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Of course, not every girl in my grade school class was named Amy. There’s only one in this photo of my third grade class, but out of a grade cohort of 30 girls, there were 4 Amies and 1 Aimee. The point is: names go in and out of fashion, and if you’re unlucky enough to be named after a trend, you’ll go through grade school with an initial tacked onto your name to differentiate you from all the other Amies. Or Jacobs or Emmas.

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Book titles are a little like this. As this funny piece points out, some trends become so entrenched that book titles are formulaic. The Something’s Daughter. The Art of Something. I joke that if my current novel had been published a few years ago it might have been called The Drug Dealer’s Daughter.

You spend years writing a book, kicking around possible titles, and finally settle on one. Then you discover that another book is coming out before yours with the exact same title. When the title What Belongs to You was chosen for my book, there weren’t any published books with that title, but in January 2016, a novel with that exact title will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

After a brief confab with my wonderful agent and my lovely editor at Thomas Dunne, my book is officially being retitled as All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Now there are marketing and art meetings going on, out of which will come my cover. Currently it’s set for release in August 2016, so we’ve got a ways to go. Hopefully nobody steals my title before then. ;) At least it’s not like accidentally naming a baby the most popular girl’s name of the decade. You can’t just rename a baby like you can a novel.

(Further notes on that class photo: notice the mishap of the two girls who came to school for class picture day wearing the same shirt, further compounded by the photographer who cruelly seated them next to each other. Also: why were all the girls made to sit, including the very tall girl who then had to hunch over to avoid blotting out the short kid behind her? If you can pick me out of this photo, you’ll also have the answer to why I prefer to wear all black. Seriously, if you’d had a childhood of unfortunate fashion missteps, wouldn’t you prefer the safety of monochrome?)

My first two books were published by a small press, and as such, I was given some input into the decision about whether or not to have my photograph on the back cover. My answer was very firmly NO.

Like many folks, I am not fond of having my picture taken, but I believe I am exceptionally not photogenic, even among that crowd. I don’t mean that I’m hideous. I’m just very difficult to take a decent picture of, as several of my photographer friends can vouch for. “These photos don’t even look like you!” is a frequent refrain. Accompanied by such plaints as, “Why can’t you keep both your eyes open?” and “If you could just keep your face still,” and the always amusing, “Uh, can you, uh, do … something with your hair.” (Answer: No. I’m not the boss of my hair.)

So when I was first asked for my official author photo by the lovely people at St. Martin’s Press, I delayed. I wasn’t lying when I said, “I don’t have anything appropriate.” Boy, did I not have anything appropriate. The closest thing I had to an author photo was fifteen years old. The most recent photos of me all featured various angles of my dogs and cats (frequently their butts), and me giving the camera a googly-eye, or half a snaggle-tooth, or the Flehmen response. As you do.

Have you smelled my book?

Have you smelled my book?

Now, I could have set out the very next day in pursuit of a contemporary author photo, but I didn’t. Instead, like the worst chess player in the world, I engaged in the Fat Girl’s Gambit. There’s something about being obese that works like a pause button on certain portions of your life. You find yourself thinking, I’ll do that after I lose this weight. You hate to buy new clothes, because you’re going to lose that weight! You are. You have a plan. Or plans. Or notebooks full of plans and inspirational quotes.

So back in September, when I was asked for an author photo, I said to myself, “Self, you are going to lose this weight before you have your picture taken.” And I did lose a lot of the weight, but then I regained most of it, because that’s the danger of the Fat Girl’s Gambit. It’s too often an open-ended game with a long view, and you’re stuck in the present.

This is where I found myself on Monday, when St. Martin’s emailed me again to say, “So, about that author photo.” Oof. Chickens coming home to roost on this fat girl.

I did the only thing I could do. I disassembled my dining room and my office to create a suitably literary backdrop, and then I called the skinniest, craziest friend I have. Because that’s how the world works. If you’re feeling fat and you’re forcing yourself to take pictures, you will invariably need the help of that friend who is always trying to gain weight.

As proof of how little the camera loves me, out of 400+ photos, we found four that we thought were acceptable. Of those four, this is the one that reached the middle ground between “menacing” and “dreamy.” This is the official author photo coming to a bookstore near you.

Bryn Greenwood

Look! Over my shoulder, it’s Anthony Trollope.

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," if you can believe that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” if you can believe that.

It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.

The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.

I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.

For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.

“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”

“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”

The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.

I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.

23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”

I was lucky enough that I went to bed last night before the news broke about the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. At least I got a good night’s sleep, unlike a lot of people who must have lain awake all night with that on their minds. This morning, though, I saw the news, and I saw already how the facts were being shaped to reflect this ongoing belief in white America that racism isn’t a problem or isn’t a white problem anyway.

The suspect in this attack has been apprehended, and he’s already made clear that he went to Emanuel AME to “kill black people.” Yet again, I see news outlets and private individuals playing up this idea that the shooter was a lone gunman. Just one white guy with bad intentions. When I look at pictures of the suspect, and his clothing, and his license plate, I see a lesson that I have learned repeatedly about racism.

As a white woman from the Midwest, I was raised in an environment that saw nothing wrong with racism, as long as you were polite about it. This wasn’t the kind of racism that involved hurling racist epithets at people’s faces, or burning crosses, or terrorizing people. It was just this low grade hum of acceptance for racism and racist language.

That “polite racism” has not gone away. I have worked in many different offices, with all kinds of people, and without exception, in every all-white workplace, white people have felt that it was okay to send emails containing racist jokes or to make racist remarks in the break room. White people have felt that it was safe to say these things among other white people.

When I have spoken up to tell people that their behavior is wrong and offensive, the same thing has happened every time. The polite racists don’t stop sending racist jokes via email, they just take me off the email list. The polite racists don’t stop making racist remarks in the break room, they just fall silent when I walk in. Remember that: just because you don’t notice racism, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s at the heart of white privilege.

“Polite racism” is not harmless. It is not “just words.” That low grade hum of hatred is fuel for more deadly forms of hatred. Look at the suspect in the AME massacre. On his coat he wears the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia. On his car, he proudly sports a license plate with the Confederate flag. The same flag that still flies over the South Carolina capitol. These are not harmless icons any more than a Nazi swastika is a harmless icon. And the AME shooter, he didn’t make these badges himself. He didn’t make that license plate. He bought them. They were available for sale because of the existence of hate organizations who use those emblems to promote racist hatred. That is not a lone gunman. That is a mass murderer fueled by a culture of hate.

A former classmate of the AME shooter says that he “made a lot of racist jokes.” So this young man made racist jokes that nobody took seriously, wore multiple emblems from nations that espoused racist beliefs and policies, and apparently nobody saw a problem with that. Nobody in his family or circle of friends said, “That’s not okay. That’s a destructive kind of hatred.” Now tell me again how he acted alone. To me, that sounds like he acted with the full support of his community.

So what are white people supposed to do, if they find this hatred sickening, if they want to put an end to racism in America? As I’ve experienced, speaking up didn’t end it, but that’s only because in most instances I was the only person speaking out against it. I think of a racist email sent by a former coworker to more than twenty people in our office. I hit Reply All and indicated that the email was offensive and wrong. Now imagine if every other person who received that email had simply chimed in to say, “Yeah. That’s not okay.” That’s how you stop “polite racism.”

No, you’re not responsible for every white person in America, but to some degree you are responsible for everyone in your circle of family and friends. When somebody you love tells a racist joke, tell them that’s not okay. When somebody you love sports a hate emblem, ask them to find a different outfit. When somebody you love engages in “polite racism,” shut that down. When you remain silent, you become complicit. Everyone has to speak up every single time, no matter how uncomfortable it is. If that seems exhausting, imagine what it’s like being black in America. Then imagine that by speaking out, you might just save the life of somebody else’s loved one.

A great article about the Birmingham church bombing that helped me put my head on forwards today is here.

circus elephant parade

An author’s resume!

One of the things that has been standard in publishing for years is the author’s resume. Sure, we call it the author’s biography, but so frequently it turns into a list of every random job the author has ever worked. Safecracker! Chicken sexer! Hypnotist! Roller Skate Dancer! Gondolier! Lion Tamer! The weirder the better seems to be the goal when you’re writing copy for the back flap of your book.

When I first had to write an author bio, on the release of my first novel, Last Will, I was stumped. People offered the usual advice: all those weird jobs I had. Sex educator! Topless waitress (for a night)! Receptionist at a nuclear power plant! Architectural slide archivist! Nobody suggested that I should trumpet to the world my two stints as a custodian. (Once at a church. Once at a daycare.) Nor my time toiling in the salt mines of university adjunct teaching or the clerical fields.

My solution was to just skip over the random jobs portion of my bio and fill up space with such witty gems as “Bryn Greenwood lives in Kansas, which is as flat as you imagine but slightly more charming.” I’m a novelist, okay, not a biographer.

When my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, was published, it suddenly mattered that I had worked as a church secretary for three years. It gave me pew cred, so to speak, to be writing a book about a church secretary. Rarely, though, do I see authors celebrating the completely normal, menial jobs that they did before they became somebody who had a bio on the back of a book. That makes me a little sad, especially after what I witnessed this morning.

As I was arriving on campus for my quotidienne office manager job, I saw a young woman using a weedwhacker to trim around a faculty parking lot. She paused at one point and pulled a piece of paper and a pencil out of her pocket. With the weedwhacker still running, she furtively scribbled on her paper. Every few seconds her head bobbed up and she scanned the horizon to be sure her boss on the grounds crew didn’t catch her. As I passed, the paper and pencil went back into the pocket, and she returned to whacking weeds.

I imagined her as a poet, capturing some passing observation on spring, but she might just as likely have been a prose writer or, like my custodian friend who scribbles on the job, a screenwriter. Either way, it made me sad to think of young writers reading authors’ bios and finding them devoid of those boring, plain old jobs. Writers don’t only spring forth from the lucrative careers of lion taming or burlesque dancing or mortuary aesthetics. They also spring forth from secretarial work, child care, burger flipping, and unemployment.

In other news, my publisher is running a sale. The Kindle editions of both my novels are only 99¢ until May 10th! Click on the pic to go buy.

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Kansas NutcrackerI went to see the Bleeding Kansas Nutcracker over the holidays, featuring John Brown and Quantrill’s Raiders, plus Tchaikovsky’s music performed by the Free State Liberation Orchestra, (a recreation of the original 19th Century Lawrence City Band, right down to the mandolin trio.) While waiting for the performance, the orchestra warmed up, as orchestras are wont to do. The flautist kept running over and over the trilling riff from the Danse Chinoise, obviously anxious about getting it right when it mattered. Sadly, it meant that I heard the riff so many times, I was no longer giggly pleased by it when the time came in the actual performance. My joy was a bit deflated.

First chapters are like that. It’s why you so often find yourself deleting the first chapter when you start the hard work of revising a novel. Sometimes, you delete the first three chapters, because you don’t need them, and they’re dragging down the rest of your novel. Once, I deleted the entire first half of a novel. 40,000 words that turned out to be nothing but a warmup exercise. Like I was a nervous flautist in the orchestra pit, trying to work myself up to the actual performance.

Hearing today that Harper Lee is set to publish another novel, I am put in mind of that process of discovering that you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first novel, the one she first tried to sell to publishers. An editor felt the more compelling story was of Scout’s youth, and so the story was revised to become To Kill a Mockingbird, that classic scourge of high school English classes (and a treasure to those not forced to dissect it for a grade.)

Go Set a Watchman is technically a sequel, in that chronologically it takes place years after Mockingbird, when Scout is an adult. I can’t help but wonder, however, if it isn’t merely 304 pages of warm up. Not merely a first chapter deleted, but an entire book. Will the book astound us the way Mockingbird did? Or will we read it only for peripheral insight into its more famous sibling?

Lee apparently believed the manuscript lost until it was located among archived materials, fastened to a publisher’s typescript of Mockingbird. Such were the vagaries of a writer’s life back in the Fifties. Each manuscript was produced as a unique item, which could so easily be lost or destroyed, so that only the final, printed copy of a book was a sure thing to be reproduced and retained in collections. As we move increasingly into an era when writers’ earliest drafts and minor variations are archived in so many ways, are we also entering the realm of “director’s cuts” for books? A few authors have already done that, with mixed results. I look back at the book of mine whose first half was cut away so mercilessly, long before it was published, and I doubt I’d want anyone to witness my warm up exercises.

What’s in a title?

Shakespeare may have had a point about names and the sweet smell of roses, but I have to admit that I don’t feel that way about book titles. The process of choosing a title for a book is complicated, especially once an agent, an editor, and a marketing team get involved. You can find your beloved title tossed on the scrap heap, or conversely, you can find your totally mediocre title emblazoned on thousands of covers. For example, in my mind Lie Lay Lain was just a working title, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Although the novel I just sold is currently called What Belongs to You, it has also carried some other names. For much of its querying career it was The Sun In Cassiopeia, a title I never liked, and for a briefer while, it was Orion in Winter, a title I liked even less. I often joked about what its title might be, when it finally sold. The Drug Dealer’s Daughter, while we were passing through the era of The Something’s Something. Or perhaps The Art of Making Meth, when we were in the Art of Something phase.

Whatever a book ends up called when it finally reaches readers, I find that working titles have to be something I can face every day that I hope to write. The working title becomes the bit I put in my mouth while I pull the plow. Almost from the first words I wrote of What Belongs to You, the story’s working title was Thirteen, the age at which Wavy’s life is shattered.

Up until yesterday, my efforts toward my unofficial NaNo project have been thwarted by the lack of a working title. Triplets was the name of the folder on my computer, but that implied that the triplets were the most important characters of the book. There was another notes file for the story called Mermaid, but that implied that the mermaid was the main character. I toyed briefly with retitling these files things like Short Stop, Apollo, Cut-Off, but they all fell short, because Apollo isn’t himself the most important thing in the story. I tried Sideshow and Athletic Show, both circus references, but neither one really fit.

As silly as it seems, when I went to open the files to work on the story, I spent most of my writing time obsessing about my failure to have a working title I could live with. Then two things happened.

1. I went to my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and found this:

We have a winnah!

We have a winnah!

2. I remembered the great exchange between Charles Wallace and Calvin O’Keefe in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. “I’m a sport,” Calvin says. “I don’t mean like in baseball.” Charles Wallace provides the definition: “A change in generesulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring.”

That is, after all, what Apollo is: a sport. Not just in the genetic sense, but in the baseball sense, too. It was just a simple matter of renaming my files Sport. Now that I have a working title, I am putting down words. I am building characters and crafting dialog. It’s the best part of writing. Remind me of that later, when I’m crying over revisions.

What about you? How important are titles to you as a writer? As a reader? Does the title change your attitude toward what you’re reading or writing?

ETA: Sometimes you find that you’ve rushed yourself, forced a working title on something. Later, you sneak back and change to the thing that really calls to you, which is why this project is now known as A Marvel of Nature, or Marvel for short.

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