Tuesday, May 27, 2008

First Sentences

We’re told that first sentences are supposed to hook the reader. In a short story, especially in flash, the first sentence is critical. I’ve been going through some of the short story anthologies I love and looking at the first sentences of some of my favorite writers. I’m not trying to make a statement or anything. I just found this an interesting exercise. I can see the differences in style just by looking at the different sizes of the sentences. I would have included Henry James or Garcia-Marquez, but I didn’t want to make this entry too long. Here are some of the ones I looked at:

Raymond Carver:

In the kitchen, he poured another drink an dlooked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.

Vera’s car was there, no others, and Burt gave thanks for that.

John Cheever:

There is no sense in looking for trouble, but in any big, true picture of the city where we all live, there is surely room for one more word on the diehards, the hangers-on, the people who never got along and who never gave up, the insatiables that we have all known at one time or another.

You may have seen my mother waltzing on ice skates in Rockefeller Center.

The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.

Mary Gaitskill

When he saw her on the way to work in the morning, he ignored her, even though he hadn’t seen her for four years.

Stephanie wasn’t a “professional lady” exactly; tricking was just something she slipped into, once a year or so, when she was feeling particularly revolted by clerical work, or when she couldn’t pay her bills.

The typing and secretarial class was held in a little basement room in the Business Building of the local community college.

Jhumpa Lahiri:

The noticed informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.

Eliot had been going to Mrs. Sen’s for nearly a month, ever since school started in September.

They discovered the first one in a cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened bottle of malt vinegar.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What Led You To Your Novel

Someone on Zoetrope posed this great question..."What has led you to your novel?"

The first novel, the one I've finished, Giving It Over, lots of things. I was adopted, and I was a teen mother. My first daughter was conceived the same year that abortion became legal. I gave birth to her when I was fifteen. Those elements of my past give me a great interest in adoption, as an institution, and teen pregnancy.

I was grappling with some ideas for a YA novel and had a whole idea formulated in my head, but I couldn't seem to get into it. I don't remember what led me to this realization, but I discovered that my problem resided in the fact that I didn't care about my protagonist. I didn't love her or hate her, so I couldn't breath life into her. I asked myself what kind of character I could care about.

Around this time, Lynn walked out of the mist and started telling me about herself. By mist, I mean that mysterious place where characters come from when writers least expect it. Lynn was fifteen, pregnant, and was living in a house for pregnant girls who were going to give their babies up for adoption. She talked, I wrote. The story was just there. All of the characters were just there.

I get pissed off when people assume that this story is autobiographical because it deals with the subjects of adoption and teen pregnancy. The stories of the girls at Harbor House are not my story. Yet each of the girls is a facet of me in some way. Lynn the whimp, Melody the sassy jr. dyke, Lupita the silent one, Rebecca the hard-assed slut, Jenny the healer. They're all me. They're all teenaged girls who are pregnant and are among the first to make a choice about whether to terminate or complete their pregnancies. They're all part of the big County system that existed to harvest babies before abortion became legal.

So, I almost feel like I can't take credit for that novel because it didn't feel like I wrote it...it was just there, waiting to be plucked from the branches.

The biggest part of me that's in both of my novels is my idealism, or hope maybe. I want to believe that love is a force underneath all the bull shit, and that it can prevail in our lives if we just summon up the courage to let it in.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Self-centered day...

Ever read the posts on PostSecret and wonder if they were sent by someone you know....

...and that the message is written to you?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hospital Corners

Yesterday, I took stock of all the pieces I’ve written for the 2nd YA novel (working title now Hospital Corners). I was surprised to find that I was further along than I realized. I mean, I’ve known that a great many details were in my head. I just had no idea how many of them I’d written down. My goal this week is to type all the pieces that are hand written in all of the notebooks and organize them into some kind of order. Then I need to figure out where the gaps are. I’ll be like Emily Dickenson stitching together her poems, written on little pieces of cloth.

I wrote a partial outline last week, and I need to finish that as well, take it out to the end.

I hope I can get through a draft of this thing before I have to go back to work. Still looking for a day job and, as much as I need to find one before money runs out, I am really digging not working right now.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Giving It Over to Giving It Over

I’ve just completed Maya Reynolds’ online course on Everything You Need To Know About The Publishing Industry, and it was a well spent twenty bucks! Maya broke the course into the three branches of the industry, publishers, book distributors and agents. Her insights and research helped me to regain the confidence I needed to relaunch my efforts to find a home for Giving It Over, my YA novel.

For a while, I’d been thinking that I should just scrap GIO, and chalk it up to a first effort. But several things converged to push my ass off the seat. Maya’s class gave me information about approaching agents, and it offered information on a branch of publishing I had poo-pooed in the past. I want to look into the option of e-publishing. Marie contacted me and told me that she wanted to read GIO again. Out of the blue, she sent me an email saying that she hoped I hadn’t thrown it on the shelf. Okay. Then Papercuts blog had this entry today. Burning bushes.

The Plan:
  • Give it another once over. It’s been a while since I’ve read it. I am betting that I’ll see it a lot differently now that it’s had time to settle.
  • Post it on Zoe for a critique.
  • Look into agents and e-publishers. I tossed e-publishing into the same bag with vanity presses and POD publishers. I thought that going that route would damage my credibility as a serious writer and close doors to ever seeing my work printed or distributed by the biggies. Turns out I’m wrong. I need to give e-publishing a closer look.
  • Create a package, including a cover letter and synopsis and have those critiqued.
  • Remember what Maya always says…EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER THAN YOU THINK.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Memoir Reading and Writing...

I started reading memoirs back when I decided to try writing one. I love memoirs. Good ones seem as though they were easy to write. They seldom reveal how difficult it was to put those words down on paper. My own efforts at writing a memoir have taught me that they are very difficult to write.

The memoirs I enjoy tell stories of lives lived. The good ones offer a balance of story and lessons learned. I do not enjoy memoirs where the author is so full of himself that he just can’t bear to let us go through life without knowing just how great he is. James Frey and Augustan Burroughs are two such memoirists. Their memoirs don’t display people who are learning anything in life. Rather, they present themselves as the ones from whom we could all stand to learn a few things. They’ve landed on this planet with all the answers. Now, if only the rest of us would recognize that. After all, they’ve generously supplied us with their brand of truth.

I read in an article on Critical Mass that Lillian Hellman’s memoir, Pentimento, possesses a questionable story line. However, the writer of the article said that she is worthy of forgiveness because the memoir is written with such beautiful prose. Pentimento is next on my reading list.

Some of the memoirs I enjoyed are:

  • Color of Water
  • The Glass Castle
  • The Woman Warrior
  • Lucky
  • The Unreliable Truth
  • Jill Kerr Conway's memoirs
  • Mary Carr’s memoirs

My favorites, though, are:

  • Autobiography of a Face and Truth and Beauty, which must be read together in that order.
  • Out of Africa, because I adore Isak Dinesen.
  • Living to Tell the Tale by Garcia Marquez. Either his memoir is a total fabrication or all of his fantastic fiction is based on his real life. I can read any paragraph in that book and see a wholly developed story within it. He's the man!
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir for people who love books. I read it and Lolita and The Ambassador and The Great Gatsby as part of the journey, and it was a wonderful experience.

I feel gratitude for these memoirists for the way they've shared themselves with me, whether the events of the story are fact or not.

I've tried writing a memoir, and it ain't easy. I kept returning to the question of, "What's my point?" Okay, so I’m an adoptee from the 1950s, when adoption records were sealed. I don’t know much about my origins, and never will. So, the theme could be what? Living with the unknown? It’s so not Hollywood. Then again, there is that Hollywood element, because of the circumstances. I was a foundling, discovered when a woman opened her car door one October morning. The car was just a few blocks away from the entrance to Paramount Studios. In fact, you can see the gates of the studio from the apartment building. In the other direction, the Hollywood sign looms above like a voyeur.

The Hollywood sign gave me the idea for writing the memoir as a sort of hybrid. Yes, there’s the story a girl’s life from childhood in southern California through her teen pregnancy and marriage at age fifteen. But what’s the point, Nancy? And beyond? But sprinkled throughout are the fictional stories the girl creates to give herself a sense of origin. These stories are all called Fade to Black, and each one is a flash of how she might have come to be in Mary Couch’s car back on that frosty morning in October of 1957. But what’s the point? And what’s so interesting about what or who I’ve become?

We all think our stories are interesting. When I was working my freelance writing business full time and marketing the heck out of myself, I can’t tell you how many people approached me with the pitch, “I have an incredible story, and I want you to write it for me. We’ll share the royalties.” So many people out there want to tell their story. But what I came up against writing mine is that it is hard to tell a truthful story.

None of us want to cast ourselves in an unfavorable light. We all want to tell the story of being a victim or of prevailing over adversity, where we are in the right and evil oppressors hold decks stacked in their favor. Does anyone want to read a story about a girl who grew up to believe that no one belongs to anyone, that family as we see it is an illusion. That we all must find our own families and sense of place in a world that tells us to be loyal to blood no matter what? Does anyone want to read a story of a girl who has babies very young and then leaves them to pursue her education? Can I ever find the heart and the courage to tell the real story? I left my husband in 1984 to find my own way, and I left my daughters with him. When I left, I watched my husband and mother close and lock the door behind me, effectively keeping me out of their lives. If my daughters were to read this, they would scream that it is a fiction. They believe that I abandoned them. They will always believe that I didn’t want them in my life. Believing that holds up the structure of the myth and drama they’ve created around their own lives.

But my story is my story. I can hear Ginger saying, “It’s always all about you, Mom.” Well, yes. My story is all about me. The good, the bad, but my truth. The things that allow me to get up in the morning and face another day, and the things that haunt me at night. The things that make me dance and the things that make me pull the covers over my head. Life takes a lot of courage, even for the most ordinary of us. No one’s going to knock on my door and say, “I’m your mother. I’ve finally found you.” The UPS truck isn’t going to pull up with a notice that I’ve been written into the will of some famous producer from the 1950s who knocked up the wardrobe girl so long ago. But the fantasies continue. I’m a fiction writer, so the fantasies will continue. That’s the easy part. The truth part is what’s hard. Maybe I’m making it more complicated than it is. Truths are often simple.