Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eat My Stats!

Did you know that in Blogland, there are wizards behind the curtain?  For example, when it came to designing this blog, I had no idea what to do, so I just picked the simplest setting, figuring that the background would be blank until I could someday have my 30-something techno-wiz friend Julie make a custom one for me.  But after I had entered my first post and clicked on "view blog," lo and behold!!  A wall of books had magically appeared as a background!  So clearly, there must be some program out there that tracks the words in your blog posts and, if it sees words like "write" and "book" and publish," designs your background accordingly.  Is this cool, or creepy?   I'm not entirely sure, but here's something else that has been boggling my mind ever since I discovered it.  So, on what I guess is my tech control panel of sorts, there is a link for "stats," and when you click it, it tells you exactly how many people have viewed your blog, today, this week, or since the dawn of time.  So I now know that in the ten days since I've started this venture, I have had exactly 36 views!  OH MY GOD!!!  I'VE GONE VIRAL!!!!  But wait; it gets better.  When you're on the stats page, there's another link that's called "audience," and when you click on that, it shows you a map to illustrate the geographical location of your myriad viewers, and also lists them  for you by country in case your map reading skills are subpar.  And as a result, I know that someone in Germany has been reading my blog!  And someone in Russia!  And, I think, someone in Alaska!  Well, it looks like Alaska to me, anyway.  It's all sort of overwhelming, to be honest.   But now that I know what a sizzling hot ticket I am, I have a favor to request.  If you like my blog, would it kill you to leave a comment?  What, are all your fingers broken?  You don't know what a sad thing it is to obsessively check your new baby blog a couple of times a day for comments, only to meet the same dreary chain of zeroes.  Please!  Drop me a line!  In your native tongue, if necessary!  Don't make me beg.  Don't you think it's bad enough that, at my age, I have to grovel before editors and agents whom I should more appropriately be dandling on my knee?  Wait - you vast audience out there.  You're not intimidated by me, are you?  Is that even possible?  If so, I will tell you a story to illustrate how unintimidating I truly am.  A couple of nights ago, I suggested something I can't now remember to my daughter beginning with "why don't you...?,"  and she smiled at me and, maybe 30% joking, replied, "Why don't you just be quiet, like, forever?"  And just as I opened my mouth to respond, she said, "It's not forever yet."  Okay?  Do I make myself clear?  NO ONE is afraid of me, and I'm getting lonely here, people!    Give me a reason to keep going!   And, even if all your fingers do happen to be broken, have a fabulous New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

So It's War (Horse)

My family and I spent Christmas Day as Jews ought: at the movies.  My 22-year-old son was off visiting his dad, but my 15-year-old daughter actually deigned to be seen in public with her parents, on the condition that we go to a theater in a different town to minimize the risk of bumping into any of her peers.  We saw "War Horse."  I willingly suspended disbelief of all the utterly improbable plot twists, and sobbed pretty much from start to finish.  I'm such a sucker for a horse story.
     But that's not why this event belongs in my blog.  Here is why: I learned something from that film.   If you're writing a story that takes place during a time of war and upheaval, the plot can essentially write itself.  All you need to do is know your protagonist deeply enough to be able to understand how s/he would react in any given situation, and then hold them up against symbolic historical events and let them go.
     My Novel #4 is set in Ireland in the middle of the 17th century, when Cromwell's army was methodically marching through the country and uprooting both the majority of the populace and their traditional way of life.  Acts of brutality abounded on both sides of the conflict.  I'd written the first few chapters, establishing who my protagonist is and setting him off on his journey, and that's where I came to a halt.  It wasn't just that I was so focused on my revisions to Book #3.  I think I was also waiting for a sign, waiting for my boy to tell me what would happen to him next.  But seeing "War Horse" made me realize that I'm asking too much of him.  My boy left home, such as it was, because he had no other choice, not because he had a plan.  How can he possibly know where to go or what he'll find when he gets there?  He needs me to guide him along the way to where I know, but he doesn't, that he'll end up.  So, with that revelation, yesterday I sat down and started to plot my story.  Not much actual writing got done, but a bridge has been crossed, and my boy and I are on our way.  Thank you, Steven Speilberg.
     And this leads me to a tiny snippet of writing advice, just in case any would-be author actually ever reads this, and happens to be even less published than me.   Everyone tells you to write what you know.  Well, in my opinion, it's much more important to write WHOM you know.  Once your characters have become so real to you that they show up in your dreams, then you can put them anywhere, in any situation, and they will remain themselves, even as they change.   Know them better than you know your siblings, no matter how long it takes you to get there.  And then let them go.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Agents and Holidays

In early June, I attended the annual New Jersey SCBWI conference, and met an agent who had read the first chapter of my Novel #3, and declared herself "besotted" with it.  She wanted to see the full manuscript ASAP.  I got nervous, asked for two weeks to get it in top form, and at the end of those two weeks, sent it off to her.  She very quickly, but very kindly and thoughtfully,  rejected it, based on her objections to a plotline that she felt did not work.  Since she wasn't the first person in the publishing biz who had felt that same way - in fact, she was the third, but I had refused to listen before - I decided that it was time for me to bite the bullet, and amputate.  I asked her whether she would be willing to see a revised version after the bloodletting, and she said she'd be happy to, any time.  From mid-June to mid-November, I excised 95% of the offending plotline, decided to keep the remaining 5%, and filled in the holes with an entirely new storyline. If that sounds easy, trust me.  It wasn't.  The agent was right.  The book became much stronger and richer.  On November 15th, with visions of the Newbery Award dancing in my head, I sent it back to her.  She hasn't responded.  After the holidays, I'm going to send her a gentle nudge, because if she doesn't want the book, I need to move on and try elsewhere.
     Which brings me to the holidays.  Not directly, of course, but since I now have this forum to write about whatever is roiling around in my mind, I'm going to take advantage of it.  So.  This past Thursday night, I sequentially gave identical Christmas gifts to two women of whom I think very highly.  The gifts were painted glass ornaments, very beautiful, depicting a mother and baby.  BOTH of the recipients, independently, patiently advised me, as if they were imparting some arcane bit of Christian lore, that the two people painted on the ornament were not just some generic mother and child, but in fact, the Madonna and the Baby Jesus.  No way!  Okay, I'm Jewish. I was born that way, and have so remained.  But do they really think that the fact that I have never celebrated Christmas - including the years that I was married to a Christian - means that I have never noticed it??   That my acquaintance with the meaning of Christmas began and ended with Santa and his reindeer?  That I thought that when George Harrison sang of Mother Mary coming to him, speaking words of wisdom, he was singing about his own Mum flying in from Liverpool?  I'll admit that I was a little hazy about the details of the Annunciation, but last year I asked my friend Yvette about it, and she filled me in.  I have not spend my 56 years under a rock (I was going to say, in a cave, but I actually know about the cave thing too, and I don't want to be disrespectful).  Yes, Virginia, Christianity is the dominant culture in America, and I'd bet a lot of money that there are more Christians, proportionately speaking, that have never heard of the Maccabbees or of the razing of the Jerusalem Temple in Roman times, than there are Jews who never heard that there was no room at the inn and that the Star of Bethlehem led the three wise men to a stable were Jesus lay in a manger.  I am, personally, very fond of the Christmas story.  Do I believe in its literal truth?  No.  But neither do I believe that the world was created fifty-seven-hundred-and-something years ago, or that Moses climbed a mountain and was swept up from the top of it into Heaven to receive the Ten Commandments.  I'm Jewish both by birth and by choice, but I'm not going to quarrel with anyone's sincere desire to improve the world, by whatever name they choose to call it.  My 15-year-old daughter has asked me twice within the past year, both times out of the blue, whether I believe in God.  Caught on short notice, both times I answered that I'm not sure.  If I'd had more time to think, I might have said: I believe in charity, love, and redemption.  If you want to call those concepts God, then yes, I do.
  And that concludes my rant for today.  Thanks for listening.  And, if any celebrants happen to be reading this, I wish them a joyous - wait - it's on the tip of my tongue - I've got it!  Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's Not Really Funny

Yesterday I was offered a promotion at work, and one of my first thoughts was: would this cut into my writing time?  Yep, I have an embryonic fourth novel, too, that I haven't touched in months because I've been too busy revising Novel #3.  My novels, my novels ...  They're burning a hole in my pocket.  They're burning a hole in my heart.  How do I explain to the characters to whom I've given birth that I am the only person they may ever meet?  How can I justify having conjured them up if they never live to see the light of day? I think I'd really come to believe that this past year would be my year, and so this was a particularly bitter birthday for me.  I went apeshit on my husband over the presents he got me, although usually I can manage some degree of basic civility.  It wasn't the presents, it was the birthday.   Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that I am so fortunate in so many ways, and the two-year-old inside me bursts out and screams:  I DON'T CARE ABOUT ANY OF MY OTHER TOYS!   I WANT THAT TYRANNOSAURUS PUPPET, AND I WANT IT NOW!!!!   Yeah, but here's the thing.  Even if I hold my breath until I turn blue, I'll just be a remarkably colorful unpublished author.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Art, Not a Science

Because not getting your writing published is an art, not a science, I offer no assurances that my method is the only, or even the best, way to achieve this goal.  I can only attest that it has consistently worked for me for many years, and so I thought it might be of some interest to the general public.  Here goes:

1. Consider yourself a writer from childhood on.  Write all kinds of things through the years: poetry, plays, short stories, song lyrics, journal entries.  Read a lot, in many different genres.  Slowly, painfully, via many trials and a seemingly bottomless pit of errors, improve your literary skills. 

2. Develop a nonwriting career - say, the law.  Get married, divorced, remarried.  Have two kids.  Raise them.  Continue writing and reading throughout, though more episodically than steadily.  Take writing classes when possible.

3. Eventually - say, by your mid-thirties - select a writing genre that seems most suited to your abilities and interests.  Say - oh, I don't know - young adult literature.

4. Focus your efforts in that genre.  Read a lot of young adult novels.  Take classes.  Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a truly stellar professional organization.  Attend conferences and workshops.  Join a wonderful, supportive, intelligent critique group, and attend its meetings regularly.  Stick with all of the above for - just throwing this number out here - fifteen years or so.  Give or take.

5. Keep writing. Steal time at work.  Finish a novel.  Acquire, and lose, an agent.  Write a second novel.  Then a third.  Amass critical praise over the years; come close to having a novel acquired by a couple of other agents; revise, revise, revise, until it seems that you could recite the full text of each of your novels from memory.  Resubmit.  Be told that it's just not quite ___ enough to sell (fill in the blank).  Compare your writing to that of published authors; whether you come out better or worse, hate and envy said authors for having something (an unfair measure of either genius or undeserved good luck) that you don't have.  Get depressed.  Get angry.  Keep writing anyway.

6. Get better at writing.  In fact, get really good at writing.  But, simultaneously, get older.  And then even older.  Until one day you wake up and turn - just a ballpark number - 56.  Four days after that birthday, start a blog.  Because, hey - who knows?  Maybe someone out there in cyberland will read that!!

So that's it.  As I said, I can only personally vouch for one way of not getting published.  There must be countless other variations out there.  Suggestions, anyone?