Monday, May 30, 2011

Introductions Part 2 - Setting

No one likes a waiting room.

Waiting rooms smell of disinfectant and cheap dollar store fragrances. They are filled with tacky furniture and old, curled magazines and people who are, well, waiting. People who would rather be elsewhere. The waiting wait, and idle the time away by flipping through the sticky pages of Parent Magazine or watching the fish float listlessly in the aquarium. The waiting cast anxious glances at their watches, and then at the receptionist, that gatekeeper to some other, purposeful place. The waiting desperately want to hear their name called. But the receptionist avoids their beeseching eyes and ignores their whispered complaints, and the waiting begin to wonder if there isn't something belligerent about the aquarium on display- they wonder if, at any moment, the receptionist will point to the fish in the tank and yell, "They're trapped in a box, too, but you don't hear them complaining!"

No, no one likes a waiting room. And yet, I have lived much of the past decade in waiting rooms.

There was the waiting room that was our first apartment, the basement apartment on 20th East that my husband and I rented after we were first married. It had a stalagtite ceiling and a carpeted bathroom and fake wood paneling in the bedroom. We waited there until I was done with college, until I could work full-time and we could afford something better. That something better was our next waiting room, the place we waited in as my husband finished up his undergrad degree and applied to law schools, the waiting room that had two bedrooms that were flooded at night from the security lights of the adjacent care center, lights that we couldn't drown out, even after the windows were covered with blinds and cardboard boxes.

There was the waiting room in South Bend, the one that was so temporary we didn't even bother to put up window coverings of any kind during our tenancy. And there was the waiting room in London - which was much smaller than any actual waiting room I've ever seen - a sub-divided room over a laundromat with thick glass paned windows and a shower next to the refrigerator. And the waiting room in Munster - the apartment we thought we would be in for just a year, and then just one more - just until we could scrimp together enough money to settle into something more permanent - and then came the job loss, and I found myself back in my childhood bedroom, the room where I had waited for the life ahead of me to begin. Only this time, the life ahead of me was strangely crammed in the room with me: my husband shared the bed with me, my baby girl bunked beside us in a Pack-n-Play, and my little boy slept in the room across the hall. Together, we occupied the room I had grown-up in, and, for over a year, we waited.

But now, my name has been called, and I've left the waiting rooms, and, finally, come home.

We've only been in our first house for over a week now, but, already, I feel at home. I have set aside a pair of old running shoes just for yard work. You do not know how much this thrills me. The windows are covered with blinds, and the walls are covered with paint that is not white. I've hung a picture and planted something in the garden. This home is my new setting, and, I think I'm gonna like it here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Power of Tension

My new writing friend, Shelly, is participating in this blogfest. So, I figured, what the heck?
Hosted by Cally Jackson and Rachel Morgan, the object is to, in 300 words, create a scene that is, well.... tense.

Here's my go at it:

“I’m leaving Ollie,” Amanda said. She had a fleeting moment of satisfaction as Regan dropped the menu and looked at her with interest. Amanda half wondered if this was the reason she had decided to share this news with Regan – not to garner her sympathy, but her attention.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing.” Regan picked up the drink menu again, already disinterested in the subject. “It’s just, I’m not surprised.”

“My mom wasn’t surprised, either,” Amanda said. “She was surprised when I told her about the pregnancy. She actually asked me if Ollie is the father.”

Regan gave her a cold, calculating look. Defenseless, Amanda turned toward the window and gazed down at the miniature cars and pedestrians lost in the labyrinthine streets.

“So, what’s your plan?”

“I’m going home,” Amanda said resolutely. “I’m going to move in with my parents. I know, it’s pathetic…”

“It’s temporary. And besides, you’re young.”

“I don’t feel young.” Amanda sighed. “But, I’d like to think there’s still time for me to start over, you know? I’m looking into going back to school, finishing up my degree.”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking about acting again.”

Amanda glared at Regan, who held up her manicured hands in defense. “I’m just saying, you’re going to be a single parent. And since you’re going to have to work, it would be nice if you could get the kind of job that doesn’t require you to wear a nametag.”

“Like you could do any better with your psychology degree,” Amanda said hotly.

“You’re right. I couldn’t. But I don’t need to make money. My husband does that.”

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Amanda. The only person at the table Regan was interested in comforting was herself.

Okay, I have another confession to make. So, a few weeks ago I attended the LDStorymakers Writing Conference. That same week, I finished the first draft of a novel (is that too audacious a term to use?) I have been working on for the past year or so.

Anywho, there were some literary agents at the conference. And, there was a 1st Chapter contest, which I entered and took 2nd place (for general fiction). (If you want to read the fantastic 1st place entry, click here).So, feeling encouraged, I sent a query letter to one of the agents. And, wonder of wonders, she requested that I submit her the first 30 pages of my manuscript.

Now - for those of you who I've inflicted with the reading of my manuscript (you know who you are), you know full well that it still needs quite a bit of work. Sending a query letter was a little premature. So, I spent hours fixing up the first 30 pages, and then, on Friday, emailed it to the agent. Fingers crossed.

The agent had said that it would take about two months to get a response. But, bright and early Monday morning, there was an email in my inbox, saying, thanks, but no thanks.

Even though it was expected, rejection still hurts! And, of course, it makes me wonder if my writing is just pure garbage.

I won't subject you to the first 30 pages of my rejected manuscript :), but, below, is my 1st Chapter, revised. And, since I am trying to grow a thicker skin, I want your honest feedback. What (if anything) do you like about this? And what needs to be changed?

Up in the Air
Emi was melting.
She curled the ribbon of the balloon tighter around her hand, pulling until the thin red tie nearly cut into her flesh, but it was no use. It was too hot out. She could already feel the sweat cutting salty trails down her face and back and thighs. At any moment, she would be reduced to no more than a puddle of eyes and ears and elbows, languishing on the pavement.
It was better here, though, at the edge of the pier. There was a slight breeze and when she stood on the tips of her toes she could see over the cement barricade and feel the spray of water on her face.
A sharp gust of wind tugged at the balloon, and Emi tightened her grip on the ribbon. It was important that she not let it go. Not now. Not yet. Not until Mrs. Call did the countdown. Emi turned around and leaned against the cement wall, facing the Chicago skyline, and spied Mrs. Call corralling the dozen or so first-graders who had not yet made it to the end of the pier. Hers was no small task, as the pier was chock full of distractions. The children were scattered like jacks across the boardwalk – some crowded playfully around the distortion mirrors, others stopped to watch the giant Ferris Wheel make its steady, endless rotation on its axis, their heads tipped back so far they looked like life-sized Pez dispensers.
It was easy for Emi to spot her classmates. Each was dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt with the school’s name emblazoned across the chest. And, of course, there were the balloons. They made a pretty picture, her classmates, parading down the pavement, the balloons flapping above them like colorful birds.
Emi was dressed like the other children, but she wasn’t like them. Not anymore. She suspected this was why Ms. Jackson, the principal of Grosvenor Elementary, had leashed and collared her with her eyes the moment they arrived at Navy Pier. Ms. Jackson stood stiffly beside Emi now, her wiry arms folded like a pretzel across her chest, pinning Emi to the ground with her gaze.
Mrs. Call finally reached them, fussing with the headband that was doing a poor job of taming her wavy red hair. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat and the exertion of walking. She paused to catch her breath and looked imploringly at Ms. Jackson.
“What happened to spring?” she asked. It was early May but felt like August.
“This heat’s our reward for enduring such a brutal winter.”
“Punishment’s more like it,” Mrs. Call said. “I don’t know why anyone lives in this miserable city.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “The kids don’t seem to mind, though.”
“No.” Ms. Jackson said, nearly smiling at the frolicking children, who seemed as light and airy as the balloons they held. “Although, Katy, I wonder if this little exercise,” she emphasized the word by signing quotation marks with her hands, “will do them any good.”
Mrs. Call looked pointedly at Emi, and then, as if anchoring her down, placed a hand firmly on her shoulder. “If nothing else, Virginia, they’ll benefit from the sunshine and fresh air.”
“It’s Ms. Jackson, Katy.”
“Let it go,” Mrs. Call snapped back, and then, just as quickly, began to stammer out an apology. “I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just…” Mrs. Call looked at Emi and gave her a wan little smile, and then ever so slightly increased the pressure of her hand on her shoulder. “I’m not myself. I haven’t been myself since…”
Ms. Jackson stopped her with a wave of her hand. “Since the incident,” she said, carefully.
Even Ms. Jackson, with her wiry arms and tongue like a whip, was hiding from what had happened. She was hiding the way all grown-ups hid – with words. Emi wanted to hide, too, but, even at six years old, she knew that words weren’t enough of a cover. Words couldn’t stop bullets.
“Well, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it,” Ms. Jackson said, as the last stragglers finally made it to the end of the pier. “Let’s get on with it and let these balloons go.”
Ms. Jackson wrangled the children into a tight cluster and started the headcount. Emi was numbered and counted with her classmates, but she was still separate from them. They skipped and sang about her, unburdened. Unafraid. She stood at the perimeter of the group, Mrs. Call’s hand still heavy on her shoulder, and waited for the impending countdown with an increasing feeling of dread.
“Twenty-two,” Ms. Jackson called. “All here.”
Mrs. Call cringed. “All here,” she said. The students looked at her, suddenly somber. It was a lie. They weren’t all here, but there was nothing anyone could do about it now. Mrs. Call’s face splotched into bright red patches. She was going to cry. Ms. Jackson nudged her sharply with her elbow, and, after an interminable moment of silence, she finally composed herself enough to face her students.
“Okay, children,” she said, doing her best to hold their attention with her soft voice. “You each hold a balloon in your hand.” The children looked up at the balloons in unison, as if suddenly aware of this fact. “Inside each balloon is a message of hope.”
Emi looked up and saw the dark shadow that was the message of hope resting against the swollen wall of the red balloon. Like a seed, she thought. She had planted the message earlier that morning, in the classroom, after Mrs. Call had passed out the balloons and, in response to a burst of questions, had explained to the children that “Galactic Joe’s Diner,” the name imprinted on the balloons, was the restaurant her husband owned. He had donated the balloons, Mrs. Call had said, thankfully, because by this time of the school year, her budget was all but gone.
Then came the slips of paper. And even more questions. Most of the children had struggled with the assignment, but Emi had known exactly what words to write on her message of hope. And it wasn’t just because they were the first she had learned. It was because she needed the words of her message, not to hide behind, but to stand on. She had carefully rolled the message into a tight spiral and slipped it inside the balloon. It was only after they had arrived at the pier, after Emi realized that she was going to have to let her message go into that wide, blue sky, that she had started to panic.
“Mrs. Call, where will they go?”
“Where will what go, Evan?”
“The balloons. The messages.”
She exchanged a worried glance with Ms Jackson. Both of them were dumbstruck. Emi could see they didn’t know the answer. But she was only six. She didn’t want to know that grown-ups didn’t have an answer for everything. She didn’t want to know that, despite their fixed gazes and firm hands, they didn’t have the power to keep her feet on the ground.
The children were beginning to lose interest. The tight cluster Ms. Jackson had arranged them in was fast becoming a loose crowd. Mrs. Call looked desperately about her, her lips pursed into a thin line. Finally, Ms. Jackson unknotted her arms and placed her hands firmly on her hips. She looked straight at the children, and without a hint of irony, said, “To Sam. The messages will go to Sam.”
“To Sam,” Mrs. Call repeated. It had been awhile since the children had heard her say that name out loud. They were instantly attentive, somber. Nothing more needed to be said.
“On three,” Mrs. Call said. “One…,two…”
Emi waited anxiously for three. Now that the time had come to release the balloon, she was certain she couldn’t let it go. The message, as much as Mrs. Call’s steady hand, was weighing her down, keeping her grounded.
There was a sudden rush of movement and color. Somehow, Emi had missed the cue. The other balloons were already rushing from earth, while hers remained safely anchored in her hand. Emi raised her unoccupied hand to her brow and watched the balloons rise. It was not as spectacular a sight as she had imagined it would be. She had supposed that on the count of three, the balloons would rise in a conglomerate mass of color, brilliant and dazzling against the sky. But it wasn’t like that. There was no conglomerate mass of color. In fact, after a moment, Emi struggled to see the balloons at all. They were only scattered points of red and green and orange among a vast sea of blue. They looked wistfully vulnerable, and then disappeared altogether.
Emi didn’t want to see her balloon disappear. But now all eyes were on her, demanding that she release the balloon into that wide, blue oblivion. She hesitated, and then, caving to pressure, uncurled her palm and felt the ribbon’s light brush as it left her hand. It left like a whisper, she thought. Like a softly spoken word. She didn’t dare to lift her eyes to watch its solitary drift into the air. She didn’t dare to lift her eyes to watch it fade away. So instead she averted her eyes to the ground, and tried not to concentrate on the heat and the sweat and the melting. She closed her eyes and felt her feet firm and steady on the gleaming pavement, silently willing herself not to vanish

Friday, May 20, 2011


Speaking of character... how do you write a good one?

We know that a fictional character should be more than just a stereotype. Right? I came across an interesting table in the newspaper a few days ago titled "Hidden Rules Among Classes." It compares how one's social class (poverty, middle class, and upper class) influences attitudes and values towards different aspects of life. Some examples:

Time - (P)- present is most important; (MC) - future most important; (UC) - traditions and history most important

Food - (P) - quantity important; (MC) - quality important; (UC) - presentation important

World View - (P) - local view; (MC) - national view; (UC) - international view

Humor - (P) - about people & sex; (MC) - about situations; (UC) - about social faux pas

For the complete table, go here.

I thought this might be a useful tool for us writers - aspiring or otherwise. I think when we can get a sense of the generalizations of a group of people, we can better find interesting ways for a character to diverge from the stereotypes. Kind of a lame example, but think about Remy from Ratatouille. He's a rat - definitely at the bottom of the social ladder. But he's obsessed with gourmet food - something usually valued by society's upper crust. The way his individual values conflict with those of his social group create tension - and, in essence, the story.

Think about your favorite fictional characters. Or real life characters, for that matter. Probably the most interesting thing about them are their little (or major) divergences from the norm.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Introductions Part 1.5 - Characters

One day, the Cat in the Hat came knocking at my door. And, despite my mother's admonition to keep the door latched and locked, curiosity got the best of me and I let him in. Right away, things started to get interesting. He juggled everything around and showed me some of his best tricks. It wasn't until he brought along Thing 1 and Thing 2 that I knew, for sure, I was in trouble.

Life with the Cat in the Hat and his sidekicks can get a little out of control at times. There are moments when I wish I had elected for insularity, and kept the Cat out, despite the rain and the boredom.

But those moments are few and far between. Because despite the mess and the chaos and the antics, this is certain: Life would be utterly dull without them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Introductions Part 1: Character

This is me.

Or, was me. About 20 years ago (sheesh! has it really been that long?). This is kind of one of my favorite pictures of myself. Just look at that girl. There is something refreshingly unpretentious about her. Despite the tortoise shell glasses and doily dress and teased bangs, she is still smiling. She has no idea just how ridiculous she looks.

About the time this photo was taken, my dad gathered up all of the poetry I had written and compiled it into a 3-ring binder. He then slipped this photograph in the cover and gave it to my grandparents for Christmas. I, as you can imagine, was flattered. My poetry, which consisted mostly of prosaic rhymes like "Dad is rad," was finally getting the recognition it deserved.

My grandparents kept that binder of poetry on display at their house for years - long after I had transitioned to contact lenses and tamed my hairstyle. And, as I entered junior high school, I was no longer flattered by that pesky collection of rhymes. Poetry extolling just how radical my dad was became something of a liability. My older, beautiful cousin had started writing poetry, too. Only her poems were melancholy and troubled and full of angst. I desperately wanted to be like her.

We live the first decade of our lives spontaneously, brilliantly. We spend the next trying to hide ourselves. And then, if we are wise, as we enter adulthood we embrace the fact that we are who we are, despite our best efforts to prove otherwise. No matter how quick we may be, we find we can't run away from ourselves. We realize that life isn't so much about becoming someone, as it is retaining who we are.

I just read and thoroughly enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. In it, a character muses: "We are all prisoners of our own destiny, must confront it with the knowledge that there is no way out and, in our epilogue, must be the person we have always been deep inside, regardless of any illusions we may have nurtured in our lifetime."

This sentiment resonated with me - although I'm not sure I love the word "prisoners." I rather see that inner child as something of a liberator.

For the most part, we face the world with an uncomfortable amount of transparency. But, in the end, that's really not such a bad thing. In many ways, at 10, despite the tortoise shell glasses and teased bangs, I was better than I am now.

So, who am I? A girl with bad vision and worse hair who attempts to write something like poetry.

Nice to meet you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My story

What's your story?

What's mine?

A few years ago, I wrote a novella that explored whether it is possible to have a story in real life. Each chapter was focused on one component of a fictional story: character, plot, voice, setting, and conflict.

Since this is a writing blog, I think I will introduce myself to you, my faithful readers (i.e., Mom), through these literary concepts.

First at bat: Character. Watch out for curve balls.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Self-indulgence, Self-promotion, & Shame

Come here, I have a confession to make.

I want to be a writer.

I remember once in undergrad, a fellow English major confidently told me that, unlike all our other clueless peers, when she completed her degree, she was going to write books. I, of course, inwardly sneered at her. People don't write books, I thought to myself. Writers write books.

So then, how does one go about making the leap from a mere person to a writer? I guess actually writing something is a good start. I've done that. But then... what?

I was advised at a writing conference I attended this weekend that if I really want to be a writer, I have to delve into that pesky and somewhat shameful business of self-promotion. This is a rather uncomfortable task. It means establishing an on-line presence - a chore that necessitates an absence somewhere else. Somewhere less virtual. What am I willing to give up in order to pursue this wild-eyed dream of mine? Time with my children? Sleep? My morning run?

I guess, at the very least, I am serious enough about this pursuit to risk losing my pride. To throw this small token into the pool of possibility, knowing I may end up looking like a fool. I suppose it is some comfort knowing I am not the first to blog about my very private thoughts and feelings. Others have done it before. As Will Farrell so aptly turned the phrase in Anchorman, "when in Rome."

So Brutus, pass the Caesar dressing. I'm ready to dig in...