Monday, January 31, 2011

Answering My Own Questions

OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck has always been one of my favorite novels. I read it, on average, once a year. Studying this novel in high school is one of my more vivid memories. I remember debating the morality of George’s decision to shoot Lennie and what specific traits were illustrated by each character. I remember discussing conflict, theme, symbolism and universality. But mostly I remember wondering if Mr. Steinbeck considered any of these things as he wrote his novella, or did he write the story he wanted to read? Did those characters rise up to him and tell their story without regard to the definition of a traditional tragedy or with those boundaries firmly in mind? Did he plan the symbolism and know before writing the first sentence that George would never realize his dream?

I’m thinking of my favorite novel and those high school questions as I write discussion questions for my own book—questions that I’ll post on my website for readers to consider. What is the significance of the title BENT ROAD? Surely, as the author, I have an answer for this question. And, in fact, I do. But did I consider that answer when deciding on the title? What are the similarities and differences between Celia (the daughter-in-law) and Reesa (the mother-in-law) and how do those similarities and differences account for the conflict between them? Again, I know the answer, but did I identify and specify each character trait to support the mounting tensions between the two women or did they bubble up on their own? What is the significance, if any, of placing the story in the Kansas plains during the late 1960s? Did I choose the setting and place in history to support the plot, or did it just feel right?

In late April, my own reading group will be reading and discussing BENT ROAD. Perhaps we'll use the discussion questions that I am writing today. Just in case, I'll make sure to have my answers well rehearsed before the first cork is popped. Watch for more discussions questions—to be posted soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Never a Good Answer

One of the questions I am often asked, for which I really have no good answer is...Where did you get the idea for BENT ROAD? It would be simple if I could point to a single newspaper article or recount an old family story passed through the generations. But I can't. The truth is, I don't know where the idea came from, but I do know where it began. It began with setting. So today, I thought I'd share a few pictures taken from the setting that inspired BENT ROAD.

On another note, I will be appearing at the University of Central Florida Book Festival, April 16th. More details here and at my website

Monday, January 17, 2011

Writers in Paradise

This week, in the St. Petersburg area, writers have come from across the county to participate in the Eckerd College Writers in Paradise writers' conference. In honor of the conference, which has been very good to me over the years, I would like to repost a blog that originally ran back in May. And to all of my WIP friends, have a great week. Enjoy.

The air is decidedly cooler and lighter on a June morning in the Boston area than in Florida. This is my thought as I sit in the orientation of my first Solstice Writers’ Conference. I am also feeling oddly unencumbered, as if I have forgotten something. I didn’t have to wake anyone this morning, didn’t have to start a load of laundry, didn’t have to field breakfast requests. Instead, I rolled out of my lumpy dormitory bed, ate eggs and sausage prepared for me in the campus cafeteria and left my dishes for someone else to rinse and stick in the dishwasher. I sit back, flanked by two friends that I met at an earlier conference, and wait for the conference director to address the group.

Writers’ conferences are a bit like wandering through a bar in a college town. What’s your major…the college bar. Which class are you in….(novel, short story, non-fiction) the conference. When do you graduate…the college bar. Have you gone yet…(meaning has your work been critiqued in class yet?) the conference. Where you from…the college bar. Where you from…the conference. And like in college, when attending a conference, a participant has an assignment. Each writer must submit 25 pages that will be read by eleven or so classmates. For many attendees, this is why they have boarded a plane, hired a babysitter, purchased new luggage. They have hopes of finding a cure for their weary manuscript.

When a particular writer’s turn to be critiqued rolls around, he or she will sit quietly, (we’ll call her she) barred from speaking during the discussion, and the others in the workshop will talk about and debate what is wrong with her work and what is right. But mostly what is wrong, or maybe it just feels that way. When it is over, usually lasts about 45 minutes, the writer takes a deep breath and says thank you for the flogging. (Another thing I’ve learned along the way…if this process doesn’t sting, at least a little, it probably isn’t working.) Later that night, while sipping wine following the nightly readings, people will ask, have you gone yet? The writer will say yes. How did it go? I learned a lot, the writer might say. And drink another glass of merlot.

The conference director arrives at precisely 9:30. She begins by announcing a room change and goes on to remind us that coffee cups and silverware are not to leave the cafeteria and that the library will close early on Sunday. Lastly, she welcomes and introduces the teaching staff. The morning lecture will begin shortly, the director says, but first she has a bit of advice. We students think we have come to the conference to share our work with our peers, to have our teachers comb through our pages to instruct us on how to fix our plot lines and round-out our characters. But if you want to learn, if you really want to learn, the director says, fall in love with another writer’s work. Love it like you love your own. Make it your mission to lift up that person and ensure that he or she leaves a better writer. Fall in love with someone else’s work and good things will happen. Fall in love with someone else’s work and you will leave a better writer.

Sadly, the Solstice Writers’ Conference doesn’t exist anymore, though Pine Manor has a fine MFA program. And while that conference may no longer take place, I count that advice among some of the best I ever received.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Car Line and a Starred Review

Many of you know all about car lines. It is the line of cars that stack up when parents arrive on a campus to pickup their children from school. I am the Mom who arrives early, so I am in the front of the line. As such, I sit for quite a long time, waiting for school to be dismissed. This is when I do my reading. Other Moms--Dads, too--prefer to arrive later and end up at the back of the line. Either way, we wait about the same amount of time. Six of one, half dozen of another.

Such was the case the other day when I sat in car line waiting for school to be dismissed. I was the sixth or seventh car in line. The line behind me stretched more than twenty cars long. The bell sounded, ending school, and the line began to creep forward. However, the driver directly in front of me wasn't paying close attention. The line moved forward, but the car in front of me did not. A gap opened up. A black SUV drove past the other twenty or so cars in line, past me, past the car in front of me, and swooped into the gap. The black SUV CUT in line.

There was a moment, a very brief moment, when I thought to get out of my car and point out to the driver of the black SUV that there was a line twenty cars long and that his or her place was at the end of that line. But I didn't. Instead, upon realizing that I knew the driver of that SUV, I began to wonder what it says about a person when they cut in line. Does it reveal their character? Did the driver have an appointment that day and though she felt badly for cutting, she really had no choice? Did the driver have no intention of cutting, but when the opportunity presented itself, she took it? Did the driver feel she did not have to wait in line like the rest of us?

The writers out there will understand these questions and they'll understand why I spent the rest of my time in car line and during the drive home considering them. These are the details that build and illuminate character. I am thinking again about these questions as I begin to formulate another group of characters for another novel. Is a particular character a line-cutter or not? Will he or she cut only under extreme circumstances? Does he or she feel entitled to cut? Ashamed to cut? A line-cutter or not a line-cutter--a very good litmus test. So thank you to the black SUV for cutting in line, though I'm not sure how the other twenty or thirty cars felt about it.

On another note...I am happy to share that BENT ROAD received a starred review from Kirkus Review. More details at

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolutions for the New Year

I've never been much for New Year's resolutions. Too much pressure and too much visibility. Instead, I prefer to undertake new goals in the months leading up to the New Year. October and November are generally busy for me.

I joined a gym in the fall-didn't wait until today like most of the city seems to have done judging by the number of new people in my step class this morning. I also resolved to finish writing another novel in 2011. Technically, I finished it in 2010, so I'm not sure if I have reached that goal, or if I have to finish a third by the end of the year. I'll probably decide when October rolls around again.

Resolutions are generally a big deal for writers. We set word count goals, submission goals and we promise ourselves that we'll finally finish that manuscript and quit tinkering with it. So to all my writer friends who have made such goals, I wish you success as you work toward them in 2011.

On another note...EVENTS have been updated on my website. You will find those updates HERE. I have been invited to speak on a few panels at SLEUTHFEST, which takes place in Fort Lauderdale this March. This is a great event and worth a look. More info HERE. Additionally, my first two signings have been scheduled.