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Archive for February, 2010

My Rules for Writing

Jackson Pollock

Life will descend into chaos around you while you write.

This week the Guardian published a piece in which 29 writers give their rules for fiction writing. Here are mine:

1. Realize no one cares about your stupid novel. Seriously. Even if it gets published. Even if it wins the freakin Nobel Prize for Literature, most people you pass on the street are never going to read it, have never heard of you, and could care less. The exceptions are (a) your mom and possibly your sister, although they are mostly just pretending to be interested because they like you and are nice people, (b) your spouse and/or child(ren), but mainly in the sense that they wish you stop all this writing nonsense and do laundry more often, unless you happen to write a bestseller, in which case they will want a bigger allowance; and (c) people upon whom you have based a character in the book, although mainly in the sense that they are either flattered or slightly creeped out to realize you were paying that much attention.

2. Write your novel anyway. Whatever else happens, it will be an adventure.

3. Look into the motivations and fantasies that drive your writing, and try to fulfill them outside your writing. Do you write because you’re lonely? Try to make friends in real life. Want to make someone fall in love with you? Send the person that love poem you wrote. Long for excitement and travel? Go somewhere exciting. Once you do that, you might find you lose interest in writing, but if so, it’s probably a good thing. And if you still want to write, you’ll have more experiences worth writing about.

4. Struggle against entropy. While you write, life around you descends into chaos. Dishes pile up, underwear goes unwashed, your toddler paints your couch in purple lipstick, e-mails from people you care about go unresponded to. You have to emerge every now and then to put some order back into your universe. It’s an eternal Sysiphean struggle, but one you have to persevere in to keep yourself and your loved ones sane.

5. No detail is too small to sweat over getting right. Every comma, every conjunction. The smallest mistakes can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing. One “off” word choice can turn an effective paragraph into an embarrassing mass of purple sentimentality. One wrong comma placement can make a beautiful sentence into a hideous one.

That’s all I got.

A quick book review. I am picky enough about books that although I read promiscuously, it’s rare for me to find ones that I really, really like. But I was lucky and recently came across The Evening and the Morning by Virginia Sorenson, published in 1949, which was all the more surprising because so far as I can tell, it’s kind of an obscure book. I hunted it down while I was doing research on ex-Mormon authors. The author is an ex-Mormon, and the main character of the book is a women born in the last years of polygamy, who goes on to marry monogamously and have an long affair with a neighbor. The writing is gorgeous and the story compelling—this women is like an ex-Mormon Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf had more interesting plots. I’d recommend it to my ex/post/alumni-Mormon friends and acquaintances as well as non-Mormon readers. Believing Mormons interested in an ex-Mormon perspective could find it interesting too.

Lastly, now that I’ve figured out how to link to songs, I thought it’d be fun to put a few at the end of each post I do. This week’s theme is Some Obscure Songs I Never Would Have Heard Of If It Hadn’t Been For Pandora, Part 1. (Of course, obscurity is always relative, but these were obscure to me.) Enjoy.

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A Music Post

Carla Bruni

I know I’ve been boring, what with all the shop-talk about novel-writing and whining about how hard revisions are. So for a change of pace, today’s post is on music. I’ve been wasting a lot of time lately listening to music when I should be revising my novel instead, for a couple of reasons. One, it turns out a friend of mine writes a secret music blog (which alas, naturellement, I can’t link to, as it’s secret) that I’ve really been enjoying. It’s been a nice way for me to learn about unfamiliar music (which is most music except for pre-1950 classical and ultra-obscure things I come across on my Pandora station). And then my [now former] husband gave me an iPod for a surprise just-because present, so now I can listen on it.

So, first off, here are some songs that turn up in my novel (the links are to Lala, and you should be able to listen to them once for free).

That last song isn’t in the book per se, but the movie Wings of Desire is, so that gives a taste of it (there was a nice commemorative review of the film in Slate last month).

Also, I thought I’d link to some songs in French and German, since people might not be so familiar with them and that makes it fun to share. A German friend introduced me to the group Wir Sind Helden, so here’s a song from them called Von Hier An Blind, from their album of the same name (you can’t listen to the whole song on Lala, unfortunately). It’s a great philosophical song, because it describes a state of aporia. The refrain goes:

Ich weiß nicht weiter
War ich noch nie
Ich weiß nicht weiter
Ich weiß nicht, wo wir sind
Ich weiß nicht weiter
Von hier an blind

Meaning, “I don’t know the way forward, I was never here before, I don’t know the way forward, I don’t know where we are, from here on out I’m blind.”

Next up, a song from Louise Attaque, La Nuit from their album A Plus Tard Crocodile. I’m not too sure about the lyrics, as I don’t understand them and they’re not printed in the CD jacket, but it showcases their distinctive violin sound—apparently one of the band members is a classically trained violinist, and there is a lot of great string work on this album.

You may have heard of Carla Bruni, first lady of France. We really enjoyed her album Quelqu’un M’a Dit—my [ex]husband describes her sound as “very French.”  I was going to post the title song of that album, but apparently it was in the movie (500) Days of Summer, so you’ve probably already heard it (I haven’t had time to see the movie yet, but it’s in my Netflix queue). Here’s another song from that album, L’excessive. The lyrics are awesome, describing every writer’s inner drama queen:

Je suis excessive,
Quand tout explose,
Quand la vie s’exhibe,
C’est une transe exquise.

“I’m excessive; when everything explodes, when life exposes itself, I’m in an exquisite trance.”

And lastly, an old favorite, Kurt Weill’s Je Ne T’Aime Pas. Smoky, sultry cabaret. That’s the Ute Lemper version, which I had in my CD collection, but I was looking for more modern covers of it, and I think I like this one by Italian singer Laura Conti best: Je Ne T’Aime Pas. I really wish I knew of a contemporary indie cover. It’s a song about repressed passion and being stuck in the dreaded friend zone. Good times.

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Not Sucking Is Hard

Leech

Not sucking is especially difficult if you happen to be a leech. (Photo by Chris Schuster, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I get into the subject of this post, a couple of news items. First, I’ve had another essay accepted for publication, this time in a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika. This is a really exciting place to get published, because although they’re a relatively young journal, launched in 2002, they’ve already had something like 10 mentions in the Best American Essays series, which is a lot by my count. My piece will be in their Volume 9, Number 1, the Fall 2010 issue.

Crazy—two acceptances in two weeks. When it rains, it pours. Or should I say, when it snows, it dumps three feet on us?

Actually, I have been loving the snow. We have these eerily spiraling gothic icicles hanging off our roof, so long they go down past the bedroom windows. The kids in our neighborhood have been digging labyrinthine tunnels into the snowbanks. Amandine and I go for fun walks in snow down to the bridge over the creek. Plus, I have enjoyed all the stupid puns: Snowgeddon, the Snowpocalypse, Snoverkill, Snowverwhelming. Who comes up with these? Possibly most exciting of all, I get to keep all my library books for an extra week with no fees. That’s big for me; as a person with not much money and a large literary appetite, I’m a heavy library user and hate giving books back.

So, back to not sucking. Not sucking is hard. I am realizing this as I slog through the first pass at revising my novel. It amazes me there are writers out there whose first or even partial novel drafts are good enough to get published and be readable. David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise—I read the Nemirovsky book when it came out a few years and was blown away by how great it was, and was angry when it just stopped, right in the middle.

If you took a first draft of just about anything I’ve written and tried to read it, you’d probably want to puke. I have to revise and revise and revise before it even gets close to readable, and even then it still often sucks. If I died and some idiot decided a first draft of mine should be published, I’d be horrified and rise from my grave to seek gory zombie-style revenge. (Apparently Nabokov felt similarly about The Original of Laura, which I haven’t read but hear is for die-hard Nabokov fans and scholars only—he asked that the draft be burned after his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s plotting vengeance from the hereafter at this very moment.)

It’s surprising just how hard it is not to suck. The other day on the forums on Nathan Bransford’s website, someone was saying that probably 25% of novels are good enough to be published.

I do not expect to ever see my work in print. How could I, knowing the numbers and having attended a few years worth of statistics classes? It’s what, 0.1% of all completed novels that get bought by a print publishing house? Thing is, I don’t believe that only one in a thousand writers is good enough to be print-published, I think a lot more of us are producing publishable quality. My personal guess would be that a good 25% of us write quality that’s virtually indistinguishable from the average published novel. Being (not) print-published is not only a matter of working hard enough and honing your skills, it’s a simple matter of insufficient demand and waaaaaaay too much supply.

But I disagree—I do think it’s more like one in a thousand novels that are good enough to be print-published by a “real” publisher. I’ve read unpublished or self-published novels by family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. While I wouldn’t say they sucked, I will say that in each case, I could see why they weren’t published, and could tell a clear difference between those novels and the published ones I read. I was happy to have the opportunity to read these amateur efforts. I enjoyed them, learned from them, found them interesting, memorable, and entertaining; they helped me understand the inner life of their authors better. But they weren’t at the same level of writing as published books usually are.

There are a lot of people out there who like to mock the prose of Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, or hate on genre fiction. But the more I struggle to get my own writing not to suck, the more I’m in awe of these writers. Attaining the level of nonsuckiness they do is not easy or simple, it’s not something any random joe or jill schmoe off the streets can do, and it’s definitely not something 25% of novel-writers can do. For example, among my happily extended library loans this past week, I finally got around to reading Soulless, by Gail Carriger (which I learned about from her agent Kristin Nelson’s blog). It’s hilarious and fun vampire steampunk (who knew there was such a genre?), and I highly recommend it. Did I see flaws in the writing? Yes, but then I’ve found flaws in novels by James Joyce and Jonathan Franzen too. The point still remains: these people did it. Their novels do not suck. We should all be so lucky/hard-working/talented/endowed with that certain literary je ne sais quoi.

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Snow and Settling

Holy cow, it’s snowing a lot here. The snowbanks are taller than my toddler. This is the front of our little townhouse—you can see that the snow is as tall as our trash can.

snow covered trash bin

Trash bin in snow

So I got some great news this past week. One of my nonfiction essays got accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Bayou. I’m really happy about it, because Bayou has had a number of essays get notable mentions in The Best American Essays in the past several years (I have a giant anal-retentive spreadsheet where I keep track of such things, so I know which literary magazines to submit to). The essay is slated to appear in their May 2010 issue, so I’ll post about it when it comes out. This will be my first literary publication in a print journal, too. It’s all making me feel almost legit as a writer.

When I got the acceptance e-mail from Bayou, I immediately sent off e-mails to the other literary journals that were still considering the essay to tell them the piece was no longer available. It turned out one of these other journals had actually flagged the piece for acceptance, too, which made me embarrassed and regretful (to have to tell them they couldn’t have the piece) but also pleased, because it meant the other acceptance wasn’t just a fluke instance of some editor being high on crack.

As for revisions on the novel, they are coming along sloooooowly. I’ve heard writers say they like revising better than writing the first draft, but I’m finding it not as fun—a lot more of a slog than the initial drafting was. I am giving myself this whole month just to focus on revising without starting any new projects. I think I need the time anyway to recover and reintegrate myself into society as a normal non-novel-writing person. Writing the book took a major toll on my social life and housekeeping and I’ve kind of got to dig myself out of the rubble for a while now.

By the way, I came across some entertaining articles this week about a new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. The author argues that single chicks should stop being so dang picky and just settle down with some reasonably nice guy before they get too old and ugly.

Give Up On Mr. Perfect

You Don’t Have to Settle

To some extent, I kind of sort of agree with the author, though. Settling can be a good thing. If my husband hadn’t settled for me, where would I be now? Goodness knows. But I think she could have picked a less sexist-sounding way of stating the argument. If it were me, I would have talked about it in terms of risk-taking, rather than settling. Romantic relationships are risky, no bones about it. When your partner is less than perfect, that increases your risks. But you don’t want to be too risk-averse, or you end up impoverishing yourself emotionally and spiritually.

Maybe that’s a mere semantic quibble on my part, but doesn’t it sound a whole lot more empowering and enlightened than “Hey you, stop being so picky and just settle down already”?

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