Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Glory of the Bike Messenger

I work in Center City Philadelphia and like any good metropolis we have our share of bike messengers. Particularly in Rittenhouse, where my office is located. Sometimes they almost run me over when I jaywalk and they run red lights, but on the whole we have a pleasant relationship as pedestrian and cyclists. The picture below was taken at the entrance to the park, I walk by every day. These guys and girls have a distinct bike messenger look about them. I can spot one a mile off-without the giveaway bike or aptly-named messenger bag.

Photo by Julius Reeves

They are all tan and kind of dirty. That is to say, not entirely covered in filth, but not clean. They dress in cut-off denim shorts, skinny jeans riddled with holes, or in baggier pants with one leg rolled up. The insanely toned calf exposed almost always sports some colorful tattoo. Maybe it's a giant ankh or Betty Page on a bearskin rug, whatever it is it cost them half their rent that month. A lot of them have dreadlocks and the guys might have too much facial hair. The girls always have colorful hair and a whole sleeve of tattoos. 

Still they're kind of hot. That is to say, not perfectly sexy, but not too shabby either. Maybe it's seeing them in an office building where everyone is wearing business attire and they are so different they break up the monotony. There is something alluring when the monotony is broken. And they definitely do that.

Philadelphia Weekly said, "The small bicycle-courier community in Philadelphia is overwhelmingly male and young, nearly everybody a dropout from school, career or some other mainstream obligation."

In Copenhagen bike messengers are even hotter.

These are the guys that rocked out in garages throughout high school. The ones who were so bad, but so cute nobody cared. They're the Jordan Catalanos whose bands never made it. They are almost rock stars and rebels and they always smell kind of musky. They aren't all hot, but as a group. They've got it going on.

A friend, whose office uses bike messengers frequently, received trading cards for Time Cycle. I had a set. There were pictures of each messenger, complete with fun facts on the back. Nickname, years in the business, weirdest delivery, other hobbies, etc. They were hilarious. Even the pictures were great. Posing goofy on their bikes. Though none of them leaning* which was a real shame in my opinion.

Kind of hot, funny, athletic, brings you things in a timely fashion, what's not to love? Why isn't my protagonist chasing one of these bad boy cyclists? Oh, wait...they are mostly slacker types who smoke a lot of pot and are the older version of those guys in high school who cared more about their band than you and were emotionally unavailable. Making them still emotionally unavailable and moody that their band never made it. They will probably resent you for listening to mainstream music, which they would define as any successful music. They also probably care more about their bike than you.

I exaggerate. Of course not all bike messengers are the way I describe above. I, for one, refuse to believe anything but the best of Mr. Copenhagen. You have to admit it's a weird profession. When it rains, they are still out there, riding through the city. In the snow and ice, they deliver or they don't get paid. Something writers can definitely relate to.

It must be nice to do something they love all day. Some people might think it weird to sit and make up stories 8+ hours a day but I would love that. I wonder, what my uniform would be then, pajamas? If I ever reach full-time writerdom, I will be sure to roll up one pajama leg and work whatever the weather or state of my office.
You can tell this guy is just a model, he's fake dirty and too pale.
No one is fooled, buddy.
Where are your tattoos?

*My So-Called Life reference.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Report Monday: All the Names

Title: All The Names

Genre: Literary Adult

Author: Jose Saramago

Synopsis: Senhor Jose, a clerk at the Central Registry, is a middle-aged bachelor who has no interest beyond his daily routine of issuing certificates of birth, marriage and death. One day he chances upon the records of a woman and quickly becomes obsessed. But as he gets closer, he discovers more about her- and about himself- than he ever would have wished.

Why did I pick it up?: I read Death with Interruptions by Saramago in 2008 and afterwards vowed to read everything he wrote. I like to read different genres and there is a lot of YA on my to be read list, I wanted to shake things up.

Favorite Lines: "As I've already told you, I wasn't myself, I was in the grip of a decision."

"Forgotten mistakes are always the worst ones."

Likes: I love the intrigue created despite a lack of action. Even from the beginning the story moves quickly but it's all Senhor Jose's internal struggle. Above all, my favorite things about the book were the simple yet profound statements about humanity. Like Conor Oberst lyrics, you read the line and it summarizes so much about life but it is so basic, you wonder why you never thought of it yourself. I wanted to quote them above as my favorite lines, but most were way too long. Moments when the protagonist is guilty and  fearful reminded me of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and I love that pulse of a story, the thrill of almost getting found out. Saramago does it very well.

Complaints: I have no complaints. I loved it. However, I will give those unfamiliar with Saramago's writing style some warnings. He wrote beautiful novels, but he made up his own rules. One sentence might contain 300 words--no exaggeration. A paragraph may span a dozen pages without breaks for a shift in topic or for dialogue. He formats dialogue in a unique way. Rather than using quotations or question marks he uses commas. He capitalizes the first letter when someone new speaks and rarely uses periods. Here's an example of a conversation between two people: Hello, how are you, How am I, horrible, that's how I am.

It took me a while to adjust to this shift from the usual formatting, but now I understand without having to think about the punctuation or capitalization. But if you pick up one of his books, don't say I didn't warn you.

Recommendation: This book reads like a lesson in the human condition. Saramago fills pages with the analysis of the smallest actions. Writers should consider reading this and his other novels because afterwards you feel as though you have a better understanding of the world. I know that sounds dramatic, but it's true.

Next Week: The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan

I am so pumped to read the final book in her series.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Inspiration and Writing Prompts

 I've been thinking a lot lately about writing prompts. In October I was perusing Writer's Digest and saw the prompt for Your Story #29, "While remodeling a room of your house, you discover a door to another room you didn't know existed."

Based on that prompt, the contest is to write a short story of 750 words or less. Sometimes I read prompts and pass over them, nothing hits me. No inspiration. Other times there is a spark. On this occasion, there was definite sparkage. I had an image in my head, the beginning of a story. How the door was hidden, how it is found, and a vague sense of who was doing the finding. I knew her emotional connection to the room and that she was alone in the house. I didn't know her name or age but I wanted to meet her. She felt familiar. I started typing. I thought, it would be fun to enter the contest and to write a little something unrelated to my work in progress, which was taking a long time to complete.

After 1,500 words, I realized the story was not going to be told in the length, the contest asked for. After another 1,500, I knew this was a big idea. I didn't have time to work on a big idea. I saved it in my "Ideas" folder and moved on.

Four months later I finished editing my first manuscript and decided to shelve it. It wasn't ready for publication. The more I worked on it, the more I felt I had the wrong character as my focus and that the most of the book is back story. That stings. Unprepared to rework the whole thing, I went back to my "Ideas" folder and resolved to start something new.

The Writer's Digest prompt glared at me. Begging to be excavated.  Two months later, I have a nearly complete YA Fantasy, which has nothing to do with the original prompt. This is the fastest I have ever written and I suspect many months of editing ahead. I am glad I saw the prompt. How else would I have found my story?

Then, flitting around the blogosphere on Wednesday, I stumbled on a picture someone posted and my writerly cogs clicked into motion. In less than five minutes I had a premise for another story, this one would be Contemporary YA. The details came to me so suddenly, I was in awe of, well, I guess I was in awe of myself or of the inspiration.


Where does the inspiration come from? Is my brain getting better at asking the fiction writer's question, "what if?" at every turn, and what appears to be inspiring is really my own acknowledgment of possible answers to that question? Or is credit due to the great prompt writer or to the photographer who snapped the picture?

I don't know where stories are born. Though it feels like they come from a place outside of myself. I don't think I have a say in the matter. Frankly, I don't care. I am just grateful that they come.

I did my best to type up a few paragraphs of the idea and then walk away. I still need to focus on my current project. I love when I am the only one in possession of a story and I am responsible for delivering it to the world. And though, I don't need to know where or how stories and inspiration come into being, I am still fascinated by the flint that causes the spark. It's amazing to me that a few song lyrics, snatches of overheard conversations, or a curvy road through the woods can be the catalyst to tens of thousands of words being written.

Where do your ideas come from?

Places to Find Prompts

Writer's Digest

The One-Minute Writer

Creative Writing Prompts

Young Adult Highway

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Best Scar Story

This post came from a prompt over at  YA Highway...last Wednesday. I am late, okay very late but I couldn't resist posting my best scar story, even if it's overdue. Why? Because I think scars are fascinating. Like Little Bee says in the book of the same name by Chris Cleave, "We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

This is not necessarily a story of survival, rather it is a story of childish stupidity and a good reason not to have desserts for breakfast.

At the ripe age of seven I was an early riser. At least, as far as the rest of my family was concerned. My little sister wouldn't wake up until after my grandmother dressed her sleeping form and brushed her hair. I always suspected her sleep coma was an act but never got proof. On the other hand, I was up, dressed, and ready to go an hour before the school bus would arrive. This gave me time to read The Babysister's Club and Anne of Green Gables

It was common for me to prepare my own breakfast, this usually consisted of boxed cereal and milk. Nothing complex or dangerous. One morning, however, I had a craving. Summer was in the air and when I dressed in lime green shorts and a splattered paint bodysuit (complete with snaps, I was a fashionista from day one.) I had a hankering for an ice cream sundae.

Me, aged 7.
 Everyone was still asleep and I knew they wouldn't approve of my breakfast choice so I quietly went about with the preparations. I used a chair from the dining room to get into the freezer. Mint chocolate chip, I believe it was the white kind. Oh glorious breakfast!

To top off my ice cream I grabbed the glass container of Smucker's Fudge from the fridge. Now here is where I made my first mistake. I put the fudge in the microwave for a minute and waited patiently, counting to 60 along with the microwave timer. I  questioned why the microwave cooked for 60 seconds whether I hit 6-0 or 1-0-0. What if I wanted it to cook for 100 seconds. I figured most people didn't think about seconds like that. At no point, in that pensive minute, did I question my actions.

Today, I know you don't need to heat up fudge for that long, 15-20 seconds would suffice. Also I know you should remove the lid, something I overlooked. When the microwave beeped I rushed to open it and remove the fudge lest anyone should hear. I did what my mom and grandmother always did, I grabbed the fudge with my bare hand, it was so hot I stifled a gasp but I didn't let go until I had already pulled it out of the microwave.

Dangerously delicious

To this day, I swear the container exploded before it hit the tile floor. There was a crash and scalding hot fudge spewed into the air, like a chocolate volcano erupting. A plume of fudge connected with the inner thigh of my right leg. It burned. I screamed and cried and tried to rub it off but it hurt to do anything to it and the fudge was still hot. My mother came running in and I can only imagine the obscenities that tore through her mind at the sight of me in my bright green shorts dancing around crying. Fudge was all over me, the floor, the cabinets. The mint chocolate chip was melting on the counter top. All before she had her morning coffee. I can't remember if I was yelled at or the details of the fudge being wiped from my leg but I was taken to the hospital, where they wrapped my injury in soft white gauze and covered it in silvadene cream.

I had minor burns on my hand but my leg had a second degree burn. To me it didn't look like a burn, it looked like a giant blister. A blister that took up my whole inner thigh. My mom said if I had worn pants it wouldn't have been so bad, but the fudge connected with my bare skin. I remember when the blister popped, I woke up and thought I had wet the bed and didn't want to tell anyone. I am left with a a scar that resembles, in my opinion, the big dipper. As I acquired the scar while preparing ice cream, the humor of this is not lost on me.

To this day whenever I have Smucker's products (more frequently than I should) I use oven mitts to remove them from the microwave.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Report Monday: The House at Riverton

Title: The House at Riverton

Author: Kate Morton

Synopsis: In her cinematic debut novel, Kate Morton immerses readers in the dramas of the Ashbury family at their crumbling English country estate in the years surrounding World War I, an age when Edwardian civility, shaken by war, unravels into the roaring Twenties. Grace came to serve in the house as a girl. She left as a young woman, after the presumed suicide of a famous young poet at the property's lake. Though she has dutifully kept the family's secrets for decades, memories flood back in the twilight of her life when a young filmmaker comes calling with questions about how the poet really died--and why the Ashbury sisters never again spoke to each other afterward. With beautifully crafted prose, Morton methodically reveals how passion and fate transpired that night at the lake, with truly shocking results. Her final revelation at the story's close packs a satisfying (and not overly sentimental) emotional punch.

Why did I pick it up?: I am a sucker for a long story that can keep my attention for 400+ pages. I had this on my list to read for over a year, when I was in an independent bookstore and the woman there recommended it and Kate Morton's second novel, The Forgotten Garden.

Favorite Line: "It is a universal truth that no matter how well one knows a scene, to observe it from above is something of a revelation."

Likes: I loved Grace's voice. Very detailed, easy to fall into the time and place she describes.

Complaints: Parts of the story did drag, for me. I don't usually get pulled into historical settings, unless there is some character making dirty jokes or a rivetting, fast-action plot that somehow weaves in time travel or vampires. For me, certain plot twists, were apparent very early on. It was frustrating that the whole book was built around one event but I loved how the details were sprinkled teasingly leading up to the very end when you get all the facts.

Recommendation: Jennifer Donnelly fans would love this, it reminded me of her stories though Morton's characters are far more refined than the Finnegans. I would still read her second book, The Forgotten Garden, I was told it was even better than the first.

Next Week: All the Names by Jose Saramago

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Not So Lazy River

Janis was on the baggage carousel at the Austin Airport
I spent Thursday through Sunday of last week in Austin, Texas. What did I do there? Well, I avoided red meat, was surprised at the humidity-I assumed Texas had dry heat, I relaxed by the pool while reading about the Zombie Apocalypse, did a few laps in the lazy river, and I wrote over 7,000 words.


I rarely make that much progress in so few days. On average I write 800 words a day. I credit my (almost) supernatural productivity to the lazy river and not having to go to work. I guess both could be summed up as having the time to write.

Always on the job.
 My dream, like many writers, is to survive on my writing alone. Until then, I work in an office crunching numbers. I am in no rush to get published though I dream about it nightly. I never queried my first manuscript because I knew it wasn't the quality I wanted to send out to publishing's gatekeepers.

There is no ticking clock and I am not banking on author super-stardom to validate my life or to pay for my next vacation. However, when it comes to what I do eight hours a day, five days a week, I would rather be writing. My mini-escape helped me see that I can write a lot if I didn't have another job. Maybe that's not too impressive to the average person who may think, I am a writer, therefore I write.

The truth is writing can be hard and between daydreaming which pair of Jimmy Choo's you will splurge on for your first-ever book signing, following fellow writers and potential literary agents on Twitter, reading industry blogs, imagining your book's cover design and reading because you love it-that's how you got into this mess-the actual amount of time a pre-published* writer spends writing can be tragically short. So, I am proud I forced myself away from the pool and got my butt in the chair and wrote for hours and hours.
Lazy River

The lazy river allowed me the time away from writing and reading to just float along. It's important to do this because when you are relaxed your mind is free to wander and perhaps offer up solutions to plot holes, tricky sentences that need reworking or whatever your WIP needs. Also, it is important to remember that we can't write about life if we don't live. That's not to mention relief from the eye-twitching caused by staring at black and white print all day.

I didn't see much of Texas, I stayed at the resort the whole time, but in between trips to the pool and seeking out cool places to write I had the most delicious guacamole ever. Keep that in mind if your travels lead you there.

*Nicer than unpublished

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Word Count: Bigger in Texas

I am back! Wait, you didn't know I was even gone!

Well, I spent Thursday thru Sunday in Austin, Texas. (yee-haw) I got a lot of work done on my wip. I am on track to have a rough draft completed in May. This is credited to my willpower to not log in to the free wi-fi in the hotel room.

Unfortunately, I didn't get anything else done. I didn't prepare blogs, I didn't read any blogs. I barely followed Twitter.

The result-I am lost in a sea of industry news. I will be back to blogging with regularity this week and I will share the good and the bad of my trip.

Can't wait to read what y'all* have been up to!

*I didn't fit in much in Texas.