Are You Sick of Your Work-In-Progress?

I’ve reached that stage with my work-in-progress. I can’t even look at it anymore. Don’t get my wrong. It’s not that I don’t love it. I do. It’s just that I’ve spent too much time with it: revising, editing, polishing, word-smithing, reviewing, and revising yet again. I’ve spent too much time hanging out with the characters. I’ve put it aside so I can view it with fresh eyes. I’ve done all the things I’ve advised other writers to do. And I can’t look at it.

And now it’s time to send it off to my editor. How does a writer know when it’s time to let a manuscript go and send it to an editor? One of my author friends does five or six rounds of editing, sends the manuscript to beta readers, does more edits based on suggestions, and only then does she send it to an editor. That describes my process, except I don’t have any beta readers. I have shared my drafts with a small group of writer friends who meet twice a month. That feedback has been invaluable to me. 

My point is this: if a writer waits until her manuscript is perfect before sending it off to an editor, she will be waiting a long time. A writer’s manuscript will never be perfect. There comes a time when the writer must simply let go and put the manuscript in someone else’s hands.

My editor will return my manuscript with loads of great edits and suggestions. She will cover both stylistic and substantive edits. And when I read her suggestions, I will retun to my work with (that expression again) fresh eyes.

It’s all part of the process. When I read about “authors” who crank out a first draft, do a quick edit and post their work on Amazon or Nook, I shudder. That’s not how it is done. On the other hand, years of revising and editing and hand-wringing can paralyze the writer. When a writer cannot look at her manuscript anymore, it’s time to do one of two things–abandon it or send it to a professional editor. I have no doubt my work-in-progress is worthy of publication. it’s not there yet, but it will be. 

What about you? Have you ever gotten sick of your manuscript? What did you do?

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The Nostalgia Trap

I’ve caught the nostalgia bug. I didn’t mean to catch it. The bug snuck up on me. It started during the run-up to David Letterman’s last Late Night show on May 20. A fan of Letterman since his daytime show aired in the early 1980s, I watched clips from the waning episodes as his faithful guests said their goodbyes to Dave. I saw the last episode (twice) and it made me feel sad–and old. Having grown up with Johnny Carson, I realized I was old enough to see the heirs to his throne (Jay Leno and Letterman) retire. 

That blue feeling lingered for a while and just as I began to shake it, I attended a mini high school reunion in early June. It was a wonderful evening, swapping old stories with classmates and even hearing a few new ones. The spirit of cameraderie spilled over into the parking lot as we continued the conversation there. Nobody wanted to leave.

In the ensuing days, I found myself reflecting on my youth: successes failures, missed opportunities, songs I liked, girls I liked, parties I attended. It all came back. And that is how nostalgia becomes a trap. I dwelled on the past. If only I had done this and not that. If ony I had asked this girl out and not gotten cold feet. If only I had studied harder. If only I knew then what I know now, things sure would have turned out differently–but possibly not better. Who can ever know?

That’s why I called this post, The Nostalgia Trap. It’s fun to relive the past. The past is so much rosier today than it was when we were going through it (apologies for the shift to second person). We cherry-pick and embellish our memories. And we magnify our mistakes. That’s human nature. That’s not why nostalgia is a trap, though. Here’s why it’s a trap: by living in the past, we cheat the present.

 I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only  change your present and your future.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’re wondering what in the world any of this talk of nostalgia has to do with fiction writing. As Ellen DeGeneres would say, “Here’s my point–and I do have one.” In works of fiction, the back story takes place in the past. Some writers go back as far as the period when they were alive. Some who write historical fiction set their stories in times when none of us were alive. To write authentic characters, writers tap into the deep wellspring of the past. They plumb their deepest emotions, their darkest periods, the pain they’ve buried in their subsconscious.

During the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference last November, presenter Meg Rosoff gave a presentation focused on a critical skill: the need for writers to tap into their subconscious, to get in touch with their deepest fears and their most profound pain. The lesson was not lost on the writers who attended. Meg challenged us by asking us to write down the answers to a series of questions about our past. It worked. Many of us had profound revelations that day. During the session we talked about emotions long locked away. Brave writers bared their souls to their colleagues. It was liberating and it added to our toolkit as writers.

Nostalgia can benefit a writer. Looking back and accessing those feelings, hopes, dreams, and disappointments will lend emotional depth to characters in a writer’s work. I just don’t advise living life in the past.

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Book Review: “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s 2011 debut novel, “Swamplandia!” is a dark, hilarious thrill ride that chronicles the disintegration of a pseudo-Native American family and a plucky, precocious 13-year-old girl’s bizarre journey to save them and herself.

Swamplandia! is a tawdry amusement park on an unspoiled island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The main attraction is Hilola Bigtree. Tourists fill the amphitheater to witness her daring dives from a platform into alligator-infested waters. Bathed in a spotlight, Hilola each night swims through the gators  to safety on a small stage suspended over the gator pit. The alligators never get Hilola, but cancer does, claiming her life at the age of 37. Her death and the emergence of a mega amusement park on the mainland called The World of Darkness send the Bigtree family into a spiral of debt and despair.

Chief Bigtree leaves for the mainland on a vague mission to raise money to reboot the park with a “Carnival Darwinism” theme. He leaves Ava Bigtree, the main character, on the island with her older sister, Osceola “Ossie” Bigtree, 16, and her older brother, Kiwi, 18. They are left to fend for themselves. Then Kiwi leaves to take a job at the rival World of Darkness, a sort of dystopian Disney World. 

Readers of Carl Hiaasen’s satirical takedowns of Florida will recognize the same currents running through Russsell’s work: corporate and government plundering of the environment and the spoiling of the splendiforous natural beauty of the Sunshine State. But that’s not the real story here. The bigger story here is Ava’s incredible journey–a loss of innocence made more suspenseful by Ossie’s sudden infatuation with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman who died in the 1930s.

When Ossie disappears along with a dredge barge the two sisters had discovered earlier, Ava knows where she is headed: the land of Ten Thousand Islands, where the underworld is located. There, Ava hopes to not only find her sister and her ghost groom, but she convinces herself that her mother is there as well. Ava has no way to reach the underworld, until a mysterious figure called the Bird Man shows up on the island and offers to take her there.

This is where the story’s fragile grip on reality seems to slip away, but Ava’s sense of wonder and a sharp turn back to reality save it from devolving into paranormal nonsense.

What also saves this story is Russell’s scintillating portrayal of Ava as both self-aware and acutely tuned in to the world around her. Passages like this one left me wanting to applaud: “I was thirteen years old when the end of Swamplandia! began in earnest, although at first I was oblivious of the dangers we now faced–mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another–bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.” 

Some readers may find this book too outlandish. It worked for me because I put trust in Russell’s ability as a writer to take me on a magical ride and bring me back to dry land. 

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Book Review: “The House of Hawthorne,” By Erika Robuck

Can love bloom between two artists without causing their art to wither and die? That is one of the more intriguing aspects of Erika Robuck’s poignant historical novel, The House of Hawthorne.

Sophie Peabody was a promising painter who was hindered by debilitating headaches. Her family sent her to Cuba in the hope that the warm climate might cure her. There she nurtured her talent as a painter, while also writing The Cuba Journal. She returned to Massachusetts invigorated, but her headaches eventually would return. In the throes of illness, she met Nathaniel Hawthorne when he came calling on her sister, Elizabeth. Sophie and Nathanial were lovestruck. Robuck described the intensity of their feelings in this passage: “When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him.”

Their courtship lasted more than four years. Nathaniel  would not marry  Sophie until he could support her financially. He joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community and married Sophie in 1842. Their love blossomed in splendidly rendered scenes.  Sophie worried that their marital bliss was impeding Nathaniel’s writing. When their first daughter, Una, was born, Sophie observed she had neither the time nor the energy to paint. They had two more children and then moved from home to home as they struggled to support a family. They eventually settled in the Wayside in Concord. Among their circle of friends were New England scions the Alcott family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. 

The publication of Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlett Letter, in 1850, and The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, vaulted him into an exalted placae in literature, but did not ease the family’s chronic financial struggles. it was interesting to learn that published authors had it no easier in the 1800s than they do today. 

This is not the story of Hathrorne’s literary talents, but rather it is about the enduring and almost spiritual love between Nathanial and Sophie. Spanning several decades and encompassing their travels to England, Portugal and Italy, their journey was littered with tragedy: the loss of Sophie’s brother and parents, Nathaniel’s parents, and a deadly illness that befalls their eldest daugther.  Through it all their love endured.

What carries this story is Robuck’s brilliant prose, which brings Sophie to life as  a strong, intelligent character: devoted to her husband, yet independent of spirit and an artist of immense talent.

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Book Review: “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a departure of sorts for her. While it explores the themes of family dysfunction familiar to fans of Tyler’s work, she widens the lens in this multi-generational family saga.

The Whitshanks seem like a family everyone can admire. Red is a second-generation home builder who owns a construction company. Abby, his wife, is a retired social worker who cannot resist trying to fix everybody with whom she comes into contact. The present-day action in the novel centers on the failing health of Red and Abby, who are in their early 70s. Red suffers a heart attack and is beginning to go deaf. Abby suffers from occasional memory loss and is prone to wandering the neighborhood while her family searches for her.

Concerned about the safety of their parents, the siblings rally around them. The loyal son, Stem, who is not a Whitshank by birth, his do-gooder wife, Nora, and their children move in with the Whitshanks. When their rootless and unpredictable son, Denny, shows up to pitch in with his parents’ care, it stirs smoldering hostilites in the family.

The Whitshanks’ spacious, well-appointed home on Bouton Road serves as both a character and a metaphor for this family, in which appearances and myths mask secrets and resentments.  Junior, Red’s father, built the house to his exacting standards for a wealthy family, the Brills. Through a bit of chicanery, he convinced the Brills to sell the house to him. Like a lot of Tyler’s characters, Junior learns that when he attains what he craves, it doesn’t make him happy.

This is a topic Tyler has explored throughout her body of work–the restlessness that inflicts family members as they sacrifice their ambitions and their individuality in the service of family harmony. 

In this novel, a catastrophic event is the trigger that Tyler uses to send the narrative back in time. Tyler peels back the layers of the Whitshank family, first by exploring the events that led to the relationship between Red and Abby. There is a beautifully rendered scene in which Red wins Abby’s affections away from a rebellious boyfriend. There is a passage about Red’s father, Junior, who is entrapped by a precocious 13-year-old girl into a relationship that causes him to flee North Carolina, but eventually brings about their marriage. There is also a quiet battle waged between Junior and his wife over the color of a porch swing he has lovingly restored for her. These types of passages, which date all the way back to the Great Depression, are not typical in Tyler’s novel, but there is a comon thread of wishes, aspirations, pretensions, and deceit. 

In the end Tyler provides a glimmer of hope that Denny might turn his life around, but, like life, the finale is ambiguous. This is what I like about Tyler’s endings, a true-to-life quality. 

Ths is one of the most ambitious and satisfying of Tyler’s novels, and that is saying a lot. 

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Short Story Markets

In my two most recent posts, I discussed tips for writing the short story and how it differs from the novel. Here, I will look at markets for short stories. 

Writers who seek to build credibility by getting published will do well to focus on short stories. There are a number of opportunites, from literary journals to university publications to online sites. Writers should start by purchasing the 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which contains numerous listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more. 

Poets & Writers has a listing of publications that accept short stories, which includes genres and submission requirements. Random House has a comprehensive list of literary magazines, including contact information. Duotrope allows users to search for literary magaines by genre, response time, and acceptance rate. It requires a subscription fee of $5 a month, but there is a free trial.

Reading through these lists can overwheilm the writer, especially one who is just starting out. I wouldn’t dream of submitting a short story to the top literary publications like Atlantic, Missouri Review, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, or Virginia Quarterly Review. Okay, I submitted a short story of which I was proud to the Missouri Review and I never received a reply. All of these publications have an acceptance rate of less than one percent.

This begs the question: why submit to these lofty literary journals? It’s best to aim lower, but first the writer must make sure his work is ready for prime time. Novice writers should join a local writer’s group ad submit their work for feedback before submitting it for publication. Or, if a writer’s group doesn’t exist in a writer’s region, find a critique partner. 

What about online magazines or self-publishing on Amazon.com? I found a site, Every Writer, that listed the best online literary magazines. This seems like a great resource. It contains a list of criteria they used to compile the list. As for Amazon, it is tantanlizingly easy for a writer to draft a short story and upload it. Viola! The writer is published. However, the most important piece of advice I can give is to resist the temptation to publish your work before it is ready.  And the writer is not the best judge of whether his work is ready. 

For the writer whose work is ready, the short story is a great route to publication. This is especailly true for writers who have the foresight and technical skill to come up wiht a serial or series that will keep readers buying their work online.

I have not pursued this path myself, but I am interested in learning the experiences of others who have done so. 

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Writing the Short Story, Part II

Author Zadie Smith once reportedly advised writers who are planning a short story to start as close to the end as possible. In Part I of this series, I discussed the narrow focus of the short story. Since the short story is generally limited to 1,000 to 3,500 words, writers must keep to a minimum the number of scenes, characters and time frame. Beginning a story close to the end might sound contradictory, but there is a logic to it.

Let’s say the crux of a short story centers on the deteriorating relationship between a father and a son. Substitute a husband and a wife or two lovers. The ending is the final break between the two people in the story. It is irreparable and absolute. In a short story the writer doesn’t have the space to explore the relationship from its beginning and to delve into the origins of the conflict. What the writer will convey in a short story is the final break, the tipping point.

If the short story centers on a journey, it must be a short one–a drive from Boston to New York as opposed to a cross country trip. A hero’s journey in a short story must begin “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. In a novel, the hero faces a  series of mounting challenges before the ultimate test. In a short story the hero is in the middle of the final battle, the ultimate challenge. The writer may weave into the story some references to the hero’s humble beginnings or earlier challenges, but it must be a fleeting glance back.

Similarly, the writer cannot give the protagonist multiple problems or challenges to solve in a short story. Choose one problem that signifies the larger issue. If the protagonist must overcome his need to get out from underneath his father’s shadow, show this through a single episode that pays off the theme. The protagonist should face one problem in a short story. The problem must link to something the character wants (or something the protagonist doesn’t want to happen to him). And, as in a novel, there must be a consequence for failure, though it doesn’t need to be as life-transforming as in a novel.

Though others may differ, I believe strongly the writer must stick to a single point-of-view (POV) in a short story. Multiple POVs work in novels because a writer can select a POV character for a scene and switch POVs in other scenes, based on the needs of the story and who is affected most by the scene. Changing POVs in a short story which has one or two scenes at most will confuse the reader.

Similarly, I would advise sticking to one setting, or two at most, in a short story. The setting, of course, must match the mood and the genre of the story. 

I will discuss short story markets in the next installment.

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