Monday, May 25, 2009

Beach Book Fantasy

Here’s my (okay, I know, totally shallow) literary fantasy: to walk along a beach filled with people reading my book, whole rows of them in canvas deck chairs, shaded by big umbrellas.

I might stop here and there to ask, “What is that you’re reading? Is it any good?”

Of course, every single person would reply, “Oh! My! God! This is the absolute best book I have ever read!” I might humbly admit to having written it, whip out the pen I kept handy in my fanny pack for such moments, and offer to sign it. Or I might just smile and promise, at the reader’s urgent request, to proceed immediately to the bookstore, then cancel all other forms of entertainment to read it because it is so great that once I start it there’s no way I’ll be able to put it down.

Seeing people reading my book on airplane as I sauntered down the aisle would be groovy, too; I always have loved a captive audience. But the beach would be sublime—secondary only to having a gargantuan window display of my book in the wonderful old Scribner’s store on Fifth Avenue, which, alas, has been closed for some time now and no longer in the running.

So far, the best I’ve been able to do is beg people I know to have their pictures taken reading my book on the beach—a service I like to provide for my writer friends. Thus the dreadful picture of myself reading my friend S.J. Rozan’s fabulous book, The Shanghai Moon.

In this most recent of her Lydia Chin & Bill Smith series, Lydia is hired to track down a Chinese official believed to be in New York for the purpose of selling jewels that were stolen during an excavation in Shanghai—among them, the Shanghai Moon, a diamond and jade pendant said to be worth millions of dollars, which disappeared in the chaotic aftermath of World War II.

The case turns ugly early on—and Lydia (with the help of Bill, who’s desperately trying to get back into her good graces after their falling out in Winter and Night) is increasingly drawn into the web of intrigue surrounding the Shanghai Moon.

She’s also drawn into the story of Rosalie, a young Jewish refuge, when her research unearths a cache of letters from Rosalie to her mother, left behind in Austria. Rosalie meets Kai-rong on the long train journey to Shanghai and, when they marry, they have the Shanghai Moon made from an ancient jade from Kai-rong’s family and a diamond that belonged to Rosalie’s mother.

The history lesson in The Shanghai Moon is as compelling as the mystery itself. I had no idea that Shanghai had provided a safe haven for thousands of Jews during WWII, and I really loved the way that world came so fully alive through the story of Rosalie and Kai-rong.

The ending is perfect in all ways, the kind that makes you think simultaneously, "Holy cow!" and "Of course."

So. Whether you’re looking for a book to read on the beach, or—anywhere, I highly recommend this one. Just beware: once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Or, Mine THESE Birds

In case mining your own life just isn't giving you enough stuff to spin into stories, try "What-iffing" about this piece that was in the New York Times yesterday and which, among other things, proves (yet again) that life is stranger than fiction.

"A federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted two California men on charges related to the smuggling of songbirds into the United States, 14 of which prosecutors said were concealed on the leg of one man during a flight from Vietnam. Wildlife smuggling is a common problem in the Los Angeles airports. The men, Duc Le and Sony Dong, were arrested last month after an investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Investigators said that they had discovered Mr. Dong with 14 live birds strapped to his legs...and that a subsequent search of his home yielded 51 additional songbirds. A search of Mr. Le’s home found an outdoor aviary with around 50 Asian songbirds, prosecutors said. The birds are in quarantine." (Italics mine.)

I truly wish you could see the accompanying photo of Mr. Dong's legs with the birds attached to his calves. It looks a little like a photo of the legs of a guy in a kilt, wearing those tasseled socks that kilt-wearers favor. Only the tassels are...birds.

I can't help but wonder, exactly how did Mr. Mr. Dong attach them? That is not one bit clear. And did he tie those twisty things you use to keep bread fresh or to close your trash bags around the birds' little beaks to keep them from singing? (Or maybe he didn't worry about that, figuring the birds wouldn't really feel like singing, under the circumstances.)

In any case, you might begin with the scene in which Le and Dong come up with the idea:

"Hey, I know! Let's tie a bunch of birds to our legs and smuggle them into America!"

"Friend, you are a genius!"

And take it from there...

First plot point: how does it end up that Mr. Dong is the only one with birds tied to his legs? I mean, really. Is that fair?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mine That Bird

Is that a fabulous name, or what? Bear with me; it comes into play here.

My husband and I got to Hilton Head Island last Saturday around noon for our annual week-long beach indulgence, and headed right for the English Open Pub to have lunch. It's one of our favorite places here, not because it's a shrine to golf, but because everything on the menu is fabulous. (My personal favorites are English Cottage Pie and Chicken Pot Pie.) That said, the golfness of the place is amusing. Souvenir hand towels from various championship courses hang above the bar, like miniature medieval banners, the walls are dotted with pictures of golfers and golf courses and, best of all, there's a little alcove housing a sculpture of a caddy.

The menu divides the list of beers they serve this way: England, Ireland, Scotland, the Colonies. We find this amusing, too.

There are T.V.s everywhere, tuned to golf if it's going on anywhere in the universe. But on Saturday they were tuned to the Kentucky Derby. What a mess! It was a sea of mud! This, of course, had all the pundits in an uproar because it changed all the odds.

I know nothing whatsoever about horse racing. Mainly, I like to look at the horses...and the ladies' gargantuan hats. The few times I've been to Churchill Downs over the years, I've made bets solely based on horses whose names I liked. Thus, watching the run-up to the big race on Saturday, Mine That Bird was a no-brainer. 50-1 odds? So what?

And he won! If I'd bet $100 on him, I'd have made $5000! This was thrilling to me, despite the fact that I'm such a chickenshit gambler that if I'd actually bet on him I'd have bet ten bucks, tops.

The thing is, I can't get the name out of my mind.

I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to grow a small book from a no-fail writing exercise I've been using the past year or so and, in the weird way that process works, Mine That Bird began to seem somehow connected to it.

The exercise is simple, and it works for all ages, all levels. Try it, you’ll see!

Make a list of memories, repeating the phrase, “I remember,” at the beginning of each one. A sentence will do for most of them; at most, write two or three. Write quickly! Don’t stop and think about how to do this “right,” just let your memories emerge randomly. I remember, I remember, I remember…

Write until you have 15-20 items on the list: each one of them is a (very) rough draft of a personal narrative. Examine your memories to see which ones bring specific, vivid pictures to your mind, and choose one to expand.

Write that memory at the top of a new page, and repeat the “I remember” listing exercise, this time randomly remembering details that are specific to that particular memory. Again, write until you have 15-20 memories. Then “free-write” about the memory for at least 20 minutes. Don’t try to organize yet; just write off the top of your head—everything, anything that comes to mind about the memory. Let the details on your list work their way into what you’re writing as you go; you may or may not use them all. Feel free to include new details that emerge as you write. If you get stuck, go back to the “I remember” exercise to generate more details. Throughout this generating process, do not allow yourself to worry about whether what you’re writing is disorganized or if it’s any good. Just…write. If you push yourself, you can get at least two or three pages, maybe more. The more writing you produce, the easier it will be to shape it into a coherent, polished piece.

When you (really, truly, honestly) feel that you’ve done all you can, read what’s there, highlighting strong passages. Then rearrange the order to achieve the best possible flow; consider what might be cut or added to enhance the effect.

After you’ve done the free-writing, highlighting, organizing and the first cuts and additions, answer the following questions to help you bring your personal narrative fully alive. You won’t use everything you write, but answering the questions will help you focus the scene and give it depth.

WHO: Who is present in the scene? Observe how these participants look. What are they wearing, what is their body language? What catches your eye? Who is NOT there? Why not?

WHERE: Where does the memory take place? What is the significance of the setting to what is happening in the scene? Are there objects significant to the scene? Is it inside or outside—and does the weather affect what happens in any way? Is there anything significant happening just outside the scene (EX: in another room, outside the window) that might affect how it plays out? Is there anything happening in the world at large that is important to the scene or at the periphery of it? (EX: the events of September 11).

WHEN: When does the scene take place? Are there details (for example, furnishings, clothing, music, cars) that might enhance the effect of its place in time? work as clues to weather is significant in any way.

WHAT: Give a little the events of the scene—flying a kite, arguing with your mother, dinner with your boyfriend. Describe what happens—give a little plot summary. How much time passes from the beginning of the scene to the end of it? What does each character bring to the scene that may affect its outcome. Mood? Unrelated problem or joy? History with the others involved?

WHY: Why are these people together in this scene? What issues are involved? Where’s the tension and/or conflict in it? What’s at stake? If there’s dialogue, what will the characters be talking about? Individually, what does each character want the outcome of the scene to be? Is there a difference between what they say they want and what they really want? Are they aware of the difference? Remembering that good stories deal with the yearnings of people, consider who in this cast of characters wants the most, longs for the greatest, is willing to go the farthest to get it.

Now write a draft and share it with an objective reader who can make observations and ask questions that will suggest further revision tasks. Allow 3-5 drafts to complete a polished draft.

Back to Mine That Bird. It seems like a perfect title for the book I have in mind.

The creative process is like mining. You go inside your head and use all the tools available to you to bring up what’s valuable, what you can use. Often it’s one seemingly small thing—the image of a single, specific bird, for example—that serves as the kernel for what the piece of writing eventually becomes. But what I really love about Mine That Bird is how it sort of hovers somewhere between making sense and making no sense at all—which is what makes it stick in your mind.

The second part of the “I remember” exercise helps you take the leap into your imagination—which, by the way, is no more than your ability to ask, “What if?” and to keep on asking throughout the process of writing a story.

So. Mine That Bird! Work with the personal narrative you just wrote, choose a different memory from the list you made—and ask, What if—?”

Be playful! Write the memory the way you wish it would have happened, or feared it could have happened. Tell the memory from the point of view of someone other than yourself. Introduce a new person (real or imaginary) into the memory and imagine how it might play out. Place the character you wrote about in a place h/she would be unlikely to go and set a scene in motion. Write a made-up scene in the place you described. Feel free to combine bits and pieces of memories to create imaginative scenarios—and throw in some made-up stuff to boot!

Now, using no more than 1,000 words, write a short-story that includes setting, a character or characters, conflict/tension, and resolution. (It will take you several draft to get all these in!) The story may be quite close to the actual memory, just shaped for dramatic effect, or it may include no more than a kernel of reality.

Let me know the results!