Friday, November 26, 2010

The Season of Deep Thought

Fall begins the quiet season of the year, the time when, in cold climates, the trees all lose their leaves, the ground freezes, fireplaces glow, and cider is mulled. But here I am on the West Coast, and not up Northwest with the sleepless rains, but down in SoCal where the midnight neon burns through the quiet and makes the stars invisible from inside city limits. So what I do is, go outside the city limits for walks, enjoy the liquid ambers and other trees that do change colors and drop their leaves, giggle at the dawn redwood that loses its needles in late fall, pretending to be dead, and get ready to be quiet in harmony with people elsewhere. It's a good time to read, and I tend to collect books in preparation for this cozy reading period. I like to read some of the book award winners (isn't it nice that they are chosen right in time for this season?) And not just reading but also, WRITING. Quiet and reflection feed writing, bring out those sore points you've been trying to ignore so you can mull over why you react the way you do, so you can write for relief or revenge, so you can rant and you can play. Time to spill over with ideas, brewed like tea in the quiet warmth of indoors in fall and winter. Happy writing.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Novels vs Romances

One of my SDSU professors just told us tonight that novels will break your heart with the bitterness of the real, but might make you rich. He portrayed novels as embracing realism to unmask the ploys of the rich to keep the poor praying in the kitchen. We're reading DeFoe, Richardson, Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, and others. Nothing current, but he rasied the question, why is realism waning today, way beyond the slight shrinkage of a gibbous moon to a mere sliver of its former popularity? We've even started calling the precursor of the novel, the romance, by the same name: novel.

He talked passionately about the vampire novels/romances, wondering why readers have stopped wanting the secrets of how to escape the ploys of society and seek your own happiness. Instead they want to pursue dreams, and not their own dreams, the dreams that others foist onto them. It's as bad as craving a frog prince. No vampires out there, sorry. One student (male) suggested these novels are making young girls think stalking is romantic. Argh!

While I am not convinced that embracing rampant materialism would make people happy, or that realism is far more useful and powerful than romance, I do think this man cares deeply about his subject. I'm glad to be able to hear his thoughts for a semester.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The detail versus the details

My friend Jeanne used to say she skipped over the description in novels because it was so boring. I skimmed it, being sure it contained some clues about the characters. As I write more and take writing classes, I've found a great focus on getting the details. Show, don't tell is a strategy everyone recommends today, and that leads to details, to descriptions of how John looked after Ellen told him she was pregnant, not "he was upset."

On the other hand, have you seen places where authors give you too many details? Color, shape, size, clothing, hair, shoes, nailpolish, makeup, etc etc. No one can really take in that many details at once when they look at a person casually. When you meet someone, you don't take inventory the way a policeman writing up a description might. You catch a few details. Which ones? Some people say you should include "significant details" in writing descriptions. To me, that means I should include what makes this person unique or memorable. If you see them crossing the street and the next day you try to name one thing you think you know for sure about how they looked, will it be the oversized cowlick in the back of the head or the izod sweater with a big black stain on one elbow or will it be blond and blue eyed, loafers, blue slacks, white teeth? I would guess you'd recall the first two items, things you don't see every day. That's a good way to pick out significant versus excess details.

I like Chekhov stories for many reasons, but one reason is that uncanny ability to choose the significant detail about a place, a table, a person. Once you know it's okay not to keep every possible detail, it's fun to choose the one or two that give the reader the best sense of that scene.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Body and Pen

One of my students, many years ago, told me he thought we should all decant our brains into servo machines and forget all this physical activity. At the time, I thought he was a bit cold and techno, but I didn’t think his idea was totally out of the range of possibilities. I didn’t much like sweaty exercise myself and thought doing without all that might really save a lot of trouble. Not long ago, I ran into his essay again right after I had reread Thoreau’s essay on Walking, where he said, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” What is it that Thoreau was collecting or soaking in during these long walks that my student felt was expendable? I’d guess, connection to nature, a sense that I am part of something larger than myself. It would be hard to get to that feeling if I were a brain in a servo mechanism as Chris had envisioned.
One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is that I appreciate breaks that show me what a character is doing and feeling in the world. A glimpse out the window, a flash of yellow leaves blowing in the wind, the warm vapor of a cup of tea, swirling around the character’s face, the taste of a wild blueberry just picked on top of the mountain, the wind gusts that push hard against the body and then let go with no warning. These mini-descriptions that authors place in long sections of dialog or of interior monolog make me feel embedded in the character. Why? Because that’s how I experience the world. Read, read, read, then look up for a sensual input. The rhythm is familiar and takes me right into the story, has me looking out through the eyes of the character.
I’ve been trying to teach myself to be aware of my bodily sensations and use those in my writing. Gayle Brandeis’ Fruitflesh book, her earliest one, is great at increasing sensory awareness. I’ve heard that when she talked with California Writers Club, Inland Empire, about that book, she handed each person a strawberry to experience. Many people in the group had never encountered a strawberry with such intensity in their lives. Smelling, close examination by eye, feeling, tasting. I’m not sure about hearing. If you heard the berry, let me know.
Gayle, a dancer as well as an author, and many writers I’ve heard talking about their processes, say that a walk is one of the best ways to stoke up the brain. Walking with the sense on high amplification is a great experience, very relaxing and also, paradoxically, invigorating. So, nowadays I wish I could talk with my former student again and say, “No, don’t decant your brain. You would lose way too much.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Interview with Gillian Bagwell about Darling Strumpet

LH: Hi Gillian. Your writing follows a real person, Nell Gwynn. How did you get interested in her?
GB: Quite a long time ago, an actor friend got a lot of notice for a one-man show he was performing. I was very much pursuing an acting career at the time, and thought that writing a one-woman show for myself seemed like a great idea. My father suggested Nell Gwynn as a character, and I started researching her. The more I learned, the more charmed and intrigued I was with her personality and her story. I wrote some of the script and couldn't do justice to her very eventful life. So she sat in my mind and heart for quite a long time until I decided to write her story as a novel instead.
LH: What kind of research did you do? Did you get any grants to help you pay for your research?
GB: Grants! That would be great, wouldn't it? No, no grants. And I have spent A LOT of time and money researching this book.
When I first started researching Nell, I read several bioghraphies of her, one or two of Charles, and other general material about the period. When I started writing the novel, I was in London, so fortunatly I was able to go in person to some of the places associated with her life. And also fortunately there were a couple of new biographies out about her.
From there, the ripples spread. There is really such a huge amount of information out there, in print and on line. I have biographies of many of Nell's friends and contemporaries. I'd always enjoyed Samuel Pepys's diaries, which mention Nell several times and are a great source of information about daily life in the 1660s. There's a site that is publishing the diary entries daily, with annotation ( ).
One area that took a lot of research was the theatre of the day. The playhouses had been closed under Cromwell, and one of the first things Charles II did when he was restored to the throne in 1660 was to authorize two acting companies and playhouses, and soon after, he approved the idea of women appearing on stage for the first time in England.
I had to track down the plays that Nell appeared in, and most of them are pretty obscure. I found some on Project Guttenberg ( ) but I couldn't find many until I discovered the Clark Library ( ) associated with UCLA, which has a huge collection of material from the 17th and 18th centuries, much of it available on line. A really miraculous source is The London Stage, 1660-1800, a multi-volumne set that provides a day-by-day account of performances, who was in them, etc. I also read a lot on Restoration and Carolinian theatre in general.
And in 2008, I spent six week in London doing more research, following in Nell's footsteps, finding the sites of old theatres, and so on.
LH: Yes, I remember reading your online comments from some of the sites you visited in 2008. I could tell that you had her locales down cold! How long has it taken you to write this first novel?
GB: I started writing it in Feburary, 2005, but there were many periods of weeks at a time when I wasn't working on it at all. When I came home from London in June 2006, I decided to make it a priority to finish it and sell it, and after that I worked on it as much and as regularly as aI could, given the need to make money and other interruptions of real life. I went through a couple of drafts, and in July 2009 I had a draft I was happy enough with to send to the agent who had been working with me informally.
LH: How did you find an agent?
GB: I went to a writers' conference and paid $100 extra to have two different agents read my first 20 pages. One of them liked it but thought it was too early to be showing it to anyone. The other one wanted to see the first 100 pages. She liked that well enough to pass it on to a colleague, Kevan Lyon, who had a particular interest in historical fiction, and it was Kevan who ultimately became my agent. So I had a pretty easy time of it, which is not typical.
LH: Did your agent or your editor actually ask you to edit the book?
GB: Before she was officially my agent, Kevan helped me with about three sets of rewrites of my first 100 pages before I had even completed a draft. Finally I told her I thought I needed to get through a first draft before I did any mroe rewriting. When I sent her the completed manuscript, she emailed me when she was halfway through to tell me that she wanted to represent me officially. She did make a few suggestions, and once I had incorporated those, she submitted it to editors. My editor, Kate Seaver at Berkley Publishing Group, only asked for two fairly minor revisions.
LH: You are signed for two books. Did you sell both of them at once?
GB: Yes! when Kevan was submitting Darling Strumpet to editors, I wrote three or four short synposes of ideas I had for my next project. And miraculously, when Kevan sold Darling Strumpet she also sold my second book, as yet completely unwritten, on the basis of a brief outline and what I had done with the first book.
LH: Are the two novels related to each other?
GB: They are related in that they both involve Charles II and significant events during his life, but he isn't the protagonist of either book, and they're not intended to be sequels or prequels of each other. While I was researching Nell Gwynn, I came across the story of Jane Lane, who had helped Charles escape after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651, when the Royalist cause was lost. So my second novel, The Royal Miracle takes place in 1651, when they were traveling together. There is a bit about the years during which Jane was in exile after she was found out and when she went home to England when Charles was restored in 1660, and there there is a bit of story that takes place after that. Nell's story, The Darling Strumpet, starts on May 29,1660, the day Charles returned to London. It follows the course of Nell's life to 1687, and takes place mostly in London. So Nell knew Charles at a completely different time and under vastly different circumstancs than Jane Lane did, and their stories didn't intersect.
LH: Were you a polished writer when you started your novel? Did anyone help you?
GB: I wouldn't say I was polished. All my life I have worked on bits and pieces of creative writing, but for most of my adult life until a few years ago I was focused on the theatre. I've done quite a lot of what I guess I could call utilitarian writing--press releases, subscription brochures, newsletters, editing scripts, etc. And for many years I've made a living off and on summarizing deposition transcripts for attorneys. It's not exciting, but it is very good practice at clear, concise writing that conveys essential information economically. I took a few writing workshops and classes over the years. When I took Kerry Madden's class at Vroman's bookstore in the fall of 2006, that was the first time I'd shown any of the Darling Strumpet manuscript or gotten feedback on it, and Kerry's critique and that of the class was very helpful.
LH: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about the process of publishing a book, as your book nears publication?
GB: I guess one thing that I don't quite understand is why it takes as long as it does to get a
book published once a deal is made. The second thing that surprised me is the somewhat liquid timetables that things seem to operate on in the publishing world. I didn't get rewrite notes from my editor until about three months after she had said she would get them to me. I guess that's just the way it works when editors are swamped handling many books. But in theatre, if a show is scheduled on open on May 1 and 8 PM, it does. The curtain might go up ten minutes late, but the show must go on!
LH: What are your plans to generate publicity for the book? It's coming out in January, 2011, right?
GB: Believe it or not, I'm already deep into those efforts. In January I took a really great class on line called "Buzz your book" taught by MJ Rose. It helped me develop some really good ideas for publicity, including a series of articles hosted by different blogs or website for each month from now until the book is published in January 2011 about the corresponding months in 1660 and 1661. The first of those article actually just went up May 5, on the Hoydens and Firebrands blog: ( )
You can track all of the posts through different sites from my own web site, , which has clickable links to all of the historical postings.
LH: Do you have a critique group?
GB:Regular critique from other writers has been invaluable. My first experience was in Kerry Madden's classes. After that, one of my classmates invited me to join a small writing group that she had. It was great, but it only met once a month. So I began meeting with a couple of the women from that group and one or two others. Initially we met every two weeks, but these days we usually meet every week. The Darling Strumpet would not be nearly as good without their input.
LH: Did you have to overcome any disappointments along the way?
GB: One thing that was very frustrating and disappointing was that although when I started working on my novel, and certainly when I first began researching Nell, there were no other novels about her. Then suddenly in 2007, just when I was trying to finish the book and find an agent and publisher, TWO of them were published. I was afraid it might mean that mine wouldn't get bought, but fortunately that wasn't the case. I've just learned of another novel about Nell that will be published the same month as mine.
LH: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
GB: Work at it. Write a lot. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Some of that comes from classes and outside critique, and some of it just from lots of writing. I've learned a lot and become a much more efficient writer as I worked on The Darling Strumpet. I've also learned a lot by reading. I've always been a ferocious reader, and I think part of what I've tried to do with this first novel is write something that I would love to read. Read about writing. Become knowledgeable about the publishing business. Write something that might actually interest a publisher, if you want to sell your book. Once you're going to show it to anyone like an agent or editor, be meticulous about technical things like spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. I guess maybe the most important thing is to write what you're passionate about. I've been thinking about Nell and carrying her in my heart for so long that this novel was clawing to get out.
LH : Thanks so much, Gillian!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Music and Poetry

Music and poetry seem to go together, both with rhythm and color inherent in their being. I just recently enjoyed an event celebrating a new book called Chopin with Cherries (available via Lulu) which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth with poetry new and old. I'm pleased that one of my poems, "Goodbye to Poland," was selected for the anthology. The bond between poetry and music was reinforced for me at a reading/performance arranged by the editor, Maja Trochimczyk, at South Pasadena Library. Many of us read our poems, and between poetry sets, an established pianist and a collection of students from Azusa Pacific University played Chopin pieces on the grand piano. The alternation drew depths from the music and from the poetry that I hadn't expected. I plan to listen to music with my poetry reading more often, now.

Monday, April 19, 2010

RETREAT tips wanted

Hello, writers.
I am looking for some good sites for writing retreats. You know, those apply-for-free- housing-at-spectacular-location deals. You submit your writing and a bit about what you want to write, and then if you're selected, you go to their spectacular location and write for two weeks or a month or whatever. I don't want a workshop; lots of those call themselves retreats, but I don't need more instruction and inspiration. Some conferences call themselves retreats, and they are the very opposite of what I am looking for. I just need more time, quiet time to reflect and connect the jigsaw puzzles of my book-in-progress. I have applied to Djerassi (near Stanford in the Bay Area) and to UCross in Wyoming. I guess I'll apply for Yaddo this summer. Tell me of others you know about. I'd love to hear about any in the Pacific Northwest, or anywhere near the beach. Watching water stimulates my mind!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Most Important Books for Writers

e I've been following with interest a thread on the Twitter/blog of Nathan Bransford, an agent with a lot of interesting thoughts, about what ONE book does a writer need?

The replies veer off into writing books, of which Stephen King's has been recommended the most often. Personally, I like William Zinser's On Writing Well, and several others of his books, far better.

But Nathan himself said it was The Great Gatsby. I suppose nothing is more inspiring than a great novel you can return to year after year, seeing new layers of meaning each time. People who teach great literature have this experience, and writers can too if they reread great books every so often. Others suggested The Bible (diversity of plots and characters), The Complete Works of Shakespeare (same but also the writing), The Sun Also Rises, Of Mice and Men. I would consider Little Women, Mrs. Dalloway, Pride and Prejudice but probably would choose a book of Chekhov's short stories.

Anyone out there have a favorite to suggest?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Going somewhere else

Nothing is better for me as a writer than traveling; I give up all my sitting time and take close looks at everything around me. What an amazing insect. Oh, look at that odd colored rose. People talk funny here. What's a flat white? Or a long black? (Aussie slang for coffee orders, it turns out). Is it dangerous to walk along the coast path here? Everyone says, "Ah, no." Can I trust that advice? So much of connotation and inflection need familiarity. If you're not from here, do you really "get it?" Probably not. Fun seems more fun when you are away. At home, it would definitely not be fun to have my bus break down in the rain, but in Sydney, it was an adventure. My energy level went way up from all this stimulation, and luckily it stayed high even after I came back home. Do you find the same? Or are you always at the same high (or low) pitch of energy and observation?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Time change" is a good pair of words to think about. I don't just mean cherry blossoms, daffodils, spring breezes, lack of sleep. I mean, "Could it be time to change?" It's not just when we are in the midst of cancer or the like that we can consider change. It can come whenever we make space in our lives to welcome it. I just heard about the basketball coach at Boston University, who was a "six-figure salesman." He was assaulted late at night, coming out of a bar, by a broken-glass-wielding attacker. His face and neck still show terrible scars, and he says he almost died. In the hospital, he decided his life wasn't a good fit and he wanted to coach. Slowly, after his recovery, he built that life for himself. What's magical about the hospital? Time. The time for reflection isn't built into our lives. Maybe such time was never built into human lives, but it seems as if time to reflect has recently gone AWOL. I have heard many talks about using the 15 minutes parked outside the school, picking up the kid from his or her activity, to write. But you can also use it to do nothing but think. How well does your life fit? Is there a life you can imagine that would work better? How might you get there?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Live dangerously: Write

One of my inspiring teachers is writing a book linking danger and writing. My imagination has been at play with that connection for a while now. You need courage to write, not just because your cousin Joanne won't like how you portrayed her as a bitch (or she thought you did) in your novel or memoir. The deeper risk is that it shakes up your own soul. All of those things you could list that you DON'T want to write about are the things you need to confront, but each one takes an act of courage on your part. Even if you are not going to write any memoir, you need to mine these past events because their emotional freight is what makes your writing come alive. Digging into buried pain bombs is not easy. And it can be rewarding but there are no guarantees: you can't say to yourself, okay, if I think this through finally, my relationship with my dad will be fixed forever. It may not be. You may need to keep revisiting that healing sore on and on into the future because there is still shrapnel there. But some of the hurt area will recover the healthy pinkness of flesh and definitely, the emotions you uncover will spark up your writing. Go there, take the risk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Moderation in Everything, Even Blogs

I resisted moderating the comments for a while, but I've suddenly been connected with a coterie of spammers and one advertised a smut site. I can't let that keep happening, so I am asking commenters to be patient for me to check that they are in the writing dialog and not the porn dialog. I am sorry to make you wait for your comments to post, but it is necessary.

Moderation is a funny word, meaning choosing the golden mean on the one side, and acting like the FBI, snooping around to make sure all is legitimate, on the other. In person, moderating a panel let's say, it's not so bad. You can point out places of major disagreements and highlight places of minor but important agreement between panelists. You can try to keep them on debatable items rather than canned speeches. I feel pretty comfortable with it in that sense. But having to vet every comment on the blog really runs against my tide. I will do it, though. I hope you legitimate discussants won't hate it too much.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Favorite Inspiring Quotations on Writing

I've been writing a novel in which one of the characters posts a quotation every week, and since she wants to be a writer, a lot are about writing. I have collected some inspiring quotations about writing, partly by following a thread on She Writes site. Here are a few of my favorites:

"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else." by Gloria Steinem

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." by Anaïs Nin

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." Joan Didion

"In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway." Junot Diaz

"When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." Audre Lorde

Do you have a favorite writer you'd like to quote on writing? Please post in the comments!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome to 2010, Blog Writers Beware

It's a new year, promising a new perspective, a writing renewal. But the FTC has a surprise for us this year--actually it went into effect in December. We bloggers must now disclose (hate that word) to the readers whether or not we have a "material connection" to the product we discuss. Did we receive a free review copy of book x? Have we perhaps written that book? Then we cannot mention that book without "disclosing" our free copy or authorship.

Might it have affected our opinion? I hope no blogger would write about a book without reading it, so it had to affect the opinion. But did getting it free incline the blogger to plug it? Maybe. Is this a danger worth our government's surveillance? Don't make me laugh. Can they catch bankers swiping hoards of cash from customers, betting against their own advice in the stock market? Can they catch nascent terrorists wanting to set their pants on fire? Well, maybe it would be easier to catch a book reviewer on Blogspot. Okay, so expect disclaimers if I mention any books. Sigh.