Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review of Steve Brezenoff's Brooklyn, Burning

An editor at a writing conference told a story about a librarian from Florida who decided not to purchase a new picture book about snow. When questioned about her decision, she laughed and said something like, “These kids live in Florida. They don’t need to know anything about snow.” The editor paused for effect then asked the audience, “Isn’t that the reason those kids should have a book like that?” Well, yes, of course, everyone agreed, and we all smugly mocked the misguided cheap librarian in our heads. (Okay, maybe I was the only one who did that. Sorry.)

The point is that it's a good thing for kids to be exposed to the unfamiliar. The strange. The uncomfortable. The different. Different kinds of weather. Different kinds of people. Different kinds of worlds. I know a lot of people would disagree with me. Maybe kids in Florida don’t really need to read books about snow. And maybe sweet, sheltered, upper middle class teens don’t need to read books about homeless, thrown-away, gender-confused kids in New York City. Maybe we should all just stick to reading books that mirror our own realities.

If that’s true, there won’t be many readers of Steve Brezenoff’s new novel, Brooklyn, Burning. I read this book five days ago and I still can’t wrap my mind around it; so much of it—from how it’s written to the subject matter—stands out and has stuck with me.

Let’s start with the point of view. It’s practically in second person, something I’ve rarely seen before except in some weirdo experimental fiction I read in grad school. A reminder: first person POV uses I. Third person uses he or she. Second uses you. That point of view just isn't used that often in fiction. I said practically second person though, which is probably not an official term. The main character, Kid, starts the narrative the way one might begin a letter. (And in a way, this novel is a love letter.) “You probably don’t remember it like I do,” Kid says, and goes on to remind You, whom the reader learns is a person named Scout. This POV could seem like a gimmick, a quirky way to tell a story, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a necessity because the genders of Kid and Scout are never revealed. They could easily be two boys or two girls. Or one of each. This isn’t a clever gimmick either. It’s one of the major themes of the book. That maybe gender doesn’t matter all that much in the ultimate scheme of life.

A lot of people would probably disagree with me about that too. But whatever. Let’s move on and talk about setting. I have never been to Brooklyn, but after reading this book, I feel like I’ve lived there. The few blocks where this story takes place come alive in all their smelly, noisy glory. There’s a bar. There’s music. There’s homeless people. Everything seems real. Nothing is stereotypical.

The structure of the book is cool. The narrative shifts back and forth in time between two summers in the life of Kid. The first summer there was a fire in a warehouse where a lot of homeless teens lived. Kid’s best friend may or may not have died in the fire. Kid may or may not have started it. The second summer Kid meets Scout, but is clearly still tormented by the past. There’s a mystery at the heart of this story. What really happened last summer? How was Kid involved? Why is Kid living on the street in the first place?

Now I need to give a shout out to the writing style. There are a lot of books out there that are plot-oriented and fast-paced. The language is used only to keep the story moving. Then there are the stories where you know the author is showing off her writing skills. In these purposefully literary-styled novels, the language tends to interfere, keeping the reader from falling into the story. Instead you’re stopping periodically to dissect a particularly long sentence or puzzling out a beautiful but unnecessary metaphor. Steve Brezenoff has pulled off the rare feat of creating a literary novel with a compelling plot.

Okay, I know I'm gushing and still not doing this novel justice, writing about it in this very floundery, scattered way. So I’ll shut up and end with a passage from the book itself.

Kid and Scout are eating pizza. They’ve just decided to team up and form a band but they’re not sure what to call themselves. Kid asks:
“What are your songs about? I mean in general.”
You shrugged and dropped a folded crust into the box, then leaned back on your hands. They were probably greasy with pizza and for a second my heart skipped a beat as I thought about licking the sauce from your fingers.
“Just the world in general, I think. You know, people.”
“People it is.”
“As a name?”
I smiled. “Why not?”
So we were People. Finally.

Brooklyn, Burning comes out in September. Look for it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Perfect Pitch

I’ve always hated writing pitches. For the uninitiated, a pitch is a brief description of a manuscript written to grab the attention of an editor or agent. Hook someone with the perfect pitch and you’ve elevated yourself out of the bottomless slush pile and into the glorious realm of the solicited. If you can write a snappy pitch, the first door on the long road to publication opens. Someone wants to read what you’ve written.

For most of my writing career (and I use the word career here in the loosest sense) I took what I like to call the Field of Dreams approach to submitting my work. Do you remember in that movie how the Kevin Costner character constructed a baseball field in his cornfield and there was that God-like voice intoning IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME? In other words, carve out a cool baseball field in the boonies of Iowa or Nebraska or wherever the heck Kevin lived, and people will just intuitively sense that it’s there, drop everything they’re doing, pile their families into their cars, and drive out to watch a ball game. (Hey. It could happen.) Whenever I had what I believed was a cool finished novel, I’d do the Field of Dreams thing, and send it out into the publishing world attached to something along the lines of this:

Dear Editor,
Enclosed please find my book. Thank you for reading it.

Wow. I know. Talk about attention grabbers. I was so adorably hopeful back then. I honestly thought that editors, like nostalgic baseball fans, could somehow feel the cosmic shift in the Creative Universe when they opened my submission. Oddly, sometimes the strategy worked and I did get a few kind editors to read and even occasionally send me encouraging feedback.

But I don’t recommend going this route. If you’re serious about traditional publishing, you’re eventually going to have to buckle down and write a pitch. I wish I could give you some helpful advice. Sadly, there’s a very big part of me that is still standing in the cornfield turned baseball diamond hoping the editors will magically appear. I have a block when it comes to writing pitches. It’s weird. I’m a writer, so theoretically I should have the skills. I write reviews of other people’s books. You’d think I’d be able to write about my own.

Maybe part of my problem is that I’ve heard so much conflicting advice over the years about what editors/agents want in a pitch.

1. Write it like it’s the inside flap of a book, I heard an editor say once.
2. Whatever you do, don’t write it like the inside flap of a book, said someone else.
3. Write in the same voice of the book to give the editor a sense of your writing style
4. Keep a professional tone. Don’t be clever and try to write it like one of the characters
5. Make it a mash up. Charlotte’s Web meets Twilight set at a school like Hogwarts, for example
6. Stay away from comparisons. Your book is not like a classic. So just get over yourself

You get the point. Apparently, editors and agents expect different things from a pitch. So you’re going to have to do your homework and check out their guidelines and follow them to the letter. There are a few hard and fast rules that I will share with you. If you send your pitch the old fashioned way (in the mail), for God’s sake, don’t include cutesy stuff like rainbow stickers or scented paper or glitter. My friend Deb would disagree with me heartily, but there is NOTHING more annoying than an explosion of glitter on your desktop. If you’re on Twitter, don’t do what this poor deluded sap did recently—he mass tweeted a bunch of editors and agents with what basically amounted to a link to his book and a demand that they read it. Yikes. I can’t imagine that obnoxious tactic led to many takers. One editor even tweet-berated him for all to see.

Not to lapse into a previous blog, but one of the great perks of having an agent was I could merrily avoid writing a pitch. SHE wrote it for me and when editors passed on looking at my book, I had the nice smug feeling that what they were rejecting was actually my agent’s take on the book and not anything related to me. But enough self-pity. The reality is that I’m back to square one (or to keep my lame baseball metaphor going, first base) and I need to buck up and do the work myself. Not only to snag an editor's attention, but to keep it.

Here’s something I learned from reviewing ARCs (advanced review copies of books). Every so often, they’re so far in advance that they don’t have an inside flap or a blurb written on the back. A reader picks the book up and has no idea what it is. Is this meant for middle schoolers or young adults? Is it a romance or a mystery or a heart-wrenching drama? She's opening the book blindly with no idea what’s inside, and the truth is, that makes it difficult to start reading. It would be helpful if there were some kind of hook--a smidgen of a description of what’s inside to whet her interest--a pitch.

Otherwise she might stay on the sidelines of that cornfield forever, with no idea that there’s this really awesome baseball diamond right on the other side of the cornstalks.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Okay. Let’s say you’ve been writing seriously for six years (and half-seriously for ten more). You set a word count every day, and you hit it. You read books in your spare time (because you love to and not just because it’s market research). You joined your professional organization and attend regional and sometimes national conferences. You’ve studied the business. You send your work out to editors and take their feedback seriously. You snagged an agent, which didn't pan out, and you’re geared up to find new representation. In the meantime you’re keeping a brave face and writing every day. You love writing and you want to continue to write. But some days, you’re discouraged. Beaten down. Weary.

Well, my weary friend, if this is YOU, I think I may have an answer to your troubles.

It’s starts with the zen-like acceptance that writing is what you DO. It’s not about money or fame or published books lined up on the shelves. Even if you have all of that, even if you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling—in the end, it’s just YOU, ALONE, every day, facing the blank blaring page on your computer screen, plugging away as the words alternately roll out or bleed from your fingertips. Accept that fact, and you’re halfway there.

There’s an interesting character in Camus’ existential novel The Plague. If you haven’t read this book, it’s about a town that is quarantined because of a plague. The townspeople are stuck inside the guarded walls, dealing with people dying around them and trying to figure out what to do as they wait to succumb to the plague too. They come to terms with this reality in their own ways. The doctor decides that it is his duty to care for the sick. The priest offers spiritual help. Teachers continue to teach and shopkeepers continue to sell. See, it’s all a big metaphor about life in general. We’re the townspeople, living our lives inside the metaphorical walls of the earth. We’re all eventually going to die so what do we do while we wait? Do we go nuts? Do we hurt others in our fear? Do we kill ourselves under the strain? Or do we simply go about our business, doctoring and preaching and teaching? Or in the case of my favorite character, a guy named Grand, do we write?

Grand seems like he’s been plopped into the narrative to provide comic relief. He enters the scene every once in a while, consumed with a novel he is writing. The other characters treat him with amusement, asking him politely how his book is progressing. The funny part is that Grand doesn’t seem to be able to get past the first sentence. “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.” Each time we meet him he’s changed a word. Should it be the month of May or June? Should the horsewoman be elegant? Should the flowers bestrewn? He keeps working on the sentence. His dream is to finish the entire novel. He imagines that when he finally does, all the gentlemen will praise him and cry “Hats off!”

But at the end of The Plague he is still fiddling around with the sentence. He’s probably never going to finish the novel. No gentlemen are ever going to cheer “Hats off!” and yet Grand is strangely content. He’s decided to cut out all of the adjectives and he’s eager to rush home and get to work. It’s what he does. It’s how he spends his life. I don’t know what Camus meant exactly with his construction of Grand. I suppose you could see the guy as deluded and silly. A perfectionist who will never move onto Sentence Two. A person who could do so many more important things with his time on this earth. But Camus was a writer, in addition to being an existentialist philosopher, and so I would like to believe that he sympathizes with Grand. Not everyone is a doctor or teacher. Some of us happen to enjoy fiddling around with words. And if we can amuse other people in the process, all the better.

Other writers have made their peace with writing for the sake of writing. Emily Dickinson wrote the majority of her poems alone in her attic room. Only a handful were ever published when she was alive and those were edited heavily and published anonymously. “This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to Me—” is the beginning of one of her one thousand seven hundred seventy five poems. Herman Melville toiled alone too. He had achieved success with several of his earlier books, but his masterpiece Moby Dick was ignored. He said he didn’t care. He wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom he dedicated the novel) “For not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re NOT Emily Dickinson or Herman Melville. They were brilliant writers, who tragically were not recognized as such while they were alive, but their words and ideas will live on as long as there are people to read them.

Here’s the sticking point of the zen-like acceptance theory: It works only partly. It may keep you writing every day, but you're not going to feel very good about it when you suspect that people won't read that writing. Writers and readers, we need each other. Don’t let Emily Dickinson’s hermit-like status in her garret bedroom fool you. She wrote tons of letters and many of her letters were poems. There were a few people out there in the world, people she cared about, who read her work and supported what she was doing. Melville, too. In that same letter to Hawthorne where he said he didn’t care if people liked his book or not, he said he hopedHawthorne would like it.

I understand, weary writer. I truly do. You don’t want money or fame. You only want to be published so you can have readers, others out there who’ll get what you’re writing, who’ll getyou. Every one of us has a story to tell. And every one of us wants to be listened to and understood. Some of us just happen to be little more obsessive about getting that story onto the page.

This seems like a digression, but bear with me. I read a great book yesterday by Sara Zarr, How To Save a Life. (pub Little Brown, Jan. 2012) The narrative goes back and forth between two girls, who on the surface couldn’t be more different. Jill, still reeling from the loss of her father the year before, is lashing out at everyone, particularly her mother, who has made some questionable decisions lately. And Mandy, who is pregnant and has come to live with Jill after Jill’s mother promises to adopt Mandy’s baby. The book seems like it might tread into predictable territory—two girls realize they have more common, etc. But it doesn’t. There’s a real tension here. It doesn’t come from outside, where the reader wonders what’s going to happen to the characters. It comes from the characters themselves. What are they going to do to mess things up? I stayed up late reading, worrying over these girls as if they were my friends.

I loved this book. I’ve read all of Sara Zarr’s books and loved them too. They’re filled with flawed, vulnerable, yet still somehow hopeful/doing-the-best-they-can people. I imagine Zarr writing them somewhere alone—in a nicely appointed office or maybe at a local coffee shop—just her and her lap top. All the while she’s doubting. She’s wondering if what’s she doing is silly and pointless and stupid. When she reaches the final page of her manuscript, she’s fighting off tears and grinning like a fool. Okay, maybe she did win the National Book Award for one of her previous books, but this new one, How to Save A Life, which isn’t even out yet officially, is still untested.

I’d like to put her mind at ease. Hats off, Sara. It’s good. Thank you for writing it. You’re right. Sometimes we save our own lives by saving others.

Weary writer, THIS is why you write. You only need to connect with one other person to make it all worthwhile.

PS. Yesterday you came across a witty tweet: THE ONLY WRITING ADVICE YOU REALLY NEED. And when you clicked on the link it said:
Keep Writing.

Haha. But you knew that already. Now go do it.