Friday, September 28, 2012

Famous writers from different states

So I was trying to think of the most famous writers I could from each state.  A few were obvious (Cather, Faulkner, Toole).  Still, I didn't come up with too many--it turns out I'm not actually sure where most writers are from.  I put the name in italics if I've never read a book by the author.

California--John Steinbeck?  Jack London?  Charles Bukowski?  Raymond Chandler?

Colorado--Hunter S. Thompson?

Georgia--Carson McCullers

Illinois--Ernest Hemingway

Indiana--Kurt Vonnegut

Louisiana--John Kennedy Toole

Maine--Stephen King

Massachusetts--Melville?  Nathaniel Hawthorne? (no, I never made it through The Scarlet Letter), Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, oh, I've got a recent one--Robert Parker (the Spenser mysteries)

Mississippi--William Faulkner, Eudora Welty (I think)

Missouri--Mark Twain

Nebraska--Willa Cather

New Jersey--Junot Diaz (Oscar Wao was set there, I assume he's from there)

New York--Walt Whitman (Ok, he's more of a poet, but he's who I came up with), Langston Hughes? Ralph Ellison? (obviously they lived in Harlem, but were they from there?), Stan Lee (!), about a million others who lived in NY but weren't from there

North Carolina--David Sedaris

Ohio--Harriet Beacher Stowe (I think), P.J. O'Rourke, Harvey Pekar

Oklahoma--S. E. Hinton (Lee told me this one, and how great is it that OK's most famous author is YA?)

Pennsylvania--John Updike (aren't his books set in suburban Philadelphia?)

Virginia--Edgar Allan Poe (I know Baltimore claims him but I think he was from Richmond originally)

Washington State--Frank Herbert

Leave any others you know in the comments and I'll add them to the list.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Importance of Writing Groups

I've been a member of the Writers of Chantilly for about 18 months, and it's made a tremendous difference to my writing.  Before I joined, I thought the most important thing about being in a writers' group was the group's critique of the story.  But now that I've been a member, I've come to realize the critiques aren't the most important thing, or even second.  No, the critique is third on the list.

Second on the list is the moral support.  Now, I've been writing since I was a little kid.  Short stories, poems, screenplays, essays for school or even for myself.  I guess I'm pretty well internally motivated.  Even if I wasn't in a group, I'd still be writing.  But I'm not sure I would have finished my most recent novel, or maybe it would have taken me much longer.  The twice-monthly meetings of my writers' group energize me, supercharge me, make me eager to come back and write for the rest of the week.

But even that is subsidiary to what I've discovered is the primary advantage: being in a group makes me try harder.  Where formerly I might have glossed over an awkward passage or half-assed a difficult scene, or skipped it entirely, I know now I'm going to end up reading that in front of other people, so I really have to polish my work.  Make sure everything is exactly how it should be.  Even if it's good, it gets an extra re-reading, and if it's bad, I keep going at it until I know it's something worth reading to the other members.

That's why for writers, I've come to believe being in a writers group is essential.  It's something I would recommend to any writer.  I'm not sure there's really another way, at least for me, and I suspect for others, to get out the best writing we're capable of. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Musical inspiration

I find a lot of inspiration for my writing in song lyrics.  I don't listen while I'm writing--music is way too much of a distraction!  But lyrical fragments will get in my head and stay there for years, and eventually have an impact on what I write.

For The Ballad of Dani and Eli this verse, from Cracker's I See the Light, was often floating around in my head:

Do you sometimes lust
after the grace that others have inside
they simple peace they make of life
they love they show on summer's nights
Well I want it too

(By the way, this is what the words sound like to me.  If this is wrong and you actually know the correct lyrics, don't bother letting me know because I prefer this!)

Not that Cracker's song directly influenced the plot or anything, but hearing those words sort of puts me in the right mood for writing.  The character of Eli in the book especially was informed by the spirit of the lyrics.  The way the singer wants the uncomplicated, loving way other people have, but isn't quite sure how to acquire it for himself is very much reflected in Eli.  And you know he probably never will find that "simple peace"--it's not something you can lust after, the very act of lusting after it precludes its achievement.

What songs or lyrics have inspired your writing or other artistic endeavors?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ballad hook

Today I started sending out my manuscript for The Ballad of Dani and Eli to agents.  If I hear any updates on that front, I'll post it here.  For those who are interested, here's the hook from my query letter:

Fifteen-year old Dani likes the blues, bad boys, and trouble, and has no problems attracting any of them.  When she moves with her dad for the summer from Minneapolis to the rural Ozark town he was raised in, she’s soon in deeper than ever.  She experiments with smoking pot, puzzles over the Indian bear claw necklace her grandfather left her, and falls for seventeen-year old guitar-picker Eli.

Eli recruits Dani into his bluegrass band and charms her with his knowledge of local Indian lore.  Dani finds him mystical and alluring, all the more so when she discovers his penchant for sudden violence.  Others are worried about Dani and watching out for her well-being: her dad; her eccentric Aunt Eunice who raises her own food and keeps dead rattlesnakes in the freezer; and the hot but straight-arrow preacher’s son, Austin.

But even their help may not be enough to protect Dani when Eli reveals to her a hidden Indian burial site and his plans to perform a ritual there to keep his sick father alive.  He needs Dani because he believes her bear claw allows her to harness the site’s spiritual energy.  Unfortunately, the ritual also requires a human sacrifice and Dani must decide whether to risk her safety by turning against Eli—or if she even wants to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I'm Reading: Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14 is the name of the current book I'm reading.  It's about Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man who was born and lived his entire life in one of North Korea's six political prison camps until he escaped at age 23.  To get an idea how remarkable this is, keep in mind that out of some 200,000 prisoners in these camps, only 35 have ever escaped and made it to South Korea or the West.  Of these 35, Shin is the only one to ever escape from his particular camp, Camp 14.
Of course, North Korea is arguably the worst country in the world, even for those of its people who live regular lives.  As you might imagine, life for Shin was beyond horrific.  Basically, for the first 23 years of his life, he never had a time when he didn't feel hungry.  He never had a friend.  He saw his mother and brother executed before his eyes, and many other executions besides.  He never saw an act of mercy, and literally did not know the meaning of love.  In school he learned only the bare basics of literacy and numeracy before being sent to a lifetime of hard labor.  When he was an adult in the camp, he happened to meet a recently arrived prisoner who told him he was from the capital, Pyongyang.  Shin asked him what Pyongyang was, having never heard of it.
Several things struck me as notable or ran through my head as I read the book.  One, being born in the camp may actually have given Shin an advantage in escaping over those who arrived there from outside.  As he knew no other life, enduring the hardships required to break out were no special difficulty, nor did he feel any guilt or regret about anything left behind.
Another thing I noticed was that the camp seemed to present a perversion of Christian values.  No doubt the camp's values also conflict with Korea's traditional Buddhist values as well, but there seemed to be some particular parallels to Christianity.  Perhaps this was intentional?  One, the camp drilled into the head of its prisoners a sick version of the 10 Commandments (i.e. Commandment One: Do Not Try to Escape.).  Two, there was a universal value impressed upon the prisoners, snitching, rather like Christianity holds love to be its universal value.  Three, where the greatest of Christian virtues is hope, the camp attempted to remove all hope from its prisoners.  Indeed, it was only when the fellow prisoner I mentioned before told Shin of the outside world that hope was kindled in him for the first time.
The final notable thing is that in the months leading up to his escape and the years after, Shin has gradually acquired something of a normal emotional life.  Some concepts still confuse him, like the idea of forgiveness.  And he still finds it hard to trust people, always wondering when he first meets someone what that person is trying to get from him.  But he has a girlfriend and knows love.  He's come to appreciate honesty, and kindness towards others, and affection.
Shin reminds me of the boy in the book A Boy Called It, a true story of the worst child abuse case ever discovered in California.  Despite an unimaginably cruel upbringing, the boy in that book grew up to live a normal life with a family and children of his own.  This is inspiring, in a way, in that the better aspects of human nature cannot be killed under even the worst circumstances.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What's this all about?

The essential purpose of this blog will be to operate as the online base for information about my manuscript (and hopefully someday, book) The Ballad of Dani and Eli.  Information about the book that may interest agents, readers, friends, and relatives will be found here.

But it will also be a place where I can put down my thoughts, such as they are, on writing, reading, the creative process, and related topics.

I don't have any particular models in mind, but I will say there are a couple author blogs I particularly admire.  Though I've never read any of her Regency romances (or anybody else's, for that matter), but I find Joanna Bourne's blog to be a great source of information on writing.  Kameron Hurley's blog has also been a source of inspiration for me in my writing, especially a post she once wrote on keeping your writing weird.

My hope is some of the things I write here will be one-tenth as good as what Joanna and Kameron post on a regular basis!