Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The launching pad

Every novel starts somewhere. The author's job is to snag readers with that opening and keep them captivated.
Those first lines should be enticing or arresting. They should evoke the tone of the book, be compatible with the theme and storyline.
In reading through the 100 Best First Lines chosen by the editors of the American Book Review, I picked a few that got my attention. And, by the way, this still being Banned Books Week, a number of these amazing books also make those lists. Go figure.
I considered making this a quiz with the book title and author at the bottom of the post or in the comments section, but, hey, you probably don't want to work that hard. You can test yourself by trying to guess before reading the identity. I'm putting the lines in italics to set them off from the rest of the post and giving the number of where they fell in the 100 Best First Line list.
#3: A screaming comes across the sky.
My immediate reaction to "a screaming," rather than "a scream" and to it coming from "across" the sky is WHAT? WHY? So I'm hooked. The book is Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
#8: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Thirteen. Need anything more? This one is 1984, George Orwell.
#15: The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.
I love me some ennui. Gotta be Samuel Beckett, Murphy.
#16: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Um, do I need to tell you? The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
#21: Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
After this, of course, you may be lost. Ulysses, James Joyce.
#26: 124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom.
Spooky, much? Beloved, Toni Morrison.
#38: All this happened, more or less.
A little time shift, anyone? Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut.
#39: They shoot the white girl first.
Oh, boy. This is a loaded sentence that drags the reader in, despite misgivings. Yes, it's going to be tough and probably brilliant. Paradise, Toni Morrison.
#52: We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
Bleak, but beautiful, somehow. I kept reading when I found it years ago. Tracks by Louise Erdrich.
#53: It was a pleasure to burn.
Many of you may know this iconic first line from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
#65: You better not never tell nobody but God.
This is going to be intense, and I want to know why. The Color Purple, Alice Walker.
#96: Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimension of space.
A chewy thought that you know is going to be explored. Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye.
#97: He--for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it--was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
Say what? Gotta know more of this strange tale. Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Think your first line has got what it takes? You can share it in the comments section or just drool about the above. I'd love to hear any thoughts on this subject.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Take the challenge and read this book

I don't know if men react to THE HANDMAID'S TALE as women do. Or if anybody experiences what I do. It wounds me and heals me. It terrifies me and comforts me. It astounds me and fortifies me.

It is most extraordinary storytelling told with full writerly skill by prize-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Take, for instance, some lines early in the book about the ordinariness of the protagonist's life: "We were people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories."

Or this as she throws her body on top of her child's to protect her from the guns of pursuers: "I don't want to smother her, instead I curl myself around her, keeping my hand over her mouth. There's breath and the knocking of my heart, like pounding, at the door of a house at night, where you thought you would be safe."

I shut the book cover last night, after reading the story again, and felt as if I'd been on journey to a place that exists in imagination but has foundation in our world. I had searched my bookshelves for old friends and this one reached out her arms. I am so grateful that I embraced her again.

This is Banned Book Week and I decided to participate through blogging and reading books that have been challenged, a word used to describe an effort by someone in a community to have a book removed from a library or school. Published in 1986, THE HANDMAID'S TALE, was among the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990-2000.

Like Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451, another challenged book, this is a dystopian novel where knowledge and the written word are considered too dangerous for everyday folks like us. And, as in Lois Lowry's THE GIVER, also challenged, a centralized power is in control of all economic and social aspects of the society.

When I picked up Atwood's book to re-read it, I only remembered the most harrowing aspects of the tale, so it was almost like reading a new book. I was swept away with the pace and suspense and totally enamored of the rich language: "I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter."

The book is most often challenged for sexual reference and for its portrayal of fundamentalist Christian doctrine taken to ultimate extremism. But the sex in the book is sad and horrifying, not titillating or gratuitous. The protagonist is called Offred, her real name taken away, as she is forced to become a handmaid to a Commander and his wife. Her role is to bear children for them as Jacob uses Rachel's maid in Genesis. The ruling fundamentalists think they are creating a better world where women are protected, but, as history has shown repeatedly, absolute power corrupts. What they've created is brutal.

The book doesn't end with a concrete resolution. You are left to imagine what may have been the final fate of this woman. In an epilogue, which Atwood calls Historical Notes, a future conference of academics discuss with aloofness and jest this strange period and the tapes left behind by the woman. As a writer, I was fascinated at the view this discussion gives of Atwood's world building.

This a book to be devoured. And protected. Always.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Adopt a book

We are embarking upon Banned Book Week, and I urge everyone to read a challenged book. Show your support of open-mindedness, your willingness to explore a culture foreign to you, your unending thirst for thought-provoking ideas, even though you may not agree with them.

It is astounding and appalling to see the list of books that were burned, banned or challenged over time and to realize new books are targeted every year. How much less rich in intellect and spirit the world would be without:


















The above is just a partial list. The American Library Association lists books challenged by year, as well as information on Banned Book Week, Sept. 26-Oct. 3. Author Laurie Halse Anderson wrote on her blog about challenges to SPEAK and TWISTED and shared part of her thoughtful defense of her books. Her post and the comments section are well worth your time to read.
Also check out the Book Kids interview with E. Lockhart about a challenge to THE BOY BOOK.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tiny Tale Tuesday, The Netters

The Netters sprang from behind the kelp-shrouded blind and raced sloppily across the mushy sand toward the boy.

It was a rare sighting, and they held their great nets high overhead, each daring to hope she might be the one to snag a boy as a prize.

The last time anyone bagged a boy was when one was caught playing with fat, happy sea cows. But after the Fur Snatchers robbed the sea cows of their pelts, the survivors stopped being happy and went away. The Netters knew where they had gone, but no boys were to be found there.

Flora Net leaped over a slick rock and stubbed her toe, which was soft and pink as a baby's. "Arrgh!"

The boy glanced toward the Netters and jumped higher than Flora ever could.

"Look at him leap! How he flies!" exclaimed Star Net.

"Shut up, Sister, and move your tail. He gets away."

By the time the Netters mastered the rhythm of their limbs and came to where the boy had been, he was gone. Nothing but a small, boyish footprint in the sand, fading as the tide lipped it.

"No one will believe we saw a boy." Flora relaxed her body into the retreating water, let it tug on her hair, as she floated out to sea.

Star joined her, watching the first of her namesakes gleam in the darkening sky.

"Someday, my sister, we will catch a boy. Someday."

Tiny Tale Tuesday is an irregular feature--thanks to blog friend Robyn who suggested I make it so after I last posted a photo with a flash fiction accompaniment. I took this shot as the sun set in San Clemente. And, yes, technically I'm posting this Monday night--blame it on the Netters.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We all come from somewhere

I am from leaping
into piles of papery leaves
with no concern
for what might lurk.
I am from wandering
in thickety-woods
with salt in my hand
and cider on my tongue--wary of neighborhood ghosts.
I am from icicles
long as swords
and miniature worlds
I am from licking thick
maple syrup drizzled
on powdery-pure
fresh snow.
I am from reading
about lost ponies
and making a fence
for a plastic herd.
I am from solemn pledges,
earning badges.
eating s'mores
by campfire.
I am from catching
pink salamanders alone at the creek
and chasing fireflies, who might be fairies,
on summer nights.
I am from skunk weed,
pond water, hanging barns,
rotting porches and
cardinals bright as blood.
I am from girls who
leave others behind
and boys who whisper
forbidden truths.
I am from helping
measure gunpowder into
paper rolls in the secret
stillness of his basement.
I am emerging from innocence but I don't know it yet.
This is a writing prompt used as an exercise, which began with a poem, "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon. I got the idea of trying this from author Marilyn Donahue whose new blog, Lines in Time, is full of tips for richer writing.
I chose to recall a two-year-period of my childhood spent in rural Ohio. You can pick anything, any place and mine it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Let the rumpus begin

Wander into the children's section of any bookstore these days and you will find Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE in giant stacks and prominent displays.
It's still a most beloved book even forty-five years after winning the Caldecott Medal. The reason for the current abundance, though, is to sell more books now that a movie is to be released Oct. 16. Director Spike Jonze certainly had to take liberties in order to make a feature-length film out of the simple storyline of a rambunctious boy named Max, who is sent to bed without supper and imagines a world where he becomes king of the wild things.
My favorite line may be: he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are. Oh, and then they roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth. And Max sends them to bed without supper.
Such magic deserves replay, or, in this case, re-read. I hope anybody with children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighborhood kids or any other available small fry acquires a copy of the book and reads it again or for the first time--before going to the movie.
Any fans of the story and illustrations should check out Cory Godbey's amazing online display of paintings by more than 100 artists inspired by WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. The works are scenes from the story reinterpreted by the artists in a variety of styles, everything from whimsical and atmospheric to abstract. This homage is humbling and awesome.
Did you or your kids love this book? I still do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Whose head am I in?

I was merrily reading a book, a sequel I'd gone out of my way to acquire, when suddenly, my sheer enjoyment of the storyline came to a halt, and I went, huh?
I didn't know whose head I was in. A minor character began thinking things, which interrupted my exciting journey with one of the two main characters. It seriously bummed me out.
Point-of-view is a sore point with me, and, yes, I'm using the same word three times in one sentence to make a point. I'm sure everyone knows that POV is the eyes through which we tell our stories. We can write in first, second, third or omniscient POV, but somebody is taking us on the journey. And the reader gets used to knowing who is talking to them. You really don't want to make the reader go, huh?
At the very least, anything that takes a reader out of story may irritate or confuse them. At worst, they may stop reading the book and not buy another by that author. My advice to both aspiring and published authors is to think before you bounce between heads.
Many times when I encounter these rough patches, the POV switch was not necessary. The author may defend it, saying there is no other way to let us know some vital information, but most often that is not true.
In the book I mentioned above the information imparted by the minor character could have been inserted with dialogue and action, thus never upsetting this sensitive reader or leading to this blog rant. And, no, I won't name book or author. First, because I don't want to go that route and, second, because this type of writing can be found everywhere.
I have had this discussion with other writers. Some defend multiple and frequent POV switches, pointing out best-selling authors who do it, and others shrug and say they think it's becoming more popular. At the risk of stretching my neck waaaay out there (I picture some of you sharpening your axes), I think it's lazy writing, an easy way to plop info into the story. And that's how it makes me feel as a reader, like I've been plopped on.
To be clear, I'm not talking about the classic method of presenting different characters' perspectives in alternating chapters. Readers can get their bearings in stories told that way. What I'm describing is being in a scene with a bunch of characters and wondering, "Was that thought Joan's? No, we were just in Joe's head. Oh, is it Jane who's thinking now?"
Trust me. You really don't want to make me go, huh?
The comment section is open. Fire away. I've got my flak jacket on.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pithy poem, pithy prose

ancient sycamore
by the dead stream, standing firm
through the dry season
This really is an ancient tree said to have been growing in Southern California before the Pilgrims landed on the other side of the Americas. It's oldest limbs are hard as stone and held up by man-made concrete blocks, but it still sprouts new limbs and tender leaves.
I love the rootedness of trees, the way they reach deep into the dark depths of earth and up into the brightness of the sky, the way they grow slow and sure and don't need to move to see the world change.
I leave you with this contemplative picture and musings. Short but pithy, I hope. Today and Tuesday are my two critique group meetings and I have writerly rooting and reaching to tend.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I am, therefore I read

I seem to have book fever, an affliction that requires copious amounts of reading. But even my stacks can't compare to Neil Gaiman's collection, a part of which is seen in this Shelfari photo. It is what I imagine heaven might look like.

I was unaware just how much I read, however, until I saw Yat-Yee's post listing the books she read this summer. Whoa, I said, that's a lot of books. But, curious, I began to inventory what I read between late May and now. I was shocked to find my list was even longer. I must have inhaled them or read them in my sleep.

HATTIE BIG SKY, a 2007 Newbery Honor Book, about a sixteen-year-old who homesteads a claim in Montana, made my must-read list when I won a signed copy from author Kirby Larson. The book is awesome and so is the week-long blog panel discussion she hosted on gender in children's books.

Another memorable book was Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, which won a 2007 National Book Award. I had read Alexie's adult novels and adore his gritty, humorous, heart-wrenching writing. This YA novel about a boy who beats a trail to a better life is a gem.

I gobbled up Melissa Marr's FRAGILE ETERNITY, Alyson Noel's BLUE MOON and a haunting book recommended by another writer, Celia Rees' WITCH CHILD.

The rest of my summer of many-books, heavily features YA, some middle grade and adult:

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

WHAT WOULD EMMA DO? by Eileen Cook

THE DEMON'S LEXICON by Sarah Rees Brennan

I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME by Lisa Schroeder

DEAD AND GONE by Charlaine Harris

WAKE by Lisa McMann

THE ICE DRAGON by George R. Martin

EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev

CHANGELING by Delia Sherman

CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

DRAGON'S KEEP by Janet Lee Carey

ENNA BURNING by Shannon Hale

BONE CROSSED by Patricia Briggs

Oh, and then there were a few audiobooks: THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by Philippa Gregory, THE MERMAID CHAIR by Sue Monk Kidd, CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT by Laurie Viera Rigler and, finally, the exquisitely read HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling.

It was a fine summer. Did you tuck into a few books, too?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Weepy Wednesday

Don't worry. Weepy Wednesday is not a permanent fixture. But while we all need a giggle and snort to keep us going, sometimes we also need a good cry. You know what I mean?

Star-crossed lovers. Here are stories that live eternally, and I think it's because they are guaranteed to make us cry. Who doesn't have a lost love in their past? Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is so popular, it has been re-invented again and again.

But before R&J was Tristan and Isolde, and, boy, can that one turn on my faucet. Brave, noble Tristan betrays his king to be with his love and then leaves his love to save his king. Oh, the agony.

Yes, that story can wash away hidden corners of sorrow and hurt, ferret out grief, scrub me raw and hang me up to dry.

Researchers say crying regulates breathing, thus calming heart rate and anxiety. Some scientists think toxins are released through tears, which come when the cerebrum recognizes sadness and triggers the endocrine system to release hormones. This is what makes eyes puddle up.

Apparently in Japan, there are clubs that watch sad movies together for a good group cry.

So what other lovers rock your boat? Antony and Cleopatra? Lancelot and Guinevere? Healthcliff and Cathy?

How about Buffy and Angel.

Buffy is born a heroine. She proclaims herself destiny-free, but she never is. She rights wrongs and that's that. Angel starts life as a cad, both as a human debaucher and then a cruel vampire. He is spending his immortal life trying to make amends.
If Buffy's prom doesn't choke you up, nothing will.
So that's what I've got on this weepy Wednesday. Do you have a favorite sad story? Do you sometimes need a good cry?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Wave to the mermaids

Bye-bye summer. Farewell to long days when everyone can play outside until bedtime, when breezes carry excited voices, when soft-serve melts on your fingers, when flip-flops flap on the sidewalk. And good-bye, too, to sand in the sheets, peeling noses and sweaty nights.

This cool graphic comes from Penniwig's.

Do mermaids say good-bye to summer? Do they miss a warm doze upon a rock? Or are they glad the tourists go home?

I confess: I have mermaids. Among them is a wildly colorful poster in my writing room. Another is a beautiful creature with scary hands on a candy dish/ashtray thingie purchased at a Renaissance fair.

And then there is the haunting mermaid on a ceramic vase that belonged to a dear friend, gone now from this world. I think of him when I see her reaching out imploringly from the waves.

What is it about mermaids that keep us enchanted, even though we've been warned?

William Butler Yeats in "A Man Young and Old: III The Mermaid," weaves the tale of a mermaid who plucks up a comely lad for her own and carries him into the deep, laughing all the way. Yeats explains that she forgot in cruel happiness that even lovers drown.

T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" laments, I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.

But Hans Christian Andersen gave us "The Little Mermaid," a bittersweet story where the mermaid sells her watery power and alluring voice for a pair of human legs so she can be near a prince she saved from drowning. She gives all for love and, when he marries another, she turns into seafoam, frothy and ethereal.

Piers Anthony turns tail--ha,ha--on the mythology in MERCYCLE, a wild, sci-fi/fantasy romp, which is meant for adults, not kids. In his version of mermaids, a group of experts searching the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean in a top-secret government project, encounter a fish-tailed woman of extraordinary attributes. The experts survive the pressure and get oxygen with bicycle-generated power. I told you this is a wild and crazy tale. The mermaid, it is revealed, is part of a Chinese experiment to see if humans can be adapted into merfolk. Okay, if you want more, you have to read it.

I am currently reading Delia Sherman's "Changeling," a middle grade/YA tale in which a girl who's been raised by fairies in Central Park has to go on a quest to save herself and loved ones. One of her challenges is to get the mirror of the Mermaid Queen--a spike-haired creature covered in piercings and tats, including a nuclear submarine she can undulate on her tail. Her mirror is not about vanity, it's about power. And you'd best be scared.

Which brings us back to why we love the concept of mermaids, who are very liberated, going topless and all that. They are sexy, playful, tricksy, murderous, but, mostly, mysterious, representing the unknown depths of the sea. Water not only covers most of the planet, it comprises much of the human body. Mermaids may hold stories we have yet to learn.

I'd love to hear any mermaid stories you want to share, but first I must woo-hoo.

I am really honored that one of my favorite bloggers, Suzanne at Tales of Extraordinary Ordinariness, has passed along the Superior Comments award to me.

Do not this panda and songbird make you smile?

This award is blissfully free of strings and rules, but it is far too lovely and feel-good to not pass on.

I hearby dub Robyn at Putting Pen to Paper for her tireless, enthusiastic and often hilarious comments on the blogs of her fellow writers.
I hereby add MG Higgins for a second Super Comments Award for fabulous and fun blogs and comments. Love that blog.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Catching that fire

I'm in love. That can't-get-you-out-of-my-head, when-will-I-see-you-again kind of love.
I've had these affairs before, of course. Stay up all night devouring you kind of affairs; so ensorcelled, no attention can be spared for anything else.
What I'm crazy about is a stupendous, riveting tale of a post-apocalyptic future where the stakes are so high you think your heart will shatter but you can't look away. You must throw your lot in with these scrappy characters--Katniss, Gale and Peeta.
Nothing is how it seems in this world where an all-powerful central government demands a tribute of children to fight gladiator-style games. Everyone has a secret or two, a survival game of their own to play. Author Suzanne Collins upends our notions about what's to come and jerks us pell-mell in heart-wrenching, gut-twisting new directions. You gasp, you ache but never can you be indifferent.
This is not a review. There are a ton of them out there already. This is more of a rave. I read book one, THE HUNGER GAMES, in a breathless couple of days earlier this year. Now, I've just inhaled the newly-released book two, CATCHING FIRE. But I don't know when the third book in the series will be written and edited and printed and on the bookshelves. When you are in love, this is agony.
Are you on fire, too? Or are you wondering whether to throw a bucket of water my direction?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Finding hope in the dark

This painting on a small wood plate is called "Night" and was created by Katrin Wiese, the same artist who painted "The Three Fates" of a previous post. I photographed it up close to get the detail.
What drew me to this? I feel like I could be that little girl, venturing into the unknown night, protecting the goose's eggs, at ease with a bear at her side. Bears have often barged into my dreams. In one of the most memorable dreams I asked for and got permission to borrow a baby bear. So while I wouldn't try that in the real world, it was magical in dreamland.
One more alluring thing about this painting, that alert horse and goose look just like bronze animals my father brought home long ago from what was then Czechoslovakia. I loved to play with them, imaging worlds that were mine alone to visit and explore.
All of which brings me to memories. It seems to be what we treasure most. And it made me think of the people who had to evacuate the monster wildfire above Los Angeles. The ravenous beast, 25-miles-wide and 18-miles-deep, has consumed houses, cars, motorcycles, pine trees, sycamores, manzanita, rabbits, squirrels and, may they rest in peace, two firefighters. Terrifying and out-of-control, these wildfires sometimes leave people with little time to grab what they can and flee. It's the memories, the photos and heirlooms, they want to keep.
If a fire or storm or earthquake consumed all the photos of my family members, the china they raised to their lips, the Persian rugs they walked upon until threadworn, the golden rings and silver bracelets they wore, would I drown in tears? Or would I board a little boat on a salty sea and search for wonder in the night?
Perhaps that is the gift writers can give the world--a sense of hope in the dark.