Friday, April 30, 2010
Before I start my pitch, though, I want to tell you a story about my oldest son, Max. He's always been a funny kid with a really novel take on life. A few years ago, when he was about 9 or so, Max and I came home to an empty house to find that the washing machine had flooded. This meant we had to pull everything out of the laundry room, move the washing machine and dryer, figure out what was going wrong, and then fix it. Max was at that awesome age when he was eager to help Dad with any project, so we started pushing and pulling and moving stuff around.
Then the Domino Effect kicked in. The outflow pipe came off the wall, the dryer vent was pulled free, and things went from bad to worse. At one point, like an idiot, I wanted to see if the pump was still working in the washing machine, so I turned it on without hooking up the outflow pipe and sprayed water all over the laundry room.
My wife picked that exact second to arrive home. She walked in, saw us with the laundry room taken apart, water all over the floor, dryer lint floating through the air, and asked, "What's going on?"
Max looked up and said in his completely earnest way: "Hi, Mom. We're formerly known as the disaster waiting to happen."
I had to stop and think about that for a second.
Anyway, Max is 15 years old now and he entered a writing competition at SparksNotes (the organization that helps students figure out what the heck books are supposed to mean). He was selected as a finalist in the category of "Most Unique." If he wins the voting round, he gets $500. Which is a fortune to a 15-year-old who keeps a list of toys he wants (drums, new iPod, car, music).
So here's my pitch: go check out Max's entry in the competition. Read the other two entries. Carefully consider who DESERVES to win.
And then vote for Max.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
In my bottom right-hand desk drawer, I keep a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. I keep it for celebratory cases, hard-won. I keep it for the God-awful cases that trail me home like shadows at the end of the day. The Marsh case was both.
I set the glass on my desk and poured it more than half full. My hand shook and the first sip raced through me. I imagined it purging my brain of the shadows. I took the second slip slower and shut my eyes. Another one for you.
Someone tapped on my glass. My assistant opened my door and stuck his head in. “There’s a woman here to see you, Joe.”
I glanced at my watch. “It’s been a long day. Can you take a message?”
He shook his head. “She says she has to see you. Today. Said her name is Grace Ann.”
I set the Scotch down unsure I could trust my voice. “How old is she?”
“About your age. Beautiful. Blonde.”
I exhaled. “You can send her in.”
When he shut the door, I downed the rest of the Johnnie Walker.
She walked in not three minutes later, tall, willowy, expensive bracelets on her wrists, and the scar. The little star-shaped scar on her forehead that she got the time she fell from my treehouse.
“Hello, Joe,” she whispered.
“Hello, Grace Ann. Sit down,” I gestured toward the chair. I wasn’t sure if I was even breathing.
“I followed the case, and . . . I saw your picture. I thought of coming here a dozen times and always chickened out. But . . . I wanted you to nail the bastard.”
Nail the bastard.
I’d spent fifteen years of my life atoning for not rescuing Grace Ann from the shadows on her wall.
“How are you?” I managed to speak. “Do you live in the city? What do you do? Are you married?”
“Do you cross-examine everyone this way? Good, yes, actress, no.” She smiled. Her eyes didn’t though. Sad eyes behind the flirtatious voice.
“Occupational hazard. I ask a lot of questions.” I blinked and I remembered a day in fifth grade when she smiled at me. Maybe the only time I ever saw her smile that way. A pure laugh. “So . . . It’s been what? Fifteen years?”
“Yeah. I . . . God, where to even start. I ended up, believe it or not, in L.A. You can fill in the blanks. I did some things I’m not proud of. A lot of things, actually. And I woke up one day and looked in the mirror and wasn’t sure who I even was anymore. So I took all my money, came east. Took real acting classes. Ever see that commercial for—”
“Oh my God,” recognition flooded through me. “You’re the toothpaste girl.”
She laughed. I saw a hint of the girl gazing at the stars. “Yeah. That’s me.”
I leaned back. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“And how about you, Mr. Prosecutor?”
I didn’t answer for a minute. Finally, I whispered. “I’ve spent my life going after bastards like your stepfather. It’s my penance.”
She bent her head. “Joe . . . you were a boy.”
“Yes, it does. You were so kind to me. I’ve held onto that night in the field my whole life. Kind of measured people up against you, Joe.”
How could I tell her I did the same?
She looked up from her lap. “So I just had to come say thank you, Joe. And shake your hand.” She stood up and put her hand out in the space over my desk.
I stood. “Do you want to have dinner, Grace Ann?” I took her hand and didn’t so much shake it as hold it.
“Considering how I left town and what you do for a living, Joe . . . I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. It’s sort of why I haven’t come before now. But this case, the Marsh girl. She might have been me.”
I’d actually thought about what would happen if I ever found Grace Ann. “How you left town doesn’t matter to me.”
“Maybe not now. But someday it might.” She withdrew her hand and started toward the door.
“Grace Ann . . .” I just couldn’t let her walk out.
Her back was to me, but she didn’t say anything.
“You were right, that night. I was spying on you. I could hear what he did to you. See what he did, through the open window. In shadows on the wall. My entire career has been about saving every Grace Ann there is. Every last one. I have something to show you.”
I opened my bottom desk draw where I keep the Johnnie Walker and took out the envelope.
“Here.” I walked to her and put it in her hand. She still didn’t move.
Then slowly, she opened it. A single Polaroid our fifth-grade teacher had taken of her and pinned on the bulletin board along with all our pictures. I had stolen hers and kept it until the colors faded to sepia tinges.
She turned around. “They say you are the prosecutor who never sleeps. That your assistants quit from exhaustion. That you’re driven like no one the city has seen before. You’re forgiven, Joe. Now you can sleep.”
“Don’t go,” I heard a panic in my voice I didn’t recognize.
She held my gaze, then looked down at the picture. We stood there like statues. Finally, she said, “All right.” She smiled at me. “Dinner, then, Joe.”
I nodded and opened the door for her. And for the first time for as long as I remembered, a shadow didn’t follow me home or come in echoes through an open window.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a companion story to the earlier Open Windows.]
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Raisa says people are like trees: you have to cut them down to see what they're made of.
Raisa's really smart, and she's also the funniest person I've ever met. She's always cracking jokes and playing tricks and stuff. And she comes up with things really fast. When Margot didn't save her a seat at breakfast, Raisa said, "Hey, Large Marge, I know you got your red hair from your mom, but did you get your chest hair from your dad?" It was so funny.
She has nicknames for everybody. Smelly Shelly. Sticky Nicki. She calls me Scabby Gabbi, but nobody has a nickname for her because nothing rhymes with Raisa.
We're best friends. They call us the Rainbow Twins because we always wear two different colored socks. If she wears red and blue, I wear pink and purple. We also wear yellow and green sometimes, but not black or white, and not orange. Raisa hates orange.
Raisa wears two different socks even when she’s not at camp because rainbow is her favorite color. I do it because we’re the Rainbow Twins.
She can tap dance and French-braid and count to 10 in Japanese. She went to Hawaii last year and rode in a helicopter. Her dog's picture was on the Today show. She likes being interesting.
If you can't take a joke, you're boring, and nothing is worse than being boring. "What good are you?" That's what Raisa says.
Last summer Sarah and Raisa were best friends, but not now. Raisa says Sarah is boring. She calls her Snoozy Sarah.
Last night we played a trick on her. Right after lights out, Raisa called for our counselor Michelle. “Sea-shell, I need to use the bathroom!”
“What are you up to?” Michelle shined her flashlight toward Raisa’s bunk, and Raisa was hopping up and down with her hand between her legs.
“I really have to go, Sea-shell. This is très serious.”
Michelle said, “You have to take a buddy.”
Raisa grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door. We started toward the bathrooms, but then Raisa turned off her flashlight and stopped.
“What are we ….?”
“SHUSH!” she said. She looked around, then pulled a piece of paper out from under her shirt. "Wait 'til you see this letter the Snooze wrote her mom today: Boo-hoo, I miss home, I miss Daddy. Wahh!"
She yanked a roll of masking tape from her shorts pocket and started walking toward mess hall. "This will be hilarious. Just wait 'til tomorrow."
Raisa taped the letter to the door and we went back to the cabin and went to bed.
This morning, when Raisa and I walked up for breakfast, the other girls were gathered around reading the letter.
"What a big fat baby!" Raisa started laughing.
Nobody had a chance to say anything because just then Sarah walked up and saw. She ripped the letter down and looked at Raisa like she was about to cry. "You know, Raisa, you're a jerk!"
Raisa laughed. "Why don't you go get your diaper changed, Snoozy? Or is it time for your bottle?"
I laughed, and Sarah turned to face me. "Gabbi, grow a brain of your own!"
A few girls giggled and Sarah walked away, back toward the cabin.
"She's such a joke." Raisa snorted and went in for breakfast.
This afternoon when I walked up to the cabin to change into my swimsuit, Sarah was sitting on the stump next to the cabin.
"Still down at the lake."
Sarah sat there for a minute, then wiped a tear off her cheek. "Gabbi, did you know me and Raisa used to be best friends? But she's not a good friend."
I thought about what Raisa would say if she were here. "You're just mad because she thinks you're boring."
Sarah shook her head. "No, Gabbi. You know that thing she always says about how you have to cut something down to see what's inside? Well, it's not true. You can see what's inside her if you just look."
“As if you would know!" I said. I thought about walking away from this très boring conversation, but I didn't.
Sarah stood up and pointed to the middle of the round stump.
“The rings are small in the middle, see? This tree didn’t start off good. Michelle told me if the amount of rain and sun is just right, the tree makes a big fat wide ring. But if it’s too dry or too cold or too cloudy, then the ring is real thin.”
"Thanks for the science lesson."
"Gabbi, you don't have to cut Raisa open to know she's real small inside. And she's making us small, too. And you're helping her."
Sarah sat back down. “Michelle said people like Raisa make everybody’s 11th ring small. Forever.”
"You wouldn't say that if she was here."
Sarah shrugged. "OK, Scabby. Just think about it."
I went in the cabin, but I don't have to think about it. Sarah is boring, and Raisa is interesting, and which would you rather be?
Monday, April 19, 2010
I sat at my desk, convinced my drawing was the best ever made. Ms. Cummings often found most my stuff to be too messy or that I had committed the ultimate sin of crossing the lines with my paint. Funny, how the world wants order.
In the fancy drawings of my peers, you can tell what the art represents. Not in this creation I have. My drawing was of the things floating around in the fog of my mind. So depicted and so drawn as to offer the class a real look at the genius of this nine year old.
I drew this because I wanted Ms Cummings to see the real me, to know what lurked under those line faults. The broad brush strokes and the lavish use of blue and red indigo ink. I succeeded. Her look after viewing my drawing let me know she knew the real me.. She didn’t scream. She didn’t cringe. She smiled.
"What a wonderful picture!" she said. "How on earth did you do this?"
I smiled and grabbed up the blue and red tipped pigtails from the girl in front of me.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Today I'm handing over the reins to guest blogger Mark Terry. And all I can say about Mark's post is, "I agree," and, "I wish I had the presence of mind not to freak out ..." Mark's newest book, The Fallen, was just released—it's an old-school thriller that literally opens with a bang. Check it out, or take a peek at the first six chapters on his website (then buy it).
Without further ado, take it away, Mark:
I wrote a fairly long blog post yesterday about Writing For A Living, and someone asked me what my best writing advice would be that wasn’t related to money. I gave her the usual answer, which is “think more, write less,” which is advice given to me by an agent I once had. I still think that’s pretty damned good advice.
But afterward, thinking about it, it occurred to me that there might be a piece of advice I can give to writers that is significantly more important and probably more useful.
Since Jon is a freelancer I’m pretty sure he will agree with me. I have found this to be something I picked up from being a freelancer more than a novelist, but it applies to novels and publishing.
When do you quit sending out queries? When do you stop marketing a story? When do you stop looking for an agent? When do you stop marketing a novel, looking for a publisher?
Ultimately, only you can answer that question.
But here’s the thing about being a freelance writer and doing it for a living: When do you stop querying story ideas?
You don’t. Not UNTIL you get an assignment.
Otherwise you’re going to have to go back to whatever lousy job you had before. If you open a restaurant, you don’t close the doors because it’s not busy unless the bank or your accountant tells you to. You keep marketing and working it until your business takes off. And that’s just like any other business.
I went through a slow period last year and my response to it wasn’t to freak out (if I freaked out every time something strange happened in my writing career I’d be totally insane by now). It was to start sending out more and more queries, trying new markets, hitting old markets, scanning job postings on Craig’s List and others looking for writing gigs. Until I was busy again.
So that’s my best advice for writers. When should you stop? When should you quit? Well, only you know for sure, but I would say, “don’t stop UNTIL you’ve accomplished what you wanted to accomplish.”
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Saturday, April 10, 2010
Thursday, April 8, 2010
First off, I'll admit it: I was surprised how GOOD everybody else was. It was nice, though, because it gave me confidence that I was in the right place. After all, you want critique partners who are at least as good as you are. Hopefully better.
Second, I was surprised how much their criticism stung. I thought it wouldn't be a big deal. Ha ha. Yeah. Right. Stung like hell, and they weren't even all that harsh on me. It was more like, "This is pretty good, definitely has potential, but you need to work on a few things."
Fast forward six or seven years and I'd like to think I've learned a few things about criticism. Lord knows I've gotten enough of it. I might not know squat about getting a book deal, but I sure know a lot about giving and receiving criticism. And now that I'm deep in the critique phase of yet another book, I've been thinking about the process a lot. So without further ado, and in no particular order, my Great Critique Manifesto:
1. Get it early. Here's the thing: if you work without a critique group or partner, you're not avoiding criticism. You're only pushing it back later in the process. Instead of identifying issues at the drafting stage, you'll have potential agents and editors offering criticism, often packaged in the form of nice rejections. So I say get out ahead of those rejections. And speaking personally, I've been through the revision process with professional editors at big publishing houses and it was about 100 times more intense than I expected. You have to earn every word.
2. But don't get it too often. Personally, unless the circumstances are extreme, I think it's a good idea to finish your book, then start revising. A lot of people start, get 1/3 of the way through, then start revising because they're not comfortable. I say go ahead and power through the rough spots. Finish it, then come back. You'll have better perspective on the beginning when you know how it ends.
3. Limit your critique partners. I once sent a book to everyone and their grandmother and their dog for critiques. I figured it would be helpful to get input from "regular readers" and kids and basically anyone who was nice enough to give me their time. While I appreciate this effort, I was wrong. Readers aren't writers and writers often aren't editors. I have since limited my critique partners to a handful of people whose opinions I trust and who are skilled editors. Anyway, too many opinions can only be confusing.
4. Sit on criticism. In fact, sit on the manuscript itself for a while. Wait until the emotion drains away. Wait until you stop focusing on the critique itself and start thinking about the book again. Then start revising.
5. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. This can be tough, especially when you're dealing with critiques from agents and/or editors who have the power to represent or buy your book. And in fact, this happened to me in one of my books. I got a rewrite letter that, after I read it, I just flat-out didn't agree with one of the points. It might have made a good book for someone else, but not for me. I didn't take the advice during the rewrite, and ultimately, the editor never mentioned it again. (The book went down for different reasons.)
6. Believe. A good critique partner will challenge your book on every level. It's like when they pressure-test submarine hulls. They're looking for cracks. But challenging doesn't always mean changing. Sometimes a challenge is merely a pressure test to make sure it holds water. And sometimes your book will hold water and you just have to believe in it.
7. Give back. I believe that critiquing is a group activity. There's a trust issue there, a balance in the relationship. You're putting yourself out there and exposing yourself to the slings and arrows of outrageous readers. But the balance can be easily screwed up if your partner isn't also risking something. A little reciprocal fear is a good thing. I've found that critique partners are much less likely to go off on my writing, expounding on this and tearing apart that, if they know their turn is next. Let's just say it encourages civility.
8. Don't deal with people—even people who are way more experienced than you and might be much better writers—if they are douchebags. I don't know why, but the writing community seems to be full of them. There's nothing more destructive to the confidence than a condescending, dismissive and micromanaging critique partner.
Personally, I feel lucky—my critique partners rule, and I bounce EVERYTHING off them before it goes anywhere. Because that's the other great thing about critique partners. This is a solitary business most of the time, and every writer's journey is completely different. But just because it's solitary and unique doesn't mean it has to be lonely.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Anyway, we have a four-year-old who completed his potty training relatively recently. I mean completed in the sense that he's on his own now. He has his degree. Closed bathroom door. No checking up on his thoroughness afterward. Our job as parents has basically been reduced to asking, "Did you wash your hands?" after he's done. From what I can tell, this stage will probably last well into teenage-hood.
Except for one thing ... Every night before bed, he poops. And every night, he asks me to tell him a "poopin' story." This started a long time ago, when I was looking for a way to keep him occupied while he waited for the magic to happen. But by the time he no longer needed my help, it had become a ritual: me, perched on the edge of the tub, him on his throne, and a little story.
The funny thing is, I think I've gotten more out of poopin' stories than he has. Try this: four to six nights a week, come up with a funny, 5-minute story that has identifiable characters, action, and most importantly, a Major Theme. We tell stories about slugs who learn that even they have special skills, sunflowers who hoard their seeds because they're jealous of their own beauty, wasps who protect children from tarantulas, little boys who wish away night so they can play all the time and never sleep, and on and on and on. I get instant feedback on these stories—I can tell when he's engaged and paying attention. I can tell when a message hits home because his little face lights up. And I can tell when he's bored or otherwise distracted.
Lately, as I'm plotting another book (another book? Indeed), I realized how much I've come to rely on these simple little stories and how much I've learned about basic storytelling by having to come up with a new one every night and, probably more importantly, edit on the fly when I can tell I'm losing the little monkey.
So you tell me ... what surprising lessons has normal life taught you about storytelling?
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
But we went on vacation last week, and since I don't own a cell phone or an iPhone or any sort of mobile device that has Internet access (that's another story), I was completely out of the loop. The first day was pretty hard. I kept having bursts of panic that something was going dreadfully wrong and I wasn't there to fix it. I imagined my largest clients writing me with an emergency, and me not there. Even though they knew I was out of town. Didn't matter. I imagined new clients calling, needing something done, and no me. Gradually, though, the worry went away and I got more used to it. Then it was almost nostalgic. So this is what life was like before I became plugged in, before I opted to work at home ... You're much more present in the moment, much less distracted by the potential of incoming communication.
When I finally did check my email, I sat there waiting for the folder to open, wondering if any of the things I worried about had actually happened. And naturally, I had a zillion emails. But it was 99% spam and 1% no big deal.
Ah. So I actually can take a vacation and my world doesn't fall apart. What a nice thing to know.