Friday, June 26, 2009

Did You See Any Lightning?

I just now, this very second, realized my problem.

I've been through a strangely hellish yet very encouraging ride over the last two years in my quest to sell a novel. Sometimes I think the quest is just that—a Quixotic thing, and as soon as I actually get an offer, I'll get hit by lightning. I'm like that old priest in Caddyshack. He played the game of his life, but he sure picked his days badly.

So ... right now, it looks like another publisher is about to ask for non-contractual revisions to one of my books. That would make three. If it happens this way, I'd have to put those revisions in line with the other set of non-contractual revisions I'm currently working on (and I hope are finally going well, thank you very much).

I know the economy is an issue, and no one really wants to take a chance on an unknown author, but c'mon people, this is getting a little ridiculous. Still, I'm not complaining. I know I'm lucky to even be getting this level of attention. My rejections are actually pretty uplifting. It could be worse.

Which brings me back to my problem. I'm not the bitter type, or the envious type, or even the defeated type (on most days). But I'm afraid I'm becoming the cynical type. I was just sitting here thinking, "You know what, it doesn't matter whatever revisions I do, it's just going to be the same thing all over again ..."

I wish I could say I was too young to be cynical, but I think I'm exactly the right age to be cynical.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You Can Field This One

Jake (my 4-year old): "What are these called again?"
Me: "Slugs. No, wait, I'm sorry. I wasn't really looking. They're grubs."
Jake: "They're cute. They're my pets."
Me: "Your pets? OK."
Jake: "They were under this log. I found them. Look at all the ants. There are so many ants!"
Me: "Huh."
Jake: "Look! Look! They're moving! That one just lifted his face up and you know what?"
Me: "What?"
Jake: "He had ants all over his face!"
Me: "I bet he doesn't like that very much."
Jake: "Why not?"
Me: "You wouldn't like to be covered with ants, would you?"
Jake: "No way!"
Max (my 14 year old) wanders out
Jake: "Max! Max! Come here and look! These are ... what are they called again, Dad?"
Me: "Slugs. I mean grubs."
Jake: "These are my grubs! They're so cute! They're my pets."
Max: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Jake: "And look! His face is covered with ants!"
Max, squatting down to look: "Dad, are those ants eating the grubs alive?"
Me: "Yep. But I wasn't trying to draw too much attention to it. They're his pets, after all."
Max: "That would be horrible. Jake, we should give them a quick death."
Jake: "What's death?"
Me, laughing: "You can field this one, Max."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Talky Talky ... My Bag of Tricks

I don't know about anyone else, but I've got more writing tricks than ... Carters has pills? (What does that mean anyway? When I was growing up, I thought it meant President Carter was a drug addict. He's not, right?)

By tricks, I mean little writing games and process stuff and ways I actually approach a book. For a while, I was just obscenely into note cards. I used to write plot points on note cards like a deck, then lay them all out on the floor and shuffle stuff around until it clicked. Then came the Monster Outline phase, in which I once wrote a 60-page, single-space outline of a book I never actually got around to writing. And lately, I've discovered a new thing ... I call it talky talky.

Every night this week, after the "writing day" is done and I'm sitting in front of the TV or wherever, I've had a notebook propped open and I'm writing pure dialogue scenes. The game is this: all dialogue, with only the most minor of stage directions. It's actually really fun, and it's the best way I've found yet to get into my characters' heads. I used to write "character sketches," but that never really worked for me. But if I just let them express themselves, and their own histories and ambitions, in the words they would actually use--well, I find that big chunks of that notebook make their way into the book.

Let's see. I also read my book out loud. I edit chapters randomly, just opening the file, clicking somewhere in the middle and starting to edit. And every so often, I'll do the dreaded "book in a day" edit, in which I'll read and edit the whole book in one long day. I do the Post-It thing, the margin thing, the argue-with-my-beta-readers thing.

Jeez. It's actually starting to sound a little crazy.

But I don't really care how the process looks from the outside. My thing is pretty simple: it's all about words on a page at the end of the day. If the final draft ends up right on paper, I don't care if you had to write the first draft in mayonnaise on your naked body by the light of the half-moon to get it that way. And in fact, if that actually works for anybody, let me know. I'm pretty much willing to give anything a shot.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Red Light Writing

I used to have this friend who really had a hang-up about red lights. She'd be sitting at a red light, glaring at it the whole time. "I wonder how much of my life, if you added it all up, I've spent sitting at red lights," she fumed. "It's probably like whole days. Weeks even. I hate them."

I knew better than to point out the obvious: without red lights, we'd all be smudges on the road. Red lights are a tiny pause that brings order to life.

My last two books, I've gone through pretty major revisions with both--AFTER I thought I was done. I'm a speedy little writer, so I like to whip a manuscript out, revise it like mad, get myself worked up, type "THE END" and ship it off. Goodbye! I hate revisiting them afterward, and I hate even reading them again. It's worse than boring. It's agonizing. What if I see something I want to fix?

But both times, after months have passed, I've had to go back into the books with a fresh eye and look for opportunities for revision. And both times, I've been surprised how much better I can make the book with a little distance. So now I'm a believer in the literary red light. Finish your book. Then wait until the initial flush of emotion goes away. Then finish it again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where the Girls Are

My name is Lurker. I'm a grown man, and I read novels.

Outside of the comfortable and safe confines of this blogosphere, this makes me an oddity. Among my circle of acquaintance and family, I'm almost the only male I know who reads novels. Even many of my male writer friends--including one guy who is WRITING a novel--don't read novels. They might read histories or nonfiction, but not novels. No, I'm something of a freak.

My oldest son was a voracious reader as a child. We plowed our way through everything, often together. It's part of what got me interested in MG books, because there are some great books out there. We read the Harry Potter, the Lemony Snickets, Treasure Island, LOTR, Artemis Fowl, etc., etc., etc. Now he's 14, and I'm still reading MG and he's ... not.

I follow MG and YA sales pretty close, because this is the market I'm writing for. It's instructive. You'll see highly popular children's and MG books written for boys and girls. But when you start getting into YA, the boy's books just drop away. The market is dominated by romance-y type books, usually written by women. Books that might appeal to boys, like I Love You Beth Cooper, which tells the timeless story of a teenage boy trying to get laid, end up marketed as adult books because no teenage boy in his right mind would be caught dead reading a novel called I Love You Beth Cooper. (But they should--it's hilarious.)

I'm not blaming publishing for this. Of course not. You publish what people buy, and around about age 12, maybe 13, the vast majority of boys stop reading, never to start again. Girls, on the other hand, transition from MG into YA and then many of them make the leap into women's fiction. Over half of the paperbacks published in the United States are women's fiction, a descriptor that encompasses everything from bodice rippers to chick lit to erotica.

If I had a magic wand, I would invent a genre that widely appealed to boys and was acceptable to their parents (sorry, guys, no porn ... but then again, boys don't read porn either). You know, the kind of adventure that kept them engaged and actually excited boys about story-telling. Oh wait ... such a thing already exists.

It's called a video game.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When I Write

I have this book called "How I Write." Talk about writer porn ... it's a bunch of interviews with writers about how they actually work. Their physical space, the talismen and rituals they observe, the foods they are attached to. If this book is any indication, writers are like barnacles--they grow attached to their chairs, they move infrequently and sometimes shun sunlight, they like to cluster with other barnacles, and they filter the passing current for interesting bits of debris.

I find this stuff fascinating. My sixteen-year-old self would die of shame.

Over the years of writing every day, I've managed to grow my own little shell, and it still makes me laugh. So here it is: When I Write ...

When I Write ... I drink loads of water. Bottles and bottles of it. Rarely coffee. The point isn't that I'm thirsty, it's that I have the attention span of a goldfish and I need to take breaks every 2.5 seconds for another sip.

When I Write ... I use the bathroom a lot.

When I Write ... I listen to the most godawful music. I don't know why, but it's all electronica, techno, and rave. As loud as I can get away with. My writing space is like a dance club in the Village. Maybe it's the beat. I dunno.

When I Write ... I can't wear a shirt. If I have to, I'll sweat profusely.

When I Write ... I mumble constantly and chew on a pen cap.

When I Write ... I type in a predictable and distinctive pattern. Silence. Clatter. Silence. Clatter. Backspace, backspace, backspace. Clatter. Silence. Ad naseum.


Writers are very weird people.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Journey

Before I got serious about publishing fiction, I don't think I understood the concept of a writer's journey. I guess I thought that people wrote books, and the books were either good or bad, and good books got published and made a gazillion dollars while bad books were stained with tears and shut away like a crazy aunt. Or something like that.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I now appreciate that the writer's journey is a very real thing. Equally importantly, no two people take exactly the same path, and nobody ends up at the same place. It's always different, unique as a fingerprint.

Yet I think the qualities that help writers on this journey are pretty universal. Willingness to grow is probably the most important one, and that's closely coupled to humility and honesty. Without a willingness to grow, there is no journey. There can be no improvement. If you can't be honest about yourself, about your own work, then you'll stall. Everybody talks about perseverance, but I'd rank it way below the ability to use criticism. If you're working 10 hours a day, yet you keep repeating the same mistake, then you might as well just quit.

I find myself continuously surprised how much is involved in this. True, I do everything the hard way, but I never expected my own journey would be so fundamentally challenging. I never imagined that trying to publish a measly middle-grade adventure would eventually challenge the deepest parts of my personality, would expose my oldest defenses and ask me to do the very things that are hardest for me.

My fondest wish is that every writer I know pushes forward, and I get frustrated and bummed when I see someone giving up, giving in or pushing back. Then I remember that I've done my fair share of fighting, and I've had my heart broken a few times, and it sucks.

But I wouldn't trade this journey, not for anything (although I wouldn't mind televising a chunk for some extra $$$). I'm so glad to be part of the writing community, glad to be around my people. I can always recognize them from their carpal tunnel, near-sightedness, and bags under the eyes from staying up too late, reading.

Overinvolved and the "It" Factor

Already this morning, I have

1. Flushed out an overflowing sewer line
2. Cleaned up a pile of old dog puke I discovered hiding in a corner
3. Forgotten to make my son's lunch for his last day of school


I asked my wife about the talent question yesterday. Here's what she said, "Of course talent exists. You know it does. You're just engaging in an intellectual exercise because you're argumentative. That's what you do. It's annoying. Anyway, people who say talent doesn't really exist are probably those who have it. You don't know how fortunate you are because you've known since you were about 5 what you should be doing with your life. Trust me, if you were still wondering what you should do when you grow up, you'd believe in talent because you'd wish you had it."

Um, thanks?

On a related note, I do believe in the "it" factor. And it's obvious as all get out when someone has "it." Let's take American Idol (nod to Erica from the comments). Personally, I couldn't stand Adam Lambert this season. I mean, let's be honest, the guy was a lousy singer. He screamed through most of his range, and vamped through the rest. I've heard much, much, much better technical singers in the church choir down the street. But it was also undeniable that Adam had "it." He had (for me) an annoyingly magnetic stage presence. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

It's the same way with writers. I can usually tell in a few pages if I'm going to like a writer. The first time I was exposed to Ian McEwan, it was like discovering chocolate. One bite, and I was in. And it has little to do with the story. I'm a huge Nabakov fan, and his best-known story is an odious romp through pedophilia. By contrast, I rarely read intricately plotted thrillers, like the ones produced by Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum or Richard North Patterson (and don't even get me started on James Patterson). I recognize these guys are good (even great) plotters, but for me, the voice just isn't there, and I don't really care about guns, police procedure, military technology or international plots to blow up the world. It bores me.

My wife is right (as usual) that if someone asked me if F. Scott Fitzgerald was talented--and I wasn't dug into an argument--I would answer, "Extravagantly. Ridiculously. Gratuitously." Because he has "it."

So you tell me. What does "it" for you?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Is Talent Real?

We had a party to go to Sunday night and I fell into conversation with a professional artist ... at one point, he was saying that he firmly believes anyone can learn to draw. "It's all eye/hand coordination. If you can tie your shoes or thread a needle, you can draw. Then all you need to learn is the basic forms and how perspective works."

I thought about this for a second, then asked him, "Do you believe in talent?"

No, he said. He doesn't. "It's all practice. Talent is just another word for lots of practice." This was coming from a guy who, by my measure, is a talented artist and makes his living drawing. But there he was, disavowing his own talent.

I've seen this question asked a few places, and it seems that the people who defend talent the most vocally are amateurs or earlier in their journey. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but most of the professionals I know put much more stock in hard work, in grinding it out day in and day out, than they do in pure talent.

Here's what I think: maybe talent is just another word for being born with certain attributes that support a certain endeavor. You know. A kid shoots up to 7'2" when he's 18 and goes into the NBA. His height isn't talent, but it makes it possible for him to play ball. Or a student has an excellent memory for 3D shapes and texture ... a possible sculptor hidden in the mix? A kid is born with perfect pitch. Or an excellent memory. If you choose to press these attributes into the pursuit of a certain profession, viola! You're talented.

Big whoop.

If it even exists at all, I think what we call talent is merely the key to entry. At some point in any artistic endeavor, pretty much everybody you meet is going to have talent, or whatever passes for it. I can pretty much guarantee there's nobody on the New York Times best-seller list who isn't an accomplished and highly skilled writer. So like my artist friend said, it really does come down to hard work ... and talent is beside the point, an afterthought.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Corner

Earlier this morning, I typed "THE END" on my revision draft. For newcomers, I'm working on a requested revision for a manuscript under consideration. No contract. Ha ha. Because every writer loves noncontractual revisions (even typing the words sends shivers down my spine).

This has been interesting process, almost totally unfamiliar to me. You tell me: ever had a revision like this?

The Stages of My Revision

First, I read the rewrite letter and think, "Holy Cow! Can I even do this? Is this possible? Do I even WANT to do this?"

Then I think, "The least I can do is try. Maybe I'll sell this thing. And even if it's not exactly the same book I started with, there's still a good book in there with the editor's revisions."

I'm an outliner, so I mapped out a general direction and started writing. Then it got interesting. It was going along OK at first, but then I basically chucked my outline and just started feeling my way through it. This was new to me. But I knew the world really well, and I knew the outcomes, etc. It was new, kinda exciting, and it meant I had to ask a lot of questions of my characters.

Then, BOOM!

My confidence just cratered. I mean bottomed out. And that's a weird thing for me. Truly, I'm generally a confident writer. I don't mean in the sense that I'm always thinking, "Ha ha! A masterpiece! A best-seller! I RULE!" I mean in the sense that I almost always know where I'm going, how to get there, how to move.

But I kept writing through it. I didn't talk much about it to anyone, and I stopped blogging or commenting on blogs. I just wrote my way through the worst failure in self-confidence I've ever experienced. It suuuuccckked.

Then I started nearing the end, and I gained a little perspective. I realized what was throwing me off: I wanted the book to "feel" a certain way. I wanted it to be immersed in a certain emotional vapor field, and it was close, but not there. And even this was an epiphany. I've never really approached a book like that. I've always wanted to make sure all the many intricate pieces fit together like a clock. When it clicks, I'm done. I've never approached a book and said, "I'm not done until I'm feeling you, oh my brother."

The cloud lifted. Weird. I know.

I'm finished now, and I don't love it yet like one of my own, but I think I can feel my way forward from here. I think I know where it still needs work, where I'm not being really ... well, honest with my story.

It's been quite a learning experience. Like I said, I've never approached a book like this before ... ever. I've never allowed myself to fall into that kind of black hole, and I'm really glad I pushed my way through and kept writing. That's one of the things I got out of this. And here's the other: just when you think you're comfortable with your process, there's a whole new level.