Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Book Review and the Caterpillar

My Review for Furiousy Happy by Jenny Lawson:

I found the first third of the book difficult to get through. Lawson's revelations and frank assessments about her mental health were gripping and peppered with insane humor. Insane because I was reduced to bouts of teary-eyed laughter in places. The middle third was tamer. The Appendix: Interview with the Author situated in the middle of the book was a great idea and most helpful. The last third held the payoff--the real reason to make it to the end. For me is was The File of 24, which contains the letters from people who changed their minds about suicide, and Victor's answer to Jenny saying, "I felt like his life would be easier without me." His answer, "It might be easier. But it wouldn't be better."

Jenny Lawson's journey through life will never be easy, but it will be well documented in her personal style with interesting expletives, poignant stories of survival, growing self-awareness, and the laugh-out-loud funny.

It seems that whenever I read a Jenny Lawson book I get infected with her irreverent writing style. It happened with her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and to a lesser extent with the second, Furiously Happy.

I lived in Austin, TX and was taken with Lawson’s first book because of its location in what I remember as the Texas hill country. It struck a chord. Likewise the taxidermy. And the fun she had buying the gigantic metal rooster was amplified went I started seeing them for sale in eastern Iowa. Who knew they would become a thing. Anyway, I’ve been on a mission to document every sighting on my Facebook author’s page ever since. (My last photo entry had like a dozen.)

As I said, I liked her free-wheeling writing style and could channel it way too easily. So much so that I had to force myself to stop. I’m not her.

However, I’ve come back to that style once again and it may save me for this weekend. You see I jumped at a chance to be part of a new event at the QC Botanical Center in Rock Island. Jane had asked if I had anything nature related. I asked if Monarch butterflies counted? She said yes. I said yes. When I had a minute more to think about what I’d done I realized I really didn’t have anything newer than a newspaper article published years ago when I first started my butterfly garden. I was in trouble.

Then we had a night of storm warnings, our smoke alarm went off at midnight, and everything fell into place. I had my own off-beat story to tell, in my own way, and in my own voice. I’ll find out what the reaction to it will be on Saturday. 

Time to practice the delivery.

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Pattern for Building scenes

I came up with my system of building scenes by trial and error. I was working on my first mystery novel without a written-out outline.

I had my setting: the (real) village of Bishop Hill. I had the plot point of a (real) Swedish-born folk artist, who documented the 19th century colony period, have his last portrait lost for decades.

From there, I built my cast of characters by using bits and pieces of real people I knew and photo clippings I’d been saving. I got to know the ins and outs of my characters’ background by using several worksheets I picked up from workshops I’ve attended.

When it came time to construct the SCENES that my characters would inhabit and would use get the action going I fell into a pattern that worked for me.

First came DIALOG. I decided on the principle speakers, usually two characters. I gave them a mission: what they needed to talk about, how much info to reveal, clues to drop, etc. I imagined their voices, but didn’t worry excessively about speech patterns at first. Then I set them in motion. I had them talk. Usually, they were well behaved and advanced the plot as I wanted. However, sometimes the new and unexpected happened. That was a bonus.

SETTING came after I had my framework of dialog. I went back to add in the details. Where were they: In a kitchen? In a café? In a barn? On a street?

When the setting was in place, I added ACTION: I made them fidget with a napkin for instance, or hold a cup of coffee for its soothing warmth, the same for baking some muffins, or walk the streets looking and listening.

Next came the most difficult element for me to get in and to get right—EMOTION.

I went so far as to buy The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Ackerman & Puglisi. (Okay, I didn’t buy it. I guilted a son into gifting it as a Christmas present.)

The last step was to add some little BITS OF BUSINESS that made things fun. Giving the characters the drawl, twang, or melodic accent to set them apart. Replaying an inside joke from high school. Using a very common last name to excess.

What I’ve described is a process of adding layer upon layer to build a complex scene that moves the action forward and adds information about my people, where they live, and what their motives might be. Everything and anything can become a clue.

It takes time at first. But it gets faster. And I envy the authors who can do it well enough to make it look easy.

There are, of course, other ways to come up with a solid scene. The following list is from a recent workshop with Kali VanBaale at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference:

Distinct time & place & POV
Dramatic tension, actions to further story

Friday, July 14, 2017

Remembering Linda Holden

Linda’s memorial service was held in the Colony Church in Bishop Hill. The Rev. Dan Wright led those assembled in prayer and recollections. Linda and Steve, her late husband, were neighbors of Bishop Hill’s United Methodist Church and therefore the parsonage. Rev. Wright shared how he became acquainted with Linda and the many times they shared late night coffee and conversation. She took to calling him “her pastor” even though she and Steve never attended service while he was in Bishop Hill.

During one of Rev. Wright’s visits Linda, who wasn’t mobile due to an amputation, asked him for a favor. She said, “I have two cats and I see three tails around the food dish.” He had to carry a garter snake out to the wood pile. Some workers were gathered by the back door and parted like the Red Sea to let him pass.

Linda’s big house with lots of rooms always reminded the Reverend of a bible story where souls could find a place. Linda claimed it was a “safe zone” for any who needed it.

The Reverend read the parable of the complaining widow and observed that Linda could be vocal and irritating, but also caring and giving.

She just had her vision of how things had to be and demanded perfection from herself and others. When hanging the older, piecemeal bits bunting from the gazebo in the park there was no “that’s good enough” for Linda. Everything was numbered, ordered, and arranged to her specifications. There had to be great relief when the old bunting was replaced “whole” pieces.

Others shared their stories of Linda:

When Swedish royalty was scheduled to come to Bishop Hill Linda & Steve organized the repainting of the Colony School. They spared the Royals from seeing an entirely blue interior by doing most of the intricate decorating work themselves.

A baby quilt made by Linda’s mom was in a sale and bought by a farmer’s wife.

Her nephew told how as a young man he could tell right away that Linda was different, unique, and not in the same conservative mold as the rest of the family. She took him to hear jazz, Thelonious Monk, and inspired a career in music. She came to hear him perform in Florida.

It was not unheard of to become stuck in Linda’s elevator. Not unheard of, but it still had to be scary.

Those stories and more reflected some intimate details in the life of a complicated, talented woman who will be missed by those friends and neighbors who knew her well.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Food for Thought

I’ve been given some excellent ideas for my next book in the last few weeks.

First up was Kali VanBaale’s workshop at last month’s David R. Collins Writers’ Conference. Kali was going over the importance of setting and to drive her point home she gave us an exercise to work on for the next day. She asked us to “destroy what you love.” It could be by fire, flood, the ravages of weather, abandonment, overpopulation, or the erosion of poverty.

The more I thought about this assignment the more I liked it, but what to destroy and how.

Of course, it would be in Bishop Hill, and it would be tricky. I didn’t feel comfortable damaging an 1846 Colony-era building, because they’re too important and too few to start with. But I saw her point. By destroying an old building, I could show, not just describe, the real value of preservation—one of my main themes.

In Clouds Over Bishop Hill I talked about implementing the adaptive reuse of old structures by replacing damaged roof trusses and by physically relocating smaller buildings. I had my woodworker repairing old chairs by taking them apart, cleaning them, and using better glue. I discussed the fragility of old photos and paintings. But I was never quite sure if I had gotten my preservation message across.

The second idea came to me at a Thursday night lecture at the Figge Art Museum. I was listening to Laleňa Vellanoweth talk about art conservation. One of her slides showed a crumpled flag from 9/11. It had not been humidified and pressed out for display. It was left wadded up. Laleňa told us, “It would have lost its significance if flattened.”

That example rang true for me, and it would help me solve a timeline continuity problem for the next book.

For those who’ve read Clouds Over Bishop Hill, you’ll probably know what I’m thinking of. For everyone else, you’ll have to read the book clear to the end.

I think it just goes to show how important getting out of your comfort zone AND getting out of the house can help overcome a little case of writer’s block.