Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Waiting Game

What a time it has been! I’ve gone from tentatively sticking my toe back into publishing waters to swimming in the whirlpool of anxious possibility…

Ah, but you have no idea. Let me explain.

erica-study3I finished my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, at 10:30 PM on June 26 while my family watched a noisy shoot-em-up in the next room. Even as I hit “save” in at least three locations – my computer, external hard-drive, Dropbox and a couple others just in case – I opened an email that swept me away into the riptide of The Writers Circle’s Summer Intensives. I didn’t have a moment to think about my own work again until the end of the summer when I mentioned at the last class of my beloved Wednesday morning Adult Writers Circle that I was finally looking for a new agent.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself, which is my usual pose in the teacher’s chair (this blog post notwithstanding), I didn’t mention who or what I was planning beyond what would be useful to my students when they were ready. But one of our circle, Maude, finally said, “Let me see your list.” She was quite insistent, so I finally did.

“I know this person, and this one.”

I stared at her, astonished. In fact, a couple of people in the class knew others who might help me. I graciously and somewhat breathlessly accepted their offers of introduction, realizing that this is exactly what The Writers Circle was meant to do. I just hadn’t expected to be one of the recipients of our communal largesse! I always thought it would work the other way around.

A few days later, a message came through inviting me to send a query. Which I did – from my family vacation in Maine. Of course, we had to choose a place off the grid! But after several trips to a wireless hub, I managed to send an appropriate query letter not to one agent, but two. Within 24 hours, requests came from both for the manuscript. OMG!

Not long after, I was meeting my brand new agent in NYC, feeling the first tentative tendrils of hope growing into sturdy roots as I discovered that what I’d been struggling with and nurturing for so long had a champion.

WaitingAll this was about a month ago. Right now, my former editor at Viking – who, by contract, has first option on this book – has my manuscript in hand. Or someone does in her office. Hopefully it’s made it past her assistant. Maybe it’s making its rounds through the marketing department by now? Maybe finding its way to the final arbiters of a reasonable (dare I hope!) deal? Or is it simply languishing, waiting for a response that will send me searching for the courage and endurance that I’ve preached about so often in these blog posts?

I’m told that, if Viking turns it down, there are lots of other options. In fact, there are more options than ever before. I’ve said it myself, I’ve said it to you, and I know – I really do know – that it’s true. But the brass ring for any author is still to find a traditional publisher who will stand behind their book, or at least get it into the stores across the nation and some attention here and there where it counts. Before and after that, trust me, there’s lots to do. But for now, I can wait.

I’ve waited this long. I can manage a little longer.

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Pitchapalooza coming to Words Maplewood

As an addendum to my last post, I just heard from Words Bookstore in Maplewood that Pitchapalooza is coming on October 27. You can get all the details at Pitchapalooza’s site, but here’s a brief intro to what they do. I hear from friends that their events are well worth a visit.
Words Maplewood
“Five years ago, we created an event that has drawn thousands of people into bookstores, writing conferences and book festivals all over the country. It’s called Pitchapalooza, the American Idol for books (only without Simon) and it works like this: Anyone with an idea for a book has the chance to pitch it to a panel of judges. But they get only one minute. Eckstut and Sterry team up with two guest industry insiders to form the judging panel. The Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapaloozas are educational and entertaining for one and all. All attendees come away with concrete advice on how to improve their pitch as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry.

“At the end of each Pitchapalooza, the judges come together to pick a winner. The winner receives a half hour consultation with Eckstut and Sterry. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.”


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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.

How we read (pronounce "reed")


In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.

First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.

Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.

On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)

How We Read (pronounce "red")


All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.

I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.

For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…

Or somewhere in between?


In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.


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Congratulations to Another Writer in Our Circle, Marilyn Martin

Congratulations to Marilyn Martin whose essay, Driving To Waldorf was just published in Front Porch, the online literary journal of Texas State University’s MFA program.

Front Porch Journal

Marilyn joined our Thursday evening group for several sessions a couple of years ago. (Anyone remember the frogs?) She is also the author of a book about raising a child with a nonverbal learning disability. Her experience, compassion and hard-won wisdom are well reflected in this beautiful article.

Since Marilyn left us, she made her way through the Bennington Writers Seminars to complete her MFA in creative non-fiction. I’m very excited to share her essay, alive and online, beside such luminary writers as Sherman Alexie and Joyce Carol Oates.

I have no doubt this will be the first publication of many. In fact, another piece is forthcoming at the Southern Indiana Review.


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Piecing It Together

What does it mean to be a writer today? For most of us, we are piecing it together, taking the hours when they come, squeezing our words into lunch breaks, between classes or meetings. We fantasize of having endless hours to dally with our muse. In truth, even writers who have found their way to praise and publication can rarely afford to hole up in a quiet cabin and type away.

What’s a writer to do when there are characters in our heads demanding to speak? When there are endless stories churning in our minds like stars in a nebula bursting to be born?

First, we take what time we can.

As I’ve often said in class, if you can’t get three hours, why not try a half hour, fifteen minutes, or the time you can steal when you’re in the bathroom with the door closed? No, this isn’t the best way to complete your epic novel. But it’s enough to get words on paper, to spit out one or two baby stars.

Second, we take (or make) jobs that support our work.

The typical day-job for a working writer is university professor, ideally in an impressive institution that permits long sabbaticals, tenure and only minimal class loads. It sounds idyllic to those who wile away on the corporate wheel. But I’ve known corporate workers who manage to arrange a morning or day off each week to write; I’ve known full-time employees who stay late or come in early for the quiet time it gives, or who write back and forth on the bus or train. (Do NOT sit next to me and chit-chat, please!)

I myself wrote my first novel (the unpublished/unpublishable one) in between typing memos at the boring law firm job I held for many years for that very reason. And I recently expanded The Writers Circle because the idea of being my own boss and teaching children the joys and struggles of writing was so much more appealing than going back to the old commute. Its small start has brought me joy and comfort that what I think is important and valuable and rich maybe really is; and I’m doing my best to share its wealth (metaphorical, so far) with others.

Third, we write what we can.

These days, being a writer can mean many things. Writers are journalists, food critics, marketers. Many writers I know in our suburban New Jersey towns have become roving hyper-local reporters and editors, covering town hall meetings and t-ball games to hone their skills, build their credits and keep their feet in the game. I’ve known writers to accept gigs ghost-writing, working on financial reports, textbooks, advertising or technical manuals. No, perhaps it’s not heart-felt work, but it’s writing. Any chance to craft thoughts and ideas into sound, logical forms is a chance to rightfully call oneself a writer.

Fourth, we write what we must.

I, on the other hand, have never been very good a writing for writing’s sake. Even when I worked in information technology, I avoided the lure of technical writing for fear that it would drain me of any creative word-smithing energy I had left. I was happier doing something completely different, to “save myself” for my true love, awaiting my attentions when I finally made it home and, before I collapsed completely, spent a few hours in anxious, exhausted communing with my characters and worlds.

Neither way is perfect, and neither is a sure route to success. We need to feed our souls and minds as well as our bodies. Finding the right balance is a matter of personality, endurance, opportunity and ultimately choice. As with most things, we all do the best we can.

Fifth (and this is a new one), we publish where we may.

Is working on this blog – or any digital project – any less valuable than writing fiction for print? I guess it depends on your point of view. In a landscape of changing readers’ habits, shortening attention spans, media inundation and a shrinking traditional publishing pool, just about any writing venue is worth exploring.

Self-publishing has lost much of its taboo. And though I personally wouldn’t make it my first choice for developing a broad readership, it’s certainly becoming a viable option for many. It works well for anyone with very direct access to a small but specific market. Profession-specific non-fiction comes to mind readily. But then, who can escape the stunning success of self-publishing fiction superstar Amanda Hocking? Even if your spinal column quivers at the very thought of self-publishing, isn’t it too soon to say? There were naysayers and obstructionists (namely the Church and the elite) when Gutenberg first introduced his machine.

Writers and creative artists are also discovering ways to use digital forms to convey stories in unique and innovative ways. Starting years ago with primitive hyperlink novels, these digital formats are slowing helping us reshape the whole concept of storytelling. Like a brand new set of paints to an artist, new digital venues, including blogging, texting, super-short “Twitter” fiction, video-logs (vlogs, I’m told), and a combination of some or all, invite us into explore and reshape our thinking about story.

Isn’t all of this writing? And honestly, isn’t it fascinating?

We may dream of big readerships, big advances and a seat on a couch beside a talk-show host. But if that’s all we’re working for, we will almost certainly fall short of our goal. And if that’s all we see, maybe we’re turning west to watch the sunrise.

If we want to call ourselves “writers”, the task is before us. Simply write and write and write. Then find a way to put our words into the world. These days, for better or worse, doing that is much easier than it used to be.

Finding readers…? Well, that’s another story.


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Crazy Sexy Sandra

Congratulations to another of The Writers Circle’s authors, Sandra Joseph, who has posted a charming, moving and typically candid guest post on Crazy Sexy Life: The Tumor on My Last NerveSandra Joseph.

As I read her guest post, I particularly paused at the self-admonishment she shared: “I can almost literally hear my acting teacher clap his hands to interrupt the action: ‘Sandra, don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.'”

If you read it, you’ll realize she’s discussing bigger issues than just writing. (And yes, there are such things!) Still, I can’t help but take it down to our usual topic and point out that we often do the same thing when we write.

Sandra continues, “Sometimes actors enter a scene prepped for what they know is coming – the emotional breakdown, the knock-down drag-out – and they bring that negative energy into the scene before the conflict has even begun. It lends an unnecessary weight and edge to what is actually happening in the moment.”

Be in the moment – Be here now – cliches in acting, writing and life, but they’re also true. I’ve seen several manuscripts this week that fit the mold, with scenes that carry the weight of their climaxes before the full circumstances or characters have been laid bare. Anticipating the ending kills the inherent tension of the tale. Hold back, I keep writing in the margins. We don’t fully understand yet. Let your characters live it first. Then we will live it with them.

One of my own teachers called it telegraphing – sending a message ahead to let everyone know what’s to come. It’s an impulse of an anxious or inexperienced writer (or actor) not to trust, to feel compelled to leap ahead to the crux of the matter. But our readers will be patient. Just like our characters, they want, should and must experience the building excitement, anxiety, curiosity, hope or despair. Jumping ahead only destroys the authentic moment of the scene or, in Sandra’s essay, the full, fresh experience of life itself.

So take Sandra’s wise advice whether in writing, acting, or life. Allow your characters to be in the moment and walk with them, step by step, day by day, through their experiences. Don’t let them get ahead of themselves. They don’t know what they will face anymore than we do each morning when we roll out of bed. Whatever conflict we or they must contend with, when it comes, it will bear its own levity or weight, whether tragic, comic, aggravating or joyful.

Thanks, Sandra! And everyone, if you have news to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post! Good writing, all.

Omega InstituteSandra Joseph, as most of you know, spent nearly a decade on Broadway as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera. She’s now working on a new self-help book idea while awaiting good news (pray, everyone!) from her agent on her memoir. She’s also teaching a workshop at the Omega Institute this summer: Performing as a Path to Presence, July 10-15 during Arts Week. Check it out and go. I’m sure she has lots more wisdom to share.


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Making Space to Write

As I prepare to attempt The Writers Circle Journal online, I invite all of you, even those I don’t know, to submit 500 words or less on your perfect writing space – real or imagined. Please submit your work to “info AT writerscircleworkshops.com” by pasting your entire manuscript and a brief bio into the body of your email. Submission deadline is April 10, 2011. I’d be grateful for your contribution and hope to “publish” a selection of the best soon. If you have an original digital photo or art, be sure to send it along.

In her brilliant essay, “A room of one’s own“, Virginia Woolf offers up this opinion: “upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

Although that’s certainly been the struggle for women writers throughout history, I find these days that all writers I know – men, women and children – are hard-pressed to find Woolf’s “room of one’s own”.

We are overwhelmed by life’s necessities, the pressure to survive, to keep our jobs, to support our children, to spend – however briefly – time with our families. So few of us today, including professional, published writers, have the luxury to simply sink back hour after hour, day after day into our literary worlds. I myself, in these last months, have been drawn out of the cocoon in which I was coddled for these last few years to contend with the necessity and joy of new opportunities in my teaching.

Still I return, if for fewer hours each day, to the place where my fictional worlds were first conceived and where they continue to evolve. My novel – almost but not quite finished – takes on new shape and form, almost perfect but still with a few pieces missing, cutting an extra limb here, smoothing a lump over there, until soon – I pray! – it will take the shape that will give it full life. To be birthed into the world and become everything I’ve imagined.

Here in this space, I surround myself with objects of focus and nurturing. Ganesha, Hindu elephant god, the Remover of Obstacles, sits to my left, a gift from my dear friend Marina on her recent trip to India. Behind him cluster bits of whimsy – a Lego robot and a Sculpey penguin – gifts from my seven-year-old son. Bills and receipts are pushed to the side, hidden under a paperweight of a romantic writing desk. The walls are scattered with photos, among them one of me standing on the deck of a ship in Greenland, behind me the landscape where the fictional characters of The Thrall’s Tale lived. A towering bookshelf holds my research. On the bulletin board hang my eldest son’s first shoes. And smiling at me always is a photo of a beloved, lost mentor: glorious Peggy Harrington, herself a great writer though unacknowledged by the world, who taught me how to survive struggle and to appreciate hard-earned moments of joy.

Into this space, I center myself and cup my hands for warmth around my mug of tea. I face the screen with all its vibrating pixels. Their promise: to form the words, if only I will lay my hands. I touch the keyboard with focus and attention. For years I’ve obeyed the call until, now, the painted letters on the plastic keys are nearly illegible from so many taps, so many trials, errors, and tries again.

“Space is a symbolic boundary,” said one of our own, Lew Epstein, in a recent class. Where we write – where we claim our space – is affected by temptations and distractions. But for a moment shut them out – whether you write in your office, your bedroom, the coffee house or on the train. If we cannot create our perfect room in this imperfect, overly pressured world, then at least we can create the perfect refuge in our minds.

Check out other writers’ spaces on the Guardian’s fascinating series, Writers’ Rooms. (It ended in 2009. Too bad they’re not still doing it.)