Saturday, June 28, 2008

Also for Fellow Joss Whedon, Neil Patrick Harris, and/or Musical Fans

If you haven't heard about "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," check out this bit of awesomeness:

Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

More details here.

The Annual Frivolous Foot Photo, and Excellent Revision Advice

I got a pretty pedicure this morning, so here is my annual Frivolous Foot Photo:

Yay! (Previous Photos: 2005-I; 2005-II; 2006. Just in case anyone thought this blog was, you know, serious.)

(Though this post does demonstrate the power of the capital letter, for if I called this a "frivolous Foot Photo," I would be calling the photo frivolous; whereas by calling it a "Frivolous Foot Photo," I am calling my feet frivolous. A hugely important distinction, as you can tell, though I have to admit "frivolous Frivolous Foot Photo" would be most accurate.)

But in totally non-frivolous news: If you're a novelist, I command you to read this article by Anita Nolan (PDF, linked at "The End Is Only the Beginning") on self-editing a revision. It is the best list of practical writing and rewriting tips I have seen in a very long time, or possibly ever. (With, of course, the caveat at the end of the article, that you should know what works for you in your writing process and voice and follow those first.) I've already taken things from it to use in my own editing. Seriously, seriously, seriously, check it out.

Finally, new poll, just for my own curiosity. Thank you for voting!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Interview with Editor Janet Silver

Poets and Writers has a really wonderful interview up with Janet Silver, the former Houghton Mifflin adult publisher who edited Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Three excerpts that resonated for me:

  • "There are a couple of things I see in first fiction that always tell me something is not for me. The first is usually in fiction by young women. There will be a young female protagonist with a vaguely artistic temperament who goes to New York to do something. At some point, usually about page ten, she looks in the mirror and describes herself. And you see this device in many wonderful novels—this is the way the author's going to let the reader know what the narrator or main character looks like—but now you just see it too much. So I usually get to that on page ten and say, "Not interested."" [Cheryl says, Ha!]
  • Tell me about a particularly memorable editing experience. "Peter Ho Davies comes to mind. The greatest thing for an editor is when you read a manuscript, you give some comments, and then the author goes off and does something completely different from what you expected, but it's brilliant and wonderful. With some of Peter's stories, especially that one I was just describing, I gave him some comments, and the story came back about three times as long. So there was this kind of ebullient response from him—a kind of magnanimous sense of possibility."
  • Tell writers one thing about agents that they don't know but should. "That they can ask a lot of questions; that they should ask a lot of questions. I think that writers, especially first-time writers, sometimes feel as though, "Well, whatever the agent says. Of course the agent knows best." But in the same way that I think authors should be having conversations and asking a lot of questions of editors, they should ask potential agents, "Okay, whom do you represent? Which houses do you work with? Which editors do you like? How do you go about deciding where you're going to send something?" I'm just astonished again and again when I talk to writers at writing programs that they don't know they can ask those questions."

Read the whole thing here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Quote File: Truth

There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth, not beginning and not finishing. -- Buddha

. . . when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It is an initiation into a life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. -- Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

There are few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. -- Anais Nin

We taste and feel and see the truth. We do not reason ourselves into it. -— William Butler Yeats

You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes. -- Moses ben Maimon

Like many of the people I had read about, I set out on a long journey to find truth and beauty. As usual, the road led straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods. –- Joyce Sutphen

A fact is not a truth until you love it. –- John Keats

Defending the truth is not something one does out of a sense of duty or to allay guilt complexes, but is a reward in itself. -- Simone de Beauvoir

Love truth, but pardon error. -– Voltaire

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. -- Thomas Paine

Everyone wishes to have truth on his side, but not everyone wishes to be on the side of truth. -- Richard Whately

Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. -- Flannery O'Connor

The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think. -- Aristotle

How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there's no help in the truth. -- Sophocles

It does not require many words to speak the truth. -- Chief Joseph

Truth may be stretched but cannot be broken. It always gets above falsehood as oil does above water. -- Miguel de Cervantes

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. -- Andre Gide

The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us. -- Paul Valery

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. -- Arthur Schopenhauer

One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth. -- Voltaire

What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup. -– Boris Pasternak

Saturday, June 21, 2008

More New York City Coolness

Since you were interested in New York City activities . . .

James and I rode bikes down to the Brooklyn shore for his birthday recently. Here I am with the Verrazano-Narrows bridge (the one for which I crashed the Marathon).

On that same jaunt, we randomly found a Norwegian festival in a Bay Ridge park. Here James poses with a Viking ship.

Self-portrait in a multilayered mirror, taken at the Olafur Eliasson exhibit at P.S. 1 last Saturday. I highly recommend both that exhibit and its MoMA half for beauty, simplicity, and elegance. It's closing soon, so go! Go!
Finally, Angela Gheorghiu performs in Prospect Park in Brooklyn last night as part of the Metropolitan Opera's "Met in the Parks" program. It was a gorgeous evening, 75 and sunny, and New Yorkers covered the south end of the Long Meadow to picnic and see Ms. Gheorghiu, her husband Roberto Alagna, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus perform selections from The Pearl Fishers, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Nabucco, and others. After a ten-song program, the couple did, I think, eight encores, which was a bit much -- but as they included "Nessun dorma" from Turandot (surely one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever) and "O Sole Mio" from Trovatore (yes? they also turned it around and sang "It's Now or Never" by Elvis, which, I had never realized, uses the "Sole Mio" melody), I cannot complain.

Hooray for New York!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


There is a new poll up on the right, because I'd like to know from what basis most writers begin their stories. Do you start with a plot? A character? A sentence that floats into your brain? This highly scientific poll* will reveal the trend once and for all. (For the record, I tried to change the font color of the options, but Blogger lets you personalize everything but that, it seems. Apologies! You can highlight the text for easier reading.)

* Not.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Live from New York

On Thursday night, my book group met in Soho for dinner*, with gelato at Ciao Bella afterward. It was a beautiful night, and I got the gelato in a cone, so I decided to walk partway home -- at least across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is probably my very favorite walk on Earth. I strolled through Little Italy, Chinatown, and the arches of our beautiful Municipal Building**, then began the long, lovely walk across the bridge itself. About halfway across, I noticed some bright red, white, and blue lights down on Fulton Ferry Landing***, set up around a metal stage, and as I didn't have anywhere to be particularly, I decided to check it out.

First I came across this:

(Image from here.) It's the Telectroscope, which allowed me to see two very nice security guards at the London Bridge at 2 a.m., and we gave each other a transatlantic wave. Then I continued on towards the red, white, and blue stage, which stood behind a large, open gate, with a thin guy in a black t-shirt standing guard.

"Hey, would you like to be in the audience for the Macy's Fourth of July Spectacular starring Kenny Chesney?" he said.

I'm not a big country music fan, but this opportunity clearly was too absurd and/or awesome to pass up, so I said yes, he issued me a little American flag, and I went to stand by the stage. It was decorated with bright red, white, and blue stars bearing the Macy's logo, so I figured they were pre-taping a concert segment to precede the fireworks on the Fourth. (Which makes sense -- the Landing must be mobbed on the Fourth, as it has a prime view of those same Macy's fireworks.) My fellow audience members seemed to be half tourists, half extremely bemused New Yorkers. The three twentysomething Brooklynites behind me talked loudly about how they were only hanging out here until 9:30, and if something hadn't happened by then, they were going to leave and go to the bar because they were missing the Lakers game for some country singer and that was just not cool. A guy from Texas to my left pointed out the Watchtower building to his companion and told her it was owned by the Christian Scientists. (I kept my mouth shut.) Various women in cowboy hats waved their "I Love You Kenny!!" signs hopefully and started "Ken-NEE, Ken-NEE" chants to encourage him to appear.

And right about 9:30, he did, along with his excellent backing band. They taped a performance of his song "Never Wanted Nothing More" three times; I had never heard it before, but in listening to the lyrics, I was amused to note they mentioned his truck, his woman, and the Lord, thus scoring a perfect country-music hat trick. And Mr. Chesney seems like a very nice guy, albeit deaf to all the women screaming "I Love You Kenny!" -- I guess if you hear that from perfect strangers every single day, the words could lose meaning pretty easily, which seems a shame. If you watch the Spectacular on the 4th, I'm standing in the audience off to Kenny's right, enthusiastically waving my little American flag and, by the third go-round, singing along. God bless America, and God bless New York for providing such goofy-cool experiences.

* My terrific book group has been together since 2001, with a variable membership but always the same format: We read a current children's or YA novel and gather at a restaurant appropriate to the setting, theme, or subject of the book. Some of the books we've read this year include
The Luxe (Dove Bar, West Village); The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (Bubby's, TriBeCa); and most recently The Hunger Games (Bread, Soho).
** Seriously, if you're going to get married at City Hall, don't you want your City Hall to look like this?
*** Also one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places in New York for its incredible view of the Bridge and the lower Manhattan skyline: See here for the view, and don't forget to visit the Brooklyn Bridge Ice Cream Factory (the white building in the background when you look back at Brooklyn).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Words Are Worth

The past few months of political drama have turned me into a news junkie -- I listen to Morning Edition while putting my makeup on, I check Andrew Sullivan on my lunch breaks, I read the Sunday Times online. But with this constant connectedness comes occasional exhaustion; and in thinking about how tired I am of news sometimes, and bad news especially, the first line of this sonnet by William Wordsworth rose into my brain and inspired me to look it up:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

I have to say, when I took the most excellent Romantic Poets class at college, with Connie Walker, Wordsworth was my least favorite of the Big Six (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron). To me he seemed to have the least sense of humor and most sentimentality, and to live the most boring life, without even the Romanticism to die young, as all poets worthy of that name should. (The link is hilarious, btw.) But rereading that sonnet reminded me of my favorite poem by him, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," and I looked it up as well:

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit's cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten'd:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

(You can read the rest here.) It has been probably eight or nine years since I read that poem for class; I have very specific memories of sitting on a bench overlooking the lakes at Carleton and reading it there on a gray and windy day. And rereading it today on the Internet, I felt very much towards the poem as Wordsworth does toward the view of nature: that here in poetry is a Good that restores the soul, that encourages both "acts of kindness and of love" and "see[ing] into the life of things," and I have been too long away from it. Maybe cutting out one news source and reading instead one poem a day is what I need. . . .

I titled this post "What Words Are Worth" because I was trying to be clever while feeling cynical -- it's easy with the news to have too many words passing by, late and soon, and then to feel like they're not worth very much at all. But looking again at "Tintern Abbey" reminded me that of course words are worth a great deal; they just have to be the right ones, and to have enough silence around them to be appreciated.


And good night.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Character Questionnaire

I spent the last two days at the New Jersey SCBWI conference in Princeton -- a very enjoyable conference, with lots of good discussions and nice people. My talk was a shorter, tighter version of the speech on character I gave in Missouri last November. I do not plan to post the full text on my website -- sorry -- because wow, being able to reuse a speech makes life a lot easier in the days leading up to a conference! But I did promise I would post the outline of the create-a-character exercise, which was originated by Joan Bauer at the Los Angeles SCBWI conference in April 2007 and amended by moi:

1. Facts
-- Gender
-- Age
-- Ethnicity
+ Here I must point out, as I did in my sessions, that of the three times I've run this exercise with a group of people, I've gotten "Hispanic," "Indian" (meaning South Asian, not Native American), and "Hispanic" as answers to this question; and I always find it interesting that many of us white people (as the vast majority of attendees at SCBWI conferences are) don't automatically think of "White/Caucasian" as an ethnicity.
-- Sexuality
-- Basic family situation
+ Who's in the immediate family
+ Their socioeconomic status?
-- Where they live
+ Rural, suburban, urban?
+ Region and country

2. Internal Qualities
-- Personality traits
-- Ethics/morals/values
-- Degree of self-awareness

3. External Qualities
-- Appearance
-- Manners of speaking/patterns of behavior

4. History (aka Backstory)
-- that is relevant to the plot or relevant to how your characters will act in that plot

1. Desire: What the character wants

2. Attitude/Energy: The attitude the character brings to the situation in which s/he finds him- or herself

3. Action: What they will do within the novel; the result of Desire plus Attitude

And three more questions:
1. What is the character's joy? What keeps him or her alive?
2. What is the character's pain?
3. Where did the character get his or her name?

The basic idea is that you fill in an answer to each bullet point or question, and by the end of the chart, you have a character who's ready to be the protagonist of a book, where the plot is how the character gets the Desire and overcomes the Pain by the means of their Action and the Joy. It's a tremendously powerful exercise to do in a group because you can just feel this person come to life in the ether, shimmering there in our group imagination, waiting to have his or her story told; and I hope the chart proves useful to you in the telling.

Happy writing to all!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Poll Position

I'm experimenting with the poll function of Blogger via the box in the right-side bar. If it proves popular/useful, then I may use it to determine future talk topics, subjects to be addressed in FAQs or SQUID 101s, what breakfast cereal I should buy next, etc. Swing on over and vote!

("My" life there is meant to refer to your-the-reader's life, for the record, not what you think my personal life is like. I voted for A Crooked Kind of Perfect. Are there any good titles I forgot to include?)

Happiness of the Week: My New Evening Gown

Please forgive a little crowing here, because I love the dress I'm wearing in this picture. It's dark blue satin with black velvet appliques, elegant spaghetti straps, and a gorgeously deep V in the back.

But best of all? You know what I paid for it?

$6.99 on eBay. ($13.99 including shipping.)

God bless the Internet, I say.