Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On coats and privilege.

Morning after morning, my teenage daughters fly out of the house without coats.
The car, replete with heated seats, is steps from the door. The driveway at school is steps from the sidewalk, which is steps from their lockers. We’re not cold, they say.

After school they join a parade of girls running with sleeves pulled down over the tips of their fingers, shivering as they make a short dash to the gym. Post-sports, they run outside to the car in shorts and sneakers, flushed with effort, not icy wind. They are not cold.

What if the car breaks down and you have to walk?
What if there is a fire drill and you have to stand outside?

They blink, say nothing, but I know what they are thinking. We’ll go wait at Starbucks. We’ll call Triple A. We won’t be cold.

Walking twenty blocks to a mean little Manhattan cubicle. Waiting for a bus to take you to another bus that takes you to the only internship you could find. Holding a traffic flag on an icy street, watching your breath condense into shapes to relieve the boredom. Dressing in a chicken costume and waving as cars pass you in the snow, as you wish you were inside them, and not your golden feathers.

The hard real world is coming, girls. And you are going to be cold.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rejecting rejections.

Where there is more than one child, inevitably, there is inequality. Just as some are born blonde, or hazel-eyed, some are born with perfect pitch. And some, alas, are not. That doesn’t keep both of them from trying out for a singing troupe. And it doesn’t keep one of them from falling short.

Yes, the one who can go toe to toe with Kelly Clarkson is cut. Does the other child, less musical, offer something else? Stage presence or joy? Of course. But even she realizes the decision is both unfair and typical. They watch reality TV. They know talent has nothing to do with anything.

I tell my middle daughter, as I wipe away her tears, that one audition is just a moment in time. That rejection is part of success. And finally, that you can’t let one man determine if you will or will not sing. Don’t give him that power over you, I say, and I am suddenly stopped in my tracks.

Because I sit, waiting on pins and needles, for my agent to weigh in on My Next Novel. Three years of work. A revision that took twice as long as the first draft. Other novels, finished or on their way, not chosen to go next, once shimmering on the desktop with possibility, fade. Up on the bookshelf, two published novels, and four years’ effort to promote them, appear to hang in the balance. They dangle too close to the edge. Their spines look fragile to me now, delicate as tidepool creatures. The vulnerability of paper and screen. Light a match, hit delete.

I, too, wait like a schoolgirl to see the audition list taped to the door.

Don’t do it, I tell myself. No one, even a wise and witty agent, has the power to hold your whole career in her hand.

I summon the presence of a small army behind me, the editors and readers and book bloggers who said yes. The reviewers from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and Entertainment Weekly who said love. A flash mob with bookmarks approaches, the 250 book clubs I’ve visited, the women who have underlined my sentences and grasped my hands and fed me their homemade coffee cake. We hear you, they say.

Let no one tell you that you cannot sing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Feeling a little sashy.

In other parts of America, like, say, jail, the word “sleeve” has one meaning. But as Girl Scout cookie selling season gears up in Pennsylvania, it has another. No woman I know understands what a “peck” is. Everyone knows what a “sleeve” is. Noun: cookie containment device hidden in freezer. Use in a sentence: Damn, I just ate a sleeve of Samoas again.

My own attachment to these treats comes at a steep price: I was kicked out of Girl Scouts for “not earning enough badges” and “not being Girl Scout material.”

You’ve seen these kids standing behind folding tables at the mall: They let anyone in! It’s one thing to be a rejected cheerleader (do ya see a trend here?) but a rejected Girl Scout? How does this happen? I’ll tell you how: an evil troop leader hopped up on diet pills. Valley of the Dolls wearin’ a sash. That’s how.

For years I girl-cotted the cookies, then realized I was only hurting myself. But some flavors still burn. “Not earning enough badges” really irritates my achievement-oriented nature. I earned my novel writing badge, bitches!

Still waiting for an apology on trefoiled letterhead, along with reinstatement, so I can reject them. Still waiting. Still eating.

For those of you with sunnier attachments, here’s an article on what your favorite cookie says about you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Things my agents & editors have taught me over the years. (In case they thought I wasn't listening.)

I have had the great misfortune, I mean luck, of working with 3 agents and 5 editors and a couple of sharp-eyed copyeditors during my fiction career. I've learned from every single one of them (even when I wanted to strangle them, like Editor #2, or as I lovingly called her, The Dominatrix.)

1. Your main character doesn't have to be likable, but he/she has to have spunk. Spunk in the past or spunk in the present. Wounded spunk, subtle spunk, suppressed spunk that slowly works its way to the surface.

2. When plotting, logic is your friend. Coincidence is your enemy.

3. When describing, be concrete. Mementos over memories. The soft hand of the sheets matters as much as the harshness of the dreams.

4. No one could ever sigh as much as women sigh in early drafts. It's not medically possible. Could they maybe breathe deeply once in a while, or shrug their shoulders, or shuffle their feet?

5. I tend to think of character’s back story as boring cocktail party small talk. Readers, not so much. Readers naturally wonder about characters' pasts. So clue them in now and then. Let their backgrounds shine through by constantly asking yourself, “Why?”

3. Try to leave every chapter with a hook to the next. But don't let this hook be obvious, like “Jenna was about to learn how very wrong she was.” Yes, this is harder than planting potatoes in a frozen field. But do it anyway.

6. Don’t let anyone tell you differently: A little bit of “telling” is absolutely fine. IF it’s brilliantly written.

7. The title of the book has to feel like the genre and style of your writing. You may have inadvertently titled your chick lit book with a high falutin’ literary title. Or your mystery may have a title that sounds like non-fiction, leading people to believe an actual murder has been committed. It needs to match, so the reader’s expectations are properly met.

8. Make the acknowledgments at the back of the book as complicated and effusive as you like, but keep the dedication simple and humble. A too-lofty dedication can set the wrong tone.

9. Read and revise your manuscript onscreen, sure, but also print it out, and staple the chapters together. The act of reading it on paper uses different mental muscles.

10. The opening sentence is far, far, more important than the closing one.

11. That being said, if you screw up the ending no reader will ever forgive you. Think long and hard about what would be an emotionally satisfying ending. Not a happy one, necessarily, or a beautifully written one. But an emotionally satisfying one.

12. If you screw up the middle, you won’t be alone. Many writers’ books have flaws in the middle. However, yours isn’t going to be one, so put some more plot in the freaking middle, would you?

13. There are really two types of writers: Those who need to be told no no no, no more of that! Get rid of that! And those that need to be told yes, yes, yes, more more more of that! Put more in! Figure out which you are, and try to act accordingly.