About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

The Procrastination Habit

Procrastination is so rife among my writer friends and other creatives I know that we don’t even joke about it. We are clichés. While I would never lie about procrastinating when I’m supposed to be working, I rarely volunteer the fact. If another writer confesses to me that she’s procrastinating on getting pages done, I feel a huge sense of relief. There’s no misery like procrastination misery to build solidarity between writer friends.

Even some of the most productive bestselling writers I know sometimes procrastinate. Personally, when I’m in my deepest procrastination moments, I forget that. It feels lonesome, and I become my own harshest judge. (That whole comparing oneself to other writers is deadly too, but we can consider that another time.) Being judgy while procrastinating is doubly unhelpful.

Procrastination offers an escape from tension. If I have a project (or chapter or paragraph or phone call or chore) that makes me feel anxious, I sometimes literally walk away from it. It might be for five minutes. It might be for an hour. It might be for weeks. Eventually I’ll return to it–or, if it’s some kind of chore or event–my lack of action will mean it expires and goes away.

Avoidance. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m sometimes guilty of it. Ouch.

I’ve read many, many books to try to improve my productivity, shape my behavior, and, yes, fix my procrastination habit. Because it is a habit, not a disease or fatal flaw.

Here’s the latest book I’ve read on the subject:

I listened to it on audio via Overdrive and liked it well enough that I bought the ebook. (I often do that, anecdotal proof that library reads influence consumer book purchases.)

Notice that appealing subtitle. “A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” How sexy is that? I couldn’t resist checking it out when I was browsing available audiobooks. The subtitle worked on me exactly the way I’m sure it was intended: put the focus on the positive, not the procrastination.

KillZone is not the place for book reviews, but is about the writing life. So I’ll be brief.

THE NOW HABIT

  1. Helps you identify when and why you might be procrastinating.
  2. Doesn’t judge you for procrastinating–and even explains how it becomes an active coping tool.
  3. Doesn’t prioritize work over pleasure (a real revelation for me).
  4. Offers some compelling client stories.
  5. Has focus exercises and talks about the process and importance of flow.
  6. Helps you create your own “unschedule.”
  7. Has a good section about dealing with the procrastinators in your life.
  8. Explores goal setting.

The “unschedule” is my favorite piece of the process because it turns one’s schedule upside down. After blocking out the time you require for life’s necessities like eating, cleaning, sleeping, and tending dependent creatures, you mark out time for things that give you pleasure and put you in a state of play or creative play. Working out, practicing hobbies, spending time with friends. It might happen daily, weekly, or bi-weekly. Whatever you choose. It becomes a priority. A reward to work toward.

Work (or writing or publishing business for most of us here) can become more energizing. More efficient. I confess that on the days I’ve managed to put this into serious practice, I’ve found myself happily working overtime, sometimes working well into my scheduled pleasure time–but not feeling a bit deprived because I know I’ll get to play again soon. Also, I’m getting a huge amount of pleasure from my work hours.

I know many people who have always operated their lives this way. They tend not to be procrastinators, and are what Fiore calls “producers.” If you are one of those people, you either stopped reading this a long time ago, or are shaking your head, wondering what’s wrong with the rest of us. Congratulations! You are in a really good place.

I’ll give you a peek at a part of my “unschedule” from last week. Up to last month, my two primary jobs were writer and homeschool mom. Now I’m a writer with a rising college freshman in the house, so my time is primarily mine to schedule. Everyone’s life circumstances are different, so your mileage will vary.

 

I make my schedule in pencil because it never works out exactly as I plan and I like to go back and put in what I actually do. It’s quite revelatory for me.

Dealing with procrastination can be a real battle. Particularly for writers. Not all, of course. I’d love to hear from both sides of the aisle. What do you do to fight procrastination, if you fight it at all? If you don’t, what keeps you focused on your goals?

(I won’t tell you how many times I got up from my chair and wandered out into another part of the house as I wrote this. But here’s what happens if I’m gone for even a minute!)

 

 

4+

Thank You. Thank You Very Much.

 

Book photo by Svetlana Lukienko/Canva

The other day I conducted an informal Facebook poll asking if people read acknowledgement pages in books. Because folks who respond to online polls are self-selecting, I wouldn’t make bank on the results. Still, they rather surprised me.

After a brief intro, my direct question was, “Do you read acknowledgement pages?” (Pretty tricky, huh?) All forty-some commenters said that they do. Some said so quite emphatically. Confidentially, I need to hire a better pollster because it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I find writing out the acknowledgements for a book terrifying. There are writers who do it elegantly, and writers who don’t do it at all. Mine are never elegant, and I know I always forget someone important. (And anyone who helps even slightly with a book is important.) I was half-hoping I would learn that no one reads acknowledgements and they think they’re a waste paper. That way I could go on with other projects. It took me five days of dithering and starting and stopping before I finally got them finished. I write fiction for a reason. Acknowledgements are reality in a very pure form.

I like thanking people. I really do! I’m a regular thank-you note writer, and have been since the days when my mother stood over me to make sure I did them. For me, saying thank you for something is often easier than asking for help in the first place. But not in the case of writing acknowledgments. There’s something so absolutely final about writing acknowledgements. They’re there on paper forever–well, until it rots or the pixels die or we have a digital apocalypse, anyway. If I do it wrong, everyone will know!

I don’t have a system for writing acknowledgements. There’s a list in every novel’s notebook where I write down the names of people I mean to thank. But before I start writing what will go in the book, I always peruse my bookshelves to see what others have done. There are no existing rules that I know of.

Here are some random examples from my shelf:

Judy Blume, IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT: 3+ pages

Johnny Shaw, FLOODGATE: 1 page

Con LeHane, MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM: 1+ page

Elmore Leonard, BE COOL: A brief paragraph with song attributions and a line to Aerosmith and Steve Davis. Also a line in the dedication. All at the front of the book

Margaret Atwood, THE BLIND ASSASSIN: A paragraph with the names, only, of 50 + people, then copyright content notes

Rhys Bowen, CROWNED AND DANGEROUS: 8 lines thanking several people on the dedication page

IAN RANKIN, SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE: None

That’s a small spectrum of acknowledgements, but they’re all pretty much different. Is one better than another? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of style. Do I think that a writer who only thanks three people rather than fifty is an ungrateful person? Absolutely not. I doubt readers think so.

I confess that it’s gotten more difficult for me over time. If I had a quarter of as many books as Margaret Atwood, I would probably just starting listing folks as well. One can only extoll the amazing virtues of one’s agent so many ways. At this point I have to go back and make sure I’m not repeating myself.

The FB poll opened my eyes to how important acknowledgements can be to readers, as well as reviewers and bloggers. Acknowledgements give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the writer’s process and the publishing scene. They also give us a glimpse into the personality style of the writer. Or maybe not. I’m not quite decided on that. I never met Elmore Leonard, and I haven’t met Judy Blume or Margaret Atwood, but their acknowledgements styles reflect what I imagine them to be (or to have been) like. And while I don’t know the rest of the writers in my examples well, I know them enough to find their styles compatible with their personalities. And they’re all lovely people.

There are two instances where I’ll go straight to the acknowledgements page. The first is if I know it’s a heavily researched novel. I love to hear about sources. The other is if I know the writer fairly well. There are few things more embarrassing than learning a year after the fact that someone put you in their book.

Writers–How do you approach acknowledgements? I’m dying to know what your process is!

Readers–Do you read acknowledgements? Do you judge the writer by what you read? What do you look for? Please tell us!

 

5+

First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

Go Daddy Stock photo

Greetings and Salutations, happy readers!

It’s my pleasure to bring you a new First Page Critique. The chapter is the first from a novel called, No Such Thing as Enough.

Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet entered his chest and blew out his back, leaving blood spatter on the brick wall of the alley. A crooked blood trail marked the cement where he staggered between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store. Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head. The skinny seventeen-year-old had put up a good fight, but he lost.

Jamie’s mother, Alice, rousted me out of bed with a phone call at about 3:00 AM. “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?” She cried as she hung up, leaving me sitting in my underwear, staring at the receiver.

I tried to place her face, but nothing registered. She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her. In a church the size of the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle, that was easy. How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?

I wondered what Alice expected me to do or say. Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers. Nevertheless, it was my job to bring comfort—not that anything I could say would really comfort her—so I threw on some clothes and headed out to downtown Dayton Crossing.

***************

While I do enjoy working with writers who have that new baby writer smell (Mmmmmm, those potent combinations: Fearlessness/fearfulness. Inventiveness. Enthusiasm/despair. Overconfidence/zero confidence.), it’s always a pleasure to work with a writer who has read a lot of fiction and can construct not just a pleasing sentence, but a well-thought-out paragraph. Hear, hear, brave author! You’re off the ground, but let’s work on your aim.

I was going to start off with a most obvious comment about presenting a logical sequence of events, which is something a lot of us struggle with. What comes first, second, third, etc.?

But I’m going to short circuit that comment with an observation that came to me on my fourth or fifth reading of this opening: It reads exactly like a novelized screenplay. While I’ve only written one produced screenplay, and a handful of live theater pieces, I have—if there were such a thing—an unofficial  doctorate in crime television viewing.

[Opening]

Setting: dark, urban alley

Seventeen-year-old boy walking downtown at night is ambushed, shot in the chest with a high-caliber bullet by a shadowy assailant who could be either a man or woman. He staggers, badly wounded, through an alley leaving a trail of blood. He’s thinking of home (perhaps he’s just been on his phone, calling Mum to say when he’ll be home), and is desperate to get back there, but we can tell by the music he won’t be saved. He collapses on North Main Street, and the assailant shoots him in the head.

[Main titles]

Scene

Slightly tatty, darkened bedroom

Rathbone, a middle-aged man, ruggedly handsome buy not cocky, fumbles for the ringing phone. A woman speaking in a rather monotone, expressionless voice is on the line. She launches into the tale of her son being murdered, while Rathbone frantically feels around for the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle membership directory. Who is this woman, and what is she saying? He sits up, wearing only his underwear. She hangs up, now weeping, and he’s left still puzzled as to who exactly she is. He stares at the receiver, still wondering if he’s supposed to remember who she is.

Rathbone puts on clothes, obviously pensive. He’s not sure what she expects from him, but he knows it has something to do with comforting her. He leaves the house in a God-existential crisis to meet her.

(I’m guessing that he shows up on the scene and finds himself more drawn to solving the crime than comforting the expressionless Alice? It’s a solid start to a story.)

***************

Most of the opening chapter is in Rathbone’s first person POV. But the very first paragraph—the establishing shot, if you will, is rather omniscient, with a bit of authorial editorializing thrown in for good measure. “The skinny seventeen-year old had put up a good fight, but he lost.” Something/someone with a personality is making this comment.

Who is saying this? I’m intrigued. The description of Jamie’s path is extremely specific. Are the mentioned places important?

First line: “Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die.” I like this sentence. It sets up the paragraph well, and I suppose it connects to the specificity of his path. But in the end I find it awkward. Maybe more detail to improve the rhythm.

“Jamie Frampton took a 147-grain, .9mm bullet to the chest, but it took him two minutes and seventy-five frantic, painful steps to die.” If you’re going for drama, go big!

Consider doing one of two things with this paragraph. You can make it a prologue or the first chapter by itself. Back off on the editorializing unless that voice is going to reappear many more times throughout the book. The other thing you could do is give us—or give Rathbone—this information when he’s hanging around the crime scene. Perhaps the guy is a garrulous detective or M.E. who sees Rathbone as non-threatening because of his profession.

It just doesn’t work where it now is.

Rathbone seems a pretty sensible guy. Very philosophical and a bit troubled. Let him have his way with his story, and don’t be afraid to take chances with him.

It’s a terrific start! Just remember that what works in a screenplay won’t translate directly into a novel.

 

4+

Pages and Pruning Shears

(This week’s post is a repeat from 2013, but the concept is always, always relevant for me: the parallels between gardening, writing, and editing.)

This is the hot mess that is my beloved butterfly bush, and I can’t wait to set to work on it with my pruning shears. And not just the pruning shears, but the limb lopper, as well. Okay, maybe not the limb lopper, which extends to seven feet long and is generally reserved for trees–but definitely one of the larger pruning tools in the garage.

The first time I owned a butterfly bush was back in Virginia (*sniff* I miss that place so.). We planted three in a corner of the yard, just in front of a stand of impenetrable wild blackberry bushes. The butterfly bushes were a triangular oasis in that unkempt place, a bit of gaudy, fragrant dishabille among the thorns. I had only heard of butterfly bushes, and imagined them to be magical things. And they really are rather magical in the way they attract hundreds of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. The scent! Rich and sweet. If you think of a rose as smelling like a woman’s subtle perfume, the scent of butterfly bush blossoms is like a faceful of flower candy.

Imagine my distress when the landscaper told me that, every year, I had to cut away nearly all the bushes’ limbs, down to a height of between fourteen and eighteen inches. I was stunned. It sounded so brutal. So violent.

Come early spring, my only confidence in the project came from the fact that the landscaper told me that if I didn’t do it the bushes’ growth and flowering would be very poor. On a sunny day, I headed up the hill with my pruning tools and gloves, and our beloved German Shepherd, T.J. (He was there to help me be brave, bless him.) In the spirit of sensitivity, I would love to tell you that I timidly snipped and snapped with the smallest tools, cutting off the old wood with a delicate hand. But I did not. First, I apologized to them for the pain I was going to cause, and then I went after them like I was out for revenge. I had those three large bushes trimmed down to their proverbial nubbins in no time flat.

It was…fun.

Knowing that I’m slicing and dicing those poor limbs for a worthy cause helped my enthusiasm, but that doesn’t really explain the pleasure I took from it. The whole exercise felt very cleansing. Renewing–both for the bushes and for me

It shouldn’t surprise me, I guess, that I’m able to draw a distinct parallel between my now-mania for pruning bushes (and those troublesome clumps of decorative grasses) and my burning desire to hack my current novel-in-progress to bits with my electronic snippers.

Right now my WIP is at about 95 thousand words, headed for at least the 100K mark. It’s big, and floppy, and well-aged at this point. Is it bearing fruit? Well, mostly. Is there dead wood? I suspect there’s plenty.

Many, many writers I know hate the editing process. Me? Last week I ripped out a parallel-plot section of the novel that was about 6K words and rewrote it so that it’s now 11K word, and only re-used about 1500 words of the original section. (If you know my work, you know I’m a sucker for parallel plotting. No distressingly long paragraphs of exposition for this girl. If I want you to know about something I want to tell you ALL about it. Dammit. And you’re welcome : )

My love of editing holds me back, frequently. Everyday I have to stop myself from starting at page one, and rewriting until I get to the end. Didn’t some famous writer like Hemingway actually do that? Madness. That’s the way I write short stories–but we’re talking about an hour or so of editing every day for a story. Writing a novel that way would add months, even a year to my process. So, some days, I futz around with editing a chapter or two before I get down to the real work. Right now, the real work lies in ending the book.

Writing the original story is much more difficult for me than editing what I already have on paper. Really. Writing is painful for me. It’s all tied up with fear and judgement and more fear and more judgment. Now that I think about it, I could be doing a lot less painful things–like editing other people’s work. But, no. I really do like having written. That’s the point. Seeing the thing done. Then I get to play with it. Enjoy it. See it as something new in the world.

There’s a saying that should be tattooed on the forehead of every barista in every coffee joint where writers work. It’s been attributed to writers from Nora Roberts to Jodi Picoult, but it really is just a truism:

You can’t edit a blank page.

Just like you can’t prune the hell out of a bush that hasn’t yet bloomed.

Instead of maundering on about the comparison, I’ll go ahead and set myself a little challenge…to get those 6 or 7 K words done in the next couple of weeks, before I take the shears/pruners/clippers to my favorite bush in the garden. If I don’t get it done, the bush will be a sad thing this summer, with far fewer blooms, birds, and butterflies. And I won’t get to go mad, mad, mad with sharp things. Which, in the end, would be the real shame, yes?

 

 

 

 

 

 

2+

Wedding Brain

–Stock photo by GoDaddy

 

Forgive me if I’m a bit distracted today. I have Wedding Brain.

This past weekend, I dashed off to a wonderfully restful yet productive writing retreat. While there, I wrote hard. But when I woke up Monday morning in my own bed, I was nearly flooded out of it with a sea of wedding-related email. As my daughter’s wedding is Memorial Day weekend, I’ve decided to put off absolutely everything until it’s over and I’ve had a couple of days to recover. I have only one daughter, and this is my big chance to be that obsessed creature: MOTB. (That does not stand for Monster of the Bride!)

I was thinking about weddings in literature, and realized I could come up with few blissful examples. The two weddings of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester come to mind: the first thwarted by the presence of The Mad Wife in the Attic, the second a sad little affair with a blinded groom and, I believe, a housekeeper for a witness. And don’t forget that nutty charade/tableau in which the dreaded Blanche what’s-her-name plays Bride. It’s like Charlotte Brontë used weddings like a sledgehammer.

Didn’t Romeo and Juliet have a quiet ceremony with the priest before they…died? At least Shakespeare’s comedies usually ended with a wedding.

Help! Please share your favorite literary wedding. Or your favorite real-life wedding story. Because we’re all about storytelling here. (Happy endings not required.)

 

 

4+

On the Matter of Backlists

I love my backlist. It’s not a huge backlist, but after seven novels, it feels respectable. It didn’t really become a backlist to me until after books three or four. Before that, the books were just books I’d written.

Backlist means different things to different groups of people:

Publishers–An opportunity to make long-term money, especially when the author has a new book available.

Also Publishers–Let’s pretend those books never happened, okay?!

Readers–A treasure trove of a favorite author’s work to be discovered.

Other Readers–Old stuff the writer wrote before she got good at writing.

Still Other Readers–You wrote other books? Have I heard of them?

Booksellers (used books)–Stock

Booksellers (new books)–Old stock, or the discounted books on wheeled carts in the aisle or at the sidewalk sale. Or books that show up on the computer as “Unavailable,” aka “Out of Print.” (This does not apply to classic books.)

Booksellers (Online, new and/or used)–Stock

Authors– Well, this author, anyway. Pick one or more: 1) That stuff I wrote years ago. 2) Precious words I’ll love forever. 3) Those books I wrote that almost no one mentions. 4) Those books for which I got the rights back. 4.5) Those books the publisher won’t return the rights to because the contract was written poorly or signed long before anyone dreamed of print-on-demand or ebooks. 5) The books I republished after getting the rights back. 6) Proof of my existence. 7) Stock, whether it be ebook, print-on-demand, or all those copies I bought at the author discount before the rest were shredded. 8) That book that has an Amazon Rank of 2,154,982. (Who knew Amazon even had a 2.2 million rank?!)

Libraries–Stock, mostly. Often fodder for book sales.

Of course, all of these descriptions are my personal opinions/observations.

While I very occasionally find myself in the “Old stuff the writer wrote before she got good at writing” trap when it comes to looking at other authors’ backlists, I’m usually pleasantly surprised. I worry most often about quality of writing when I’m looking at the early installments of a series. I can think of a couple of really big series that got off to rocky starts, but then sorted themselves. Often I’ll start a series with the third and fourth book, then go back to the beginning

I feel a sense of true joy when I discover the author of a book I love has several other books already on the shelf. It’s like anticipating a feast.

Writers, how do you feel about your backlist? Do you actively market it, or just let people discover it on their own? Do you ever wish it had more of a life?

Readers, are you wary of backlist books? Or do you plunge right in?

5+

Letting Go of Books: Is it Even Possible?

 

Me, looking vaguely terrifying in front of our messy, three-deep bookshelves

I’ve been scarce around here lately, and I always regret that. Beginning last week I started the toughest edit of any novel (for me, at least): the read-aloud edit. It’s slow, slow, slow. But it’s the only way to catch errors that might not ever get caught. There’s something about hearing the words out loud that is completely unlike reading them silently. I always retain information better if I hear it, rather than just read it on the page. Reading my work aloud helps me take ownership of the work, and it’s almost like I’m reading it for the first time. Does that happen for anyone else?

A few months ago, I wrote about my affection for audiobooks. Lately I’ve found that I don’t want to be without one–ever. It might have a little something to do with the Apple AirPods I got for Christmas. (Which, in my middle aged way, I usually refer to as Ear Pods, because, really, that’s what they are, right?) They’re so handy, and stay charged forever, and only fall out of my ears if I fall asleep with them in. But I also have a bluetooth speaker I use in the house if I’m the only one home. The little kid in me still feels very special when someone reads to me. It doesn’t matter if the person isn’t in the room, or if they did the actual reading a dozen years ago. So why shouldn’t I have someone reading to me all the time?

The book I started on my break this afternoon is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it years ago and found it rather tough going, but I’m loving the audio. It’s made me laugh several times in just the first hour. I didn’t really seek out Marquez. I simply scrolled through the “What’s Available” category on Overdrive, and it jumped out at me.

What does this have to do with (physical) books? Sorry, you know how I tend to meander into my blog topic…

The book I finished this morning was a non-fiction book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalismby Fumio Sasaki. If you read and liked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upyou’ll find Sasaski’s book a rather logical next step. That is, if you’re very curious about the causes and results of the pursuit of minimalism. And possibly desirous of living in a 300 square foot space with…one book. While I love trying new things, and Sasaki is very knowledgable and has some brilliant ideas about what to  cull from your life and why, I draw a hard line at books.

But…

Our house has deep and numerous bookshelves, and I’m feeling overwhelmed simply by the presence of so many books. Our main built-ins can handle three rows of books, back to front. Not all of them contain three rows of books. Only about two thirds, or 90 square feet of shelves have that many. (That’s nearly a third of the square footage of Sasaki’s entire home.) I can’t even get to the second two rows unless I try. Clearly, some books need to go.

How to choose? Marie Kondo’s method is to put ALL the books in the house into a pile and touch each one to see if it still sparks joy. If it sparks, you get to keep the book/object. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not so simple. Sasaki gives many cogent arguments for simply getting rid of things, few questions asked. His main argument is, “The things we say goodbye to are the things we’ll remember forever.” He takes many, many photographs of the objects he releases out into the world.

What about categories? A gloss of my categories: Read or unread, books by friends, reference books, books that formed me at various stages of my career. coffee table books, art books, DUMMIE’S GUIDE books. Books received as gifts. SO many textbooks and homeschooling novels/story collections. Books my kids loved. Books on faith. Beloved paperbacks. Books I’ve published. Books I started reading and never finished. Antique books that belonged to people who have been dead for decades. Craft books, arts and crafts books. Cookbooks. Music books. Single-author collections. FIRST EDITIONS. Just today, as I was linking to the Marie Kondo book, I found a copy of the first American edition for seven dollars. Seven dollars! That’s practically free. I have it on my Kindle, and I listened to it on Overdrive last week. But I don’t have a first American edition!

There are only about fifteen books that I read again and again. That’s not even a shelf and a half’s worth. What would I do with all that bookshelf space? Something has to go on those shelves besides sleeping cats.

Both Sasaki and Kando write about minimalism being life-changing. And Sasaki is persuasive. No one wants to die and leave piles and piles of things for relatives to dispose of. Uncluttered space makes for inspirational space. Creativity can flow through cleared rooms. I’m a believer.

Then again, books are comforting. Books are undemanding, and sit quietly waiting to be noticed. Writing books is my dream, and how can I abandon the dreams of so many other writers? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t know it.

I need some inspiration. To cull or not to cull? Shall I take pictures of their covers and get rid of the majority of the books?

How do you feel about your books? Is it hard to let go? What’s your secret?

 

 

 

4+

Chappaquiddick, The Story

 

 

 

About a month ago, I began to see advertisements for the film Chappaquiddick. Being familiar with the subject–Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the death of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne–there was no question in my mind about whether I would go to the film or not.

My parents were Catholic sweethearts still in their twenties when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968. One of my early memories is of my mother watching his funeral on our small black and white television. Just a little over a year later, two weeks after I turned seven, Mary Jo Kopechne died, suffocated in a car submerged in the dark water just off the Dike bridge near Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Senator Ted Kennedy, who was positioned to run for president in 1972, was driving the car when it went into the water. He didn’t report the accident until ten hours later. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month, suspended jail sentence.

I’m not sure when I truly became aware of this terrifying story. While the adults around me spoke pretty freely at the time, I’m certain no one mentioned the details of the accident right after it happened. Given my visceral reaction every time I think about it, I must have first heard about it when I was a young teenager. What imaginative child doesn’t spend at least some time thinking about drowning? Worse, I had a fear of both water and bridges. We often traveled across the Ohio River, and my sisters and I tried to hold our breath as long as the car was on the bridge. It was a great distraction.

This blog really isn’t about the Chappaquiddick film. No, I won’t be going to see it. I know the story, and have read all sorts of accounts and theories about it. I won’t offer my opinion on it here. But it would be interesting to know what viewers unfamiliar with the event think after seeing the film.

This blog is about a book.

In 1993, I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, Black Water. Oates has boldly fictionalized real-life situations and characters in several novels: Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe; Sacrifice, about the Tawana Brawley case; and My Sister, My Love, about JonBenet Ramsey’s death. There are many, many true crime books, and novelized historical fiction is very hot right now. Oates’ writing is always intensel, and delves deeply into the psychology of her characters. So I guess it’s no surprise that I found myself profoundly affected by Black Water. It nails two of my darkest fears, and throws in the always-timely subject of young people (often young women) betrayed by powerful figures (often older men).

This 1992 Washington Post article reports that Oates says, “The Senator in “Black Water” shouldn’t be mistaken for Ted Kennedy, Kelly Kelleher isn’t a pseudonym for Mary Jo Kopechne, and this brief tale isn’t about Chappaquiddick at all.” (Reporter’s quote, not Oates’ actual words.) But it is a story about a party, a senator, a girl, a car accident, a death in the water, and a betrayal. It’s all there.

Black Water is written in Oates’ unique close third voice–a voice which also hints at the existence of a rather arch and wise narrator. Kelly Kelleher is her own memoirist, judge, jury, cheerleader, critic, and inner child. As she waits for the senator to come back to save her, she fights desperately to live. She’s flooded (no pun intended) with memories, and  tells herself stories about what’s happening in the outside world. She clings to her optimism.

I’m told by someone who spoke casually with Oates about the novella that she means for it to be read in one sitting of two hours–the same amount of time the authorities believe Kopechne lived after the car went into the water. That notion leaves me breathless. This will sound ridiculously theatrical, but I almost wish that this fact were written on the page facing the ending of the novella.

The true horror of this story lies in those two hours. Forget the party. Forget Kelly’s romantic thoughts. Forget the way the senator kicks at her as he propels himself away from the sunken car. Forget the alcohol and rumors of infidelity. All you need to know about is those two endless, infinite hours. At the end of those two hours, she is dead, but the reader has visited her entire life just as Kelly relived it–In bright and dark patches of emotion, wonder, and terror.

Why would I want to see the film? After reading extensively about the Chappaquiddick incident, I’ve come to my own conclusions. I’m not particularly interested in hearing more theories. The story has always been about those two hours for me.

This is the power of the book. Don’t get me wrong. I watch at least a couple films a week. But film viewing is mostly passive, even when the film is well done. I’m not saying that films don’t inspire or teach, horrify or amaze. It’s only that prose fiction engages imagination and emotion in a unique way. I want more of that. Always.

Okay, TKZers. How do you feel about the novelization of history? Are there any books you believe truly capture the spirit and heart of a real-life story?

 

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Tough Love

 

–GoDaddy stock photo

 

I have a dear writer friend with whom I talk everyday. We don’t always talk about work, but yesterday she told me it was time to “stop messing around” and finish my proposal for the novel I’ve been dithering with for the past two months. “You’re out of time.”

“But…but…my daughter’s wedding! Ordering things! Cleaning! And what about taxes?” I whined. Except I knew she was totally on target. I’d been resisting, fretting that this novel couldn’t possibly match the promise of the one I’d just turned in. She didn’t respond that I was being foolish, or that I could also get those other important things done. “This is your job,” she said. “If you don’t do your job, you get fired.”

Damn, the truth can hurt. But truth it is. If I don’t write consistently and spend time imagining, plotting out, and writing at least one book and a story or two every year, I get wound up in my own head and go a little crazy. Also, publishing could very well leave me behind. It happens to professional writers all the time. It’s happened to me. Once you have hold of the train, you have to keep moving to stay caught up.

Resistance–real and imagined–provides me with plenty of excuses not to get down to my work. It’s an old, tired story. Writing is my true love, but I can only get it done if I work in spite of my resistance. (This is our theme song.)

I feel awfully fortunate to have someone in my corner who understands what I care about. She focuses my attention on reality instead of standing by and watching me substitute busyness for business. Writing can be such a lonely endeavor. The isolation and the living-in-one’s-own-head can put us at risk for depression or make us twitchy with neuroses. When you spend a lot of time in places that aren’t actually real, the boundary between reality and daydreams blurs.

Having a friend who keeps it real–at least when it counts–can make all the difference in the world. And sometimes you get the privilege of doing the same for her.

If you don’t have one already, make a friend of a another writer. Support that writer and you’ll be helping yourself.

So, TKZers. Where do you get support for your work? What can you offer another writer?

 

 

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When A Thing Becomes a Motif

There’s a lovely word that describes an object or idea that shows up again and again in a story: motif. To be a true motif, that object or idea should reinforce the story’s theme. But I confess that when we start to talk too long about things like stories’ themes my eyes tend to glaze over. So I’m perfectly happy to expand the definition to anything that appears repeatedly.

Years ago, it was thought that you could up your chances of getting poems into the New Yorker if you included water images in them. I think I read that something like 40% or more of the poems actually did have water in them for a period of time.  Even if an individual poem only contained one mention of water, water was still a motif that strung together many, many issues of the magazine.

Famous literary motifs: a handsome prince, a poor, but humble girl who becomes a princess, darkness, fog or rain, in gothic stories. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, there are sets of doubles, Lord of the Flies has the conch shell, and The Wizard of Oz has a heart, courage, and a brain. Both Shakespeare and the Bible frequently use references to light and darkness to make a point.

In some mystery and thriller stories: the emotionally scarred cop/investigator, the town gossip, weapons, a MacGuffin, a wise mentor. I know there are many more. Motifs and tropes are closely related.

For years, I had an antique comb, mirror and brush set in every story (until someone pointed out to me how weird it was). But now my main motif is a house. I find it hard to write a story unless some of the characters are closely identified with a particular house. As in dreams, a house can be a metaphor for oneself. For me, a house represents a home, and that motif matches up with a theme that’s common to all my books: home is the most important place in the world, even if it’s a terrible, frightening place.

(Update: I originally forgot to include a motif in one of my own stories that someone who was teaching it for a college class pointed out to me. I confess I had never realized it was there, which was probably the reason it worked so well. It’s a recurring dialogue exchange but spoken between varying characters: “Are you there?” “Yes, I am here.” Here’s the link to the story in PANK Magazine. “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”) 

Do tell, TKZers. What motifs stand out in stories you love? And what things show up again and again in your work?

 

 

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