Some Books I’ve Read in 2013

It’s that time of year when people like to look back on the months past and evaluate how it’s been.  What better time to briefly consider some of the books I’ve read this year?

 

1.  Finishing Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is definitely my favorite book about writing I’ve ever read.  It’s easy to take in in small bits at a time, giving both good advice and interesting anecdotes.  When I was finding it difficult to begin the first bit of my novel, when I was feeling paralyzed by anxiety, I used her “one inch picture frame” technique.  She advises to keep a small picture frame on your desk.  When you’re having trouble getting started with writing, imagine what you can see in a small frame like it—and fill it.  It gives you a smaller space to focus on, and even if you don’t write much more than that, it’s a starting point to build on later.  Sometimes, once you fill your mental one inch frame, you can keep going.  I would recommend reading the whole book itself, but you can also find a list of quotes from it places online like here.

I plan to reread Bird by Bird in the future, maybe even this year as I need encouragement while finishing my book.

 

2.  Rereading The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

My decision to reread The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman was pure indulgence during an autumn trip to Amelia Island with my family, but it reminded me of how much I like Hoffman’s writing style.  Some of her books can tend towards the contemporary fiction I really don’t like—the kind of novels that lean too heavily on a flashy plot but seem to have been quickly written, which are primarily coughed up by writers that push out new books every few months at times.  However that is the exception and not the rule for Hoffman, and The Probable Future is one of my favorites by her.  It has a subtle and natural beauty to it, like much of her writing.  For example, many creative writing classes and tips advise not to start a story with a description of weather, but when Hoffman does this in The Probable Future, I almost didn’t notice.  The description was woven into backstory, and resurfaces throughout the novel, necessary in giving context and atmosphere to the family on which the story focuses.

 

3.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl was a nice surprise.  I usually like to wait a little while for the hoopla to die down about popular contemporary fiction, just to see if the excitement is well founded.  I decided pretty quickly to get a copy of Flynn’s book primarily because it’s a thriller, and some who had read parts of my novel-in-progress compared it to that genre.  The novel employs a narrative told by two protagonists, man and wife Amy and Nick Dunne, and though they weave a twisting story, the real intrigue for me was in their relationship.  One of the book’s strengths was how Flynn’s writing persuaded me, as the reader, to feel a certain way about the protagonists, then in a brief space of page completed flipped that.  The story itself fizzled out a little towards the end, but it seems like a more natural way to round out the novel, and it fit pretty well with Nick Dunne’s need to be liked.

It is the power play between the male and female protagonist that makes Flynn’s novel really compelling, and she has attracted a lot of attention for her representation of the wife.  So between the female character stereotypes of the motherly/virginal/good, whore/femme fatale/bad, and strong/independent, where does Flynn’s Amy Dunne fit?  And why is Flynn being accused of misogyny in her writing of Amy?  I think Amy’s character is more complex than these archetypes, but I’d have to write a whole other blog post to really get into that.

I’ll probably read another of Flynn’s books at some point in the future.

 

4.  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Of the books I’ve read this year, The Shadow of the Wind would probably have to be my favorite.  Considering how I ended 2012 with a new overall favorite, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, I’m not really sure how Zafón’s novel matches up.  When I visited Barter Books in Alnwick (a favorite secondhand book store in a converted railway station) with my parents last summer, I recognized the title as a past bestseller, and when I found out it concerned a secret library known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, I was hooked.  

Absolutely lovely.

 

At first it was really slow reading, to the point that I considered abandoning it, but I always ended up picking it up again.  I think part of this was due to the style in which it was written, and I have to wonder if it’s because the book was translated from Spanish.  Most contemporary fiction originally written in English seems to have a certain distance or dryness to its description in comparison.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I know I write within this style, but the more ornate descriptiveness of writers like Zafón is something a reader must get accustomed to if they aren’t already.  The only time I can remember reading something with a similar style was when I started Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

The further I got through The Shadow of the Wind, the more I was drawn in to the story, to the point that by the end I was literally having trouble putting the book down.  I got the prequel for my birthday, The Angel’s Game, and I’m getting through this one pretty slowly.  With a protagonist who is an author, The Angel’s Game strikes close to home with its ruthless comments on the ego and struggle of writers, but they are so accurate it’s hard to argue.  I have no doubt my next year of reading holds the following two books Zafón wrote in the series, especially the most recent one, which is supposed to be about the beginning of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

 

 

Honorable mentions:  The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, and rereading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

 

Have you read any of these, and what did you think?  What were your favorite books that you read this year?

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Writing is like…

The experience of writing can be a great many wonderful things.

Sometimes it’s like a bath.  I’ve always loved baths.  A bath is like a tiny swimming pool.  Whether you light candles, add bubble bath or a bath bomb, or have a cup of tea, it’s a span of time reserved for you to relax.  For that bit of time, you can be weightless.

Writing can be like this, an easy relief of words, finally getting onto the page or screen something you’ve been trying to express.

More often it’s the uphill struggle that precedes that.  In those times, writing is like running.

Uphill, both ways.

 

I was on the cross country team at my high school for only a year, mainly because I thought I wanted to run track.  We were supposed to run pretty much every day.  At the beginning, I felt like I was going to die, but over time I got used to it.  Running a few miles every day wasn’t fun, and it took a lot of energy, but I could do it.

When the season ended, I felt like I had no reason to keep practicing.  There were good things about being on the team, but running long distances wasn’t something I really enjoyed in general.  By the time track season was approaching, I was back to where I had started before cross country—gasping after only a short distance.  I think I ran a few times in preparation for try outs, but in the end I didn’t even join.

I know you can tell what I’m getting at here:  just like running, writing takes endurance.

I can feel it when it’s been a while since I wrote.  I stare at the screen, maybe stutter out a few sentences in the space of an hour, but mainly I lean back in my chair, fiddle with things on my desk, and groan in frustration.  Oh, and look at things like Buzzfeed and Metapicture.

 

Not that long ago, The Oatmeal posted a great comic about running long distances.  He describes The Blerch, “a fat little cherub who follows me when I run.”  The Blerch tells him to slow down, to quit, and it represents the gluttony and apathy that can drag any of us down.

The Blerch, or something like it, can plague writers as well.  Sometimes it’s so much easier to just watch TV, go out with friends, or perhaps even relax in a bath.  Whether it’s due to tiredness, frustration, apathy, or convincing yourself you’d write better the next day, it’s easy to find ways to procrastinate.

But it’s just that—the easy option.

Original artwork by Matthew Inman, of The Oatmeal. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Inman. For more, see http://theoatmeal.com/

 

Now I’m not saying you should never take any time off writing to do enjoyable things.  Not only am I a fan of fun (and Netflix binges), but getting out in the world is essential to writing about it.

It’s just a problem when you’re doing more relaxing than writing.

This all has become very clear to me in the last few months.  After falling behind on writing, I was more productive in November than I had been in a long time.  In just one month, I wrote 7,504 words.

This meant that I made up for how much I fell behind in October, and was only 1,200 words behind my goal for November.  I was really proud of myself, and not only that, I felt really good about my work.

When I sat down to write, it wasn’t always easy.  Like when I was running cross country, a lot of days it was really hard to get going.  Once I did, sometimes it was easier, and sometimes it wasn’t, but at the end of the week all the good writing days and bad writing days added up into a good writing week.  I built up my writing endurance and confidence, and it was due to my own commitment.

Other than the friends I made, the best part about running cross country was the really beautiful places you’d come across.

 

December began with a lot of travel, first home from North Carolina and then across the Atlantic, and within a week my writing routine was completely upended.  I’m still trying to get back into it.

The best advice I can give from the experience is to just keep at it.  I know writers probably hear this a thousand times.  I know I have, and often it’s something I want to roll my eyes at, especially when I’m in a rut with writing.  But it’s just something you have to do.  Sometimes, when you have “kept at it” for a while, you can see how it works, and you want to kick your former self for rolling your eyes.

I know that I won’t write as much this month, with a poor beginning and the craziness of Christmas to come, but I can still accomplish something.  If you think of stories in the three arch narrative structure, then I am in the final arch.

Writing my first (and hopefully not last) novel may be one of the hardest things I do in my life, but I’m nearing the end of the first draft.

The hardest part is next: editing.

To Surprise Myself Again

I feel pretty guilty that my unplanned hiatus from this blog lasted so long.  I’ve kept up with other things—Facebook, posting relevant articles and lists I’ve found on Twitter, trying to keep up with events in the writing communities I follow—but what began as taking some time off blogging to finish my final assignment for my MA grew into procrastination, and I guess a little bit of avoidance.

When I submitted that final section of my novel for my final class, I was excited, scared, and relieved.  I was a little unsure about my experience in the MA program.  While I had made some wonderful friends, learned some things, and got to work with excellent writers/professors, I hadn’t felt as pressured to improve as I had hoped.  Yes, I did improve as a writer, but I feel like that happened more in the final push to complete assignments before they were due, rather than regularly over a long period of time.  I continued to do what I’ve always done: have a general idea of what I’ll include in an assignment or story, do some work on it, but not get it all down in writing until just before it’s due.

Of course I was relieved and excited to submit my final work for my master’s—I had just spent a while finishing writing it, then reading through and editing it quite a few times.  I had completed it before the deadline, and while it wasn’t perfectly how I’d hope for it to be, it was very close.  I could relax and enjoy the fact that, regardless of my grade, I knew I would graduate with a pretty decent overall average.  I had completed my master’s degree.

Yahoo. I’m actually missing the graduation ceremony though.

But that’s where my trouble began—I relaxed.  I let go of worrying about deadlines, and after the (I think) allowable week of said relaxing and being lazy, I didn’t pick the reins of writing back up; or if I did, I did so lightly, without much drive or intent.  I didn’t want to write about writing when I wasn’t doing very much of it.  It felt a little like lying, and it was easy just to keep putting off updating until later.

When I let a piece of writing lie for so long, I begin to feel I am losing the threads that hold the whole piece together.  The only way I’ve been able to describe writing a novel is that it is like building a tiny world of balsa wood.  For everything to stand, to make sense and flow naturally, there has to be a balance of many elements.  If you aren’t careful, pieces can fall on you, and you have to rebuild that section, which inevitably leads to fixing the adjoining sections (whether in narrative or subject) as well.  In the time before completing that first draft, some of the pieces might be held up by little strings of ideas, and the tension in those strings maintains the balance of it all, when you have not yet built the rest of the structure that will support it in the end.  So maybe it’s a little like Jenga too.

The longer I spent away from my work, the more I felt these strings loosening.  When I talked to people about my novel-in-progress, I would feel them slipping, and I couldn’t produce a cohesive synopsis of where my story was going.  The more I felt this loss, the more I knew I needed to reimmerse myself in the world of my story.

I have known for a while that I am a slow writer.  Where some writers seem to be able to crack out immense amounts of creative work, on a number of projects, in no time at all, I am the type to slowly chip away at a story.  Even a short story seems to take me a while to compose.  This is not a fault, and I know there are many other writers who are like this, but it can be disheartening at times.  I ask myself, how long am I really going to take with this project?  How can I even make a dent on the writing world if I’m so slow at generating pieces to submit to competitions, magazines, etc?

As my friend and fellow writer, Kelvin M. Knight, said in a comment recently, my Northern Writing Award is my “base camp.”  Even when I felt most disconnected from my novel-in-progress, even when those threads felt most far from my hands, I remembered the feeling I had when I read the email telling me I had won, so many months ago.  It was like a balloon filling in my chest, making me so full and in awe.  I know my luck.  There are writers in the world who are as good or better than me, there’s no denying it.  They could have won my award and flown by me already with the amazing things they could write in this span of time.  But for one moment, I mattered in the writing world.  I know I cannot disappoint the judges who believed in me enough to award me that honor, but even more than that, I cannot, I will not, disappoint that part of me that is still surprised I have not woken to find that it was just a dream.

So I will keep writing.  I will keep pushing against the everyday forces that deter me from making progress on my novel, I will keep working to better my writing, so that one day I may surprise myself again.

The Waking: A Poem by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

As promised, this post contains a poem from two-time Northern Writers’ Award winner, and my first creative writing professor, Carolyn Jess-CookeYou can also read the draft opening of my novel-in-progress on her blog!  (Just follow this link)

Carolyn Jess-Cooke was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and received a BA, MA (Creative Writing), and a PhD in Shakespeare on film from The Queen’s University of Belfast by the age of 25.  Since leaving her post at Northumbria University, she has worked full time as a writer.  Her first collection of poems, Inroads, was published in 2010, followed by her first novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal (2011), and then her second, The Boy Who Could See Demons (2012).  (I’ve blogged about her novels here and here)  She’s also known for various public art commissions, including a poem set into a 700m steel floorscape at the Roseberry Park health facility in Middlesbrough.  Her second poetry collection, BOOM!, is due to be published by Seren next June.

In response to CJC’s Inroads, Helena Nelson of Ambit magazine said:  “Here is a first collection that does all the things a good debut (though I loathe that word) should do.  It explores a fabulous range of tone and form.  It flexes its muscles.  It creates an uneasy shiver on one page, has you chortling with delight on another.”  Part of the last stanza of “Accent”, the opening poem in Inroads, resonates for me especially, living so far from home, in a place where the way I speak starts so many conversations:

“There’s an address, a postcard in the tone,
the foreign rhythm
and that emphasis, that accent on the off-beat
which echoes longing clearly; the picked-up place-music speaks
where you ache to be, with whom.”

(Read the full poem and others by CJC here)

I expect a similar depth and breadth from BOOM!.  The title poem of the collection combines an amusing comparison of a baby to a hand grenade with a subtle appreciation for how a new infant can suddenly dismantle, reassemble, smooth, and add so much to its parents’ lives.  It’s funny, lovely, and probably the most accurate thing I’ve ever read about a new child in 19 lines.

(Read “Boom!” here)

The poem I have to share today, also to be included in BOOM!, feels more delicate in comparison.  For me, reading it felt like an immersion in a quiet morning, when the sunlight is still soft as it comes through the window.  In it the child is silent, stirring, and unfurling, just learning curiosity as she becomes more and more herself.  This piece exhibits CJC’s talent for distinctive and beautiful imagery, communicated through the use of precise wording.

 

The Waking by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Those first few days every part of her wakened,
the seedling eyes stirred by sunlight, tight fists
clamped to her chest like a medieval knight
and slowly loosening, as if the metal hands
were reminded of their likeness to petals
by the flowing hours. Her colors, too,
rose up like disturbed oils in a lake, pooling
through the birth-tinge into human shades,
her ink eyes lightening to an ancestral blue.
The scurf and residue of me on her scalp floated
easily as a pollen from the sweet grass of her hair.
She reminded me of a fern, each morning more
unfurled, the frond-limbs edging away from her
heart, the wide leaves of her face spread to catch
my gaze. Once, I saw the white down of her skin
cloud in my hands, the cream ridges of her nails
drift like crescent moons, the thick blue rope
she had used to descend me tossed like a stone,
as though she was finally free.

(First published in The Stinging Fly, Issue 23, Vol. 2, Winter 2012-13)

I won a Northern Writers’ Award!

I am honored and amazed to announce that I have won a Northern Writers’ Award!

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The awards were established in 2000 by New Writing North.  If you are a writer or someone with a strong literary interest living in the northeast of England, you will undoubtedly have heard of NWN.  They work to support writers in the area through a variety of projects, workshops, competitions, events, publications, etc, to help with career development and opportunities.  They’re also partnered with Arts Council England and various universities, such as my own, Northumbria University.  Basically, if you’re a writer living in the area, you need to know about NWN.

The news about the awards was embargoed until the awards dinner Tuesday night, after which a press release was issued.  My name is not specifically mentioned, but you can find me on the list of winners and on my profile page.  I won my award for my novel-in-progress, called The Unfamiliar Land.  Hopefully NWN will be adding photos of the event to their Flickr page soon.

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The ceremony was held in Northumbria University’s Sutherland building

My award is a New Fiction Bursary, which gives an in-depth editorial report of my novel from The Literary Consultancy worth £500.  I have yet to begin the process of submitting my manuscript to them, but I am excited about getting professional feedback.  Simon Armitage, winner of multiple awards for poetry, shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and ambassador for the Northern Writers’ Awards, said something I have to agree with:

“To an emerging writer, an award of this kind can often be the difference between carrying on and giving up, and can be a huge boost to confidence as well as providing financial backing. Many writers, like myself, can look back to an award or bursary at an early stage in their career as being the pivotal moment, one that gave them the courage and means to continue.”

When I received the news about winning, I had to read the email about five times before I actually understood what I was reading.  I just couldn’t believe it—that I, this small, unknown person just trying to do what I love, could possibly succeed in such an important competition.  It is a huge encouragement, not just about my work, but an encouragement to keep doing this, and keep working to improve my writing.  Although I have been feeling what Chuck Sambuchino described in his recent article for Writer’s Digest—that the more this piece is becoming a novel, the more I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing—I feel renewed in my hope for it.

I also felt very honored to be sharing the evening with my first creative writing professor, Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  She won a Northern Promise Award in 2008, and this year she won a Poetry Award for her upcoming collection of poetry focusing on the topic of motherhood.  I have read some of her poetry before and know she is extremely gifted and deserving of this award, so I’m looking forward to the new collection.  You can read some of her previously published poems on her website.

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke and me

This morning I was surprised to receive an email from Carolyn Jess-Cooke asking if it would be alright if she shared some of my work on her blog.  None of the short stories I’d like to share are short enough for a blog excerpt, but I’d still like to get more of my prose out into the world now (see one of my poems here), so I sent her the first 700 words of my novel.  Therefore, the opening of my novel will debut in digital form on CJC’s website sometime in the next few days.  Be sure to check it out here.  In return, I am excited to have received her permission to share one of her poems on my blog!  Again, check back soon, and have a read.

The Northern Writers’ Awards were created to help new and established writers work towards publication and to progress in their careers as writers.  Past winners have included Carolyn Jess-Cooke (2008), my first creative writing professor; Kitty Fitzgerald (2003), whom I met through volunteering with Iron Press’s Iron Age festival last month; Carol Clewlow (2002), another wonderful writer and person I met through the Iron Age festival; Peter Mortimer (2001), the kind and wonderful founder of Iron Press; and many other great writers.  (See the full list here)

This year the judge for prose was Sarah Hall, who has written such novels as Haweswater (2002) which won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize; The Electric Michelangelo (2004), shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize; and The Carhullan Army (2007), which won the 2007 John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction.

At the ceremony last night, Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North, noted that about 70% of Northern Writers’ Awards winners go on to publish the work for which they won an award.  It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly seems better than without this accomplishment; I like those odds.  So as I return to my desk, or cushy chair, or wherever I end up writing next, I sit, still in awe of this amazing thing that has happened to me, and I am so thankful for all the people that have encouraged me throughout the years.  From teachers, to professors, to friends; to the strong support from my sister and extended family; to my fiancé Sam, for putting up with my eccentricities and fears, for reading through drafts, for always telling me keep working at it; but most of all to my parents, to my mother who tears up with pride no matter how crappy a draft might be, and to my father who always, always, tells me I can do this.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Why I Write

In one of my recent classes for my MA, we discussed the origins of our desires to write.  As usual, most people talked about either always having this drive, or, in later years, suddenly desiring a change or experiencing something which led them to write.  I fall into the former category.

Thinking about why I write led me to depths of consciousness and memory I’m unsure how to express.  I know this: it all began with a story of a dog and a cat.  Written in kindergarten, my teacher said it was advanced for my age, and that I should be a writer.  This is of course sounds a little over the top now; how could one simple story by a six-year-old really anticipate such a serious undertaking?  But I feel my life would have been entirely different without that remark, given so early.  It has become my drive, the core around which I have built myself and my life.

Throughout elementary and middle school I delighted in creative writing projects, and penned a few ill-formed stories.  I drew on my wild imagination and my favorite game: “let’s pretend.”  The game was simple, and really just involved running around the woods of my parents’ back yard imagining we were fairies, or swimming in the public pool pretending to be mermaids.  My best friend grew out of the phase a lot faster than I did.

Reaching adolescence saw a change in my focus of writing, to poetry.  I began with trying to force rhymes, but soon sought a more confessional style, channeling all my over-wrought, teenage emotions into still pretty amateur verse.  I remember being a lonely kid, the shy kind that have trouble making friends, much less articulating how I felt out loud.  Writing became my voice, my means of expression.  As I reached high school, I became more confident, mainly because of our after school Writers’ Society.  It was the first time I read my work in front of others, and while I was encouraged by my peers’ support, I also felt the pressure to improve in response to the quality of others’ works.

During the first year of my undergraduate degree, I wrote my first serious short story.  It was heavily influenced by the first few pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but even in its contrived and clumsy state I felt I had found my ideal format.  I was further convinced of this when I began writing flash fiction a few years later.

I am currently working on my first novel, still trying to find time to write short stories on the side, but I continue to contemplate how I first began writing.  This reflection grounds me, and informs my writing today.  The memories come in fragments of sensation and sentiment, the undercurrents we have been encouraged to feed into our writing throughout my master’s.  They are in the soft clay that squished between my toes on the banks of the creek behind my parents’ house; the fireflies I chased across the grass; the warm summer rains I walked in; the golden sunlight filtering through the magnolia, maple, and tall pine trees.

Now I have had my first significant success, and I am dying to share the news, but it will have to wait until mid-June.  All I can say is keep writing, keep dreaming.  Keep working at improving your art, and if it winds so tightly through your life and soul as it does mine, may you have your own successes.

Thank you for reading.

Where you write

Where do you do your best work?

Buzzfeed recently posted a list called 40 Inspiring Workspaces of the Famously Creative.

Some of my favorites:

Viriginia Woolf

Alexander Calder, sculptor

Nigella Lawson, food writer

Will Self, writer

Lisa Congdon, illustrator

And there are so many other interesting ones.

It reminded me of the post Carolyn Jess-Cooke did on her blog, A Writer’s Day in Pictures.  In a few of them, she shows the place that she does some of her writing, including a plush, red armchair.  I have to admit I’m a bit jealous.

This year, I tried to create a good space for writing.  In our extra bedroom, I put paper and notebooks in the desk drawers, hung quotes about writing and perseverance on the wall, and opened the curtains on the days I was in there.  For a while I tried to get into a routine of working from a certain point in the morning for a few hours, but when the writing got tough, it was easy to get distracted — thinking of the dishes that need to be washed, the laundry piling up, the other housework that needed to be done.

Now I am back to writing in various places at different times, as I usually have: on the couch, at the library, at the park on a nice day.  While this flexibility suits me, I’m not sure it helps my writing.  I am still driven by deadlines, and not constantly working to make progress.  Many things I’ve read about writing encourage you to approach it as you would an everyday job, where you go in at a specific time every day and work for a set amount of hours.  As is, I am still easily distracted from my work.

The library has been the best place for me to get work done, because it is away from most distractions for me.

Where do you write?  Do you have any advice for avoiding distractions?

Other updates

As you may have seen on my Publications & Awards page, I was recently longlisted for Fish Publishing’s Flash Fiction prize.  See the list here.  Being longlisted doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but both of the pieces I submitted were among the 317 chosen from the 1407 total submitted.

I have also joined Twitter.  Read my tweets here.