Friday, October 07, 2016

A Novel Idea: Start With a Sizzling Opening?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the novels that I’ve loved most, and the way they open. I’m up in the air about whether to rewrite my third novel, Sister Mysteries. I am trying to decide whether to start the leisurely way, which is how the book is now (several readers have liked it.) 

Or should I revise, starting with the protagonist -- a nun who in 1883 is falsely convicted of murdering her cousin – facing the gallows for her alleged crime. The opening scene would start with her rotting away in a filthy California prison.

It might seem like a no-brainer. If you’re trying to sell books, obviously you want your first pages – your first paragraph -- your first words -- to do their job: nab the reader’s attention and hold them fast. Clearly, modern readers – accustomed increasingly to 140 characters and Instagram and sizzling You Tube sound bytes -- have absolutely no patience.

I was reminded of this recently when an older woman I know said she couldn’t find anything she wanted to read. This woman is bright, and an avid reader, and she has a Kindle, and so I suggested she sample one of my all-time favorite novels, The Mill on the Floss.

Ah, but I’d forgotten George Eliot’s language, and I’d certainly forgotten that sturdy first paragraph:

“A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.  On this mighty tide the black ships – laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal are borne along to the town of St. Ogg’s…”

That second sentence keeps going for another four typed lines!

Uh, well, gee, I said to her, it really is a such a great great story.  And really worth the effort, despite what you might call its “antiquated” language.

I could tell from her face she wasn’t buying it. The book, or my attempt to sell it.

So why should I be surprised, considering the way so many modern best-sellers lure the readers in? 

Consider the prologue to Anita Diamant’s New York Times wonderful bestseller, The Red Tent:

“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault or mine.”

Or more to the point, get a load of Chris Bohjalian’s shocker in his national bestseller, Midwives:

“I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke.”

There aren’t too many folks who would stop reading after that.

So here I sit, perusing great works from the past, as well as a bunch of modern “winners” from the last few years.  The more I read, the more I’m confused. Because I am at heart, a purist who wants to take the high road.

And then I laugh.  
The high road is increasingly a very lonely path. Literary fiction is a dying thing. The number of books sold each year in that category is miniscule. Recently, a prominent literary agent – formerly the President of Harper Collins -- told my husband (who is writing a non-fiction book) that Farrar Straus considers it “acceptable” if a work of literary fiction sells a mere 3,500 copies.

The more I think about it, and the more opening lines I read by my literary heroes, the more I’m convinced that if they were querying New York agents today, they very well might get polite form letters, rejecting their masterpieces.

Consider what I call Steinbeck’s “long-term weather report from the Dustbowl” approach that begins The Grapes of Wrath:

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated.”

I absolutely love this writing, but I wonder how many busy agents looking for blockbusters like Lovely Bones would give Steinbeck his due?

And then there’s the less-than-compelling coal-to-diamonds discourse that Joseph Conrad delivers to us on page one of his fabulous novel, Victory.

“There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as ‘black diamonds.’ Both these commodities represent wealth; but coal is a much less portable form of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of concentration in coal.”

Holy cow. How did this book get published?

Well, so, we are in another era. Recently, at a reading of his work at SUNY Albany, where I teach, author Walter Mosley admitted to the audience that he doesn’t buy a book if the first line doesn’t grab him.

I thought that was fascinating, because I bought Mosley’s wonderful novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned after just that experience: I picked up the book and couldn’t put it down. My students always adored the book, and I used it for years.

Curiously, though, one of my students was generous and kind enough to buy me a copy of another of his novels, Known to Evil, and she even got it autographed! 

I decided to put this book to the same test Mr. Mosley uses on novels.

Here are the first lines that he writes:

“Don’t you like the food?” Katrina, my wife of twenty-three years, asked.
“It’s delicious,” I said. “Whatever you make is always great.”

Uh, is it any wonder that the book has been lying toward the bottom of the pile beside my bed?

Perhaps the point here is that once you are a well-established writer, with lots of books and tons of readers, you don’t have to worry so much about the powerful lead. Readers will flock to your work because they just will.

Others of us don’t have that luxury.

So here I am, unsure whether to start with the existing Chapter One, or switch it to a later chapter and turn the story around, starting with the nun in jail. My best reading buddy, who has read the many versions I have produced with this challenging novel, says she thinks I would do better to do the revision.

For the first time in my fiction-writing life, I am feeling lazy.

And I really love the opening.

So you know what they say, or maybe what they should say.

Don’t judge a book by its first few pages.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Making Art While Drinking Wine -- What a Combination!

We have just returned from a vacation in California. While we were there, we went wine tasting  in Los Olivos,  a charming little town in the golden hills
north of Santa Barbara (where my niece Sarah was married on September 24th.)

Los Olivos is deep into wine country, so we did some tasting while we were there. And that's how we discovered the Artiste Winery and Tasting Studio, where there is art on every bottle.
The winery invites artists to submit paintings and some of them are adopted onto wine bottles. The artists who are chosen have an exhibit and opening to display some of their work.

One very fun thing about the winery: everyone who comes is invited to paint right in the tasting room, where there is an easel set up alongside a big box of paints. Who could resist? One of the best things about painting that day was the fact that my sister was inspired to paint along with me. And my 90-year old father was able to make the long trip to California!

I don't expect to see my painting on a bottle anytime soon. But I love the idea of sipping wine while painting.

Try it some time. Painting is a lot easier after a glass of cabernet!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Poco the Mighty Meditating Military Police Dog!

OK OK remember my Poco turning into a lovesick teenager?

Well, that little canine connection (with dog Burt) has led to some mighty interesting developments.

That darling little mild-mannered Havenese used to be so quiet, so shy, so lady like, so un-Alpha dog.

No more.

She and Burt now police my neighbor Nancy's fenced-in front yard like two military police dogs! A child comes riding down the dead end street on a bike and the two of them jump into action, racing like bullets over to the chained in fence, running up and down the length of it until the child disappears.

Any little action at the fence or in the other neighbors' yards, and Burt and Poco go into wild yelps, and you have never seen a faster dog than my Poco.

And another thing. There is a nice neighbor named Sven, who has a mean little Shih tzu named Mitzi, a tiny terror whose bark used to send Poco jumping directly into my arms, whining and crying, a scared little sissy.

No more.

Running around with Burt, my baby has found her voice. Literally!

Last night when terrorist Mitzi
arrived, snarling and carrying on as she does, Poco bolted down the stairs and barked nose to nose, sending the little terror back! No more shy and retiring little lady like doggy.

It  used to be that Poco would quietly sit with me on the back deck to meditate.

All summer we had the same routine. I would set up my meditation pillow, and she would sit on her pillow, and we would seek enlightenment together.

This morning things went from calm and serene to chaotic and screeching.

There was a young man walking quietly to school (which is around the corner) and she exploded off the meditation pillow and ran to the front yard and went crazy barking at the boy.

"Poco," I yelled, very un-meditatively, "get back here right NOW."

She refused.  I finally caught up to her in the front lawn -- wearing my slippers and yellow bathrobe -- and scooped her up, brought her back to the deck and tried once again to achieve meditative bliss.

No sooner had I sunk into something of a calm mood than she exploded once more, this time at some bird or other disturbance I couldn't identify. Once again she went tearing around to the front yard, and once again I had to chase her down in my bathrobe and slippers.

From now on, I will leave her in the house to meditate, so she can contemplate her new personality -- as a MIGHTY MEDITATING MILITARY POLICE DOG.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


it was raining out today so I couldn't burn any more pages in the fire pit so instead I took the pages in a big box and left them out in the rain and every once in a while I stirred the pages up and now and then something caught my eye such as this poem which has nothing at all to do with the project itself:

Outside the window
the sky doesn't doubt 
its color for a moment,
nor does it moan any

Above the green trees
that make the dark horizon,
the sky has a soft golden glow,
ever so lightly dusted in pink.

The sky is poised on 
the cusp of evening.
The day has passed by and the sky
has done its share, producing such beauty.

I have not smiled or
appreciated it nearly enough.
Tomorrow I vow that I will
make a point to sit and stare
at the sky watching clouds go by.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fired Up!

Sometimes it comes to this. You've been working the same material, word-wise, for what feels like all of human history. You have nothing to show for it but a mountain of white pages, black type, lying there against the wall of your study.

You consider them day after day and when you can, you read bits and pieces.

Most of what you read you just can't stomach.

So here it is now. There is a lovely fire pit in the backyard. You take piles of pages out and crumple them up so they will ignite more readily.

Aha! A beautiful orange flame, and now the pages go up in smoke. (All of it is still in the computer, of course, but that's for another day.)

Even before the fire goes out, you turn around and leave it to burn. The smell of the smoke trails behind.

As you walk across the lawn in your flip flops, feeling the soft grass under your toes, you vow to write another way.

Without thinking so much. Without snuffing it out with cold mental energy that means to control what emerges.

I sit down here and I make a promise: to write something really close to my heart.

I will start here. I will break from the past.

I will stop often and just breathe the soft summer air.

I will remain mindful of my breath as I write, and as I live.

I will give myself permission to fail miserably as a writer.

I smile. I feel a kind of fiendish glee that the next time around the pages will not reflect me,
but rather a higher Creative power.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How I Barely Missed the Bear

I wish I had photos of the event. But when it happened last evening, my cell phone was lying in the house on the counter.

So, background: my husband and I are living in a lovely rented house in Lenox, Mass. Across the street lives little Burt, Poco's playmate and love interest.

Often at the end of the day, I cross the street, and sit with my friend Nancy on her front porch, each of us in rocking chairs, chatting. Meanwhile the puppies play and bark and eat ice chips and rest.

Sometime earlier this summer, I got in the habit of crossing the street about six, carrying a glass of wine with me. Nancy prefers sweeter wines and gin and tonics, so she fixes her own drink.

(If you think I'm going nowhere with all this background, hold on, it does get more interesting!)

Last evening, I was reading but at some point, I noticed Nancy on the porch. So I got off the couch, poured the wine, and headed across the street. I came through the gate,
and headed across the lawn to her porch. I was up one stair when Nancy pointed -- a few feet away was a large black bear!

Had I crossed the lawn ten seconds later I would have -- "met" the bear in the lawn.

Chaos ensued on the porch. We knew that if the puppies saw the bear, they would fly off the porch to bark at the bear, and we had to make sure that didn't happen. I grabbed for Poco but she wriggled away. Nancy went for Burt but he is such a hefty dog she couldn't lift him. I kept yelling, "Poco, stay! Poco stay!" All this time Nancy was trying to get the screen door open so we could get the dogs inside.

At some point in the melee, I dropped the wineglass and it spilled cold wet liquid down Nancy's backside.

By this point, the bear was at Nancy's garbage pail, sorting out what might make a good meal or a snack. We were in the house gazing at him through the front window. The dogs were on the back rest of the sofa barking at the top of their lungs. Finally, Nancy used her remote key to get the car to make its horn noise. At that point the bear climbed up a tree (at least ten or 15 feet up) over the garbage pail and swung over the fence to the neighbor's yard.

It was hard to believe the bear had been so close. Had we not been on the porch with the dogs, they would have sailed off the porch after the bear, and who knows what would have happened.

After settling the dogs down, Nancy went to change her clothes and then she poured me a glass of zinfandel.

I needed it. And another one when I got home.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Puppy Love?

Those lucky folks who read this blog will recall that my puppy, Poco, has turned into a lovesick teenager. Her heart beats for little Burt, the adorable black dog across the street.  Poco spends endless amounts of time lying side by side with Burt, just resting in the shade (or the sun when it's not too hot.)

They love to eat ice. Burt picks up a couple of chips in his mouth and carries them over to Poco, who gladly receives them. They are often nose to  nose on the sofa. Or barking at kids on bikes and the UPS man and just tonight, a bear (more on that next time!)

A couple of weeks ago, Poco and Burt starting rolling around on the floor, which they do all the time (except if they are rolling around in the lawn.)

I guess you could say they engage in what you might call puppy play.

But there are a lot of bared teeth in these "loving" encounters.

Here now is one such encounter. I video taped the session, so here you go, 42 seconds of Poco and Burt chewing each other up!!


Morning Glory

Oh, the glory
of morning
right here
in a single flower.
What a dazzling color:
the same satin blue
the clear
summer sky

All year we wait for
these beloved blooms to arrive.
And then, after just one 
warm day in the sun,
this flower 

in the blink of an eye,
the bloom is off
the summer,
to be
gone by.

Already we see here and
the first yellow red
leaves fall --
it cannot
possibly be
time for this

No matter.
We put all dead
aside and turn
our eyes
that drink the flowers
back to
yellow mums and
pink trumpet vines
and red begonia and
a spread of black eyed Susans.
We keep
be present with
the blossoms
and in our minds’ eye,

Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Dog has Turned into a Teenager!!

I know what it's like to have a teenager, because I raised three (wonderful) kids through those tempestuous years.

Still, I wasn't prepared to have my two-year old puppy named Poco turn into a teenager.

She has. She mopes around the house a lot and we can't get her to chase toys the way she used to.

She's finicky about food, and she snubs her nose at kibble, and even at wet food out of a can. (So we cook her ground turkey and chicken.)

But the real issue is her love life. Poco has fallen head over heels over a cute black dog across the street. She and Burt roll around the grass together and are happy as clams just lying side by side (or nose to nose) on the sofa. Whenever Burt's owner, my neighbor Nancy, calls up to invite her over to play, Poco can tell. She stands by the phone, expectantly, staring up at me intently.

I get off the phone and I say to her, "You want to play with..." and even before I get the word "Burt"
out of my mouth, she is racing to the front door. I open the door and she's like a black and white bullet screaming toward their yard. She waits at Burt's fence, and when I open it for her, she makes a bee line to the door where Nancy and Burt await her.

They are adorable together. (The one on the right is Poco.) But every once in a while I get the feeling I used to have when my kids were teens: they wanted to spend as much time as possible away from the house, with their friends. Sometimes I think Poco would just as soon live at Nancy and Burt's house as ours.
It seems like every time I come to pick her up, she looks at me with the "What are you doing here?" look.

Still, they are so cute together I wouldn't think about keeping them apart.

I guess when you really love someone, you let them do what they want or need to do.

So Poco, go for it. I'll call Nancy later today and we'll make another play date for the cutest pair of puppies I know.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Sorell.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Now that you know the addiction
realize that SERENITY CAN BE
its own miracle.
Steer yourself gently, feel the
Breath in your gut
As an ever so slight breeze
that guides you
to quiet waters, where all
that matters is
the next

Watch the way you
breathe, watch