Monday, January 31, 2011

Judging a Book by Its...

...first paragraph?

So I was having some kicks, reading the entries for Nathan Bransford's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest. No, I didn't read all of them. I read them when there were about 500 entered--and didn't get even close to finishing. I admire Bransford's fortitude, but the fifteen-hundred first-paragraph dash is not for me (but would make an incredible Olympic event).

Anyway. I was browsing, enjoying some and wishing I could peruse the whole book, confused by others, skipping after the first sentence of several that didn't interest me at all, and I kind of started to wonder. Are we (readers, publishing, everybody--not the inimitable Mr. Bransford only) judging a book by its first paragraph in the same erroneous ways we judge books by their covers?

I of course do not mean to imply that some quick assessment isn't warranted. After all, you can get a handle pretty quickly when something is definitely not your style--when you like romance novels and the book you just picked up starts right into a murder mystery (yep, that rose on the cover was a hint about the killer's identity, not an indicator of a romantic tale--proving again, cover-judging is not always accurate). And sometimes you know very soon that a writer's style or voice is not going to make the book an enjoyable read for you. Even more so with slush (and the paragraphs of the contest entries were remarkably, I suppose, like slush). With some pieces, it's apparent right from the first sentence that the writer needs to work on voice or grammar or basic syntax--it's just not there yet.

But beyond that--when nothing annoys the heck out of you or turns you off or bores you more than watching white paint on a blank white wall--can we judge the book by its first paragraph? Taking this from fun contest to mindsets in real life: Are we asking too much in a few sentences--and getting less than we deserve because we want instant satisfaction? When I think about the most important parts of a first paragraph, I do think about including hints at a compelling story, elements of vivid characters, and a healthy dose of voice and language. Yet, to me, the most important part of a first paragraph is the dozen or so paragraphs after that--it's the open door, and I want to know where it leads, not just stand in the doorframe.

Reading the entries, I started to wonder if that's where some of the writers were making a mistake--they put so much shebang and pizazz in those first paragraphs that it's as though they're expecting the reader to hang out in the doorway forever--there's no propulsion into the story, just a really nice doorjamb.

Granted, this is probably way too much to assume and think about based on a contest (which is, after all meant to be fun)--and I reminded myself that many of these entries may have been revised for, if not written for, the purpose of looking good as a standalone first paragraph for the contest. Still, as we're encouraged to write blazing first pages and immediately compelling hooks into our stories, I think it's worth thinking about whether we're shortchanging ourselves in the long run by putting too high a price on the beginning. There's something to be said for compelling openings with substance, not sparkle, and being sucked into a book by excellent writing, not an explosion front and center on page one, and having a slow build of tension rather than immediate angst.

Did I enter? Yeah, why not :) My first paragraph? Taken verbatim from a WIP, and, as I review some of the stellar entries, feels rather small and insignificant. And I'm ok with that--it's time to get back to writing and polishing all those paragraphs in the WIP, not just the first one!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cart, Meet Horse. Horse, please step behind Cart.

I caved to the demands of my shiny, wintry story idea and plan to put sweltering story idea on the back burner for the time being. Honestly, I don't know that I was quite ready to write it anyway. I think I'll let it simmer until a) wintry story is finished b) it's too hot to write wintry story c) I actually finish all the research for sweltering story idea or d) my characters from sweltering story threaten mutiny. This two-project-at-a-time thing is new territory for me, and it's making me very nervous. But I just keep thinking--writers write, so get something down on paper--wintry or sweltering, just do it!

Old timey photo of Yosemite in winter. Two out of three things are like the wintry story: It's wintry and old-timey, but hasn't a thing to do with Yosemite. Nifty picture, though!

So, to cement the dedication to wintry story idea, I wrote a very, very rough query for it. (You may be wondering, after reading "wintry story" far more times already than is really enjoyable, why I didn't cement my dedication by coming up with a working title, and I, too, dear reader, am beginning to ask myself the same question.) This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, and of course it is. I will certainly not be using this query when (if) this manuscript reaches that point. For one, it's a hot mess. For another, the nuances of the story and its themes will likely change as it develops, marinates, and is revised. Still, I like having something like back-cover copy to keep me on the straight and narrow while I write.

It's easy to get carried away with plot points and secondary characters, or, my greates sin, descriptive scenes with pretty writing that don't really go anywhere (I'm getting better, promise). Having the query in place is like writing down a goal: This is what the story is about. This is what I want it to do. When I start to wander, I can come back to that and think, "Does this further the goals I laid out in the beginning?" If so, awesomesauce. If not...it's time to assess whether it's the direction or the goals that need revisiting and changing.

The query in its current stage is merely an email to myself. I won't format it or play with it much from now until the MS is finished. But it's a good guidepost--and I know I'll continue to check it as I push further into the story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1940s Cocktail Dress: Pattern Review Part I

While waiting for the fabric to arrive to start the eighteenth-century blue ensemble, I started another project. Either I'm feeling very industrious or very scattered lately. Regardless--it's a 1940s cocktail dress, and will be made of a lovely eggplant-ish colored crepe. For now, I've just cut out the pattern, which I found at the Vintage Pattern Lending Library.


And so far, I am super impressed. Ok, so I haven't actually sewn anything yet, but this is based on the quality of the pattern alone. First off, the pattern and instructions (reprinted and transcribed from an original 1940s pattern) came in a heavy-duty ziploc. This is huge. Do you know how many tattered, ripped, shredding paper envelopes I have in my pattern file? So it's a huge boon to have a built-in storage bag. Score.

And the pattern itself--I can tell already--very clear markings and easy to read. Plus, it's a high-quality paper, rather than the onion skin you usually get patterns printed on. As I tend to use patterns over and over, a heavier paper is also a huge score.

Given that I paid the same for this pattern as I would have for, say, a Vintage Vogue pattern bought at the local JoAnn's, the quality is astounding.

I'll update once I make the dress to let you know how the sewing part went--but rest assured, cutting out the pattern went awesome.

I'm still on the fence about which version of the dress I'll be making--I'll be doing the short sleeves, for sure, but can't decide if I'll do the little bow (small black dress in picture) or the front-cascading ruffles (blue dress in picture). Thoughts?

I'm pretty excited about this project--I've been wanting to make some 40s clothes since I started my 1940s-set manuscript last winter. As I'm starting another 1940s-set manuscript, it was high time--I like dressing like my characters! (Sorry, should have preceded this paragraph with a large, flashing "Nerd Alert.")

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mother's New Jacket: The Fabric

I took my mother fabric-shopping online over the weekend to pick the fabric for her new jacket.

My original thought was to use a fabric like this:


Which would end up looking somewhat like this:



I had forgotten, however, how much my mother likes the color blue. So as we perused fabrics, and settled on picking something from reproductionfabrics.com, I kept showing her lovely reddish-pink prints, and while she liked them, she wasn't enthused.


Until we found a blue-on-white print. Then she lit up.

I wasn't completely convinced on this one--while I've found very similiar prints in my extant fabric hunts, I haven't found anything precisely like this one. Mainly, it had butterflies. Ok, I know--it's being extremely anal. And mother eventually convinced me, for a couple reasons. One--she is not nearly as anal as I am, and this is her outfit, after all. Two--form over precision. Just because I haven't found a print with butterflies does not mean that we can't use one, given that the form follows what is known from the period--viny florals. A print with dump trucks or Transformers would be different, but this is totally plausible.

So, the fabric we chose:


Will end up with a look somewhat like this:


Terrible picture, but you can click through to see a way-cool close-up on KCI's website. This is, of course, a gown, not a jacket, but you can get the idea of a jacket and matching petticat from this piece. I plan to spiffy up the petticoat with a gathered ruffle similar to those seen here, and plan to use navy tape on the edges and the stomacher to break up the print a little.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing Meme...Because I have Blogger's Block

I've been saving this meme from Mesmered for a rainy day...in this case, a very snowy day...when I couldn't think of something to blog about. It's a long'un, so I'm posting the first 10 questions today--please feel free to swipe and play with this one. Great questions, it was fun to think about! These are mainly about characters--sorry if it's a touch confusing, I didn't take much time to give background in some cases...but isn't that what a meme is for, just answering and pondering? Have fun!

1. Tell us about your favorite writing project that you’ve worked with and why. I don’t think I can pick…Check the “Writing Endeavors” page for current and past projects. Maybe my favorite project wasn’t a project at all, but the process of producing, regularly—I’m happiest when I’m writing a lot. And crankiest when I’m not doing much writing. Some of my favorite writing experience comes from when I was a teenager and wrote nearly daily, nothing of much substance, but explorations of words. I need to recapture that enjoyment, I think!

2. How many characters do you have? Eeeep, like asking how many thoughts I have a day…and now I sound like a crazy person. Instead, a favorite character from each of my major projects: Marjory, the whipsmart plantation coquette with the eighteenth-century wit I wish I had from Linden Hall; Nate Bennett, the nearly-broken WWII veteran with wavy hair and a thin jaw from December; Esther from my latest beginning, who is almost too patient, especially with her kooky sister-in-law (who insists on becoming a dime-a-dance girl…honestly…).

3. How do you come up with names, for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? I make them sit there until they tell me. Sometimes we have to take a walk or get a glass of wine in them, or a few dozen pages. But they eventually yield. In all honesty, writing historicals, I do tend to do a bit of research into common names of any given time period. But ultimately it’s the name that fits the character, especially aesthetically. It has to sound right, roll around the mouth the right way.

4. Tell us about one of your first stories/characters! Well, I wrote a story about a maladjusted tree with pierced ears when I was six or so. Illustrated and everything. Clearly I had an overactive and inexplicable imagination.

5. Where are you most comfortable writing? Anywhere I can set the laptop—I seem to like windows. And a hot drink. But you’ll most commonly find me in my “study” (aka the corner of the great room), with a chair pulled up to the kitchen table, or escaping to a coffee shop haunt. At what time of day? Anytime, really. I love weekend mornings, though. Weekend mornings with some good coffee and uninterrupted writing time is my favorite. Computer or good ol’ pen and paper? Computer. I’ve pretty much lost the ability to write longhand. I do like playing with pens and paper, but nothing much gets done except strange esoteric sketches and illegible scrawlings.

6. Do you listen to music while you write? What kind? You know, I don’t. Not when I write. When I’m thinking, sure. When I’m zoning out, working out on the elliptical, fermenting ideas, of course. When I’m editing, most definitely—and then it’s a mess of Satie and Tallis and other complicated but subdued music. Are there any songs you like to relate/apply to your characters? Anna from Linden Hall, who a delicate little bird, was Loreena McKennitt’s Breton Carol—sad and wistful but warm at its core. Gloria from December was really Camille Saint-Saens The Swan, but she covered it up by being brassy Ethel Merman show tunes. Poor Nate Bennett—he was most certainly Coltrane or Miles Davis, but they weren’t around yet for him. And Marjory…defies melody.

7. What’s your favorite genre to write? To read? Historical on both accounts. I’m a bit of a one-trick pony.

8. How do you get ideas for your characters? Describe the process of creating them. They tend to come to me—mostly from places and historical inspiration, I think. I see a grand plantation home and think “who would have lived here…no really, who?” or a picture of a 1930s dime-a-dance hall and think about the girls who worked there. Then we chat a bit…and I write them out. They grow and flesh out until I know them as though they were real people; often I have to get a few chapters down to really have the feel of them (then we revise those chapters). I don’t tend to do any character-building exercises—questionnaires or quizzes or whatnot—except for fun…or to procrastinate. I tend to be, for better or worse, pretty loosey-goosey and organic about developing characters.

9. What are some really weird situations your characters have been in? Everything from serious canon scenes to meme questions counts! Well, shoot. I knocked one of them up accidentally…I made one sit through the siege of Charleston and get bombarded while another had to march through swampland to join the siege…I stuck one in a plane crash (even made him pilot the plane…how cruel am I?). But I think the weirdest was sticking Gloria from December, who is a small-time stage dancer and singer, in a theater fire. Twice.

10. Who is your favorite character to write? Least favorite? Gloria from December—she was so snappy. I didn’t have to think about what she’d say next—she just smacked it on the paper before I’d really caught on. And she was funny and a little mean and terribly ambitious, but not quite smart enough to be cautious about those near-fatal flaws. She was a blast. Her father, however—writing a far-side of middle-aged man was difficult, being neither male nor over thirty. We got by, though, he was very patient with my attempts to get him down.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Old House--First Things First

The new old house is feeling like home after a couple weeks of shuffling things around and adding homey touches. The first places, however, to come together in the house were two of the most important (well, in my opinion): the reading nook and my writing desk.


The reading nook is in the den, a space originally intended by us as the dining room and probably originally the house's kitchen--and the writing desk is in the great room, a space originally intended as our living room and probably originally the house's, well, great room. Was that confusing enough? The original portion of the downstairs is divided in two rooms. One was likely a kitchen/general workaday room, and the other was likely the great room/parlor/space to entertain people. We decided to keep the spirit of the original great room, and made that our dining room and parlor. The den evolved partially out of the fact that it had a convenient outlet to plug in the TV and DVD player. Well, when you're dealing with an old house you do what it tells you to do sometimes.

The writing desk, in a corner of the great room, next to the wine rack (um, no implying that those two things go together or anything):


And the reading nook, in a little corner of the den, with a nice bright reading lamp and a close-to-tacky side table/magazine rack that has that distinctive look of something that may have been created by my father in shop class forty years ago:

The nearly-ugly pillow matches my almost-ugly sofa, which occupies the long wall of this room. Stacked hatboxes next to the close-to-tacky table hold, well, hats--a bit incongruous, but they look nice there.

More pictures--of the rest of the house--to come!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A New Jacket for Mother

I've a new sewing project to occupy my snowy winter days--a new eighteenth century jacket for my mother. I promised it as a birthday gift, to replace a jacket and petticoat combo I made her years ago that a) does not fit properly any longer and b) has a slightly iffy print. It's passable, but imperfect.

The plan: Use a variation on JP Ryan's jacket pattern, which I've used in the past. Goes together like a dream. I'll have to adjust the size for my mom, but should be a simple enough task to rework:


I think I'll be using View B--Mom is kinda short, and I think that the later two styles (C and D) would look stumpy on her from the front. View B is a slightly earlier style, but for a lady of a certain age, is certainly not out of the question. And I like that the stomacher provides some leeway in sizing.

Mom will be picking her own fabric, but I may steer her toward a print from Reproduction Fabrics. I've been dying to try them out--some of their fabrics are ideal for 1770-1780. I have my eye on these two for something, if not this project:


I'll be cutting the linen for the lining/fitting this week--then we'll fit it to Mother and order her fabric.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Weather and Summer Writing Don't Mix

I love winter. That is to say, I love winter when it's behaving like winter--when it snows and blows and tumbles and wraps the whole world up in white. I do not, by extension, necessarily like the months of December through February (or, more likely, March)--too often our version of winter is rain, ice, sleet, and something the weather people call "wintry mix" which sounds like a candle scent but it, in fact, disgusting on the roads. And grey. Very, very grey.

So I was thrilled when we got a half a foot of snow in the last two days. To top it off, I have a few evenings free, with nothing to occupy me but the new manuscript I've been plugging away at. So I sat down at my desk last night in the room in our New Old House that I'm calling, in historical parlance, the great room. The snow swirled outside, past the thick-paned windows. I could imagine a fire into the hearth behind me. I had a glass of some sort of spicy, earthy red wine from Chile with a name I couldn't pronounce. Enchanting and inspiring, all of it.

The trouble was that I am trying to write a very sweltering sort of book. A book about hot places during hot times of the year. About India and South Carolina and mosquitoes and sweating and dampness and really needing a glass of cold rum punch. It just wasn't happening. My toes were too cold to have my characters fanning themselves.

And so I allowed myself the lark of writing something entirely new, that's been bugging me for some time to let it come out and play. It's a colder sort of story, but one that I think will open into spring before it's finished.

I've never been a two-project writer before. I'll have to pick one to focus on. It's going to be difficult to shelf one when the crossroads hit. But for now, I'll permit myself this little winter lark, while the snow falls.

Do you tackle one project at once (of any kind--reading, sewing, household, writing) or have a few simmering at once? Am I the only one so affected in the weather when it comes to picking what to work on?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snacky Prose (and Hunger Games)

I really like perfect combinations. Especially combinations of perfect beverage for certain foods. I geek out about wine pairings. I pick my teas dependent on what kind of cookie I'm having (let me tell you, double-spice chai and a caramel wafer....heaven). It's probably getting a little out of hand.

I have two all-time favorite food/beverage pairings. One is kettle-cooked potato chips, liberally salted but not over-much, with a hearty ale. The other is a square of dark chocolate and a glass of deep red wine.

Clearly, two very different pairings with two very different modes of satisfaction behind them. But it connects to writing--and reading. I promise.

I finally got around to reading the Hunger Games series. Yes, I'm a little Johnny-Come-Lately, but I cued up Books One and Two on my Nook and went to town (haven't read Mockingjay yet, don't tell me a thing!). But it struck me, as I was plowing through Catching Fire, that I plow through my little bowl of salty kettle cooked potato chips in much the same way.

Collins did not write books that make you slow down and savor, the way I savor those little wedges of dark chocolate and the accompanying good red wine. This is not a bad thing. A great snack, and a great read, does not mean it's like every other great snack or read. Collins made me keep moving, turning pages, caught on the ride. And I enjoyed that. But many of my favorite books are sloowwww dooowwwwn books. Books that make you taste the words one by one, swirling them the way the wine swirls in a glass, inhaled like a wine's bouquet.

I like both my kinds of snacks. Some afternoons, after a busy day of work and a round of "scrub the bathroom" I crave the crackle and refreshment to be found in a bowl of chips and a glass of cold beer. And sometimes, in the last golden hours of twilight, nothing fits like some dark chocolate and my favorite Malbec. So it is with reading--there are times I want delicately rendered, beautiful prose, and times I want to get dragged along for a swiftly moving story and prose that keeps me turning pages, not stopping to enjoy the scenery.

And so it is, I think, for writing. With such varying appetites out there, we need our chips and chocolate...and veggie trays and bubble gum and balsamic reductions. It can all be good writing. I've noticed debate spring up over what kind of writing is "better"--the brisk style or the langorous one--with fiery opinions on both sides. You know what? There is no better. You can't compare my chips to my chocolate, and you can't compare different writing for "better" and "worse" either. They're both great--for the right mood.

What do you think? Is there a "better"? Do you tend to be a chips or chocolate person--in reading, writing, and/or snacking?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Authorial Voice and its Myriad Uses

I have a bit of a reputation at work. It's the Insta-Switch-Ice-Queen. See, I am generally, at work, a cheerful and friendly person, smiling and sanguine. (Yes, really--I find it aids in Keeping One's Sanity.) However, when the situation calls for it, I can compose an email that immediately tells its recipient that You Have Crossed a Line. The cheerful demeanor switches off, my eyebrow cocks a quarter inch up, and I gain the ability to rattle off a missive of frigid distance and sparkling clarity with remarkable speed and agility.

It's a talent I reserve for only very, very particular occasions.

And it's an excellent lesson, I think, in authorial voice.

Voice is, I think after reading friends' posts and experts' blogs, the most elusive quality of good writing. Agents and editors say they're looking for voice when they read, but even the most eloquent expert has a hard time putting into words precisely what they mean by voice. I won't pretend to attempt to do so, myself, but after re-reading a particular icy email with a very particular purpose, I think I have perhaps ferretted out two identifying details to voice.

One is that voice is not an accident. Now, it may not be concsious. I don't mean to say that one sits down, defines the voice, and begins to knack away at it. No, it may not be deliberate, but it is not accidental, either--it is not random. It matches the book's genre, its intended audience, and its intended purpose. Can you imagine the plot of a lighthearted caper paired with the dour tone of a gothic novel? Or a self-examining memoir grappling with addiction and abuse with the light-hearted, lackadaisical voice of a frothy romance? Certainly some irony in voice can be a useful tool--but again, it's not an accident. I can't precisely help Ice Queen voice when my eyebrow goes up that quarter-inch and I start to type--but it is no mistake that that's the tone I get.

And why is it not an accident? Because, I think, voice is intended, perhaps more than any other device in a book, to make a reader feel something. For better or worse, when Ice Queen takes over my keyboard, she wants to spark a certain reaction in her reader. Plot dips and turns elicit a response, but that response has been set by the voice behind the action. The way in which words are not only chosen but arranged, how they are used, colors the descriptions a writer includes. They affect how we see the place, people, and story elements--how we respond to a character's circumstance has been predetermined for us by the writer's voice. No wonder it's such an important, if enigmatic, element of good writing.

What do you think? Do you find voice natural, an extension of the writing itself? Or something you have to imbue each piece with deliberately? What about as a reader--is voice something you read for, or is it a side interest to a good plot?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lending a whole new meaning to "Menswear Inspired"

A friend of mine tipped me off to a small but beautiful collection of free downloadable patterns online--all eighteenth century menswear presented by Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Our first collective opinion was "ladies clothes next?" followed shortly by adoration for this banyan:


Isn't it the pips? Gorgeous fabric. Sumptuous cut. That kicky high collar and double breasted design.

A banyan is an at-home garment, much like modern sweatpants, but for wearing, not while watching the football game, but for while you're lounging about your study reading important things by comtemporary philosophes while smoking an intricately carved pipe and calling your mistress over with another glass of port. Or that's how I imagine it. No, really, it's essentially a robe or dressing gown. They were often made in rich fabrics or bright Indian cotton prints. Though examples exist of dressing gowns from the eighteenth century for ladies, they seem to have been most popular as men's garments. Men liked their banyans so much that they were often painted in them, lounging in their studies, reading important things...suffice to say, this banyan is a men's garment.

For men? Forget about it. They can stick with their sweatpants. We all want one as a winter coat! What do you think? With a pair of slim jeans and a good pair of boots? Or a crazy-full crinoline skirt underneath?

More free patterns with full description of the extant garments on which they are based here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

And a Happy New Year

I found this print on the Lewis Walpole Library and, though it's rather unrelated, it put me in mind of the New Year holiday:

The print depicts a lady in masquerade dress, with clothing arranged in a manner suggestive of a nun, without being a full "costume." Masquerade costumes were often like that--items or details suggested a character or concept, but they did not necessarily have to be a full, authentic costume. And in this case--a lovely young lady who wanted to show her best features--an authentic habit would interfere with that goal.

Then, as now (doesn't every costume party have at least one naughty nun?), the nun costume was a bit tongue in cheek--the print's inscription reads:

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore

Which Jews might kiss and Infidels adore

Political incorrectness aside, it's a humourous jab at the real object of men's attention at this particular example of piety.

And why does it make me think of New Year's? Well, there's always the opportunity for costume parties as New Year's Eve fetes (though I've encountered most naughty nuns at Halloween bashes). But in all honesty, I found the image of the stiff old mask dropping away and the young face beneath revealed to be rather symbolic of embarking on a new year. In hopes we can pull away a bit more artifice and illusion and get deeper at the core of living this year.