Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing: My New Project

Thanks to Lindsey Crittenden for inviting me to participate in this blog chain.  I met Lindsey at the Glen Workshop; she is the author of The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray and The View From Below: Stories.  Lindsey lives in San Francisco and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley Extension.

Although the title of this post promises a new project, I’d like to talk instead about my little-known but almost-award-winning novella.  It was a finalist in the 2010Miami University Press Novella Contest, and since only the first-place novella was published as part of the prize, I’m still looking for a home for mine.

What is the title of your book? 
When the Aged Are Reverently, Passionately Waiting, after a line in W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee Des Beaux Arts”

Me at my old desk in Fairfax
Where did the idea come from for this book? 
A friend told me about a woman in an assisted living facility who had a distant relative move into the same facility.  The problem was, the woman had never been especially fond of this relative and wasn’t thrilled about her moving in.  I found myself fascinated with that idea of how you just get stuck with some people in your life, and that often it seems the people you want to avoid are the hardest to get away from.

What genre does your book fall under? 
Literary fiction

How long did it take to write the first draft? 
I intended to write a short story.  I’d received two hand-written rejections from The Missouri Review, and I wanted to follow up with something better than what I already had in my small arsenal of short stories (I’ve never been much for short forms).  Sixty pages later, I realized this really wasn’t a short story.  Still, the composition went surprisingly quickly, as I find it does when the subject really clicks with me.  I had the revised version finished within three months of starting.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Louise’s sister-in-law Shirley moves in to the same assisted living facility, Louise broods over the plague that Shirley has been to her life, nursing a hatred born of believing Shirley had ruined herself with another man before marrying Louise’s late brother; this memory, however, is undermined by Shirley’s own contradiction and worsening dementia, and Louise finds herself left alone against a void of not-knowing and extinction. (Yes, I cheated with that semi-colon…)

What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?
I’m terrible with actors, but I can tell you that Julie Christie very convincingly and movingly portrays a woman with Alzheimers in Away from Her.  In my novella, Shirley is the character with dementia; I’m not sure who would play my leading lady, Louise.

Will it be self published or represented by an agency?
I hope to find a home for it in a lit mag.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was working on a novel about love at the time.  I didn’t sit down intending to write a story about hate, but when I was finished, I saw that that was what I had on my hands.  Louise hates her sister-in-law to the very last, which, from what I know about long-standing grudges, seems truer to life than any sort of Hallmark realization that her sister-in-law is in fact empathetic and dear.  So in a way, maybe this was an inverse urge to that which was prompting me to write my novel on love.
            More specifically, many of the details of the assisted living setting and especially the nursing ward were taken from my own memories of my maternal grandparents’ tenure in such places. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The only book that readily comes to mind is Alice Munro’s Away from Her, about a woman and her husband dealing with her worsening Alzheimers.  
            The judge of the Miami University contest, David Schloss, called my novella’s premise Rashomon-like, by which he meant that the question as to Louise’s particular memory of a past event involving her sister-in-law—and the contradictory memory Shirley herself has, along with the reader’s own judgment—creates a scenario in which there are multiple narratives of the same event, rendering the truth of that event unknowable.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Although my first novel took years of labor and got me an agent, I feel this novella is, from a craft standpoint, the best thing I’ve written to date.  I used close third-person in a way I hadn’t before, veering into Louise’s own indirect discourse without ever losing narrative control.  It was one of the best experiences of my writing career so far to have Mr. Schloss, in post-contest correspondence, assure me that my work had been “understood, and appreciated.”

Please stay tuned for links to the next writers I’ve invited to take part in this blog chain….  First up is the talented Rion Scott, a fellow alumni of the George Mason MFA program:

Rion Amilcar Scott lives and writes in Beltsville, MD. More info on his work: http://forgottentunneltv.tumblr.com/WolfTickets.  See his blog post here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Cornucopia of Recommendations for Aspiring Writers

It’s always nice to get out of my little novelist cage and talk to others about writing.  Sunday night at the Writers’ Ink meeting was a fun opportunity to do just that; I’m glad to say that my talk went well, and I noticed that the members of the group seemed especially interested in the recommendations I made of books and further resources to help them with writing and publishing.  And so, for those who were present and would like a condensed list of the resources I mentioned, or for those of you out there who are aspiring and/or beginning writers, here are some recommendations to keep your reading list full and your Internet usage fruitful:

Books I recommend for improving craft (in order of what I consider most useful to beginning writers to most useful for advanced writers):
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Support for dealing with the daily reality of being a novelist, with a side of Lamott’s irresistible humor. 
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.  A must for learning how to read intentionally and with an eye towards improving one’s craft.
  • Writers Workshop in a Book ed. Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez. Short, helpful essays on topics from starting a novel to recognizing when one is done and many things in between.
  • Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster.  “The” classic book on novel-writing.
  • The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock.  Another classic—part literary criticism, part sage advice, like Lubbock's reminder that “scene is expensive.”

Practice reading intentionally with the following contemporary books:
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon.  Read this for a study in voice.
  • Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman.  Read this for a study in character.
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Read for structure.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  Read for mode—here, comedy of manners.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Okay, not so contemporary, but read this for economy.

And some classics:
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Read this for overall awesomeness.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Read for character and scene.
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Read for voice and humor.
  • And whatever you want by Thomas Hardy.  You can’t go wrong with him. 

Resources for getting published:
  • How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis

A bit of a misnomer—this book actually prepares you for how to be an informed client of an agent.  The book includes a detailed breakdown of book contracts in addition to insight into many other pieces of the New York publishing scene.  The book is slightly outdated and doesn’t do much to address ebooks and how they have changed the scene, but there are still helpful hints here.

Sign up for a free account to track your submissions and see the full information on every journal.  One of my favorite tools for discovering journals is the “People who have submitted work here have also submitted to…” feature.  Let’s say you love Image journal (I do!).  You can see that work sent there has also been sent to The Missouri ReviewTin HousePloughsharesNew England ReviewHayden's Ferry ReviewThe Cincinnati ReviewRuminateCamera ObscuraPackingtown ReviewThe JournalThe Idaho Review;Massachusetts Review 

A helpful, and up-to-date, look at topics in writing and publishing. 

And, as always, if you’re trying to familiarize yourself with conferences, workshops, or publishing opportunities, check out:
Writer’s Market (book)
Poets & Writers (magazine as well as website)

So there you have it, a feast of recommendations for your Thanksgiving week.  Read on!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Columbus-Area Writers, Come Hear Me Speak!

Writers' Ink, a writing group that meets monthly in Columbus, has asked me to be the featured speaker for their next meeting, which will be Sunday, November 18, 2012, from 5:00-7:30 (here is their website).  Come hear my thoughts about novel-writing and publishing.  I'm on for the first hour, we'll break for refreshments, and the second hour is an open mic.  The meeting is open to the public and will be held at Columbus State Community College in the Work Taskforce Building (fourth floor gallery), 315 Cleveland Ave., Columbus, Ohio.  Free parking is available across the street. See you there!