Posts Tagged ‘beginning’

Hooray and congratulations!  It’s pub day for Debra Galant, whose new novel, Cars from a Marriage, “delivers wit, charm and characters who feel like next-door neighbors,” according to Booklist. So why does Debra feel like she’s tap dancing on the beach?

Politicians kiss babies. I take pictures of them chewing on postcards advertising my new novel, Cars from a Marriage.

I know this is neither dignified nor author-like.

Nor are a lot of things I’ve been doing in the six weeks leading up to my April 27 pub date.

I’ve become a regular in the Staples’ label aisle, because advertising postcards are nothing without labels reminding people that the book is “Perfect for Mother’s Day!” and that they might win a free iPod nano if they enter a contest by telling me their best story about love and cars.

I ambushed the New York International Auto Show in early April, handing out several hundred cards while my husband followed me around, camcorder in hand, to record my rejections Michael Moore style.

I’ve spend ungodly amounts of time on Facebook, and have searched every nook and cranny of the internet looking for every book blogger I can find and charm.

I’m doing this to keep my own spirits up because it appears that neither my publisher nor the book industry at large is particularly excited about the publication of my third novel.

My first two novels were proudly displayed at the front of Barnes & Noble stores all over the country. This one won’t be. B&N has only ordered 1,000.

It breaks my heart that a book that comes out barely two weeks before Mother’s Day – a novel that should really appeal to reading women – won’t be seen by the shoppers who might be looking for a present for their reading mothers and wives.

It breaks my heart that my parents, who were so excited by my first novel, have become so jaded by the bruising process of trying to hand-sell my books to their friends that they practically don’t want to ask anymore. And the few friends they do ask will most likely march into a Barnes & Noble, not find it, and feel that they’ve done their bit.

Sure, sure, poor me. Poor published author. I’ve actually got a novel coming out from a major New York publishing house and I’m whining. And I have the poor grace to be whining at exactly the moment when friends and relatives are coming up to me with cheerful congratulations.

But the truth is, even though my friends want me to be, I’m not excited. I’m not remotely optimistic about my book’s chances. Like Hollywood and junior high school, the book industry is increasingly dominated by a few stars, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not one of them. What I’m feeling, at this moment on the cusp of publication, is small and inconsequential.

The irony is, when a new book comes out is when I feel least like a writer. It’s when I feel like Willy Loman.

Eventually, sometime late at night, when I least expect it, I’ll feel like a writer again. I’ll be lying in bed reading a great book, and I’ll notice a fabulous sentence or a great plot device or a marvelously unreliable narrator, and I will appreciate the sentence or the device or the narration the way a tailor would note the stitching on another tailor’s suit.

I might even write a fabulous sentence, or get an idea for a story or a novel that will thrill me. And then I’ll remember that I really am a member of a great guild and that having my words published and read by complete strangers is an honor and a privilege – maybe even a piece of immortality.

In the meantime, though, to stave off depression, I’m using every wile I have to eke out new fans. One by one by one. Handing out cards to babies, barnstorming auto shows, leaving stacks of cards at the YMCA. It feels a little like tap dancing on the beach — kicking up a lot of sand, but making no noise whatsoever.

Absurd, perhaps. Yet it does take place on a comfortingly human scale. The other day, shopping at Coldwater Creek, I made friends with two ladies in the dressing room, both teachers. We were advising each other about how we looked in various outfits and whether our fat rolls showed. One of them wondered whether I would wear a certain blouse, which was the tiniest bit sheer, to work. That’s when I dug into my purse and handed them each a postcard for Cars from a Marriage.

“I’m an author,” I said. “I have a new book coming out.”

They were delighted – just completely bowled over – to be in the presence of a real writer. And that delighted me.

Debra Galant’s new novel, Cars from a Marriage, comes out today — April 27 — from St. Martin’s Press. You can read more on her website, her blog or her Facebook page.

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With a challenging, fulfilling job and a satisfying personal life, Anne Burt questions her desire to write a novel – and finds the answer in an unexpected place:

Thomas Roma, Untitled, 1984

Motivation has always been as cruel to me as it has been – well – motivating. I’ve been motivated to write because: I imagine glory when the world reads my masterpiece; I need to act out some childhood revenge fantasy about surpassing my father; I have a contorted sense that immortality is achievable through words on a page.  Any analysis of my past motivations leaves me thinking I’m either a narcissist or an idiot or both.

I’ve won enough self-awareness through experience and therapy over the years to dispel the notion that any of my three aforementioned motivations for writing are a) possible, or b) matter.  I’m over it, and I sleep better at night and enjoy my life far more as a result.

The truth is, I have a creative, absorbing job I love that uses my skills and education, puts me in the company of artists each day and takes care of my family of four.  I have a meaningful career as a writer and editor as well; while I haven’t published a novel, I’ve published books and essays on subjects that move me and have given me great pride and sense of accomplishment.

My old demons don’t scare me into action anymore – for better (who needs the agitation?) or for worse (the agitation drove me to my writing desk, after all).

But a nagging question remains: do I need to recapture the negativity of these old motivations in order to see the writing of a novel all the way through from beginning to end, or has general life happiness turned my old desire to write a novel into phantom-limb syndrome?

Last week I attended an artist talk, one in a series I oversee as part of my job, by photographer and Columbia University School of the Arts professor Tom Roma. I know Tom, so I was prepared to be entertained by his banter, and I know his photographs, so I was prepared to hear about the extreme care with which he approaches every level of the process.  I was unprepared, however, to find the answer to my question.

Discussing his teaching philosophy, Tom described an assignment he gives his undergraduate and grad students in which he sends them to the library or a bookstore.  “I tell them to scan the shelves, feel the spines, look at the size and shape and heft of the books,” he said. “Then I tell them to pull out the one that speaks to them as an object.  Subject doesn’t matter; what matters is how it feels in their hands, how satisfied they are by holding this thing, whether they feel they need this object in their lives.  When they find the book, they must check it out of the library, or buy it from the store, and that will be the inspiration for the size and feel of their book of photographs.  Whenever they get lost in the middle of the work, or feel directionless or confused, I send them back to hold and feel the book because that book is their goal and will motivate them to create.”

And that was it.  I realized that I was missing something so obvious, so straightforward that it was not only staring me in the face but spilling out over every surface in my home, weighing down my shoulder bag week after week, keeping me up late at night reading, making me miss subway stops, informing my favorite conversations, and even creating the best moments spent with my children:  novels are the book for me.  Novels are my goal, and motivate me to create.  The the-ness of a novel matters to me; I run my hands over its spine and feel its weight and size and heft. Essay collections, careers, articles – not so much.

I want to create something I am truly passionate about, and until I commit myself to seeing a novel through, beginning to end, I won’t have done it. My true motivation is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Anne Burt is Director of Communications for Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the editor of My Father Married Your Mother: Dispatches from the Blended Family and co-editor with Christina Baker Kline of About Face: Women Talk About What They See When They Look in the Mirror.  Anne received Meridian Literary Magazine’s Editors’ Prize in Fiction in 2002.

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How do you come up with an idea that’s big enough to sustain a novel or memoir?  And how do you know when you’ve got it?

As a teacher of creative writing, I get asked this question a lot – and as a novelist, I can tell you that it torments every one of my beginnings.  A few days ago I put this question to the writer Katharine Weber, whose new novel, True Confections, was hailed by the Times Book Review this weekend as “a great American tale.”  (“It’s got everything,” Jincy Willett raved: “Humor, treachery, class struggle, racism, murder, capitalism and mass quantities of candy.”)

And here’s what Katharine Weber said:

I have been thinking about this for a few days since you asked me to consider this intriguing question, Christina. I am grateful to you for forcing me to think directly about something which is present in me as a writer but is intuitive and a bit organic, so I have to rummage a bit to explain it (which is always helpful to me as a writer, explaining what I do habitually without necessarily having full awareness).

I always have too many ideas. The question for me really isn’t ever Where do you get your ideas so much as How do you identify your best idea?

E.M. Forster wrote: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”

So how do we know when we have moved from story to plot to something we can develop? This is the critical and significant kind of self-editing and revision and expansion necessary if one is going to write and publish novels in which the world is going to take an interest.

I think about the number one problem I encounter in writing I see in workshops: Often, a story or a novel manuscript will have sentences that are good, page to page, and the writing is “good enough” too, overall, yet there is something wrong, something not working. And that flaw can usually be characterized in this way: there is something about this writing, even if I am not sure what it is — plot, character, sensibility, key details, events — something, that means a great deal more to the writer than it can ever possibly mean to any reader. The specific details of what that is, only the writer may ever fully understand, but it signifies a serious discrepancy between the writer’s overly personal relationship to the material and any reader’s possible way of finding enough meaning in the material to want to keep turning the pages. So that’s crucial. You cannot fill your novel with personal elements that signify enormously to you and expect those things to glow with meaning for anyone else unless you have made them glow.

But I suppose the only real test for me of whether or not an idea for a novel is enough in every sense of the word — big enough, interesting enough to me first and foremost, nuanced enough, original enough, rich enough for me to write interestingly — is that usually I have dwelled with it for quite a while before I start to write. It has sustained me imaginatively as I dwell in the world of the novel that lies ahead. And that original idea may have in that time shifted and mutated into something different or tangential as I worked it imaginatively and strategically. It would be unlikely, in fact, if the original kernel of a really good idea did not expand in some direction, perhaps a surprising direction, befoe the actual writing began.

And you just have to learn for yourself what works for you, and be willing to trust your instinct even as you develop your instinct, so that over time, experience will tell you when your ideas are enough to sustain a novel, more than enough to sustain a novel, or on the verge of way too much — too much going on, too many disconnected ideas — which can be the mark of insecurity. You have to be able to make decisive choices. Everything in the novel should be necessary to the novel. So for me it is sometimes as much about throwing elements and ideas overboard as it is about finding ideas.

Katharine Weber is the author of five novels: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, and the brand-new True Confections, the story of a chocolate candy factory in crisis. She is working a memoir about family stories and the narrative impulse, Symptoms of Fiction. You can learn more at www.katharineweber.com.  Also, follow her brilliant blog: http://staircasewriting.blogspot.com.

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Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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For this writer, the creative process happens in stages – and the final one makes all the difference:

Stanton essayThe first is the molecular stage, that early collection of bits of information, what I find fascinating, unusual, funny or poignant at the time it occurs, whether I retain it in memory or in a physical form on pieces of paper.

The critical mass stage is next.  The particles are vibrating on their own in proximity to one another until they reach a critical mass and a reaction occurs.  The writing begins in a fury, raw data, raw memory, stream of consciousness writing.

Incubation happens throughout the writing when I walk away from the piece and it sits inside me, silently arranging itself, so that when I next visit it, I have made important connections. Then I edit and rewrite.  The placement of events and observations creates irony, mood, pathos, humor.  Events are taken out of the chronological or random order and purposefully placed, refined, commented on.  Incubation can happen over a period of months or years, but also during the active writing periods, each night when I turn off my computer and go to bed with an essay on my mind. This seems important, that the essay is written only partially at the desk.  Much of it is written while I garden or walk or lay in bed mulling it over.

Insight is the last thing to come, what the story is really about. I often don’t know until very late in the process, and the story is frequently about something other than I intended, if I let the piece take the path it wants.  The telling phrases, observations, and reflections I add at this stage give the narrative facts a luminescence that only distance and learning can yield.  I can look with relative detachment at my experience and see it for what it really was, and in subtle ways, infuse these small epiphanies into the essay.

Distance.  Perspective.  It can take years to learn how an experience has sculpted me, to tell the story, to locate its pulsing heart.

Editor’s note: I discovered these observations in Stanton’s essay, “On Writing ‘Zion,’” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, which I’m using in a creative nonfiction class at Fordham. Stanton’s insights were so helpful to my students that I asked her for permission to adapt them here – something I normally don’t do.

Maureen Stanton’s essays have also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. Three of her essays were listed as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays; her work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Creative Nonfiction, The Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, among other prizes.  She has twice received an Individual Artist grant from the Maine Arts Commission, and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and grants from the Vogelstein Fund and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.  She teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri.

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Red Water pumpMondays are hard.  All weekend you’ve been doing laundry, taking family bike rides, reading the Times in bits and pieces, going to your kids’ soccer games, and then it’s Monday morning and they’re all out the door (except the dog, who is lying on your feet), and it’s hard to know where to begin, how to pick up where you left off.

When I was growing up in Maine, my professor parents bought an A-frame on a tiny island on a lake.  The house had no electricity or heat, and a red-handled pump was our only source of drinking water.  When we arrived on the island (having paddled over from the mainland in our evergreen Old Town canoe), we had to prime the pump with lake water to get it started.  One of my sisters poured the water into the top while another pumped.  The well water took a while to emerge, and then it was cloudy, rust-colored, for at least a minute or two before running clear.

This reminds me of my own writing on Monday mornings – or anytime I’ve taken a substantial break from it.  As with the pump, I’ve learned to prime my writing.  I might read a chapter or two of a book on my nightstand, or perhaps turn to one of my ‘touchstones’ – those dog-eared, broken-spined, oft-read volumes I’ve defaced with marginalia and underlinings, and which I know I can count on for inspiration.  (I’ve talked about some of those books here and here.)

Then I start to write, knowing that it may take some time to reach the deep, cold source of inspiration, but trusting that sooner or later my words will run clear.

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philip seymour hoffman7To get a book underway, you have to fully commit to it.

This is less obvious than it may seem.  One of the hardest parts of starting a book is committing to an idea.  Because … what if the story isn’t big enough?  What if it isn’t compelling enough?  What if there isn’t enough of an arc; what if it’s the wrong perspective; what if there’s a better way to tell the story?  (Or should you be telling another story altogether?)

Committing to a story can feel almost as momentous as getting engaged.  The questions you ask yourself aren’t so different.  Willl I really be able to live with this person day after day, year after year?  I really like X about him, but I can’t stand Y.  Things I like about him in small doses might become intolerable over time. And how will he age?

In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Philip Seymour Hoffman addressed this issue of committing to an idea.  He was talking about how he starts from scratch every time he becomes a new character, but it struck me that the creative process he describes is similar to a writer’s. “Creating anything is hard.  It’s a cliche thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything.  I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie.  You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again.  The key is you have to commit.  And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

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BIH inspiration“The newspaper clipping is in tatters.  Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years….”  So begins a guest post I wrote this week for In This Light, a blog about the influence of images on writers and writing.   Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters in Bird in Hand, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways …

You can read the rest here.

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Lars Tunbjork image“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me.  Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.”  At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one.  Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”

Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”

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… or What I Learned About Writing from Eating Candy

Breaking the bank - 12-22-08A long time ago, before I wrote my first novel, I despaired of ever having the time to undertake such a large and arduous project.  I had two small children and my days (nights too, come to think of it) seemed hopelessly fractured; my time, or what there was of it, felt like it had been broken into the small, useless increments: fifteen minutes here, twenty there.  An hour that was all my own was a rare and prized occurrence.  How I was to cobble together a writing life from all these pieces was inconceivable to me.  I could not work in shards, I thought.  I needed some great and unbroken expanse of time, time like a freshly opened bar of chocolate:  smooth, rich, and mine, mine, mine.  But it was not to be, not then, and maybe not ever.  If I wanted to write, I was going to have to readjust my thinking and my expectations.  Instead of that glorious, unblemished chocolate bar, I had a bag of M & Ms:  discrete nuggets of time that I would have to learn to use.

And I did. While my kids were at school or sports or play dates, I worked on a novel. I did plenty of other things too:  wrote for magazines and the occasional newspaper, did freelance editing, worked on a children’s book.

But my mantra was two pages a day, five days a week. Two pages a day was manageable and doable; two pages was bite sized, like a Raisinette.  And even though it didn’t seem like much, two pages would begin to add up:  to ten pages a week, forty pages a month.  Eventually a novel, which was published in 2002.

My children are older now; one is off to college this fall and the other will be a freshman in high school. Yet the chunks of time are still M & M-sized: small and finite.  It doesn’t matter.  Two pages a day is all I need.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments and In Dahlia’s Wake; her third novel, Breaking the Bank, is coming out today from Pocket Books.  Yona has written 18 books for children, the most recent of which are also being published this month: The Doll Shop Downstairs (Viking) and Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (Henry Holt).  [Ed. note: I think that’s called a hat trick!]  Visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com.

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Exploring the Process of Coming up with the Next Big Idea

I am between novels. I’ve been between novels for close to seven months now, which is typical for me. I am a slow germinator. I’m not devoid of ideas – that’s not the problem – I’m just devoid of an idea that I think I want to spend several thousand hours wrestling with. Having written three novels, I know exactly what the commitment is.

bumblebeeThis is what happens when I’m between novels.

The first few months, I don’t even try to get the Big Idea. I revel in the things that I’ve given up during the writing of my previous novel. I read prodigiously. I start diets and gym regimens. I fantasize about cleaning the entire house and settle for a closet. I go through entire weekends without feeling guilty. I enjoy being a civilian.

Once I get that out of my system, I start to wonder if I’ll ever write another novel. Fueled by anxiety, ideas begin to percolate. They appear in dreams. They’re triggered by odd encounters with strangers or obits and other chance juxtapositions.

I chase them breathlessly, bringing candy and flowers. Sometimes I’ll even get to know them, start thinking about introducing them to my family. Finally, a few days or a few weeks into my infatuation, I begin to discover their flaws. The voice is wrong or the subject is wrong or perhaps the idea is good but the project is beyond my power to execute. I retreat sheepishly.

I was actually 13 pages into one idea before I decided that I had no business creating a protagonist who was a Puerto Rican man in his 20’s. But first I had to agonize about whether I was being wise or lazy in deciding to give up the project. It was like a breakup. I asked various people for their opinions – my husband tried to convince me to stick with the idea – until my therapist mercifully gave me permission to stop.

We decided – my therapist and I – to go back to the idea-chasing stage with a little less desperation.

I picked up two of my favorite books about writing, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and allowed myself to fall in love again with the idea of being a writer. I also decided to embrace the pace of summer. I bicycled to the park with Smiley’s book and a notebook. The brilliance of the sun brought me back to the summer of ’79, when I was a cub reporter in North Carolina. I scribbled some notes. And then, just because I could, I used the video camera on my iPhone to record a bumblebee parachuting from clover to clover.

My mother used to worry about my bookish ways. “All work and no play makes Debbie a dull girl,” she would say. Julia Cameron, in How to Avoid Making Art (Or Anything Else You Enjoy),  says the same thing: “For most people creativity is a serious business. They forget the telling phrase ‘the play of ideas’ and think that they need to knuckle down and work more. Often, the reverse is true. They need to play.”

Novelists are good worker bees. Writing a manuscript of 80,000 or 100,000 words requires it. But maybe before a worker bee can make honey, she must first drift lazily from clover to clover, sucking the sweet nectar and getting drunk on the fullness of summer.

Debra Galant has written three novels. The first two, Rattled and Fear and Yoga in New Jersey, are comic novels about suburban life in New Jersey. Her forthcoming Cars from a Marriage, coming out next year from St. Martin‘s, follows a 20-year marriage through a series of car trips told by both the husband and the wife. In addition to writing novels, Galant is a new media pioneer. Baristanet, which she founded in 2004, was named the best placeblog in America in 2007.


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In anticipation of the release in exactly a week of Bird in Hand, I am posting the prologue.  Yesterday was Part 1; this is Part 2.  Sorry, you have to go back, but I’ll make it easy for you.

(*My publicist made me say that.  He also made me promise to point out that if this excerpt intrigues you, the book is available for pre-order at indie.org and amazon.com.)

Bird in Hand (Prologue, Part 2)

“Do we need a lawyer?” he said when it was clear she wasn’t going to answer, and she said, “I don’t know – maybe.  Probably.”

“Don’t say anything,” he said then.  She could tell he was flipping through scenarios in his mind, trying to lay things out in a methodical way.  “Just wait until I get there.”

“But I already said everything.  A boy is – a little boy is – they don’t know yet – hurt.” She said this although they’d already told her there was swelling on the brain.  The police weren’t wearing uniforms, and they didn’t handcuff her or read Alison her rights or any of the other things she might have expected.  The boy’s parents were weeping; the mother was wailing I let him sit on my lap; he was cold in the back and afraid of the dark, and the father was slumped with his hands over his face.  The walls of the lobby vibrated with their sadness.

“Jesus Christ,” Charlie breathed.  And she thought of other times he’d been exasperated with her – on their honeymoon, when, after two days of learning to ski, she suddenly froze up and couldn’t do it; she was terrified of the speed, the recklessness, of feeling out of control; she was sure she would break a limb.  So she spent the rest of the time in the lodge, a calculatedly cozy place with a gas flame in the fireplace and glossy ski magazines on the oak veneer coffee tables, while Charlie got his money’s worth from the honeymoon.  She tried to think of an experience comparable to what was happening now, some time when she had done X and he had reacted Y, but she couldn’t come up with a thing.  Eight years.  Two children.  A life she didn’t plan for, but had grown to love.  Friends and a hometown and a house, not too big but not tiny, either, with creaky stairs and water-damaged ceilings but lots of potential.

Potential was something she once had a lot of, too.  Every paper she wrote in college could have been better; every B+ could have been an A.  She could have pushed ahead in her career instead of stopping when it became easier to do so.  She hadn’t known she wanted to stop, but Charlie said, “C’mon, Alison, the kids want you at home.   It’s a home when you’re home.”  But after she quit he complained about bearing the heavy load of responsibility for them.  There was no safety net, he said; he said it made him anxious.  He wanted her at home, but he missed the money and the security and she knew he missed seeing her out in the world, though he didn’t say it.  He saw her at home in faded jeans and an old cotton sweater, he saw her at seven o’clock when the kids were clamoring for him and strung-out and cranky and he had just endured his hour-long commute from the city.

And yet – and yet she thought she was lucky, thought they were lucky, loved and appreciated their life.

But tonight she was living a nightmare.  Her friends – some of them, at least – would probably try to comfort her, provide some kind of solace, but it would be hard for them, because deep down they would think that she was to blame.  And it wasn’t that they couldn’t imagine being in her position, because every woman has imagined what it would feel like to be responsible for taking a life.

But worse, every mother has thought about what it would be like to have her child’s life taken from her.

Alison could hear Charlie asking for her, out at the front desk.  Polite and deferential and panicked and impatient – all of that.  She could read his voice the way some people read birdcalls.  She almost didn’t want him to find her.  As she looked around at the dingy lights, the dirt-sodden carpet, heard the clatter from the holding cells down the hall, she wondered what it would be like to stay here – not here, perhaps, but in prison somewhere, cut off from other people, penitent as a nun.  Or in a convent, a place with stone walls, small slices of sky visible through narrow slits, neatly made narrow beds.  A place where she could pay for this quietly, away from anyone who had ever known her.

You might expect that she’d have thought of her children, and she did – peripherally, like a blinkered horse looking sideways; when she tried to think of them straight-on her mind went blank.  Her own boy’s brown curls on the pillow, her six-year-old daughter’s twisted nightgown, her covers on the floor . . . Alison saw them sleeping, imagined them dead – just for an instant.  Imagined explaining – and stopped.  The only thing she seemed able to do was concentrate on the minute details of each moment:  the cold floor, hard seat, dispassionate officers tapping on keyboards and shuffling papers.  The tick of the wall clock.  11:53.

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Over the next two days, in anticipation of the release in exactly a week of Bird in Hand, I am posting the prologue in two parts.

(*My publicist made me say that. He also made me promise to point out that if this excerpt intrigues you, the book is available for pre-order at indie.org and amazon.com.)

Bird in Hand

For Alison, these things will always be connected: the moment that cleaved her life into two sections and the dawning realization that even before the accident her life was not what it seemed. In the instant it took the accident to happen, and in the slow-motion moments afterward, she still believed that there was order in the universe – that she’d be able to put things right. But with one random error, built on dozens of tiny mistakes of judgment, she stepped into a different story that seemed, for a long time, to have nothing to do with her. She watched, as if behind one-way glass, as the only life she recognized slipped from her grasp.

This is what happened: She killed a child. It was not her own child. He – he was not her own child, her own boy, her own three-year-old son. She was on her way home from a party where she’d had a few drinks. She pulled out into an intersection, the other car went through a stop sign, and she didn’t move out of the way. It was as simple as that, and as complicated.

Something happens to you in the moments after a car crash. Your brain needs time to catch up; you don’t want to believe what your senses are telling you. Your heart is beating so loudly that it seems to be its own living being, separate from you. Everything feels too close.

As she saw the car coming toward her she sat rigid against the seat. Shutting her eyes, she heard the splintering glass and felt the wrenching slam of metal into metal. Then there was silence. She smelled gasoline and opened her eyes. The other car was crumpled and steaming and quiet, and the windshield was shattered; Alison couldn’t see inside. The driver’s door opened, and a man stumbled out.

“My boy – my boy, he’s hurt,” he shouted in a panicky voice.

“I have a phone. I’ll call 911,” Alison said.

“Oh God hurry,” he said.

She punched the numbers with unsteady fingers. She was shaking all over; even her teeth were chattering.

“There’s been an accident,” she told the operator. “Send help. A boy is hurt.”

The operator asked where Alison was, and she didn’t know what to say. She’d taken a wrong turn a while back, gone north instead of west, and found herself on an unfamiliar road. She knew she was lost right away; it wasn’t like she didn’t know, but there had been nowhere to turn, so she’d kept going. The road led to other, smaller roads, badly lit and hard to see in the foggy darkness, and then she came upon a four-way stop. Alison had pulled out into the intersection before she’d realized that the other car was driving straight through without stopping – the car was to her right and had the right of way, but it hadn’t been there a moment ago when she had moved forward. It had seemed, quite literally, to have come out of nowhere.

Alison knew better than to explain all this to the operator, but in truth she had no idea where she was. Craning her neck to look out the windshield, she saw a street sign – Saw Hill Road – and reported this.

“Hold on,” the operator said. “Okay, you’re in Sherman. I’ll send an ambulance right away.”

“Please tell them to hurry,” Alison said.

She called her husband from the hospital and told him about the accident, about the car being totaled and her injured wrist, but she didn’t tell him that all around her doctors and nurses were barking orders and the swinging doors were banging open and shut, and a small boy was at the center of it, a small boy with a broken skull and a blood-spattered t-shirt. But Charlie knew soon enough. She had to call him back to tell him not to come to the hospital; she was now at the police station, and there was silence for a moment and then he said, “Oh – God,” and whatever numbness she’d had was stripped away. She flinched – told him, “Don’t come” – and he said, “What did you do?”

It wasn’t the response she’d expected – not that she had thought ahead enough to expect anything in particular; she didn’t know what to expect; she didn’t have a response in mind. But her sudden realization that Charlie was not with her, not reflexively on her side, was so profoundly shocking that she braced for what was next.

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Unlocking the Forest“To have begun is to be half-done;

dare to know; start!”

— Horace

(Thanks to Tasha O’Neill for her image of a doorway at the Rockefeller Gardens in Seal Harbor, Maine,“Unlocking the Forest.”)

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Literary essayist, editor, and writing coach Lisa Romeo writes:

Writers tend to think of rejection as something done to us by outsiders. We paint it as something we cannot control, as something to be feared and avoided, when in reality, rejection begins with ourselves.  Early on.rejection-blog

Even before we start writing, we reject our own creativity.  We dismiss our ideas, our skills, our imagination before we give them a chance to work themselves out on the page. We squash the excitement that might otherwise go along with beginning a new project.  We self-censor before we have words to delete.

Pre-writing — that period from the moment an idea first enters our consciousness until we put words on paper — takes many forms.  It can be notes scribbled on the edges of a calendar, a photo we keep fingering, dialogue that springs into our minds just before we wake in the morning.  It is the sometimes mysterious, occasionally frustrating, often exciting or scary time when we are reading, thinking, imagining, and mentally tinkering with a writing project.

It can also be debilitating.  Because rejection is a big part of pre-writing.  Not the formal rejection associated with a “no thanks” email notification, but rejection that comes from having one-sided conversations with ourselves:

… Nah, it’s been done … so-and-so did it better than I could … it’s silly (stupid, dumb, derivative, old, weird, unusual, boring) … no one but me would want to read it … I don’t have the skill/craftsmanship/knowledge to write it the way it should be done … I’ve never written in this genre before … who would care? … I’ve written about this too many times already … I’ve never written about this before … my agent/last editor/mentor/MFA adviser/writing buddies won’t like it … this will take too long  … the reviewers will hate it … what makes me think I can pull this off? … I’m not the right writer for this … it doesn’t fit in with the rest of my writing career or goals … I’ll never earn any money with this … I’m not even sure how to begin ….

I once thought of myself as a workmanlike writer of the light, straightforward personal essay:  good enough for some markets but not nearly good enough for certain literary venues.  Then one day, swimming in grief and loss and angry with the world, I sat down and started what turned out to be a long, braided, literary essay. I’ve written and published many since.  So much for all the self-rejection banter previously bouncing around my brain.

We need to think of rejection as something organic to the writing process, something we can manage.  Popular advice to writers on handling rejection runs along the lines of growing a tough skin, ignoring it and moving on, learning from it, and – if you like symbolism and ritual – doing something tangible like printing out and lining the hamster cage with all the “no thanks” emails. Many writers have talked about the positive impetus provided by agent or editor rejections, an “I’ll show them” mindset.

But what about self-rejection?  Try this:  the next time you contemplate a new writing project, instead of entertaining that idea in a hostile atmosphere (see list above, and add your own mean-spirited recriminations), why don’t you consciously nurture a different kind of mental environment – an incubator of sorts, a place where ideas come to be nurtured and not nixed?

This shift in perspective can help us put rejection from the outside into a different context. If we recognize that we are constantly in a push-pull with rejection, that rejection is something inherent in and inextricable from the work we do, that it is something we can positively control during a major segment of the writing process, then the whole specter of rejection with a capital ‘R’ loses its power.  Imagine what could happen with your writing if only you stop treating yourself with the kind of harsh, frequent, and final ‘No’s’ that come from the outside.

Go. Write. Do not reject.

Lisa Romeo has been published in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, literary journals, and several essay anthologies.  A freelance editor and writing instructor, she is also at work on a memoir of linked essays. Her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes, has more on topics of interest to writers.

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Metz, PERFECTIONThe memoirist Julie Metz, who is now working on a novel, writes:

When I wrote my memoir, Perfection, the story of my discovery of my husband’s secret life only after his sudden death, my focus was on careful recall aided by journals and letters.  And yet, since I love reading fiction, I wanted my memoir to “read” like a novel.  After many failed attempts, I found a structure for the factual narrative that allowed me to recapture my own state of mind at the moment of my husband’s death and the early months of widowhood.  The primary inspiration for my book was the fictional memoir Jane Eyre, in which an innocent narrator’s life is changed by a devastating revelation.

During this last year, while Perfection was in the final stages of publication, I began working on a new project, a novel.  I am finding it to be a very different process.  I began with a snippet of a story I’d been kicking around in my head for years, but as I got into the project in a deep way, the original story fell away as the characters became more vivid. Very little remains of the original idea except for locations and some back story.  The day I realized I had to quit forcing my original idea into the book was both sad and liberating. My attempts to direct the plot were those of a classroom bully who tries to force other kids to play by his or her rules. No one wants to play with a bully.

Now that I spend my days conjuring rather than exclusively researching my past, I frequently think of Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: to focus not on plot but on character. I try to sit with my (mostly) made up characters and hope that if I am quiet and patient I will get to know them as well as the real people in my life, and that they will tell me what they need to do and say.

Julie Metz is a graphic designer (she co-designed the cover of her memoir), artist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Glamour, and Publisher’s Weekly. Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, is her first book.

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A writer friend, Cindy Handler, asks: “A few posts back [Writing Tip #3: Use a Monkeywrench] you mentioned that you like to give your characters a trait that goes counter to their basic nature and makes it harder for them to get what they want (if I understand correctly).  Could you give an example?  The main character in my novel is so controlling that it works both for and against her, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.”monkey-reading book

So here’s an example.  In my novel-in-progress there’s a 17-year-old tattooed, pierced, tough kid named Michelle who’s in trouble for stealing.  But she steals books.  She loves to read; libraries became a refuge when her home life was in chaos. And her love of reading gives me access to a more interesting inner life for her.

I don’t mean, necessarily, that this kind of contradiction makes it harder for characters to get what they want, only that by working against type I can deepen and expand who they are.  I find, especially at the beginning, that the more complexity I add, the more my characters surprise and intrigue me and the more I have to say about them.

Cindy adds, “And the more real it makes them seem, because real people are full of contradictions.”

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When I’m developing a new character I often throw a monkey wrench into the works to create internal tension.  I give this person a trait (an obsession, a habit, a fixation, a physical peculiarity or mannerism) that seems to cut against the grain of his or her personality.  I find that these contradictions usually add depth and dimension, and stimulate me to think about my character in new ways.

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five sensesThe problem of beginning …

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a story (or a chapter or a scene) you should use all five sentences right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph:  touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight.  Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

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