To tell a compelling story…

It’s Saturday as I write this. Saturday, the most wonderful day. I’m not dressed yet, though it’s ten thirty. After a hellish week, I deserve a few hours of unhurried sloth.

I was in a bad mood this week and by “bad,” I mean pea-soup spewing, head-twisting, stab-you-with-a-pencil-if-you-look-at-me-wrong mood. Now that it’s Saturday and I’ve had a few precious hours to decompress, I now know why my mood was so off. But Monday through Friday, I didn’t have a clue.

On Monday, I worked from home to record the narration for a few product videos that were due this week. Usually, this is a fairly fun and easy task but this time, numerous software issues from the buggy operating system produced by a certain mega-bazillionaire who-shall-remain-nameless tortured me, forcing me to repeat work.

On Tuesday, the same day I was scheduled to have a minor surgical procedure, my sister called me at work while I was juggling crashing programs, a conference call, and a problem with our website and said, “Clear your schedule. You’ll have to take Mom to the doctor tomorrow.” Mom lives with my sister in Connecticut. I live in New York. I work full-time, my sister does not.

If you’re reading this and thinking unkind thoughts about my sister, you’ll understand why this unleashed in me a whole new level of desire to do violence. Voo-doo dolls. In fact, I found one online that made satisfying little winces every time I poked it. With a nail gun.

After I’d calmed down sufficiently to discuss the situation, my sister and I arranged a better schedule. My niece is taking state tests all week and the doctor my mother must see is in New York. I am taking Tuesday off to accompany Mom on this appointment. See? I can be reasonable. Really.

On Wednesday, I dragged myself to work because I had to finish the product videos. The row of sutures on my back made driving a torturous experience. I was less than sunny when I arrived at work. I did, however, learn the website issue was resolved.

On Thursday, I was almost done with the videos. I wasn’t sleeping well since the sutures now ITCH like Alien is trying to claw its way free. A kind and unknown soul left a package of Dove Hot Chocolate on my desk. I’m following the Weight Watchers program and have eaten nothing but salad, fruit and yogurt, except for a moment of weakness when a chocolate chip muffin challenged me to a battle of the wills. I lost.

I put the hot chocolate in my desk drawer, vowing to stay on program.

And then there’s Friday. It promised to be a great day! I finished the videos, posted them on YouTube. I caught up with minor tasks I’d let slide during the week. And then I went to my Weight Watchers meeting, where I learned I’d GAINED two @$$%^*@!)*!~ pounds. I returned to my desk in a funk, picking at my boring salad. I checked in on Twitter, saw my son, an Islanders fan, having a public disagreement with a Penguins fan, who then threatened his life.

!?

This, people, this right here, is why there is a waiting period to buy firearms. Forget road rage or even ‘roid rage. Those aren’t rages, they’re tantrums from red-faced tots that only dream of being rages when they grow up beside a mother whose child is threatened. It took time, but eventually, my son assured me he was fine and the situation wasn’t serious. The rest of my salad got tossed into the garbage and I returned to work.

I opened my desk drawer and when I saw that package of hot chocolate, I succumbed, felt the tension leave my bones for the first time all week. After I finished licking the mug, I had an epiphany. During this week of deadlines and frustrations, there was one thing, one critical thing, I had not done.

I hadn’t written a word on Past Perfect. Not one new word. Writing isn’t just this thing I do when the house is clean and the bills are paid and the moon aligns with the stars in just the right way. Writing is an essential part of my composition; it’s an activity that centers me, that fills me with a peace I desperately need to handle all the balls I’ve got in the air. (Go ahead. You may smirk. You know you want to.) When I write, I’m in control of the universe. What happens, and then what happens next – I get to decide it all. It’s an escape from real life and one even I did not realize was so important to my own well-being until this moment.

So. It’s Saturday morning. I’m not dressed yet even though it’s now eleven o’clock. There’s dust in the corner of my bedroom I can see from across the room. The hamper is over-flowing. Housework waited all week, it can wait an hour or two longer while I do this thing I need as badly as I need air to breathe.

Oh, and maybe some chocolate to roll around in, since I can’t eat it.

Please share: how do you make time to write when real life gets in your way?

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Hi! This month, the Book Hungry team reviews Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.  Lots of spoilers but I think we did a fair job in teasing rather than fully disclosing.  Who’s “we”, you ask? I’m so glad you asked. This month, I have a Very Special Guest blogger, who I shall reveal shortly. First, a brief introduction:

In Jay Asher’s debut novel, a box of audio tapes is gift wrapped and delivered to Clay Jensen, the novel’s narrator. Curious, Clay rushes to his garage, unearths an old cassette player and hears this on the first of the seven tapes in the box:

“Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests. I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”

Hannah, a high school junior, has not been in school. Rumor has it that she overdosed on pills. There was no funeral.  And now Clay has her suicide “note.” Seven tapes, two reasons on each tape except for the last. “A Baker’s Dozen,” Clay makes a weak joke, shocked that he’s on Hannah’s tragic list.

The novel is chillingly written in both Clay’s and Hannah’s voices – Hannah’s beyond-the-grave commentary is written in italics with Clay’s horrified reactions written in regular font.

Here’s a cheat sheet of the other reasons.

  1. Justin Foley – Hannah’s first kiss who tells his friends a much different story.
  2. Alex Stendall – Writer of a Best/Worst List. Hannah is labeled Best Ass – an unwelcome distinction that has horrible repercussions.
  3. Jessica Davis – The first friend Hannah makes in her new town. She later wounds Hannah deeply.
  4. Tyler Down – Tyler should have been named “Tom.”
  5. Courtney Crimsen –  A good actress who used Hannah for her own schemes.
  6. Marcus Cooley  – The date who stood her up and then humiliated her.
  7. Zach Dempsey – a guy who stole something Hannah needed.
  8. Ryan Shaver –  a guy who stole something Hannah wrote.
  9. Clay Jensen – the narrator. Hannah admits he does not belong on this list. So why is he here?
  10. Justin Foley – Justin’s encore on Hannah’s list is heartless.
  11. Jenny Kurtz –  She did something that caused a tragedy and then covered it up.
  12. Bryce Walker – Um. A scary guy who fulfills everything everyone said about Hannah and she does not stop him
  13. Mr. Porter – Hannah’s Guidance Counselor and English teacher who Hannah saved for last.

I’m excited and proud to introduce you to my sixteen-year-old son, Chris.  Chris read this month’s selection, so I thought it would be fun if he reviewed it with me.  Chris, however, didn’t think that was such a cool idea. At least, not at first.

“Say ‘hi’ to my blog readers, Chris.”

“Hey.” Chris jerks his head in a tight nod of acknowledgment.

“So what did you think of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY?”

“It was good.” He rubs his palms over his jeans and shrugs.

“I thought so, too. But why was it good?”

Chris shrugs again, avoids eye contact.

I shift gears. “You know, it kind of reminds me of something Dad says whenever a plane crashes. (Dad is an aircraft mechanic.) It’s never just one thing.”

Chris nods, and quickly catches my thought. “Yeah. It’s like a bunch of things that all go wrong. Take one by itself and the plane would have been fine.”

“Right,” I smile. “So what do you think about the things that happened to Hannah?”

Chris shrugs again. “They didn’t seem that bad to me. But I guess over time, they all added up. Her impression of herself steadily eroded.”

I stare at my son. “Um. Right. That’s… that’s a really great insight.” I stammer. “Hannah called it a snowball effect in the book.”

“Yeah,” Chris agrees. “Once it got rolling there was no stopping it. There’s no erasing a rumor once it spreads. You either deal with it or it controls you. Most of what happened to Hannah was out of her control, except for the stuff at the end.”

“Do you hear a lot of rumors at school like the one Justin told about Hannah?”

Chris nods.

“Do you believe them?”

“Sometimes,” he admits. “It depends on who’s spreading them. Some guys will go, ‘I hit that’ when a girl goes by and I can believe it because there are girls who actually chase hot guys just so they’ll talk about them that way. They think it makes them popular.” He rolls his eyes.

I shudder inside but say nothing.  Does I hit that mean what I think it means?

“But most of the time, I don’t listen to the rumors.” Chris adds.

Wow. That’s good to hear. I decide to dig a bit deeper. “So for the rumors you do believe… the ones where the girls think they’ll be popular if they let a guy ‘hit that’… what do you think of these girls?”

Chris rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to be near anybody who goes to that much trouble to look good in someone else’s eyes.”

My first reaction to Chris’ words was relief. I wouldn’t want him hanging out with people like this. But then, Hannah crosses her arms in my mind and smirks. “See how easy it is?” She asks.  So I prod Chris a little. “But you can see how easy it is for rumors to hide the truth. You said it yourself; it depends on who’s doing the talking.”

Chris nods. “It definitely worked on her friend, Jessica, the one who believed the worst of her. The rumor was what got the snowball rolling. Then, the best ass – Oops. Sorry.” Chris flashes a grin at me and I wave him on, more interested in hearing his opinions than correcting a minor slip of the tongue. “I mean, being on that dumb list made guys like Bryce think they can get away with anything. And then, what Marcus did…  Hannah knew nobody respected her and pretty soon, she didn’t either. ”

I’m reminded again that it’s not just one thing that went wrong, it’s the sum of many.  “Why do you think Hannah made those tapes?”

Chris has a good answer. A great answer, actually. “Recording the tapes could be stress relieving – it’s one thing to record them but a whole other thing to actually send them. If I received them, I’d be beside myself with grief and guilt. If I hurt somebody, it’s not on purpose. Never my goal. When I put my sneakers on every morning, I prep for a happy day, not to hurt people. If I got tapes from someone who killed herself, I’d be distraught – not enough to totally ruin my life but I’d always second guess my actions, knowing everything I do has a consequence. I’ll always think things through carefully. It would probably identify all my faults and flaws so I could be better. She created the tapes so people would know she really did kill herself because of what they did, in case her death didn’t make the news or was covered up. I think it was a mixture of revenge and also, a hope that everyone would think twice in how they treat the next social misfit.”

A hope…  My jaw is swinging in the breeze when I realize Chris didn’t just read this book, he dissected it, so to give myself time to recuperate and stop the gushing I’m about to do, I play devil’s advocate. “Yeah, but come on. If people are this mean in real life, do you think some audio tapes are really going to make them better people?”

“Yeah, some of them,” he says, and tries to convince me he’s right. “Remember Clay said Justin and Jessica showed up at school looking sick or something? That was after they got the tapes and sent them to the next person. They listened, really listened to them. I think Alex did, too. But I don’t think Courtney would. Pretty sure Bryce wouldn’t.”

“Okay,” I ask the big question. “Why did she send the tapes to Clay?”

And again, Chris has insight that not only stuns me, it fills me with joy. He leans forward, starts using his hands to make a point.

“She knew Clay would be hurt. She wanted to save him from the pain listening to the tapes and knowing what she did caused him, so she tells him he doesn’t belong on the tapes. Because by that time, she’s already made her choice. She doesn’t admit it. She may not even have actually known it, but she was already beyond help. But Clay should have stayed in that room with Hannah at the party. He should have given her some time alone to calm down, and then gone back so that she knew he was there for her. If he had done that, at least two or three of the tapes that came after might not have happened. If that were me, I’d have stayed there until she literally pushed me out of the room and then I would have walked her home, you know, to make sure she was safe since she was so upset.”

I beam at my son.

“What?”

“You make me very proud.”

Chris grins.  (And when I read this post back to him for his approval, he grinned just as I read, “Chris grins” and then burst into laughter that I had him so well pegged.)

He’s satisfied, but I’m not. “I have to admit, I’m angry that Clay didn’t take the tapes to someone NOT on the list, someone like the principal or even the police. What do you think?”

Chris waves me off. “Mom, Clay couldn’t think that far ahead, he was too upset by what he heard on those tapes.”

“I see. You’re saying that’s an adult reaction, not a kid’s.”

“Right.”

Heh. I hadn’t thought of it like that. And now that he pointed it out, I think he has a point. “Okay, overall, you liked the book?”

“Yeah, I liked the book. It was great. It gets you thinking. When it ended, I was sad it didn’t go on. The ending was cool in how Clay ran after Skye. He probably wouldn’t have thought to do that if he hadn’t heard the tapes. They made him reconsider how he dismissed someone who could really use a friend.”

Our Rating:

Two thumbs up from both Mom and Chris. But don’t take our word on it. Go read what the rest of the Book Hungry team has to say by following the links to their blogs.

I flash my son a huge grin. “I guess we’re done. Thanks for helping me review this book.”

“No problem. It was fun. A little Mommy and Me bonding time.” Chris laughs. I can’t help but laugh, too. Because we did a lot more than review a book.

Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, twitter pal Tawna Fenske just snorted and said, “You said hard. Heh.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but ‘hard’ in this blog post refers to ‘challenging’, ‘arduous’, ‘demanding’, even ‘Herculean.’

And somewhere in New York, author Sean Ferrell just snorted and said, “That’s what she said.”

Difficult! That’s the word, people! I’m talking about difficult writing tasks. For some people, it’s writing sex scenes that fills them with dread, for others, it’s dialog, and for pretty much all of us except the Wonder that is Jeff Somers, it’s writing query letters.

I have a long list of writing challenges that I’ve decided to address as part of my 2011 resolutions.  I’m writing more short stories because brevity is one of those challenges. Writing riveting opening scenes is another one. But this week on Twitter, tweeps Jessica Lemmon (@lemmony), Patricia McLinn (@PatriciaMclinn) and Heidi Betts (@HeidiBetts) helped me analyze a real thorn in my side.

The problem? Describing the silent laugh people do when something is NOT funny. It’s a “Yeah, right” laugh, full of sarcasm but no mirth.  Is it a “snort?” Is it a “snork?” Perhaps it’s a “chortle?” I don’t know and I can’t stand it anymore!

Here are some ways I’ve treated this problem:

  • “You’re right,” she shook her head and laughed once. “You always are, even when you aren’t.”
  • “Yeah. You would think that.” His face warmed and he managed half a laugh.
  • “I love him.” She finally admitted it with a shrug and a soft laugh, a sound that screamed pain.

Why does this bug me so much? I suppose it has ties to my issues with brevity. Why isn’t there a single word that conveys the sort of sarcastic, unhappy, embarrassed anything-but-happy laugh I’ve tried to describe? Why must I use a phrase – indeed, an entire sentence, to describe a single expression?

I’m frustrated. But, as Heidi pointed out, it’s creative writing so we’re allowed to be creative. I’ll continue in my quest to find the perfect way to show the emotion I’m looking for. Meanwhile, are there any parts of writing challenge you?

‘Fess up. I promise I won’t laugh, snort, chuckle or chortle.

During my lunch hour, I happened across a blog post by SI.com columnist Jeff Pearlman, in which he describes an upsetting reply from a disgruntled fan in response to a column he wrote about Jeff Bagwell and the Baseball Hall of Fame. The condensed version is the responder was snarky and vulgar and had included an x-rated link that infuriated the journalist so much, he was compelled to track down the miscreant.

Matt, the alleged sender of porn, is quoted as saying this:

“I was just trying to get a rise out of you. You’re a known sports writer and I thought it was cool. That’s all. I never meant for it to reach this point.”

Right there, I started taking notes.   Sadly, Pearlman notes this is not an isolated incident. Sports journalists are often subjected to vehement disagreement. But in the old days – the days before the Internet and Twitter and Facebook – such disagreement was confined to letters to the editor.  Another vocal basher, “Andy,” told Jeff “…the internet got the best of me.”

Hmm. The internet made me do it. As the author of a YA novel in which my protagonist causes a classmate’s suicide by posting embarrassing pictures online, I was intrigued by this defense. Particularly since Matt and Andy are not children. The popularity of social networking has not only removed the barriers of direct communication like mail delay, corporate red-tape, or anonymity, it’s somehow also erased the need for simple human kindness.  And, it compounds that lack with a sense of immediacy – just click Send and vent.  (My apologies for the shameless book plug) – “I’m pissed off NOW and I’m gonna tell you so NOW” even though, as Jeff’s conversations with both Matt and Andy would suggest, those opinions can change once the passion dissipates.

I’m not immune to the seductive power of online mob mentality. Recently, after a cooking e-zine got caught plagiarizing its recipes, I joined the immense public outcry denouncing the practice as well as the editor’s half-assed apologies. There is a sense of being part of something, something important. But at no time did I resort to name-calling or threats or sending pornographic content.

The internet is glaringly literal. It cares nothing about the context in which certain things were said, or the feelings we experienced when we said them.   Andy’s plea to Jeff: “Please don’t eviscerate me” should be a chilling reminder of reality – the Internet never forgets.

 

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro is a tough book to review without divulging spoilers.

I’ll do my best.

Set in Britain and narrated by “Kathy,” one of three friends raised at a desirable boarding school called Hailsham, the story’s flashbacks seem to indicate the book is about the friendships forged when Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were young students.  And it’s true…. to some extent.

I feel like a deranged infomercial host with this… “But wait! There’s more!” A lot more.  But Ishiguro never actually tells us the more part. Instead, we’re left to figure it out for ourselves along with Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.  When I figured out what was really going on at Hailsham, I kept waiting for the characters to rebel, to run away, to raise a little hell because what’s really going on at Hailsham is pretty damn dark.

I suppose it’s a coming-of-age story but NEVER LET ME GO is more a subtle commentary on the scientific debates we’re already having, the ones where we weigh the ramifications of playing God. The story merely removes the what-ifs and presents an alternate reality in which science fiction is now fact, only nobody truly questions anything… except us, the readers.

I found myself wishing for more to happen – something big, something explosive that would change Kathy’s world. It never happened.

Maybe that was the point all along.

Please check out the rest of Book Hungry’s reviews. Click a link from the list at the right.

 

On Monday, January 10th, my phone rang.

It was the call every writer dreams of.

An agent offered representation. To me!

The first thing I did upon hanging up the phone was turn to Twitter to post a shouty capitals announcement: I GOT THE CALL!

Was I bragging? No, I was sharing. It’s been a year since I began this blog and slightly over a year since I began tweeting. In that year, I’ve forged connections with dozens of people – writers, agents, editors – people who share my interests in books, in story-telling, in getting published. People who have taught me more than any MFA program could.

I have to thank you for your role in my good news.   From you, I learned how to write killer opening scenes, improve my query letter, and develop flawed characters.

From you, I was exposed to brilliant stories and compelling characters far outside my comfort zone and learned to take risks in my own work.

From you, I learned that no matter where in our writing careers we are – just starting out or multi-published – self-doubt is still a common enemy.

From you, I learned to stop taking life and rejection so seriously and that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves. A lot.

From you, I learned people may be interested in the things I have to say or the stories I have to tell. And then, from a group of Jeannie Moon’s high school students with a passion for reading, I learned there’s no “may be” about it.

From you, I learned to read and review books I might have otherwise ignored. And made new friends doing so.

From Kelly Breakey, I learned to ignore that monstrous self-doubt shouting in my ear and then, kick its ass a few times so I could finish the story I had to tell. SEND collected about two dozen rejections before Denise Little of The Ethan Ellenberg Agency said yes.  I just signed the contract. *happy dance*

Chocolate for everyone! On me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately. Setting is a critical story element. It has the power to transport readers to a particular time and place, like the dry dusty circus where Sean Ferrell’s Numb first wandered. Yet setting gets little attention in the how-to-write-fiction world compared to say, character development. Done right, a novel’s setting pulls you into the story by all five senses. You can smell Ruby-Jean’s coffee in one of Bill Cameron’s books, taste the Say-I-Love-You fried chicken in Cynthia Reese’s Where Love Grows, even feel the sticky under you, as you crawl through New York-in-ruins with Jeff Somers’ Avery Cates. Jeff is arguably a master at developing settings that don’t exist.

“Okay,” you may argue. “I’m not writng sci-fi, so I don’t have to worry about setting to that extent.”  Yes, you do. Setting in many stories is as important – if not more – than character. Can you imagine Harry Potter in public school instead of Hogwarts? Lord of the Flies on a playground instead of an island? Setting shapes our characters’ decisions, puts limits on their abilities (ever see Captain Kirk fight that giant lizard?), even lets them rise above the circumstances we’ve established for them.

I, like many other writers, tend to set my stories in my own neighborhood. It’s basically an application of the Write What You Know maxim. In 2011, I want to develop better settings, settings that pull my readers into my stories by strong jaws and then thrash them around a bit.

Have you ever been inspired to use a place you’ve visited as a story setting? Or the inverse: visited a place simply because you read a great book set in that place? What fictional setting do you wish were real? Tell me in the comments how you develop your settings.

I’m moving! Bookmark the new URL.

I'm in the process of transferring To Tell a Compelling Story over to my new website: www.pattyblount.com
Bookmark the new link in case I never learn how to redirect.

Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

You're also welcome to link to, quote, or cite anything you find here. You're NOT welcome to copy it outright for your own use. 'Cause that's plagiarism, no matter what you heard on the internet.

We’re Book Hungry!

My twitta sistas and I were chatting one day a few weeks back and thought, "Hey! We should start a Book Club!" So, we did.

Watch our blogs; we're each posting our reviews blog-fest style!

Kelly Breakey
Abby Mumford
Alyson Peterson
Cynthia Reese
Elizabeth Ryann
Karla Nellenbach
Vanessa Noble

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