Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year

Some say there's bad news on the publishing front, that publishing houses are dropping like flies in a cloud of insecticide. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930's, books continued to be published and read. Authors like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wharton turned out some of their greatest work during those terrible years.

As for the new writer, me for instance, dreams never die no matter how hard the times. Even on this New Year's Eve, I'm hard at it, working to perfect my second novel, beta-ing my crit partners projects, and thinking about the plot line for the third book. Somewhere in the back of my den, the television is blaring with the Times Square celebration. Revelers are shivering in the cold (something like 16 degrees) while they wait for the mighty ball to fall. Not me. I'm safe at home, a fire roaring in my fireplace, and I'm working, working toward the dream.

My dream is to land an agent in 2009 and to have that agent sell one of my novels. No, not a dream. "As a man speaketh, so he is," the Bible says. I am speaking into the cosmos this New Year's Eve, speaking as if the dream isn't a dream at all, speaking as if the dream is a reality. This is my year, my year to become an agented and published author. This is the year my name finally appears in print.

Before that can happen, of course, I must edit and revise the second novel and finish the current work in progress. Time. It's all about time, the time it takes to do the job, the time it takes to redo the job, and the time it takes to get an agent or editor to read my work. Of course, don't forget the time it takes to have the crit partner read and the writing group read.

New years offer new times. New times means more time. Time is the key. Take the time to create the best work you can. While I work within the element of time, I wish you good times: a good year, good fellowship, and most of all good writing. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Back Home

The day-job requirements, all that grading, are now complete. The fall semester over, I can return to my writing in full force, at least for a few weeks. Now what? What happens when you've separated yourself from that hot streak and you're suddenly back in the saddle, to coin a phrase?

While I was on my hot streak, plot flowed from my fingers like the current in a river. Now, after some time away, I must go back, read what I've written, and try desperately to feel the flow of that river current once again. Easier said than done.

Does this need to flow cause anguish? You betcha, but separation is also a good thing. When I advise my students about revising a written work, I say, "Don't try to revise the day you think you're finished. Wait at least twenty-four hours and then re-read, re-vision the work. While things are fresh in your mind, while you still remember what you meant, your brain can't see the problems."

You heard me right. What you meant to say and what you really said jumble themselves together like kittens sleeping in a basket. They become so intertwined that it's almost impossible to separate one from the other. Immediate revision lends itself to failure because our brain reads what we meant to say rather than what we said. From simple grammatical errors to confused and awkward sentence structure to failed plotlines, the process of quick revision doesn't work.

As I return to that glorious third novel, I've noticed things. What I thought of as clever quips are really dry prose and deviations from character and plot. What I felt worked toward character development appears to be nothing more than exercises in description. I've used forty words in some places to say what one good word would have said more eloquently and more effectively. Distance from that work in progress stimulates more real progress than forcing that thousand words out each day. Because I've had some time away, my brain is reading the new novel as if I just picked it up off the bookstore shelf. My revisions are more objective. I see where the author, in this case 'me,' is pushing herself into the work rather than letting the work stand alone.

Do I feel bad that I didn't notice these things while I furiously revised each day? No. It's not a sign that I'm a bad writer. It's just the normal function of the brain. For instance, if I were to stare at a lightbulb then close my eyes, the image of that bulb would remain on the back of my eyelids as just a bright light with no real form. The same is true with words. If you stare long enough and hard enough at a manuscript, the image of the words linger like that lightbulb, but the image and reality may be two different things.

The difference? The image is what I thought I said. The reality is what I really said, how I really put the plot together, how I really managed a character. Distance does make the heart grow fonder, and it makes your writing stronger. Victory comes from strength. Distance helps strengthen the piece and leads the work toward that great victory: publication.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


When a cow suddenly stops giving milk, the farmer tells his wife, "Bossy's gone dry."

Bossy's internal systems may need a tweak or maybe, she's getting ready to give birth. Either way, there's no viable milk to be had. Right now, due to a variety of reasons, my writing life is dry. The two thousand or so words I was able to crank out last week don't have a two-thousand-twin this week. For a very long time, I pushed for a thousand words per day. Now, I'm lucky if one hundred words make it from my fingers through the keyboard and onto the screen.

Some time ago, I wrote about writer's block, a condition that some believe to be non-existant. I'm not blocked, not now. Right now, I'm covered up with words, the words of the one hundred and fifty or so students who fill the desks in my university classroom. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that old end-of-the-semester grading crunch that all teachers everywhere dread. I dread it more than most. Some might say that I truly hate it.

It's that day-job thing. Just like the would-be actress who waits tables while waiting for a full-time acting job, I languish in a day-job. I teach composition and American literature while I wait for the agent, the super-intuitive agent, who'll see the merit in my fiction.

The heroine of my newest work in progress had just been assaulted when I left her. She's waiting, too, waiting for the resolution to her problem. I really want to help her escape her tormenter, but the day-job thing is in the way, blocking my efforts to bring her to safety. Sometimes while I'm in the midst of determining whether or not that strange quotation is properly documented, she knocks on the door to my hindbrain saying, "Hey, remember me? His hands are still around my throat. I can't breathe. I feel the pressure of his fingers tightening around my larynx."

I tell her that the cavalry's coming, that she's not going to die. After all, I've only written the first five or six chapters. She can't go yet. I try not to tell her that my view of her situation matches the President-elect's view of the current U.S. economic crisis, that it'll get worse before it gets better. I try to leave her behind the hindbrain's door and focus on the task at hand, the completion of the final grades, but sometimes, I find myself writing the story in my head, formulating, creating, moving her from point A to point B.

"One job at a time," I tell myself. "Finish grading. There'll be time to lift her from her dire circumstances."

One job at a time. That's the key. We're back to patience, that illusive character trait that's so highly tauted. My late father had a saying, "It's all in paying attention." Details. Pay attention to the details even though, the details of living interfere with the details of dreaming. I dream of becoming a published author. Until the dream is realized, I'm a teacher, and a teacher must conform to the parameters of her job. She must teach and ergo grade. On that note, I leave you, dear friends. I leave you so that I may attend to the details of living. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, my dream must be deferred, at least until the grading crunch is ended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nobody's Perfect

Yep. You heard me. Nobody's perfect. Oh, some might claim perfection, some might see themselves as perfect at one thing or the other, but that, my friends, is a delusion. The words 'perfect' and 'human' cannot be used in the same sentence.

Even the mighty William Faulkner, that bastian of American literature, failed to meet the mark of perfection. In 1955, he won The National Book Award for A Fable, his arrogant retelling of Christ's passion using a French, WWI soldier as the model for Christ. In 1955, Faulkner was considered the 'great man of letters,' and the fact that he produced a novel, any novel, seemed noteworthy to the committee making the selection. His acceptance speech turned into a long, rambling, almost incoherent series of sage advice and self aggrandizement. Faulkner wasn't perfect. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn't.

If Faulkner could fall short of perfection, if Ernest Hemingway needed to revise The Old Man and the Sea over one hundred times before he got it right, what should we fledgling authors expect from ourselves? Often, we expect agents to pound down our doors just to get a shot at that wonderful first novel. Often we can't understand why that publisher gave a thumbs down on the opportunity to have their house and our work joined on the shelves of the local bookstore. What we should understand is that it takes time, it takes thousands of words, thousands of failed efforts to finally reach the point where our work meets the standards of the industry.

Recently, a fourth-grader submitted a 'how-to' book to an agent. To be precise: How to Talk to Girls. The advent of this new author caused ripples in the writing community, especially among those who've been trudging along for years trying to get the attention that this child received so readily. Even I felt a pang, but I soon realized that the 'oddity' of the submission got the attention, not the talent or wisdom of the author. The boy may be the author of the book, but is he a writer? No. He's an oddity like the elephant painter on YouTube or the guy who has the longest fingernails in the world, someone or something that goes against the norm.

To all those talented, would-be writers out there, I send this message. Don't put down your pens in disgust. I haven't. I need to write like I need to drink water. The sudden and unmerited success of a fourth-grader doesn't mean that I won't reach my goal, that I won't finally put in the time and effort it takes to meet the industry standards, get an agent, and see my name in print. I can't say that my ego isn't suffering some bruising over the recent turn of events, but I can say that before Faulkner and The National Book Award committee made the 'great man' a laughing stock, he managed to write The Sound and the Fury. I cling to the hope that our fourth-grader is more fury than sound, that like all oddities he will fade into oblivion, and that soon I'll be interviewed because of a Pulitzer nomination or that National Book Award.

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Story

I recently beta-ed for a friend, an excellent writer who is a regular contributor to a gardening magazine. An amateur gardener myself, I find her work fascinating. Most of the time, she writes touching vignettes about the gardening life: those plants that survive no matter what you do to terminate them, the unexpected gardeners like little squirrels who plant things in the oddest places. My gardening friend is a meticulous writer who seldom makes an error, so I often find it difficult to find anything to criticize. The combinations of subject and excellence make my job as critique partner a breeze.

I make a distinction here between the writing group I speak of so often and my critique partner. The gardener reads my work as I go along, as I do hers. She sends a chapter or two for my perusal, and I send her a few chapters for her review. We work in tandem to find those places where a reader of the potential finished product might find a non-sequitur or scratch their heads if a the heroine of the piece seems to do something out of character. We check each other's spelling and grammar. We strike and bold words and phrases that clutter up the story. We ask questions about where one or the other of us are going with a storyline, whether that beautiful descriptive passage really advances our plot.

What are we really? We're waxers. Before anything can have that final buffing, that application of craft that makes it shine, it has to be waxed. While waxing, we remove blemishes or nicks that might mar the final shine, the polish that comes when the writing group gets their hands on it.

My crit partner belongs to a writing group not unlike The Dawg Pack. Her group meets locally, occasionally having the luxury of holding readings for the public. My group meets, but over the internet connection. My friend knows what members of her group look like and sound like. Which is better? The virtual group or the group who's physically present? There is no 'better' in this case.

The trick to receiving constructive criticism, whether face to face or through virtual contact, is simply this: be willing to reconstruct your product based on the input of others. Just like me, my crit partner quivers in fear when she gives the copies of her pieces to her writing group so they can mull them over. She waits to hear what the next meeting will bring, whether she gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Her anxious nail-biting is no different than my own. However, when members of the group offer their criticism, we both take it on the chin. Sometimes, we find things to smile about, but sometimes, the group leaves us with our eyes firmly pointed toward the floor or our noses bleeding from the battering. Either way, we go home, hit the keyboard, and work, honing the product based on criticism.

Every writer needs a crit partner. I found mine on Absolute Write, an internet community of writers. My friend found her writing group connected to a book club she felt the urge to join. Like any group with a common interest, writers tend to find each other. BUT (notice that's a big but) the important thing when claiming a crit partner is to find someone who's willing to give constructive criticism, someone who's not afraid to say, "Hey, I don't think that works." A crit partner isn't Cousin Millie who raves about your work or that friend who's too kind to tell you that 'in tact' is really 'intact.' Test a would-be partner. Don't rest in a nest of laurels created by flattery. Flattery won't make you grow. As my gardening friend says, crit partners water your roots.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Last night, I read an article in On the Premises, an on-line newsletter for writers. The article, One Thing I Would Tell Writers, was the product of best-selling author Jodi Thomas. What she essentially said was "be prepared to fall." Oh, Ms. Thomas wasn't talking about that slip on the ice or tripping over that toy that Junior left in the kitchen floor. No. She was talking about moving on.

What does it mean to move on. According to Thomas, it means burying corpses. I have one corpse already buried, a manuscript that was obliterated from my document files long ago. There were no sad songs, no tears, no mournful cries. I looked up the title, hit delete, answered the question my computer asked regarding my serious intent. I seriously intended to forget the manuscript was ever written. I can't. I remember the title and the premise. That Clark Boy, my deceased first effort as a novelist, is dead. Good riddance.

I have another novel, what I lovingly call my real first effort, that may very well suffer the same fate. I'm not one of those writers who can't move on to another book if the first one fails to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Maybe it's because that 'real first effort' did get some attention that keeps it in the document files and not relegated to a dusty, floppy disc in the attic. It may be, however, that all I got from the months of painstaking work that ultimately resulted in that manuscript is an understanding of how to get a little attention. I learned that eighty percent of attention comes from the query letter.

In my writing group, I'm called "Query Dawg." Odd title, isn't it? Not so odd when you think about the attention I garnered for my first 'real effort.' After several rounds of querying, I received multiple requests for partial and full manuscripts. True, some of the requests came from questionable agents whose business offices were in BFE, Kansas, but some came from the most reputable agencies in New York and California. I did okay for a beginner.

I'm a firm believer that all things happen for a reason, that our associations and efforts are somehow guided from above, and that all we're asked to do in our lives is interpret the signs. Our job, our true input to our own successes and failures, comes solely from our ability to recognize true opportunity when it finally knocks. It always knocks, but we sometimes fail to answer the door. My ailing manuscript came to fruition for two reasons: 1)It taught me that I could write a novel and wasn't just a wishful thinker when it came to becoming an author. 2)I learned the query is the thing to catch the eye of the agent who, in turn, will catch the eye of the publisher. In that regard, I also learned how to write a query that might tantalize a prospective agent into taking at least a quick look at what an author has to offer. Ergo: I am "Query Dawg," and am frequently asked to take a quick look at queries from other would-be authors.

Jodi Thomas's advice is worthy of following. "Be prepared to fall," she says. I agree. If the goal is to become published, then you have to accept the idea that everything you write isn't worthy of that goal. Sometimes, no matter how long and how hard you've worked on a manuscript, you have to bury it on that floppy disc in the attic. I'm not saying that there won't be tears for words lost. What I am saying is that you must wipe your eyes, throw the tissue in the trash, and go back and try again. Find the right combination of story and words, of plot and action, and start the process all over again.