Archive for November, 2010

Lately I’ve been waiting.  And not just me, but all the characters in my WIP. We’ve been waiting for a certain character to make his appearance in the story. Sure, it was slightly agonizing, knowing all the delicious drama and intrigue he would bring with him, but I had a very clear idea of when and how he was going to arrive and I was determined to wait. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Or so I thought. But then my fella decided he had grown tired of waiting, and, well, he just showed up. Early. Really early. Maybe even fifty to a hundred pages early.

So what’s an author to do? Because frankly, now that he’s here, I don’t want him to leave. Now that he’s here, the story is richer and spookier and sassier and even more fun than it was before he arrived.

So I think I’m going to let him stay. (As if I could get him to leave now, anyway.)

Do you know the feeling? Ever had a character make a surprise entrance, despite your best intentions to keep him/her waiting at the door?

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With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I thought it was time to talk turkey for a few minutes. Well–not literally turkey. (In our house, we tend to have seafood during Thanksgiving). Rather, the subject of what tried and true dishes we HAVE to have every Thanksgiving.  The ones that we treasure, the ones that tie us in some way to our past and we can’t imagine being without next Thursday, no matter what.

Now for me, there are two: The first is my mother’s date nut bread, which I have never, NEVER, been able to duplicate (and I suspect there’s some sort of mystical aid during the last part of its cooking wherein a fairy slips through the oven door and glosses down the top, because my top always remained as matte as Madonna’s lipstick during her Blonde Ambition days.)

The other dish is a Cranberry-Pear relish that I got out of a Fine Cooking years ago. I start to think about making it in mid-September, run out of saliva anticipating it in October, and finally get to assemble the ingredients in Novemebr (yes, I’ve got most of them already).

For my husband Ian, it’s mirliton dressing. One of his most distinct memories of growing up in New Orleans was that his great-grandfather had mirlitons growing along his chain-link fence, so the family would have the dressing every Thanksgiving.

Now in all my years in New Orleans, I knew of mirliton, knew there was even a Mirliton Fesitval, but I had never had any prepared. Well, that is all about to change. This year, Ian is finally making us mirliton dressing. He picked up a pair of mirlitons from the store today. Now I haven’t the vaguest idea of how or what is involved in this dish, all I know is this:

First of all, just look at these things. How can you not love a food that looks like an old man’s mouth after he’s taken out his teeth and then sucked the pulp out of ten lemons?

Are you as excited as I am? More? Hmm, I thought so.

Now tell me–what dish HAS to be on your table at Thanksgiving–and how did it first get there?

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I’ll never forget the first time I heard the brilliant Barenaked Ladies explain that their song, The Old Apartment, wasn’t actually about a guy so ruined over a break-up that he returns to the apartment he once shared with her, breaks in and wreaks havoc in his despair–but rather it was about a man who, still happily with his girlfriend, returns to their old apartment and waxes nostalgic (albeit sometimes bitterly) about their previous pad.

Now this may sound silly but when I heard this revelation I was, well, crushed. I didn’t want to know this was the actual story behind it. I loved the song (still do!) and I was so sure I “got” it–so sure I understood the angst and the grief and the disappointment and the–!

But no. We weren’t on the same page after all, were we, fellas?

Now, I still love you, yes I do. But you broke my heart just a little back then, you really did. (Insert Barenakeds to Erika: “Get over it”.)

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? We think we know, then we think we want to know for sure. So we read/listen to author interviews and maybe even attend a book signing, and much of the time, we do that because we want to hear more about the meat behind the message.

But what if we don’t? Maybe there’s something to be said for leaving something–oh heck, maybe everything–up for interpretation.

Do you think so too? Have you ever read a book or a poem, seen a movie, heard a song, and built your own understanding of it, only to learn later that the author had something very different in mind?

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A few nights ago, Ian and I rented Dreamcatcher, based on Stephen King’s 2001 novel.

Now this post isn’t about the movie (which was, for the most part, well done), but rather about what happened after the credits rolled and we skimmed through the special features.

Lovely butterfly...but how about a look at the discarded cocoon?

Those of us who are DVD junkies know all-too well of the possible treasure chest of goodies that await to defer those ATC (After The Credits) blues. In today’s world of movie-viewing, it is common–even expected–to find all sorts of extras accompanying a disc, things like deleted scenes, production notes,  maybe even an alternative ending or two.

In the case of Dreamcatcher, we were able to watch the movie’s original ending, and it was quite clear why the original ending didn’t work. Which got me thinking:  If it didn’t work, then why bother showing it?

Then–and I think you all know where I’m going with this–I began to wonder what if writers did this?  What if as part of the reader’s guides at the end of novels, authors revealed their original plans for their characters, their original synopsis, even deleted scenes? Would you want to know as a reader? Sure, maybe as a fellow writer, but as a reader? Really?

The future of e-publishing promises all sorts of extras with every book. Maybe this feature will be one, as deleted scenes and alternative endings are now commonplace on DVDs.

So what do you think? As a writer, would you want to share the evolution of your work?

As a reader, would you want to read scenes or even whole summaries of early drafts?

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When I was a second-year student at Hampshire College, I joined the food co-op, Mixed Nuts, which is a collectively-owned grocery store where students could (and still can) get wonderful natural, organic foods at affordable prices. Once a week, I would join other Hampsters in the co-op’s little store and help organize shipments of granola, dried fruits, whole wheat flour, seasonal veggies, chocolate chips, and, my personal favorite, bulk spices. To this day, every time I add cumin to a dish and enjoy that smoky scent, I am transported to that time and place. It always makes me smile.

As writers we all know the power of description to draw our readers to our setting and our moods, and there is quite possibly no other sense as evocative as smell.  Some smells are universal; the smell of the ocean, salty, rich, sometimes sour with the tide. But others are more personal: ie, my cumin association.

Using the sense of smell in writing can be tricky. What evokes for one reader, may not for another. So what to do? All day long, we inhale and we smell. Some of us have stronger noses than others, and some of us find some smells comforting while others find the suggestion stomach-turning (See: Skunk musk).

Here’s a perfect example: as a child, I used to ride the bus from Portland, Maine with my grandmother to her home in New York City. This was in the 70’s, the old days when you could smoke in the back rows, and as a child I always waited for that first whiff of a freshly lit cigarette to waft down to the front where my grandmother and I always sat. To me, the smell meant travel, new places and the excitement of the road. Now, no matter the ill-advised health implications of this memory, to this day, if I am walking along and catch a faraway whiff of a just-lit cigarette, my mind returns immediately to that Greyhound bus and joyful thoughts of impending adventure. Not exactly a textbook scent to evoke warm, cozy feelings, is it? But to me, it’s as real as it gets.

So where am I going with all this smell talk? Well, I think as writers, scents are one of the hardest AND easiest ways to pull our readers into a scene, for the reason I just presented. Smells are so personal–and so powerful. How do we best harness that power in our writing?

What do you think?

And what smell association do you have in your bag of tricks that means the world to you?

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Ahh, first impressions. In life, they’re so easy. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re wretched, sometimes they’re so utterly remarkable that you meet the person again and say: “Are you SURE we’ve met before?” But they are what they are. Because in real life, you don’t (with some exceptions, I suspect) get do-overs when it comes to introductions. And frankly, there’s some great relief in that fact.

But in writing, introductions can be agonizing. Let’s take, for example (and one I happen to be working with currently), a pair of soon-to-be-lovers. You as the writer can’t wait to have them fall in love, can’t wait to discover where they will go, the funny, saucy encounters they’ll enjoy–heck, even the door-slamming fights. Now if only you could get over that darned first meeting and get to the good stuff!

Because let’s face it, SO much hinges on that first impression. Especially in fiction. Sure, we’ll give a character a chance to redeem him or herself later (everybody has bad days!) but that first scene when one character lays eyes on another has to draw us in and reveal something intrinsic to their relationship that leaves us thinking…YES. Wow. These two cats just hit it off.  Bigtime.

In a word: CHEMISTRY.

We all know it. We all love it. And creating it between our characters has to be as organic and authentic as it is between us and our own loves. Two people just have to click. But sometimes the gap between that click moment in our minds and the click moment on the page is so brutally wide we can’t get across it–and until we do, the story itself just won’t move forward.

So we try everything. And I mean, EVERYTHING.

We have them meet at a coffee shop, or maybe on the side of a road, or maybe in a grocery store both reaching for the last head of lettuce (okay, so that one was eliminated early…).

We try Accidental (“Tell me that wasn’t your car I just side-swiped?”), we try Planned (“Are you my four o’clock?”), we even try a combination of the two (“Hey, you just side-swiped my car!–and, oh my god, YOU’RE my four o’clock?!”).

But the fact remains that their budding, building connection–and the reveal of it–has to flow naturally to be convincing. And that, my friends, is the rub that keeps us reworking that first scene until it, yes, CLICKS.

So what about you all? Can anyone else can recall a similar dilemma with any of their main characters–and, better yet, an inspiring account of how you solved it!

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