Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Never Begin at the Beginning

Start as close to the end as possible.
--Kurt Vonnegut 




Right now I'm in the midst of a heavy re-write and my first task is to cut to the chase, both literally and figuratively. My novel is broken up into three parts and involves an elderly art history professor named Ovid who is no longer able to care for himself. In the first third of the novel, I establish Ovid's current living situation, the relationships within his family, and pertinent information about his past. In the second part, Ovid decides he doesn't like that he's losing control over his life and makes a break for it. The last third involves the family's search for him.

I love writing from Ovid's point of view. He's verbose, a little cranky, well-read, and sees the world through the lens of art. His voice is very rich. The problem with loving a character too much is that you run the risk of falling in love with him and then he can do no wrong. While he yammers on apropos of nothing, boring your audience to tears, all you do is sigh and say, "Isn't he dreamy?"

When I was writing the first draft, I thought I had enough writing experience under my belt to recognize when I was spending too much time setting the stage for a story--but apparently not. After reading the first third of the manuscript, my agent told me the story was "a little slow." Really? This surprised me. I thought it actually moved at a pretty good clip. "Just wait until you get to Part II when he runs away," I said. "That's where it really starts to pick up."

Bingo! And just like that, we found the real beginning of the story.

So now I'm trying to condense, clarify, eliminate, and combine scenes from the first third to get to the real beginning as quickly as I can. Now that I know where the real story begins, I can see that so much of what I thought was the real beginning was just a lot of thinking out loud. It was more of an exercise in discovering character and not entirely pertinent to what was happening. While this exercise was useful to me, it wasn't necessarily useful to the reader.

I have to wonder though--how much of the problem here is me being long-winded and how much is the impatience of the modern audience? Is it absolutely crucial that I cut to the chase right away? Couldn't I just dabble a little bit in character or mood like Henry James? It makes me think back to the mid-1990's when record stores started putting in listening stations. Customers would skim through the first few songs on an album and if they weren't impressed would walk away. Musicians responded by "front loading" their albums--putting their best songs first in order to grab the listener right away, instead of putting the songs in an order that shaped the listening experience.

Are writers now expected to "front load" their novels in order to capture the short attention spans of today's readers? Are today's story beginnings much further into the plot than they used to be?

What are your thoughts on story beginnings as a writer? As a reader?













Monday, September 22, 2014

Immortality




A friend once said he envied me. "You're immortal now. Your books will be on the shelf forever."

Exactly whose shelf are we speaking about here? I wondered.

It's not the shelf at my local bookstore, which has to constantly turn over its stock to make room for all the new books published every month.

It's not the shelves of our local libraries--they, too, have limited space. Every few years they look to see which books haven't been circulated in a very long time and give them the heave-ho.

It's not the infinite virtual shelves of Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com. Most books eventually go out of print and become unavailable. Sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes it happens sooner. When I worked at the literary agency in New York, a bestselling YA author released her first adult novel and it went out of print in six months. It can happen quick--even to well-known authors.

It's definitely not my own bookshelves, which I've stocked with all the books I'm dying to read but never have enough hours in the day to get through. Like anyone else, only the books that really make a lasting impact on me have a place in my permanent collection. All the others are donated to charity.
Copies of my own books are in a box somewhere in the basement.

I guess my friend must have been talking about my mother's bookshelf. I can guarantee my books are sitting there right now, in a prominent place, loving dusted from time to time.

Basically, being a published author is a pretty lousy way to achieve immortality--unless, of course, your last name is Dickens, or Twain, or Shakespeare.

Book publishing has exploded over the last decade, despite grim sales. The market is flooded with traditional and self-published books alike. More titles = higher turnover = shorter shelf life. Even when a book makes it to a shelf for a short period, it's hard to grab the attention of the book-buying public. This is especially true of E-books. Even though they technically hang around for a long time, they are part of a very crowded marketplace. There are so many forms of entertainment competing for our attention. It's like being at a stadium concert and trying to get the lead singer of the band to notice you.


Ooooh! Over here! Read me! Read me!

If immortality is your thing, there's actually a pretty simple way to achieve it these days: Post something on the Internet.

I've been told that every little comment, Facebook post, Tweet, Instagram photo, etc. lasts forever in the digital abyss. The opinions, mistakes, and experiences we share end up being written in virtual stone, ready to be called up at any time to be used against us. It makes me terrified every time I hit the 'publish' button on my blog. 

At least if I make a mistake in a book it will eventually be forgotten.



Monday, September 15, 2014

The Summer of Crazy



It's been an interesting summer.

In early May I turned in the "first draft" of my second adult novel. "First draft" is in quotes because I've rewritten it more times than I can count but this is the first time my agent is seeing it, so for all intents and purposes it's considered a first draft. There will be many, many more drafts to follow.

My expectations were high when I turned it in. This draft took me nine years to write, mainly because I was raising twins and writing wasn't my biggest priority. Still, I worked on it consistently. I adored my main character. I was certain my writing skills had reached a whole new level. Except for showing a scene or two to a few friends, I kept it all to myself. Finally being able to hand in the finished draft to my agent left me euphoric. It was like keeping a secret for nine years and finally being able to share it with someone.

As many of you already know, submitting an unsolicited manuscript and waiting to hear back is tough. You throw your work out into the void and wait...and wait...and wait. Believe me--the wait doesn't get any easier even after you sign on with an agent. Conventional wisdom says that you need to dive immediately into another writing project to take your mind off of the wait. I knew this, but purposely ignored it. It was party time. I caught up with friends. I went out for lunch. I read. I cooked. I spent time with my family. I enjoyed my freedom. I didn't write a thing.

A month went by, then two. Then the crazy started to settle in. I constantly checked my phone, my email. Why wasn't he calling? It could have been any number of reasons: Book Expo America....a heavy work load...summer vacation (after all, the publishing industry switches to a four-day week from Memorial Day to Labor Day).  I used to work at an agency as an assistant and I know how hard agents work and how long it can take to hear back...and yet I felt like I was a teenager all over again, waiting for a boy to call.

Did I do something wrong? OMG do you think he hates me? 


When my agent finally got back to me, the news wasn't what I wanted to hear. He loved my writing, but he didn't love the book--at least not the way I did. Even though I've worked to toughen my hide, I took it hard. Really hard. I was baffled. I thought this was the best work I'd ever done--how could he not agree? I tried to write something new but my well had run completely dry.

After I had a little time to digest the news, my agent and I had a long conversation about the manuscript. I was afraid we wouldn't agree on some major elements, but I kept an open mind. It turns out, everything he said was right on the money.  I was blown away by his skill as a reader. The changes he proposed had the potential to crack the story wide open and make it so much better and weren't nearly as daunting as I thought they were going to be. Instead of nursing my hurt ego, I turned my energy toward creating the best story I could.

There was so much I took away from this experience: 

1) Communicate. If your agent is taking a wee bit too long to respond, don't be afraid to reach out with an email (this only applies to those who are already signed with an agent--if you've submitted a manuscript on spec it's better to sit tight and wait to be contacted). It turns out that my agent was inundated with manuscripts from many of his clients at the same time. Had I known this, I would have done a better job of keeping the crazy at bay. I communicated this to him and he apologized for not telling me why there was a delay. Don't be afraid to politely let your agent know what you need!

2) Don't freak out until you have all the facts. This applies to all things in life. Often the scenario in our heads is worse than reality.

3) Publishing might be even harder than I thought. Even if your agent loves your first book, there's no guarantee that he'll love everything you ever do. Even if you've been accepted by a major publisher there's no guarantee that you'll ever be published again. Even if you've kind of made it (heck, I had a great review in The New York Times! My book was on CBS's Sunday Morning!) there's never a point when you can sit back and relax--the battle is continuous and uphill all the way. Which is actually kind of a good thing, I suppose. It keeps us from getting lazy.


And finally...

4) Appreciate every little bit of success that comes your way.  I've always appreciated my success, but maybe I didn't appreciate that luck played a part, too. Will luck come my way again? I hope so. All I know is that I'm going to work hard to be prepared should it decide to make another appearance.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing Habits



The first question I'm usually asked during a reading Q & A is "What is your process?".  Funny how we writers love to compare notes on this front. I'm no exception. At the Richard Russo and Andre Dubus III event I attended a few months back, Dubus mentioned the need for absolute silence when he writes. If I'm remembering correctly, he works in a windowless, sound-proofed room in his basement, wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. He reads a bit of poetry before he begins and then writes for four hours with pen (or was it pencil?) and paper. Russo, also writes longhand, I believe, but prefers public spaces like delis and coffee shops. He mentioned writing a lot at Denny's early in his career. An interesting side effect: every time he drove by a Denny's, he would get an idea for a story. 

I'm a fan of quiet, like Dubus, but a little ambient noise doesn't bother me too much. No voices, no music--unless I'm editing, in which case a little Bach turned really low is fine. I need a window. Nearly any view will do; I once wrote a book with a view of nothing but a single tree and a squirrel who stole food out of my neighbor's garbage. Have you ever seen a squirrel eat an entire New York bagel? I have. It's hilarious.

I'm the only writer I know of who works exclusively on a computer. I can't be the only one--all you monogamous computer-writers please leave a comment so I won't feel so alone. Most writers seem to start out by writing longhand and then transfer their work to a computer on the second draft. I find writing by hand too slow for my thoughts. My tool of choice is a MacBook Pro, which I picked solely for the  feel of the keyboard and the spacing of the keys. I have long fingers and most laptop keyboards cram their keys too close together for my fingers to feel comfortable. The computer program I use is Scrivener, which is insanely affordable and has all the functionality a writer could want. I'm not a shill for the company, but would gladly be one if they asked. 

My office is in a converted dining room. I write at the leather-topped cherry desk I bought as a reward for selling my first novel. Before that, I wrote at an IKEA desk and before that I used a collapsing particle board computer stand someone wanted to throw away. Above my desk is a narrow picture shelf with wedding and baby photos, notes from my kids, a few sea shells we collect on our many jaunts to the beach. Above that, there are two shelves filled with the books I refer to the most often--Irving, Updike, Steinbeck. Most of my favorite authors have John as a first name. Strunk & White is also up there, as is How Fiction Works by James Wood. Before I begin a writing session, I pull down one of the books above my desk and read a few pages to grease the wheels.  

I write in the morning, after my kids get on the bus. I've discovered that if I don't get rolling early enough in the day, the writing never gets done. I'll read over a little of my work from the previous day, careful to stop mid-scene so I'll have a jumping off point at the next session. I used to tell myself that I had to write for four hours a day no matter what, but I found that it was hard to keep track of time amid distractions and that it was too easy to get hung up on something small instead of forging ahead. What worked better was to have a daily word count. My goal is 1,000 words per day and most days I meet my quota within 2-3 hours. On the rare day when I'm really cranking, I can do it in an hour or less. Either way, it's a terrific way to stay focused. When I'm done for the day, I'm done. No matter what else I manage to accomplish that day, if I've met my quota I feel like I've been productive. 

When I'm re-writing, I usually take my laptop to the couch or outside to shake things up a bit. The goal is not word count, but trying to get through the manuscript as thoroughly and quickly as possible. From my experience, re-writing in a compressed timeframe helps me to see the flow of the narrative better and identify inconsistencies. I love the process of re-writing and can easily put in 12- hour days to get the job done.

My writing habits, like anyone else's, have developed over the years through trial and error. What works for me won't necessarily work for someone else and vice versa. What makes the sharing of habits so interesting, perhaps, is discovering those things we writers have in common. With such a solitary pursuit, it's nice to feel like we're not alone.

What's your writing process?  









Thursday, July 24, 2014

Setbacks


When we first start out as writers, as adults, we forge ahead with a set of expectations. We know where we want to end up, though we often have no idea how to get there. Marriage, children, a house of our own, a book deal--we know that with work and diligence, maybe a little luck, some of our goals will come to pass. A little traction, we think, is all we need to get things rolling. And it is. We push on, one step after the other. Soon we have a family, a home, or an oeuvre. We have a history. A track record. We have pushed past obstacles. We know the secret to success now and our only way forward is up.

Then the inevitable happens--a setback. Divorce, illness. We publish a book, but it doesn't sell. Or worse--our first book is a huge success, but our agent has misgivings about being able to sell our second book. Or maybe we're so paralyzed by expectations that we can't even get any words down on the page. Sometimes the setback is small enough that doesn't deter us from pressing forward. Other times, it feels like we're rolling all the way back down the hill, right back to the beginning. This was not part of the plan.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was working as a ghostwriter for a YA series, I decided that the next logical step in my career was to develop a series of my own. I wrote a proposal for a series called ON THE ROAD about an eighteen year-old girl named Miranda who decides to take a year off between high school and college to travel across the country. The timing was great--a publishing company that was looking to invest heavily in their YA division quickly snapped it up and gave me a twelve book deal. This was just the beginning, I told myself. I was going to send Miranda to every state in the union, maybe even overseas. I was on my way up.

Or so I thought.

Around the time I finished my manuscript for book two, some huge changes started happening at my publisher. There was a change of leadership at the imprint. The new leadership decided that they needed to change focus from YA to middle grade books (the Harry Potter effect). My book contract was cut from 12 to four books. I was one of the lucky ones--others had their contracts cancelled outright. My editor left and I was assigned a new one, who was not emotionally invested in the series. Miranda only traveled as far as Florida and was in a bit of a rush getting there. The books were released with zero publicity or fanfare, just the minimum fulfillment of an obligation. I knew it was bad luck, that it was nothing personal. Still, it felt like a punch in the face.

It takes courage to press on after a setback, but press on we must. First, we have to allow ourselves a bit of grieving, a bit of taking stock. We hunker down and lick our wounds. We must be honest with ourselves--Did we play a part in this? Sometimes the answer is no, but often it's yes. Our next steps need to be thoughtful, deliberate, not reactionary. We are more wary as we proceed, but wiser the second time around. Our successes are sweeter because we know they are so hard-won. And when the next setback occurs--as it surely will--the punch will have lost some of its sting. We survived once, we will survive again.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

There's Never a Perfect Time



A friend of mine, who is a school teacher, once mentioned that when life settled down she would love to write a children's book. "Why wait?" I said. "There will never be a perfect time."

My answer was a bit simplistic, I know. My friend is very busy with the demands of work and family.   I understand what it's like trying to find a little time for oneself and how the muse doesn't always cooperate when that sliver of time opens up. Right now, I'm watching my daughters run through the sprinkler on the front lawn and I'm holding my breath, hoping it will occupy them long enough for me to jot down a few thoughts. This is the only quiet time I will have today. If I don't seize this brief opportunity this week's blog post will never happen.

This is life. We have so many responsibilities we forsake the things we really want to do. Yet how many of these responsibilities are truly necessary? Maybe fewer than we think. How much free time do we actually have? Maybe more than we realize. A little web surfing, a little TV. There is breathing room in our days, but we've found ways to fill it. Ways that might feel like we're doing something substantive but leave us feeling drained, dissatisfied. Why do we compulsively check our email all day long when we say we'd like to spend more time reading? Why do we rob ourselves of even things that bring us pleasure?

Time isn't really the the obstacle--it's fear. It's easy to postpone our dreams by blaming our schedules. It takes the pressure off. Deciding to finally take that leap into the unknown is terrifying. We are afraid to fail. Committing to action is to court disaster. So we hide behind our to-do list. It's safer that way. The decision seems to be made for us.

Time is our enemy in that we have only a finite amount of it. How much? No one knows. When we are young, we foolishly believe time is a luxury. This is not to say we should spend every minute being productive. We should spend as much of our time as we can doing what fulfills us--not on empty habits or on pleasing those who do not occupy a place in our immediate circle of family and friends. If we don't act now, then when? There will always be a problem or two plaguing us, an inbox that never empties, another holiday around the corner. There will always be an excuse we can point to  if we allow it. Years can slip away before we notice.

The perfect time is now. But it doesn't have to happen all at once.

I suggested to my friend that she buy a beautiful notebook and a pen just to jot down a some ideas. Spend a few minutes every day or week on it. Let go of outcomes, expectations. Make it fun. Just start.

Now.




Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Down Time



Right now, I'm in the midst of some serious downtime.

It's not exactly of my choosing. In early May, I sent off my finished manuscript to my agent and I'm still waiting to hear back. It's been a month and a half and I'm trying to be patient. Book Expo America happened somewhere in the middle and I'm sure he was busy with that. He has other clients. It takes a long times to read 156,000 word document.

But I'm trying to be patient. I'm dying to hear what he thinks.

I might just send him an e-mail in a week or two if I don't hear back, but I know I haven't been forgotten. This, my friends, is the nature of the publishing business. It's S-L-O-W. If we do manage to find a publisher, I know that my book won't hit the shelves until about two years from now. At least. If it takes a client two months to hear from an agent, you can maybe understand why unsigned writers wait upwards of 3-6 months to hear anything.

What to do in the meantime?

The smart thing to do is to roll right into another project, to get so excited about something new that I forget I'm waiting to hear back, but I'm finding that to be difficult. The kids are out of school. The neglected corners of my life need some attention. I've been re-reading a few abandoned pieces and the novel I started a few years ago--but my bookshelf, stocked with all that delicious summer reading, seems much more appealing. I'm gardening, cooking, enjoying my children, and just taking a moment to exhale. In the vernacular of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I'm filling the well.

When I was a ghostwriter my schedule required that I produce a 250-page book every six weeks, with an additional two weeks for revisions. Even with an outline, even with such light material as comedic teenage angst, it was a tough schedule. On my own, now with considerably more responsibilities and subject matter requiring a bit more thought, I'm on track to produce a book every 5-10 years. My writing is slow, thoughtful, deliberate. I often berate myself for being so slow. I know I could work harder, put in more hours, but writing isn't my everything. And I feel almost apologetic about it.

In April, I had the chance to meet the extraordinary writer, Andre Dubus III. In the few minutes we spoke, I sensed he was also an extraordinary human being. He asked me what I did for work and I told him I was a writer. I told him I was on the verge of completing my second adult novel, which took me nearly nine years to write. I was a little embarrassed by this, citing my twin girls as one of the reasons it took me so long. I admitted I found it hard to work as much as I'd like given the demands of family life. Writing, for me, takes quiet and concentration. Family life is noisy, complicated, messy. (For example, in the forty-five minutes that I've been writing this blog post, I've been interrupted about once every five minutes.)

Mr. Dubus looked up from the book he was signing and said with the utmost sincerity, "Your life comes first. Enjoy your daughters. Wait until they're all grown up, then you can write a million books."

I wish it were that simple, but the sentiment was certainly a relief to hear. I think of it often. When I grow old, will I regret not publishing more often? Probably not. But I would definitely regret missing out on my daughters' childhoods. What's the point of writing if there's no life to write about?