Monday, December 2, 2013

You can't be a Pony at Horse Camp.

For a film about a bunch of young toughs, the boys in THE OUTSIDERS sure spend a lot of time crying.  As far as I could tell when I watched part of it on TV the other night, not a single one of them ever shed a tear for their idiotic names.  If I were known as Pony Boy, Two-Bit or Soda Pop, I would have some angst about it.  Perhaps that is the reason they end up in the Greaser gang--their silly names forcing them into thug life--desperate to prove themselves against their ridiculous sobriquets.

Watching it, I felt like cranky old Mr. Griffin from my week at horse camp one summer.  "Cry a little louder!"

Gang life is tough.

Horse Camp is tougher.


I just don't know what I think of Charles Dickens.  I want to like him. I really do, because the man can turn a phrase and his description is some of the best out there.  But seriously, I am 500 pages into Bleak House and the plot is still maddeningly obscure.  It is like he got so wound up in laughing at the creation of the ridiculous Messrs. Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Foodle…all the way down to Zoodle that he forgot he was writing a story about Esther Summerson and her mysterious parentage.  (At least, I think that is what the story is about--but I could be completely mistaken because chapters on end will pass without the slightest mention of her.)  Mr. Guppy, Mr. Snagsby, the Turveydrops and goodness-knows-who else are all so elaborately painted that I have forgotten their relation to Miss Summerson completely by the time their introduction has run its course.  Or, perhaps I never knew their importance.  Perhaps it was never revealed--and that I erroneously assumed I had missed the major connection that would bring all of these detailed descriptions into focus.  I simply don't know.  There has been an cavalcade of characters (each painstakingly characterized) with little to no context of why I should care about them.  They appear, almost as though the plot of Bleak House might be about them entirely; rattle on for tens of pages, then recede back into the mists having yet to make a secondary appearance.  Bleak House is one of those books that make me feel like a careless and inattentive reader.  As though I couldn't be bothered to remember from one chapter to the next who everybody is and why they matter--putting pay to the phrase "What the dickens?"

But Dickens still has about 500 pages left to wrap it neatly up together and so I will withhold my yay or nay opinion until the last page.  However, my previous criticism of the classics needing more editing still stands.  A new writer would never get away with that sort of thing today.  The feedback is always to tighten the plot, the dialogue, the pacing--so that everything included serves to advance your story.  This doesn't seem to have been as important back in Victoria's day; which brings me to another book I read, Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters, by N. John Hall.  Correspondence is an epistolatory novel which means it is written in the form of letters.  It is the story of a man who inherits a collection of letters written by several famous Victorian authors and through reading them, becomes enamoured with the writers and their works.  Correspondence, therefore, is a love letter to the Victorian writers.  Unfortunately, having recently slogged my way through George Eliot's Middlemarch and Charlotte Bronte's Villette and finding them much encumbered with tangential and incidental information that did little to serve or advance their respective plots--I couldn't share Hall's enthusiasm for the Victorians.  But I recently read in an article in Maclean's magazine which stated that our collective I.Q's have gone down fourteen points since Victorian times. So, perhaps Dickens et al. just make me feel like an inattentive and stupid reader because I am one. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Spending too much time reading? How to kill your desire in hundreds and hundreds of pages...

If you read the websites of literary agencies, (which I do) you will often be given the advice to read widely.  There was a time when I considered myself a voracious reader.  However, last year I undertook a project to read all of the unread books on my shelf.  This is what I discovered: They were unread for a reason.  The undertaking almost killed my desire to read completely.  Invariably, all of the books that comprised my To-Be-Read pile were hundreds and hundreds of pages long.  There was Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Villette and  The Aenied--to name a few and they almost destroyed my love of books.  Perhaps if I had interspersed some more enjoyable titles into the mix, it wouldn't have been so devastating to my reading habits, but instead I slogged away--sometimes only a page at a time--and then almost stopped reading fiction altogether in an effort to make the pain stop.

I have learned a few crucial things as a result, though.

1) Certain 'classics' need a lot of editing.  And, if there is an abridged version of the novel you are about to pick up (Anna Karenina, I'm talking to you) you should most definitely read that version.
2) Not every book deserves to be finished. Some books are hard work but they are rewarding in their own way.  Others are not.  The Aenied was not.  Am I in a Greek and Romans Studies class? Nope? No reason to finish it then.  Anna Karenina had some reward, but man, she made me work for it.

Since I want to reclaim my love of reading, (and obey the dictates of literary agents) I have undertaken a new reading program and signed up for a library membership in order to accomplish it.
 Reading for pure enjoyment.  As a result of this new rubric, I've ploughed through several titles.

-Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
-The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson
-The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
-The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
-Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Now, instead of dreading my bedside table, I look forward to what is next.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Bit Galling--and Offensive.

I got two rejection letters last week.  One was received within half an hour of having sent it off; the other about six hours later.  I like to think that I broke a record when I received the first one; unless the agent in question is so busy that she has an auto reject button--rather like an out of office setting.  Nonetheless, it was nice to get the letter in response.  Nice to get both letters--despite their dream-crushing contents.  There is just nothing worse than the de facto message of no response at all.  That message is:  You are unimportant.  You are so unimportant that you don't even merit a form letter email.  Basically, to us-- you don't even exist.  

This is a bit galling and offensive, especially in light of the fact that a query is essentially a business offer.  

Every store on the planet wants to send me an email.  Every cyber-huckster wants to post comments on my website for free advertising, but these agents? No response for you!  In one sense, they are doing me a favour by demonstrating their business ways.  As much as I want to get my writing career on the published road, I am a little leery of those who can't be bothered to send a form letter that at least acknowledges my request for representation.  

So, I want to say thank you to the few who have bothered to send a letter.  I appreciate you. I appreciate your classy ways.

Well done, FinePrint Literary Agency for being so prompt in your response!

Kudos to you, Liza Dawson Literary Associates for sending me a fine rejection letter!

DeFiore and Company, thank you for the kind statement that your rejection is not a comment on the inherent value of my work.

Thank you, Bent Agency for taking the trouble to hit send!

Writer's House, the professionalism of your agents is much appreciated!

Thanks for wishing me the best of success elsewhere, Clear Sailing Creatives.

I appreciate that Foundry Literary + Media employs a fine assistant to send responses on behalf of their agents.

Hey, JABberwocky Literary Agency, I am grateful that you took the time to tell me that the reason you were passing on my project is that it wasn't intriguing enough.

Okay--I began that thank you list in legitimate appreciation for those who sent a response, but I had to go back over my rejection letters to write it and they started to sound mean after that last one.  
When I feel discouraged I have a habit of looking up inspiring stories of authors who overcame numerous rejections.  There is Pyrrhic prestige in getting someone to be excruciatingly unkind about your work.  At least they read it and had a reaction--even if it was an allergic one.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Creativity According to Plath-- or, Pinterest?

I hate writing.

In the same way that I hate weight loss.  Sure, having lost weight is amazing and very gratifying.  But the actual day-in and day-out of losing weight sucks.  I started the day on a lathery high note.  I read Maclean's cover page article and got myself nice and worked up in response.  I was composing such elegant lines while drying my hair that I couldn't avoid crafting them into a letter to the editor.  Naturally this letter was tight and full of quips--just as a good letter to the editor ought to be.  I was so pleased with myself I had to read it to several people on the off-chance that Maclean's responded petulantly by not printing it.  After the dream of job offers made in response to my brilliance dissipated, I stopped worrying the sentences to death and just sent it in.

Ever since, I have been worrying sentences to death.  This is a bad thing, too, since I am on a late edition edit.  Now, I've made a mess of my novel's timing and can't for the life of me remember what I had going before I started trifling with it.  These are the days that I hate writing.  The highs are high, but, oh, those lows.  I read several different writing blogs and occasionally I can identify with the sentiments of "I write because I can't not write..." but on days like today, I just want to eat the damn cupcake; to hell with the calories.  I find I hate my own work and I don't know how to fix it.  Is writing just an act of the will? Can you continue when you've got nothing?  According to one of my Pinterest boards, Sylvia Plath said that self-doubt is the enemy of creativity. She must be right, because I went from, "I'm a witty wordsmith genius!" to "I hate my writing with the passion of a thousand flaming suns!" in the course of an afternoon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Trouble with the Free Fall

I have a copy of a great little book called "Steal like an Artist" by Austin Kleon.  I've now read it over a couple of times and am trying to take his advice.  In essence, his premise is that all art is an exhibition of thievery. Creative originality is putting together all the elements lifted from the ideas and works of others whom you admire and wish to emulate.  This is completely true.  Every character I write is an amalgam of other characters, fictional and real; pieced together like a patchwork quilt.  However, since I am not Margaret Mitchell, no rogue I write will ever be Rhett Butler.  My creation may echo him occasionally, but he will never be the man who waited until the cause of the Confederacy was utterly lost before joining in the fight to save her.  Likewise, I may terribly admire the self-possession and restraint of Jane Austen's Anne Elliot, but I would never have written her romance myself.  If I am skilled enough, I might be able to incorporate something of their spirit into my own characters.  This I understand because we all do it on a personal level.  We see behaviour or character traits we admire in others and we try to recreate them in ourselves.  We are never the same person as the one we wish we were like because we bring our own unique situation and personality to the equation. We imitate because we admire.  We steal from others and make it our own because we recognize something of value.

Where I feel my weakness most as a writer is dialogue. Unquestionably, dialogue.  How to go about stealing it, though? My guess is that the answer is to read and practice.  There are plenty of great novels out there written by writers with a knack for dialogue.  There are wonderfully tight screenplays where the dialogue practically snaps with brilliance and intelligence.  I need to start picking it out and ferreting it away for study.  I need to stare at it long it enough and think about it when I am not thinking so that I can begin to understand what makes it great.

One of the problems that I have while writing dialogue in particular, is that I fail to take W.O Mitchell's advice.  I have trouble with the free fall; which is to say, I have a terrible time not editing as I go along.  Perhaps that is why I worry myself into a different career when I hate my dialogue. (Art auctioneering, etc.)  I recognize the pitfalls of my approach--my failure to steal from his brilliance and experience, as it were.  There is no point finessing sentences if they will have no place in your manuscript later on.  Structure.  Frame.  This is what a first draft attempts to accomplish.  I stretch my first draft until they are completely bent out of shape.  And, every time I think I have a final draft, it still ends up miles away from my so called 'finished product'.   I am currently working on a project that I thought was 95% finished.  I started what I thought would be my final edit.  What an incurable optimist.  It occurred to me today that it might never be done.  There is just so much more work to do.  I take some comfort though, in that thought.  I was listening to a live album of Leonard Cohen on the long drive home from Vancouver  yesterday and I realized that even he apparently felt the need to add to or change some of the tried and true lyrics of his early success.  If he is still editing, I suppose it bodes well for me.  I must steal that trait from him.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Emperor Has No Clothes, or Why Query Letters Are Not Art.

I keep imagining a different life for myself.  A week or so back I went to an art auction for the very first time.  I wasn't bidding myself, but, boy, did I want to.  I love how laid back and unpretentious Calgary is.  All the big time bidders who spent thousands and thousands of dollars on art were there in their Kirkland jeans.  I can't speak for the people who had proxies handling their bids over the phone--I imagine they were at home lounging on a divan; sipping Veuve Clicquot.  (Although, if they were Calgarians, probably not. ) While I sat there, immersed in the action, I imagined that working for an art auction house would be a brilliant job.  First off, it's Calgary, so it isn't convinced of its self-importance.  Secondly, it was a blast.  I was astonished.  I took one art history class in university (History of Post Modern Art) and it was a terrible mistake.  The paramount lesson I learned was that if it is labeled "post-modern", I won't like it.  It was a long semester full of (alleged) dreams of buttered toast and urinals as 'art'.  I wish I had a running ticker count of how many times I rolled my eyes before breaking out my notebook to work on a story.  I learned my fairytales well as a child.  The post-modern emperor has no clothes.  Stop being tedious, artists.

I really don't know what would be involved in working for an auction house, or an art gallery.  My only exposure comes from reading "44 Scotland Street", by Alexander McCall Smith, and one night of bidding in a small warehouse full of paintings. What struck me the most was the variety of preference. Paintings inspire an almost knee jerk response.  We like what we like, and sometimes it is hard to articulate why.  It turns out that query letters inspire a similar kind of response from literary agents.  They had better find your writing 'engaging' in the first couple of sentences or all the time you put into crafting that submission is down the tubes in under a minute flat.  

The fun thing about the auction was, that you really hoped that no one else found the painting you liked, 'engaging'.  You didn't want them driving up the price.  There would be nothing worse than being a trendsetter or a tastemaker at an auction.  (Maybe that is why some people bid through proxies... I'm catching on.)  You want everyone else in the room to find your favourite work forgettable and unremarkable.  Too bad there aren't more* auctions for novels or comic book miniseries on submission-- that would be ideal.

(*Thank you Authoress of Miss Snark's First Victim blog for your annual Baker's Dozen Auction.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

One for the saps.

Maybe you're like me.

You poor, sad sap.

I feel sorry for you.  I really do. Almost as sorry as I feel for myself.  We are only partially to blame.  We bought the lies.  We believed the hype we were fed almost as early as pablum.  It probably came in the form of some sort of slogan printed above the blackboard on a banner.  "Believe in the power of your dreams." Or, the particularly grating, "Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss.. blah, blah, blah."

It all amounts to the same thing.  We were sold a bill of goods that isn't exactly working out the way that we had hoped.  For me, it was writing.  (If you just dropped in on a blog named after punctuation, I'm guessing we might be kindred spirits.)  I had hopes of making a career out of being a writer.  Three years; a comic miniseries, a webcomic, a novel and 25 rejections later, I feel somewhat less bright-eyed than when I first began.  I have had one comic story accepted for publication.  Just one.  I've entered contests.  I've applied for a multiplicity of jobs and not received a single call.  Well, now I have a failed engagement on top of it all.  Forgive me if I write this from the bottom of a very large glass.

We're suckers.  It's okay to admit it.  But what do we do now?  We leveraged our futures because we wanted to be writers.  If we had known all the obstacles we would face, and how many tears it would wring from our eyes; likely, we would have run as far as we could have in the opposite direction--despite an ardent dislike for running.  But we didn't and here we are.  So, what do we do? I have no idea.  Initially, I wrote out a very short list of my plan for the way forward, but it looked a little too much like the whole "Keep Calm and Carry On" slogan that has been tattooed on every possible piece of merchandise lately.  I decided to spare you.

Instead, let's just see how it unfolds, shall we?

How do I hate thee, Hair Salons? Let me count the ways.

(I published a previous version of this article earlier this week in which I tried to be measured and composed. Turns out, it did not nearly...