Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Questioning the Paradigm

Poets & Writers recently published an article by Steve Almond on what he calls a "sense of entitlement" among the students he teaches in a university writing program. He takes his students to task for challenging his assertion that the "Best American Short Stories" (BASS) anthology represents the pinnacle of American letters. 

Here is my response:

I wish Almond had taken the time to ask his students why they felt as they did rather than assuming the students were reacting out of the arrogant brashness of youth and the desire to reject their "betters." As a long-term reader of the BASS series (I started reading them faithfully in 1988 and, with few exceptions, pick up each year's publication), I have found myself growing less and less enamored with the stories included in the publication (and more willing to let there be gaps between years on my book shelf) because those stories seems drawn from a particular aesthetic that is not necessarily one that resonates for me. 

With a significant number of the stories coming from The New Yorker, and Alice Munro included almost by default (even one year with a "story" that she said was actually a work of non-fiction, more an autobiographical essay than a short story -- I do not quibble with Munro's supremacy as a short story writer of a certain aesthetic, I do take issue with the idea that this particular aesthetic is fully representative of the best that has been published in a given year), I admire Almond's students for questioning the "Best" label given to these stories and wish he'd taken the time to understand their response and perhaps push them to a greater engagement with their own aesthetic (which is one of the reasons why we, as writers, read great literature in the first place -- it is not to marvel at the technical brilliance of the writer and sing his or her praises, but to understand how the piece works, to hone and refine our own sense of what makes a successful story, to butt up against work that challenges us to a new understanding of what writing can accomplish, to understand our own aesthetic and where we fit within the great conversation of literary work, to find what resonates and what doesn't and understand why that is so). 

Almond's reaction reminds me very much of a similar interaction my Lit 101 class had with our professor in reaction to Odysseus in The Odyssey -- it was 1983 and my class rebelled against the idea of Odysseus as a great leader. He sacked cities unnecessarily, he cheated on his wife, he was so full of ego and the need for glory he sacrificed the lives of every single one of his men while he returned to Ithaka enriched even beyond the plunder of Troy by the Phaeacians, and then wiped out an additional generation of young men once he got there. After trying valiantly to lead the class into a discussion of Odysseus the great Greek hero, my professor gave up and moved us on to Aeneas, who, driven by duty and a sense of responsibility toward his people, was much more to our liking. 

Years later, after re-reading the Odyssey (it is now my all-time favorite book, one that I reread every couple of years and am always stunned by and can see now how Homer structured the tale to both exonerate Odysseus by making his men's destruction a result of their own actions, while leaving doubt because the only version we have of events is the one told by wily Odysseus and his silvered tongue -- a master stroke of story-telling on Homer's part), I realized what had happened. As 18 year-olds in 1983, we were the post-Vietnam generation. We had been too young to fully understand the war, but we grew up with its aftermath, with relatives who had fought and suffered or died at the inept hands of their leaders, whose lives had been put at risk on a daily basis by commanding officers with no field experience who only wanted their combat rotation in order to earn a promotion, and who lived with the lingering effects of those failed decisions in PTSD nightmares and disfigured bodies. Of course we would rebel against the label of "hero" for a character who had put his men's lives at risk for the sake of his own glory. 

I don't know if we would have been able to articulate this if our professor had taken the time to ask, but I do think, if he had taken the time to probe our response deeper, rather than getting frustrated with our lack of respect for one of the great canonical works, it might have served the discussion of how to respond to literature better. We might have arrived at an understanding about the way in which our response to literature is always relative to our experiences and therefore fluid and mutable. Instead, he gave up and moved on, possibly blaming, as Almond does in this article, the arrogance of youth for not taking as gospel those works anointed by their elders and paying rote homage to the stories included in the BASS collections. 

As the mother of a college student, I know that this current generation is one that values diversity of experience, complexity and interconnection in history, and a respect for the narratives of people unlike themselves. They have grown up with a multi-cultural, multi-narrative view of the world and the people who live within it. They do not ascribe to or even believe in the dominance of a single narrative or aesthetic and have, under the best of experiences, been exposed to literature that encompasses work from Africa and Asia as well as Europe and America – an aesthetic that is rarely given space within the pages of BASS (though it shows up more frequently in the Pushcart Prize anthologies, diversity in literature and the need for a more encompassing publishing aesthetic is a hotly debated topic at the moment). Had Almond taken the time to question and push them into a deeper awareness of their response, he might have gained an insight into their aesthetic and creative impulses and given them the opportunity to learn more about themselves as humans and writers. Instead, he takes the role of aggrieved elder, railing against the arrogance of youth, and wonders why they have no respect for those who are “better” than themselves. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Slush Pile Reader -- Let's Talk About Guidelines

Being a slush pile reader is something that's been in the back of my mind for about two years now, so when the opportunity presented itself, I said yes. Agents always tell writers about the pile of unsolicited manuscripts that come in -- the horror stories, the shear volume of it, that 80-90% of it shouldn't be going out in the first place -- so I was curious to experience this for myself and find out what my manuscript was up against when I queried an agent. It's been an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and has given me a lot of insight into the submissions process from the agent's side of things.

I've decided to share those insights here, and I want to start with submission guidelines and manuscript formatting. Now I read fiction submissions, so I'm talking here about novels or short story collections.

Almost every agency or agent has guidelines for submitting that specify what they want to see from a writer. You can find these guidelines in a number of places -- the agency's website, Publisher's Marketplace, Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents, the Writers' Digest Guide to Agents, Agent get the idea. (Sometimes you'll find contradictory information on different sites -- this may be due to changes in policy at the agency, some websites or blogs copying old information or not updating their information, agencies sometimes forget where they've posted guidelines -- in these cases, default to what's on the agency's website and state, in your query letter, "As per your website, I am attaching..." or "As per your guidelines in Publisher's Marketplace, please find the first five pages following my query.")

Most agents request a query letter, a one-page synopsis, and the first five pages of the novel. Some don't ask for a synopsis (and bless their hearts). Some ask for just the first page or just a query letter (in which case you need to make sure that query letter is razor sharp with a great hook).

BUT...and this is need to find out what the agent you are querying is requesting and follow those guidelines to the letter.


Because, for one thing, you're building a professional relationship with the agent -- you need to demonstrate what kind of client you are going to be from the get-go. Being able to follow the guidelines signals to an agent that you are a professional and you have taken the time to find out what the agent wants.

The agency for which I read is pretty generous and asks for an email query, and a one-page synopsis and the first FIFTY pages as attachments in PDF or MS Word files (and no, I still won't tell you who the agency is, you have to go find that out on your own because, even if I did tell you, there's no guarantee they are the right agency for you -- you have to do your research to find that out). Amazing, right? Would you be surprised if I told you a significant number of queries come in with the fifty pages in the body of the email? Or that a number of them provide less than ten pages of the novel? Every time I encounter a submission with fewer than fifty pages, I have to wonder why because this is EXACTLY what I wish most agents would do and what email has made possible (the query letter actually hearkens back to a time before it was easy to create copies of your work, a time before photocopiers, when it was likely that you had only one copy of your manuscript and it was much too valuable to send to an agent or editor on the off-chance that he (usually a 'he') would like it).

And yet...there are writers who don't take advantage of being able to send 50 pages of their manuscript.

This is a huge signal to the agent about what kind of client the writer is likely to be.

Now what about that attachment vs. in-the-body-of-the-email thing? Again, follow the guidelines. It may seem fussy or unnecessary, but the agent has his or her reasons for requesting submissions in a certain format. You are sending one manuscript. Agents and their readers are looking at hundreds a month.

If an agent requests submissions in the email, send it to yourself first to make sure your formatting holds and doesn't do anything weird. You would be AMAZED at how often in-the-body-of-the-email submissions come through single-spaced and with no indentations at the beginning of paragraphs -- all of which makes it much more difficult to read. And, believe me, you don't want to make it harder for the agent to read your work.

Do look up the submissions guidelines for each agent you are querying
Do follow those guidelines to the letter

Don't send your email submission without checking the formatting first

And remember that the way you present your manuscript to the agent says a lot about the type of client you are likely to be.

Next week I'll take on submission formatting and explain why Standard Manuscript Formatting is important. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Summer Brain

I am tired.

It is summer, and I have come down with a virulent case of summer brain. This is not the product of sunny skies and warm breezes (I live in the SF Bay Area where you're just as likely to need a sweater as shorts here). I am not dreaming of beaches (more of a mountain person, actually) or organizing family vacations. What I am doing is trying to eek out writing time around my chauffeuring responsibilities.

Summer in our household is a time of camps. Since kindergarten, NK has been going to chess camp. He's been a junior instructor for the past couple of years, something he really enjoys. But...the camp only runs from noon to four each day and it's 25 minutes from our door to the building where it's held. I gladly do this and have been doing it for the past dozen years (and for which NK is duly grateful, as he's told me many times this summer). This summer has the added attraction of TK being a counselor at the diabetes camp he's been attending since his diagnosis in January of 2006. The camp is in King's Canyon, a 6-hour drive from our home, which usually necessitates an overnight stay in Fresno. Usually this means I get a free night on my own (I'll even take Fresno -- have found a fantastic Ethiopian restaurant there), but not this year because TK needed to be at camp by 10 am and it's still an hour and a half away from Fresno. So we went up the night before. Fortunately, I've only had to make this trip once this summer. TK has found his own way home after staff training and kids' camp when he has breaks between sessions, but I have a sneaking suspicion I've got at least one more trip up there before the summer is over.

I've been working on it for so long, it's fossilized.
 Just kidding. That's the flood tablet from
Gilgamesh at the British Museum. 
And on top of all this is THE NOVEL. Oh yeah. That thing. Most summers, I stay in SF, go to museums, or find a quiet (hah!) corner to write. Not this year. This year I am in the midst of revisions and really need to be at my desk at home, with lots of quiet around me. So I've been trying to get a few hours of work done in the morning before taking NK into the city, then coming home and getting about another hour and a half of time in front of the computer before I have to leave to pick him up again. At least that's the theory. The reality is that I am tired, so I take my time over breakfast and take my time over lunch, check email and Facebook, write a blog post, and get about three pages of changes into the computer a day.

This is not working. Common sense tells me I would be better off staying in the city and going to a museum or taking a walk on the beach or riding my bike through Golden Gate Park or even finding a quiet bench in GGP and journaling or freewriting for a few hours.But I can't bring myself to do that. It's not the responsible thing to do. I have a deadline. I'm supposed to be working ALL THE TIME to make it. I can't just go have fun. I seriously can not get myself to just let go and blow off a day or two.

What's the definition of insanity? Right. Even knowing that doesn't help.

I don't have any great wisdom or insight on this one. Sometimes this is just what it looks like -- muddling through even though I know I should be doing something differently. Summer will be over soon enough and I will be able to get back to my regularly scheduled life and put away my car keys for awhile. I hope.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Getting Back to It

This was my backyard for October.
When last we met, dear readers, I was ensconced in a cottage in Scotland and finally getting to work full-steam ahead on what should be the final draft of my novel. The month-long retreat worked wonders. I got 35,000 words written in October, returned home at the end of the month and basically did not come up for air until March. I wrote over 100,000 words between October and March, which is an unheard of pace for me. And then I collapsed. Seriously just collapsed. And am just now recovering from the outpouring of words and working my way through the revisions to this draft. It's taking a lot more time than I had hoped and I'm having moments of despair and lots of self-doubt and having to talk myself down from giving up quite frequently. I haven't yet. And I know I won't. I think a lot of it has to do with being so single-mindedly focused on it that, when I paused, I found it difficult to remember what I used to do when I wasn't working on the book. And when I wasn't working on the book, all I could think about was the book. A lot of things, like this blog, went by the wayside.

We saw Shetland ponies
And sheep
In addition to the focus on the book, I found it taking a surprising amount of effort to adjust to life without Kid #1 in the house. TK went to college this past year. In Scotland. Which has worked out surprisingly well. He loves it and turned into the kind of super student we'd only dreamed about while he was in high school (like starting to work on end-of-term papers two months in advance, like studying for final exams). We had a fantastic family vacation in September, and I got that month in the cottage in October. TK and I also took a weekend in the Shetland Islands which was, in a word, AMAZING. I'd wanted to go to the Shetlands since I did my semester abroad my junior year in college (I'd foolishly decided it was too expensive to go that far north, failing to consider that, since I was already in the UK, any return visit would require including the airfare in the cost). So TK and I took the overnight ferry from Aberdeen on a Friday night, arrived in Lerwick at 7 am Saturday morning, checked into the youth hostel and drove north to Unst, the northernmost point in the UK -- 500 miles south of the North Pole. The weather was glorious.
And peat bogs
And abandoned crofter's cottages.
And standing stones -- possibly from the Picts
who inhabited the islands prior to the Vikings, but no one really knows
And a replica of a Viking longboat that had been
sailed from Bergen, Norway, to the Shetlands.

And Jarlshof, which is the most amazing archaeological site I've ever seen. Although the site on the southern tip of the mainland island had been occupied almost continuously for more than 4,500 years, nothing was known about the site except for the presence of the Laird's House (Lord's House) that was built in the 1500's until a storm in the late 1890's uncovered evidence of some extensive ruins dating from the first century A.D. Excavations soon revealed the presence of a Neolithic dwelling (2500 BC), a Bronze Age settlement (2000 to 800 BC), successive Iron Age settlements (1 BC), an Iron Age broch (tower) from the first centuries AD, wheelhouses from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, a Norse settlement from 800 - 1200 AD, a medieval farm from the 1200s, and the Laird's House that was built in 1580. 
The Neolithic dwelling with midden pit to the right
and hearth (dark brown circle) to the left.
Bronze age dwellings.

Wheel house - the walls were about 13 feet high and sloped inward
to allow a thatch roof to be laid over the opening.

Ruins of the Viking long house. 

Without a doubt, Jarlshof is one of the most stunning, amazing, evocative places I have ever been. It was bitterly cold and raining while we were there, but TK and I still spent over an hour walking around the ruins and exploring. 

And then there was Shetland itself, which was beautiful and kept revealing a gorgeous vista with every turn in the road. I can't wait to go back, if you can't tell. 

So now I am back and have been working on the novel. With any luck, I will be done with it by the end of July, and then I can relax a bit before starting on the next novel.