Monday, July 21, 2014

Should I Be Insulted?

Recently I received a rejection from an agent thanking me for my query and wishing me luck.  She added links to three websites that might help me “learn about publishing.” Does this agent perceive me as a beginner? Should I be insulted?

I looked over the sites. One site, is group blog by industry insiders such as agents, editors, sales reps and writers. In spite of its push to market each contributor’s own books, this one looks useful. The other two links, however, looked like discussion boards for “newbie writers.”  Many of the questions posted are, in fact, by new writers, containing basic requests on formatting manuscripts and how to approach an agent or write a query.

The agent, I will call her Agent X, suggested one of the sites ‘as a place to post my query for critique.’ Should I be insulted this agent thinks my query stinks? That I know so little about writing I need to resort to an online discussion board comprised of random beginning writers?

Had I not already received glowing responses, albeit rejections, from several agents about the quality of my query and submission package, I might opt for seeking advice from one of these discussion boards. But should a writer, new or veteran, throw his or her work out there for perusal by strangers of dubious writing backgrounds?

I have heard of many friendships being formed by users of similar discussion sites. When I first started writing I welcomed input from anyone. I went through a series of workshops where participants shared their work with one another. Occasionally I was offered good advice, but for the most part it was the blind leading the blind down a steep rocky path.

Normally I’m not shy, but when it comes to my work I stick pretty close to my shell. I've been to enough writing circles where someone ends up in tears because others criticized her first draft of a story told through the viewpoint of a severed hand. Or when one of the participants prefaces each of his comments with “as someone who has had over thirty stories published in True Confessions,…".

Writers are solitary creatures, but there is value in attending writing conferences and workshops. Because I am in proximity of very few authors, I try to attend a conference once a year so I can discuss process and structure with like-minded people. Call me a writing snob, but I now only choose exclusive ones like Kenyon that require manuscript approval, where participants are (pardon the cliché and pun) “on the same page.”

I am reluctant to show drafts to anyone. Even Elizabeth, my number one person I select for seeking feedback, does not see first draft materials. My work has gone through the wringer at least twice before she lays her eagle eyes on it.

How does one know when his or her work is good enough?  Sometimes you don’t. It takes years of writing and reading to trust when your work is good enough. And there are days when I've had yet another rejection I start to question this writing gig is worth my time.

Perhaps Agent X suggests these sites to all her rejectees, and as usual, I am over thinking her intent, so I shouldn't take this as an insult. Just say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and submit to the next agent on my list.

Or as my fiend Myra just suggested to me, “write a trashy romance. That’s where the money is.”

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Am I Better Than My Work?

Often my writing sucks. Big time, and I remind myself often as I am drafting a manuscript with little side bars, for example, as I write this post, I may insert (THIS SENTENCE STINKS UP THE ROOM. ) but I am not criticizing myself, just the horrible combination of words that passes for a sentence.

Elizabeth recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing a group of her poems, and several people remarked she should stop being so hard on herself.
“I was NOT insulting myself” she said, “I was critiquing the poems. I didn't say I'm a terrible poet, I meant, these poems poems need revision.”
“One must be hard on the work in order to improve,” I said.
“You’re a good enough poet to be cognizant of when your work is weak.”
“I’m not going to apologize for myself deprecating humor,” she said. “It’s who I am. I have an excellent self esteem.
Elizabeth needled me about a posting I had shared on ‘15 things you need to do to be happy.’ “I hate when people try to tell me how to improve myself,” she said. “I like my bad attitude and imperfect life.”
I laughed, and nodded. “Our writing comes from unhappiness and suffering. We kind of enjoy our pain. Pain is a catalyst for work.
She agreed. “Just because I criticize my own work does not make mean I’m unhappy. I can write really wonderful depressing poems when I am extremely happy. Being happy is overrated. I’d rather be fulfilled”
“I once had a drawing instructor tell me when you’re content with your work, you’re dead.”

Today I saw a badge on a FB writing site that said “Write What You Like”. Depending on the interpretation, writing ‘what I like’ in the context of being free to write anything, I agree. But writing only what I ‘like’ stunts me as a writer. Real writing comes from what bothers us, what we don't understand, and what scares the bejesus out of us. If we only write about what we like, we won’t grow as writers. We won’t explore the messy layers of the human experience and its gritty ugliness. We should not avert our eyes because something is unpleasant.

When I was in my MFA program, my first mentor asked me, what bugs you? I replied, “I didn't get the whole tattoo-piercing thing.” She said, “That’s what you need to write about.” All semester I entered the foreign country of tattoo parlors, marked bodies. I even attended a three day tattoo festival where I was the only unmarked person. I spent my time asking participants about what motivated their tattoos. One heavy young man said, “I don’t fit the standard of beauty, so I find beauty in my body by making it a canvas.”

Unlike journalist Dennis Covington, who chronicles his slow seduction into the snake handling culture in Salvation on Sand Mountain, I was not propelled to cover my skin with tattoos and piercings, but I gained insight into why others do it.

Good writing comes from what we feel passionately about, either positively or negatively. What bothers you? What scares you? You might not like it, and you may not like writing about it, but your writing will improve.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

“Does it really have to be so be so difficult to kill yourself without being constantly disturbed?”

You know the type of book I’m talking about: one of those tales tempting you to call in sick so you can keep reading, but when you finish, you’re heartbroken because it’s over. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman is one of those books.

Ove, a 59 year-old recent widower forced into early retirement has decided to join his dead wife rather than spend his days missing her. What could have been a dark exploration of grief turns into a lively tale in A Man Called Ove. In this novel, curmudgeonly Ove, the kind of man who inspects the neighborhood each day and takes down license plates numbers of cars parked for more than the allotted twenty four hours, displays great disdain for the “idiots” who cannot seem to read signs, and for the cat who starts hanging around outside his home. On the surface, Ove appears to be a grouchy old man who people avoid, and he likes it that way. All Ove wants is to kill himself and be done with it all.

His plans are thwarted by the arrival of new neighbors: an Iranian family consisting of a pregnant Parvaneh, her hapless husband Patrick, and seven and three year old girls. They meet when Patrick crashes into Ove’s mailbox with his moving truck. It does not go well, but Parvaneh recognizes a dormant charm on Ove, and she infiltrates his lonely life and provides the catalyst to force Ove to interact with his long feuding neighbor Rune, an odd kid from next door named Jimmy, a suspected bicycle thief, and a stray cat.

Alternating chapters reveal Ove as a youth and a young married man. He was never boisterous, but when his wife was alive she tempered any latent bitterness. The reader is privy to Ove’s one time happiness, series of disappointments, and his loyalty to Saab cars. (The feud with Rune was over Rune trading his own loyalty to Volvos for a BMW.)

Told in third person, the reader is privy to Ove’s distinctive voice with its subtle humor. On one of the days when he (unsuccessfully) tries to kills himself, he still performs his daily morning inspection. “Just because he’s dying today doesn't mean the vandals should be given free rein.”

This tale serves to remind us that each of us has a unique story. One can imagine Parvaneh lives by the creed, “everyone you met is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind,” and she refuses to give up on mean old Ove.

I read an author profile by the Swedish author, Fredrick Backman, where he displays this same deadpan humor, claiming his motivation to write novels, other than “surely this must be better than working,”  is to feed his “major his interest in cheese-eating.” I wonder if Backman drives a Saab.

Recently I've been clearing out my bookshelves for my move to Seattle, paring them down to half. Most of my Advance Reader copies I've given away or donated to the Friends of the Library bookstore, but this one I’m keeping. It will be shelved with books I plan to reread.

Pick up a copy on  Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

Happy Reading.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What Shall I Name the Dog?

I’m trying to find a title for my latest novel and it’s like doing a word problem for Algebra. My initial title was Pagoda, a nickname one of the characters calls Michel, the protagonist. While it’s a catchy word, the underlying meaning and function of a Pagoda does not fit the book’s themes.

The novel takes place largely in summer, and Michael’s car is called the Blue Whale, but my current title, Summer of the Blue Whale sounds like a feel good beach book, which it’s not. I toyed with The Blue Whale of Summer as a nod to a line in a poem by Pablo Neruda about watermelons being “the green whale of summer,” but the reference is too obscure.

In one scene Michael gives his sister a copy of The Arabian Nights, a childhood favorite. Michael’s Tale? But the book is not just about Michael.

Kerouac already stile On the Road, so I can’t use that one. My novel isn't really a road story anyway, even though the car is a character, and one character takes a long journey.

I like From Here to Eternity. Not so much the book, but the title. The words roll off the tongue.
The Signature of All Things is another catchy title. It fits the book and has a pleasing cadence.

I like titles where you don't understand them until you have read far into the novel. The Catcher in the Rye is like that. The reader has to dig around and wait. Shadow of the Wind drives the tale on two levels: it centers around a book with the same title, and much of the tale takes place in shadows.

I don’t want my title to reveal too much, but it needs to be inseparable from with the story, almost like a tag line. Anyone who hears “yada yada yada” immediately conjures Seinfeld. When I hired Elizabeth to edit, she suggested A Whole Lot of Smirking Going On, since I had numerous incidents where Michael and Shelly smirk at one another. Another suggestion was Because Because Because as I had used the word because three times in one sentence.

Cindy S said she likes coming up with titles, such as, Tiger Lilies, Chicory and Queen Ann’s Lace. “I don’t know what it would be about, but I like the sequence of words.” I said it sounds like a good name for a cozy mystery about a gardener.

Cindy R is good at coming with titles, but she hasn't read my book, so she’s no help at all. (Note; it’s not that she refuses to read my book, she doesn't have time.)

Perhaps I will choose something simple. The Goldfinch ties this massive story together. It's a simple confluence of words, but once you read the book, no other title fits.

Friends have told me not to stress about the title because chances are it will get changed anyway, but I am trying to attract an agent, and a sucky title might put my query in the sucky query pile. It’s a Catch-22 (another rocking title.)

Happy writing and titling.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A First of the Month Post

Friends keep asking me how retirement feels. It’s summer, and as a teacher I didn't normally work the summer months, so I have noticed little difference. Until yesterday when I saw a Back-to-School display at Dollar General loaded with notebooks, pens and other student paraphernalia. The words “back to school sale” always filed me with a combination of dread and excitement. Now? It’s just another sale.

Carl the cleaner is in my home again today, this time scrubbing the basement and garage. The basement doesn't need much other than a dusting, and some bleaching on the floor where my kitchen drain leaked on Christmas Day. I spent the holiday shop-vaccing the water until I figured out where the water came from.

One of the reasons I bought this house was its dry basement, and after eight years never had a problem. On Christmas Eve I had gone down to do some laundry and noticed the unfinished half of the basement under water. Elizabeth came to my rescue with her shop vac.

Intermittently, small pools formed at random times. I thought perhaps the water came from the melting mountains of snow that series of Siberian blasts had dumped on my yard. So all day I went downstairs, vacuumed up water, and checked each hour. The last time I noticed a puddle it had suds in it. Wait a minute; I had just done dishes. I looked up and noticed the drain pipe had separated from the ring that holds it to the main drain. I was flooding my own basement every time I washed dishes or made coffee. It pays to look up.

The garage itself is dusty and messy, but the biggest issue is the dead mice smell. Until this year I had noticed a mouse problem, but maybe winter was so frigid the mice needed a respite, and they chose my garage. On sultry summer days the odor is really strong, so I have asked brave Carl to find the bodies and dispose of them. I wouldn't want to buy a house that reeked of dead animals.

So here I am deported to Starbucks for a few hours while Carl cleans. It’s the first of the month so I need to avoid, well, just about everywhere. Because this coffee shop resides next to a check cashing place parking will become a problem later. When my house is being shown this afternoon I may just take a drive, or perhaps go to Staples and gape at all the Back to School Sale items I don’t need to buy.

 Happy Writing.