Monday, November 30, 2009

November Wrap-Up

  • Thanksgiving was good. Serious Girl played nice with the grandparents, which is pretty much the entire purpose of the holidays at this point in our lives.
  • I never posted those Halloween photos, did I? Let's fix that... I hereby present Serious Girl as the iPod Touch! (Sorry about the blurriness, but I don't want to advertise my daughter's face to the internets just yet. She's too young to consent, and I'm a wee bit conservative after we got that horror-movie-style death threat last year.)
  • I have totally and utterly failed NaNoWriMo. I will be posting tomorrow about why it's totally cool if you did, too.
  • My birthday is in one week. Get ready.
  • No, seriously. I will be hosting a poetry party here on my blog on December 7th, and I hope you will all bring your favorite poem to leave as a "gift" in the comments. Go ahead, pick out a nice one.
  • 83 followers! Thanks, everyone. You guys rock. And I've received a couple more blog awards that I have to add to the sidebar over there...

  • And that's about it.

    Now, I'm off to fill out my daughter's preschool application for next year (yes, we have to reapply every year, and if I want to get preference as a "returning student" for her, the deadline is tomorrow). Then I'm having lunch with a former writing instructor, running a few errands, and finally, trying to see if an idea I have can fit into short story form. Hmmm...

    QUESTION FOR YOU: Okay. If you travel in some of the same blog circles as me, you will see that some writers have made deals with the universe as part of their quests for publication. I'm on board with this... ah, but what to offer? That, my friends, is where you come in.

    Please suggest something I can offer up to the universe in exchange for (1) an agent and (2) a book deal. Use common sense in your suggestions: I am willing to embarrass myself, but won't sign up for anything requiring, say, public nudity or additional body piercings. (I didn't get my ears pierced until I was 23, I'm not going to add extra holes now.) Be creative... the universe gets bored easily, and probably won't pay attention unless the offer is good and unique.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009


    Yes, it's almost upon us. That one day a year when all Americans try to quit feeling sorry for themselves, and be grateful for the good things that they have. (Yes, yes, many of you are in fact better people than that, and are grateful every day. Good for you! You get extra turkey. Or tofurkey, if you don't eat meat.)

    So... what are you grateful for? Wait! Before you answer that, please know that I want you to be SPECIFIC. Yes, it's easy to say that I'm grateful for my family, but that just doesn't really cover it, does it? And, as a wanna-be writer, shouldn't I show rather than tell?

    They say that God... or the devil... is in the details. Let's see 'em.

    CKHB's list:
    1. Yesterday, Serious Girl asked me to sing to Out Here On My Own to her. Toddlers are not known for their ability to focus quietly, but held still and kept her eyes on my face for the entire song. Sometimes her face lit up, and sometimes she looked so solemn. When I was done, she said, "Thank you, mommy. That was a good song."
    2. Our rock-star nanny makes a really fabulous picadillo... our daughter would probably still not eat meat if not for this dish. She also loves our little girl. You should see the two of them playing dominoes together. (Oh, and our nanny is the one who bought the set of dominoes for our daughter, just-because.)
    3. You may need to personally know me, my husband, and our sarcastic marriage-language to appreciate this, but my husband recently sent me an email from an airport layover that said, "Why can't you be more like Jodi Picoult?" Threats and hilarity ensued.
    Show me why you're grateful for the good things in your life. And have a very Happy Thanksgiving! I'll post again on Monday.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009


    I'm going to follow up my last post by responding to two of yesterday's comments...

    Katie asked: Who cares about trying out for So You Think You Can Dance unless you truly love dancing? Do you? I'm not sure I see why the question annoyed you so much. Why would you waste time trying out for So You Think You Can Dance if you don't care about it? Or buying lottery tickets unless you are super passionate about money.

    I do, in fact, truly love dancing. There was a time in my life where I was taking 3 dance classes a day and was performing regularly, and it made me incredibly happy. Then I sprained my ankle. And got a job. And sprained my other ankle. Then the first one again. And went to law school. And now I'm squishy and my body won't/can't do anything near what it used to do, and it breaks my heart that I can't access dance the way I used to. I now avoid ballet classes because the memory of what I once had actually ruins my ability to enjoy what remains. And so, when I'm in a rotten depressed mood, this kind of question annoys me because if I was guaranteed to succeed (i.e. be able to somehow pay the bills with dance, or at least cover the childcare costs during my studio time), yes, I would absolutely devote a large part of my life to dance. But I won't succeed. And there's only so much time I have in any given day, so I have to give up something that makes me joyous in order to pursue other things that I might actually succeed in.

    From this perspective, the question isn't an inspiration or source of hope. It's a reminder of the inevitability of failure for certain aspirations. It's Lucy pulling the football away before Charlie Brown can kick it. Follow your dreams, sucker.

    And as for the lottery... well, if I won that money, THEN I COULD AFFORD TO DANCE BADLY. Or write full-time. Or whatever, but I could then be able to pursue happiness without balancing my joy against my real-life obligations. Again, when I'm in a foul mood, it appears that the question is offering a pipe dream.

    Tabitha said (excerpts): Sorry you found the quote annoying. Pretty sure it was my blog that posted it... I guess my point was that we sometimes live in boxes limited by fear of failure. And sometimes if you can remove that fear you might step outside the box for just long enough to actually embrace the things you really want in this life.

    The quote wasn't meant to manipulate or make anyone feel bad. I just posted on it cause I know how amazing it was for to to say, "wow, yeah there is something else I want to be doing and I am letting my fear stop me." Writing is not the only thing that many of us dream of doing. It isn't even the biggest thing that some of us dream of doing. But whatever the dreams, fear of failure is a massive stumbling block.

    And I think you can say that you have not failed in something if you view success as the ATTEMPT, the brave choice to chase the dream in the first place. At least you can say you tried. At least that will be one less, "What if?" question that you have to live with. I think that spells success.

    Yes, I think it was you. And I'm sorry that you felt the need to explain the spirit in which you posted the quote. I know why you posted it. Even when I am smack dab in the middle of taking the quote the wrong way, I know that this is due to my own issues, not the quote itself. And I had thought that the last sentences of my post made that clear... but apparently not. (S'okay. These things happen.)

    Here's the deal. About a year ago, I was letting fear seriously hold me back from doing some non-writing things I really wanted to do. I started to stagnate. (Post-partum issues certainly didn't help, either, but that's not really the point.) But my awesome husband kicked me in the butt and got me going again...

    And man, oh, man, I've had just failure after failure. And it's not like, Wow, this was all so much scarier in my own head, but it turns out I was worked up over nothing! Even though I'm not succeeding yet, I feel so much better knowing that I'm chasing my dream! Nope. It's more like, Hey, another kick in the head. This is way worse than I imagined. Why did I come out of my cave again? This makes me, shall we say, CRANKY.

    This is my baggage. I know this.

    And that's why I am now grabbing that quote in a positive way and applying it to one new thing. Something I haven't tried yet. Something... well, the idea of succeeding at this kinda gives me butterflies. Which, I figure, means that it's something worth reaching for. Something worth abandoning fear and distrust for, even if the football DOES get yanked out at the last minute.

    As I said yesterday, it's a process. It's not about trying just one thing, or just trying once.

    And as I also said yesterday, we're all in this together. I don't mean writing. I mean the fact that I am surely not the only qualified-yet-unemployed attorney out there. Or the only person juggling motherhood AND ______. Hell, I'm surely not the only person who chipped a tooth and had to schedule dental work last week. I am, in fact, pretty damn fortunate.

    Look, a little cynicism is okay. It provides that much-needed dose of reality (hi, WendyCinNYC!), that sense of balance (hi, Melissa!), that drive to compete (hi, Shelby!), and also often provides a much-needed laugh (yes, Falen, we will BOTH take our new-found infallibility and leap off a tall building and fly!). But right now my cynicism is coming dangerously close to ingratitude. And that sh*t has got to stop. Which is why I said it's time to woman-up.

    I mean, we'd all rather be Charlie Brown than Lucy, right? She's a jerk. And as Andrew summarized, if we don't try anything, we've already lost.

    There is a nobility in trying.

    Plus, he's got that awesome dog.

    I'll be taking Thursday and Friday off from blogging this week, but come on back tomorrow for the ever-so-timely Giving of Thanks post...

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

    I saw this question on another blog quite a while ago, and I have to say that at the time, it annoyed the heck out of me. I'd play the freakin' lottery. I'd audition for So You Think You Can Dance. I'd do tons of things that are completely out of my reach and that would be terrible, stupid, guaranteed-waste-of-time-and-money gambles based on the truths of the real world. The question, then, teaches me nothing.

    And even if I respond in a broader, less sarcastic manner to the question -- clearly it is intended to be about challenging your sense of what you can accomplish and following your dreams -- what about the time element? I will surely make different decisions if success will be immediate... or within the next five years... or sometime just before I die. Gosh, if I knew I could not fail, I'd write a book and try to get it published. How long does that usually take, again? How many people quit their jobs or move to NYC to follow their creative dreams, only to run out of money before they meet with sufficient success?

    And so the question annoyed me. It's supposed to be inspirational, but it just struck me as naive, and somewhat critical of those of us who are trying to make informed, balanced choices about what we want in conjunction with what will pay the bills. Yeah, if I knew I could not fail I'd do lots of daring things, but MY ODDS ARE LOW and I HAVE A FAMILY so I can't bloody well just risk it all.

    Furthermore, I felt that I was doing everything I would want to do, and I was failing plenty, thankyouverymuch. If I knew I could not fail, I would apply for a job with [redacted]... and the day I read this question was also the day I found out that I wasn't even considered for the job at [redacted], even though I think I am exceptionally well-qualified for the position by every measurable standard, and I would have been incredibly good at the job. I did try. I did get very creative and proactive about my approach, championing myself far more than I am usually comfortable doing, and getting advice from friends and networking connections to make sure I was doing everything right. I tried like failure was not an option. And I got exactly the same results as if I hadn't tried at all.

    But I'm not the only one who sometimes feels like she's just spinning her wheels. We're all in this together, right? Time to woman-up.

    And I think I've found one more thing to try for. Something that really does fall into an aspirational-yet-potentially-achievable category that is just perfect for a "try like you could not fail" attitude. Because it's not just about trying a single thing once and that was your one shot. It's a process.

    Let's see if I can try something new.

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Profanity, dammit!

    Okay, one last post on this topic, because Lisa and Laura are still talking about profanity in YA. I don't write YA, but I'm curious... would you keep a book out of your children's/teenagers' hands (if you could) based on profanity alone? What other content (sex and violence are the most obvious ones) would cause you to try to keep a book away from your own children, and at what age do you let go and trust them to read what they want? Are there any books you've read that you liked as an adult but hesitate to pass on to others (children or adults) because of subject matter or language?

    Do you remember your first "adult" book or book with "adult" themes? What was it? (No, I'm not talking about porn. Don't share that.)

    And, can you recommend a book you've read that deals with delicate/sensitive/hot content in a superior manner? As one of the agent blogs said: no one would have ever thought that you could write a heartwarming story from the perspective of a young girl who had been brutally raped, murdered, and dismembered... until Alice Sebold wrote The Lovely Bones.

    ETA: I'm loving the Sesquipedalian's Curse-O-Meter...

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Just walk away

    Here's a nice short post to give you some breathing room after yesterday's epic:

    What's the last book you put down without finishing? What made you walk away?

    I'm betting that "BORING" beats out "profanity/taboo subject matter" (yesterday's topic) as a reason, but I could be wrong...

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Writing Taboos

    She's in the dictionary next to "dour."

    Thanks to Lee for inspiring this post, with his comment yesterday:
    I wonder sometimes -- am I writing myself into a difficult corner? 1) I hate using profanity and write dialogue that feels real to me, but without foul language 2) I tend to write about themes of morality and redemption 3) I often write about subject matter that is tough and often dark, like drugs, crime, people who are very confused and involved in bad things. Is there a genre that allows me to effectively take these routes and be marketable to any particular audience? Why is profanity so prevalent in much modern writing and especially screen plays? I find it to be a disturbing trend.
    Now, we've already talked a little about bad behavior and telling the truth and showing authentic consequences in fiction (with some mention of author responsibility) on this blog, but I think the issues deserve a little more attention from another angle.
    • Do you think there are/should be any taboos in fiction?
    • Do you have any personal taboos when crafting your own writing?
    • Do you think authors have any moral responsibilities to represent "taboo" or "hot" subject matter in a particular way? Does this apply to all authors, or only to authors who target certain demographics, such as YA authors?
    • If you do limit your writing according to these taboos (e.g. no profanity), how do you accomplish this while still remaining authentic, since it is unlikely that every character you write about will have the same moral standards as you?
    Lee, to directly answer your questions, I think profanity is reflected in modern writing because it's prevalent in real life. And I think it's more pronounced in screen writing because everything is more pronounced in movies. Bigger explosions! Bigger boobs! Bigger everything! Give the audience some entertainment for their $9.50!

    As a trend, I'm not personally disturbed by it. I generally don't give a $^!# about profanity, and there have been times in my life when I've used profanity like it's &*@%-ing punctuation. (Insert lawyer joke here.) I'm aware that overuse of profanity makes me sound less erudite and less well-educated, and since the birth of our daughter we've made an effort to make our household sound less like an episode of Deadwood. But sometimes... often... profanity is just colorful enough to convey precisely what I seek to convey.

    Interestingly, I went out of my way to avoid profanity in my first novel, because I needed swearwords to have much greater power than they do in (my) ordinary life. If the reader gets more than 3/4 of the way through a novel without seeing a single f-bomb, the author will probably get some decent impact out of the word's careful, intentional, and only use at that late stage.

    And anyway, my main character just isn't the swearing type.

    I asked an author friend how he handled curses in his writing, and he told me that he just writes it as it comes to him, and then he edits out as many as he possibly can, which still leaves quite a few, but the manuscript at that point no longer reads like an Eddie Murphy routine. Perhaps, Lee, you would end up doing the reverse... writing dialogue as it comes to you, and then putting curses in only where you simply can't avoid it, for character authenticity. (Or maybe you can just say "He swore." I'm on the other side of the fence on this one, so I'm sure the commenters will have better advice for you.)

    A final note on swearwords: I think that profanity on the page is much like the use of language like "um, ah, well..." It reads very differently from how it sounds in real life, and authors ignore this dichotomy at their own peril. for example, I can say "um" five times in a single sentence in casual conversation and not necessarily sound like an inarticulate, hesitant moron (depending on speed and context) but you better believe that it will look that way if transcribed directly to the page. (Note again how this can result in a difference in the use of profanity among fiction writers and screen writers.)

    As to the broader discussion... do I think there are any taboos in fiction? No. Not for what I read, and not for what I write.

    Do I think authors have a moral responsibility when portraying "hot" or "sensitive" subjects? I'm not sure, but I think that it may be a moot question because entanglement between morals and fiction is nearly unavoidable. Why do we write? Those who want to shock or titillate are going to go to extremes in these areas, and it's intentional. Those who want to tell a story with a message are also going to be thoughtful in their approach. Even people who simply want to present a little light entertainment are going to be careful, because it won't be "light" for certain people if it crosses too many taboo lines, and it won't be entertaining enough for others if it completely avoids all subjects of controversy. We're always going to be thinking of our ideal audience when writing, even if we don't realize it, and our beliefs about what is right, wrong, or unimportant in this world will inevitably come through.

    Wow. Sorry this was so long-winded. I now pass the baton to you:

    ETA: Hannah Moskowitz, author of Break, also briefly addresses profanity in YA today.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    Genre: New Adult?

    Okay, what do you all think of the budding New Adult genre? To recap: St. Martin's Press is actively looking for great, new, cutting edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience and is holding a contest in search of same. Writers across the blogosphere rejoice.

    And it seems that New Adult is intended to cover much more than simply "YA, but with 19-year-olds instead of 16-year-olds." If you read S. Jae-Jones's post (and thank you to Anne Allen for that link), you will see that New Adult may well be the hot place to be. Chabon, Gaiman, Diaz, Murakami, Eggers, Niffenegger, Foer, Ellis? And a possible re-branding for that redheaded stepchild of modern publishing, chick lit? SIGN ME UP.

    So, what's your take on this? Have you been writing New Adult all along without knowing it? Is it the sort of thing you read? Does giving the genre a name help, or hurt, or have no effect whatsoever?

    And, what genre do YOU write? I would set up a poll, but I want everyone to be able to label themselves as they see fit, with cross-genres and meta descriptions and all...

    ETA: I found a blog post today that is somewhat related to my post from yesterday, and I hope you'll head over there and make your opinions known. Where Are The Men?

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    Women in Art!

    Blog title quoted from Wendy Wasserstein's

    Our beloved Moonrat has pointed out the disproportionate Y-chromosome heaviness of the Publisher's Weekly Best Books of 2009 lists. She then challenged us in the comments to post our own favorite books by women authors written in 2009. (I assume that this includes books published in the final months of 2008 -- if PW makes this list in November, then surely the final months' publications count towards the next year. They can't just be screwing all winter release dates, right?)

    Here are mine: I have made no attempt to sort by genre, pub date, alphabetical order, or anything else. I believe that all of these books are thought-provoking in some way, therefore elevating them beyond mere entertainment, and all constitute extremely worthwhile reading.

    Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan
    "Take Mary McCarthy's The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning." -Gloria Steinem

    "Impossible Motherhood is like a journey into a harrowing underworld but guided by Vilar's gifts and her light we emerge in the end transformed, enlightened, and oh so alive." -Junot Diaz

    Pretty Monsters, short stories by Kelly Link
    "Kelly Link is the literary descendant of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka." -Audrey Niffenegger / "A new collection by Kelly Link - and once more, for a little while, the world is worth saving." -Michael Chabon

    Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
    "Readers will get chills paging through Larbalestier's suspenseful novel about a compulsive liar who becomes a suspect in her boyfriend’s murder... Readers will be guessing and theorizing long after they’ve finished this gripping story." – Publishers Weekly, starred review

    Feel free to also check out the list by WendyCinNYC. And please, post your favorite books of 2009 by women authors in the comments!

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    Themes? Interests? Symbolism?

    Chicken? Egg?

    Okay, we definitely were on a roll yesterday, and I'm going to try to keep it going. (Although I may very well fail, oh, god, the pressure, how am I gonna write something as comment-worthy as yesterday?)


    So, according to your comments, it looks like we start our novels based on: the things that fascinate us, character and theme, putting a fresh spin on an old tale, theme, theme and story, situations, character, depends on the book, story, character and theme, more character and theme...

    And when the writing is good, it all just builds on itself, doesn't it? It all seems so organic, because of course those actions would happen to that character based on that situation which underscores that theme... and it all just rolls together, and then on the page it's almost like seeing Athena, sprung forth fully-grown from Zeus's skull. Or, as Stephen King describes it, like uncovering the final pieces of the fossil and realizing that even the smallest bone from the beginning of your efforts really does fit into and support the whole, even if you couldn't see and understand the whole when you first got started.

    So, where does that leave us, dear writers? If we start with something we love, something that drives us, whether it is a compelling situation or character or plot/story or thematic idea... can we go wrong, so long as we remember to bring the remaining elements to bear during the rewrite process?

    Perhaps King was just warning us away from starting with theme as it overlaps with symbolism, rather than as it overlaps with character and story. One of the themes in my novel is the concept of identity... how do you know who you are and what you stand for? But another theme is that of naming... how are we represented and perceived based on the names and labels that others choose for us and that we choose for ourselves?

    Identity might fall into the character-theme overlap. If I care about that moment where a person realizes who s/he is and who s/he wants to be,* then I will make certain character and story choices to bring out a tale that fascinates me (and hopefully, will fascinate readers).

    Names, however, might fall more into the symbolism-theme overlap. If I start writing a book because I think names and their origins and meanings are ever-so-cool, and I definitely want to have the names of each of my characters mean something... well, that's kind of a non-starter, isn't it? Instead of being like the thin line between reality and fantasy in King's Bag of Bones, it's more like the use of blood in Carrie: something that "can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work" but not, ultimately, a basis for a novel, whether plot- or character-driven.

    Where is the line between theme and symbolism? Are there symbols that you find especially moving? Are there any that are strong enough to carry a story, or are they just an element of the language craft?

    Tell me more about what you write, and why it moves you.

    * "...he had seen men come of age before and it always moved him. It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday."
    -- Hemingway, The short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    In which I finally disagree with Stephen King

    He seems to be handling it well.

    As I have likely mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Stephen King's On Writing. It's a fun read, it shares some fascinating personal history, and I think he's spot-on about the use of language, about how one should write first drafts "with the door closed," and about how art and writing support life, not the other way around.

    Furthermore, I don't think you need to love his stuff or write like him to appreciate his insights. First of all, any time an author as successful as King talks about why writing is important to him, how he got started, and what his inspirations and motivations are, it's probably worth a read. Second, his recommendations are fungible across a wide variety of genres and styles -- I don't write horror, and I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite. If someone who struggled to get her novel over 60K words thinks she's getting good advice from a man who averages 2K words a day* and consistently puts out novels that are in the 300K-plus range, his suggestions are probably pretty darn universal.

    But, as part of my November Big Think Project (which is increasingly replacing my NaNoWriMo efforts), I'm starting to realize that I must depart from King's advice about something very fundamental, at least as far as my own writing is concerned.

    King says that writers should always start with story first, then progress to theme. That theme is something that can -- and should! -- be enhanced during the editing process, but that starting with these questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction.

    I disagree.

    I'm not a plotter. Nor am I someone who starts with a nice, clear "what if?" story question like King does. I started my first novel with a character and a life-changing event. That's it.

    Now, this indeed could have made for some very crappy fiction. There are plenty of life-changing events happening every day in the world (marriage, birth, death) that do not in any way support a 200+ page story arc. But, underlying this fictional life-changing event is what King himself would probably call one of my "deep interests." It's what got me started writing the story, it's what first breathed life into my main character, and it ended up being the basis of an entire book that, damn it all, I think is really good. That is because, for me, theme IS enough to power a novel:
    I don't believe any novelist, even one who's written forty-plus books, has too many thematic concerns; I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels. These deep interests (I won't quite call them obsessions) include how difficult it is - perhaps impossible! - to close Pandora's technobox once it's open (The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Firestarter); the question of why, if there is a god, such terrible things happen (The Stand, Desperation, The Green Mile); the thin line between reality and fantasy (The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, The Drawing of the Three); and most of all, the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people (The Shining, The Dark Half).
    -On Writing (emphasis mine)
    Obviously, such novels also need a story/plot/action, because otherwise we're not really writing fiction at all, we're writing thinly-veiled diatribes. But at this moment in my not-yet-really-begun writing career, I need to start from theme, and let the story build from the things that fascinate me. Because otherwise, why would I care enough about the damn story to bother writing it in the first place? And if I don't care enough about the story (and its underlying themes) to put not merely my time but also my heart into drafting and editing, I can pretty much guarantee that no one else will care enough to want to read it, even if I do manage to craft some technically proficient language on the surface.

    Right now, theme is my engine, but that doesn't mean that story and language need to be passively riding in the novel's back seat. Story and language are the novel-car's frame and body, the beautiful lines and shape that make you want to get in and go. But theme is what drives the car, what determines how far and how fast the story can go.

    So, Mr. King, I'm sorry, but I disagree. I think that for some writers, thematic concerns can and should be front and center during the first draft of a novel. Because that's what I care about, and ultimately, that may be what makes my writing worth reading.

    I hope this doesn't change things between us -- I love your novels, and your short stories, and I own every audiobook you've personally narrated, plus Ron McLarty's reading of Salem's Lot and Jeffrey DeMunn's reading of Dreamcatcher... did you know that Jeff and I were in a movie together? I'm so glad you and/or your associated casting agents keep hiring him for your movies -- The Mist, Green Mile, Storm of the Century -- because he is just a spectacular talent and all-around nice guy, and he deserves far more fame and fortune than he's ever going to get... but I digress.

    In short, I'm still your #1,429,517 fan. Next time you're in town for a Red Sox game, come on over, and I'll buy you a coffee.


    * That's right, he lives every day like it's NaNoWriMo.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    A little something to tide you over

    (Tide. Get it?)

    Tomorrow I'm going to post something long and thoughtful about how we decide what to write about, but today I need a little break. So...

    NaNoWriMo UPDATE:

    I'm hardly writing at all. It's cool, though. I'm doing the mental work I need to figure out what I really want to write about next. Big picture stuff, and very worthwhile.


    Click through Laura's post at Combreviations to learn more about how post-apocalyptic genre fiction has changed over the last not-quite-200 years. There's a chart. It's awesome.

    Check out Matt's post at The Burning Hearts Revolution for a spectacular a cappella version of Toto's Africa. Don't worry if you can't hear anything at first; it's not your sound settings, it's just that it starts out very quiet. Wait for the rain to build.


    A while ago I mentioned that I'd won some books by entering various blog contests, and someone in the comments asked WHICH books I'd won. I forgot to answer that question in a timely fashion, and I've had latent guilt ever since. So, since I recently won a couple MORE books -- some just for posting in the comments on the right day, but some for more creative efforts, like Carrie Harris's Rename Twilight Contest -- here's my chance to make good with a cool LibraryThing widget of all the books I've won on the internet since I stared blogging. Not all of them have been delivered to me yet, but I am patient. Oh, and I also won my choice of ebooks from an erotica publisher, but I'm not telling you which book I picked, because y'all don't need to know that much about me.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Reminder: make NaNoWriMo work for YOU

    This morning I see that some of the bloggers I follow are dropping out of NaNoWriMo... some are doing rewrites instead, and some are finding that the high word count obligation is reducing the fun of writing, and they're either quitting NaNoWriMo entirely or simply giving up on the 50K word count goal.

    I'm here to say: THIS IS FINE. Rock on with your bad selves.

    The goals of NaNoWriMo, to my mind, are as follows:
    • Write fast enough that your inner editor can't catch you.
    If writing too fast means that your quality drops to the point where NEW inner editors start popping up to block the path ahead, then it's no good! F*ck the 50K goal. Write at a speed that works for you. And, if you have a project that needs editing, then by all means avoid NaNoWriMo like the swine flu. Inner editors aren't always evil, they just need to learn their place and only show up when invited.
    • Write more than usual. Lots more.
    If writing too many words in a day just ends up burning you out, you're not going to end up writing more, are you? Slow down. If writing too many words in a day starts to feel like work, then you're going to start seeing it as a dreaded chore, and will end up writing less. Slow down. If writing too many words in a day takes away the fun in any way... well, then, seriously, what's the point? Slow down. It's cool, I promise.
    • Write in a like-minded community.
    You can enjoy the NaNoWriMo forums even if you never write a single word. When else will you have access to more than one hundred thousand writers who are willing to answer each other's questions? Someone on the forums taught me how to make paper. Several people on the forums answered my recent question about what it's like to get a first tattoo. Someone out there may very well have lived the exact experience you are trying to imagine for a character. Go ask 'em about it. It's a research resource that may be greater than Google, and it's available one month a year, and it doesn't require a word count of any size to get in.
    • Put up or shut up.
    It's all about getting your priorities in order. On the surface, joining NaNoWriMo means shutting off that rerun of The Simpsons and writing something of your own. But in a broader sense, it means no regrets. NaNo assumes that you will regret not trying to write a novel. But if anything about NaNoWriMo is making the writing process less effective or fun for you... well, then, that's going to give you a different set of priorities, isn't it? Maybe you DO need to watch that rerun, if it's the best chance for you to bond with your spouse/partner/kids. Maybe you need to rewrite something old instead of drafting something new. Maybe you need to write slower to fully enjoy the experience and get a "bad first draft" of a high enough quality that you will actually be interested in editing it later.

    I burn out if I write much more than 1,000 words a day for an extended period of time. I would not have known that 1K was my upper limit if I hadn't TRIED for 2K/day during NaNoWriMo 2005... but guess what? Now I know. So I will never try to force myself to write more than 1,000 words in a day, even if it is November. If I've got genuine inspiration or a clear sense of story to carry me on, maybe I'll go for it, but I'm not going to push. And so, I joined NaNoWriMo this year knowing that I would not win. At least, not from a word count perspective.

    But if I have a clear sense of what my next novel is about in December? Then I will have won the challenge that matters to me.

    Don't get worked up about this. Do it your way.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    Big Think

    Post subtitle: In which I turn into a squee-ing fangirl

    I hereby give my undying thanks to Nathan Bransford for linking to the Big Think Interview with John Irving. Give it a listen; it's the most wonderful half hour ever.

    Nathan linked to it because Irving expressed sympathy for young writers, but I'm linking to it because I think he says some amazing things about how he writes (and rewrites), about recurring themes in his work, and about his own literary inspirations. Also, because he's my favorite living author, and my admiration for him and his work is overwhelming... he just takes my breath away.

    When was the last time you revisited the authors who make your heart skip? It has been way too long for me. I've been doing my how-to-get-published research and I love my copies of On Writing and Bird by Bird and I've been reading plenty of entertaining novels because (1) they're in my genre and I need to learn about what's happening in my area of publishing right now, or (2) a friend wrote it, or (3) it's a genre I don't write in, and I'm trying to expand my horizons...

    But what about the novels that don't just entertain, but have actually moved me? The books that changed my life? When was the last time I reread those? It's so easy to get distracted.

    John Irving moves me. And getting to hear him... scratch that. Getting to see him, talking directly to the camera as though it was a private writing class just for me, is making my heart flutter again.

    He talks about how he writes the last line of his novels first, and then uses that as a kind of touchstone to help him guide the story towards its final destination. I write my last lines very early on in the process as well.

    He talks about writing all his first drafts in longhand. I only write longhand intermittently, but in retrospect I'm starting to realize that many of my best scenes, the ones that hardly needed any editing at all, were written longhand in their first draft.

    He talks about consciously taking the elements he admired from writers like Melville and trying to recreate certain aspects of that kind of storytelling in his own writing. Why the hell am I not doing exactly this with Irving's books?

    I think I've been afraid. I think I haven't been daring enough. I think I was thinking too small. I am in awe of books with grand scope, and I have consciously thought "I could never do anything this good" after reading novels like Franzen's The Corrections, and Irving's The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.

    But I haven't even tried.

    Don't get me wrong, I still I love my first novel. And in many other ways, it is quite ambitious. Another book that I love, Commencement, was described on the back cover as "hitting the sweet spot between Serious Literature and chick lit" and that is what I have been saying I want to do...

    But I think maybe I've been spending too much time trying to make peace with the "chick lit" label (it's not all about shopping porn and desperately seeking Mr. Right!), and not enough time making sure that my writing shines a little more brightly on the Serious Literature side of things.

    I didn't set out to write chick lit, it just -- apparently -- is. From a strictly industry perspective, that's the category for a first-person female narrative with a confidential tone. It just is. And so I'll embrace it for that novel (at least until I find an agent who "gets me" and can help me figure out if that's the right label going forward). But actively planning to write another "chick lit" novel because of all that stuff I've been reading about the importance of brand for new authors... I think that's a mistake for me. If it is, it is. But genre -- any genre -- isn't something I should be aiming for. I need to find my next story in another way, and I'll have to trust that my author's voice will be enough of a brand.

    I've been very scared of writing my second book because I wasn't sure if I'd find material that means as much to me as the material in the first novel does. And I have something that I've been idly working on, and I'd hoped NaNoWriMo would jumpstart it into something bigger, just like the first book. But I don't think the extra keyboard/typing time is going to do it. I think I need more thinking time. More outlining and handwriting with my fountain pen and legal pad.

    I'm intimidated as hell. But I've got my new John Irving in hardcover, and I'm getting the rest of his books out of the back shelves and onto my desk front-and-center. I'm going to raise my aspirations. I may fail, and I hope you'll all stick with me if it turns out that I am a "small writer" and this experiment ends up going horribly wrong.

    I have to try.

    Because I'm pretty sure that's why I started writing in the first place.

    John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut.

    *brain explodes*

    ETA: additional John Irving amazingness here.

    Friday, November 6, 2009

    Advice from Lawyers

    "Louis Brandeis" by Andy Warhol

    There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
    -- Justice Louis D. Brandeis

    A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.
    -- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

    In the battle between toddler and laptop computer, the toddler will always win.
    -- Carrie Kei Heim

    Have a good weekend, everyone, do some good writing, and for heaven's sake keep the kids away from the keyboard...

    Thursday, November 5, 2009

    How to waste everyone's time

    I'm a day late on the collective discussions on whether anyone can be a writer, with enough effort. But that is, in fact, what I was planning to talk about today as I reflect on a writing class I attended earlier this week.

    In the comments to yesterday's posts on the subject, I said that I thought that success as a writer required not only hard work and practice, but the right attitude. And in my opinion, this attitude is lacking among some of the students in my current writing class.

    Two weeks ago there was a hint of bad things to come, when some of the students vociferously argued against the suggestion that we might want to do a little proofreading before submitting work to the group. Some of the pages that have been handed out were in bad enough shape that the typos were obscuring the text... it was difficult to tell which character was talking at certain points, or the mistakes in English grammar just made the piece exhausting to get through. One student, bless his heart, said that he was probably making tons of mistakes and would be happy to accept any edits on that front. He was ego-free and willing to learn. But others seemed to think that the simplest copy editing would impede their creativity.

    Now, I realize that materials submitted for discussion in a writing group are, by definition, going to be rougher than materials submitted at the querying level. But when fellow students are having trouble reading your materials due to sloppiness in use of the English language and failure to run spell-check... well, what are you hoping to get out of the class, exactly?

    Then this week, one of the writers kept arguing with us about his piece. He must have started a dozen sentences with the word "But..." and he repeatedly cut off the other students as they tried to talk about the pages he'd submitted. We thought the emphasis of the piece was Character X, and that he needed much more to fulfill that promise. He insisted that the piece was an introduction to Experience Y, and seemed incredibly frustrated with us for failing to comprehend that.

    We kept coming back to Character X, because that is what he wrote about, whether or not it was his intention to do so, and he finally just cut us off. Forget the content, he said, what about the language? Okay, we started to talk about the language. Description Z was quite evocative. He then ignored that discussion, and wanted to know why no one had mentioned Sentence Q, which he found especially delightful.

    Amusingly enough, I had noticed Sentence Q. I read it several times in fact, because it had confused the heck out of me, because it had nothing to with with Character X, Experience Y, or Description Z, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why it was in the story. Kill your darlings, anyone?

    And I kept coming back to the same thought over and over again: what was he hoping to get out of this class? He clearly didn't want our advice, and he seemed really quite disgusted that we weren't providing him with sufficient validation. The fact that a dozen of us all had the same thoughts on his piece was of no apparent interest to him.

    There's a reason writers are not supposed to speak when others are critiquing their work... because we can't go around to the house of everyone who reads our books, and tell them that they're not getting it, and here is what we really meant by that passage. When you put something on a page, THAT'S IT. If the readers take away something different than you intended, then you have to accept that interpretation or rewrite. Or, I guess, you could find a more like-minded audience, but then I have to come back to the question of why bother with a writing class? After all, it might not contain your perfect target audience.

    If anyone from my writing class happens upon this blog... I'm not really trying to be nasty. I spoke out in class as much as I could to say some of these things: your readers are reacting to what you wrote, and telling us that we're wrong is not going to improve your writing or our understanding of the piece. So, please, think about why you're in the class. More importantly, think about why you are asking for class feedback.

    If you want validation, go to your mother or spouse/partner. (And I do mean yours, because my mom and husband have never pulled any punches. Ha!)

    If you just want structure and a reminder to write on a weekly basis, then by all means take the class, but don't hand out your writing to a workshop unless you actually want us to, you know, WORKSHOP IT. Don't waste my time and yours.

    I'm heading back to my NaNoWriMo first draft now... and I'd like to add a caveat that I am not dumping on anyone who blogs their fiction or otherwise shares an early draft of their work with an unstructured writing or blogging community. We all know that such sharing is for fun and encouragement. No one's paying a class fee with an instructor for that, you know?

    It's pretty simple -- don't ask for advice if you don't want it. And if you ask for feedback, and twelve people all disagree with you about what your writing means... well. Maybe you should stop arguing and start listening.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    But seriously, I have no idea what I'm doing.

    So after a lovely 4K-word start, I only wrote 52 words yesterday. But as I mentioned earlier, and as Justine Larbalestier wisely notes today, word count is not everything. I had some mulling to do over where my story is going. I still have some mulling to do.

    And, I think I might use some tricks to help me keep my characters more firmly in my mind... yesterday they were a little too elusive. I think I'll try to figure out their character mottos and maybe also do some internet casting. Maybe I'll try to get some inspiration from a favorite novel.

    Maybe I'll log off the dang internet and write.

    There's a special NaNoWriMo podcast episode of I Should Be Writing available now... go give it a listen, while I try to finish up the show notes!

    Tomorrow: I have some thoughts about the writing class I went to yesterday, and I think I'm going to put out some tough love about critiquing...

    Sonuvabitch. WTF, Maine? My characters and I are not pleased.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    Tuesday Tips & Links

    NaNoWriMo tip of the day: every time you sit down to the computer, make sure to open your manuscript before you open your email.

    Link of the day: the INTERN gives thoughtful advice on how to tell if your manuscript is fully cooked. Please note that she is revising this month; this is not meant for anyone in the throes of a first draft. Bookmark the page for later use if need be.

    Inspirational writing quotes of the day:

    The work habit that underlies virtually all writing problems is the tendency to write and edit simultaneously. ~Henriette Anne Klauser

    The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. ~Ray Bradbury

    Run, rabbits!

    Monday, November 2, 2009


    I got nothin' today. Sorry!

    Okay, I'll just give you all an idea of what my day will look like today:
    • Get some words down for NaNoWriMo
    • Try to figure out if there's anyone who "buddied" me for whom I haven't returned the favor
    • Spend time with Serious Girl, who has a bad cold
    • Renew my bar membership
    • Pick a half-hour time slot and sign up for parent-teacher conferences
    • Pay some bills, sort through the mail
    • Shower, get dressed (this should really be higher on the list, shouldn't it?)
    • Buy new keyboard and mouse for the desktop PC because they've both decided to refuse to obey me -- thank goodness this house has 4 computers
    • Upload Halloween photos to share with neglected family members
    • Do laundry, get husband's suit drycleaned
    There's more, but that's the basics. Fortunately "cook dinner" is not on that list because we have some excellent leftovers that the family will, in fact, eat. Oh, and Serious Girl was an iPod Touch for Halloween, and she ROCKED the trick-or-treating. I'll post a photo tomorrow if I can find one that shows the costume but not her face...

    How are you guys doing today?