Posts Tagged ‘novels’

Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings

September 25, 2012

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.

If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.

Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.

Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.

That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.

Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.

About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.

Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.

The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?

So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.

And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.

My favorite Darcy and Elizabeth – Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – at their static, happy ending

Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?

And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?

Band-Aids for rejected writers

December 5, 2011

One way to salve the wounds of rejection by publishers or literary agents is to read rejection lessons received by other, far greater writers. There are numerous collections of these, but I recently stumbled across a small, new compendium of rejection letters on the web site Flavorwire.

It includes rejection letters received by Kerouac, Plath, Gertrude Stein and others, but here is my favorite. The Left Hand of Darkness won the 1969 Nebula Award and the 1970 Hugo award, and established LeGuin as one of the most respected sci-fi/fantasy writers of her generation.


(Of course, what we don’t know is what kind of manuscript LeGuin had turned in! Maybe it was “hopelessly bogged down” and she rewrote significantly before it was eventually published.

Then again, maybe not.)

Random writing tips from Squaw

August 13, 2011

I’m back from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, feeling a bit like a space station astronaut returning to Earth, exhausted and wobble-legged. Apparently the stock market crashed and rebounded while I was out in orbit. What else happened — wars declared and resolved? Celebrities discovered and abandoned? The Messiah came, looked around, went for a Frappucino?

After my last blog post, some folks asked me to share what I learned about writing from Squaw. Mostly, I gained some new lenses through which to view the sections of my novel that need help. I think the three hours we spent each day critiquing each other’s manuscripts also made me a more attentive reader of other people’s work. (But we’ll let my writing group be the judge of that.)

Here are some snippets of my notes from the week. Pulled out of context, they seem random and trivial. And if you’ve been through an MFA program, they are probably old hat. But they were new and useful to me:

  • Dialogue in fiction is different from dialogue in real life. Tighter, sharper, with every exchange adding to the story in some way. In real life, people spend a lot of time saying things like “Nice earrings.” ” Thanks.” “Where’d you get them?” “Macy’s.” “Really?” “Uh huh.” But if you fill your novel with such stuff, readers won’t need Sominex. Novelist Janet Fitch pointed out that good dialogue is about conflict, reveals character, and illuminates the relationship between the speakers (who is stronger, weaker etc.) “In real conversation, people do everything to avoid conflict,” Fitch said. “In fictional conversation, you want to find the conflict.”
  • Characters who are most similar to you — modeled on you, the author — tend to be flat.
  • The most interesting characters are internally conflicted.
  • Every sentence can probably be shorter. (Thank you, Max Byrd.)
  • When describing a place, don’t just describe that place: Give the protagonist’s sense of that place. (Is that shady forest menacing or relaxing? It’s in the eye of the beholder.) “Use tactile perceptions to tell us about the internal life of a character,” Sands Hall told my workshop group.
  • The final item in a string of adjectives, nouns or anything else is the most powerful. “If you make a list,” Byrd said, “place the most important item at the end.” I flashed on the final line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
  • Each scene needs to change your main character in some way. This was Janet Fitch again, leading the workshop session that discussed my manuscript. “Once a protagonist has been through a scene, he or she can’t go back to the way they were before,” she said. “If they can go back, you don’t need the scene. A scene needs to start in one place emotionally and end in another.”
  • And more from Fitch: Don’t push the re-set button in fiction. Meaning, don’t have one scene after another where the same thing keeps happening to your protagonist. (I.e., the heroine gets attacked by gnomes and is left injured and confused. Then she gets attacked by rabid wolverines and is even more injured and confused. Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and BOY is she injured and confused.)
  • Jason Roberts on writing essays: “Every essay addresses a question. But if you have a complete answer, it’s not an essay. It’s a manifesto.”
  • Time and again, we were told the key to being a writer is… writing. That means writing every day, every week, for years, regardless of whether your manuscripts are praised or rejected or utterly ignored by the outside world.
  • Mark Childress: “Writing is about putting your butt in that chair and outlasting the urge to read the New York Times cover to cover or to sign up on Facebook again under a new name.”
  • Anne Lamott: “A writer’s life is about nothing happening for a very, very long time except you sit down in the same place.”
  • And Ron Carlson: “The Internet is the enemy of all writers. Just stay away from it until after two in the afternoon. The Internet is an entertainment and research device for after two in the afternoon.”

Of course, while giving us a week’s worth of rules, the Squaw Valley staff also told us that any rule can be broken for the right reason.

Lynn Freed reminded my workshop group of the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. 

Smashwords, self-publishing and self-awareness

May 11, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was starting to educate myself about the emerging world of e-book self-publishing.

As part of that, I wrote a freelance piece for the Chronicle’s business section this week on Smashwords, a Silicon Valley company that has become a leader in enabling writers to easily self-publish e-books.

You can read my Chron story here.

Meanwhile, I had a great session with my writing group last night where they offered some on-target criticisms of a section of my novel. It clarified some significant problems with it that I need to fix.

This is such a tricky judgment to make when dealing with rejections: Is the problem with “the system” or with my work? Them or me?

You look at your work, over and over, and it really looks fine, and it’s so easy to blame others.

The fiction marketplace sucks these days…. the publishing industry is too focused on blockbusters…. or whatever.

When in reality, you need to do another rewrite.

What did I just say? “You” need to do another rewrite?

I mean: Me.

Best rejection ever?

March 26, 2011

For the past two months, I’ve been steadily throwing stuff at the wall — um, I mean, mailing out queries for my newest novel.  Mostly I’ve been met with silence. Sometimes that means the agent hasn’t read the query yet. Sometimes it means they’ve read it but get so many queries that they can’t bother to respond. That’s annoying, and Miss Manners wouldn’t approve, but I can understand it.

I’ve also gotten a few rejections. Some are form letters: “Dear author….” Some are nice, personalized rejections along the lines of “You’re a very good writer but I didn’t fall in love with this.”

But this one — I have to share it.  From an agency that shall remain unnamed, it takes the form rejection to a new pinnacle. (Or should that be nadir?)

To Whom It May Concern,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. Unfortunately, we did not feel your project was a right fit for our agency. But we do wish you the best of luck.

Please forgive the form letter, but the enormous volume of inquiries we receive obliges us to respond in this manner. Thank you, and again, best wishes in your future endeavors.

What sets this one apart is its To Whom It May Concern.

To Whom It May Concern!

It’s like they’re writing not to an individual author, but to an entire Department of Rejected Novel Production. Gosh, I hope I can route the rejection to the appropriate person or persons in the department, since there are so many of us here. Let’s see, there’s Rejected Adverb Writer. Rejected Pronoun Writer. Rejected Curator of Themes and Metaphors. I’m not sure if this should to go to our nice Rejected Help Desk people in Bangalore, or directly upstairs  to the V.P. of Global Rejection Sourcing….

And may! And concern!

It “may concern” me that I can’t sell the novel I’ve been working on for two years.  It just possibly may, a teeny little bit. Then again, maybe not! Maybe I am on so much Prozac that I am not the least bit concerned. Maybe I’ve left  this project behind already and am investing in thin-film solar arrays. Maybe I have received so many offers from so many publishers — oh yeah, from a couple of film studios, too, and then there’s that upcoming dinner with Michelle and Barack — that I won’t even notice that this agent is rejecting my work.

Okay, have I vented enough? Any more venting and I will be sitting in a thatched cabana, not a home office.

Despite my spleen, form rejections like this bother me less than when someone has read the entire book and rejected it.

I’ve actually had a good, busy week with some interesting ideas starting to percolate about the publishing world. But I’ll get to those in a future post.

A writing group, at last

February 9, 2011

Although I’ve focused on writing novels for the past two years, I’ve never been in a writers’ group. This is something I have wanted to do for a while. “Join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given to newbies by experienced editors and writers. There’s only so far you can take your work, locked into your own brain at your computer, and a good group provides a level of rigor that goes beyond the comments of most individual friend-readers.

Of course, “good group” is the key phrase. I joined a nascent writers’ group with two other people last year that was totally unsatisfactory. The level of writing skill was too broad; I felt that I was providing remedial instruction to one of the others, and this person’s comments on my own work were totally off base. There are all sorts of disaster stories about critique groups that devolve into the literary equivalent of Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions (off to the writers’  reeducation farm with you!), or catfights, or soliloquies by a member who styles himself the voice of wisdom personified.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi,

But now I’ve by chance managed to stumble into a very good group.

It’s a long-running group of women writers in San Francisco who recently lost several of their members and were looking for some replacements. They all have some life experience under their belts, and all are skillful writers as well as  (perhaps more important) skillful readers. The group dynamic seems good, with no single member hogging the limelight and people able to listen to each other.

Last night was the second meeting that I attended, and the first where people read and commented on my work.

It was awful.

I mean, it was good but it was also awful. They had read the first 20 pages of Novel # 2, the one that I’ve started sending out to agents while continuing to tinker/revise. They said many nice things but then they also — the nerve of them! — gave criticisms. All the nice comments just whooshed past me like a kid on a waterslide, while the criticisms landed with a solid, unmoving thud like an Acme safe on Wiley Coyote.

The beginning doesn’t work. My beloved first paragraph doesn’t work. The writing isn’t fresh enough. And so on…

The worst criticisms, of course, were the ones that aligned with some of my own doubts about the book.

I left feeling rather stunned. Not bad enough to come home and sob — there were the nice comments, remember, and everything was said very supportively — but still, rather despondent. Of course what I wanted was for this group of accomplished, talented writers to chime up in chorus and say “Oh, Ilana, this is brilliant! This is amazing! We can’t think of a single thing to change!” And of course that’s not what a writing group is supposed to do, and I knew that and didn’t expect that, but still, wouldn’t that have been nice?

So now it’s the morning after and I feel a little less despondent. Sleep is good for that. I have a block of free time today where I can read through the group’s written notes and comments, and look at my manuscript with these new lenses.

What’s good about joining this group — aside from the actual input — is that it is a commitment to myself. In my 20s and 30s, I wrote first drafts of novels and then abandoned them to focus on work, parenting etc. I’m at a juncture now with having to look for full-time work where it would be easy to abandon fiction again for a number of years. But joining the group represents a commitment to myself that I’m going to keep working on this, even if I can’t sell this novel and even when I get a new full-time job.

Oh… way back at the top of this blog post, I mentioned that “join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given by experienced writers and editors.

If you didn’t already guess what the number-one piece of advice is…. it is rewrite.

And rewrite, and rewrite.

What books would you give as holiday gifts?

November 27, 2010

I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. Someone asks, “Read any good books lately?” and I am at a loss.

I read constantly, almost all of it fiction. But strangely, I don’t end up with a lot of things to recommend.

Partly that’s because I read a lot of novels for “work.” They have a theme or structure similar to what I’m working on, so I want to check them out. Or they’re new and getting lots of publicity (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Most of the time I’m underwhelmed.

But I just finished a couple of books that I loved. Loved enough to want to give as holiday gifts. So I figured, why not make a list of some books that I could envision giving as gifts this year?

Here’s a short list of books that I enjoyed enough to want to share. They were either published/updated in 2010, or else I read them for the first time in 2010:

  • Someone Not Really Her Mother, by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is one of the books I just finished and loved. It’s a novel about how the Holocaust filters down through three generations of women – centering on the grandmother Hannah, sole survivor of a family of French Jews who is now living in a nursing facility in Connecticut with dementia that makes her past more real to her than her present. It is subtle, beautifully written, and wise. The bad news: It came out in 2005 and is now out of print. The good news: Of course you can still find copies on the web.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham wrote The Hours, his novelistic homage to Virginia Woolf, and this new novel of his also reminds me of Woolf. If you don’t like interior monologue, stay away!  It’s an insightful look at the marriage and midlife self-doubt of an art gallery owner and his wife, who are thrust into crisis when her eternally-adolescent and gorgeous younger brother comes to stay with them.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A cancer doctor who is also a terrific, accessible writer, Mukherjee leads us through the history of the struggle to understand and cure this dreaded disease. I found it really interesting to see how my own experiences with cancer (for instance, my mom died of ovarian cancer in 1986) fit into the bigger picture of what was happening at that time in cancer study and treatments. It’s an illuminating look into the process and politics of medical research in general. And any non-fiction book that holds me for 470 pages has got to be well written.
  • My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Maran. Imagine if one of the girls who made the Salem witch accusations later wrote a memoir admitting she had been making it all up. That’s what Maran has done, only her accusations were of incest rather than witchcraft. Maran, a progressive Berkeley writer, tore her family apart in the 1980s when she became convinced that her father had molested her. Over time, she realized that she had succumbed to the group-think of her feminist, abuse-conscious milieu and she tries to make amends. A fascinating inside look at how an otherwise smart, skeptical person can be sucked into mass hysteria.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I mentioned this book in my recent interview with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. Bryson’s scientific explanation of how life on Earth manages to exist is, to me, the definition of a spiritual book. There’s a new edition out which costs more but has lots of nifty diagrams and pictures – I just bought it for a friend’s 60th birthday.
  • The Devil’s Company by David Liss. This is Liss’ third novel about Benajmin Weaver, a Jewish boxer-turned-detective in early 18th century London. I absolutely love this character, a noir-style outsider to his society, and I love Liss’ crime/mystery plots centered on the machinations of early capitalism. Smart, gripping, fascinating! If you haven’t read them, start with his first one, A Conspiracy of Paper.
  • This is Where I Leave You (or anything else) by Jonathan Tropper. Tropper writes funny, clever novels about alienated young men who are forced by circumstances to reconcile with their dysfunctional suburban families. Having read three, I’m starting to feel like they are all a little too similar. But he makes me laugh out loud – which is not easy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Okay, no point giving these as gifts because everyone in America and Europe has read them already. And they’re not great literature. But I tore through them– great beach reads even without a beach.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here.
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Okay, I just started it so I don’t have an opinion yet on this new novel by one of Israel’s top writers. But I really want to like it. Does that count?

Hmm. It seems like I must have read some other novels this year that knocked my socks off.  But nothing pops into mind right now.

How about you? What books did you read this year that you loved enough to want to share?

In praise of Philippa Gregory

August 25, 2010

This week I tore through the newest novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Philippa Gregory.

A lot of other people apparently did too. Her new book The Red Queen started its published life in the number two slot on the N.Y. Times Book Review list of hardcover best-sellers, just below the third Stieg Larsson book. Meanwhile, her prior novel The White Queen is number 22 on the Times’ paperback trade best-seller list.

Gregory certainly has sales. But I don’t think she’s gotten the literary attention she deserves. Like Stephen King for so many years, I suspect that her popularity leads critics to assume that her work is hackneyed or formulaic.

But it’s not. 

Gregory does a superb job at personalizing history, writing about the sweeping conflicts of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts through the eyes of women. If you gave me a traditional history text listing all the Henrys and Edwards and Richards who took the throne, and the Warwicks and Nevilles and Buckinghams who plotted against each other, my eyes would glaze over. But when Gregory carries you into the life of a young girl in court circles, whose marriage(s) are part of those power struggles, it all becomes vivid and makes sense. 

Her books are history, not romance, despite their popularity among romance fans. They’re all about “who gets the throne” rather than “who gets the man.” 

But they are history through women’s eyes. She shows the terror of being married off for political reasons at the age of 14, the frustration of being an ambitious woman stuck in a rural estate during times of upheaval, the crushing pressure of being a queen unable to produce a male heir to the throne. 

Gregory and her publisher never use the “f word.” But her books are deeply feminist in that they call attention to the lives and experiences of women, which have too often been ignored by male chroniclers of the great and powerful. 

She’s not a showy writer. She’s not someone who stops you in your tracks with the brilliance of an unexpected metaphor. But she’s psychologically nuanced and has an eye for small details, both of historical setting and human interactions. For me, a good historical novel needs grit and garbage as well as gowns and armor. 

Here is Gregory writing in The Red Queen about 14-year-old Margaret Beaufort, newly married for political reasons to a distant cousin in a castle in the hinterlands of Wales:

I flush and look down at my plate, heaped with overcooked and unrecognizable bits of game. They hunt better than they farm in Wales, and every meal brings some skinny bird or beast to the table in butchered portions. I long for fast days when we have only fish, and I impose extra fast days on myself to escape the sticky mess of dinner. Everyone stabs what they want with their dagger from a common plate, and sops up the gravy with a hunk of bread. They wipe their hands on their breeches and their mouths on their coat cuffs. Even at the high table we are served our meat on tranchers of bread that are eaten up at the end of the meal. There are no plates laid on the table. Napkins are obviously too French; they count it their patriotic duty to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, and they all bring their own spoons as if they were heirlooms, tucked inside their boots. (P. 29)

Now, with The Red Queen, Gregory’s done something new (for her) and impressive. She’s built the entire novel around an unsympathetic, power-hungry character who shows no self-awareness. Fourteen-year-old Margaret’s childish piety and family loyalty harden into an unquestioning conviction that God has destined her son for the throne of England. She’s kind of a 16th century English version of an Al-Qaeda partisan. If Margaret Beaufort didn’t murder the two little princes in the palace, according to Gregory, she sure as heck would have done so if she had the chance.

And Gregory pulls it off. I liked Margaret Beaufort, and I was appalled by Margaret Beaufort. I kept reading to see if she would triumph, and also with a horrific fascination to see the train wreck that would happen with her triumph. It’s not an easy thing to build a successful novel around a character whom neither you nor your readers like.

But she does it. 

I would love to see a New York Times Magazine profile of Gregory, like the ones they’ve done of Margaret Drabble and James Patterson.

Chutes and ladders, and book writing

August 2, 2010

Remember the board game Chutes and Ladders? Where landing on some squares whisked you up a ladder and toward the finish line, while landing on others sent you plummeting down a slide back toward the start? 

I feel like I’ve just gone down a chute back to start. That’s not terrible, and I’m not feeling bad about it. It’s just a way of visualizing where I am in this process. 

Down, down, down...

This is about the path to publication and finding a literary agent. When I began focusing full-time on fiction writing a year and a half ago, I assumed I was well along the road to publication. I had published one non-fiction book already, and I had an agent who had represented me on that book. 

Combine that with nearly 20 years of newspaper writing, and I felt miles ahead of all the poor souls who stumbled about sending cold queries and collecting boilerplate rejection letters from dozens upon dozens of agents.

Well, here we are 18 months later. After sharing a couple of versions of my manuscript with my prior agent, it became pretty clear to me that she wasn’t going to take on this project – at least not without changes that were bigger than I wanted to make. Last winter I approached a few more agents with whom I had some personal connection and got similar rejections. 

On the bright side, most were lovely rejections – personal, thoughtful, even offering some praise. On the not-so-bright side, there was always a “but.” (“Your writing is lovely and has a good voice BUT…”) 

My main conclusion was that I had some more rewriting to do. My secondary conclusion was that selling fiction is damn subjective – much more subjective than selling nonfiction. 

With nonfiction, there seems to be more of a logic to getting your book sold. Agents and editors ask: Is this an interesting and new idea? Who are the potential readers and how big is the market? Does this writer have the right background and “platform” for this project? These are all questions that can be anticipated and answered. 

With fiction, there’s some of that, but there is also this big subjective element: Does the agent or editor fall in love with it?  

Do they like your characters? Do they want to keep turning pages? Do they feel a burning need to tell their friends about it? Does it make them want to laugh/cry? Does it strike some chord with them personally? 

Do they like it enough to passionately fight for all the additional layers of approval – the senior editors, marketing mavens, finance folks – needed for publication? 

In short, do they love it? 

And love is so personal, so subjective. That’s daunting, but it’s also encouraging. It’s encouraging because it means that five rejections is not definitive. Even ten rejections is not definitive. All it takes is one person to say yes – so you can slog through 57 rejections and then find one person who falls in love with your book and then yeah! you’ve got your agent or editor. 

Now, with my latest round of revising pretty much done, I’m ready to send the manuscript out again. 

But this time I’m down the chute, back at “start” with all those zillions of wannabe authors sending out cold queries and hoping to be noticed in the slush pile. 

To put it in terms of my husband’s beloved Tour de France: I thought I was in the breakaway. 

But I’m really in the peleton

And that’s okay. I just have to keep pedaling.

Revise and resent

November 10, 2009

People in the publishing and writing world have a weird, Eskimo-sounding acronym for the month of November: NaNoWriMo.

That stands for National Novel Writing Month. Back in 1999, a group of 21 San Francisco writers decided to goad themselves into productivity by each writing a novel in a month. It has since evolved into an international event encouraging would-be authors to produce 50,000 words of fiction between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. It has its own web site and fairly minimal rules that include “Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.”

Meanwhile, various clever persons decided that NaNoReMo wasn’t enough Eskimo-talk and came up with ideas for a NaNoReMo (National Novel Revision Month) or NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month).

That’s where I’m living these days. It’s not a happy place. And I’m living there not just for a month, but for what feels like a geologic era.

By now, you may be wondering, where’s the Bat Mitzvah angle in all of this? I’m not sure there is one. So consider this a “midlife” post rather than a “Bat Mitzvah” post. I’ll have a bunch of these. Get used to it! (Or just skip these posts. I’ll be back to Bat Mitzvah news soon enough.)

In any event, I have drafts of two novels that are in various stages of the revision process. One has been in the works for a long time and has been through about a dozen versions. The other is a sprightly first draft that I completed last spring.

For the past few months, I’ve focused on my older (mature? ripe? aged-to perfection-like-a-lovely-Bordeaux?) novel, trying to get it into publishable shape. My agent had given me some broad suggestions, with which I pretty much agreed once I got through gnashing my teeth and rending my garments.

 But boy…

 Revising. Is. Hard.

 (Caution: Whining writer ahead.)

One thing that’s hard about it is managing to see your work as a whole. When writing a first draft, I just barrel along and try not to lose momentum. But revision requires stepping back and seeing which scenes work and which don’t, both in themselves and as part of a whole. When you’re talking about a 350-page manuscript, it is really hard to hold the whole thing in your head and get a sense of how different sections work together and the overall flow and rhythm of the work.

Another thing that’s hard – and this was a big surprise to me – is simply how tough it is to make my writing budge.

 It’s like pushing a refrigerator. You throw all your weight at it, and maybe it moves an inch. I sit down, all prepared to tear a section apart – blow it up! I tell myself, blow it up! – and I get all prepared to make MAJOR CHANGES. And I sit there and work and work and work, making those MAJOR CHANGES, blowing it up, and then  I stop and look at what I’ve done and I’ve maybe changed six words. It’s like wanting an entire hair-style makeover, and going into the hairdresser demanding radical change, but then getting queasy when you see the scissors and ending up with a trim around the edges.

You’d think that word processing would make this easier. You can totally revamp a manuscript and not lose anything. You don’t even have to retype it, if you decide you prefer the original version. So what’s there to fear in making changes? It’s just playing with words. But no. Once the writing is down on the page, it takes on this black-hole-like infinite weight and becomes very hard to move.

So that’s why revising is awful. Much less fun than writing.

Yes, I know, every writer has to do it. It’s what separates real writers from dabblers. It’s what separates good writing from bad. Etc. etc.

This is from an interview that George Plimpton did with Ernest Hemingway in a 1958 Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

I was spoiled by newspaper writing all these years. Revising a 1200-word story is nothing like revising a 100,000-word novel. And honestly, I never had to revise all that much as a reporter. Rewrite the lede, tighten things up, sure. But not this blow-it-up wholesale kind of revising.

So today I figured I had done as much as I could on this latest round with my ripe-Bordeaux novel. So I gave it a hug and a kiss and emailed it off to my agent.

There is, of course, one thing possibly worse than rewriting.

That’s waiting for your agent to read and respond.

Time to inaugurate NaNoWaBeReMo?*

*(National Novel Waiting to Be Read Month).