Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Laborious Art of Novel Writing

I am a horrifically impatient person.  I'm sure I always have been although I didn't acutely become aware of it until fairly recently.  And it's not just impatience about when the next disc of 30 Rock is going to show up in my mailbox or when the Huffington Post is going to update, (although those are trials in themselves) it's an impatience with myself when I realize I can't just magically jump from point A to point D without going past B and C first.  This is why I failed at karate, ballet, piano, French and most relationships.  I don't want to waste time with the baby steps. I just want to get to the part where I play Carnegie Hall in pointe shoes while smashing planks with my bare hands.

I realized this about myself last week, when I heard Lauren Groff speak about her new book Arcadia at The Green Toad.  It, as readings occasionally do, made me panic.  One, because Lauren is awesome and sweet and kind and a NYT Bestseller therefor, I am terrified she will find out that I am, by contrast, a blithering idiot. I feel the same way about Megan Abbott, to the point where I avoided her at a conference for three days even though she was asking other people about whether or not I was there.   God forbid I ever come within two states of Walton Goggins or Geena Davis; I would have no choice but to change my name and flee the country until they were safely gone.

Good thing I had Clive Owen and
Benicio Del Toro to Keep Me Company

When I interviewed her for the paper, Lauren said that the "natural life" of a novel is "about five years."  Five years.  I can't imagine writing something for five years.  I think about the person I was five years ago, the kind of work I was writing then and how much I've changed.  I was just starting what would be the series of stories known as Crimson City Blues, I was obsessed with Sin City, just starting to think about grad school and had never even heard of Walton Goggins.  Five years from now, I will be yet another different person, and if that's the case, I would never get the book finished possibly ever.

Lauren does a cool thing, because she is cool.  She writes a first draft by hand and throws it out.  Then she writes another draft and throws that one out.  Then she writes a third draft on the computer and the story begins to take it's current form.  How I wish I had that kind of patience!  I'm still in pop fiction grad school mode, where I write a novel in six months, spend another three polishing it and then spend another six months getting rejected by every agent and unsolicited manuscript accepting publishing house in NYC.  This has happened twice, each time with some astoundingly nasty rejection letters.

I've got a novel now that I'm working on.  It's a longer version of a short story I wrote that has yet to be picked up, about an ex-con who promises his brother that he'll look after his wife and her two kids when he's released on parole, but after he arrives, it's clear she doesn't want him there and the two of them have to find a way to work into each other's lives.  It's a sad, beautiful story about family and love and grace that Matthew admits just about made him weep.  When I'm done with a story, the characters sort of vanish, their stories told but I couldn't get these characters off my mind, so I started turning it into a novel.

And it keeps coming.  I wrote half a draft and realized that it was just a series of scenes and that would never work.  So I started again, and characters came and went, locations changed, POVs shifted.

Clearly, this was going to take more than six months.

And this terrifies me.

The failed dance/karate/piano lessons can be chalked up to youthful exuberance, but my 20's have been fraught with poverty.  If I hit my snooze button, I missed my bus to work.  If I didn't get to the reception early, the food was all gone when I got there.  I had deadlines to meet, multiple jobs to juggle.  Patience was for people whose lives didn't depend on bus schedules and free spinach triangles.  My life was carefully organized and stacked, and in the world I knew, taking time to write a book was a luxury afforded to beautiful people with grant money and tenure.  I wrote partially because I loved it and partially because I saw it as the only way I knew how to bust myself out of low-wage jobs and crippling poverty.  If I could sell a story to Glimmer Train, that would pay my rent and phone for a month.  A book deal would pay off my student loans.  Heck, even a $25 sale to an internet magazine could pay for two weeks of halfway-decent groceries.

So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  No one can ever say all I did was daydream.  I wrote "The Weather Girl" in 3 days, "The PI's Wife" in a hour,  "Purgatory Blues" and "Pussy" in 30 minutes each.  And not first drafts either--finished, final drafts ready for submission.  I put my impatience to work.

Then Crimson City Blues didn't land me an agent.  Neither did Six Bullets, which I worked on for a year and a half, part of that time with a high profile agent who, after six months of rewrites, suddenly rejected it and told me I didn't know how to write a novel.  I got rejection after rejection from Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Electric Literature.

But what I did get was a good job that I love, and now I have the arduous task of retraining my brain to enjoy the process and the labor of the story.  From "The Carpoool" to "Goodnight Lily" Crimson City Blues took about four years.  But I loved every minute of it, from the first scribbling of "Hero Cop" on a scrap of paper at the Brooklyn Library to drawing city maps on the placemats at the Spot with Dwight to adding the "take the rape"* sequence in "Until Proven Guilty" to getting that first acceptance letter from Hardboiled for "Big Night Out."

I don't think I'll ever spend eight years on a book, as Mike keeps reminding me his mentor did.  But what I will do is pace myself to enjoy the process, as laborious and difficult as it can be.  Because I look back on Crimson City Blues and think "That was the happiest I ever was when I was writing."  I want to be a happy writer.  If I'm going to spend hours at my desk, I want them to be happy ones.

*A romance writer I went to grad school with actually said this phrase to me in workshop.  She looked me in the eye--someone she didn't know, quite possibly one of the 213,000 women who are sexually assaulted each year--and said, "I really feel like Lily should just take the rape."  I was so appalled that I reacted the only way I knew how--working it into the story as a line of advice from another prisoner.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's the Deal with Lexus Ads?

I've been home sick for three days now, which is a drag because I hate being sick and still live in the minimum-wage fear of being fired despite the fact that I have a great job where I am treated well and valued as an employee.

This is a new thing for me, and it occasionally manifests itself in utter terror and confusion.  "Wait, I can be home sick and not lose my job?  You mean the interim chair of the English department at SUNY Cobleskill won't intimidate my students by telling them I'm a bad teacher* and then try to take away my unemployment benefits when they fire me just shy of the point in my employment where they would be forced to hire me on a permanent basis, thus having to pay me a living wage?  What magical land of employment is this?"

Kenny Johnson: Does he or does
he not look like Vash the Stampede?
So in being unable to get off the couch due to  weakness brought on by being able to stomach little more than saltines and ginger ale, I've fallen back in love with Hulu (that, and watching my cats wrestle).  Ian and I have arranged our Netflix queue so that we always have something we both want to watch (we like sharing), so since I was home all alone, I could finally catch up on trash TV, like Law and Order: SVU (which was awful before Stabler left and is worse now) and Commander in Chief (which isn't great, but Geena Davis is beautiful and my hero and I would elect her President without second thought).  Hell, I could have watched Trigun if I wanted to, but Trigun always depresses me a bit, because it should be good and it just isn't.

Here's the thing about Hulu.  There are ads.  This is fine, I always mute advertising, but I noticed that they're usually ads for expensive things, like $200 phones or a Lexus.  I am watching free TV on an 8-year old laptop . . . are free TV watchers really the kind of people you. people at Lexus, think will buy a car that costs more to lease than they make in an entire year?   They can't even afford cable!  It just seems like taunting to me.

*I have had exactly one student in six years say I was a bad teacher.  Probably because he failed the class.  Also, I have a chili pepper next to my name on, which means I'm H-O-T.  This means more to me than a stack of good reports, because I am vain.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Canned Laser Debuts Podcast!

Canned Laser, manned by my very funny and very smart film-buff friends Eeon and Pete, launches it's first podcast on Robocop.  Listen to it.  It's awesome.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Proper Use of "Forthcoming"

Remember how I mentioned that I had a story "forthcoming."  Well, here it is.  It has come forth.

Now, about my "forthcoming" marriage to Walton Goggins . . . .

Kenny Johnson can be the "forthcoming" Best Man

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dispatch from the Dollar Bin: The Long Blondes "Someone to Drive You Home"

In transferring my CD collection to my iPod, I've been coming across a lot of albums I'd forgotten about, many of them impulse dollar-bin purchases from Last Vestige Records.  I'm paring down a lot, so I'm giving a these albums a second listen to see if they stay in the collection or eventually put them in a box and offer to trade them with my friends, hopefully for something cooler.  This is one of them:

I bought The Long Blondes Someone to Drive You Home for $3 sometime shortly after Dwight and I split up.  I was in the dead center of my neo-noir phase, coming out of my music journalism phase, newly relocated to Oneonta and just about to enter grad school.  This album's purchase, more than it's actual music, reflect this perhaps more than any other acquired at the time.

Yeah, I'm Awesome
I should like this album.  It's got tons of noir and 60's babe references (Shout outs to Edie Sedgwick and Arlene Dahl, in "Lust in the Movies," as well as the opening line "Give me a good film noir and a bottle of gin" from "Swallow Tattoo) and "Giddy Stratospheres" might as well have been written about the situation that inspired me to buy the album in the first place.  It's got a certain old-skool ska feel to it, which is kind of cool, and the album cover is a painting of Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde.  As a girl who uses a photo of herself wearing a Tom Waits cabbie cap in a dive bar in Binghamton  as one of her writer headshots, this should be my absolute favorite album after The Heart of Saturday Night.

But that's just it.  It's too self aware.  Awesome, Long Blondes, you own records and watch black and white movies and drink gin.  Yes, I did all those things in the year I bought this album (Dwight and I used to drink gimlets like in The Long Goodbye, which makes us clearly cooler than The Long Blondes) but seriously, give it up.  Yes, you're cool and the girls you're writing songs about don't deserve the boys you're pining for because they don't get your kitchy 60's references that everyone gets because Edie Sedgewick isn't exactly Jean Moorhead.  But that doesn't mean you have to write a whole album about it.  The Long Blondes have the nostalgia, but they lack the clever wordplay that someone like, say, Warren Zevon or Morrissey has.  The words are all crammed in, like they just set a diary entry to a fairly generic (but catchy!) guitar riff.  Kate Johnson's voice is great, but it's also generic of every hipster girl who thinks she's amazingly artistic and deep.  I know, because I sing just like her, and I am writing in a blog partially named after a Duran Duran song while wearing a hoodie festooned with a vintage Morrissey tee-shirt a stalker gave me and a free patch I got at Forbidden Plant when he was promoting Ringleader of the Tormentors that, incidentally, is also the same hoodie I'm wearing in my uber-cool hipster photo up there.

Keep or Giveaway: Giveaway
Song to Save: "Swallow Tattoo." 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

All fiction writers lie.  It’s part of the job.  Most of us have never swung a mighty broadsword, yet we wield the words describing the blade’s silver arc as though we have.  Getting to live a life or be someone you're not is one of the most enjoyable parts of the craft.

Lying about publication, however, is a different story.

Pictured: Publication
It’s a disturbing trend I’ve noticed recently, especially among writers just coming out of writing programs.  These programs are notoriously competitive, so publishing is a way for students to separate themselves from the rest and secure mentors who want to work with them instead of the other way around.  It’s a good way to network, and it also sets you up to take the flaming dog poopie of rejection, as well as the bags of candy of acceptance when you're away from the teat of your mentor.

However, lying about your credits won't get you anywhere.

For instance, a woman I knew told everyone that she’d just sold her romance novel to a “major publisher” and “was asked by her agent” not to disclose her advance (not that anyone was asking; that’s rude).  A little research revealed that her “major publisher” was an e-book vanity press and her “agent” was, in all likelihood, a webpage she put her up herself.  When word got out, it damaged her reputation among other writers in her field, but it didn’t stop her from lying again about another manuscript with another major press that, you guessed it, turned out to be less than she’d bragged about.  She was a joke, and everyone knew it.

It’s worse when professional writers do this.  Let’s call this one writer Dominick.  Dominick had a moderately successful collection in the mid 2000’s.  He hasn’t published much since.  Yet he continues to tell people that he has a novel coming out “next fall.”  It’s been “next fall” for four years, with no novel in sight.  

And here's a fun tip--if you've never been to prison, don't base your entire platform on the story that you have.  There's this thing called "the internet," maybe you've heard of it, and you don't have to be a P.I. to run a criminal background check.  All you need is about five bucks and a few minutes.  Things like child abuse and drug addictions are a little harder to prove wrong, but your lie will eventually unravel and then Oprah will yell at you.  And no one wants that.

The absolute worst lie is the “forthcoming” novel when there’s no agent, no publisher and no release date.  All of us have a “forthcoming” novel, on our laptops, in notebooks or in our heads—but most of us don’t utter a peep about it until we’ve got a contract in our hands and a galley copy to show our friends.    

Here's how to use "forthcoming" properly: My story "Purgatory Blues" is forthcoming in The Citron Review. It should be up sometime next week.  It's real.  It's happening.  It's forthcoming.

Save the fiction for your book.  If you’ve accomplished something, whether it’s a 3-book deal or flash fiction in an e-zine, share it for what it is.  Be proud of what you accomplish no matter how small it may seem.  Writing isn’t easy, and publishing is even harder—but lying just makes you look like a jerk.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I am very, very mad at my home state.

For those of you who know me or have read my wikipedia entry know that I am originally from Oklahoma City. This is a point of pride for me, not only because I'm listed as a Famous Person From Oklahoma (along with Chuck Norris, Jim Thompson and James Marsden, who was in Sex Drive, which is a very funny movie by my absolute favorite screenwriters, Sean Anders and John Morris, who wrote one of my favorite movies, Never Been Thawed) but because it meant that I wasn't from Cobleskill, where my parents raised me and my four sisters (my older sister, Shaun, is also Oklahoma-born, but the other three are strictly Cobleskill).

Liz Lemon approves these movie references
Let me put Cobleskill in proper geek context: you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  It's nothing but lobos and zipheads and they ought to tear the whole place down.  If my friend Jay ever moves, the town will have not one single redeeming quality.  It is a poverty-stricken hellhole filled with people who don't have enough money or sense to move someplace nicer, like Detroit or Compton.  I go back only when absolutely required, and my niece's first birthday wasn't enough motivation for me to cross the town line.  I survived on two mantras--I'm not from here, and I'm going to leave.

It's funny, people like my ex-boyfriend used to make fun of me for being from Oklahoma, like it automatically made me white trash. And when I say Oklahoma, again, I mean Oklahoma City.  I saw my first Shakespeare performance in Oklahoma City.  They have an art museum with a permanent installation by Dale Chihuly.  They have a symphony, an opera and a botanical garden.

Cobleskill, by contrast, has some graffiti on the train tracks, a couple of park bushes littered with beer cans and the high school production of "Anything Goes!" as culture.

Cobleskill, however, is in New York, which gives it one current advantage over Oklahoma.

New York didn't vote for Rick Santorum in the primaries.

I am deeply, deeply ashamed, Oklahoma. I've spent years defending you, trying to be a good ambassador of literature and culture, and this is how you return the favor?  Mitt Romney may be a rich dope, but I'm pretty sure that if Jesus Christ returned to Earth today, Rick Santorum would personally call for him to be crucified as a threat to our great Christian nation.

I know I shouldn't be surprised, nor should I care.  Oklahoma traditionally votes Republican and tends to hover on the conservative side of issues.  In the broad scope, I am not defined by soil, whether it be where I was born, where I was raised, or where I tread now.

But everyone longs for a place to call home, to be able to claim some land by which to help define their identity.  And if I am a pro-choice, pro-health-care, Obama-voting, anti-fracking, Jewish-raised, Doc Marten stomping, OWS supporting, Betsey-Johnson spike-heel bootie wearing, MFA-toting, liberal, feminist geek writer, how on earth am I supposed to say, "I'm proud to be from Oklahoma."