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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Muscles, Development Of

Three items:

  • Watching The Unusuals, a new cop show, I had to admire Jeremy Renner's well-buffed muscles, displayed nicely at the beginning of episode 3 (about a minute in). Bespeaks lots of time at the gym. I really admire the work those muscles represent.
  • One of my sisters-in-law has naturally admirable musculature. She has--without doing anything--toned, beautiful, sculpted, Linda Hamilton movie star arms. Regardless of how much I ever work out at the gym (which I haven't been doing at all), I will never have arms like that.
  • A day or so ago, flipping open a magazine randomly, I saw a piece advising bicyclists how to strengthen their arms/upper body. In a series of photos, a woman demonstrated the exercises described. I was happy to see that she looked like a regular, real woman, not an impossibly skinny model, but noted her arms didn't look amazing. Then I turned the page. The last exercise involved holding yourself in a full push-up position while raising one arm at a time up behind your back holding a weight. In that photograph, her arms were a portrait of muscles at work. When push came to shove, she had awesome arms.
The lesson: Some people are naturally good writers. Everyone can benefit from practice. Lots of writing needs only solid, not spectacular, skills. But great writing is a combination of talent and effort. The proportion of talent to practice varies for each person.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Marvelous Midwest Memoirs

This woman named Haven Kimmel wrote a memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, and then followed it with She Got Up Off the Couch. They focus on her life in Mooreland, Indiana, which is amazingly close to where I grew up. I love this woman's writing. She has the drollest (most droll?) sense of humor. One example:

Just a glance at persimmons reveals them to be suspicious fruits and yet we ate them constantly. Joyce put them in jams and pies, she even made something with the word "pudding" in the title although of course it was not real pudding because it wasn't chocolate and it didn't come from a box. I was too polite to point the truth out.
I picked up one of her novels (The Solace of Leaving Early) from the library; as of page 9, I still like it, which is a relief. Mostly I am relieved because some people write funny, engaging nonfiction and then disappoint me with their fiction. I find this to be especially tragic when the author involved wrote a "how to write" book that I love. Well, this holds true for Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, the writing book, and Hard Laughter, her first novel). I've never bothered to track down any novels by writing guru Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, etc.).

category: reading

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Writer's Crisis Line

Today's amusing blog post: If only we had an emergency hot line for publishing emergencies . . .

Sneaking a Peak at the London Book Fair

Check out a report in the Practicing Writing blog about what it's like to go to the London book fair.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Awards Awarded

Pulitzers of note (commentary quoted from AP story):

FEATURE WRITING: Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times

DeGregory was honored for what the Pulitzer board called her "moving, richly detailed story" about a neglected young girl, discovered in a roach-infested room, unable to talk or feed herself, who was adopted by a new family.

DeGregory spent six months watching the girl and her new family. She tracked down the girl's birth mother, the officer who rescued the girl, the doctors who examined her, the foster care worked who found her a home. Additional information came from hundreds of pages of police reports, medical records and court documents.

The St. Petersburg Times said more than 1 million people read "The Girl in the Window" online. It generated e-mails from 1,200 people worldwide.

HISTORY: "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School, explores several generations of the Hemings clan and, according to the judges, "casts provocative new light" on the relationship between the nation's third president and his slave.

The Pulitzer board said she was the first African-American to win the history prize.

BIOGRAPHY: "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," by Jon Meacham.

The book was described by the judges as an "unflinching portrait" of Jackson, written in "agile" prose that brings Jackson's story to life.

GENERAL NONFICTION: "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II," by Douglas A. Blackmon.

Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, has written extensively about the use of African-Americans as forced laborers in the nation's coal mines, lumber camps, railroads and plantations in the early 20th century. . . . The judges called the book a "precise and elegant" work that "rescues a multitude of atrocities from virtual obscurity."

In addition to the Pulitzers being announced, the 2009 Northern California Book Awards were doled out. Of interest to this crowd: Richard A. Muller, Physics for Future Presidents, won in the general nonfiction category. Noted Berkeley composer John Adams' Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life won in the creative nonfiction category.


Part of the Collective Memory

From a piece on memoirs in Haaretz:

Literary researcher Dr. Shilhav Kest of Bar-Ilan University is focusing on the moment when private memory becomes public, collective - on what she calls "memory narrative." She uses the term to describe memoirs of certain World War II survivors, as distinguished from canonical Holocaust literature like that of Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel and Aharon Appelfeld. In her doctoral thesis, Kest defines this form of narrative as a genre unto itself, in which literary elements and the act of bearing witness are closely intertwined.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Give Up Writing? Never.

Toni McGee Causey posts about figuring out when to quit writing. Amen, sister!

Toni currently writes fiction. Two of the funniest books I've read in years are from her: Bobbie Faye's Very (Very, Very, Very) Bad Day and Bobbie Faye's (Kinda, Sorta, Not Exactly) Family Jewels. She's got a third coming. And the series will be carried by Wal-Mart, even though there's lots of swearing in them, under new names that I can't remember right now but are on the Web site BobbieFaye.com.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Not to Do in Creative Nonfiction

A book reviewer in The Oregonian laments that the author of Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.
"bogs down in tedious details and only in the last chapter focuses on the Wildlife Lab that, in the reviewer's opinion, should have been the frame the story hung on.

I haven't read the book. I don't know if the reviewer mistook the writer's intent. But I glean from the review some points to consider in the writing of a book:

  • Do we know the point of the book we're working on?
  • Does the reader know the point of the book? Did we tell her straight out what we are trying to do? If not, why not? In the aforementioned review, it's possible that the writer was telling the story she wanted to tell
  • Do the details we use bolster the point? It's so easy to fall in love with the details we unearth as we research.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Quotation: Work!

Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
— David Pollack, football player

category: quotations

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

— Maya Angelou, poet

To Market, to Market

From Twittering around: Here's a new blog on book publishing and publicity. Same title as the topic. If the content is as straightforward as the blog title (Book Publishing and Publicity), you might want to add this to your Favorites.

category: resources

Two Bons Mots for Writers

Garrison Keillor puts out every weekday the Writer's Almanac, which includes a poem and a list of writers whose birthday it is. For today, he listed, among others, Seymour Hersh and Barbara Kingsolver, with quotes from each worth taping to your wall. (Unclear when or where they uttered these words of wisdom.)

From Hersh, this: "I don't make deals, I don't party and drink with sources, and I don't play a game of leaks. I read, I listen, I squirrel information. It's fun."

Barbara Kingsolver: "It is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise."

Also, when I was looking at Kingsolver's Web site, I came across this, in the FAQ section:

From Francine [Prose] I remember learning three specific, helpful things that might qualify as rules. They were:
  • Your first sentence (or paragraph) makes a promise that the rest of the story (or novel) will keep.
  • Give your reader a reason to turn every page.
  • Keep a very large trash can beside your desk.
I follow these faithfully, though I've updated the wastebasket to a recycling box. Now, lest anyone turn blue, I'll offer up a few more things I've figured out over the years which might qualify as rules. Maybe there will be ten. We'll see.
  • Show, don't tell. Everybody knows this rule, and most of us still break it in every first draft. Be ruthless. Throw out the interior monologue.
  • Be relentlessly descriptive. Use details from every sense you own.
  • Set your scenes in places you know well. Otherwise, your details will be bogus.
  • Know what your theme is. If you can't express what you intend to get across in a concrete sentence or two (or for a novel, a few paragraphs), do you really think anyone else is going to get it? Write it out for yourself, point blank. Then toss it, and return to your story with a better sense of direction.
  • Write with nobody looking over your shoulder. After your book's published, you can worry about whether the subject is commercial, how your mother will like the steamy sex scenes, etc. But while you're writing, your only worthy concern is defining your particular passion and giving it a voice.
  • Revise, revise, revise, revise. Fill up that recycling box. A first draft is a work of construction; the seventh one is the work of an artist.
  • Don't wait for the muse. She has a lousy work ethic. Writers just write.

category: quotations

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Market: Unsent Letters

Oh, the places I go on the Internet! Here's a paying market for letters you've written (or might have written) but left unsent. If your letter is accepted, Unsent Letters pays $10. There's no mechanism for determining if the letters are factual (that is, that the situation described is factual, not that someone actually wrote the letter and then stashed it away waiting until this Web site was created to submit it), but I trust that any you submit will be!

category: markets

Will the Public Pay for Long, Detailed Stories?

Amid the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closing and the shocking talk of the Boston Globe being shuttered, I ran across an interesting approach to the public getting news: a pay-per-story kind of arrangement.

An article in Always On reports on Spot.Us, wherein (real, ordinary, joe public) people can make small donations to cover the expenses of producing a local news story. "Local" in this case being the San Francisco Bay area. The resulting investigative piece, researched and written by (real, trained, experienced) journalists, gets published on the Spot.Us site. The Center for Media Change put the project together in an attempt to fill a growing local news hole. One of the stories up for donations would focus on the deteriorating Oakland infrastructure (a troubling tale of policy and potholes, I guess).

Crowdfunding has been used for making movies and supporting indie bands, among other things.
(No, I had never heard the word "crowdfunding" before five minutes ago, although the examples and citations on the pbwiki show people have been doing this for years, including Obama in microfinancing his campaign.)

Another such experiment is under way in Minnesota, according to Media Shift, where a full-time journalist is funded to cover news in the community online. The Media Shift piece explains a lot more about how crowdfunding might function in journalism. Fascinating stuff. Seriously. I'd use an exclamation point here, but I'm not an ! kind of writer.

The Media Shift story has examples of how individuals have used crowdfunding. Writing about this reminds me that someone years ago in the Goucher MFA alum crowd hooked into an online "hub" where people could look through creative projects and decide what to donate to. She was working on a book. In return, the donors got various reports, depending on their level of support. Unfortunately, I don't know how the project turned out. I vaguely remember that a hub didn't have many writers involved, so I don't know if she attracted the kind of interest (and $) she needed. Obviously, whether this works has a lot to do with finding people interested in the story you want to tell.


Monday, April 06, 2009

Brits Don't Do Narrative?

Interview with Henry Porter, British editor of Vanity Fair:

"We [Vanity Fair] survive in the internet age because we have still got something that other people can't do, which is to tell a really good narrative. It makes you understand a story in a way that no other medium does," Porter explains of a magazine that in its most recent edition offers detailed insights into the economic meltdown in Iceland, the changing notion of the American Dream and the Bernard Madoff scandal. These are given treatments over nine, 12 and 16 pages respectively.
Porter says finding regular work with Vanity Fair is "very simple, to absolutely put all your effort into reporting, no short cuts, do the 40 calls, because you always pick up stuff. Transcribe your notes – don't think you remember them – then work on the art of narrative." Composition is an important part of a Vanity Fair piece, which might run to 7,000 words.

Another of my hobby horses comes up in the interview: Writers need to get out and do stuff besides write. A regular contributor, Langewiesche (inane aside: a name that poor guy has been having to spell his whole entire life, I'm sure), who writes in the current edition of Vanity Fair about Somali pirates hijacking yachts in the Gulf of Aden, got the assignment in part because Langewiesche has been an airline pilot and sails his own boat. As Porter puts it, "He understands stuff like navigation. . . . He understands the technical stuff and he can talk to pilots and radar operators--that's a really rare thing in journalism, to have someone who has had a practical life."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Parsing Writing for Info

Let's consider how much you can impart to a reader without spelling everything out. The human brain doesn't need a lot of data to come up with assumptions. For whatever reason, the brain dislikes blanks the way radio dislikes empty air. For example, here's a recounting of what I did in five minutes this afternoon. In brackets I've put facts that a reader could glean from why I put.

I take the dirty saucer into the kitchen, see that the dishwasher hasn't been unloaded, and put the dish on the counter. My brother was right when he'd argued before the home renovation that my family needed a second dishwasher--one to take the dirty dishes while the first waited to be unloaded.
I'd opted for a second oven instead.
[Now you know that I own a home, have a brother, and like to bake or roast meat.]
I get the orange juice out again, noting that we're out of milk, wondering if my husband is out shopping, and pour a little into my glass. I put the juice back into the fridge and look in a few places until I find the liquid measuring cup. I pour the juice in, find that's a third of a cup, give a thought to pour in a little more to make it an even half (easier to do the math when I write down calories and fiber), put the juice back into the drinking glass, rinse the measuring cup, and balance it on the edge of the dish drainer, which is piled with the pans from last night's meal.
[New data: I'm married to a man who doesn't always tell me where he's going. I'm probably on a diet--who else measures their food? I'm tidy--I dealt with the measuring cup before I drink my juice. Someone washes the dishes after a meal but no one dries and puts them away.]
I drink the juice, the final flourish after my egg, bacon, and scrambled egg sandwich on whole wheat. The glass gets rinsed so the pulp won't dry and prove too much for the dishwasher, and I stack my dishes on top of the few dirty items already on the counter--a cutting board, two paring knives, three spoons, two cereal bowls.
[Info: My diet isn't stringent or I don't follow it well. There are other people in the household, ones who don't tidy up after themselves.]
Something to think about.

Patsy Sims put together a book analyzing what writers impart from the choices they make in their details and wording, Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example. It's possible to overanaylze, certainly it's possible to ascribe to writers more intent than actually went into the writing, but it's also an education to see what the reader (in this case Patsy) takes from what is written.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Time Sinks

Trying to get going on social media is about as exhausting as going to a party where I don't know anyone. At least I don't have to worry if there's something stuck in my teeth while I try to widen my pool of acquaintances.