Monday, December 14, 2015

Serve the Work

As 2015 comes to a close, my writing news ends on a high note. After many, many rewrites, Mr. Agent says my manuscript passes muster and we can send it out to publishers in January, after the holiday chaos. I am beside myself with relief and excitement. Just when I came close to giving up on this story, I stuck with it. Maybe the gamble will pay off. Whatever happens, I take comfort in knowing I did my best. I also look forward to finally returning to the business of writing after such a long hiatus and reporting the process to you, dear blog reader, along the way. 

There is one small detail to attend to before Mr. Agent sends out the manuscript. It's a plot point that happens in the third act that he feels needs to be reworked. At first look it seems an easy fix, but as I move deeper into the changes I realize it ripples out and affects many scenes. Whether I make the changes or not is entirely optional and up to me--but his feeling was that since we're waiting until January, why not?

I've given his suggestion a lot of thought and I've decided to go for it. If it doesn't work, we can always revert to the previous version. Part of the reason why I'm taking on the challenge is that the change we came up with together is actually an idea I had pursued many drafts ago, but had abandoned. Why? Because even though the story led me there, it didn't feel literary enough to me. It was too obvious, predictable. I wanted to create something more subtle, nuanced. 

Looking back now, I can see many instances when I tried to steer the story instead of letting it steer me. And what happened? I veered off course. Trying to make the story something it was not cost me a lot of time and pages. 

On a whim, I borrowed a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's WALKING ON WATER: Reflections on Faith and Art from my local library. Shortly after my conversation with my agent I came across the following passage (don't you love it when this happens?) which refers to her process of working on A WRINKLE IN TIME, her masterpiece:

"I began to comprehend something about listening to the work, about going where it shoved me. And so the long two years of rejection slips which followed were especially difficult; it wasn't just that my work was being rejected; or, if it was, it meant that I had not even begun to serve the work."

Serve the work. Yes. This is what I've been learning. When we get in the way of a piece by trying to make it something it is not--either by deciding the story isn't lofty enough or it's in a particular genre we don't care for--we ruin it. Our job as writers is to accept the story as is and let it guide us into being. Our choice, our art, comes from how we tell that story. This is where we can let our heads rules our hearts. 

Is there a story you're stuck on? Think for a moment--are you trying to make it something it's not?

See you in 2016.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

9 Great Gifts for Writers (2015 Edition)

It's time for my annual roundup of 9 Great Gifts for Writers. While I mostly create  this list in service to my readers, it also use it as a thinly-veiled wish list for any of my loved ones who read this blog. Happy shopping *wink, wink*!

Blackwing Pencils.  On last year's list I extolled the virtues of a smooth-writing, medium point pen but this year I rediscovered the beauty of the pencil. And not just any pencil. After reading BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN by Mary Norris and learning of the devoted following the Blackwing had (especially among editors of The New Yorker) I just had to try them out.  They are expensive ($21.95 for a pack of 12), but so worth it. The pencil is extra long and the Palomino model is painted in a shiny slate metallic color. When it's in your hand it just feels special. The writing is smooth and the erasing clean--the eraser is rectangular and flat and slides out as needed so you don't run out of eraser before you run out of pencil. I loved these so much that I started using them all the time instead of my beloved gel pens. One word of advice: make sure to buy the special 2-step pencil sharpener ($7.50) made for it.

Litographs. I have a niece who is an avid reader and who just earned her doctorate in entomology. Her favorite color is orange. I was searching for the perfect gift to celebrate her achievement and came across this amazing company. Litographs takes classic works of literature and creates graphics using the text of the work. How cool is that? They put the graphics on t-shirts, tote bags, and posters. For my niece, I bought a print of Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, which is in the shape of a giant bug, and chose to have it printed in orange. She loved it. I'm partial to Thoreau's Walden, pictured above. ($24-$39)

Gift Certificate from an Independent Bookstore. This year I made a concerted effort to buy fewer books from a certain online mega-retailer and more books from my local bookstore. By purchasing from independent bookstores you are supporting your local economy and saying no to predatory practices that hurt all writers. Any writer in your life would be thrilled to have some mad money to spend at the neighborhood bookstore.

Grammar Nerd Shirt.  I'm no expert when it comes to grammar (as you've probably noticed) but like most writers I do have certain grammatical pet peeves. This is my new favorite t-shirt until I find a snarky one that shows the proper use of the possessive. ($27.95)

Bookish Candles.  The scent description of these soy-based candles makes me swoon--paper, dust, newsprint, vanilla. Other scents include Oxford Library, The Shire, and Sherlock's Study, which smells of pipe tobacco, cherrywood, and fresh rain. ($18 each)

Scapple. No, this is not the cousin of the famous Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast treat but a poorly-named program from Literature & Latte--the makers of Scrivener--my all-time favorite word-processing program. Although I have yet to purchase this particular product, it's on my to-do list. The next project I'm working on is research-heavy and this mind-mapping software should help with plotting, note-taking, character development, and making thematic connections. Literature & Latte offers a free trial period, but at $15, it's a minimal investment.

One Story Magazine. Co-founded by a former Writers House colleague of mine, Hannah Tinti, One Story is a unique literary magazine that simply publishes one story every three weeks. Contributing authors only get published once, allowing for the discovery of new talent. Subscriptions are available in both print and digital formats, or you can purchase single back issues of you favorite authors. Fun fact: Maine's own Lily King is featured in the latest issue. (12 issues for $21)

Thermos. I've never been to a writers' colony, but I'm a little obsessed with the idea of spending a month or two in the woods of New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony. Spending a couple of weeks in a cabin with nothing to do but read, write, sleep, and eat from MacDowell's legendary picnic baskets that are delivered right to your door. Those picnic baskets reportedly come with a thermos full of coffee to keep you at your writerly best. Since my children are still too young to have me running off for weeks at a time and since my backyard in the Maine woods basically looks like the MacDowell campus, I won't be applying anytime soon. Instead, I've made my own pseudo-retreat by filling up this thermos with my favorite hot beverage and heading out to my kids' play house to write. It's not quite the same, but at least my coffee stays hot for 12+ hours. ($23)

Wise and Otherwise. I received this board game as a gift a few years ago. Players are given the first half of an obscure saying or proverb and must finish the rest of it. Everyone's answers are read aloud (including the original ending of the proverb) and then players must vote on the most convincing answer. Players with good writing skills tend to do well--which is why it's become one of my all-time favorite games. Not that I'm competitive or anything. ($42)