Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘novels’

The only thing I do with the kind of commitment and zeal I have for writing is home projects. That ranges from repainting all my kitchen cabinets to single-handedly sistering in six sixteen-foot ceiling joists. As with writing, some of my home projects are crazier than others, and some turn out better than others.

Then there are those projects that are borne out of love. Like the ramp I just built for my dog, Josey. About two years ago, Josey had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. I was prepared for the likelihood that she’d need the same surgery on her other knee eventually, and that day has come. The last time she had surgery, which involves four months of restricted activity, including no stairs or jumping, I built a big ramp to surmount my front porch steps. Inside the house, I did something I’d been dreaming of since my divorce: I got rid of the bed that I hated. For the duration of her rehabilitation, we slept on a mattress on the floor, like a pack of dirty hippy dogs.

Now that I have a new bed, though, I knew I’d need a ramp inside the house. Writing is like this. Sometimes you just *have* to write. Sometimes there’s some unseen force compelling you, and sometimes there’s a clearer motivation. Like the desire to sell a book or be published or make a point. Or somebody giving you sad puppy eyes. Not that my agent gave me sad puppy eyes, but she did send an email inquiring about how the next book was coming.

IMG_5131

If, as a writer, you like to make plans, perhaps you start with an outline. Or a fancy spreadsheet. To build a dog ramp, I started with a few sheets of graph paper, and the measurements that delineated the space I had available for a dog ramp at the foot of my bed.

Graph paper! It's practically engineering.

Graph paper! It’s practically engineering.

Now, the truth is: I’m a pantser. In all things. I can draw as many plans as I like on graph paper. I can make as many outlines as I want when I start a writing project. In the end, though, they will all come to naught. I cannot plan a dog ramp any more than I can plan a novel. They just happen.

My first stop for the dog ramp was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here: if you’re remodeling a house, ReStore will have everything you need. On a long enough timeline. You may have to show up every Saturday morning for a year to get 42 matching sets of antique copper kitchen cabinet hinges, but eventually, you will. Writing is like this, too. On a long enough timeline, you will figure everything out. Eventually, all your research and your work will pay off, but you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

When I went to ReStore on Saturday, with my roughly sketched plans, the playing field changed as soon as I saw this:

Game changing chair

Game changing chair

That is one of about ten solid oak, mid-century reception chairs from either a doctor’s office or the local university. This one had some damage to its back, that’s why I chose him to be sacrificed. More importantly, he was basically identical to the original sketch of what I imagined I’d need as a platform for my dog ramp. Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, this happens with novels. In the midst of struggling with plot or character, you stumble across something that fits perfectly and requires almost no alterations to work. Maybe you’ve got an old short story with the perfect plot twist or a character that ended up being cut from a different project. Note I didn’t say no alteration, but almost.

Chop and chop, and voila! The damaged back is removed and the ramp platform is complete. It shaved about 3 hours of work off my project. After that, I returned to my sketches and ferreted out the basic math needed to cut and attach my ramp struts. And then I had to revise my math. A few times. And I had to change a few other things. And I had to sleep on it–not the ramp, but my understanding of how it was going to go together. My novel drafts work like this. I find myself rearranging parts, rethinking how characters interact, changing dynamics, settings, and doing an awful lot of just wandering around, thinking.

You’ll notice that the two intermediary legs of my ramp don’t look the same. It’s because a.) I tried out two different methods for attaching the supports, and b.) I had two different kinds of hardware available to me. (That’s what happens with home projects made out of scraps–which most of mine are–and novels, which are almost entirely made of brain scraps.)

In true form for me, I also made the ramp (novel) a lot sturdier than it had to be. It has to hold up under a 60-lb. boxer. I made it strong enough to hold me at more than three times that weight. My first drafts are always way too bulky, because I’d rather include redundancies and details that I don’t really need. It’s easier for me to cut stuff later than to try to add things.

Even in a first draft, even knowing that you’ll have to come back a hundred times to reconsider, rewrite, reassess, you want the first draft to look respectable. After all, it has to be functional, and you want it to look as good as you can get it before you send it to your beta/crit partner/agent/editor. For me, that often means making sure my chapter headings are all squared away. (Oh this hot mess here, where it’s not totally clear whose POV it’s in? Don’t worry about that. I’ll fix that. But see how my chapters are neatly labeled and organized?)

IMG_1129

In the case of the dog ramp, well, the parts don’t exactly match. You’ve got the chair base and the raw 2x4s and the random scraps and the mismatched legs, and the ramp itself built out of discarded kitchen cabinet doors with the hinges still attached, but look! It’s covered in fancy (and on clearance) area rugs!

Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll need to do a second (or third or fourth or …) draft of the dog ramp. The first draft of the novel, though, that’s just the beginning of the work. I’ve been known to churn out a first draft in a very short time, but after that … It took me three weeks to write the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but nearly two years to finish revisions.

Speaking of, there’s another giveaway going on at Goodreads.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

This blog post has been a long time coming, not on the small scale, as I’ve only been waiting to post my news for a few weeks. It’s been a long time coming in the sense that I’ve been seriously writing and trying to get published for two decades. In those years, I’ve had a variety of small successes (short story sales and a graduate fiction prize that paid Real Money™!) and medium successes (two novels sold to a small press.) The news contained in this post is success on a higher order.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while may remember a novel that went by the working title of Thirteen. I started writing it in the fall of 2009, and a mere five years later, it has sold. I’d put it all down to persistence, but as you’ll see from the story, my doggedness can’t take credit for everything. First the official announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

Bryn Greenwood’s What Belongs to You*, a love story between two unlikely people–a strong-willed girl of ethereal beauty and a tattooed motorcycle riding ex con with a heart of gold–and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives, to Laurie Chittenden at Thomas Dunne Books, at auction, by Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

It's not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

It’s not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

(*Due to the vagaries of publishing, after the sale, my book was retitled All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.)

So, what happened in those five years between when I started the book and when I finally sold it? A lot-a lot, as we say in my family, the exponential superlative of “a lot.”

When I started writing the book that would become All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I had an agent, and a novel out on sub. (You’ll find teasers for that novel, if you follow the tag Axyl Witt is a bad motherfucker.) Despite my agent’s valiant efforts, however, the book didn’t sell. Not long after that disappointment, my agent called to let me know that he was leaving the business of literary agenting. Just like that, I no longer had an agent.

Although publishing is changing, a writer’s odds for that elusive book sale are still dramatically better with an agent. To get a new agent, I needed a new book to query. I put in heavy hours revising, and at the end of 2011, I started querying. I queried, and I queried, and I queried. Like many writers, I have a series of Excel spreadsheets that document my writing career in the form of rejections. My handy query spreadsheet reveals that between January 2011 and February 2014, I sent 122 agent queries for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Now, I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing while my queries zinged around the ether (or languished in agents’ email.) I kept writing. I kept participating in writing communities. Through those communities, I met the publisher of a small press, who asked to see some of my work. I sent him the first novel I ever queried, Last Will. (Spreadsheet says: 8 queries sent, 2 form rejections received, 5 personal rejections of a warm and encouraging nature, 1 non-response. It does not record exactly why I gave up querying that novel after 8 attempts.)

The small press publisher liked my novel and offered to buy it. I accepted. In April 2012, Last Will was published. It did well for a quiet novel from an unknown writer at a small press. I suppose it did well, as in 2013, the publisher offered to publish my next book, Lie Lay Lain. (Spreadsheet says I sent 0 queries, but on the upside, got 0 rejections!) My second novel came out this April, with perhaps even less fanfare than the first.

As for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I had been querying it all along. I received quite a few requests for the full manuscript. (Spreadsheet says: 14% request rate.) I received 3 requests to revise and resubmit. I undertook two of those requests, but in the end, none of those 122 queries led to representation. Looking at that spreadsheet, at that avalanche of no, I started to consider the possibility that the book I’d been so sure was my “breakout” novel was dead in the water.

I’ve sometimes joked that selling a book to a Big 5 publisher is the equivalent of a white wedding, while small presses were more like Justice of the Peace ceremonies. With two small press books out and no prospective bridegroom, I started to think there wasn’t going to be any wedding for this book, unless I did it myself. I began researching self publishing, the Vegas wedding of publishing–no less true for its informality. I investigated cover artists, editors, distribution.

Then, in May, an agent contacted me. She’d read part of Lie Lay Lain and liked what she saw. Did I have representation? she asked. If not, would I send my current project? Why not? At that point, I had nothing to lose. I sent her the manuscript and thought nothing more of it. (Spreadsheet reveals that I had queried Jess with one of the projects that came in between Last Will and Axyl Witt, but it wasn’t a good fit for her. Based on my rejection numbers, it wasn’t a good fit for anyone.)

A few weeks after that initial email contact, we spoke on the phone and she offered to represent me. She was willing to take a chance on the book that nobody else would touch. Three months after that, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Is it just that my book is like the Lana Turner of novels? Sitting there in a malt shop, minding its own business when it was discovered? You hear these stories, about writers who get an agent or publisher quite by chance, but I don’t know anyone for whom a thing like that happened. Or I didn’t until it happened to me. I am urban legend, come to life!

My conclusion, and you’re welcome to come to your own, is that you never know. This business is random, chaotic, and a little cruel. The only thing you control is how much effort you put into your writing, and how hard you work at connecting with people. The rest of it is a lot like a lottery. Once your book is as good as you can make it, you have to somehow stumble upon the perfect combination of opportunity: right agent, right editor, right moment.

What would have happened if I’d sent more than 8 queries for my first novel? I’ll never know, because I gave up. If you really want this, you can’t give up. You have to whack the publishing piñata until the candy falls out.

 

***

For the very curious among you, my query spreadsheet is like a geological history of the last few years of publishing. It reveals agencies that have opened and closed, and the careers of agents, new and old, including their entrance into the industry as interns, their moves to other agencies, and the death and retirement of other agents. It also shows the steady shift from snail mail queries to email queries, and the increasing prevalence of the non-response response.

The full stats from my spreadsheet:

In 13 years, I’ve queried 7 novels to 216 agents, for a grand total of 453 queries. In response to those queries, I received 61 requests for more material, 5 revise & resubmit requests, 452 rejections, including 197 non-responses.

Read Full Post »

Someone brought this story up on another post and I realized that I’ve never done a Teaser of it. It’s a segment out of the middle of a finished novel called Other People’s Dead Relatives. The first chapter of the book was published as a short story by Vagabondage Press and a smaller segment of it was pubbed by The American Drivel Review.

***

Dena had finally settled herself, begun to calm her irritations of the day, when her bedroom door opened. She sat up and said, “What?”

“Nothin’.” Geddy crossed the room and went down on his knees next to the bed. Slipping his arms around her waist, he leaned in to kiss her. First, she resisted. Second, she succumbed. Third, she pushed him away.

“Not tonight,” she whispered.

“Why not?” he said in a normal voice.

She put her finger to lips to hush him. “Because I don’t want to.”

He kissed her again, and she let him, let him unbutton the top three buttons on her nightgown. When he tugged her closer, tried to put her legs around him, however, the bed groaned. She pushed him back again, frowning

“He’s right there.” Dena jerked her thumb toward the wall behind her bed. The sofa where her nephew slept was on the other side.

“So come into my room,” Geddy said.

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

For an instant, they were still, glaring at each other, she in annoyance, he in frustration. Against her leg, she felt how hard he was, but still she put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away. With an exasperated snort, he went back to his own room, and a few minutes later she heard the now familiar box springs symphony. It drove her nearly to madness and, kicking the covers off, she stormed through the bathroom and opened Geddy’s door.

“Am I keepin’ you awake, ma’am?” he said. Even in the dark she knew he was smiling.

Honeymoon Suite

Dena snatched the sheet off him and said, “Get up.”  When he was up, with his pants on, she took him by the arm, led him through the kitchen, and up the stairs to the third floor. The honeymoon suite was palatial and sumptuous in the moonlight. Dena had never slept in the bed, and even though it would require her to change the bedding again in the morning, she pulled back the coverlet and pushed Geddy down on the silk sheets.

They went at each other with a rabidity that Dena couldn’t remember having experienced before. It was the sort of wildness she thought she should have felt at all those orgies and never had. When all of the hollering and humping was done, Geddy rolled off her, panting, and laughed.

“Well, alright,” he said.

“Now, that’s what a honeymoon suite is for.”

“I’ll tell you what.” Geddy rolled onto his side, kissed her shoulder, but instead of going to sleep, he said, “You was married. Did you have a good honeymoon?”

“Oh, gag. Let’s not talk about that.”

“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I was just curious.”

“Mediocre wedding night. Mediocre marriage.”

“That’s a real shame.”

“Not for you. I definitely would not be fucking you if I were happily married.”

“You better watch that dirty mouth of yours.” He tugged at a piece of her hair.

“Or what?  You’ll wash my mouth out?”

“Might. I know a thing or two about it.”  Dena thought there was an innuendo in there, but then Geddy said, “You know, I can’t hardly believe how you let Cole talk to you.”

“Oh….” Dena had been about to say, “He’s just a kid,” but he wasn’t. She didn’t have an answer for why she put up with Cole’s rudeness. She settled for a lie. “I don’t really care.”

“I ever talked like that to my Aunt Claire, she woulda took a belt to me.”

Wanting to get back to that silly, half-drunk feeling, Dena ran her hand down Geddy’s belly. The sheets were already dirty.

The second time, he had the decency to fall asleep immediately after. Dena lay in her floating bubble of happiness. The one that Cole always popped. Usually, she got her bubble if she went walking in the evening and saw something lovely: a perfect sunset, a budding flower, two romancing lizards, a happy squirrel. She never let herself think about how unlikely it was that the squirrel would survive the summer without getting run over.

Read Full Post »

This little excerpt is from a bit further into The Hornbeam Door, after Oona has a nervous breakdown, courtesy of the voices in her head.  Rumor has it that she really had a bad acid trip, and on her first day back at school, she discovers that none of her friends are talking to her.  In this scene, she’s sitting down to lunch by herself, aware of the other kids staring at her.

***

Goth how-to

Goth how-to

When I was almost finished with my sandwich, Jessica Walker sat down across from me. She was in my Spanish class freshman year, but I didn’t know her enough to say hello if I saw her on the street. Since then I’d changed from a nerd to a half-way normal person to a crazy person. Jessica had changed from a half-way normal person to a Goth sophomore year. She had her hair dyed black and her fingernails painted black, and all her clothes were black.

“Hi!” she said.

“Hi, Jessica.”

“Actually, I go by Raven now. So how are you doing? You know, the first day back and all?”

“I’m fine.”

“So, what was it like?”

I guess that’s what it feels like to be in a car wreck and have people drive by staring, while you sit on the curb and bleed. I opened my bag of chips and didn’t answer her.

“I heard that you were, like hearing voices. Was that pretty freaky, hearing voices?”

She wouldn’t give up. She sat there with her elbows on the table, leaning toward me, staring at me. Like she thought I was honestly going to tell her.

“Did you really try to kill yourself? I think about it sometimes, like what it would be like to cut my wrists or something.” She pushed her black sleeve up and showed me these little red scratches on her wrist. The kind of scratches you’d get from a kitten.

Probably I was supposed to be shocked or concerned. Maybe I was supposed to be impressed. I wanted to say, “You need to use a sharper knife,” but I went on eating my potato chips. It wasn’t that I hated her or wanted her to kill herself. I just didn’t care. No matter how much she wanted to be in a car wreck, I didn’t want to be the car wreck she was staring at.

“So, what kinds of things were the voices saying to you? Like were they telling you to do stuff?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say: “They were telling me to kill girls with black fingernail polish.” I didn’t say it, but I should have.  That would have been better than what I did say. Just like with my parents, I opened my mouth and started repeating what the voice was saying right then.

“And when the Interloper rent them from their souls, they were as toys in his hands. Dumb as beasts in the field and docile. They no longer looked back to the Doors with longing, but neither did they look to the river. He ate up their souls, as tender as the flesh of children, and turned them away from the easing waters. He had no need for whip or halter then, for the hooks in their spiritual bodies bound them to him fast.”

That was all new stuff, stuff I’d been trying to ignore, but it came out of me just as easily as any of the Doors would have. Like I already knew it, because the voice was inside me. It was part of me, whether I understood it or not. Whether I liked it or not.

“Any more questions, Raven?”

Jessica blinked and after a minute, she closed her mouth and sat back in her chair. I crumpled up my chip bag, picked up my tray, and walked away.

Read Full Post »

Today’s teaser is from a young adult book I’m working on called The Hornbeam Door.  It feels a little weird to write something intended for teenagers, but I’m clearly tapping into the desolate weirdness of my own adolescence.

***

As soon as Mom got home from work, I said, “Reese asked me to the movie tonight.”

I thought she’d be excited. That she’d want to be there when Katelyn came over to help me get ready. I thought maybe she’d loan me some of her jewelry. She always did that when Lola had a special date. Ironed stuff for her, bought her new lipstick or nail polish.

“It’s awfully short notice,” Mom said.

Tea

Tea

That wasn’t like the third or fourth thing she said after: “That’s great!” or “Congratulations!” Because she didn’t say any of those things. The first thing she said was, “It’s awfully short notice.” She didn’t even look at me when she said it. She was fishing the tea bag out of her mug.

“The movie doesn’t start until 9:00. I know curfew is midnight, but I can be home by then.”

“That doesn’t seem a little rude to you?”

“What?” I said.

“That he only asked you today to go to the movie tonight?”

“Katelyn and I make last minute plans all the time.”

“She’s your best friend. I think if a boy wants to ask you out, he should give you more notice.”

“Mom–.”

“More importantly, I think you should consider what kind of message it sends that you’re willing to let him ask you out like that. Do you want to be the kind of girl he can treat very casually?”

“It’s not like that anymore.”

“It’s not like what? Men don’t need to respect women? Has that all changed?” Mom said. I hated it when she got like that. Like every little thing in life was part of some big picture. Some universal injustice or nationwide discrimination.

“Mom, it’s not like it was when you were dating. People don’t plan that far ahead. He only asked today because that’s when he decided to go.”

“It was like that last year when Lola was dating. She expected to be treated with more consideration.” Mom didn’t move. Didn’t do anything except blow on her tea and look at her recipe book.

“Well, how nice for Lola that she’s so wonderful she can plan her social calendar months in advance.”

“You know that’s not what I mean,” Mom said.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you content to be an after-thought? To be something he just decided to do at the last minute?”

“Dad!”

I hated playing that game, but sometimes it was the only way to get through to Mom. The worst part was I knew it was over. By getting Dad involved, Mom was never going to be part of my dating life. She was never going to care about it the way she did about Lola dating. Maybe she wouldn’t have anyway, but it was over once I yelled for Dad.

When he came in, I said, “Can I go to the movies with Reese tonight?”

“Is this the boy you like? From your chemistry class?”

“Yes.”

“That’s great, honey. I hope you have fun. Do you need some money?”

Mom closed her recipe book and left the room while Dad was getting out his wallet. It wasn’t that she didn’t mean well. She did. She just always meant well in the shittiest way possible.

Read Full Post »

For those of you left wondering, “What happened with the paramedic?” after last Tuesday’s teaser, this is simply … a further tease.  What can I say?  It takes more than a few chapters for this particular incident to unfold.

***

Olivia was the kind of girl who never managed to break the ice, even at parties where she knew everyone. The paramedic, on the other hand, leaned out of the ambulance window every day for weeks and said, “Morning.” Or sometimes, “Hey there.”

Down by the river

Down by the river

Startled out of her pre-dawn reverie each time, Olivia nodded, half-smiled, and kept walking. She walked every morning for an hour, looping around the river park trail before the sun made it up over the tree line. The ambulance parked at the edge of the river, its driver leaning back in the seat, arm propped on the window. He had been parking there as long as Olivia’s resolution to lose weight had been in effect and for all she knew, before that. She supposed he was on his break.

Olivia had finally accepted the exchange of greetings as an unavoidable annoyance. Then one morning, as she stepped off the curb to cross the street and start her walk, he opened the ambulance door, got out of the cab and walked toward her. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, he seemed to be waiting for her to cross the street and reach him. Or perhaps he hadn’t noticed that he was standing directly in her path. Except that he was looking at her.

“Good morning,” he said.

Olivia dropped her gaze, giving her half-smile and trying to step to the side, between the trash can and him. He side-stepped to match her and then there was no place to go. She flushed. She hated games like that, where someone was made to feel stupid and embarrassed. Resigned, she muttered, “Morning.”

“Nice and hot, huh?” he said.

“Global warming. That’s what they say.” She hesitated, her foot seeking the curb, trying to gauge if there was enough room to squeeze past without touching him.

“Yeah, you right.”

Olivia wondered if maybe he were a little “off.” Touched, as her grandmother said. He had the hint of an accent, something exotic to Tampa. When he said hot it sounded like hawt. New Jersey, maybe? Belatedly she felt nervous. There it was, still practically dark, and she was alone.

“You new to Tampa? Dis neighborhood?” he asked. He rocked back on his heels like he was enjoying himself. Daring a quick glance at him, she guessed at a nice tan and hazel eyes, maybe? Hard to tell in the pre-dawn. Sort of swarthy–Italian?  His hair was cropped short, military style, too short to really have a color. Dark blond or brown, she guessed. Embroidered on the right side of his uniform shirt was his name: James.

“Neither. I’ve lived here my whole life.” Just the sort of personal information you shouldn’t offer to crazy strangers.

“Really? I only been seeing you for a few months. Not before that.” He should have been embarrassed or uneasy–she was trying to make it difficult for him–but he didn’t look it.

Olivia stepped up on the sidewalk and, bracing herself for it, pushed past him, her shoulder brushing against his.

“Excuse me, James, I need to go for my walk.” That at least startled him. He looked down at his chest and laughed.

Behind her, he said, “James is my last name. I’m a paramedic, not a quick-lube guy.”

Read Full Post »

I’m rarely surprised when I encounter writers who say, “I would never write a sex scene. Just fade to black.” I’m sometimes a little surprised by readers who say, “I won’t read anything with graphic sex.” (Because frankly, reading a sex scene is easier than writing one, let me tell you.) I’m not even that surprised when I come across an article that decries the tawdry new trend toward graphic sex in books.

Surprised, no. Disappointed? Oh yeah.

Who among us does not love sex? Oh, sure, there are those rare fern-like creatures who shy from the very suggestion of their genitals coming into contact with another person’s genitals, but aside from that, the vast majority of humans like sex. Love sex. Obsessivly think about sex. How to get it, where to do it, and what to do once they’ve got it.

We did not reach a global population of more than 6 BILLION people by saying, “Ew. No, thanks” to sex. Nor did we get there because everybody wanted a baby. We got there because sex feels good and people don’t just like it. They use it as the answer to all kinds of physical and emotional needs they have.

For that reason alone, writing about sex seems important to me. I think a lot of squeamish readers come to the idea with the presumption that every sex scene is erotica. Most writers who write sex outside the erotica genre, however, approach it as they do any other activity, as another opportunity to reveal character. If you look back on your sex life, you know it’s true. The way people have sex says volumes about what kind of people they are and what kind of relationship they have with their partner(s).

Sure, the goal of sex for most people is primarily pleasure, so a lot of sex scenes are arousing, but they can also be awkward, uncomfortable, sad, angry, humiliating, funny, just like sex is in real life.

I ended up having to tackle this issue a lot in my most recent project, because my main character has been in prison for seven years and five of that in solitary. Freed, he has sex on the brain. (Not that it’s exactly a departure from his personality before he went to prison.)

More difficult, he’s a beast. (Hence the title, Ugly and the Beast.) One reader said, “Axyl is Conan, only without the PG-13 rating. Dude is straight-up NC-17.” (One intrepid reader, whose personal life I wonder about, said, “Am I the only one who wanted to date Axyl?”)

Writing the beastly part was easy. Put him in a cheap motel room with a girl he previously deemed “too ugly to screw on a dare,” and he changes his tune: Honestly, from behind she was better than lots of girls I’ve fucked. Nice little ass and no ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed on her.

Easy enough to write a guy whose outlook on the world is this: In my book, a girl gets in bed naked, she’s open for business. I wasn’t so tired I was gonna turn down the invitation, but she slapped my hands away.

Except nobody is that guy all the way through and through. Axyl is an asshole, but he’s not some cardboard cut-out baddie. He’s fighting this feeling of worthlessness and an emptiness he’s been trying to fill up with sex. As much energy as he puts into getting laid, he’s rarely completely happy during sex.  Even with the ugly girl, he wonders if she really wants to be there.

I wanted to kiss her, but when I got the hair outta her face and got her mouth under mine, her lips were tensed up, closed. When I tried to get my tongue into her mouth, she turned her head away. Axyl’s first thought isn’t the obvious one: no one’s ever tried to kiss her before. His mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to kiss him.

These are all rather tame examples, since I didn’t want my blog to turn into a NSFW pr0n-fest, but they get at the heart of why I think sex, and explicit sex, is valuable in novels. If characters are going to have sex, why hide it behind a curtain? It leaves a gap as surely as narrative summary in the place of dialog can. Don’t tell me, show me what the characters are like in bed. I swear, it’s only about 19% prurient interest. ;o)

Read Full Post »

As soon as I found out about it, I become a fan of the blog Shrinking Violets.  It bills itself as “Marketing for Introverts.”  Just what I need. I’m sure all the teenagers and felons who watched me do condom demonstrations over the years wouldn’t believe that I’m an introvert, but I am.  The condom lady–that was just a role to play.  Me, the real me, is a quiet, reserved person.

Shrinking Violets recently had a guest blogger, C.J. Lyons, who writes medical suspense novels.  She also has some interesting observations about identifying and solidifying your “brand” as an author.

We’ve all watched commercial properties go through branding changes with varying degress of success and failure.  Remember when Phillip Morris changed their name or when Coke changed their recipe?

It’s strange to think of my writing in this light, but it is a product.  I am trying to sell it.  It has left me wondering what my brand is.

Obviously, I’m not flashy, as you can tell from the plain design I picked for my website.  Nor is my writing flashy.  On occasion I engage in verbal pyrotechnics, but those darlings usually end up drowned in the bathtub of revision.  I like my prose to be solid, practical, and easy to understand.  Primarily, I think that’s because I want people to think about the ideas behind the writing instead of the writing.

My website design reveals another aspect to my “brand” that I haven’t given much thought to.  Apparently I’m a “regional writer.”  I’ve written plenty of stories that take place outside of Kansas and Oklahoma, but I do find that my best short stories develop out of the rather narrow locales of my childhood.

Even when I step outside of Kansas, as I do when I write fantasy, I find that the dry pragmatism and deep passions of the place sneak into the cultures I make up.  The abolitionists who fought in the border wars and the people who stayed through the Dust Bowl crop up in places I never expected.

Also, I love intimacy.  (And by intimacy I don’t just mean sex.  Although I don’t shy away from including it where it fits and where it develops the characters.)  It’s more that I like stories told in close-up, to use a camera analogy.  I quickly lose interest in stories, reading and writing them, that are told in the long view.  Although I prefer third person to first, I like a very close third.  In stories of grand scale, I want the main action to play out in a narrow room with two or three people intensely interested in that moment.

There’s a dark element in my writing, too, that surprises a lot of people.  Betrayal, isolation, disappointment, and cruelty all make their way into my stories.  It’s what I always think of as the Peyton Place Factor.  In isolated places, people become dark, strange, secretive, and intent on their desires.  Yes, even the wholesome young men who stop to help when you have car trouble, and the little old ladies who cook at church suppers, and the nice neat Christian families who eat across from you at those same church suppers.  They’re all hoarding secrets: meth addictions, shameful lust, decades-old jealousies, crushing disappointment, daily revenges on petty slights.

In some ways, it all comes together in the novel I currently have out with a few agents.  I call it Ugly and the Beast on the days I love it.  Blackneck on the days I hate it.  Depending on who reads it, the book is perhaps urban fantasy that takes place in rural Oklahoma.  Or it’s literary with elements of magical realism.  Cormac McCarthy smokes a bong with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Despite my original intentions, it has a deep vein of politics on the issue of the death penalty and a parallel track of folkloric whimsy.  The Executioner’s Song meets  Snow White.

Its main character, Axyl, could be my half-brother: a boy who grew up isolated among well-meaning people, with a basic notion of decency that hasn’t stopped him from killing people.  Carrying secrets and longing to find someone to tell them to.  Trapped in a cycle of betrayal and always looking for the joke that will make it okay.

Austere, dark, funny, in close-up.

What’s your brand?

Read Full Post »

I know I’ll be sorry, because those people who believe deeply, truly, sincerely in the value of self-publication, they’re going to come to my blog and torment me.  Fine.  I just can’t help but write this post after the self-publishing laugh/cry fest I recently witnessed in the form of a promotional website for a soon-to-be-released self-published novel.

Sadly, I will not name names nor link links.  I’m willing to hurt and piss off self-publishers in general, but I won’t poke any one self-published individual, no matter how ridiculous and sad I find his promotional website or indeed, his prose.

I readily admit that there are writers in specific situations who are better off going the self-publication route.  For example, I have a passing acquaintance with someone who writes Christian Nudist Humor.  As surprising as it seems, there is not a huge market for Christian Nudist Humor.  Why?  Being neither a Christian nor a nudist, and only occasionally funny, I won’t hazard a guess.  So, to preclude anyone bailing into me on that front, I acknowledge that there are niche markets best served by self-publication and self-promotion.

typo_muchBeyond that, however, self-publishing seems to be the last resort of the uninformed, the desperate, the stubborn,  the delusional, and the…gosh, I was hoping I’d think of something neutral to put in here that would allow the self-publishing believers who don’t think of themselves as any of the above to walk away from this blog post without wanting to kill me.  Fail.  Um, the easily satisfied?

At any rate, from my occasional encounters with people who believe in self-publishing, I perceive the rhetoric of self-publication to be that the publishing industry is inept, corrupt, sheep-like, narrow-minded, or some other epithet that explains why traditional publishers don’t want to publish a particular book much beloved by its writer.  The rest of the rhetoric goes like this: I know some self-published books are really bad, but mine is really well written but too controversial or innovative or just too darn good!

So let me just say, the current rate of disappointing books to good books among the traditionally published books I’ve bought or checked out of the library runs at about 3 in 10.  Seriously, of every ten books I buy or check out, I find only 7 of them both readable and enjoyable.  Two of the other three tend to be not to my taste, but typically at least one of the three is poorly written or indifferently edited.

As for self-published books, the rate of disappointing books to good books runs at about 9 in 10.  Don’t think I’m making that up.  I didn’t pull that ratio out of my ass.  I have some experience reading self-published books, some of it quite by chance and some it a product of my own perverse curiosity.

When my husband was stationed in Classifiedistan with the Marines, he was tormented by a lack of reading material.  Being a bit of a scammer, he contacted Alibris, the used book seller, and asked about creating a program to get books to Marines and soldiers in Classifiedistan.  Alibris agreed and asked Hubby for a list of books, which he provided.  Shortly thereafter, Alibris customers began buying books off the list to be shipped overseas.

It got big.  Really big.  Think pallets of books.  This was in 2001 and everyone was eager to “support the troops.”

When Hubby returned home, some of the books followed him, because they came addressed to him personally.  Over the next several months, we received many boxes of books, including several that contained multiple copies of self-published books.  It was clear in those cases that the authors had purchased and shipped the books themselves.  Never mind that those books weren’t on Hubby’s request list, making the whole thing smack of a sleazy sort of self-promotion to a captive audience, the books were uniformly bad.  Bad.  Laughably bad.  If I’d been asked to critique or edit those books, I would have returned them filled with notes and corrections.  I didn’t even know these people and I was embarrassed for them having published those books under their real names–I assumed.

That first brush with the self-publishing world created my morbid curiosity.  I found myself at library donation sales and used book stores and garage sales, sifting through boxes of books for the self-published ones.  In an interesting turn of events, I learned that my boss had published a book.  My co-workers talked about it as something very important and special.  She’d written a whole suspense novel and had it published!  Then I looked the book up and learned it was self-published.  It was also available used from amazon.com, for a penny plus postage.

I bought it, of course, and learned two things.  1.) Someone who knew my boss well enough to get the book signed had later sold it to a used book dealer.  2.) My boss could put together a grammatically correct sentence, but her dialog and description were death-dealingly boring.  I tried to read the book and foundered after a mere 30 pages.  I later passed it surreptitiously to another unindoctrinated co-worker who experienced the same level of proxy-embarrassment.

After that I went through a few months of buying a variety of self-published books for a penny plus postage.  I suppose I was searching for that elusive thing: the self-published book that was truly too good, too controversial, too innovative for traditional publishing.  I haven’t found it yet, but more than that I haven’t found even one self-published book that left me thinking positive things about the author’s decision to publish.  (Excepting the niche market element I cited earlier, which represents my 1 in 10 that I consider readable.)

I have winced, giggled, and sighed over these books, but I’ve concluded that the traditional publishing process does have something to offer.  It’s something more than a filtration system to keep out “bad” writers as some people have suggested.  Rather, I suspect it’s that the process produces better writing.  Having other people evaluating your writing with an eye to improving it can never be a bad thing.  Certainly, it’s possible to ruin a book by forcing revisions by committee, but far more often the revision process required by the traditional publishing system produces better writing.

Maybe it’s a sign that I lack confidence in my own writing, but the thought of being the last arbiter of editorial decisions for a book I wrote…it skeeves me out.  I want someone else who has something on the line to say, “Yes, this book is ready to go to print.”

Now, before you bail into me, two things:

1.) If you are considering self-publication, but haven’t done it yet…wait.  Wait to bail into me until you’ve actually published the book.  For that matter, wait a while before you publish the book.

2.) If you have self-pubbed your book and you’re experiencing righteous indignation at my attitude toward it, e-mail me.  Don’t e-mail me insults, just e-mail me to let me know you’d like to send me a free copy of your fabulous book.  (Don’t e-mail and offer to send me a copy of some historical example.  The times, they have already changed.)  I swear, I’ll send you my address, I’ll look at your book, and if it is indeed the exception to my sweeping generalities, I’ll send you a check for the cost of the book AND I’ll document the whole thing right here.  Promise.  It’ll have to be more than merely adequate or serviceable.  It’ll have to be good.  A book that is as skillfully written and edited as the average book published through traditional routes.  If it’s outside my preferred reading areas, I don’t demand that I enjoy it, but simply that the writing reveal quality workmanship.

3.) Okay, three things.  Again, niche market writers, don’t get huffy with me.  I’m not talking about you.

ETA: Time just ran an article about how publishing is changing, and that self-publishing is the wave of the future.  They base this on a few radical exceptions–people who first self-published and later sold the rights to major publishing houses.  All of which seems to prove only that the more things change the more they stay the same.  Yes, some writers have successfully used self-publication as a kind of grand sales pitch to…traditional publishers.  The success comes not from the “selling books out of your trunk,” but from getting a six-figure advance from a big publishing house.  If I hear about a bunch of writers making six figures from selling their books out of their trunk (or off their website), then I’ll consider the possibility that traditional publishing is dead.

Also, it all smacks of entrepreneurism, to which I say, “Are you kidding me?”  If I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’d already have started my own business.  I’m a writer.  I like sitting around by myself writing, not going out and selling myself to people.  Eeek!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: