Author Archives: Alisa O'Donnell

About Alisa O'Donnell

I am an alumna of Western Washington University, born and raised on the Puget Sound. I live in Modesto, California with my husband and my cat, reading books and writing anything.

Yellow Crocus

Despite having my first copy eaten by the dog, I managed to read both my birthday books within 10 days of receiving them. Yay me!

Yellow Crocus is Laila Ibrahim’s debut novel, set in the early 1800s it follows the life of Elizabeth Wainwright and her mammy, Mattie, who is forced to leave her own infant son to take care of Elizabeth.

As a consequence of being essentially raised by Mattie, Elizabeth doesn’t quite buy into slavery in the way expected of her, and it is just one seed sown in her heart that makes it hard for her to fit in to her southern belle life.

As Elisabeth enters adulthood and stands on the brink of life changes, Mattie’s encouragement to follow her own path rings in Elizabeth’s ear, and she must make hard choices about her future.

Yellow Crocus was a good book with an engaging storyline. It was a heartfelt story of a girl and her mammy, and the hard choices both must make for themselves.

That said, it was also very clear that this was Ibrahim’s first book (rich coming from someone who isn’t too keen on sharing her own work with others, I know). The dialogue was stiff and unauthentic. For example, most people use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t), and even if adults spoke properly, a 4-year-old would not be speaking complete and flawless sentences without contractions. And of course because I’ve been looking at dialogue for a few weeks, that was the first thing that jumped out at me. But it also felt like moments of tension and climax were rushed through. I wanted Ibrahim to paint a picture of the turmoil the women felt at different times, or maybe allow a monologue to speak to the wrestling back and forth over decisions.

Overall, however, I think it was a good book, and a good first novel. I think that, if Ibrahim wanted to, she could continue writing historical, multicultural fiction, and be very successful at it.

Writing is hard

The title says it all.

I think we’re done here.

But seriously, writing is hard. For me, the initial drafting is usually the easy part. Especially if I’ve done some planning and outlining, the writing flows pretty well. Or so it always seemed. But as I’m continuing my way through my writing exercises, it’s bringing up so many additional things that I’m conscious of, but not quite sure I’m being purposeful about.

For example, one of the exercises was titled “Hemmingway’s Iceberg,” a prompt where you write a detailed character description, then try to convey information about the character in short sentences, showing instead of telling. That’s usually one thing I’m pretty keyed in to when it comes to my writing, and something I usually catch when I’m editing. But following the advice of everyone for writing is overwhelming. Should I outline my whole entire story in immense detail? Should I write detailed character sketches for everyone? Or just main characters?

I’ve always been a little bit more of the “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of writer. I’ve adapted some, and in my last few projects I have done moderately detailed outlines, which has truly helped in the process. But I’m afraid of getting so bogged down in the planning that, when the times comes, writing the story has lost the joy of creation and discovery, which is what has always drawn me to writing in the first place.

So what’s the answer? For me, it’s just doing my own thing. If I’m having a hard time with dialogue or my character doesn’t feel real, I’ll take it as a sign that I need to do a sketch and compare words and actions with who my character is. If I’m stuck with writers block, I know I need to sit down and map out where I’m at and where my story needs to be.

Best practices aren’t for everyone. Writing is a very personal endeavor, and as such, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. But, writing is also about having various tools to use when you need them. And with that in mind, it’s good to know some of those best practices, and have a plan in place for when you might need them.

 

So, after all that blah, blah, blah,  I’ll share a personal bit of writing, from the last exercise I didn’t do a few weeks back, the one on getting inspiration from the art world. It took me a little bit of time, but once I thought of it, it just flowed. Maybe you can guess what painting inspired it.

Sometimes, the most beautiful things emerge from individual strokes of chaos.

In a painting, a million wild strokes swirl to form a starry night. The swirls lead your eye across the piece, drawing you into nostalgia, remembering your favorite starry nights.

But when you’re down in the trenches,where the swirls become a maze of canyon walls, you don’t always see the beautiful, just the chaos.

I was in the trenches, to say the least. I was 24 years old, married, living independently, making my own appointments, and utterly overwhelmed by anxiety and stalled dreams.

It wasn’t that I hated my job, I worked hard, but the constant human interaction was draining. It was more that… I was more. I had a degree, I had career goals and dreams, and as the years ticked by and graduation faded, it was hard to believe someone would hire me with barely any experience, so long after school.

And my personal dreams–don’t even get me started. I loved writing, but I was lazy and didn’t always like to edit. I didn’t have any left over energy for another full-time job. All my other hobbies I essentially gave up when I moved. So if my life wasn’t intended to be what I wanted, what was it to be?

I wonder if painters ever feel this way, like their just throwing strokes onto canvas and waiting to see what emerges–art birthed from chaos.

But then, isn’t that what life is all about? Finding beauty in our own personal chaos. To keep painting until the picture emerges, and we can see what we’ve made.

High Infatuation

Since our trip to Bishop in February/March, my friend Jen has been encouraging me to read some of Steph Davis’ books on climbing and mountaineering. So when an unexpected Amazon package showed up around my birthday and Steph Davis’ book High Infatuation was inside, I knew exactly who it was from.

High Infatuation is a different kind of book. In some ways, it feels almost like a collection of poems, except it’s not really poetry. It’s a collection of her thoughts on life, mixed in with some detailed accounts of defining trips and ascents in her career as a climber, a mixture of basic biography and personal diary. But it makes for great reading.

Davis is a professional climber who got a late start at it, never having climbed before her freshman year in college. But once she tried it, she was hooked. Davis has largely taken a fearless approach to climbing. If she has a knowledgeable partner she trusts, she’ll try just about anything, learning as she goes along.

Her snapshot glimpses into the adventurous dirtbag life certainly ignite if not wanderlust, an intense desire to get out and climb. Davis talks about working part-time jobs to afford to keep climbing, and to take trips to places including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Baffin Island, although after a few cursory mentions of waitressing to earn money for her bills, she doesn’t really mention it again, which makes me wonder how she could afford to climb year-round later on. I guess maybe sponsorship money, although she doesn’t talk about sponsors at all.

High Infatuation feels like a very personal read. As I went through it, several times I got the feeling that, as Davis was writing, she must have also been using it as a way to make sense of things and reflect on herself and her life, where she is and where she’s come from. Getting to read that makes her story very real, even if the book does leave you needing to do a little more research on her professional career (assuming you haven’t already followed it).

I love reading these kinds of books, but every time I do, it makes me want to push my computer away (and push the book away too) and get out there and live it for myself. Instead of reading or writing about other people’s adventures, I want to be out there myself. And with Yosemite not that far away from me… maybe I need to develop some new friendships…

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

There’s a couple ways to end that saying. My favorite is “fry, fry a hen.” But, when it comes to writing, frying chicken isn’t nearly as useful as trying again, and that’s what editing is all about.

In my last post I went on and on about how I was going to go through my story and look at the dialogue to make sure my characters use authentic voices. Well, I didn’t get very far into my story, on account of being lazy and actually having time to spend with my husband this week. I got about a quarter of the way through my story though, and I think I can confidently say, all my people may sound the same, but they sure don’t sound stiff and fake (and believe me, after the book I just read [I feel obligated to state that I’m ahead in my book reviewing, so the book I’m referencing is not Steph Davis’ book, the review of which you’ll see on Friday], I’m quite keyed in to stiff dialogue).

What I did accomplish this week was yet another revision of my first chapter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the first chapter isn’t golden, no one will keep reading. Here’s what I started with:

“First, that scientific achievements and breakthroughs were the only thing worth pursuing. Every person, upon graduating high school, was expected to step into the professional world and begin working on something great. The rate of stepping depended on how smart the student was, but society dictated that anyone older than 27 who wasn’t doing something to make the world a better place wasn’t worth the time and effort. Such a person could only expect to do the manual labor the great minds thought were beneath them.”

Obviously, that wasn’t my whole beginning chapter, but the chapter was only one page long, so that was probably a third of it. And it sucked. So I made myself try to show instead of tell, and here’s what I ended with:

““You’ve got to be thinking now about what you’ll do with your life,” his father would tell him. “After high school, you’ve only got a few years before you reach 27, the age of expectation. But each year between 18 and 27 that you spend on anything other than your chosen focus is a waste. It will only hurt your chances of really making a big contribution.”

In third grade, Mason still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and his parents were getting anxious.

“If you don’t start now, you’ll end up doing manual labor with the rest of the lower class people who aren’t smart enough to do anything else,” his father said. “We aren’t raising you to do that kind of worthless work.”

A week later, when they found out Mason was playing with the janitor’s son at school, Mason realized it wasn’t just the work his parents thought was worthless, but the people as well.

“But he’s my friend, why can’t I play with him at school?”

“Some people are better than others, son. It’s important to know where you fit in the social hierarchy. Upward movement comes in small steps for most people. Some people never move up. And if you are friends with those people, you’ll only move down.”

“But, dad—”

“No, Mason. My word is final, you’re not to associate with that boy anymore. If I find out you’ve so much as made eye contact with him, I’ll give you a hiding you won’t forget.”

Mason grew up, struggled with school and graduated with average marks, to his parents’ chagrin. Ad year upon year passed after graduation, Mason’s relationship with his parents grew more and more strained. His parents, successful scientists in their own rights, were ashamed of him, anxious for him to prove himself or disappear—with neither option being necessarily preferable.

Yet as his 25 birthday came and went, Mason saw his future stretching before him in a bleak stroke. With little chance at a significant scientific job, Mason’s only hope was to find some menial task and hope the project leader would allow him to work the job as a career, letting Mason save face and avoid a lifelong career as a janitor or garbage man. Mason never fully bought in to the idea that janitors and garbage men were somehow lesser people, but he wasn’t chomping at the bit to join their ranks, either.”

It might seem obvious that showing is better than telling, and we all know that it is, but still we fall into the trap of getting words down on paper and dealing with the rest later. And some portions end up needing a lot more dealing with than others. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I rewrite my first chapter. I’m still not 100 percent sold on it. But I’ll keep trying until I get it right.

Also, I expect that soon I’ll have to hunt for someone to do some critiquing for me, and that will, hopefully, open the door to whole new levels of editing that I haven’t even noticed yet.

The Woman in Cabin 10

Since Ruth Ware just had a new book out, I decided it was the perfect time to check out some of her other stuff, since I recommend it often even though I haven't read it. She writes thrillers along the lines of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn, so I knew it would probably be good.
Lo Blacklock is a British journalist who is invited to be on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise ship. Lo thinks it will be the perfect way to recover from a recent burglary incident in her flat, but instead she finds herself caught up in what she believes is a sinister plot against a woman no one but her has seen.
Her journalist instinct pushes her to keep digging, despite the danger and her fears and when she finally reaches the bottom, Lo isn't sure how things are going to end for her.
The Woman in Cabin 10 was every bit as exciting as I thought it was going to be. It was a fast, engaging read with lots of logical red herrings along the way. I found myself coming up with various elaborate theories for what was going on. Turned out to be much simpler than I had thought, which of course is the best way for these kinds of stories to work out. But the ending didn't come out of no where. Ruth Ware keeps you guessing, but when she finally reveals it all, it makes perfect sense.
If you're looking for your next exciting thriller, be sure to check Ruth Ware out, she won't disappoint.

The Creative Writer’s Notebook: authentic voices

Because I don't always keep up on my editing, and don't always have something here and exciting worth sharing, I decided to come back to my book of writing prompts that I bought almost a year ago.
This week I did the lessons inspired by William Faulkner (ok, I did two out of three, the last one was hard and I couldn't think of what to write). They were mostly focused on allowing your characters to speak in a real voice, allowing punctuation, grammar and vocabulary to show what your character is like. I've always thought that would be quite easy, but as I sat down to do it, I realized just how proper my dialogue must be. When I'm writing, probably my most authentic language is the use of contractions.
The first prompt I did was inspired by one of my nieces, who wanted to make sure her papa didn't "lost" her hat instead of returning it to her. I tried to write a little scene about a small child who had a bad dream about an upcoming zoo field trip. I tried to think of the kinds of things that trip kids up, often tenses. My little girl would sometimes use the present tense if a word because she didn't know any better, and sometimes she would add an extra "ed" on the end of a word.
As challenging as that was, it was harder to try to write a scene about two people trying to cross a river using only dialogue to portray what kind of people they were. That I as what really made me notice how proper I am while writing.
So this next week, I have two goals in mind for editing: I want to work on the first chapter, making it something that grabs your attention and makes you want to know more. But I'm also going to read through my story and pay close attention to my dialogue, and ask myself if my characters sound real, or if they sound stilted and stiff. I'll have the answers for you next week!

Sarah’s Key

I’d heard of Sarah’s Key before, but until I had the chance to bring a copy home, I don’t think I knew what it was about, but it made sense to read it shortly after finishing the Book Thief.

Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, is a story about Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. On the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ de’Hiv roundup, Julia is assigned a story, to find out about it. She discovers that Vel’ de’Hiv refers to the days in July 1942 when the French police rounded up Jewish families–men, women and children–and herded them into the stadium before shipping them out to other camps and, ultimately, to Auschwitz and other death camps.

In her research, Julia discovers the apartment she is moving into with her husband and daughter was the home of a Jewish family that was rounded up during Vel’ de’Hiv. Thus begins her quest to find out all she can about the family that lived there, despite opposition from her husband and in-laws. What Julia discovers is tragic.

Throughout the Julia’s narrative we get a snapshot into the life of Sara Starzynski, the daughter of the family whose home Julia is moving into. Sarah, at age 10, leaves her home on July 16, 1942 with her parents. Her younger brother, only four, hid in the secret cupboard, and Sarah, expecting to return soon, locks the cupboard door and takes the key with her.

De Rosnay writes a moving tribute story to the children who survived the French round up and the holocaust. Her characters experience ups and downs, in a break from what seems to be traditional approaches to this kind of story, where it ends in utter grief or else complete triumph. For de Rosnay’s characters, you wrestle with the same dilemmas they do, the moral obligations and the emotions. It’s a story that let’s you know what’s coming, but makes you unable to believe that it will–and to me, those are some of the best kinds.

If The Book Thief deserves a place in school literature for depicting the Holocaust, I think Sarah’s Key should be on the shelf right next to it. They are vastly different books, showing opposite ends of the spectrum. And yet, they are moving, and Sarah’s Key gives some insight into the challenges survivors must certainly face–survivor’s guilt, rebuilding a life when everything has been destroyed.

Based on a true event, I think de Rosnay is successful in creating a touching tribute to all the children who were involved.