Friday, April 30, 2010

Regarding email

If you've tried to send us an email, and you've gotten a return message, not to worry, we almost certainly got it. If you're concerned, please send us a query to ensure we got your email. It can take us some time to look through your email and prepare a proper response, especially if it is lengthy. We are aware of this issue and are working to fix it.

Thanks for your patience!

Megan

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wood for the Table

Sorry for the delay, here is the second blog from this month's guest blogger, Margaret Ellsworth. - S.




“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry… Both are very hard work. Writing is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez



As writers, we work with the material we have at hand—which is reality, and the words we use to describe that reality. Now, I’m a nonfiction writer, so reality is a bit more of an issue for me, since the reader expects my pieces to be fact-checkably “real.” But fiction and poetry have an equal responsibility to reality. Because unless the writer can create a world in her story that’s as detailed and rich as the world we inhabit, the reader’s not going to stick with it. We’re using reality, but we’re also competing with reality, which is already a sensory overload experience.



Which is why good writing draws from reality. The best dialogue has the same rhythms as conversations we’ve heard before. The best characters, while unique in their own ways, often share characteristics with people we recognize from our own lives. Even sci-fi and fantasy worlds may not correspond to “reality” as we know it, but a good writer can fill these worlds with so much realistic detail that we hardly notice.



It’s these details that can make or break a story. So where do we get these details from? The details that allow people to enter the worlds we create, and be able to see and smell and touch the world around them, clearly? How do we gather the wood for our table? Here are a few suggestions:



Get out in the world, and take notes. This is crucial for nonfiction writers—to get out there and experience the reality we’re trying to convey. We can actually go to the settings of our stories, and get details there. But this can be a useful tool for fiction writers too. If your characters happen to be musicians or doctors, see if you can find some musicians or doctors in the real world to shadow. If you’re writing a bustling town scene for your historical/fantasy book, head down to the farmer’s market and watch how people interact with each other there.



Take a notebook and a camera (or a cell phone camera if you’d rather be more inconspicuous) and watch what’s going on. Write down the little things: colors, sounds, smells. Notice the way people move and talk to each other. You could even try to scribble down snippets of conversation, to get a feel for the rhythms of dialogue. Try not to particularly think about your story at this point: if you focus on what you’re writing, you might miss something that’s happening around you. Afterwards, when you read your notes over, you can work the details into your story.



Follow your obsessions. Tamora Pierce (author of the popular Tortall teen fantasy series) said that she watched “The Three Musketeers” movie 17 times during her years at college. Did it have anything to do with her work at that point? Probably not. But it gave her material later on. This is one of the most fun parts about being a writer—the license to be obsessed with anything and everything. Read books, blogs, websites. Watch and re-watch movies. As Pierce says, “All creative people--not just writers!--expose themselves to as much information, in as many forms, as possible, in the hopes that it will be useful down the road, or even right now. You never know what will spark something new!”



Write what you know. I know, it’s an old cliché, something writing professors like to say… and then they end up with a stack of dorm-drama stories on their desk. You may think that “what you know” is too boring to ever interest anyone else. But I’m willing to bet you know some pretty odd things. Just through 20-odd years of life experience, I’ve become (perhaps too) familiar with church politics, long-distance relationships, and wasp-proofing my house. Just to name a few! Go ahead. Take ten minutes, and write down everything in the world you know about, everything you’re an expert on. Maybe one of your characters will love the same band you do. Maybe your summer job waiting tables at a resort will give you the idea for a story.



How about you? How do you come up with the details that bring your stories to life?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Books, the Making Of: Part One

As I hope you know, we are putting out a book (you remember that whole contest thing, right?), and are planning another (open submission this time, more information at the website). If you don't know, either we've been remiss in our duty, or, well, probably we've been remiss in our duty. So to fix that: we're putting out a book!

That's only sort of what I want to talk about though. Since we're hand binding these books (they're quite attractive), I thought it might be fun to talk about the process by which a book is built. So many of us who love writing dream of, some day, being in a book. To have our writing transformed in that magical process from manuscript to book. The very idea thrills us. But, do you know how they're made? Did you know there are names for the different parts of the book?

A paperback, of course, is boring; perfect bound (the pages are just glued together at the back) and wrapped in a cover. Yawn. No artistry to it at all. A hard bound book though has more parts and pieces than you can shake a stick at, but there are two main parts to it, the casing, and the signature(s).

Now watch as I try to explain in an entertaining way what a casing is, and how it's made! Actually, it's just that, it's a case that wraps around the signature. What, that didn't make things clear? Okay, let's try this. The part of a hard bound book that's hard? That's the casing. Actually, the hard part are the boards.

Let's try again. The cover? The hard part? The spine? Those are all parts of the casing. Confusing? Alright, let's start from the cover. I'm going to use a copy of Ulysses S. Grant from 1868 that I happen to have in my hands (because it's pretty, closer to my desk, and the process is virtually identical), and explain in detail, very briefly, what goes into the making of the casing.

So, we start with a lovely piece of dark, chocolate brown leather (beautifully debossed in this case), and we lay it out on our workstation. On top of that, we glue the boards (the actual hard part, its sort of a really heavy card stock) There are two of these, well, sometimes there's a third making up the spine, but this book is a bit different.

Have I bored you yet? Thought so. I'll just keep going anyway. In the case of this book, the spine is stiffened not with board, but with six lengths of cord, measured roughly equally distant from each other (actually, these are possibly part of the signature, not taking the book apart, more in part two). We take all this, and fold (and glue) the excess leather over the top of the boards, so that now it's all a nice, neat little package.

We're done now, right? Not yet. Let's pretend we did use board for the spine. There's one more thing we need to do. We have to round the spine! Yup, pretty boring. It's accomplished with, lacking the proper name, a wooden jig with a round wells, and a nicely rounded stick (highly technical terms here) which gently, rounds the board that makes up the spine (more on this in part 3).

Did I forget anything? Probably. But that's all for now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Transcendence

Peanut Satay sauce and coconut milk make some sense together. I say only some because Satay Sauce already has a fair bit of coconut milk. But what about adding some egg to the mix, a little bit more ginger, some chili paste, and cubes of bread?

Sounds crazy right? Not really. This is merely a modification of a basic bread pudding recipe. It'll be savory, and a bit spicy, and definitely not reminiscent of the European origins of a bread pudding. And I skipped the raisins. I hate raisins.

Did it come out any good? It's in the oven right now. I don't know if it's any good yet. I'll share if it's tasty though.

Now, why am I writing about my crazy adventures in food land? It's not because I have a masochistic tendency to invite criticism of what I think might taste good (usually though, it does). I'm writing about savory Thai bread pudding because it's relevant to writing.

To make this, I took just a few simple ingredients and combined them in a new and interesting way. I added a few other seasonings to taste, and stuck it in the oven. I don't know if it will be any good. I'm somewhat afraid of the outcome to be honest. But I tried it anyway. And I told someone else (you, you're reading this) about the experiment. And I'll make my husband eat it.

Why not do the same with your writing? Step out of the normal boundaries of what makes you comfortable. Push the envelope. Combine elements that aren't traditionally seen together, and force them to play nice. Hunter S. Thompson did it with creative non-fiction. Patrick Rothfuss did it with The Name of the Wind, combining fantasy with literary fiction (at least, from what I understand. I haven't read it yet.

This trend of combining, transcending, and flat-out ignoring rules of genre isn't one that's going to stop. Why not give it a try today. Something small. Something simple. 500 words?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Perspective, Worldview and Voice

I was driving home on Friday and I saw a billboard. A big obnoxious number, one that's impossible to miss even if you wanted to (which is more with good placement than with content, but that's beside the point). So, I'm going to describe it to you in as much detail as I can muster, while still being brief; I want to talk about things other than the billboard. Now, imagine with me...

It sits on a corner, lurking just the other side of a stop light, in perfect view while you're staring at the red light, waiting for it to turn green. You've just passed the grocery store, or are returning from it, and you see this billboard, splashed across the top with bright, autumn leaf orange text: “20 VITIMANS AND MINERALS!” Below the text, to the right side of the ad, on a field of perfectly green grass is a smiling boy, kicking a soccer ball, his uniform immaculately clean. Opposite him, like the heart of the sun from which the orange text radiates are two halves of an avocado. In the same orange text, beneath the boy: “Chilean Avocados.”

So, what does this have to do with perspective, worldview or voice? Let us consider each of these things separately.

When we write, we write through a huge number of filters—this is only natural, we perceive the world through those same sorts of filters. Your mood, where you work, what your hobbies are, where you live. What philosophy do you live by? Are you Catholic or maybe Buddhist? All of these effect how you see the world. These, and more, form our personal world view. It's how we see and interpret literally everything around us.

Your characters, too, have their own worldview, and their own perspective on things. If we write with our default worldview, our characters will come off as incomplete, choppy copies of ourselves, and if we try to force other traits on them, those traits will come off as shallow, or just wrong. You, and your character, probably wont agree on some things. Some of them may be little (maybe your character loves spicy food, but you despise it), and some of them will be rather large things (your character is a lawyer that argues for the death sentence, and you've given up chocolate until capital punishment has been outlawed).

The thing with perspective to consider is how close your narrator is to your viewpoint character. In some stories, the viewpoint is very loosely coupled, or entirely separated from the viewpoint character (The Hobbit, by Tolkien). In others, the viewpoint character is your narrator (any Sherlock Holmes story by Doyle—in which your point of view character and your protagonist are different, but that's a different blog). The perspective, naturally, is going to differ based on how tightly coupled your narrator is to the POV character.

Okay, let's tie this together then, shall we? Voice. When you write, you write with a voice. Your voice depends on what worldview you (and hopefully your characters) have. The closer perspective you have to your characters, the more of that characters voice the writing should have.

So, let's go back to that billboard shall we? The night before I drove by that billboard, I had watched an episode of Good Eats (if you like food and like to cook, you should watch it, just saying) about avocados. Fun avocado fact: they never ripen on the tree, and can be stored, unripe, on the tree, for seven months! Which makes them a truly year round food.

So, I had my filters loaded, and when I drove by, multiple things ran through my head in parallel. The important ones that are important, though are as follows: “Why do I want avocados from chili, I can get them grown much closer, they're not seasonal.” “People should eat more local food. Not import it from other hemispheres.” And finally, “Why not? Avocados are avocados.”

That's when my writer brain kicked in, and I saw the filters, the preconceived ideas that I held in my mind. What if I was writing a character, and I loaded onto that character my own world view? Well, maybe that character agrees with me, but what if that agreement doesn't agree with the character? Well, this is how you get discordant characters (I'm sure that you have all read characters that just seemed wrong, or forced).

Or maybe the character is from Chili and, though in general may agree with that particular world view, he may prefer the avocados from his home country on a purely nationalist standpoint. Or maybe the character is a neo-nazi and, when he sees the billboard has violent thoughts towards the foreigners who are taking jobs from American (white! [I'd like to point out that I do not think this way]) workers.

That's just a few examples with a billboard, and every character will have all of these possible branches for, literally everything in the world. If you keep it in mind, you'll have a lot more luck with capturing a convincing voice.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Practice

I started taking organ lessons in college, for basically one reason: I wanted to play an instrument that was larger than my dorm room. At organ concerts, I’d admired the beautiful pipes and felt the sound rumble and echo through the concert hall. I couldn’t wait to climb up to the organ loft and pull out all the stops, to feel my whole body shake as I made music.

But after signing up, I realized I only got a few hours a week to play the “big organ.” Most of the time, I was relegated to a tiny practice room. This instrument is tiny; you could probably stack ten or twelve of this little organ in the big organ loft. There are only two stops, or varieties of sound (as opposed to the big organ’s 53) and the highest one is tinny and whiny, slightly off-key. But this actually makes the practice room a better place to practice.

When I talk about practice, I mean the slow, painstaking process of learning the notes. Figuring out how to move smoothly from one note to the next. Playing slowly, one note at a time, until it hardly sounds like music anymore. When I practice, I’m teaching my fingers the path between notes, locking down the fingerings into muscle memory, so when the lights are up and the concert hall is full of people, my fingers will know where to go. And I’m also memorizing how the music sounds. Soon I can hear the next note before it’s even played. I’ll know what it sounds like when it sounds right.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Many of us write in search of those “concert hall” moments—flashes of inspiration. Maybe a word or phrase gets stuck in your head, or a character comes to life suddenly in your imagination. Soon the words are pouring effortlessly out onto the page. But what happens when those flashes don’t happen?

What sustains me as a writer, day to day, is not those fickle flashes, but rather approaching writing as practice. Then it becomes less about the sheer power of your words, but about the little things instead. The feel of the keys as they click under your fingers, letter by letter. The smell of the ink from your ballpoint pen. The more you sit down to write, the more these sensations get imprinted into your muscle memory, into your unconscious.

The sounds of sentences are making their way into your memory too, when you practice. You might try a short punchy sentence one day, or a long rhythmic list the next. You’ll experiment with colons and semicolons and commas. And you’ll start to hear your own voice coming out.

That’s why I consider journaling, blog posts, forum posts, to be writing practice as well. You’re still sitting down to the computer, still working on finding the right words to express your ideas. You are teaching your fingers their way. So when you do get a sudden inspiration, and you grab for your notebook or computer, your body knows how it feels to sit down at the desk. Your writer’s “ear” knows the variety of sentences available to you, and can choose the right one. And the writing that comes out of this “performance” is stronger than it would have been without those hours of practice.

Malcolm Gladwell (an amazing nonfiction writer who you should check out, if you haven’t already) recently wrote a book called Outliers about what it takes to be successful. In this book he tells the story of the Beatles (way back before they were, you know, The Beatles) and a series of concerts that they played at Hamburg, Germany. This was a brutal gig—they played at noisy clubs to rowdy patrons, 8 ours nonstop per night, 7 nights a week. By the time they became a US rock and roll sensation, they had performed 1200 times. Twelve hundred. Most bands don’t perform 1200 time in their whole careers! That, according to Gladwell, was one of the things that set them apart from other bands. They had performing in their blood, in their muscle memory. They had put in their practice time.

Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great at what you do. 10,000 hours! If I stuck to the college concert hall schedule, it would take me 39 years to be a great organist. Truth be told, I don’t care about the organ that much…but I do care about telling stories. And so, each morning, I sit down with my notebook, grab my ballpoint pen. I’ve got a lot of practicing to do.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April is Poetry Month

Let's all celebrate Poetry Month by writing a poem. Just one small little poem. Make it be about something local and fun; something you like about Boise, or an independent Boise store. Then send it over to the folks at Rediscovered Bookshop for their contest. I hear there's prizes.

Or, you could write a poem just because. You would work on it all April. Make it strong. Make it all it can be. You could even use one of the themes for the next two Bites from the Orchard: Floats or Hearth and Heath. You could bring it to the poetry critique group forming at A Novel Adventure (look for more details next week). You could read it at open mic night. Or you could submit it for publication.

Long or short, serious, sweet, sad, or happy, poetry warms the heart and invites the soul to communicate.

Spend some time writing some verse this month.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Contest Winner!

We have selected a winner and runners up for the Bridges Contest! And that winner is:

Chad Smith for his poem “No Rocks on This End”.

Our runners up, in no particular order, are:

Noelle Veldhouse for her poem “Pigtoot the Forgotten” and,

Phil McClellin for his short story “Where Lurks the Damned”

You can look forward to reading these excellent selections on May 5th at 6pm when we release Bites from the Orchard: Bridges.

Thank you so much to all of our entrants. We couldn’t do it without you.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Drawing Comparisons

April is in full swing now, and so is the celebration of National Poetry Month. Why not join in the fun by writing a poem?

For some, writing a poem is easy. They sit down, and write, and out comes something to work with, edit, revise, and shape into a masterpiece. For others (myself included) the word "poetry" brings on shivers of fear and dread.

The fear and loathing, however, does not mean writing a poem is impossible. Start with a simple comparison. What was your morning coffee like? Your breakfast? How much would you like to put sugar in the gasoline tank of the neighbor's monster truck? You see what I'm getting at here: start with something small.

Then let it grow. Compare that thing or desire to something else that's not like it. Is your object of description hard and cool? What else is hard and cool? Plates, DVD cases, and jewellery could stand in for an answer.

Now move on to an emotion. Does your coffee make you angry, happy, or something in between? How much is that emotion evoked? Explore it, and see where it takes you.

Even if poetry isn't your forte, drawing these comparisons is helpful. How else are you going to explain to your reader just how much the character hated sliding into the cool waters of the lake? Or show the reader just how bad that concept you're arguing against really is? It's all in the description. While poetry may be too flowery, too much for your specific situation, hyperbole can teach much about moderation.

-Megan

Monday, April 5, 2010

April's Guest: Margaret Ellsworth

Our guest blogger this month is Margaret Ellsworth. Though she recently moved to California, she's been instrumental in the formation of Boise's Novel Orchard. Head over to her blog (which she promises she wantes to start updating more frequently) for some more adventures in writing.

- Megan


1.When and why did you begin writing?
The why is easy: I've been a voracious reader as long as I can remember. And when you read enough stories, you start to dream of writing some of your own. The first story I remember writing (I think I was eight or nine) was about a seagull who made friends with a beach frisbee. Their names may or may not have been Sparkle & Whisby.

My writing life really caught fire in January 2006, when I started keeping a devoted "scribble-book" or notebook for stories and ideas. Since then, I've tried to write every day.

2.What sort of genre do you write?
Creative nonfiction of various sorts. Most of it falls under the category of memoir or personal essay. I like to write about big questions--religion, ethics, love-- and bring a personal voice and an image-rich vocabulary to it. I also do a bit of literary journalism-- same kind of deal, but writing about other people, not just myself.

3.Have you been published? If so, what titles? Where can we find your book?
I've had two poems and one essay published in various issues of my college's literary journal, Saxifrage. I also have an article that I'm shopping around to magazines right now.

4.How do you define being a successful writer? What do you do to get there?
A writer is someone who writes. Let's start there. As long as I have a notebook that is filling up with words, I am a writer. Every day that I write new words, I am a success.

Long term, I want to share my stories with people-- maybe even let them change the world a little, as the stories I've read have changed me. And for that to happen, my stories have to be out in the world, not just in my notebook or saved on my hard drive. That means re-writing, re-writing, re-writing... and finally screwing up my courage to submit a story for publication. Scary stuff. But worth it if I want to be a published writer. :)

6.You come to a fork in the road. Which way do you go? Why?
Either way, I'll get lost within five minutes. No internal compass here.

8.What book are you currently reading?
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for the second time. Garcia Marquez has possibly the most beautiful writing voice EVER. In my personal opinion.

9.What are your current projects?
I'm working on a couple of essays right now-- one that takes a different angle on the life of Jesus, and an autobiographical essay about growing up female.

12.Do you have any advice that you would like to share?
Natalie Goldberg said it best: Keep your hand moving. When you sit down to write a first draft, Do Not Stop Writing. If you're frustrated or stuck, write a sentence about being frustrated or stuck, and then move on. Some of my best scenes/images have come when I thought I was out of inspiration and kept writing anyway.

Also, one of the things that has helped me the most in my writing life is the support of a writers' group. Writing's a lonely pursuit, and sometimes it helps to break out of that isolation once in a while. A group can keep you accountable to your writing goals and remind you why writing is fun. Not to mention that critiques from fellow writers are worth their weight in gold!

13.You're trapped on an island, what five things do you have with you?
Hmm... probably no wi-fi on the island, eh? OK then. A notebook, a deck of cards, a good long novel to read, a box of peach black tea, and a solar flare to call for help!

14.Quick, it's a Zombie Apocalypse! What do you do?
Grab my notebook & voice recorder and go to interview the zombies!

15.Your computer just died, does this ruin your writing day, or can you cope?
Nope-- that's what my trusty notebook is for. I actually find I'm more creative when I write first drafts by hand and then type them up. It's harder to make a "perfect sentence" without a backspace key, and if I'm not worrying about making perfect sentences, I get more done.

Patience

Please be patient. Today's blog is coming later today or tomorrow. It'll go up on Facebook and Twitter as soon as it's up.

Thanks for your understanding!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Peeps

Tasty marshmallow goodness, or crack for sugar addicted children?  Or both?

So, Easter is coming, and Peeps have made their way to the store shelves (well, been there, I try to ignore them).  It got me thinking about the odd things people eat.  The things people secretly enjoy, but refuse to admit.  Or the things that they eat, so that they fit in.

It's one of those odd little character traits, what we eat.  In our society we have available to us nearly every delicacy that you can imagine, and everyone has things that they favor, that others may find odd, or even disgusting.  Some of you no doubt like pocky, others probably have no idea what it is.  Or, maybe you have secret stash of Turkish Delight hidden in your office desk.

It's something, however, that I frequently find lacking in writing.  I've read novels, in fact, that completely skipped over the fact that people eat!  So, I want you to choose a character you're working with, and tell us what his secretly loved food is.

- Sam
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