Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Waiting to be Heard

By now, you’ve probably heard of Amanda Knox. You may even have an opinion about her case and whether or not you think she was involved in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. My interest in the case started when Amanda was acquitted a couple of years ago, but it grew with recent developments (in January, her appeal was reversed). In addition to the popularity of the case, I became interested in her memoir as a source of research for my third novel since it also deals with an exchange student who gets into trouble abroad.

After all that has been said about Amanda on news shows, magazines, the internet and even a made-for-TV movie, Amanda finally gives us her version of the story. In a prose that is easy to follow and insightful, we meet Amanda a few months before she moves to Perugia, Italy. We get to know her parents, her siblings and her sometimes quirky and adventurous nature in her native Seattle, where she has planned in some detail her year of studies in Italy—a lifelong dream of hers.

Amanda is not very different from other people her age who travel abroad. I also traveled to Europe in my early twenties and Amanda seemed as ordinary as any other girl I met during my trip. I won’t go into too much detail about her story since: a) it’s all over the internet and b) if I tell you too much, you won’t want to read it (and if you’re interested in her story, I believe it’s worth reading. Especially because we’re so used to making quick judgments based on what the media tells us.)  I’ll just say that Amanda goes into great detail about those first months in Italy, the people she associated with, her relationship with her roommates, the boys she met, etc. She doesn’t portray herself as a saint as she admits to having smoked pot and engaged in sexual activity with two or three guys. This, she says, were mistakes the media and the prosecution exploited during her first trial.

Amanda claims her relationship with Meredith was good. According to her, they were confidents and friends who explored the city together and shared similar experiences (both were English speakers trying to find their way through a new culture and a new language). Then she describes the moment she met Raffaele—her then boyfriend and partner in this ordeal—their short-lived but intense relationship, the day Meredith died, the police interrogations, her two trials and her life in prison. She brings insight into a few things that are not explored much on the internet or news shows:
  • What, according to Amanda, happened during the interrogation where she accused her boss of killing Meredith (and later admitted to lying about it). She offers a theory as to why she lied that night.
  • During her appeal, there was an important testimony from a man who’d been imprisoned with Meredith’s convicted killer (Rudy Guede, who’s DNA was all over Meredith’s room). This man said Guede confessed to having raped and stabbed Meredith in conjunction with “a friend” (who wasn’t Raffaele or Amanda, which is what the prosecution alleges). In fact, Guede was supposedly having a moral dilemma as to what to say during their appeal. (Guede had a separate trial and conviction from Amanda and Raffaele.) This story made more sense to me than the prosecution’s theories of a “sexual game gone bad” or a “Halloween Eve sacrifice.”
  • Explanations as to why there were traces of Amanda and Raffaele’s DNA in a couple of items that the prosecution assigned as proof of their culpability.
  • Insights on the people in Amanda’s life in prison and outside. I was especially touched by three people in her life: a Catholic priest who befriended Amanda—an agnostic—during her hardest times in prison (Don Saulo); one of her best friends from Seattle who moved to Perugia to be near Amanda after she was sentenced to 26 years in prison (Madison) and Laura, an American inmate who grew up in Ecuador and became sort of a foster mom or older sister to her. Amanda’s family is also commendable as they never abandoned Amanda and during her four-year-ordeal always made sure someone was in Italy on visiting days. Her stepfather went as far as to move to Perugia for some time. Amanda’s story, as sad as it is, also serves as a testimony that goodness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places.
After reading Amanda’s memoir, I conclude that yes, she made MANY mistakes, primarily not taking the police interrogations seriously—she didn’t wait for a lawyer to be present and she never called the American embassy before answering questions in a language that she didn’t speak well. Her lying during one of her confessions, I admit, is hard to understand and made me wonder if she was covering up for something else (heavy drug use?) however, I do not believe she was involved in Meredith’s attack. It just doesn’t make sense. Our civilization has become SO reliant on technology that sometimes we drop common sense out the window. The prosecution claims that a girl like Amanda—with no prior convictions and a model student who came from a good family—is guilty of murdering (savagely) and raping her friend (when she doesn’t even have the *right* equipment, if you know what I mean). What we do know is that there is no motive. The prosecution claimed Amanda and Meredith argued over the bathroom’s cleanliness, but only a psychopath would kill over this, right? Not to mention the fact that there is no evidence of her presence in Meredith’s room. The prosecution claimed Amanda and Raffaele wiped their own DNA in the room but left Guede’s, as though it was possible to see DNA! Plus, there was no proven relationship between Guede and Amanda or Raffaele (Raffaele said he’d never met the man and Amanda said she saw Guede once or twice with her downstairs neighbors but couldn’t even remember his name.) 

I truly believe that Amanda’s problems stemmed from her immaturity and naivety at the time of her trip. Not only was she cavalier about who she spent time with (including working at a bar with people she barely knew) smoking pot on a regular basis and having sex with guys she’d just met. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in people her age. When I moved to the US to go to college, I had the fortune of having a couple of family members here to guide me through the process of moving to a different country and start a new life as an adult. Also, my parents came with me and helped me settle in the dorms. When Amanda arrived to Italy, she had nowhere to live and found her new roommates on a bulletin board. I know, LOTS of college kids do this, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. ESPECIALLY in a different country where you barely speak the language and you don’t know the “rules of the land.”

By the end of the book, however, you see Amanda as a different woman. Not sure this has to do with the fact that Amanda is a writer (currently studying Creative Writing in Seattle) and she knows that in every journey, the hero must show change and growth, or that she truly matured with all the hardship she went through, but her transformation was evident to me.

Have you been following this case or read her memoir? Do you believe in her innocence? What do you think will happen now that her appeal got reversed? Do you think the US will extradite her to Italy? Do you think it’s fair that she was tried twice for the same crime?

Check out these coffeehouse reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.My Creatively Random Life
3.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything4.Valerie Nunez and the Flying Platypi
5.Huntress6.Servitor Ludi
7.MOCK8.StrangePegs -- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
9.Words Incorporated10.Agatha Friggin' Christie
11.Ed&Reub12.The Writing Sisterhood
13.Read, Write, Repeat14.V's Reads
15.The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2014 16.Debi O'Neille, writing against the wind

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Trimming the Fat (aka Expendable Scenes) in Your Novel

I don’t blame you if you don’t want to read this post. Revisions can be dreadful, overwhelming, confusing and frustrating for many writers and the idea of doing them (or reading about them) may sound as fun and exciting as standing in line at an airport security check point. But revisions have a strange quality, they can also be infinitely satisfying once you figure out what needs to be done and the end result is a stronger manuscript.

One of the reasons why revisions are so difficult is because you must tackle several elements at once: character development, plot progression, pace, prose (to include style, grammar and dialogue), among other monsters. Today, I’m going to focus on what constitutes the structure of your novel: scenes.

Since your novel is basically a sequence of scenes with transitional sentences/paragraphs/thoughts, it's essential to evaluate each and every one of them as both a unit and a part of a whole. My writer friends tease me because I’m ruthless with them (“If I were you, I would delete this scene” is my motto!) But there is a good reason for my callousness. More often than not, a pacing issue is the result of a scene—or several—that aren’t serving an important purpose in your novel. These “problem scenes” are difficult to spot because we often grow so attached to them. (Very often we need someone else to point them out.)  So how do we determine if a scene is important enough to keep or if it’s more problematic than useful?

Here are the five questions I ask myself when evaluating a scene.

1. Is the scene active or reflective?

Ideally, you should have a good balance between active and reflective scenes. Active scenes being the ones where something important happens (an action that moves the story forward), and reflective scenes are those where the character ponders on his situation, informs other characters of his problem or fills the reader with backstory and/or information dumps. In my experience, agents and editors often complain that novels are “too slow.” This problem may be the result of too many introspective scenes or instances where characters engage in ordinary activities. Arguably, you will need more active than reflective scenes to create a good progression, but the balance of active vs. reflective heavily depends on the genre you’re writing (though the consensus seems to be that even in literary fiction there must be enough action to keep the reader’s interest). In genres such as adventure and thrillers, most of your scenes should be active, but in Women’s Fiction, for example, it’s tolerated and even expected to have many introspective scenes to reflect the author’s voice and the character’s personality. Once you figure out if your scene is active or reflective, determine whether or not you have too many of one or the other. Perhaps you have too many reflective scenes in a row and the pace would benefit from moving them around (if it doesn’t affect your sequence of events, of course). The same goes for active scenes. Perhaps it’s time to give your character a coffee break from all the chaos surrounding him!

2. Is the scene repetitive?

Do you have similar scenes throughout your book? In other words, have you used the same setting many times before, have you had similar conversations or too many scenes between the same characters? Perhaps it’s just a matter of condensing two scenes together.

3. Is an entire scene necessary to convey this information?

Sometimes we hold on to a scene because we think that the information shared on a particular line of dialogue is vital but we don’t realize that an entire scene may not be necessary in order to divulge this one, tiny, bit of information. When I’ve recommended my friends to cut scenes that are dragging forever, I try to spot what is important about them and suggested they move this information elsewhere. But what about “show, don’t tell,” you may ask? As you know, “showing” (in this case, enacting a scene) is fundamental for a reader to identify with a character or situation, but not all events are equally interesting or deserve this much attention. It’s your job to determine which events are relevant enough to turn into a scene.

4. What purpose is this scene serving?

It’s important for a writer to understand why a scene deserves to take room in his or her novel. Is the scene in question advancing the story? Enlightening the reader about the character’s past or his quirky personality? Developing a bond or conflict between characters? If you don’t understand the purpose of a scene you’re holding on for dear life, you may have a problem.

5. If I remove this scene, will it affect the flow of my novel?

I may have told you that my first novel started as a telenovela for the Latin American market. As you know, soap operas have tons of characters and last A VERY LONG TIME. Therefore, writers have the luxury of penning what I call “peripheral scenes.” These are scenes where secondary characters catch up with the main action, or where the heroine ponders her decision with friends, or where a subplot between secondary characters develops (but does nothing for the main plot). When I translated my soap opera to English and formatted it as a novel, I had tons of scenes like these (no wonder my novel was over 143,000 words!) In novels, these scenes are sometimes hard to spot because they can be considered “bonding scenes” between characters. A good test is to evaluate if your novel will suffer if you remove a particular scene. From my experience, it probably won’t. Readers are smart and will catch up with the action without you having to over explain how things came to be. If you’re doubting the validity of a scene, you’re probably on to something.

In conclusion, the trick to revisions (especially if you’re going to do them on your own) is to be honest with yourself—which can be difficult considering your emotional attachment to your work. As a critique partner, I have noticed that many writers are very resistant to deleting superfluous scenes. (Sometimes they’re more willing to kill a character than a beloved scene!) I think it has to do with the fact that these scenes become familiar to us and it becomes harder to envision our novels without them. However, many times after the deed is done, writers realize how much better their novel flows and they don’t look back (it’s happened to me several times). It’s rare that after deleting a scene, a writer will bring it back (at least not in its entirety).

What do you think? Do you have an emotional attachment to your scenes or are you ruthless when it comes to evaluating (and getting rid of them)?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Let's Talk Nebraska

Last weekend, the hubby and I rented the Oscar-nominated film Nebraska. I'd seen a little bit about it before Oscar season broke out into full swing. I decided I really wanted to watch it for a couple of reasons: 1) I like just about everything director Alexander Payne has put out there (Hello? Sideways or About Schmidt, anyone!), 2) I'm from the Midwest, from a town very similar to the one depicted in Nebraska (only smaller, if you can imagine that) and I went to college in Nebraska, and 3) I just don't think the modern-day Midwest gets highlighted enough in films.

When I first heard about the film, it was being discussed among a group of friends. One woman in the group, who spent a majority of her life living in the actual state of Nebraska, vehemently denounced the movie altogether. She had no intention of ever seeing the film. At first, I thought it might be because of the film rating (R, for language), but then after watching Nebraska I think it was for a more specific reason. I think she viewed Nebraska as akin to the Holy Land with only hard-working saints living there. In other words, she believed that Nebraska would be portrayed poorly.

Not so, my friends!

I'd have to say I loved every minute of it because, in my opinion, Payne hit the nail on the head when it comes to families such as the one portrayed in Nebraska. Payne, himself, is from Nebraska, so who better to do the storyline justice than he.

Here's a little rundown on what goes on in the film:

Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic and perhaps suffering from early Alzheimer's, sets out almost weekly to claim his million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. Only problems are that he can't drive and he lives in Montana. To appease his father, even though he knows the "sweepstakes" is a scam, Woody's estranged son David agrees to drive him down to Lincoln. Along the way, they get caught up with family in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where David learns more about his father than in all the years when he was growing up.

It's a sad, yet bittersweet story about family. Watching it, you realize that there were so many problems lying just below the surface of this family, waiting to come to light when the time was right. Woody's a man with long-suppressed demons, but it's David's connection to his father that twists, turns, and in the end grows into a final act of love. Even if it only means taking a drive down the center of town. Holding a lifelong grudge because someone is unwilling to sacrifice for you, only hurts you. Letting go and finally sacrificing for that other individual without accepting payment in return is sometimes the one thing you have to do. This is what David comes to realize about his father.

You may have watched Nebraska and all the while were asking yourself, "Do people really live and act like this?" The short answer is yes. Let me point out a few things about Woody and David's family that was readily recognizable with my own:

Woody and David searching for that "borrowed" tool.

  • Old men really do sit around talking about random things, like a car one of them owned once upon a time. I've been to those family reunions and have heard those conversations. And I've been down to the local diner/convenience store, which is filled with old men discussing the most random things.
  • There is the occasional relative who likes to sit alongside the road in the evenings and watch none of the traffic that goes by. Ours was, and still is, the front porch for our family. Usually while shelling peas or pitting cherries. Believe me, not much happens on my parents' street back home.
  • People really do go and pay respects in cemeteries even if no one has recently died. It's just what you do. I still do it when I go back for a visit. We'll be driving down a country road somewhere and my mother will say, "Do you know so-and-so is buried there? Let's stop by." And the next thing I know I'm standing over the grave of some unknown great aunt I never knew I had. My mother tells me her life story and introduces us like it's about time we met, probably hoping we could have coffee and bologna and butter sandwiches with the lady.
  • There's always a black sheep in the family, and that black sheep still usually lives at home (or thereabouts) and everyone acts like the sexual assault/robbery/drug bust never happened. Although, I must say my mother has warned us over the years of who to steer clear.
  • Everyone pretty much drives an American-made car. Here's why: Where I grew up, the only local dealerships were Ford and GM. If you wanted any other type of vehicle you had to go to the city, sixty miles away. No local mechanic really worked on foreign cars, so if your city-bought car broke down, guess how far you'd have to drive to get it fixed?
  • Finally, you'd be surprised at the brazenness of neighbors if you weren't used to it. The guy across the street could borrow your lawnmower, never return it, and he'd still come over all the time to talk to you. It goes the other way, too. Vegetables tend to get left quite often on doorsteps. It's like Mayday all summer long. I should know. My parents are one of those neighborly donators. 
Like anyplace in America, the Midwest has stories to tell, and they can be pretty darn good at times. I recommend seeing Nebraska if you haven't already. It's a simple storyline, but a very telling and touching one.

P.S. It really is in black and white.

✿   ❀   ✿   ❀   ✿

On another note, we just wanted to announce that for the third year in a row The Writing Sisterhood has received first place in the New Mexico Press Women Awards for best informational blog in the state of New Mexico! We're thrilled to have this award! If you'd like to check out any of the winning entries, feel free to do so:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Children's Stories for Grown-Ups

I had another post planned for today, but it requires research and logic and thought, and as it happens I got horribly sick this weekend—just a gastric virus, nothing fatal (though for about twelve hours there death seemed preferable)—and, as this is the second weekend I've come down with a stomach bug, I just don't have the energy to pull that off. Instead I'm just going to write about a pleasant trend I've noticed lately ... but with a caveat.

The pleasant trend is that more and more serious literary writers are creating adults novels that read like childhood adventure stories. I really enjoy these romps, which bring with them that all-encompassing joy of nights spent under the covers with a flashlight, tearing through Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series.

Three that come to mind most readily are Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea. (That last book I just finished this afternoon, as I lay half-dead on the sofa, willing my mind to escape my body.) Not surprisingly, all three books follow the escapades of a young teenager, an ordinary kid who finds himself or herself in extraordinary circumstances. Adolescence feels so surreal and bizarre anyway, it's a natural landscape for this sort of story. All three novels infuse the confusion of pubescence with the atmosphere of an even earlier bit of youth: Lee's novel, for example, often reads like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, in the best possible sense. One character stumbles from what feels like an idyllic reprieve scene into a field of human bones, turning to find a child "with a wide skewed smile, which was not for Fan but for the rest of her family, who were now out in the clearing and heading toward them in a pointed mass ... The biggest boys carried machetes." Some will shudder, of course, but I adore this sort of thing. The Juniper Tree, anyone?

The Goldfinch is the story of a teenage boy who loses his mother to a terrorist bombing and finds himself the possessor and protector of a prized painting that soon becomes his most beloved treasure ... and a terrible burden. What I loved about this story was the way Tartt just threw herself into making the boy's life utterly colorful, with no restraint. Restraint was quite popular for a long time in literary fiction. Reality was parceled out parsimoniously, always in shades of sombre grey. I can appreciate that mode of writing, but I am loving this meaty, full-fat version of fiction, bursting with fervid imagination.

Imagination is at its fullest with Gaiman's The Ocean At the End of the Lane. Perhaps because Gaiman doesn't wear the mantle of "literary star," (unlike Tartt and Lee) he can do whatever he wants. So this slim novel plunges us right into fantasyland. It could almost be classified as YA except that the beginning and end of the book anchor it as intended for adults. (Not to mention one discomfiting scene in the middle, involving the father and the wicked witch.)

And that brings us to the caveat: all three books are strongest in the middle, where they allow themselves to fully plunge into the adventure story. But because the authors want to be taken seriously as writers of adult literary fiction, they laden a bit too much exposition into the story. In Tartt's case it's really egregious, as she takes the last ten percent of her novel to do nothing but think deep thoughts via her protagonist. (It's not even plausible that the protag would think such thoughts—it's obviously Tartt speaking.) Lee sprinkles his deep thoughts throughout On Such a Full Sea, in aphorisms I'm sure were highlighted hundreds of times by Kindle users. The philosophy these authors share is explicit, heavy-handed, and not especially original. Authors of fiction who think they're doing philosophy should really let it come through in the story. "Show, don't tell" applies as much to philosophy as anything else. Authors who want to take part in the laudable trend of adventure stories for adults might want to look to Gaiman for guidance: he seems to understand, better than most, that just because you're writing for adults doesn't mean you have to be boring.