From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Friday, September 30, 2011

Growing Up

Is weird. I've decided that 22 is both very old and very young. It is old because all the sudden there is all this responsibility and pressure that hasn't been there before, and different things are expected of you, and people start talking to you a little bit different and telling you different things than they would have before. It is young because people start telling you different things than they would have before, and you realize how much you were oblivious to before, and how weighty the world is and you feel like you're finally seeing things for what they really are in a lot of ways.

And seeing things for what they really are can be hard. There is some truth to the saying that ignorance is bliss. People are hurt and abused and go to jail and have depression and commit suicide and starve and manipulate in truly horrible ways, and the older you get and the more you know, you start realizing that these things are not just abstractions, they really happen to actual people, sometimes (often) much, much closer to home than you ever expected.

Sometimes I have growing pains, and I just sit and think, how do I even take in all this? What am I supposed to do with it? Why have I lucked out, when sometimes it would be easier for me to just have gone through something myself than to see someone else go through it?

This is when I know I really am an incurable optimist.

I do not think its right to wallow in the bad. Life sucks and then you die just doesn't cut it. For so many reasons. Yes, sometimes life sucks, but even in the midst of everything terrible, there is beauty and redemption and hope. Always.

I do not think its right to pretend, to shy away, or to leave the bad in the world at the level of abstraction. We cannot pretend abuse and pain and loneliness don't exist. They do. We cannot pretend it won't happen in our personal world, because it will, and it already has, even if we don't see it. And above all, because from my perspective this is the easiest trap to fall into, we CANNOT gloss over it. We MUST face the world with absolute brutal honesty.

We have absolutely no right to judge. Nobody is perfect, and pain has happened to everyone. We cannot reach people or love them if we judge them. We must look them in the eye. God will always be there for people that hurt, but so must we. That means saying, even though God is the only one who can ultimately heal you and take care of everything, and even though this is dirty and messy and painful, if you'll let me I would like to stay here right by your side and go through it with you, every step. Because, people, that is life. Dirty and messy and painful. It doesn't have to be soul-witheringly lonely too.

But remember, too, it is not only dirty and messy and painful. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, the dirt and mess and pain is only a small part of life. That's why wallowing is wrong. Yes, mud needs to be addressed, cleaned thoroughly and not swept under the rug; but make music while you're doing it, even if you're singing through tears. The music is all the sweeter for it.

Thank you for letting me collect my thoughts out-loud. Its been a bit of a philosophical few weeks, in case you couldn't tell. Thank you, also, for letting me get a bit religious. Hope you don't mind too much. What does all this have to do with writing, you say? Think of it this way: Who do you think make the best writers? The people who won't acknowledge the mess? The people who wallow in it?

Nope :)

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Personal Editing List

[This is a re-blog of a post I did back in 2010]

Every writer has their own unique method, style, and voice, and with this comes unique issues. There are certain quirks, turns of phrase, and specific cliches that they tend towards in their writing. Recognizing these is the first step in avoiding them. It can be hard to figure out what they are, but having others read your writing is one way. Be humble and willing to accept feedback and apply it according as you see fit.

My suggestion is to make a list of your own personal writing cliches, make a "personal editing list", and keep it up by your writing area. If you know that you have certain bad habits, you can consciously keep from falling into them.

Here are some things from my own personal editing list. Some of them are specific, sentence level things, and some have to do with the overall, general idea.

-Struggle vs. slump: I have the bad habit of setting my characters in emotionally hard situations that they can't really do much about except passively accept it and try to be happy despite the problem. This can turn into simple "portrait of a saint" (as my creative writing professor called them) stories, which may show kind, generous characters, but they are passive and not interesting as characters. Every story needs active, immediate and relatable conflict, and this is something I have to consciously remember as I come up with my story ideas.

-Words that don't do enough: I have a list of words that I have a habit of overusing, which don't do as much as I want them too. Some of those words are smiled, laughed, sighed, cried and looked. Words like this are so generic that they don't really show whats going on. Its not that they're absolutely forbidden, but in general, for them to be effective they need context.

-A story isn't poignant/meaningful/significant just because its about infidelity/abandonment/abuse. These things are poignant and important, of course, but they are often such huge topics that they overwhelm the piece. An incredibly meaningful, successful piece can be about things as simple as sister jealousy, unmet expectations, or just the small things that make meaning in our every day life. I have a habit of picking topics like infidelity just because I assume that if its about something significant like that, the piece itself will be significant. That is not necessarily the case, and remembering that helps me steer away from sentimentalism.

What are your bad writing habits, and what are some good ways for getting over them?

Sarah Allen

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reading Supplemental

I've decided I want to do a little better on my supplemental reading. By that I mean anything other than fiction. I do okay with poetry, and want to stick with that, but I want to maybe get into some non-fiction too.

It just seems like this is a good idea. The more we read the more we know the more we have to write about, right? And its not like this needs to be a big project either. I'm thinking maybe a poem or two, maybe a short story, and a chapter of something like Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews or a fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers (though some might say that's cheating.) Maybe some books on Greek or Norse mythology would be cool. Maybe some biographies. Maybe the Qu'ran.

What do you think? Mythologies, folktales and biographies are what sound interesting to me right now, but what other suggestions do you have? Or are there particular biographies/books on mythology that are extra awesome?

Sarah Allen

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Someday


Someday I will be a published author.
Someday I will win literary awards and be published in the New Yorker.
Someday someone will come up to me on the street and ask for my autograph.
Someday I will earn enough money from books to afford trips to London and cruises to Alaska.
Someday I will have a house and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. Tricolor.
Someday a boy who I love will love me back and we will get married in December and go on a romantic honeymoon to Alaska and live in a house with a big library and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy.
Someday I will adopt a little boy and name him Linus.

Today I will write.
Today I will submit my writing to competitions and to the New Yorker.
Today I will make sure my roommates know they are special.
Today I will not go over my budget.
Today I will read and look at pictures of puppies.
Today I will be happy with myself, my family, and my books.
Today I will play with my little sister and make lesson plans.

Oh today.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Passion vs. Technique: Writing from the Heart and the Head

So I just finished Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Having quite enjoyed it (OMG ANN BRONTE IS AMAZING!!!) it got me thinking: why do books like the ones from the Bronte sisters and other writers hit you so hard and stick around so long, while others, if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht as an example, leave a little to be desired?

My conclusion is that the difference is in the passion. The passion the writer imbues into the story as well as the passion within the story itself. Anything written by the Brontes just oozes with passion, while Ms. Obreht's novel, though absolutely beautiful and technically stunning, feels a little manufactured. Passion is what grips readers and makes your story timeless.

Here's the catch: if the technique is too sloppy or obtrusive, the passion will not come across the right way. I don't doubt that Tea wrote her book with the same passion and feeling as any author; but her technique was so cerebral and precise that it kind of got in the way of a unique voice. On the other end of the spectrum, wannabe writers everywhere (and believe me, they are) who either don't know or don't care about technique don't give us anything but an abstract, angsty mess that is way too generic to be relatable or interesting. Readers want to be able to really see you, clearly and uniquely, meaning their vision must be neither pixelated or smeared.

Easier said then done. I think most of us err on the side of messy, but we can't beat ourselves up too much about that or we might over-analyze and over-write, and that's no better than if we left it messy. Writing is a delicate balancing act between being fake and being repulsive, which I guess isn't so different from real life. This is, I think, where knowledge and experience come into play. Knowledge of what the technical "rules" actually are, and lots and lots of experience reading different writers who keep them and break them in interesting ways. Then we can experiment and see what works. But the rules are there for a reason--they don't restrict our voice, instead with proper use they help our voice come across more clearly. That means that when the rules aren't used, its for a reason too.

Anyway, those are some more of my English-major-nerd-Bronte-sisters-inspired thoughts. But what else is new. Do you agree? Do you think I'm being the right degree of cautious about keeping the literary "rules"? And there are writing rules all over the place, so which do you think are the right ones?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How To Make Your Blog More Popular

Short on time today, so I thought I'd leave you with the video I made as part of the Dear Muse vlogs as an attempt to answer some questions I've been getting about marketing a blog. This is super important for writers, because blogs are one of the main means at our disposal for book publicity. These are just my ideas based on my own experience, and if you have additional ones, I'd love to hear them.



Sarah Allen

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?


So I've been reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I am totally hooked. I'm just never swept away in quite the same way as I am when I read a Victorian novel. And its fabulous to be discovering a new Bronte sister. I mean, I've known of Ann, of course, I just haven't gotten around to reading any of her stuff until now. And its wonderful. I thought she was going to be much more cerebral and much less emotional then her sisters. She is definitely more sensible, realistic, and wry, but the emotion is just as strong. She can be quite hilarious as well.

Here's what's gotten me thinking: Jane Eyre does hold a very special place in my heart, as does Villette. But why is Ann the sister who has been historically brushed aside when the other competition is Wuthering Heights? Why has history chosen to emphasize one and not the other? Especially when Emily only wrote the one, and its not as good anyway? This is of course my personal biased opinion, and I'm not trying to discredit or invalidate Wuthering Heights. It is a beautiful book and for certain readers packs quite a hefty emotional punch, which is why it has stuck around for so long. What I'm trying to say here, is that I wonder why Ann is the one who has been brushed aside when she's just as good a writer as Charlotte and (*ahem* better than *ahem*) Emily?

Bit of a rant, but really the broader question is this: how do we want to be remembered and how do we create that legacy for ourselves? I'm sure much of it we can't help, and is just up to chance and history. I mean, its not like Ann would have chosen to be Bronte the Lesser. I think all we can do is create the best work we can, work hard at everything else, and hope for the best.

Me? I want to be remembered as an author who tried to show that its not easy or naive, but honorable and okay to be happy. That there is truth and beauty. That good art leads to faith and faith is power. Faith in ourselves individually and collectively, but also faith in something larger than ourselves. Like truth and beauty.

How do you want to be remembered?

Sarah Allen

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vertical Movement and the Pyramid of Abstraction

How many of you have heard of the Pyramid of Abstraction?

To me, this provides a great mental image of good writing. The base of your writing, the support, the majority, is specific, concrete detail. That's where the real connection happens, the true understanding.

Once you have these details, though, then something more needs to happen, something I call vertical movement, because in a way it is movement up the pyramid. You don't even need to get into abstractions, but somehow things need to be tied together in a way that gives the piece a connection to something more universal, or larger than itself. I'm going to use poetry as an example, but I think this applies to all kinds of writing.

A Spiral Notebook
by Ted Kooser

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.


Amazing, beautiful detail. I love all the metaphors with the spiral wire. That is the biggest part of this piece. But do you see where it goes vertical? I would say its the lines "but instead to stand in a drugstore and hang on to one subject a little too long." It starts talking about something much, much more than just a spiral bound notebook, even though that's what its technically talking about. But it becomes more symbolic, more universal. Slightly more abstract, but you'll notice he's still using concrete, specific language.

Next example.

Break of Day
by Galway Kinnel

He turns the light on, lights
the cigarette, goes out on the porch,
chainsaws a block of green wood down the grain,
chucks the pieces into the box stove,
pours in kerosene, tosses in the match
he has set fire to the next cigarette with,
stands back while the creosote-lined, sheet-
metal rust-lengths shudder but just barely
manage to direct the cawhoosh in the stove—
which sucks in ash motes through gaps
at the bottom and glares out fire blaze
through overburn-cracks at the top—
all the way to the roof and up out through into
the still starry sky starting to lighten,
sits down to a bowl of crackers and bluish milk
in which reflections of a 40-watt ceiling bulb
appear and disappear, eats, contemplates
an atmosphere containing kerosene stink,
chainsaw smoke, chainsmoke, wood smoke, wood heat,
gleams of the 40-watt ceiling bulb bobbing in blue milk.


Again, amazing detail. This one is a little trickier to find where it goes vertical, but I would say its the line "appear and disappear, eats, contemplates an atmosphere containing kerosene stink, etc...". That is where it starts meaning more than its actually saying. Its not just describing things anymore, it mentions so subtly the way this man feels about all the things its just described, and it doesn't even go into how the man feels about his life of all these things because we've already gotten such a strong sensation of our own from all the concrete details that it doesn't need to. If he started saying, "the man was disenchanted with the kerosene stink..." that would be a gross oversimplification. Maybe that's it, but maybe it's comfortable, or it's exciting, or its whatever. Its could be any or all of them, and that's the point. Vertical expands the poem to mean more than its actually saying, but it still lets the reader find much of their own meaning.

What do you think? I hope I'm making sense here. It's ironic trying to describe an abstract principle of not being abstract. To me, though, this is one of the key principles that once people get, it takes their writing a gigantic leap forward. Then its a matter of figuring out how to do this and do it effectively, which is a much more painstaking, never ending process. If you start with that strong, concrete base, and just keep going, the vertical almost takes care of itself. You'll find the places where its starting to mean more, and you can go from there. Then you'll have something that just blows peoples minds.

Sarah Allen

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 and Why We Need Books

What is there, really, to be said on days like this? Though it might sound ironic coming from a writer, I think at its deepest level experience is beyond words, but its experiences like 9/11 that make it seem pointless to even try. What do Harry Potter and Jane Austen matter at times like this? I think that is a very fair question. What's the point of books and art when people are dying and hungry and poor and afraid?

Books can't give people food and water and shelter. For some people this is reason enough to consider fiction a waste of time. And its true, books don't fulfill those most basic needs. But I would suggest that books and art fulfill an even deeper need, and on the grand scale are even more important then food and shelter. Events like September 11th are symptoms of a much larger and more pervasive disease.

We humans are so stuck inside ourselves. Fear, greed, pride, bigotry, hate--all the reasons behind things like terrorist attacks and other crime--are a result of people not being able to see past themselves.

Basically, we need books to take us outside ourselves.

Reading and art gives us knowledge, experience, and understanding. We feel things we might never have otherwise felt, and see things through a very different perspective. I think that, often, just the experience of having an outside center of focus, no matter what it is, can be enough of a wake-up call and paradigm shift to get us to have even a moment of trying to see things from someone else's perspective before we act. This is a bit of a silly, tongue-in-cheek question, but I wonder how many members of Al Quaida or the Taliban have read Pride and Prejudice? And vice versa; how many of us have read the Quoran?

So sometimes things suck. Sometimes people hurt other people. Sometimes the world seems like its full of hurt and people who don't care. We need to care. As individuals we should try and comfort and give and donate, and do whatever we can to, in the words of nerdfighters everywhere, end world suck. But as far as a world collectively, you know what we the world could do to help and really get at the root of the problem?

Read.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting Past The Wall

It's writing time. You put on a comfy t-shirt, turn on the Michael Giacchino station on Pandora, and begin. Starting takes a little while, but after about 50 or 100 words you start getting into more of a flow. The goal is 1000 words, but then at around 650, you hit the wall. It just stops coming. You try plodding, but nothing really happens and everything feels contrived. So what do you do?

The obvious answer is to take a break. I think this generally is a good idea. Go on a run, get something to eat, read, just get away from the computer for a while. Then you come back revitalized and more ready to keep going.

But what if you only have a short time to write to begin with, and can't afford much of a break? Perhaps mini-breaks would work; grabbing a granola bar, taking a quick lap around the room, reading a poem. Maybe. But, assuming I'm not the only one who experiences this, what do you do to kick things off again? How do you push through successfully? Maybe a change of scenery or something. I really want to make some good progress on my novel, and that means I need to be able to get past the wall.

Advice?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Downside to Being An Optimist

So I'm an optimist. Clearly. I believe that its better to be happy than not, and that when one is not happy, efforts should be made to change that. Not everybody believes that way. So there's a few things about being an optimist that I have to explain. That I want to get off my chest.

It makes us, or at least me, feel awful when someone assumes that we don't understand sadness or depression. We do. In fact, you'd be surprised. Yes, we're generally happy. When you come to us wallowing, our automatic reaction is to try and buoy you up, help you see the positives. That does not mean we don't understand the suck. That doesn't mean that we don't have times, long periods of it, when our utmost belief in and efforts at happiness don't work. Its terrifying. Sometimes the optimism of even genuine optimists is a facade, turned on as a reaction against the pessimism and depression of the people around them. Both to try and help them, because optimism is auto-mode, and also because they have to defend optimism with their whole soul, especially in times when its hard to believe in it, or they will crumble.

When optimists fall, they fall hard. In my experience, this is something pessimists don't quite get. Being an optimist can be painful. In general, we're happy and doing our thing, but that makes sad and depressed and overwhelmed that much harder to take. Both inside and outside of us. And because we're generally happy, we're not quite sure how to talk about the bad when it happens. We don't want to freak anyone out. Not to be harsh, but wallowers become used to being in a hard place, and used to talking about it and handling it. But when it happens to an optimist, it happens extra bad, and we're alone with it too. To sound totally cheesy and angsty, there have been many times when the closest people in my life have no clue how bad I'm hurting and panicking on the inside, because I'm the "happy one" and I don't know how to not be. Not anyone's fault, just how things are. And I know I'm not the only one.

Being optimistic doesn't mean being naive about or ignoring the ugliness and crap in the world. That's being naive and ignorant. Optimists take the crap and decide to be happy anyway. As much bad as there is, I believe there is also much good, much beauty, and much to be grateful for. I believe pessimism doesn't do anybody any good. I guess what I'm trying to say is don't make assumptions about someone because they're not on Prozac or in therapy. In a sense, they're the ones doing it on their own.

As a side note, I'm doing fine. I'm stressed (who isn't?), but actually doing pretty good. This is just something that's been on my mind for a long time, based on past experience and conversations.

I also hope I haven't offended anybody. I'm not trying to make a statement about depression or clinical drugs or anything like that, I'm trying to make a statement about the assumptions and stereotypes of happy people that frustrate me. I don't think any two people can truly, completely understand each other; for now I think we've got to leave that to deity. Everyone is a unique individual, and I'm talking in generalities here. I'm sure there are points I've missed, things I don't understand. But all this is what I do understand, or at least the way I see things.

I'm interested to hear what you think.

Sarah Allen

Sunday, September 4, 2011

God Caught a Cold

"God Caught a Cold" by Cynthia Rylant

And he was such a baby.
He never caught colds.
He loved to brag about it.
And now here He was:
snot nosed.
It's hard to be
authoritative
with a cold.
It's hard to
thunder
"THOU SHALT NOT!"
when it comes out
"thou shalt dot!"
Nobody takes Him
seriously.
And besides,
He wanted some comic books
and juice
and somebody to be
nice to Him.
He called up His
old friend
Mother Theresa.
He asked her to
come over and see Him.
He asked could she
bring some comic books.
And of course she did.
Mother Theresa loves
all who suffer.
Even God.
Maybe Him a little more.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Finding an Ilene

If you don't subscribe to vlogbrothers, you should. If you haven't seen John Green's latest video, here it is:



First of all, this video makes me feel so much better. Very nice to hear that post-graduation is terrifying for pretty much everyone.

Secondly, John gives some fantastic advice here. Get an Ilene. But I want to know how to get an Ilene. How do you find a professional/experienced person in your desired field who is willing to mentor you, let alone talk to you? I suppose the internet makes finding potential Ilene's relatively easy, but how do you go about contacting them, and what in the world do you say? "I was wondering if you would be my Ilene."

Anyway, just thought I'd ask for your thoughts. Do any of you have Ilene's?

Sarah Allen
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