Thursday, October 30, 2008


A few of my writing colleagues are experiencing the faucet syndrome. The days grow cooler, kids have more predictable, structured schedules, and, voila, word counts go up. Every fall, it's the same thing, a manic energy visits the muse and at workshop, all of the sudden, everyone has pages. It's pretty terrific, actually. But, in looking at my own efforts during a manic writing phase, I'm led to question how much of the output is keepable. For me, a sudden outburst of writing often has that throwing spaghetti to the wall feeling. Somewhat experimental and unchecked. The results of such a period often leads to new places and projects, but the writing itself is raw and untenable. I'm often shocked with how many grammatical faux pas and spelling errors are in pages I've slapped out in a hurry. Usually, though, there's the kernel of something worth exploring further—but it's almost as if someone other than me put it there. As though a little faerie visited my hard drive and waved her little stick.

That's where the long dark days of winter come in.

Monday, October 27, 2008

mouth of babes comment of the week

My 9-yr-old son has been noticing a new discernment in my consumerism lately. At the gas station the other day, after the attendant asked if I wanted a receipt, he queried:

"What would you do with a receipt? If you changed your mind, would they take the gas out of the car?"

Friday, October 24, 2008

late bloomers

I've been at this writing thing since the age of eight. As a kid, I first learned the word prosaic, a term my mother ascribed to my first work of lyricism. I offer said poem herewith:


Spring is when the flowers bloom.

With snow gone, there's lots of room.

Birds chirping while building their nests.

When mother-bird takes her turn, father-bird rests.

The tip-tap of rainfalls,

the sound of mate calls,

is spring.

While my mother critiqued the piece, finding nothing poetic in it at all save for the onomatopoeic tip-tap, my third grade teacher, a square-shaped, red-headed battle axe of a woman named Mrs. Angle, held the effort up in front of the class, and read it out loud as though it were coated with honey. I enjoyed an entire week of popularity. Mrs. Angle, having scolded me for daydreaming on my report card, redeemed me by pronouncing me a Writer!

My mother, however, wanted me to try again. And, bless her heart, she was right. But I never did return to that poem, instead, I moved to prose, and never looked back until, in Freshman English at Syracuse, I was asked to write a paper on Eliot's Prufrock. That may have been my first real immersive experience with a body of work, and was cause for another teacher-fawning moment—which, I must admit, I live for.

Junior year, I got derailed from writing. Instead, I took up with science and home economics and became a nutritionist. But all the while, stories stewed inside me. All through my twenties, I scribbled things on scraps of paper, which I often destroyed, thinking that I might die in an accident, and they'd be found, and read! Once out of school, I was at a loss for audience. There were no teachers to embrace me, so what was the point?

At thirty, as a young widow with two babies and a small pile of cash, I moved to Portland and jumped into the deep end. Teachers or no, I learned how to write for an audience that included myself. I began to submit my stories to journals and to get them published. I won some awards. I went back to school for an MFA and won more awards. But I haven't been able to crack the "book" thing yet, and I've had to admit to myself that part of the problem is that, I'm still wanting to turn that Spring poem into something my mother would like. Which is ridiculous. She's read and liked much of my work. But still.

Last issue, The New Yorker had a brilliant piece by Malcolm Gladwell, Late Bloomers. If you haven't read it, you must. The article tosses around a lot of preconceptions about genius and talent and precocity. One of the most interesting points is based upon research done by an economist from the University of Chicago named David Galenson, who undertook the challenge to disprove assumptions about creativity and age, particularly the idea that poets and artists peak young. What he discovered was that prodigies don't tend to engage in open-ended exploration, and that they are typically concept-driven; they have an idea, and then go for it, rather than painstakingly researching the way many non-prodigies do. In the article, Galenson is quoted as saying, about late bloomers, "Their approach is experimental. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental."

In other words, late bloomers are nerdy, and tend to follow a depth of inquiry ad nauseam. Ergo, they might have a manuscript or two in Rubbermaid tubs in their basements.

So… to all you Late Bloomers out there—never give up!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

wall street realities dance with the muse

As a marketer, I can't tell you how many times in the last six months I've had to overtly acknowledge our "complicated economic times" in ad copy, press releases and newsletters. In all the years I've been a hired pen of one sort or another, I don't ever remember the economy of the time dictating content quite so aggressively.

So when I set out to sell my own writing, the market is top of mind. Which is too bad, really. It shouldn't be. The muse should not be reading the business section of the paper as prelude to inspiration.

Alas, as much as I'm determined to continue to chip away at the first draft of my novel, terms like "up-market" and "upscale commercial fiction" often assert themselves. There they are, sitting on the chair benext to me, reminding me not to stray too, too much from plot points in service to character development.

One way that market copywriting has informed my fiction, is that my prose has gotten pretty lean. If I indulge in backstory or rumination on behalf of characterization, I'm pretty stingy, and end up deleting more than I save. At Bread Loaf this summer, Lynn Freed kept harping on "trusting the reader," shrieking out "sink it!"when writers put too much exposition on the page. She was like the dressage instructors of my youth, the ones who made me ride with a long whip behind my elbows in service to posture and form. Or like my current Pilates teacher, Adrienne, Lord love her, correcting any crooked leanings or spinal curve. "Suck in your stomach," she warns. "Ribs in!"

In addition to inching ever further on "The Secret to Love," and the copywriting work that pays my mortgage, I've completed a book proposal for a nonfiction project on boomer relationships that I'm pretty jazzed about. Inspired by my own mid-life path through the murky waters of romance, and its happy ending at a sustained, loving encore marriage, as well as "stories from the minefield of boomer dating," I embarked on some research and uncovered a fascinating plethora of information. Attachment theory, long-term blended family studies, the stages of relationships as they heat up—the past thirty years has offered tremendous advances in unpacking the mysteries of romance and why so many relationships fail. Add to that the explosion of Internet dating sites, the idea of commodifying love and marriage and the expectations of a culture that refuses to age quietly, and there's a lot to write about. At least three books worth, I'm guessing. Or—banking on.

Yup, I'm working on a book with a sure market. So before you all cast me into the Faustian black hole, let me assure you, I've never had so much fun!

Friday, October 17, 2008

my heroes

Here's to all the men the women who spend at least part of their days in a state of creation.

Here's to the artists, who refuse to work the well-worn groove.

Here's to love, in its many guises, forms and constructs.

Here's to brushing the gravel out of your knees and getting back on the bike.

Here's to those who raise children to think for themselves, instead of blindly agree to a paradigm, even if it's a dearly held one.

Here's to people who refuse to give up.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

forestalling the retrograde of mercury

Odd, isn't it, that when you have a major life-changing event to plan, like, say, getting married, you still manage to fit it all in. Work, writing, kids' events. It all somehow gets done even though you only have half the usual amount of hours to devote. But in the interstices between major events, sometimes your whole life falls into an abyss. All the germs you held at bay, all the car trouble forestalled, the family members who seemed to do just fine without you, suddenly everything's broken, everyone's sick, and nothing you do comes out right.

I'm not having one of those weeks, by the way, but I just realized that I'm surprised that I'm not, because that's the usual pattern.

I think I may have forestalled the chaos (or what my new agey friends insist on calling Mercury in Retrograde), because I'm nearly done with a proposal for an ambitious idea that has been pinballing around in my head, and in various notebooks, for a few months. I'll have more concrete info on the project down the road, but for now, I have to say, my fingers have been flying on the keyboard, and inspiration has never been channeled so clearly.

Not that I'm putting STL on the back burner, it's simmering away up front, but this other thing—also related to love—is unstoppable. It's like some sort of tsunami. Or an aftershock of my life-changing event, maybe. I'm not sure where this energy is coming from, but I'm riding it out.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

looking in the rearview mirror

More on backstory and its influence on pace, tension and potential to undermine forward momentum. And it's tendency to plummet the writer into the morass of back-to-scratch. Chutes and ladders. Sigh.

Often, backstory is an interruption. In a novel, you want to hurtle your reader to the next revelation, the next plot point. The vertical elements of story (i.e. the emotional motivations, the depth of character, the reasons behind the reasons and the endless capacity for "big voice" to steal the show), must be apportioned with a judicious hand and an ear for ruthless exclusion.

I say this as someone guilty of the overshare when it comes to my characters' ruminations. And also as a reader who loves knowing too much. Love it. It indulges the voyeur in me, the girl who longs to massage her insecurities and alignment with all that is broken. But, what I've discovered in the writing of some thousands of pages of unsellable fiction, is that more than wanting to relate to character, a reader wants to get on a rocket ship and not realize they've left earth until the new galaxy is in sight. The continual projection of earth in the rearview undermines this.

That said, backstory is essential for the writer. The writer MUST know where earth is in order to program the gps to the new galaxy. The craft comes in when deciding how much of it to put on the page. Right now, with STL, I'm having a backstory orgy. It's the water cooler gossip of my mind is what it is. Here's a little eruption that found its way to a third draft of a particular chapter 50 or so pages back from the leading edge of the project:

The plates gleamed back at me from the drying rack. I grew up washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen. It's one thing I do quite well. In medical school, I kept a tidy lab. I still do. But there was that small period, the year after Sheldon's first divorce, Tess's first seizure, Dottie's first nitrous overdose, Collin's first six figure income, Cherry's first suicide attempt, Morgan's first grow room bust and my father's first liver transplant, that I went a little crazy. That was the year I met my husband, Arthur Collier.

Who knew? And what good is all this? The question I have to ask myself, in deciding whether this is backstory for the reader or merely scaffolding, is: does any of this information help shape that new galaxy where we're headed? Does it inform what's happening in the "now" or the "soon to be" of the novel? Or, the hardest question: am I cheating? Am I weaving in titillating facts without offering a scene in order to buy shock value or slap the reader with a little "told ya this family is fucked up"?

If this stuff is for reader and not just for writer, then I'll have to unpack it at some point, probably fairly soon. At any rate, I'm happy I know this stuff. It makes me feel much closer to that control freak character of mine.

Monday, October 06, 2008

love love love

We interrupt The Secret to Love to cough up a real secret. And, btw, real love. Well, okay, it's not much of a secret anymore—but the love part is big and fat and real. Saturday October 4th, the writer formerly known as Suzy Vitello got hitched to her love of one-year-and-ten-months: Kirk SoulĂ©. Though not exactly "Page 6," this union is definitely on the short list of my Biggest Dreams Ever, and I'm abandoning my fictional persona for this particular blog post in favor of genuine, gushing, sappy and satisfying reportage.

The scoop, for those of you who may be somewhat interested in tmi, is:

I met Kirk in December of 2006, via, after being divorced for 6 months. As clichĂ© as internet dating sounds, for a person attracted by voice, the platform works—despite being fraught with heroic journey-sized pratfalls. Know that old adage about kissing a lot of frogs? Okay, okay, I didn't do all that much kissing. I did enough, though. Enough to know swoon-worthy lips when I meet 'em.

We courted, dated, danced and adventured our way into each other's worlds over the next year. For a high school science teacher who claims not to be a writer, Kirk has more natural ability with words and language than most people who hang wordsmithing shingles. He and I were together on the holiday that inspired STL, and it's he, more than anyone else who has encouraged me to keep chipping through the draft. He's the "devoted husband" you hear thanked by every woman who ever met with formal artistic success.

Kirk's the first keeper of my life, funny, sexy and bursting with humanity, passion and creativity. He's my best friend. Okay, yeah, I did have to (gulp) write the number "3" in the "what number marriage is this" section of the license, and that is a humbling thing to have to jot. But it's not like I'm Britney Spears.

So the wedding itself was perfect. The elopement, I mean. We decided a month and a half ago the where and when. Obviously not only was it too late to pull off a formal vows and rings ceremony with guests and floral representation and attendants in organza, but given that Kirk's son just married, it would be in bad taste to belly up to the altar this fall, not to mention expensive.

So we called upon an old friend of Kirk's, who happens to be a judge, and our wonderful neighbors-turned-witnesses, and at the last minute I broke down and hired a photographer because it's a wonderful thing to have an objective creative professional about at a time like this. Not to mention, I was counting on the possibility of a really good hair day and the rarity of that must be immortalized.

So we scurried up the mt. to Timberline Lodge where we spent the night in one of their charming castle-esque rooms replete with heavy paneling, massive hardware and outstanding views of Mt. Hood. Well, the view would have been outstanding had the visibility been more than three feet.

We got married in a downpour that a few hours later turned into the first sleet storm of the season. Our amenable judge, his gracious wife, our sporting neighbors and the graphic chronicler of our union joined us out in the rain, under various umbrellas, for the off-the-grid celebration of our life-long commitment. It was the most present, correctly scaled event of my entire life. (With the possible exception of the birth of my third child which occurred under the influence of god's best invention, the epidural.)

In the spirit of unbridaled (sp intentional) narcissism, feel free to view the nuptials for yourself. This guy totally captured the spirit of the day. (Once on the home page, select the client login and put this password in the user box: 100408wedding ).

We appropriated a small alcove in one of the more public parts of the lodge, employed a couple of small tables upon which to lay our cupcakes, plugged in the ipod, bought some champagne from the bar, and, et voila: we had ourselves an actual reception.

All in all, it was the best wedding I've ever had. And I'm looking forward to the marriage following suit.

I have to go be a newlywed now, but stay tuned for more secrets to love!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

the conundrum of the present tense

I'm developing a rhythm with Part II of TSL of alternating present tense backstory with past tense ongoing narrative. It's the reverse of how I tensed the first part, and I've been logging thoughts on what tense buys and what it costs. Clearly, there is an unprocessed quality to present tense. A self-consciousness that is all too often flat sounding, particularly in first person. The I-verb sentence structure, for instance, can grate with its solipsistic whiney victim sound.

E.g: I pick my youngest brother up by his armpits. I take him to the bathroom sink.


Not to mention the "I say," assignation, a personal pet peeve: i.e. "Yeah, right," I say.

There is this sense that a microscope is following the character/narrator around inspecting every activity. There's a tedium. A boringness. You are running the risk of putting your reader to sleep, as though you're an indulgent shut-in and it's visiting hour and you have decided to punish your relative who's there because he is obligated to make the rounds.

As the writer of a long present-tense, first person passage, I become the shut-in as well as the bored relative. It's an exercise in self-loathing. But enough about me. What do you think about me?


I'm not throwing in the towel, however, because there are some big-picture benefits. First: present tense is good for amping up tension. It can be emotionally risky for the narrator, which is to say, engaging for the reader. The sense of doom is easier to pull off in present tense. Second: present tense is a great way to manipulate time—to stretch it out. And in the overall pacing of a book, a blend of present and past tense can provide temporal texture. Third: present tense tends to make your character seem more vulnerable, ergo, more likeable. Frances, in her past tense smart-assness, can be somewhat cocky and glib and sarcastic. It's part of her voice. The present tense passages help soften her some, thereby creating empathy.

So. I'm going to have to iron out some of the wrinkles (actually, create more wrinkles out of the too ironed sounding narrative) of the first draft. And I will. But before I do that, I need to finish.