Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

Last Day at the Conference

IMG_1130

View outside my window here in Madison. Oh, it is spring…right?

 

It’s my last day at the UW-Madison Writers’ Conference. It’s been a wonderful experience. One particular event I’d like to mention was the Advanced Manuscript Critique. I sent in the first ten pages of my just completed novel. A chosen author/editor critiqued the ten pages. In my case it was Lucy Sanna, author of  Cherry Harvest, (I highly recommend it.) and at an appointed time, I sat with Lucy, and we went over the critique of the ten pages. Let me say right off the bat: Lucy Sanna is tough~! I consider myself extremely fortunate. She gave me great feedback, which will make my novel better and stronger. At one point during our talk, she asked, “What’s the word-count of your novel?” I responded firmly and proudly, “One hundred twenty-three thousand.” “That’s too long.” was the immediate response.

“oh.”

She did come back later and tell me that 123,000 is acceptable for a debut novel…a million words is acceptable for a debut novel if it’s “GREAT.” But the magic number it seems for the reading public is 90,000 words. ( the range being 80,000 –110,000) I had no idea. So, it’s stuff like that, along with the great sessions on the craft and business of writing that make a conference worth a writer’s time. Regarding my word count, the good news for me is, that it’s a lot easier to delete than it is to add.

The great debate through out this conference has been between Traditional and Self-publishing avenues. As we all know the self-publishing world has “taken off” in the past five or so years and many authors have taken that route and quite wisely so. I’m still not sure whether or no I want to go the rather torturous agent route: Your query letter has to be perfect. They may never get back to you…probably won’t. If they reject you, consider yourself rejected forever. If there is one error, you’re doomed. You need to know exactly what it is they want…maybe even their favorite wine. It gets strange. And I haven’t even gotten to the part about their 15% cut of whatever you earn…if you earn anything. In fact getting an agent doesn’t necessarily mean publication…and even if you do get published, you still have to be your own publicist. So, the argument goes…why not simply skip all the anxiety and go self-publishing and take control of your own game. It’s a fascinating world out there.

So, it’s the final morning of the conference. I’m staying one more night to get past the bad weather. When I left Alabama it was big time Spring–roses budding out, day lilies starting to bloom, lovely white dogwoods in full bloom and seventy-six degrees. Here it’s cold, very windy, and snowing. Wha?

Nevertheless, it’s been a great time. And thanks to all of you for the really nice words.

At the Writers’ Institute

Writers' Institute

I’m here in Madison, Wisconsin about to begin a four day Writers’ Institute Conference. It goes from today to Sunday. I haven’t done this sort of thing for a long time. And, needless to say, I’m happy to be here. The fact is, I heard about this conference here on WordPress, but I can’t remember who sent the notice or if was one of those “You may be interested in” inserts we receive from time to time.

So, if any of my writer/blogger friends are here, please shout out my name…but don’t be embarrassing!  🙂 Just kidding.

As you see above, the theme for this year’s conference is “Pathway to Publication.” It’s exactly what I need. I FINALLY finished the first draft of my first novel, about three weeks ago, so I’m here to see what I need to do next!

I’m on my way to my first session: How to Pitch Your Novel. I definitely need to know more about that.

I’ll post pics and stuff in a few days, and let you guys know how everything is moving along.

IRONY: A Writer’s Best Friend

Tokyo 1st day 110

“Here’s some deep irony, Lieutenant.”

“Eh, how’s that?”

“The murder weapon was purchased by the victim—for his wife’s protection from bad guys. He took business trips. He worked late. He…”

“Met his mistress, as he was doing the night of his demise.”

“Yep, the mistress sang like the proverbial canary.”

“So, lover boy gets out of bed, goes to work, meets girlfriend for drinks and late-night business, leaves his cell phone at the office, comes home a little drunk—his shirt tail stuck in his zipper, drops his keys, can’t find them in the dark, tries a back window and—bam!”

“His innocent wife, thinking he’s a bad guy, shoots him.”

“Exactly! His wife shoots him—the bad guy—with the very gun he provided.”

“Ironic indeed.”

Dear blogger friends, forgive my simple example of irony. The above is known as “situational” irony, where one’s actions work in opposition to one’s intentions. Another well-known use of irony is “verbal” irony which occurs when one’s words convey a meaning in opposition to a literal meaning.

Verbal irony can occur consciously, as in an insult, which is often sarcastic in nature. Or unconsciously, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s mother says in anger over her daughter’s refusal to marry Paris. “I would the fool were married to her grave!”

And of course, the Grandfather of all ironic speeches would be almost everything Oedipus says in the first half of Socrates’ great play, Oedipus Rex.

I remember reading some dense tome where the author stated that the Modern Age could or should be called the Age of Irony. The author posited that the driving trope for literature between say 1918 and 1960 was irony. Unfortunately, a great deal of that ironic literature is also incredibly depressing—most ironic situations tend to lean heavily toward misery. Why is that? I think, and I’m also interested in your thoughts on this, that irony reveals the “tricky-ness” of human existence, as well as that “dark” side: the meaninglessness of life. My students response to that: “Awww, man.”

For instance, after overcoming great odds, the hero gets the girl, only to find out that she’s dying of some rare disease…or vice versa! I remember reading a short story by Sartre, the French existentialist. The hero is suspected of being a spy for the French Resistance in Paris. He is interrogated by a ruthless Nazi officer who wants to know where the French Resistance leader is hiding.  The hero has no idea. He knows of the leader but doesn’t have a clue as to his whereabouts. He says as much, over and over. Pushed to an extreme, he finally names a meaningless place. He gives the Nazi an address, off the top of his head. It’s all absurd. He has no idea where the leader is. They search. The French resistance is there! He is captured and taken away to be shot. Irony!

Irony screams in laughter at our efforts to be good or moral or even just happy. Life is a bitch!

“But wait,” you say. “Does it have to be so? Does irony always have to be so demoralizing?” The answer is no. It doesn’t.  And no, I’m not being ironic—really. I’m not. Honestly!

There’s two other possibilities. One, use irony as a powerful tool in your narrative, i.e., as the absurd error the antagonist makes that brings about his own doom instead of the hero’s. Hence, at the end of the work, the hero is happy. His love is happy, and the reader is happy. Is that such a bad thing?

For the next possibility, let’s return to the dialogue at the beginning of this post. (The man who gave his wife a gun to kill bad guys.) If I drew that scene out into a novel, then I could insert into the dialogue of the philandering husband, the wife, the mistress, a few lines of verbal irony. BUT, and this is very important, the reader will not know that what the husband says early on is ironic.

Irony is understood only after the fact, and therein lies its power. I remember when I read Oedipus Rex for the first time, I was absolutely speechless. I didn’t know the plot. I had zero background in Greek myth. I was stunned when I finished that play. I really was. I had to read it a second time, to experience the work fully.

When a novel is well-conceived, beautifully written, and full of meaning, many readers will read it a second time and third, on and on. I also believe, when it’s done well and with sensitivity, irony can bring a reader “back” to your novel. And isn’t that our dream goal?

It’s quite possible—that your work is so well done and possesses a depth of meaning that a reader returns to it after a span of time to read it again. I think many readers do so. I do. Even though I read it years ago, I’m re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, right now. I love it. It’s chock full of mild irony, revealing folly and misunderstanding, but it does so with a subtle smile.

What are your thoughts on irony as a writer’s tool? Have you utilized it? Resented it? Let’s talk.

Ambivalence

DSC_2060

A white heron on the bank of Uji River in Uji City, Japan

 

My last blog, sometime ago, was a short discussion of ambiguity as a literary device that brings depth to a work be it poem, story, or novel. With this post, I’d like to turn our attention to a related concept: ambivalence—contrasting attitudes or feelings occurring simultaneously. What are some examples? The housewife who loves her family but feels trapped. The student who loves school but hates to study. The young girl who desires a wedding but loathes her fiancé.

This contradictory and very human trait serves us writers well. Ambivalence is dramatic. This phenomenon can go a long way in one’s creation of character. We receive the advice, and good advice it is, to give our protagonist a flaw. Miss Goody Two-Shoes needs to have a dark side or at least a doubtful side, therein lies the heart of a story. We all get tired of the “she-never-makes-a-mistake” character. Perfection is boring.

But what about the flip side? The antagonist? Should that character be thoroughly evil, totally cruel, stunningly bad? Well, sure, why not? There’s plenty of role models in fiction and real life. We have Rome’s Caligula; Shakespeare’s Iago; Russia’s Rasputin; Milton’s Satan; Germany’s Hitler; C.S. Lewis’ The White Witch of Narnia; J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. The list goes on and on. All of the above are bad folk—what good there might have been is erased by their wicked ways.

Isn’t it interesting? We writers are warned against creating “pure” good characters, but urged to create “pure” evil ones. Well, that’s something we can discuss later!

So, what about a villain whose villainy is mitigated via ambivalence. The non-pure villain is, for me at least, much more interesting than the villain shot through with hatred. I would argue that to invest your villain with a deeper presence, then show him or her in a moment of doubt, a moment of uncertainty, a moment of tenderness. The problem is that you can’t go over the line of evil. If you make your villain too endearing then he’s no longer a villain. But give that bad boy or mean girl a moment of hesitation, a qualm, and you may deepen the reader’s experience. The human condition is seldom easy to define. We’re messy. We make wrong decisions. We make right decisions then do the wrong thing. We’re a bundle of wonderful errors. Reality is a tangle of emotions that refuses to be trapped in a good/bad construct.

So what are your thoughts? Have you used ambivalence as a character-building trait? Do you shy away from it? What are the problems?

Japan, 2017

Here’s a few moments from our trip to the land of the rising sun, Japan.

IMG_6521Having just boarded in Dallas, Sadako and I, do a “selfie toast” on the plane to Narita International.  We look happy, even though we have 14 long hours to go. Must be the champagne!

fullsizeoutput_b33Some twenty hours after take-off, we enjoy a steak dinner at Hotel Gajoen where we’ll stay for a few days. Here’s the chef getting our steak ready to cook.

IMG_6538We end the meal with a birthday plate for Masako-san, Sadako’s mother, who is eighty-three years young. Doesn’t she look great?

IMG_6574Later the next day in the hotel lobby, we all posed for a picture. Super nice! Totally decadent–I really need that every now and then.

DSC_1747That afternoon Sadako and her mother went shopping. I headed for the bookstores!

DSC_1748And of course here’s a sign I love to see.

IMG_0795Back at Gajoen, we attended an Ikebana show– Ikebana is the art of flower arrangement. Here’s a lovely sample.

DSC_1671An outdoor performance at Yasukuni Shrine where performers wore traditional Edo period costume.  Drummers.

DSC_1724And dancers.

DSC_1842Of course what would a trip to Japan be if you couldn’t see Mt. Fuji. I got this shot when we visited Lake Ashinoko, a short bus ride out of Hakone. The day before was rainy with hard wind gusts. I was afraid we might not be able to see Fuji-san which has a well-deserved reputation for being shy. But next day, the sun came out and …ah!

DSC_1611 (1)We then train traveled to Osaka. Of course train travel means crowds and

IMG_0916salary men at the ticket machines, and

IMG_0879on the train, folks reading, meditating, and sleeping while traveling.

IMG_0884Finally we got to Osaka and met up with friends where talk and laughter rules!

DSC_1759Not every body is happy though. This young lady on her way to school gave me a look I’ll not soon forget.

IMG_7097Here’s some of the dishes I enjoyed: Sushi! And yes, that’s my sweater, getting tight about the waist.

IMG_6939Pork cutlet and curry-rice.

IMG_7098Steamed eel on rice

fullsizeoutput_b2bTraditional Japanese breakfast…excuse my fingers at the top left.

photo-2 Dinner with fried oysters in the shell.

photo-4Topped off with a bottle of chilled Sake!

And finally here’s a mixed bag of favorite moments.

IMG_6789Early morning at our hotel in Hakone: a lovely mix of western and Japanese style architecture.

DSC_2087A shrine to The Tale of Genji author, Murasaki Shikibu, in Uji, Kyoto.

IMG_0902A scene in the lovely Kenrokuen park in Kanazawa. It was raining which added to the quiet beauty.

IMG_0887In Osaka, a lady folding a silk Kimono. It was at this Kimono store, we bought some silk for my sister in Tennessee.

DSC_2094Meeting with some terrific students in Kyoto. The young man in the center asked me to say something so that he could hear the English language. I rolled off a few sentences extolling him and his friends. He stood back and said “Wow.” Again, it was one of “those” moments.

photo-3Here I am in one of the malls in Osaka. I love these malls. There’s no doors. You simply walk in from the street and here you can find everything from bicycle repair to vegetables. That’s my new hat–I think I look more like a writer now!

IMG_7243We met up with some more friends–Ichida-San and his family. Allow me to introduce everyone. Moving around clockwise: Ichida-san in the check shirt, his sister, Akiko, holding a peace sign, then Akiko’s daughter, Ai, then Ichida-san’s son, Koki who sits next to his mom, Yoshiko, then Sadako, next, yours truly, then older son, Yuto,  Ishida-San with his wife, Yoshiko, and his two sons have lived here in Decatur, Alabama for the past three years. They have just moved back to their home in Osaka, Japan. We had lunch at a pork cutlet restaurant, which turned out to be super-great!

IMG_7232Sadako and I one evening had a fun time at a Yakitori-ya where we drank hot sake and ate tons of yakitori. Here’s a few patrons and the owner/cook.

DSC_2098We had a great time, but you know, how it is, sometimes folks just get tired, and they need to talk things out…       Sadako and I had just gotten off the train when we came across this rather tender scene. It was perfect. And thus, our trip came to an end.

It all goes so fast, but the memories last forever.

I hope you enjoyed.

 

 

Ambiguity

DSC_1638Chrysanthemum 

When asked about the creative ability of a recent winner of a literary prize, the critic leaned back in his seat. “He’s ambiguous,” he scowled.

In the above the very use of the word ambiguous is ambiguous. As writers we are told that it is best to avoid being ambiguous because it’s confusing. It annoys our readers, makes them uncomfortable. The constant editorial demand is to be concise and to the point in our writing. In short, DON’T BE AMBIGUOUS!

I’m not so sure. Ambiguous means to be suggestive. An ambiguous word or phrase presents the reader with several meanings. This is not always a bad thing. Being ambiguous can add depth to a work, imbue it with layers of meaning that allows the reader to consider possibilities that she may not have thought otherwise. It is, in its own way, an interaction between reader and writer.

I have always thought the line—“I have promises to keep.”—from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening as an excellent example of ambiguity. Does he mean he’s bound to return to someone? Or does he mean he has something to do elsewhere? It’s ambiguous. Even the word “sleep” which ends the poem is highly ambiguous. Does he mean sleep literally or does he mean to die? We don’t know. It all depends on how you understand the whole poem.

Being the imperfect creatures that we all are, we tend to be ambiguous in our communications with each other. Hence, one of the most intriguing ways to use ambiguity in your writing is to use it as a vehicle to build character depth. For instance, your protagonist is one who is unsure of himself, shy, withdrawn, prone to fantasy—as many of us writers are! He has sent to a young lady, whom he loves, flowers for her birthday, and she responds with a text: I have received your beautiful flowers. I love the close feeling that comes to me from just looking at them.

How does he respond? Is the close feeling for him or the flowers or indeed for someone else? Is the close feeling a way of expressing her desire for intimacy or is it her way of expressing a simple response to the pretty flowers? What feelings are evoked? The protagonist’s reaction to the text could send him on an emotional journey that leads him to love and fulfillment or to misery and self-knowledge.

So what are your own feelings of the use of ambiguity in your writing? Does it work for you? What are some of your own favorite examples of ambiguity from other works?

 

Harvest Moon

fullsizeoutput_929

The moon over North Alabama, October 6, 2017.

The earth rolls eastward, away from the moon, the lovely full moon. All night long, it illumes not only the vast plains of middle America, the mountains east and west, the lakes and the valleys, but also, the small spaces of my back yard, the rose bushes in the front, the steps, the floor of our bedroom. It relaxes our minds, calms our hearts, and pours silver blessings upon our sleep.

This morning I sat on the front steps, a slight autumn chill in the air, and sipped my coffee. I gazed at the moon as it slowly descended into the western sky. People in Japan look up and smile to see the same moon rising above the lakes, the hills, the trees into their soft evening sky.

The same moon. We see only that one side, albeit different phases, but always the same side—the bright side. I sipped my coffee. I thought about that “other” side—the dark side. The side that steadfastly holds communion with eternal night. That other half that never shares, but forever turns away. It must. Locked into infinite silence, it meditates upon the quiet existence of boundless space; the deep enigma, serene, mysterious. It sees into the very heart of all that is, beyond the noise of earthly turmoil and boiling sun.

How like the moon we writers are. We wheel about in our circular lives: laughing with those we love, crying over those we’ve lost, sharing with friends, our hopes and fears. But we maintain that hidden self: the meditative side that feeds the imagination—that murky realm where those visions, those feelings transform into language, always imperfect, always slightly off. But we strive, constantly, in that quiet world of the mind, to tell the story, to communicate a truth, to bring understanding to all those who want to know what they cannot see.

fullsizeoutput_92a

To all my blogger friends, I hope this harvest moon brings you love, joy, and writing success in the years to come. Do you have special feelings toward the moon? Do you sit out at night and gaze? Do you mention the moon in your narratives? Can’t wait to hear what you have to say.