Success: a goal achieved

I did it!
I met my goal for National Novel Writing Month mom-style and I exceeded it by 2,319 words.
My total for the month: 27,319 words.
I even got a little Christmas shopping done on the side.
And thanks to my awesome husband, the house has not fallen completely to pieces. (He cleans. I am fortunate in that.) It’s garbage day again tomorrow and I’ve already remembered to put it out. I’ve gotten the kids to school on time every day and they even still know who I am.
That’s all far more than I anticipated.
Now for the next step.
I hope to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of January, but I want a better balance.
I want to exercise at least three days a week. I want to keep the house in a relatively orderly state. I want to spend some time playing games with my kids, giving the puppy the attention she deserves (So she won’t destroy any more leather furniture) and just hanging out with my husband.
So here we go.
On to December.
About 27,000 more words and a life.
That’s all I ask.

Perspective: mother vs. mother-in-law

My mother and my mother-in-law both read the same book recently, a gift from me.
A New York Times best seller.
Both left the same message on my answering machine:
“I need to talk to you about this book.”
I had just started the novel and had not yet formed an opinion.
“I couldn’t even finish the last chapter,” my mother said. “It just wasn’t real.”
My mother was disappointed by what she felt was an exaggerated plot with exaggerated characters. The main character, a 12-year-old girl, suffers emotionally after the death of her mother and abandonment by her father. My mother didn’t find the traumas to be all that traumatic. She didn’t find the resolution all that satisfying.
Great, I thought.
The author is a friend of mine.
What if I feel the same way?
Would I be able to face her?
Then I returned my mother-in-law’s call.
My mother-in-law, a woman known for guarding her emotions, could barely contain her excitement.
She loved it.
She even cried when she read it.
“I never cry when I read a book,” she said.
I was baffled.
Such intense, polar-opposite emotions from two women who are only a year apart in age. Why? I mentioned the conflicting reactions to my mother-in-law. She wasn’t at all surprised. My mother, she explained, has an entirely different perspective on suffering.
Here I am. A writer, a journalist, someone who should understand audience.
And she was right.
I had missed it.
The problem is that I am also a daughter, and daughters can’t always sympathize with the children their parents once were because we are naturally selfish. We want to be emotionally cuddled when we hit bumps on the road, to become objects of our parents’ sympathy, recipients of their wisened advice.
We don’t want to see that our parents are still vulnerable themselves, even as adults. We don’t want to deal with their unresolved issues because we want them to help us resolve our own. So, sometimes, we are unintentionally blind.
Of course it wasn’t real for her.
My mother grew up in Germany during World War II. Her father fled to Romania to escape recruitment in the Nazi army. She was taken from her family at 10 years old and sent to Youth Camps. From there, she was placed in people’s homes, where she worked for her keep.
Her siblings were also taken away.
She saw her mother only occassionally.
She has told stories of beatings and hunger and loneliness, but she rarely goes into great detail. Instead, she often recounts her childhood with stories of her youthful rebellion. How she sneaked out windows to pick flowers, how she refused to stay in bed when sick, how she wandered through old castles and played imaginerary games.
If only some rich great aunt had swept her up at 12 years old and gently placed her in a mansion-of-a-home with a private bathroom for each bedroom, a maid who adored her and all the clothes and delicious food she could imagine. How could someone so lucky possibly be suffering to the extent that the main character suffers?
I picked up the novel a few days ago and started reading it with a new curiousity. The writing is beautiful. The author worked her entire life as a different kind of artist and her talents carry into her writing. The images she paints with her words stir all the senses. I see, feel, taste, smell and hear when I read. The experience is exhillerating.
But at the same time, I am guarded.
I am aware of my mother’s perspective even as I am drawn in by this young girl’s plight.
I feel sympathy for the girl, not because her situation is so horrible, but because of the way she endures it and because of who she is, the way the author has drawn her. I feel joy with her, not because she landed in a wealthy home with lots of love, but because of the way these unique and charming characters surround her and pull her out among them.
My mother’s perspective and my mother-in-law’s observations dimished my expectations of the novel … in a good way. They reminded me to tear down my own psychological defenses, to read beyond the literal plot and to focus instead the author’s portrayals and resulting portrait of human nature, of the nature of community.
And I got something even better out of it, better than I could have imagined.
The novel, and this experience with it, brought me one step closer to understanding my own mother.

Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn’t know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I “just didn’t get it.”
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She’ll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we’d have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn’t matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can’t stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I’ll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it’s like they’re giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don’t have to spend them, but it doesn’t hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don’t waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don’t request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It’s a waste.
But it’s also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

Like your agent

An author-friend signed with a big agency.
His agent sold his novel within two months.
To an indie press.
Now, this particular independent publisher has an excellent reputation. His novel might have ended up there eventually. But he will never know, and his is the story I tell most often when writers ask me for advice in searching for an agent.
From what I understand, this agent submitted the manuscript to several large houses at once. And the author’s novel was rejected by all of them.
His agent immediately argued that the same scenario would play out if they continued to submit to larger imprints. Why waste time? The author had misgivings. But his agent persuaded him that the indie presses were the best option, even though the novel was well-received by the big publishing houses.
It just was not what those particular editors were searching for.
He finally agreed.
Then along came novel number two.
The agent submitted the manuscript to only one publisher: the same independent press that published the first book. The author was thrilled because he has developed a good relationship with the folks at the indie press.
All is well.
But is it?
Was his agent really looking out for his best interests as a career novelist?
Or did he quickly realize that selling this novel would be hard work, and did he “sell him out” for the sake of a quick commission?
My own agent has been submitting my novel for four months. He is moving slowly, submitting only to editors he knows and respects. He has kept me informed, telling who has passed and why; who still has the manuscript; and who he will submit to next.
At the very least, I am confident that wherever my manuscript eventually lands, he will have found the best fit. I know that because I trust my agent and because, well, I like the guy.
That’s important.
You have to like and trust your agent.
So often, writers start the query process with the biggest agencies, believing that bigger is better. But people are people no matter where you go. The big agencies have great agents and lousy agents. The small agencies, or the loners, might take a great personal interest in their clients, or they might take on too much and “sell out” a few for a quick buck.
My point is this:
Lots of books and Web sites explain the mechanics of finding an agent.
But there are two things many will not tell you.
First, educate yourself. Know how the submission process should work and then talk to your potential agent about how he/she does things. If something doesn’t feel right or if she/he is too vague, trust your instincts.
Move on.
Second, sign with someone you like.
Why would you put your career in the hands of someone who rubs you the wrong way?
Your agent is your connection to the publishing world, your representative with the people who might buy your book. Your choice in agent is reflective of you and your work. Your agent doesn’t have to become your best buddy, but don’t selective a representative whose personality hasn’t even impressed you.
Sure there’s more:
Choose an agent who represents your genre, find someone who is well-established the literary world, who has continually represents the same clients (If all the agent’s other clients ditch him/her after the first book and find someone else, that’s not a good sign.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There’s all that.
But there is so much to be said for intuition.
Go with your gut.

Waiting

The Waiting Place …
… for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

–Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Place You’ll Go!-

Including me.
And it’s killing me.
I thought the hardest part of this whole publishing thing would be finding an agent. So when I did, I figured I was relieved of the stress, that my agent would take that load off me and I would be free to pursue everything else.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was naive.
I had no idea just how hard it is to wait.
Yes, I had to wait when I was sending out query letters to agents, but that was active waiting. I never knew when I checked my email whether I would find a rejection; or a request for a partial or full manuscript; or a request for my nonfiction proposal.
And, if I got a rejection, I didn’t let it get me down.
I just whipped off another query letter and prepared to wait again.
I’ll admit it; it was kind of fun.
It was even kind of exciting.
This is different.
Don’t get me wrong.
I appreciate being in this situation.
And I have a great agent who will do great things.
But, while he is submitting to publishers, I am simply doing everything I possibly can to distract myself. I’m trying not to get my hopes up every time the phones, trying not to check my email every ten minutes, trying not to imagine a whole bunch of editors saying, “Nah.”
I’m really trying.
I’ve written another chapter of my second novel. I’m working on a freelance piece. I’m tearing wallpaper off bathroom walls. I am concentrating on my four children and on making their summer a good one.
But it’s not enough because I still have time to think.
Think.
Think.
Think.
Sigh.

Still Alice

I had always thought that, should I ever develop cancer, I would forgo chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is poisonous and barbaric, I believed. It brings us to the brink of death and then drags us back and, some folks never do return.
I’d rather take my chances on clinical trials and new treatments, I thought. And I firmly believed that these decisions should be made while we are healthy, when our minds are not clouded by the subjectivity and irrational passion that comes with disease.
Then I read Still Alice, a first novel by Lisa Genova.
Now, Alice does not have cancer. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. But, like me, the healthier, rational Alice believes that she knows what is best for the Alice to come. She creates a quiz for herself that she takes daily, thanks to the reminder technology on her Blackberry. If she can’t answer all the questions correctly, she is directed to a file that will instruct her to take a lethal dose of sleeping pills.
I won’t go into the rest of the story because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But I will say that the novel has altered my perspective on terminal disease. The author, Lisa Genova, has a PhD in neuroscience and works with Alzheimer’s patients. She clearly knows her subject and almost seems to crawl into the Alzheimer’s mind.
Her depiction of the progression of Alzheimer’s is, admittedly, a bit too rosy at times.
Alice isn’t anything like my husband’s grandmother (Well, she wasn’t really his grandmother. She was his step-grandmother and, also, his aunt by marriage, but I won’t go into that here.). Alice doesn’t confuse real life with soap operas and accuse her husband of cheating on her.
She isn’t like my good friend’s aunt, whom he found strapped to her bed in a nursing home when he visited. He was told that she had lashed out violently and that they had no choice, but to restrain her.
But the author’s decision to leave out the nasty stuff doesn’t matter.
We do have an Alice in our neighborhood who lives with her son. She is sweet, kind and completely unaware of her surroundings. Alices do exist. All cases are different and the author doesn’t have to rely on the worst-case scenarios to get her point across.
And her point is more universal for me than it is, I think, for most.
Sure, she deepened my understanding of Alzheimer’s disease with her well-informed fictionalization. She helped me understand that we are more than our memories and that no disease can change our souls.
But, for me, the lesson was broader.
Through Alice, I came to see that I cannot make rational, informed decisions for myself before I face the possibility of death or terminal disease. I don’t know enough yet. I am ignorant, just as Alice was ignorant in the earliest stage of her own disease.
I am ignorant because disease is more than science.
Treatment is about more than medical cures.
And living is about more than being physically or mentally whole.
I am ignorant, but am happy to embrace that ignorance.
Thanks to Alice.

Readers are the best critics

Originally posted Dec. 31, 2008

When I finally completed my novel, I took the next appropriate step. I sent copies of the manuscript to nine or ten willing readers and then paid an editor to review it for style, grammar and content.
The readers were great.
The editor was a mistake.
He did an excellent job copy editing and he gave me some useful advice, but I hired him because he was a friend. That is where I went wrong. I should have done my research first.
Now, I love criticism—brutally honest, constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t take and appreciate criticism shouldn’t attempt to make a career of writing for public consumption.
And the criticism I received from the readers was excellent. It resulted in the elimination of two characters, a few changes in the minor plots and many, many smoother transitions.
The editor’s criticism led to a faster pace in the earlier chapters and the correction of several errors that had slipped past me. But his content advice, his take on the novel as a whole, was problematic.
If I had not had 11 years of journalism experience and a master’s degree worth of workshop experience, I might have done one of two things: I might have cried and given up, or I might have taken all his recommendations to heart and ended up with a novel that was a Grisham rip-off.
As it turns out, he is a huge fan of Grisham and doesn’t much like literary fiction. My novel does move rather fast, especially through the courtroom scenes. But I am not Grisham and I don’t want to be (Well, I wouldn’t mind his paycheck.).
My style is what it is. The book is an historical novel that is primarily literary fiction, but with a bit of mystery and suspense.
In my years of workshopping and in my experience as a freelance editor, I have had to work with many genres that I find somewhat unappealing. I’ve had to get past my prejudices. I have had to edit or critique the work within its genre.
He couldn’t and, in fairness to him, I never asked.
So here is my point.
I was careful when I selected my readers. I should have been careful when I selected my editor. I should have hired someone who came recommended by other fiction writers and who reviewed the work primarily for copy errors.
I should have simply let the readers do the rest.
The reality is that the readers are the market. They are the people we should be writing for, not the editors, not the fellow writers. Teaching them to critique is easy. Simply give them a few questions to ask themselves when they are done and request that they mark places in the manuscript where they have either stumbled or flown through.
So hire a copy editor. But instead of hiring a content editor or a “book doctor,” contract with a book club. Offer to pay for lunch one day if they will agree to read your manuscript and fill out a questionnaire after.
That’s what I should have done.