the pythagorean novelist

"My dear old bird," he said, "there are moments in this life when the only thing is to plot--and to plot like billy-o." -- P.G. Wodehouse, If I Were You

For each of the following, draw a diagram to illustrate the given. Then list definitions, postulates, or theorems that could be used to prove each of the following. -- Foster, Cummins, and Yunker, Merrill Geometry

One of the things that frustrates me most about writing: it's never the same process. Day after day, you never know what will happen.

Unsurprisingly, that's also one of the reasons why I love it. And while it drives my control-freak Type-A side berserk, it thrills my more adventurous side to sit down to my desk each day.

As I mentioned the other day, I've been building the sequel to my first novel. That's what 2010 has been so far: taking that story from a bare idea, to a fuller concept, to a thirty-three page outline. And it's still growing, still collecting scenes.

I've learned so much in this writing enterprise. One of the biggest lessons is that every novel has a different process. For my first novel, I just drafted my brains out, flailing away at scene after scene. I wrote my second novel by taking the Nanowrimo 2009 challenge and writing a book where truly anything could happen. I had no idea where each chapter would take me, and I worked without a shred of an outline.

And plotting this novel, this sequel, feels--surprise!--a lot more like geometry than like flirting with muses.

I started out in January with a sweaty fistful of ideas: the name and skeleton of a character, the barest whiff of a plot, one scene from the protagonist's backstory, and my main location. (An ancient, cathedral-like library... swoon.)

I also had everything I've learned about novels so far. Principles for good characterization, compelling backstories, motives, villains, tension, dialogue, description. And everything my gut tells me about good stories, characters I love, and places I want to read about.

A few ideas, a lot of principles. And the biggest proof of my life: given the ideas above, prove that you can write another novel.

That's what "preproduction" has been like: Jenn versus the blank page before the blank page. Facing the yawning white wilderness of the book, where anything can happen.

So I went to work with my geometry skills. Poking the information I had, testing the "laws" I knew, and asking a million questions of my characters, my plot, my setting. Circling around and around my ignorance, and taking a ton of notes. (I always used a lot of blank paper in geometry, too.)

And as with proofs, I began to see, at the very least, the exact shape of the information I was missing.

Several months later, there are still some gaps, and a few of them are more like chasms. (Do I have a climax yet? Uh, no. But I do know the last four scenes, so that's something.)
But I'm still asking questions, still taking notes. And building the courage to test my outline late in August...


your weekend assignment

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. -- J.R.R. Tolkien

If you haven't made homemade marshmallows before, and if you're even the least bit kitchen-minded, then you owe it to yourself to try these.
My sisters and I made them a couple of months ago, when Kristen and I were visiting our younger sister in Florida. We used Alton Brown's recipe, and had no complaints.
There were also s'mores, and let me tell you: these were Royal S'Mores. Absolutely amazing. (And that's from a girl who hasn't always loved s'mores... something very tragic happened once, involving long hair and warm marshmallow goo, but I won't traumatize you with the details. Ahem.)
We stuck our s'mores open face in the oven, under a broiler for just a minute or so. (And if there's a bit of coconut on top, which toasts to a nutty brown, well then. You'll be raving about it too.)


book crush thursday: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

Mrs. Pollifax looked at him. "When I was growing up--oh for years--I planned to become a spy," she admitted. The doctor threw back his head and laughed, and Mrs. Pollifax wondered why, when she was being her most serious, people found her so amusing. -- Dorothy Gilman, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

- "I'm wondering if they'll try to brainwash us," Mrs. Pollfiax was saying cheerfully. "Do you know anything about brainwashing, Mr. Farrell?"
- "Uh--no," Farrell said politely.
- "It might prove rather interesting."

Okay. I'm going to do my best to stay in my seat and not reach right through the computer screen and stick this book in your hands. Deep breath.
... But please race out and get this book? And read it today? Thank you.
Emily Pollifax has wispy white hair, a love for geraniums, and memberships to the Garden Club, the Art Association, and the Woman's Hospital Auxilary. Oh, and she'd like to become a spy.
So she does.
And in her first mission (yes, this is the start of a series, isn't that just fabulous news for you??), she visits Mexico, gets drugged and abducted, imprisoned, interrogated ... and, oh, she meets Farrell.
Confession is good for the soul? Well then: I'm still madly in love with Farrell.
So "book crush" is more literal this time.
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is hilarious, suspenseful, and even sweet at times. All together, it's the perfect kickoff to your summer reading stash. (Especially if your stash consists of the rest of the Mrs. Pollifax series. Just a thought.)
Recommendation: Iced mint tea and that shady patch in your backyard. Go to it.


the small & unguessed life

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. -- André Gide

'Tis the season of graduation parties, balloons on mailboxes in the neighborhood, cakes frosted in school colors, Pomp and Circumstance...
And if you're like me, it's time to squint at the year on the calendar and count backward a few... did I really graduate from college four years ago? Four?? (Which puts high school at eight, shockingly enough. Let's just move on ...)
It is so funny to think back to May 20, 2006 and college graduation. I was doing the bold thing, the crazy thing: abandoning my goal of five years for an idea I'd had that February. Instead of going into editing, I decided to come back home to my parents' house and try to write a novel.
It felt so big, daring, and grand. Write a novel? At age 21, do you really give up the prospect of steady employment for the sake of a novel idea you haven't had yet? It felt gutsy, and it was.
I'd give it a year, I decided. Sounded safe enough: a whole year to see if I could "make it work." I told everyone, I received tons of support and encouragement, and I moved back home. Fired up my computer. Stared at my quiet, blank screen.
Fast forward four years to my life now, and let me tell you: this isn't what I thought my life would be like in 2010.
Not even a little bit.
In my mind, 2010 had two options. Either I had miraculously proven my ability at writing quick, brilliant novels (an oxymoron, at least for me), and I would be making a living at it... (Yes, we can all say NAIVE, all together class...)
Or, by 2010 I would have shelved the whole business, in favor of making dependable money at a publishing company. Probably wearing a cute array of business suits. Listening attentively at meetings. I'd have a desk, with a little name plate on it. And everyone could point to me and say exactly what it was that I did. (Luxurious thought!)
Either I would be a writing success or a publishing success. Those were my options.
I thought those were my options.
Certainly I wouldn't still be living at home. Working on the same book. That would be a small, slow life, and it wasn't what I had in mind.
Four years later, I'm starting draft four of the same novel that I started the summer after graduation. I'm also planning its sequel: I hope to "break ground" on that draft in late August. And I had a November fling with a completely new story idea.
So four years later, I have three books in my head and heart, two of them in draft form.
Small, my graduation self would have said. Small and crazy. And I would not still be at home at age twenty-five!!
But now I wonder if it's my graduation self that had the small vision. That had narrow views of success and how fast it must be achieved.
I don't always know what I'm aiming for now--they aren't the bright, definable goals I used to have: A better draft. Snappier dialogue than I wrote yesterday. Clearer insight into my characters than I had last week. A more open heart. A calmer spirit in the face of ongoing uncertainty.
Some things are the same: My computer screen is sometimes blank. I have moments where I think I'm crazy. I have a lot of my former idealism, and a healthy streak of naiveté, which keeps me chasing my work. And my family still believes as much in my writing as I do--and often they find more belief in me than I have for myself.
But sometimes, though I hate to say it, I'm still my narrow, 2006 self, measuring success in terms of calendar squares instead of the many victories won from my writing chair.
So I still have a lot to learn. But at least I'm revising my idea of small. By next year, maybe I can abandon that term altogether.


book crush thursday: The Last Unicorn

Hard silver clouds were melting as the sky grew warm; shadows dulled, sounds lost their shape, and shapes had not yet decided what they were going to be that day. Even the wind wondered about itself. -- The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

Now he was helpless with delight, for he wanted to dance and he wanted to be still; he shook with shouting and speeches, and yet there was nothing that he wanted to say. -- Schmendrick the Magician

As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying--generally you killed something. -- Prince Lir

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle: One of my favorite, favorite books. (I know, that's the whole point of Book Crush, right? But I still can't get over it ... I love this book!)

It's certainly one to get lost in, to indulge in, to read in one long luxurious day in bed.

That kind of book.

Confession: I only read this one to get it off my list. It was recommended to me years ago, but I cheerfully passed it up time and again for lesser books. Shame on me.

Confession #2: One great way to keep me from reading a book? Put unicorn in the title. Not a huge sell for me. And as long as we're confessing, the same goes for dragons and vampires.

Just ... can't ... manage ... to get excited. I could be so wrong (as I was with The Last Unicorn), but nevertheless: I'm an avoider.

So imagine my shock when I did finally read this book and realized it was my long lost love, my newest favorite, the one I would rave about to anyone within earshot?

It would make a stint on a desert island significantly better, perhaps even enjoyable.

And this too: I want to write a book like this when I grow up.

It's always hard for me to describe the plot, since this book seems so much larger than just plot, characters, and settings. But essentially, it is the story about a quest. The last unicorn travels to find the others of her kind. Along the way, she picks up two unusual human companions, and together they work to set the other unicorns free...

Mmm, but I'm not satisfied with that as a description. Let me try again:

Peter S. Beagle knows how to blend the humorous, the poignant, and the unexpected. And he writes sentences that literally take my breath away.

Or, to put it another way: This is the kind of book that reminds me why I read and why I write.

Recommendation: Order yourself a series of rainy days and a café au lait to best savor this book. A sweet pastry on the side wouldn't hurt.


"so there were these three birds..."

I snapped this picture during breakfast this morning. Is it just my goofy sense of humor, or does this look like the setup for a joke?

All it needs is an awesome caption...

Poor mourning doves. They're just never going to win "Most Intelligent-Looking Bird."


it's spring! (stay warm.)

Rain, rain, and more rain. It's been gorgeous--I do love a series of cool, wet days. It makes the writing life that much more romantic. Curling up under a woolen throw, tapping out a character profile, reaching for coffee... mmm. Lovely.

But it's also chilly, which means we're really glad that Kristen made these springy neckwarmers for our store! (And isn't she the cutest model? I mean, seriously.)

Annnnd a new headband.
Super cute flower? Yes. Super cute flower.


book crush thursday: The Phantom Tollbooth

The air was thick and heavy, as if it had been used several times before. -- The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

"A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect." -- The Humbug to the Spelling Bee

"So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." -- King Azaz and the Mathemagician to Milo

The Phantom Tollbooth (by Norton Juster) is, quite simply, my hands-down untoppable favorite childhood book. My copy is much used, tattered, yellowed with age. My name is written exuberantly in the front cover (evidently from the era when I dotted my i with a star), proof of my early and undying love for this story.

When I first picked it up, I had no idea what I was getting into. The word phantom was so full of mystery, and my experience with tollbooths was fairly limited.

What I found was a crazy adventure story that takes Milo, a terribly bored ten year old, through the Doldrums, Dictionopolis, the Forest of Sight, Digitopolis, and into the Mountains of Ignorance on a dangerous quest.

There's a score of unforgettable characters--the Humbug is always my favorite, no matter how maligned he is by the other characters. Juster's language is packed with wordplay (the conversation with the Everpresent Wordsnatcher still sends me into hysterics) and idioms unfolded (of course you have to jump to the island of Conclusions).

I reread Phantom Tollbooth recently, curious to see if I loved it as much as I used to, and found it even better than I'd remembered. I raved about it to anyone nearby, and I'm not sorry. I'd hand out The Phantom Tollbooth tracts on a streetcorner if I could. (Hmm. Not a bad idea.)

... And, honestly, if you haven't read it yet, for heaven's sake stop reading this blog and get your hands on a copy. It's a book that sticks with you. After all, once you've heard of Subtraction Stew or witnessed the conducting of a sunrise, can you ever go back? Would you even want to?

Recommendation: A childhood classic deserves a childhood classic. I would read this near a sun-filled window, with tomato bisque and a grilled cheese sandwich. It doesn't get much better than that.


i fall in love. again.

Lemon lovers, please stand up.

(Everyone else can skip this post and go back to whatever they were doing.)

Okay, lemon lovers, you can sit back down, but only if you tell me this: how did I go for twenty-five-and-a-half years without ever tasting lemon curd?

Ever? Not once?

I mean seriously: lemon curd. It's basically a lemon staple, especially for those who also love tea and scones and such things. Which I do.

My long lemon-curdless existence ended Sunday night when I mixed up my first pot. (This recipe.)

And it wasn't until I was "letting it cool" (or sticking spoons into the pot and then into my mouth and laughing--my usual response to astonishing food) that I realized the wonder of wonders of lemon curd.

It's true love, and I know we'll be together forever.

I used it to stick lemon macarons together...

to weigh down a spoon...

and there are plans for blackberry scones in the works.

(Their main purpose being to ferry more lemon curd into my mouth, without the shame of saying yes, I'm eating this stuff by the spoonful.)

I have only one complaint about lemon curd: could we rename this concoction?
Could it have the name that it deserves, one that implies silky smooth bright sunny lemony goodness, and not curd, which implies...

Well... not goodness.

We need to work on that.
(Submit any epiphany-induced name changes in the comment section, if you please...)


book crush thursday: I Capture the Castle

There were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard. -- Cassandra

The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon. -- Cassandra

I'm a little afraid of discussing this book, because I'm half certain that I'll just lapse into exclamation points, which, while fun to type, won't convince anyone of anything.

So I'll try to contain myself. Ahem.

I found I Capture the Castle (by Dodie Smith) mostly by accident. I heard a few people talking about it, and on a whim, I decided to pick it up. I can't remember what I was expecting from the novel, but I quickly promoted it to the ranks of my favorites.

This is one of the quirkiest books I've read, and also one of the most endearing. Any attempt at explaining the plot falls flat--I suppose it's the bittersweet story of a family living in a castle, dealing with poverty, frustration, tea time, new neighbors, and great hopes...

But the reason I love it is because it is a story told by Cassandra Mortmain.

And Cassandra is one of the narrators I most hope to meet, in some book-heaven where we shake hands with our favorite characters. If I manage to write a character half as entertaining and unique as Cassandra, I'll call myself a pretty decent writer.

She somehow manages to be poignant, insightful, and shockingly funny, often at the same time. Her voice is fresh enough to be completely new, but she's also true: I could relate to her at every turn.

(I think that Cassandra's narrative brilliance is the main reason why I didn't like the movie. They still tried to keep her voice in the story, but you saw the events of the tale first, and heard her voice secondarily. In the novel, it's reversed: her voice is the high point and the light by which you see the story. That makes all the difference.)

Recommendation: Savor I Capture the Castle with a good flavored black tea. I prefer Monks Blend: black tea with vanilla and grenadine... the perfect complement.

Tea, this novel, and a rainy afternoon: that's a big cup of perfect.

now serving: book crush thursdays!

My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read. -- Abraham Lincoln

My younger sister and I used to joke that we should work together in a café/bookstore. I'd run the book side, she'd make the coffee, and we'd cross reference every purchase.

"Emily Dickinson? Go over to the café and see which herbal tea she recommends," I would say.

"Dark chocolate mocha?" my sister would inquire. "Check in with Jenn and see if she'd have Poe's Short Stories or Macbeth with that..."

So in my little online café, what could be more natural than a weekly book recommendation?

It's not a book review--there are plenty of blogs out there which can tell you accurately what a book does well or poorly. All I can do is tell you, from one reader to another, which books I can't do without.

If my bookshelves are to be believed, it's a very long list...


in which i discover a new (old?) pastime

I made my first book when I was about five years old: a half-dozen wide ruled notebook pages, stapled together, and "MY FIRST BOOK" written on the front with a proud pencil. I didn't fill it with stories, but with lists: my favorite things, the elaborate names of my stuffed animals... In place of illustrations, I taped scraps of leaves from our backyard.

Fast forward about sixteen years, and I'm interning as a proofreader at a big publishing house. My supervisor spends a few meetings explaining the guts of a book. Signatures, spacing, spines, the works. He asks if it's too technical, but I find it far more fascinating than the grammar I'm supposed to enforce.

So I've always had a thing for books--for the stories, for the nuts and bolts of the language, but also for the books themselves: the smell of ink and paper, the romance of tattered edges, the heft of a hardcover edition.

Imagine my thrill on seeing this gorgeous book from Purgatory Pie Press at Borders Saturday night:

I love, love, love it! I've already made two of her "instant books"... a completely simple and addictive project!

basic instant book

instant accordion book

and an extremely small accordion... just for fun!

I love having a project that marries my love of the literary with my crafty side, and these handmade books are the perfect answer.

It's also an ideal switch-up. After hours working on my 500-page novel (!!!), making a sweet six-page "Basic Instant Book" or a sixteen-page "Instant Accordion Book" feels like a holiday.

And then, what to fill them with? Quotes, lists of recipes I want to try, or maybe I'll salute my five-year-old self with a list of my favorite things...