Monday, December 13, 2010

When No News is Okay News, Glitch-wise

Sometimes it's good that agents don't respond immediately to queries from writers.

Last night, sleepless in Portland, visualizing the  empty wine bottles I'll have to recycle in the morning, worrying about glasses that probably will break in the washer, regretting the hors d'oeuvres turning green because I forgot to put them in the fridge, my party obsession floated away in a cloud of fragmented conversations.  The party was over.  Even I had a good time.  So move on, I whispered into my pillow, to your other obsession, the one you put aside in a frantic week of rolling out phyllo dough and filling empanitas.

Twelve queries sent, two rejections, ten to go. Takes time, I told myself.  These people get a thousand queries a month.  Then I  imagined my email page telling me I had a thousand new messages.  Not a comforting thought. Uneasy, my imaginings stumble on to Ellie, the old lady my queries had mentioned.

Just how old is she?  67, I think, just past the 60 is the new 50 stage and into a little arthritis and a bum hip.

Wait a minute.  Her son is 28, as is our villain.  Which means Ellie was almost forty when he was born.
Which is okay, but didn't I have her describe escaping as a teenager from grandmother's house by getting pregnant?  Marrying a no-good who left with a toddler after a year or two? She  lived with her grandmother until she's almost forty?  My grandmother could have lived with me when I was forty.  Despite my careful  outline of Ellie's and my other characters' lives, I'd misplaced maybe thirty years.  Unless I change her backstory, she should be 46, definitely not a crotchety old woman.

Tomorrow I will go back to Ellie, figure out how she got a son at age 39, having left her grandmother's home almost twenty years before.  I know HOW, of course.  What I'm  not sure yet is WHY.

This is why I love both writing and jigsaw puzzles.  The puzzle/story seems to be coming together, sort of, but there are always the pieces that have fallen to  the floor, the ones the player doesn't see until she leans back and looks around.

So today, I'm okay with not getting a request for one hundred pages.  By the end of the week, I'll be checking my email obsessively, as usual,  and Ellie will be glitchless.

Jo Barney Writes

Monday, November 15, 2010

Night Thoughts: When Counting Backwards From 100 to l Didn't Do It

At 3:00 a.m this morning I realized that I should not have sent out twelve query letters for Graffiti Grandma the same week I laid fifty invitations to  a Holiday party on the doorsteps of my condo neighbors. I can now expect rejections in not one but two areas in my life and I'm not sure my ego will survive.

Just how much stress can an old lady handle? An even better question might be: Why did she think she needed to do either kind of reaching-out?  And what inspired her? The long hours in front of the computer, the tentative smiles from strangers on the elevator, the panting novel, the hope to move past smiles to names?

In the midst of that night-churning I forced myself to think about other things,  about the four novels I've finished.  Each is about a woman who needs to solve a few problems.  In fact, one of the protagonists is dead already, but still trying.  And each woman is older than the one in the previous book.  Just as I am getting older.  They've gone from sexy to arty to philosophical to crabby.  Just like me.  They worry about marriage, divorce, children, loss, and redemption in the same ways I have.

What seems to be clear now that it is light outside and I've had my coffee is that I've spent the past fifteen years chronicling my life as I wandered through it.

How uncreative of me, I think, pouring another cup.  Then I run my glance over my book case full of old and new books that I love enough to make me unable to donate them to the library used book sale.  I see that I am not alone.  Roth, Updike, Hemingway, Smiley, Proulx and even Evanovitch, I betcha, seem find their truths and their characters first in themselves.  I'm thinking that most writers do.  While I'm not in the same league as these writers and most of the others on my shelves, I am beginning to understand that I write to learn more about myself.  And that it is okay.  Maybe even healthy.

So my next story will involve a woman who sits bolt upright in a midnight bed and discovers a way to deal with  an heavy onset of rejection.  Maybe she'll start testing recipes for Holiday punch and discover that after a few swallows, rejection isn't that big a deal, just life.

Jo Barney Writes

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wise Words from a Couple of Old Women and a Young One

My grand daughter is learning to make mac and cheese the old fashioned way. She stands next to me on her cooking stepstool and lets out not one but three gigantic groans as she stirs the white sauce.

"It takes a while to thicken, but keep stirring," I advise, first making sure it is impatience and  not pain that has prompted her misery.  "A watched pot doesn't boil,"  I add, feeling very old and wise.

Later, after the mac and cheese, she turns the table on me.  I am doing some groaning of my own.  I have sent out five query letters inviting agents to take a look at Graffiti Grandma.  No response after two weeks, despite my hourly checking of my email.  "Patience is a virtue," Hannah says. "Remember?"

The thing is, although I know that some agents get a thousand queries a month and maybe ask for pages from three of those queries, and although the books advise submitting writers to make their queries so intriguing from the first word on that an agent's finger will tremble as he/she reaches for the Send the Manuscript button, with the hope that he/she will be the first to read the whole thing--although all that, my response to Hannah is "I remember.  And hope springs eternal, you know."

But I do have a vision of my selected agents glancing at the first word, or even the subject bar, and bringing a whole fist down on the Reject button.  "I'm sorry, I did not fall in love with your novel," or the alternative,  "We just aren't the right agency for you,"  automatically appear on my screen. Three  seconds it takes to squash a hope.

But the springing part turns out to be true.  Rejection #l.  After a dark moment, a little green blade of hope pops up and cheers me. I still have four queries out there. Who knows?  The Help had fifty rejections before an agent said yes.  Also,  I have a list of four hundred more agents.  All I have to do is live long enough to contact them all.

 Besides, a new story is percolating somewhere near my heart, making me wake up at night, dialogue from unknown characters ringing in my dreams.  Something about an old man in a wheel chair.

"Be up and be a'doing with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait."  This time it's my mother's voice I hear.  I open a blank page, decide to do a little laboring while I wait.

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Revise, revise, revise. Okay, I got the message. Again.

Two copies of Graffiti Grandma have made it to the recyling bin. I  tore each page in half, top to bottom, to make it unreadable. Who knows who might be going through the bin looking for a manuscript to get famous with? And rich.

And the bed is now available to sleep in.  The turmoil started when my two writing friends gave me their comments. After a short pout, I decided to actually try what they had suggested. The problem was that they each suggested a different course of action to cure what ails Grandma. It seemed that some of my chapters were too slow, others confusing in their switch of POV every time a new chapter began. One critic suggested that the POV situation could be solved by giving each of my characters his/her own section:  four POV's, four sections. I decided to tackle that one first and realized after an hour of cutting, copying, and pasting that I was losing it, my sanity and my novel.  Characters cowered in other people's sections. Sarah walked the streets during  Jeff's growing up years, but Sarah wasn't even alive when Jeff was growing up.  Matt found himself solving a murder before it was committed.

This is where the bed came in.  I sat criss-cross applesauce on the bedspread and divided a hard copy into four piles, each containing the POV of one character. Then my characters fought to see who would go first and I love Ellie the best, so  Ellie's story, eight chapters, became section one, and in order to wrack up the tension, Jeff, the psychopath, was awarded section two,  followed reluctantly by Matt the cop and Sarah the goth girl. At a crucial moment toward the end of all this reconstruction, Willie the dog decided to help and jumped onto the pile that was Matt. Parts of him got tangled up with Jeff and Sarah and the mess was almost as bad as the one I'd  created earlier on the computer.  However, the worst part of this effort came when I finally leaned back against the bed's pillow and began to read. It took less than fifteen minutes for me to understand that I had created an unreadable piece of kaka.  It landed on the floor next to my wastebasket. Part of the writing process, I told myself, as I hobbled to the kitchen, criss-cross-applesauce-paralyzed, and poured myself a glass of wine

Then I laid the second copy of the novel out on the bed in thirty-six piles, each containing one chapter.  I would attack the slowness comment by re-ordering  the chapters. Chapter three settled in at the eighth spot, chapter eight became chapter five, and chapter five got broken into two chapters. And so on. This shuffling of paper continued into the night like a endless poker game, me against a guy named Boring. The dog was banned from the bedroom, and my husband also. "I'm  almost winning!" I pleaded, protecting my piles with outstretched arms. They both took to the sofa.  Finally, I stopped, picked up the piles in their new positions, stuck a vagrant chapter hiding under a sheet into the middle of the stack and called it a night.

The next day I drank a pot of coffee, answered emails, plucked a few chin hairs, and finally got the courage to read the new Grandma. I kind of liked it. The POV confusion wasn't all that confusing.  Perhaps my critiquer was a little attention deficient or something.  And as far as slow, well, I decided to think of the quiet paragraphs as opportunities to breathe a little in between a psychotic killer's  murders. It took me the rest of the morning to make the changes on my computer. Then I tore up six hundred pages of typing paper and threw the scraps in the bin, after which I invited Willie to join me on the bed for a short nap.

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who Says Women My Age Can't Make Babies

The Goddess was looking out for us when she chose three score and ten years as an optimal life span, allowing women twenty or so childless years to enjoy before the big decline. A woman any older than that has knees that lock, hips that scrape, and an attention span that does not do Thomas the Train for more than a minute.

My grandson is almost three.  His every sentence begins with Why.  I feel compelled to try to make sense of the world for him in the five days I spend time with him in faraway Iowa. I answer  with "Because. . .," glad that I'm a story-teller.

One morning he takes my elbow in his little boy hands as I shift to my knees to get up from the train table.  "I'll help," he says.  Then we make our way to his room to deal with the part of him that smells. He shows me where the dirty diapers go, where the wiping tissues are, and which part of the padded wrap goes in front, how to tear off the Velcro covers.  All the while he is looking up at me, perhaps, I think,  in fascinated love.  Then his fingers rub the top of his head.  "My hair is flat," he says.  "Yours sticks way up.  Why?"  I can't think of an answer.  I've often asked myself the same question.

Back home now, I have other babies to think about.  My writing partner and I meet at my dining table.  We each hold the other's latest novel.  Steve bares his chest.  "Just plunge the knife right here," he says.

"I won't be mean if you don't ask me to kill my babies," I promise.

My critique does a little  jabbing but no bloodletting and he takes notes.  His critique does in  a couple of my babies including the title and first line of the first chapter.  I give him five sheets of comments;  he has stuck Postits at the edges of my pages and my manuscript looks like it's molting blue feathers.

When he leaves I have a glass of wine and realize that my title is pretty crummy, that I am a terrible line editor of my own work, that I'm very glad he has gone through my words so carefully even though it means a rewrite of a couple of chapters and a few babies lying along the wayside.

He emails that evening to let me know that his scars have healed.

Jo Barney Writes

Friday, September 17, 2010

Now or forever hold my piece: an old lady blogs

When a writer is seventy-five, her fingers might be as supple, but they won't be as accurate. A lot of proof-reading is involved and fortunately, my glasses have that middle section that allows me to read the computer screen.  But this is a minor slowdown.

The major one, I've been discovering lately, is that I seem to be losing my nouns.  I had a lot of them once.  I was a walking noun font.  Friends in college remarked on my vast array of names of things.  I wrote long essays full of them.  Then, last week I spent a few days with college friends, old college friends, like fifty-years-ago college friends.  We are all whole, only a bit dented in various ways, and my particular dent seemed to be leaking nouns.  I was cooking the beautiful hunk of salmon.   "Do you have any of things, little round, come in a jar, also good in certain salads?"  I asked.

"Capers?" answered my friend whose only age damage has been caused by the sun.

Ah, capers.  A little later, I admired a plant in the window.  A. . .  Somewhere a synapse snapped.  I said, "Shhhhh..."  And then it came to me.  Schefflera.  I got it that time, but the next moment laid bare my noun deficit.  "Just takes the Roloflex a while nowadays."

"Roladex," corrected the friend who is considering another ski season despite five broken and healed bones in her lower body.

It was all down hill from there on.  Names of authors I love,  titles of books I  detail the plots of, even the mystery writer who writes sexy enough to get me anxious for Number 17.  "I know she sounds a little Polish," I said.

"Grafton?" a friend who travels abroad a lot with her Kindle, but maybe without a map, offered.

Even though I was grateful for the name of my second-most favorite diversion, I said no. Another proper noun lost to a slow Rolaflex.  Until about 2:00 a.m. when I sat up and said, "Evanovitch, probably Russian."

Sometime in all this noun escape, about the time I  could not come up with the name of the device we needed to open our wine bottles, someone asked,  "So what are you writing, Jo?"

"A mystery novel about an old lady who's chosen to clean up the graffiti-ed mail boxes in her neighborhood, Ellie.  Ellie meets a goth girl who moves in with her named. . ."  The girl, the novel, and Ellie have been my constant companions for the past year, and I can't come up with the raccooned-eyed fifteen-year-old upon whom the novel swivels.  "Betsy," I lie.

About midnight, sorting through  all of the conversations we've had that day, a voice says in a disgusted teen-age way, "Damn, Jo.  I'm Sarah,  Write it down somewhere."  And I did.

Jo Barney Writes