Runaway Cars!

After Toyota recall, investigators look for faults in electronic throttles

Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of an unresolved mechanical flaw that might cause the accelerator to get perilously stuck in the depressed position. Now, industry analysts say Toyota sacrificed quality for global growth and got burned.

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Update

Here’s a brief description of some of the things I’ve been up to over the past months.

Creative Writing Club

I’ve gotten active with the club at my university. It was great support for…

National Novel Writing Month!

I spent the month of November writing a 50,000 word novel (you can too at http://www.nanowrimo.org/) It was insane, and it was glorious! I was actually very pleased with the result, although it’s going to need a lot of editing. I decided to expand one of my short stories (The Girl with the Clockwork Heart) which became the Odd Doctor’s Collection. Here’s the summary:

It’s the autumn of 1848 when scholar Jacob Welby travels to the isolated Alpine region of Maldetta. A fateful blizzard strikes, separating him from his guide and nearly claiming his life. Jacob is rescued by the villagers of Altinum, but not before glimpsing a strange apparition in the snow. As Jacob records the strange and whimsical folklore of the region, he begins to unravel the truth of a centuries-old mystery.

The novel totaled at around 59k, although I’ll need to expand it quite a bit (to around 75k) to be average novel size. I learned a lot, especially about the setting (Venetian Slovenia). I’ve started in on the second draft, which will involve fixing some rather gaping plot-holes, continuity issues, etc. I think I can safely say that this novel was the first time I really fell in love with some of my characters. I adore the romance that kind of blossomed unintentionally, and I really hope that this novel can find a good home in the future.

Short Shorts

I have three flash fictions I’d really love to polish and submit to one of the school’s literary magazines. Descriptions:

“A Window”: A obsessive hermit  breaks out of his self-imposed prison to help a fallen bird.

“Selchie”: Annie contemplates a love lost to the sea.

“The Arrival”: When a heavenly messenger arrives in Central Station, only one man will hear her out.

Fairy Tales

I really love writing these, and I think that it’s kind of an underdeveloped sub-genre. However I tried something a little new this December. I picked a couple of Grimm’s Fairy Tales at random, and tried some unorthodox interpretation.

“Lamb’s Heart” (based on Brother Frolick): In post-war France, a murder goes unpunished.

“Bearskin” (based on the story of the same name): A bet between two rival cousins leads to a seven year search for vengeance.

Preparations for Submission

I’ve been editing “Guitar Ashes” for submission to the Claremont Review, and am considering editing an older murder mystery story for submission to Allegory Ezine. I’ve been stalking other member’s publishing histories on Critique Circle to find good venues!

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Historical Fiction

As the summer draws on, unhindered by the constraints of class assignments or camps, I’ve been visiting the library on my way back from work. I have a habit of grabbing random books from the “new release” shelves, which I think gives me a better idea of where the market is. One such book was A Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.

The British version calls it a “Novel of the Plague,” but I think that’s a little misleading. The historical background is little more than a setting in what is essentially an old formula of strangers traveling together, only to be gruesomely knocked off one by one, and turning against one another in the process.

I’d give it about a B-. I still really like the cover and title. The style was engaging and thought-provoking (such as quip about the English not having blood, but rather rain running in their veins) but the plot didn’t really stand up to closer scrutiny. After a surprising twist, the book opted to end with a vagueness that felt unfinished.

What A Company of Liars did do was remind me how much I like historical fiction. I’ve always been a history geek; there are so many dark stories that inspire the imagination. There are a couple stories in particular that have stuck out to me, but I feel too intimidated to tackle them as premises:

The Etruscans: This advanced civilization predated the Romans in Italy. There’s so much we don’t know about them—but their tomb paintings are hauntingly beautiful and amazingly advanced.

Byzantium: Like the Etruscans, the Byzantines were a paragon of culture. They had the misfortune of getting caught between a rock and a hard place—namely, the crusaders and the Ottomans.

Eleonore von Schwarzenberg: The strange circumstances surrounding this princess served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The woman herself wasn’t half as interesting as the mass hysteria she inspired.

Geli Raubal: There’s a saying that as soon as you bring up Hitler, you’ve effectively brought conversation to a dead stop. However I’d never heard of this particular aspect of his life, namely his half-niece and rumored lover. The dysfunctionality just boggles the mind, but I could envision a terrifically dark and powerful piece told from the perspective of this woman.

Nauru: An island that nobody has ever heard of, Nauru is an incredible testament to the fact that human ingenuity and avarice are two sides of one coin. It was made habitable by men that then proceeded to sell out the land beneath their own feet (literally– it was cut away to be used as fuel).

For an example of great oral storytelling, try this great “This American Life” feature on Nauru:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=253

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Filed under Books for Readers, Inspirations, Reviews

Summaries and Excerpts

After a very rewarding week at the beach, I’m back to the grindstone! I’ve got a new resolution to write 1,000 words a day, which was put a little on hold due to vacationing. Bad writer! Nonetheless, I’ve been very penitential and written more than 4,000 words of a cracktastic novel, in the NaNoWriMo  tradition of quantity-before-quality. While I see what’s salvageable from that hot mess, I thought I’d share a bit more about my writing portfolio. The following are the four stories I’m concentrating most on for publication. Crow Black Rooster and The Garden House have both been submitted to the Claudia Ann Seaman competition, which I’ll find out about in late September.

Crow Black Rooster: Short Story—Folk Tale

Blurb: When Lucy’s brother offers to steal a hen from Black Agnes in order to impress a girl, she considers kicking him out of the house. However when Tommy disappears, it’s up to quick-thinking Lucy Sherman to save the day.

Excerpt: Lucy followed the voice into what seemed to be a small kitchen. Everything in the house was dark and crooked with age. Agnes didn’t seem to notice her presence, she just kept singing:


Crow, black chicken and fly away
Crow, black chicken and crow for day
I love chicken pie

Sure enough, that seemed to be what she was preparing to make.  She had chopped some rather weak vegetables and had a nasty looking meat cleaver on the lopsided table by the window. The window was so dusty that the light filtered through it was a dun as the room it barely penetrated.

“Mrs. Agnes, has my brother, Thomas Sherman come to visit?” she phrased tactfully.

“Chicken crow for midnight, chicken crow for day.”

“He’s about this tall,” Lucie continued, holding out a hand high above her head. “And he’s got hair like mine and a grin like the devil.”

“Along comes an owl, ooh-haa.” And on the last word, Black Agnes brought down a knife on a head of cabbage with enough force to crack the cutting board. Lucie gasped.

“And knocked that chicken away,” Black Agnes continued sadly, studying the knife. Then she broke into a fit of guffaws.

Author’s Notes: I thought a lot about those “Girl to the Rescue” anthologies while writing this story, and I think it would fit right in, for better or for worse. I tried to capture the feel of folk (listened to a lot of Nickel Creek while writing!) and I’ve been told it sounds Irving-esque. I went back and thoroughly revised after reading “As I Lay Dying” by Faulkner, which I think has also impacted the story. Black Agnes is a real character from Scottish mythology who I adapted somewhat by blending with the hint of Baba Yaga, especially by making the central focus a hen. The title derives from the song, which is also a real folk ditty.

The Garden House: Short Story—Young Adult

Blurb: Ana has always been aware of the differences between her family and Julia’s manicured world, but one summer shines a harsh light on their friendship.

Excerpt: At nine years old, Julia had her own house. Three tiny rooms, hidden in the rhododendrons. Two windows that peeked out across the Shaw garden. It looked like a garden shed. Only we knew about the mini-kitchen fully stocked with raw cookie dough, or the stacks of Beatles CDs and old copies of Seventeen beneath the bed.

There was a time when I wanted my own house so badly it hurt. My mother had the worst excuses. I love you Baby, why would I keep you in a garden shed? You’re my heart, not a sack of bulbs. I would tell her that she didn’t understand, and she would tell me exactly what she thought of the Shaw family, and I had to put my hands over my ears since I kind of agreed, and I hated that.

Author’s Notes: I came up with this story after hearing a pretty amazing story just in casual conversation. My friend mentioned that she no longer saw a best friend whose mother ran off to another state with my friend’s uncle. I can’t really say why this idea fascinated me, but I knew I had to work it into a story. I sat down at a computer and out came a story that ultimately proved to be more about class conflict then family tensions. I too was always fascinated by the idea of having a play-house like our neighbors. But as it does for Ana, the play-house eventually became a symbol of dysfunction.

The Girl with the Clockwork Heart: Short Story—Fairy Tale

Blurb: Where others have flesh and blood, Lark has steady gears and little springs; the masterful craftsmanship of a strange genius. But Thomas, a would-be lover, is determined to rescue Lark’s heart from the Odd Doctor, no matter the price.

Excerpt: When Youngest emerged from behind the closed door to find Little Bird alert and gurgling. Her skin was no longer blue and chilled. Her eyes were the color of a crocus and gave the same impression of emerging from beneath the snowy white of her skin. Youngest loved her at first sight, but when she pressed her ear to the child’s heart, she nearly fell over.

The fluttering little bird had been replaced by the steady ticking of a clock.

Author’s Notes: I love to get ideas from dreams, or from the weird trance-like period before sleep. This was one of those times, when the phrases “Clockwork Heart” and “Odd Doctor” just appeared out of thin air. I devoured fairy tales as a kid, and I think this story incorporates a lot of the classic elements in voice that’s delightful to write in. I’m considering writing more worth short stories called “The Odd Doctor’s Collection” to incorporate into an anthology-like novel, where the clues the protagonist needs to solve a modern mystery are hidden in the history of the Odd Places– the Odd Doctor’s home.

Guitar Ashes: Short Story—Young Adult

Blurb: When Kate’s childhood friend and sometimes-boyfriend dies, cremating a guitar and throwing the ashes from atop of the highest roller coaster becomes a soul-searching adventure.

Excerpt: There was a kid over in Jefferson last year who shot himself. He left a two-sentence note for his parents and a three-page love letter for his girlfriend of six months. I wondered sometimes if Cullin had had the chance, would he have done something like that. I know better, though. If Cullin had known about the car wreck, he would have run his callused fingers through his hair and give me a sad smile. Then he’d do something goofy because he couldn’t stand being sad, like winking and saying “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Author’s Notes: There were a surprising number of deaths connected to my high school this past year, and I found out about all of them through facebook, which is thoroughly surreal. I wanted to write something about the way that teenagers deal with death, and it merged with some nonfiction attempts to recount my first roller coaster ride. The two seemed a natural fit, and the story of Cullen’s ashes was born.

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Filed under News from the Publications Desk

The First Installment…

… in the list of best sites for writers.

Critique Circle

(http://www.critiquecircle.com/default.asp)

I’ve only found this site this past  May, but it’s everything I’ve been looking for. Think fictionpress with more features and a more mature clientele. The combination of a credit system with a variety of critique formats (it’s possible to do line-by-line comments) helps guarantee feedback is thorough and well-warranted. Every critique earns a rating (poor, helpful, very helpful, perfect) as well as a thank-you note, and often times a critique in return. The system of membership applications and story queues also ensures that posting writers are serious about the craft.

NaNoWriMo

(http://www.nanowrimo.org/)

November can’t come soon enough! Users sign on to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in that month alone with the goal of increasing their writing discipline and output (if not necessarily quality.) The site is handily designed, while the forums are chock-full of moral support and fun diversions. While I only reached some  20,000 or so this past year, I’m officially hooked.

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Filed under Reviews

Writer’s Digest: C-

I remember spending some long afternoons curled up in an armchair at the public library, flipping through old issues of Writer’s Digest. I loved reading anything and everything about writing at the time, and reading the magazines made me feel like I belonged to part of a wider world.

However, I’ve had a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine for about a year now, and by the tenth “Renew now!” postcard, I don’t feel any more inclined to renew that subscription.

Articles: B-

Some of the articles are interesting, but I now recognize that they really only repeat the same adages– take a chance, network, and edit. A few issues attempt market analysis, but the conclusions are open-ended and can be drawn by any hobbyist. The articles about new electronic publishing in particular betray the age of the writers as “blogs” and “self-publishing” are treated as far more novel than they are.

Publishing Opportunities: C

Published fiction and creative nonfiction is confined to the winners of monthly contests, and often take up less than half a spread. I think a writing magazine could have far more in the way of… you know.. actual writing. I’ve not yet read anything particularly inspiring. To enter the contest (or read past winners), you have to navigate through an antiquated site– one of the most annoyingly unhelpful I’ve ever tried to use. Information about outside publishing opportunities lacks specifics, while the annual list of best writing sites includes many broken links.

Other: F

Spam, spam, spam! If you subscribe, you open yourself up to all sorts of mail regarding writing scams, which in addition to being annoying, is just trashy on the part of WD. At least half of the magazine also consists of scammy-looking ads, which in my opinion, puts WD magazine in their category.

Overall: C

Save yourself the $13, or whatever a subscription costs now, and try Poets and Writers Magazine instead. I’ve flipped through a copy and found much better quality material. Also, their site is very handy, listing specific publishing opportunities, such as anthologies currently seeking material, or legitimate short story contests.

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And so it begins…

I tend to think of authors in Myers-Brigg terms—meaning that there are many unique trait combinations and a conspicuous absence of a “bloody insane” category. I fall into a category of writers who scoff at the idea of the font of imagination running dry, but cringe when it comes time to put the pen on paper.  I love writing. Except for that… you know.. writing part.

Even that doesn’t quite convey the schizophrenia of my approach. I do really enjoy writing when I’m absolutely absorbed by the material, however those first five minutes are racked by doubt. I’ve joked that I have to become a novelist just so I won’t have to tackle as many introductions.

So far the best strategy I’ve heard is the mustard approach. When you squirt mustard, the first thing to come out is that nasty watery stuff. You just have to get it out of the way to get to the real mustard. This allegory is particularly fitting since  I don’t like mustard. On some days, my approach to my writing is very similar to that when I flip up a bun to see the gooey intruder. It certainly involves a similar facial expression.

However, I digress. My original point is that while I am not very proficient (and very envious of those who are), I overcome my love-hate relationship through meticulous organization. Somehow my convoluted mind feels better when I do something related to my writing, as though I’m not possibly procrastinating, because look here, I’ve gotten things done!

So without further ado, voila, Rachel’s portfolio organization strategy:

Spreadsheet

I whipped this up in Microsoft Excel. The vertical is pretty straight forward, going from the most complete at the top, to those still in the brainstorming stages on bottom. As for the key:

Primary: In need of fine-tuning, but near submission quality
Secondary: If re-worked to fix plot/character/word length flaws, may be submission quality
Tertiary: Not submission quality
Italicized: Will be maintained in current state
Not italicized: May be scrapped for parts

Obviously the goal will be to move as many pieces up and to the left as possible.

This will probably become a little more advanced, but I think that this might help keep thoughts straight, especially for those of you who are *ahem* a little more proficient than I am.

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