Sunday, March 29, 2009

Book Review: Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, by Marc Blatte

I acquired a review copy of Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed for the very purpose of reviewing it for the Unreliable Narrator. It’s not a book I would generally buy. Meaning, I don’t read police procedurals, which this is. Sort of. And I certainly wouldn’t have picked it up based on the sleeve, which touts Marc Blatte’s first novel as “…the first truly wonderful hip-hop noir mystery” with comparisons to Tom Wolfe and Carl Hiaasen.

Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed is a fast-paced who-done-it that barely slows to consider its shortcomings (more on that later). It’s a mostly believable tale of a cop, Black Sallie Blue Eyes, out to find the murderer of a night club bouncer. The story unfolds by introducing a group of initially disparate characters, many accounting for multiple points of view. The effect of multiple narrators is distracting at first, but eventually Blatte falls into a rhythm that at least stopped me from asking, “Why all the different points of view?” It’s a choice, and the author went for it. It gives the reader the benefit of getting into the heads of the major players in the story. But the down side is that the inner life and motivations of Black Sallie Blue Eyes, alternately called Sal and Sallie throughout, become watered down. I would have liked to see much more from Sallie’s point of view. Blatte’s author bio says that he’s currently writing another mystery featuring Sallie. I’ll be curious how he handles the point of view thing in the next one.

Anyway, so where does the hip-hop come in? Chapter 1 is told not from Sallie’s point of view, but that of Biz, a rising-star rap producer and cousin to a scumbag gangsta named Scholar. Scholar insists that his star cousin produce a demo for his rap group, Proof Positive. Biz relents when Scholar amazingly comes up with 15K, the high price Biz quoted his crazy cousin thinking he’d never actually scratch the cash together. Where did he raise all that cash? Biz’s favor for his cousin (he’s rightfully scared shitless of Scholar) sets off a series of events that turn up the body count. Word. Chapter 1 did not grab me by the short hairs and scream, “Read the rest of this book!” The point of view shifts between Biz and Scholar. It’s Biz’s chapter, if we want to nit-pick (and, oh god, do I), although Biz only shows up two or three more times in the book.

Next we are introduced to Sallie (“one of New York’s most decorated cops”) and his crew as they investigate a murder in the parking lot next to the Manhattan club all the rappers and high-rollers love, the Kiki Club. The dead body belongs to Pashko, a former Serbian gun runner, come to America to escape the drama and share an apartment with his cousin, Vooko. Turns out Vooko was with Pashko when he was shot, barely escaping a hit and run that left him in the hospital but with a clear memory of who killed his cousin.

The chapters are short, which lends to the quick read. The choice of shifting points of view, while initially off-putting, ultimately adds breadth to the storytelling. Both Sallie and Vooko are looking for Pashko’s killer. The lens of the story widens as we discover that a few altercations occurred at the Kiki Club, one involving Scholar and his crew, and another with rich white boy Kal Kessler, and his sister, Leah, the spoiled spawn of ultra-rich New York developer, Sheldon Kessler. I suppose this is where the Tom Wolfe comparison comes in, with the depiction of the haves and the wanna haves. Vooko and Scholar both come from nothing and want the lifestyle on display in the Hamptons, only a car-drive away. If murder is a way out, than so be it.

I’m not the target audience for this book. I don’t read a lot of police procedurals or watch CSI and Law & Order. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good plot-driven read. Or can’t spot unbelievable characters or situations. Scenes of Sallie’s detective work seem the most plausible and are among the most interesting to read. Vooko’s character is flawed but comes across as curious but mindful. He has his own dangerous agenda, but in his chapters we are shown his struggle to forget the atrocities he witnessed in his home country and his determination to find his cousin’s killer and right his world. The book’s title is his mantra: Humpty Dumpty didn’t just fall. Murder doesn’t just happen. Mr. Dumpty was, ultimately, pushed.

Sections that work best include a scene where Blatte takes us out of the city and drives to the Hamptons with Vooko in his search for justice. His longing for a mansion and a garage full of classic cars is well conveyed, his dream making him come across as a hopeful innocent. We know Vooko will probably never achieve that kind of life, but it’s his determination for what he sees as the American way that makes him endearing.

When Sallie visits the drugged-up Kal in his renovated Tribeca loft (one of his father’s projects), Sallie stares out the window, down into the hole where the Twin Towers once stood. He feels nausea remembering that day and how he lost friends in the attacks. This sort of emotion in the context of a murder mystery seemed like a convenient trigger for a jaded character to get more angry and depressed. But it’s later, when Sallie comes back to Kal’s place for a deadly face off, that the area out the window evokes tears and a true reflection of evil. It’s a heartfelt moment, welcomingly downplayed, that echoes more realistically the earlier scene’s sentiments. These moments explain more about what drives Sallie than any other passages in the book.

Occasionally, though, Blatte makes some astoundingly odd choices. Some of the action scenes are written in a bloodless, distancing style. For example, toward the end, one of the characters is racing through Manhattan streets. The scene ends in a fiery car wreck. Instead of a satisfying description of the crash, we get this: “The collision was fast and furious; a case in point that drugs and driving don’t mix. The outcome was predictable. How could a prissy little BMW sports car plow into ten tons of steel loaded with five tons of garbage and remain intact? The answer: it couldn’t, and neither could its driver.” What really happened? Give us real-world detail. Like, what happens when this particular BMW ‘plows’ into this particular truck? The collision was ‘fast and furious’, the outcome ‘predictable’ – this doesn’t tell us much, and shows us even less.

Another misstep is to include a scene at the very end, where Scholar explains his dastardly actions, articulating his ideas in language that had until now eluded him. If Scholar was indeed some kind of scholar, as this scene implies, we need to see it throughout the book. His interior monologue, shown in chapters from his POV, never hinted at this type of self-awareness. Also, as a reader I didn’t need or want such a concise, pat explanation for his character’s motivation. It’s like the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where a new character is introduced in the final ten minutes to give a long-winded explanation about Norman Bate’s motivation. It’s a matter of balancing, and Blatte hasn’t quite worked out what degree of importance to give certain details.

Overall though, Blatte introduces an interesting bunch of characters and situations. He has a decent ear for dialogue, and basically gets out of his own way to let the Vookos, Scholars, and Kals of his New York duke it out. So if you want a quick read, a fast ride, a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, check out Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, out now from Schaffner Press.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Here Goes Something

This week I’m writing a review for The Review Review website. I finished reading a book I plan to review for this blog. For the last couple weeks I’ve been working on five or six stories, trying to narrow them to three, and getting those three into shape to hand out to my writing group. And I’ve been working on this here blog. Not that the blog takes a ton of time, but everything adds up and so I wonder when I’ll get back to what I need to be doing: writing a novel.

Saturday night Liz and I attended a movie night at Rex Art’s crib. Rex was one of my gracious and honest and encouraging readers of "A Little Disappeared". When we were leaving (after a heady cocktail of Cadillac Records and The 40 Year Old Virgin) he asked me when I’d have something else for him to read. It took me years to finish "A Little Disappeared" (and if you’re one Ms. X, would argue there’s more work to do). So the chance of another novel popping out any time soon is nil. I shrugged off the question, grateful that a past reader wants to be a future reader.

It also means it’s time to get off of my ass. Since the first of the year I’ve done some outlining and planning on a proposed new novel, although that’s currently stalled. I also came up with some good revision ideas for the last novel I workshopped with Mr. X, called "American Standard". The plan for the next six months or so is to start working in earnest on a novel to 1) hand out to the writing group and 2) eventually workshop in Ms. X’s upcoming summer session. That means I only have a few months to kick it up a notch, to go from 0 to 60 in under six months. Here goes something.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interview with Randy Susan Meyers

Novelist Randy Susan Meyers has published numerous short stories in literary journals and co-authored a book of non-fiction, Couples with Children. I met Randy in a Grub Street novel workshop a couple years ago. Her humor and constructive, helpful critiques set all the other writers at ease.

A few months ago, the novel she had been working on in class, Adopting Adults (now titled The Murderer’s Daughters), was picked up for publication by St. Martin’s Press, and is slated for publication January 2010. The Murderer’s Daughters concerns two young sisters who witness the murder of their mother at the hands of their father and how this trauma dogs them through their adult lives. How has this development changed Randy’s life? Let’s find out as the Unreliable Narrator pulls up a comfy pillow and interviews Randy Susan Meyers.

Unreliable Narrator: Your novel Adopting Adults was bought by St. Martin’s Press last fall. The sale process went really fast, from what I understand. Can you tell me about that experience and how it all went down?

Randy Susan Meyers: The experience knocked me down and stunned me. On Tuesday, my wonderful agent, Stephanie Abou (from Foundry Literary + Media) emailed that she’d submitted my book to editors. I prepared myself for a long season of hitting my email key (having already worn out one keyboard during the agent hunt). I was no novice to this. I’d been through a prolonged selling season with a near-hit-novel before. Experience warned me to settle in for waiting season, but a chattering monkey wrapped his arms around my neck, chanting check it, check it, check it, from the moment my book was out in the world.

On Friday, my husband and I drove from Boston to New Jersey for a wedding. We arrived at the hotel. I wondered how fast I could get an Internet connection to check my email. While shimmying into my dress, while sitting in the church, while drinking scotch, while dancing—all the while, I tumbled down the rabbit hole of publishing craziness. I wanted this so much, too much. Feeling hope frightened me. Inside the monkey hummed it will happen/no it won't/yes, it will /no it won't. My heart, my darling, was being read by cold new eyes.

In this book, I believed I’d hit my deeper place. Years of crazy had been replaced by calm and I’d become able to write truer and clearer. I am convinced, that for me, the less drama in my life, the more drama in my fiction. Writing obsessed me. After years of raising kids alone, often working two jobs, sending the kids through college—all the life-important stuff—I’d been given a gift of time and happiness by my sweet now-husband, and I could concentrate on my other true love. Writing became my work, my fun, my morning-noon-night thoughts. My social life became Lost. I whipped myself with warnings to be calm. I crammed chocolate in my mouth. I’d been here before. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, stupid, I reminded myself.

It will happen/no it won't/yes, it will /no it won't. My husband, the monkey, and I came home on Sunday night. On Tuesday, September 23, a week after her announcement that she’d sent out my book, my agent again emailed. We had a pre-empt offer from St. Martin’s press. My husband had already left work for the night. He was unreachable, on the road between Lexington and Mission Hill. I couldn’t tell anyone. I needed him to be the first to know. Unspoken words snapped inside me like atomic fusion. I ran from window to window, watching for his car. I charged up and down the stairs in a futile attempt to burn off my fever. I somersaulted in my mind.

Learning about my book sale was unadulterated, unambiguous, unprecedented joy.

UN: Definitely a life changing event. We were taking the same workshop at the time, so I remember you mentioning that wedding. Then during our last class you announced this fantastic news, and the champagne flowed. Sounds like St. Martin’s really put some faith in your book. Is receiving a pre-empt offer unusual? Take us through that process.

RSM: According to literary-agent–who-blogs Jonathan Lyons: “A "pre-empt" is a preemptive offer. A publisher conveys this offer in advance of an auction or an expected auction in an attempt to preempt other publishers from getting the book. Typically this offer is conveyed for a short period of time (24 to 48 hours) before it's pulled from the table.”

Literary-agent –who-blogs Nathan Bransford describes a pre-empt thusly: “Essentially the editor is making a bid to close the deal before it goes to auction…Pre-empts are usually pretty attractive offers because the editor/publisher is establishing a firm commitment, are showing they know it's a hot commodity, and are trying to head off a bidding war. The agent and the author have to decide 1) if they are comfortable/happy with the offering editor/house and 2) do they think it's a fair offer or can they get a better deal if it goes to auction.”

My largest role in the pre-empt process was saying to my wonderful agent Stephanie Abou (hereby to be known as Wonderful Agent) Really? Wow! Whatever you think, as the process (quickly) unfolded. Not because I wasn’t included in the decision-making, but because I have total faith in Wonderful Agent. She called and told me that St. Martin’s had made a pre-empt offer and that we had an incredibly short time to respond—my faulty memory says we had a day. Wonderful Agent did her magic incantations and negotiations, told me the details, and I said YES!

Actually, for me, in addition to the great offer, the enthusiasm of the editor, Hilary Rubin Teeman, clinched the deal for me. She was and continues to be, a huge supporter of the book. She bubbled with enthusiasm about The Murderer’s Daughters (then titled Adopting Adults) and I daily bubble with enthusiasm about her.

Despite the doom and gloom, and the damn-those-horrid-capitalist-literature-killer stories floating around the world of writers, as regards editors and publishers, my experience has been nothing but great. Hilary has been a terrific editor—a real partner in revision. Her keen eye helped me sharpen the book (as did Wonderful Agent’s). I am so pleased with the final manuscript. In every conversation both she and Wonderful Agent have shown the utmost love of literature and a true commitment to getting good books out there.

The same has been true in the case of my foreign editors. I spoke with one of the five (Joanne Dickinson of Sphere Publishing in the UK) and her passion about books just flowed right over the phone (all the way from Britain!). In a lovely turn of events we spoke the morning after President Obama’s election, thus adding a hands-across-the-ocean excitement to the conversation.

The same caring held true in my correspondence (whether by email, or related to me by Wonderful Agent) with representatives from Calmann-Levy in France, Uitgeverij Artemis in Holland, Diana Verlag in Germany, and Kinneret in Israel.

Since all my love of writing traces back to the way books saved me in childhood, and continue to be my lifeblood today, finding editors who also live for books has been breathtaking. I am replete with happiness.

UN: That does sound like a great experience. And it bodes well, considering how some publishers have had layoffs and acquisition freezes. Let's change gears. You've done social work and been a bartender. Did you always think, someday these experiences will make great stories?

RSM: It was more a case of being fascinated, at times knocked over, and sometimes traumatized, by the intimate inside workings to which I was given access. I’m drawn to listening to the stories and details of people’s lives. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been uncomfortable—in many ways I still am—with the details of my own peculiar upbringing (which certainly informs my fiction). Other people’s stories stabilized my own memories.

These stories—from my work and my life—meshed into a framework upon which I could hang my fiction. For instance, a book I’ve partially written and will pick up again in a year or so, revolves around an angry man racing to work. As he drives, he is so locked in his fury of the moment that he causes a tragic accident in his family. This came from my work with batterers. As I drove to work each day, I’d go around a rather difficult rotary where people battled for position. While driving, I’d be thinking of my clients—men who’d been violent, and who were adjudicated by the courts to the batterer intervention program where I ran groups. My mind traveled two tracks: scary traffic, scary men. My clients had difficulty remembering the potential catastrophic outcomes they might face if they allowed themselves to be swallowed by their rage. This became my what if for a book, and the imagined accident which was the fulcrum for the book, took place in that rotary.

In The Murder’s Daughters I accessed the same method of using a jumping off point towards the what if, by using a childhood incident and twisting it towards a far darker trajectory. I also used thought of my former clients, and how, despite being violent in their actions, they also loved their families—even if it enacted in awful ways. That allowed me to penetrate the antagonist in the book and make him, I hope, a more fully realized character.

Bartending allowed me tremendous access into seeing id vs. ego vs. super ego in action. In vino veritas.

UN: Your experiences in both areas definitely inform your work. For me, an interesting part of your publishing process has been following your experience with your book title. It’s gone through numerous iterations. And just when you thought it was set, it’s been changed again. You were involved with the naming process until now. Do you like the new title?

RSM: Actually, I’ve been involved in the naming process the entire way through. My last experience involved pondering and than signing off on the last iteration. I think we (my agent, editor, and I) have always tried to reach consensus—but the final decision belongs to the publisher. I just looked at my contract (it’s dense folks, but read before signing!) and it says the publisher will consult with the author with regard to any title changes. Note: consult! So, I’ve felt lucky as to the amount of participation I’ve had.

I’ve always felt more than fully included in the process—in fact; I felt my job was coming up with titles to be voted up or down. My original title Adopting Adults was believed to be too non-fictionish. The second Tricks Against Crying, in the end was probably too esoteric. The final title The Murderer’s Daughters—thought up by Hilary Teeman, my editor at St. Martin’s—I’d originally rejected. I think my main fear was that by featuring the father in the title, it became his book. But, in actuality, it captures the essence of the story: sisters whose lifelong battle is being identified and defined only by being the daughters of the man who murdered their mother.

And yes, I like The Murderer’s Daughters.

UN: How long have you been affiliated with Grub Street in Boston? How important is it to be involved with a community of like-minded writers?

RSM: About five years ago I took a daylong seminar with Margot Livesey that simply blew me out of the water. Her teaching style, the amount of wisdom she imparted in a short time, pushed me to ramp up my expectations of myself in regards to learning and working harder.

Soon after I took an advanced novel class with Jenna Blum. It differed from previous writing classes I’d attended, being generous, well-designed, and most of all filled with Jenna’s ability to focus in on each class member’s ability as well as weakness with care and respect. The next session I joined her Master Novel workshop. There I met the men and women who I now count among my most trusted readers, friends, and co-workers. I’ve taught seminars and workshops at Grub Street and find the experience exhilarating, as the students are smart and dynamic. You have to be dedicated to schlep out after work to take a class that demands much of you.

Writing is an isolated profession—which I find comfortable—perhaps too comfortable. There are days I worry I could live in my study forever, but I don’t know how you can be a writer unless you enjoy solitude. Still, eventually, one needs to leave their computer. Grub is the perfect vehicle. There are classes, short seminars, a yearly conference, readings, online discussion forums—you can find a way to connect with other writers at the level you require. The Grub staff (Chris, Whitney, Sonya, and Whitney) promotes a generous and open atmosphere.

Having a community of writers—this wonderful Grub Street village—has anchored me through these years of wondering: will I ever publish? Am I crazy? Why do I want to spend all my time in this imagined world? Grub Street provides a vehicle to soothe you away from the crazy thoughts and offers the support of knowing you’re not alone. I treasure Grub Street.

UN: Who are some of your favorite authors? What books have inspired you in your writing?

RSM: Hmm. That’s a scary question, as I’m always afraid I’ll miss naming a writer who I love. But, here goes.

Favorite books and favorite authors can be different categories. One author may be an I’d-read-his-grocery-list writer (like some people say about actors and telephone books) and then there are particular books that smack your head and heart and became go-to books.

Some which have influenced and inspired my work (books I’ve read more than once, sometimes more than twice) include: Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (intense family in denial study with a killer plot); Tender Mercies and Before & After by Rosellen Brown (especially for her POV twists—brilliant!); Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (shows how pages can fly); Tin Wife by Joe Flaherty (a great slice of a particular time); Rosie by Anne Lamott (wonderful mother-daughter-drinking story, a genre I love); Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (a brilliant mother/daughter split POV, where you sympathize with both, despite their disparate views); Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (what a story—the moment I finished, I wanted to re-read it); White Oleander by Janet Fitch (oh, such rich writing combined with such intense adolescent travails), and so many more, I know I’ll soon kick myself.

Favorite all-around authors, those whose books I just about always pick up include: Caroline Knapp (sadly gone,) John Irving, Tabitha King, Wally Lamb, Tom Perotta, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Benedict, Zadie Smith, Pat Conroy, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth Berg, Joyce Maynard, Kim McLarin, John Updike (sadly gone,) Judith Rossner (sadly gone—read Attachments immediately) and Lisa Alther (then read Kinflicks.)

Debut novels which have impressed the heck out of me this year include: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (incredible story of Paris roundups and deportations of Jewish families during the Holocaust), The Help by Katherine Stockett, and The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

This week I finished a memoir I must share: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. This book was co-written by a man wrongly accused of rape (and jailed for eleven years) and the woman who accused him of raping her, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo. It takes you from despair to hope.

Finally, there are my beloved craft books. Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg offered me the courage to admit writing was my love, and then invest the time and energy. Sometimes I hear writers scoff at this genre, which I find difficult to understand. Learning good practices adds skill to talent, and for those who are self-taught, these books are a blessing, especially for editing tips. My return-to books include: The Artful Edit by Susan Bell, Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell, On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress, Hooked by Les Edgerton, The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, and Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

Whew! Okay, as you can see, books and me—we’re best friends. An overriding fear is being stuck somewhere without a book. I’ve made family swear that if I’m ever in a coma, they’ll play me audio books, in case I can hear and am being bored to tears which I can’t even shed.

I’m certain I’ve forgotten truly great and favorite authors, and I apologize in advance. I admire all writers of all genres for giving me and other readers such gifts. Now, having a book being published, well, I feel as though I’ve been given keys to the Promised Land.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Creative Writing 101: Kill the Cliché

Much of my time writing is spent eradicating clichés in my prose. This is the core of good writing, the non-cliché. Clichés suck the life out of your writing, filling your sentences and paragraphs, and eventually entire manuscripts, with useless words.

Why the vitriol? Why not? I’ve read far too many published novels, articles, and memoirs filled with vast stretches of nothingness, empty calories of words that act as stand-ins for actual writing. Every time I read a cliché I get angry. Especially when it’s in my own work: I should know better. I have to.

What is a cliché?

Clichés are boilerplate phrases; overused terms and maxims that have become part of popular vernacular. Sayings that you use and hear everyday. Familiar shorthand born of laziness. Clichés are an easy out: why write what you really mean when there are stand-in words that resemble the same thing without you having to personally commit to them? There’s no emotional outcome or repercussions for the reader because you didn't give them anything real. It’s nothing personal because it doesn’t mean anything to begin with. Plug and play. Live and learn.

Clichés work in the real world because that’s the way people talk. Dialogue in prose is allowed to be rife with clichés, as long as the narrative drive of the story or novel does not rely on cliché, sentence to sentence.

Let’s take a look at a cliché, something I read in a book just today, in a mystery/police procedural (a genre I don’t usually read, but I’m reviewing it for this blog). “He was lying of course, it was written all over him.” Can you spot the cliché? The overused term, the shorthand for what the author really meant to say? Sure, it’s “…it was written all over him.” We’ve all heard this a thousand times. We’ve said these words in this order. We’ve heard it on TV and in movies. Why is this a cliché? Because it doesn’t say what the author intended. It wasn’t actually written all over him. If it were, it would be on his forehead, and down his arm, and across his stomach. What was the author thinking? He wasn’t. He dropped it in there as a placeholder, and never bothered to rewrite it.

Why is this a bad thing?

“…it was written all over him,” is a bad way of writing because it’s lazy. Instead of describing what is actually happening to the character, the author is plugging in generalities that he hopes the reader will reflect her own feelings onto. “…it was written all over him,…Oh, dude. That means this guy couldn’t hide a thing, he spilled the beans, he was an open book.” Really? Well what the hell does that mean? Generalities are prose death. Writers had better write what they mean, or it won’t mean a thing. Limp words, fake motivations, obvious emotions, ending in a whole lot of nothing.

Instead of writing the words “…it was written all over him,” what words should the author have used? Good question. When I use cliché placeholders, I anticipate taking out the cliché when I revise the work. Meaning, during the first draft I come up with the feeling, the emotion at the moment, even though I may not know what words to use to convey the feeling. Later, I’ll come back with clinical, objective eyes, and cut these words down to what is really happening. Slice it to the bone. Hopefully I will evince the true emotional complexity of the characters in the scene without falling back on cliché.

Let’s take another look: “He was lying of course, I could tell by the way he blinked as he answered my questions, rubbing his arms red.” I have no idea if this is how you tell if somebody is lying. But, in the fictive world of this detective, it is how I’ve chosen to convey lying. Why wouldn’t the author take the extra time and word count to describe this? Because the author is lazy. Or he is writing on a deadline, has already spent his advance, and doesn’t have time to make his writing as good as it should be.

When a cliché is okay to use

Normal people talk in clichés. Your characters are more than welcome to talk in clichés. That’s, well, normal. Clichés in internal monologue are okay too, but don’t overdo it. In general, cut them all out.

Sometimes clichés are borderline. How about, “She burst into tears.” Is this a cliché? Should you let this stand or rewrite it? Well, that’s a tough call. I might let it stand. People do spontaneously cry. The downside of trying to eradicate all form of cliché is overwriting, which is just as bad or worse. How do we rewrite the above sentence? “Suddenly her eyes watered, and she forced out a shriek as her body rhythmically convulsed to the waves of tears she seemingly had no control over.” Well, aside from the mortal sin of using suddenly, it’s not successful on most levels. A time waster for all involved. The writer probably took way too long to come up with alternate ways of saying, “She burst into tears.” And the reader; well, if she hasn’t put your book down already, is giving it some deep consideration after this.

Time, the cliché’s biggest enemy

Unsure if you write in clichés? What kind of books do you read? Genre fiction writers tend to use more clichés. Are they bad writers? Difficult to tell. It’s hard to write a good book when you have to deliver one book every year or two. When a manuscript is tucked away in a drawer for a few months or a year instead of getting sent directly to an editor after a few drafts, it has time to gestate. And so does the writer.

Time away from a story gives you a distance that allows you to come back and look at writing with a clinical eye. You forget the emotions you experienced when you originally put your words to paper. You can see more clearly when plot, dialogue, and other devices aren’t working. The sentiment you were working hard for is gone, and you can see plainly what works and what doesn’t. Dialogue that you knew was meaningful yet realistic now comes across as hackneyed, pointless. Your writing will be truer, higher quality, when you take more time to write it.

Clichés are afraid of time. Clichés want you to finish your book in six months and send it off with minimal revision. That way you are more apt to stick with the generalities that you devised the first time around. But, when you spend more time revising, you can eventually wash out most clichés, staying true to your story.

What Do I Mean By True?

All good writers are honest. Clichés are dishonest. Have I gotten my point across? Still lost? Still pissed off at me for insulting you or at yourself for recognizing how often you use them? Think of it this way: clichés represent the worst form of writing because they rob the reader of a true reading experience. It’s a Big Mac instead of filet mignon. It’s all gristle, nothing tasty. It’s artificial sweetener, not pure sugar.

It’s describing a character as being “gorgeous,” and having all the other characters agree, without describing this perfect creature. What makes somebody gorgeous? One man’s gorgeous is another’s meh. Say what you mean. Describe how this woman is attractive to the narrator. “When she smiled, dimples danced, and her eyes crinkled to happy almond shapes. Her laugh was guttural, real, and just for me. She curled her hair around her finger, at once nervous and anticipatory.” I don’t know, you take it from here.

But you get the picture. Take your time, write what you mean. Your future readers will thank you for it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

McSweeney's Book Sale

For the next two days, McSweeney’s, the independent publisher started by Dave Eggers in the '90s, is having a sale on just about everything available in their online store. Including deals on their current books in print, McSweeney's lit mag, The Believer magazine, and Woolphin DVD anthologies. Good stuff.

Where else can you pick up a copy of Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends or Chris Adrian's The Children’s Hospital for five bucks? You'll also find books by Nick Hornby, Stephen Dixon, Deb Olin Unferth, Robert Coover, and Mr. Eggers. No, I don't work for McSweeney's. I've just been following their progress since they started.

And who doesn't want to support the indies? Now's the time to take a chance on an author you've only read good things about. Or to pick up a book from a writer you've never even heard of. Almost everything's $15 and under. Sale ends Wednesday, March 12.

Good luck. Buy early, buy often.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Writing Groups, Conferences, and Critiques

A few posts back I talked about being in a writing group. We’ve met three times now, critiquing a total of a hundred pages each time (from one or two writers) while also discussing publishing topics and trends.

This past week we all got a glimpse of Randy’s new Kindle, and agreed that while Kindles and like-minded applications are convenient and fun, they will never replace the experience of browsing for, buying, and reading a paper bound item with printed text. Also, fellow-writer Stephanie mentioned that she signed up for the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s upcoming Muse and the Marketplace conference. During the Manuscript Mart, established editors and agents critique twenty pages of a writer’s work. I’ve been through the Manuscript Mart experience twice now with the first twenty pages of "A Little Disappeared," so I gave Stephanie some advice (don’t meet right before lunch when the editor has low blood sugar) and told her my experiences.

Which are these: the low-blood-sugar editor wasn’t enthusiastic about my writing. She explained that my novel structure bordered on experimental and the prose of my younger narrator read a little flat. I wasn’t prepared for this critique, so I was stymied. Had I been better prepared, I might have been able to ask better questions and get more out of our meeting.

Undaunted, a couple years later I came back with the same pages, newly revised, and signed up for an agent. The agent had a tough reputation but we seemed to hit it off. She liked my writing but had questions about my choices and wanted to know how the story ended. I answered her questions to her satisfaction and came away from the meeting with her business card and firm handshake. A couple months later, after I had revised my manuscript enough to feel comfortable sending it out, I contacted the agent and asked if she would be interested in seeing the complete manuscript. She said yes. I sent it off. After a few months I sent a series of prodding emails. I eventually I got a form rejection back from her agency.

Everybody’s Manuscript Mart experiences vary. I learned that editors are interested mainly in manuscripts they can publish; while agents spread their net wider in terms of knowing which publishers they think would be right for a particular story. There’s a learning curve to the publishing biz, one I haven’t mastered yet. This year I’m attending day one of the Muse and the Marketplace. If I had a manuscript ready, I’d sign up for another agent for a Manuscript Mart critique. Maybe next year.

But so anyway. The writing group meets again in two weeks it’s my turn to bring in pages. What to bring? I haven’t been working on a novel since last October (right around the time I started this blog) so I’ve been revising some stories. I have about five or six candidates for critique, and am excited to get feedback on short-form pieces. This is what I need help with: finishing. I get an idea, I write write write. But my endings are usually crap. And when I realize I’ve written a story with another crap ending, I lose all inspiration. So, I need more eyes to help me with this writing problem. And I need to take suggestions and critiques and actually incorporate them into the stories.

I’m excited about getting back to work on a novel, either starting a new one, or revising an existing one. On the other hand, I wish I could focus on shorter pieces to place more stories in lit mags, getting my name out there more. It’s an ongoing struggle. A compromise has been to try and turn excerpts and outtakes of my novels into stand-alone stories. This too has proved difficult, as I need to come up with frameworks for these sections that don’t always comprise a smooth beginning, middle, and end.

Are you a writer? Have you had similar experiences trying to carve out pieces of longer works? Let me know what works for you. And I’ll let you know how my next group meeting goes.