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The Importance of Reading Ernest

After reading The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I become intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me.

I decide to read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, because the characters are thinly veiled sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. And because Ernest is a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal?

I buy the book, eager to read this minimalist style I keep hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encounter these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.

EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Aren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Isn’t Hemingway himself the icon of  lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?

The Road To Hell

I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I have the feeling that I’ve read this type of writing before. Then it hits me. It sounds like something my thirteen-year-old had written. And the shallow characters bewilder me. I’m confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m  also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I try dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only gets worse.

My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, comes to visit and notices the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles. He picks it up, and after telling me how brilliant it is, he asks how I like it.

“I don’t,” I whine. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”

My brother puts on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”

The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”

My brother nods, already immersed in the book.

“But what about the adverbs and the thens and ands?” I ask in a slightly less whiny voice.

My brother and my oldest daughter say in unison, “You’re over analyzing it. Just read it and enjoy it.”

My daughter is compelled to continue because she loves analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruin it when you analyze so much.”

So, I confiscate the book from my brother and start over— just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That makes all the difference. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I couldn’t put it down; thank God it’s not that long. I even find myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I rather think I’ll enjoy it.

Hemingway's Muses

Muses for The Sun Also Rises.

First posted in 8/2011

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Beyond the Book

Writing the book is the easy part. Getting it into the hands of readers, that is a daunting task. But I’m here to help. I’ll be contributing a series of posts explaining the journey to traditional publication at the Michigan SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten.

Today’s post, Beyond the Book-The Path to Traditional Publishing, gives a brief outline of the process and provides information on submitting to literary agents and acquisitions editors. Check it out.

magic, book, reading

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Nothing to Fear

elements_of_a_rose__fire_by_dieden2

You know that feeling. The heartsick compassion when persons thousands of miles away, in another culture, another world, suffer from tragedy. Earthquakes, tsunamis, war—how horrific, the pain inflicted on others. Yet deep down, there is a sigh of relief:

It’s not happening here.

Twenty-one Coptic Christians brutally beheaded by terrorists in Libya. Other atrocities captured on video, including the execution of 300 Syrian soldiers, a man being burned alive, a child shooting an alleged Israeli spy. We watch with horrified eyes.

Thank God, it’s not happening here. 

In February, a friend who lives in the area asks for prayers because someone she knows has been kidnapped by the Islamic State (ISIS). That poor man, and his family, and my friend.

Still, it doesn’t happen here.

Until last week. It happens here, in my town, to a person I know. Another Catholic. While ministering at a local hospital, terrorists threaten this person and this person’s family if the person does not convert to Islam. The police are notified, this person’s house put under surveillance.

Its shadow has arrived.

A few days later, our church offers a Mass for the twenty-one Coptic martyrs. I lector and my family attends. And a shadow of dread flutters through my heart because we are the hated enemy, praying for victims who died for their faith. Casualties in the war against us. During the Mass, the apprehension slips from my mind. But it returns on the way home.

It’s only a matter of time…

I worry about my children and my home and my neighborhood. We pull into our driveway, and I’m confronted by the statue of the Holy Family in my front yard and the angel under a tree. Declarations of the people who live here. For a brief moment, I panic. I have to get those things out of sight. But courage overshadows the fear. No, I don’t have to hide anything. They’re just where they’re supposed to be, proclaiming who we are.

Have no fear. I am with you.
Isaiah 41:10

Rose in Snow

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Passive Voice: Fuhgeddaboudit!

Today’s writing lesson.

passive aggressive,

 

 

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Choosing a Shade of Grey

My muse came to life on a summer day a few years ago. She smacked me upside the head and said, “Get to work.” I grabbed a pencil and a scrap of paper (I wasn’t at home) and dived into writing the novel that had been living inside my head for years.

East of Eden Steinbeck

The first draft flowed from my head to my fingers to the keyboard (As soon as I got home, I ditched the scrap paper.) until I came to the first sex scene. In a novel about marriage and infidelity in today’s culture, sex is going to happen. I just needed to write it.

In the early drafts, a sex scene went like this:

They spent another passionate night together.

Seriously. And that was one of the racier scenes.

I asked a few people to read the completed manuscript, including a marriage counselor. I just hoped they wouldn’t be offended by all the sex. I needn’t have worried. The marriage counselor told me the sex scenes were too vague. As for the women who read it, none of them mentioned sex in their feedback. They were probably too embarrassed to bring it up. I asked them if they thought there was too much sex. And they responded, “What sex?”

I mulled on this for awhile, but my muse got tired of waiting and spelled it out for me. When I wrote those scenes, they were playing out in my mind. So the words they were intimate or they spent a passionate night together, brought to my mind some graphic images. For the reader, those words evoked NOTHING. That was an invaluable writing lesson.

Grey, shades, color,

The secret to sex scenes was to choose the shade of grey needed to convey the image in my head to the reader without crossing the invisible, arbitrary line of TMI (Too much information). I needed to choose a shade of grey between one and fifty, one being light grey and fifty being dark slate Christian grey.

So, I rewrote the sex scenes using plain vanilla grey.

They kissed with desperate excitement, removing each other’s clothing in an eager frenzy. His lips moved over her body…

Not much better than the first. Why? Because writing these damn scenes was HARD. It was easier for me to bare my soul in my writing, than to bare my characters physically.

I tried again, taking a page from Victoria Holt and Harlequin romance novels. This shade was Silver Moonstone Purple Prose grey. My muse refuses to take credit for this version. And I can’t bring myself to share an entire passage. But here is a sample so you can get the general, painful idea:

…nothing she imagined could have prepared her for that night,  unbelievable pleasure, engulfed her,  rapture,  heady passion, fire welled up, consume her…

Romance Novels

Time to choose another shade of grey. I drank a glass of wine, closed my eyes and wrote what I saw in my mind while trying to walk the tightrope of what would be acceptable for the genre and audience. My muse patted me on the back when I’d finished and said, “You’re going to need another glass of wine because I have a great idea…”

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Pinch Me (Not Literally)

It works, you know. If you pinch yourself while you’re dreaming, you can’t feel it. I learned when I was young, during an awesome dream about David Cassidy. I pinched myself. I didn’t feel anything. In my dream, I realized David Cassidy was a dream. Dream ruined.

David Cassidy, Partridge Family, Heart throbs

I had another dream, but this one was for my life. I wanted to make books. And I’d chased that dream with high hopes and lots of enthusiasm. The book had been written. Literary agents researched, stalked, and researched some more. Queries sent. Waiting endured.

Just before Christmas 2014, Steven Chudney, an agent on my short list, sent an email offering to represent me.  It was, literally, a dream come true. I was afraid to pinch myself, but I did jump up and down with such exuberance, my kids thought I’d fallen down the stairs.

After accepting his offer, I waited for the dreamer’s pinch to wake me up: he’d changed his mind, he’d sent the email to the wrong person, or any of the million reasons I’d created in my mind.

It never came.

cheek_pinch

Steven had some perceptive advice on a few additional scenes the story needed. I worked on them and the copy edits he sent. I learned from these edits, among other things, that tee shirt and t-shirt are incorrect. It’s always T-shirt, people. I also realized how many times I use the word T-shirt.

I got the edits to him just after Christmas. He liked them and told me this baby was almost ready to go. Our book baby. Ours because we’d formed a partnership. It felt so good not to be in this alone anymore.

But first we needed to come up with a name. He thought A Voice Among the Thorns wasn’t teen friendly. Titles are not my forte, as you can see by some of my post titles, and I was on-board with changing it. We threw some ideas at each other and agreed on Ask Me to Wait. Steven’s idea. I loved it.

He began submitting it to editors and told me it would be two weeks to two months before we heard anything. That’s when it struck me that “ask me to wait” is a very utilitarian phrase—book title and writer mantra rolled into one.

Now I wait. They say it builds character.

paper-books-bookbinding

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Clara Cracks Some Nuts

Today I took my youngest daughter to see the Nutcracker Ballet for her first time. She was focused on the dancing, but I was focused on Clara. Clara is relegated to her little throne in The Land of Sweets for most of the second act, with nothing to do but watch the ballet and listen to the music.  She may smile graciously and applaud delicately like a princess, but you know her mind is buzzing around like a bee in a flower garden.

Nutcracker ballet, Clara

“They’ll never believe this at school.”

When the Nutcracker Princes crowns her, Clara smiles serenely, but she’s thinking, “They’ll never believe this at school.” Later as she reaches to adjust the glittering crown, she mutters, “This crown is killing me. But I’ll bet it looks awesome.”

As the Nutcracker Prince dances for Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara watches with wide eyes. “Forget Team Jacob or Team Edward. I’m on Team Nutcracker Prince now.” Then she remembers her horrid little brother and a smirk plays across her face (it’s quickly masked by a gracious smile), “I think I’ll have Nutcracker Prince dance on Fritz’s face when we get back.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet

“Forget Team Edward!”

Clara watches the Sugar Plum Fairy with annoyance— “That Sugar Plum Fairy is such a show off. But her tutu is to die for.”— before her attention is captured by the Arabian dancers (actually, just the male dancer). “Who is that? Hmmm, I think I want to meet him.”

Arabian Dance Nutcracker Ballet

“Who’s that?”

She eagerly awaits the end of the performance, until she realizes the Nutcracker is dancing the Pas de Deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara’s smile wavers. “Why is he dancing with her? He never looked at me that way. Hey, where’s his head?”

Sugar Plum Fairy Nutcracker Prince Pas de Deux

“Hey, where’s his head?”

Clara is filled with bitter fury. “It’s not fair. I loved him when he was an ugly little nutcracker.”
As the ballet draws to an end Clara smiles and waves, graciously accepting the Nutcracker Prince’s hand and the bows and curtsies of the dancers. But you know when the curtain closes there will be hell to pay.

The curtain draws to a close, but the show isn’t over for the Nutcracker.

Originally posted 12/11

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The One Less Traveled

rose black background

I know a man. He would say he’s ordinary, but I know he’s extraordinary. He took the road less traveled, and for me, it has made all the difference.  From him, I’ve learned the truth about love and sacrifice and humility.

I thought I learned all about those things growing up. I’d learned about love from soap operas and reality tv. I’d offered sacrifices to my brothers– “You drank out of my can of Pepsi? Well, I don’t want it anymore. Just keep it.” I’d experienced humility in gymnastics class when I took an unanticipated dive off the balance beam while uttering a few choice profanities. When I got married and had children and I learned more about love, but I still didn’t understand it.

Then I met a man. He has a friendly smile and a self-deprecating wit that can convulse a crowd with laughter while pointing out with laser-like precision, the folly and humanity of each of us, himself included. But he never leaves it there; he teaches us how to overcome those things if we desire. He treats every person with respect, no matter how stupid I think their question or remark is. He controls his snarkiness with a skill I can only marvel at (not being able to control my own).

He always makes time for me and anyone else that needs him, or wants him, or dislikes him enough to want to tell it to his face. People come to him to be unburdened and he welcomes them day and night. (He meets less often with happy, contented people; they don’t need him.) At his feet, we dump our sorrow and grief and anger and confusion and addiction and ignorance and hatred. When I’m with him, I know I’m the center of his attention, no matter how full his inbox is or how deep the garbage around him.  And when I leave, my burden is always easier to bear.

He spends his days knee deep in the misery that pools around him. I glimpsed it once, before he knew I was there. He was slumped in his chair, his head in his hands, the burdens of other’s squarely on his shoulders. And when I sat across from him, I could see it in his eyes and feel it in the air. I knew he didn’t get enough sleep and went many times without a meal.

Many people love him, but aren’t interested in him or his life or what he goes through. And I wonder if he sometimes feels alone amidst the humanity pressing about him constantly. Sometimes, even though you know you’re not alone, loneliness wraps around you and through you like a shroud. And I know, although he hides it well, that he longs for a moment of solitude.

I witness others watching him the way I watched my brothers around my can of Pepsi, hoping to catch him stumbling or better yet, falling down. They’re so intent on him as he journeys down his narrow road, they fail to see how often they themselves trip over the debris littering their own wide road. He faces the animosity aimed at him from every direction with unflinching humility, but I wonder how it affects him when he tries to sleep at night.

I could not walk in his shoes; it’s hard enough walking in my own and they’re much smaller. But he treads with a joy and humor that belie the things he hears and witnesses day after day. I’ve heard people ask him if he regrets his life. A look  of sincere astonishment crosses his face. Then he breaks into a smile that I’d call radiant if it didn’t sound so cheesy, and he says simply, genuinely,  “No. I love being a priest.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost two paths diverged

First posted in March 2012

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Thirty Second NaNo Break

NaNoWriMo Thirty Second Stretch

*WARNING:This stretch routine is not meant to take the place of a potty break.

1. Pectoral stretch and eye relaxation-Find a wall corner/doorway within view of computer screen. Keeping eyes focused on computer screen, stretch pecs as shown, switching arms after ten seconds.

pecs-stretching

2. Hamstring stretch and eye stretch-Move to the floorStretch as shown, switching legs after ten seconds. Stretch eyes by looking up at computer screen.

man-stretching

3. Imagination stretch and cardio-Run in place. Imagine you’re with Hugh Jackman and you look great in your bikini.

hugh-jackman-run-on-beach

4. Take a deep breath, exhale, and continue writing.

Another NaNoWriMo Thirty Second Break coming soon.

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Hey, Boo.

I was excited. My two youngest children were skeptical. With great fanfare, I had presented each of them with their own copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. I informed them that it was one of the best books ever written and they would love it. And to sweeten their dispositions, I promised a movie party after we’d finished the novel. The movie was as good as the book. Oh, and we’d buy lots of junk food to eat while we watched it.

Truman Capote took this photo of Harper Lee.

Truman Capote took this photo of Harper Lee.

I’d read it with their older siblings, now it was their turn. Even though they were older (twelve and fourteen), we read aloud together. That first day, we got our books and sprawled in the family room. Before diving in, we read some information about the time period the story was set in and what things were like when Harper Lee actually wrote it. We read about the trial that inspired her. Their eyes glazed over and after the history lesson, they escaped without ever opening their books.

I wasn’t worried. I knew they’d love it. How could they not?

Dill, Scout, Jem, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

The next day, I read the first chapter aloud then we discussed it. Once again they disappeared as soon as we’d finished. A tremor of apprehension went through me. Maybe they wouldn’t like it. But by the time we got to the fourth chapter, my daughter was asking if we could read “just one more chapter.” “Yes,” I’d answer. “Tomorrow.”

We discussed every chapter, real discussions. Not tooth-pulling sessions of I don’t know. Of course, we laughed too (Pass the damn ham was one of our favorite lines.) Harper Lee has a way of preparing the reader, subtly and with ineffable grace and humor, for what lies ahead.  By the time we came to the end of the book, we were reading three or four chapters per day at my children’s insistence.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The day we finished the novel was bittersweet. My daughter cried out, “No, it can’t be over. I want to read more. Is there a sequel?” There is no higher praise for a book or an author. As for me, I was sad that my last journey with my children and To Kill A Mockingbird had come to end. But my son told me not to worry. “You can read it to our kids someday.” As much as I’d love that opportunity, I think my children should read it to their children. It’s a marvelous journey to make together and they may learn something new. I learned after reading it for the bizillionth time that the callousness that comes with maturity is a survival instinct. Most of us aren’t strong enough to survive life’s ugliness without it.

In the coming years, as they struggle to mature and  make sense of the chaos that is life will my children say, “To Kill a Mockingbird showed me that fear begets cowardice, hypocrisy and prejudice go hand-in-hand, and courage forges the metal of integrity”?  Of course not, but the tender, bright hope that the story ultimately reveals buried under the layers of callused adulthood will echo through their minds when they need something to hope in: Hey, Boo.

Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird

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