Writing Life

Wharton Blazing Trails For Women

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What gets you running for the hanky? I think of Lily Bart and I’m there. The House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton. Wharton is my favorite American writer. Win-win.

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It’s been a long time since she published. Yet with her unique perspective, humor and the emotion she poured into stories she inspired me in a big way to become a writer. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived within the constraints of a stiff, manacled culture on her terms when few women had aspirations outside the cotillion room.
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The House of Mirth
tells the story of Lily Bart-a poor relation on the fringes of high society. What’s interesting here is that Wharton could have started the novel at a much earlier time. No. Instead, we get a sense of Lily’s past as the belle of the ball, but things haven’t turned out the way she hoped. She’s 29 and on the sunset of her beauty. The money her father left has dwindled and that makes the novel all the more taut, full of razor-sharp tension and projects impending doom for Lily as she tries one last grasp at the brass ring, to arrange a good marriage.

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She drifts on good graces and invites from regattas to house parties, racking up debts from cards and clothes she can ill afford. The irony of her situation is all the more acute, since she needs these props to make that advantageous match before her beauty runs out. The promises of an inheritance held as a carrot become spoiled by her own behavior and her desperation to be accepted.

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Lily’s conflict-the trappings of wealth pull against her attraction for Seldon who offers her a chance to be herself-as they come crashing down in scandal where she has the means to destroy happiness in one sacrifice. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is Lily’s utter inability to be anything other than what she is; a product of that culture she longs in-part to escape. Her attempts to hold down a job at a hat maker end with realization that she is “a useless sort of person.”

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The novel is not a light-hearted beach read but I guarantee you’ll never forget it.

a Vision in Uncertain Times

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As a child, and later teen I dreamt of the following; girl writes book; girl mails off book; girl gets published and maybe gets a miniseries. I read a lot of Judith Krantz. Mistral’s Daughter is one of my favorite 80’s tomes.

Young and inexperienced, seems so easy doesn’t it? But in today’s uncertain publishing climate, one size fits all is gone.

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What do you do to get your head on straight and make the best decision for yourself?

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You read a lot. Educate yourself about this rapidly changing business. Know this; even if you push a boulder the size of a house uphill; even if you follow your heart; you will face lots of risk. It’s just not cut and dry anymore.

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But there are opportunities. Pause, learn and consider what path you’re taking. Going shotgun on a 100 queries isn’t a plan. Trust that you’re talent will be the life raft you will need to navigate this thing called publishing. Indie authors are exploding. That’s no secret. A few years ago when I was busy writing with my head in the sand I ignored debates going on. One reason is that it bothered me. I wanted the traditional path and I didn’t want to hear all the poo-pooing about ebooks and publishing is a button and ya-ya-ya. Yawn. It kinda scared me. It threatened my dream.

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When I bought my Nook three years ago I didn’t think about it. I still had paper books. All this talk must be just that. Then two years ago I walked into Barnes and Noble. There was always new-fangled book lights or pretty diaries for sale. What I saw I couldn’t ignore. 3/4 of the store was given over to candles. Expensive soaps. Godiva chocolates. The stacks of books seemed an after thought. Soap. Think about that. I knew I had to learn the business and quick.

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Today, we have choice but it’s overwhelming. Getting an agent has never been harder. So what do you do? Go the small press route to crack in, get your cred and build your career? I don’t have any answers in 2014. Except, think carefully. Don’t be desperate. Read and investigate. If the idea of getting smaller royalties and giving away your rights is okay for a date at the prom, small presses may be for you. Read the contract. If you don’t know what you’re reading get help. If you don’t want to give your rights away, you’re being required to promote your book, heck you’re already doing it, and you want to keep 70% of the profits maybe you want to look into self-publishing.

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When I hear so and so say, oh yeah I threw my book up on Amazon and didn’t make a dime, that tells me that they probably weren’t serious. They didn’t invest in a good editor, good cover artist (be willing to change that cover if need be) and weren’t prepared to promote the book and weren’t writing more books. If you want to self-publish you must do all three things. If you want to go the small press route be prepared also to do more. You won’t get an advance, but with small presses you’ll get passion and help.

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If you go the traditional route, if you have the dream of getting an agent and trying to stalk the Big5 peak hunker down, it’s a long winter. Build you’re ice fort around your ego and your skin. Stake your heart to the ground to be safe. Stockpile food for the haul because you’re looking for someone who will love you’re book like a lover. It may be an extended wait. Resist the urge to tear apart you’re work every time you get a No. Believe in your story, keep writing and realize that it’s the numbers game. Keep coming back, it’s a matter of time.

So be thoughtful before you leap at any contract. Make a plan. Have a vision. Embrace risk. Get excited it’s uncertain times but writers are reaching readers like never before and that’s why we do this right?

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don’t you QUIT

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You know every one of Miss Snark’s blog posts, you don’t care if she went dark years ago. In fact, you still believe she’s out there. Waiting to get you. You still troll Nathan Bransford’s Orange Goodness before you make a move and Query Tracker has lost it’s shine. It’s time for the credo.

Writing is hard. If the process was easy, we’d all be cranking out book deals.

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Don’t You Quit.

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill, When the funds are low and the debts are high, And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit-Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

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Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a fellow turns about When he might have won had he stuck it out. Don’t give up though the pace seems slow -You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man;

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Often the struggler has given up When he might have captured the victor’s cup; And he learned too late when the night came down, How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out –
The silver tint in the clouds of doubt, And you never can tell how close you are,

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It might be near when it seems afar;

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So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit -It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

What’s it gonna be?

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Persistence is the Game

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P is for PERSISTENCE. If you want to get published, learn it. Memorize it. Embrace it.

Publishing is hard. The business rewards those who don’t give up.

Editors and agents will keep it real. Learn from what makes sense, discard what doesn’t. Don’t sell out your dream.

Realize you will be rejected more times than you ever thought possible. Mourn for a day and move on. Revenge query.

Structure will guide you like a headlight along a dark road. Don’t compromise on craft. Read good books.

Imagine yourself at the top, even when you feel like you can’t crawl out of the gutter of rejection. Imagine it. Be it.

Stay the course. If you need another round of edits, dive in. Don’t fight it. Keep editing and carry on.

The fact is, you’re looking for a marriage. You’re looking for the L word. You want that agent to adore your work.

Expect critique partners who help and respect you. Treat other writers as you would be treated.

Never give up. Never. Even when they say your baby’s ugly. Editing is plastic surgery be your own book doctor.

Care for yourself during submissions. Resist the urge to wallow. Buy little rejection gifts, treat yourself to manis/pedis.

Embrace the challenge to get published. Believe in your story. Look for the love in their eyes, even if it’s under every rock on the planet because publishing, more than talent rewards persistence

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Make It Through The First Draft

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Writing a novel can be overwhelming. If it’s your first, you may not think you can make it. This is a vulnerable time. Writing is not a sprint. It’s an endurance test. Whether you’re a planner or a panzter the process can play tricks on your mind. You agonize over the right word. You start to feel down on your story, your writing and yourself. This is toxic.

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Shut down that inner critic. This is not the place to agonize, pick or poke the quality of your writing. Editors, agents and future drafts all await you. When you start to think, “Who am I? No one will want to read this.” or “It’s impossible to get published.”, you feed into a track of negative self-talk. Once you believe it, you’ll be tempted to stop. You will want to avoid writing or you’ll put it off for another day, when you feel like it.

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Thing is, you’ll never feel like it if you can’t tamp down the demons. Writing is your job. You won’t wade through the ocean in a day, will you? Nor will you finish the novel by worrying the first draft isn’t good enough.

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Guess what? It’s supposed to be bad. Just get the words down. Keep going, don’t think about submissions. That should be the furthest thing from your mind.

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Try to float through insecurities, keep writing. If you can get to the next page and the next before you know you’re done with that first chapter. Once you’ve done one chapter you can do two, if you make it to the dreaded half way mark, keep going. Don’t talk about your work or your story. Keep the fires of creativity stoked with a need to get the plot on paper. Writers who talk about their work grow bored. Talk too much about the details and you’ll find enthusiasm waning just when you need that the most.

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It you write your story linear, turn off the harsh inner critic and keep juicy details to yourself, the momentum will carry you through the worst first draft malaise your mind can ever dish up. You’ll have you’re first draft done, and hey your a novelist. Now you get to edit that sucker.

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Lermontov A Hero in His Time and Ours

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He lived nearly two hundred years ago. The novel Mikhail Lermontov left us sparkles as a portrait of the Byronic hero. Pechorin is bored, he’s sharp-tongued, calculating and a little desperate, nay impulsive. He’s sensitive, but self destructive too. A contradiction, the supreme anti-hero.

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So what is this superfluous man? In Russia, it’s more than dandyism. The archetype was made popular by Turgenev in his novella, Diary of a Superfluous Man. He disregards societal norms, he’s cynical, unempathetic and enjoys rubbing others with his pursuits, the big three: gambling, dueling and romantic escapades. He’s not just a one-dimensional fop. He’s a symbol. An exponent of the Tsar Nicholas I’s reactionary policies. These men refused a useful life they didn’t believe in so they gave themselves over to a rakish passivity. The superfluous man is lost, he’s not riding the character arch to win the game. He’s thrown his hand in before he ever started. Much of this literary type can be traced to the peculiar socio-political climate of 19th century Russia. Russia didn’t have a renaissance or a reformation. Thus the history of it’s literature has always been a vehicle for social change before entertainment. Lermontov does both.

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Hero for Our Time is set against the beauty of the Caucuses Mountains. The structure consists of five novellas with differing points of view. The most compelling scene depicts a duel. Dueling in Russia at this time was rife and deadly. Pushkin himself was killed in a duel. The government outlawed the practice but duelers always found a secret place and a way to carry on the duel, little caring they could face arrest if they were discovered.

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What makes Hero so vivid is the duel is set on a cliff. The idea is almost ridiculous, so over the top that it couldn’t be real. But that’s the point. Lermontov wanted to set his duel in a way that would be memorable.

Hemingway’s Style Surprisingly Relevent

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They teach the greats in English class but nobody writes like that anymore. Fitzgerald? Too much doom and subtext. Chekhov? Roundabout and talky. Joyce? Who has the patience. Hemingway? Well, back up a bit. Hemingway was actually the father of modern literature. While others took chapters to warm up, explore characterization and slow-start their plots, Hemingway’s sparse make-every-word count style served as a bridge away from the rambling tomes that preceded him. He was the first to chop the unnecessary, to hone till he found his “one true sentence”. Today’s writers are closer to Hemingway, than Dickens. Here’s why.

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What you didn’t say counted more. He was the master of the right word. He saw the power in the few. Unlike Proust who could writhe on the floor for hours pulling and pushing words from his brain, Hemingway’s short stories prepared him to get the most out of the smallest space. He turned away from overblown, dense styles like Melville and went to work as a newspaperman writing copy for the Kansas City Star. He learned to be succinct and to shoot for clarity. He adapted the Star Style and adhered to the guidelines without fail.

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Hemingway’s Star Style, 1915

•Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.

•Eliminate every superfluous word as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.

•Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.

•Don’t say “He had his leg cut off in an accident.” He wouldn’t have had it done for anything.

•”He suffered a broken leg in a fall,” not “he broke his leg in a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.

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That’s the house in Key West. I step into the little writing studio out back near the salt water pool. I’m told by the guides who give the tours that Hemingway and his wife, I think #3 had frequent fights over the pool. It was a pain to clean and haul the sea water in. I imagine as I walk the grounds, Papa strides to his studio at dawn, locks the world out until noon, heads into town over to Sloppy Joe’s for a few. I wonder at how he is able to live life to the fullest with his hard-drinking, womanizing reputation. And I know he heads to Bimini next for big game fishing, and the evening will end, perhaps 90 miles away at the Tropicana. I see him get up and do it all over again, with a massive hangover, knowing how his story will end, but focused on the now, while still cranking out the greatest novels ever written.

Then I look at the Star Style.

#1. Use short sentences.

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