Thursday, December 31, 2009

Novel Teas and High Aspirations

When last I blogged, which I realize guiltily was about a month ago, I was waiting on the notes for my novel.

Still waiting. Which is really no big deal, in the larger scheme of things. I want my editor to take her time and be thorough. (I am trying to repeat this, as many times as necessary, until I relax.)

This lapse in writing has given me time to stew on my story and get a bit of headway into Book 2. Everyone, including my agent, my parents, my husband, and my readers for Book 1 (they simply just want to know what happens next) wants me to work on Book 2. According to my contract, the synopsis and first five chapters of Book 2 are due March 1. This alarms me. Not because I don't think I'm capable of writing so much new stuff in so little time (that I know I can do-- heck, the synopsis is already mostly done and I've written some good preliminary stuff) but because I don't feel like I'm in the proper mental condition to begin writing hardcore on the next part of my story. I'm in this terrible state of limbo, where I don't know if I'm going to have to make major changes to Book 1 or smaller ones. So as I dip my toe into the pool of Book 2, which is warm and inviting but will still take several months of hard laps to complete, I hesitate. My mind wanders back to Book 1. I think of scenes. I think of little changes I want to make. I wonder if F will want more of this character or that backstory, if she'll want me to cut 25,000 words or add 25,000. Either way, I would be excited, really. I swear. I try to imagine reading it as F does, and then my entire novel gapes open with the sheer possibility of all that it could be. And Book 2 fades from the forefront of my mind. I'm still treading water in Book 1.

Still, I tell myself, I should work on Book 2. I can't afford to waste time complaining about silly writerly things like limbo and burn my creative energy coming up with clever metaphors that describe my current situation. I need to WRITE. I'm getting mentally flabby.

When I first became a "serious" writer, I made myself get a ritual. When I was going to write, I retreated into my bedroom, where my computer desk was settled in front of a large window. I often slanted the blinds to block out the sight of the rabble of kids who were always hanging around the tennis courts below, and gazed up into th perfect blue sky. I made one cup of tea, Earl Grey, decaf, with milk and sugar, which I brewed in a special tea pot and drank from a special tea cup. In silence, I donned a long black sweater coat, sipped the last dredges of my tea, and began to write. I thought that if I dressed writing up in as much ceremony as possible, it would be easier. And, to some extent, it was. The ritual made me take myself seriously.

This Christmas, my dear friend Wendy sent me a package. It was tea, NOVEL TEAS, to be precise--tea bags with literary tags like "She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain" by Lousia May Alcott. At one point in my life, I would have squealed in delight at this incredibly sweet gift. Now, when I opened the package, I smiled at how thoughtful Wendy was to think of me, her "accomplished writer friend" as she put it, and I plan to thoroughly enjoy the tea, but it occurred to me that I haven't had a cup of tea in ages. When I wrote this novel, I always had to hurry and write before my son woke up from his nap. I had to get the words down before I had to see to dinner or the next mountain of laundry or stack of papers. I wrote in my office, at the kitchen table, in the classroom when my students were working on their own writing, I wrote with a voice recorder dangling from my rearview mirror on the perilous canyon road to and from Malibu, I wrote in a notebook on the shore of Jackson Lake, I wrote everywhere I could find space and time. I had no more time for ritual.

Funny how we change without noticing.

And now I tell myself: WRITE. My single New Year's aspiration: Write every day, shooting for the good ol' thousand words, until I get the notes and finish Book 1 and then finish Book 2.

There's a very cool story waiting to be told.

I think I'll have a cup of Novel Tea.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Right now I'm waiting to get notes back from my editor at HarperCollins. It's nerve-wracking business, this waiting. I've decided I'm not very good at just chilling while someone else reads my manuscript. I'm sizzling with nervous energy, checking my email every little bit, anxious to get on with the next part, the next step of this process. I am so eager to revise my book under my editor's care, just to see it become better and stronger and worthy of what I feel is the incredible honor that's been bestowed on me. I want to work!

Next week I'm teaching revision strategies to my creative writing students at Pepperdine. That's where I try to show them how much fun the revision process can be, how cool it is to tinker and play with a story, to tear down and rebuild and reenvision everything. I show them a really early draft of a story I wrote a long time ago, and then the published version that was printed years later, and together we marvel at how far a story can come. And when I read that old story, I am always filled with a sense of awe and mystery of how the story shaped itself into something wonderful. I get excited with the sheer possibility of writing.

Here's what I hope from this process with Unearthly: I hope that I understand clearly what to do, and have the ability to do it, be it big changes or little ones. I hope that I will be able to fix it quickly, but thoroughly. Most of all I hope that what emerges is a rock-solid book, of course, something I will look back on with a sense of delight and amazement that such a thing could come from me. And that I'll be able to survive all the stretches of waiting that are before me in the next few years.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And the title is. . . .

That's right folks, I now officially have a title for my book!

I seriously didn't work even half this hard to name my son. I've been up late nights staring up at the ceiling, pondering, rolling different words and phrases around in my mouth like hard candy, seeing how they taste. I've received so many great ideas from my friends, family, and students (thanks, everybody, for your awesome possibilities!) and scoured the pages of my book looking for it to be hiding in there somewhere. And guess what? It was! This title jumped off the page at us from a list of words and phrases I found in the book during my last pass at revision. And the amazing people at HarperCollins agreed (unanimously, even!) that this is the one.

So the title is. . .


What I love is the sense of mystery and possibility in this simple word, and how it operates on so many levels that speak to not only the arc of Clara's story, but the world she comes to know.

Yay! So glad that it's settled! So excited thinking about this word on the cover of MY book. (And now, we do the dance of joy!)

Ahem. Now, back to work.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stephanie Meyer and Pudding on the Brain

Tis the season for Twilight. I realized this in Nordstrom's, where I was perusing the makeup counters and came across the new Twilight lip gloss: Venom. It's this strange mix like those science experiments in grade school where you put oil and water in a 2 liter soda bottle with a little food coloring and spend hours shaking it up and watching it separate. With Venom, it's a clear substance and a dark red stuff churning around in a tiny $16 container. The clear stuff is a gloss with a plumper in it, which tastes like cinnamon and is supposed to irritate your lips enough to swell. The red stuff is meant to stain your mouth the color of blood. And in the five minutes I was standing there, the clerk sold three vials.

Twilight lip gloss, people. A sign of the apocalypse? :) I can't help but wonder if Stephanie Meyer thinks it's absolutely bonkers too. I've been thinking a lot about Stephanie Meyer lately. I remember her in those earlier interviews, where she was just aglow with the excitement of it all. She was having dinner with her characters, in costume! She was sitting on a movie set while they shot the meadow scene! Could a writer's life get better than that?! And last week I saw her on Oprah and she looked. . . strained. And I wondered, have we crossed the threshold where everything's gone from really super cool for her to where it's just totally insane?

Lately I've seen a lot of attacks on Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight saga. I can't cruise around Facebook without seeing some comment about how lame Twilight is and how stumped people are (especially other writers) by its success. Some of this I rack up to the anti-mob mentality. In order to feel like they are true individuals with good taste, many people will staunchly oppose the "it" thing. Titanic. Harry Potter. Twilight. And there's something to that, I suppose. I cried like a baby at Titanic, but even I was ready to chuck my radio out the window when "My Heart Will Go On" came on for the umpteenth time every hour. There's such a thing as death by overexposure.

Like most "it" things, I came to Twilight late. I'd heard of it. But I was busy. I only started to pay better attention when the movie came out. I love movies. And I love vampires. I am a Buffy fan to the core, and a big fan of Sookie Stackhouse to boot. So I rented Twilight the weekend it came to DVD. The first thing I remember thinking about it was that I would have LOVED it when I was sixteen. I would have been writing fan-fic about Bella and Edward for sure. And at age 30, I still found it mysteriously compelling.

So I went off to Barnes and Noble and bought the book. Then went back that afternoon to get Book 2. And the next day to get 3 and 4, which I read in less than 48 hours. After I finished the series, I sat down, stared at the mound of books on my desk and thought, I could do better. Now I have to laugh at the outright arrogance of this assumption, but my novel hadn't come to me yet. I wasn't thinking in specific terms. I was just thinking that I was a writer, a practiced, educated writer, and I could write something better. I could immediately see Meyer's flaws. The books seemed to me full of rookie mistakes, which makes total sense as Meyer never wrote so much as a short story before she came up with Twilight. I joked that if I had to read that Edward's voice was like velvet one more time I might have to choke somebody. I would have, in those days, completely agreed with Stephen King in his infamous interview last February (Meyer is a good storyteller, he claims, with something unique and compelling to offer her readers, but "can't write worth a darn.")

But that was BEFORE I wrote my novel. When my novel did come to me, not much later, Stephanie Meyer was constantly lingering in the back of my mind, and not simply because of her success, not because she supposedly sold Twilight for a $750,000 advance or made 52 million dollars last year or all the other things that make her the epitome of what it is to be a triumph as a YA writer. But because I knew more about her by then. She was a mother with small children. And one day she just started writing, not to become a gazillionaire or a world-famous author, but because she wanted to know how a story ended. And she wrote to find not only the story, but herself again.

I could relate.

And I was finding that being a good storyteller is a heck of a lot harder, in many, many ways, than being a good writer. I've always had a good ear for the language. But the story, the complexities of the characters, the way you have to keep all their threads untangled in your head, the way you must set them in tense, powerful moments that resonate with the reader and follow through with them, that, is really freaking hard. And with that kind of thing, the proof is in the pudding. And Stephanie Meyer is all pudding, no matter what you think of the writing itself. Her story speaks to people. That's undeniable.

When I find myself tempted to come to Stephanie Meyer's defense these days, I remind myself: pudding. The girl can take care of herself. So I'm content to simply cheer for her, to show solidarity for a fellow writer. And I try not to envy her for her incredible success. And I try to allow myself to dream of big things, because sometimes big things happen to unsuspecting people, and sometimes the little things can change absolutely everything. Sometimes the universe gives you a gift. A story. And it's worth it.

I know that even if my book doesn't make a dime, that's the case for me.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

YA Soul Sisters

I've been reading Steve Weber's Plug Your Book, which is all about how to use the internet to market your book and yourself as a writer. Too soon? You'd think so, since my novel is not due out for more than a year. But Weber claims that, in the ideal world, a writer would begin to publicize a book 3 years before it's published! Crazy, I thought. But then I was a good student and got right to networking my bad little self.

In a week's time I've made connections, some by email, some via facebook, with tons of YA soul sisters: Melissa Marr, Aprilynne Pike, Cassandra Clare, Alyson Noel, Richelle Mead, Carrie Ryan, Becca Fitzpatrick, Lauren Bjorkman--the list just goes on and on. And everybody is so incredibly welcoming. It's like they're all sitting in the nice warm waters of the publishing pool, and I come to the steps and timidly say, "I'm a debut author with HarperCollins, book out next year. Can I join you?" and they wave me over and call out, "Come on in, the water's great!" I got goosebumps (which you'll find ironic, if you know anything about the book) when Maggie Stiefvater responded to my facebook friend request with a sweet congratulatory message. I read her novel, Shiver, a few weeks ago during a time when my own revisions were really making me sweat, and her book was so lovely, so tense and well thought out and beautifully written that it gave me hope that my book could be good too.

I wonder if writers in the other genres are even half this sweet?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Like a Madwoman

Bear with me, people. I've got a November 6 deadline to meet. Which means that I am currently revising. . . (see above)

More posts around Nov. 7. I swear.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Get Smart

Every time I call my dad this week, he asks, "Are you any smarter today?"

A funny way of putting it, I guess, when he's basically just asking for the latest news on my book.

I always say, "Yes, I'm smarter."

Boy, am I ever smarter.

Things I learned about the publishing process so far, things I will tell myself if I am lucky enough to ever have this happen again:

On celebrating the sale of your book: Consider your health, please, for the love of God, please think about your poor body and what will happen if you march yourself over to Barnes and Noble and order a huge Pumpkin Spice latte. The combination of adrenaline over your amazing news and the gigantic dose of caffeine will have you shaking like a leaf within twenty minutes. Eyes like roadmaps of Georgia within an hour or two. Finding previously undiscovered patterns in the plaster on your ceiling at three o'clock in the morning.

Then, when you continue your celebration the next night by enjoying a heavy Italian dinner and two glasses of chianti plus a glass of champagne at the end of the evening, you will suffer. You will remember that you don't drink. That you typically go straight from fine to sick. You will feel like crap when you are supposed to be feeling great.

Just say no, dear.

On the passage of time: Time moves differently for you and the publisher. When a publishing house says that they want to publish your book fast, this does not mean fast in your time, but fast in publishing time. As in Winter 2011. Which seems like a long way off. Take back what you said in the previous post about your book being on the shelf in a year. But, you will quickly learn, fast in publishing time also means FAST. As in "you need to have a polished draft to your lovely editor for the first round of editorial revisions by November the 6th, 2009." As in "final draft due January 11." As in "quick, we need your ideas for the book's cover in the next twenty minutes so we can present them in a meeting."

Roll with it, C.

On your priorities: Remember that you have a family. People who count on you to think about them once in a while. If you forget this and spend a week floating on Cloud 9, your head in your book all day, talking about nothing but your book, your book, your freaking book and how exciting and terrifying and crazy your all-important book is, they will inevitably revolt. Your husband will get that glazed look in his eyes whenever you open your mouth. Your kid will resort to jamming play dough into his ears.

It's a pretty steep learning curve.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Turns out I didn't have to wait very long today. K called me around 8:30 a.m. "I have great news!" she said. I sat down. Then she told me that HarperCollins wants to sign me for a 3-book deal on my series. She talked about some of the details that she was still working on with the contract, explained that it might be a month or so before it is all finalized, but "there are no deal breakers," she said, so it's really a done deal. She advised me to have a glass of champagne tonight.

Then she asked me if I was still there. For once, I was completely speechless.

"Yes," I stammered. "But you'll have to send me some of what you just said in an email, because there's no way I'm going to remember it all ten minutes from now."

She laughed and said she would. Did I mention that I heart K?

Since then I've been in a bit of a daze. I took my son to the park. I called my friends and family. I received about a hundred congrats in different forms on Facebook. I still couldn't quite make myself believe it was all true until, during my son's nap, I went to Barnes and Noble for a celebratory Pumpkin Spice latte. I stood in the middle of the store, breathed in the smell of coffee and new books, and promptly started to cry.

At that moment it hit me that I have changed careers in the past 24 hours. Before: adjunct professor in creative writing and SAHM. Now: Novelist. From now on, I am actually going to be paid to write. Better still, I am going to be an Author. A year from now, my book will be on the shelf in that Barnes and Noble.

It's no wonder I started sniffling.

Then I bought a copy of Mark Levine's Negotiating A Book Contract and read it from cover to cover. Good stuff.

I don't know a lot of the details yet, like when the book will be published or what's going to happen next. But it is, without a doubt, one of the best days of my life.

Big Day

So today's the day (supposedly) that the decision gets made. I'm trying to keep cool, go about business as usual. But during my workout this morning my heartrate was unusually high, and there's a quivery excitement in the pit of my stomach, followed by moments of intense dreaminess (oh, to publish my book! For money! For a career, finally, in writing!), trepidation (oh, the disappointment if it's rejected! The pain!) and resignation (I realize that the whole thing, at this point, is completely out of my control).

And so the hours creep by. . .

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Week to Wait

K informed me last night that the editorial board will meet NEXT Friday (I think that this Friday is when F submitted the manuscript to them). So I have an entire week to hold my breath.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Another Small Step in the Right Direction

Here's the news for the week: the editor at the publishing house, F, likes my book. She will be submitting it to the editorial board (the people who really make the decision) sometime in the next few days, and hopefully they will decide to buy it. She had a list of suggestions for changes and questions she wanted me to answer about the book and the series as a whole, but overall she liked the voice, the story, and the writing in general.

So for the past few days I've been working hard, steady, and with great energy. And K has been working tirelessly as the intermediary between me and the editor, passing F's notes along to me and my revisions back to F. K says that even if this publisher decides not to buy the book, she thinks that she'll be able to find a place for it somewhere. So, no matter what happens, right now I am brimming with hope and possibility.

It's a very exciting time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The New Scoop

Okay, so I realize that I haven't posted in a while. But I have a good reason. I was busy. Really, really ridiculously busy, working on my novel. But for today, I can make time. Because today was a monumental day in the life of this humble writer.

Today my agent submitted my book to a publishing house. Which one, I probably shouldn't divulge just now, but suffice it to say, it's one of the Big Ones.

How this came about is a bit of a complicated story.

When last we left our heroine, she had just heard from her agent and was feeling a tad discouraged by all the work she had ahead of her, all those chapters to revise and pages to comb over. She knew—okay, it’s weird talking about myself in third person—I knew, when I sent the novel to my agent, that I still had some major revisions ahead of me. I was just hoping to do those revisions with a publisher. Silly, idealistic me.

So when K gave me a page-long list of revisions she wanted me to work on before she submitted the novel to a publishing house, I was disappointed, and thought maybe I’d given the draft to K too soon. I looked over the novel again and it looked lumpy and malformed. How could I ever have thought it wonderful? I stuck out my lip for about two days, then stretched my fingers and started again at Chapter 1.

I worked on Chapter 1 for about a week, and by the end of the week, I was excited again. I could feel the story shaping up. Even in that short time, I felt I knew my characters so much better than before. It was great progress. But it took a whole week. And I had 19 chapters to go.

This brings me to Wednesday morning, September 9th. When there was a very big email from K.

Here’s what it said in a nutshell: K has a friend who is a YA editor at the big- publishing-house-which-will-remain-nameless. K was chatting with this friend when she just happened to mention my novel. Her friend confessed that the publishing house was “desperately” searching for a YA novel on the exact subject of my book. K elaborated on my story, which seemed wholly different than the other manuscripts that were currently under consideration at the publishing house. Her friend said she was dying to read it! K said that I was currently revising the manuscript, and it could be a while before it was ready, but would the editor consider taking a look at the first few chapters and a thorough outline? Her friend said yes, she would.

What do you think? asked K in the email.

What do I think? I think I’d better get my butt to work on the next few chapters and a thorough outline! And so I set off, fingers blazing.

K didn’t impose any real timeline on me, but she also emphasized that the publishing house was currently looking at other novels on my subject, so it would be a good idea to get my manuscript in there FAST. To say that it was a stressful week is a laughable understatement. I won’t get into the details, because they aren’t pretty. It involves major overhauls of Chapter 1, a sudden death in the family which took me to Oregon for five days, and me chewing my fingernails to the quick out of sheer nerves.

But I finished. I polished up Chapters 1-3 and sent them to K on Saturday around midnight. Then I fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep. I talked to K yesterday, and she liked what I’d done, and she emailed me this morning to report that she’d submitted the manuscript to her friend. She said it would be a week or two before they made a decision about whether to buy my book.

Crazy. Oh brave new world, this land of the publishing house.

So you can see now why I didn’t have time to write on the blog.

I’m a little hesitant to write now, truth be told, in that way that women wait until after the first trimester to tell people they’re expecting. I’m expecting, although I don’t know exactly what it is I’m gestating. The idea that the publishing house could actually BUY MY BOOK sends a blast of excitement straight to the pit of my stomach.

But there is also the very real possibility that they will choose another manuscript. If that happens, K assures me that she’ll just take my book someplace else. Which is wonderful. Did I mention that agents are better than peanut butter? When I wrote that, I had no idea just how awesome my agent was. She’s given me such amazing, shrewd suggestions without once coming off in a negative or pushy way, read hundreds of pages multiple times, sometimes overnight, suffered my incessant phone calls and panicky questions with grace and humor, and simply encouraged and reassured me at every turn. I heart K!

And who knows, by this time next week she may have sold my book. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Big News

I'll have to make this brief, since I want to be working on my novel during my son's precious nap time.

I have officially heard from my agent. I broke down and sent her a very casual, "hi, just checking to make sure you got my manuscript, I'm available to discuss it whenever you're ready, thanks for reading," email on Friday and on Monday afternoon I came home from lunch to a long, detailed reply. K said she'd read my novel over the weekend and had enjoyed it. Woot! Then she talked about similar books on the market and encouraged me to read them and become more savvy on what the YA readers expect and like. She followed that up with several very specific and spot-on suggestions for revision. "This draft just needs a little of work to get the details just right. YA readers are tougher judges than you’d think!" she wrote.

And then: "I’d love to represent this for you if you’re up for making revisions. Congratulations on completing what I imagine is a very early draft of a much tighter, stronger novel."

These last few weeks as I have been waiting for her reply I've imagined three possibile responses: 1) "this book is not my thing, I just wasn't grabbed by it, best of luck" (which is fairly normal agent speak) 2) "the book is good but needs some work before I'll try to sell it" and 3) "the book is fantastic, it blew my socks off, I've sent it to all the biggest publishing houses and they've already sent you this ginormous check." I had ruled out number 1, simply because I have some degree of faith in the story I'm telling and I know K likes my writing, plus she had already seen/liked the synopsis for my novel and asked to read it. I understood that number 2 was fairly likely. But I was really, unreasonably hopeful for number 3, the way you buy a lottery ticket and sit waiting for the numbers to be announced on TV.

And darn it, you never have those right numbers.

So when I read K's email I was hit with a surge of pure adrenaline and a crazy mix of elation and disappointment. It took me hours to smooth myself out. In the end, when I floated back down to rational thought, I was left with this: this was a very good response. K ultimately wants to sell my book as much as I do (or at least half as much as I do, which is plenty), and she needs to make sure it's solid enough to make a real, honest-to-goodness attempt at it. Her job is not to pat me on the back and tell me how great my book is. Her job is to sell it.

So I am back to the draft, every single day between the hours of 2 and 5. Revision Round 3, which yes, does make this a fairly early draft. I have to remind myself that I started writing this novel in March. Just six months ago. And I may still have a long journey ahead of me before I move to the next stage. I need to be patient.

J recently pointed out to me that my last blog post was a tad melodramatic, me going on and on about waiting for K when she'd only had the manuscript for 3 weeks, which is a very short waiting period in agent-time. Plus, our kid didn't really smell funny and there was no leaning tower of dishes in our sink, thank you very much. So here, all joking aside: I need to be patient. And hammer away on my book. And then be patient some more.

In the meantime, par K's suggestion, I got my college roommate and bestest bud Amy, who is a high school math teacher, to round me up a group of students to read the manuscript. I am eager to see how that turns out, as most of the people who've read the book at this point are people my own age or older.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Writerly Limbo

K has had the manuscript for over 2 weeks now, and still not a peep. The first week I was fine. The second week was harder, because I knew that she was probably in the process of reading it, but I was determined to be patient. This week it is taking all of my willpower not to pester her. Literally. I have no will to fend off sweets or resolve to keep my kitchen floors clean. I have eaten almost an entire raspberry sour cream pie and there’s a heap of dirty dishes in my sink and my kid is starting to smell funny. All my energy is being used to restrain me from emailing K (or even worse, calling her) and saying plaintively, “So, you read the book yet? What do you think? Huh? Do you like it? Do you think you could sell it? Huh? Do you? Do you?” If I lived in New York I’d be pacing outside her building right now.

She’d better get back to me soon, is all I’m saying.

In the meantime, I've heard from a few friends I sent the book to, all sunny, positive reviews and pats on the back. Even from my super smart literary friends, which feels wonderful but a bit suspicious. These are your friends, the little voice in the back of my brain whispers. They love you. They’re obligated to love your book the way a mother loves her ugly baby.

So I discussed the first half of the book on the phone with Cali, former Boise State M.F.A. alum and confidante. Cali generally speaks her mind, which I’ve always found refreshing. I had no doubt that if she found my baby ugly, she would just come out and tell me. We sat with the document open in front of our respective computer screens 2636 miles apart, and I took a deep breath and prepared to examine the warts.

“Okay,” Cali said, “page 19. I really had a problem here.”

Here it was. The truth. I prayed earnestly that I would have the capacity to fix whatever the problem was. I prayed I wouldn’t go crazy in the process. I prayed that I wouldn’t end up on my patio making a bonfire out of the whole darn novel.

“I want more,” she said.

This, nine times out of ten, turned out to be Cali’s request. More description. More inner narrative. More explanation.

Phew. Sure, I can do MORE. I just cut 25 pages from the novel before I sent it to K. It looks like a skinny kid to me anyway. So I am back to work, writing more, filling out the bare places, and falling in love with my story all over again.

All the while waiting, in this strange writerly limbo, for word from K.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dynamite Days

When I was first learning to write short stories, I printed and cut out tiny pictures of writers I admired and taped their faces all around the outside edges of my computer monitor. Whenever I sat down to write I could feel their serious eyes on me: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Richard Ford, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O' Connor, Rick Bass, Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Jane Smiley (who was in her picture always smiling--I appreciated that) and anybody else I loved at the time if I could locate a decent picture. I vividly remember J seeing my computer for the first time, when we'd only known each other for a few days. He stood in front of the monitor and went around the edge identifying the writers, knowing them only by their faces since I hadn't labeled them. He knew them all. My heart gave a little flutter watching him -how could it not?

My favorite picture was a little photo of Hemingway in the bottom left corner of my screen. It was taken while he was on safari in Africa. He's in a tent, sitting at a table with his glasses on and a pen in his hand. He's leaning into the table, holding down the page with his left hand as he writes with his right, his lips slightly pursed in concentration. His whole body seems oriented to the writing. I love that.

Hemingway once wrote, "There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges." In other words: sometimes you struggle. In the photograph it might look like everything is going so easy for good old Ernest, the words just flowing out of his pen. But it also might have been one of those dynamite days.

I have been going through a whole week of dynamite days. I don't want to beat myself up too much about it, considering that I just finished a novel, I'm on pins and needles waiting for my agent to read said novel, I have a sprained ankle, my husband just had major surgery, the school year is about to begin, I have a two-year-old who has decided this week to stop taking his afternoon nap, and my babysitter is currently on vacation. It's okay, I tell myself, if the words are not just winging their way off my fingertips. I still want to write. I still show up, plunk my butt down in front of the monitor, and set the charges. That's about as much as I can ask of myself at this point.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

So tells me that at 1:01 p.m. this afternoon, my novel arrived at my agent's office. It could be sitting on K's desk this very moment. This fact makes me a) completely excited and eager to know what she thinks, yet determined to be patient and just let the woman read (because she's a busy person with, no doubt, a tall stack of manuscripts on her desk) and b) nervous, like a mother sitting on the edge of an uncomfortable chair in the waiting room of a doctor's office, waiting to hear whether her child is basically healthy or major surgery will be required.

A word about agents: they are the best thing since peanut butter, in my opinion. I feel extremely lucky to have this woman who I can email out of the blue with a new project, who is so encouraging and enthuiastic about my writing. The week I first connected with K was a good week for J and me: he won the Stegner Fellowship and we found out we were moving to California. K worked for Watkins Loomis then, and she had seen my story "The Sugar Shell" in The Iowa Review and liked it. I'd had a couple of agents contact me about the story during that time, which blew my mind, but I gravitated toward K. She was professional but approachable. My office mate at UNL was conferencing a student the first time K called, so I dragged the phone out to the hall, sat on the floor against the wall, and explained my current project to her. I hardly knew how to talk about the novel, let alone sell it. But right away she latched on to what I was attempting to do with the novel, and it was like immediately having a cheerleader on the sidelines. A cheerleader who really knows how to sell your book.

Seriously. Better than peanut butter.

A few years ago K moved to a larger agency, one that began in 1905 and represented some of the greats like D.H. Lawrence, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, and Ayn Rand, not to mention the huge list of amazing clients they are currently working with. I am awestruck looking at the list of writers these people have helped, and thrilled beyond belief to have K and that agency in my corner right now. It truly makes me want to write my best.

Speaking of which, I began writing the prologue for book two of my series, which is tentatively entitled Broken Wing. I expected to throw myself right into the action where I left off in book one, but then I thought: prologue. Book one has a prologue. Shouldn't book two? Suddenly I was writing a completely different scene about a moment when my main character was seven years old. I was literally following her home from school. It's marvelous how that happens; you sit down to write and something truly unexpected shows up on the page. I don't know if I'll keep the scene, ultimately. But in spite of all my whining about starting the second book before I had fully celebrated the completion of the first, it felt good to be writing forward again, after weeks of revising in circles. It felt really good.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Starting on Broken Wing

Okay, so my novel is probably on an airplane by now, soaring towards my agent. And my agent will probably take 2-3 weeks to read it. The big question now is: what do I do in the meantime? And the answer seems simple. I should start writing the next book of the series.

Notice how right now I am writing on this blog instead of writing the next book.

It's not that I don't WANT to write the next book. It's not that I don't have loads of notes and ideas and scenes going on in my head as we speak.

It's simply that I just FINISHED a novel. First time ever. I finished it. I worked every single day, no days off, no vacations, no excuses, EVERY SINGLE DAY since March. And I finished it. I've never done that before. And now, before I even have time to relish that accomplishment, I should start the process all over again?

I guess I should have thought of that when I came up with the idea for a series. Note to self: writing all 4-5 books in the series is going to be a LOT of hours hunched in front of my computer.
It's just hard to be at the beginning again, when the end was so sweet.

But here I go.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Baby in the Mail

Today I put my baby in the mail.

This is how all novels enter the world.

I printed it up, all 374 official pages of it, squeezed it into two binder clips, trussed it up with a letter to my agent, a recent bio, and a very rough synopsis, and hefted it to the United States Post Office. The mail clerk was ever so polite and efficient. He showed me the correct box to pack it in and found the best price on Priority shipping to New York City, but he utterly failed to understand the significance of the moment, and hustled the parcel away before I could even say a proper goodbye. I had to be satisfied with standing for a moment on the sidewalk outside and knowing that, for the first time, my novel is out of my hands. It's out there, in the cosmos.

All it cost me was $12.70.

This is all new to me. I've been a "professional writer" for the last 8 years, at least if you count all the time I spent getting my M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at Boise State and my Ph.D. at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Boy, have I ever studied writing, anyway. And I've written loads of stories and even published a couple of them in decent, respectable journals and won some awards. Five years ago I started a fantastic novel that everybody was very excited about. I never finished it. I have excuses, of course. Lots of them.

But the truth is, I wasn't compelled to write. I clearly remember sitting in a classroom a few years back and the professor saying, "If you haven't written today, you're not a writer." And my mental response to this was: Well then, I'm not a writer today.

Times that by 1000. There were exceptions along the way, brief periods where I was forced to write to meet a deadline or when lightning seemed to strike me for a story every now and then. These lightning strike moments were rare. My husband, who's a rock star when it comes to writing, pumped out 2 entire novels and a book of poetry during the time we've been together, not to mention the gazillion poems that didn't make it into the book. Up to this March, I'd written 3 new stories and about 100 pages on a novel. Most of that time I worked as a research assistant at the Stanford Cancer Center while my husband, the rock star, was studying in the Stegner Fellowship, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John L'Heureux and Tobias Wolff. He dreamt of being a tenure track professor at some big university. I had dreams about lab rats undergoing radiation therapy.

And then we had a baby.

My husband was nothing but encouraging about my writing; in fact, whenever he brought it up his eyes were worried, like inside he was saying, I hope this is temporary. I hope that our life together has not killed your writing life.

But being a wife or a mother didn't kill my writing life. I just didn't want to write.

Ted Kooser once wrote, "There's an essential difference between being a poet and writing poetry. There are, in a sense, two poets, the one alone writing a poem and the one in the black turtleneck and beret, trying to look sexy." I spent a lot of time during my son's naps contemplating the idea that maybe I was not a writer. Maybe I'd only done all the school and the study because I wanted to look sexy. Because, I told myself, if I was truly a writer, I would want to write.

Which brings us to March, when one evening I was sitting with my husband watching a movie. During naptime that particular day I'd played video games, and my eyes were tired. We had the volume so far down on the movie that we had to turn on the subtitles for the hearing impaired, so we wouldn't wake my son. I had a dried piece of macaroni and cheese stuck to my shirt. And as I sat there, I became aware of something developing in the back of my mind.

This was not like a lightning strike. This was like smelling a skunk. You just get that whiff in the air, and you know there's one nearby.

I can't remember when the actual idea hit me. One moment I was watching Sesame Street with my two-year-old and the next I was frantically writing notes while I stirred spaghetti sauce for dinner. Ideas just poured into my head. I couldn't get it down fast enough. I finally convinced my husband to buy me the kind of recorder that reporters use so I could just dictate the flood into it. This went on for about a week, and then I set to writing. I wrote in the mornings, before my son woke up, I wrote during naptime, and I wrote after he went to bed. After a while I settled down to writing during naptime alone.

Nothing had ever felt so good. I never took a single day off. I was too afraid that if I stopped writing, even for one day, that I wouldn't start again. Something to do with how the object in motion stays in motion. In the middle of this period I spent an entire day in airports with my son, trying to get to Idaho after I'd missed our morning flight. We finally made it to Salt Lake City, where my mom picked us up and drove us the three hours to Idaho Falls. By the time I dragged my suitcases into the house it was after 9 pm, and I still had my son's bedtime rituals to undergo. By the time that was all done, it was close to 11, and I sank down onto a kitchen chair and set up my laptop.

"What are you doing?" asked my mother, appearing in the hallway in her nightgown.

"I'm writing on my novel," I said.

"You're exhausted. You need to sleep," she said.

Yes, I did. But first I wrote 35 words. My average per day on my novel was a little over a thousand, but that night all I could only manage a paragraph. And a crappy paragraph, at that. But that day I was a writer.

I finished a draft on July 14 and spent the next few weeks revising. I thank God again for sending me such a screwd, amazing editor for a husband. Then I told my agent. I didn't breathe a word about my novel to her the entire time I was writing, because I wanted to have the manuscript in hand before I sprung it on her. I wanted to say, "here's a novel I've just finished" rather than, "here's another novel I'm working on." I crossed my fingers and hoped she wouldn't be too wigged out by the fact that I had written an entirely different novel in an entirely different genre than what she was expecting.

She was surprised, she admitted. But she was also infected by my sheer enthuiasm about the whole project, and she liked the premise of the series, so she asked for the manuscript. She was eager to read it, she said.


Which brings us to now. Novel in a box sitting in a mail truck somewhere. Me with the perpetual sense that I am holding my breath.