Friday, February 25, 2011

I Love "Trashy" Books

Actually, I love all kinds of books. Because of what I do for a living (and I use the word “living” in the strictly non-payment sense) I mostly read children’s and young adult books. But I also read adult books (which sounds like I mean porn, but I don’t) both novels and non-fiction. I heard once that the average adult reads fewer than ten books a year. I typically read ten books a month. I wish I could read more. I keep books in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in the car and in my purse. I often have several going at the same time. I have at least twenty on my bedside table that I intend to get to, but still I check more books out of the library when I go a couple of times a week. My point is that I love to read and I am not snobby about what I do read. I don’t turn up my nose on genre fiction (mysteries or romances or thrillers). I certainly don’t look down on children’s books. (And a little aside here, the New York Times recently ran an article by novelist Martin Amis who said that anyone who wrote children’s books was probably brain dead. Here’s my response to Martin Amis:

Never mind. Not going to bother with a response.

But Martin, I do hope you realize that your readers were once children who read children’s books.) I am a former English teacher and I have a masters in English, so I suppose I did have a snob streak in me at one time, thinking that “literary” fiction is somehow superior to “commercial” fiction. But I really don’t care about that anymore. All I want is to fall into a good story. The only thing that will make me put a book down unfinished is if it’s boring.

So here’s a story about a commercial fiction series that’s entered my life recently:
Whenever I go to a writing conference I write down the book titles that editors mention. I’m curious what’s selling, what’s popular, what’s winning awards, etc. If it’s a big series, I usually check out the first book just to see what the fuss is about. Which is how I ended up with Book One of The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead. I brought it home along with a pile of other books from the library and my teenaged daughter picked it up and flipped through it. “Why are you reading this trash, Mom?” said she. (She and her friends do pride themselves on their literary taste.) I told her it was for research purposes and she rolled her eyes (but I noticed she had spirited it away.) I didn’t see her for the next eight hours. Later, she stomped into the room and flung the finished book down on the counter. “I can’t believe I read that.” Pause. “Can you get me book two?”

Flash forward to last night: We’re curled up on the couch together. She’s reading book four. I’m reading book three. (There are six in all.) At one point my daughter looks over the top of her book and says, “You know I heard this author has started another series.”

We may have to check that out.

On another note, in the Eat More Vegetables Category (See my blog: Between Projects Reading Books and Eating Vegetables for further explanation) I served cauliflower last night and apparently I don’t do that often because my son asked, “What’s with the albino broccoli?”

He was only half kidding. I think.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Between Projects: Reading Books and Cooking Vegetables

So my sweated/bled over manuscript has been sent out to my first First Readers, and the champagne and chocolate martinis have been drunk. Hooray. But now I’m faced with What To Do Next.

I don’t know what other writers do at this point. Some, like Stephen King, start right in on the next book. God love the guy. Apparently he writes 2000 words a day, every day, including birthdays and Christmas. Me, I need to give my mind a break. Plus there are all the nitty gritty things like cleaning toilets that I’ve put off and now are begging to be done. For example I’m sitting in my kitchen right now looking at a mound of papers spilling off my counter. Mostly these are college brochures stacking up for my son to sort through. But there are also movies and books to return, bills to pay, and another smattering of papers to sign, fill out, toss, etc. Then there are the other counters. And the other rooms (I just now noticed my Christmas dishes are still on display in the dining room. Also I’ve got a collection of candles on the table leftover from our power outage a month ago). These things will keep me busy for a while.

But I know myself well enough by now that cleaning alone (although necessary) is not going to cut it for me. In a few days my house will be spotless but I’ll be floundering, sitting in my pajamas at noon and putzing around feeling like there’s no point in my life and why am I not out there working a real job? Etc. It doesn’t help that this is the Cloud Season in Columbus. The gray and rainy days are relentless. They mock me when I’m not engaged in something productive. I NEED a purpose. And this purpose has to involve writing. Also some kind of goal helps too. One year I painted all the trim in my house. But now that's done. The point is I need something to occupy my time until the critiques of my first readers roll in and I can start Draft Three.

So here’s my challenge for myself during these potentially floundery weeks ahead:

1. I’m going to write every day. Something. Anything. Of course, every day I write my “Morning Page”—basically a journal of the junk that’s floating around in my head. I also resolve to write more on this blog. And I’ve started a project with my best writing friend, a back and forth middle grade novel with two points of view. (This is REAL writing, I suppose, but it’s not a daily thing because I have to wait for her to write the next chapter before I can write mine.)

2. I’m going to read more. Besides stacks of papers on my counters, I also have piles of books I’ve been meaning to read. This is the perfect time.

3. I’m going to work more vegetables into my family’s meals. I know this seems like an odd goal for a writer to have. But I’m also a mom and the primary cook in the family. Plus I’ve got all this FREE TIME now and I feel a tad guilty about the many chocolate chip pancakes I’ve served lately. I’ve got the latest Cooking Light magazine (also on the counter) and it features some interesting things you can do with brussel sprouts…

Which may make the kids yearn for the chocolate chip pancakes. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rolling Rocks up a Mountain

Conversation with my seventeen-year-old son:
Son: Mom, have you ever heard of Sisyphus?
Me.: Um, yeah
Son: We were talking about him in my English class today. You remind me of him.
Me: Um?

Now for those of you who don’t happen to have random Greek myths churning around in your heads, Sisyphus was the man the gods forced to push a boulder up a mountain. Every day Sisyphus pushed the rock up and every night the thing rolled down so he’d have to do it again the next day. It’s the very definition of futility, of pointless endeavor. Really, of life itself, if you want to get completely nihilistic about it. (My son’s English class just read The Stranger by Camus and that is exactly what they’ve been talking about. What’s the point?) What my son meant was that it seems pretty pointless for me to write every day when there doesn’t seem to be any external reward (ie payment).

But here’s what I told him: What else was Sisyphus going to do with his time? Stand on the bottom of the mountain and look at the rock? Kick it? Sit on it with his weary head in his hands? Why not push the damn thing? At least you get a change of scenery along the way, some exercise out of the deal, a decent view when you get to the top. And later you can get a little entertainment watching the rock bounce back down again, right?

Seemingly pointless digression:

So the other day I went out and bought a hair dryer. My best writing friend and I have this pact. When one of us gets a publishing deal, that person will buy the other one a hairdryer. We got this idea from Stephen King’s book On Writing. Apparently, he had struggled too in his pre-published days. If I remember right, he and his wife and two little kids were living in a trailer and he was teaching full time and making like 6000 dollars a year in rural Maine. They had a broken down Volkswagen. They couldn’t afford a phone. When he got his book deal, for Carrie, it was some crazy amount of money, like two hundred thousand dollars, and the stunned Stephen King walked around in a daze, his head spinning with the news that his life had just changed. He wanted to buy something for his wife to celebrate and for some odd reason the only thing he could come up with was a hairdryer.

Anyway, my friend and I have this pact but we were having problems with our hairdryers. We were putting off buying them because (and I know this is silly) we kept hoping that a book deal for one of us would come through. Last weekend my husband told me my hairdryer is a fire hazard. This was true. Sparks spit out the back end. Only one setting worked. Finally, I couldn’t take it. I went out and bought one. There was a twingy thought in the back of my head that doing that—taking matters into my own hands—might force a deal for my friend. (Also silly, I know, but I’m operating under the belief in the forces that make it rain right after you wash your car.)

Okay. Nothing has happened yet. My friend bought herself a hair dryer too. She needed one and she was trying to nudge the universe along for me too. (We are both silly like that.) But my point is that we are taking joy in whatever we can as we push our boulders up our respective mountains.

I just finished writing a book today. It's a second draft of a first draft of a version of a manuscript I have literally been writing on and off for almost ten years. WOO HOO. So tonight I’m going to sit back on my rock and enjoy the view from the top of the mountain (really I’ll be sitting next door in my neighbors’ hot tub drinking chocolate martinis, but you get the picture).

In a few weeks I’m going to start writing a new book and push the rock up the mountain again.

Because it’s what I do. Me and Sisyphus. We’re silly like that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Card to My First Readers

Dear First Readers,

Let me count the ways I love you

1. for reading my sprawling 250+ page manuscripts in a timely manner (and for not being annoyed when I call several times asking, “have you gotten to it yet?”)

2. corollary to this one just for my husband, for being able to concentrate on reading my manuscript while I breathe anxiously over his shoulder, and for the moments when I’m not reading over his shoulder, for answering me when I ask continually, “what part are you on?”

3. for kindly and lovingly giving me much needed criticism despite my stony silences and/or pathetic jabbering. (But don’t you get it, that part is supposed to be confusing/over written/boring, etc…)

4. for reading multiple versions of manuscripts. Special shout out to my college friend Tom who I just realized has read every single piece of writing I have ever produced since the age of 18. God Bless you, Tom. There is a special place in editorial heaven for you.

5. and corollary to that one for my husband Rick, who doesn’t even really like children’s books, but has read nearly everything I’ve written and still manages to put on a brave face when presented with yet another “finished” draft. (also, I should add a thanks for the many times he’s come home from work with same brave face, to find me still wearing my bathrobe, the house a complete sty and yet another appetizing meal of chocolate chip pancakes awaiting him for dinner.)

6. for their willingness to discuss plot holes and character motivation problems ad nauseum. (extra praise here to my two long-suffering children who have helped me work through more than one book issue with sweet little smiles on their adorable faces)

7. for telling me over and over again through the years that “this book is really good!” or “I bet this one is the one!”

Here’s to you, my wonderful, generous, gracious, and supportive first readers on Valentines Day—a BIG thanks and a promise that when the elusive book deal comes, every one of you is getting a real card and a box of chocolates.

Love Jody

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Revising Can Be Fun

Okay, I’m lying.

It’s not exactly fun, but taking a mess of a first draft to the next level—a not so messy, more coherent second draft—can be somewhat painless. The trick is to keep your eye on the big picture. This means not bothering with line edits and stray typos, but really looking at your manuscript as a whole and stepping back to see what you have. Carolyn See says in her helpful book on writing, Making a Literary Life:

Revision is when you first get to recognize the distance between what you wanted to write, what you thought you were writing, and what you actually did write. That recognition often makes you want to throw up.

The old me would’ve stopped at that point and wallowed in nausea. I didn’t know what to do next and basically I’d just go through the manuscript once more and check the spelling then start sending it out. Needless to say, I wasn’t very successful. I kept hoping a kindly editor would pluck me out of the slush pile, fall in love with my flawed manuscript and tell me what to do. TELL ME WHAT TO DO. That was my motto. But really I didn’t think there was anything that needed to be done. And in any case, I didn’t feel like doing it. But there must have been a part of me that knew I still had a lot to learn. I kept writing and reading and going to conferences and talking to other writers about how they wrote.

Over the years I’ve cobbled together a process that seems to work for me (in the absence of that kindly editor. Whom I fear does not exist. Sigh.) What I figured out is that if I want my book to be better, I’m the one who’s going to have to make it that way. So for what it’s worth, here are some helpful tidbits I’ve picked up along the way, the things I wish I’d known ten years ago:

1. When you finish your first draft, print it off in a different font from the one you wrote it in, then put it away and don’t look at it or think about it for at least six weeks. Your mind needs a break and some distance from the made-up world it’s been living in for the last few months. Rest. Clean your house. Watch crappy TV. You earned it. Then write something else.

2. Read your book, looking for the BIG PICTURE. What is your story about? Someone said once that all stories come down to one thing: a character wants something and he can’t have it. Your main character goes somewhere, learns something, faces some challenge. What’s his conflict? Who is his adversary? The amazing editor Patti Gauch says that every book should have a driving question that will keep the reader turning the pages. Will Dorothy get home? Will Stanley in Louis Sachar’s novel Holes have to keep digging holes? Will Jaws eat the sheriff? Etc. You may have had an idea of your question, your big picture, when you started writing your book. Then again, maybe not. Or it may have shifted along the way. Here is the point where you need to find out if what you’ve written all hangs together. If it doesn’t, don’t despair. See number 3.

3. Number 3. Outline your book. (Yes, some writers do this before they start writing. I am not one of them.) But now is my time to outline, so I gather up a set of index cards and record one scene per card. I want to be able to see my entire book at a glance and not have to continually shuffle through 250+ pages. Then I lay the cards out in order on the floor. There. My book. (You still may want to vomit at this point, but resist the urge.)

4. Look at those scenes. Here is where you realize the strands that worked and the ones that didn’t, the bits that started off and petered out, the cool things that popped up at the end but were never properly introduced and developed. What is your book’s driving question? Does each scene contribute to it? Does each logically follow, one after the next? Or can they be shifted? Combined? Cut? Move the index cards around. Staple several together. Leave blank spaces where scenes are missing.

5. Make a new outline. I title mine (with a huge nod to Carolyn See): What I Have and What I Need. As I type a short description of each scene, I add the elements that need to be deleted and those that need to be added to contribute to the overall arc of the story. Now I’m ready to go back into my manuscript and scene by scene, make my changes.

6. Do that, and wah lah! You’ve got a not so messy, more coherent second draft. Congratulations. This is a good time to send your manuscript out to a few trusted first readers, good friends who won’t be afraid to tell you, kindly and lovingly, what’s working and what’s not. Their comments should give you the little push you need to make it through Draft Number Three.

7. Finally, it's out into the publishing world, and you can start the process all over again by writing another first draft.