Nobody Listens to Turtle

Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.

I really need to learn to hear criticism.

I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.

I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.

Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.

So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.

And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.

I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.

Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.

Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.

So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.

[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]

The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.

Exciting, no?

But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.

Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.

So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?

While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.

More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.


The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.

*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.

Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

what about your weekend, punk?

You’re all talk, Naptime, about how much work you have and the things you need to accomplish on the weekend when Spouse, the only child care option you have, is available to weather the 4-year-old storm for a bit. So what’d you accomplish, punk?

Finish your articles?
Not really. One is 98% there and if I’d only proofread and double check my sources I’d be done. But then there’s the submission process and that seems daunting enough to put the thing off another year. The other, half-done article, is such a mess on paper and so freaking genius in my head that I just don’t know if I can reconcile the two before baby brain takes over. Again, I just need a solid weekend. But my sitting and thinking skills ain’t what they used to be.

Did you revise your book?
Yup. Last weekend. Total overhaul. Need a new title, though, so the new and improved version can go out to agents who might notice it’s just rearranged. Any suggestions are welcome, even though you haven’t read the danged thing. Seems that’s the way they name most novels, anyway.

Well, okay. Did you finish Peanut’s art project that you started a year ago?

Edit any of the 34 hours of Peanut footage you keep swearing to send grandparents?

Did you do anything of use, now that you mention it?
Well, snarky-pants, it just so happens I did. You read about the nightmare with the cat worms that included a day of steam cleaning the house in scratch-the-skin-off-my-body-and-buy-all-new-furniture horror. Well this weekend was two hours at the incompetent vet (yes, again) for a condescending variety of friendly ramblings, concluded by her asking whether, if we have a boy, we will circumscribe him. I guess she meant drawing the circle around him in the co-sleeper, so I said no. I might write circles around him in the crib when he or she moves to Peanut’s room, but I left it at “no; there’s no reason to.” Didn’t see the need to draw out a discussion about circumscription, since it’s so fraught with emotion.

Spouse and I also made huge headway on our organic garden by building a raised bed—6×6 extravaganza of…well, for now just wood and protective mesh screening. Soon it will have dirt and our awesome compost. Then it will have spinach and basil and carrots and strawberries and squash and cukes and such things. But for now it’s prepped. The best part was building in the rain, while Peanut played in the huge teepee we just built him. (Building semi-permanent forts sounds really good but takes way more time and energy that I believe my child is worth, but really tall bamboo teepees are freaking easy enough to finish in about 20 minutes. 8′ diameter, 6′ tall. $20. 20 minutes. My kind of building.)

I also read 2666 (next post) for the group read and got frighteningly far ahead. Must go write my assessment of The Part about Fate, which I freaking loathed. Suffice it to say that even brilliant writers need to know their limits, and Chilean/Mexican/Spaniard novelists need not try to capture the creakily-aged Black Panther movement in Detroit. Even if they succeed in making some of it funny, relevant, and thoughtful. It was like reading from inside a cubist painting. A very well done cubist painting. But still.

I wiped the hard drive of the computer that crashed AGAIN (shakes fist and grouses incoherently at Microsoft, the voodoo doll for which is coming soon) and have almost got all the backup docs and software restored. Once my software finishes updating I will have all the preschool fundraiser stuff for this week done.

Got a haircut. Completed several towers and puzzles with Peanut. Cleaned out the freezer. Wrote another novel. (Kidding. I rearranged the freezer. Big difference.)

So. I made inroads on changing the world by growing food at home, and am done preparing the house for babe. I just didn’t make any progress on the stuff that will win me fortune and fame. And that reminds me, I need to submit my game show application soon so I can win and actually afford to live here. Unless people figure out there’s as much profit in killing game show winners as there is in killing lottery winners.

Bullet points

All I can manage today is a list.
Agents responding to the most recent round of submission: three
Days since most recent round: one
Agents requesting a full: one
Agents requesting a partial: two
Agents saying “no thanks” last month: ten
This month: none

Average number of times PER DAY I’ve lost the contents of my stomach, last week: six
This week: three
Yay! Improvement! At this rate, I will actually process recently overwhelming and nauseating news and maybe think good thoughts by about Halloween…maybe.

And on that note:
Hours needed to finish rewrite and actually polish this book: 20+
Hours I can offer each day: 0.0000000002
Eleven orders of magnitude between what I need and what I have. Maybe this, too, will be done by Halloween. Just hope nobody requests a full…Oh crap. They just did.

It takes 100 auditions…

In my theater and film days, we talked about how you need 100 auditions to get one job. And the role isn’t the point: auditions are your chance to act and you should get joy from those opportunities because heaven knows that the right place right time thing isn’t in your control. The audition is the gift and getting a job is just a bonus.

So now I’m supposed to remember that writing is my job and that the chance to listen to the voices in my head is a gift. That I don’t write just to get published, and that I have to keep working while the Universe takes care of the right place right time stuff. I may sell novel number two before anyone wants the one I’m sending around right now.

Got five more rejections this week, which means I’m at 15. A mere drop in the Universal bucket, as folder-teeming-full-of-rejections measures go. Just 85 more before someone picks up the book, right? I appreciate the “no”s that come with notes, and the handwritten notes that say “I just have too much work right now but just keep trying because this will find a home.” I don’t appreciate the form letters as much, but I understand and don’t hold grudges. Spouse is enraged by the few who return my own letter with just a handwritten sentence on it, but I appreciate the paper savings. Yet I have to say, I really resent the one flyer I got, with my name penned onto a line that might as well have been designated “poor sucker”, that extolled the virtues of paying $700 for a conference so I could have an audition with all the agents getting paid to listen to me.

That’s why I wrote a killer query, agent people. Take me on or don’t, but don’t send me a flyer asking me to pay money for your time.

Makes me appreciate the two agents who are willingly reading my first 50 pages. Really appreciate them. Because they’re doing their job. May they find the right books for them, whether or not it’s mine. They deserve the best because they’re giving their best.

Me, too.

Found around the Web today

I think Wednesday might become “shamelessly linking” day because it’s also Movie Day, during which my kid gets an hour of crap from a DVD and I rearrange furniture or finally put away winter clothes or whatever (whatever meaning both of those things, at least today).

Here’s a lame attempt at mocking the literati, offering a list of how to pretend to read like a hipster. (It’s funny if you aren’t above conflating “nerdy” and “ironic.” Or if you’ve never read any of the titles on the list.) I say, find the egregious error and win a prize, in which you can say you may be pretentious, but at least you’re not a poseur.

Here’s an article on the legal decision that nobody other than J.D. Salinger can write a sequel to Catcher. Swedish author calls it book banning. His lawyers said the derivative text was parody. Judge says no. And hopefully, is being misquoted with “naivety.”

Here’s a bit about Mayor Bloomberg’s literary reference to Roth’s newest novel and how, as always, it’s all about context.

Finally, here’s a small item to file in my gigantic folder of why Florida should be annexed to anyone who will take them. Place in subfolders “parents should be licensed” and “do not go to Florida.”

Tough call

For future reference, if you’re out of town and get a request to send a partial submission to the agent you really, really, really hoped would read your debut novel, it will cost you $30 to print it at Office Depot and $176 to print it at FedExKinkosFedOfficeFedWhatever.

Tough call. But  I think since David Foster Wallace’s agent actually wants to peruse my novel, I’ll go with the $176. Because there *must* be a reason paper and ink cost six times at FedEx, right?  Like, they’ll use their special lasers to make my writing even better, right? Or print in in black and white gold, right?

By the way, did I just seem all casual about the fact that the agency that found DFW in the slush pile is at least potentially interested in my novel? Sorry. Didn’t mean to make it seem off-handed. There isn’t an emoticon for “wetting my pants right now in fear, as I sob in relief,” is there?

Writhing on the floor

It’s a lot easier to send out a manuscript to an agent you don’t know than to people you admire.

So I”m curled up in the fetal position in a cafe, writing breathless emails to people I would never, in a million years, have read my book, asking them to uncap a red pen and let me have it. Really, really, let me have it.

No wonder most authors I admire were alcoholics. This shit is scary.

Not because they will  tell me the book can be better. For they will, and should. Not because they won’t like me if they hate my writing. You can’t write what other people want to hear; you can only write the voices in your head.

So I’m not sure what the scary part is.

Okay, yes, of course I know. You know what casting directors expect when audition music cues? We all know—feel—on both sides of the mike that it go one of three ways. Either the voice I hear in my head moves the audience; passes, forgettable, though the minds of the audience; or turns the stomachs of the audience, making them laugh at my ridiculous self delusion.

Well, this is the moment when that music is cued.

And it’s just nauseating.

Books I love, that nobody seems to read.

After our extravaganza about classics we loathe, the erudite blogosphere and I have undertaken another endeavor.

Books we love that nobody seems to know about or read:

(This is harder than I thought it would be, since all my books are in a POD storage facility, waiting for us to either buy or rent, hinging on the daily fluctuations of the market, interest rates, and my hair-trigger vascillations. That said, if I know these are true loves from memory, isn’t that more authentic? Let’s pretend so.)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Walker Evans and James Agee. Oh, my. Gorgeous photos. Compelling journalism.

Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zola Neale Hurston. Dear, me, that woman can write down to a person’s bones. Passion, love, poverty, power, and above all, the indefatigable soul of fatigued women. Damn.

Silences. Tillie Olsen. Can’t do it justice with words. Which is the point, as its goal is to textualize the silent periods of authors’ lives.

Collected Works. Grace Paley. Choose your favorites.

One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel Marquez Garcia. Maybe people are reading this and I don’t know. I did not find Love in the Time of Cholera enjoyable. Everyone who has ever read One Hundred Years, though, was touched to the core, by its magical realism and epic grasp on the human heart. Is this already on everyone’s list? Please go read it. The Nobel Prize announcement insisted that, in his writing, he creates: “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos – killing and procreation.” Who wouldn’t read all of his books after that?

Nightwood. Djuna Barnes. Some of the most compelling scenes I’ve ever read. Some of the most sadly endearing characters I’ve ever met. Some of the most confusing passages I’ve ever pushed through. Really, really brilliant work.

Wings. Shinsuke Tanaka. Gorgeously spun tale of joy and intolerance, difference, and love. As with all good stories, we have to fudge the ending a bit with our toddler, but it’s easy to change the story’s climax just a little to make sure everything turns out even more okay.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Chris Ware. A poignant, gorgeous, thought provoking graphic novel. Especially tender about relationships of fathers and sons. The year I read it I gave it to everyone I knew for Chrismakkah.

Princess Bride. William Goldman. The cult following of the movie would imply a large fanbase for the book, which is (predictably, both for the track record of “the book was better” and for Goldman’s MASTERY of narration) ten thousand and three times better than the film.

Tender Buttons. Gertrude Stein. penelope said it first, but I second it. This is the work worth reading. There is molto there there.

Absolom, Absolom. William Faulkner. For some reason it’s neither read nor assigned as often as it should be. It’s the most compelling, for me, of his work because the female characters are the most poignantly drawn. As I Lay Dying is good, but not good enough to re-read a third time. The Sound and The Fury is remarkable, but harder reading. Light in August is brilliant and compelling but I can’t take the violence right now.

Poetical Dictionary. Lohren Green. Philosopher and History of Philosophy guy makes language visual and poetical. Very compelling intellectually.

An American Tragedy. Theodore Dreiser. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis on Sister Carrie, and I loved that book. And for a historical perspective on American industrialization and women, it still reigns supreme. But something about An American Tragedy just really floats my boat. No pun intended. Oh, dear, I should edit that out. No pun intended at all. Gross.

Not a Box. Antoinette Portis. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it’s absolutely inspiring.

Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace. Detailed and stream of consciousness and meticulous and hilarious and disturbing and prescient and nakedly raw. Delicious. Also Brief interviews with Hideous Men. Not so much The Girl with Curious Hair, only bits of which did I enjoy. Still working on Oblivion. I had taken a Wallace break to raise a child and write my own fiction, but now I’m tearfully relishing his every word. My God, I ache knowing that we’ll never get more.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I keep a copy in every room, and in my glove compartment. (Okay, not really, but I’m considering it this week.)

I couldn’t include many of my favorites here because most people have read them and still read them, which disqualifies them by definition. But I feel the need to show some lovin’ to some of the greatest books ever written: Catch-22, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Joy Luck Club, Lord of the Flies, Green Eggs and Ham, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Grapes of Wrath.