Thursday, May 31, 2007

Endings are hard

I'm at the end of the draft novel--the last four chapters or so. I've been spending days on it. Endings are so important. The climactic scene is here and trying to decide, Should it go this way or that? How much to tie things up, or not? I like when books don't end entirely neatly, when there are some things left undone, left a bit vague.

I'm also working and reworking a love scene. How it should go--should they get together or not? What's enough and what's too much? If this were a romance novel, it seems that it would be easy. I could have heaving bosoms and rippled chests and purple prose. And that would be fine.

But what the protagonist ends up doing with her high school sweetheart is telling, in terms of her character, and his, and so I keep tweaking.

Love scenes are--ahem--hard to write. Elizabeth Benedict's book, The Joy of Writing Sex is so good. Benedict is a literary novelist and essayist. I always enjoy her writing.

I never planned to read The Horse Whisperer, but I saw it in the UCI-Extension lending library and I borrowed it. It contains a very short but strong love scene close to the beginning. I was impressed with how Evans handled it. I've only read a little bit of the book, but I can see already why Redford bought it to make into a movie.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Complex characters

So I'm down at the beach, it's low tide, and I'm searching through the rubble of shells and rocks and sand for seaglass when this man, late 60s, yellow teeth, with a little white dog, and rich (I think this because I saw him leave one of the multimillion dollars up on the hill as I descended the path; he didn't look like the help), and asks me what I'm doing.

It's illegal to pick up shells or sea life at this beach and I figure that's what he's going to ask me about, but he's aggressive and wears a scowl (and as I said, his teeth are yellow) and so I say, "Why?"

"Because it's illegal to take shells from this beach!" he says.

"I live here; I know," I say, "I'm picking up glass--"

"--I live here, too," he bellows.

I tell him I'm offended and he says, "You're offended because I asked you that? You're offended? Well, that's too damn bad!"

Which is when I say, "I think you had better get out of my face," and he backs off, huffing and puffing. He goes away, joins a woman wearing a visor, and I continue to pick up glass (which is what you see here, my find for the day), and all the while I'm thinking, If only he'd had a better tone. If only he'd been nicer, we could have had a conversation about how horrible it is that people come down to the beach and steal sea life and are wrecking the tide pools. I find myself feeling sorry for the woman, and the little dog, thinking: If this is how he treats strangers, how must he treat those close to him?

And I also begin thinking about tone in general, how so much is in the tone of how you say something.

E-mail can be a problem because the tone just does not come across. You think you're being funny and someone takes offense.

And in fiction, tone is vital. Without scene setting, gestures, the facial expressions of our characters, the tone can be a problem.

The man wore a permanent scowl. Had probably been a bigwig at a corporation, used to ordering people around, used to being a pain in a butt. And so now he felt he needed to rule his beach because he no longer had a company.

But he was also picking up trash, not just being a jerk, and so there you have a complex character....a nasty person who cares about the environment. Which is also what we need to do in our fiction: create complex bad guys that are difficult to hate.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thoughts on self-censoring

I tried to get a parking space at the Starbucks in my neighborhood (it's close, but not close enough to walk carrying a laptop and files and books) but it’s street cleaning day so while one side of the streets are empty of cars, the other side is full.

So I drove back here, to the Starbucks near UCI, and I settled in. Mid-morning is even nicer—sunny. It’s spacious, light, and I like the music, which is loud, Latin. I hear voices but I can’t make out what they are saying. Some of the same faces, some different. Saw someone I know from the radio station and he stopped to talk for a minute. I like talking to John, but it was writing time and I began to worry that the morning would be taken up with conversation. My mind darted about: Where else could I work that was close to home but not too close? And then he returned to the counter to pick up his snack.

I have been thinking about self-censoring, how writers are so prone to that. My post yesterday about the downside of the Starbucks in my neighborhood….I considered deleting the part about the surgically enhanced boobies. I don’t want to offend and it’s also such a personal opinion. Then I thought: But it’s what you feel and think about working at that Starbucks. So I left it. We’re too often worried about offending—to the point that we drain the life of our work because we’re afraid to say what we think.

So I left it. No disclaimers, no apologies (almost none, anyway).

These photos are from my beach walk prior to writing. That sign in the first one is a bit nerve-racking.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A different Starbucks, and later

So after a couple of weeks of going to The Office (Starbucks or Gypsy Den) like a job, every morning after I drop Trav at school, I realized that I was getting no exercise--unless you count carrying the laptop from the car to the table. I used to walk first thing and then tried working at home, to no avail.

Which is why I started working at a cafe.

But then, no exercise.

So I've adjusted things a bit. Now I walk as soon as I drop Trav at school, come home, shower, dress and then go to Starbucks. And a different Starbucks at that. One right up the street. I didn't want to go there because I don't want to be recognized by people in the neighborhood. But in mid-morning, I doubt that will happen. (Most moms from school--and dads--get their Starbucks fix right after they drop off their kids. There are no other writers that I know of...)

So while this Starbucks up the street has lots of women with surgically enhanced boobies in workout outfits prancing by on their way to the rest room, it doesn't have the corporate workers wearing ID tags around their necks, marching in to get their coffee. It's always something, right?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday at Starbucks

I almost didn’t make it today. I awoke at 4:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep until after 5:00. When some orchestra or another on the clock radio blasted me awake at 6:21, what I really wanted to do was go back to sleep.

Then Travis came into the bedroom, told me he was going to take a shower and I willed myself to get up and start his breakfast.

But I mulled not even getting changed, driving him to school in my polka dot pajamas and fuzzy pink slippers, come home and rest.

But then I told myself: Only two hours. You only have to work for two hours. Walter Mosley was in my head. He was on my show yesterday talking about his new book, which I love: This Year You Write Your Novel. His work ethic can make the best of us feel guilty. He says you should write every day. You should not miss one day.

I agree in theory, but on weekends, it doesn’t work for me. There is weekend stuff—things with Travis, church, the flea market, schtuff, and more schtuff.

So this morning, after I made Travis breakfast, a PP&J sandwich for his lunch (that’s all he wants!), washed and dressed and got myself and my writing things together, I took him to school and let my vow to work five days a week on my novel draw me to Starbucks near UC-Irvine.

I ordered Awake! tea, took it to a round cherry wood colored table and sat before my laptop.

Next to me a student was online. That’d be easy, mindless, fun, I thought.

But I vowed to not check email here at The Office.

And so I got to work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Starbucks Chronicles

Wednesday morning at Starbucks.

A wall of windows opens onto an expansive courtyard with tables, benches, and red geraniums that pop out against the gray day. Beyond, on the street, commuters flock to the companies that surround this Starbucks and to UC-Irvine, just down the street.

“He’s So Fine” blasts over the speakers.

The sounds of barista's voices: “Rachel!” “Emilio, Nonfat mocha grande!” “Tall nonfat cappucino!”

Across the room a man in a white shirt and groomed beard tears the paper sleeve holding his slice of zucchini bread, smears butter on the bread, and takes a bite. Then he sips from what looks like iced tea on his left as a steaming double-cupped coffee sits to his right. He dunks his bread into the hot drink and chews as he wipes his fingers with brown napkins. He dunks another piece, chews, gazes through the window, and dunks again.

I should stop studying him, and turn my attention inward to my novel. But I have been working since I arrived. I copied all of my chapters to one file because it has been a major pain in the behind trying to find certain scenes or lines of dialogue: Did the mother character say that, and if she did, where? Does Starletta’s friend, Madeline, ever show up in the flesh or only over the phone? Does Quinn have a blond hair to his chin or gray gelled porcupine-quill like hair?

So many things to lose track of in a novel. Flannery O’Connor said fiction is messy. Indeed. I still have separate chapters, too, but each time I revise one, I will copy it to the “entire revise” document for when I need to search, and find.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Publishing Perks

One of the perks of publishing a book is meeting people you would probably never otherwise meet. My new friend Sherry, a talented writer whom I met at an event where I spoke last year, asked me to speak to a group of professional, fundraising women in La Habra.

So last night I drove north—sometimes crept--on various freeways and streets, past Disneyland, past Angel Stadium.

The din of the group flowed onto the sidewalk as I headed up the walk to the front door.

The group crowded in the living room and kitchen of a member’s home. There were prominent women in the community—some whose families had streets named after them.

And they wanted to hear what I had to say. Sometimes, when I’m speaking to certain groups, I have a sort of out-of-body experience. I flash back to being lil Barb who almost quit high school, who, for a time, circled the drain, who, for a time, had friends who were bad to the bone, getting arrested, being sucked down the drain.

And somehow I bypassed—ahem, was plucked?—away, rescued from the nowhere path I was on, from that sort of life. (Was it grace or my Guardian Angel? Was it serendipitous? I tend to go with grace...) And somehow I made something of myself. Something more than what I was headed for, anyway, even if I feel I still have a ways to go.

One of the best parts of speaking to groups is inspiring people to follow a dream, whatever that dream may be. It sounds so hokey, so corny, and yet, it’s hard to figure out what the point of it all is without dreams and aspirations, without something to aspire to, however simple. Because even if I never move any further along my path, never attain that which I wish to attain, what I’ve been given is more than I ever expected I’d have, and I'm at a better place than I expected at my lowest point.

And now, the next morning, at Starbucks, as I write this (and save as a Word doc to upload later), as I drink white tea bought using the gift card that the group gave me, a sweet token for coming to speak, I feel grateful for small kindnesses, and large. New friends, the chance to inspire, gift cards—all perks of publishing a book. Thanks, Sherry….

Monday, May 14, 2007

Back at Starbucks and bestsellers

I’m back at Starbucks. It’s not so perky here today. An old gray sheet hangs below the Southern California sunshine, making it cozy inside with the South American music playing, lights hanging from the black ceiling, the clink of cups and din of conversation. It helps that there are no waitpersons here as there are at the Gypsy Den. No one walking up to me asking if I’m okay, if there’s anything I want. Just to write, I want to say, willing to pay to just sit without being bothered by the nice woman with the short hair and skimpy top, so young and worried looking.

I felt guilty at the Gypsy Den for not buying more so I’d leave a larger tip than was required. But here, at Starbucks, you step up to the counter. You order. You hand over your Starbucks gift card, drop a quarter into the Plexiglass container, and you’re done. No one comes up to you as you revise revise revise and asks if you’re okay. No one cares.

Oh, both places have their advantages. I love the eclectic quality of the Gypsy Den. I like the soft cushiony booth seating here at Starbucks. Like how there’s more room to spread out my papers.

It makes me all the more want that writers’ space. I will call a Realtor this week and see if such a place is possible

On another note, here's an interesting story about bestsellers in theNew York Times. It reminds me of what's been said before: that no one knows why some books make it and others don't.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Writing someplace new

Today I bypassed Starbucks for the Gypsy Den (as Catherine mentioned in a comment yesterday), which is an indie coffeehouse/restaurant near South Coast Plaza. And instead of white tea, I’m drinking a cappuccino. How daring!

It's 7:40 a.m., just opened and there are few people here. Instead of a black Starbucks tee shirt, the barista/waitperson wears plain black with a red and black scarf around her head. On her feet--white high-top Converse. The floor is sandblasted cement and little birds—sparrows?--hop about, pecking at crumbs which are pretty much absent at this early hour.

“Place is fate,” said fiction author Ron Carlson at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a couple of weekends ago. He was talking about writing fiction, but I wonder how this place, the Gypsy Den, will influence my fiction.

I’ve begun thinking, again, that as well as starting an author speaking series here in the O.C., I want to find a building to make a writer’s space, to rent desks and space, a place away from home to write--for me and for all the writers who really need to get out of the house to work on fiction.

Anyhoo, here’s what I see from where I sit at my table in the corner….

So then I left, to use the rest room, and brought all my gear. (the rest room is on the compound, but not in the cafe). This waterfall sculpure is out back on the way to the restroom, so I thought I'd continue working here, but it was so noisy and bright.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

From where I sit

I know you're all dying to know about this Starbucks that I go to each morning like it's work. So today I bought zee camera and shot a few from where I sit. See...I really do go to Starbucks every day.

If you have a site, post pictures of where you work and post your link under comments. I want to see!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Coffee houses

I'm still at it, going to Starbucks after I drop off Trav, but I do wish there were other coffee houses to choose from. Berkeley has something like 70+ independent coffee houses to choose from and we have a handful in the O.C. The independent ones I can think of that are nearby have tiny tables and uncomfortable chairs.

What's a girl to do?

Keep going to Starbucks, I s'pose.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I think about it all the time

Diet Coke.

It's sad but true. I gave it up. Again. Over the years I keep giving it up. Why should it be so good? A bunch of food coloring and artificial sweetener. Oy. Vey.

So it's Sunday afternoon and I'm watching the Angels vs. White Sox, my other addiction--the Angels, that is. (Yesterday went to the game with Brian and Travis. The two of them went today...)

When I'm watching a ball game, or when I'm writing in the afternoon, I want a Diet Coke.

Now I drink water. And white tea or green tea or black tea without the caffeine. I love the smell of coffee but I won't drink it. Makes my heart go all aflutter. One of the best things is sitting down to write with a cup of dark roast coffee. When I lived in Vermont, I drank espresso with a sliver of lemon peel.

The Diet Coke habit came later. I don't use artificial sweetener in anything, but I love it in Diet Coke. Bizarre.

What do you drink when you write? Or have you given up something (like coffee) and are developing a habit of something else?

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Starbucks regular

You know you've been showing up at the same place for days on end when you step up to the counter and the barista says, "White tea?" and gives you a little smile. I hand over the aqua insulated cup that I bring every day and she hands it back with steaming tea.

I am more than halfway through the revision. Flannery O'Connor's words, that writing a novel is a messy business, pong about my head. Sure is messy! So many pages, so many scenes, characters and lines of dialogue to keep track of. Where is that scene? I wonder. Did so and so say such and such to so and so, and if so, where???

I refer to my notebook where each chapter is sketched out, according to Ms. Carolyn See, and that has helped keep track. I can see the value of having a couple of huge files containing all the chapters so when you wonder these sorts of things, you can easily do a search, but I didn't do it that way. Each chapter is its own document.

It takes time, revision does. And patience. And lots of white tea.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writing at Starbucks

It's still working. I started last week, and so far have been there each morning this week for two hours. The noise isn't even as distracting as email. (I've kept my vow of not checking email while I'm there.)

This morning a huge group of older adults, mostly dressed well and wearing jewelry, came in and pushed a bunch of tables and chairs together and took over the place. The din rose to the point of when I was on the phone with my chiropractor, I had to go outside to hear the person on the other end of the phone.

Still, I found that noise less distracting than the distractions at home when I'm working on fiction.

A few years back I was diagnosed as being an ADD adult so I wonder if the noise makes me focus in.