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Writing Tidbits (and an early New Year’s Resolution) November 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, writing craft.
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Regarding NaNoWriMo, I think it’s all or nothing for me. As in, I throw all of my writing energy and time into it, to the detriment of all of my other projects, or I work on the other projects and let NaNo languish. I’ve chosen the latter.

***

Saturday was the monthly meeting of Atlanta Writers Club. I wasn’t able to stay for all three presentations, but I did catch the first two. First up, Doug Crandell returned to AWC to do a one-hour workshop on the craft of the short story. I appreciated that he hammered home the point that, yes, short stories must have plots — literary fiction included. He usually starts his story with a character, or even with just a single character trait. Then he discovers who or what is the character’s opposing force. The story grows from there. He said he used to write a lot of stories with guns in them; everybody laughed at this, but I’m sure it was uncomfortably true for some of us. Myself included.

Here’s my problematic method of crafting a short story:

1. Find character. Done. Oftentimes, this comes down to “insert an already-created character” (one of my own, I mean. Don’t mistake me for a fanfiction writer).
2. Come up with nebulous idea of the philosophical conflict guiding the story.
3. Recognize that there need to be actual events and settings to prop up said philosophical conflict.
4. Start writing anyway.
5. Write 4000 words based on the character and the philosophical concept.
6. Delete 2000 of the 4000 words.
7. Reach the place where the end of the story should naturally be. From here, there are two options:
8a. Quit writing story and never come back to it.
8b. Throw in a random murder, a suicide, a car accident, an armed robbery, or a dead relative who’s been messing with the protagonist’s mind.

I don’t really aspire to have my name all over the lit journal world or to be in Best American Short Stories (it surprises me to be able to state this sincerely; I tend to be the ambitious type, but I seem to have mellowed a bit lately, or at least channeled all outlying ambition into my YA novels). I’d just like to be able to write a short story that actually is a story, rather than a collection of haphazardly-arranged scenes. And while I figured out long ago that novels with true plot and structure don’t just burst from head to page (unless you’re William Faulkner on his As I Lay Dying bourbon bender, or — and I say this begrudgingly — Stephenie Meyer and her vampire dream), I’ve churned out a lot of literary crap under the delusion that short stories can emerge fully-formed in a single sitting.

So here’s an early New Year’s Resolution: I’m going to unearth all the short story writing advice I’ve internalized over years of how-to-write books and workshops and a whole boatload of fantastic short stories themselves. (One of my favorite online destinations for short fiction is StorySouth, by the way.) I’m going to try to write a short fiction piece with the goal of creating something that is unmistakably a story.

***

Joshua Corin, author of a rather hilarious sounding novel called Nuclear Winter Wonderland, spoke next. He covered the differences and similarities among playwriting, screenwriting, and novel-writing. (Quick primer: in playwriting, dialogue is the focus; in screenwriting, images are the focus; in novel-writing, narrative voice is the focus.) And he’d probably agree with my plan to have a plan for my next short story. At one point, he said, “Even if you don’t know where you are, know where you’re going.” Yes. Also, he stated that just because you have an idea for a novel, story, screenplay, or play, it doesn’t mean it’s time to sit down and start drafting it out. I agree — my ideas need a lot of time to attach themselves to character details and bits of dialogue and description before they’re ready to be put to paper. I feel uncomfortable sitting down to start on something unless I have one or two of those gotta-fit-these-in lines or phrases lying in wait in my head.

I left the meeting feeling inspired to go home and write… something. I wasn’t sure what. I’ve got plenty on my to-do list.

Plus, you know what’s nice? I am actually acquainted with a handful of people at Atlanta Writers Club, so during monthly meetings I actually manage to chat with people rather than just sit with my arms crossed and silently grump about how no one ever talks to me. With every passing year I grow just a little teeny tiny bit beyond the personality I cultivated so well in high school.

***

If you’re even slightly a fan of children’s or YA literature, you should check out the Winter Blog Blast Tour that’s being hosted by Chasing Ray and other fine kidlit-related websites.

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Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 3: Suburban Trifecta October 17, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, bookstores.
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This isn't the Waldenbooks at North Point Mall, but they all look pretty much the same.

This isn't the Waldenbooks at North Point Mall (typo: "mal"), but they all look pretty much the same.

Bookstores visited: Barnes and Noble – North Point Parkway in Alpharetta; Waldenbooks – North Point Mall; Borders – Peachtree Rd. in Buckhead
What I bought: Paper Towns, by John Green (at Borders)
What other people bought: At Borders Buckhead, I stood in line for about 10 minutes waiting to check out. One register was occupied by two people who were buying a tall stack of DVDs, a bunch of chocolate bars, and two crossword puzzle books. The other register was taken up by a guy trying to exchange one copy of a coffee table book about African-American hairstyles for another copy of the same book. The DVD people were really amusing. For one thing, who buys DVDs at Borders? The idea that they might have won a “get 20 free DVDs from Borders” contest seemed more plausible than the idea that they were actually buying them with their own money, for their own entertainment. A price check on The Happening was needed. The ladies started eating their chocolate bars while still waiting to pay for their haul.

What I looked at: Plenty. The YA section at the Barnes and Noble was surprisingly massive, especially the shelves devoted to new books. I looked at C.K. Kelly Martin’s I Know It’s Over, which is supposed to be devastating in that most compelling of ways. Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters was prominently displayed; I really want to read that one, even though it veers way out of my usual fiction-reading territory. On the front table, I looked at a new Anne Roiphe memoir about what happened after she placed a personal ad in a literary journal. I browsed the bargain books. At Borders, the light over the YA section continued to flicker.

What other people looked at: At the front table in Barnes and Noble, a couple lingered over the stack of copies of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. The woman kept saying things like, “I just can’t — I can’t believe this book exists!” The man went on about the creative ways in which China was recycling its human waste. The woman fingered the top hardback on the stack as though the book itself may have been constructed from human waste in some small way.

Bookstore notes:

The Alpharetta Barnes and Noble is a store I know well. It sprung up in 1993, along with a whole mess of other stuff along North Point Parkway — the mall, a movie theater, and two strip malls that together span the length of the road. It’s your typical ridiculous but all too familiar American shopping corridor, but in 1993, so much of it was new. The stadium-seating movie theater. The mega-bookstore. And – gasp – one of the first Starbucks locations in metro Atlanta. My parents’ house is right around the corner from all of this; I was 13 at the time it was built, and at the time it all seemed very shiny and full of promise. One day, I thought, I would be 16 and I would have a car and I would drive my friends there, and we would all sit around at Barnes and Noble and sip coffee and talk about books. Such were my tweenage fantasies. (I suppose it’s worth mentioning that my eventual car was a 1990 Geo Prizm that I ran straight into a Chevy Suburban the seventh time I tried to drive it to school. The red welts on the side of my face that resulted from said collision didn’t much help with the friends factor.) At 13, I went to the new Starbucks in a blue babydoll dress and ordered a Frappuccino. I took as many sips as I could stand before handing it over to my friend. I don’t think she liked it much, either. To this day, I really don’t care for desserts masquerading as coffee drinks. Just give me my black coffee brewed at home, please.

Of course, before the days of the metro Atlanta chain mega-bookstore were the days of the metro Atlanta chain mall bookstore. Waldenbooks is a dying breed. It once occupied prime real estate in North Point Mall, but in recent months it’s been shuttled back to the Sears hall, cowering behind an escalator and playing submissive to Spencer’s Gifts, its upstairs neighbor. Its former space was taken over by H&M, and, actually, I was surprised that Walden had bothered to relocate rather than just vacate. Anyway, the place looks exactly like every other Waldenbooks I have ever known, from the 80s onward. It was very quiet, save for a reunion between a retired teacher and her former student going on at the register. (This was very sweet.) For a minute I thought I was the only other one in the store, but then I discovered the type of folks that lurked in the aisles. The YA aisle was an uncrossable gauntlet of silent teens reading manga. And in the cookbooks aisle, a white-bearded man wearing overalls frumpily made himself at home while he read about crock-pot cookery.

Next week I’ll be going to Little Shop of Stories in Decatur to see JOHN GREEN (!!!!!).

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 2: B&N-ing with the best of ’em October 10, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, bookstores, Uncategorized.
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grammatically-incorrect trash can

Bookstores visited: Barnes and Noble — Peachtree Rd. in Buckhead
What I bought: I didn’t buy anything, but Adam bought Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots, the third Thursday Next novel.
What other people bought: I never made it to the register, so I’m not sure. One lady was really adamant about finding those “Klutz” books and games that had apparently once been displayed on a table near the kids’ section.

What I looked at: A new Garrison Keillor novel. The latest Best American Short Stories anthology (looks pretty unastounding. Mostly stuff from the New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly). The latest Best American Non-Required Reading anthology (the introduction by Judy Blume puts it ahead of its Rushdie-edited, required-reading counterpart. Stuff from Pindeldyboz, Virginia Quarterly Review, etc. pushes it even further ahead). The new edition of David Sedaris’s Holidays On Ice. In the YA section: Bliss, by Lauren Myracle, Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger, and Impossible, by Nancy Werlin.

What other people looked at: The aforementioned Klutz books. The rather unnecessary display of Wicked-related paraphernalia (Wicked puzzles! Wicked journals! Wicked playing cards! The musical is coming back to Atlanta sometime this fall, hence the tie-in. Basically, there was a table of prime book real estate taken up with Everything But Books). Magazines. The Starbucks menu.

Bookstore notes: This is my oh-so-local B&N. It’s right across the street from home, and it’s an easy pit stop before Sunday afternoon grocery shopping. Generally, this is the place I visit every week or two to check out the YA new releases. I start to get the shakes if I haven’t physically been in front of a YA new releases shelf for a while. You are now glad you don’t know me, yes?

That trash can above is what sits right in front of the store. Until just a week or two ago, there was a whole host of them surrounding the building and leading down to the Publix supermarket. Someone seems to have decided to phase them out, at last. I’m sure the B&N employees heard their share of complaints about the grammatically-incorrect trash cans.

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 1: Everything But Books September 19, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, bookstores.
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Bookstores visited: Just 1 this week- Borders Buckhead (Peachtree Rd. in Atlanta)
What I bought: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami (birthday present for my sister)
What other people bought: CDs, postcards, greeting cards, stickers, an LSAT study guide, and a 2009 calendar

What I looked at: Story, by Robert McKee; Savvy, by Ingrid Law; The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; and the newly-designed paperback of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (tall and skinny, with an ad in the back for the Nerdfighters site. John and Hank, by the way, are coming to Atlanta on October 21! You know I will be there, ready to sing the Helen Hunt song).

What other people looked at: The coffee menu. Manga. The new Thomas Friedman book. The new fiction shelf at the front. The Shack. A display for a new Brian Wilson CD. Also, there was this one kid – well, picture the sort of kid that comes to mind when I say “someone who has probably never finished reading a book, ever.” This sort of kid was leaning up against a case in the neutral region between the kids’ books and the YA books. He was reading a book so intently that I think if I had knocked over the display table nearest to him, he wouldn’t have looked up. I didn’t get close enough to see what he was reading, but holy hell was I ever curious. (And I still am.) It was a high point of my week. Why a 13ish-year-old-looking kid was at a bookstore at 12:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday is something I’ll both ponder and overlook. Was he homeschooled? Was he skipping school to hang out at the bookstore?

Bookstore notes: This is a cavernous Borders – two floors, with plenty of modes of transit between them (a regular old staircase, plus an elevator, plus an escalator that alternates its direction depending on the time of day, I guess). There’s a nice coffee bar and café with a huge seating area in a fake rotunda. In general, there’s a lot of space taken up with things that aren’t books. I always forget that these mega-bookstores have tons of space still allocated to DVDs and CDs.

There’s been a flickering fluorescent light above this store’s YA section for as long as I’ve been visiting the YA section there. They did recently expand the YA section, so cheers to that – they gave it one whole extra shelf, though somebody forgot to move the shelf labels around. Above the Zarr / Zusak shelf, there’s a sign that reads “Psychology.” Borders segregates its YA genres, which is a pet peeve of mine; one of my favorite things about YA is that so many books are allowed to be comfortably cross-genre. Borders puts the YA fantasy and SF first, and then gives the rest of the shelves to everything that doesn’t fit within the SFF spectrum.

This store used to play music that made me miserable, and at volumes too loud for comfortable book browsing. They played Sheryl Crow’s career-sorta-revival album. They played Jewel’s country album. They played Michael McDonald. This week, though, they were playing some pleasant light classical (which I could not, of course, identify). Perhaps they’ll keep this up.

Who are the people in your neighborhood? August 20, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta.
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I appreciate having a downstairs neighbor who’s a witty septugenarian. For those of us who aren’t able to be home during business hours to keep tabs on the neighborhood, he e-mails updates on the goings-on regarding the independently-owned pharmacy that’s across from the Walgreens up the street:

Fulton County marshalls are actively evicting homesteaders from Crackhouse today. At 12:30 pm a red Ford pickup with two debutantes and a black male bade farewell with the truck bed filled with enough sleeping bags and cots to set up a Boy Scout jamboree camp.

Last Thursday afternoon, amazingly enough, a lawn maintenance crew was busy trying to spruce up the Crackhouse yard. They were even using an edger.

The crackhouse, actually, is more of a crack motel. Over a year ago, I took to calling it “Crackton Arms,” and the name stuck. It’s due to be leveled pretty soon, though, which means the biggest drama in the neighborhood will default to trying to get the dudes in the next building over to quit playing their Tejano music at three in the morning.