Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Confession of a Writer Full of Sin

I write because I believe I am a terrible person and I want to explain.

I know I am not all terrible. But I know I am terrible in a significant percentage. I love well but I am also bad. This is true.

I used to assume I was good throughout, because who doesn't think they're good? Even though I knew philosophically the usual things about yin and yang, about mind and body, about id and superego, as a young person I never really applied the concept to myself. When I looked in the mirror, I defaulted to that magical standard of secular humanism: basic goodness of humankind. When I looked at my friends I assumed the same thing. In frowning on the concept of original sin I unconsciously embraced the equally ridiculous concept of original piety. Ridiculous maybe, but true. Everyone says: "I'm a good person."

My badness is a truth of which I have only recently become aware, and I became aware of it through writing fiction.

When I began writing, as a young person with high ideals and a halo around my head, I created stories that were smart and funny, but ultimately, fluff. They contained violence, madness, and grief, but it was a detached and dissembled darkness, a darkness at arm's length. I dabbled and was desultory. I created characters only to serve an abstraction, and plots that had no real connection to my life. A cartoon version of what suffering would look like, a pencil sketch of reality, with absurd backgrounds and farcical props. What does a good person write about, after all? Nothing that bleeds real blood. Nothing that dies actual death.

Then things happened in my life: children happened, with the accompanying pain and devotion. I fell in love for real, with the accompanying fear. My mother died, with desolation. I began to find it impossible to continue to live this life without introspection, this hysterical cartoon life of reckless assumption and convenient farce. My friends and I always used to joke that we were perpetually navel-gazing, always starting sentences with "I feel--." This may have been true, but guess what? The truth doesn't actually live in your navel along with your feelings and your boyfriends and your pets. There's someplace else, someplace that I never gazed, because I'm not one to sit in the bathtub and stare at my knees, or meditate, or ever shut up.

As I began to really grow up, I was becoming aware of an inner awfulness, in spite of myself. It's like realizing that your body isn't just a balloon with air inside, but a construct of meat and organs and fluids. A knowledge you can go on for years without recognizing, but eventually have to accept. And while there was no way I was going to sit around thinking about it, or talking about it, or god forbid understanding it, I did start writing about it, and letting it through in the work. (Parenthetical note: Several years ago, I purposefully engaged in my first real bout of introspection, and the result of it was strangely this: I like chili. I really like it. It's my favorite food. Many times, I considered starting a blog post about this, but thought it was too silly.)

So, my novel is coming out next summer. In this book, I began to present myself in a new way. There is real darkness in it, along with real love. It is funny but sad, loving but cold. It has some death in it, but also some very happy sex, and some falling in love. It has disease and terrible loss, but it also has loving parents and a birth. While the book has a lot of comedy in it, it is the first thing I've ever written that has a serious side too. A book that is revelatory in an honest way, that exposes things about me that are real.

Here's an example: I took my adopted mother off life support in 2004 and she died. Although it was medically logical and recommended by the doctors, I still feel guilty and dark about doing that. In my novel, the main character at one point, standing in a neighborhood party, considers screeching, "I FEEL BAD! I FEEL BAD THAT I PULLED THE PLUG ON MY MOTHER! I KILLED HER AND I FEEL BAD!" She thinks it in all caps. This is true, and this is me.

I worry that I am not a good enough person to be a mother. That's me. I worry that I am a shitty wife. Again, me. I'm not looking in the mirror any more. I'm not looking at anything. Instead, in writing this book I have gone crawling down to a hole that is deep inside me, a black hole surrounded by claw marks and mold. Before, I did not know that it was there. But now, I have laid myself down next to it and plunged my arms into it. In dragging up whatever writhing awful thing came to my hand, and pulling it out, and examining it, I was publicly eviscerated myself. And it really did make things better. I don't feel bad about killing my mother any more. That is actually true.

I can recognize the demons on paper better than I can recognize them in my mind. I can find the black well through writing in a way that I could never find it in real life.

Fictionalizing my inner monster led me to an important fact: this is a fine reason to write fiction. Maybe the only reason. The stuff that matters comes out of that dark, dirty well. And maybe contextualizing that stuff, and explaining it, and putting it into a narrative that makes sense not just to readers but to myself, is a decent purpose. Maybe this is the way I govern my inner animal, now that I can look in the mirror and see it, and recognize that it's there.

So it's funny and dark. It's bright and sad. It bleeds and it laughs. It's me, and this is the only way I can explain it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Minecraft Marketing for Shine Shine Shine

My son made this billboard for my book in Minecraft. Don't know what Minecraft is? It's the unholy lovechild of Lego, the Sims, Dungeons and Dragons, and Windows Paint. If your preteen isn't already obsessed with it, just wait. They will be.

Friday, November 11, 2011

We Have a Cover

I have official permission to share. So here's how the cover is. A black to blue gradient with shiny foil inset stars, constellation marks, hand-drawn letters. This picture is a mock-up, with a layer of paper over foil, with the shiny bits hand cut and showing through. It is like a sonogram for the book. You can almost see it waving.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Writing and the Real Hoodie

I had this hoodie, see? And it was the only thing that would let me really write. Buried in its terry fleece depths, chewing on its strings, pushing my thumbs through the holes in its ragged cuffs, I could really let myself go into my novel like I never intended to come out. If you are a writer, you know how it goes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The writing, that is.

If you are not a writer, you may not realize how superstitious we writers can be about what makes it work.

Some things help you write. A smell (eucalyptus, but never flowers) or food (chicken shawarma, and always chocolate) or maybe even a particular shirt. Or hoodie. You develop favorites, and you surround yourself with them and say to your brain: "Go." In fact, these objects can become so significant to your process that you can't function without them. When this happens, then that object becomes not only helpful, not only nice to have, but "real." Like a specific perfume becomes your real perfume (West Indian Lime, Crabtree and Evelyn), a particular article of clothing, a pair of socks, a hair clip becomes your real hair clip. This happened to a t-shirt of Joshilyn's, which originated as a t-shirt of mine, many years ago. It said ROAD PONIES on the front. It became her "real" t-shirt and no other t-shirt would suffice. This is also what happened with the real hoodie. Am I getting to crazy for you? It's really not all that difficult to grasp -- it's like a uniform. It makes you feel like doing your job.

Let me put it a different way. My literary turn-ons...

In 1996: Cigarettes. Martinis. Solitude. The city.

In 2011: My real hoodie. My fantasy pants. Vicks. Limes. Sonic ice.

Things have changed. I had two kids. I can't wait on tequila and solitude. I no longer live in a big city and I no longer smoke. I needed new signals for my brain, preferably signals that do not preclude me from parenting my children when needed.

So this hoodie. It is a simple garment. A black hoodie with athletic stripes down the sides of the arms. It's not soft fleece; it's terry on the inside. I don't know when I started seeing it as my writing uniform but it happened. And then it happened so much that the thing began to deteriorate. Holes formed. Threads frayed. It was washed a zillion times and it faded. In spots. But it was still so perfect and so wonderful... I could not let it go, even though I looked absolutely insane while wearing it outside the house. A small part of my brain could see that I looked like a crazy homeless person staggering around town in this vile scrap of hoodie, but most of my brain was saying, It's fine, it's fine, it's totally fine! You need this hoodie, or else your novel is never going to be finished.

I did finish my novel (thank you, hoodie). And I happened to be in France when I finished. Maybe it was the wine, or the Seine, or the bicycles, but some perverse imp took over my brain, and I thought to myself, "If I throw out this hoodie in France, I will never be able to take it back. I won't be able to fish through the garbage or wonder about getting it back. It will be final, and I know it's the right thing to do." So I threw away the real hoodie in France. Because in the giddy aftermath of having torn the last page out of my typewriter (not really) to holler, "DONE!" I had forgotten that I would actually have to write more things, after this. For which the hoodie might come in handy. And I knew that throwing out the hoodie was the right thing to do because it was really, really awful.

Upon our return to the states, my cheerful fog parted and I realized that 1. I had to revise my novel and even write more novels and 2. I could do neither without the real hoodie.

Panic ensued. No amount of West Indian Lime or ice from Sonic or handknit socks or fantasy pants could help. I needed a replacement hoodie immediately.

I went to the store and bought half a dozen potential hoodie replacements. I knew I could not hope to find an exact duplicate, so I veered into cardigans. Maybe, I thought, I could actually find something to attach myself to that wouldn't look like shit in a week, and that I might actually be able to wear out of the house without shame. Now wouldn't that be strange?

Out of my potential hoodies, one ended up having snaps under fake buttons. Dumb, and it was also too hot. One was a very large brown sweater with shaggy snarles of yarn hanging off it all over the place, and it really seemed likely that it could become real, but no. The sleeves were too long. Not even Joshilyn could make it real, though she tried too. Maybe it was too brown. There were other failures. Too stiff, too formal, too bright, or maybe sleeves too short.

Then I found it. The magical hoodie replacement for which I had been searching. It was a cardigan, no buttons or snaps, with a foldy collar, and long sleeves but not too long. It's a thin knit, warm but not hot, and so nondescript it disappears. here I am wearing it. Can you see the cardigan? I think not:

Now the story gets really strange. This next part might make you believe in unicorns or else the sweet sweet magic of fairies. Recently I was at our summer place in Pennsylvania, and I was digging around on a seldom-used coat rack, lifting away layer after layer of old scarves, strange hats, and jackets. At the bottom of the hook, I saw something absolutely astonishing. A black hoodie, with stripes down the side. I'm not claiming that this hoodie, clearly placed here in Biblical times, was my hoodie, somehow transported back from the garbage can where I hurled it in France. I know it's not my real hoodie -- it's got no holes in it and the strings aren't chewed. In fact, it was almost pristine. A brand new, pristine, powerful writing hoodie which I now own in addition to the powerful writing cardigan that I had been cheerfully calling a hoodie for months.

So now when I go running around the house, shrieking at Dan, "WHERE IS MY REAL HOODIE? I NEED IT!" I know it's not a hoodie I'm looking for. It's the power. The power is in lime fizzy drinks, it's in pear deodorant, in bullet-shaped ice, in clumpy fur slippers. It's Dumbo's little feather. It's Mina Murray's garlic necklace in fleece terry. It's the one ring, Excalibur, and Zeus' aegis in soft, battleship grey polyester. And it's not going anywhere.

What's your talisman? Is limeade "real" for you? How about your favorite handknit socks?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another Dead Bird

My children found a dying bird in the yard today, an elderly robin that looked like it had been attacked by a hawk. It just fell down out of the sky, inches from my daughter. Of course they picked it up and made a bed for it and tried to feed it and give it what they call "care." Which... is great. Nothing says "you're going to have a lovely evening full of cheer with hardly any morbid conversations about death and the hereafter" like a dying bird on the porch. Here's the burial site:

What I like about this is that the bird's lifespan is listed as 1:00-5:00. That would be PM, as in the amount of time the bird was in my kids' possession. What came before that was not important enough to note.

Dear Cleverbot

Me: "How did you change, when you became a mother?"
Cleverbot: "A friend replaced my fake brain with a real one."

Chapter 28

I am in Pennsylvania, writing my new novel. Also looking at leaves on the ground, burning up an enormous amount of wood in our fireplace, and freezing.

Yesterday, I took a deep breath, after writing chapter 10, and bled out an outline for the rest of the book. I have a problem now. I know that this is a silly problem, but it is still a problem: there are 27 chapters. Which is like... three too few. In my mind, there should be 30. Or 20. Or some other number divisible by 10. Now, I can pull the prologue back out into a prologue, and then there are 28, which is the same number as Shine Shine Shine. But Shine had two too few.

Ah, mental illness. THERE you are! I was wondering when you'd stop by this weekend, to mess up my happy drafting.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cold in Pennsylvania

Last night the children were tucked into bed with both the dogs, all under their new big electric blanket. When I went to bed they were slumbering away. Then starting at 2am, this happened: 1. Sadie wanted in with me (in my tiny bed). 2. Pork Chop realized Sadie was not there and began a house search, which she repeated, with clicking nails, until I got up and got her. 3. Sadie kicked her out of bed and I got up and got her. 4. Sadie kicked her out of bed and I got up and got her. 5. Sadie... you get the idea.

And that cat is currently trying to pound down the back door. It has already consumed two thingers of Meow Mix but it says it wants in.

Being here makes me feel immersed in my new novel, which is good but bad.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

I've just finished Timoleon Vieta Come Home, by Dan Rhodes, and I feel I've been very gently, gently shaken until my teeth rattled. Though it is humor, this is not a book for a merry gambol. It's going to mess you up; depend on it. Yet it has the tone and flavor of a gentle frolic, disguising its very black worldview in the sorts of details and stylistic points one might generally classify as "amusing."

I found myself loving this book, which follows tendrils of plot, as an abandoned dog makes his way back home to Umbria from Rome, touching the lives of various characters around Italy. Don't worry -- it's not touching in that droopy, learn-how-to-feel sort of way. One of the stories is about a sister of someone who once photographed the dog. It's that tangential. And yet the idea of the book is firm and strong throughout, though the plot seems to wander so randomly along every branch of Timoleon Vieta's ramble.

The book is about damage, and the short distance between being damaged just enough to be real, and being damaged too much, hopeless. The difference between what ruin is romantic, and strange, and lovable, and what is too far gone, too messed up, unredeemably horrific. In some ways, it's brutal, this book, but in its heart it's also powerfully true. The cradle hovers over the abyss, and the difference between love and loss is a step, a flaring match, a couple of chromosomes, or a misunderstood folktale.

Dan Rhodes is a funny character. Judging from his blog, he is both funny ha-ha and funny odd, but I like him. I particularly like his long and belligerent pouting about bad reviews which violates all advice to writers and includes this graph:

I like his dry wit. I would definitely pick up another book by him, even if I feel a bit wary of getting punched in the eye again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Other People Edited My Novel

I spent over ten years writing my novel. There was a lot of self-editing that happened during those ten years. From tweaking sentences to throwing out chapters and even whole drafts, I edited pretty constantly as I went along. I edited based on my own opinions, and based on suggestions from my critique group. I edited when Susannah told me on an early draft, "No, this isn't right. You haven't got it yet."

But in this post I'm going to talk about the editing that happened between the point that I slammed my hand down beside my laptop and shrieked "DONE" and the point that my editor at St. Martin's said, "Good job, we can move on to line edits." The major, conceptual edits that came from my agent, my editor, and my beta readers.

Lots of people have asked me how much influence my agent and editor had on my book, and if that bothered or upset me. The answer is that they had a lot of influence, and all of it was good in the end, and none of it ultimately bothered me. There were changes that made me hesitate, and some that I thought might be impossible. I had decided that I was not going to be some sort of annoying prima donna. I told myself that I was going to be a good girl and not argue, and that I would take every suggestion and try and make it work in the book. There was only one suggestion that I could not find a way to do. All the rest of them made the book better, I strongly feel. So when I look at the book I don't see my darling book underneath the mean changes and ugly edits forced on me by other people. I see a book that's so much better than it was a year ago, I hardly recognize it.

So what was the last year like, in edits? Here's how it went:

At the end of July, I finished my novel. I sent it to several friends, some of whom are writers. The friends who are writers had some feedback -- some suggestions for pretty deep structural changes. My novel was built in three big chunks, and they felt that the sections should be mixed up more. One friend passed it on to a friend who is an agent. The agent agreed with the structural changes and had some other suggestions too. We did not sign a contract, or get married to each other as author/agent, but I really like her and wanted to try these changes for her, especially since they were agreed on by the other writerish friend types. Thus began revision #1. I blew up the major sections of the book, and started shaking out the pieces.

Revision #1 ended on November 17 when I had made all the changes discussed. I sent the revised book off the the beautiful agent, hoping she would love me and want to marry me in a literary way.

Here is a real, true fact for you: Very little happens in publishing over the winter holidays. Very little happens in any industry.

On January 21, the beautiful agent told me she liked my revisions and on January 25, she sent me a contract and we were literarily entwined. By the first week of February, and the book appeared to be done, only six short months after I had proclaimed it done.

This piece of paper was stuck to my refrigerator during the months of February and March, and it shows the notes I made during phone calls with my agent -- scenes to be written or revised. I would march around my house during the calls, writing notes onto this paper. Some of the notes are in scrawled onto the paper in big scratchy CRAYON. This is proof that I am mentally unstable, or that I have a seven year old daughter and I had a crayon handy. If you click on it, it takes you to a bigger version.

Unfortunately at this point I had a major idea, an idea which sort of demanded that it be not only included in the book but included into almost every part of the book. This tiresome, obnoxious idea of mine endeared itself to the beautiful agent, and increasingly endeared itself to me, although I wrote several emails to various people shouting that it was impossible and ridiculous to even consider doing it. Email evidence shows that I resisted putting it in until March 22. Eventually, with the help of a mathematician (real) and a crowbar (metaphorical), I incorporated this idea. In doing so, I turned up a few more things that needed revisions. An additional scene here, a tweak there, a shift of emotional content over here, and it was done by April 2. Done, done, done, never to be edited again. Completely finished.

Beautiful agent wrote the pitch letter (It's like Eat, Pray, Love, but in SPACE!!!) and compiled a list of editors. On April 26, she started pitching it, and in a couple of weeks we had a deal. And an editor. You may notice that the word "edit" is prominently featured in the title "editor." Unsurprisingly, my adorable editor had a list of things she wanted tweaked and twirled in the book. One character was to have a much larger role. One subplot was to get a much more complete treatment. We talked about the edits on the phone, and I pondered and toiled over them in the manuscript. Here's a screen shot of the notes I took on our phone call. You can see a checklist I added later, when I had boiled down our conversation into discreet tasks.

The checklist helped, but it was not until we were sitting around a table at lunch in New York, that is adorable editor, beautiful agent and I were sitting around this table (the tallest people in the room, it is to be believed) that adorable editor came up with a very specific, tangible idea that really lit up the whole problem and got me excited to get into the manuscript and tear it up a bit.

I finished my revisions on July 9. A week or so later, adorable editor wrote back that she liked them. And that's where we are at this moment.

The next step is to get her line edits and start working on those. I'm hoping to get an astronaut to read the manuscript and give me some input on the space scenes. But I have the strong feeling that the book is in its final shape in terms of the scenes and characters, the plots and ideas. Many hands have touched it and changed it. I feel like every suggestion, whether to change something, to add something, or to take something out, was essentially the same message: This isn't working. Writers should never ignore a reader who is telling them "this isn't working." Even if I didn't know how to fix it, or how to implement the change, and even if I felt strongly that it shouldn't be changed, I really tried to address every single issue and respond to every suggestion. From my early readers in my critique group down to my editor at St. Martin's, I valued all the input I got.

No novel falls perfectly from a writer's head. Mine has maybe been through more changes and permutations than most. But when the cover goes on and the pages get numbered and the release date finally comes, there aren't going to be any more chances to fix it. This is my chance to make the book as perfect as possible, and I'm taking every opportunity I get.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do Robots Make Better Astronauts?

This article by Dr. Cynthia Phillips @ SETI asks whether robots are better suited for space travel, and whether humans are ready to handle the fact that these tireless explorers might take "our place" on Mars. Here's an excerpt:

"On a purely scientific level, there is very little in our current solar system exploration program that can't be done just as effectively by a robot as by an astronaut. Robots excel at the tedious work of taking similar pictures or analyzing similar rocks over and over and over again, without complaint (usually!) or a need for life support systems. Robots don't need food or water, they can withstand much more damaging radiation, and, perhaps most importantly, they don't need to come home at the end of the mission. Simply put, a one-way trip requires only half the fuel of a round trip voyage, and even though you'd likely get plenty of volunteer astronauts signing up for a one-way trip to Mars, it's unlikely that our current moral and ethical code would allow us to send such a mission."

Fascinating questions. What would Maxon say? Full article here: robots in space.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How I Got My Agent

I do not have a good story. Or, rather, I do have a good story. It's in my novel. It's about a bald lady and her astronaut husband, and a meteor and a news anchorman and Burma and people dying alone in ravines and will power and robots. But I do not have a good agent-getting story. My agent story is probably going to be frustrating to read, if you're trying to get an agent. However, I do have a lesson at the end of it. One minor bit of advice that might help.

I spent ten years writing my novel. I threw out thousands and thousands of words. I started over two times. It was hard. In my mind, the novel became stranger and stranger, more and more itself. While I was writing for an audience, I did not firmly believe that it would find one. The book was more of a compulsion than a goal-oriented project. I did desperately want it to be published, but I did not think about that as much as I did getting to the end of the book, getting the characters through it, getting it all down and out of me.

During this time, while I was working away on my novel, I also became a mother and spent the decade also parenting and homeschooling two kids. Time was scarce. I did not have a lot of room to network, go to workshops, etc. I barely had time to drag myself to my critique group. However, I managed to do several things in this period of time that really helped me when I had a finished manuscript to sell.

1. Friends. I have friends who are writers. Not just writer friends, not just network friends, but mom friends, wine friends, holy crap this is awful friends, holy crap this is true elation friends, real friends. My two oldest friends are both writers. I try my very best not to feel competitive with them, and I worked very hard during the last ten years to not feel left behind by them, as they both achieved a lot of professional success and I did not. I had my moments of self loathing and doubt, but I always want my friends to succeed. It's a true fact that success often happens in clusters. When everyone around you seems to be "making it" and you are "failing utterly" you can comfort yourself by the fact that by planting yourself in a successful cluster, you're helping yourself.

Writers should not be afraid to be good friends with other writers. There are no angels of publishing sitting on high, looking down at your group of friends and deciding which lucky, golden, sparkly one to pick for success, leaving the others to sink into the mire of ruin. For every one of you that makes it, all of your chances improve. The other thing is that ultimately, they are the only ones that understand. They are the only ones that will tell you when you're fucking up, and will really genuinely be happy for you when you win.

2. Networking. Everyone tells you to network all the time. You're supposed to network your ass off. Just ask the internet. Google "The importance of networking" and you will find a lot of confirmations that it's highly important. The problem is how to network, especially if you're not already in the publishing industry or the writing world. You can make friends, yes, as I discussed up the page. And that counts. You can also send hopeful emails to people saying "Hello, I'd like to network with you." They might even send back an email that says "I would love to network with you. Let's network." However, the next step is tricky. You could easily get stuck looking at the person like, hey, do you like me? Check one: __yes __no.

The best way to network yourself into the writing world is to find a way to interact with writers, editors, agents, and other publishing types in some practical way. Before you're asking for help, before you have any need of help, you just happen to be around for some reason. You're a book designer. You're a reviewer. You're a manuscript consultant. You're a publicist. You're a party planner. You're a web site coder. You're a gadget scriptor. Something like that.

My dark plan to network while I was working on my novel was to create a writing contest for children. This project was an intersection of my homeschooling and my writing -- a happy coincidence. With a partner, another homeschooler, we set up many categories, found sponsors, and then began recruiting readers and judges from... the publishing industry. I emailed writers I have never met, agents I wouldn't have thought to pitch to, editors, illustrators, etc. Many of them ignored me, many said no thanks, but the crazy thing is that many said yes.

In the process of putting the contest together, I had a reason to talk to everyone I know, and ask them if they knew anyone in publishing. For the children, of course. Not to promote my own book, which didn't even exist at that point. It was no surprise: people knew people. I collected email addresses. I communicated, as charmingly as I could. There were exchanges back and forth. So, should you put together a writing contest for children? Maybe not. But if you can think of a way to interact with book people in a practical way that allows you to talk about, plan, and execute some arrangement that doesn't involve your novel, it will make it a lot easier, when your novel comes into the picture.

So what is my agent getting story? Here you go:

I wrote a book. I passed it to my friend, a writer. She passed it to her friend, an agent. I happened to have met this agent back when she was an editor (she was a friend's editor) and I also happened to have emailed back and forth with her as she was a judge for the children's writing contest. She liked the manuscript, and after some revision, we signed a contract.

In some ways my story can be reduced to, "It's who you know." In that way, it's a frustrating tale. However, even "It's who you know" ultimately comes down to "It's what you do." And there's always something that you can do about it. Eventually there's something you do in order to know who you know, and that's what you have to figure out.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We Have a Book Deal

Just a few short weeks after she began shopping it, my agent Caryn Karmatz-Rudy sold my novel to St. Martin's Press. On Tuesday, the deal was announced in Publisher's Lunch. I'm in Italy right now, and didn't get to properly drool over it, so she forwarded it to me. I have only read it out loud to Dan a few times, but in my head I have it memorized:

Lydia Netzer's SHINE, SHINE, SHINE, in which a young mother's "perfect" suburban existence unravels in unexpected ways as her astronaut husband's endangered mission to colonize the moon brings to light her dark childhood secrets, their strange and wondrous relationship and forces her to question the nature of motherhood, dying and what it means to be human, to Hilary Rubin Teeman at St. Martin's, in a very good deal, in a pre-empt, by Caryn Karmatz Rudy at DeFiore and Company (World).

I am so happy. Wondering and wondering.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of Water is Lidia Yuknavitch's sexy, dirty, wordy, wet memoir. Lidia is not that much older than I am. Is it time for us to write memoirs?

What everyone has already said about this book, which is absolutely true, is that it is very honest. From the fragmented structure to the chatty tone, there is nothing artificial about it: there is no artifice. Lidia came from a scary home, has led a wild life, and writes from a very complicated place. In her book, she tears the scab off, rips the scar open, maybe even peels back the skin, and shows us everything she can. Reading this book is kind of like sitting down with the cool, beautiful, crazy girl who's always been sort of fascinating but inaccessible, and having her flush, really flush all the stuff inside her head. And you can't believe your luck -- it's not the usual "no one understands me" stuff, but actual stuff worthy of dishing. Death. Pain. Birth. DUI. Wetting yourself. Getting the crap beaten out of you. Her portrayal of all these events is as straight as it can be imagined one can tell it. I was kind of blown away by that. If this isn't the most authentic, honest, attempt at a memoir from someone who's not protecting herself in the slightest, then Lidia has sold her soul to the devil. Again and again, I found myself thinking, "I can't believe she's actually telling me this." And there is no shallow end. It starts with gruesome, excrutiating pain, and goes on from there.

Now let me sell the book a little.

This is a book that is full of sex. And not just the discreet sex where a sex scene begins and then ends and you read through forty more pages and get to another sex scene. This sex leaks into everything, every expression of pleasure, every description, almost every scene to be honest. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is the inside out sexual plot arc. Where you normally expect a survivor's salvation memoir to run from sexual damage to sexual shut down through a reawakening to renewed health, etc. -- this book's sex doesn't quit. In defiance of expectation, the book sketches out a different geometry, not an arc at all but a tessellation, layering sex and death, sex and birth, sex and women, men, road work, writing, everything. It's so pervasive, you'll believe it's not there just to titillate. Maybe sex as an undercurrent to all things is a more authentic way to represent a life, more authentic than just packaging it into certain scenes, certain times. I don't know.

Let's return to the question of age and ask a brutal question. Let's ask, quietly, if a memoirist who is not yet 50 can really be trusted when it comes to the final chapters. Doesn't the current husband, the current job, the current life get filtered through the lens of the happy ending? You don't write a memoir if you haven't landed somewhere that feels permanent -- either jail or happiness -- so once you've decided you're happy, you're going to write your way there. This may be a cynical way to look at it. Is Lidia Yuknavitch really done? Has she written herself to the end of the story? Will there be another memoir in 20 years, one that erupts through this one, floods it with new revelations, the next bold geometry? I hope so, actually. And when I read that one, it won't make this one any less. This book, this art, is what she now believes. I believe that she believes it. And that makes the book, for me.

Monday, February 28, 2011

I Finished My Novel in Paris

I started my novel in the year 1999. The first idea was to write a novel about a woman who was pregnant for the first time. I was also pregnant for the first time. This level of imagination was about all I could manage as a newly pregnant person. Before pregnancy, I was always a bit of a live wire. While my first two books are questionable in terms of lasting literary value, no one can say they weren't lively. While pregnant, I was reduced to simple declarative sentences. Most of them started with "I" and ended with "am nauseated" or variations on that theme. I wanted to write about a person making the transition from being a person into being a mother. Mostly all I could manage was to talk about puking. I remember that my character at one point climbed to the top of a ladder and then puked. And that was the conflict in the scene.

Then I had the baby and lost all ability to write about anything that didn't end well. Because I so earnestly wanted the baby to be safe and happy, I could only create fiction in a safe and happy world. Which was boring. And disastrous to the plot. Everyone felt fine, did nice things, and tried to blend in. Instead of writing vomit-related conflict, I wrote no conflict. Which may be therapeutic, but does not make a novel. I still wanted to write about motherhood, but had no ability to get beyond the level of "Motherhood is nice."

My second idea for tackling this material was to write about three sisters and a cul de sac. Babe, the oldest, was unmarried, a rover. Ronnie, the middle one, was married with two children. Kate, the youngest, was married and pregnant for the first time. They were mother, wife, girlfriend -- their characters illustrated the transition that I was trying to unpack, from single girl to mother. Ronnie had bought a house on the cul de sac when she was first married, and now Kate had bought the house next to her. There was one house left and they were trying to get Babe to settle down with her boyfriend and move into it. The novel was going to be called, brilliantly, Cul de Sac. I introduced some conflicts. Someone was sleeping with someone else's husband. I wrote quite a lot of this draft.

Then I got pregnant again. On purpose, even. Goodbye, brain.

My third idea, upon emerging from that second stupor, was that the three women would actually be one woman. My next idea was that the woman would be bald. Other ideas stacked with that one -- that she would have an astronaut husband (thanks Susannah), that she would already have one child (with autism), that her mother would be sick and dying. Everything came together from that point. I staggered, stalled, and sprinted, and when we left for France in summer of 2010, I was within a few thousand words of finishing. I had taken some days off of parenting, I had had help with the children, but mostly I had fought it out in spite of my job as a homeschooling mother -- stealing time between lessons, or usually at 1 am, with the children upstairs asleep.

When we reached Paris at the end of our month-long adventure, I was immediately inspired. I sat down and wrote a thousand words the first night. We were, after all, in Paris. I had read the relevant Hemingway. I had read in fact the guidebook that told me exactly where to go to follow the path that Hemingway took when he wheeled Joyce home in a wheelbarrow after a night out drinking. This is what I'd always had in my head -- a trip to Paris, a literary explosion, my hands on fire, my brain turned to molten ideas. My husband, beautifully compliant after a month of climbing Alps on his bicycle and following the Tour de France, agreed to take the children out in the city so I could work. And I did work. I worked with the floor-to-ceiling balcony windows open behind me on an antique table in a mirrored room. I worked with gritty coffee next to me, and then French wine, and then more coffee. I worked fueled by awesome cheese and some sort of internal engine. I worked so much that I was within one scene of the end of the book, and then I stopped.

I had an idea. To finish my novel, I would go out into the proper neighborhood. I would walk from our swank apartment in the 8th arrondissement down to Pont Alma, Joyce's favorite bridge. There I would stand where he stood, dictating Finnegan's Wake, and I would think very important, excellent thoughts. Then I would take the Metro over to the Left Bank, and I would walk around down there, scuffing my shoes where Gertrude Stein walked, treading the path that Hemingway trod, and then I would wind up with my netbook at Les Deux Magots, where Fitzgerald and Joyce and the rest of them drank, and I would open the netbook and finish the novel, right there, in the midst of it.

It was a plan that did not happen. I could have done it. I was in the right place at the right time. My husband was going to take the children to a movie. However, when it came down to it, I had a breathtaking realization that this scenario would be all wrong. It would have been antithetical to the book I was writing to shed the trappings of my housewife life and try and inhabit some kind of imagined literary nirvana, deny the person I was in trying to emulate something that had nothing to do with me. I wrote my novel about becoming a mother, and I would write the ending as a mother would. It's the only thing that would work.

I did finish the novel in Paris. But I finished it at that dining room table, wearing my old brown shorts, with my hair twisted this way and that, my husband asleep in a room to the left, my children asleep in a room to the right, the window behind me open on the city -- not the city of Gertrude Stein, but the city I was living in right then. Kids, husband, reasonable sandals and all.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Query a Literary Magazine

I have a client who writes very tight, literary short stories. He has not been able to place them yet with a literary magazine, however. I asked to see his cover letter so I could critique it for him. The cover letter he was using was so representative of many earnest unpublished authors and so full of typical well-meaning noob mistakes, I thought I would make my critique public. A lot of people struggle with content on a query when they have nothing to say about writing career, previous publications, seemingly nothing to say at all. This letter follows all the rules of writing a query, and yet it's squeaking with awkwardness. It screams "Ignore me; I'm new."

The first step to a successful pitch to a literary journal is to write the best short story or poem you can possibly write. Write, rest, rewrite, rest, edit, line edit, format sensibly, print clearly.

The second step is to do a hell of a lot of research. Wear out your Google searching your target markets. If you can afford it, buy and read the physical publications. You will know within ten pages if your work is a fit for their editorial vision. The best story in the universe will not make it past the front door of a magazine that just doesn't do that type of thing.

The third step is to write a bitchin' query letter, or cover letter, and stick it on top.

Here's the original letter he sent me:

February 1, 2011

Fiction Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

To Whom it May Concern,

Please consider my 1,200-word, previously unpublished manuscript, "[Title Redacted]" for publication at The Georgia Review. I am a previously unpublished writer, but I work with earnest on the craft. This piece is a part of a collection of stories that will one day comprise a novel.

This piece is being simultaneously submitted. I will notify you immediately upon an

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

And here are my critiques:

1. Dude, find out the name of the editor you're addressing. It's not hard to do this research, especially with the internet. Even if you end up addressing it to someone more senior than the person who actually reads their slush, that's okay. It's better than "To Whom it May Concern." That is the kiss of death. For example, look here: http://www.uga.edu/garev/contact.html Out of the staff listed I'd choose David Ingle to query.

2. Don't say you're previously unpublished. The fact that you're not mentioning pub credits tells them that, and you don't need to draw attention to it. You also REALLY don't need to say that this story specifically is previously unpublished. Now you just put the words "previously unpublished" twice in as many sentences. Did you want to add a neon sign over that? ;D

3. Put a little more color into it. Personal color and literary color. You don't have a publishing resume but you can say something about yourself that makes your query sound a little warmer, a little less robotic.

4. Not necessary to say you're simultaneously submitting -- just let them know if it gets accepted elsewhere. Paper and ink literary magazines do not move at a blinding speed -- it will be alright if something good happens somewhere else and you have to withdraw the submission for some reason.

5. It's good to thank the editor, but yours sounds very formal and therefore insincere.

Try this:

February 1, 2011

David Ingle
Assistant Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

Hi David,

Please consider my 1,200-word, story, "[Title Redacted]," for publication at The Georgia Review. It's a Texas story, sparsely told, about a death in the family and also a death out in the yard. I'm a writer living in Mississippi with my wife, dog, and antique car collection.

Thanks for all you do -- I appreciate the time it takes to look this over, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

I hope my client hits with this new query letter. His writing is great. However, his success in this will depend on his research skills, his ability to direct his work at the right market, and his willingness to exercise the same restraint in his pitch as he is able to pull off in his fiction. Play it cool, play it simple, play it warm but not hysterical, straight but not snippy.

Got any other advice for him? Should he leave out the bit about the antique cars? What's your go-to query line?