Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hook Firmly in Cheek

Apparently I’m in an enviable situation that I hadn’t realized was so enviable until I saw people mention it – or, rather, moan about it -- online. 
I have in my possession an awesome critique partner. Like, the BEST. We’ll just call her The Mysterious D. We live on opposite coasts of these here United States, and I will tell you nothing more about her lest you be tempted to try and track her down and steal her away from me. (As an extra precaution I may start moving  her around amongst several safe houses.)

I trust her taste, judgment, and intelligence. She is also a writer, for whom I have great respect, and most of all she tells me the truth, especially when things aren’t working. For example, she’ll write me margin comments like, “NO. Just no,” and then I’ll realize, yes, perhaps I have gone on a bit long here. Or, indeed, this metaphor does suck astronomically. I guess I hadn’t realized. 

Oh, and she's also a professional copyeditor so we're not just talking overall critique, she does full-contact, hard core, line-by-line editing as well. 

Yeah. I know. I owe her a lot, though she has repeatedly declined my offers of a second-hand liver, slightly used airline slippers, and free tote bag as tokens of my esteem and appreciation.

I met her in grad school, and the weird thing is, I might never have become friends with her except that one day, early on in the semester, we were required to attend some administrative meeting. Can’t remember what the topic was, probably something along the lines of, "Just so we're all clear, this MFA you're getting is in no way going to make you employable after you graduate. Please sign this form acknowledging that fact."  

We filed into a classroom, and I was looking for a place to sit and there weren't many seats available. I noticed this woman wearing a very feminine skirt and sweater who was seated in the front row – a row I, in my inimitable slacker way, would usually avoid. But something about her sweater caught my eye -- it was kind of unusual. Then I realized that it had this very loose knit, and I could see through the loops of knitted yarn and what I'd initially thought was a pattern on the sweater was actually this huge tattoo on her back. And somehow what she was wearing – this somewhat girly skirt -- seemed so incongruous next to that big-ass tattoo, that it made my right eyebrow go up, all Mr. Spock-like, and I thought, “Hmmm. Most curious. Perhaps I'll sit next to her instead of that guy over there who seems to be sharpening his pencil with his teeth. And who is, for some reason, also crying.”

So that’s how I got to talking with the Mysterious D for the first time. 

Now, it occurred to me recently (like, just for this blog post) that this is how it is for me whenever I’m starting something new. There’s a host of possibilities about where to go and – referring to my example above -- where I choose to sit. But then, I don’t know, something leaps out at me, some small detail about this or that character. That's the detail that puts a hook in my cheek, and voila! I am intrigued. 

It’s funny to look back and see how a long-standing relationship started. How sometimes something so inconsequential or quirky sparked your interest or caused you to take notice of something/someone you might otherwise have ignored. And a novel is definitely a long-standing relationship, I’d say. 

Of course sometimes things interest you initially, but then you end up wriggling off the hook after a while. Those are the projects that end abruptly after a few thousand words. That hook's got to be well and irrevocably stuck if you're gonna go the distance. I don’t think you can carry on writing a whole novel if you’re not totally enthralled with your characters.

So tell me, what got you thinking about your current project? What about your main character was so intriguing that he/she got you to chomp down and now you have that hook lodged firmly in your cheek? 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


If you saw my post from last week, you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that I’m doing a lot of sitting around at the moment.

Because I have to. 

Because objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and heavily pregnant objects at rest don’t move AT ALL, plus they call out for snacks, drinks, and the remote control, much to the annoyance of their husbands who are, unbelievably enough, still refusing to take adequate (read: full) responsibility for their role in this sorry state of bloated affairs. I’m telling ya, my feet are so swollen at the moment, I feel like I’m trying to lace two heads of cabbage into my Chucks every time I put them on.

But I guess the good thing is that in my sedentary state, I’m getting a lot of reading done. 

Sort of. 

What I’m really doing is engaging in a lot of comfort reading. I do this when I’m hungry for literary distraction, but for whatever reason, am too fragile/tired/whatever to embark on something new. So I open up a few books I’ve read a million times and look through them, somewhat glad for their familiarity, but really, yearning for the novelty and thrill they once brought me.

These are definitely the times I wish I had the power to put myself into a state of booknesia. You know – I wish I could wipe the slate clean and read a well-loved book all over again as if for the first time. 

Wouldn’t that be great?

Alas, we never wade into the same book twice, and for this reason, there are some books that I may never read again because I don’t want to tarnish the memory of the impact they had on me when I first read them. I want to remember the way my brain clanged like a bell the first time I experienced them.

Back in college, I took Italian, and our Italian professor was this very enthusiastic, courtly gentleman in his 70s. Midway through the semester, he encouraged us to attend a performance of an opera that was touring campus in order to expose ourselves to the glories of Italian operatic artistry. 

A couple of us went, mostly out of sense of duty because he was so thrilled that we could share in this experience, but, you know, I was nineteen, and it was opera, and my Italian at that point allowed me to understand phrases like, “My pants are yellow,” or “Where may I obtain a headache tablet?” So, a lot of it was lost on me. Plus musical theater generally… I just. Can’t.

At the end of the performance, our professor asked us how we liked it, and whatever our collective response was at the time, we must have communicated that we 1) didn’t; and 2) were sorry about that fact. He said, “Well, opera’s a different experience when you’re older. You'll see. When someone sings about heartbreak, you feel a whole lifetime’s worth.”

And so it is with books. As time goes on, the text is ever the same, but the reader is not. Sometimes you get more out of a book, but sometimes you get less. Or at least, you never again experience that revelatory rush or thrill upon successive readings. Which is why this booknesia thing is an exercise in wishful thinking, of course. 

Still, I ask you: What book do you wish you could read all over again as if for the first time?*

And if I’m asking that question, I really should ask this as well: Would you want to be the person you were the first time you read it?**


**No way, man.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Make Sure You Read the Fine Print

I’m going to be dropping a lot of names in this post, so put on your galoshes and watch where you step.

Kari Lynn Dell, the fair if somewhat dusty jewel of the Montana ranching world, took a break from her hogtying and elegant wordsmithery to pass on the Stylish Blogger award to me last week.  

Aw, shucks, Kari Lynn. That was right kind of you. I tip my hat to ye, ma’am. (You've got to speak cowboy around Kari Lynn or else she doesn’t know what the hell you’re saying.)

Incidentally, Kari Lynn should not be confused with my other favorite Montananian Blythe Woolston, the acclaimed YA novelist, who does not live on a ranch but instead makes her home in an abandoned missile silo. (OK, hold the phone there. I may have gotten that wrong because those missile silos are in the Dakotas, now that I think about it.)  

Long time followers or even casual observers of this blog are aware of my avowed laziness when it comes to blog awards. I’ve received a few from some kind blogger friends, but the only one I’ve ever posted was from Meghan Ward. Alas, during my minor blog renovation this past December, I misplaced the award she gave me. I think I might have thrown it away by accident when I was putting the recyclables out.

But here I am, trying to be less of a spoilsport this time, and the terms of acceptance for the Stylish Blogger award indicate that I must post seven things about myself. Which I may or may not do. How about I’ll compromise and commit to posting at least five things? OK, maybe six, although I'm going to cheat by conflating item #1 with the post I was planning to do about chucking a novel idea that I’d been thinking about for months. Oh, and then I must pass the award onto four deserving bloggers.

Off we go then: 

1) So here’s why I’ve recently thrown this manuscript idea over: I realized that certain of my tastes are not representative of say “average” or “normal” readers, and I finally saw that this ms idea I had was not going to appeal to a wide audience or even a wide-esque audience. Not that that’s a huge problem – I’m used to being on the sidelines of popularity -- but let’s just say the target audience would have been a very nichey niche indeed. Like, imagine all the people who might be simultaneously interested in particle physics, water polo, and advanced techniques for breeding pygmy llamas. That group of people – a group that would probably fit inside a phone booth if phone booths still existed -- would probably be double the size of the group of people who’d likely be interested in the subject matter I was thinking of writing about. So out it goes. For now. Perhaps I’ll try it again in a few years when the world becomes a little more evolved and receptive to hearing about the beauty of pygmy llama breeding.

2)      As the co-owner of a money pit lovely, older home, I've had to become well-skilled in the renovation arts. I do respectable finish carpentry, paint like a pro, and my dry-wall patching is so expressive and beautiful, it frequently reduces grown men to tears.   

3)     I’m unable to follow when people spell words out. If someone starts spelling a word – say, because they don’t want their young kids to understand what they’re talking about -- I cock my head to the side and look confused.

4)      I’m prone to horrible, debilitating motion sickness and therefore must drive – never ride as a passenger – in most moving vehicles. Even planes and trains can make me queasy, especially if I try to read while aboard. It sucks, I tell you.

5)      Back in the days when I pretended to be a magazine journalist, one of my assignments involved going to the Presidential Archives and listening to the famous 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes. Why did they send me to do this? Because the Archives had just made public some previously unreleased bit of chit-chat from the Watergate era, and some editor in NY had a bee up his schnoz that there was some missing piece of information that no other journalist in the entire Washington press corps had yet laid claim to in twenty or more years of investigation. The editor wanted to know what conversation led up to the 18-minute gap, even though we tried to explain to him six ways to Sunday that the tapes were pieced-together excerpts, and there wasn’t this continuous stream of revelatory conversation that could finally expose once and for all exactly what Richard Nixon had been discussing before the tape was erased. But the NY editor wouldn’t let it go and so finally one of the Washington editors relented and said, “OK. FINE. If you don’t believe me, we’ll send someone out there to listen to the damned tape!” So off I went, journalistic low-man on the totem pole that I was, to listen to what came before, during and after the 18 MINUTES OF SILENCE. So, yeah, I had to listen to the whole gap itself and then report back on it. I’m sure there’s some existentialist point to be made about filing a report on nothingness, but I’ll not make it here. Let’s just say that this one moment pretty much sums up my whole experience as a reporter.

6)       I’m nine months pregnant.*    **

All righty then, that’ll do it. Though there are many, many deserving bloggers out there to whom I could send this award, I must select only four. I hereby bequeath the Stylish Blogger Award to:

  • Mary Whitsell at Resident Alien (and that’s “alien” as in the ex-pat sense of the word – not the Roswell, NM-the-government-is-hiding-something-at-Area-51 sense of things)
  • Dianne Salerni at In High Spirits, who is a licensed blimp pilot (OK, not really, but I had to say something to distract myself from making a derogatory comment about Pennsylvania, where Dianne resides; I have issues with Pennsylvania because it's a very large land mass that always seems to stand betwixt me and wherever I want to go and let me tell you, they do a lot of road construction in PA. A LOT. I think you can actually major in road obstruction -- er, I mean construction -- at most PA colleges and universities.)
  • And (alleged) twins Renee Collins and her “sister” Diana, who is not a figment of Renee’s imagination AT ALL, over at Midnight Meditations.

Ladies, I’m sorry I don’t have a decorative sash and bouquet of orchids for you, but just know that I think you all make the blogging world a better place.

*Yep, it’s true. I’m approximately the size and shape of the Death Star right now. Actually, picture the Death Star in a maternity top with horizontal stripes and that’ll capture it pretty well. Perhaps there will be more information on this shocking state of affairs to follow in future posts. You’ll just have to come back next week to find out.

**Only the righteous Sierra Godfrey was aware and of this fact until now because she herself is knocked up, and we’re due within weeks of each other. She hasn’t breathed a word to anyone, which I think should qualify her for a high level security clearance. So if you have any state secrets or nuclear launch codes lying around, she’s the gal to share them with. I can vouch for her trustworthiness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Praise of Boredom … and Men

A couple of months back I came across some famous writer dude’s list of ten things you need to do if you want to become a successful fiction writer. One of them was, “Don’t have kids.”

The reason for this particular line item, I suppose, is that kids are a big time-suck. OK, fair point. Still, I’m assuming that this “don’t have kids” thing was facetious, although maybe it wasn’t. If not, hmphf. Shows what he knows.

I take issue with the premise that time is strictly the problem when it comes to writing. It’s not. I agree with the competing philosophy that we always make time for the things we love, no matter how busy we are. 

No, what you really need to be creatively fruitful is this: BOREDOM.

That's right. Crushing, sigh-inducing boredom. Boredom is what lends itself to creation. Alas, I do think guys have an advantage over women in this area because, generally speaking, the male of the species is a lot better at being creatively bored than women are.

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Long ago when I was in college, I had this guy friend who decided to take the obligatory trip to Florida for Spring Break because as we all know, it’s every young man’s dream to make that pilgrimage to Florida with a bunch of friends and cram into a cheap motel room for a week, partying the days away in a blur of bikinis and beer.

Unfortunately things did not go to plan. Oh, dear me, no. When my friend and his buddies arrived in Florida, they discovered that their motel room was super skeevy, miles from the actual beach, and it rained buckets for almost the entire time they were there. Also? That bevy of hot chicks that's allegedly a permanent fixture during Spring Break, almost as if the Ft. Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce employs them to hang out in order to boost tourism? Nowhere to be found. Like, there was not one girl for miles.

What’s a group of bored young men to do in this situation?

Well, here’s what they did. They went to the grocery store and bought a sack of onions.

They took the onions, peeled and cut them, and put them in a big green garbage bag, creating a game wherein the guys would take turns sticking their heads in the onion-filled garbage bag– eyes wide open, mind you –and whoever could keep his head in the bag the longest, won. Won what? I don’t know. Honor? Does it really matter? They came up with possibly the stupidest way to amuse themselves over Spring Break that any group of human males has ever invented.

Now, this onion-bag game is the reason I love guys. Needless to say, a group of women/girls in like situation would never have done this. And I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s just men -- they’re different, and God love ‘em for it. They’re just better at doing something creative with their boredom than women are.

Anyway, truly, when I look back on my twenties and wonder what spurred my creativity, I think of how TOTALLY UNUTTERABLY BORED I was with all aspects of my professional life. At the time, however, I didn't fully appreciate the many benefits of my boredom. I really believed there was something terribly wrong with me that I would sit at my desk all day, at what was really an excellent job in a lot of ways, screwing around and secretly writing a novel on company time instead of performing any of the serious duties I was getting paid to perform.  But now I wouldn’t change a thing. I owe a lot to my boredom. I really do.

So this is my advice to you if you’re just getting going with your writing: protect your boredom at all costs. It’s one of your most precious resources. Take it and run with it without apology. Be frivolous and wasteful and if you have time-- and even if you don't --occasionally stick your head into a sack of onions to see how long you can stand it.

Let’s face it, without boredom we writers might otherwise be engaged in meaningful activities. Like actually contributing to society or doing something similarly awful. Good God. What a frightening thought.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kickin’ It Old School

As soon as I get this turn table set up, I’ll have time to talk with you about a little problem we writers face.  Hold on juuuuust a second.


*testing, testing*

OK, that's good. I think I finally got the reverb just right.

So, what’s this problem then?

Come on.You already know it. There’s writing and then there’s promoting your writing. We have to do both, but let’s be real, you practically need a split personality to do both things well, and, really, who can be bothered with all the medication you have to take for that?

You know me. I’m always thinking about stuff. Then comparing that stuff to other stuff using like or as. So here’s a useful comparison to illustrate the problem: writing is like singing in the shower whereas promoting your work is like giving a rap concert at Madison Square Garden, which incidentally isn’t even square. (Who knew?)

Hence, the turn table.

See, I’ve now got a few rap songs to help me promote my stuff, and I'm going to share one with you, my friends. I've generously adapted the lyrics so it's suitable for querying. I'm telling you, nobody else is going to stand a chance with some standard query format once you've included this song with your first ten pages.

Of course, once I put this out there, everyone else will know you sampled me. But whatever. Lots of rappers do that nowadays, so it's cool. Just make sure you show me the proper respect. That way we don't have to get into one of those messy rap feuds.

Here we go.

Oh, wait. First, put on these gold chains.

And then a pair of these.

(Fine, you can borrow my track suit, too. Just don't spill anything on it at the club, even that super preminum vodka Diddy is pushing these days.)
OK, NOW you're ready for The Query Rap. 

You got manuscripts, piled high as the sky,
Some are pretty good, some’ll make you cry,

But the words, the stories – they ain’t mind-blowin’,
Cuz they all about the tellin’, not about the showin’

I tell you what, I’m gonna make you gush,
So move aside them big piles of slush,

It ain’t no lie, man, I got the cure,
I can rhyme with orange, I can rhyme inure,

My skillz da best, there ain’t no debate,
All my scenes and plots, yeah, they resonate.

Don’t care how many books you already bought,
Each sentence of mine is so finely wrought,

Even that Franzen dude was heard to say,
“God, if only I could write that way.”

So if you pass me up, I be worried for you,
Might call your mama and your daddy too.

Don’t want you livin’ out your golden years,
Sittin’ in the home, drownin’ in your tears,

With enough regrets to fill a chasm,
All because you lacked enthusiasm.

If you ready to deal, then come jump my fence,
And flash me some dead presidents.

My book gets away, don’t wanna wear your shoes,
Cuz no amount of sex, drugs, or booze,

Gonna take away that awful sting,
Of missing out on The Next Big Thing.

(OK, seriously, I tried to actually sing this all the way through, but I nearly blacked out from laughing so hard. If you're down in the dumps about querying, give it a whirl. Guaranteed to lighten your spirits and amuse your pets, friends, and significant others.)