Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fall in Florida

Because it's Saturday morning ....

Fall in Florida means broccoli in an Earthbox ...

And blooming orchids ...

And the first tomatoes of the season setting fruit ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quiet Progress

I was planning a companion post to the last one, but this time about things I (we, you) need to improve in our writing. You know how it is. If you can't name what's not working, then you can't fix it.

But I just ... couldn't. I couldn't bring myself to do it, because I discovered that I had no desire to rub my nose in my own problems like a bad doggy. Not right now. Anyway, I think I've covered that territory pretty well, so what's left to be said?

Instead, I'm going to write about querying and progress. It feels kind of odd, but I find myself querying again. I pretty much know which agents I'm interested in, and I've read widely enough in my genre to know who is repping the kinds of books I'm trying to sell. So I spent a little time this week whipping up a basic query and shipping it out, along with a few sample chapters. Naturally, I included in the query that this book has already been through revisions with a major house and they rejected it. You pretty much have to include that kind of thing.

But it got me thinking about how much has changed since last time I queried.

Early on in my career, I used to send out queries by the truckload. I was a master at querying ... for magazines and newspapers, literary agents, editing jobs, whatever. I was intent on building a career, even though it felt like every door was closed. I used to prepare queries by the batch and spend loads of money and time copying clips and putting together packages (remember those days)? Then the SASE rejections would roll in. And my, would they ever! I remember some days getting five or six rejections in a single day, for various projects and ideas.

For a long time, I kept all the rejections. I guess I thought it was some kind of record-keeping thing, so I'd know who I contacted. But my file grew into a box, which grew into a crate that I kept underneath the bed like some poisonous fungus. One day, when I was having a moment, I thought, "Why the hell am I keeping all these? Why am I building a monument to my own rejection?"

So I dragged the box out, and I threw them all away. I haven't kept a rejection since. And if that means I sometimes queried the same editor, so be it.

Fast forward ten years, and here I am, querying another novel (number six, hard to believe). And the response has been gratifying. So far, more than half of the agents who have replied have requested either a full or a partial. Ten years ago, I was lucky to get 1 out of 10 asking to see anything.

This doesn't mean I'll find representation, and even I do, it doesn't mean I'll find the right representation. But ... to me, it's a small sign that there is such a thing as progress, that you do move forward, even if it's slower than you like and even if it costs more than you expected.

Writing is truly a journey, with way stations and destinations and roundabouts and off-ramps. If nothing else, querying again has reminded me how far I've come, and it's nice to know that I've earned this kind of response. It's nice to know that, no matter how I feel about what's happened, I got more from the last two years than two books I can't sell. And I have to trust that, even if I can't really point to a tangible sign of progress in my fiction, there has been movement. And I bet the same is true for any writer who is actively working at it, who is putting in the time. That, despite the rejections and the scars, there is a quiet progress.

So you tell me: what progress have you made?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taking Stock, part I

I'm in a taking-stock kind of mood lately ...

One of the things I hear over and over is that I have to be ruthless with my own work. This advice comes packaged in a million ways: kill your darlings, revise ruthlessly, cut the first chapter, eliminate every spare word, etc., etc., etc. But the point is always the same—I have to be brutally, unflinchingly honest about my own work.

And I don't disagree, but ...

There is a flip-side here. I think the general churlishness of this business has terrified a lot of writers into a defensive crouch. Perhaps daunted by the odds, many writers seem unwilling to stake out their own territory. People don't want to vocalize their dreams, or they give what feels like watered-down versions. And people don't like to be boastful because it might jinx them or seem boastful. So you rarely hear a writer say, "Hey, I'm good at this."

But for some of us, I think it's just as important to be complimentary as it is to be ruthless. At least I know this is true for me, especially over the last few days. No joke, the last few days have been rough. At one point, I caught myself thinking that the last three years of effort have earned me two manuscripts I can't sell and nothing else. As far as tangible progress is concerned, I'm exactly where I was three novels ago.

So you know what? Screw that. Today is my Stuart Smalley day, my Sally Fields day. Today is the day I'm going to say what I do right. I welcome you to do the same. And don't worry ... tomorrow we can talk about what's not working. Here goes ...

[Several minutes tick by.]

Uh, erm, well ... I was all fired up, until I actually got to this part. Ha ha. Let me try again ...

OK, first off, I'm good at plot. My plots are multilayered and I spend a lot of time creating red herrings, twists and turns, and surprises. And I'm good at world-building. That much is true for sure. I'm pretty good at creating a whole world quickly, with its own rules and identifiable vibe. And I know my writing is lean, but I also think I'm a "voice" writer to some extent. My voice isn't lush, and perhaps not intricate, but it's pretty identifiable.

Most off all, though, I think my greatest strength is mood and tone. I spend a lot of time searching for a "vibe" with every story, and it's crucial to me that every word supports that tone. I like fun; I aim for fantastic. My goal is reader immersion. I want the reader to vanish in my rabbit hole and to accept that my outlandish ideas are totally possible in this alternative world.

(OK, I'm warming up to this now!) You know, I actually think I do more right than I do wrong. I almost never, never, never go back and read my own writing, but when I do, or when I have to, I usually enjoy it. That's a nice thing. I often think, "If I didn't write this book myself, I would wish I had written it."

So there you have it. Those are some of the things I think I do right. If you happen to know my writing, feel free to add to the list (kidding).

And now it's your turn. You tell me: without inserting any qualifying criticisms, which parts do you get right?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Journey

I love stories about publishing journeys. When I find a new author I like, more often than not, I'll search out interviews or blogs and read all about their path to publication. It's more than just instructive -- it's inspiring, and it's endlessly variable. I've probably read hundreds of "path to publication" stories, and each was different.

Before I actually wrote my first "real" novel, I secretly thought my own path to publication would be pretty painless and quick. Write book. Phone rings. I'm in. Funny, right? I suspect that kind of dream is at the beginning for a lot of people -- because if we really knew what was in store for us, we'd be fools to actually start this journey.


I've had a novel under consideration at a major publishing house since this spring. Actually, it was more than just "under consideration." One of the editors there liked it a great deal and supplied me with a detailed revision letter. So I rewrote the book and resubmitted. I just heard back, last week, that she's going to pass. She gave me fairly detailed reasons, and they're not unfamiliar to me.

This makes twice now.

Twice that I've submitted a book to a major house, gotten significant interest and oodles of wonderful praise, and a detailed rewrite letter. Only to be rejected in the end. Along the way, I've had access to some wonderful editorial minds—the two editors I've worked most closely with have had books perched in the top ten of the NYT best-seller's list for most of the past three years. One of these books is probably destined to be a classic.

I wasn't truly and really and deeply crushed this time around, when they passed. Truth is, I expected it. The first time -- now that was a killer -- but not so much this time. It stung for a day or so, and then I got into motion.

You know what they say about insanity, how you do the same thing over and over and expect different results? Here's the truth as I see it: I'm very, very close, but something I'm doing isn't working exactly.

My tendency in these situations is to encapsulate all the responsibility and swallow it like a bitter little pill. Here, though, I think it's not 100% about me or my writing. The book industry sucks right now. It's near impossible for a new author to break in. I'm writing middle-grade "boy funny" books (to quote one insider), and the books in my genre that are going at auction are all teen romances (vampires, werewolves, paranormal anything). This is a tough nut to crack.

I'll admit that I've wavered a few times along the way. How do you know when it's time to quit? In a conversation with my (now former) agent after we heard back, he said, "A lot of times, I'll have to tell people, 'Listen, the universe is trying to tell you something. You should listen. Maybe this isn't for you.' But that's not you. I'm not telling you that, I'm just saying that a lot of people never get that message."

I'm not quitting. I'm retooling. But I want to know: what would the universe have to say to convince you to quit?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Hole, by E. Allan Flanigan

When the devil's gaze fixed upon me, I didn't see it so much as feel it. And it was covetous.

For weeks I had passed the old man without incident. Each morning as I walked by the decrepit building he called his home, I noticed him there — hunkered against the brick wall, bottle in hand, eyes closed against the bright morning sun

In a neighborhood wasting away into spilled bricks and graffiti, this building's mass of knotted pipes made it stand out like a sentinel. But it was a sentinel that the old man could not see.

As I walked by this day, I felt a curious chill like a tiny death, and my vision was drawn to the old man. His eyes were open, and the sight of one of them stunned me, pulled the breath from my lungs. The eye was dead — a milky, pale blue — and motionless. And it was looking at me.

Oh, how I wish that eye had been closed! But once the eye found me, the end was already written.

When I was a child, my Tante once said, "The devil is active in this world. Trust yourself to recognize him when he is revealed."

I became acquainted with evil when I met that gaze. I had been seen, my content exposed, and the only response was to blind the eye forever.

From that moment forward, I made my choices with care — so rational, so aware. I carried myself as a man of God, knowing His plan.

Each day as I walked by, I studied the man's face. The eye was always closed, the old man asleep. For seven days this occurred, and each night I prayed for the Lord to give me the strength to close the eye when the moment came.

On the eighth day as I approached, the eye fluttered briefly, a glimmer of white. The street was deserted; my opportunity had arrived.

I swiftly rushed to the old man, hauling him up from the ground by his thin frame. He cried out just once as I dragged him toward the heavy wooden doors, threw back the latch, and shoved him inside the darkened building.

It was pitch black as we fell to the floor, I on top of him. He was small beneath me, all bones and ribs.

"Who are you?" he cried. "Why are you doing this?"

I hesitated for a moment then, only for a moment. I could hear his breath, a gentle wheeze with each exhale.

What is the cost if you're mistaken?, I asked myself. What price will be extracted from you?

But by God's will, a beam of light in that moment shone through a hole in the door and settled upon the man's face, upon the man's eye. And the eye flickered there, searching for me.

In the darkness, he did not find me.

I know what the Good Book says, I know about the fear that overtakes a man when he's asked to perform a difficult task. I know about being tested. And in this knowledge, I began to squeeze the old man's neck.

He struggled for air, but his gasping only provoked me to tighten my grip. I held on until the eyelid stopped its desperate movement and was fixed open. I squeezed until my existence was erased from its memory.

Then I rose and escaped the pale eye. I had lifted its weight from my soul. I felt invisible again, and free.

For three days I walked past the building without fear. I admit I even experienced pride, so sure of myself and of God's presence in the world.

But on the fourth day as I walked by that place, I felt the familiar chill, the spotlight gaze.

As I focused upon the building, upon that sentinel, I saw it. A mere flicker in the darkness.

From behind the hole in the door, I saw the shimmer of an unblinking gaze. And from within the darkness, I knew it saw me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Entourage, by Melanie Avila

The sludge oozed around my feet, a syrupy slime that congealed around my ankles, chilling me from the inside out. It was getting higher. Just moments before the tips of my toes were still dry, but I could no longer see them through the muddy goop that seeped beneath the door.

The door.

I rested my hand against the splintered wood, then traced my fingers along the rusted metal band that held the planks in place. How long would it hold? The others whispered that nothing could keep it out, that there was no use hoping for escape.

I stepped closer to the door and peered through a small hole near the top, fighting the sludge that clung to my feet and pulled me back down like it didn't want me to see what was coming. An ocean drowned the streets and anything unfortunate enough to be out there when the manhole covers first erupted like a rolling boil, spewing the thick black—what exactly was this? It looked like molasses—sludge into the air. Except it was ice cold.

"Is it bad?"

I turned my head at his raspy voice but ignored his question. He didn't want to know what was out there. Didn't believe it anyway.

A scream made me turn away from the door. The two women huddled against the far wall were scrambling over each other, reaching for the pipe that ran along the length of the ceiling. The younger woman grabbed her friend's shoulder and, with a quick yank to free her feet from the muck, leapt for the ceiling and grasped the pipe.

A deep groan echoed through the dank room.

He turned to face them. "It won't hold you."

The young woman's eyes darted his way, then back to the other woman. "Yes it will. Jump, Matusa."

Matusa swatted at her legs and a tremor ran through her corpulent frame. She looked up at the younger woman and slowly shook her head. Tears slid down her cheeks.

"You can."

It didn't make a difference to me. Dangling from a pipe would only delay the inevitable; fighting for five extra minutes wasn't how I planned to die.

Matusa tried to jump but the sludge had her by the knees.

It was rising faster.

Panic rocked through me and I was sure my heart would stop—it wasn't meant to beat this fast. I glared at him, still smug against the wall, and fought to control my breathing when my skin began to crawl.

I looked down at my own legs, but it wasn't my skin that was crawling.

Tiny white creatures swarmed over my pants, undulating upwards in an eerie dance that mesmerized me. Now I understood their screams. They wormed through the hole in the door and I snapped into action, beating my legs, my torso, my arms, desperate to get them off me.

I eyed the pipe. Maybe five extra minutes was worth it.

But it was too late. The powerful sludge pulled at my hips, trapping me next to the door. I cast a desperate glance at him, but it was too late for that, too.

The terrible moaning grew louder and the pipe shattered, sending slivers of metal raining into my flesh, into the sludge.

Unable to move—even my arms were trapped now—I watched the blood trickle down my chest as if it was someone else standing here, some other fool who didn't run when she had the chance. If only he had believed. The metallic odor reached the creatures and they moved faster, devouring the warm liquid that was so different from the muck that carried them here.

The screams began again but I couldn't tear my eyes away from what was happening to me. Was this how they died? I had assumed they drowned, smothered by the sludge—no one said anything about creatures feasting on their flesh. But how could they? There would be no way for that part of the story to pass on to the others.

An unnatural brightness filled the room, and the dark walls became white as the creatures searched for food.

I could hear him choking, gasping. Trying to speak. His voice came out a hiss. "S-s-s-s…sorry."

But it was too late.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Door, by Jon VanZile

They went to the old city every morning to steal bread, running over cobbled streets and past the tilting, ancient buildings.

They were about the same height, and looked like they might have been siblings—but for the way the boy looked at the girl. He was obviously in love with her. She was 18 months older than he, and her brown hair was long, kinked and matted. They wore rags, and his feet and legs were covered in sores from the vermin that infested the low-lying city.

"Hey!" she said, reaching for Flynn as he turned abruptly away from her and headed down a side alley. "Where are you going?"

But Flynn ignored her and kept pattering toward the door.

"Flynn!" she hissed. "C'mon! We've got to go!"

But in a moment, Flynn was standing before the door. Again. The alley sloped down here and the stones were thick with moss and algae from the water—and other, less pleasant things—that seeped from the old buildings.

He stood before the door, staring at it hard. He was poised on the balls of his feet.

Sophie came up behind him, tugging on his arm to pull him away. "C'mon! Let's go."

He glanced at her, and his eyes were shining. "I'm gonna open it."

"No!" she said, her brows creased. "What is your deal with this stupid door? Can't you just let it go?"

"There's something there. I can feel it. Maybe we'll find something for Kyle. Maybe it's a ... you know."

"So what if it is?" she said. "Who cares?! Just leave it alone!"

"What? You scared?" Flynn said, teasing lightly.

She was holding his arm now, protectively, pulling him back and closer to her. "C'mon, Flynn, can't you smell it? Please, let's just go."

Flynn flared his nostrils and tasted the air pouring from a hole in the old door. It smelled sulfurous and richly organic, like a just-popped match and swamp mud. "Yeah," he said. "I smell it."

"So what else do you need to know? Isn't that enough?"

"You know, I don't get you," Flynn said, turning on her again. "You'll steal anything that's not nailed down, but you're too scared to open a stupid door? What's the big deal?"

"Because I don't believe in getting killed ... or worse ... over nothing. If there was food behind the door, I'd think about it. But there isn't. And—"

But Flynn had shaken her off and was nearing the door. He reached out slowly and put his hand on the old latch. It was cold, and the smell here was stronger. He figured the door opened into a tunnel, or maybe stairs leading down, under the city. It was an old city, built two thousand years ago over a series of natural catacombs in the rock below. But no one went into the catacombs. Even the street kids, who weren't afraid of anything, shied away from the various doors and holes and sluice gates leading down. The city was full of stories.

Behind him, Sophie was watching with terror on her face. "Flynn," she tried again, "please. I've seen what they can do."

He turned around sharply. "So have I."

Sophie bit off her next words and hunched inward under his withering gaze. A dragon had taken his father—how could she have forgotten that?

"I'm sorry. You know I—"

"Are you gonna leave me?" Flynn said. "If I go in, will you go with me?"

Sophie nodded through the tears that sprang into her eyes. "You know I would never leave you," she said. "You know I wouldn't. But—"

The alley echoed with a sharp crack as Flynn suddenly wrenched the clasp open and pushed against the thick, spongy wood. At first, the door wouldn't budge, but then it gave way and fell inward with a crash. A rush of air came at him from the blackness, and as he recoiled from the stink he saw that he had been right: there were slick stairs leading down into blackness.

He turned around, his eyes shining. "C'mon," he said. "I'm not afraid."

Sophie came forward slowly to stand next to him. "Why do you have to do this?" She was barely whispering.

Flynn didn't answer because the answer would have been too hard for him to put into words. He needed to see one again, yes, but mostly he wanted to test himself against his fear. And he wanted to see if what they were saying about him was true, that he had a rare gift.

The last thing he did before stepping into the darkness of the first step was reach out and take her hand.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Woo hoo! I'm baaaack (for now at least)

So I never thought it would happen ... I was beginning to doubt I'd ever be writing new fiction again. To recap: I was clipping along beautifully on a book last winter and spring. I was very excited about this book. Then I got a request for revisions on an older book, which sent me underground all summer. I finished the revisions and decided to shop a nonfiction book, and I got a request for a proposal that took another month to put together. And guess what? I dropped the proposal in the mail this morning.

I've had a zillion writing-related thoughts all this time. I suspect, in a weird way, that I'm a totally different writer now than I was a year ago. At least I certainly hope so, considering that I've now rewritten the same two books over and over and over and over. If I didn't learn anything in that process, then hit me with a frying pan. Also, I don't know how else to describe it, but my writing has gained a certain sure-footedness as of late. I think being exposed to fairly intense criticism, and working REALLY hard to answer that criticism, has sharpened my senses. So as I contemplate picking my book back up, I'm in a good place. My head is on as straight as it gets, I think I'm working on a pretty solid concept with a good start, and I'm generally just really excited about it.

Now, to writing. I drive my oldest son to school every morning, so we spend about half an hour in the car together. Lately, I've been paying attention to how often we talk about school. In total, I'd say it's about 15% of the time. The rest of the time we're talking about everything else -- ideas mostly, but also people and histories and stories.

If you think about it, people almost never talk about what they're doing. Because they're doing it. Who narrates their every activity? Boooring. This is true in books, too. Having the characters talk about what they're doing, or just did, is just flat out redundant. Because the reader was there too, they already saw it happen.

I've been working on this lately, on writing dialogue that isn't about plot as much as it's about the flow of thought stimulated by the events covered in the plot. Like my son and I going to school, people rarely talk about what they're doing. They talk about what they are thinking, the ideas they have. People's thoughts are tangential, and they're often self-referential. So that's my challenge now, as I finally start writing again ... every time I find my characters talking about the plot, I ask myself, "Really? Is that really the way it works?"

More often than not, the answer is no.