Laura Ingalls Wilder and Reading

I was on vacation last week so I bought Oprah’s magazine for the plane and read this fabulous article/essay about Marie Howe and her daughter discovering the Little House on the Prairie books during the tough times of last fall and winter. Howe hadn’t read the books as a child so she was discovering the Ingalls’ story with her daughter. I’d read the entire series many times as a child, and I still have my set on my bookshelves today.

Howe’s adult experience with the books mirrors my own. With each rereading I read of the Ingalls’ trials and tribulations and humbled by the quiet grace with which they meet each new challenge. I tear up every time Pa returns after weeks or months away, earning money for his family after a bad crop or hard winter. I really tear up when I read about Laura’s delight over simple Christmas gifts – an orange, a penny, a tin cup. So sweet…and so sadly strange.

But when I recently reread These Happy Golden Years, telling the story of Laura and Almanzo falling in love, this passage really struck me. At fifteen Laura’s begun teaching school away from home to help bring her sister Mary home for the summer. She’s boarding with a really unpleasant family, scared and lonely. Her beau, Almanzo drives twenty-four miles round trip to bring her home on Friday afternoons and twenty-four miles round trip to take her back to school on Sundays. She’s told him he doesn’t need to do this (she’s shy and intimidated – he’s 10 years older and a homesteader). But he comes anyway…

While Almanzo was driving her out to the Brewsters’ that afternoon she thanked him for taking her home that week.

“No need for thanks,” he said. “You knew I would.”

“Why, no, I didn’t,” she answered honestly.

“What do you take me for?” he asked. “Do you think I’m the kind of fellow that’d leave you out there at Brewster’s when you’re so homesick, just because there’s nothing in it for me?”

“Why, I…” Laura stopped. The truth was that she had never thought much about what kind of person he was. He was so much older; he was a homesteader.

“To tell you the whole truth,” he said, “I was in two minds about risking that trip. I figured all week I’d drive out for you, but when I looked at the thermometer I came pretty near deciding against it.” [The temperature had dropped to well below -40 degrees and they were riding in an open horse-drawn cutter.]

“Why didn’t you?” Laura asked.

“Well, I was starting out in the cutter, and I pulled up in front of Fuller’s to look at the thermometer. The mercury was all down in the bulb, below forty, and the wind blowing colder every minute. Just then Cap Garland came by. He saw me there, ready to go out to Brewster’s for you, and looking at the thermometer. So he looked at it, and you know how he grins? Well, as he was going on into Fuller’s, he just said to me over his shoulder, ‘God hates a coward.'”

“So you came because you wouldn’t take a dare?” Laura asked.

“No, it wasn’t a dare,” Almanzo said. “I just figured he was right.”

That’s about the best description of a hero I’ve ever read…selfless, right-minded, doing what he knows is right despite severe obstacles. No bragging, no grandstanding, just simple honesty and integrity. The books are “childrens’ books” but their message and beauty are just as available to adults as children. If you haven’t read them, give them a try and if you have, reread them!

How Do You Find Me?

The latest search term used to find this blog: “sexy employee 25 anne”.

You know, I could write a book with just those four words as my inspiration. Okay, maybe not a whole book…I’d have to do a ton of work to stretch that to a book, but a Quickie/Spice Brief-length story for sure. In fact, that would be a hilarious blog tour, authors grouping together to write vignettes based on the craziest search terms used to find their blogs.

Back to packing…

Vacation Procrastination

Like the imagination station, eh?

Some days I feel like writing. I go into my office, sit down at my laptop and words spill from my fingers onto the screen. Today is not one of those days. Today I’m catching up from the weekend and thinking ahead to a mini-vacation which begins on Wednesday. As a person who has to motivate herself, it’s far to easy to say, “Well, I’ve got that doctor appt this afternoon, and I need to start thinking about packing (not pack – it’s too soon to pack), and there’s a book I’ve been meaning to read, and it would be fun to go downtown and browse the bookstore for magazines for my trip and..,”

And and and. That’s the procrastination part. But I pledged to myself that I’d write 10 pgs before leaving on my mini-break. And 10 pages I will have. That’s not much in the big scheme of things. 5 today, 5 tomorrow, with plenty of time to do the shopping and bread baking in between.

Now…to begin…

Monday Rumi

Story Water (from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks and John Moyne, pg 171)

A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but it usually takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

Books. I Luv Them.

I went to the library this afternoon to pick up a couple of books I need to research elements of my current WIP and started wandering around in the nonfiction stacks.

I know. Could I be any more of a nerd?

In in the 818 section (literature, humor) I found 84, Charing Cross Road. It’s a thin book of compiled letters (remember those? They came on paper, in a box outside your door, delivered once a day by a pudgy person in tight polyester shorts and a visor) sent between a writer living in New York and an employee of a used book shop in London. It looked…interesting. Letters, books, New York, London, I like all of those things. So I checked it out. There are two round benches outside my library and I like to sit down after I’ve checked out my books and flip through them. Just in case one’s a total dud. No point in taking it home.

I got two pages into 84, Charing Cross Road and burst out laughing. Thank GOD I was outside the library because I have a quite loud laugh. I might have been barred forever from my most favorite place after Starbucks. It took me less than an hour to read the book and by the end I was a little teary-eyed. I wanted to send it to people like my editor, and my friend Rob, with whom I had a love affair in letters back when people sent letters, and say “Read this! It’s great! It’s about nothing at all except books and friendship! Trust me! Great!”

I just finished working through the Discovering Story Magic class. It’s been extremely helpful for character development for the new book while simultaneously reminding me that people read (and especially read romance) for emotions. They want to go on a safe roller coaster ride, and that means big conflict, big emotions, big drama, WHHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEE! But every so often I’m reminded that powerful stuff happens in the everyday, in the mundane exchanges about books (if such a thing is possible, of course). I think some of my strongest writing and characterization comes from that ordinary world, so it’s good to spend some time there.

Sigh. Any day when I read a fantastic book gets high marks. Today was an A+ day.

Best. Writing Advice. Ever.

I’m starting a new novel (of my own). Still in the Lois McMaster Bujold kick. She writes about her writing process in her afterward to Cordelia’s Honor:

“…my only plan of how to structure my material was to plant an eavesdropping device in my main character’s brain and follow her through the first weeks of action.”

This is what’s known in the more technical writerly terminology as deep POV. Bujold’s a master of this. So is Suzanne Brockmann. You may not want to wade through the multiple subplots and the action in a Brockmann novel, but by God you know what the main characters are seeing, thinking and feeling. This is crucial for character-centered novels, no matter the genre.

Bujold continues: “…my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask ‘So what’s the worst thing I can do to this guy?’ And then do it.”

IMHO, that’s the most important question when plotting a novel. What’s the worst thing I can do to this guy (or woman)? Torture the characters. Make them suffer. When they suffer they experience emotion. Readers want emotion. Don’t make things easy for the characters! Don’t send them through a string of unrelated incidents intended only to describe more and more angst and pain. A good friend of mine says that the external stuff happens only to showcase the internal journey.

So true. After working on a couple of short pieces I’m starting a new novel. The planning process I go through changes as I grow as a writer. I lurked in Discovering Story Magic a couple of months ago…wasn’t ready to put a story up for brainstorming, but got all the materials. I spent the morning watching L.A. Confidential (what a job, eh?) in order to work through the first couple of lessons and so far it seems like a good way to get yourself organized and ease the writing process (as much as that’s possible…all the planning in the world won’t actually write a novel. You do have to write it. Word by word. It’s AWFUL, except it’s fun, too. Writing’s weird like that.)

Stay tuned for updates. I’m in this one for the long haul.

A Writer's Space

I went to RWA’s National convention last year. In the book room I picked up several craft books, including Eric Maisel’s A Writer’s Space. Eleven months later, sigh, I’m working my way through it. I started writing because I love to read and found I now spend far less time reading than I used to, or should. But we’ve set up a home office for me, so picking up some tips about using that space to its fullest advantage appealed to me.

Like so many writing/reference/inspirational books, there isn’t much new in this, but the presentation method makes it worthwhile. Maisel addresses more than just physical space. He also talks about home space, emotional space, public space, existential space, reflective space. Good stuff, organized in a different fashion, coming a time when I need it. This is why I hoard books like other people hoard snowglobes or African art. You never know when you’ll pick up a book you initially felt was dull, uninteresting or irrelevant and find it useful, even essential.

“Figure out what you want from yourself, not what you want for yourself. Head in that direction.” That’s Lesson 18. The key takeaway is in the prepositions from and for. We spend a great deal of time thinking about what we want for ourselves, everything from a big screen plasma TV to a request for a full ms to a sabbatical in Europe to an ice cream sundae. We spent far less time thinking about what we want from ourselves. While this can sound very daunting, very “I couldn’t please my father/mother/God/babysitter/professor so why even bother to try?”, it’s actually key to making sure your writing career follows your ambitions, not someone else’s. For example:

I want to write five pages a day.

I want to write a synopsis by the end of the week.

I want to write a better draft of that last chapter by Wednesday.

I want to rework the heroine’s GMC chart based on what I’ve learned about her as I wrote the inciting incident (or even the black moment – those pesky GMCs don’t go away just because you’ve finished a draft).

As long as you’re not writing on contract, the only person you’re responsible to for your writing is YOU. So think about what you want from yourself, because in the end, what you want could be the greatest thing for yourself.

I'm On Vacation

At home. It’s kind of a stay-cation, kind of a “My crit partner’s reviewing something and it feels like a good week to live at a coffee shop and read”-cation. So today I have: a) gone to a yoga class at 6 a.m., b) cleaned the bathroom, c) cleaned myself, d) had a chai latte, e) had coffee with a friend, f) sent huge congrats to another friend who’s on the verge of signing a 3 book deal, and g) chatted with yet another friend.

It’s 1 p.m. I’m about to have lunch. There might be a nap involved in this afternoon’s activities. There will certainly be reading. This. And this. And rereading this.

I could really get behind this as a lifestyle.

But the voices in my head, the ones that are kind of indistinct, as they often are with new characters and new situations, are starting up again. Some days I dread this, the approaching moment when I’ll have to open a BLANK Word document and write some total crap so I can revise it and make it into crap, then a decent draft. Other days it feels so natural, of course I want to write!

Not today. Lunch. Nap. Read. It’s vacation, rejuvenation, relaxation, refilling the well, whatever. It’s good.

The Moment

Books, especially romances, are full of moments. The moment the hero and heroine meet (often the inciting incident in a romance). Moments of discovery, when the characters learn something about the plot or each other and are forever changed. The big black moment (aka the BBM) when plot or love (or both) falls apart. The HEA (happily ever after) when the characters realize that despite all the odds/obstacles/BBM they will be together. Forever.

Writing has far fewer moments. Writing is a daily slog, but every so often you have a moment as a writer. A good moment. A moment when you read something and think, “Damn, that’s good.” (Often you’ll hate the same section the next day, but that’s a different moment, a “Why bother?” moment). My favorite moment, however, is the moment when you write a scene, however horrible the rough draft form, and come away from it knowing you’ve turned a corner in a manuscript. You now know something you didn’t know and needed to know, something that makes the sweat and teeth-grinding worth the effort. Usually it’s something subtle about the characters, or a piece of writing that makes everything make sense (but we won’t talk about how that revelation must now be woven through the previous 10K words).

Moments like that…I love this job. Love it. And the good thing is the euphoria carries me for a few days. Everything’s a little easier after one of those moments. It will fade, of course. But for now…things are good.