Friday, July 31, 2009

The Separation Anxiety Blues

My writing group is taking a break. It was a good run, but I’m ready to give it a rest for a while. For the last meeting they critiqued 35 pages of my new novel. I had rushed to finish that much to hand out. It has some problems, some first-draft woe. Such as lack of characterization and long scenes where I lovingly describe apartment interiors and the finer points of videocassettes. My hapless protagonist is getting sucked into the potentially lucrative but certainly questionable business of pornography. So apartments and videocassettes (it’s 1994) play a huge role. Okay, not so huge, but it’s only a first draft. I’ll save the chapters’ worth of living room, bedroom, and kitchen description for my book of linked stories on indoor living.

My group, called Council, or Mini Council, or Secret Mini Council, is an off-shoot of a Grub Street novel workshop where many of us met, first hand or by a couple degrees. The Mini Council is an extension of this class, in many, but certainly not all, ways. Every other Thursday we met at a member’s home in JP, after having read up to 100 pages of one or two writers' work.

Two weeks is a perfect length of time to read 100 pages. For me, anyway. I’m a sort-of slow reader. And we’re reading with an editorial eye for structure, syntax, dialogue, pacing, plot, character, all that good stuff. So this adds a layer of…reading to the reading. I always come away with some points to make, some helpful (hopefully) suggestions. But I’m amazed at what the other Mini Council members bring to the discussion. Details about motive or structure I just never considered, never imagined, had no idea existed. It always makes me want to go back and read the pages again. I’m still learning, still building my critical eye.

With the Mini Council on hiatus I can concentrate on other reading. Such as a literary journal that I’m supposed to be reviewing for The Review Review website. I’ve had this issue for a few months now, and I still haven’t finished it. Granted, it’s a double issue, thick with review-fodder such as a 100-page tribute to David Foster Wallace. Also, I tend to ignore reading for pleasure more when I’m in Mini Council. Actually, that’s not true. I just do less of it.

But at the moment I’ve fallen out of the reading habit. I’ve lost that readin’ feeling. Must. Get. Back. And I will. I’ve got about three books started, and I just have to finish those up, and move on to the next. Soon I’m off for a week’s vacation, and that’s when I’ll break this cycle of non-reading. I get a lot done down there (away from here) and so will be sure to pack plenty covers, soft and hard. I may even bring my laptop to get some writing done.

I miss the Mini Council already. But it will be back in the fall, in some form. I may join in the games, or I might take another Grub class. Or, I may lay low and just do the writing. Who can say? I like being coy. I’m the coy narrator. Actually, coy narrators drive me bats. Don’t do this at home, kids.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pulp Fiction Hell

Today I listened to a wonderful podcast of a story by Phil Beloin, Jr., Hardboiled Hell, posted on I'm familiar with Phil's oeuvre, so I thought I had an idea what to expect with this podcast. But nothing prepared me for his very new twist on an old pulp fiction trope: "A hard-drinking hep cat falls for a sexy gal he met in a jazz club. But things turn weird -- real weird -- after she brings him home for the night."

The only thing familiar is the setup. What happens next you'll have to discover for yourself. The podcast features a game reading by Andy Catt, with help by Sherry Wine, and is presented complete with campy sound effects and moody music which all help generate a perfect atmosphere for Phil's twisty, unexpected piece. Hearing this podcast took me back to Saturday afternoons when I was a kid listening to Mystery Theater on the radio.

Phil's short crime fiction has been published on numerous sites in the past few years. Check out an interview I did with Phil last year for this blog, from which you can access more of his work.

I highly recommend Hardboiled Hell. It's not for the squeamish. In a good way.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Rejection

Sending out queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers is like buying quick picks or scratching Big Money tickets. If I win the jackpot, that’s a bonus; an above and beyond that’s a wonderful surprise but which I’m not counting on.

I’m not counting on getting a novel published. It’s the way I’m wired. Because the minute I start counting on it happening, then I might as well start wasting all my money on scratch tickets. I can’t think that way because if it never happens then I’ve wasted a lot of time thinking. And this thinking would most likely get in the way of the writing; affecting my choices as I second guess myself in favor of a mercurial marketplace. Which means grand disappointment on an epic, Pearly Gates-sized scale where you look back on your life and wonder why you spent so much time obsessing over this one thing?

It’s the way I deal with rejection. This week I got two rejections. One for a short story sent to a Web literary magazine and the other from a literary agent. These are two very different rejections. The lit mag just sent a form email. Delete. Try again.

But the agent had requested a partial based on a query, my credentials, my publishing history (short, but existent), and on a sample of writing. After she read the first 50 pages and an outline of the novel, she passed. She explained that her list of fiction was tight at the moment and that it was a hard commercial market right now.

She also had problems with the novel, including some of my syntax choices and that I present the protagonist in two points of view: 1st person as an adult, and 3rd as a teenager (the novel’s chapters alternate these times and voices). The agent said this was distracting and thought it would be a hard sell to editors.

I’ve been told this by anyone who cared what other people would think about the novel, including Ms. X. Ms. X is afraid that readers will have too many questions about why I told the story this way, and that I won’t be there to answer their questions. Ultimately, she wants to see this novel bisected, forming two books; one YA, the other literary/contemporary/narrative fiction. (Note: I’ve considered this, but don’t think the halves stand on their own.) One editor I met with at the Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference told me the novel verged on experimental.

These critiques and rejections of the core structure of my novel would resonate more if my readers also had problems with this. I can’t think of one who wasn’t able to trust me and follow the journey I set them on, in the way I chose (at least with the POV change—or maybe I’m looking back to my critiques through smudged sunglasses).

Of course I’m disappointed about the agent’s rejection. But not surprised. I was upset for about a day, thinking that the novel was a big fail, and that the result of my years of work had been constricted by a fickle publishing industry. Maybe I’m foolish; a madcap. A loony bird flying into the jet engine of the contemporary fiction marketplace. But I trust that my novel works. The agent recommended I try small presses and enter contests. Her point: I might find a home for this orphan of a story at a house where they don’t mind a little experimentation (is it really so extreme?) and where they don’t expect their books to be bestsellers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

On the plus side, I have already approached some small presses. And the agent requested I show him/her future material. Meanwhile I work on my next novel and continue to send out short stories. Rejection doesn’t mean the end; it means the continuation of the beginning. Of trying again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Books in My Lobby 7

The latest offering from my lobby. I didn't grab it, too many books in the queue.
John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle is a fictionalized account of an apple pickers' strike in the small California town, Torgas Valley. Published in 1936, it continues Steinbeck's social criticism; his struggle to shine a light in the unseen corner of the working class.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Anonymous Has a Bad Day

A few days ago I got the following anonymous comment on one of my writing group posts:

“Dyou people realize what a joke Grub Street and other groups such as this are among the literary and publishing industry. Having read some of the "work" of this group, I can see why. What all of you need to do is go out inot the public and listen: listen to the flow of words and how people talk.listen to the stories.
Finally, I have been published and haven't taken or attended a "workshop since colege. Writing is about life so live it”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what anonymous is unhappy about, and why. Let’s parse this cryptic note and see what we find.

Dyou people realize what a joke Grub Street and other groups such as this are among the literary and publishing industry.
I can’t speak to ‘other groups,’ but as far as I know Grub Street is highly respected in the industry, and gaining momentum by the week. Proof comes every spring, when Grub holds its annual writer’s conference. There, dozens of established literary agents and editors donate their time to participate in panel debates, luncheon discussions, and the manuscript mart where they meet with writers to discuss their work. More than a few writers have secured agents through connections made at the conference. Many respected, best-selling authors run workshops and seminars at Grub Street. It’s unlikely either the conference or the workshops would attract such participation from representatives of the literary and publishing industry if Grub Street was a joke. Right now I have a partial out to an agent I saw at this year’s conference. I’m almost certain that my affiliation with Grub Street was a tremendous boon to sustaining this agent’s attention.

Having read some of the "work" of this group, I can see why.
Low blow, that. Certainly you haven’t read work from the veritable thousands of writers that have attended Grub workshops, classes, conferences, and special events since the mid-90s. Grub Street’s vibe has always been inclusive, embracing all levels of experience; where writers who are just starting out can mingle with, and learn invaluable lessons from, seasoned vets. Where non-pubs meet the pubs. You imply that Grubbies aren’t talented enough to gain industry attention and respect, yet every week I read success stories of Grub writers getting stories, essays, memoirs, and novels published. This is more than a show of respect from the literary and publishing industry, this proves what a sustainable resource Grub Street writers, and writers from such organizations around the world, are to publishing.

What all of you need to do is go out inot the public and listen: listen to the flow of words and how people talk.listen to the stories.
Good advice. As long as it doesn't preclude taking an occasional writing class.

Finally, I have been published and haven't taken or attended a “workshop since colege.
Congratulations on finally getting published. I’m guessing that you were not impressed with your college workshops. I don’t know what college workshops are like; I didn’t study writing until I was well out of college. Sounds like you are implying you got published in spite of these college workshops, and you’re grumpy about Grub Street workshops. Perhaps you had one or two poor experiences with Grub Street. Are you saying, ultimately, that writing cannot be taught? That taking a writing workshop is a waste of time? That a like-minded, supportive writing community is not a good thing? A few thousand Grub Street writers would probably argue the point. I suggest taking another Grub class, see what you think this time around.

Writing is about life so live it
I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lowell, Mass: Hollywood East

I live right in downtown Lowell, MA. During the spring of 2008 Ricky Gervais shot much of his movie, The Invention of Lying (working title, This Side of the Truth), in Massachusetts. Many scenes were shot on location here in Lowell. One weekday Liz and I decided to head down to that day’s location to see if we could spot a movie star. We knew we were getting close when we saw Middle Street lined with trailers. We didn’t see familiar faces around the trailers, but the name on each trailer door was worth the trip.

Out onto Central Street and we found the crew, shooting a scene on the sidewalk. We were directed to cross the street to stay out of the shot, then funneled across to Merrimack Street, where we stood looking back down Central to watch the show. Us and about fifty locals.

We caught sight of Ricky early on. He was both director and lead actor, so he never stopped moving. It was difficult to tell when they were shooting, rehearsing, or changing camera angles. The scene they were shooting involved a lot of movement, so they used a steadicam instead of a stationary camera or a camera atop a tripod or dolly.

We spent a half hour or so watching the bustle of the movie crew.

Aside from Ricky, none of the other actors were around, including Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., and Rob Lowe.

Why am I mentioning this now, over a year later? Because the trailer for the movie, scheduled for a fall release, just came out. And Lowell is all over this thing. There’s restaurants like the Dubliner and Cobblestones, not to mention the very scene they shot on the sidewalk the day we were there.

Check it out, 18 seconds in:

Okay, that’s not all. Come this Monday, July 6, Hollywood arrives again, this time to film The Fighter, a film directed by David O. Russell, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. According to, “Wahlberg will play (Micky) Ward, a fighter (from Lowell) who was losing bouts and was ready to hang up the gloves when his brother came back into his life. Bale will play Eklund, whose drugs and robbery spree drew him a 10- to 15-year sentence in state prison. There, he kicked drugs, became a model prisoner and emerged as a changed man who helped his brother reach the glory that eluded him.” I have no idea how much of the movie they’re shooting in town, but it’s always cool to see a movie crew hanging about. Keep track of the shoot here.

Also, check out Liz’s blog post from last year. She talks more about seeing the Ricky Gervais shoot, with additional pics. Plus, she gives you a little history of another film shot in Lowell.