Changing the Topic…

Someone asked me how my novel was coming. You know, the novel I’ve been working on for like 4 years. The one that I resolve to finish EVERY New Year’s. So I swiftly changed the subject to avoid having to talk about it.

But then I went and checked on it. If word documents could collect dust, this one would be inches deep. So I theoretically blew the dust and cobwebs away, and stared at my novel. It’s finished. I mean… there’s an end, but it’s not finished, you know? I need to read it 400 more times. And change a word here and there. And then pack it away again for another year.

So last time I had worked on it, I changed it from third person to first person, but when I opened up the file this time, I saw that it was third person (apparently, I had abandoned the first person revision about 1/3 of the way through). I know it’s a tough change to make, but I really think it would be better in first person. How do you decide point of view for your story? I know there are books out there on the subject, but they have never been much of a help to me, because for me, it comes down to “feel”. It “feels” better as a first person story.

For example, I HATED that the twilight books were written in first person. It rubbed me the wrong way from the opening lines. I don’t know why, but it really did. But some stories need to be more personal, and I think that’s where first person comes in. How do you decide?

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Books, A Love Letter

I love to cradle books in my arms, and to feel the flurry of pages brush against my fingertips.

I love the soft bend of a well-worn spine, like laugh lines or gray hairs at the temple. It’s a love that’s endured time.

I love lining the books up on my shelves in whatever way I’ve decided to organize them this time.

I love coming across a line I’d missed the hundred previous times.

I love to flip through pages and pages to find the hidden gems I vaguely remember from last time.

I love the smell of the pages and the worn covers.

I love finding a favorite book with a new design, and judging which cover I like best.

I love coming to a section that’s too suspenseful for me, and flipping ahead to read a line or two, to make sure I can take it.

I love twists and surprises. I love well-planned revenge. I love good guys winning. I love unrequited crushes. I love last laughs.

I love poetic metaphors and rarely used words. I love nouns as verbs, and adjectives that add depth. I love plots I can see and taste and feel. I love people I’ll miss when I close the pages.

I love reading and writing.

I love books.

How I Write My Poems

When I write a poem for this site, I tend to have a line or two already composed in my head and then I just sit at the computer and type. I don’t do outlines or drafts for my poetrybecause I want my poems to be as authentic and gritty, bare-boned and simple as possible.

When I write a poem, I always have two other windows open on my computer. Always.

They are: http://thesaurus.com/and

http://www.rhymezone.com/

Interestingly enough, I can often find the rhyme I want with the thesaurus, but I really like rhymezone. It serves its purpose — it doesn’t always give me the word I end up using, but sometimes it gives me an idea for the next line or phrase. It will provide me with a new path for the poem, which is fun.

Back to the beginning of the poem, though. Like I said before, I tend to have a line or two (or even just a word or two) composed in my head. This just comes as an epiphany of sorts at some point in the day. The catacombs idea came to be while I waited in a 4-hour line to nowhere one day. I pictured people standing in line, holding these prized possessions that we deem of such high importance, when really, it will all be gone at some point and “things” will mean nothing. So that poem is slightly dreary. My love poems are more fun to write, and I’ll sometimes get a phrase stuck in my mind and build the poem around it. A lot of times, I’ll pick up on a line from a song and write my own poem around it — that’s how Something Good was written. There’s a line in the song Ruckus by The Young International (NOT a love song, as far as I can tell),

I really think we’re onto something, and you’re gonna like the sound of it

and I just picked up that “we’re onto something” for my poem.

For my storybook owl poem, I used the song Strawberry Swing by Coldplay and imagined the book I wrote playing along with the song. In fact, I actually created a video of the book playing with the song — it’s something extra I do for my niece and nephew (and of course now they expect this “music video” for every story I write them). And one of the poems, Listless Me, Myself a Mess, from my poetry book (free download this month!) is inspired by Malchus by Concerning Lions. Songs provide great backbones for stand-alone poetry and, of course, they are poems in their own right.

What resources do you use for poetry? Ever glean from a song or story?

 

 

 

 

 

Judging a Book By Its Cover

One of my favorite things to do in a bookstore is to walk around the fiction section (especially the young adult section) and gaze at the covers. I love to imagine what “my” covers would look like. I like to imagine this while I’m writing the stories, too. I look for what I like in a cover – fonts, images, style, empty spaces. Each little nuance conveys some emotion, don’t you think?

What do you like in book covers? What do you imagine for a cover for your own story? What catches your eye when you’re browsing in a bookstore?

I’m so excited to unveil the cover of my next ebook (hopefully to appear next week sometime on smashwords). The cover was done by a graphic design student named Savannah Holder, who I got to know through some other work she did for the charity: water fundraiser I held with some friends. Savannah’s design captures everything I wanted for my collection of short stories, and I think it’ll be quite the eye-catcher! Here’s the cover of my next ebook, a collection of four short stories that will be called High School Stories:

Writing/Publishing Resources

I took a creative writing class last year at a local college. I highly recommend taking a class – no matter what level or style of writing you practice. It was really beautiful to have a collection of like-minded people brought together. We were different in many ways, but we all had a love of words and appreciation of language.

I learned many useful and practical things in my creative writing class, but the best thing – by far – was learning about Duotrope’s Digest. Has anyone else used this? It’s a searchable database of literary magazines. It lists submission requirements, styles accepted, payment methods, etc. I’ve used it countless times to submit to just the right venue for my work. The database links to the actual magazine’s web site for further research, which I highly recommend. I’ve only used it for my short fiction work, and not for poetry (I don’t think I’m quite there yet — submitting my poetry for publication).

I don’t think I would have had my two short stories published without this database. I wouldn’t have known where to begin to look for the appropriate magazine. This is a great resource for writers. It’s as updated as possible, I think (it’s quite a large database), so just make sure to visit the web site of each magazine prior to submitting, to make sure it’s still in existence.

What writing and publishing resources do you use? Have you used Duotrope’s Digest? What did you think about it?

Reunion Story: Part I

Here’s the first part of a story I started awhile ago, about what surprises a man finds when he returns home for his ten year high school reunion.

“You’re all set, Mr. Lancey,” Rhonda said, handing me a manila folder. “I’ve included directions with alternate routes in case of traffic.”

I thumbed through the pages. Rhonda winked at me and gave me a motherly smile.

“They’ll all be so impressed with you, I just know it. Ten years since high school, and who else will be able to say they are in charge of an entire division? Is there… anyone special that you’re looking forward to seeing at your reunion? A high school sweetheart, perhaps?”

I chuckled noncommittally, and saw Rhonda’s smile droop. “You know me, Rhonda. I’m sure I’ll find myself a dance partner or two.”

Rhonda raised her eyebrows. “Well, make sure you only talk to the nice girls.”

“I doubt I’ll find anyone as nice as you,” I said, and Rhonda’s smile returned.

I got on the elevator and pressed the button for the parking garage.

“Oh, Mr. Lancey,” Rhonda called as the elevator doors slid shut. “Call Mr. Cannizarro on your way.”

I nodded and the steel doors closed on the view of the office. My electric blue Corvette chirped as I walked toward it, and while I lowered the convertible top, I agreed with Rhonda: no one else will be able to lay claim to the success I’ve achieved. The job, the car and even the city were each the top in their class. I maneuvered through the city, and when I exited the Holland Tunnel and was finally on the Jersey side, I dialed Freddie Cannizarro.

“Sammy,” Freddie shouted. “So what is it this weekend? Some bars, some clubs? Some exclusive parties?”

“My reunion, Fred,” I reminded him.

“Oh yeah,” Freddie said. “Going to show off a bit?”

“That’s the plan, right?”

“Always, son,” Freddie droned. “You driving? You sound distracted.”

“I am.”

“This is what you need to do: you gotta find the most popular girl from high school. I mean, the one who would never give you the time of day, right? Then you pull up in your sweet ride and lower your sunglasses and say something hot and sexy to her. You get her back to your hotel room – “

“I’m staying at my parent’s house, I mean, my dad’s house,” I said.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you can still do the whole thing and then go back to her hotel room…”

I listened to Freddie plan out my reunion weekend the entire two hour drive back to the town where I grew up. When I pulled onto my street, he was trying to decide whether I’d have a better weekend with the popular cheerleader chick, or the nerdy but seductive ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ chick.

I slowed my car to look at the houses on my street, which I hadn’t seen in over five years. The new up-and-coming suburbs of New York City had nothing on this old neighborhood. My colleagues who moved out of the city were always showing off their brand new houses, which were packed tightly together with identical cookie-cutter frames. My street’s old age was made even more apparent by the mature trees whose tops skimmed the clouds, and the large yards that spread out from the homes in every direction. Each house sat on at least an acre of land, with a small wooded area sprawling across the property lines. Those woods were the source of many of my childhood adventures and explorations.

A neighbor, Ann Holmes was out watering some flowers, and she peered at my car trying to distinguish the driver. When she recognized me, she waved and dropped the hose, jogging to the edge of her yard. I pulled over.

“Hang on, Fred,” I said.

“Sam? Oh my goodness, Sam! Look at this fancy car! Your father said you’d be in town this weekend. If you have time at some point, I’d love to have you and Keri over for coffee,” Ann said.

“Thanks, Ann,” I said. “I’ll let you know. How is everything? How’s Tom?”

Ann beamed. She looked as happy at the mention of her husband’s name as she had when they got married almost fifteen years ago. “He’s great. Working like a mule, you know.”

“Well, the house looks amazing,” I said, putting the car into gear.

Ann backed away, calling, “Just trying to keep it as ship-shape as it was when my parents lived here.” She waved as I continued down the street.

“Who’s that, a desperate housewife?” Freddie shouted through the phone.

“Crap, Fred, no! It’s a neighbor. I was in her wedding, kind of, when I was in high school,” I said.

I rounded a curve and my house came into view. As soon as I saw my house, the front porch, the wooden rocking chair that looked so empty without a blanket draped across the arms, I felt a pressure come over my chest.

“Okay, okay. Well, tell me if you run into anyone exciting, alright? And have a good weekend,” Freddie said, hanging up.

I pulled into my driveway, and through the rearview mirror, I could already see the screen door of the house across the street opening and a figure crossing the lawn. I parked behind my dad’s old truck and could glimpse the doghouse in the backyard that my dad and I had built together for Buddy, our old beagle who died when I was fourteen. The pressure in my chest stretched, like the tightening and strumming of guitar strings. By the time I raised and latched the top, popped the trunk and got out of the car, Keri Free was already pulling my bag out of my car.

As neighbors, we were each others first and best friends. She had always just been Keri Free, the girl at the bus stop with me, or the girl who brought me my homework when I stayed home sick from school. In high school, she did the whole marching band thing and I went out for the football team. Neither of us was part of the popular crowd in high school, and it seemed like that was something she never even tried for. She always wore her long brown hair in a thick braid – every single day – and she had these huge glasses that seemed like a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

The last time I saw her was during winter break of our junior year of college. She’d let her hair out loose, in these thick, dark waves that clawed down her back. There were no glasses, and her body had gone from girlish gawkiness to a woman’s graceful frame. And now, six years later, she looked even better.

“Holy cow, Sam,” Keri grunted, letting my bag drop to the driveway and hugging me. “Were they out of Maseratis at the rental place? Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in a million years.”

Her hug was tight and it suddenly felt good to be home. She let go and heaved my bag onto her shoulders and started walking to the front door.

“I, uh, own the car.”

She laughed, like I’d made a joke and then stopped, staring at me. “You’re serious? You own a car – a Corvette – and you live in New York City? Isn’t that … cumbersome?”

“Well…” I started, but Keri was already dropping my bag on the front porch. She left it there and started to cross the lawn back to her house.

“Come over for dinner, if you want,” she said, opening her screen door, and then she disappeared as quickly as she’d appeared.

I stood alone on the front porch and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure whether I should knock or just walk right into the house. It hadn’t been quite the million years that Keri said, but I hadn’t been home since I’d graduated from college, not even for holidays. I looked around at the porch. The bricks looked older, more cracked, and the front windows looked like they needed a good washing, but otherwise everything looked the same. I closed my eyes and imagined an alternate universe, in which my mother would be inside baking a cake, and maybe my older brother, Jim, would be over for the weekend watching baseball with my dad. My niece and nephew would be splashing and playing in the pool out back. And maybe we’d even have a new dog for that old doghouse.

I opened my eyes and turned the knob. The door opened and the front hallway was dark. I could hear the sound of a television in the back of the house.

“Dad?” I called into the darkness.

“Sammy?” My father appeared in the hallway. He was wearing an old college sweatshirt and jeans and drying his hands on a rag. “Hey, Sammy. Good to see you.”

He hugged me and took my bag. “I got your old room all set up for you.” He started up the stairs.

My father and I went to Keri’s parents’ house for dinner. It would have been a quiet dinner if we’d stayed at home, and I’m not even sure what we would have eaten, so we were both happy for the invitation. I got the feeling my father ate at their house a lot.

The Frees asked about Jim and his family and my father told them about a promotion Jim got at his job in Connecticut.

“How old are his kids now?” Keri asked me.

“Uh, five and six, I think?” I glanced at my father, who shook his head.

“No, Sarah is seven and Nathan is eight,” he said.

I shrugged. “They look younger in those Christmas pictures,” I muttered.

After dinner, my father checked the wooden mailbox he’d made when I was young. It was carved from a tree stump, and there was a hole near the ground in the back that I instinctively ran my hand over when my father got the mail. He caught me and chuckled.

“Oh, you and those letters,” he said, remembering. “You spent about three summers trying to figure out who sent you on those adventures.”

I laughed. “It was the great mystery of my youth. I thought I might have had a secret admirer, but some of the tasks were definitely a punishment of some sort.”

From the ages of thirteen to sixteen, a weekly letter appeared in the hole. The letter was never signed but it sent me on missions that I had to complete before I could get the next letter. Sometimes there were rewards in the hole instead of letters.

“You know, I thought it was Mom sending those letters at one point, because every few weeks one of the tasks would be to clean my room.”

My father quieted at the mention of my mother and rifled through the mail. “Well, whoever it was …” he trailed off, sounding old and tired.

My father went to bed early, a habit he must have picked up in recent years. I stayed in my room, flipping through channels on the tiny black and white television. The TV got about seven channels, so I watched the news on three different stations.

My eyes closed on the news and opened again on a late night talkshow host interviewing the new “it” girl from the summer’s projected blockbuster. I stumbled across my wood floor, turned off the television and grabbed at the tiny chain switch hanging from the lamp by my window.

When the light was off, a small flash of some movement, some flurry of activity drew my attention to my window, which overlooked the front yard. My eyes were still adjusting to the dark after turning off my lamp, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought there might be something outside, near the driveway. I felt around my bag for some sneakers and pulled them on while I descended the stairs as quietly as I could. My father’s bedroom door was shut, no light shone from under his door, and I could hear his quiet snores breaking the silence in the sleepy house.

I went out the back door and found an old flashlight in the garage. I grabbed a metal baseball bat at the last minute, though what I would do with it, I had no idea. Once outside, I swung the flashlight back and forth, sweeping the front lawn with the beam of light. Nothing.

I walked to the end of the driveway, and let the light illuminate the street in either direction. The night was totally still. Unlike the endless noise of the city that never sleeps, the only sounds in this neighborhood were coming from my sneakers on the pavement.

I turned my gaze up to my bedroom window, dark and nondescript against the house. What did I even see earlier? I tried to picture it again. A shadow? A glimmer? Did something move, or was it my own reflection that I saw in the window?

I sat down on the curb in front of my house and leaned on my knees. I stared across the street at Keri’s house. It sat on a slight hill, and I remembered the feeling of running down that front hill, across the street, and up the lawn to the front door of my house.

As a last ditch effort, I grabbed a stick and walked down the road a bit, to the edge of our yard, closer to Ann’s house. There was a cluster of four tall evergreens at that edge of the lawn, and I poked the stick through the branches over and over, shining the flashlight into any spaces to see if there was something hiding in the thicket. Again, there was nothing.

From the house, this part of the curb was blocked from view by the trees, and because of the way the road curved, it was invisible from the other houses on the street as well. Standing in that concealed part of the street, I flashed back to when Ann first told Keri and me about the night she met her husband. Ann got married when Keri and I were fourteen, so we must have only been in elementary school the night she and Tom met. Her parents were away for the weekend, and like any normal, red-blooded teenager, she threw a party and invited all of her friends. Her friends invited their friends, and so on.

At some point, the tall, shy boy from the next town caught Ann’s eye, and they came outside to talk. They walked down the street until they reached the sheltered curb where I was now standing, jabbing at branches with a long stick. They stayed out here for hours, until the music from the party died down and most people left. They stayed until the sun started to rise and the sounds of morning snapped them out of their reverie.

They sat on this curb, talking all night, and then in the morning when Tom realized he needed to go before his parents reported him missing, they kissed. And they’ve been together ever since. Ann told Keri and me that story the week before she got married, and then she invited me and Keri to her house to help her get ready before the wedding. At the time, it didn’t feel odd to me that a fourteen year old boy would help his neighbor get ready to walk down the aisle. Ann babysat us for years, and it just seemed normal that since my yard had played a part in her romance, I should be involved in the wedding. So, there we were – Ann’s little helpers – chatting with her while she put on her make-up and bringing her water while she was photographed in her home.

Ann and Tom moved in with her parents to save money after they got married, but they never moved out. Ann’s father suffered a stroke shortly after they were married, and Ann helped her mother take care of him until both of her parents died, her father about ten years ago, and her mother several years later. Now Ann and Tom lived in the big house by themselves.

I dropped the stick and walked back to the driveway, suddenly exhausted. As was my habit, I reached down and felt at the back of the mailbox, just like I’d done after dinner. This time though, my fingers brushed against paper.

I grabbed the folded paper and straightened up, staring first at the surprise in my hand and then looking up and down the street again. Of course, whoever had left the paper was long gone, so I took the paper, the flashlight and the metal baseball bat back up to the house.

Once inside, I bounded the stairs to my room, stopping outside my father’s bedroom door again to make sure he was still inside, asleep. I went into my room, turned on the lamp, locked the door and unfolded the paper.

It was regular lined notebook paper, and the words written on the page were carefully printed in block letters in pencil. A weird feeling came over me, like a rush of nausea. The handwriting, the block letters, the pencil – it was all familiar to me. This note was from the same person, delivered the same way, as the tasks I received years ago.

I forced my eyes to focus in on the words. There were three phrases; short, like bullet points.

BREAKFAST WITH DAD ON PORCH

LUNCH WITH NEIGHBOR IN PIANO ROOM

DINNER WITH GIRL NEXT DOOR ON PIER

These were my new tasks for the weekend. I lay back in my bed, and fell asleep considering who could have left the note.

TO BE CONTINUED… (Part 2)

My YA Book: A Work In Progress

I have written and rewritten and rewritten (and am still rewriting!) this beginning literally tens of times. I switched it to a snappier, more eye-catching first sentence (then back to the normal one); I switched it from third to first person; I started the story by foreshadowing a theme (then deleted all of that); AND I constantly question whether I need to start the story later (like… a month later into the plot). But here’s how it is now, which is remarkably like the FIRST DRAFT I EVER WROTE FOR THIS STORY!
Revisions are frustrating.

What am I doing here?
I check the clock on my computer monitor: 10:16. Too late to still be at work.
I lean back in my ergonomically-approved office chair and rub my eyes, run my hands through my already messy brown hair.
Papers lay like scattered leaves, dead on my desk. The obituary can wait until morning, I tell myself, and I shut down my computer. I stretch, letting the aches of the day fall from my bones, and I half-heartedly straighten my notes.
My cell phone rings, cutting through the wintery stillness in the office building. It’s Jake, my best friend from childhood and old college roommate.
“Dude,” he says. It might as well be my name: Dude. “Where are you? Come to Rusty’s Pipe tonight.”
Dude, I’m at work,” I say.
There’s a pause. “Gray, for someone who hates his job, you sure do find interesting ways to spend your Friday nights.”
“I don’t –“ I lower my voice, even though I haven’t heard a sound from the surrounding cubicles in hours. “I don’t hate my job.”

oh… I don’t know about the present tense. No! It works! I have to keep the entire story in mind. It works! But I’m deleting the “ergonomically-approved” description. There’s a less boring way to describe the boring.

I just read a really good book that was written by a female, with a main character who is male, written in first-person and present tense. It made me feel better. That story was Split by Swati Avasthi, by the way. Incredibly well-written and well-developed. Characters are multidimensional, multi-layered. Really good story.