Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Failing Up

So, I was supposed to have a book by now.

I haven't sold my novel yet. The one it took way too long to write. It’s the first book in a genre that I always wanted to write. That first book that would be about everything--my mother's death, corporate excess, the confusion we sometimes have between liberty and license. And PTSD, towns that run on exploitation, and a few other things. Because, you know, you have to put EVERYTHING in your first novel.

From the start, the beginning of this novel was just impossible. That poor beast of a manuscript has lived through at least five different starting places. No matter where it starts, or how, it's dissatisfying. I've managed the somewhat impressive feat of writing a beginning that is both confusing and too full of exposition. Talented, published friends have critiqued it, even given me the gift of “hey, you know that line on page 30? It’s a perfect opening line!” But still, the beginning is a mess.

Now, I know I can write. Twelve thousand customers can't be wrong. Nor the thousands of developers who've read my software documentation. And the dozens of people who read my short stories. Can they all be wrong? Plus, the end of this book rocks. But nobody cares about the end of a book they can’t get to, because the beginning was just too…not great.
Some stories are inherently problematic. Let's take someone else's story as an example. In the movie, The Sixth Sense, the core of the story--

Bruce Willis, knocking it out of the park with Haley Joel Osment

--is that a little boy has attracted the ghost of a cruelly slain psychiatrist, only the psychiatrist, and the audience, don't know he's dead. So the storyteller, the director M. Night Shyamalan, has some serious problems. He has to show a character, the shrink, that no one interacts with but the boy--and that lack of interaction can't arouse our viewerly notice. 

The writer did everything within his power to hide what was going on, hide it in plain sight. He did it so successfully, in fact, that I had grown bored with the static psychiatrist character, and so wasn't paying attention when he visited his grieving wife at the climax of the movie, revealing his surprisingly dead state. 

That some members of the audience would grow disinterested in such a passive character was a risk the writer had to take--and it paid off. 99% of the planet responded as expected. The writer couldn't change the fact of that story having a serious problem, all he could do was write the hell out of it, hide it, turn the problem into its core strength. Easy, right?

Back to me. I'm writing about financial fraud, which I find fascinating but which many people find dull or inaccessible. So I tried to “explain” things, instead of dramatizing them, a failure that’s epically ironic since I am a well-trained screenwriter and should know how to show instead of tell!

The solution for how to help my readers understand just what they need to know, just when they need to know it, has proved quite elusive up until this point.  That story is tellable, I know it in my bones. But it’s going to have to wait for a while. I can’t keep writing that first book forever.

Number two is well begun, and I can see that it’s going to be better than the first one, which means by the end of number two, I should have the novelistic chops to go fix the first one with a minimum of fuss.  After all, M. Night Shyamalan rewrote The Sixth Sense ten times. And I’m only on version number five!

I’m not going to stop writing just because things didn’t turn out the way I planned. That’s arrogance of the first order.  Life doesn’t always tell you the order of problems you need to solve.  Staying flexible, trying new things, taking risks—it’s all part of being a writer or artist. It’d be nice to have a roadmap, but I’m pretty sure all we get, if we’re lucky, is the occasional clue. So what if I don’t have a book published already? 

That was just Plan A.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What have the Pens been up to this month?

Here are a few photos of what we've been up to lately:

Rachael, Gigi, and Juliet at Gigi's book launch party for Pirate Vishnu.
(Rachael's latest, Pack Up the Moon, is out in March, and there are some joint events happening!)

Mysti with Dale Berry.

 Juliet and Gigi with Penny Warner at a charity tea.

Juliet on a writing break with friends-of-the-Pens Camille Minichino and Sophie Littlefield.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pushing SEND. And starting again.

Every time I send a manuscript off to my editor, it's *such* a relief.  That previous week I'm all: "Why do I DO this?  Maybe I could get a job at Trader Joe's..."  I snivel and whine (mostly in my mind, though the people around me are not immune) and give up little things like relationships, exercise, basic hygiene, and sleep.  I'm a mess, basically.

When I hit SEND I slump with relief, take a shower, walk around the lake, reach out to my friends, and sleep. And think about picking up a job application to someplace sane.

My editor invariably sends a chirpy email in response, saying: "Good job! Take a little time off, you deserve it!" And I say to myself, "hell YEAH I'm taking some time off.  Maybe forever!"

And the next morning?  I'm back at my computer, all excited about my next project.  It's amazing.

Family and friends gently suggest I do as my editor said, take a little time.  And I'm all "I'm going to, really, just as soon as I get this new idea down..."

So what does that say about me?   That I’m an addict, basically.  Like an alcoholic, I don’t learn my lesson from a bad hangover.  I’m right back there, doing the same old thing, and loving it.  Because each time could be better, I could write something more interesting, learn about something new...every new story is a new opportunity.

Not everyone catches the writing bug -- and I’m sure the world’s better for not having to deal with all the whining and bad hygiene.  But I would wish THIS upon everyone:  that you have the luck, at some point in life, to find a passion, and pursue it. 

Now, where’d I put that job application to Trader Joe’s…?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Isabel Allende is being an ass

Isabel Allende, an incredible author and interesting person, recently came out with a mystery...but she says the whole genre's "a joke".

Grrrr.  I've always admired her, but I can't imagine saying something so wildly insensitive about an entire genre.  Nothing like belittling an entire group of readers, and writers.  And cashing in on it, at the same time.

Great article, featuring friend-to-the-genre McKenna Jordan of Houston's Murder by the Book, in the Houston Chronicle.

Sorry about the diatribe...just had to get that off my chest!