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Author Archives: Corina Mallory

Winter

I don’t hate winter. I don’t. I complain about winter more than any one human being really should, but that’s only because there’s just so darn much of it. San Franciscans complain about fog but they couldn’t really stand to live in San Francisco if they hated it. Seattle-ites complain about the rain, but they couldn’t bear those long grey winters if they really loathed it. My little mountainous corner of Idaho has winter and I complain, but I’d never survive if I really hated it.

Winter just feels so big, and lasts so long, that I never really escape it. Snow lingers on the mountains I see from my windows into July, which is also the month where I start fretting if I haven’t ordered firewood yet. I’ve lived here for seven years as an adult, and during one of those years I saw snowflakes, at least once, eleven months out of twelve. (That was a bad year. Summer lasted from July 1st, when the temperature broke 70 degrees for the first time, to August 29th. On Aug 30th it snowed.)

This wasn’t one of those years. This year we had a truly glorious summer that started early in May (MAY!) and lasted deep into September. My problem is that I’m already thinking about winter. Dreading it, preparing for it, fretting over how cold it will be and whether it will be a heavy snow year or a light one. Wondering if this is the year I should finally buy studded tires for my car. (Last year I got stuck in my driveway and had to put on chains to make it to the house.) Wondering when my neighbor will get around to delivering the firewood I ordered (in July).

It’s fall, and fall is glorious, but instead of enjoying it, I have a laser-like focus on what’s to come. But, except for getting on my neighbor about that delayed firewood, there’s nothing I can do. Winter will come, and it will be exactly as harsh or as mild as the jet stream (and whatever else goes into making weather, heck if I know) dictates and my dithering won’t change that. Maybe we’ll get a big storm and I won’t be able to make it into work and they’ll just have to figure out how to do without me. And maybe we won’t. That’s all for the future. This is a lesson I have to re-learn constantly. My life is happening *now* and I’m missing it.

Right now? The maple by my drive is a glorious red and the aspens that fringe my pasture are turning yellow. The crocuses are blooming, just like they do in the spring, making my flower beds look almost season-less. It’s time for butternut squash soup and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and digging my bread pans out and putting them to use. I have a home-made chai recipe that never feels right any other time of year. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and I’m plotting out the last half of my never-ending book in the grand hope that maybe, this November, I’ll finish it. So I’m trying not to think about winter. I’m preparing, but I’m trying, so damn hard, to enjoy the fall. To “be here now” as Ram Dass wrote.

What about you? What are you doing to be here now? To mark and enjoy the changing season?

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Idaho

 

Outside the Genre

One of the more frequent pieces of writing advice I see is to read outside the genre one writes in. The reasons to read extensively in one’s genre are obvious: one needs to know the rules and assumptions that define that genre’s boundaries. Figuring that out, really understanding it, requires you to read books comparable to the ones you write. But the risks of reading exclusively one genre are a little more nebulous than the advantages of reading extensively in that genre. I think the fear is that reading one genre exclusively risks internalizing those rules too much and becoming formulaic and stale by creating a closed creative feedback loop. 

Obviously, what we read is not our only source of inspiration, but, for me at least, it’s an important one. I want to write books I want to read. Reading a fantastic romance makes me want to write one. It inspires me to want to write better, faster, deeper. So, you know, that’s great! Read romance! Yay! And, honestly, I’d really be pretty happy if all I read was romance. About five years ago I realized that I have no interest in reading fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending. I remember the two books that drove that home to me: The House at Riverton and I Capture the Castle. They’re both fantastic books, but about 2/3 of the way through The House at Riverton I realized that there was just no way that book was going to end well and I couldn’t take it. I put it down and didn’t pick it back up and felt bitter and unhappy about having forced myself to read that far. I did finish I Capture the Castle, but the ending destroyed me. To this day I pretend that the end wasn’t, that my edition was just missing some happy epilogue found in all other copies of the book. In fiction, I need a happy ending to enjoy the experience. And reading for me is about enjoyment. I’m not going to force myself to read fiction just because it’s good for me, but I really do think that reading romance exclusively is bad for my writing. So what’s a happy-ending addict to do?

(1) I read mysteries by authors I know from past experience will leave me content. Romance is my current love, but mysteries were my first love and they meet my need for a satisfying ending without feeding my gluttonous desire for happy love stories. Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Elizabeth Daly are old friends. They follow different rules and write in different styles and feed my creative well in an entirely different way than romance does.

(2) I read non-fiction. I go through phases where I start obsessively collecting books on different subjects. You need recommendations for an entertaining non-fiction book on the Black Plague? WWI? British travel writers? English country houses? The history of the British aristocracy? English social history from 1919-1939? I’m your girl. (I said they were different subjects, I never said they didn’t have a common theme. What can I say, I’m an Anglophile.) These are all subjects that are very unlikely to make their way into anything I write, but they stoke my curiosity and keep my brain learning and stretching in different directions. They’re not useful, except in the way that they get me outside of the obsessive romance-reading bubble I would otherwise happily live in.

What about you? Do you naturally read books outside the genre(s) you write in or do you have to push yourself a little? Any other Anglophiles out there?

 

Books on Writing: What Works for You?

It’s funny that Peggy decided to write about the value (or lack thereof) of process advice this week, because I’d been thinking about craft advice.

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on Slate about Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat! The writer blamed it for the overwhelming sameness he was seeing at the movies. (The article is here if you want to read it.) Now, I’d seen many many many MANY writers (novelists as well as screenwriters) recommend this book in blogs and on twitter and sometime last winter I downloaded the sample to my Kindle. I was so turned off by the obnoxious tone of the book I firmly put it aside as “not for me” and moved on. But then this Slate article piqued my curiosity again, and two other writing friends started talking about it on Facebook and I caved. I ordered it and read the whole thing. The tone didn’t get any more to my liking, but underneath the casually smug attitude there was some advice that resonated with me about refining one’s idea and how to make sure the structure of one’s story is sound. It turns out it’s a book that I’ll probably pick up again and again.

I had the opposite experience with the book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Apart from Dixon’s use of the Oxford comma in the title, not much in that book really worked for me. Oh, the central idea is very sound, and, in its way, profound, but it just didn’t feel like the revelation that so many writers told me it was for them. I don’t think it’s a bad book at all, it just didn’t have the particular craft advice *I* needed at the time when I was ready to read it. (For those of you who have wanted to try this book out but were turned off by its high price, I discovered while writing this post that it’s *finally* available as a reasonably priced ebook.)

Another book that did work for me is a creative writing textbook, not chatty, not fluffy, dense but readable: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I find myself turning to it again and again for good solid reminders about the fundamentals of craft: characterization, pace, structure, setting. This was the first book I read whose advice on removing linking verbs (such as: be, feel, seem look, appear, experience etc.) in order to deepen POV really clicked for me. This is a basic lesson of writing, not something arcane or difficult, but the passage was written in the right way, and I read it at the right time, for it to resonate deeply. I remember closing the book after reading just that page and thinking “I have to re-write everything I’ve ever written. It’s all wrong.” This sounds like it might have been depressing, but I remember the elation of something fundamental and true clicking into place.

Writing is a skilled craft. Doing it well requires both diligent practice and careful study. One could easily spend too much time in either direction. Writing a lot is important, but writing 2k words every day won’t make one a better writer without knowing what good writing looks like. Learning about one’s craft is important, but won’t actually make for a better writer unless those lessons are put into practice.

What about you, do you have some tried and true craft books you keep coming back to? Do you find craft books inspirational or depressing? How do you balance between study/practice?

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Idaho

 
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Living in an Unfinished House

My house sits on a hilltop. From my lawn I have a view of trees and green, rolling fields that blur into blue and white mountains in the distance. I’m far enough from major population centers that on a clear night I can look up and see the thick bands of stars that make up the milky way.

The house itself is unique and charming. It’s post and beam construction and the superstructure, the posts and the beams, were all fitted together without benefit of nails. My parents logged the wood for the beams themselves and had a friend plane and shape them. My grandfather and great-uncle did the wiring and plumbing. My parents and their friends poured the concrete for the foundation and did most of the rest of the work themselves. That was all thirty years ago though, and “most” is not all.

My uncle and I installed insulation in the roof and put drywall up over the ceiling last fall. Well, we installed *most* of the insulation and *most* of the drywall. There are still a few sections to do.

Before I moved back into the house, a tenant put up siding … on the south wall. When I moved in the north, east, and west walls were all still bare (thirty-year-old) plywood. The first summer I lived here my uncle and I, with the help of my neighbors, started putting up siding on the west side. It’s not done yet either.

I'm not the only one at who's made my peace with constant construction.

I’m not the only one at who’s made my peace with constant construction.

There are framed sections of wall that still need to be drywalled. There are sections of drywall that need to be mudded and textured so they can be painted. The stairs are still the funky temporary things my parents put up thirty years ago. There are two areas under the eaves in my bedroom that will, someday, be closets but right now they’re just odd unfinished spaces. Some of the doors and windows are trimmed, but not all of them.

I could go on, but I won’t. I’m sure you get the idea: I live in an unfinished house. There are lots of good reasons it’s still a work in progress and will remain so indefinitely. They’re not really important. It is what it is and I love it anyway. (I won’t lie. I’ll love it even more when it’s done, but even in this half-finished state it’s a great house.)

I’ve been thinking about half-finished projects a lot since the most recent family work party coincided with my writing group’s annual retreat. I left my mother and uncle to work on my unfinished house while I holed up in a cabin with my writing friends to work on my unfinished novel. The retreat is over and my novel is still far from done. My family leaves tomorrow morning and the house, ditto.

I wonder if I’m too easily contented by small measures of progress: a doorway framed, but the door unhung; a chapter outlined, but not written. Or maybe the reason I’m mostly happy, mostly stress-free, is that my need for progress is so easily satisfied. Better to be content and moving only slowly? Or better to be discontented and thereby driven to move faster and do more? I don’t have an answer, and I don’t know that there is one. I could, and probably should, move more quickly, do more every day, than I do. But I’ll be living in an unfinished house, and working on an unfinished novel, for a while. Today I’m at peace with that. Tomorrow, who knows?

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2013 in biography, Family, friends, Idaho, stress

 

Out of the Closet and Back in the Saddle

So, last I blathered on at you I was getting ready for a trip to Chicago to see a bunch of old friends at my ten-year law school reunion. It was fun, it was exhausting, it was so incredibly different from my current life. I drank a French 75 at a rooftop bar and helped a friend herd her toddlers through a children’s museum. I remembered how insanely frustrating it is to sit in a taxi trying to turn off Michigan Ave as hordes of pedestrians ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign. I sat in the audience for a wide-ranging debate between two of the more well-known of my former professors. (The most well known was apparently too busy being President of the United States to show up. Priorities!) And, strangest and scariest of all, I told person after person that I’m writing a romance novel. I told friends. I told acquaintances. I told my Civ Pro professor! (Pretty sure the open bar encouraged that particular revelation.)

If you’ve been to a reunion you know what it’s like. A few people you’re currently close to, more people you used to be close to, and a whole heck of a lot of people you were never close to to begin with, all asking what you’re up to these days. I didn’t make a conscious decision to blab on and on about writing, but people seemed interested, and well, that’s what I’m up to these days. People were incredibly encouraging and wonderful and while it was scary, saying it over and over again – “I’m writing a book” – it was motivating. There is no way I can see these people again in five years and *still* not have finished a damn book. So, you know, I guess I have to finish the damn book.

I’ve always been the kind of person to hold my ambitions close. I don’t tell people my goals because that way nobody but me will know that I’ve failed when I don’t achieve them. But this whole writing gig … I tell everyone, hoping that the fear of public failure will keep me moving forward. I’ve had a few people say dismissive things about my genre, but not many. I’ve had more offers of help and more encouraging words than I can count. It’s really been wonderful.

For those of you who are unpublished, do you tell people you’re writing a book when they ask what you’re up to? For those of you who are published, did you hold that ambition tight until you’d reached a certain level of accomplishment? Is everyone braver than I am and just don’t think it’s a big deal to tell one’s old Civ Pro professor that one’s writing a romance novel? 

 

But … it’s for Research!

My best friend has always been kind of secretive about his love life. We’ve known each other for over 20 years and it’s only since I’ve started writing that he’s begun sharing his adventures (and misadventures) in the dating world. Why is he opening up now? Well, he prefaces every story about sketchy dudes on Grindr or awkward encounters with former boyfriends and their new lovers with: “Here’s some research material for you …”

I love it. His stories are hilarious and fascinating and way outside my own dating experience. And because he now sees everything he does as potential plot fodder for me (even though it’s really not relevant at all to my current WIP), he no longer guards this part of his life quite so jealously. Because he sees every experience, every encounter, as research material, I’ve started looking at my own life in the same way.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have some pretty darn strong hermit tendencies. One would think that writing would make those even stronger, but I’ve found that it’s the opposite. A high school acquaintance is getting married in Las Vegas? I have to go. It’s research. An old friend offers to buy me a plane ticket to Tennessee because he’s feeling nostalgic? Research. A spring-time hike with people who are much fitter and more adventurous than I am? Research! None of these things are directly related to anything I’m writing. I can’t use them as tax deductions. But they’re all things that I’ve done in the last year that scared me, where my immediate inclination was to say “Thanks, but no. I’m good. I’ll just sit here in my cabin with my cats and quietly continue to age.”

Two weeks from today I’ll be in Chicago for my ten year law school reunion. I am terrified and, honestly, if I wasn’t a writer now, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But there are loads of people and experiences there waiting for me. I will reconnect with people whose lives have diverged sharply from my own. I’ll eavesdrop on conversations about nannies and the pressures of being a law firm partner. I’ll drink wine at the Art Institute while chatting with people comparing working in the White House with working for the NFL. I’ll get on the El and be reminded of the press of bodies during a morning commute. I’ll sit in the back of a cab and remember what it feels like to be pushed up against a giggling friend on naugahyde-covered broken springs by the force of a quick left turn. It’s life. It’s research.

What about you? Have you found that writing has changed the way you look at new experiences? Ever justified doing something outside of your comfort zone as research?

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2013 in friends, Idaho, inspiration, research, travel

 

Fence Posts, Butter, and the Choices we Make

Before I was born, my parents used to work for a few days each fall for a neighboring family who raised cattle. They’d go up to the back of beyond and break down fences. The fences would then be put back in place every spring. It sounds inefficient, but it wasn’t really. The heavy snows in our part of the world would destroy fences left up over winter, and labor was cheaper than new posts and new wire. How cheap? My parents worked for 2 lbs of butter or 1 gallon of milk/hour. So with two days’ work they’d earn a winter’s worth of butter and fresh milk. My mom still talks with longing about the taste of butter that had been stored in a freezer with the huckleberry harvest.

I moved back to the rural area where this all happened and where I was born about six years ago. Very often I fence and snowwonder about that choice. When I couldn’t make it up my driveway two weeks ago and had to abandon my car and walk home through the snow and the dark and the cold I wondered why I was living here. The next morning as I cried in frustration and struggled to put chains on my tires with icy fingers, I wondered. But yesterday I bought a pound of fresh butter from the son of the people my parents worked for all those years ago. (Incidentally? It cost exactly what I make in half an hour.) Today I baked a loaf of bread, kneading it on the wooden counter my dad built. For tea I had warm bread slathered in that butter, and even though it didn’t taste of huckleberries, it tasted amazing. I felt connected to my life and my choices and the sacrifices I’ve made to live the life I want. It was nourishing in a way I needed, desperately.

How does this relate to writing? Well, it doesn’t, not really. Except that writing is one of the reasons I’m living this life in this place surrounded by these memories. Right now, at this stage, with nothing complete, I feel like I’m stuck on the ice, wheels spinning, going nowhere, fingers frozen, ready to cry with frustration and wondering why the hell I chose this. I want to get to the fresh bread and butter part of writing. My parents worked hard for their butter. I need to buckle down and work hard too. It’s waiting for me. I know it is.