Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Lately I’ve been consumed by the college application process. (My son is a junior and our family just got back from a spring break college tour trip.) I am by no means an expert on the "getting into college" game, but I’m starting to figure it out, and I’m alternating between hope and despair about my son’s chances of acceptance into a top-notch school (which for our family includes some kind of financial aid package. The average price for a private college these days is considerable. Fifty-five thousand dollars a year at many schools. Cue horrified scream.

What’s interesting to me is how much this process is like the publishing business. Recently on NPR there was a report on the admissions process at Amherst. The way it works is admission counselors (in the writing business we call them first readers) cull through the thousands of applications (manuscripts in the slush pile). They come up with strongest candidates and present them to the admissions board (editorial department) and make their case. So much of it is arbitrary. One counselor presented an applicant who sounded phenomenal. The boy was the valedictorian of his class, had taken AP classes since he was a freshman, and had done tons of community service work. Yet he was rejected. Sometimes it comes down to a phrase in the personal essay (query letter). One student admitted he wasn’t passionate about anything. Well, forget him, they all agreed. Another kid mentioned something about chicken nuggets, which got a laugh from everyone and a place in the Yes pile. But later that Yes pile grew too big and the counselors ended up pulling some applications out randomly.

Yes. College admissions is sometimes like a lottery. These kids had already made it through the first round and the second and they still got cut. A counselor admitted the school had rejected students who ended up being Rhodes Scholars. He said it truly wasn’t a personal rejection, that Amherst had over 8000 applicants and could only take 1000. (For the record, Harvard has something like 35,000 applicants and will only accept 3000) In the end so much of the process is out of the student’s control.

Control is the key word here. Or rather the lack therof. You can have top SAT scores, a stellar academic record, and extra curricular activities up the wazoo, but there may be some other white boy from Missouri who juggles and plays the jazz sax and climbed Mount Everest last year too, so sorry, kiddo, you’re out of luck. It’s like this in the publishing business. There is a certain presumed standard of competence and talent and the rest comes down to praying your manuscript sounds like nothing else out there.

So why bother? I had this discussion with my best writing friend. She’s going through a crisis of faith and I’ve been emailing her inspirational messages and trying to talk her down from the ledge. I’ve been there before on that what’s the point ledge and it’s a discouraging place to be. Eventually, every writer has to come to terms with the reality that her dream may not come true. Seven thousand kids are not getting into Amherst this year. Oh well. They’re going to go to college somewhere. And I have a feeling they’re going to be just fine.

As for me (and I truly hope my dear writing friend too) I am going to keep writing. I have learned this lesson over the years: I feel better when I write. That’s really all there is to it. Yeah, it’d be nice to have some outside validation, an acceptance letter from my first choice publishing house in my mailbox. But like all those rejected Amherst applicants, in the end, oh well.

There’s always community college.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

From Book Club to Bunco

This is the first place I’ve lived that I haven’t been in a book club.

Almost twenty years ago I started one with my roommate from college. It was a small group, a handful of women newly married and just starting families. The only rule was the book had to be easily obtainable in paperback or at the library. Each month we met at a different restaurant, nothing fancy, but it was a welcome break from our regular busy lives. We rarely talked about the book for more than a few minutes, but we still called what we were doing a book club. Maybe it made our outings seem more legitimate. (It sounds better to say to your husband, “Hey, honey I’m off to my book club,” rather than, “You watch our one-year-old tonight, I’m going out to eat with my girlfriends.) When my husband’s job was transferred out of state, one of my first orders of business was to join another book club.

This turned out to be harder than I thought. Apparently, some book clubs are a little chummy and hard to break into. One group I discovered had a certain number of members, twelve, and basically, one of those people had to die or move away before the group would accept another. I was allowed to attend one of their meetings and it was hardcore. They met at a coffee house. One woman presented research she’d done on the book. I, a former high school English teacher, was a little intimidated by the seriousness of the probing discussion questions. Sheesh. Couldn’t we just chat about what we liked and didn’t? Then gorge ourselves on pastries? No matter. No member died or moved away. I had no chance at membership.

A few years later I stumbled on a great group. Some women I worked with were talking about an upcoming meeting and the book they’d just read. It was something I had just read too and I mentioned it shyly. Could I possibly come to the next meeting? Were there any rules about new members joining? The ladies looked at me like I was nuts. Of course I was welcome. The more the merrier was their motto. We met at each other’s houses for dinner every other month. It was very laid back. The hostess chose the book (again, something easily obtainable). Our book list over the years was a good mix of popular fiction and literary, non-fiction and short stories. Many of the members happened to be writers, which led to interesting discussions about character development and plot choices. The Christmas meetings everyone read a different book and gave a brief book talk. One year it was a children’s book. Another year it was a classic we were embarrassed never to have read. I read Great Expectations. Not sure how as an English major I had missed this along the way.

When my husband got transferred again, finding a book club was one of my priorities, but complications ensued. My first lead was another one of those Member Must Die Before We Accept Anyone New groups. There were two other possibilities, but neither panned out. I quit looking.

I still read a lot, but I’ve found that I don’t branch out as much from my comfort zone. That’s one of the cool things about being in a book club—you have to read stuff you wouldn’t normally pick up. And you have a reason to get out of the house and socialize. Sure, I get that with my bunco group—(for those of you unfamiliar with bunco, it’s a dice game that makes Yahtzee look complicated. It’s strangely fun and there’s wine)—but it’s just not the same. Sigh.

I’m thinking about starting a virtual book club on this blog. I’ll keep it very low key. One of us will suggest a book. We’ll “get together” next month to discuss. For the three or four of you who are reading this, what do you say?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Imaginary Spaces

A million years ago I heard Louis Sachar, Newbery author of one of my favorite books, Holes, speak at a conference. He started his talk by asking the audience what they thought was the most important aspect to consider when writing a book. People around me shouted out: “Characters, plot, theme!” But Sachar surprised us (or me, at least) by saying it was setting. At the time I thought of setting as background stuff, potentially boring description. Who cares where the characters are? What's important is what they're saying and doing. But Sachar went on to explain that setting is everything. In fact, in all of his books the setting is practically a character itself. Holes, for example, can’t take place anywhere except at Camp Green Lake. And his middle school series Sideways Stories at Wayside School can only happen in that bizarrely constructed school building.

I don’t know if I totally agree that setting is THE most important aspect of a book, but I definitely think it’s right up there with the other elements. Your characters can’t be floating around unmoored. They must move through a physical space somewhere. And done right a setting can come alive. Carolyn See in her writing manual Making a Literary Life talks about how certain people in our lives—the people we love or feel conflicted about or maybe even hate—family members, friends from childhood, the teacher who humiliated you in front of class in ninth grade—these people become our characters. At least variations of these people tend to show up in some form or another in the characters we create.

I think it’s the same with setting. Many of my Cicada stories take place at a college suspiciously like the one I attended. It’s the typical college campus in my head, with stone buildings and slate roofs. Sidewalks crisscrossing green lawns. An old pub in the center where they used to serve beer. The neighborhoods where my characters live are lined with the streets I walked when I was ten. There’s the park with the pond where we used to skate in the winter. There’s the patch of woods across the street I used to cut through to get to my piano lessons. The houses where my characters live are old. The kitchens are small. The bedrooms look out over the backyard. There is always an entryway where a mirror hangs on the wall.

I’m glad I’ve lived in several places over the years. And I’m glad I’ve moved away from them. Somehow you can see a place more clearly after you’ve left it. I’m not sure I could write about a place I’ve never been.

But maybe that’s not true. Just as the characters I’ve created are not totally based on people I’ve known, the settings I’ve plopped them into aren’t actually places where I’ve lived either. True, there might be a patch of woods across the street, but my pretend woods stretch on for miles. There’s a cave like the one I stumbled through near the Natural Bridge in Kentucky, the one where I almost had a panic attack in total darkness worrying that my kids would fall into an unseen crevice. There’s a stream that rushes along like the one that borders the town where I live now, but it’s also shallow in spots, like the one I tromped through at girl scout camp when I was twelve.

I just read a great YA novel that takes place in Paris, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.

It’s a sweet, angsty romance about a girl who’s sent to finish her senior year at an American boarding school in Paris. The girl is funny and clever, a want-to-be film critic who’s floundering at first with the language and culture and missing the goings on at home. The boy is half British and cute and afraid of heights. But it’s Paris that is the third character in this story. I heard that the author never visited the city before she wrote the book, which is just amazing to me. Of course, I’ve never been to Paris, so maybe she got some details wrong. Somehow I don’t think so.

That’s one of the cool things about being a writer. You get to use your imagination to create a world. Whether it is a real place or one that just feels like it should be.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Striving to be OKAY

The best advice I ever heard about how to handle criticism came from a talk given by Newbery author Linda Su Park several years ago at the Highlights Chautauqua conference. She said that while it’s difficult and painful for a writer to hear criticism, it’s also essential. If you don’t listen to criticism, you’re never going to improve your writing. But how do you respond when someone tells you your book is boring or your plot makes no sense?

The answer is to nod and say, OKAY. You can say this with your teeth grinding together and a sick smile plastered on your face, but just say OKAY. Let the person talk. Listen to what she has to say. Take notes. Say okay then give yourself a chance to think about it. Nine times out of ten, it’s valid criticism. At the very least, it’s worth considering.

Here. Let’s practice (using real comments first readers have given me):

Reader: The beginning is slow and clunky and confusing.
Me (What I’m thinking): Are you freaking kidding me? I wrote that section like fifteen times! It’s completely necessary to the set up of the entire novel. I’m not changing one damn thing about it.
Me (What I say): Uh. Okay.

Reader: I don’t like your main character. He’s kind of a jerk.
Me (What I’m thinking): You’re kind of a jerk.
Me (What I say): Okay.

You get my point. If you ever want this person to read your work again and honestly give you feedback, you must listen to what she’s saying and thank her kindly for taking the time to think about it and relay it to you.

Something I’ve learned over the years, too, and I’m not sure if Linda Su Park said this or not, is that a good reader will be able to tell you what isn’t working, but she won’t necessarily be able to tell you why it doesn’t work or what you can do to fix it. That’s YOUR job as the writer.

Now say you’re the first reader for someone else. How can you be a helpful critic without destroying the writer’s delicate ego? Well, it goes without saying that you must be kind. The writer likely spent months (maybe years) toiling over this manuscript. Even if it’s a giant mess it represents her hard work, never mind her blood, sweat and tears. But that doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat your response. Telling someone I liked it or it’s good isn’t very helpful. If you really did like it, be specific about what you liked. It’s a good idea to start with the positive no matter what. If there are issues, be specific here too. Is there a section that’s confusing? Does a character do something that doesn’t make sense? Is there a part with too much description or not enough? Or maybe there are more rudimentary issues. The tense changes, for example, or there are confusing shifts in point-of-view.

The best case scenario is to have a give and take relationship with your first readers—where you read and critique each other’s work. It’s taken me years to find people like this and I take my role as their first readers just as seriously as I take my role as a writer.

I’m thinking about all of this because today I’m off to have coffee with one of my first readers. She just finished reading my manuscript and she’s gearing up to tell me what she thinks about it. I’m gearing up too. I’ve got a notebook to record what she says. I’ve done my yoga this morning so my chakras are balanced. I’m in the proper state of mind—a zen-like oneness with the universe. I’m also chanting my all-purpose word:

Okay Okay Okay Okay.