Monday, March 12, 2012

And the Beat Goes On

Well, the agent search is underway for Altar of Dead Pets, and I'm actually finding the process a lot more fun than I thought I would because I'm paying closer attention to what's going on in the publishing industry than I usually do - looking at deals that are being made, the types of books that are selling, who's doing them, and evaluating them against what I think I need to have Altar be successful. It is a total crap-shoot, of course. But I like the challenge of making a hypothesis (which agent is likely to respond to my work), doing the research to find out if my assumptions are logical, and then getting to test the hypothesis by making a query. Still a crap-shoot, but at least, this way, it's more of a game.

As I've found with previous stages of Altar's growth from short story to novel to book, this marks a new stage in my growth as a writer. The first rejection hurt. I felt that horrible shame of "how on earth did I think I was worthy?" But it was very quickly followed by - it's just information. It just means I didn't target the correct person. Part of this comes from the fact that I know I've written a good book - in the whole history of this story and everyone who has read it, only a handful of people have not been wowed by it (my favorite reaction is still the one from the Nevada Arts Council's Fellowship panel that I am a "kickass writer of rare depth and inventiveness"). 

Last week, I met with a friend I'd asked to read Altar and, at the end of our meeting, he asked me, "You do know how good this book is, don't you?" I could hear in his voice how serious he was, how much he needed to know that I knew, and that brushing aside the comment with false modesty or saying, "What a nice thing to say!" wasn't going to cut it. So I told him the truth. Yes, I know how good the book is. I also know how much writing this book has changed me. For the first time in my life I know I am a writer and I don't need anyone to validate that for me. No matter what happens with Altar, whether it achieves my goal of getting published, it doesn't change the fact that it is a good book. I've never had that sense of confidence in myself or my work before.

Now it's just about marketing and saleability, and I really have no control over what the publishing market is doing right now. 

So, what do I do while I wait? Simple. I get to work on the next novel.

Ithaka (the novel's working title) is actually the novel I went to grad school to write.I worked on it for the first year of my grad program and then had the one-two punch of finally resolving a key scene in Altar and getting some relevant feedback on the original short story, which made Altar grab hold of my writer brain and not let go for the next couple of years. Now I'm back to Ithaka with a much better idea of how to write this novel than I had before - to be honest, it scared me silly that I was going to screw it up, and it's too good an idea to risk screwing up. 

I'm doing research while I let the story coalesce again, let the characters come back to me, let the novel tell me how it wants to structure itself. I finally got my opening image, which, for me, is where a novel starts. I may have characters and dialogue and know the arc of the plot, but until I have that opening image, it ain't going nowhere. 

I found an amazing book just by luck: Thieves of Baghdad by Matthew Bogdanos. I picked the book because I wanted to read about the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 just after Baghdad fell since it figures in my novel. What I've found is a treasure-trove of material about many things that touch on aspects of Ithaka. Plus, it's a very, very well told story.

The oddest thing for me, shifting from the all-consuming writing and editing of Altar to the generative phase of writing for Ithaka, is remembering that the two things happen on different schedules. I couldn't edit in the evening. By 9 pm, my brain was done for the night. So all my editing for Altar  took place in the bright light of day, making things like house cleaning, grocery shopping, etc. fall by the wayside. The generative writing of Ithaka happens best after 9 pm, so now I have my days free again and am trying to figure out what to do with all this time I've got. It's probably the biggest post-novel adjustment I've had. And that's probably a good thing.

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