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This site is a blessing. Is it a blog? I have no idea, but hey, whatever works right. You are a strong, brilliant woman. Just so you know I posted questions on your site before. I'd rather not tell you which ones were mine. Your answers were great. They moved me and provided comfort but you didn't give me easy answers or solutions.
We hear a lot about writer's block, but my problem is the opposite. I can write easily and fill a blank page. I like to write longhand, and that deserves attention here too. Over the past year, I've probably gone through six notebooks. Each one has lots of writing - words, lists, images, ideas, outlines. If I wanted to, I could sit and write for two hours without any worries, never breaking a sweat. The words are there. I can force myself to grind and press on if needed. But little, if any, of this writing amounts to anything worthwhile. When I go back and read what I have, it's hard to follow and understand. These many pages are mostly free writing, word association games, lists. Part of me thinks this shouldn't be a problem, because to be writer one has to write on a daily basis. I encounter that advice all the time in books about composition, gurus, and teachers. Just write! Write whatever you want. Set a quota. So I keep thinking this is all just in my head. Still. While writing is a passion, it is also something I want to do professionally, and I want more out of it. I want a complete story, a whole poem, one good ten-minute play, a short essay I can send off to the world. Unfortunately I am far away from these goals!
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon confronts this same dilemma, and I plan on rereading the novel. What's wrong? I have no idea. I can think of a hundred great premises, images, characters, settings, plots for short stories, plays, movies, but when I attempt to get it on the page, the story goes NOWHERE. I think over the past six months I started at least five different short stories, and there's no story in the short story. The sentences and paragraphs wander aimlessly, add up to nothing. I describe a tea pot, the woods, an ambulance, a helicopter overhead: the descriptions last for a long time. I made the switch to poetry, because I thought poetry would force me to keep the piece concise, clean, and arrive at an ending. Not happening. Instead I dabble with the language, spin images, compose five of pages of verse that have nothing to do the poem I want to write or thought I might write. I'll think about the ending, and that can mitigate the wandering nature. Still I can't make it to the ending. It's out of reach. Poems should be done in one sitting. A poem doesn't have to tell a story, and that might allow me to arrive at a conclusion. I find that none of the poems I work on have a destination or any meaning. In most of my writing, I always want to spend a great deal of time on the images. Showing, not telling.
What should I do? What's wrong? I could continue to write, and it brings a certain amount of happiness. I'd like to actually move beyond the free writes and work on poems and stories containing more meaning, substance, clarity, sense. This dilemma doesn't get much enough attention in any of the thousands of books and articles about creative writing. Which is strange. I'm not the only one? It's one reason I posted this question here. Maybe I'm not supposed to be a writer. That's a possibility. Bricklaying isn't for everyone.
I also outline. The outlines rarely help. Often I forget what is in the outline and just keep writing about this, that. Whatever runs through my mind at the time. All this is getting to me. As much as I might enjoy just writing about the breeze outside or a skirt or a flapping kite in the air, I like the feeling of finishing a draft, printing it, holding it.
Reading is not why I struggle. I read daily. I have wondered about life and writing broadly. What if writing has more to do with your identity, knowing yourself, moving through fears, anxieties, personal quirks and interests? That sort of enters the touchy abstract stuff that isn't related to craft. Suppose this question now reads as if I'm looking for a magic answer. I have to be willingly to state that's not going to happen.
Should I write what I know? I swing between the different approaches to the write what you know tattoo. You read so much about it. Know what you write. Write what you don't know. Write what you can image, feel, see with your third eye. I don't know. Who does? There's so much advice about writing, most of it contradictory. Read The Elements of Style, and it gives us a sense of how language should work. There's nothing in there about sorting through personal issues, figuring how you're going to make the leap from amateur to doer. E.L. Doctorow claims he can only see a few miles ahead when he writes a new novel, one headlight beaming. John Irving likes to outline and thinks aspiring writers could benefit from a similar process. I like both those guys. I just read Colson Whitehead's Rules and that has my head spinning, his rules are so good. I think you quoted from the essay here and just so you know there is a YouTube lecture that accompanies the Rules. I feel better already but not really.
It bothers me that I have read so many creative writing books and taken a number of workshops and courses. I am wrapping up my MA in English at Utah State University, and I'm supposed to have a creative thesis done. That's not the case. I wanted to write a full-length play. The potential play is basically two notebooks of dialogue. It just goes on on on. Talking, arguments, little description, subtext, dabbling, plenty of stage directions. I abandoned it. I wonder if this whole damn thing stems from personal cracks. Part of me is always reluctant when it comes to putting myself into whatever I'm working on. As I revise this post, I realize how absurd it is to leave this question for you.
What an awesome question. Let me think about it a little and get back to you.
Hi Stacey. I'm doing the weird thing again where I'm posting anonymously to your blog, even though I know you in real life, and I could just contact you in a more ordinary way. But whatever - I'm a fan of your blog and I have a question. So - that story I was all angsty about editing came out and I got contacted by an agent. I have a phone call scheduled with her next week. Do you have any tips for me? I'm guessing she's going to want to know if I have a book she can sell. Right now I don't, but I do have a few scattered chapters and an overriding idea that would tie it all together. When I say the pitch/plan out loud, it sounds feasible to me and also not totally bad. It also isn't written, which could be a problem, but it is based on the thing that I published that she liked. I was thinking I'd try to sell her on that idea, tell her it isn't ready to see yet (100% true) and then write like crazy. Or is that not how this works? How does this work? What questions should I ask her and what will she probably ask me? And what does a person expect out of an agent? I don't really have any idea how this stuff goes and I want to sound like I do, at least a little bit.
Hi Sort of. (Just to clue-in other readers, after Sort of's last post, she wrote me an email on the side unmasking herself. Since I figure I know or have met many people who write in, I wasn't surprised--but I was pleased.) That's great about the agent! I want to read the story and will try to remember where it is, because you told me. Oh, I found it. Oh, it's wonderful! Except I think I can't read the last paragraph. Fuck. Okay, I'll deal with that later. Great story! I'm not surprised the agent liked it. The real question now is do you like the agent?
The deal with agents is this: they are people who make their living helping writers find publishers. They need writers. You may think she's auditioning you but really, you need to be auditioning her: do you like her? Does she have your best interest at heart? Does she agree with your values about art and writing and selling, and do you even know what those values are? (Like, do you want to be read by the masses taking the train to work or are you more of an artiste who lives to be true to her vision, accessible or not, or somewhere in between, or what). Will she be a good reader of your work and does that matter to you? (It's nice, but you also might have other readers you trust).
Agents make money when a transaction occurs, and since you don't have a finished book, you don't have anything to sell right now anyway, so the best thing that can happen is that you like her, you check in with her, you talk to her about your plans, and she encourages you. She can try to sell a novel with three chapters and an outline, but for a first book that's less likely. It does happen though. Ask her about that. Ask her what her game plan would be for you--try to sell a novel? Try to place stories in magazines first, then sell a novel? Could she get you freelance gigs, if you want them? What percentage does she take? What other authors does she represent? Ask her how she sees you and how she might situate you in terms of other writers. If she says you are the next Jodi Picoult, maybe you don't wanna be her client, though honestly I have not read Jodi Picoult and she's probably awesome.
Since the center of the publishing industry is in New York, she should either be in New York or talk to you about how she handles living elsewhere. A good agent will not make you sign a contract with her until she is actually selling your book--she isn't worried about you leaving her because she's good. It's a voluntary relationship, in other words.
Overall, I think you should think about what you want from an agent and see if she's up for it. I LOVE the idea of you banging out your book based on the story as fast as you can--maybe this lady will give you a deadline, or encouragement, or editorial feedback (though I wouldn't necessarily trust this to be good until you have evidence that it is); it would be nice if she just generally clued you in to the realities of the marketplace in helpful and encouraging ways. She could be a sort of mentor, ideally. Ideally, you could ask her what you should be asking agents and she'll tell you. Have her explain foreign rights to you vs. English language rights. Then just think about it. You don't have to go with her or not until you have a finished thing. Remember, she needs you. You are the gas in her engine. I mean, she's basically going to suck up 20% of your income, so make sure it's worth it. And also, Sort of, ask her if she'll take 17%. It never hurts to negotiate and it will be interesting to see what she does BECAUSE it's going to be her job to negotiate with publishers on your behalf. If she freaks out, she may not be the right person. She's not the only agent on the planet, and if she wants you, others will too. Rock on!
Kosher chocolate mousse--rock on!
Well, pie is all kosher as long as it doesn't have meat in it. This torte sounds amazing. It's from The New National Council of Jewish Women (Salt Lake City Chapter) Cook Book, which looks to be from the 1950's. It's not a real book but a bound collection of recipes from the members. This one is by Janet Rosen, who is probably related to me because how many Jews could there be in Salt Lake City in 1952?
CHOCOLATE ICE BOX TORTE
Line bottom of 9" spring form with macaroons; the sides with lady fingers. Cream well 1/2 c. butter and 1-1/4 c. powdered sugar. Melt and add 1/2 lb. sweet chocolate. Blend all thoroughly. Add 1/2 t. almond extract, 3 yolks of eggs, well beaten, 1 c. toasted and chopped almonds. Beat 3 whites of eggs until stiff and fold into chocolate mixture. Lastly fold in 1 c. whipped cream. Let set several hours.
HI, Do you have a recipe for chocolate mousse pie?
Uh, no, not in my head. I could look in my Grandmother's Hadassah cookbook though...
I'm surprised your deal isn't buy one get one free. Or is that next week's deal?
That screaming deal is coming soon. You're just going to have to watch the site and wait for it.
Stacey, What's your deal?
This week my deal is buy one get one half off.
I am nearing the completion of the first draft of my first novel. I have spent over a year on this project and before I begin the next step of editing and rewriting I would appreciate any advice you may have to offer. One specific question I have concerns using an editor. Is it a good idea to hire an editor to review the work and suggest changes at this stage or should I do at least one edit and rewrite on my own before paying a professional to look it over?
I think you should do one rewrite on your own. Before you do, let the novel sit for a while, a couple of months at least. This allows time for something to change or evolve inside you, or maybe it just lets you to forget enough of what you wrote to give you a fresh eye when you read it again. After that, outside help might save you time, but it's important to find an editor you click with in a narrative sense. Hiring someone is fine, and there are a lot of great editors out there, but you might be surprised how helpful a reading by a sympatico friend or relative can be. Though if they're not helpful, it can suck big time. Congratulations on finishing your draft!
I agree, Carson McCullers would probably not be such a great mom in the traditional sense, but her kid would be sitting pretty to write an interesting memoir. So, and here comes the obvious follow-up question, if Denis Johnson and Carson McCullers had a kid, who would it be?
Well, that's an unlikely pairing. But I can't resist a challenge. Maybe Joy Williams?
Have you ever loved or admired en episodic narrative television program?
I have loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Wonder Falls (which is only available on video I believe); I liked Sex and the City but felt guilty about it. I also really liked The Wire but became what may have been clinically depressed from watching season four so still haven't watched season five.
If I could ever steal someone's HBO Go, I'm sure I'd find a lot more shows to love and admire. I might even marry one.