Sunday, April 29, 2012

The end of the music

Dear readers and writers,

I've been reading about Amy Hempel this weekend, in preparation for my class on Wednesday, and she talks about finding the first and last sentence in a story, how that guides the entire writing process.  I was fascinated.  I've started to love sentences, to revel in their intricacies or simplicities.

Then, I went on Facebook and saw that at St. Paul's Church, my friend LizBeth mourned the financial necessity to end the position there of the paid music director.  She said this was a bittersweet day as the choir sang out the beloved Jim French.  The end of the music.  Yes, something there calls me to a story.  I don't know when I will write it, because I only have the first sentence so far.

When music ends...that has always fascinated me, and many others, with the song "American Pie."  The day the music died.  The end of rock and roll.  Of course, music lives on, yes, that's true.  But when people who make it die, or lose their jobs, music disappears in one place.  It pops up somewhere else, later, not now, not here.  So that first sentence, "The end of the music," resonates, loaded with mystery and sadness.

Image from Creative Commons, with thanks.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The worst reason to write

Dear readers and writers,

Probably the best reason to write is that you can't help yourself, you must.  Another reason is that you have something you want to say to the world.  If you write fiction, maybe you have a character or several of them who have fascinating ideas and insights to offer the world.

The worst reason I can think of to write something is because "that's what they want."  My fiction writing seminar class last Wednesday met with an agent who confirmed something I suspected: the timing is all wrong for you if you sit down to write what's topical today.  You'll write it, say taking a year.  You'll take six months (if you're lucky) to find a agent to represent it.  They'll work with you for six months, submit to publishers.  Again, you'll work with an editor for six months if you're lucky enough to be signed.  Then, it will take about a year to publish the book.  So, with the utmost in benign timing at every step, it will be three and a half years before your book is in bookstores.  How many trends last three years?  Not many.

So, I take hope from the idea that only writing something moving, something deep, something I really care about and can't resist writing down is my best strategy for writing a novel.  I need not write about vampires or zombies or hungry competitors; these trends won't be around when and if my novel is published.  Instead, I need to write with my own unique voice, with the imagery of my own world, and trust that an audience will respond to the authenticity when I'm finished.  May it be so for me, may it be so for you.

Image from Creative Commons, with thanks.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Up and Down the Roller Coaster

Dear readers and writers:

Fiona Robyn, whose new ebook, The Most Beautiful Thing, was the focus of a blogsplash yesterday, became the number 1 free ebook in the UK for that day and 20,000 people ordered it.  Up the roller coaster with throat-burning speed indeed.  But then, today, it went back to a very reasonable price instead of being free, and only one copy had sold.  Down the roller coaster with a jerk and a whirl of wind.  She was understandably thrilled yesterday and disappointed today.  Life as an author is not easy.  If you self-publish, then it's up to you to promote your book and giving it away free, even to many people, doesn't lay new carpet.

What really impressed me was Fiona's response.  She explained all this on her blog, Writing Our Way Home, and then she referred us to some beautiful readings, which I won't scoop.  One of those who responded, though, brought up Gravy by Raymond Carver, though.  If you haven't read that, do it now.  Here is the link. What really matters, the carpet or the joy of writing, the joy of connecting with so many readers?  She knows.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Most Beautiful Thing

For the Most Beautiful Thing blogsplash of April 24 (see about that here at  Look at all the blogs on this subject here. 

My most beautiful thing is the little chuckle my husband Mike gives when he's reading something amusing on the computer and he will, in just a minute, look up and share it with me.  Anticipation, love, sharing, community, family, all are rolled up in the moment, not to mention joy!

If you want to read Fiona's ebook The Most Beautiful Thing, order it through


Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Most Beautiful Thing...What's Yours?

If someone asked you to describe your "most beautiful thing" what would you choose?  A thing? Say a fire opal or a brilliant sapphire?  A length of sari silk?

Or maybe an experience like a sunset?  My sister and father collected sunsets while I was growing up.  They sat on the front porch steps rapt to see each one, every night.  I enjoy them too, and often my husband and I will drive  to the West to savor a particularly spectacular sunset.

Or, would you choose something more ephemeral, an emotion, an interpersonal interaction, the way your child looks at ice cream?  The puppy's adoring look?  The way your lover looks into your eyes?

I have to choose for April 24, since Fiona Robyn is having a Blogspash to celebrate her new book, The Most Beautiful Thing, and this blog will be one of many connected in that flow of ideas.  I have a choice in mind...come back on April 24 and check it out!  Meanwhile, go to Writing Our Way Home (click here) to learn more.  And consider buying Fiona's ebook.  It's a lovely exploration of the mind of a young man who has a lot to learn about relationships but is learning how to let that happen.

Photo credit: Creative Commons, with thanks.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dangerous Voices of the Fiction Writer

One of my MFA classes has provided a lot of food for thought this semester on the subject of voice.  I've thought of voice as your unique sweet spot, the writing position that you and only you can take and from which your best work will come.  But in this class, we've discussed fiction writers who position their narrator in a different, non-self place with every book, and think of themselves as writing from a new position with each novel.  I've worked so hard on finding MY place this idea is almost shocking to me.

 The up-side of the shock is liberation.  I hate the idea, espoused by some, including the "teacher" I once had at the Mendocino Writer's Conference, that you have to avoid writing in the voice of an oppressed minority person.  The implication that as a writer, you only can feel and imagine what YOU would feel and experience based on your own life, is a straight-jacket to creativity. Write what you know, stick to that: no, I don't want to be that writer.  I love reading Susan Straight, Gayle Brandeis, Madison Smartt Bell, and others who have respectfully imagined their way into someone else's life.  I love the risk, the danger, but the reward in understanding from imagining that different life.

Still, the idea of putting on a new viewpoint with every new work is challenging.  I hope to rise to the occasion, though, since I would like to create work out of ultimate empathy: writing as if I'm another person, out of different experiences of humanity that I can imagine.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gayle Brandeis Interview: The Book of Live Wires

Hi readers and writers,

Not long ago, I was a gofer at a writing event for high school students sponsored by Inland Empire California Writers' Club and organized by Victoria Waddle, librarian extraordinaire.  The speaker was Gayle Brandeis, and she talked about writing in so many generative ways I found it inspiring, and no doubt the high school students there did too.  I had not realized she recently e-published a new book, a sequel to Book of Dead Birds called Book of Live Wires.  Darryl and Ava, characters from the earlier book, reappear and have fascinating adventures here.  Gayle and I had an interview about her new e-book, how it's not so new after all, but how she came to publish it as an ebook.  Hope you enjoy it.  You can also click above on her name to see the earlier interview about writing Self Storage.   Best,  Laura
Hi Gayle, I loved your Delta Girls, and before that Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds.  And now you have put out a sequel to Book of Dead Birds, called The Book of Live Wires.  Can you tell us about where that title came from?

Thanks, Laura! I knew I wanted the title to have resonance with The Book of Dead Birds, and when I realized that Darryl was going to be dealing with power lines as part of his new job in Los Angeles, The Book of Live Wires seemed like the perfect counterpoint to the original title.

LH: Can you tell the blog readers about your experience writing this book, when, why, and how did you write it and why did you take so long to publish it?

GB: I wrote this book during National Novel Writing Month in 2002. My first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, had come out that Spring, and while I was on my book tour, I learned that The Book of Dead Birds had won the Bellwether Prize, judged by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, my three favorite writers. This was thrilling beyond belief, but it completely messed up my creative process--I started to worry that everything I wrote had to be worthy of Toni Morrison’s praise, and I ended up with writer’s block for the first time in my life. When I heard about National Novel Writing Month, I realized that if I took the plunge and tried to write 50,000 words in 30 days, there wouldn’t be time to worry about whether my literary idols would approve of every word. It totally worked. Writing The Book of Live Wires was liberating and fun and brought me right back into my own creative process.

For many years, I never considered publishing the book. I had written it for myself, not for an audience. People have asked about it over the years, though, so I finally decided to take another look at the manuscript and was surprised by how much life was inside it. I decided to dust it off and bring it out as an ebook to celebrate both National Novel Writing Month and the 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize. It’s been an interesting experiment--I learned (and am continuing to learn) so much in the process of e-publishing.

LH: Ava was a favorite character of mine in Book of Dead Birds.  She seems a lot less vulnerable, as well as touchier, in Book of Live Wires, perhaps because we are looking from Darryl Sternberg’s perspective instead of Ava’s own.  How did you decide on the point of view character? 
GB: I decided to write the sequel from Darryl’s point of view because a few readers had told me that they found Darryl to be too good to be true in The Book of Dead Birds, and I wanted to show that he was more layered than he appeared. And yes, Ava felt very different to me as I wrote about her from Darryl’s perspective, too. I missed seeing the world through her eyes, but it was definitely an interesting experience to view her through someone else’s lens.

LH: There are a lot of parts of this book where Darryl struggles with his parents’ expectations and his own about his Jewish background.  These parts are particularly poignant.  Do you use any of your own experience in writing these parts, or just imagine what it might be like for him?

GB: I grew up in a secular Jewish household, so I didn’t have any pressure to relate to my Judaism in any particular way, but I do struggle on occasion with not being as literate in Judaica as I would like. On the rare times I go to temple, I always feel a little bit sheepish that I can’t read Hebrew and don’t know all the blessings. My Jewish identity is important to me, but it sometimes feels like a more theoretical connection than a lived one, especially since I’ve been influenced by other forms of spirituality over the years. I’m sure all of these feelings informed the writing of Darryl’s story even though his experience is quite different from my own.

LH: Writing from the point of view of a man when you’re a woman is a challenge, yet I found Darryl very believable.  Did you have any problems in thinking yourself into a man’s head?  Did you get advice from any male readers?

I thought it would be difficult to sustain a male perspective, but I actually felt quite comfortable slipping into Darryl’s skin. His voice came naturally to me--more naturally than Ava’s, which I really struggled with, at least in the early drafts of Dead Birds. I wrote Live Wires with such tunnel vision--I didn’t look up long enough to ask any guys for advice in the process. As I was revising, though, I did show the book to my husband and he found the male point of view believable, which was a relief.

LH: The character Zipporah is almost a jester-figure in the book, one who could be taken with deep seriousness or considered completely unreliable.  How did the concept of her character come to you? 

GB: She just emerged full-blown on the page. I didn’t have any expectations for the book when I sat down to write that November--I had no idea what was going to happen in the novel, other than the fact that I wanted to explore Darryl’s life and see what my characters had been up to. Zipporah was a surprise, and man, did she take me (and everyone else in the book) for a ride.

LH: Zipporah is supposedly translating Darryl’s grandmother’s diary, and I thought the diary passages that she gave Darryl were among the most moving parts of this book.  Were we meant to question the entire translation as part of Zipporah’s unreliability narrative? 

GB: I’ll let you decide that as a reader! I will say that when I started writing the diaries, I wasn’t sure who was translating them, and when I realized it was Zipporah, my relationship with those journals changed quite a bit.

The story in the opening chapter, of the grandmother’s family being killed by Cossacks, is actually based on a family story, or so I thought. My mother had told me that her father had witnessed his mother being raped and killed by Cossacks, and that story has haunted me for years. After my mom died in 2009, however, I asked her sister about the story and she had never heard it before. My mom was not the most reliable narrator, herself, so there is a strange parallel between life and fiction here as far as the journals go--in fact, there are many strange parallels between The Book of Live Wires and my current life, which I couldn’t have anticipated when I wrote the novel. I am now on my second marriage, like Darryl; I have a new baby (toddler now), who was conceived before the wedding, like Darryl and Ava’s baby; I baptized the baby for non-religious spouse-related family reasons, as did Darryl, and had similar reservations about the decision. I never could have imagined any of these things for myself when I wrote this book, but here they are!

LH: That's fascinating! Any other thoughts about writing and publishing today you’d like to share?

GB: The publishing world is changing so rapidly, it can be a bit dizzying. The way to stay grounded, I believe, is by focusing on the writing process instead of publishing process--write from your heart, from your gut, from your fear, from your love; write the best book you can, the book you want and need to write. If it doesn’t find a home with a traditional publisher, there are so many ways to do it yourself now--I hope writers feel empowered by that.

LH: Could you give us your blog address and the connection to your book on Amazon?

GB: I have two blogs, neither of which I update with any frequency (to my continuing sense of guilt):, my writing/publishing related blog, and, my parenting blog. You can also find me on Facebook (which I update a bit more often) and Twitter (which I really just dabble in). The link to Amazon is (you can also find The Book of Live Wires on your favorite ebook platform, from Google eBooks to Smashwords to Nook, etc.)

Thank you so much, Laura--always a pleasure to talk with you!
And always a pleasure to talk with you too, Gayle!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Alphabetaphilia 2012 chapbook PDF nearing completion

Hi readers and writers,

I've been working on the chapbook PDF of the Alphabetaphilia project from February on this blog, and it's almost finished.  Before putting it to bed, I'd like to encourage a few people who posted regularly in Alphabetaphilia, especially "Richard," "Merlin" and "SharonW", to send one or two of their favorite postings to me at if they are willing to have some included in the PDF, to be made available free on this website.  If not, then so be it.  It's been a lot of fun rereading all of the zany sentences we produced!  Thanks to all participants!


Monday, April 2, 2012

What Good Are Memoirs?

Dear readers and writers,

I just returned from Allentown, PA where I keynoted the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences conference for the year.  It was a lovely event, based at the women's college Cedar Crest.  So many young women planning confidently to go into science were there, and a lot of them talked with me about combining family and career, something I hope they will all feel free to do if they want that combination.  There's so much talk about how women can't do both these days, but it's just not true.

One thing I've learned about writing a memoir is that it has embedded within it the message you have received from the part of your life you feature.  Mine is, I chose along the way, each time selecting the choice that made it possible for me to have both family and science.  I know my way of putting together that combination isn't the only way to do it, in fact I"m now writing a dual biography of two women in the top flight of scientists who also married and had a child, and who feel that balance is both possible and important.  I'm having a lot of pleasure as I go around and speak at colleges, research institutes, marine laboratories, hospitals, bookstores and each time, I talk with women who feel that giving up family was not going to be worth it, that science is fascinating but not sufficient to build a life upon.  It's important to find your core message and enjoy spreading the word about it, via your memoir and also by speaking about it to as many people as you can.

Image credit; Creative Commons, with thanks.