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July 24, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Reading, Writing, Tea, and Dogs

I sit on the couch with my legs pull up. I hold the book on crows I’m reading for novel research, propping it against my knees. I’m sitting with the side table to my left, so I hold my tea in my right hand.

But, since this is for research, sometimes I must take notes, so I precariously wedge my mug between my thighs and my bit of stomach to scribble something on a Post-it.

…Yet my dog is next to me, also, and she wants attention. Too sleepy to jump on my lap, she sits, leaning against the couch, one paw raised like a member of royalty, silently commanding me with infinitely sad dark eyes to scratch her chest, or rub that bit of skin right next to her tail, or maybe scritch off that spot of eye gook stuck on her snout.

So I do all these things — write, read, drink, pet — somehow simultaneously, somehow without spilling my tea or dropping my book or irreversibly offending my dog. I’m glad I have this weird kind of multitasking under my belt, but boy, wouldn’t four hands be nice.

July 23, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Earnin’ My Keep with My Critique Partner

The critique partner I mentioned in a recent post just sent me her manuscript the other day. This is something that I’ve read portions of before, but in other versions where her character had different beginnings, met a few different people, and was even narrated in a different perspective. As I said in that other post, I’m so happy the get this manuscript because I love her writing, I love this character, and I love that I have the chance to see her adventure from beginning to end. (Also, this puts me in a position to help twist and turn and fine tune the path of said adventure, which is thrilling.) On top of all of that, though — I’m relieved.

Since graduation, I’ve sent her my whole manuscript TWICE, plus a few short stories I cobbled together. She’s sent me a few short stories of her own, and asked for help in plotting out her rewrite, but, I feel, nothing near the volume I’ve asked her to critique for me.

click to return to the previous pageThe “partner” in the phrase isn’t something to take lightly. There should be a near-even amount of back and forth, of assistance and gain, going between the two. Lately I’ve felt as if I have taken an unfair amount of time on the receiving end, so while I’m always anxious to hear her opinion of a new idea of mine, there’s a little bit of guilt involved in knowing I’m not doing the same for her (who cares that she’s not currently asking for help and I am, my guilt certainly doesn’t care).

I like feeling like I’m earning my keep, that I can even out the trade off we’re doing with each other so we can both always feel like this relationship is beneficial and good. At least until I send her another manuscript in a couple of weeks.

 

Writers, do you have a critique partner? Do you ever feel like one or the other is taking up all the time, whether it’s true or simply in your head?

July 18, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Defacing Books

Books are precious objects to me, and for all of my childhood and early adulthood the idea of taking a pen to that paper (aside from writing my name inside the cover in case a friend “forgot” to return The Sorcerer’s Stone) was foul, cruel, immoral.

I got over this some in college, circling favorite poems and writing notes in a novel’s margins so I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to say in class. I wasn’t tortured by some vengeful book god, and this act of defacing the page got me more involved in the reading, and possibly more involved in class.

Still, I never did that to my own books. A sense of wrongdoing, of messing up something pristine, acted like a near-physical wall.

image

Books on their way to being scribbled in messes.

Recently I’ve taken pencil, pen, and sometimes highlighter to my own books, ones not for any kind of class, but there are limits even now. I underline and star passages in a nonfiction book I’m using for research, I again circle poems, and I scribble, underline, and highlight the writing craft books that have the most effect on me, the ones growing soft as I continually flip to random or favorite pages.

But my novels, in general, remain clean. Especially ones I’ve held onto and kept safe for so many years, like my Harry Potter collection. I even tend to hold my pen back from beautiful phrases in library book sale copies, ones I’ll likely pass on.

And there it is — the passing on. My brain, always too future-oriented, can’t help but take in the books on my shelves and think of who might read them someday — friends, family, used bookstore patrons, hypothetical unborn children. Aside from some very beat up copies, usually bought for a college class, I came into these books fresh, with no notes or underlines to influence me on my first run through, and I want the same for whoever reads them next.

‘They won’t want my shaky underlines, my nonsense inane annotations,’ I think, rarely clarifying for myself who “they” are. It would ruin the experience! They may even cast the book aside because I dirtied it too much.

I know how assuming this is, how unlikely, especially for the volumes I cling to. Still, I can’t help but worry how my thoughtlessness with a pen might affect the next person to pull back the cover.

July 16, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Quick Look: Hidden Details in Harry Potter

Continuing my bout of rereading the Harry Potter series, I’ve noticed again the details that were invisible to me on m first trek through. Little things that not only make Rowling’s world rich and real, but prove that she wasn’t making this series up as she went — everything was planned.

Just finishing (re-finishing?) The Half-Blood Prince, the main thing that popped out was the Horcruxes, and the fact that Harry finds one without even realizing it when he tries to hide his book in the Room of Requirement.

Would he be able to find this spot again amidst all this junk? Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock from on top of a nearby crate, he stood it on top of the cupboard where the book was now hidden, perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head to make it more distinctive, then sprinted back through the alleyways of hidden junk as fast as he could go…

Rowling includes so much detail in this paragraph, so the mention of a “tarnished tiara” hardly stands out. But, we learn towards the end of the seventh book that this is Ravenclaw’s tiara, and one of the Horcruxes Harry has to destroy. She tucks the detail in there so perfectly that no one but Rowling knows its importance, and also grants it the delightful feeling of an Easter Egg when us readers return to the story with our future knowledge.

I’ve never written anything meant to be a series (my current manuscript has potential for a sequel, but that’s different) and it’s only the daunting anxiety I have with world-building that gives me an idea of the forethought and planning that goes into story elements like this, ones you can’t go back and retroactively insert once earlier segments are published. It’s one reason why Rowling is a master, and one reason why returning to her books is a delightful journey–and teaching experience–for me.

July 3, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

When Creators I Love Are Piles of Garbage

As I began writing a post about how much I love the new cartoon Clarence — little details like stuck sliding doors, hilarious lines of dialogue — I went to Google to look up some info on the creator, Skyler Page. And what did I find? Links to tumblrs and Twitters revealing that, earlier this week, he’s been publicly accused of sexually harassing female coworkers.

There are enough different animators/story board artists — male and female — attesting to this, so even though there isn’t an official news post confirming this, I believe it. Too many people are risking their hard to get jobs for this to be entirely false. I’m proud of them, and really glad that victims, and their friends, are standing against this. I’m also horrifically pissed.

There’s all the really obvious stuff. That it HAPPENED; that the victims are being accused of making this up, of not providing enough “proof”; that this has been going on for so long and the person responsible doesn’t seem to have faced any repercussions (you know, like LOSING HIS JOB, not getting his OWN SHOW on a big network). But then there’s the selfish part of me, who is so angry that Skyler Page took something I enjoyed away from me.

I have a hard time separating the person that creates from the thing that’s created. How I feel about them as people invariably affects how I feel about what they’ve made. Sometimes this is for the better, like with John Green’s Internet presence making me enjoy his books more, or Natasha Allegri’s hilarious tumblr and Twitter posts. But more often than not, I’m better off not knowing what they are like. An example is finding out, after reading and loving a few of his books, what a homophobic nut job Orson Scott Card is. I’ve gone back and reread Ender’s Game since then, compartmentalizing this real life knowledge, and I still count that as one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read…but it feels weird to enjoy this person’s work. And I went to see the accused-child-rapist Bryan Singer’s new X-Men movie, though thinking about it too hard makes me feel squicky about doing so.

So there’s a new episode of Clarence on tonight. Will I watch it? Yes. Will I enjoy it? Possibly. There are other people, presumably good and talented people, who write the jokes, draw the pictures, make their living off this show. But the thought will be constantly in my head, who the creator is, what he’s done. There will be guilt. I might not be able to laugh. I certainly won’t love it like I have been doing for the past couple of months. Again, I’m so glad these women and their friends are speaking up, and none of my anger or annoyance goes toward them, not a drop. They get my love and sympathy and pride in their bravery. All the dark feelings, the ones that are making my stomach twist and have had me swearing out loud in the hour since I found this out, those are for the man who caused this, who hurt people and managed to destroy a few ounces of joy.

 

 

EDIT Pleasant news, apparently Skyler Page has little to nothing to do with the actual creation/writing of Clarence: http://patrickharpin.tumblr.com/post/90666400624/clarence-head-of-story-reaction Maybe they can boot him and the show will still be good and I won’t feel weird about watching it.

July 1, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Quick Look: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I just finished reading Let the Great World Spin for the first time, and I’m a little stunned by it. It’s basically a collection of interconnected short stories, all circling around the day Phillippe Petit strung up a wire and walked between the twin towers. It’s a beautiful book, and a great deal of care obviously went into deciding where to place each story. In addition to the artfully constructed plot, there are also moments where his wording, the way McCann conveys a feeling, feels like music.

The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.

I don’t want to spoil the piece of this story, since his slow reveal of information in this chapter was the best part about reading it, but basically the character here is remembering something simple, and nice, and you feel the calmness of it with the way the moment “rests”, which is what a nostalgic moment feels like. But then it “twists” her heart back (such a harsh word, when you think of it, say it out loud) and brings her back to the painful thought that ultimately accompanies any small, good memory she has.

June 26, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

How Many Times Can You Read a Manuscript…

How many times can you read a manuscript and still enjoy it? Still enjoy the journey? Love the characters? Have faith that the path you set them was right and true and sets them up where they need to be in the end?

How many times can you read your sentences and still hear a kind of music in them? How long before you lose your faith, or your heart, before you think “If I look at this one more time I will vomit”?

What if you’ve read it hundreds of times (you guess, it’s hard to count), combing through, fixing flaws, cementing it further in your mind, and you have yet to reach that point? If you still love it, still believe there’s something worthwhile — are you deluding yourself? Telling yourself it’s great so you won’t have nothing to show for those years? Or does that mean that there’s really something there, a life that won’t flicker out, and that someone else will see and cherish?

I hope it’s that last one.

June 24, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Having a Critique Partner is the Best

In high school, I wrote constantly. So did my best friend. We shared our work with each other and offered opinions, mostly compliments (we were teenagers, our egos were so fragile). We even took the one creative writing class our high school ever offered (at least while we were there) together. We encouraged each other, and while I probably would have kept writing without her, I do attribute some of the confidence I as I kept pursuing it to those sessions in her room where she read my scribbled handwriting while I nervously snuggled her rat.

They made pretty good critique buddies, to be honest.

Once college started I didn’t see my high school friend as much, and Facebook wasn’t a thing yet. I received plenty of comments and assistance from classmates in my creative writing courses and from professors, who at the time helped me grow and also figure out what I really wanted to be writing. But I had no dedicated friend to share these things with, so after I lost the structure of school I was on my own. I operated within a vacuum, which I can say is a horrible place to write. Though I completed a novel, and edited it, and sent it out, it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out the why.

Sick of being stuck, I applied to grad schools, finally ending up in Lesley. It was great: finally, a community of writing friends, mentors, people who got it and could help me out. But greatest of all was when I found the person who, from the moment we read each other’s manuscripts in preparation for the residency, became my best writing friend*. We connected with each other’s writing more than the other manuscripts we read, and it only took until the end of that first half of a day before I felt like I could put my book baby in her hands and trust her not to mangle it up but to carefully inspect it, to help it grow, to love it. We’ve both graduated, but we email, text, Facebook, Skype, share recommendations and worries and, most importantly, manuscripts. When I made sudden edits to a story and needed feedback she was right there, ready to do it. And when she needed help of her own, I was on her list of people to send her beloved novel to.

Basically, I have a person who I know will do her best to help me out and give me honest feedback — praise along with criticism — when I need it, and I have the privilege of being the same person for her. And it’s great.

 

 

*She also owns rats, who I have met and snuggled with. So, maybe that’s a sign.

June 19, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Time for Poetry

I like to read poetry (what writer admits to otherwise?) but I don’t read it often. Partly this is because I’m picky. I have a hard time finding poems that I don’t simply appreciate, but also connect with, love. I like it when poems are (or, even better, appear to be) something simple that I can read and on some level understand, and then want to go back so I can find the other meanings, or just hear again the calming, uneven sound (I also prefer when they don’t rhyme). I realize there are many poems that can fit inside my tastes, but another problem is that I forget to seek them out.

The other obstacle, which is the reason it can take me months to finish one book of poetry, is that I like to read poems out loud. It helps me find the rhythm (or at least my version of the rhythm) and hearing the words, even in my own voice, makes the poem stronger, more real to me. This means I can’t really read poems in public places, and I don’t like to do it when I’m just sitting with others. Not only would me reading something out loud potentially invade their space, but it would draw them into my space. While getting this attention could just as well be good as bad, and I’m generally anxious to share when I’ve found some wonderful piece of writing, reading poetry is a private thing for me. I like to have myself in a personal pocket of space, where it’s me and the words and my voice, whether I’m whispering or speaking loudly.

 

To close off, I want to share something from Billy Collins, a poet I’ve only recently found who’s book, Aimless Love, I am slowly drifting through. This is the last stanza of his poem, “Bathtub Families”, where he talks about the plastic animal families meant to float in a bathtub that he saw in the pharmacy.

I think what I am really saying is that language

is better than reality, so it doesn’t have

to be bath time for you to enjoy

all the Bathtub Families as they float in the air around your head.

June 17, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Knitting, Not Reading

After taking a hiatus of a few months I’ve cracked open some pattern books and started knitting again. (Who makes scarves in the winter? Summer’s the time for that, obviously.) I like knitting in that once you figure it out and get into the rhythm of it, it’s pretty mindless, and it’s something that I can occupy myself with when I’m visiting relatives or watching TV.

The thing is, I wind up watching a lot of Netflix while I knit, even when I’m all on my lonesome, which in regular circumstances is my Let’s-Devour-Books-In-One-Sitting time. Which is why the other day, instead of finishing Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments (which I totally could have done) or gulping down the writing craft and comic books I paid money for, I watched four episodes of Dr. Who and a bit of Portlandia. I really should keep up with my books, since sort of I’m a writer and I need to be on top of that stuff, but with the sweet shoulder bag I’ll (hopefully) make, and the excellent progress on Dr. Who, it’s all worth it.

My knitting

Making progress, sort of.

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