Tag: the writing life

I Can Make You Care About Toast

greyish lavender mushrooms

(This is what I originally wrote for the previous post “Words in Action: the impassioned letter strikes again” but I held off posting it because I wrote it around 2am and I now have a {mostly} strict policy of not posting anything I’ve written in the wee hours until I’ve slept on it.  Then I forgot about it.  I realize tonight that I wrote it best the first time.  And yes, I realize that I’m showing you mushrooms and not toast.  There’s a reason for everything.)

Our individual mythologies start developing before we even realize it – is informed by so many invisible forces that convene to create the perfect fruiting environment for your own personal genius – for whatever it is you become the master of, seemingly just by breathing.

Everyone has something.  Even if they can’t see it for themselves.  It will be evident in the patterns of vapor they leave behind them.  It will be evident in the relationships they keep and the ones they choose to discard.  It’s like our DNA.  No two mythologies are alike.  We drop it all across the universe like the crumbs of an endless meal.

There is a fantastic wind tonight blowing pollen around like tiny passive aggressive bitches getting under skin, into nasal passages, and excavating previously virgin territory.  Nothing is sacred tonight.  Not even your specially curated mishaps.  All is assaulted by this disease of the season but no one will lodge complaints against the agent that brings warmer weather.

It’s a night of assessment.  Fitting, considering I won something today.  I won what should never have been a fight in the first place.  I won because I have become a master of words, of persuasion, of entreaty, and of honesty.  Bald fucking honesty.  What I have learned over and over again is that I don’t win when I try to win.  When I do what is expected, what is considered acceptable, what is considered politic, everyone smells a fraud and runs.  But when I unfold the words that are true to me in the vernacular of my own mythology – magic happens.  Doors open.  My value becomes more visible only when I throw it to the ground and dare the brave to crush it.

My dream house was sold to us because of a letter I wrote the seller telling him why he should sell his house to us even though we couldn’t offer him the highest bid.  The seller told us it was my letter that made him choose us.

I wrote letters to two of my most treasured teachers at the Santa Rosa Junior College.  It wasn’t the politic kind of letter to write.  I gave my history teacher poetry I’d written.  What could signal a social death more surely than some poetry and effusive avowals of undying appreciation?  Here’s how my teacher responded (something I’ve held so close to my chest over the years and not shared with anyone else but Philip)

“I want to thank you for both the letter and the poem – I was moved to tears by the charitable and kind words of the former and the evocative power of the latter.  You have a great gift as a writer ——- more importantly you have a fine mind and a beautiful soul!  It has been a true pleasure to gain your acquaintance.”

There’s a place for me in this mad universe.

Full stop.

I can make you care about toast because that’s one of my superpowers.

The Vocabulary Pit of Despair – “yearn”

case of the bag of meat

Last night I said to my fellas “Y’all are quibbling” and Max informed me that I am not allowed to say “y’all” because I (apparently) constantly make fun of people saying it.  Making fun of something precludes you from being “allowed” to use it (he says this is a well known RULE).  To be fair (and he wasn’t being fair) the only time I make fun of anyone saying “y’all” are people who use it as punctuation.  It’s exhausting to my ear.  The truth is I only make fun of Paula Deen using it because she does it with a southern drawl so drawn out and shrill she sounds like a cat yowling in a fight.  And she uses it excessively.  I have a lot of friends who say “y’all” (some who are southern, some who are not) and it doesn’t bother me one whit that they use it.

I happened to have said it by accident though.

“Yearning”

For general writers this is tough enough to carry off.  It brings to mind a flaccid princess committed to a life of inaction which has given her plenty of reason to YEARN for things.  “Yearn” is a word people use when they want to pluck at your heart – but it comes off as corny or manipulative.  For food writers, this word is even worse.  How ridiculous is it to “yearn” for steak and eggs?  But worse than that is suggesting that your food “yearns” for – well – ANYTHING.  Food does not have human emotions.  Some writers have found this confusing.

The one exception to the challenging use of this word is in humor.  “Yearning” is quite useful in sarcastic and satirical writing.

 

Disclaimer:

I’m not a vocabulary snob.  In fact, I’m not a language snob.  I’m not even a grammar snob.  All of these things are tools for communication in a very colorful, constantly shifting world.  Language is just another way to express all the stimuli we experience in our lives.  As such it must be somewhat fluid, flexible, and accommodating as well constantly evolving to meet the needs of new generations and technology.

Even so, it is exquisitely fun to share my opinions of words on a regular basis.  If I trash any words you happen to love – just know that I inevitably love to use some words that make you feel like your head is being dragged through a swamp.  It’s okay. It’s not only okay – you and me liking and hating different words means there is more variety of words being used on the whole.  And that’s what keeps our language vibrant – that we all have different tastes in words.

De gustibus non est disputandum is a patently untrue maxim.  Disputing taste makes for lively discussion as long as we respect each other at the end of the day for having different tastes.

Writing Career Confusion

A year ago I was very clear about the direction I wanted my writing career to go and how I wanted to go about it:

write novels + land agent + get book deal = get published the traditional route

But I keep reading articles and listening to interviews of various authors and agents and I’m really confused.  I don’t know any more whether I should continue accruing agent rejections (start submitting my manuscript again) or re-edit my book to polish it up completely and then publish it myself using all the new and shiny self publishing tools offered by businesses like Amazon or should I just publish my book on my blog in small bites until the whole thing is published with the idea of gaining a fan-base and then attracting an agent or publisher who will then publish it in book form?

How realistic are any of these choices?  It’s tough to land an agent through submissions.  It could take years.  Self publishing has come a long way in both quality, price, and respectability but then you have to pay attention to all the details like cover design, editing (ideally professionally), and type setting.  Then I just read an article in Writer’s Digest by Nina Amir suggesting that publishing your book on your blog is a great way to get published – you develop a big readership and prove your book has commercial appeal and you either gain the notice of agents/publishers or you can approach them and show them how great your book is.

People do get book deals based on their blogs but it’s not as simple as publishing your book online and then publishers just publish it up for you.  From everything I’ve read – publishers expect extra material in a blog to book situation.  Also – I have yet to hear about any fiction being picked up from a blog.  Amir is confident that this whole angle works for fiction but where are examples of this happening?

I already plan on working harder to increase my readership for Stitch and Boots and I have my non-fiction Post Apocalyptic Kitchen project with my friend Emma if we decide to go forward with that – it’s my fiction I’m confused about.  So then part of me wonders if I shouldn’t just publish Cricket and Grey piece by piece on this blog simply for the enjoyment of my personal friends and readers who have expressed interest in it and have been very supportive of it.  Then I can perhaps start working on the second Cricket and Grey book.

What should I do?  I cannot decide.  Is it still important for me to publish novels the traditional way as I always intended?  Will I ever be able to write a pitch fetching enough to catch the eye and the confidence of a literary agent?  Will I still be sending out queries for this one finished book in ten years and paper my office with rejections (difficult when they’re all electronic now).

Here’s what I want from my writing career:

I want to write fiction that is compelling and entertaining

I want to give people new characters to root for or hate and I want to give them a way to escape from day to day reality because that’s one of the greatest gifts literature has given me.

I want to write non-fiction that is as entertaining as it is USEFUL

My favorite kind of non-fiction is the kind that informs with solid knowledge and research, that gives you information you can rely on and put to use in your life but that simultaneously is humorous and down to earth.  There is no reason why non-fiction has to be humorless and “serious”.  Being “serious” in tone doesn’t make you more or less of an expert.  You either are, or you aren’t and I’ll be able to tell just by reading your work because I’m not dumb.  There is the idea that if you don’t maintain a “serious” tone that people won’t trust you.  That may be true for some people out there but I think it’s an old and musty belief.

I want to make a living as a writer

I really do.  I’m not sure if I care if I somehow managed to simply get enough readers on Stitch and on this blog to actually make those ads make me a living or if I publish books and get royalties or if I’m making money from e-books or publish on demand.  I would just like to make a living from writing before I die.  I’d like it to be sooner than later.

I want to earn respect as a writer

I’m not the kind of writer who will write Pulitzer winning material.  I know my level and it isn’t high brow.  I hope to always be improving but I don’t have Pulitzer dreams, if I were to reach that level I would obviously feel deeply rewarded for all the work I’ve put into my writing but it simply isn’t in my sites.  I want the respect of other writers and from my readers.  I don’t want people to think of me as a trashy writer you’re almost embarrassed to like.

So what do I do?  I realize that no one can actually answer that one for me.  But that’s what I want.  I want someone to tell me the best route to reaching my writing career goals.

Excellent Reads for Writers

When I started working on Cricket and Grey I wanted to work in a more organized way than I had with The Winter Room because I wanted to avoid getting lost in pages of emotive crap that leads nowhere.  What I really wanted was to avoid emotive crap altogether.  I looked for a book that could serve as a guideline and found a great help in the book “Write Away” by Elizabeth George.  I didn’t want someone to tell me what to write but how to structure a plot and story thoughtfully.  Taking the time to work out a plot outline, do some character analysis, and to play with POV before digging myself into an enormous grave full of words made writing my second novel a completely different experience than the first.  Each draft I wrote accomplished very specific things.  I know that all writers have their own processes and mine, as it develops, will not match anyone else’s exactly.  Still, I think it’s useful for writers to listen to other writers talk about writing.  I think it’s useful for us to share notes, to compare notes, and to share ideas.

Through doing my agent research, looking for support with other writers, and reading advice from the trenches I’ve compiled a number of great reads (and a video) that I think most writers will find encouraging, interesting, and useful.

Write Away

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite mystery writers.  Though I admit I stopped reading the Lynley series a few books ago because I got really sick of Tommy and Helen’s inability to work their shit out and then she went and killed Helen anyway, so that’s alright.  I have seen George speak and I really like her.  So I bought her book and have found it very useful.  Her message isn’t “If you write exactly like me you’re guaranteed success!” (because she’s not stupid), her book is meant as a guideline to writing fiction, not a gospel.

Bird By Bird

Anne Lamott is funny, she’s real, she’s honest, and her book “bird by bird” is a great collection of essays about writing she’s taken from the writing classes she teaches.  It isn’t a manual (can you tell I don’t want anyone telling me the ONE way to write?) so much as it’s collected perspective from a seasoned and respected author.  Reading her book was illuminating and made me want to shove the book back on the shelf, roll my sleeves up, and write.

The Writing Life (writers on how they think and work)

Edited by Marie Arana.  This book is a collection of essays written by writers about writing (the process, the editing, the rejection slips, the magic, the slogging).  There are a couple of essays I didn’t get much out of but most of them had interesting perspectives and showed the diverse range of ways one can approach and succeed at writing.  Some of the writers have written only a couple books that took years to write while others write a book a year.

Here are some blogs I’m finding useful and entertaining right now:

The Novel Doctor An editor talks about novel writing and reveals your deepest insecurities.  He also says some useful things and cracks the whip against your indolent ways.

Query Shark Excellent site a friend shared with me while I was trying to write a query letter and was 100% bombing.  I’m still working at it but at least I’m avoiding many of the biggest mistakes thanks to this witty and ruthless agent who really wants you to write better queries.

Rachelle Gardner Another literary agent whose blog has many truly interesting and many useful articles about the business of publishing books.  She’s not the agent for me as she almost exclusively represents Christian fiction, but I think her blog is great.

Agent Query This is a great site to look for agents with.  It is reputable and has good information on query writing, looking for agents, and other things you’ll want to know such as how long an unpublished author’s first novel should be (yeah, this is useful to know before you’ve finished writing it).

Terrible Minds I would truly love to get Chuck Wendig together with my Grandma just to see who would win that inevitable clash sharp tongued titans.  His profanity is breathtaking (as in – I’ve never heard anyone swear so much who wasn’t a stand up comedian) and he finds the most shocking ways of making everything sound pornographic.  His writing advice is gritty but completely sound.

Novel: First draft, Second draft revision…  I loved this post and am enjoying her blog.

25 Things You Should Know About Suspense And Tension In Storytelling I had to give you an actual post to check out from Wendig’s blog.

Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing This is a video interview with a written transcription.  It’s long but well worth watching.

Ditching Strategy For Instinct

I keep trying to figure out what my strategy should be for my career as a novelist.  Should I start working on the next Cricket and Grey?  After reading a lot of industry blogs and articles about getting published, what agents are looking for, what people are actually buying, and how writers should build their careers and their “platform”*, I thought that was the way to go.  I don’t want to just stumble down the road towards some ill-defined goals, do I?  I need to know EXACTLY what I’m aiming for, make a plan, follow the blueprint to success without wavering.  Right?

Right?

If I set aside all the research I’m doing that says a book series will sell better than a literary fiction one-off, if I ignore all the formulas for writing success that are offered by the published masses, my instinct tells me to work on the first book I wrote.  The one I had to set aside for two years to let it breathe.  I mentioned it here a few times since finishing Cricket and Grey that Jane is speaking in my head and won’t shut up.  It’s a complete wild mess right now, that story.  I don’t quite know what to do with the plot and I know I need to figure it out before I dig myself deep in the hole of writing it again.  While doing agent research I have this nagging thought that Jane Doe is more likely to get printed.  It makes no sense.  I feel very good about Cricket and Grey but the other story is something powerfully visceral to me and it isn’t good for a series.  It’s a one off.  It’s very dark.  I made a concerted decision that I wanted to write mainstream fiction because I want a career writing novels, I want to actually sell books.  That’s strategy.  That’s smart.  But does it matter what’s smart strategy if underneath everything there’s a story that really needs to see the light of day that doesn’t fit into the plan?

I’ve come to an important conclusion.  We all have our roles in life, in our chosen industries, our chosen paths.  In the publishing world it takes editors to polish manuscripts, agents to sponsor them- to get publishers to publish them, and marketing firms to market them, and book sellers to bring them to the public.  There’s such a long string of people that have important roles in bringing books to life and light.

The writer’s job, as I see it, is to put their fingers on the pulse of their community and the world they live in and translate what is living underneath the surface of life that everyone feels but don’t have the words to describe.  Writers say what others are powerless to say for themselves.  Writers are the eyes and ears of our times, just as other artists are, and tell the truth with lies.  And sometimes, their greatest work is to make you forget your own life for a little while so you can face another day of it.  Each writer has to trust their own instinct for what they have to tell, what they are here to reflect, share, voice, or expose.  There’s no one way to do it.  There’s no one method to be the writer you’re meant to be.  Keeping in touch with and trusting your own instinct is the only way you’ll truly know.

That there is an opinion.  You may contradict it if it isn’t true for you.

See what I mean?  Everyone has their own version of how to become the writer they need or want to be.  I have been paying too close attention to what other people think I should do and how to appeal to the right people.  I think I will appeal best if I follow my instincts.  I have never been steered wrong following my gut.  Never.  So I will continue to send queries for Cricket and Grey because I think it’s a great story and when I find an agent who’s excited to represent it maybe they’ll tell me I need to immediately write a second book.  I’ll listen, at that point.  But right now, while I look for an agent for that book, I know I need to sort out the first one because it is taking up too much space in my head and so must be finished to make room for whatever story is next.

This week I finally figured out what the real title of the Jane Doe book is.  Ready for it?

THE WINTER ROOM

I was talking about it to another writer friend and I suggested this might be the title and as soon as I said it I knew it.

It’s nice when things are so clear.

I am opening files now as I finish this post.  Files of notes, notes about the disaster of the first draft which is such an emotionally heavy work trying to get to the surface of the ocean from the floor.  My job is to cut the cement from the body of the story and stitch it up before the sharks find the blood.  It will continue to be heavy with water but clear with light.

I can do this.

*I loathe that expression as much as I loathe describing oneself as a “brand”.  It’s just splashy marketing words that have become obnoxious and pompous.

An Agony of Pitches: #2 (The Angry Parody Romance Pitch)

As promised, here is my novel pitched as a romance.  But it’s being pitched from a place of bitter anger and frustration and is not a real pitch.  This is not at all reflective of the tone of my book.  If it was, my book might actually be much better than it is.  I’m considering changing the whole thing into a parody wherein I hate my main characters because they’re all just stupid dip-shits and being stereotypical and ordinary.  it would be so easy to pitch that.  Have a look:

The Angry Parody Romance Pitch of Cricket and Grey:

Cricket Winters like all redheads in the entire world has a hot temper and like all heroines is independent to a fault.  She doesn’t need anyone.  So when her father (who she obviously worships because he’s also a fiery redheaded troublemaker) dies and she discovers that he’s been keeping secrets from her about her mother’s unsolved murder (her mother was also a redhead, but lacked an imprudently hot temper, which may actually explain how come she got killed, but not even the author can say for sure) Cricket becomes disillusioned and angry.  Grey Bonneville, a totally hot Scottish guy who doesn’t look anything like Justin Bieber and has a steady nature (because that’s the only kind you can pair up with fiery redheads – cause every redhead needs someone to “tame” them because their tempers are evidence of an inherently feral nature) shows up to look after her at her own father’s request.  This obviously enrages Cricket who can fight and shoot better than Grey can, so what the fuck makes him such a great protector?

Meanwhile, Cricket does a lot of angry gesticulating and pacing, as all important heroines do rather than lean on friends and family or, worst of all, allow themselves to lean on a MAN who might become an irritating beau, and realizes that her parents were both lying douche bags whose secrets have now put her in the unenviable position of being stalked by a person intent on annihilating her for what she’s discovered about her mother’s murder.  She’s scared, even though she’ll never admit it, because she’s pretty stupid that way.  Plus, her father hasn’t paid property taxes for over three years.  Between the burial expenses and the property taxes, her property is at risk of being seized which threatens her livelihood.  It just so happens that this is the end of the twenty first century and there’s no civilian access to oil so no one drives cars and Cricket’s town is devoid of money or work and she’s broke as shit because she’s compensated for her apothecary work more often than not with eggs, firewood, or braces of birds instead of cash.  She’s so fucked!

Even though her best friend Julie and Julie’s really pious brother Tommy who, though it’s a mystery why, Cricket used to be in love with, offer to help her pay off her taxes which any normal person would have been thankful for seeing as it would solve some of her problems.  But heroines in general, and redheaded ones in particular, are a very tetchy lot and like to make their lives as difficult as possible.  Just to complicate things she finds herself witlessly attracted to Grey who she’s convinced is a lying sack of shit like her parents, and the fact that the FBI think he’s a smuggler lends weight to her tendency to think him a pretty annoying person.  The fact that the FBI also think her father was a smuggler adds to her general sense that the entire world is just full of criminal douche bags.

She has lots of choices but decides to make some money working as an armed guard for the local crime boss Malakai Jeffers, escorting his underaged niece to be delivered to her prospective creepy old man fiancé in Portland.  This is a dangerous job since it must be done with horses on a road full of ruffians that hasn’t had maintenance work done on it for at least thirty years.  She’s livid when she discovers that Grey is working the same job!  He really is a liar!  Which vindicates her sense of righteous anger, dampened only slightly by Grey pointing out that she is now doing morally questionable work herself.  Lots of things happen but most importantly, while shooting each other up, they find love and then come face to face with the bastard who snuffed her mother.

Pretty catchy, right?

Except that if I was really going to write a romance I would never make my heroine an independent feisty wild redhead.  That cliche sailed generations ago.  I would have to constantly vomit it’s so stupid.  Though I did write a redhead with a temper who gets in fistfights.

So fuck you, Angelina.

But that was before I knew I was writing a romance.

I could change her into a mealy-mouthed mousy girl.  That would be a refreshing new take.

That’s right.  I want to abuse my characters because I’m upset with myself.

I’ve already decided that the only way to make this something non-romantic is to have Cricket kill him.  I think I’ll make Tommy turn out to be an abusive bastard to Rebecca too.  While I’m at it I may as well make Cricket’s dad turn out to be her mother’s real murderer.

My most brilliant realization through all this is that next time I can write the pitch first and then write the book, being very careful to stick to the pitch.  Then when I’m done with the book I won’t have to go through this brain-crushing process.  I’m going to go write a few pitches for books I haven’t written and just start over.

Important message: I’m spewing because I’m frustrated.  I’m being hateful and mean and vile.  Take me literally at your own risk.  I’m venting, not giving you the oracle of truth to Angelina’s life.  Take it all with a grain or two of salt.  Or crack, if you prefer.  I’m in a black and horrid mood an fighting off tears every second and contemplating vacuuming because that sounds like fun.  None of this should be so hard.  I think the fact that I think it’s like pulling intestines out of live cats is a real testament to my unstable nature and a reminder that I’m NOT A FUN PERSON.