Friday, December 31, 2010

happy end of 2010

This year I moved out of a house I'd lived in more than twice as long as any other.  I finished drafts of two books. I got chickens.  I tweeted.  I facebooked. I wrote lots of email, ads, taglines, blog posts.  I wrote some press releases, newsletters, web content.  I skied.  I swam in the ocean. I did lots of loving, cooking and drinking.  I celebrated, serenaded, said good-bye.  I traveled, tantrumed, took my kids' dogs for walks.  I watched things bloom and fade.  I de-cluttered and re-cluttered.  I impersonated a princess, spouted off imperatives, and got be called the best writer in Portland without a book.

So, 2011, whatcha got for me?  I'm ready.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writers and Twitter

Today, a colleague of mine asked how writers use Twitter--an EXCELLENT question, and one that, obviously, has myriad answers.

Let me tell you about my own little love-hate thing with the micro-media medium. I currently have three profiles that I tweet under: @suzy_vitello; @princess_sisi; @BPC360. Under my namesake profile I'm pretty much myself: quirky, curious, sometimes crotchety.  My tweets range from attempts at concise poetry to "alerts" to RTs (that's, retweets) of other "tweeps." Sometimes (okay, mostly) I'm just talking to myself.  Which is what writers do a lot, I think--audibly and embarrassedly.

Occasionally, like when I post some "profound" rumination in this very blog, I link to it from Twitter (and Facebook, for that matter), thus inviting, in a tagline way, others to read my lengthier diatribe on this or that.  This is mostly the reason for @princess_sisi.  With the Princess, I'm trying to build a readership to The Empress Chronicles--though, in truth, I haven't been trying REALLY hard, since I haven't nailed the voice/mission 100% yet.  But once I have, I'm certain to be as obnoxious as can be about "driving traffic" to the site.

And speaking of traffic-driving maneuvers, that brings me to my business profile, @BPC360, which I share with Laura McCulloch, my business partner at BridgePoint Creative.  The purpose of Twitter for BPC is to get in on the conversation and love-fest with other communications companies, clients, artists, um, okay, I'm gonna say it: thoughtleaders in the industry.  It's an echo chamber like no other. But occasionally, you find yourself cozied up to the watercooler with the latest industry gossip--which is, I think, the reason for Twitter's success.  If you want to be the first on the block (along with other Twitter addicts) to know the details of the latest Google merger or smart phone technology, you can't beat the medium.  Yeah, it's a love-hate, for sure.

Of course, beyond me and my reasons for tweeting, you can't discuss the viability of the thing without getting into the phenomenon of @shitmydadsays, right?  As one of the early followers of Jason's "dad," I witnessed firsthand the "if you build it they will come" Zeitgeist that can happen under perfect storm conditions.

I am curious though, how other artists use the medium, beyond the obvious and already stated.  Anyone have some input?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

writing into your deepest fantasy

The coronation of Chelsea's Barbie
This year I wrote two books.  STAIRWAY OF LOVE and THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES. What they have in common is that they both were fueled by an interest in actual, historical people, scandal, and big, dysfunctional families.  As a writer, if I have a niche, I suppose it's the "what if" in the "what about"--taking history and revisioning it. But this year, I discovered a micro-niche as well--and it was propelled by a blossoming self-indulgent urge to imagine what it would be like to be-er, well-a princess!

The coronation of Lidia's chimp
Although SOL has a sort of blue-blood wealth kind of royalty theme, TEC goes right for the traditional fairy tale version of kings and queens--specifically, 19th century Bavarian-Austrian royalty.  And I know I'm not alone. After all, don't we all have a latent fascination with kings, queens and all things courtly? I mean, don't we just pore over the daily developments of the royal romance of William and Kate?

"Hayshrope" gets a crown too!
I must say, the process of flinging myself into "what iffing" the character of Sisi (or the Empress Elisabeth of Austria), led me down a most fantastical rabbit hole, and, indeed, she's become quite the alter-ego in my fantasy life. I've appropriated her likeness on Twitter. She has her own pretty little blog, and when I was recently down in Old Pasadena, I came across this fascinating Steam Punkish store, Gold Bug, where I swooped up the featured crowns you see sitting atop doll heads belonging to my workshop mates. What fun!

So, dear readers and writers, I leave it to you.  What interesting rabbit holes did you stumble into this year?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

pass the prose-ack

One of my very favorite blogs is Betsy Lerner's

On my daily fave blog recon today I saw this post, in which Betsy expounds on an article which rates writing (and they lump entertainer and artist in there as well) as one of the ten most depression-inducing jobs.  

My husband's profession (teacher) made the cut, as did my daughter's (social work).  Egad, thank God for pharmies.

Here's what the article in says about our ilk, specifically:

These jobs can bring irregular paychecks, uncertain hours, and isolation.

Creative people may also have higher rates of mood disorders; about 9% reported an episode of major depression in the previous year.

In men, it’s the job category most likely to be associated with an episode of major depression (nearly 7% in full-time workers).

“One thing I see a lot in entertainers and artists is bipolar illness,” says Legge. “There could be undiagnosed or untreated mood disorders in people who are artistic…. Depression is not uncommon to those who are drawn to work in the arts, and then the lifestyle contributes to it.”
But that was before Twitter took the "i" out of isolation, yeah?  Y'all have anything to add?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Elizabeth's red dress

I read RESILIENCE last summer, on the way back from the deathbed of my sister-in-law who slipped away from pancreatic cancer on July 2. That Elizabeth Edwards wrote such an unflinching, heartfelt book while battling for her life, enduring myriad domestic atrocities, and trying to cope with the accidental death of her teenage son just, well, it blew me away.

Here's to resting in peace. Whatever that means. And here's to her children, the little ones and the grown daughter. I hope the media has the good grace to leave them alone, and let them grieve, thrive, and become amazing adults. Their mother left them quite a legacy.

Here's a Dorothy Parker poem Elizabeth favored, as she claimed that it captured the flow of her life. Enjoy.

The Red Dress by Dorothy Parker
I always saw, I always said
If I were grown and free,
I'd have a gown of reddest red
As fine as you could see,

To wear out walking, sleek and slow,
Upon a Summer day,
And there'd be one to see me so
And flip the world away.

And he would be a gallant one,
With stars behind his eyes,
And hair like metal in the sun,
And lips too warm for lies.

I always saw us, gay and good,
High honored in the town.
Now I am grown to womanhood....
I have the silly gown.

Monday, December 06, 2010

It's cool to mess with Jane

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, parody must be the higher highest form. An Austen scholar, an Austen imitator, and a humorist are judging the "Write Like Jane" contest, where aspiring Jane Austen acolytes can submit 800 Austenesque words and stand a chance of inclusion in a Bad Jane Writings anthology.  Plus, there's prize money.

What is it about Jane Austen that sends readers and writers into Steampunk paroxysms?  Certainly we've all guffawed to Jane Austen's Fight Club (see video above), but did you know that there's a Jane Austen drinking game? It involves watching Austen-inspired chick flick--guaranteed blotto for the frat set.

And don't even get me started on social media profiles. Facebook and Twitter are replete with Janefaces of one sort or another.

And then there's the Zombie books. It's sort of like a Saturday Night Live skit, the zombified "Pride and Prejudice."  Perhaps engineered by an app that just searches and replaces various words with "zombie."  But terribly fun to read:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.  Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead."

Let's see Keira Knightley say that with a straight face!

So all you idolatrous Janeites, I challenge you, amidst your tea-cozy crochet sessions, crank out a pre-Victorian romantic gentry scene set in some cold London manse where bosoms heave and corsets pinch, and ladies are ladies, unless they are gents.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

brave new book

For publishers and authors aching to get their work into the hands, in front of the eyes, and on top of the minds of readers, Electric Publisher, an app-building company niched in the literary world, is making quite a splash.

Apps have the potential for making the reading experience more dynamic, evolution-driven and, well, fun--not to mention how they can offer authors and publishers marketing tools never before imagined. I was pretty excited, actually, watching this video-interview on Galleycat with Andy Hunter, and for some very selfish reasons.

I just finished writing a young adult novel called THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES, and while it was coming together, I began to have these pretty fantastic notions of how, ultimately, the book could be constructed and experienced in electronic form.  Given the right coding, the conceit of my book--intention as the driving force behind rewriting history--could be experienced firsthand by the reader in a digitally-based medium.  For instance, the climax chapters present three divergent outcomes, all predicated on revision that works retroactively.  The app I have in mind would allow the e-audience to experience, as the character does, the evaporating prose in the Empress's diary which comes to be replaced with the edited version.  Links can bring the reader to companion web pages, designed for interaction.  And don't even get me started on the possibilities with historical sidelines!

All self-serving glee aside--it's an exciting time to consider the possibilities of story, and the myriad forms it will take.

how zen kept us from killing each other

My family and I spent Thanksgiving in San Diego with my mother and Kirk's daughter who both, coincidentally, happen to live there. There's 1100 miles between my door and my mother's. That's a lot of time in a confined space with an 11-year old.

I've made this trip before. Several times in fact. The first time, I was actually living in San Diego, and several friends had assessed my Birkenstockishness and hippie outfits claiming me perfect for the Pacific Northwest. At the time, my older kids were babies, so on a lark (truly, it was...I didn't even have Triple A!) I packed the wee kids up and headed north.

At some point I thought to look at a map and, lo and behold, discovered that Oregon (which I then pronounced the you-ain't-from-around-here way, emphasizing the GHAN syllable) lay between California and Washington, instead of next to Canada. Really, I was that stoopid!

On that adventure, I fell in love with Portland, and promptly U-Hauled my crap up here.  I've never looked back. Except during Thanksgivings, summers and the occasional Spring Break, where occasionally I'll be moved to get an oil change and I-5 my way down the road.

1100 miles is sixteen hours of driving. Kids, even good ones, get whiny and bratty after about two. That's my experience anyway. But this trip was different, and I owe it all to Jordan Sonnenblick.

Before we discovered this amazing writer, the only use my son had for books was to include them in the creation of make-shift bowling alleys. As a person whose life turns on the printed word, I tried to disguise my disappointment in his disdain for reading. I tried to introduce him to graphic novels, sports figure books, skater magazines. No go.

So, one day, on yet another one of my famous larks, I perused the YA section of our neighborhood library and, judging one after another book by its cover, stumbled upon  Zen and the Art of Faking it . It grabbed me. It had all the elements: an upside down boy who looked about my son's age. Basketballs. Oregonesque sandals. I checked it out, took it home, and my son actually began to read it. And not put it down. (Until his myriad sports practices required it).

I promptly ordered up the book-on-tape version for our trip. By the time we climbed into the car, my son was a good three quarters of the way through the book, but was delighted to hear it read to him, and to have us brought up to speed so we could have a little mini book group whilst crawling up the I-5 post-Thanksgiving.

Some of the unexpected takeaways included my son divulging long-held secrets from grade school, feelings about bravado, teasing, crushes, sports acumen. In short, the trip was delightful, entertaining, informative and easier than ever. So. This summer? Maybe the canyon lands and more excellent spoken YA coming out of the dashboard.

Any recommendations?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

a thanksgiving wish

Here's to books. That they may continue to deliver their magic, that they may continue to be loved. That they may reach into they hearts that cry out for them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Rock on, Patti!

Congratulations to rocker-writer Patti Smith for her National Book Award winning JUST KIDS. Like Dylan, she can now claim to be embraced cross-genre--loved for words as well as music. In her acceptance speech she said, "writing is like exercise; you have to commit to doing it and you have to do it every day."

Time for some crunches!  And after that, I'm getting Patti's book.

If you're curious, here's the list of winners.  And best of all?  They're mostly chicks!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


He's young, he's brilliant, he's rich and he's a writer.  No fair!  There's a certain jealousy writers feel when they ponder the life of a seemingly golden child of art.  Jonathan Safran Foer has all the makings of the iconic object of disdain.  A target for good old fashioned avarice--the sort that drives artists to wish bad things, disastrous calamities, even. That's all pretext to the latest Vanity Fair piece on Foer, who is in the process of launching his latest book, Tree of Codes.

The stir on this book isn't as much about content as form.  Foer sliced up (literally) a book by Bruno Schulz called Street of Crocodiles, and put it back together Humpty-Dumpty style, creating an homage and a new tale all at once.

Part of the buzz (positive and negative) no doubt has to do with this blurb by spacial artist, Olafur Eliasson:
[A]n extraordinary journey that activates the layers of time and space involved in the handling of a book and its heap of words. Jonathan Safran Foer deftly deploys sculptural means to craft a truly compelling story. In our world of screens, he welds narrative, materiality, and our reading experience into a book that remembers it actually has a body.

What!  Eliasson isn't an author! Such cross-pollination is confounding! 

That Safran Foer.  What an upstart.

I remember first paging through Everything is Illuminated and feeling that I was viewing the inside of someone's brain. Clearly, his debut novel was fueled by his passion for discovery--that is, his interest in his Holocaust-escaping Jewish grandfather's plight--and it tumbles forth from there. He was 22 when he wrote that book.  22!  And now, several books later, he's flying in the face of the e-book, kindle dictate by creating a fiction that must be experienced sensually, in three dimensions.  The Schadenfoers are gleefully wringing their hands with this one: it won't sell!  It'll fail!  It's counter-intuitive!

My hunch, having heard and read interviews with the boy genius, is that his anachronistic urges, his need to constantly fuck with form, is not intentional.  Rather, it's a genuine by-product of his crazy-busy brain and the way he, as an artist, synthesizes the world.  In fact, I wish there were more Safran Foer types who were successful.  It might restore my faith in this largely pablum-sucking world.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

notes from childhood

I'm in the itchy red tights and witch shoes.
One of my earliest memories was my dad teaching me how to curtsy in preparation for a trip to some big, important building in Vienna.  He was a med student, so it could have been the well-known University, but the only thing that seared itself into my brain matter about the actual day of the curtsy was itchy tights and the walk next to my father through a large, fancy hall, and up a grand staircase of some sort.  The actual curtsy I've re-formed in my mind, but knowing me, it probably came off as more of a bow.

Vienna was my home the first six years of my life.  We lived in the 18th Bezirk, among all the foreigners: Indian diplomats, Hungarian dignitaries, British students.  The mid-sixties in Vienna were much less a clash than here.  For instance, hippies were non-existent. My parents attended actual balls.  My mother was chic and young and resourceful, and sewed her own ballgowns whilst wringing out our laundry in the hand-crank washer she had set up in the kitchen.

My best friends were an Indian brother and sister. In my memory, they were named Banti and Apu, respectively--which is odd, since Apu is a boy's name, but, whatever.  They hailed from New Delhi and had servants and great outfits.  Our families lived in a fancy apartment house which has since become Vienna's Indonesian Embassy.  Inside those wrought iron gates we tricycled and climbed a small tree.  Once, Banti took a crap in the ornate swimming pool in the backyard--his log of a turd floating by the concrete lions who seemed to avert their eyes at the sight.  I loved Banti. Together we terrorized my little sister, Patti, and threw her stuffed monkey in the well--also in the backyard. Banti's little sister was shy and mostly hid behind her governess's skirts watching her brother being scolded.

I've been back to Vienna only a couple of times since, and each time I've trollied out to District Eleven to press my face against the iron gates of my formative home.  My last trip, I snuck in with my son, Sam. We squeezed through the shutting gate just behind a Diplomat who'd been buzzed in, and scurried 'round the back, to the daylight basement windows at the rear of the house which had vented our small family way back when.

Disappointingly, the windows looked into office space.  Where memory recalled a small desk where my father sat typing out a paper, calling to my mother for spelling reassurance, now sat metal tables upon which reams of paper lay.

Out back, no stuffed monkey in the well, no swimming pool in which to poop, and everything so much smaller.  Sam, of course, was nonplussed, as he had been with all of Europe, counting the minutes until he was free from being dragged abroad, back to his eggs and bacon breakfasts, his marathon Friends reruns. His garage poker games and furtive PBR swilling.

What will Sam's sentimental salmon-like returns to childhood entail, I wonder. He's lived in Portland since the age of two, and currently resides less than ten miles from the bulk of his many formative homes.  But then, Sam is a much more pragmatic person than myself.  Even if he had been steeped in a somewhat exotic childhood landscape, with the children of dignitaries shitting up the Rococo garden features of his frame of reference, his notation of the act wouldn't be any larger than, say, his adolescent escapades where he and his buddies guzzled a gallon of milk in the park on a dare, just to see the color of their respective vomit.

But then, that's the beauty of half-remembered sentimental journeys.  One person's sacred construct is the next's person's shrugged shoulders.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Funny Tweeter

We interrupt the serious business of blogging about writing to lap over into the confoundingly, maddeningly, ever-evolving drain clog of social media.

This guy's funny, check him out!

F Twitter from Shane Nickerson on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

much ado

In the midst of the midterm kerfuffle, I give you respite.  Hey, you voted, you voiced and maybe today you're happy?  But if you're reading this particular blog, probably not.

What's a citizen to do?  At least you can thank the stars that you're not burdened with the pomp and circumstance of the Viennese Court, yes?  Here's a little glimpse from the bowing and scraping world of Empress Elisabeth's retinue.  N'Joy.

Friday, October 29, 2010

okay, franzen 2

NOTE: this entry is full of Spoiler Alert passages.  If you haven't read the latest Franzen, and intend to, and don't want to know anything, don't read this.  You've been warned.

Two hours later, I am still savoring that last epiloguish chapter of FREEDOM. How I feel is the way a person feels after making up with a spouse or best friend post-huge fight. Salty afterglow of mixed emotions, and oddly, not as spent as I felt 90% of the way through this crazy book.

I realize I'm about to mix metaphors, leaving spouse/best friend and moving into bad boy teenaged boyfriend territory, but I'm having a "see how I am?" moment.  As a youngster, I tiptoed to the dark side just enough to glimpse danger, but not, thank God, enough to cause the need for a lifelong balming of scars.  I've always maintained a sort of arrogant anthropological distance from crazy and/or dangerous folk, finding them fascinating but always checking behind me for the quickest escape route as I was led down the dark tunnel. What I liked best and appreciated most about FREEDOM was sensing that same distance in the narrative. I realize that this eccentricity most likely casts me in a weird minority, and I would venture that the same distance is seen as a flaw of the book by many more astute readers than myself, but there you have it.  Ironic distance, done well, trumps all for this reader.

What I liked second best [remember, future readers of FREEDOM, you've been warned] was the Joey extracting his wedding ring from his feces scene.  Oh the scatological indulgence!  Every boy child's obsession, yeah?  To linger in the concrete description of poop for several pages?  Only to be outdone by the continual micromanaged sex deconstructions--which I personally found excessive after a while.

Now, about the bitter commentary that Franzen slathered the book with: although it served the historical landscape well enough, it seemed rather incidental (and somewhat contrived) to the development of some of the characters and their predicaments.  Not all the characters, merely some of them.  But maybe that was the point.  Lalitha felt vastly cypheristic to me--though the reference to her in the very last line of the book made me cry.  But, in the storyline itself, she was sadly so two-dimensional that her actual death, buried in the middle of a cryptic paragraph,  was a shoulder-shrugger.

The wrinkled chronology: I wanted to hit Franzen for it. Truly.  I wanted to throw his tome at the back of his head.  Why did he indulge himself so by bringing in that cumbersome backstory on Walter's grandparents so late in the book?  It was a very authorial, obnoxious move, like when a musician you pay $150 to see (let's say, hypothetically, Dylan), pumps you up with a passionate performance of his best work, and then turns his back to you and the rest of the audience and steers the concert into experimental, boring shit--or worse, retunes his guitar while you stand there in the rain, blowing hot air on your hands until he starts playing again.

But overall, you got to admit, the guy is an amazing writer.  His clarity, his perfect sentences, his incredibly well-developed irony, the juggling he had to do to pull off any sort of a halfway satisfying ending with all those damn characters he peppered into the prose.  The way he infused the freedom metaphor in myriad ways. Whew!  I bow to you, Jonathan Franzen, mostly I do. And, because I said I would, here are the remaining top five reasons I bow.

1. unflinching ring-in-the-shit scene
2. finding a wonderful and heartfelt way to show Walter's complexities at the end of the book (he was annoyingly underdeveloped for me until then--then, suddenly, I got him)
3. pretty masterful redemption of the main characters given their shitty behavior throughout the book
4. reasonable attempt to tackle political shifts over time through interesting characters (though I have to let this percolate for a while, because I suspect I'll find this less successful upon reflection)
5. not one typo or out of place word in the whole 562 pages

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

okay, franzen...

Walter and Patty Berglund. And Richard Katz. Yup, I'm slogging through FREEDOM (about 2/5 of the way through) and I have to say. The book is ambitious. Not to be reductive, but here are the top ten things I like thus far:

1. Imagining Franzen poring over his sentences to make sure his semicolon use is correct and that he's been consistent with Katz's elitist self-deprecation.
2. As always, the unrelentingly effective use of ironic distance.
3. That crazy Eliza chick. (If not for her, Patty would be suffering even more from unlikeable main character syndrome.)
4. The passage shortly into 2004 where Katz gives the kid an interview and slathers himself with gracelessness right before the novel takes a huge swerve. Masterfully done!
5. The twisted, fucked up Patty-Walter-Richard thing. Nice tension.

Okay. I stopped at five. I'm going to save the next five for the next part of the book, which I hope to plunge into as soon as my chores and work and other crap are done. Now, onto the stuff that pisses me off.

1. Joey? I'm not buying any of the Joey set up. That chapter that worked as a stand alone in the New Yorker? Does not work in the novel at large. Yet. Maybe that'll change as the context of it morphs with the next half of the book.
2. Patty's parents. Huh? I'm missing something huge here. Seems that Franzen could have referenced them occasionally in the subsequent chapters, as her actions warrant some sort of backstory flashpoint. I'm talking about the slightest recall from Patty's weird upbringing brought to bear on some of her "autobiography" section. We don't want to dislike her so much!
3. Walter is an enigma. We are told too much about him and don't see him in action enough. I'd like to see Walter and Patty play hoops together. Will that ever happen?
4. Jessica? There is scant mention of her, then she pops up with scathing dialogue during the "parents weekend" thing, where it's clear that she's simply inserted to better pay off Patty's sink into poor choice-making.
5. Patty's self-satisfied sister whose name escapes me because, again, she was inserted, me suspects, merely to make a case for the shocking shittiness of Patty's family of origin. I'd like to see her come back and opine on the goings on at Ramsey Hill before the Berglunds up and move to DC.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

crush of the month

Don't you just love having a crush on a book and its author? I'm not talking about creepy stalker sort of stuff. I mean, when a sentence stops you cold and you keep rereading it 'cause its beautiful, lyrical and new.

I felt this way about Michelle Huneven's BLAME a few months back, and I sort of fall in and out of crush with Franzen's FREEDOM (the density of his sentences alternately engages and annoys me), but my crush of the month is Laurie Halse Anderson's WINTERGIRLS.

Anderson is the writer whose selectively banned debut book SPEAK heralded the Speak Loudly campaign earlier this month. I'm reading SPEAK, like it pretty well, but WINTERGIRLS is so asskickingly good, it's a hard follow up. I was loath to get to the last page of it I liked it so much, but now, a week after finishing it, it lingers like a supremely satisfying meal at a five-star restaurant.

Perfectly paced, ingeniously conceived and written with startling authority in the first person voice of a seriously troubled 18-yr-old girl, the book takes wonderful risks, and seems to follow a vision that defies YA convention on all fronts: syntax, grammar, love interest (or lack thereof, for the only potential heartthrob turns out to be...*SPOILER* a jerk).

The thing I love most about WINTERGIRLS, however, is Anderson's lyricism. A quality I find lacking in many popular YA books. Often, language takes a back seat to plot and concept, and shortcuts abound on the sentence level. The musicality of WINTERGIRLS is phenomenal. Anderson channels the voice of her character, Lia, and never lets down. Not for a minute. The book soars with energy, from the opening line to the end. It's dangerous, delicious and dark, in a way that I find many YA books skirt in favor of the blockbuster moments: the dystopian constructs, the shape-shifting monsters, the big, bloody battles.

In WINTERGIRLS, I found a powerful, true, gorgeous arc, relateable and contemporary, yet uniquely voiced and constructed. A hard act to follow.

Now, back to the long-and-winding Franzen tome.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2009 Redux

The writers' marathon month is upon us once again; the social media airwaves are all atwitter and abuzz. I shan't be taking part this year (I think instead I'll sign up for NaNoReMo, 'cause finally I'm top of list at the library for the Franzen), but last year, I plopped my tush on the 'rhoid pillow and dove in, and scrubbed out a good 40Kpages words

(I wrote only a half a novel, sigh).
A yearish later, here are my take-aways:

1. Characters CAN be forced into being
2. I'm sloppy when I'm fast
3. Plot is, and always will be, my downfall
4. Writers are obsessive. But in a good way.
5. All writers who spend more than 2 hours a day at their craft should invest in ergonomic set-ups.
6. The occasional "lost weekend" is reasonable for a writer; a "lost month" when you have a family--you gonna pay!
7. Community is important (so is nightly Scotch)
8. Consider inviting other WriMos in your "group" to post their last paras of the day in a FB message. I did this w/ my friends and it was incentivizing
9. Get your massages lined up. One per week. Seriously. Or trade bodywork w/ others.
10. Don't take the resulting output too seriously. It'll probably be mostly shit, but there will be several gems to glean from it.

I know #10 won't be a popular point, but, when I look back at the digital ink I spilled in Nov 2009, I see lots of cool parts, but the sum of them is head-scratchingly obtuse. I'm not saying that'll be true for everyone, but, as in the Perfect Storm, in order for a novel that's pooped out in a month to be draft-worthy, plot, passion, and people have to align in an enduring way. Just 'cause it's November doesn't mean they will.

Have fun kids!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

imitative fallacy. again.

I'm reposting this blog entry because, given the google searches that drive people to let's talk about writing, "imitative fallacy" tops the list. So, without further adieu, here's a recycled tidbit, originally posted two years ago.

The summer before last I went to Salt Lake City for the Writers at Work conference. In workshop with Steve Almond, I was introduced to the term "imitative fallacy." Until then, I'd always called the concept, "A boring story about a boring man." It was a Dangerous Writing caution: you must avoid falling into the trap of adopting the narrative tools of your narrator when telling a story—unless your narrator is a gifted story teller. It's up to the writer to craft a compelling story, even if your main character is an idiot. Or, in the case of Stairway of Love's Fifi, an emotionally disconnected scientist.

Part of the challenge I'm facing is because, like Fifi, I'm sort of a geek. I'm not as smart or as educated as Fifi, but I think I share with her the tendency to cause glazed eyes when I go off on one of my conceptual epiphanies. In workshop a few weeks ago, I shared a first draft of a critical scene at the end of the novel's first act. There's a lot going on in the scene, four people all doing something different, and the anticipation of an important family gathering. But something goes amiss, and in trying to unpack the tension leading up to that something, I'm trying to shine the light on an activity that serves as a metaphor for the whole first act. The activity is boiling live lobsters. But, remember, this is a laboratory scientist boiling these lobsters, so it's fitting to engage in some of the character's unique sensibilities while she's boiling these creatures alive.

Even though she's cool as a cucumber while reporting the killing of the lobsters, I need to show how her body betrays the coolness. I need to demonstrate that she's not heartless lest the reader be too turned off to care about her. I have to mitigate imitative fallacy by revealing, somehow, Fifi's broken heart—or at least her discomfort, while still letting the reader know she's a nerd:

These lobsters will take fifteen minutes in the boiling water before their antennae pull out with ease—the old Watch Hill litmus test. But they remain alive in that boiling pot for the first of those minutes. And that’s why I do what I do.

In the lab, we call this the Kevorkian Rapid Unconsciousness Method. K-Rum. Disable the frontal ganglion. Ice pick to the forehead.

I reach into the rubbery pail and grasp the first victim. Lou, I name him. A slimy handful, this big boy. His eyestalks wag like Egon’s tail. I look away as I set him on the cutting board and reach for the large brass nail and hammer. I am horrible. A monster. But my dying cousin wants a lobster dinner tonight, so that’s what she shall have. Lou-the-Lobster is wriggling his ten little legs. His experience of the air must be like being drowned. A person’s horror at being held underwater against her will. A maneuver like this requires a little anesthetic. The Beefeaters bottle—a Watch Hill kitchen counter staple—glistens in the spill of sun through the transom. A half dozen highball glasses still remain in the cupboard and offer themselves up, I like to think, eagerly.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

the waltz of authority and failure

One of the most important lessons I learned working with Tom Spanbauer and the brilliant minds around his table, had to do with authority. That illusive, seductive note in writing that forces the reader's attention to the page, and therefore, the world inside the page.

Tom had a fabulous way of ramming the concept home by example. He could isolate the moment in a passage where the writer disappeared and the narrator was now whispering in the reader's ear. So intimate. So breathtaking. And it was, Tom said, this very act of eliminating everything but the music--the song--between creator and receiver, that established the sort of authority that pulled the audience along the journey. It's the desire for this--oh, let's just call it what it is--lovemaking, that propels the writer forward, and also, keeps him/her coming back to the page to get it that much closer.

So last weekend Michael Cunningham had a terrific op-ed piece in the New York Times that spoke of this very thing. In his essay, Cunningham arrives at this haunting, and, sadly, all-too familiar experience for the novelist in regards to the way words end up failing to translate exactly what has been gestating in the mind of the writer:

"A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion."

Okay, this is my Achilles heel, I'll admit it. It's what drives me, frustrates me, compels me and is responsible for more than one shattered ceramic mug and Rorschach coffee stain on my office wall. The thing in the head is never quite translated to the page, and when I go back and peruse my published stories and essays in books and journals, I am loath to the process because I invariably edit. As Cunningham admits, "It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones."

Ah, but luckily I read on after that passage instead of nodding my head, setting the paper down, and thinking that I'd gotten the gist, and, indeed, agreed with the gist, end of editorial--because Cunningham offered a solution, and it was a solution that I longed to resist.

It seems that what helped Cunningham break through his solipsistic angst was to acknowledge "the other," e.g. the reader. And not just a generic reader either. He realized that in order to follow the arc of translation, a writer must consider a very specific niche of reader. For Cunningham, this was a co-worker at a restaurant where he worked at the time, and what she brought to the process was her own unique take, desires and opinions that were necessarily cleaved from those of the creator--him. Ergo, a concrete outcome for an otherwise overly existential process that never ends, which was Cunningham's method (I think) for arriving at a satisfying end to a given body of work.

So, with my latest work-in-progress, I'm at that very place. The Princess Chronicles is now in the hands of various readers who have offered and will offer suggestions for its improvement based on their own, as Cunningham puts it, "private, imaginary lexicon."

Friday, September 24, 2010

why YA now?

At the risk of sounding like a jaded, middle-aged crone, I'm taking a break from writing dark, family dramas for grown-ups. And it's not that I don't love reading them, it's just that I'm taking a hard look at my primary New Year's Resolution--invite more whimsy to my life--and realizing that I need to change something fundamental in order for whimsy to actually SEE the welcome mat.

What I've discovered, after miles of walking in the woods, is that the things that were so important to me as a girl, the things I either loved, or were familiar with, or comforted me, are not readily accessible when I'm a cynical, surly adult whose every other word is fuck.

There are few common denominators. When I was a girl I loved animals. Horded them. Everything from salamanders to 17-hand horses. If it weren't for these critters: cats, hamsters, dogs, ponies, bunnies, gerbils, even, for a short time, a goat, I never would have made it through childhood. Another factor was setting. It changed every few years: Austria, Massachusetts, Long Island, San Diego, Upstate NY. Just as I got proficient in appropriating one accent, off we fled, to another corner of the world. I loved this. Absolutely loved it. But my very first language was German, and I lament having abandoned it so early.

Boys. Yup, couldn't do my greatest childhood hits without mentioning the extra-curriculars. As with critters and locations, I found boys necessary, enchanting, and ultimately perplexing. I emulated the way they moved in the world. The way they smelled. What they wore. I loved the shorthand of boys, the economy. They didn't waste time on embellishments the way girls I knew did. They were simply bad as opposed to conniving. What you saw, was what you got.

I have just finished a book written for the YA market, and I plan to write at least two more, and for some reason, I still feel I need to apologize for this. Explain it. At least to myself. The impetus was to find a way in to a story I'd been trying to tap into for several years, but quickly became something else after I realized that I was beginning to re-engage with a part of myself that I miss. The me who was filled with wonder, whimsy, questions and daydreams.

The series of connected books I'm writing are set in Bavaria, Austria and Oregon and have lots of critters and boys in them. There is magic, too. Magic that allows for revisioning history and explores the "what if" in the "what about" --which has opened a door to some fantastic metaphors. The power of words, for one, and the responsibility a person has for exploiting truth. And, most interesting to me, how the very nature of truth itself shifts with consciousness.

I know this all sounds super nerdy, but the other thing about me as a kid besides critters, settings and boys was, I was the most ditzy of all nerds. An oxymoron that I'm hoping will finally be the thing that compels whimsy to pay me a permanent visit.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

77 authors, 66 designers = our portland story

Part yearbook, part insider’s travel guide, and part collected memoirs, Our Portland Story is the result of an ambitious, very Portlandesque endeavor. But mostly, it's a love story.

Spearheaded by Portlander and graphic designer Melissa Delzio, Our Portland Story was conceived as an experiment in community collaboration. Paragraph-sized stories were paired with graphic interpretation and the resulting words-and-pictures were edited into a coffee table book that will be available for sale starting with a gala launch party this Thursday at Mississippi Studios, in North Portland.

I submitted my Portland love story several years ago, then forgot about it until the day the e-mail arrived announcing its inclusion in this Vol 1 edition.

In the two years since I've gotten a few e-mails now and again: one when the designer assigned to my story, Megan Clark, had two design options the editor wanted me to consider, and then, as the launch date grew near, announcements about the party.

What's particularly exciting to me about watching this process unfold, is that it sort of marries my day job and my passion, satisfying both sectors: the marriage of words and pictures, and the creation of a love story involving many voices.

Oh yeah, and since as of next week Portland will have been my home for 21 years, its fitting that this homage marks the day that my residence status is finally old enough to order a martini!

Monday, September 13, 2010

the music of dialogue

Sometimes, I find that all the scene setting, the description, and plot, it all feels like homework just so I can finally get to what my characters are saying. I'm just so eager to put myself in a corner and watch a couple of invented folks hash it out.

Dialogue has always been my favorite part of writing, I think in part, because it's so dynamic. It's a catalyst for action--an activity that breaks things loose.

When I read a great piece of dialogue--a scene that reveals, let's say, some nuanced bit of relationship, or cements an inkling I may have had about the true nature of what Character A means to Character B, it's incredibly satisfying.

But I think the main thing I love about successful dialogue, whether I'm reader or writer, is the sound it leaves me with--the music. Like a favorite song, it lingers in my head for hours.

And it's not just what is said between the quotation marks. The connective tissue, the on-the-body action that accompanies what's said, is just as important. Here's one of my favorite little, oh, I don't know, let's call them set pieces. It's from Augusten Burroughs' collection Magical Thinking, in a story called "Commercial Break" :

"Children, children, may I have your attention please?" she clapped her hands together quickly. Smacksmacksmacksmacksmack.

A writer can't always get away with that sort of onomatopoeiac discourse, but But Burroughs has the chops. He has the authority, the cadence and the pacing, which are three other, more nebulous, concepts that go along way toward satisfying dialogue.

Here's another amazing little tidbit. This time from Flannery O'Connor. A story called "The River":

"Don't forget him mamma," Mrs. Connin called. "He wants you to pray for his mamma. She's sick."

"Lord," the preacher said, "we pray for somebody in affliction who isn't here to testify. Is your mother sick in the hospital?" he asked. "Is she in pain?"

The child stared at him. "She hasn't got up yet," he said in a high dazed voice. "She has a hangover." The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.

That Flannery. Couldn't you just wring her dead neck? How beautiful is that language. When crisp dialogue sits inside something as gorgeous as "the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water," well, how can you not have that in your head for the rest of the day?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

an award!

Nope, not a grant or anything, but a sweet compliment none-the-less. This lovely YA writer found my blog and issued the award you see at left.

Chain letter-esque though it may be, this is actually a nice way to spread the word in that very hip, social media sort of way, don't you think?

Here's a list of some great up-and-coming blogs, and to them, I bestow the "One Lovely Blog Award" badge. Award winners, all you have to do to "claim" your award is seize the photo, post it on your blog, link to me as the "bestower" and pay it forward to blogs you admire (up to 15).

The Lit Coach
Writing in the Margins
Open Book with Diana Page Jordan
Notes on Acting

I know there's more, but this is a good start!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

marrying my way through europe - or, what the hell are you calling yourself these days, anyway?

Some of my old friends complain that I've used up half of the space in their address books. "It would be okay if it were only in the f's or the g's or the v's or the s's, but, hey, you're all over the book."

Sadly, my nomadic, restless ways are not confined to addresses (let's see, since reaching adulthood, I've lived in four states and, um, 15, no, wait, make that 16 dwellings), but to husbands as well. I'm on my third. (She says soberly, not wanting to give the impression that it's going to go any further than that). And with each new husband, a trip to the social security office ensued.

In the old days (pre-911), you could skip on down there with nothing more than a marriage certificate and a driver's license, but those days, as we all know, are gone. Pretty much, if one wishes to change one's name in today's climate, be prepared to deliver a tome of paper trail.

According to the IRS, my name is Suzanne Vitello Soule (there's an accent on the "e" of Soule, but technology renders that invisible in most legal documentation). But every day, my latest husband extracts the mail from the box out front and delivers the ream of missives to my writing desk for a rousing game of "Guess who lives here now!" Suzy K Vitello, Suzanne Graham, Susie V Soule. The New Yorker thinks I'm Suzy Gram. Most creditors still go by Suzanne Vitello. In-laws from a couple marriages back put all the names down, just to be on the safe side. Only Syracuse University and their savvy development staff have been able to keep up with my name-changing hijinks, and for that they deserve to be rewarded by occasional donations.

For the uninitiated, my formal pedigree is as follows: Suzanne Kathleen Freisinger Vitello Graham Soule. "You change names as often as I change my underwear," said my friend Kelly, once. And when my writer friends acknowledge me in their books, they've been known to ask: "So just what is your name these days?"

Alas, I know I should care more about my name than I do. Perhaps I'm so aloof that I really don't think it makes that much difference? It certainly doesn't keep me up at night. But this morning I followed the Twitter trail, and slapped up against this provocative post by Alison Winn Scotch on the very subject of writers and names.

In establishing the all-important platform, does it undermine readership, credibility, brand, to change your name? In marketing, when we advise clients to "rebrand" e.g. new logo, new web site, new, look & feel, it's very externally focused. "Keep up with the times," we insist. "Make a connection with your audience."

In art, though, the idea is to be visible on the strength of one's essence. Name it. Be it. Live it.

I decided, with this latest marriage, that in the writing world I really haven't been anything but Vitello. Occasionally, as a journalist, I've scabbed a name before or after the Vitello, but really, my writerly identity is commensurate with that name. Though--I don't have one Italian molecule in my DNA.

Here's my dilemma. I'm now working on a book that is an organic outgrowth of my heritage and passion, and a good part of the book is set in Austria, where I was born, whence my paternal lineage hails, and where the name I used as a maiden, the first 24 years of my life, comes from. That my née name is Freisinger might be very helpful if the book I'm now writing becomes my first published book. I mean, if Amy Tan got married to a "Smith" and she tried to publish under that name, would Joy Luck Club even have a platform?

Monday, August 30, 2010

clarity part two

If you missed part 1, catch up with part 2. Erin Reel interviews Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, Diana Jordan and yours truly in her ongoing blogshop. This month's topic? Clarity. Are we clear, or just plain Evil at Heart? You be the judge!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

reading (or tweeting) on the throne

So at workshop the other night, one of our members had a scene involving a female, a book and a toilet, which prompted one of our many tangential topics: do women read on the toilet?

If our merry band is a sample, then I would say more than half do. Let's face it, modesty aside, we're a culture of multitaskers, and women have always excelled at doing more than one thing at a time, so wouldn't it be natural to assume that taking care of two things with one, er, stone, would follow?

Anyone brave enough to be part of a poll involving reading, gender and the throne? And, taking it a step further, any of you take your digital devices to the bathroom with you? (iPhones, laptops, etc)?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Using technology as a note-taking device

I'm hot on the trail of my new project, and as I hunker down and press forward, I've discovered that I can use blogging as a sort of repository to develop voice, plot point, dialogue.

The danger is, of course, that my writing time may become fragmented and fraught with time-sucking labors that derail my daily page count goals. So, here's a little experiment I'm trying. At the end of my writing day, I take some bits of prose (deemed at the time as successful, but in the light of day, who knows), and plop them down in my character blog. In this case, my Empress Elisabeth blog.

If you visit the blog, take note the posting date! And, please don't tell Blogger I'm cheating on it with Wordpress!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

the empress

This blog post by Erin Reel, "The Lit Coach," couldn't have come at a better time.

I've been stymied as to where to go next (or first, with regard to a book deal). My latest manuscript, STAIRWAY OF LOVE, has reached its conclusion, and I feel it's at a stage where it could be picked up, albeit some revisions and tweaking here and there. But while waiting for feedback from those considering it, I reengaged with a project that I've been flirting with for five years: a novel (or series of novels) about the notorious Austrian Empress, Elisabeth.

Her story has always fascinated me, ever since I was a tiny girl, living, literally, down the street from the Hofburg. On a trip back to Vienna a few years ago, I absorbed myself in everything Sisi. Her childhood, her obsessions, her anxiety, her hair!

It wasn't until recently that I realized the Empress story has a very marketable and fascinating position as a YA historical novel --really, a series of novels, so, while STAIRWAY gets juggled about with lukewarm agent interest, I've set to work, burning through my first draft of THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES.

I'd actually never considered writing for this audience before, but I'm finding that I'm exploding with ideas and ways to dramatize her compelling story. Stay tuned for more, but with any luck, I should have this draft completed by mid October.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

the walking in the woods cure

Is it true that as you get older transitions become harder? Man, getting back into my routine after two weeks away from it is proving difficult.

Maybe it's because I've set up my life in this multi-component, pastiche that the "running as fast as I can to stay only one step behind" truism persists, though on the heels of a 12-hour sleepathon, it should not.

My creative drive is more robust than ever, I'm happy to report, but clarity is coming in small bursts instead of large, sustainable waves. Today though, I went back to one of my favorite cures for fatiguing and disappointing bouts of ADD: a long overdue power walk loop through Forest Park. Extra points due to the misting shower that semi-soaked me.

For a while I lived at the edge of that great park, and more recently I leased an office down the street from it. Now that I'm over the hill from the Lower Macleay it takes a more forethought and planning to traipse along its majestic trails. But like all welcome habits, halfway through my walk today, my spirit and sense of actualness returned to me, and things I'd been mulling over dutifully aligned with the blessed sense of order I'd been seeking.

I returned to my desk energized and focused. And rested, even. But more than anything, grateful--which is, for me, most important of all.

Friday, July 23, 2010

off the grid

Tuesday night I fly East to Buffalo and Canada for ten days of family/vacation/regrouping and connecting. I'm not bringing my laptop. I'll have the iPhone along, but only plan on using it for the weather and the foreign exchange rates.

Really, that's my plan.

There might be a little detox crabby restlessness that goes along with the prying my keyboard from my cold, dead hands, but, having done this for a week last August, I do see the benefits in, as a colleague puts it, sharpening the saw.

A client of mine (who shoots me far more daily emails than any other person, but who doesn't engage in social media) shared the actual hard copy of this terrific article by one of my favorite satirists, Gary Shteyngart. In the article, Shteyngart chronicles the ways in which his life changed upon signing up for his smart phone: "'This right here,' said the curly-haired, 20-something Apple Store glam-nerd who sold me my latest iPhone, 'is the most important purchase you will ever make in your life,'" he whines. Then, goes on to recall, "He looked at me, trying to gauge whether the holiness of this moment had registered as he passed me the Eucharist with two firm, unblemished hands.

So starts Shteyngart's adventure in the world of diverted attention. NYC disappears, overnight, and is replaced by all things global via his pocket-sized computer. His addiction leads him to long to dry out in the barless pockets of upstate NY, where he will partake in a data fast, and reengage with actual books by dead authors.

So, friends, I too will be pilgramming to the hinterlands for some cyber-relief. Off the grid, disconnected, and free to process experience without the lens of predigested information.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

summer of blame

Summer incites the edges of possibility. When I was very young, daydreams overtook, responding, perhaps, to the heat. Following Thermodynamic Law. If wishes were horses than beggars would ride. Everything either was or could be mine. Days stretched and lapped boredom. Summer was a lifetime.

Late adolescence, early adulthood boys and booze--those summers possibility courted excitement. I got into my share of trouble.

So now, wedged into potentially inert middle-age, where blockbusters, beach reads and food that hovers around poison (deep fried onions dipped in blue cheese dressing? Really?) begin to vie for a spot on the calendar, I turn to the rascal inside me. That sunlit muse; that mercurial sprite. And how it comes, when it comes, is as instinct for paradigm subversion. Because I'm pretty broke this summer, all my trouble needs to be free, and luckily, our library system is one of the best, if not the best, in the country.

Finally, I worked my way up the holds queue and it's my turn for Blame.

I'm three-quarters through it and I'm making myself put it down, lest I plummet too quickly in post-good-read-depression. What makes this book so damn good, you ask? At the risk of being hopelessly derivative, I'm with Brigitte Frase, whose LA Times review called Huneven's prose "elegant" while suggesting that even better than elegant prose is aesthetic pleasure. The delicate, unsentimental perp-walk along moral ambiguity, unapologetic nakedness and the darkest of the shadow of humanity has me so engaged, I'm nearly paralyzed. Which is the other side of summer: the promise of unending sloth. Dog days, they're called, but I think of them more as cat days. Willful suspension of brain activity in favor of wonder and magic.

Huneven's book blows everything out of the water. You must read it.