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

June 4, 2013

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

TiredMe

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.)

TiredLulu

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!

Jenphotophoto

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.

February 22, 2013

The Literary Cat

“What greater gift than the love of a cat?” — Charles Dickens

There are literary cats and then there are Literary Cats.

Charles Dickens had a very famous Literary Cat named Wilhelmina. In his London house, you can see the desk where he and Wilhelmina worked and, if you get close enough, you can see the imprint of cat claws etched into the wood.

Whenever Wilhelmina needed attention or thought Dickens had been at it too long, she would raise a paw and scratch the desk. If this didn’t get the desired results, she would snuff out the candle.

I have three literary kitties and, while I love them equally, I am particularly bonded with Lulu. She, like Wilhelmina, is a Literary Cat of the highest order. Let’s just say she has more… exuberance… for working with me than any other cat I’ve known. (For more on that, you can read about a typical day with her in a blog I wrote for Penguin.)

As I spend upwards of 14 hours a day at my desk seven days a week, working feverishly toward a May 1 deadline (which feels as if it’s five minutes from now in terms of HOW LITTLE TIME THERE IS TO DO ALL I NEED TO DO), Lulu has rarely left my side. Sometimes this is good, sometimes… challenging (depending on what she’s occupying herself with), but when you’re deep in the writing cave, it’s wonderful to have the company.

And she makes me laugh.

Here is Lulu at work. I’ve tried to put them in sequence.

(Note: When she isn’t taking apart the printer or running away with post-its pulled from research books, she does a good bit of gazing at me. Sometimes lovingly, sometimes impatiently.)

 

(No, I didn’t tuck her in. She did that herself.)

February 20, 2013

100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition

In The Ice Master, I recounted the true story of what was supposed to be the greatest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, and what instead turned out to be one of the most harrowing polar survival stories of all time.

In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. Six weeks later, the Arctic winter had begun, the ship was imprisoned in ice, and those on board had been abandoned by their leader.

For five months, the Karluk remained frozen in a massive block of ice, drifting farther and farther off course, until the ice tore a hole in the vessel’s hull, and Captain Robert Bartlett, the ice master of the title and the man hired to command the Karluk, gave orders to abandon ship (to the strains of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” playing on the Victrola).

Which was how Captain Bartlett, twenty-one men, an Inuit woman and her two small daughters, twenty-nine dogs, and one pet cat found themselves shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land…

Over the years, many tributes have been paid to Captain Bartlett (one of my biggest heroes) and his comrades, but this year is particularly special– it is the 100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition.

In honor of these 100 years, articles are being written and documentaries are being filmed. The Canadian Mint has released two commemorative collector’s items– a fine silver dollar and a 14 K gold coin. I’ve also been invited to return to the Arctic and Wrangel Island in August 2014 as part of the 100th anniversary of the rescue.

Each week, I’ll post something here relating to that expedition– a rare photograph, a letter or diary excerpt written by one of the scientists or crewmen who sailed aboard the Karluk, a clip of the rescue footage, a behind-the-scenes story about writing the book.

Though called a hero in his lifetime, Captain Bartlett would most likely be surprised by such tributes all these years later. As he once observed, “The truth was I could not stop myself in pursuit of adventure. I was committed to the Arctic. I’d got the poison in my veins.”

February 7, 2013

The creative hunch

“A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.” — Frank Capra

Right now I am at my desk many, many hours every day (that includes weekends). The current project: American Blonde, the fourth novel in the Velva Jean series. Technically, I’m supposed to be editing the novel right now, based on my editor’s first round of notes. But what I’m actually doing is re-envisioning and re-outlining and, for the most part, rewriting the entire book from about page 15 on, which means I am throwing out around 600 pages of material.

While my editor did have lots of notes, rewriting the book wasn’t one of them. That’s all me.

I have until May 1st to do this, and it’s going to be– let me think of the polite word– challenging. The easier thing would be to implement her notes and some of my own, cut and rewrite here and there, work on one of the characters who needs working on, and maybe move some scenes around or re-envision small sections. But that would be cheating Velva Jean and American Blonde and, ultimately, myself.

Because I know, deep in my creative bones, the story I want to tell in this book. The story I should tell. The story that is more organic to Velva Jean and her journey and the setting she finds herself in. It’s the story I almost wrote last year when I was working on the book for the first time, but ended up putting aside for one reason or another, mostly time constraints– I just didn’t feel I had enough time to do that original story justice in the short period I had to write it.

The lesson: Always, always listen to your first instinct. This is something I’ve learned time and again. Usually I listen. This time I didn’t. Now I have less time than before to come up with, essentially, a brand new book. But it has to be done.

If I didn’t rewrite it, maybe no one would know. Maybe they would even enjoy the story as I wrote it last summer. But I would know. And every time I picked up that book, I would think of what it could have, should have been.

So the next time you have a creative instinct, listen to it, try it out, sit with it for a while, let it simmer, see if it flourishes. Honor it. That particular idea may not be something you need to follow all the way to the end. But then again, it may be exactly where your story wants to go.

It’s funny how stories let you know the way they want to be told.

February 4, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Our Town!

My mom’s brilliant biography of Thornton Wilder debuted in October of last year, and today marks the 75th anniversary of his most enduring work, Our Town. Here’s a little something Mom wrote up for the Wall Street Journal in honor of the play, the day, and the man himself.

Why Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ is 75 Years Young
By Penelope Niven

When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opened on Broadway February 4, 1938 – 75 years ago today — no one was more surprised by its success than Wilder himself. He did not foresee that the play would win the Pulitzer Prize, or that well into the 21st century, “Our Town” would survive and thrive on and off-Broadway, and in theaters across the United States and around the world. As the play went into previews, Wilder was afraid it would be a failure. In January 1938 he wrote, “OUR TOWN, opening in Boston, had such bad reviews that a second week was canceled, and the manager engaged a New York theater which was free for only a week and a half.”

But 75 years later, people are still watching the play. Ford’s Theatre in Washington is hosting the national celebration of this anniversary with an “Our Town” production that runs through February 24. There are 75th anniversary stagings around the country and abroad. “Our Town” was borne out of the American experience, yet other countries import it as their own. The play still speaks across cultures, across time zones, across languages. By some accounts it is the most produced American play ever.

I discovered “Our Town” as a teenager in Waxhaw, North Carolina, population nearly a thousand. I was positive the play was written about Waxhaw. This was 1957 in my town, not May 7, 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Thornton Wilder’s mythical town. In a 1938 preface Wilder wrote that his play “sprang from a deep admiration for those little white towns in the hills and from a deep devotion to the future. These are but the belated gropings to reconstruct what may have taken place when the play first presented itself — the life of a village against the life of the stars.”

He went on to clarify the “unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?

“What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?”

Wilder the dramatist was writing, he said, for and about everybody, for and about each one of us. “Since my play is about Everybody, everybody is in my play,” he reflected in later years.

He had been writing plays and acting in them since boyhood. In the fall of 1938, he briefly played the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” filling in while actor Frank Craven took time off from the very successful Broadway run that would ultimately total 366 performances in ten-and-a-half months. Wilder was nervous about memorizing the lines he had written. He “wasn’t very good,” he wrote to his sister Isabel after one performance. He got better, however. “I went through my paces without a single fluff, ‘tho’ I perhaps didn’t put quite enough umph into the prelude to Act III,” he wrote. He took the criticism in stride when reviewers assessed his performance: “I see in the paper. . . that I was no ball of fire.”

But he got mostly stellar reviews as a playwright, including a recent tribute from Edward Albee: “If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town– not for its giant Americanness but because it is a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave.”

Albee’s words go to the heart of Wilder’s intentions for the play. Wilder wrote, “In the last act of ‘Our Town’ the author places upon the stage a character who – like the members of the audience – partakes of ‘the smallest events of daily life’ and is also a spectator of them.

“She [Emily] learns that each life – though it appears to be a repetition among millions – can be felt to be inestimably precious, though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly, and incommunicably. At that moment there are no walls, no chairs, no tables = all is inward. Our true life is in the imagination and in the memory.”

Seventy-five years ago, having poured his imagination, his memory and his heart into his play, Wilder grew more confident about the future of “Our Town.” He wrote to a friend, “At all events I do not mind from critics the charge of immaturity, confusion, and even pretentiousness.” The play was “a first sally into deep waters.” He hoped “to do many more – and better – and even more pretentious. I write as I choose; and I learn as I go; and I’m very happy when the public pays the bills.”

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »