Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shush, Slush. Hush.

I've been thinking about Laura Miller's article on the slush pile today. The Salon article, which is entitled, "When Anyone Can Be a Published Author," has the tagline, "How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?"

At first I thought the article simply showed what an absolutely fan-glorious-tastic world we new writers are entering. Miller writes, "Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives. Writers can upload their works to services run by Amazon, Apple and (soon) Barnes and Noble, transforming them into e-books that are instantly available in high-profile online stores."


It can't be that easy, right? Of course not. Miller takes this dizzingly-delicious view of the future writing world and looks through the perspective of the reader.

The reader. Bah. Who cares about the reader? ;)

Oh, wait. I'm totally a reader. Just finished The Sugar Queen (glittery gold star for magical realism!) Have revisited the old Anne of Green Gables series this summer for a little comfort, a little familiarity. Am tearing through Ash so I can write Malinda Lo a thick, oozy fan letter. I love, super-love, triple-scoop love reading.

So what does the future look like for me, the reader? Not so brilliant.

What tired editors and over-worked junior editors do is suffer through slush piles. They read thousands--thousands!--of unsolicited manuscripts a year to hunt for that one lost jewel of a tight, witty, relevant novel. Miller paints a bleak, albeit hilarious, picture:

"It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clich├ęs -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves. . . . Instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get. In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours. Also, no one will pay you for it."

I am fascinated and horrified by this. Fascinated because it will be so interesting to watch slow, subtle changes: what determines 'good' in popular fiction, what 'bad' writing will do to good writers, and how the languages of readers, writers, critics, and publishing may muddle so Babel-badly that understanding among them will disappear.

I am horrified by this idea, really, because it reminds me that I am just slush. Slush! One of hundreds of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts, of red-eyed, chipped-nailed dreamers begging the gods and unseen, exhausted editors for my one chance at immortality. It is such a sad idea that I doubt my little story. My little, torn, shorn story that isn't ready for anyone's eyes yet--I look at it and wonder if it could ever rise above the slush pile. How do you keep going when the terrors and bogeymen of Cliches, of Boring Plots and Shoddy Ideas loom and leap and lurk? What gives you confidence when the slush doesn't hush?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Faerie Queene

Beautiful Thistledown Nursery and Greenhouse hosted their fourth-annual FaerieFest this weekend. We celebrated the coming summer with faeries and greenmen, pixies, witches, and bellydancers. All them friends, all of them magical. The most magical was of course, Queene Clarabella Snow.

She found my new bottle of lavender, made by friend Melissa of Aurora's Apothecary Herb Shop

All visiting fairies were invited to write wishes and draw pictures on slips of brown paper that were hung in the trees. The wishes come true, we were told, when the papers--whoosh!--were whisked away by the wind. Here Clara is both scribbling baby-wishes in green crayon and also devouring far too many cheddar Elmo snacks.

I took plenty of notes as I toured the greenhouse, sketching unusual pots and leaves, copying Latin names and nicknames of plants I'm sure one of my characters grows in her own greenhouse. What a fantastic way to research for my story! :)

Next year, I'll have to pull out my own wings and dance with the drummers and my sweet baby girl.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Monsters of Templeton

I just finished reading Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton and couldn't go to bed without giving it it's due shout-out.

No YA book, that's true, but it clearly deals with YA themes: a young, clever woman, Willie Upton, runs to the welcoming womb of her small-town home after making a mess of her attempts at a grown-up life on the west coast. Her visit home becomes one long summer of self-discovery. Although she knows who she is in a rudimentary way: town royalty, one of the last of the town's great founder, she dives into library journals and family documents to find more. As Willie digs into the past to understand her present, she uncovers ghosts and murderers, fire-breathers and monsters. It is an utterly suspenseful, 200-year-old coming-of-age tale.

The story is beautifully crafted, offering chapters narrated by passed family members as well as some of their vibrant letters and journal entries. We also get pictures of many of her ancestors--an element, I admit, I'm not sure added to the story as a whole.

The bits from the past were, for me, more compelling than Willie's real life. Her would-be townie boyfriend wasn't believable, speaking 'hick' and towing cars one minute, reading Spinoza and complaining about the hegemony of marriage the next. Her fey friend who swam in Speedos but scored with all the ladies was another muddle. But nothing about Willie's slowly-revealed family tree was a confusion. Groff excels in making the many names of Willie's past bloom and burn with life. I was especially captivated by the Civil War-era letters of two dear-friends-turned-bitter-enemies, Charlotte and Cinnamon. :) (Isn't Cinnamon a fantastic name?)

Speaking of bitter, I have to confess that when I read Groff's bio, I was wrenched with bitterness. First, she is two years younger than I am, and this novel was a bestseller in 2008. Second, she wrote the novel while working on her MFA at UW-Madison. How difficult it is for me to celebrate her success! When she has my life! Have you ever watched someone live your life and muttered, "If only . . . "? Not only has she succeeded while I have just puttered, but she has trained where I oh-so-badly wanted to train. Madison is my Christminster. (wry smile. Any Jude the Obscure fans out there?)

But I won't leave on a bitter note. I looked up her website, and Lauren Groff is not only brilliant and younger and well-trained, she is also hilarious. She posts a final blog just a week ago in her "news" section that clearly explains why is she breaking up with blogging. Please check it out! I love how she says frankly, "The problem is that I would always look back at you the next morning and cringe a little. In broad daylight, your face smeary on the pillow, you were neither as clever nor as interesting as I had dreamed when I posted you the night before." Oh how I wish had found her before she quit blogging! I should have loved to read her other smeary-pillow bits.

Final note--how curious that the UK edition should have such a lovely, such a provocative cover when ours is stark in its wood-cut classicism. Hmm. What do we need to do to get a little color and allure from our publishers?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

James Bradley Comes Home

Tonight I went to the History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton to hear James Bradley speak. I knew next to nothing about him, but I figured that any opportunity to hear an author talk about his work was one to snatch. Jay agreed to put Clara to bed, so I slicked on some gloss and threw a cobalt scarf over my baby-stained raincoat and was out the door. At the castle, I climbed two flights of stairs, passed a coffin of Harry Houdini's (was it really his?), and turned right into the Living History room. It was a biggish room, holding about 140 people in fold-out padded brown chairs. James Bradley stood in front of burgandy velvet curtain, his white Japanese shirt--short-sleeved with frog-clasps--a stark contrast to the suit and tie I had expected. But really what had I expected? I knew he was an historian. A WWII nonfiction writer. Honestly, I expected tortoiseshell glasses and tweeds.

James Bradley is the author of NYT bestseller Flags of our Fathers. He has also written Flyboys and The Imperial Cruise. I was a little late, so I missed the opening of his talk, but it was information I quickly gleaned from his website: he is a Wisconsin boy who went to UW-Madison. While still a student, he flouted most of his professors and followed the advice he read in Reader's Digest from James Michener (paraphrased): "When you're twenty-two and graduate from college, people will ask you, 'What do you want to do?' It's a good question, but you should answer it when you're thirty-five." Bradley took time off college to travel the world for a year. He asserts that this time prepared him for his journey as a writer because of the experience and perspective he gained.

When he graduated with a Bachelor's in history, he never imagined he would write a book. In fact, he didn't begin writing until he was 40. At that time, his father died. "I didn't set out to write a book. I wanted to know why my dad wouldn't talk about Iwo Jima. It was as simple as that."

He said he's often asked about his process, about his "research." He seemed to scoff at this a little. "'Research' is the big word. But I didn't have a plan." He started with a question about his dad. The question led him to several boxes of momentos. In one box he read a letter that his 22 year-old father, John Bradley, wrote to his parents two days after John helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. This discovery led to several phone calls to the families of the men in his dad's platoon.
He said that the families were tired of hearing from reporters and researchers. The families of the men who helped raise the flag didn't want to glorify their sons or make them into heroes. Bradley said, "I just want to know, did he have a girlfriend? Did he play football?" The book was well received by the families because he told their sons' stories honestly, frankly.

When his book came out in 2000, it was an instant bestseller. Bradley said this didn't surprise him because the photo on the cover is the most copied photograph in the world. It's an iconic image. He said that he had the most recognized image with stories no one had ever heard: from a marketing p.o.v., he was confident the book would sell.

How difficult it was for him, then, to hit brick wall after brick wall. First, he tried pitching the story as a movie. Whom did he call for help? Ross Perot! "He had a lot of money, he was patriotic, and he knew Hollywood," Bradley said. Unfortunately, Perot refused.

"'Bradley, you gotta write a book. You gotta write a book, Bradley,'" he told us he heard over the phone. "'Hollywood'll steal your idea. You gotta write it down. You gotta write a book.'"

So though he really didn't want to, Bradley wrote the book. After that, he cold-called 50--50!--agents. By the 50th, he realized that agents don't actually appreciate phone calls; they really just want to see your work. :) (Good tip!)

When an agent finally took him on, his manuscript was sent to three big houses in New York. Bradley told us that he mused, "Hm. Which one will I choose?" He was certain all three would be interested in buying it. All three refused it. Twenty-four more publishing houses refused it. He said that one publisher sent him a letter that said, "We've heard you're not getting any positive responses, and we wanted to let you know why. The publishing industry judges the stories you want to tell aren't worth the paper they'd be printed on."

Oh my stars! Do professionals in the publishing world really write letters like that??

Bradley took a moment to charge the young people in the crowd (I'm sure he was talking to me, right?): "If you want to get anything done, you gotta go through a lot of no's."

He followed up with a story he heard while working with Clint Eastwood during the production of the "Flags of our Fathers" movie. Eastwood told him that he pitched "Million Dollar Baby" to Warner Bros, with whom he'd worked closely for years. Their response was, basically, "Clint, you've lost it. It's a boxing movie? And it's a boxing movie with a girl in it?" They refused to support it. Eastwood said, "I don't even start to think it's a good idea until I hear two people telling me it's a bad idea."

So we'll keep those chins up, right writers? If Academy-Award-winner "Million Dollar Baby" and NYT-bestseller Flags of our Fathers had to struggle to live, we must expect our little seedlings will struggle too. But we'll be tenacious, yes? And we'll have excellent senses of humor.

He talked much more about his other books and on his current project, but it's really the QA I found the most interesting. He asked clearly that if folks had questions, to please raise their hands; however, if they had comments, please go to his website and share them there. He wanted to know their stories, but he couldn't write them down in a format such as this (he's looking for new stories for his next book). Clear enough, yes?

The first hand up was from a dear white-haired woman who shared for some time that the woman with her had been a neighbor of Bradley's father and that they had gone to school together. She was clearly delighted to be talking to the author; her voice was timorous and she was clutching the shoulder of the woman sitting beside her. Bradley was oddly terse. He inserted during each breath, "We'll talk afterward." "I look forward to talking with you afterward." "Are there any questions?"

The second hand was of a man standing on the side of the room holding a large frame. He wanted to tell Bradley about the photograph, that "meaning no disrespect," the photograph was taken moments before that iconic picture was taken. He said more, about the landscape, and maybe about his father. The man tried to give the picture to Bradley, but the author said, "Why don't you take this?" and asked for any questions.

The third--you won't be surprised, will you?--was a gentleman who shared information on a charitable organization that is slightly similar to the foundation that Bradley has started. Bradley said, "Did you hear that? He was talking about AFS, which distributes kids all over the world. Are there any questions?"

Questions. Authors want questions. James Bradley especially wants questions. He was hard-pressed to get them tonight. I was tickled to death by this. I wrote in my journal, "This has to be the suckiest part of authors' speaking engagments." It really must. Worse than leaving your family or lumpy motel mattresses or mikes that don't work, dealing with a difficult crowd HAS to be the worst. Have you ever seen an author deal with a difficult crowd? How did he/she handle it? Or are you an author who has dealt with chatty, opinionated folks? What's your secret for a gracious exit?

:) Yes, I'm back to writing my zero draft, but I'm already planning how to handle myself in upcoming speaking engagements. It never hurts to be prepared, right?

I hope James Bradley enjoyed his visit home in Wisconsin. He's looking for stories of today's America; he kindly reported that his talks with our principals and mayor have given him a positive view of our midwest version of America. He said he may just stop reading the New York Times. :) Reports of New York's beaches and parks closing down, of LA declaring bankruptcy had him thinking that we had fundamentally changed as a country in recent years. The buoyant tales of community and closeness he has heard here has encouraged him.

Whatever the truth of Wisconsin's 'community' may be, I do hope his next book offers all of us inspiration and joy. Wishing him the very best of luck on his continued journey!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Put. The Scissors. Down.

21,500 words. That's all I've got after my cuts.

Oh my stars. I have 1/3 of a novel. What do I do?

I've got a couple of little plans. I need to take some notes walking down certain streets. Gotta see how the sun hits the trees at certain times. Check out flowers in bloom, birds in song, etc. Plan to visit two herb-queens to get their stories on making concoctions and to sniff around their greenhouses. I'm looking forward to these little visits.

But I need much more. I need whole huge chunks more. I need twice as much story as I have now, and I know notes and descriptions aren't going to give it to me.

I'm leaning on Ray Bradbury. Laini posted a clip of him talking about his creating Fahrenheit 451. The editors required 25,000 more words for his original manuscript. He asked, "How did I do that? I got the characters to come to me. Montag came to me and said, 'Do you know who I am completely?' I said 'No.' I said, 'Tell me.'" He listened to each of his characters and let them tell their stories.

I hope I have the ears to hear. And honestly, I hope I've created honest-enough characters who will tell me who they are completely.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June Revisions Week 1

Revisions. How I had looked forward to them! After a couple of gruelling months, spitting out scenes and dialogue and hazily touching on beats to develop later, I couldn't WAIT to reread my draft. I couldn't WAIT to cut and slice and clean.

But holy cow, folks! Revising a novel is waayyy harder for me than I imagined. First, I had to overcome the temptation of reading my paragraphs and murmuring, "Oh, that's good. Man, that's poignant. Wow, how did I come up with that? Total genius." :) Next, I had to figure out how to move further than two sentences in one hour. The freedom to revise really sunk me for a couple of days. Only after many attempts did I fiiiinaly shift into a gear that works: cutting. Right now, I'm cutting. I'm not making better, I'm not improving or embellishing. I'm just cutting. I've cut 6 of 15 pages so far.

Yowza! I hope that's not the trend! I'll have a straggling scrap of a story remaining if it is! But my plan is to cut the remaining pages this coming week. The next week, then, I'll spend taking notes and researching. Hopefully, then, the third week will be a grafting week---attaching new green shoots to my scenes.

I already miss the zero draft process. How fickle am I? But I do. I miss sitting in the dark and dreaming up crazy conversations or peculiar scenes. I know more creation time is ahead for me; I just have to cut, cut, cut right now to find the real golden threads of my story.

How are you doing? Jennie wrote about how she's found a whole new beat she needs to follow. Are you writing that now, then, Jen? Are you back into the creating part? Jay, how is your story coming? And guys, Jay told me about a blog he wants to start soon that I think will be hilARious. Can't wait to read it! Sophia? Jldy? Sarah? Jen? How are your stories coming?

Wishing you all happy writing!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I've been thinking about weight lately.

I haven't been so concerned with physical weight; it's the other kind that interests me.

A wise woman told me a story regarding the weight of bitterness. Her story followed a young man who visited a town elder asking for freedom from anger and resentment. The elder directed the man to bring a sack of potatoes back. The man did so. The elder asked for the names of all the people who had wronged the young man. As he called out each name, the young man was told to carve each name into a potato. With the newly-carved potatoes back in the sack, the young man was told to carry the sack until next he met the elder. The potatoes grew very heavy. Soon, they began to rot. It was not long before the young man returned to the elder and said, "I cannot keep carrying this heavy bag of stinking potatoes on my back." The elder replied, "We release our anger and resentment only after we realize carrying them hurts us far more than it hurts anyone else."

So interesting to me, this idea of the weight we put on ourselves. We carry the insults, the neglects, the snides and snips. How our shoulders ache and how our spirits sag.

On the other hand, I've been thinking of one my favorite characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As Aslan readied his small army to help Peter and Edmund in their final battle against the White Witch, he called on a second lion to help him. The story goes,

"The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met,
'Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me. Us lions. That's what I like about Aslan. No side, no stand-off-ishness. Us lions. That meant him and me.'
At least he went on saying this till Aslan had loaded him up with three dwarfs, one Dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog. That steadied him a bit."

So, then there is the weight that Aslan puts on us to steady us a bit. I am fascinated by this idea. Is it true? That we may need burdens to calm us, to still us? Or more, as Loriensleaf included in her blog, is it true that we need burdens, or suffering, to create parts of heart? Are we not as effective, not as poignant, not as expansive when we are free and light? I love thinking about that 2nd lion: bouncy, chatty, full of opinions. Steadied and still only by enormous, unsought-for weight. Was that fair of Aslan? Was it really necessary?

How can weight be both a self-inflicted punishment and a Love-inspired gift? How can we complain that we 'carry the weight of the world on our shoulders,' but then admonish others to 'carry their own weight in this world'? And what about someone being a 'dead weight?' And doesn't it feel good to talk with a friend and take some weight off your mind?

I don't have any answers; I just think the subject is infinitely interesting. What do I carry because I choose to, and what do I carry because it makes me stronger? What can I let go? What do I cling to, despite its rot and stench? Welcome, welcome responses. I'm eager for more anecdotes, more opinions. This issue 'lays heavily' on my mind these days. :)