Perpetual Plot Problems?

(The subhead here should be: Perceive! A Non-Political Post!)

In a little less than a month, I'm going to be appearing at the Illinois SCBWI's Prairie Writer's Day, with the esteemed Martha Mihalick of Greenwillow, Caroline Meckler of Wendy Lamb/Random, and the agent Michelle Andelman. Each one of us will be speaking on a different aspect of the writers' craft, and I drew the Plot straw.

Well. On the one hand, I am thrilled by this, because if there's one aspect of craft I've thought and written a lot about, it's Plot, and so I don't have to go through the agonies (or enjoy the discoveries) that I would with Voice (the one major aspect of writing I've never done a talk on). In other words: Yay for getting to be lazy! On the other hand, there's a good chance that some of the people at the conference will have read that link or my other musings on plot, and I don't want to bore them. (Hello, people I will meet in future!)

So I ask you people who have read my plot talks: What questions do you still have about plot? What do you struggle with in your own plots? What are those talks lacking? Where should I go from here on this subject? Your advice would be very much appreciated.

One thing I am already thinking about: the narrative weight of individual events in a plot, which often comes down to two terms my authors will be familiar with: narration vs. dramatization. Narration is "Lisa and Alexandra had a fight." Dramatization is "Lisa punched Alexandra, who staggered backwards into a tall stack of boxes, which dominoed to the ground behind her. Alexandra got her feet back underneath her and barreled toward Lisa . . ." etc., etc. All of the major events of a plot -- the Inciting Incident, the events that heighten a Conflict, the discovery of the clues to the Mystery, the introduction of people/things and the incidents with those people/things that slowly fulfill a Lack*, the Climax -- should be dramatized, not narrated; and those events must involve your protagonist acting, not other people. (That is, your protagonist should be the one discovering the Clues and so forth.) But I do not know that I have a great deal more to say on it than that.**

* I invented the Lack plot category because I was testing my plot theories against each of Jane Austen's novels, and Persuasion didn't fit into either the Conflict or Mystery mold. And Persuasion is a perfect example of dramatization vs. narration: Anne's first re-encounter with Captain Wentworth is fully dramatized, and each major incident that shows him slowly reconsidering her or warming toward her likewise, interspersed with narration like "From this time Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were repeatedly in the same circle. . . . [And] this was but the beginning of other dinings and other meetings." And it's because we see all those important events so fully (dramatization), still with a sense of the life continuing around them (narration), that Persuasion is so satisfying. Glory, I want to reread it now . . .

** Clearly, I am a liar.

On the Candidates' Records -- Some Links

Responding quickly to a comment asking about Obama's record and what he's actually accomplished in Congress . . . If you're genuinely interested in this subject, I refer you to this Jonathan Alter column in Newsweek, which considers both candidates' legislative records. The money quote:

In the Illinois state Senate, [Obama] authored about a half-dozen "major laws" on issues ranging from ethics to education. The best example of his leadership style was bipartisan legislation to require the videotaping of police interrogations, which is now a national model. Obama brought together police, prosecutors and the ACLU on a win-win bill that simultaneously increased conviction rates and all but ended jailhouse beatings. In Washington he has his name on three important laws: the first major ethics reform since Watergate; a much-needed cleanup of conventional weapons in the former Soviet Union, and the "Google for Government" bill, an accountability tool that requires notice of all federal contracts to be posted online. Besides that, Obama hasn't been around long enough to get much done.

McCain . . . too, has authored fewer than a half-dozen major laws. Trying to fix immigration counts for something, but nothing passed. So while McCain deserves credit for the landmark 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, the only other major law . . . is the "McCain Amendment" prohibiting torture in the armed forces. But that has little meaning because of a bill this year, supported by McCain, that allows torture by the CIA. Under longstanding government practice, military intelligence officers can be temporarily designated as CIA officers ("sheep-dipped" is the bureaucratic lingo) when they want to go off the Army field manual. In other words, the government can still torture anyone, any time.

For more on Obama, see this post from 2006 on the moderate political blog Obsidian Wings, considering all the legislation he had worked on up till that time. These next three links are also from Obsidian Wings; each one includes the number, title, and subject of all the legislation the two men have enacted or co-sponsored in the last two Congresses.

A list of the bills and amendments enacted by each Senator in the 109th & 110th Congresses

Totals: Obama: 1 bill enacted, 2 on the calendar, 33 amendments; McCain: 2 bills enacted, 1 on the calendar, 19 amendments.

A list of the bills and amendments that each Senator co-sponsored in the 110th Congress

Totals: Both cosponsored: 2 passed, 2 on calendar; Obama: 3 passed, 3 on calendar, 25 amendments; McCain: 0 passed, 6 on calendar, 7 amendments.

A list of the bills and amendments that each Senator co-sponsored in the 109th Congress
Totals: Both cosponsored: 1 passed, 2 amendments; Obama: 1 passed, 32 amendments; McCain: 2 passed, 10 amendments

Of course this isn't the whole story -- what laws they pass or sponsor is as important as how many they pass, and you need to read through the list to get those. I suppose it is no surprise to say I prefer the type of legislation Obama seems to be interested in ("S.AMDT.726 to H.R.3 To establish a program to award grants on a competitive basis to eligible recipients for the replacement or retrofit of certain existing school buses"; "S.AMDT.1290 to H.R.3057 To make funds available for the African Union Mission in Sudan"; "S.AMDT.1886 to H.R.2863 To make available emergency funds for pandemic flu preparedness."), but you can make your own judgements. And I hope you do.

Spreading Some Canvass

So as I said, Melissa and I went to Pennsylvania yesterday to canvass for Obama. We drove out from Brooklyn that morning -- the New Jersey foliage was beautiful -- and gathered in a church basement in downtown Easton, in the Lehigh Valley. The canvassing office was well-organized, well-staffed, and well-stocked with doughnuts, bagels, and coffee. A bus came in from New York, and suddenly the space was flooded with people of all ages and races. We listened to our instructions, received our walk packet, and headed out to hit the streets with none of the pep rallying I heard before my Kerry canvassing four years ago, no drama or bombast. I guess we all knew how much this election means, and the focus was solely on efficiently, cheerfully getting the job done.

Our territory was a new-looking subdivision west of town, with pretty houses, well-kept green lawns, and jack-o'-lanterns or Halloween decorations on every porch. Melissa and I split up our list and worked up and down nearly every street in the area. Even though I had canvassed before, I was always a bit nervous as I approached each door, and then usually happily surprised by the niceness of the people inside, even if they don't support my candidate. The vast majority of the people I talked to were Obamaites -- naturally, since I was using a Democratic walk list, but it was heartening anyway. The yard signs looked split 50-50. One housebound woman and her husband kept me talking with them ten minutes after my questionnaire was complete. Another woman took my hand, patted it, and thanked me for my hard work. I wondered whether the families inside these housing-boom mansions were worried about foreclosure notices, and tried to keep this line out front: "Are you better off than you were eight years ago? Do you think the United States is in a better place?" The answer to at least one of these questions was almost guaranteed to be a "no," which invited further conversation and a chance to make the Obama policy pitch.

But when I met anti-Obamaites, they were never opposed on the basis of policy -- only on who they believed Barack was. One man I approached heard "Obama" and said immediately, "I'm not voting for him."

"Could you tell me why not?" I asked, just in case he needed a little more information.

"I'm prejudiced."

I think my mouth nearly fell open, but I decided to make him say it. "Against what?"

"Against minorities," he said.

"Really," I said. I honestly wasn't sure if he was just teasing me or whether he meant it, so I decided to play up Barack's non-minority background just in case that made any difference. "Well, you know, Senator Obama is half white, half African American -- literally, since his father was from Kenya." I added a few more details out of Dreams from my Father (which I commend to any of you who haven't read it), about his grandmother and growing up in Hawaii.

The guy shook his head. "I'm going to leave the country if he's elected. I was born in Lebanon and I'm going back there."

"Some people would think that makes you a minority," I said, but he just shrugged. He asked the friend in the car with him if he was going to vote. "Nah, all those politicians are alike," the friend said.

God knows I couldn't fix racism in a conversation, so I thanked them for their time and left. The other notable (to me) anti-Obama incident happened in the afternoon, when we were working over a different neighborhood north of town. By this time I'd put on an "Obama '08" button, and when my subject of the moment opened the door, the guy's eyes went straight to my button. "Oh, honey, I'm supporting McCain," he said.

"Fair enough," I answered, and started to step off the porch with a thank you for his time. But then he said --

"And you ought to look into your guy too."

I stopped. "What do you mean by that?"

"He's got some real questionable friends."

"Like who?" I said, waiting for William Ayers. But he went for Reverend Wright, so I brought up Charles Keating, then he switched tactics.

"Rush Limbaugh says he couldn't even get FBI clearance."

"Rush Limbaugh," I said, rolling my eyes. "There's a real fair and unbiased source."

"Yeah, like Channel 2, 4, and 7 are so unbiased," he said, naming the CBS, NBC, and ABC affiliates out of New York with his own eye roll.

"So what in his background keeps him from getting FBI clearance?"

"I don't know, but he can't get it. You can look it up."

"Fine, I will," I said, and I left. And when I got home, I did look it up. Obama hasn't actually been denied FBI clearance, and given that he's a Senator in line for the Presidency, he probably already has much higher clearance than that. The right wing just likes to allege that he couldn't get the clearance to become an FBI agent if he applied to do so. This is because the FBI investigates past drug abuse and association with "undesirable persons" as part of its background checks for security clearance, and both of those categories could potentially indict Obama. But per Dreams from my Father again, Obama last used drugs more than twenty years ago, and his associations with Rev. Wright and William Ayers have been thoroughly documented and do not seem to have had any lasting affects on his political thought.

So I'm telling these stories not because I think my performance in them was all that fabulous -- it wasn't, in case that didn't come through -- but because I've been so firmly in the tank for Obama, it was fascinating to me to meet people who were against him. And depressing, too, that they were against him for such utterly stupid reasons as his race and a pack of irrational lies. If you're voting for McCain because you're anti-abortion or really rich or you agree with his foreign-policy views or somesuch, I respect that; but if you're voting for him because of anti-Obama character canards from proudly biased talk-show hosts? No way. After these encounters, I found myself mentally reviewing everything I knew about Obama to test that I wasn't being irrational. . . . I've read Dreams from my Father (which he wrote himself), studied his platform and speeches, watched both the debates and all the headlines since January; and I couldn't find anything in all that to make doubt that he will be anything other than a reliable, coolheaded and trustworthy chief executive. (Which does still mean "politician," but other than that. . . .)

Over dinner later, I posed the questions to Melissa: Would you rather have a president who has a reprehensible personal life (fill in your own definition of "reprehensible" here) but policies you agree with 100%, and a good chance of getting them passed if elected? Or a president with a model personal life, but policies you agree with only 55%? I voted for reprehensibility and policy agreement, pending the particularities of the reprehensibility. . . . I do not think Obama's had a reprehensible personal life, for the record, but it's an interesting theory question, as it was an interesting day.

(Two new poll questions at right, since it's been a while! One is the question posed above, and one based on a closing number from [title of show].)

"Die, Vampire, Die!" from [title of show]

Yesterday Melissa Anelli and I spent a fascinating, exhausting day in Pennsylvania canvassing for the Obama campaign (more on that later tonight). Back in New York, we treated ourselves to a musical -- the incredibly funny, smart, self-reflexive, and, sadly, now-closed [title of show]. It's about four friends struggling to write a musical and get it produced, first at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, later off-Broadway, and finally *on* Broadway. It's performed by the two men and two women who created it, and a great part of the pleasure of the show was knowing that we were watching the "good guys" -- the people who struggled with all the difficulties of creativity, money, self-doubt, others' doubt and judgment, paralysis, procrastination, etc., in the name of their art and their love of that art -- and now they were living the dream on Broadway, visibly exhilarated by it. This number was one of my favorites, all about that self-doubt and how creative people have to work to overcome it: "Die, Vampire, Die!"

(This is a student production, but a pretty decent recreation of the Broadway number; to listen to the OBCR version and read the lyrics, click here.)


Kevin Crossley-Holland's CROSSING TO PARADISE is the American edition of his book GATTY'S TALE. It is a standalone followup to his Arthur trilogy, which brilliantly combined Arthurian legend with an incredibly rich medieval coming-of-age tale. It is the story of Gatty, a peasant plucked from the fields for her beautiful singing voice and chosen to accompany a fine lady on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And it is simply glorious writing -- character-driven, sensuous, atmospheric, with a poet's eye and ear for detail and language and a historian's appreciation for the nuances of medieval life and behavior.

(The Arthur trilogy + CROSSING is also one of the most Christian faith-full series I know, interestingly, not in the sense that the characters proselytize or preach, but in that they have genuine deep religious beliefs that influence and guide their behavior, and they struggle thoughtfully with those beliefs when they're challenged by events or other faiths.) (CROSSING also traces Gatty's awakening to the power and desires of her own body wisely and very subtly -- though when I told Kevin how much I appreciated his inclusion of this thread and its subtlety, he, as a true Englishman, seemed very embarrassed even to be talking about the subject. Nonetheless.)

These are two of my favorite excerpts from CROSSING, one from the beginning of the book, before Gatty sets out on her journey, and one from the end, at its pinnacle, in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (My absolute favorite scene is the last one, but that would be telling.) You need to read the entire Holy Sepulchre scene to get its full beauty and effect, but I hope this might give you a sense of Kevin's descriptive language. And as for his characters. . . . Note that in this first excerpt, you learn everything about who they are and what they want solely from their dialogue, with no fancier dialogue tag than "replied." CROSSING TO PARADISE has received three starred reviews and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal earlier this year. If you'd like to find out more or order the book (hint, hint), check out its page on the Arthur A. Levine Books website.


In the afternoon, Gatty found Oliver in the church vestry. He was sitting at his sloping desk, his feet on a footstool, writing on a piece of parchment.

“There you are!” said Gatty.

“In the service of the Lord,” Oliver replied.

“Oliver, can you write a message for me? Please.”

“Can I or will I?’

“Will you?’

Oliver looked dimly at Gatty. “To whom?’


Oliver smiled. “There’s a surprise,” he said. “Well, you’re in luck. I’ve one small piece of parchment left over from my labours. My morning labours.”

“Who are you writing to?” asked Gatty.

"Lady Gwyneth’s priest.”

“Why? What about?’

Oliver completed the character and then the word he was writing. Then he rolled up the little scroll and gave it to Gatty.

“Keep it safe and dry,” he said. “This letter could make all the difference.”

“To what?’

“You’ll find out,” said Oliver. “Now! What’s your message?’

“Ready?” asked Gatty. Where are you today I keep wondering. I often talk to you and see you easy.”

“Easily,” said Oliver.

“No,” said Gatty. “Easy.”

“Easy is wrong,” said Oliver.

“Not for me,” Gatty replied. “Please Oliver! Write what I say. Then Arthur will hear me.”

Oliver pressed his lips together. “Go on, then,” he said.

“You got the sky on your shoulders,” Gatty dictated. You remember when I said let’s go to Jerusalem? I can’t explain but somehow I thought it, I believed it, and now I’m going. You and your singing will keep us all safe, Lady Gwyneth says. Arthur, when are you coming back? I haven’t forgot…’

“Forgotten,” said Oliver.

Gatty gently shook her head and then, very boldly, she laid the flat of her right hand on Oliver’s back.

Oliver sniffed.

‘…I haven’t forgot going upstream. You promised. Or you can ride to Ewloe. Them bulls, and me wearing Sir John’s armour and rescuing Sian from the fish-pond and going to Ludlow Fair, and everything… It’s true! It is. Best things don’t never get lost.”

Oliver looked up at Gatty, so eager, her eyes shining. He knitted his brows. “Just what are you to Arthur?” he enquired.

“Me? To Arthur? What do you mean?” And then, with a smile and a little shrug, Gatty said, “True.”

“Yes,” said Oliver. “True.” He wrote four more words, and voiced them as he wrote.

“By your true Gatty…’

“There you are!” said Oliver. “That’s your letter.”

“Will you keep it and give it to him?” Gatty asked. “When he gets home.”

“If he gets home,” the priest replied.

“He will,” said Gatty.

“Some do,” the priest said. “Most don’t.”

“I know what,” said Gatty. Then she untied the violet ribbon she wore day and night round her waist, the one Arthur had bought for her with his last farthing at Ludlow Fair. She doubled it, tore at it with her teeth and bit it in half.

“Really!” said Oliver, wrinkling his nose.

“Half for him, half for me,” said Gatty.

So Oliver rolled up the little piece of parchment and Gatty secured it with the violet ribbon.

Gatty took a deep breath, and noisily blew out her pink, freckled cheeks. “There!” she exclaimed. “Writing and all!”

She smiled brightly at Oliver and then she wound her half of the violet ribbon round and round her left wrist.


For a long time Gatty stayed in the rock passage, alone. The shouting became more distant, more occasional. Then she heard a thud as the great doors were closed; she could even hear the crunch-and-scrape of the key in the lock.

After this, there was nothing but the sound of silence: that, and the rock’s husky voice when Gatty rubbed a shoulder against it, or wiggled the heel of her boot against it. The double thump of her heartbeat. A slight whistling in her right ear.

Poor Snout, she thought. He’s lost me again! He’ll guess, won’t he? He’ll understand.

Still Gatty bided her time, brave and cautious as a hare. Then at last she tiptoed down the twisting passage and a few steps out into the hall of night-sky, heart of the warren, chamber of echoes.

Around her head, this massive building soared and stood like plates of armour, grand and unshakable. Gatty craned her neck and looked upwards and sideways; she looked all around her; and after a while this church, Holy Sepulchre, began to seem more like a mantle than armour. A strong cloak to shelter and protect her.

And yet, she thought, it’s all incense smoke, all candlelight. Shimmering and trembling. As though it scarcely exists.

Text (c) 2006 by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

Wanted: Race for the Cure t-shirts

My mother is making a t-shirt quilt for a breast cancer fundraiser, and to fill it out, she would like to collect a wide variety of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure t-shirts -- different years, different colors, different designs, different venues, etc. I'm sending her the New York shirts from 2008 (orange and pink) and 2007 (pink and gray), and she has a number of Kansas City shirts; if YOU have a Komen t-shirt you'd be willing to donate to the cause, we'd be very grateful. Drop me a line at chavela_que at yahoo dot com (or leave a post on my Wall if you're reading this on Facebook), and I will supply mailing information and my gratitude.

Movin' on Up

My website,, is now on a new, non-Verizon server. If you had any of the individual pages bookmarked, you may want to go to the website and update your links -- or, if you'd always wanted to bookmark a page but not been able to, you can now! My very great thanks to John Noe and Alex Robbin of the Leaky Cauldron for helping me out with this. I hope to do a total site redesign later this fall, so keep your eye on that page.
In moving news, I'm slowly settling into Prospect Heights. . . . I found a grocery store I like; I'm learning how to work the cable box (this is the first time I've had cable in my house since I was, I think, ten years old); I've put most of my clothes away, and started on the books, which are the real bugaboo in unpacking. And James and I are discovering each other's various living preferences without, thus far, wanting to kill each other. . . . We have different tastes in brands of milk, for instance, but we can both adapt, and we're agnostics on the question of which way the toilet paper falls over the roll. (I do have to say that I disapprove of the way he opens a cereal bag. But he can be taught, right? Right.)

"Teen for God" by Dar Williams

This is one of my favorite Dar Williams songs, from her album "My Better Self." The melody is relentlessly upbeat, bright and cheerful, just like the camp; but it slows down to reveal a longing in some sections not just for "the boy's skin drying in the sun," but for the purity of the original faith, the original God . . . sweetly ironic and wistfully funny. It's a wonderful song, well worth iTunesing or eMusicing.

The sun burns down
Leaving God's bright stamp
On Peach Branch Horse and Bible Camp
Where we're splashing in the water
Joined in song
Swimming with the Spirit the whole day long
I'm a teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching - Teen for God

The girls have looks and the girls have rules
They came here from their Bible schools
They can make you pay attention
To the way you dress and eat
Make you trip over your own two feet and they
Kneel down on their towels at night
Their nightgowns glow with a Holy light
And we pray for the sinners
And their drunken car wrecks
And vow that I'll never get high
And have sex
I'm a teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching - Teen for God

And God made every leaf on every tree
Each grain of sand
God has a plan
For what we're meant to be
I gotta wait for God

Dear Lord
I plan each day
The things I will not do or say
But I'm driven by a passion
Is it only there to tame?
It fills my heart and it calls my name and
This world that you made for us
I know, I know, is dangerous
So I ride a lot of horses
And I never even swear
Sorta like praying I'm just not there

Oh God - God is watching
Oh God - God is watching

But God made love
God made the rivers run
And cowboy boots and bathing suits
And the boy's skin dries in the sun . . .
You gotta help me, God

Help me know, four years from now
I won't believe in you anyhow
And I'll mope around the campus
And I'll feel betrayed
All those guilty summers I stayed
But then I'll laugh
That I fell for the lure
Of the pain of desire to feel so pure
And I'll bear all the burdens
Of my little daily crimes
Wish I had a God for such cynical times
Far from today

But for now I'm a sacred vessel
Rip me open - I spread your word
Like a milkweed pod
I'm a radio station -
Your Holy transmission
Even more, like a lightning rod
I'm a lightning rod - a Teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching . . . a Teen for God

The End of an Era

It's 2:10 a.m. as I write this, with bags and boxes and suitcases and paintings and the other miscellanea of my life piled around me. Tonight is the last night I'll spend in this apartment, 402-404 7th Avenue in Park Slope, where I've lived since I was 22 and almost totally new to New York. My studio is on the top floor, and I can hear the rain roll over the roof as I type, as it's pounded above me many nights and lulled me to sleep, like the sound is another blanket. I've been wonderfully taken care of by this apartment: It's a beautiful space, in a good neighborhood, with many friends, comforts, and conveniences nearby -- which is why I haven't left for eight years, when most of my friends have moved apartments every three or four years at most. But that's also partly why I feel ready to move: There is still a lot of twenty-two-year-old Cheryl here, when thirty-year-old Cheryl is a different person, older, presumably wiser, ready to have a different life, not to mention room decor.

(Thirty-year-old Cheryl is also terrified by the change, needless to say. But breathing deeply, and hoping.)

I don't have anything profound to say here, or a good narrative ending to round this off. It's too late to think, really, and I have to be up early in the morning to finish packing. But here's an invocation to last as long as this blog or the Internet does: I am grateful to God/the Universe/what-have-you for leading me to this place, and I hope the same will continue to bless the people who live here, and me elsewhere.

A Very Important To-Do List

I believe firmly in spending your birthday doing all of the things you like best and planting seeds for the coming year. Here, then, is my schedule for today, which I officially have off work:

8:15 a.m.: Get up -- check
8:20 a.m.: Go for run -- check
9 a.m.: Return, shower, eat breakfast, check e-mail -- check
9:52 a.m.: Blog (evidently)
10 a.m.: Line-edit a lovely book (Sara Lewis Holmes's The New Recruit)
Noonish: Prep for rest of day
12:30: Head into Manhattan
1 p.m.: Have lunch with friends from work
2 p.m.: Spend the afternoon at MoMA
5:30 p.m.: Something of unutterable awesomeness, still to be determined
7:30 p.m.: Dinner with James and more dear friends
9:50 p.m.: See a Bollywood movie (maybe) -- Loins of Punjab Presents

Not a bad way to begin my thirtieth year on earth, I hope.

Wishing you all equally productive and pleasurable days!

Gaaah!! -- A Musing on Characters and Plot

So I just taped down a box that contained, I was sure, the absolute last unpacked book in my apartment besides the ones I'll be reading in the next week (Seaward, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Lady of Quality). And then I saw The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles lurking sinisterly in a corner of my bookcase! Gaahh!! It is a good book to have lurking around, however. . . . From my very favorite chapter, number thirteen, whose first line made me catch my breath aloud when I first read it (this is not that first line, for the record):
You may think that novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furniture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy's back. I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one reason is shared by all of us: We wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.

Oh, but you say, come on -- what I really mean is that the idea crossed my mind as I wrote it that it might be more clever to have him stop and drink milk . . . and meet Sarah again. That is certainly one explanation of what happened; but I can only report -- and I am the most reliable witness -- that the idea seemed to me to come clearly from Charles, not myself. It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real.

In other words, to be free myself, I must give him, and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedom as well. There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. And I must conform to that definition. The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.
I must say that as an editor who loves structure, planning, intelligent design, the first paragraph makes my heart sink a bit. I have been that person saying, "Oh, come on," to an author who insists, "But that's what he did!", and thinking in response, "Well, can't you make him do something more useful to the plot?"

I have very mixed feelings about this reaction whenever I have it. On the one hand, I know absolutely (and I learn over and over again) that the best books are driven by their characters, not their plots or structure, and you have to give the characters their heads and room to run. On the other, I think the characters have to earn that freedom through their reality and complexity; and if they're not achieving that, in my view as a reader, then the author's protestations sound like excuses for silly digressions or plot developments. And then the work that needs to be done is either A) showing us more of the character to make the supposedly silly developments make sense -- after all, the author has full access to the character's backstory and psychology, so of course the character's behavior seems perfectly natural. But we readers don't have that access, so perhaps the author needs to add a scene or narration revealing more of those for us. Or else B) revising said developments. Or sometimes C) both.

The thing about the example Fowles offers here is that Charles's behavior is not only realistic as that of a complex human being, it is useful to the plot -- it gets him back in contact with Sarah, which furthers his attraction to her, which furthers his internal conflict (he's engaged to someone else), which makes the plot engine go chugga chugga chugga forward. And therefore it wouldn't have raised my hackles as an editor, no matter how nonsensical his (Charles's) decision to go back to the Dairy may be on the surface. Also, this is a deeply existential novel, in case you couldn't tell from the excerpt, where Man (Charles) does not have a Fate but only a series of decisions, which are interrogated and commented upon by the narrator; as existential meaninglessness is part of the point, events don't have to add up the way they do in Victorian novels, as Fowles says here. And those are the kinds of novels I usually like (and edit), I have to say.

Anyway, much to think about there, as there is in all of The French Lieutenant's Woman. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend getting a copy to lurk around your bookshelves too.

The Quote File: Bertrand Russell

Whenever A.Word.A.Day offers a Bertrand Russell aphorism as its Quote of the Day, it describes him as "philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)". I just read his biography on Wikipedia, and good grief! He was also an earl, an activist, a four-time husband (and even more frequent cheater, apparently), a father, a hippie hero, a professor, and the godson of John Stuart Mill. That is a full life.

Oh, and he said some wise things along the way:

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death. ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.

Two different versions of this one appear in my Quote File; I am not sure which is accurate, or if both are.
  • The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.

Wonderful Essay about Editing

Brian Doyle has a typically lovely essay up at the Kenyon Review on the art of the rejection letter and the joys of editing a literary magazine. These two excerpts especially resonated with me:
My friend James has a lovely phrase for the joy of actually editing a piece: mechanic’s delight, he calls it, and I know whereof he speaks, for I have sipped of that cup with a deep and inarticulate pleasure. I have been down in the engine room of very fine writers’ minds, my fingers following the snick and slide of their ideas into sentences. I have worked like hercules to clean and repair a flawed piece and bring out the song fenced round by muddle. I have distilled vast wanderings into brief journeys. I have snarled with delight to discover a writer deliberately leaving a fat paragraph for me to cut, a gift he confessed with a grin.

. . . I still, even now, often feel a little sadness when I say no. Not always—I feel nothing but cold professionalism when I reject a submission from someone who clearly hasn’t the slightest idea or interest in the magazine itself, and is just using the magazine as a generic target for his or her work; for example, people who submit fiction, which we have never published—or never published knowingly, let’s say. But far more often the writers have looked at the magazine, and are submitting something we might publish, and did make it with all their hearts, and it just doesn’t make it over the amorphous and inexplicable bar set in my head, and I decline their work with a twinge of regret, for I would so like to say yes, to reward their labor and creativity, the way in which they have opened their hearts and souls, the courage they have shown in bleeding on the page and sending it to a man they do not know, for judgment, for acceptance, for rejection. So very often I find myself admiring grace and effort and craftsmanship, honesty and skill, piercing and penetrating work, even as I turn to my computer to type a rejection note, or reach for one of our own printed rejection slips, to scrawl something encouraging atop my illegible signature. So very many people working so very hard to connect, and here I am, slamming doors day after day.
Mr. Doyle incidentally wrote my favorite piece ever about 9/11, an essay that finds a crack of hope and love in the darkness of the day; you can read it here, but be warned it will make you cry.

Of Palin, Politics, and Plot Twists

(a slightly random thought-dump)

Bob Herbert's column today pretty much sums up everything I think about Sarah Palin: decent woman, nice family, but based on all available evidence, absolutely not ready to be president. (Need more evidence? Check out this open letter from a Wasilla, AK, resident, which has been repeatedly verified; that link includes some minor corrections to the original e-mail.) I understand totally how Governor Palin appeals to working moms across the U.S. -- she reminds me a lot of all the sports and church moms I knew in the Midwest (including my own, in her multitasking and balancing of work and family life). But as many commentators have pointed out, I don't want someone "just like me" to be President of the United States (or in line to it); I want someone smarter than I am, better informed, more articulate, more creative and thoughtful when it comes to policy, better able to understand, consider, and integrate multiple viewpoints, all that. And I have seen no evidence that Sarah Palin is any of those things.

(Plus, as I understand it, George W. Bush got elected because he was "just like us," and based on the evidence of the last eight years, that is the worst reason to pick someone for president EVER.)

And of course what is really awful about this is what it shows us about John McCain's judgement -- that he would pick someone who has apparently never thought deeply about foreign or domestic policy, who doesn't even agree with all of McCain's own policies, to be #2 in line for the most influential job on Earth. "Lose a war to win an election"? McCain seems not to care about the world if he can win the election. Oy.

Apologies at the slight tone of hysteria there. This election is making me crazy, like a really good, suspenseful, character-driven novel that I never want to end because I'm loving the drama (and afraid of the ending), but I also desperately want to finish (with a happy ending) so I can have my life back. It's Life As We Knew It or The Hunger Games or Bleak House or The Subtle Knife -- though thank God it's not any of those really -- but the consequences of the conflict are real, and the chance that the person I regard as the antagonist might triumph is nerve-wracking. The Palin pick was a brilliant plot twist on John McCain's part, I have to say; and now we're all awaiting the four big battles -- the debates* -- before the final climax.

Lastly, I just finished reading All the President's Men, the fascinating definitive account of the Watergate investigation, and I was startled to come across these lines from a Nixon White House aide: "We believe that the public believes that the Eastern press really is what Agnew said it was -- elitist, anti-Nixon, and ultimately pro-McGovern." "Elitist" -- just the label the Republicans seek to apply to the press and Obama now. (The new book Nixonland is all about this, according to reviews I've read.) It worked in the 1970s, and it keeps working, I imagine because the part of the brain that feels it's been insulted, the short-term hurt, floods out the part of the brain that is able to reason and think long-term. I felt that happening to me when I listened to Ms. Palin's unnecessarily nasty speech** at the Republican National Convention: The part of my brain that objected to her lies and insults flooded the part of my brain that would have said, "I'm rubber and you're glue and how about an actual policy proposal, please?" That's what Barack needs to do in the debates, particularly if McCain goes after the patriotism nonsense again; that's what all of us need to do, keeping our eyes on the changes we really need given the challenges we face, and which candidate has proven to have the vision and character to make them.

* And oh man, am I excited for the debates. A full schedule here.
** Best line I read about her speech: "Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Moving Sale!

Because I'd rather do business with my lovely blog readers than, you know, absolutely perfect strangers: If you live in NYC and you're in need of cheap, attractive, serviceable furniture, I am selling my loveseat, table, and a kitchen chair. You can see descriptions and pictures of all of these things on my craigslist posting here. (The bookshelves have been taken.) The apartment itself is also still up for rent, if you're interested in a gorgeous studio in Park Slope.

The state of said studio right now can best be described as "bookish yuppie refugee" -- I have a bunch of scrounged wine and FreshDirect boxes filled with books and knickknacks and stacked in the center of the floor, and then odd gaps on the walls where the bookshelves and pictures were, and empty spaces in the remaining bookshelves -- certainly not something that's happened before. A suitcase full of books waits to go to the resale counter at the Strand; others will be taken to the giveaway boxes at work. Lots done, lots still to do.

The Election Approacheth

The excellent moderate political blog Obsidian Wings recently posted the voter registration deadlines for every state, with links to each state's information. If you aren't yet registered to vote, please check it out, and change that fact about yourself. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, these next four years will be crucial in defining the direction of the country, so it's essential you take a stand in how they will go. Thank you.

Interns Wanted

It's that time of year again -- the movies get serious, the college students come back to the city, the stores put out their sweater collections, and I look for an intern. As I wrote at a similar time last year:

If you'll be in New York this fall, you're passionate about really great children's and YA books, and you have eight to ten hours to spare during the business week, you're welcome to apply for an internship with Arthur A. Levine Books. Our interns help us track, read, and respond to manuscripts; perform basic clerical tasks like opening the mail and making copies; and complete special projects based on personal interests and need. The position is unpaid, but if you're a college student, we will do whatever's necessary to see that you get college credit -- and there are always lots of free books around the office! Preference goes to college students and people interested in pursuing an editorial career in children's publishing, but anyone is welcome to apply. For more information, see our FAQ page here, and mention that you found this through my blog.

Also, on a completely unrelated note: New poll at right! It's "Survivor: Cheryl's Library." At least one must go . . . (and yes, Bullfrog, you can have THE GREAT BRIDGE).

"Strange Things Are Afoot at the Circle K."

I would say "Ten points to the first person who identifies the movie quote," but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Taking candy from a baby. Finding malapropisms in a George W. Bush speech. If you can't do it -- sorry, dudes.

Anyway, the rationale for the quote is that it sums up the situation at my personal Circle K, as I will shortly be moving for the first time in eight years . . . leaving my beautiful little studio in Park Slope to move in with James in Prospect Heights. (Note that I'm sharing this for your information, not your commentary.) Eight years in one apartment is a lifetime in New York City terms, and I've stayed here so long because I've really loved this apartment , in which I've done a great deal of my growing up. But I am also turning 30 this next month, and while this by no means means I am actually grown up -- God forbid -- I feel ready to go on to a new phase of my life. So. Posting here will probably continue to be erratic as I pack up, move out, and settle in.

Indeed, the only thing I have started to pack thus far is -- surprise! -- books. I have six boxes thus far, with probably another four or five to go, and it's forcing all kinds of hard choices about how I see my life and my reading in years to come. Am I ever actually going to read Daniel Deronda? Traveling Mercies? Swann's Way? Will I ever finish The Great Bridge? Little, Big? I never reread the non-Harriet Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries -- do I need to keep all of them around? (I decided "no" on this one, though of course I am keeping all twenty Aubrey-Maturins, as I'm looking forward to a glorious year rereading those. Someday.) What about those books I inherited from my grandmother -- not the family-heirloom ones, just random books I know she liked? Am I obligated to keep them? I was holding on to certain children's and YA novels because I thought my own children might want them to read -- also someday -- but that "someday" is far enough off that I don't think I'll have the shelf space by then, because I just keep finding more novels I love. . . . In the end, it's also no surprise that the first items James and I have bought for our joint apartment are new bookshelves.

Anyway, again. Other notes:
  • I'm enjoying the Democratic convention thus far, though not the political chatter around it -- all we Democrats need to stop second-guessing ourselves and Barack and just start bringing the rain on McCain. (This means you, Maureen Dowd.) I'm really looking forward to Barack's speech tomorrow night.
  • I'm going to Atlanta this weekend for the Literary Festival -- if you read this, do please say hello!
  • Kristin Cashore's Graceling is AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME. If you love Tamora Pierce, early Robin McKinley, Kate Constable, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you need to read this book. If you were disappointed in Breaking Dawn because it didn't force hard choices or you wanted Bella to be more of a feminist, you need to read this book. If you love a good romance and great fight scenes, you need to read this book. In general, you need to read this book. Galleys floating around now; out officially in October.
  • The SQUIDs I didn't answer in July all went out yesterday, so if you sent a SQUID anytime since April, you should get a reply this week.
Closing wisdom: Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!

Two Poems about Peaches

(Best read with a juicy, delectable, gold-glowing farmer's-market peach in hand. Hat tip for both: The Writer's Almanac.)

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

by Peter Davison

A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, bleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunches leeches, wrenched teachers.

What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, smooth velvet
richness, splashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.

My Terminus Speech + My Four Favorite Books on Writing

My Terminus speech is now online here: A Few Things Writers Can Learn from "Harry Potter"

Also, I was talking with someone at Terminus about good books on writing, and I realized these are my four all-time favorites:
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This will teach you how to write a clean, strong sentence and paragraph, and once you master those building blocks, you can build essays, stories, arguments -- entire books.
  • The Poetics by Aristotle. Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle identified nearly all the essential elements of a compelling plot and recorded them here. I often run through the elements he identified when trying to figure out why a story's not working.
  • Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (part of the Writers' Digest Elements of Writing series). Much more recently, Card anatomized what makes a compelling character and how you as a writer can get the reader to connect with your characters, not to mention how you can manipulate the point of view for different effects. Brilliant.
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Reading this book is like having a friend teach you how to write: She gives you advice, encouragement, reassurance, and lots and lots of laughs.