Saturday, August 29, 2015

Home and Away

I saw online recently where my great-grandmother’s home is up for sale.  It was built in 1900, and so the place holds a lot of memories for not only me, but my mom, my grandfather, and countless cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.  I haven’t been there in a few years, but somehow, just knowing that soon, I will not be able to feel the creak of the wood beneath my feet as I walk around the wraparound porch, go into warmly-lit rooms with twelve-foot ceilings, sit in the bay window seat, and feel my great-grandmother’s presence all around as I move from places still called parlors and salons, saddens me.  She passed away there, just as she was born there, in the very same room.

We used to spend every Christmas Eve there, having dinner in the cavernous, red-carpeted dining room before going to the front den to open gifts.  It was a splendid tradition, one we would always dress up for.

I can carry these memories, of course.  I know I can, always.  But it doesn’t change the sadness of not being able to feel it, go to it, be there, ever again.  I’m no stranger to losing a place.  The house my mom and I lived in the first fourteen years of my life in burned down about ten years ago.  And my grandmother had to sell her house several years ago.  I felt this same loss, then, because I’d spent practically as much time at my grandmother’s as I did at home.  Those were the places I’d started out in life, the places where I began to discover who I was, where I learned of my love of writing and horses, where I made my first friends, where a lot of my family still lives.  But, for some reason, at the time, the loss of these places didn’t hit me quite as hard as the selling of my great-grandmother’s now, probably because I was younger and didn’t realize the enormity of place and home just yet, or maybe it was because I still had somewhere to go when I visited my hometown. 

Now, when someone else moves their family and furniture and memories into the home that has only ever belonged to our family, I won’t have it.  That will be it.  I've known people who think it silly for me to feel this way, who've rolled their eyes when I've tried to tell them the story.  But that's okay.  Not everyone can understand leaving your home or hometown and missing it.  Not everyone knows the feeling of sometimes wanting to move back there so badly it’s becomes hard to focus or even breathe.  I feel this sometimes.  I want to drive down the same, familiar streets and see the old houses, visit the little shops that line the charming town square, see some of the same faces I grew up with on a regular basis, return to the place I know. 

But then I wonder what I might miss here: my kids’ school, our church, my few but close friends here, our little house where we brought our kids home from the hospital, certain aspects of my job, being close to a larger city when I want to go, even driving along the same routes and seeing the same landmarks I’ve become familiar with in the past twenty years.

So, what do I do now with all of these feelings?  Something I’ve done is to preserve the description and therefore, the memory of my great-grandmother’s home in my book that will soon be released, and then my grandmother’s in the one I’m currently writing.  As a matter of fact, I have based my last three books in my hometown.  I have re-named it, to give myself a little creative freedom, but it’s like it’s my way of going back there even when I can’t, physically.  It has become part of my stories, integral, even, to feeling and understanding them.  And it feels good setting my stories there.  I feel like I’m back there in my mind and maybe giving my readers a feel for all the good things about that place. 

I feel like certain writers out there have a lot of power in that way.  Placing a reader in the setting can be so important to the rest of the story, even when readers don’t realize.  I love seeing the little houses and shops in Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove.  I saw and felt the sand and sea spray and the shops and title home in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog.  I can’t imagine the story without imagining these things.  And then there’s Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  Take a look at this passage in which Astrid, the fourteen-year-old protagonist observes her new foster home:

“The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga.  It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter-mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-growth peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.  It looked hopeful, until I saw a house down the street, and prayed, please Jesus, don’t let it be the turquoise one with the yard paved in blacktop behind the chained-link fence.
The social worker parked in front of it.  I stared.  It was the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.  It was the gap in the chain of deciduous trees that cradled every other house on the block, defiantly ugly in its nakedness.
The bubble-glass door was also turquoise, and the foster mother was a wide, hard-faced blond woman who held a dumb-founded toddler on her hip.  A little boy stuck his tongue out at me from behind his mother.”

It doesn’t seem like the happiest or nicest of places and that’s the point.  The things she carefully chooses to describe with equally careful word choice all work together to project this image of a hopeless, depressing environment in which Astrid is about to enter and try to make home.  In essence, we get the full sense of place here. 

I guess that’s what I hope to give my readers and myself as I use my homes and hometown to tell my stories.  Because if we get that sense of place and it lives on in our minds, it’s never really lost, even if someone else buys it and makes their home there.    

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Famous Last Words

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”--The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.
‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘We could have had such a damned good time together.’
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” --The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
“With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the fact, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.
‘I'll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back.  After all, tomorrow is another day.’” --Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“The old woman stood on the side of the road and waved back until the car was out of sight.” –Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg

Where does a story stop, and when?  Is it when the characters stop telling their story to the writer? If that's the case, I'm in a lot of trouble because I'm fifty pages into my new book and my characters have been ignoring me for a little while, now.

But that notwithstanding, I finished up a great book recently and a television series I'd followed just had its finale, and as these things happened, something occurred to me: whenever a novel, a movie, a television series ends, we have only just read or seen a snippet, a small piece, of that person's life.  Now it could be a defining moment, what made them who they are, or whatever, but what happened before and what happens after are left up to readers and viewers to determine.

Now, whenever I start writing a story, I sometimes know where that story is in that character's life, the one that needs or wants to be told.  Ending it can be tough, though.  Not only is it my last chance with my readers (if they've decided to make it that far), but even after I stop writing the story, I still think about my characters and see the rest of their lives unfolding (occupational hazard, I guess--the characters always live in the mind of the one who creates them).
The ones I listed above are some of my favorite endings to books, for various reasons.
Fitzgerald, for instance, uses the lyrical and romantic writing style he is known for to encompass Nick's thoughts on the sadness of the events that took place throughout the novel and in doing so, closes the story in the only way he can.  The result is, I think, one of the most beautifully-written pieces of prose in literature.

Hemingway, though of the same generation as Fitzgerald and one of his friends, presents his ending a little differently, a little more succinctly.  He ends his story by focusing on Jake and Brett, two people who were once together.   They are not now, but still love one another.  Readers of even this small passage can see that in Hemingway's descriptions of their body language and words.  There is nothing keeping them apart other than themselves.  Hemingway was known for his stoic male characters and Jake is no exception.  His simple yet thoughtful response to Brett on what they could have had and been illustrates that and what's more, enables the reader to ponder even more on that statement.  This is one of the great things, I think, about Hemingway's writing style.  Even though the entire story is not just about Jake and Brett's relationship, I do like the fact that it ends with them, and their love.

Like Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell chose to end Gone with the Wind with a quote from its main character.  I quoted the first lines of this novel on my post on opening lines and just as important to understanding and knowing Scarlett O’Hara are these last lines.  It seems ambiguous at first glance and leaves readers with a common question: “What happens after that?”  I actually like endings like that.  Sometimes it’s best to leave it up to the reader to use his or her imagination, to think and analyze.  But, my thoughts on Scarlett and whether or not she ends up with Rhett are this: she puts off bad news and knowledge for the next day, instead determined to focus ahead on how to get what she wants.  There is little, if anything, this woman can’t get when she puts her mind to it.  So, though the ending may seem ambiguous at first glance, Scarlett’s history suggests that yes, she could very well get Rhett back.

The ending to Flagg's novel may seem simplistic as Hemingway's.  However, when I first thought of writing about last lines, this is one of the first that came to mind.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it always makes me think of many of the sweet, kind people in the south, and particularly my grandpa, who would wave in the distance at no one in particular as he walked down the back steps of his house.  I once asked him why he did that and since he was one of the first to read and encourage my writing, I suppose it's only right to end today's post with his response, his words: “Well, in case there’s anybody there that I just don't see.”

Friday, August 14, 2015

Beginnings and Endings

I had planned to write something else for today, something on last lines in literature.  I still plan to, but right now, there are just too many other things moving around my head, demanding my attention and thoughts.  Write what you want, what you feel, not what you think is the best or most acceptable, or something to please someone else.  I heard a writer say this once and I wish I could remember his name so that I could give credit, but there it is, anyway.  I suppose it is appropriate that I am book-ending this post with my thoughts on opening and closing lines in literature because that is what I am thinking today: beginnings and ends. 

Today I will pick up my daughter for the very last time at her baby-sitter’s, a wonderful woman who has taken great care of both of my kids their whole lives.  Today I will be going out in search of a gift that I hope will show her our gratitude for giving our children a safe, loving happy environment.  Maybe it’s the sadness I feel about them not seeing her again, but none of the gifts coming to mind seem quite good enough. 

On Monday, things will change a step further and my kids will start school.  It will be my son’s third year and my daughter’s first ever.  I had the privilege of meeting their teachers, both of whom seem wonderful, and I took home a barrage of information on things we need to know, do, buy for the school year, etc.  It was exciting and overwhelming at the same time, and these feelings have not let up in the many hours that have followed. 

And then, after we’ve spent the weekend fighting traffic and crowds to buy all that we need, after we celebrate my daughter’s birthday, I will walk my children to the classrooms where they will spend the next nine months learning and (I hope) making friends.  I will drive to my job for the first time in three weeks where, I already know, about ten thousand things await the attention I will try to give even as I think and worry about my kids (the way I always do, especially on their first day) and wrap my head around the changes we will be adjusting to. 

It won’t stop there.  In a few weeks, my second job as an adjunct instructor will begin which means the prep work for that must begin immediately and then, I hope I will get more work with my third job as a test rater, when the season for that begins again.  Near the end of the month, my sweet son will start soccer just like he did t-ball in the spring.  I’m nervous and hopeful about that, also, hoping he will do well and make good friends.  I suppose it’s because I’m so shy and have always had trouble making friends that is triggering these emotions.  I’m so introverted that whenever I go to group gatherings or parties or meet someone new or what not, I always get the same nervous, heart-pounding, stomach-churning feeling, struggle to make conversation, end up being quiet to the point that most people think I am aloof and leave physically exhausted.

It’s a feeling I’ve prayed and continue to pray that my children don’t have to feel.  But, I digress.  These changes, these inevitable things we all face all the time in life have me all at the same time scared, excited, sad, happy, hopeful, worried, and many other things.  I guess it’s most appropriate to end with a line I’ve always loved and remembered from the film, Hope Floats.  It promotes the film’s message of hope, one of the loveliest of emotions, something we all need to feel.  In the film Sandra Bullock’s character is facing some changes (albeit very different from mine) but I think the message can apply to just about anyone going through some kind of change.  It goes something like this: “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it's the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will, too...”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

First Lines

Yesterday I wrote a little about titles and that got me thinking some about first lines in stories.  If it’s the title’s job to spark interest, then it’s the first line’s job to fully ignite it.  Sometimes an author gets one chance to do that before a would-be reader places the book back on the shelf and moves on.  Keith Lee Morris, the writing professor and published author I was fortunate enough to study under at Clemson University told us once that something should happen on the first page of a story.  It doesn’t matter if this happening is integral to the remainder of the story, but if something interesting happens, writers have a greater chance of grabbing their readers and keeping them reading.  Stephen King said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story.  It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”  He wrote one of my favorite all-time opening lines in his book, Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.” 

Even as I look at it now I think, Oh, that’s good!  I like how it’s a modification on a line a lot of people have heard before (“I’ve been here before”), but is changed to second person point of view.  The reader is put immediately into the story by the narrator.  It’s like a conversation, that invitation that King speaks of, but there’s also something eerie about it.  And we expect nothing less from King.

And so, without further ado, some of the lines that have drawn me in over the years:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”  Ron Rash, Serena.   Whoa!  Okay, I’m interested.  But, the action notwithstanding, I also love Rash’s calm way of telling this intense scene.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)  Huh?  Yeah, I said that, too.  This is a different type of time and place, altogether, and we get that right away.

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830.  I include this one because it is a line most people know, even if they don’t know where it originated.  I’m fascinated at how something so simplistic has lasted for so long.  But at the same time, Bulwer-Lytton gives a lot here.  He gives the time of day and what type of day it is and in doing so, creates a mood that is needed in this first scene.

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.  As a writer, I enjoy this line because it feels like Greene is giving a lesson on beginning a story.  Even long after I get an idea for a story, I sometimes struggle with how to begin because I’m constantly searching for the moment it starts.

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife.  The story of the time traveler is one that has been around for a while.  However, what Niffenegger does here is begin her story by telling what happens to those who dare to love a time traveler, and how it affects them.  And she does that well.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm . . .” Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind.  This first sentence says just about everything one grows to know about Scarlett.  She may not have everything, but she uses what she does have to get what she wants.

"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.”  All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy focuses on a small detail in this opening scene, but describes it so clearly that I can see it and maybe it’s because I think candleflames are beautiful but the image is lovely.  But sometimes, also, it’s the small details that stand out in life, even in an intense scene, and sometimes they’re the ones you remember most when a memory springs forth.

Okay, I say, when reading lines like the ones above.  You’ve got my attention. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Titles and Such

Titles are great.  I enjoy coming up with them.  But the ones I come up with, I’m not always entirely happy with.  That’s why it takes me forever and a day to settle on one.    It took me two years to come with a title for my novel that’s going to be published here in the next few months.  I’m still thinking and tinkering with a title for a novel I finished almost eight years ago.  And that’s why I admire what I feel are such good titles.  In a few carefully chosen words, a good title can encapsulate a theme or message or point of a story and catch a person’s interest in the process.  Whether the title came from agonizing hours, days, months, or years of thought, or just dropped into the writer’s lap like a gift from Heaven, a good title is, well, just that—good.

I had a professor once that told us students that the Bible and Shakespeare’s works are great places to find titles.  And she wasn’t kidding.  The poetic writing in each work lends itself to many meaningful phrases ideal for titles.  My husband tells me to look for phrases in my own works to find that long search-for title.  But alas, as good as these ideas are, I’ve had no luck.  And when I do try to come up with a meaningful phrase for a title on my own it usually ends up sounding like a bad Lifetime movie.

I used to be a fan of one-word titles.  One of my stories in my graduate thesis, “Eclipse” (yes, this was long before the wretched Twilight) focused on a young girl married to a pompous older man who refused to come to her church choir solo in favor of watching an eclipse.  I meant it to capture not only the event mentioned in the story but also the symbolism of how the girl’s husband stands in her way, yet is still unable to completely shut out the rays of her beauty, much how the moon is unable to completely shut out the sun’s rays during an eclipse.  I must tell you, it was easy coming up with that title, probably because I came up with it as I was writing the story.  And it seemed good at the time but the more I thought about it, the more . . . clichéd it became.  It was too short, too trivial or something.  Yes, it captured the message to an extent but in a very obvious way.  I needed something deeper, something more.  In short, I needed a better title, one that captured what the story was about in a few carefully chosen words. 

And that’s something that takes effort.  Worthwhile effort. 

I’m always seeing titles here and there that I admire, titles I wonder about how long it took the author to come up with.  And as I write and think about this next story, there are more than a few I turn over in my mind.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes—a fascinating story of how a woman has to move into the darkest corner of her mind to learn how to get out of a brutally violent relationship from which there seems no escape.  Not only is the title intriguing but the story is as well.  It’s one I’m going to revisit on my blog again soon.

Just after Sunset by Stephen King—I love titles that describe a time of day, and this one is a lovely time of day that conjures lovely images even if the story doesn’t.  It’s also a time of day that is dark, just like many of King’s stories.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III—This one is a prime example of how the Bible lends wonderful titles.  The story centers on a woman whose house was wrongfully taken by the county and the man who innocently bought it and their ultimately tragic battle to each keep the home.

The General’s Daughter—Okay, so this wasn’t the greatest film, but I love titles that are a person’s description (not name, mind you).  This title character’s death provokes the plot, and it shows her importance.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck—Like titles describing people or times of day, I love place titles, too.  Here, Steinbeck uses a beautiful place, but right away lets readers know that this is not the exact setting of his story.  It is east of it.  Or is it? How far east?  Is this even the setting? All of this makes it interesting to me.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin—This title invokes wonder of royalty and power and the gaining of both being a game that one plays.  What kind of game, and at what cost?  And what exactly does one win if he/she wins the game? What does one lose?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers—Loneliness is a powerful emotion, and describing the heart, an organ long synonymous with love, as a lonely hunter, well, that just grabs me right away!

So, are there any titles that have grabbed you and didn’t let go? I’d love to hear them.  I’m open to films and songs as well as books!


Monday, August 10, 2015

“Muse”ical Inspirations

Okay, so it’s no secret to some that I get a lot of inspiration from songs.  I never know what type of song will spark an interest or inspiration, or put me in the mood to write.  Sometimes it’s a line from the song that gets me thinking and sends me on the path to write my next scene, or the singer’s voice, or the melody that gives me a certain feeling that I know my characters are feeling and that I know how to get down on paper.  It’s easy, and it’s fun when that happens, though if I’m driving, it becomes a little difficult to immediately get those thoughts down.  That notwithstanding, I’m always happy when the spark ignites, and I know where the next part of the story goes even if I can’t get it down right away.  And if I’m lucky, a lot will come together to send me on the path to finish my book or story of the moment.

About a year ago, I was watching an episode of Revenge and a song, “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS, began in the background.  It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it.  I actually had the CD of it, but hearing it again, losing the scene between the characters on the screen, it was like I was hearing it for the first time.  I listened to the words, the way the Michael Hutchence delivered them, the music—and those are the things that entranced me in that moment, not the show I’d been following religiously for so long.  I re-watched the scene so I could follow, but the song stayed with me for days after until I saw two people in my mind, brought together almost instantaneously but torn apart almost as quickly.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was a connection that didn’t go away.  And so, that is the song that initiated the story I’ve been working on for a while, now.  My inspiration didn’t stop with that one, though—

“Beautiful Girl” and “Disappear,” also by INXS.  When I first heard “Never Tear Us Apart,” again, of course I had to revisit my entire INXS collection.  The former stayed with me because it made me think of the male protagonist thinking of the female, and “Disappear,” well, just gave me an exhilarating feeling.  I’ve replayed that one a lot.

“Carefree Highway” by Gordon Lightfoot.  I heard this song on the radio and immediately had to down load it.  Lightfoot’s calm, soothing, poignant voice perfectly tells the story of a man remembering a woman from long ago, one who was not his but who he cannot forget nonetheless.  It has that lasting effect I want to capture.

“You’ll Accomp’ny Me” by Bob Seger.  I heard this song after dropping Lydia at the babysitter’s on my way to work one morning and immediately turned it up.  I listened to what Seger was saying to this woman who had to take off and leave and I loved his knowledge (not hope) that even though he accepts and lets her go, he knows they will be together again because they were meant to be, even if it’s not now.

“Ordinary World” by Duran Duran.  This song created a feeling of longing, one that I felt my characters did for one another, particularly during the time they are kept apart by unforeseen forces.  I credit the lovely music but also the lead singer’s powerful yet retrained emotional way of delivering his words.
“After All” by Peter Cetera and Cher. Okay, can I just say the power of Peter Cetera’s voice harmonized so well with Cher’s?  I love how the title phrase is repeated several times in different ways, but is also a theme, one I feel my story is traveling towards, if I can find the way. 

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”  by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty.  This is a duet I have long loved, one that I feel is actually one of the best out there.  There’s a lot of history between the speakers, some anger, but passion as well, and when I heard it again recently, it was like my characters singing to one another.  Strange, I know, but my characters are performers as well and when I heard this again, I heard them in my mind.

It's songs like these that make me turn up my radio when I start my car, wondering and anticipating what treasure or piece of the path of my story I will discover next.  And if I don't happen to make a discovery one day, it's okay. The magic doesn't happen every day, but that's what keeps it magic.  And if I really want to write but can't find the inspiration, well, all I have to do is turn to my playlist above, re-read what I've written, and off I go.  And if I'm lucky enough to happen upon one of these songs after I've finished this story, I'll smile, remembering what it gave to me.

Friday, August 7, 2015

On Trying, Rejection, and Acceptance

“I love my rejection slips. They let me know I try.” –Sylvia Plath

And I love reading this quote, because it lets me know that even writers who are read and respected, whose works are taught, faced rejection at some point in their careers.

I am blessed, no doubt about it. My children remind me of that every day with their beautiful smiles, sweet voices, loving hugs and their delight in even the simplest of things. I have a husband I love and who loves me, too. We live in a home that keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Our children are able to go to a good school with good teachers and friends. And we’re attending a church where we learn and get meaning every week.

But, as a writer, I have definitely faced my share of rejection and disappointment. I suppose I’ve always known I was going to write, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get my works out there in the world until the age of 22, when I graduated college with a degree in English and hundreds of words of praise from professors, students, friends, and family. I was going to be a writer. I knew it. There was no doubt in mind. I’d been writing for years at that point and loved it. It was my calling. So, I went out and bought a copy of Writer’s Market, read it cover to cover, began highlighting publishers and literary agents I thought would be a good fit for the book I’d just finished writing, spent weeks on a cover letter until I thought it was in decent shape, and then worked up the nerve to actually send it to agents. I’ll never forget the feeling I got when I actually heard back from one. “Wow! It reached them! They actually read it!” My stomach did somersaults and my hands shook while I opened the letter. At first I couldn’t focus on the words but when I did, I caught phrases like, “You obviously spent a lot of time on your letter and your story . . . we appreciate your interest in working with us . . . we feel this story just isn’t right for us . . .”

After the initial heart-sinking feeling passed over, I thought, Okay, that’s okay. Lots of writers face this. On to the next agent/publisher.

I told myself this at the time, though I didn’t believe it. I thought I did, but as the rejection slips, forms, and emails accumulated over the span of several years, I began to doubt myself. But I kept on doing it, through graduate school, through the start of my career as an adjunct instructor, through getting married and having my son.  I continued because something inside me had to. I’d kept up with my writing, still loved doing it and knew, just like Stevie Nicks did when she was considering going back to school instead of pursuing music that even if she did decide to do something else professionally she’d always have her writing and would always do it. And so, finally, in December of 2012, I received the following email from an online journal I’d submitted a story to:

“Thank you for your recent submission, "The Only One." I'm pleased to announce that we'd like to publish it . . .”

I had to read it several times before I believed it. They liked it? They wanted it? I was actually going to see my work published for the whole world? After years of hearing phrases like, “This story just isn’t right for us, yada yada yada,” I was in a state of shock for a while and remained there until I saw the publication with my own eyes:

I’d done it! After years of submitting and waiting and nail-biting and disappointment, I’d done it! I was on my way, surely! It rejuvenated my energy to keep submitting my books (I’d written three at this point, two of which I thought were good enough to put out there) to agents and publishers. I re-worked my cover letters and synopses of each, did countless hours of research on publishers and agents, and dutifully began clicking the “send” button on my email account, sending my hopes and dreams of seeing my work out there in the world onto the virtual desks of people who could make it happen. Surely, this publication was a sign that it was going to happen very soon, right?

Well, more waiting. More nail-biting. Tumbleweeds and dust began dancing across the path ahead. Then, a ding from my i-phone signifying a new email: “Unfortunately, after careful consideration of your manuscript, we have determined that it does not fit our needs.”

Yeah, back to square one. Only this time, after reading those same words I’d read so many times before, they didn’t sting quite so much. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I shrugged it off, revisited my list of publishers, sent off another letter and synopsis. I kept doing that throughout the next couple of years, this time throughout two devastating miscarriages, throughout so many desperately hoped-for/applied-for/interviewed-for job promotions I watched others get, throughout the birth of my lovely baby girl. And I felt the same about my rejections. I didn’t delete them, can’t say I loved them the way Plath did hers, but they didn’t give me the heart-sinking feeling they once did. Something was happening all right, something that I thought I knew before. All writers go through this. I was accepting that. I was okay with it. And, cliché as it may sound, at least I was trying. I was still doing what I loved to do. And that mattered to me.

Then, in November of 2014, after thirteen years of trying and waiting, an email arrived like an early Christmas present:

“Dear Tanya,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, The Good Thief, to Black Opal Books. I’m delighted with it. I think it would make an excellent addition to our titles and would like to offer you a contract to publish it . . .”

I showed it to my husband, my mom, my dad. I emailed it to two of my writing professors whose opinions I value and respect. Even after their confirmations and words of congratulations and pride, I still didn’t believe it. My book, that little creation I had spent so long writing and editing, tearing apart and nurturing back again had been accepted. And now, moving through the stages of editing at this great little publisher giving me my chance, it will soon see the light of day and the masses will soon see it, offer their opinions. It’s a reality that I’ve laughed about, cried happily about, and still, sometimes can’t wrap my head about. But, it’s happening. An acceptance, a validation of everything I’ve been working on for all these years. And no matter what happens from here on out, it’s something I will always have, just like writing is something I will always love.

The frustrations I mentioned in my professional life have worked to help me lose sight of this beautiful promise in my life.  And so that’s the point of this super-long post today, to help me remember that just because I haven’t achieved one goal I’ve worked so long for doesn’t take away another that I have succeeded in accomplishing, a goal that, dare I say it, is more important and fulfilling because it is one not that is only part of my professional life.  It is part of my whole life.  It is who I am.  It affects what I do and how I live, just like what I do and what I’ve lived through affects it.  So, as my frustrations give way to happiness even as I write this, let me just say thanks.  Thanks for reading what I have written.  What I am.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Watching a Story come to Life, Or Not

I mentioned a few times already how much I love reading stories and watching them on film and oftentimes, watching the film version of a great book is a treat.  Or sometimes not.  I recently finished reading Serena, a novel written by Ron Rash and set in 1920’s Smoky Mountains, around the time the timber empire was threatened by the government’s desire to preserve the beauty of those mountains by establishing the park we know today.  Rash is a writer who resides just up the road from me in North Carolina and, like me, is a Clemson University alum.  I was initially drawn to reading the book because of these things we share and the strong recommendation from a co-worker.  I’d started out by listening to the book on Audible, but was so intrigued and so had to know what happened next that I ended up purchasing it and spending the better part of the night reading it after Connor and Lydia had gone to sleep.
And so, when I first saw the film advertised on Netflix, I was beyond excited.  The trailer promised beautiful scenery, ideal casting choices, and most importantly, it looked as though the film was going to capture the true spirit of Serena as a character.

The film started with the initial sound of a slow, steady rhythm of a guitar, a shot of mist and sun and, finally, the title character’s name rising above the blue and green mountains all around is nothing short of breathtaking.  The actors all looked and felt the part of their characters.  Everything was lovely, just as I’d pictured it. 
Perhaps what pleased me most was, like the book, the film shows Serena as knowledgeable of the timber business as anyone around her, capable and unafraid of running the camp, even venturing out alongside the workers, singlehandedly training an eagle to catch rattlesnakes that have been wreaking havoc on the workers and calmly saving the life of a man, Galloway, who’d lost a limb.  She also suffers a devastating miscarriage that nearly kills her and causes her husband, George, to give her his blood despite not knowing whether they are the same blood type.

Another thing the movie keeps is George and Serena seeking to take down the trees of his expansive property to make money off the timber all the while going up against government, who is to preserve the beauty of the Smoky Mountains by establishing the park .  They are willing to (and do) take down those who stand in their way just like they take down the trees at an alarming rate.  I must admit I enjoyed the symbolism and the fact that the film kept that. 
But it is beyond this that readers of the book can see the changes from book to film, some for the better, some for the worse.  One change I was disappointed to see take place begins early in the book as well as the film.  On the very first page, readers learn that George Pemberton’s life is actually on the line as we get a description of an impregnated teenage girl’s father waiting outside a train station, waiting to challenge Pemberton (the baby’s father, now married to Serena) to a knife fight and kill him.  Serena is there too, and encourages and watches as Pemberton not only wins the fight but kills the man in the process.  She then coldly tells the young girl, named Rachel, that she has gotten all she ever will from George and will gain nothing more from him now that she (Serena) is here.   The book follows Rachel’s story in part, through her struggle in learning to raise her son, Jacob, selling most of her material items, and relying on neighbors, particularly a kindly old woman called the Widow Jenkins before being forced to ask for her job back as a cook in the Pembertons’ lumber camp.  We get a sense of her struggle and have compassion for her.  The film portrays none of this.  The initial exchange between George and Rachel’s father is silent, almost non-existent, and furthermore we don’t follow Rachel’s journey as closely as in the book, only hear about her time with Widow Jenkins in passing, and see a few scenes of warm exchanges between her and George and few scowls she gives Serena.  Though I felt a bit of sorrow for Rachel given her predicament, in the film I got more of a sense of her simply being pitted against Serena rather than learning to survive the way she did in the book.

A change that I feel was somewhat for the better involves Serena’s own pregnancy.  Just as in the book, Serena loses her baby due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis in the film.  In the book, she expresses mostly disappointment over this and gets back to work, and Galloway (the man whose life she saved, who owes her a life debt) takes her revenge on that doctor by killing him.  In the film, Jennifer Lawrence displays a quiet agony that never leaves her.  She openly sobs when she learns of her baby’s death, frantically orders George to do away with a crib he’d purchased and doesn’t work for a long time.  Having suffered two miscarriages, I can relate, and I think her reactions in the film were well-portrayed.  I remember once someone telling me that a certain amount of beauty lies in tragedy, and this was a moment when the film and Lawrence embodied that idea.  Perhaps my personal experience factors into my feelings on this, but overall, I prefer this change.
I suppose it is after this that I began to have the most trouble with some of the changes.  The book portrays Serena’s rage and jealousy at not being able to produce an heir for George causing her to send Galloway to hunt Rachel and Jacob down.  She even kills the sweet Widow Jenkins in the process.  Rachel and Jacob begin a run for their lives with Galloway, following the instructions of his psychic mother (yes, I'm not kidding--this woman can see the future) on where they are, trails them by only a step.  They are able to make it to the state of Washington, and Galloway’s mother loses her “sight” of them.  Pemberton finds out through the sheriff that Serena and Galloway are suspected of the murder of Widow Jenkins and their attempts to find Rachel and Jacob.  He does provide money for Rachel and his son, but a fire at their home (caused by the sheriff in a fit of rage, believing the Pembertons evil) causes him to realize that Serena is his life, and his love.   Meanwhile, Serena, filled with a calm rage that George dare send his son and his son’s mother money to help them (that he put them above Serena), allows a photographer to take their portrait and then orchestrates George’s death by preparing a poisoned sandwich for him as he sets out to hunt a famed mountain lion in the area.  George succumbs to the poison as well as rattlesnake bites, but this part of the novel ends with him tending to his wounds, making his way back to camp before stopping to rest and resting assured that his beloved Serena will come for him and save him.  He does not die in this moment but we are meant to know that he is near it, that his past actions of trying to help his son ultimately lead to his end.  At this point, the novel skips ahead some forty years.  Serena has made a name for herself as a timber baroness, having traveled to Brazil, and is famous enough for Life magazine to publish an article on her, an article a woman in a hospital in Washington sees and shows to her son . . . a man roughly in his mid-forties.  The novel then briefly describes Serena and Galloway as having died in the night from knife wounds.  When authorities ask a witness to describe the killer, all he can do is point at a picture hanging in Serena’s home, the picture of her and George Pemberton taken the day he died.

The film most alters this storyline, the one that had me turning the pages at a lightning-pace.  In the film, when Serena discovers her husband has set aside money for his son and the mother of his child and is keeping a picture of them, a rage she cannot contain ends with her on the floor sobbing and scratching away the image of the photo with a letter opener.  It causes her to become increasingly unstable.  In her grief and jealousy, she does hunt for Rachel and Jacob and kills the Widow Jenkins, who is never seen.  Instead of George deducing this, Serena freely admits this to George in the film.  And he anything but accepts it.  He responds by nearly choking her to death and it is he, in the film, who tracks down Galloway as he is about to murder Rachel and Jacob.  Pemberton kills Galloway, thus saving the life of his son and his son’s mother.  He makes peace with them before they leave and returns home to hunt a much-coveted panther, who ends up killing him.  When Serena, waiting at home for George, learns of this, she simply gives up and checks out, calmly laying down in their bed and dropping an open lighter on the floor, setting the house on fire.  One of the last images we see is the house all ablaze with Serena still inside.
And so . . . in altering this ending, I feel the movie changed the story into more of a tragic romance rather than a story of people’s lives coming full circle because of past actions.  I feel it also lost the delicious feeling of suspense and finality that the book delivered.  I don’t like that Serena gave up and committed suicide because George died.  I feel a defining layer of her was lost in that action.  In the book, yes, there is the intense relationship between Serena and Pemberton at the heart, but she it's not everything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love romances and many of my own works center on romantic relationships.  However, with this story, I believe the way Rash laid it out worked better and had more impact.  Though the film is beautiful to look at and the actors all deliver with what they’re given, and even some scenes (like the miscarriage) work very well in the film, some of Rash’s most important and thought-provoking meanings are lost, which is why, in this case, I’d clearly have to recommend the book before I did the film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Hi there and welcome to my blog!  I'm Tanya and, to sum me up, I am a wife, mom to an adorable boy and girl (Connor, 4, and Lydia, almost 2), library specialist, English tutor, adjunct instructor, jogger, reader, and writer.  I've always loved a good story and an interesting character, whether told through words, the big screen, or the small screen.  I have pretty eclectic tastes, too.  I never know what's going to interest me or what's going to make that light bulb of inspiration switch on and illuminate a story that I want to tell.  I love writing and storytelling as much as I do reading/viewing it.  I wrote my first book at the age of ten (a whopping thirty pages it was when I finished it) and in the twenty-five-plus years that have followed, have continued to write.  I always have some story knocking around in my head.  My purpose for this blog is to write a little something regularly about these stories, the ones of my life, the ones moving around inside my head, the ones I've read or watched.  So, sit back and enjoy--I'm glad you are here!

And so this, on my inaugural post, I thought I'd share some of the more inspirational quotes I've come across on writing and the writing process.

“Telepathy, of course.”  -Stephen King, from his book, On Writing, giving his thoughts on what writing is, exactly.
To tell you the truth, when I first read that statement, I thought it was a cop out.  What an easy, short, simple answer.  Then, though, after I finished reading it, a funny thing happened—it stayed with me.  I turned it over in my mind, considered it, and turned it over again.  I do this a lot—dwell on things and consider them.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not.  But, in this case I’ll say it is because in all honesty, these words, to me, communicate exactly what writing is.  Think about it--when we read something, we are, literally, “reading” what came from the mind of someone else.  That person is projecting his or her thoughts into our minds.   As King calls it later in that same chapter, the readers, have a “meeting of the minds” with an author when they read his/her work.   They may not see things or characters exactly as the author saw them in his/her mind, but they still see the overall picture.  Nice?  I think so. 
"Sometimes it’s so hard to find what it is I’m trying to say.  People think you can turn creativity on and off, but it’s not like that.  It just kind of comes out, a mash-up of all these things you collect in your mind.  You never know when it’s going to happen, but when it does, it’s like magic.  It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard."  -Gwen Stefani

"I feel the same way about it that I do about running.  I can run five or six miles three or four times a week, and I hate it . . . But when I get done with it, I feel better.  I’m relaxed and peaceful and calm, and it’s nice.  And I feel the same way about writing.  I don’t like writing.  I like having written."   -Keith Lee Morris
"I remembered that I could see every piece of broken glass on the side of the road . . . I could see the swoop of the telephone wire, I could see every pine needle on every tree, and this was drug free!  The writing had put me in some sort of state of alertness, awakeness, and higher awareness that I didn’t think was possible.  And I was twenty-two at the time and I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that whatever I do, I gotta keep doing this because for the first time in my life, I felt like Andre, whoever the hell he is.  I felt like me."  -Andre Dubus, III
Writing is hard work.  There are days when even getting started is torture.  I will sit there and think for hours, sometimes (no, I'm not exaggerating).  The cursor on the screen will blink and blink, taunting me.   Every idea that comes to mind I immediately dismiss and when I finally do put fingers to keyboard, I find myself deleting words or entire scenes every few minutes.  Those days, I’m filled with irritability and depression that whatever talent I thought I had is going to waste, or maybe doesn’t exist anymore.
But then there are times when the exhaustion is wonderful.  The world is clearer, and I call myself a writer.  These are the days when the muse and the characters seemingly pave out a path of words for me.  I know the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it.  I can crank out ten pages at a time without pause and it’s lovely and when I’m done, there is the knowledge, not just the feeling, that I’ve written something good, that I’m me, and I’m doing what I was meant to do. 
So, there you are—a glimpse into the mind of a writer.  There are days when I love doing it, and days when I hate doing it.  There are days when I know what I’ve written works and days when I know I’ve got my work cut out for me if I want what I’m writing to work.  I’m always thinking and always exhausted in a good or bad way, but I keep on doing it just the same.  Why?  Oftentimes there's no choice in the matter, but mainly because it's what I do.  I love stories, and I love telling them and whether that process comes easily or with teeth gnashing and hair pulling, it’s all worth it to me in the end.