Posts Tagged ‘novel’

I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard's CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard’s CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

There is true magic to be found in good editing. If you are a writer hesitating in the least about spending money on an editor, I say this to you: Do what you can, and spend what you can afford, for the best possible one. It’s the single greatest thing you can do for your work.

In order to get my manuscript in as tip top shape as possible, I conducted some extensive research and found a gifted editor who also turns out to be a gem of a human being. His name is Steven Bauer, and you can find him here. I may have worked and reworked my manuscript for years, all the while receiving valuable feedback from critique partners and writing teachers and agents, but nothing has come close to the depth and breadth of the insight I received from this editor. And now that I am going through the line edits, I see unfolding before me pure wizardry.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve always been a sucker for playing with words. In eighth grade, our English teacher gave us “précis” exercises, paragraphs we’d have to whittle down to a set number of words without losing any of the meaning. I reveled in this challenge, and in the satisfaction of coming in just under the word limit. Perhaps this is why, just a few weeks into joining Twitter, I’ve come to enjoy the 140 character limit so much. The challenge is all the greater for the purist (stick in the mud?) in me who shies away from the usual text speak abbreviations, of the “R u going 2 go thru b4” ilk, although I greatly enjoy and admire folks who have found their own, creative ways to put colloquialisms into short form, à la @djolder.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the last few days going over every single edit that the above-mentioned fabulous editor marked up. This was his second reading; the first resulted in a 20 page developmental report which, in thoughtful and articulate prose, summarized the plot, themes and characters of my novel with breathtaking clarity, and highlighted a few very important issues which were holding the manuscript back from being the best I could make it. Best of all, it contained concrete suggestions for how to fix the problems, thus leaving me encouraged and chomping at the bit to get down to work, rather than despondent at the massive morass of undefined work ahead.

This current round of edits constituted the line edit of the revised manuscript. Some pages were chock full of tiny suggested changes, and I accepted every single one. When three pages went by without any edits, my heart leapt. Either the writing was tighter, or it was just strong enough to lose the editor in the “continuous dream” of which John Gardner writes, and make him forget his red pen. Here’s an example of a paragraph that stands much improved after his touch:

Before:

My heart jumped at this, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Something gnawed at me inside, the way it did when Bapu did, or made me do, something of which I knew Ma did not approve. But this time I pushed that feeling aside. I parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as possible, but not quietly enough to escape Ma’s hearing.

After:

My heart jumped, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Guilt gnawed at me, as when Bapu did, or made me do, something I knew Ma did not approve of.  But I pushed the feeling aside and parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as I could.  Ma heard me anyway.

See how those slight changes make the paragraph so much stronger? And here are a few specific ways in which to get rid of extraneous words:

Things swirl together, they don’t need to swirl around together.

You don’t have to feel your way around the room, you can just feel your way around.

A single bell on a piece of string is also a single bell on string.

Don’t focus your mind on something, just focus on it.

Don’t listen to the sound of bangles, listen to the bangles.

Sit on the ground, don’t sit down on the ground.

 

It seems obvious to me now, as I read these examples, but when you are immersed in 98,000 of your own words for the umpteenth time, trying to make sure the story arc is complete, the main characters have changed, the dialogue is smooth, the tension is high, there’s very little of you left to pay attention to the extra words. But that’s what an editor is for.

 

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For over eight years, my writing was anchored in a single novel. I wrote the first paragraph, the prologue, in 2002, after reading a factoid in a travel guide which conjured up a strong image. Here’s the paragraph, the only one which has not changed one iota in the many (MANY) rounds of revisions:

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.

I had no idea I was beginning a book. I just felt compelled to capture the image. The timing was everything: I held that image in my mind just at the time when I was being introduced to kathak dance, and its history. And I had recently returned from Rajasthan. The three together started to form something. A setting, a starting point, an ending point, some characters. Without even realizing it, I had embarked on writing a novel.

Then I did what many novice writers do: I wanted to tell a specific story, and I tried to create the characters who could tell it. I imposed upon them my own goals. The story had to begin at a certain place, and end at a certain place, and certain events had to happen at certain times. Inevitably, I got stuck a few times. And each time, the only thing that allowed me to get unstuck was to try to think about what my characters would really do given the circumstances in which I had placed them. It was tricky, trying to keep the essence of what had compelled me in the first place to write the story, yet letting the characters lead the way. They did not always take the paths I wanted to take, and I had to learn to accept that. And so some plotlines receded, and others came to the fore. One character I loved died much earlier than I’d wanted. Another whom I’d created as a secondary character ended up shining. And after I’d finished the book several times over, I went and changed the point of view.

Now as my manuscript undergoes some edits in the hands of my agent, I am turning to my Next Book. It may well be the next in this “series,” and I put that in quotes because I mean it loosely. It will not be a sequel, but rather a continuation with different characters, set 300 years later, i.e. in the mid-1800s. As I look at the considerable amount of research I already put into this new project over the past few years (each time I foolishly thought my first book was finished and that I had time to look to the next one), I see that I have learned something over the past eight years. (So at least there’s that.)

My first realization is that my ideas to date have been too broad. I’ve thought to encompass too many different worlds and circumstances, too many different characters, too many years. And so, here I am, asking myself the kinds of questions that I didn’t bother to ask myself the first time around, the ones I now feel I should ask myself so as to be more efficient and a better writer: what, really, is the story I want to tell? And whose story is it? And how will that character change over the course of the story? And from whose point of view should it be narrated?

Suddenly, I feel as though I am on a boat at the water’s edge, with endless possibilities. I can sail wherever I want! I can let the wind take me this way, then tack the other way. I can make up any story. I can fashion new characters out of any shred of my imagination. And boy does this all feel daunting! After eight years of writing and revising, working with actual words on actual pages, I need to re-acquaint myself with an entirely different workflow: just thinking. Spending two hours pondering and musing, perhaps picking up a book or two from my shelves and leafing through them, most definitely surfing the Web, and reminding myself that this is as valid a part of the process as the writing and the revising. (It is, right?) I’m giving myself the summer to hone in on the main characters, the specific setting(s), the timeline. This was so much easier the first time around, when I was completely clueless! A little bit of knowledge is a difficult thing to handle.

I wonder, how do others go about launching into new creative projects of this scale? This may be my second book, but it’s nonetheless a new experience. Which is what makes it so exciting.

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I don’t want to have a “brand.”  The Internet is full of articles and pointers and guides to building one’s “author brand.” Use social media to build your author brand! Build your author platform before publishing! Ack! I. Don’t. Want. A. Brand. I want the door always to be open for me to write what I want. I just finished a re-write of a short story with which I’m rather pleased. My writing group seems to like it as well. It is in all ways different from my novel. For one thing, it’s short. It takes place in 2010, not the 1550s. It takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not medieval India. The main character is a desperate teenage girl. (Ok, one could argue there’s a desperate teenage girl in my novel, as well, but to draw any link would be a mighty stretch.) And you know what? I really liked writing my historical novel, and I really liked writing this short story, which, if my plan goes my way, will be one of a series of linked stories. But all the information out there directed at new authors is implying that one cannot be successful if one is versatile like this, because publishers want an author with a brand, so that if their first book is a success, they can assure readers that the next one will be very much like it so you should put it on your wish list right away.

I’ve never been able to limit myself to one subject. This is why my “career” includes positions in urban planning, economic development, communications, public health, project management, freelance writing, non-profit administration, teaching, and I’m sure I’m missing a couple. I find all these things of interest, and although I periodically whine to my husband that I’m not an expert at any one thing, I am truly happy with each toe in a different pot. (To mix metaphors a bit.) One of my writing group members is struggling even more than I am with this: she wrote a very good novel which could be categorized as “chick lit” because that’s just what came out of her at a certain point in her life, but now she is involved in (and thoroughly enjoying) writing a much more literary work. Thing is, she did build a platform around her first book, which her agent is trying to sell, and people like it, and now she’s wondering if this “brand” is going to stick to her like an annoying piece of Scotch tape one can’t shake off.

So, are we doomed as writers? Are there any contemporary writers out there who have successfully maintained their versatility? Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind. I mentioned her to my writing group, but the other members argued that she got her break before the publishing industry started harping on “author brand.” They have a point. (Side note: I just Googled “versatile author.” The first two hits were obituaries for writers. Maybe I don’t want to be versatile after all. The third was a bio of Christina Schwartz, author of Drowning Ruth, All is Vanity and So Long at the Fair. I’m glad I happed upon this—I did not know of her before.) So who else is out there writing and publishing in different genres, in different voices, on different topics?

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I started a new folder on my hard drive today: FPR2010. (FPR stands for Faint Promise of Rain, the title of my novel.) It was a bit of a downer to do so, as I started working on the manuscript seven years ago, in 2003. It might even have been earlier; July 2003 was the date of the first notes I jotted down in a dedicated notebook. Seven years, and here I am starting a new round of revisions. And yet, I am looking forward to the process. After closing the document last September and feeling I could never look at it again without wanting to throw it out the window, I am making friends with it again, and I am seeing myriad places and ways in which to improve it. So here we go again. (On the subject of revisions, writer Natalie Whipple shares some great guidelines for the revision process over on her blog.)

One part I have not changed, however, throughout what must now be at least eight rounds of revisions, is the prologue, the very first words I ever wrote to this manuscript, before I even knew I was writing a book:

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.

I leave you with that image.

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