Wednesday, July 30, 2008

sometimes ya just need to talk

Ask any student who knows me well what one of my "catch phrases" is, and they'll tell you "Dig deeper." The other is "Peel back the layers."

I've been reading our manuscript as a reader rather than a writer the last couple of days, and annotating question after question after question. A bit of conversation from Saturday's panel discussion and Mystic-Lit blog further directed me to some posts about character and scene development that got me thinking even more -- what does our protagonist really want?

And so, the mantra as I read is dig deeper.

I had posed the above question to my writing partner a few days ago, and she was busy thinking. I hadn't heard from her until this morning, when she wrote a lengthy email about both her thoughts and her doubts. I had spent most of today typing the questions into comment boxes (for both her and me), copied from my handwritten annotations on my hard copy. But something stopped me from sending what I had so far. Almost twenty pages in, my gut told me I'd overwhelm her (and I wasn't even done!).

I needed to talk to her.

And so, I did just that. Called her and we started to peel back the layers together. And what we discovered was pretty cool (I was scribbling furiously as we talked).

More than that, we explored completely new ways to bring about these revelations as they unfolded for the reader. Ways we're not even certain we can pull off or will make the story work. They may amount to nothing more than freewrites in the end. But we liked being intrigued. We liked the idea of playing.

We also got into a great conversation of our motivation -- why we write. She knows through my posts about querying agents and what they're looking for, etc., that it can be hard to knock an agent's socks off, or frustrating if they're looking for a certain nuance to the character or plot or genre that's different from the writer's preference. As writers, who do we really write for? Are we really writing for an audience, or are we writing for ourselves?

I said, "I can understand where the agent is coming from. As one who reads a lot of writing in spurts of time, you do look forward to that one paper that stands out." It's what I tell my students when they ask, 'What do I need to do to get an A?': Knock my socks off.

She responded in a way that I want to pass on because I think it's a great piece of advice for aspiring writers to keep in mind, especially when submitting their stuff:
"If you wanna be good, write what you wanna read. If you wanna be great, write what you wanna read AND blow me away too."

I think many writers get either too caught up in either the first or in the second. We're going all in.

Of course, the subject got around to cookies, so that's always a plus.

We're still in love w/ our collaboration and process; what's more, talking to each other this evening revealed some things that differ about our individual processes. It turns out that I indeed would have overwhelmed her had I sent those pages w/ all the questions (she prefers straightfoward statements), whereas they're helping me. Also, I need to think about the composition before I actually write it, whereas she writes intuitively. I also learned that she's never really been at this stage when it comes to the revision process and novels. When I wrote my first two (and she played a big role in terms of reading for feedback and character development), I had already done a lot of revision by the time she saw them. I had hit the wall (multiple times) and gotten over it. With her own major writing projects, she never had to work on anything of this size or that needed this level of revision (or she stopped, whether it was because of deadline constrictions or interest investment). Really good to know, and fascinating too. She's a newbie, in a way.

But we think from the end. And we no that no matter the outcome, we'll have no regrets. We love it so. And even though the revision is getting really hard and a little more like work, now that we've talked, peeling back the layers and digging deeper is something to look forward to. It becomes a challenge rather than an obstacle. A hurdle rather than a boulder.

And I think we're more patient now.

Oh, and may I do a bit of bragging? A good friend of mine who read the manuscript (for entertainment rather than feedback) called it "seamless" in terms of our collaborative style -- woohoo!!!

May you all be this blessed in your composition, be it solo or collaborative.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

the lazy days

It's hard to follow on the last post, especially since the momentum was so high. I've been draggin' my heels ever since, mostly due to a lack of sleep and a visitor in town. I've got a lot on my mind and a lot to do in the next three weeks, and once again I'm procrastinating. But I'm thinking about it all, which for me is part of the process, I suppose. So I say.

That I've stopped exercising hasn't helped. My energy is nil.

I've got any number of options: work on cover art; work on course planning; work on the manuscript; read; update my neglected website, etc.
What do I feel like doing? Going back to bed and just laying there, headphones on, listening to a book on tape until I fall asleep. Maybe a little bit of journaling.

I need to get moving.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

the light is on

I got it.
I've been trying to de-mystify this whole agent-publishing process. It seems that for every panel discussion on publishing I attend, someone wants to know how to get "in." And I always leave feeling like I (and they) have a mountain to climb, only to find that getting "in" is slim, at best, and all you're left with after all that hard work are sore muscles and bitter disappointment.

But last night, while waiting to fall asleep, it came to me.
Job hunting.

Looking for an agent or a publisher is no different from looking for a job. Job-career search is often a full-time job in and of itself, so the agent process is no different. I know this. I've taught this. And it occurs to me that the mistakes I made in the agent search are the ones I caution against in the job search. DUH!!

And so, try applying these tips you would use in the job search to the agent search.

1. Know thyself.
I have often told my students, "Look around. You'll be graduating with a class of hundreds (maybe thousands!) all in the same major as you who just got the same education as you and are going to apply for the same jobs as you. What is going to make you stand out from them? Will it be your personality? Your dedication? Your expertise? Your expertise in an additional subject in combination w/ your chosen major?" Etc.

My goal is to get them thinking about their many strengths and attributes, and to know where they fit in their field. Writers seeking an agent need to do the same thing. They need to have an understanding of the genre or market their writing fits into (and as you probably know, I think it's rarely a neat fit), and what sets their writing apart from others'.

2. Set an intention.
What, specifically, do you want?
I know what kinds of working environments I thrive in. I like being a team leader, but not an administrator. I like group-oriented situations and participation. I like low volume, high content. I like jobs where multi-tasking is not the norm and ulcers are not the result. I like flexible schedules and feeling like I'm doing something different every day. I like a sense of autonomy. And I love being the ideas person. I like to be appreciated and evaluated but not micromanaged. And so on.
Prior to teaching, I worked in both retail management and the cosmetology industries, sometimes simultaneously. I was a decent manager, but knew I wouldn't do well in a corporate setting. And I preferred smaller salons to large chain salons.

The writer needs to have a sense of place when it comes to the agent as well, I think. Do you want to eventually sell your novel to a screenwriter? Do you want to eventually branch out into other genres? Do you want lots of feedback from your agent, or just a negotiator? Do you want simply for your book to get on the shelves, or do you have dreams of best-seller status? Think about what you want, and what kind of relationship you want to have with your agent/publisher.

3. Play the match game.
So, if I know I'm more comfortable in retail settings, I'm not going to look for a management position in a software company. And if I like low volume and high content, I'm going to look at Topkapi as opposed to Target. But, if I like the mission statement of a company like Ben & Jerry's, then I might look into opportunities there, too.

I used to think that when it came to an agent, more was better. Just apply to every agent that listed the same genre as the one I was writing in, and I'd be set. I don't think that's the case anymore. Now I read agents' bios and interests, the agency's mission statement, the list of books published, their areas of business, etc. Large-scale agencies are not for me. Ditto for agencies in California, which are likely more entertainment-driven. But in the way that you would research a company as much as you can before sending a cover letter and resume, invest the same time doing so w/ agents, then pick a handful that you think would be a good match for you. When I say "handful," I'm thinking twenty, tops, for starters. Maybe even ten. If those rejections come back, then try another ten-twenty.

4. The cover letter gets you the interview; the interview gets you the job.
This is what I tell my students when discussing audience and purpose. Cover letters are written with the intention of introducing yourself to the propsective employer, and briefly persuading him/her why you're a good match for the company (see #1). Here's what I can do for you. Here's how I may be of service. Then, you politely ask for the interview. Once the interview is secured, you knock their socks off by showin' 'em who you are and what you can do.

In writer-agent terms, the cover letter is the query letter, and the interview is the request for the manuscript.

The biggest, most costly mistake I made in the agent search for my first novel was to write a one-size-fits-all query letter. I did get about three or four requests to see the manuscript ("interviews"), but the overwhelming majority ended in rejection w/out request. Likewise, I forgot about the golden rule of "Ask not what your agent can do for you; ask what you can do for your agent." I failed to show my agent that I could make her money, that I had something fresh and fun. Instead, I was subconsciously focused on I want an agent, I want to be published, I want to make money, etc.

Again, this goes back to knowing your audience. So many agents keep blogs on their websites and reveal so much information about what they look for in a manuscript, what they don't want, what kinds of query letters catch their attention, etc. Study them. Know the agency. Look up the books they've published. Do the same kind of homework you'd do for the prospective companties you apply to.

Your manuscript is the interview. It's your business attire, your preparation, your demo of your skills at work, your audition, etc. Make it as finished, polished, professional, and kick-ass as it can be.

5. Cast out doubt, and think from the end.
Last night a woman in the audience asked about book tours, and proclaimed that her autobiography was a best-seller "because my life is a best-seller," she said. I think some of the panelists may have misinterpreted her intentions. And while I think she may have been slightly misguided (it seemed to me that she thought bookstores pay authors for their appearances), I think her mentality may have been misunderstood. I understood what she was really saying: she was affirming that she was worthy.

This, I believe, it the number one obstacle that faces aspiring writers. The looming doubt and worry, What if I'm not good enough? The panelists cautioned her against coming off as lacking modesty or humility, but why not affirm that? I wouldn't put it in a query letter (in the same way I caution students to refrain from saying, "I'm the best thing that's happened to your company"), but dammit, say it out loud to yourself as much as you want, especially if you know it.

The publishing industry has no qualms about telling us how much competition there is, and how good we have to be, and how many bad writers there are, yada yada yada. And heck, all you have to do is walk into Barnes and Noble and feel two inches tall. But why not me? Am I not just as worthy as any other author to have a book facing an endcap or a spine sticking out on a B&N shelf? Am I not just as worthy to have a sizable advance, and multiple printings? Don't I know I'm good enough?

If you give in to the self-defeatist attitudes, if you constantly repeat the mantra of "well, there's a lot of competition out there, it's hard to get an agent," etc., then what chance do you really have? Would you do that in any other job market? There are a lot of screwy businesses. In cosmetology, you need a following to get experience, but to to get a job you need a following, and to get a following you need experience. So what does the beginner cosmetologist do? When I applied to a tenure-track position at a community college a couple of years ago, I found out that the applicant pool was in the hundreds. Competition, the search for excellence, the next Food Network star, the American Idol, the superstar CEO -- that's the culture we live in today.

My point is that there's always going to be an X-factor; my brothers have so much musical talent in their pinkies, yet never got the "big break." But, they make a living in careers of music. And they know what they can do. It's a real gift to *know*. When I was a TA, at first I doubted my worthiness to be in the classroom. My supervisor joked, "Just remember that you know more than they do." I did more than that. I affirmed, "I am the teacher. I know what I'm doing and I' am doing it." Then one day at a workshop, a colleague complimented me on the ideas I shared, and was shocked to learn that I'd only been teaching for a year. "You sound like a veteran," she said.

And if you *know* you are worthy of best-seller, that your work is good enough, that you have talent, then by all means, go for it. You have every bit of right. And you won't have to say it -- the book review. Not the reviewers and the agents and the publishers and the editors, mind you, but the book. And the reader. Because isn't that all that *really* matters? There's nothing wrong w/ believing in your novel, your idea, your project, your collaboration, your pitch, your writing, you.

Thinking from the end is visualizing the book on the shelf at B&N, or imagining yourself giving a reading at QRB, signing books for admiring readers, receiving the royalty check in the mail, negotiating the contract, getting the call from the agent who says, "I LOVE your manuscript!" I think that's a much better use of brain activity than, I wish-I hope-what if I'm no good-I have to be careful what I say- it's so hard, blah blah blah blah blah.

And those thoughts are yours and yours only. Share them with no one.

Anyhoo, I'm going to really try to stop worrying about "doing it right" and instead do what I've always known how to do, and what I know I can do, and trust that that is enough. And I know that when it's time for me to begin the querying process for my latest novel, I'll be so ok. That feels awesome.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

a question of intention

My twin brother and I have been lamenting the fact that we both need to get second jobs, and are putting in lacklaster efforts to find them -- not because we are lazy, or indifferent to the urgency, but (and let me clarify that I'm speaking more for me and merely speculating for him) because we simply wish we didn't need to. Our own jobs are mentally and physically draining enough. We're both trying to find things that allow us to make enough to do very little -- 10 hours, tops (for me, anyway). Very, very hard.

I'm not going to use this as a forum to voice once again the injustice of a college instructor not able to afford a landline or even basic cable, but to voice something more central to my own struggle: I'd rather be making my money as a full-time writer. I'd like to think that that is my second job. Hell, that it's my first job, and that teaching is the fallback.
But I can't, 'cause it's not paying me anything.

And that fills me w/ emptiness and frustration.
I was supposed to submit a short story to a writers journal contest that was due July 30. I suppose if I overnight the thing I can still make it, but the truth is that I don't think the story is up to par, even w/ all the hacking and revising I did to it. It's not first place material, and why should I submit anything less than my best work just for the sake of submitting? I am struggling to find my place in this writers' community-- I don't seem to belong to the short-story-submit-your-stuff-to-magazines-and-journals (mainly because I don't write short stories); I'm not a journalist; I like blogging but haven't found a forum where I can combine it w/ another expertise and do it for money yet.

So how do I change this? What's behind it?

I think I'm afraid of what I don't know.
I don't know these avenues, and don't want to know them. They are unfamiliar to me, and unfamiliar has always been discomforting. That is what holds me back.

And that's not to say that I won't ever leave my front door (heck, I've relocated to different states twice now-- on my own!). When I want something, when I really want something, I go after it. It's the one description about me I hear from family and friends: "You're a go-getter, Leese." And they're not wrong. But there's a condition. When I want it, there's a knowing that comes w/ the desire, and that knowing is what allows me to venture into unchartered territory so that even the unfamiliar is no longer an obstacle. It's like being given the map ahead of time rather than feel your way through. Wayne Dyer and others would call this intention.

I wonder, what is my intention when it comes to being a published, paid writer? What keeps me from knowing? Is it all the negative talk that comes from the outside, from agents and family members and other writers who constantly talk about how tough this business is and how you have to be really, really good to make it? Is it that I'm lacking perserverence or discipline? Is it that I'm lacking confidence, that not-good-enough demon whispering in my ear? Or is it D, all of the above?

What do I want -- not just for my writing career, but for my life?

Because I sure as hell know I really don't want a second job -- not the time-card, clock-punching, fill out another W-2 form kind of job, anyway. Not the kind that you dread, that feels like your soul is whithering away minute by minute, and that your precious life is being wasted. I at least know enough to know that that doesn't have to be the case. But I also know that I've got to make up my mind one way or another, because rent's goin' up, gas prices ain't comin' down, student loans are ever-present, and I'm going to have to do something to keep from getting into trouble.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

food for thought

With all the drama that the now-deleted posts stirred up, I think it brought one issue to light that I have batted around a few times on this blog, but perhaps need to devote an entire post to: At what point does a writer, at any level, share his/her work?

I posed this question to my friend and colleague today regarding the classroom peer-review process. Draft-sharing and peer reviewing have been a staple of the composition curriculum for the past twenty years, if not longer. Time and again I have seen the benefits of it. But I have also encountered students who make every effort to not be in class the day a draft is due for peer review, and it's not because he/she blew off the work. It was because he/she didn't want anyone to read it. The anticipation of doing so was anxiety-provoking. Of course, I have to deduct credit and participation points for their absence. Of course their work suffers as a result. I see that. But can I blame them for their reluctance? Why should I treat their process as less than my own. There's no right or wrong, when it comes to process.

I'm caught between the rock and the hard place. I cannot, in good conscience, simply say, "oh, that's ok, you don't *have* to share this draft or turn it in today" (although a voice in my head is itching to argue, "why not?"). On the other hand, look at what happened to me.

So here's what I think I need to do in terms of the classroom. I need to create a soft place to fall, and devise a way of responding that validates a person's insecurities about crappy first drafts while providing an atomosphere of trust and genuine willingness to usher each other through it in a way that is empowering rather than defeating. That's always been my goal, but I have to get better at it.

I think the way to do that is through questions rather than comments.

Last night I read a section of the novel to one of the teen writers from the QRB group. (Let me say for the record that this is not the typical purpose of the group -- that is to say, this is a forum for them, not me. But she was the only one who showed up, and she had nothing to workshop, and I tend to carry the manuscript w/ me wherever I go, so it was there and I asked for permission and she was interested.) It was a short chapter, an email exchange between protag and sidekick, for lack of a better description. This was one of the chapts that my writing partner and I had workshopped back and forth and had already produced three or four revisions, so it was pretty polished. Even as I read it aloud, I was thinking, Damn this is pretty good! I was especially impressed at how we'd captured distinct voices.

Anyhoo, she listened and wrote furiously at the same time, asking question after question after I'd finished reading. Some were th result of her needing additional info to better center herself in the context of the story, but others went directly to character motivation, plot movement, themes, etc. For example, she asked, "How aware is Eva of her situation that the reader is also privy to? In other words, does the reader have more of a clue than she does? Do they know the answers to her internal dialogue questions?" "How/ when do these awakenings happen?" "Why did her boyfriend break up w/ her? Did she see it coming?" And so on.

The time flew so quickly as I answered each question, sometimes saying, "here's what we're thinking but haven't put on the page yet" or "here's what we had but want to change because it doesn't work." As we continued to talk, she offered possibilities, or listened to some of the possibilities my writing partner and I have been discussing. And it was really great to have this sounding board.

When it was time to leave, I thanked her profusely.
"You know, this group should really be for you -- this isn't something I was intending," I said.
"No, this was great. I always enjoy hearing how someone else approaches something because it gets me thinking about my own work in new ways."

And that's precisely what I tell my students -- that's the benefit of peer review.

So maybe what I can do for my students is to offer a sounding board for them in which they don't necessarily have to share their draft (if they're feeling really insecure) but talk about it in response to a prompt of questions: What's working, if anything? (And there's almost always at least one thing that's working -- a topic they like, an introduction, etc.) What's not working? What are you trying to do? What do you want to do? What have you seen or heard in other drafts that you liked? What if you approached it from this angle? And so on.

Then, for those who share drafts, instead of responding w/ I like this, I like that, I didn't like this, I didn't like that, the same questions as above, plus some more specifically tailored ones, could work. In other words, get the writer talking about his/her writing. Get her thinking about it. And get the rest of us thinking, too.

And, of course, there has to be an environment of trust.

For so many, the peer-review and revision process is the most harrowing, and it's what turns many off to writing in the first place -- if I can harness power from it and turn it into something productive, then I think students could improve at wonderous rates. I hope, anyway.

I'll try.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

retraction and apology

Readers, I've removed the last two posts from Kairos Calling because I didn't want to jeopardize and/or malign the character of an esteemed mentor and friend.

On one hand, the contents of the deleted posts are important topics in relation to the purpose of this blog as a forum for the ongoings of writers and the writing process. Group feedback and group dynamics play a role in both craft and process. So do emotions.

I think every writer, at one time or another, has been told that their writing is no good, and everyone has felt the sting of such a statement. Those have lingering effects. My intent was to transcend the negative and find the good that surfaced. But in hindsight, I think more harm than good was done.

And so, to my writer's group, I sincerely apologize for making a private matter public. And to my readers, I hope you'll stay with me. We still have a lot to talk about.


Saturday, July 19, 2008


I've not been writing much lately. Probably because I've not been doing much lately. The downside of trying to save gas and money is that I haven't gone anywhere all summer, and I'm getting sick of my four walls (not to mention that my car's a/c is on the fritz and I can't afford to fix it). I'm going to try to rejoin the living today, even for a couple of hours.

But stay tuned, folks. I'm still here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

the don'ts of writing introductions

My good friend Stacey just sent me this blogpost, which I read w/ amusement. His (the blogger, that is, and not Stacey) came on the heels of a reading marathon as a judge for a short story contest. I could probably write a similar list for incoming freshman composition placement essays, and some of these don'ts I'm already well aware of, but some of these made me do a quick mental scan of our current novel chapter intros while also calling into question whether maybe the guy was just slightly batshit from reading too many pages in too short a span of time. I've been there, amigo.

And so, to piggyback (I've been using that word all day in this very context, for some reason) on his list of don'ts, I'm putting in my two cents.

Don't start a story w/ weather.
My twin brother warned me against this. Never begin w/ a weather report, he says. Good to know.

Don't start a story w/ character description.
Ok. Don't think I've done that either (at least I sure as hell hope not).

Do not start a story by addressing the reader.
Ok, here's where I may argue a little bit. I had opened Chapt One (we'll get to prologues too, in a minute) w/ I used to be a professor, you know (un-italicized in the original, of course). Granted, I could probably lose the you know and keep the rest. But to some degree I think it works because of the nature of the protag as well as the scope of the novel -- I mean, she's a blogger; she's got a one-on-one rapport w/ her readers, her audience. The point is to avoid the cliches, I think. "You'll never believe what happened..." and that sort of thing. But I'll bet Theodore Sturgeon could've come up w/ a kick-ass opening line that addresses the reader and knocks her socks off at the same time.

Don't start a story w/ a premonition.
For example: Elisa couldn't have known she was going to be piggybacking on another person's blog when she woke up to sunny skies in her tempurpedic bed... Yeah, that blows, doesn't it. (As well as the fact that I don't have a tempurpedic bed.) Which leads to:

Don't start w/ a protag waking up.
Um, but what if the conflict is, say, that the protag went to bed w/ someone she hadn't intended to go to bed w/?

Don't start a story w/ cliches.
They always say the best made (or is is "laid"?) plans go to waste, or something like that.

Don't start a story w/ setting description.
The blogger uses an example of description in terms of background history. Star's Hollow had a population of 206 ever since it was founded in 1865, until yesterday, when it increased by one more...
I would think that scene-setting, however, is quite important. The reader needs a grasp of where she is standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, eating, drinking, making love, etc.

Don't start a story w/ telling.
Oh yeah. I know that one. It's ok in your first drafts, but lose it for the final.

Don't start a story w/ description.
The blogger says he wants to read about conflict, not helper words. Ok. I understand that. But has he ever read John Irving or Andre Dubus III? Do I need to re-read them? Because they're so detailed. They're not flowery, mind you, but I would call them descriptive, yet also active.

Don't use helper words.
This means lose the adverbs and unnecessary adjectives. For example, tiny kitten (sorry, PIC -- it's the first one that came to my mind). Yeah, Stephen King already pounded that one into my head. (Although, I insisted on keeping she ate voraciously because come on, that's such a good word!)

Don't start a story w/ a prologue.
He meant short stories, but added, "You're novel probably doesn't [need a prologue] either."
Not only that, but I just lengthened it in this latest revision.

Don't use exclamation points!!!!!
I've been busting my mom's chops for doing so.

Don't use the same faruqing word twice in the same faruqing paragraph.
"Get the faruqing point?" And that's the faruquing blogger's faruqing word choice, btw.
My response: But what if the faruqing repetition works?

Grammar and spelling should be perfect.
He adds, "Ditto annoying dialect spelling." Give me a friggin break w/ that one, willya?
(And btw, he used "do not" for all of these. I can't help but think, good god, he's not one of those guys, is he...) Dialect spelling lends to voice, be it the protag's the narrator's, the guy that asks for directions, etc. Am I gonna go overboard w/ it? Probably not. For example, I'm not gonna write "wawtuh" everytime the NYer protag says "water" (or "wahtah," if she's a New Englander). But I am gonna use "gonna" if she says "gonna," and if a suthuna is visiting New York for the first time, then I may throw in a coupla y'alls in. Language is meant to be played with.
In an intro, however? Probably not. Depends. If it's a guy who just got off the airplane from Iraq and walks out of JFK to hail a cab, then fuggettabouttit!!!!!!! (HA!)

Don't make your main character an animal. Ever.
So much for my story about Duffy, the illegal immigrant monkey who learns to ride a forklift.
In the crapper.

The blogger concedes that there are always exceptions to these rules, and there are. Stephen King points out the difference between good writers, great writers, and fucking great writers. (I think "fucking" was *my* word choice this time. Sorry.) My guess is that this guy didn't even get many good writers. Or, he got inexperienced writers, or writers who came out of high school thinking it was ok to write this way. When I think of the writing I did 20 years ago... Eeek.

But I think there was a crucial piece of advice that the blogger left out, some important DOs that the aspiring writer needs to hang on to when he/she is compelled to open with, It was a dark and stormy night:

Strive to be better.
It's true that there's a lot of competition out there. Instead of being overwhelmed by it, decide to put yourself in the thick of it, but in the upper tier.

Challenge yourself to revise one more time.
It's never really finished; it just has to go to print at some point.

Read the introductions to every book and short story you own.
My twin brother loves Theodore Sturgeon. He made me go to the library and take out a book of Sturgeon's stories just to read the introductions. Look at your favorites, especially.
However, if they all begin w/ the above don'ts, then you've got a problem...

Scrutinize every word choice.
Is the right word leered, glared, watched, eyed, stared, or looked? Kittens don't usually leer, for instance. (ha! there's your justice, PIC!) Every word matters. Each one counts.

Less is more.

Hook the reader.
Nuff said.

You can do it. I just know you can.
Now I've gotta read all those comments in response to his blog...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

planting seeds

Yesterday I met w/ a new friend to discuss a possible workshop focusing on writers setting intentions (not goals, mind you, but intentions -- the former focuses on future events, while the latter focuses on present events) as well as changing much of the negative beliefs about the writing profession (you can't make money, getting an agent is hard, the competition is fierce, etc.). Some may say those are a matter of fact vs. belief, but I beg to differ. Anyhoo, we both walked away excited by the prospect.

And I'm just curious as to whether you, readers, have any negative beliefs or messages about writing. Maybe someone tells you you can't make a living from it; maybe someone told you you were no good at it; maybe you had false expectations? If you have any, please share.

Meanwhile, the last few days have been devoted to course planning. Today I worked on my syllabus -- namely, the schedule of assignments, and it's the part I hate because I'm just no good at long-term planning. Besides, I always wind up changing the damn thing three weeks in, based on where my students are in terms of comprehension. I know people who are dead set on the syllabus and don't stray too far from it, but I'm just not that kind of gal. Composition is anything but linear, is it not? I've totally re-vamped (revised?) my course, however, and am looking forward to putting into action.

Sorry, boring post today. But just thought I'd check in.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

good vibrations

I've been listening to Brian Wilson this past week. My twin brother was an aficionado of Pet Sounds early on in his life, and his love for it was infectious, but I never really appreciated it until I saw Brian Wilson and his band perform it live a few years ago. Duran Duran is my favorite band to see in terms of just having a good time, but if you're looking solely for a musical experience, then Brian Wilson's the man. And besides, he's so lovable you just wanna hug him and take him home w/ you to cuddle.

Brian inspired my older brother's music as well as my twin's. And I'm sure that, on some level, he's inspired my composition as well. Watch a documentary, read about what he accomplished musically before the ripe old age of twenty-five, and you'll be astounded. I know I am. Even Sir George Martin, renowned Beatles producer, said with a smile, "How can this one man have so much talent? It isn't fair."

As one witness noted, SMiLE was the baby w/ the longest gestation period in musical history -- conceived in '66 and delivered in '04 live at the Royal Albert Hall. Finally. It was always a studio masterpiece, but to see it performed live... Paul McCartney was blown away. Over the years, I'd heard snippets of it from my twin brother, who'd managed to get his hands on bootlegs of sessions and songs. I remember one ignorant employee at a CD store kavetching to him, "Like who wants to hear Good Vibrations 17 times?" My brother did, for one. Besides, it wasn't the product that interested him -- it's the process. I get that.

My last post was a prayer for the ability for my words to be an instrument of love. Some may think that's a hokey thing -- sometimes I even think that. I think there's a part of me that always wanted to be a musician and make the kinds of music my brothers and sister did and do. I've got the ability--heck, I might even argue that I've got talent. But I never had the exigence that they did. I think they look at it the way I look at writing: They couldn't not do it. I honor and respect what they do -- maybe even worship? Too strong a word? And perhaps there's even a little bit of envy in there, loving envy, if there is such a thing. But I've had experiences in both my writing and teaching career in which I call my brothers and tell them, "I imagine it's what you felt/feel like when..." It's nice to be able to relate to them on that level.

In the sixties, Brian Wilson "wanted to make music that people would pray to." Listening to "God Only Knows" or "Surf's Up" is certainly a spiritual experience for me, and I mean that in very basic terms of energy. I can't listen to it and not feel something. I can't not be moved by it. I can't not feel the love. I highly doubt my novels will ever be on the reading list of a lit course, or hailed by critics, or used as the bar to set for future writers. And that's not a bad thing. There'll be no Pet Sounds coming from me (not exactly). But I do write w/ love. Love for the craft, for the story, for the process, for the reader, for the writer, for the characters, for the words, for the language, for the voices, for the truth, for the very act, for the finished piece. And I would credit Brian Wilson as one of those teachers who showed me how, even if I wasn't paying attention at the time.

Today I worked for four hours, at least, on revising the first thirty pages of the current novel. And believe me, it was work. But I typed and cut and pasted and added and deleted and moved my text all to the rhythms and melodies and symphonies and harmonies of this great music. It inspired me, I know it did.

But, truth be told, I think what I was really longing for was to be close (not separated by physical distance, I mean) to my brothers -- #1 and the wombmate -- and feel their love as well as my love for them.

It worked.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

an open letter

Dear Universal Life Force,
If my words can be a gift of love just like my brother's music, if my words could move others to tears of joy, then I will be/am eternally grateful.
Your student,

a new blog

I've added a new blog to my list -- Baghdad Bureau, w/ Ahmad Fadam. Regardless of your position on the war, I think it's important to be open to this perspective. Because all of us need to be challenged on this issue -- politically, spiritually, and humanly. We are living in a time and place where it is so easy to be unconscious to war. And that alone makes me feel very uneasy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

they write down their words one at a time...just like you and me

I went out to lunch w/ a friend/colleague this afternoon and we got into talking about all the celebrity encounters we've had--between the two of us, there were plenty. Some of them were big media celebrities, like Cal Ripkin, Jr. or Chris Noth, while others were those whose presence got to us, namely those writers we admired. I told her about meeting Andre Dubus, while she told me about meeting a reverend who greatly influenced her life (incidentally, both encounters took place at Quail Ridge Books -- I bow down to you, QRB). We got on the subject of getting starstruck--stammering, saying stupid things, or saying nothing and just *looking* stupid. And we wondered, who would we really want to meet but would be afraid of making fools of ourselves in front of?

I've already talked about John Taylor, but I got to thinking specifically of writers with whom I'd love to have a conversation but would fear the starstruck factor. Two come to mind: Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron.

Maybe it's because they have academy award nominations and emmys. Maybe it's because their words are iconic: Men and women can't be friends because the sex part gets in the way; You can't handle the truth! Maybe because they've worked with a caliber of talent that I could only work with in my dreams. Maybe it's because of just how they've influenced my writing, left an impression on my style. When I write dialogue, for instance, I visualize the scene playing out in front of me, an ensemble cast w/ Allison Janney and Brad Whitford and Tim Busfield saying the words. I imagine Mahattan locations. When I write from what I know, I think of Nora Ephron, when I play with rhythms, patterns, and voices, I think of Aaron Sorkin. When I write humor, I think of both of them. And many more, too.

But when it comes down to it, they're writers, just like you and me. They write crappy first drafts and endless revisions. Their characters talk to them (or perhaps don't talk to them sometimes). They have writing routines, periods of time when it's all crankin' out and times when they've got nothin'. They have a process. They have certain readers whom they want to please and whose opinion matters to them. They know struggle. They also know tension, resolution. They know their themes, what moves them to write, what they witness and respond to. The know the language. They know the words. I can certainly have a conversation about that, can I not?

And it's about the conversation. Surely they would appreciate that. Especially Aaron, king of the conversation. I would want to talk about the words with them.

So Aaron? Nora? Meet me for coffee sometime? I'm buying.
And I'll try not to say something stupid, I promise.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

looking for Cary Grant

Lately I've been into Cary Grant. I get Turner Classic Movies and they show a lot of his films, especially in the afternoon (which I prefer to, say, John Wayne films). I'm not a film buff and I'm not nearly familiar enough w/ Cary Grant to extoll his virtues as an actor, icon, yada yada yada, but there was definitely something about him that I haven't seen before or since, that je ne sais quoi.(Editor's Note: I corrected the spelling on this, thanks to kaa's comment. You don't wanna know what I had before...). They say George Clooney comes close, but I'm not buying it.

The man was a great comedian, for one thing. His timing was excellent. He could play both comic and straight man. He handled dramatic well, too. He was attuned to what was going on around him. I've often heard that good actors listen. He also had that accent going for him, of course. And he was incredibly handsome. Romantic. I saw him in Notorious recently, w/ Ingrid Bergman. Ooo la la... Yesterday afternoon, TCM showed a film (I never did get the title) in which Grant played an angel who comes to a bishop, played by David Niven, and his wife (it just came to me: could it have been The Preacher's Wife?). Anyhoo, everyone who comes into the angel's path falls in love w/ him -- men and women alike (all except the bishop, of course). They fall in love w/ his charm, his friendliness, his sense of joy, etc. It was clearly a cute little movie, what I would call "delightful", walking a fine line of that and cornball. The point is, I don't think it was a hard stretch of plausibility to fall in love w/ Cary Grant.

I don't know if he could handle the accent, but if there was ever a movie about Grant's life, it occurred to me that w/ makeup and wardrobe, Chris Noth could make a good Cary Grant. Just a thought, anyway.

The point is, I like when characters inspire other characters. When I first conceived my novel Faking It, I had originally envisioned Devin to be a younger version of Mr. Big in terms of looks and style. In my unfinished academic farce, I described the priest as "a George Clooney knock-off" in looks, humor, and charm. I think creative writing is/can be just as rhetorical as academic writing. That is, it's often in response to something else. (Isn't it interesting that I chose the two characters in which I made earlier comparisons to Grant? I didn't do that consciously!)

I wonder, could a Cary Grant-esque character be pulled off in this day and age? Or is he forever canonized (too much hyperbole w/ that word choice?) in black and white, or grainy, gritty color? When I think about it, Devin could be as close as they come, although I hadn't intended to write him that way (and in the sequel's revisions, I actually did make the comparison).

I've been thinking about character the last few days, especially since ours haven't been talking to us much these days (or, they're sending mixed messages, or I'm just not interpreting them correctly). My writing partner and I actually had to make a list of flaws for one character because we thought he was getting too close to flawless. It was fun, really. And I suppose there's a little bit of me in my characters, especially the protagonists, whether it's sharing a taste in music or our writing profession or my stubbornness. A well of self-inspiration.

Nevertheless I'm sure Cary Grant will appear, and reappear, in my writing, just as Aaron Sorkin, Richard Russo, Nora Ephron, and I already do.
Apparently, he already has.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I knew it.
Today I am officially starting my fall semester course planning and what's running through my head? Ideas for my creative projects.

One blow to the head oughtta do it...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

weekend edition

So, forgive my absence -- the 4th isn't my favorite time of year.

Today wound up being a day to totally crash -- read, nap, watch Wimbeldon (Nadal beat Federer! I still can't believe it!) -- and eat choc chip pancakes w/ too many choc chips in them (if there is such a thing as too many). The highlight of the weekend was my writing partner who, on demand (yes, I literally demanded her to get me out of my writers block), set me up w/ a scene to write. She wrote the first half of the scene, I wrote the second, and while she spent the weekend moving into a new home, I went to Caribou and merged the two pieces. We both concluded that we rock.

Tomorrow begins my descent into fall semester course planning. It's time. I want to get mentally and physically prepared now so that I'm not complaining and scrambling later. And I know what's going to happen. All of a sudden, I'm going to have a burst of inspiration for my creative projects and will want to work on them instead. Then I'll kick myself for watching so much tv this past week (four hours of friggin' L&O CI yesterday!). Let's hope I'll stay focused.

The other highlight was watching Juno (finally!) last night (really good!) and revising my vision board this morning. Yes, I have a vision board. I'm a big fan of vision boards. I use a cork board and pushpins rather than oak tag and glue because I find the vision changes from time to time. I also like vision boards because I love making collages. And I find that vision boards sometimes stimulate my creative energy, which translates to writing. Anyhoo, I added a whole bunch of images to my vision board, and it looks quite packed and pretty now.

There you have it: I survived another 4th-of-July weekend. Hooray. Let the Dog Days officially begin.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

trudging through the mud

I wrote close to 3000 words per day during the month of May. That's insane. So it occurred to me that maybe I burnt myself out. Because I don't think I wrote 3000 words for the entire month of June. And maybe I just needed to cool out, numb myself on tv (honestly, doesn't anyone show original programming anymore? marathon after marathon after fucking marathon. How many times can you see the same Vincent D'Onofrio L&O episodes? I mean, he's awesome and everything, but come on...).

Yesterday I took out my nonfiction draft and read it, making notes in the margins and stuff. Crap. Crap crap crap. I banged those drafts out so quickly, and in a very short span of time. A chapter a day, pretty much. I'm overwhelmed by the amount of revision that needs to be done. Then again, I say that everytime. And once I let go and let it come to me, lo and behold, I've got a revised piece, a finished draft. So there.

But if I may change the topic, please do check out the mystic-lit blog and read the cheese post. I need to write a comment on it and say thanks, because I so needed to hear it.

So here's to being productive today. I don't have much time left-- I've got to mentally and physically start prepping for the fall semester.
(any good marathons on?)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

feelin' the love

Last I checked, my You Tube video got 75 hits--of course, 70 of those were from me... Just kidding, although I had a hard time trying to figure out how the embedding worked, and I *still* can't get it on my own website.

I sent the link to at least 50 people, posted it on my Facebook page (yes, I caved and got a Facebook page), and Stacey has linked it on the Write 2 Publish site. That's pretty cool. Also nice is how many responded to tell me how much they liked it, and asked when/where the book was going to be published. It makes me feel a little better about going through w/ self-publishing, namely print-on-demand. There's a demand!

I felt very validated, especially by those friends and family who told me how proud they were of me, how far I've come, how I'm "on my way" in terms of my writing career. I even got compliments on my glasses! And if you've known me for longer than these last eight years, you'd know that I *have* come a long way. And things are moving forward for sure. It's both exciting and scary. But it's good. But it excited me into another writers block the past two days. I think I'll come out of it today, though. I'm getting together w/ friends at Caribou for "communal writing", and I'm making plans to get together w/ someone else and share the nonfiction book w/ her -- that motivates me to want to work on that.

Anyhoo, today's gratitude list includes Google, YouTube, Stacey, all my friends and family (and those I don't know) who viewed it, and my laptop/internet. In other words, thanks, technology!