Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Words in the Woods

Often I do my best writing in the woods or in the pool. I start my workday either walking my dog or swimming laps. I’m not a morning person, and I can’t tolerate caffeinated coffee, sadly. A cup of tea and exercise gets my mind going.

On a sunny Saturday, Henry (above) and I explored the Josephine Newman Audubon Sanctuary in Georgetown for the first time. Our kids had opted out to do homework. This stage of parenting is liberating. We were alone in the woods and free to talk without interruption. My English husband and I first met in the USA, but we’ve lived in the UK for three years together, including my junior year abroad and his sabbatical at Oxford University. I’ve been mining these experiences for NOT CRICKET (now renamed A MATCH FOR EVE), but I had put that novel aside to write as u like it.

Returning to NOT CRICKET a year later, I could see why I had gotten stuck. It wasn’t writer’s block, I can always write something, but the narrative was spiraling in too many directions. I had three locations, three main characters, two time periods, clashing dark and humorous elements and enough plot for two books. I’ve had this problem before and labeled it plot sprawl.

As we arrived at the sanctuary, the solution was as clear as the blue sky. All I had to do was cut the superfluous plot string and a marvelous character and save her story for a later book. I was left with a love story between a plucky American and a charming cricket player. The woods became crowded with imaginary people, and I was transported to the opposite shore of the Atlantic.

On a hilltop (photo to right), Henry helped me to walk through the plot points. To his delight, we talked cricket. On Sunday I summarized the story in two pages and described the main characters. On Monday I drafted the first chapter and showed it to Henry.

“I don’t really like it,” Henry said. “I love it!”

I had written myself out of the woods. Now it’s time to shut my office door. Other than the first chapter, I don’t let anyone read my work in progress until the manuscript is complete. Instead of not seeing the forest for the trees, I’m now seeing the story for the pages.

Blog watch: I’ve always loved the name of this creative blog: Walk2Write. Maria Padian posted “Where Stories Begin.”  Marie Mutsuki Mockett blogged about writing her second novel while caring for her newborn in "The Stephen Jay Gould Theory of Writing." Dawn Maria blogged about revising a novel: Alphabet Soup.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shopping in SoHo

Do you have a special childhood friend who is always there for you? I was packing the car after a  weekend visiting my family in NYC, when Cathy emailed from Pennsylvania. She was coming to the city to find a dress for her son’s bar mitzvah: a fashion emergency! Cathy (right) and I (left) first met in a Central Park playground as toddlers and then went to The Dalton School together for fifteen years. My wonderful husband offered to drive the kids back to Maine on his own.

When we were growing up in Manhattan, SoHo (south of Houston St.) was the art center of the city. Since then, boutique shops have pushed art galleries uptown to lower rent Chelsea. Most downtown shops open at 11:00 AM; Manhattan is not a morning city. We lucked into a beautiful sunny day in the 60s.

Our first stop was Pylones (above) on 69 Spring St. for fun little gifts for my kids. I found bendable pencils in candy stripe colors that made even my teenaged son laugh. Since I was also doing research for my young adult novels, we stopped into Free People on 99 Spring St. Not for us.

When I was a teenager, I shopped at French Connection. I was pleased to see that the store (above) had grown up with me and was catering to adults with a funky style. I found a much needed winter/fall dress more than half off plus a wild turquoise and black spring/fall dress. Cathy needed something dressier.

I needed lunch. We shared an excellent Cobb salad with iced cappuccinos at Delicatessen at 54 Prince Street. The people watching was equally delicious. I love the conversational tidbits a writer can gather in the city. The hostess kindly took our photo (opening shot.)

Cathy found a dress that was almost right at Elie Tahari (to left) at 417 West Broadway. She had no luck in midtown department stores and in pricy Madison Avenue boutiques. On a boutique's racks uptown were only 0’s, 2’s, and 4’s. I said, “My daughter is a zero; she’s twelve years old!” The salesman laughed and found some real women’s sizes.

My friend Jennifer Scanlon, a scholar of fashion, has a theory: “Size zero: what does that say about women? That they want to disappear, not take up any space at all.” I ran into Jen on the plane back to Maine. Jen was born in the Bronx and grew up in around NYC. She now teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. She also went shopping in SoHo. She recommended Uniqlo on 546 Broadway for fun tops and multi-colored tights. I’ll have to check it out next visit. I stay with my parents in Yorkville, uptown by the East River. Jen recommends Park79 hotel for its location, cleanliness and affordability.

Where’s your favorite place to shop?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine: review

I always read with a pencil, marking perfect sentences in the margins. By page 21 of The Three Weissmanns of Westport I had mined 3 literary jewels that sparkled with dry wit. Many more followed. Here’s a sample:

“It was not that the woman boasted. Quite the opposite. She was modest to a fault, the fault being that she insinuated her modesty, deftly, into almost any conversation, proclaiming her insignificance and ignorance, thereby assuring a correction.”

According to the jacket flap, The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a modern adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. The New York Times noted that author Cathleen Schine does more than copy the plot; she actually captures Jane Austen’s sensibility. I would add that Jane Green, a women’s fiction author who lives in Westport, is another influence in both style and subject. In fact, Jane Green moved to a beachside cottage in Westport after her divorce, met her new husband there and blogged about this novel. Schine borrows from the two Janes, but she spins an original tale in her own voice.

Betty Weissmann has been abandoned by her husband of nearly 50 years: “He glanced at his wife. She was wearing her old white bathrobe, and curled on herself on the couch, she looked like someone’s crumpled, abandoned Kleenex.”

Betty’s middle-aged daughters aren’t much better off. The eldest is a divorced librarian who pines for her grown sons and fills her hours rereading classic novels: “Annie was matter-of-fact but the facts were never hers.” Miranda’s “Awful Authors” ruin her literary agency; their salacious memoirs are revealed to be frauds.

Short on fortune, the three women move from Manhattan to a relative’s beachside cottage in posh Westport, Connecticut. Wealthy retired Jews and WASPs are the landed gentry of the 21st Century. Schine captures both settings well to my particular satisfaction. I grew up in Manhattan and used to visit my Jewish grandparents in Westport. On hearing the title, my parents said, “We know the Weissmanns of Westport.” Nope, this is fiction, but like the best social satire, it is true to life but far more amusing.

“He was eating a piece of dark orange cheese. She noticed it left a narrow oily trail on his lip, like a snail.”

Shakespeare Watch: On March 22, 2010 Arden is publishing a 19th century play "Double Falsehood or The Distressed Lovers" which is supposedly based on three missing plays by Shakespeare.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fort Popham Beach

March means mud season in Maine . . .  shall we escape to the beach?

Fort Popham reminds me of other half finished work.

Lobster traps featured in S.A.D. and now in a work in progress.

An old wharf remembers better days.

Imagination is at home on an island.

 Sea stars sparkle.

Shakespeare Watch: Macbeth opens on Thursday March 12, 2010 at the Theater Project in Brunswick, Maine. Director Al Miller blogged about why he staged Macbeth with teenaged actors. I've been observing rehearsals to research my young adult novel. I love the genuine delivery and passion that teen actors bring to the famous lines.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Undercover by Beth Kephart: review & interview

Have you ever read a novel that felt like coming home? Undercover by Beth Kephart is set in Pennsylvania, but with the turning leaves, wild animals and pond skating, it could have been Maine.

My favorite place to skate is on our friend’s island in Harpswell. A stonewall separates the freshwater pond from the sea.

I’ve rested on the wall with my face turned to the sun, listening to the crash of waves and marveling at how my children zip confidently across the bumpy pond ice.

We all have our unsteady moments, but there are none in Beth’s first young adult novel. Undercover is literary fiction for discerning teenagers:

“… the sky was poked to bits with the nakedness of trees. The color of the day was the color of a storm that had chosen not to come.”

The story unfolds slowly with sensitivity and grace. Elisa is a lonely, unattractive girl with a knack for beautiful metaphors. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, she crafts love poems for the boys to woo the pretty girls at her school. Elisa collects feathers and images in the woods, capturing them in verse like fallen leaves under ice. She teaches herself to figure skate on a secluded pond.

Complications arise when Elisa is attracted to her latest client. Theo is in her honors English class, where they are reading the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. Theo secretly befriends Elisa as they skate under the stars. His jealous girlfriend vows revenge. Shy Elisa must find the self-confidence to fight back:

“… the greatest tragedy of all is letting invisibility win. It’s choosing to give up the thing you want because you think you don’t deserve it.”

My only criticism was that I didn’t understand how an unusual girl like Elisa would fall for a conventional boy like Theo. Still, I could relate to her desire for love and for friendship. I was sad to reach the final page and found myself longing for the woods where foxes dance in the moonlight.

I loved how the themes of Cyrano de Bergerac echoed in Undercover. I’ve tried to do something similar with my young adult novel, as u like it, and Shakespeare’s play. This writer seems to share my sensibility, which is another reason I felt at home in the narrative. I connected with Beth through Cynthia Pittmann@Oasis Writing Link’s post that mentioned our writing for teens. Thank you, Cynthia!

Beth has two other young adult novels: The House of Dance and Nothing but Ghosts. Her fourth YA novel, The Heart is not a Size, is set in a border city of Mexico and will be released on March 30th, 2010. You can read more about Beth's books on her blog (my review is featured today.)

My Interview of Beth Kephart
author photo by Mike Matthews

Sarah: Who are your favorite young adult authors?

Beth: My very favorite young adult book is The Book Thief, which is original and deeply moving and artful and all that I look for in any kind of book. I’m also a huge believer in books that cut across categories, and time, so that I want every young adult out there to read, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird, though I’m not sure it was labeled YA upon its release, as well as Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, which was published as an adult novel but certainly, certainly features younger protagonists and important issues and graceful writing. I also love, and would love every teen and parent to read, Marilyn Nelson’s Carver—a book of poems that tell the story of botanist and educator George Washington Carver.

Sarah: As a poet, non-fiction and memoir author, what made you decide to write a young adult novel?

Beth: I was actually asked to write YA by Laura Geringer, who was first at Harper and is now working with Egmont, who had read some of my nonfiction and who knew that I had taught young writers for years. I had also chaired the National Book Awards’ Young People’s Literature Jury in 2001 and made my thoughts about what YA might be quite clear.

Sarah: How autobiographical was Undercover?

Beth: Undercover is emotionally true, and, in many ways, factually resonant. I went to Radnor High School, as Elisa does. I was a young poet who benefited from the encouragement of an English teacher. I was often asked by the popular guys for advice about winning over the girls they actually loved, and sometimes I was bruised by that, but didn’t show it. I also learned to ice skate on a pond in Boston, and ultimately I excelled at the type of competition in which Elisa skates at the end. My mother was a seamstress, and my final competition dress was very much like the one I describe in the book. Finally, I run a consulting business; my first business was called Point of View, which is the name of the firm I created for Elisa’s dad.

 Beth Kephart at age seventeen, family photo

Sarah: What elements are key in writing for teenagers as opposed to writing for an adult audience?

Beth: The story has to move more quickly. The scenes, in some ways, must be more intense. The characters must be immersed in situations that matter enormously to teens. That said, the teens I know and interact with on my blog are hugely intelligent, their vocabularies sometimes outpace mine, and they tend to embrace books of linguistic or thematic complexity. I write my heart out when I write for teens. I don’t keep anything off the page.

Sarah: What’s the best writing advice you have received?

Beth: My degree from Penn is in the History and Sociology of Science, and I didn’t take any writing courses as an undergrad. I went to three writing workshops later in life, one conducted in Spoleto by Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons, one in Prague with Jayne Anne Phillips, and one at Bread Loaf, again with Jayne Anne. I’ve been blessed to have some truly extraordinary editors—Alane Mason and Laura Geringer—and from them I’ve learned quite a bit. Through it all, one thing stands out: Give yourself and your stories room to breathe.

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Publishing Industry Watch:

"Math of Publishing Meets the E-Book" (NYT, 3/1/10, business section) compared the costs of publishing books vs. e-books and showed how profit is shared among publishers, authors and booksellers.

"The Editorial Role: An Agent's View" (The Huffington Post 3/2/10) Jean Naggar (my agent) describes the changing role of agents as editors lack the time and support to edit manuscripts.