alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

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Right Mind

Broken House by cindy47452 on flickr. This picture makes me feel the same way as a house I drive by everyday.

Broken House by cindy47452 on flickr. This picture makes me feel the same way as a house I drive by everyday.

I’ve been trying to get my writer’s house in order lately, trying to organize the forces of the universe in my direction. It’s not that I think feng shui is going to make me the next Meg Cabot, but more like I’m trying to see my obligations beyond putting words on the page, and do the right thing.

This week, I finally sent that thank-you letter for the conference scholarship I received in June. I sent out two stories for submission, not because I think they’ll be accepted, but because sending out stories is the right path and I’ve neglected it.

Along those lines, Tayari Jones has a really nice post about what to do with feedback on your work. It starts and ends with gratitude to your readers, but in between there are practical suggestions like “listen to the vibe of the comment as much as the specifics” and “when you love something that one of your readers hates, just sit with it for a while.” I’m going through a couple of revisions right now, and it is not my favorite fun time. Reading her post makes me feel calm and serene, yet powerful, like I’ve just had a great yoga class.

And while that universe alignment may not be working for me, at least it’s working–a good friend is on the verge of selling her first novel. Glad to help.


‘Childcare’ by Lorrie Moore

Paul sent me this story because, he said, the voice reminded him of my stories. Because I am trying to do my duty by the short story, and because I am desperate–not so much to know how my writing looks to others but how it would look to me if only I could see it–I read it over last Saturday’s breakfast.

Reading fiction I admire, I sometimes fall into fits of despair because I know, deeply, that I could never write sentences like the ones on the page. They just wouldn’t come out of me like that. The arrangement of words is unexpected, the content unfamiliar, the tone rotated 15 degrees, and it is a million light years from anything that would occur to me. I end up thinking ‘If this is good and I can’t do it, then what I can do must not be good.’

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

The first sentence of ‘Childcare’ is:

“The cold came late that fall, and the songbirds were caught off guard.”

This is a sentence I can imagine myself writing. Score one for Paul.

Other possible similarities I can see would be in the humor (I loved the bit where she uses her roommate’s vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. I would do that to a character.) and the way people talk across each other, making motions through conversations without ever really connecting, and possibly the end, where I was not sure exactly what had happened (or failed to happen) but I was sure it was bad. Long, sad, inevitable and to be endured. So, what do you think, Paul, were these the things you meant? (It will be perfect if you say ‘Not at all’.)

Other things I noticed about the story was how slow it started off, with the main character meandering around the cold winter streets, something I would be prone to do, but which I would feel was not permitted. I talked about this story with another writer this morning, and she had the same reservations. Because we are amateurs, we don’t know–is it still wrong if someone famous does it, if it is published in the New Yorker?

I was annoyed by the early passage describing the narrator’s Midwestern background, the menu & customs in the German restaurant, how the wines came in ‘red, white, or pink’.  It seemed not only too easy to make fun of these things (an amuse bouche of smug satisfaction for sophisticated New Yorker readers before the main course of yuppie adoption ennui?) but too knowing for the naive and protected voice of the narrator.

Did I like the story? With short stories I can never tell. I laughed a few times. I recognized the characters as people I have seen, if not known. But I don’t know if that adds up to enjoyment.

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The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I started listening to Sarah Waters’ new book The Little Stranger on Friday last week, while I was doing reluctant battle with the rowing machine. Usually audiobooks are exercise-only entertainment.  This weekend I snuck in an extra chapter while toiling over the litter boxes (we have 5 cats – it takes a while) and tuned-in again while driving to work today (time usually reserved for off-key singalongs to ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ and other filmi classics.)

I’m on the 3rd disc of 13, and nothing has ‘happened’ in any great plot-forwarding sense. I could care less. I want constantly to go back there, to be there– ‘there’ being tumbledown Hundreds Hall in 1949 — with the doctor, and Caroline, and watch the wallpaper peel as the days go by.

This is supposedly a ghost story and I’ve been having fun looking for the tiniest crumbs of supernatural foreshadowing, which are both few and shy. There has been no apparition, no bad luck, not even a feeling of unease. If I weren’t pre-fixed with the notion of a haunting, I doubt I’d even catch them.

I usually don’t listen to authors I enjoy this much-I want to savor them on the page, but I came to Waters through audiobooks – first with The Night Watch, then Fingersmith, so I decided not to interrupt a good thing. I think I’d listen to Waters no matter what subject she writes about. She is a storyteller, in the old-fashioned way, like Trollope or Austen or Ursula LeGuin. It doesn’t matter what she’s saying, I just want her to go on saying it.

But don’t you like the UK cover better?

The Little Stranger UK cover

The Little Stranger UK cover

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Ideas of Heaven – Joan Silber

Manuel Muñoz recommended this to me as an example of a short story that covers a long period of time.

It starts with the narrator’s childhood, and puts her world in context. Her father is fighting in the U.S. Civil War and while he is away she dreams he speaks to her from heaven. Then it jumps through to her courtship and marriage, but each event, each stage of her life is given establishing detail and grounding before we move forward to the main events and location of the story — remote, provincial China, in a missionaries’ compound.

Manuel noted that despite the potentially alienating aspects of the story (the historical setting, the unfamiliar nearly unimaginable location, the strong religious mission of the narrator), his students were really into it.  These elements are told without exoticization, as matter-of-fact and directly observed (did the author read genuine missionary accounts? She must have.) This is a (long) short story, but the events had the inevitable flow of a novel: there is love and marriage, decision and travel, birth and death, friendship and betrayal, politics and disaster. It’s all chronological order, none of it is flashback, and none of it feels rushed or shortchanged.

But theme is always there, always surrounding the characters, from the ghostly father in the beginning, to the children discussing heaven (The daughter would have flowers in hers, the son would have goats), to the final image of carrying our own death within us like a pregnancy, waiting all our lives for our death to be born. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Kick-ass.

This story would make a fabulous film. So much must be cut from a novel, to make room for the slowed-down time of a movie. But this could be done scene-by-scene, all events included, only slightly elaborated, and it would come out at a smooth 110 minutes. Do I say this because of that last scene, because I can see it in all the shouts and dust and swirls of color, I can see the lush cinematography, the pathos of the dying shot?

Damn. I think I liked this story. There’s a lot to be learned here.


What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been busy making myself really tired.

First was the IUWC, which involved early morning classes, afternoon workshops, evening readings, lots and lots and lots of manuscript reading, and regular mortgage-paying, catfood-buying work somewhere in between. My story was discussed on the only day when there were 3 people on the schedule (other days were just 2) which made me a bit cranky, but my workshop leader Manuel Munoz was kind enough to discuss my piece one-on-one afterwards, and that’s where I got the good idea for revision. It’s a big idea and it’s going to involve ripping out huge, essential chunks of the narrative but I’m so sure it’s right that I’m almost excited to do it.

The best part about the conference is geeking out with other writers, and this year was no different. I got to know some local writers better, and met some cool new ones. I’m always canvassing for new members for my regular writing group, so at times I feel like I’m doing a PBS fund drive without the free coffee mugs and Michael Flatley DVD. Julia Glass was completely hysterical at the final night’s readings — not what she read, but the stories she told beforehand. British writers are mean to American writers, apparently.

After that it was jet-setting away to NYC for green-tea margaritas (sounds appalling, actually delicious), riverside walks in the pouring rain, and chole bhatura on Oak Tree Road (drool). I even saw the crazy clouds in Manhattan on Friday night. They looked like low-hanging cotton balls, round and individual, textured and full of weight. Everybody was stopping in the street and taking pictures up between the buildings with their phones.

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock on flickr

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock/flickr

Now that I’ve had enough adventure in two weeks for the whole year, I’m going to go to sleep.