Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How do you mother yourself?

How do you mother yourself?

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Between the Pages with Susan Meissner

When I read The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, I got lost in the story and forgot all about being a writer. Lately I've been a real complainer about books that lack stories and certain fiction titles. But The Shape of Mercy reminded me that my love of books - especially those which take risks with prickly characters and pop back and forth between the past and present - is much stronger than the things that irritate me. As soon as I finished her book, I had to have her on the blog and talk about what inspired the story, the surprises she encountered on the way and the world she created for her characters.

Please welcome Susan Meissner, author of The Shape of Mercy.

Chica Lit: How did the idea for The Shape of Mercy come to you?

Susan: When I was in junior high, I was in play called To Burn a Witch. I played the role of an innocent young woman accused of witchcraft. The play opens with my character sitting in a jail cell with other innocent young women from her village also convicted of witchcraft and facing the stake. When my character realizes she can save herself by pretending to be bewitched, she begins to scream that one of the other girls in her cell – a friend, actually – is tormenting her. My character is led away to freedom and the woman she accused falsely is led away to her execution.

I had forgotten being in that play until I read a newspaper article a couple years ago about a woman who was petitioning a Massachusetts court to exonerate her great-times-eight grandmother. This ancestor of hers was accused and convicted of witchcraft during the Salem trials, was released when the hysteria ended, but whose name was never cleared. I was reminded of how it felt, even just as an actress, to be accused of being something I was not - and the far worse feeling of accusing someone I knew was innocent. These people who died in 1692 Salem were all innocent. They all died refusing to confess they were in league with the Devil, even though their lives would have been spared if they had. They held onto truth to the point of death. That, to me, is incredibly inspiring.

Chica Lit: Could you talk about your writing process?

Susan: The writing process for me begins with something like what I just shared: Ordinary people who I can relate to experiencing something extraordinary and faced with a choice. The Shape of Mercy is about a college student from an affluent family who takes a job she doesn’t need transcribing the 300-year-old diary of a young victim of the Salem Witch Trials. I wrote the diary first; before I wrote anything else. After reading several different kinds of books on the Salem Witch Trials (they are all listed in the back of the book), I felt ready to step into 1692. I interview my characters before I write their story, so I had already had several imaginary conversations with Mercy Hayworth before I began to write her diary. I knew how she was wired, what she was good at, what she feared, what she was willing to do for the people she loved. After I had written the diary, it felt real to me. And I wanted it to, because it had to feel real to Lauren, the college student. The Shape of Mercy is about how Lauren’s character develops, and it’s all based on the discoveries she makes while she’s transcribing Mercy’s diary.

Chica Lit: Which character surprised you the most?

Susan: I would have to say it’s Abigail who evolved into a character I actually grew to care about. Abigail is the 83-year-old recluse who owns the diary and hires Lauren to transcribe it. Abigail was always going to be kind of a hard-souled sourpuss whose own disastrous choices made her the way she was. She was to personify regret so that Lauren could see what becomes of a person who makes decisions based on self-preservation alone. But the more I got into the story, and into her stony heart, the more I saw a woman who wasn’t past getting through to. She became someone I could redeem. Nice surprise.

Chica Lit: How did your journalism career help and/or hinder you as a novelist?

Susan: I have come across only good things that have transferred over from my days as a newspaper editor. Journalism is all about word economy, hooking the reader with the first sentence, saying much in a short amount of space, choosing powerful nouns and verbs instead of cosmetic adjectives and adverbs, and of course, sticking to a deadline. I am amazed at how much journalism prepared me to write fiction. And I know that sounds a like a joke! But it’s true. Go figure.

Chica Lit: In a way, you're continuing The Shape of Mercy through a blog written by the characters. Will you write a sequel or continue the blog?

Susan: The blog, which is found here, has been a wonderful way to keep the characters alive.

More than once I’ve finished reading a novel where I’ve connected deeply with the characters and found myself a little depressed when I turned the last page. It’s been like having to say goodbye too soon to people I’ve learned to care about. My goal is always to create characters that seem real. I want them to seem real to you and to do that they must seem real to me. This was especially true with the characters in The Shape of Mercy. I wanted Lauren, Abigail, Esperanza, Raul, Clarissa, - and even Mercy - to keep breathing, to keep talking to me, prodding me even though the book was done. It’s true that the characters write the posts and I wouldn’t exactly say it’s an online sequel. The posts are emails between Lauren and Raul, advice from Clarissa, stories and poems from Mercy’s recovered storybook, insights on life and literature from learning-to-let-go-of-regrets Abigail and kicky recipes from Esperanza, Abigail’s housekeeper. It has a sequel-type feel and I like that because I have no plans to carry the story into another full-length book. I feel I told the story that needed to be told there. And I guess I will continue the blog until the story that needs to be told here is told!

Check out The Shape of Mercy or visit her website and blogs at www.susanmeissner.com.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Unlikeliest Places

I better 'fess up. When I get stuck or bored or lazy, I make the rounds of gossip sites. But my meanderings paid off when I learned about legendary singer, Chavela Vargas from Lossip.com.

Her ancient voice crackles from lost loves and alcohol. Even though she sings in Spanish, I feel what she's singing about. Some things transcend words and to a writer that is humbling.

Friday, April 17, 2009


This is probably somewhat illegal but what the hell. Anyway, have you ever talked to someone who repeats how happy/smart/humble they are? When that happens, I always wonder if they're saying it to convince me, or themselves and then of course, my imagination conjures all sorts of lurid possibilities as to why. Unlike most four year-olds, a writer never grows out of the "why's".

This scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's is pitch perfect in conveying subtext. It helps if you've seen the film in its entirety to appreciate Holly's subterfuge, but Audrey Hepburn's performance does a lot of the work for you.

Check it out and then have yourself a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tone Deaf

Musique by Gustav Klimt @ Art.com

The other day Ryan and I were talking about the books and scripts we've read lately. I had just come off a two-month reading dry spell during which I'd start a new book and then put it down at page 20, not caring what happened in the end.

Up till I had a child, my rule was never to leave a book unfinished. But I'm 35 now and in my family that makes me just shy of middle aged. My great grandma lived till she was 76 and my great grandpa and Grandma Mary stuck around till they were 88 ... mas o menos (neither were forthcoming about their real ages). So compared to what I want to accomplish in this lifetime and my probable life expectancy, I don't have a lot of time to waste.

Anyway, Ryan argued that the reason why so many movies fall short and why so many books go unfinished is that their authors are tone deaf when it comes to story. Even though many writers come up with great ideas and snazzy hooks, and possess enviable literary wit, they can't move a story from point A to Z.

So when I think about the books that I'd given up on, I realized indeed they were tone deaf in story. In other words, nothing was happening except the protagonist complaining about his or her life. Or worse, I was reading an author who clearly loved hearing him or herself talk. Nothing was at stake and no one or nothing was in jeopardy and those my friends are the building blocks of a good story.

Now this isn't a literary fiction versus popular fiction rant. Nor does it have anything to do with my constant irritation with books titled, "The Candyman's Daughter" or "The Stinky Cheesemaker's Wife." I don't think that you don't have to be "genre-fied" to spin a rip-roaring yarn. For example, even some books that cultural connoisseurs have deemed literary fiction, tell stories. Check it out:

In Cold Mountain, a soldier is making his way back home and to the woman he loves. Inman is in constant peril and much is at stake.

In Water for Elephants, a young veterinary student joins the circus and falls in love with a married woman. On each page, Jacob's life and that of an elephant are on the line.

In The Great Gatsby - it's read in high school so it's a certifiable classic literary novel - a man tries to woo the golden girl who's married to a lout. Jay Gatsby risks his heart for idealistic love.

So recently I came across a book that lacked a story and I froze with terror that the dry spell had started again.

(By the way, I won't name names because that's cheesy and I don't need attention so badly that I'll risk your hate mail.)

Going back to the book ... The character was cute but if you read chick lit, you've read her a thousand times over and better. The writing was fast-paced and in a few places quirky enough for me to crack a grin. And guess where it takes place? If you thought New York, you win!

I gave it up at page 7 even though:
  • A major publishing house bought and published it.
  • An editor, marketing/PR person, copyeditor, sales squad, cover artist and a cast befitting a Cecil B. DeMille epic worked on it.
  • You'll find it on the tables at major book stores.
  • Many prominent women in media called it the best thing since their vibrator.
Okay, I made up the part about vibrators but you get the idea.

This book, out of thousands, was plucked for publication even though IT HAS NO STORY.

Seriously dude, that's the problem. Too many people are story tone deaf and yet have the wherewithal - time and a laptop and in some cases, friends in high places - to write a manuscript that gets published. Trust me, I know. Having judged plenty of contests and having read some awesome work by the members of my former critique group, there are stories out there that can't find a place at your local bookstore. They're held off because (a) they're not "high concept" enough (an over-rated ideal, let me tell you) or (b) publishers can't take chances on stuff that's not regency romances or vampires. (Dude, I do don't get the vampire thing.)

But could someone become pitch perfect when it comes to story? Do you have to be "special," or can you cultivate it?

Hmm. That's a toughie. I guess it's up to the individual - not that I'm claiming to have been born with great literary prowess .... just ask the people who proclaimed their hatred of my books on Amazon.com. But when it comes to story, I'm always learning by reading books and watching movies. I read plenty and preferably, beyond the confines of my genre.

When I'm lucky to find that special book or movie that make me forget that I'm a writer, I reread/rewatch it to spot how the author structured the story. I even take notes and ask myself the following:
  1. What does she reveal about the characters? But most importantly, how and when does she reveal what they're trying to keep secret?
  2. How does she work characters against each other and create conflict that make me hold the book tighter, or lean forward towards the screen?
  3. Where are the pulse points of the story? (One could call them plot points, turning points ... whatever floats your boat.
I'm not saying anything new about story telling, by the way. I think every writer knows these questions instinctively and through writing and rewriting and more writing and rewriting, you understand what you've been doing since you were playing make-believe as a kid.

So with that all said - oh, I feel like I could walk on air! - I've got some storytelling to do.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An Aha Moment

You Are Here

I didn't die nor did my laptop, in case you're wondering why this blog hasn't been updated. It's the same-old, same-old around here. I've been caught up in writing so much that I called the Little Dude by a character's name. I guess it's fair because he now has make-believe "bad guys" and "good guys" who get into all kinds of scrapes. (My husband and I are not excluded from these rip, roaring yarns.) Now that the Little Dude can talk, Ryan and I can't think of whom he gets his imagination from ... it must be something in our water.

Anyway, I'm studying TV writing and came across this passage from Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein. He's talking about telling a story out loud before writing it, and reading it again after you've written it. But this part really got me ... can't you tell, since I haven't posted a blog since Mary Talbot Fee, whose CD is FABULOUS!!!

Whether you are writing a TV episode, a screenplay, a novel, an essay, a presentation, or a speech, there is nothing as effective in streamlining, enriching and generally beating a story into shape as winging the whole thing front to back off the top of your head.

After all, what you do have to lose? You're not driving a car. You can't hurt anyone. If you wrap your story around a tree, you can always untangle it and get it back on the road again with a few leaps of imagination.

This technique worked very well for In Between Men, especially since there were so many different POVs. All I did was read ten-page sections into a tape recorder and then played it back while reading along with the manuscript. It's really not that painful. Trust me.

But I've never tried telling the story out loud before I've written it. I think I'll give it a try with the new material I'm planning to work on over the next couple of weeks. I'll let you know how it works.