At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

National Book Award Hangover

"I've mentioned earlier in this blog my experience as a judge for last year's National Book Awards, Young Adult panel.  It involved reading 278 novels in a short summer.  I knew I'd learn a lot about writing in the process, but was unprepared for the "hangover" effect upon my writing.

 In a nutshell, the whole experience has shaken my confidence.  There are so many good writers out there, and a truly good novel is such a delicate confluence of subject matter, style, tone, voice, assemblage, et al, that my novel-in-progress is pushing back in a big way.

  It's saying, "Am I really the book you should be writing at this particular point in your life?"  It's saying, "How do you expect me to compete with all the great (mostly younger) writers out there?"  It's saying, "There are real novels and fake novels--which one am I?"  It's saying, "Hunting season is soon here, and you like fall fishing, plus the river is full of wild rice waiting to be harvested--why are you sitting here at your computer?"  It's saying, "In the end, the world prefers not to be written about.  Time and days just want to keep moving forward, so why bother trying to stop the world from turning?"

Back to my NBA experience, one of the things that seemed clear to me was the power of language to cut through the general noise of the general novel.  I mean language such as James Joyce uses in Finnegan's Wake, or Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker, or Anthony Burgess in  A Clockwork Orange.  While those are classic examples, and difficult to live up to, any type of creative manipulation of language was a relief to find in the pile of 278 novels.  So I tried that in my new novel.   I had great fun, and pressed a sample on my best editor (my wife).  Her response?  Very tactfully she said that she found it "hard to read", and if it was difficult for her, what about for today's young adults?  Here's a sample:

"The Sunstone was now large enuf to veal its markings wich were hyroglyifics of sum kynde and what had befor lookt like litel feet around the weel were now sharp likky litel tongs of fire.  Neerly to there partment bilting the Sunstone barely turnt now.  It gront and creekt lyke a wheel low on greese...." 

Of course she was right (the audience awareness thing), and so  I revised the above passage to 'regular' prose:

"The Sunstone was large enough to show that its little feet were tongues of fire, tiny solar flares licking outward, pulling it along.  Nearly to their apartment building the Sunstone groaned and creaked like a wheel low on grease."

 Though a tiny part of me still believes that when a writer is having fun, his reader will too.  The trouble is, we need more than one reader.  Lots more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Same Title, Different Book

        In 2005, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my coming-of-age novel Full Service. Set in small town Midwest in 1965, it’s the summer when everything changes (most of have such a time) for sixteen-year-old Paul Sutton. Fresh off the farm, and from a church-going family, he takes a job at a gas station where he fills tanks, checks oil, washes windshields and, most importantly, meets the public. Tourist girls, a kindly old gangster, con artists, a beautiful and mysterious woman in a blue Mercedes, wise men and fools—you get the idea­– all stop at the gas station on their way somewhere or nowhere. Over the long summer Paul’s eyes are opened, and though he loses his religion (among other things) he gains the world.
       With attentive editing by the FSG family, and a wonderful cover by Wendell Minor, Full Service launched to starred reviews (Kirkus called it “superb . . . pitch-perfect”). But then, well, my novel sat there. Hard cover sales were very disappointing. The paperback did better, but seven years later, still paddling gamely against the tide of fantasy and vampire fiction, Full Service seemed dead in the water. Destined, though close, never to pay off its advance.
       So imagine my surprise to see a recent, dramatic spike in its sales– particularly in e-books. Of one million e-books available Full Service was suddenly below 60,000, and moving vigorously. I was beset by instant smugness: my little gem of a novel had finally been discovered. I used to tell my students that good writing will always find its audience, and here was proof.
       Then, in a quick Amazon title search, up popped the new, hot-selling Full Service: My Life In Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Right next to my mine. While my Full Service had all five star reader reviews, the evil twin book had mainly one star reviews that included “absolute garbage,” “yuck,” “crap,” “simply awful,” “glad he’s not my friend,” and “worst book I’ve ever read” (24 of the latter). Yet there it was, this sweaty, trashy, Hollywood gigolo tell-all memoir cozied up alphabetically and algorithmically to my tidy, earnest novel of small town Midwest. But pimping for it, too. While I hold out a slim hope that my novel is finally catching on, it seems pretty clear that fast-fingered book buyers are clicking on it by mistake.
       I’ve always believed the literary Gods to be sly but just, and now I know they have a sense of humor. Looking for sexcapades in Hollywood, my new readers instead find themselves at a gas station in Our Town. But here’s my fantasy: maybe they’ll be so surprised –and then by engaged by my characters­– that they’ll finish my book and like it. Their eyes will be opened to the transformative power of “real writing”; they’ll realize that instead of a book-buying mistake, they made the right choice after all.
     And I’ll finally pay off my advance.

(Originally published in the Huffington Post books section.)


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Approaches to Writing Your Novel

My most successful novel for young adults is Memory Boy, a draft of which I wrote in three weeks.  That should have told me something.  However, as a novelist I'm a slow learner; or more precisely, each novel is its own puzzle to solve, and it's usually a mistake to hark back to the previous book when writing a new one.   However, I'm trying just that with my new novel:  re-visiting the approach I took to writing Memory  Boy, to see if it will work again.

There are two very general approaches to writing a novel:  work on it daily, stopping and starting to attend to real life, much as one goes about a job.  The opposite tack is the Jack Kerouac method:  full tilt, full focus, writing fast and hard and continuously, real life be damned.  I know visual artists who absolutely require the latter method, but most novelists I know take the workman-like approach.

Memory Boy was written with modified Jack Kerouac approach.  I tried to "write" (visualize) a good deal of MB inside my head before anything else.  Once it began to seem real in my imagination, I made notes and set chapter headings in place. Soon I  pretty much knew the whole arc of the novel (with most of my novels I know only half or even a third of the story before I write the first word.)  My notes weren't copious, such as I imagine a mystery writer might need, and of them the chapter headings were the most useful.  Knowing all of–and only– what each chapter has to cover greatly speeds up the writing process.  Then, with MB fully in my head, I holed up at a writing retreat for three weeks of isolation, and wrote.  Just wrote.  No distractions other than to surface for food and a breath of fresh air.  The result was an organically whole narrative that, as I see now, has a tightness about it–an intensity, an urgency––that most of my YA novels do not have.  They are each good in their own ways, but not as tight as MB.  In short, I think the Kerouac method has much to say for itself as an artistic process.  Can I duplicate it?  Will it work again?  I'll find out this summer.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Authors and Book Clubs

                                "Oh, The Places We’ll Go"  

         The famous Dr. Suess book by similar title is most certainly an allegory of authors and books clubs.  When I publish a new book I'm certainly “off and away” on an adventure, and the places I’ll go, from book store signings to peoples’ overcrowded living rooms, are wonderful to downright strange.   Still, go I must, it’s only just (sorry): people have plopped down good money for my book, and now they want–one could say, deserve– straight answers about it.  And not from back-matter author interviews or website Vimeos.  Book club people want their author contact up close and personal–and with food involved.  To authors, book club invitations are like a church bell’s toll:  one might not feel like going at all, but in the end it’s nearly always a good thing.
      Though not necessarily an easy thing.  For authors, book club events are complicated and many-layered.  Let’s start with the food.  No matter what menu is promised, it’s best to eat (lightly)  beforehand.  Book club events are often long on sweets and caffeine but short on protein.  The last thing an author needs is a sugar and caffeine high on an empty stomach, which can lead to talking jags about the process of writing –and editors, and revision, and copy editors and one’s Amazon numbers– plus managing a paper plate and your novel and a glass of wine while sitting in the host’s personal Lazy-boy is a dangerous act.  Speaking of drinks?  One.  Two drinks and you’re back to talking about the writing process, about the sentence on page 74 that defeated you.
            This gets us, ala Dr. Suess, to the dark side of things.  If not eating or drinking much sets the author apart from the assembled club, that’s as it should be.   A book club is a homogeneous gathering of nice people who do not write. Their living rooms or summer patios with lawn chairs become a “waiting place” where they listen for a “yes or a no”; that is, they want to believe that the author is a nice person who sees the world just like them.  Which the author does not, because, well, he’s an author.  Negotiating this psychic territory while cheerfully talking about one’s book is no easy thing, because an author’s book club persona­–necessarily agreeable if not charming–is not altogether truthful.  The novel might have been a personal agony to write; or might have caused hurt to family or loved ones; or feel, as F. S. Fitzgerald put it, “fake”, and not all that it could have been.  But no one really needs to hear that.  Though readers’ groups are more literary than others, most are as much social as bookish– this in play against the author, for whom writing is a matter of life death.  Truth be told, I often leave a book club event feeling largely false–which is of course my problem, and not that of the nice folks who invited me, and who, I hope, will keep reading and buying books and reaching out to authors.
             Musicians say there’s no unimportant gig; ditto, I think, for writers and book clubs.  That I hardly ate or drank a thing that night is soon forgotten (as is the weak coffee and the impossible Lazy-boy).  What remains is the simple, elemental power of good books to bring people together. 

  (first published in the Huffington Post "Books" section)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writing and Season

Understanding personal, daily bio-rhythms is a big part of the writing process -- are you a morning writer, a late-night writer, or maybe your best time is after a siesta?  But don't ignore the impact of season on your motivation to write and even the quality of your prose.

Northern writers with four distinct seasons to deal with have a more complicated writing life, I think, than someone who lives, say, in  San Diego or Florida or Arizona.  The weather, the temperature, the light, the length of day is always changing, and with it my mood.  My inclination to write competes with other, often sudden opportunities (or necessities) to be outside:   to plunge into the river on rare hot day in northern Minnesota;  to shoulder my shotgun and head to the woods on  beautiful October afternoon;  to shovel the roof in January.

Spring in Minnesota is my most difficult time to write.  I am hostage to the crazy, mad arrival of returning birds and their mating call and flutter--not to say ice-out on the Mississippi, then the peepers and various frog songs, and turtles to watch out for on the highways.  I limp along with my writing, doing what I can (usually well before dawn) until the urge to be outside and do something (something "real", that is) overtakes me.   Seasonal affective disorder is not just about being light-starved and gloomy; it makes me light-drunk, manic and  attention-deficit-disorderd when it comes to writing.

My point here:  if you are struggling to write because of  short days of winter, or long crazy days of summer, or other seasonal factors (allergies!) try as best you can  to move your "ball" (your novel) forward at least in some way.  If it can't be several pages of good prose, it can be notes on characters; or sketches of  chapters-to-come; or skimming in a novel that has prose like you'd like to have some day; or certainly editing, tweaking, or tinkering (but not too much) of what pages you do have.

Some progress, every day, is the goal.  It is what will eventually bring you to that exhilarating last page,   which is when the real work of revision begins.  But take pleasure in getting to this point–a completed draft of your novel–because most aspiring writers never get there.

 And recognizing all of the obstacles against the act of writing--including our latitude and longitude--is no small part of the writer's life.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Amazon plus

Most authors can't resist checking their "numbers" (book rankings) on Amazon.  We do it because it's the fastest way; sales numbers from our publishers are usually months behind.  And Amazon has been increasingly clever in cultivating authors by offering free space for author profiles.  I've dutifully signed on, though somewhat reluctantly, because I try to be loyal to the indie bookstore world.  But some services are just too good to pass up, including my recent discovery (where have I been?!) of "Bookscan" sales highlights.

Located in "Author Central," "Bookscan" is actually way more than highlights:  it not only shows how many copies of what titles have been sold, but where they were sold--not addresses, certainly, but regions.  Minneapolis area.  West Chicago.  Brooklyn.  Imagine a map of voting trends, one that breaks a state down to counties, and that's pretty much was Bookscan offers.  What's not to like about that?

Then I discovered pages and pages of reviews (where HAVE I been??) of my books, each with stars (up to five).  It's never healthy to read one's reviews, and after a page or two of this I got a grip and stopped.  The problem with reviews, is that the author remembers the very best--and the very worst--of them.  And the very worst ones, even if written by someone clearly imbalanced, tend to stick in the brain.

Any way, I'm just musing over Amazon here:  how much it has to offer, and how difficult it is to say no.