The Book You Write and the Book They Read

September 5, 2013

During one of my monthly Supernatural Tea Parties, my sister brought up the possibility that my novel, A Certain Slant of Light, might be read by a ghost looking over the shoulder of a living reader—perhaps that ghost might more easily find her way to the Hereafter by reading my dead protagonist’s journey to Heaven.  Maybe that human reader, who never knew a ghost was reading over his shoulder, would also recall my story someday on his deathbed and have a smoother passage to the other side. The idea seemed strange, almost funny, but I was so intrigued by the concept that in the companion novel to ACSOL, Under the Light, I had my ghost character, Helen, talk about how she wished the novels she’d read so voraciously in her youth  had taught her what to do when faced with death.

reading over shoulder

“No one teaches us how to die. No mother sits her daughter down beside her at the quilting frame and gives her this knowledge. No boy is given these facts by a thoughtful father while mending fences. Perhaps if the stories I read and reread all my life spoke more of the natural act of death I would have had an easier passage. What if the novels I loved, Daniel Deronda, Mansfield Park, Lord Jim, described entering the afterlife as readily as they described unfortunate engagements, unrequited love, and suspenseful misunderstandings? ”

The  passage was cut for the sake of pace, and I’ll probably never know if a spirit is ever helped along by my writing, but it got me thinking about the mystery of what happens to a novel once it leaves the page and goes into the minds of the readers.

When you write a novel it changes less from first draft to final product than a screenplay, a teleplay or a stage play does since they get filtered through directors, actors, sometimes cinematographers and editors. As novelists we think that (except for the refinements we make with the help of our editors) what you see on the page is what you get. But the real final versions are infinite because your book becomes part of each of your readers, filtered through each of his or her unique minds.

Fans will tell you that they loved exactly what you loved about your story. The trials that your hero overcame helped them deal with similar troubles of their own. Or your book gave them the courage to face a new challenge. But sometimes your fans will thank you for gifts you hadn’t intended to give them.  Maybe they’ll relate to a character who is gay that you did not write as gay. Maybe they’ll thank you for writing such a powerful mother-daughter story when you thought those two characters were estranged. For example, a reviewer of my second novel, The Fetch, said that I had borrowed heavily from Pilgrim’s Progress, a book I’ve never read. Significance is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s okay. People will also take things the wrong way and be offended. In A Certain Slant of Light one of my characters, Jenny, grows up in a conservative Christian family that is oppressive. I did not intend to imply that all Christian families are oppressive. Not even all conservative ones. But putting Jenny and the spirit of Helen in a dysfunctional Christian household worked for me as a storytelling element. I got about four or five “anti-fan” emails from folks who were angry at that choice. Which is okay. In my opinion, if 5% or less of your fan mail is negative, that’s healthy.

What people take away from your work will be a surprise. There are writers I love that I want to rewrite sometimes. For example, when I read Dr. Seuss books to my son, there are a couple of things I edit. In Scrambled Eggs Super I change the word “uncles” and the word “fellows” to “aunties” and “girlies” because males do not lay eggs. When Binny (only three and a half at the moment) gets old enough to read that book himself he can ask me why I read it “wrong” and I’ll be glad to explain. Also, in If I Ran the Zoo I change the couplet “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” to “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Torgeous with helpers who all wear their eyes simply gorgeous” because I find the original version racist.

And yet I love Dr. Seuss books. The first book I ever read all the way through by myself was One Fish Two Fish and Binny has made me read him If I Ran the Circus and The Cat in the Hat more times than I care to count. Maybe Dr. Seuss would be surprised at the bits of his writing I paraphrased, but Dr. S did his job. He wrote great stories. Bless his heart for making my kid (and millions of other kids) happy.

And that’s all you have to worry about. Write the stories that you want to write. Revel in what greatness your fans find and let the others complain about what they bring to the stories themselves. It’s all just part of the writer & reader dance.

(first published in the Willamette Writers newsletter)

September Give-Away

September 3, 2013

The winner of the August Give-Away was Tara from Horsham, PA. The September Give-Away will be a signed copy of my first book, A Certain Slant of Light. To enter send your name and physical address to me via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website. Best of luck. And welcome fall!

Enjoy some of the foreign covers for Slant.

Thought you'd like to see the Italian cover of SLANT.

SLANT Poland

German SALNT cover

Five Unexpected Things

August 22, 2013

Sometimes you can’t tell what things will have an impact on your breaking in as a writer until much later. With me, these were some of the surprises.

the traveler

I took a stand. I always wanted to be a writer, since grade school. And I was a writer. I practiced a lot and produced many mediocre stories, embarrassing poems, and not-half-bad unpublished novels before I sold my first book. But what I think made all the difference psychologically (and spiritually) was the day I declared what I wanted. It was a Monday holiday in about 1998. I had a full-time job and was fantasizing about how much writing I could get done if every day were a holiday from my 9-to-5. I said aloud, “My favorite job would be to make a living writing what I want to write.” In ways too complex to describe here, from that point on circumstances aligned to land me my dream job.

I made mistakes. Sometimes when I tell people about the mistakes I made in my early years, I do it to warn them about various common pitfalls they should avoid, but the truth is that we learn from our mistakes and I needed to screw up and find out how the business worked in order to become a professional novelist. For example, I had a bad agent before I had a good agent—with the first one I didn’t ask the right questions, I didn’t do research, I was afraid no one else would want me. I used to believe I had wasted a couple of years as her client, but the truth is I needed those two years to write that next manuscript which would launch my career. And stumbling through a bad agent experience taught me a lot about myself and the publishing biz. I have barked my proverbial shins in other ways, as well, such as having my hopes crushed by a vanity publisher’s offer, but it was all part of the process.

I stopped fretting and started listening to the voice in my head. As I was writing the novel I broke in with, I stopped about halfway through and wrote a draft of a screenplay. I wasn’t sure why I hesitated to move on with my book. When I decided to go back to it (I’d taken a two month break) I was nagged with doubts: Maybe I should be trying to get another teaching job. Maybe I should write a different movie. What if this book doesn’t pan out? What if I never get published? But a voice in my head said, “Just write this book.” The next day the anxious thoughts would return: What if no one likes this story but me? But the voice kept saying, “Just write this book the best way you can. Don’t worry about anything else right now.” And pretty soon I couldn’t hear the doubts any more—I could only hear the voice that told me to write this story.

I learned to love the rewrite. I used to hate the revision process. I’d write first draft after first draft of novels and put them away without rewriting one sentence. It was good practice—can’t knock that. But I think something inside me shifted just before I broke in. I went from thinking that the creation phase was the only fun part of writing (other than getting praise) to thinking, “I can’t wait until I get a draft down so I can start making it really good.” It’s not that I began to dread composing the first draft—there’s nothing like discovering your story as it appears on your laptop screen—so powerful and delightful. But in order to become a full-time writer I had to find a balance between writing and rewriting.

I took some (very) old advice. This is probably the oddest inner shift I made before I broke in. One I never would have guessed at. Back when I was in my early twenties, and had written only a few manuscripts, I got a long rejection letter from one of the editors I’d queried. She’d read one of my YA novels and was not offering me a deal, but she said she was so intrigued by the plot , my characters, and my writing style, that she wanted to list for me some revisions that, if I chose to make them, might improve my book enough for a second read-through. I was pleased that she saw something in my work, but as I read the letter, everything she suggested seemed wrong to me. I ended up thinking, “She doesn’t get my novel at all!” But years later (let’s see, over 15 years later) I thought about that letter and remembered her ideas. Removed from my former ego attachment to the book and generally wiser by age, I embraced the advice in a new way. 1. Be more specific. Don’t make the place or period of history vague as if you are trying to make it every place and time. Instead be very specific to make it feel real.  2. Don’t be so gentle with your characters. They shouldn’t just get into physical trouble (in danger of hurt or death) they should be troubled in their hearts and souls. 3. Maybe the lovers shouldn’t get together at the end of the story. At the time I thought this was madness—it was a love story! Of course boy gets girl! But I later understood the message. Sometimes you need to give the readers something they aren’t expecting or something more believable. The editor said that perhaps the hero should be sent away and at the end of the story so that the heroine has to go find him. Again, I thought she was crazy, but now I know that some of the best stories end with the beginning of a new journey.

Every writer’s path is different, but if any of the above experiences can help someone out there get to a book deal faster, I’m all about sharing.

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter)

August Give-Away

August 16, 2013

The winner of the July Give-Away was Vitoria from Brazil . The August Give-Away will again be a signed copy of Under the Light. (Seen below with my son, Robinson, at the Barnes & Noble in Tigard, Oregon.) To enter send your name and physical address to me via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my websiteB with UtL Tigard

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

July 11, 2013

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter one year ago)

ray bradbury

Thank you for throwing the literary gauntlet in my face. My ninth grade English teacher, from the Pasadena Alternative School, took a few of us to hear you speak back in the mid seventies and you looked me right in the eye (I swear) and told me to get off my butt and write. You didn’t claim that being a writer was an elite club that I’d have to struggle for years to get into and then still be rejected from. No, you said there were amazing stories already inside me and that I should stand up and do my job. So, thank you for that. At fifteen years old I started my first attempt at a novel.

Thank you for making the short story such an appealing medium.  You demonstrated that a work of short fiction did not have to be a cryptic masterpiece. It could just be interesting or creepy or fun. I didn’t need to be Tolstoy or Salinger—I just needed to have a cool idea and the perseverance to make it as good on the page as it was in my mind. In high school, after reading a few of your collections, I wrote dozens of short stories, for me a prerequisite for becoming a novelist.

Thank you for making dark things beautiful, even sentimental. And thank you for making mundane things mysterious and often frightening. You turned my crush on Time Travel and the Supernatural into a life-long love affair. I will never forget reading R is for Rocket, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes while riding the school bus—a sea monster attacked a lighthouse out of unrequited love; a sinister carnival appeared in the dead of night with a merry-go-round that ran backwards, carousel horses smiled with “panic-colored” teeth.  I wouldn’t realize we had pulled up to the campus until someone accidentally thwacked me with a book bag.

Thank you for being a madman with your pen. In just one twelve year span, for instance, you published five short story collections (over 100 stories), four novels, 7 scripts, and a children’s book. You proved that a mortal can indeed burn the candle at both ends in a wild frenzy of productivity without dying young. You made it to 91. And your life by example cries, “Leap up and fly to the typewriter whenever that urge comes over you even if it’s 2:00 in the morning or you’re in the middle of math class or in a dark theater watching a play. Pick up a pencil stub, find the blank space in the margin of the program, and scribble away!” You taught me not to listen to anyone who says it’s impossible—you can write a three-day novel or more than one short story a day or dream a whole book while pushing a stroller around the block.

Thank you for telling us stories about telling stories. And not the regular writing career anecdotes about getting rejection slips or funny fan-mail or how a piece of personal history gave you fuel for one of your plots. No, your stories about writing pulled us into the sea. A white monster was rising under us as you spoke about the screenplay for Moby Dick. You brought us into the glow of a camp fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In the wavering light, the footprints of the Son of God disappeared in the sand as you described your vision for the screenplay of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Thank you for being the defender of used book stores and the champion of public libraries. I’m sure you appreciated people buying new copies of your books (I do, too) but you also saw the truth: used books are not trash, they are treasure. They are beat up doorways into the same glorious adventures you can enter through new, pristine doors. As a matter-of-fact, sometimes the smell of mildew, that certain shade of a yellowed page, and the sound of vintage paste cracking in the binding of an old paperback makes the story even better. And libraries are sacred—you taught me that. Books are for everyone. Poor people have just as much right to read as rich people.

Thank you for being so Ray Bradbury-ish. Not just in your writing and in your love of books –you wore your personality like a proud flag. And it wasn’t just your enthusiasm as a speaker. You were physically yourself down to every atom, from your thick gray hair to your glasses with lenses so deep your eyes seemed far away, able to gaze into other worlds. I hope you will always inspire me to look the way I look without apology. When I do book signings and speaking gigs, I want my spirit to shine out of me, like yours did, making the fact that my shoes aren’t fashionable or that I’m 53 instead of 33 not only acceptable but somehow cool.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Bradbury. Especially for those things I’ve forgotten or that I will not realize until years later were gifts from you.

July Give-Away

July 8, 2013

The winner of the June Give-Away was Ashley of Appleton, Wisconson. The July drawing will be for another signed copy of Under the Light. Send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website to enter. If you already entered a drawing in the last few months for this book, no need to resend your name–I’ll keep your name in the pool!

bk pic

The Name Game

June 26, 2013

One of my fans, who is also a writer, asked me recently how I name my characters. I do have a few tips which I will share, but the process is different with each story.

nameless man

BOOKS

When I started my first attempt at a novel (the summer before tenth grade) I used a book called Name Your Baby to choose the names Noelle and Christian. I’d flip through saying various names aloud and checking out their origins. I still have that yellowed paperback.  And sometimes I still use it, though now I often use the Internet instead for that kind of skimming . I’ve also used the phone book when choosing characters’ last names. Recently I bought a book of SciFi baby names, but it was a bit of a let down. Mostly just names of Science Fiction characters and authors. I thought it might have new, odd, futuristic names with made-up origins.  “Gugreel – female, Gugreep–male; Martian for Blessed Gift” – that kind of stuff. But I got it at the Dollartree so at least it wasn’t a big investment.

SOURCES FOR REALISM

When I was writing a story that took place in Kentucky in the 1930s I went to the public library and looked up old records of real families who lived in that area during that decade. It gave the story an authentic feel. While writing The Fetch I turned to the Index at the back of a nonfiction book about the Romanov family to see what common Russian names might be at the time of the Revolution—if more than five people had the name Sergei it was probably safe.

MAKING STUFF UP

Sometimes I don’t want a character to have a realistic name. I love fanciful ones. Holly Golightly (Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–she was self-named, but still . . . ); Montana Wildhack (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five); Bilbo Baggins (J.R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.) I recently played a game that a facebook friend sent me.  Turns out my Super Hero name is The Gray Lamp (color of your shirt and the object directly to your left) and my Spy name is The Blue Otter (your favorite color and the animal you would most like to be.) It’s silly, of course, but sometimes bad ideas put you in mind of good ideas. Think of it as a kind of brainstorming.

COLLECTIONS   

I’ve always been a list-maker–when I was a teen I had a list of what I would name my four children someday (Wesley, Mary, James, and Jane) and I also started a list of names I wanted to use someday in my writing. To this day when I run across a name I’ve never thought of before but that I like, even if it doesn’t fit my current project, I write it down for a character yet to be.

EXAMPLES FROM MY NOVELS

For the death escort in The Fetch I read through a baby naming book and chose a few unusual sounding possibilities. My choice had to be something that would work in the Renaissance. And something that would be odd enough to be memorable. I chose Calder because it meant “river of stones” which said a lot about his personality.  It also sounded like “call”—only a few dying spirits feel called to take up the Key and become a Fetch. It also sounded like cauldron, a magic and ancient vessel.

With the protagonist for A Certain Slant of Light I needed a female name that was not used much in the twenty-first century, but that was often used in the nineteenth century.  It also had to be simple enough for someone (Billy’s brother, Mitch) to hear once and remember. That’s how I chose the name Helen.

TIPS

Finally, here are my naming tips:

I try to make sure my characters’ names aren’t hard to pronounce. I don’t want people sounding out Mr. Gerikov  as “jerk off” or Mrs. Pupontz as Mrs. Poop Pants.

I try to make sure the character’s name doesn’t sound too much like another character or place in the book. If my hero lives in Paris I don’t name him Parrish. I know I wanted to name two of my children James and Jane but they sound too much alike. And I try not to get stuck in a certain section of the Name Your Baby book, otherwise all my characters’ names start with the same letter. Which is confusing. I try to make things easy for my readers.

I make sure I don’t name a character after a famous person unless it’s intentional. In my first novel I named Billy after William Blake on purpose because it was a romantic touch the ghosts would understand but that Billy probably wouldn’t. But when I was a teen I named a villain Phaebian until my sister (eight years older than me) told me Frankie Avalon had a contemporary named Fabian. I didn’t remember him (sorry, Fabian)—I was from the David Cassidy generation.  I changed Phaebian to Valarian.

 I make sure the name I choose has not already been taken. Seriously, I google potential names. I was thinking of naming a female police detective “Easy” as a nickname her colleagues gave her for being the opposite of promiscuous. But then I found out Walter Mosley had a whole series of mysteries with a protagonist named Easy Rawlins (his nickname is still spelled Easy but comes from the first two letters of his real name, Ezekiel.) I have no control over the future (I laughed when a character in an old black and white movie was named Michael Jordan) but I can at least make sure the name I choose is original to date.

I make sure the first and last names sound good together. Gretel is a nice first name but not such a good fit with the last name Eddleman.

I try to make sure the name fits the story’s historical period and geography.  I try to avoid Victorian heroines with names like Stacy or Ninjas called Ringo. (No, wait, that sounds kind of fun.)

The final (and most important) piece of advice I will pass on to my writer friend is this: you are in charge–the most important thing about your character’s name is that it feels right to you. You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person. He needs to answer when you call his name.

June Give-Away

June 6, 2013

The winner of the May Give-Away was Nicole of Tallahassee, Florida. The June Give-Away will be another hardcover copy of my new book Under the Light (which came out on May14th and is the companion novel to A Certain Slant of Light.) If you’d like to join the drawing please send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website. If you already entered any of the drawings to win the new book, no need to enter again.

UtL cover

Dancing Your Words by Hand

May 31, 2013

(reprinted from a 2012 Willamette Writers newsletter)

Her name was Rachel and she was eight years old and with her hands she was reciting the poem “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. She was the sign language interpreter as the poem was being read aloud by Claire Danes on a wonderful HBO special called “A Child’s Garden of Poetry.” With her arms, wrists, and fingers, Rachel was acting out a metaphor and, in a way, she became the metaphor. Like hope she was sweet, strong, and brave.

This performance was more powerful than the eye reading silently from the page. More than hearing the words read aloud. More even than copying the words out on paper (which I have done with many poems and passages from books and plays—it’s inspiring to feel brilliant words flowing down your arm, into your hand, into your pen and onto the paper—try it sometime.) Rachel was dancing with her arms and hands, creating the poem out of thin air:

Hope is the thing with feathers(she fashions feathers with pinched fingers, flaps small wings)
That perches in the soul (she draws an invisible thread from the palm of her hand)
And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all(her chop of the hand for “stop” is childlike and endearing)

hope

And sweetest in the gale is heard and sore must be the storm(her splayed fingers create the gusting winds)
That could abash the little bird that kept so many warm (she is painting the story of a bird, but she knows the bird is something other than a bird)

I’ve heard it in the chillest land and on the strangest sea (her shrug for strange delights me)
Yet, never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me (I can’t help it—I love her)

Rachel reminded me of one of the most thrilling experiences of my writing life. When I was an English major, I was in a writing class in which we had to create and perform a “piece” as our final project. Mine was called “The Dreamtale Quilt.” I made a simple quilt of squares, each representing a different dream I’d had—there was also a narrative about why the telling of dreams is important:

“Women came from the circles, and they lived in circles, and they lived like circles. You can see their circles through time, behind and in and over the lines of men. Some circles are sacred circles. Some circles are heavy and cold and are made to be broken out of. And some circles are rings of our languages, rippling out, sounding like silence, looking like something else, moving out to touch each other in secret speaking. A chain of voices, listening, surviving, waiting to hear, refusing not to listen and ripple back.”

I’d had many classes where an interpreter signed a lecture for a hearing impaired student. There were several signers, but I had a favorite. A couple of them signed in choppy or drab ways, another had a corny, overly emotional style, but there was one man who was so subtle and intelligent in the way he communicated the nuances of the speaker’s tone and the significance of the content that sometimes I couldn’t help but watch him instead of the professor. On the day of my final project performance, this man walked in the room and set up his chair to the side of the classroom in front of his deaf client. Strangely, I was both overjoyed and nervous as I realized my words would be translated through him.

As I read aloud I could see him from the corner of my eye. At one point the text nearly made me cry (a passage about a woman holding her baby) so I paused. I could see him raise a finger in the air and move it slightly as if to say, “Wait . . . wait . . .”

At the end of the class he came up to me and told me my writing was beautiful.  I wanted to say how much I admired him, but I was speechless (I know, ironic) so I just thanked him.

In turn, remembering that final project (could it really be almost 20 years ago?) I decided that I wanted to feel my own writing in my hands and arms the way he had, the way little Rachel had with Dickinson. So I learned (with the help of my sister, Wendy) to sign the first line of my novel, A Certain Slant of Light.

“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” I especially like the sign for dead, flipping the hands from palm up to palm down as if a corpse is being rolled over.  It feels so good to sign the opening line of my novel that now I want to learn the whole Dickinson poem from which the title was taken. (There’s a certain slant of light winter afternoons . . . )

And here is my advice to you, fellow writers: take the title of your book or movie or memoir, or your opening line, or your favorite paragraph, and learn it in sign language. Paint it in the air for yourself–you deserve to feel the beauty of your work flowing through you all the way out to your fingertips.

May Give-Away

May 7, 2013

The winner of the April Give-Away was Kyley of Indianapolis, IN. The May Give-Away will be a hardcover copy of my new book Under the Light (which comes out on May14th and is the companion novel to A Certain Slant of Light.) If you’d like to join the drawing please send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website. If you already entered any of the drawings to win an advanced reader copy of the new book, no need to enter again. Good luck all!

bk pic

And if you are in the Portland, Oregon area on Thursday, May 16, please come to my signing/reading at Powell’s Book Store in the Cedar Hills shopping center. 7:00 in the evening. Chelsea Pitcher, author of The S Word, will also be reading/signing. Do come if you can!