Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Advice from Dan Brown

Because Dan Brown of "The DaVinci Code" fame lives in the next town, it's not unusual to see him out and about when he's taking a break from writing bestsellers. It was during an unexpected encounter at a local bookstore that Husband No. 1 seized the opportunity to ask the author about the ending to "Angels & Demons," which had troubled my beloved spouse for some time.

"Could someone actually survive by using a cape as a parachute when they jumped out of a helicopter?" Husband No. 1 asked after introducing himself.

Brown's response? "Well, first of all, it's a novel.... but yes, it's theoretically possible."

(By the way, this photo was taken outside the private "Angels & Demons" screening he hosted at the Portsmouth Music Hall. We weren't invited.)

Even though I agree with Husband No. 1 that Robert Langdon's cape escape stretches the limits of believability, I also understand how liberating it can be to make up stories about whatever you want. Writing experts often advise authors to "write what you know."

But how interesting are the things Pat Remick and most writers know? Maybe it's better to follow the advice of those who instead say "write what you can imagine." And if someone questions your story, you can always be like Dan Brown and say, "Well, first of all, it's a novel."

For a former reporter well-schooled in the "get it first, but get it right" school of journalism, writing mostly from imagination does require a giant leap of faith. I admit it's sometimes difficult to ignore my news training when I'm writing fiction, which can result in spending far too much of my writing time researching minutiae for short stories and my novel-in-progress.

Instead, I think I should take a lesson from Dan Brown's phenomenal success: If writers can tell a great story, readers are more likely to be forgiving when it comes to the pesky details or nagging doubts about the credibility of a plot.

On the other hand, I often think that if I were to put some of the bizarre/outlandish/improbable things that happen in real life into a novel, editors would most likely reject it on grounds the plot was implausible. The John Edwards affair/downfall is a great example. Who would believe that a man running for president of the United States and whose wife has terminal cancer would be running around with some videographer he supposedly met in a bar? The believability index really plummets when you add in the angle that an Edwards aide and his young family sheltered the candidate's pregnant mistress. "You've got to be kidding" would be the normal response.

But here's how some of the writing experts might explain it: "Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense."

What do you think? Does fiction have to make sense for you to enjoy reading it?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Keeping the Feast, Keeping a Friend

When I opened my local newspaper Sunday morning, the face of a woman I’ve known for more three decades was smiling back at me.

Paula Butturini, whose beautifully written memoir “Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy” is earning fabulous reviews, was featured in a story in the Portsmouth Herald because she is coming to town March 3 for a reading at our beloved independent bookstore, RiverRun, as part of her East Coast book tour. (Click here to read the Herald story.) This photo was taken when No. 1 and No. 2 son attended Paula’s reading Sunday night in Washington, DC. Paula knit my oldest son’s first baby sweater, which I still have. Like I said, we go back awhile.

I knew Paula years before she was beaten by the Czech police, her husband New York Times reporter John Tagliabue was nearly killed by a sniper during the Romanian revolution – which later plunged her wonderful spouse into debilitating bouts of depression – and her mother committed suicide. In “Keeping the Feast,” she details how important food and other kinds of nourishment – such as friends and family – have been in helping her survive these tragedies and talks frankly about the disease of depression.

During most of Paula's major life challenges, she has lived on the other side of the Atlantic, calling a variety of countries home, while she and John worked as foreign correspondents. They reside in Paris now and although we've communicated by phone, letter, and now e-mail in between her visits back to the U.S., I did not fully fathom just how much Paula has endured until I read “Keeping the Feast.” Although I have known much of her story, and well remember the terror when John was shot a few months after their 1989 wedding, it is staggering to read the narrative in its entirety.

But Paula has always been a brave and determined woman.

She and I arrived at the Dallas office of United Press International, then the world’s second-largest news wire service, within a month of each other in 1977. At the time, we were the token Yankees – she from Connecticut and me from New Hampshire -- and among the token women hired to work in a 24-hour news bureau serving a nine-state region of the Southwest.

Both of us had worked at newspapers, but took very different paths to Dallas. She came from a Connecticut paper; I arrived via one in Lubbock, Texas. She was coming out of a marriage; I had no intention of going into one. I was thrilled to have my own apartment; she had the vision and courage to buy a home in a transition neighborhood and rehab it.

Most of us in the Dallas news bureau were single and/or young. We spent countless hours working and playing together. Because UPI operated around-the-clock, we shared many holidays, sometimes even eating Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners together in the middle of the UPI office. We staged holiday pageants, had poetry contests, and indulged in other creative behaviors to entertain ourselves between breaking news stories.

Central to this bonding was our softball team in the Dallas media league: Dr. Darkness and His Night Writers. Named after our pitcher, dubbed Dr. Darkness because of his years working the overnight shift and sometimes his mood, most of us weren't very athletic (journalists rarely are) but we never failed to make an impression on our opponents and the game stories written afterward were priceless. (Can you pick out Paula or me from this photo?)

The scorching softball season always ended with a memorable banquet, usually at Paula’s house. One year, we even donned formal wear. Constant to the ritual were the the awards, many of them quite unusual as I recall. The most coveted (which I never won) was: “The Shoes of the Doctor,” which consisted of that season's sneakers glued onto one of the leftover mirror tiles the Doctor considered trendy apartment d├ęcor. Even then, food and drink were important to the proceedings and nourished our friendship.

I still have the printed program we created for Paula’s going-away party when UPI transferred her to London. By then, I had changed my mind about marriage and Dr. Darkness (now referred to as Husband No. 1), and we hosted the party at our home. It was filled that night with not only most of our Dallas co-workers, but also many fellow Unipressers (which is what we called ourselves) who traveled great distances from throughout our nine-state region to wish Paula well as she began the foreign adventure that continues today. None of us could have imagined the trials she would later face.

But then, as now, we admired her grace, her courage and her honesty -- and knew her friendship was something to be treasured.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Not such a great Valentine's Day gift

After more than three decades of marriage, I should know by now that Husband No. 1 does not always follow the rules when it comes to gift-giving. So even though we'd agreed not to exchange gifts for Valentine’s Day, it wasn't a total shock to see the white envelope on the kitchen table.

I should note here that the classic example of these rules violations occurred the year we agreed not to spend over $25 on each other for Christmas. Since this was early in our marraige, $25 could still purchase some decent presents with a little bargain-hunting. But it surely wasnt enough for a rolltop desk and an emerald ring, which is what he gave me along with 25 envelopes. Each contained an accounting of money saved by not engaging in specific activities – such as “I saved $25 by not taking you bowling, renting shoes or buying pizza and beer” – to equal his spending. Clever and yet clearly a violation, although a memorable one.

So you can understand my growing apprehension as I opened my Valentine’s Day card. When I saw the $25 and map inside, it turned into full-blown panic. The $25, he explained, was the entry fee for the Great Bay 5K Race on Oct. 23 and the map showed the race course, which he said we should drive after brunch at a restaurant at Great Bay Marina (following the Great Bay theme, he noted).

Have I mentioned that I've been considering making running a 5K my 2010 fun goal? An odd choice, to be sure, for someone who hasn’t run anywhere since she was 8 years old and far different from my 2009 fun goals of meeting author Dennis Lehane and a moose in the wild. Having Husband No. 1 give me the race map meant I might actually have to do this.

I'm beginning to fear that eight months may not be enough time to get ready to run 3.1 miles. A co-worker sent me a “Couch to Course” training program that's supposed to take just nine weeks to get you to that point, but the first week called for three days of alternating 60 seconds of jogging with 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes. Along with taxing my limited math abilities to figure out when I should walk and when I should jog, I felt like I was going to collapse after the first two minutes. So now I’m in training to begin training – I’ve progressed from running one minute and walking 10 to walking three, but the idea of running 3.1 miles EVER in my lifetime is beginning to seem like an impossible goal. Husband No. 1 terms it an “achievable fantasy,” but last year’s Great Bay 5K winner did it in 15 minutes and 25 seconds. I doubt I could drive it that fast.

So perhaps it’s a good thing that we spent the $25 race fee on brunch before checking out the course. Nonetheless, I was feeling fairly confident until I saw the route. Husband No. 1 tried to reassure me by pointing out it was fairly level and the one hill had a lovely name – Orchard Hill, which he pointed out was not the same as “Torture Hill.” I began to hyperventilate. “I can’t do this – my chest hurts,” I whined.

“But we’re still in the car,” he said, looking somewhat astonished.

Then he told me running a 5K could earn me top billing in our annual holiday letter. “I’ll take your picture in the T-shirt before the race just in case… ” he said, his voice trailing off. Then he saw my reaction. “So your hair will still look good,” he quickly added.

Swept up by this limited enthusiasm, I said, “Well, maybe you should take my picture now in my running gear so we’d have a 'before picture.' Wait, I don’t have any running gear. What the hell IS running gear?”

The conversation deteriorated from there. “What if it rains on race day?” I asked. He grimaced. “I guess you better train in the rain.” “What if it’s really hot?” “I guess you’ll have to train all summer.”

“This gift sucks,” I grumbled.

Then it struck me. Husband No. 1 is a mystery writer. He kills people on the pages for fun. This could all be part of a sinister plot. “Maybe I’ll have a heart attack because you planned this all along. When they're putting me in the ambulance, I’ll be pointing the finger at you,” I yelled. "It will ruin Valentine's Day for you forever."

“I think you may need an attitude adjustment about all this,” he replied.

When I related this tale to No. 1 son, who happens to be making a brief appearance in his home state this week, at first he just stared at me. “You’re going to run a 5K on Oct. 23?” he finally said. “Will you be done by Halloween?”

I glared at him. Then he said, “Are there any hotels along the route? Maybe you can run it in stages like Lance Armstrong does in the Tour de France. You could run a mile a day, call it the Tour de Great Bay and even get bracelets made up, you know like Livestrong.”

“You mean more like Live Long Enough to Finish the Race?”

"Exactly," he said. "What are you going to do about your glasses, by the way?"

"Wear them, of course."

"But you'll be sweating so much that you might have trouble keeping them on," my husband interjected.

"I'm going to sweat?" I said. Both of them looked astonished.

Maybe I need to rethink this.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A long time to be short

I've spent the past month working on two short stories, rising early to write before work (and believe me, spending your first 1.5 hours awake thinking about murder sets an interesting tone for the workday) and devoting many hours on weekends. It hasn't been easy.

Most people think writing a short story must be far less difficult than completing a novel. Although I’ve yet to finish mine, I do know that crafting a short story is extremely challenging.

Relating the story, developing characters the reader will care about, and creating a sense of place are all essential elements that require words – and sometimes lots of ‘em. So if there’s a tight limit, such as 3,500 words for one of my stories, finishing a first draft still means many more hours of work to pare it down without losing the essence. Writers find this process of “killing your darlings” -- deleting words or phrases that took hours, and sometimes days or weeks, to craft – particularly painful.

My friend Kathleen, who delights in writing very short stories, often brags that if she were to divide the meager payment she receives for publication in an anthology by the number of words written, she’s the highest paid author per-word in that book. Last year, however, her 246-word story was not enough to maintain that distinction because someone else wrote a piece that was only 64 words long. Think about it – an entire story in 64 words. That’s shorter than most conversations.

It’s also fewer words than have been allowed in the flash fiction challenges I've been participating in recently to keep my creative juices flowing. I do think, however, that flash fiction readers have lower expectations about what such a short story has to contain to be credible, which helps, but all the primary elements still need to be there.

There are those who contend powerful stories can be told in even fewer words. According to writing legend, Ernest Hemingway once wrote one in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I've seen writing challenges urging participants to duplicate this feat, including asking them to describe their lives in just six words. Smith Magazine has been publishing collections of these six-word memoirs over the past few years.

As someone who often writes far too many words, I admire the ability of these writers to sum up their lives in so few of them. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Well, I thought it was funny” – Stephen Colbert
“At least I never voted Republican” – Tony Kushner
“I picked passion. Now I'm poor. -- Kathleen E. Whitlock
“So would you believe me anyway?” -- James Frey

If you had to sum up your life in six words, what would they be?