Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Writing Advice, Part 87

Just finished another round of fiction story selections for Philadelphia Stories, and was reminded again how quickly a story can get rejected for seemingly minor reasons. Don't get me wrong--I read the whole story every time, but if I'm not intrigued or hooked by the beginning, it's going to take a while to reel me back in. If the first sentence is weak or if the first paragraph limps along and the subject matter seems cliched or even if the title feels off, I am already rejecting it in my head. This is because there are 15 other stories to get through, and if yours isn't standing out in some way, I'm ready to move on to the next one--the one that doesn't immediately remind me that I'm reading a made up story by a struggling writer.

Since the title is the first thing an editor sees, that would be another place where you might want to focus some attention, because a bad title puts you on the path toward rejection, as it immediately makes me suspicious that the writer doesn't know what she's doing. Any title that seems completely obvious and reflective of the story like, "Returning Home" or melodramatic like "Feelings of Sadness" or too weird like "Sebastian and the Ginkledork Cherry Blossom Pie" (ditto anything that sounds like a young adult title) has me rolling my eye before I even read the line, "Today was the day that Sebastian felt the saddest even though he was on his way back home."

In the body of the story, there are a few things that will make me race to the finish and not in a good way. I'm not a prude, but if there is a scene that appears out of nowhere that includes graphic sex or violence, I feel like the writer is trying to shock me into liking her story and that turns me off. This is especially true when the scene doesn't forward the narrative or reveal character in any way, but just is sort of a weird aside, like the writer might have possibly have lifted it from another story he wrote in tenth grade and just added it in because he liked it so much

I also don't like stories that end in death--and especially not those that end with the death of the first person narrator (how? why? what?). I don't like stories that end with someone staring off into space, thinking, though I have written those stories often enough.

The ending should be changing something and it can be based on a character's epiphany or decision to think about something differently, but the decision needs to be put into action somehow--it needs to be shown instead of thought about. Two of my stories in my capstone collection need work on the endings.  But then in the stories that I've read for the New Yorker lately are ending  in the following ways: the woman at her name inscribed ina  book, but that's after an explosive encounter with this young guy. Or  the dude in the Roddy Doyle story sitting in the dark, believe that his wife will return to him so that they can watch their DVD collections together. Or the guy in "Pending Vegan" having the dog lick his nose at Sea World. These are not earth-shattering endings, but they still feel fitting and justified with what's gone on prior to this last moment.  Endings are difficult, but

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Novel by Siri

Can you write a novel in tweets? I hope not. Can you write a novel in fifteen minutes a day while also being distracted and Googling things like "novel in 15 minutes" and checking Facebook every three minutes? I should always decide I'm going to write when I have several other unpleasant things to do, such as paying bills, because when I have another task in front of me that I don't feel like facing (writing), I will allow myself to attack those third tier annoying things I've been putting off. Why is that? Note: I am currently resisting the  Googling of:  "Reasons for Procrastination" or "Writer's block" or "Death of David Foster Wallace."

Which might lead one to believe that I don't want to write fiction anymore, and so what is my problem? Is it an identity thing--like, that I have thought of myself as a writer for so long that I wouldn't be able to figure out who I am if I'm not writing? No, it's not that, because I would continue to write--I write in my job and I would keep writing in my blog, so that wouldn't go away. It's that I think I still have this dream, oh, so distant now, that I would one day publish something great that would allow me to just teach writing at the university of my choice. Does that happen to all writers who do well? Or do they keep working at MRM Worldwide during the day as communications managers? Does every fiction writer go on to be a fiction teacher? I think many of them, if they're really prolific and widely-published, give up their day jobs and write full time or write ten months out of the year or whatever. And some are so popular and rich, they hire other writers to create their books for them (like the more serialized writers of genre fiction). But there will be not writing a novel in ten minutes a day and I can't seem to get my act together to spend three hours a night after work writing feverishly by candlelight in my turret. Option three would be to go on a writing retreat, but I can find reasons not to do that too, such as the fact that I don't get unlimited vacation time and so it might come down to a retreat or a trip with Dan. All right, let me just finish this capstone and then we will see where I am--then we'll revisit our options here. Meanwhile, maybe I can use my hellish time in the car each day to dictate my novel to Siri.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Nearing the End

I hope I am not jinxing anything by saying that I'm almost finished with my capstone project for Penn. I took my last class a year ago in the spring--a feminist theater class that I really liked--and  then thought I might get to the final project in the summer, but didn't. I then thought I could do it in the fall semester, but the project got lost again in moving to a different city and starting a new job and living with this guy Dan, and all of those adjustments. But this spring, I worked on the project more and had lots of good feedback from Professor Zhuraw, my first reader (even though she sometimes yells at you over email by writing to you LIKE THIS AND WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM WITH SEMI-COLONS?) and so I think I might finish this time (unless Rebekah reads this and gets mad and refuses to sign off on this, but she has a good sense of humor and so I am praying to God that's unlikely).  I didn't work on my fiction as much as I told myself I would. I thought that having deadlines would motivate me more, and it did, a bit, but I still wasn't inspired. The stories in the final capstone will be okay, but not great. A few are better than they were, but I've lost touch with how my stories used to evolve. Did I sit with them for hours on end? Did they go through seven revisions? Did I write long and then cut a bunch? I don't recall. I think most of them were workshopped at least once (and all of the stories in the capstone have been workshopped as all were written during classes I took while at Penn), but then what? I wish I could remember. Maybe it's the end of my fiction writing too. That could happen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Doggie Surprise in "Pending Vegan"

Catching up on the fiction in The New Yorker, and so just read Jonathan Lethem's story from April 7, "Pending Vegan." Have I read any of his novels before? I have a vision in my head that he has a book with fat stars on the cover or am worried that he might be the guy who wrote Incredibly Loud and Too Close, or whatever that title is for the book about people trapped in elevators (I am joking, of course! I know that it's about 911. I have zero interest in reading it, even though it might change my life. I feel weirdly resistant to reading books from a kid's point of view, as I think it's really hard to do well without sounding saccharine. There are exceptions, like Mark Haddon and Ian McEwan in Atonement and Dorothy Allison, but get off my back, will you?).

Okay, I just Googled him and he's written nothing else that I've ever read, though he is a prolific and successful writer.

This story is about an anxious taking his twin girls to Sea World. The first line is great, "Paul Esperth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at Sea World"  And then there are many, many other lines to love in the story, surprising descriptions that make me feel like I'm not trying hard enough in my writing, such as "...his wife had performed judo on his argument..."  and the perfect description of orcas."The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelly eyes, were God's glorious lethal clowns. Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer."  His wife is barely looks at him, and there's this resentment between them that's grown since the birth of the kids, a small part of it hinging on his having gotten rid of a rescued Jack Russell terrier when his wife was pregnant. And then, they go to this pet show at Sea World, which is filled with shelter rescue dogs and cats, and lo and behold, when a terrier enters the stage, it sees him and leaps over the enclosure to sit on his stomach, licking his face. It's their dog from years before, and they are reunited. Or is it the same dog? It's kind of an unpleasant ending, and if it were a story in workshop, I would probably critique the coincidence factor or the plausibility of this happening. And then I get preoccupied as a reader wondering if they will actually be able to take the dog home or not, since they can't at all prove that they used to own it.

But then this is the second story in a row from the magazine where unexpected and not character driven things happen at the climax of the story. I have to think more about how that works--it would be nice if I didn't always feel like the action of the story, the unfolding of the plot, has to hinge on the character at every second. I was working on a story yesterday and things started to happen just because I was putting in the time, but my endings are typically pretty small and non-explosive---someone stealing a picture of Jesus or turning herself in to the retirement community or whatever--they are never about some sudden twist or reveal in the story. Maybe I will try to do that for this other story I have about  a woman dating a guy in a wheelchair. Just have to figure out how to have the ending seem inevitable in some weay.

New Yorker, I love you. Again they have the inside scoop from the writer, explaining the behind the scenes mechanics of the story,

Here's a quote from the interview that makes me instantly label Lethem a sweetheart: "My parents bred Siamese cats for a while, and in a lot of baby pictures I’m seen swimming in a mass of kittens..." And," As in the case of my character, dogs are a problem I can’t solve; they throw me back into the question of self and other. For a writer, that’s good. Writing a story about a cat would be like writing a story about my arm or my ear."

Here is an interview with Lethem in The Paris Review from 2003 where he talks about writing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How to End a Marriage in Five Years

19 and Counting is this show I see sometimes while I'm at the gym about a religious family with a thousand kids. In the five minutes I could stomach yesterday, the parents were playing mini golf with their daughter and her boyfriend. They had this ongoing discussion about how the guy was a terrible mini golfer, like he couldn't get the ball in the hole, and then, at the same time, they were talking about how the girl wouldn't even allow him to hold her hand. Two teens explained how they were going to wait until they got married to do any of that stuff, let alone kiss on the mouth. The parents were laughing and joking around about how terrible the boy's stroke was and no one acknowledged the parallel. The girl  just said how she's fine with not holding hands or doing any of that icky sinful stuff because she's not a touchy feel-y person. Or maybe she's not into him, which is a distinct possibility. I mean, what if she's gay? Would that be okay? They would pray about it. They would pray for strength in fighting off the devil behind those thoughts.

And the parents were just encouraging their naive, completely inexperienced daughter to marry this similarly clueless kid who requires eight strokes to sink a ball.  It's depressing, because you think how far women have come and then you recall that there's still a huge pay gap and you look around at the people in power and they remain uniformly men and then you see shows like this where the girl is being groomed for disappointment and they're laughing about it. The guy is groomed for it too, but she will suffer more because she will be bound to these other rules they have like no birth control and she will be pregnant right away and always after three seconds of foreplay. If that. Maybe they should make a law that stats that you can't get married until you've slept with one another. Or until you're thirty, whichever comes first. Of course, maybe that's what's attractive about the show--it feels completely out of step with this time period. It's like watching Little House on the Prairie as a reality show except in this version, Ma Ingalls has never learned to push Pa off of her and uses a curling iron daily.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wherein Tweens Discover that Man Walked on the Moon

Enough with the videos on Facebook that are supposed to make me cry or render me speechless with wonder, because they almost never do. I mean, I still click on them sometimes, but usually only if the subject focuses on a dog or a cat supposedly doing something interesting, and then the interesting thing is usually not all that interesting. It's usually the animal walking on its hind legs. 

But what I see more and more now are links to older videos, as kids born in the nineties discover stuff that happened decades ago. For example, there was a link this morning  to Jane Goodall releasing a chimp into the wild. Jane Goodall spoke at my alma mater in 1991. That's when she was kind of in the cultural spotlight. I didn't watch the video link, because my guess is that she lets the chimp go and then it comes back and leaps into her arms again. I guess if you're still in your teens or early twenties, you may not realize that there are historical milestones most people older than you are familiar with and no longer shocked by.  Just because you never saw it in real life on actual television when it happened (because your parents were still wearing footie pajamas),  doesn't mean that it's not a familiar moment in American history.

It would be like linking to the following stories and thinking your readers had no clue that these things happened:

1. Amazing footage as man literally walks on moon for the first time ever.
2. Horrific assassination of American president, right in front of Jackie O.
3. Crowd goes wild for hip-thrusting star in spangly jumpsuit.
4. Baby rescued from a well turns out to be alive
5. Incredible high speed chase of famous basketball guy accused of killing his wife
6. Did you know there used to be an East and West wall in Berlin?

I can't think of any more, except the obvious ones like Nixon resigning and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Really, it's my fault for continuing to fall for videos that read, "Heart-warming story of side-burn wearing dog rescued from well after astronaut owner is shot and chased by East Berliners." 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Lambertville

We drove to Lambertville yesterday for a couple of hours to see the sights. In case you haven't heard of it, Lambertville is a small town near the Delaware River, somewhere off of I-95, very close to New Hope, so it's on the border of Pennsylvania. It's a cute town--not a cute little town, because it has a vibrant downtown and thriving antique businesses all over the place. Also, they have a Green Street consignment shop there; so you know it's a real place. The houses are great; these old Victorian style homes vs. the identical condo enclaves you see in Plainsboro and elsewhere.  I'm sure there's an extensive and history for the town, something about how the Lamberts came and conquered it and massacred the native people while wearing Daniel Boone raccoon hats and set up the first post office in 1881, etc.

Oh, actually, I just discovered that you can read all about it on the Lambertville Historical Society website. In my brief skimming of the text, I learned that it was an old factory town where they made everything from underwear to rubber bands, and possibly even scrunchies made of boxer briefs.

It's a good place to live if you appreciate antiques, which I don't. Since I know nothing about antiques and wouldn't ever be able to recognize a rare item, I distrust all antique dealers and imagine they are automatically marking up this junk by 500% so it will seem valuable. For example, yesterday I saw a kind of cool mirror. I mean, it was a little rusty and bent, but in this distressed way, but the price tag read $5,900.  It may be from a palace in Versailles, but unless you are the type of person who likes to explain that the crappy-looking mirror is a valuable jewel, why would you hang it up in your house?

We walked around and petted some dogs, and then we went to a just opened ice cream shop called OwowCow. You can read about it here and like their Facebook page here. It was so new that the building smelled like paint, which is maybe not something you want to be smelling while eating rocky road.

This is what it looks like on the inside, very modern.

It was a good find, and right across from a natural food store where again everything normal seeming (cereal, toothpaste) is marked up by 500% because it's presented in a recycled box.

My friend from work Adam met us and showed us a sofa he had left out on his front lawn. He also walked us almost the whole way to the town hardware store.

Then I was also able to take a picture of a cat in a window, though I had to make it quick, because the cat meowed loudly at me and I worried the owners were going to appear, demanding to  know what the hell I was doing.

Dan drove us home and I picked a fight about how impossible it would be for us to live there and how that was the only thing I wanted out of my life, alongside some animals and a little time to myself.  The case remains unresolved.