Friday, September 25, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Passion

Well-Read Donkey Bookshelf at Kepler's with guest bloggers books and their reading recommendations

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to be on a panel in Chapel Hill, NC, with Robert LeLeux, who wrote The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and is as moving and amusing in person as he is in his memoir. When I first got word of the pairing with Robert, I considered this another one of those mango-and-peanut-butter author mixes for which literary festivals are famous. For example, I was recently on a panel about the future of Southern Women Writers, though I was born in the Arizona desert, lived a decade overseas, now reside in Brooklyn, and have no more than passed through the South. (I like the South, though, and adore fellow panelists Janis Owens and Cassandra King. I sometimes imagine the people who create these panels gathering around a wooden table with a few dozen bottles of wine, a dart board, and all of our names on printed sheets, intent on getting a laugh somehow during the intimidating and grueling process of organizing a festival for writers and readers.

On the face of it, Robert and I are very different writers. My four books are novels, often on serious topics and with an international bent. His is a poignant American memoir and in some passages, a laugh-aloud look at life.

Yet our panel topic was passion, and its place in our work, and on this we found a lot of common ground.

Beginning and not-so-beginning writers are told to write what they know. Some have amended it to say: write what you’d like to know. But perhaps the adage actually should be: write what you care about. Deeply. Write what wakes you up at night, what you don’t understand, what makes you laugh so hard you cry, what you wish you could turn away from but can’t. Write to discover, not to expound.

The first reason to incorporate those deepest personal concerns in our writing, be it fiction, non-fiction or memoir, is that it invariably makes the work stronger. If this is the stuff that matters to us, we stand a better chance of getting our readers to care also.

But the second reason is actually more important, in my view, if more private. It is very old news by this time that publishing is in turmoil, uncertain what the future—even six months from now—will look like. Content has been devalued. Websites that demand writers to write deeply, or research broadly, or report diligently, still have no business model in place, and thus no way to pay those writers for their work, or even ensure their own continuation. In this climate, editors often find it safest to reject a manuscript. A good friend and dynamite literary writer recently told me she’s having trouble publishing her next novel because her “numbers aren’t good enough.”

And yet, many of us can’t stop writing. We write when happy or sad, we think in stories, we’re on the hunt for the subtext and telling gestures, and we feel compelled beyond our control to search for the fresh, well-turned phrase.

For some of us, in fact, writing—and reading—is spiritual work; it’s how we interpret our world, understand our lives, maybe even try to make ourselves better humans. To achieve that, we have to write about what makes us avidly curious or angry or frightened. We have to write with an unwillingness to settle for simple answers, an enthusiasm for embracing flaws, and the desire to see deeply and non-judgmentally into the Other.

This is what creates writing that is honest and authentic, perhaps with a shot at getting published, maybe getting read, maybe briefly impacting another life. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, it draws us to others (like Robert, or my inspiring editor Fred Ramey at Unbridled Books who share our sentiments about the potential of words to take flight and connect.

It is also the work that can continue to feed us emotionally and psychically during the days and months of countless revisions or rejections, when the paragraphs buck us or our characters have fled underground or the computer eats a chapter or someone wants to discuss our numbers, when we’re distracted by loss or joy or fear and the only way forward, after all, is to write, write again, keep writing about what makes us passionate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Love Song To Artists’ Colonies

I’ve only twice been able to organize my life in such a way that allowed me to drop out of it for a month, but both times have resulted in astounding and memorable experiences. One, I’m convinced, directly impacted the way my latest novel, 31 Hours, turned out. The two colonies I’ve visited are Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center, both in New York State, easily reachable from my Brooklyn home. (We don’t own a car: I want a place I can reach by Amtrak.)

Yaddo, right outside Saratoga Springs, was my first colony experience. For those who don’t know, when accepted to a colony, you go free of charge and you receive a room, three meals a day, and privacy to work. In the case of Yaddo, they also gave me $1,000 toward childcare for my three kids while I was gone. The evenings tend to be communal, with a shared dinner and activities that invariably arise afterwards. But the days are loaded with silence and privacy.

Just being at Yaddo was an amazing gift. Collectively, the artists who have spent time at Yaddo have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards, 22 National Book Critics Circle Awards and a Nobel Prize. I felt completely humbled, but determined. I got about six months worth of work done in that single month. So that’s one way artists’ colonies impact novels: they allow them to get finished!

Yaddo (named by one of the children to rhyme with “shadow,” as the story goes) was founded in 1900 by Katrina Trask, herself a Brooklyn-born poet, and her husband, financier Spencer Trask . The couple lost all four of their children in infancy or childhood, so decided to turn the estate into a retreat for artists. Spencer died in a train accident on New Year’s Eve 1909. Katrina died in 1922 and is buried on the grounds.

So of course, Yaddo is haunted. But in a good way. Every day, when I got to a sticking point in my work, I went into the magnificent piano room to keep writing, taking a yellow pad with me. After an hour or two of working by hand, I would return to my room and laptop. On my way out of the room, I would pause briefly before one of several life-sized paintings of Katrina in the mansion, her curls piled atop her head. “Thank you,” I would whisper. One day, a vase in front of the painting trembled audibly. I could never make it happen again; It was, I’m convinced, Katrina saying: “You’re welcome.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I have other Yaddo stories—one about a flying squirrel, another about a Ouija board—but I’ll save them for some other blog.

A few years later, I went to Blue Mountain Center, in the Adirondacks. Blue Mountain is very strict: no cellphones allowed, and the only Internet connection is in a musty basement room underneath the kitchen – they want you to forego the distractions of your daily life, find harmony and focus on work. I went with only a few pages written of 31 Hours and while there, I wrote the entire first draft.

I needed to be away from my home, in a small room overlooking the nonjudgmental Blue Mountain Lake, I believe, in order to write the first draft of 31 Hours. In that room for those four weeks, I lived and breathed the story that was revealing itself to me. I wrote letters to the characters, argued with them, found myself struggling with tears and nightmares as I wrote about their lives. I don’t think I could have submerged myself that deeply into the story at home, given the demands of regular life.

I also believe completing that initial draft in one rush of 28 days contributed to the driving pacing of the story—a pace I believe necessary in this case, part of the story’s “voice”—and that it would have turned out differently I’d written that draft over many weeks and days.

Thank you, Yaddo. Thank you, Blue Mountain. And for any writer whose story is pressing against them, but who cannot find the time in between the distractions of daily life, consider the colony.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: 31 Hours

Many thanks to Aggie and Kepler’s for inviting me to blog here about my new novel, 31 Hours. I feel fortunate to be in such great company of readers and writers. I’m going to do three blogs covering marketing, money and love. I’m starting with marketing because I’ve become intrigued by book trailers—by what they can do, and what they can’t—and I wish we were all in a room together to discuss it.

Because I come from a background that included both television and radio, I grew interested early in the idea of reaching beyond print to draw in readers. In 2003 for my second novel, The Distance Between Us, I put together an audio recording with crucial help from my husband, who works for NBC and MSNBC. In 2006 for my third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, we pulled together a video from my visit to the real camelback library in isolated northeastern Kenya.

Still, none of this quite prepared me for the full-on book trailer, which somehow seemed both more complex and, simultaneously, not complex enough. Here’s what I kept stumbling over: I love novels. They incorporate an overlaying web of ideas and questions, a crescendo that builds as the pages turn. Many of us spend years writing our books. How can we, on a shoestring budget, condense this layered ocean of fictional life into a 120-second book trailer that works?

31 Hours, for example, is about missed connections. It’s about how we parent our young adult children, and it’s about the possibilities and limitations of intuition. It’s about the edgy poetry of the subway. It’s about religion and spirituality in the modern ironic world. It is about empathizing with a panhandler, or a man planning violence—the kinds of people we may not be inclined to like. It is about suspending judgment long enough to listen.

Yet if I tried to include all or even most of this in my book trailer, my website designer and friend Rose Daniels convinced me, I’d be doomed to failure.

“Making a trailer lets you distill the emotion of a book,” Rose told me. “You can’t tell the whole story in a two minute trailer (and you shouldn’t). Instead, you create visuals that express the overall mood/tone of the book. I love bringing the energy of a story to life with images and sound. When creating a book trailer, you must reveal enough of the story to intrigue the reader without giving too much away. You have to leave room for the reader’s imagination. For instance, I feel you should never reveal what a main character looks like.”

In some ways the 31 Hours trailer is a home-grown effort: I always wanted the eerie and mysterious image of a young man shaving his legs, the “mother” seen from the back is me and my 19-year-old son Che took most of the photographs for the trailer. But in most ways, Rose is the brains behind the operation, breaking new creative ground.

We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time with the book trailer. In February 2007, award-winning author Gayle Brandeis created one of the first book trailers I ever knew about for her novel Self Storage.

“The film is very rudimentary, not flashy at all—I used my digital camera, which only films very short spurts of video, and the most basic iMovie tools—but it was great fun to put together,” she told me recently. “I have two books coming out next year and am trying to decide what sorts of trailers I could pull together for each of them. It's certainly fun to think about taking the book off the page and into a whole new media; it gives the book a fresh jolt of life, a new way to send its tendrils out into the world.”

What do readers want to see in book trailers? What makes them interested in reading the book itself, and what sends them running the other way? What I wouldn’t give to listen to a panel of readers pondering this topic.

For more on book trailers, Ron Hogan has written a number of great articles, and this is one of my favorite: Finding the Short Film in Your Novel (for Less!).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Notebook after Notebook Part Three

Journal writing was a safe and familiar place for me to start. I have been able to capture thousands of moments in my life that, perhaps some day, may make themselves into a book for many to enjoy. Who knows.

Photo taken from my journal on the day Van and I met 13+ years ago.

Shortly thereafter or on the day I knew he was the one! Today we celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary.

Pages from a journal can unlock memories and emotions from many years ago. Whether it's a few silly words, rhymes and sketches or a beautiful piece of written work; journal writing is where many writers begin, and I for one, hope to continue this practice until the very end!

After looking at these pages from my journal thirteen years ago, I realized that poetry and illustration were probably not in my future!! But that's OK -- It's ALL Good!!

Happy 10 year anniversary Van. I love you with all my heart! wc??


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Notebook after Notebook Part One

I don’t really keep journals - instead I use and reuse notebooks, calendars and address books for growing ideas.

These images are some of them. Often building and splicing text and images act as “ idea farms” or visual markers in my creative process.

In my messy life, they sink below other work or projects, forgotten and dusty and occasionally pop up like cork boats when I visit them again.

Marilyn Smith
Manager of Buyers
Kepler's Books

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The 20 percent rule

A decade ago, when I'd just published my first book and done my first ever reading, a bookstore events manager told me a secret. "Don't feel bad about only selling eight books," she'd told me. "You had about 25 people at the reading so that was great. We consider a reading a success if we sell to 20 percent of the audience."

Now, I don't know if that's still true – or if she was just humoring me then - but that "20 percent rule" has become my byword for readings. I thought of it last night, when I did an event at my local indie, the Brookline Booksmith, for my new book, Shades of Grey. I should explain that Shades of Grey is a hardcover mystery – a hard sell by any standards – and it is published by a British press (Severn House), so it's a few dollars more expensive than most US hardcovers. But still... as I drove over to the Booksmith, I was thinking... "20 percent, 20 percent, 20 percent..." I would make sure to count heads before we started to talk and jot the number down on my notepad. Then, after, I would keep count of how many books I signed to attendees. Simple math. Easy.

But then I got there, and saw my friends Betsy and Michelle. They'd never met, so I introduced them, and we started talking about whether Betsy (a therapist and the wife of a rabbi) might know anybody appropriate for a single friend who would be showing up later. Then the great events person, Genie, introduced herself and we went downstairs and started setting up the wine and cheese I'd brought to make this first reading into a party. Genie was apologizing for the tablecloth (no need, the two overlapping covers were pretty and festive) and Michelle offered to bartend. And an old work colleague showed up, who I haven't seen in ages, and we started to catch up, but another lovely local mystery writer (Sarah Smith) came in with her cousin, Don, who was charming and chatty, and a few other friends and a load of strangers. And then my husband and my event colleague, Hank Phillippi Ryan, were suddenly there, too, and we kissed and greeted and asked after each other's family before a quick confab about who would go first and what we'd planned to do. "Talk a little, read a little, questions?" I asked. "Keep it about 40 minutes, then questions?" she concluded. Yup, yup, all sounded good - and we took our places. A bit of discussion - did we want to use the podium or sit? Mike or no mike. "Mike!" someone shouted from the back, and we were off.

Now, as anyone who read my post from last Tuesday knows, this has been a crazy week for me. It's not that I've spent that much time talking to my mother's caregivers or visiting her in rehab - no more than a few hours a day anyway - but the stress of watching her decline, of knowing she might not be able to get back to the assisted living residence she now considers home - has exhausted me. I've been walking around like a zombie, like all the oxygen has been removed from the room. But I'd taken some time over the previous two days to figure out a bit of a talk. As a little intro to Shades of Grey, I'd start with the how hard it is to lose a pet, how natural it is for even the most rational among us to think we "see" our deceased pet. And from there, I'd go into Dulcie's dilemma - the super-rational grad student who thinks she sees her dead cat's ghost. Then I'd work in a bit about Gothic literature (Dulcie's area of study) and (at the request of a friend) a bit about this new series as compared to my last one. I'm not sure if it all made sense, but I got a few laughs at the funny bits and saw a few nods at the sad bits. Then I read from the opening of the book – and remembered to read slowly and breathe – and, oh my god, people APPLAUDED! They applauded! I was overjoyed.

Hank went next and I was able to watch her and listen (and think, man, I've got to remember how she does that - she breathes as if she never considered holding her breath throughout her entire presentation). And then we took some really good questions ("Do you ever scare yourself?" "Do you read aloud while you're writing?"). And then we signed books for people and signed stock, drank wine, and answered private questions (no, I never buried Cyrus's ashes. They're on my mantelpiece. Yes, you can send me your poetry.) And then... it was over. Shades of Grey was launched. Another book of mine has been introduced to the world. With the fatigue starting to hit, I realized I was famished. A few friends and my husband and I went out for sushi.

And I realized I'd never down a head count of the crowd or even kept track of how many books I sold. So much for the 20 percent rule!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Elizabeth Bear's Guest Post: Experimental Archaeology

The last time we visited, I talked a little about how learning practical things can improve one's writing. Upon reflection, I suspect that my belief in the usefulness of this tactic stems from my own long-ago experience as an anthropology student. At that time, I met a guy who was an experimental archaeologist. He knapped flint, tanned hides and furs (salvaged from roadkill), and at one point built his own paper-birch canoe and sailed it down the Connecticut River.

I was fascinated by this idea, of putting theoretical structures to physical proof--sure, we can build a scale replica pyramid using period techniques! We will just substitute grad students for slave labor!--because it seemed to me so very useful. So often, the stuff people tell us seems rational and reasonable, or alternately to cool not to be true, until a little research of experience reveals that the idea that so enamored us just isn't so.

Storytelling is sort of the same process in reverse. We're trying to build a lie that will hold up to the experience (and experiment) of the reader, lull her into believing and not questioning--and one way to support her suspension of disbelief in the big ticket items is to get the details right. Because once you get them wrong and get caught, the reader starts questioning everything.

Some readers, of course, so delight in catching the author in errors that they will invent them in they're not actually there in the text. They're beyond help: I recommend you just accept their foibles and let them have their fun.

The rest of us, though--we know that a scarlet tanager is red, and not blue. So if you show us a blue scarlet tanager, we need to be given a reason in the text to believe you, or you're going to have a tough road winning our trust back.

But if you've had everything right for twenty pages and then you show me that blue bird, I'm going to have some faith in you.

I think of Richard Adams, here, where in Watership Down he gets every detail of the landscape he lived in note-perfect, so perfect that talking rabbits don't throw me for a second.

Get the details right, in other words, and everything else follows.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Practical Author

First of all, I'm tremendously flattered to be asked to guest blog for Kepler's books. Second, hello there and hi!

Since I just got back from a rock-climbing expedition (I am a not-particularly-good rock-climber, if you wondered) and since rock-climbing is a skill I learned on behalf of a character, it seems logical to me that tonight I should talk about the practical aspects of research for the writer.

One of the interesting things about being a writer is that you have to know--or at least be able to fake knowing--all kinds of stuff about all kinds of stuff. Quite regularly, I am called upon to discourse on the finer points of animal husbandry, forensic pathology, piloting aircraft, middle management, swordfighting, BASE jumping, maintianing a marriage--

--it might surprise you to know that I am not a qualified expert in any of these fields.

I am, however, perfectly capable of reading books and calling up actual really real credentialed experts and throwing myself upon their mercy (you'd be surprised how many people are thrilled to be asked to calculate the destructive potential of a nickel-iron meteorite at two in the morning). I am capable both of reading some ten thousand pages of text to discover that apparently nobody knows the answer to the historical question I need fielded and so making it up out of whole cloth--and of electroplating a mono-molecular layer of research all over my fiction to make it look like I did my homework.

I am also capable of getting up off the couch and going out and actually learning something, when it comes right down to it.

In the past thirty years, I've learned to ride a horse, rock-climb, kick-box, throw a pot, work-harden wire, swing a sword, shoot a bow and a gun, play guitar, and crawl through caves on my belly, all in the service of fiction. I'm not actually any good at any of those, but it's amazing how much more convincing just getting the texture of the thing in your hand makes the writing. (I draw the line at BASE jumping. That one, I'll place phone calls for.)

This last Worldcon, I was privileged to be at a table with a bunch of other writers comparing notes on the dumbest thing we've done for a story (tie: Steven Boyett (hang gliding) and Walter Jon Williams (cave diving)) and it was actually kind of a relief to realize that it's not just me. A lot of my writer friends consider my boots-on-the-ground technique a little excessive, but I find that for me it leads not just to richer writing but also more ideas. Because every time I learn something, it gets added to the pile of things in my head from which stories spring, and that in itself is kind of awesome.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My first reader: a guest blog by Clea Simon

This week marks the launch of my new mystery, Shades of Grey, first in a new series, and I should be celebrating. I’ve set up some readings and am guestblogging at various sites all month. But the champagne is still on the rack, its glorious pop postponed. Because my first reader is fading away.

It is sadly ironic that Shades of Grey deals with death and with those half shades of existence that come before, and possibly after. Unlike my previous books, Shades of Grey is a ghost story, a paranormal mystery, as they’re now called. In it, a young, vulnerable grad student is studying the Gothic novels of the late 18th century. But then her own life turns Gothic as the ghost of her beloved cat shows up – and various other psychic phenomenon start intruding into her orderly, academic life. In Shades of Grey, I deal with these topics gently – this is essentially a cozy mystery. A light read, but the topics are there.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I don’t know what to tell them. I’ve always written, because I’ve always read. In fact, I still have a copy of the first story I ever wrote. In labored, oversize lettering, it tells of a prince who was changed into a frog – but who then decided to make the most of his amphibian existence. I have it because my mother, when she was moving, decided she no longer had any use for many of the keepsakes she’d saved over the years. Although I was hurt by this at the time, I now see that she was shedding her former life. Various forms of dementia – normal pressure hydrocephaly and other complications – were taking their toll. She was moving from her condo to assisted living, and she was holding on only to what was vital. To what she thought she could keep.

My mother was my first reader and has been, over the years, one of my biggest supporters. It wasn’t easy for any of us. Both my brother and my sister developed schizophrenia while I was still a child, and while that made me, by default, my mother’s favorite – the good child – the price was way too high. That story of adaptation – that resigned frog – wasn’t simply a fable. We made do. We moved on. Family dynamics being what they are, we had other issues over the years – issues I poke loving fun at in Shades of Grey, as Dulcie fights with her neo-hippie mother and mourns her absent father. In a way, my life was designed to make a writer out of me. When I wrote about our family, in Mad House, my first nonfiction book, this caused my mother pain, I know. But whatever else was going on, I could always count on her to read my work. Once I started writing mysteries, I think she quite enjoyed them.

I am very aware of another sad irony. While I’m loving Dulcie Schwartz, I have another project out making the rounds. Called Dogs Don’t Lie, it’s my tongue-in-cheek hardboiled mystery, what I’ve labeled a “pet noir,” with a bad-girl animal psychic, and I and my agent thinks its some of my best writing yet. I’d told my mother something about it while I was writing it. But I didn’t tell her all. Because, you see, dementia plays a role in Dogs Don’t Lie, and it’s not a pretty one. For months, I wondered about this – wondered how far I dared push it. Would any publisher take an interest? If so, how long would publication take? Now, I know I don’t have to worry. Even if we were to get an offer tomorrow, my mother will probably not live to see it published. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to read it. I’m launching a new book and a new series, but it’s my mother who is fading into shades of grey.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Karen Bender's Guest Post: Revision

I’m currently revising a fourth draft of my second novel, “Allegations.”I’m going into my fourth year working on the book, which for me isn’t bad—my first novel, Like Normal People, took seven years to really finish. As a writer and teacher, I’m a big cheerleader for revision.
Revision isn’t, in my mind, the process of just changing a few words here or there or inserting one line that “changes” the whole story; it’s about really thinking about how to push a manuscript and make it better, to tear out and start again, and rethink. It can be arduous and aggravating and illuminating and playful and ultimately rewarding; I tell my students that revision can help you write things you never thought you could write because it is, ultimately, about patience.

I know the word “revision” can strike fear into writers. Why isn’t it good enough the first time? Why can’t I just sent it out the minute I get it onto the page? I’ve felt that, too, often; but I think that’s a reaction to our frenetic, get-things-done-instantly culture. Why can’t we congratulate each other on the fact we can stick to it for three, four, five drafts? I know that sometimes when writers speak about work, the discussion turns to when something will be finished, and the whole dreaded marketing process, etc. I do this, too. But instead, why can’t we affirm the bravery we have at working at it further? Could we ask each other--what are you discovering in this part of the process? Or—what are you learning about your characters now?

When I was a child, my mother, a dancer/choreographer, would tell my sisters and I—think about “process, not product.” I often had problems listening to this—I wanted product, product! I wanted publication, now! Now I think that working on a piece of art requires that you consider both process and product. You have a vision in your head, of your work, your wonderful creation, what you want to add to the world. And along the way, you find a way to enjoy the process, to allow its unpredictability, to follow that messy, divine road that leads you, finally, to art.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Karen Bender's Guest Post: The Problem with Mary

We’ve had a project in our house the last few months. We’ve been reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, and it’s been wonderful returning to it. There’s nothing quite like reading “On the Banks of Plum Creek” to two children in 2009. When we read them the fact that Pa walked three hundred miles in patched shoes to find a job that paid a dollar a day, they looked shocked and said, “What a gyp.”

The books really hold up. In fact, they are a good way to stop whining, especially after reading “The Long Winter.” The kids were less likely to complain about their dinner menu after reading that the Ingalls ate only brown bread (and not a lot of it) for three months. The recent article in The New Yorker about Laura Ingalls Wilder and how she wrote the books with her daughter, Rose, is excellent. But as a writer, I want to lodge a complaint about Mary.

Mary, as you may remember, is the oldest daughter, the one with the beautiful blonde curls, the one who is notable for being endlessly “good.” She becomes blind after having scarlet fever in book five, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” and Laura is given the job of being her eyes.

This is when Laura, I think, starts becoming a writer—when she “sees out loud” for Mary. For example, there’s a beautiful description in which she is describing the prairie for Mary and says: “There’s just the big sky and grassy land, and the little low creek…It trickles along from pool to pool, by dry gravel stretches and cracked dry mud flat.”

Great job, Laura! But then Laura says this:

“The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short. And that’s the end of it.”

“That can’t be,” Mary objected. “The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.”

“I know it does,” Laura answered.

“Well, then I don’t think you ought to say things like that,” Mary told her gently. “We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.”

“I was saying what I meant,” Laura protested. But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them.

Mary naturally wants to be told how the world looks. And Laura is trying to do it. But Laura is trying to describe the world in her way—metaphorically, poetically. And Mary becomes a literalist. She doesn’t want Laura to see things in her own way.

This happens other times in the book too. When she is describing a man, Big Jerry, who is riding away, Laura says:

“The brown prairie all around—and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They’ll go on in the sun around the world.”

Mary thought for a moment. Then she said, “Laura, you know he couldn’t ride into the sun. He’s just riding along on the ground like anybody.”

But Laura did not feel she had told a lie. What she had said was true, too.

I found myself getting more and more annoyed with Mary as I read this book. For Mary-the-punitive- literalist is a familiar workshop type. As a creative writing student, and now as a teacher, I know that there can be a student in the class who is hell-bent on clarity. Over everything. Clarity is, in fact, important in writing—if a reader is confused, then the writer will lose him/her. But Mary is not just demanding clarity. She is telling Laura that her reality is not relevant. And this is a dangerous sort of critic for a writer.

How does a writer say what he/she means and not lose the audience? It can be a balancing act, between “seeing out loud” for the reader and “seeing your way.” Ideally, the best writing comes from an intersection between both—the description that communicates the image to the reader but that comes from the writer’s own unique point of view. It can take a lot of tries to get that particular image—and ultimately the most helpful critic will ask questions of the writer, not crush the writer.

Watch out for the Marys. For what Laura said was true, too.