Category Archives: Writing is Life
When I started writing Death and the Mason Jar, I had four primary characters around whom the story revolved. The cast of characters, as well as minor ones, came from all over the globe, as would be necessary in a book that deals with death and the imaginings of what comes next. It’s funny and dark, and poignant at times. I love this story more than I’ve ever loved any other (although I think I say that a lot.)
In the course of the story, the characters brush across old gods and folklore–who also need a place to go when they’ve been forgotten, the only true death of such beings–and one of them was a Jewish trickster character that I loved so much, he ended up being a character.
This hasn’t sat well in my writerly brain.
I’m big on diversity in my work. I don’t want everyone to be generic, or Italian/JerseyGirl/Connecticut housewife. As long as I’m not appropriating a culture, writing everyone as people, not as “insert ethnicity/ culture here,” I feel like I’m good. But I moved from writing a piece of folklore personified to a real being with a past and a motive and complicated culture. Long before the recent RWA and American Dirt fiascoes, this character has been making me squirm. Since these events, I’ve thought even harder about him, about his evolved place in my story. I’ve even dug in my heels (as some writer friends and my daughters can attest to) and declared I wasn’t changing my story to suit this uproar.
But I’m changing my story. My character. Not because I fear the uproar, but because I agree with it wholeheartedly, and have from the moment my character stopped being a folktale and became human. It took all that’s been happening–and will continue to happen, I hope–to push me into truly seeing it.
I’m keeping the character’s basics, and changing his ethnicity to one more in keeping with my own background. The result excites me entirely, because I can keep his backstory, his motives, his actions, but now they have more depth, because it will go from the poignantly obvious to the poignant question. The expected unexpected, as Agent-of-wonder Janna taught me. What had sadly become a caricature of someone I could never have done justice to is suddenly, and with only a few changed details, real and whole and entirely right.
Everyone else stays the same. Roland Nader, Emmet Bautista, Maria Violetta Teresa Abundante. And Aggie, with her mason jar. Writing them isn’t appropriating a culture or events I have no real experience to write authentically. They’re right. Absolutely.
The evolution of this book has been nothing short of astounding for me. It frustrates and thrills and teaches me something new on a(n almost) daily basis. I’ve said it to others and I’ll say it right here–if this one doesn’t top The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) I don’t think anything ever will. (Though I think I might say that a lot, too.)
It has been slightly over a year since I started work on Death and the Mason Jar. My writing schedule hasn’t changed much. I have a great premise, fabulous characters, and a handle on all the arcs; I know the beginning, middle, and end. Yet I’m currently writing draft eleventy bajillion, and, so far, haven’t gotten to the end. The novel vehemently opposes category, defies focus, and goes down too many dark alleys where it then gets beaten up and left for the pickpockets. A whole year of wrestling with it, and only about 50K in. For me, who can typically get through a book–outline to final draft–in about nine months, it has been unsettling. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do what I’ve always done. Get it done. Get it right. Get it published.
Until about two weeks ago.
There is no doing what I’ve always done, because this book is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It doesn’t want a label, or a timeline. I got so bogged down in both that it was really shackling me. A couple of weeks ago, while reading Erin Morgenstern’s new (and fabulous) The Starless Sea–a book that defies category, published eight years after The Night Circus–I had a lightbulb moment. I had to let go. Of category. Of timeline. Of everything but the story. And, wouldn’t ya know, my blurry focus clarified.
If Death and the Mason Jar takes three years to write, it takes three years. Or two. Or five. I’ve had seven books published by three different publishers since 2010. It has been awesome, but I’ve never taken this leisure before. None of my favorite authors come out with a book a year, or even every two years. I don’t have to either. So there.
What happens with Death and the Mason Jar, once it’s finished, happens. Or doesn’t. I’m not going to get bogged down in that, either. I can’t. Every time I do, my brain throws a tantrum and sends my story down one of those dark alleys. In the meantime, I’m able to savor the continuing fun of The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses). The German release happens next June. The Slovakian release is sometime after that. It’s not as if nothing’s happening. I’m more fortunate than most, in this writing thing. I just have to remind myself of that now and again. And again.
…show me the glint of light on Daenerys Stormborn’s hair.
There’s this saying in writing–show, don’t tell, and that’s what was wrong with the last couple of all-important episodes of Game Of Thrones.
It’s all over the internet today, how Weiss/Benioff demolished a whole lot of character arcs in their rush to the finish. Maybe they went overboard making sure EVERY fan prediction for the characters didn’t happen. Maybe they are just that clueless. Bottom line, they told us things rather than showed us, and that’s just unacceptable.
The writers, whichever were at the helm for each particular episode, have been dragging along the Targaryen family curse from day one. They tapped it every now and again, but Daenerys has been the champion of the oppressed, the savior of the innocent, blah, blah, blah all along. Right up through the Battle for Winterfell, she has held that role. Two episodes later, she’s burning every man, woman and child–including her own soldiers!–in King’s Landing while her true enemy (Cersei) watches from the Red Keep, untouched. She’s in the god-damned window! For now, you see, Dany is mad. Gasp.
Driven mad by the fact Jon has more of a claim to the throne, by virtue of his noble penis. Driven mad by learning she’s her lover’s aunt, which is no-nevermind to a Targaryen, but is a no-go for a Stark. Driven mad by the fact that while he’s beloved all over Westeros, she will never be. Driven mad by the quick betrayal of one of her staunchest supporters, the loss of her most devoted and beloved Ser Jorah, the death of both her dragonchildren. She’s a woman, you see, and her emotions have gotten the better of her. Oy. Sure, all that could drive most people mad–but in two episodes? Really, not even two, because it was set up in the largely non-eventful episode #4.
There was time to make that all happen and, while I’d have hated it for reasons I’ll expand upon in a moment, I’d have lived with the disappointment, maybe even have found reason to be okay with it. But considering the writers TOLD us–through other characters, mind you–all about Dany’s descent into madness but never showed it to us (outside of a few well-acted moments on Emilia Clark’s part, so kudos to her) and then stripped her of her entire character arc, I just can’t accept it.
And now for at least as big an issue as the writing itself–It’s not just Dany. ALL the women in the story are stripped of everything they are. Everything.
This story evolved from “a clash of kings” to “a clash of queens.” Two women, brutal, ambitious, determined, strong, decisive even when it hurts women, battled for the Iron Throne. One gets a soap-opera ending (? I’m not convinced Cersei is dead) while the other is stripped of everything she was. And then there was Sansa, to a lesser degree, as she fought for Winterfell. Setting aside the, “Without the insert horrific abuse here, I’d still be a little bird,” line (which I obviously have not), in the actual battle, where was she? In the crypt, accepting the fact that, “The bravest thing we can do is be honest.” Bullshit. But ok. I’ll accept that as part of her arc. She’s not a warrior in that respect. But then she swears to her brother (Jon gets to be all kinds of stupid and naïve without ever losing his power, mind you) that she won’t tell his secret, and five seconds later, she’s telling Tyrion.
And then there’s Brienne. Freaking Brienne of Tarth, after her huge, beautiful moment of becoming Ser Brienne of Tarth, gets reduced to a weeping wreck, wrapped in a Stark-style robe, begging Jaime not to leave her. What the actual fuck? One romp in the furs with the magical dick of gold and she’s no longer who she was? LOVE DOES NOT, SHOULD NOT DO THAT TO ANY WOMAN, least of all Brienne. And certainly not in the span of moments! It was ridiculous.
In today’s social and political climate, the women of the story losing the throne, losing their minds, losing their dignity, LOSING EVERYTHING THEY FOUGHT AND SACRIFICED FOR so that the Dude Who Doesn’t Really Want It can have it all stings so hard. And make no mistake, with the burning of King’s Landing, Dany will NEVER sit the Iron Throne. Never. So when she unleashed dragonfire down upon the city, we all knew it was the end for her. A couple of weeks ago, when the women saved Winterfell, we were given a token. As usual. What the men giveth, the men can taketh away. And it’s total bullshit.
Cersei, Dany, Sansa, Brienne, Arya–they all fought as hard, harder, than any man in the show. For their loved ones. For power. For their birthrights. For their honor. And now, with a pale bit of writing, they’re reduced to the same ineffectual female characters too often found in fantasy fiction.
All hail the power of the penis mightier (than the sword–get it? I stole it from Saturday Night Live. Jeopardy parody. Hey, it’s appropriate, in this context.) Maybe Arya (who rode out of Kings Landing on a white horse, no less) will be the one to save the day. Maybe she’ll sit the Iron Throne. Maybe Sansa will come down from Winterfell and do it. Maybe Cersei isn’t dead after all, will rise out of the rubble and reclaim Westeros. Anything is better, at this point, than Jon. (A character I’ve actually liked all along.)
And, to be honest, had all the stripping and demolishing of characters not happened, I’d have been ok with Jon on the Iron Throne. It’s where HIS arc has been going all along. And that’s the thing–all the male arcs have been built, remained consistent, and have–thus far–been believable. Yes, terrible things happen to the men too, so don’t even go there. Seriously, don’t. I remember Theon/Reek.
The old woman’s prophecy said Dany would attain the throne, and turn away from it. But the old gypsy said Cersei would die at the hand of her younger brother (another tidbit that got bandied about for apparently no reason) and that didn’t pan out, so prophecies come to pass as apparently randomly as they do in real life. Red herrings to throw us off the one Arya got from Melissandre, about her closing brown eyes (Walder Frey), blue eyes (Night King,) and green eyes (Dany? Cersei?) being real? Who knows? At this point, a lot has to happen in the final episode, but nothing is going to take the sting out of the way things have gone down these last two weeks.
Being the brutal optimist, I’m still crossing my fingers that a satisfactory ending is in hand, that the writers aren’t flubbing it completely, and have us all up in arms to make that BIG ENDING all the better.
We shall see.
Their worlds and words are a part
of my days and my nights and my
in-betweens. They talk to me while
drive, and sleep. They give me
scenes and dialog and dilemmas; joy and sorrow and
horror. They give me
the impossible, and task me to make it plausible. At least
There’s Aggie and her mason jar, and
Rosemary’s wish, the one she won’t
take back. Then there’s
the woman who runs over the not-quite-a-man, in a town
on the edge
of forever. And crusty Queenie, who
never did much right, who
never thought it quite necessary, who
might manage to do some good.
There’s Yvonne and Jacob, back in 1949,
Bonnie-Jane and Hannelore, in 1985. And still,
in stories written and always calling, Nell and Ledanora,
Mabel and Frankie and Tracy. Back and back, to
Ethen and Zihariel, Linhare and Wait. There are
warriors and queens who knock on my skull–Remember us?
I do. I do. How can I forget? You were once
my everything. The foundation of
my everything. The beginning of
If not another book gets published, I will
write and write and write. There will be
mutiny, otherwise. Inside my head. In
dreams and waking. I’ll walk about like a character
from Wonderland, quite mad and rather glad to be so. Better
than the knowing, the abandoning, the void of a well
left to dry.
I prefer the parade never end, a continuous loop, of
characters and places already known, and those
slipping the red-ropes to join in, unannounced but
always welcome, to dance their dances and sing their songs, to
tell their tales and ask for my assistance in
ditching the parade for
I got to be the guest of honor at another Senior Book Club yesterday, out in Stratford, CT. I love these groups. The insight, the wisdom, the open and genuine comments, questions, and understandings. They make me know I did a good job writing people their age in The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses). I get them! And they get me.
One thing that has cropped up time and again is a certain character’s uncanny cleverness, her ability to think and act quickly, her calculation. It doesn’t seem believable, or even feasible that a woman of her age and experience could come up with the plans she does, in the time she does it in.
I find this infinitely interesting, and slightly disheartening.
When I create a character or situation–unless it’s fantasy–I make sure there’s at least one instance I know of to give credence to a character trait, or a circumstance. There’s an adage that goes something like, “No matter what you can think up, there’s been weirder/sadder/horrific…er.” In the case of this character, I’ve known young women as clever, as calculated, and as quick as my character. They exist, most certainly, and outside of literature and movies.
We have no issue believing in Hermione Granger’s brillaince, but she’s from a fantasy world. Lisbeth Salander (Dragon Tattoo), but she’s a psycho. How about Young Sherlock Holmes? Hmmm…why is it so hard to believe? Is it because she’s female? Beautiful? Young? Too otherwise ordinary? All of the above?
I painted my character (Tressa) as a sheltered southern belle who looked and acted–outwardly–as one would expect. But I showed her doing things outside of that facade. In her background, she went to college when women of her place in society typically did so only as a “husband major.” She not only got accepted into college, but into a major largely reserved for men. She went out in search of her brother the moment she came into her inheritance at twenty-one, against her family’s wishes–something she’d been planning and working towards since she was little more than a child. Before she ever stepped foot on the page, she manipulated her circumstances, and the people she was supposedly obedient to, without anyone being the wiser. By these things alone, her cleverness should have been evident. When she does all she does in the body of the book, it comes off–to some–as unbelievable that a young woman her age could not only think it all up, but pull it off.
There are other questions that always come up–What actually happened to Enzo? is a big one. The question of my clever, cunning Tressa is one, I suppose, that strikes me as a surprising thing to question at all.
It makes me wonder how many others thought the same thing, and why. To be clear, I never have an issue with any nits or picks a reader has–all opinions are valid, whether or not I agree. It’s their take on things, from their perspectives. When I get a question, or read a review that gives me better understanding into minds that don’t think the way mine does, I’m truly grateful. It’s all fodder folks! All fodder.
Life has been a bit of a whir since June. We sold the house, The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) released. We moved. I’ve done author events with several book clubs and library groups. We went down the shore with our daughter and her family, and some friends. Frankie D and I went up to Bar Harbor, where I did an author talk/signing at the Jesup Memorial Library (gorgeous library, amazing town.) Just this past week, my son and his girlfriend came in from Portland for a (always too brief!) visit. They flew out this morning.
In between there were reviews, and lunches with friends; a wedding, family gatherings, and, of course, setting up my new home. Writing has been sporadic at best. For me–a writer who has written most every weekday, 9-4 since 1994–it’s been unsettling, to say the least. Now, next week, I head down to Myrtle Beach, a trip I’m really looking forward to, but it’s another week of no writing, making this shortened week less than productive, too.
Or is it?
I started a new novel back in April. There are two storylines, one that takes place in 2009, the other in 1947. The stories link through two characters–young in 1947, old in 2009. It’s been a struggle to get the two storylines to play nice. I love them both, they just didn’t seem to want to fit together.
And that’s because they really didn’t. Maybe it was all the upheaval, the enforced time away from the writing of it, but this novel proved to me today that it’s actually two. One’s not a sequel to the other–they’re entirely separate novels.
I’d written over 100K words in two and a half months, and the original book was nowhere near done. In trying to integrate the novels, they were both losing something of their voice, their heart. Now I have two novels in progress, and I adore them. The 1947 novel–Thirty Days Dancing at the Edge of the World–comes first. Then St. Simon by the Sea will get its turn. The novels still connect via those two characters, but the connection won’t alter the storylines in the slightest. It’s my hope that, if a reader reads both, they’ll take on an added depth. We’ll see. Maybe I’m just spouting nonsense.
One of the reasons I decided to post this is due to a question I get, every time I do a Q&A with a reading/writing group: Do you ever get writer’s block?
I’ve come to understand that what I experienced with this book that ended up being two, and pretty much every book I have ever written, is what some consider “writer’s block.” I never quite realized that until recently, and I think it’s because I never let it actually “block” me. I chip away, come at it from different angles, and I’m not afraid to shred it all to bits. It makes me get more creative, and tenacious. Writers who hit these walls and let it stop them call it writer’s block. I call it…something else.
Writing can happen in a wave of euphoric genius of putting words on a page that we never actually remember thinking; or it can be the above chipping, shredding frustration. Sometimes, we have to work for our art. No pain, no gain? Yeah, that works.
So, no–I never suffer writer’s block. Never have. Never will. Because if I ever come to a point wherein I won’t put in the necessary effort to get past it, it’ll be because I’m done writing. Period.
I rarely bring up Goodreads or Amazon reviews here on this page. It breaks an unspoken rule, and that fourth wall between writer and reader. Do you hear a but coming? Today, I found something amazing in the review section on Goodreads, and it struck me so completely I had to immortalize it here.
(Not the full review–just the pertinent part)
“What is real; to what extent do we live our fictions; what should be real? Wonderful characters whose souls are stirred by death and words and a past built upon more words and immortal youthful misdeeds. […]this is a book for the spirit and the mind. It is also a paean to the passing of an age of great authors who lived immortally, if not tragically. Kudos to DeFino. I call this category of fiction, Quixotic Drama.”
Quixotic* Drama. As Linus Van Pelt is prone to exclaim, “That’s it!”
This is exactly what I do in all my writing, whether fantasy, romance, fairy tale, or contemporary fiction. Quixotic drama. I have a name for it now. And you know what the old tales say about naming something–there is power there. Great power. I can already feel it thrumming in my fingertips.
In googling the term, I see it’s not quite unique to the world, though I don’t find it in reference to fiction. Whether a thing or simply new to me, it’s magical. The connection to Don Quixote, in all its facets, pretty much says it all.
exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.“a vast and perhaps quixotic project”synonyms: idealistic, romantic, visionary, utopian, extravagant, starry-eyed, unrealist unworldly.
Just putting this here, for posterity’s sake. Dreaming August won the Rone Award for best Women’s Fiction, 2017. For anyone wondering what the Rone Award actually is, look here. Otherwise, just gaze upon my pretty star. Hehee!
Thanks for all the kind words, well wishes, and congratulations! I am still basking in all your love.