Why Can’t I Take a Vacation from Writing?

I love my vacations. I love the flurry of packing and cleaning and setting everything in order to be gone for a while… and then leaving. Then, while on vacation, people look at me like I’m crazy while I type away on my laptop. No, I’m not getting caught up on a client’s work. In fact, I’m not guaranteed to ever make one penny on what I’m writing. So why in the world am I doing it?

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Typing Away (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For non-writers, understand that it’s not as simple as putting away the typewriter or laptop or fountain pen – whatever your writing implement of choice.

Remember when Stephen King said he was going to retire? This was well over ten years ago. I wondered how serious he was at the time: I certainly couldn’t imagine having a successful novel-publishing career and just giving it up.

In fact, King didn’t say he was going to quit writing at all, just that he thought he was almost done publishing. If you’ve read any Stephen King novels published since 2002, you’ll see that he’s apparently still not done. But even if he were to never publish another novel, I can’t imagine that he would quit writing. How many other professionals could do the same?

Consider people who have careers in the military or law enforcement, medical practitioners or pharmacists, teachers or professors – really, I could go on all day. Most professions are finis at retirement. You walk out the door, and you don’t come back. And until then, you take vacations, leaving all work behind for abbreviated periods of time.

But as with Stephen King, we writers have a somewhat different situation. While it’s absolutely appropriate to take a vacation from client work for a week or two, maybe even “retire” from the public scene, I never just leave my laptop at home or put my stories on the back burner.

My stories aren’t just going to take a vacation because I’m out of town. In fact, my NaNoWriMo novel, which I’m currently editing, woke me up early this morning, filling my head with new ideas. Sure, I could ignore them, try to recall them all in a couple weeks, but I’d likely forget them before then, not to mention that it would make me miserable to not work on my novel. In fact, I don’t even know if “work” is the appropriate word. Sure, I’ve spent a lot of time on it, but writing is a vacation in itself.

That’s not to say that I’m going to write to the exclusion of my family and our vacation plans. I’ll soak up the new experiences, laugh a lot, and sleep too little. But I will also take advantage of the time away to squeeze in as much extra writing as I can because I love it.

And, God willing, I hope to type away past retirement age and die with my fingers poised over the keyboard.

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The Surprise Lurking in My Playlist

IPod Nano

IPod Nano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about the different forms of inspiration before (and it applies to me specifically as a writer, but I’m sure it applies to other forms of art as well), and today I especially want to focus on music.

I’m a musical person from a musical family (read more about that here and here), but it wasn’t until this past week that I was reminded again of how much it can influence my writing.

Back when I used to have a fantastical picture of what a full-time writing life would look like, I figured that my house would come equipped with a separate office just for me and all my journals and manuscripts, a computer dedicated to my writing, and of course a custom sound system, through which I could pipe Metallica while I wrote. Yes, Metallica.

I was thrilled one day when I read that Stephen King, my favorite American author at that time, listened to Metallica (among other groups) while he wrote. Of course, I thought that this was prophetic and pointed to the life that I would surely lead.

Fast forward twelve or thirteen years, and there’s no separate office. I type with my MacBook in my lap while my kids watch Disney and vie for my attention. So this certainly doesn’t allow me the seclusion necessary to listen to whatever I want at any volume.

I still do like Metallica, though, so that’s something.

Still, when I write, it’s not in the environment that I figured was conducive to creating brilliance. I’ve learned to adapt, and I actually embrace writing in the midst of chaos, but there are those times that I realize there’s something to at least a part of that idealistic setting – the music.

Years ago, while I was in the thick of writing one of the books in my middle grade series, I was driving along, listening to just another song on the latest CD my husband and I had bought. I did not at all expect the scene that suddenly popped into my head, evoked by that particular song.

Part of it had to do with the lyrics, which described what happened in the scene, but there’s also something about the tune. That combination brought this scene fully-formed into my mind. I saw one of my characters going through something that wrenched my heart. I didn’t want it to happen to him. I fought it with all my might, but every time I heard the song, the scene returned. My conclusion: it belonged in my book.

Now, there are other songs that I like because they energize me or put me in a calm mood for a scene that needs a little more finesse. But I can never predict when a song will give me a missing piece of my story puzzle.

It happened again this week. I was driving along, listening to the playlist that my husband put together for me, so it has a quite a few songs that I never would have thought to pick for myself. I suppose that’s why it was so unexpected.

Instead of the music just washing over me, as it had with the last few songs I’d listened to, I suddenly started listening to the lyrics, and the words immediately created a new scene, one I certainly never considered when I formed the loose plot of my series.

This is why I think it’s so important to allow myself freedom within my plot. Sure, I have a rough outline, since I do need to make sure that I introduce important clues at the right time and have a general idea of where the story is going. But I was surprised that, yet again, a key character was facing something unexpected, something I don’t think I ever would have come up with on my own.

Thank you, song, for both disturbing me and enriching my story. It actually kept me up for about an hour-and-a-half that night, as I tried to figure out where my story was going. And I realized that it made perfect sense; it allowed another of my characters to realize her full potential in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d gone according to plan.

Have you experienced any storyline surprises, inspired by something that you thought was completely unrelated? You just never know when it will happen or what will bring it on, but I think that writers live for those moments.

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The Risk of Not Taking Risks

Writing journal

Writing journal (Photo credit: avrdreamer)

Last week I wrote about letting go and allowing your characters to take the wheel, and I’d like to expand on that this week.

You see, I understand the problem with giving control to someone else. It’s why my dad and husband both hate being in the passenger seat: when you’re not the one driving, there’s a whole trust and safety issue.

Now, the driving analogy can only go so far (and I don’t like driving, anyway). After all, while it would be foolish to let a thirteen-year-old take the wheel, your story’s thirteen-year-old character could do wondrous and unimaginable things if you let him loose on the page.

But characters of all ages and types – even the ones that may, at first glance, seem quite ordinary, even boring, have the chance of surprising us, if only we let them. Or for stories that aren’t as character-driven, maybe it’s the story itself that takes over and twists in unexpected ways.

But it’s scary to let go, I’ll be the first to admit.

Like so many other good students of composition and the tried-and-true formula college paper, I swallowed all that stuff about a beginning, middle, and end. I was really good at it, too. I often joke that I majored in writing papers, but it’s sadly true. I could write and edit like nobody’s business, and I was especially good at figuring out what my professors wanted to read and tailoring my papers to whatever persuasion was necessary to get me an A. Selling out? I suppose so. But it got me out quickly and unscathed, so I could get down to the serious work that I had little time for in college: writing fiction.

The problem is that writing an A+ college paper does not a good fiction author make. I think that’s why, for the longest time, I figured I would have to settle with being an editor. That I can do. I can tell writers all day long what they need to do to fix their stories because it’s easier to critique a story when you’re not in the midst of creating it. And although I’ve edited a bunch of crap, sometimes I get a real gem that makes me have hope all over again. And I sometimes wonder: what makes this author different than all the others? I mean, aside from the obvious being a good story-teller part.

I think that, in large part, it goes back to what Stephen King says in On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, and (I’m majorly paraphrasing here) it’s that following an outline, plotting an entire novel to the point that it can no longer breathe on its own, is the best way to create a stiff, author-driven piece of fiction. The point is that the author needs to get out of the way, and that simply can’t happen without taking risks. Like letting the story go where it will. Like sometimes giving your audience an unexpected ending.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that creating any kind of ending simply for the sake of making a statement is the most blatant form of author-interference, and it drives me nuts. Anyone remember when Ian Malcolm dies in Jurassic Park: A Novel, only to be resurrected in The Lost World: A Novel? Well, of course you don’t, if you’ve only seen the movies. That’s because he doesn’t die in the first movie. I can only assume that someone approached Michael Crichton and said, “Hey, we need a sequel, but we kind of need Ian Malcolm to be the main character.” Whoops. He’s dead. So he’s really not dead after all – what a miracle – and we can all forget those tears we shed when we read the first book. Right. (Notice how there’s no third book, but they went ahead with a third movie, anyway?)

I love Michael Crichton, and I actually like the first movie, too, although the whole “based on the novel” part is a very loose interpretation. The point is that risk-taking on his part wasn’t quite what Hollywood wanted. Maybe other authors are afraid of this, so they go ahead and remove the risk – write the ending that they think people will want instead of how the story is supposed to end. Other authors go the opposite direction and just start killing people willy-nilly for effect, making their readers mad for no reason.

But what would happen if we just let the stories be themselves?

It’s harder than you think, of course. Sometimes, a Hollywood director will come along and screw everything up. Or after you die, another author will write the sequel that they feel answers the questions you intentionally left. (I touched on this in a post late in 2012.)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephenie Meyers’s The Twilight Saga Collection. There are all kinds of twists and surprises, not to mention plenty of tension. But – spoiler alert – I’ve always felt a tiny bit cheated by the ending. I never did see the last movie because I was busy juggling a newborn baby and a preschooler at the time, but the previews told me enough: the big conflict that never really happens but just kind of fizzles out (at least in the book) had to be jazzed up a little for the movie. I mean, I’m glad that none of the good guys have to die, but at the same time, knowing how bad the bad guys are, it doesn’t quite seem realistic. (Okay, okay, what is realistic in a story full of vampires and werewolves? But I’m talking about suspending my disbelief to unbelievable proportions, here.) To me, it felt like Meyers actually interfered to keep something from hurting her characters, like she just missed something – maybe something monumental – at the end. I’m not saying to kill Edward or Jacob – or anyone. I’m just saying it’s a little too neat.

I faced the same thing with one of my own stories. I originally published “Stranded” when I was in college, and even back then, I fought with myself over the ending. The title being what it is, I could only do so much, unless I wanted to change that (and I didn’t). But one day, after a reader told me that she’d gotten to the end and wondered where the rest of it was, I considered following up with a sequel. Do people write sequels to short stories? Well, it’s a moot point because I haven’t done it and don’t think I ever will. That’s not to say I haven’t considered it, though. I have – a lot. I’ve read my story many times, trying to figure out what could possibly come next. But even though I created it, I could no more direct the next scene than I’ll be able to tell my children what they’re going to do for their livings when they’re adults.

Then in 2012, I decided to republish it. After all, the original publication was out of print, and I thought I could make a few tweaks to the text, which I did. I think the piece as a whole is improved, but… the ending remains the same. I still couldn’t change it. Why? Because I want to make readers unhappy? No. Because I want them to beg me to write more? No, and I won’t, even if they ask. Because the meat of the story is the same as it was in 2003 when I penned the first draft – that’s why. It just needed a little hair cut, some trimming of the fat. And it might have grown an inch or two since then. But it’s essentially the same story, and I’m glad that I let it be itself.

I took a risk once, and I am satisfied with the outcome. I only hope I can stick to my guns and keep taking those risks. After all, I owe it to the stories.

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What Will You Read in 2014?

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All day long, I’ve done what I could only dream about doing this time last year: I’ve sat on the couch reading a good book. Last December, I yearned for some good fiction after a few months of reading a bunch of how-to and reference materials. So at the close of the year, I looked over the books in my personal library and made a list of titles I hoped to read in 2013. It was a pretty ambitious list, one that I knew I probably wouldn’t finish, but I took a good stab at it. I did read seven of the fourteen books from my list, plus an additional ten that I hadn’t planned on reading.

I have to add a quick note about one of these unplanned books: I edited a novel called Brightleaf this year, and it was published in September. The author is my friend Raleigh Rand, and although I didn’t read this book in the traditional sense of sitting down and reading it for pleasure, I enjoyed every moment of editing it and would highly recommend it. (There’s a story behind this book, but that’s for another blog.)

So when thinking about my book list for the upcoming year, I waited until after Christmas. I can always count on someone to come through with a great book or three, and I had a sneaking suspicion (mainly because he asked me right out what I wanted) that my husband would get me Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I wasn’t disappointed. I went ahead and bought the next two books – and it’s a good thing. I started reading it this morning and am already more than 140 pages in – I’ll be done before 2014.

In addition, an unexpected gift was a book of Mark Twain’s writings from my friend Georgene. I promised that I would quote it a bunch this year, so that’s on the list. Also, my aunt ordered Bess Streeter Aldrich’s The Rim of the Prairie for me, a book I’ve read before, but alas, it was borrowed. Also (and I’m bragging now), I received two books that are a writer’s best friend – hand-crafted, leather-bound blank books. My sister-in-law convinced my husband to splurge on one (thank you!), and my aunt bought the other – they know me so well. When I’m not reading, I’m usually writing, and I can’t wait to fill them.

This year’s list will be composed of three kinds of books – the ones I still have to read from the 2013 list, books that I want to re-read, and brand new ones. And, as happened this year, I am sure that other books will pop into my life and expand my literary horizons still further.

Click on the links below to read more about these books, and if you purchase one from one of my links, you’ll support my blog.

Books I read in 2013:

My 2014 Book List:

Do I really think I’ll finish all these books? Not a chance. (I still do have to feed my kids and clean the house, after all.) But it will be fun trying. What books do you plan to tackle in the new year? Happy reading!

Why Didn’t I Think of This Before?

My Books (some of them)

My Books (some of them)

If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and you’re a book-oholic like I am, your dream house might include a library like the one in the Beast’s castle. You know the kind – book-filled shelves stretching into the stratosphere, complete with those rolling ladder thingies that are absolute necessities if you want reach the upper shelves.

Of course, my fantasy house doesn’t stop there. I want books everywhere. I’ve seen houses where the stairs are shelves with books underneath or where unconventionally-shaped bookcases are built into the walls and nooks of every room.

Since, however, reality is quite a different thing than my dreams, my books reside in my china cabinet (the china is in boxes who knows where), on top of my spinet piano, in a small, three-shelf corner bookcase in my room, and the cookbooks are above the cabinets in the kitchen (let’s be honest: they’re all over the kitchen). The only reason my five-year-old’s bookshelf still has room on it is because his little brother strews the board books throughout the house, so I can’t even claim eminent domain and stash my stuff there. If I decide to buy one more book for myself. . . well, I guess I haven’t put any knickknacks on top of the buffet for a reason.

Space isn’t the only problem. Believe me, I will find room, if I have to balance them on top of fan blades or do something less creative like stack them in the corners. I do have several books in “the cloud” (either Kindle or iBook editions), but I prefer to read physical books with actual pages (although I do publish online – but that’s for another blog). So recently, when I realized that I was going to finish Drums of Autumn (Outlander), the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I just couldn’t stomach shelling out another thirty bucks on a book that I want but don’t need. (Read this post to see how much catching up I have to do to reach 2013’s reading goal.)

Now, some of you have already figured out the obvious solution, which saves both space and money, and you’ll think I’m an idiot for not coming to the same conclusion earlier: just check out the book from the library. Well, duh, why didn’t I think of that?

Time to ‘fess. The last time I checked out a book from a local public library was when I was fourteen. And yes, that was over half my life ago. It’s rather shameful, I admit. I mean, my dad worked in libraries as a teenager, my mother worked in our former church’s media center, and one of my favorite places to volunteer at my son’s school is in the library. So why the decade-plus hiatus?

When I was fourteen, I started reading really long books – thousand-plus pagers. They took longer to read than libraries’ allotted two-week borrowing period, and I wanted to spend my time reading them rather than going back to renew all the time. Plus, once I started earning a little spending money, I could afford my own books and immediately grew my collection. I went from bugging my dad to search the various libraries for new Agatha Christies once a week or so to buying almost every Stephen King title available. It also didn’t hurt that we lived near an awesome used bookstore. (Chamblin Bookmine rocks!) Lastly, whereas I couldn’t care less about many other material things, books are the key to my heart – I want to possess them. (My husband figured that one out pretty quickly.)

Now, I did spend quite a bit of time in my university’s library back in my college days, but I didn’t go for the fun of it. When you associate going to the library with study groups and research papers, it kind of loses its appeal.

Then, early in our marriage, my husband and I moved to a different county, thus making my poor, unused library card obsolete anyway. We lived about ten minutes from a very nice library – which was right over the county line. And these two counties do not share benefits. I could enter that library, sure. But check a book out? No way, Jose. The closest library within our own county was over twenty minutes away, and since I was out of the habit. . . Well, you get the idea.

After I had kids, I heard people talk about story times at the various libraries around town, but it never occurred to me to take them. I’m a busy mom, I work, and I am somewhat anti-social. If another mom had invited me, I probably would have considered it. But I should have gone anyway, regardless. I recently had to meet a friend during the week, and the most convenient time was just after story time. So I figured I’d tag along with her, and at least my younger son would enjoy it. Peter was the oldest kid there by far, but I was glad that he was entranced by all the books. Unfortunately, it was, yet again, a library in the wrong county. Peter sometimes checks out books from our church’s library, but after seeing the real thing, he begged me to get a card. We now live less than ten minutes away from a library with an excellent children’s department, so I finally broke down and went. Not only could Peter have access to far more than I could ever afford, but it was clear that if I wanted to read The Fiery Cross (Outlander), I would have to go to the library or dip into the diaper fund. Sorry, books. When you have a twenty-month-old, diapers win.

Hey, I could get used to this. Now Peter has a new reason to be excited to read. And the two-week deadline gives me new incentive to read, read, read.

But just to make sure, when I checked out Gabaldon’s next 900-plus page doorstop, I asked the librarian how my chances were of renewing it.

She looked at me, taking in the baby on one hip and the energetic five-year-old next to me. I’m sure she was thinking, Good luck finishing this in the next two months, lady. Then she smiled and said, “They’re good.”

Punctuation: It’s More Than Emoticons

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

In Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she has a particular problem with emoticons – you know, the colons and parentheses that make sideways smileys, as she calls them. I admit that I use them, but only for fun. I certainly don’t include them in cover letters or resumes. But there is a whole generation of kids right now who, without proper education, might never know that the colon has an actual use within a sentence.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, [Truss writes,] because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re onto something.

: – (

Now it’s sad!

; –)

It looks like it’s winking! (193)

Why should we care, though? Why bother continuing to fight what seems a losing battle? Truss puts it pretty well early in her book.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (20)

As a musician, I get it. Anyone who’s ever read lines from a script gets it, too. But what about everyone else, those who consider punctuation so much debris on the page? Think about ancient Hebrew, in which there was no punctuation, nor were there spaces between words – not even vowels! There have been nasty fights over translations of the Bible because of this. But by the time we began printing, we’d devised ways to help readers decipher the meaning of what they were reading. All these little marks, the periods and colons and dashes and hyphens, are aids; they’re here to help us.

When did things begin to fall apart? Truss gives her opinion on the matter, one well worth noting:

But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer!

[. . .] People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! (16-7)

That’s right; there are a lot of people claiming to be writers – educated people! – who make absolute fools of themselves online. Since anyone with access to a computer could be a virtual writer now, it is more important than ever to know the rules. How many times have you misread an e-mail because it’s just so hard to decipher tone and meaning via electronic communication? At least if the punctuation is right, that will go a long way toward making the meaning clearer.

After we learn the rules, we can flex our artistic muscles and enhance our writing with the stylistic uses of punctuation, as Noah Lukeman points out in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. As I mentioned two posts ago, the only form of punctuation that he doesn’t cover is the apostrophe. He even considers paragraph breaks as a form of punctuation. And the way you apply (or don’t) all the different forms of punctuation tells something about you, the writer.

The semicolon, for instance. Aside from the winky face, what good is it? A semicolon separates two independent clauses when a comma and conjunction just don’t do the trick, and when two sentences separate those thoughts a little too much. But writers could choose one of the alternatives I’ve just listed and still be technically correct. Truss says that newspapers don’t use it,

[T]he official reason being that readers of newsprint prefer their sentences short, their paragraphs bite-sized and their columns of type uncluttered by wormy squiggles. It’s more likely that the real reasons are a pathetic editorial confusion about usage and a policy of distrusting contributors even when they demonstrably know their onions. (110)

Ouch. And Lukeman’s take is that

Artistically, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities, and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it is the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers[. . .]

We use the semicolon for the same reason we trade cement floors for marble: cement floors are equally functional but not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian (from punctuation that works) to the luxurious (to punctuation that transcends). Business memos do not need semicolons; creative writers do. (70)

It follows that creative writers are artists and might decide to get flowery with their punctuation, but I can easily imagine academic writers turning up their noses at such a notion. There are, however, necessary punctuation marks that everyone has to use, so it’s important to learn about them – and how to keep from overusing them. Lukeman subtitles a portion of his last chapter “Use Sparingly,” and included in this section are the question mark, exclamation point, italics, ellipses (you know: . . .), and the hyphen. Most of these make sense, but the question mark? It’s supposed to come at the end of a question, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be right to end a question with a period (although that doesn’t stop people from trying). In the publishing world, Lukeman says,

[A] publishing professional is looking to reject a manuscript as quickly as he can. [. . .] And an abundance of question marks in the first pages  [. . .] nearly always indicates amateur or melodramatic writing. For some reason, the poor question mark gets seized upon by the writer who is desperate to immediately hook the reader in a cheap way. (184)

Likewise, the exclamation point

[C]an be painfully misused. Like the question mark, it can be used as a crutch to create a heightened sense of drama, can be transformed into a screaming car salesman. As a rule, if you need an exclamation point to make a scene come alive, then you better reexamine that scene. (187)

I do like an example that Truss cites, however, that wouldn’t be possible without these two marks. She mentions “the French 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry ‘?’ and received in the expressive reply ‘!'” (136).

Those of us who care enough to properly and painstakingly choose between semicolons and colons must first learn the rules (and when to break them) and unite with fellow sticklers. I’m waving my electronic hand here, trying to catch the attention of anyone else who cares. As Truss says,

[M]y personal hunches about the state of the language were horribly correct: standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture; and a lot of well-educated sensitive people really have been weeping friendlessly in caves for the past few years, praying for someone – anyone – to write a book about punctuation with a panda on the cover. (xix-xx)

Truss’s book has a lot of answers, as well as Lukeman’s (and he covers much more than I’ve been able to do here). Three other books that I highly recommend because they have greatly helped me with the craft are the old standby, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.

And I’ll let Noah Lukeman have the final word on making the case for proper punctuation:

[L]et your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save – it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will coexist seamlessly, and you will never  have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having a struggle, reexamine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. [. . . I]n the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don’t even know it’s there. (200)

A Book Affair

Books

Books (Photo credit: henry)

I’ve never been one to blow through my paycheck on a shopping spree. I do buy clothes more often than my husband but not nearly as often as most women. I never buy jewelry. I don’t have a lot of knickknacks or art, although, with a mother who is an artist, I certainly appreciate great artistic talent. I don’t care about TVs, home theatres, or electronics gadgets. I am only occasionally tempted by purses or things with multiple pockets and compartments (and the bigger the better). Really, the only item in existence that is a potential budget buster for this girl is a book.

This past week I helped set up the Scholastic book fair at my son’s school. Book lovers can imagine my agony as I unpacked and shelved all sorts of treasures. The few books whose covers were torn during transport went back into the original boxes, never to be displayed; every time I found one, I wanted to offer it a home, even if I’d never heard of it before. And every time I found one I had already read, I wanted to say, “Oh, oh! I read this—has anyone else? You have to read this!”

I often avoid bookstores if I don’t have extra spending money because the temptation to buy is so great. At the end of 2012, I wrote a post about the books I hoped to read this year. Of course, I haven’t yet been able to read nearly as much as I hoped, but I’ve already gone through several that I adore and can see myself going back to again and again (including one title that was at the book fair, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus). But within days of publishing that list, what do you think I did? I went out and bought more books. Now, I know there’s no way in the world that I’ll be able to read all of those books this year. I suppose I could shut myself in my room with a box of tissues (just in case), but it’s not like I have a maid to take care of the house, a nanny to watch my kids, or a trust fund to pay for it all.

Why do I keep plaguing myself with these books? Why can’t I stop? There are much more harmful vices, I know, but even if I’m not destroying my relationships or running up credit card debt with my habit, I’m certainly running out of places to put each new purchase. I converted my china cabinet into a bookcase, and now I’ve taken over most of the top of my spinet piano, as well. Whenever I want to have fun and internet browse for my dream home, houses with built-in bookshelves automatically jump to the top of my list.

Part of me wonders why I never became a librarian. I didn’t want to spend any more time in college than I absolutely had to, however, so forget the master’s in library science. But I could still work in a school library somewhere. Whenever I volunteer in my son’s school’s media center, I bask in the atmosphere of so many well-loved published works. And since I went to school there, too, and received much joy browsing those shelves as a girl, it’s even more of a magical experience. I listen in wonder as kids come in, excited to find a new book, and the media specialist rattles off titles that she thinks will interest boys and girls of all different ages. She’s my hero.

My husband has always been a great gift giver. At birthdays and Christmas, he’ll ask what I want, and often I list a number of books that I’d like or say, “You know what I like to read. Just surprise me.” He’s responsible for many of the tomes that crowd our shelves and spill over into the rest of our house, including the Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and The Hunger Games series. He discovered early on that I couldn’t care less about jewelry, perfumes, flowers, spa days—in other words, things that would delight most other women. The first gift he ever bought for me (and the only piece of jewelry he’s given me, except for the wedding rings we exchanged) was a watch. I’d been going on for a while about how I needed a new one, and I still wear it today, almost fourteen years later. My mom jokes that it’s my engagement watch. But what she forgets is that Thomas followed the watch with a book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by one of my favorite authors, Stephen King. I think I know which gift really won my heart.

Write Like It’s Your Job

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

 

Someone asked me recently if I always knew I wanted to be a writer. My answer: “Always. I was going to make millions of dollars as an author, and I would never need a regular job.” I assumed that something magical would happen in college, and by the time everyone else was finishing internships and putting out job applications, I would be retiring to my bedroom with stacks of college-ruled notebook paper (yes, I prefer to write longhand), where I would churn out bestsellers eight hours a day.

Ha. It’s been years since I’ve been so delusional.

The tough thing about freelancing—or even tougher, doing something for which I have a passion but may never get paid—is making the time for it. That whole writing for eight hours a day thing was shot when I needed to actually make an income. Fresh out of high school, I figured that bookstores would be the perfect venue for me to work through college, and then I would turn around and sell my own books there.

Not only did I not get a job at a bookstore, but the job I did get was the last one on Earth I ever wanted: working for my parents’ small business. My job description had more to do with dealing with people (an introvert’s nightmare) and accounting than writing, although I did eventually become an in-house editor and writer for the company newsletter. I did what I had to do to keep from being a starving artist, and I wrote when I could. Sometimes that meant finding inspiration and writing every spare minute. Other times, I just didn’t feel like writing, couldn’t get motivated, so I didn’t. When I returned from my first maternity leave five years ago, I traded my forty-plus-hour work week and sporadic writing for a shorter work week and a load of responsibilities that left me with less time to write than ever.

Recently, I decided I’d had it. I’m not quite sure what made me fed up enough with myself to change–maybe the dissatisfaction of looking back on an afternoon when I had time to write but piddled around the house, made a shopping list, and spent too long looking at my budget instead. I realized that no one’s going to publish a book that’s not finished. No one will even know about it because I won’t send it out until I feel that it’s the best it can possibly be. And it won’t attain that level of perfection until I actually sit down and work on it. So I sat down and worked on it. Whereas most days I’m lucky to read through a few pages (and maybe fix a typo or three), I actually sat down and read more than two chapters aloud, added a scene, cut a bunch of extraneous fat. . . and I still had time to read the mail and clean up the stuff my kids dumped all over the place when we walked in the door.

It was somewhat of an epiphany (forgive me for being so dense) when I realized that, for someone who wants desperately to write and no longer works full-time, I have no excuse for not writing. Oh, I do plenty of writer things–volunteering for a literary mag and editing among them–but what about that career as a novelist I dreamed about? One of my problems is that I don’t know how to say no, so I fill my schedule with things that I may or may not need to do. And I do have my children to consider, but they nap every day. Why don’t I use those precious minutes to write?

I am not the first writer in the world with this issue. Stephen King, before he published Carrie, was a high school English teacher who typed something ridiculous like two thousand words every night after his wife and kids went to bed. Madeleine L’Engle, after having initial publishing success, went through a decade of rejection, during which she felt useless as a writer and contributor to the family budget. She almost gave up. Almost.

The last thing I want is to look back on my life and see that I gave up. Do I expect to be Stephen King or Madeleine L’Engle? Of course not. I just want to have no regrets. I don’t want to say, Well, fitness was important enough for me to get up early and exercise five days a week, but I just couldn’t ever find extra time to write. I never dreamed of being a workout nut; I dreamed about being an author. No more excuses, no more feeling sorry for myself. I am going to write, to show that I care enough to be serious, and then maybe I will actually be taken seriously. Maybe if I work hard enough, as if there’s actually someone out there who is paying me to do it, I will write something worth paying for. Maybe if someone says, “I’d really like to read the rest of your manuscript,” I’ll feel like I did my best and be proud of what I have to hand over.

Decision made. Mind-set changed. I’m the one in my way, and I’m stepping aside.

What Are You Reading?

Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L’Engle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Writers are terribly lucky because one of the ways of training our skills is reading. And of course I love to read. But in reading we discover things that the good writers always do. We discover things they don’t do. And in reading bad books, we discover things we don’t want to do.”                                                                                                                                       Madeleine L’Engle

Enough said, right? I don’t even really need to blog about this one because it’s such a no-brainer.

Well, not quite. Believe it or not, there are writers who simply do not read. In my fiction workshop days, my instructor, Ari, warned my class to always have a ready answer when he asked us what we were reading. Of course, a busy college student could stammer some excuse, “Well, I’m taking five classes and working part-time—I barely have time to write, so when am I going to read?”

I understand how busy everyone is, I really do. I had less sympathy before I had two children, but now that I do, I have to schedule my reading around two long, daily commutes, working five days a week, taking care of two kids twenty-four seven (well, the older one is in pre-school, but his little brother is worth two kids most of the time), and even writing this blog—but I do read.

The back of a box of cereal doesn’t count, either. I suppose if Cheerios started printing serial novels on the back of each box, I’d be all over it. But I’m really talking about books. Nowadays, with smart phone technology, iPads, or your choice of Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s nook, you can download classics for free. Never read Little Women? Now’s your chance. When you’re waiting to renew your driver’s license at the DMV, or if you’re in the theatre, waiting for a movie to start, you suddenly have that elusive time-to-read that you’ve been looking for.

Okay, so that’s a start on when you can read; now, what about the why? I’ve noticed reading makes a significant impact on what and how I write. I am at my best when I read something that inspires me to pick up the pen, a book that awakes the desire to create something that others will be excited to read.

I also love to read books written by and about the authors I admire. The quote above, from Madeleine L’Engle, is an example of one of her many nuggets of wisdom. The book Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Writers’ Palette) is a compilation of her own writings and advice to other writers. With every page, I find something that speaks to me. I can say the same for Stephen King’s On Writing, although it is a completely different book.

I can hear the excuses already: all of this sounds wonderful, but there are plenty of other things that inspire—good music, beautiful sunrises, people-watching—and I agree. But it’s not just about that. Many people read to escape or for entertainment. But we writers must also read as a part of our job descriptions. We’re just fortunate that we can enjoy this part of our vocation.

Writers who don’t read not only do their readers a disservice, but they ultimately harm their writing. And I’m not just talking about knowing what is and isn’t going to sell (although that’s part of it, if you want to publish); with everything we read, either good or bad, we grow. I think every writer should have a little bit of an internal editor, something that switches on when we read, looks for good things to glean and bad things to discard. If you read a book that makes you want to avoid that author for good, what turned you off? If you can pinpoint it, then you know not to do the same thing in your own writing. The same goes for reading something you enjoy. I remember when I first read Douglas Adams’s The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His style was so unique, not to mention hilarious, that I found myself trying to imitate him. Of course, my story was nothing like his, but I wanted to grab my potential readers, just as he grabbed me.

So you writers who don’t read—get with it! Is your writing so perfect that you don’t need to sample anything else that’s out there? Are you too “busy,” and you’ve chosen to sacrifice what I consider a necessary part of every writer’s job? I wouldn’t care to dine at a restaurant where the chef never eats, and I don’t think I would enjoy a book by an author who doesn’t read.