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 usps.com 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.