Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Expect the unexpected

 In the oral history We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Yael Kohen), Anjelah Johnson (now Anjelah Johnson-Reyes) describes how the year 2007 went for her. She'd gotten onto a TV show that was canceled; she had no money. And then a video of one of her jokes went viral, and she got a new manager, a new agent, and a role on a TV show. Eventually she was laid off from that show, but she continued with stand-up comedy.

Reading that, I thought, Wow, what a cycle! And it also reminded me of stories I've heard of some writers' careers, in terms of sudden advances and sudden reversals, and highs and lows, and unpredictability.

There's Neal Pollack's story, and this interview in which he talks about the umpteen times when he thought he had finally hit the big time, only to find it was hard to stay on the summit of any mountain in the publishing world. And how came to conclude this: "I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding is a way to success. And I kind of believed the hype. It’s just not true." 

Fame is fickle, and success in the arts is wildly unpredictable. We've all heard this. We all know this. But in the back of our minds is the idea that there will be a moment when we've "made it," a time when we achieve a sustainable level of success.

And many do, which keeps that dream alive. But I suspect it's far more common to experience waves of gain and loss and near-gain. It's also possible to decide that one has had enough of that--of publishing, if not of writing.

In 2020 I tried to publish an article updating the careers of several authors whose debut novels had appeared 10 years earlier, showing where their paths had taken them in that decade. Some were still writing; some weren't. All were doing interesting things with their lives. I had no takers from the writers' magazines and websites, which I still think is a shame, as this is exactly the kind of information that I, as an aspiring and later a newly-published author, wanted myself. What could I expect, realistically? 

If I were to answer that question now, I would say: Expect to be surprised. Expect change. Allow yourself to change what you want. And as much as possible, enjoy the ride.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

As the world changes

 Many writers have had a difficult time writing during the pandemic. It's not surprising, really, between the anxiety and uncertainty, the disruption in schedules, and wondering how ongoing plots and settings would be affected by this turn in history.

Others dug into their manuscripts because they had more time or space, or fewer distractions, or needed the escape. The two manuscripts I worked on the most during this time barely mentioned the pandemic--especially the one that occurred mostly during the 1980s!

We are still reckoning with COVID19. So much of what we've been through in the past two years, we haven't yet been able to process and put into perspective. And there is still uncertainty ahead. I remember a similar reckoning after 9/11. Not only did we have to rewrite the landscape of New York, DC, Pennsylvania; not only did we wonder what might be next (anthrax, it turned out); not only were there new airport procedures and building-security rules; most of all, we had to look at how these events affected our mindsets, viewpoints, memories, plans.

Things are always changing. But sometimes they change more suddenly, and it takes a while to absorb the new world.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Through the thicket

 "The agonizing self-doubt is always there, of course, and I have to remember that this novel is like all others, a continual effort to surmount it and spur myself on like a rider through a frustrating thicket."--May Sarton, At Seventy

I don't know why stories (and poems, and essays, and books) rarely manifest themselves fully sculpted, but in my experience they don't. In my experience they prefer to be hacked from the ground and polished painstakingly over time.

I'm working on a project right now where the ending is performing its usual hide-and-seek routine. I know the plot has essentially concluded, but the story needs a final something ... something ... what? I know the ending must be around here somewhere. I can almost feel it!

The only difference between my process now and many years ago is that now I don't try to force it. I inch forward through the thicket Sarton describes, untangling the briers from my hair and clothes, looking for the path forward. I may only advance a step at a time; I may have to backtrack. But slow progress is still progress. 

In hindsight, it will seem as if the finished story was always there; the ending was inevitable. Right now my characters stumble around, following my try-this and try-that cues, and the final scene seeps forward, a few lines at a time.

Friday, December 31, 2021

New book, new year

 "Every new book is like a pilgrimage, a long long walk where faith in the eventual destination has to be renewed again and again. I am happy to have set out once more." --May Sarton, At Seventy

 This may be true not only of starting new books, but new years. It certainly mirrors my experience of both. Unpredictable, exasperating, joyful, puzzling--with occasional side trips and reversals.

Happy writing, reading, and living.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Good wishes

 As we wind down toward the end of another year and the beginning of a new one, here is what I wish for us:

-an end to this pandemic!

-healing and happiness

-good books

-a few pleasant surprises


-new friends

-an adventure or two

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Typical writing session

Buckle your seatbelts for a fascinating look into a typical writing session! (Be warned: I may be employing the word "fascinating" rather loosely.) This is how I spent my morning:

Opened the file and found the scene I was revising. Edited a few lines.

Paused. Something about this scene, and the section of dialogue I was facing, bothered me. But what?

Thought about it. Could not figure it out.

Played some computer solitaire.

Realized what bothered me about the scene and what I wanted to do about it. Cut out the sentences that were opening a tangent that felt wrong for these characters. Reworked a few paragraphs.

Filled in some character names where I had previously just used initials. (I often refer to characters by initials in a first draft, before I know what their names are.)

Reached the next scene. Made some fussy little edits. Got to a part where a character is supposedly quoting Oliver Twist. I had done this from memory, not sure if the language in question was, in fact, from Oliver Twist. Spent an inordinate amount of time looking through Oliver Twist, having thoughts about workhouses and social safety nets, the marvelous depiction of the Dodger and Charley and Sikes, the offensive cringe-worthy depiction of Fagin, the way that Oliver disappears partway through the book, ceding the plot to Bill and Nancy, and ... remembered I was supposed to be writing my own book.

Not finding what I was looking for, deleted the reference to Oliver Twist and reworked that paragraph.

Spent some time debating just how far a certain romantic relationship should progress. Realized actual scenes will be needed to explain why these two characters like each other as much as they do. Wrote myself  a note to add such scenes.

Cut out some repetitive language.

Resolved a minor plot inconsistency.

Marked where I wanted to stop for the day, then read ahead to see which scenes are coming next.

This process may be meandering, inefficient, and slow, but it gets me there eventually. It would be nice if the perfect words came quickly and surely, but they seem to prefer to percolate up from the depths of my mind, inch by inch.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Rereading and weeding

In my last post, I talked about whittling the to-be-read pile of books. This weekend I've been dealing with the already-read books.

Because I reread books, I keep them for a long time. This has resulted in a collection of a few hundred. And over time, I've noticed that some old favorites have dropped out of my rereading habit. Maybe I've read them enough. Maybe my view of them has changed. Maybe I'm in a phase of life where I need something different from books than I used to.

So I've been letting go of some books that I once cherished. They have been succeeded by newer favorites. I once thought a favorite book would be a favorite for life--and for some books that's been true, at least as far as midlife. But for others, not so much.

A book doesn't have to be a favorite for me to want to reread it. I also own some books that I've read once and want to read again, but I think one or two more reads will do it for me. Then I'll want to let them go. 

For most books, my favorite reading pass is the second one. The book is still fresh enough to delight--and even to surprise with the things I've forgotten--but familiar enough that I have less anxiety over how the plot will go, and I can notice all sorts of details I might've missed before. These include foreshadowing, symbolism, and the fates and concerns of secondary characters. 

Happy reading. Or rereading, as the case may be.