Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Reflection on Rejection

Some rejections are harder to get than others. Or maybe they’re all equally hard. I should be able to judge this. I’ve gotten all kinds of rejections. I just got one a few hours ago so it’s nice and fresh and pulsing in my mind. So take whatever I write next with a grain of salt. (I don’t even know what that expression really means. But I digress.)


I used to think the worst kind of all was the No-Response Rejection. That’s when you send your manuscript off to a publishing house that tells you up front they’ll only respond if they want it. So, chances are, you get nothing. Maybe the editor lost it. Maybe they hated it so much they set it on fire. Maybe they thought it was a hilarious mess and tacked it up on the wall so people in the office could practice throwing darts at it. Or maybe they thought it was okay but just not right for them, blah blah blah, but simply had no time to tell you. It doesn’t matter. You’ll never know.

The form rejection ranks up there too. I imagine a nice stack of these on the editorial assistant’s desk. She wades through a few pathetic lines of a particular manuscript, pitches the rest in the recycle bin, grabs a form rejection and sticks it in the aspiring author’s self-addressed stamped envelope. Done. Sorry. On to the next manuscript in the slush pile. Yes, getting a form rejection is depressing. Although I have read some very sweet let-the-poor-writer-down-easy versions. At least someone cared to write that once upon a time. It beats the No-Response by a hair. At least you get something. Or maybe not. With the No-response you’ve still got a slim chance…

Next up—the form rejection with a nice personal note tacked on the end. This used to be my favorite kind of rejection letter. It meant there was a real live editor on the other end who liked my manuscript enough to uncap a pen. I used to live for those sweet scrawled: Not right, but try us again notes, and I hate to admit that sometimes I would pull them out of the drawer and look at them again in moments of despair.

Once I got two rejections for the same story. That was kind of sad. Not sure how it happened. I sent a story to a magazine, got their form rejection, then a few months later got another form rejection. I guess they really really didn’t want it. Or somehow it missed the recycle bin and some other suffering assistant had to read it again. Oh well.

Now I get letters from editors explaining why they’re rejecting my manuscripts. This seems like it would be a big step up but somehow it almost makes me yearn for the form letter/no response days. Do I really want to know that there is no market for my manuscript, that reading it was frustrating, that the structure was confusing, or that they liked it but didn’t quite love it?

Gah. I don’t know. All I know is I hate getting rejections. Who doesn’t? I also know that in the end getting one (no matter what kind) is just a silly little wall thrown up in my way. It does nothing to keep me from writing. Oddly enough. And my first order of business is to write the kindly editor a thank you note. For taking her time reading my manuscripts. (she read two. And two others over the years. Which must be some kind of sad record. But I digress again) For taking the time to explain what she liked and (gulp) what she didn’t like about them.

Long sigh.
I feel better already.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

I hesitate to share this little bit of advice. If too many people followed it, it might dilute some of what makes it so great. But in the spirit of giving thanks it seems almost criminal to keep this idea to myself. So here it is: Charming Notes.

This comes straight from the always inspirational Carolyn See in her book Making a Literary Life and I’m not sure I can do it justice, so if you’re still doubting at the end of this blog that writing charming notes will make you feel wonderful, cause others great joy, and generally increase the power of love in the world, then read Carolyn’s chapter about it. Because I’ve failed.

A charming note is nothing more than a handwritten thank you note. And oh, wow, have those gone out of style these days. I’ve even given up hounding my kids about them lately, instead urging them to facebook or email a gift giver. Which is sad. But I digress.

The main idea underlying the charming note is that writing is such a solitary activity--you toil alone at your keyboard or holed up in your attic ala Emily Dickinson, and unless you’re published, you rarely get a response to what you’re creating. I suppose even published writers feel this way. How nice it would be to get a little note in the mail one day, a few words about how much a story you’ve written meant to someone else. The next time you finish reading a book that moves you, TELL the writer how you felt. And no cheating—emailing a writer on his webpage. Carolyn See says to go out and buy the most beautiful stationery you can afford and have it engraved with your name. Write your note of thanks on that. Send it c/o of the admired author’s publishing company. You’ll be surprised how many will write you a charming note back. I’ve received nice thank-yous to my thank-yous from Sara Zarr, Kate DiCamillo, and Rebecca Stead. Each one mentioned that they rarely received handwritten notes anymore.

In addition to sending out the love to your favorite writers, you’ll also want to thank your favorite editors. Now, you might be thinking, but I don’t have a favorite editor. I’m an unpublished writer. The only response I get from editors is curt little form rejections with an occasional “nice story” tacked on at the end.

Now follow me here: you’re going to get out your lovely engraved stationery and thank these people for taking the time to send you a rejection. This is a bizarre idea on the surface, but I promise you, the next time you get a rejection and feel your insides churn and your heart clamp up with despair, writing a thank you is the only thing that is going to help. (That and gorging yourself on chocolate and/or drinking a bottle of wine. But I digress again)

Every rejection is a little stab at your dream that makes you question your decision to keep writing, and believe me, you do not want this dark cloud of bad karma hovering over your head for the next few days as you try to create. Thank that editor, and be sincere. No snarky, thanks so much for rejecting the novel I spent three years laboring over that you merely read the first ten pages of and pronounced unworthy of your time. It was sooooo freaking kind of you.

NO. You’re going to really mean it. This editor is a person (albeit a very young one) who DID in fact take the time when many other editors simply tossed your manuscript in the recycle bin. Who knows what she’ll think when she gets your note. It really doesn’t matter because you’ve taken the bundle of negative rejection energy, changed it into something gracious and kind, and sent it hurtling right back.

Try it. You’ll be surprised how good it feels to reach out to other writers, to connect with editors—to forge a tiny bond in this world of writers and readers—one that you are a part of too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Million Ways to Tell a Story

Some people think that Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken is about the benefits of choosing the less traveled, more difficult road in life. The speaker comes to a fork in the woods and has to make a decision about which path to take. From where he’s standing he can only see so far ahead. Maybe he could stand there all day. Or go back in the direction he came from. But time’s ticking and he’s got to move on, so he picks a path and goes with it. Later he says that he chose the path less traveled by and “that has made all the difference.”

What I always liked about this poem is that there really is no way the speaker can know he took the road less traveled. He didn’t go down both roads, so he can’t compare. He can only guess. From where he was standing they looked the same. He’s right, though, that the path he did end up taking made all the difference. Whenever you make a choice in life (or in writing) it’s going to make a difference in the end.

I’ve been thinking about this poem because it’s hit me that whenever I write a story, I’m making choices about which path to take. Is my character going to do this or that? (Or more accurately, if I let my characters lead, which way will they choose to go?) I suppose I could freeze them where they are, let nothing happen to them. Or I could chuck out everything I have and not write the book. That’s a choice too. But if I do want to finish a story, at a certain point I just have to go with it—see where it’s going, and follow along until the end.

There are probably multiple wrong ways to tell a story. But now I’m wondering if there are multiple right ways to tell one too. The cool thing about writing is that I can conceivably go back (unlike the speaker in the Robert Frost poem—and unlike in real life) and try both paths (or more).

I read two great Young Adult book recently that perfectly illustrate this point: Dark Water by Laura McNeal, which was up for the National Book Award, and When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. The authors made totally different decisions about how to tell their stories. I need to say here that when I read books my greatest hope is to get lost in a page-turning good story, but the writer in me is always in the background thinking about how the story’s put together and what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it can be distracting, but there you go.

Dark Water is a love story about a fifteen year old girl and an illegal Mexican immigrant boy who works on her uncle’s farm. I don’t think I can do this complicated and moving story justice.

There’s lots going on between the girl and her parents who have recently divorced. The mom is quirky and depressed, working two jobs and trying to start a silkworm farm (which is weird but interesting). The dad is kind of a jerk who keeps popping in to disrupt their lives. There’s a subplot between the girl and her cousin and a strange love triangle in that family. And over all of this is the unfolding relationship between the girl and the mysterious migrant boy who can’t talk and who makes his home in a camp down by the river. What made the story more interesting to me was the point of view and structure of the book. It’s clear from the beginning that the events in the story have already happened—several years before. And that something terrible occurred that led to at least one main character's death. Usually, I don’t like books that are so clearly reminiscences, but this one works. The reader knows the book is building toward the terrible climax and will have a hard time putting it down.

When the Whistle Blows
on the surface is about a boy growing up in a dying West Virginia town in the 1940’s.

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but I loved this book. The premise is clever and one that I haven’t seen done much at all. Each chapter is a different story that takes place on one night—Halloween—in the main character’s life. At first it seems like separate unrelated stories, but read them all and you get caught up in this boy’s life as he grows up. You get to know his friends, his family, particularly his complicated relationship with his father, and his town, which is all tied to the train, the industry the town is built around. Even though it’s what people call a “quiet” book, there was a page turning quality to it as well. I wanted to know what was going to happen to this boy each Halloween night and wondered what he was going to choose as it became clear that his childhood dream of working on the train was probably not going to come true.

So, different stories; different ways to tell them. I’m trying to keep that in mind as I plunge back into my own story. I need to remember to follow it through to the end, and if that path turns out to be the wrong one, oh well. I can always go back to the fork in the road and try again.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Life Intervenes

I have a feeling that Stephen King doesn’t clean toilets or drive carpool or host Thanksgiving dinner for 14 people. Maybe I’m wrong. Before he had his big breakthrough with his novel Carrie, he was a high school teacher and the father of young children. I’m sure there were days when he had a hard time getting his 2000 words written. In his book On Writing he says empathically that he writes 2000 words a day every day—whether it takes him two hours to do it. Or ten.

People who don’t write probably think that’s crazy. No one is going to know, after all, whether or not you get your writing done. If you’re making millions of dollars a year, of course, it probably seems worth it, but when you’re just starting out and not getting paid for your efforts, it’s kind of hard to justify the amount of time and work involved in writing a book. At some point you recognize, though, that you feel better when you write and you feel cruddy when you don’t. And that’s that.

I didn’t write much at all when I was teaching and when my kids were little. I know there are writers who do this (ie. Stephen King) but apparently I’m not one of them. Teaching sapped the life out of me and now that I think about it, my young kids did too. I don’t regret this, by the way, even though it meant I had a late start with my writing career. I’m glad I was able to give my job and later my family my undivided attention. There was a nice bonus for them too, in that I had all this untapped creativity that pretty much had nowhere to go. For example, my four year old son and I made a to-scale model of a Viking ship complete with 50 toothpick oars poking out of the sides. When my daughter turned eight I threw her the coolest (if I do say so myself) Harry Potter birthday party. The guests had a potions lesson and drank homemade butter beer and ran around in the backyard on brooms playing a game of quidditch while I pelted them with water balloons (which were supposed to be the bludgers).

When I quit work to write full time my biggest hurdle was figuring out how to manage my time. It was easy to start the day off with the best of intentions and slowly slip off course. Once I started recording how many words I wrote, it got easier. Well, not exactly easier, but I found that I had something concrete to measure. Using this method I’ve been able to write two novels a year and still have time left over to revise. Now my biggest hurdle is figuring out how to take time off. I’ve developed such strict work habits over the years I’m afraid that if I cut myself too much slack next thing I know I’ll be sacked out in front of the TV watching a Jersey Shore marathon. Not that I’ve ever done this, but…

What I need to remember is that I’m not Stephen King (Haha, in case anyone was wondering) and some days I’m not going to be able to write my words. Sometimes life is going to intervene. I’m a writer. But I’m also a person. And people have lives to live which include doing mundane tasks like laundry but also important valuable things like reading a book to your daughter’s class or baking someone’s birthday cake. Or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for 14.

I’m not worried. Really. November 29 I’ll be at my desk (or at my assigned comfy chair in the library) plugging away on my words. I can’t promise you my house will be clean though. Some things you really have to let slide.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Mushy Middle. Otherwise known as Driving through Texas

Ah, the mushy dark sprawling space that is the middle of a novel. If you’re plodding along writing your certain number of words a day, you’ll inevitably reach the point where you are halfway to somewhere. The problem is you still might not know where you’re going. You may not remember where you’ve been. You’re wondering if you should stop, turn around, forget this trip. Maybe go someplace else.

Writer Laraine Herring says that writing a novel is a lot like driving through Texas. You’ve got a long way to go to reach the border, but if you keep driving, you’ll eventually get there. I’ve never driven through Texas. I’ve never even been to Texas, but I have driven from one corner of Tennessee to the other corner and I know that takes a long time, so I trust Laraine’s metaphor.

One of the nice things about signing up to do National Novel Writing Month is they send you these cool inspirational emails from authors who’ve been there in the trenches. Today’s was from one of my favorite young adult novelists, John Green. He was trying to be inspirational, but he started by lamenting about how hard it is to keep writing when you’ve reached the middle of your book:

“Why do I quit halfway in? I get tired. It's not fun anymore. The story kind of sucks, and it's hard to sit down every day and spend several hours eating from a giant bowl of suck. And most of all, like the kid who spends hours preparing plastic armies for war, I enjoy setting things up more than I enjoy the battle itself. To finish something is to be disappointed. By definition, abandoned novels are more promising than completed ones.”

I hear you, John. The story in my head is always a million times better than the one that gets put on paper. Unfortunately, the story in my head doesn’t exist. And it never will exist if I don’t keep writing it. John Green’s pep talk does eventually get peppier and he ends by reminding us that Robert Frost once said: “The only way out is through.” Now that I think about it, Robert Frost was brilliant. He wrote poems. Which would be more like driving through Rhode Island.

But I’m still driving through Texas. Tumbleweeds are blowing around in the desert alongside my car. (This is me, imagining Texas, because I’ve never actually been there.) I see a lot of cactuses (cacti? too). The road stretches off into the horizon. There’s one gas station ahead and it’s only got one fuel pump working. But that’s really all need. And maybe some snack food and coffee.

I’ve made it this far. No way am I turning back.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

When you’re writing a novel you inevitably find yourself at a certain point where the story takes off. You’ve set up your world and you’ve created your characters. You’ve thrown a few cool conflicts at your hero. He wants something and he can’t have it. He’s going to have to leave the safety of the world he knows and strike out after it. Maybe he has a few false starts. Maybe he turns back a couple times or some other character shows up to shoot him down. But somewhere around page fifty or so of your 200-page novel, your hero is going to make a choice. He’s going to cross the threshold and begin his journey. Woo hoo! It's about time!

I’ve been thinking about crossing the threshold this week because I have just crossed it myself in the book I’m working on for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a cool feeling when you reach this point. It means you’re officially entering the section known as: The Middle of the Book. The place where all the action happens and where the strands you’ve set up in the first part of the book begin to come together.

Starting a book is tricky. There are so many decisions to make. Most of the real work of the first draft is just trying to figure out what’s going on. You’re introducing characters that you, as the writer, don’t really know yet. You’re describing a world that you’re still trying to imagine. It’s possible that you won’t understand it all completely until you reach the end. I heard someone speak at a writers’ conference once about how an editor read her 200-page manuscript and told her that the story didn’t really start until page 100. “Lop that first part off,” the editor said. “And start there.” The writer was horrified, (and I, in the audience, was horrified for her, imagining all the work she must’ve done and thinking about how it was all apparently for nothing). But the writer surprised me by saying that it wasn’t a waste—those 100 pages—they were a necessary part of figuring out that story. It was how she found her way in.

Sometimes you discover that you’re writing a different story from the one you thought. You’ve got a conflict set up and halfway through the conflict morphs into something else. Or maybe you realize the wrong character’s telling your story. This happened to me. I wrote a book from the point of view of a particular girl. I saw it all very clearly in my mind—her conflict, her journey. Then twenty or so pages in this boy showed up out of nowhere and basically took over the story. I kept going with my girl, plodding along, trying to wrest the story back to her. I finished the draft, patted myself on the back, put the manuscript away for a while then read it with a fresh eye. But I couldn’t deny it. This story wasn’t the girl’s at all. It was the boy’s. Never mind 100 pages. I wrote a whole book so I could find my way into the book I was supposed to be writing.

No big deal. It’s all part of the process. Maybe you change your mind about the plot and your narrative takes off in a completely different direction. Maybe you have no idea what the point is until you write the conclusion. Maybe you add characters or cut them. A writer friend of mine has this scene her first draft:

“Where’s Lindsay?”
“Oh, I think she’s not going to be in this book,” I said. “Kevin and Kristy are enough, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, probably.”

Sometimes you add plot strands. Or take strands away when you see they’re not really going anywhere. The point is you’re not going to see most of this until you’re well on your way.

So cross the threshold with your characters and keep moving forward on your journey. Do not go back. Find your way through the story, to the story. You’re going to have to redo a lot of this stuff anyway; you may as well keep going all the way to the end.

Up next: The Mushy Middle: otherwise known as Driving through Texas

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Journaling the Junk Out

Every morning for the past three years (give or take a handful of days when I was traveling or sick) I have written what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls Morning Pages. Julia says it best (and truthfully, I haven’t gone back to reread her description) but her basic point is that to free up your creative self, it’s essential to get the gunk out of your head each morning before going to work. By gunk, I mean whatever stuff is floating around in your mind—anxieties, snippets of dreams, a to-do list for the day ahead, stuff you’re upset or angry about, a dumb conversation you’re rehashing. Whatever. She suggests that you write three pages longhand. This is writing you’re never going to show anyone. You don’t even have to go back to read it yourself. I think she says you can seal it in an envelope if you want to. But once it’s down on paper—all that blather clogging up your brain—you can start to write, your creative juices truly flowing, nothing holding you back.

I’ll admit I was skeptical the first time I read this. But I tried it, because, what the hey. It’s writing. At first I treated my morning pages like a journal. The act brought me back to my teenage diary years and I found myself recording the stuff that had happened the day before. We had just moved to a new town. I didn’t know anyone. I had quit my day job. After a while there really wasn’t anything “happening” to write about. But I kept writing my morning pages. I took seriously what Julia said, and tried to empty out my head, not worrying about quality or even if I was making sense. Just warming up my fingers on the keyboard. (Here’s one rule I broke: I type my morning pages. Sorry, Julia, I’ve been typing forever—even when I was thirteen I used an old typewriter that dinged when it was time to slide the carriage back.)

A lot of what I wrote about that first year was how I didn’t think I could write. Or the worries I had about never being published. I think I’ve got pages and pages of boring conversations I had with our realtor (we had moved but still couldn’t sell our other house and it was killing me—this two-house ownership thing, and then the furnace broke in the other house and then it was spring and someone needed to mow the overgrown lawn three hours away—all silly and meaningless issues that at the time kept me up at night stressing). But here’s the thing: writing that stuff down did make a difference. Once it was out of my head and on the page, it really was gone. At least for that day. And I could focus on whatever project I was working on.

Lately my morning pages have become more of a book journal. I still start with the junk clogging up my brain, but most days I quickly move on to the scene I’m working on that day. What’s happening? What are the characters thinking? What problems am I having? This kind of journaling is how I discovered the worst plot hole of all time—one of those, what the heck was I thinking there?—kind of things. But writing it out, just putting the problem into words, must’ve helped my subconscious mind work on it. Within a few days I woke up with the answer blaring at me as if it had been there all along. And I wrote about that epiphany in my morning pages too.

I can’t ever imagine not writing them. First thing in the morning, before I read my emails and scroll through the inane news of the day, while I drink my coffee, I’m writing my morning pages. Today’s was a long rant about how every single one of the candidates I’d voted for yesterday lost. Except a bunch of judges who had no one running against them. But once I’d gotten that pathetic mess out of my head, I was able to jump into the latest scene of the novel I’m working on.

Looking for a way to get your creative juices going? Tomorrow morning, first thing, write your morning pages. And here’s another shout out for Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. A must read for the struggling writer-within

Monday, November 1, 2010

Write a Novel in 30 Days

Today is officially the first day of NaNoWriMo (for the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month). Participants from all over the world pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. I have “won” NaNo for the past three years and today I am vowing to do it again. There is no right way to do this. At the end of the month the NaNo people are not going to read your novel. They aren’t even going to look at it to see if you actually wrote something that makes sense. So theoretically you could write “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” 5000 times like the lunatic caretaker in Stephen King’s book The Shining.

But don’t do that. Also don’t stress so much about word count that you play tricks like loading up on adjectives or writing out your characters’ full names including middle names every time you mention them. Okay. If you want to do that, fine, do that too. There really is no right way to win this thing. What’s important, at least for me, is to get that first draft out and on paper so that I have something real and “finished” to work with in December. (Who am I kidding? In December, the last thing I’m going to want to look at is this mess of a first draft. I’ll leave that to January.)

My other rules (because in the end I really am a rule person) are as follows:

1. Write at least 1667 words per day (this is the minimum number to reach 50,000 by Nov. 30.) But I will need to write more some days to make up for the fact that I will not be working on Thanksgiving. Plus I just need a buffer for the days when real life—in the form of making meals, driving the kids places, and cleaning the toilets—intrudes.

2. Don’t bad-mouth what I write. This is a hard one for me. I am my own worst critic and there are many days when I read over what I’ve written and pronounce it all as crap. And maybe it is. But I don’t need to tell myself that. Would I treat a writer friend that way? Um, no. I would find something kind and encouraging to say about the crap that she's written.

3. As a corollary to number two, let my writing go where it wants. So if I go off on some weird tangent about where kids sit in the middle school cafeteria or get lost in a flashback within a flashback within flashback, that’s okay. I need to remember that sometimes those unplanned digressions lead to the real heart of a story.

4. And that’s it. Of course I also hope I come up with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. One that has characters and a setting and a plot that makes sense. And it would be nice if it had a point. But maybe some of this will have to come with the second draft.

Here are a few final words of wisdom:
Trust the process.—Mary Casanova
Jump off the cliff without building the bridge (or something like that)—Libba Bray
It’s not rocket science—Linda Su Park
Oh well, nothing to do but start.—Carolyn See

PS: anyone out there reading this blog who signs up to do NaNo this month, “friend” me on the NaNo site, and we can root for each other. My NaNo name is jodycasella.