Book Notes: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell“If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.” Eleanor, from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

If Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s joke about the fickle nature of love, Eleanor and Park is Rainbow Rowell’s testament to its power. From start to finish, the book is a heartbreaking, passionate song about and for love.

Eleanor and Park is an unabashed romance, and falling in love is the central plot. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus, though they, unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, do not fall in love at first sight. Park thinks Eleanor is weird, chubby, and pathetic, and knows with certainty that associating with her would crush his carefully constructed, under-the-radar existence. Eleanor lumps Park in with the other mean kids on the bus, though she has bigger problems to deal with in her troubled family life. These two fall in love the way real teenagers often do – bit by bit, then all in a rush. They also talk and act the way real teenagers do. They tease each other, piss each other off, get jealous, and feel insecure. In the safety of their love, they explore this unfamiliar emotional territory, and, as they do, they grow into their real selves. They become stronger where they were weak, and vulnerable where they were closed off.

This novel is a great read for teens because it respects and celebrates authentic experiences and voices, not characters with airbrushed personalities. In Rowell’s book, even the minor characters are dealt with honestly. The parents, teachers, and fellow students live on these pages in all their imperfect humanity, sometimes acting so horribly that I cringed, and other times showing compassion and understanding. The story is entertaining and funny in moments, deeply romantic in moments, and also deals with real hardships. Many adult readers will also enjoy Eleanor and Park, especially since this story is set in the 1980s (though not aggressively so). Any readers for whom cellophane-wrapped Maxwell tapes, bangs arranged in high fans, or Walkmans prompt a sense of nostalgia will likely recognize some aspect of their high school experience in Rowell’s descriptions.

Rainbow Rowell writes about falling in love from deep inside our brains and bodies. The natural, flowing cadence of her descriptions and dialogue ring with the truth of the way first love awakens and changes us, right down to our nerve endings. At one point in the book, Park looks at Eleanor and tries to remember how he felt about her at first. It seems impossible to him that there was ever a time she was a stranger to him, and that he didn’t love her. What a simple statement, and so very true. It’s one of the miracles of being alive, that someone we once didn’t even know becomes the person at the very center of our universe, at the heart of our heart.

Once there was a day when I hadn’t read this book. In the span of a day, the story and its characters went from being strangers to me to being in my heart, nestled deep among my very favorite literary loves. Eleanor and Park broke my heart again and again, and I loved every minute of it. A miracle.

Possible Magic

Each project teaches me something.

When I wrote Weaving the Sea, I learned to go to my writing every day. That one lesson took me a long time to learn. About four years. Over the course of that time, I lost momentum, I lost my bearings, I lost hope that I would ever finish the story. But, then I found myself a writing group, and they inspired me to pick up the thread. I re-read what I’d written, I got myself excited again. And I began to write. I pushed myself to write every day, even for a little while. After some time, I didn’t need as much pushing. It was just habit, and the practice of daily writing kept me profoundly connected to the world of the story in ways that paid off in the quality of my writing.

Now, I’ve just finished Nana’s Bikini. It’s a draft, and to call it rough would be like calling a roller coaster curvy.  It’s ROUGH. Flimsy and thin, too, in parts. But that doesn’t bother me, because the story is out of my head and onto the page. A story in my head, that’s hypothetical, that’s what-ifs and half-remembered dreams. But a story on the page is something I can work with.

I finished the draft of Nana’s Bikini in nine weeks, over the course of a writing workshop at Literary Arts, taught by Emily Chenoweth. The workshop was key. Knowing I had to share work with a bunch of writers kept me accountable. I divided my story outline by the number of weeks in the workshop, and came up with my weekly goals. Before the workshop, that would have sounded like an overly analytical approach. Shouldn’t I write because I’m inspired? Yes, and no. I am inspired, but writing is hard. So I decided that I would write like it was my job. It worked for me. I kept going back to the story, kept plugging away. Enough of that, and eventually there are thousands of words in a document. About 50,000.

I’m exhilarated and proud. And, I’m eager to begin on the work at hand. Because now I know that I can do this one kind of magic, I can create a story where there was none before,  and I have to learn the next spells. I have to take these rough, flimsy words, and tease and polish them into a story that matters, that has the power to move my readers. It sounds like magic, but I know now that it’s a possible kind of magic. Here goes.

 

Acceptable Forms of Cheating

A novel is a big project, is what I’m learning. Overwhelming. Unwieldy. And, sometimes, wickedly elusive.

I suppose this is why, until I finished the draft of my first YA book, my notebooks and hard drives were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, fragments of scenes, and chapters that never saw the light. I didn’t have the stamina to see a novel through to the end.

In finishing the draft of Weaving the Sea, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned to write, even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I was 100% certain that everything coming out of my pen or keyboard was pure, unusable garbage. This was harder than I thought it would be, but my critique partners helped. They were my cheerleaders, and believed in my project even when I did not.

Another thing I learned is that sometimes, when my novel gets particularly cantankerous, I have to put it away and do something else. I admit it: I cheat on my novel.

There are unacceptable forms of cheating, distractions that become almost irresistible when my mind is grappling with a story problem. The Internet calls – loudly – to me in those moments, and that is a dark form of cheating that takes all the wind from my writing sails, and robs me of precious work hours.

Other forms of cheating do the opposite. Doodling, painting figures, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a blog post, and playing with an idea for another project all give me new energy, new oxygen so that I may submerge myself back in the world of my novel.

I cheat with a deadline. After a few juicy hours (or days) of cheating, I feel warm and fuzzy toward my novel. I can be kind toward it (and myself) again.

Six Words Stories

The other day, I came across a collection of short stories written by Sherman Alexie. Really short. Each one was only six words long. Here’s one example from the collection, called “The Human Comedy”:

Me ex-wife. My brother. They eloped.

I thought Alexie had made up this brilliant form, but, with a little digging, I found that there are whole websites and books devoted to the six-word story. There is even a legend, largely discredited, that Ernest Hemingway wrote the first six-word story: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Whether or not Hemingway wrote the above story, it’s worth studying merely for the fact that it shows the wonderful power of the written word to evoke an emotional response. The pair of shoes in the story could be unworn for any number of reasons, yet the author suggests – with the choice of shoes as imagery, the use of punctuation, and the choice to place “Never worn” at the end of the story – a much more dramatic narrative.

Ever since I heard of the six-word story, I’ve been obsessed. Here are a few that I’ve written myself.

Husband snored. He’s dead. Jail quieter.

Wait for me. Just a year.

 I should have believed you, then.

Bed too full of empty space.

Giants extinct. Killed by common cold.

Tangled in sheets, I find socks.

 Try it, it’s not as easy as you might think! Some six-word “stories” posted on the websites are actually just pithy phrases or sayings. Even if they are lovely writing, they are not stories. The challenge is to try to hold a sense of a dramatic story arc within those six tiny words.

This could be a very fun and useful exercise of a writer’s group. Everyone gets 15 minutes to write one or two, and then shares his or her best story. The group examines what works and what doesn’t.

Call me crazy, but I’d also love to have a six-word story reading club. At least no one would have to be embarrassed that they didn’t read the whole thing before the meeting.

Book Notes: Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

When we meet thirteen-year-old Theo – Theodora Tenpenny – she is grieving for the loss of her grandfather, and puzzling over his cryptic last words. “Look under the egg… There’s… a letter. And a treasure.” A treasure is exactly what Theo needs to support herself and her eccentric mother, since their last few dollars are quickly dwindling. When she finds a hidden painting in her grandfather Jack’s studio, she begins an investigation that leads her on an art history adventure through Manhattan’s museums, libraries, auction houses, churches, and even hospitals. This adventure is the main plot of a wonderful debut book by Laura Marx Fitzgerald called Under the Egg.

This is one of those rare books in which the reader doesn’t have to choose between plot, character, and heart; it has it all. Theo and her new friend Bodhi are smart and resourceful. They captured my curiosity and imagination as they followed lead after lead around the city, the mysterious painting bumping along behind them in a rolling suitcase. In Theo’s story, paintings are not simply oil and canvas, precious and untouchable. They are artifacts of an artist’s life, and they can have a life – and journey – all their own.

Theo’s character is lovingly written and realistically complex. There is much about her that is old-fashioned: her handmade clothes, her discomfort with technology, her cans of preserved food, her handiness with tools. Yet these are the product of her self-reliance, not nostalgia for another time. Because, Theo is also thoroughly at home in modern Manhattan. The twists and turns of this mystery would not be possible without the serendipity and the chance encounters that happen so frequently there.

When Theo sets out to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s painting, she sees an opportunity to support herself and her mother, to keep their life going. Solving the mystery also gives her a way of keeping her grandfather with her just a little longer. And this is the gift that the mystery brings to her. It gives Theo her grandfather back for a while, and lets her know him in a more real way than she did, even in life. Solving the mystery also shows Theo that, though she thought had next to nothing, she actually has everything that she needs. She will be okay.

Under the Egg isn’t just a story about a girl who solves an art mystery. The love between Theo and her grandfather is at the very core of this book. These two characters understand each other, the way soul mates do. And, in solving her grandfather’s mystery, Theo finds that her world has grown, magically and without her realizing it, into something that she can hardly recognize, a world that is full of possibility.

What a pleasure to read a beautiful book. Even greater pleasure to read a beautiful book by a friend! Congratulations to Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Back when our kids were in music class together, I didn’t know you had Theo in your brain!

Readers, this book reminds me of another favorite middle-grade book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, which also features a grandfather-granddaughter relationship.

Writing Critique: The Good Questions

Responding to writing is something I know a thing or two about. During my years as a teacher, I conferred thousands of times with young writers about their work. I taught workshops for teachers about how to teach young writers, and I contributed to books about running Writing Workshops in elementary school classrooms. Plus, I have my own experience as a writer of stories for children, giving and receiving feedback in critique groups. With all of this in mind, I’ve started a list of some of the most helpful questions (and comments) a writing partner can contribute. These are the questions that can crack open a story and give it room to grow.

  • “I’m not clear what’s happening in this part.” Almost always, when someone says this to me in a critique, it’s about a part of my story in which even I am not clear about what’s happening. One of the most helpful things a critique partner can do is shine a light on a part that the writer wishes could be left alone, in the dark (because it’s so much easier that way!). These are the parts that the writer doesn’t know what to do with, and that’s why the light is so important.
  • “What does the character want?” All the beautiful prose in the world will not save your story if the character is not searching for something, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, a priceless work of art, comfort, or all of the above. The character has to want something.
  • Note whether there is balance between the action, the backstory, the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the setting. Often writers are really good at some of these things, but completely forget about the others. For example, I tend to write stories that start off with some action and lots and lots of dialogue. I need a critique partner to remind me to locate the characters in a specific place, and to give a little backstory.
  • “The character(s) isn’t consistent across the story.” If the character is super shy for the first half of the story, and then suddenly turns into a social butterfly, it won’t sit well with the reader unless there is a good reason for the change. The story I’m working on now has a character who flies into a rage quite frequently during the first chapter. Then, in the second and third chapter, she becomes very easily placated. Since I’m still at the beginning of my writing process, I’m still casting around for the shape of her personality. It was good to hear that feedback during my critique so that I can keep that in mind going forward. By the way, secondary characters should also feel like real people who behave with consistency.
  • “The metaphors aren’t working.” A reader will likely lose interest if your metaphors are forced, or don’t match your story’s tone. The language in general should match the story’s tone and subject. Your language creates atmosphere and setting for the book, and gives the reader countless clues about the book’s meaning.
  • “This scene isn’t carrying its weight.” If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, or contain a significant revelation or reversal, cut it out. Or, if it’s a great scene with a great setting and it’s important for another reason, make it count by adding a transformation or reversal.
  • “What are the subplots (or what are they going to be)?” I’m still mastering the fine art of the subplot. What I do know is that they are the harmony to the main plot’s melody. They are absolutely necessary for your story to be complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. (On the other hand, your critique partner might point out that there are too many subplots, and it’s making your story overly complicated.)
  • “Have you considered reading your dialogue out loud?” In my writing workshop yesterday, one member suggested to another that he read his dialogue out loud, to hear the spoken language. This is something that I’ve heard from several other authors, and that I’ve tried myself. It’s a powerful revision tool, and not just with the dialogue parts.
  • “Do you think you could start the story any later?” The story should start as close to the action (inciting event) as possible, especially for anyone writing a book for children. Too much backstory up front can kill a story’s momentum. One can always weave in backstory later, but, as a rule of thumb, you actually need much less than you think.
  • Turn any of the above critiques around to make a compliment! Writers need praise, and lots of it! Praise – the honest variety, please – encourages us to keep going, and it also shows us what is working. Sometimes this is the best feedback of all. If a writer knows what is working, she can use that awareness to fix up another part that isn’t looking so hot. So, by all means, if the dialogue sounds natural and the metaphors are hauntingly beautiful, and the character is rich and consistent, do not leave that out. It’s almost hard to give too much praise.

Another thing that I often include in critiques (because a critique partner once said this to me, and it was so lovely) is: “Your book reminds me of [title of a wonderful book that is similar in tone or subject to the manuscript at hand].” An unpublished writer is usually hoping to one day be published, and it does feel ever so nice to have one’s work compared to a book that is already out in the world, occupying shelves in books and libraries. It’s a reminder that all books start out as nothing more than a bundle of marked up pages.

Begin Again (Again)

So, here I am. Beginning again (again) on this blog. Beginning again (again) a new book. The draft of my YA novel, along with all the notes and scribbles and doodles, is tucked away in a basket under my desk. It feels good to get away from it, as I’m sure it will feel exciting to get back to it in a few months, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes.

Even though the novel is not in its final stage, the draft is done. Done. Finishing a project has never been my strong suit, and I couldn’t be happier that I reached that goal. I’d rather finish something terrible than write something mediocre or even great that languishes, unfinished, in a notebook or a laptop.

One way I’m forcing myself to finish work is by forcing myself to share it, by submitting short works of fiction at least once every quarter. In the first quarter of this year, I submitted two pieces, both to print publications. There are also some amazing online fiction journals that I’ve been reading. I’d never realized before how much quality work is being printed exclusively online! It’s inspiring and humbling. If you’re interested in reading and writing fiction, here’s a list of some of the best sites for reading and submitting.

Finishing work, sharing work, submitting work. Beginning work. That’s the kind of writer I hope to be going forward. The kind that begins again, and again, and again.

Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.

The Transplant

When I see my new house in Portland for the first time, it’s something I’ve only heard about, and viewed through pictures. It’s a familiar stranger, a storybook character come to life. My eye looks for and finds little things that are amiss, not how I imagined. For one thing, the temperature is chilly, until the heat kicks in and blows hot dry wind into my face, drying my skin and leaving my throat parched. The paint on the walls is erratic, with scuffs and mismatched colors. The electrical system is nothing short of bizarre. Lights that should all be controlled by the same switch, or, at least, by switches on the same plate, are instead controlled by switches located on opposite sides of a room. Half of the switches in the house are an old-fashioned push button style that I’ve never seen before, and the fact that each room has at least twenty outlets raises my suspicions about previous activities on these premises.

If it was just me here, I’d spend as little time as possible in this empty, depressing house, where there is not so much as a single comfortable seat in which to rest. I’d figure out the bus system, not caring how long it took, as long as I could read a book or look out the window to get familiar with the neighborhoods in my new city. But it’s not just me. There are two little ones, and the baby is waking me up at four a.m. because his strict bio-rhythm (a drill sergeant!) dictates that, despite the pitch black, this is definitely the time to rise. The rest of the day, we are all wrecked, but at least the baby goes down for naps. During these naps, Thing One and I knock around the bare, echo-y walls looking for something to do. We try to make the place a little homier. We hang Christmas lights from the porch, but I’ve never done this before and so I don’t quite have the knack. What looks inviting and warm on our neighbors’ porches looks bedraggled on ours. We make paper snowflakes and a gingerbread house. All of this is more exhausting than satisfying, but, still. It’s done.

Having heard the tales, I ready myself for the onslaught of neighbors. They will come, I’m sure, bearing casseroles and cookies. Their children will clamor for play dates with mine, and we’ll be forced to initiate the rite of suburban basement play dates. Though the intrusions will border on annoying, we’ll be glad to connect with the people around us. We will be rescued from our solitude.

As hours and then days pass, we wonder, where is everyone? Winnie wonders the same thing, aloud, and repeatedly. In Brooklyn, we had a dozen casual encounters each day, with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whom we just happened to meet on the stoop or on the street. Here the homes look vacant, except for those movie-set-perfect lights on the porches. Days go by in which we see not a soul.

I feel like a heart that’s been transplanted to a new, foreign body. Everything about the place is strange, from the smell of the air to the cadence of the speech. At first, I feel like this new place is rejecting me. Then, little by little, glimmers of welcome shine. Strangers surprise me with their helpfulness. One, then two, neighbors knock on the door. There aren’t casseroles, but there are donuts and chocolate wine. An acquaintance makes wonderful efforts to connect, and quickly starts to becomes a friend. It’s the few people who make the most difference.

This body is not as inhospitable as I once thought, but if this transplant is to be successful, I will have to make my own adaptations. I’ll have to forge my own connections, and adjust my own rhythm. I’ll have to come out of my new, imperfect home rather than sitting inside and waiting for the knocks on my door.

I plan to make my own cookies and casseroles, and invite my neighbors to share them with me. I’ll do it, I swear. Just as soon as it stops raining.