Saturday, February 19, 2011

Readin' and Writin'

Have you noticed that some of the blogs on my blog roll are dedicated to writing? That’s because I like to write.

With the exception of this blog, which believe it or not, is NOT fiction, I haven’t published anything in a very long time. Non-fiction used to be my shtick. Particularly humorous or inspirational nonfiction. I’ve had stories, articles, and essays published in books, magazines, and newspapers. I wrote a weekly column for several years….and they even continued to put up with me when my weeklies slowly turned into whenever-I-felt-like-its…because people liked what I wrote. But then I got this strange compulsion to write fiction. Fiction! And this, my friends, has been my writing downfall.

Are you still considered published if you haven’t published anything in a very long time because you are totally obsessed with writing (and publishing) fiction and you can’t seem to write (much less publish) the fiction, so you are just left not writing or publishing anything at all?

My “writing” has turned into this blog and e-mails to other writers about their writing and how I’d like to write but can’t seem to because of reasons a, b, c, and d, a couple of which are probably psychological in nature, at least I’d like to think so because it sounds good. I can’t write because (like so many brilliant writers) I’m unbalanced, depressed, trying to kick a habit or two, quirky, sentimental, moody, bi-polar, hitting the bottle, snorting the coke, smoking too much weed, schizophrenic, BLOCKED, waiting for a muse, exorcising a demon….anything….take your pick….anything at all as long as it isn’t because I Suck At Writing.

I am not a great writer. I’m really not. I am a great reader, though.  I just finished Clown Girl by Monica Drake.  A good friend who always gives me great books gave it to me, so I knew it was going to be awesome.  Kristin Wiig (of SNL) just bought the movie rights to it, so of course, hers was the face I saw for Nita (aka Sniffles), the book's main character and narrator.  The voice of this narrating character is extremely strong and quirky, a fact I take pains to note, due to something I'll mention later.  I'm also on the fifth Outlander book of Diana Gabaldon's.  This is like reading 12 - 15 books of normal paperback length, believe me.  In this book I'm already on page 292 and still waiting for the major action to start.  I keep telling myself to hang in there, because in another 400 or so pages I know I won't want to put it down. Anyway, when I'm reading and not writing, I like to tell myself that I'm at least learning.  But learning what?  The entire time I read, I look for errors....fault....aha!! Another Adverb...a beginning without a hook...a saggy ending that's wrapped up too neatly or left open entirely.  It seems that I've read too many books on writing, sat through too many seminars, webinars, etc, to simply enjoy a good book.  I know too much about character arcs, plotting, The Hero's Journey (I effing HATE The Hero's Journey mumbo jumbo talk), conflict resolution, obstacles, points of view, data dumping, and acts I, II,and III.  It's a wonder I attempt a story at all!  Just reading with the sole intention of finding bad writing among successful writers is quite the job, believe me, and although it does make me feel better, in the long run, it takes a bit of the joy out of the whole reading business, you know?

I would love to be able to say that I am working on a literary masterpiece and I don’t care about any kind of commercial success because what kind of an artist would I be if I cared about any kind of commercial success and that I hope to be published by a very small literary press that only super smart and hip people know about….people who will love me and invite me to cocktail parties and buy my books and say that it’s a good thing I didn’t end up on Oprah’s book list because that would only serve to spoil my integrity and diminish my genius. I would LOVE that. But the truth is, I have two manuscripts in the works, and neither one is a literary masterpiece. I do think they can be commercially decent reads if I finish them and manage to worm my way in and out of the agent/editing/publishing maze.

The first one is a contemporary romance that begins with a severely hung-over community college English professor who’s desperately trying to grow up and get over her last failed romance (she should have known not to go out with anyone from the history department). After holding a brief and rather unsatisfying conversation with a pile of dirty clothes in the corner of her bedroom, and recovering from the shock of discovering her car isn’t sitting in its designated parking spot where it is definitely supposed to be sitting, she tries to sort out the events of the previous night’s celebration of her 30th birthday by looking through the pictures in her digital camera. And ooh-la-la (don’t worry – that phrase doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the book, I promise), thus starts the journey with the heavily tattooed and tongue-pierced Such a Bad Idea ex-rock star trying to make a comeback while struggling through life with something rather exotic called synthenesia, and a not so exotic overbearing sister.

I had considered this particular manuscript to have been at the end of the first draft stage until I learned that my beginning is a cliché’. A dime a dozen. Common as pig tracks. So now I’m left trying to totally re-work it and I’m not having any luck because my heart’s not in the rewrite. But you can’t have the beginning include such things as ahem…hangovers, back flashes, introspective ponderings, or apparently, early morning coffee. Any of these things, I was recently told, are bad in an opening scene. I have all of them.

I had signed up to attend a webinar on Beginnings that included the opportunity to submit the first 3 pages to an agent for feedback. Since I knew I had a Big Cliché’ resting on my hands with the contemporary romance (like a matzo ball resting on a soup spoon), I opted for sending in the first 3 pages of my unfinished Middle Grades fantasy manuscript instead, which had more of a beginning hook and included nobody who was hung-over, dreaming, remembering, sipping coffee, or being in any way introspective in the opening scene.

I won’t give you the whole 3 pages lest, God forbid, you steal them and write the next Hunger Games with it, but I will give you the first paragraph, and remember, this is for 7th-graders:

The Corpse Formerly Known as Kurt is totally freaking out. He’s freaking out so badly that he can’t even see me. I should be used to this where he’s concerned. After all, I’ve been his chemistry lab partner for the past three months and I’ve remained pretty much invisible the entire time. He only accepted me as his partner because I’m good in science and have SUCKER stamped on my forehead.

Now we’ll skip the saggy middle, which would surely be the 2nd page in a 3-page deal, and get right to the last line of the 3rd page.

“Hey Kurt, how’s it going?” I don’t mean this literally, of course. It’s more of a rhetorical question.

So, along with the saggy middle, the agent read those lines, and said, “You have a really unique narrative voice here- great work! It reads, to me, like a new and different take on the zombie novel and that's hard to find.”

This would have been excellent news if a) that was all she said and b) this was a zombie novel.

But she also said:

“In terms of critique- my biggest concern is that your voice might be a bit too hard for the reader to follow. It might be too quirky - more Tom Robbins than anything else.”

Okay, so my voice being hard to follow – that can’t be good. Too quirky? What can I say? My character is quirky. Really quirky. She’s a 15-year-old girl who collects souls, has a crush on a what she considers to be a horribly misunderstood teenage demon, and has the irritating habit of taking advantage of every opportunity that allows her to use the word befuddled in a sentence (she gives herself points for this and maintains a running tally). Also? I had to google Tom Robbins, which is embarrassing for me but must be just a tad awkward for Tom Robbins, as well.

“I hope this helps!”

Not really.

“It's a fantastic concept and it's almost there!”

Except that she thinks it’s a zombie book and it’s not.

“Work on making it relatable and it's really, really going to sparkle!”

That last line is sweet and meant to keep me from slitting my wrists. I did not slit my wrists, but I did quit writing for several weeks. I have very thin skin, which I imagine might make it easier to slit my wrists if it ever comes down to that. My skin is so thin, that next to writing, my other big activity is trying to get Everyone On The Planet to like me. The agent might like me if she knew me (who wouldn’t?) but she did not like my first 3 pages well enough to ask for more, which is what I had been hoping for.

My Beta Reader and Dear Friend sent in her 3 pages and received similar feedback also intended to let her down gently. My Beta Reader and Dear Friend, however, sulked for about a half hour and then frantically began writing a bigger, better novel. She decided to get a bit of help at the beginning (a good idea) and sent out for some from a couple of editors who claim to assist with early plot development, etc. She immediately heard back from the first one that the entire concept needed to be scrapped. Then she heard from the second one that she had a hit on her hands – great job – really good! So there you go. Writing fiction is a roller coaster ride full of subjective climbs, opinionated drops, and willy-nilly loop-de-loops.

All I know is, maybe I’m not the best, but I read a lot and therefore I can proclaim myself to not be the worst, either. There are a lot of authors out there that um…..well……..somehow got published even though they well, aren’t that great. A lot. You know it’s true – you’ve tried to read their books, haven’t you?

So how do I say this delicately….Where are their agents? Where are the agents to the multitudes of mediocre writers? I want one. They’re out there. Obviously. I just need our paths to cross.

If you are an agent representing any one of the Not Too Bad But Not Really All That Great authors who love cliché’s and whose books are overflowing with unnecessary adverbs and hungover, quirky characters with overbearing narrative voices…well, the way I see it is that one more can’t hurt you. Drop me a line. We’ll talk. Then maybe I can cross this frustrating fiction writing thing off my list and move on to something more, it turns out that productivity doesn't seem to suit me.  I'm thinking of productive things I could be doing and frankly, most of them are turning me off.  So maybe I'll just keep puttering along, drowning out the reasonable and irritating editor's voice in my head (I do have one, you know...she's smug and generally disagreeable) with an overabundance of exclamation points!! and cleverly, cutely, and not-so-sparingly placed adverbs.

Back to work....It was a dark and stormy, make that....It was a darkly storming evening, and Jane was already drunk.  She was going to have one massive hangover in the morning; one which she would surely and sadly and shakily suffer while sipping coffee and deeply reflecting on her past..... 


  1. I personally have never seen pig tracks, so there you go. You know you have to finish your MG story simply b/c I want to read the ending! I also admire your honesty here. I love your writing!

  2. Me too, I really like - ok, love - your writing. I would not be checking your blog every day otherwise.
    But I don't like coffee... why not make it a cup of green tea? haha, I would think, as long as you enjoy it, don't give up and as you've got plenty of other things to do as well, never mind about all the agents missing out on the big hit of the year/decennium; just keep up the website please!

  3. Dude! If she thinks it's a Zombie story and she buys it, let it be a zombie story for goodness sake! What would you say if she offered you a deal worth millions? "Oh no, thank you. But I can't except your offer because you think that my story is about Zombies and it isn't." It sounds to me that if you tweak it as she suggested, than she might be interested. Am I wrong? I'm not a writer, so does this bother you to change your writing style just to make someone else happy? I guess it would bother me if someone said that my style on my Blog was badly written. Although that would be awful mean since I'm not trying to sell anything.
    Anyway, I thought about writing a book or two. And I'm happy to say that since I don't read any books, I would not be plagiarizing any one author. And now after reading your post today, I'm wondering. Are you too self conscious about your structure because of all of the classes and instructions that you've received? Does that make sense? Because I'm thinking, if I wrote something, I would go with my gut feeling since I have no idea what proper structure is.
    Okay, that's enough of my rambling. I'll let you answer now. See how nice I am!
    Your Friend, m.

  4. Mark, I am so with you on this one. Carol, you need to channel your inner Emily Dickinson. By that I don't mean that you will somehow morph into a brilliant (but depressing) poet. But you figure Emily never had an agent and was sort of a hermit, and still managed to be absolutely brilliant. Put away all those critics, especially the inner one, and please finish what you goddamn started, would you?? The whole thing about so-called cliches is that they work! That is why they are popular. I want to read more about your hung-over character because your intro grabbed my attention and left me wanting to read more.