Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond Imagining

Last week, I gave a coworker a copy of Voice of Innocence (commonly known among the cognoscenti as “the Lachlan book”) to take home and read. This during a time when no agents or editors have this latest incarnation, nor do I have a list of agents and editors ready to look at it. I’ll get to that list as I go; work has been a real energy-drain of late, trying to get an encyclopedia out into production and having it take way too long. But it also dawned on me that there’s a reason for a certain inertia in the submission and resubmission and querying and requerying process. One name for it might be fatigue. Or, taken to its extreme…a kind of despair. I discovered this, interestingly enough, when the coworker wrote me a quick note after she’d sneaked a look at the first 10 pages of it (there’s a strong temptation to having a manuscript on one’s desk!). Her e-mail simply said, “WOW!” And it took me almost completely by surprise. Now, why should praise for a work that is the Book of My Heart take me by surprise? Don’t I know that story is horking good? Don’t I know that, placed up against much of what’s already on the shelves, this book would—pardon my French—kick ass? Well…no. Frankly, I don’t. Not at the level I need, or want, to have a handle on. This isn’t false modesty talking. This is the realization by a battle-scarred veteran that it’s been a long time since a story that really matters has provoked a “WOW!” out of anybody but perhaps, maybe, a minion or two. And when I got that WOW, it brought home to me all over again the value of fresh eyes. And how fresh mine aren’t. And how much that’s hurt me over the past few years. I’m not talking so much about a lack of self-esteem when it comes to writing. I’m talking about something deeper, something much more pernicious and pervasive and destructive. I’m talking about, for all intents and purposes, the loss of hope. And I didn’t realize how much I’d lost hope until Gina was jumping up and down with glee about how great this book was, and how we HAVE to get it published, and we’re GOING to get it published, and all we need is a plan.... The sad thing is, there was a time when I was right on that bandwagon with her. You know, when I was seventeen and idealistic (and twenty-four and idealistic, and thirty and idealistic), I knew I was going to make it as an author. When I married, my husband supported me in this, to the point where we darned near lost everything because we were convinced that my big break was just around the corner, so I stayed home with the kids and I wrote and I entered contests and… ….and I got broker and broker, until I finally had to go out and get a day job. That can, and does, feel like a failure to many of us. It’s not, but it does cause a little part of that big, bubbly, sparkly optimistic hope we have inside to break off and fade away. Because we’ve had to “give in” on at least one front. Then we go and join writing groups, so we’ll get “tough” and “businesslike.” And learn what “real writing” is. And we get our words chewed up and reassembled and spat back at us. A lot of that is necessary. A lot of it is good learning. But a lot of it also means that we “give in” on some additional fronts. We start learning about guidelines, and we “give in” on some of the ideas we have that “won’t sell.” We learn about the market, and about dos and don’ts of certain publishers, and we “give in” and clear our writing of some of the taboos. And each time we do these things, it breaks off additional little pieces of our original, fresh, heart-thrumming work…and more of that big, bubbly, sparkly dream we have starts to fade at the edges. Then, the miracle happens. We win a major award, as I did. And we think we’ve made it. We’re sure we’ve learned the secret handshake now. It’s going to happen. That dream is at last going to come true. We can taste it, it’s so close. We can smell the ink on the contract. And then we call an editor who supposedly has our award-winning manuscript on her desk, only to learn that she has to go track it down “at the bottom of a pile” in one of the publisher’s spare rooms. After that publisher, and that editor, specifically asked for that manuscript. At that point, not only does our big, sparkly bubble of optimism break…but we can find ourselves not knowing how to make more bubble formula so we can blow another one. Yeah, that’s how the business works. But that, my friends, is also a large section of the yellow brick road to writer despair. No, it won’t kill a career. And, no, it won’t kill a writer. Or will it? You see, I’ve been doing all the “right things” for so long now, and getting soooo close for so long now—but never really making it—that I have wondered, more than once, what the use is of continuing. Statistically, maybe I haven’t done the work necessary to “quit” by some people’s standards, and certainly even by my own former ones. And when asked if I’m going to quit writing, the answer is usually no. But when I got that reaction from my coworker, I realized to my horror that I’ve already quit something far more important… I’ve quit believing. I am to the point where I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of success as an author anymore. I honestly don’t think about writing day and night—not so much because I have no energy to do it (which is partly true), but because part of me is sick and tired of watching the words flow onto the page, getting good feedback, getting close…but never seeing the work get out there where someone else other than a handful of people is ever going to see it. I have rights back to a book that never had a chance to begin with, and I have bits and pieces of other books that have promise but have been through so many wringers themselves that they’re almost unrecognizable. In the process, I as a writer—and as a potential author—have been through my own wringer, one I have only just begun to glimpse the damage from. And it’s a sobering sight. The truth of the matter is, much as I have put on an enthusiastic “plugger” face to the world, in my heart of hearts I no longer recognize much more than the dimmest possibility that this one, beautiful, emotional, socks-knocking book of my heart will have any better of a chance than any of the bits and pieces I’m trying to cobble together. And if something that you love passionately doesn’t have a chance…what’s the hope of all the rest of it? In short, what’s the point? To entertain myself? I can think of easier ways to do that. To have a rollercoaster emotional experience? I’m a Cubs fan. ‘Nuff said. I’m not a big believer in whining as a creative endeavor. Nor, overall, do I enjoy reading other people’s whining. But I don’t believe that this realization—this sensation of “You know, I truly cannot imagine selling this wonderful book…it’s beyond my comprehension that anyone’s going to actually buy this before I die...and that's scary”—is whining. I think it’s something way bigger than that. I think it’s something more of us suffer from than any of us want to admit. And one of us is tired of putting on the happy face and pretending otherwise. What I’m going to do about this is still an open question. Because the one bright light in this tunnel is…this coworker has a contact at one of the major publishers I would just about sell my teeth to get into. So her idea is she reads this book and we mount an offensive to get it through the door, by means of the friend she’s already made at this big house. But somewhere in the pit of my stomach, this feels like the last hope this book has. And somewhere also in that same pit is an awful certainty that “that trick isn’t gonna work any better than any of the other routes I’ve already tried.” I don’t want to become the Augustinian and take on the attitude, “I never expect anything, so then I’m never disappointed.” I believe, quite frankly, that that’s self-deception. That’s saying what I’m saying above, but refusing to admit that it hurts. That's another kind of death, and I don't want to go there. I want to keep feeling. And believing. So the scary question has now become…how? Thoughts? Janny

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hearing is Believing...Or Is It?

This may be significant, or it may mean nothing. But it got my attention, so see what you think. To wit: Recently, I heard yet another of the many paeans of praise, after the fact, for The Sopranos. Now, I never watched the show for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that if I want to spend a couple of hours a night listening to the “f” word, I can do it through myriad means online, anytime. (Spare me the arguments about “That’s how real people talk,” or even “That’s how these people talk.” The real people I know don’t talk that way, and the Mafia do a lot of things I don’t want in my living room. ‘Nuff said.) But enough people around me were fans of it, including a local radio personality who brought up the fact that the reason he loved the writing of the show so much is because of how good the dialogue was. Now did he love it because the characters used witty repartee? Nope. Did he love it because it sparkled, because it “clicked,” because it hummed along almost lyrically? Nope. He loved it so much because it sounded like real people talking. Complete with “ummms” and “ahhs” and flubbed up and misused words. As he put it, “No one else on TV or in the movies does that. All the other dialogue in most things sounds fake. It’s too perfect. People never trip over a word, they never get tongue-tied, they never say one word when they’re thinking of another one, except if they’re going for comedy. But in real life, everybody does that. So these writers made you feel not like you were watching a script, but like you were watching real people just go through their lives, mistakes and all. That’s genius.” It might be genius in this guy’s eyes. But it’s also pointedly, diametrically opposite of the way we’ve all been told to write dialogue. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. In fiction, dialogue should perform more than one function. Ideally, it shouldn’t be just “the way people talk,” it shouldn’t have those embarrassing lapses in it (unless, as the man said, you’re going for a deliberate effect), and it shouldn’t have “ums” or “ahs” or all that stuff. The idea is to make it sound like real people talking…only streamlined. A little cleaned up, if you will. Ideally, then, dialogue gives the illusion that you’re with these people in real life, only it doesn’t waste your time with real-life hemming and hawing. So who’s right? Or are we both? And who’s actually writing people that sound like real people? This isn’t the first time I’ve run into the “dialogue” question, either. My son once remarked that “your characters tend to talk like you do. They sound like you, Mom.” That was a mixed critique at best. On one hand, of course, I was writing people like me: people who saw the world the same way I did, who spoke with a similar vocabulary, etc. I was “writing what I knew” in that sense. In another sense, of course, that’s a killing indictment of a work. If all the characters sound like you, they’re not people in their own right, and that means you have some work to do. My only consolation on this point is that I have lots of company in this fault. Lots and lots of people are guilty of this, and some of us get away with it. I was trying to read a novella once where in one story, I literally could not tell the characters apart. To this day, I can’t tell you those characters’ names or anything about them, because they had no distinguishing “voices” on the page—and I didn’t stick around reading long enough to give them time to develop same. Had this book not been by a multipublished and bestselling author, I would assume, it might not have made it out of the gate. But the fact that it was, and it did, makes the offense even worse. The good news is that this kind of problem is easily fixed, with enough creativity and time spent inside characters’ skins. But the first “problem” mentioned here has me wondering. Obviously, a screenplay can get away with “sloppier” dialogue in the sense that the experience a viewer has is more multilayered; while they’re listening to Tony Soprano come up with a malapropism, it’s a part of the total viewing experience. I suspect we don’t have that luxury in books, where the flat words on the page have to do so much more for a reader than the words of dialogue have to do on a screen. But I do have to wonder if, because of things like the writing on certain television shows, we’re coming to a point where we’re going to be asked to make our characters, in a sense, less articulate and more “real.” Is there a method by which we can, literally, do both? Have articulate characters speak dialogue that accomplishes what we’ve all been taught it’s supposed to do…while the people still sound real and not “fake” or “too perfect”? Thoughts? Janny

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thirty Years in the Carpenter’s Shop—Or, Hidden Preparation

Several of us have been thinking lately in terms of “breaking out” in our writing lives. No, not in poison ivy, although it is that season. But in terms of making some Big New Things Happen in our writing and our approach to same. As in, “This will be my breakout book.” Or, “It’s time I broke out of this rut.” Or, “Now that I’ve broken away from this genre…now what?” Some of us get a little panicky at this point, and with good reason (at least in our own minds). Many of us, after all, are of the Day Planner generation—if we’re not being productive (i.e. jumping right into the next book the moment we type THE END on this one), we’re wasting time, and we cannot afford to do this! We “owe” the world productivity for taking up space (!), and we owe our God the maximum output from the gifts we have. (Who can forget Erma Bombeck’s line, so frequently quoted, about hoping that she didn’t have a speck of talent left at the end of her life, because she used it all up? ‘Nuff said.) Some of us, however, get panicky for another reason entirely—the not totally unfounded fear that the writing and publishing world is passing us by. And not because we’re writing to a trend that’s going to be “so yesterday” by later this afternoon, but because we are surrounded by other writers who are selling, some of them at a rate that leaves us breathless. One particular writer I know has gone from getting her first contract last fall to being able to finish her e-mail signature with a list of three or four books already contracted, and another one pending. I get whiplash just thinking about it. When this kind of thing happens, I feel many other things, too. None of them good. I start out somewhere around “Ohmyword.” From there, I go quickly to “For Pete’s sake, leave some contracts for someone else,” and it’s only a short trip before I land somewhere in the skids of “Well, obviously, I missed the secret handshake meeting again.” (Otherwise known as the Slough of Writer Despond.) Now, putting aside for a moment whether I should be rejoicing for this woman (of course) and what’s keeping me from doing so (easy answer, tough problem to lick)…what’s putting me into said despond slough? The fact that I don’t have four books ready to go. To anyone. Anywhere. In any shape. And I won’t have that many ready to go for quite some time…especially since I’m doing some “breaking out” of my own. And there’s the rub. We who experience these jealousies, panics, and whiplashes are both forgetful of, and overly conscious of, the element of being prepared to move to that next step. Laying groundwork. Doing research. Learning new ways of approaching our art. Refilling the well. Tending to our spirits. Resting. Writing. Experimenting. Finding, perhaps, a new creative rhythm and voice. And we forget—or we want to deny—that all of that takes time. Why? In a word, because we’re scared we don’t have that time. The publishing world continually reinforces this notion of scarcity: not enough time, shrinking markets, diminishing opportunities for those who aren’t poised on the very edge of caffeine, ready to leap. Serendipity is amenable to dipping her hand into the magic dust and sprinkling it on us, but we gotta be out there for it to happen. Preparation work isn’t the work that gets us out there. It’s work that’s done within. In our own writers’ caves, if you will. But Serendipity doesn’t make cave calls, and we all know it. So we’re torn. We want that magic dust, and we want it to be the real thing, but we begrudge spending time in a fallow place while our Muse regroups herself. We don’t want to noodle around with six or eight or fifteen or twenty-three or fifty-seven ideas that don’t go anywhere; we want to get right to that magic #412 idea—the one that’s going to be The Book That Makes Our Name—as soon as possible, preferably yesterday, thank you very much, and while you’re at it, yes, I would like fries with that. And make it snappy. Too bad that’s not how craft really works. Success in the writing craft, as in most other areas, truly is a matter of “preparation meeting opportunity.” (And dumb luck, and the stars aligning, and the secret handshake, and…oh, wait. Never mind.) But we need to understand the true nature of “preparation” if we’re going to hit our own dose of magic dust. Preparation is dog work. It’s time-consuming. Sometimes, it’s frightening. Certainly, it’s unpaid. But it’s really, really necessary to take enough time to lay the right foundations. To make sure we’re working toward what our true place, our true voice, and our true niche in the craft is, not necessarily what all the “experts” tell us we “ought to” do. But it’s hidden work. And, at times, it can look like we’re doing “nothing” to get ourselves ahead. As a consequence, sometimes that outside world is going to ask us pointed questions. Or we're going to ask ourselves the pointed questions and worry because of what we think that world is thinking of us. But if we’re truly going to “break through,” we dare not try to shortcut the process. If we doubt this, all we have to do is look at the Lord and Master himself, who took thirty years to prepare for His “real” work. Think about that. Thirty years. How many of us have that kind of patience? That wasn’t thirty years of practice-preaching in pulpits, teaching VBS, or working in a soup kitchen, either—works that, had they existed, would have been good preparation for the life of itinerant preacher and healer. On the contrary; Jesus not only didn’t hang around the synagogue day and night and get labeled a “holy person,” but if anything, He did the opposite: He hung around Dad’s workshop and built tables and shelves and cabinets. Talk about a fallow period! And what happened when He finally left the woodworking tools behind and started calling fishermen? His own hometown pooh-poohed him for exactly the reason that we’re talking about: He was Mary and Joseph’s son, just a carpenter, nothing special. Who did He think He was? Well, of course, what mattered wasn’t what His hometown thought of Him. Or even what He thought He was. What mattered was what God His Father was preparing Him to be. And what He was preparing to be, and to do, was something no one else could do—something that gave life to all the rest of us. If that wasn’t a magnificent “breakout,” nothing was. We, too, can provide our own kind of “life” for people with the words we write. We, too, have the capability to tell stories we haven’t yet imagined. But we have to be willing to wait for them to come. To resist the temptation to jump out of the cave and try to do the Big Thing too fast, too soon, or in a way that isn’t true to the writer God made us to be. We have to be willing to sacrifice the good for the best, something that’s never easy…especially not in what seems to be an ever-more-competitive and ever-narrower world like writing and publishing. But if we can calm ourselves, yield that crazy world and our crazy craft to God and let Him handle it, I truly believe we have a much better chance of finding the wide, open road that we’re meant to walk and the niche we’re meant to fill. It’s a big challenge, but He’s up to if it we are. The question is, how “hidden” are you willing to be? How abandoned to what He wants you to do? If He were to tell you it was going to take thirty years to get you to where He wanted you to be as a writer, would you be willing and able to let Him take that time? Thoughts? Janny

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I have been, with great glee and malice aforethought, violating one of the key principles of blogging: I’ve written loooooooong pieces that take awhile to read. This, my friends, is a no-no. At least according to most blogging experts out there. (Never mind the oxymoronic idea of "blogging experts" when Microsoft doesn’t even recognize “blog” as a word yet. If the Evil Empire says what you do is not a word, can you still be an expert?) Anyway, these self-proclaimed experts explain to us now that people accustomed to doing things online have very, very short attention spans. Think “gnat.” Now, a gnat doesn’t hang around for very long in any one place. It’s got places to fly, people to annoy, crevices to hide in. Apparently, the same is true of most people reading blogs. (Well, okay, maybe they don’t fly much, but a lot of ‘em hide in crevices—that much is apparent by reading their comments. The “annoying” part goes without saying.) They have little time to “waste” sitting down reading a long, drawn-out piece of wisdom. Hit ‘em fast, hit ‘em with valuable information right off the bat, because their eyeballs aren’t going to be on your site for longer than 16.8 seconds before they lose patience and they’re off to the next click. Unless, of course, your blog says anything about scandal, gossip, links where people can get FREE STUFF, or is so inflammatory that people spend longer than 16.8 seconds just so they can click into your comments section and tell you what an idiot you are (language cleaned up for the sake of all of us). So my blog is breaking all the rules. Because this entry, as you can see, is already too long. You’ve probably already lost patience with me and are saying, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, she’s babbling again, get the woman some Prozac.” Well, you might be right. I am babbling. But it’s because I’m in a particularly snarky mood this morning, it’s Wednesday and I don’t want to be here at work checking other people’s stuff when I could be writing my own. It’s also blazing ridiculously hot, I had to stop on my way out to work this morning to clean catstuff off the carpet (eeewww), and… Yeah, I know. Prozac. Anyway, to keep this short and sweet: those of you who have my website address on your links may need to change it shortly…I’m changing web page providers, redoing everything, and that old link was supposed to expire as of July 31. Which, as we can see by the clock on the wall, has passed, and it’s bloomin’ August already. Which is as good a time as any, considering it’s my birthday month and all, to give myself the present of a new website. In the meantime, please tell everybody you know to come over here to Catholic Writer Chick and they can browse to their gnats’ eyes’ content! But what do you really think? Is short the only way to go? Or is there still a group of people out there who want to read steak, not sizzle, and don’t mind knowing there’s a blog or two out here with substance to it? Who don’t mind pouring a cup of coffee, clicking on the link, and seeing what diabolical stuff the CWC is up to today? (This is a hint. Tell everyone you know to come over here. Oh, did I say that already?) :-) Let me know. In the meantime, stay tuned for some chatter about What We’re (Trying To) Read At The Moment… Write on! Janny