July 30, 2010

Rabid Reading

What I’m Reading Today:  A little bit of Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  I really like the first pages.

My lovely mother-in-law Jean is visiting for a few days, and one of the things that is so great about her is that she reconnects me with reading in a way I sometimes forget in the day-to-day toil of things. I mean, I know I’m passionate about reading, but to see someone else from the outside who is just as rabid restores my faith in human nature.

I’d say three-quarters of our conversations are about books. She belongs to two or three (or four?) book clubs and she reads all the time and she travels with at least three or four books and a book or two on tape. You know how writers struggle to tell you what their book is about? Well, Jean is that person who can tell you the plot, characters, and bigger themes of any book just off the cuff sitting across the kitchen table. She’ll tell you her favorite quotes and the reactions of others in her book club. Who liked it and why. Who didn’t. It’s fascinating and makes for great conversation. And it makes me want to read every book she ever talks about, not that I need the encouragement.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom everywhere about the end of reading as we know it. The Kindle, the Nook, the iPad. The percentages of readers and of those reading long forms like books are dropping. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever. Blah, blah, blah.

But when I see the intense look on Jean’s face when she talks about books, all the negative nabobs melt away. This is why we read. This is why we write. Because it moves people and connects them and makes them feel and takes them out of their daily lives. When you read, you are a kid again, all a-wonder at the world.

Questions of the Day: Are you hopeful about the future of books? What say you?

July 29, 2010

Writing a Novel

Crazy day today, so I think I'll post one of my favorite E.L. Doctorow quotes.

"Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

~ E.L. Doctorow

July 28, 2010

Barnyard Biliousness

What I'm Reading Today:  Some technical documents.  Sigh.

Today, something a little lighter.  A poem I wrote in college.

Barnyard Biliousness

Love, like a chicken, is the finest of fowl.
Invariably oblivious, not wise like an owl.
Inconstantly peckish, perky, and proud,
It sits on its wits and cackles out loud.
Dove-like it coos, and hawk-like it squawks.
Leghorns are mild, but beware Bantam cocks.
Claws are like razors.  Rip you to shreds.
Befuddled, the farmer the rooster beheads.

Questions of the Day:  I don't write much poetry, though I have in the past.  Do you write outside your comfort zone?  Is it helpful?

July 27, 2010

How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 2

What I’m Reading Today: More Bone Fire.

In part 2, I wanted to talk about what I feel made the difference in my search for an agent. Many of these are things that people have been saying for ages, but I have also found them to be true. Please take them with a grain of salt ~ these are things that helped me. I hope it helps others.

In General

Not one big thing. In my experience, it wasn’t one big thing that got me an agent but, instead, a whole bunch of small things. This means, in practical terms, that we just need to keep trying different things, keep doing research and brainstorming, keep learning, keep putting it out there, keep bouncing back. Boy, do I wish there was just one big thing!

Perseverance. The number one thing, I think, is perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. Sheer pigheadedness. I mean, we're ambitious, right?  That's why we're still here.  Maybe it’s just my take on the world, but a large portion of my success (in anything) has come from just being there, showing up again and again, keep putting it out there, finding new solutions or work-arounds. I mean, it took me eleven years! And, while getting an agent is a milestone, I know that it’s just another beginning.

Patience. Sort of a corollary to the last item. The publishing industry is notoriously slow. It all takes lots of time. The more ways you can find to make yourself patient, the better. It always helps me to have a number of irons in the fire. That way, when I get rejected, I have other things to look forward to. It’s all part of my Haystack Theory of Publishing. Also, if you’re sending an impatient or angry followup email, that’s not going to help your cause. I believe in following up ~ the squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all ~ but I think we should be on our best behavior when we do. To give you an idea, one of my partials was out sixteen months before I signed with Rachel, and I’d followed up three times.

Follow up on every opportunity. You know how serendipity will hand you something, and you’ll mean to follow up on it. Say your husband’s best friend is married to an agent. Or you start talking to someone in a bar who loves your book idea and says she’ll send it on if you send it to her. Follow up on it, dang it! Don’t let it pass. It never hurts to ask. Let me give you some examples. I recently read that 9 out of 10 authors fail to return their promo questionnaires ~ a huge missed opportunity. I volunteered at an archive that had a notable author in my genre who was a board member and an active researcher. I asked my lovely friends there if they would forward an email to her. I asked my workshop teacher and mentor to recommend me to her agent. I sent queries for my second book to all agents who included personal notes on their rejections to the first book, mentioning that I much appreciated their kind words.

Jump into online media and social networking with both feet. In industry jargon, creating a platform. You should create a website and/or a blog ~ now, don’t wait until your book is coming out ~ and be on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other places. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons my agency was interested in me. I showed I was capable of being a promo-sapiens. And it’s an ongoing commitment. If you create a blog, you can’t not write for weeks and then announce to the world, “Oh, look, I have another blog post up!” No. You have to blog at least every other day, five days a week. It’s a commitment. Also, keep your website current. Be a good Facebooker ~ don’t just talk about yourself. Interact. Comment and promote others and enjoy it.

Making lots of writer and editor friends. AKA networking. But I don’t think of it in those terms. I just love being able to rub antennae with other geeks just like myself. I don’t think of others as competition. I think of them as a great big groups of fun people who I loved to connect with. But, in practical terms, this also pays off for your career.

Go to conferences. This pays off in so many ways. You improve your craft. You make friends. Your spirits go through the roof. And it gives you so many opportunities in the searching for an agent game. You can pitch agents at conferences. Even if you don’t pitch an agent, you can mention in your query letter that you saw them speak at such and such a conference but that you’re sorry you weren’t able to sign up for a pitch appointment with them. If they give a talk, you can mirror back to them what they said. I went to a conference, and the agent talking said he liked Cormac McCarthy and also was looking to take on women’s fiction. Well, I could say that my style is in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and that I write women’s fiction, as he mentioned at the X conference.

Get published in literary magazines. This sounds like an old saw, but it’s true. Not only does it get your name out there and increase your platform online, agents read them. It helped me keep Rachel interested, and I also received an invitation to submit a manuscript to a fabulous big-name agent. I was not able to follow up on this fabulous opportunity, as he requested an exclusive, but it was worth it in ego points alone. Who doesn’t want to hear that someone else liked their stuff?

Get an MFA. I don’t have an MFA, but I have friends who do. It paves the way like nothing else will, especially if you go to a big-name school. In some cases, agents come knocking at your door. I have a friend who went to a top-rated MFA program and then also attended a top conference every year. Without sending out a single query, she had her pick of four or five agents for her short story collection, and this with having only two or three stories published.

Learn about the industry. Read agent and editor blogs. Listen to agent interviews. Obsess. Do research on AgentQuery.com. Get a subscription to Publishers Lunch at least, if not Publishers Marketplace. Lay awake nights and wonder what you’re doing wrong.

Be polite. Don’t be the difficult person. Be persistent, but be pleasant.

The Manuscript

Revise, revise, revise the manuscript. It needs to be as perfect as you can possibly make it. Resist the urge to send it out immediately upon finishing the first draft. Resist mightily. Find as many ways to polish it as possible. I wrote and revised my first novel for six years. I wrote and revised my second novel for four years. For suggestions to help revising, see the following.

Read craft books. I can’t tell you the number of great things I’ve learned from craft books. Halfway through my first book, I stopped and thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Then I read a gazillion craft books. I still read and reread them. It helps.

Get feedback on your writing through friends and critique groups and workshops. Prevail upon your friends. It’s nice to have your family tell you how good it is ~ we all need that ~ but it’s more effective in craft terms if the feedback is from another writer. If you have a critique group, great! Or take a novel workshop. Or take an online workshop. Or go to a conference that has a novel workshop. Get feedback on it as much as possible.

Have a professional freelance book editor give you feedback. Preferably one who has been in the industry. If you’re going to pay good money (as much as $2,500 for a good one) for a book doctor in order to get published, make sure that editor knows about publishing. If you’re just looking to get feedback on craft, that’s great. It’s fine to pay a writer who’s also an editor. But if you’re trying to work toward publication, it makes sense to get an editor who knows about publishing. I plan to use my freelance book editor for all future books, hopefully before I send it to Rachel (depending on my finances).

Things in your manuscript that put up a red flag for agents. Every writer goes through a natural progression of learning craft, and there are craft things that mark you as someone starting out. I think you can get away with one or two of these (calling your writing literary, one misspelling), but they add up quickly. Click on link at the beginning of this paragraph for an elaboration.

Sometimes it’s time to move on. Sometimes, you’ve learned everything you can from a book and it’s time to put it away and move on to another one. They say it usually takes two or three or more book manuscripts to get an agent. There came a point when it was time for me to move on from my first manuscript. Now, going back, I can see its flaws ~ though I couldn’t at the time ~ and I’m planning to rework it.

The Query Letter

Do a whole bunch of research on writing a great query letter. It is the most exacting genre there is next to the resume. One word will make the difference between getting a request and not. There’s a lot of great blogs and resources out there. Take advantage of it. Read Miss Snark’s query letter Crap-O-Meter ~ she commented on something like 99 query letters, talking about what was working and what wasn’t. I’d pay special attention to the ones in your genre.

Revise, revise, revise. When you’re not getting requests for partials and fulls, revise it some more. Still not? Revise some more.

Get feedback on your query, preferably from other people who’ve been trying to query or people in the industry. I went to a whole conference devoted to crafting a query (Algonkian), and I posted mine on an agent blog who was having a contest to give feedback on queries, where mine won a spot and received feedback. I also asked the freelance book editor who went over my manuscript to also go over the query letter.

Some basic stuff. Use her or his name. “Dear Ms. Smith:” Do not mass email to a bunch of agents. Do research on whom you’re sending to. Personalize each query. By that, I mean, read their website and any interview and somehow mention something very specific that they said. Use their wording. Think about it: You’re trying to seduce this person. You’re looking to get a partner for life, much like a marriage partner. Is quantity going to get you into someone’s heart? Nope. Quality. Personalization. Making a connection.

Check your spelling. This seems like a no-brainer, yet agents say that they get queries with lots of misspellings.

Don’t try to be cute or funny. You may feel a connection to an agent because you read their blog, but do not give in to temptation to be funny. Business formal only.

Previous connections. Mention right away if you have a referral, if you had them in workshop, if you went to a conference they spoke at, if they included nice words in their response to a previous submittal, if they are your cousin’s inlaw.

Follow guidelines. For each and every query, read their guidelines on their website and follow them to a tee. Also, you can get a lot of good information on AgentQuery.com.

Play by the rules. Don’t be that guy who thinks that breaking the rules will get you in. It won’t. It’ll just irritate people.

I’d recommend sending queries out in batches. Maybe ten at a time, every month or two. Aim your query high and low. New agencies and new agents at established agencies are good places to query for new writers. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace and sign up for Publishers Lunch Deluxe and pay attention to the announcements for new agents.

Follow up politely. Give them the amount of time they state on their website. Or, if they don’t state it, I’d give them three months for a query, four months for a partial, and six months for a full. Repeat (politely) until you get a response. Don’t take it personally.

When is it time to give up? I don’t know. I think some people would’ve given up way before me. I queried 128 agents on my first manuscript and 62 on my second. Maybe that makes me a slow study. Like I said, pigheadedness is sometimes my greatest asset.

I hope this helps! You can do it!

Questions of the Day: What do you think? Do you disagree with anything I suggested? Anything you’d add? I’d love to hear from you!

July 26, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 8

What I’m Reading Today: I started Mark Spragg’s Bone Fire. He’s so amazing. Like Kent Haruf, the pace of his novels are so wonderfully slow and inexorable. He captures my Wyoming so beautifully. If you get a chance, read his memoir Where Rivers Change Direction ~ amazing. He grew up not far from where I did and under similar circumstance.

Okay, a very disappointing week for the Summer of Shitty First Drafts. I didn’t even get a line down. In my defense, I had a very busy week last week. (Excuses!) I signed with an agent, revamped my website, created a new blog, and researched platforming, in addition to, you know, taking care of twins and my husband and working my regular job. But, still, excuses!

The story I was going to write was called “Cindy.” It was taking the fairy tale “Cinderella” and converting it to a modern structure with scenes and interiority and an ambiguous ending. I thought it would be a hoot to write.

Boy, sometimes I wish I weren’t so pathologically honest!

Questions of the Day: Have you ever tried anything like my experiment with SSFD? How’d it go?

July 23, 2010

How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 1

What I’m Reading Today: Lots of websites and things about social networking and platform.  I miss fiction.

Big announcement!

I signed with a literary agent this week! The lovely Rachel Oakley at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. I am just so thrilled! It’s been eleven years in the making.

(Since this initial post, my agent as D&G has changed to the lovely Rachel Stout.)

I thought I’d make this a two-part post. In today’s post, I’ll tell the story of how it happened. Monday I’ll report on SSFD, as usual, but then Tuesday I’ll try to pinpoint the things that made a difference in my search. So, without further delay …

Once upon a time, way back in 1999, I started writing my first novel. It was the summer between graduating with my undergraduate in English and starting grad school. After timidly taking my first writer’s workshop, I had convinced myself that maybe, just maybe, I had it in me to write one.

This first novel, Earth’s Imagined Corners, is women’s fiction set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. It’s the story of Sara, whose father tries to marry her off to his younger partner, only she elopes with a kind man, James, whom she just met and who, though she doesn’t know it, just got out of prison. It’s based on the lives of my great grandparents.

It took me six years, until 2005, to write the first draft. I would write furiously for two weeks, a month, and then life would get in the way or I’d come to a hard part. Then I’d put it aside. Once I had a complete draft, I got some friends to read it, and then I revised and revised until I didn’t know what else to do.

I crafted a query and started sending EIC out in November of 2005. In a testament to optimism over stark reality, I sent it out to almost a 130 agents, plus about 20 small presses, with minimal response. By minimal, I mean only one request for a full and maybe a couple of requests for partials. I know now that my query letter wasn’t that good and that the first pages of the novel had red flags ~ switches in points of view, boring scenes, an unlikable character, and other things. One very kind agent in Canada requested a full and wanted to take me on, but her partners didn’t agree. She asked for an exclusive too ~ so long months of waiting. I finally gave up on this book in 2007, but you’ll be happy to know that I’ve resurrected it and am now deep in revising it and making it sparkle like sunshine on water.

In the meantime, I’d moved on with writing. I’d also been writing short stories, which really really helped me with craft. Then, in August of 2005 I started the current novel, the one that got Rachel to fall in love with it. It’s called Deep Down Things (at the moment). Set in present-day Loveland, Colorado, it’s about a naive young woman Maggie who falls in love with an idealistic writer named Jackdaw. She helps him write a book, and they get pregnant and then get married. However, because Jackdaw is so idealistic, he doesn’t respect her because of it. Then they have a baby boy named Jes who has spina bifida, a severe birth defect. Maggie tries to save her marriage and her baby. It was inspired by something a friend went through.

I finished the first draft in March of 2007, so a year and a half. I had a great deadline ~ I wanted to do a mentorship on it at the Tin House Writers Conference, so a lot of it was written in the early months of 2007. I don’t know how but I landed a great mentorship there with an editor at a big New York publishing house. She was so kind. I have to say, at that time, the manuscript was in sort of a mess ~ first person in four points of view and also two different time frames going concurrently ~ but she pointed out what was working on a large scale and on a small scale and what could be changed. “Do more of this ~ characters not just in the moment but also reflecting on what it means,” she said. “Even though you’re in first person, it has to be a little more toward third person. Less asides.”

I wrote and revised. I kept the four points of view but made the narrative linear. I made sure each of the characters had his or her own arc and distinct voice. Because of my initial structure, I had the beginning and the end written but not the middle. I took the book to a couple of more conferences and got more advice. I revised. I made connections with editors and agents and writers. I went to the wonderful Algonkian Writers Conference, which is all about figuring out publishing from an agent’s and editor’s point of view and looking professional and honing your pitch. Heck, it’s about basic things, too, like making sure you know what genre you’re in and you’re sticking to those conventions. Michael, who leads that conference, gave the name of a kickass freelance editor who used to be an in-house editor, and she went through the novel again and gave me the full editorial treatment. I urged her not to spare my feelings ~ tell me what’s working and what’s not. She did such a great job, and I paid her a lot of money but not as much as she deserved. (Many things in this process, like conferences, cost a lot of money.) I revised and revised, including changing the title (it was called Loveland) and the ending.

In March of 2009, I started sending my query out to agents. I started with top agents and agents who represented things like what I write. I immediately got requests for partials and for fulls, but then they all came back with “You write really well, but fiction is a tough market right now.” I received invitations to submit my next project. I kept submitting, ten to twenty agents at a time, every month or two. I kept my ear to the ground and submitted to newly established agents and agencies. I also followed the great advice of submitting to new agents at established agencies ~ I have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, so I scanned that every day and collected names and submitted to them. One of those new agents was Rachel.

I submitted to Rachel on January 8, 2010. She requested a full on January 14. Then, the evening of Friday, February 19, I got this fabulous long email from her. I read along and she said all these wonderful things about it and I kept reading, waiting for the “but …” The but never came. She suggested some changes and said she’d love to see it again. Over the weekend, I addressed all her changes and sent it back to her on Monday. As she reviewed it, we exchanged friendly emails about other things, at her initiation. She took another look at the manuscript and then had some other agents take a look, but then on March 25 she rejected it! I had started to become convinced that she was The One, and it was kind of heart-breaking. She was so encouraging and wonderful in her rejection email. But I understood why she had done it ~ as everyone was saying, it’s a hard market for fiction right now, especially literary fiction. I sent her an email saying that I’d much appreciated her enthusiasm and I understood. That was that ~ so I thought.

Then in late May, Rachel emailed me to say that she’d come across a story of mine that was recently published and that she really liked my writing. This begins a great series of emails about what we were reading and about cowboys and the West and her being from Australia, once again at her initiation. I really enjoyed our conversations, and of course it was balm to my craven writer soul, but I didn’t really think that anything would come of it. Then, she emailed that she’d been talking to the primary agents in the agency, Jane and Miriam, and they’d read my website and liked my voice. Would I send the full again? Of course I would! Throughout this process, Rachel kept me updated with small emails saying they hadn’t forgotten about me. She got back to me when she said she would.

Then, on July 15, Rachel emailed me to say that nothing was definite but that they might have some very positive news for me. AACCKKK!! But, you know what, at this point, I really wasn’t believing it. I was so hoping, but I didn’t think it would happen. Then, last Monday morning, Rachel called and offered representation! I accepted of course, after emailing the other agents who had partials and fulls. I couldn’t be more thrilled and honored!

Rachel is my dream agent because she is so smart and so enthusiastic about my work. She’s responsive and professional and part of a great agency that’s helping put out such fabulous books. I am so lucky.

Questions of the Day: What’s your agent story? How did you get your agent? Have you had some close calls? Are you just starting out?  I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to add your comments!

July 22, 2010

The New and Improved Blog!

So why didn’t you guys all groan and tell me how dysfunctional that old blog was? Uh, by that I mean that the functionality of that blog sucks. Though I really like the design.

So ~ ta da ~ a new blog! I decided to switch from WordPress to Blogspot. Sorry ~ that means you’ll have to update your links and your feeds. I really am sorry. But I think you’ll like the new one because it’s a lot easier to use.

OLD blog ~ http://www.tamaralinse.com/blog.html

NEW blog ~ http://tamara-linse.blogspot.com/

I will keep this old blog up, though, so our old links will still work, and there is a link on the new blog to this one.

Tomorrow, I think I’ll add a Question of the Day line to prompt you wallflowers to come out of the woodwork and to bloom gloriously. By that I mean, I would love to see your comments ~ rants, raves, insightful banter, not so insightful banter.

One more thing, I have fabulous news to share, which I’ll write up for tomorrow or the next day! It’ll be on the new blog. Stay tuned!

What I’m Reading Today: Reading? Are you kidding? I’ve been furiously tweaking html!

July 20, 2010

First Paragraphs

Piggy-backing on yesterday’s post, I wanted to talk about beginnings, specifically first paragraphs. They’re on my mind. I’m working on revising my novel, and at the moment I’m cogitating how to begin the thing, because it’s definitely not working how it is. Flat as a skunk on the highway.

So, last night I read the first pages of about 40 books ~ in this case historic fiction or fiction set in the past because that’s what the book I’m revising is. I narrowed it down to the 12 books I liked the best, and then I read and reread them for how they did it, what approach they took.

It seems to me, among these twelve, there were three approaches that really worked: 1) First paragraph reflects the inciting incident and/or major conflict. 2) First paragraph describes an interesting situation that makes you immediately wonder about backstory and about what is going to happen but is not the inciting incident. 3) First paragraph is all about character but in such a skillful fascinating way and about such a compelling character.

I thought I’d give some long examples for you to judge for yourself. I could go way into it and tell you why I love these and why I think they work, but I’ll let you. (I’m actually cheating a bit. I read the first couple of paragraphs, and if there seemed to be a better first paragraph a couple of paragraphs down, I’m using it.)

1) First paragraph reflects the inciting incident and/or major conflict.

First example: Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief

The man arrived after morning prayers. Word spread quickly that someone had come, and the boys of Saint Anthony’s orphanage elbowed each other and strained to catch a glimpse as he unhitched his horse and led it to the trough for drinking. The man’s face was hard to make out, his hat pulled so far down that the brim nearly touched his nose. He tied the reins to a post and then stood there, patting the horse’s neck as it drank. The man waited, and the boys watched, and when the mare finally lifted her head, they saw the man lean forward, stroke the animal’s nose, and kiss her. Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, removed his hat, and made his way across the yard to the monastery.

Men often came for children. Sometimes it was for cheap labor, sometimes for a sense of doing good.


Second example: E.L. Doctorow’s The March

At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her Aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDonough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing up in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.


Third example: Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.

I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door.


Fourth example: James Clavell’s King Rat

“I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.” Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he has spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot. The venom in Grey’s voice snapped Sergeant Masters out of his reverie. He had been thinking about a bottle of ice-cold Australian beer and a steak with a fried egg on top and his home in Sidney and his wife and the breasts and the smell of her. He didn’t bother to follow the lieutenant’s gaze out of the window. He knew who it had to be among the half-naked men walking the dirt path which skirted the barbed fence. But he was surprised at Grey’s outburst. Usually the Provost Marshall of Changi was as tight-lipped and unapproachable as any Englishman.


2) First paragraph describes an interesting situation that makes you immediately wonder about backstory and about what is going to happen but is not the inciting incident.

First example: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of the their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bead to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see the red road and the oak trees and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early for a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.


Second example: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (not the actual first paragraph)

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes water onto them, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint.


Third example: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake ~ not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek of you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough.


Fourth example: Alyson Hagy’s Snow, Ashes

On the last afternoon of docking and branding, Uncle Gene Laury told John Fremont Adams it was time for him to cut a lamb. The man laughed and nodded. They paused to wipe their bloody, shitty fingers on the tails of their wet neckerchiefs. The men believed Adams was big enough now, tall enough to reach the barrabilak with his teeth. And he was ready. He felt like he’d been ready for a long time. He had a good Baker knife with a four-inch blade. He’d used the knife to notch the ears of some older ewes the year before. He pulled the Baker from his pocket, and Uncle Gene checked the blade but didn’t bother to slide it across his oiled whetstone. It was sharp.


3) First paragraph is all about character but in such a skillful fascinating way and about such a compelling character.

First example: Nella Larsen’s Passing

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thing sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender. Not that she hadn’t immediately known who its sender was. Some two years ago she had one very like it in outward appearance. Furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting. Purple ink. Foreign paper of extraordinary size.


Second example: Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (not the actual first paragraph)

He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed on hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slug low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.


Third example: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. ...

The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broken window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.


Fourth example: Salvatore Scibona’s The End

He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb. He was faintly green-skinned, psoriatic about the elbows and the backs of his knees, his shaven cheeks untouched by scars of any sort, faithful to a fault to his daily labors, grudgeless against the wicked world, thankful for it, even; a baker of breads with and without seeds, modest cakes, seasonal frosted treats, supplier to all the neighborhood and occasional passers-through; a reader of p.m. papers, as all of his vocation are, born on the feast of Saint Lucy, 1895; a prideful Ohioan; a sucker of caramel candies when cigarettes he forbade himself from eight o’clock to two; possessor of a broad and seemless brow and a head of sleek black undulant hair, the eyes goonish, unnaturally pale and blue, set deep in the skull in swollen rain-cloud pouches, the eyes of one poisoned with lead, who had not in all his days addressed apiece of speech to more than two persons at once, a looker-right-through you if he please, as cats look ...


The end of the examples. It strikes me now, rereading them, that they are all the small true thing.

What do you think? Which ones are your favorites? Are there other first paragraphs that stick with you?

Passing

I think I’ll talk about two things today, as they relate to one book: How the first line or paragraph of a novel presages the whole and also about the writer’s passing.

Have you ever read Nella Larsen’s Passing? A classic. If you haven’t, you really should. Nella Larsen wrote during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. She was born in Chicago in 1891, and her mother was Danish and her father was black from Saint Croix. She’s a wonderful writer but also a tragic figure ~ despite critical acclaim and even a Guggenheim, she quit writing halfway through her life and shunned her writer friends.

Her book Passing is about childhood friends Irene and Clare. They are both grown up at the beginning of the novel but they’ve lost touch. Irene lives comfortably in a black community, but light-skinned Clare has chosen to pass for white. However, Clare is attracted to danger, and she starts spending more time with Irene and the black community, despite having married a rich white racist. She is in danger of being found out.

Here’s how it begins:

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thing sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender. Not that she hadn’t immediately known who its sender was. Some two years ago she had one very like it in outward appearance. Furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting. Purple ink. Foreign paper of extraordinary size.


In addition to being one of the loveliest paragraphs ever written, this paragraph does something that I think a lot of great novels do ~ it presages the whole. A first line and paragraph has to do so much. It has to grab the reader by the throat and pull her into into it immediately. It has to be interesting and perhaps the most well-written of the whole book. It certainly takes the most work. But also, a great first line and first paragraph hints at what’s to come. It can be a metaphor for character or a hint at the ending.

In this paragraph from Passing, Nella so skillfully encapsulates the character of Clare in the guise of an envelope. Clare is not ordinary. She’s exotic but illegible. She’s long and thin, mysterious and furtive. And then those last lines, that home run ~ peculiar, determined, flaunting, purple ink, foreign paper of extraordinary size. That’s Clare. And it also gives hints of the tragic ending. Oooooh. Just gives me chills, the exquisite craft of it.

Not that we don’t have enough to worry about in our first line and first paragraph!

So, to my second thing, which is that writers pass. Passing is a term for light-skinned black people who try to pass for white, but of course it’s much more complicated than that. Though a person may be called black, some of his or her parents or grandparents may be caucasian. So even the term black or African-American is misleading ~ in the case of racism, criminally misleading.

But I’m getting off topic. What I mean to say is that, as a writer, you have to fake it all the time. You have to pass for someone you aren’t. You have to convincingly walk the walk and talk the talk. You may not be a dentist, but you have to sound like one. You may be a man, but you have to convincingly write from a woman’s point of view. You may be caucasian, but you have to people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than yourself. Heck, writing a murderer is probably a huge stretch for most people.

So, we’re all passing ~ and hopefully doing a good job of it.

What I’m Reading Today: Been skimming some writing craft and advice books.

July 19, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 7

It’s the seventh week of my challenge, the Summer of Shitty First Drafts. I accomplished the goal this week, but I have to admit that I cheated a bit. All’s fair in love and war and writing, right? Kidding!

Instead of starting from scratch this week, I took previous material and added to it. In addition to (struggling to) accomplish the SSFD challenge, I’m working on revising my first novel ~ not the one out to agents right now but the first one I wrote. So, instead of starting from scratch for SSFD, I took a particularly exciting chapter from the novel ~ one that I thought I might cut out completely but I loved too much to let go but have since changed my mind and it’s still in. I’ve been revising it for a short story. I haven’t got it final yet, but I’ve been revising and adding to.

The story is called “The Kaw,” and its first sentence is “It rained and rained.” It’s set in 1885 and is the story of an itinerate carpenter named Ed who is helping his sister and brother-in-law build a house in Kansas City. The walls are up, but because of a cold and wet winter and spring, a huge flood builds upriver and crashes down the Missouri River and the Kansas River, or the Kaw, and comes together right there in Kansas City where the two rivers converge.

It’s pulled from the novel Earth’s Imagined Corners, which is women’s fiction set in 1885. The novel is about twenty-two-year-old Sara, who is a naïve but dutiful daughter and a competent hostess, but when her father tries to force her to marry his younger partner, she must choose between the partner, a man who treats her like property, and James, a kind man she hardly knows who has a troubled past. She and James elope to Kansas City and try to make a life.

I’m deep in revising the novel right now. I was all set: I had decided what I was going to do. I would cut a bunch of it, including Ed’s point of view completely. Get rid of the mom dying and the twin brothers and drastically cut and revise the first quarter of it. I got Ed and mom all cut out and started rearranging the beginning and then I had a crisis. Wait! What in the heck am I doing?

I had to stand back and think about what the story is really about. Is it merely about the relationship between the two main characters, Sara and James? Or is about more than that. It’s definitely about more than that. Then my friend Nina gave me the advice, trust your instincts, and my instincts were screaming, don’t cut it! So, though I’m still not totally sure, I’m going with it and keeping a lot of it.

So, juggling!

What I’m Reading Today: Manuscripts.

July 16, 2010

Resistance

Is it human nature to resist doing what we love? I know a lot of people who, when faced with doing something they love vs. doing something they should, they will always pick the should, not the love. I mean, even if it’s something as silly as picking up the living room vs. driving to get some ice cream. Even if the love thing doesn’t cost much and takes nothing but time and the should thing is really not that important. They put obstacles between themselves and what they love.

It of course has applications to writing, though writing is more complicated because it can be a love/hate thing.

One of the big ways I see it apply to writing is the way people get into writing. They don’t do what they love. Instead, 1) they deny that they love it, 2) they consistently put other people and other things first, 3) as they get pulled toward it, they find related things to do to fill their time (e.g., if you want to write fiction, you do book reviews because, you reason, it will give you publicity and get you closer to where you want to be, instead of just facing the music and doing it, dang it), 4) when they finally admit it to themselves and have time to do what they love, they find as many excuses not to as possible.

So what happens is that people spend years getting around to it. They rationalize themselves out of it instead talking themselves into it. They fill their time with related tasks but never screw up the courage or give themselves permission to just go for it!

I say, as one who is very guilty of this, go for it! Don’t put up obstacles. Embrace who you are and what you love!

What I’m Reading Today: More drafts of my and my friends’ work.

July 15, 2010

My Husband Discovers Poetry

Here's a poem I heard years ago on the Writers Almanac that I keep taped up by my desk.

My Husband Discovers Poetry

by Diane Lockward

Because my husband would not read my poems,
I wrote one about how I did not love him.
In lines of strict iambic pentameter,
I detailed his coldness, his lack of humor.
It felt good to do this.

Stanza by stanza, I grew bolder and bolder.
Towards the end, struck by inspiration,
I wrote about my old boyfriend,
a boy I had not loved enough to marry
but who could make me laugh and laugh.
I wrote about a night years after we parted
when my husband’s coldness drove me from the house
and back to my old boyfriend.
I even included the name of a seedy motel
well-known for hosting quickies.
I have a talent for verisimilitude.

In sensuous images, I described
how my boyfriend and I stripped off our clothes,
got into bed, and kissed and kissed,
then spent half the night telling jokes,
many of them about my husband.
I left the ending deliberately ambiguous,
then hid the poem away
in an old trunk in the basement.

You know how this story ends,
how my husband one day loses something,
goes into the basement,
and rummages through the old trunk,
how he uncovers the hidden poem
and sits down to read it.

But do you hear the strange sounds
that floated up the stairs that day,
the sounds of an animal, its paw caught
in one of those traps with teeth of steel?
Do you see the wounded creature
at the bottom of the stairs,
his shoulders hunched over and shaking,
fist in his mouth and choking back sobs?
It was my husband paying tribute to my art.

What I'm Reading Today: SEO manuals for work. Sigh.

July 14, 2010

Excrement

As I backed out of our driveway this morning, a pickup and trailer zoomed past me, and I followed it almost all the way to work. The trailer was filled with manure ~ probably being taken somewhere for fertilizer ~ which got me thinking about shit as metaphor.

Excrement has a long history in literature. A couple of examples spring immediately to mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses created such a furor in its time because it dared to follow Leopold Bloom into the outhouse, among other reasons. But how daring! All facets of life can be fodder for great art, and Ulysses is undoubtedly great art. It’s experimental, it’s challenging, it references the icons of western literature, it is grounded in experience. I mean, what greater ambition than to make a day in the life of common men equivalent to the trials and tribulations of the Greek hero Odysseus. And to apply radical honesty to the narrative ~ rather than glossing over great parts of the human experience, it’s all there, practically unmediated.

It also reminded me of “Speaking of Courage,” a short story in Tim O’Brien’s iconic collection The Things They Carried. In it, a Native American man nicknamed Kiowa is hit by a mortar round and sinks beneath a fertilized rice paddy. Kiowa is sort of the conscience, or most human, of the company, if I remember right. Very quiet. But then that conscience is blasted to hell and drowns in shit. Talk about your metaphors. I heard an interview with Tim and he said, of all the things he experienced in Vietnam, that smell is the one the sticks with him.

The riveting book King Rat, by James Clavell, tells of World War II POWs in the Japanese camp Changi in Singapore. Men die of dysentery a lot in that book. Literally, their lives run to shit. The book is about how some men look out only for themselves and others, despite being on the edge of everything, try to take care of others and how what appears to be the right thing to do may not be the moral thing to do.

I’m sure there are many more examples that just don’t come to mind right now.

But what a great metaphor for writing itself. Excrement is the waste of life. It’s what’s left over from eating, obtaining the energy to go about the business of life. But it’s not just that. It’s also fertilizer that sustains life. So it’s also food in a different form. To explain the metaphor, we writers often take the shit of life ~ the horrible things people do to each other ~ and convert it into (what we hope is) art, which sustains the soul. So it is both our waste and our food. Rather than being depressing, this should be uplifting I think. Another way of saying, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade; when life hands you shit, make art.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Finding Eden.

July 13, 2010

Curling Flower Spaces

A writing exercise today, I think. I’m going to take the first line of a novel and then add onto it. The first line of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I think.

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. Shcock! Shcock! Smell of heat into my head but then dirt smell, too, next to my nose. My body against the cool browness where the dogs like to lay. Then I can see the yellow blur as it touches the gray line and pancakes. Not for long but I can see it. Like the pancakes Baba makes me for breakfast and puts on butter that slides off and melts and then she pours the brown syrup that pushes the butter around. But butter is real and this pancake is not real. So yellow it hurts my eyes. There are dancers’ feet on the gray that move back and forth and stop like teepees. The curling flower spaces chop off the dancers’ feet as they follow the yellow pancake. It’s like this: The yellow pancake against the gray line and then it disappears as the dancing feet on one side move and shift and set onto the ground and the Shcock! and then the pancake again against the gray and the other dancing feet moving and setting and Shcock! It is so pretty the movement and the sound and the movement and the sound. But now something is wrong. The too-yellow pancake is gone and two of the dancing feet get bigger and squeak. They are angry shoes. They are coming.

What I’m Reading Today: Not much. Had some fabulous company.

July 12, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 6

Gosh, I can’t believe it’s Week 6 already. Where is the summer going?! Wait! Aack! I did accomplish my Summer of Shitty First Drafts goal this last week, though I didn’t get a complete first draft written ~ just a little over three pages.

I went to my wonderful dentist this last week, which got me thinking. Years ago, I’d told him I was going to write a story about a dentist, one in which the dentist was not a bad guy. So my visit last week prompted me to start it.

It’s called “Dennis the Dentist” and it’s about a dentist who is suddenly struck by the beauty of the world and takes to sculpting, a natural progression from what dentists do every day. The idea was to follow his arc ~ from sculpting small toothlike objects to experimenting with different media to larger vaguely human-shaped sculptures and then, when he starts working on the teeth of a meth addict, to human decay. Its first sentence is “Dennis was working on an ugly woman.”

I am struck, as I go through this process of SSFD, that I need to rededicate myself to my craft. Sure, I get things accomplished. In fits and starts. But I need to reaffirm my commitment and to assert myself against the world. It’s so easy to do what other people want you to do, to give in, to be an enabler and to act in the service of others. That’s the line of least resistance. But as a writer I need to wrest time away from the world and to police myself, to get the job done EVERY DAY. Every morning, I need to ask myself, when am I going to write today. Even for just 15 minutes. And not just write ~ because I do write every day for my job and for this blog and other things ~ but do the heavy lifting of fiction.

I must be brave, I must work hard, I must prevail!

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Pembroke’s wonderful draft of a zombie novella, Finding Eden. It’s five interconnected short stories told from three peoples’ points of view (unless the last story is from a fourth) telling the story of their journey after the apocalypse to escape the undead and find this mythical place called Eden.

July 9, 2010

Nice Notes

I received such a nice note from a complete stranger this morning. It said she’d seen some comments of mine on Facebook and looked at my work and liked it. She had such nice things to say. It brought such a smile to my face! Now we’re Facebook friends.

Every so often ~ not too often ~ I get these notes. They come like manna from heaven. To have someone you don’t know validate all your efforts and like your work. Wow. It’s much easier to send a note of criticism, I think, to flame someone who’s pissed you off. But to send a thank you, a good job, a note of praise ~ that’s something else entirely.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful The Lie that Tells the Truth by John Dufresne.

PS Have a great time, Tin Housers! I sure am missing you guys.

July 8, 2010

John Dufresne Talks About Writers Block

I’ve started reading The Lie that Tells the Truth by the wonderful John Dufresne. I don’t know why I haven’t picked up this book before. It’s so funny and witty and honest and great. One of the many things John does exceedingly well in this book is makes you feel that you have so many ideas for writing, how could you possibly be blocked. Writing exercises can sometimes seem boring (though that’s a failure of imagination), but John couches them in such a way you want to sit right there and write what he’s talking about. He gives personal stories without being self-indulgent. He lets you behind the wrinkled brow.

I wanted to quote a little of what he has to say about writers block.

Understand that if you didn’t write today it’s because you didn’t want to. You didn’t have the perserverance or the courage to sit there. You lacked the will and the passion. Maybe you don’t enjoy it enough ~ we always find time to do the things we love. Your choice not to write ~ and it is a choice ~ had nothing to do with what has been called writer’s block. Writer’s block is a fabrication, an excuse that allows you to ignore the problem you’re having with your story, which means, of course, that you cannot solve the problem. But it lets you off the hook, doesn’t it? You can tell your friends, I have this strange and debilitating neurological paralysis that affects only writers, and it’s untreatable. I just need to let it run its course. Saying you’ve come down with block gives something else the control over your behavior and conveniently absolves you from responsibility.


I love this! The willful child within us wants to argue, “But what about my tender feelings?” No. We chose whether we wrote today, whether we believe that or not. I like his distinction between there being this thing out of our control and it just being dang hard. Yes, there are all kinds of things pushing and pulling us away from writing ~ the emotional challenge of it, the intellectual, the world pulling us away, and so on. It’s hard to fight yourself and the world at the same time. It takes iron will. Calling it writers block, as he said, is like a kid saying he has a stomache ache on the day of a test. It shirking, cheating, trying to get out of the hard work we have to do. So, no, we aren’t BLOCKED; it’s within our control if we just keep at it.

I’ve always said that the reasons I get blocked are: I haven’t yet got myself to sit down in the chair or I haven’t screwed up the courage or I don’t know enough yet and haven’t done the work to figure out the story or it’s emotionally challenging material that I don’t want to confront or the world pulls me away. But I don’t think I’m going to call it “blocked” any more. I’m going to take responsibility for my own actions. Maybe I’ll call it jabberwocky, defined as my own evil self getting in the way of my art.

Another quote.

Or maybe you’ve lost faith in your material or confidence in yourself. Well, here’s an open secret. You will experience that same uncertainty and uneasiness in the writing of every story.


We knew this in the back of our minds, didn’t we? We keep thinking it’ll get easier, but it doesn’t. Yes, we get better at one thing, figure it out, but then there’s always something else to learn. Like exercise, it doesn’t really get easier. It’s not a craft you can “master,” only keep after.

What I’m Reading Today: John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells the Truth, of course. Wonderful. Coaxing me and goading me in the best possible way.

July 7, 2010

False Expectations

We all know the plot of a romantic comedy. There’s a cute meet, where the couple meet in a cute way. They don’t like each other at first, or maybe they have conflicting interests. Hilarity ensues. But the world forces them together, and they fall in love resisting the whole way. They start seeing each other but then have to break it off. But then in the end they get together and live happily ever after.

Same for a thriller. Guy loses everything, his job, wife, family, etc. Some evil people threaten to kill all he loves and ruin his life if he doesn’t do this thing in a limited amount of time. All kinds of obstacles and car chases and crashes. People die. But Our Hero miraculously, by his own skill and wit and strength, get by with hardly a scrape. He ingeniously outwits the bad guys and wins in the end.

Same for the sitcom. The show starts with situation neutral. Somebody wants something though or does something wrong. Then they lie to someone about it. The rest of the show involves larger and larger contortions to escape responsibility, until they are caught, but everything is forgiven and all is back to situation neutral by the end of the half hour.

These are very strong narratives. They are formulas that have been being remade for decades, possibly centuries. It simulates life in a very satisfying way, with a satisfying happy ending. Consciously or unconsciously, we know how the story is going to go, but the entertainment and delight is in the details.

But is this what life is really like? Very rarely, if ever. Romances aren’t usually “normal.” No one could do the physical stuff that’s in thrillers. Life is messier than a sitcom. Which goes along with the idea that plot puts the art in artifice. However, I think these plots create false expectations about the real world. The real world is not tidy. We don’t get happy solutions to a lot of things. A lot of things go unresolved. That, in part, is the attraction of these plot lines.

But I was thinking, after I finished a beautiful story in the Scribner’s Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American Stories Since 1970 (“Relief,” by Peter Ho Davies), that this is precisely why I love literary fiction. When I was a child, what I read did not reflect my world. That was part of its charm, of course, but that also meant that I didn’t think my world was legitimate. It was complicated and messy and nuanced and unclear. But when I started reading more sophisticated books, I was hooked. These books reflected the subtleties and nuances of life. They end sometimes horribly, sometimes happily, but always with ambivalence and ambiguity ~ like life.

So, I’ve always said that I love literary fiction for these reasons, but I wanted to assert that, though I love the escape of pat narratives sometimes too, they create a false sense of reality and are probably responsible for more dissatisfaction in life than people give them credit for. The false expectations they create (underdog always wins, there is always a happy ending, the body can do these incredible things) probably do a lot of damage.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Scribner’s Anthology.

July 6, 2010

Dreams

I had a dream last night that I was at a great writers conference. Lots of great socializing. Talented writers doing great work. Then, the conference ended and we all dispersed. We were all rushing to catch our planes. Everyone was taking off except me. All kinds of obstacles thrust into my way ~ earthquakes, giant beasts, walls shooting up to the sky. So I missed my plane. I don’t remember being scared so much as very frustrated and sorrowful. I was missing my chance to take off.

You guessed it. This dream is directly related to my writing. Life’s been getting in the way lately, and I haven’t been meeting self-imposed deadlines. I’ve been sick and there’s been vacation and we’ve been doing a thorough housecleaning. Also, I haven’t been accomplishing my SSFD and I haven’t been able to work on the new novel nor revising the old novel very much. Plus I’ve been having some agent interest, and I’ve always met those deadlines, but I don’t want to drop the ball on that front. It’s making me quietly frantic. I feel like I might be missing the boat ~ er, the plane ~ even though there’s no outside deadline that I have missed.

All this means I need to get some writing and revising done. The pressure’s building to get some work done. I just hope it doesn’t have to work up to an excruciating level for me to carve out some time and get busy.

What I’m Reading Today: More great Scribner’s Anthology.

July 5, 2010

SSFD ~ Week 5, as well as the National Dialog

Once again, I fail at the Summer of Shitty First Drafts. Sigh. Still sick until late in the week, and then 4th of July. Bad Tam! I am disappointed in myself.

I did start a story. It’s called “Rosehip” about a young chipmunk in the vein of The Wind in the Willows. She was going meet a young rabbit named Dandy and they were going to have adventures. The first line is “In a long green valley next to a tinkling creek in a dilapidated homestead corral lived a family of chipmunks.”

I vow to mend my ways.

In other news, happy Independence Day, for those of you from the U.S.! I’m reminded of the importance of stories because many of our creation myths are just those ~ myths. They may have an element of truth, such as “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.” Apparently, it was a common thing to say back then before a battle. But it doesn’t matter if Betsy Ross never really existed in the flesh; someone sewed the first flag. It doesn’t matter that Paul Revere was actually two people and maybe not Revere. It doesn’t matter that George Washington did not say, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down that cherry tree.” It matters because, though it is not true in the details, it’s true in spirit either of the time or of the people listening. People needed and still need those stories.

Stories are not just about the tellers; they are also about the listeners and about what the listeners need to hear. It’s like the story of the murder of Matthew Shepard. It was tragic (though maybe not in the pure sense of the word), but it was also a story that struck the national consciousness and needed to be aired. Does it matter that the two men probably just planned to rob him and maybe it wasn’t about being gay, though they probably knew in the backs of their mind that he was? Not really.

You may not know that a 16-year-old pregnant girl named Daphne Sulk was stabbed to death by her adult boyfriend and her body left naked in the mountains just six months before that. Did that strike the national consciousness? No. A week after Matthew Shepard was killed, eight University of Wyoming track athletes in the same car were killed by a drunk driver. Did that make national news? No. Neither of these struck a national nerve. The murder of girlfriends and wives, though a national epidemic, is not on the national consciousness. Drunk driving, likewise.

I don’t say this to minimize what happened to Matthew Shepard. Not at all. I guess I’m saying that the national consciousness and the national dialog has its own needs and truths.

What I’m Reading Today: I idly picked up Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamozov, having never read it. I was thinking it would bore me and I’d just read a bit of it to get a taste. But I couldn’t put it down! It’s very compelling and kind of reminds me of the lovely stories and novels I read as a teenager.

July 2, 2010

Hubris

Following on yesterday’s post, I was thinking about hubris. Also, I was helping my friend Brad Green with his query letter. I met him on Facebook and have enjoyed talking about with him about writing. We’ve had long email discussions.

But when talking with him ~ and with anyone I haven’t known for a long time ~ I’m never quite sure what to take for granted they know and what they don’t know. I try to help, to give advice. I don’t want to come across as a pompous ass but neither do I want to undersell what I’ve spent years reading about and thinking about and learning. Not that I’m a little obsessive.

I sometimes write something on this blog or in an email, and then when I come back to read it later I cringe. God, I sound like a know-it-all. My tone seems all wrong. Rather than sounding assured and wise, I sound pedantic. Then it makes me want to quite writing.

Which brings me to hubris. What right do I have to dispense advice? What right do I have to write at all? Not just advice but the fiction that I love? Why should my take on the world be at all unique or interesting?

That’s the thing. Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe nobody has the right, or everybody does. I shouldn’t worry about whether or not I have the right ~ because if I’m worrying about that, I have a case of the Shoulds, and the first thing that will do is cut off all creativity. That’s the editor/parent/good girl coming to put me in my box. Creativity and writing is about breaking out of that box and writing “the truth” as we see it.

So, know that I write with the best intentions, even if it comes across all wrong. Please read with a forgiving heart, and I will continue to try to be the wise and entertaining party guest, not your weird Uncle Harry who monopolizes the dinner conversation and has to have the last word on everything.

What I'm Reading Today: Looking forward to reading my friend Pembroke Sinclair's next story, "Hank's Inspiration," the third in a collection of four.

July 1, 2010

Character Traits of a Writer

You know, one of the best character flaws to have as a writer is pigheadedness. You hear everywhere that we need to be dedicated, to not give up. That’s where stubbornness comes in handy. Got a rejection? Water off a duck’s back. Got an acceptance. Cool, big celebration, but then move on.

There’s this weird combination of attributes you need to have. You have to have this sort of hubris, this unreasonable optimism in the face of (what others might see as) defeat ~ or, let’s say, setbacks. Hehe.

You also have to have the seemingly contradictory attribute of humility, so that you can take criticism and improve and realize that the reason that you’re not yet published may be due, partly, because you just aren’t good enough yet.

Egoism is in there somewhere too. You have an overwhelming need to lay your soul bare for all the world to see, in hopes that someone somewhere will say, "I like it."

It’s harder to get published than it is to do many many other things in life. It’s harder to find an agent and/or a publisher than it is to find someone to marry, and that’s saying something.

Hardy souls, go forth, be creative, be obstinate, be egotistical, be humble ~ above all else, keep at it.

What I’m Reading Today: More Scribner’s Anthology.