It’s coming down to the wire. One more week. That’s it. My plan is to pull some marathon writing sessions, but will that work? I’ve been working steadily all along, writing more over the last five months than I probably ever have in my life. But the more the characters develop and the more I uncover, the more there is to write about. And the more I write, the more I need to re-write. Now that the stories are truly linked, I’ve become aware that I may need one or two more new stories to fill in certain holes within the bigger collection. Is one week enough time?
Last Sunday, I had most of the day free and thought I’d get a ton done. But all morning everything that came out felt flat, dull, informational, and not very literary. I took a break, played some tennis, ate lunch, cleaned my room, made some coffee. When I returned to the story, I went back through the flat, boring stuff, and, with the general idea intact, began to rewrite the work sentence by sentence, until I went into a whole other realm. This time, the words were coming out looser, and what seemed trite or cliché before began to take a new shape. After a couple hours I read it over. Decent. Better. But it also occurred to me, it might be a whole new, as-yet-unworkshopped story. And, as I’ve learned from this process, a first draft is still a first draft, no matter how good I think it might be.
All day for four okay pages. At that rate, one week is only going to produce 28 pages. My book is probably over 200 pages by now, most of which still needs some re-writing.
I have found that with looming deadlines, I’ll kick into gear. That’s one of the best parts of doing The Mark Program. I’ve had to rewrite stories in a week, and I’ve used every possible hour of every day to meet that deadline. While it may be true that cramming at virtual gunpoint doesn’t necessarily always produce the best work, it does produce work, and sometimes that’s the important part. I can always polish and finesse later, but it’s nice to have a good base upon which to start.
Realistically, I won't be satisfied. This won't be the final draft of my manuscript. I’ve come to terms with that. But I do want it to be as good as I’m capable of making it within this time frame, and that will mean some late nights/early mornings and a lot of coffee. As I’ve expressed previously, sometimes the process can feel endless, and knowing when something is ready may just mean being ready to abandon it. It’s just nice to have a set date of temporary abandonment, so I can go back to doing what I do best: nothing.
That’s a joke. I love doing things. In fact, I get uncomfortable if I don’t have some kind of creative project to work on. Long vacations, rather than relaxing me, can make me more anxious, like why am I wasting all this time when I could be working on something?
During the month break I have before the Final Review, I have two projects in mind: an album and a screenplay. No rest for the wicked. And I like it that way.
Amy Hempel is an American short story writer, journalist, and teaches creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University. Here is an insightful interview addressing poignant questions on every writer's mind.
Her Strategy for Short Story Writing:
"Take on a large subject or concern and find a small, personal way in."
"It is not about talent... necessarily. It has more to do with how badly you want to do a thing, and if you will work harder than the next person because you want it more."
What She Looks for in Stories:
"I will read stories where the stakes are high. I will read any story about somebody getting through a hard thing. I want to know how that person did it."
On the Importance of a Good Sentence:
"I don't like to see a bad sentence on the page. What if I was hit by a bus and that's what people saw? They wouldn't know I was trying to make it better. They would think that was the best I could do."
I've discovered that it's often difficult for me to describe a work-in-progress in any way that satisfies me.
I've heard that it takes an hour to write an hour-long speech, two hours to write a two-hour speech, and three hours to write a ten-minute speech. One has to really know what one wants to say in order to make it concise.
For a very long time, I have struggled with how to articulate what my novel-in-progress is about. As part of the Mark Program, we've been asked to write and revise log lines and brief synopses of our manuscripts. (Natali and Eric are writing story collections, and I'm writing a novel.) In large part because of the Mark, I have a much surer sense of how to articulate what my novel is about, in terms of both plot and thematic concerns.
Oftentimes, I struggle to answer the related question of where my novel-in-progress comes from. How much is true--born of real life--and how much is fabricated? I like the response of my former teacher, Pam Houston, who says that everything she writes--regardless of its classification as either fiction or non-fiction--ends up containing about 82% truth. In another variation, Mark instructor Antoine Wilson likens life to a lemon and the fiction that emerges from it to the zest. I've been extending the food metaphor: If life is a cookie, then stories are the chocolate chips. You nibble out the bits of life that catch your breath--the distinctive emotional truths--and they, I believe, are what make a work of fiction.
I don't know where I'm coming in with my truth percentage but I do know that, through every hour that I sit with manuscript, I am discovering with greater intimacy what my novel is about. I am learning the rhythms of my character Lillian's heart, I am learning about the overarching obsessions of the manuscript and, this weekend, I also, perhaps not by chance, ate many chocolate chip cookies.
At workshop a couple of nights ago, Antoine asked us if we were planning extra time for revisions before the final review. The manuscripts are due at the end of this month. There’s just one more workshop, early next week. The weekends will have to be marathon writing sessions. Other than that, I don’t have large blocks of time I can allocate to revisions. The only solutions I can think of are to block off shorter segments throughout the day and to set writing dates. Writing dates are something I learned about from Mae, an Emerging Voices fellow.
We have now been doing writing dates for close to three years. It started when our kids were still toddlers. I was so sleep-deprived in those days that it was hard to start writing again on a consistent basis. Writing dates were something that Mae had heard of from a friend who learned about it during an MFA program. There’s not much to the notion, but there is a method.
Once you have a partner, you need to decide on the logistics of the writing date. Mae and I chose to devote a forty-minute block of time for one evening every week. It’s important to always stick to the same day and the same beginning and end time. In this way, a habit is formed and you always know that no matter what is happening in your daily life, that chunk of time awaits your writing life.
The next component of a successful writing date is to set up a routine as to who is the initiator and who is the time-keeper. The initiator is the person who calls at the agreed-upon time. During this call, it’s important to exchange writing goals for the block of time you’re about to begin. Even if you plan on spending the time doing a writing prompt, it needs to be stated. I’ve found that verbally committing to an activity keeps me focused and accountable. It’s less tempting to get side-tracked by a different story or to switch from, say, drafting to revising.
The time-keeper is the one who (obviously) times the writing session and then calls the other writer at the end. During the closing call, it’s imperative to be honest about how it went. There are some days that are filled with fabulous focus and the writing goal is achieved. There are other times, when the writing didn’t go as well; maybe it was like walking through molasses. Either way, it’s all part of the process and that’s all right.
Writing dates transformed my writing life. They’re instrumental to building momentum. There’s something about being accountable to another writer that makes a person rise to the occasion—even if they’re sleep-deprived.
From The Paris Review:
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?
The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.
The first decision a writer has to make is “who exactly is telling this story?” And, in many ways, the entire book becomes about answering this question. Since the traditional narrator, 3rd person omniscient, has largely fallen out of favor in modern literature, close-third or first-person narration has become the new standard, meaning we’re seeing the story through the eyes of our main character. Which also means the person telling the story is the story that the story is about. Get it?
Not only that, but also many authors employ an alter-ego narrator, meaning they’re writing versions of themselves, making a conscious effort to mirror their own lives, to explore real events or people through the filter of fiction.
In my alter-ego explorations, I’ve discovered one of the pitfalls tends to be my tendency to obscure the very things that I should be illuminating, hiding from a deeper truth that I have a hard time facing about myself. Such are the hazards of navel-gazing, I suppose, but it’s a well-worn path many writers I admire have taken and, now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can go back.
Some writers will purposely alter their alter-egos, creating a parallel life, at least on paper. Willa Cather in My Antonia uses a male alter-ego, perhaps as a way to connect closer to the truth of her life as a lesbian at a time when to write honestly about it would have been too controversial. John Updike’s Rabbit shares a lot of Updike’s personal history, but becomes a used car salesman, an exploration of “What would happen if…?”
Another method is to employ an alter-ego as a secondary character, such as Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, who appears in several books and whose biography changes throughout each one.
And then there are alter-egos that sit so closely to the writer, it’s hard to identify them outside of it, such as Bukowski’s Chinaski or Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, whose descent into madness closely mirrors Plath’s own.
A big decision writers have to make about their alter-egos from the get-go is whether or not to make them writers. On the one hand, it feels more truthful, like, all right, this narrator isn’t bullshitting us, he’s admitting to being a writer, which, duh, he must be, since we’re reading his book. On the other, it’s become a cliché, and how interesting is it to read about someone who spends most of their time writing?
Some get around this by portraying the alter-ego in their formative phase, showing what inspired them to become writers. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is one famous example of this, as well as Sal Paradise in On The Road. Another tactic is to employ a writer alter-ego who’s a lot less successful and prolific than the writer himself, like Updike’s other alter-ego Henry Bech.
In the end, it comes back to story and which method returns the greatest result. An author’s alter-ego can still tell a story that has little to do with writing, leaving their writer-selves as more of a background element. In Junot Diaz’s recent collection, the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is, as it states, mostly about love and the effects of a breakup. In the end, a friend suggests the narrator should write “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and it becomes clear that, well, yes, he has, and we just read it.
I’m not sure the story needed that self-reference, but it is about the only redemption the character gets. He’s fucked up his whole life, and it’s still a bit of a mess in the end, but at least he got a book out of it…
"If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything." - David Foster Wallace
Here's an interview with David Foster Wallace by Leonard Lopate recorded on March 4, 1996. In it, Wallace discusses perfectionism, receiving (and neglecting) constructive lessons, and ambition.
When I was in middle school, my mom and I were part of a mother-daughter book club. I haven't thought of this club for years and I don't remember a ton of details, except that we gathered on Saturday afternoons and talked about books like The Golden Compass and Farewell to Manzanar with other girls my age and their mothers. We always had trouble settling on what book to read next and I remember feeling, for the first time, surprised at how differently people could interpret the same book.
In high school, I took a literature course at UC Berkeley which covered the history of the novel from its inception to present day. Some of the texts were dry and difficult to get through. But from this experience my mom taught me to take a step back and appreciate what it is that I'm getting to do. She has taught me to recognize the fact that, even when reading or writing feels like work--when it's stressful, or not going well, or I'm late for a deadline--it's a wonderful thing to pour one's time and energy into endeavors one loves.
Through their examples, both my parents have taught me a good deal of things related to reading. They've taught me not to worry if a book gets tattered, that it's preferable that a book be well-read rather than pristine. They've taught me to give and accept recommendations. They've taught me that the best sort of vacation involves a suitcase filled with at least five novels. And, through shared experiences, they've taught me that it's strangely fun to be around other people, reading.
In the spirit of Mother's Day, I am especially grateful to my mother for showing me, through her example, that reading is a pleasure and a privilege. Now that is the ultimate way to show, don't tell.
This has been a busy year. Life is like that: you can’t schedule the unforeseeable. Bathrooms will flood, new bosses will pop up, people will die, and loved ones will need help.
In the past, all of the above have derailed me from writing for days, weeks, even months. Being in The Mark Program has helped me maintain an intense focus. Getting sidetracked, even if by a very real issue, isn’t feasible. I figured out ways to get writing done even if a different part of my life was presenting time and energy demands. Enter the value of momentum.
I’ve heard people speak of momentum, even had glimpses of the power of momentum in the past. However, being in The Mark Program is sort of like being in a pressure cooker. It never lets up; there’s always a piece of the manuscript that needs to be written, revised, organized, revised, pondered, revised, or researched. After all, it is a manuscript-polishing program. What has worked during this process is coming back to the project on a nightly basis, no matter what is happening.
Momentum is a special energy that can’t be found, it just builds, day after day, until it takes on a life of its own. Since I’m constantly in contact with the characters, my mind continues to work on the book even after I have left the notebook or computer screen. Ideas or solutions to challenges I’m facing on the page come to me at odd times like when I’m inching along Interstate 110 or slicing up a tomato for a salad.
Here are a couple of momentum-builders that I’ve found helpful:
--Same bat time, same bat channel: setting a block of writing time aside at or around the same time each day allows the act of writing to become a habit. Even if an emergency cuts into the time, get in as much time as possible. Even thirty minutes, if done daily, helps.
--Small goals, to-do list style: make a list of writing goals that need to be done before the end of the week, or by end of the month. Examples: Write a new scene for a story, find a new title, rewrite the ending of a story, or check dialogue tags on pages X through Y. Some sort of immediate target date is essential. Crossing out the accomplished goals is also motivating.
--If it’s late in the day and you’re ready to call it a writing-free day, don’t. Set the timer for ten or fifteen minutes, then write while standing. Make yourself write towards your project, even if you think it’s shit and you’re exhausted. Sometimes good things will still come. Regardless, at least you’re connecting with your creative flow.
--When stuck, think of the story’s issues while going through the nighttime routine. Right before going to sleep, invite the mind to solve the problem while sleeping. In the morning, an inkling of how to proceed might be present.
Writing, like life, can be unpredictable. Trial and error is usually the rule instead of the exception when trying to build momentum. Each person is unique. And in the end, we are all human, doing the best that we can, under the circumstances we face. Allow that effort to count.
It's easy to feel delegitimized after your manuscript gets declined by a publisher. There are, however, innumerable factors that go in to a publisher's decision on what to print and what to deny. To put it into perspective, here's a list of famous titles, compiled from Michael Larsen's book Literary Agents, that went on to exceed the foresight of a publishing house's expectations.
· The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was returned fourteen times, but it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
· Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected twelve times.
· Twenty publishers felt that Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull was for the birds.
· The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon and Schuster planned to publish it during the same season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the 22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.
· Mary Higgins Clark was rejected forty times before selling her first story. One editor wrote: "Your story is light, slight, and trite." More than 30 million copies of her books are now in print.
· Before he wrote Roots, Alex Haley had received 200 rejections.
· Robert Persig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, couldn't get started at 121 houses.
· John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was declined by fifteen publishers and some thirty agents. His novels have more than 60 million copies in print.
· Thirty-three publishers couldn't digest Chicken Soup for the Soul, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, before it became a huge best-seller and spawned a series.
· The Baltimore Sun hailed Naked in Deccan as "a classic" after it had been rejected over seven years by 375 publishers.
· Zelda wouldn't marry F. Scott Fitzgerald until he sold a story. He papered his bedroom walls with rejection slips before he won her hand.
· Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-four times. The sales of his children's books have soared to 100 million.
· Louis L'Amour received 200 rejections before he sold his first novel. During the last forty years, Bantam has shipped nearly 200 million of his 112 books, making him their biggest selling author.
· British writer John Creasy received 774 rejections before selling his first story. He went onto write 564 books, using fourteen names.