Monthly Archives: September 2012

Here On My Planet We Love My Book

River with green and gold treesImagine yourself six stories high, on a bright sunny day, surprisingly warm for the end of September. From where you stand at that height, on a flat roof in the open air, the greenery of the Washington Mall stretches out in front of you, and to the right a curve of the Potomac River glitters in the sunlight. The Lincoln Memorial from that height is unobstructed, appearing almost close enough that you could touch it. To the right, across the river in Virginia is Arlington Cemetery, and to the left are the Washington Monument scraping the sky and farther still the Capitol building.

A few days ago one of my colleagues at the American Pharmacists Association took me onto the roof to have lunch, where panoramic delight took me by surprise. Lunch paused momentarily while I immersed myself in that leafy green and sunny gold view, accented by white monumental buildings. Afterward we ate lunch with pleasant small talk, then my friend went back downstairs, while I finished out my lunch break looking at pages I had carried up with me, making notes on them.

I’m working more intensely now to finish revising Benedict and Miramar, and for about a week and a half now I’ve followed a practice of printing out 10 or so pages in the evening, which I take with me to work. Sitting on that amazing roof, I only spent 15 minutes working on the book, but in any case, some day I will be able to say that for one tiny moment that book got written looking out over that view.

There are two reasons I’m now going to the trouble to print pages from the novel and carry them around. One is that I spend enormous amounts of time in transportation, three hours a day. That would be a fat 3, like the little pigs, like the bears with porridge, like the magical kingdoms of Russian fairy tales. For magical kingdoms maybe three isn’t all that many, but for hours a day on public transportation, it adds the hell up. I decided I could be making better use of that time than just sitting and reading (not that sitting and reading is a bad way to go).

The second reason I carry pages with me is that an act of serendipity has rushed my time frame. I was figuring I’d take a couple of months or so to revise the novel, then look for an agent. But I met someone who is an agent (for children’s books), and she referred me to a couple of agents she knows. One of them said that my book sounds derivative—and yeah, time travel, it’s been done, but not with the delightful characters and unbelievable level of witty repartee that I’ve used. She missed that part. Plus I used a lot of punctuation.

The second agent agreed to look at the first chapter, so I sent it. Now, I know you’re pushing your computer back to rush to the kitchen and take that bottle of champagne out of the fridge, to pop that cork out and turn the bottle up and chug a victory gulp in my honor. But hold on. I’ve been here before, had agents ask for chapters. So far it has always been the case that the next morning, nursing a hangover and filled with remorse, the agent has looked at what I sent and thought “Good God, what was I thinking asking for this?” And then told me no.

So…even though, guaranteed, someday an agent will say yes, I do not know whether it will be this agent. Nevertheless, if she does say she would like to see more, then I will need to send her a book that is at least real darn close to done (i.e., completely done).

Thus I print pages and take them with me. I work on the bus (which I catch at 7:10 a.m.), I work on the train, and now I work during lunch. If you want some idea of what it is like to revise on public transportation, the next time you write something by hand, ask another person to come over and shake the table every few seconds.

I had intended eventually to talk more about the Agent Begging Process, but since I have jumped in sooner than I expected, I’ll say something here. When you look for a literary agent, unless you know someone who knows someone (which is best, if it works), you start by finding the names of agents. That used to be done with books, particularly Writers Market, though obviously online sources are taking over that function.

From the list you pick out an agency or agent who handles the kind of thing you write (no point in sending science fiction to someone who only handles romance novels). Ideally, you learn things about the agency, about the agent, what they like, what they’ve done before. And VERY IMPORTANT, you pay attention to exactly what they want you to send them. Unless you’re very inexperienced or very stupid, in which case you waste your time.

Is that sounding like it could potentially be a lot of work? I’m not getting into writing a synopsis, or crafting a good cover letter (there are workshops you can take on doing those things, if you want), I’m not describing creating writing samples of one chapter, or three chapters, or 50 pages, or whatever the agent asks for, and I’m skipping over keeping really careful records of who you contacted when.

I’ve been through this process three times, sending out about 70 or more letters each time. Delightful? You bet it is. I also skipped the part where you investigate an agent before you send them anything, to see if they seem legitimate, if you still have the correct address, if they’ve actually sold anything. I don’t always do this part, though I do check addresses with their websites, except in the 21st century some agents do not have websites.

Space alient

I write human interest stories

Yet people look for literary agents. By the hundreds, by the millions. People are coming here from other planets just to query literary agents. And some of them are successful. That’s why I always try to sound like I’m from another planet when I write a letter to an agent.

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We All Crack Eggos

Mother and child

I don’t wanna say that

No doubt you have sometimes sat pondering the mysteries and minutia of life. In amongst your sudden flashes of insight about the nature of existence, perhaps you even said to yourself, “I wonder whether articles published in pharmacy research journals would have good examples of how the English language changes?”

As a person who currently spends the day editing pharmacy research articles, let me answer that for you. They do not have the best examples, no. But even a pharmacy research article will show the changes that happen, albeit more slowly. Let’s jump back in time for a moment, to briefly glimpse where we’ve come from.

Beowulf (around the year 800, more or less)

Ðá wæs on burgum Béowulf Scyldinga
léof léodcyning longe þráge
folcum gefraége fæder ellor hwearf

You get the idea, and seriously, that really is English. It’s just been changing a lot since then.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (around 1400)

At lucifer, though he an angel were,
And nat a man, at hym wol I bigynne.
For though fortune may noon angel dere,
From heigh degree yet fel he for his synne

Still hard as hell to read, but some of it looks like English.

Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)

There’s his chamber, his house, his castle, his
standing-bed and truckle-bed; ’tis painted about
with the story of the Prodigal, fresh and new.

Shakespeare can still be extremely difficult, but he is already considered modern English.

Naam Brigade, Early in the Game (2002)

I snatch don’t go and get paid
I crack eggos, break gats down like Legos
Bring ’em home for toys
Mami bitch roll on my woods

The last example is taken from the lyrics of a rap song, and while not all rap songs push the edge of the language so hard, any modern artform using language might do this, including modern novels.

Why does a language change so much? I’m sure no one can really say. Why don’t you use exactly the same words your grandmother used? Why don’t you pronounce every word exactly the way your parents did? Ultimately, it somehow comes down to human behavior, that even without knowing it, we mess around with things and change them. Maybe we just get bored. Maybe that’s all it is.

With language, the process is usually fairly slow. We can’t witness a change as dramatic as going from Beowulf to Chaucer. Yet, we actually can see some of the changes happening, and I’ll give you three examples of something more than merely making up new words: (1) losing a word, (2) a word changing its basic function, and (3) a word shifting its meaning.

1. Whom

First off—and this is the real point—nobody says “whom”. Other than a possible freakish grammar child here and there, no one grows up speaking with this word. As I used to tell my students, it is being kept on artificial life support by English teachers. Students get it wrong constantly, using it as a subject, as in “We were talking to the mayor, whom said the council would vote soon.” When used correctly, “whom” is always an object, like “him” and “them” (notice those “m” endings?). For now, this word is like Vladimir Lenin, still on creepy public display and not yet buried. In 50 years, or much less, it will be gone entirely.

2. Which

“Which” ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, and in fact, it is expanding (or changing?) its function. If you disagree with what I’m about to say, then you haven’t been paying attention, including paying attention to what comes out of your own mouth. Formally, “which” is a pronoun that refers to a previous noun: “We drove down the coast to Makala, which is a small city made entirely of white stone.” In that case, of course, “which” refers back to Makala and in doing so, becomes the subject of its own clause and takes the verb “is”. Now here’s the radical change—“which” is turning into a conjunction that joins two sentences, the same as “and”. Scoff. I don’t care. You’re wrong. On TV, on the radio, in person, you can hear people say sentences like “Nancy takes her kids to school every day, which she has to drive about 20 minutes to get there.” In this case, “which” is followed by “she”, and “she” is the subject that takes the verb “has to drive”. Replace “which” with “and” and read the sentence. Personally, I think this is weird, but it’s true.

3. Grow

“Grow” of course means to nurture something and watch it expand and become larger, more mature. Until recently the word was used only for things that are alive and can naturally do this. Now, initiated, I believe, by some smart-ass political speech writer, the word has expanded to cover things that are not alive, most commonly the economy. “We’re going to grow our economy and create jobs.” Of course it’s a metaphor process, as “economy” is being compared to plants.

Whether I like this process or whether you like it, who cares? None of us can stop it. And really, it’s interesting to see that this happens, that languages change. It’s a cool thing, really, to see that language is alive, that it expresses the constant ferment of the human mind. Except for “grow the economy”. I hate that shit.

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Put Down That Samuel Adams

Photo from San Marino

What are they plotting up there?

There’s a guy who swears he is the Duke of Rhode Island, though there are also some grounds not to believe him. Start with the fact that Rhode Island outlawed royalty, oh gosh, a good five or six years ago. In addition, the Duke now wears a football helmet that he won’t take off, plus the fact that he covered the helmet with aluminum foil, though he says the reason for that is secret.

The Duke is now living in a place where he is safe and comfortable, but earlier he lived here in Washington, DC. You’re naturally thinking he must have come here because he was elected to Congress, and we have to grant that you have all the logic on your side, but, no, he had a job teaching English at a small school in the city.

As an English teacher, he was a voracious reader, and riding the metro to work he would sit on the train and read. On one occasion, which turned out to be a pivotal moment, just as he was beginning to realize he needed an aluminum foil-covered helmet, he forgot to bring a book to read on the train. Perhaps he forgot because his brain had entered a time of dramatic synaptic metamorphosis.

Even with a rapidly increasing imbalance in his view of reality, the Duke still had all the qualities of an English teacher. He still wanted to read on the train, but had forgotten his book. Fortunately, the first person he sat next to was reading the Washington Post, held open in such a way that the Duke could read part of it. Looking over at his neighbor’s paper, he saw an article about the tiny country of San Marino, an idea that implanted itself into his mind as the focus of his thoughts. “What is San Marino up to?” he thought.

Then the train stopped at a station, the Washington Post left, and the Duke was left wondering. He moved to another seat, beside someone reading a different newspaper, the Washington Times, and again the Duke looked over at his neighbor’s paper. This time he was able to read part of an article about someone, he didn’t catch who, buying banks. It was easy for him to fill in the missing information, as it was obviously the country of San Marino trying to buy up American banks.

He felt perturbed to know that our financial institutions were in danger from a tiny republic entirely surrounded by Italy. He looked around the train car to see if other people were also concerned about this, but many were trying to fall asleep before they got to work. The Duke then got up and moved to another seat, to sit down beside someone reading a novel. Another person’s novel was much harder to read without their permission, but by leaning slightly to the left, he managed to catch a sentence referring to the price of beer. “Ah hah” he thought. San Marino was going to use control of the banks to shut down all of the small breweries in America. It made sense that a small country like San Marino would think of shutting down small breweries. That’s just how they would think.

For a couple of stops on the train, the Duke sat racking his brain. But why would they do this? Then a student sat down beside him reading a textbook for a psychology class. The Duke leaned in. Peered. Surveyed and surmised. It was a chapter on the psychology of happiness.

Of course! If San Marino could force us to drink only bad beer, we would all become unhappy. We see that the Duke was completely forgetting the popularity of Budweiser. Many people were quite happy with bad beer, but he was in a feeble mental state, and not all facts were properly accounted for.

By the time the Duke got off the train, having engaged a logic of his own fabrication, he had figured out that San Marino was secretly buying up American banks to acquire financial power in this country. They were then going to use that power to shut down all the small breweries in the country, an even more insidious plot coming, as it did, from a wine-drinking people. With the small breweries gone, Americans would have no choice but to drink the watery swill of the major brewers (or not drink beer at all, of course, but that made no sense). As a nation, we would then grow weak and depressed, and it would be easy for San Marino to swoop in and conquer us.

Insidious mountain people.

Out of a sense of patriotic duty, the Duke did not go to work that day but went instead to a bar where he drank microbrews all day in opposition to the plot he had uncovered. It was later that same day that the Duke was offered comfortable accommodations in a place where Budweiser was never allowed to enter. Even if the Duke had his facts wrong, I have to salute his patriotic effort until he was removed from the bar.

I know this story is all true because I read it on an internet site. I have, I confess, emboldened the literary qualities of the story, but it’s still true, which you can tell because you’re reading it on a website as well.

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Hug a Writer Week, no, Month, no wait, Year

man and woman huggingWorkers of the world, grill your burgers! This past Monday I was off work (and in a nice change,  had work to be off from) to celebrate Labor Day. There is dispute as to which of two labor union leaders proposed the day, but it clearly was a member of a labor union who suggested a day to celebrate workers, and the first Labor Day was in 1882. Today it would be impossible to create such a holiday, which would be denounced as a socialist idea. But now it exists, and we don’t have to spend two seconds thinking of where it came from or what it was supposed to mean, because there are burgers on the grill.

With my day off, I decided to begin exploring the area where I live. Long ago when I lived in Pennsylvania, I drove around to different places for fun, and I was looking forward to doing that in a new location. This time I went down the coast of Maryland, to where the Patuxent River runs into the Chesapeake Bay, to a village called Solomon’s Island or just Solomons. I couldn’t figure that out. There is also a wonderful marine museum down there. All the necessary ingredients came together for a completely lovely afternoon: (1) science, (2) history, (3) good food, (4) beer. Actually, it had even more, like sitting for a while beside a quiet shore pond watching birds fly overhead. And I ate a delicious crabcake that was—I ain’t making this up—about as big as a softball. How many crabs are in that bay anyway?

Most days my leisure time consists of two hours, if I’m lucky and if I already ironed a shirt and made lunch, or sometimes just an hour. Normal people look for ways to pass free time, but writers are looking for free time to pass on to later generations in the form of words. So in those precious few minutes of unencumbered time, I sit here on the couch with the radio playing classical music, a cushion on my lap and the computer on the cushion, feeling for the first time all day that I’m doing what I really want.

I’m now deeply into revising the novel, officially called Benedict and Miramar. I guess. The first time through the book is probably the slowest, because I’m thinking about everything—should I turn one line of dialogue into a full conversation or expand a description of something into a paragraph; should I cut out an entire chapter or reword a sentence to stop sounding as if it just fell out of my mouth like an item on a grocery list; should I add a comma to a sentence?

Three times now I have taken chapters from the book to read to the people in my writing group. The first two times I came away from the meeting growing angel wings, as people were very positive about it. The third time, two days ago, I had a chapter that I was sure was a great crowd pleaser, so I was surprised to get a more critical reaction. You see how we writers are, like little children, we just want to be hugged and told how fast we rode that tricycle. “And you’re such a big boy, aren’t you?”

Uh huh, yes I am. Anyhow, let me climb back up onto the adult chair and continue. After the last meeting there was also one person in the group who afterward expressed a more serious interest in the book and asked to read the entire thing. I had also just offered to read her poetry outside the group, as I think I could do a better job that way, so perhaps we’ll trade.

Back in Pennsylvania, I was lucky to have two people who were willing to seriously read the book and give me feedback. That’s a hell of a lot of work, and I’m grateful when I can find it from someone who can be helpful. It’s a very generous thing for people to do, and at the moment I’m working through the comments from both readers as I make revisions.

While I’m quite optimistic about the possibility with Benedict and Miramar, and while I’m enjoying the revision (so far), what I really want is to start writing another novel. I’ve got notes made, ideas for the next book come to me every day, and in reality, I’ve already started writing a couple of bits to use in that book. The main protagonist is named Leola Summer Daye, and her little sister, who plays violin, is Dacia.

But what am I doing blathering away here when there’s a novel to be revised. It ain’t gonna fix itself.

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Title

The word "no"There is a cultural blight infesting our country.

Presumably, artists who show their work to other people want the work to be noticed, admired, and remembered. I may be mistaken (that happened a few times), but I can’t imagine the artist thinking, “Now that you’ve experienced my art, I want you to forget you ever encountered it.”

But OK, suppose the artist did inexplicably want the work of art to be forgotten. What would help to guarantee this goal of forgetfulness? One thing that would be very useful would be a title that was almost impossible to remember. It would be somewhat like pretending to have a title, but then in a functional way, not actually having one.

It probably isn’t true that artists want their works to be forgettable, but in that case why are so many using idiotically simple titles that consist of only one word? This phenomenon cannot completely be explained by a lack of imagination, because even good writers these days will do it. The reasoning (if “reasoning” isn’t much too refined a concept here) may be that “hey, less words is less to remember!” Which is dumb, but maybe that’s how it started. Now, however, the practice has simply become a cultural commonality, a sad fad.

The book The Help (alright, it has an article, so it’s one and a half words) is a very good book, yet it suffers from this problem. At the moment, the book has become well-known and was turned into a fine movie, but in fifty years, when someone hears the phrase “the help” it will be much harder to connect it with the book.

The problem of amazingly forgettable titles is especially rampant in movies, moreso than in books, perhaps because movies are always closer to pop culture and therefore more susceptible to fads and stupidity. Some quite good movies recently have been marred by a vacuous title, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember their names.

It is not specifically that a one-word title is bad, although when you see books with titles like She, Wit, Chess, or Speak (that’s four different books, if you didn’t catch that), it would be natural to think that the choice of a single common word is the problem. Are the writers really so completely lacking in imagination? How did they get to be writers?

In fact, there are books with excellent titles of only one word: Dracula, Narnia, Babbit. When you hear those titles, the only thing you can think of is that work, or something based on it that later took the word, like a movie adaptation. Notice, however, that each of those words was invented and cannot be confused with anything else.

A book title (or title of anything) should do three things: (1) it should reasonably be connected with the work in some logical way, (2) it should be memorable, and (3) it should have an inherently catchy or euphonious sound to it, so that when we hear the title by itself it still has a kind of poetry.

Serious writers know that this is NOT EASY TO DO. The current practice of pretending that there is something sophisticated or pithy or clever about one-word titles has been a godsend to lazy and bad writers. Even the worst writers have words pop into their head. There you go. Done.

Here are a few samples of titles where the writer actually worked at it and came up with something strong and memorable:

The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)

A Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia-Márquez)

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)

Since the current cultural practice has hit bottom (inless we begin to name books using only single letters of the alphabet), when things begin to change, which of course they will, it will have to get better. That is something to look forward to. Maybe I’ll write a book about that change. I’ll call it Look.

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