Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

eating my words

One of these days I just might learn never to say never. What might finally teach me this valuable lesson? The iPad.

Like most writers, I love books. Not just the stories they contain but the books themselves. Especially hard-bound books. Especially hard-bound books with leather covers and beautiful end-papers. Opening such a book is a never-ending joy. Crisp, clean type on fine paper. The smell as you open the cover, the anticipation of the adventure to be had on those pages. If I've been lucky enough to meet the author and have him or her sign my treasure, it will get a favored forever-spot on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my library. Right at eye level among the most well-loved books I own. Right next to The Lord of the Rings.

Beyond being a lover of books, I'm an aspiring author. All my life I have dreamed of holding a book with my name on the cover, of seeing it in a bookstore, of autographing it for friends, of placing it in the most favored spot among those beloved books on my shelves.

For both of these reasons I have said -- vehemently, repeatedly, and publicly -- that I could never picture myself reading a book on a computer. I certainly couldn't picture myself enjoying such an experience.

And then I purchased an iPad.

Mind you, I didn't buy it to read books. I bought it so that I would have a light, portable device to carry with me on business trips for personal email and web-browsing. It's bad enough that I have to lug my weighty work computer on and off planes, schlep it from gate to gate, in and out of taxis, on and off trains, and load it in and out of my bag for security screening. I certainly didn't want to carry my personal computer as well. But an iPad is so light it adds almost nothing to the load, and it can go through screening inside my bag. Security says it isn't a computer. Posh. Is too. But who am I to argue when it saves me one more thing to juggle?

But I digress. My point is that I had plenty of good reasons to want an iPad, and reading books wasn't among them. The folks at Apple are pretty smart, though, and they pre-loaded their free iBooks app with A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, another of my all-time favorite books. When it was right there on my iPad, how could I not look at it? Imagine my surprise to discover how beautiful that crisp black type looks on the bright white screen, how intense the colors in Ernest Shepard's endearing illustrations. I discovered the bookmark feature, which let me zoom back to where I left off with a tap of the screen. I discovered that even after my husband turned off the light and went to sleep, I could keep reading without straining my eyes or disturbing his rest. I discovered that I could set the type to whatever size my aging eyes demand, and the words re-paginate themselves so that I can read without scrolling, as if the book were custom-printed just for me.

As I discovered these wonders I became curious about what else Apple offered in its iBook store. OO, there's Eat, Pray, Love. And The Help, I've been wanting to read that. And they're only $6 apiece? What a bargain for a current New York Times best-seller. At that price I could buy more books than ever before, support the careers of more authors, try more selections without feeling cheated if I didn't love them all.

I wrestled with my conscience. I had sworn I would never go over to the dark side. But I had that four-day business trip coming up, with layovers in each direction and two two-hour flights each way. What a good test that would be...and no one but the good folks at iTunes and American Express need ever know. My fingers strayed to the "purchase" button. Again. Again. Three books, no extra weight, all for less than I normally would have paid for one.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love, I discovered passage after passage that inspired the writer in me, turns of phrase so perfect and metaphors so apt that I wanted to find them again quickly. I learned that I could bookmark as many pages as I wanted. What a great way to find those passages again. I admitted to myself that I would never have purchased that book or the others at $24.95 or more. And slowly but surely I began to realize that we writers and book-lovers may need to re-think our animosity toward the e-reader.

Here's what the iPad taught me: I'm a reader who loves books and even I don't buy as many of them as I used to. I don't have time to lounge around in bookstores and browse. Shoot, I barely have time to nip over to Amazon and order the must-haves for research on my own novels. Once I order I hate waiting for my books to arrive. I want them now, darn it. But when they do arrive, at least half of what I order I never get to read. My only downtime is when I travel, and I travel too heavy to lug a bunch of recreational reading with me.

e-books solve all of these problems. I can browse online. When I find something I want to read I can get it immediately. I can buy on impulse, which means I buy more. That's great for the authors and publishers. I'm also willing to take more chances and buy more titles because the prices are low, which translates into even more sales. And because I can take the books with me on the road without adding any weight, I'm actually reading more of what I buy. Bottom line, if my experience is even close to typical, e-books are not only good for me as a reader, but they are potentially very good for the publishing industry and its authors.

Do I still want to see my name on the cover of a real, print book? Absolutely. Will I keep buying print books? Without a doubt; I don't think an iPad would hold up very well to the sand and salt of a beach vacation, for example, and you can't get an author's signature on the title page of a virtual book. But the iPad and its iBooks app have finally opened my eyes to the possibilities of e-publishing. I now see that e-publishing offers the opportunity to get a lot more people reading -- and buying -- a lot more books. For all of us who love books, and especially for those of us who write them, it seems to me that this can only be a very good thing.

What do you think?

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

can you hear me?

"Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong..."
I'm currently reading Eat, Pray, Love. I know, I know, I'm way behind the curve, but I've been reading a lot of romances and middle-grade/young adult fiction, filling the well of inspiration for my own work. I really want to see the movie -- I *love* Julia Roberts, and Javier Bardem looks positively yummy -- but for some inscrutable reason, I can't bring myself to buy a ticket until I've read the book. The Universe insists, and I've long since learned not to argue.

I don't read many memoirs. I think the last one may have been Joan Didion's National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. Unfortunately, that book -- brilliant as it was -- quashed my desire to read more memoirs. After a year of almost daily miracles, which Didion moved past without seeming to notice, she concluded that there is no God, "no eye on the sparrow." It depressed me for weeks.

The movie trailers make it clear, though, that Eat, Pray, Love is a celebration, not a pity-wallow. So I'm reading it. And if ever there were an antidote for Didion's hopelessness, this is it.

Elizabeth Gilbert deals with weighty subjects, but the woman is hilarious. In real life we'd probably start shouting at each other within five minutes of meeting -- our politics are polar opposites -- but I love her on the page. Possibly because of the journey she chronicles in the book, she has a wonderful sense of the ridiculousness of her own existence, the insanity of taking herself and her life as seriously as we all tend to do most of the time. It's downright refreshing. But it's not just her outlook that entertains. It's the way she expresses it, the fresh similes and memorable images she uses to sear her truths onto the reader's brain. Her voice comes through, loud and clear, insecure yet brash, on each and every page.

As a novelist, I struggled long and hard to put my finger on that elusive must-have known as voice. Ask an editor to give you an example of voice, and it's likely she'll point you to a story full of dialect. But dialect is not voice; for someone grappling with what voice is, finding it in a book full of dialect is an exercise in futility. In memoir, though, nothing stands in the way. The writer doesn't have to be anyone other than who they are, so their personality is free to come out on the page, unfettered and true. I've never read a better, more in-your-face example of voice than Gilbert's. So if you're a writer who struggles to understand what voice is, read Eat, Pray, Love. I guarantee you'll finally hear it and know, on a gut level you'll never forget, what it is.

The challenge, once you instinctively know what voice is, comes in how to translate that understanding into fiction. Fiction is filled with many voices. Each character's must be unique. Yet, like a haunting melody that is almost -- but not quite -- beyond the reach of hearing, the author's voice must underpin each one. It's the musical staff on which the notes that form the characters' melodies hang. Take it away, and the whole symphony falls flat.

Voice has many expressions. It comes out in word choice, sentence structure, in simile and metaphor, in the cadence of a paragraph, a chapter, a novel. I've discovered, however, that my voice is clearest, strongest, most alive and memorable when the theme of my story is firmly fixed in my mind as I write.

For a long time, I didn't think my stories had themes. But the more I concentrated on character over plot, the more my themes began to emerge. Theme is especially evident in Guns and Gardenias (recently renamed Traitor to Love). In fact, it reared up and slapped me in the face about halfway through the first draft.

At its most basic, the novel's theme revolves around the tension between duty and honor and the fact that, although we tend to think of them as one and the same, they are often in conflict. In Traitor to Love, the conflicts between duty and honor play out in the crucible of family loyalties. One lead character is blindly devoted to family; the other is on a vengeance quest sparked by a family member's betrayal. Each muddles duty with honor, and each must learn the difference to find their way and claim their happiness.

Looking back at my previous works, I now see that the tension between duty and honor surfaces again and again, but is never fully developed. Why this subject interests me above all others, I'm not quite sure. But now that I know it does, I'm actively working to explore what it means -- to me, to my characters, and to my stories.

I don't think it's coincidence that this novel, where the theme is so strong and clear, marks the first time my work has been recognized for voice. I still have the scoresheet from the contest where a judge singled out the novel's voice for praise for the very first time. When I read her comment, my immediate thought was: I have a voice? When did that happen? In mulling the question, the link between theme and voice at last became clear.

Voice is now a strength noted by virtually every judge in every contest I enter. Ironically, I still can't hear voice in my own work; I suspect I never will. Perhaps no fiction writer can. I've come to realize, though, that at its core, my voice is who I am, what I believe, the value map by which I find my way in this maze we call life. Most of us are too close to the trees of daily existence to see the forest, too close to ourselves to know who we really are (or too insecure to feel comfortable expressing it). But after years of searching, my personal belief is that to find your voice, you must first discover what you believe in deeply -- your personal theme -- and then sing that song without fear or apology.

What is the key to voice for you? Do you hear it in your own work, or only in the works of others? Please extend and deepen the discussion by sharing your thoughts, strategies and questions, along with your best examples of voices you love.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

back in the saddle

I'm a bit shocked to see it's been more than a month since my last post. I meant to give myself a break, but not five-going-on-six weeks.

I have plenty of excuses for why it's been so long: A blissful week of beach vacation during which I only left my lounge chair to take a dip in the ocean or grab a meal; nearly a full week in the Boston area for a staff meeting; a crushing backlog of work for the day job because of time lost to reasons 1 and 2.

While all of those are good -- and legitimate -- justifications for my writing break, I know they're just excuses. The real reason is that it's time to start something new, and that nearly paralyzes me.

It's not writer's block. I have several ideas for novels, all of which are pretty exciting. In fact, that's part of the problem. I like all of the ideas well enough that I can't decide where to go next. Should I write the middle grade novel with the character who haunts me but whose story is hazy? The romance that came to me while I was in Paris, for which I have well-fleshed-out characters, conflict, and a pretty fair idea of the story? Perhaps I should write the literacy tale based on the true-life experience of a young man I once tutored. Or the semi-autobiographical (and, therefore, absolutely terrifying to my subconscious) story of a girl growing up during the 1960s. They're all good projects. But which one should I choose?

Beyond that, there's the burden of putting those first words to paper. I'm surprised to discover this still scares me. The weight of that first line kept me from writing for years. I thought it would set the trajectory for the entire book, that I might write for months before realizing I'd launched the story in the wrong direction, forcing me to throw all that effort away. I now know that's just another excuse. I've totally changed the first chapter of every book I've written. It's critical, of course, to get that first line right. But I sometimes don't know the first line until I write the last one, and it's always possible to go back and change it. It's my world, after all. I create it, and I can alter it at will. Yet the trepidation of setting those first words to paper remains.

It's also tough to put myself back in the traces after such a long and enjoyable break. I'm a hard worker but, deep inside, I'm basically lazy. Although I am infinitely happier when I'm writing than when I'm not, it has been fun to go to movies and baseball games, to spend time with my husband, to just live. Writing, when I'm doing it, consumes every waking moment I can steal from the day job. It requires me to wake up two hours early on weekdays (a true sacrifice for one who loves sleep as much as I do) and grab the laptop, to spend almost every evening and every minute of the weekends bent over the keyboard. It's not a hardship once I'm deep in my make-believe world; I'm quite happy to live there with my new friends. But when I come up for air, I do worry about neglecting my real life and the wonderful people in it.

For all these reasons, it's tough to take the plunge and go back to work. But it must be done. My stories aren't going to write themselves, darn them. I've learned a valuable lesson about myself from this hiatus, however: I can get away from the day job to recharge the batteries, but I must never, never, never take a break from writing. Creative momentum is tough to gain and, once gained, must be maintained. The only way to reclaim it is to ignore the pain and climb back in the saddle.

To the writers and other artists in the audience, I'd be interested to know: What is your pattern? Do you take breaks between projects, or move directly from one to the next? What games does your subconscious play in an effort to break the flow of your creativity, and how do you overcome them?

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