Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Creative Insomnia

Sometimes my characters wake me with their chatter. My job is to listen to those voices, only they don’t keep normal hours. I stow index cards and a pen in the bathroom so as not to wake my husband. Henry sighs in the morning when he finds my nocturnal scribblings. Many of my author, artist and composer friends share this affliction or blessing, depending on your point of view. The problem is you can’t control when inspiration will hit.

During the day, I always have a notebook in my bag. Snippets of conversation are game, so is the way a storm dropped snow mushrooms in a brook (thanks, Alida, for showing them to me.) I collect laughter and sorrow. I have a hard time answering the question: “How many hours a week do you work?”

I do try to keep normal hours and write while the kids are at school. I’m there for them when they come in the door and need to talk. Once they start homework, I catch up on email and blog comments. I read other people’s novels in the evenings. I try to get my story out of my mind so that I can sleep.

Still, sometimes my best writing comes from those crazy nights. This happens more frequently during revision. I need extra time to see the entire manuscript as a whole. The adrenaline flows, and I can visualize every word. I get into a zone, and I won’t stop until I finish the draft. I love writing and revision, but it is my vice.

On my desk is the perfect first chapter. At least it’s perfect until it’s time to revise again. In the mean time, I’m catching up on sleep. Perfection can only be a dream.

Groundhog Day (1993) with Bill Murray is not about writing a novel, but it captures the process.

For those of you suffering from a more debilitating form of insomnia, I recommend Insomniac by Gayle Greene. It’s a layman’s review of the disease and its treatments (there is no known cure) as well as a memoir of a woman’s struggle to live with chronic insomnia. Gayle interviewed doctors, researchers and insomniacs. She presents the complex information in a format that is both easy to understand and engaging to read. Insomniac was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" when it was released in paperback last summer. Gayle and I share an agent, which makes us agent sisters (according to Barrie Summy.)

Gayle's list of insomniac writers includes: Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Lamott, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Dickens, "maybe even Shakespeare" and Joyce Carol Oats, who provided the jacket blurb: "Impassioned and fascinating."

The book opens with this W.C. Fields quotation: "The cure for insomnia? Get plenty of sleep."

Blog watch: dovegreyreader scribbles and 3 other UK book bloggers are hosting Not the TV Book Group with online discussion of selected novels. Cynthia@Catching Days is posting a series on “reading like a writer.” A fun new blog, Books in the City, lives up to its name. She Brews Good Ale cooks good food too: a multi course meal prepared entirely from local ingredients and paired with locally brewed beer, recipes included. sixtyfivewhatnow posted artsy rainy day photos.

Theater watch: excellent New York Times review of As You Like It, playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 13 and directed by Sam Mendes. I just figured out what I want for my birthday.

My Photos: sunset at Bailey Island, dawn from our back door, "snow mushrooms" in the woods behind our house, our mudroom entrance.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Morse Mountain on Ice

In between storms, I returned to Maine’s Morse Mountain. Winter skies reveal broad vistas.

Spot the snow-clad peak of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire 100 miles away, away, away….

The sea swallowed snow before winter froze the tide.

The icy path is treacherous. Surreal.

The sun dares not climb too high in the sky.

Seawall Beach is wiped bare.

Only the islands can stand the frigid sea.

Lobster season is over, except far offshore.

Winter waves dribble forts.

Ice sculpts sand.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Blog Watch: Author Justine Larbalestier gave excellent advice on "How to Conduct an Interview" on a blog.  A Cuban in London reviewed a witty book of poetry, More About the Song by blogger Rachel Fox.  Congratulations to debut author Marie Mutsuki Mockett on the birth of her first child! Troutbirder has a new grandchild.  Elizabeth Wix also has a special new addition to her extended family.  Elenka's husband is back home and doing well after heart surgery.  This already looks to be a most happy new year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Advice for New Bloggers 101

Skiing at the Brunswick Naval Air Station

My third anniversary seems the right time to share my experience of blogging, especially since my friend Maria Padian asked for advice as a newbie blogger. Do comment with more tips. As I said to Maria, the best part of blogging is the community.

My blog started as a place to gather material for my novels and to stay in touch with friends and family while living abroad. In 2007 my family was moving to England for a year. At lunch with my literary agent in NYC, she encouraged me to start blogging right away. She thought I’d enjoy it. I did, but it took months to build a following.

Back in 2007 the blogging community was barely connected. People were always asking, “What’s a blog?” This was in a time before “followers” and hyperlinked Blogger profiles. RSS feeds were brand new. Dial-up modems were common. Photos slow to load. WiFi rare. System crashes common. I typed in a shoebox in the middle of the road….

Nonetheless, my blog proved to be an invaluable writing tool and a storefront for my artwork. In England I was still working on my American novel S.A.D., and the Maine posts provided inspiration and material, like my lobstering jaunt. Now I revisit the Oxford posts to work on my English novel A MATCH FOR EVE (working title). I’ve sold paintings and photos as well, but the commercial side of blogging is secondary. I don’t sponsor advertisements, and I avoid commercial sites.

Most of all, it’s the community that makes blogging worthwhile. Writing and art are solitary occupations; you are my connection to the world. I look forward all week to my Wednesday blog days. There are true friendships in cyberspace. If you don’t believe that, then you aren’t a seasoned blogger.

 Now that I've broken the ice, let me share some blogging tips:

READ other blogs before you start to get ideas. Start commenting.

BLOGGER PROFILE: anyone can create a profile for free, even if your blog is hosted outside Google Blogger or you haven’t started. List all your interests; these are hyperlinks. Use them to find other bloggers who share your interests. Be sure to include an email so people can contact you. Enable share profile; it defaults to hide it.

BE YOURSELF: blogs are personal so get ready to share. Pick suitable content. Assume the last person you want to read it will. Be honest but don’t be snarky or mean. People may still identify you under a fake name.

DON’T SELL: a sales pitch is a big turn off. Many author blogs are boring because all they post are signings, fan mail, sales figures and reviews of their books. If you post good content, people will be interested in your books.

LENGTH: too short is better than too long. People read lots of blogs. Long paragraphs are hard to read, so are colorful fonts and backgrounds. Don’t post every photo from your vacation. Occasional longer posts, like an author interview, are fine. Revise and condense. I know; I’m guilty of long posts like this one!

FREQUENCY: post regularly or you’ll lose your following. An occasional vacation is fine, but let us know when you’ll be back. You can program your blog to publish while you are away in EDIT POSTS under POST OPTIONS. Pick a rhythm that works with your lifestyle, be it weekly or daily. The social side of blogging is time consuming (but rewarding.)

COMMENTING: respond to comments promptly either on your blog or on the commenter’s. Delete ads and abusive comments; don’t respond to them. Visit other blogs and leave comments about that post, but don’t push your blog. If you write thoughtful comments, they’ll come visit you too via your profile. Don't post the same comment every time and everywhere.  This is NOT a good comment: I love your blog, come visit mine - link.

FOLLOW: click on “follow this blog” in the sidebar, which will create an RSS feed in your blogger dashboard. Add a follow widget to your blog from LAYOUT. You can also add “blogs I follow” to your sidebar or reveal it on your profile. Don't wait for followers to find you; go find them.

LINK LOVE: to create a community, link to other blogs in your posts and sidebar. If you read a cool post, share it. Personally, I find awards that require the recipient to post and to pass them as irritating as chain letters. I have my own feature, “blog watch,” where I link to posts of interest with no strings attached. Feel free to use that meme but credit me. If you borrow a meme, always credit the source with a link.

ROUND UPS: to broaden your circle, join a regular blog round up. Visit and comment on all posts. I’m a regular contributor to the monthly Book Review Club hosted by Barrie Summy. You can even host your own.

PROTECT MINORS: do not post photos of children with their names and location. There are sick people out there. Also your kids, as they get older, will value privacy. If you swear or post unsuitable content, Google Blogger will ban you.

RESPECT COPYRIGHT: quote and cite written material.  Add a link if it came from another blog.  Get permission to repost from another blog.  Do not reproduce artwork or photos without permission from the artist or at very least cite the source with a link. Better yet, post your own photos. Add a watermark to discourage copyright infringement.

BOOK BLOGGERS: explain your review criteria and post it in your sidebar along with your contact email. FTC rules in the USA require that you state if you received a free product, like an ARC. Reveal personal connections. Don’t expect publishers to send you ARCs until you have a large following and stats to prove it. Visit your library or join online book swaps if you are short on cash.  Everyone knows that Jane Austen is good; review new authors, who need help getting their name out there. You don't need permission to post book jackets, short quotations (but check with publisher if an ARC), book trailers or links to authors. Story Siren posts helpful blogging advice and excellent YA reviews. She has become a hub of the YA blogging community by facilitating connections. Dovegreyreader scribbles blends personal life (Devon, England) with quality reading; I love her blog.

TRACKING STATISTICS: anyone with a Google account can use Google Analytics for free. There is a link to "Analytics" on your "My Account" page. Follow instructions to install the html code on your blog. Don't worry about low stats. It can take 6 months for search engines to find a new site.

HAVE FUN: blogging should not feel like a chore. If it does, take a vacation or stop. Forced posts or whiny ones are not fun to read. If you have nothing to say, you are spending too much time online. Get out there. Enjoy!

If you have more blogging tips, please add a comment.  So ends Blogger 101.

Note: shoebox line adapted from Monty Python.  I shot the photos at the Brunswick Naval Air Station last weekend.  My son took the photos of me and Stella in the fields.  Dogs aren't allowed on the groomed ski trails.  Maria Padian is a young adult author; check out her new blog, Teens, Writing and Randomness, and say hello.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wondrous Strange & Darklight by Lesley Livingston: interview & review

Fairies mingle with mortals at Tavern on the Green in Central Park 

When I finished writing “as u like it,” I searched for other young adult novels with a Shakespeare theme and found the enchanting Wondrous Strange (2008.) The sequel, Darklight, was released on December 22, 2009 (on January 14, 2010 in Canada.) By coincidence, the author Lesley Livingston and I are both represented by the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, although by different agents.

Lesley’s novels, unlike mine, are paranormal fantasy and feature the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream. These aren’t cutesy flower fairies, but strong, passionate characters. They remind me of The Lord of the Rings fairies in their penchant for violence and romantic dalliances with humans. Quests are central to the epic narrative.

Lesley studied Shakespeare in graduate school and was a founder/actor of the Tempest Theater Group. That’s Lesley (to left) in her Nurse costume from Romeo and Juliet. Backstage was a bit cramped so she used a shower for her make up room! The actress/author does a fine job of introducing the reader to Shakespearean characters and storylines without sounding didactic.  Her novel alternates between the interlocking stories of Kelley and Sonny.

My 12-year-old daughter’s review of Wondrous Strange

The protagonist, Kelley, is a professional actress who got the role of Tatiana from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a Shakespeare production. She is mostly described as an average 17-year-old girl until later on she figures out a huge secret about her past.

The story is set in Manhattan, which makes it quite intriguing and different. There are small little paths, portals and places in Central Park that lead her into the Otherworld. The book is written thoroughly and descriptively, which makes you feel that as the reader, you are being lead into a mystical world where fantasies and fairies are true.

The story was wonderful because it was an adventurous, magical page-turner. The characters individually were strong; I particularly liked Tyffanwy, also known as Tyff, who is more than she appears to be. The one criticism I have is that the relationship between Kelley and Sonny was confusing to me.

Sarah Laurence's review of Darklight

Sonny and Kelley’s complicated relationship is the central storyline of Darklight. Romeo and Juliet provides the inspiration. We are talking star-crossed lovers and tragic romance. Kelley comes into her own in Darklight. In Wondrous Strange Kelley had a bad habit of blacking out and needing others to rescue her. Of the two main characters, Sonny is more appealing. He’s a foundling (ie. a kidnapped human baby raised by fairies) of surprising origins who becomes a brave warrior-guard of the gate separating our world from the Otherworld. There's a lot of spilled fairy blood. This series isn’t for the squeamish, but it isn’t gratuitously violent either.

Morality pervades the books, but good and evil aren’t black and white. The most interesting characters came in shades of grey (and green!) The secondary characters (fairies and Janus guards) often steal the stage.  My favorite character was the broody Fennrys Wolf.  I loved the Central Park setting and the Shakespeare references. Theatricality pervades the narrative, stylistically as well.

Darklight is the middle book of the trilogy and should not be read alone. You might want to read the prologue last because it doesn’t make any sense until the end of the novel. The ending leaves the reader longing for the final book in the trilogy, since very little was resolved.

Interview of Lesley Livingston 
by Sarah Laurence and her daughter

What was your favorite book growing up and why?

When I was really young, I devoured horse stories. I think I read the entire Black Stallion series about ten times over. When I was a teenager, I discovered mythology and history and legendary stories. I discovered Celtic tales of wonder. And I met King Arthur. I became absolutely fascinated by the Age of Camelot and read everything Arthurian I could get my hands on. My favorite, to this day, is a book called Firelord by Parke Godwin. I found it as a paperback in a convenience store wire rack on a family vacation down in Montana, and it was the book that started my Arthur craze. It is told from Arthur’s point of view as he lies dying in Avalon. It is gritty and realistic and heartbreaking and funny and full of lyrical, muscular prose. It has Voice. And I usually re-read it once every year or two. It is the book that made me want to be a writer.

Were you interested in the theater as a kid? What got you into acting?

I’ve always been interested in acting. I think because I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller—whether they were my own stories, or those written by others that I could bring to life for an audience. Then, when I first read Romeo and Juliet, it was like some kind of fireworks went off in my head. That was it. I was hooked. That photo (to right) was my acting headshot when I was about Kelley's age or maybe a couple of years older.

Central Park and Shakespearean fairies are an original mix. What was the inspiration?

I’ve been fascinated by Faerie lore in general since I was a kid. The stories that intrigued me the most were never the ones that portrayed the Fae as tiny, sweet, sparkly things. Rather, I was drawn to the idea that these were the creatures that existed beyond the circle of firelight, or just on the other side of the threshold, or just over that far hill; things only ever glimpsed out of the corner of your eye – if you were lucky! I love the dangerous aspects of the Fair Folk. I always appreciated that you got that sense with Shakespeare’s characters. That, given just a little nudge, things could go badly south with those creatures pretty quickly.

As to how that fascination managed to find a home in the middle of an adventure set in NYC, well, I had some time ago written a short story about an actress in a production of Dream in which some of the characters in the play were actually real Faeries. It was a fun little character piece and it stuck with me as something to expand upon. But, if it was going to become a longer tale, it needed a truly extraordinary setting outside of just the theatre.

When I went down to New York for the first time to meet my agent, I—naturally—paid a visit to Central Park. I fell instantly, irrevocably in love with the place. And with its history. The Park was the most magical place I had ever been and it virtually demanded that I turn it into a setting for a story. For some reason, it was just perfect for this story. It fits so well with the play and the pastoral setting, but there is also a whole bunch of really interesting history behind the building of the Park that just dovetailed wonderfully with what I had in mind.

How were you able to research Central Park and life in NYC while living in Canada?

It’s a pretty short hop from Toronto to NYC. At the time I was writing the book, I had friends living in an apartment about half a block from the Columbus Circle gateway to Central Park. I would stay with them and got to know the city quite well (my agent and editor helped get me acclimatized, too). I would always visit the Park and take long, foot-killing strolls all over the place. Even after dark! (My one friend works out a lot and is fairly physically imposing so it was never the least bit scary, even in the middle of the night.)

As far as learning about Park history and anything else I needed, well that was just good old-fashioned research: books and maps and the Internet.

Did you have a roommate or a friend like Tyff?

I had a couple of friends in high school who were crazy party-girl fashionista-types. But, as far as Tyff’s attitude goes… well, it’s kind of funny, but she’s probably the character in the book that sounds most like me! If I were tall and ridiculously gorgeous and had an unending closet, I swear you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. Heh.

Which Shakespeare play is central to the last book in the trilogy and when is it due to be released?

The third book (or, as I call it, Book the Third – it doesn’t have an official title yet!) is scheduled to release at the end of 2010. It links thematically with The Tempest and was way too much fun to write. Plus, I’m not entirely convinced I’ve left the world of Wondrous Strange behind for good…there are potentially a few Otherworldly tales that remain yet to be told. ;-)

What’s the best advice you’ve had on writing?

Not so much advice necessarily as just a plain truth that was very subtly impressed upon me every time I went to lunch with a well-known author friend of mine. We’d sit down and he’d say “Are you writing?” and if I couldn’t answer “Yes” he would get a certain look on his face. The one that made me make sure I would be able to answer “Yes” the next time I saw him.

Because writers write. It’s as simple as that. You can talk about the great story idea you have rolling around in your head until the crack of doom but if you don’t sit your butt down and get the words out, then you are not a writer. Writers write. And then they re-write. And then they write something else. Rinse. Repeat.

Thank you so much for this, Sarah! It’s been so much fun!

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought Wondrous Strange (now available in paperback) and requested the ARC of Darklight. Harper Collins Canada sent me the ARC when the US office ran out of copies. Thank you Canada!  Author photos were provided by Lesley Livingston - color portrait of Lesley by John Rait.  I took the Central Park photos on Thanksgiving 2009, inspired by this series.

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