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Archive for October, 2012

HONORARY TITLES

A list of titles I’ve amassed with no stories attached — at least, not a story that I’ve written.  Some of these have a scrap of an idea trailing behind them, and some are just interesting phrases.

  • The Aforementioned
  • Out of Her Mind
  • Rescue the Perishing
  • Napoleon of Baltimore
  • The Worm at the Heart of the World
  • White Devils
  • Chasing the Monster
  • The Tomato Queen of Crystal Springs

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QUERIES

Just letting everyone know that I made a list of fifteen agents to query and sent out fourteen on the same day two weeks ago. (The fifteenth one was not at that time open for queries, but is now.)

Since then, I’ve had two rejections.  Some say that they won’t contact me at all if they don’t want to read it.
Will I hear from all fourteen (or maybe fifteen, if I get my act together)?  I’ll keep you updated.

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I’m continuing some reflections about my time in community writing class.  After a while, you start noticing a division among your classmates: some write, some don’t.  In a class of six, three will be reading scenes from their 300-page manuscript, two will be reading a few paragraphs that they jotted down that afternoon, and one will have brought nothing.  Everyone has demands on his time, and I’m in no position to criticize anyone for not writing, certainly not lately.  The introductory classes (which I did not take) are for civilians who are interested in starting to write. But this class is described in the catalog as being for writers who have ongoing projects.  To sign up for the class, you have to identify yourself as a writer, i.e., someone who writes.  But they don’t!

I watched these people for years as they came and went, usually quitting the class about halfway through the term.  Some showed up again and again, attending the first few class meetings, often with the same dog-eared material they had brought in the past.  This is the start of a novel, she might say, and we would all nod and give our comments, as grave as church fathers. After all, maybe it would be the start of a novel.  Maybe this person was just waiting for the right time in his life to sit down and really start writing.  Some of them had good ideas, clever turns of phrase, promising starts.  Some had none of these.

I should say in passing that I wrote the first few pages of what would turn into A Perfect Wife some ten years before I picked it up again to put flesh on the bones.  I know what it means for a project to sit dormant until it finds the right moment to throw out a leaf and a bud.  But writing a novel is a long, difficult, lonely process – there is a reason that most people don’t do it.  It stinks.  There are a million other things you could do with that time that would be more productive in the short, medium and long term – and just more fun.  On one hand, you could spend your evening on your notebook exercise and editing this scene until bedtime.  On the other, you could: see a movie, use enjoyable drugs, find a new sex partner, do something nice for an old sex partner, make some friends, learn to cook a new dish, get some sleep.

But (famous) authors appear on talk shows and have flattering pictures pasted on the dust jackets of volumes prominently displayed in bookstores.  They are celebrities, with (probably) groupies and (certainly) famous friends and (one assumes) lavish luxurious lifestyles, all salted with just a dash of romance.  What a great thing it must be to be a writer.  Writing, on the other hand – it’s hard to see how that scut work is even related to the lifestyle a writer must have.

I watched these two groups of people in the writing class, the writers and the non-writers, for four years.  The non-writers were often pleasant, attractive people.  The writers, the ones with hundreds of pages to pull from, with completed drafts of long projects, were often difficult, obsessive, sharp-tongued, eyes wild or haunted depending on the week.  But they were doing it, spending the time, cranking out the pages.

To be a writer, you have to write.  If you don’t, you are just fooling yourself.

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For most of the last four years I lived in Virginia, I participated in an adult ed writing class that met at night at a local high school.  (For those following, I wrote all of A Perfect Wife and The Burning House while taking this class, and the beginnings of the third book, Daughter of Sin.)  The class pitched itself as “advanced,” in that it was for writers who had fiction projects in progress.  In reality, almost anyone could sign up.

A drummer friend of mine once described a neighborhood musical production of Jesus Christ, Superstar that he played in as “very community.”  This class was very community.  Which is not to denigrate it – its purpose was/is to let locals come together and share their work and get feedback moderated by a teacher who kept everyone polite and also gave her own gentle guidance.   The crowd was varied, by age, education level, occupation, gender – the retiree set was well-represented, but there were others (me, for example).

They also varied by skill level.  A few were good-to-excellent writers, and there were a couple of students who didn’t know how to put a sentence together.  Listening to beginners can be tiresome, especially when you can tell that the person thinks that this story is going to be his path to fame and fortune.  (After all, why would you write fiction if you weren’t going to make any money at it? Huh?  Why?)  Often that writer was the least aware of her own limitations, and would come unglued under even the mild criticism that that class would offer.  To those people you say, It’s great!  Or if you can’t choke that out, you say, This is fun!

Some vignettes:

One writer came in with a story about how she had a menstrual accident during a job interview.  The story was graphic and the entire class was grossed out.  Someone asked her, what made you want to write this disgusting story? Her reply: It really happened!

One woman came to class for a couple of terms, reading a novel that just went on and on with no advancing plot, dwelling on the most minor conversations, etc.  It was about a teenage boy who has encounters with magical creatures that only he can see – clearly a YA novel, although the writer insisted it was not for children.   After a while, I asked her how long her draft was, and she responded about a thousand pages.

One man revealed, by way of his fiction, that he was VERY interested in the sex lives of adolescent boys.  (When called out on it, he was all like oh, really, I don’t know how you might think that, and stopped coming to class.)

One was a bleach blonde, far past-her-prime woman who thought of herself as the hottest vamp who ever walked the earth.  At some point she dropped in to conversation that she had had five husbands, a fact more interesting than her spy novel ever would be.

Two men, one a Ph.D and one an M.D., in the class at different times, who brought in “finished” novels.  Each made it clear that he would not change a word of what he had written, no matter what the class said.  (So what was he there for?  Praise?)

All very entertaining.  But the real benefit, the reason that I kept going back every Thursday night, was to have an audience.  Some of my classmates were good writers, some terrible, but all were readers, and everyone knew what he or she wanted to hear in a story.  (Some comments you can disregard – when you are on page 157 of a novel about George, and someone says I don’t like the name George, that’s not helpful.)  When you’re a new writer, as I probably still am, it’s quite difficult to find people to read your work.  I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to read my unpublished novel, or worse, my incomplete unpublished novel.  This group would do that for me, in exchange for my doing the same for them.  I’m grateful for that. Whatever the merits of my fiction, I wouldn’t have produced it at all without the benefit of an audience.

It was very community, as my friend said.  But a community was what I needed.

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