Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rejection ... and me!

Rejection, for a writer, is an occupational hazard. It really is good to develop a thick skin, not to mention a coping mechanism, like cussing, target practice, or splitting wood.

Splitting wood is more relaxing if you use your bare hands.
And writers and agents agree: you've got to suck it up, buttercup! Rejection happens to everybody! (Even those that sign with Dream Agent in their first round find out, very soon, that it's not sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows every day.)

I always swore that I would never be one of those writers who gave a false narrative about how it was so easy to be a writer and to succeed. I have failed, and failed, and failed, and failed. A lot of good writers whom I utterly respect are in the same boat. One writer gets an awesome agent, then is unable to make a sale for 12 years. One writer publishes a number of books, then gets orphaned by her editor, or dropped from her publisher due to "a poor sales record" (which btw is a bunch of bull due to corporate marketing departments).

Agent Jenny Bent says, “This sounds trite, but you cannot give up and you cannot stop believing in yourself. So many incredibly successful writers spent years and years trying to break into this business and you should take inspiration from how hard they worked and how they never stopped trying."

So take inspiration from a few times that I got kicked in the butt, metaphorically speaking.

One: After my dad’s funeral last year, I came home to find a little note from an agent waiting in my inbox. "Dear Melinda: We utterly reject your full MS. Have a nice day!" No, he didn't actually write that, because there’s no way on earth the guy could have known. It was really bad timing. But you have to admit, it makes a good story.

Two: Way back when I was starting out as a writer, I discovered the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel (now defunct), and got so excited that I shot my MS at them with a cannon and didn't proofread. I got a rejection back from some poor bleary-eyed editor who wrote, “PLEASE USE 12 POINT TYPE," (the MS was in 10 point) "AND FOR GOD'S SAKE CHECK YOUR SPELLING.” According to my cover letter, my story was set in a "shite oak forest." This is what we call a learning experience.

Three: An awesome agent offered me representation for my YA novel, Shy Gal Runs Screaming from Love. Yay! Only problem was, I had a bunch of MG raccoon novels, which were not novels that she represented. I really, really, really wanted an agent, but at the same time, I had the same misgivings about working with her, because MG fantasy was a huge part of my work. We parted amicably. Oh, man. But really, I’m better served by somebody who is comfortable with representing my whole body of work. So the agent search goes on.

What have your most memorable rejections been? 

P.S. Typo of the day: "We partied amicably."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grammar and Meaning

Here's my maiden post.  So far, the sign-up page records me as "unknown," which would be okay by me but probably not okay with Hamline MFAC.  Nor can I find Ron's post that I read last week, where he mentioned something so nonchalant about sentence fragments and grammar in general that our Hamline student Sherryl Clark was impelled to reply.  Since I can't find Ron's post, I can't quote Sherryl's comment directly either, but she observed that students whose grammar and punctuation are foggy are also students who can't express clear meaning.  Inept grammar and lack of clarity are causally related.

A careful reader will have seen that Ron's grammar is impeccable.  Writers who know grammar can afford to be nonchalant.  They can break "the rules" intentionally, for a purpose, creating meaning by doing so.  They can line up three fragments in a row or follow several long, complicated sentences with a single word, for the purpose of emphasis.  They can write either colloquial or academic English.

A long time ago, I taught in the University of Minnesota's General College (now defunct), whose mission was to teach any applicant who had a Minnesota high school diploma, no matter what the grades on the transcript were.  When a middle-aged student came to my office to ask for tutoring, I asked him why he had enrolled at the U.  He was a welder, he said, in a shop where a metallurgy professor sometimes solved some complex problem of mixed metals.  He spoke to the shop owner in one kind of English, my student had noticed, but to the welders in another kind.  My student wanted the freedom to adjust his own language to the situation.  He wanted to be a citizen, too, of more than one world.

Mastery of grammar and punctuation enables writers to say what they mean intentionally, purposefully.  We have to live in a world where our elbows don't bend backward.  Where, if we can't swim, we sink.  Where agents and editors who receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year will probably not read further if the first pages expose inexperienced writers who don't care about the shape of their sentences.  (The previous two sentences are incomplete.  Purposely.  I could write them all kinds of other ways, if I had different purposes.)

One of my favorite books about language is Kenneth G. Wilson's The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (MJF Books).  Wilson isn't a snob who hews without thought to the rules of his eighth grade teacher.  He comments on alphabetized topics, such as the use of "all right" versus "alright," or agreement of subjects and verbs.  These remarks reflect the fact that language is always in flux.

No doubt Wilson the linguist also knows the linguists' assertion that Marsha Qualey recently quoted here: "meaning is fundamentally indeterminate."  (The meaning of this idea is indeterminate in my simple mind.)  One example of confusion was reported this week, when the mother of James Holmes, the Batman shooter, told the reporter who notified her of the massacre, "You have the right person."  Everybody has assumed that she meant her son committed the crime; now, however, she says she meant that she was indeed James Holmes's mother.  Thus are linguists sometimes called as trial witnesses to sort out meaning for the court.

However fundamentally uncertain meaning may be, people certainly abide by customs of usage and judge others by the way they talk and write, so Wilson distinguishes among spoken, standard, and publishing English.  Our job is to make meaning as difficult to misunderstand as possible.  His book is at my side when I write.

Jane Resh Thomas, unknown

Flawed Parents

When Kelly and I started our excellent (thanks to the students for making it that way) workshop a couple of weeks ago, we did the usual ice-breaking go-around-the-room thing but this time with a twist.  Rather than a funny or embarrassing moment, I asked for a time when everyone saw through his/her parents.  Understood something about them.  Took them off their pedestals, maybe.  Demoted or promoted them.
The story I told was a simple one.   I was eight or ten, probably.  It was 1950, maybe.  My aunt and uncle used to come over to watch wrestling on TV.  Black-and-white TV.  This was the Gorgeous George era of wrestling, not WWF stuff.  Fun to watch with your friends or relatives.  Eat junk food.  That kind of thing.
One night my mother got upset with something the referee did, something she thought was unfair.  I remember looking at her in amazement.  How could she take that seriously.  I knew it was entertainment, probably choreographed beforehand.  Why didn't she?
I was an only child and what my mother said and did was important to me.  She was pretty religious w/out being batshit crazy.  We'd started to clash about religion, and neither one of us liked what was happening.
When I saw that she believed in wrestling like she believed in God, I stopped arguing with her about Heaven or Hell or any of her core beliefs.   I saw we were very different people.  I didn't know better than she did, but I knew different  I was able to go back to church with her and my dad.  But I skated through the fire-and-brimstone sermons.   It was all wrestling to me.  I've written about this incident  a dozen times and never had it jell into fiction, but it was a wonderful insight.  And I've used the spirit of it over and over as young characters in my books clash with their parents and either understand them or not.  Either love them less or more.
If it's something you might use in your fiction, take it with, as my mother used to stay, my blessing.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kicking the evil cliches out of the story!

A zillion billion years ago, during my undergrad days, I had a writing professor (Dr. Trowbridge) who often wrote a large T, which meant “trite,” across sentences or phrases in our MSS that were hackneyed or clichéd. Generally I’d get a number of T’s on every page.

I remembered those big T’s when I ran across this advice from Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint it Black:

"When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty."

After reading her advice, I looked at one chapter in my novel – and holy cow, who wrote all this silly trite nonsense!

"He put his feet on his desk."  Trite.

"He leaned forward intently." Trite. 

"Wyatt breezed into the bandroom." Trite. 

An evil elf must have gotten a hold of my computer, because a writing genius like me couldn’t have written this dreck!

But before I could work myself into a freak-out frenzy in which I stuffed all of my novels into the trash can, I made myself a simple assignment: Forge an awesome writer sword. Then use it to chop out the trite phrases, and replace those phrases with something I've never heard before.

Sir Terry Pratchett forged *his* sword out of meteorites, with the help of little blue men, because he is that awesome.

Well, not on the level of rewriting each sentence to say, “Pharby ek gooley mekhenowitzh." But make yourself reach a little. Pull in some words you wouldn’t ordinarily use (sometimes I like to scry through a dictionary just to see what surprises come up). Also, dig more deeply into your character’s pov and see things 1) that interest her in 2) ways that only she would see them.

Of course, coming up with something that’s not trite or clichéd takes some thought, and generally I am against sustained thought because right now my brain is about the size of a walnut. But this exercise yields some crazy interesting pages, and when you’re done, you’re like, “Hey! I made this!” and it feels pretty awesome.

P.S. Hi, I'm a new blogger! I'm Melinda, and I graduated from Hamline last Sunday whilst being very pregnant, and it was great. In baby news: Now that I’m back in Missouri, I have been actively trying to evict baby, but he just ignores me and continues to work on his kickboxing skills in the womb. ETA is still the first week of August. Anyway, I am happy to be here!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

So What's a Plotless Book?

     Another amazing Hamline residency has ended and now we’re back into our writing.
     As we endeavor to produce satisfying manuscripts, occasionally we might wind up with what some critics call a plotless, “slice of life” or “day in the life of”  picture book, short story, easy reader,  or even YA novel that rambles along without anything of  significance happening or resolved.
     A wag or two snickers and calls  “plotless” books those that -- ha ha -- don’t get published.
     These folks call "plotless" one with pleasant episodes in which a child goes shopping with parents or friends, spends a day at the circus or at the beach, or allows a glimpse of  life in the neighborhood, nighttime, daddy/mommy at work, and other happenstances. Is that poor writing?
     I guess it depends. Concept books often don’t have plots. They are informational or  involve the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors, relationships and other “concepts” for very young children to try to read and comprehend, but there’s nothing “bad” about them. Molly Bang’s Goodnight Moon and Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach have been identified as “plotless” but millions of readers love these books.   Are they plotless books or do they qualify as something else?
     Without plots books should have some form of vivid structure, quality writing or any other plausible selling point that would appeal to editors, according to the experts.  Frankly, editors handle manuscripts with some kind of plot and narrative because they  want to see manuscripts that will sell well and appeal quickly to children.
     How would  you define a plotless book? What’s its place in the world of books?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Back to School

Well, I've landed at Hamline University in Saint Paul for another residency. The faculty has convened, solved the world's problems & met our new students.

We welcome Gene Yang to the faculty.

The schedule for the next 11 days seems especially packed. Guests are E. Lockhart, David Small, Anita Silvey, and Chris Crutcher, who will be the graduation speaker. Please check the schedule of events open to the public and join us if you can.

One of my favorite parts of any residency--these, however are not open to the public--are the lectures our fourth-semester students will be giving. They spent the last semester (their third) digging deep into a topic, writing a long essay on the topic, and preparing the lecture. Subjects include children's series fiction, the use of dialect in children's literature, female heroines, and more.

Happy to be here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Best Naps

     These past few days found me being under medication. I had vivid dreams about stories with incredible plots, original conflicts, and heroines whose exploits riveled the best in fantasyland, history, and the urban streets. Of course it's well known that many writers create their greatests manuscripts based on a dream or a nightmare they have.  The first short story that I can remember writing from my green salad days was when I was in third grade and involved a horrendous nightmare.
     This time, however,  when I woke up, I remember NOT A ONE! I had my pen and paper by my bed. When I'd wake up and finally get my eyes straightened back out, I'd reach for the paper and just find  water marks on it from where I sat wet bottomed paper cups.
      Did you ever finally retrieve that story idea from dream and turn it into an accomplished manuscript? If not, maybe that means that it's just time to take another nap, and try again. OK, try again!