Monday, June 27, 2011

"Lovin' the Language" blogfest...Yes, I'm still writing.

Jolene Perry over at Been Writing is hosting a blogfest today, and though I was one of the early ones to sign up, I'm one of the last, I'll bet, to post. Blame it on jet lag. Blame it on residency brain leakage. Blame it on birthday business today. But here I am, with an hour and 45 minutes to go, so I think I'm doing okay.  :)

The challenge is to pick five lines or five short exerpts from a WIP and share them here. So here I go.

This is from a short story I recently wrote about an army officer recently discharged and trying to make it in the civilian world. I submitted this to workshop at school and got some great responses. If I have time, I'd like to fix it up some more and submit to a lit magazine somewhere. We'll see how it goes.

Anyhow - here are my five sentences.

The check printing plant is grey and drab, with low ceilings that feel claustrophobic. Fluorescent lights cast an unnatural glow over the line workers, creating the illusion of moving corpses, fitting for a dying industry. A few look up at me, vaguely interested, then bow back over their jobs, the printing room a bubble of loud machinery and humming conveyor belts. Every few seconds a machine in the corner lets a guillotine-like blade fall, whacking a stack of paper into smaller stacks of checks. 

He finally leaves me alone in a padded cubicle the color of cobwebs with no windows and a stack of manuals to read and memorize; I want to close the door and lay my head on the desk and cry, but there is no door.

If you have time, you should pop over to Jolene's blog and read her fantastic exerpt, and check out the links of other participants. And if you're really brave, maybe you'll put one or two of your favorite lines in the comment section here. I'd love to be inspired by you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

MFA Residency, Day ??? or I Did Not Fall Off the Face of the Earth

I sat at this funky little bakery/coffeeshop this morning, eating a ginormous cinnamon bun and drinking coffee and giving one last go-over of the last of the workshop stories, basking in the first early hours I've had off since I've arrived. It's been a crazy time here at residency, in all the best ways, except that there's been no time for writing; not creatively, not bloggingly. And so I apologize for my absence.

The residency is already winding down, and my brain is full. Although the schedule is much the same as the January residency, everything seems different. We are at a college campus, for one, and instead of staying at a hotel we live in dorms; instead of one to a room, we are four to an apartment. It is sunny instead of rainy, cool instead of cold. I know the schedule and the people instead of being a stranger who is just trying not to be lost. I feel like I belong, in all the best possible ways.

My roommates are amazing. I was fortunate to pick who I wanted to room with, and they picked me, and so much of the time I spent free on my own last January is spent with good friends this time, and a lot of laughing ensues, and long late nights talking about books and writing. Occasionally wine is involved. It's a bit of literary heaven.

I walk around with my nametag all the time. I sit at home in the dorm with it on, as though I might forget who I am. I am not always here who I am back at home. I am outgoing in a way I never am somewhere else. I walk up to strangers and say hi. I stride boldly across campus as though I belong here in this world where 18-year-olds regularly reside. Here I am nobody's mother. I do not kiss boo-boos or make dinner or clean other's dishes. There are no errands to run, no milk to buy, no one's homework to check but my own. I have given out the occasional band-aid, but I'm not in charge of cleaning the wounds. I laugh a lot, which I think I mentioned, but I also, somehow, make others laugh. I speak up in class, I read my writing from a podium, I do not hyperventilate, although I think my blood pressure goes up. It's conditioned to do so in such circumstances, I suspect.

Every day I attend three to four classes and a two hour workshop in which ten of us students and two advisors (faculty members) sit around and talk about each other's work. We eat together, and in the evenings we go to faculty readings, attend winery readings (oh the hardships!) and literary magazine-hosted events. In the late evenings there are student readings. It's amazing, and overwhelming, mind-boggling, and thought-provoking. It is, in short, everything you could possibly want from graduate school.

The classes have titles such as, "How To Be a Writer Every Day," and "When the Action is Hot, Write Cool," "Do I Dare Put this on the Page?" "First, Do No Harm: Thoughts on Characters and Redemption," "Thrilling, Death-Defying Adventures in Point of View," "The Secret of Once," and "The Body Never Lies."

Brilliant faculty members say things like:

"Fiction that counts is about people." (Jack Driscoll)

"We write to speak to what it feels like to be human and alive in the world." (Jack Driscoll)

"You don't have to be brilliant to write. You just have to work really, really hard... You can write books and stories that are smarter than you are." (Bonnie Jo Campbell)

"A good novel tells us the truth of the character, but a bad novel reveals more about the author." (Marvin Bell)

"We spend a lot of time talking about who is talking in a piece, but shouldn't we spend our time asking who is listening to it?" (Jess Walter)

"Read and steal, read and steal, until you find your own voice." (Jess Walter)

I have much to tell you, but no time here to do so. Hopefully all this information won't seep out of my brain once I'm back home. Hopefully I will remember. When I'm no longer here:

Monday, June 13, 2011

MFA Monday: The Last Word... on Dialogue

In three more days I'll be boarding a plane and heading off to my second residency program. A year ago, I was barely thinking seriously about going back to get my MFA, and now here I am, one semester under my belt and not completely sucking at it.

 I think my writing has gotten better. I hope I've gotten a lot better. Of course, if that was true, I probably wouldn't be using the word "gotten." :) Still, I can tell a big difference in both what I write, and how I revise.

Along the way I hoped to share some of what I've learned, but I'm not sure I've done that well. Part of that is that it's hard to put into words what I'm learning. The residencies provide hours and hours of teaching - very practical put-into-words kind of learning, but the rest of the semester, where I'm working on my own with my advisor, what I learn isn't as easily quantifiable or definable.

But here's a tidbit I learned about dialogue that I passed on to one of my critique partners this week that might help you:

Dialogue has two purposes: to show character, and to propel the plot.

It should not be used to dispense information that the narrative could give.

Simple, and yet such wise advice. If you look at dialogue in a book that just doesn't work for you, or that seems hokey, it's likely it's because it's trying to give the reader information needed for the story that the narration really should be telling. Or it's a conversation in which nothing happens. I know real people have those conversations all the time, but in a book, stick to what's important.

So that's my last words of MFA wisdom for the semester. I'll be on a plane on Thursday, and I'll try to update as often as possible from Oregon.

There is sure to be pictures. None of the ocean this time, since I will be at the Pacific University campus instead of the beach, but since the sun is scheduled to shine for the first few days at least, there will be pictures! :)

Beyond that... You tell me - if you happen to come back to this blog over the next two weeks, what would you rather read about? What I'm learning in class, or what I'm doing?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I Need a Beach with Sand and Water and Nothing around for Miles

My brain is mush.

We are wrapping up the school year for my kids here, and all that comes with it. In the last seven days we have attended my son's induction into the National Junior Honor Society, a birthday party for my father, my youngest daughter's baptism, my son's band concert, and my kids' piano recital. We also squeezed in a baseball game on Monday night - our only free night - because it was dollar night at the National's and we haven't been to a game yet this season, which is practically criminal. And the pool opened so we managed a few short hours there on Saturday, between morning and evening obligations.

In between, I've been running like crazy to buy my son a tie for the induction (he needed one, and his old ones were all way too small, which begs the question: What kind of Baptists are we that my son does not have a tie that fits???). At the induction we realized he'd also grown out of his pants, which I just bought in December, so back to the store for those before the concert. Also, teachers need end of year gifts. And also flowers for the piano teacher. And I need a raincoat for Oregon in a week. And there are residual doctor appointments from my surgery two weeks ago.

And somewhere in the last week I received the ten short stories from my workshop group that I need to read and critique before I get on a plane in seven days.

I need sleep. Or caffeine.

I was joking with a friend that I need to raid a kid's Ritalin stash - I'd be more focused, more awake, and possibly skinnier. Shouldn't life come with a prescription like that?

For now, I'll just rely on coffee and the excitement running through our house. I can sleep all summer when the kids are out of school, right?

Oh yeah - that's when my semester starts...

Maybe in a few years...

Friday, June 3, 2011


Yesterday, Jen Blom's debut middle grade novel was released. I couldn't have been more excited if it was my own book.

Even though I've seen the cover, it took my breath away holding it in my hand. I found myself saying, "It's a real book!"... Funny enough, the exact same words my writing group said to me when my book arrived at their homes.

It's something. Holding a book written by someone you know.

This book feels personal to me, too. You see, Jen and I started on the publication process about the same time. We'd both finished our first novels and were querying them when we met, and both commiserated thought the early query waters. We formed a writing group together with a few other lovely ladies, and she and I decided about the same time to begin new books.

It was Jen who, three years ago this summer, who challenged me to write 50,000 words in five weeks. At the time, that seemed monumental, but she was doing it, and if she could, so could I, I thought.

And thus I began my own journey with writing Some Kind of Normal. By August, I had finished the first draft of my novel, and Jen had finished Possum Summer.

Our paths in the process went in different direction at that point. I took a few more months to revise, and eventually went with an independent publishing house that took less than six months from acceptance to publication.

Jen queried, got an agent, went through the submission process, got an editor, spent lengthy time in a much bigger publishing house before her book finally made it to print. But seeing the book - holding it in my hands - brought back that summer in vivid form.

It is proof that dreams come true.

Jen writes more than anyone I know. Since writing that one book and querying it, I can think of six other books she has written, at least one of which is currently under contract, and the others in a holding pattern for a different publisher. She is amazing.

If you want to say congrats, you can stop by her blog here. I know it would mean the world to her - even if you don't buy the book. Really - we're all in this together - each step of the way - and every success by one of us should be celebrated.

And Jen - though I've said it so often to you, I want to say it here, too. I am so proud of you. You inspire me and challenge me. And I'm so happy for you that this day is finally here. May there be many, many more release days in your future!