Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writer at Play

If I had remembered the thingee that connects my netbook to my camera, I’d post pictures. Me, this week, having fun at the beach with the family. If I had remembered, you’d see me playing swim-tag with my kiddos at the pool. Or, using a rather complicated network of foam noodles and Toy Story boogie boards, one kid dragging me, the other dragging my husband Danny, across the pool. See who gets there first. In the pool, with my daughter Abby, everything is a race.

At the beach, I hold my little guy’s hands and together, we brace against the rushing waves. We went out last night at high tide, the water choppy, everything near the water so misted over with saltwater, you could hardly see. But, it was fun. Farther off, Abby and Danny, diving into the waves.

We eat turkey sandwiches. We play legos at the beach house. We engage in a week-long Monopoly game—the only time all year that we actually begin and end an entire game, all the way through to bankruptcy for all but one. World-wide economic dominion for the last man standing. (Last year it was Abby; I was the first one bankrupt.)

Though I’m not really blogging here—this doesn’t count—I do write. A little. I dabble around in my wip, mostly to keep it alive in my brain. Last year, at the beach, I had just received my editor’s revision notes for Goliath and, though I didn’t even bring my netbook with me, I wrote the whole week long, but only inside my head. I processed those notes. I scribbled down a few notes.

This year, I open up the document in spare moments. Poke around. Write a paragraph. Call it a day.

Jack London said he wrote a thousand words every day, no matter what. On the road, on the sea, the glacier, wherever he was. Joan Didion has said she needs to sleep in the same room as her novel-in-progress to keep the story with her.

Others need to take breaks. Leave it completely. They return revived, fresher for the work. Energized.

Know thyself. Good advice for any writer, particularly in the area of process and the accumulation of writerly habits. Know thyself, and more: tell thyself the truth. I would love to work like normal all week, but I know that’s not possible. Not with all the wave-jumping I need to be doing with my little Aiden. All the monopoly-playing me and Abby have planned.

Alternately, I would love to forget the work completely, but that’s equally impossible. Or, in the least, a dangerous practice. To leave it behind completely would be to risk losing the story.

So, this week, I’m playing. And writing (a little.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From Here to There And Back Again: Getting Published (Sigh.)

About a month ago, I sat in on a panel of Queens alums on the topic of getting published. We were asked to speak honestly on our experiences, though the moderator of the discussion pointed out that this might prove difficult for me specifically since my agent happened to be in the audience.

No matter, the moderator joked. Susan, you've been entirely, uncategorically, ecstatically happy with your experiences, right? Wink, wink.


The truth is, I love my agent. He loves my work, he sold my book, and he continues to profess the belief that I will write more good stuff. What's not to love?

(The truth is also: my agent reads this blog.)

We were asked to share our stories. I spoke of how I started by tentatively sending out stories and happened to place one in an anthology published by a small, local press. I asked the editor, could I send him a novel? He agreed, then took the novel, which had been my graduating thesis. A few years later, I had a collection of short stories and a writing friend, who had read most of the stories in workshop and who was then an editor at another small, local press, asked to see the collection. She took it, and we put a picture of my mother, age 14, in her confirmation dress, superimposed over a Martian landscape, on the cover.

A few years later, I had another novel and the same friend, no longer with the press, encouraged me to take it to a conference and show it to an agent there. Another friend threatened to stage an intervention if I tried to take this one to a small press. It's time, she said. You need to find yourself an agent.

So, it all happened. An agent who represented one of my favorite authors happened to be at the upcoming North Carolina Writers' Network Fall Conference, and he liked the pages I brought him. He took on the book, sent it out, and sold it to St. Martin's.

We were also asked to talk about our regrets. I have plenty. I have a number of things I'd like to change about my first book, but I'll not get into them here, except that I wish I had done a better job with the ending. I regret how I left my characters, especially the mother. She started out lost and ended up just as lost. Not much of a character arc there.

But, at the panel, I asked to instead speak on what I had done right. I said I was glad I didn't rush right out and try to find an agent for my first book. I spoke on the years I spent after earning my degree, burrowed down into my little writing hole. Outwardly, I carried on with my life, plunged into my thirties, started a family, began the long, wondrous, and bewildering work of learning how to be married. (Still learning!) I knew my work wasn't yet ready and I also knew my little writer's heart wasn't ready. The agent-search, I observed in writer chat rooms and blogs and in the lives of some of my friends, is very, very tough. I didn't want to risk it, not yet.

Another panelist, a memoirist, had a different story to tell. She faced all of the obstacles of finding the perfect agent, and the excitement of signing with the perfect agent, from one of the big-name agencies, only to have the perfect agent vanish on her. She relayed her experiences communicating with various editors with verve and resilience. Her refrain: "I got angry." She said, "And things happened when I got angry."  She pressed on, found success, while I cowered away and waited. I admired her determination, her fortitude, but I knew myself, my own limitations.

This business is anything but one-size-fits-all.

But that was, ultimately, the point of the panel. The people we were speaking to, all Queens alums, are well-acquainted with all the processes, the writing of query letters, the submitting, the benefits of working with indie presses versus big houses and vice-versa. What they needed to hear instead were our testimonies.

And, here's something I came away with. I think workshops and all the rest are really good at helping us seeing our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the craft of writing. We might be good at building characters but need to work on pacing. We might have a knack for evoking setting but fail to produce good dialogue. I think workshops are good at showing us these things. At helping us see what we need to do to improve and even--if we're really lucky--how to go about improving it.

But, submitting and querying and publishing, that whole terrible beast, this is where a different system of strengths and weaknesses emerge. Here, we get to know what we're made of. Emotional strengths and hindrances, where our phobias and self-doubts and confidence and charm and resilience come to light. It's good to hear others' stories because it reminds us what all is possible. All the different ways to get there.

And, of course, we're not there yet. None of us are, wherever there is. We say, we'll know it when we find it. But, it gets away from us. That's why we have to keep having panels.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Setting Changes Everything

When we were little, my younger sister Jill and I often came as a pair. Our mother made us matching sundresses, bought us matching white Stride-Rite sandals, and we were always gifted, from parents and relatives and the like, with matching presents. If she got a pink unicorn clipboard, I got a purple one. We were one grade apart in school while our older sister Shelley was eons—five and six years—beyond us. When Shelley started junior high, boys began bicycling into our cul-de-sac with blue-frosted cupcakes and other small treasures for her, or else just came visiting, and we younger two bobbed around in the front yard with a soccer ball or behind the front door, ostensibly hidden away. We giggled together.

Once, we were four and five years old, our grandmother, an Avon-product-junkie, gave us each a canister of monster-themed talc powder for Christmas. Let the record show: it was Jill’s idea to dump out the powder on our play-kitchen table and pretend-bake with it like flour. It was Christmas Eve. We were bathed and combed and dressed in our red plaid dresses, all ready for evening church services. Now, we—and our pretty dresses—were covered in monster talc. Mom was annoyed; Dad took pictures.

We also tried, from as far back as I can remember, to be different from each other. Isn’t that the natural bent of sisters? To distinguish ourselves from each other? Jill was quiet in school, me not quite so much. Later, in high school, Jill excelled in science and math while I became a humanities nerd. She played tennis, and I started chasing boys as my major sport. I grew obsessed with the color purple, Jill with getting her hair just right, and eventually, I went to a small mountain college and Jill went to the largest university in our state.

Now, I became the quieter one, isolated, and Jill accumulated crowds of friends. We both graduated with honors, Jill in science, of course, me in middle grades education. She went on to graduate school and became an anesthetist; I was a teacher first, then a fiction-writer. It’s something of a joke now: Jill puts people to sleep. I try not to.

We both became mothers. And here, in having babies and seeing those babies through toddlerhood, we were back on common ground. We talked breast-feeding and ear infections, tummy-time and nap schedules. She had happy babies, two boys and a girl, and attributed their happiness to eating chocolate while she was pregnant. My sister, the science-hearted girl. My first, my baby girl, has always been fretful and cautious—she seemed to worry too much even as a baby—and my second, a boy, free-spirited, fell into laughing and screaming and running with his cousins at every family gathering.

Our oldest ones began school, and Jill and I deliberated over education choices. I started home schooling and Jill found a brand-new magnet school. Now, we talked reading levels and penmanship. Little-kid friendships. Eating habits. Swimming classes. Toy Story characters. Birthday parties. More ear infections.

Last week, though, at a hokey-but-fun Western Frontier-theme amusement park, a glimmer of something different and yet familiar shone through all our grownupness. We had our children and our parents with us, and dispensed with all of the automatic motherly concerns—sunscreen, snacks, bathroom stops—as we always did. But I saw something I’d only caught glimpses of in all the seriousness of adulthood, in all the dizzying multi-tasking of motherhood: there was my little sister Jill, on all the rides, having fun.

We weren’t in my parents’ living room at Christmas or Thanksgiving, trying to keep the kids from jumping on the couch. We weren’t cutting strawberries for their lunches or snatching them up to wipe their sticky hands. We weren’t thinking reading levels or age-level social norms. There was nary an ear infection among us.

Instead, we were back in the basement playroom of so many years ago. The playroom was a cowboy-and-Indian-filled amusement park and the monster talc was the Tilt-a-Whirl, my sister Jill so brazen, dumping out the powder, riding the spinning, jerking thing again and again. Just happy and free.

All it took was a change in setting. From our normal, housekeeping, kid-keeping lives to this assortment of rides and funnel cakes at a crook of a mountain town known for nature walks and outlet shops. Here, in this place, my little sister was simply fun.

Okay, I’m taking a long time to get here, but here it is, the writerly connection: setting changes everything. Everything. Or, I should say, a change in setting throws new light on your character. Take your young, serious, part-time medical professional mother of three and put her in a goofified ghost town with put-on train robberies and make-believe salon brawls. See what happens. What surfaces.

(This, btw, is coming from a person who is NOT her best at amusement parks. True confession? I—usually—loathe such places. Maybe that’s why Jill’s energy for all the hysteria impressed me so much.)

You do this—the change in setting—for your character, because even made-up people deserve to be seen from more than one angle. Nobody is ever just one thing.

But you do it for your reader, too. Or, for the character's sister. For a new angle on the relationships in a story. Amazing how something happening right now can harken back so neatly to the past.

I needed to see Jill act like a kid once again. A sort of real-life rhyming action moment. I needed to see her be an avid Tilt-a-Whirl-rider and a still-on-top-of-everything mother at the same time. I needed to re-remember a thing—really, a person—I’d known long ago. A person who, as it turns out, is still around.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Do not hurry; do not rest.

You’ll notice: today is Wednesday. I usually blog on Tuesday, but I have a number of good excuses for my tardiness. Summer has begun. My kids are practicing for a musical at church. The practices are weekly, not bad, but the practice CD has taken over my life. We’re planning our beach week, summer camps, birthday parties. Monday, we went to Tweetsie Railroad, a Western Frontier style amusement park in Blowing Rock, NC, and I may never recover…

But, there will be more on Tweetsie next week.

Today, I’m not so much blogging as I am sharing my newest mantra. It’s from Goethe and it’s the epigraph to the first chapter in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.

“Do not hurry; do not rest.”

I have been lax with the blogging, but am working steadily on the new book. It’s this quote that keeps me going. This writing thing, like my kids’ musical, like making it through the long, hot days of summer, is about pacing. Getting into the writing-groove and staying there.

I’m doing 500 words per sitting. A good pace. I’m sharing daily word counts with a few writing buddies. Not that they particularly care, but it keeps me honest.

It’s what I think, these days, when I’m jogging in the morning. When I’m writing. When I’m facing the bottom-less laundry hamper. Do not hurry, do not rest; Do not hurry, do not rest…

A beat to dance to.