Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Writer’s Glossary

In true Wiki style, I encourage you to add your own terms and definitions in the comment section. Together we can build a useful compendium for future generations.


IRONICALLY OBVIOUS: A typo in your manuscript or query letter that can only be caught four minutes after you hit send.

DELUSIONS OF FIRST DRAFT GRANDEUR: The erroneous belief that your first draft is good just the way it is and will not require revision.

SCRIBBLOTOPIA: A time, place, or alternate dimension where you'll finally be able to focus on your writing. Ie., a place that does not, cannot, and shall not ever exist. See associated listings under, UNICORNS and DELICIOUS, NO-CAL CHEESECAKE.

DEAD-DOG EDITS: Those revisions you will only undertake if someone is threatening to shoot your dog. Or not publish your manuscript.

AMBIVALENT VERBOSITY: When you keep changing the same sentence or word back and forth between two options, neither of which you really like.

BITCH SLAP CRITIQUE: When someone unleashes a torrent of snarky comments on a first draft for no reason other than that they’ve mistaken cruelty for honesty.

RED-FACE NOVEL: Your first novel, which, in retrospect, you now realize was embarrassingly awful.

ADVERBIAL CO-DEPENDENCY: An appalling addiction to or reliance upon adverbs. Often found in aforementioned RED-FACE NOVEL. Difficult to treat. Heavy doses of REJECTION have proven effective in many cases, however.

COMPOUND DISBELIEF: The feeling you have when you read a book that got published and you can’t for the life of you understand why. Characterized by one or more of your bones protruding from your skin, generally your skull.

CRITIQUERY: The art of acting like a pretentious jackass in a writer’s workshop or similar setting. Eg., by talking down to others using concepts or terms picked up that one semester spent in art school or otherwise behaving in a superior, tiresome way.

THREAD TROLL: That guy who pops up on certain writer’s forum threads who -- in response to expressions of frustration -- feels the need to tell you to either grow up or give up, and if you don’t like it, too bad. That’s publishing for you.

EDITORIAL EMESIS: The point you reach during revisions when you simply cannot look at your manuscript for one more goddamned second without puking.

TONGUE TRANSPLANT CANDIDATE: A person who’s bitten his tongue one too many times in response to someone’s drunken cocktail party assertion that they, too, having been thinking about writing a novel. Especially someone who writes for young people and who hears how much “easier” that is than writing for adults.

SLOWER THAN A CONSTIPATED GLACIER: The rate at which space-time passes while you’re waiting to hear back from agents or editors about the status of your project.

MAGICAL EFFING JACKRABBIT: An idea that you chase and chase, thinking it will lead you somewhere fantastic, but instead it only leads you down a dark hole full of spiders, worms, and voles.

NARRATIVE TARPIT: Where your plot gets stuck and eventually dies, leaving behind its bones for future paleontologists to study.

REJECTION: All you have ever known.

HYPE JOCKEY: A person who gallops to undeservedly good sales on the back of a horse called Overly-Hyped.

GOING DOWN WITH THE HYPE SHIP: What happens to an author when his/her book sinks under ruinous reviews because readers are ultimately disappointed that the book wasn’t the next Twilight, like the cover blurb claimed it was.

PULLING UP A SEAT TO THE CARDIAC SMORGASBORD: When you are eating your heart out about someone else’s agent, book deal, sales figures, movie option. A continuous state for most writers. See cross-listing under, NORMAL.

THE NEXT BIG THING: Probably not you.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Cutting of Slack: Why You Get None on Your First Five Pages

Me and my analogies. I’ve got them squirreled away in every drawer in my house. Half the time I’m looking for a pen or some Scotch tape -- can’t find it. Why? Because my junk drawer is overstuffed with analogies.

But I’ll hold off on the analogy for just a wee bit so I can properly introduce today’s topic, which is, The First Five Pages. Or, perhaps, more accurately, The First *&^%$! Five Pages. We hear about them all the time. They’ve got to be top notch. Unforgettable. So irresistible they cause agents and editors to have that 4-hour problem you hear about on those Cialis commercials.

Yeah, we kinda get it. First impressions and all.

And yet we ask ourselves why? *headdesk*

Why? *headdesk again, only harder*

Why? *OK, now my pupils seem to be dilating ominously*

Why are agents and editors so hung up on those first few pages?

Who among us has not said, “But once you get into the story, it really gets going...?” Or we point to any number of popular books as examples of slow-starting novels. Matter of fact, I’m reading a book like that right now. The plot has advanced maybe five microns so far, and I’m on page 156. There’s so much backstory, there’s no front story. But I’m soldiering on.

Which brings me to a revelation regarding the first five pages and to my analogy du jour.

First, the revelation. When you write those first 5 pages, you must remember this: You are writing for a hostile audience.

OK, maybe hostile’s too strong a word.

On second thought, no, it’s not, although the audience isn’t hostile in the sense that they’re mean or aggressive. It’s just that they have no incentive to “give you a chance” if the writing isn’t justifying that chance right off the bat.

And now for that analogy I promised. It’s Susan Boyle.

You remember her, right? She’s that dowdy British lady who sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent and then her performance got 5 bazillion hits on You Tube. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I loathe every aspect of musical theatre. I’ve never even seen Les Misérables because all that singing sounds like a lot of melodramatic caterwauling to me, but I do believe her performance on that talent show is the finest example of artistic triumph you’ll ever hope to find. Here she is, waddling out on stage to openly expressed derision, and within 2 minutes, she has that crowd eating out of her hand.

That’s kind of what those first five pages have to replicate.

You’re writing for an audience that is tired, possibly cranky, and has been thoroughly disappointed. Repeatedly. And, yes, they’ve heard, “But once you get into the story…” a million dang times.

Agents and editors are not normal readers. They’re professional readers. The bar to grab their attention is way, way up there. Like, take a left at the International Space Station and you'll come to it in another few miles. I’m not saying it’s right, it simply is.

So the question is, how do you do that? Grab their attention, I mean.

Well, that’s for you to figure out. And you will. You’ll just need to revise, condense, and distill googolplex times to get there. And polish until your right arm is twice the size as your left and you can answer the question, “Why would the reader care?” with a non-stop volley of bitchin’ prose.

Easy? A thousand times no.

But this is exactly why I wear a helmet when I’m in revision mode. So I don’t cause any long-term damage to my pretty little head when it hits the desk over and over and over....

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Every Day I Write the Book

You've heard that song, right? It’s by Elvis Costello.

I realize it’s actually about some dude trying to convince this girl that he’s the right guy for her, and the book-writing thing is just a metaphor and all that. But, hey, it’s got a hooky little refrain, and when you’re a writer, there ain’t a lot of songs about writing out there, so I’ll take what I can get. And I like the song for what it is anyhow, which is why it's on my iPod. 

A couple weeks back, I read this profile of Monsieur Costello and in the article, he mentions that he never thought much of “Every Day I Write the Book.” He wrote it quickly and effortlessly, and pretty much its success left him shrugging. 

(Incidentally, I read this profile in the New Yorker, not in Spin magazine, which I’ve mentioned before that I get for free because Spin quite possibly believes I run a fan site for this wacky Japanese punk band, Rock in My Pocket. And wouldn’t I just be the coolest if I WAS running such a site, but I’m not. Don’t tell Spin this, however, because I don’t want them cutting me off.)

Anyway, back to Elvis and his indifference to what became a big hit song for him.

I thought, huh, that’s interesting. The implication of his reaction seems to be that because he didn’t work very hard to write the song, he didn’t think it deserved the attention it got.

It got me thinking about how sometimes you write sentences, scenes, chapters and you toss them off without much of a thought. Others you slave over, agonizing over every single comma, spending hours choosing the perfect adjectives like they’re diamonds being set into the queen’s crown. And inevitably, when you have critique readers give it a once over, they love the stuff that took you no effort and couldn’t care less about the sections you sweat blood over.

There's a great short story about just this phenomenon.* Here’s the nutmeat for you: Every few months a photographer puts together a portfolio of his best work and takes it to an art dealer, hoping to make a sale. The art dealer looks through everything and decides to buy some of his photographs but not others. There is one particular photo that the photographer is fixated on – it’s of a panoramic, alpine vista -- and every time he brings in his portfolio, he includes it. But the art dealer has repeatedly refused to buy it, and finally the art dealer asks, “Why do you keep showing me this photo? I’ve already told you I’m not interested in it. Why can’t you let it go?” And the photographer replies, “I can’t let it go because I climbed a mountain to take it.”

Does it matter how much work you put into something? Is that what makes it good? Sheer effort? I guess the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. (Irony's a real pain in the arse, isn't it?)

What’s the hardest scene/chapter/story you’ve ever had to walk away from? Did you come to that conclusion on your own or only after some “This is an intervention”-type critique group experience?

*Unfortunately, like many short stories, the gist has stayed with me, but I can’t remember the name of the writer or the title of the story. I spent the better part of three hours searching through my short story collections for it yesterday but to no avail. My apologies to the author, whoever you are!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Back in Black

I’m still scratching my head about the plot of Inception, which I finally got around to watching New Year's weekend, but otherwise, I have no complaints about my vacation. I did a total Internet detox and stayed unplugged for a full ten days. It was good for my liver.

Here's what I got for Christmas:

Back in Black on CD: Because you can’t get it on iTunes and because I want to personally put more money into the Angus Young Self-Inflicted-Concussion Recovery Fund. That guy has got to have whatever is the equivalent of shaken baby syndrome for lead guitarists, and I need to know he’ll be looked after during his retirement, whenever that day may come.

I used a pair of stunt feet for this photo.
Black Converse All-Stars: I’ve had several pairs of these in my lifetime, but I haven’t worn them in awhile. I’m sure I’m too old to be wearing 'em now, but you know what? I don’t give a good goddamn. There’s got to be some advantage to being a writer, and I think I’m long overdue to cash in some of my eccentricity chips at the casino window. Maybe next year someone will give me a white Fedora or better yet, a monocle.

A first edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: I’ve decided that I’m going to start telling people that I work as a Stay-at-Home Bomb Defuser. This is why I must work in total quiet, without interruption. Maybe then people will get it. Maybe then they will think twice about disturbing me. In fact, next time someone knocks on my office door, I’m just going to call out in a tremulous voice, “About to cut the green wire. Keep your fingers crossed!”

Better than a light saber
Oh, and how could I forget? I got one other gift that I'm certain will transform my life for the better. It’s this thing here, which is a device that supposedly smooths frizzy hair.

Just so we’re all clear, my profile picture? It’s a giant lie. A complete hoax that I’ve perpetuated on the unsuspecting public. If I had an ounce of genuine courage, I’d post what my hair really looks like. I once had to delete almost all the pictures of a trip I took to Seoul just because I could not face the sight of my own hair in its natural state. I ruined photos of imperial palaces, that’s how bad it was. (In my defense, the Korean peninsula is officially the worst place on earth for someone prone to humidity-induced frizzy hair syndrome [HIFHS]. Second to that? Washington, D.C., which is where I happen to live.)

I will buy just about any kind of snake oil that calls itself “frizz control,” despite the 100% failure rate of these products. No doubt what I need to tamp my hair down is something designed by NASA, maybe some futuristic polymer as yet undiscovered by science or mankind. Something distilled from Martian polar soil and returned to Earth by robot probe once every 4 years and then blended with dried marmoset saliva. Let me know if you've got any leads.

Anyway, my profile picture was taken within hours of returning home from a haircut, and I’m fairly certain the hairdresser laminates every strand of hair for me. I have no idea how she gets it so straight. I am embarrassed to admit how much time I spend trying to tame my unruly mane. I’m sure I could have gotten several doctoral degrees and really advanced the state of my kung fu by now, but instead I’ve thrown away years of my life smearing unguents on my scalp trying to get my coif to not look like Muppet hair.

Though I consider myself a hyper-realist in all other aspects of my life, when it comes to my hair, I still believe like Linus in the pumpkin patch on Halloween night that whatever new hair intervention I try, IT WILL FINALLY BE THE MIRACLE I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. And this hair-smoother thing I got for Christmas – yes, this will do the trick at last. I’m sure of it.

And that’s where I begin 2011. In a willfully hopeful state. Wearing Converse low-tops and listening to Back in Black while re-reading Virginia Woolf.

How about y'all? What are your irrational hopes for 2011?