As of today, I am officially (sort of) switching over to WordPress.com for my blogging needs - although I am writing this in blogger. So if you are reading this please follow me at arielswan.com. I like the sharing capabilities over there better as Blogger only wants me to share with Google friends now. If you have any thoughts on using WordPress please let me know.
So, I have a question for you. Do you buy books mostly or are you a library patron? When I was small, and we were poor, my mother used to bring me to the library on a weekly basis. I remember taking the bus in the winter afternoons when it was already getting dark, just like it is now in Massachusetts. I remember being able to get an arm load of books, as many as I could carry. My mother is a reader and I have told my students time and time again that one of the best things she ever did for me was to bring me to that library. So, I have always been a library patron and just like when I was little, I am accustomed to leaving with an arm load of books. I read like a literary agent, the books scattered in every room. I pick one up and if I keep turning the pages, I keep reading. If I don't I let it go. Well, actually, this is how I was doing things. This summer, I read Anna Karenina, and I had an old copy that fell to pieces and then I took one home from school. It took me a long time to get through it and after that, strangely, I started to feel rushed by the library. If there was more than one book I wanted to read from the pile I brought home, it was an issue to have to keep renewing it. I found that I returned books just to get them off my list of things to do. Also, I received a gift certificate to my local bookstore from a generous family member last year that had me buying books for months. Now, I would rather buy them. Which is of course much better karma for me as a writer, because buying books is what keeps novelists fed. Right?
I have been reading Donna Tartt's not most recent book The Little Friend. I loved The Secret History and would actually like to read it again. The Secret History was about college students in an elite group of eccentric Classics study and whose extracurricular activities lead to murder. It was mysterious and intelligent and I loved its 90s flavor. So far The Little Friend is also intelligent and beautifully written with a mystery slowly emerging around the death of the narrator's brother 12 years before. She has recently released another book, The Goldfinch, which I will certainly pick up soon. I just love her author photo too.
Somehow it inspires me and makes me feel writerly. Strange?
I am also reading Catch 22 with a group of fellow teachers at school. Never am I reading one book.
In other news, keep your eyes open for some guest bloggers who also write paranormal and scifi works, all represented by my lovely agent Victoria Lee of the Aponte Literary Agency.
What are you reading? Are you looking forward to the holidays? My husband is putting up the tree right now. It is dark and cold in New England these days, time to bring in the evergreen and adorn it with light to remind us that soon the sun will begin its return.
Thanks for reading.
And remember follow me at arielswan.com.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
It's been a while. It does not surprise me that the last time I posted was the start of July. I spent the summer studying the human condition in literature and in doing so I reflected on my own story and the story I am trying to tell. I became lost in it, as is necessary when plotting a novel. It was a meditative summer. One of imposed solitude and some focused discipline. I ran and I read and I wrote. I should have done more of the last, but I did spend a span of time sequestered on the lake I grew up on, in a small town in central Massachusetts, gathering evidence and inspiration for my WIP, in addition to writing. And all that I thought about, took in, and studied this summer ultimately will serve the purpose of making Cold Spring Fire a better novel.
What I Read: I read a lot of things, but the centerpiece, the tome that drove me mad with mix feelings and took up many hours of my summer was Anna Karenina. Have you read it? Or just watched the movie? I had wanted to see the new film, but thought I should read the book first. Or re-read it actually. I "read" it in college and not surprisingly, as is the case when you are given a week to read such a work, I remembered little of the details. So, I sat down and took it in again through the heat waves and slow afternoons of July and August. Periodically, I would toss the book aside in disgust at the double standard for men and women in the novel and at the breakdown of the title character whom I wanted to be stronger, to be more self-confident, to own her decisions without hating herself for them. In the end, I felt sad for her, but I was surprised when I did. Up until that point I was eager for that train to come. But that lack of sympathy told me I was fighting against the trope of the crazy woman, consumed with self-doubt and irrational emotions. I have known that woman. And I wanted this MC to be less...true. In all, the characters were fairly unlikable because they were so human, but this was the beauty of the novel and why I did come to see it as a true and remarkable work of classic fiction. It revealed, unabashedly, the good, the bad, and the ugly of the intimate human sphere. It was a great experience and I recommend it to anyone willing to take a long and serious look at the human condition. But what I wonder is how possible that is in contemporary commercial fiction. We, as modern readers, want our protagonists to offer us an escape, at least in much of the women's fiction I read. Men tend to read more realism, and how they can stand it, I don't know. "Good Fiction" is realism - right? I thought a lot about men and women in fiction this summer, and the variation of how they are portrayed by male and female authors. I also thought about the difference between men and women readers. But that is the topic for another post.
What I saw: I spent time in the Oxbow National Wildlife Reserve in my hometown. It was beautiful and looked exactly as I wanted it to, as if it could hold secrets and be the setting for strange goings on. I woke up every day (for a period) on a lovely lake with a heron perched on the dock, the sun rising behind him. I walked again in woods that smelled of earth and something like sandalwood where the knock of the pileated woodpecker marked the slow burn of an August day. I saw old friends come to the rescue when their own old friends were in need, listening to the darkness, to the irrational, to the dreams, the desires, and the sadness that consumes us all. It was interesting to see old friends and realize that after almost two decades, though our stories have gone in different directions, we were all experiencing some the of the same crisis of faith in ourselves, in our decisions, and in the paths we were on.
These are the threads that were already plotted for Cold Spring Fire and at every turn it was as if the universe was speaking to me, telling me I was on the right track, even when so much of it felt uncertain. And when lightening struck the tree next to my house in early September, it was again, an omen, that the story I am telling both in my life and in my WIP is meant to be.
One last thing that came from all of this - this truth that I have been sharing as much as I can ever since, is that the story we tell ourselves is the story the comes true. So, as a writer, and as a human, I urge everyone to always re-read and re-vision that story you tell yourself. When we chose to write our own stories we can avoid or at least re-arrange some of the old tropes and create something new and beautiful and right.
Monday, July 1, 2013
I am writing the first draft of Cold Spring Fire. It is going well and I am thinking about themes. One element I have focused on recently is…well…the one that is really in every story: the human condition. A tag line line of Cold Spring Fire has always been a story of the devil we love. It is about two women struggling with their past and present; the demons that have followed them due to the choices they’ve made as well as their upbringings.
So I have been thinking a lot about sin, guilt, desire and destruction. This year, in writing my speech for graduation, I considered the many lessons of the literature I teach. At first, I was thinking many characters often show us what not to do, and surely that is true on the one hand. But, the idea that we must completely avoid the pitfalls of passion, obsession, foolishness, despair and destruction in order to be happy, struck me as fallacy.
Sure, we don’t want to cause harm, and we want to be as good as we can be, but the human condition gets us every time. What is the human condition anyway? Well, I think it can be boiled down to two broad subjects – the two events that drive our beings in all ranges of emotions. Sex and death. Now sex may seem base, but understand that it is the driving force behind romantic love. It is a chemical reaction in the brain intended to drive us to procreate. This causes all sorts of good things and bad things in our lives. It is a powerful drive and yes, we do have institutions and morals to keep it in check rather than becoming a complete mess all the time. But people sure do find ways to make a mess of it anyway. So, sex leads to babies, leads to families, leads to the real love, the one that has nothing to do with sex - except it does, because that is where it started in our brains.
Death is the other end. Sex creates life and death is the end of it. We are obsessed with it. We watch horror, we buy anti-aging products, we have anxiety, we have religion and thus ideas of the afterlife. Death becomes us.
And so, obsession, passion, foolishness, despair, these are what make up life. These are the bridges, along with happiness and joy of course, that lead us from one end to the other. And while I continue to write, read and think about what makes us human, and the idea that it is not only our base urges, but our ability to examine them and make decisions based on a higher sense of our beings, I still stand up for those emotions that make us flawed. Because drama after all is what makes a good story, whether it is real life or fiction.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
You might be wondering, how does someone write a novel? Not everyone does it the same way, of course. There are plotters and pantsers. I am a plotter. (Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants and just let it flow). I do a little of that too as I am actually creating. Sometimes things happen or characters arrive that I had no idea were coming. But, I thought it might be interesting to share the process I am about to embark upon, as I gear up to write book #2. Whether you are a writer or a reader, either way, I think it is interesting know how a particular writer does the deed.
Step 1 - read what I have.
I have already written a beginning, but I wrote it a year ago and I will most likely change elements, as the story has evolved in my head over time. So, first I will read what I have and see what I still like.
Step 2 - go over notes.
I also have written pages of notes already – again over the last year. I have a character list, and a rough plot outline, at least where I thought it was going then. So again, I will read them and see what I still like and refresh my memory.
Step 3 – write more notes.
I will revision my plan and come up with a working outline. I write my outline in the computer, so I can change it as I go. But I write notes and ideas and diagrams and mini outlines in a large artist’s sketchbook. By the end, I have lots of notes and outlines. My outlines are living. They change and evolve. As I write, I go back to the outline and flesh out ideas in a list. Events, emotions, and purpose. For me, every chapter has to have a goal of what I want to get across. I remember the first draft of DISTILLATION, before I had learned this, had whole chapters of description and what I thought was character development, but no action, nothing to move the plot foreword. Now, I consider the purpose of every chapter. Often, when I finish writing for the day, I will cut and paste the next part of the outline below my stopping point, so I know where I am going the next day.
Step 4 – write chapters.
This is of course the longest process. At somewhere around 100 pages I will go back and read through, and usually edit and revise that, as well as my outline, before I move on. For COLD SPRING FIRE, I have a past and a present to deal with. Two separate arcs of intertwined plot. This is the challenge for me this time around. Weaving those two sets of events will be the primary focus of my work. Depending on how caught up in the story I get, I can write a hundred pages in about a week. Or, a hundred pages can take me a month. We will see...
So, that is how I write a novel. Or at least how I get started. There are twists and turns and music and pictures and a lot of pacing along the way too.
How do you do it?
As a reader, do you like books that have past and present?
What kind of plot structures turn you off or on?
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Come the end of June, I can finally focus again on writing. Happy to have found representation for my DISTILALTION, this summer I will work on one of two new novels I began over the past two years and maybe come close to completing a draft. I have chosen to work on the one tentatively titled COLD SPRING FIRE, and for the past few months I have been considering what I have so far and where I want to go with it. Much of what I have been thinking about is the truths I will spin into the fiction of that story, and how that fiction will make sense out of a variety of "truths" that haunt me.
I write fiction to exorcise demons and dreams. Writing fiction is a way for me to process places and experiences from the near or recent past and to turn them in to something completely different, something that turns my impressions into a new truth. There is no one truth. All different perspectives make up a varied truth. An individual truth can never be true to anyone but the person who creates it. And a person's truth about a single experience can change over time.
In DISTILLATION, I delved into my time spent in a little town in western, Massachusetts. The events in the novel have nothing to do with my life there, but the shapes of the characters and the especially the main character's feelings, issues, and personality were spun from real life. No one in the novel portrays a real person though, and so when people ask me if they are in my novel, I can say of course, or I can say no. Both are true. Interestingly, people like to hear they are in the novel, but even more interestingly, they often miss the qualities sprinkled here and there that I actually took from what is my truth about them, because it is not the truth they see for themselves.
COLD SPRING FIRE is based on my formative years. My teenage years. I spend a lot of time with teenagers, and one of the reasons I went in to teaching was because I liked being a teenager. It was great fun. But it was also a time, as it is for all adolescents, of great insecurity, great risks, great fear, and many mistakes. The world comes at you like an onslaught. It is hard to understand why things happen as they do, or to make rational decisions about your options when you are young. Scott Fitzgerald called youth a form of chemical madness. I have to agree with this. Teenagers push the limits just to find out where the edge of the world is. Teenagers have a love affair with darkness. They want to rebel and to seek an identity all their own, but are of course shaped more than they know by the identities of their parents, even as they defy everything their parents want. And the ways in which teens often try to control their destinies and deal with their emotions appear to those on the outside as madness or destruction. Both perspectives of course are true.
The new novel will again be about living in a small town, just as DISTILLATION was. I love the atmosphere and mystery of small towns, especially rural ones where there seems to be nothing but trees. In towns like this the school is often the center of life. There are families that come and go, and those that have been there forever. There are appearances to keep and secrets behind every neatly mown lawn.
What I look forward to most is the weaving. When I write I become entranced by a river of shining threads. They originate from my memories, my fantasies, my day to day experiences. The sound of the wind in the trees. A remembered moment passing between two people without words, spoken just with the eyes. Laughter from another room. The dry heat and cedar smell of a forest on an August afternoon. Moonlight on water, soaked with the stink of pond. A black and white photograph hiding a secret. The smell of fire in the spring.
It is like a visual, auditory, and olfactory symphony in my head and it consumes me once I really get going. It is interesting too that sound and smell play such a large part in both my memory and my writing. I am very affected by these senses, more so than most it seems at times. These are how my truths take shape. This is how I turn my truth into fiction. Or perhaps, how I turn my fiction into truth.
How do you define truth?
Sunday, May 5, 2013
My favorite line from The Great Gatsby is: "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." It is of course one of the most famous lines. Evoking ephemeral, romantic images is one of Fitzgerald's great gifts to literature.
As you may know, I am an American Literature teacher and it is Gatsby season. In five days the new movie comes out. My students are so worked up over this novel. But this novel has, this year, come full circle for me. After ten years of teaching it, I feel I have a deeper understanding of the work, the author, and its place in the canon because of its relevancy across generations.
Over the past year, I read The Paris Wife, Tender is the Night, and most recently, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. And what I come away from it all with is that truth is as diaphanous as dreams. What is truth? Can there be one truth? Or is truth different for different people? Can a truth change?
Scott was my first literary love. And as I have read and taught Fitzgerald's works, though I often ask my students to examine the novel through a feminist lens for at least one lesson, I have always laughed at his portrayal of women. How absurd they are. Daisy is vapid, Myrtle tragically trashy, Jordan haughty. All of them careless. The men treat them as objects and yet are so utterly wounded by the ultimate betrayals and downfalls of these women, and we somehow end up feeling bad for them. The men. Especially Gatsby.
Like Daisy and Myrtle, I had always believed it was Zelda who had ruined Scott, or at least had been the unstable one. Scott Fitzgerald was to me Jay Gatsby, a sad romantic whose dreams were never quite as real as he strove for them to be, mostly due to alcohol and his wife's need for a high life style he could barely provide. Interestingly, in Z, Therese Anne Fowler takes the opposite argument. In her notes, she acknowledges that there are two camps. One that claims Zelda ruined Scott (fueled mostly by the tales of Ernest Hemingway who infamously believed Zelda was jealous of Scott and trying to undermine his work). Then there is the camp that believes it was the other way around, and if anything it was Hemingway for all his over the top manliness that was jealous of Zelda's relationship with her husband.
Could the truth I had been fed for so many years by the male literary establishment, be so misconstrued? Granted the two feminist point of view books are fiction. But so is Tender is the Night. So is The Great Gatsby. So is For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both Scott and Hemingway unapologetically used the very real events and conversations of their lives the people they knew in their writing, sometimes barely fictionalizing it at all. So, where does the line between fiction and truth lie? Is there even such a thing?
I say there is no such thing as truth. Truth is a fabrication. All of life is a story, one we write for ourselves and one others write with us in it. What is real to one person, might not even exist for another. What an individual imagines can be their whole world, made true only by their undying belief. Could Daisy love Tom and Gatsby both? Could both Zelda's story and Scott be true? Can our dreams be as true as our realities? And if we die still believing in our own truth, who is to say we anything less than what we imagined?
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Well, it has officially been (just about) a year since I was blogging. After last year's Muse and the Marketplace Conference, I took a hiatus to, among other things, query DISTILLATION and to see what played out. In that time a lot happened in my life. Good and bad. One of the great things was I threw myself whole-heartedly into teaching this year, which I think has been my best year ever. It was a nice to think about that costume for a while and to stretch my wings. I think in the end I am a better teacher for it and more in love with my day job than I ever thought I could be. I have to admit the new film for Gatsby has helped a lot. But, I am now rounding out another school year with a new perspective, and more than ready to put my writer hat back on.
As it happens, when you are busy paying attention to something else, other things tend to work themselves out. And so...I have news. Big news. I HAVE AN AGENT. I am happy to say that I am now represented by Victoria Lea of the Natalia Aponte Literary Agency. It happened so fast. I sent a query and a month or so later she responded saying she was liking it and asked to know more about me as a writer. A week later, she offered representation. For all of you who I know have waited and struggled and written and rewritten and picked yourself up again and again after each rejection, I don't know what to say, except that when it happens it happens so fast, it leaves you speechless and stunned.
I am ecstatic to have someone on my team. Someone who believes in DISTILLATION, who liked the story and thinks editors will too. It is the next stage and I am ready to get to work. Thank goodness summer is right around the corner.
For those of you not in the writing world, I should explain. As I have told friends and family that I have secured an agent for DISTILLATION, they almost invariably respond with: So when is the book coming out?
It doesn't work that way. In this day and age one needs an agent to approach publishers. Agents are the gate keepers. Most publishers don't even look at a manuscript that is unagented. So...getting an agent is a major step and, for many, that step is a long and difficult process. As I have said before, they are not kidding when they say you need a thick skin and perseverance beyond all reason. Now that I have an agent, editors will take a look. That is one of the amazing things an agent does for a writer, they pitch the book, they share the love. Agents also handle contracts and all the rights to the work, including foreign, digital, and film rights, if such things come up, which often they do in one form or another.
So, from here, my agent will query and send out my book to editors she has relationships with and hopefully one will fall in love with DISTILLATION too. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I have two other novels brewing (more on that another time) and one of those I will throw myself into this summer, now that DISTILLATION is in good hands. Although, I will also have to do some more work for that book of course. The real work is just beginning in fact.
I am officially on the agency website, under "Our Authors." This has been the most exciting part so far. My picture is above, but you will have to stop by their site to read the bio. It has been reviewed by my fans as giving an "impish" impression. Which I think is fitting. The whole bio and author photo makes me feel official. I also loved talking with other authors, M.V. Freeman and Debbie Herbert, also represented by Victoria. They made me feel welcome and excited about the whole deal. So check out the agency website when you get a chance and from here on in, I am back, blogging again. Say hello and I'll stop by to see you all soon.