Open Wounds

Critiqueing

Waiting Games

 

There are different kinds of waiting games that writer’s play and none of them are fun. Well, for me most are painful, mixed occasionally with moments of pleasure, but not fun. Definitely not fun. What do writer’s wait for? Here’s four to start with.

  • a response from an editor -This is painful because it means potential rejection and the more neurotic you are the more you focus on this part. Raise your hand if you are in the more rather than less. Also it creates more anxiety the longer it goes on and it can take weeks, months, and yes, sometimes years for them to get back to you. Some never get back to you. Some get back to you with foul language in a long letter with a large coffee stain on the center of it. Okay that only happened once. What’s good about waiting for a response? Your work is being considered and there are short bouts of hope. Hope, hope, hope. Got to have hope.
  • a response from an agent – see editor above. This one holds even if the agent is your agent. Actually it’s worse in some ways if it’s your agent because they’re supposed to be responsive to you. How many emails should it take to get your agent to respond? How long should you have to wait? One day? One week? One month? One year? Should you ever call? Can you text? How about face time? Is it okay to visit the office? Mind you I don’t have the answers to these questions. I use to, but then all my answers were proved wrong. I will say though, that stalking is right out wrong. If you’re at that point you should probably be looking for another agent.
  • a response from a reader of your manuscript. If it’s a friend, partner, spouse, writer’s group colleague, or family member, and you’ve given them a time limit (reasonable, be reasonable!), and they’re kind (only ask them if they’re kind), then waiting should be shorter and easier. It helps if they’ve read your manuscripts before – or any manuscript before and it helps if they owe you money.
  • inspiration.

Macabre Eraser Eating and other Sundries

My son is writing a book – a page a day, he tells me, “If I write a page a day in a year I’ll have written a novel.”

Then a little while later he says, “If I write two pages a day – only two pages a day – I’ll write a novel in… ” I can see him doing the math in his head, “half a year.”

I nod. “It’s cool isn’t it?”

“Yes!”

He shows me his new page(s) every night. He doesn’t usually show me his writing for school so this is a new thing for me. When I’ve ask to see his school work in the past he’s usually said, “No.” I’ve had to search for his stories and essays in his work folders after it’s been handed back to him and placed somewhere in his overstocked and overflowing backpack. Or my wife has had to tell me where it was. She knows. She almost always gets to read his work.

He’s finding real joy in putting his pencil to his page. He sits at the table at night staring out the window with his pencil eraser between his teeth, chewing and thinking. Every once in a while his pencil moves down and across the page leaving text behind. I sit with my back to him at my computer doing my version of the exact same thing with electronic text. I don’t chew on an eraser – though I’m not against it if it helps to think. I usually sip tea.

When he’s finished he wants me to read it, “Right now.”

He stands next to me and places his book in my lap. He points at it. “Now.” He watches while I read it, his hands together in front of him. He cracks his knuckles one after the other rolling from one finger and hand to the next. I laugh out loud when the story is funny. He smiles when I do that.

“Who should I kill off?” he asks, placing his hand on my shoulder.

“Let me finish reading,” I say.

“I’m not going to kill off anyone,” he says. “Maybe just have one of them lose a foot or a hand.”

“Shh,” I say.

“Read it,” he responds.

It reminds me of so many writer’s that I know, including myself. “Tell me what you think?” He asks and I have to tell him now. When I give my work to someone to read I want the same thing, now, only as an adult trying to show that I have impulse control, that I can be patient, that time is of no importance to me – I say instead, “When you get the chance.” Or worse, “There’s no rush.” What that really means is, “Now.” Trust me. it means, “Pick up the manuscript and start reading now. And don’t stop until you’ve finished. Because I want to know what you think – if it’s any good and I want to know now. I’ve been inside my own head for over a year, written 235 pages, and need to know it’s been worth the effort so I can write another 100-200 pages more of my epic – though it’s not really an epic I just think of it that way. And if you make me wait a day or a week or – God help you – a month to get back to me I’ll have to exist in silent scream torture mode as every day I check me email to see if you’ve sent me a note that says, “I’m done.” ”

My son is quiet while I read the rest of the page. He sits on the arm of my work-chair, reading over my shoulder. He asks me, what do I think, with raised eyebrows when I close the book and look up.

Wonderful.


Eat Sympathetic Gurus

May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.

Let me put this out there.

I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.

So I think she’s great.

But here’s the thing.

This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.

What am I saying?

I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too.  As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.

Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.

So Cyndi…  She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.

But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.

One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is  not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.

Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?


Breaking Bread not Heads

ASK THE PASSENGERS by AS King

I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.

But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.

I’ll get back to it. Hold on.

I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.

Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.


Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.

A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World's Greatest Game

But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)

What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?

Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.

It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.

Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…


There Ain’t No Sanity-Clause

I’ve thought about this a lot.

There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.

I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).

But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.

Salt and pepper?

Artichokes?

Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.

Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.

Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.

The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.

Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.

The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.

For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.

So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.

I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.

Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.


L is for Láthe biṓsas (Live hidden)

I might be stretching here but we’re almost half way through the alphabet and I’m still talking Greek so there’s something to say for that.

Live hidden is from Epicurus. He said this because he believed that politics troubled men and didn’t allow them to reach inner peace. If you’re watching the republican primary or have Barak Obama’s campaign on your radar perhaps you’ll agree. It’s like watching a train wreck and not exactly good for serenity now. So Epicurus suggested that everybody should live “Hidden” far from cities, not even considering a political career. I’m not saying everyone should be anti-epicurian on this political career thing but I do wonder how this works in my writing.

Once at a writer’s group (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) I had the group take parts from a play I was writing that took place in Rome just about the time of Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of Brutus. I know. It doesn’t sound funny at all but I was taking a side-show perspective of a laundromat far down the block from where Marc Antony makes his speech and they were translating it back through the crowd by whispered word of mouth so that the folks in the cheap seats got a garbled message. Anyway, it was comedy. Slapstick. Pratfalls. One of the writers commented to me during the feedback round, “I can’t wait to see what you do with this piece when you give it the deeper meaning I know you’re striving for.”

There was no deeper meaning.

I was just trying to be funny.

Maybe it was the Caesar thing that created high expectations – or the echo of Shakespeare’s words. I don’t know but I nodded and said, “Yes… a deeper meaning.” And of course wondered, did I have to have a deeper meaning and should I just give up and throw the play away before someone got hurt?

I know, if I’m honest, I write fiction based on my values and life experiences – where else can my ideas come from?  But these are tempered by the needs of my characters. They are filtered and so they become both mine and theirs. Some represent me and some don’t (or better not – but what if they do?). I set out to tell stories. I don’t usually set out to be engaged in politics. But if I do, the ideas will certainly be welcomed into the fracas.

Did you know that Roman laundries used urine as bleach? It gets the whites whiter. Now what kind of political statement is that? What’s the deeper meaning in pee?

What do you do with your political ideas? Do they work deliberately into your stories or do they… live hidden?


F is For Phobos (Fear)

Phobos is the Greek God of Horror and Fear. Interesting. It’s also the name of one of the moons of Mars. Ph is the sound of F in Greek and there is no letter F. I didn’t know that until a few moments ago. Onward.

As a writer what do I fear? What makes me wake up in a cold sweat, shivering? Here’s my list – writer specific:

  • Not getting published.
  • Getting published (I know, I know. But sometimes when you get what you ask for its scary. Hey, I’m a neurotic New York Writer. What can I say.).
  • Having writer’s block.
  • Not having writer’s block. (because I’m thinking… when will I get writer’s block?).
  • Getting a bad review (I’ve gotten rid of my Goodreads bookmark from my toolbar. I had worn it out from obsessively checking it. It’s like crack for writers.).
  • Red pen marks (this is a hold-over from high school).
  • Having to do social marketing (I’m getting over it but only slowly. I’m still not friendly with Twitter but at least we’re acquaintances. And I’m starting to know Facebook on a first name basis.).
  • Letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it be more likely to occur just like the old tale that says if you want something let it go?).
  • Not letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it not occur in which case this is a catch 22 and I’m screwed.).
  • Losing my electronic manuscript and not having backed it up.
  • Sending out emails that get lost in the electronic maelstrom of computer generated life and not knowing that they never reached their destination.
  • Having to look for an agent again (don’t have to, it’s just a fear…)

What’s on your list?


Of Egos and the Red Pen of Perfection

This is the final question from a CW Post student from my reading there last month.

How do you deal with a returned and edited manuscript? It’s perfect when I hand it in.

The woman who asked this question was terrific. She knew exactly what she was asking and knew the answer but wanted to know how to deal with the red pen of perfection. Most of us think our work is perfect or close to perfect when we hand it in. Otherwise, why would we hand it in? Then an editor gets ahold of it and either slants it with language they like, find ways to make it better, punctuates it in another style, or challenges us with new questions that we have to answer in order to make the piece complete.

I knew exactly what she meant. Man did I know what she meant. Even though by this time in my writing career I’m accustomed to revision after revision after revision I still hate to see an editor’s red marks on my manuscript. It hurts. There’s no way around it. Why do they want to change my words or punctuation or thought process as filtered through the words on my page?  Usually it’s because… it could be better.

I think every writer gets to the point when they’re working on a book that they just don’t want to see it again – ever. I love my books, but I also want them to be finished. I always get to the point that I don’t want to work on them anymore, even if a little part of me knows there’s more work to do. For me it’s usually a good time to let the manuscript sit like for a month or three or six. Even a week’s break after an intense period of time with a manuscript can give a whole new perspective on the piece – especially if it’s not working – and I realize it’s not working – even if I don’t want to admit it out loud.

But feedback is always difficult to take in if it’s negative and if it’s true. Either one. Now saying this – know that sometimes editors are wrong. The same goes for fellow writers in a critique group and your life partner (but my wife is always right about my work – she just is). You just have to follow your gut as to what needs to be added to your manuscript, what needs to be cut, and what needs to stay the same. Over time working with someone on different projects you learn to figure out what to ignore and what to listen to.  And as a writer I think each of us learns to shape our work and give it structure that is true to what we’re trying to say. Your sense of structure – of beginning-middle-end – tells you you’re on or off target with what you’ve written.

So how do I deal with a red-inked manuscript? I take a deep breath, read through the edits, accept what’s better, and cross out what’s not. It sounds simple but it’s really a lot harder than it sounds, because it will only work if my ego is in check and I can honestly tell what’s better and what’s not. And the ego, my ego, is a tricky writing partner. But the subject of ego is for another post and a brand new, rollerball, red ink pen of perfection.


How Lawrence Block Saved My Ass

A writer friend of mine and I were talking recently about her present writing project and, being interested in her project and wanting to help her out, I offered to read a sample chapter for her. She said yes,with a big smile and we were off and running. Before I left though I turned to her and asked, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“What do you mean,” she said, still smiling but straining a little.

“You can ask me for what you need when I read it and I want to make sure I help you out so… what do you need me to do, in addition to reading it?”

She looked at me for a long moment, then , smile disappearing, said, “I don’t know. I mean…what do you mean? I never thought about that.”

“I can critique , look for strengths, look for weakness, line edit, read and give overall impressions, look at narrative structure or character, read and tell you I love it, read and tell you to send it out immediately – does that help? I want to help but I want to help you the way you need help.”

The smile appeared again. “I never thought about it that way. Let me think what I need and I”ll let you know when I send the manuscript to you.”

“Excellent. I’m excited to read it.”

This was not the first time I”ve come up against this. In a writer’s group I was in once we allowed each other to ask for what we wanted in a critique – since critique means different things to different people. One new writer auditioning for the group said to me, “But what good is it if you don’t get feedback that tells you what needs to be improved?”

I said, “Sometimes you need just to hear yourself read a piece out loud or get an audience reaction (facial, verbal, energy, laughter, snickers). It all comes back to what you need. Not everybody needs a knife taken to their work.” He didn’t like this and decided not to be a part of the group – probably for the best.

A couple of years later I was working on a memoir of my time working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing HIV/AIDS work and it was very painful stuff to put down on paper. At a writer’s retreat I decided to read some of it out loud to the other writers. I asked for what I wanted before I read. I was used to doing this by then so I did. I just wanted to hear what it sounded like. It was too personal to be critiqued yet and I said so. When I was finished reading, one writer raised her hand to comment and when I called on her she started to take it apart. I stopped her in the middle of her fourth or fifth sentence and said, “I don’t want a critique. I’ll take a question about the material – ” and she interrupted me. “But you need to hear -” and that’s when Lawrence Block saved me. He said (yes, he was one of the writer’s at the retreat – the Lawrence Block of Matthew Scudder, best seller, fame), “Didn’t you hear what Joe said? He said he just wanted to read it out loud.”

There was scattered applause, like softly popping incendiaries. Then I took my seat back in the group and another writer took the reader’s chair.

Thank you, Larry.

Ask for what you need. You’re allowed.