Saturday, April 30, 2011

One-Sentence Summaries

To further become focused on my writing, it made sense to me this morning (after reading an article in Writer's Digest's "Write Your Novel in Thirty Days issue) to type up one-sentence summaries of the novel I'm currently working on.  Then, while I was at it, I wrote one-sentence summaries for a few other novels currently gestating in the ole noggin as well.  This is more challenging than you might think, but ultimately it's necessary.  Think of it as a thesis statement for an essay or paper: If you don't know what you're writing toward--or even what you're writing about--how can you expect yourself to write it?  You have to know what you're doing; to an extent, you have to also know where you're going.

So, though they may not be perfectly formed yet, here are my one-sentence summaries for a few novels.  Brief notes or explanations may follow each one.  Please feel free to post a comment or send me an email about any thoughts you may have about any of these.  I look forward to your ideas!  And while you're at it, why not do the same for your own writing?  (This would work for any type of writing, and for any length.)

One sentence summary:

The Gravediggers

Fears and bias surrounding an outbreak of TB in 1890s Exeter, Rhode Island, hide the scourge of a true vampire in the town and surrounding area.  [May be combined with the Plague in 1665-6 Eyam, England and AIDS in early 1980s America, and a small RI town today.]  This could be a series, as each of those ideas could be separate novels.

One sentence summary:

Untitled Concentration Camp Novel

A young boy with no artistic talent must either learn one or successfully fake it in order to survive his internment in a Nazi concentration camp whose purpose is to show the world how “well” Germany treats its Jews.

One sentence summary:


Small groups of people in Kansas City, MO, Warwick, RI, and other major cities throughout the world must survive wars and natural disasters as they attempt to completely revamp what they thought was their “society.”  This includes attitudes about patriotism, religion, and the Bible itself.  This could be a series as well, as each of the last three things could constitute its own novel.

One sentence summary:

The Observer

After a breakdown nobody knew he had, one man must suppress the beliefs of his existence that held him together in order to re-establish himself in the mundane process of everyday American living.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Our Literary Quests

Special thanks to Jodi Milner--at including me in her Feature Friday series, and for publishing one of my posts on her website.  Go see her blog.  She has recently published her 300th blog entry, and there's a reason for that: her blog is awesome!  Her site's gotten more hits than the dark side of the moon (more hits than my right cheek during my dating years; more hits than the reputation of yesterday's celebrities; more hits than...okay, I'm done) and it has many sections for reference, including: Good Blog Reads, Places to Submit, Resources, Writers Cafe Blog (a group which she and I are members of on LinkedIn), Online Publications, Quickly Quotables, and more.

I continue to get work done on my novel(s); I will continue to wake at 5ish in the morning.  My thought now is: If I can do it during the workweek, why not on the weekends?  Write in the morning, mow the lawn in the later morning (so as not to wake the neighbors, or my better half), read in the breezy afternoon, hit the city at night for dinner...Sounds good to me.

I'm currently reading Steven Pressfield's The Legend of Bagger Vance and his The War of Art (which started all this), as well as The Secret (you can stop laughing now), H.P. Lovecraft's Letters, and God knows what else.  I spent a few hours reading outside today in a gorgeous, low- to mid-70s, sunny day, and now I'm typing this, eating two green apples with a small glass of wine, and about to watch the Sox game.  What's better than that?

Onward and forward...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

5 a.m.

That's the time that I have successfully gotten up this week, every weekday, and written more for The Gravediggers for an hour before I showered, ate, and went to work.  In that time, I've managed to finish three chapters--drafts, edits, etc.--and I've been on-time to work each day as an added benefit.

Actually, there have been many more benefits!  By writing every morning between 5 and 6:15 or so, I've had the quiet that I don't get during any other time of the day.  I also get my thoughts during my waking-up moments, which are often the best and most creative ones I get all day.  I feel a sense of peace and contentment I don't get when I write any other time of day; I'm by myself, doing my own thing.  Just me and the keys.  It's rekindled the utter joy I used to feel writing fiction.

The reason I decided at first to get up even earlier than usual--I have a get up very early kind of job--is that I was run-down by the sheer number of words, edits, papers and corrections I have to do at my job.  When I got home, I couldn't bear the thought of doing any of my own, so I had to wait for the weekends.  So I decided that I would try to wake up early and get my words done BEFORE I was completely turned-off to writing by everyone else's writing.

And what happened?  By writing in the morning and then going to work, I got enough writing done so that I was excited about doing even more when I got back.  I knew exactly what I wanted to work on, so I was already invested and focused, already driven to get more words done--even though I was still dealing with the same volume of material at my job.  It just didn't bother me as much when I got back.  I was already working in my head all day what I wanted to do when I got back.

When I couldn't garner the energy to work any more when I got home (yesterday), I got the business end done: I got my recent rejections in order; I jotted down where I'd sent things, where I should send things, which responses I'd gotten back, which conferences were coming up...

The bottom line: I refused to allow myself the excuse anymore that I just didn't have time.  I found the time.  And this is coming from an insomniac, from someone who went to sleep between midnight and 2 a.m. usually, got up around 6 a.m. and did the day.  Turns out, waking up at 5 a.m. also makes you more tired, so you go to sleep from 10 pm to midnight instead, and then do it all over again.

I followed Steven Pressfield's advice (in his tidy The War of Art) and I overcame that particular Resistance.  Check the book out.  Maybe it'll inspire you, too.  Believe me, if I can change something, like getting up even earlier, then you can, too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Successful Chapters & More

Well, it's been a little while.  Truth is, I haven't been here because I've been writing!  (And watching baseball games.)  I'm two or three chapters into THE GRAVEDIGGERS, and things are going well.  It's exciting and a little bit freaky.  Its success has seeped into a few other things in my life, such as:

--An online friend asked me how I've been able to write, as the job that pays The Man gives me all the reading, words and editing I'd never want to ask for.  At first, I responded, "Well, vacation helps."  Then, as she is of the same profession, I mentioned that you just have to sit down when you have the time, no matter when that is.  She writes when she's waiting at a doctor's, or at soccer practice, etc.  (She'd write early in the morning, like 5 a.m., but that's when she does her running.  "Oh," I said.  I have a friend of the same profession who hits the gym by then.  I'd rather be writing.  We're all a little bit crazy.)  I have a new wish that I can get up at 5 a.m. and write more, but we'll see how THAT goes.  It makes sense to do this, as tons of other writers who were of the same profession have in the past, not to mention busy mothers and people of other professions.  The bottom line: If reading too many pages, editing too many things, and just looking at too many words during the job make me not want to write when I get home, then I have to write before I see those things.  Right?

--Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is a small, tidy helper against what he calls Resistance.  And it all makes a lot of sense, and sounds more like me than I do.  Highly recommended for writers who aren't writing as much as they want to be.

--Examples of resistance that I have offered in this blog recently that I didn't know were examples of resistance: clearing the desk; organizing the office; not being able to use a laptop a lot; reading too much; blogging and e-socializing too much...Turns out, writing is done by just writing.  I'm typing this on a severely cluttered desk with nowhere near the same anxiety I used to have.  I'll bet you have a ton of things you think are actual problems, but are in fact just examples of resistance.

--Which reminds me: I have to do more writing now before the game comes on, and then Easter dinner.  See?  Blogging is an example of resistance, too.

   Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Murder at the DMV

Having spent 8 1/2 useless hours (I have to go back at least once more, hopefully soon) at the DMV, this title occurred to me much more than once, especially while I had to deal with hopelessly inaccurate information that led me to waste this time, and with horrifyingly caustic DMV workers who care for humanity so little that I don't doubt they eat their own children.  The lowest point was when a miserable employee, miserable with her job and with her life (and for good reason) asked me why I hadn't gone to Information if I had a question.  I told her that since I didn't know that I had the wrong form, and since I didn't know that I was missing an important document, I therefore didn't know that I had a question.  When I mentioned a little later that I'd been there for about 7 hours (at that point), another woman responded, "That doesn't matter!" 

It was then that the above title occurred to me.  I pictured a detective saying that they needed to put together a list of possible suspects for the woman who said the line above, and then someone else saying, "She's a DMV worker.  That could take years."  Maybe a close-up of that same detective saying to someone, "Okay, so we have all the possible suspects here now?"  The man next to him nods, and then we pull way back and see that they're standing at home plate at Fenway, and that every seat is filled.  (That's about 38,000 suspects.)  The book or movie ends like one of the finales of the movie Clue, where it turns out that everyone involved had a role in her demise--all 38,000 of them.  Or maybe it turns out that she'd committed suicide because she was so pathetically miserable.  She stands at the Pearly Gates, but the Saint says "Uh, no, sorry, you've filled out the wrong form," and then boots her ass to Hell where she belongs.

I figured I'd get this out of my system before I went back.  But I'm not bitter or anything.  Nope.

(Please feel free to comment on your own nightmarish DMV experiences, either by commenting below or using the email above.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lizzie Borden: Misunderstood? Part 2
Photo: Lizzie Borden's jury, from her Wikipedia page

--Lizzie was later seen to burn the dress she wore when they were killed.  This is unusual in of itself, and very suspicious, but especially considering that the family was so frugal, they often ripped up unused clothing to use as rags.  (It was also said they all got sick because the father insisted they keep a mutton stew that the maid said had gone bad.  The father was notoriously frugal.)

--There were no signs of struggle in the rooms, the bodies, or the clothes of the victims.  This most likely means that no one unknown to the victims accosted them.

--The stepmother was killed first.  The wound patterns show that her killer had to straddle her, thereby attacking angrily from the front, showing power by essentially sitting on her, and then exhibiting enraged overkill by killing her with a hatchet (not an ax) and inflicting 19 hatchet cuts in her face--and only in her face.  This shows that the murderer knew the victim and was exhibiting rage towards the victim.  The first cut was enough to kill, but 18 more followed to the face anyway, thereby obliterating the face, and, in a psychological way, the victim herself.  It was proven that Lizzie very much disliked her stepmother, telling tons of people that, and by constantly pointing out that she was her stepmother, not her mother.  That immense dislike--either because this woman had "replaced" her mother, or because she was going to receive the barns, properties and about $500,000 if the father died first--was manifest in the method of the crime.

--The father, killed second, was also a victim of overkill, in which the first wound was enough to kill, but was followed by 10 more anyway.  He was also attacked only in the face, which profilers say is indicative of a personal crime, for the reasons mentioned above.  But the difference here is that he was killed in his sleep, which profilers say is indicative of a killer who feels powerless in front of this person normally.  This victim, killed like this, is usually someone who so dominates the killer that the killer must kill him while the victim is asleep.  Think Claudius and King Hamlet here.

--Though not indicative of anything by itself, Lizzie was a known kleptomaniac around town.  Local merchants would quietly invoice the father and he would quietly pay them.

--Though never proven, the psychological aspects of the people involved hint at sexual abuse.  The father fits the profiling prototype of someone who would do so, and Lizzie fits the psychological prototype of someone who would be a victim of it.  This would explain the stealing, the anger towards the stepmother, the anger towards the father, and the anger that she would not benefit from her years of victimization when the stepmother inherited everything.  This is all circumstantial, but the authors I'm reviewing say that they have seen such prototypes and actions tons of times.

--The order of crimes is important.  Had the father died first, the properties and most of the monies would go to his wife.  If she died after him, all of that stuff would go to her family--not Lizzie and her sister.  But since she died first, all of that remains his, of course, but she and her family cannot inherit anything legally.  Then when he dies second, a will that was rumored to give his wife almost everything is null and void; all things therefore go to his daughters.

--Lizzie supposedly said she'd found her father's body, and asked the maid and a neighbor to go get the doctor and police.  Wouldn't she have left the house if she'd thought a crazed killer was still in the house?  Similarly, she asked the maid to then go upstairs and see if the stepmother had returned to the house, as Lizzie had said that she'd recently seen her return home.  Would the maid go up there if there was still a killer around?  Profilers say that the killer doesn't want to be the one to "find" the body, so Lizzie sending the maid upstairs to "find" the stepmother's body makes sense.

--Lizzie sent photos of her trial to the prosecutor after the trial, writing that he may like them "as souvenirs of an interesting occasion."  That's taunting, typical of this type of offender, especially when they feel they're getting away with their crimes.  It's a dare.  Or, in this case, a finger.

Misunderstood?  I don't think so, especially by the authorities of the time.  They knew they had the right one.  The jury didn't, of course.  Speaking of which, a few similarities between this and the O.J. trial:

--Both trial juries were over-influenced by bias, Lizzie's sexism and O.J.'s racism.  As an example of the sexism, a bucket of rags and blood were found in the house.  Lizzie said it was all from her periods.  Though this was doubted, several men stated in writing that they were not about to test it to make sure.  There are many other examples of this.

--Both were acquitted by a jury but convicted by the public before, during and after their trials.

--Both were referred to as "The Trial of the Century" by the media.

--Both people on trial offered huge rewards for the location of the real killer.

--Both rewards have never been taken.

--Both committed burglary after these trials.  Simpson is in jail for his; Lizzie stole a couple of inexpensive paintings from Providence, RI and had to pay a fine.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lizzie Borden: Misunderstood? Part 1

Image: Lizzie Borden, from her Wikipedia page

A new book by the curators of the bed and breakfast in Lizzie Borden's former house purports that she was "misunderstood" and that she was "probably not guilty."  The curators say that her private letters and the opinions of those close to her both point to the probability that she did not kill her father and stepmother in that house in the Victorian 1890s.  Also, they point out, the evidence was circumstantial, and the axe that she supposedly used had no blood on it, and the hair on it wasn't that of anyone in the family, including hers, her older sister's, or her father or stepmother.  And, after all, she was found not guilty.

I've read a bit on this case, and the work that stands out to me is Douglas's and Ohlshaker's The Cases that Haunt Us, which presents the facts, evidence, suspects and atmosphere of famous crimes, including those of Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsay, Jack the Ripper, and others.  (I recommend this book immensely, and you can click on my Goodreads link above to read my review of it.)  Anyway, John Douglas, a popular profiler, is convinced that she did do it, and presents these reasons:

--If she didn't, who did?  Not a stranger breaking in: the stepmother had been killed 90 minutes before the father came home and got killed.  A stranger would not have been able to kill her, hide for 90 minutes with Lizzie, her sister Emma, and the live-in maid, all in the house, not seeing the murder or the stranger, and then kill the father with no one seeing or hearing it, and then leaving with nobody seeing him.

--Lizzie had the best motive of anyone: If the father died first and left everything to the stepmother, both daughters were worried that they wouldn't get anything from her.  This was a real possibility, as he was 70, very rich, and the probability that the stepmother would get everything was rather high.

--She'd said that during the murders, she'd been in the top loft of the barn, finding lead weights to make sinkers for an upcoming fishing trip.  But an officer soon went up there and found a heavy, undisturbed bed of dust on the floor.  No footprints at all to indicate that anyone had been up there.

--Lizzie changed from a blue dress to a pink and white dress while policemen were around.  What innocent person would be so unshocked that she would think to change up?  (And what kind of law enforcement would allow her to do so?)

--Bloodspots were found on her shoes and underskirts.  When asked to explain, she'd said it was due to her period, but later tests concluded that the underskirt was soaked from the outside in, not from the inside out.  (She'd called her period a "flea bite," a euphemism at the time.)

--Shortly before the murders, she'd tried to buy small amounts of poison from two pharmacies, neither of which would give them to her.  She'd denied being at these places, but a customer and pharmacist in one of them testified that she had been there.

--The morning of the murders, Lizzie, her sister, the maid, the stepmother and the father had all complained of bad stomach pains and other illness.  The father had to stop his morning business at his properties because, as he told a few people, he felt very ill.  They testified that it was very unusual for him to stop business due to any illness.

--Not evidence, just weirdness: The coroner wanted to do another autopsy, so after the funeral, he took the bodies, cut off the heads, unfleshed them and did his tests.  Then the heads were reburied with them, but at their feet!

To be continued in another post...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Anita Diamant's Last Days of Dogtown and Mary Karr's Poetry

I'm about halfway through this one.  It's a slippery smooth read written solely in 3rd person limited as it follows its characters.  Essentially a character study as it follows them, using what scant information we have to ground the otherwise unknown characters.  We know the names, Wharf's suicide, the almost-definite whoring of some of the women, the definite drunkenness of many of the townspeople, the drudgery and dissolution of the people and the locale.  Forever in the background, but as much a character as the actual characters, is the isolation, the barren and rocky land, the draw of the area to people who are different, or down on their luck, or just plain unlucky or destitute.  I'm not a fan of the writing style, though this is a good read and Diamant gets away with it, because it's essentially a plotless aggregate of chapters that gasps in spurts of time, without a central mystery, story, or anything else to ground it.  The chapters could be separate short stories with usually no, or at times a little, to hold them together.  Maybe this one is grounded in a central theme, which is that of isolation and destitution.  In other words, the mystery isn't why the place became a ghost town, but is instead a mystery of why they stayed for so long to begin with.  This book is available on Amazon for less than two bucks.  I also bought Mary Karr's fourth book of poems, Sinners Are Welcome, on Amazon for almost the same price.  Recommended.  The language is direct, like her memoirs, and surprisingly poetically unpoetic.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Real Achievement

A bit of an eye-opener today: an e-friend of mine wrote to say that I should be congratulated, that a 76,000-word, complete novel is a real achievement.  Funny that I'd never, not once, thought of it that way.  I've always been so hellbent on being published that the actual completion of the manuscript wasn't a big deal to me.  I'd felt, and still do to an extent, that if I didn't get the novel published, I (and it) was a failure.  Period.  The completion of it was nothing special--though I'd been through a bit of hell to finish it--and the only purpose of its existence was to see it published.

I now see that this was a bad attitude to have toward the art of writing, as well as towards the business in general.  First novels don't sell, usually.  Unless you're J.D. Salinger, or Harper Lee, or maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald, your first completed manuscript won't ever see the light of day.  More importantly, most aspiring writers don't ever finish their first novel-length manuscript.  They say they're writing, and they call themselves writers, but they're not writing, and most of these writers never complete anything.

I did.  I not only finished what is called a publishable manuscript (even by the agents who've rejected it), but I also wrote a lot more stuff and eventually sold a story to a print magazine.  These are achievements--not only the published stuff, but the completed stuff.  Novels, stories, poems, essays, etc.  Everything a writer finishes is an achievement, and as long as I continue to see it that way, I will finish more pieces, and perhaps sell more.  If I only think of my writing as a success if I sell it, than most of the time I will feel like a failure--which I had, especially during an eight-year hiatus from writing at all.  (For some reason, I found myself saying that to a roomful of professors and writers, all of whom expressed their condolences to me, and who told me to continue writing, that I was too good to stop for any reason.)

So I say all of this not only for myself, but for every writer who reads this blog.  Do not think of your writing solely as potentially published pieces; if you do, and if they don't sell, you'll fall victim to despair like I did.  Look at your writing as potentially living and breathing pieces; this way, once you've completed them (and I do mean fully complete, not just a "rough draft" complete), you'll feel as if you've given life to something that had never existed before.  You'll feel a sense of accomplishment.  This way, also, you won't be waiting around for that piece to sell; you'll feel successful and write (and complete) something else.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tricks to Write Consistently

I used to write very consistently, every day.  Of course, that was before I had a rewarding, but draining, job; this was also before I had anything closely resembling a life, as well.  Now I have both, and the caveat to that, which in a million years I never would have foreseen, is that I don't do as much writing anymore.  Sitting down and getting into a writing zone now takes more time than the actual writing itself used to.  I just can't focus; I can't shut my mind down on my day, or things coming up, etc. and focus on what I need to write.

If you've read this blog for awhile, you saw entries on all of my ideas about viruses, vampires (of course; though in my defense, I started The Gravediggers in the mid-90s, before it actually became something that everyone and their brother wrote), concentration camps, WW2, and all of the other things I've mentioned as ideas.  I have a million of them, and I start things, and then I get excited about something else, or my career rears its head, or I simply lose focus on writing in general--and everything just peters out.  All of those great ideas, all of that energy and positive feeling...just...drift away.

Reading a lot used to help.  Now, all of that reading time is all I've got for creative time, so all reading, no writing.  Reading used to help writing--until about two years ago.  Then a few months ago, I started taking pictures that tied into my writing, and that helped a lot...for a few months.  Now that I've taken all the pictures I can take, that process is of little help now.  These days, it's all photos, no writing.

Then, a few days ago, I realized that I hadn't written any poems in a long time.  While I would never say I was a gifted poet--or even a good one--I can say that writing poems would focus me, ground me into whatever I was writing at the time.  The poems themselves didn't have to correlate with whatever project I was working on at the time--though they sometimes did--but the very process of writing them apparently would hone my focus to such a degree that I was able to work on my longer creations.  Somehow, as so often happens to hyper and unfocused people like me, I stopped doing that, got sidetracked, and never went back.

So now I will work on poems again, and although Frost and Dickinson don't need to worry about their posterity, maybe, just maybe, some present-day novelists should be looking over their shoulders and not ignoring the dustcloud that just kicked up a long, long way back, just ahead of the horizon behind them.  Wish me luck, everyone, and if you have any tricks to help me along, I'll gladly listen.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Elyssa East--Dogtown

I just completed Elyssa East's Dogtown.  Really well-written, in a very pondering, smooth way.  It does not read like other non-fiction books.  It has a workshop-like feel about it when you read it, a book version of a grainy documentary.  It goes back and forth between the colonial history of the place (it's a remote part of Gloucester, MA, so there's lots of history) and the murder of a young woman by a local whistling kettle in the 80s.  But mostly it's about the feel one has in the place itself.  East shows that the entire acreage of Dogtown is, for lack of a better word, haunted.  Not cursed, exactly.  There's just a certain...something about the land, the air, and everything in between.  Eccentric artist-types have made a pilgrimage to Dogtown, MA for a long time now, and a part of the place's weirdness is why that is.  What is it about the land, she asks, that draws the lost, the eccentric, the weird?  (She, and others, include themselves and the local madman in that group.  They are all the same, she says, just in different ways.)  In the end, she is driven away by the place, as others who cared for the land had been before her, and the conclusion is that the same weirdness that drew them to the land also pushed them away from it.  The writing is well planned and carried out, and I think that adds to the documentary-feeling of it.  It seems choreographed, but in a good way.  It badly needed some photos of the people and places described; hopefully in the next edition.  It's a quick read; check it out.