Monday, August 31, 2009

Summary, synopsis, blurb

I've been working a lot on the various iterations of the summary, synopsis, tag line, and query letter meat that I need to start getting the book out there. I knew that writing short is harder than writing long, but this has been even more challenging than I expected.

I think I've got a pretty good longish summary, which is on my newly launched website, Let me know what you think of it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What the real work is

Busy busy week tending to the business side of things -- researching and preparing for getting my typescript out there. (The new website should launch next week I think.)

That kind of work interests me and plays to be obsessive nature a little bit, so it's quite easy for me to get into it and not do any real writing. Which is OK for right now. I'm between drafts -- I should let it sit and not work on it. And working on query letters and a plot synopsis and an excerpt to put on the website is a form of working on the writing. Now that I think about it, I should cut myself some slack for god's sake. I've been writing like crazy this week.

I guess I'm feeling anxious because my motives aren't pure. I've been thinking about promotion a lot more than about making the book better.

And I'm feeling anxious because it's starting to sink in that I do need to make the book better. The most recent draft just isn't going to be the last draft. Working on the excerpt is showing me that. Every day I cut a little bit more from that small sample. I'm eager for my readers to get back to me so I can get hustling on the next draft.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amazing what can be cut

I've been working on building a website about myself and the book (to be announced here when it's finished), and one thing I did today was to pull out some pages of my book for an excerpt to include on the site. As I was looking it over, I was amazed at how much I kept finding to tighten it. This was an excerpt of about 750 words, a key moment that establishes some of the basic drama to kick off the story, written early in the process and revised a thousand times since then. And I found about 6 different phrases and half sentences that I now recognize as clutter but somehow never did before. At what point do I trust that I've caught everything that I'm capable of catching and call it done?

One lesson of this exercise is the benefit of reading in short bursts. I think if I had read and edited this section and kept going for a couple of hours, I would have found less and less to cut as I went on. It's really hard to get in and stay in the editing mindset when you're feeling hurried -- when you're thinking less about how it actually reads than how much you want to get it done.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A new kind of reader--Testing my courage

Three readers have my book right now. The first two are in the same category more or less as previous readers--helpful but impartial friends. The third is my baby sister. She's the first blood relative reading it.

That feels a little bit scary because it's getting closer to the limited number of people who -- however much I insist that it is fiction and not a representation of my family -- will tend to see themselves in the story anyway and perhaps feel not a hundred percent OK with that. My sister was actually born after most of the real-life events that influenced the book, so she won't be offended on her own behalf. And she probably won't be offended at all, because she's sophisticated enough to separate fiction from memoir. But she might feel a little bit protective of other family members who could potentially see themselves in the book.

That possibility, and the more likely problem of how other relatives will react, is something that an author has to tune out or they will end up channeling the voices of self-criticism and self-censorship. I've tried to think of it this way: imagine your mother's most embarrassing secret, the thing that just burns her up to know that you probably told your spouse but that no one ever speaks of. If you're not willing to put that into a story should it be required (not that it always is), then you're not ready to be a writer. If you set out determined to avoid hitting certain sensitive spots, you're on a path to compromising the art at some point.

That's a way to think of it, but life is never so black and white. I guess that's more of a guideline. I'll let readers 1 and 2 judge if I've compromised on the art. In the meantime I'm nervous about what my sister will say. It's like two streams of intimacy crossing courses -- the intimacy of sibling relationship and the intimacy of revealing an artistic work that I've put a lot of myself into. Thus, a whirlpool of anxiety.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Excerpting novels for short story publication

Today I'm beginning a new phase. (Or ramping up a new phase anyway -- there aren't really bright lines between each step in the process, so I'm sure I'll be spending a lot more time on previous phases, too.)

I'm starting to work more actively toward the general goal of getting my work out in front of other people. The ultimate goal is publication with the strongest possible distribution of my novel, but the general goal in the short term might include for example opportunities to read aloud, workshops, sharing with friends, developing my query letter, publication of other material (see this recent essay in The New Haven Review for example), and publication of parts of the book.

That last one is what I'm working on today. I've been stewing on how different chapters and even a discarded chapter might work as stand-alone stories that I can submit for publication in literary journals, and today I started working on one. I'm finding out pretty quickly that it's not easy.

First, there's the obvious problem of a chapter referring to events or background established earlier in the book. OK, so now the chapter needs a lot of new exposition to become intelligible.

Two, the drama of a chapter that the reader is experiencing is in large part dependent on the complications that have been introduced earlier. Reading the chapter as something that stands alone, it suddenly feels very flat. The drama has been drained from it because we're missing a lot of information about what pressures the characters are under. In theory, that could be handled with exposition, but the chapter really depends on the reader to feel it, not to be told about it.

Third, is the problem of resolution. Readers of a chapter and a story have different expectations about endings. Obviously, a cliff-hanger is tolerable and even desirable in a chapter but a violation of the compact with the reader in a story. Even when chapters don't have what are commonly called cliff-hangers -- and mine don't I think -- they do have them in small ways. Important things at stake for the character are left as open questions.

Those are just the problems I've figured out for myself so far, but what this suggests to me is that a novel excerpt in many cases doesn't just have to be patched up to make it work as something that stands alone. They have to be rewritten into very different stories with different points. It feels like I'm taking the same characters but having them develop and work on a different set of problems than the chapter does -- that what is important in the chapter is less relevant in the tight timeline of the story.

All of this raises the question of how feasible the whole endeavor is. Of course chapters and short stories are different literary forms, and trying to pass off one as the other is sort of like trying to help your guest visiting from India feel at home by taking them out for sushi since they grew up with Asian food. There may be something in the weave of a given novel that prevents it from becoming anything else without completely unraveling it first.

That's kind of how I felt recently reading an excerpt from a new novel by one of my favorite short story writers -- Lorrie Moore. (She said herself in an interviewer in Believer magazine that when it comes to short stories or novels, "The nature of the idea determines which form or genre it will be in.") She has a new novel coming out in a couple weeks called A Gate At the Stairs and The New Yorker published an excerpt of it earlier this summer as "Childcare." In that form, it was easy to confuse with a short story, and reading it as such felt a little uneven. At times it felt like a novel on slick magazine paper and at other times it felt like a New Yorker story that was pulling its punches. It set up and abandoned relationships with characters that I was intensely interested in, and then the whole thing ended with a thud. I'm taking this as a lesson about the difficulties of excerpting and a sign that the novel will be terrific.

The other thing I'm taking away from my efforts so far is the possibility that the flatness I'm seeing when I read my chapter as a story is a big hint about the chapter being flat. Even with the context of previous chapters to help sustain the chapter in the reader's mind, it may just read that flat still and it may have taken me reading from this different perspective to see it. I don't want to think so, but I'll be looking closely at that, which may send me sliding back like in Chutes and Ladders to a much earlier phase in this process.

Meanwhile, in addition to reading the Lorrie Moore story, I've been hunting around in literary journals for examples of novel excerpts to see how well they stand alone and how they are adapted. It's kind of a specialized literary skill, and I'd appreciate anyone out there letting me know how they have gone about it and how editors respond to it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good luck charm

I made the run to the copy shop today and had draft 8 printed out for my next two readers. I delivered one and the other will be tomorrow. When I dropped it off, this reader said he had done this twice before for friends and that one of them was published. I said he was my good luck charm then and that I would rub his belly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Done. Done?

Today I'm calling an official end to draft 8, which is good news by itself. And I can say that I did the scope of work this summer that I intended in pretty much the timeline I wanted (I'm a couple weeks behind.) which took a lot of discipline and long hours. I feel like I've hardly been outside all summer.

The less enthusiastic way of looking at it is that I wanted to consider this draft the last one before I start sending it out, and now that I'm through it I don't have the confidence that's the right decision. Basically, I feel like there's stuff wrong with the book, but I've lost the ability to find it and deal with it. I need some other perspective.

Which is OK. I can get some. (I'm passing it to a couple readers tomorrow.) I guess I just don't know if it's necessary to wait for their feedback before starting to send it out, because they could possibly confirm my hope that it's ready, or if I definitely should wait because they're going to help me see how much more work it needs.

Alright, a look at the numbers:

-Post-draft depression: Check

-Page count: 316 pp, a decrease of 12, less than I expected based on how it was going in the early drafts. Makes me wonder if I lost some steam on the close line editing as I went on. I definitely had some interruptions that had me taking my eye off the ball.

-Word count: 92,307, a decrease of 4,000. That's like losing 4% more bodyfat after you've already lost a third of your weight. And that's before figuring in new muscle mass (new scenes I added in during this draft.)

Next up . . . I'm not sure. I need to focus on my paying work, so I'll take a few days off at least and probably more. If I'm lucky I'll hear back from one of my readers pretty quickly which will help me make some decisions. I've got some related writing projects I'm thinking about, including developing some of the chapters for submission to journals. Maybe I'll decide to start writing query letters! That would cool. Like I say, it'll be at least a few days before I start to get a handle on what I'll do next.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tidy endings

I've been working on the last chapter and the epilogue today and am technically done. (More on the difference between that and actually done a little later.) I worked hard in the earlier drafts to lead up to a complete and satisfying and believable resolution, and I was pretty confident about it, but one of my readers is calling the question.

At issue now is the last effects of the events of the book on my character. He goes through some pretty dramatic events and the immediate conflict gets resolved for him, but having an epilogue at all kind of requires you to talk about all the stuff that doesn't get immediately resolved. Maybe it's the current conventional wisdom about psychology, but readers may expect certain kinds of lasting effects, but for whatever reason this reader wasn't buying what I was selling. Too tidy.

So what I've been doing is trying to rewrite so that it still leads to the same final tidyness but shows more messiness along the way to make it credible. As usual, I'm pretty sure that it's improved, but I'm not so sure it's good enough.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Custom book covers

I have to admit that I've started to let myself daydream and even strategize more recently about the publication and marketing part of this process. I was pretty disciplined in the first several drafts, just focusing on the work, but I've started to indulge. As a consquence, I've especially been reading and thinking a lot about alternatives to the traditional publication and marketing models, and today I hit on a fantastic idea all my own, I think.

I got it while reading this post in the Printmag design blog about book cover designs that were nixed before publication. Interesting examples in there. As I was reading, I was mousing over the images wondering if I could save any of them to my harddrive (I couldn't), which got me thinking about all the ways people repurpose digital content from the web. I could imagine fans of these books deciding to print out their own custom covers, kind of like how back in Nokia's heyday, the kids were pimping the clamshell covers of their phones.

What Nokia did in that case was to market the possibility and to sell the gear to do it, and the interchangable phone skin was born. A more recent version of that kind of marketing is how M&Ms allows you to customize the message on the candy and credit card companies let you upload your own images to printed on the cards. It's making money off an impulse as old as kids marking up the paper bag covers to their textbooks. (Have you noticed that you can't mark on the plastic book covers they sell now?)

That's basically my idea -- the publishers, especially those in the print-on-demand business, should look at creative uses of those rejected cover ideas. How cool would I look rocking the subway while reading something with the cover that Chip Kidd really wanted to use? Or one that the author chose? Or a copy of Ulysses with a cover I designed myself?

I'm thinking it could cut down on returns and result in more upselling to hardcover and casewrap, more repeat sales to collectors, and more mulitple unit sales for gifts.

Anyway, that's the kind of thing I dwell on a lot lately. Not exactly good for the work, is it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Another round on the emotional carousel

I've written during previous drafts about the perfectly predictable cycle of despair, determination and doubtful relief. I went through that again in the last day, working on Chapter 14. I marked it up and thought, "Uh-oh, some of this doesn't look so good." I made my best tries to improve it on the computer and all I could see was gaping fractures. I left off that work as discouraged as I could be. It's like getting a case of the shakes during detox. Slept it off and made another try this morning and finished by thinking, "Whew, I thought I had bogged down in total shit, but maybe I saved it."

On to Chapter 15 tomorrow. Then 16. Then the epilogue. Then the gleaning work. By the end of next week for sure, probably sooner.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Adding material back in

Well, I had a pleasant role reversal this morning -- the opportunity, and ability, to add material back in. I was reading through a short chapter, and, as I often do in the last couple of drafts, hit a spot where I longingly miss some section that I had cut out for the sake of the length (or because, however much I liked it, it wasn't necessary or didn't work.) But like I say, the overall length is no longer an issue, and at this spot, I felt like the part that I had cut out of a desperation to get the length down any way that I could would be a helpful to have around after all. I dug around in the previous drafts (on the computer, that is), found the relevant section -- about a half page of dialogue -- and pasted it back in there. It was sweet.

Since yesterday I've completed 2 more chapters -- through Ch. 14 -- and done a markup on 15, which has somewhat more extensive repairs needed to it still. The pace remains the same. If I have a clear day, I can do a little better than a chapter a day. The next couple days won't be clear, though.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Little progress, changes in schedule

Not much to report since the last post. I continue to have a lot going on that's making it difficult to find time, so I haven't made a lot of progress, which is especially frustrating considering how I have the energy to focus on the book right now. The good news is that I'm doing a kind of work that isn't so . . . sensitive. I don't need my regular habits, so I am able to pick it up at odd times of day between other commitments.

Including this evening. My wife's going to be out of the house, so I'm going to take a couple hours to whip Chapter 9 into shape. Clap, clap. And, if my theory about the last draft applies here, I'll be past the point with the most serious problems and the rest can be edited without any serious crises of confidence. I'm thinking maybe the end of next week I'll be done with this draft.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Two chapters in seven days

Real life has interrupted my work for the last week. Since then I've managed to get two more chapters marked up and corrected. That continues to take off about a page per chapter and to take about four hours for each one.

I think over the next couple weeks I'll be lucky to do a chapter every two days. I have to get going on some paying work assignments, so probably I'll just be able to put in a.m. sessions like the old days. We'll call that a conservative estimate, and calculating that way, I have about 14 working days to go. Let's call it 14 days total, since some of the chapters coming up are shorter and can be done a little quicker.