NC-area novelist and writer Leslie Pietrzyk on the creative process and all things literary.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Guest in Progress: Becky Wolsk
I’ve never been one to believe there’s some magic trick that will get you an agent (unless you consider “good writing” a magic trick): I once had an agent I found through a blind query, and I had another who found me after reading my work in a literary journal. My current agent is one I solicited several years after I met her briefly at a writer’s conference. So, no magic wands involved…just a lot of hard work and perseverance are needed to succeed in an agent search.
Becky Wolsk, one of the members of my recent novel workshop at the Writer’s Center, is currently undergoing that process of hard work herself as she searches for an agent. Becky is a talented writer and a generous person: not only did she immediately volunteer to bring her work in on the first day (a teacher’s dream!), but she has already started organizing a fall reunion for our class so we can catch up and see how our novels-in-progress are progressing. Now, she’s also kindly offered to share the results of her research and the helpful resources she’s discovered in her agent search:
An Information Junkie’s Recommendations for the Agent Search
1) Check the acknowledgement pages of similar books to yours/books you like--most authors thank their agents.
2) Publishers Lunch Deluxe: ($20.00 per month, unlike the shorter, free version called Publishers Lunch) I think the “Deluxe” version is worth the cost because you get access to their “Who Represents” and “Deals” databases, and to the complete version of their “Lunch Weekly” deal report, which comes out via email each Monday. While I wrote my first novel, I collected deal blurbs from these Lunch Weeklies and whenever I saw an agent who had sold something similar to mine, I cut and pasted the blurb into my “Agents to Query” file.
3) Agent Query is free and has a huge database of contact information and submission references. They also provide how-to articles about query letters and all aspects of the submission process.
4) Most literary agencies have web sites that give you a feel for their style in addition to providing the latest contact information, client lists, and submission preferences.
5) You can search specific agents’ names on Amazon.com using the main search field.
6) "Preditors and Editors" provides a directory of agents and, in many cases, flags agents with “recommended,” “not recommended,” and submission preferences.
7) Writers Market used to have a free “Ask an Agent” resource that has morphed into “Agent Q&A” under their subscription program. I can’t vouch for the current format but they only charge about four bucks a month, and they say you can cancel at any time, so if you want to see how agents are answering common questions, this might be worth checking out.
8) Mediabistro.com’s witty and informative "Pitching an Agent" profiles. You need an AvantGuild membership to access these--currently $49.00 per year.
9) Before composing your query letter, Google the individual agent’s name even if you already know his or her contact information and submission preferences. How else are you going to find out Big Fish Agent is an avid water polo player--and hey, you just happen to have three chapters devoted to water polo!
Hope this helps and happy hunting. ~~Becky Wolsk
About: Becky Wolsk's short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Flashquake (where her story was distinguished as an editor’s pick), Literary Mama, What If?, Glass Quarterly, Brain Child, Imperfect Parent, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and several arts and humanities databases. Her professional background is in library science and education, so she's quite the research maven. She's currently seeking representation for her first novel, set in Washington, DC’s “bourgeois bohemia.”
What I'm Reading
One. I recently started a book of short stories that I’m liking: Throw Like a Girl by Jean Thompson. I’m only halfway through, but this is the rare collection that makes me want to stay up late and “read one more.” (Typically, I’m more of a “dip in” reader of story collections, reading one or two, here and there, over a period of time.) Thus far, these stories feature a lot of trapped women or women who have made bad choices in men, but I hesitate to say that because the stories are so much more than that, and the prose is so precise as to leave me breathless.
Here’s the opening to the first story, “The Brat”; when I read this, I had to keep going:
“She hated her mother and she hated her father too, at least when he was around to be hated. She hated school and all the snotty girls who put their heads together giggling and talking big and showing off their nail polish and their new shoes and new cell phones and whatever else they bought bought bought. She hated her brother but that was easy, it was automatic that they hate each other. She was twelve years old and she wasn’t pretty or smart or nicey-nice and she wished everyone she knew would just drop dead. Then she could go somewhere, a city or maybe the ocean, a place like on television where everybody knew everybody else and things were always happening.”
I picked up this book after I read a review of it in the New York Times Book Review (registration required for access). What I don’t understand is why so few of the stories seem to have been previously published in journals or magazines. I hope that was the author’s choice and not because editors passed these up!
Two. In my class at Johns Hopkins, we read Mark Richard’s story “Strays,” and I was reminded of how powerful that story is, and how perfectly, evocatively structured. I love the first paragraph:
“At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes. Beneath my brother and my’s room we hear them coughing and growling, scratching their ratted backs against the boards beneath our beds. We lie awake, listening, my brother thinking of names to name the one he is setting out to catch. Salute and Topboy are high on his list.”
The story was in Best American Short Stories and is found in Richard’s collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World.
Three. The Washington Post Magazine does an annual summer reading issue, and I admired this essay by Rick Moody about baseball and addiction. (Registration required to access the piece.)
Four. This article (registration required) in the Washington Post about how children (still!) use their imaginations charmed me and brought back memories of the plays we put on in our backyard. Being the bossiest, I was often both director and star.
$$ for Poets
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Focus on the Words
The other thing is that the words should be what make YOU happy. Few people get rich in this business, so we can’t possibly be in it for the money. If you’re not writing because the act of writing fulfills some deep, achy need in your soul, I might suggest that you’re in for a long hard road ahead. The journey to create the book is as rewarding as the book itself.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Wanted: Stories about the Writing Life
We are now accepting submissions for Bylines 2009 Writers Desk Calendar and we invite dedicated, serious writers who have been published and paid for their work to submit an entry. All genres and disciplines are welcome.
We're looking for succinct personal stories about the writing life. The oh-wow success tales, the naked truth about what motivates you, the heartache of rejection, the toughest lessons, the joy and pain of freelancing. Humor is good, so is pathos. Please avoid routine, trite, ordinary stories. [Ed. note: good advice for all writing!] Read the many insightful submissions in the current Bylines and you'll see what we mean. We strongly urge you to read these entries so you understand what we're looking for. Sample entries are here.
A few sentences about yourself. You're not dry and boring, so your bio shouldn't be either. Give us your accomplishments but round out your profile so our readers feel like they'd like to meet you for coffee. Or a beer.
The combined word count of your essay and bio should not exceed 300 words. We want room for your photo. However, don't send your photo yet. We'll let you know if your submission has been chosen and request your picture then.
If your submission is accepted, we will require a high resolution photograph. You may send a digital image as long as the resolution is 300 dpi or higher. If you do not have a high resolution digital image, please send us a quality snap shot that we may use. Please note, your photograph will not be returned. Do not send us your photo until you are notified that your submission has been accepted for the calendar.
Send your submission within the body of your email (NOT as an attachment) to: info(at)bylinescalendar.com (replace (at) with @). Include your full name, address, phone number, email address and website. Do not mail hard copies.
Submissions must be received no later than February 1, 2008. Writers will be notified by April 15.
We reserve the right to edit submissions and bios chosen for Bylines but you will have the opportunity to approve any changes. Bylines has one-time use rights. Submissions and photographs will not be returned. We will accept previously published work; just let us know when and where it appeared. Writer agrees that pull quotes from their submission may be used on the Bylines web page, or in other marketing.
1. Exposure and promotion. Bylines is sold at bookstores nationwide and on the Internet. Your website and email address are listed in the calendar (with your permission), and we provide a link from our website to yours. If you're the outgoing type, we help arrange book signings at your local bookstore and/or interviews with your local media. We also send out hundreds of press releases.
2. You get one free calendar and discounts on additional purchases.
3. Money. It's only $5, but at least you can count us as a paying market. This is the first year we've been able to offer to pay writers anything. Remember, this is a labor of love, a tribute to writers and a break-even project.
"We regret that your work is not right for us"
I reread Animal Farm a couple years ago, curious to see if it still held up: yes. Tight and compact, while saying so much. (I still retain the image of the pigs turning into horrible, garish, laughing farmers at the end of a cartoon movie we watched in junior high.)
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Guest in Progress: Liam Callanan
Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, I was reminded of that quote when I read this stunning essay by novelist/writer Liam Callanan. I don’t want to wreck the experience by over-talking, so I’m just going to send you forward to read it…
…though not before noting that it may not be apparent from this lovely piece just what a funny guy Liam actually is—the good kind of funny guy, who doesn’t use humor as a way to hog attention or make a spectacle of himself. One of my favorite memories of my 2007 has to be a marvelous conversation over dinner with Liam, two other fabulous writers, and a delightful publisher/editor from Simon & Schuster during the Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass Conference.
It was one of those magical nights where you feel grateful for the company you’re with because somehow their wit and intelligence is turning you far wittier and more intelligent than you’ve ever been before. You had to be there…and I sincerely wish you had been. Those are rare nights—just as Liam is that rare writer whose words can make you laugh until you cry, and who will then turn around and simply make you cry. I hope you enjoy his work.
In 1992, I was standing on the first floor of the Borders Bookstore at 18th & L Streets NW, in Washington, DC. I remember the spot quite specifically and could take you there by the hand right now: it’s in the southeast corner, across from where the store corralled its coffee drinkers,overlooking a stairway that ducked downstairs to fiction. I was looking at a book that had come out the year before, Maine Farm: A Year of Country Life, by Stanley Joseph and Lynn Karlin, and I was deciding, once more, that I couldn’t afford to buy it.
I don’t know why I thought this—or I do, I was just out of college, and had just bought a bike for $200, and was working at a job that paid me in the mid-teens—but I was also not yet at an age where a book, any book, seemed underpriced (I spend three years of my life thinking, typing; dozens more workers then enter the process; trees fall, presses roll, someone strains their back lugging cartons of my books up and down the stairs: that’ll be $20, please; a penny if you’d prefer someone else own it before you.)
But Maine Farm obsessed me. It’s a beautiful book. A kind of coffee table book that exults living off the land, but Lynn Karlin’s gorgeous photographs are coupled with a wide-ranging series of journal entries by Stanley Joseph talking about the quiet, gorgeous rhythm of the seasons on their farm in coastal Maine.
A book for dreamers, then, and I certainly was, am one. But back then I tended more toward nightmares: college was done, life had started, and I felt as though things were sputtering. I had a job, but not the right job, and I certainly wasn’t writing. And here were these people who’d not only created a life, a good life, but a book as well. It wasn’t that I envied them life on the farm—for all its beauty, Joseph and Karlin made clear that theirs was a rugged existence with manifold demands, whereas I’ve always considered my gardening chores done when the lawn is mowed—but I did envy them their smiles, their sense of accomplishment.
And maybe that’s what I admired most, what they had accomplished in that book: detailing their success without being smug, but rather with a sense of mildly awestruck wonderment. "We chucked it all," they seemed to say (Joseph had been a documentary filmmaker in Berlin; Karlin a photojournalist for Women’s Wear Daily and elsewhere), "and then found it all, all much better, right here."
Once or twice a week, when I was trying to save on the price of lunch by not eating lunch, I’d go by the bookstore, flip through the book--there was only the one copy left--and dream. And then one day, of course, the book was gone, and then I was, too, from that job in downtown Washington, and eventually, from Washington itself.
The book stayed with me, though, over the years. I never forgot the title, I never forgot the photos—there’s one of Joseph pruning trees, for example, whose colors I remember better than the colors of the rooms each of my daughters was delivered in (even the one who arrived three weeks ago).
I looked up the book once or twice in a library, but never tracked down a copy to own myself; I was too afraid. As much as I remembered the book, I remembered, too, the yearning that went with it, the desire to disappear into the pictures, the standing in a bookstore shelved with thousands of books that I’d not written, the looking across at a coffee bar whose lattés and cookies and midday treats that, like the book itself, I couldn’t quite justify purchasing, not that day. I didn’t want to get the book only to be reminded of such wanting, especially as my life, however it had progressed, hadn’t quite graduated to a state I admitted was good.
A few weeks ago, another beautiful, healthy pink daughter born to my wife and I in a new city whose summers are a wonder to behold, another novel of mine on bookstore shelves, another day in which my family compared notes and decided, to our diminishing disbelief, that our two-year experiment of abandoning our old life and salaries in DC for a place where we had no family or friends or 401-Ks, had turned out for the best, I thought: maybe I'm ready to buy the book? Not so much to compare notes, but more to have it challenge me yet again -- live better! -- and for me to finally be able to muster the answer, "well, I'm trying."
The internet had the book on my doorstep in days, festooned with no less than 24 stamps, all dating from the 1970s: “Progress in Electronics,” “Letters Shape Opinions,” “Letters Preserve Memories.”
And inside, in perfect condition, was my beautiful book of that beautiful life.
The 15-cent “Progress in Electronics” stamp features an early microphone the size of a badminton racket, a radio tube, a “TV camera tube” and a radio speaker shaped like a shofar. I wonder if such a stamp today would feature the internet, and if so, how—what would you use to depict something that can both confirm a Catholic boy’s hunch of what a shofar looks like or that his first attempt spelling badminton is hopelessly wrong?
But I wonder if the sharper question is whether the internet is progress at all, because a late night trek across the web to find out more about my beautiful book scattered my dream, and its dreams, completely.
Lynn Karlin came up first; she’s still in Maine, still a photographer, now concentrating on gardens almost exclusively. But she’s no longer on that Maine Farm. She and Joseph—whom she met by complete happenstance, wandering one day onto his farm while visiting a friend nearby, and then never leaving—divorced after several years of marriage. Running the farm was hard, she said, too hard. And with just the two of them as labor, they fought a losing fight to keep up, make money.
Another click or two and I discovered Joseph referred to as “the late Stanley Joseph,” which sent another pang through me. I went back to the book—his hair was gray, maybe, but thick and full, the outdoors clearly bettered him—and then back to the internet.
Joseph, it reported, had poisoned himself with carbon monoxide.
There’s more to the story, of course, starting with when these events occurred, and from there to why, and I know this is part of my new life now, my own dream life, which is thinking, writing, figuring out how people work and putting that into words.
But it’s not work I want to do just now, not yet. I want my treasured book out of my house and back in that bookstore at 18th & L, Karlin and Joseph still married, Joseph still alive, me still lacking so much that I wanted, save their book, its dreams, their dreams, mine, a book that proved the good life could be yours if only you picked it up, held it close, never let it go.
About: Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. See his web site for more information.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Tricks of the Trade
While one can multi-task errands or cook dinner while doing laundry, catching up on the news via NPR, and conversing with the husband, it’s a little more challenging to call up the creative force on demand. Yet, I really want to finish a draft of my novel by the end of the summer (knowing full well there will be more work ahead). So how to get myself in the writing frame of mind on the rare afternoons I have free to write?
I decided to channel the sense of smell. I bought myself a giant, smelly candle—to fit with summer, I selected cucumber-melon. I light it whenever I’m about to sit down to write. The room fills with cucumber-melon-scent-chemical, and my hope is that my tiny little brain will think, “Hey, the last time I smelled this, I got all creative and had a good afternoon writing. So I think I’ll do it again.”
In case that part of my brain is resistant, I’ve also started listening to the same CD over and over while I’m writing (avoiding it any other time). Anything that works for you would do, but I chose something that seemed to fit the mood of what I’m working on: Philip Glass’s soundtrack to the movie, The Hours. I like the relentlessness of it, and, of course, it never hurts to summon images of Virginia Woolf (or Michael Cunningham). Again, I’m hoping my tiny brain can make the connection: “Relentless, depressing music…time to be creative!”
If things get really desperate, I can throw healthful eating to the wind and go for the Marcel Proust effect.
But so far my strategy has been working for the most part. And even if I’m skating by on the placebo effect, I’ll take it.
Stretching for that Creative Link
Here's someone who agrees with me (though I’m distressed at the lack of love for ginger).
Sadly, the Altoids web site was of no help whatsoever. Sorry guys—not everyone has time and/or patience to “shoot” at a gallery of floating Altoids to find out more information about a product.
Awful Confession: I ate about 10 in the process of composing this blog entry.
Tony Soprano Won't Die
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
"We appreciate the opportunity..."
Unfortunately, what the message really says is something like: “We appreciate the opportunity to read your work. However, it does not suit our needs at this time.”
And somehow that sentiment seems much meaner in email (though I appreciate the absence of an emoticon—a smiley face will not ease the sting).
Rejections through the mail have their own filter system of the thick or thin envelope, so the imagination can’t roam quite so far. With a thin envelope, the most you can hope for is some sort of personalized scrawl: Thanx! The thick envelope does lead to hopes for a contract and acceptance letter…though often it’s merely some intern messing with you by folding and shoving your 15-page story into your business-size SASE.
Anyway, I got one of each rejection over the weekend, and while both were crappy, the email version felt crappier. Maybe I think too much, but I couldn’t help but imagine a computer program somewhere that takes all those email submissions and automatically dumps them into a file based on the date they were received…at midnight, exactly three months later, this program opens the file and rejects them all in one swoop with one generic email. At least the other way, a human had to open the envelope—and that seems a comfort. I can imagine that in the act of transferring my manuscript to the recycling bin, someone might one day accidentally glance down and read a sentence…and then want to read the next and the next.
Monday, June 18, 2007
More Writing Exercises
Or, here is one of my all-time favorites, from John Gardner’s classic writing book, The Art of Fiction. (Every time I assign this to students, they inevitably groan…and then inevitably produce AMAZING results.)
Describe a lake as seen by a young man or woman who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
Or, more of an assignment than an exercise, is this one that I heard of when I was at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, in a workshop co-taught by Amy Hempel, who said that she got it from her teacher, the legendary editor/teacher/writer Gordon Lish. In her case, she came up with the extraordinary story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” When I tried the assignment on my own, several years later, I ended up with a story that was published by The Iowa Review and then cited in the back of the Best American Short Stories as one of the 100 best stories of the year. So—it’s a hard assignment but worth giving a try; again, I’ve seen amazing results when I’ve given this to students:
Write a story about the worst thing you ever did.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Guest in Progress: Bonnie Neubauer
And here’s where you come in. She has been kind enough to offer us a sample exercise, one she’s considering including in the new book. So try it out and let her know what you think. You can reach her at Bonnie@BonnieNeubauer.com. And, if you’re looking for more exercises, you can buy her great book Write-Brain Workbook, or check her website. She’ll definitely get your creative juices flowing! Here's her challenge for today:
Any Guinea Pigs Out There?
I am a lover of word games, an avid player of solitaire, and a writer who enjoys a thought-provoking, warm-up creative writing exercise. I figure there must be at least a few other writers out there who share this handful of interests. With them in mind (okay, I confess, with myself in mind) I created a writing exercise that I have titled Solitaire, Anyone? I’ve tried it a couple times and have found it challenging, fun, and even a bit addicting.
I am wondering if any readers of this blog might be willing to be guinea pigs and give this new, hot off the presses exercise a try. It will only take ten minutes of your valuable time and, as a bonus, will prime your pen for the rest of the day. If you like this exercise, please let me know (bonnie@BonnieNeubauer.com) and I will include it in my second book of writing exercises titled Take Ten that I just sold to Writer’s Digest. If you don’t like this combo word game/solitaire challenge/writing exercise, or have a suggestion on how to make it more to your liking, please let me know that, too.
Here goes: Solitaire, Anyone?
In this ten minute free-writing exercise, your goal is to use as many words as possible that contain a given pair of letters - while making sure you write something that makes sense. Each time you write a word containing the given letter-pair, you score 1 point. Try to amass as many points as possible.
Of course there’s a catch – as is always the case in word games. You can only score a word once. If, for example, you are using the letter-pair US, you would score 1 point the first time you use the word us and no points every time thereafter that you write the word us. Variations such as plurals and past tense are all considered new words and you may score them the first time you use them. Proper nouns and acronyms also count, so Susan and USA would each net you 1 point each. Words that use the pair more than once get 10 points. To keep score, either underline or circle these words as you write them (which takes away from your allotted time) or go back after you’re done writing and hunt for all the letter-pair words at the end (my preference). Then add up your score.
An example of words using the letter-pair UR that would all score 1 point in your ten minute writing: purple, urgent, urgently, urology, urologist, occur, occurs, occurred, occurring, URL, Uruguay.
Now pick a number between 1 and 10. Write the number or on top of the page so that next time you do this exercise, you will know to pick another number. Look for your number below and next to it you will find the letter-pair that you have to include in as many words as possible in your writing.
Set a timer for ten minutes….
Start your writing with the phrase, Like most lovers of…
Write as fast as you can, trying to use as many words that contain your letter-pair as possible, while making sure your writing makes sense! Good luck! ~~Bonnie Neubauer
About: Bonnie Neubauer is the author of Write-Brain Workbook, 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing and the forthcoming follow-up book of ten hundred creative writing exercises titled Take Ten. She is also the creator of Story Spinner, a handheld tool/toy for writers that generates millions of creative writing exercises. There are lots of freebies for writers on her website, such as Story Spinner Online which generates gazillions of creative writing exercises at the click of a mouse button. Bonnie runs playful, funny, and motivational writing workshops up and down the East Coast. In addition to writing, Bonnie also loves inventing games and creative ways to make every day fun. Currently in-progress are two books: Picnics for Romantics where couples experience that 'early dating' feeling again, and Punny Costumes, no-sew costumes based on word plays that elicit groans rather than shrieks. You can try on both of these books for free at www.BonnieNeubauer.com.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
"Patience Is Everything"
Unfortunately, I’m still using the “piles of scrap paper” system, and probably will remain that way for quite a while. I may be in the minority, though. Following the presentation of the Washington Independent Writers panel I spoke at on Saturday, there was a heated discussion among the audience about which voice recognition program was best. Sometimes I worry that beginning writers are convinced that it’s the next “new new thing” that will make them finish that book, or get published.
Actually, the secret isn’t so secret: Work hard, study the craft, and learn to write well. (Yes, I agree—it’s much, much easier to whip out your credit card and buy a computer program.)
I’m reminded of one of my favorite writing quotes: “There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.” ~~Rilke
Magical Words = Magical Weekend
Check out these guidelines: Morrison House Hotel Short Story Contest
Each Kimpton hotel has a distinct personality and a soul of its own – a story. The stories are varied and colorful; wine, art, history, food, and architecture to name a few. Each unique story promises you adventure, inspiration, and delightful surprises while offering the familiarity and style of the Kimpton Hotels brand.
The story of Morrison House is Literature: Morrison House, an elegant 4-star, 4 diamond boutique hotel, is nestled in the heart of old town Alexandria, Virginia – an area rich with legend and history. It's a place that causes visitors to reflect on the stories and historical significance of what lies before them. One wonders who once lived in the charming historic row houses and what lives unfolded in the exquisite buildings noted for their Georgian architecture. Likewise, literature ask us to pause and reflect on the stories of the characters therein and even of the author. Morrison House serves as the perfect civilized retreat for literary pursuits in contrast to the intensity and fast pace of nearby Washington DC. The attentive staff, period furniture, soothing colors, and many cozy nooks all create an escape conducive to relaxation and reading. The Library is an inviting room whose only designation it is to host those with a passion for books and literature. We invite you to curl up with a good book and enjoy your stay at Morrison House. We hope it's only one of many chapters with us.
All are invited to enter our Morrison House Short Story Contest. The winner will receive a weekend stay for two, breakfast one morning and parking at the Morrison House in Alexandria. The second place winner will receive a $50 gift certificate. The third place winner will receive a $25 gift certificate.
Submit one fiction or non-fiction short story [sic] about the Morrison House.
Stories should not exceed more than 3,000 words.
Deadline July 31, 2007; winners will be notified by August 31, 2007.
All stories must be accompanied by an entry form; download entry form here.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
An Irrational Hatred
But I do have some biases that I cannot overlook, irrational hatred of a few certain words that when I come across them, they make me long to reach for the big, mean pen to draw a big, nasty “delete.” But because these certain words are perfectly serviceable, good-enough words, I feel I can’t. Alas. To my mind—irrationally—literature would be a better place without these words (there may be more, but these are the four that never fail to get me to the “fingernails on a blackboard” point):
1. Chuckle, noun and verb. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t even know what this is, really. I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled in my life. I’ve laughed, giggled (yes, I was girlish, once), chortled, hooted, snorted, and snickered, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never chuckled. Perhaps when I’m a kindly old lady the secret of “chuckling” will be revealed. (Under the same logic, “twinkling” eyes almost made this list, except that probably there is no other accurate way to describe Santa’s eyes.)
2. Grin, noun and verb. Now I sound like a real grinch…no words of joy or happiness allowed! “Smile” is overused (guilty myself): if only people smiled in real life as often as they do in fiction. But grins…what’s the difference? A grin sounds fake to me, as if the writer has realized he or she has been writing “smile” too often and checks out the synonyms button on Word and discovers “grin.” I say, let’s find another way altogether of showing pleasure than the simple smile. And, I say this to myself, too: my characters smile more than is good for them. (Especially if they knew what dire fate I have in mind for them.)
3. Mug, noun. At least I know what this means. But it is an ugly word just by the sound of it. Perhaps if I were a regular coffee drinker I would feel differently. My recent characters are usually drinking scotch, though, a drink that offers superior glassware options.
4. Pad, verb. People are often “padding” through the house in the dark, typically on the way to the bathroom. I’m sorry, but I walk through my house in the dark, to wherever my destination might be. Is there a different way of walking just because it’s dark? Or morning? Or you’re heading to the bathroom? I could, perhaps, accept “pad” when used to describe the way a cat walks because—hey!—cats actually have pads on their feet. (Cute little pads, too.)
As I said, I recognize that these are irrational biases on my part, and I would never circle these words in a manuscript, just as I hope people are kind to my writing and don’t circle my pretentious over-use of the word “faux” or note that people are “crossing their arms” yet again when the world is filled with alternative, equally bad body language.
Yes, yes: There’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, they’re all perfectly fine. Probably all the Nobel winners loooove those words. But I’m sure everyone has their own list of totally teeth-grittable language. If only I were a superstar teacher, on the level of U2 or the Bruce Springsteen, able to demand those oddball contracts with the bizarre requests (97 yellow M&Ms in a Waterford bowl, etc)…well, now we all know exactly what I’d demand.
Travel Writing Workshop
Details: Travel Writing Workshop
Saturday, June 16, 2007
The Writers Center
Class Description: Take your travel writing to another level: the literary, which is to say, giving the reader the novelistic experience of actually traveling there with you. For both beginning and advanced writers, this three hour workshop covers the techniques from fiction and poetry that you can apply to this specialized form of creative nonfiction for deliciously vivid effects.
To register, click here.
C.M. Mayo is the author of the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006. Learn more here.
Monday, June 11, 2007
The Story Arc of Tony Soprano
Am I the only one? I didn’t see the ending of last night’s episode as ambiguous in the least. Tony was shot. He was shot as was adeptly foreshadowed in the first episode of the season, where he and Carmela visit Bobby and Janice in the lake house and there is a conversation that feels “important”: They’re sitting around the dock and Carmela and Tony talk about a toddler who recently drowned in a pool, “right there in front of everyone.” (Okay, not a direct quote, but a close paraphrase.) Janice, watching her daughter, freaks out, but they linger on the conversation a bit more. That’s the moment I suspected Tony was going to die “right there in front of everyone.”
That same episode also set us up with the massive gun that Bobby gives to Tony (happy birthday, brother-in-law!). There are references to the deer head (or was it a moose?) on the wall and how the animal didn’t know what hit him. This moment was also referred to in flashback in last week’s episode, where there was a moment of Tony and Bobby talking in the boat. “Like your friend on the wall,” Tony says, “Didn’t know what hit him.”
And more: The irony of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (how “American is that sentiment—remember, the episode was called “Made in America—as if the power of our belief can stop death). The increasing tension to the scene in the diner as Meadow can’t park (I totally sympathize with parallel parking woes!). The idle chit-chat about onion rings (tell me a circular shape is random—onion rings instead of fries). The nod to The Godfather movie as the spooky guy goes into the bathroom as Michael did, to get the gun. The feds closing in, the look on Paulie’s face as he and Tony part (what an actor; how does one make a face on demand that captures that anguish and emotion?).
All these details were chosen for a reason by the writer/director/creator, David Chase. To my mind, they were all leading to the inescapable—which was inescapable from the beginning, frankly. To be true to what has been established with Tony’s life and character, there were only a few possible outcomes: witness protection (not likely for Tony who’s believed in the Code throughout and never once wavered), jail, getting whacked, or, perhaps, continuing on..but only until one of those three things happens. Not many mob bosses get to retire and live ahppily ever after...just the way the job goes. So, to me, this episode was the definition of the “surprising yet inevitable ending.” I’m so distraught that I woke up to NPR reporting on the news that Tony didn’t get whacked, or my favorite guy on Slate magazine (thus far) comparing the ending to the choice in the short story, “The Lady or the Tiger?”—a cop-out that doesn’t offer an answer (this is an ongoing discussion, and others will weigh in throughout the day). Viewers quoted in the Washington Post Metro section also didn’t get it: nothing happened, they complained, it was like David Chase’s joke on us. Even Tom Shales didn’t fully say that Tony got whacked, suggesting instead that we don’t actually know while allowing that the very next frame could have shown a massacre.
So—am I the only one who thought it was a brilliant ending, and true to the show and character to the end?
So be it. Maybe TV is an art form (and this show, anyway, is art) that needs to be spelled out visually in the way a short story or novel doesn’t: in written literature, things can and should be suggested and intuited. Or maybe I’m wrong and Tony lives on.
While I’m on the topic, I was reminded of the beauty of creating tension by adding a clock to a scene. When we see that there are only 5 minutes left to the episode, every detail in that diner scene becomes fraught. One of my favorite remarks on this subject is Alfred Hitchcock (sorry I don’t have a source for this; I found it several years ago and didn’t keep the attribution…my bad):
“Finally, a good film has suspense, not surprise. Hitchcock avoided the simple mystery films, where the main point of the movie is to find out who the killer is. … ‘Surprises’ last only a few seconds, but suspense can be sustained indefinitely. Hitchcock's favorite way of explaining this was to describe men playing a card game when suddenly a bomb in the room explodes. The audience is shocked for about five seconds. But show a bomb under the table with five minutes until detonation, and now the players' boring conversation about baseball becomes an urgent matter. Sequences in films like Dial M for Murder and Frenzy are compelling only because the audience knows who the killer is. Or, as Hitchcock puts it, 'The essential fact is, to get real suspense, you must let the audience have information' (Hitchcock 1973).”
The other components of my personal Sopranos evening were definitely unambiguous: my husband mixed up negronis, in honor Bobby’s remark last week about how he imagined the classy people riding the Blue Comet to Atlantic City sipping negronis, and I made the full, all-out version of Carmela’s Baked Ziti from the Sopranos Family Cookbook: fantastic! (And lots of leftovers!)
I miss this show already.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Work in Progress: When to Say Goodbye
I’m teaching a fiction workshop at Johns Hopkins University, and last week, at our first meeting, one of the students asked a difficult question: Are there books that simply can’t get published, and what should that mean to a beginning writer? When should we give up on a book (or a story)? The question stuck with me throughout the week because it’s so hard to answer definitively.
Of course, only the writer can make that difficult decision about when to give up on a project; I don’t think it’s a teacher’s place to specifically tell a student to move on (though some might disagree). So, how do you as the writer—beginning or experienced—know when to abandon something and take what you’ve learned and move forward with your knowledge, applying it to something new? Certainly it’s much easier to leave behind a 10-page story you’ve been working on for a month than a 300-page novel you’ve been working on for three years.
I’m a big believer in persistence and perseverance—and have my share of stories to support that: the short story that 25 journals rejected before it won $500 in a contest (and became the first chapter of Pears on a Willow Tree); the journal that had rejected my story then called up three months later to tell me they “loved” my story that they had just found in a drawer (this story was then cited in the back of the Best American Short Stories); the dozens of queries I sent out before finding an agent—not once, but twice. I wrote three novels that didn’t get published. And certainly I have plenty of short stories that I thought were perfectly fine—and some even more than fine—that didn’t ever get published that I had to choose to abandon.
But this perseverance also has to be balanced with moving forward. In all those instances, though I was still committed to the project in question, I had also moved forward in a variety of ways: I kept sending out the stories to other places, I had already started another novel while waiting to find an agent.
And that’s the key, I think, to finding the proper balance. People will offer various tidbits of advice, much of it valid:
--Don’t give up until you’ve lost interest and can’t stand your book anymore
--Don’t give up until you now see and understand why the piece is not successful
--Don’t’ give up until you’ve literally sent it everywhere you can, A to Z in the agent book
--Don’t give up until you’ve rewritten your book or story so many times you can’t see straight
But this is the piece of advice that makes the most sense to me, given my past experience: Write something new, and that will lead you to the point where you know it’s time to give up. More concisely, Don’t give up until you write something new.
I think that’s the thing that makes us know when we’re ready to move forward: when we’ve written more books or stories and in doing so, we’ve reached a new point from which to evaluate earlier work. We’re so engaged by a new project that we can dispassionately see the flaws in the old, but we don’t feel the energy or zeal or need to rewrite again; that’s when we can let go. (And letting go doesn’t mean you’ve “failed”—it just means you’re moving on.) Or, we’re so engaged by the new project that we can see that it’s simply time to let go of the old because we want to focus on the new—again, which isn’t failing. It doesn’t have to mean that the old was “bad”—something can be entirely successful on your terms and still not get published. Getting published should never be used as the total benchmark of what’s “successful.” Plenty of crap is published, plenty of great literature struggles. The Great Gatsby was out-of print when Fitzgerald died; same with Faulkner’s work at his death. Emily Dickinson wasn’t published during her lifetime; Walt Whitman self-published “Song of Myself.” We know the stories. (And who knows what great works have fallen through the cracks?). Publishing is about making money, not necessarily about making art.
In graduate school, I think there’s a temptation to view each piece as the “masterwork” and the thesis as the life’s mission. Many years after getting my MFA, I returned to my alma mater as a returning “visiting writer,” and I shocked a huge room of MFA students (and some profs) by announcing that my thesis was crap and that I was happy now it hadn’t been published.
Yes, MFA students should be proud of their thesis as they write it and must put hard work into it to make it as perfect as it can be. And going through an MFA program and finishing a thesis and getting a degree is a tremendous achievement. But if you’re a serious writer, this thesis most likely will not be the only thing you write. And—because you will continue to write and read and grow as a person and have new life experiences that shape you—it probably will not be the best thing you write. Have confidence that you will improve. Be persistent, but always keep your eye on whatever’s lurking around the next bend. Writing is a path without limits, without constraints. Your best work may be just ahead, the piece you start tomorrow. Or the one after that. Or after that.
That’s where your perseverance is most necessary: to keep writing in the face of rejection.
I was on a panel this spring with Carolyn Parkhurst, author of the best-selling and wonderful novels The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, which is about a TV reality show (and is just about to be released in paperback). She’s a very down-to-earth person, and very smart, and when this topic came up, it was not all that surprising that she quoted a Doritos commercial from several years ago: “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.”
That is, you won’t run out of ideas. You won’t run out of stories. The only thing you’ll run out of, eventually, is time. And the only way to address that is to squeeze a lot in: write a lot and write well and move forward. Trust yourself, trust that your work will only get better.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
In Which I Am Immortalized in Verse!
How about seeing the event memorialized in verse?
Here is the poem Linda Budzinski wrote about my talk. I find it charming and hilarious, and since I can’t count on anyone else writing a poem about me anytime soon, I thought it was important to celebrate the occasion. And, she really did capture a lot of my tips about dialogue…so perhaps this is not entirely self-indulgent!
Talk the Talk
’Twas the first Friday in the month of June and at the Leesburg Town Hall
There gathered a crowd, men and women, young and old, budding wordsmiths all.
From far and near, they came to hear the author of A Year and a Day
Share her tips for their manuscripts – what you should and should not say.
“I hope each of you is well tonight,” Leslie smiled as she began the meeting.
“In dialogue, you must get to the point. Do not waste words on greetings.
As you all know, ‘dialogue’ means two or more characters talking.
But please do not use it for exposition,” she continued squawking.
“I also suggest that it is best if you use contractions,” she lectured.
“Otherwise, you will find that your speech sounds stilted,” she conjectured.
“Pick everyday words your characters would use. Make sure you keep it real.
Supercilious verbiage simply functions to detract from the appeal.”
“Well, let me see, what else can I tell you?” she inquired on that same night.
“Um, well, I guess I would just say, keep your dialogue clean and tight.
And in regard to dialogue tags: Simplest is best,” Leslie chanted.
“The character’s words should express the emotion, not the tag,” she ranted.
Now you can see how much I learned from Leslie’s presentation.
My manuscripts will truly sparkle wherever there is conversation.
But perhaps the most useful tip Leslie gave me on that night,
Was “Read all your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds correct.”
About: Linda Budzinski has worked for eighteen years in non-profit communications and marketing. She is currently director of communications for an international trade association based in Sterling, Virginia. She serves as publicity chair for the Northern Virginia Writers and has successfully promoted that group and its activities throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
Linda is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania, with a degree in journalism and a minor in communications media. Check out her fabulous new literary blog!
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Read This Now!
If 200 Writers on a Mountain All Type at 200 Typewriters...
“The Writers’ Conferences & Centers (WC&C) website is designed to be a valuable resource for writers and students looking for information about attending a particular writing conference, center, festival, or retreat. WC&C represents the most established and respected writing conferences and centers in North America and abroad. Please feel free to use our Member Directory or Event Calendar to find helpful information regarding application deadlines and procedures, conference faculty, tuition, scholarships, complete program descriptions, and much more.”
If you plan ahead, next year you can apply for a $500 scholarship to be used at a member conference of your choice. The deadline is in the spring.
I’ve been to both Bread Loaf and Sewanee and would highly recommend either. I returned home exhausted, exhilarated, and ready to write…after I slept for about three days. I made friends and contacts. I encountered brilliant teachers who transformed my writing and taught me more in ten days than others taught me over a year, and listened to amazing readings that stilled a sweaty group of 200 people packed in stiff wooden chairs. Whatever you expect, the experience won’t quite be exactly like that, but I would bet real money that it will be memorable and worthwhile nonetheless. Where else can you explain to a bunch of sophisticated New York writers what a Rice Krispies treat is and why one showing up at the lunch table is a Very Good Thing?
Strut Your Stuff, Poets
Cornelia Street Café is looking for readers to take part in a series for Post-MFA / Pre-Book Poets. Three poets read for 15 minutes each. The poets then discuss the trials and tribulations of writing after the MFA and before finding a home for their manuscript.
The next reading is Wednesday, August 22nd, at 6:00pm.
To be considered to read, please email 6 pages of poetry to: ale_grace AT hotmail.com. No attachments: please put the poems in the body of the email and use “poetry” as the subject of your email.
The Cornelia Street Café is located at 29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY 10014.
Monday, June 4, 2007
A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing
But it turns out I’m right! “Happy Birthday” is indeed under copyright. Its official name is “Happy Birthday to You,” and its use brings in $2 million ANNUALLY. (Remind me again why I’m wasting my time with books.) The copyright will expire in 2030, which would make me how many years old then? Never mind. Check out the whole story here. Also check out the variations on lyrics here, with one version that rhymes “happy birthday to you” with “stick your head down the loo.” Apparently Spanish kids sing a version that translates to “your green celery.” What’s up with that?
WIW Conference Reminder
Date: Saturday, June 9, 2007
Time: 7:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Location: Cafritz Center at George Washington University
More info: Go here for more information and registration details (it’s not too late!).
I’ll be moderating a panel called Fiction Writing Tool Kit: 12+ Ideas to Use Tomorrow to Improve Your Writing, with novelists/short story writers Doreen Baingana, Amy Stolls, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.
Fourteen different sessions throughout the day cover everything from the practical aspects of writing to the creative process. Attendees will also have the opportunity to meet with agents (both fiction and non-fiction) and network. More info.