Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Don't Jaywalk Your Query (repost from 2009!)

by Elizabeth

(This was first published back in 2009. Now that I'm querying again, and thus aware of what's going on out there, I'm struck by the fact that in six years, things are still the same. Wow, or not. As for me? Still following the rules.)

I'm a pretty law-abiding citizen. If you overlook my occasional indifference to speed limits on long stretches of open highway, you could really call me squeaky. I really don't understand disregard for the law, especially when the law simply codifies common sense and protects the vulnerable.

It drives me nuts seeing parents at my kids' school jaywalking their kids across the fairly busy street. (Worse in the rain. Trust me, don't get me started there.) I realize the parents are watching cars, waiting for tolerant drivers to stop in the flow of traffic to let them cross, rendering the practice more or less safe, but it still irks me. There are crosswalks at either end of the school, and sure, it would add two minutes to the twice-daily routine--but at what cost are they buying those 240 seconds? As I see it, those parents are teaching their kids that their time is more important than other people's; that the rules don't matter; and that taking a shortcut is okay if you don't get caught.

There are times to break the rules. I get that. Civil disobedience has its place; our country wouldn't exist without it. But I don't agree that a busy street with frazzled drivers, a situation in which a moment's inattention can transform those saved two minutes into a lifetime of regret, is the place to introduce the concept to a seven-year-old. Not that I think these parents consider they're teaching those kids anything. They're simply focused on getting them to school on time. Even so, the thing about breaking rules is that you have to know the rule and have followed it before it's meaningful to break it. (Or safe, for that matter--and in the case of the Founding Fathers, at least worth the considerable risk.)

For writers on the cusp, it's not time to break the rules, either. I'm equally amused and amazed reading accounts of queries stuffed with glitter, or packaged with trinkets, or accompanied by not-funny joke death threats. I'll admit that when I first learned about the system, my mind flickered to what pretty paper on which I'd print my queries. Luckily for me, information is plentiful to anyone who exerts themselves even mildly, and I'm pleased to report I never sent out a query on anything but plain white bond, SASE included.

The query system isn't perfect. We all know that. Laws aren't perfect. But both work pretty well almost all of the time, and if you follow both, chances are your sparkling manuscript will find representation, and you'll remain ticket-free (and un-maimed). Querying is not the time to flaunt the rules. That's not what gets noticed. Shining within the guidelines is the way to catch an agent's attention. And since your manuscript has one shot with that agent, play it safe. Play it smart. Cross your T's, dot your I's, stay inside the crosswalk. Allow your project to provide the glamour.

And teach your kids to follow the rules instead of how to get around them. They'll figure that out on their own when they're teenagers.

Monday, March 23, 2015

On Joan Didion

by Joan

Several years ago I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, her raw and honest memoir covering the death of her husband and writing confidant, John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo (who recovered but later died).  

I always meant to read Didion’s earlier novels and essays, but never quite got around to it. Then about a month ago, I came across a fascinating 1978 Paris Review interview with Linda Kuehl, The Art of Fiction

When asked to clarify what she meant by: “Writing is a hostile act,” Didion replied, “It’s hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

In the interview, Didion said she began typing out Hemingway’s stories to learn how his sentences worked. “I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” Didion also noted Henry James as an influence. “He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them.”

After reading this article I decided I must search out more of her work. I started with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of essays published in the 60s. The audible version was performed by Diane Keaton, a perfect blend of narrator and author. Occasionally when listening to an audio book, I find myself rewinding to catch a sentence or scene I’ve missed. But while listening to these essays, I pushed rewind more often, not because my mind had wandered as sometimes happens, but because I wanted to hear the brilliance again.

Aside from the John Wayne article in which he’s very much alive, and perhaps the title story covering the Haight-Ashbury druggie scene, the essays were surprisingly relevant and immediate to now. Whether California and its dichotomous personality and landscape, or New York in the author’s twenties, the essays are individual yet universal, abundant with literary inspiration. In “On Keeping a Notebook” Didion shares her thoughts on why a notebook is not a journal. She jots down snippets of conversations, places and times of random incidents, not as self-reflection, but as a chance to document how we create our own memories.

One cannot read Didion without wanting to capture some of her more profound statements, to quote and revisit.

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.” 

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”

I particularly liked her essay, “On Self-respect.” It seems an appropriate message for writers who live so close to rejection, but also for recent graduates who are struggling with what to make of themselves and where they will land in this world.

“People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called ‘character,’ a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to the other, more instantly negotiable virtues.... character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” 

“To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.” 

It turns out, Didion’s style has the flair of both Hemingway and James: clear and direct, a smooth river with an occasional sinkhole to drown in. For more on Didion, listen to fascinating podcasts of her NYPL interview or talk with David L. Ulin as part of Aloud, at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Review of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now

By Kim

I first heard of Meg Rosoff through Writer Unboxed, where she is a contributor, and had the privilege of taking one of her classes at the UnConference in Salem this past November. I am now kicking myself that I did not have How I Live Now with me at the time, so I could have had it signed. I don’t read a lot of YA, and so perhaps I can be forgiven for having missed this gem, published back in 2004 and since made into a movie of the same name.

Synopsis of How I Live Now (from the book jacket)

Fifteen-year-old New Yorker Daisy is sent to live in the English countryside with cousins she’s never even met. When England is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy, the cousins find themselves on their own. Power fails, systems fail. As they grow more isolated, the farm becomes a kind of Eden, with no rules. Until the war arrives in their midst.

Daisy’s is a war story, a survival story, a love story—all told in the voice of a subversive and witty teenager. This book crackles with anxiety and with lust. It’s a stunning and unforgettable first novel that captures the essence of the age of terrorism: how we live now.

About Meg Rosoff:

Meg Rosoff is an American writer based in London. How I Live Now, her first novel, won the Guardian Prize, the Printz Award, and the Branford Boase Award. The novel was made into a motion picture, which released in 2013 starring Saoirse Ronan, Subsequent novels include Just in Case, What I Was, The Bride’s Farewell and Picture Me Gone.

My Review:

It is pretty much impossible to categorize this novel.

It’s part utopian and part dystopian.

It’s a war story that takes place on the fringes of the war, at least until the scene that left me as shell-shocked as poor Daisy and Piper. This was soon followed by something exponentially worse.

The love story should be disturbing or, at the very least, off-putting, yet it somehow isn't. Not in that context. Not in that world.

How I Live Now is only 194 pages yet it felt much meatier because Daisy’s voice forced a slow read with no skimming allowed. It is one of the most original stories I've read in years, and also one of the most timely and unsettling. I wouldn't hand it to my thirteen-year-old, but when she’s fifteen I may well be shoving it at her.

It made me examine how vulnerable MY world is, how easily it could crumble into chaos. How many novels can do that?

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Post-Deadline Relief

By Pamela

The past several weeks have been a bit of a bitch. Freelance assignments (for which I'm soooo grateful) piled on and left me feeling very work-weary. And then I took on another magazine assignment that qualified as being the longest one I think I'd ever written for publication. I wrapped it up last night, emailed it to my niece for her expert opinion and printed it out (which I never do), so I could read it on the page. My son, home for spring break, graciously read it, too. I let it marinate overnight and read it with fresh eyes this morning. After a couple tweaks, I sent it off.

Now, I face a couple more writing assignments that need my attention but not my immediate attention. So, this afternoon I'll make a quick run to the tile warehouse and carpet supplier to choose some products my contractor is waiting on. But what I really want to do is write. Write for me. Write on my novel, which I hesitate to admit aloud because I feel every one around me is tired of hearing about it. It shouldn't take so long to finish a book, should it?
The morning Texas sky

But sometimes it does. Sometimes work and kids and obligations become priorities and not excuses. And my life right now is about taking advantage of writing that pays in lieu of writing that might pay. I also feel I need to balance time away from the computer, connecting with people and getting away. So my calendar has a lunch with a friend planned for next Monday, a media weekend away (but I can take my girl) starting next Friday and a media tour to California wine country (just me!) the day after we return.

So, life is full. Life should be full and finding the time to make connections away from the computer are essential for me and hopefully my writing. Who would want to read a novel about a woman who sat all day in her jammies, tapping away at the keyboard? Not I! It's time to get out.

Monday, March 16, 2015


by Elizabeth

My watch's battery has been dead for a couple of weeks. I have some pans and coasters I need to return to the store. My bathroom grout needs a dose of vinegar and baking soda, and my cat's nails could use a trim.

This is the stuff that plagues me today.

I have a beta-reading project I really need to get to. My WIP is demanding attention. I have to figure out what I'm going to feed my family for dinner tonight.


There's an unfortunate build-up of stuff on the counter in my breakfast room. The dog needs a walk. I have a pile of library books due in a couple of days.

Since I write contemporary women's fiction, it's tempting to use my life as fodder for my characters. I'll never forget hearing Amy Tan explain how she tried to justify her Chinese restaurant lunches as research for tax purposes (and getting shot down by her accountant husband). I wonder what Lou would say if I wanted to write off yoga teacher training? It's in my query letter.

I'm reading A Spool of Blue Thread right now, Anne Tyler's newest novel, and once again loving the little bits of life she peppers into her stories. She is truly the master of the tiny detail, seemingly insignificant tidbits of information that I never tire of reading. Here's an example:

It took a total of five vehicles to carry them all to the beach. They could have managed with fewer, but Red insisted, as usual, on driving his pickup. How else could they bring everything they needed, he always asked--the rafts and boogie boards, the sand toys for the children, the kites and paddle-ball racquets and the giant canvas shade canopy with its collapsible metal frame? (In the old days, before computers, he used to include the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica.) So he and Abby made the three-hour trip in the pickup, while Denny drove Abby's car with Susan in the passenger seat and the food hampers in the rear. Stem and Nora and the three little boys came in Nora's car, and Jeannie and Jeannie's Hugh started out separately from their own house with their two children, though not with Hugh's mother, who always spent the beach week visiting Hugh's sister in California.

In the book, that takes up about a third of a page, and really, there's nothing in there driving the action of the story, or anything particularly revealing about any of the characters (we already know Red well enough by page 133 to figure he'd be that kind of stubborn)--but it's a pleasure to read and its own kind of funny. (Tyler specializes in quirky characters.)

Hooray! That means I get to write about my character driving to the mall to the watch repair place and maybe gobbling down lunch at a Thai place and then dropping by the store for pita bread to have with dinner.

Except. Another book I read late last month included little details, too. Lots and lots and lots of them, and while this was the work of a celebrated novelist as well, I found myself wondering why it mattered where the old pajamas had been purchased, impatient with reading through a character picking up and putting down a phone repeatedly to show her ambivalence about making a call, nearly rolling my eyes when having to read about a character plugging the computer into an outlet to get a specific number of emails that have nothing to do with anything. This is a novel I enjoyed and finished, but one that probably had a good fifty pages worth of detail that could have been deleted. Had they been, I would have liked it much more.

My WIP was begun as a NaNoWriMo book five years ago, and when I picked it back up earlier this year and realized it was a project I wanted to finish and felt ready to work on again, it did indeed have the requisite 50 thousand words to its credit. To my credit, I rapidly acknowledged that probably 35 thousand of those would be biting the dust, most sooner rather than later. Repetition, fine details, and while there's the nugget of the story there, and some good detail even well written, much of it would make a reader's eyes roll even faster than it did mine.

Over and over as writers we hear the advice to make every word count. Every chapter, paragraph, sentence, word, must add to the story or be sacrificed. I've bristled at this idea at times, but reading my early partial draft, I'm ready to shout Hallelujah and sign on. With books like the one I read last month that will always have an asterisk in my mind, I've got the pen in my hand. But then I pick up Anne Tyler, and the pajamas she mentions are seersucker, and too light for the season, really, but the only option, and I know I could read paragraph after paragraph about them and know the time was well spent.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On Writing

By Susan

It's one of the age-old topics amongst writers: how do we get the writing done while balancing our lives? And even after we've found the time to write, what combination of luck, talent, and hard work does it take for a writer to succeed? From excuses, to pacing, to revision and the practice of writing itself, here are a few notes to myself while I struggle with those questions. 

On Writer's Block
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.
Terry Pratchett

If I believed in writer's block, right now would be the time I'd claim it.

There are times in my writing journey where I consider myself a student, and times when I'm the teacher. Sometimes, I want to be neither: I just want to be the writer—and right now, I'm a suffering writer. Perhaps you feel that way at times as well. I'm at a crossroads, and all I want is to simply write my way to the end of this draft of my novel. Yet my life is getting in the way—meaning my excuses are piling up.
The actuality isn't that I'm plagued by writer's block, but that I've been struggling to control my writing mind. The remedy for that? For me, I need the time to think. Yoga and exercise help. Solitude is essential. Retreats, residencies, and workshops refill my well. When I can't have those luxuries, I need to carve out my own time to refocus my energies. Now is one of those times.
Ernest Hemingway's attic typewriter in Oak Park, Illinois
The interesting part of writing as a student is that I tend to follow a pattern I've named "lag and sprint." My pacing has been thrown by an external time clock instead of internal motivation. It seems I'm either sprinting toward a deadline or lagging in the afterglow of meeting yet another one. Before I started my MFA, my writing life took on a more rhythmic pace. My advice to MFA students? Properly pace yourself. Find the right rhythm for you and stick with it.

On Writing as a Student
It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
Ernest Hemingway

As a student, I'm reading novels extensively and dissecting the form of short stories and poetry. I'm writing essays, literary criticism, and new chapters. An MFA in Creative Writing is serious business (although it's well-known that some programs are more rigorous than others) and I've taken each month's work to heart. After all, if I don't take my writing seriously, who else will?

On the Magic of Writing
People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
Harlan Ellison

I like the idea that writing is magical, and perhaps I idealized the process myself when I first starting taking my fiction seriously. Yet this statement by Harlan Ellison sums it up properly. The key to completing projects is to do the work. Easier said than done when we convince ourselves that our writing is a luxury, or a pastime, or a hobby. The key to making our writing a priority is to simply carve out the time to do so, and to do so without guilt.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Stand tall, perfect your jump

by Joan

When I was in eighth grade, the older sister of a good friend was a high-school cheerleader. She was beautiful and energetic and joyful, and several of us could think of nothing else but how to perfect our jumps, yell with spirit and keep our arms straight during routines. I was pretty good at straight arms and spirited yells, but no matter how much I practiced, my jumps rarely got more than six inches off the ground and my cartwheels looked like a crab at a ninety-degree angle. Still I was confident my positive attributes would make up for my lack of acrobatic ability.

After tryouts we all went home to our respective houses to await “the call.” After an hour I still had hope. I had hope even after one or two of my friends called to say they’d made the squad. But as the evening wore on and it was apparent my phone wouldn’t ring, I went to my room and pulled the covers over my head. Actually I’m not sure I remember exactly what I did, but it was probably something like that. I had worked hard. I had practiced and memorized routines and even improved my jumps (though I never could do a cartwheel). And I still hadn’t made the team.

I tried out the next year and the year after that. Finally in eleventh grade I learned about drill team. This was a group of 24 girls who did choreographed routines to pop songs while marching and shaking red and gold pom poms. Although you had to have a certain amount of spirit, there was no cart-wheeling, jumping or yelling. I had rhythm and bounce and, miraculously, a bit of self-confidence. Not only did I make the team in eleventh grade, but I made other dear friends. The following year I was nominated captain. I could have given up, I could have decided performing wasn’t for me, could have stayed under the covers.

Rejection is hard and I’ve received heaps more than my fair share. I have manuscripts on that high closet shelf. But I also have one on submission and one in the works. Because that’s what writers do. Stand tall, practice, perfect their jumps.

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