Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Dramatic Question

It is my privilege to find myself frequently asked to review writings from a gifted number of peers and colleagues. Thus far it seems that my constructive criticisms are appreciated. One common problem that I see in my work as well as others is a fundamental that I think writers sometimes overlook: the dramatic question.

In essence, the dramatic question should cut to the guts of any work. Sure the work may be an allegory for Imperialism and play with meta techniques, but there still needs to be one core question that keeps the reader engaged. Although I am not normally a fan of closed questions, I find them particularly useful in articulating the dramatic question. Some examples from popular works:

Will Darcy and Elizabeth get together?

Will Katniss survive the games?

Will Clarice find Buffalo Bill in time?

Will they kill the shark? (Or the fecking shark if you are a fan of The Cripple of Inishman)

At the core of every story should be a simple question that can be answered with yes, no, or maybe. How clear that answer is (Yes, but at what price–consider that a spoiler dodge for one of the above), is up to the writer. And while a story can most certainly be ripe with layers and subplots, that question should exist in a way that is neither overt nor too buried. Essentially, we may marvel at technique, but we stay to see what happens next.

Think about a project you are playing with or currently working on. What is that dramatic question? What is the answer to that question?

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The Peeviest of Peeves

For someone who considers myself an open-minded liberal, I am ripe with pet peeves. There is a fantastically long list of human behaviors that drive me to distraction. These are not things that are dangerous or prejudice, but instead acts that are ridiculously annoying. Just whittling down the list was an epic undertaking, but I have managed to do so, presenting my Top Pet Peeves:

  1. People who say “eXspecially” or “eXscape.” Those words do not have Xes in them. There is not an implied X. Stop. Freaking. Saying. It.
  2. Small dog owners who insist on bringing their dogs everywhere with them. Dog park or pet store? Fine. But your teacup lhasapoodoodle does not need to go any of the following places: The Grocery Store, The Movie Theater, The Mall, Disney World, Church, Any Store or Eating Establishment that is Not Specifically for Dogs. Just because the dogs fits in a bag does not make it a roll of breath mints that can go everywhere. My pit bull mix fits in a rolling duffel bag. How would you react if I brought her to Target with me to pick up the latest mass market designer fashions? (She does have excellent taste.)
  3. People who use the phrases “I deserve” or “It’s not fair.” It may not be fair, but very few things are. And very few people deserve anything. Those that do, don’t need to say it. They earn it.
  4. People who claim they like to write but don’t like to read. You can’t do one without the other. The same thing goes for actors who don’t watch television/movies, etc.
  5. People who take things out of the microwave early and don’t clear the time. The microwave then remains suspended at :15. Just push clear. Really. Your food is too hot to eat right this second anyway.
  6. Gum chewing. I was scarred as a child by Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in so many ways (that boat scene is just plain messed up). One of those was the fear that gum chewing would turn me into a blueberry or some other amorphous blob. Now I just find gun chewing gross. Particularly if you are going to speak to people or be interviewed, it’s just nasty to watch that wad bob around inside your jaw.
  7. Slip on shower shoes and socks. Maybe it’s because I teach a number of athletes that this bothers me so much. It’s not even the aesthetic of it–fine, you can’t be bothered with real shoes, I get it. But pick up your feet when you walk so I do not have to listen to that infernal sliding and slapping on the floor.
  8. People who talk on cell phones in public bathrooms. Is this really what society is coming to?
  9. Women who elect to start photography businesses after they have kids even though they have no photography training or experience aside from taking a billion ‘artsy’ snapshots of their kids with the only setting they know how to use on their overpriced automatic camera (and then forcing me to Like their businesses on Facebook). To be clear, not all photographers are this way–I know a number of talented, trained, and experienced photographers who happen to be moms. But charging $175 an hour to take 50 shots of a baby in butterfly wings looking off camera and getting 2 that are in focus does not a photographer make. Neither does the sole skill of turning eyes blue in a black and white picture. As my real photographer friends will tell you, it takes a great deal more than that. Take some classes, work with a real photographer. Stop ordering cutesy props on Etsy until you have a better grasp of composition and lighting.
  10. Blogs, emails, essays, Tweets, Status Updates, Basically Any Form of Writing that does not use capitalization. In professional correspondence, it’s rude (you aren’t important enough for me to hit shift). In academic writing it’s inappropriate. As a stylistic choice, unless you are e.e. cummings, it’s trite. We are gifted with an alphabet and grammatical rules for the purpose of making communication easier. Let’s not give those things, or our readers, the middle finger.

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, The Little People and Furry Friends | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

O For A Muse of Fire

Due to a tight schedule this week, I am unable to discuss the topic I had planned. Instead, I will share with you a link to Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. It’s a great work for writers to keep on their shelves, but for those just wanting the guts of the thing, I suggest paging directly to page 31, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.” Sometimes when I’m feeling lost, I reread this chapter and it helps bring the spring back to my metaphorical writing step. Enjoy!

Zen and the Art of Writing

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I Wish . . .

. . . I had more time to read.

. . . I knew how to make things ‘from scratch’ without a cookbook.

. . . I had time to make things out of a box at least.

. . . I had 20 puppies.

. . . I could interrupt really boring stories with comments like “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke,” and get away with it.

. . . I had more patience.

. . . I could be one of those cool rocker chicks like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde who are so stylish despite seeming to be above it all.

. . . I could be a vegan and prepare fascinating things like Grilled Jamaican Jerk Tempeh.

. . . I could eat bacon and goat cheese daily (thus negating previous wish).

. . . I could ban the phrases ‘throw under the bus,’ ‘not here to make friends,’ and ‘stabbing me in the back’ from all reality television.

. . . I could ban any reality television that don’t involve a competition that involves real skills (this would not apply to any Housewives or ANTM).

. . . I didn’t know how mean kids can be when I see the way some of them already treat my daughter.

. . . I didn’t find my kids so annoying sometimes.

. . . I could wear slouchy boots without looking like a shepherd.

. . . I didn’t have to constantly tell my son to get his hands out of his pants.

. . . I had a better world to give my kids.

. . . I had a pot bellied pig.

. . . I had more shows to watch like Game of Thrones and Man Men.

. . . I had more time.

. . . I had a cookie from City Bakery. RIGHT NOW.

. . . I could adequately tell my friends and family how much they mean to me without turning into a crying sap.

. . . I could repeatedly ride Soarin’ at Disney World/Land.

. . . I had someone to make me coffee in the morning.

. . . I lived in a world with no need for the term ‘hate crime.’

. . . I had more stuff with my name on it.

. . . I could figure out why I keep losing my left earring, no matter the pair.

. . . I could listen to The Kinks instead of my students’ whining.

. . . I had no computer, so I wouldn’t keep messing with it.

. . . I had someone to take an artsy black and white writer photograph of me, preferably with me looking brilliant (but not troubled).

. . . I were brilliant.

. . . I had more stamps on my passport.

. . . I didn’t laugh like a donkey.

. . . I didn’t have such good (and expensive) taste in shoes.

. . . I actually liked exercise.

. . . I lived in a place that didn’t make recycling so freaking difficult.

. . . I had geographically closer friends and farther enemies.

. . . I had another cookie.

Categories: Feed the Belly, Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, The Little People and Furry Friends | 1 Comment

A Cat Kind of Girl

I have always been, without hesitation, a dog person. My family’s choice of pet has been an assortment of mutts and purebreds, everything from Basset Hounds to our current menagerie of mixes. Cats have rarely entered the picture.

Granted my college roommate smuggled a kitten into our dorm Freshman year. A cute kitten; however, that cuteness dissipated when it elected my blanket as my litter box. Years later my pit bull mix Meg found a stray kitten and the two fell in love, but the cat ultimately ended up belonging to my then roommate and did not come with Meg and me when we went our separate ways.

It isn’t that I don’t like cats–I like most animals. For one thing I’m allergic to a number of cats. But moreover, as I often tell people, I prefer a dog’s personality. In a world where people spend so much time tearing each other down, I like to know when I come home, no matter what I have or haven’t done that day, I will have two living creatures that are ecstatic that I exist and came home to them. Some might call that insecurity. I’m fine with that.

My husband, on the other hand, likes both cats and dogs, but has a particular soft spot for the cats he grew up with. Grace, his calico, was part mother-part girlfriend. She was not a fan of me (or most other women in his life); however, her devotion to him was unbelievable.

This week though I officially became a cat owner. Our family went to the Lone Star Animal Sanctuary in search of a kitten. (The choice of a kitten was not because we wanted something younger and cuter; with two dogs and two children we figured it would be easier for a younger cat to adapt.) After meeting several candidates and discovering that my one-year old could open the cat cages, freeing the cats like something out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we finally settled on Cali, a three-year old calico.

Cali wasn’t actually one of the cats suggested to us. However, she picked my husband and once we got to know her, it was clear that she was meant to be with us. My children were overjoyed and I was happy that we could take home an older cat who had been at the shelter a long time.

Within the hour Cali became Sweet Caroline and took up residence on the second floor of our townhouse. Having never really lived with a cat for an extended time, I have now given a cat medication, cleaned a cat box, and am in the midst of a debate about the inhumanity of declawing. Just in the few days we’ve had her, I have also figured out a few things.

I am not generally a cat person because I have a cat personality. Rather than being friendly and social, I like my own space and I warm up to people in my own time and way. In that light I am very lucky to have a husband with a patient, cat courting personality. That he can balance two of us now, Sweet Caroline and myself, speaks volumes of his patience.

Any of the readers out there cat people? If so, any tips for this new cat owner?

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Kickboxing

Any writer who has not experienced rejection is not really a writer, in my humble opinion. As writers we must be told Not Now, Not This, Not Us, or just plain No. It’s part of the process, but it’s more than that. It’s how we come to realize how much we want it.

My first writing rejection came at 20. The novel I sent off, which makes me laugh when I think about it now, actually earned a full manuscript request from the agent I sent queried. Ultimately, she returned it with some feedback that basically told me to work on craft and learn to “show not tell.” I wish now that I had kept it because it was certainly nicer than the multitudes of letters I would receive over the years.

I did, however, keep her advice in mind. Thanks to a graduate education, strong creative writing teacher, and the exercises of Melanie Rae Thon, I grew up and discovered that not only could I show not tell, I was pretty good at it.

Novels, while existing somewhere in my future, are not part of my present. My focus on short fiction and nonfiction has allowed me to submit to a number of projects that certainly don’t pay but would provide some prestige if something gets picked up. Of course this has led to a ripe round of rejection. Several places have asked me to submit more. Whether or not they mean it is not my concern. I keep submitting. At the moment I have three pieces in circulation. I am proud of all three pieces, so each time I type ‘decline’ into my spreadsheet, although I give the soft sigh of disappointment, I don’t question their worth.

In a blank journal I keep quotes that I have come across over the years that appeal to me. One of them says, “Opportunity comes from the kickboxer inside you.” I can’t recall where it came from and it is attributed to anonymous. (Yes, I could Google it, but I don’t wanna.)

Today I checked my email to find a Yes with an attached contract for a short piece I wrote. I have had Yes before, but never one like this.

Thank you, Kickboxer.

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Repost: Home Apothecary

Due to my complete burn out leading up to my Spring Break next week, I am reposting my most popular post. This is from March 24, 2011. I’ll be back in a few days with a new post. In the meantime, enjoy.

 

My latest foray into being ‘that kind of girl,’ I have begun making some of my own spa and beauty products. Never a wiz at chemistry, I have worked with some recipes I found online, in books, and in magazines to create my own little cocktails. Some of the ingredients I have discovered are pretty common; some require a trip to the natural food market or some choice websites.

Before you get started:

  • I would advise selecting a set of measuring, mixing, and cooking things that are just for your apothecary. Maybe those measuring spoons that are missing pieces or the pan that got scratched when someone used a metal spatula in it? This stuff does come out and there is no reason you can’t use the pans and spoons for normal cooking; it just makes it easier to have your go-to set.
  • If you are just starting to dabble in making your own stuff, you might just buy a few key ingredients to try out. I would suggest coconut oil, jojoba oil, almond oil, beeswax, shea or cocoa butter, glycerin, and maybe one or two essential oils (one fruity and one flowery). I also just keep tea tree oil in my house as a staple because it is like a miracle cure-all. As with everything, read the labels to make sure they are as natural and unrefined as possible. I’ll post things from least to most complicated so that if you aren’t into going full hippie, you can still try some out.

Here are some of my favorite recipes.

Super Simple Eye Moisturizer

Pour 1/4 teaspoon of extra-virgin olive, jojoba, almost, or apricot kernel oil into the palm of your hand. Dip your ring finger into the oil and gently pat it around your eye beginning with the outer corner and slowly moving beneath your eye toward the inner corner. Then work onto the very upper portion of the lid or brow bone area and back to the outer corner. Repeat several times and then pat off any extra oil.

Face Scrub/Mask

This scrub is really gentle and is great for all skin types for the face, neck, and chest. I use it about 3 times a week.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup powdered milk (doesn’t matter fat content)

1/2 cup ground oatmeal (I just grind mine up in the food processor. Make sure it is plain oatmeal because you don’t want the added chemicals of the flavored kind)

1 tsp cornmeal

Distilled water

Combine all the dry ingredients together by either whisking in a bowl or shaking in a plastic bag. I tripled my recipe and shake them up in an old clean drink mix container. These dry ingredients are good for 1 year.

When you are ready to use it, add water to 1 TBS scrub until you have a paste. Massage over your face and rinse with warm water.

For mask: Apply the same paste you would use for the scrub over your face and let sit for 20 minutes. Rinse with warm water.

Apply moisturizer directly after either type of application.

Bubble Bath

This is super easy to make and can be customized to your needs.

Ingredients

1 bar soap, grated (I like to do a moisturizer bar. These work better than the clear type of soaps.)

2 cups distilled water

4 oz. liquid glycerin

1 oz. Coconut oil, optional(Almond oil also works; I just like coconut oil better. This works to soften skin, but it is not essential to the recipe.)

Essential oil, whatever scent blows your hair back (I usually do lavender because I keep it on hand and it’s relaxing. But you can do whatever or mix different things to get your own scent.)

Empty Plastic container

  1. Put all the soap gratings into a large bowl and add 2 cups warm or hot water. Stir until all the soap has dissolved.
  2. Add the liquid glycerin and continue stirring. If using the coconut or almond oil, include those now. Continue stirring until everything is evenly mixed.
  3. Add in about 1 ounce of essential oils. Go for more or less, depending on how strong you like your scent.
  4. Allow the mixture to cool, and then pour it into the plastic container.

Notes:

  • Avoid contact with eyes, especially in children. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it won’t burn.
  • Some people opt to add dye to make the bubble bath prettier in the bottle. I don’t really see the point because it’s just chemicals that don’t make the bubbles any different.

Hand and Foot Butter

This cream is fantastic for hands and feet. It is a bit more greasy than processed types right after application, but it soaks into the skin in about 20 minutes. It’s really great at night.

Ingredients:

1 TBS cocoa butter

2 TBS Beeswax

1/4 cup coconut oil (unrefined)

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon almond or apricot kernel oil (depending on the scent you prefer)

40 drops of the essential oil scent of your choice (I like grapefruit or lemon)
Using a double boiler*, warm the cocoa butter, beeswax, coconut oil, and almond/apricot oil until melted. The beeswax will be the last to melt.

Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool for five minutes, and then add the essential oils. Continue stirring until the mixture becomes opaque but can still be poured. Pour it into a storage container and lightly cover the container with a paper towel to allow the mixture to cool before capping. Leave the product at room temperature overnight. This recipe makes about one cup of hand cream.

*If you don’t have a double boiler (or don’t know what one is), take two pots that are about the same size. Place one on the burner and fill with water. Bring to a boil and place the other pot on top of that. Put contents into the top pot to combine.

These are just some of the basics. I make a mean lip balm and facial steams, as well as some other recipes I am working on. What would you like to learn to make? What recipes do you have to share? Send them my way.

XO

A

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Promoting Mediocrity

Last weekend I attended a state conference for college educators. Although it is a held yearly, I have never bothered to make the trip before. (Perhaps part of the draw was that a number of friends live near the city in which it was being held.) After gorging myself on free books, I sat in on my first session, which proved to be everything I love and hate about my profession.

The topic was giving students feedback on essays. Overall, the point was how do we give constructive feedback without overwhelming, discouraging, or over-praising. Some excellent points were made and although I may not have come away with revolutionary ways to change my teaching, I did get some perspective on how I comment. (Of course all of this relies on the huge assumption that students read comments and try to implement them.)

Where I got ridiculously annoyed was in the round table discussion. We were given a short student essay to read and instructed to come back with two major points of direction to give the student. Fairly quickly most of us agreed that the essay lacked organization and a strong guiding thesis statement.

I can only say most because we had in our group an Underminer. These are the types of people who try to make other people feel bad for having opinions, responding in any negative way, and generally make other people look petty. I’m not talking about optimists; I’m talking about the person who after 15-minutes of the faculty arguing that we do not need to complete a repetitive and unnecessary action (something the dean agrees with), pipes up at the last second and says: “I’ll do whatever you want because I want to keep my job.” It’s like being overbid by a dollar onThe Price Is Right. You just want to smack them.

In this case the Underminer told the table (and later the entire group):

“Compared to the papers I get, this is a good essay. There are complete sentences and the words are in the correct order. I think we need to tell this student how well they did and help build their self-esteem. It’s better than most everything else, so why give them criticism?”

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Why give them criticism? Because you’re a teacher and your job is to help students improve, no matter if they are A or F writers (and this essay was at best a C+/B-)? Because being better than the norm doesn’t mean the student can’t learn something new? Because you are doing them no favors in passing mediocre as excellent?

Any of those reasons?

As I told this woman, trying not to grit my teeth, I often end up spending more time on good papers because I want to give them something useful to make them even better. I would cringe if I found out there were things I could improve on that someone wasn’t telling me because “it was better than most everything else.” Our job is not just to grade but to instruct. Writing in particular is something where perfection is non-existent. Does that mean we just slap on grades, correct bad grammar, and don’t encourage growth?

If that’s the way teaching and writing should be handled, I am in the wrong freaking professions.

(And while I certainly didn’t say this at the meeting, if one of your criteria for good writing is “words being in the correct order,” I have to question how great a teacher you are.)

Take a moment and read this great post from earlier this week: I Want My Kids to Fail.

Then take a longer moment and pop over to The Baraza to read all the great posts that went up this week, including my musings on pop culture.

XO

A

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A Nice Place to Visit

Please take a moment to check out The Baraza, a new community blog of which I am a member. My first posts came out today! Like it, Follow it, Enjoy it!

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Keep Integrity and Don't Steal

In response to the appeal of Arthurian Literature, Mary Stewart once said in an interview that part of the appeal of the genre is that people are able to reinvent and adapt it. Whether you are Geoffrey of Monmouth, T.H. White, or Marion Zimmer Bradley, you are tasked to find your own spin on the vast collection of characters, archetypes, and themes that populate Arthuriana. It’s why we still find new ways to tell the stories.

Last week I was perusing George R.R. Martin’s website when I came across something that struck me:

But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them.

I suppose I had never considered that point of view before. How can a writer learn to create their own world when they are building on something that already exists? At the same time, I find myself struggling with it. In the case of Arthur, the origins of the myth are certainly debatable at best. Because it is essentially the result of a thousand years of tradition, is it fair game? Or should we leave well enough alone because we are essentially borrowing from what exists? Might the challenge then be to take what is so well known and see how you as a writer can make it fresh?

Looking at something less broad as Arthurian literature, I then consider Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. In her case, she took the story and characters of Jane Eyre to explore themes of postcolonialism. While one might argue that she does indeed create her own world by focusing primarily on the Dominican rather than English setting, could she also be considered ‘lazy’ because she’s using plots and characters that someone else created? Would Martin apply the same analysis to recent offerings like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Or Christopher Moore’s Fool?

It is my guess that Martin is specifically addressing fan fiction and sci-fi/fantasy writing in his statement, but as he does not say that, I think the bigger picture is worth considering. Is it a worthwhile exercise to write stories from the point of view of marginalized existing characters, as is done in Wide Sargasso Sea and Fool? Or are we better served in creating our setting, characters, and plots from scratch? When exercising our literary muscles, is any exercise worthwhile if it keeps us writing, or should we be more discerning in the way we spend our writing time?

I don’t know that I’m sure of an answer to any of these. Perhaps the one that I am most certain about is that any writing exercise can be useful, even if nothing publishable comes from it. In terms of writing in other worlds, I am guilty. My master’s thesis was a bildungsroman of Mordred. Most recently I did a piece about the marginalized father from Sally Morgan’s My Place. Both pieces relied on research, intertextuality, and my own creative approach. The process for each was difficult and resulted in works I believed demonstrated thoughtfulness.

Maybe they just demonstrated that I’m a dirty thief.

What do you think, dear readers? Should be swim in other worlds or only spin our own galaxies?

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