Just entered the Writer’s Digest “Dear Lucky Agent” contest from historical fiction. Because you just never know! They are also running one for memoir. Check them both out at http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/29th-free-dear-lucky-agent-contest-historical-fiction
I have never read any of the books in the Neapolitan series by author Elena Ferrante so I cannot comment on whether they seem to have been written by a man, as some critics think, or a woman, as the author’s name would imply. By I can comment on the hub-bub that has erupted from journalist Glaudio Gatti’s “outing” of the author by publishing the writer’s real name. Who Cares! Hasn’t this journalist ever heard of pseudonyms? Did he miss Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb in order to gain a male audience for her Death series? And what about J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith for her crime novels in order to avoid “hype or expectation? If he doesn’t know about these pseudonyms I must question his expertise as an investigative journalist.
The reaction to Mr. Gatti’s unearthing of the mystery has resulted in some fiery accusations of gender bias. I don’t get that either. Yes, the above mentioned writers may have picked male or non-gender equated names to write in genre’s associated with male readers. But it goes the other way as well. I was told at a writer’s conference some years back that one of the most renowned romance writers, an author with a female name, was actually two gay men who write as a couple and combined their names to appear female. I don’t know what their pseudonym is and I don’t care. The question is whether their books would sell as well if they used their actual names. I’m one of those naive people who think they would. Good books are good books in any genre and under any name.
Apparently this all started because a new volume of Elena Ferrante’s non-fiction Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey is being published and it is in that book that a fictitious background is presented. Mr. Gatti believeS this makes Ferrante a liar. But Ferrante is not a person but a persona. That being the case how can anything attributed to her be a lie?
He also believes that since Ferrante is a “public Figure” she is not entitled to privacy. I suppose since everyone now knows Mr. Gotti’s name he is a public figure and therefore no longer entitled to privacy as well.
Perhaps he should change his name.
Once upon a time in a Florida bookstore
I heard the clerk give a customer this recommendation: “Have you read Joshilyn Jackson? She’s a Southern writer but…” She gave a vague gesture and said no more.
Sneaky word, “but.” It can lead into the perfumed or the stinky and qualifies whatever has gone before. If followed by something wonderful it snubs its predecessor as awful and vice-versa. So did this clerk intend to imply a Southern writer was a good thing? That wasn’t my impression.
What is a “Southern Writer” anyway? Was the bookstore clerk thinking of Margaret Mitchell or John Grisham? Did she refer to Faulkner or Mickey Spillane? Does the writer have to set their books in the South to be considered Southern? In that case leave out Truman Capote. Or does the person have to be born in the South. Leave out Cormac McCarthy. Both of these authors are listed as American Southern Writers, by the way. (http://www.biography.com/news/american-southern-writers-20874761) Amazon’s list of “Southern Writers of Fiction” includes Stephen King as well as Thomas Wolfe.
Perhaps I should have approached our unnamed clerk and asked her for a “Northern Writer.” Google “Northern Fiction Writers” and see what you get. Apparently Northern is an international term while Southern applies only to those United States that lie below the Mason Dixon line.
And still I am wondering “But what?”
Publishers get the blame for overly categorizing authors and their work. But I think this blame falls on the shoulders of book sellers as well – at least in the case of one clerk in Florida.
That pesky “like,” “as” comparison.
Some people absolutely hate them. I’m reluctant to use similes mostly because I read so many that I’ve read them before. You know the ones I mean: like a stealthy black cat, or slithered down the hall like a snail. And that’s how similes get a bad name.
Reading Ashley Warlick’s novel The Arrangement makes me reconsider the simile. Referring to Los Angeles as “a city like a nervous widow.” One sentence that tells me: “Sleep rolled him like a thief.” The beauty and clarity of her similes is stunning. They stand out not only for their originality but for their scarcity. Overuse similes, even wonderful ones, and the reader is apt to read right over them. Or worse yet, get sick of them.
I think that was my problem. Too many of the books I read throw similes around like confetti. (ouch) An abundance of similes doesn’t prove a writer’s talent or intelligence. Perhaps it reveals the opposite. Granted bad similes can be humorous; in fact, there are whole web sites devoted to them. Check out http://www.eddiesnipes.com/2013/01/bad-metaphors-and-worse-similes/ if you want a giggle. One of my favorites: “When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.”
But I digress. Reading Ms. Warlick makes me want to be a better writer of similes. Not just to use them, but to use them well. That, to me, is good writing.
Priorities are tough.
They constantly battle with each other. Jobs, family, friends, hobbies, they all want a share of our time. The garden needs weeding, the bathroom needs cleaning, the dog needs to be walked, your best friend or brother is calling, you have an hour to get to work and don’t get off until 9. When the heck are you supposed to find time to write?
This was the issue I faced recently. A firm believer in the BIC, or Butt In Chair, philosophy of writing, I used to sit at my computer for an hour or so most every day, turning out stories to send off, blogs to put up, rewrites of my novel. Then I was hired as a library assistant (my dream job) and my husband retired, which meant he was home all day every day. Suddenly I had no time to write. We had upended our whole life sixteen years ago, even relocating, in order to allow me to write full time. Not writing seemed to be discounting those years and that move. I felt guilty and dissatisfied.
It took a long time for me to accept my limitations and realize I couldn’t be the writer I wanted to be under the circumstances. I had to rethink my priorities and make some tough choices. Though I love my job, I took a cut in hours. Though I love my family and friends, I have to let the phone ring, forgo that lunch date. My garden is full of weeds. We won’t even discuss the bathroom. To some co-workers, friends, and family I’m being selfish, or lazy, or simply in avoidance. It’s not easy to explain, but I feel better having made my choice and set writing back atop my priorities.
All I know is that my butt is where it should be.
What does your haircut say about your love life? Can your shoe size predict your future? Who were you in a past life – pick a celebrity photo and see! We’ve all succumbed at one time or another. In fact, I’ve been delving into them a lot recently. I’m not talking about the tests favored by Facebook and other social media sites. I’m referring to online grammar quizzes.
Did I hear a groan? Stay with me.
I just finished a wonderful book on punctuation — Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation By David Crystal. Professor Crystal’s book is humorous and filled with fascinating trivia. (Did you know bullet points were actually called dingbats?) Yet, while being entertained by David Crystal’s very British sense of humor, I became aware of how much I didn’t know that I thought I knew. I flew to the web to discover the extent of my failings.
Online quizzes have not only helped me identify weaknesses in my grammar database, they have made me more aware of these hazards while writing. They are particularly useful for those enamored with certain flirtatious punctuation marks. (Semi-colon lovers, you know who you are!) Quizzes demonstrate how and when these characters are to be used. You may “desire” to insert them as your heart dictates but test yourself before becoming overly involved. They are a fickle bunch.
Most quizzes don’t take long, usually a few minutes, and are available for all levels of expertise. I like to think of my participation in online quizzes as class time. My own little ‘Not-Quite Masters of Fine Arts’ program.
So when you see a personality quiz on your chosen social site let it remind you that there are quizzes out there that can hone your craft, not just waste your time. You can ‘share’ what you learn all you want through your writing.
BARBIE’S LAST CHRISTMAS
The year Mother burned up my Christmas presents, Mary Brewer’s father called the fire department. Wrapping paper stuffed into the fireplace had caught in the chimney cap shooting bluish-orange flames into the evening sky. Within minutes the firemen’s ladder truck skid to a stop on the snow banked street. By then the fire had died. Only tissue thin ashes wafted into the night like dusky moth wings. My dad stomped through the front door. The scent of cold and wood smoke perfuming his robe. Snow from the soles of his yellow bedroom slippers traced his steps, melting in patches on the Oriental rug.
“Damn nosey neighbors.” He threw an official looking scrap of paper on the coffee table. It landed beside his eggnog. “Fifty bucks.”
That’s when I noticed the three new Barbie outfits I’d gotten for Christmas were missing. I tore through boxes desperate to find the satiny-blue ball gown complete with matching heels, tennis shorts and sweater combo that included a miniature racquet, and the red velvet coat with real fake fur on the collar. I crawled under the baby grand in case I had kicked them under the piano in my rush to look out the front windows. Not finding the anywhere I asked my mother, “Where are Barbie’s new clothes? They were right here under the tree.”
Mother stood in front of the fireplace, arms crossed. “Now, aren’t you sorry for smart-mouthing me in front of your grandma?”
Confused, I looked to my father. He was paying no attention to either of us. Citation in one hand eggnog in the other, he muttered. “Damn Brewer.”
A strip of seared blue fabric floated behind the scorched fire screen caught in a spiral of rising heat. “I heard what you said when I told you to eat your peas,” Mother said. “‘Stupid’— is that what you think I am?”
I had directed that insult at the peas, but an explanation would only make things worse. My chin quaked. Tears gathered in my eyes. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
She put her hands on her hips, just below the cinched belt of her red and green print dress. “Does saying you’re sorry for a thing make the doing of it all right?”
A bleating sob escaped my throat. “No.”
“And the next time Grandma is here, how will you treat your mother?”
“With respect.” The words came out mushy.
“Okay then.” My mother came to me, arms extended, and drew me into a hug. I kept my back straight, arms at my sides.
“Go take the rest of your presents upstairs,” she told me. “Tomorrow we’ll go to the store and you can replace what you made me burn.”
I gathered my gifts dispirited, careful not to leave any behind.
The next day I picked out Barbie clothes different from the ones set aflame. The sight of the plastic wrapped ball gown, tennis shorts, and velvety coat smothered me with shame and a smoldering anger. I threw Barbie’s new outfits on the floor of the closet in my room — out of sight. Christmas was over.
Uncle Sid began feeding the ducks the day he learned he had four months to live. Before that he forbid anyone to throw bread out on the water. “It’s not good for the ducks, Johnny,” he told me, “or the lake. You got to do what’s right for everyone, not what’s best for yourself.”
But Uncle Sid was on the pier every morning after he received the doctor’s diagnosis. At first only a mallard and a few females glided from the reeds to where Sid stood with his bag of sliced bread. The number increased rapidly. They flew in at dawn, splashing down like paragliders. Paddling around the dock they squawked in a frenzy, beaks raised to Uncle Sid. “Damn things wake me up,” Aunt Myrna said. “But I can’t say anything ‘bout it. Not now.”
She watched from the raised porch, grim as a funereal vase, her plump lips curved in a frown that pulled Aunt Myrna’s cheeks into her jowls. “Always thought the cigarettes would get him, but the pancreas will do it first.”
Myrna hadn’t shed a tear over Uncle Sid’s cancer. She was never an emotional woman, accepting the world’s doings with a mighty fatalism. In contrast Mom cried a lot. She was hysterical when she heard. “Sid’s dying,” she wailed to my stepfather Charlie.
He was removing his suit coat when Mom collapsed against his chest, trapping his arms in the sleeves. He gave me a confused look. “Uncle Sid has cancer,” I said.
“Just like Fred,” Mom told him, which wasn’t true at all. Fred, my father, died in a car accident. Only in kindergarten, I saw my mother faint in front of the policeman at the door. Uncle Sid was with the cop. He caught Mom in his arms.
Today I can’t recall what my father’s face looked like but can still see his hands. Big like catcher’s mitts. I still recognize his smell. Old Spice. Sometimes, waiting in a line or walking through a crowd, I get a whiff of it and turn expecting to see a man with huge hands.
Uncle Sid took me over after Dad died. We’d go out to Sid’s cabin on Lake Morgan and fish. I went there on Fridays after school and stayed until Sunday dinner. “Your mother needs time to grieve,” Uncle Sid said. “A woman does that best alone.” He ruffled my hair. “A boy grieves best with a fishing pole in his hand.”
When Mom got married again I was disappointed. Not because she was betraying my father’s memory—heck, she’d waited three years—but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to Uncle Sid’s every weekend. “I want the three of us to be a family,” Mom told me, “to do things together. It’s important to me, Johnny.”
“Charlie’s a nice man and a good provider,” Aunt Myrna said at the wedding. “She’s a fragile woman, your mother. She needs someone to take care of her.”
I wanted to ask Aunt Myrna, didn’t she need that as well? Hadn’t she gotten it with Uncle Sid? Myrna had never had to work. She raised my three cousins while Sid drove the Pet Dairy delivery truck. He wore the dairy’s blue uniform for twenty-five years, retiring the day his pension matured. “Never really saw the kids grow up,” he told me once. “By the time I retired they were married or in college. I feel closer to you than I do to my own.”
Watching him from the porch, that summer day with Aunt Myrna, I wondered why none of his children were around. “Where are Davey and Sue?” I asked. “Why isn’t Harrison home?”
She sipped her tea like it was scalding, though it had sat for more than an hour. “Dave and Susanna are with their families, as they should be. Harrison is on business in Europe.”
Aunt Myrna gave me a stern look. “They don’t know about their daddy and don’t you go telling them. Nothing they can do about it. I’ll let them know when it’s time.”
Down on the pier, Uncle Sid turned the plastic bread bag upside down. Crumbs caught in the breeze. The ducks skidded across the water, noisily chasing after with unsatisfied gluttony. “I would want to know,” I said.
They found out soon enough when my mother called them. Sue and Davy showed up without their spouses or children. Sue wept while doing the dishes; Davy found things in the house to fix. Harrison flew in from Brussels and wandered around the rooms picking up knick-knacks, telling stories about each. “I found that piece of driftwood on the beach. Remember, Dad? I brought it home and Mom said to throw it out, but you took it to the garage. We put it together with some clay and made this ashtray. Remember that?”
Uncle Sid nodded his head, a smile spreading from his dried lips to his moist eyes. Then Davy spoke up. “It was me who helped you make that ashtray, Squirt. We made it for Father’s Day, I think. Dad wasn’t there.”
A look of sadness drifted over Uncle Sid’s face. He dropped his head. Aunt Myrna glared at my mother. “See why I didn’t want them here?”
Davy and Sue went back to their families. Harrison stayed on. He hovered at the edge of his father’s cancer, not knowing what to do. Finally, he fled too. “I’ll be back when I finish up this business,” he promised.
They all promised to return. But obligations of one sort or another repeatedly delayed my cousins. They called on the phone instead, checking on their father every day. Aunt Myrna seemed relieved by their absence. “Less to cook for,” she said.
Uncle Sid fed the ducks until he was too sick to walk to the pier. Then the hospice people came in. It wasn’t their job to feed ducks. Aunt Myrna began driving to our house in the morning. She’d arrive after breakfast and leave before lunch. “I can’t stand to be there,” she told my mother. “Seeing them give him the medicine and wash him like a baby, wipe his behind. That’s not the man I married. The man I married wouldn’t stand for it.”
Soon Aunt Myrna’s visits increased to twice a day. Sometimes she stayed until dinner. Late one night I heard her muted voice floating down the hall from the kitchen. “Sid doesn’t look the same. He’s gray with death.”
Myrna began to count the days. “The doctor gave Sid four months. That’s eight days from now.”
“Seven days from today.”
“Less than a week.”
Uncle Sid died in accordance with the doctor’s prediction, four months to the day. When I got to the lake house the hospice nurse was scolding Aunt Myrna. “It’s against protocol for you to destroy the medications. I am supposed to dispose of them.”
“I poured them down the toilet,” Myrna said.
“Do you have a witness? If not I will have to write it up. There will have to be a report. Without a witness, without the pills—well, who knows what could have happened .”
A tacit accusation trailed her words.
“My nephew Johnny was here,” Aunt Myrna told her. “He was here when I poured out the pills. He watched me flush them.”
“Is that so?” The nurse fixed me with a skeptical gaze. Aunt Myrna looked at me, eyes wide behind her glasses. We were in what had once been the master bedroom. Now it was a nicely wallpapered sepulcher. Sid’s head wasn’t covered up, the ashen pallor of his skin replaced by a waxy yellow. He laid on the bed, under the thin blanket, his eyes and mouth open, his nose protruding from his hollowed face. I never knew Uncle Sid’s nose was that big. How can a person shrink so much so fast, disappear so quickly?
I couldn’t answer the nurse’s question, silenced by my uncle’s corpse. I just nodded. The hospice nurse sat down on the bed beside Uncle Sid, and started to write out the death certificate attached to her clipboard. She stopped for a moment, smoothing the blanket over Sid’s shoulder in a gesture of familiarity and kindness. “One of my favorite patients,” she said. “Always so grateful.”
Blinking hard, I walked out to the porch. Aunt Myrna followed. She put her hand on my arm. “He’s out of his pain now, Johnny. It’s better for everyone.”
I let loose one sob, maybe two, before tucking the rest away. A thought flashed in my mind prompted by the missing pills and Aunt Myrna’s relief at Sid’s passing. I tucked it away too.
“Look.” Aunt Myrna pointed to the pier, a note of surprise in her voice. “Here come the ducks. I haven’t seen them since Sid went down.”
Sure enough the ducks were swimming in, their vee-shaped wakes creating ripples that lapped the wooden pilings of the dock. Aunt Myrna went into the house, returning with a bag of fresh, sliced, bread. Tears traced the creases in her face. “Here.” She said. “They’re waiting for you.”
I met my husband through an erstwhile friend.
We had been friends for less than a year prior and she faded from my life about a year afterwards. He stayed in my life, she didn’t. At the time I was simply enjoying the friendship, hanging out at her cozy Colorado cabin on the Frying Pan River. It wasn’t until much later that I realized she had been a transitional character in the story of my life propelling my life plot from one stage to another.
Novels require transitional characters in the same way life does. The main character needs both compulsion and propulsion to send him or her through the plot. But, as with my friend, the transitional characters can’t be obvious. I just finished Christina Baker Kline’s wonderful novel Orphan Train. The book itself is about fate and almost every person outside the two main characters is transitional, exiting the novel when they have satisfied their purpose. But, like my friendship, you don’t realize it until much later when the main protagonists see it for themselves.
The trick is to pull this off. I read another book that had an obvious transitional character. He moved the plot, gave rational to the action, and disappeared from the novel entirely when no longer needed. It bothered me that it was so blatant. I felt cheated and manipulated at the same time: cheated because the character was a cardboard figure with no dimension, manipulated because I readily accepted his presence and expected him to be important only to realize he was a prop.
In life we can’t always see fate at work. As writers we are fate at work. The challenge is to arrange our paper worlds with grace and subtlety.
I don’t know that I ever thanked my former friend for bringing me and my sweetheart together. None of us knew at the time what a big influence she would be.
a writer friend of mine mentioned she avoided writing in first person for fear of over-using the pronoun “I.” Another writing buddy doesn’t like to write anything that is sad or uncomfortable. One gets hung up on perfect grammar and finds it difficult to write at all, so concerned about correctness that she stifles her own imagination.
These are all examples of writers afraid of leaving their comfort zone. They set their imaginative thermostat at 68 or 72 and never deviate. All of the friends I mentioned are wonderful writers, but each limits themselves with their own fears of venturing too far from home. This is where writing prompts can help. I am subscribed to one of the free daily writing prompt websites available, but admit to skipping some. They seem too silly, or uninteresting, or too far-fetched. However, after thinking about the conversations I’ve had I am determined to try them all from now on. If I don’t go beyond what I am accustomed to, I won’t ever grow.
Fear is a big monster that hides under every writer’s bed. We all need to run him off by turning the light on. Or the thermostat up! Sweat the sucker out or freeze him—it’s your choice. The important thing is to get out of that safe zone and venture into the wilderness. Don’t worry. You can always come back. It will be nice and warm when you do.