Giving up the dream, or finally waking up to reality–if only I could really DO it

Do NOT make me play Bach.

Bach and I don’t get along the way Beethoven and I, Mozart and I, Schubert and I, Schumann and I, Kabalevsky and I, even Khachaturian and I get along. I can play “Linus and Lucy,” the Vince Guaraldi theme heard in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the other “Peanuts” cartoons, but don’t make me try to struggle through a J. S. Bach Invention or Sinfonia. Aside from a few of the early preludes in the WTC (Well-=Tempered Clavier) and of course some of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena, I struggle too much. It’s just too hard.

I was smokin’ wild tonight. Played through the better part of my higher-end repertoire, finishing up with the two Schubert Moments Musical. (Nos. 3 and 1. #3 is the happy bouncy one that everyone loves.) It was sad that there was no one there to hear. Except the dog, of course. He always appreciates my concertizing.

Still couldn’t play Bach. Had a few glitches even playing the easiest Prelude, #1 in C. Why? ? ? ‘Tis a puzzlement.

Also, I’ve got “clicks” on C2 (the C above middle C) and the D and E above it. Time to call the piano technician. It sounds terrible and ruins the tone and resonance of those notes. Just about everything you play needs ’em, too, unless you want to play in G-flat and stay mostly on the black keys.

* * *

So . . . this afternoon, we caught the film “Overboard” starrting Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell . . . for the hundredth time. I watched it again, gleefully reciting the dialogue (pretty much). “Don’t call me Jojo, Mother. I feel like a Pomeranian.”

If you want to see a perfectly structured film, IMHO, see this one. The structure is just about perfect.

Ditto for the *first* “Back to the Future” flick. Perfect setup, perfect plot points, perfect timing, perfect wrap-up. At first I thought they’d forgotten the dog in the van, but then I saw it the last time I watched the movie, so they even got that detail right. Bravo.

Lots of movies that rake in the bucks don’t have that no-plot-holes, character-driven, no-false-motivation structure.

You can learn (from watching these) a lot about writing novels in three-act format, which is pretty much how salable commercial novels are structured these days.

* * *

This afternoon I met one of my writing friends at Borders. We’d been meeting as the D/FW NaNo (National November Writing Month) group that’s been together since last year, but today only she and I showed up. She is still early in the game, at the stage where she still says “WHEN I sell” and “WHEN I start selling on proposal” and all that stuff I used to say when I still believed.

I’m afraid I wasn’t particularly grand to listen to for part of the time (although I did play plot hamster and invent a couple of outlandish plot twists for her. I don’t think she’s going to use them, though.*) My Tarot readings and horoscope and anywhere I turn . . . they’ve all been saying, for a while now, “wake up and get out of your fantasy and enter reality before it’s too late.” I can’t help but think that if I haven’t cracked any markets after all this time, I am not meant to. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any particular aspect of the craft in my work (as far as I can tell from what agents, editors, book doctors, and my professors at SMU/UTD say when they see it)–it’s just my ideas and the way I write that doesn’t seem to appeal to agents.

So I’ve stopped talking like that. “WHEN I win this contest” and “WHEN I get an agent,” while fine for those who still think that you can visualize a life into being, just make me sound like a ridiculous fool. So I’ve stopped saying them.

Pretty soon I’ll surely accept that it’s never going to happen. And why shouldn’t I be happy without it? I survived the life-threatening illnesses, we’re finally on our feet financially, we’re all getting along well, the dog is almost housebroken, and I can afford to replace this carpeting (and could, if only I’d concentrate on packing up the three floor-to-ceiling bookcases and somehow figure out how to take apart the TV-TiVo-stereo-VCR-etc stack and put it back together again so it works. I fear it never would go together correctly again.)

It’s tough for someone who has been a True Believer to face reality. But sometimes it may be what’s in the cards. The grand destiny doesn’t come to pass because of some past error or just the twists of fate. But if you’re not dead yet, then you can still enjoy life and be happy.

At least I hope I can “get there” and believe that, at last.

* (Okay, so the plot about the kid who finds the magic banana might not fly. But when I was at the half-price bookstore, I picked up a book called “Toby’s Banana” or something similar, a chick lit tome of about 300 pages on sale for a dollar–so that tells you how popular it was, that it got turned in a lot–and the only plot I could imagine for it is that a guy buys a banana and funny stuff starts happening and then soon he figures out IT’S THE BANANA (first plot point), and he figures out how to use the magic, but then THE BANANA STARTS TO TURN BROWN AND GO BAD and he can’t control the magic (second plot point), and he can’t figure out how to destroy it because anything he does just releases more rotten magic (dark moment or turning point) . . . Um, that’s not anything like the plot of that book. It’s just another sex novel about youngsters and their friends searching for sex and pretty shoes, unfortunately. So she didn’t like that plot. And then she wanted a conflict and I offered “a NeoConservative guy buys the building where the local Organic Food Co-Op is and wants to raze it for a parking lot for his church, and the hippies fight back,” and she wouldn’t use that either. My plot hamster fell off the wheel. Perhaps my style/voice is not the ONLY reason for all these rejections, eh?)

* * *
Yet there are still life’s little ironies, aren’t there?

Go check out the 2004 Summer Reading List, Grades 6-8, as compiled by the Newton Middle School Librarians. Click on “Fantasy” and see – – my book is the FIRST listed. I discovered this by googling up* my name. This is not the webpage of anyone I know. I didn’t talk to any of these people. My book was just discovered. And they LIKED it. If only it had a fair shake by being put out by Viking, Warner, or some other NY house, I know it could make money for them. I wouldn’t care if they paid me a cent in royalties, if I just saw my book being put on library shelves and bookstore dumps (displays) and spied people carrying it around to read on the bus. *sigh* Anyway, that’s nice. I guess it would make me feel happy if I weren’t in this “wake up to reality” mode.

* Sounds horrid. Googling up? Clean that up before it leaves a stain! Barney Google, with his goo-goo-googly eyes!

Anyhow. Perhaps, like playing the Bach Inventions, publication by a New York house will remain just tantalizingly out of my reach . . . (pray that it won’t, but anyway, I have to face that possibility.)

To end on a lighter note–check out The Lost Books Club, a group aiming to get some forgotten but worthy books back into print and in readers’ hands. I applaud them. The same is being done on a larger scale by A Common Reader. Good show.

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I’d like to welcome Laurie R. King to the blogosphere!

If you don’t know who she is . . . she writes mystery novels about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Her blog is going to be interesting, I can already tell.

I’ve already christened her comments section. In part, I wrote:

(in response to her remarks about judging the Edgars and about “voice” being a good thing for novels to have)

I beg to differ with you on the topic of “voice” (though I wish I didn’t have to.) I am constantly being reassured that voice is a Good Thing, yet when I get rejections, they often refer to my style and voice (indirectly or directly.) Or the rejections are just wrongheaded, if they’re really based on what is mentioned.

I wish I’d had you as a judge, *ever*, for *anything*. My work has voice out the wazoo. That is often what gets it rejected. I have recently received rejections accompanied by such explanatory comments as, “Your characters’ weirdo names pulled me out of the story” (said names were Zoe and Francesca, not as weird as Ponyboy and Luscious, surely); “I don’t do horse stories and the names were too different for me to even care” (I searched the manuscript for mention of a horse, and finally decided that the reaction came because the book is set in Dallas, Texas); and “I would recommend doing a spelling and grammar check. I opened your submission in Word 2003 and there were a lot of grammantical [sic] errors and fragmented [sic] sentences. Also, errors like this could be a downfall: ‘It felt as though she’d been stabbed a hundred times in the chest with one of those plastic knives that just bruises (Should be just bruise) you without the final mercy of actually ending you.” (Of course it shouldn’t be just “bruise.” Yes, the sentence is colloquial. No, it’s not ungrammatical. And anyone who runs fiction through Word’s so-called “grammar checker” is not in touch with reality, IMHO.)

Though I really am worried about them thar “grammaNtical” errors and “fragmentED” sentences. They’re undoubtedly even worse than grammatical errors and sentence fragments. No doubt they’ll be someone’s downfall.”

All right . . . if you thought that the word SHOULD be “bruise” and that I was *in error*, you’re wrong. No, really. Go check the Harbrace College Handbook or even Chicago Style. We’ll wait.

See.

(She’s making the error because “knives” is plural and it’s the closer word. However, “one of those plastic knives” is singular, and that’s what is being modified here. Diagram the sentence. The phrase says “one . . . bruises.”)

I suppose I am just a cranky old be-yotch, but I grow weary of being rejected and screened out by “first readers” and other assistants–or even by agents–who obviously don’t know the first thing about grammar, usage, or fiction writing. I don’t know why they Have Credentials and I am assumed NOT to have credentials. Must I start making the same egregious errors I see in so many published novels now in order to get past these “screeners”? For instance, the matter of “spat” being the past tense of “spit.” YES, IT IS. I DO NOT CARE how many people make that mistake, it is still WRONG. “She spat at him.” Past tense. “She would spit on him if he were in range.” Subjunctive mood. Which they’ll get when they pry it out of my and Raphael Carter’s cold dead fingers, if even then.

* * *

Several people have pointed out that sometimes my ironic tone does not come across in my entries. One person took issue with my statement that a Published Writer never would ever have any reason to commit suicide or even to be unhappy. Looking back, perhaps the ironic tone was unclear. Maybe I should start putting “Fe” and “/Fe” (the old GEnie network’s Irony Indicators) into my entries, bracketing any parts of them that should not be taken literally or seriously. (NO, wildcelticrose, I’m not talking about you. You understood perfectly. The complainant posted anonymously.)

Readers are different. Some have better reading comprehension than others.

Isn’t it interesting? Every reader brings baggage and existing beliefs to a work. Many readers “read things into” your work. Therefore, everyone is going to get something a little bit different out of every book. Let us celebrate diversity.

I got a mystifying e-mail critique today that gave more insight into the reader than I really needed. She said that she encountered a couple of words that she didn’t know, and that “pulled her out of the story” and made her stop and put the manuscript aside. Okay, well, if the words had been unusual, I’d have thought that could be logical (although I know that when I began reading as a child, if I’d put aside every book that had a new word in it, I never would have become a reader; we had dictionaries and we did something in addition to that, something known as “figuring out the probable meaning from the context” so we could continue until we could look up the word and test our guess. Even now, I discover new words while reading and usually make an educated guess–and it’s often pretty close to the dictionary meaning.) But these words were not so unusual. I expect that most readers would get them from the context, as well. Anyway, this tells you that some readers have better reading comprehension and others will just give up if it isn’t as “easy” as my sister-in-law said. Do they read only “baby” books all their lives? Do they not want to develop a knowledge of the connotations of words? (Some go so far as to say there shouldn’t be many words for “red,” although there are many shades of red.) Maybe books should have warning labels. “Warning: requires higher level of comprehension.” Then that would scare everyone away except weirdos like me, who’d take it as a challenge. (*grin*)

As I’ve said, my books won’t suit everyone. I can’t dumb everything down just in case somebody might not have a vocabulary past that of Basic English. There are high/low books intended for that. But maybe they’re safe with most books?

How this happened: Last week, I sent the opening chapters of each of four of my novels to volunteer readers to see which chapter grabbed ’em best. By far the MOST popular chapter I have sent out is Camille’s, from Camille’s Travels, the one that agents say can’t possibly sell because “readers do not identify with a non-admirable lead, and your antihero lead opens the book as a runaway teen who has turned tricks and is shoplifting. Readers therefore will not like her. And will not read the book.” How is it possible, then, that fifteen people off the Dorothy-L list who were kind enough to say, “Sure, send ’em on, I’m no pro, just a reader, but will tell you which one I like,” could LOVE Camille and be totally excited to see what happens next? (She gets caught, but gets away. She is later redeemed. She is not turning tricks because she WANTS to. She ran away because of the Sandra Dee reason . . . her stepfather started raping her and feeling her up. Her mother would have blamed HER, so she ran away. She later saves the world. So there. Take that, conventional wisdom!) I tell you what, two romance contests have said this chapter was completely unsuitable because Camille is not the admirable heroine that mystery, suspense, romance, romantic comedy, and so forth are all supposed to require. And fantasy readers supposedly only want grown-ups as narrators, unless you are willing to make your book a YA, in which case this one is too “mature” because of subject matter. Sheesh! No wonder my book can’t get to readers who would read it . . . there’s no label that the ones in power believe would fit.

Is James Bond not somewhat of an antihero? Many novels open with interesting characters who have many facets. If a character is falsely too “heroic,” he or she is a phony, say Holden Caulfield and I. I prefer a character who is more human. Just one little “false” tragic flaw such as “tends to plumpness” or “makes hasty decisions” is not enough to round out a character, IMHO. Yet it is what they believe flies best in category romance and perhaps other genres.

Camille is a character who walked into a scene of a novel I was working on with the FidoNet WRITING list members. She was further developed by my friend and co-writer, Brianne “Silk” Campbell. “Netmail” (the Fido equivalent of e-mail) flew back and forth as we discussed the character, who had caught her imagination. She is responsible for Camille’s attitude and her idea of shoplifting. If the book ever gets anywhere, Brianne will be in the dedication. Brianne crossed over to the Other Side many years ago from pneumonia, or else I would get her to read the book before I sent it out. . . .

That all-important first scene

On the Jennifer Crusie writing list (by invitation only, and I am not one of the potential “inviters,” alas, so don’t ask), we’ve been discussing how readers sometimes “imprint” (like baby ducks) on the first POV character they encounter. I know I certainly do. And if I like that character and the author is only using him or her for that first chapter and then switches to someone else’s viewpoint for the remainder of the book, believe me, I’m going to be one irritated reader. That goes even if it’s a “show how the murder is done” Columbo chapter. I don’t like those tomes that swap to a different character every chapter because I can’t get a feel for anyone that way. Just me.

The Lady herself said we shouldn’t blame the reader for wanting the story to be clear; unless it’s a college prof, the reader wants to read an entertaining story, not try to figure out which literary devices an author is using. “So much of the success of a book depends on reader expectation, which is why the first scene is so crucial. That’s where you present your world and the reader steps into it. (Don’t get me started on the false worlds of prologues.) So if an author inadvertently presents one world and the book is about another, it’s not that the reader doesn’t like complex stories, it’s that the author told it badly.”

Isn’t she something? That’s GREAT. That is EXACTLY what I meant when I complained about books where (as Damon Knight said) they start in the middle of action before I’ve had any time to imprint on one of the characters. And note that it was this NYT best-selling author who said that a prologue leads a reader down a false path . . . that’s one of the nits I picked with Phobos.

I learned that the hard way. In my first completed full-length epic fantasy novel (the one I did right out of college, when I met Don and he said he loves fantasy and doesn’t read anything else, so why can’t I write one?), I opened in deep heroine POV. Alyncia is a healer but has to keep the talent hidden while she’s away at school so she isn’t burned at the stake, but then she’s hit with a dilemma of needing to heal someone . . . this scene is representative of the book. Well, many people complained that it wasn’t Action-Y enough. (Mostly guys, IIRC.) So I took a scene from later in the book, where the baddies are conspiring to steal “her” (the princess, but you don’t know that yet), and made it a prologue. Guys liked that, but most women (and many authors/agents/readers of both genders) said that it now was “a dungeon run write-up.” It wasn’t. Sigh. So that’s my experience with prologues, and now I have someone to back me up on that, in a way.

I realize that eloquence is no longer highly prized, that most readers have no idea what is meant by “cadence” or “parallel structure,” and that the publishing world basically says, “All that matters is the story–not the words used to tell it,” but I think they’re wrong. It’s just a matter of what is in style now, of course. Years ago descriptions were good. Now they’re “not.” First person goes in and out of fashion. (For years “you couldn’t sell first person” except in YA or mysteries, and now you see it a lot more, because of chick lit, I suspect.) My sister-in-law said that what’s most important about a novel is that it be easy to read. She then looked at me and asked, “Right?” Actually expecting me to agree. Of course, I didn’t. *grin*

At any rate, if you believe that your book needs a prologue to explain what came before, I suppose that’s the way to go. You definitely don’t want to start in the middle and then have a flashback. That was in style years ago (as were “frame” stories), but now they pretty much frown on flashbacks. Probably because so many people started in a fight scene and then did a “dissolve” to the thing that started the fight, in order to satisfy the dictum about “starting in the middle.”

A great number of episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” are structured like this. Watch one some morning on Nickelodeon or TVLand and chances are you’ll see this. It starts out with Rob and Laura in a fight or talking to Richie, then dissolves to “it all started when” and tells THAT story. As I said, this used to be big as a way of flashing back. Now you really can’t get away with it.

(It’s not that you NEVER see it, but that you’ll usually see it in a book by a well-established author, and not a flashback that lasts for the rest of the book, most of the time. Those people who are “established” get away with so much more than we do.)

Calling all YA fantasy/SF authors

Did any of y’all publish a young adult fantasy/SF novel last year? (Or do you know of a great one by someone else?) Especially if your novel is POD or from a small press, I’d like to find out about it and get a copy. I’m looking for an obscure worthy to recommend to the SFWA for the new Andre Norton award. I don’t want to pass along a title without reading and loving the book, so be sure to let me know how I can order your book.

That Manuscript Marketplace associated with the Maui Writers’ Conference . . . hmm. Sounds fishy somehow, but is also appealing, in a SpeedDating sort of way.

I got the booklet promoting the Maui Writers’ Conference yesterday in the mail. Of course I can’t go to Hawai’i for any conference, but I flipped through and saw that many interesting authors will be presiding there. In the middle of the brochure is a promo for something called a “manuscript marketplace.” For $149 per manuscript, you can fill out a form and submit a synopsis and five pages of your novel, and supposedly “editors and agents” from this conference will browse the stuff and request it. They claim that thirty percent of their paying customers get “interest.” This appeals because you’d get a lot of exposure without all those individual queries and then partials and all that waiting; you also wouldn’t get all invested in one particular agent/agency, because you wouldn’t even know who might see your work. On the other hand, it seems to me that this is a perfect setup for a scam, since all you have to do is take the $, put the pages up on the wall or a computer (doesn’t even have to be the Web–a local page would work), and then if no one looks at it (or no one legitimate), you haven’t really delivered, but you didn’t exactly lie. Hmm.

My major question is–why would legit agents and editors bother with this? They get enough stuff mailed directly to them that they don’t need to solicit material. In fact, I often feel that they miss a number of worthwhile works when they have the periodic “get rid of slush” events run by interns who judge a manuscript (perhaps with different ideas from the agent’s own) very quickly and then stuff it into the SASE. (Some interns, I feel, must be like the occasional first reader I run across; these people don’t like stuff that’s written well, and they like the no-style style above all else, so if your work is not awkwardly phrased and does not contain brand names for shoes and purses, they don’t like it. And that’s a poor criterion by which to judge MY work. Probably other good stuff gets missed this way, as well.)

Anyway. I’m wondering whether this “manuscript marketplace” should even be taken seriously. They don’t list the agents/editors who are supposedly coming to the conference or who would supposedly be looking at this stuff. I suspect that if they fly to Hawai’i, they’re going to be occupied looking at the sights and running from panel to panel and trying to figure out how to escape the hotel for a few hours so they can shop or see the beach. They aren’t going to sit at somebody’s desk or computer to see these hopefuls’ $200 entries. Am I right?

On the other hand, maybe it would be about the same cost as sending out all these queries with SASEs that never return to me. How long should it take for an agent who has requested a partial to get back to you? Don’t they call you if the news is good? So any e-mail or SASE I get back is bad. (sigh) I once even got a phone call that was a rejection. From a novice agent’s assistant who had been excited about Dulcinea, and had been pinging the agent to look at it for several weeks, and had really expected the agent to love it and pick me up. Alas, the agent glanced over it, pronounced it wanting, and tossed it back over the desk. It says a lot for the humanity of that assistant that he felt he needed to call me and let me down easy . . . he’s over that these days, having graduated to having his own agency. And when I sent him the book again, he said he thought his old boss was right about it not moving fast enough or whatever. Hmm. Did he lose that mind of his own? Apparently he got “smartened up” and came up to speed about the current wisdom about What Will Sell. I still think that many readers like books for reasons other than the ones that marketing believes they like books.

I know that the reasons *I* like books and what makes me read on is not the stuff that they tell you they’re looking for in order to get big sales. But then I am a known weirdo.

Buddha: All life is sorrowful. Therefore, participate joyfully in
the sorrows of life.

Daddy: I know it hurts, hon, but you might as well relax and enjoy the ride as best you can. You only go around once! (As far as we know!)

=Another one? Whoa=

Just heard that writer Hunter S. Thompson shot himself to death Sunday night. That’s the second “star” to go . . . there’ll be a third, because there always is. In a matter of days, I mean. *(sigh)*

I can’t comprehend how a PUBLISHED author could kill himself. I mean, why? You are a success! You have proven yourself worthy to live! *sigh* Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone can take that step, after the way I’ve had to claw and fight and pray to live, as have several members of my family and many friends. We’re grateful for what we have (well, mostly *wink*)–meaning we’re so happy every morning to wake up able to see and hear and walk around (or get around somehow, in the case of a few of the people I’m talking about) and stand on the front doorstep inhaling the gardenia/wisteria-scented air and the pollution and looking out at the sunshine and the drizzle and seeing the little birds flitting around. I know that Heaven is a wonderful place, but can I help it if I want to stay here as long as I can and finish up?

No cracks about how he couldn’t stand to live if Sandra Dee is gone. She’s with Bobby Darin now again, at last. Don’t know who Hunter missed. Could be the entire “Beat” generation, after all. Or maybe he had a problem with his brain chemistry. In fact, I suspect he *did* have a severe brain imbalance all along, and it finally caught up with him.

He did some good work. Hats off.

A screenwriter on changes in point of view

Fellow writers: If you’d be interested in reading about point of view and conflict from the perspective of a TV writer who’s working on a sitcom (and some of the concepts apply to narrative fiction, as well), screenwriter John Rogers’ blog at
http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2005/01/writing-whose-viewpoint.html is for you . . . if you can read high-contrast white lettering on a black field. Ouch. But some good content.

If you’re not a writer, it might be interesting to look over his shoulder for a while, anyway.