Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Right Words

I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound of them falling on my ear, the look of them as they appear on the page. When I can’t sleep, instead of counting sheep, I count words I particularly love. My list always includes alacrity (ah-LAK-ri-tee), meaning: 1. cheerful willingness; eagerness. 2. speed or quickness; celerity. The sound of the word reflects its meaning. It just spills out of my mouth, leaving a smile behind. Another favorite is reverie (REV-ah-ree), meaning: 1. a state of abstracted musing; daydreaming. 2. a daydream. This one always reminds me of an Emily Dickinson poem:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Yet another favorite is halcyon (HAL-see-on), meaning: 1. calm and peaceful; tranquil. 2. prosperous; golden. Doesn’t the phrase “halcyon days” seem more evocative than “golden days”? Plus, “halcyon” brings to my mind a stanza from a favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter song “Jubilee”:

'Cause the people who love you are waiting,
And they'll wait just as long as need be.
When we look back and say those were halcyon days,
We're talking 'bout jubilee.
Many of my favorite words are uncommon words, but others are commonly used words like “love,” “grace,” and “tranquility.” I find it interesting that all those words appear on a list of the seventy most beautiful words in the English language according to a poll conducted several years ago by the British Council. I do admit to being puzzled that “banana,” “hiccup,” and “gum” also appear on the list. They are evidence, I suppose, that there truly is no accounting for taste. For the most part, I’m much more in tune with Robert Beard’s “The 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language.” I wholeheartedly concur with his choice of “dalliance,” “efflorescence,” and “gambol,” but I fear “quintessential” has become overused and “woebegone”—despite the spelling difference--too closely linked to Garrison Keillor.

It should come as no surprise that the misuse of words affects me like the sound of fingernails scratching across a chalkboard. I’m still groaning about a reference in something I read online recently to “Charles, the Prince of Whales.” Back in September of last year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a small book by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries entitled 100 Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up or Mangles. The list includes homonyms, outright errors, and pairs that are similar in meaning, yet carry subtle, significant differences.

Do we know the differences in these pairs?

baleful and baneful

faze and phase

historic and historical

tenant and tenet

Should we write “slight of hand” or “sleight of hand”?

I think social media exchanges make us all mixers and manglers at times.

One of Mark Twain’s most often repeated bits of wisdom is “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” As readers and writers, we appreciate that both lightning and lightning bugs can be important. We just have to know the difference.

What are your favorite words? Are there confusing pairs that you have to check before using? Are there frequently misused words that make you cringe?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Back to Basics

Wendy … was just slightly disappointed when he admitted that he came to the nursery window not to see her but to listen to stories. “You see, I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys knows any stories.”

“How perfectly awful,” Wendy said.

— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1928)

Wendy’s right. Can you imagine how terrible a world without story would be? Can you even remember a time before story was a part of your world? I can’t. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me from big books of Bible stories and fairy tales. I can remember following my grandmother through her house, begging her to tell me about “olden times” as she washed dishes, dusted, cooked lunch, and completed all the other seemingly endless tasks that were part of her daily routine. Stories of her girlhood as one of five motherless children on a farm were as fascinating as the stories my mother read to me. My grandfather’s stories were usually connected to photographs. My favorite involved my mother as a big-eyed infant in a long dress and bonnet in the arms of her schoolteacher grandmother.

I can still recall how excited I was when I could read stories on my own. I had an even greater sense of accomplishment when I wrote my first story with a fat, red pencil in a wide-lined tablet and “published” it by reading it aloud to my suitably impressed younger sister. It was all about Sue Brown who ran away to visit a big-city department store and rode the escalator and looked at evening gowns. The character’s name reflected my desire to have a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon name rather than the different name I possessed. Sue’s propensity to runaway seeking adventure was also autobiographical, although my own trips were limited to the mom-and-pop store across the highway, and Sue’s virtuous promise to henceforth always obey was far removed from my furious objection to being deprived of the candy I had purchased.

This week I’ve been working at recapturing the simple joy of storytelling. I can get so caught up in the crafting of the text, in the struggle to find the proper texture, the right weight, the exact colors for this tapestry of words I’m weaving that I forget story is the beginning and end of what I’m doing. I like what novelist Amy Tan said: “Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone.”

"The Long Way Home," my completed romance novel, started with a single image of a young woman standing, gazing out a window as she wept. Then, there was a voice that said, ‘I’m Max and I can tell you why she’s crying.” I started writing to discover the answer to that why and to share my discovery with others. Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and more than 20 other novels, speaks of the “inner and outer story.” “The outer story,” says Hoffman, “is what happens every day, the things that keep you turning the page to find out.” The “inner story” is the heart that is revealed as the writer moves through the writing process. Hoffman posits that it is the promise of discovering the core of the story that motivates the writer to write. Just yesterday I discovered that forgiveness lies at the heart of my three stories. All of my primary characters have to learn to forgive themselves as well as those who have hurt them.
That discovery thrilled me. The more I think about it, the more I like Hoffman’s idea of discovering the essence of the story. I think it connects in significant ways to Amy Tan’s claim that the stories we tell are first gifts to ourselves. That first story I wrote that filled me with such delight and pride was a gift to me before I shared it with anyone else. I want to get back to such moments.

Some have suggested that writers are either predominantly storytellers or wordsmiths, but I’m not persuaded. However enchanted a writer of fiction may be with words as tools, I think the story and the desire to share it come first. I want my prose to be lucid and lyrical. I want my voice to be fresh and distinctive. I want my plot to be tight, my setting vivid, and my characters compelling. But I want even more for the story to be powerful enough to pull the reader into the world I’ve created and find it as vital as a dream, as cherished as a memory. C. S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone.” John Steinbeck suggested that we write for similar reasons: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” One of the best books I know about story is Barry Lopez’s Crow and Weasel, a tale of the journey of two young Sioux braves. In it, Lopez writes, “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.” See—there’s the double gift metaphor again, and through the giving comes the connection that reminds us we are not alone. For me, that’s basic, and I have recommitted to getting back to the basics.

What are the first stories you remember? If you are a writer, have you discovered the heart of your story? If you are a reader, what stories speak most powerfully to your heart?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Are You Afraid Of?

No, I don’t have the song lyrics in mind when I pose that question. Although, come to think of it, Tony Bennett’s song would make a great theme for a romance novel: “Learn what love is made of. / What are you afraid of?” But that’s a topic for another day. Today I’m asking myself that question and another that is related. What am I afraid of? How are my fears affecting my writing?

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi
 According to one source, there are at least 500 words in the English language for specific fears that human beings harbor, ranging from A (the familiar Acrophobia- fear of heights and the lesser known Alliumphobia- fear of garlic) to Z (Zelophobia- fear of jealousy and Zoophobia- fear of animals). My own greatest fears fall in the A range: Atelophobia- fear of imperfection and Atychiphobia- fear of failure. Such fears can be paralyzing and ironically bring about the very thing I most want to avoid—falling on my face and looking foolish, proving myself a loser and imperfection an overwhelming reality.

I know I’m not perfect, and I really don’t want to be. I rather like knowing that I’m part of what Emily Dickinson called “freckled human nature.” But my writing—ah, that’s harder because, you see, the book in my head is perfect. It is polished and flawless and scintillating. The gap between the book in my head and the book on the page fills me with dismay and fear. If it’s imperfect, it can fail—and that leads to my other fear.

Psychologists say that fear of failure interferes with our analytical, cerebral thought process and pushes us toward “fight or flight,” instinctive responses connected to basic survival that are generated in the pre-rational part of our nervous system. Now these instinctive responses that result in tense muscles, pounding heart, and floods of adrenalin are useful if I’m confronting a woman-eating tiger in a jungle or a gun-toting neighbor who dislikes my choice of music, but they short-circuit the reasoning I need to move past the fear that tells me I can’t write fiction, that I’m wasting my time, that there are other things I should be doing.

The rational part of my brain can remind me that failure may be a necessary step in moving toward success. Thomas Edison failed to invent the light bulb 1,000 times before he succeeded. Babe Ruth is remembered for his 714 home runs, but he struck out nearly twice as many times as he homered. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times. It was 27 years between the time Anna Campbell completed her first manuscript and the sale of her debut novel Claiming the Courtesan. But I can’t remember all these anecdotes and draw inspiration from them if I’m all caught up in “fight,” meaning I claim all responsibility for the situation, or “flight,” meaning I assume no responsibility for the situation. I need that reasoning part of my brain to remind me that some things are out of my control. I can’t control market trends or agents’ lists or the state of publishing, even though any of these and doubtless a thousand other things equally beyond my control play a role in the rejections I have received/will receive. I am responsible for disciplining myself to write even on the days I’d rather do anything else, for producing the best work I can, for being professional in my actions and interactions, for recognizing that in writing, as in most things, to stop growing is to die.

Dr. David Perkins, author of The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakout Thinking (W. W. Norton, 2001), believes that creativity is fostered as much by attitude as by talent. Believing in yourself and working in a disciplined fashion toward a goal frees the imagination to become more productive. I also take comfort in the studies that suggest age has its benefits in terms of creativity. The young use one side of the brain for creative problem solving, but beginning about 40, when overall cognitive abilities begin a slight decline, people begin using their entire brains to think even more creatively than when they were younger. Gene Cohen, M.D., author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, 2006) compares it to “shifting from two-wheel drive to all-wheel drive.” Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she published her first Little House book, and Grandma Moses, American primitive artist, was 76 when she began painting and 80 when she had her first one-woman show.

The difference between those who succeed and those who fail frequently has less to do with degrees of talent than with degrees of perseverance. My goal for 2011 is to conquer the paralytic fear of failure, to remember those things that will encourage me to persevere, and to keep writing. To that end, I copied and placed above my desk the advice of Kaki Warner, whose first two books in the Blood Rose trilogy (Pieces of Sky and Open Country) won high praise in 2010. (The third book, Chasing the Sun, has just been released.) In her interview on January 11 with PJ at The Romance Dish, Ms. Warner advised aspiring writers:

Never give up. Love your characters, because if you don’t, how can you expect an agent or editor to? Get all the feedback you can—discard half of it—use the rest. Keep it real (I know, in Romance that kinda defeats the purpose, but try anyway). And remember, no matter how much of yourself you put into your work, industry rejections are not personal. Finally, it’s your story, your voice, your plot—don’t write to please a critique group, an agent, an editor, or a market. Listen and consider…but in the end do it your way, as true and honest as you can make it. And did I say “never give up?” I mean it. Never. Ever.
I'm still afraid of failing, but I'm writing past the fear.

What are you afraid of? What advice are you set to follow in 2011?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Love Triangles and Daisy Bellamy

Caveat: Those of you who loathe spoilers may want to skip this post if you haven’t yet read but plan to read Jennifer Haymore’s Tristan Family books or Julia London’s Summer of Two Wishes. I’m not reviewing these books, but I do mention them in a spoilerish manner.

I am not a fan of love triangles; I usually avoid them. I dropped off the Stephanie Plum bandwagon long ago. I’m talking about true triangles now, books where the hero or heroine has to make a choice and is genuinely pulled in two directions. There are a lot of second-banana characters in romance novels, some endearing and some villainous, who are there to add conflict but who are never real threats to the hero or heroine. If Gone with the Wind were really a romance, Scarlett would have been smarter and she and Rhett would have had their HEA. I think of Eloisa James’s Mayne, one of my favorite characters ever, but there’s never any doubt that Helene and Rees are the H/H in Your Wicked Ways. The fun is seeing how James is going to bring them together. The same thing holds true for another favorite of mine, Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements. I adored Freddy, but I never questioned that Gigi and Camden would be reconciled. Of course, my affection for the two not-heroes I mentioned accounts for the fact that the books where they are the true heroes, Pleasure for Pleasure (James) and His at Night (Thomas) rank high among my list of favorites. Still, I maintain that the books where I first encountered Mayne and Freddy are not truly love triangle books.

However, I admit that I have read—and doubtless will continue to read—some novels that do feature true triangles. Sometimes I read them because they are by an autobuy author, and sometimes I read them because they generate a lot of buzz and I feel compelled to check them out. Julia London’s Summer of Two Wishes falls in the first group. I started reading London more than a decade before SOTW, and even though I knew it was a love triangle, I couldn’t pass on a book by a favorite author. (Only vampires and serial killers lead me to that decision.) Even though Summer of Two Wishes ended the way I hoped, I have still waited impatiently for well over a year to see Wyatt, the “loser” in that triangle, get his HEA. (The wait will be over on February 25 when A Light at Winter’s End is released.) Jennifer Haymore’s A Hint of Wicked had many of my friends talking, and I was curious. I ended up fascinated by the book, but Garrett broke my heart. Of course, I had the see him get his HEA in A Touch of Scandal.  In a different genre,  Inara Scott hooked me on her YA series, Delcroix Academy, with the first book, Delcroix Academy: The Candidates despite an ending that I knew would generate Team Cam and Team Jack. (I’m leaning toward the latter.) None of these “books I have enjoyed even though they feature love triangles” prepared me for the most recent I read in this category, Marrying Daisy Bellamy by Susan Wiggs.

Like a lot of Wiggs fans, I have read all the Lakeshore Chronicles and watched with fascination and sympathy as Daisy Bellamy grew from a young teen dealing with her parents’ divorce (Summer at Willow Lake) to a character faced with tough choices as a pregnant teenager (The Winter Lodge) to a young woman asserting her independence (Dockside) to a single mom struggling to balance college studies with other responsibilities (Snowfall at Willow Lake) to a photographer developing her skills (Fireside) to a working single mom (Lakeshore Christmas). Throughout all these books, Julian, the adrenalin junkie with a romantic soul, and Logan, the troubled, privileged kid turned sober, devoted father, have been part of Daisy’s story. I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader saying “Oh, please, no” when Wiggs ended Lakeshore Christmas with a Daisy-Julian-Logan cliffhanger proposal scene. Then, the next book was not Daisy’s book, but The Summer Hideaway with its focus on new characters. The Summer Hideaway was a good read, a four-star book for me, but ah, the agony of waiting until 2011 for Daisy’s book. Well, 2011 is here, and Marrying Daisy Bellamy (Mira) will be officially released on January 25.

Daisy Bellamy has grown up. A successful wedding photographer in Avalon, she has dreams of doing something bigger with her art. Her three-year-old son Charlie is a joy, the center of her life and her heart, but she still thinks about Julian Gastineaux, who has had a starring role in her dreams since she first met him. She’s pleased that Logan O’Donnell, an almost life-long friend and the father of her son, has settled in Avalon and become a hard-working businessman, a homeowner, and a father very much involved in Charlie’s life.

Julian Gastineaux is about to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He has received his first assignment, one that will challenge him on all levels. He’s also set to propose to Daisy.

I hesitate to say more for fear of spoilers. I’ll just say that I had given the possibilities of Daisy’s HEA considerable thought before I read this book. The romantic in me hoped she and Julian would end up together. The pragmatist said, “But think how good it would be for Charlie for his mom and dad to be together, and there are different kinds of love.” The writer thought that a new man for Daisy, who would choose to leave both Julian and Logan as just important parts of her past, would be different. But I never once imagined what Wiggs does with this triangle. I was totally surprised and totally engaged. I will say if I didn’t have the habit of reading the end first, I might not have finished this book. But knowing the payoff, I could endure the emotional roller coaster.

From Summer at Willow Lake on, I have been captivated by the Bellamys, their extended family, their friends, and their neighbors and looked forward to the next book. One of the strengths of the series is Wiggs’s ability to create a world that seduces her readers to enter this idyllic community filled with interesting, likeable people who struggle with real world issues but who find healing and happiness in Avalon. Small wonder that most of us are so eager to return. In the case of MDM, that strength in creating a full world also led to my one dissatisfaction with the book. It answers readers’ questions about the earlier cliffhanger scene. It fills in the backgrounds of Julian and Logan, allowing readers to understand more fully the men they became. A number of old friends make appearances, and I for one hope Sonnet’s story will be further developed in future books. But all of these pieces of the Avalon world, and the triangle itself, mean that the H/H actually have little time for the two of them. I wanted to see them together more. Therefore, I give Book 8 in the Lakeshore Chronicles 4.5 stars. I did find it lacking in this one area, but it was a memorable, engrossing read. And maybe I’ll be more willing to consider the next love triangle romance that comes my way.

Are you a Lakeshores Chronicles fan? Who do you want Daisy’s hero to be? How do you feel about love triangles in fiction?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

May the new year be filled with moments to celebrate things large and small! May you laugh more often, love more deeply, and read more books than in 2010.