Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So, what are you getting me?

What? You didn't remember that my birthday is in one week? Wow. Just... wow. I'm so embarrassed for you.

But seriously. Last year I hosted a poetry party that was a roaring success with 42 comments (that's a big deal for me), and this year I'd like to top it.

Now, recently a number of my writer friends participated in a Twitter meme called #tweetyoursixteenyearoldself and shared pictures of, you guessed it, their sixteen-year-old selves. I couldn't find my own photos in time to play the Twitter game (things move fast over there), but on December 7th, I'm going to post 'em, and I hope you'll join me. Come on, help me celebrate getting another year older by laughing at how ridiculous we looked when we were younger! Or, in the alternative, by showing off how fabulous we were and always will be, dammit.

I mean... as of next Tuesday, there will be an entire person of legal drinking age between me and my sixteen year old self, so I think my plan of drinking and posting photos of myself at 16 sounds totally reasonable. Back me up here. Come play along.

Other childhood photos are welcome if you (1) can't find a photo of yourself at 16, (2) currently ARE sixteen, or younger, or close enough that such a photo would not be sufficiently nostalgic, or (3) just really, really, like another photo more. If you have stories to accompany the photos, so much the better! I'm going to try to get a shared photo album going somewhere that we can all post into, or you can just do a link in the comments once the birthday post goes live.

Hope to see you back here in a week...

(Also, last year at this time I had 83 followers. Today, I have 196. Thank you so much, really. You guys rock.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Greatest Book Ever Written

Perfumes: the A-Z guide

You think I'm kidding. I'm not kidding.

I first heard about this book from Grub Street writing instructor Chip Cheek, who highly recommended it for all writers. He said that although we try to involve the senses on the page, we so often overlook the sense of smell; this book describes nearly 2,000 perfumes in spectacularly evocative ways. Read it, and you will never think of scent the same way again.

He's right. And on top of that, it is a joy to read.

One perfume is described as the olfactory equivalent of a man you can't talk to for more than 30 seconds without checking your watch. Another is "like spraying Glade on strawberry-flavored cotton candy." Smelling an old favorite is "like meeting an old high school teacher who had a decisive influence on my life." And, picking a 5-star (highest) rated scent at random:
...it has the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night -- a bitter oakmoss inkiness, a dry cedar crackle, and a low, delicious, pleasing sweet amber, like the call of a faraway candy house. Lulling and unsettling in equal measure...

The two-word scent summaries accorded to each scent are also pithily resonant: pale floral, coffee lavender, woody vanilla... but also burial wreath, watery lemons, fresh nothing, crap jasmine, and mango raincoat. Ever been at a loss as to how to effectively insult someone? Read the 1-star reviews in this book and hesitate no more.

I bought the paperback version but am wondering if the e-book is fully searchable, in which case I'll probably buy a second copy in electronic format. The excerpt page on the book's website has a link to the less-recent hardcover edition on Google books, so that may do the trick for now when I want to search for a particular scent-keyword (almond, rose, vile).

I spent all of last night quoting sections of this to my husband. He told me to buy everything the authors had ever written, but of course they don't write fiction, they are just (just!) experts and passionate devotees of perfume. He was disappointed, and a little stunned. Because who wouldn't want to read a short story by the author who wrote: I believe that men who smell like this must grow a 5-o'clock shadow every day by eleven.

Wait, I didn't get that quote exactly right, they said it better...

And it's not in the Google books version. Damn. I'm going to have to buy that e-book.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Meeting Chuck Palahniuk (redux)

The written content of this blog post first "aired" on May 3, 2010. I am reposting because I have had to link to the original post four times this week for various reasons, and honestly, the URL for that version is too long, and I'm sick of doing the bit.ly/ow.ly shortening thing. Plus, dammit, this was an AWESOME experience, and I will retell it as long as anyone is willing to listen. Sorry if it's a rerun for some of you. For the rest? ENJOY.

A little background: Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced with the same inflection and first syllable as pollinate: POL-ah-nik) was the keynote speaker at this year's Muse and the Marketplace literary conference hosted by Grub Street. I attended. We met. Fabulosity ensued.

I first saw Chuck signing a stack of his books in the conference's welcome area on the mezzanine of the hotel where the event was held, right around the time the first session of the day was starting.*

Even knowing Chuck's author photo, I would not have recognized him; indeed, I leaned forward to make absolutely sure that he was signing a copy of Pygmy before approaching him with my book. I'm sure others have said this before, but Chuck is unambiguously reminiscent of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He is tall, skinny, clean-cut, tidily-dressed, and has an impressively gentle manner. In short, you don't see him coming.

I asked him to sign a copy of Fight Club for my husband. He asked me to tell him something embarrassing about my husband to work into the inscription: he tells a story, I tell a story, and the circle is complete... plus the book-as-gift has additional resonance.

I blanked. (Okay, I thought of one thing, but it was mean-embarrassing, not funny-embarrassing.) Chuck told me to take a minute. I did. I said that there was nothing I could say about my husband that didn't also incriminate me. He asked if my husband had any scars. He asked about vacations. I accepted these writer-prompts and began free-associating. And then we landed on something.

Chuck's eyebrows raised, and he asked for clarification. I gave it. Smiling, he signed the book, with detailed references, ending it with the single word, Dude!

Let me repeat: I managed to come up with something that raised Chuck Palahnuik's eyebrows. And that made him write an appreciative DUDE! in my husband's book.

And then, having thoroughly incriminated both myself and my husband, I collected the book, and asked someone to take our photo. The expression of laughter on Chuck's face is pretty much the one he had through my entire confession. I look good because I'm vaguely flushed with embarrassment instead of my usual shade of pasty white.**

(Sadly, that is as big as the photo gets, for inexplicable reasons only understood by my cell phone. It swears it took the photo at the largest resolution, and yet the image is practically thumbnail-sized. Sigh.)

His keynote speech was f---ing brilliant, go check out the video. At Q&A time, I asked What is on your bedside table right now? He thought for a while, laughed again, and answered, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Apparently he'll have a book coming out next year, called DAMNED, about an 11-year-old girl who wakes up in Hell, isn't quite sure why she's there, but is determined to make the most of it. (Side note: when Chuck talks to you, he looks at you. He didn't direct his answer to this question across the audience. He answered me. I am so doing this when I become a famous author.)

I eventually got a signature for myself on a copy of Haunted (since he'd gotten a 2-for-1 embarrassing story, I figured I ought to get a second book signed... my inscription is tame, and references the fact that I'm at this moment also trying to write a story set in Hell). He said he hoped I wouldn't get in trouble over the other book. I said that I was sure I would, and thanked him for his time.

Mr. Palahniuk, it was an absolute delight meeting you. ( And my husband's cool with you knowing.)

No, blog readers, you can't know what I told him, or what the rest of the inscription says. Sometimes, what you tell the author of Fight Club stays with the author of Fight Club.

Unless he decides to write about it. Oh, crap...

* First rule of literary conferences: consider going to some of your lecture-sessions late, or leaving some early. The awesome keynote speaker is not in the sessions. I know other people who had their best conference interactions in similar circumstances: going for a much-needed coffee at the same time as the dream editor, or sitting with a group of agents relaxing after all the pitch session attendees had scattered to their seminars.

** Let me clarify that (1) no one and nothing was harmed in the events described to Chuck Palahniuk, and (2) it was not "I would never do that again" embarrassing, it was "I would almost certainly do that again, but I don't usually tell people about it" embarrassing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In which I tell Salon to go %^@& itself.

It's all fun and games until you expect someone else to read it.

Yeah, I know, it's NaNoWriMo and I should be writing a million words a minute, but instead I am here today because I have taken great umbrage at Laura Miller's recent Salon article, Better Yet, DON'T Write That Novel, in which she declares that NaNoWriMo is at best unnecessary, at worst a total waste of time and energy.

She's wrong.

Laura, you admit that the program is "an event geared entirely toward writers", and that you are "someone who doesn't write novels." So, with all due respect, you don't know what the hell you're talking about.

Laura recognizes that "[t]he purpose of NaNoWriMo seems laudable enough..."
Above all, it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.
And yet, she feels the need to rain on the parade of everyone who is trying NaNoWriMo by saying that "Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read." (Oh, except for New York Times bestseller Water for Elephants.)

She talks about "the selfless art of reading" as compared to "the narcissistic commerce of writing". She says that "I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on."

I do see a reason to cheer them on.

Look, lady, you said that even if a WriMo -- as some of us call ourselves -- manages to get published, no one will read what we've written. (Oh, except for New York Times bestseller Sara Gruen.) And that's mostly true. The REASON you see people on Twitter complaining about bad and inexperienced writers prematurely submitting their novels for publication is that NO ONE WANTS TO REPRESENT OR PUBLISH THEM. If someone submits a GOOD novel that was written during NaNoWriMo, then the agents and editors don't complain. (Like, for example, the people who repped and published the New York Times bestseller Water for Elephants.) You may bitch about commerce, but the reason capitalism is supposed to work is that little thing called supply and demand, and if no one wants to read these books (no demand), then they won't actually hit the stream of commerce because no one will buy them. The market is not about to be flooded with 100,000 shitty novels, and your precious reader's eyes will not be marred by having to read the contents therein.

Laura says that these writers need no encouragement because,
Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they're always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it's the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species.
You're partly right, Laura. SUCCESSFUL writers are hellishly persistent. Plenty of other writers, however, fade away without you ever knowing about it. I don't think the world is harmed by 100,000 badly written first drafts, but I do think the world is a better place when people chase their dreams, if only for one month out of the year. I think 100,000 wanna-be writers who always said "some day" but never gave themselves the permission to try and to make mistakes would be a horrible shame, a waste of spirit that more than balances out the waste of paper you fear. (And by the way, there can be no "selfless" act of reading if we don't "selfishly" write the damn books for you.)

Anyone who actually reads the NaNoWriMo website will see that the people behind the program DO advocate revision: December is National Novel Finishing Month, and March is National Novel Editing Month. The people who write crap novels in November and try to submit them in December? They were going to do it anyway. In fact, if they didn't work up the energy to actually write a novel, they were going to be the ones sending letters to agents and publishers saying that they have an IDEA for a novel, and would the agent like to write it for them and split the profits? In short, NaNoWriMo does not create stupid, sloppy writers desperate for attention. I doubt it even encourages the stupid, sloppy writers desperate for attention -- those writers were going to talk about their genius novel ideas whether they tried to execute them or not. Maybe trying to write 50,000 words actually humbles some of these would-be novelists, hmm?

Finally, Laura says that "I'm confident those novels [the ones worth reading] would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth."

I'm not so sure of that.

In October 2005, I first heard about NaNoWriMo. And it woke something for me. I had always had a clear focus on writing in my life... until I graduated college. Somehow, without anyone telling me, I got the idea that writing ended when real life began; I didn't pursue my MFA, therefore I was not going to be a writer as a career, therefore I stopped writing, even though I loved it. NaNoWriMo reminded me that I could write anyway, even if I had another career entirely.

I wrote half the novel in November of that year, and took my sweet time finishing and revising it. I did my industry research. I wrote and revised my query letter. I have since gotten back into the writing classes that I loved as a college student, and I've had a number of short pieces published. I'm not in it for "the glory." (I mean, really, what glory? There's a starving artist stereotype for a reason.) I'm in it for the literature. I was always a reader. NaNoWriMo reminded me that I could also be a writer.

NaNoWriMo reminded me that there IS no perfect "some day," there's only today. It reminded me to write like little kids paint: with joy, and without self-consciousness. It reminded me that there's something I love to do that I should be practicing daily, that I should be learning to do better. It got my first novel written, and the dozen-plus agents who got my query letter and asked to see the full manuscript don't seem to think I wasted their time, even if they eventually said "no." (Full disclosure: some said no, some still haven't gotten back to me.)

So, when that novel finally gets published, let's see if anyone reads it. Let's see if anyone likes it. Let's see if some "selfless" readers maybe pay $8-24 bucks for it and have a perfectly lovely time as a result... if they enjoy a book that would not exist if not for NaNoWriMo. Let's see if my NaNo efforts -- which may have actually helped me change careers -- were a waste of anyone's time, or if maybe they make me a better mom because I'm not moping around the house, creatively unfulfilled because I forgot how to dive into something with bad financial odds and high emotional reward, just because it makes me happy.

To sum up: NaNoWriMo saved my life. Y'all at Salon can go screw.