Tag Archives: fiction

Finding Your People

Friends, indeed.

Now what?

This thought crossed my mind the other day, and it stopped me dead in my tracks with it’s simplicity. It’s a good question – I set out with a goal of finishing a novel, and did it.  Great.  Then I set out with the goal of getting it published, and, well, um…

What I’ve discovered is, I’m not sure getting published is really the only goal, or if it’s healthy to even think like that.  Maybe getting published is partially the result of writing great stories, and so great stories should be my goal instead.  But even if I do get published some day, it’s more than likely to take years, and I certainly have to be more like a turtle than a hare to win that race.

So, it’s a long road ahead of me.  Fine, okay, I need something to dread to get out of bed in the morning anyway. But then I heard another question, because peace of mind isn’t for me:

How am I going to keep this up?

To that, I didn’t have an answer.  I didn’t, and don’t, know if I can keep it up, and there ain’t no guarantees anything will ever come of it anyway.  With that thought, it was easy to fall into a funk. Which is exactly what I did.

So off to the coffee shop I went.

And whether you believe in fate or God or serendipity or even if you believe in nothing, the funniest thing happened.  I randomly met another writer there, and we ended up talking. I expected to hear how great his life was – he’s got an agent, he’s got a book deal, his first novel is coming out soon. But what I heard instead was something familiar: fear, angst, worry.  What if his book doesn’t sell?  What if his book DOES sell?  Then what?

I related to him how I was feeling, stuck, not sure where to go.  He nodded and told me the story of a writer friend who, having run out of money, was forced to move into the basement of his parent’s house.  Six months later, he ended up with a book deal.  He referred to those moments, those dark hours, as “the belly of the whale,” that all writers (and I would say, all people) go through at one point or another.

A couple hours after this conversation, I couldn’t believe how much better I still felt, even though my situation hadn’t changed. And then I was reading John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist, and came across the following:

“[The writer] recognizes that the success he hopes for will take work.  What a writer in this gloomy situation needs is a community that values what he values, that believes it is better to be a good writer than a politician or scientist … what keeps the young writer with the potential for success from turning to some more generally approved or easier path is his writing community.”

And I thought, that’s it. That’s what keeps you in it – surrounding yourself with people going through the same thing you are, whether it’s the pursuit of painting, acting, running, an MBA, whatever.  So you don’t give in, don’t give up.  Because you are going to need their help to make it to the end of that marathon.

John Gardner had one more thing to say about all this, and I would say applicable to all of us: “The truth is, the writing community saves the writer.  It is partly made up of fools, young innocents…and party made up of maniacs.”

Ain’t that the truth.

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Living Your Life As It’s Meant To Be

Ah, rejection week!  What a sweet thrill. Makes you question, makes you doubt, and if you let it, makes you despair.  It’s easy to think – well this person who has more power than I knows something I don’t – that my writing is shit, that I have no business even trying what I’m trying.

More on this in a second.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by the passing of Steve Jobs last week.  I’ve never been the tech nerd. I’m not an engineer.  I don’t look good in black.

But what got to me about Steve Jobs, beyond the awfulness of cancer, beyond the great products, beyond how his success shone a light on the mediocrity of others, was the perspective he had for living life.  From my outside point of view, this 2005 commencement speech was where it began. His most famous quote from that speech:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

I remember the first time I heard this.  Now, the cynic in me thought, you’re just telling us what we want to hear.  But after that thought faded, I thought again, someone else’s life?  But whose life would I be living but my own?

It was such an important question that it really pissed me off.  I didn’t have a good answer, because I never thought to ask it.  I’ve been living my life as I was supposed to be – working hard, earning money, spending money, time with friends, etc.  So, whose life?  With no answer coming to mind, I let the question fester for the next five years, poking it’s head up every once and awhile.

Whose life are you living?

What that question allowed to happen – and I only recognize this by looking back – was the little seeds of ideas that come at you all the time, seeds I normally would have brushed away without a thought, I instead let them grow, gave them some energy, to see if they would prosper a little.  A lot of them withered on the vine, but a few stuck around.

And when I had an idea for the first novel, instead of brushing it aside in favor of the latest crisis, I started to think about it.  I thought about what authors I already liked, and wished I could be like.  When I had time, I researched these authors, and how they accomplished what they did.  I re-read some of their books, not just to enjoy them, but to study them.  And then, one day, I sat down and committed to writing one sentence.  Not a book, just a single sentence.

Six months later, I was at 80,000 words.

It certainly hasn’t been easy, forging a path that is different from what you thought or what you’ve been taught.  I’ve had a lot of support, and also a lot of but you can’t do that.  But what I realized, as I still wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life, is to try and remember the seeds I let in, and continue to nurture them rather than strangle them (I’m tempted).

So back to the idea of rejection.  Here’s what I’ve learned from Steve Jobs: the idea of rejection, it’s not rejection, not really.  It’s just means it’s not the right fit.  Somebody may not understand you, somebody may not be ready for you, or somebody may simply have another point of view that doesn’t jive with your own.  But if it makes sense to YOU, then don’t let the inevitable obstacles stop you from living your life as it’s meant to be.  Don’t lose your vision simply because you get a no.  Because eventually, and the statistics favor this, you’re gonna get a yes.

And if you don’t know your destination yet, maybe that’s your first step: letting the seeds in, nurturing them, and trying to figure out where it is you want your life to be.

PS. Thanks to Lisa for the the inspiration for this post.

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It’s Never Easy

Don't look down.

If I could have seen this far, maybe I never would have come.

This thought crossed my mind the other day as I sweated over submissions for a bunch of literary journals, including Glimmer TrainThe New GuardMcSweeney’s, among others.

It’s been six months now, and a hard road to get here. Things I didn’t anticipate, everywhere.  Finishing the book was harder than I thought.  Meeting agents was harder than I thought.  Editing was harder than I thought.

But what I’ve come to realize is, the hardest parts aren’t the doing. The hardest parts are the stuff on the inside: learning to trust my instincts.  Learning who to listen to.  Learning to stick to my vision of what I want for my life, even when I am standing alone wondering if I am doing anything worthwhile at all.  Learning to believe in myself.

I think these all might be true no matter what new endeavor you are pursuing.

At one point I remember thinking, once I did finish the first book, now I can work on getting it published.  Easy, right?  The naive part of me didn’t even know…and as it turns out, that’s like saying you want to get in shape, and then going to the gym for a month.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, because getting in shape is a lifelong commitment, not an endpoint.  And so is writing – both the act of writing and the act of selling – slow, hard work that’s never really done.  Maybe the tortoise and hare story does have some merit after all.

So, if it’s so hard then, why do it?  Why submit ourselves to such difficult paths?  There’s gotta be easier ways to spend our days, right?

Because you never know what’s going to happen, unless you don’t try, and then you do (answer: nothing at all).  Because our vision for what we want in our lives is bigger than the pain, the setbacks, the struggle. Because sometimes, it takes a lifetime to figure out a purpose for your life, and once you figure it out, you can’t let it go.

And because I look back on the past six months as some of the most invigorating of my life.

So it goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy.  This may seem obvious, though from the middle of it, as I am now, it just seems ridiculous.  Still, I’m sticking with it. I don’t know what the next six months will hold, but if it’s anything like the last six months, there will be moments that will surprise.  And it’s the anticipation of those moments that invigorates: the UNpredictable, the UNplanned, a new idea, a positive response or a chance encounter or a string of good luck following a string of bad.

And as I put my head back down to keep working, the other thought that crosses my mind is:

Maybe it is, in fact, better not to know.

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Your Golden Age…Is Now

Then...or now?

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how the grass isn’t always greener.  You know, the whole, “if I just had X, then I’d be happy.”  I still suffer this a fool like so many others, even though I am aware of it, even though I write about it.

I think of all my wishes, the ones I think about before I fall asleep and after I wake up, the things that I would like to do or like to have or like to be.

And then I saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  Without giving anything away, it’s about Gil, an aspiring writer visiting modern day Paris, wishing he lived in the Parisian golden age of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc., instead.

For Gil, today is full of consumerism, second rate work, everything for a buck and nothing for the love.  Through the course of the film, he comes to understand the universal human trait of wishing it were different – how everyone thinks another time was a golden age, even those who lived in The Golden Age, and how at the end of the day, since you can only live in the time you are born, you must be happy in your present.

It got me to thinking, all of us, we walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders, and we don’t know how to put it down.  But we are also in an amazing age of innovation, of creativity, unparalleled ever.  We just have trouble seeing it.  I mean, what if we flipped the argument around.  Can you imagine what Hemingway would have said if he came to 2011 and saw what we have?

Within an hour, I can write something and publish it.  I get to share it with an audience of amazing people on Facebook, Twitter, through email, etc.  And I can’t even imagine editing a manuscript on a typewriter.  Copy and paste didn’t exist for Joseph Heller in the 1950s, who used scissors to disassemble and reassemble his manuscript for Catch-22.

There was irony in the film, of course, as Gil still wants to move to Paris in the present day, even if it isn’t the modern age.  But the message was clear – it wasn’t better then.  Better is what you make of it.

And, maybe someday, your grandchildren might say, how cool would it be to live in the golden age of the early 21st century?  And the best part is, you’ll be able to tell them.

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Not Everyone’s Gonna Get You

I was lucky enough to spend this past weekend in Napa Valley, California.  Amazing.

Shangri-La, perhaps

Right before I left, I received an email from a publishing contact generous enough to read a couple chapters of my manuscript.  She was writing to let me know her perspective.

She didn’t really like it.

She provided me a little bit of detail as to why, and I was anticipating a wave of depression, another “rejection,” another sign that my work isn’t really that good.

Only this time, it didn’t happen.  No darkness, no despair, and in fact, I felt pretty good. WTF?

And the thought that crossed my mind was not, “I better get on those changes.”  The thought that crossed my mind was, “I don’t know if this person really gets what I’m trying to do, or even gets me.”

What a different way to think about it!

I realized that somebody not quite getting me is absolutely okay.  Not everyone is going to like my work.  Her perspective is valid, and I will consider all the points.  Just like some people love Rabbit, Run, I found it a hard read.  On the other hand, I loved Watership Down, while other people could give a shit about fighting rabbits.  And maybe this is true for all of us – our desire to please all people, to know we’ve done something “good” or “right”, that desire can be quite a hindrance, because it’s really not possible.  Instead, you have to find it within yourself to know, this is good.  I am good.

For example, this past summer, I got some feedback on a short story that I didn’t agree with.  I really stressed about it, contemplating the changes and how to do them, or if I even should.  After a lot of time spent worrying, I decided against making the changes, and that short story ended up winning an award.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should be half-assed in any area of your life, and of course sometimes you have to be open to making changes to your work, or yourself (I have and I am).  But who I am, what I create, has my name attached to it, and I need to be good with it.  I need that inner strength that knows while certain things about my book could change, there are some things that are very, very good that should not.

I still have tons to learn, of course.

This past week, an agent wrote me: “You are an accomplished writer, and while I can’t take on new projects right now, I encourage you to keep going.  It was a close call.”

Perhaps the best “no” I have ever heard.

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It Takes Longer Than You Think (And Other Observations From Joseph Heller)

Over the weekend, I read this article in Vanity Fair, documenting the publication of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 in 1961.

I found it fascinating to read the inner-workings, fears and mistakes that happened through the course of the writing and publication.  I also found myself nodding my head, understanding the pain and confusion that Heller referenced when trying to make a decision or struggling over a draft of the novel.

And as I read through it, I learned a few things, too:

1. You only need a few believers.  More people didn’t believe in Catch-22 than did.  Author Evelyn Waugh wrote, after he received a pre-publication draft, “You are mistaken in calling it a novel.  It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.”  But one agent and one editor saw the potential, pushed hard, and Catch-22 saw the light of day.

2. It’s not rejection when somebody turns you down.  Candida Donadio, Heller’s agent, said after one publisher responded with good words, “Finally, somebody got it!  I thought my navel would unscrew and my ass would fall off.”   The “getting it” part is what really resonated for me, ahh, that’s it!  This is a different and positive way to think and it makes sense.  One agent wrote me about my book, “I really like this…”  Another?  “No, thank you.”

3. Behind the scenes, it’s often a mess.  The emperor has no clothes, the wizard behind the curtain….you name it.  The book was called Catch-18, then changed to Catch-14 after another book with the number 18 in the title came out, then Catch-11, before landing on the final title.  “We were all in despair,” the publisher recalled later.  Looking back, “Catch-22″ seems so unique, so obvious.  But it wasn’t at the time.

4. It takes longer than you think.  Heller’s first draft was done in 1953, but the book wasn’t published until 1961 as he continued working on the manuscript. In an interview later, Heller said, “I worked so slowly…it came so hard.  I’d become despondent that I could only write a page a night.  Why can’t I work faster?”   Even folks you most respect struggle like you do.

5.  You never know.  The publisher, after they bought the book, “conceded the book would probably not sell well.”   However, by April 1963, 1.1 million copies had sold.  By the end of the decade?  Thirty printings.  Those are holy shit numbers no matter how you look at them, and never predicted.

I can only dream of success at the level of Catch-22.  Most of the time I doubt it, but I don’t cross it off the list.  And maybe it’s the possibility of things that keeps me going.

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Letting Yourself Off The Hook

I’m spending some of my summer re-reading Ordinary People (about a family who lost a son, and how the other son, Conrad, attempted suicide),  and I came across the following dialogue:

Conrad (son): “Listen, I am never going to be forgiven for that, never!  You can’t get the blood out, you know!”

Berger (shrink):  “Give yourself a break, why don’t you?  Let yourself off the hook.”

Conrad: “What do you mean?”

Berger: “I mean there’s somebody else you have to forgive.”

Conrad: “You mean, me?”

Let yourself off the hook.  This really hit home for me, even though I’ve read it before….because I think we really hang ourselves up for the smallest of transgressions.  We try our best, build the master plan in our brain, and set goals that for whatever reason, aren’t attained.  Then we tell ourselves we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not fast enough, you name it.

Exhausting.

So I figured I’d take a look at some of my recent perceived failures, put it out there in the world (hello dirty laundry) and see if that is in fact what they really are.  Here’s my list, this is only the first four that come to mind, trust me, there are others:

1. My book isn’t perfect.   I’ve been trucking along here for awhile, working on the book, then suddenly, I got an agent connection.  I was so excited that I immediately sent the book out to her when she requested it, only to look back a few weeks later and think, damn, but it’s better now!  I talked to other writers and artists about this to find some comfort, and turns out, this is just how it is – the work is always evolving, never really done (many authors still hate parts of their book after it’s published), and this will happen again.   In my funk, I turned to the acknowledgement pages of a few authors I respected, and I noticed they all said a version of the same thing:  this book wouldn’t be what it is without the help of this agent and that editor and this publisher…  And I got to thinking, maybe my dream of my perfect book is just that, a dream, and rather, it’s a team effort.  I am on the hook for writing a great book of course, and still want to put my best foot forward, but dammit, maybe absolute perfection is the wrong goal.

2. I ignored my own voice.  As a newish author, I’m insecure about my abilities a lot of the time.  Can I really write?  Do I know what I’m talking about?  Or do I just have bad taste?  After I wrote my first few drafts,  I hired an editor and took her comments verbatim, even though she said, this is only my opinion.  I think I took her advice too far, and later, I got feedback from more than one person that has noted this.  So, I’m working through the manuscript again, refitting some earlier stuff that I think belongs.  Also, I wrote a short story that I kept pure, and I was lucky enough to win an award for it (the first signal that my voice deserves being listened to, maybe just a little).  I’m not saying don’t listen to others, but the key is to listen to a lot of folks, but ultimately, figure out how to be the decision-maker.  Something I’m still working on myself.

3. I don’t read enough, I don’t write enough, I don’t do anything enough.  Oy, is this a tough one.  The demands we all face require a thirty-six hour day, yet in the twenty-four hours we are allotted, we have to be relentless with priorities, and frankly, some shit just doesn’t get done.  There’s one writer I know who works full time, just finished a book, and blogs every single day.  Now, even if I wanted to, and never needed to sleep, I don’t think I could take that on.  So my new measure is, as long as I’m working on something, I’m doing ok.

4. My query letter stinks.  Well, it used to.  The query letter (the one page pitch) that goes out to agents, I read a ton about how to do this, and then spent a lot of time working on mine.  Turns out it’s quite difficult to summarize an entire book into three sentences.  I used this early version to send to some agents.  Looking back, I don’t think it portrayed my book the way I would have liked.  I have a new query now that I am okay with, but I’m not sure I will ever love these things.  It’s kind of like literary torture, but necessary.  So I grin and bear it, and keep working on it, because there is no other choice.

And so, I’m going to try to be a little nicer to myself.  I know I am my own worst enemy (friends tell me this all the time).   If you have a failure of your own, well, you learn for the next time.   Doesn’t make it hurt any less, but it’s still true.  I guess the overall lesson here is, we do the best we can with the information we have, and that’s always enough.

PS: check out Rachel Thurston’s blog for a great slide show from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference!

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Finding Your Inner Voice (Santa Barbara Writers Conference)

Well past the halfway point here at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and while my spirit is still willing, the flesh is having a few moments of weakness.  No matter, we’ll power through.

Last night, Simon Van Booy was the keynote.  His debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, comes out this summer.  With a shy British accent, he was insightful, humble and funny, and I was glad to be here.  He shared some great perspective.  Some highlights:

“When I found my voice I knew I would never be unhappy.  Because no matter what happens, I can write about it.”

“The best work comes out of total madness.”

“There’s no such thing as a story, just characters, doing things.”

“You only need to tell twenty percent of the story.  The reader does the rest.”

“The success of life, the measure, is how closely you’ve been able to listen to your inner voice.  If you can, invisible helping hands will aid you in your quest.” (via Joseph Campbell)

“Sometimes it’s the opposite – I think I’m holding my baby but really she is holding me.”

Things to think about all around.  He also said – and I can’t decide if this is meant to be funny, ironic, or something else – “getting published isn’t that hard, really.”

Ok, then.

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Who To Listen To, And Other Good Stuff (Santa Barbara Writers Conference)

I read the first few pages of my novel in Sunday night’s pirate session.  It was exciting, unnerving, invigorating.  And the critique (NOT criticism, thank you John Reed) was helpful.  For the most part, people followed the narrative.  They loved the descriptions, had questions about the flow in a couple of areas, and provided suggestions for improvement.

All in all, a lot of great feedback.  And also, a lot of contradictions.  Person A’s suggestions didn’t jive with Person B, who didn’t jive with Person C.  And I thought, shit, these are some experts and even they don’t agree.  Now what do I do?

I’ll come back to that in a minute.  But for any Santa Barbara attendee reading this, if you haven’t done a pirate yet, DO IT, even if it’s just to observe.  You will still learn.

I was also fortunate enough to meet with a series of agents yesterday.  Helpful to get time for real world conversations about them, about me, about my book.  I enjoyed the meetings, and have some next steps.

Last night, Drusilla Campbell, author of the novel The Good Sister, was the evening keynote.  Great lady, great energy.  She told her story from no books to romance books to no books to more books.  She talked about “keeping the lady alive” (I dont know if mine is a “lady” so to speak, but “creative muse” I can live with).  Along the way, she also imparted a little advice:

1. Be practical:  her advice was to write what agents and publishers want.  Now I’m not one to predict what the market will want, and what I’m writing is true to me.  But I guess the point is, if you want it to be a BUSINESS, you will have to take this advice to heart.  If you’re just writing for the love?  Then it’s an open field for anything.

2. Success comes and goes, goes and comes:  be prepared for this cycle.  Dru was the author of successful books for years, and then hit a twenty year dry spell.

3. Use your schizophrenia:  this one was all about both the angel and devil on your shoulders – “you are a good writer” and “nobody’s ever gonna read this shit.”  The key is to balance the both of them, because they are there to help you, if you let them.

4. Say yes to writers groups:  we can always learn….but…she also talked about a friend who was a member of three writers groups, and in trying please the critique from all of them, she lost her voice and pleased none of them.  Gets to today’s theme of “who to listen to.”

5. Read like crazy:  fiction, non-fiction, how-to-write books, all of it.

6. It’s not personal:  rejection, getting ignored.  This is the game, if you can’t take it, don’t play.  I think this applies to many parts of life.

She wrapped up with, “you may not get what you want, but it’s worth it to be trying.”  Good advice, indeed.

So, who should you listen to?  Writers groups as mentioned, workshops, teachers, other writers, agents, editors.  Friends and family sometimes.  Put your work out there as much as possible, and take it all in.  If you hear the same thing more than once, take it more seriously (thank you Ken Sherman for that advice).  And then, make a decision.  Because the person you need to listen to, after you get all that feedback from everyone that contradicts itself, is YOU.

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Only Trouble Is Interesting, and Other Things I’ve Learned Today (Santa Barbara Writers Conference)

Sitting here in the restaurant of the Hotel Mar Monte in Santa Barbara, overlooking the Pacific and the setting sun (goodbye June gloom!) I have a few moments to write before the evening sessions continue.

Today was the first full day of the conference, and I have met amazing writers with such interesting stories to tell!  Terrorist plots in New York dance clubs, a divorced woman standing alone in an empty Hollywood bungalow, a woman who can’t stand her husbands socks, (or marriage) and twenty other stories.  All amazing.

Last night, I attended a pirate session, which involved reading aloud work in front of about thirty people (I think I am on the schedule to read tonight).  Today I attended a class led by Geoff Aggeler around narrative technique, and a session called Marketing The Muse led by Marla Miller, where we talked about business and marketing.  Some of the takeaways so far:

1. Only trouble is interesting: I have to admit this one was like a light shining in a dark cave.  A-ha, of course!  No matter what you are creating, tension is a must, right up front.  Starting with a nice walk in a park?  Great.  Starting with a nice walk in a park where the protagonist witnesses a murder?  Much better.

2.  Show, don’t tell:  Specific, specifics.  These matter.  These paint a picture for the reader.  Concrete, not abstract.  Maybe, instead of “he felt happy when he won the lottery,” you instead say, “he jumped up and down in the middle of the street and didn’t see the speeding car coming around the corner.”  I can SEE that happening, I can feel it.

3. The rules matter, but emotion matters more: I read my query letter (the letter you write to pitch your novel to an agent) aloud in the Marketing The Muse session, and while it followed all the guidelines to a T, and described my novel, it  might be missing just a little of the heartfelt emotion around what it must have been like for an 8-year-old boy to watch his mom burn to death.

4. Psychic distance: this is the idea of describing a scene.  Do you start far away and come closer?  Start close?  Thinking about this has given me a structure for telling a story.

5. Let go and let it be.  Nobody told me this, I sort of became aware of this idea sometime between sessions today.  I am such a planner, always doing things I think will advance my worthy cause.  But I so worry about what’s coming and what I can do to influence that, I forget that maybe just a little bit of it just MIGHT be out of my hands.  I can’t even stand to write that, because the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming…but I think it might just be a little bit true.

Looking forward to catching up with some new friends to hear how their days were.  Off to tonight’s keynote by Eric Puchner, author of the novel Model Home, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

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