Monday, January 25, 2010

You Don't Need Permission to Do Art: A salute to Audrey Niffenegger and The King's English

What I'm reading right now: Story Structure -- Demystified by Larry Brooks

On Wednesday, January 20th, I had the great fortune (thanks dear) to attend a reading by Audrey Niffenegger. It was held at the 15th Street Gallery and hosted by the King's English bookshop.

If you're not familiar with TKE, it's a great independent bookstore in the Sugarhouse district of Salt Lake City. It has a quaint cottage look and inside you'll find labyrinth halls lined with books. The halls wind their way connecting to ascending and descending staircases leading to places like the Kids' room and the Mystery room.

TKE is not unlike the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. except that TKE is not reported to be haunted (not that I know of) a bit smaller in scale. TKE is peopled with a delightful staff of flesh and blood. It's not at all scary, quite the contrary, and you don't have to pay just to walk the halls. Chances are though if you do walk the halls, you'll end up paying at the register since it's almost impossible to leave without some treasure from their shelves.

What a perfect match, the King's English and Audrey Niffenegger. That night, Ms. Niffenegger mentioned how intriguing is "the mating process between readers and books." And the King's English has been "matching books to readers since 1977."

My experience that evening was wonderful. It is such a great environment. Art on the walls and art at the podium. When you consider that one in four Americans don't read novels, it's always great to be in a room full of people who love to read and are all passionate about the same book. 

Like many, my first introduction to Ms. Niffenegger's work was The Time Traveler's Wife.

A novel unlike any I have read. Her telling of this unusual life-long love affair is at once both something we can't related to and something we can all relate to. I have yet to read her new book, Her Fearful Symmetry, but look forward to doing so. What I'd like to share now is something she mentioned during the Q&A that followed her reading.

When asked how she got into noveling, given her background, she replied, "All my degrees are in visual art. This noveling thing is completely unsanctioned." We laughed. She explained that she recognizes that certain training can avail you to experiences you may not have otherwise had, "you don't need anyone's permission to do art."

After the Q&A, we retired to the King's English and the Mystery Room where Ms. Niffenegger signed her books. Given the length of her name and the configuration of the letters. Here is a scan of my book. Her autograph is as unique and quirky as she is.

One other thing worth mentioning, Ms. Niffeneggar does not own a television. That in itself is significant, don't you think? However, when she needed a British television show to include in her book, she tried The Office and found that was the wrong genre. Next she landed on some obscure Sci-Fi show called Dr. Who. Did she like it? Well, it made it into the book and after watching a few episodes, in her own words, she was " a chimp on cocaine. More!" As she slapped the podium.

I think we could say the same about her novels.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why writers should be Jets fans

What I'm reading right now: Story Structure -- Demystified by Larry Brooks

If you're a writer, and you love great stories, then you should be rooting for the Jets to beat the Colts this weekend in the AFC Championship game.

Why? Irony and some defining words from a former Jets coach (Herm Edwards) and a bestselling author (Richard Paul Evans.)

Irony, often employed by writers as a plot mechanism, is defined in literature as dramatic irony and situational irony. In the first, by means of portents and forshadowing, the narrator reveals something to the reader about which the character is unware. In the second, generally accepted and even well-founded expectations do NOT come to fruition.

It's the latter that concerns us. On Dec. 27 2009, Week 16 of the NFL season, the Colts hosted the Jets. Going into this game the Colts were not only undefeated on the season at 14 - 0, but had a 23 game regular season winning streak going, carried over from last season.

In the third quarter, with the Colts up 15 - 10, Jim Caldwell, the head coach, made the decision to pull the starters and rest them, given that the Colts' standing in the playoffs was all locked up. The Jets went on to win that game 29 - 15. The winning streaks and the fans' desire for an undefeated season notwithstanding, that win is what allowed the Jets (at 8 - 7) to make it into the playoffs.

The Jets then go on to beat the divison champs, the Bengals, not once but twice in successive weeks, the second being the wildcard game. Followed by a cross-country victory over the Chargers to now face off against who? Of all teams? The Colts. The team who pulled their starters essentially opening the door for the Jets to the playoffs.

If the Jets were to now beat the Colts in the AFC Championship that would make for delicious irony. I don't have a vested interest in either team, but I am a fan of great stories so this weekend all I have to say is:


If history has any bearing on this game, then I can't help but think of Super Bowl III when a cocky young quarterback named Joe Namath not only predicted but guaranteed an upset victory of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. The Jets went on to win that match up 16 - 7.

I think Jim Caldwell would do well to take a page from the playbook of Herm Edwards, former Jets Head Coach.

On October 30, 2002 after a Week 8 loss to the Cleveland Browns that left the Jets at 2–5, a reporter questioned Coach Edwards on his team's ability to win, the Coach responded with:

"This is what's great about sports. This is what the greatest thing about sports is. You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play it to just play it. That's the great thing about sports: you play to win, and I don't care if you don't have any wins. You go play to win. When you start tellin' me it doesn't matter, then retire. Get out! 'Cause it matters."

After that impassioned explanation, the Jets went 7-2 and won the AFC Eastern Division.

In a key note address given by New York Times best-selling author Richard Paul Evans at the League of Utah Writers' annual workshop and competion, he reminded us that not trying is failing by default. So take a seat at the table.

You play to win the game. 'Cause it matters.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Secret's in the Sauce

Today's post is a bit of departure from my normal rants and observations around writing and a love of words. Feel free to check out previous and more recent posts, just there to your left.

I've been working on this scene for awhile and I think I may have finally worked out the glitch, but I need some fresh eyes, would you mind?

At the bottom there are a couple of specific questions that will help me work it out. Thank you!!

Howie's sauce had been simmering all day.

Jules could smell the sweet spicy aroma even from the bedroom, now clean and orderly. She sat on the edge of the bed wearing a dressing gown and holding a zip-lock sandwich bag filled with freshly ground nutmeg. An anxious heaviness sat in her stomach or was it her heart?

She reflected on her errand to the whole foods market and the eager college kid who’d cracked and ground the seeds for her; he was no more than twenty-two, working at the market while going to school, studying nutrition. He nearly cracked his own finger while sneaking looks at her cleavage, and she’d been okay with that. He also confirmed her suspicions: nutmeg can mess you up.

It’s a lot like X, he’d said.

X? What’s X?

X, Ecstasy—blurred vision, halos, euphoria. Take too much though and a fast pulse, fever, and flushing may prompt a nosy dorm advisor to rush you to the ER at all hours of the night.

That part seemed like he was speaking from experience, not book learning.

The sound of what might have been a car door closing brought her attention back to the present. Nutmeg was a key ingredient in the sauce—that much she knew—the question was how much? A dash or a downpour? Jules measured the weight of the bag in her hands. She let it roll back and forth over her palms. Heavy doses caused convulsions, palpitations, nausea, and generalized body pain. That part she’d Googled. The section about causing pain she’d found particularly interesting.

She held the bag to her nose. The keen scent penetrated the plastic bag and teased her nostrils.

The website said that given in excess, nutmeg causes a type of psychosis; which could lead to hallucinations and a feeling of impending death. Jules had no desire to induce psychosis; simple nausea and generalized pain would suffice. She hurt and so would he; it was only fair.

The doorbell chimed, as if on cue. Jules called out, “Howie can you get that? I’m still getting dressed.”

“I’ve kind of got my hands full here,” Howie replied.

“Well, all right. Your friends have always wanted to see me naked.”

“Wait. I’ll get it,” he said. “Somehow I doubt you’d go through with it, but I’m not prepared to call your bluff, or buff as the case may be.”

“Thank you, dear.” Peeking around the corner of the bedroom door, she watched him wipe his hands on her apron and exit one side of the kitchen, heading for the living room. Jules darted to the other entrance of the kitchen via the pantry. Elated by her machinations, she grabbed the glass lid on the simmering pot with her bare hand and nearly dropped it.

“Ouch!” She stifled a yell. “That smarts,” she whispered, shaking her hand.

She saw two platters: one of wings, the other of ribs. And all of it dripping in sauce. She didn’t crave his ribs like she did his wings, he had a dry rub for ribs, but she wouldn’t kick them out of bed either. Now what? Her mind raced. What would she say if caught?

She grabbed a covered serving dish from the cupboard, set it next to the simmering pot, and ran her thumbs between the flaps above the zip-lock seal; the bag clenched its teeth and refused to yield. Jules struggled with it, worried it would suddenly burst and cover her in nutmeg.

“Come on in,” Howie said from the entry way. “You look great.”

“Thanks,” Abra replied. “And you. I’ve always loved a football jersey. It gets me riled up, all of that testosterone. Kind of like a uniform.”

Ovulating are we? Jules thought. And it is a uniform you dimwit.

Howie laughed. “Jules hates it, but I can’t seem to get rid of it.”

Why not just go at it right there on the rug, Jules thought. Dare she look? No. Stay focused, she told herself, you’ve only got seconds. But she couldn’t resist. Jules pushed her eye around the corner in time to see Abra’s hand on Howie’s chest, his hand on hers.

She jerked backed, more determined to complete her mission. She focused on the task at hand, letting the conversation at the door go unheard. “Stupid bag!” she said under her breath. At that, the zip-lock gave away. She poured half the nutmeg into the serving bowl, ladled sauce in on top of it, and gave it a quick stir.

~ * ~

The doorbell chimed.

From down the hall came Jules’s voice, “Howie, can you get that? I’m still getting dressed.”

“I’ve kind of got my hands full here,” Howie replied.

With a basting brush in one hand and a ladle in the other, Howie put the finishing touches on a platter of hot wings and a second platter of ribs. From his right hand, he was Jackson Pollack, drizzling the sauce just so—not too much—but enough to make a subtle difference on each wing. In his left hand he was Vincent van Gogh, lathering the BBQ sauce on with thick heavy red and brown swirls until the ribs were drenched.

“Well, all right,” Jules replied. “Your friends have always wanted to see me naked.”

“Wait. I’ll get it,” he said. “Somehow I doubt you’d go through with it, but I’m not prepared to call your bluff, or buff as the case may be.”

The ladle plunged into the simmering sauce; the brush landed in a spoon cradle. Howie wiped his hands on Jules’s apron, leaving dark streaks, creating bleeding chrysanthemums.

He opened the front door to find Abra and quickly ushered her in.

“I can’t explain it," Abra said, "but I’ve always loved a football jersey." Abra ran her finger down the front of Howie's chest. "It gets me all riled up, something about all of that testosterone. Kind of like a uniform.” She inhaled; her eyes closed. “It’s not hard to tell when you’re home.”

He took hold of her hand and removed it from his chest. Howie shook his head ever so slightly. “That’s my cologne, Eaux de X-wingy.”

Abra dropped her hand. “I know. Call it a test of loyalty. Congratulations, you passed, unfortunately, I only have one bracelet.”

“So you brought it?”

“Here, in my clutch.” Abra started to undo the latch when Howie stopped her. “Come with me to the kitchen.”

“Oh, I get to meet your mother? I’m flattered.”

He gave her a wistful smile and shook his head.

~ * ~

1) At what point did you realize you were reading a parallel scene? (The same scene from a different point of view)

2) Was the transition from the first scene to the second scene smooth?

3) Please post any other comments you have regarding these pages.

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