Monday, February 28, 2011

But why?

I finished a thriller/suspense novel a little while ago and am not sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the first third, but by the middle of the book, I had lost interest. I finished the book just to see if the ending would capture my attention again. It didn't.

The writing is good and the plot interesting, but the characters' motivations remained unaddressed. I followed along, despite not knowing why this character would go there and that character would turn up here, but I felt like a small child being told to stay quiet and not ask any questions on a long and complicated journey using multiple modes of transportation.
It went from being frustrating to infuriating to numbing.

This experience made me think about the importance of motivation in a story. Why do characters do what they do? Are they confined by their personalities: a loving person cannot help but choose the loving thing and a curious person cannot help but seek out answers? Are they succumbing to circumstances? Sophie had to choose one child or the other. Are their actions solely dictated by plot?

I don't mean that we need to know at every point why a character would something. Keeping it hidden for a while keeps the readers intrigued. Keeping some motivations hidden the entire time makes the reader ponders even after the book ends. But keeping almost all the motivations hidden most of the time makes a story just a series of arbitrary events
. Why would any reader care?

How much tolerance do you have for not knowing why characters do things in a book? Have you read a book that frustrated you this way?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Not too weird as dreams go

But it was weird how vividly I remembered it after I woke up. Here is the dream:

I am about to leave a place, a cross between a hotel and a dorm. I don't have much time and I haven't packed yet but I am not concerned. (Strange thing #1: I am usually aware of time and like to be ready.) Instead of packing, I am walking up and down some stairs.

when I finally decide to pack, I realize I brought too many pairs of shoes (strange thing #2, I usually pack only one pair of shoes for my trips.) Not only that, but they are strewn everywhere, not just in my room. And I can't find matching pairs.

Why is my blog post about a dream? Because it's Friday and my brain is ready for some quirk.

Also, some of you may have good ideas about how to interpret the dream. Have a go at it.

Happy Friday.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review of Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories that revolve around musicians: crooners, jazz musicians, has-beens, not-yet-beens, guitarists, cellists. This collection made me realize anew how much I love short stories.

I have always thought Ishiguro writes with a certain musicality and I knew this was a book I had to read. I was not disappointed. The musical details are real—so grating to find inauthentic descriptions of a musician’s world—and the thought processes and struggles familiar. There are heartbreaking events, but the author treats them, and the characters: despondent, clueless, or disappointed, with sensitivity and care.

What struck me the most about this collection was the choice of the narrator. Except for Nocturne, the most substantial story of the collection, the others are told by a bystander, like Nick Carraway telling the story of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. The first story, Crooner, the narrator helps the major players of the story complete a task without knowing his role. In the last story, Cellists, the narrator has but a passing acquaintance with one half of the main characters and no relation at all to the other half. The narrators in the other two stories, Come Rain Or Shine, Malvern Hills, while steeped in their own concerns, unwittingly play a part in the reunion / breakup for another couple.

The choice of narrator, the choice of point-of-view, is one that usually doesn’t call attention to itself to a reader. Yet as a writer, I know how important it is. It sets the tone of the story, gives the story the certain bias, highlights some details while deliberately excluding others.

Ishiguro’s choice in this collection results in a balance between intimacy and distance that works perfectly. Obviously, using an observer to tell a story isn’t a magic pill. In lesser hands, this would probably be as ineffective and self-conscious as harvesting a crop with safety scissors.

And that’s the thing about reading a consummate writer. We can dissect and analyze and come up with principles all we like. But unless we keep writing, incorporating these new ideas or throwing them out, all the analysis and studying is still not going to make any difference in our own work.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I've been tagged!

Tim Riley from Life of Riles tagged me today. These are interesting questions which I'll attempt to answer succinctly.

1) If you have pets, do you see them as animals, or are they members of the family?

Members of the family. We had a dog that was attacked by two pit bulls, a breed that scares me to death. I went between them and kicked the attackers even though I would not have thought I'd be brave enough to do something like that. That situation showed me my protective instincts would kick in with our four-legged family member when a situation demanded it.

2) If you can have a dream come true, what would it be?

I would be wise and calm and motivated by compassion.

3) What is the one thing most hated by you?

How easily people get offended or outraged about something and start treating the other side as if those people were not only stupid but immoral.

4) What would you do with a billion dollars?

Like Tim, I would like to make sure those I love have a secure future. Then the rest would be managed wisely by the best money manager so that the money can go the farthest in helping out worthy causes.

5) What helps to pull you out of a bad mood?

Doing something I hate doing so that at the end of that, I'll feel better. Bach string music. Hugs. Chocolates are good too.

6) Which is more blessed, loving someone or being loved by someone?

This is a tough one. I'd like to say it's more blessed to love but when I am reminded of how much I'm loved, it's an unbelievable feeling.

7) What is your bedtime routine?

I take a shower, brush and floss my teeth, check the doors, cuddle with the kids, read, think about the day.

8) If you are currently in a relationship, how did you meet your partner?

In college. I met my husband my first day on campus.

9) If you could watch a creative person in the act of the creative process, who would it be?

A choreographer or a movie maker.

10) What kinds of books do you read?

Lots of fiction: literary, middle grade, YA. Some memoirs.

11) How would you see yourself in ten years time?

On the outside, not many changes. I do hope that inside, I will be closer to my dream of being a much calmer and wiser and more compassionate person.

12) What's your fear?

That I will wreck my children's lives by either being ignorant or not disciplined enough to do the right thing by them.

13) Would you give up all the junk food for the rest of your life for the opportunity to visit space?

Okay, what do you mean by junk food. Define visit space.

14) Would you rather be single and rich, or married and poor?

Our first years of marriage we were poor, not homeless poor, but under-poverty- line poor. We were lucky in that we knew the situation was temporary. Once we finished grad school, we knew we'd get stable jobs so it's not fair to compare our situation to those who are poor and can see no way out. Those years hold some wonderful memories.

15) What's the first thing you do when you wake up?

I swallow my thyroid pill, wake up the kids, and have breakfast with them.

16) If you could change one thing about your spouse/partner, what would it be?

I learned early on this is not something to even consider.

17) If you could pick a new name for yourself, what would it be?

I did try to pick a new name, a name that doesn't require me to spell over the phone to the pizza delivery guy. I still haven't come up with anything.

18) Would you forgive and forget no matter how horrible a thing that special someone has done?

Forgiving is something I will decide to do, over and over for a single thing if necessary. Forgetting is not something within my control.

19) If you could only eat one thing for the next six months, what would it be?

This question came up over the weekend and the word that came out of my mouth was "nuts!" I thought I'd say chocolates.

The rule about being tagged is that I have to tag four other people. I have decided to tag my newest followers. Thank you for checking out my blog. Hope this will help me get to know you better!

Golden Eagle
J. B. Chicoine
Paul C
Jennifer Hillier

Friday, February 18, 2011

Is that why they brought in Robert DeNiro?

Some works set such a high standard that
sequels often come with unreasonable expectations. Take Godfather: can you imagine the pressure Coppola had when he began Godfather II?

The success of Hunger Games made Catching Fire and Mockingjay tough standards to live up to. (For the record, I thought both of them were done superbly.) Harper Lee stopped after To Kill a Mockingbird. Star Wars...never mind.

[The only redeeming factor]

Writers jump through hoop after hoop after hoop to get published. It's easy to think that once there is a contract, things will get easier. (Here I pause for my published friends to interject and tell me it ain't so.)

I believe them. When you write a book that is loved, you feel your readers' expectations. Authors who keep besting their efforts are amazing. I am reading Tana French's third book, Faithful Place, right now.

A friend loaned me
The Likeness and I read it without being aware of the buzz it had garnered. It was a wonderful reading experience. I then picked up In The Woods and enjoyed it just as much. When I found out last year that she had come up with a third book, I was thrilled but apprehensive. Can she live up to the first two books or will I have to watch Sofia Coppola act?

I finally picked it up this week and I am two thirds of the way through and I have to say I am relieved to find the writing just as impressive and the story just as captivating. Actually, I'll go even further to say I think this is the best of the three.

Do you do that? Worried about your expectations being too high for a beloved author or filmmaker? Do you have favorite sequels?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Picky, picky, picky

My daughter is in a community children's choral group and recently, all four choirs in the group presented a concert together. On the program was music composed by their guest conductor, Jim Papoulis.

As usual, there were extra rehearsals. Many, many extra rehearsals. I could tell she was getting exhausted. After one particularly long weekend, however, she said to me, " Mom, I think you're going to really enjoy this concert."

"I always do."

"No, no. This one you will REALLY like. Mr. Papoulis is v-e-r-y picky."

Joy. The child understands the road to excellence is paved with pickiness. AND she can tell good enough is not good enough.

Go, pickiness! My mantra for revision today.

(Just to clarify that I think pickiness per se doesn't necessarily lead to excellence. I am sure you can think of many examples of unnecessary, compulsive pickiness that leads to nothing but hair-pulling.)

(And yes, I did enjoy the concert very much.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love, glorious, multifaceted love

A day to celebrate the loves of our lives: it's...nice.

Consider my attitude Bah-Humbuggish if you wish, but even the most ardent celebrators of this holiday know that what we do on one day of the year is nothing compared to how we listen, serve, care for our loved ones in non-red-non-chocolate-non-roses ways the rest of the time.

In writing circles, we are reminded often to write what we love. And it's indeed true. If we didn't love what we did, many of us would have given up a long time ago.

But what are we talking about, this love of writing? Do we look forward every day to spending time with our words, our stories? Do we daydream of it? Do we get the heart palpitations and the delicious anticipation? Does tenderness fill our hearts?

Not often. Not for me anyway.

Sometimes I dread writing. Sometimes I get so uncomfortable I can't be still. I grumble. I cry. I long to do something else.

But I write. There is something deep and essential within me that can be accessed only when I write.

Not exactly romantic, reducing love to necessity.

But maybe romance isn't everything when it comes to love.

I don't fling my arms around my husband when I see him after work every day. The butterflies in my stomach have grown arthritic over the last twenty some years. We don't gaze into each other's eyes over dinner and forget about the food on the table. But there is no question that what I have is love. It's strong, it is deep, it has weathered much more than the fluttering hearts of our early romance could handle.

I love writing. And there isn't a chubby winged toddler with arrows in sight.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just what kind of critiques do we need?

Over the past few months, my critique group has been focusing on how we give and receive critiques. As we have been together for a a few years (some of the members have known one another even longer) we could be open and honest about the fact that we might have fallen short of our potential as critique-givers.

One of the things we have agreed to try, is to ask the person who submits just what type of critique she is hoping for. This has helped guide our discussions so we are not all going at 5 different directions. While it could become restrictive in that a critiquer may not bring up a glaring problem just because the writer didn't ask for it, I am happy to report that it hasn't happened. The group is experienced enough that important issues are brought up, whether or not the writer is aware of them.

For example, in my last submission, I asked my group to focus on two issues--character differentiation between the two main protagonists and the relationship between a character and her father--but as the critique chat progressed, it was clear that two other issues were more pressing--authorial intrusion and unnecessary descriptions--and we were able to discuss those as well.

Over at The Literary Lab today, Domey Malasarn is doing an experiment by offering to critique three samples in one manner, and three other samples in a different manner.

It is interesting to me that most of the readers opted to receive what Domey calls his Tiger Mother critique. (I really hate to give this more publicity but there you are.)

My take? Regular readers there "know" Domey enough to know that his critique, no matter how critical, will never be malicious, and will be truthful and helpful.

His experiment so far has made me think about what most writers need. And here is my conclusion. We need feedback from someone who is:
  1. Capable and experienced, so that the areas brought up are in fact worthwhile and not some unimportant side issues or the issue-du-jour of a novice.
  2. Truthful and willing to bring light to something that the writer may feel insecure about. Glossing over a problem because the writer is known to love his _______ merely helps the writer cover up blind spots.
  3. Kind, with the intention to help rather than to use this as an opportunity to show off or to subtly put someone else in her place.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I'd be rich otherwise

[imagine mismatched socks instead of heels]

I am emerging a bit to let you know that a couple of unexpected events in my family's life have been all-consuming these past two weeks. I apologize for not updating this blog, especially since I was in the middle of a contest and especially, especially since I had a guest writer.

I hope to get my head back together and work on the unfinished business here.

And yes, I still want to write about my experiences at the martial arts tournament.

Thanks for your patience.