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On Death Row–Literary or Women’s Fiction?

I’ve mentioned my quest to figure out what women’s fiction is, most recently in a blog on book covers. I picked up I’d Know You Anywhere at a recent bookswap, thinking it was women’s fiction. The title sounded like one my WF writing friends had mentioned. Also, the paperback cover  features two pictures of the backs of women in what appear to be raincoats. Not the dead giveaway of flowers or children, but hinting it might be for and about women. The book did receive accolades from the likes of Stephen King, as well as decent reviews.

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This cover looks even more representational than the real one due to the glossy nature of the material. I had to use a flash.

A month or so prior to reading the above, the Board of the Friends of the Colorado State Library sponsored a talk by Elizabeth L. Silver. She spoke about her 2013 novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. At least two versions of the cover of this novel include a partial face of a woman. What I take to be the hardback edition features only text, with some of the words crossed out. This, too received good reviews, although I am not able to unearth a review on the NYTimes.IMG_0844

What do these novels have in common? Each has a female protagonist. Both have murderers on death row facing dwindling days to their execution. Laura Lippman’s story is told in alternating past and present chapters recounting the story of Eliza’s kidnapping, and what she’s doing now. A few other points of view are included. Occasional sections are about the mother of the young girl for whose murder Walter is to die. Sections of  Noa P. include letters the mother of Noa’s victim wrote to her daughter.

How would I categorize these two novels? Are either women’s fiction?  In a short article, Rebecca’s Rules: Defining Women’s Fiction  (Booklist, March 15, 2013), Rebecca Vnuk suggests that women’s fiction deals with emotions and relationships of a female protagonist, and that “the main thrust of the story is that something happens in the life of that woman.” She then tries to set romance, women’s fiction, and literary fiction apart. One clue, Vnuk says between women’s fiction and literary  is if you pay more attention to the beauty of the words than the story. She notes that the two can be confusing to distinguish and also says there is nothing wrong with filing a book under “general fiction.”

Although a large portion of IKYA is from  the male antagonist’s point of view, the above definition allows both books to fall into the WF category. Somehow or other, I would never think to call Noa P. a work of women’s fiction. Probably IKYA was published as suspense or crime fiction, but to me, a non-expert on WF, it seemed very much like a novel that could be called women’s suspense fiction. What marked the difference between these two books and their classification?

Both deal with the aftermath of a murder on both the perpetrator, the families of the victim, others involved in the subsequent legal case, and the death penalty itself.  Another clue Vnuk gives to distinguish between women’s fiction and literary or general fiction is if the main character can be substituted with a man. Probably this would not work, or would be a completely different story in the case of the Lippman book. In the case of Noa, it might be possible, although it would again make it a much more common story.

The main difference between the two books, and where I would classify them, is in  the writing, but not necessarily because I spent more time “admiring the use of language” in Noa than enjoying the story. I didn’t much like the character of Noa. I didn’t like Eliza, either, but for different reasons. Noa was unpleasant but, as someone with at least psychopathic tendencies, interesting. Eliza was plain dull, a wife, a mother, with few interests or thoughts outside of that role. If Lippman’s purpose was to show how being the victim of a crime dulls the senses and impacts the personality, she may have done an excellent job, but it seems to me if that was the intent, there should have been some way to show us that that was what she was doing. Every once in awhile Eliza would know something or show interest in something that seemed to me, as a critical reader, more to advance the story of make a more interesting observation than as something this character would actually say or do or know.

The other characters in the Lippman book–with the exception of Walter whom I felt was well portrayed–were right out of central casting. So many books have a best friend/older sister who feels like every other best friend or sister in every other book in the world. In Eliza’s case, the older sister might be described as “lovingly bullying,” but possessing all the expected traits: the Golden Girl to Eliza’s housewife, the smart one to Eliza’s dropping out of her masters program, the single career woman to Eliza’s long marriage with the “perfect” children. Noa’s only friend, who died in childhood, did not seem like her traits had been purchased in the stock store of characters, although her early demise did not flesh her out.

Eliza’s parents were both oh-so-perfect psychiatrists; again, more a role than real characters. Noa’s mother is quite awful. Her father is a reformed convict and not much like fathers in other books. Both are believable, but not particularly likeable. Eliza’s husband is too good/smart/understanding to be true. I kept expecting him to fail her, to in some way make her perfect life a lie. That would have made the story more complex and interesting, but in the end, he’s left home so that the sister can finish out the novel with Eliza.

Noa P. was told in the first person while Eliza’s story was all third. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings were explained and then explained again, while Noa held back information and lied, making you have to work to figure out what was going on in the dialogue as well as the rest of the story.  This telling of emotions very well might be what I most objected to in the Lippman book. This over-explaining with dialogue that seldom rang true was for me what made this a less interesting read. I wonder if this problem might have been fixed if Eliza had told her part of the story in the first person.

I have to continue my search for “real” women’s fiction. I hope that some of what, for me, are deficits in the style of writing do not define the “genre.”

 

 

 

 

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50th Published Post: So Now What do I Do?

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Sock animal and a C2 doll on my bookshelf.

This is going to be my 50th  published post. Even though this is close to  a post a week for a full year, it appears my first effort launched in September. I received notice of an automatic payment for my URL due in July, so I must have had the blog in mind for awhile before I actually wrote anything.

One of the reasons I started the blog was that I attended the Writing and Yoga Retreat and Linda Epstein, the agent who was one of the two people running the retreat mentioned she checks online presence while she waits for requested material. This made me think, “Oh, maybe I really do need some sort of web page.”  So I bought a URL and then set about learning a bit about setting up a blog site.

Because the manuscript I was hoping to sell at the time  had at least a secondary theme of friendship, and because friendship theory  has always been of great interest to me, I wanted to concentrate on writing about that. In college I did numerous papers on the subject, including my own theory, which I explicated briefly in my novel. I liked the idea of writing about something other than writing,because it seemed presumptuous to think I had something more to say about writing than one of the other 678,9452* other blogs out there addressing writing.

Besides, I’ve always been a bit contrary and wanted to write about something else. Something the rest of the world wasn’t addressing. I googled friendship and found a few websites but nothing that appeared active or addressed the aspects I was interest,ed in.  So I thought I’d be okay.

But like most of my other blog ideas, this one was harder to write about than I thought. I have things to say; the question is, do I want to say them in a potentially public forum where I might be talking about someone who might read the post? It’s in the (remote) realm of possibility.

For awhile, it seemed that everything was saying, “If you write, you need a blog to attract readers.” I took a social media course through the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and it stressed  you needed a place for your fans to find out about you. My thought was, “But I want readers, not fans.” I wasn’t looking for (unlikely) adoration, nor was I looking to become friends via my blog. I mean, I wouldn’t mind meeting  people or even becoming friends, but that wasn’t the main purpose of the blog.

Now I’m seeing more and more articles/blog posts saying that you don’t really need to have a blog, or maybe you don’t need to spend that much time on one. (Here is one about blogging.)  I enjoy coming up with topics, especially linking activities and objects that seem to have little to do with writing to writing. I find blog posting satisfying, if time consuming, and the time it consumes is that in which I should be working on my latest manuscript.

That last is a reason I should stop, but last week I finally had cards made up to hand out to people I meet at conferences and I put this web address on them.

I did manage to write enough columns to have bypassed my previous “record” of four posts, and I do have a second blog which I plan to keep going. The second is a quick weekly challenge that involves eating pancakes, so it has its own reward.

Maybe what I’ll change is the title of this blog. Probably what I should adjust is the focus. Since I am time-limited due to my work schedule, I will have to post this as it is right now and worry about those other changes later–or leave it for Post 51!

Why do you keep blogging? What keeps you from giving up?

*for my very literal readers, this is a made up number and, I hope, an obvious exaggeration.

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The Blue Tongue Project: Finding Inspiration at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

At first glance this post about The Denver Museum of Nature and Science didn’t seem to have much to do with writing, reading, or friendship, but as I wrote it, I naturally found a way to tie in three of the topics of this blog.

In 2012, I attended the first Colorado State University Alumni Beer Tasting at which we not only sampled innovative small plates concocted with various beers, but also sipped selections from a number of breweries. The participants were treated to a talk on the history and science of brewing by Dr. Nicole Garneau, the chair and curator for human health in the DMNS Department of Health Science. She mentioned an experiment that was being conducted with volunteer visitors to the museum. As I am someone who loves many bitter foods but doesn’t like bitter beers (sours are another matter), I was greatly interested in this research into the genetics of “supertasters.” This was nicknamed the blue tongue project. Three thousand visitors participated in the study, and the results have been published in Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience. Participating  was fun, interesting, and exciting. What more do you need to be inspired? You could come with ideas for stories set in a lab, or with a character as a study participant.

Having my curiosity piqued energizes me and gives me the inspiration to work on my own writing even if it isn’t a science fiction tale of experiments gone wrong. Currently, the Genetics of Taste Lab is conducting a study on the ability to taste fatty acids. Pretty much all you have to do to take part is show up.

One of my favorite exhibits at the DMNS is hidden away on the third floor. I’m always afraid it is either gone, or I’m lost, when I walk through rooms of stuffed animals to find it. The delight Konovalenko: Gem Carvings of Russian Folk Life sets off in me is well worth the search.

The first time I encountered this room full of carvings and dioramas, I was one of the few visitors. Lately, it has become more crowded, limiting the time I can stand in front of each tableau and marvel at the use of the different stones and the expressions on the sculptures’ faces. I expect these miniature people to stand up and sing bawdy beer songs. It isn’t hard imagining them coming to life after-hours.

There is plenty of other inspiration to be found, especially in the rotating exhibits. Currently on display is MAYA: Hidden Worlds Revealed. This exhibit would be a must for anyone writing about that  culture. The recently completed exhibit, Pompeii: The Exhibition, might have inspired those writing about that event, whether fiction or nonfiction. The overwhelming emotions the replicas of the dead brought up might provide inspiration for a natural disaster story or even pure horror. Remembering the exhibit made descriptions in Rising Fire by John Calderazzo come to life.

Many more opportunities exist at the museum, especially for members. The IMAX Theater is featuring three 3d films this summer. Topics  include D-Day, lemurs, and pandas. The museum offers classes, bird walks, and programs for families, including sleepovers. During the summer, the museum is open some Friday nights during which you can enjoy their cash bar. Why not join and enjoy some new inspiration for your writing? You might even build on a friendship you already possess–or possibly make a new one!

 

 

 

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Writers–One More Reason to Get Up Out of Your Chair

IMG_0012A few months ago I wrote a short post about what some are calling “the new smoking.” Research seems to indicate that sitting for long periods can be one of the worst inactivities for your health. Now a Stanford study finds individuals are more creative while walking. It seems that in the past people might say they were more creative if they spent time outside, and that might be a first reaction to that statement. “Of course I’m more creative after coming in from smelling the flowers.”  2011-07-24 11.41.52

But the study Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking implies it is the act of walking, not the outdoors itself, that produces more divergent thinking. Some study participants walked indoors and still produced more creative ideas, while others were pushed around in a wheelchair outside. Presumably these individuals did not produce an equivalent number of creative ideas. The effect seemed to last for at least a short period of sitting after a walk as well as during the actual activity. Here is a summary of the study http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/april/walking-vs-sitting-042414.html.

Just one more reason to get up and out of your chair when you’re writing. Maybe you’ll come up with a new solution or create an astounding dilemma for your protagonist. And what an excuse to walk around the building or down the street in the middle of the day. 2012-07-28 10.08.13Don’t forget your sunscreen. Could a new walking desk set up be down the line?

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The Ecology of the Font

My friend Caroline is wild about fonts, reading book after book on their variability and creation. I’ve been known to fall in love with a particular font as well. At the same time, I’m one of those environmentalists who cringes when I notice one of my workmates purposefully printing a reverse white-on-black sheet of paper. Sure, it would be nice if we had a color printer, but color or white-on-black has little practical use in our healthcare-related positions.

So it was with interest that I read an article about Suvir Mirchandani in the New York Times a few weekends ago. At 14, he’s published a study of the way entities can save money and ink by judiciously picking a font. Three contenders were Times New Roman, Century Gothic, and Garamond.

 

Garamond turned out to be the winner as far as using the least amount of ink. Since it is a slightly “thinner” font, I’m wondering if the readability is less than the standard Times New Roman. Since it is lighter, will it cause eye strain? Will agents and editors rebel?

While writing this, I found links to many sites with free fonts to download. (For example Intavant, and Dafont.) Maybe it’s time to give up the dream of a career in writing and revert to making posters for post.

Do you have a favorite font?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 9, 2014

Celia near Pompelli’s at 18.

We’d been friends since 7th or 8th grade. She sat across the aisle from me in homeroom and we’d converse in sign language, the going communication method in those days. When we couldn’t sign fast enough, or the teacher wasn’t around, she’d talk in an almost monotone, swinging her foot, staring straight ahead, almost unaware of her words. She was the first of my circle of friends to have a steady boyfriend.  That boyfriend put a year or two rift in our friendship, since she wasn’t as available t o talk, but when she dumped him at the end of junior year, we called each other nightly.

For years we wrote letters, but she died prior to the dominance of the Internet and email. I often wonder what would have happened if she’d lived into the days of quick and easy email. Even during the last year of our snail mail correspondence the frequency dropped. Would we—I—have been able to pace an email exchange so that neither of us was exhausted or bored?

Celia in the Hickories at 28.

Although my brother had died prior to Celia, his death had been more or less expected whereas hers was unexpected, sudden, and mostly unexplained. The March day I found out was similar to this March day in Colorado. It was warm enough to have the front door open, and the park across the street was full of kids playing.  My husband had gone fishing. I’d hung up from talking to a friend who wanted me to go to the movies with her—I said no—when the phone rang again and Celia’s husband told me she had died. I said, “Okay,” and sat on the stairs and cried.

Later he sent me the letters I’d written to her over the years. She had unfolded them and kept them in a file. I had all hers but I’ve never attempted the task of matching mine to hers because she was notorious for leaving off the date.  One of my earliest blog posts (Sept 28, 2013) used a quote from her letter, which is still hanging on my bulletin board.

She’s hard to forget and someone I will always miss.

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New DANGER for Writers!

Recently a friend wrote a blog about plotting vs. pantsing; it appears there is a new “danger” and meaning related to pantsing.

For some time people at my place of employment have been talking about the need to not sit for extended periods of time. I’ve heard hints of this in the popular press, too, and I am a participant in a long-term, nationwide study that asks a question about how many hours a day you SIT. If this anti-sitting  research pans out, it appears  writers are at risk for ailments not associated with writing in the past. Diabetes. Heart disease. Obesity and probably other ailments as well. Much of the research appears to have come from Australia, with interest shown by many other health care professionals.

Probably most of us think, “Oh, I walk for a half hour a day, or ride my bike for two hours, or exercise on the weekend,” but what this research is saying is that that is not enough and what we need to do is stop sitting for extended periods of time. Exactly what constitutes an “extended” period of time I do not currently know, nor do I know how much time you have to stand up and move around to counteract the effects. Does standing and walking down the stairs to pour coffee provide enough of a break when you’ve been sitting for three hours editing a manuscript? Probably not.

2/20/12 UPDATE: It looks like this could be even more of a concern for older writers. Younger writers turn into older writers on a daily basis, so it most likely is best to establish new habits NOW.

The best advice at the moment might be to set a timer and get up and stretch every hour or so. Dance. If you’re at home, vacuum, run down to the basement to fold the wash, walk to the store. If you can find a place to use your laptop while standing, do that for part of the day. If you’re at writing group, stand up and discuss the writing for at least five minutes of every hour. Just don’t sit in your seat staring at the screen for hours at a time.

This cutting edge research gives new meaning to the word pantser, but unfortunately, it applies to plotters, too!!

Here is the Abstract for one of the original articles from European Endocrinology:

‘Too Much Sitting’ and Metabolic Risk – Has Modern Technology Caught Up with Us?
David W Dunstan,1–5 Genevieve N Healy,1,3 Takemi Sugiyama3 and Neville Owen3

Abstract
Recent epidemiological evidence suggests that prolonged sitting (sedentary behaviour: time spent in behaviours that have very low energy expenditure, such as television viewing and desk-bound work) has deleterious cardiovascular and metabolic correlates, which are present even among adults who meet physical activity and health guidelines. Further advances in communication technology and other labour-saving innovations make it likely that the ubiquitous opportunities for sedentary behaviour that currently exist will become even more prevalent in the future. We present evidence that sedentary behaviour (too much sitting) is an important stand-alone component of the physical activity and health equation, particularly in relation to cardio-metabolic risk, and discuss whether it is now time to consider public health and clinical guidelines on reducing prolonged sitting time that are in addition to those promoting regular participation in physical activity.

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