Monday, January 31, 2011
As it turns out, though the power was back, the condo's boiler took until Saturday afternoon to really get going, which means we would have faced a very cold night had we come home (though we could have taken hot showers to warm up, at least). So we made the right decision.
Everything's back to normal for now...at least until the next time it snows or rains or the wind blows or thunder flashes or a tiny infant baby blows on the wires near our home. Yes, things are back to normal, but my grudge against Pepco remains.
After we got home Saturday, we cleaned the place up (including purging our refrigerator) and then I sent out all the stuff I promised agents at the conference last weekend. So, if you can believe it, I now have four partials and three fulls (plus the one 5-page request) pending.
Next on my list is wrapping up a first draft of Book 2 (my WIP). As I've probably mentioned a dozen times, I seriously think it'll just be a couple of sittings, and it's on my list for this week to finally actually do it.
Oh, and in the comments last week, Sierra asked for more information on Donald Maass's session at the conference. As it turns out, the conference organizers put up a pretty thorough outline of the session here. They did at least as good of a job as I could have done, and it's worth checking out.
Did I mention I went to an orthopedic specialist to have a look at my shoulder last week? The regular doctor I went to recommended him.
It's rotator cuff strain indeed, but he says it will heal on its own. Now, it still bugs me nearly five weeks after the fact (and actually I feel it more now than I did when I visited the doctor, which is a little disturbing), but it's less that it's soooo painful and more that I'm worried it's warning me to be careful.
He told me some exercises to avoid (like shoulder and military press) but the vast majority are OK for me to do. He didn't even order x-rays.
And I asked him about the supplements I've been taking. He said he takes fish oil for his eyes and his heart, not for his joints. But he still endorsed that one. As for glucosamine and chondroitin, he advised me to save my money. He also pointed out my problem is actually with the tendons, not the joints. However, for what it's worth: 1) I've actually been clicking and snapping less lately, and 2) I was concerned about my joints because of those noises. I've already bought a three month supply of glucosamine and chondroitin, and I'll probably stick with them for that duration.
He said to call him if the problem worsens but he definitely did not seem concerned, and didn't say anything about physical therapy.
At this point, I'm going to be more aggressive about icing it and taking ibuprofen (oddly, like I said, it worsened over the course of the week, and I have no idea why, but since two doctors have looked at it and said it's no biggie I really just need to give it more time I guess). Personally, I've never known ibuprofen to do much of anything for me, but the idea here is to bring down the irritation and then keep it down.
I've come up with a new set of workouts that avoid the problematic exercises he mentioned and add in a few things I should probably be doing anyway (like lunges). I was due for revamping my workout a bit anyway. But I'm going to wait at least another week before I start lifting, and even then maybe I'll just start with core to ensure nothing further agitates my shoulder.
Meanwhile, I've been doing cardio and have actually lost a couple of pounds since this whole thing started (I was 187 this morning and have been below 190 for weeks). That's OK, and better than gain under the circumstances, but I don't want to lose too much. I am really eager to get back to lifting, but I guess I just have to be patient with this injury. In 15 years of lifting I've never had anything like this, and I don't want it to end my run.
Friday, January 28, 2011
And it's not like this is the first time. A single flash of lightning over the summer seemed enough to take out our power for an entire day or sometimes more.
What makes worse is that the boiler is in our building. No power is OK if you're warm and cozy. We are not warm and cozy. The only place in our apartment that seems warm and cozy right now is our fridge, which of course is the last place you want to be warm and cozy.
We have a small shopping center near us that loses power whenever we do. So all the little creature comforts we might be inclined to seek out when we're without power are inaccessible. For instance, a hot shower at the gym: nope, too bad, the gym's closed because it also lost power. A hot bowl of soup at a restaurant: nope, too bad, same deal. A cold drink during the summer: same deal. (Our stove is gas so we can cook at home, thank goodness, and I'm already getting quite proficient at cooking in the dark.)
What is really baffling to me is how, after last February's Snowmageddon and this summer's many storms, with all the branches that came down and the trimming that Pepco was supposedly going to do, we can still be so vulnerable. And why does it take so freaking long to get our power back on? If we lost it with the same frequency but for a few hours each time, it'd be something to shake our heads and grin about. But this is serious. I would say that over the past year we spent a better part of a full week without power.
What makes it worse is it's impossible to get answers. We're not individual customers - it's our condo that's the customer - so we have even less power. Pepco puts a so-called "outage map" on its website, but it's just a street map with lots of triangles on it. They aren't tied to a specific address, so far as I can tell, and all of them have the same projected power return time, which can't possibly be right. Since our condo is the customer, we ought to be several hundred people without power (never mind the nearby businesses), but all those blue triangles mean 50 or less, and usually they say "less than 5" which makes absolutely no sense. There's no way to figure out where Pepco's trucks are or when they might get to you.
I understand the power can go out during extreme conditions. But we've lost power so many times, and for so long, just this past year it would be comical if it weren't so frustrating. I don't need to be plugged in every second of the day, but when you take away heat and hot water for prolonged periods of time during the winter, it's a problem just as bad as not having any AC or way to move air through the place for a long time over the summer.
I just hope the power comes back on today, or we're going to be spending the night in a hotel.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The conference was at a gigantic Sheraton Hotel in the theatre district, which meant it was pretty easy to get to, and with lots around it. Saturday was structured with two sessions in the morning, then a networking lunch and keynote speaker, then one more session, and finally the two-hour pitch slam. For most of the sessions, conference participants had a choice of one focused on marketing and the publishing industry, one focused on getting published or pitching/querying, and one focused on craft.
I started out the day attending Donald Maass's session on "Putting Fire In Your Fiction." He provided some great tips on quickly developing a connection between your readers and your protagonist, on making your antagonist more compelling, and on strengthening weak scenes. I was impressed with how systematically he's thought all this through, and I took away some good suggestions for past, current, and future work. I also think I will check out his new book coming out in March. He really lives up to all the hype, and I would love to spend time taking a workshop with him.
For the second session, I was torn between the "ask the agent" panel and another session focused on plot, but decided that under the circumstances I ought to go to "ask the agent". After all, I'd come to NYC to pitch my book, even if part of me was really more interested in improving craft than in listening to a Q&A about query letters (when and if I ever get an agent I can start going to the craft sessions, and do you appreciate the irony there?). Everyone else evidently decided the same thing - the room was packed (there were around 500-600 participants in the conference).
The panel was moderated by Chuck Sambuchino, who spoke so impressively at the AIW Conference in D.C. last June. The agents were Donald Maass, Janet Reid, Jud Laghi, and Mary Kole, and they pretty gracefully handled a wide range of questions that ranged from specific to general, sophisticated to incredibly naive (such as the questioner who'd never heard of the Query Shark blog, and I'm not trying to be snooty but the conference costs hundreds of dollars while searching google for agent blogs is essentially free, if you know what I mean).
A word on Janet Reid, because she is so prominent in the agent blogosphere and because her post several days before the conference (on how pitches should be 25 words long) freaked me the fuck out.
Quite honestly, I was afraid she would suck all the oxygen out of the room, but while her online persona can sometimes be a bit self-absorbed and overbearing, she was really funny and down-to-earth in person. I went up to NY figuring I'd either be charmed by her or hate her, and it wound up definitely being the former (and, here in anonymous internet land, I've no incentive to lie).
I had lunch with a nice but subdued group of folks at my table, then we all heard a somewhat baffling keynote presentation by Richard Nash. Certainly I never before had recognized the magnitude of the significance of the development of PageMaker in 1985.
Then it was time for one more session - of course I chose the querying/pitching session with Janet Reid, where she gave some great advice and critiqued audience members' pitches - quite kindly but humorously - before the pitch slam itself. (She can be blunt, but people were literally running up to pitch to her, and as someone who has gone before really tough and critical audiences before - giving a seminar in front of the faculty in my grad program comes to mind, as does briefing a U.S. Senator - I can say she was unfailingly constructive, even as people's pitches ranged widely in quality.) Here is a nice summary of what she said, written by another conference attendee. (Kind of cool that after the conference I was able to google around and find blogs by lots of other attendees, including one or two I met, plus a couple of the agents I pitched to.) Oh, ha-ha, and here's Janet Reid's own summary.
The pitch slam was obviously the main event for me. About 55 agents were present, seated (mostly alphabetically, thank goodness) at tables lining the walls of a giant ballroom. (It looked like this before the writers came in, with two agents per table, which wasn't nearly as distracting as you might think it'd be.) Of course, after they let the writers into the room, it looked like this and this. Yeah, so, lesson #1 is it's a little easier for me to sympathize with what agents' inboxes must look like after this experience.
Every three minutes, the conference staff rang a bell (which, of course, made me think of this, except change "post" to "pitch!"). This was supposed to cause everyone pitching to get up and move on so the next person could pitch (it didn't always work: some of the writers were not being terribly considerate of others, but most were). The idea was for the writers to pitch for 90 seconds or less, and then the agents to respond for 90 seconds. Most of my pitches actually took less than 3 minutes for both the pitch and the response, because I didn't waste any fucking time. (Of course, part of being a professional is smiling and introducing yourself, speaking slowly and enunciating in such a loud room, etc. I just mean I got right to it.)
So I had done the math in advance. Two hours means 40 three-minute blocks. But there is absolutely no way a person could pitch more than every other time block, which meant 20 pitches maximum. However, did you notice those lines in the photos? Yeah. It wasn't going to be 20.
So what I did was as follows: Before the pitch, I had made an alphabetical list of the agents who either: 1) were looking for my genre and I'd never queried, or 2) were looking for my genre and had rejected or ignored my query. I didn't really differentiate the two, but I did know who was in each category.
When I got into the room, I waded through the crowd to the very far end where the lines were somewhat shorter, and just got on the shortest line I could find for a 1 or 2 agent. While on line, I looked around to consider what line I might jump to next. So I wound up pitching to a preponderance of agents with last names in the middle of the alphabet, but so what? I wasn't going to spend 45 minutes on line just to pitch to Janet Reid. I didn't have a dream agent there and figured more pitches = better.
As soon as I finished each pitch I jumped as quickly as I could to another short line. Despite my best efforts, I was still waiting to deliver Pitch #4 at the end of the first hour. It was really, really crowded, and I even started to get a bit irked that the conference organizers hadn't managed the ratio of writers to agents more effectively.
Luckily, however, the crowd slowly but surely thinned out. I knew it was important to hang out until the end and cram in as many pitches as I could. I managed to do three pitches in the last 20 minutes - two of them after they started handing out "end of line" cards to try to bring things to a close - and for the two hours my total was 9 pitches. I got 7 positive responses, including:
- one "send me 5 pages" (said agent later blogged she only asked for one full during the entire session, so I don't feel too bad)
- three "send me a partial" (50-100 pages or so).
- two "send me a full" and
- one "I'm intrigued; send me whatever you want" (=third full: I mean, why not?)
The other no was an agent who said my manuscript was too long for my genre but she would consider it if I cut out about 15,000 words. No one else thought the manuscript was too long (and I mentioned word count in every pitch), but that's her prerogative of course. It is possible one day I will take her up on it, which I told/warned her.
So, overall, I was quite pleased. I feel like I managed to be strategic and effective, and nearly half the agents I pitched to complimented me on the quality of what I'd said. I anticipated most of the questions I was asked and was ready with responses.
Most importantly, no matter what happens, I feel like I took a real step forward. If something positive comes out of one of these connections, that is terrific. But if not, I've still made progress. I have one partial out now, so if three more partials and three fulls gets me no additional interest, I know without a doubt the problem is the manuscript (not the query) and chopping it down by 15,000 words or more might be part of another extensive revision.
Now, the conference was a pricy experience: just registering for the one day cost more than $300, plus getting up to NY and all associated expenses. And it was time-consuming (I took Friday as a vacation day). And definitely nerve-wracking at times (though the worst was all the conflicting advice everyone was giving, right up until minutes before the pitch slam, as to what should be in the pitch).
But - on the $$$ side - I tend to be such a cheap bastard most of the time, and this is something I really care about. On the stressful side, I have done much, much more difficult things in my life than this, and it was well worth it. I'd definitely recommend it to any of you getting frustrated with cold querying, and would be happy to talk some more about what precisely I said in my pitches if people think it would be helpful, because I kinda followed Janet Reid's advice but not really. (Is that vague enough?)
My wife came with me, and she provided amazing moral support through the weekend. She also took advantage of being in NYC to see a Broadway show while I was at the conference. We got to eat a lot of amazing NY pizza (man, do I miss that in D.C.!) and went out for beers after the slam Saturday night (and, you know, low-key bars where you can sit at the bar for an hour or two at 7 or 8 pm on a Saturday night also seem to be in really short supply around here...not that I would ever live in NY again).
On Monday, I also reentered my manuscript into the Amazon contest. I'm a lot less emotionally invested this time, but I just don't see any downside in putting one more iron in the fire.
And so now, I have to actually send these agents what they asked for, and decide whether to query any of the others who were there. There were about half a dozen more at the pitch slam who are looking for my genre and whom I've never queried. My attendance at the conference might be a way to get my query a little more attention than it otherwise would, even if I didn't pitch to them.
And then it will finally be time to move back to my WIP (henceforth "Book Two" because otherwise it just gets confusing) and onward to Book Three - my new project - for a while.
People, this has been good, but I'm ready to get back to writing!
Monday, January 24, 2011
Suffice it to say, for now, that I'm really pleased with the way it went for me. More details to come - about the conference and the slam - on Wednesday.
For now, please enjoy this work of comedic genius by GoRemy (it's very funny stuff, but you might need to check out the lyrics below the video on the youtube page to understand all of it).
Friday, January 21, 2011
For instance, sure: the crazy controlling mother is better for most innocent bystanders than the mother who lets her kids run amok. So what?
I'm not a parent, but I find the powerless attitude implied by a lot of the comments strange. Why should it be in question whether or not parents can control their kids (at least until they really start to grow up)? If your eight year old weighs 60 pounds and you weigh three times that, you can control your eight year old. End of story.
The better questions are: to what extent should you, and to what ends?
Unpleasant experiences can sometimes teach people valuable and useful lessons. If a person never is forced to apply themselves beyond what is comfortable, then one never learns the self-discipline to utilize one's capabilities under appropriate circumstances. It's pretty clear that this lesson applies, to some degree, to everything from schoolwork to writing a good novel.
But it is a very very fine line between this lesson and the alternative lessons: that one hates the specific activity in question, that one cannot take up anything in life without devoting oneself body and soul until you succeed or break, and that one has no idea when a problem or situation is best approached with brute force or some other tactic.
For example, I had to play a musical instrument I hated when I was a child. I didn't have to practice for hours and hours, but I did have to practice everyday. Nominally the lessons began because my handwriting and coordination were so poor. But improvement was never assessed. When I wanted to try another instrument instead, my parents said I could only do it in addition to the one they wanted me to do. Needless to say, after a year or two that second instrument was dropped. When, after ten years (by which time I was typing most of my schoolwork - I'd taught myself to type and was pretty fucking good at it - talk about lack of coordination - and my handwriting was never that bad, anyway), my parents finally let me stop taking lessons for the instrument I hated, I stopped and I haven't touched it since, nor taken up any other instrument.
My dad made me drink a glass of milk every day. I hated milk - it made me gag. The nominal reason for making me drink the milk was because my bones would evidently splinter from lack of calcium if I did not, though no discussion of whether this premise was true or not was allowed. As soon as he stopped making me do it, I stopped doing it. (When I read Karen Armstrong's story of forcing down macaroni and cheese - which made her gag - in Through the Narrow Gate, it reminded me of this.) I still hate milk - it still makes me gag (you should watch me try to drink a whey protein shake if you don't believe me). My bones haven't splintered. And I think there was probably some other way to get me the calcium I needed...if that was really the point, which it clearly wasn't.
I had to do many tedious household chores, some of which took hours each week. They had to be done right, too, or I'd never hear the end of it. So tedium doesn't scare me now, but for every time my high threshold for tedium might aid me, it hurts me ten. I too readily take on tedious work and establish a precedent for being the go-to person for it, which leads people to take advantage of me and diminishes me professionally.
A tolerance for tedium and unpleasant tasks never compensates for social awkwardness. I was the fool who - in fifth grade - was actually surprised when the girl I liked was not impressed with all the work I put into my big school project. It made me wonder, seriously, why I'd invested so much effort.
Some teaching styles actually reduce the likelihood of learning. Anything my dad tried to teach me in his usual coercive style - diving is a great example - is something I still can't do. Anything others in the family tried to teach in gentler ways - swimming and riding a bike are two - are things I learned and even excelled at. Bizarrely, my dad told just the same story about his own father.
The sad truth is that my dad had no larger goal in mind than control for its own sake. As bad as that would be if your kid was going to do rote shift factory work for his whole life, it's pathetic when translated into the modern, creative working world. Hard work is important but it simply isn't going to replace good thinking, and while good thinking can come of life-or-death necessity, it usually comes when people are enjoying what they do because they're confident and interested.
Enjoying what you do doesn't mean enjoying every minute of it the way you might enjoy every minute of lounging out by the pool. But knowing what real enjoyment is, and how to find it - rather than simply being reconciled to being miserable - now there is a valuable life lesson.
This issue of control touches a real nerve. Look, here is a piece by Amy Chua's daughter telling "her side of the story." But don't you understand that in a truly controlling family there is no "her side of the story"...and such a piece, if it existed, would simply be propaganda?
I don't know whether my wife and I will have kids, but this stuff really eats at me. What is the point of an existence devoted entirely to pleasing a parent? How are you ever supposed to really know who you are? If I can't do better than my parents did, surely the biggest favor I could do my kids is not have them.
And I haven't read Amy Chua's book, but if her daughter was able to effectively rebel at the age of 13 (and the rebellion didn't involve a rope or pills), then maybe she's not as bad - and certainly not as controlling - a mom as people seem to think.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
My wife and I traveled this past weekend to an interesting but very cold (I mean: holy cow! have I become a southerner yet or what?) city to visit her brother. He, being a college student, did not exactly run us ragged, so I was able to catch up even more on sleep during our trip.
I went to the doctor for my shoulder late last week. She diagnosed me with a rotator cuff strain, which sounds like bullshit but it's actually a real thing. Major league ball players lose weeks or months to it. At this point there's little pain in my everyday activities (and I can't associate the pain with any particular movements, and don't have a restricted range of motion) but lots of cracking and it's fairly obvious that lifting weights would still be a very bad idea. She referred me to a sports medicine doctor, and I'm going next week.
Meanwhile, I'm getting back into cardio and am going to put together a core workout that doesn't involve my shoulders at all. At this point in my life I'm clearly not training for the Mr. Universe contest, but going too long without working out (at all) just contributes to my general sense of malaise. As I write this, it's been about ten days since I've been to the gym, and - all else aside - that doesn't exactly help my psychological state. Finally, I suspect that my office ergonomics was a contributing factor to my shoulder issue, so I am working on improving that as well.
I shall be creative, and I shall overcome.
The writers conference, and the pitch slam, is this weekend in New York. I've been working on my pitch, though the 90 second maximum certainly makes it challenging. I think it is going to be chaotic, but I am looking forward to it. A couple of bites (=partial or full requests) would be success enough.
I am thinking of reentering the Amazon Breakout Novel Contest this year. Seems like there's nothing to lose, though I may not be quite as emotionally invested this time. The contest starts next week, if any of you are interested.
Then, after I get back from New York, I need to finish up that first draft of my WIP already.
So things are rolling again. I'm not exactly a well-oiled machine all the time over here, but I do my best. And, with all the fish oil I've been taking, I'd hope my joints at least are well-oiled.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Two and a half weeks after I hurt my shoulder at the gym, I can still feel it and have no idea how long it will take to heal. It's improved but it's definitely not gone. I am going to the doctor and we will see what she says. But this may very well be the worst thing I've done to myself in 15 years of lifting weights.
I put in a heroic (if I do say so myself) effort over winter break on my WIP: about 9,000 words in eight days. When I came back to work I figured I had maybe two or three more sittings to finish up a first draft. Indeed, I was looking forward to telling you all in a post that I'd finished the draft. But I haven't written a single word since.
I have done absolutely nothing to get ready for the pitch slam in New York next weekend (except gather up my old pitches and the list of agents). I will be traveling this weekend too, and while the travel is for pleasure (and I'm looking forward to it) it takes away time I need for preparation and also rest.
I've been volunteering with a local organization, and that seems to be taking more time than I'd planned, and some prime writing/resting time, too. This volunteer work is not about helping people or any societal good - it's about writing and me meeting people. I can say at least that people are certainly getting to know me. Whether it pays any dividends remains to be seen. But I told my wife if I spent this much time at a soup kitchen for the homeless or putting together packages to mail to the troops I'd probably feel more satisfied.
Then of course there is my own stupidity. I had too much to drink last Saturday night, so I was hung over Sunday. If I'm really hung over, I can't do anything that requires actual concentration, like writing or preparing my pitch or...basically anything worthwhile. So there was one prime day for getting things done and it was completely wasted. Go, me!
The hangover then turned into a cold. Nice, huh? So I had a fever, a cough, a headache, sinus pressure, chills. Second time sick for me in two months...shit, that never happens! Maybe I get sick twice a year. (Usually less often.)
So Monday comes and I feel like crap, but guess what? There's a very important paper we're putting together at work, involving negotiation with other organizations (including some grumpy folks), and guess who is leading up that effort, which has a deadline of ASAP?
So here I am, not going to the gym - even just to do cardio, not writing, not working on my pitch, feeling like shit, trying to get bed early every night but still feeling terrible even if I'm spending 10 or 12 hours in bed.
I hate the 6:30 alarm. I hate getting up in the cold and the dark and knowing it'll take me a better part of an hour to get to work.
See, the problem is that I need to be going great guns on everything right now, and instead I just want to get into bed and pull the covers over my head. But even if I do that, I feel like it's never enough time.
Well OK, I've gone on enough. Thank you for reading my vent. I know this isn't the permanent state of things, but I feel like I've built so little slip-room into my life - and set expectations so high - that when all rocket boosters aren't operating at full blast, it becomes a problem...even though a reasonable person would know this is going to happen from time to time.
I just need to take care of myself and slowly ease back in, meantime set my priorities and get through the next few weeks.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Before July ends, the bonds of family and friendship will be stretched to the breaking point. Will the haters prevail, or will Gia and Bella find love at the Shore? (from the “product description” on Amazon.com)
Oh, I can’t wait to find out what happens!
Maybe she was just angry that I wrote that the human race would die out were we the last two people on earth. But in a strange tangent to one of my posts from a few weeks ago, Snooki from Jersey Shore has published a novel, A Shore Thing. The level of cleverness of the title is likely an indicator of the level of cleverness of the book overall, which is already available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle. I must confess that I am immune enough to pop culture to have never watched even a single minute of Jersey Shore. Indeed, I do not even know what Snooki’s voice sounds like (though, having grown up in that general neck of the woods, I can certainly imagine it and cringe). And my interest in her novel is on the low side (being kind, being very kind) as well.
One need not dig very deep that find out that the novel wasn’t really written by Snooki herself (no! she is way too busy…not to mention incapable), but by a professional writer. (Even if the book winds up really sucking, which my guess is it will – not that I plan to find out – this makes me feel just a tad better.) Snooki was more the “inspiration” for the novel, the description of which makes it sound like fan fiction of a sort (except that with reality TV, the distinction between the stars/characters and the fans can sometimes be blurred).
Even with my limited knowledge about her, Snooki carefully crafting a query letter to send to Janet Reid is a somewhat difficult image to conjure. And I think it is safe to assume that this novel didn’t travel the traditional path to publication. And why should it? After all, doesn’t Snooki have “platform”? She’s not yet waded into the realm of nonfiction (though this book might arguably be as much memoir as fiction) but “platform” doesn’t seem to hurt in the world of fiction, either. Not only is she a reality TV star, but look, she tweets! She’s on Facebook! My God, people, if that won’t sell books then what will? I’m not going to rail about the injustice of it all, but I do hope the folks who decided that publishing this book was a good idea occasionally feel a pang or two of conscience…even if, somehow (and I doubt it), it becomes a commercial success.
I hear that Snooki is next planning to publish some of her shorter work in “Ploughshares” and “Granta”. She was the first choice to review Saul Bellow’s letters for the New York Review of Books, but she was too busy. My hope is that she will come to D.C. for next year’s book festival; I would especially like to see her on a panel with Junot Diaz, Harold Bloom, and the ghost of David Foster Wallace. Likely a Pulitzer will follow thereafter.
when the lt. publishes his novel, there will be a big picture of that piggie-doggie on the cover, making a rude gesture as best it can without fingers
The big problem, of course, is that fame and wealth do not necessarily go together. This proliferation of reality TV stars has spawned a cadre of people who have been given a huge measure of one, and it’s only natural they then seek out the other. These horrible opportunities for commercializing and commodifying oneself are the curse of all these people who find themselves in the public eye all of a sudden…for reasons good, bad, or nonexistent. And it’s a difficult temptation to resist, be you Snooki, O.J. Simpson, that homeless guy with the voice, or Captain Sullenberger. Neither Snooki nor Sully hurt anyone with their books, though besides that there isn’t much difference between them (the books, that is) from what I can see.
I read somewhere recently, and I can’t remember where or I’d credit it, that we’ve been seeing way too much of this lately: we take these people and catapult them to fame and their problems get solved with jobs and money and stuff. And we feel good about ourselves. (Now I’m talking less about the Snookis of the world and more about the homeless guy with the voice and his ilk, all those injustices you read about on CNN with the guy whose daughter needs a kidney transplant and etc. etc.). But where is our attention to the larger problems and shortcomings that underlie these examples? I know, to paraphrase, that one death is a tragedy and a million a statistic. Nicholas Kristof had a column a while back about how much more individual narratives appeal to us than facts and figures. But really.
Snooki probably needs the money. I mean, think about it. And she’s got “platform.” So, you go girl! But you failed in your quest to make the Lt. jealous. You see, the day I think Snooki’s novel has anything to do with me is the day I need to seriously consider a breather from trying to get published.
Monday, January 10, 2011
I have enjoyed and recommended several of Ginsberg’s novels in the past, but unfortunately this one is not up to par. Let me focus on a couple of issues that especially drew my attention as a writer.
First, the book is oddly-paced, and this is true at two levels. At the macro-level, the book is set against the backdrop of a hot, fire-plagued San Diego fall, but while the climactic scenes take place in October as the fires approach and the neighborhood must evacuate, in actuality most of the action occurs either earlier (as early as July) or later (as late as the next February). There is no special tension leading up to those October scenes, and much of the action comes afterward.
The whole book is framed around Diana, a very pregnant and very unlikeable teenager who shows up one day on her father Joe’s doorstep, even though Joe has never met nor been involved with Diana at all. Joe’s wife Allison is about as pleased with this development as you might expect, and immediately descends into a sullen alcoholic incapacitation that she remains in for most of the story. Given this framework, one then might imagine that the birth of Diana’s baby would serve as a catalyzing scene, but it doesn’t.
At a micro-scale, there are too many breaks in the action for character-development digressions…you know, where a character thinks back to an important previous scene that occurred off the page, or remembers the first time they met another character, or whatever. Now I use this technique too in my writing and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it, but in this case it is used so much that the book becomes choppy.
One chapter, centered around a “neighborhood meeting” and occurring late in the book, clearly serves only to allow certain characters to remember this or that, and to physically bring other characters together to remind the reader of something or let one character realize something about another. The “meeting” itself is virtually glossed over. I told my wife this reminded me of “The Muppet Show” where the whole half-hour is about getting ready for the show, and then the show is over. The show itself never happens.
go for the grift or blind submission instead
A second problem involves the characters themselves. In previous work, Ginsberg has shown a lot of skill in drawing characters of the appropriate depth (but no greater). Here, there are two problems. First, no character is likeable enough and when (and here I’m not revealing anything you couldn’t learn from reading the jacket flap) Diana disappears, leaving her baby behind, it’s difficult to really care very much.
Second, the internal psychodramas of the characters are quite easy to tease out, but the other characters take forever to elucidate them. So there are endless pages of the kinds of domestic argument scenes that involve characters saying other characters names and walking out the door and hiding in their bedrooms and really just not communicating, where one fifteen minute conversation probably would have sufficed to get to the root of say, Allison’s real problem with Diana, or the tension that builds up between Sam and Gloria.
The final problem I’ll touch on, related to the second, is a general sloppiness: some of this may be intentional, but it doesn’t leave a reader particularly satisfied. Some of the sloppiness is in the plot. The reader sees conflicting information about who the father of Diana’s baby might be, but it’s never resolved. Again, perhaps this ambiguity was intentional, but one possibility would give readers much more sympathy for Diana than another. We also never learn for sure whose brilliant idea it was for Diana to land on Joe and Allison’s doorstep in the first place. Diana’s disappearance fosters a Clue-like environment where the reader can’t help but guess that one character or another might be responsible, but the final reveal is a bit out of left field and quite disappointing.
Other sloppiness is in the characters, and – I’ll say it – especially (though not exclusively) the male characters.
Consider Kevin, the confused, drug-addled (I pictured the pimply adolescent from The Simpsons throughout) neighbors’ son, who winds up as Diana’s drug supplier/friend/lover/confidant/possibly all or none of these. His parents are both atrocious people (and his mother Dorothy’s selfless act at the end is really quite selfish, if you think about it). He’s a boy trying to be a man, and he is treated with scorn by basically everyone. But his intentions are noble at times (just as they are self-serving at others) and I don’t think he got a fair shake.
Joe, arguably the book’s protagonist, is perhaps the best example of a sloppy character. Though his great flaw in the past, evidently, has been strong-arming people into doing things, in the book he seems completely passive and doesn’t even bother to try to help resolve Diana’s situation. Because he is not nearly as bad as his wife seems to think he is, the character of Jessalyn is introduced to give him a temptation he can yield to and provide some moral equivalence. It seems a bit contrived, really, and a reader winds up pretty darned confused about Joe and Allison’s marriage even at the end of the book.
In its favor, the book is a quick read and Ginsberg manages to recreate the stifling San Diego environment and insular atmosphere of the neighborhood. But her other work, including The Grift and Blind Submission, is better and while I would recommend those books, I don’t recommend this one.
Friday, January 7, 2011
In 2007, before I started the blog, much of my reading was done for research for my novel, and a lot of what I read was weird shit. This year also I read some (for me) strange and unusual stuff. Before I start, then, just let me say that I’ve excluded a couple of books from my list from consideration for any awards. So if you think X or Y was an obvious candidate for A or B award, but it didn’t happen, that might be the reason why. I also did a much better job reviewing books this year, and below I link to my 2010 reviews where available.
Overall, I read 39 books this year (plus a few assorted other book-length things I'm not including), including 12 works of nonfiction and about half a dozen collections of short stories or novellas. That's about the same as last year. 11 of my 39 books were written by women (last year it was 10 of 39: I choose my books based on what I want to read rather than who wrote them, but I think this is a decent ratio, especially when you consider my own demographics - mid 30s male - as a reader).
So let’s get to it.
In 2008, my winner was Serena by Ron Rash. Last year, it was Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. This year it goes to Beneath The Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. Despite the flaws I point out in my review, it was a great effort. I had two close runner-ups this year: Solar by Ian McEwan and Burning Bright, a short story collection by Ron Rash. All three are well worth reading.
This was a toughie because most of the nonfiction I read this year was excellent, and I recommend a lot of it. Two years ago my winner was Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Last year it was a tie between two very different books: The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney and Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. This year I am giving it to The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, about the history of al-Qaeda and the run-up to the September 11 attacks, which every American should read and which should be required reading for policymakers.
I really would like to give this award to a certain book on my list that I bought solely because I was told I would get a query critique from the author’s agent if I did so, but no critique or any communication whatsoever from said agent has been forthcoming more than five months later. (Also, it was a very poorly-written book – a great example of a time I’m not exempt from the writer’s cliché of wondering why so many crappy books are published and mine hasn’t gone anywhere – so I’m not mixing applies and oranges here.) But I will refrain.
Two years ago my winner was the awful, awful People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Last year it was Fool by Christopher Moore. (One day I will try again to read another Moore. One day.) This year, I’m going to give it to The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. Sloppy, cumbersome plotting including a huge cop-out at the end, cookie-cutter male characters, and an utterly loathsome protagonist (in a strongly protagonist-driven novel) made this the book I wanted to throw against the wall (and hoped the main character would die painfully) the most this year.
Poor Tara Brach. She won two years ago for her incomprehensible Radical Acceptance and I still feel bad about it since I love her audiotapes. Last year I had the cojones (not cajones) to give it to Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama because I found his discussion of race frustrating and infuriating (and I love Barack Obama, by the way). This year the award goes to the very disappointing The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. I don’t know if Sum by David Eagleman is supposed to fiction or non-fiction (fiction, I think, though that’s somewhat perplexing), but either way, I’m putting it as a close runner-up. Carrie Fisher’s memoir Wishful Drinking was no great shakes either.
Best New Discovery
After discovering the arrogant but brilliant Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2008, and the amazing Hans Fallada in 2009, I had high hopes for 2010, but failed to discover anyone new. Indeed, to be honest, my big discovery of the year was a re-discovery: H.P. Lovecraft. A bit different to read Lovecraft in your 30s than in your teens. A bit different to read him in 2010 than in the late 1980s. And yes, there are undertones of racism in his work that are rightly unacceptable today (nearly 90 years later). But oh, the joys of cosmic horror. My WIP owes a lot to HPL, and he’s been a presence in my life again these days.
Most Memorable Book
In 2008 it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoir Oak and Calf. In 2009 it was the incredible Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. This year it’s a tie between the absurd but highly memorable The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes, and the more subdued but unforgettable memoir In Search of My Homeland by Er Tai Gao. Yes, two quite different books. But I won’t forget the faculty party in the Hynes book anytime soon. And the forced emoting during the Cultural Revolution as described by Gao will be with me for quite some time as well.
Least Memorable Book
Two years ago it was the atonal The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, the human guinea pig. Last year it was tie between the overwritten The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (take some risks, man!) and the pointless Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. This year the award goes to Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, about which the only thing I remember is one of the main characters’ incredibly annoying habit of saying “verteberries” when she meant “vertebrae.”
One last observation about a book on my list: I was excited to pick up The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern. It was a brilliant concept and drew me in. But it got less funny and more disturbing and confusing as it wore on, and the end absolutely lost me. One of the book blogs I follow and enjoy (though don't always agree with) named it the best American novel of the year. As you know, I love alternative opinions, and so wanted to point this out. I think the end of the book simply went over my head, and wouldn't want my ignorance or cluelessness to get in the way of others picking up the book.
And that’s a wrap. I was deluged with wonderful books at Christmas and can’t wait to get started reading in 2011!
Books I Read In 2010
|1. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King|
|2. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Schteyngart|
|3. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman|
|4. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff|
|5. Beneath The Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste|
|6. Do I Want to Be A Mom? : A Woman's Guide to the Decision of a Lifetime by Diana Dell and Susan Erem|
|7. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen|
|8. Pol Pot by Philip Short|
|9. The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes|
|10. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher|
|11. The New Rules of Lifting by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove|
|12. In Search Of My Homeland by Er Tai Gao|
|13. The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern|
|14. Burning Bright by Ron Rash|
|15. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier|
|16. Solar by Ian McEwan|
|17. Hitler's Empire by Mark Mazower|
|18. Tech Transfer by Daniel S. Greenberg|
|19. The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch|
|20. Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman|
|21. Blind Submission by Debra Ginsberg|
|22. Monumental Propaganda by Vladimir Voinovich|
|23. Opposite Of Me by Sarah Pekkanen|
|24. The Castle In The Forest by Norman Mailer|
|25. The Drinker by Hans Fallada|
|26. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri|
|27. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright|
|28. Fresh Kills by Bill Loehfelm|
|29. The Age Of Absurdity by Michael Foley|
|30. American Rust by Philipp Meyer|
|31. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower|
|32. The Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold|
|33. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft|
|34. The Right Hand Of Sleep by John Wray|
|35. The Hidden by Tobias Hill|
|36. Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore|
|37. Under The Dome by Stephen King |
38. Why I Write by George Orwell
39. The Discomfort Zone by Janathan Franzen
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Happy New Year!
From a psychological perspective, the New Year is a nice time to assess and make some resolutions and plans (I also point out every year that it's totally arbitrary, so I won't do that this year, though it is...oh, wait.). I have a couple of resolutions for 2011, though nothing terribly major, plus a writing plan.
Let me start by checking how I did with the resolutions and goals I laid out last year.
First, my wife and I have begun to discuss seriously whether to have kids, but we didn’t get to a counselor to talk about it in 2010. We should do that in 2011, probably relatively early in the year.
I think in general I’ve been a bit more efficient with my time this past year, and of course I will work to ensure that continues, but I have no specific resolution around it.
I was fairly diligent in the staying-late-at-work thing through March. I stayed late Thursday nights and used that time to get in a workout in the building gym and work on writing-related tasks. But for some reason, and I'm not sure why, doing this made me incredibly cranky, so I stopped.
Now, with my new job, there is no building gym, and I am far busier, staying late one or more nights a week to do work-work (as opposed to writing-work) anyway. The key under these circumstances is simply taking advantage of the time I have: being flexible but efficient. Just holding it all together is accomplishment enough, so I’m not making any special resolution around this either.
I do have a minor but significant resolution around my workouts. 2010 was a good year for lifting for me, especially considering all the changes that happened. My weight, which fluctuated in 2009 between 205 and 180 or so, has stabilized at a shade under 190, and that's fine with me. I've gotten my three weight workouts in most weeks. But I have let my cardio lag.
Now, I do walk quite a bit during the course of the week (sometimes as much as 14 miles, almost never less than 7 or 8), much of it at a good clip, but that’s not really enough. I’d like to add those two intense cardio sessions back into my week. It can be two 20-minute high-intensity interval sessions, or two moderate 30-minute sessions, or one of each, or whatever. But I’d like to get those two in each week.
My last resolution for the year is to go get a check-up with a doctor. I don’t have any particular reason, just that it’s been more than two years since I had any blood-work done, and many many years since I had a check-up of any kind. I’m not getting any younger, so stopping by to make sure all is well is worth the inevitable scolding I will receive about my drinking. I'll add that my joints sometimes feel older than they should - the issue I had a few months ago after being crammed in that hotel conference room is just one example, but I managed to screw up my shoulder at the gym over break again and am actually taking a break from lifting right now until it heals - and I'm starting to take some supplements (specifically glucosamine/chondroitin and fish oil) to try to help things, but I wanted to talk to a doctor about that, also. Sometimes I sound like Rice Krispies walking around, and that's now good, especially at my age.
My wife and I found a new dentist who seems far superior (and more conveniently located) than the old dentist. I still have some annoyance associated with my gums/jaw/whatever, but this guy’s going to do more bite adjustments and even broached the possibility, which my old dentist wouldn’t even consider, of replacing the filling in the area where it hurts. Besides this, I am simply the picture of (physical) health. Ha-ha.
So now onto writing.
Last year I resolved to keep querying for my first novel, and indeed I have, though irregularly. I thought entering the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award content might be a good idea; I did enter, and it was worthwhile (I made it to quarterfinalist and received some good feedback). I also pitched at a conference and am now registered for another one. So yeah…no slacking off here.
I said I was going to do something with my short stories, and I did - in the first part of the year - submit one or two to journals and contests. But good Lord what a time suck that is, and the truth is my short stories are mostly old and I don’t feel much invested in them anymore.
Finally, I mentioned having two ideas for novels and thought I might work up one of them. I haven’t done too terribly much background work on the other (though I did take some time in August to sketch out a pretty good skeleton), but on the one I am somewhere in the high-40s in terms of word count (47,500 on 12/31) for a manuscript that will probably not exceed 55k. So I came close to that first draft I mentioned, and am anticipating finishing up within the next few weeks!
So, for 2011:
1) Keep on keeping on with my “first” novel. I’m not ready to give up yet. I’m going to New York in January and I will pitch the heck out of it. Then in February or March I’ll continue working through querytracker the way Travs and others have suggested. Slow and steady, just hoping to keep stuff out there constantly.
2) I want to finish a first draft of my WIP asap and then get get it ready for querying. Perhaps, in the second half of the year, I will actually start querying. It’s totally different from my first novel and I’m just not going to agonize about it the same way. It’s also shorter and lighter and won’t take as much effort/revision to get into shape for querying.
3) Gear up to write, and perhaps begin writing, the third. This third is much more like the first, and that means it’s going to require more research and more work before the writing starts. An ambitious goal would be to aim to start writing next fall.
I can envision moving my emphasis between these projects at different points of the year. The only problem I notice with these three otherwise quite reasonable objectives is that there’s a lot of pre- and post-writing, but not a lot of writing. But that’s where I am now, and there’s nothing I can do about it except plug along.
I wish you all a happy and successful 2011, and best of luck with your own resolutions and goals.