Friday, April 30, 2010

The Controversy of Women's Fiction

After reading this brilliant post by Mary Sharratt at My Friend Amy's book blog it really got me thinking about women's fiction. It brought up a lot of questions: Why are women's issues only relevant to women? Why do women read books about men but rarely do we see the opposite? Why are most books categorized as women's fiction either frowned upon for being frivolous chick lit or criticized as 'misery lit' for taking on weightier issues?

When I finished my novel, I had no idea that it would even be categorized as women's fiction. I had no idea what this genre meant. The only thing I knew was that a man would not want to read my novel. So I immediately stripped it of what I thought might be its original classification: literary fiction. Ya know the 'serious' fiction. The real thing.

Yes. That example right there...that's what some would consider a serious problem.

Or is it?

As I begin to pitch agents and I study this genre, I am very happy to position my novel this way. Ya know why? Women read these novels. They crave them. This means that publishing houses want them. And bookstores want to sell them. This genre is relevant. This is what I call the real thing.

Do I wish more men took these novels seriously? Of course! Do I think Mr. Putlizer and Mr. National Book Award might want to throw these writers a frickin' bone once in a while? Heck yes!

But right now, I'm just thrilled to know that people are actually reading them. And I'd prefer that these readers have a vagina. Because they're the ones actually going out and buying books.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sage Advice

I was chatting with my Dad (affectionately known by my peers as Papa Sarno) yesterday about the publishing industry, trying to explain to him how things work. I tried to explain the slush-pile and the whole getting-an-agent thing, and how agents represent your work to find publishers. Ya know, all the shennanigans that most of the readers of this blog are dealing with right now. Papa Sarno is a very practical man, so he listened to all of this and he said:

"Well, you know I don't read. I haven't picked up a book in about 10 years."

Yes, I thought to myself, remembering that J.K Rowling not only inspired young people around the world to read, but also, in a jaw-dropping moment, Richard Sarno, who deemed "The Sorceror's Stone", a pretty good read. It is, to this day, the only memory I have of my father reading a book in my 29 years on this planet.

"But it sounds to me like you're a bit like a salesperson right now. Like you've got a sales pitch," he continued.

I told him that, yes, this was exactly right.

I could tell that this would lead to imparting some kind of wisdom.

My Dad likes to offer advice. For some reason, most of it revolves around finding places to sleep. I'm not sure where this stems from. But he works in the hospitality industry and has told me on more than one occassion that a hotel lobby is public property and, unless you are a public nuisance or causing a disturbance, they can not kick you out of a hotel lobby. Therefore, if you need a place to sleep, this is a good place to do it. He has also repeatedly advised that sleeping on benches is perfectly okay, but sleeping on statues is forbidden. This is all wrapped up in a story about backpacking in Amsterdam in the early 70's, so ya know, do what you will with this information.

He went on to say, "If you're throwing out a fishing line and people are biting, you throw out as many hooks as you can, ya know. And if they're not, well, you better step back and assess what you're doing wrong before you go out again."

I thought that this was very simple but sage advice. And very relevant to the query process. If you're getting a positive response, don't just sit on it and think you're cruising, increase your odds. And if you're getting a negative response, don't chalk it all up to 'just being a part of the process'. Assess what could be wrong and make it right.

Oh, and by the way, another good place to sleep is on a moped. I'm not sure if it's as comfortable as the hotel lobby or the bench, but renting a moped for a week affords you transportation AND housing. Two for one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tuesday Books for Writers! Purple Hibiscus

Tuesday Books for Writers! is a series that features books that are read with a writer's eye. It is written with the hope that the more you read the better you write. And the more you write, the quicker you become a more active reader. Please contact me if you'd like to contribute a Tuesday Books for Writers! post.

Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read this if you are writing:
Young Adult Fiction
With dialect in dialogue
About Nigerian Culture
About religion
About abuse
From the POV of an extremely quiet character
A coming of age story

I'm not going to give you a summary of this novel because I want you to go out and read it. It captures something that can't be expressed. And I'm glad I am only here to discuss craft because I'm not sure I can adequately express what this story is truly about.

To touch on some of the points above:

I was impressed with the use of dialect and language in this book. I understood the 'rules' for how it was used. I clearly do not speak Ibibio and, yet, I 'understood' it.

Maybe I'm not as well read as I should be, but I can't recall reading a book, especially for young people, that deals with religion in this manner. Kambili, the narrator of this incredible story, comes from a strict Christian family. It explores how faith can be exploited, but it does not, can not, take one side. Every extremist belief is counterbalanced with an opposite and equally compelling viewpoint. Every character represents the different ways that faith can change the course of a life. It shows us faith at its darkest and most severe, but also at its most powerful. For good and for bad.

I was also very impressed with the fact that the narrator of this story rarely participates in dialogue. She is still part of the action in every scene but remains a constant observer. And, it is her voice that grows with her, as it does for so many people. Such a simple way to capture how young people develop. And done so well. I'm not sure I could have imagined writing a book in which the narrator barely speaks, but now I know it can be done.

Last week, I spoke about issues. I took issue with too many issues or, at least, not adequately giving them the time and space they deserve in the course of a narrative. This story takes A LOT of issues and gives them appropriate billing. And I'm talking serious issues. Religion, child abuse, paganism, colonization, race, the list goes on. None of it is gratuitous. All of it is compelling.

If there's any word I want to use when I say why you should read this book if you write, it's balance. This novel strikes a near perfect balance in every possible way. With it's beautiful prose. Within each complex, multi-layered character. With every theme. Read it and you'll see what I mean.

As a writer, this is the kind of book where you want to put down your pen. After reading it, you want to say, there is no way I could tell a story so well. And yet, it burns a fire within you, it tells you that you have to pick up a pen and write it all down as quickly as you can, with the same humanity and beauty that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does. There are a few books that I read and then say: I will follow this writer anywhere. Anywhere they want to take me. I can't wait to devour as many of her words as I can.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Don Draper

I was inspired by Carolina Valdez Miller at Carol's Prints after she posted about book boyfriends. For the longest time, I've been planning to do a post on Don Draper and her post was a perfect reminder.

It's been a while since I became involved with a character. Not since my high school days, when I ran wild with Fox Mulder from the X-Files, have I enjoyed the company of a fictional man. Not until Don Draper...dazzling, tall, dark, handsome, witty, womanizing, scotch-drinkin', cigarette-smokin', suit-wearin', secret-keepin', copy-writin', new york city man of mystery...Don Draper. Can I get a long Jane Austen female protagonist sigh? Thank you.

As I watch the 3rd season of this series, I find that my love goes beyond his charismatic smile, his intense gazes, and mysterious daydreams. I am also impressed with the hand that created him. I'm convinced that we haven't seen a character on television with such depth since Tony Soprano hit the tube and, lawsie me, at least this one looks damn good.

But seriously, the more I see of this show, the more I am impressed. If you want to witness an amazing character study, get thee to a netflix and watch away. Even secondary characters are full of nuance, full of tremendous complexity. I am simply in awe. I feel compassion for the most repulsive characters. Even slimy-haired Campbell begs to be loved.

If you write character-driven stories, I hope you'll check out this show. It's Characters 101 for writers.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hack It Up Baby

Turns out my Gmail account was 'compromised' a few hours ago. To all of you that may have received an e-mail from me this morning, please ignore the odd links and porn and pharmaceutical advertisements in them. I apologize for the hackers.

What is perhaps most embarrassing is that an e-mail was sent out to everyone I have ever
e-mailed in my entire life. It's not entirely relevant to this blog, but if you put the pieces together, you might see why this comes at an extremely awkward time.

I might have mentioned that my manuscript was completed over the weekend. I might have mentioned that the next step involved querying agents. Believe it or not, this involved e-mailing them.

That is all I will say. Now, I am just going to hang my head in shame.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Issues With Issues

Last night Tyler and I watched the film Taking Woodstock, a story about a young man, Elliot, who, while helping to run his parent's dilapidated motel, inadvertently brings the massive concert to his small town. An awesome one-line pitch if you ask me, a story with inherent conflict that can bring this emotionally-charged moment to life.

You're immediately brought in to the irony of the situation: an immigrant Jewish family in the Catskills thrown together with the hippie love of an entire nation's youth. There's the story of how this situation came to be (how the concert ended up in this strange place) woven together with Elliot's struggle. Here he is bringing an entire movement of freedom to his home town, but he can't even free himself from the burden of his overbearing parents who are afraid to let him move on and live his life.

Overall, I love the idea for this film and I enjoyed sitting through it, but I found that the story had a lot of mis-steps and was not executed well at all. What I outlined above is, in my opinion, the heart of the story. But here are some other plots that crept up along the way:

The token Vietnam Vet struggling with his return home from the war.
A transvestite security guard who forms a bond with Elliot's father.
A town that is not only intolerant of the hippie love, but also of Jews.
The greed and thievery that stemmed from bringing this concert to town.
Oh and did I mention that Elliot is ALSO struggling to come out of the closet to his parents?

I know that the film is capturing a very controversial period of history, charged with conflict and emotion, but how is a good story supposed to take every issue and give it the attention it deserves? If it concentrated on one issue, would it have been more successful? Or would people have thought it inauthentic because it didn't accurately depict the times?

Is it necessary to bring in a transvestite for a few minutes to offer 'depth' to the story? Is it necessary for the Vietnam vet to have a 5 minute monologue about losing his virginity to show a loss of innocence? Is it necessary to show intolerance by graffiti-ing the Jewish house on the 'block'? Is it necessary to throw in a gay love affair to say: 'don't forget, people struggled with this too'!

Here's what I think. I think bringing the hippie culture to a small, narrow minded town is enough. That's huge! That says everything. To me, it represents everything that concert was about.

I think that throwing in every controversial event you can think of doesn't up the tension in a story. In fact, I would argue that it trivializes it. It says: "Pay attention to this. This, my friends, is an important issue." Instead of telling you what happened, it says:"These are the kinds of things that happened."

I no like that.

So, what do you think? Have you ever read or wrote a story that took on too many issues? Do you take on a lot of issues when you write or one big issue that may encompass a lot of little ones? Do you want to slap some sense in to me and tell me you can't actually write a story about Woodstock and not bring up all of these issues? Inquiring minds want to know if you have any issues with issues...

Friday, April 16, 2010

A lovely contest for aspiring writers!

Sarah Wylie is celebrating the publication of her book: All These Lives with quite a contest for aspiring writers. She's giving out 4 craaaazy prizes: lunch with two agents (Janet Reid and Suzie Townsend), a query critique, a partial manuscript critique, and a writer's survival package that includes twizzlers. So why haven't you entered yet?

Oh, because I haven't provided the link. Check it out here!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hey hey with the Monkees, sorry I've been monkeyin' around...

I apologize that I have not been blogging this week. My days at the office have been stressful and, when that happens, I often spend my evenings at the gym, cooking, watching television, or reading. Unfortunately, a stressful day means that my mind is not open to my novel and its simply not prepared to blog.

But I do have a few updates:

1. I will complete the line edits of my novel by next Monday April 19th. This means that I will have been at this for 1.5 years. At that point, it will be set free and I will enter the query wars. At that point, I will be free to move on with my life.

2. I did not speak to the agent on the bus. There were some logistics to work out. Such as: admitting I had been eavesdropping on her conversation, craning my neck and projecting my voice to speak out over the aisle between us, and then, ya know, ripping the headphones out of her ears. I figure these actions would have been wildly appropriate. And I am a professional person. A professional writer.

3. Good things have been happening in terms of getting my work out there. Positive things. Positive feedback from important people. Contests with unexpected outcomes that have worked in my favor. I'm not trying to be mysterious but, well, there's not much more to tell.

4. Speaking of positive things, I've complained about some stress in the early part of this week at the office. But this stress involved an overwhelmingly, helpful training course that I want to tell you about when I have the brain power.

I may not be able to post as much as I would like due to these outside factors, but I'll be back next week, raring to go. :-)

Friday, April 9, 2010

In the Flesh

As I sit on the bus on my way to Boston, I find myself in an unusual situation. I hear the woman beside me talking on the phone. She prefaces the conversation by saying that she doesn’t want to have to have this conversation. And the key words slowly trickle out: editor, proposal, chapters, book division, underbid, deadline, unreasonable, sorry. And of course some hand-holding. “You know how I feel about this book. We have to stay positive.”

I can not believe it. I am sitting next to what I can only assume is a real-life literary agent. In the flesh. She is obviously dealing with a client and what I can also only assume is a rejection.

As I sit across the aisle, line editing my novel, I'm about to have a heart attack.

Do you think I should hand her the laptop and ask her to start reading? I bet she would really appreciate that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Full Time Write-ah

I had the day off today, so I decided to take the opportunity to write full time for a day. I consider this the 'ultimate' dream. Here's how it went:

9:30am: Get out of bed (Cut me some slack. It's a vacation day after all)

9:30am -10am: Open the google reader, check e-mail, and comment on blogs.

10am -10:40am: Eat breakfast, get dressed, and put BBQ pulled pork in the slow cooker.

10:40am - 10:42am: Change my outfit in order to avoid beginning to write.

10:42am - 10:44am: Decide to bring a purple pen instead of a black pen in order to avoid beginning to write.

10:44am - 10:46am: Decide to eat a few jelly-beans in order to avoid beginning to write.

10:46am - 10:50am: Decide to put dishes away from last night in order to avoid beginning to write.

10:50am - 1pm: Go to community garden across the street, sit in an Adirondack chair, and read and analyze with notes Parts II and III of my novel. Discover I am actually engrossed in my own novel (these two parts have been sitting for about a month)

1pm - 2:55pm: Return home, prepare lunch, and decide to revise a bunch of scenes based on my notes.

2:55pm - 3:05pm: Become paranoid that my novel (coming in at 76,000 words) is too short. Frantically google everything I can about word count.

3:05pm: Convince myself that my novel is absolutely too short. Decide to go biking instead of confront this.

3:06pm: Put my biking tights on and decide to calm down. Convince myself that my novel is definitely just the right length.

3:07pm: Put on my shirt. Decide that my novel is absolutely too short.

3:08pm: Put on socks and decide to calm down. Convince myself that my novel is definitely just the right length.

3:09pm: Put on my biking shoes and try to decide whether I'm too lazy to make my novel longer or unable to make it longer.

3:10pm: Fill up my water bottle and convince myself that I'm too lazy to make it longer.

3:11pm: Find my keys and convince myself that I am really just unable to make it longer.

3:12: Find my helmet and convince myself that I'm too lazy to make it longer.

3:13pm - 4:30pm: Take 3 loops around Prospect Park and decide that I can not think about my novel anymore because I have my new clipless pedals on my bike and new cycling shoes and I am now completely TRAPPED on my bike at all times and if I forget to clip out at the right time, I will fall and die. This is an excellent distraction.

4:30pm - 5pm: Return home to an apartment smelling like BBQ pulled pork. Lift weights while watching The Golden Girls. Embrace that fact that my novel might be the right length but that it might not and that I might be able to make it longer but I might not.

5pm - 5:20pm: Begin this blog post. Eat frozen strawberries while smelling BBQ pulled pork. Wonder when Tyler will come home from work so I can eat delicious smelling BBQ pulled pork.

5:20pm - 7:20pm: Work on more revisions. Specifically character introductions of 6 secondary characters and replacing my crutch words: "was" "it seemed" "ridiculous" and "simply". Receive a call from an agitated Tyler that the F train has suspended service several miles from our apartment. Continue smelling BBQ pulled pork and wonder when I will eat delicious smelling BBQ pulled pork. Then, remember that I am lucky to be a full time writer for a day and do not have to deal with commuting.

7:27pm: Decide to continue writing this blog post since I've found and replaced 200 instances of "it seemed". Determine I will never write "it seemed" in my lifetime in order to avoid ever having to do that again.

7:28pm: Decide that I actually can not look at my manuscript without going completely insane, throwing up, or gaining 500 pounds as I eat ALL of the Easter candy (yes I am almost 30 years old and my mother sends me Easter candy). Dread impending line edits over the next two weeks. Feel proud I worked for a total of 6 hours in one day.

How lucky I am to be a part time full time writer.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Literary Day

Today was quite a day. A day that made me happy to be a writer and a reader. A day that made me happy all around.

I had been very excited to meet the author of The Babysitter's Club, Ann M. Martin. She is one of my all-time favorite writers. Or should I say author. My favorite author. Because when I was a child, that's what I called it. I never said, 'I want to be a writer when I grow up'. I said, 'I want to be an author when I grow up'. I'm not sure when all of that changed. It probably had something to do with me running around college campuses with manuscripts in my messenger bag listening to old men in tweed jackets. But, in any case, I met that author today.

It was not until after I met her that I realized the significance of what had just happened. I was absolutely obsessed with this beloved series. To say that it shaped who I was as a person and how I understood the world is a bit dramatic. But...honestly, when you're 8 years old, and your world is so small and who you are is ready to be defined, YES, these stories are epic. You know the neighborhood you live in, the school you go to, the friends and family you have, and when you open a book and you find a similar world alive in a story it leaves an impression that lasts forever.

I am very grateful that I was able to meet the woman who brought these stories to life for me. The stories that were such an integral part of my childhood. The stories that taught me what stories actually were and made me want to read and write them. It's hard to express what that means.

Just minutes after this, I was off to my very first book launch party. Tyler's friend, Sarah MacLean who I am friends with by proxy, was celebrating the launch of her book Nine Rules to Break When Romancing A Rake, her first adult romance novel. The 1st of a series that is sure to gain tremendous success. How wonderful it is to know someone whose dreams have been realized, who has brought her own stories to life for all the readers waiting to devour all the books in this amazing genre. I am excited to read a romance novel. I've never read one before...

It's been a loverly literary day. A good one.