Saturday, August 28, 2010

Call me Ishmael? No, Just Email Me Your Choices Instead

This post appeared first at The Huffington Post at

By Claudia Ricci

Lately I’ve been thinking about the novels that I’ve loved most, and the way they open. I’m about to publish my second novel, Seeing Red, and I am trying to decide whether to start the leisurely way, which is how the book is now, or whether to make a quick and dirty revision, starting with a punchier opening that might grab the reader faster. (You get to vote, just keep reading.)

It might seem like a no-brainer. If you’re trying to sell books, obviously you want your first page to do its job: nab the reader’s attention and hold it fast. With modern readers deeply mired in information overload, and increasingly comfortable with scanty Twitter posts and bullet-like blogs and instant TV sound bytes, they obviously have little or no patience for the old ways of writing, otherwise known as the classics.

I was reminded of this recently when a woman I know said that she couldn’t find anything she wanted to read. This woman is bright, and loves to read, 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 languid pace and her lofty 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 my friend, it is such a great story. It’s really worth the effort, despite the “antiquated” feel. I could tell from my friend’s face that she wasn’t buying it -- the book, or my attempt to sell it to her.

Why should I be surprised at this reaction, considering the way so many modern best-sellers lure in readers?

Consider the welcoming prologue that invites readers into Anita Diamant’s New York Times 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 teaser in his national bestseller, Midwives:

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

How many of us would put the book down 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 try 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 in that category these days is increasingly miniscule. Recently, a prominent New York literary agent – formerly a top executive at Harper Collins -- told my husband (who is writing a non-fiction book) that Farrar, Straus and Giroux now 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 of one thing: were these great authors querying New York agents today, they might very well just get polite form letters, rejecting their masterpieces.

Consider what I call Steinbeck’s “long-term weather report from the Dustbowl” approach, which 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 poetic writing, but I wonder how many busy agents searching 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 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, here we are clearly living 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 novel and couldn’t put it down. My students adore the book, and I’ve used it for years.

Curiously, though, after his appearance in Albany, I decided to put his latest book, Known to Evil, to the same test that 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, Mr. Mosley, with all due respect, what the heck were you thinking?

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. Others of us don’t have that luxury.

So here I am, unsure whether to start with the existing Chapter One, or switch it around, and start with Chapter Two.

Some people told me that even thought they adored my first book (Dreaming Maples) they thought it might have worked better not to use such a leisurely opening. “Start here, at the cusp of spring, as the snow is poised to begin melting in the forest. The March fog is lifting through the dark maples like a million delicate spirits.”

That’s why I’ve decided, with the second novel, to put it out for a vote. If you care to have some fun, you can weigh in on the matter. How often do you get to comment on novels before they’re published?

To read the existing opening, click here

To read the opening that I’m toying around with, click here

Then cast your vote by emailing

Constructive comments are also appreciated, but please don’t be mean-spirited. If you hate both openings, that’s fine. I just hope you will buy the book anyway.

Because you know what they say, or, what they should say,

Don’t judge a book by its first lines.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Said to Poetry

By Alice Walker

I said to Poetry: "I'm finished
with you."
Having to almost die
before some weird light
comes creeping through
is no fun.

"No thank you, Creation,
no muse need apply.
I'm out for good times--
at the very least,
some painless convention."

Poetry laid back
and played dead
until this morning.
I wasn't sad or anything,
only restless.

Poetry said: "You remember
the desert, and how glad you were
that you have an eye
to see it with? You remember
that, if ever so slightly?"
I said: "I didn't hear that.
Besides, it's five o'clock in the a.m.
I'm not getting up
in the dark
to talk to you."

Poetry said: "But think about the time
you saw the moon
over that small canyon
that you liked so much better
than the grand one--and how suprised you were
that the moonlight was green
and you still had
one good eye
to see it with

Think of that!"

"I'll join the church!" I said,
huffily, turning my face to the wall.
"I'll learn how to pray again!"

"Let me ask you," said Poetry.
"When you pray, what do you think
you'll see?"

Poetry had me.

"There's no paper
in this room," I said.
"And that new pen I bought
makes a funny noise."

"Bullshit," said Poetry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Shop the Economy Back to Health? Not if You Don't Have a Job!

This article appeared first in the Huffington Post at

By Claudia Ricci

I'm no economist and my stint as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal was years back now. But you don't have to be a business expert or a rocket scientist to know when a newspaper byline is total bullshit.

The Washington Post's "NEWS ALERT" came late on Friday afternoon,
as if something really exciting and unexpected had happened, say, Lady Gaga was contemplating a run for president.

No, this was the News Alert in my gmail:

"CEOs tell The Washington Post why they're not hiring: Democrats say we need more stimulus, and Republicans say we need less regulation and lower taxes. But CEOs say the real problem is that they simply don't trust American consumers will open their wallets in the coming years."


So the real problem is that Americans aren't spending? Well, folks, Americans aren't spending for good reason. Nearly ten percent of the population has no paycheck, and hasn't for a long time. Another chunk of people are scared shitless that they are going to get pink slips.

How many workers these days think they are immune from the ax? How many households feel secure enough about the economy and their personal future to part freely with cash? Most of us are nursing our aging washing machines along, even when they sound like trucks running uphill. And maybe the dishwasher isn't doing a perfect job getting the glasses to sparkle, but hey, the stuff comes out more or less clean.

Like most economic issues, this one is complicated but simple. Businesses aren't willing to hire until they are convinced that consumer demand for their products is going to grow at a reliable pace. But consumers won't spend for fear they are going to be fired.

Bob Herbert's recent column in The New York Times laid out the nation's dire employment crisis in the starkest terms along with Washington's pitifully inadequate response: "The politicians' approach to the jobs crisis has been like passing out umbrellas in a hurricane. Millions are suffering and the entire economy is being undermined, and what are they doing? They're appropriating more and more money for warfare while schizophrenically babbling about balancing the budget."

In the past, government has overcome post-recessionary stalemate by stimulating the economy with work programs. We've had some of those build-roads and fix-parks kinds of programs, but the Republicans are staunch in leading the resistance to any more spending in this vein.

Meanwhile, businesses are flush with cash (according to the Post article.) But what will they do with this cash?

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in an on-air column on NPR's Marketplace points out exactly what corporate America is doing: investing abroad, for one thing.

"It used to be the case that when the profits of large American corporations rose, so did their hiring. Not this time. For one thing, many of their profits are coming from overseas. So that's where they're investing and expanding production."

Companies are also using profits to invest in labor-saving technology, which HELLO, means, that they will hire even fewer human laborers down the line.

Oh, and one other thing. Reich says "...corporations are using their pile of money to pay dividends to their shareholders and buy back their own stock -- thereby pushing up share prices."

Lovely. The rich get richer, etc. etc.

So it is. Companies care about one thing, enhancing their bottom line. That's how capitalism works.

Fine, except we're in a mind-boggling economic crisis that isn't going away. Americans aren't going back to work in big enough numbers to make the economy come around.

So why should it come as such a news alert surprise that those same unemployed workers aren't running out to Target and Wal-Mart and The Gap to shop the economy back to health?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chapter Twelve: I Arrive in California, Where Xandra has a Surprise Waiting

FROM "SWITCH," a novel-by-blog, at

By Gina Morrison

I wake up on the rock hard floor and it is it takes me more than a minute to figure out that I am wrapped in Xandra’s red Navaho blanket and that it scratches at my face but for a minute I’ve got myself convinced that I'm back in 1883 lying on Sister Renata’s narrow bed beneath the crucifix.

I blink and then I see one thick leg of Xandra’s brass bed, the bed I was supposed to sleep in last night and I am a little frightened wondering how the hell I got here on the floor, I’m sure it has something to do with that bottle of white wine I downed on the plane and then the two, yes, two ativan I swallowed, one as the plane did a severe rocking and rolling and nosediving routine somewhere over Kansas. And the second one I took as we started to descend into SFO, that’s the moment I realized for the first time that I had actually left David 3,000 miles behind and the fact I did it sort of blew my mind and not in such a good way either.

I vaguely remember Xandra meeting me outside baggage claim in San Francisco, I remember her saying we should get dinner and I remember thinking I was so tired that I couldn’t hold my head up.

“Oh God, I’m starving, would you mind if we stopped somewhere?” So how could I say no? W hat I should have done was have a strong shot of espresso but instead I had more wine, and by ten p.m. when we were heading down the 101 toward San Jose, the lights along the Bay were like birthday candles all alight, whirling on the dark horizon with the stars bright overhead in the sky.

I don’t remember when, but I fell asleep.

The weird thing about the ativan is how it makes me forget so completely, it takes my memory and turns it into a piece of Swiss cheese. Sometimes it scares me, like the time I went to make a milkshake and I put a spoon in the blender and then I went to peel a banana and I turned on the blender and there went the spoon.

And so much for the blender.

David refers to ativan as “outofit.”

I sit up now, here on Xandra’s floor, and my head is still swimming upstream, and the first thing I realize is how I miss him, really totally miss him in the gut in my legs and in every other part of me I won’t even mention, especially in my heart , I ache and that feeling sets me into a sweat and frenzy.

At that moment the door squeaks open and I see what looks to be a powder blue curtain, which turns out to be Xandra in a chiffon bathrobe. Very sexy, and her dreds are a cloud flying in a million directions.

“Are you awake?” she whispers and I whisper “uh, yes, I guess so.”

She makes her way into the room. “What in God’s name are you doing under the rug?”

I push it away. “I wish I knew,” I mumble, rolling over.

“So I’ve got to get to work early today, but I want you to come with me. I have a friend I want you to see this morning."

"Who is your friend?"

"She is a therapist, but not the sort you've been seeing."

"What sort is she?" I sit up, and I am yawning and so at first when she answers I am not quite sure I hear her right.

"She does hypnosis for past life regression."

I don't answer right away. Finally I say, "I don't think so, Xand."

"Look, Gina, you just have to meet her. She's someone you would like. I work with her now and then and she's amazing. And all you have to do is meet her. You can decide later if you want her services."

I lay back down on the floor and close my eyes. "Right now Xand all I want is more sleep. I don't want to meet anyone. So if you don't mind, I think I'll stay here this morning."

Xandra doesn't say anything at first. Then she sits down on the floor cross-legged and suddenly I realize that she is studying me.


"Oh it's just that I was thinking of taking the afternoon off. I thought we could take a walk at this bird sanctuary and talk about what’s going on with you and David.”

"Sure. That sounds great. So you could come back and get me at lunch and I can sleep a few more hours."

"Yes, except if you stay here it means an extra two hours of driving."

I feel trapped. Xandra is pushing me way too hard, and I don't want to be pushed. I am about to say this to Xandra, except she beats me to it.

"Look, Gina, I know I"m putting a bit of a squeeze on you, but I really wish you'd go along with me here. I have a strong intuition that you are going to like this woman. She's helped a lot of people and she's very easy-going."

I am not happy, at all, but I decide that in the interest of keeping peace, I will meet Xandra's friend and get it over with.

I drag myself off the floor and head for the shower, where I stand for an extra few minutes, letting the water soak into my head and neck. Soon I am dressed and in the kitchen, where Xandra hands me one of her green "power" shakes.

"I'll take an English muffin, if you have one," I mumble. Naturally, she doesn't have English muffins.

I take a sip of the power shake and it tastes vaguely like my lawn back home. I place the glass very carefully back on the counter and soon, I'm sitting in Xandra’s BMW, and we are in traffic backed up the 101, and my new life in California, packed like a sardine in a car on the freeway, has begun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Las PelĂ­culas con Charles Boyer

By Camincha

The movies. Mamacita loved them for the beautiful women, mostly blond, in Hollywood productions dubbed from English to Spanish. The women were sultry, curvaceous, twenty-somethings who, when they weren’t dancing and singing in scanty costumes, were part of the workforce going to the office wearing lovely business attire including gloves and hats.

Even the mothers who stayed home were shapely; they kept house surrounded by shiny appliances that dusted, washed and dried, vacuumed and scrubbed for them. The women wore make-up, dresses, pearl necklaces, high heels and a pleasant demeanor and they were always anxious to listen to their hard-working husbands while handing them refreshing Martinis as they came home from a difficult day at the office.

Mamacita also loved the movies from Argentina and Mexico, full of comedians and beautiful women similar to the ones in the Hollywood movies except that these actresses were mostly brunettes. And the language, Spanish, hadn't being dubbed so it was full of the sound of rich strong consonants.

Alba knows now what the attraction was, the movies were a lovely fantasy, a departure from mamacita’s simple kitchen, rustic by comparison to the American, no shiny appliances. And no chance of anyone in her life ever dancing and singing in scanty costumes or her or any other mother keeping house wearing pearl necklaces and high heels and serving their husbands Martinis. Maybe a glass of wine. Wearing a scanty costume?


But the movies that mamacita really, really liked best, were those starring Charles Boyer the French actor, Hollywood’s favorite of the moment who was always elegantly dressed, usually in a suit. His hair carefully combed back close to the scalp. He had a suave, elegant, debonair manner. Velvet eyes that practically undressed his leading ladies and caressed them slowly, gently. Somehow those eyes managed that whether or not the ladies were undressed or not.

Alba remembers Boyer best of all. He spoke with his soft French accent, dropping sweet nothings into his ladies' ears or when looking into their eyes, pausing to listen to them like he had all the time in the world and nothing was more important.

After all these years from childhood to adulthood these memories keep flooding Alba. What was it that happened to mamacita? So strong were mamacita's feelings of connection to her suave leading man. Mamacita walked home from the movies, with her eyes shining. Cheeks flushed. A sweet smile on her lips.

Charles Boyer had that effect on her. Alba knows now, because she was in love with him, too.

Camincha was Featured Author at the 2005, 2006 and 2008 Litquake San Francisco Annual Literary Festival. She resides in Pacifica, California.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Butterfly As Big as A Fan

A Monarch lands.

Wings fluttering

like a paper fan,

it lands on pink

it lands on orange

back and forth

again and again.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Hummingbird Haven

What a week it was for hummingbirds. After one of the feeders broke, I noticed about five hummers fighting like mad over the remaining feeder. So I went out and splurged on a brand new --and much bigger-- feeder.

Now they are fighting over the super duper feeder.

I had no idea how territorial hummingbirds could be. They fight a lot, and it isn't just the males defending territory against intruding males. Female hummingbirds apparently defend their nesting territories, too.

All I know is that hummingbirds are dive-bombing like crazy through the backyard. Watching them, even when they fight, it's hard not to smile.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Where Would We Be Without Family?

By Lori Cullen

Five days have passed since my cousin, Tracey, returned to Rugby, England.

This morning, I brewed the coffee she’d bought and sat at a round glass table on my deck where each morning for two weeks she had rolled her cigarettes (or fags, as she called them) while watching my cat hunt sticks and ants.

Although it was drizzling, there’s a spot beneath the boughs of a maple tree, where you can sit even in a steady rain without getting wet. Tracey discovered this, not me. Before she came, my deck was rarely used.

I looked through the boughs toward the sky that looked like gray fleece and listened to the day. Early morning cars injected bass and treble sound into what would have been an otherwise quiet time punctuated only by intermittent chirps of waking birds.

In that spot, I thought about the cousin who had come and gone.

When I left England in 1980, Tracey was one of just a handful of cousins and one of only three girls. She was four years older than me, so she was my big cousin. When I visited her family, she took me swimming–one of my favorite things to do. Yet, I didn’t think much of exchanging her or my other relatives for a life in America, where I’d have only my parents and my younger brother. I thought I’d get Disneyland instead.

Until Tracey visited, I didn’t know that she was missing. I had never looked for her, never put out an APB, never placed an ad or hung a lost flyer on a single telephone pole. In fact, I knew right where I’d left her. And I never thought I would see her again.

When she popped up after all these years, as easy for me as 20-minute ride to the airport, it was like finding something you thought you’d lost or hearing an old song that you used to love that the radio had stopped playing–for me, “Summer Days” from Grease, maybe, the first record I had ever owned.

I left England on a fog-filled day in June. Just the month before, I had turned ten, and my parents gave me a silver cross. On the day that we finished packing, I touched my neck as I habitually did, and the necklace wasn’t there. I cried so hard for it, not because it was so expensive or couldn’t be replaced, but simply because it was the first piece of jewelry that I had ever owned.

Years later, when I was packing to go to boarding school, I found the necklace all bent and tarnished in the corner of a suitcase. I thought it had been missing, but it had been there all along. My mother traded my chain for one of hers with a sturdy lock, so that I would never lose it again, and I immediately put it on.


It took a two-week visit from cousin Tracey to force me to step away from the demands of daily life and take a good look at the place I now call home.

Suddenly, after living in the US for 31 years, I became a tourist in my own country.

We visited the usual spots like Lake Placid and went camping for a couple days near Whiteface Mountain. She even had the opportunity to see a bear, which visited our camp -- twice!

The most interesting part of her visit was going to New York City and watching a foreigner take it in for the first time. When we made a list of what she wanted to see, I suggested the usual–Ellis Island, Empire State Building, the World Trade Center site, Times Square.

Her list (and in this order) -- the inside of an American law firm (so she could see if they looked the way they do in American shows on TV), the types of places where "Sex in the City" would take place, the Chrysler Building (apparently this is a must-see as far as the English are concerned) and Times Square.

She did not want to visit the World Trade Center site. She was content to view Lady Liberty from afar, and she was not at all amused by the three-hour time span we spent mostly in lines waiting to get in (and out) of the Empire State Building.

Times Square was to be the big sha-bang, so I saved it until last, the place we would stay until the call of the final train forced us to leave.

We got there at dusk. Men were sitting about playing chess and people were beginning to come in droves. We walked around, and she took what seemed like a hundred photos. Then, within thirty minutes at the most, she suggested that we go back to one of the nice streets we had been walking on to get a coffee or a drink. What’s next, she wanted to know. What was the plan?

I was dumbfounded. There we were in Times Square. Police on every corner (tourists, for some reason always want to take pictures with American cops -- especially the ones on horses). Broadway lights at every turn, the hum of a night yet to unfold, and she wanted to know what was next.

There is no next, I told her. We’re here, where everyone is going. This is it. Final destination. The big sha-bang.

She looked around, unimpressed.

“Reminds me of Blackpool,” she said. Blackpool is a family resort spot in England.

I didn’t expect that I would feel so defensive. After all, I remember years ago when her mixed reactions to America would have been my own. Back then, I too was totally unimpressed. There’s the undeniable beauty of places like upstate New York and then the oversized, crowded, impoverished, violent, gritty, dirty America. Either way, I guess one has to live here to love it here.

There was a moment of silence, and then there was little left to say. I didn’t feel like showing her my America anymore, so we headed back to Grand Central Station and took the next train home.

Lori Cullen's blog appears regularly on the Albany Times Union's blog page. This material appeared first in the blog on August 2 and 3, 2010. Make sure to check out Cullen's wonderful writing at