Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Baby Friendly Movies

So, on Monday I went to a matinee in Arlington to see a French movie called A Christmas Tale. When I walked up to the ticket booth to purchase my ticket, the young man behind the glass informed me that the movie I had chosen to see was today’s Baby Friendly Movie. He warned that there may be babies in attendance, and that they may be noisy. He said I could exchange the ticket for that of another movie or I could request my money back.

Baby friendly movie. Hmmm, why would anybody bring a baby to see a French drama about a dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas? Maybe no babies would show up today. When I walked into the lobby to buy my diet Pepsi, I saw a man was holding a baby while his wife bought popcorn. I had to assume that they were there to take advantage of Happy Baby Monday or Bring Yer Kid Matinee, or however they were marketing it.

I waited to buy my Twizzlers and soda and when I walked into the little theater, the father was holding the baby, trying to calm him down, so upset was he that he was brought to a movie with sub-titles. I groaned inwardly and tried to imagine walking out for the baby-free Outback of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. Or the no-kid-zone of Wall-E; the one second-run movie playing that probably should have been baby friendly.

But after the flick started I found the burbles and coos and occasional crying not so bad. Luckily there were subtitles and I didn’t miss any of the dialogue for the baby noise. Only twice did the little whippersnapper really howl, and then the mother or father walked him around in the exit aisle to calm him down. Maybe they even took him out, I’m not sure. To be honest, having a baby sitting a few rows behind added to the familial ambiance.

Anyway, the next time you hit the big screen multiplex in search of some fun time movie-going experience, be aware: it might just be Introduce Baby to Stadium Seating Sunday.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Carver Country, Part 2

I sent Raymond Carver a VHS copy of the film but didn’t hear back from him. Maybe he was just busy. I didn’t want to contact him again and be further disappointed with no response. I also didn’t want to hear that he hated my film or was in some way offended by it. I decided not to agonize over what the silence represented.

During the winter of ‘88 I went to work in Manhattan on a low budget feature film called On The Make. I was a second assistant film editor and, later, assistant sound editor. There were a few interns working on the editing of On The Make. One of the interns was a film student working on his senior thesis film. It turned out that he had based his film on a Raymond Carver story. Not only that, he had also chosen "Why Don’t You Dance." It was beyond coincidence that two guys working together on some random B-movie editing in the dank bowels of Ross-Gaffney Editorial on 46th Street would choose the same short story to adapt. I had to ignore any higher implications beyond serving to remind me that my own finished film sat languishing in a film can in my bedroom closet.

We compared notes. He was shooting on video; I had shot mine with an Arriflex 16BL film camera. His rough cut clocked in at 20 minutes; my finished film time was 6 and a half. I had received permission from the author to adapt it, he hadn’t. I had cast my sister and her future husband; he had cast Eszter Balint, the actress best known for starring in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger than Paradise.

But I had a finished film. And with other students nipping at my heels, I needed to take action. My next step was to find out who represented Raymond Carver to try to obtain commercial film rights to this story. It didn’t take much digging: she was a maverick agent representing many of the younger, exciting authors of the eighties: Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, Mona Simpson, and Jay McInerney, as well as Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. Her name was Amanda Urban. Nickname: Binky. She was often mentioned when one of her authors was written about.

She worked at ICM, one of the largest and most powerful agencies in the country. I called her New York office on a weekday morning from the On The Make edit suite. An assistant answered, asking who I was and what this was in regards to. I gave my info and was told that Amanda Binky Urban was not in and that I should call back that afternoon. I called back later that day and I left my information again.

“I’ll give her the message,” the assistant told me.

I was beginning to be the fly in Binky’s appointment book. She would eventually have to talk to me. I called again the next day and left a message. That afternoon, after I returned from lunch, the assistant film editor told me Amanda Urban had called. I immediately called her office back. After being on hold for a minute, Binky came on the line.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hello, is this Amanda Urban?” I said.

“Yes. What is it?”

It took me a couple seconds to register that I was talking to the woman I’d been trying to contact for the past few days. I shook it off and said, “I’ve been trying to reach you regarding the film rights to a Raymond Carver story. I’m a film student and he gave me permission to adapt 'Why Don’t You Dance.'"

“He did.”


“But not commercially.”

“Right. That’s why I’m calling—” I should have just laid it out in black and white: I’m calling because I need your blessing so I can sell this puppy to cable or some late-night special on NBC. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with it. It was my calling card, but I wanted it to have a life beyond an erstwhile film student’s reel.

“Oh no. No. All those stories are sold.”

“So nothing can be done commercially with…”

“Correct. Is that all?” She was not interested in helping me with the rest of my problems that day, but only in ending this non money-making conversation.

I said no, and hung up.

That’s an approximation of our conversation. I had my answer: Raymond Carver, or rather his agent, had sold the rights to his stories. At least to "Why Don’t You Dance." I wondered who else wanted to make this into a film. How many filmmakers had the same idea? And why weren’t we just writing our own stories?

I continued work on On The Make through July of 1988. My last week of work was the first week of August. I was living in Fairfield, Connecticut and commuting into Grand Central on the Metro-North commuter rail. Each morning while waiting for the train I bought a medium regular coffee and a glazed donut at the Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk on the platform. Occasionally I bought the New York Times.

One morning after boarding the train I sat sipping my coffee, reading the paper, and about half-way into the city (probably around Cos Cob) I came across an obituary for Raymond Carver. He had died of cancer on August 2nd. He was 50.

Urban had sold many of his stories to filmmaker Robert Altman, who went on to direct Short Cuts. It was a long and difficult film to watch. Nothing joyful about it. The characters were unlikable, ditsy, and in many ways, mean. Carver wrote about hard-working people. Smart people with problems making stupid choices. In Short Cuts, Altman chose to connect these stories, letting his actors traipse around Los Angeles (anti Carver country), acting like shrieking morons in perpetual arrested development. Would Carver have wanted this?

A search of Raymond Carver on the online Hollywood database IMDb reveals that, in 1988, a short film called They Haven’t Seen This was directed by the screenwriter of The Elephant Man and Frances. It was based on "Why Don’t You Dance." 1988 was a big year for that story. Many of Carver’s stories have been adapted, some in other countries (Nos veremos mañana and C'était le chien d'Eddy anyone?), and many after Carver’s death, including "So Much Water So Close to Home" and "Cathedral."

I had wanted to use Carver’s story because it was visual, short, a little weird, and, to me at the time, straightforward. He was just being nice when he gave me his permission. He was probably flattered that someone out there, especially a student, liked his story enough to commit time and money to adapt it. I’ll never know if he ever saw it. At six and a half minutes I tried to achieve the story’s simplicity. Carver may not have agreed. But, at three hours, I don’t think Short Cuts was what he had in mind either. Upon rereading I see how rich his stories were.

In the end, my film’s biggest achievement was that it was finished. If Carver did see it, along with the other short films based on his work made before his death, I hope he appreciated mine if only for its brevity and economy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Carver Country, Part 1

I attended film school in the 1980s. Months before I was to graduate, I still hadn’t completed a script for my senior thesis film. Under pressure, I started writing a script about a dead woman’s friends, family, and ex-boyfriends gathering at her funeral. At the end of it one of her boyfriends hangs himself in the funeral’s viewing room. Nice dramatic tension, right? But I didn’t know what happened in the middle. Why did the guy hang himself? Was the woman an angel? A whore? Or just misunderstood? Who wants to watch a film where people stand around a funeral home talking about a dead woman? I realized how severe and self important the story was. Chalk it up to too much Bergman on an impressionable film student’s brain. What I thought was plump with drama and full of yummy Bergmanesque symbolism was entirely over-the-top and would play poorly on film. I put the script in a drawer and forgot about it. That left me with no script.

I was behind on credits and didn’t graduate that spring. I had to attend school for an extra semester to rack up enough credits to graduate. The pressure of having to make a film was pushed until the fall. Meanwhile, I tried to think of an existing short story on which I could base a film. I kept coming back to a film I made during my first year of film school. It was based on a Raymond Carver story "Why Don’t You Dance?", about a young couple that stops at a yard sale. At first nobody is around so they browse the items set out in the yard. Finally, a man comes out of the house and offers them a drink. Turns out this older man is going through a divorce, and decides to sell off all his stuff. The man plays a record and says, “You can dance if you want to,” then ends up dancing with the young woman.

I always loved that this guy put all his stuff for sale in his yard, trekking it out and setting everything up just like it had been in his house. The double bed with his and hers matching end tables. The TV in front of the sofa. I always liked that Carver’s stories were easy to read, about working class couples in relationship trouble; people that I could vividly picture. Although I didn’t always understand his stories because I hadn’t yet been in a serious relationship, and the world of adults was still a mystery.

But my film adaptation was not meant to be an Ingmar Bergman riff. Fellini had not been inspired by the spare prose of Carver. Godard, Wenders, and Antonioni had certainly not spent late nights getting soused to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver was purely American, steeped in the ideals and places and experiences that a European filmmaker like Bergman couldn’t touch.

For my earlier, silent black and white version of "Why Don’t You Dance" I had cast my sister, her friend (both were actors), and my father. I shot it when I went home for a long weekend. I was camera operator, director, grip, and best boy: a true auteur. I did it all with a Bolex 16mm camera. No dialogue, so I included an atmospheric Brian Eno song on the soundtrack. It was well-received by my instructor.

So when I couldn’t come up with an idea for my senior thesis film, I turned again to Raymond Carver and "Why Don’t You Dance." I felt I hadn’t done the story justice the first time around. If I had a budget and a crew and a dolly shot or two and color film and synced sound, I could make a better film. Senior thesis films were a film student’s business card, resume, and portfolio. To legally exploit the film after it was completed I needed the author’s permission.

I browsed reference material in the university library and found Raymond Carver’s address in Port Angeles, Washington. I sent him a letter in the spring of 1986 typed on my manual Smith-Corona asking him if I could adapt "Why Don’t You Dance" into a film. I had no idea if the address was current and, if he received it, whether he would reply.

A month later I received a letter from him in my school mailbox. I kept the letter:

I was so shocked, I got a friend to open it and read it to me. Carver wrote that I could adapt his story and he wished me luck. He also said that if I ever wanted to do anything commercially with the film I was to contact his agent. He didn’t give his agent’s name. I wrote him back and thanked him, asking if he would be interested in seeing a finished copy of the film. He replied a month or two later on an index card. He said yes, he would be very interested and pleased to see the finished film.

Making a film is a long, arduous, and expensive task. Finishing a film can be impossible. I shot the film using a full student crew. I cast my sister again, and her new boyfriend, who was also an actor. They played the young couple. I found a seasoned actor at a regional repertory theater to play the man who was going through a divorce. I shot the film in the fall of ’86. That December, when I should have been graduating, I was still editing the film. My university transcript for that semester included an incomplete grade.

Over the next year, when I had time and money, I edited the film. When I was finished with that, I booked a sound mix, had the negative cut, and the final print of the film was struck. As a finishing touch, I had the print transferred to 1 inch, ¾ inch, and ½ inch videotape. Some of the student films I had crewed on were never finished. Some got finished and went on to win awards. Mine was just done and in the fall of ’87 I finally had a passing grade.
To be continued...

Friday, December 19, 2008


I’m not sure I can stand to look at another photo of David Foster Wallace. The one that especially kills me is the one where he’s outside, in shadows, staring down. He looks like he can’t wait to do what he finally did in September of this year: hang himself. He was 46.

I can name a dozen writers, purveyors of bad writing all, I wish would also follow through on this solipsistic death wish, but don’t. (Not yet anyway). And then there’s DFW, who did. He was a manic depressive and fought this most of his life. He went off his meds, from what I can tell, and was never able to live life in any way that could fulfill him and make him happy. He never thought he was good enough. Even though he was more than good enough in his students’ eyes and for his devoted readers.

The end of a year brings reflection for what has come in the last 300 fifty whatever days. Only because magazines and newspapers make us reflect. Because they have to fill in the few weeks at the end of the year with fodder that can be written ahead of time while the staff takes the holidays off. But, I’d be lying if I said I don’t read over the top ten lists and the notable deaths with interest.

Mixing all of this (deaths, top ten lists, writers) comes Roberto Bolaño and his latest posthumously translated novel 2666 (mentioned three times now in the past month on this blog). Bolaño didn’t kill himself. At least, not intentionally. But he died young. At age 50. In 2002. He did not live to see the translation of 2666 reach the American bestseller lists and numerous top ten best of end-of-year greatest-thing-ever until-next-year award mention notice countdown.

DFW and RB are dead. But they have more in common than being praised, lauded writers who died young. They both wrote at least one behemoth novel that scraped at greatness, whether by design or marketing savvy. 2666 is over 900 pages long, published simultaneously in hardcover and in a set of three paperbacks. DFW was in his 30s when his doorstop of a book, Infinite Jest, was published.

Over a thousand pages long, with almost two hundred more pages of end notes, the thing was a brilliant mash-up mess of meta entertainment and faux history (and it took place in Massachusetts. Bonus!). Well, that’s what I hear anyway. I didn’t actually read it. I got to about page 150 while trying to keep up with all the end note references (the only book I’ve read necessitating two bookmarks working simultaneously). I eventually traded it in for credit at some used book store that is probably closed now. I caught up with his work when I read his wonderful collection of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Where DFW goes on a cruise and to a state fair and does nothing more, and nothing less, than write about his experiences. Along with maybe some relevant history and research. Entertaining and enlightening. Maybe everything he ever wanted to be, he was already.

And so then I went on two Internet dates in the late nineties with a grad student who had been a student teacher at the same school where DFW taught writing in the mid-nineties. She said he was a nice guy who was attracted to gregarious women because he was basically shy and introverted (Really? A writer who’s introverted?). She described witnessing women (or overhearing about? Or possibly trying herself?) crowbar-ing their way into his life, trying to grab his attention in the most ‘outgoing’ ways. One woman climbed his fire escape and threw dog shit through his window to get his attention. It worked and he let her in. I tell this story for no reason but to show that the celebrity of a writer, the cult of a writer, has nothing (should have nothing) to do with his writing. The writer should be invisible and the writing should stand up for itself. I avoid looking at author photos. It deflates the experience of reading a book even before I’ve read the first line. I don’t really want to know what the writer looks like, where he lives, where he went to school, how many publishing credits he has to his name, and how many years younger he is.

DFW was already pretty famous before he died. Bolaño has become relatively famous in American in part because he’s dead, and dead writers (especially dangerous Chilean writers with an abundant, posthumously translated back catalog) hold an undeniable mystique that all the Oprah and NYT bestseller list appearances can’t assuage. But in death, both writers are being canonized, lionized, lovingly glanced at over the shoulders of bestselling, genre writers by an adoring reading public that includes gregarious flirty girls, readers who connect on some generational level with these authors, lovers of damn good writing, and the curious who have come to these writers after the fact, either to chase the ambulance or to see what all the literary fuss is about.

If nobody knew about DFW and RB, would their deaths matter so much now? I guess if I follow my own theory, my own sick logic, then the only thing that matters is the writing, the work, and the author can kill himself ten times over while the writing stands on its own merits. But I know what both writers look like, I’ve seen the author photos, the dust jackets depicting their tragic, elegiac images at different ages and times, and I know how each died (Bolaño died of liver failure, possibly deriving from complications of early heroin use) and all I can say now is I wish both were still alive to feed us hungry readers, us craving fans, just a bit more of that sweet great good writing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Writer’s Downtime

I didn’t write this weekend. But I did help Liz at her final craft show of the year. The SOWA Holiday Market. But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t furthering my writing. I sat behind her table of beautiful handmade items and watched people. People-watching is a great way to help build a stable of characters and character traits. What do real soccer mom’s look like? (Thin, harried, sandy blond hair, worn down.) What kind of hats do twenty-something city-dwelling women wear in the winter? (Tie beanies, Berets, Cabbie caps.) What kind of lipstick do grandma’s wear when they’re out of the house? (Vivid red, thick. Or none at all.)

We were set up next to a woman who sold hats and head bands with feathers on them. All weekend women tried on these items and primped in mirrors. I realized as I watched this very feminine process, that I was witnessing actions usually only saved for intimates. That is, seeing a woman prepare in the mirror is an intimate act, her behavior a delicate display of hair teasing, with subtle head and shoulder canting as she presents herself in the best light to see if she looks good in a hat. Or a head band with flowers. You’d be amazed at how many women want a head band with flowers. These are all details I saw and had the opportunity to write down, or commit to my data base memory of character details to call upon during my writing.

There was also opportunity to collect dialogue by overhearing snippets of conversations. I learned that people who knit are patient. I heard one end of a cell phone conversation: A young man repeatedly told the phone that he couldn’t do it today. Maybe tomorrow, but definitely not today. If he had known ahead of time, maybe.

I saw how parents dealt with children. Some parents hold strong command over their child’s every move. Some make deals to try to keep them satisfied, striking compromises and promises. One of my jobs was to block access to my wife’s wares from clawing, sticky children. At one point I saw a six year old boy break away from his family and run toward our table. Unbound, he aimed for one of Liz’s high-end necklaces. She interrupted the boy’s momentum by saying, in a friendly but firm manner, “Hi, I made all those beads!” The boy stopped, looked up, and realized he was being watched. The fun was over and he withered under our attention, giving his mother enough time to track him and pull him away.

What else does this ‘downtime’ do for a writer? Well, now I can set a story in the cutthroat world of craft shows. I’ve learned about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. The backstabbing and competition between vendors. The heartbreak of making shitty money or the rejoicing at breaking records and selling all but two cupcake pincushions. I’m already considering storylines starring some of the characters I met this weekend.

There’s that young woman with black rimmed glasses and the stylishly sloppy hair that stayed in any position she prodded it into. Maybe she’s a vendor who sells stuffed dogs and she’s kicked up a fierce competition with the older vendor who wears thick red lipstick, whose specialty is stuffed cats. Maybe these two women join forces against the vendor who needle felts replicas of human fetuses. Maybe, as it turns out, the baby fetus vendor is sleeping with the stuffed dog vendor’s husband. If I don’t want to keep the craft show milieu, then I can transplant my characters. How about the woman who looks just like a Kennedy? Take her out of the Holiday Market location and move her down the street to the Pine Street Inn shelter where she’s mistaken for a lost Kennedy granddaughter. Hilarity ensues. Maybe tragedy. Depends on my mood.

The craft show is two days and one evening. It’s a busy show and Liz does well. I help by being her support system. I bag merch and fold receipts and make change. By Sunday the buyers dwindle. Maybe everybody’s at Mass. Or sleeping in. Or walking their dogs. Maybe I could write a story that takes place on a cold December Sunday morning. Two weeks before Christmas. The lonely crafter oversleeps, and wakes alone. Then he harnesses up his two adorable terriers and walks them down the block. To Mass. After that, he’ll hit the craft fair to buy Christmas gifts. Hmm. Needs work.

Late Sunday afternoon and I’ve put away my notebook in preparation to pack up Liz’s booth. Swooping past our booth on her way to check out the human baby fetuses I spot Ms. X, my erstwhile Grub Street instructor. I shout her name, Ms. X. Ms. X come back! She hears me and doubles back. We’re pleasantly surprised to run into each other at such a non-writerish event. It’s good to see a walking talking working writer outside of her writing nook (I’ve never been to Ms. X’s house, but don’t all writers have nooks they write in?). She says she’s taking a day off. I know Ms. X is busy working on her second novel (she’s got a crazy Spring 2009 deadline) so I don’t ask her how her writing’s going. None of my business. She checks out Liz’s wonderful stuff. Then she asks me how my writing’s going. It throws me, this question. I stammer, “Um. Gosh. Well, I’m working on some short pieces.” And it’s true, that. But what I don’t get around to telling her is: I have some new characters in mind and some hot dialogue and some topical character descriptions. And maybe a couple new storylines to try out. All because of a little writer’s downtime.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Benjamin Button
So, there I was last night, doing some online banking or something, and Liz was fast forwarding some commercials to get to the meat of the latest John Stewart (we videotape the previous night’s shows—no tivo for us) when she stops at a commercial. The commercial quick cuts to some pop song I’ve never heard and features more production value than your average Coke commercial (although you’d be shocked at the price tags for those babies). I sit mesmerized at the breadth of the thing. What the hell is…oh, it’s a preview for Benjamin Button, the new David Fincher movie. Or the new Brad Pitt movie, depending on your preference. It’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, of all things. But the trailer makes it look grandiose, epic.

Here's another trailer to the movie (not the one I caught on TV):

I used to go see every movie that came out. Every Friday night I’d head over to the Orleans Cinema on the Cape and check out the latest lame-brained comedy, monster movie, or thriller, no matter what it was. I may not have even heard of the movie, the reviews not having made my little outlying burg two hours from the nearest major city. Today I just can’t see every movie that comes out. Physically or fiscally. There are too many movies. Too few art house cinemas. Just too much product.

So, I’m admittedly intrigued by this Benjamin Button movie, based on a few things. No, I won’t see a movie based solely on a trailer. But, it will focus my attention to take a closer look. As a filmmaker, David Fincher has a singular style and is drawn to particular types of material that often align with my interests as a movie goer. His movies are always beautifully rendered slabs of celluloid magic. His attention for detail and for the craft of storytelling is pretty enviable. So, you sort of know what you’re in for when you see his movies. I will probably go see this movie. I’ve read an early review (Variety is a good source) and it was mainly positive. I don’t go to a movie based solely in a positive review either, but when there are so many movies to choose from, yes, a litany of predominantly good reviews may send me to a movie faster than an army of bad ones.

Benjamin Button comes out Christmas Day. I’ll let you know what I think. Maybe I’ll even read the Fitzgerald story, too.

2666 on Bestseller List. Savage Sold Out.
With Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 perched on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller lists (33 the last I checked) it is apparently affecting sales of his other work, specifically the already successful The Savage Detectives. Frequenting bookstores this past weekend, I discovered that at least two book stores were sold out of the title. You’d think these savvy booksellers would have seen the interest in ancillary Bolaño some distance off and made preparations. Note to booksellers: Get Bolaño savvy. It just makes good business sense.

Harvard Book Store Warehouse
Discount bookstores must be the shit these days. I visited my third one in the past month or so. Sunday I drove into Somerville in not-so-bad holiday shopping traffic to brave the Harvard Book Store Warehouse. Harvard Book Store is wonderful independently-owned bookstore in Harvard Square, not affiliated with the university as far as I know. They carry new and used books along with an impressive, thoughtful selection of remainders.

The warehouse version of their store has remainders of every stripe (including some great deals on art and photography books), plus stacks upon rows upon more stacks of used books, including dollar aisles and rare used books. I admit I only bought one book. A gift. For 50 cents. I was ashamed to check out with one piddly book, but the checkout girl told me she and her cohorts had been reading the book out loud all morning and deemed it hilarious. Also, a bell should ring every time somebody buys the book. She thought. That made me feel better.

Note: this may have been a special event. Not sure their warehouse is open to the public on a regular basis. In case you were ready to run off to Porter Square to track them down.

Here's a shot of their Harvard Square location:

Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit
I know there are millions of blogs all over this series of tubes and wires. But I’d like to take this opportunity to interrupt your busy holiday shopping schedule to tout a new voice on the scene. A new prolific blogger whose insight into the daily plights of the average (and maybe in his case, not so average--I mean this in a good way) college student is cast in bold, shiny relief for all to witness. When you need a smile, when you need proof that kids these days aren’t just gun toting, drug-snorting thugs, cleavage-baring billboards of vapidity, or super-nerd video game txting fools, tune in to the gentle musings of one Neil Everett and his Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit. Sure he’s my nephew, but I think you’ll agree that his daily epistles will wrest a smile from your weary mug or make you mist up reading his cutting, spot-on insight into life’s bittersweet moments that maybe only a kid today can make you feel nostalgic for.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chasing Agents

Do you, struggling novelist, need an agent to get a novel published? Will a publisher bother to read your novel if you’re not represented by an agent? It’s the chicken/egg catch 22 that so many writers are just crazy about. Sure, there are stories about how some lucky writers sent their unsolicited manuscripts to unsuspecting publishers who, on a slow day with nothing better to do, started reading the unsolicited novels and found chunks of gold ‘over the transom.’

How often does this happen? Not often. The publishing landscape gets direr by the day. Layoffs. Acquisition freezes. Bookstore closings. How can an unpublished novelist break through this awful environment and get noticed? You really do need an agent. Case in point: One of my fellow novelists from Ms. X's class found out on the last day of our summer session that one of the novels she workshopped with us got picked up for publication. She has an agent. This didn’t just help my classmate get the book noticed, but assured that her novel sold for six figures to a major publisher.

What did an agent do for my classmate? Sent her manuscript to the right publisher at the right moment, generating enough buzz for the publisher to make a preemptive offer. Heat still continues as the agent is selling foreign rights close to a dozen countries. Without an agent, would my classmate have landed all these foreign rights? Or tasty advance? Doubtful.

I’ve been sending out queries for my novel A Little Disappeared for over a year. Intermittently. Certainly I could be pushing myself more to land a big agent fish. But I’m doing other things as well. Such as writing and sending out stories. Thinking of how to proceed with my current novel. And possibly doing some revision to A Little Disappeared. Contacting agents is a separate job, beyond writing (and your day job). It takes a different mindset. It also takes research. You have match up your type of book (novel/genre, non-fiction/memoir/whatever) with the right agency. Which means you have to know what kind of work agents want to see. And strictly follow their guidelines when you do find some to approach.

There are a limited number of agents. What do you do after reach the end of the list? Start over? You can hit the writing conference circuit and sign up for critiques where an agent or editor will read the first 20 pages of your manuscript. Then sit down with you during the conference and tell you what she thinks. You can contact friends and family, scour your BFFs to see if anybody knows an agent that might be interested in entertaining out a referral.
If you can’t find an agent, try sending your manuscript directly to mid and small-size publishers. Many smaller presses don’t deal with agents. Or necessarily need to. But, you won’t get the hefty advances, press run, or advertising budget that one of the big houses can land you you. So. Anyway. If I can’t land an agent with A Little Disappeared, I will probably query smaller publishers. And if that doesn’t work, then I move on to the next novel.

Are you a writer seeking representation? What are your experiences with agents? Good. Bad. Let me know. Do you have an agent? Do tell: what’s it like?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Review Review Review

Okay, all you writers of short (and maybe not so short) lit, here's a website to help you navigate those busy literary journal waters. Check out The Review Review, based just down the road apiece in Boston. The Review Review reviews the latest in literary journals and mags. This is very handy if you can't find independent journals at your local bookstore, library, or online. When you're ready to send out that short gem you've been spit-polishing, the site's a great source to find out if a journal is right for your genre (or non-genre). It's also a good way to see what journals are publishing, and to whet your appetite to pick up a copy even if you don't think they're the right home for your stuff.

The latest review on the site has a thorough go at the fall 2008 issue of Post Road. Along with each review is a rundown of vital stats. For example, if you'd like to know if Post Road accepts multiple submissions (yes) or what their circulation numbers are (that'd be 2000) you can find them here. Each review links directly to a journal's online presence, if there is one. So torque up your favorite browser (make mine Internet Explorer 7!) and settle in for some enlightening reading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Night with Nada Surf

Like a Death Cab For Cutie for aging hipsters, Nada Surf played a great 90-minute set Tuesday night at the Paradise in Boston. I won’t bore you with the band’s back story. You can read it for yourself here. The place was jammed, and not all the hipsters were aging. Although I’m at the age where I check to make sure there are enough balding and/or graying heads to ensure I’m not the oldest dude in the room.

Nada Surf writes songs about broken hearts and falling-in-love, topics that have been standards since Elvis, The Beatles, and whoever else created the grand pop tradition. They have a song about the pleasure of listening to a record (Beautiful Beat) and about throwing a party after going through a bad time (Blankest Year). Their songs also double as graceful stories, mini-novels that evoke a mood of arrival and departure, of small but life-changing events transpiring in the course of a pop song. Like the narrative music in an Andre Dubus story or the rhythm and precision of a Charles Baxter novel.

The band’s a tight three piece. I’m always impressed when three musicians can bring off live a sound that takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to produce in a studio. Highlights from the show included Do It Again, Happy Kid, and from their CD Lucky released earlier this year, Whose Authority. When they played Inside of Love ( also from Lucky) singer Matthew Caws urged the crowd to sway in time to the song. He said it always invoked a weird effect. So we obliged and he agreed afterward that weirdness was sufficiently achieved.

I dislike a band to engage in between-song banter. It drags the momentum and I really can’t stand when a band retunes their precious gee-tars after every song. Are you listening Built to Spill? Yo La Tengo? Let’s all learn a little something from the Ramones’ breakneck speed and keep your non song intercourse to a mighty count of “One, two, three, four.” But listening to Nada Surf’s asides was different. These guys seem to genuinely enjoy what they do and how they do it. The band likes its own songs and pours this journeyman enthusiasm for playing them live into a seasoned performance. So who am I to assail their stage antics? However, I have a few notes for the bassist: Dreads on an older white guy: so five minutes ago. And smoking on stage? Are you Keith Richards? Until you reach his level of anarchic infamy and death's door shenanigans, try to wait until after the show to light up. Ditto the guest singer, some girl brought up to sing backup for a song. Why the cigarette? Believe me, it didn't look as cool as you thought.

My earlier comparison to Death Cab seems apt. Both bands share a label, Barsuk Records, and producer John Goodmanson. Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla worked on the new album. The expansive, orchestral rock flourishes that can drag a good Death Cab song into Emo McDirgeville stay light to the touch for Nada Surf, giving just the right depth to their delightful pop chord progressions. Live, the Surf’s songs are more ragged, but come across with a playful grace and lonesome wistfulness. The men of Nada Surf are showmen in their sloppy, predetermined way. Watching them is like seeing a sober, refined Replacements. Nirvana if they had relocated to Nantucket before recording Bleach. Or the Jonas Brothers on the cusp of rehab.

It was nice to see the Paradise full to capacity. I guess I’ve been dragging Liz to bands that are only mildly popular. Swervedriver, Meat Beat Manifesto, Sparklehorse anyone? But watching a band in a full room is like going to see an interactive version of your favorite movie where everybody gets to talk along with the characters and shout their appreciation.

Here's the band doing Happy Kid (shot by Liz):

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Interview with Crime Writer Phil Beloin Jr.

Phil Beloin Jr. writes crime novels and stories. His short fiction has appeared on many online crime fiction sites. I met Phil when we both attended the University of Bridgeport film program. He works a seasonal job, mostly in the spring and fall. This gives him time during the off-season to write. Join me as I take a look into the mind of a crime fiction writer.

Unreliable Narrator: How did you get interested in writing crime fiction, and do you consider it a contemporary version of the pulp fictions popular in the 20s, 30s, and 40s?
Phil Beloin Jr.: A friend of mine handed me a copy of James Crumley's Dancing Bear and I was hooked on crime fiction. Before that I had been reading anything that looked interesting, like the classics, best sellers, and almost any genre fiction with an enticing jacket. But with Crumley you had character, setting, plot, and prose blending into a thrilling, perfect read. I just couldn't believe how good it was, and still is on several re-reads.

What drives me to read and write crime fiction is that it delves into seedier milieus and the darker aspects of human behavior. Greed, lust, addiction, any self-destructive activities can be explored and exploited by a writer.
Today's crime fiction is certainly a progression of the golden age of pulp, but thanks to the Internet, pulp is making a strong comeback. There are quite a few sites out there (called e-zines) publishing pulp stories, with both modern settings and throwback pieces. Growing up in the 1970's, the pulp influence on TV included shows like Star Trek and the Super Hero cartoons. Those visuals, story lines, and characters have stuck with me and come into focus when I'm writing.

UN: You were interested in crime stories back in college. Who are some of your influences? Are filmmakers as much an influence as writers?
PB: My interest in crime stories came from my enjoyment of movies and TV shows. As a kid I just loved those 70's crime films, replayed on the tube. A fast ride of machismo, violence, and sex. Very exciting and so different from my quiet upbringing. The TV shows were good, too. I remember watching Cannon (with his car phone!), Barnaby Jones (an old detective, wasn't he on the Beverly Hillbillies?), The Rockford Files (my favorite of the 70's bunch), and even Magnum PI (an 80's detective, but pulpy all the way.)

UN: You write novels and stories. Which are more fulfilling?
PB: Novels are certainly harder to write and really require discipline. I enjoy that hard work, but it can burn me out. What I like about a short story is that it doesn't stay with me as long as a novel. I write it—in an hour, a week—then it's gone from my consciousness, sent off to a magazine or e-zine and I really don't think about it too much...It's on to the next idea, whatever it may be. So I think the shorts are more fulfilling. Plus I've placed a few and hope readers have enjoyed them.

UN: When you think up an idea, do you wonder, should I make this a story, a novel, or maybe consider it for a screenplay?
PB: Several of my short stories I think of as blueprints for novels. I did draft out a novel from one of my shorts, but the manuscript is currently sitting in a drawer...err in the hard drive of my computer. One of my novels, Zipp, would definitely make a great film. Jeez, my wife and I have already cast the thing.
A lot of the shorts I write are set-up pieces, plot heavy, with a twist. I'm going for a quick, fun, read.
Recently, though, I've gotten more internal with my shorts' characters, and they're getting darker. But the set-up pieces and darker shorts wouldn't make a great novel or a screenplay. (Though a film short wouldn't be out of the question!)

UN: Your stories, while mostly set in modern times, really seem steeped in the 1930s and ‘40s, with tough talking detectives and dames, criminals in flop houses, doomed lovers. Is this a conscious decision? An homage to the original pulps? Or do these settings come naturally?
PB: I really enjoy writing in a sparse, old fashioned way, and tossing in odd words and phrases. I think it keeps the read fun. Most of the crime novels I'm reading these days are all written in the same style. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy them; I'm just trying something a little different. So it is a conscious decision to steep my writings in the past, but at the same time, this style flows out of me quite easily, without much mining. I often wonder how I could know or remember some of the weird parlance that pops onto my computer screen. It's like, shit, where did that one come from?

UN: One of your other interests is American history. Ever consider working those elements into your stories?
PB: What I enjoy about American history is that it is great fodder for story ideas. My god—the morons, the greedy, the brilliant who have made this country what it is! History is a great insight into character, especially (the era) I love the most: the 19th century; when the United States became one country and began its quick ride to the TOP. I have one story, set in 1938, relying on historical fact, called A KILLER COMBO...besides that, I tend to name many characters after Civil War Officers. These names are quite flowery, especially those Southern folk.

UN: What attracts you to the crime genre? I mean, do you come up with the plot and then put some characters in the mix? Or do you think up the characters first, and then go, what can I do to really fuck them up?
PB: What attracts me to the genre is its believability factor. No matter how twisted or unusual the story is, it could actually happen (some have—watch the local news, another source for off-beat story ideas). I don't see life or the world in a 'speculative' way. Thus, crime writing. As to plot and character, depends on the idea. It's only as I get into it, do I try to twist plot and characters on their backs.

UN: You write during the months when you’re not working at your seasonal pay-the-mortgage job. What’s a typical writing day like?
PB: A typical day starts with trying to help get everybody off to school and work, which mostly involves staying out of their way. I usually read a little bit while the chaos runs amuck. Around 7:30 the house is empty, the coffee brewing. I check out my notes and ideas scribbled everywhere and sit at my desk. I write for four to five hours then lunch break. After lunch, I may write for an hour or so, or not at all depending how the morning has gone. I may peruse markets, looking to submit stories. Or I may stop working altogether and do other things. I try not to give myself a goal for the day, only that I work on something.

UR: After you’ve been away from writing for a month or two, what do you do to get back into the swing of it? What’s your writing process?
PB: When I decide to purchase a book, I look at that first sentence, first paragraph very carefully. I can tell a lot about the style from that. So for my writing I focus on the first line, the first paragraph. What can I do to hook the reader into my fiction, long or short? Opening lines are always popping into my head, but the question is, what can I do with them? For example, a few days ago, as my wife and I were out doing errands, this came to me: 'I'm a dropout, a drunk, a druggie, a dangerous motherfucker with a Derringer...' That's all I have so far and I don't know where it's going. But it sounds like a good start...So, what I do is look at some of these opening lines I've written down, and try to flesh something out from there. Usually it's a short story. Writing a few of shorts gets me back into writing something longer, or rewriting a manuscript in dire need of an overhaul. Oddly enough, sometimes I come up with what I think is a catchy or quirky title, and try to work a story out of that.

UN: How long did it take you to get published after you first sent out your work? Do you have any advice for writers looking to approach online publications?
PB: When I decided to write short stories, I didn't think I could do it. I mean, I had been working on two novels for years and that's all I knew how to write, mostly self-taught by reading and studying novels I liked. So my first short stories were quite long at 5000-6000 words. Hard for a novice to get these published. So I read shorter works found all over the Web, and those pieces showed me a few things. So a year after writing my first short, I wrote a 1000-word piece called "Sweet Wife" and sent it out to five markets. Three took it, (two rather quickly after submitting), and one even paid me for it. And so from that success, I kind of knew what I was capable of and what editors and readers were looking for in a short. My only advice on submitting to e-zines (is) read a few of their stories and if you like one or two, mention that in your cover letter to the editor. But be sincere.

UN: What are you working on now?
PB: The winter hiatus is coming up, and I'm rewriting several short stories I wrote over the summer and picking through some notes, seeing what flares up. Most are rather dark ideas focusing on mental illness and how it plays in noir. I.e. crazy broads and hoods up to no good.

UN: You mention James Crumley as an early influence. What contemporary writers do you read now?
PB: Two crime/noir writers with a unique style: James Ellroy, who has a tremendous impact on my thought process, and Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor series. I've read nothing like these two guys. Both are brilliant, while being suspenseful, violent, sad, funny, and, above all, entertaining.
And while they might not need the plug, check out the Hard Case Crime series. Most of these books are beauties, including some great ones from the distant, and not-so-distant, past.

UN: What are your future plans? Another novel?
PB: Right now FIVE STAR publishing is looking at my novel, THE BIG BAD. If accepted, I’m sure I'm looking at re-writes. Also, I have a rough draft for a sequel, called THE BIGGER BAD, which I want to improve and get ready to show.

You can find some of Phil’s writing here:
Sweet Wife
The Last Loose End
Drop Off
A Pain in the Ass
Shallow End
A Killer Combo
The Black Bat, his only speculative piece, written in college

Friday, November 21, 2008

Books in My Lobby 4

I've never heard of Joseph Kanon (only 181,000 google results--oh, he wrote The Good German) but I really wonder how captivating and intriguing and tense and superb it is. Let's see what the critics really say.

From TheMysteryReader.com: "What if? If Joe Kanon had remained a publisher, the mystery reading world would have been cheated the skills of a very competent storyteller." Not bad, not great. Let's see what Publisher's Weekly has to say: "Kanon's second novel, after the very well-received Los Alamos, is somewhat disappointing." Can you say Sophomore slump? I can. Sophomore slump. Library Journal says: "A treat for crime fans who appreciate blithe and brittle writing." Better, better. One more. This from Booklist: "Readers who enjoy Kanon's exciting mixture of the real and the imagined should flock to this excellent historical crime novel." Score! Well played Mr. Kanon, well played indeed.

What's the cheapest copy I can find? Sorry Mr. Kanon, but a used copy of your mass market paperback sells through Amazon for just $0.01.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Since putting away the first draft of my novel, I’ve been working on revising short stories. Not a bad way to pass the time. But whenever I sit to write it takes a few moments to remember what I worked on the day before. The narrative thread that tied together my novel is on a hiatus. So, I have to create temporary narrative threads for each story I write.

It doesn’t always work. I miss living with the same characters for months at a time. The characters from my stories live in bursts, sometimes brilliant, but often foggy and unformed. Especially if I’m still figuring out what the story’s about and what the characters are supposed to do. But characters from a novel stay with me. I know what they eat, what they do on an average Wednesday, what music they listened to in college, whether they know how to spell communiqué.

My novel characters hibernate as I consider them during their long winter, until I'm ready to sit back down and exhume them for another go-round. And when I do, they'll come alive and show me what their favorite colors are and how they quit their first job by skywriting a note to their boss and why they broke up with their pregnant girlfriend on Valentine's day then asked her out the day after.

Until then, I’m rudderless; dealing with cranky protagonists who bother me to understand why I brought them into my world, confused about what to do next. They’re not my first loves, but they’ll have to do for a while.

Friday my iPod Slept Late

Black Lipstick—Grandma Airplane
The Cure—Catch (live bootleg)
Echo and the Bunnymen—It’s all over now, Baby Blue (Live)
Orange Juice—Poor Old Soul (Part One)
Bill Nelson—Another Day, Another Ray of Hope
Pavement—Summer Babe (Winter Version)
The Jesus and Mary Chain—Hole
The Field Mice—The Last Letter
Gnarls Barkley—Last Time
Underworld—Boy Boy Boy
Thievery Corporation—Lebanese Blonde
Figurine—New Mate
New Order—The Him
Belle & Sebastian—I Don’t Love Anyone

Monday, November 17, 2008

Taking a Break

I’ve dusted off an old story that I started maybe four years ago. I read it over and thought, “Not too bad. I can work with this.” I started writing it again, finished a draft, and gave it to my trusty reader, Liz, to get some feedback. “I like it. It’s interesting,” she said, but she went on to point out that there wasn’t a lot of conflict.

In my story the tables are turned on my protagonist and things aren’t what they originally appeared (I won’t bore you with the details). That part's fine, but when my protagonist doesn’t get what he was hoping to get, he doesn’t really care. Liz’s comments made me take another hard look at the story’s structure. Yes, strange things happen and there is plenty of opportunity for conflict, but I realized I missed the opportunities. As Ms. X is fond of saying, “The conflict is there, you just have to find it and bring it out.” I’m paraphrasing. Ms. X is much more perceptive and charmingly off-the-cuff than I.

So, I agreed with my insightful reader, and the ghost of Ms. X (she is not dead, just off in self-imposed exile working feverishly on a second-novel deadline, and remains unavailable for comment). I started working on a second draft by trying to pin-point the areas that needed some trimming, rethinking, and restructuring. I added more back story for my protagonist, cut one character while moving a secondary character into primary position. The story follows basically the same path, I just reconfigured the algorithm.

Or so I thought. The past couple days found me antsy at the keyboard, harrumphing the thought of spending more time on this story. Something was wrong. With the story or my approach to the changes. Hard to say. In a novel when the writing isn’t going well, the scene I’m working on becomes bogged down, and I rewrite the same sentence ten times before moving on, this signals that I’ve run off the rails. When this happens, and I recognize that it’s happening (this ah-ha moment usually comes after a couple days of head banging), then I back myself out of the scene until I hit that spot in the narrative when things started to go wrong. I right myself (the scene, the writing), remove the offending pages (or chapter, hopefully no longer than that) and start writing from the time just before things went bad, continuing into the scene in the new way.

Sure, great for a novel. But does this approach work for a short story? I can’t go back to the beginning of the story and cut out all the offensive stuff. Because then I wouldn’t have a story. I’m not sure what to do. I’m stuck in the middle to last third of the narrative. I’m at a point where I’m about to introduce a fourth character into the mix. I admit I don’t know all the characters that well. I’m a little flummoxed about how old this fourth character is, what she will mean to the protagonist (mother/sister figure, or possible girlfriend), and how the story will play out after I add her.

I’m too close to the story. I need to step back. It’s time to put it away and work on something else for a while. I’m a big advocate for taking time off from any writing. When I come back to a piece after a break (week, month, year) my emotions are drained off the prose; I have no sentimental tie to the narrative and can cut judiciously and objectively. A sentence that once made sense because of my emotional frame of mind stands stark and affectless, ready for the chopping block.

It sounds a little harsh, but it’s a necessary part of writing. My story will be better off collecting dust while I go off and cozy up to another piece of old writing whose time has come. Then, when my sub-conscious has worked out all the difficult bits for me (because that’s the way I imagine it goes down) then I’ll open up that document again and read it over and hopefully know just how to finish it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

2666, the New Novel by Roberto Bolaño

A few months ago I finished reading the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’m a slow reader, plus I read more than one book at a time, but the time expense was worth the enviously dizzying, meandering, and generally satisfying result. The Savage Detectives doesn’t feature any detectives in the classic Merriam-Webster definition. Instead its pages are populated by hundreds of Latin American poets, wannabes, groupies, and hangers on. This mammoth book’s plot, if you can call it that, is a fractured, voluminous story of renegade Chilean poets who start an extremist poetry movement. These are young men and women using poetry to rebel and grow up and run off and make love and slowly or quickly die. The book reads like a progression of short stories, all connected, sometimes tenuously, by a core of poets that realizes the only way to speak out against repression in 1970s Central America is to kick in the teeth of established literary greats like Pablo Neruda.

The Savage Detectives shouts to the rooftops in a style that reminds me of sitting around a huge campfire with a hundred guests telling their stories of events surrounding the core poets. Imagine writing a book with a hundred different voices, spanning decades, and covering thousands of miles. Bolaño wrote like a man on fire. Which he sort of was: he died in 2003 at age 50. In the 1990s he knew he was a goner and he pushed his poetry aside and feverishly ground out short stories and novels. English translators are still catching up.

Just before he died, Bolaño completed what many critics are calling his greatest accomplishment, 2666, a novel published this week in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I don't have my copy yet, but it sounds sprawling, split into five sections that, from what I’ve read, could be five separate novels and is “…based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, in the Sonora desert near the Texas border.” It also no doubt touches upon many themes struck in Detectives (and it should be said, his short stories and other novels): literature as journey, as country, as a political ideal; sex and violence; spiritual longing; the search for home/country.

Adding to the mystique is that, while getting a proper release in hardback, it’s also being published concurrently as a set of three paperbacks. In a sleeve!

I love packaging: if the book looks unique, I’ll consider buying it based on physical merits. Plus 2666 is big. 900 pages big. I love big books. Well, the idea of them. I love picking them up and walking around the bookstore with them. And if I buy them I will certain start them and maybe the story will hold my interest enough to get to the end (often by page 200 you pretty much get the idea of any novel) and then I can let it sit like a trophy on my shelf. That’s what happened with DFW’s Infinite Jest; I never got past page 200. But I will come back to that one day. Promise.

2666 sounds irresistibly nuts and maybe groundbreaking and possibly disappointing and wonderfully huge. It’s one book, it’s three books, it’s one book. I guess the idea is to read it and find out. Coming so fresh off of The Savage Detectives I’m not sure I’m ready for another heady, heavy dose of Bolaño. But one thing is certain; I won’t be able to stay away for long.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rex: The Patron Saint of Writers

Sure, you thought the patron saint of writers was St. Francis de Sales. Well, that may well be. But Frank best make room. There's a new saint in town. Saint Rex. I can't say for certain whether he's comfortable being the saint for ALL writers. But he has proven to be a more-than-adequate saint for this writer.

Because of Rex, I can now be online at the same time as Liz. Impossible you say. Not so, thanks to Rex. I can write in the house, or walk down the street and sit under a tree and write in the word processing program of my choice. Insane, how could such a thing be? I know. I never thought it was possible either. Until Rex.

I don't want to embarrass the man...ur, saint. But if Rex hadn't swooped in when he did, I wouldn't be able to expand my writing schedule. For example, I can write while waiting at Goodyear for an oil change. Or while on the road. Or on vacation. At the beach. Or any damn place I want. Saints would rather their disciples not divulge their affinities. But, damn, this laptop works great! Thanks to Saint Rex!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Books in My Lobby 3

Most books in my lobby aren't my cup of java, but I couldn't resist picking up another J.D. Salinger, even though I have about 2 or 3 copies of each of his books already. I just knew it would go to a good home if I snatched it up. Unfortunately, when I brought it back up to my abode, I found the thing smelled of the worst industrial-strength air freshener. I did what my Dad always does when he buys some moldy old books: I aired it out. Since I don't have a porch or a patio or a yard, I propped it in one of our open windows. It took a few days, but the stink finally went away.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part Deux: On Becoming a Novelist

So. How did I continue to produce pages without getting derailed by my perceived shortcomings as a writer? Advice from pro authors and from careful amateurs. I read published novels that had been edited and proofed by professionals. And I had trustworthy readers pore over my drafts and mark them up for me. The more I read and wrote, revised and corrected, the greater my confidence grew.

Soon after I started writing I picked up a book that would become invaluable to my early efforts: John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. John Gardner, who died at age 49 in 1982, was a celebrated novelist and writing instructor. Raymond Carver, one of his former students, wrote the book’s forward. In the book, Gardner discusses, among many other topics, the education of young writers. I was relieved to read that it was okay to not go to college for writing. In fact, the way he made it sound, it was almost preferable that I was busy living my life and earning the experiences that I would eventually get busy writing about. His words were a validation of the way I was living as a writer.

I still have my original copy of On Becoming a Novelist. Instead of highlighting the pages of interest, I used scraps of paper as bookmarks. Many are still there. I marked a section about combating self-doubt and self-consciousness. Gardner served up a crash course in being true to the fictive dream and not just writing to sell. He introduced me to the idea that you can either write for publication (which, in his estimation, wasn’t a hard goal to achieve) or become a serious novelist. In other words, “…a dedicated, uncompromising artist, and not just someone who can publish a story now and then.”

As with any how-to book, some pieces of advice stuck, and some rolled away for someone else to pick up. But when Gardner wrote about a “quality of strangeness” in all great writing, this sounded like a clue to something I needed to strive for. “There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected—for instance, the late, surprising entrance of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Mr. Rochester’s disguise in Jane Eyre,…” I tapped into this advice as early as I could; the idea that a piece of writing could be great, could transcend. That image is what I keep out there in front of me, the reward that urges my writing, keeps me revising and fussing, worrying my drafts into what I someday want to realize as sublime versions of a specific truth.

Around the time I found On Becoming a Novelist, I had an opportunity to talk to a real author on the phone. It came about like this: My father was a used book dealer on Cape Cod. One of his summer customers was William Hanley, a published novelist from the late 60s/early 70s who had gone on to make a living in TV, winning an Emmy and such. My father was kind enough to ask Mr. Hanley if it wouldn’t be alright to have his aspiring-novelist son give him a call and seek some advice. Mr. Hanley was kind enough to agree.

I got through to him at his Long Island home. I imagined the Jaguar I knew he drove parked out front, next to the four-car garage and the servant’s quarters. Mr. Hanley was gracious over the phone, giving practical advice like when sending chapters to an agent, send consecutive chapters. He admitted he no longer had contacts in the publishing world and couldn’t help there. He conveyed that, from his experience, writing was a long, hard road. Not an easy way to make a living. Don’t expect to. He wistfully wished me good luck. I hung up and wondered if it was easier to dole out advice from the far end of Long Island than receive it in a three-family dump in greater Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Gardner said, “One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.” I’d add that to be an honest writer, or to be any good at all, you need to keep your id tapped and ready. Maybe your id is your adolescent self, a youthful yet world-wise doppelganger that doesn’t allow clichés to touch paper, constantly scanning your pages for vague language and passive voice, maybe she alerts you to crummy dialogue and overuse of the word Suddenly. Needless to say, I’ve continued writing. And while I have only a few publishing credits, I’ve chosen the middle ground: fighting to stay true as a creative writer while trying to get published.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part 1

I didn’t grow up aching to write. I didn’t know I would be a writer until I was out of college. So it follows that I didn’t spend my college years writing a first novel that would become a brilliant senior thesis, landing me an agent before graduation and a lucrative book deal before deciding which MFA program to grace with my talent, insight, and humility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I went to school for cinema. I’ve always loved movies and wanted to learn everything about them. I took screenwriting courses as an underclassman, but never considered expanding writing studies beyond an English Composition 101 writing class. So I felt thoroughly under prepared when I recognized that, for better or worse, I would live out the rest of my adult life as a writer.

A revelatory combustion occurred on a snowy February afternoon. I was a few months out of college, living with cousins in Easton, Connecticut. Relations nice enough to let me crash in the spare bedroom for twenty bucks a week. I wasn’t working, so I had some time on my hands. Officially I was still finishing up my senior thesis film, but that certainly wasn’t paying the rent. On a sunny snow-brilliant Sunday afternoon while my host family sat in the next room doing crosswords and watching a movie, I set out my Smith-Corona typewriter on a TV dinner table, pulled up a folding chair, and started pounding away. It was like my fingers were taking dictation from some hot primal force.

I wrote 30 pages. It was a cacophony of ink on paper, not to mention an extreme display of productivity I’ve never equaled. When finally I finished, fingers cramped, mojo spent and sleeping in a corner, I stepped out of my room into the stunned faces of my cousins. I figured they were pissed that I had made such a racket on their day of rest. But cousin Tempe said, “Wow, what are you working on in there? You typed all afternoon.” I looked at the clock on the VCR. Three hours had passed so quickly for me that I hadn’t noticed it getting dark. “I don’t know,” I said.

Those 30 pages turned out to be the beginning of a novel. Another 150 or so joined them on the pile until I ran out of story. That novel begot another, basically a rewrite of the first one that I was able to take to the end, even after I’d run out of story. And from that novel came, finally, another very similar novel, sharing the same themes, locations, and many of the same characters. If you look at novels in terms of time, I spent about ten years on the process of writing one novel.

For years after that cold February afternoon when I made such a racket and became a questionable commodity in my cousin’s eyes, I wondered if I was a writer. Even though I continued to write. I didn’t have the writing background. I hadn’t had the right education. I had spent my college years parsing movies reel-by-reel, frame-by-frame. I wasn’t writing story after novel after poem. So what made me think I could be a writer? How naive. How utterly self-centered to think that anybody cared what I thought about or wrote.

Aside from not majoring in creative writing or choosing to pursue an MFA, one of the biggest hurdles to clear was my cruddy grammar skills. I had none. I must have been asleep in the right high school English class because I couldn’t have told you the difference between a dangling participle and pluperfect tense. Plus, my spelling was atrocious. My drafts were riddled with grammatical blunders, syntactic nightmares, and tense problems. Overall, I was an English teacher’s heart attack in a handy human package. So how did I continue writing without getting totally disheartened?