Archive | February, 2014

Recently Added To My To Read List

14 Feb

Wow, it’s been a while since I did one of these posts! I’ve only added five since then and I think I’ve taken more than that off. Something is finally going in the right direction for my list! Let me know if you’re familiar with any of these and if there are some I might want to reconsider.

  1. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: Do I really need to explain this one? I think I need to explain more why it wasn’t on my list until now. I apologize to be slow to pop culture.
  2. Made In America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson: I’m going to start line editing my novel soon, and I want to learn more about how people spoke in the 1920s. My library has this on audiobook and I’d love to hear what Bryson as to say about the development of language since the 20s. Is my nerd showing? I’ll cover that, oops.
  3. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson: This just seemed like a logical addition to the above. This book focuses on English inside and outside of the US.
  4. Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian: This author will be coming to my area at the end of the year, so my book club added it to our list for the summer. The story is about a man whose daughter accidently shoots him at their home.
  5. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh: A woman in my book club recommended this, saying she thought it seemed like something I’d like. I’m game. The story is about a homeless girl who has a talent for flowers and choosing the right flowers for the people who need them.

Wow, just five books! This is awesome for me. Any winners? Any duds? Let me know what you think of them in a comment, Reader! Oh, and happy Valentine’s Day!

Until next time, write on.

Who Influences You?

13 Feb

My husband suggested I talk about influences and I think that’s a great conversation to start. I hope you’ll join me in it. I’d never thought much about my influences until I started writing seriously, about a year ago. Before then, writing was  something I did when I had nothing else to do and an itch in my brain to put words on a page. Now that it’s one of my biggest hobbies, I think about it a lot.

I think we have influences in different aspects of our writing. For example, S.E. Hinton is an influence of mine because her books made me think that I could write. She was so young when she wrote The Outsiders, and it made me thing that I could write when I’m young and that I could write something worth reading. I also love how she is able to portray male characters that men can relate to. It shows that you can write another gender and do it well.

Sonia said to me that she sees Hinton’s characters in my book and I was incredibly honored. I assure you the resemblance between Ponyboy and Johnny isn’t too strong (my character is a 1920s gangster instead of a Tulsa greaser), but that she was able to see the same strong male persona in my character was really heartwarming.

While Hinton inspired me to start writing and encouraged me to know I can write about men and boys, I don’t strive to emulate her style. Let me explain other ways I’ve been influenced

J.K. Rowling is another big influence of mine. I’m not just saying this because I’m a Potterhead, mind you (though I am). Rowling’s popularity showed me that the whole world can care about Young Adult literature and that it’s sphere of influence can extend well beyond the 12-19 age group. I know I’m unlikely to write something as universally appealing as Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but knowing how seriously YA lit is taken today makes me feel more confident in saying I want to be a YA author.

Philippa Gregory inspired me to write Historical Fiction. I love her books about Tudor England and am awed by the way she is able to transport the reader to the time period so effortlessly, without explaining the way things are and letting them be. I always feel like I’m learning while I read her books and it made me want to read more and more and more historical pieces to learn and enjoy at the same time. So when I started writing historical pieces, I wanted to make my setting and characters seem as effortless. I want my readers to learn about the 1920s and fall in love with them as much as I have while researching my book.

I thank these women for making me want to write. It’s a coincidence that they are all woman, something I didn’t even notice until editing this piece. When I see their books on my shelf, I’m filled with confidence.

Who inspires and influences you? In what ways have you been influenced by other writers? Please leave me a comment and let me know.

Until next time, write on.

Prompt Group: Snowboarders and Sunrises

12 Feb

Hello readers!

This is the first time in a while that I’ve written a post only hours before it’s posted and I’m nervous about it. I don’t have a night to sleep on it and fix everything in the morning so my feet are sweating. Ahh!

Last night my prompt group met and we did three prompts. I’ll share what we did, but I’m not going to share my first prompt, I’m not overly proud of it. If you want to do these prompts as well, please pingback so I can read them. I love seeing the different directions people take a prompt.

  1. The cars killed the trains and the buses died of depression (3 minutes)
  2. The ice skater that dated the snowboarder learned of an unexpected secret. (5 minutes)
  3. Blueberry sunrise (4 minutes)

My Responses

Prompt #2

There are things you just don’t want to know about people. Like take for example when people found out that the actor who plays Chandler from Friends went through weight fluctuations because of a drug addiction. Did you want to know that? No, but now you can never forget it. It was in this sense that I learned Shawn White picked his nose and wiped it on the bottom of competitors’ boards when they weren’t looking.

“You’re serious? Like, that’s a thing?”

“Well, yeah. It’s his power trip. You remember the swimmer who spit in the other lanes? Well, it’s kinda like that.”

“Did he do it to you?”

James shuddered. “It’s better not to think about it.”

The next time I went to one of his competitions, I was determined to catch Shawn in the act. I hovered near the team equipment areas, pretending I was watching over James’s things while he warmed up, but, well, you know what I was really looking for.

And it’s true! I saw it. He walked around while everyone else was warming up, wiping his green gold all over the undersides of the boards. What was I supposed to do?

“Hey!” I yelled out as he walked toward James’s board. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He stopped, staring at me wide-eyed. I guess no one had stopped him in the act before, only watched to report out to unsuspecting strangers later.

“I, um…” He only faltered for a second. “What are you doing here? Only participants and coaches are allowed.”

“My boyfriend’s a rider.”

He eyed me slyly. “You’re Jamie’s girl, aren’t you? You look like a little figure skater. Is it true what they say about figure skaters? About how flexible you can be?”

My face flushed. This damned tomato was not going to make me feel like a fool. “Is it true what they say about you, wiping your nose on other people’s boards?”

Prompt #3

It’s that time of the morning when the sun is just about to breast the horizon but is still thinking about not coming up at all. That split second when it’s the brightest you’ve ever seen and the sun isn’t even up yet. It has a way of affecting the sky around it, bringing the baby blue of the morning sky and the dark black of night together, blending them into a deep, rich blueberry. This isn’t a time of the morning I normally experience.

It’s beautiful to see it stretched in front of me on the long, lonely highway of Nebraska. The car is humming steadily under me and I tap my thumb on the steering wheel to a song that doesn’t exist. ‘Happy,’ I think to myself. ‘This is what other people call happy.’

A smile creeps across my face the way the blueberry sunrise steaks across the horizon as I chase the sun to South Carolina. Before I’m done I’ll seen another sunset but before the sun rises again, I’ll be home. Maybe this time I can see some sunrises instead of always leaving them behind. Maybe I can stop driving away.

 

Until next time, Reader, write on.

Who is a Good Beta Reader?

11 Feb

I’ve had an amazing experience lately that I never would have expected. Over the Christmas and New Years holidays, I was able to hang out with a good friend from high school. He and I had a friendly academic rivalry going on then and when we went to schools far apart, we fell out of contact. There was a summer we were both interning around Washington DC and met up a few times and we’ve stayed close since then. He works five hours away from where I live, but when he comes home to see his parents we always meet up. Over New Years, I talked to him about my writing.

I have two completed manuscripts, one is a YA novel set in the 1920s and another one a contemporary piece about a young woman in her mid-20s going through a pregnancy. Neither were pieces I suspected a bachelor in his early 20s would be interested in reading. He offered me a beta read and at first I was skeptical, but I agreed to send him my YA novel anyway.

I think he’s read it three times now, and not because he loves it (though he’s assured me he enjoys it) but because he wanted to help me make it better. He’s sent me tons of texts about what he thought could improve and things that seemed inconsistent when he re-read it or that stuck out to him more than once. He even called me right after his second read-through to talk about the book.

It’s an understatement to say I was overwhelmed. I never expected this level of support from a high school friend that I see maybe four times a year. It makes me wonder if there are other people out there who would read my book, maybe a friend from college or someone I used to work with.

Reader, where have you found unexpected Beta readers? Is there a pattern we can discover of people who will read our manuscripts and provide some amazing feedback? I wonder where all these people are hiding.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (3/5)

7 Feb

Here’s the second book I almost threw across the room when I finished it in a month. I’m not sure why I’m being such a conclusion snob, but it’s getting bad. Brace yourselves.

This book fulfilled “Nebraska” in my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cath loves Simon Snow. Well, ‘loves’ is maybe putting it delicately. Cath is completely obsessed with Simon Snow. His fictionalized world of magic, vampires, and a powerful Mage has been one of her true obsessions for years. (Harry Potter, anyone?) Now, she’s off to college to study creative writing and she’s lost the one person she could always count on, her sister, Wren. Wren wants to branch out and discover a world besides that of Simon Snow; a world of fraternity parties, afternoon classes, and boys. Cath is content to stick with Simon. She’s made a name for herself as one of the most popular Snow fanfiction writers in the fandom and she’s not about to abandon her followers for something as trivial as a college workload or friends.

When I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I myself was a fairly successful fanfiction writer in middle school, though I slowed down significantly in high school. After graduating from college, I actually finished the story I was working on and posted a few more things, but I haven’t touched it since October 2012. I checked my stats last week and just went over a total 100,000 views on my more popular story. So yeah, I could related to a lot of what Cath felt. I’ve never seen a book that addressed this subculture before and as someone who was very involved in it, I was anxious to read. I could related to the stigma Cath faced for her work. They’re not your characters and it’s not your world, so are you stealing from the author? This is a completely different argument than what I’m saying about this book, so I’ll let that one rest.

I loved how unique all of Rowell’s characters were. Levi, Cath’s love interest, was especially well-developed. None of the physical descriptions made me think “This guy is a looker, Cath should go for him,” but everything he said and did made me fall in love with him. I could sympathize and feel for every character, even the ones I didn’t like, such as Cath’s mother. I think I’ll be stuck thinking about the characters more than anything. And really, that’s what rings true about books that inspire fanfiction. (Side note, Fangirl already has 30 stories posted on fanfiction.net.)

Rowell says a lot through her characters. Cath is reminded that while it’s all well and good to like or even be obsessed with something, we can’t forget to live. Cath is so involved in her story that she doesn’t see Levi’s flirtation or her dad’s downward spiral until they’re shoved in her face. Cath also has to learn to use her own voice. Her Fiction Writing class forces her to write without the crutch of Simon and his fellow characters. It’s her greatest struggle in the book and her professor’s comments about fanfiction degrade her to the point of giving up. In the end, she has to find her own story and her own voice to keep pursuing her dream.

I think forgiveness could be the main theme of this book. Cath has to forgive Levi for kissing another girl, her father for not taking care of himself, her sister for neglecting their relationship, and her mother for abandoning her and her sister when they need her most. I’m not sure she does completely forgive her mother, but the other three were stretches for Cath’s character and helped her develop.

My husband teaches middle school and he said that a bunch of his students were reading this title. That disturbs me a bit. There are some themes in this book that are appropriate for the age range of the characters, 17-22, but I wouldn’t want a middle schooler reading it. The book is labeled ‘Young Adult’ because of Cath’s age. This is one of those books that I feel needs to be in the ‘New Adult’ category based on some sexual themes and content more suited to those 16+ (probably 18+ to be safe). My personal opinion would be to have designations within YA fiction for that appropriate for middle school and that best reserved for late high school or college.

Writers’ Takeaway: Again, the ending of this book really bothered me. There were so many plot lines that it was going to be hard for Rowell to wrap them up and I think she let a few dangle. Did Cath finish her fic before the last Simon Snow book came out? Did she ever talk to her mother again? I was very disappointing not to find out. My rating is entirely based on this. I think it’s a writer’s job to bring an end to all plot lines. I’ve heard Rowell’s other books have similarly disappointing endings and I’m tempted to take Eleanor & Park off of my reading list because of this.

Rowell found her audience in those who write fanfiction and I’m sure most of her readers are part of this subculture as well. This is the first book (or first I’m aware of) to address these people and I have to give her two thumbs up for an original idea. I’m glad being a fanfiction writer is not something to criticize in this book. I feel I can come out and say I wrote fanfiction that I’m proud of.

This might not bother other readers, but all of the pop-culture and technology references really bothered me. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction so this is one of the few times I’ve had to think about characters having cell phones and laptops. I think the pop-culture references to Twilight and Kanye West really date the book so that readers even ten years from now will not understand it as well. Then again, I write Historical Fiction so this is something I don’t run into often.

Overall, I’m not sure I would recommend it based on the ending but if you’re deep into a fandom, it’s very relatable. Three out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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Changing Your Own Ending

6 Feb

If any of you reading this are huge Rowling fans like myself, there’s no doubt you saw an article yesterday about an interview she did. Emma Watson, who stars as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, was interviewing JK Rowling when she said that she should have had Hermione and Harry end up together instead of Hermione and Ron.

WHAT?!?!?!

My mind was sufficiently blown. I told my husband and he seemed non pulsed. This only ebbed my anger. I said that it almost seemed like Rowling was writing her own fanfiction to which he responded, “It’s not fanfiction, she wrote the books.” True, but that’s not what she wrote into the books. She’s proposing a change. To me, it borders on fanfiction. It’s not cannon, it’s fic.

My argument is that while it seems plausible, it changes too much of the story. Hermione and Ron have a flirtation early in the books and it’s very subtlety written. I’m reading the fifth book now and it seems obvious to me. Also, the Harry/Ginny plotline appears as early as Book 2. To put Harry and Hermione together would involve taking away the entire Harry/Ginny back story. This is no small change she’s proposing!

This got me thinking about writing in general. Have you ever written something and then realized that you wanted to change the ending? Was it too late? What did you do? If we realize this early on, before something goes to a publisher or editor, we still have a chance to fix it. Once something is our of our hands, is it too late?

Rowling says that she was clinging to the plot she originally imagined and that’s why she had Ron and Hermione end up together. She wasn’t letting her characters develop naturally as she went, adjusting their outcome to the personalities she was writing. I know that this is a hole I could easily fall into because I’m such a planner. When following an outline, how often do you readjust the ending to reflect what’s already written?

As a fan, I’m disappointed in this announcement. As a writer, it intrigues me. Whether a fan or not, how do you feel about Rowling’s announcement?

Until next time, write on.

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (4/5)

5 Feb

I would have read this book even if it wasn’t for my book club. I’m a huge sucker for memoirs and Wild had rave reviews. Needless to say, I devoured this book. I started it Monday night and finished it Friday night. Go me!

This book fulfilled ‘California’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

With the death of her mother and the desolation of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed was at the end of a very short rope. She was lost and bordering on penniless and homeless. There’s no better time to pack up everything and take three months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed starts her journey in the Mojave Desert and along the long walk to Oregon finds friends, rattlesnakes, peace, and herself among blisters, extreme temperatures, and the California wilderness.

I had a very up and down relationship with this book. At first, Strayed’s commentary of the reasons she went on the trail frustrated me. I felt like I couldn’t relate to her grief and her struggles with drug addiction and it made me doubt reading the book altogether. I kept going for Strayed’s fast paced writing and incredible journey. The more Strayed went over her past, the more I could sympathize with her and understand why she took the risks she did to hike the trail. I have a lot of respect for what she did and I have to be honest when I say it made me want to go backpacking! I would have given this book 5 out of 5 stars if I hadn’t been so annoyed with Strayed for the first half of the novel.

I like the idea of going out to the wilderness to be alone and find one’s self and I’m in such awe that Strayed did this with so little fear. She had almost no idea what she would come into contact with and she didn’t let her inexperience bring her down for much of the trip. She learned quickly and was very resourceful. There is a video on the Goodreads page in which Strayed says that her time on the trail helped her shape who she is today and I feel that this is only partially true. I think who she was before is what motivated her to go onto the trail and thus responsible for the outcome on the other end of over a thousand miles of hiking. I’m very happy for her and what she’s become.

Strayed says a few times that she was too young to be married to her first husband. This got under my skin, as someone who was married at 22. Granted, that’s a full three years later than Strayed was married, but I started dating my husband at 19 and would have married him then. In the same video mentioned above, she says she was to young to be married and deal with the grief she had in the wake of her mother’s death. I wish she would have clarified this in the book because I found her comments almost offensive.

I think the idea of ‘finding oneself’ is something many people are interested in. To me, this explains the popularity of this book, along with other similar titles such as Eat, Pray, Love. Can someone find himself in a journey as these books imply? I’m not sure it’s ever so obvious. When I was in college, I did a semester in England. I would never describe it as ‘life-changing’ or ‘eye-opening,’ but it helped me realize my strength as an individual and my ability to do things on my own. Maybe I could write a best-selling memoir. I’m not sure what element is necessary for a trip to change an individual like Strayed felt hers did. Reader, what do you think makes an experience life-changing?

I think it’s odd that two life-changing-journey memoirs were best sellers around the same time. I feel that when a genre becomes popular suddenly, it’s usually because there is a social issue that people find an escape from through books. For example, I read that dystopian futures are popular right now as a way to escape the bleak political situation in America. I can only speculate about the popularity of ‘finding yourself’ memoirs. Maybe it’s that we are all after our fifteen seconds of fame. If Cheryl Strayed can go on a three-month hike and find herself and write a book, then maybe I can get lost in the Northern Michigan wilderness and find myself and get a TV special. Or maybe it’s that we all feel so much pressure to be the best we can be; the multi-tasking family woman who works out five times a week and write award-winning stories. I can’t do it all and I need to find myself to be able to deal with my own disappointment. (I think I’m talking myself into wandering around the Northern Michigan forests.) Why do you think readers are interested in finding themselves in today’s society?

Writers’ Takeaway: This book was very hard to put down. I loved how Strayed started with a snippet of a turning point on the trail because I read trying to find out how far into her journey that event happened. By the team I reached it, I was engrossed. I read this book in less than a week and it was in large chunks. Sometimes I find I have to read a book in small doses, but that was not the case with Wild. Strayed’s strategy of jumping between flashback and time on the trail was really great and I liked that she spent more time following the trail than flashing back.

Overall, solid read and I would recommend it. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Book Club Reflection: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

4 Feb
Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

As promised, here is the second of four posts I will do about the book Annie’s Ghosts before May. You can read my previous book review here. My first book club met last Monday to discuss the book. Annie’s Ghosts was chosen as the Michigan Read book for the year and as such we’ve gotten a lot of outside involvement. Our discussion was led by a representative from Jewish Family Services. She is a social worker who works with Rozanne Sedler, the woman who first told Steve that his mother had mentioned having a sister.

As always, I feel the best place to start is with some character analysis. Our #1 pick for this was Tillie Cohen, Annie’s father and Steve’s grandmother. Though she was the one to put Annie into the state’s hands for psychiatric care, she seemed to always regret her decision. We felt her motivations were numerous and tried to discuss them in turn. We thought she seemed overwhelmed and scared and that a large part of her fear was Annie’s interest in men. One of our members had a personal friend with a mentally handicapped man. The family was terrified when he became interested in women because they were afraid of any pregnancy resulting from that romance. If someone with reduced mental capacities has a child and they don’t have the ability to care for the child, it falls to the handicapped person’s parents to care for the child. Now, that generation has the two below it to take care of; the mentally handicapped and the young child. This fear seems justified to Tillie, who was struggling enough with Annie.

Another argument for Tillie’s actions were that she didn’t know any better. She wasn’t aware of any other option available to her. Truthfully, I think she would have chosen institutionalization in the end any way. Tillie had labeled herself as a poor Jewish immigrant and immigrants came to American in search of the American Dream. No part of that dream dictates what to do with a mentally ill daughter who stays up half the night screaming. Tillie may have felt at the end of her rope. In her head, her children were supposed to do better than her in America, the land of opportunity. Instead, they had escaped disaster in the Ukraine only to find a second disaster in America. She had nowhere else to run to escape. If they hadn’t been poor, would there have been better options for Annie? Probably. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the cookie crumbles and their financial burden made Annie even more of a burden.

Tillie seemed to carry a great shame for Annie. A report at Annie’s admittance says “patient’s mother felt somewhat guilty about the patient’s illness and related that the sins of the parents are paid for through their children” (page 18, emphasis mine). We wondered if she was referring to the fact that some mental disorders are traced to genetics and that Tillie felt Annie’s condition was partially her fault, due to corrupted genes.

The other major character we discussed was Beth, Annie’s sister, Steve’s mother, and arguably the main character of the book. Annie repeatedly told people that she was an only child. We asked if her saying this so frequently was strange and in the end, decided that it was not. Our conversation leader said that she herself is an only child and that it’s something she tells people frequently. If someone’s not told you’re an only child, they assume you have siblings, that you’re part of a ‘sibship’ of sorts. Saying one is an only child is necessary to escape that assumption and not out of the ordinary.

What was extraordinary was the way Beth kept her secret. She seemed to have a great deal of shame, like Tillie, that she was related to Annie. In much of the same way, she saw Annie as an impediment to her and her family doing ‘better’ in America than they had in the Ukraine. We all felt that there is a desire for the first generation born in a new country to be ‘better’ and escape from being associated with the ‘old country.’ I remember a time when I was working at an ice cream shop and a family (I think from Korea) came in to order. The mother and father didn’t speak a word of English and had to have their six-year-old interpret for them so I could make their order. I remember the child looking embarrassed, as if she was sorry that her parents couldn’t order by themselves.

This was something I saw in the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides as well. Milton, the protagonist’s father, was a first generation immigrant from Greece and he never wanted to learn to write in Greek and always encouraged his parents to learn English so they wouldn’t be held back in America. My group though that Beth felt held back not just by her immigrant parents but her impaired sister as well. Her shame was twofold.

Eloise, the institution where Annie stayed, is now closed. Without the large state-run institutions, many of the people who would benefit from that care are living on the streets. The book mentioned that Elise would take in about 3,000 homeless men and women during the cold Michigan winter. Without that option, those people are left exposed to the elements. This seems especially hard to imagine on cold nights like the ones we’ve been having with temperatures reaching below zero.

This discussion reminded me of something I learned when I was studying abroad in England. We visited Southwell Work House, a building constructed in the 1800s for the poor and destitute to live as a place of last resort. It was a great shame to live in the work house and the life was nothing near desirable. Men and women were separated from their children and forced to work at jobs with little to no purpose. They would pain rooms that didn’t need painting, clean windows that were already clean, etc. The work house kept them busy, fed them, and gave them a ceiling over their heads. It was not a place anyone wanted to live. Nevertheless, it provided the country with a way to protect its citizens who couldn’t hold a job, something America arguably now struggles with.

We talked about the reasons that Eloise and similar institutions were closed. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in the late 1970s and argued that people with disabilities do better in a community setting as a way to rehabilitate and treat them. This helped spike the popularity of group homes which are still common today. ADA did not take away funding for mental health, but it did seem to redirect it. The funding was reduced in 1991 and has landed the country in its current situation.

When Annie was at Eloise, there were very few ways to treat someone with schizophrenia, as she was diagnosed. Before treatments with lithium were possible, there was very little that could be done for a patient and in that way, they couldn’t improve and escape from the mental health system. There were much like inmates in jail and this is what they were called.

Annie started showing signs of mental illness during a time when those symptoms normally appear, ages 18-25. What we’re still unsure of is if there was a trigger to these events. The facts implied that she’d been the victim of a sort of sexual assault, but because there was no witness, there’s no way to know for sure. One thing that is for sure is that Annie seemed to suffer from a psychotic break that kick-started the worst symptoms of her condition, the yelling and insomnia mentioned in the book. The social worker leading our group told us that once a patient suffers from a psychotic break, they tend to have one more easily and in this way spiral downward into their disease. With no treatment to bring her out, Annie had no means from which to escape.

One of our members had a very similar story to the one Luxenberg wrote about. Her relative was a Lapeer State Home and she saw her relative often. At the young age when she knew the relative, she did not realize that this person was handicapped. It wasn’t until much later in life, after the relatives death, that she was told the relative had been mentally handicapped.

Another of our members shared this book with a friend who had family at Eloise. She wrote up a statement I was provided a copy of to share in this blog. The second part of it I found particularly moving and I’ll share it here. “A first cousin of mine… had his wife hospitalized at Eloise, while she was pregnant with their first child. She had the misfortune to give birth there, and was sterilized during the process. This was approximately in 1940.” This is particularly interesting because it doesn’t appear in any of the Eloise records that sterilization was practiced (Luxenberg, 275).

Late last year, there was a story in the news about a senator whose mentally ill son attacked him before committing suicide. Virginia senator R. Creigh Deeds has a long scar down his face from where his son attacked him with a knife on that night. The attack came less than a day after Deeds had taken his son to a hospital for treatment and he was released hours later. Virginia law did not allow the hospital to hold the son against his will because he was 24.

I left this discussion with a newfound awareness of mental illness and the way it has been ignored by the government for so long. I’m looking forward to the next discussion of this book, which I think might focus more on characters.

Until next time, write on.

Professional v. Amateur Writers

3 Feb

Nicole was good enough to pass on a Writers’ Digest article she knew I’d be interested in reading. The article is called The 5 Differences Between Professional and Amateur Novelists and it’s written by Charles Finch, the same Charles Finch who wrote The Last Enchantments that I reviewed in January. If you have the time to stop over and read the article, I highly recommend it. I’ll include some thoughts on each criteria and where I feel I fall within it.

Tools- Finch says you need to know what you use to write. For me, it’s very simple: Laptop laying in bed using Word with no one around and only orchestral music to distract me. It’s best if I give myself a time crunch but that’s not always necessary. I think I’ve got a handle on this one at least.

Patience- Here I feel somewhere in the middle. I’m in no rush to get my novel out to the world. It’s been sitting idly for nine years, I think it can take two or three more before an agent hears about it. On the other hand, I feel a need to get something published, to see my writing somewhere where the rest of the world can look at it and pass their judgments. I do believe in sitting on something to edit it instead of doing a quick spell-check and pushing it into the world. Editing is a necessary and lengthy process. If an agent doesn’t think my writing is worthwhile, that doesn’t mean it’s useless but it could probably use some more editing. Though there are some self-published books that are picked up by publishing houses, that’s the Cinderella story. I hope to see my novel in traditional print and I’m willing to wait for it (but dang is that hard!).

Focus- Again, 50/50 here. I like having a few projects going so if I’m stuck on one, I can switch to another and be inspired. If I run into a dead-end with something and I’ll have to abandon it, I don’t feel like I’m starting from ‘Go’ because there’s already something else in the works. I’ve finished two manuscripts and I’m working on one other and a few short stories. Not the best focus in the world, but it’s gotten me to the end of two stories, so I won’t cry about it.

Habit- Meh. I posted last week about how I haven’t done any non-blog writing since the end of NaNoWriMo. I think lack of habit might be the reason why. I pounded out 52K when I had a schedule of write-ins and personal time, but without that I’m a bit more lost. I’ll look at adding a schedule soon.

Practice- I don’t think this one can be mastered. Even those who are masters of their domain must practice. Michael Phelps practices. Dwayne Wade practices. Stephen King practices. Everyone has to work on their craft or they will never get any better. I write here every day to help me develop a voice, one that I hope you feel is consistent at the least. This one is being considered on-going indefinitely.

How do you all feel? Do you think you qualify as a Professional or Amateur writer? What could you do to become a more professional writer?

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Until next time, write on.