Sunday, July 25, 2010

So High Up

I have long had a fascination with swingsets. As a child, I have vivid memories of school recess, pumping my legs as hard as I could, all of us competing to reach the leaves of the trees. I once disturbed a bee's nest on the swingset in my backyard and was swarmed by yellowjackets and, despite the bitter stings, it is still where I went the next morning, swinging as high as I could, making up rhyming songs as I soared. In my novel Spared, my favorite scene takes place, oddly enough, on a set of swings. And just a few weeks ago, after learning that a local restaurant had a one hour wait, I shrugged and told Tyler that while we waited, we could go to Carroll Park and swing in the dark while the kids weren't there. And we did.

Yesterday, I went to a 70th birthday party for my mother's cousin. Her home has the most wonderful tree swing and I used to play on it all the time as a child. Tyler and I left the party to find the tree swing, a little wooden plank held up with bright orange chains. I went on it with my little cousin, Nicole, laughing in the background and Tyler pointing out how high I was going. Nicole bragged, as I might have at her age, that she could swing so high she could touch the pole of the tent where the party was held with her little foot.

A few minutes later a little girl I didn't know came to join us with Nicole's brother, Robbie. I quickly left the swing and watched as Robbie pushed the girl so high that she, too, bragged excitedly about her ability to touch the pole with her feet. It reminded me of my school recess competitions, trying to touch the tree leaves. Meanwhile, we had discovered an ugly cicada crawling on the bark of the tree and Robbie, now distracted from the swingset, was daring us to grab the bug and squeeze its guts.

The little girl's mother came out shortly to reprimand the girl for swinging so high, and soon after, Robbie and Nicole's mother came out to scold Robbie for being the one to push her on the swing. She was too little, of course, to go so high up. Then she saw Tyler and I marvelling over the ugly cicada with Nicole. She said, "Oh, I didn't realize there were some adults out here watching. You didn't see how high she was going?"

I did of course. So high she could touch the pole.

Later, Tyler and I discussed what awful 'adults' we were for not realizing the appropriate height for swinging. We joked that if children were left in our care they would end up on the roof of the house. Well, they wanted to go up there and we thought, why not?

I guess I just don't always see the danger of swinging so high.
Photo Credit: chikache

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Flap Copy

Every once and a while I wander down to the first floor of our office building to chat with a copywriter in our packaging group. We have similar tastes in books and often spend quite a bit of time discussing what we're reading, what we've read, and what books we might like to swap. I recommended a book to her and then directed her to Amazon so she could see what it was about. She told me that she'd rather take my word for it and very adimately stated that she "does not read flap copy."
"Never?" I asked.
She went on to say that all these book jackets give away far too much about what will happen and it takes away a lot of the pleasure of reading for her.

I thought about this and decided that, for many of the books I got at BEA, I would not read the book jacket before reading. In the first place, I decided to get most of the books by simply hearing from a friend that I might like them or from the one sentence description in the BEA program. Since I didn't have to invest any money in them, that seemed like enough. I could always stop reading and give it to the used book shop around the corner without any guilt.

I have to tell you, I enjoyed reading this way, knowing very little about what I was getting into. I'm not sure there's an exact science to my experiment, but it did seem to aid in my reading pleasure. Then again, there have been many times I have been reading a book, excitedly wondering when I'll get to the part they describe in the flap copy. But maybe it shouldn't be that way. Maybe I shouldn't wonder when I'm getting to a specific moment. Maybe I should wonder what that moment might be.

All of this made me think a lot about film trailers. Film trailers have evolved throughout the years from simply being a short, heavy advertising sell to a long, involved edit that gives away nearly the entire plot of the movie. This is a purposeful move on the part of the film industry. As it becomes more expensive to go to the theater, they want viewers to be assured that they are going to enjoy what they see. Because we all know that word of mouth can make or break the success of any film.

Is this what flap copy is? A way for publishers to ensure that we're spending our hard-earned money on a book we are going to like? A way to keep us from reading books we hate?

I'm curious to know what you think of flap copy. Does it heavily influence your book purchases? How do you think these descriptions affect the way you read?

And, one last thought, I know everyone on the NYC subway is reading Chris Cleave's Little Bee. I read this book and really enjoyed it with slightly mixed feelings as a whole, and I also have mixed feelings about the book's description (it's a little pretentious perhaps?) but I like the idea of the secret, of the promise that the excitement is in the journey. I actually had a very good friend and book lover tell me she absolutely would not read this book because the flap copy is, and I quote, "Stupid." But given the success of this book might this be the wave of flap copy future?

It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:
It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.
The story starts there, but the book doesn't.
And it's what happens afterward that is most important.
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tuesday Books for Writers! Room by Emma Donoghue

I haven't done a Tuesday Books for Writers post in such a long time and I apologize. I challenged myself to put into words why a book should be read by a writer. Sometimes I'm afraid to take the challenge. Even though I've been reading for nearly 25 years, I am still learning how to be an active reader, how to understand what a writer did to make a book sing.

Fortunately, after reading Emma Donoghue's Room, I didn't struggle at all to understand what made it so good.

She did something I've never seen before. She told a story from the point of view of a five year old. Before I sat down to read it, I was skeptical of this choice. I write for preschoolers all day and getting in the frame of mind to do that can make you, (to put it really elegantly), completely wacko. I didn't think I could handle 320 pages of this voice. But, the words moved across the page so easily, I thought I might prefer it if every book was told by a five year old. The speech patterns were so true to life, so flawless, so refreshing. Nothing felt forced and the narrator, Jack, was so endearing, I wanted to whisk him away and keep him forever with me...which, incidentally, is what the book is about, a touching, beautiful, story of a mother and son who are locked away in a tiny room. Two people whose entire mission in life is to keep one another safe.

I really want you to read this book! It's like nothing I've ever read before. When I closed the book, I was so in awe, so impressed, so amazed by this story. The blurb by Audrey Niffenegger says it best, "...when it's over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days." When I read it, I consistently had the feeling that I was looking at the world for the first time. A new perspective in every sense of the word. I loved it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A show, a song, a suitcase...

This past weekend I went to see Mat Kearney and Tyler Burkum play at a small venue in Manhattan. The two friends packed up a van and went on the road together. Just two guitars and sometimes an old suitcase that they would pull on stage to use as a drum. It was certainly one of the best shows I've seen in a while. Pure music to listen to with your friends while you drink a beer. I listen to Mat Kearney a lot on my ipod, but while listening to him live I made a lovely discovery. His song, Chicago is most certainly the soundtrack to my novel Spared. As I listened to it, I had grand plans of calling up Mat Kearney and asking him to go on tour with me while he played and I sold my book out of the trunk of a car. Maybe out of the suitcase he uses as a drum! Then I realized I don't yet have a book. But either way, I have a song that goes with my book. So take a listen!

Monday, July 12, 2010

I'm Looking For A Critique Partner

Much to my dismay, my writing group dismantled last year. While I was fortunate enough to have a few of the old members read drafts of my completed manuscript for feedback, it seems we can't all get it together to make it a regular thing.

So, I find myself in search of a critique partner. My search begins here. I'm asking all of you lovely people to help me out. Let me know if you are interested or if you know someone who may be interested. Tweet it, blog it, whatever you like.

Here's a little bit of what I write and what I'm looking for:

I write women's fiction. I read everything, but this is what I read obsessively: women's fiction, literary fiction, and contemporary young adult literature. I'm afraid you won't find me very helpful if you write genre fiction or middle grade, but I do spend 40 hours a week writing for pre-schoolers so, yeah, there's that. I am very focused on writing for and about women and or teenage girls. It's just the kind of character and audience I know and understand best.

I would love to work with someone who writes literary or contemporary fiction, either adult or young adult. We can work online, skyping, e-mailing, morse code, whatever works best.

I'm open to working with a small group. Probably no more than 3 or 4, just to be positive that we can devote the attention to one another's work.

I hope this isn't overload of information but I just wanted to get it out there. So, please, please, please, will you be my writer friend? (Well, most of you are already my writer friends, but let's take this relationship to the next level) Or will you pass it along to your writer friends? Thank you!

Comment here or e-mail me at thistooblog (at) gmail (dot) com

Sunday, July 11, 2010


In daylight, Prospect Park is full of life. Smoke rises from barbecue grills. I always hear laughter and the music of drums. I am often pedalling on my bike and the sun can barely sneak through all the trees to light the way. There are long meadows of green, covered with picnic blankets and bare feet.

On Saturday night, I took a moonlight bike ride through this familiar place. And it became strange. New. I should have expected that this life continues even in the darkness. But I didn't know.

A bride and groom danced on the steps.

It was the perfect night for a midnight swim.

Even a waterfall I never knew existed, barely visible in the darkness, snuck down into the earth below us.

I've always been told that I live in a city that never sleeps. But it always surprises me to learn that truly never does...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I'm Going to Tell You A Story

I am meeting a new character right now. The main character of a new WIP. After reading this post about character sheets from Lydia Kang's "The Word Is My Oyster", I was reminded to tell you about an exercise I use for almost everything I write. I learned it back in a play writing class my sophomore year of college and I use it to this day at any given point while I'm writing a piece.

I call it the, "I'm going to tell you a story..." exercise. Basically you write or type these words on a page:

"I'm going to tell you a story. It's a story about: __________ "

In that blank space you can put anything. Anything at all. If you know nothing about the character, maybe you want to put in the word "yesterday". The key is to launch into a story from your character's POV (that's the important part) about what happened yesterday. This is a great way to find out how they feel the moment you start the story.

Maybe you need to get deep. Maybe you need to get into some serious psychological stuff. Maybe you need to know the story about the character's "childhood." Oh boy. That's an earload.

Maybe you don't want to be so plot heavy. Maybe you just want to get to know them or maybe they are getting too predictable. So maybe you want to just put in something completely random. My personal favorite is: "my shoes." I've discovered that everyone has a story about shoes. And what's great about this is you don't just hear some opinion about heels. It's not a rant. Because the purpose of setting up the exercise is that they are telling you a story. An experience. A memory. You get what we all need in our work: A SCENE.

If you're in the middle of your WIP and you're stuck somewhere or there's a plot hole, feel free to use it again. Fill in the blank with what's gnawing you. Make that character tell you the story about: "what happened when I found the key."

Once you fill in the blank, just go. Let that character ramble. It doesn't have to be good. It's an exercise. Let them talk and talk and talk for pages and pages and pages until you find the answer. Like a reporter, keep investigating until you have your story.

What's nice about this is often we use our first draft to discover things. We take a crazy route until we find our way. There's nothing wrong with this. We all do it. But sometimes it's nice to take it away from the manuscript before getting lost.

What I love about this exercise is it's simplicity and flexibility. You can use it to learn about any character or plot point from the most minor to the most major. I've learned so much about my characters and my work using this method.

I hope you'll try it out at some point. And if you have trouble filling in the blank, don't overthink it. Turn your head and fill it in with the first thing you see. Or send me an e-mail and I'll send you a topic! Because the thing is, once you get them going, your characters will have A LOT to say.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Your Last Five Books

I've been doing a lot of reading in the past few weeks, getting through novels a lot quicker than I usually do. I thought it might be fun to list the last five books I've read because I recommend each one of them very highly.

8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch
Up From The Blue by Susan Henderson
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I also noticed a similar theme in these vastly different books: a desire to be a better person. A desire to be someone new.

An 8th grader who wants to redefine who he is, not the kid who puked in the lunchroom, but who changed an entire community.
A woman willing to go to incomprehensible lengths to make a difference in a stranger's life.
A woman desperate not to change the course of her life who soon discovers that she must in order to find happiness.
A young girl desperate to be accepted by two parents with very different views about how she should think and feel.
And the 'popular' mean girl in high school who finds herself with 7 chances to find out who she really is as she struggles to get the last day of her life 'just right'.

I think we must be living in a time when people are redefining who they are. They want to do the right thing and be better people. Our literature must reflect that.

So, what are the last five books you read? Do you see any similar themes?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Reader's Quirk

When I was in high school, I had required summer reading for an English class and I had to read Madame Bovary. Sadly, I have no recollection of this novel but I do remember some circumstances regarding how I obtained the book.

A friend offered to loan it to me, as well as some others on my extensive list, because her brother had read them for the same class the year prior. I went to her house and watched as he carefully plucked them from his tall bookshelves. He said he was happy to give them to me but that there were rules. I could not crease the pages. I could not write anywhere in it. And it would be preferable if I did not bend the book at all. I took a look at the books and wondered if they were completely new.

"Did you read these?" I asked. He was appalled at the suggestion that he hadn't finished his required reading. And my friend, his sister, rolled her eyes and said, "He barely opens them when he reads so that the pages or the cover don't bend, even a little." Considering that I prefer reading used books that are coffee stained, stepped on, with bugs squashed in 'em, I found this rather interesting. I respected his wishes and read the books as he would have, barely opening the book and certainly not turning back the covers so that you didn't even see a fold in the paperback when I was done.

Earlier this week, my dear friend Rebecca (who is actually Becky and one of the most dedicated readers of this blog so I feel I should give her a shout-out) told me that she had borrowed a book from the library in which a previous reader had gone through the entire book, corrected grammatical errors in pencil and re-phrased some sentences that he thought sounded better a different way. How strange, I thought. To edit a book while you read?

I remembered my friend's brother and thought of my own quirks. I HATE stopping in the middle of a chapter and I practically twitch if I have to leave a book in such a state. Perhaps I have reading quirks of my own.

What's your reader's quirk?