Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why I Haven’t Written Anything Lately.

Setting: In my head. Enter Me and Ms. Nitpick. Ms. Neurotic is already in the room, lying on the couch surrounded by old pizza boxes, used Kleenexes, and empty Cheetos bags.

Me: I really need to write something.

Nitpick: You have many choices. You need an ending for Meira’s story. You need a beginning for Thorn’s story. You have no idea what Acorn’s story is doing. The plot structure of Butterfly Chaos is a straight line that ends by getting sucked up in a tornado. You can’t market any of these!

Distraction (leaps into room): You know what would be awesome? If you revised each of your novels in the space of one month! I bet you could do that!

Me: Oookay. Hey, what if I fixed up the beginning of Thorn’s story and sent that out? That sounds manageable.


Me: But it’s only 40 pages I need to fix ….

Nitpick: Thorn’s novel actually has three beginnings, and all of the beginnings are fighting against each other. Plus you have this weird half-chapter, and I don’t even know where you are going with that.

Me: Well, geez, I can cut that ….


Distraction: Hey, what if you updated your Facebook status using this awesome Ginsberg quote? Everybody would read it and be so impressed! Because it’s funny!

Me: Um ….

Distraction: Then write a bunch of random Tweets about your chickens!

Me: No, I need to stay off the internet and use my time constructively.

Distraction: Ha ha! Now that's funny!

Nitpick: Why can’t you be like Lauren Oliver, who wrote Before I Fall while she was a full-time student with two jobs? She’d write paragraphs on her phone while in the bathroom or on the subway and fit in her work wherever she could. You should do that. Why can’t you be like Mandy Hubbard, who agents and writes stuff all over the house and manages her time like a pro? You should totally do that.

Me: Well, I’ll revise those 40 pages ….


Me: I have, like, three chapters here.


Nitpick: You shouldn’t revise those pages – you need to completely rewrite them. That means you have to come up with a whole new beginning.

Distraction: You know what you really need to do? Clean the house.

Me: Look, guys, I have a few minutes right now. I have my notebook right here. I need to work on this novel.

Distraction: And then when you publish the novel, you’ll win the Printz and then you’ll have to write a speech for all the nice librarians! I wonder if they’d let you play a Queensryche song when you walk to the podium? That would be freaking awesome.


Me: Okay, that’s enough! Go away and let me work.

Nitpick: I already told you that none of these beginnings work.

Distraction (messing around on internet): What!! Queensryche broke up?? NOOOOOOOOOOOOO


Nitpick: What’s with all the comma splices, anyway?

… And this is why I have not written anything lately.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Publishing Process in GIF Form

Nathan Bransford is a former agent/writer/blogger who put together a bunch of GIFs that nail what it's like to write, submit, and be published at his blog here. If you have a slower computer, some of these GIFs might take a minute to load.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Another "Not to Write"

     Just as we writers are getting into our literary stride, our grammar gurus rear their conventions heads and point out our “grammatical mistakes.”  Thank goodness that this process arrives late in the game, during revision.
     James V. Smith, Jr.’s “50 Grammatical Mistakes to Avoid” warns us about some more "not to writes" in the September issue of a well-known writers magazine (pm me and I’ll tell you). 
     Some "errors" were familiar and I’m now determined to avoid them. Others were surprises that I’ll continue to use, because I like ‘em.
     Here’s a selection:
     He tells us not to use “per” as in “per instructions.” Doesn’t say why.
     Please don’t write  “IN ALL CAPS,”  he warns, because it’s “shouting in print.” I AGREE!
     “It’s different from, not different than.”
     Since currently means “now,” write “now.”
     Type up and print out are also no no’s, according to Smith. Just write type and print.
     Smith continues with 46 more because he has a whole book full of them. I’ll stop for now because I believe that “less is more,” and don’t want you readers to suffer eyestrain with a long post.
     And that’s not a mistake.

Friday, August 24, 2012

More Superman

     Today I went to dinner at the East Buffet, a place that serves good food at such low prices to so few customers that I always wonder what they're fronting.  As I was minding my own business, getting out of the car, an adult guy in a Superman suit ran by, his ankle-length red satin cape flowing behind him, parallel to the ground.  He had a smile on his face.
     What if this guy showed up in my story?  He certainly surprised me as he flew past, his cape flapping in my face.  Randomness helps writers to move off the dime, forcing us to accomodate something unexpected, something we hadn't planned.  Madeline's appendicitis.  Babar's trip to Paris, of all places. Robert Frost said, "No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader ("Robert Frost: The Art of Poetry No. 2, The Paris Review, interviewer Richard Poirier, Summer-Fall 1960, No.4).  One of the problems with literature that doesn't rise to the level of art is stodginess, a story that goes along predictably to its predictable end, never deviating to any deeper a level or any higher a plane or any more unusual a sidetrack into the woods.
     I knew a writer who always planned her entire novel down to the details before she wrote a word.  An editor told me that he could tell whenever the story escaped her death grip--those passages exhibited a new energy, but she always shut it down, unable to tolerate the loss of control.  We and the people we write for may be reassured by familiar stories that plow no new ground, but people look for novelty as much as comfort.  Give us a new idea or a new image we haven't seen a thousand times before.  ("She froze with fear."  "Her stomach tightened with anxiety."  "She swallowed her chagrin."  Yikes.  The next time I see "she froze" in a manuscript, I'll die of ennui.) 
     Poitier asked Frost about Lionel Trilling's lecture on the darkness of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Frost replied that his poems had plenty of darkness in them and then went on to speak about contrasts, "the thought that evil shows off to good and good shows off to evil." He quoted a couplet he had composed on the fly: "It’s from their having stood contrasted / That good and bad so long have lasted."
     I think of Frost's "Fire and Ice":

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 

Every word is simple.  The unexpected insight about human desire's and hate's equal destructiveness surprises me, though, and so does the rhyme scheme, Frost's supple craft.  That craft is what gives me the most pleasure.
     Frost went on about surprises:

"...So many talk, I wonder how falsely, about what it costs them, what     agony it is to write. I’ve often been quoted: 'No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.' But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you."

In "scoring," I think Frost is talking about creating an impact.  The good time he's talking about is in his playing around with words and ideas, the fun that comes from plying a skill you have spent years sharpening, even if the the impulse and the content of a work is darkness and grief, even if you're talking about desire, perishing, hate, and destruction.
     If I didn't keep the Superman scene in my Victorian novel, what would his presence in the scene have taught me about my characters?  How would his presence shake up the plot?  What similar surprise, more in keeping with my Victorian setting, would provide a jolting contrast that would serve the story well?
     We won't make an impact and we won't have much fun if we don't look for surprises.  More randomness.  Less death grip.  More Superman.  More fun.

American Born Chinese

     About ten days ago I was assisting in a summer camp classroom. We had just returned from a long field trip in the heat. Students, slumped and drained from the day’s excursion, were sitting down for snack. Parents began to arrive, a look of relief flooding their faces as they entered the air conditioning. Every inch of me wanted to sit-down, eat a banana and some crackers with the kids, but my job was to smile and talk to arriving parents. Catching myself mid-sigh, my eyes zeroed in on a yellow book in one of my first graders hands. I knew it right away. Gene Yang’s, American Born Chinese.

    I leapt! Performing a double layout with a half twist, clear-over a couple of second graders, perfect landing next to the 6 yr old. Crowd goes wild. Okay, that was probably exaggerated. But the rest is true, honest. The volume of my voice escalated as I rapidly told the little girl, “Can you believe it, I know the author!” I felt like I should have been doing the superman pose as I exclaimed this important information. To the girl’s stoic father, I explained that Gene Yang was one of my facility members at the MFA program I was attending. With wide arm movements I went on about the book, telling the girl and her father that is was fantastic. Pointer finger pushing into the air. I felt myself puff up in preparation to spew my pride and excitement to this small family, but was quickly pulled away by another child and her missing what-ever. From afar, I watched as the father took the book from the girls hand and open it. His solid expression changed slightly, eyes turning, lips thinning. I wondered what he was looking at, what he was thinking?

    For the next couple of days, every time I worked with the girl, I wanted to ask about this Young Adult Graphic Novel she was reading. So when I was walking the class back from P.E. I took my chance to bombard her with questions. Had she read the book? “Sure,” she had said, “I've read it a bunch of times.”

    I asked what she had thought of the story, what it meant to her? The 6yr old thought for a moment, and explained that it was about a monkey king and how his son was this kid on earth who wasn't doing so good. “What was the lesson?” I inquired. She shrugged. It was a big question for a 1st grader.

   What was American Born Chinese about? Spoiler alert! The novel is made up of three stories rolled into one. The monkey king wants to be respected and so changes himself to be less monkey. When stuck under a mountain he is told that he would be free if he would return to his original form. He refuses, and stays for 500 years. We flash to a story of a boy whose parents are from China but is born in America. He isn't accepted at school and he, too, wants to change himself in order to fit in. Do you see the trend? In the end the monkey king and the boy are able to accept that their cultural heritage is a part of who they are.
   Gene has said that his Chinese heritage informs the way he is American, hence the title. In a video interview at, from, he said that his struggle with cultural heritage was an important part of his life experiences, his identity, and it was something he wanted to workout on paper. This story of acceptance was apart of him and therefore an important story for him to tell.

   So was this message lost to my first grader? I don't think so. She might not have the language to express her understanding but she has the experiences. I see it in the way she is always hip-to-hip with the other Chinese-American girl in the classroom. Though the entire class plays together, those two girls have a special bond. In science class, every year the teacher leads a unit on DNA. The ages he teaches range from 3 to 11 year olds. The younger group might not fully understand what DNA is, but that nugget of knowledge will file away the language for later understanding. So even though the message of American Born Chinese isn't fully understood by my 6yr old friend, the seeds of love-thy-self have been planted in her mind through this story. When she reads it again, possibly later in life, it will mean so much more to her.

   Writing is more than the need to put what’s in my mind onto a page because if I don't my soul will shrivel. It's about being true to the people who will read your material, to possibly help them on their own journey. How many times have I drawn strength from characters? Or realized some grand lesson I had never considered because of a book? I really grew to understand this concept during my first residency this past July. Each faculty member spoke on this. Whether it was in lecture or during a tribute to Ellen Levine who took on so many causes in her work and did so beautifully. Our mentors challenged us to be honest in our writing, to find meaning, and to be grounded in what was important. In the end of American Born Chinese, Gene Yang allowed his readers to catch on to his message without right out telling it. He trusted his readers, just as they trusted him...My next step is deciding what all this means for me.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Winsor McCay

     Anyone with even a passing interest in art, animation, comics, or publishing might enjoy Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, by John Canemaker (Abrams, revised and expanded edition, 2005), an illustrated, large-format biography of the artist whose comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland , and other works, enchanted newspaper readers beginning in 1905.

     McCay's influence is evident in the dreamy performance art of Cirque du Soleil and the picture books of Maurice Sendak, who often credited McCay as a source and who contributed an introduction to this book. For example, the tall side-by-side panels in Sendak's In the Night Kitchen resemble McCay's ingenious layouts.  The result is an  illusion of animated motion. Mickey tumbling down through those panels in his surrealist dream looks very much like Nemo falling through the night sky and waking up in a heap beside his bed.

     The cover illustration of Down in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, a story that pictorially associates modern homeless shelters with images of Auschwitz, depicts a pair of urchins looking into the gaping black maw of a full moon.  Sendak's illustration is an allusion to McCay's 1905 full-page spread of Little Nemo, in the New York Herald, which incorporates a central image of a similar moon, where a clown standing on the moon's tongue invites the dreaming Nemo to step inside.

Again and again, McCay depicted images with gaping mouths swallowing or regurgitating human beings.  He made himself wealthy with comics, movies, political cartoons and advertising, and at least one poster for Liberty Bonds.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1936.
     Peter Maresca restored Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Since he couldn't find a publisher willing to take his work, he published it himself, in two full-size volumes, 21 inches long and sixteen inches wide, at the cost of "a three-bedroom house in Kansas."  The books are available at for $125 each or $225 for both.  Remaindered copies of the beautiful $45 Abrams biography of Winsor McCay, with many illustrations reduced in size, can be bought online at Daedalus Books for $19.95.
     (Sorry for the erratic formatting--I done my best.)