Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Day in the Life

I wrote this for my husband so he could see what Serious Girl and I were up to while he was away on business, but then parts of it struck me as funny, so I thought I'd share it here as well. Please note that this is not a completely typical day, because (1) we had our nanny ALL DAY which is extremely rare, (2) I had a writing class this evening, (3) we are in the middle of a personal bookkeeping overhaul, hence my focus on paperwork instead of job-hunting or writing. Note also that (2) and (3) explain (1).

7:00am: Wake up.

7:15am: Wake up again. Read emails in bed, on iPod.

7:30am: Feel bad about pile of unfolded laundry on bench under window. Start folding/pairing up Serious Girl’s socks.

8:00am: Serious Girl wakes up. Hugs, potty, milk, dramatic readings of Emma’s Turtle and Elephant & Piggie books, breakfast.

8:30am: Nanny is late. Get Serious Girl dressed, packed for playgroup. More books, multitasking computer work with Serious Girl sitting on lap or playing nearby with blocks.

9:00am: Nanny and Serious Girl leave for playgroup. Consider showering. Decide not to shower until after sweaty errands are done. Compose several emails on PC for ease of typing, save them, then send from iPad instead because PC cannot be trusted not to crash. Check plants: all are still moist from being watered by Nanny yesterday.

9:30am: Start going through papers looking for certain financial documents, doing basic reorganizing. Realize need to run sweaty errands now, because we need more printer paper.

10:00am: Take shirts to cleaner, including Husband's white shirt with weird black spots on back. Cleaner apologizes, says they are steamed-in specks of lint because her person failed to clean the shirt-pressing machine again. Go to Staples for printer paper, shredder. Checking out takes forever. Get rebate forms, refuse warranty on shredder. Realize that the reason I can refuse the warranty is because my other credit card offers warranty protection. Return items, repurchase on different credit card. Lug items home.

11:00am: Back home. Check email. Fight with new shredder, which does not want to power up. Eat breakfast: grapefruit from [not-so-local fruit market]. Realize belatedly that we have no grapefruit spoons. Fruit is delicious, but manage to get juice on otherwise clean shirt, in eye. Shower. Change shirt. Realize new shirt is basically see-through. Layer tank over it rather than change shirts again.

11:30am: Serious Girl gets home from playgroup. Hugs and kisses. Nanny shows me cell phone photos of Serious Girl playing in what appears to be a kid-sized silver convertible, possibly a BMW. Serious Girl likes cars. Commence paperwork; like the document review I did as a lawyer, but without promise of high paycheck.

12:00pm: Attempt to file Staples rebate online. PC crashes. Try again. Feel smug for remembering to claim rebate funds right away, but also feel like I’m turning into my mother.

12:30pm: Remember how much I hate document review; you never find what you’re looking for, and you never know what to do with what you find. Loving the new shredder.

1:30pm: Have done enough financial paperwork that we are [amount redacted] richer. While going through the old papers, find Staples rebate form that expired in 2009. Earlier smugness vanishes; realize that my mother never feels this way. Take break before my head explodes: put in load of laundry (darks, because Husband is almost out of socks). Eat random leftovers from fridge and call it lunch.

2:00pm: Take down stinking garbage from kitchen, which starts leaking furiously in the elevator. Take second trip to basement with recycling and smaller garbage from bathrooms, clean elevator floor during the ride down. Return to endless pile of papers in home office. Try not to cry. Handle a few more matters, then start cleaning up. Since about 1pm, Serious Girl has been napping, Nanny has been cleaning the bathrooms for us (no housekeeper this week), ironing, finishing the laundry I started, and making a batch of her famous black beans for Serious Girl.

2:50pm: Crap! We’re going to be late for ballet!

3:15-4:00pm: Ballet class. Serious Girl is the only kid who pays attention. She is very literal during the games they play in class: she chooses to eat yellow corn, be a black-and-white penguin, and drive a black car, when all other girls choose pink or rainbow-colored everything. She also chooses a green scarf and blue ball to do her ballet exercises with. When asked where she wants to fly today, she says “to Daddy!”

4:40pm: Arrive home after class. Eat fruit and frozen yogurt together to celebrate last day of class and acceptance to preschool. Let Serious Girl and Nanny read Shark vs. Train while I reenroll Serious Girl in ballet, one level up, for the coming fall.

5:00pm: Nanny and Serious Girl head to playground. Finish cleaning up/organizing paperwork, finish putting away the folded laundry from this morning, pack bag for tonight’s writing class. Remove toddler ballet shoes, socks, hairbrush, sippy cup, and stuffed Backyardigan from my purse.

5:35pm: Leave house to meet fellow lawyer-writer so she can drive us to tonight’s writing class. Find Serious Girl in playground for kisses before I leave. She asks if I have to go to school, gives me a big hug, then goes back to playing the "wow, that's slippery!" game on a sandy slope.

6:30-10:00pm: Writing class, “Funny is the New Deep” with Steve Almond. Take copious notes so that I might be able to blog about the class days later when I finally have time.

10:30pm: Arrive home, thanks to lift from my lawyer-writer friend. Listen to friend's lawyer woes on the way home; unemployment suddenly feels awesome. Print out boarding passes for Nanny’s vacation (which starts tomorrow), register her international travel with the State Department, photocopy her passport & itinerary for security. Provide her with snacks for tomorrow’s stressful last-minute packing.

11:30pm: Buy Amtrak tickets for travel to NYC tomorrow. Write blog post. Decide not to bother looking for photo to go with the post, because I'm tired, and I still have to put away the ironed and folded clothes our Nanny handled while I was in writing class.

12:00am: Sleep.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What Form Rejection Means To Me

This one's for you, Rejectionist!

On April 15, 2009, I sent out my first query letter, to Nathan Bransford. I did NOT choose Nathan because he was my dream agent. I mean, he seems like an awesome guy and his blog is terribly helpful for new writers, but based on the research I did, and the list of books he represented, I actually didn't think he was a particularly good match for my novel.

So why did I choose him as my first query target? Because he usually responds to queries within 24 hours. In my case, I think I got my form rejection in about 3 hours. And that's exactly what I was looking for. So, why was I so anxious to get my first form rejection?

Because form rejection means you've put yourself out there. It means you're playing the game. Writing can be lonely work, and getting back form rejections means that you've decided to get out of your own head and share the work with the publishing industry, to perhaps one day share it with an actual reading audience.

Mur Lafferty on her podcast once asked her listeners to participate in a year of rejection: to try to gather as many rejections as they could within a year. Because lots of rejections means you're submitting LOTS of short stories to LOTS of magazines. It means that you're doing your research about which markets are right for your work. It means you're building a thicker skin. It also means you've opened yourself to the possibility of success; how many people write and edit forever, scared to put it out there, scared to find out their work isn't perfect?

The lottery commission says you can't win if you don't play. In publishing the odds may also be bad... but you can control the quality of your entry. You can increase your odds of winning by sending out multiple entries, and with so many agents and magazines accepting email queries, it probably won't cost you a thing.

I needed to know that I was no longer working in a vacuum. I needed to get a response from the publishing world to prove to myself that I really had sent my writing out, that I was being heard even if the answer was NO.

So when Nathan rejected me, I didn't think That's so unfair! or Wow, he just made a big mistake...

I thought, Let the games begin!

I thought, BRING IT.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

HIATUS: no more scheduled blogging

It's come down to this.

I know, I know, I suck. First I blogged every day. Then I cut back to 3x/week. And now I'm going all "whenever the mood strikes me and I have time" on you. I'm sorry.

But as much as I love my internet friends, I have a couple things that have to take priority: my family, and my fiction. Right now, given my schedule, there IS NOT ENOUGH TIME for blogging as well. (Or maybe there is, but I'm not quite good enough at what I do to make it all happen. You know how it is.)

I realize that blogging less may mean I lose some of my readers, but... well, I'd like to eventually be paid for my writing. You see my concern.

Thanks for understanding.


One more blog post about Unruly Fiction.

Also, this week I am taking yet another intensive course at Grub Street, "From Revision to Submission" taught by James Scott. I've even taken a photo to go along with my first post for this course! Here's the summary:
Intended for the writer who needs a final push to submit their work, this class provides one last objective look to make certain that the writer is in the best possible position for publication. The first half of the class will be a revision workshop, focusing on the art of sanding down, smoothing out, and touching up the writing. The second half will help students discuss and find markets for their work. The last class will partially be devoted to assembling submissions and celebrating finished pieces.
I know, this is awesome, and I want to share it with you, but I have to actually revise my own work first. Hang in there.

Finally, on Friday I hope to post about What Form Rejection Means To Me for Le R's contest.

I'll be around as much as I can. Hang in there with me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Oulipean Games Revealed! The surreal vs. the constrained

Once again, I am so sorry for my internet absence this week, in particular my failure to blog on Wednesday. I have had computer issues. The kind of issues that result in routinely getting pop-up messages that say "The data has failed to save and is lost." No data appears to have ACTUALLY been lost, but my ability to send emails and post comments/blog posts has been seriously restricted. Emergency back-up computers are now in use.

So! Oulipean games. Oulipo is an originally French movement, founded in 1960, the name of which derives from the full title: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated, "workshop of potential literature." More specifically, the Oulipo is a loose gathering of writers seeking to create works using constrained writing techniques: "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."

So, what EXACTLY does that all mean? Ultimately, it is a kind of rebellion against surrealism. While the surrealists saw rules as a damaging constraint, and dreams and irreality as the key to human potential, the Oulipo (many of whom were also mathematicians) went the opposite direction, believing that it was under constraints that potential can be most clearly realized.

Classic techniques of the Oulipo included:
  • LIPOGRAMS: writing with the absence of certain letters or sounds. Most famously, Georges Perec authored A Void (La Disparition), a 300-page novel that entirely excludes the letter E. (And then it was translated into a number of different languages, and all the TRANSLATORS managed to refrain from using the letter E... or, in the case of the Spanish translation, the letter A. I think that might even be more impressive, actually...)

  • UNIVOCALISM: text written with a single vowel (also can be described as a lipogram in all other vowels). Christian Bök wrote a novel that includes Chapters A, E, I, O, & U, in which each chapter has a coherent narrative using only one vowel.

  • TAUTOGRAMS: writing such that the first letter of each word (or at least every primary word in the text) starts with the same letter.

  • SNOWBALLS: in which the first word of the text has only one letter, the second two, and so on. (Also, "melting snowballs" in which the pattern is reversed and the text decreases down to a single letter.) Here's the one I did as an exercise in class today, using word lengths from one to eleven:


  • N + 7: a technique in which every non-proper noun is replaced with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. Obviously, this requires both an original text and a dictionary to be chosen, and the depth and breadth of the dictionary will determine the results.

  • WORD LADDERS: a game in which a word is transformed into another by changing one of its letters at a time. Although the word ladders themselves may not have yet resulted in any works, the Oulipo speculated on the method as having inspirational potential, perhaps for the creation of a narrative using all the concepts in a given word ladder.

  • I did this in high school, actually. We would challenge each other with word combinations, and you had to get from on to the other in as few moves as possible. In rare instances, the addition or subtraction of a single letter was allowed. The trick was always moving the vowels to the right place... anyone care to write a short story based on one of my winning high school word ladders, moving from the word JUST to the word WHAT in the fewest possible steps?

    Although these are clearly extreme and occasionally ridiculous exercises, there are examples of actual narrative fiction for each of these. They say that necessity is the mother of invention: that you are more likely to use your creativity to design that which you desire in the absence of plenty. Shows like Top Chef thrive on constraints, challenging contestants to create magical dishes with limited menu items, specific inspirational guidelines, and rules about how (or for how long) one may cook any given dish. Why not writing?

    Indeed, as instructor Tim Horvath said, perhaps EVERY piece of writing is under some constraint (lack of time, need to meet a publishable word count, even the attempt to produce a narrative arc or a likeable character is a kind of constraint)...

    As someone who has only been published three times, each of which was under very specific language restraints (two pieces were Twitter-length fiction, required to be 140 characters or fewer, one was a "drabble" which must be precisely 100 words long), I may well be an Oulipian.


    Christian Bök reads from "Chapter I" of Eunoia,
    a univocalist novel in vowel-specific chapters

    Click HERE if you're not seeing the embedded video.

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Ceci N'est Pas Une Syllabus

    Click to enlarge.

    With this kind of classroom guidance, how can we fail to improve our writing?

    Have I mentioned how much I LOVE Grub Street classes, and Tim Horvath in particular? I'm having massive computer issues right now, but so far we've investigated
    • stories in other forms (such as lists, menus, indexes, and how-to articles);
    • the Q&A story (which may sometimes be missing the Q or A part); and
    • stream of consciousness
    I'll post more when I can.

    Monday, July 12, 2010

    School's In For Summer

    The original Grub Street

    Today's the first day of the first writing class (out of many) that I'm taking at Boston's Grub Street this summer. All this week I'll be taking Unruly Fictions with Tim Horvath:

    In this intensive version of the popular weekend seminar, we'll look in particular at works that have been dubbed "experimental," flagrantly challenging the conventions of narrative order and logic, cause and effect, plot and characterization, time and space. In several cases, they don't even look like stories. By trying out the exercises in this class, you will stretch yourself and explore some unconventional narrative modes. But this class is by no means geared exclusively toward those who already find themselves drawn to the literary avant-garde. The guiding assumption is that all writers can benefit from the ways in which such work galvanizes our minds and our pens, uncovering latent potential in whatever work we are already doing. By trying out everything from stream of consciousness to Oulipean games, montage to typology, you'll get fresh vantage points on your characters and storylines already in progress, whether in your mind or on the page.

    Yeah, I have no idea what half those words mean, either. But as the week progresses, I'll try to tell you what I can.


    ETA: If you're here because you saw my article in the most recent print edition of the Grub Street Rag, welcome! That article was summarized from this post on The Muse and The Marketplace... I hope you'll read the original version, and stick around!

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    Things I Realized in France (part 2): FOCUS

    Enjoying a beer at 8:15am in Arles

    These observations obviously may not apply to everyone in France (and maybe even the people we stayed with act differently in the absence of visitors), but:

    People multi-task less in France, which means that their focus is less diluted. Meals are not eaten while writing emails at a desk. Businesses close for lunch, and the only multi-tasking that happens over meals is conversation. The internet is not constantly open in people's homes. Checking email twice in one day on a Blackberry made us appear to be obsessed with work when indeed we considered ourselves to be rather fully checked-out from the workplace. Email is still like regular mail: a letter is a letter, and replies need not be instantaneous. Laptops stayed closed for days rather than being constantly left open (although perhaps hibernated) with two email programs, Twitter, and three blogs open (the state of my current machine-in-use).

    I think this may be a better way to live. I'm going to try to be constantly-online less, but respond personally more. And I'm going to take actual lunch breaks instead of snarfling food in front of a computer monitor. (We've already tried to cut down on the dinner-in-front-of-the-tv habit. We don't always win, but at least we try, or we pick a worthy movie instead of doing it thoughtlessly.)

    Oops. The kid's awake from from her nap. Gotta go give her my full attention.



    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    Things I Realized in France (part 1)

    I don't describe places in my fiction.

    I mean, I do, to the extent that a character is observing something s/he finds relevant, but I haven't ever written one of those panoramic scenes where the locale is described ever-so-vividly to the reader.

    My first novel is set in New York City, where I grew up. As a result, I never worked to describe the city in which my characters work and live and play. For me, Manhattan simply is. It's a city, like any other. Sometimes the bustle of the streets or the interior design of an office building lobby or the particular content of a neon sign stands out for my main character, and when it does, the reader sees what she sees, notices what she notices. But do I spend any time actively describing New York City in the novel? No. I didn't think it was relevant.

    And then I spent a day in Paris.

    How on earth would I even BEGIN to describe Paris? The profusion of architectural detail alone is staggering. Sure, I could describe any one individual landmark if it was integral to the plot, but what if it's incidental to the story? How would I handle the fact that you can pass Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and about three dozen other incredible bridges, sculptures, and buildings of great antiquity and beauty within a single 2-hour walk? I can't describe it all without bogging down the story, but neither can I gloss over it entirely, writing as if it's not there at all...

    This will require some serious pondering. And I may have to write a story set in Paris just to figure it out. ACK!

    WHAT IS ONE THING YOU THINK YOU DON'T DO (or don't do with natural ease) IN YOUR WRITING?

    (And, sorry for the delay in posting what should have been a Wednesday post. Computer issues up the wazoo over here.)

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    I'm Baaaaack!


    The winner of Audrey Beth Stein's guest blogger contest is Stephanie Colombo! Stephanie, I will be trying to contact you starting later tonight, but please email me sooner if you see this. Congrats!

    Felix Gilman's guest blogger contest is still open until July 9th.

    How French women stay so thin: there are a million stairs in France. And we didn't even try to climb the Eiffel Tower. In particular, for those of us with 3-year-olds, all the restaurant "potties" tend to be up or down an incredibly narrow spiral staircase. I have no idea what people with leg injuries do in that country, seriously.

    And also, they all smoke. Yet none of them smell like cigarettes the way American smokers seem to. Freaky.

    Finally, when you eat food that good, you don't need to eat as much of it. HOMEMADE FOIE GRAS. Amazing. And why can we not get bread like that in the United States? I'm not getting over this anytime soon.

    Okay, I'm going crazy trying to catch up on laundry and grocery shopping, plus my daughter has her first ballet class today, so I'll write more tomorrow. I know you all missed me terribly...