Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hitting Bottom

I gave up on my debut novel sometime over the summer. I'd written, re-written, queried agents, gotten requests for fulls, but no offers of representation, only scant comments alluding to how nicely it was written (Then, why don't you want it? Arrrghhh!) and brief, sometimes confusing, allusions to what wasn't working. I cut scenes I felt were dragging it down, added scenes to expand on subplots, tightened sentences, and still I had this sinking feeling it wasn't good enough. But like any dejected, and delusional, writer I kept sending it around, until I finally said, Enough!

The only good thing about getting a lot of rejections is that you can spread them all out in front of you and find the patterns. When I did that, it became clear that the thing keeping me from selling was the book's pacing. Only a couple agents actually used that word. They said things like "the forward momentum isn't right" or "not enough is happening to the protagonist to make me care," but in the end, it comes down to the big "P." Yes, even in an upmarket novel like mine about fairly quiet, regular joes, the reader simply has to have a reason to turn the page.

Enter Diane Holmes, an editor with a PhD in Pacing, who miraculously appeared (via a contest on her blog) to grant me an edit of chapter one, with my pacing specifically in mind. It took a couple back-and-forths with Diane before I really "got it." Keep in mind I've been periodically fussing with this book for several years, which makes it pretty hard to see it with fresh eyes and spot the errors.

What happened after that lightbulb went on was both very exhilerating and very, very scary. I realized if I'm truly going to be the master of this book (and not the other way around) I'm going to need to allow all those "crazy" thoughts about plot to turn up on the page instead of just floating around in my head. I'm going to have to be willing to throw my beloved character into many more difficult situations and trust that she'll find her way out. I'm going to have to stop being scared of my book and finally say, on the page, what I'd been meaning to say for the other six drafts.

I couldn't do it by altering what I'd already written. I'm a better writer than I was three years, or even one year ago. I'd had enough of moving things around, cutting and pasting. I sat up awake one night thinking, what did I really have to lose? I'd already given the book up for dead. Most people would put it on the shelf and continue with book two. But I'd had the great fortune to be given a key to how to make book one work. And I simply could not give up on that book.

So I did what any totally insane writer, who loves the process of writing as much as she does admiring the final product, would do. I started over. With a blank page. Now, I didn't throw out the 300 pages I already had, and I have used bits and pieces of the previous draft. But, 75 pages into it today, I'm not surprised to find 90% of the writing is entirely new. I'm creating all sorts of trouble for my character. I'm not quite sure how she'll get out of it yet, but I'm planning that as I go, chapter by chapter.

It's New Year's Eve, and for me, that brings a double-whammy of resolutions because today is also my birthday (it's not a big one, but it's pretty darn close). In the first half of the new year, I will finish writing this book to the best of my ability. I've said this before, but this is the first year I've actually had the confidence to know this book is going to be good. And in the spirit of doing things differently, if no one will take it when I'm done, I'll publish it myself. Then I'll finish book two because book three is already percolating in my brain. 2012 brings a wisdom to recognize which things are out of my hands (publishing trends, agents' taste) and which aren't. Within my control...writing the best damn book I can write.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Still Crazy

Last night, I was at a party with some people I hadn't seen in awhile, which means I had to answer the oft-repeated question, "How's the book coming?" This question isn't so easy to answer anymore. First of all, which book? The one I thought was "finished"? The one I just started? The one I have notes for, but am saving until the other two are done? Plus, I wrote three essays this month and put some short stories into a collection to send out to contests.

All of this should make me feel a bit dizzy, but instead I really feel exhilerated right now. More is better. More types of things being written (different pieces, different genres) increases my chances of publication, while strengthening my writing muscles.

But what I'm most excited about is a rewrite of book one. I've been querying it, getting nibbles, getting positive comments from agents, but with vague reasons (or no reason at all) for why they aren't taking it. Then I had the good fortune to meet an editor, via Twitter, and to win a contest on her blog which resulted in an edit of my first chapter.

Suddenly, everything is as clear as the sky outside my writing closet this morning. She interpreted the "agent-speak;" she showed me exactly where my story falls and where it rises, and how to fix the spots where I might lose readers.

The good news: it's never been about my "writing" (i.e. how I put a sentence together). Agents have confirmed this. They've always loved the "voice" and the "style" and the "theme." But then they trail off into murkiness about momentum, or worse, the economy...

Thanks to fairy godmother-editor, Diane, I now see it's all about pacing. Can I fix this? Yes. Will it be hard? Sure, but no harder than anything else I've done with the book, and perhaps a bit easier. The truth is, I can't stop trying to make this book better (I've tried to put it in the proverbial drawer). It's an important book. It deserves to be read, by people beyond my own home.

My next task is to make a big old chapter-by-chapter timeline, then give it a little shake and let the scenes fall into a more pleasing order, then fill in the blanks with new scenes where needed. No big deal, right? I should have done this a long time ago, but at least I'm doing it. Onward and upward.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy New Year...in August!

It's August, and my preschooler is suddenly concerned with all things Christmas. She's checking out books about Santa at the library and requesting a nightly viewing of "Frosty the Snowman." This prompted me to bemoan the fact that we struggle every year to send out Christmas cards. My husband's reply:  "We should do them in the summer when we have more time." After we both had a good laugh, I said, "Why don't we?"

So, we've just written our "update letter" and ordered photo cards with the idea that they will be mailed to friends and family over the coming week. My thought is this: our greetings have little to do with Christmas and everything to do with an annual touch-base. If it's annual, who cares when it occurs, as long as it's once a year?

It's in this spirit of "doing something different" that I've also embarked on new goals for my writing. My progression with novel one has been pretty stagnant (send out queries, get a nibble, wait for reply, get vague or no reply, repeat, repeat, repeat...).  I'm looking for other ways to get my work out into the public. I'm revisiting my story collection, written in the years immediately following grad school, and looking at small presses who might be interested in it. I'm looking back through the files of individual stories that have yet to find a home, stories that received very positive comments by people in high places. These things should not be gathering dust on my hard drive.

It's time to spread myself around a bit, to look at all the writing I have to offer, which includes some non-fiction as well. It's time to avail myself of all the opportunities in the forms of writing contests. It's tempting, with my limited writing hours, to just keep plugging away at the same old thing because it requires little thought, but finding myself no farther along than I was six months ago is simply depressing, and that decreases my desire to write anything new.

With a new year comes new goals. Our household is very much geared toward an academic schedule, with a professor for a husband and one child in school. We set a new schedule once late August rolls around. It's a great time for fresh starts. It's a great time for me to reorganize my writing life and goals.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Romantics

So, I'm proud to say that in the past week, I've actually created a new folder on my laptop with the title of my work-in-progress. I then proceeded to type "Chapter One" and wrote an opening paragraph that I am totally in love with, plus a pretty decent first scene introducing my protagonist (and a couple of her colorful co-workers). I've been dying to move this novel beyond the notes stage, so I'm feeling very upbeat right now. How did it happen? One word: Scheduling.

Hubby has a flexible summer schedule, so he and I have divvied up our work hours, which gives me at least three hours most mornings to write. This is how a book gets written. Make coffee, sit in chair, stare out window, write a few lines, check email, watch cardinal in tree, check Twitter, edit lines I just wrote, close out of Internet and vow not to open again until writing quota is met, write a couple awesome paragraphs, read randomly from inspiring novel with similar voice, re-read awesome paragraphs and decide they're not so awesome, briefly doze off, wake up, re-open Internet, write another line.

Please note that when I sit at my computer to write, I am not taking dictation from God, as one famous writer once famously said. That is not to say that there aren't writing sessions that seem inspired, sessions where my fingers can't keep up with my thoughts. Those moments keep me going on the days it takes me three hours to get out a sub-par half page.

When friends ask about my writing process (this is a common question now that I'm starting something new), I think they are expecting something more romantic, some dreamy poet in an attic meditating until I can visualize each scene. The point is, I sit in my chair, every day (or most days) and attempt to reach my goal (1,000 words a day). If I don't reach it during my assigned writing hours, I have to try and squeeze it in later, after dinner maybe or after the kids go to bed. It's surely not romantic. It's work. And any writer with any success (except for the dictation-from-God-one) will tell you this.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Trusting Your Gut

So, I'm still writing in my closet and convinced that this is definitely the place for me. This summer, when I have more time, I plan to turn this space into something fabulous. Even now, with badly scuffed walls, diaper boxes on the floor, and my husband's shirts hanging over my shoulder, this space is inspiring. Today, I'm peering over the top of my computer out the window to see a gentle rain spattering the brick street in front of our house and, finally, after a long, hard winter (it snowed again not too long ago...), there are fat, red buds on the maple tree.

In my last post, I wrote about having a place to write that "feels" right. But, more important, is having something to write about that "feels" right. You can fake it with a short story, and God knows I have. I've gotten a few pages into some and had second thoughts, but I'd usually finish them anyway. It was good writing practice, and there's not too huge a time investment in fifteen pages. But, a novel requires big-time commitment. We're talking years, potentially, before notes and scenes resemble something like a book and then are revised many times to resemble something like a book that someone might actually want to read. 

After getting some agent nibbles on my first novel, I set about writing a second. I had some ideas about my main characters, and I had a very basic conflict, but I needed to do a fair amount of research before starting. I got a bunch of nonfiction books on my topic and found out, I hated it. I dreaded my work mornings because I just wasn't at all energized by the material. In fact, I'd end up gloomy and depressed. Honestly, writing is hard enough. Publication is practically impossible. If you don't enjoy doing it, what's the point?

My happiest day while working with book two was the day I decided to scrap it.  Then, I allowed myself to just read, mostly nonfiction, for a few weeks, on topics that I was really fascinated with. And there it was, a throw-away line in one of those books, that made me see all these connections, instantly.  It was like all the various ideas and characters I'd been thinking about were stars, and suddenly there were lines connecting them, turning them into the constellation that could become my next book.

Remember when your high school guidance counselor said to find what you love to do and then find a way to turn that into a job? Yeah, I don't remember that either. Nevertheless, the principle makes sense.  Think about what keeps you up at night, what you love to talk about with your friends, and then put your characters into a world where they can be obsessed with the same things. Do you want your readers to lose sleep because they just can't put your book down? Of course you do. Then, guess what? You have to be chomping at the bit to work at it every day. If you're not, if you think, oh god, this thing again! they'll be able to tell. I don't know how, but they will. Your passion for your subject matter, your love of your characters, even the naughty ones, comes through on the page. My new book two is something I can get excited about and hopefully someday, readers will, too.




Thursday, February 24, 2011

Claiming the Closet

I’m writing this morning with my laptop balanced on a nightstand stolen from my daughter’s room. A chair hauled up from the kitchen fits in front of it, with just half an inch to spare. The nightstand is so wide, I have to straddle it. My back is against the wall. My husband’s clothes are brushing my left arm. You see, I’m in a closet in our bedroom. It’s approximately six feet long by three feet wide, not a tiny closet by any means, but not very large, not the kind of place most people would look at and think "Hmmm, wonder what it would be like to work in there?" Its best feature is a very long window, just a bit wider than my computer. It looks out to our front yard where we have two lovely maples and a pear tree, which will soon be bursting with white blossoms.

I know this because when we looked at the house with our realtor last spring, one last time before making our final decision about buying it, that tree was, in a word, glorious. There was a breeze that day that shook some of the blossoms down onto my three-year old daughter who responded by spinning in circles and saying, “Look, it’s snowing!”

Well, what can I say? Cue the music, because we knew this house was ours. Call it intuition, call it simple-mindedness if you want, but I believe in that feeling that tells me something is “right.” This house, I knew, from the first step inside, was “right.” Nine months later, I’m even more sure of that. My office space, however, has never been “right.” It consists of a corner desk in our finished basement, which is also a play area/guest room/storage space/cat hangout. A couple nights ago, I tried to go down there to write. First, I stepped over a hairball. Next, an obstacle course of stuffed animals and plastic bowling pins. The kids, in their ever helpful ways, had removed some of the books from my bookcase and left them in a loose pile. It was dark. It was stinky (the litter boxes are down there, too). I got so cranky, I gave up.

And that’s when I started eyeing every spare corner of this old house. I have to tell you, it feels cozy here in this closet, wonderfully cozy, not claustrophobic at all (thanks to the window). I can watch the neighbors walking their dogs on the street below, as opposed to watching the wall in the basement. Listen, I know writers can, and do, write anywhere. Over the years, I’ve written and revised my first book in my office at our old house, on the couch, in bed, at a coffeehouse, at a Bed and Breakfast with Amish buggies parked outside.

But, I also know that, for me at least, physical space matters. It affects my mood; it affects my creativity. I’ve been in here an hour, and I already feel more optimistic about my work. I’ve had some false starts on my work-in-progress. Maybe I just needed a change of space. Instead of thinking outside the box, I’m going to try thinking inside it. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

And the Book Club Winners Are...

The 10 ladies in my book club collectively nominated 22 books for our reading list this year.  Here's what we voted in:


"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith

"Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women" by Rebecca Traister

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

"The Furnace of Affliction" by Jennifer Graber

"Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

I'm very excited about this list.  We have a mix of fiction and nonfiction, even a YA book (Lowry's).  We meet monthly, and on months where we don't read a book, we'll be discussing short articles or essays on topics that interest the group.  We'll also have a poetry night.  And we'll have two meetings that are purely social, one in the summer that includes our spouses and kids, and one in December that involves cookies and choosing the next year's books.

Our club was nearly defunct six months ago. No one was coming; no one was reading the books.  Time is always the problem for women with jobs and young children.  The key was finding the right mix for us, a mixture of genres to keep things interesting, a book every other month to give people a chance to read it. It's not about quantity.  It's about quality--the quality of the books and the quality of the time we get to spend discussing them. Read on!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm a Writer. No explanations necessary.

I surprised myself last weekend. I met someone new who asked what I did, and I said, with no hesitation, "I'm a writer." She said "Wow!" and our conversation continued down other paths. Normally, there would be follow-up questions, such as: "Who do you write for? What do you write? Might I have read any of it? What kind of money do you make?" Maybe it was the immediacy and self-assured tone of my answer, "I'm a writer," that cut off these questions before they began. I kind of doubt it. I think I just got lucky.

Still, it made me think about past conversations I've had where I try to somehow justify what I do to, often, perfect strangers when no justification is needed. I'd ramble on about how I used to write short stories (some of them are published, dear reader!), how I got a graduate degree, how I'm *mostly* a stay-at-home mom right now who has also written a novel. Has it been published? Nope. Have I made any money? Nope. I used to make money writing--press releases, newsletters, things like that. I used to teach part-time. I used to be a PR person AND a writer or a teacher AND a writer. Somehow, that AND made it legitimate.  The AND relegated writing to hobby status.

But there's something that makes some people uncomfortable when I treat my non-paid writing as I would a paid job. When I say I am not available during such and such times because I have paid dearly for a sitter so I can finish this scene. When I hole up in a friend's vacant house for a weekend to have 48 uninterrupted hours to straighten out a plot. In other words, when I treat writing like a "job," even though it isn't one yet, if by "job," you expect a "paycheck."

Amazing things happen when I treat writing like my job. I get things done. I have written (and yes, rewritten, 6 times or so) my first novel and I'm excitedly plotting a second. I would love to be considered legitimate by everyone's standards, not just my own, but until then, excuse me, I'm late for work.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes the Perfect Book Club Pick?

I've recently taken over as secretary of my book club and am in the process of gathering recommendations for our 2011 reading list.  We'll have a meeting soon to vote on our picks, but the list will be small this year, only five books.  We'll supplement with interesting articles from the New Yorker, Atlantic, etc. for another five meeetings.  Two meetings will be purely social, one of which includes our families. The other involves lots of cookies and wine. (Who am I kidding? They all involve wine!)

Our club was on the edge of disbanding due to lack of interest and time, but we're back leaner and meaner.  Our make-up isn't so different from many other book clubs.  We're in our 30s and 40s. We have young children. We work as professors, doctors, business owners, artists.  We love to read.

But, five books?  This is what we decided we could reasonably manage--a book every other month, a few chapters on the nights the kids go to bed easily, and we manage not to fall asleep with them. With such a short reading list, it's important that we pick books that the majority will enjoy.

So, I've been thinking a lot about what books we've loved in the past.  The hands-down winner from last year was "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.  What made it interesting? Well, certainly the relationship amongst the characters, but the larger issues of race and class gave us lots of fodder. I think that's really key. Books that have nothing else going on besides a dysfunctional family don't leave us much to discuss over a couple hours. The book has to give us something to chew on. It has to give us a mirror to hold up to our own lives. The best ones make us ask, if we were in such and such a situation, what would we do, and why?

I've seen some literary novels fall flat at our discussions because "nothing happens." With our reading time limited, it's not enough to just follow an interesting character along for 300 pages. We want to feel like we "got something out of it." What is that "something?" Perhaps just a few hours to think about an issue in a new way or an insight into another way of life, something.

As a debut novelist, it's hard for me not to internalize comments at my book club meetings. In a way, I'm equal parts participant and spy. I want to discuss literature with these smart, gracious women. I also want to know what draws them to a book. In the end, I will always write what I'm pulled, by gravitational forces unseen, to write, but I'd be naive to marginalize the influence of these women. 

I'm looking forward to a great year of book club and non-book club (I've got a stack a dozen high on my nightstand that I've happily started cracking) reading this year!