Monday, August 22, 2011

Betsy: On (Un)Coolness: Getting to Know My Writer Self

Do you ever get the notion that once you achieve some particular goal, you’ll finally be cool?

That was how I felt about getting an agent. I’d spent my whole life wanting to be a writer, years working on my manuscript, months querying. I clung to the belief that if I could finally break through, finally get a good agent for my book, I would somehow become a real person—not the stumbling geek I’ve been since birth. I would be cool.

At first, the way Sara became my agent gave me hope that that might actually happen. I moved to New York City on June 1st for a summer internship, and that very day I got my full request from Sara—and a representation offer from another agent. A few days later, Sara made an offer, too. After those months of rejected queries, I was beyond elated. I admit it: I felt pretty cool. Sara and I agreed to meet for lunch in Soho to talk about my book, and writing that lunch down in my planner gave me a “could I be a real writer now?” tingle. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, but nonetheless, I wanted to be ready.

I woke up the morning of our lunch and pondered over what to wear. Unfortunatel, my clothes all belonged to my previous geek self, not the Super Cool Writer I was about to become. Still, I managed to select an outfit, and carefully elected to eat cereal for breakfast so nothing stain-causing could get on my clothes. (My clumsiness is a family legend.) Between the heat of the subway stations and the dry AC in my office, it was shaping up to be a bad hair day, but nothing was going to get in the way of my fast-approaching coolness.

I showed up at the restaurant way too early—the calling card of the uncool—afraid I would make myself late trying to find the right address. I walked up and down the block a few times, dawdling, trying to look like I had a destination. Finally I trotted inside, asked a hip, bearded waiter about the reservation under “Crowe”—another odd thrill—and followed him to a small table.

I slid into the booth side and sipped a tall, slim glass of ice water, trying not to freak out. I knew my own shyness and awkwardness too well, and I was slightly terrified that Sara would see right through whatever veneer I’d been able to paint in our e-mail correspondence, and would know at first glance that I wasn’t a real writer after all.

But then Sara actually arrived, and right away her presence made me feel better. She was sincere and thoughtful, not like the ultra-slick and aggressive agent image I’d built up in my mind. We talked easily about my writing and books we loved, about publishing and editing, about New England islands and Irish nicknames (relevant to my book, I promise). We ate a lovely lunch, and I’m pretty sure I was using the right fork. I didn’t even get quiche or salad dressing on my shirt.

Basically, I was doing it. I was being a real writer. I was a grown-up! I was cool!

(Can you hear the evil cackling of Fate yet?)

As lunch hour wound to an end, I knew I had to get back to my internship, so Sara and I said goodbye. She fished through her bag and offered me two things: her rights guide and an ARC of Frost by Marianna Baer (a brilliant book, by the way!). I was just sliding my way out of the booth seat, and I leaned over to accept the papers in her hand.

And I knocked over my just-refilled ice water with my boobs and it splintered over the table with a spectacular crash, soaking Sara’s pretty, full-color rights guide and sending death-shards of glass out over the floor.

Cool? Yeah, no. Not in this lifetime.

I stood there frozen for a moment, taking in the fact that this had just happened. Hip, Bearded Waiter rushed over to clean up the table and floor. I laughed my best “they always say to laugh at yourself when these things happen, right?” laugh and tried to control my blushing levels by sheer force of will. Sara took it all in stride, and even hugged me goodbye in spite of my water-spattered skirt.

The next day I wrote to her and accepted her representation offer. I signed the contract, my signature looking pretty much the way it has since I was in sixth grade and I used to practice it all up and down my doodled notebook margins. Swirly and round and a little childish. (I could draw parallels between my signature and myself, but that’s a little too on-the-nose even for me.)

So I had achieved this goal, but I was still the same person. Still as uncool as ever. That’s been a strange realization after almost every milestone in my life—that I still inhabit the same brain and body and self, even if something really important seems to have changed.

I suspect that no matter what other dreams I might reach, I’ll still be clumsy, still awkward, still fighting the terror I feel whenever I force myself to talk to someone new. And that’s really annoying, but in a way it makes me feel better, too. I have no idea what’s going to happen in my writing career—or in the rest of my life, for that matter—but at least I’ll be there, tripping over myself, making awkward conversation, and spilling drinks with my boobs. It’s nice to know I’ll have a friend at this party.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Veera: Does Parenthood Make You More Creative?

I was always creative. I was the type of kid who squirreled away journals, wrote poems and stories, loved to draw and paint, and made weird stuff out of clay. As a teenager I was sure I was going to be a fashion designer. In college I was interested in writing, acting, and film. Writing, however, evolved into the winner and I decided to try and be one.

In the beginning of my adulthood I wrote lots of stuff. I wrote stories, poems, a play, a screenplay, and a novel. Most of it wasn’t very good, but I clung to the few pieces I thought showed promise. I got a story published in a literary journal and felt encouraged to keep going. As the pressures of adulthood took over, I was having a harder time accessing that creative spark. I got a job as a children’s book editor, did some freelance writing work, published some licensed character children’s books, and wrote book reviews, but I still hadn’t published much of my original writing and never seemed to have time to work on it anymore.

When I had my first child, I decided to leave my publishing job. I’d like to say it was a hard decision, but it wasn’t. I liked my job, but unless we were going to starve and lose our home (we were not) I wasn’t going to put that baby down. I don’t think I did actually put her down until about nine months later. I was that kind of new mom and she was that kind of baby.

It was a very intense time for me, but I remember after years of writing little bits here and there, as soon as my daughter started sleeping through the night and I started thinking somewhat clearly again, I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote during her naps. I wrote in the wee hours. I wrote whenever I could fit it in. I had a burst of creative energy I never experienced before. It was like a part of my brain had expanded in the process. Maybe when I was giving her so much those early months, I was storing away something for myself. Then I finally let it free.

The joke is that you become sort of “brain-dead” as a new mom. Maybe you become “fashion-dead” for a while and there are days (or months!) you’re barely conscious from sleepless nights, but beyond that, I think parenthood forces you to access multi-tasking skills you never knew you had and actually stimulates your brain. Once I started writing seriously again, everything felt fresh and new because I was an entirely new person. I was now a mom. Why do you think there are so many “mompreneurs” out there? I can’t speak for the dads, but something happens to women when they have kids. Maybe it’s because parenting challenges you in so many ways, that you can’t help but see the world differently. Seeing the world differently usually makes us smarter and more creative.

I’ve been writing since college (which is now, inexplicably, a couple of decades ago), and wrote a novel during graduate school, but never fully believed in it. Then, during my years in publishing, I started another novel for middle-grade readers. Only after having my two kids, however, did I finish it, revise it a few hundred times, and finally get an agent (yes, the lovely Sara Crowe) who sold my book, THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL, which comes out this January.

Parenting, for me, has been like productivity boot camp and I’ve had to get pretty creative when my husband’s working late, the pasta’s boiling over, my daughter just cut her finger, my son is about dump paint on the floor, the phone rings, and the dog is begging to go out. Yes, parenthood can take over at times and prevent you from doing anything else. I find, though, that when I have time, I’m very aware of what I really want to spend my precious time on, which somehow allows me to access that creative energy faster. But hey, it’s just a theory. Maybe it’s just all that coffee I’ve been drinking.

I’m starting a new teaching job in the fall, my first gig out of the house in a long time, and finding time to write will be more challenging. I’m not that worried though, because I feel like parenting has taught me more about using my time well more than anything else has. It makes me think of the movie Limitless. Bradley Cooper plays a character who discovers a pill that allows you to use a hundred percent of your brain. I had this thought when I saw it: Pill? Just give someone a couple of kids and a cup of strong coffee. And watch what they do.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Kim: Avoid the Flat Swimmers.

I came across a photography project the other day that was my kind of thing. Judy Starkman, a photographer in Los Angeles, became curious about the various people that frequented her local public pool. As a group they are swimmers, but individually the men and women in Starkman’s project have varied lives and interests. So she created a public art project she calls “The Secret Life of Swimmers.”

The project resonated with me for a couple of reasons: First off, the details for each individual that the photo sets revealed. What writer hasn’t wondered about (and, um, made up elaborate details for) the lives of passing strangers? Imagining what makes others tick is heady stuff, and it lends itself well to making stories. I borrow (and embellish) the traits of people I see out and about to build a character like a sparrow collects grass and fluff to build its nest.

Secondly, I was curious about Starkman’s subjects as an ensemble, and the relationships they might have. I’m trying to be efficient with my current work-in-progress and more conscious of giving characters weight to their bones before I get to the revision phase. It’s slowing down the writing, but I think (hope) it will pay off in the long run. Revision is when most characterization gets polished, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start with a stronger base. So, Starkman’s subjects all swim in the same pool. We can make an analogy of the pool being the story, and those that swim there are our characters. You could say that the swimmers can’t know that they’re in a pool for the analogy to really work, but let’s not get that existential. We could focus on a variety of components; community, diversity, transformation. Why are these people sharing a pool? Unless your protagonist is a particularly hunky lifeguard, they aren’t going to be there for him. They are at that pool for their own self-absorbed reasons, not to help your protagonist swim laps or lend him a warm towel. A couple of them are probably even hogging lanes or peeing in the deep end, if you’re going to be realistic.

The secondary characters should have their own lives. Sure, they are often referred to as supporting characters, but they shouldn’t be particularly interested in helping the protagonist get what he wants or moving the story along. You probably already know your protagonist pretty well—what they think they need, what they really need, how they work things out, and dialogue patterns or habits that give them a distinctive voice. You’ve probably filled out one of the many character worksheets out there (like this one). But, have you given that much thought to all of the characters in your novel? They might offer great one-liners or keep the action going, but are they fully developed? Distinctive characters endear and/or interest the reader and help move the story along. Dull characters don’t. Each of your characters should have their own distinctive voice. Two of my secondary characters were very similar in my last manuscript. I could have worked on making them more distinctive, but I didn’t need to, so I just kept one to work on while cutting the other.

Choices and mannerisms show who people are, in the real world and in fiction. That’s an aspect of that whole -show-don’t-tell thing. Is your hero’s friend Henry clingy? Don’t say it outright; show it through his idiosyncrasies and dialogue. Sometimes when I’m drafting I use a trait as a prompt for a quick exercise that I might use to work on detail.

Example: Henry is clingy.

Great. Not so much for Henry, but for the exercise. Next I’ll write a few sentences to back it up:

Henry is clingy. His dad got pretty aloof after Henry’s mom died. Henry can’t remember ever hugging his dad. Not at the funeral, and not when he broke his ankle on the trampoline last summer. And his dad has never let him get a pet, even after Henry saved his allowance to join the ASPCA. Not even one of those miserable beta fish.

Now, Henry calls his girlfriend at least three times a day, even when he knows she’s in class. When a party is over, he’s usually the last to leave, and he offers to help clean up. More than once.

There are details that show how and why Henry is the way he is. Most of the time this kind of exercise just stays in my notes, but maybe Henry can call and interrupt class a couple of times, or he might mention that his dad won't care if he gets home past curfew. And, for the record, if Henry is just clingy he will also be flat. Maybe he collects ferret figurines and has a wicked sense of humor. He might be able to quote Mark Twain when the occasion arises. Add dimensions. You can invent a whole backstory about each character and what makes them how they are, but 90+% should be left out of a revised draft. You don’t have to spell out everything you know. If you write it well enough, your readers will believe and accept that this is how your characters would be in real life. Trust the reader. If you put in the right details, they'll put some of the pieces together themselves.

The people add the life to the story like the swimmers slosh the water in the pool. Mention who wears goggles or can hold their breath the longest, but get to know who they are outside of the story pool, too.

And if you have any creepers just sitting in the bleachers watching everybody else swim? Kick ‘em out.