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August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in early September 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1946, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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I have been rather scarce these days, because I’ve been completing a serious revision on my next book. So often, people talk about writing as a mental task only. Soft work for soft people. The people who talk like this have never wrestled 300,000 words of chaos into a coherent story that will fit inside the covers of a book, and make people who read it laugh and cry. Writing is emotional labor, and intellectual labor, and physical labor. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
 
The printed manuscript weighs only eight pounds, and in its electronic form, it weighs nothing. The first few times I lift it, only testing its heft, but before it’s done, I will press, curl, and squat it millions of times. I will lift it until every muscle in my body sings an aria of pain. My shoulders have locked up, and my arms are burning with twenty years of nerve damage caused by this work.
 
Lift with your legs, that’s the advice about furniture, but when it comes to stories, you must lift with your whole body, including your heart, your viscera, the slippery goo of your brain.
 
At the end of this telling, my fingers are raw, my eyes are red, and veins in my legs have burst in protest of the punishment. There is no longer any writing position–sitting, standing, lying down–that doesn’t hurt.
 
So when they tell you that writing isn’t hard work, nothing like ditch digging or fire fighting, show them your wrecked back, your ruined hands, your rheumy eyes, the raw spaces between your flesh and your soul.

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As we do, I went into 2017 with plans for all kinds of improvements to my life. At work, I cleaned my desk off, and so far it’s produced mixed results. I’m less depressed to come to work, because my space is more orderly, but the cleanliness of my desk seems to invite people to make more requests of me. Perhaps because my work is not so clearly displayed, they think I don’t have enough of it?

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I re-started my home yoga practice, which is almost completely to the good. Of course there’s time for it. There was always time for it.

nyt_bestseller_010416Oh, I made the NYT Bestseller list. Which is not quite the result of any change on my part, but an outcropping of a lot of years of work and several lucky breaks. Or maybe it was all my positive thinking. (Probably not, I don’t really do much of that.)

This week, however, I found a thing that I used to think I wanted to change about myself, but now realize I don’t. When my editor and agent delivered the good news that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was officially a bestseller, they also asked about my next project. Did I have a synopsis I could share with them?

Welllllll … I don’t really do synopses or outlines or any sort of planning when it comes to writing. I’m a complete pantser (which Autocorrect thinks should be panther.) I write lots and lots of words and after I’ve put several thousand of them together, I start to see the shape of a story. Then I write more words. Usually a lot more words. Then out of this mountain of words, I carve the story I want to tell. It’s not pretty. It’s not simple. But I realized this week that it totally works for me, and I need to stop feeling awkward or ashamed about my messy, chaotic process to creation.

outline-panther

Now, I did produce a synopsis for my agent and editor to look at, but it’s just a big pile of guesses. (Shh, don’t tell.) I don’t know if that’s what will happen in the story I’m working on. I’m okay with that. I used that crazy method to produce All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and that seems to have worked out for me.

So whatever things you may have resolved to change in 2017, remember there are plenty of things about the same old you that are worth keeping.

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Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

night-sky-for-custom-book-plates

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I’ve seen a lot of writers lately who are bemoaning their failure to write “what publishing wants.” They keep writing books that they can’t sell, and they’re feeling like it’s because what they’re writing doesn’t appeal to agents or editors. I empathize with them, because I am something of an expert on this.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things followed the same path as all my other books. A whole lot of people said, “Hey, that’s something you’ve got there, but I don’t think anyone will buy it.” That continued until two people decided, “Yeah, I think people will buy this.” Completely random. Completely unexpected. A book that was unsaleable for three years became saleable.

I’m not saying what you feel is invalid, when you’re staring at another rejection and shouting, “WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT?” That feeling you have is totally real, and it fucking sucks. What I’m saying is that publishing is a.) random, b.) cyclical, c.) not always great at figuring out what people want to read, either. If they were always right about what books will succeed, you’d never see books flop.

The other thing that I’m saying is you have to love the thing you’re writing and love it in secret. This is particularly true, because maybe nobody else will ever love this book you’re writing. Maybe you’re the only one who will ever be capable of looking at it and feeling joy. You have to love it like a monster baby hidden in the attic. You can’t look around and think, “Oh, look at all these kids on the playground. They’re so much prettier and smarter and less monstrous than my baby.” So what if that’s true? It’s still your baby. Love your monster baby. You gave it life and it needs your love. Maybe it’s never going to see the light of day, or maybe 5 years from now, monsters will be popular, and your hideous baby will be class president.

This is true even when we’re talking about own voices stories from diverse authors. It’s popular lately to complain about how agents and editors are treating diverse books like a trend, but if you already have diverse, own voices novels sitting in your drawer, how is this trend not a bonus for you? Break out those monster babies and send them to all the agents! Don’t dismiss this opportunity as a trend. After all, I used to hear people talk about vampire novels as a trend, but they haven’t gone away, have they? That door is still open. If you don’t have finished books in your trunk, that’s on you as a writer. Don’t wait to write your masterpiece until someone publishes the book that will open the door to your work. Have your work ready when that door opens.

(This post brought to you with love, by analogies gone wrong. And remember, on The Simpsons, they kept the wrong twin in the attic.)

Hugo

Hugo

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One of the cool things about getting book reviews isn’t just having people say nice things about your book. It’s getting a review from a reader who appreciates an element in your book that often gets overlooked.

Recently I got a review from a reader named Gretchen who wrote: “I was wary of yet-another-multiple-POV-story but this is next level sh*t. There are probably over a dozen (or more? I didn’t count) narrators, some first person, some third person, and yet the corners where they meet are perfectly joined. The math of it is impressive. This is hard mechanics but you don’t notice it because it’s done so well. Someone, please analyze this and tell me how she did it.”

There are, in fact, 16 narrators in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Some of them are integral to the story, at both the emotional center of the book and at the center of the action. Other narrators are observers. People who know Kellen or Wavy in one way or another, or who meet them in passing.

I have always been a multiple narrator writer. The first real novel I ever finished in 2004 had three narrators, and I can remember going to a conference, where three different agents gave me the puzzled dog head tilt during my pitch sessions. Three narrators? Two of them said they couldn’t even think of a successful novel with multiple narrators, and I helpfully reminded them of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I like writing in multiple narrators, but my reason for using so many in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was more than just a matter of personal taste.

I chose to tell the story through sixteen narrators for two reasons. Firstly, I needed a way to manage the impact of Wavy’s narrative on readers. When she speaks, it’s fairly intense and to the point. Putting too much of her voice in the story felt like putting too much salt in a dish.

The second reason for all those narrators was to be sure I was being honest with myself. I’m not ashamed of the controversial nature of the story, but I’m not in denial about it, either. By checking in repeatedly with other characters, looking at Wavy and Kellen from other points of view, I was able to write the story almost like a documentary.

As for how I did it? As with all of my writing projects, I radically over-wrote. The first draft of the book was 200,000 words, and before it was all said and done, I had 280,000 words, which I ultimately cut down to the final published length of 120,000 words. When I’m writing the first draft of a book like this, I’m walking through the story with the main characters, and I’m noting the ways they interact with the rest of the world. I’m identifying people who are “key witnesses,” if you will. Then I investigate them. Not just what they saw and felt about their interactions with the main characters, but what kind of people they are, and how they view the world. For every narrator in the book, I could tell you what they were doing the day before the chapter they narrated and the day after, and possibly the most embarrassing thing that happened to them in sixth grade.

woodworking1Sometimes I think of it like woodworking, but instead of joining one piece of wood to another, I’m building multiple iterations of the same piece of furniture and then cutting out the sections I need from each piece, and joining those together to produce a single piece of furniture made up of those parts. For some narrators, I’m literally writing a novel about them, and then superimposing all of those stories together and choosing where they overlap with the story I want to tell.

For example, I have what is essentially a whole novel about Wavy’s cousin Amy. Not just where her life intersected with Wavy’s, but all the other parts of her life, too. There are other narrators for whom I wrote novellas, so that I could understand how they fit in. Of course, there are also narrators who didn’t make the cut, including a few very important characters, like Wavy’s parents and her aunt. Ultimately, Wavy’s mother and father were too self-absorbed to make the cut–they weren’t focused on Wavy enough to tell part of her story. Wavy’s aunt simply had a habit of derailing the narrative with peripheral concerns, and she did so well at verbalizing her opinion in other character’s scenes.

Ultimately, my goal in the revision process for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was to give every character a narrative arc. Some of them are quite small, and some of them take place off stage, but by the time I’m finished writing a novel, I know all these people intimately and I want to understand how they got here and what happens to them.

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We’re now less than three months away from the official release date of my novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things! August 9th has gone from seeming impossibly far away to terrifyingly soon. Three months away, but twenty years in the making.

True story: When I was about 35, around the time I’d been writing and trying to get published for nearly a decade, I made myself a promise. It was one of those weird, desperate vows that you mostly can’t share with people until either the goal has come to fruition or you’re ready to laugh at past you for making such a crazy oath.

I’d just received yet another rejection on yet another novel, and I thought, “Why am I doing this? Is there any value to me continuing to write? What’s the meaning of life?” If you’ve stared down a form rejection for your third novel while in the middle of writing your fourth novel, you know what kind of existential crisis I’m talking about.

Rather than sink into a depression and quit writing, I said, “If I’m not a published writer by the time I’m 45, I’m going to give it all up and do something meaningful with my life.” Having made such a promise, I felt like I was making a contract with myself, and in true contractual fashion, I had to define what all the terms meant.

I’d already had some short stories published, but I decided that for the purposes of this oath, becoming a “published writer” would require me to have a novel published by one of the big New York publishing houses.

And what would “giving it all up” mean? For the purposes of my promise, I decided that “it” was my comfy, safe life. If I hadn’t published a book by age 45, I would sell my house and quit my day job.

As for “do something meaningful,” that was about as amorphous as “published writer.” After a few days’ consideration, I concluded that something meaningful would require me to commit myself to a greater good, such as joining the Peace Corps or taking a position with a non-profit aid agency that was on the ground, making a difference in people’s lives.

I’ve always said that I work best under deadline, but I’m notorious for cutting it close. This completely ridiculous promise to myself is no different. People, I’m literally coming within three days of having to quit my job, sell my home, and set out upon the road to do good works like some befuddled Midwestern introvert Grasshopper. Close call!

The_wellIt’s not that I’ve given up on doing something meaningful with my life, but I’ll continue to try to do it closer to home, and I’ll keep writing. Now, if I hadn’t made this completely arbitrary deadline, would I have really abandoned life as I know it to travel to a developing nation and dig wells? I don’t know. I’ve done stranger things.

What about you? What is the strangest promise you’ve made yourself? Did you keep it? Best answer wins an advance copy of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

As I continue the countdown to release day, my publisher is also giving away more copies. This is a HUGE giveaway on Goodreads: 50 copies! And it doesn’t require you to give me a little piece of your soul like my giveaway. (But I’m only asking for a tiny piece. Very small. You’ll hardly miss it.)

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