Snow, Writing, and Other Good Things

Today was yet another snow day in New York, so I took advantage of being trapped in my home by working on my own writing. I may have mentioned this to you all before, but sometimes I find it’s hard to “get going” when I sit down to write. I don’t mean that I have writer’s block. To me, writer’s block is the absence of an idea, as opposed to the absence of words.
Anyway, my lack of coherent thoughts can sometimes lead me to write rather sporadically. If a scene enters my head, or even just one line of dialogue, I write it down and I find the process of building around it is much, much easier. This, of course, leads to having pages and pages of disconnected scenes.
This got me wondering what your individual writing styles are. Do you also dip from scene to scene, hoping that everything will organically work itself out? Do you have an ending in mind first and then write to get there? Or, are you a traditionalist and start at the beginning? 

There really is no “right” answer because there can be no right or wrong way to create something you’re proud of. There are probably writing styles that people have that I hadn’t even thought of…. writing upside down with an astronaut pen? using a quill and pretending you’re Shakespeare? dictating your novel to a subordinate?

Enjoy your snowy weekend, everyone! It’s the perfect stay-in-and-write weather. But if you’re one of those lucky few who live in NON-snowy places, there’s no better place to write, in my opinion, than at your favorite bookstore or cafe 🙂

Simple Joys, or Why I Go to The Strand So Much

The Guardian’s book blog has once again given me reason to pause and reflect. Last week they made me consider the most unreliable narrators in literary history (seriously, how was Tristram Shandey not on that list!?), but today they’ve caused me to marvel at the joy I get in life when I browse my favorite bookstore. I’m not ashamed to admit that I went to The Strand, one of my Top 5 NYC bookshops, three days in a row last week, and I managed to buy a book, either off their $1 rack or elsewhere, on all three days.

 
Part of the reason I love The Strand so much is because it’s incredibly convenient to get to in terms of both my home and my job. I also love that for an independent bookstore, it’s always crazy and hectic and all of the employees are unnecessarily surly. New York charm, I guess. 
 
But other reasons why I spend so much time in bookstores boil down to simply: it is an escape (not unlike my coffeehouse escape). Much like reading a book itself, browsing an old-fashioned, tangible bookshop is nothing short of therapeutic. (OK, so last week, during a particularly stressful momentary freak-out, I bought a cute little dress at the Gap – on sale! – and called it “therapy,” but usually my impulse buys, stress buys, and happy buys are books!)
 
The Guardian article discusses another joy of browsing a store: judging a book by its cover. I don’t usually do this; I’m more of a title person myself, which is a prejudice that has yet to fail me so far. It’s how I discovered David Sedaris back in the day after spotting Me Talk Pretty One Day at a Barnes & Noble, and it’s how, more recently, I bought, without hesitation, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya at another favorite NYC local shop, The Corner Bookstore. But on one of my recent Strand outings, I did pick up The Secret Life of Words based on the cover alone. (I mean, look at it! It’s so fun and about WORDS!)
The joys that come from entering a bookstore are endless, really. Being literally surrounded by books, the reassurance that stores that sell physical books are still needed, seeing others around you get excited over certain titles… and so on and so on.
 

So, I’ve shared some of my favorite local shops and favorite reasons for going to said shops… what (and where!) are yours?

Missing Out

Friends, I have a few confessions to make, and I hope you all can still respect me afterward. (Deep breath…)

 
I have never read anything by a Bronte. 
I have not read Grapes of Wrath or Brave New World
I have not read The Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Hobbit
I have yet to read The Hunger Games, Eat, Pray, Love, or anything by Zadie Smith. 
I probably won’t read many other popular titles that came out in the past ten years. 
I definitely won’t read an even larger number of classics.
 
OK. I feel better now. But only slightly.
 
I’ve read a LOT of books, but there will always be those certain titles that the collective “they” insist you have to read. I’m part of “they” when people tell me they’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye or 1984. I mean, how could you not have read those??? Right?
 
With so many works of literature out there, past and present, it would be impossible to attempt to read all of the good ones, let alone great. Which titles are you guilty of not reading? Or are you not guilty about it at all?

 

Leave your comments and then enjoy these two completely unrelated items to start your weekend off right:
1) The best PSA I’ve ever seen in my entire life – it teaches valuable life lessons, the most important being Read a Book! Disclaimer for those who might watch at work or in front of the kids: Contains Adult Language!
2) Corgis + a peaceful night’s sleep = the best things in life, so I leave you with this combination of the two (!!!) And now your lives are complete 🙂

 

Selling Yourself Short

On Wednesday, I read a post on Rachelle Gardner’s blog about separating one’s writing life from his or her financial life. In it, she argues that when writers put their pens to paper with only dollar signs in their eyes, their work suffers. I have to say I agree with this. Thought of being the next James Patterson or Stephen King are often delusional, and chances are you won’t write the next Twilight either. Those types of trends are often completely random, so if you trap yourself in the mindset that whatever you’re about to write will be “the next big thing,” you’ll end up driving yourself crazy. Or worse – into a writer’s block.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like Carrie Bradshaw here, but as I thought more about the relationship between writing and money, I couldn’t help but wonder – do writing goals and financial goals need to be mutually exclusive? If you’re a writer, your number one goal should be producing work that you love and are proud of. Writing is personal and therapeutic and people do it because they need to. Like any art, the best writing comes from the passion behind it.
But writers also shouldn’t be ashamed to expect adequate compensation for the many hours they put into their work. It’s not selling out and it doesn’t make you shallow. If you’re at the point of querying agents, chances are you are trying to turn “what you love” into a viable career option. And really, isn’t that what everyone wants?
I’m not going to sugar-coat the state of the industry. Unless you already are James Patterson or Stephen King, you will most likely not become a millionaire with your first six book deals, let alone your first one. Even when we’re not in/recovering from a recession, that probably wont happen. Sorry.
That doesn’t mean setting financial goals for your writing career is unrealistic. Once the scary querying stage is over, knowing you’re being artistically recognized and monetarily compensated can be a great motivator. Don’t be afraid to know your worth. Selling yourself short puts you at risk of working for way less than you deserve, and then nobody wins.
I am in no way suggesting you scream at your agents every time they come back to you with an offer. (Let me repeat: PLEASE DO NOT YELL AT YOUR AGENTS!) I am simply saying that you should choose an agent who you know will fight for you, agents you can trust to get the most they can for the work you’ve produced.
The sayings “don’t quit your day job” and “starving artists” apply, especially, to writers and they exist for a reason. It’s hard to turn your passions into your job when the competition is already high and the chances of slipping a measly query letter through a slush pile are exceptionally low. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. All it takes is for someone to believe in your work the way you believe in it.
And so I leave you for this LOVE-ly weekend (get it?) with one more affirmation, because if anyone knows what it means to get what they deserve, it’s these awesome ladies! (Warning: this song will stay in your head until President’s Day, but it is so worth it.) 

The Superbowl Ups Their Game

While the best word to describe what I see when I look at a football game is “static,” I, like many, sat down to watch the Superbowl last night. (Go Saints!) Granted, I only watch the Superbowl every year for the commercials and (sometimes) the half-time show. The hype surrounding the ads this year was already high due to the allowance of an anti-choice ad and the denial of an ad for a gay dating site. So, more intrigued than usual about the content of the commercials, I was prepared for some mild irritation (Tim Tebow), some laughs (Betty White!), and a whole lotta unnecessary sexuality (Danica Patrick and that other token hot girl from GoDaddy). 

The objectification of women is practically standard in commercials, so much so that it’s now often exaggerated for comedic effect. But last night featured far fewer babes in bikinis than in previous years. (Where there any at all?) Perhaps the folks at CBS thought the hot-chicks-and-beer images weren’t for the post-wardrobe malfunction eyes of the FCC. Instead, the ads took their anti-woman agenda to a whole different level. 

Is it too much for me to call it an “agenda?” Maybe. But when I think back to the Dodge Charger commercial titled “Man’s Last Stand,” I think… maybe not. In the ad, the inner voice of “Average Man” goes over everything he does not want to do during the course of his day, which includes doing his job, coming home from said job, and spending time with (presumably) his wife. Because he behaves the way a human adult should, he totally deserves a car that looks like a huge penis.

Two more ads – I forget what they were for, but then, does it matter? – were especially tactless. One featured Jim Nance announcing that any man who agrees to shop with his girlfriend has “had his spine removed” and obviously needs to get it back by buying something damn manly! The other ad simply listed what “real men” should do during their lifetimes, which include falling in love with woman (subtext: and only a woman!) and then proceed to do much of what the man in the Dodge commercial complained about.

What’s interesting here is that, yes, these ads are obviously offensive to women, but they’ve managed to now include a whole other group of people to offend: men! If I were a man, I would be rightfully horrified at these ads’ portrayal of the such a blatant stereotype of the male psyche. However, if I were a guy, I’d probably think they were speaking directly to me because I, too, would feel trapped and burdened by the annals of life. Guys, if you need a car or other product to assert your manhood, I have news for you – you’re not a real man yet, and buying that car won’t change that. This is a new brand of misogyny. Just because it offends everybody doesn’t mean it counts for equality.


So, to sum up, I’ve learned that yes, I am one of those stereotypical women who are confused by football, but I also learned that women, football fans or otherwise, only exist to look pretty and emasculate men. Likewise, all men secretly hate their lives and resent their girlfriends, wives, children, and even jobs for making them forget their true nature… which is apparently “being fifteen.”

Sort of makes one miss the days of “Open a Bud Light, Have a Stripper Land in Your Lap,” doesn’t it?

Inspiration & Motivation

To my fellow writers… 

Yes, I say “fellow” because I am in the process of reclaiming my roots in creative writing. I’ve been so busy thinking my MFA was useless and not worth the debt, that I haven’t thought about actually using it. While my go-to style is personal essay, I’ve been trying my hand at (gulp!) fiction. It’s pretty terrifying. Right now my idea is heavily based on a friendship I had in high school, and, as expected, the sections that come more naturally to me are scenes involving those two characters. I find I’m less motivated to write the straight-fiction parts, which will account for 75% of the novel. 

The easy solution is to make this a memoir, but then I’d be stuck with having to make it truthful, and frankly, this story would be very boring if I start and end it where it did in real life. I want to take it further and explore areas in that time period without having to worry about things like facts. The only problem is – I just can’t make myself sit down and write it.

I’m curious about what happens after the inspiration. It’s hard enough finding a muse and putting an idea down on paper. But, once you finally map out where you want to go, what makes you get in your car and drive there? I apologize for the weak metaphor, but you see what I mean. Any advice out there for me or to the other writers out there?

One last word on MFAs – despite my gripes, I don’t regret getting one. I know being in the program made me a better writer and I definitely learned more in those two years than I did in the four years I studied creative writing before that. However, they are expensive!!! I do not suggest going for the MFA right after college unless you are 100% certain that the only career for you is “author.” Even then, they’re not super necessary, but you do meet some great professors (many of whom have connections) and form a decent writing circle that will be super necessary later in your writing life.

Analysis of a Query

When a truly horrible query letter comes in (written in crayon, vampire erotica for toddlers, etc.), publishing assistants usually just mock it until it cries. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. But what about a poorly written query letter that still shows a hint of potential? This is treated with more care, meaning the “mocking” is then called “judging” and instead of making it cry, we, instead, force it to question its decisions with equal parts shame and understanding.
(It should be noted that when I say “it,” I really am talking about the inanimate query letter, and am in no way suggesting that we come up with horrifying rejections for its author. Breathe easy, writers!)
Today, a query letter arrived in a sister-assistant’s inbox and, from it, a request for a partial was born. But, she severely questioned this decision and enlisted the help of the other sister-assistants to figure out why she had instantly regretted her request. While keeping the identity and dignity of the author safe, here is what we came up with (so that you do not fall victim to these potentially fatal mistakes):
Get a real email address. Generally, .edu or @aol.com are red flags that a query probably will be less than stellar. Also, avoid things like FlrtyGrrl69 or MetsRule86 (unless you are a sportswriter). By all means express your personality, but do it tastefully and in the right context.
Be controversial without being out of touch. If you’re writing YA, it’s common to put your main characters in adult situations. Just make sure your characters handle these situations the way teenagers would. Making them act too old, or too young, puts you at risk of seeming clueless to the teenage experience, and your target audience will see right through you.
Delete irrelevant personal details. Really young writers and more, shall we say, seasoned writers tend to put their ages in their query letters. To the twelve-year-olds and ninety-three-year-olds: if you can write, you can write. If you can’t, you can’t. Knowing how old you are is rarely, if ever, put into consideration.
Avoid vague plot summary. Call it the “yada, yada, yada” of synopses. When key elements to the plot (and therefore, our level of interest in that plot) are glossed over, it makes it seem as if they are not good enough to be mentioned. We want specifics! We want to be dazzled! We do not want “after various events take place, Character A and Character B realize their destiny and fall in love.”
DO NOT compare yourself to Twilight. I repeat: Do. Not. Do. This. EVER. See also: The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, anything by John Grisham, or using the phrase “Oprah-appeal.” Confidence in your work is good. Calling yourself the next major trend in literature, pop culture, and the world… kind of a turn-off. Also, it’s up to your agent and/or publisher to decide where you fall on this spectrum of popularity, not you.
So, you may be asking yourself why I’m telling you to avoid all of these things when the person who did do them still got a request. It’s because as a writer you never, ever, ever (ever!) want to give an agent or publisher more of an incentive to reject you. It’s a harsh reality to face, but the odds are already against you. What works for some will most likely not work for you. Don’t let your brilliant manuscript see the inside of your SASE just because you insisted on using the words “great for film.”