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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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.

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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?)

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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.

 

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The short answer: nothing.

When I read about writing, I write nothing. It’s not that the reading takes up all my time. After all, when I read about other things, I still find the time to write. I can have a book on 18th Century Chinese commerce on one hand and a novel about an African marine biologist in the other, and at the end of the day, I can still write a thousand words about a bull riding mishap that caused an Oklahoma high school boy to limp for the rest of his life. The more stories and ideas you put in my head, the more stories come out.

The instant I start reading about writing, however, the whole mechanism stutters to a halt. John Gardner, Julia Kristeva, Stephen King, Susan Sontag. It matters not one whit whose wise and erudite commentary on the methods or moral obligations of writers that I read, I flounder.

I don’t even understand why. I only know that it has always been the case. For as long as I am telling the stories of these people who inhabit my mental space, the work is effortless. As soon as I begin to question why I’m telling this story or the implications of how I tell it, the whole thing falls apart and I find myself questioning every word that goes on the page.

What dog hair?

                           What dog hair?

Sometimes I suspect it’s a kind of magic–one of the few superstitions I indulge in. When I focus on the stories as the stories of real people, it’s as though I’m transported on a magic carpet. If I try to look under the hood, so to speak, to investigate thematic issues or narrative constructs, I discover I’m sitting on a rug in my living room. It doesn’t fly. It doesn’t transport me to new places. It just covers the floor and collects dog hair.

When I used to teach freshman composition, my one plea to my students was that after the semester was over they would burn their literature essays and forget everything I taught them. Go back to reading for pleasure, I told them. Go back to the joy of a new story whose ending you don’t know. Go back to the joy of an old story with a familiar and comforting ending. Forget all this dissection and analysis. Forget about what the awkward and grisly innards of stories look like.

Twenty years after I left grad school, I’m still working on that myself. I’m hobbled somewhat by the fact that I now look at so many stories from a writer’s perspective. Like a mechanic investigating an engine, for the familiar, for the innovative. Still, my greatest pleasures are those moments when I read something that makes me forget I’m a writer.

 

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I have a love/hate relationship with shoes. I love them, because they keep my feet warm, dry, safe, or a variety of other desirable states, depending on circumstances. On the hate side is the difficulty of finding shoes that fit. My feet are what are known in the footwear industry as “low-volume.” They are long, but incredibly narrow and very flat, so they don’t take up much room inside of a shoe.

Plus, I walk a lot. I didn’t realize just how much I walk until I got talked into a step tracker. Then I discovered that between my twice daily trips to work and back, and walking my dogs four times a day, I cover about eight miles a day. Walking is good on a number of levels, including the fact that it always helps me solve writing problems. Whenever I’m stumped by a plot problem, I just walk it out, but that means my shoes don’t last as long as most people’s shoes. This year was especially fraught with that problem.

I present my year in shoes, the practical edition:

myshoes2015

  1. These are only the second pair of Keens that I’ve ever owned, but probably my last. I don’t expect my shoes to survive my walking regimen for very long, but I do ask that the traction strips on the soles not begin to peel away after six months. At first I thought I’d stepped on a particularly insidious clump of gum, and then realized the weird sticky sensation was produced by loose chunks of rubber and glue. Which is too bad, because they were otherwise pretty comfortable. Now they’ve been relegated to junk shoes, to be worn while painting, mowing, etc.
  2. My knights in black armor: Boggs rainboots. I wear these all year-round to the dog park, where there is always mud and often other unpleasant things to step in, as well. It only takes three levels of inserts to make them fit and they’re headed into a third year of keeping my socks and pant cuffs dry.
  3. This year’s splurge: Fluevogs. My sister and I traveled to Chicago in June, and made the trek out to the suburbs to the Fluevog store. Despite a variety of temptations, I went for the practical Derby Swirl 6-eye. They have required some breaking in, but I feel about them the way I once felt about my original made in England Doc Martens. I feel cool and badass while wearing these boots.
  4. The summer juggernauts: Chaco Z1 sandals. They are starting to show their three years of hard service, but are still holding up. I wear these basically every day that I wouldn’t be in danger of losing my toes to frostbite, because the feet need to be free!
  5. The traitors: Dansko Sabrina. First of all, I hate shoe styles with women’s names. Since I was a child that trend has set my teeth on edge. Second of all, $130 shoes, no matter how well they fit one’s awkward feet, should last more than two months. These didn’t. On Monday, after less than 45 days of service, the soles of these shoes started peeling away. The worst part is, I’m not even willing to indignantly demand a replacement pair from the manufacturer, because I wouldn’t wear another pair. Before the soles self-destructed they were stiff and slippery.

And so I entered the new year in need of new shoes. I went back to a trusted friend. Ahnu has long produced reliable waterproof, lug-soled walking and hiking shoes. So today I face the hill in these comfortable but not so attractive canoes:

ahnu

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January is a doomed month. Cold and miserly and strangely stunted for a month with thirty-one days. That’s not what dooms it, of course. Its downfall is that it’s destined to be a month of beginnings. Sure, we like beginnings. We glorify them as great things, but ultimately, we start so many more things than we ever finish, that it hardly matters where or when a thing starts. And when something fails, either with a whimper or a catastropher, its starting point looks a lot less glorious. That’s what taints January.

After all, up to 25% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Something like 60% of all new restaurants fail within a year. Diets crash and burn on a near weekly basis. The new job turns into a suckfest, and the new marriage sours three years in.

I know there’s this huge pressure, both internal and external, to make big changes in the new year. This is the year you’re going to find an agent! This is the year you’re going to apply for better jobs! You’re gonna lose that weight! Sell that screenplay! Go back to school! Meet someone special! Learn Chinese!

Cat on a diving board.

Which is cool, but right now, I’m gonna offer you a reprieve. Right now, I’m saying, it’s okay not to start something new this week. Today doesn’t have to be the first day of the rest of your life. It’s okay if you don’t send out query letters today or sign up for that dating website or do PX30. I’m giving you permission to wait. I’m telling you that it’s okay to feel wobbly and unsure this week. If you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed by being back at work today, I understand. You don’t have to go off the big board into the deep end. You can just get into the pool from the steps in the shallow end. It won’t matter if you didn’t start today, as long as you finish.

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Writers are always vulnerable. It’s part of our job, to put parts of ourselves on display, to expose our inner workings. That’s especially true in the early stages of a project, when it’s this half-formed lump with odd protrusions and a rocky second act. With revisions for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things turned in, it’s time to decide what book I want to work on next. What thing to be vulnerable to.

If you read my blog much, you’ll have seen my occasional flirtation with Teaser Tuesday. You’ll have seen just how many random things are hiding in my writing files. So when the topic turned to what I should write next, I opened up the file and took a long, hard look. Then I closed it really fast and went out for a drink.

Later, with my resolve fortified through the consumption of alcohol, I came back and started sorting through all my ideas, drafts, and story parts and pieces. The more I sorted the more I was reminded of a windfall I received last year. A good friend of mine gifted me with several gallon Ziploc bags full of estate sale jewelry. How this came into her possession, I’m not at liberty to say, but she sent it to me with instructions to take anything I wanted and discreetly dispose of the rest.

Of course, the bags mostly contained broken strands of plastic beads, tarnished chains, chipped enamel brooches from the 1970s, and mateless earrings missing rhinestones. The usual junk that gets left behind after someone dies and their heirs have already gone through to pick out anything valuable.

In addition to the junk, however, I found a 14k gold ring set with amethyst and peridot, a string of old Czech glass beads that only needed a new clasp, a clever bracelet made of pesos strung together with wire, and the lovely Indian woven silver necklace I’m wearing in my official author photo.

Treasure out of trash

Sorting through my writing files was like being presented with a giant plastic bag of cast off jewelry and being told, “In this bag of junk there are two pieces of treasure. Your task: find the treasure.” I pulled out things that seemed promising, as well as some things that were intriguing, and here and there a few things that feel like treasure to me. I sent them off to my agent to see if my idea of treasure and her idea of treasure match up.

It was scary, but liberating. I’ve never shown anyone the depth and breadth of my writing files. When I hit send, I felt like an inmate in an asylum, with all my crazy ideas heaped up around me on random bits of paper, but I also felt like a dragon, reclining upon my glittering hoard of ill-gotten chalices, swords, and crowns.

The good news is that on several points, my idea of treasure and my agent’s idea of treasure are similar. Out of the seventeen things I sent her, we found three that we both thought looked like projects my time would be well spent on. Of course, the down side to having made this decision is that I have to stop frittering around, and get to work.

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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.

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Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

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