Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Friday: It's A Good Thing - People Taking Care of People

I used to do a gratitude thing every Friday and I've gotten myself off blog habits lately. Maybe it's just been enough trying to write every now and then so you don't think I've completely disappeared. But I always loved doing these posts, and especially now when all the political drama in this country is focused on what we don't have, it's good to remember the good things.

And in the spirit of "It isn't all about me," this post isn't about what I have that I'm grateful for, although indirectly, it does shed light on that as well.

Last week, our local ACTS food pantry, a non-profit charity organization in our community that provides food for about 4,000 individuals a month who otherwise would not have food, shut down for the first time in years. Their shelves were bare.

This is the picture from the video they took when they sent out the announcement that they were shutting their doors for two weeks, hoping to acquire enough food in that time to reopen.

ACTS stands for Action in the Community Through Service. And that is what happened.

In a flurry of social media, word spread. Within hours, businesses like local appliance stores and organizations like kid swim teams and churches began collection sites for food. Before school let out for the day I received calls from my kids' elementary and middle schools asking for donations. You could literally sit and watch facebook or twitter and see the action taking place.

In less than three days, over $60,000 and 12,000 pounds of food had arrived at their doorstep. So much that they didn't have room for it all and had to use an empty tractor trailer to hold the extra.

The outpouring of relief came so fast and furiously, ACTS had to put out another plea for help: volunteers to help stock the shelves and bag food for needy families. And that, like the money and food, came all too willingly as well.

In less than a week, the pantry re-opened with $120,000 and 30,000 pounds of food donations.

Did the government do that? No. The people of this community did that. Individuals and small businesses. Kids. The elderly. Students. People with a lot to spare. And people with just a box of macaroni. People who couldn't spare food, but could spare their time.

Today, in my community, people are eating who otherwise would be hungry.

I'm overwhelmed by this. But not surprised. Because I think most people are really generous at heart, really do want to help people, but often don't know how. I think, when no government will step in, the people do.

(As an aside, my husband, who works for the government, dryly commented that if it were up to the government to fill the food bank, it would have taken six months of red tape and bureaucratic wrangling to make it happen.)

I could make a political statement out of this, but I'll leave it at this:

Last week, the shelves were empty.

This week, because of the generosity of hundreds of people like you and me, they are not.

Because one person gave one box of mac and cheese, one child will not go to bed hungry tonight.

And the person who gave that food had benefited in ways that will never show up in a checkbook.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More Ways to SAVE time by Wasting It!

I'm not always the first to jump on a bandwagon, or the first to even hear there is a bandwagon, but I like to pretend I'm a tiny bit tech savy. You know, for a liberal arts person.

So I'm a bit embarrassed that I only JUST TODAY found out you can get apps for your web browser.


Who knew?? (And if you did, don't rub it in my face!)

Just like on your smart phone or your itouch, you can download apps (many for free) for your computer. And, like the phone apps (sometimes EXACTLY like the phone apps), they can be helpful or just fun.

Like Angry Birds. You can wile away hours and hours on your computer hitting pigs by hurdling birds at them. While you write. (Up til now I've only done it in the car waiting at the bus stop.) (Which brings me to think I'm not that smart because if I wanted to hurl birds at pigs, my phone is completely portable which means I could take it to where I'm at my computer and play it there.) (Although then there is the question of why I'm on the computer at all, if all I want to do is play with birds and pigs and I can do that on my phone.)

I found this out by stumbling on this website: Ten Google Chrome Apps That Will Make You A Better Writer. (You wouldn't be wrong if you guessed Angry Birds is not one of those.)

Aside from the fun ones, there are some interesting apps that could be useful, some of which require you to be using Google Chrome, but others of which also are on Firefox apps (Yes, Firefox also has apps, which I found out about 15 seconds after finding out Chrome has apps). (I have no idea about Safari or other browsers, but I'm guessing they do too).

The most promising ones are the White Noise App, which is much better for blocking sounds than plugging my ipod in my ears and listening to music which tends to then drive the mood of my story rather than the mood coming from the story itself.

 There is a "Stay Focused" one that cuts off your time-wasting webpage browsing when you are supposed to be working. Ouch! I'll waiting for the "Hand that comes out of your screen and slaps you" app.

There are a few writing apps that black out your screen so all that is there is a black background and your writing, so you can write without distractions. (Check out Write Space; it works off line and saves with every keystroke, so you don't lose anything!) That's pretty cool in theory. Now if only it could also black out the room, the dog, the kids, the pile o' laundry, the dishes, and the bowl of popcorn.

The top ten list doesn't highlight all the good ones though. There's a timer one I like, which also could be pretty cool for managing how much time I spend on blogs or facebook or emails. You can set it for any amount of time and then the buzzer goes off. I can see using that to focus my writing (20 minutes of pure writing and then I get to check emails...) or facebook (10 minutes of facebook and then it's BACK TO WORK for you young lady!!) (That is totally what the buzzer should sound like, by the way.)

There's Quicknote, too, which is like the old yellow legal pads I love so much. You can type notes and add pictures and such on it. I love that idea as opposed to taking notes in Word, because... well, it's a legal pad. I love legal pads. They are so yellow. And lined. And remind me of college (although in college I used lavender and sky blue legal pads, which are much cooler but harder to find).  Also, it's easy to tell the difference between my notes and my actual writing that way. It also allows you to save them online so you can access them from anywhere you have internet - like when you are at the bus stop playing angry birds on your phone and suddenly think of a great idea for chapter four.

In relation to my love of legal pads, there is also a sticky note app. Who doesn't love a good sticky note? And this one lets your choose your color, and they don't accidentally fall off when you aren't looking and then you can't find it when you really need to remember that outstanding idea you had for your elevator pitch that would have agents crying and begging for your manuscript right this instant. Ah yes... if I had this app years ago I'd be a female James Patterson by now.

I could go on and on, but if you are interested, just head over to "the store" and browse around. But get the timer first, otherwise you might be there all day!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ha Ha Ha H ---Hey... Wait a minute!

 I saw one of these on Facebook two days ago. Yesterday I saw the other one. Now there's an equal opportunist cartoonist!

Monday, October 10, 2011

MFA Monday: Blast to the Past (Incorporating flashbacks without your agent hating you)

If you're a writer and you've been around the block a while, you've probably heard the advice to nix the backstory in your stories. Flashbacks stop the forward movement of the narrative, slowing down the reader and bringing the action to a screeching halt. It's considered bad writing, and I've heard agents go so far as to say they won't read more of a manuscript if it has backstory in those first pages.

But rules are meant to be broken, right? The trick is to learn to do it well.

A few years after I started writing in earnest, a friend game me The Friday Night Knitting Club, and as I read it I felt like banging my head on the wall. This whole book is a series of flashbacks! How did she get published?? I screamed in my head.

This semester I've read a number of other books that rely heavily on flashbacks as well. Russo's That Old Cape Magic is a story where the real story is in the character's past, one he distills through his present. Cleave's Little Bee is another where the important events of the past unfold in the present. In Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, the characters' history are far more important than their present. All of these books have at the heart of their plot and structure personal history influencing a character's modern life.

Two weeks ago I read Elizabeth Strout's novel Abide with Me, and although the story itself takes place in the character's present, Strout used extensive flashbacks to fill in the details of how the characters had arrived at this place in their lives.

So I did what I've been doing lately in my program and stopped to figure out how Strout, along with all these other authors, was breaking the rules so successfully. If everyone seems to be saying we shouldn't include backstory, why do we do it anyway, and how can we do it well?

So in short, this is what I've come up with.

First off, what's the difference between backstory and flashback? 

A flashback is an interjected scene that takes the reader back in time to a point before where the current story is taking place.

Backstory is the history of characters or elements that underlie the situation that currently exists.

Sound confusing? Look at it this way: backstory is like telling, where flashbacks are like showing. A flashback will give you the backstory by putting it in a specific context through actions or dialogue.

When should you use flashbacks and backstory?

Backstory should be included when it adds historical and emotional context or develops character, enlivens the narrative with specificity, and knowingly controls the pace (by slowing it down), but it is most interestingly doled out through flashbacks - scenes or mini-scenes. Those flashback mini-scenes can be as short as just a line of dialogue, or as long as a chapter.

In the book Abide with Me, the story is about a pastor whose wife has died about a year before the story starts. The dead wife is as much a character as her husband, but as she's dead, the only way to know her is through flashbacks. One very early one is when the pastor looks down and notices the frayed cuffs of his dress shirt - a detail that brings out how neglectful he is of himself now that she is gone. In noticing them, though, he reflects that they "had reached the point where his wife would have taken it for herself, cutting the sleeves off midway and wearing it with her bright pink ballet tights that had not feet."  A mini mini scene! This is one of our first glimpses of his wife, and in just that short memory we get a feel for the kind of free-spirit she was.

How do you include flashbacks without jolting the reader?

The most seamless way I've seen it done is by association. In the above example of the shirt cuffs, Strout used one physical object in the present (the frayed cuffs) to bring to mind a memory of another (his wife wearing his shirts with ballet tights). If you read that chapter, you'd find that flashback continues for several pages, describing a confrontation he had with her once about how her wearing his shirt reflected on her as a pastor’s wife, and how she had hated the restrictions that imposed. Then, just as easily, Strout slips the narrative back into the present day as Tyler asks his housecleaner what he should do about the cuffs.

 My brilliant advisor also taught me something she calls "the secret of once." By using the word "once," - or a variation on that which shows a specific time period - the writer can slip mini-scenes in without hardly slowing the narrative down at all.

In one of my own recent chapters, my character Kat was standing watching her brother fall apart after the death of their parents. It was the perfect opportunity to reveal some of her backstory:

Kat leaned against the wall watching her brother. She wanted him to turn the sound on, let the monotonous roar of the game drown out the silence that filled the house – and her – but instead, the quiet grew.

Once, just a week after he was born, she’d done this same thing, leaning against the door jam to his nursery and watching his tiny chest rise and fall, the room smelling like baby powder and Dreft. Her mom had found her there and shooed her off. “If you wake him, you’re the one holding him until he goes back to sleep,” she’d said crossly. Gladly she’d have held him, if anyone had let her.

She took a step towards him and waited to see him turn and acknowledge her, but his eyes never left the screen. 

Orient your reader with the words. Indicate the time shift by verb tense. If you are writing in the present, flashbacks will be in the past, but if you are already writing in the past tense, indicate the flashbacks by use of the past perfect form of the verb (had found, had worn). If it's a longer scene, just use the past perfect very at the beginning and end of the flashback, kind of like parenthesis cordoning off the passage as something from the past.

Flashbacks are not evil. They are such a powerful tool to enrich your character's lives and add depth to a story. They can even become the story. The trick, like all writing, is to do it well. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Love What You Do.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

I never felt like I knew Steve Jobs. He wasn't family, or even someone whose face I saw often. He wasn't a movie star or recording artist I saw or heard on a daily basis like an old friend.

And yet I did let him into my life, in a greater way than any celebrity.

Every day, I wake up and turn on my iphone before I get out of bed, check the weather on it to see what to tell the kids to wear to school, peruse emails quickly to see if I missed something important in the night. I kick on the ipod to listen to music as I shower and get dressed and fix the kids' breakfasts and pack their lunches. Once they are out the door, the rest of the day I sit with my MacBook attached to my lap.

I have written three entire novels on my mac laptops, and uncounted partial novels, flash fiction and short stories. I have sent tens of thousands of emails. The first laptop I wore all of the letters off the keyboard. Literally, it's now like typing on it blind. You better know where your fingers go, because there's nothing there to guide you. And yet, nearly eight years later, that ibook still runs fine, hums without a care in the world, no viruses, no popups, no sudden freezing. I love that computer more than I should love an inanimate object.

When I sit at Starbucks with a friend who tells me about a new great song that she loves, I can download it right there and listen to it. I can find the carbohydrates in the coffees and pastries with my carb app that allows me to keep my blood sugar even. When I am waiting in the car at the bus stop for my kids, I can play angry birds and scramble and Sudoku. I can read a book on the phone. When I am lost or trying to find a restaurant, my phone will help me get there. When my children were babies - before my youngest was even born - Pixar changed the way we watched movies as a family. It gave us something to watch that my husband and I could love as much as the kids. Toy Story and Finding Nemo shaped our language.

How Steve Jobs has changed our lives cannot be overstated.

In 1980, when our phones were still tethered to the walls and envelopes with stamps were the only way to write friends, he imagined taking the hulking computers out of universities and businesses and putting them in the home, in a package small enough to put on a desk. He visualized every one being connected by that computer, in ways that hardly any one at that time could wrap their heads around.

Steve Jobs did not follow the trends, he set them.

"It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

How true is this of writing? If we are constantly running after the trends, we will be missing them. There was not a wizard trend before Rowling. There were few sparkling teen vampires before Meyers.

I don't know a lot about Steve Jobs as a person. I never met him or saw him live. I haven't read a book about him. I only know his products, and his work ethic, and the values he talks about in speeches. I know that his products are dependable. I know he was passionate about what he did, and that love showed in what he made. I know he was occasionally humble, even when he shouldn't have been. I know that, even though he made a lot of money, money didn't drive him. I know that he worked hard and loved what he did, and was grateful every day for being able to live that kind of life. I know that he wanted to make a difference.

I know that his work wasn't always easy. He didn't find immediate success. He didn't stay successful, but he didn't give up. He was compared to other CEOs, his products and company compared to other products and companies, sometimes favorably but often not. People laughed at his vision.

But he kept at it. A lesson for us writers, and parents, and artists, and business people.

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle." 

The road is not always easy, but I am always so thankful to be on it. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Am I Confusing You?

I don't get around to blogs as nearly as I want to anymore. If I hit them all once a week I'm doing well these days, but I had to check out Patti Nielson's post today entitled "The Phone Call." And while it wasn't a phone call from an agent, it was a great blog post posing the question, how much information is necessary to dole out to a reader right away?  If you want to know how that relates to a phone call, go read the post!

I've been thinking about this lately because in one of the packets I sent to my advisor this semester, I included a prologue to my book. I know that prologues are not in vogue with agents these days, but they do always say, "Figure out where your story really starts and begin there," and my story really starts ten years before my character comes back to her home town. And also, I wanted to avoid the opening scene being a girl driving back into town reminiscing.

So I started the prologue by dropping the reader into a scene, just like I've seen agents say readers want. There is immediate conflict, immediate action, immediate drama. I liked it.

I sent it off to my advisor with the question: Does this work as a beginning to my story?

Her answer, because she is just this wise, was "I can't tell you that." And then she proceeded to ask me all sorts of questions to help me answer my question myself. It's a Socrates thing, I guess. Which is totally working for her, because the things she ask teach me - not just about this particular book (which is what would have happened if she just said, "Yes. By all means make this your prologue!"), but she's made me think about beginning any book, and what needs to happen in those opening pages.

While she does say the scene absolutely needs to be in the books, she also pointed out that it didn't necessarily need to go first, even though that's where it fits chronologically. (I'm learning a lot about this from her... how to fit all my character's history in with vivid scenes that don't feel like backstory.)

But also, you not only have to hook a reader in the opening pages, you also need to not lose them.

Don't introduce too many characters we can't keep track of.

Release information on a need-to-know basis. Only include what is necessary to know; don't clutter the scene with information the reader might think is important that actually isn't.

On the flip side, if the reader needs to know something, give it to them! Don't drop them so suddenly into a scene that they don't know where they are or what is happening. Not that you should take away the suspense factor, but you shouldn't leave them confused either.

This is what she said:

"You want your prologue [or first chapter] to pull the reader in by raising questions that we really want to get answered....What you don’t want it to do is leave us wondering, sentence by sentence, what is going on here? In other words, you should be in control of what questions will arise in the reader’s mind."

I think for me the only way I can check if I'm doing this right is asking someone else to read the pages for me, and then asking them, "What do you think is going to be important here? What do you wish you knew? Were you confused by anything you wish I'd clarify?" 

It's a delicate balance, I think, between giving the reader enough information that they aren't confused, but little enough to entice them to read more.

As a reader, how much lack-of-information are you willing to tolerate at the beginning of a book, and how long will you read before you need the blanks filled in?