimes I don't know. Can't know. And I'm trying to trust my characters to lead me where they need to go. But Ann Hood's response totally rocked.

Here's what I wrote down--

She spends an inordinate amount of time on her first line. (Yeah, first line.) Because, she said, she knows her protagonist will be in an opposite position at the end.

I love that. It frees me. I don't need to stew and worry that I don't know where my character is going to end up. All I have to do is look at my first line. Or, maybe for me, my first few pages. But it's right there. I know it even when I don't know that I do. How cool is that? My characters are in charge. They'll get me where I need to be. Or better yet, where they need to be.

In All the Numbers, I opened with Ellen frozen in her car, unable to carry her son's clothes into the funeral home. Not a good place. At the end? She's able to stand on that dock and release his ashes into the breeze and the water at the lake where he was killed. Opposite places. In Unexpected Grace? It opens with Kate, alone, sad, hoping, almost a year after his death, that she'll still be able to smell her fiance's scent on their sheets. At the end, she's holding her daughter and sensing the power she has.

So, as I write this next book, I have even more reason to concentrate on my first chapter (which I was already doing). And when I feel, somewhere around word 23,406 or 57,030, that I'm wandering or I've lost my way, I know I can turn back to that opening and find my way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Writers in their own words-GCC

I don't know about you, but there's something about summertime that makes me want to curl up by the pool or on my porch with a juicy, gossipy novel. And Maggie Marr has written the perfect one (and, even better, it's a sequel so I can really immerse myself!). SECRETS OF THE HOLLYWOOD GIRLS CLUB "is a spot-on insider’s look at an industry where those at the top of their game must do anything to keep from being brought down."

I had a chance to catch up with Maggie, so let's hear from her 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?

Prior to becoming a full time writer, I was a motion picture agent for ICM. I worked full time repping writers and directors. So Hollywood is my home. I started hearing a character voice in my head and late at night when I couldn’t sleep or on the weekends, I would write down the story. My husband convinced me to give four chapters to my friend and colleague (and now agent) at ICM. I gave her four chapters without my name on them, guessing she’d pass and then I could go on about my life repping my screenplay writers and directing clients. But instead she loved it. I finished the manuscript and when she took it out, there were two houses that wanted the book…so I ended up going with Crown. And suddenly, I was a writer.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

In this book it’s Lydia and Mary Anne for sure. Funny in Hollywood Girls Club I felt like Celeste the actress and Jessica the agent that wanted to take over the entire manuscript and in Secrets of The Hollywood Girls Club it was Lydia the studio head and Mary Anne the screenplay writer that wanted to lead the way.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

I get up with the girls around six and get to my computer by 7:30. I write until 12 noon and then have lunch with my two daughters and put them down for nap. Once they’re asleep I work from 2 to 4. In the evening around 8 (after the girls are in bed) I might read or edit, but I don’t get much writing done in the evening….I’m usually too tired.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

I love the first draft. I love the freedom of just whizzing along kind of knowing where the story will go but not totally. I love hearing the character’s voice in my head, I love hearing them tell me their story. Truly, that is a great gift that I am thankful for everyday.

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

Read everything. Write a ton. Rewrite even when you don’t want to. And persevere…never ever give up.

Thanks for the great advice and great book! Check out Maggie's blog too!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

My (lap)Topless Week and a book you MUST read

I've never been one of those people tied to technology. I still have an old fashioned calendar--one of those little notebook-y kinds of things where I turn pages and write dates and appointments with a pen or pencil. I don't use the timer on my coffeemaker. I'm not a luddite or anything, but I like real books, real newspapers, rather than reading on-line. I tease my husband about his blackberry addiction (in a lame effort to be funny I refer to it as his "huckleberry").


I can never be quite so smug again. I had to live without my laptop last week and it was more than a bit frightening to see how tied to it that I have become.

I was relegated to using the ancient desktop (which, by the way, is not a Mac. Eeek.) to check my e-mail. Which meant I had to log-in. And remember passwords. And all my bookmarked blogs are only on my laptop. So, I'm now trying to catch up. Sure, I could visit them through the desktop--but I couldn't comment, except as anonymous, because I'd have had to re-register and I couldn't remember how to do that. What would I do in a land without cookies (the computer kind, not the kind in my pantry)?

I now have to admit I am utterly under the power of my iBook. I feel like I need to walk into a room filled with folding chairs and bad coffee and say, "Hi, I'm Judy and I'm a lap-macoholic." And everyone will nod and say, "Hi Judy."

I guess I should be embarrassed, but I'm not. (And, hey, perhaps the embarrassment should have started when I patted my sick little laptop last Saturday at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store and whispered I'd miss him and please get better soon. Oh, and please don't forget anything. But, I felt no shame.)

I have pledged to never again leave the power cord in when I'm sprawled on the couch with it--because I injured the poor little guy tripping over the cord, oh, perhaps 247 times. That bent something inside which had to be replaced. I take full responsibility. And I never again want a week of laptoplessness.

My week was not completely bleak, however. I read a beautiful, luminous, amazing book which you must run out and get. The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein.

To call this a historical novel doesn't begin to capture the magic of Jennifer's story. It's a love story, a survival story, a political tale. The prose is lush and true. Jennifer re-imagines the life of a real woman--Pan Yuliang--who was sold into prostitution as a young girl and became one of the most important painters China ever produced. I can't say enough good things about this book other than to go get it and lose yourself in the world of Pan Yuliang and Jennifer--a world of beauty and horror and revolution.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Random Thoughts on Risotto and Dogs

While I sit on my sofa wondering if it's ever going to stop raining now that I have a convertible, I realized it had been over a week since I've posted anything here. And that was quickly followed by the thought I have nothing to say (other than to bitch about the rain).

So, here are some random musings to fill my little slice of the blog-o-sphere:

~I love making risotto. This is a new obsession of mine, but one that my family readily embraces. I used to think it was hard or complicated or just something I'd only order in restaurants. But, a few weeks ago we were having dinner at a friend's house and she made shrimp and scallop risotto. I watched as she cooked. It involves lots of stirring (which I can do) and patience (which I'm working on). That night driving home I asked my husband for a risotto cookbook for my upcoming birthday. He delivered. And I've made risotto once a week ever since. I improvise the recipes, but follow the basic procedure. You'll find it in this cookbook. I know there are several methods, but this one is a snap and delivers. And, yes, I spend 30 minutes making it right before dinner. But I can sip wine and talk to my husband while I do so. And the results are spectacular if I say so myself.

~We'd all be happier if we could figure out what we're best at and embrace that part of ourselves. I got this idea from my dog. He's a Golden Retriever. And he takes the "retriever" part very seriously. He also pretty much has his "best day ever" every single day. Whenever he comes in from outside, he immediately grabs/retrieves one of his toys and brings it to me. He does the same thing when someone walks in the door. He grabs his rawhide or circus monkey (don't ask) or stuffed lamb and brings it to them with his tail wagging to beat the band. "Hey," he seems to say, "look, I retrieved." Then he lies down, licks his feet and takes a nap from the utter exhaustion of retrieving and being happy. When we went for a walk the other day, I stopped at the creek to let him drink some water (I didn't have much choice to be honest). He loves drinking from the creek. He lies right down in it and laps it up. This time, there were two ducks swimming about 4 feet from him. He didn't bug them, they weren't fazed. When I mentioned it to him (yes, I talk to him in sentences), he was completely unapologetic. But, if he could talk I think he'd say, "Look, woman-who-feeds-me, I'm a retriever. You shoot the duck, I'll go get it for you. You pick it up and throw it across the yard? I'm your fetcher. But otherwise, I'm leaving them alone."

And it occurs to me that both my risotto making and my dog musings can help me as a writer.

With the risotto, I get to be creative and free and toss things in and veer away from the stated recipe (delete the mushrooms, add more garlic and peppers). I can make it my own story. But, there are certain things that must be not be changed. The basic framework. The arborio rice. The right amount of broth (1 1/2 cups rice to 5 or 5 1/2 cups broth). And in my writing, I get to toss in details that ring true for me. Create characters out of thin air. But, there's got to be conflict. And tension. There must be good dialogue and sharp verbs. I have to work within a structure.

And as far as my dog? Well, I can only be the kind of writer I'm uniquely meant to be. I can't copy anyone else. I can't make myself into a different kind of writer. Not that this means I can't hone my skills and that I won't challenge myself to try new approaches. But it does mean accepting and appreciating the writer I am. I'll be happier. And a better writer for it in the long run.