Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tax Season, Semi-Frozen Waves, and Beethoven

This is what tax season looks like here in the office. Sigh.

Today my friend B linked me to these beautiful pictures of semi-frozen waves in Nantucket, taken by photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh. And now I'm linking you.

In other news... it's been a while since I geeked out about Beethoven on the blog. In recent days, the symphonies have been my background music. A few days back, I listened to the seventh intentionally, because I needed to calm down and I knew the peaceful repetition would help (as opposed to the strident repetition of the fifth, which I knew would not help!). Then, when the seventh came to an end, the ninth began playing automatically. I have this problem wherein once the ninth starts playing, I need to listen through to the end. It doesn't matter what other thing I was supposed to be doing; now I'm listening to Beethoven's ninth. When it ends, I certainly do not feel that I've wasted my time. My chosen recordings are Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus.

Have an hour and thirteen minutes today? Below is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna Singverein performing the ninth, conducted by Christian Thielemann. Press play. :o)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Writing: The more complicated and unusual the book, the more the little things matter.

The book I'm revising right now has an unusual structure and an unusual narrative voice. For the reader who isn't looking for a puzzle or a job, it has the potential to be a bit offputting. My job is to help that reader wherever I can. I want that reader to feel grounded, pulled in, and welcome in this book; I don't want any reader to feel frustrated and confused!

The unusual structure and the unusual narrative voice are integral to the book, so neither is something I'm willing to abandon. But I find myself doing a lot of other, little things throughout – things that happen on the sentence and word level – to help the reader wherever I can. I'm not sure if these things are working as well as I hope they're working, but I thought I'd share them, just in case any other writers out there are in a similar situation of trying to help the reader get a hold on a weird and complicated book.
  • When faced with the option of using either a pronoun (he, she, it, etc.) or a noun/name (James, Lucy, the painting/courtyard/whatever), I am using the noun much, MUCH more often than I usually do. Rather than writing, "'I saw it hanging on the wall,' he said," I will write, "'I saw the painting hanging on the wall,' James said." The latter choice requires less work from the reader. The reader can relax and not have to keep reminding herself what's being talked about or who's involved in this conversation. I try not to overdo it – avoided pronouns can become annoying, and dialog in particular needs to sound natural. Also, I don't want the reader to think I think she's stupid! But in this particular book, I choose nouns over pronouns wherever I can. It's about finding the balance. Each book you write will require a different balance for comprehensibility.
  • One of the characters is a dog with a human name (like, if you were to name your dog Edward, for example). I refer to this character frequently as "the dog" or "Edward the dog." This way, the reader doesn't have to work to remember that one of these human-sounding people is actually a dog. The reader is less likely to find himself comfused when, for example, Edward is suddenly whining and stepping on his own ears (my dog character is a basset hound ^_^). I try not to overdo this, as well. I do it wherever it feels natural.
  • This book takes place in a large house that has numerous rooms, floors, wings, balconies, bridges, and staircases. At any given moment, a character might have four possible staircases available to him, all of which would lead him to his intended destination. In the first draft of this book, I over-explained where everyone was, where everyone was going, and how they were getting there, at every moment. Who's on which staircase, for example, being watched by which person on which balcony. Who's rounding which courtyard in which direction. As always, I gave an early draft to a number of readers. Too often, in the notes they gave back to me, they wrote something along the lines of, "I'm completely lost right now. Do I need to see exactly how this is happening?" Feedback like this is so helpful! In my current revision, I'm being careful to explain directions and locations explicitly only when they're necessary to the plot. And when I do explain, I'm keeping it as minimal as possible. Note that this bullet point stands in opposition to the previous two bullet points (about the pronouns and the dog), which were about being more clear and specific. The idea behind this bullet point is to allow the reader the freedom of not caring, of not needing to know, unnecessary details. When it comes to directions and locations in a complicated setting, being less specific sometimes frees the mind of the reader – as long as you're still providing any information that is actually necessary, and as long as what you vaguely describe does have some realistic physical interpretation.
  • In this book, I'm allowing for more repetition than I usually do. Readers are smart, and in my experience, YA and middle grade fiction includes less needless repetition than adult fiction does. (SO MANY TIMES, when reading adult fiction, I find myself thinking, "Yes, you've already told me that five times. If my editor were editing this book she would have started striking it out long ago.") But the book I'm writing contains a lot of detail and has a peculiar, somewhat confusing structure. I can't expect the reader to retain everything. So, perhaps I mention early on that Edward the dog was born on a pirate ship because his mother's owner was the pirate cook (not my real story), and suppose that later on in the book, the reader needs to know this information. Rather than assuming the reader remembers, I state the information explicitly again. As with all of these bullet points, this one is about navigating a delicate balance. Repeat information too many times and the reader begins to find the book tedious. She may even begin to resent the implication that she's stupid. Repeat information too few times and the reader will come away feeling stupid! Every single one of my (extremely brainy!) early readers has identified some place in this book that has compelled them to say to me, "This part makes me feel stupid." If the reader feels stupid, it's because the writer has failed to navigate the information-providing balance. In my current revision of this book, I have made the conscious decision to err on the side of repeating information too often (risking annoying the reader with the implication that he's stupid), rather than not repeating it often enough and leaving my reader actually feeling stupid!
  • In a similar vein: if the reader needs detailed information in order to understand something, I try not to provide that detailed information until the very moment the reader needs it. I don't want to overburden my reader with the responsibility of remembering things unnecessarily.
  • Most importantly: I'm already making a list of friends whom I will ask to read this revision, when it's done. It's very hard for the writer to maintain the objective distance needed to determine whether she's getting any of these balancing acts right. I will need the eyes of other people who will read every line, then tell me when and where they are lost, confused, forgetful, annoyed, or overburdened with description.

There are probably other little things I'm doing. Perhaps this blog post will have an addendum as I think of them. In the meantime, it's snowing in Cambridge. It's okay: I put feathers on my nails.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Mom, It's Time We Had the Talk"

Go listen to my friend Amanda MacGregor and her eight-year-old son Callum talk about sex on the podcast The Longest Shortest Time. It's twenty-two minutes long and wonderful. Amanda and Callum, I salute you.

In case you were wondering, at this exact moment, it's not snowing, but it was snowing earlier and I have no doubt it will snow again momentarily. It's difficult to get around as a pedestrian – there is no footing or visibility, often you need to wade through a small, slushy river, and, because of the snow mountains, you basically have to walk into the street in order to figure out if there are any cars coming – and the drivers are MAD. They are mad all the time, at everyone. I'm thinking perhaps the city should set up seated massage stations at every street corner to help with the frayed nerves. Parking is impossible and everything is getting cancelled. Jamie told me this morning that the Boston Globe recently tweeted something along the lines of, For the foreseeable future, everyone will be late to everything. Yes.

Last night, Cambridge. I think this one looks like an icecream sandwich.

If you look at the light, you can see it's snowing.

This morning, Somerville. Look closely -- it's snowing.

ETA one hour later: Snowing. And sunny. The sky is confused.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Five Emails and Several Pictures on the Topic of SNOW

It's becoming difficult to take pictures that convey the absurdity of the situation here in the Boston area. The pictures just don't do it justice (and it's hard to get a full view of anything, because backing up quickly puts you against a snowbank). It's not unusual to walk down a badly-shoveled sidewalk with walls of snow to either side that are taller than you are. I would say that on any given street where parking is allowed (which isn't many streets), 60% of the cars are mostly covered with deep snow and 20% of the cars are so deeply buried that they're invisible. The icicles are, um, LARGE.

First email today from Becca:
This poor dude is standing on top of a snowbank right outside my window and trying to scoop/shovel down into it. His face looks very perplexed. I can only assume that he knows that somewhere inside that snowbank is his car. The snowbank is way too big to show any hint of it though. I wonder if he’s positive this is where his car is or if he’s at all unsure.
Second email:
He has unearthed (unsnowed?) something that has the angle of a back windshield. Now he is dumping snow onto the sidewalk. I am unthrilled about this on behalf of the people who work so hard to keep this sidewalk shoveled. Not that I know what the answer is. There is noplace to put it all.
Third email:
Did I mention it is snowing?
Fourth email:
He is now working hard to place the snow on a different peak of the snowbank. I feel for him again.
Fifth email:
The man is gone. No car has been uncovered. The section of rear windshield that was exposed is slowly being covered by new snow.

Oh dear. I think this poor man might be wandering around the streets, digging into snowbanks, LOOKING FOR HIS CAR.

Meanwhile, last week, after the long weekend of snow, JD cleared the roof of his house. Mid-clearing, he shared this picture. After he finished, it snowed two more feet. JD, I hope you like shoveling in high places.

What made me sad about the cars in the picture below (taken late Sunday) is that these were clearly the cars people had already gone to great effort to unearth, then it snowed another two feet.

I took the picture below last Wednesday night. Then showed it to Kevin, who dismissively said, "That side mirror is totally snow-free." As it's snowed a lot since then, I'm guessing this is no longer the case...

Here's a note some friends and I found on a car Friday night. I am totally on the side of the note writers.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you park in this space but you are not the person who dug out the spot and put the chair there, you are a jerk.

Meanwhile, my sister, codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer, has been sending pictures from Pittsburgh, including the two below. In Pittsburgh it's not nearly as snowy, but it's been VERY cold. Chain link fence --

And a cobweb in Highland Park.

Here in Cambridge, I'm doing my best to stay cozy, using my usual coping methods.

As I publish this blog post, it's snowing.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Two Upcoming Local Events

It snowed again yesterday, heavy, wet flakes this time. I walked home from a friend's house late last night and the falling snow was sparkling; the mountains of snow lining the streets and consuming people's yards were sparkling. This winter is like being trapped inside a snow globe. It is a little bit claustrophobic, but it's also kind of magical. Many, many cars are still completely encased in mounds of snow. We're expecting a blizzard this weekend. Tonight it will be 0°F (-18°C) and I have bedazzled my fingernails for a party.

On Tuesday, March 3, Marie Rutkoski is coming to town and she and I will be doing an event together at 7 PM at the Harvard Book Store. Yay! Do come! The event is to celebrate the release of Marie's book The Winner's Crime, sequel to The Winner's Curse, both of which are SO WONDERFUL, and I'm so excited to talk about it with her. The event is also to celebrate the release of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING I HAVE WRITTEN, because I am SO SLOW and still have nothing new out. But! Things are in the works, I swear. Please come to our event and ask us lots of questions!

Also, on Thursday, March 19, I will be participating in an MIT Communications Forum entitled Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction. It's from 5-7 PM and here's the blurb: "Why are brutal dystopias, devastating apocalyptic visions, and tales of personal trauma such a staple of young adult literature? Kristin Cashore, author of the award-winning Graceling Realm trilogy, and the University of Florida’s Kenneth Kidd will explore the history and current preoccupations of one of the most popular forms of fiction today. Marah Gubar, an associate professor in MIT’s Literature department, will moderate." It's an honor to be invited to participate in one of MIT's Communications Forums, and this is going to be an interesting topic to get into deeply. You should all come to that, too! I'll get organized and put both of these events onto my Appearance Schedule soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to get them onto people's radars.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In My Office, It's Warm

I have leaves, butterflies,

and cups of tea.

The turtle, the ladybug, and the owl are lined up at the starting line, backed up by a quorum of German angels and one curious polar bear.

This is my magic wand.

This is where I'm growing my ideas.

These ships are sailing straight toward a tall cliff of books... but I think they'll figure out the right way around (or through).

I will place a bet with this gentleman...

and drink more tea as I watch.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Two Songs

It started snowing Saturday morning, then snowed steadily until very early this morning (Tuesday). Add an additional two feet or so to the pictures I posted last week and you'll get the idea. At some point, I started taking little videos of the scene on my street and sending them to my nieces in Florida. Their mother, codename: Cordelia, texted me today that the moment one of them got a look at it, she started laughing and laughing. It's snowing so much in eastern Massachusetts that five-year-olds in Florida are having hysterics.

Snow is expected on Thursday. I've been making bread and dreaming of warmer climes.

It is, of course, all relative. A friend who used to live in central Maine just told me that by the end of the winter, there would be so much accumulated snow that it was like walking around on the moon. Another friend told me that it's so unseasonably warm in Minnesota that yesterday, she read outside. In case you don't have a good sense of the constitutions of native Minnesotans, while she was reading outside yesterday, it was 35°F (1.6°C). And Cordelia, in Florida, tells me she feels my pain. A couple weeks ago, it was cloudy for five days in a row. Imagine.

I'm pretty sure we're also having a colder winter here than usual. I'm lucky; I am, at the most, inconvenienced. A lot of people are suffering from severely reduced mobility, reduced business, stressful/dangerous drives, and the cold…


For the past couple of days, I've been listening to Hozier. I love musicians who tell stories with their songs. Hozier has two songs that I've noticed work delightfully together to tell a story. The first is called "In a Week." The second is called "Like Real People Do," and, if you feel like applying some imagination to it, you might see it as a sequel to the first. :o) I just found two videos in which Hozier talks a little about each of these songs (and also performs)… watch if you're interested, check out the songs themselves if you're further interested. They're not for everyone – they are grim, arguably icky, but also somehow magical, and lyrically and melodically beautiful. I think you'll get a sense pretty quickly, from what he's saying, about whether they might be for you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Report from Eastern Massachusetts

Dear readers,

Here in Cambridge,

we're having some problems.

I'm sorry about this person's bike.

I'm sorry about this person's... car? (Though at least they have a parking spot.)

It says "MOST BURRIED." Too much snow affects people's spelling.

The mailman looks like the Grim Reaper.

The fire hydrants are shivering.

Some person has lost their shoes.

Some dog is walking around with one cold foot.

The fences are enjoying making shadows, though.

Pretty. But also... ick?

The forecast is not inspiring. But don't worry about me.

I've turned my fingernails into claws,

and I've got the appropriate hats.