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Friday, January 13, 2012

Ask and Ye Shall Irritate...And That's Okay

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." Matthew 7:7-8

Image found here
Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you're a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you're a writer, you can't escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.

We all get that Negative Nelly never sees the light and that Pollyanna, though she may be misguided (stupid, even), appears to have a much better time. And Pollyannas not only like what they're gotten but believe they might even get better. It's all good. I would imagine Pollyannas believe they have the right to ask. I've been called Pollyanna, so I might as well speak for her.

I've always been a squeaky wheel. For that, I get stuff (contest wins, an agent, blog respondents) and grief (rejection, anger, or "no"). When you ask, you will inevitably irritate some. 

Writing is about demanding attention. Our words say, "All eyes on me." I've never had trouble with that, being a teacher and an amateur actress. Call it ego and insane confidence, but you must believe you have a right to be seen and heard. Some writers fear irritating agents and editors so much, they never even knock. So you don't deserve a space at the table? You don't need a moment in the sun? There's room for everyone. Everyone.

Writing is about asking for help. I ask my writing pals Bob and Gordon to take yet another look at my manuscripts; I ask my writing groups to hear odds and ends from various unfinished manuscripts; and let's just say my parents should be canonized. They've read more drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT than any person should.

There's only been one time I've asked and paid a person to give me feedback and that person has gotten irritated with me and my manuscript. Note to Self: editors who are easily pissed off probably hate the job. Or are pretending to edit. Yep, I cried post critique. But I've never cried once in all the hundreds of rejections I've seen in the last several years. Perhaps because in all those nos, no one seemed particularly irritated by the asking. I guess I'm a people pleaser at heart and always wonder, "Wow, did I do something to piss this person off?" Um, you can waste a lot of time at that particular task. 

Because sometimes my desire for speed, change, success, etc. can be a bit bull-in-the-china shop, I have to pay close attention to whether closed doors, no response, etc., is a sign I should stop or a sign I should persist. When my gut tells me, "It's the principle of the thing," I persist. 
  • Principle #1: I query because I have a story that needs to get out there. I asked about 150 times, and I did receive. 
  • Principle #2: I ask because I am worth something. I am worth the investment. Therefore if I ask for a raise, a loan, a reimbursement, or help, it's not a request I should apologize for.
  • Principle #3: I ask because I desire to grow and change. Seeds can't be nurtured without water, soil, light, and time.
  • Principle #4: I ask because I'm angry. Something needs to evolve; something needs to change.
On the latter, I realize I'm usually mad about something. I'm asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever.  Maybe it's a spirit of Italian vendetta (I've got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don't think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy...but that's another post.

My argument assumes we're following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee's time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that--see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don't obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you're too afraid to seek an audience?

So if the blowback is ugly or disproportionate to the request, ask yourself if the irritated party falls into one of these archetypal categories. Even the most seemingly professional, laudable, famous, authoritative folks can fall into any of these slots: 
  • The Martyr: This person's attitude is, "What, you're asking me for something when I work too damn hard around here?"
  • The Jealous Freak: "I can't believe you have the nerve to ask when OBVIOUSLY you have it made and OH MY GOD THERE ISN'T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND!!!!"
  • The Sluggard: "I have no desire to fulfill your request because I would rather surf Overstock.com and waste my time tweeting." 
You're dealing with people who either need therapy for workaholic obsession, who're severely addicted to the scarcity model, or who got where they are with too much luck and not enough sweat.

The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three. 

Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent--all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?

And if you aren't asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone's anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, "You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does." No, they don't. It's a tiny few who are scouted from their writer's garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there. 

Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I'd say that's an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being.  Novelist Milan Kundera writes, "The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything....The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. "

What will you ask today?

Writing Prompts:

  • What question does your story, essay, poem, or novel ask?
  • List requests you've made of others lately.  On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the reasonableness of the request, the gall or arrogance of it, or the scariness of it. Talk about the number you chose. 
  • Tell a story about asking or receiving, or both.
  • Which piece of writing has a right to see the light? To be heard by others? What is keeping it squirreled away? 
  • How will asking help your writing grow and change? Set three goals that require you to make some requests in the next three weeks. 
  • Write a story where The Jealous Freak, The Martyr, or The Sluggard stars as a foil to the hero or heroine.
  • Write a poem titled, "Ask."
  • A man walks into a grocery store and makes the oddest request at three counters: the deli, the bakery, and the produce department. What does he ask? How do the store employees respond?
  • A woman's last will and testament presents a bizarre request that requires her children to do the opposite of what they want. What is that?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Juicy Revision

Image found here
When my husband and I tried our new juicer this past weekend, we had some adventures. Pulp started spraying everywhere--on us, the counter, the floor. Turns out the pulp container wasn't secured properly. It is truly a pulp catcher, therefore be advised not to leave even the smallest of gaps between it and the machine or the vegetables will turn violent. Once that got fixed, our juice emerged without further incident.

Juicing is all the rage now because it gives us quick access to micronutrients. I'm turning to it because I recently saw the documentary FAT, SICK, AND NEARLY DEAD and felt compelled to improve my diet. My excuse for eating too much processed food is that I have a busy job, almost 90 minutes of commuting per day, and a writer's life stuffed into every nook and cranny. I've eaten more turkey sandwiches than I can count.

I've only so far tried one of the Mean Green recipes that Joe Cross recommends from his documentary, but I love it. I love the fresh sting of ginger, the sweetness of apple, and the bite of lemon. I love knowing I'm getting kale and carrot straight into my system. Last night we tried lime, lemon, celery, kale,  parsley, and green apple. Excellent.

Writers are forever cursed with seeing symbol, and pathetic fallacy or not, we get ideas from life and its objects constantly. That ol' living-to-write curse: our dramas and struggles grip the juicer, too, and get mirrored in the fruits and veggies. So of course you know where this is headed: how juicing = writing and pulp catcher = revision in that classic metaphor equation.

The pulp is that frothy, fuzzy, even fluffy mix of rind and pith and whatever the juicer sees fit to reject (who am I to question the wisdom of the Breville). It's no doubt healthy and even edible. But it must go. To get a consumable juice for our best drinking pleasure and dietary benefit, you need to let go of the pulp. My husband tried some last night, because it is kind of pretty, and he said, "You know what? It's bitter."

Obvious connection, right? Discard pulp just like you rid your draft of excess weight? But when that pulp started spraying and we feared for seconds we had a bum juicer, I was reminded how revision scares and singes like the devil. I was also reminded that we writers can step up with a clinical, mechanical eye and crush what's needed to squeeze out the essence. And that what glitters ain't always worth keeping in the manuscript.

Take my most recent revision of my novel. When I opened the manuscript sent back to me by my agent, Sarah Heller, with line edits, it looked like half of it was gone. Red lines through close to 80 pages told me that no matter how delicious or pretty, what I deemed sophisticated turns of phrase, incandescent imagery, and character-rich spates of dialogue did not advance the story.  "Nothing has happened by page 150," Sarah told me. "Young adults don't give a s*** about this scene, that bit, this part.."

I'm an abuser of the editorial comment. I must be contained, if not squeezed into silence. What was it I was preaching in 2008 about my art of editorializing?

So I opened a new Word doc titled "Excess" (I have one for every manuscript of a short story and as many of these as there are drafts of a novel) and dumped about 75 pages of pulp there.

Pulp includes those "telling" words and phrases--lines I deemed witty that only emphasized a point already made. Sarah showed me how I'd already shown things, that the reader gets it, and momentum slows when the supposed darlings stay. My eyes began to see where whole pages were fluff in the way of people getting the story.

Because this was round three for me with agent edits and draft 20-something since I began the novel in December 2009, I felt confident--more like machine than weak, defensive, and emotional writer. In this equation I have become the juicer and though I'm not as sleek or efficient as a Breville, I could juice out a draft worthy of a next read.

Some passages I couldn't part with and my head found a way to make them advance the story (we hope). If Sarah needs to cross through them a second time, then so be it. What is nutritious is in the eye of the agent and the market. YA wants under 75,000 words; YA wants page-turner; YA wants youth focus, not adult focus. My agent pared away the rind and leaves and stalks that I think make fruit oh so pretty.  Because of teen taste. Because we want to sell this thing.

I also find it interesting that the pulp container sometimes catches whole pieces of apple. Maybe because we didn't buy the Cadillac version out there; maybe because the juicer saw a bad part of apple. Who knows. The point is, I'm not going to be digesting that bit; the wilderness that is our yard will. And that's okay. My stomach is only so big; my eyes might want it all, but reality says, all things in moderation.

After each juicing, the pulp container is FULL. The juice emerges bright green, bright orange. Beautiful.  I drink it, and my evening cravings have disappeared. I'm eating less, yet, eating more.

Writing Prompts

  • Are you a writing machine or hopelessly human? Do you cling to your words or do you know how to toss them? Why do you think you cling so hard?
  • Find a juicy piece of writing. (Do not go to a first draft.) Recall how you juiced it. What was your secret?
  • Research your favorite writer and find out his or her secret for juicing.
  • If you struggle desperately with revision, try one or more of these exercises with a draft already in existence. 1) Write a paragraph of 100 words and then insist on it being 50. 2) Leave a draft for three days and return to it with a new name and hat on (for example, if you are a romance writer, you are now Romance Reader Rita who has 'tude and little time; you are Mystery Mike, or Young Adult Yancey, and you have no patience for excess. Read with an evil eye aiming to laser away excess and pitch the story at the first distraction. 3) Meet with an English teacher or a writer you respect, buy them a latte, and ask them to bring a red pen. Suck it up when they cross through more than half your draft.
  • Ask yourself these questions to see if you have the support (machine) you need to juice a revision out of your writing: Do you have a log line, a 25-word sentence to sum up your story, one that will highlight which parts of the story are excess? Do you have trustworthy readers who will draw lines through your work? Do you make time to read your work aloud? Do you have files labeled Excess or Beloved Darlings I'll Be With You Again Someday so you can relinquish lines? Do you set word limits that are market standard? Do you try to enter works in contests with word limits?