Diana Renn About the Author Diana Renn Books by Diana Renn Diana Renn's News
Diana Renn's favorite links Contact Diana Renn
Diana Renn Visits Diana Renn Services

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Sad Farewell to Bob Slate Stationer

After 78 years in business, my favorite office supply store, Bob Slate Stationer, is closing its doors. All three Cambridge stores will be gone by March. I was already mourning the loss of the two Borders bookstores nearest my home, not to mention the closure of two of my favorite neighborhood book stores in Seattle: Twice Sold Tales and Fremont Place Book Company. I heard about all of those closures in the space of two weeks. The loss of Bob Slate feels like the final kick in the gut.

I have regularly shopped at Bob Slate since I came to the Boston area for school in 1994. Admittedly, I have shopped there less frequently since so much of my work has gone digital, and since the main supplies I need these days -- printer cartridges, bulk amounts of printer paper -- are much cheaper at Staples. But I've still gone there at least once every couple of months for notebooks, journal-type books, planner books, greeting cards, business stationery, and pens. Pens! Bob Slate was like a candy store of gorgeous pens, which you could try out on tiny pads of paper without anyone frowning at you. I don't even use pens that much anymore, but I have continued to stockpile them as if the world will end. I can honestly say I never left the store empty-handed.

Bob Slate was the kind of store that reminded me of why I wanted to write. Sure, bookstores inspire me too, with all their shelves of finished products. But those are completed stories. Bob Slates, for me, was always about the romance of possibility. Looking at shelf after shelf of notebooks, and reams of lined paper, I would imagine the possibilities for filling them up. I would spend up to an hour choosing my next journal, or the appropriate notebook for jotting ideas on my novel in progress, or the best binder for organizing my research materials. And while running my fingers over bindings, almost in a trance, I'd be playing with various ideas in my mind, or puzzling over plot glitches, or thinking about a character.

Walking into Bob Slate, I always felt ten years old again. When I was a child, my mother regularly took me to stationery shops or drug stores to buy new notebooks, which I chewed through at an alarming rate. I would run my fingers over spines and stroke the paper, deciding whether I wanted a fat five-subject notebook or a smaller one, depending on the scope of my project. I would carefully choose the color of the cover -- maybe black or dark blue for a serious work, or hot pink for something light and fun. Or orange, for my Harriet the Spy notebooks, to match the color of that book cover. In Bob Slate, the years fell away and I was right back at age ten, choosing my tools with care and delight.

In our economy today, and our digitized era, paper and pens have become romantic. Fetishized objects of an earlier time. My buying them, in somewhat smaller amounts over the years, certainly did not save the store. But I hope the sense of possibility won't become romantic. I feel a little adrift today, unsure now of where to go to get the same feeling I got at Bob Slate. I can tell you it's not at Staples, a place where I usually want to get the hell out as soon as I walk in the door. Staples is about efficiency and speed. Bob Slate was a place to linger. It was a place to let ideas slowly unfurl, and a place to buys tools to help facilitate dreams on the page.

I'm busy, and most days I like to work fast and hard and get things done. It's the subtitle of this entire blog. But sometimes it's important to linger and dream and browse around, and I'm finding fewer places to do that these days.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 18, 2011

Word Slasher!

So I'm gearing up to revise my novel (THE FRAME GAME, the one to be published). I have been asked, among other things, to cut the word count by quite a bit. I recognize I have a tendency to over-complicate, so I'm immensely grateful for editorial advice at this stage. And I agree some verbiage has to go. I know I can be excessive. (Witness the essay-like length of most of my blog entries here!) (Witness the over-explanation in this paragraph alone!)

When I used to teach writing, I found that most writers tend to overwrite, like me, or to underwrite. The grass is always greener, I guess. Underwriters, hearing my plight, assure me that at least cutting is easier -- I don't often have much to do in the way of fleshing out scenes or writing all new ones. Yet I envy the economy with which some of my fellow scribes seem to write. I would love to be told to deepen a scene or to add more details!

In the spirit of slashing excess verbiage, I'm keeping today's blog entry incredibly short. (Excess -- incredibly -- cut those modifiers!) I'm gearing up for a major revision, gathering my strength, conserving my words.

So as a substitute for any real advice today, I'm going to share a Japanese martial arts performance video. No, I don't think I'm giving up taiko drumming to pursue sword dancing anytime soon. However, if you watch this performance while thinking of the revision process -- and the plight of the writer who needs to slash words -- this can be an inspiring image. It inspired me, anyway!

Are you an underwriter or an overwriter? How do you gear up for or begin a major revision? What techniques have you found to help you cut words, paragraphs, or pages?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Evenfall: A Haunting Novel

I've been reading mostly YA fiction lately, but I do make occasional forays back into adult fiction. My latest great find is EVENFALL, by Liz Michalski.

This exquisite novel is told in three distinct and compelling voices. There's Andie, a 30-something young woman who has returned to her family's New England farmhouse to settle her uncle's estate and to flee an unhealthy relationship. There's Gert, Andie's headstrong aunt, who helped raise her. And Frank, Andie's uncle, the most fascinating and likeable ghost I've come across in fiction.

Yes, you've read that right: Frank's dead. But he hasn't exactly left the house. He's a quiet but impassioned presence, watching relationships unfold in the house. He's slowly gathering energy, in a variety of ways, to communicate with his loved ones and to reconcile with his past.

The past haunts all of these characters, and how they come to terms with their regrets -- as well as how they chart a course for their future, and for the family farm -- makes for a fascinating read. In particular, Andie is at an important crossroads in her life. She's just back from Italy, having finished a Ph.D. in art history, and she's nursing her wounds from an unhealthy relationship with a slick guy named Neal. But it's soon clear that the family farm will not provide her with a complete refuge from her problems. And there's plenty of room for complications when Cort -- the boy she used to babysit -- appears on the scene, all grown up.

The writing in this novel is as gorgeous as the cover. The 200-year-old farmhouse, the surrounding town of Hartman, CT, and the summer languor, are all so vividly described. Despite the paranormal element, this story reads more like a contemporary novel, with believable, sympathetic characters. All of them continue to haunt me now that I've come, with regrets, to the end.  

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Headshots? Head case!

 Much as I love photography, I'd rather be behind the lens than in front of it. I've endured way too many pictures of myself with half-closed eyes, bad lighting, or big, bad hair immortalized forever. I look drunk in photos before I've even touched a glass. Maybe I just have a lingering case of PTHSYS (post-traumatic high school yearbook syndrome). But it's time to get over it, because I'm planning an overhaul of my website this year, and I have a book coming out, and I'm aware that I'll need a headshot at some point. My current website photo likely won't do; I've been told -- gently, by some caring friends -- that it's nice but looks a little, er, formal, and a little, well, just a little like a yearbook photo.

The current photo in use was actually taken at a portrait studio in a mall, the one where I take my son for his milestone portraits and Christmas card pictures. I'm smiling in it because adorable children were running around in cute Christmas clothes and playing with the props, and this relaxed me. Plus I had a coupon and the thing was practically free. But that's beside the point.

I knew it was time to update. And well in advance, so that if I didn't like the results I'd have plenty of time to redo. So I got in touch with a brilliant professional photographer I know. Nicole Lewis specializes in photographing children and families, as well as beaming expectant mothers, so I figured she'd have a knack for making me relax. I also worked with her when I had maternity photos taken, and when I looked at her updated website, I discovered my belly on display to all the world in her maternity portrait gallery. (If you're that curious, it's featured in the first two pictures and the last one. The scarf is a souvenir from a trip to Turkey, my last big pre-baby trip).

So I got in touch with Nicole. She had time to work me in, and she thought doing an author headshot would be a fun change of pace. (I promised to wiggle and cry less than her usual subjects). She also had some creative ideas for some artier, edgier types of photos we could take outside for a different feel, if I wanted to throw something less traditional up on my website later. She had made some of my maternity photos arty and edgy, to great effect, so I was game.

The thing is, scheduling a photography session in the winter, during cold and flu season, adds a whole other layer of stress to what for me is an already stressful event. Massive snowstorms caused our session to be rescheduled; I also had to reschedule an accompanying appointment I had with someone who could make sense of my hair, as I lack ability in that department. Then my son had an ear infection, and stomach flu. He recovered, but when I brought him to school this morning, on the day of the shoot, it was like a time warp back to September, with renewed separation anxiety after his five-day absence. Between weather and illnesses -- both his and mine -- I felt like I was trying to land a plane through storm systems just to hit this morning's shoot with Nicole.

But the stars aligned. My child calmed down at school. A trusted professional made sense of my hair. Nicole showed up with her trusty camera and her keen eye. We took a number of shots in the comfort of my own home, and it wasn't painful at all, and they didn't look remotely like yeabook photos (or drivers license photos, or passport photos, or party photos). And then we ventured outside, "on location."

In my small suburban town, there's a beautiful stone wall by an old railroad station, and a pedestrian underpass, going under the train tracks, that is dazzlingly decorated with graffitti art and murals. High school students should be hanging out there, skipping school -- it looks like the perfect hideout -- but incredibly, it was, as it always is, completely vacant. A long, empty tunnel of unappreciated art. Somehow Nicole made our pictures there look like somewhere very different, like somewhere in New York maybe -- not a sleepy New England town. She also cut out the massive snow banks, the icicles, and the pile of dead Christmas trees abandoned by the local Lions Club. That aspect of photography fascinates me -- the composition of subjects, the sleight of hand.

Oh, Nicole also braved temperatures in the low 20s to do this, balancing her little stepstool precariously on slanted, icy ground to try to get the perfect shots.

Most of all, she made it a fun experience for me. It was fun to collaborate with an artist in a different medium. And I felt like we were two kids skipping school. 

I now have a whole new appreciate for photographers after today -- for what they do and how they see.

Though they are nowhere near as good Nicole's, here are a few of my own photos of our local tunnel of art:

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 4, 2011

Art Works, Part 1: Inspiration from Japanese Artists

I love art. But I can barely etch a stick figure. I have to translate what I see into words. Sometimes the tension between my deep appreciation for visual art and my inability to produce it feels like a strange illness. So I compensate in other ways. I write about art. I gorge myself on gallery shows, museum exhibits, web sites and magazines about art, coffee table books, art-related films, and graphic novels. Recently, I've been seeking out documentaries about the creative lives of artists, finding inspiration in their processes.

My latest discovery is the New People Artist Series, produced by Viz Pictures. The first video came out in 2007, and there are now six in the series. Each DVD profiles a Japanese artist, providing a close-up view of his or her inspirations and creative process. And by close up, I mean close. Much of the footage comes directly from the art studio, where we peer over the artist's shoulder, watching them paint or draw or sculpt in preparation for a major exhibition. Now I'm someone who can actually watch paint dry, and find that fascinating, so I'm probably an ideal audience member for this series, in which sometimes viewers are, literally, watching paint dry. Or we are watching an artist microwave a meal, or smoke a cigarette, while he waits for the paint to dry.

I love the focus on process and inspiration in this series. We learn little about these artist' childhoods or personal lives, and there is not a lot of glamour. We don't gawk at the public persona of the artist. Instead we glimpse the sacrifices they've made for their art, living in modest quarters and nondescript neighborhoods. The focus is on the art and how it's made. In the three DVDs I have viewed so far, we are invited to observe relatively quiet artists who are developing their works brush by brush, line by line. They are filled with inspiration for anyone who works in a creative field.

In Hitashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouvau, we watch the artist painstakingly apply layers of gold foil, reviving some traditional techniques in Japanese art, which he then mixes with more modern techniques. We watch him make tiny pencil marks on transparent paper to create scrolls with elaborate details. He is a model of patience and perseverance, crouched over his canvases, blowing away graphite dust. Somehow, all these scratch marks combine to make jaw-droppingly detailed scrolls, drawings and paintings that are exhibited and receive international acclaim. His process reminds me that even on writing days that feel unproductive, all those words, my own little scratch marks, really can add up to something in the end.

In Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, the avant-garde, pink-haired artist, who is known for her fascination with polka dots, races the clock to create 50 massive drawings with black markers. The camera lingers on her as she outlines, then colors in, dot after dot after dot, between strangely beautiful squiggle and lines and wide staring eyes. There is an element of suspense here, considering the artist's advanced age, her growing fatigue, her own sense of mortality. Will she complete the series in time for the exhibition? And there are lessons for writers and artists in other media to take away, too. Her bursts of energy and her loyal assistants carry her along on her project, reminding us of the power of artistic vision -- and the power of having a supportive team on your side, to help your work see the light of day. Kusama is also a poet. One of my favorite moments in the film is when she reads through a poem she published years ago. She blinks in astonishment when she is done and exclaims, "This is very good!" It's so easy for us to criticize our own work, especially once it's been published or produced, yet Kusama unabashedly delights in her finished products.

Traveling with Yoshimtomo Nara also has a quiet element of suspense as we follow an introverted artist around the world, watching him set up exhibits in various cities and ultimately stage a massive multimedia installation piece in collaboration with others. The suspense arises in the tension between the artist's self-processed introverted tendencies and his desire to connect with his audience (particularly with children, who are captivated by his whimsical drawings and seem to revere him like a rock star). He also searches for ways to come out of his shell and connect with other artists. In the end, we see how his encounters with others greatly impact his work. This documentary teaches artists in any medium about the power of collaboration, and about how we find satisfaction in reaching an audience -- sometimes in surprising ways.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Murderer's Daughters: An Adult Novel with YA Appeal

Have you heard of The Murderer's Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers? It's coming out in paperback today, so I thought I'd devote some air time to it. Mainly since I have not stopped thinking about this novel since I read it, and I've read three other books since!

First, a confession. As a relatively new mom, I hesitated at first to read a story about domestic violence and its aftermath. These days I'm skittish about stories of children placed in dangerous situations. And this story doesn't hold back on danger. In the opening chapters, an alcoholic man turns on his family, killing his wife and attacking one of his young daughters. 

But I was quickly pulled into this novel, as is not so much about violence as it is about resilience. It explores how the daughters, Lulu and Merry, attempt to rebuild their lives over the ensuing decades, particularly how they deal with having a father in prison. At a point, the lies they tell the world and themselves in order to cope are put to the test. The girls must make difficult moral choices about how to reconstruct their family narrative. 
It's a fascinating study of how their survival skills and emotional coping strategies change over time, particularly when one daughter has children of her own, drastically raising the stakes. 

A great strength of this novel is its roster of realistic, psychologically complex characters. Yes, there are murderers and batterers roaming these pages. Yet the men are portrayed not so much as monsters, but as people who commit "monstrous deeds." 

This is a fascinating psychological study, a story of two of the strongest girls you'll ever meet in fiction, and, above all, a keep-you-up-all-night-page-turner. And if you're looking for a book with YA/adult crossover interest (for mature YA readers, anyway), this is a good one. A large portion of the novel portrays the girls coping and rebuilding their lives during their tween and teen years. Even the characters in their adult years, I would argue, are of interest to teens because the moral choices the adults make impact the family's next generation. 

Here's the book trailer:

What are some other "adult" novels you know of with the potential for YA appeal?

Labels: , , ,