Thursday, September 30, 2010

A conversation at the gym

There's this guy at my gym who is literally my opposite in every way. I am a Cubs fan; he's a Cardinals fan. I am a Bears fan'; he is a Packers fan. I'm a Democrat; he's a Tea Party follower.

I have hair; well, you know ....

This guy also thinks people who write novels are namby-pambies who ought to go out and work like real people. He's told me this before. In fact, our long-running "discussion" has always centered around his view that "any schmuck" can write a novel. He claims he got an A on an essay in high school English class and the teacher wrote on it that he should "seriously consider writing."

Instead, he became a plumber because, he says, he wanted "a real job."

Now being a plumber is not only lucrative and qualifies as a "real job," it's one of those things I cannot do -- like mechanics and algebra and golf.

But his views on writing, especially on fiction writing, always rub me the wrong way. Big time.

And this morning, he was waiting for me. What follows is a somewhat comical, exaggerated version of our real conversation. (I exaggerated it to make a point and, well, because this is MY blog. I mean no disrespect to viewers of Fox News, although I can't say the same about Packers and Cardinal fans.)

"Hey, it's the wimpy little writer guy," he said, snapping me with his wet towel.

"In the flesh," I said, peeling off my sweaty tee-shirt. "How about them Bears?"

"They got lucky," he snarled. "So guess what I heard on Fox News this morning?"

"Gee. I dunno. That Obama and Pelosi were the brains behind the 9-11 terror attacks?"

"Well, other than that."

I sighed. "Okay. I'll bite. What?"

He grinned. "That little fireplug chick from The Jersey Shore is writing a novel."


"You know, what's her name. The stubby one with the fake red tan and that hairy pillbox on her head."

"Ah. Nicole "Snooki" Polizzzi from MTV?"

"Yeah. That mouthy chick who's always getting carried out of nightclubs. You know, the one not named Lindsay or Paris."

"Yeah. I know who she is. A book huh? Must be a memoir. I mean, if Justin Beiber can write one, anyone can."

"No. No. A novel. I think it's gonna be called A Shore Thing or something like that."

I laughed. "Yeah, well good luck getting it published."

He smiled. "She's already got a book deal."

I froze. "Really?"

"Yep. I wonder who her agent is? I wonder how her whatchamacallit, query, got to the top of the shit pile?"

"Slush pile," I corrected. "And to be honest, I'm ... not really sure."

He grinned smugly. "I bet that really pisses you off, doesn't it? After all the work you and your little Internet writer buddies do. Goes to show I was right all along. Ha."

"I suppose she could be an idiot-savant or something like that," I said, stammering.

"I don't know what a savant is, but you got the idiot part right."

I managed to get out of there and rushed home. I Googled Snooki and there it was, right above an article headlined, "Snooki fined $500 for being a drunken nuisance."

Here is the nutgraph:

"Nicole “SnookiPolizzi of Jersey Shore will write a novel. Yep, you read right—a novel. By Snooki. The same Snooki who told New York Times writer Cathy Horyn that she’s only read two books in her life: Twilight and Dear John. (Not that I have anything against Stephenie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks. But two books in her life?) Snooki’s novel will be titled A Shore Thing, and according to Publishers Marketplace it’s about “a girl looking for love on the boardwalk (one full of big hair, dark tans, and fights galore).” Simon & Schuster’s Gallery will publish the novel in January 2011."

I spent the next several minutes trying to find out which agent plucked her from the shit pile, er, slush pile. No luck.

I wonder if it's the same one who rejected my query and first 50 pages in less than four minutes?

Sigh. I think I'm going to spend the next few days looking into plumbing school.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Today is a special day

Fourteen years ago today, Sept. 28, 1996, I married my lovely wife, Jennifer. It was, and remains to this day, the best thing I have ever done in my life. (That's her at left, sans roller derby garb.)

This will be a very short post, since we are doing what everyone does on their anniversary -- eating a quick dinner at Panera's so we can make roller derby practice. Eh. Life goes on.

No writing updates today, since once again real life took center stage. At this point, I'm just hoping to get back into the swing of things by next week. I still have more than a dozen queries out, and I'm still contemplating adding to/changing the end of The Devil You Don't Know, based on feedback from a trusted writer friend.

Also, no word yet from Writer's Digest on whether I will be doing some pieces for them. I sent in a couple of story pitches (sort of like mini query letters) per the managing editor and was told I would likely hear something this week. We shall see.

I'm glad more people are able to read and comment on the newly redesigned blog. I suppose I'll get used to the brown, although I do miss the old coffee cup/cafe design. Still, I'm happy to switch it out if it means hearing from old friends again.

Hope you all have a good and productive night. It's time for derby practice!

Monday, September 27, 2010

My blog is fixed!

As you can tell, I changed the way this blog looks.

I also changed the way it behaves. I hope. The old design was causing problems for some readers. It was too slow. It locked up. It prevented folks from commenting. It was a mess.

So. Even though I loved it, I decided to sacrifice beauty for functionality. So now it's brown. Really brown.

And now I need you input. Is the blog running smoother than before? Can you read it and comment without problems? Please let me know if it's better.


Also, kid problems are continuing. In fact, they are worsening. No writing today. Sigh.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Inspiration when I need it most

I won't lie to you. It's not been a great week for yours truly.

Nothing really awful happened. It's just that a handful of crappy little things happened on the heels of last weekend's good things, which had moved me to self confidence. It never fails. Whenever I get too cocky, the writing gods tend to whack me over the head.

Consider me whacked.

I've felt bad all week that I allowed myself to brag in my last post. I hate that. I really do. And I apologize for it. No wonder I lost followers after that post. I would have left too, except it's my blog.

Anyway. No worries. I'm back to my usual almost-suicidal, neurotic self.

I've been e-corresponding with a fellow writer who is also having a bad week. And when I sent this writer an email a few minutes ago, telling said writer to buck up and offering up all kinds of encouragement, it occurred to me that I should take my own advice.

This is a tough business, this fiction writing. It's hard to do, and even harder to sell once it's done. We all know that. We probably knew it going in, although I suspect it's human nature to tell ourselves that we're different, that we're not going to fail like most everyone else.

And yet. It's hard. And frustrating. And it's so damned easy to get so frustrated that we think about throwing in the towel. I mean, there has to be a better way to make a living, right?

Well, no. There's not. We are creating. We are living a dream. We are trying to do something only a handful of people have ever accomplished. It makes no real difference whether we actually get published. We are trying. And that counts for something. Don't ever tell yourself it doesn't.

And that leads me to my all-time favorite inspirational quote. It's from Teddy Roosevelt and it NEVER fails to bring tears to my eyes and new found determination to my heart.

Here it is. Please take it to heart, because every single word is true.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." -- Theodore Roosevelt.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writing, rocking and roller derby!

Before I get into the weekend's writing conference, I have some exciting news to share with you.

No. Not that.

This: Last week, I was asked to be the bench coach for my wife's roller derby team, the Hard Knocks. She was drafted by the team a few weeks ago. It's one of three new teams in the local league.

Tonight will be my first practice with the team (yes, they call themselves The Knockers, but I'm just not there yet). I'm a bit nervous, since I know next to nothing about roller derby. But that's okay. We're all learning. And the season doesn't actually start until spring, so we should have plenty of time to get things rolling, so to speak.

The bench coach decides who skates when, since getting your skaters onto the floor within the allotted time is crucial to avoiding penalties. I will have a hand in strategy insofar as picking the jammer, blockers and pivot for each jam. My goal will be to have the skaters out there who will best be able to score points, based on which group of skaters the other teams deploys.

It sounds kind of complicated, and I fear it will be. But I love sports, I'm competitive as hell and I'm a fast learner. It ought to be a blast.

We have a smattering of exhibition bouts over the winter, starting with this Saturday in the Quad Cities. It's a newbie-only bout, so the wife won't be skating, and I won't be coaching. But the whole league is going to cheer on the local girls.

For those of you who haven't seen today's roller derby, do yourself a favor and find out if there's a league near you. And then go to the bouts. Or better yet, if you are female and between the ages of 18 and 50, try out. It's incredibly fun, damned addicting and not at all like the cheesy roller derby of the 1970s. These women take it seriously. There's plenty of action, blood and excitement.

Rock on, girls!

Now, on to more literary pursuits, namely this past weekend's Writer's Digest Editor's Intensive conference at WD's cool new digs in suburban Cincinnati.

Fifty writers of all genres and skill levels converged on the conference for a long day Saturday of lectures and speeches from the likes of Chuck Sambuchino and Jane Friedman. They discussed everything from how to snag an agent to using social media (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.) to further your career and boost your writing platform.

It was very informative. But the best thing was socializing with other writers. Now that was cool. We had an even mix of men and women ranging in age from early twenties to about seventy. Some were from the Cincy area, but many of us came from all over the U.S., including Hawaii. We had a lovely meet-and-greet Saturday night.

But the main event was Sunday, when we had our one-on-one critique session with an WD editor. I believe there were six or seven editors who did the actual critiquing. We all sent the first 50 pages of our manuscripts in several weeks ago and the editors decided the match-ups.

I got Zach Petit, the managing editor of WD! Turns out he has a journalism background very similar to mine, and writes fiction that's similar in theme to mine.

But man, was I nervous.

[Caution: Some bragging ahead. Proceed at your own peril]

It went very well. VERY well. In fact, he said he had very little to critique. Instead, he asked me tons of questions about my background, how long it took to write TDYDK, whether I'm writing anything new, what it's about, etc. He gave me some advice on agents who might be interested in my work. We also talked (and laughed) about our journalism careers. Zachary Petit is a very cool, very helpful man. I was lucky to get him for the critique.

He even said he was dying to know how the book ends. When I told him, he asked several more questions and then said it sounded like "one hell of a ride." He also said he might email me for a copy of the entire thing, although he would prefer "reading it when it comes out."

Wow. I was thrilled that the managing editor of WD would like my work. Really, truly humbled. He even asked me if I was interested in pitching some story ideas to the magazine. I was damn near in tears when I left the session. I mean, me? Writing for Writer's Digest?

So I came home rejuvenated and ready to rock and roll. I rewrote the query for TDYDK with the help of a dear writer friend (Thanks Christi!) and fired it out to seven more agents, including some fairly big names. I mean, there's nothing like a shot of confidence to overcome my deep-seated insecurities.

And this morning I got .... another form rejection.


Oh well. It's kind of nice to get back to normal again. But this time, I have some much-needed confidence to keep at it. Finally.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Finally home

We just got back from Cincinnati, where I attended the Writer's Digest Editor's Intensive conference.

It was a wonderful weekend, full of great advice, savvy guidance and good fellowship with other writers.

In a word: Awesome.

But I am exhausted. Suffice it to say my one-on-one manuscript critique session with the managing editor of Writer's Digest was interesting and very satisfying.

I don't mean to be vague. I'm just not up to writing a long blog tonight (I think I'm getting a cold or something on top of the exhaustion. Yay.). But it was so worth it. I would certainly advise anyone out there who has even considered attending some kind of writing conference to do it. It's money well spent.

I hope everyone had a great weekend. More later.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

So, how good ARE you?

A dear friend of mine told me yesterday that we writers are terrible judges of our own work.

In other words, many who think they are God's gift to literature in reality suck, while some who truly doubt their abilities are in fact quite talented.

Basically, I think she's right. To a certain degree, anyway.

I struggle each and every day with self doubt. It's always there in my mind, lurking, waiting to grip my heart with its icy hands until I voluntarily stop querying because I just know I suck.

I honestly don't know why. I was a professional journalist for more than two decades. I have won several (more than 20) national, regional and state writing awards. I know I can write. I do. That's not ego. It's a fact.

But writing fiction is not journalism. I've learned that the hard way. I would put my newspaper and magazine articles up against anyone's (and have, many times), but this fiction thing is new to me.

And so I struggle with doubt.

But I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I'm more confident than I let on. I know. Who would have guessed? It's not an act. Seriously. But sometimes I feel more honest and less of an egotistical bastard when I let my self doubts out on this blog and with other writer friends.

Why? Because it bothers me to listen to people brag about how good they are. Trust me, people. If we were all as good as we secretly think we are, we'd all be published and resting atop the NYT Bestsellers List.

Still, there's nothing wrong with self confidence. It's healthy and normal. It's what keeps us going every time another form rejection pops into our e-mail box.

But how do we, being both confident and neurotic, judge our work objectively? How do we know if we really and truly are any good? I mean, I can read two paragraphs of someone else's work and know whether they are good or not. But I read my stuff and sometimes, it seems pretty good. And other times, well, it sucks.

So, how good do you think you are? I mean seriously, truly, honestly. Are you good enough to be published? Be honest. We won't hold it against you.

Are you good enough to be published?

(I think I am. There. I said it.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pre-conference planning

On Friday, we're driving five hours to Cincinnati for my very first writer's conference! Whoo-hoo.

It's the Writer's Digest Editor's Intensive conference, being held at their headquarters. A handful of names I actually recognize will be there. On Saturday, we'll sit through several workshops on query do's and don't's, whether you should self-publish, e-publish or wade through the slush. There's a lot of stuff on novel writing techniques, common mistakes, pacing, style, structure, etc.

I cannot wait. How cool will it be to actually hang out with other writers for a weekend and talk nothing but writing? Awesome.

But the biggie is on Sunday. We had to submit the first 50 pages of our manuscript a few weeks ago and were then assigned a 30-minute one-on-one critique session with a real live book editor! Gulp. Mine is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. Central Time, so if you're religious, say a prayer for me. If you're not, well, wish me luck anyway. Pretty please?

Okay. So. I'm a bit nervous.
I've decided that I will let this weekend guide me when it comes to what I'm going to do with TDYDK. Although I like the new one better (since I know what I'm doing now, kind of), I had to submit the first 50 pages of the old one since I was only at page 44 of the new one at the submission deadline.

But like a couple of people here said, submit the old one and take any criticism and apply it to the new one, too. It's a win-win situation.

Unless, of course, I get crushed.

But hey, I'm told the local Starbucks is hiring. For reals.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Narration versus dialogue

In The Devil You Don't Know, I am convinced I relied too heavily on dialogue as opposed to narration, since actually narrating a third-person POV novel terrified me. Don't ask me why, it just did.

Not one beta reader mentioned this, nor did my book editor, but it literally jumped out at me when revising it for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, my irrational fear of actually narrating my book led to a lot of expository dialogue (which I struggled with and managed to tamp down eventually, but still ....).

For the record, I hate expository dialogue. Really, seriously hate it.

For you non-writers out there who wonder what expository dialogue is, here's an admittedly poorly written example:

"Hey John, I'm so glad you're my brother in law, although this divorce you are going through right now is sure hard on the whole family," Sam said.

"Thanks Sam. As you know, the divorce will be final in a few weeks, and Josie, your sister and my soon-to-be-ex-wife, is still crazy as a fucking loon ...."

Well, you get the idea.

So I've been trying really hard to avoid that in the new book, Empty Spaces.

I've been told I write dialogue fairly well, and I suspect that played into my overuse of it in TDYDK. Whatever. I'm trying to reach a happy medium in ES, using dialogue when necessary and narrating when that's called for.

I think it's been working. So I decided to throw out the first scene from the book, which chronicles the aftermath of a horrific school shooting and its impact on a 34-year-old history teacher (Grant) and a pretty 17-year-old student (Annie). Here's a hint -- one of them is crazy as hell. :)

This scene is from Chapter 4. Please weigh in with any thoughts, comments, etc. Remember, this is an unedited first draft, so please be nice. Okay? [Rated R for language and content]

* * * *
“Wow,” Annie said from the kitchen doorway. She’d showered and dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt after her three-hour nap. Her towel-dried hair stood up on top. She looked like a sexy little punk rocker. “Something smells good.”

“It’s not much,” Grant said, pleased at her reaction. “But it’s the best I could do, given the circumstances.” He’d found a pound of ground beef in the freezer and had thawed it in the microwave. After browning two patties in a skillet, he’d thrown together two salads using the veggies he’d snagged from the little garden. Now, he wiped his hands on his jeans and looked at her. “Do you have any bread?”

“Fuck if I know,” she said, yawning. “I don’t eat here much.”

Finding none, they dined on hamburger patties, stale Doritos and salad topped with generic French dressing. Annie found an unopened two liter of Diet Coke in the refrigerator and some ice cubes in the freezer. Grant was hungrier than he had thought possible and ate heartily, while Annie only picked at her meal.

When he finished, he pushed his plate back and looked at her. Without makeup, she looked like the kind of girl Lindsay might hire to watch the kids on their rare Friday date nights.

“Want to talk about it?”

She put her fork down and sighed. “I’ve already told you everything there is to tell. My mom is a drunk and a fucking meth addict and she left me. It’s kind of cliché, when you think about it.” She looked away. “Your generation really sucks at raising kids.”

He shrugged. “We were raised by a bunch of narcissistic Baby Boomers. What did you expect?”

“More, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know.”

He drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you want to talk about the shooting?”

“No,” she said, averting her eyes. “Not yet.”

“Okay. Now what?” Leaving the girl alone still sounded like a bad idea. And if he left her and something happened, something tragic, he wasn’t sure he could live with the additional guilt.

“I need music.” She jumped up and ran into the living room. Before he could respond, she was back with an old school boom box. She sat it on the table and punched the on button. A haunting bass line filled the kitchen.

She sat down and closed her eyes. “God, I love Pink Floyd,” she said, her head swaying to the music. “Boomers suck, but their music is the best.”

Grant nodded, still trying to place the album. “Dark Side of the Moon?”

She shook her head. “Wish You Were Here.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding.

She got up and danced slowly around the kitchen. Her hair hung into her eyes and her hips swiveled enticingly. She was barefoot and his gaze kept returning to those sexy green toenails.
He swallowed and looked away. He knew he should be leaving. Lindsay and the girls would be home in a few hours. His wife was already worried about him. There was no need to make things worse.

“Hold on,” she said, dancing out of the kitchen. She returned a few seconds later with a fat translucent red bong. She filled it at the sink and sat down, giggling at the look on his face. She reached into the pocket of her shorts and pulled out a lighter. Grant watched, transfixed, as she expertly lit the bowl and sucked until her eyes watered.

The cloying smell of marijuana filled the kitchen, immediately transporting Grant back to his college days. Annie smiled, her eyes partially closed against the smoke, and handed the bong to him.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. And neither should you, after what happened last night.”

“Oh, don’t be such a fucking chicken,” she said, pouting. “What’s the big deal about copping a little buzz? I mean, after what we’ve been through, what could it hurt?”

He hesitated. The girl had a point. What harm could there be? While getting stoned with a student violated all of Grant’s self-imposed rules of conduct, he had to admit that it sounded pretty good at the moment.

“Well, we have been under a lot of stress,” he agreed, taking the bong and the lighter.

“There’s no better stress reliever than dope,” she said, smiling coyly. “Except maybe masturbation.”

He was still laughing when he took the first hit.

* * * *

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I am a bad blogger

At dinner tonight, my lovely wife very calmly (and very nicely) told me that I don't blog enough these days.

I beg your pardon?

I sputtered and told her how hard it is, now that I'm actually writing again. I mentioned that when I started this blog, I had already finished The Devil You Don't Know and was essentially wading through revisions and just generally screwing around. And then summer, well, summer was time spent with the kid. Great fun, I said.

She smiled and reiterated her point. You started the blog, she said, to stay connected with other writers. To build a platform for when you get published. And you're not doing a very good job, she said, smiling sweetly. That, and summer is over.

No one can rip someone a new asshole as sweetly as my lovely wife, the roller derby maniac. She's not called Genghis Mom for nothing.

I countered with the time-honored: "But every word I write in the blog is one less word in my book."

To which she counter-countered with: "Bull. You blog at night and write during the day. Nice try, and please pass the cottage cheese."

And so, here I am. Guiltily blogging instead of watching opening night of College Football (okay, that's not entirely true. It's on ESPN as we speak).

So. Um. How are you guys doing? Me? I'm doing fine. Writing hard each day. New book going well. Still scared that my first book isn't going to sell. Agents hate me. Blah blah blah.

And for the record, my wife is right. I need to blog more, because I need to stay in touch with you guys, who are out there writing and editing and querying and doing all of those solitary things that we writers do. I really do need to maintain this connection, which has nourished me for nearly a year now.

So I hereby promise to blog more often. Maybe three or four a week, including my usual Sunday Night Musings. And we are bringing back Movie Night! We have plans tomorrow night, so Saturday night will be Movie Night this week. I'll let you know what we're watching once we actually decide.

So. Hang in there, folks. I'm still here. I hope you are, too.