Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How Do I Love These Books? Let Me Count the Ways: I Know This Much Is True

For "How Do I Love These Books?  Let Me Count the Ways" I’ll be revisiting the first times I read books I love and reflecting on what connects me so strongly to those books.

“I never said I was loveable.  Never said I wasn’t a son of a bitch.”--Domenick Birdsey in I Know This Much Is True

I’m going to have to be a little bit clinical to get through this post about I Know This Much Is True, because the connection I have with the novel is so personal and painful that I can’t get too far into it without sounding hyperbolic or losing the point of this exercise.  The first few times I started this post I burst into tears and had to abandon it.  So all I’ll say is that I read it during a homesick first semester at college and that my own family rivals Dominick Birdsey’s as far as the darker issues go.  I will also say that this is my favorite novel by far.  I have books that I love, buy, re-read, and recommend to friends, but this book is a million miles away from those.

I love the language in this book.  The descriptions are haunting; the emotions are raw and on the surface; and the alternating voices of Domenick the child, the young man, and in the present (with a lengthy cameo by Domenick’s grandfather Domenico) are flawlessly executed.  The meandering of the story as Domenick goes about his ruptured daily life, dipping from time to time into his memory, is as natural as conversation.

This book makes me hurt.  A lot.  The horrible things in Domenick’s past make for tough reading and remind me of times of my own suffering.  But if the book had only been sad or dark I wouldn’t call it my favorite today.  The novel ends with hope, an upward trajectory out of the past.  When I read the last line I wept with relief at the pure notion of possibility.  Now just the first pages are enough to get me teary-eyed.  Wally Lamb has written a beautiful story weaved within it a message I sorely needed when I first read it that still resonates with me today—I am not alone.  Be steady, be patient, work to be a better person, and you may always have hope.

The characters are real and whole, they make terrible mistakes but strive for goodness.  They do what they think is right.  They learn by going where they have to go.  Reading it exposes old wounds to the air, but in doing so it keeps them from festering and reminds me of the potential for healing.  I love this book like I love some people.  And that is really all I can say about it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How Do I Love These Books? Let Me Count the Ways: The Hunger Games

For "How Do I Love These Books?  Let Me Count the Ways" I’ll be revisiting the first times I read books I love and reflecting on what connects me so strongly to those books.

The Hunger Games series
I was alone in a foreign country when I found The Hunger Games.  Not technically alone—I was a student in a graduate program, an exile for a month.  I didn’t know anything about Madrid except that I knew everything.  History, art, food, music, culture.  Turns out that’s nothing when you don’t know where the grocery store is.  Daily life doesn’t hinge on a deep understanding of political history.  I had my own little dorm room, private bathroom, true grad school luxury.  I had classes in the mornings, incredible classes, but my afternoons and evenings were free (I didn’t have to do homework since I was basically auditing).  With that free time I went to museums, walked the streets, and missed my home.  I pulled, baffled, on the closed doors of the banks at 3 p.m.  I went to restaurants at 10 p.m., the lone early dinner patron.  

Look, a small-town girl in any city is gasping for air anyway.  I spoke the language, I knew where I was, but I was lost.  Not map-lost, confused as to how my life had brought me to the point that I was 4000 miles from my husband and my family, in the pursuit of enhancing a teaching career that was already on the rise without these desperate measures.  In my lonely moments in my closet-sized room I read.  I downloaded Dracula to my iPad.  It was smutty and fun, but it didn’t last long.  I read fast, y’all.  Not sure what to read next, I saw that I had a free preview of The Hunger Games.   Those weird hours between lunch and bedtime were long, I figured, what the hell?  Everyone had been talking about it.  So I read the first chapter.  And then I raced down to the first floor where the WiFi actually worked and immediately bought the book.  I spent the next few days in an ecstasy of reading that I had not had in quite some time.  
There were so many fascinating moments in that month, not the least of which was my doomed search for ice (at a bar!  They laughed at me!).  I made friends with a few darling girls who were my classmates, with whom I had some truly unforgettable evenings.  But perhaps my need for stronger connections at that time precipitated my love of The Hunger Games.  Perhaps my isolation fed my connection with the characters, who became so vibrant and real to me in that time.  Haymitch and Peeta stand out.  And that’s why I connected so strongly with The Hunger Games, because of characters who feel so real they’re in the room, breathing and blinking (or, in the case of Katniss, annoying me to death).  I raced ahead, read and re-read, spending as much time with them as I could.  Yes, I watched a lot of Psych and Parks and Rec, not to mention having actual real-world adventures with my friends and on my own.  But I did spend a good amount of time with Peeta and Haymitch and Cinna (and, yes, Katniss), too.

Would I have had the same connections with the book had I not been in such a unique situation?  It’s hard to say.  A similar thing happened with the Harry Potter series, The Handmaid’s Tale, and I Know This Much Is True.  And Bridget Jones, for that matter.  Blog entries on all of those and more forthcoming.  But the pattern is clear: the huge books in my life came in mostly with enormous emotional connections.  They carried the seeds of things I needed to make sense of the new world in which I found myself.  They helped me adjust, allowed me to escape and then gently steered me back out into the world a little more enlightened, a little less afraid.

For the record, Catching Fire is my favorite of the series.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Write What's in Your Head, Not What You Think Should Be on the Page

I’m back!  So soon!  And I’m deviating from my normal posting-once-per-decade because I said I had a post for another time, and it’s another time, so here it is. 

What I said was: “you write what’s in your head, not what you think should be on the paper”.  And you may have said: “duh”.  Of course a writer writes what’s in her head.  What else will she write?  Unfortunately I can state authoritatively that too many writers, those with dollar signs where their work ethic or devotion to craft should be, think, “YA is selling.  Paranormal is selling.  Erotica is selling.  I’m good at the words-putting-together-to-make-sentences.  I will arbitrarily choose one of these to write.  I wonder where I’ll put my TV in the Tuscan villa I will buy with all that crazy author money?”

When I see things like this I want to drink gin until all the letters look like squiggly lines.

Because the fact is if you try to write to a trend, you are a) already too late and b) going to end up with something crappy.  (Sorry.  It’s my job to be honest with you.  Well, one of my jobs.  I teach, tutor, write, and I’m honest with you.  I’m a busy gal.)  I speak from experience.  Once upon a time, I was a member of the query-weary ranks.  Sick of rejection, I noticed that YA seemed so much more successful.  Hey, I’m a good writer, if I write YA then I can trick an agent into representing me.  Mwuhahaha.  And so forth.

Needless to say, it didn’t work.  It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but it was just blah.  It got requests, but it got rejected.  Then one of my friends, who reads everything I write, laid it on the line.  (Don’t you just love friends who are truthful with you?)  He pointed out a couple of weaknesses, but said in the end he just didn’t enjoy reading it as much as he enjoyed reading Blessed.  Can you guess why?  Because I didn’t enjoy writing it as much. 

I wrote it because I thought it was the easy way in.  And there is the harsh, ass-kicking truth: there is no easy way in.  There is one way in, and that’s good writing.  And you’re going to have a hard time writing something well if you’re doing it for dishonest reasons. 

I misspoke (miswrote?) when I said you have to write what’s in your head.  You do, but it has to be in your heart first.  I read widely, so I feel comfortable in a couple of genres.  I read some YA, but not nearly as much as other things, so I didn’t have “it”.  It wasn’t in my heart.  Blessed is in my heart.  Class of 98 is in my heart.  And believe me, the next one I write will be in my heart. 

If you really want to write a story then the characters will burst out of your head unbidden, ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.  And if you try to hold them back they’ll host a cagematch in your head.  The only loser is you.  But if you prop up cardboard characters because you think they’re your ticket to fame and fortune they’ll fall right over the first time a stiff breeze comes along. 

Now you might be saying, “Good one.  Thanks a million.  I already wrote what I love, and the phone just ain’t ringing”.  Yeah, that’s a tough pill to swallow.  The only thing I can point to is my own experience.  It’s the speedtrain that spirited Blessed away from Rejectionland and into Happytown (which, as it turns out, is Self-Doubt Village adjacent—but I digress).  It’s a three-fold plan.  Stay with me.

I wrote.  I wrote stories that weren’t Blessed.  I wrote whiny blog posts.  Words, words, words.

I read.  I read On Writing, Bird by Bird, Self-Editing for Fiction Writing, and Writing the Breakout Novel.  I actually read Bird by Bird multiple times, way before I actually decided to get into writing seriously.  It’s just a good guide to life.  If you haven’t read it, quit reading this and get it—it’s magnificent.  The point is, I studied what professionals had to say about writing.  And then…

I edited.  I Flipped This Novel.  I put into Blessed what I had learned and took out what made it weak.  Voila!  Better novel.  Funny how that works. 

So my point is: write what you should be writing, not what you think will make you a big shot.  And if what you should be writing doesn’t help you achieve your goals, then study, listen, and learn.  Do the work.  Fix it.  Make it shine.  Because that’s all there is.  Readers (this includes agents and editors, they read) don't care what's "dead".  They respond to what's real.

“The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”*—don’t you want that verse to be something true?  Something personal?  Above all, don’t you want it to be the best it can be?

*Shout out to my homie, Walt Whitman.  Well, not my homie.  He and I don’t get along most of the time, truth be told.  But he occasionally said some stuff I can’t argue with.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Submissions, Advice, and Your Second Book

Your first manuscript is your baby.  Your pride and joy.  It’s going to get you an agent, spark a hot bidding war between 1-6 of the Big Six, and before you know it Oprah will be holding it up to a hoard of adoring fans.

Except here’s the reality check: maybe not.

I’m navigating the murky swamps of submission right now, and I fully expected to be a basket case.  Instead I’ve found that any rejections don't sting.  Thinking about possible future rejections, maybe having to go on a second round, having to shelve Blessed Among Women…nope.  Doesn’t hurt a bit.

And now you’re thinking: she’s crazy and a liar.  I may be the former, but as anyone who has been on the receiving end of one of my pathetic excuses will tell you, I am not the latter.  I’m being 100% honest when I say that I’m prepared to let go of Blessed (for a while) if now is not its time.

Why?  A couple of reasons. 

The first is that two weeks ago I had a couple of days of teetering on the brink of genuine tragedy that put the whole “is-my-book-gonna-sell” waterworks sharply in perspective.  I am not exaggerating when I say that those issues I was facing resolved in a miraculous way, and thankfully everything is going to be all right.  But facing true hardship showed me that everything that’s happened so far with my book has been a blessing (har har har), and I need to be grateful.  I am.

Another is that I was working on my second novel.  I got it up to a decent wordcount and sent it to my agent and my agency’s editor for a dollop of their signature genius on how to make it sparkle.  It’s a novel I started when I was deep in the late stages of querying Blessed, when things were really starting to happen, and it was nice to have a work-in-progress as a distraction.  Bonus: I fell as madly in love with novel #2 (Class of '98) as I did with Blessed, and I proved to myself that I could do the writing-a-whole-book madness again.  It’s completely different than Blessed—instead of a darkly sweet and tragic love story, it’s a frothy contemporary time travel—but you write what’s in your head, not what you think should be on the paper.  That's a post for another time.

Hence the point of this post: I’ve seen lately in various author communities a disquieting trend.  Statements like:

“Can’t wait to get an agent/self-publish/contract so I can quit my job!”
The problem: your agent isn’t going to pay you, submissions could take a ridiculously long time, and both traditional and self-publishing are not exactly the easy path to Big Money Avenue.  As a debut author your advance will likely be a couple grand doled out over several payments.  In self-publishing, there’s no way to be 100% sure how your book will do.   It’s fine to fantasize about huge advances and book tours, but think of it like winning the lottery and be aware that those things come with their own issues, which brings me to:

“If I write an amazing query, then agents/editors will be beating down my door.”
The problem: if you write an amazing book they will beat down your door.  If you fail to do that before you write an amazing query, then they will request your work, actually read it, and send you a very polite form rejection telling you to keep on trying.  And amazing means amazing to someone, not to everyone.  If you could write a book everyone would love you and Oprah would already be besties and you probably wouldn’t be wasting time reading this blog.  And even if you did write an amazing book, there’s still one more step…

You have to write another one.  No excuses.  No exceptions.

Assume that you aren’t Harper Lee.  Assume that if you want to build a career as a writer in whatever avenue you choose then you will need to build an audience.  And to build an audience, you need to write books.  Plural.  If you sign with an agent, he/she will be delighted to hear that you have other projects in the works.  If you self-publish your readers will be glad to hear you have another title coming out.  And no, that doesn’t mean ideas.  Ideas are cheap.  They’re easy.  Books are grueling, put-in-the-hours work.  And if you have two or three ready to go, then if the first book doesn’t sell, NBD.  You’re ready to try again without having to spend months or years of your life trying to get another book together.

So yes: believe in yourself and your story.  But make sure that you have a realistic picture of what the future holds and your role in making that future a reality.