Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sometimes They Just Want "Jingle Bells"

"I wish I could figure out what I'm doing wrong! What do they want?" My friend, who takes business writing assignments from an online clearinghouse, had just been venting over a couple clients who (though they'd accepted and paid her) had rated her product as "poor" or merely "average." My friend, a well-published writer, as well as a former magazine editor, was understandably beside herself. She has never accepted anything less than excellence from herself--and, in fact, the website had given these same assignments their highest rating.

I tried to reassure her. It's always easier to see no problem when it isn't your own writing that seems to be under attack. "I don't think you're doing anything wrong," I told her. "They're your customers, and they have the prerogative of being unreasonable."

I pointed out she was working from a very short posting that offered only the barest of instructions, and she'd had no opportunity to ask questions for clarification. I also suggested her clients had possibly given scant attention to their evaluations. Some of what I was saying may have helped a bit, but as we left the restaurant after our weekly writing critique, my friend still seemed woebegone and frustrated.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but another obstacle she's up against is that her clients aren't "word people." They aren't other writers, editors, or agents. They are all simply "writing consumers," from other industries. Their ideas of what constitutes good writing may differ wildly from reality.

Nonetheless, the more I mulled this over as I drove home, the more I saw parallels with conventional writing submissions. Sometimes I don't even recognize my own submission, from comments I've gotten back from editors or agents, and I wonder what on earth they were actually reading.

It reminded me of Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. She is listening to Schroeder play the piano, and she asks him to play "Jingle Bells." Schroeder offers a beautiful rendition, and Lucy snaps, "That's not 'Jingle Bells.' Play 'Jingle Bells!'"

Schroeder plays another version, equally lovely, and then another. Lucy meanwhile gets more and more perturbed. "Play 'Jingle Bells!'" she orders.

Finally, Schroeder hunches over the keyboard and pecks out the melody with two fingers...plink, plink, plink. Lucy's face melts into a dreamy smile. "That's it--that's 'Jingle Bells.'"

Sometimes, it occurs to me, it doesn't matter that our writing is graceful, punchy, or gripping. If it doesn't meet whatever that editor's, agent's, or reader's expectations are, we're not going to get a contract--or even keep them with us past the first paragraph. It doesn't mean our writing is no good--it's just that sometimes, they just want "Jingle Bells."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Buckle Your Seatbelts

I collect vintage children’s series books—like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I may have started there, anyway. But eventually, I moved on from Nancy, Frank and Joe, Trixie Belden and Judy Bolton. Back to the thirties, the twenties, and a hundred years back to 1914. Back to Ruth Fielding, the Motor Maids, and the Flying Machine Boys. The Outdoor Girls and the Moving Picture Chums.

It’s not exactly a popular hobby in the 21st century.

I’d always been a bit reluctant to pick up the genuinely old series—afraid, I guess, they’d be as musty to read as they are to smell. What exactly did I expect? Stilted language, I suppose. Outdated gender roles and ethnic stereotyping. Heavy-handed moralizing.

Finally, other collectors recommended a few very old series, and I decided to give them a try. What I found was surprising. Certainly, an old-fashioned writing style. Some occasional stereotyping. Definite moral values, though not as preachy as I’d anticipated. But, far and beyond these expected qualities, I discovered a startling vitality on those yellowing pages—youthfulness as fresh today as when they were first written. There was real humor here, and heart-thumping action and suspense.

What I found, time and again, were stories that took off running from the very first page. The discovery of an old, hand-drawn map, stuck beneath the cover of an antique book. A sinister stranger, eavesdropping in a café. A sudden storm. Kidnapers. The dam breaks. An eerie figure looms in the mist.

Something happens right away—something startling, exciting, gripping. But the problems for our hero—or heroine—aren’t easily resolved. They get worse, as obstacles and dangers pile up with barely a moment to breathe, apart from a bit of comic relief.

At times, the sheer quantity of incredible disasters that befall these characters is mind-boggling. The Moving Picture Girls, for instance, tend to move from one crisis to the next with barely a breather. A violent storm comes up. Their ship begins to sink. One of the actors is washed overboard. They are rescued and resume their trip by train. The train is robbed. Someone is taken captive. A rival company sends a spy to steal the company’s film. They arrive at their destination and begin filming. Indians unhappy with the location of the filming threaten the company. A horse runs off with one of our characters. She is rescued, but a “controlled” blaze, set for purposes of the film, goes out of control, trapping our actors in the middle of a prairie fire. This may be a bit of an exaggeration—but not by much. And always our intrepid cameraman manages to keep on filming, so later the resulting footage can be used to create a popular and prize-winning movie.

Corny? Yes, some of these scenes are hysterically, though undoubtedly unintentionally, funny. But often, the characters also display genuine laugh-out-loud wit. I’ve been surprised by how well the humor translates for a modern reader.

It’s easy for me to see why young readers from decades long past gobbled these stories up. Many of the books I find have been read nearly to death. It makes me smile to think about some kid reading in bed when he’s supposed to be getting a good night’s sleep before school the next morning.

How many kids still do this? I’m afraid not as many as there used to be, before TV, the internet, and cell phones. But an action-packed story—whether for kids or adults—still has that ability to grab readers by the collar and drag them along on a wild ride. Consider Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket—both, not coincidentally, having been translated into successful movies.

I tend to forget how important a compelling plot is—one in which things actually happen (and keep happening).  But unrelenting action and unanswered questions can energize a story like nothing else. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took inspiration from the old-time movie serials with their cliffhanger endings, in creating blockbuster movie franchises.

I love to develop characters and setting. But my musty old books connect me with the real power of story.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Standing in the River

Once in awhile, you can miss something—or someone—for so long you almost forget, until one day you walk right into a reminder.

I’d forgotten how great it was to have book stores to hang out in. Pittsburgh isn’t a big city, but even in my little orbit, I had more than one “favorite”—Pinocchio in Shadyside and Tall Tales in Mount Lebanon, for children’s books; Mystery Lovers in Oakmont, for the obvious; and Borders in the South Hills, for its wonderful and knowledgeable staff, as well as a big selection and welcoming atmosphere. Sure, Borders was a chain store, but its staff knew and was passionate about books.

One by one, they folded, until only Mystery Lovers, under new ownership, survived. Yes, we do still have others, including a couple chains, a few used book shops, and college book stores. But it’s not the same. 

A recent long weekend took us to Manhattan for a family birthday, but it was book stores I was hungry for. There are so many to choose from, but our schedule only allowed time for two: The Strand and Argosy. Very different experiences, but in both cases, the moment as I walked through the door, explosions of quiet happiness were going off in my head.

Both are legacy book stores, still in business after generations. The Strand opened in 1927 on New York’s legendary Book Row, which makes it 86 years old in 2013, and still in the original family. Auspiciously named after London’s famous publisher’s row, the Strand was once just one of 48 bookstores on Book Row—I wish I could’ve been there! According to The Strand’s website, Book Row started in the 1890’s and once ran from Union Square to Astor Place, though today, the Strand is all that remains. 

Famed for its “18 miles of books,” The Strand sprawls over three floors, with a rare book room at the top, millions of new and used books and literary-themed items from the bottom up, and dollar carts outside. When you step inside, much of the joy comes from feeling how alive it is—the bustle of book-loving people all around you, the shelves and tables crowded with books and other delicious items.

Argosy is even older, dating back 88 years to 1925, and is also still family owned. It’s smaller, and cozier, and feels preserved in time. The first thing that struck me as I crossed the threshold—after tearing myself away from the dollar used books outside, with two in hand—was the aroma. Argosy smells wonderful. It smells of old paper and real leather bindings. 

The lighting is more muted than at The Strand, and it gleams back softly from old wood paneling and a pressed-tin ceiling. In the center aisle, library tables with green-glass-shaded lamps invite you to sit and read. I spent a long time here, and climbed the ladders in the basement, where everything was fifty percent off, to make sure I didn’t miss a treasure.

Argosy's main room (Argosy website)
Between The Strand and Argosy, I filled two heavy bags with books. But the best part of my day was just being there—surrounded for a few hours by books and book people. As a writer, being there in that world of books again—of words and ideas—connected me to what Madeleine L’Engle referred to as “the river.” It reminded me, in a way I hadn’t felt for a while, that I needed to be writing. 

I need to keep adding my small trickle of words to the river, in the same way the smallest creek along the way feeds the great Mississippi. It occurs to me I might also be feeding the “Amazon.” But as much as I love buying books online, it will never provide that sense of community I feel in a real bookstore.  It’s a unique community that includes toddlers and mommies sitting at the tiny tables with their colorful picture books, as well as the long-dead—but still-living—giants of the written word, like Dostoevsky and Dickens. For a little while, it was good to stand knee deep in the river again—a reader and a writer—and let it rush over me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Washed Up on the Far Shore of Nanowrimo

Around 1 AM November 27th, I won my fourth Nanowrimo--National Novel Writing Month. Midnight November 1st found me with a jumble of sketchy notes, a pot of tea, and a bag of emergency snacks. With Boris Karloff's eyes smoldering out of the TV screen as The Mummy on the late-night Halloween movie, and the sound on low, I began typing.

It was my hardest Nano yet. I had a title--BAD MOON, a vague idea, and a few cardboard cutout characters. That was it. For the next 26 days, my family individually and collectively created more drama than any competing telenovela, and my previously well-behaved dogs and cats started leaving surprises around the house. An annual writing conference came around and I was away from home overnight and most of two days, but Nano doesn't wait--1,667 words a day do not write themselves.

But this year, my goal had to be something closer to 2,000 words a day. Due to the only convergence--in all of human history--of Thanksgiving, the first day of Chanukah, and the 80th birthday of my husband's cousin, I had to be D-O-N-E by dawn on the 27th. We were leaving for a long family weekend celebration in New York City, and I didn't want to schlepp a heavy, old-school laptop.

Somehow, I made it. For the first time ever, I discovered that it is possible to write in my sleep. Literally. On two separate occasions, I dozed off while writing, and startled awake a few moments later, only to discover I had completed one or more actual sentences. Neither of them bore any connection to the story at that point, though, which I found interesting. Since it was Nano, and every word counts, of course I left them in anyway.

At 8 PM November 26th, I was only partially packed. In fact, I still had laundry to do before I could finish packing. I had not written all day, and I still had 4,000 words between me and victory. It looked very much as though I was going to be trying to find space in that bag for a very heavy computer.

I had never written more than two or three thousand words in a day. Many of my 1,667-word days had been excruciating. But I decided I was just going to do it. And so I sat down and wrote. My characters went nuts. They had rambling conversations and I tagged all their dialog. Every verb got its very own adverb. Florid descriptions flew from my fingertips. It was the fastest and easiest 4,000 words of my life. Bam!

And so...I hit my 50,000 words with four days to spare, even though the book isn't finished, and it certainly isn't great. But the amazing thing--which I have experienced every Nano--is that there are so many good things in there, all the same. What I have is the bones of a pretty good story, and one that I would never otherwise have written.

Now, after a long weekend in New York, I'm looking ahead to the New Year, and ten months that are not Nanowrimo. I have four Nano novels that all need work, and a few more written conventionally. What I've been lacking in the past is dedicated follow-through. So for 2014, my goal is to revise a book a month--and start getting them out there.

Writing is important, and God bless Nano--every year it reminds me of that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Have Fun!

Every day, I drive into Bridgeville for one reason or another, and I pass a series of bus shelters. These have endlessly annoyed me, because (A) the buses no longer run this far out, and the shelters are a kind of cruel joke on the unwary; and (B) they were erected by an advertising company, and NOT to serve bus patrons (they were always on the wrong side of the road).

But lately, I've gotten a little lift each time I pass a certain shelter. The inside poster, stuck there by the advertising company, is slipping down due to inattention. But the outside poster (also a bit wrinkly and a tad askew) is just a sheet of white butcher paper, which some kindhearted vandal has tagged with a permanent marker. "Follow Your Dreams!" it says in purple ink, surrounded by red asterisks & swirlys.

"Don't Give Up!" it says. And, at the bottom, almost as an afterthought: "Have fun!"

Well, I can always use these particular reminders and affirmations. (Actually, I can't imagine many people who couldn't...and can think of several who should probably consider taking them several times a day in capsule form.) Whoever put them there for me, Thank you! (Oh! And have fun!)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Adventures in Queryland

Querying has never been easy—at least, not for me, or for anyone else I know. You spend six months or a year—or in some sad cases, ten—and now you have a novel. You write it, you revise it, you polish it, you agonize over it. It’s the very best work you are capable of producing—at least, at this point in your life. If you’re lucky, it sings. But now can you just send your baby off into the publishing world, hoping its song will cast a spell over some lucky agent or editor?

In a word, No. With rare exceptions, nobody today will so much as cast a hairy eyeball in the direction of an unsolicited manuscript. These keepers of the gates seem indifferent at best, and at worst, hostile. (Think of the old Snoopy cartoon where his novel is returned along with a dire warning to the effect that any future submissions will force them to come throw rocks at his dog house.)

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to publish this book. I’m afraid, though. What if rogue gangs, comprised of Atheneum, Knopf, and Harper Collins editors, were to shanghai a Megabus and drive by my house, just to hurl rocks at the windows?

Or what if they just don’t like it? What if they don’t like me? Will I get the “this does not meet our needs at this time” brush-off? Will they say something snarky and cruel? Or will they just ignore me till the aluminum siding on my house expires, and I actually wish somebody would throw rocks at it, so I could report it to my insurance company?

The only way ever to publish anything is to swallow down the fear and ask. At least, these days many agencies and publishing houses will accept queries by email. In the old days of snail mail and SASEs, you could go broke on postage and literally wait a year to hear something from the overwhelmed recipient, because of course nobody wanted simultaneous submissions, either.

It’s hard to write a novel—full of pungent dialog, throat-clenching action, exquisite characterization, and snort-milk-out-your-nose humor—and then try to distill that into a one-page query. Whine all you like about the unfairness, but nobody cares. In fact, many will tell you they only need to read a couple lines to know if they’re interested in more.

Commenters on the Query Tracker website sometimes make a game of “how fast can the agent reject me.” I thought overnight turnarounds were insulting, before I read others who’d gotten the boot after only minutes. One writer, laughing through the tears, asked if one minute was a record!

The good news here is that I’ve also gotten requests for a partial or full manuscript submission after just three hours or overnight. I’ve learned you just have to keep enough queries out there that no solitary rejection will ever seem like the end of the road.

As I’ve gone through the query process lately, with both FLOATING and a much older manuscript I recently pulled from the drawer and revised, I’ve found a few helpful blogs and websites, as well as an entire community of my fellow suffering souls. I’ve learned (at least a bit) not to take rejection so personally. I’ve taken a moment to consider the fact that we have an economy on life support here, and more specifically, the thermonuclear fireball that’s gone through our industry with the crash of Borders, leaving their creditors (the publishers I and my peers are trying to woo) millions of dollars in the hole.

I’ve learned to continue to tweak and rewrite as I go, trying to make a better, stronger query—and novel. I’ve learned to personalize my queries. I try not to put all my eggs in one basket. I have five novels in various stages of construction and I no longer send queries out one at a time. I’ve discovered writing itself is my joy and purpose, and that desperation is pointless.

Writing is what I do; it’s who I am. Whether or not someone ever buys it, my job is to write it, and to write with all I’ve got. Some theologians think the Red Sea didn’t part until the Israelites set foot in the water. So I’m starting to wade.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Longer Floating

I started this blog awhile back, bemoaning the novel that would not die--and yet, perversely refused to live. Floating Against the Current took years to write, and then years to revise. Still, a satisfactory ending hovered just out of reach.

Unspeakably grateful now it's finished. The result isn't spectacularly, "angels-singing" thrilling. But done. I realize after all these years that I've just been living in this novel for way too long (which might could explain, as my friend from NC would say, why the thrill is gone).

How did this miracle come to pass? How did I come to finish the heretofore unfinishable?

Thanks to Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way, for getting me into morning pages, which got me writing every day.

Thanks to Flylady, for teaching me the power of those 15-minute chinks of time I'd been devoting to snacks and cruising the Internet. Redirecting as little as one of those, on a daily basis, moved Floating forward once again.

Thanks to my writing buddy, Sue Swan, for keeping me on task.

Thanks to the Lord for reminding me that my past is not necessarily my future: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Phil. 3:13

Undoubtedly more revisions yet to come--that's the nature of noveling! But the feeling of free flight, having reached this stage, is exhilarating. Finishing Floating gave me November clear for Nanowrimo, and the joyous prospect of getting back to my novel in progress, Stones in My Passway.

As I have always told my kids, we can do hard things!