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Posts tagged ‘novels’

Brittany: It All Starts With the First Line

*parts cross-posted from my personal blog*

Last week I took my How Home Improvement Saved My Marriage manuscript up to the attic and stuck it in a box with other things I don’t want cluttering up my life right now. Lately, I’ve been in a very foul mood toward my novel and my inability to get anywhere with it, and I decided it just wasn’t worthy of my continued devotion anymore.

My novel is flawed. Profoundly and maddeningly flawed. The beginning lacks momentum. It lacks bite. Alex, the narrator, doesn’t sound like anybody I’d want to hang out with for 200 plus pages. Partly that is due to point of entry problems. The beginning of my book was once funny as hell, with snappy dialogue galore, but that was before I realized that while it was highly entertaining writing, the plot was languishing under all that talking. So I cut, and I cut, and I cut some more. And I reached what I thought was the perfect point of entry. But no matter what I did, the book could just not pick up any steam at that point. It went mwah mwah mwaaaaah from the get go. And then there was the counter plot. I’ve never been particularly happy with how much of the novel is taken up by Alex’s job woes. It was one of those cases where I let the book meander into psychotic acid-trip craziness and hoped the reader was game to read absurdist fiction. But still, with all the lunacy going on in the plot, the story just sat there, staring at me, willing me to do something new with it.

When I hauled my gigantic white binder full of rough-draft novel up the attic stairs, dumped it unceremoniously in a Rubbermaid container full of books, and jammed the lid on it, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the action it had in mind. But as I resolutely turned off the attic light, I thought to myself, “This is an appropriate metaphor for how I feel about you. You suck. It was nice while it lasted, but good-bye forever.”

And I had not made it down even two rungs of the attic ladder before I was hearing Alex’s voice (muffled by the Rubbermaid container lid, but clearly Alex, nonetheless) and she said, “You want to put an offer on this house?” I asked my husband Will, who up til now had always seemed like a perfectly rational individual. And suddenly, my whole novel was re-organizing itself in my head. Here was the perfect point of entry. Here was the set up for funny dialogue. Here was a girl I could spend an afternoon with.

“You bitch,” I cursed, as I climbed down into the laundry room. “Where the hell have you been? It might have occurred to you to tell me this nine months ago when I was begging for your help.”

“I just thought of it,” said Alex.

Now she’s absolutely full of suggestions.

“You know what your problem is?” she asked me this weekend while I was cleaning the bathrooms. “You’ve got two different novels spliced together into some kind of weird Franken-fiction. Take out all the stuff about my teaching woes and stick to stories about the house.”

“That’s all fine and good,” I grumbled, “but I don’t have any more stories about the house.”

“Yes, you do,” she said.

“I do?” I asked.

And she proceeded to point out that I watch a bazillion home improvement reality shows on tv, and said, “What if Alex applied to be on one of them so they could afford to make the repairs on their new house?”

At this point, I was sprinting to my office for a notebook.

“The  reality show will pay for all the repairs,” she continued, “but the catch is that they have to do all the work themselves, with no outside help whatsoever, they have no clue what they’re doing, Alex is still messy and laissez faire, Will’s still an obsessive-compulsive neatfreak. and now there’s a film crew following their every move…”

And then the heavens parted, and a choir of angels appeared, singing in triumphant chorus…

I really feel like I’m on to something here — that this is a huge breakthrough for me — and it is going to take my book off in a new, and better, direction. And I’m sure there are lessons to be learned here about patience, and always remaining open to trying new things, and letting energy flow and ebb naturally, but it all gets so spiritual and metaphysical that it’s not easily described.

But the universe has worked her magic, and I’m here and I’m writing again.

Boston Globe: Five Laws of the Novelist

An article in this morning’s Boston Globe picks up rather nicely where we left off last week. On Thursday, Brittany expressed her frustration with the process of finding a publisher and I wrote a rather lengthy comment about publishing in general (which hopefully helps spur our writers to action, rather than prompts them jump out the window). In the Globe, Stephen Bergman wryly illuminates the publishing process in “Five Laws of the Novelist“:

Law Two: Editors Are Ephemeral and Don’t Edit. The editor of my first novel moved to another publishing house for my second. In the middle of my third, at another publishing house, she was fired, and my new editor, after sending me terrific edits, was fired the next day. The editor on my fourth novel, at still another publishing house, said, “I love this novel. I won’t change a word.’’ But when I got the manuscript back she had marked it up with so much red pencil that each page was pink. We struggled. I took few of her suggestions. In our final conversation she said, “You’ve ruined this book. It will get bad reviews,’’ and then she was fired. As one editor told me: “We no longer edit, we acquire and market.’’

Law Three: Publishers Don’t Publish. When my first novel was about to come out, I asked my publisher if it would sell. “No, your novel won’t sell.’’ This startled me. “It’s about medicine, and that’s good, and it’s funny and sexy, and that’s good.’’ Why won’t it sell? “Because it’s a good book. Good books don’t sell.’’ Bookstores can return any book for a full refund, a business model that spells doom for publishing. Only about 5 percent of books pay back their advance. Those hardcover remainders piled up in stores mean that the publishers overpaid, overprinted, and undersold.

Law Four: There Is No Humiliation Beneath Which a Writer Cannot Go. My second novel had come out in paperback, and my wife and I were on a hiking trip in New Hampshire. We stopped in a mom-and-pop store for lunch. There, in a spindle bookrack, were two copies of my novel. I immediately suspected my wife had placed them there, to make me feel good. Nope. I took both books off the rack and went up to the little old lady at the counter, and announced, “I wrote this book.’’

“Oh, you wrote that book?’’ she asked.

I averred yes. I asked if she would like me to sign the copies.

“Oh no, our folks would never buy a book that was writ in.’’

Another standard humiliation: At an author-signing in a bookstore, sitting at a desk near the window, facing a wall of Grishams, watching people hurrying past as if you are a child molester. Not fun, especially if your publisher has overlooked advertising the event.

Law Five: There Is Only One Reason To Write. During a post-second-novel depression, I spent six months, more or less, in the bathtub, trying to give up being a writer. Finally I realized that while I disliked publishing, I still loved writing. But if you want to respect what you write (rather than write for cash), you need a day job. Luckily, decades previously I faced a choice: between Vietnam or Harvard Med. I became a psychiatrist because I might learn about character and story, and could leave mornings free to write. Not as good a day job as my first, working the graveyard shift as a toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge – you can learn pretty much everything from what goes on at night in cars – but still.

Only write if you can’t not.

Read the full piece here. Then, get back to work!

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