Archive for the ‘Writing and books’ Category

Cover reveal!

November 15, 2022

I’m so excited: Here’s the cover for my novel Shaken Loose, which will be published next summer by Hypatia Press!

I really, really love this. It’s eye-catching, reflective of the themes of the book… and it was created by my daughter Rebecca Schuchat!

Becca is an emerging graphic novelist and designer. She received her MFA last June from the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, has a growing portfolio of work, and is working on a graphic novel that will be of particular interest to people who have followed this blog. (Shhh. I can’t give away anything about it.)

I’d been thinking way too literally about cover ideas. I asked Becca to help me come up with some concepts I could give to the publisher, since my own drawings look like the output of a semi-talented pre-schooler. She produced a rough sketch, which they liked enough to have her design the actual cover! After some rounds of refinement, here it is.

I really love it. Publication in summer 2023 feels like a long time away, but this is a big step and makes it feel more real.

It’s a little weird being categorized as a “debut novelist”—with connotations of young girls in fancy dresses—when I’m closer to 61 than to 16. But then I had a Midlife Bat Mitzvah, so I should be used to that. :-)

I am deeply thankful for having such a talented and generous daughter. Grateful for a publisher who recognized a good cover when they saw it (as opposed to the awful, literal sketches I’d sent them). I’m thankful that after four decades of drafting novels after workdays, while on maternity leave, and during spurts of unemployment I am finally on the road to publishing one.

Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for joining me on this journey so far, and I look forward to your company over the next year too.

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Go to (artistic) Hell

October 25, 2022

Like the real world isn’t scary enough these days? Now I’m asking you to join me in visiting Hell?

Hold on. This is *artistic* Hell—how artists across history and cultures have depicted a punishing afterlife. And it’s really interesting. It can even be a fun, momentary diversion from the genuinely scary things like politics, climate change, Putin’s war on Ukraine, etc.

I’ve just launched Facebook and Instagram feeds on the art of Hell. You can find them on either of those social media at @hell_scapes. Here are links to the Facebook page, and to the Instagram account. We’ll explore some works that may be familiar to you (Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights) and some that are likely to be completely unfamiliar (a 15th century Central Asian image of Muhammed at the gates of Hell).

Garden of Earthly;y Delights
Vision of Hell by Heironymous Bosch, in his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (late 1400s, in the Prado Museum).
Muhammed rides towards red gates that mark the entrance to a fiery Hell
Muhammed (with the turban) approaching the gates of Hell, on a mystical steed called a buraq. From a 15th century illuminated manuscript of Nahj al-Faradis, or The Path to Paradise. From the Timurid Empire, which encompassed today’s Iran. Iraq and much of Central Asia. Image from the David Collection in Copenhagen (inventory # 14/2014), photographed by Pernille Klemp.

Why am I doing this? My fantasy novel Shaken Loose, which will be published in summer 2023, is set in Hell. In doing research for it—yes, writing about an imaginary place did require research!—I ran across a lot of intriguing, moving, gruesome, or just plain bizarre paintings and sculptures.

These images tell stories of what the artist and their society valued and condemned. And of what they feared: After all, they were trying to depict the Worst Punishment Imaginable. They tell us something about the artist’s own self: Were they gloating at those tormented souls as they painted them in flames or chains? Were they feeling compassionate? Rebellious? Confident about their own destiny, or worried?

These images also raise related questions about ourselves. Why have we humans felt such a widespread need to imagine a punitive afterlife? Of course we yearn for justice that may not manifest itself in our lifetime. But does justice always require punishment? How about our criminal justice system today: Can we imagine and implement a form of justice that isn’t centered on the infliction of pain and suffering?

Painting of souls in purgatory
Souls in purgatory, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, an illuminated manuscript created around 1440 in the Netherlands. In the Morgan Library. The Hellmouth is a common motif in medieval European art.

I invite you to follow either the Instagram or Facebook feed. (They have the same content.) Beyond that, I invite you to help! Think of it as a Hell Art Scavenger Hunt. If you’re visiting a museum and find a painting or sculpture of Hell, take a photo of it along with its informational plaque and send them to me. I will credit you as the “finder” of this treasure.

You can expect one or two posts each week — not enough to overwhelm, just enough to provide a moment of whimsical or thought-provoking relief from work Zooms, stalled commuter trains, or bad news headlines.

Join me in Hell! For fun and relaxation! Meet you at the fiery gates. Or cave. Or jaws.

You can find purgatory in suburban Connecticut. Photo by Ilana DeBare

From drought to deluge of visual info

September 22, 2022

I’ve been in Istanbul for the past week doing research for the historical novel I mentioned in my last blog post!

Also having regular touristy fun with Sam, of course: mosques, ferries, fantastic food. But all the time I’m trying to figure out what Istanbul was like in the 1600s— what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like back then.

It’s challenging. First of all, no commonplace buildings still exist from that century, only monumental structures like stone mosques and the Topkapi Palace. The everyday city was built of wood, and it burned periodically, and nothing is left from before the late 1800s and 1900s. There’s no equivalent of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter or Paris’ Marais neighborhood.

In addition, there are few visual depictions of Istanbul from the 1600s.  Muslim art is non-representational—beautiful calligraphy and floral designs, but no images of humans. The few existing landscapes of pre-modern Istanbul are by Western European artists (whose vision is not necessarily reliable due to Orientalist preconceptions), and even those were rare in the 1600s. 

View of Istanbul waterfront (Eminonu) by French painter Jean Baptiste Hilair from 1789 (Pera Museum)
A view of the waterfront today (the opposite shore at Karakoy) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So I’ve been wandering the very modern streets relying on imagination to see what they were like 350 years ago—before pavement and neon and chain stores, before trams and motorcycles, before the hordes of Istanbullus and tourists promenading along Istiklal Road with ice cream cones and roasted corn on the cob.

And all these Istanbullus and tourists are taking selfies.

Thousands of selfies. Tens of thousands of selfies! Maybe I just notice it more after two years of Covid isolation, but in the city’s gathering spots it seems like every fifth person is taking a cell phone photo. 

Clustering around local street musicians, people take cell phone photos. Jumping onto an old-fashioned trolley, more photos. And of course the view spots—the grand mosques, the palace—even more cell phone photos.

Cell phones eliminated any price barrier to taking photos—lots of photos. I take advantage of this as much as anyone does. I’ve snapped probably two dozen photos of Istanbul’s street cats. Do I need to remember each cat? Will I want to look at each cat five years from now? Of course not. But I pass a cat, and I think “how cute” or “how picturesque,” and I click and move on.

Sam photographs a street cat, and Ilana photographs Sam / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Data point: Over 6 billion people on the planet now have cell phones.  If only one-quarter of them take only one selfie each month, that’s 1.5 billion new images floating up into the cloud each month. That’s 18 billion new images each year.

It adds up to a visual library with incredible potential for future social historians, assuming they are able to access it.* 

Even simple posed portraits tell us a lot about someone’s place in society. (Think about those Renaissance portraits where there was significance to the way a nobleman was standing, or the items placed on a table beside him.) 

And portraits in a busy public setting tell stories about the surroundings as well as the subject: What’s the demographic make-up of that crowd watching the street musicians? Which products are for sale in the shop window behind them? Why are a dozen armed policemen leaning against a wall nearby?

But there will be so many photos. Probably a thousand photos of the Galata Tower taken each day, and ten thousand of the Hagia Sofia mosque. Making sense of them will no longer be a job for an individual but for an A.I. program. The program will sort and dice them in countless ways—how many scarfed versus unscarfed women, how many same-sex couples touching each other in public, how many Nike sneakers and what age were the Nike wearers? 

For historians and historical novelists of the future, the challenge will not be too little visual data but too much visual data. 

Will it be easier or harder for a historical novelist in 2422 who is trying to recreate the world in which we’re now living?

—————————–

*I know that future access to all these photos is a big “if,” both legally and technically. These billions of photos are supposedly private, even if stored on Apple or Google servers in the cloud. And who knows if historians of the future will be able to view jpgs? The first novel that I drafted in my 20s was saved on floppy disks, which computers can no longer read. If I ever wanted to revisit that (early, painfully bad, not worth revisiting) work, I’d need to hire a data retrieval company.

Of course I have to include a selfie! For those future historians who want to know how American tourists dressed in 2022. / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

Writering

October 26, 2021

The other day I invented a new word for what I was doing­—writering.

Of course it wasn’t really new. With the web, you can almost always find someone else who has already done something similar to whatever you’re doing.

But it was new to me. Coming up with it made me happy. So there! 

Writering refers to all the ancillary work that writers have to do that is NOT writing. That could include book research, updating one’s web site, querying agents or publishers, printing business cards, commenting on a friend’s work-in-progress, or even taking all those scrunched-up photocopy receipts out of one’s wallet and putting them in an “expenses” folder.

I just wrapped up a six-month stint back on the staff of Golden Gate Audubon, doing communications there again. (Which partly accounts for the lack of recent blog posts here.) During those six months, my novel was on hold, which was in fact a welcome and restorative break. I’d been querying literary agents without success—often getting form-letter rejections or no response whatsoever—for a book that has been under construction since mid-2014. Seven years! So it felt wonderful to be working with people who appreciated me, and equally wonderful to have finite projects like newsletters that could be started and finished in a single day.

But now it’s wonderful to get back to the book!

I’m doing some limited re-writing, but even more writering. I’m reviewing my spreadsheets of agents and small presses to figure out whom to query next. I’m researching those agents and presses, to make sure I understand what they’re looking for. I’m educating myself about alternatives such as hybrid publishing and self-publishing. I’m starting historical research for my next novel, which remains an alluring but skeletal concept.

“Did you have a good writing day?” Sam asked the other evening.

“I had a good writering day,” I said.

I like the word writering because it sounds like motoring, with its connotation of forward motion. Revving engines! Speed! Distance! Progress!  (Remember that Mini-Cooper ad campaign from a few years ago with the tag line, “Let’s motor?”)

In the driver’s seat

It’s easy to feel unproductive when I’m not actually adding new pages to a manuscript. There are few things as fulfilling as looking back at the end of a day and seeing that I’ve created two, five, or maybe even ten pages of story out of nothing. It didn’t exist, and now it exists! It’s even better when I re-read those pages and like them. I feel like I’ve earned my evening glass of wine….

A day of mucking around in spreadsheets and query letters doesn’t give that same sense of accomplishment. But hey… it’s not “mucking around,” it’s writering.

As the Mini-Cooper folks would say: Let’s writer!

Lost islands of our lives

June 24, 2019

There are episodes that are cut off from the great river of our lives. These are weeks or months or even years with no connection to our present day. We haven’t returned to these places; we don’t tell stories about the events that took place then; we aren’t in contact — not even ersatz social media contact — with any of the people.

These episodes can feel like dreams. Like ancient cities lost in the jungle. Like islands that were once part of the mainland but then isolated by continental drift — our own personal Galapagos, where time stops and the beaches are pristine and the animals never learn to fear humans.

For me, one of these times is the spring I spent in Santa Fe in 1978.

Downtown-SantaFe

Downtown Santa Fe

I took the semester off from my East Coast college and through some random decisions ended up working as a waitress in a deli/bar on the main square. In retrospect, I was throwing things at the wall to see what might stick. Imagining myself as a writer, wanting to experience America beyond Manhattan and Cambridge, creating a life from scratch among utter strangers. I stayed for a while in a Jesus freak commune and met Vietnam vets and fended off harassing bar patrons and had a crush on a soulful-eyed, beautiful Latino construction worker who barely noticed me and drank a lot of peppermint schnapps and then one night died in a car crash on one of New Mexico’s winding mountain roads.

When spring ended, I returned to Cambridge and college. I’ve never been back to Santa Fe. I don’t remember – perhaps never knew? — the last names of any of the people I met there.

It became a Galapagos island. It stood apart; my history moved forward elsewhere. As decades passed, I thought about those months less often.

But among the encounters I had that spring was one with a marginal and short-lived literary magazine called Read Street, after one of the streets in Santa Fe. It was started by an unlikely character – a loud, crass, heavily-accented New York man who wore tinted aviator sunglasses in that late-70s “on the make” style. He was someone you’d expect to find managing an L.A. rock band, not running a little literary magazine. I think I had a short story published in it. I think he tried to pursue me and so I backed away from the magazine.

There’s nothing else I remember about that particular aspect of my Santa Fe time… except for a poem published in the magazine that stuck with me through all these decades. I had attended an event where the poet, a Native American woman, read it aloud: I was struck by her long, dark hair, her gleaming talent, and her age,  just a few years older than me.

The phrase I remembered from her poem was “cuchillo moon.”

Her name, which I have also remembered all these years, was Joy Harjo.

Last week she was declared the Poet Laureate of the United States.

And so the modern scientific research vessel – or is it a touristic cruise ship? – pulls up to my Galapagos island.  Private, dreamlike memories are abruptly anchored to  2019 news headlines. I’m not sure if something has been lost or something gained.

But… congratulations, Joy Harjo! So well deserved.

And here is that poem, which I was able to track down, thanks to Our Friend the Internet. (It’s from her 1983 collection, She Had Some Horses. Unfortunately, the blog template doesn’t allow me to reproduce the exact formatting.)

Cuchillo

By Joy Harjo

cuchillo
sky
is blood filling up my belly

cuchillo
moon
is a white horse thundering down
over the edge
of a raw red cliff

cuchillo
heart
is the one who leaves me
at midnight
for another lover

cuchillo
dog
is the noise of chains and collar
straining at the neck to bite
the smell of my ankles

cuchillo
silver
is the shell of black sky
spinning around inside
my darker eyes

cuchillo
dreams
are the living bones that want out
of this voice dangling
that calls itself
knife
(cuchillo).

Canon of Thrones

April 4, 2019

If George R.R. Martin rewrote the classics of English literature a la Game of Thrones…

Pride and Prejudice and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennett is engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh disapproves and hires mercenaries from the Golden Company to slaughter the entire engagement party. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas vows revenge, travels across the sea to apprentice with a cult of assassins, and decapitates Lady Catherine with a garden rake.

Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party, and her daughter’s tutor, a religious enthusiast, tells her the party will fail unless she sacrifices her daughter to the Lord of Light in a ritual bonfire. The daughter is burned at the stake in Regent’s Park but white walkers nonetheless descend upon the party, eat all the canapés, and then eat the guests. The party is not a success.

The Great Gatsby

Daisy and Gatsby, brother and sister, are happily committing incest when Daisy’s power-hungry father forces her to wed Tom. Tom is in love with Myrtle and launches an armed insurgency to defend Myrtle’s honor from Rhaegon, even though Myrtle is secretly married to Rhaegon. Myrtle and Rhaegon die but first have a secret son who ends up sleeping with Rhaegon’s baby sister. Yep, just another wild Roaring 20s party at West Egg.

Beloved

Sethe and her family are freed from slavery by Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. But Sethe’s daughter Beloved is chopped into tiny bits by vengeful Sons of the Harpy and becomes a ghost. Sethe falls in love with Grey Worm, a eunuch who is the only other dark-skinned character in the entire universe. Together they feed the Sons of the Harpy to very large and hungry dogs.

On the Road

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty travel across the country for kicks. On the way, they each lose a leg, an eye, an arm, and their manly parts. They eat rats. They sleep in mud. They get buboes. When they finish their journey, Sal publishes a best-selling epic poem about it, “The ’47 Cadillac of Castermere.” Dean poisons him. He dies.

To Kill A Mockingbird

When white lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape, his daughter Scout is ostracized and attacked. Mysterious neighbor Boo Radley summons dragons to rescue her and they incinerate Maycomb, Alabama. Everyone dies.

Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield is expelled from the Night’s Watch and wanders around north of the wall with his direwolf, expressing disgust with the hypocrisy of feudal society. His sister Phoebe follows a one-eyed raven to find him, but they are ambushed by white walkers. Everyone dies.

Of Mine and Men and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Of Mice and Men

Lenny pets the puppy. It’s actually a dragon. Everyone dies.

The Road

A father and son travel through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. Reaching the sea, they find a fleet of tall ships heading to Westeros. The father turns out to be an ace swordsman. The son discovers a hidden talent for baiting bears. They sail away, help Daenerys Stormborn win the throne, and marry princesses. Nobody dies.

Revision superpowers

February 20, 2019

When I was a kid, I read a lot of DC superhero comics – Superman leaping tall buildings with a single bound, Batman with his masked identity, The Flash with his superhuman speed, Wonder Woman with her Amazon strength and magical accessories.

I’m currently revising a set of two novels. Revision is the least fun part of writing for me. Basically, I hate it. So sometimes I wish I had a set of Revision Superpowers:

X-ray vision

Even when we know something is a rough draft, the words assume a stubborn permanence once they’re on paper. How do we view our manuscripts with the critical insight of an outside observer? How do we get beyond what is, to what could be? X-ray vision would let us see through the black ink on the page to the better novel hidden within – to find fresher and more precise language, tighter plot lines, and undeveloped themes.

Superman-Look_Up_in_the_Sky

By Alex Ross/ DC Comics

Flight

Flying would let us hover at 10,000 feet and see our manuscript as a whole – its structure, flow, and themes. The cliché is that we get stuck “in the weeds,” but it’s less like being in ankle-high weeds than being in a 10-foot-high cornfield. You spend days tinkering with a handful of words on a single page when you should be reshaping the work as a whole. It’s hard to hold 300 to 400 pages in your field of vision from ground level. Up, up, and away!

Laser beams

I don’t care if they shoot out of my fingertips or if I have to pull a weapon out of my utility belt. But I’d like a super-sharp beam to slice away clichés and unnecessary, qualifying language. Burn away all those instances of “suddenly” and “somewhat” and “seemed to.”

Super hearing

Does the dialogue work? Does the writing flow smoothly? Reading passages out loud can help assess that, and you don’t need super hearing to do it.

Flash

Speed

When I recently needed to rename a character, I realized we have one kind of super-speed already: It’s called Search and Replace. But in a larger sense, I wish we could tear through the overall revision process like The Flash, making it a matter of weeks rather than months or years. We can’t. It sucks. Live with it.

Sidekicks

Robin saved the day when Batman was trapped. His butler Alfred made sure he had a hot meal after a bout of crimefighting. Turn to beta readers for help when you need a new perspective on your manuscript. And have an Alfred or two in your life who can nourish you and cheer you on.

ww1

Magic bracelets

Superheroes don’t hide in bunkers. You’ve got to be open to criticism of your work, even if it feels like incoming missiles. But self-doubt and self-loathing aren’t helpful. Wonder Woman used her magic bracelets to deflect gunfire; we need them to deflect those internal bullets that scream,“You’re a miserable failure, you’ll never be any good at this, go back to writing Facebook posts about your cat.”

Secret identity

Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent didn’t have the strength to lift mountains. But in his Superman alter ego, he did it all the time. Much of the work of revision seems impossible – eliminating big chunks of plot, replacing characters, even reconsidering the basic premise of your story. When you feel daunted and powerless against the heavy lifting of revision, it’s time to assume the secret identity that allows you to Do Anything. Put on the lycra tights and flowing cape – cue the trumpets or drums – it’s Super Revision Writer!


What else? Are there other Revision Superpowers you wish you had? Or that you already possess and are putting to good use? Tell us about the secret gadgets and vehicles in your Revision Batcave.

 

Justice_League

Protecting your manuscript from the forces of evil

 

The empty nest re-fills and re-empties

February 4, 2019

The nest is empty. Again.

My daughter moved back home from New York last September, about two years after graduating college. It was a temporary although open-ended move: She wanted to live rent-free while applying for artist residencies in Germany.

I had trepidations. I write at home and rely on an empty house free of distractions. Since leaving my job last January, I’d chugged along with the first draft of my novel as steadily as a railway worker laying track. I was worried that having her around would mess that up.

But home she came. And mostly – 90 percent – it was great.

Empty birds nest

This was the first time she’d lived with us for an extended period since high school. And delightfully she was no longer a high school student! None of the surly, oppositional stance of a teenager. She was funny, talkative, interested in doing stuff with us, and good about keeping the kitchen clean and confining her mess to her own room. She cooked (excellent) dinners. She made progress on the work goals she’d set for herself – the residency applications, creating a portfolio web site, doing her creative projects etc.

BUT.

We were both working at home. All day, every day. This was more time than we have spent in each other’s presence since her first year of life, when I was on maternity leave and she hadn’t yet started day care!

My preferred routine is to get up early, go to the gym around 7 a.m., and be on my computer by 9 or 9:30. Meanwhile she’d be in bed with the cat until 11:30. It drove me nuts. Was she working? Was she watching YouTube videos? Everything she did seemed to take much longer than it would take me. I flailed around in the swamp between Trust and Verify. I tried not to constantly ask, “SO? What are you working on? Have you finished your ______?” but I did end up asking that a lot, which probably drove her nuts too.

There were pleasant distractions as well as irritating ones. She’d ask me to accompany her shopping, and of course I’d say yes. She’d want to go to the gym mid-day and I’d do that with her, even though it broke up my writing momentum. I don’t regret those interruptions – she’s only here for a short while, enjoy the time with her– but it meant I often felt less productive than I like.

There’s a kind of a worry sub-routine that runs under the other programs of my brain when she’s living with us. I suspect this is true for many parents, particularly mothers: It’s 11 p.m., is she still out with her friends? Did she write that thank-you note to her great-aunt yet? Has she made a dentist appointment?

When she was living 3,000 miles away, that sub-routine shut off. I didn’t know or care where she was at 11 p.m. I assumed she would manage her life, and she did. But then she moved home, and the sub-routine kicked back in. Unnecessary, vestigial, irrational, but there it was — stressful and distracting for me, and annoying for her.

Spending so much time around each other reminded me of when she was an infant.  We’d be home together all day, skin against skin, nursing and fussing and nursing and fussing, and sometimes by 5 p.m. I felt like we couldn’t stand to touch each other any more. Thankfully that was when Sam would show up, fresh and calm, and I could hand her off.

In any event, when she was accepted into a three-month residency program in Berlin, I was thrilled. It’s a great opportunity for her, it will allow me to reenter my lovely hermitlike work mode, and it will also give us some distance from each other. Good for everyone! By last week, I was eagerly counting the days until her flight and looking forward to having time alone with Sam again.

But then in the past few days, I started to feel separation anxiety. Was she packing everything she’ll need? Does she know what to do if someone follows her in the street? Does she have dental floss? I wanted to hover but she wanted to be left alone. I felt rejected and jagged and weepy.

Just like when we dropped her off at college six and a half years ago.

Today I dropped her at the International Terminal of SFO. Which meant it was time to:

Get all this off my chest.

Turn the sub-routine off.

Get back to work!