Monday, August 27, 2012

A Bridge to Somewhere

I used to walk my dog along a mowed path through a field near my house. At the end of the field, a small wooden bridge led across a stream and connected that path to a trail on the other side. This trail cut through a glade and fed into another, larger field, used primarily by the town for organized sports, but also by townspeople to fly kites, hit tennis balls, picnic, watch their children play on swings, or, as I regularly did, walk a loop with their dog. We skirted the athletic fields on our trail, following the shoulder of the stream spanned by that small, wooden bridge. 

Making our orbit, Maggie and I inevitably met other dogs and their humans. Usually, one of us reversed direction, being more interested in having company than in covering new ground.

Pip, a Jack Russell Terrier, liked to play soccer with a hard plastic ball, as we walked, kicking it with his front legs or pushing it with his nose as he ran, frenzied, down the trail. He did this in all weather, occasionally losing the ball in the tall grass of summer, or in the deep snow outside the trail in the winter, the trail itself having become as hard and slick as a luge track. Deuce, a Shitzu, had a fetish for tennis balls, and if we took our eyes off him for even an instant, he tore back to the tennis courts, scouting the perimeter for stray balls, which were then impossible to pry from his tiny jaws.

Maggie and I looked forward to encounters with these two, as well as with Willy, Finnegan, Emma, Pearl, and dozens of others dogs and their people, whom we met along the trail. The dogs roughhoused, while we strolled, discussing the weather, town politics, and family matters.

Hurricane Irene put an end to these casual encounters. She eroded the trail along the brook through the glade to such a degree that the property owners deemed it too dangerous and took down the bridge and barricaded the trail. Without the bridge, the loop was broken. 

Friends that I had made and looked forward to catching up with, I no longer saw. Maggie and I now parked at one end or the other of the path and walked as far as the glade that connected the two fields. There, we were forced to stop and turn around, like salmon, confounded by a dam. Discouraged and dissatisfied, we'd head back to the car, our walk truncated. Eventually we stopped going altogether.

Ours was a small loss compared to what many suffered, but it was, never-the-less, significant. The bonds that we had forged, the connections made, were gone, and it struck me what a big difference a small wooden bridge can make in a community. Caused me to take a closer look at other such "bridges:" newspapers, the post office, the general store, town meeting, and wonder what will become of us when these are all gone, too, as it seems they one day might.

We were all grateful to the owners of the property for building that bridge and allowing us to cut through their glade for all those years. And we knew that they were well within their right to take down their bridge to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. Perhaps they had simply grown tired of us parading across their land and used Irene as a convenient excuse. That was their right, too. 

But I wondered if they knew what an important role that humble structure had played. How many lives and relationships had been affected when they took it down. And then I wondered what structures I might unwittingly have provided for others that I decided, one day, to take down, having become too tired or fearful to continue to maintain them. It seems worth taking a look, because some bridges, no matter how small, lead somewhere very important indeed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Part II - The Road to Publication: Learning When to Breathe (without hyperventilating)

For much of my life, I heard stories from my mother about her family and their house on Boston’s South Shore. One story, about the death of one of her three sisters, caught and held my attention. Not wanting simply to retell my mother’s story, I began to write a novel about two estranged sisters who reunite in their childhood home. For this story my primary question was: What would drive sisters apart? And then, what might bring them back together? My theme was forgiveness. 

I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write a novel when I started (nor, by the way, do I have any sisters), but I wrote character studies, backstory, and dozens of disconnected scenes; I drew floor plans of the house and diagrams of the yard; I covered index cards with birthdates, anniversaries, and other important demographics. I was greedy and impatient. I wanted not only to write, but to publish, a novel. 

My characters talked quite freely, venting their resentments, explaining their side of the rift, detailing what they did, and did not, approve of in their sibling. And, would, if I did not visit them for long periods of time, turn those invectives on me. But, while my characters would talk and muse endlessly, what they would not do was get up off the couch and leave the house. I had reams of material, very little of it forward moving. It was not a cohesive whole. I was missing the plot. 

After a few years I lost faith, abandoned the project, sighed deeply, put the manuscript in a drawer, got married, built a house, pursued my career, bought a dog. But the story refused to lie dormant in that drawer. So when I had an opportunity to enroll in a Master’s program with a concentration in creative writing, I took it. Perhaps, I thought, someone will teach me how to write a novel. That was just over ten years ago. 

I took fiction, and wrote a story about a hairdresser. My professor asked if I’d ever been one. I have not. He said, “Write something else,” and gave me a B. I decided that I was not destined to be a fiction writer and took screenwriting, although I’d never read a screenplay and couldn’t name even one prominent screenwriter. Our assignment was to write a 120-page script. We had ten weeks. I thought immediately of my two sisters, languishing in the bottom drawer of my desk, searching for a reason to leave the house. Screenplays require action, dialogue, and a minimum of description. They have no vehicle for interior monologue. Just what my two chatty, thoughtful ladies, ensconced on the sofa, in their rambling childhood home, needed. My professor loved it. And I had uncovered my plot. 

Meanwhile, I had written another novel. When I thought the manuscript was ready, I sent it out to a half a dozen agents. One by one I filed their rejection letters (often hand-written on my query letter) took a deep breath, and sent the manuscript out to six more. One agent finally agreed to take me on. I reached for a paper bag into which I could breathe, so as not to pass out from hyperventilating. 

She started sending my manuscript out to editors at publishing houses, and I held my breath, awaiting their replies. They came in, rejections, five at a time, and my agent would send it out to another five. Twenty-five editors eventually rejected it. 

We were at around rejection number twenty-three when I completed HER SISTER’S SHADOW and sent it to my agent. The third editor who received it, liked it, but wanted the characters younger and one of them nicer. I took deep, centering breaths, made those revisions, and we had an offer. Again the hyperventilating. I'd done it!

The book sold reasonably well (the new phenomenal, says my editor), well enough that she wanted to see another. So I wrote one. Quickly, impatiently, greedily, confident that I now knew how, and sent it to my agent in February, my breath held, waiting for her glowing report. She finally read it in April, by which time I had nearly passed out. (See past blog entry, "Waiting.")

I exhaled, took a deep breath, and began the revisions she recommended. I made them at a dead sprint, breathing hard, not wanting to delay the process, and she sent it on to my editor. According to our contract, the editor had 30 days to read it. Again I waited, breath held. At day #29.5 she got back to us. "Liked it a lot," she said, but wanted me to tell the story from a different character's point-of-view. "Could you revise, say, the first 100 pages, and resubmit?" she asked.

“Sure,” I said, after a few calming breaths, “No problem.” The word submission, beginning to take on an altogether more sinister meaning.

I made the changes; she bought the book.

I am ecstatic. But, here's the thing, publishing a novel is like granting strangers custody of your child while you retain only visitation rights. With luck, your child's new custodians will be loving, but no one will ever love your book, or your characters, the way you do. 

So, if your dream is to publish a book, as mine was, then pursue that dream with gusto and prepare for a ride that is alternately exciting, frustrating, heady, and discouraging, and will, at times, take your breath away. Take the time, now, to appreciate your characters, while they are still all yours. Wake up each morning eager to see what pranks they've been up to overnight, and what new adventures they will take you on. Love the writing part and keep writing as you wait, patiently and without expectation, for agents and editors to get back to you. And, through it all, don't forget to breathe.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Writing: The Art of Learning When to Breathe

I like sentences. I like words. I have always liked stringing words into sentences, and then shuffling them around to see how the meaning changes. There is a spiritual component to writing. Stringing enough words together to create a novel that someone will want to buy is an act of faith. 

The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath," and so I decided to subtitle this piece, The Art of Learning When to Breathe, because learning when to breathe was perhaps the most important spiritual lesson I have learned since pursuing a career in writing.

Anne Lindbergh describes the writing process so poetically in "Gift from the Sea." She says that when one sits down to write, one must wait to see what “chance treasures the easy unconscious rollers of the mind might toss up.” Neither the sea (nor the page) reward those “who are too anxious, too greedy, too impatient.” This is wise advice. Writing, perhaps particularly a novel because of its length and complexity, requires enormous patience and faith, many inhalations and exhalations.

Unlike Ms Lindbergh, who exhorts one not to dig, I feel one has to dig when writing a novel. Like an archaeologist, the writer must excavate the story, often buried beneath piles of rubble. First, the writer must uncover and identify the theme: What is this story about? What does it strive to say? The theme is like the crucible, the point of the writing crusade. It holds everything. Then, the writer has to identify where the story took place, who populated that place, and whose story it really is. Little by little, answers reveal themselves as the writer sifts through the sand: what happened in that place, on that particular day, to those particular people: the day of the story’s climax? What led up to it: the day the story really began?

The writer keeps digging, always asking, why, why, why? And then waiting patiently, with faith, for the answers. When they come, one writes and writes and hopes the pieces will fit together. They won’t. The writer then inserts that sensational snippet of conversation overheard one day in a diner, the odd outfit seen at an airport, hoping they will fit. They don’t. But the writer keeps digging and assembling, knowing that the fit is bad, because this is the first draft, and it is easier to revise 300 pages of ill-fitting dross than 300 blank ones.

After months, or years, the writer eventually types The End. They look very final, those two blunt words. The dock at the end of a long sea voyage that one is relieved to see, but also sorry, being somewhat nostalgic for the journey now ending.

But the journey is far from ending. One has only completed the first draft, after all, and must continue, with patience and faith and soft breaths, to blow away more silt from around the bricks and bones that one has uncovered in the rubble and assemble them into a cohesive whole, always patiently waiting to see what one has uncovered. It is a revelation. Writing can be supremely spiritual, but, as I look forward to the release of my second novel, I must say that publishing a novel feels, at times, more like running a steeplechase than engaging in a pilgrimage.
Next post: The Road to Publication: Trying Not to Hyperventilate