Friday, December 27, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: American Passage: The History of Ellis Island

Immigration in the U.S. is complicated. This is a fact. And, from what I've read in Vincent J. Cannato's non-fiction account of Ellis Island's history, it's always been complicated.

Welcome to December's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse! I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday season! If you're not busy socializing with family, watching football, or taking in the season's festivities, then might I interest you in a discussion on U.S. immigration? Sounds fun, doesn't it?

This past month I dove into a non-fiction account of Ellis Island -- American Passage: The History of Ellis Island -- that little island in New York Harbor that initially threw its doors open to foreigners from all over Europe. Your first question might be why I felt the need to delve into such an extensive history on immigration, and I'll clear the confusion up right away. I'm researching a new book I plan on writing come the new year and the majority of it takes place on Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century-- a time when hundreds of thousands of immigrants were spilling into the United States. I found it all so very fascinating!

Vincent J. Cannato's book takes the reader on a journey that right away makes one see exactly where the growing pains of immigration began. His book is primarily about straightforward facts when it came to laws and regulations concerning immigrants and how to handle the rising tide. This is what Cannato says about it in his Introduction:
"Americans need a history that does not glorify the place in some kind of gauzy, self-congratulatory nostalgia, nor mindlessly condemn what occurred there as the vicious bigotry of ugly nativists. Instead, this book seeks to understand what happened at Ellis Island and why it happened."
And that's exactly what I was looking for when I cracked this book open. Cannato details the history of Ellis Island from it's early days as Gibbet Island, an execution ground for pirates (I know!), through the tumultuous and insanely busy days at the turn of the century, to its waning days as a detention center for Communist sympathizers in the 1950s. Ellis Island was officially closed as an immigration/detention center in 1954. By then, most buildings on the island had been shuttered and the main building had fallen into disrepair with some of the detainees commenting that the place was "a disgusting place," "a prison," met with "bitter disappointment," and "dirty, dingy, and grey with age."

In its heyday, Ellis Island (but initially Castle Garden before Ellis Island's main building was built) was the main immigration station in the United States, handling and processing some 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1924. No immigrant could fully say he/she had entered the U.S. until they passed through those final doors and took the ferry into New York City. In many ways, Ellis Island also became a lightening rod for controversy. With the rise of eugenics, many stalwart Americans opposed the idea of letting just anyone into the country, especially the dirty, unwanted foreigners from over seas. On the flipside, immigrant societies and newspapers ripped Ellis Island's administration apart on many occasions, saying that not enough was being done to keep immigrants safe and free from deportation.

"The Stranger at Our Gate"
A popular depiction of immigrants first
published by the magazine Our Day
 in 1896.

With the 1891 Immigration Act the list of "undesirables" not to be admitted rose. It included "idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous disease, persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, polygamists." As horrifying as it may sound to include immigrants in these categories, this is exactly what they did during the majority of early immigration. The idea was to sift the incoming immigrants and this was the best plan the government could come up with.

I think at times we tend to think of immigration pains as in the here and now. The truth is that the U.S.'s immigration predicament started long before now. Theodore Roosevelt had a lot on his plate at one time and, unfortunately, the passing of the immigration buck just went from president to president, hoping that in some way a solution would finally be found. We still grapple with that indecisiveness today.

Cannato does a thorough job with the historical aspects of Ellis Island, and I was happy to find such a well thought-out source. I will say that there were a few times I was put off by the way Cannato produced his facts. It was obvious he was interjecting his opinion at times. For instance, in an interview given by Vera, Countess of Cathcart in 1926, when detained for adultery (yes, that did happen under the moral turpitude clause) after her love interest the Earl of Craven fled to Canada when issued an arrest warrant for the same charge, said the following: "I am not a coward and have not run away, like the Earl of Craven. He has proved himself a coward in many ways." After this, Cannato puts into parentheses: "This was a man who had lost a leg in combat as a young officer during World War I." (Page 262) Cannato saying that when a man loses a leg in war he is no longer a coward? Or that if the man gives the authorities the slip for an arrest warrant that him losing his leg cancels out his present cowardly actions? I'm not sure, but I came across little tidbits like this from time to time. In all, though, I'd say I enjoyed reading Cannato's dissection of such a complicated piece of American history.

So, there you have it. A little breakdown on the U.S.'s history of immigration through Ellis Island. A few years ago I had the privilege to visit what is now the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The main building has been overhauled and is fascinating to visit. What I loved most is the Registry Room where once upon a time incoming immigrants were asked a variety of questions before given or denied entry. It's large, nicely reconstructed and quiet. It's good to just sit there and maybe see if you can hear a conversation or two among the voices of the past.

Ellis Island in 1905.

Ellis Island today.
Make sure to check out other reviews in this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ten Best Christmas Stories: My Undefinitive List

This morning I was idly flipping through my freshest New Yorker when I came across the story "A Christmas Miracle," by Rebecca Curtis. It's an odd, funny story about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through the holidays without strangling each other. (In a bit of heavy, undisguised symbolism, the family's cats are being picked off one by one by prowling coyotes.) Reading the story made me think about the whole genre of The Christmas Story, and how funny it is that it exists. I'm not sure there are equivalents for other religious holidays ... you don't see Easter stories proliferate in the same way, or Rosh Hashanah stories, or Eid al Fitr stories. Or heck, maybe you do, and I'm too culturally isolated to know it.

The original Christmas story is the best-known, of course, but also may be the least typical of the genre. The archetypal Christmas story to me is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which sets the stage for all the Christmas stories henceforth: you need something about family, something about charity, something about forgiveness and/or redemption. Often you have a character (like Scrooge) who is isolated in some way, a solitude that is most profoundly experienced at the holidays. Christmas both highlights the isolation and then fixes it. In "A Christmas Carol" it's literal spirits (ghosts, specters) who do the mending; in most other Christmas stories, it's a more figurative Christmas spirit that brings the isolated person back into the fold.

My own favorite this-time-of-year stories include fairy tales, short stories, movies, and ballets. Here's my list of 10 Best Christmas Stories:

1. A Christmas Carol: May as well start right here. We watch this movie every Christmas Eve, and it has to be the George C. Scott version, because if Christmas is about nothing else, it's about tradition. My kids used to be so scared of Marley's ghost that they'd press against me and hide under the blankets, and last year may be the first year my son was able to watch that whole scene all the way through. But I'm still not sure he's uncovered his eyes when the Ghost of Christmas Future makes its creepy appearance. I love this movie, love Scott's droll portrayal of Scrooge. I also love the message.

Then let him die, and decrease the surplus population

2. Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor: A short story by John Cheever (you can read it here), which is both hilarious and touching. Charlie is an elevator operator who feels terrible self-pity Christmas Eve, and manages to hoodwink the entire population of the building where he works into feeling even sorrier for him than he feels for himself. He winds up almost literally buried in charity.

3. The Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky didn't like his own music for this ballet, or the story, but whatever. What does Tchaikovsky know? I can't tell whether I love this ballet because it's just so familiar, or if the story and music actually does have some intrinsic value ... I just know I love it. I've watched the ballet many times (a number of them as the mother of a ladybug or bumblebee).

4. It's a Wonderful Life: Because Jimmy Stewart. I could watch him read a phone book. Like most stories in this genre, one of the central messages is that "stuff" is not what it's all about. It's funny how drawn we are to that anti-consumerist message at this, the most shoppingest time of year.

5. The Loudest Voice: A short story by Grace Paley (which you can read here) about a group of Jewish schoolchildren, recently immigrated, who are given the major parts in their school's Christmas pageant. The protagonist gets the part of Jesus narrating (looking back on the story) because she has the loudest, clearest voice. The narrator is quite pleased to have the job and, as children usually are, does not share the concerns of her mother, who feels the school has been culturally insensitive. After the play the child listens to the families talk.

They debated a little in Yiddish, then fell in a puddle of Russian and Polish. What I understood next was my father, who said, "Still and all, it was certainly a beautiful affair, you have to admit, introducing us to the beliefs of a different culture."
"Well, yes," said Mrs. Kornbluh. "The only thing ... you know Charlie Turner — that cute boy in Celia's class — a couple others? They got very small parts or no part at all. In very bad taste, it seemed to me. After all, it's their religion." 
"Ach," explained my mother, "what could Mr. Hilton do? They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler? The English language they know from the beginning by heart. They're blond like angels. You think it's so important they should get in the play? Christmas ... the whole piece of goods ... they own it."

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas: Christmas is not complete without Vince Guaraldi's score, which is sweet but a little melancholy — like everything else about Peanuts. And how many of us have come home with one of those kind of trees? Pretty much every one we cut ourselves from the local forests looked like this:

7. The Little Match Girl: Hans Christian Andersen was not a cheery man. And this is not a cheery tale. Written around the same time "A Christmas Carol" was written, it has a similar theme: remember those less fortunate, especially at this, the coldest time of year. Actually, don't just think about those less fortunate, do something about it. When I read this to my daughter, who was about five at the time, she got very angry at the end and said, "That is a terrible story!" That was one of those moments I realized fairy tales are not necessarily children's stories.

8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: A very funny children's book by Barbara Robinson about a group of hellish siblings who almost ruin the annual Christmas pageant. If you have kids in elementary school, this is a great read-aloud for this time of year.

9. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town: My husband and I both grew up with this movie and we can't separate our love for it from our nostalgia for it. It just presses so many wonderful buttons. I love the stop motion, I love the abominable snowman (although he scared the heck out of me as a kid), and I especially love Burgermeister Meisterburger.

10. Love Actually: A movie starring everyone. It should be a mess, with so many characters and so many storylines, but somehow it works. Everyone has a favorite bit: while I do love the vignette pictured below, the character that has stuck with me is Laura Linney's Sarah, who is struggling to deal with her mentally-ill brother. I wish that story would get a movie of its own (especially if it kept Rodrigo Santoro as Karl, because yum), and sometimes I toy with writing a fanfic version of it myself.

What are your favorite Christmas stories? Do you work any of them in to your holiday traditions? If you celebrate a different tradition, does it come with its own stories?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight: A Love Story Told in 18 Years

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Most romantic stories only take a couple of hours to reach a happy resolution and rarely does the viewer get a chance to revisit the characters a few years later. This is not the case of Celine and Jesse, the protagonists of the nineties cult film Before Sunrise.  At a time where most romantic films follow a predictable formula and many viewers may feel manipulated with plot elements they’ve seen again and again: airport tension (analyzed in detail here), contrivances and misunderstandings, the trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight is absolutely refreshing.

What’s different about this trilogy is that each of these films take place in the course of one day. All three movies use dialogue (and the passage of time) to move the story forward, they all have beautiful European scenery and the characters must make a decision by the end of each film. What’s also unique is that each film in this trilogy is produced at a nine year interval. Therefore, the characters have grown (in many cases with the audience) and their lives have entered different stages of life with their subsequent problems. I’ve never seen a trilogy that more realistically portrays life and love as these films have done.

But let’s start from the beginning, in this case: Before Sunrise (1995). Some call this a cult film. Well, I’m here to confess that I’m a member of this cult! I’m convinced that one of the reasons this story had such an impact on me was because I was at the same stage in life as these two main characters. Therefore, it was easy for me to identify with them. I mentioned in a recent post how much I admire simple stories (because it’s the opposite of what I write). Well, it doesn’t get any simpler than Before Sunrise.

Celine and Jesse falling in love in 1995

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are two passengers on a train to Paris. Jesse, an American, strikes a conversation with Celine, a French girl who is returning home from a trip to Budapest. The couple become quickly engaged in their talk and obviously attracted to one another. Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna, where he’s supposed to catch a plane the next day to the US, arguing that in twenty years, when she’s stuck in a dull marriage, she would be wondering what would have happened if she’d picked another guy. Well, Jesse argues, this is her chance to realize that he himself (aka, “another guy”) is not that different from her future husband. Amused, Celine agrees. They spend an entire day and night walking and talking around the streets of Vienna, both knowing that they will have to say goodbye by sunrise, when Jesse has to get on his plane. Now, I know that I had mentioned “airport tension” as a cliché in fiction. However, this is real airport tension as opposed to the sudden (and very overdone) decision of one of the characters in any random romantic comedy to move to another town causing the love interest to realize he/she is about to lose the love of his/her life forever.

In Before Sunrise, the deadline is established from the very beginning and being that the story itself—their conversations and actions—are treated very realistically, we know that it’s unlikely that the film will have a fairy tale ending (though the audience may be hoping for one!)

There is, really, no plot other than how a couple falls in love and what they are going to do about it come the end of the day. But being in my early twenties at the time the film came out, I must have been its perfect target audience. For me, their conversations were absolutely engaging and reflected some of my own thoughts and concerns about relationships and life in general. The film’s ending is open ended and it takes us nine years to know what really happened.

Fast forward to Before Sunset (2004) where we encounter Jesse in Paris. He’s become a successful author and is having a booksigning of his first novel, which was inspired by his fortuitous encounter with Celine in 1995. Well, who lives in Paris? None other than Celine, who has read the book and goes to the bookstore to meet Jesse. The couple resumes where they left of nine years prior. Although they’ve both reached different stages of their lives—he’s married and has a son, and she’s an independent professional—the attraction between them remains the same and not just on a physical level. Much like in 1995, they still have a lot to say as they walk along the streets of Paris, clarifying to the viewer what really happened after the open ending of Before Sunrise. The question here remains the same, will Jesse take his plane back to his wife and kid by sunset? Again, watching the couple’s banter is most entertaining, especially because the issues they now discuss are not the same as when they were twenty-something idealists who thought they could change the world.

Things are not so sunny and cheerful when Celine and Jesse meet again in 2004

This year I had the pleasure of watching the third installment of this love story, Before Midnight (2013). Again, the characters here mimicked my own stage in life with preteen children and marital quarrels. Yet, there was still a little bit of the magic of previous films in the way Celine teases Jesse as they walk along the Greek countryside during a family vacation. But there is a deadline here too—something has set off a possible breakup and a decision is about to be made before midnight. During the day, we’re exposed to the realities of their lives beyond the romanticism of the previous films and their breakup seems like a realistic possibility as the bumps in their marriage are slowly revealed.

Perhaps the most admirable trait of these films is the character consistency. Although it’s obvious that both Celine and Jesse have grown, their personalities remain the same (and so does their banter). I have often been disappointed with sequels or soap operas where the characters become unrecognizable by the end, but I was happy to see that this wasn’t the case here. Another strength of the trilogy is the dialogue. Unlike many romantic comedies where the dialogue is sometimes contrived and serves the plot (ex: artificial fights and misunderstandings) the dialogue here is actually engaging. I find it interesting that both Ethan Hawke (a writer in addition to being an actor) and French actress Julie Delpy co-wrote the second and third films with director Richard Linklater. Well, who would know those characters better than the actors performing them?

Will Jesse and Celine make it?

Now for the films’ down side. I don’t think the sequels would appeal to viewers who haven’t watched the first one. Whereas Before Sunrise can be a stand alone film, I don’t think the other two could do the same. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) It seems to me it would be similar to watching a soap opera or drama series halfway through. The other thing is that these films seem to have a small, niche audience. I’ve often wondered if the first film would have the same appeal to me now as it did when I was in my early twenties.

For those who have watched one or all the trilogy, do you think the audience’s age affects the perception and appreciation of these films? Did you mind their open-endings? Would you like to see Celine and Jesse again in nine years?

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater writing Before Sunset.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Killing Them Kindly

Okay, I have a confession to make. (A new year is quickly approaching, so I can make an early resolution if I want to, right?)

I tend to laugh during movie death scenes.

There, I said it. (My resolution will be to try and stop laughing during death scenes.)

Last week, I joined some friends in viewing a film that was kind of 'meh' for me, but what really got me was the storyline. It was neatly tied in a bow and everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, except for the one guy who got shot by the drug cartel and died a slow, chatty death. And I couldn't help but laugh.

After watching the film, a friend who'd been sniffling behind me during the death scene called me out on my inappropriate behavior during such a poignant scene. Oh, for shame! He had leftover tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face when he asked, so I knew he wasn't really angry at me. But, I did have a moment of "Oh, I'm a horrible person!" And I hadn't realized I'd laughed. I guess it's become second nature when it comes to certain scenes I watch (by "certain" I mean unbelievable scenes that make the story seem cheesy).

So, why did I laugh?

Well, it goes back to that chatty character shot through with a bullet. He just wouldn't stop talking and die already. Maybe that sounds callous, but in reality, chatty deaths are not the way to take your character out of the story. It prolongs the scene as your character stands on his/her soapbox one last time, when you're almost sure he/she would be dead by now. It boils down to suspension of disbelief for the viewer or reader.

Then the question may be -- "What is the best way to kill off a character?"

Well, that depends on your genre. Even in the murder mystery realm there's a difference of opinion as to how to knock someone off right. A hardboiled crime novel will have no qualms of shooting things up as a character walks down the street. No one bats an eye when the body count rises. And the more expendable characters, the better. But, then you get into your cozy mysteries and the blood and gore is left off the page. Characters tend to "happen upon" the murder victim, and from there clues are meticulously sought out while the body is quietly removed from the scene. Literary tends to go either way. There could be a very public, gory display of death, or it could be a story centered around a mother slowly dying of cancer throughout the length of the novel. It all depends on genre and what the audience is expecting.

But, here are five things you don't want. These will leave your readers rolling their eyes:

  • Chatty Cathy Deaths -- As I mentioned above, nobody enjoys a chatty corpse. These are death scenes where it's obvious the victim is on death's door, but for whatever reason the author has decided that a long, lengthy soliloquy is needed. Unless you're Shakespeare, a drawn out, more than "merely a flesh wound" death is unnecessary. Don't let the character keep pulling his own string!
  • The Incredibly Overworked Death -- In these deaths, characters are fatally wounded, but they flail and carry on. They just won't die. A 1973 Turkish film, Kareteci Kiz, was voted in 2012 to have the worst death scene ever. (You're intrigued now, aren't you?) I didn't add the clip, but you're more than welcome to hop on over to YouTube and check it out. You'll see a useless bystander, some tragically horrible karate and knife action, about five random shots fired, lots of badly placed fake blood, and death in slow-mo. Sounds believable, right? You'll get a good laugh!

Look at all that fake blood!
And I thought the bullet wound was
 somewhere else!
  • The "No, He's Not Really Dead! It Was Just a Dream!" -- One great television show comes to mind when I think of this one:  Newhart. This show pulls off what could be seen as a death that didn't really happen (I was never really sure if Dick was supposed to have died in that final scene). After Dick is struck on the head by a golfball and the scene fades to black, we see that Newhart was nothing more than a dream during The Bob Newhart Show. Sound trippy? It kind of is if you've ever watched it. Although Newhart pulled this off beautifully, deaths that end up becoming dream sequences just don't work anymore. They've become clichéd and are seen as an easy out for the writers. Nobody likes to bid adieu to a favorite show, so why not make it seem like it was all a dream? Just ask the folks over at Roseanne. They tried to pull off something similar, only they didn't fare as well in their final episode.

One of the best season finales ever,
only, I wouldn't try this in your
own writing.
  • Fatal Cliffhangers That Fall Flat -- Arguably one of the best "will he or won't he die" cliffhangers ever comes from Dallas (the 1980s version, not the more recent one). During one hot, feverish summer in 1980, fans of the show barely slept because one question nagged their thoughts:  "Who shot J.R.?" Although J.R.'s life hanging in the balance at the end of Season 2 is one for the record books, chances are many of you can't even name his revealed shooter. As spectacular as the shooting may have been, it's best if a main character goes out at the hands of someone important, someone who holds a lot of meaning in that character's life. It took the show two months to reveal who-done-it, and it turned out to be a jealous mistress shooting him in a fit of anger. Hmm...With so many other characters out for J.R.'s blood was this the best move? That one is up for debate! Oh, and the shooter's name was Kristin Shepard.

Fascinating show, but I'm not so
sure about the shooter's reveal.
What do you think?
  • Killing the Most Beloved of All Characters -- This final point pertains more to who you take out and not how you take them out. We've all read a book or two where a beloved character gets killed off in the end. Mainly, these are stand alone novels, ones where the stakes are high and you know there is potential for death for the MC. But what happens with a series? For instance, in Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, I was pleasantly (but also horribly) surprised when Cinna, Katniss's much-loved stylist, gets killed right before she's scheduled to enter the arena. I was pleasantly surprised because Collins pulled that one off very well. (Sad, because, you know, it's Cinna.) But, let's say you take your readers through the entire trilogy and then BAM! You take out the MC? Not many series do this, but those that do tend to get angry reactions. Why? Because of the investment the reader has made. They are connected to this particular character and they want to see the best for them in the end...not death. How would you have felt if Katniss had met a random death at the end of Mockingjay? My point exactly.

Rewrite this ending:
Katniss dies.
So, there are a few pointers for you as you muddle through the decisions you must make when it comes to thinning the herd of characters in your book. At the very least, try to let your characters go out with a little dignity. Keep in mind that anything cheesy will induce eye rolling and possibly make your reader or viewer laugh!

Are there any death scenes from either books or films that just send you rolling on the floor? Are there any other pointers that come to mind for you? Share with us!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Never Let Me Go

As the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review for November approached, I began weighing and comparing the various books I read this month. As I am writing two Cephalopod reviews, I think will save my actual favorite for my personal blog. For the Writing Sisterhood I'm going to cheat a little and present the weirdest book of the month for me: Never Let Me Go, the strange, semi-dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

First, it's a book written by a Japanese-Brit, which is a little unusual. Ishiguro moved from Japan to the UK when he was five years old, and if this book is any indication, he thoroughly identifies as an Englishman. Ishiguro is best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a lovelorn butler, whom most of you are probably picturing as Anthony Hopkins. As with that novel, Never Let Me Go was turned into a major motion picture. I haven't seen it yet: I'm hoping the film fixes the problems I had with the novel.

Before I progress, there's no way to talk about this book without spoiling it, as mystery and slow-reveal are the driving force behind it. So if you haven't read it yet, you may not want to continue past these next few caveats: first, it's not really as sci-fi book, so ignore that description. It's not even dystopian, not in the sense you're used to. I am reviewing it as a highly-praised polemic that ultimately misses the mark; if you still want to read it, go do that. If you expect you never will, you can keep reading this review.

I read this book in less than 24 hours, so clearly I found it gripping. The setting is an modern-day English boarding school, called Hailsham, populated by "special students," which will put many people in mind of Harry Potter. But what makes these students special is left deliberately unclear, both to themselves and to the reader, for much of the book. The reader learns about what's happening roughly at the same time as the main characters, but unlike the reader, the main characters don't seem to care. And this is one serious flaw of the book: the characters don't care about their own fate.

We've gotten used to dystopian novels—especially where teens are involved—as "rage against the machine" stories where the young 'uns fight back, form a rebellion. And most dystopian novels nowadays are written expressly for a teen audience, but there is a respectable subset of dystopian novels that are written for adults, and in these, the system usually wins: the opposition is crushed or assimilated. Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Minority Report, and Brave New World are examples. Never Let Me Go seems to want to be this sort of book, although the nemesis is less speculative and more realistic than in classic dystopian works. In any event, the system appears to win in the end of Never Let Me Go. But unlike most dystopian novels, nobody even fights back in this one. As I came up to the end of the book, I began to wonder if passivity had actually been bred into the students. Humans, the real kind, have a survival instinct. Are these characters truly human? Did Ishiguro mean to be so ambiguous about that?

What drove the book forward was the unanswered question of what Hailsham is about; you don't know what's going on and you keep thinking the next page might give you the answer. So you keep turning pages. I was glued to the sofa for five hours straight. But once the majority of the questions were answered by the Hailsham's administrators (about 80% if the way through), the forward momentum was really lost for me, and I kind of plodded through the rest of it. And here it is (true spoiler alert here): Society is breeding clones for the purposes of organ transplants. The clones are informed of their purpose and know that the organ donations will result in their death; they seem all right with this. The purpose of Hailsham is not just to rear clone children, but actually to form a little rebellion: the administrators want to prove that clones aren't just vessels, but living breathing feeling human beings. Hailsham is a sort of arts school, and the art that the students produce is supposed to be a sort of Turing test: only real humans, not machines, can make art. The students dutifully churn out art, but the rebellion is quashed when something totally unrelated to the rest of the story happens offscreen, and so the school is shut down.

And so the reader is left with a big "meh." If society doesn't mind, and the clones themselves don't mind, what's the point of a rebellion? If the rebellion ends because of actions completely outside the plotline, what was the storytelling purpose of it? In the end, when the main characters "complete" (i.e., die from having given up all their vital organs) I had a hard time caring. Society didn't care about them, their protectors didn't care about them, and they don't even care about themselves. So why should the reader care? The point of the novel was not the people, but the morality tale. Morality is always a weak pillar on which to hang a story, and Ishiguro doesn't even seem clear on what his moral message is. I have to give it a certain number of stars for holding my attention, but I was left fairly unsatisfied. The whole question raised is whether these test-tube clones, raised only for their organs, are really human. The purpose of the art gallery and the whole Hailsham project was to prove the students had souls, had feelings. But do they? They seem like normal enough children and teens, but when they are asked to walk into the slaughterhouse, they don't hesitate. There's no attempt to escape. There's the barest nod to the idea that at least claiming to fall in love with another student can defer the slaughter for a few years, and the two protagonists make a halfhearted stab at this, but it's not at all convincing.

I have to say, for a book that I didn't especially love, Never Let Me Go has stayed on my mind for days and days since I've finished. Mostly I'm trying to reconcile how it was I was so gripped by the narrative and yet left so terribly unsatisfied. I felt like the novel was a long-winded way of saying, "Hey y'all, don't do cloning, OK?" Or maybe it was the more generic "Science Is Dangerous!" morality tale that much sci-fi (ironically) seems to be. If you're going to write a polemic, you'd better be very clear on your moral message and all your characterization and plot had better be in service to that message. Otherwise, please for the love of God, save us hours of feverish page-turning and just write an essay.

Did you read the novel? Have you read anything else by Ishiguro, and what do you think of his style? Are there novels with a moral message you feel work better than others, and how do they pull it off?

Be sure to check out these other Cephalopod Reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
5.DeniseCCovey6.A Creative Exercise
7.Trisha @ WORD STUFF8.Katie O'Sullivan ~ Read, Write, Repeat
9.V's Reads10.Bird's Nest
11.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!12.The Random Book Review
13.Words Incorporated14.Defending the Pen

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Women of Letters

Within a few short days of each other, three great women authors have just died: Barbara Park on November 15, Doris Lessing on November 17, and Charlotte Zolotow on November 19. I'd like to take a moment remembering them and what they've meant to me and to the writing world.

Barbara Park helped me raise my children. I don't think I'd be the same or my kids would be the same without spunky Junie B. Jones, who started kindergarten with my daughter. They rode on the same stupid smelly bus and were best friends with That Grace and richie Lucille. My daughter and Junie B. bonded over their loud-crying baby brothers together, and lost their first teeth together. Junie B. was not a proper girl: she used language incorrectly and got dirty and held grudges and sometimes lied. We loved her for this. And she was hilarious. I would often laugh so hard reading these books to my kids that I'd have to stop and let someone else take over. We bought the audiobooks to play in the car. I read the books to both kids when they were tiny, and when they were learning to read they turned back to the books as early readers. And while my children never developed the terrible habits critics were so sure Junie B readers would pick up (like saying "worstest" and "thinked" and getting the Pledge of Allegiance wrong), I have continued to this day to talk a little bit like Junie B. Plus also, I am glad of that. Barbara Park was wonderfully witty and irreverent, and was instrumental in teaching my children to love books. Park was only 66 when she died, taken far too soon. She died of ovarian cancer.

Also critical to me as a parent was Charlotte Zolotow, who wrote magical, ethereal picture books. She was most famous for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, but my favorite book of hers was When the Wind Stops, which delicately touches on the issue of mortality. Using the wind as a metaphor for life, Zolotow explains that nothing ever really vanishes, but appears in another place or another form. From the book description: "Rain goes back into the clouds to create new storms, waves fold back upon the sea to become new waves, and the day moves on to make way for the night, bringing the darkness and stars for the little boy to dream in." It's almost Buddhist in its viewpoint, and the gorgeous artwork by Stefano Vitale, painted on wood, perfectly matches the lovely language and flow of the story. I must have read the book a hundred times to my kids, and when I mentioned Zolotow's passing to my husband, he got mistily nostalgic and said he, too, remembers being asked to read that book over and over. It was a perennial favorite. We still own it; I will keep it for my grandchildren. Unlike Barbara Park, Charlotte Zolotow had a good long run of it: she was 98 years old when she died.

Doris Lessing also had a good long run of it: she was 94 when she died. I haven't read Lessing yet, something I intend to remedy quickly, but she still means something to me, as she does to every woman writer. She is an author who is female but is recognized first for her work. The London Times ranked her fifth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945," with no gender attribute between "greatest" and "writers." This is a perk every male writer gets automatically—when is the last time you heard of "men's fiction" or heard an author described as a "great male author?" But for women artists, it is rare to acknowledged without reference to your bits.

Lessing broke a lot of rules: she was a communist, she abandoned two of her children, she didn't attend school past the age of fourteen, she declined damehood. To prove how snobbish the literary world is, how difficult it is for new writers to break in, she tried to publish two novels under a pseudonym. Sure enough, they were rejected by her own publisher, though later picked up by another publisher. She was not especially friendly to the feminist movement, but nonetheless paved the way, merely by her perseverance and success, for other women writers to be taken seriously as writers, rather than as decorative dabblers in the arts.

So for all you did: thanks, ladies. You will be missed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (and what writers can learn from him)

by Lorena

The other day an old college friend of mine invited me to the Hitchcock Film Festival in a downtown theater I thought had closed down years ago. This art-deco building (circa 1927) has been presenting some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films every Friday night for the last two months.

The movie we watched was Rope (1948) with James Stewart. It’s already been three weeks since I saw it and I’m still thinking about it. Funny because that same weekend I watched Gravity—an expensive display of special effects that Hitchcock could have only dreamed about—and a story that values life above all (almost the exact opposite of Hitchcock’s film).Yet, the movie that keeps popping into my head is Rope, one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films and produced 65 years ago. Perhaps if I explain more, you’ll understand why this film impacted me.

Rope was inspired by a famous murder trial from the 1920s. Two affluent college students decide to kill one of their classmates for the simple thrill of killing. As followers of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to other mortals and therefore, above the moral laws of “ordinary” men. They think they can plan and execute the perfect crime and, to make it more thrilling, they hide the corpse inside a chest of books and invite the victim’s friends and parents to a dinner party. In very Hitchcock fashion, they set the dinner buffet on top of the chest. 

James Stewart plays the clever schoolmaster who inadvertently instilled this philosophy in the two murderers. Of course, one of the guys is terrified of getting caught, but the other one seems to almost want his former teacher to discover them so he can admire their “masterpiece” crime. The success of the film is in the juxtaposition of tension (anyone could open that chest since the hinge is broken), dark humor (not only in the party set up but also in the dialogue), the motive for the murder (I’ve never heard of something more original) and the Big Question of whether or not the guys will get caught.

The infamous chest where Philip (far left) and Brandon (far right) hide their friend's body

But this film was fascinating in both content and form. The entire story develops in real time, in one single setting, and the cuts are nearly unperceptive—one continuous scene with very subtle transitions (Hitchcock focuses on a jacket or an ornament to make his cuts seamless.) It’s no surprise that the film was adapted from a play. In addition to this novelty, we have another element that struck me as original: the camera tells its own story. 

Let me explain without ruining the film for those of you who’d like to watch it. Have you noticed how in children’s picture books sometimes there is the story the text tells you, but there are minor stories that you can only see in the illustrations? (this is where a very talented illustrator can thrive). Well, Hitchcock does something similar twice. While the characters are speaking, the camera is moving around them or is focused on another object, making the conversation inconsequential and the visual action what really matters. This is something I haven’t seen in contemporary film making. When dialogue is present in a film, it always supersedes anything that may be going on in a scene. 

Because I have a tendency to write complex novels with abundant characters, I always admire writers and directors who can tell simple stories. The plot here is simple: will the guys be successful at hiding their crime?

So here are some of the lessons I learned (as a writer) from this film:
  1. It’s okay to write a story that develops in a short amount of time (and how challenging that is!) 
  2. People can have the strangest motives for committing a murder (and the more original, the better).
  3. Keeping the tension in a story is key.
  4. Add humor whenever you can (even if it’s dark). 
  5. Plot twists and complicated storylines are not always required to write a gripping tale.
  6. Build a complex backstory (even if you don’t mention all the details) and the story and characters would seem more realistic and believable.
  7. For your ending, keep your audience guessing until the last possible moment.
  8. Suppress the desire to make your main characters a) always sympathetic, and b) always safe. Let them make mistakes.
And here are some of the lessons I learned (as a human):
  1. Life is extremely fragile and can end in an instant.
  2. There are a lot of crazy people out there.
  3. Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche! 
And just for fun (and because I like lists) some of the trivia I learned about this film:
  1. James Stewart was not happy with this role.
  2. Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for Stewart’s role, but he declined.
  3. The real-life case which inspired this film, Leopold and Loeb, was never discussed or acknowledged by Hitchcock to any of his writers or cast members. 
  4. The attorney who defended Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow, delivered one of the most famous speeches there is against capital punishment—and saved their lives. Both got sentenced to life in prison (plus 99 years each for kidnapping).
  5. According to several online reviewers and the scriptwriter himself, there is a homosexual undertone in the film between the main characters (Leopold and Loeb were allegedly a couple). This may have been the reason why the film didn’t do so well in the box office and why Stewart was not entirely happy with it. 
  6. This film is said to have been a reaction to WWII and Hitler’s belief in the superiority of one race (man) over another. 
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the inspiration for Hitchcock's film

Are you a Hitchcock fan? Do you think there's a contemporary director who compares with him?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Strengthening Your Prose

As writers, we enjoy that moment when we sit down to our computers and let our fingers wander across the keyboard to create that perfect story that we believe is going to be loved by all. But then, after that story or novel is out there and finished that first time through, we're stuck with the daunting task of the big "R" --

Don't you wish you looked
this good when you're
ticked off at your manuscript?

Oh, and what a difficult task it is to bring ourselves back around to that story and realize it's not as perfect as we thought it was when we were in the throes of creating our masterpiece. More often than naught, we tend to have a crazy mess on our hands that at times can sound as random as our thought process. I can vouch for more than one occurrence when I've read through a manuscript and the first thing that came to mind was, "What the heck was I thinking putting that in there?" I'm sure any writer has felt this at one time or another.

Since I'm currently in the midst of finishing up some final revisions on my novel before it goes out on the submission process, I wanted to share a few tips on how to polish up your prose, round it off until it's shiny and glowing all over the page, and perhaps help you out in the process, if not for some of the work you've written in the past, then perhaps for something you plan on writing in the future.


I say occasionally on this one because the to-be verb tends to come off a little bit like "he said/she said": You don't necessarily see it after a while because our minds have become so conditioned by its use. But, that doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt to put a little more action into your sentences. Readers want to see the action moving along, and if everything comes off in the passive voice, you can really slow your story down. Evaluate your verb use, think about if there's a better way to form some of those sentences, and think about some stronger verbs (but not completely obscure verbs that only jump out at your readers) and finally look at the flow to make sure that what you've changed is really working in your storyline.


I'm sure we've all heard this more than a time or two, but I was surprised by how often I'd put similar words in sentences following one another. And they can be the most simplest of words, like "but" and "always." Of course there are the extreme cases where you might find you have a penchant for using a strong word quite often. I found out that mine was the word "bob." I know, sounds like a strange one to repeat, but when I did a word search, I had more than one manuscript should have to hold. If you find that an uncommon word is jumping out at you when you read your story, then do a quick search and if there's an over abundance of repetition, start thinking of a replacement or rewording the phrase all together.


You know, the ones we like to call gerunds. For whatever reason, writers are drawn to writing sentences starting in -ing. You'll find them in every book you read. Okay, maybe not every book, because I'm sure there's a big hater of gerunds out there who made sure not to use a single one. The problem with starting a sentence with gerunds is the fact that they often create a sentence filled with impossible actions. Here's a bad example:

  • Kissing the dog, Alice spoke to the mailman.
So, I think we can all safely agree that you can't kiss your dog and speak to the mailman all at the same time. Well, I guess you could, but I think that would be awkward and the mailman may never deliver a package directly to your door again. In any case, keep a close eye on how you're starting a sentence.


I know I've read books where the storyline is bogged down with more comparisons than I care to read. Sometimes the author thinks "like" and "as" are her best friend, but that's when I start rolling my eyes. And you don't want to induce eye-rolling. But that doesn't mean you stay away from comparisons all the time. Sometimes it can help improve the overall length of a scene as well as offer a connection to your reader if you use something that takes a detailed, abstract description and boils it down to a simple idea. And it can help get your point across more quickly.


Taking a scene and creating a long-winded mess or being so sparse with details that your reader has no idea of setting and time can create some bad hang-ups for your manuscript as a whole. As an example, I have one manuscript where I'm describing the few belongings a character is packing away after he quits his job. I don't make a detailed laundry list of every article in his duffle bag, but instead narrow the items down to about three things that speak volumes of what will come later on in the story: A photo of a girl he was once sweet on, a Nazi pin his brother had stolen from a dead soldier and later gave to him as a gift, and the last birthday card his dead father gave him. Each item is important and each one speaks volumes of the people and circumstances surrounding the characters that gave them to him. Put into perspective what you need in a scene and why. Will it strengthen the manuscript? Or will it bog down the scene?

I could probably go on and on with other ways to polish your prose, but that's my short list for now. Let me know if there's something you struggle with, either in your own writing, or in that of something you've read!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gravity: A New Kind of Film

by Stephanie

Last week I went to see Gravity with a friend and my son. We shelled out for the 3D experience since everyone had advised us it was essential, and we sat pretty close to the front. I'd heard it was a visual fest and you needed to be practically inside the screen to get the full effect.

Let me report that everyone was correct. It is indeed a CGI extravaganza. In fact, you could probably mute the score and toss the script and still get a lot out of the movie—it's aimed directly at your visual cortex. The term "CGI" is used almost as a pejorative nowadays, as if it's all just a bunch of fakery, but let's face it: spectacle is what cinema does best. Moviemakers only have two hours with their audience: you can't shoehorn a lot of plot or character development into that time. Novels and TV series just do storytelling better. Cinema has one thing to offer, and Gravity absolutely nails it.

Total sensory immersion can have a downside, though: I was not prepared for how hard the movie would be for me to watch. People kept telling me it was "fun," "like a rollercoaster," and "wheee!" It was not fun for me. By the end my shoulder blades were hitched up so high they'd nearly fused with my ears. My fingernails had left clawmarks in my thighs. If I hadn't been with two people I loved who seemed to be enjoying it more, I might have left the theater.

But I'm glad I persevered, because it really is a masterful film. We're used to technology in cinema bringing us films like Avatar or Life of Pi, where the fantastic is brought to life. In Gravity, reality is brought to life. This is a space drama with no aliens and nothing that couldn't actually happen. (Except for a few very minor science nitpicks.) Gravity is a reminder that space is inherently dramatic. According to Aristotle, "Man vs. Nature" is one of the four essential dramatic plots, and there isn't much more menacing in nature than the infinite void of space. For me, the blackness of space was a far more terrifying enemy than any monster or man. Within a very short time from the first shot, we are spinning into space along with Sandra Bullock, being swallowed up into nothingness, utterly helpless. I was overcome by a peculiar mixture of claustrophobia and agoraphobia during this scene, not to mention a little bit of vertigo. Movie theaters ought to stock air-sickness bags for this film.

Gravity is a triumph of camera angles. The way director Alfonso Cuarón uses point-of-view, you are attached to Sandra Bullock's character in a visceral, emotional way that makes all the drama that happens to her feel like it's happening to you. The camera starts off at a long distance from the action, slowly closing in on the spacecraft and then on Bullock over a very long uncut first take. Eventually we end up inside the space helmet, viewing the action from Bullock's POV. My son leaned over and whispered in my ear, "first person!", which told me Cuarón had, perhaps, learned this technique from video games. There is nothing wrong with this: it's an excellent choice for cinema.

Bullock has as many critics as fans, but I thought she did a great job in this movie. The obvious comparison, for me, was with Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien (maybe it's the skivvy-shots), and there is some overlap. But in keeping with the theme of "space reality," Bullock's Ryan Stone is more fragile and frightened than Weaver's Ripley. I admired Ripley from afar, but felt kinship with Stone. Her reactions to each crisis felt like they would have been my own, which is unusual in a film. Usually protagonists in action films are either impossibly brave and level-headed (like Clooney's character, and like Ripley) or they are making obviously stupid decisions that serve to advance the plot. Stone is clever and brave enough when it comes down to it, but she spends a lot of time yelping and panicking—in a way that feels natural, real, and raw. Considering how tightly choreographed this movie was, the ability to do any acting at all has to be applauded, and I won't be surprised if Bullock gets an Oscar nod for this performance.

This is not to say there aren't problems with the film, but most reviewers say they didn't really notice them at the time—they start to bug you later, when you're thinking about it. There's too much going on at the time to pay attention to the flaws, for the most part. One problem is the script. It's odd that such a meticulous, thoughtful film could have such a terrible script, but this one does. Mostly I went along with it, but a few lines were so awful I was yanked out of the movie: I wasn't experiencing it, I was watching it—and grimacing. Another common complaint is the score, which is rather heavy-handed. It didn't bother me, but others might find it distracting or manipulative. The third criticism is the sentimentality. Stone's tragic backstory seems unnecessary to the film, contrived to force audiences to care about her will to survive. The situation itself—lost in space, disconnected from Earth communication—is dramatic enough. We don't have to be manipulated into rooting for the protagonist.

Those criticisms aside, the film is a shoo-in for an Oscar. I find it almost impossible to believe it won't win at least one category, most likely one of the visual-imaging categories. Eighty percent of the film is animated; essentially, all but the actor's faces is CGI. It never feels like it. Everyone walking out of this movie says "I've never seen anything like it," and I agree. It seems groundbreaking in a number of ways that I can't even articulate. The only element that could have made this film any more immersive would have been to set it in one of those flight-simulator machines they have in museums: the kind that actually bob you around as the screen angle changes. Considering the leaps forward in 3D technology, I wonder how long it will be before exactly that kinetic technology is incorporated into movie theaters, bringing us that much closer to cinema becoming a virtual-reality experience.

Have you seen Gravity? What did you think? Do you agree that cinema has a different kind of narrative power than the long form of novels or TV shows? Is the trend toward spectacle a good one for cinema? Or do you wish we'd go back to smaller, simpler, low-tech films?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Gone Girl

In a world where everything dark is in and chick lit is out, Gone Girl fits right in. This is one of those books that grabs you by the collar, shakes you up a bit and won’t let go until you raise your head 489 pages later and utter a “what the hell just happened?” to whoever might be standing (or sleeping) next to you. The odd thing is within the constraint of its genre (film noir, mystery) it offers some interesting insights about marriage and gender expectations.

The story is told by two narrators: husband Nick and wife Amy. Nick wakes up on his fifth anniversary with bitter thoughts about his wife. Due to their mutual layoffs, Amy—a once-successful-New Yorker with famous writer parents and a book series inspired by her (Amazing Amy)—has been dragged out of her milieu and transplanted in a small mid-western town to assume the role of perfect housewife. Amy, apparently, is not happy about the move and doesn't seem as Amazing as Nick once thought. The encounter between the two of them this particular morning promises to be explosive, but instead of a collision between these two forces, we’re taken to another scene—a few hours later—in the bar Nick now co-owns with his twin sister. After a disturbing phone call, Nick returns home to find that his wife is missing and the house has been broken into. The police comes in and questions Nick, but there is no trace of Amy.

The next chapter goes into one of Amy’s diary entries—five years prior—when she first met Nick and gives us an insight of what those earlier days were like.

In alternating chapters between the two narrators in two different timelines, we get a sense of who they are. Well, at least we think we do. Pretty soon, Amy’s disappearance turns into a media frenzy. Nick keeps saying the wrong things, gets caught in a few lies and can’t explain what he did the day of Amy’s disappearance between breakfast time and the bar. Even worse, he can't figure out the clues his wife left him on their anniversary's Treasure Hunt. Before he knows it, he becomes the number one suspect in her disappearance.

So far, it seems like a pretty standard Lifetime movie, right?


This novel is so cleverly written that halfway through the book it takes a twist that challenges everything you thought and believed. That, and the fact that Flynn’s style is so engaging and unique (particularly when it comes to Amy’s voice). Someone called it a nice blend between literary and commercial. I have to agree with this assessment. While the plot moves quickly, there are reflections about gender relationships and marriage that I believe many readers may feel identified with. Having said this, there were situations that seemed too convenient for one of the characters, plus I wasn’t fully satisfied with the ending—though I would say that it was original and unexpected.

Despite its qualities (voice, character complexity, interesting plot) this novel is not for everybody. Like the cover suggests, the book is somewhat sinister, the characters extremely flawed and not very likable, and some may even consider it contrived. But there is something about the premise—that famous hook—that makes you keep reading until the big question is answered. I recommend this book to those readers who love suspense, plot twists and murky characters.

If you've read this book, care to share your thoughts with me?

Check out these other reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Subliminal Coffee
3.The Beveled Edge4.Blue Sky Gazing
5.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!6.Servitor Ludi
7.V's Reads8.Julie Flanders
9.Trisha @ WORD STUFF10.Rebecca @ The Dusty Cellar
11.Scouring Monk12.The Writing Sisterhood
13.The Random Book Review14.Wikes! Hikes on the Long Trail
15.Ed & Reub16.M.J. Fifield
17.StrangePegs -- Fortunately, the Milk18.StrangePegs -- "My Killbot Buddy"
19.Katie O'Sullivan20.Gladiator's Pen
21.Em Dashes and Ice Cream22.StrangePegs -- Fahrenheit 451
23.Words Incorporated24.
25.Spirit Called26.Denise Covey

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Writing Through the Storm

Pieter Mulier's Dutch Vessels at Sea in Stormy Weather
"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." ~ Henry Ford

"Gloom despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" ~ From the TV show "Hee-Haw"

I had another post in mind for today, but my mind kept circling back around to the idea of weathering storms. As many of you know, this has been a trying week for those working for, or are connected contractually to work for, the U.S. government. Needless to say, our family has been affected by the talking heads in Washington D.C., and I would be lying if I didn't admit that it has been one of those predicaments that I just couldn't seem to put from my mind no matter how many times I tried to convince myself that all of this would turn out to be fine in the end. With only a delay to the decision-making being passed, I'm not really sure when that end will be.

But does that mean my life completely stops for one unsettling moment? Does that mean my writing stops?

The answer is simple: no.

I've weathered many storms in my life (more than I care to count), and my love for writing even grew out of one of the most precarious times in my life. Feel free to read (or re-read) my success story if you're interested in knowing what that's all about. In truth, I find that writing through a little adversity, writing through those troubling and uncertain times in my life, have actually helped me grow stronger as a writer. Oftentimes, a writer will glean bits of information for his/her storytelling through the events in his/her life. And I'm pretty sure I'm one of those.

This past week, I came across an interesting post by one of our followers. The fascinating L.G. Smith of Bards and Prophets wrote a post concerning this past summer's damaging floods in Colorado and the clean-up efforts going on there. It touched me on two levels: First, I used to live in Colorado and recognized many of the places affected by the flooding. I don't know how many times we took trips up into the Big Thompson Canyon and heard the story about the flooding of 1976. And to have that type of devastating event happen all over again was heart wrenching. Second, I like how Smith engaged on a writerly level with what was going on. As a writer, I've trained myself to always be observant, always watching the people and events unravelling around me. Strangely enough, when I'm impacted on such a personal level it also impacts my writer's POV as well, much in the same way Smith wrote in her post. Disaster may be surrounding a writer, but it seems our minds are never at rest.

When a trying time hits, my first instinct is to shut down, draw myself away from those I'm close to. That might be due to my personality type, but it is exactly what I do. But, then, I have to stop and think a moment. Think about how I might best get through the storm. What techniques and ideas have I come up with or tried in the past?

Back in April of this year I attended a writing meeting where author Lynne Hinton spoke on various aspects of her writing. She shared some very good tips on getting through those tough times when all you feel like you're doing is waiting. Here are some ideas on getting your writing moving forward when the last thing you want to do is place your fingers on a keyboard:

  • Start a fresh project -- Instead of sitting around, moping about a given situation, or even something as difficult as waiting to hear back from an agent or editor on a project that's out, dive into something fresh. As I watched the news this week, wondering if a furlough would really come to our family, I found I needed something to take my mind off the uncertain circumstances. So, I visited the local library, checked out some research books on a new project I've been wanting to start and started in. Since I write American historical fiction, it's not hard to discover the trying times others before us have gone through, and maybe in the process feel a little better about the here and now.
  • Dig into your characters -- You need to shift your attention from focusing on your own problems to those of your characters. I have one book languishing on the shelf because I just don't know how to figure out my MC in the story. If I hadn't decided to dig into some new research, then that would have been another route for me to go.
  • Get in touch with your spirituality -- This helps me every single time. We all have different belief systems and find a measure of peace through that system, so take some time out and touch base. According to Dr. Robin, a consultant for Oprah Winfrey on the benefits of faith, she has the following to say:
"Dr. Robin says that people who disconnect from their faith community -- whether because of a move or other life circumstances -- often feel a sense of loss. If you feel like something's missing from your life, consider reconnecting with the faith or religious practices that you feel can enhance and enrich your spirit..." 
It may bring a calm to what you're going through, maybe even clear your thoughts for what you feel you need to do. Whatever it is that you feel you need, then take a moment and catch a calming breath.
  • Start a journal -- I'm not very good at the whole journaling thing, but there are writers out there who swear by it. Some feel they need to do it on a daily basis, and that's a big plus when facing a difficult situation. According to Psychology Today,
"Research has shown the tremendous benefits of journal writing on both our physical and mental health. Writing not only relieves stress and improves your mood, but it also boosts your immune system, which helps your body withstand the effects of further stress." 
Sometimes it helps to write out the junk that's going on in your personal life in order to tackle the lives of those characters you're creating. And, who knows, you just might find a nugget of inspiration in what you've written!
  • Stay true to the stories you enjoy writing -- When facing hard times, now might not be the time to jump ship and switch out your fantasy genre for hardboiled mysteries. As writers, we find comfort in the usual stories we like to create and it shouldn't be something we feel bad about doing. Take the turmoil that's going on in your personal life and find a way to apply it to your storyline on some level. Believe me, it can be very cathartic.
Maybe you're like me and have just finished out a stressful week. Is there something you enjoy doing that helps you and your writing weather the beating storm? One thing I know for sure, storms don't last forever. There's always a sunny, cloud-free day on the other side!

My motto is: more good times.
~ Jack Nicholson ~