Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Karen Schreck: Friends In the Labyrinth

Saundra’s previous post helped me reflect on my current writing process.  (Thanks, Saundra!) I’ve been feeling more than a little lost in the maze of revision lately.  In contrast, Saundra made the experience of shaping a book look so natural, gliding through her labyrinth, confident that the twisting path will lead somewhere.  I'll remember this next time I get whacked by my own personal box hedge.  Stay upright.  Keep walking.  There just might be a sunlit chair, waiting around the corner.  Or if there’s a Minotaur:  fight the bull!  So to speak.


All that to say, this humble summer, I’m pretending I don’t know anything about writing.  I’m exploring the bare bones of the craft, reading everything I can about how-to and why—and this includes appreciating the posts here, of course.


I want to celebrate a few other guides, as well.  Back to that labyrinth metaphor—I feel like these writers-on-writing have generously shared golden threads of logic and heart with me.


Right now I’m reading How Fiction Works, by James Wood.  This book takes my breath away on a daily basis.  I’m savoring it in little morsels, as Wood has parsed out his text, the better to live in the material and look around.  Wood reflects on narrating, detail, character, sympathy and complexity—in short he makes his own unique sense of the elements of fiction, and literary culture, in general.  He’s poetic.  He’s having fun, I think, writing about stuff that is too often presented as ponderous.  And hey, I love his use of asides.    


Am I gushing?  What the heck.  I’ll gush again about Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer—A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.  She seems to me a goddess of reason and good sense, as she guides me through “classics” I’d read, and those I hadn’t.  Most of all she inspired me to read even more deeply.  I love it that Prose is concerned about the finger bone level of the sentence—all the potential in that small unit for agility and grace.  Along with Wood, Prose has taught me how a sentence's shape can embody its meaning.  I’m working on that.


And then there’s William Maxwell.  I have always cherished his fiction—So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of my favorite books.  But this spring, someone gave me a book of essays ABOUT Maxwell, A William Maxwell Portrait.  Now not only do I love his fiction, but I’m missing a man I’ve never even met.  His life reveals so much about life-giving art-making, as does his relationship as an editor to his authors.  You might like to read Maxwell's essays, collected in The Outermost Dream, if you enjoy the occasional New Yorker bio.  Colette, Isak Dinesen, Robert Frost—they’re all there, maintaining their lives and art.


Soon I’ll probably turn back to my old friends John Gardner and Anne Lamott.  But how great it’s been to find other guides as well, as I work my way through the labyrinth of this work we do.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Carolee-The Road to Unforgettable Places - Part I

Character and Setting are some of the first story elements that an author must sort out before starting to write a book. Those who write for children and teens have a special challenge when it comes to creating memorable settings. We can’t afford ourselves the luxury of spending pages and pages describing a lush mountain panorama or an entire chapter recounting the antics of a turtle crossing a dusty road (forgive me Steinbeck).

We would simply lose our readers.

Young people don’t seem to care much about landscapes and sunsets and what type of birds might be migrating through the Bosque del Apache this month. I think back on family road trips where I’ve pointed excitedly out the window and said stuff like, “Hey kids, look at that. It’s the Grand Canyon.”

The kids, busy texting in the back seat, barely look up.

What kids, teens in particular, really care about are people and relationships. That’s the way it should be but it does discourage a novelist from spending a chapter describing the geese flying south.

So what’s an author to do? The easiest solution is to forget about setting altogether and let the reader fill in the blanks, especially in contemporary fiction. The notion is that kids will automatically visualize their town or city and thus the story will feel more personal to them.
I call this phenomenon ANYTOWN, USA.

Let’s face it. Our cities and even our small towns are all looking more and more alike. If you drive down any busy avenue you are likely to see the same fast food restaurants, department chains, outlet stores and gas stations whether you’re in Southern California or Upstate New York or Plainview, Texas. It isn’t until you venture off on the side streets that you begin to find richness and diversity.

But that can take up a lot of pages and there is the danger that young readers will get lost. Or toss the book in favor of something with a faster pace.

In my case, for better or for worse, I’ve never been able to set a story in ANYTOWN. That’s because, for me, character and setting are inextricable. Simply put, people are shaped by the places they live. Yes, we are all the same but we are also unique. Desert people are different from beach people and they in turn are different from city people and mountain people.

I think back on my own experiences. I went to four different first grades. I began my elementary experience at a Lutheran school with a playground so small they had to block off the street during recess so we’d have a place to play kickball. During winter the skies were a dismal gray and the ground was a dismal brown. Dirty slush (from a mixture of snow and muddy galoshes) seemed to cover everything. When most people think of Chicago they picture city lights and jazz and the El. Not me. I think of walking into the corner grocery store and seeing the dismal brown slush melting on the floor. But then my family was going through a difficult and dismal time.

This brings me to my first point in how to create a memorable setting. It must reflect a MOOD. In order for a setting to be unforgettable, it must show the inner landscape of a character. The truth is that the way I see the world is colored by my frame of mind. I could have been living next to Disneyland during the time period described above and I would have probably noticed the L.A. smog instead of the Matterhorn. So, not only does setting shape character but a setting is interpreted through the eyes of the character. The river shapes the canyon and the canyon contains the river.

What would one be without the other?

Speaking of rivers and canyons, settings can also be used to create vivid METAPHORS. In my upcoming novel THE ROAD TO HUNTSTVILLE (working title, Simon Pulse, summer 2010), a 17 year-old boy on the run from the law and an inner city gang goes looking for his father who is about to be executed in Huntsville, Texas. Huntsville is a fascinating little Texas town. There are 37,000 residents. Several thousand of these are inmates from the 9 different prisons in and around the immediate area. What better metaphor could I use to reflect the inner and outer journey of a boy on the run?

To sum up my first RULES FOR THE ROAD TO UNFORGETTABLE PLACES: Rule #1- Utilize the setting as a metaphor to show the inner mood and landscape of your character. Stick to this rule and you won’t find yourself describing a lone turtle on a dusty road that gets nailed by a passing car but keeps on going…

Then again, that is a pretty good metaphor for writing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is it worth it?

Book signings can be awkward, even painful. When my first book was published, a bookstore owner advised me not to do any, even at stores like hers where it was doing well:

"The kids just don't come -- we've had really famous people here and no one came for THEM."

So it was with some trepidation that Grace Lin (full disclosure: one of my best friends) baked 80 cupcakes;

frosted them with the Chinese characters for friend, luck, wish, dream, and joy;

boxed them, and put them in goody bags,

along with home-made paper flowers, a poster of the book, an activity sheet, and -- in eight boxes for eight lucky prize-winners (eight is a lucky number in China) -- Chinese coins. The prize? Your picture or name in Grace's next book.

More than one hundred people came, watched the slide show,

and listened to Grace read a chapter from WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON (two starred reviews, so far! And the official release date isn't until July 1!).

At the end, the kids all surged forward to get the goody bags and (they hoped) find a coin.

Luckily, there were enough goody bags for each child there: exactly. And the family that had driven five hours to attend the event got the very last one, and one of the 8 coins.

Afterwards, the Blue Rose Girls

(First row: Alvina, Grace --in moon-colored dress, me, Anna. Behind: Elaine, Meghan)
posed for a picture and then went out to dinner.

Of course, we talked about the event. Was it worth all the work -- and the expense?Grace thinks of her book signings as celebrations -- parties for the people who read her books, a way of thanking them as well as celebrating the new book. She doesn't measure these parties by how many books she sells any more than you'd measure a birthday party for a beloved child by the value of the presents vs. the cost of the party. It was a good party. Yes, people bought books and Grace signed them -- but that wasn't why the answer is YES. It was worth it because we all -- children who love Grace's books, their parents, people who just happened to wander in (there MUST have been some of those but I couldn't tell who they were, everyone seemed so into it all), and of course, Grace's friends, had such a good time. I hope I can approach the next book launch *I* throw with that same spirit of gratitude -- and Grace.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cover Story: The Morgue and Me

First off, hello fellow Nesters and visitors from cyberspace.  It's a pleasure, and an honor, and just a wee bit scary, to be writing my first post here.

Now . . . what to say?  My first novel, The Morgue and Me, comes out in a few short weeks, so it would seem an appropriate topic of conversation.  And yes, I could go on all day about the magnificent writing (ahem), but what I'd really like to tell you about is the experience of seeing the cover art for the first time.  And why I love it so.  Take thee a gander:

(hopefully you see the above -- newbie blogger having technical problems . . .)

While writing this manuscript, which is a mystery, I participated in the long tradition of people sitting at computers with messy drafts and no publication contracts, daydreaming about what their "book" might look like on the shelves.  (Provided they got past page 75 someday and fixed those ten plot issues.)

In my story there is a morgue, a gun or two, a dead body, a dingy motel, some pretty lakeside cliffs, and one hot babe. Inevitably, my visions ran towards some combination of these elements. And of course, the cover didn't use any of them.  Instead, as in a good mystery itself, the final vision was nothing at all what I expected yet fit the story perfectly.  

It came attached to an email from my editor, the wonderful Catherine Frank at Viking.  With a little cover note along the lines of "What do you think?"  I prepared myself for the worst--and didn't open the attachment for a half hour or so--but the thing shocked me in the best possible way.

Why do I love it so?  Let me count the ways:

1) It's enticing:  There's lots of cash.  And a bloody hand.  It's dirty money -- and somebody got hurt!  But how? Why?  The path to intrigue lies in leaving enough unsaid.  (You may know this principle from burlesque shows, but let's not get into that.) All that negative space in the background, I think, does that.

2) The enticement goes to the heart of the story:  Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot of The Morgue and Me takes off with the discovery of a large amount of money.  It's the thing that drives the story, which makes its appearance on the cover a very satisfying choice.  No one is going to feel conned while reading.

3) It's appealing to the readers: Based on memories of my 15-year-old self and informal polling of teens, I'm feeling optimistic that mystery-loving YA readers would stop and look at this cover.  It looks a little dangerous, even edgy--in line with an image of yourself you might want to convey.  I mean, Hollywood celebs get hybrid cars for image reasons.  I won't complain if someone picks up my book with the same thing in mind--not to mention it's like $35,000 cheaper and you don't need a driver's license.

4) Most importantly, the pulp novel allusion:  I wrote a mystery because I love reading mysteries, and the mysteries I first fell for come from the bygone day of Hammett, Chandler, et al.  It's no surprise that mine came out as a kind of modern take on those books.  And this cover does just the same thing so well--it fells very "dime store novel," and yet very fresh.  I think it might be the black and the cool font, mixed with the more pulpy image of the dough.  I'm sure the designer him/herself could explain this much better than I could.  (The book design is credited to Sam Kim--shout out to Sam!--but I don't know how the process works or how many others are involved.  I just know they made one author quite happy.)

5)  This brings us to the final--and best--part.  The back!  Check it:


Excuse the poor quality -- I just took that shot on my camera.  But okay, here it is.  Up top, a muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline:  "When the mystery starts in the morgue, things are bound to get interesting."  Awesome, no?  Anyway, below that, a snippet from a dramatic scene in the book.

Now, can I tell you why I love this?  This will help explain:

This is from the 1957 Ross Macdonald novel The Barbarous Coast.  See the muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline?  "I make my living wearing a gun."  I'm sold.


Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case, 1959.  Just a block of text from the novel.  "Culotti's shoulder caught me like a truck-bumper in the small of the back."  I'm in.  

These are the books I've cherished, hunted down at used book stores over the years, and kept.  My Ross Macdonald collection:

The cover of my book has a home here.  It could fit, of one piece with my ramshackle library.  The one that fed my imagination in high school, that took me to dangerous places, that made me think in exciting ways, that made me want to write.

The cover of my book could be the start of someone else's pile. Somebody else's imaginings--somebody else's unwieldy library to be schlepped from dorm to apartment to house, because the weight of the boxes is far less substantial than the thrill they once had reading a good line, seeing themselves in the pages, looking at that cover and thinking of what the world held for them.

That would be the finest honor of all.  Thanks, Viking, for a great jacket.