An Update on Growing Corn in Seattle–Better Two Years Late than Never!

It occurs to me that I have been delinquent. Incredibly delinquent. I never posted that final update that I promised on my corn … oh… some time ago. Two years, you say? Well, I suppose that sounds about right. A lot has happened in those two years, including a move to a new house, which is sadly garden-less. In other words, there hasn’t been any more corn since that first glorious harvest. But I haven’t forgotten a thing. Here are the final lessons that I learned:

1) Harvest Time

One of the most difficult parts about the corn was deciding when to harvest it. It was impossible to know what the corn would look like until I opened it, and once I did, that was it for that cob! If only there were a way to reattach it.

I harvested the first cob on August 8th, 11 weeks after the corn first poked above the ground in the garden. This turned out to be too early, which was disappointing. Here’s what the ear looked before I picked it:

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Looks ready, right? It wasn’t. Here’s how it measured up after I shucked it:

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The ear was long enough, but the kernels weren’t really well developed yet. As you can see, it’s pretty skinny. After I steamed it, the corn popped in my mouth sort of like tobiko (you know, the fish eggs you get on sushi). And it wasn’t very sweet.

I picked my second ear on August 16th, a week later. So a total of 12 weeks after the corn first sprouted in the garden. This time it was much better! Here’s what it looked like:

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See the difference? Not much longer, but much fatter! It was quite delicious 🙂 The corn continued to be good for the eating a week later, when I picked a whole bunch of it to share for dinner. It stayed good for about another week after that.

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So my advice, at least with Seattle’s relatively cool summers, is to wait at least 12 weeks before you harvest! It’s hard, I know, but it’ll be worth it.

2) My yield, and about those tillers

In the end, each corn stalk had at least one ear of corn. A few had three ears. Most plants had two. Out of my 16 plants, I ended up with a little more than thirty ears.

However, not all ears were created equal. Some never fully developed to the point where they were really edible. Some stalks, the ones that had looked like weaklings early on (light green, thin), didn’t really produce any edible ears. The ears of corn that never fully developed were the ones that looked like this when they started silking:

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Likewise, I found that ears on tillers never fully developed into delicious, juicy corn. Two ears per stalk ended up being the magic number–the third ear that grew on some stalks never fully developed. So in my experience, it wouldn’t be a waste to go ahead and break off tillers when they start to appear. I would guess that doing so would allow the plant to nourish its two primary ears better and make them even juicier!

3) Those critter protections

You might recall that I treated my corn with Btk once it had fully silked (when the silks were turning brown) to prevent earworms. I can happily report that none of my corn was infested with earworms. Now, I don’t know whether this means that the Btk worked, because I can’t be sure that my corn would have been infested in the first place. But I think the Btk precaution was worth it, to come out with zero buggy ears! In a few ears I think I applied it a tad early–there were a few rows of corn at the tip that didn’t develop. But I think that was a small loss–nothing I haven’t seen in commercial corn I’ve bought!

Now, about those raccoon / squirrel / bird thwarting socks! I eventually abandoned these. When it rained, the socks would get soaked, and then I had to remove them and dry them to keep the corn from getting moldy or mildewy. And it was hard to always catch it in time–ideally, I would’ve just wanted to remove the socks before it rained, but that basically never happened. In the end, I don’t think this was the best solution, and no big critters attacked my corn anyway. Although! I have recently seen raccoons wandering around my yard here in Phinney Ridge in BROAD DAYLIGHT, so if your yard isn’t fully fenced, you might want to worry about them. Here’s proof:

Raccoon

 

So! Those are the biggest lessons that I learned from my corn growing adventures. I can’t wait until I have a garden again and can put those lessons to work! If you have any questions, please post them in the comments!

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Feminism and Sexism in YA Literature

Those of you who know me in real life probably know that I’m a big feminist (if not, feel free to get me started, I can discuss it at length!). In fact, in the lawyerly portion of my existence I spend a fair amount of time researching and writing about women’s issues for Legal Voice, an organization here in Seattle where I volunteer. I certainly don’t stop being a feminist when I put on my YA writer hat, either. I think it’s important to empower girls to make whatever choices feel right for them, and to pursue the kind of life they want, without letting gender bias and discrimination get in the way.

Writing feminist literature for teens can be tricky at times, though. First, and above all, I don’t want to be preachy. In my experience, 99.9% of the time a preachy novel is a bad novel (apologies to lovers of A Prayer For Owen Meany). Second, I want my characters to represent as full a range of the teenage experience as possible. Yes, assertive feminist teens exist in spades (hallelujah!), and I love to write about them. But not every teenage girl is so certain of where she stands, and I want to represent her too. I don’t want to avoid writing about body image issues, for instance, just because I wish that they didn’t exist. No doubt, even assertive, confident teens struggle with those issues sometimes! Hell, assertive, confident, 33-year-old feminists do too. And all of us want to read about other people fighting those same battles.

So then, how to explore a character’s insecurities about her appearance without sounding either unfeminist or preachy–that’s the quandary!

I can’t profess to have a great solution to this problem. For me, the important thing is to keep a feminist perspective in mind as I write to make sure that I’m not letting any biases slip in there unintentionally (I try to do the same with issues of race and sexuality). I also think it’s important to have an insecure character learn and grow over the course of the novel, becoming more empowered by the end–or at least coming to understand herself better (in a natural, non-preachy way, of course). “Finding yourself” is a major theme in YA literature with good reason–it’s a major theme in young adults’ lives! Still, it hurts a little bit every time I have a character measure her self-worth in terms of her attractiveness. Even if she learns better by the end.

Perhaps my background has made me hypersensitive to the way women are portrayed in literature, but lately I’ve started to notice gender biases slipped into books that aren’t facially unfeminist. For instance, I recently began reading a popular middle grade series by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, and I was disturbed by the way he described his female characters. For  nearly every female character that the author introduced, some element in the physical description of that character clearly indicated to the reader how attractive that woman was. The effect was subtle, but noticeable. The narrator would rarely neglect to note whether a woman was “obese” or “ugly” or “cute.” The male characters, in contrast, were almost never described in terms of attractiveness. More frequently they were described in terms of their dress, or height, or in terms of hotness-neutral physical characteristics, like scars or stubble or long hair.

I found this discovery troubling. Admittedly, the main character in this particular series is male, but to me that’s no excuse–especially with a third person narrator giving the story some distance. Those narrative choices indicate to me that the author believes a reader cannot envision or imagine a female figure without first having some idea of how attractive she is. In contrast, a male character can be imagined so long as we know whether he’s old, or brawny, or disheveled. That difference in narrative treatment suggests to the reader that even as physical strength or age may be critical to understanding a male character, so is attractiveness to crucial to understanding a female character. While a male character’s strength may play a pivotal role in the plot, a female’s role depends more greatly on how physically desirable she is.

After I noticed this disturbing difference, I spent a fair amount of time asking myself the same questions I had for the author. When I think of a woman, real or imagined, what do I identify as her most important physical characteristics? Can I picture her if I don’t know how attractive she is? Can I picture a man without knowing how attractive he is? And leaving aside how I would write a description of a character–because that is a very deliberate act–if I want to draw someone’s attention to a particular woman I see on the street, would I use a different lexicon than I would to identify a man on that street?

I can’t lie; after taking a long, honest look at myself, I concluded that in my day-to-day life I am probably more likely to describe a woman in terms of her attractiveness than I am a man. And I hate that fact. HATE it. But I’m glad that I know it. Because it’s important for a writer to know her own biases–however deeply internalized and however despicable–so that she can deliberately exorcise them from her writing.

I like to imagine a world where girls don’t grow up thinking that attractiveness is a critical element of their value. Where their strength, or their experience, or their choices are what really matters. The best way to make that happen, at least the best way I know how, is to stop telling girls–however subtly–that their physical attractiveness is the key to their identity. If we don’t, by the time they’re 33, those girls may just have internalized that message so well that they don’t even recognize it anymore.

The preachy moral of this story–because here on my blog I get to be preachy–is that we all need to be conscious of our biases so we can be deliberate in what we say and what we write. After all, if we can’t even look our own issues square in the face, how could we ever invite others to explore those issues with us?

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SCBWI Western Washington 2015 Conference

This past weekend I attended my very first SCBWI conference, right here in my own neck of the woods. Well, almost my neck of the woods. This was my first ever trip to Redmond, and I have to say, they have a lovely outdoor mall. And probably many other very nice things that I didn’t have time to explore!  I’ve got my eye on you now, Redmond.

I knew right away that this conference would be a little different from the other conferences I’ve attended (AWP and PNWA). I knew this because my first assignment was to bling out my name badge. I believe that I took more than my fair allotment of stickers, but less than my share of the ribbons, so it all evens out.

Bling Bling

Can a blatant hogger of stickers really claim to play well with others? The eternal question.

The SCWBI conference was, for me, a two-day whirlwind of events (you had the option of attending 1, 2, or 3 days). The conference turned out to be primarily craft-focused and less focused on finding agents or editors. The highlights for me were listening to Sharon Flake’s inspiring keynote speech, participating in some great workshops that gave me tips I’m excited to apply to my work, learning more about the mysterious world of picture books, and catching up with some writer friends and making a few new ones!

That last is no small deal, by the way. SCBWI WWA is the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve run into friends. I think this means that I am finally joining the writing community, and it feels great.

Here’s just a little bit of what I learned from last weekend’s fabulous workshop presenters!

The “So What?” Factor by Jennifer Rofé

Jennifer led my first workshop of the conference, a fiction intensive on Friday morning. She shared with us her process for evaluating manuscripts that come across her desk (er, inbox). For each plot point in our stories, she invited us to ask “so what?” How does each plot point raise the stakes, create emotional impact, and connect with the bigger plot? Jennifer’s method is a great revision technique, and I plan to employ it in the future. I also think it would also be a great technique to apply to your query letter: for each plot point you mention, make sure your letter tells the agent “so what?”! These questions would be helpful to keep in mind when first brainstorming a novel’s plot too, but I personally wouldn’t obsess over them while I draft. I tend to create scenes and characters that don’t obviously have a larger purpose in the first instance, and then later discover ways to use them that I didn’t anticipate, so I wouldn’t want to stifle that process. But in draft two, out come the scissors! I can already think of one character in RELIVE that Jennifer’s advice convinced me I should cut.

Creating An Authentic (Non-Stereotyped) Voice by Sharon Flake

I was super excited about this session going in, because I plan to include a very diverse range of point-of-view characters in my current WIP. Sharon didn’t disappoint! Her speech was a whirlwind of energy and ideas, with several pieces of advice that really stood out for me. First, consider your character’s community and how that impacts the character’s voice, but keep in mind that community is made up of individuals, and the individual experiences of each character will shape their voice too. Don’t just tell a typical story about a typical character, build a unique character (avoiding stereotypes) and make them take the road less traveled. To develop your character’s voice, do your research: listen to teens, watch YouTube, look online. Carefully choose not just the words your characters use, but also their actions, both of which are critical components to voice. Finally, before you submit anything, read it aloud to make sure it’s consistent, and have someone from your character’s culture read over your work to make sure you’ve gotten it right.

Beginnings: From Flat to Fab with Rachel Orr

The title of this workshop sold it short: Rachel schooled us on not only how to create a great beginning but also a great ending! Rachel’s workshop was definitely one of the most helpful for me, and has me excited to rework the first few pages of RELIVE. Rachel outlined a number of distinct categories of beginnings and endings for novels that, in her experience, work best to hook the reader. Rachel’s black letter categories really appealed to the crazy lawyer/grammarian in me! Underlying those categories, Rachel explained that to make a reader want to read more, the beginning of a novel should show without telling, eliminate unnecessary background information, start the pacing off right, incorporate an air of mystery to keep a reader guessing (but not so much that they’re confused), and elucidate the genre, setting, and voice of the characters. After looking at a number of examples of beginnings and endings, I’ve come around to Rachel’s point of view. Now all that’s left to do is figure out which category of beginning (or some combination of a few) works best for me!

Bonus takeaway from this session: Marvel and DC Comics have a trademark on the term “superhero” so it can’t be used in any other book titles! When I got home, Lawyer Husband and I debated the legal merits of this at length and both agree that someone should challenge the hell out of that trademark.

The Critical Art of Revision by Rachel Orr

I loved Rachel’s previous session so much that I just had to come back for more! Rachel started out the session with some tips for revision before submission, including things to really focus on (the necessity of each scene, consistency in worldbuilding, etc.) and some things not to obsess over (titles, endings(!!)). That’s right: Rachel said not to worry too much about the ending; by the time an agent gets there she’s likely already made her decision. The remainder of the session was about the revision process that occurs after you submit your work to an agent or editor, which, being a total stranger to that world, I found fascinating. Rachel showed us several before, intermediate, and after drafts of novels that she worked on, and the differences were astounding. The revisions were so extensive that sometimes the identity of the antagonist in the story had changed by the time the editors were done with it. In other words: a writer’s work is never done!

In all, my first SCBWI conference was a great experience! I’ll definitely be back in two years, which I estimate will be barely enough time to implement the thousand exciting ideas that this one inspired. Provided that I can resist the charms of the Redmond town center mall until then, of course. Put away that credit card and pull out your pen, self!

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Creating Realistic Characters

I’ve taken on a big challenge with my current WIP. This time, instead of a single narrator, a variety of point-of-view characters will be telling the story. I want each character to be so real that the reader can imagine them walking around, sitting next to them on the bus, or standing in line in front of them at the coffee shop. In other words, not only do I want each character to be unique and interesting and realistic–with their own personality, past, and hang-ups–but I want each and every one of them to sound different on the page. And, man oh man, is this tricky. Imagine spending every day trying not to sound like yourself, resisting every word or sentence that naturally springs to your lips. If you haven’t done this before, take it from me: it’s a special brand of frustrating.

Going into it, I knew I’d need help with this project. So I sought advice everywhere I could find it. And here’s what I discovered.

Building Characters

The first place I looked was to books with vivid, unique characters. I immediately thought of David Mitchell. His books are frequently narrated from the perspective of several different narrators, each with a voice and perspective all their own. I bought his latest book, The Bone Clocks, and then attended a reading that he did here in Seattle, where I ambushed him with a question: How do you build your characters? Do you base them on people you know in real life? Or do you create them out of thin air?

Mr. Mitchell told me that some of his characters are based wholly on people he  knows in real life, and some are Frankensteins, built by cobbling together attributes of many different acquaintances. He didn’t say that he ever wholly imagined a character without reference to anyone he knows, which underscores the importance of observing the people around you! Mitchell also shared with me his writing process, which I found immensely useful. The very first thing Mitchell writes for each point-of-view character in his novel is a letter from that character to Mitchell where the character reveals, in their own words, the essentials of their personality. (Funnily enough, Mitchell ascribed this process to one of the characters in The Bone Clocks, a writer, on pages 389-90). Those essentials include:

  • Your character’s basic characteristics: gender, place of birth, etc.: a potted life history
  • Whom or what your characters love and despite
  • Details on education, employment, finances, political affiliations, social class
  • How do they feel about the state? Authority?
  • Fears
  • Skeletons in cupboards
  • Addictions
  • Biggest regret
  • Believer, agnostic, or atheist
  • How afraid of dying are they? Have they ever seen a corpse? A ghost?
  • Sexuality
  • Glass half empty, glass half full, glass too small?
  • Snazzy or scruffy dresser?
  • Use of language: Big words or small words? If they know big words would they use them or be too embarrassed? Foul mouthed or profanity-averse? What phrases do they unknowingly overuse? How does their personality impact their use of language / how does their use of language reflect their personality?
  • When did they last cry?
  • Can they see another person’s point of view?

If you really dig into Mitchell’s list for each character, you’ll find that you discover the essence of who each character is. I spent a lot of time thinking about this list of characteristics, and, knowing my own weaknesses, and taking into account the particularities of YA, I also added a few things:

  • Details on family and friends
  • Any future plans?
  • What kind of childhood do they have?
  • What are their greatest faults?

I have been following this process for each of my point-of-view characters. First I’ll create a document where I just brainstorm and answer each item, and then I’ll write a letter from the character to me to try to nail their voice. Of course, there are a number of such questionnaires out there, but I feel like this one really gets to the heart of a character. Once I’ve finished the letter, I like to think about The Proust Questionnaire for each character–not necessarily writing it down, but just thinking about it as I’m going to sleep or doing the dishes. Mitchell’s process really nails down the essence of each character, and then Proust asks you to set it in motion. Given all the things you’ve discovered about your character, what would their favorite color be? Their motto?

Writing Characters

Even after all the hard work of building a character, much remains to be done. You still have to make that character’s unique personality and voice shine through on the page, which to me is the hardest part of all. To begin, I went back and reviewed books by the YA authors I’ve read whose voices have most captivated me: Patrick Ness, Laurie Halse Anderson, and M.T. Anderson. I identified a few factors that distinguished these voices from one another and everyone else: (1) the length and rhythm of their sentences, (2) the figures of speech / lyrical language they use, (3) the dialect, and (4) the use of slang. But that wasn’t enough; I needed more help. So I signed up for a couple of Hugo House classes and here’s what I found.

A course from Robert Ferrigno on Creating Characters provided some useful tips on how to distinguish your characters:

  • Identify “character signifiers” — the one thing about a person that reveals their character (their shoes, hairstyles, etc.). Watch people around you every day to try to pick these things out, look for people with distinctive characteristics.
  • Get your character’s dialogue right by imagining what words and metaphors a person in their position would use. Slang is one way to do this. Listen carefully to how people around you talk! What kind of jokes would your character tell? Sometimes a character’s dialogue reveals more about them than they know; be conscious of that.
  • Look at body language to determine what it tells us about people. And not just for your main characters–show the effect they have on other characters too. Again, spy on people around you to find good material!
  • Give your character incongruities, odd little quirks that really make them pop.
  • The best way to define a character in a short space is to show how they react to events. Pick a common moment that everyone can relate to (a kid kicking a soccer ball into your character’s yard, his girlfriend dumping him, etc.). How do they react to jokes? Insults?
  • Mottos: If you had to describe a character with one line of his or her own dialogue, what would it be?

Armed with Ferrigno’s helpful tips, I went on to my next Hugo House Class–In a Different Voice: Remixing Your Prose by Jennine Capó Crucet. This whirlwind class really delivered what I was hoping for: a super close examination of prose (mine and that of several famous authors) all the way down to the nuts and bolts. This class really helped me learn more about the choices I naturally make when I write, and how various masters of the craft do it differently (from me and from each other). The things I learned in this class are a little harder to convey in a blog post without including sample text from the various authors. But I can highlight the major choices that authors make, and that set their voices apart:

  • Punctuation: What is the writer’s favorite punctuation mark? Do they use commas, em dashes, exclamation points? How and why? For example, do they use commas for participial phrases or parenthetic clauses but not before conjunctions? Do they use commas or em-dashes like arrows to draw attention to certain elements of their sentences?
  • Sentence structure: Do they use fragments? How many words are in each sentence? When do they use short sentences versus long sentences (e.g., purposeful action versus aimless action)? Which elements of the sentence do they emphasize?
  • Paragraph structure:
    • How long are their paragraphs? Does paragraph length depend on whether the paragraph is descriptive of the setting/backstory or describing present action?
    • How long are the sentences in those paragraphs, and how are they arranged? Does the author tend to end paragraphs with a short pithy sentence? Put longer sentences in the middle?
    • How does the author order the elements of their paragraphs? For instance, do they start with a present sense impression and then springboard into backstory? How much do they stay on point with the present action and how much do they wander? How do they deal with time? How much do they zoom in on detail, and what details are chosen?
  • Do they use lists (e.g., in describing setting or plot)? Repetition in words or sentence structure?
  • Word choice: How many syllables are commonly in the words they use? Are they latinate? Germanic? Youthful or archaic? How do they refer to their characters (e.g., by name or by a generic moniker like “the child”)?
  • Parts of speech:
    • Do they use adjectives? How many and where? How does that affect the rhythm of their sentences?
    • Do they use adverbs? How and where? Why (e.g., for comedic effect)?
  • Are their verbs passive or active? Tactile/evocative and precise or more common (“took” versus “snatched”)?
  • Do they use lyrical language? Simile or metaphor? Frequently or infrequently? What is the flavor of that language?
  • Do they use symbols?
  • How close is the author to her characters? Do we get direct access to the characters’ thoughts? Are they marked off by punctuation or paragraph?

Most of those techniques relate more to an author’s voice than a character’s voice, but many of them can also applied to distinguish one character’s voice from another. I came away from Crucet’s class with an enhanced awareness of how important it is to be conscious of the choices that we’re making as we write, so that we can control them and employ them effectively.

This post has reached an epic length, which reflects the sheer volume of things there are to keep in mind when creating characters and bringing them to life on the page! And, of course, it also reflects the need for me to wrap this up. I hope that some of you find this helpful.

Now, back to work!

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What the Oscars Have in Common With Book Awards – And What They Don’t

The Academy Awards telecast attracted fewer viewers this year than it has since 2009. Critics have identified many reasons for the show’s poor ratings: lack of diversity among the nominees, a disappointing performance by host Neil Patrick Harris, and the exclusion of the year’s most popular films from the nomination slate. I happen to be one of those sometimes-Oscar-viewers who tuned in to Downton Abbey instead this year, and while I’m sure that all of the above factors played a role in the ratings slump, for me the reason was simple: the Oscars feel increasingly like a private party to which I haven’t (or shouldn’t have) been granted an invitation. Let me explain.

From the outside, it appears that the Academy voters value very different things in films than I do. My favorite movies are those that have moved me emotionally, made me laugh until it hurt, made my pulse race or–ideally–accomplished all three. The movies I watch over and over remind me that the human experience is bigger, deeper, more exciting, and more important than my humdrum daily routine would suggest. I suspect that the average moviegoer would agree with me. But the Academy’s choices appear to reflect a different set of values. While I certainly can’t read their minds, their selections suggest to me that they focus not on a movie’s narrative content–its story or message–but on its form. If I’m right, Academy voters look for how avant-garde a film is (what sort of innovative or unique techniques it employs, how it pushes the boundaries of what films have done so far and reimagines the medium) and on how perfectly the filmmakers execute their vision (the effectiveness of the script and the camerawork, the quality of the acting, the precision of the scene-setting, etc. etc.).

Film is not the only medium where this schism between critics and the public–between a focus on content or form–exists. The same disparity often appears in literary criticism. For instance, consider the Modern Library’s dueling lists of the 100 best novels–one voted by the Modern Library Board, and the other by the public. The top selections on the two lists illustrate the differing values of the two groups: the Modern Library Board selected James Joyce’s Ulysses, lauded by the New York Times for its “unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity,” while the readers selected Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a bestseller that triggered many philosophical debates, but that critics, by and large, panned. Critics deemed Ulysses’ form worthy of the top spot, while readers focused on content.

As a writer, I have learned to read books both ways: to enjoy their content and appreciate their form. Of course, in the best books form elevates content. Nevertheless, each quality is distinct, and it can be challenging to read for both at once.

I’m not a filmmaker, however, and I have not developed the skills that would permit me to view and enjoy movies through an Academy voter’s lens. I don’t think I’m alone here. If moviegoers can be considered to have voted with our wallets, most of us haven’t developed those sensibilities. One need only compare last year’s highest-earning films with Sunday’s best picture nominees for this to become readily apparent. Only one film nominated for Best Picture, American Sniper, sold enough tickets to break into the top 40 (40!) of last year’s moneymakers. And last year’s number five blockbuster, The Lego Movie–wasn’t even nominated for best animated feature film. Why would I want to watch an awards show celebrating movies I’ve never seen, based on criteria that I can’t discern?

Let me take a step back here and make one thing clear. Although I chose not to watch the Oscars this year, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Academy choosing winners based on criteria for merit espoused by those who work in the craft (their biases against women and people of color are a whole different story, of course, but I’ll leave my rant on that for another day). The awards are, after all, given by film industry professionals to high achievers in their own field. They are free to apply whatever metric they choose to measure value; we always have the People’s Choice Awards.

But if the Academy wants to hold tight to those criteria, they shouldn’t be so surprised when viewers stop tuning in. You don’t see anyone fretting about the ratings for the announcement of the winners of the Man Booker International Prize or the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, films involve more pageantry than books, and unlike the Booker and Nobel Foundations, the Academy depends on revenues from the awards broadcast to fund its operations. But if Sunday’s ratings are any indication, the Academy can’t have it both ways. You don’t have to invite us to the party, but if you don’t, don’t expect us to show up anyway.

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Digging out my Writer Hat

It’s a good thing that hats aren’t easily outgrown like, say, the jeans I wore during my law school years. I’m ashamed to admit that my Writer Hat has been lingering in a drawer beneath a stack of Size Early Twenties jeans for a few months now. Not because I’ve given up on my writing, far from it. But because I’ve rejoined the world of the Gainfully Employed, and after I peeled off my lawyerly duds at the end of the day I often found my head too fuzzy and bloated to squeeze into that hat. The experience really renewed my respect for all you writers out there who hold down full-time jobs and still manage to write!

But last week I dug my Writer Hat out from its hiding place. You see, I am super lucky: my Gainful Employment is periodic, on a project-by-project basis, and my most recent project has finally wrapped up, leaving me a stretch of glorious, uninterrupted time to write. And I intend to make the most of it. But switching from full-time lawyer mode back to full-time writer mode is not without its challenges, namely, resisting the urge to transfer instead into full-time layabout mode. So I’ve been taking it piece by piece, pulling together all the things that remind me that I’m a writer and I’m in it for the long haul. Here’s how I’m getting my head back into the game.

  1. My husband bought me John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist for Christmas, and I finally dove into it. In the book, Gardner presents his decidedly philosophical take on what makes a successful novelist. He dedicates over half of the book to an examination of the qualities common to successful writers (“serious” literary writers, that is), which are: (1) verbal sensitivity, (2) the relative accuracy and originality of his “eye,” (3) the novelist’s special brand of intelligence (which includes many qualities, such as wit, obstinancy, childishness, a marked tendency toward oral and anal fixation (seriously), patience, and recklessness), and (4) an almost daemonic compulsiveness. While some of this discussion was esoteric, much of it was emotionally reassuring because I could see myself in his words: good writers will sometimes stop writing and act out their characters’ dialogue and movements to discover “precisely what some object or gesture looks like and hunt down exactly the right words to describe it;” a writer must love words but not love them more than she loves creating a good story that reads like “a vivid and continuous dream;” and “nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends.” There was also some good practical advice in there. For instance, a writer can develop his eye by people-watching and trying to describe in words what people are doing–but should never substitute TV viewing for real-life observation. For another, a good writer doesn’t count on “withheld information” and surprise to power his story, but rather builds a plot with an “increasingly moving series of recognitions or moments of understanding.” Probably my favorite portion of the book, however, came later, when Gardner advises that the best way for a writer to sustain his art is to “live off his (or her) spouse,” or, to avoid the shame of dependency, to find a “generous prostitute.” And thus my husband’s new nickname was born.
  2. In honor of Mr. Gardner, I walked down to Green Lake and sat on a park bench spying on people like a creeper, converting their actions into words on the page in my little notebook. This exercise was useful to me because, let’s be honest, my characters furrow too many brows. And I’m tired of letting inadequate synonyms for “walk” and “look” let me down. It’s time to take this whole body language/gesture description thing up a notch. Plus, I got some bonus physical exercise out of the whole deal. Which I quickly negated with a jaunt to my friendly local FroYo dispensary.
  3. I began outlining and building characters for my next book! I’m super excited to get started with the actual drafting, but my concept for this book is a little bit more ambitious than my last one, so I want to make sure I have all my ducks in a row before I get started. Probably more creeper activity is in order before I let my characters loose on the page!
  4. I’ve signed up for a couple of short Hugo House classes to help me with challenges I expect my new WIP to present. One of them is a one-day session on creating characters, and the other is a three-day course on “remixing your prose” in the style of other authors. I’m hoping that these two courses will give me a boost in building the variety of characters and voices that I’ll need to employ in my new book.
  5. I finally got started reading a book I’ve been dying to crack open for MONTHS, one of those books that promised to be Keep You Up All Night Good. The book is Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, which is the third book in the Magicians series. I’m being a good writer and doing a very close read to try to learn from the author, instead of just devouring it whole. So far, it does not disappoint–witty, with brilliant turns of phrase, and an incredibly engrossing plot. Highly recommended. My favorite part of the last week!
  6. And lastly, my least favorite part of the last week: peering back into the terrifying abyss where my chances for publication of RELIVE lie. I’ve been researching potential agents (ogling manuscript wishlists and more!), planning which conferences I’ll attend this year, and considering entering my manuscript into some conference competitions. I haven’t yet sent out any cold queries for RELIVE, but I think it’s time to start. Soon. Shiver.

So that about wraps it up! My Writer Hat is feeling more and more comfortable every day, and I’m getting excited about writing all over again. I aspire to translate that excitement into more blog posts over the next few months, so hopefully you’ll be hearing more from me soon!

Now. Back to stalking unsuspecting passersby and reading The Magicians Land. Not necessarily in that order.

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My Top Ten Influential Books

A big thank you to Michelle for nominating me to blog about the ten books that have been the most influential in my life.  Check out Michelle’s list here!

This was a tough assignment, and it took me a while to figure out how to begin!  Eventually, I decided that the best starting point in deciding what books have been most influential in my life is to consider why I read in the first place.  I think that I read for 4 main reasons: to discover people different from me and to better understand how they think and feel and see the world; to escape from my daily life and immerse myself in fun adventures; to examine the world and life and uncover new truths about it that I might not have found on my own; and to learn ways to make my own writing better.  So the books I’ve selected for this list all meet at least one of those goals in a way that no other book has.

So now, in roughly the order in which I first read them:

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

This was my first literary love.  This book transported Little Lisa to a totally different place and opened up this whole magical world that I could explore.  Made me wonder what might be hiding just behind the range of sight.  It made my world feel deeper and more magical, and I’ll always love it for that!

1984 by George Orwell

The anti-utopian masterpiece!  This book first opened my eyes to the power of literature to do something other than tell you what is, or what was, or what will never be, but to imagine what, someday, might be.  Books like this make you look at the world in a different way, make you look harder at how your world functions now in order to discover what might happen a century from now.  The manuscript that I’m shopping around right now involves time travel to the future, and I think this book first sparked my interest in imagining what the world might be like in generations.  Of course, the future that I paint is a lot less fantastical than Orwell’s.  But still!  This was the seed.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most masterfully plotted novels that I’ve ever read.  Dickens creates so many unique and interesting characters — living seemingly unrelated lives — and then draws them all together to create this grand, epic drama.  Man, I need to read this again from the perspective of a writer.

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This book first taught High School Lisa that my society, moral framework, and traditions — everything that I saw every day and took for granted as immutable and universal — only exists because we think it does (that fancy word: reification!).  It’s easy to forget that what we’ve created is mutable and fragile — and that it might not always be right, or at least, not the only right thing.  Remember this moment? :

“There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.”

For me, the critical discovery was that there is no ground, which has been very important for me to keep in mind as I explore the world around me.  Of course, I have no idea if this is the correct interpretation of that passage, but it was mine!

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Ok, so there are technically seven of these, but who’s counting?  The Harry Potter books are, hands down, the most immersive, enjoyable stories I’ve ever read.  While a lot of the books in my list have brought me moments of enlightenment or self-discovery, the Harry Potter series has brought me something equally important: joy.  When I read these books, I’m transported to a completely different world, and all of my troubles melt away.  It’s magic.  During finals period in law school, I used to read a chapter or two every night with a glass of port to calm my brain down so I could actually sleep.  I even have a friend who stayed up all night reading them while she was in labor with her first baby (only took her a few years to get around to it first).  For me, that all-encompassing, can’t-stop-reading, totally immersive experience is something to strive for in my own writing!  And, apropos of nothing: everyone needs to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!  For serious.  It is amazing.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Ok, so just to get it out there: I’m not a crazy objectivist.  But this book is still important to me, because when I first read it after high school, it introduced me to a way of thinking that was completely different from any I’d encountered before.  I think this is probably the first time that I’d read a book that was primarily philosophic, and it really opened up my mind to different ways of thinking and understanding the world.  To be embarrassingly honest, I think that I’m not a naturally critical thinker — my instinct is to believe what authority figures tell me without questioning them — and this book taught me that I need to actively distrust that tendency and think for myself.  I mean, not even authority figures are always right!  Since my introduction to Ayn Rand, I’ve also read a lot of Marx and Marxian theory, and I find that equally as fascinating.  But Atlas Shrugged was the gateway, and for that it always has a special place on my shelf.

Paraja by Gopinath Mohanty

This book took the void that Heart of Darkness left me with and filled it back up.  Of course I’d read about other cultures before this, but for some reason this book really resonated with me in a way that others hadn’t.  The tribal society that Mohanty describes was built on an entirely different basis from mine in an entirely different place, and I found it fascinating and exciting.  This book made me realize that I as an individual was free to create my own moral code — to borrow ideas from other groups and societies and build something that truly works for me.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Oh man, you guys.  The Grand Inquisitor parable.  I think that was the last nail in the coffin for me for organized religion.  Just … insanely compelling.  Of course, giving up organized religion isn’t exactly a development that has made me happy.  But really, has anything happy ever come from reading Dostoyevsky?

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor’s beautiful prose in this book, which is something of a prose poem, transfixed me from the very first line.  I mean, listen to this:

“If you listen, you can hear it.

The city, it sings.

If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.

It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.

It’s a wordless song, for the most part, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.  And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.”

McGregor’s words transform ordinary objects and moments into beautiful and extraordinary things, and have inspired me not only to seek out the extraordinary in my own writing, but also in my day to day life.  When you defamiliarize yourself with mundane experiences, often you can rediscover what makes them special, meanings that may have faded in the light of day after day.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s character development is second to none.  The characters that he created in Anna Karenina were so multidimensional and just — real — that in reading it I felt like I was getting inside the heads of all these different people.  It was an incredibly moving experience.  I hope that one day I can create characters that are even half as real!  Come to think of it, I should really pull War and Peace down from my shelf and finally get to work on it.

No time like the present, right?

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