Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Killing Time at Logan

I'm reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Mickey, a former student of mine entering 8th grade in the fall, said it was the best book she'd ever read. Ever. She loved it so much that she slowed down the pace of her reading because she didn't want it to end. So when I found myself with an hour to kill in the Cell Phone Waiting Lot at Logan Airport yesterday, I reached into my World's Greatest Teacher tote bag and pulled out the copy of Twilight I've been dragging around for the last month.

At first, I was distracted by all the "-ly" words. Quickly, sheepishly, gruffly, immediately, unwillingly, brightly, precariously, convincingly, hopefully, finally, gradually, tentatively, apprehensively, vaguely, excessively, devastatingly, quickly, critically, reluctantly, surreptitiously, inconspicuously, occasionally, loudly, carefully, exceptionally, quickly, appreciatively. Did I mention quickly? Things happen quickly in Meyer-world. A lot.

Okay, so the writing isn't anything to write home about. What about the characters? Bella annoyed me, and Edward's intensity was laughable.

I decided to stop reading like a writer, and start reading like a girl caught between 7th and 8th grade. I gave my inner critic the rest of the day off. I read past the adverbs and forced myself into Bella's head. My 13-year old self loved this book. I found Edward leap-frogging over Paul McCartney and Davy Jones to land at the top of my adolescent dream-boyfriend list.

That said, there are so many great books out there and so little time to get through them, I'm not sure if I'm going to finish this one or not. I know my 13-year old self wouldn't have closed the book before reaching the end. I can't say the same for my 53-year old self.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Research Rule #1: Don't Believe Everything You Read on the Internet

I've learned to check and double-check information gleaned from the internet. If somebody forwards an email touting the cancer cure Johns Hopkins has been hiding, I'll check the content at both Johns Hopkins and Snopes before spreading the good news. If I learn something brand spanking new about a research subject, I'll make certain the source is unimpeachable, and that I can reliably validate that information.

There are some things, however, that I do not question. If I read on the Fandango website that I can catch a showing of Iron Man at the Ioka Theater at 8 p.m., I'm going to believe it. And if I read on the Rebecca Nurse Homestead website that the hours starting June 15th include Thursdays from 10
a.m. to 4:30 p.m., I'll believe that, too. Silly me.

When I arrived at the homestead to sift through the remnants of Rebecca's life, it was closed. The two cars parked outside Rebecca's door lead me to believe somebody must be there, but my repeated knocks and calls of hello-oo went unanswered. I tried phoning the office on my cell, but got little satisfaction from the tinny voice on the answering machine. I left a slightly miffed message, then began roaming the homestead, snapping pictures.

Several clapboards had been replaced and not yet painted, the untreated wood slashing the home's red facade. A kitchen garden was unfolding outside the doorstep, it's neat little rows of corn just about knee high. Except for the two cars parked in the dooryard, I suspect things looked pretty much the same through Rebecca's eyes as they did through mine.

I wandered out to the cemetery where Rebecca's monument dominates the surrounding headstones. A second largish monument sits close to Rebecca's. It lists the names of the people who stood at her trial publicly testifying to her exemplary Christian character, brave souls all.

A pile of Putnams were buried over on the far side of the cemetery, direct descendants of the Putnams who accused Rebecca of witchcraft. How could such a revolting development not leave poor Rebecca eternally rolling in her grave?

As my visit wore on, my slight miffedness melted away. I was happy for the solitude and the chance to walk in Rebecca's footsteps. So what if I didn't get to go through the house? I had the run of the rest of the homestead. And I didn't have to pay $6.50 for the privilege.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Procrastination Vacation, Part Deux

The procrastination vacation continues with a field trip! I figure if I'm not going to be writing anyway, I may as well do something that advances the cause. I'm turning my attention to Rebecca Nurse and heading down to Danvers, MA to do a bit of research at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead. I lived on the North Shore years ago in both Danvers and Beverly, so I feel like I'm going home.

I actually visited the Rebecca Nurse Homestead when I was a kid, but I mustn't have been paying much attention. I remember very little about the homestead other than its centerpiece was a big old saltbox affair of a house. I also remember hoping to see a bedwarmer, like the haunted one flying around in an episode of Bewitched filmed at the House of Seven Gables in nearby Salem. Maybe because I used to live on the North Shore, or maybe because I completely loved Bewitched, I remember every last detail about that episode.

Which leads me back to writing. I want to write a Rebecca Nurse chapter for Women of the Bay State: 25 Massachusetts Women You Should Know which my young readers will remember into old age. It shouldn't be that difficult, considering how remarkable Rebecca's life was. It'll be even easier if the bedwarmers start flying around the homestead later today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Shhh! Don't Tell!

I hope my executive editor doesn't see this. I'm supposed to be working on the final draft of Isabella Stewart Gardner for Women of the Bay State: 25 Massachusetts Women You Should Know, but somehow find myself between rounds of Chuzzle. I've decided to make it official and take a one-hour procrastination vacation.

It's not that I don't find Isabella fascinating. I do. Unburdened by the daily grind of keeping body and soul together, she did things only people with scads of money and a great sense of style can do. She had two diamonds fastened to springs and wore them like antennae. She traveled the world buying up Rembrandts, Botticellis, Titians, and Vermeers. She built an Italian-inspired palace on the Fenway in Boston to house her magnificent collection.

I bet Isabella never took a procrastination vacation.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Fun of Research

There is much to like about research, but my absolute favorite part is the fun of coming upon something unexpected.

For instance--this evening I was looking for something specific on the Massachusetts Historical Society's website. I found what I was looking for, and then I took a quick look around the site. I discovered the "object of the month." June's object is a broadside offering the services of a dentist. The broadside is dated 1796. Here's just one of the things the dentist, Mr. Josiah Flagg, offered to do:
Lines and plumbs Teeth with virgin Gold, Foil, or Lead.
Lead? Lord, I hope not many people took him up this particular service!

Intrigued, I started looking at some of the past "objects of the month." Last month's object was a letter which talks about Mary Dyer, one of the women Mur mentioned in an earlier post.

The object from last July was a menu for a "City Dinner on the Fourth of July, 1844, at Faneuil Hall." Since the 4th of July is rapidly approaching, you may want to compare 21st century holiday fare to what was served 164 years ago. It ain't hot dogs and hamburgers! But, you'll find that the old summer standby, ice cream, is on the menu.

My favorite object, of the ones I looked at, is a portion of the diary of 11 year old, Sarah Gooll Putnam. Sarah chronicled her visit to the Boston Aquarial Gardens. What is an aquarial garden? Click here to find out.

There is SO MUCH wonderful stuff in the object archives, I could spend many fun-filled days!


Friday, June 6, 2008

Doin' the Happy Dance

The Write Sisters' Women of Granite: 25 New Hampshire Women You Should Know, is the "Book of the Week" on the NH Center for the Book's blog.

We're so proud we're about to bust our buttons!

Take a look around the NH Center for the Book's website, there's lots to explore, including links to NH booksellers.

Starting a Novel

March Novel Madness inspired me to start my first novel, having already written four nonfiction titles and a picture book called Sail Away, Little Boat.

I have had several novel ideas filling my noggin for the last three decades. The most compelling characters have shouldered their way into my life, and have reached the head of the queue. It was time to pick one and write it. I chose a funnier, lighter story. My goal in getting the story down on the page was to write fast and loose – not sweating any details.

And, so, I began. I wrote what I already knew about my main character and the others who populate her life. It was pretty easy, since I had already given myself permission to be imperfect. I had also given myself permission to not write an actual novel from beginning to end. My March Novel Madness experience would be character sketches, dialog, scenes, notes to self, explorations.

As the writing came, so did things I didn't expect. The first surprise was a character who all of a sudden showed up at my doorstep (figuratively speaking here . . .). Wow. She appeared so suddenly, it made me absolutely giddy. She introduced herself as newcomers often do. I didn't find out everything about her right away, which is pretty much the way you get to know any new friend. The slowly unraveling details created a tension that was kind of . . . um . . . delicious.

There were more surprises along the way. An adult character named Lorraine turned out to be funny, but not in the traditional sense of funny – Paula Poundstone funny. Her extreme conservatism in manner had me laughing out loud.

My zero draft – the dumping of everything I'd known about this story – had turned into a discovery draft.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting to Terse III

Attended my first Kindling Words conference this past January. Had an awesome time.

March Novel Madness (MnM) was born from that event. Based on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), MnM had several of us committing to a set goal each day for the month of March. Spunky cheerleader that she is, Alison James got us up and running. She sent everyone a little calendar to keep track of our word count. She also sent 31 M & Ms to each of us so we could reward ourselves for every day we completed our goal.

I committed to 1,000 words a day, and since I also teach two days a week and wouldn't be able to write every single day in March, I started my stint in February.

I'm a middle grade novelist, who has never written a novel. Go figure. But I do indeed figure – full-time teaching, life, other writing interfered. Fear of the blank page had no small part in it, so I decided to take the zero draft approach for MnM.

As mentioned before, a zero draft is basically dumping everything that you have in your head onto the page. This approach seems like the right one for me, since I'm a tinkerer. A tinkerer who hates to start, because everything I always write seems like junk as soon as it's on the page. As soon as I start tinkering, I lose the momentum of my writing. You lose so much when you lose momentum. If you're a coward and a tinkerer like me, having something to work with is everything.

I came up with rules for myself pretty quickly. Don't use my wireless mouse or the little finger mouse-pad type thing on my laptop. No using the pg up or pg down key. I did allow myself to backspace, but only just a few backspace taps. No correcting spelling mistakes unless I had a really good reason to do so – like I'd never be able to interpret it once I went back to read it.

That was the other rule. I didn't allow myself to read anything I wrote the day before. To combat any memory loss from the day before (funny how that happens), I usually ended the session with a little note to myself where I might start the next day. I did allow myself to read that.

I set a time limit for myself. 1,000 words or 1 hour, whichever came last.

And, so, I began. I'll write more about this on Friday. Don't worry, I am getting to terse. It's just that you have to be so verbose to get there!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Getting to Terse II

Getting the words on page is the trickiest thing for me when I start a project. When it's in my head the writing presents itself in beautiful 3D (with surround sound) – full color, textured, touchable.

So, that's good, right? I have ideas that get me out of bed in the morning. But here's the part that most always has me reaching for the snooze button. I like my writing clean, tight, and terse.

How can I translate that beautiful, touchable, believable image into something as linear as a sentence?

I start by whining -- no matter how small the project is (like a blog entry). I don't do this out loud to any human being, but occasionally I will whine to my brainy dog, Cooper. (That's okay. He does his share of whining, too). I can't do this! Please, don't make me do this!!!!!

But my boss – my inner boss -- is relentless. You have to write this, she says. No one else will tell this story. Who will give birth to these characters anyway? And tell me honestly, Janet, do you really think you can not write?

No, I can't. I've tried. And so, since I must meet my own deadlines (yes, I do set them for myself) and other deadlines, I write.

In the last couple of years I've come upon a technique that really helps folks like me who find it hard to start. It's called the Zero Draft, and it really works.

A zero draft is basically a brain dump. Before I begin any project, I start by putting everything I'm thinking on the page. For this small blog entry, I typed several paragraphs, including the following:

Kids in school – don graves. They start out trying to write. perfect
paragraph. heavens, they don't want to have to rewrite anything.
This was back when kids didn't compose on computers. It was by hand.

found the idea of a zero draft online made so much sense to me. Brain
dump. Wordy. Time to be verbose. The really fun part revising of
the piece. I'm the finish carpenter. I love to come in and cut,
rearrange, sculpt, fiddle, play

Of course, I haven't used any of this in the blog entry, but the point is that I got something on paper. I wrote fast (it helps to be a fast typist) and wrote every word that came into my head. I've started most zero drafts by just talking to myself on the page: so janet what are you going to write today? you know you have to write something. get going girl. The bird feeder needs refilling call sheree don't worry about not being able to write just go.

Before I know it, I've suddenly launched into the day's work.

More tomorrow on how I've started a novel (my first) using this technique.