Post #148: The Waiting is the…(say it with me!)

New Writing, Parenting, publishing, Shaking My Head, Writing Advice

First off, have you pre-ordered Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze yet? Click HERE to pre-order your copy now–thank you! Also remember to add it on Goodreads HERE!

Now, to business.

After years (and years) of trying, my debut novel finally comes out next month, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of time, and how time gets soft and stretchy around moments of great expectation. Why is that? I hate to fly and in the days, hours, and minutes before I board an airplane, time seems to puff up, to press in on me. Minutes fall into quicksand and drag interminably. Similarly, as I await my book coming out, time has gotten labored and unreliable. I’m simultaneously wishing I could wind the clock forward to July 22nd and my moment of jubilation, but also trying with every shred of my being to savor the experience, to soak it up. To look around. Remember how I feel. But time has me in a strange grip as of late, and it won’t seem to let go.

Be in the moment, I tell myself. Be here now, I say. You’ll only publish your first book once, don’t try to race through it. But how exactly do you do that?

I have two sons, and when you’re a parent, you come to realize that parenting is a journey that makes one hyper aware of time. I remember when my first son, Felix, was perched in my lap, only a few days old, barely able to hold up his own head or make conscious facial expressions, totally unable to control his own bladder, and even then I was already thinking: won’t it be wonderful when he can walk? I was thinking: I can’t wait until he’s older and I can teach him to play tennis and take him to hear live music and share with him all of life’s wisdom. And then he’d smile quite by accident, the way babies do, and I’d be hurled back into the moment, feel his warm soft skin against mine and I’d kick myself for drifting, for not being as present as I would like to be. For not being right here, right now.

Does this happen to you? (Please say yes)

The strange thing is that it feels almost impossible to stop this from happening. Even if you gain momentary control over your sense of space and time, if you find yourself in a moment that you’re so deeply in that time ceases to exist, it’s fleeting. At least for me. Before long, I’m thrust back into the weigh station of anticipation. Thrown into a box with high walls and just enough air. Forced back into asking that perpetual question I will forever associate with The West Wing: What’s Next?

But still I try.

My book is currently in the hands of early readers and reviewers, some of whom I know but most of whom I do not. As a professional writer (my day job is as a copywriter), and soon to be published novelist, I dine out on feedback. Everything I write gets picked apart in one way or another. I’m used to it. I like it. My writing being critiqued is literally my life. And yet, awaiting the judgment of strangers on the relative quality of my novel is a uniquely out of body experience, the likes of which I’ve never known before. I’m genuinely proud of my book, and I know I did the best I could. My conscience is clear. I know even bad reviews won’t change that. Nor will good reviews. And yet…the goddamn waiting.

I hope you’re not over there rolling your eyes at me. I hope, at least in part, that you’re nodding your head just a little bit in understanding.

Time makes fools of us all.

Post #142: Control-F

The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice

I’ve been furiously editing my debut novel for publication this summer, and let me tell you, it’s a journey. Fraught with peaks and valleys, confirmations and surprises, tears and (near) laughter.

It’s also a supreme brain challenge, applying the editing skills you know you have to the words that you created, trying to erase the proximal distance between your analytical and creative brains so you can edit with clear-eyed clarity and polish your scenes and sentences to a spit shine.

I long ago developed a stomach for editing. They say to “kill your darlings” when you edit. No problem. What weapon shall I use? The machete? The butter knife? The rocket launcher? I’ve got them all and I’m not afraid to use them. Years ago, I wrote a very long (still unpublished) novel about a tennis player, and after a long walk during which I came to the conclusion that one of my sub-plots was totally not working, I sat back down at my desk and casually cut 200 pages from an 800 page manuscript.

Trimming excess fat, re-working scenes, saying goodbye to fluff. I can do that. It’s the blind spots that are starting to keep me up at night. The stuff I can’t see. The revelations that no amount of walks will unearth. Because I can only edit out the crap that I can identify as such. And before you bring it up, I’m not trying to do this alone. My publisher’s developmental editor has been through the manuscript, as have writing colleagues who know their stuff. Other eyes are deeply involved. But there are things that none of us can see with our bare eyes. I’m sure of it. And that knowledge is starting to make me a little crazy.

Luckily, our good friends who make word processing programs have invented tools to help uncover some of the crap you, and other knowledgeable, well-intentioned people can’t always find. I’m starting to believe that Control-F was invented for just such moments.

If you’re unfamiliar, which you probably aren’t, but just in case, Control-F is a word processing tool that allows you to search and find a word or phrase within a document without having to scroll through pages and pages trying to remember where it is. If you’ve never used it, I invite you to open up a document this very moment and try it out. Pick a word. A phrase. An image. Something you know is in there and type it into the Control-F box and watch your document magically race to that very spot. It’s truly amazing. It’s an especially helpful tool for those of us who write book length works where it can be very difficult to find what you’re looking for, no matter how well you think you know your book.

The other day, I was reading my book for the four hundredth time and I thought to myself, “man, is it me or is the word ‘like’ is in here a lot?” My book is 1st person YA, so on some level, it makes sense there would be an extra like or two, but still, I was feeling that from dialogue to similes, ‘like’ was everywhere. So, I typed “like” into the Control-F box. Then held my breath.

Sweet Jesus.

# of uses of the word “like” in my 70,000 word manuscript? 597. That’s less than 1% but still! The word was literally everywhere I looked. After my initial shock and terror subsided, I found myself incredibly grateful, wishing I could buy the creators of Control-F a drink or six. They’d helped me notice what was staring me in the face but I still couldn’t see.

I edited those pesky uses of “like” down to less than 400, and genuinely think I improved the manuscript in a very short amount of time.

Then, fearing I had a similar problem, I did Control-F for the word “just” and did the same thing.

As I was reading, I’d also noticed a proliferation of metaphors and similes involving birds in there so I did Control-F for “bird” and trimmed. Similarly, I’d noticed the same thing with puzzle-themed metaphors. Took care of that. Who’s next?

My teenage protagonist’s parents feature prominently, so there are approximately a billion instances of “mom” and “dad” in the book, but those words are either capitalized or not depending on the situation. Had I deployed the correct usage every time? I think you know what happened next.

I guess my point is that editing a manuscript takes you to some strange places, comes in a variety of forms, and that technology can occasionally be a useful friend along the way.

Thanks, Control-F.

Love, your pal Benjamin

Post #140: A Book of Magical Sentences

The Writing Craft, Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

I recently finished Joan Didion’s National Book Award winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If you’ve never read it, it’s an account of the heartbreaking death of her husband John at the same time her daughter is battling a life-threatening illness. It’s brutally honest about grief, mourning, and loss. It’s as raw emotionally as anything I’ve read in a long time. Didion splits herself open, and you right along with her. It’s unforgettable. And rightfully on its way to becoming a classic.

But that’s not why I can’t stop thinking about it. Not solely why anyway. Of course, it’s Didion’s emotional candor and bravery in laying her grief bare that’s most noteworthy, most humbling, most nourishing. And I was deeply moved by this book. But it’s actually Didion’s language, and her sentences, I can’t stop thinking about. The way she varies short and long. Declarative and interrogative. The lack of modifiers. The strong, muscular verbs. The repetition. The unusual constructions.

In particular, there’s this one sentence from p. 213 that I’m pretty much obsessed with:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

It’s an odd sentence. Meandering. A bit of a mess, and yet utterly distinct, and because of that, deeply personal. Its confident style is what makes it feel personal. I read and re-read this sentence, thinking: I would never write that. Why wouldn’t I write that? Who would write that? Most interesting are those two words “a piece” dropped in there at the end. They feel like an afterthought, shipwrecked and abandoned, oddly disconnected from the rest of the sentence. And yet, the sentence still makes sense, still does the job it’s supposed to do. And maybe even something far more than that.

Let me try to explain what Didion does here in grammatical terms, and why it keeps catching my eye. Let’s take another sentence. How about this: For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog. Just a boring old sentence, right? Nothing special. It’s a sentence virtually any of us could imagine writing, or at least its equivalent.

But here, let me Didion-ize it for you.

Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Feels different, doesn’t it? Strange, maybe? Even a little confusing? Kind of. It uses the exact same words as the first one, and yet, I’d venture to bet that that’s not a sentence that many of us could imagine writing. I’m guessing it’s a small collection of people who would come up with that second version, or leave it that way upon re-reading.

Here’s why, maybe.

In this sentence, we have a subject (Jimmy) doing an action (walked) to someone/something (his dog). The someone/something is called a direct object. A direct object receives the action in a sentence.

I read the book.

I loved Pedro.

Emile cooked an omelet.

Bethany drove her daughter to school.

Typically direct objects are kept close to the subjects acting upon them so that their relationship is clear. Clarity is the soul of effective writing. So why, we might ask, would a writer of Didion’s caliber make the choice to put her direct object “a piece” so far away from the person (“I”) doing the action (“wrote”)? Did she do it on purpose? Is that just the way it came out? Did she fight with her editor about it?

Let’s go back to the two versions of Jimmy’s sentence for a second.

  1. For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog.
  2. Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Which sentence do you prefer? Which feels clearer? I’m going to boldly assume many of us would choose the first one, or at least say it’s clearer.

Now, which has more style? Which feels more personal? Which is more memorable? The answers to these questions feel harder to predict. And therein lies my fascination with Didion’s choice.

Of course, this is all totally subjective, and yet, that’s not to say that we can’t base our opinion on something. I taught high school English for 12 years, and I taught my students to prize clarity in their writing. To keep their direct objects within reach of their subjects so that their meaning would be understood. Writing with clarity doesn’t come that naturally. It’s actually something that most of us have to learn, and then learn again, and keep learning. Students often write long, meandering, messes of sentences, and part of what teachers can do is help them understand how sentences work so they can make more informed choices. To use language more purposefully, and with greater force.

It’s not so much about right and wrong. It’s about intent and communication.

What bothers me a bit is that if Didion was my student, say a freshman in my 9th grade Elements of Literature survey, her sentence would likely get the serious red-pen treatment. I’d likely write “awk” or “not clear” in the margin. I’d likely circle the words “a piece” and draw an arrow back over to the subject and verb.

I write a regular column about music for KIDS VT and I feel confident my editor would also flag this sentence for the many reasons outlined above.

Further, I’m also a graduate of a strong MFA program where I studied creative writing, and I have a hunch this sentence would get mauled in workshop. With good intent, of course. Those arguing that it’s meandering and should just say what it means and keep ideas together would be right, in a way. And yet, they’d all be wrong too. Why? Because if we all wrote to the workshop ideal, or limited our use of language to what would or would not flag a teacher’s red pen, or please an editor, people like Joan Didion may not have been able to develop such unique, indelible styles. When I read Didion, like when I’m reading Toni Morrison or David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami, I’m constantly thinking that she doesn’t sound like anybody else. There’s not much higher praise for a writer. And yet, as teachers and editors, despite our best intentions, it’s often our instinct to push back against what defies convention, what makes us think differently. But to what end, and at what cost?

Let’s take another look at Didion’s sentence.

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Here’s how we might edit this.

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

With my editor’s hat on, I removed “but before the election” because thinking like an editor, I could argue that the sentence expresses the same idea without it, and therefore it isn’t needed. I know I shouldn’t edit Didion, but bear with me. It’s just a thought experiment.

Is this edited version clearer in its expression? Maybe a little. But is it consequently less personal? Somewhat. Less stylized? Absolutely. Less memorable? No question. By distancing herself (“I wrote”) from the thing she’s writing (“a piece”), she’s showing us how separated she felt from her life beyond the bonds of her grief. And by inserting her husbands’s death (“for the first time since John died”) in between the two, she’s reminding us, and herself, of the painful bridge she has to cross to re-claim her identity and live a life without her husband, who was also a writer.

What is style? And how is it caught up in other paradigms and inevitably burdened by larger political forces like the patriarchy and Western bias and sexism?

Why do some writers develop such memorable relationships to language, whereas most of us tend to listen to our editors perhaps a little more than we should? I don’t know exactly, but I have a hunch courage and conviction plays a larger role than we might at first imagine. Didion is a writer of tremendous courage and conviction.

David Foster Wallace’s editor wrote at length about the exchanges they would have where Wallace would defend his stylistic choices down to the very last syllable. Wallace went to war for every word. And this is a guy who wrote long. To invest that kind of time not only in the making of the language itself, but then in the defending of it makes me tired just thinking about it. The energy burns in his prose. I feel something similar in Didion. And though I have no idea, I’ll bet she was a pain in the ass to edit.

Here’s something Joan Didion said once about grammar:

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.”

When you read Didion’s thinking, you can begin to understand the way she thought about language. How deeply personal it was to her. You can begin to imagine the mind of the writer that would write:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Instead of:

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

And thank God that she did. The Year of Magical Thinking is full of wondrous, unexpected, sometimes strange but always true sentences, and I’m grateful for every single one of them.

This is the part where I say Rest in Peace to Joan Didion, who died December 23rd, 2021 at the age of 87. Thanks for arranging your words so carefully and challenging this writer to be more courageous.

Post #139: Ambitious Attainability

New Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice

I love some good goal setting just as much as the next guy. After all, setting goals + achieving goals = happier self. And who doesn’t want to be happier? But I’ve also developed a bit of an algorithm for my own goals, whether they be for my writing life or just my life in general.

I believe in setting goals that are ambitious, but still attainable. Ambitious so that I’m properly motivated and know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Attainable so that I have something to celebrate because celebrating feels good and is a really important part of the process. Most goal setting happens privately, and when it’s just you and you, small victories really matter. In the age of social media, it feels like everything is for public consumption, but deep down, most of us still know that we have to make ourselves happy first.

Now, I know that the notion of attainability sort of flies in the face of all the “yay-me!” feelings that are supposed to accompany goal setting in the greeting-card sense of the phrase. We’re always telling ourselves to “dream big” and “be our best selves.” To “reach for the stars” and be “the person we were always born to be.” But you show me a person who spends a little too much time dreaming big and reaching for the stars and I’ll show you a person who regularly doesn’t meet his goals and doesn’t get to celebrate success as often as he’d like.

Let’s get specific. At the top of this page, you’ll see a picture. Now, I’m not in this picture, but what you’re looking at is me celebrating successfully meeting a goal in about the least sexy way possible: by writing numbers on a page, and then writing more numbers beneath those numbers, and then more numbers beneath those. That’s my daily word count for last week.

I was off for a week over the holiday, and I knew I wanted to make some progress on my novel-in-progress, which I’d been struggling to make traction with as of late. But when you’ve got children dominating your life and schedule, Christmas to plan, not to mention food to eat and classic films to watch, days full of free time–the thing we all want more of–can whisk by in surprisingly brisk fashion.

I needed a goal. So, I set one. I decided that during break I would try to write 1,000 words a day. Now, I tend to write fast, and so 1,000 words doesn’t feel like an overly-huge haul, but I also knew that I’d be more likely to reach my daily goal if I set it for an attainable quantity. If I’m properly focused, I can usually write 1,000 story words in 2-3 hours. However, to reach this goal, I knew I’d have to wake up early and get my pages in before the family was up and the day swept me away so that I could properly focus. I’d have to skip morning time chatting with my wife and reading the Beatles biography I’ve been working my way through. I’d have to sacrifice. And sacrifice takes ambition. As does consistency, which was part of my goal. 1,000 words a day, every day. No excuses.

And that un-sexy photo at the top of the page? It’s proof. It’s my reward for a job well done. The first two days waking up at 6:30 when I wanted to sleep in kind of sucked. But with each passing day, I wrote down my current word count before getting to work, and as the numbers grew, I felt successful knowing I’d not only reached the prior day’s goal, I was proving to myself that I could reach today’s as well. And tomorrow’s. With each day, getting up early and getting my pages in felt just a little bit easier, and a little more satisfying.

It’s easy to get romantic about writing, especially fiction. But the dirty little secret is that writing, almost more than anything, is about showing up. And then showing up again. And again. You could write for twelve hours straight and bang out 7,500 words in a marathon Kerouac-style session, but you’re more likely to do it in small chunks. A little bit each day adds up to a lot.

This year, let’s practice ambitious attainability. Let me know how it goes. Very un-sexy pictures of celebration highly encouraged.

Post #138: You Know it When You Hear It

New Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice, writing news

Since my publisher, Deep Hearts YA, does not do much with audiobooks just yet, one of the tasks I’ve given myself in anticipation of my debut novel coming out next year is independently producing an audiobook of my book to accompany the paperback and e-book release. Why? Mostly because I love audiobooks. Secondly, because it sounded like fun. I know, I know. My version of fun isn’t exactly normal. But I’ve hosted my own podcast, know a little bit about recording and editing quality audio. How hard could it be?

The truth is that before I even got going, I confronted a serious problem. Who would narrate it? Initially, I had planned to narrate it myself. I have a background in acting and teaching and podcasting, which means I trusted myself to deliver a solid performance, and hey, I’m on a budget here. But when I mentioned this plan to my wife, she scrunched up her face in that way she does, the one that lets me know I’m a complete idiot.

You see, I’m a middle aged guy, and my protagonist is, well, not. In fact, my protagonist is a 15-year old girl. My wife gently explained that audiences would probably warm more to the story if the voice narrating the story was closer to that of its main character. She also pointed out that this was especially important given that the novel is in 1st person. But…But…But…

I had some serious Buts because this flew in the face of my plan, and my budget, and my selfish desire to read it myself. And, after all, how the hell do you find someone great to narrate an audiobook?

While I have some additional feelings on the topic of whether a narrator’s gender needs to always match up with that of a main character, my wife was right on this one. She usually is.

So, I thought about it: who do I know that could do this? I sent some emails to local theater organizations. I asked friends. I thought some more. I sent some more emails. Not surprisingly, not much came of this. So, I did what any sensible person would do. I quietly panicked.

And then I discovered ACX, which, as many people know is Amazon’s giant portal for authors and narrators to produce and publish audiobooks. It’s a place where narrators can post samples of themselves and where authors can discover the perfect narrator. I filtered for “YA” and “female” and no fewer that a billion or so narrators and their samples came up. I began clicking and listening. Clicking and listening. Some were fine. Some were not so fine. Some were excellent. Some were professional. Some were decidedly not professional. Some were clearly recorded on a quality microphone. Some seemed accidentally recorded by a phone’s voice memo function. I just kept listening, not quite sure what I was looking for, but hoping that I would know it when I heard it.

And then I heard H’s voice. Everything about her delivery and timbre, her ability to sound vulnerable and real, felt like it would fit perfectly with Rainey, my main character.

From there, things clicked together with a kind of serendipity that is truly unusual. I reached out to H, told her about my project, sent her some sample pages, and asked if she was interested in doing an audition. She was.

A few weeks later, she sent her audition through, and I got goosebumps when I listened to it again and again while walking around my neighborhood with a goofy smile on my face.

I’m happy to report this story has a happy ending, and that I’ve found my narrator. You’re going to love her.

Post #137: Book Title Bingo

The Writing Craft, Writing Advice

For me, choosing a book title is one of the hardest parts of the writing process. And by hardest, I mean it makes me want to jump out my office window into oncoming traffic. The problem, generally, isn’t generating ideas. Usually, the ideas are the easy part. It’s deciding which are the good ideas. And which is the best title. Because, truly, how do you know? And what the hell does “best” mean anyway?

Should a title be short and catchy? Long and poetic? Metaphorical? Stunningly direct? Common and memorable? Abstract and unforgettable? A little bit of everything.

You see where I’m going with this. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that shorter is better. And I don’t necessarily disagree. After all, you want to have a book title that’s easy to grasp, remember, share, and explain. And yet, from where I’m sitting right this very moment, long titles abound. Here’s a selection of longer titles I can see on my bookshelves just from my desk chair:

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day
  • Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Of course, I can see plenty of, and probably more, pithy and short titles as well. To boot:

  • Pleasantview
  • Blindness
  • Dubliners
  • Deep
  • Autumn
  • Naked

Shit

I’m preoccupied by book titles right now because I’m trying to settle on the title for my forthcoming debut novel, which comes out summer, 2022 on Deep Hearts YA. To avoid confusion, I’m not going to share the working title here, but suffice to say, it’s on the long side. I’ve changed it many times, but keep going back to the original. Because I like it. And because it fits nicely with the book’s feel, content, and audience. But I can’t shake the nagging, and likely ill-founded, fear that’s it’s too long. Or something.

Ultimately, it probably matters less than I think it does. I doubt I would like The Great Gatsby or Beloved any less if they were called something else. Over time, we reimagine titles. We wrap them around the book as we imagine it to be. As we want it to be. If we love a book, chances are the title feels just right to us. If we hate a book, then it’s probably the opposite.

For the moment, I’ll keep making lists and checking them a thousand times. When the title is set, or when I likely give up and stick with my original title, I promise you’ll be the first to know.

Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

The Writing Craft, Writing Advice

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.

 

Post #108: Good Medicine From the News Feed

Writing Advice

fb_icon_325x325My relationship to Facebook is that of a guy who got convinced to go to a party he’s now having trouble fitting in at, but one he’s still pretty glad he came to anyway . I’m not a constant status updater or gobbler of my friends’ every whim and posting, but I’m not a stranger either. Nor am I too cool for Facebook school. I check the news feed every day or two, post something at least once a week. Quite often, I’m left chuckling, shaking my head, or feeling very little at all; however, there are moments, such as recently, when my friend and fellow Bread Loaf alum Courtney Maum (pictured below) posted what felt like very good medicine to me, when Facebook seems pretty damn necessary.

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She wrote:

“Ten years ago, when I was still living in Paris, I wrote a novel called “The Blue Bear.” I was uncommonly lucky and got an agent for it and an interested editor at Doubleday right away. I worked on revisions for said editor all summer, talking with her on the phone, assured that when I returned to the states in September, we would sign a book deal. Revisions accomplished, I returned to Connecticut and the meeting was set. One week before this meeting, not only did the editor change her mind, but she also quit her job, leaving me “orphaned,” the offer gone and a dream dissolved.

I was totally thrown off-track by this turn of events. My writing became awful—I quickly set about writing something more “commercial” which was what the other editors who read the manuscript said they wanted. I became sad. I eventually became sadder. I left New York because I felt jealous and competitive and envious of anyone who was having success and it made my writing—and the process of writing—worse.

It took me a very long time to get rid of the disappointment and bitterness. YEARS. And then I got the joy back. I started writing for me again, not for some faceless audience and editor that I didn’t have. I stopped asking myself whether or not I was going to be liked or be successful, or quite simply, be published, and just started writing. And so it is, a full TEN YEARS after the crash of this first novel that a serendipitous alignment with the incomparable literary agent Rebecca Danielle Gradinger gave me the encouragement and motivation and courage to pick this decade-old project up again. And it is with some serious joy and emotion that I’m happy to tell you that the entirely new version I’ve quietly been working on has just been purchased by Sally Kim at Simon and Schuster for publication (if all goes well) next summer.

My friends: keep working. Keeping working hard for YOU. This journey taught me a very difficult but important lesson about patience, and generosity, and getting over oneself and getting the work done.”

I’m excited for Courtney. A little jealous, yeah. But I like to think it’s the good kind of jealousy. 

I spend a lot of my time alone in front of a computer typing words onto a screen that add up to stories. I do this for a variety of reasons. Obsession. Joy. Love. Ego. Desire. Avoidance. The reasons one creates are not readily understood or explained. But the sustaining force that propels me up to my attic writing room at the end of a long ass day when I just want to watch Jersey Shore is the sort of quiet passion that, I think, Courtney re-discovered. That unmistakable feeling of (wait for it, now don’t gag) personal accomplishment. Of a job well done. Call it whatever you want. Whatever it is, though, it has to be your own.

I’m working on a long novel right now and hope to begin formally submitting it to agents in the fall. That process, one that’s indescribably daunting and scary, is also one that’s very different from the protracted creative dream that brought the novel to life. As I’ve gotten closer and closer to the finish line, the two worlds, the business and the creative, have been moving closer together in my periphery, reaching out to touch so they make out like horny teenagers and make a mess of things. Courtney’s words have helped me find some courage to keep them (or at least try to) separate for now. To write the book that I need and feel compelled to write without the crushing burden of expectation. All that is out there, waiting patiently.  

By the way, if her news isn’t convincing enough, take my word for it that Courtney is a fantastic writer, and much of her writing is very humorous and will brighten your day. Check out an installment in her series “John Mayer’s Guide to Foraging” here. You can also follow Courtney on Tumblr and I recommend you do so. http://courtneymaum.tumblr.com 

Post #95: Well, no Shit

Writing Advice

This report brought to you from our correspondents in The Land Where Things Are Fairly Obvious.

Last week I got to play writer in my life as a teacher, which is rare and to be treasured. One of my colleagues in the high school English department where I teach invited me to visit her three creative writing classes and talk about writing, publication, and perhaps above all, failure and rejection. I happily obliged. After all, getting to talk about myself as a writer to a rapt audience who thinks I’m pretty great and that I really know my stuff is unusual in the life of an obscure. One has to seize these moments.

My colleague had told her students in advance that a “published author” was going to visit class and when they found out it was me, they looked a little surprised. I knew many of them and had even taught some in years past. Still, once I got going, they seemed interested, even more so than I’d expected. I riffed a little on some relevant topics. Among them:

  • Writing for pleasure versus writing for publication.
  • What to do when you realize the universe is never going to thank you for the things that you created.
  • The “business” of writing.
  • The value of finding a community who can give you honest feedback on your work.
  • What to do when you realize your baby (your book) is ugly (shitty).

It was fun. I talked. They listened. I mean, they really listened. It’s not often that people listen to me like that. Then there was some Q and A. The students were impossibly sweet and asked the kind of questions that a writer often dreams of being asked, even if he would never admit he dreams about it. What’s your writing routine? Do you plot things out in advance or do you just “listen” to your characters? What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? What was your proudest moment as a writer? The kids made me feel like Don Delillo, and I happily pretended that I was.

In the final minutes of class, as I was sneaking out, my colleague asked her students to write “exit cards” where they were to jot down some thoughts about what they learned from the conversation. Later that day and the next, she shared them with me. They were wonderful. Many were insightful and honest and quoted me directly, which made me feel more important that it should have. Many talked about things I’d said related to the personal nature of the creative process. Of how rejection is hard, but the work is everything. About how writing advice should always be heard with skepticism.

But my favorite? The one that was the pithiest and juiciest proxy for my wisdom on the subject at hand? The one that said, simply:

WRITING IS NOT GLAMOUROUS.

Now that kid was really paying attention.

Post #92: This Will Only Hurt a Lot

Shaking My Head, Writing Advice

I got a very polite rejection yesterday from The Florida Review. They apologized for the delay in responding, contextualized the long wait around some editorial and personal changes, yadda yadda yadda, told me they’d found my story “Unsayable Things” engaging, but that it didn’t meet their editorial needs at this time.

As I do when I get rejections, which I get frequently, I updated my “Short Story Submissions” database, my digital warehouse of failure and ball kicking and invisible bruising that helps me keep track of all the places that are turning down my work, when they’re turning down my work, how long it takes them to turn down my work, and with what tone they’re turning down my work. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of different brands of rejection. Impersonal form rejection? Impersonal polite rejection? Mildly personal encouraging rejection? Re-write suggestion rejection? What’s fucked up is that you get to the point where when the rejection even names your story, or suggests that a human being actually read it and enjoyed it, even if it’s a no, you come to love that no. The polite rejection becomes it’s own form of yes. Welcome to the twisted world of writing for publication.

And when I opened up the “Short Story Submissions” and navigated to the story in question, then to the journal in question, I noted that I’d submitted to my good friends at TFR in March of 2012. Yes, you read that right. March of 2012. A full thirteen months after I’d submitted. When I submitted to them, Obama hadn’t been reelected yet. I was a year younger. As were my children. Of course I’d long ago forgotten about the submission. TFR assured me in their rejection that they have fixed whatever was taking them so long to respond and that they are committed to honoring the 2-3 months time frame they normally take to kick people in the balls wearing blindfolds. I believe them, and in a twisted way, was still glad to hear from them. Unlike agents and publishers, who only respond to you if they’re interested, and let silence stand as the sign of rejection and lack of interest, most literary magazines, eventually, do get back to you. Provide you with that human need for closure.

The adage among writers is that you’re not supposed to take rejection personally. Don’t let it get you down. Build a thick skin. It’s so frequent, rejection I mean, and the odds of sneaking a good, or even perhaps excellent, piece of writing through to a respected journal, are so slim that lit mags spend most of their time saying no. With such terrible odds and so frequently hearing “no,” it’s better to protect your heart, not take it personally, and keep submitting, knowing that they’re saying no to great stories all the time, and that half of it is kismet, luck, or some nepotism that you can’t even control. So, don’t take it personally. And I don’t. I don’t let it hurt me.

Except…that’s bullshit.

It hurts like a motherfucker. Not every time, mind you. But the entirety of it hurts, I mean. A deep aching something that you pretend isn’t there because if you acknowledge it too much, it becomes hard to do good work.

Mostly, I don’t take it personally in the way that traditional people take traditional things personally. Like most writers who want to publish, I’ve gotten pretty good at being rejected. Repetition does help make you numb. I see the brief form response, thanking me for the opportunity to read my work, telling me how many submissions they get and how many worthy stories they pass on, etc. Sometimes they say something nice about the story. Mostly they don’t. Sometimes they tell me to submit again soon. Sometimes they don’t. And, even though it all adds up to the same thing, mostly I believe them. It must be mind numbing to receive so much work, a lot of it shit, but a lot of it totally fine, and even some of it rather fantastic, but to have only so many feet for all those shoes. I update my database like a good soldier, may submit the story to another five or ten places, then begin waiting again. Rinse, wash, repeat. But this idea that it’s not supposed to hurt you to be rejected over and over is hilarious. And totally unrealistic.

Of course it hurts. Last time I checked there was blood pumping through my veins. So…what to do?

Day to day, you play dumb. You don’t let it hurt you. Every no can’t be the end of the world or you’d never have the courage to write another word. That’s no strategy. But pretending you don’t feel is insane too. I’d rather accept the hurt as part of the journey and teach myself how to manage it, rather than to become a robot who doesn’t feel. Robots don’t write very good fiction.