Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wanted: An Honest Critic

When I was 21 I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and almost gave up fiction writing altogether.

My manuscript was critiqued by the novelist Stanley Elkin, an exceedingly grouchy, old white man whom I now suspect was in some significant pain; he had MS, was in a wheelchair and often called attention to the fact. He was prolific and successful and smart and ruthless. I was eager and inexperienced and unskilled and vulnerable. He told me my manuscript wasn’t a manuscript at all; he didn’t know what it was. The characters were undeveloped and unbelievable, the writing poor, the plot non-existent … there was more, but I’ve blocked it from my memory. I do know I cried, right there in front of him, and he looked genuinely surprised.

“This is going to help you,” he said, with a tone that hinted of helpfulness. Then, he lapsed back into attack mode.

I cried for most of the rest of that day. Another friend, also 21 and also assigned to Stanley, drank half a bottle of Scotch following his critique. Both of us vowed to never write again.

Twenty-seven years and three book deals later, I finally understand what Stanley was up to. If called upon to critique, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind. Well … maybe not exactly cruel. But honest. If someone is trying to break into this business and make a career out of writing, you aren’t doing them any favors by avoiding the hard truth. One could waste years sending out seriously flawed manuscripts which “nice” people say are wonderful.

Friends don’t let friends write poorly. Put that on my bumper.

When I was in that isolated, full-of-self-doubt place called Drafting a First Novel, I shared the first 50 pages with a writer friend and a college acquaintance who has her own imprint at a major publishing house. My writer friend, who is an extremely nice person and has published many books, was … extremely nice. “You have talent!” he enthused. Imprint Woman delivered the goods. She treated me like a potential client: she told me exactly what was missing and why she wouldn’t be able to pitch it to a committee. This did not make me happy, but it set me on the right course. I rewrote, and a year later had an agent who also set the bar high and pushed me to rewrite. And cut. A third of the manuscript, if you can imagine. It was like surgery without a spinal block. But … she sold that baby. And now I have an amazing editor who helps me improve my writing.

Your favorite elementary school teacher, the person you sleep with, your best friend and your mom are not going to give you the straight poop. Not only is it unlikely that they have the editing/critiquing skills you need, but they don’t want to make you feel badly. Stanley Elkin had no such tender feelings toward me, so he didn’t hold back.

So if we don’t have agents and editors already, where do we go for genuine critique? Among my writer friends I’ve witnessed several good options. Some make the commitment to obtain MFAs at non-residential programs; others attend writers’ conferences in which they submit manuscripts for critique. Some form critique groups. One friend hit the jackpot and received excellent advice from a writer in our town who is not only highly skilled and successful, but also a kind, constructive teacher. Bingo.

My Scotch-drinking fellow sufferer went on to write for magazines and become an editor at Rolling Stone. Stanley Elkin published 10 novels, two volumes of novellas, two books of short stories and a collection of essays. Wikipedia says he obtained great critical acclaim throughout his career, but not much commercial success. He died in 1995. RIP.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The F Bomb

So I tried a little experiment the other day. I pulled out a popular, commercially successful YA novel which had been published by a reputable house and turned into a successful motion picture and counted the “fucks” on every page.

That got a little boring (there were a lot of them) so I decided to simply check to see if the F Word appeared on every page. That became tedious as well (few pages lacked a “fuck”), especially because I became distracted by all the “shits” and considered tabulating their occurrences, too.

This little experiment actually had a point. I’ve been wondering: if YA dialect is to be authentic, must it necessarily be obscene? And yes, I do mean dialect, not dialogue. Face it, grownups: they speak a version of English more easily translated in the Urban Dictionary than the Oxford English Dictionary. More than occasionally I hear a word emerge from a teenage mouth and I wonder: what the dickens did that mean? For example: rager. Until recently I didn’t know a rager was a big party, and I’m not alone in my ignorance. I was out hiking with moms-of-teenage-kids and I asked the group, “So, who knows what a rager is?” and nary a soul could answer. So, yes, teens speak in dialect.

But, back to the potty mouth. I ask you: really?

Are today’s teenagers swearing to such an extent that a realistic depiction of their conversation translates into an F Bomb or more per page? I consider this just as I complete a scene in my latest novel in which the F Bomb most certainly appears and feels appropriate. The characters’ language is consistent with their behavior and deportment and the choices they make later in the book. Then again … am I just being lazy? Do I hope to find an authentic voice by simply sprinkling the text with a few swears, plus the occasional “dude” and the ever-present “like”? (As in, “It was, like, you know, totally awesome, dude, like, you wouldn’t believe it!”)

My brother and his family recently returned from a trip in Ireland, and my little nephew, all of seven years old, commented, “All the kids are always saying …” He leaned in to whisper: “Fuck!” Yes indeedy the F Bomb is alive and well among Irish youth today … and if you don’t believe my nephew check out Roddy Doyle’s books. I was thumbing through The Barrytown Trilogy and saw more F’s per page than in the aforementioned YA-novel-turned-into-a-successful-motion-picture.

But here’s the deal: Doyle’s dialogue rings true. He knows his characters, this is how they speak to each other, and if it’s a struggle to understand it on the page, try reading it out loud. You hear real people, you get caught up the cadences of their language, and before you know it you are transported into their world.

Author (and newly minted Printz Award winner!) Libba Bray does this very well. Her teenage-boy narrator in Going Bovine, with all his variations on the word “suck” and the proliferation of “dude!” is pure American teen. I believe in this boy and I walk alongside him on his journey. Likewise, the obscenity-free Victorian-era patter of her teenage girls in A Great and Terrible Beauty. Their language, more than anything else, helped place me in a time and space quite different to my own.

I know dang well that a single F-Bomb might keep my book off certain library shelves. But I also know that in my quest for authentic voice, I may have to choose words and language which I personally may not use, but which my characters will use. I guess the challenge is to use the language carefully and not gratuitously. But I guess that can be said for every word on the page. Le mot juste, and all that.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Same as it Ever Was ....

So I’ve probably revealed a bit about myself by titling this post with a line from a “Talking Heads” song, but after mucking about in the on-line chatter over 15-year old Tess Chapin from New York City, the party music of my youth has taken up a steady beat in my brain.

In case you haven’t heard, which is hard to imagine: Tess Chapin is grounded. She attended a party where there were no adults, drank alcohol, and returned home one hour past her curfew. Her parents have grounded her for five weeks, and Tess has launched a campaign on Facebook to have her “groundation” lifted. The New York Times got hold of the story, blogged about it, and a firestorm of comment and debate (some civil; much not) has erupted between parents and teens everywhere.

Back when I was a producer at a “talk” radio station in Atlanta, Georgia many years ago, we called this a “water cooler” story. That meant stories people talked about at work when they bumped into each other at the water cooler/the coffee machine/the lunch counter. “Water cooler” stories may lead to tears or belly laughs or shouts and shrieks, depending on their content. They elicit very strong, often polarizing reactions. They always lead to retelling; they’re viral.

As the parent of two teenagers you can imagine which camp I fall into. As a writer combing through all the posts, I’ve been fascinated not only by the opinions expressed but also by the “voices.” The adult condescension/wisdom/warnings/threats/pleadings. The youthful rebellion/humor/naivete/obscenity/pleadings. Pleading to be heard. Pleading to be understood. Pleading don’t-screw-up-your-life. Pleading let-me-live-my-life.

Same as it ever was …

Coincidently, I was working this past week on a chapter in which a group of 17-year olds have gotten their hands on a case of beer and are drinking it at night, lying on blankets in the middle of a football field and gazing up at the stars. (It started as a case of Corona, but my 16-year old daughter reminded me that these particular middle-class kids would not be drinking imported Mexican beer. She suggested Budweiser but I went with Rolling Rock … and yes, those are the sorts of questions I wrestle with throughout a manuscript ….) I’ll confess that it’s been fun to step out of my parent skin and sprawl drunkenly beneath the stars with friends. It’s been fun to abandon my role as purveyor of sage advice and experience. It’s been interesting to crawl back into my teenage self and remember why I did the things I did.

I don’t recall, ever, when I was making reckless choices about drinking or driving or sex, that my behavior was based on any sort of a big “F- You!” to my parents. Actually, their advice and their rules and their example played no part in the decisions I made at the moment. I was too full of life and energy and “YES!” to consider consequences. I was too busy riding the incredible rush of being and feeling young.

If there was any great imperative guiding my choices it was the overwhelming need for contact and relevance in the world of my peers. I didn’t necessarily have to be popular: I just didn’t want to be left out. Now that I have a spouse and two children of my own, I’m apt to forget that as a teen I felt an existential, consuming loneliness that evaporated when I felt that my peers accepted me. It’s a dangerous combination: all that energy and all that loneliness. No wonder the good advice of involved parents often falls on deaf ears.

Still, if my kids are any example, I'd say despite the tuned out looks and the snarky responses to my always-excellent (!) advice, their hearts are open and they do hear us. Whether that influences their behavior at any given moment is another question, but I have noticed that when I shut up for a minute and listen ... really listen ... to them, they return the favor. It doesn't mean anyone is going to change his or her mind or yield any ground, but it's a start.

So, the Chapin parents must ground, and hold their ground. Tess must struggle mightily against any restrictions. And all must rail about the inability of the other to hear/understand/act accordingly. In the worst cases, something bad happens and relationships are irretrievably wrecked. In the best, love and good humor and good sense prevails and we muddle on, so that we parents live to see our children chiding their teens, and our children live to hear our words of wisdom emerge from their mouths.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Praise of Verbs

I can name the author, book, chapter, page number and very sentence responsible for transforming me into an Ardent Believer in Verbs. We’re talking Saul-in-the-Blinding-Light-of-God epiphany here, and my writing has never been the same.

The book was The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. Chapter 32, “The Hairy Devil,” page 254.

Up to that point, ie. the preceding 253 pages, I had ridden the delightful waves of her buoyant, unpredictable prose without quite realizing its effect on me. I’d smile when I read her descriptions of a rainy wharf: “Rain sluiced over the upturned [boat] bottom, pattered on the stones. … A man leaning in a doorframe, hands draining into his pockets.” Or a scene inside the offices of the The Shipping News: “Car doors slammed outside, Billy Pretty’s voice seesawed. Nutbeam snapped up alertly.”

Proulx’s rain didn’t fall: it sluiced and pattered. Hands weren’t thrust into pockets: they drained. Voices didn’t get louder and softer: they seesawed.

Assertively and efficiently, the author employed verbs not only to tell me what her characters were doing, but also how things looked and how they sounded. She was also telling me a little about how her characters felt: a man whose hands are draining into his pockets is in a different state of mind from a man whose hands are balled into fists and jammed into his pockets.

Then, at page 254, one of the main characters (Tert Card) approached a deli platter, and my writing life changed:

“He plucked at the plastic wrap, seized a handful of ham, and shoved it into his mouth.”

I stopped. I reread. I counted: plucked, seized, shoved. In three verbs and one line, Proulx told me all about Tert Card’s state of mind and foreshadowed the brutish events to follow. No adjectives, no physical descriptions, no annoying adverbs. Just simple, unequivocal language.

Maybe if I had chanced on the sentence out of context I wouldn’t have thought much of it. But the whole novel had been working on me for 253 pages, and finally, with that single sentence, something clicked.

Verbs rule. Verbs are the bomb. Verbs have got it goin’ on.

Granted, The Shipping News has some pretty rad adjectives, too, and more than 300 pages of take-your-breath-away sentences. One writer friend of mine asserts that the final line in this novel is one of the best final lines of all time … more on that later … but for a Writer Apprentice like me, who reads not only for joy but also to improve my craft, this book taught me an important lesson.

My words don’t approach the richness of Annie Proulx’s language, but I’ve got a few ideas for strengthening my verbs. First, I whip out a red pen, and hunt down every “to be” verb on a page. Any time is, was, are or were occurs, I ask myself “What’s the action here? Can I substitute a better verb which gives the reader more information and enhances the scene without piling on adjectives? Sometimes the answer is no: to be just simply must … be. Other times a wonderful verb will flex its muscles and step into the sentence. Amazingly, the sentence sings.

So, I’m a believer. Better yet: I believe. Drinking that Verb Kool Aid and working toward better and better writing.

Oh, and about that final line? The question circulated on Facebook not long ago, and folks voted for their favorite all-time-best-last-novel-line. I vacillated between the last line in The Great Gatsby and the last line in James Joyce’s short story The Dead. But then my friend reminded me of the final line in The Shipping News and despite the presence of the “to be” verb I had to agree:

“And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

YA ... Why Not?

I’ll confess: I wrote my first Young Adult novel by accident.

I wasn’t new to writing. For close to a quarter of a century I’d been a writing “apprentice” in the truest sense of the word. I had boxes of scribbles, drafts and old journals stacked in the basement. Plenty of essays, articles and stories … some published, some not A little bona fide writing income of various sorts. But no complete work of fiction, with a beginning, middle and end.

Then, I heard her voice.

This fourteen-year-old kid, in my head, telling her story. Improbably, I knew her. I liked her. I saw her. I laughed out loud at the funny things she said … which tended to be a little embarrassing when others at the dinner party didn’t know what the hell I was laughing about … and I cried, tears pouring down my cheeks as I pecked away at the computer and she shared her saddest moments with me. Before I knew it I was writing a novel. Spending whole days, weeks, and months alone in my basement office with make-believe people. Receiving no paycheck. Unable to account for myself when people asked what I’d done all day.

I got a little weird during this process. My family would tell you I got very weird. When it was over I had a stack of pages filled with teenagers flying up and over a story arc. I got lucky, and a publisher decided those pages could be a hardcover book with an ISBN number. Today I find myself smack dab in the middle of a genre, with the career I always wanted but the audience I never expected.

I also find myself a tad surprised by the … do I dare say it? … lack of respect my beloved genre receives. It startles me, because more than a few of the best books I’ve read in years are “young adult” novels. Nevertheless, many adult readers, writers, and so-called keepers of the literary canon don’t seem to view the genre as bona fide.

One acquaintance, who is having trouble selling her “adult” novel, remarked to me that she might just need to bang out a YA and sell that, since it’s so much easier to do. At a recent gathering of my book group, where we had just read The Book Thief, one member sniffed that she certainly hoped we weren’t going to start reading teen books now because she didn’t have time for that sort of thing. And when I recently visited the website for my “alma mater” Bread Loaf Writers Conference, I was stunned to discover that they not only exclude YA writers from their faculty, but do not accept YA manuscripts for consideration for scholarships.

Newly-minted, mid-list writers like me aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. Margo Rabb, the author of the bestselling Cures for Heartbreak, describes in her essay, “I’m Y.A. and I’m O.K.” that when she told a writing friend that the book was going to be published by Random House in the Children’s division, the reaction was: “Oh my god. That’s such a shame.” National Book Award winning author, Sherman Alexie, reports similar sentiments: “I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing Y.A.”

To be sure, a YA novel is different from an adult book. The pacing is quicker. The amount and type of description is different. Thematically, one is aware of the appropriateness of the material, and particularly with first person-narratives the voice has to be authentically “teen.” Of course, even as I write this I’m thinking of the proliferation of “crossover” books snatched up by young and “old” adults alike. Blockbusters like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now … I could go on and on … not only appeal to teens but in some cases are also marketed as adult books.

So, what is YA? Does the definition matter? And is it real writing?

Luckily, I have a live-in YA consultant who helps me sort through all this: my 16-year old daughter. She has little patience for all the literary hand-wringing, and, as she does with all things, cuts right to the heart of the matter.

“If you want to write YA you have to understand how kids feel,” she tells me.

Ah. Feelings. There’s the rub. Because if there’s one thing that distinguishes YA readers from adult readers it’s the response to the work. Teens respond to books the way they respond to everything: emotionally, the intellect nowhere in evidence. Your typical teen reader is not excited by beautiful imagery or lovely description. Thematic complexity is a big bore; even plot, to a certain extent, takes a back seat to the heartstrings. Teens read in order to get on board the roller coaster of feeling, and the job of a YA novelist is to take them on that ride.

When I talk to kids who have read my book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, they can’t wait to tell me how certain scenes or characters made them feel. “Ohmygod I can’t stand Jeanne Anne!” they exclaim. “I love Mr. Beady!” they confide. “Bob is so hot!” they agree. Note: the book contains no physical description of Bob. They have conjured his hotness purely from their own emotional, hormonal imaginations. Such is the YA reader.

When I recall the books I’ve loved in my life, inevitably the list draws from the novels I read as a teen. They are burned into my imagination. From day to day I can’t remember what I need to pick up at the grocery store, and I stumble when asked to recount the basic premise of an “adult” book I’ve read within the last year. But I can picture in my mind’s eye the look on Mercy’s face when her beloved, long-missing John burst into her house in Wethersfield and buried his face in her lap (The Witch of Blackbird Pond). I can smell the burning flesh, see the boy staring stupidly at his hand, coated in molten silver (Johnny Tremain). I recall my heart pounding as Jan crawled through gutters and tunnels to evade the Nazis (Escape from Warsaw).

There’s something extraordinary about the love affair we have with our books when we’re young, and as a YA author I feel so lucky to have stumbled back into that world. I’ve had to open my heart again to the experience of “firsts”: first love, first betrayal, first loss. I’ve had to pare the words down to their most evocative and most true, because kids don’t want and can’t handle too many words. (Note the blank looks that come over their faces as we blah blah blah at them in tones reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s teacher.) I’ve had to listen, really listen, to how kids talk to each other, because YA readers love dialogue, and if you get the voice wrong you’ve lost them. I’ve had to revisit that time of life when, for better or worse, you lead with your heart and check your brain at the door.

And as any writer would agree, the best stories begin at the heart.

So, to my utter surprise, I think I’m here to stay. Coming of age, a work in progress, an apprentice for life … but completely committed to creating the best novels I possibly can for young adults. Because whether or not I’m a real writer, they are real readers.