The Cat Stamps

A while back, I checked out from the library the book The Quartzite Trip by William Hogan, a coming-of-age novel from the 1980s about a class trip into the desert. I found this on the title page:

Cat Stamp

The Cat Stamp

A little weird, but whatever. A kid playing, perhaps, or someone wanting to test out their new…cat stamp. I read a few chapters, and then found this:

Why are its whiskers so lopsided?

Okay, someone’s really into this cat stamp.

A few chapters later, this happened:

Tuna, tuuuuna.

I think they’re trying to hypnotize me.

The cats were starting to look a little creepy. Why were their whiskers so lopsided? Where were their ears? Why were there four of them when we were only at part two

The placement of cat stamps continued to get more and more random…and somewhat menacing.

One-eyed cat stamp

One-eyed cat stamp

Cat face cut in half?!

Cat face cut in half?!

They're closing in!

They’re closing in!

Finally, near the end, I discovered this:

Please say this is just a blurry cat stamp.

Please say this is just a blurry cat stamp.

*Shudder*   

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Rabid Anti-Smoker (Or Pro-Smoker?) Defaces Isaac Asimov Book

Not too long ago I went through a phase where many of the books I checked out from the library were…strange. Previous readers had made odd annotations, added funny markings, or stuck weird things between the pages.  This is the first in a series of posts documenting Weird Things in Library Books.

The first one was a book of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I read happily along until about page 75, where someone had done some underlining in a certain paragraph. Underlining in library books is pretty common , but this person had underlined just individual words, among them “cigarette” and “pack.”

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I looked closer and realized the previous reader had, indeed, marked every single reference to a smoking device–including pronouns (“it” and “its”)–in a somewhat angry looking red pen.

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I flipped forward in the book and found other paragraphs that had gotten the same odd treatment. In one or two places, there was just a single “it” marked on a page, and an examination of the preceding text revealed that it was, indeed, a reference to smoking.

While I’m never in favor of defacing library books, I could perhaps understand this impulse if the book had a lot of gratuitous smoking in it. For instance, in Looking for Alaska, one of my favorite books, the characters do seem to be lighting up every time you turn around, and the centrality of smoking to the characters’ friendships and coming of age kind of makes you want to go buy a pack yourself.

But that wasn’t the case here. The Asimov book was 400 pages long, contained 30+ stories, and had perhaps 7 or 8 scenes in which someone was smoking. Smoking was just part of the background of the story–for instance, in the middle of a conversation, someone lights up a cigarette and smokes it thoughtfully. Poor Asimov was just using a talking head avoidance device–a writing technique where a conversation among characters is broken up a bit with details about them cooking dinner, or taking a bike ride, or whatever. Especially for a book of stories written in the fifties through the seventies, the amount of smoking was not notable.

And yet someone read the entire book and carefully marked every single reference to the cancerous weed with an angry red pen.

Why the attention to detail? Why the implied accusation? Was it an assignment for an anti-tobacco class? A nervous parent assessing the book for suitability for their child? Or maybe someone who had just stopped smoking and was going through a nicotine fit?

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The world may never know.

Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.

What Developing Writers Should Read

Some of the books I’ve found most helpful as a writer, roughly in the order that I think a person should read them.

1. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. The “development of a writer” stuff really gets going in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown and continues through Betsy’s Wedding, the last in the series. Read these to learn some basic truths about writing (never neglect your writing, be persistent) and to see the wonderful support she gets from her family, friends, and partner. Though Betsy makes mistakes sometimes, this is essentially a portrait of the ideal way for a writer to grow up and develop.

2. Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I once loved these books so much I typed out Wild Mind so I would really absorb its lessons. These days, I rarely return to them. But I found them invaluable for teaching me to keep my hand moving and to write what I’m really thinking.

3. Stuff like the stuff you want to write. If you want to publish your work, you need to read what’s already out there. If you’re writing short stories, read a lot of short stories. If you’re writing fan fiction, read a lot of fan fiction. The more recent the better.

If you’re not reading the kind of stuff you want to write, it’s easy to, say, think that a contemporary retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is a fresh idea, only to discover that there are already several books out there based on that premise. Or to write a children’s book from the perspective of an adult (rare these days). If you’re only reading older stuff, you may write a story that feels like it’s from the 1990s, or the 1890s. The definition of “recent” depends on the genre, but for young adult fiction, I try to concentrate on books from the past three years.

The flip side of this is that whatever you like to read is probably what you should be writing: if you love European literary fiction, don’t write a romance just because you think it’s going to be easier. Romance has its own set of conventions and you need to really know them before you can write a (publishable) romance book. In almost any genre, the rules can be broken, but you need to know them first.

4. Okay, back to advice books. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Lamott is hilarious and low-pressure but also gives it to you straight. It’s been a while since I’ve reread it, but I think it works for both beginning and more experienced writers.

5. On Writing by Stephen King. Just a good, general, all-around writing book. If you think that successful writers are mysterious and perfect, King will show you otherwise. One thing I like about this book is that it covers the whole spectrum of writing advice: King’s development as a writer, the nuts and bolts of adverbs, and advice on publishing.

6. The Emily books by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, but especially Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest). If the Betsy series shows the ideal development of a writer, the Emily series shows the (almost) worst-case scenario. Emily has to work for her success. Her guardians forbid her to write fiction, and even once that ban is lifted, Emily often writes late at night in a cold attic room by the light of a single candle. Though she does have a mentor, he’s not always encouraging, and one of her closest friends constantly belittles her work. Read this series to learn about persistence and to feel better about your own obstacles.

7. Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. If you write, but don’t feel like a “writer,” read this book. I love her advice about connecting with other writers and how to build a life that feels like your vision of what a “writer” is. Particularly valuable for people who feel stuck in a day job, or in their identity as “student,” “mom,” or “bartender.”  Her craft advice is pretty good, too, but it’s the lifestyle stuff that makes this book invaluable to me.

8. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book on screenwriting finally helped me “get” plot. The writing isn’t always great, and he’s sometimes dismissive of certain types of “artsy” films, but his advice is straightforward and simple (though not always easy) to follow.

9. Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. I like the time-management advice in this book, which is basically “even two minutes counts.” The chapter on “Dead Weight–What You Can Ignore” was good, too. Take the craft advice and his frequent “always” and “never” tips with a grain of salt.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel and accompanying workbook by Donald Maass. I’m not sure I’m even ready for this one yet. It makes you think HARD about the novel you’re writing, examining your characters and plot, adding layers, etc. Even a few hours spent with this book will make your book richer.

Have you read any of the books above, and do you agree with my recommendations? What other books have you found helpful as a writer?