Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"That's what happens when an English teacher has you reading Hamlet for four months. I kid you not. Four months."

Once upon a time, when I was a snarky high school student--long before I became a snarky adult--I used to think that what my English teachers told me was pure myth. They used to say that all that symbolism, the rich metaphors, the characterization in the works they fed to us was written like that on purpose.

I disagreed. I mean, yeah, sure it took a few drafts to get something like that and a lot of thought and some planning, but did Salinger seriously sit there for hours and hours just to plan that Holden Caulfield's hunting cap was symbolic of his hunt for...whatever?

I thought this because a) I was, as I mentioned, a snarky teenager and b) no matter how much I planned something I felt the urge to write out beforehand, it was only later on that I saw the clever turns of phrase or good dialogue. Surely, I thought, it's impossible to plan every little bit of your piece and some things just come about by accident.

I still think that my English teachers were overzealously reading into the works they taught. It's the reason why I didn't (ironically) like literature classes much, even in college. Once a professor wants to dig into Coleridge's motivations, you really ought to put the brakes on the whole interpretive thing. Just give me some context, help with the obscure references, help me figure out what the bloody thing could mean or why it was written, and then give me the essay question. Thus was my attitude.

That's what happens when an English teacher has you reading Hamlet for four months. I kid you not. Four months.

Now, no doubt, Shakespeare took a lot of craft and care with his works. You don't get verse without drafting the verse to see if it works. I imagine that his dialogue would be fine-tuned as the players rehearsed.

To be honest, of all the Shakespeare I was force-fed in high school, I actually found Hamlet the easiest to simply read and understand. It had nothing to do with having to deal with it for my last semester in high school either. My teacher asked some question while we were in the first act and I was able to answer it easily. Five acts, I thought. Maybe five weeks, then we'll move on to something else...

 But that's Shakespeare. I certainly didn't sit there back then and plot with any real serious care. I was kind of a pantser, a seat-of-the-pants writer, who let whatever roll out as I wrote roll out and then discovered, later on, that were some goods bit buried among the usually unfinished work.

In college, I tried to purposely write a certain way; maybe this setting symbolized the character's inner struggle. Or maybe this object was imbued with the character's longing. Then I went with what my fourth grade teacher called the "Sloppy Copy." Sloppy copy was her term for the first draft, when you were supposed to take whatever you'd brainstormed in step 1 of the writing process and then just write whatever came out.

Neither of these methods worked for me in college. The purposeful symbolism, for instance, felt insanely forced, as it did the intentional heavy-hitting plot in one short story that went nowhere. And the purge-and-dump, sloppy method resulted in a lot of irrelevant crap.

When I began this blog, I was determined to finally write a book. I'd been talking about it long enough, I had the time, I had an idea. And it rolled out a little bit pantser-style, though there was a theme I wanted to explore and I had the characters in mind and there were a few other pieces that were very specific and intentional.

But for the most part, the things that came out of the writing felt natural to the character and the plot. That was what I was happy with.

I was writing last night and feeling quite pleased at how my protagonist was finally meeting a character who would grow to play a major part in his life. He's also grappling with a new problem, one which came out of some research I did into the year the story is set in, and I thought, "Oh! I actually planned characters and a conflict and look what the research did to make this feel more realistic!"

To that end, I feel like I can still be a bit snarky toward my old English teachers--who, after all, were really there to teach us how to write a coherent enough essay to pass the New York State Regents' Exam.

 A great deal of a book can be planned. Eventually, the language and word choice will get crafted and shaped and become intentional, as the English teachers used to argue. I'm not quite there yet in my evolving process though; my second drafts, so far, still circle around bigger issues. You know, like endings that trail off, plots that make no sense and unlikeable characters. That sort of thing.

But I will also argue that there is still much that just appears on the page as one writes. At the best of times, it feels as if the words are being channeled from somewhere.

So I guess my writing process--to a second draft level, anyway--is part outlined, character sketch, historical research (the deliberate) and the other part is simply whatever comes out of the situation or the people you created (the inspired).

-What kind of lies did your English teachers tell you?
-Do you have a specific method for writing or studying or taking notes, for instance? How did you learn that method?
-Did you have to read Hamlet for four months?

Leave a comment below.

Edited to add: 

A little contribution from a reader:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"What exactly does he do?"

When my friends settled with some popcorn and Downton Abbey a few weeks ago, it was the first time one of them had seen it and I could tell that while she wanted to see it, she wasn't wildly enthusiastic about it. But as my friend got into the plot and characters, she asked that vital question, when realizing that your historical English nobles seem to have a lot of land, big houses, and lots of time on their hands---

"What exactly does he do?"

"He manages his estate."

"Yeah, but what does he do?"

It's question I found myself asking quite a lot of, when I read Regency-set romance after Regency romance because these lords, they sure had an awful lot of time to be worrying over their future wives. Some of them actually did manage their lands--they would sign and read papers, talk to their stewards, visit their tenants, or talk about being in the House of Lords in Parliament. A few books would manage to convey the power the upper echelons had, whether it was influence in government or influence socially or diplomatically.

Now, Downton is set about a hundred years after the Regency, but it wasn't that different for those kinds of people. They still had land and titles and servants. It was a mark of the very rich that they didn't really do anything--as in make a living. The aristocracy didn't work. Often, the younger sons of a family would go out and earn their living (in the military, the navy, the church or they became MPs or trial lawyers), but that was because they didn't get the title or the money or the land.

This is why the heir to the title in Downton, Matthew, a lawyer, is considered very middle class. He works for a living. His father, a doctor, worked for a living, too, it seems.

I gave this question to a character in my book: Miles's old friend and employee, Anthony Hinshaw, is an American Quaker. He's currently visiting Miles in England. Now, Anthony is a wise man and understands that Miles must, to a certain extent, integrate into the local gentry society of his new home village, not only for himself, but especially for his young daughters. But Anthony is a sea captain, likely the son of a middle class Quaker shopkeeper, and doesn't understand the English aristocratic lifestyle.

So he asks Miles, as they ride through the village to Lord Banston's estate, "What exactly do they do all day?"

Miles explains.

Hinshaw replies: "What a wasteful lot."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Coming Off a Mini-Block

I've coming off of approximately a week, maybe more, where I just couldn't put a word down. It's been a long time since I've had any kind of writer's block problem. I would sit and type a line here, delete a line I hated there, but couldn't get into the story or the characters and would go and read Downton Abbey fanfiction instead.

I felt unmotivated and a bit bored with the story, too. And I couldn't seem to come up with anything to jog a blog post out of me. Part of this lack of motivation stems from the lovely autumn allergies I've been encountering as we head toward the official start of fall, part from scheduling at work, and the rest of it was just disinterest.

I managed to write a whole page last night, though, so I guess I'm coming through this mini-block.

I introduced a new character who grows in importance as we go on. Introducing new characters are always amazing ways of getting more words out.

I have Miles, the father, concerned about his daughters' recent encounter in Bristol with a snobby bigot as well as the corn crop failing because it's too rainy.

And I'm thinking about this year's NaNoWriMo and whether or not to break one of the rules of NaNo (don't write existing pieces of novels you've already written) and use November to finish this draft. Will have to think about it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01

I wasn't going to write anything about September 11, 2001 on this blog. But it being the tenth anniversary and being a New Yorker, it's not a date that is easily ignored. It's a watershed date for my childhood, one of those dates where there was a clear difference between the before and the after. If one was writing a novel, it would be the moment that the story turns.

Ten years ago, I was 15 years old. I was in the car with my mother, who was driving me to school early because I had to change my schedule. We were listening to Z100, as we did most mornings, when one of the DJs suddenly said, "Hey, I think I saw a plane go into the World Trade Center."

Mom and I thought it was a joke. I got to school, couldn't get my schedule changed that day, and since there were a few periods between my actual school day beginning, Mom took me home for a little bit. I turned on the TV. Only CBS came in and they were already on news coverage about the plane that had flown into the Tower One.

Then my school day began and it was surreal. I don't remember learning much that day, only the confusion and suppressed panic that permeated the air as each shift of kids came in, bringing more news. The other tower had been hit, too. There was a hijacked plane heading toward the Pentagon or the White House or the Capitol.

It was in ninth period World History that our teacher set the record straight for us. By that time, the towers had fallen down. All flights had been grounded. "So why am I hearing planes?" One boy asked.

"Those are fighter jets." They were even flying over Queens, over our high school. I felt profoundly unsafe, in a way I never did before or since, because even then, our government didn't know what would happen next. The subway into and out of Manhattan was canceled. My father's office building was evacuated. My cousin had to walk home to Queens. In Chicago, another cousin was turning 9.

When I got home, I finally saw the footage of the towers coming down. I couldn't believe it; it seemed like a special effect in a disaster movie. Because the TV transmitters had gone down with the towers, my house only had one channel for the next few months. And they always talked about 9/11. Always. That footage of the plane flying into the tower and bursting into flames is one that I can never forget.

I avoid 9/11 coverage on TV around anniversary time. I don't need that to remember and I don't really like to dwell on it. Only months later, our country went to war--a war we're still fighting--and my view of my country changed forever.

The scale of what happened is still incomprehensible to me. I watched a few minutes of the reading of the names and the moments of silence this morning. I thought about what I was doing on the day and how much had changed, how much had remained the same.

I took this grainy shot of a table at work, in the mall today. It's a table with LED candles and American flags, surrounded by photos of the carnage of that day.

I heard a little girl ask her mother as they passed by, "What's that for?"

Her mother said, "For the people who died. Ten years ago."

The girl looked about 8 years old.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Childhood Games; or, Writing Out Loud

I spent the Labor Day weekend with my family and more specifically, my nieces, who are 3 and 1. The 1-year-old is doing the usual 1-year-old thing of toddling around, eating everything, grinning, and drooling. The 3-year-old wanted to show off her Halloween costume (Princess Tiana, if you're interested), then played on the playset outside loudly and very imaginatively.

She said it was a spaceship. They were flying through space to Planet Monster. Her engine was dying, it had bugs in it.  Hysterical, and some proof to me that children born in this very digitized age do still have imaginations.

I spent my childhood doing the same thing--and really, what is it but telling ourselves a story, making it up and acting it out? It's writing, but in acting form.

I still do this, to some degree, because I have a habit of talking to myself. I think it's an only child thing. I'll talk out dialogue or do both sides of a conversation (with myself, granted, but it's in character, dammit!). In order to "project" the character outside of my head, I used to talk to the air beside me, as if the person I was writing about was sitting there and I was merely recording what they were telling me. But really, that kind of thing starts to border on the insane after a while and when your mother asks you a few times, "Oh, who were you on the phone with?" it starts to get awkward.

When I was a tween, my best friend and I spent hours on the phone with our secret game. I guess it was role playing, basically. We each had characters we'd made up, with families and spouses and milestones. Being somewhat self-important--and because we had terrible memories--we started to write down the backstories we'd made up, each more twisted than the next. And we'd play our game, describing where we were, which characters were there, what they were doing, what they said.

No wonder I wanted to be a writer. Also, now, it sounds like a great way to brainstorm. Or a great way to write a play.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

How women inherited in the olden days

This post was inspired by this one: Heroines in an era lacking women's rights

In Pride and Prejudice, the reason the five Bennet daughters must be married is because there is an entail on their father's property, they will not be able to inherit it, and without a marriage and a husband, they will be dependent on their father's heir.

That, in summary, is how we think of nineteenth century women. They were under the control of their fathers and then their husbands. They could not own property, did not seem to inherit it much, could not vote or work, and were constantly pregnant.

If a woman remained single (as Jane Austen did), she could run the land she inherited (if she inherited any) and keep her own earnings and inheritance. When the woman married, she ceased to be her own person. Beforehand, however, if she had conscientious parents, guardians or lawyers, a marriage settlement could be drawn up to ensure that whatever she brought into the marriage would pass to her children, for example, or that if her husband died first, there were provisions made for his wife and children's care.

A widow could inherit property and money from her husband and administer it. If she remarried, however, all of that would be controlled by her new husband. And if the husband stipulated in his will that his wife was not to have custody of their children, then so be it. A woman did not have a legal claim on her own children in those days.

If you've ever seen the movie Duchess starring Keira Knightley, you know that this applied even to a powerful woman like the Duchess of Devonshire--her husband threatened to take away their children and not let her see them (which he could) if she didn't break off her affair with Charles Grey.

What often confused me is this thing called an entail. It's a legal term that I have come across in many a Regency-set book. It's an obscure estate law thing and only applies to the upper middle class and upper classes.

To use Downton Abbey as an example. The Earl of Grantham likely owns many estates. His largest is Downton Abbey. When the Grantham title was created, it was specified to be inherited by heirs males, so none of his daughters can inherit the title. But can they inherit the estate, in addition to the money they are guaranteed under Lady Grantham's marriage settlements? The estate is entailed.

Entailment is when a property cannot be sold, willed or messed with by the owner and automatically passes to the next male in line. It's meant to keep the land in the family. For a titled lord, the estate was supposed to pass to his heir to provide them with not only a place to live but an income to support the way of life they felt a title would require.

The Bennets are not titled, but their estate is entailed. Entailments are binding: sometimes they are made in the creation of a title or an estate or in wills, but they are damn hard to break. In Downton, it's mentioned that to break the entail would mean an Act in Parliament.

How This Relates to the Keegans
When I first became acquainted with my characters, the Keegan family, I had to imagine what sort of inheritance Alexandra and Madeline Keegan would get. Alexandra is illegitimate. That carried a stigma. The good thing is, Alex is raised by her wealthy father, who acknowledges her as his own and raises her. However, illegitimate children did not inherit unless they were specifically specified in wills.

Miles Keegan builds up a large shipping company. He is wealthy, owns an estate, owns a townhouse and several ships. He has investments. Once I realized that not all English estates were entailed, then I figured that since Miles is buying a place for himself to settle, he could leave the place to whoever he wants to and we can ignore entails.

From what I've researched, it seems that one son could supersede daughters. So, if Miles had a son, the son would inherit the estate and the girls would get money and personal possessions. So, no son. Daughters often inherited land together. So Mady and Alex and their younger sister and stepsister would inherit the estate together, but the money they inherit would have to specified (in Alex's case). With the amount of wealth I want them to have, the girls have lawyers and trustees looking after the money and looking closely at their future husbands.

I imagine that Lord Banston, their guardian, would be pretty strict about their marriage settlements and how much remained under the girls' control. If the girls are still unmarried at age 21 (age of majority), then I wanted Alex and Mady to gain control of a portion of their inheritance; the rest of it will be saved for investments, provisions for widowhood and children, and their annual income.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


An interesting post from the blog of the Office of Letters and Light, the lovely people who brought the motivation and madness of NaNoWriMo into our lives. The post is called "What Do You 'Do' To Your Books?"

Books are physical objects. You can curl up with them (as I do), smell the new-book (or musty old book) smell. You can takes notes and highlight and underline in them. You can pass them along to others. You can dog ear them. You can stick stickies in them.

And, in the meantime, you can be educated, informed, empowered, entertained and gain insight, wisdom and quiet.

It's that relationship with a book as an object that cannot be replaced by an e-reader. Yeah, the content might all be there, but it's not the same experience.

I, for example, never used to write in my books. I wanted my books to remain pristine. Sometimes I used bookmarks, but I usually just bent the top corner of the page I was on. Still do. It's fun to re-read something and see that some pages have worn corners or that the spine is definitely well-cracked.

In high school, I finally encountered books that I loved so much that I HAD TO underline certain lines or passages because of their brilliance. I don't underline much and I only ever seem to do it in paperbacks (perhaps because hardcovers are expensive) of books that I know I'm going to read a few times over and over.

The lines that I underline are random and scattered. It's a manifestation of the personal relationship with a story and with characters; those lines or passages meant something to me at a particular time or struck me as elegant or made me see something in a different way. Or it was put so well that I wanted to be able to find it again.

Yeah, highlighting would fulfill that function, too. But highlighting is so ingrained in my mind with college and academia that I would rather just lightly underline something in pencil and mull the line over as I read.

For example, these are some lines I underlined in my very well-read copy of Atonement by Ian McEwan:

And Cecilia would not speak to him or look at him. Even that would be better than lying here groaning. No, it wouldn't. It would be worse, but he still wanted it. He had to have it. He wanted it to be worse.

Her worries did not disappear, but slipped back, their emotional power temporarily exhausted.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?

Do you underline, highlight, tag, take notes in your books? Has the relationship one can have with a paperback translated over to reading on an e-reader or not?