Characters and Queries, Alive, alive-O!

I spent this afternoon between a clock and a hard-case.

That is, I was attempting to finish revisions to my novel by deadline, while one of my characters ran rough-shod over the edits.

Oh come now, don’t tell me this never happens to you. I know plenty of authors who have disagreements with their own characters now and again. Unfortunately, I have one particularly disagreeable character who likes to dictate his own parts. I confess to actually having an  argument with him once or twice…out loud… and there’s nothing like getting caught yelling at an empty sofa. My husband knows me too well, however. He no longer asks “who are you talking to?” He is more apt to say “Jaydeun again? Give  ’em hell, sweetheart!”

But today, we were not arguing over the text at all. We were having a tangled discussion about the process of writing a query letter. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend a fortified constitution…and perhaps a thorough reading of some agent blogs or essays (I rather like “The Perfect Pitch” by Sarah Jane Freymann). The trouble is this: it took you hundreds of pages to write the novel. How, then, do you get it hammered into a short but compelling synopsis without sounding like a mewling, tripe-headed, flea wit or a pretentious git? (Pardon, Jaydeun is fond of Shakespearean epithets). I have written a lot of queries in the past–and I have decided that, apart from the academic job market, there is no more enervating process to be found anywhere. What is a beleaguered author (on the cusp of a new academic semester and desperate to get the fiction abroad before classes begin) to do?

As they say, patience is a virtue. Despite the ticking clock, my solution has always been to write a very different letter for each situation, and that means a lot of time spent learning about the agencies or publishers to whom I send. In case you have ever considered canvas submissions, remember what I tell my students: crap out equals crap in. If you send nameless form letters, expect to receive nameless rejections. Chances are you will receive plenty of rejection anyway, but if you put a lot of thought into what you send, you are more apt to get thoughtful response or even advice.

And, of course, you will rest secure in the knowledge that you haven’t been a mule-born clotpole.

So, having acquitted myself honorably (one hopes) from the task of the query letter, I can return to more pressing matters. Such as addressing the revision of my final chapters and returning to the sequel, which is in process–and about which Jaydeun has already put in his two cents. Oh, villains. They are never happy…

[the thumbnails are ink etchings from the first volume of Witchwood at Nob’s End)

Reflections on the Summer Solstice: A writer’s perspective


Late-evening chirr-up of invisible amphibians; that first cricket-chorus fathoms deep in field grass; fire-fly sparklers like stars falling up–and the sheen of summer perspiration cooling on browned skin after dark. This past Tuesday was the summer solstice–the longest day of the year. Daylight wins the battle everywhere, the sun comes home to roost at the various cairns (Stone Henge, etc.), and everyone celebrates the arrival of summer.

Unless you are from New York.

In today’s NYT, there is an article about the “mourning” which takes place after the solstice, as everyone prepares–not for summer–but for the encroaching winter. How odd, I thought. I do not think I’ve ever counted the days of summer in such a way: X more days and then the curtain falls.

Rather, I always recall summer through a series of moving pictures. Not quite silent films, they are backed by a soundtrack, mainly of orchestral insects. The somewhat unusual thing about these short clips is that I have never personally experienced them–and yet, they stand in my mind like standards to which all summers must aspire. An oar-boat with peeling blue milk-paint, drifting lazily in placid waters (for instance) complete with dozing inhabitant, sundress, cushion, discarded book, empty lemonade glass. A sailing yacht piloted  by a retired diplomat-turned-Hemingway and his many-toed cat. Or perhaps a field of wind-swept wildflowers, as glimpsed through a kitchen window in an old farmhouse with a leaky tap. In other words, I tend to view summer as a series of vignettes spread out over mental white-space as ready-made writing prompts…. And I wonder if this is a universal state of mind, or rather the peculiarities of the writer’s perspective.

For one thing, understanding the season in this way means that writing begun in summer lasts all through the coming months… And the warmth, light and scent of summer comes with it, a little nest egg of pleasant remembrance cozened into the writing mind for those long dark nights. But to be honest, this trick works both ways. It is often in the stifling heat of summer that I write stories about winter–and so bring refreshing frost into the Thermopolis. We are seasonal creatures, and we are temperamental, too. The word, after all, originates from Latin and meant, circa 15th century, a combination of hot and cold, etc.–if you don’t have access to the OED, Etymology Online has a useful definition. Since our likes and dislikes are thus subject to massive fluctuation (we complain about the heat in summer and the cold in winter), I find I can best appreciate the seasons out of season. The summer solstice is not cause for mourning; I can carry that long day about with me for many moons, savoring it at intervals and at distances that make it sweeter still.

And the solstice means something else to me, too. I have to admit in honesty that I am, in fact, a “winter.” Why shouldn’t I be? All of my dearest hobbies–writing fiction, painting, mental work–are very amenable to long dark evenings, cozy fireplaces and steaming mugs of cheer. Here in the brighter half of the year, I feel residual guilt for indulging in long hours locked in the study…and I neglect my novels and my research in favor of chasing those fireflies and generating that summer sheen. This, I think, is healthy enough behavior–especially when, with minor mental acrobatics, I can convince myself it is research: the collection of more images, later to be explored; the gathering in of a summer harvest, to be brought out as feast in late December. Here, here! to the summer solstice–and many fond regards to the practice of writing, which keeps all seasons new to the writer, and to the reader, too.

March 15, 2011–Initializing

Teaching an introductory creative writing class is a fascinating (and often humbling) experience for a writer. The often abused adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” truly gets things the wrong-way round. After all, teaching the can-do is often more difficult than the doing itself. What do we say when a student asks, “how do I make this amazing?”

Amazing. Well. How do we make amazing? It puts me in mind of the tragically unhelpful Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but “knew it when he saw it.” As an instructor of creative writing, I find myself in similarly troubled waters–not because I cannot define good writing, but because the only way to really be a good writer is, well, to be one. That is not to say there is no process involved, of course. We spend long hours doing exercises, building characters collectively and individually, practicing dialog and revising…revising…revising… But the truth of the matter, and one occasionally admitted even by the authors of popular fiction textbooks (Ostrom, Bishop and Haake of Metro to name a few) is that we author-teachers are really like coaches encouraging more line-drills. It is our job to inspire, to drive, even to cajole when necessary… but we are, for most writers new and old, simply the means of creating a deadline with some urgency to it. I create hurdles for them to leap over. When that gets easy, I make the hurdle higher. We create boundedness; we give them a rabbi, a cowboy and a lawyer and ask that they write, not a bad bar joke, but a story. We get them to compose sketches about worn out sofas, about broken pencils, about the mundane and about the trite–and about the cosmos, too. Why? Because those who can know how hard it is–know how wonderful it is–know how necessary and vital it is–

And we know, too, that the path to amazing writing is through the rather unapologetic and unspectacular task of more writing. No magic wands required.