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Monday, July 20, 2009

To Plot or Not to Plot

I’ve been thinking a lot about the writing process lately. I’m about halfway through my third novel, and it confirms everything I’ve read about writing books. Each book is unique, and therefore, the process of writing each is wildly different. And contrary to logic, this third one is proving to be my toughest.

One of the aspects I’m struggling with is plot. Now, there are some master plotters out there, writers who introduce the conflict on page 1, then zip through a series of complications, near misses, and well-timed twists, leaving you nearly breathless by the end. I have never been this kind of writer, preferring to let my plots evolve organically, to let my characters dictate the sequence of events. My first book (Time and Tide, which did not get published) was based loosely on a novel by Jane Austen (talk about a good plotter), so I didn’t have much to worry about there. My plot came practically ready-made.

For Free to a Good Home (which releases next summer), I had the initial concept and characters and wrote the first fifty pages in a blur of inspiration or something like that, then sat back for a while to let the characters marinate and see where they wanted to take the story. This marinating stage is the point at which I still might abandon a story, even if I love the characters, because I can’t seem to find a compelling journey to send them on. But with Free to a Good Home, I found that journey.

Now, I’m midway through Book #3, past the point of no return, but at the point I’d like to call the Wednesday of the book, or hump day. I’m stuck. For the past week, I’ve written every day, but I have a feeling when I go back to revise later, I will end up deleting much of what I wrote. I just felt I needed to keep pushing through the wall, keep my characters moving. Now the question is, are they going anywhere?

Someone once said, when you get stuck like this, send in a man with a gun. Great advice for a mystery writer, but not so great when you’re writing a character-driven novel about three generations living under one very small roof. But I do like the idea of shaking things up a bit. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of too much conflict, but what is a novel without it? An unexpected twist could be the very thing I need right now to untie the knot that’s been keeping my characters treading water. Now I just need to find my story’s equivalent of a man with a gun. And hope that one of my characters knows karate.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Reading

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” Wait a minute. No more books? I’ll be happy to lay down the pencil and stop giving my students dirty looks, but books are one of the highlights of my summer. So I’ve compiled a list of 10 books I’ve read recently that I think would make excellent summer reads. To me, these books represent what summer is all about — fun, family, the sun, the ocean, humor, escapism, characters, relationships, and the possibility for love.

Eve’s Summer Reads:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows –an engaging, romantic story told through diary entries and letters about a journalist researching a piece about a tiny island occupied by the Germans during WWII
The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch – beautifully written coming-of-age story set on Puget Sound with a memorable child narrator and evocative descriptions of ocean life
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman – not exactly beachy, but an awful lot of fun about a boy who lives in a graveyard with ghosts for adoptive parents
Home Safe, Elizabeth Berg —I love everything by her, but this is her latest book about women’s lives, loves, and choices
Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, Jane Hamilton –funny, extremely well-written satire with characters you will recognize all too well
The Wildwater Walking Club, Claire Cook – Witty, breezy, and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship
Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper—hilarious story about a man coming of age late in life, told with charm, humor, and lots of warmth
The Beach House, Jane Green—set on Nantucket Island, the novel deals with likeable characters who are all facing transitions in their lives
Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen – Leisurely-paced and seductive southern story about two sisters with special gifts
Love the One You’re With, Emily Giffin – Mature and wry women’s fiction exploring the allure of “the one who got away”

My Wish List (Books I hope to read this summer):
Best Friends Forever, Jennifer Weiner
That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
Real Life and Liars, Kristina Riggle
Catching Genius, Kristy Kiernan
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
The Way Life Should Be, Christina Baker Kline
Twenties Girl, Sophie Kinsella
Border Songs, Jim Lynch
The Only True Genius in the Family, Jennie Nash
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Julie Powell

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Writer's Guilt

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Art is a jealous mistress.” For me, writing is more like my dog after I’ve come home from vacation. Whenever my husband and I are away from Maggie for more than two days, she gives us a guilt trip for a good forty-eight hours after we return. Eventually she reverts back to her usual, devoted self, following us around the house, sprawling on our laps, and giving us long, adoring glances. But on those days when she’s giving us the cold shoulder, it’s hard to have faith that she’ll come back to us.

Writing is the same for me. If I skip more than two days, it takes me so long to get back into my groove. The laptop screen stares blankly at me, as if to say, “What have you done for me lately?” At that moment, I think to myself, “That’s it. It’s over. I’ve lost the ability to write. Might as well close the laptop forever and take up decoupage.”

For the first two weeks of summer vacation, I was very loyal to my laptop, writing almost every day and averaging about six pages a day. Then I hit a wall. Every writer does eventually, sometimes in the form of a stumbling block, a hiccough in our plot line or a character we can’t quite wrap our head around. I’ve hit that kind of wall, too, but this one was more just a function of life getting the best of me.

Two days ago, I went for a long walk with my husband, did some homework for a course I’m taking, and sat in the yard with a book (Claire Cook’s Life’s a Beach, to mirror my wishful thinking). Yesterday I went out to lunch with a dear friend and thought I’d be home in time to get a few hours of writing in, but ended up having such a good time that I stayed out all afternoon. Today I went food shopping and cleaned the house for a Fourth of July party we’re hosting.

I know when I try to write tomorrow, I will stare forlornly at the screen for an hour, trying to recapture that writing energy of three days ago. I might write a pitiful paragraph or two that I’ll end up scrapping, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by the end of the day I’ll have written one page worth keeping. But the ideas will come back eventually; the words will return.

Now, I am sitting on my front stoop, listening to the competing stereos of my neighbors, smelling grills warm up all over town. I don’t hear a single lawnmower or see a single jogger on the road. People have taken the day off. Some time this summer, consider giving yourself a day off, too. From writing, or exercising, or whatever it is that you love, but tends to give you a guilt trip when it’s been neglected. It’ll still be there for you the next day; you might just have to work a little harder at winning back its devotion. But the dog will forgive you, the treadmill will get easier again, and your inspiration will return.

For today, throw that second hot dog on the grill. Put whipped cream on your strawberry and blueberry pound cake. (It would be un-American not to.) Enjoy the day, guilt-free. And have a safe and happy Fourth!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's summertime, and the living is easy...

I’m certain I’m committing some kind of blogging sacrilege here by writing this post in longhand to be typed into the computer later. My excuse is that I want to sit outside with my dog, and my laptop screen is difficult to see in sunlight. But the truth is I’m a little tech-ed out. When I saw my laptop this morning, waiting expectantly on the coffee table, I got a little shiver of dread I don’t usually associate with inanimate objects. The past two weeks have been a mad dash to get my website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and blog up and running, and while my brother has handled the toughest details (Thank you, Phil!!), I am still weary of looking at that horizontal digital screen. Perhaps it’s time for a little old school writing, with classic 8 ½ by 11 lined notebook paper and a Bic pen.

Today, I plan to enjoy the gorgeous summer weather—78 degrees, blue sky with cotton candy clouds, balmy breeze. The birds are twittering in my Rose of Sharon, and the treetops are swaying lazily overhead. My lawn is freshly mown and vibrant green from all that unexpected rain we got last week, and my container garden is flourishing—red, white, and blue petunias that get me in the mood for Fourth of July, planters of purple sage and fuchsia impatiens, and hanging baskets with delicate lantana the color of pink Wedgewood. For privacy, we just decorated our fence with Tiki fringe, which right now is rustling in the wind, taking me away to some tropical paradise where Jimmy Buffett is always playing on the radio and margaritas are always served ice cold with salt on the rim.

People have written songs about days like this. I might just stay out until the sun sets and the temperature dips below 65. The fireflies will alight from the ground, illuminating the trees like stadium flashes. I’ll watch the bats’ erratic flight patterns between the trees, counting on them and the citronella torches to keep the mosquitoes at bay. My husband and I might open that bottle of Italian white we’ve had chilling in the refrigerator and make a toast to summer.

For today, the laptop will remain closed. My next chapter will have to wait until tomorrow. I’m on vacation.