Monday, August 31, 2009

Next up: No Country for Old Men

It appears that my blog is suffering from my frantic efforts to keep up with homework and writing my WIP.

My last blog was about Jane Austen's Emma. I promised that the next blog (this one) would be about No Country for Old Men. As it turns out, I can't get the story out of my head, even though I still can't decide if I liked it or not.

If you haven't read the book and you plan to, you may not want to read any further. I plan to discuss story, plot, themes, etc. So be warned.

At first, I didn't. Like it, that is. It's a frustrating book for several reasons, the first of which has to do with style. The author, Cormac McCarthy, doesn't seem to be fond of punctuation. In fact, he completely left out quotation marks altogether, and used apostrophes pretty sparingly. This made it very difficult to read dialogue because you could never tell where it was. It made you actively work at reading the novel. Is that a good thing? I don't know. All I know is that if an unpublished writer (moi, perhaps?) tried to pull that, agents and publishers would sneer at them as being pretentious and throw them out the door. I suppose once you've become a successful award-winning writer you can do that kind of thing and instead of being considered pretentious it's considered innovative.

My second frustration with the novel had to do with story. It doesn't follow that neatly packaged Aristotellian rising-action-climax-resolution model, and that's okay. Not every story has to, I guess. But this one kind of wandered around and I couldn't tell if there was even a plot. And the ending is decidently not satisfying. Of the three main characters, one of the good guys dies suddenly without explanation and just disappears from the story, the other good guy gives up in the end, and the bad guy walks off into oblivion and we don't ever know what happens to him. Where's my happy ending? Why doesn't the sheriff kill the bad guy and avenge the other good guy's death? I want resolution, dammit!

But the point of the story is to examine fate versus chance, free will versus predestination. The drug industry is portrayed as a juggernaut that can't be stopped. You kill one drug runner and 2 spring up in his place. It's futile to resist. And against that backdrop you have a guy who just chances upon a bunch of money and of his own free will he picks it up and involves himself in a mess that gets him killed. The sheriff gives up because he knows he can't win - he's just one guy and he can't make a substantial difference, so he gives in to fate. And the bad guy? Well, he's just crazy and he's obsessed with fate and destiny. But realistically life doesn't always have a happy ending, does it? Sometimes the bad guy gets off scott free.

Like I said, at first I didn't like the book. But I've been contemplating it for a week or so now and I think what I like the best about it is that I'm still thinking about it. It's not cut and dried. There's a lot to consider. It's growing on me.

I also watched the movie, which was okay, but not as good as the book. It's too hard to translate the inner dialogue of the sheriff character to the screen and, to me, the movie felt stiff and choppy and didn't flow very well. The book was hard enough to understand, but if I hadn't read it before the movie I'd have been lost and completely uninterested. In fact, I told a friend of mine I was going to watch the movie and she said "is that the one where the guy finds someone and kills him, then finds another guy and kills him, then finds another guy and kills him?" and I said "yes." and she said, "oh, I fell asleep during that one."

So much for the credibility of Academy Awards. What do they know, anyway?

Overall, though, as I continue to consider whether or not I like the book, I'll probably settle on liking it. It's unothodox, bleak, and stylistic but it makes you think instead of just spoon feeding you a cookie-cutter form where you can figure out the ending one chapter into the book. I certainly didn't expect the ending I got from this novel and it left me scratching my head.

I'm glad I read it. If you've read it, what did you think of it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One Assignment Down....

I finished the first assignment for my "Reading for Writers" course this semester: Read "Emma" by Jane Austen and write a review of it. I'd never read any Austen before, but I'd heard some good things about her.

However, I must have chosen the wrong Jane Austen novel to read, because I really didn't enjoy it. I found the main character to be a classist snob and even though I know Austen did that on purpose in order to comment on classism, I'm of the mind that if your protagonist isn't in some way sympathetic, you're going to lose the reader.

Overall I understood and appreciated Austen's themes, but the plot was predictable, the language was stuffy and difficult to wade through, and Austen had an obsessive preoccupation with the semi-colon that I found distracting.

I thought maybe one of the half dozen movies based on the book would be more entertaining so I watched the version with Gwenyth Paltrow - no more entertaining than the book.

My conclusion? You either really like Jane Austen or you really don't. So far, I really don't.

I also read the second book on the list for "Reading for Writers" which was "No Country for Old Men." This book I liked much, much better. I'll comment here on that book (and the movie) after I finish and turn in the paper later this week.

In the meantime, are there any ardent Jane Austen defenders out there? Anybody actually enjoy the book "Emma?"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Gas Leaks, Semi-Colons and 6-Sentences. And A Movie Review.

Okay, so I've been a tad neglectful of my blog since I got back from my residency. I've been a little busy.

As it turns out, when all the guys were repairing the basement bathroom, one of them sank a screw into the propane pipeline and we had a major gas leak in the house. We had to turn off the propane, open all the doors and windows, and evacuate the house for hours before it was safe to return. That was an adventure. Now all we have to do is get the pipe repaired and finish putting the walls up in the bathroom.

Now that things seem to have returned somewhat to normal, it's time to start working in earnest on both my reading and writing. I've ordered the dozens of books I need for this semester from Amazon and they're beginning to trickle in. The more they add up, the more intimidated I am about getting them all read, in addition to all the writing I have to do. I've never been a big fan of the "classics" in literature so I tried to keep them to a minimum on my reading list. Unfortunately the first read is a Jane Austen classic. I've already started it and I swear that woman had an obsessive fascination with the semi-colon. There are dozens of them just in the first couple of pages. I know she's lauded as a wonderful writer, so I'm hoping the book gets better as I get further into it, but so far I'm definitely not impressed. Sorry Jane Austen fans, but she's not my cup of tea.

I'm also still working on my WIP. I want to get it finished so I can concentrate on the reading I have to do, as well as working on my screenplay. The WIP is going well and as far as the screenplay, I've done the story summary, now I need to start work on an outline.

I also published my second six-sentences story. If you're interested it's called "TMI" and you can check it out here. I've become fascinated with this form and I'll probably be submitting many more of them for consideration, and hopefully publication.

Hubby and I went to see the movie "District 9" yesterday. I'm still not sure how I feel about it, other than torn. Technically I think it was a good film, but visually it was an overwhelming onslaught of gory violence. I appreciated the story, which was deeply sociopolitical, but it was difficult to get past the gratuitous violence. The reviews I've read are all very positive, and if I could get the nasty images out of my head I think I'd probably agree with them. There was definitely a profound take-home message. I just don't like bloody violent movies. Call me squeamish, but if I'm going to spend that much money and devote my time to watching a film I'd prefer more story and less blood spray; more substance and fewer flying body parts. I don't know, maybe that's part of the way the filmmakers intend to make you keep thinking about the movie - because it's so disturbing you can't get it out of your head. And they left it wide open for a sequel, so you want to know what happens next. I think overall I'm glad I saw it, but I left the theater thinking I needed to go right back in and watch something lighthearted like Julie & Julia to get the icky images out of my head.

Anyway, I hope everyone is enjoying the waning days of summer!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Well, I made it home from the residency safe and sound.

My in-laws were waiting here to visit, which is nice since I haven't seen them in at least a year. I came home to a bathroom that had flooded and since been torn down to the studs by father- and brother-in-law. They're in the process of putting it back together again after repairing the leaky pipe behind the walls. Yay for not having to spend a fortune on a plumber and contractor. It'll cost a fraction of that, plus supplies.

I'm also working on ordering books for my reading list, and trying to figure out how I'm going to write an entire first draft of a screenplay by December. Best not to think about that for a couple of days, maybe. Perhaps I need a few days to decompress from the residency, re-acclimate to home, get back into my routine, then consider how the heck to best schedule reading and writing for the next few months.

On top of all that, I'm still determined to finish the romance novel WIP I've been laboring over for the last several months. Before the residency I had gone back to rewrite the beginning, which I'm actually almost done with. I think I probably just have one more chapter to rewrite before I get to a place where it will blend well with what I had previously written, and then I can go back to where I had left off and continue on with the story. I want to get it finished so I have a completed first draft to work with.

Anyhoo - the summer is winding down (which is hard to fathom). School starts at the end of the month for the kids, Hubby starts back to work on his undergrad degree, and of course I've already started. Hubby and I stunned each other a week or so ago when, as we sat in the air conditioned house to avoid the sultry heat outside, we were discussing that the snow season could potentially start in the next couple of months. I'm so not ready to dig out the snow clothes yet. I hope winter can hold off until November or December.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the residency and I'm glad to be back home. I'm wondering, though, how it's going to be traveling to Connecticut in January?

Friday, August 7, 2009

MFA Residency: Day Six

Today was the last full day of the residency. Our morning workshop was "Leveraging Your Primary Genre: Reviews." This was a very interesting lecture on writing literary/book reviews with some ideas on how to break into the field.

There was also an agent panel, but they were there mostly for the second year students. We newbies aren't ready to meet panelists yet, but they had good general information to offer.

Finally, we met again with our mentors to finalize plans for each class including reading lists and writing assignments. Although each mentor claimed to not want to take time away from my writing by piling on reading material, I still have 14+ books and 10 screenplays to read for this semester. And that's in addition to writing a first draft of a screenplay, and various writing assignments. I think I'm going to die right now. Just drop dead from anticipated exhaustion.

But, overall, the entire residency has been simultaneously exhausting and inspiring. I met lots of other student writers in various stages of the program, plus many published writers and mentors. I got lots of great information, advice, and writing tools.

This program is going to be great, if I survive it!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

MFA Residency: Day Five

Well, this morning was a brutal critique workshop in creative non-fiction - something I am woefully unfamiliar with - and apparently it showed in my essay. But I got a lot of good advice and suggestions and if I decide I ever want to revise the essay, I'll have a good idea how to do it.

Later this afternoon we had peer workshops where we shared a few pages of something we've written with our genre-specific peers. After the whipping my work took this morning, I wasn't really looking forward to another soul-baring, but this time, since it was my primary genre (something I actually do better), the feedback was much better. Thank goodness. No matter how hard we try not to be, we writers are a sensitive bunch (I'm sure you can relate). Our feelings get hurt easily.

The rest of the day was free and I spent it writing syllabi for my courses. This program is very self-directed. Students work with their mentors to design the courses to fit their goals, including reading and writing to be done based on what they wish to accomplish. Because of the self-directed nature of the coursework, we have to write our own syllabi to be approved by our mentors and the program director. So I spent the day researching appropriate reading material and writing syllabi.

Now I'm going to relax for the evening, consider story ideas for a novel (or a screenplay - I can't decide which I want to write for my thesis), then watch the season finale of So You Think You Can Dance.

More tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MFA Residency: Day Four

Another great day. The morning workshop was "Plot in Fiction" where we covered some literary history, some nuts and bolts of plot and dramatic arc, applied those principles to some reading we had been given a week or so ago, then worked on some writing exercises. All in all it was a very information-dense and informative workshop. I was pleased with what I produced from the prompts.

We then attended a thesis panel and discussed thesis tips and advice.

Next, a reading of three very good pieces.

Another panel with a rep from Barnes and and a literary promoter.

It was a long day of listening, so I begged off again on the evening's readings. It's been a lot of information to assimilate.

During a break in activities today I did a little searching through the writing work I have saved to my hard drive and found a couple of plays I forgot I'd written. It's been a while since I've looked at my writing. It's interesting when you go back and look at pieces you haven't read for a while - sometimes you realize they suck, sometimes you surprise yourself. I was pleasantly surprised by three plays I found. One 10-minute, one shorter, and one unfinished which is intended to be longer. I also found an essay I'm going to submit to an anthology of women's essays.

So all in all a pretty good day!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

MFA Residency: Day Three

Today was an awesome day. The morning workshop was all about screenwriting, and was moderated by Don Snyder, author of many books but specifically of both the novel and screenplay for Fallen Angel (he's also my mentor). He was a welcome wealth of insider information, practical craft advice, and anecdotes. It was quite an enjoyable morning and I learned quite a bit. Now I'm itching to get started on a screenplay I've been thinking about for a while now, and yet I still want to write novels. I don't know where I'm going to find the time to do all the reading that's piling up for my coursework, do the writing I'm dying to do, work full time, and raise a family. Hmmm.

After lunch we attended a lecture on workshop etiquette and a lecture on leveraging your MFA into the magazine industry. Both very useful and informative lectures.

There's another reading tonight, but frankly I'm exhausted and begged off. I'll go to the reading tomorrow night.

Also, a bit of news: my first six-sentence story has been published online at Six Sentences (Strawberry Blues). I've become very interested in this form and have written two more six-sentence stories since I've been here at the residency. I hope they don't get tired of me submitting over at the Six Sentences website.

That's it for today....more tomorrow!

Monday, August 3, 2009

MFA Residency: Day Two

Today was pretty cool. I participated in a creative non-fiction workshop which is actually a 2-day workshop; today and Thursday. Several weeks ago each of us was required to send a non-fiction piece we'd written to everyone else in the class, then we were told to read each of the other pieces and write a one page critique for each one. It was a lot of reading, but very worth it since I'm not primarily a non-fiction writer (though very interested in it), and it also gave me a chance to read the kinds of things other people are writing.

So today (and Thursday) we're workshopping all the pieces. We shared our critiques, helped each other with ideas on where the pieces could be better, how it didn't work, etc. Mine wasn't on today's list, so I'll have to wait until Thursday. But it's really awesome to see other styles and some very interesting subject matter.

Of course instead of narrowing my focus of interest these workshops only seem to be inspiring me to try different kinds of writing!

Our next stop for the day was a panel with recently graduated students discussing the internship requirement for the program, what they did for their internships, and how the internship, if chosen properly, can be a catalyst for learning and possibly employment or publication.

Next, we met with the instructor of the online course we'll be taking this semester, "Online Multigenre Workshop," which as far as I can tell will consist of far too much reading, some critiquing of each other's work, and some online submission.

Finally, we met for peer workshops which was a 2 1/2 hour meeting of about a dozen of us focusing on fiction. We had to really stretch to kill the time with applicable conversation, but we got some useful answers to questions about the nuts and bolts of the program from students who have been in it longer, we talked some in general about fiction, and then we decided that since we have another such meeting, but 3 1/2 hours, on Thursday that we'd share some work with each other and use the time for some critiquing. So now I have to decide what the heck to send to all of them to read.

Oh, and we got our tuition bills today, too. Ouch.

Overall, though, it was a very productive day. Looking forward to another one tomorrow!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

MFA Residency: Day One

I'm going to write a daily blog about my first MFA residency experience, partly as a way for me to assimilate the information and partly because there may be some useful writing information worth sharing.

Today we attended our first workshops. I participated in a workshop entitled, "Writing Like A Painter" where we talked about such concepts as false center or absence of center, narration and master narrative, and unity. The mediator used the novel, "The Sea," by John Banville and the artwork of Pierre Bonnard to illustrate his points.

We attended a discussion panel about getting the most out of mentorships, then met with our assigned mentors to begin discussions about our first courses, defining writing goals and designing reading lists based on those goals.

Finally, we went to a reading in the hotel lounge where we listened to two graduates of the program read excerpts from their novels.

Yesterday we attended a program orientation where we were informed that during our two year tenure in the program, aside from the coursework, we'll be tasked with an enrichment project which is unrelated to writing but is an experience which will make us even more well-rounded. I think I'll use my participation in the local chamber chorale as my enrichment project.

We must also do an internship of some sort, and I plan to approach the English Dept at the local university (where I just finished my BA) and see if I can arrange a teaching practicum. My ultimate goal is to teach at the university level in order to earn a paycheck and benefits while at the same time exploring all the different kinds of writing I want to do.

Finally, of course, we have to write a book length thesis project. I haven't decided yet if I want to write a novel or a screenplay. Truthfully, I want to write both. We'll see how ambitious I am as I move forward. As it turns out, my mentor has done just that. He wrote a novel then wrote the screenplay for the movie version of the same novel.

Anyway, that's it for day one. We'll see what day two brings!