Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 30, 2013

When a character steps off the page and goes places you never imagined

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Briana Harley is an über-talented musician, singer, songwriter, and devoted reader of Velva Jean Learns to Drive.  In 2010, she wrote to say that she’d written a song inspired by Velva Jean and her story.  We’ve since become great friends.  She has also written music for the lyrics that appear at the end of each Velva Jean book, recorded a CD of Velva Jean songs, and, most recently, chosen Velva Jean’s favorite hymn as her project for her Choral Arranging class at Vanguard University.  It’s hard to describe just how cool it is to have your story and characters take on a new life outside of the book, and just how lovely a feeling it is when someone really gets (and is affected by) a story you wrote. 

Arranging “The Unclouded Day” by Briana Harley

As a music composition major I had to take Choral Arranging, which I was  excited about. However, I was the only one who registered for the class so it turned into private choral arranging lessons. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do “The Unclouded Day,” because I’m always thinking of Velva Jean (haha). As my professor and I went over the syllabus on my first lesson, he explained to me what the project requirements were– I could choose to arrange for mixed choir, men’s chorus, or women’s chorus.  It could be any song I wanted.  He told me that people have done the Beatles before or even current pop songs, but explained that hymns usually turn out the best.

So from that moment I was set on arranging “The Unclouded Day.”

I chose to arrange it for Women’s Chorus for a few reasons:  being a female, I would be able to arrange for female voices better, and I used to be in Women’s Chorus so I just had more knowledge about how I could arrange it.  And also because I wanted to capture Velva Jean in the arrangement (I couldn’t for the life of me hear low male bass voices singing and think of Velva Jean).  booksoup3

I knew the form of the piece from the beginning. It starts out with the first verse being a solo.  My goal was to represent 10-year-old Velva Jean from the first book, before her mother died, while she was still innocent.  The first chorus starts with two voices and adds more voices with each line until it grows to be the full choir.  This reminds me of when young Velva Jean was baptized in the river. When I picture a good ol’ fashioned baptism, I always imagine one person singing and then slowly the entire church joining them, which is where my idea came from.

After that I take each verse and chorus and add a little bit more to it each time. It started off simple and straightforward, but then I started adding more tricky descants and blue-note harmonies to give it more flavor. This is supposed to show Velva Jean’s learning and growing, how even when times get tough Velva Jean still pushes through with grace and spunk! She learns from everything she’s been through and is ready for the next battle.

There’s a section where I decided to throw in “one-liners” from other recognizable hymns. These are hymns from my “Velva Jean playlist”– even though they aren’t mentioned in the book and some of them were written after Velva Jean’s time, they still remind me of her. Anytime I hear them I think that Velva Jean could sing the heck out of them.  Also I’ve always been a fan of medleys, which was my first idea.  But there were too many hymns I wanted to feature, plus I still wanted it to be “The Unclouded Day” arrangement.  I didn’t want to have to change the title to “The Unclouded Day & other hymns,” which is what gave me the idea to just use a line from the other hymns while “The Unclouded Day” was still being sung by other voices.  Honestly, my choral arranging professor wasn’t too fond of the idea, but when I presented it to the Women’s Chorus director she loved it!  The last verse is a solo as well but with the choir singing back-up.  To me this represented Velva Jean all grown up– she still has a young spirit but she’s lived a bit, so this solo is a little slower and more heartfelt.

And then it once again ends with the choir singing “The Unclouded Day” (and other hymns) just to show all that Velva Jean has been through– but at the end of the day her heart still lies at “home where no storm clouds rise.”

 

August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard, author of forty-five novels and master of the crime thriller, died yesterday morning at home.  He was eighty-seven.  He leaves behind legions of fans and some very wise and brilliant and useful words about writing.  I especially like numbers 3, 4, 5, and 10, although I agree with all of them.  These rules are excerpted from his more detailed 2001 New York Times article.

Writers on Writing:  Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

August 15, 2013

The steps of writing a book

My cousin’s twelve-year-old daughter loves to write (and is already a wonderful writer).  For the past three years, Elizabeth and my author mother have had their own long distance writers group.  My mom is one of the wisest people I know, and I’m lucky to have her as my mentor.  Here is a recent exchange between Mom and Elizabeth that I thought might be helpful to writers of all ages.

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Hi Aunt Penny,

I have been wanting to write lately, but I don’t know what to write about. I was wondering if you could tell me the steps you go through when you write a book.

Thanks, Elizabeth

 

Dear Elizabeth:  I’m so glad to hear from you, and I am happy that you have been wanting to write lately.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding what to write about.

The first step I go through when I write a book is choosing what to write about. I try to listen to my head and my heart.  I need to know what I THINK about a subject, and what I FEEL about it.  If I’m not excited about writing about my subject, chances are good that readers won’t be excited about reading about it.

When I am deciding what to write about, I think about these two things:
Writing about what I already know a lot about.
Writing about what I don’t know much about yet.

I believe you already know a lot about your family; your pets; dancing; snowy winters; writing, especially detective stories; other activities you enjoy; your feelings about having a brother and a sister; your feelings about different teachers you have had; your feelings about growing up– and lots more things.  I think readers your age and grown-up readers will be very interested in reading what you write about any of these things.

I’ve written five books about people.  I didn’t know much at all about Carl Sandburg or James Earl Jones or Edward Steichen or Thornton Wilder when I started writing about them– but I did lots of research and learned more and more.  It was an adventure to learn about them and then to write about them.  Is there a person or a place or an event or an invention or a discovery that you’d like to know more about?  If you are excited about something, you can be a detective and learn as much about that subject as you can, and write about it.

As you probably already know, you have to be excited about what you are writing if you are going to do your best writing.

Your cousin Jennifer is a writer, and she says she loves to write books that she would like to read.

I suggest that you make a list of things you’d like to write about or stories you’d like to tell.  Set a timer and see how many ideas you can put on your list in 5 minutes.  Take 10 minutes if you want to.  Maybe something will pop out on that list that gets you excited to write about it.

I enjoyed your detective/spy stories so very much.  Maybe you’ll use the same character, or invent a new character, and write another one of those.  Maybe you’ll try writing poems.

You are already a wonderful writer, Elizabeth, and you have lots to say and lots to tell.  You have a great imagination and an excellent vocabulary.  Most writers have times when they don’t know what to write.  Just listen to your mind and your imagination and your  heart, and you will find what you want to write.

Lots and lots of love– Aunt Penny

August 7, 2013

Literary snacking — the food that helps me write

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When you spend hundreds of hours at your desk each week (or so it seems), you need the inevitable snack to keep you company.  By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m usually so deep in the writing flow or smack in the middle of wrestling the creative alligators (as Hemingway called it) that the last thing I want to think about is how to feed myself.  And you have to feed your brain because you cannot write hungry.  At least, I can’t.  I mean technically I can, but it’s not the kind of writing that makes sense.

For some reason, walking three blocks to Robeks is easier than stopping to make a salad– there’s just something so nice about taking a short stroll in the California sunshine and having someone else do the preparing.  But most days of late I can be found with a little army of sustenance lined up by my computer so that I don’t even have to move if I don’t want to.  Raw almonds, Trader Joe’s Just Mango Slices, my 32 oz. purple water bottle, some lemon ginger Yogi tea, and raw carrots.  I know– yuck.  I’d prefer popcorn, my favorite snack ever, but that’s more of an end-of-the-hard-hard-writing-day reward, and besides, it doesn’t give me the brain energy I need to write.

I’m not alone in literary snacking.  My brilliant and beautiful writer mother has a weakness for chocolate malted milk balls– especially the ones that come from here— so much so that she won’t let herself keep them in the house except on very special occasions.  (Stocking the pantry with foods you love is VERY dangerous when you work at home!)

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The New York Times wrote a fun piece on “Snacks of the Great Scribblers,” that reveals Lord Byron drank vinegar (which had the added effect of keeping his weight down), Truman Capote favored mint tea and martinis, and Emily Dickinson snacked on her own homemade baked bread.

The trouble happens when you plow through your regular snacks and find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator and cabinets for ANYTHING– the last few stale Triscuits at the bottom of the box, the apple sauce you bought last Christmas which is probably still good, the half eaten energy bar floating in the bottom of your purse.  This is when you need to go to the store and stock up again, except, of course, that there isn’t any time for that.

What keeps you going at your desk?

June 4, 2013

The book that nearly killed me (and my loyal literary cat Lulu)

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On Saturday, I sent American Blonde off to New York and my editor.  From February till June 1, I conceptualized, outlined, researched, wrote, and edited 753 pages, which became the 525 pages I emailed on Saturday.  I’ve had to write most of the Velva Jean books quickly– Velva Jean Learns to Fly and Becoming Clementine each were completed in about nine months– but this is the fastest I’ve ever written a book.  (Even though most of the time I was working on it, I felt as if I’d been writing it my whole life and would always write it and that it would never end.  Ever.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I handed in the original version of American Blonde last September.  But by the time I received my editor’s notes on the manuscript months later, I’d decided that the book needed to be rewritten from page 15 on.  Not just tweaked or edited, but COMPLETELY REWRITTEN, as in an entirely new plot, new characters, new everything.  This wasn’t something my editor requested, but I knew in my writerly bones what the story needed to be.  And it wasn’t.  So I wrote it.  Again.  Only in less time!

I went through more upheaval while working on this project than I did with any of the others.  To name just two of the upheavaliest… There were the recurrent eye problems from sitting at the computer every single day since February 1.  These last few weeks, I often had to type with my eyes closed because it hurt too much to keep them open.  Ahhh… And in March, my wondrous literary agent of fifteen years went missing, only to turn up in the hospital, where he died April 27 very unexpectedly.  I’d been with John Ware since the beginning, and suddenly, in the midst of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I found myself without my creative champion, mentor, and dear friend.  (During the roughest deadlines, John would call me just to tell me a joke or leave an old, scratchy blues tune on my voicemail.  “Onward, kid,” he would say.)

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So when I crossed that long-dreamed-of finish line this weekend, the only sad moment was realizing all over again that John isn’t here to read the book.

But my eyes have slowly but steadily started to clear a little, and my mind is beginning to relax a little (as much as it ever does), and I am damn happy with the state the manuscript is in. (Lulu, incidentally, is exhausted. She has been sleeping nearly non-stop since Saturday, and this is a cat who rarely ever ever sleeps.)

As my mother says, You write it anyway and in spite of and because you have to (on so many levels).  And as someone tells Velva Jean in American Blonde:  “You have to be willing to work.  Just when you think you’re giving your all, know that you can go past that and give more.  You can always give more.  Don’t give up.  Don’t just rely on what you know you can do.  Think of what you hope you can do and then do it.”

Here’s a very tiny (and I mean seconds-tiny) movie that captures how it feels to have this book– for the time being– off my desk:

THIS JUST IN:  My editor has sent that manuscript back to me, asking me to trim 19,000 words before she reads.  And so, it seems, I spoke too soon…

May 2, 2013

Crime lab field trip

I love research that takes you places. Because there are some forensic elements to the next book, American Blonde, I’ve been studying up on all things crime-related.  Imagine how excited I was when I discovered LAVA and their monthly crime lab workshops held at L.A.’s impressive regional crime laboratory, on the campus of Cal State LA.

Professor Donald Johnson and investigator/author/educator Nick Guskos led the lectures and hands-on lab work (we worked with knives and blood!), and we got the lowdown on everything from reconstructing the crime to determining time of death to crime scene photographs to criminal profiling.  One woman fainted in her chair during the first lecture, but I found it fascinating.

Look how happy I am!

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April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

March 13, 2013

Deadfalling, tiger-trapping, and exploring your attic: Ray Bradbury’s 8 rules for writers

Growing up, one of my favorite writers was Ray Bradbury. He was the primary influence on my teenage writing. He taught me the importance of a terrific first line, and an even stronger last line. He taught me the importance of writing clear, strong sentences that cut to the heart of the matter– no excess, no fat. During my years on my Indiana high school speech team, the story I competed and won with most frequently was “The October Game,” his chilling short tale about a husband, a wife, a daughter, and a deadly Halloween party.

His fiction spanned genres– horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery. The book I love most is his collected short stories, but in Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes about writing. Because I’m often asked to share my own rules on writing, I thought this time I would share some inspiration from someone I find inspiring:

1. Write with gusto. “[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”

2. In quickness is truth. “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” In other words, just get it down.

3. Write who you are. We’ve all heard “write what you know.” But this can be limiting. Ray Bradbury believed in writing what you know but also writing what you can imagine. “Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you that makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.”

4. Don’t write for money or fame. “If only we could remember that fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.”

5. Feed the muse daily. “By living well, by observing as you live, by reading and observing as you read, you have fed your most original self. By training in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.”

6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic. It was Ray Bradbury’s belief that we each hide a “dark attic” in our minds– one we may be too frightened to face, but which harbors the most valuable, exciting material. According to him, we cannot, should not be afraid of it. “Alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’ in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night… may well come down.”

7. Surprise yourself. In fiction, it’s important to have an idea where your story is headed, but you also need to be open to where it wants to go, and where it will lead you. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, not before.”

8. Do the work you were born to do — and no one else’s. Bradbury believed we all have a creative purpose. As my mother often tells me, only you can write the book you were meant to write. Give five people the same subject matter, and each will write a different and unique story. It’s important to be who you are and recognize that your voice is original. In his poem “What I Do Is Me, For That I Came,” Bradbury writes: “Be not another. Be the self I signed you in your blood… I leave you gifts of Fate most secret; find no other’s Fate, For if you do, no grave is deep enough for your despair, No country far enough to hide your loss.”

(Thanks to David McMillan for the inspiration.)

February 28, 2013

I talk books

In 2000, I did my first ever interview as a published author (for The Ice Master) with Connie Martinson, whose television show, Connie Martinson Talks Books, has been on the air since 1979.

She has interviewed Barack Obama, Gore Vidal, Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Rosa Parks, Studs Terkel, Al Gore, and Joyce Carol Oates, among many, many others.

And last October, I spoke with her about Becoming Clementine. Enjoy!

(In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m looking at off-camera, she asked me to direct my replies to her questions at her purse, which sat over her right shoulder. Watch me as I try not to laugh!)

(And please “like” the video!)

February 25, 2013

The strangest (coolest) thing I ever found on eBay

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, the doomed ship Karluk, and the men, woman, and children who found themselves stranded in the Arctic in 1913, here is one of my favorite stories about writing The Ice Master.

It is January 21, 1914. After the ship goes down, the inhabitants of the Karluk are forced to live on the ice while they struggle to reach even some small scrap of land. On this day, Captain Bartlett sends an advance party toward Wrangel Island. There are four men in the party, led by twenty-one-year-old First Mate, Alexander “Sandy” Anderson, from Scotland.

They set out for Wrangel Island, but they only make it within five miles of its smaller, more desolate neighbor, Herald Island, before disappearing without a trace. Try as they might in the months to come, their shipmates never found a clue as to where
the men were, or what happened to them.

In 1924, another Arctic expedition made its way to Herald Island where they discovered the remains of a camp. A silver watch, a pocket compass, snow goggles, hunting knives, a nickel belt buckle. And then someone held up the jawbone of a man. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. From what they could tell by the pile of ashes on the ground, the men had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.

Afterward, their remains and the artifacts were sent to Canada for identification, and then they disappeared.

It’s now August of 1999 — 75 years later. Returning from a research trip, I came back to an email that read simply: “I found something that might be of interest to you.” It was from a friend in Wales, who had enclosed a link for an auction on eBay: “Arctic Expedition Remains from Stefansson’s ill-fated expedition.”

Somehow, they had surfaced, these artifacts from the Karluk. They had made their way from Herald Island in 1914 to my hands in 1999, just as I was reliving the history that Sandy Anderson and his comrades had endured. Now I could actually lay my hands on the past.

Even more amazing, they were purchased from a Chicago museum by a couple who run a cowboy memorabilia business in Colorado. They said they just happened to hear of the sale, that they had never purchased polar artifacts before, that the collection just sounded too incredible to pass up. Once the artifacts arrived in Colorado, however, they weren’t sure what to do with them. So they put them on eBay, the first time they’d ever used the auction site.

What are the odds of these treasures turning up again, just when I was working on The Ice Master? By now, through their diaries, letters and reports, and through my interviews, I knew these people intimately in mind and spirit.

But the day this old box arrived in Los Angeles, I connected physically with the men of the Karluk. I could hold in my hands the snow goggles, the silver watch, the nickel belt buckle, the old hunting knife, and the haunting human remains.

Through some dental detective work, I was able to conclude that the jawbone belonged to First Mate Sandy Anderson. In fall of 2000, I traveled to Scotland with the jawbone, and in Edinburgh met Peter Anderson, Sandy’s great-nephew.

Before he was able to return to his family and Scotland, Sandy died on a remote island that few people in the world had ever even heard of, much less ever seen. His descendants grew up hearing stories about his great adventure, but never knew exactly what happened to him, only that he was lost in the Arctic.

It was indescribably moving to take him home.

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