09 December 2011

Critique Groups-Part II: My Tribe and Our History & Process

Ahoy, revelers!
            I’m sure the holiday feasting and partying has begun.
            Mighty thanks to everyone who commented on the last post about my critique- group misadventures. Seems I struck a nerve. Your stories made me slightly seasick with their storminess!
            But take heart. This post, my friends, is the antidote to queasy critique stomachs.
            Before I launch into the when, what, why and how, let me thank my critique group, Lit Chix, for giving me permission to post actual pages of critiqued work, mine and theirs. Some of you will enlarge and read the pages. I expect the curious to do that. It will also show you our process.
            And for this post, I dispense with my usual pirate chatter. The subject warrants it. Aie.
A Short Lit Chix History
            We first formed in 2003. (Thank you, Chris for being our historian and hostess!) How did we find each other? Two members were already meeting to share their writing. Patsy Hand, my co-coordinator for Mid-Valley Willamette Writers Speakers Series, and I were invited to join because we knew one of the women. Our fifth member came on board via another writers group. (Writing organizations, networking, attending writing gigs: that’s how you meet other writers.) The five of us wrote fiction and one wrote screenplays. After two of our members left, we focused on our novels, although we also write and critique short stories, memoir, and recently a web site bio. Even though I write poetry, I wouldn’t bring it to the group. And personally, I don’t think I did justice to the screenplay form because I didn’t know it. I did, however, study screenwriting on my own to be better informed for the feedback I gave.
            PatsyHand (who is also a fabulous artist), Chris Scofield, and I formed a triangle of bonhomie and solid work. We’ve all published short work. I’ve had two agents in that time and am currently with the Zimmermann Agency, a boutique agency out of New York. Helen tried valiantly to sell my last novel, which I’ll rework after I finish my current work in progress (WIP). Patsy already has agents interested in her new novel and is putting a final polish on it. And this year, the prestigious literary agency of Donadio & Olson chose to rep Chris and her novel Shark Curtain. Her agent, Carrie Howland, has the manuscript out with NY editors. 
How I track my chapters with the group

The Name
            “Lit Chix” was our way of poking fun at ourselves and an industry that created the Chick Lit category.
            I turned Chick Lit around to Lit Chix because I thought our group was “lit” in so many ways—shining with literary madness, lit as in too many cosmos, lit with excitement, lit as in “our day in the sun will come.” Okay, well, maybe I riffed a little too much on our chosen name, but I remember when Chick Lit was first used as a title to a book on post-feminist writings. Check out the fascinating history of Chick Lit on Wiki.
            (I, of course, wonder why not “dude lit” for the male category of “searching for meaning in a wastrel world” or “dick lit” for all the testosterone-driven suspense novels featuring crime-solving uber-males? Don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’m not bashing them. I’m just asking the publishing industry, you know?)
Chick Lit
The Stuff You’ve Been Waiting For
            Let’s jump to what I think makes our group work.
            1) Respect:  we don’t attack the work, the person, or the person’s ideology in the work; as different as we all are, we do, however, have common ethical, spiritual and political beliefs and this makes a huge difference.
            2) Humor: if writers can’t laugh at themselves or the world, we’re screwed; I’m sure writers endure a similar level of physical and emotional risk and stress equal to firefighters and police; we do, however, get to endure it in our pajamas.
            3) Chemistry: yes, this is a major component of our success. Like finding a marriage/life partner, a group needs “chemistry,” whatever that is. We like each other. We love each other. We have come to a point where we can’t imagine not being in one another’s life.
            4) Commitment: we, as my dear friend Jessica Maxwell says about successful people, “suit up and show up.” No excuses. Only birth and death seem to keep up from meeting. We come prepared.
            5) Equal Level of Craft: we are at similar levels of development as far as craft, knowledge and the definition-elusive “talent.” We are obsessive students of the writing craft. We spent one day at Patsy’s house watching, then discussing, Michael Hogue’s five-hour DVD on writing screenplays in order to understand the screenplay three-act structure, helpful in writing novels. We watch movies at our writing retreat, such as Glengarry Glen Ross, to dissect what makes the dialogue work so brilliantly.

Our Process
            Writing groups have many ways to critique the work. Ours works for us and isn’t the only model. But we do have our reasons for doing it this way.
            We meet twice a month on Tuesdays at Chris Scofield’s house. We decided early on that meeting at someone’s house works better as we won’t disturb anyone else, don’t need to find parking, can bring our own food (as sometimes our meetings go for 4-5 hours.)
            We either send by email or give our chapters to each other before the meeting. We don’t read out loud. We read like readers would. We put all our comments on the page and a summation at the top of the first page. Chris is a master at using different colored pens for different reasons (she says this comes from working with school kids), and I liked this so much, I adopted her method. We first write what we love about the work, what worked specifically, and then follow up with what didn’t work. We don’t cover line editing or small suggestions in group, just on the page.

Chris's notes on my problematic pages

            When we first sit down at ten o’clock, we catch up with what we’ve been doing and where we’re at with the work. We then schedule our meetings to get them on the calendar, especially tricky around the holidays. If there’s a writing event we want to attend together, such as Wordstock, we talk about it and assign tasks. We plan ahead to arrange writing retreats together at Oregon Writers Colony’s Colonyhouse. We also discuss any marketing we’re doing or what we need to do to get our names out there, such as social networking. As an added bonus, Chris always gives Patsy and me newspaper and magazine clippings on subjects she thinks we’re interested in.
            And, yes, we do talk about personal situations. When it affects us, it affects our writing, and we give each other support and sometimes advice, but we don’t let this take over our meetings because we love talking about the work.
Patsy's notes on my pages
            Our critique process starts with someone saying, “Let’s look at ___’s chapter.” No hierarchy. More like what chapter is pulled from someone’s folder first.
            We have no set rules for what happens next. It generally goes like this:
            1) The writer listens to the other two give feedback in whatever organic way that happens. Kudos first. Show a page with lots of positives—stars (Chris), cross marks (Patsy), check marks (Val). Someone then starts the discussion of what needs work or what isn’t working. When this is a common problem, a discussion ensues. The critiqued writer can join in, but defensiveness isn’t allowed. Questions are encouraged.
            Usually this process resembles more of a brainstorming session of how to work out the problem. Sometimes it feels brutal at the time because it can be a large problem that seems insurmountable. But we all know that this goes away after we go home, re-read the comments and notes from the meeting, and then sit with it for a while. It’s just all part of the process. We know this. Writing can be frustrating to the point of tears. We’ve all felt one of the following many times over:
            What if we screw it up so badly, we can’t turn it around?
            What if we’ve written pure crap?
            What if I can’t pull this off?
            What do I do with the comments and how do I fix it?

            If we’re doing our job in group, these questions rarely come up because we’ve not only talked about what doesn’t work, we’ve discussed why it doesn’t work, what the issue is (needing a deeper emotional understanding of the characters, ordering of information, too much narrative [telling] and not enough scene [showing], too many side trips, lack of conflict/story arc, etc.), and what could solve the problem.
What I live for! A note from Chris.
            For example, last week, we discussed a problem in the last chapter of my novel. Something was missing, a deeper note that would heighten the ending without making it sentimental or too finalized. We brainstormed. When I lit up with an idea and threw it out, Chris and Patsy pulled back, tilted their heads together, and rolled their eyes. Their mannerisms are so different that when they did this Tweedle-dum/Tweedle-dee move, I said, “I guess that’s a big no, right?” We laughed so hard that we almost cried. We continued batting ideas around until Chris came up with a brilliant idea that, at first, she thought wouldn’t fly. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed perfect. And it still does.
Notes I made on Chris's short story
Notes I made on Chris's novel

More of my notes on her novel
            This to me is the crucial element missing with many groups. I’ve found people have a good compass as to elements that don’t work, but few have the knowledge, understanding, patience and intuition of a good editor. I make this example: it’s easy to tear down a decrepit building; it’s another thing to build a new one. In our group, the crucial element is brainstorming and problem solving.

            I’m sure I’m missing a few points I intended to make, but this is our general process.
            An alternative for those who can’t find writers in their area:
            I also work with a dear Seattle friend, Randy Sue Coburn, over the phone, reading chapters with each other. For example, when we’re working on a chapter, she reads a paragraph, then I read the next. This has the effect of reading work aloud, while dialogue passages come alive with two different voices for the characters. Clunkers are instantly recognized. This process does something that doesn’t happen in LitChix—gives immediacy and doesn’t require all that prep time.
            One last comment:  LitChix is not accepting any new members. We also agreed that, if we were to open to new members, that would not include men as we all write primarily for women readers.
            I’d love to hear from you. What works for your group? What methods do you use successfully? Let’s hear your positive stories of critique groups. Any ideas for those looking for a group? If you email me, I'll post your comment to the blog if you're having trouble using the comment section.

I leave you with this:
            I’m reading We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For those who always dreamed of attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, this is the next best thing to being there. I learned of this book from Diane Prokop on her blog where she reviews books. I will be featuring an interview with her in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

            Aie, we’re a good lot, we writers! Stay true!
            Captain Val

Coming Up!
End of Year Celebration with Jan Eliot: Always Reward Yourself
2012 New Year’s Goals
Interview with book reviewer Diane Prokop
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World

27 November 2011

Critique Groups—the Messy Map to Finding Mine (Part 1)

“Literature is not a game for the cloistered elect. Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed.”
--John Steinbeck on accepting the Pulitzer for "Grapes of Wrath," 1940


Ahoy, mates!
            Aie, I’m back. My apologies for neglecting you. When I’m lost in the writing, I tend to disappear. But I’m thankful for being bailed out by my muse, Sparrow. I do, however, have a bone to pick with her about what she dished. (Revenge? Really, Sparrow? Did you have to tell them about that?)
            Cheeky muse.
            Alas, since her entry in my log, my bloody parrot, one of my deckhands, and even the damned cook want equal time. Blow me down! Not bloody likely!
            Sparrow, however, did such a fine job you can expect to hear from her again. To dish a little on her, here’s Sparrow writing the last log, banging away on my typewriter. Har-har!
            This week, I’m taking you inside the world of writing groups (or critique groups, if yer so inclined).
            Writin’ groups use different methods to critique each other’s work, but their function remains the same and is well explained in Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers: 
Helpful, supportive, intelligently stringent workshops and writers’ groups allow writers to make quantum leaps in their writing.
Workshops, sometimes painful, often criticized, and full of pitfalls, are still the best way we know for writers to improve.

            So before I introduce you to my blasted beautiful writing group in next week’s log, I must tell you about my first attempts at discovering a working, compatible group of people to trust with my writing, trust being the operative word here.
            I tell these tales with two goals in mind: 1) as cautionary tales for those about to embark on a quest for their group, and 2) as encouragement for those seeking like minds, good hearts, knowledge of the craft, and critical thinking skills. Writers must sail through some wicked seas to find their mates. But keep exploring because you won’t find what you need unless you take risks. Don’t, however, stick around if the group has problems as you’ll see in the following tales.
            I was first initiated into “work-shopping” fiction while attendin’ the UO in 1991. Aie, I’m tough, maties. Not much can turn me into gull food, but bein’ my first venture out, this came close. In my advanced fiction course, we shared our writing and responded in a round-table method. The writer wasn’t allowed to respond as he or she listened to each student’s response to the work, and that was before the instructor gave her feedback.
            Unfortunately, our workshop turned into more of a verbal fight club, and I tried to justify this method in my mind, remembering an art teacher who used to deliver scathing criticism because he believed it was better that the student found out right away if they had the guts and backbone to survive in the real art world.
             When my turn arrived, I was happy to hear a number of the female students respond well to the strong women in my story. The story had its problems, but these were pointed out as being problems with ordering of information and need for character development. I felt the suggestions were thoughtful and non judgmental.
            Then it reached a young man who had been whispering with two other male students. The young man said he didn’t like the story. When the instructor asked for specific reasons why, he said, “The men in her story are emotional doormats.” This drew laughter from his buddies and heated response from some of the women. I tried to keep my gob shut while the discussion deteriorated and the instructor called a halt to the mêlée.
            The point here is that in workshop you don’t personalize the work. You talk about what works and doesn’t work for you and why. If the male characters didn’t work for this young man, he should have offered feedback perhaps about the male characters not being well rounded enough or needing something to make them sympathetic. Readers don’t need to like a character, but they do need some understanding of why the character acts the way he does. If the young man had asked, “Is there a reason that the main female character is attracted to weaker men?” then I would have understood that my male character came across as weak instead of understanding and patient. Or maybe those stories weren’t going to ever be acceptable to twenty-something males. The author has to be the ultimate judge.
            After attending a year at the UO, I needed real world experience. Through a writer friend, I was referred as a possible member to a working writers group.
            Call me naïve. I didn’t ask enough questions about this group, and this group sank in my hopes like Davy Jones locker!
             In the first few minutes with this five-member writing group, I knew I was sorely out of place. We met at one of the member’s house, and within minutes I wanted to make a straight shot for the door. The head of the group sat down and without introducing me, started facilitating as she were heading a board meeting of a giant company. Everyone took out their pages. I’d brought a short story to read as instructed. Their method:  read to the group and the group responds. I gave no feedback after two members took their turn, feeling it best to listen and observe. I was picking up an uncomfortable energy, one that said the facilitator would have the last word. I also noticed that everyone’s stories were “nice.” There were also occasional mentions of god with a big G. When the third person was asked to read, I felt very tender toward her. Twenty-something, excited, yet tentative, the woman read her story and when finished, everyone gave their feedback. When I didn’t say anything, she asked what I thought. I told her how well drawn and sympathetic the characters were, how the dilemma of the main female character came across immediately, and said she had a good grasp of storytelling. That the story was rather “light” seemed to be her style, so I let that go. It was, naturally, my first response and my first meeting. Then I asked, “When your main character meets her fiancé in the airport, do you think that he should talk to her out in the open about safe sex or could this wait until they’re in a more private—”
            “I think she’s done an excellent job of introducing safe sex into the story,” the facilitator said.
            “I was just—”
            “Let’s move on.”
            And we did. To my story.
            By this time I knew I wouldn’t return to this group, but being raised to be polite and not hurt anyone’s feelings, I started reading my story.
            I was on my third page when the facilitator stopped me. “I think we’ve heard enough,” she said.
            Everyone looked aside or down while the facilitator shuffled her pages and said, “I think we have time for. …”
            I don’t remember the rest. I remember having no feedback. I remember feeling—shall I say unwelcome?
            I left thinking, Never again! I’m never joining another group.
            A few months later, I heard about a group that included a few people I knew. One of the women in the group had blown me away when at the University of Oregon I heard her read from her own work in an open forum. I thought If this woman is in this group, I’ll do anything to be part of it.
            This critique method worked better for me. We brought pages or chapters or short stories with us to the meeting, copies for everyone to take home to read for the next meeting. We could read at home, give thoughtful response and write on the pages. We were committed, serious writers who wanted to give as good as we got, and everything went along swimmingly until …
            … one of the members had a breakdown … in our workshop. For hours we stayed as she told us about her situation and cried. We made sure she was all right before going our separate ways. We called her later. The next time we met, she seemed fine until we asked her how she was doing, and she opened a side-table drawer, mimed throwing something into it, and said, “That’s where I’m keeping it.”
            It? U-oh.
            And instead of bringing writing to the group, she brought drawings. More therapy. We tried to address this (this group not having the skills vs. her being with a therapist), but she didn’t understand our problem. Instead of asking her to leave, which was problematic in so many ways, we disbanded, with hopes of reforming later, which never happened.
            To say I was gun shy after that is, well, an understatement. Sharing your work with others is a holy thing for writers. Time together is not for sharing your online dating craziness (I heard this from another group) or needing a social group of any kind. It’s commitment to the work. It takes energy void of ego. The work has often been compared to birthing babies, and once you’ve been there, you know why. What would you do if someone came up to your child and said, “Man, that kid is ugly!”
            I’ve heard almost every gruesome story there is about critique groups. While co-founder and co-coordinator of Mid-Valley Willamette Writers Speakers Series, members told me about their experiences. I could only nod and say, “Oh, yes, I understand. Completely.” One person couldn’t write for over a year after the leader did such a number on her work.
            I’m not telling you all this to scare you off. And readers, next time you’re reading a novel, look at the acknowledgment page, see who helped that author, and give thanks that they had the right people who helped them get published.
            As the authors in Deepening Fiction say, “No writer gets better without criticism.” Few can write a blockbuster without working with others to earn their chops. It's a myth that we work in isolation, bleed profusely all over our pretty white pages, possibly drink in excess, and then publish. Even Hemingway had a damned good editor and possibly would never have published without Maxwell Perkins. That’s not news.
            What’s news worthy for many is that good writers get that way because they're given good feedback, either in critique groups or via hiring an independent editor.
            Next week, I’ll take you inside my critique group and show you how we work. I’ll show you actual pages from my manuscript and what the members do that’s helpful, tell you our process, give you a few laughs, and let you sit in on one of our sessions so you can be part of it, at least as an observer. I'll tell you about other ways I share my work and why.
            And if you're looking for a group, here's a tip:  choose one where the members are better than you are, more educated, have been writing for some time. That’s the only way you’ll improve. If you want to be head honcho, that’s another story.
             What about you? Do you have stories about your critique group woes or just have some funny tale to tell? Do you have suggestions to others about what works and what doesn’t in a workshop? Share it here or send to my email above. We can all learn from each other.
            And readers? Have you always wondered about the writing process? Have a burning question to ask about any of this? Write to me. Let me know what it’s like to be a reader wondering how something escaped an editor’s eye. Have you found something in any of your recent reading that could have used a good critique group? Would love to hear from you.

            Until next time, thank you, mates, crewmembers, fans. Writers would be nothing without fellow writers and writers would be nothing without readers.
            Captain Val

Coming Up!
Inside a Writer's Critique Group-Part II
Interview with book reviewer Diane Prokop
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World

08 November 2011

A Muse Ponders Her Role & Dishes Dirt

Hello, Sparrow here,
            Sorry for taking over this week’s log, but someone had to.
            You see Captain Val—how can I say this and not be judgmental—has had a very busy week and is now at her monthly writers retreat on the Oregon coast. I even asked the Captain if she wanted me to do this, but a shrug and a mumbled reply gave me no definitive answer as she sat there overwhelmed by 244 emails, all of which I think should be deleted. But no, she’s so responsible, she had to go through all of her personal email first, then her political, followed by (discrete cough) her social networking messages. She responds to the ones she can and connects with others, establishing her “online presence” as an author and—well, truth be told—filling her natural need to connect. Fine. But I’ll wager that by the end of the week, she’ll drop a few of the groups within the different sites because, well, I’ll be frank, she’ll find some of the chit-chat unnecessary and—big roll of the eyes here—she already networks in real time and space. Of course, she has other responsibilities, and I understand, but this?
            I’m quite excited for the recent research she did for her work-in-progress (WIP in the writers world). (SHOULD be working on; get off the internet!) Oh, goddess, now she’s watching a TED video on the next-generation digital book. (Oh, my, that is interesting! Look at that. Amazing!)

            I’m sorry, again. Sigh.
            So, the research. On Friday, Captain Val visited Laura Lee at Redoux Parlour to research a local fashion design studio, interviewing Laura Lee, taking photos of the machines, the tables, the storage of thread cones, the necessities such as the industrial cutting tool that can whiz through six layers of fabric. 

Laura Lee Laroux- photo by Claire Flint
In her novel, the twenty-something daughter is a local fashion designer who is soon to head off to Paris to attend high couture school, or whatever it’s called. So I have no problem with her doing this type of work as it feeds me, too, and I fly around taking in everything Captain Val does, from the vintage clothing, to the bulletin board covered with design ideas. She may call on me when she rewrites the studio scene where all this research will land. I surely hope so.

            Oh, for heaven’s sake! Here comes that damned parrot. I cannot tell you how I would love to stuff this bird’s mouth. He sits on the Captain’s shoulder and proceeds to pontificate on so many subjects that he should be left on Fox Island where he’d either survive well or be eaten.
            Brawk, brawk, brawk. He goes on and on about how Captain Val’s novel should be more multi-layered, larger in scope, filled with more vivid details, heightened with more literary panache (he uses these words! Does he even know what he’s saying?). His own long-winded narrative spiel should disqualify him from criticizing any writer, never mind his own Captain’s. That bird is a disgrace to the bird species. Plus, he distracts her with politics and family worries, tapping into a glut of guilt that already causes the Captain misery. That psittacine needs to be put out of his misery.
What that pain-in-the-butt parrot looks like

How I see the the parrot

            I must change subjects while I sit here waiting to be called upon. (In one of the Captain’s last logs, she called me flighty and that really hurt my feelings; I am only flighty when the Captain is distracted or overloaded. Is it my fault that I desire to be working, and I’m ignored?)
            Enough of my complaints. Instead, I’ll share this bit of the Captain’s writing life. 
            In her work in progress, the two sisters have a mother we never see, but hear over the phone. (Isn’t there always a mom somewhere in a novel?) Well, just a few weeks ago, the Captain told her mother in a way of preparation that she had used details in her novel from her mother’s English background. These details are so rich and unique, I will not even divulge them here. As most writers do, they steal. Yes. Once when the Captain attended a residency at Hedgebrook Writers Colony, one of the writers, Jean Brody, told the younger women at the table, “It’s all grist for mill,” as the writers told alarming stories about themselves. Ms. Brody sat back with a knowing smile.
            Recently when the Captain and I were sailing into port, we listened to author Jeffrey Eugenides who just published the novel The Marriage Plot talk on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about where his characters come from. He said:

"I don't write characters and base them on a person. What I do when I create a character is put in details from all the details I know who might be like that person and then put in a huge amount of myself.”

             I’m not sure Captain Val would agree with that, but she does agree that the characters are always composites, that they may start out with one person in mind, but as the fictional dream is created and the character comes to life, the character takes on its own persona. Agree? What do you think?
            Oh, and I must tell you this—hush, hush—that the Captain’s new escape, something that takes her to a different world from this pirate one, is the ABC show Revenge. One of her favorite film forms is film noir, and this has so many of the elements. Or maybe it has to do with her Capricorn moon or the idea that the show’s writers were told to develop an updated Count of Monte Cristo, but she loves the high conflict and characterization and the obvious analogy to our economic times when wealthy people do anything to keep their lavish lifestyle, including, as she says, demolishing the middle class. The show, set in the Hamptons, focuses on a young woman who enacts revenge on a family who set up her father to take a fall for a crime he didn’t commit.
            Here’s the Revenge logline or summation that would be used for a pitch if trying to sell it to an agent or producer:

Revenge centers on a young woman who is welcomed into a community filled with people who don't know she's only there to exact revenge on those who had destroyed her family.

            And for those curious, here's the trailer:
            Oh, that damned parrot! He’s on a rant again. I’m done with that. Shoo, go away. Ha! I opened the door and he flew out.
            Ah, you need me? My Captain needs me. Thank goodness. I must fly now. Thank you, Gobsmacked crew, for listening.
            What? Oh, okay.
            My Captain asked me to thank all of you. She now has over one-hundred followers aboard the Gobsmacked. Delightful! What a joy! She’s thrilled. Merci beaucoup.
            Can’t wait to give her a little inspiration, because I’m good at inspiration and. … Coming!
            Good-bye, all! Until next time.
            Sincerely yours,
            Captain Val’s Muse

From IMDB Revenge page: Yes, the show is loosely based upon Alexandre Dumas' 'The Count of Monte Cristo', albeit transposed to the present day. Amanda Clarke (and her father David) stand in for Edmond Dantès; Conrad Grayson for Baron Danglars; Victoria Clarke for Madame Hermine Danglars; Frank for Lucien Debray etc.

Coming Up!
Interview with book reviewer Diane Prokop
Inside a Writer's Critique Group
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World

26 October 2011

Interview with Cartoonist Jan Eliot, Creator of "Stone Soup"

Ai, Maties!
            It’s time for you scallywags who’ve been clamoring for this interview to shut your gobs ‘cause my main mate, Jan, is here to entertain the lot of ya.
            Jan Eliot as many of ya know is the creator of the syndicated cartoon strip Stone Soup. Stone Soup appears daily in over 200 newspapers throughout the United States and in six countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. 
            Jan also happens to be me best mate. We’ve had weekly lunches for twenty-two years to sail into our respective creative waters and then land our projects. She landed on the equivalent of the New World. Do you know how many women cartoonists are working at her level? Twelve! What a buccaneer!
            Ahoy, on with the interview.

So, Jan, let’s begin with an easy one. What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
(Laughter) Unlimited airline tickets with all the time in the world to use them.

What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to travel, or not being able to travel because of deadlines looming.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Artemisia Gentileschi and her ability to break out of anonymity in a time when women painters often had their work signed by their fathers or teachers. She painted one of the most famous versions of Judith beheading Holofemes, a theme embraced by many other women painters of her time. I have been on occasion fed up with patriarchy and can identify with that. And George Eliot because she was smart and lived life on her own terms… living “in sin”, marrying someone much her junior when she was in her 60s, and writing some of the best novels in literature.

Which living person do you most admire?
Paul Farmer, a physician from Harvard who founded Partners in Health, works on world health problems and champions health care for everyone worldwide. He worked in Haiti during medical school, creating model health systems, and is now working in Rwanda.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My wishy-washy nature. Thank you Libra.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What is your greatest extravagance?
Trips to Africa! Or anywhere else in the world.

What is your favorite journey?
My trip to Africa with Ted.

On what occasion do you lie?
If I’m overwhelmed and cannot cope with any more requests or demands, I might say I’m not in town at that time or that I’m booked. Deadlines rule, and I really need time to fart around. You can’t be creative if you can’t fart around.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My neck, my double chin.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Cool. Really.

What is your greatest regret?
Through ignorance, or immaturity, or whatever, hurting the feelings of friends. Things can’t always be repaired, and that’s sad.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Ted, my husband.

When and where were you happiest?
In Africa. I feel most free, most like I’m living a life of my own choosing, when I travel.

What is your current state of mind?
Calm, amazingly calm.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
That everyone get along. Just get along.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Stone Soup, my cartoon strip, and having two smart, accomplished daughters. I can’t take credit for them, but I’m proud.

What is your most treasured possession?
My suitcase!

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not being able to travel.

What is your favorite occupation? 

What is your most marked characteristic?
I’m an extrovert.

What do you most value in your friends?
Humor, loyalty, compassion, love, intelligence.
(to the right, you can see her sense of humor; Jan sent this to me because it reminded her of me and my husband; by Dave Coverly of Speedbump  fame)

Who are your favorite writers?
Virginia Woolfe, A.S. Byatt, gosh, lots of writers. And, of course, George Eliot, my namesake.

Who are your favorite cartoonists?
Bill Waterson. Jim Borgman. Dave Coverly. Nicole Hollander. Claire Bretecher. Lynn Johnston. Victoria Roberts, a New Yorker cartoonist. Michael and Mary Leunig, brother and sister cartoonists from Australia who are not a team but cartoon separately. Michael is famous for his cartoons that run in the Melbourne Age, and his sister Mary does these dark, but extremely funny cartoons.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Anyone who serves the public. Teachers. They’re an amazing gift, and it’s an amazing feat to be a good teacher.

What is that you most dislike?

How would like to die?

If you were to die and could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
A writer or painter in 1920s Paris. Or a songwriter.

Judy Chicago in front of The Dinner Party
What is your motto?
Artist Judy Chicago’s quote: “Focus has nothing to do with limitation and everything to do with expansion.” That’s been my guiding principal in work and life; rather than limiting what you can achieve, focus makes the thing you finally choose to do so much bigger.

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have?
I’ve always wanted to be asked, “What do you think you’ll do after cartooning?” I get tired of being asked if I “think I’ll ever run out of ideas.” I don’t think I will because I have a huge cast of characters and lots of stories to tell. It’s a never-ending story. But I may not want to write that story the rest of my life. And I think there’s another life still to be lived for me. I’m tired of being asked if I’ll run out of ideas because it’s kind of like “When will you be dead?” At some time, I may decide to do something entirely different for the next thirty years. Or I may continue the strip indefinitely but do more of it “from the road”.

Who do you relate to most in your strip right now?
Alix because it’s the end of summer. I hate when summer ends. I always want one more day at the lake. Of course, the answer changes depending on my mood and the seasons.

If you ever gave up cartooning, what would you do?
I would love to have the ability to volunteer during my last twenty to thirty years overseas with women’s groups or literacy groups or groups that build wells... anywhere I can be of service. I would love to spend my last years doing work out in the world for others, living in other cultures while helping at the same time.

You love Africa. What do you think your connection to it is?
I don’t know, really. I wanted to go to Africa when I was a teenager and never lost the desire. The movie Mississippi Masala has amazing footage of Uganda and Tanzania, and watching it made me want to go there specifically. I love the music, the songs, the landscape, the history, even though much of it is difficult thanks to colonialism. It’s our birthplace. Maybe that’s it.

You’re a Libra. Do you like your sign and why or why not?
I like Libra. I like my artsy self. But I get tired of being thrown into the freezing position when I have to make a decision. I get tired of constantly weighing options and possibilities, then being frozen. And I always regret the decision I didn’t make. Otherwise, it’s a great sign.

If you were God, what would you do right this minute?
Wipe out all the bigots.

Were you one of those kids who doodled on everything? What did you doodle?
I doodled on everything. I spent ten years drawing nothing but horse heads and bustlines. Women in beautiful evening gowns with big bustlines when I was ten, when I wished I had them and could only figure out how to draw them. And horses. Very cliché, classic girl stuff. It became more hippy-like and psychedelic over time. Eventually my doodles evolved into cartooning.

Pretend that someone is forcing you to add another character to your strip. Who or what would that be?
I might add a love interest for Phil to be competition for Val or at least someone she’d perceive as a threat. Or even a love interest for Wally, but he’d be clueless. He’d have no idea. It would be Joan who could tell this woman had designs on him, and Joan would take her on. That would be a lot of fun because Wally would miss all the cues. He’d be thinking, “Oh, she’s only being nice.”

Stone Soup © Jan Eliot 2011/Dist by Universal UClick/All rights res./Reprinted with Permission
In November, you’re going to Haiti with Habitat for Humanity and Women’s Build and with The Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Would you please bring me back Sean Penn?
You can bet if I see him, I will try to bring him back for you. If you promise to share.

Thank you.
You’re welcome.

To see Jan in action go to this PBS Oregon Art Beat link for the story they did on her and her cartooning.

Hope that tickles your yardarm! Until next time, I remain,
Captain Val

Coming Up!
What It Takes to be a Writer (besides a serious masochistic streak!)
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World

17 October 2011

How a Pulitzer Prize Winner Writes and Gobsmacked Blog Awards

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
Steve Jobs (RIP fellow buccaneer)
Me Hearties!!
            What a few weeks it’s been. I’ve been to Wordstock, am creatin’ a writin’ workshop to present on Tuesday, and finished writin’ the last chapter of me novel. Ai! The last chapter. Nye, it’s not the end. I’ve plenty to do in the finishing stages (more on that in a later blog), but I have popped a celebratory champagne cork with my critique group. I’m an ardent believer in rewards at every stage!

A Pulitzer Prize Winner Writes by Hand?

            Most fascinating author at the Wordstock Literary Festival? Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan. She spoke about pushing the limit of form in fiction and working outside the three-act structure or hero’s journey models.
            And, ai, this Pulitzer Prize winner writes by hand. I be gobsmacked.
            She writes a first draft by hand and then enters the draft into her computer, not stopping to do any editing or changes. After she has the computer draft, she makes an outline of what she’s written with extensive notes. She is a “Seat of the Pantser” writer, or as I prefer to call it an “Wild and Organic” writer, writing whatever comes up in her first draft, not stopping so she doesn’t kill any good ideas or the flow of her imagination. She said she never writes from her own life.
            With her novel The Keep, she had this as a working title, which I found hilarious: A Short Bad Novel. Writers often have a working title for their novels as the best titles come from the writing of the beast.
            Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Welcome to the Good Squad ended up echoing a concept album with sides A and B. Linked short stories that thematically dealt with the music producing world. When her publisher wanted her to decide what to put on the book—novel or short story collection—she said neither because she wanted the reader to make that distinction. It killed hardback sales. So on the paperback, she had them put “novel.”
            Jennifer discusses what inspired her and how the "novel" came about:

            At Wordstock, Jennifer, when asked by the moderator what she thought about meta-fiction and deconstruction devices that break the usual form of fiction, she made this point: breaking form has been going on forever. She used Middlemarch as an example, calling its form “flexible and odd.” I’d never thought of that before, but it be true.
            I wandered around the booths and tables at Wordstock, keeping me nose to the noticeable and that led to a number of tables that spawned tales for next time, so you’ll have to wait for those.

            I also met an old friend Diane Prokop who moved to Portland, and she’s now blogging reviews of books. She’ll be covering Anne Enright, Craig Thompson (graphic novelist), Justin Torres, Sebastian Barry (Irish playwright, novelist, and poet) and many more. Check out her site here.

Gobsmacked Awards & Paying Them Forward

            Avast! All me life, I’ve had an aversion to awards. Every award or honor seemed to be attached to someone else’s rules and an opposing force that sunk the happiness. I don’ mean ta be snivelin’, just honest. On the same day in high school just before being inducted into the National Honor Society, I was put on detention for going outside to my boyfriend’s car to tell him not to park where he was parking. He was there to attend the awards ceremony.
            When I was told I would be Valedictorian of our class, I lost both Valedictorian and Salutorian honors to two secretarial-prep students. I don’t belittle their academic status, only they didn’t take physics, trig, Latin, French, chemistry, et. al. for university track.
            Ai, I need to rid meself of this bilge and hold me pirate head up high when someone gives me an award, so I go forth with a new attitude and graciously accept both the Stylish Blogger Award and the Versatile Blogger Award.

Thanks, Julie!
            I don't know Julie Farrar of “Traveling Through …” personally, so receiving these awards from her is an even greater honor. After only ten months of writin’ me blog, I'm even more gobsmacked at the awards. About Gobsmacked she said, “I love her title. And I love her love of Paris and the Pacific Northwest. And I love her pirate talk.”
            Huzzah! to you Julie and a tip o’ me hat. And in accordance with the rules of receiving these awards, I offer seven doubloons of truth about me.

1) I don’t like black licorice or lima beans.
2) I’m a lifetime member of the American Legion Auxiliary because it means so much to my mom.
3) I am proudly a former back-to-the-land-style hippie who has now embraced what I call a bohemian French lifestyle.
4) Although I’m not into sports, I believe that sports keeps us from waging even more wars than we do.
5) I was trained in ballet even though I’m 5’9” and am not svelt. I also learned tap, jazz and baton twirling. When young, I marched and twirled baton in Memorial Day parades.
6) My first crush was on a boy named Punk. True!
7) I’m a Gemini with a Capricorn moon, Pisces rising, Venus in Cancer, Mars in Gemini and Jupiter in Aries. That means I’m grounded, am in my head a lot, and am tuned into the collective unconscious. The luck planet of Jupiter being in Aries gives me an edge.

To Those I Admire
            As a captain who recognizes the steadfast and necessary work of others, I hoist me flag to these five blogging captains and bestow the same awards on them, for style, because they each have their own, and for versatility because they are:

Captain Barbara Sullivan of the ship The Solace of Lowered Expectations.
            If we all sailed under her compassionate care and intelligent insight, we’d rid the world of numerous ailments. For those who need guidance, both in life and in writing.

Captain Kristin Lamb of the ship Warrior Writers.
            I’m certain Kristin has won these awards too many times to count, but I don’t care. She’s a buccaneer of the first order in the way she keeps every writer’s ship afloat. No shrinking violet or shaking in her boots, not this pirate! She gives us the necessary guidance to fly our flags as authors. 

Captain Lesley Howard of the ship The Art of Practice
            Lesley’s new blog deals with “a woman’s reflection on the chronic chaos” of writing and parenting. Ai! And she deftly ties the lessons of one to the other in ways only a true creative mind and heart can.

Captain Anne Schroeder of the ship Anne Schroeder’s Author Blog
            “A Baby Boomer writer's insights into the challenges of life as wife-mother-daughter-writer-dreamer-homemaker-reader-doer of all things. Humor and Inspiration.” She receives the awards for her bravery and honesty for reinventing herself.

Captain Samantha Stacia of the ship The Blooming Late Journal
            For having the Adams blood coursing through her pirate’s veins. We must never be afraid to speak up, to try to enlighten the world about serious matters while doing other work, such as Samantha’s good work of helping bloggers build their world.

Who Guessed My Muse’s Name?

Give a hearty Huzzah! to MaryJo Comins! She guessed the name of my muse: Sparrow.

            Sparrow, of course, is named after Jack Sparrow. Sparrow mimics Jack in being eccentric and loving the pirate life, although she’s walks more like Marianne Faithful than Keith Richards. Like all birds, she’s flighty. She hangs around the ship as long as there are no strong winds and she’s in the mood. In other words, I can’t always count on her, so I must carry on without her at times. But she’s incredibly creative and inspiring when she’s focused.

            Stay on board for in a few weeks I’ll be introducing The Buccaneer Award.

            Until then, Ahoy! Carry on, and remember to do honor to the pirate code. For more on that, take heed of Captain Jack’s Pirate Hats Fame. He and his family follow this code of honor: http://www.captjackspiratehats.com/apirateslife.htm
Unlike their raping and pillaging ancestors, these modern-day pirates are focused on giving back via art, entertainment, culture, charity, and living history.

Me very best to you, maties,
Captain Val

Coming Up!
NEXT WEEK! Interview with Jan Eliot, creator of Stone Soup—and it’s a good one!
What It Takes to be a Writer (besides a serious masochistic streak!)
When a Research Trip to Paris Goes Aground

05 October 2011

News and Confirmed Gossip from the Writing World


I’m anchored in Rockaway Beach, finishing my novel (two chapters to go) and have been derelict in my Captain’s Logs. But the writer’s life for me! Here be your latest news, confirmed gossip and tip for the week.
* * * * *
If you’re curious about what’s really going on in the world of publishing, you must buy the October issue of Vanity Fair and read the article (not published on their site, though), “The Book on Publishing,” a tell-all, current story about how one book was published. Includes anecdotes (an agent on crack? Really!) from inside the publishers world. Shocking. Amazing. Bewildering. Nevertheless, writers will always have to write. Whether they go with the traditional route of publishing is another story.
* * * * *
For book lovers who want their authors live and wish to sail in the same seas as them, here’s your chance.
This weekend, Oct. 6th – 9th
Portland Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE MLK Jr. Blvd.
Wordstock Festival presents a super fest of authors and publishers, small writing workshops and BIG readings. Here’s the schedule of authors and workshops. These are just a few of the amazing (and my favorite) people who will be there. Huzzah!

Steve Almond
If you’ve never heard of this zany, brilliant guy, you’re missing out. He just published God Bless American and here’s the blurb from his publisher’s page:

From a “gifted storyteller” who delivers “always enjoyable, often hysterical stories” (New York Times Book Review) comes a meditation on the American Dream and its discontents. In his most ambitious collection yet, Steve Almond offers a comic and forlorn portrait of these United States: our lust for fame, our racial tensions, the toll of perpetual war, and the pursuit of romantic happiness.
His satirical book trailer is worthy of pirate praise and future lore as he subverts the robber barons at Fox News:

Diana Abu Jaber & Julia Glass

Double your pleasure with two of the best. I loved Diana’s Arabian Jazz  and Origin, and her new novel Birds of Paradise is garnering rave reviews and sits in my reading stack.

Julia Glass is author of one my all-time favorite novels Three Junes. A blurb: An astonishing first novel that traces the lives of a Scottish family over a decade as they confront the joys and longings, fulfillments and betrayals of love in all its guises.

Michael Ondaatje
Yes, the one who wrote The English Patient. ‘Nuff said.

Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her reporting as Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times. The award made her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting. The Warmth of Other Suns  is her first book. Check out this video.
David Rocklin
My new favorite, David Rocklin rocks with his new novel The Luminist. From Powell’s website:
In Colonial India, at a time of growing friction between the ruling British and the restless Indian populace, a Victorian woman and her young Tamil Indian servant defy convention, class, and heartbreak to investigate what is gained and lost by holding life still. Suggested by the life and work of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, David Rocklin's novel The Luminist (Hawthorne Press) examines 19th-century Ceylon through the lives of an English woman and her Tamil apprentice.
Check out Unabridged Chick for a saucy review. She compares the writing to A.S. Byatt's.

What’s With American’s Sexual/Literary Hangup?
If you like sex, both in your life and in your literature, here’s a panel that is primed to talk about it on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.: Cheryl Strayed, Steve Almond, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Viva Las Vegas.

So sail to Wordstock and find a ransom of writerly gold. Meet you in the conference bar at 5:00!
* * * * *

From Kurt Vonnegut—advice on what you should write about if you’re a writer:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way -- although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Full sail ahead!
Captain Val

If you haven’t tried naming my Muse, you have two more weeks! Thanks to all who have guessed. Here’s a hint for those who have tried:  Forget gender; one word. Now try again! There could be a little prize involved. Har-har!

Coming Up!
Gobsmacked Wins Awards, Gives Awards, Starts the Buccaneer Award!
FINALLY! Interview with Jan Eliot, creator of Stone Soup—and it’s a good one!
What It Takes to be a Writer (besides a serious masochistic streak!)