Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Musing: The "I's" Have It

The kids needed a ride into school this morning. On the way I tortured them by listening to NPR. Depending on the show, I can get away without too much eye-rolling. Car Talk sometimes makes the Catbird laugh, because those guys just have so much fun. Neither of them likes Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, and NOBODY but me likes A Prairie Home Companion. Anyway, I heard something this morning and kept turning it up to hear over my increasingly-loud car, because I thought it was interesting. To my surprise, the kids thought so, too.

They interviewed James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us. The part that interested me in particular was Pennebaker's discussion of language related to positions of power. In short, people in the power position use the word "I" less. Pennebaker quoted some of his e-mails in which a grad student approached him (or responded to his approach to her) about working on a project. In a forty-word e-mail, she used "I" or "me" 5 times. In Pennebaker's response? None. Similarly, Pennebaker's e-mail to an esteemed colleague used "I" as many times as his grad student. The Famous Professor used "us" once, but no "I".

Now, it could be that in both cases, the 'underling' was trying to sell something. The grad student was trying to sell her services, Pennebaker was selling a colleague on a conference. It's sort of like a cover letter for a job, where you have to talk about yourself, thus you are going to use "I" more frequently. Pennebaker's website, The Secret Life ofPronouns, includes an I-Test. I scored a four, even after hearing this story on NPR. It was an interesting story for a Monday morning, and may well be something to think about while writing.

On another note, I took a bit of a slap over at An Agent's Inbox contest on Mother. Write. (Repeat.) last week. One of comedy's great set-up lines is, "What's the worst that can happen?" Well, for me, the worst that can happen did happen, as Ms. Shea wrote, "This query didn't engage me further than the first paragraph."


Actually, the worst that can happen would have been for Ms. Shea to say, "I didn't even have to read your query to know you are the worst writer ever! Do us all a favor and cut off your hands so you can never type another word!" Even in my worst nightmares, I didn't expect that to happen, but this was pretty bad, at face value.

But then again, how bad can it be? Had I queried Ms. Shea through normal channels, what would I have gotten? Either a no reply or a form rejection, neither of which would have told me anything. Once the initial sting wore off, I realized even a tough, blunt response like Ms. Shea's is better than a standard rejection, because it does help me understand where I messed up. So, yes, it stings, but it's part of the great learning experience, and I will be the better for it. Thanks again to Krista for running the contest, and for Ms. Shea for participating. That's about it for now, see you at the end of the week.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For and Flash Friday

So I'm once again skipping over a follow-up to last Friday's post. I had it in my head what I was going to do as an encore while writing that one, but it feels too shaky to see the light of day right now. Instead I'll muse over some things that have happened this week.

Be Careful What You Wish For. The query process is underway, finally. On the initial bout of queries I've gotten responses from about half so far. I figured I'd wait and see how this went before hitting the next batch, because I might want to alter my query. Given stated response times from some of the agents in question (of those that do respond on a negative) I figure I should have a pretty good idea in the next two weeks what my next move is.

A couple of weeks ago I saw that Krista of Mother. Write. (Repeat.) was running her monthly An Agent's Inbox for April, and her agent of the month was Katie Shea of Donald Maass Agency. That made me go all like this, as Ms. Shea is definitely on my list of Agents I'd Like to Work With. So I prepped my e-mail to Krista and sat with my cursor poised over the 'Send' button, endured a moment of panic when, at 9:59:49, I discovered the last line was in a different font than the rest, hustled to try to fix it (not thinking that Krista would take care of it), was sure I was going to get frozen out, like trying to be the ninth caller at random to win concert tickets from the radio station, because no one ever wins those. You know how it is: Busy. Redial. Busy. Redial. "Sorry, the contest is closed." Click. Commence cursing.

Last-second fumbling notwithstanding, I made it (as entry #1, no less). Be careful what you wish for. And I sweated out until Wednesday when I saw it posted, and read the first comment, and decided not to read anymore until, I don't know, when I have built up the required intestinal fortitude. The dream, of course, is that Ms. Shea will say, "Oh. My. God. I must sign this man. NOW." All based on a query and 250 (260, actually, I ran over in the name of sentence integrity) words. Yeah, not gonna happen, I know, but a man can dream.

What I expect to happen, and the real reason I'm in it, is because it's a rare chance to get an inside look at the thought process of an agent. I've gotten four rejects so far, all form rejects, so it could be the query, it could be the pages, it could be any number of things. Yes, it's possible Ms. Shea will love my work, but if she doesn't, I'll know why, and that's worth any potential embarrassment at being flayed publicly.

It has also been a very instructive process to critique some of the other entries (I just can't do all 19 others, though). This is not Query Letter Hell on Absolute Write.  These are letters and pages that have been polished, polished, polished, carefully crafted and agonized over. I'm not saying the ones on AW aren't, but I think what we see there tend to be in a much rougher stage. I've learned a lot from being in this contest, and even if I don't 'win', I'll still have won. Thanks, Krista, for running 'An Agent's Inbox', and thanks to Ms. Shea for giving her time and experience. Thanks also to the other contestants and commenters.

Flash Friday. I'm posting a link to a newsletter for The Smithy Center for the Arts, a great, community-based arts center in my area. This is where I go for my Writer's Circle every Sunday. The Director of the Smithy (who also participates in the group) asked if we'd be willing to put work in the newsletter from time-to-time, so I've got a short piece in there this month, called The Prophet.

The story came about at the end of Writer's Circle, after a frustrating free writing period where I just could not concentrate, and came up with nothing (it might have been one of those days where things were so bad I mused over the weight of my pen). At the end of the day, with a few minutes to spare, we decided to do a three-minute speed write, and The Prophet just came to me. I didn't spend as much time editing as I should have, there are a few things wrong, but that's okay. Take a surf over there, I hope you enjoy it, and have a nice weekend.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sorry, You're Wrong

Can an author be wrong about his own work?

I ask in part because I overloaded on playoff hockey this weekend (Bruins live! Penguins, Red Wings, Canucks, out!) and never quite organized my thoughts enough to follow up on Friday's post, but also because of a statement made by one of the people in my writer's group on Sunday.

The incident in Writer's Circle occurred when one gentleman was discussing something new he is working on. It's creepy. It's edgy. It's got a post-apocalyptic feel to it, and it involves bugs, the breakdown of civilization, and chaos vs. order. Nice and cheery. While talking about it on Sunday he mentioned Lord of the Flies and how, while preparing for work as an English teacher he read a ton of material about the book. He said, and I quote: "Where I think everyone got it wrong – where I think even the writer got it wrong – was…" and he proceeded to tell us where William Golding got it wrong.

I am not an argumentative person. I'd like to say it's because I'm too analytical, but the truth is I'm just not prone to arguments, period. Anyway, my mouth started to open and I drew a breath and prepared to make a statement, to argue – and then I shut my mouth. This was not the time to argue the point – we were already bumping up against our time limit and we still had at least two people left to read their pieces. It would have been a good discussion to have, and maybe we will some day, but yesterday was not the right time.

What I was going to say, in a huff of righteous indignation, was this: An author can't be wrong in his interpretation of his work. It's impossible, and the simple reason is this: there's only one person who can be in an author's head (not counting, of course, all the characters crowded in there) when a book is being written. I wasn't in Golding's head when he wrote Lord of the Flies, and neither was my Writing Circle member. It's fine for him to say, "I think most of the interpretations got it wrong." It's fine for him to say, "I think it's really about THIS", but I don't believe any reader or critic can say, "he's got it wrong" when it comes to discussions of what a novel is about. It reminds me of this scene from Back to School, where Rodney Dangerfield's character hires Kurt Vonnegut to write an English paper on…Kurt Vonnegut, and gets this response (Language warning! and yes, if you're not familiar with the movie, Vonnegut did make an appearance):

I've talked off and on about the interpretation thing before and I realize you can't control what other people think. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will say, "meh." But don't tell me what I was thinking when I wrote it (speculate all you want, I guess. Speculation is fun, but don't pass it off as gospel, because you don't know. You can't know. You may see things in it that the author didn't, and maybe the author would say, "Hey, you may be right on that, maybe that was in the back of my head at the time." But he's not wrong.

What do you think?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Casual Misogyny

On April Fools' Day, appropriately enough, I watched the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers square off in a heated late-season game with playoff implications. It got ugly, to the point where Flyers coach, Peter Laviolette (in the orange box) had to be restrained by his assistant, Craig Berube (and if you watched Berube play, you know how ironic it is that he's holding anyone back). The object of his ire was Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh's coach. Bylsma, in the blue box, remained behind the bench, safely protected by Tony Granato, who is standing on the boards opposite Laviolette.

Late game shenanigans is not unusual between these two teams, especially not when they're looking at a first round playoff matchup starting in a week. Messages have to be sent, after all. The unusual thing was what NBC Sports personality Mike Milbury said the next day:

"I thought Dan Bylsma should have taken off his skirt and gone over there."

Actually, this is not that unusual, not for Milbury, not for the sports world. Milbury was a hard-nosed player, and he's an emotional guy with strong opinions who gets easily wound up, which is part of why he gets paid (probably handsomely) by NBC. He's clumsy and awkward when asked to analyze a defensive zone breakdown that leads to a goal, but he's fun when asked about officiating, or a suspension, or a team reacted to the rough stuff. This year, with the league supposedly cracking down on hits to the head and dangerous hits from behind, Milbury railed against the "pansification" and "wussification" of the league. Yes, he really did use those words on air. During last year's Stanley Cup final he referred to Vancouver's Daniel and Henrik Sedin as "Thelma and Louise" because they didn't fight back when the Bruins roughed them up (and this shows how much Milbury knows about Thelma and Louise – if Brad Marchand had tried this on either Thelma or Louise, they would have taken care of him, big time). I'm also pretty sure I've heard him refer to Daniel and Henrik as 'The Sedin Sisters', an insult which is more commonly heard in sports bars and read in the comments section of hockey blogs, where everyone also insists on calling Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby "Cindy" (hey, Carrie did that on Monday, didn't she?).
Milbury's statements started something ticking in my head. And a week or so later, the ticking got louder, courtesy of the the Washington Capitals-centric hockey blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks. They created an NBC Bingo game for the first game of the Caps-Bruins series. Note that one square in the top row: Casual Misogyny. If it's getting a square on the Bingo board, it must be getting some serious air, and I started to wonder about it. By the way, that's Milbury in the middle, the free square.

We might be able to excuse Milbury. He's a polarizing figure, paid more for his opinions than for analysis. The interview where he called out Bylsma was for a Philadelphia-area radio station, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was at least in part playing to his audience. But can we forgive this item that came from The Chicago Tribune two years ago, when the Blackhawks played the Flyers in the Cup final?

Is this appropriate journalism? I'm sure the editors would say "It's all in fun" but what message is it sending, and to whom? Calling opponents girly names is a long-standing tradition in sports. These are things that are often said in the heat of battle on the field, ice or court, and I doubt it bothers most of the players. I'm pretty sure Chris Pronger laughed this off when he saw it. When I played sports, it never bothered me. But when sports journalists throw this stuff around so easily, I have to wonder how it effects women and girls.
Well, maybe I got a hint of this. Last week, Puck Daddy  pointed me to this post on The Active Stick. This is the blog of a female hockey fan, and here's what she had to say about this:

If you’re a woman, and you call him Cindy Crosby, or you call them the Sedin Sisters … do you know what you’re doing? You are calling someone female to insult them. You are using yourself as an insult. Have a little more respect for yourself.
If you’re a man, and you make Cindy/Sedin Sisters jokes at me to make me laugh, do you know what you are doing? You are using me as an insult. Why would I find that funny?
For another opinion, I went to The Wife. She wasn't too fazed by any of it, and is of the opinion that some people are maybe too sensitive. And that pretty well jibes with my own feelings – I think, quite often, there are people out there who are looking to be offended, and that we should all have a little more sense of humor. But then again, I have to consider this: I am a man. I am a white man. And I'm not especially religious. It's easy, being in my position, to say, "Eh, so what? Laugh it off." But at the same time, I think maybe it's time to bring this sort of thing under control. Maybe it's time to put a stop to it.

I've gone on too long for today. Next week I will actually look at a writing connection to this. In the meantime, I'd really like to hear what all of you have to say. I know most of my followers are female, so let me ask you: Do you think the Casual Misogyny tossed around by Mike Milbury (and others; I don't mean to pick on Milbury, I actually like him) is something to shrug off, or is it a real problem? All opinions are welcome, I just ask that you keep it civil (which I don't expect to be a problem). Have a great weekend, and thanks for stopping by and sharing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday Musing: This and That

Well, how about that? I was just looking at my dashboard and realized that Friday's post was #100! Funny how we put such emphasis on certain numbers, isn't it? Anniversaries and birthdays that end in 0 or 5 get a lot of attention, and then there are the biggies: 25, 50 and 100. Sadly, #100 was not one of my better posts. This one may not be much better!

I'm living in fear today. Not of the rejections I'm sure will start flowing in this week, but of my computer. Last night I was catching up on the nastiness of Flyers-Penguins game 3 via one of my favoritehockey blogs. I was watching video clips: Stars fighting stars! Bad goaltending! Cross-checks to the face! when my computer locked up. No mouse movement. No Task Manager, no nothing. Nothing to do but press and hold the power button for ten seconds to shut it down. I left it alone for ten minutes or so. When I restarted, everything was normal, until about ten minutes in, same thing happened. Uh, oh. And then it happened again. Not good. Around ten last night I unhooked my computer from everything and spent a  good half hour blowing dust off of every surface and sucking it up with the vacuum. After that I rebooted in safe mode, ran some Malwarebytes, Spybot, etc., and shut down for the night. This morning, so far, so good, but I'm definitely treading on eggshells.

Speaking of treading on eggshells, The Wife ran out of cigarettes yesterday, which is fine because she's officially quitting smoking today. Again. I hope this is the last time. Experience tells me the best thing I can do for her is to never mention cigarettes, and avoid any discussion of how she's feeling or any outward sign of support such as "You're doing great!" It puts pressure on her, even when she's being encouraged or praised. So, I can only state here that I'm proud of her for making the effort and I hope it works this time.

From the WTF? Department: I check my numbers. I'm sure you do, too. I notice when I get new followers, and I will eyeball the number of page views. But I don't have any advanced analytics, I just use the stats page blogger defaults to. I've noticed over the last couple of months a spike day, one that seems independent of any blog hops or challenges or whatnot, where my numbers take an unexpected jump. Yesterday I was looking at the stats page, and sure enough, there was one of those jumps: Page views Today: 8. Page views yesterday: 46. As I said, WTF? I expect this sort of thing if I'm in an event. Sad Songs brought a lot of people here. Origins, now the most-viewed post on this blog (it took a while – for the longest time, the #1 page was, inexplicably, the Back Home Filler Post from last August) was logical. Go figure, because I can't.

I recently read Fearless, by Rafael Yglesias. It's an older book, published in 1993, and was made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges. This is one of those books that made me say, "I wish I'd written that!" Very clean, direct prose, compelling characters and situations, and a hell of a start. I hadn't read Yglesias before, but I'll have to look for more of his books.

That's about it for me today, have a good week, all.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Something in the Water?

I am liable to be all over the place today. We spent a couple days visiting the triplets (oh, my, three six-month old babies at once!) this week and spend five hours on the road yesterday coming home. Then I stayed up until 1 AM watching assorted hockey playoff games go into overtime. Ah, this is the great season, multiple games on every night, tension, drama...but I digress.

Bloggers piggyback off each other all the time. You know how it goes, you're planning a post but you read something on another blog and you just have to write about that same topic. It happens all the time. Or maybe there's a rather newsworthy event that occurs so you, me, and just about everyone else does a post on the same topic. It's bound to happen from time-to-time. I can't quite figure out why it works on forums, though.

I am a regular reader and frequent poster over on Absolute Write (not as frequent as I used to be, though. I read it all the time, but I'm in a down-cycle when it comes to responding for some reason). This morning, after being away from the boards while I was away from home, I found a thread titled: "Which title should I choose?" This thread was started yesterday (4/12) .I knew I had seen something very similar recently, and poked back. Sure enough, on the fourth of the month, we had "Help me think of a good title", and just six days earlier, we had "Critique my title." Not all that long ago there were at least three threads that popped up at weekly intervals about 'meaning' and 'theme'. These three threads asked pretty much the same question, and pretty much the same people wandered in to answer in pretty much the same way.

I don't know if you see threads popping up on the same theme or asking the same question so frequently is the result of some sort of 'group think' that happens, or if people see one thread but don't want to post in it because it hasn't had a new post in it for several days (and who wants to get flamed for 'necroing'? That doesn't usually happen on AW, but I've seen it elsewhere). Actually, for the title threads I can understand it. I wouldn't want to hijack your discussion on a good name for your romantic comedy with questions about what I should call my political thriller. It's not polite (and AW is usually pretty polite).

I do have to wonder, though, when I see some of these threads. The internet should make us smart. We have almost-instant access to incredible amounts of information on almost any topic. And yet, when I see some of the questions pop up, I wonder if we're also making ourselves stupid. Are we losing our ability to think for ourselves? People ask so many questions on these boards that they really need to answer for themselves: what should my title be? Should I give my main character a limp? These sites, these blogs, they're great, don't get me wrong, but I think they become too easy to fall back on. Instead of sitting back and thinking, too many people are just immediately going to the Answer Man.

Yeah, I'm chucking rocks perilously close to my own house of glass. Yes, the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. Still, I'd like to think the times I ran back to my critters for advice came only after serious thought on my part. Some of those threads I've seen, I think they ask first, think later (if at all).

Yikes, I'm not sure how I got here. Happy Friday the 13th! Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Things I Am Not

In my life I am and have been many things. Husband, father, brother, son. Friend, student, educator. Before my time is up I hope to experience many more things. One of the things I choose to call myself these days is a writer.

I've had jobs in a variety of sectors, and those jobs have required me to do many things at different times: Fire warden. Historian. Public speaker. An actor, a Master of Ceremonies.

But there are things I am not. Last week I invoked Dirty Harry: "A man's got to know his limitations." I invoke it again. This morning Rachelle Gardner posted "6 Reasons Why Authors Still Want Publishers." She closed by asking Why are YOU pursuing traditional publishing? Here are my reasons:

I am not an editor. Yes, I edit my work. I look for continuity errors. I look for plot holes and logical gaps. I constantly ask myself if my characters are behaving, well, in character. And I look for typos and grammatical miscues, analyze word choices. I proofread and line edit. But I am not as quick and efficient at it as a professional, nor as proficient. I am not an editor.

I am not a graphic designer. In my life I have created many things. And I have done layouts and project design on printed pieces, and I've done some pretty nice work, thank you very much. Can I choose the right font? Can I get the page numbers just exactly where I want them? What I end up missing all the time are the little details, the things that allow you to show paged numbers on these pages but not those, without losing the sequence. I can do a passable job, but the finished work will lack "polish." I've worked with a lot of design people and I'm amazed at what they can do, the way they make things 'just right.' I can carry a project so far, but I am not a graphic designer.

I am not a cover artist. Hey! Check this out at The Bookshelf Muse! Simple truth, once upon a time I was considered to be very good at drawing. Now, I'm not. I can doodle a mean doodle, but I can't draw pictures, and I never really learned to paint. If I'm doing the work, my books will look like The White Album or Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove. I am not a cover artist.

I am not a marketeer. Okay, any agents considering my query who may have found this blog have just crossed me off their list. What I mean is this: I can market. I can plug. I can do events. But I'm going to have a hard time convincing Ye Olde Bookstore in Fargo to carry my book. Traditional publishers have connections and ins and knowledge of the industry that I just don't have, because I am not a marketeer.

One of the commenters on Rachelle's blog, who chose to ignore Rachelle's entreaty to not "get a whole “us vs. them” thing going here" called traditional publishing "a v expensive EGO boost IMHO". Maybe there's some ego involved, but it's not my sole motivator. If you have what it takes to take total control over your book publishing, good for you. I give you a lot of credit and wish you the best. For me, I will seek out traditional publishing, because I am not a publisher.

Friday, April 6, 2012

And On I Go

One step done and another begun
And I wonder how many miles? - Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, New Speedway Boogie
Do you play video games? I'm talking about the relatively simple ones where your objective is to clear the screen, a game like Bejeweled or Zuma, or, going way back, Space Invaders or Pac Man. Those games start out easy enough. But each time you complete a level by clearing the screen, the next level gets harder. The music becomes more obnoxious, there's less time, the bad things move faster. Writing - rather, becoming published - is like this. Who knew?

This week I finally joined the ranks of the queriers (is that even a word? eh, it is now). I thought writing the book was hard. Don't get me wrong, it was hard. There were plenty of times I quite literally banged my forehead against my desk or exploded out of my chair and stomped around the house, indiscriminately dropping F-bombs as I went. But it was cake, it was level 1, compared to the query.

I've been trying to prepare for this stage since last summer. From time-to-time I would draft a query letter or two, play around with it a bit, before forgetting about it and getting back to the task at hand: finishing the damn book. But I finally got to the point where I said, "I've taken this book as far as I can go. I'm comfortable with sending this out now," and it was on to the query, which has become a full-time job in itself. How do you condense your 93,000-word masterpiece into three paragraphs? It's hard. Or maybe it's just me over-analyzing it, that's quite possible, maybe even likely. I started a fresh document with the best query. Each time I revised, I added the newer query at the bottom of the document. That document reached 44 pages before I finally decided I had it. Then I started a new one and did the same thing. That one hit 11 pages before I said "I've got it! This is good!"

Of course, now it's time to send it, and that means it's time to personalize the letter. And doesn't that lead to all kinds of crazy head-games? There are several agents out there that I'd really love to work with - how do you say that without sounding like a total suck-up? It's funny, I have gotten to the point where I actually AM confident about my writing, where I've thought I can shed this Doubting Writer label - now the query is setting me back to square one.

Well, it's done, the first few are out the door. By the end of the week I should have all of my 'first round' out, and then we play the waiting game. If my query is good, I'll advance to the next level, and we'll see how much harder it gets. And so, because I am now in the waiting stage, here's some Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I don't think I've played this one before; if I have, forgive me. Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, April 2, 2012

No Alphabet for Me

Remember back in the flush and excitement of the New Year? It seemed everyone in the blog world was posting about all their resolutions. So did I. I did two different posts on resolutions, one on my writing for the year, the other for the blog. As we close out the first quarter of the year (!), we have a major bloggy event going on right now. Yes, I’m talking about the A to Z challenge. Since we are now on April 2, and I have not done any posts on this, it would appear that I’m breaking one of my blog-o-lutions: Participate in the fun stuff!

Yes, I’m breaking a blog-o-lution. And it also occurs to me that I still haven’t done the lucky 7 meme or tag or whatever you call it, so now I’m doubly-breaking that rule. But there’s a good reason for that. I know I’ve used Dirty Harry before, and I’m pretty sure I’ve even stated the sentiments following this another time (unless it was from an unfinished post):

It’s good to ‘know your limitations.’ For example, it’s good not to carry something that’s too heavy for you. It’s good not to sing MacArthur Park if you’ve got the vocal range of a cicada with laryngitis. It’s good not to try and prepare a seven-course meal for your fiance’s parents if all you’ve got is an E-Z Bake Oven. But at the same time, pushing our limitations is how we grow. It’s how we stretch our own boundaries, and I do want to stretch and grow. But. But I also know an important part of this whole blogger thing is to enjoy myself. The smart thing to do with A-Z, of course, is to pre-write as much as possible (since there was plenty of warning) and then just polish and post, but I’m not organized. And for me, I just didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as this twice-weekly thing I’ve got going on here. And, of course, it would mess with one of my other blogolutions: Post on a regular schedule. Wait, what could be more regular than posting every day? Well, for me, I’ve established a reasonable (some weeks it just doesn’t happen, true) schedule of twice a week. Going every day fouls that for me, and I’m afraid I’d come out on the other side of April hating the whole blog thing.

So, there you have it. To those of you who have taken on this challenge, I say “Write on!” and “Congratulations!” I think it’s great, and I look forward to your posts. But it just wasn’t for me this year.