writer, editor, girl wonder

the art of that which is to be proclaimed

This post is about plot. But also grammar. The grammar of plots.

Stay with me!

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

So, I’m teaching my mother Latin. It’s an ambitious undertaking, sure, but she’s an eager student. And I’ve always believed that nothing deepens your own understanding of something like trying to explain it to someone else who has no idea what you’re talking about. Also, she gave me life, so the least I can impart in return is the best thing I’ve ever learned in that life.

Learning Latin requires swallowing a lot of abstract concepts. Like, for example, predicates. From the Latin praedico, meaning “I proclaim.” I know what a predicate is, but I cannot sum it up simply and succinctly for love or money (though my mother only pays me in the former). Regardless, here goes: In broadest terms, predication is all about relationship between the subject of a sentence and…the rest of the sentence (I’m sorry, I’m sorry; think Mad Libs-y thoughts.) And thinking about predication made me realize that it’s a beautiful way to think about the plots of stories.

Look, I get it: you do not like grammar. It is not only unsexy but also inflexible, and you need to bend things. You think sentence structure is boring and technical and you think that narrative structure, that glorious tapestry of self-expression, is the seat of the soul of writing. Rules are the opposite of creativity. Right?

To use a technical term: ish. Comprehension of grammar is not about learning to diagram sentences. It’s not about whinging when someone misuses an apostrophe. It’s about cultivating the purest, most efficient fluency of thought. So if you want to call yourself a writer, you’d damn well better get grammar. Got it?

So. A sentence is a microcosm of the narrative it builds. Understand the sentence and there is nothing more to know. Heaven may not dwell in wildflowers, William, but when a grain of sand is grammatical there is indeed a world within. It’s a beautiful specimen, and I want to slice it up on slides and peer down for a second at these predicate things.

The way a sentence’s string of words generates a gravitational pull towards sense is a perfect analogy for the way sentences eventually coalesce into a sensical, emotionally authentic story. A sentence makes grammatical sense when and only when it expresses a logical relationship between its subject and verb (plus whatever prepositional phrases or adverbs help set the scene). Once you’ve got your subject, the rest is predicate—the action! the drama! the good part! A subject tells you what is, a predicate tells you what happens.

A story’s the same way. The climax of your story will only compute well if it plays upon what was set up in the very beginning. If your plot hinges on a betrayal, the effectiveness of that betrayal is predicated on an establishment of trust in the beginning of the story. A story about redemption is predicated on an appreciation for the depth of the mistake. To be effective, the end of your story must take its singular significance and resonance from the circumstances of its beginning.

Maybe this is obvious. But I like that there’s a common back-and-forth between the place of story and the place of grammar. Bringing across, trans latio. And this is why I’m bothering to teach my mom. Translation is not about how different two languages are, like Latin and English; it’s about how similar two concepts can be, like predication and storytelling. And while I’m generally agnostic about theories of everything, I do think this: humans are nothing without stories, stories are nothing without language, and language is nothing without grammar.

Or, in other words, know grammar and know your soul. Sic transit gloria fabulae. Translate everything, because everything will translate.

various states of subjunctive unreality

Verbs, like people, have moods. You know this intuitively even if you didn’t know it had a name: the difference between I write, I might write, and to write lies in the mood.

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

And when you write, you exist in the indicative mood. Creative doings are untempered action, after all: you draft and you plan and you put words on paper and you revise and you proofread. And then, you submit. And everything goes subjunctive.

For those of you whose hobbies are gerunds like “bicycling” and not abstract nouns like “grammar,” a quick refresher. Wikipedia, that Official Transcription of the Collective Unconscious, says that “subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.”

Various states of unreality. Also known as the stretch of days between when you abandon your wonky little bundle of words on a doorstep and when you hear that someone’s adopted it. Or the time it takes for your void-shouting to echo. Or the haze of wishes and hopes that clogs up your ability to make declarative sentences. You say things like this:

Someone might like this.
If only my book were less weird!
Please let other people think this is readable.
I wish/hope/pray that this doesn’t suck.
This shouldn’t be so hard.

All subjunctive. All moody.

“It might have been” may be the saddest words of tongue or pen, but trim the phrase to its present tense and you have the most flirtatious: “It might.”

The subjunctive is wonderfully seductive like that. It’s the most human aspect of the most human form of word. What separates us from the animals if not “wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”? What else is story if not a manifestation of those things? And where else do writers like to while away time if not in “various states of unreality”?

I think there’s a reason this aspect of action words shares its name with a synonym for emotion: verbal mood is mercurial, hard to grasp and harder to explain. (Even now, you are probably still scratching your head and wondering if this will be useful for Mad-Libs. It won’t, and I’m sorry for being stupidly obtuse.) Writers, being the agent nouns that they are, gotta write. It’s the only cure for what ails us—getting back to the indicative I write I tell I create—but how are we to make the transition? Thinking of ourselves in the future-tense-indicative might seem like the just the thing to rekindle the blaze in our bellies—I will write, I will succeed—but there’s a hollow, New Year’s resolution sound to those phrases. No, the necessary, block-breaking paradigm shift is of a much more imperative mood.

Literally. Get out your exclamation marks, get rid of your moodiness, and get ready.

Sit down! Type letters! Make words! String sentences! Print pages, scribble on scraps, keep creating! Do not stop! Do not despair! Do not dwell in possibility! Do not gentle go into that good night! Make your mark! Plumb depths! Exhaust everything! Revise! Wrestle! Struggle! Go, go, go!

BrockU_CoA

SURGITE: the motto of Brock University, a school I have never heard of before now, means PUSH ON in Latin. Do it.

video portals to the past

My new novel project has some History in it. Actually, it kind of takes place in History, because there is Time Travel. (I know, what am I thinking?) And this means I’ve been doing some Research.

My Medieval Studies degree is useful for about three things, and historical fiction is debatably one of them. But I don’t know all the details by heart. I know a few things about William the Conqueror, and they are these:

1. He was from Falaise, the tiny town in Normandy where I spent three soggy weeks on an exchange in 9th grade.

2. He had a castle there.

3. He conquered England in 1066.

Needless to say, I need the help of seasoned historians. And while I love to get library books out and will actually (gladly) spend 2 hours engrossed in a fine-printed book on the history of the French language, I will also take any excuse to watch historical infotainment on YouTube. Because really, what is YouTube if not a wormhole to days of yore?

Award for Best CG Backdrop goes to this one, which forces poor Dale Dye to weatherman his hands around a greenscreen while what looks like a map of England superimposed over a loadscreen from Oblivion flickers behind him. Also great is the reenactment of William yelling “…with God’s help, I will conquer!” It’s about as great as the scene in The Last of the Mohicans when Hawkeye tells his father that he is, wait for it, the last of the Mohicans. I think that’s what we call Dramatic Irony (I think?)

 

Oh my God. Badly-dubbed English, CG animations of trees bursting out of William’s mother Herleva (here called by her much cutesier name “Arlette”), pronouncing it “dinnesty” instead of “dyenesty,” dramatic recreations on par with not-too-great courtroom drawings, AND ominous bell-tolling sounds about every five seconds.

 

The ol’ bait-and-switch! You think you’re just going to see some stuff about “the greatest amphibious invasion in history” BUT NO, it’s just a big WWII psyche-out to get your feeble mind to realize where Normandy is in France. Host Michael Wood’s got some scholarly seventies sideburns and the soundtrack’s got some Rite of Spring lite sturm and drang.

Also, this quote: “Normans are as fiercely proud of their separateness as Yorkshiremen.” Uh. I’ll take your word on that one, Mike.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Jf6TBuOwGp8

It’s the details that make this one interesting. I don’t just mean that this video somehow knows that William the Conqueror was a redhead or that the strolling narrator has that kind of Ken-Doll haircut that seems to stick out of his head more than it should. I mean about thirty seconds in when the voiceover says “seck-shoo-ull innnnnntrigue” in the Britishest way possible.

the juvenilia files: His Irish Bride, chapter 1

Note: This is a new and maybe recurring feature wherein I return to the trove of writing I churned out as teenager with the time-hardened eye of a 23-year-old. It won’t be pretty. But you might laugh.

Imagine, if you will, a sixteen-year-old girl who has:
1. A unexplainable passion for the Middle Ages
2. No actual, factual knowledge of the Middle Ages
3. Literary ambition
4. Never kissed a boy

If this sounds like a recipe for the Greatest Romance Novelist Ever, you would be wrong. But that didn’t stop me from trying.

In the November of my sixteenth year, I rolled up my unfashionable sleeves and tried to bang out a romance novel about, for reasons I cannot remember, Medieval Ireland. I did not know what I was doing on any front of this endeavor. I had Google everything from “Norman military hierarchy” to “herbal remedies for bleeding” to “how do you French kiss.”

His Irish Bride (I know) stalled at 16,000-some words, the first few you will see annotated below. I never submitted it anywhere (or even finished it), but it did end up being useful later.

But first: the story.


Chapter One
Ireland, 1203

I have no idea why I picked this year. I think I wanted it to be after the Norman invasion, but I don’t think 16-year-old me put together just how after 1066 this setting would be. Also, real talk: I could not point to Ireland on a map. Read the rest of this entry »

how is story formed

The last book I wrote took shape behind a very un-peek-behindable curtain, for reasons of personal sanity and also laziness. But the more I’ve begun to hang out with writers, the more I want to talk about writing (and also write, duh). And even though many, many others have written longer and better about how to write, my dear friend (and totally accomplished writer) Simi asked me the other day for tips on, you know, actually starting a novel. In response, I wrote her a novel’s worth of information, and now I’ve adapted it to share with you.

And! I’m starting my next book, so I’ll have lots of bare-laying to do in the coming weeks. We’ll see this thing through together, you and I. Sharing is good for you!

So: write a novel. What’s the worst that could happen?

No, I’m serious. I need to know—you need to know—in the universe of your fiction, what is the worst thing that could happen.

Got an answer? You’ve got a story.

Read the rest of this entry »

you’re so young you’re so goddamned young

(Optional soundtrack for this post may be found here or here).

I’ve been 23 years old for almost half a year now, and I think Blink-182 was on to something.

On one side of it, 23 is a lot of years: I have a college degree, a job with a paycheck, and more than one nice pair of pants. I pay taxes*, I make budgets, and I can drive three and a half hours to a writers’ retreat all by my lonesome. I have come far enough in life that there exists a place where I used to be, and find myself giving advice to people (plural!) whose present situation is my past.

Most critically, though, I write books. Have written, am writing, whatever—I have picked a career and God-damned if I’m not in it for the long haul.

IMG_1419

But on the other side, 23 is so little. I sleep in my childhood bedroom. I don’t pay the heating bill. I can’t rent a car. I get called “young lady” by my so-called peers in the business of book-writing as they dispense advice in a patronizingly royal we: “We can’t give up! We all have to keep writing!”

Lady, I know. I’ve kept writing since I was 16. You want trunked manuscripts? I’ve got six. I might have been born yesterday but that doesn’t make me stupid. It doesn’t make me some kind of wunderkind, either; I’m not trying to posit myself as an under-appreciated prodigy here. I don’t want to whine. I just want to work.

Back in the days (daze?) of employment-hunting, my mantra was this: if the worst thing they can say about you is that you’re too young for the job, then the best is yet to come. Time heals all ills, and no more so than when you’re afflicted with youth.

My point (or my hope, or my belief) is this: age should be neutral. Your work and the quality thereof is the only thing that counts and the only thing you should count on.

Last night, my mother and I were commiserating over our respective places in time. “You’re closer to the beginning of your life, and I’m closer to the end,” she said, one of those double-edged statement that cut at each of us in opposite ways. I said what I thought without thinking about it and spit out one of those dumb-but-true truths:

“We’ve both got tomorrow. That’s all you need.”

*or, okay, I will have paid taxes as of tonight. This is why god invented e-filing.

frittatalk

Any charm in this post is the result of casting things, literally and figuratively, in a favorable light.

781548bc9ae911e2a2e022000a1faf45_7 3022a12ca07411e2a7f322000a1f9a55_7

4ef8b8aca07411e2bdde22000a9e299a_7

You see three cozy-looking frittatas, nestled in an itty-bitty skillet and becomingly blistered with cheese. You don’t see me dashing around my kitchen at seven in the morning, frantically steaming kale, grinding coffee, and scooping my lunch-yogurt into a pint jar. And you definitely don’t see the pink, handle-shaped indentation burned under my left thumb.

In pictures, all is pleasant! Life imitates Instagram, or something. Also: does frittata sound like the name of a Pokémon to anyone else?

It remains, however, that a frittata is a good breakfast: good in the virtuous sense of “having vegetables” but also good in the hedonistic sense of “having cheese.” I have been making them lo these past two weeks, and even though beating and broiling eggs every morning is a scramble (no pun intended, because that doesn’t even make sense for a frittata), it’s nice to start the day with some protein. Here is how you make one.

(If you don’t want to burn your hand, don’t be like me and think you can get away with just using a dish towel to insulate your tender flesh; use something comprehensively heatproof).

Frittata for One
A handful of vegetable matter, frozen or fresh if green (spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus) and cooked/leftover if otherwise (root vegetables)
1 tbsp. olive oil or butter
2-3 eggs
1/3 cup of cheese in bits (grated works for cheddar or Parmesan, feta and goat cheese can stay in blobs, and if all you have is slices, just tear it into hunks as best you can)
Pre-cooked sausage, cut into rounds, or bacon, cooked and crumbled, or smoked salmon, optional
Salt & pepper
Parsley, chives, or dill, chopped, optional
Hot sauce, optional

Preheat your broiler to low and adjust rack to highest position. If your vegetables are frozen, place them in a microwave-safe bowl and nuke for 1-2 minutes until thawed.

Heat up your lipid matter in your littlest cast iron or other ovenproof skillet over medium heat, then add vegetables, stirring occasionally to keep them from burning, then add the meat product, if using.

Beat eggs with salt (at least 1/2 tsp) and pepper (a few grinds). Add cheese to eggs and stir. Using a rubber spatula, pour egg mixture over vegetables in skillet, pushing in edges and tipping the pan as it sets.

When the eggs are mostly set on the bottom, grab the skillet WITH AN OVEN MITT and put it under the broiler for 3-4 minutes (watching carefully) or until cheese is melted and eggs are puffed and golden. Scarf down warm or room temperature, sprinkled with hot sauce if you like it and herbs if you remembered to chop any up.

editrix of the trade

8143d04c9ba311e2aee522000a9f15b9_7

Think back to any “E! True Hollywood Story” you’ve ever seen (because I know you’ve seen them). You know how there’s always that grainy, talent-show clip of a six-year-old Christina Aguilera belting out a song onstage at her elementary school, and then a quick cut to a talking head of a parent or friend who’s all, “we knew from the very beginning she would be a singer”? I think these moments happen for those of us less glamorously gifted, too.

Mine would be when, at age seven-ish, I was flicking through the manuscript for a book my mom was working on illustrating about princesses having a slumber party. After hearing a story of fantastic beasts evidently too scary for sheltered royal progeny, one of the princesses was said to gasp thusly: “What DRAGON?”

Cue me: “Shouldn’t it be ‘WHAT dragon?’”

An editor is born!

This humble-bragging anecdote is just a lengthy, lede-burying lead-in to the fact that I’ve just (well, a month ago) completed editing My Novel. Since that first incidence of precocious pedantry, I’ve gone on to edit plenty of things–the high school lit mag, endless cover letters, a handful of news articles, and even manuscripts–but never anything so long and so very my own.

96d79ca49ba311e2802a22000a9f3c9c_7

If you’ll recall from this fall’s FAQ, I absconded to Canada with the a project of writing a book, which I did. I had a schedule, which was to write 2,800 words a day, and I mostly succeeded, because I had nothing else to do and I was determined to see this thing through. It hit 78,000 words, I hit the end, and then I started another one, because I still had a month and a half left in my new lease on life and also on sublet apartment. I left the book alone, like you’re supposed to, and waited.

I don’t (or don’t here, anyway) talk about my fiction writing much, because…it’s scary! I don’t know. For some reason I’m the proverbial open book about my Real World, whether I’m sobbing in nice restaurants or weathering a long-distance relationship or thinking about the future where my parents are dead and I don’t know how to get my car repaired. But when it comes to letting people in on my Fake World, the one that I built in my head out of gumpaste and papier-mâché and dreams in Old French, I seal off.

For the creative process, the generative part, I think this is a good thing–no matter how crazymaking the lonely days of French-Canadian composition were at the time. But for editing, and especially after editing, you’ve got to start letting other people in.

3e80b9d69ba411e2b12d22000a9e295b_7

So I emailed copies to trusted friends, printed the damn thing out, and slapped it in a plastic binder, ready for the evisceratory rage of the red pen. And you know what? Weren’t so bad. Were, actually, kind of fun. Kind of a relief to see that hey, the book is Not Terrible. Kind of reassuring to see that, with the benefit of a break, my future-self could pick up and refine the threads and themes and know what and when to slash. Kind of thrilling, too, to think that “WHAT dragon?” was a question more rhetorical than I realized at the time–a calling to my calling.

The book is 81,000 words long. It is funny and it is sad and it is Pretty Good, if I do say so myself. It is being looked at by experts, really, and it is in God’s hands, figuratively. It is finished in the sense of done and finished in the sense of slicked over with metaphorical polish, but either way, I’m the one who finished it.

Edited to add: My sainted mother managed to track down the page in question. Behold:

488291_10151580194086271_29243467_n

3 tips for writers that have nothing to do with writing

Being born after both Stephen King and Anne Lamott, I am in no way situated to give writing advice. But while I won’t presume to try to help you produce your best prose, I am going to presume that I am pretty good at writing consistently. And I’ll also presume that you want to live the life of a writer a little better than you do now.

So! These are not revelations, but they are helpful. You could even call them “life-hacks,” but then we can’t be friends. Your call.

06735aa302594682bb2c0b063bd5a8bc_6

1. Get up early.

The easiest way to add bonus time to your day for writing is to rip it right from Dawn’s rosy fingers. No, it isn’t necessarily fun to get up before sunrise and yes, I do have an unfair advantage at this because of farm conditioning and a natural larkiness. But it’s not just a personal predilection, I swear: if you can rouse yourself from sleep and put in an hour or half an hour or even ten minutes, you give your writing the best brainpower, jacked-up on caffeine and undiluted by actually having done anything yet that day.

Make coffee. Eat breakfast. Then go.

 

b4800aa8b02511e1a8761231381b4856_6

2. Do not touch your smartphone at crucial times.

If you need to make a call, sure, you pedant. What I mean by crucial are times when you can sneak in some hardcore daydreaming: train rides, waiting for the bus, chopping up food for dinner, etc. Phones are like antibacterial soap for ideas: they wipe everything out of your head, good and bad. Keeping your Angry Birds caged up in your pocket or backpack and resisting the urge to dial up Terry Gross’s dulcet tones to blot out the background noise will let all kinds of things grow in your mental terrarium. Be alone with your thoughts. Walk and woolgather. Stare out the window and let things get funky.

 

f97d5c96a6ca11e1a92a1231381b6f02_6

3. Learn to like lentils.

Day job or no, writers must live cheaply. But food is non-negotiable, especially if you’re one of those delicate flowers whose personal hierarchy of needs includes things like “breathing” and
nourishment”  before you even get to art. Lentils are an excellent source of protein and fiber that are easy to cook from dried, cost next to nothing, and go well with the economical vegetables that will last for weeks without getting limp and pathetic. You can make a giant thing of salad or soup and subsist on it for days and it will usually taste good enough to keep you from feeling too Bob Cratchit-y about your situation.

seasoned greetings

Let’s not bury the lede here. This is my family’s Christmas card this year:

family

 

I could tell you a long story about why we recreated this particular picture, but I think I’ll let the letter I wrote speak for itself.

Merry Christmas!

Happy New Year!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whatever!

Look, we’ll be the first to admit that we’re a little behind. But we have good reasons: we forgot, we were busy (see below), and we needed to send cards as part of the 2013 fiscal year for tax purposes.*

Mostly, though, it was in the name of (re)capturing the special moment from 15 (!) years ago for the family photo. The story is, way back in ’98, David and Rebecca were all dolled up in white tie for the Academy Ball (as they do every year)**. They were smiling, Alice was sad to see them go, and Blair was…swimming? Sure, fine. Whatever happened, it was a moment that defied logical description then and begged for re-creation now.

As the least physically changed of the family, David has been dutifully preserving an aging portrait of himself in order to keep eternally youthful (just kidding, folks! That’s just good, old fashioned healthy livin’ for ya). When he’s not pulling his tuxedo out of mothballs for contrived photo ops, David is still the fearless leader of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, which continues to flourish Fels-ily. He’s maintained his obsession with the ’88 Vanagon and learned important skills like Soundproofing Your Van and What You Should Do Now To Keep The Coolant From Leaking. Besides rocking out with the Reckless Amateurs and The Miners, David has also added to the household instrument roster with another lap steel guitar and a banjo for the kid (Blair). Online reviews of his work with the Miners praise “Gary” Thornburgh for peddlin’ the steel with feelin’.

Marvelous matriarch Rebecca continues to be endlessly creative: besides illustrating her 115th and 116th children’s books, she wrote a draft of a mystery novel set in a coffee shop, created a whimsical and wonderful book of “What I Drew In Church” doodles, sang with Reckless Amateurs, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, and a women’s chamber choir, and fiddled. Her recent birthday present of a playhouse was a dream come true (and you’re all invited to come help build it over Memorial Day weekend!) Her signature punk-rock-pixie-cut continues to be the coolest hairstyle that anyone has ever had (is the pink natural? Only her stylist knows for sure!) She also avows an addiction to watching ’24′ on Netflix, at which her family lovingly restrains from rolling their collective eyes.

Elder daughter Blair (your humble amanuensis for this epistolary endeavor) has been busy growing about eight feet (see photo). She graduated in June from the University of Chicago, where she not only wrote a 40-page thesis on Latin and Old French literature for her Medieval Studies degree, but was also one of three student speakers at the Convocation ceremony (her speech, however, was in English). She spent the summer in New York City as an intern at the Jewish Daily Forward, where she was published on the front page and finally learned to spell the work “shtup” correctly (though for different articles). She then departed in September for a three-month long finding-yourself-in- a-foreign-country thing in Montreal, where she spoke French, wrote two young adult novels, and diligently avoided detection by the Royal Canadian Mounted Immigration Police. As of, like, three weeks ago, Blair is the newest member of the editorial team at Quirk Books (they of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fame) in Philadelphia, and she doesn’t think it’s premature to say that reading and writing about groovy and wonderful books all day is the best job forever and ever, amen.

Lastly, little Alice, who is actually NOT so little any longer, had the coolest adventures of anyone: she spent the fall of her junior year in college studying abroad in Florence, which is in Italy, which is awesome. With a veritable smorgasbord of studio classes spread before her, Alice learned to do all kinds of crazy things like sew clothes, illustrate children’s books (say…), paint in many media, and inform Italian waiters that she is dead***. Also, she got to walk past the Duomo on the way to school every day, which CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE. After bidding Italy arrivederci, Alice has returned to her natal nation for the remainder of her year at Vassar, where she intersperses her art studies with video games, sketchbook drawing, and lending her ethereally graceful soprano to the Vassar Camerata.

Our standard poodles, Rory and Zero (not pictured), keep up a rigorous daily schedule of barking, sleeping, eating, attempting to open the fridge, eating some more, and barking. We love them a lot but would really like them to stop climbing on our legs at night.

Well, there it is. You’ll excuse us for not lingering, but we really need to get the ornaments off the tree.

See you in another fifteen years!

*No.
**No.
***This was actually a comical cultural misunderstanding.