Friday, February 23, 2018

KT Writing

After my mom died, my siblings, my husband and I had the heart-wrenching task of cleaning out her house, the house I grew up in, the house she lived in with my dad for 32 years until he died, and then 20 more years. My husband and I emptied the bookshelves, filling over 50 boxes of books. My parents were great readers—classics, mystery novels, Shakespeare’s plays, a collection of books on the Antarctic, and Jane Austen. I grew up around books and have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I have also turned to the pen, then the typewriter, then the computer to express myself. I am a writer.
            Although I have been writing for decades, I have not always been comfortable identifying as a writer. In my mind a writer is someone who writes well, who writes for a living, or who has gotten paid for his or her writing. It seems presumptuous to call oneself a writer—it seems to be a moniker only others can apply.
            My first attempts at writing were in school, the requisite haiku's, essays, and short stories. I made my first attempt at serious writing after I got married and decided to explore my Irish roots. After reading Leon Uris’ Trinity I decided to write a novel about an IRA soldier (terrorist) and the troubles in Northern Ireland. After about 25 pages I gave up on that novel.
            Subsequently, I worked on a novel about a young woman who lived in Manhattan in the early 80s (or was that a memoir?!). I spent a bit more time on that, worked up an outline and a few chapters before that too went into the circular file. Writing took a backseat to motherhood, but after my second son was born I decided to try again. This time I decided to follow the advice to “write what you know.” Both my young sons had asthma, so I worked on an essay for parents on coping with chronically ill children.
            I figured I would start small, and write about something I had experience with, and then branch out to more creative writing. For over a year I worked on this short piece. The first step was deciding on a topic – caring for chronically ill children. Then I created an outline, using my own experience to guide the main points. After I had a rough draft I identified and interviewed experts in the field. Articles in popular parenting magazines typically include quotes from experts. My own personal experience would not carry enough gravitas to sell the article. The interviewing process was long and sometimes frustrating, but very rewarding. I distinctly remember interviewing Leo Buscaglia on the phone – back in 1992. He is a psychologist who works with disabled kids and their parents, and a very wise and sweet man. His quote contributed to the section on parental guilt: “After thinking logically, parents will realize they would never have planned anything to hurt their child,” Buscaglia told me on the phone.  After I finished the article and incorporated the quotes, I added a box of helpful organizations parents could contact for help.
            Once the article was finished, all I needed to do was find a magazine willing to publish it! Several queries were sent and rejection letters received, until the day I received an envelope in the mail from American Baby Magazine. What a memorable day! They liked the article and wanted to publish it. They offered to pay me $250! I was ecstatic! I remember laughing and crying simultaneously. I had arrived—I was a writer.
            The money was not significant; the magazine was not prominent; the article was not long. But an editor had determined the content and quality of the writing was sufficient to pay me to print it in their magazine. Ten years later I co-wrote a book, and the advance was $2,500. Although it was ten times as much as my first check for writing, nothing could match my euphoria when I received my first check for writing.
            In addition to 50 boxes of books, I cleaned out my dad’s 10 file cabinets in his office and the garage. I went through all of them, file by file. As a college professor, he had files on almost everything—think “Google” in file cabinets. He also had a lot of personal files, including files on the children and grandchildren. I kept a few of them. I found my first published article in one marked “KT Writing.” 

Friday, July 14, 2017

What's up with the book blurbs?

When I pick up a book by an author unknown to me, the first thing I read is the blurb on the inside cover. If I'm interested, I then go on to read the first few pages. If I'm hooked I either borrow the book, if I'm in the library, or buy the book, if I'm in a bookstore. But here's the thing. I have noticed lately that the book blurbs are often misrepresentations of the book! The blurbs are either misleading, focus on minor characters or events, or sometimes downright incorrect. This is confusing, aggravating and unnecessary.

What is the purpose of a blurb? It has been described as a sales pitch, an online dating profile (stretching it) or an endorsement. In this blog I am referring to the description of the story, not the quotes from other writers or readers endorsing the book. The descriptive blurb will entice a reader, or turn her off. Now I'm not sure who normally writes these blurbs, but it should be the author. I have a sneaking suspicion that the publisher or editor writes them, which is why they are often inaccurate and misleading. I almost feel as if I were snagged by a 'bait and switch.' The blurb leads me to believe the book is about one thing, whereas the focus is on something else.

I understand blurbs can be tricky to write. The writer needs to give away enough of the story to attract a reader, without giving too much away--no spoiler alerts. However, the blurbs should not overemphasize minor elements in the story, nor should they be patently false or misleading. Don't you agree?

Here are a few samples from the books I have read over the past month:

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, by Jennifer Ryan:
"... This story tells the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past."
Technically most of this is true, though they were not all active members of the choir. The artist wasn't really an artist. The refugee is a very small part of the book and the "secret" is revealed in one paragraph and never mentioned again. So to me, the blurb is misleading.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, by Gail Honeyman:
"Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she's thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy....
When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living."
First off, Eleanor does not chat with her mother on the weekends, but on Wednesday nights. Secondly, only Eleanor is isolated; the other two men are not really isolated. So the blurb misrepresents and misleads the reader. It may not seem important, but why not just tell the truth! Also, I would describe Eleanor as having "Asberger's like" qualities. I might also mention her traumatic childhood.

The Mother's Promise, by Sally Hepworth:
"Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope...  As the four of them come together..."
The four of them don't really come together. The two women help Alice, but the blurb is misleading in the way it represents what happens with the four main characters.

Why should we care? These are all very good books, I recommend each of them, but when I finished each book and looked back at the blurb, I felt it did not represent the essence of the book well, and it should!

What do you think? Have you had a frustrating experience with misleading book blurbs? Please share in the comments section.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What makes a book "good" - Part 3 - Alliteration

Originality is a vital element to good writing, and we have looked at prose and similes thus far. Let's turn our attention to alliteration. I really enjoy alliteration, but in small to moderate doses--too much and it becomes annoying. There is a line in Martin Luther King Jr.'s essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail" that I really love - I share it with my students every time we cover the essay, and see a mixture of expressions on their faces, from awe to boredom! As Dr. King writes about his disappointment with the inaction of the white church during the Civil Rights movement, he notes that while some Christian leaders have joined the cause, others have been
       "more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of
         stained-glass windows." 
The repeated "s" and "c" sounds combine to make this an auditory feast. It borders on being too much, and ends up being just right.

I offer here a few more alliterations from books I have recently read:

     "Everything else depended on largeness of spirit and liveliness of the intellect, he said when
      anyone complained of the cramped quarters or unpretentiousness" (Allende, Of Love and 
      Shadows, 26).

     "We were sitting down for luncheon, the sun spilling into the dining room as the gramophone 
      played Vivaldi. I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother's body as she hit the 
      floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware" (Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, 4-5).
There is not a lot of alliteration here, but enough to make it interesting, and her description evokes a real sense of time and place.

       "Emma enjoyed herself extremely," (Austen, Emma, 95).
A Jane Austen quote is an absolute necessity!

And Will...
    "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life," 
     (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet).  Enough said!

     "He'd stand at the cooker, simmering tomatoes with fresh herbs, reducing them to a rich sauce,
      slick and slippery with a sheen of olive oil," (Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, 21). This is a new book, and a great read. Just don't believe the blurb. I'll write about book blurbs in my next post.

Please share your own alliteration "finds" - the ones you enjoy reading, and those that drive you nuts!

Friday, June 30, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 2 - Similes

Originality was the focus of my first post in this series, and that elements carries through in this post. One of the hallmarks of good writing is the use of original similes. Similes are often word pictures, and as a visual learner, I appreciate how they make the text come alive. Here are some examples from some good books I have recently read, and a few quotes from my two novels in waiting (waiting to be published)!

"Our guilt coated the house like pollen" (Bohjalian 39). This line in The Sleepwalker is a perfect example of how "good" writing contains similes that are original and have veritas.

"The sun was a red bindi dot on the forehead of the sky as they started their walk," (Umrigar 33).  Thrity Umrigar has so many stunning similes it is hard to choose just one, but this line from The World we Found stuck out.

"From the moment she began to boil the water for breakfast, she never sat down but was always busy with the children, the washing, the meals, the garden, the animals. Her days were all the same, like a rosary of identical beads shaping her existence" (Allende, Of Love and Shadows, 14). It's important that the simile relate to the theme of the book (I think). It pulls everything together nicely, and as Catholicism is one of the themes of this book by Isabel Allende, the simile is appropriate.

"At night it creaked softly, like a weary, rheumatic old woman" (Allende 26).

"A cool breeze blew through the trees, and Ledu and I held each other, laid out side by side on the thin blanket, like two knobby walking sticks" (Sweeting, Remnant). I had different wording for this, but I was trying to think of something in Ibo culture to relate to, and came up with this.

"The mother was already thin, her arms like sugar cane stalks" (Sweeting, Remnant). Again, sugar cane is commonly grown in Nigeria, so I thought this might be an appropriate simile.

"Three stories high, the house boasted a wrap-around porch, fitting as snugly as a babe on a mother’s back, pots of geraniums, marigolds and camellias brightening the porch and scenting the air" (Sweeting, Remnant). 

"Her eyes were swollen and red, her hair looked like a cross between Medusa and a spider web, and there was dried snot on the side of her face" (Sweeting, Expecting).  This novel is American and contemporary.

"It’s almost like an unwritten taboo. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, you stay in the community. I think it’s a bigger taboo than marrying outside your race, or your religion" (Sweeting, Expecting). In this book I am working on now, the reference is to a deaf person marrying a hearing person. 

Please let me know what you think of these similes, and share some of your favorites!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 1 - Originality

I read a lot - an average of two books a week. Some of these are easy, quick reads - contemporary women's fiction, romances. After I've read a few "lighter" books, I go back to more "literary" books. But I've been thinking about what makes a book "light" reading, and what makes a book "literary." A very condensed definition of a "good" book is... a good story well told. The two elements to any work of fiction are the Story itself and Writing Style.

The story can be further broken down into several categories - these are not set in stone:
  • Plot - this is the "what" in a story; what happens to whom, when, why, where, and how
  • Characters - who is in the story? Characters are usually human, but they don't have to be.
  • Setting (sometimes called World Building) - sometimes the setting is to important, it's like another character
  • Tone - as Sebastian said in "Little Mermaid," "I need to set the mood" - what great old movies did with music, writers achieve with words
  • Themes - is there an overall theme to the story? It is about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, ambition, greed, indecisiveness, hubris....
  • Symbolism - do some elements have a deeper meaning? Do they stand in for something else? Is the snake only a snake, and is the dream just a dream?
The writing style is more illusive, but here are some elements:
  • Prose - how does the author put words and sentences together
  • Dialogue - is it realistic?  Does it add to the story?
  • Narrative - is it a page turner? Do you want to read more not just to find out what happens, but because the story is so beautifully told?
For this post I'm focusing on prose. What I have noticed in some of the books I've read lately, is that originality is vital to good writing. But it's not originality for the sake of being original. The originality in "good" writing has a purpose, and it draws the reader in - it provides an "aha" moment. The reader will think, "Yes, that's exactly right. I don't know why I didn't think of it that way before."
Here is one example:  

In The Sleepwalker, Chris Bohjalian writes about the mother who has gone missing, presumably after sleepwalking:
"She was, at once, never there and always there, as undeniable yet untouchable as the sky... And so there lived a hollowness in the heart of the house. The three of us were missing the semaphore that was wife and mother. We needed a new language and new rituals, but it was going to take time for them to evolve." (Page 63)

Oh yes, good writing also often includes words one has to look up - like semaphore.

Have you been reading a good book lately? Please share your own examples!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

All Writing is Re-Writing

I'm back to blogging and I hope to post much more often.  Please follow along and talk back to me!

As I work on my current novel - Expecting - I'm deep in the process of rewriting.  I tell my students "all writing is rewriting."  Truman Capote said "good writing is rewriting."  On Writing Well by William Zinsser, renowned writer and English Professor at Yale University, is a succinct, brilliant book on writing and Zinsser includes two pages of his own draft of the book.  It is marked up excessively - words changed, deleted, sentences shifted around.  There is some edit or deletion on every line.  And as I like to point out, it is his fourth draft. So if this (late) brilliant writer and teacher of writing at Yale needs four drafts to get it right, how many do I need?

"We write words, and then they are on the screen, or even more permanent, on the paper. There they are!  All our lovely words look so nice - why would I want to change them? I can't take away any of these wonderful words... or can I?  I can if I want to write more clearly. I tell my students to delete any words in a sentence that do not add to the meaning of the sentence. Reduce the clutter. Excise the excess. Throw out the baggage." (Zinsser)

Rewriting is hard work, much harder than a first draft. It's fairly easy to get some words down on paper, or on the screen, but it's much harder to hone those words, choose the best ones and discard others, find proper replacements for overused words.  Choose active voice instead of passive. Find a synonym. Avoid an adverb. Clarify a subject. Re-write . . .  Ay - there's the rub.

After the first draft comes the second draft, then the third, then the fourth and so on. Honestly, as writers we are never "done." Our books are never "finished." We just come to the place where we have decided it's in pretty darn good shape, and let's get it to the agent, or the publisher. And then after more edits the publisher decides that it's "publishable."  But we could still go in and change a word, improve a description, add a scene. Writing is hard work, and much of that work is the rewriting process.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Things We Keep"

School is over and now I can read whatever I want!  I have read two wonderful books in the past 10 days and will share my thoughts on the first one here.

The Things We Keep is about a woman (Anna) with early-onset Alzheimer's disease - very early.  She is only 38 when the disease manifests itself and dissolves memories, the most recent first, and turns a vibrant young women into a shell of her former self.

Soon after her diagnosis Anna leaves her husband and checks herself into an assisted-living facility (Rosalind House), where she will live out the rest of her days.  At 38, while she's still lucid, she makes this life-altering decisions.

The book is interspersed with Anna's viewpoint, and it starts with when she checks in - 15 months from present day. Anna's story alternates with Eve's story - the cook at Rosalind House.  Her husband killed himself after admitting he was instrumental in a huge ponzi scheme, leaving Eve and her young daughter to fend for themselves, with no money and little dignity.  Her daughter Clementine also has a point of view in the book.

It's the way Hepworth weaves the stories and plot-lines together, the various and monumentally different points of view, that is laudable.  Somehow she manages to get into the head of a bereaved and angry young widow, a woman who is losing her mind, and a 7 year-old girl.  That in itself is an amazing feat.  When all the plot-lines join in the end, I was a bit confused, but once I went back and pieced them all together, it made sense.

I would recommend this book to anyone who works with dementia patients.  Anna becomes intimately involved with a fellow resident whose name she can never remember, so she calls him "Young Guy."  They love each other.  It's obvious to the reader, and to Eve, but not to the folks in charge.  To me, the message of this book, the thing we keep, is our ability to love and be loved.

Here are a few lines to whet  your appetite:

Anna's points of view:
"'Put this on," Dad says, handing me a pair of blue doo-dahs for my legs. His cheeks are flushed, and that's when I realize I'm naked, apart from a white sheet. He digs back into my closet and pulls out a pair of under-things. "And this. I'll be in the dining room."
I don't move. I'm perfectly happy where I am. . . .
He leaves and I look at the things in my lap. With a strange, almost scientific aware, I realize I have no idea what to do with them. The blue things go on my legs--I know that much. But there are three holes, two small and one large, as well as a long thing with silver teeth and a big silver circle."

 In another scene, near the end of the book, her brother -- who has been her primary caretaker -- takes her to see a doctor.  He does all the talking, even though the doctor addresses Anna.
"Dr. Li glances at me, presumably to see how much I am taking in. The answer is all of it. Every word.
"I'm sorry," I say.  I concentrate on my words to make sure this comes out right. "It sounds horrible, what you said. I know I'm . . . not getting things right anymore, I'm getting confused and doing strange things. But I'm . . ." I pause to wipe my face. "I'm still here. It's just -- you have to look a little longer and harder to find me."
Our of the corner of my eye, I notice the doctor push her chair back, trying to pretend she's not there. Jack slides forward in his chair and looks at me. And for the first time since I checked into that place with the old people, maybe for the first time since I was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Jack sees me."

Read this book.  You won't be disappointed.