I got an email from a reader asking me to write more about the process of writing my novel. I have been reluctant to turn this blog into a sort of writing journal. Writing journals are boring– I should know, I keep one. However, I do sometimes write something there that may be interesting and helpful to other writers. So here is one such entry.
Insult or Injury?
I was working today on a scene in which Chaurrise and her mom go to buy a special occaision dress, only to discover that they are too large to fit the dresses in the store. I had to play it easy with this scene. As the famous book said “Fat is A Feminist Issue” and if I hit it too hard, the reader may feel preached at and forget at Chaurisse and her mom.
In real life, all of us larger gals have had the experience of going into a boutique and enduring not only the embarrassment of not being able to fit the clothes, but also having to deal with a snotty sales person, to boot. On more than one occaision in NYC, the salesgirl has looked up from her magazine and announced to me, before I can even look on the racks: “We only go up to an eight.”
The problem with writing the scene is that the disappointment of not being able to find a dress coupled with a mean saleswoman would make the story about the tyrany of body expectations and not Chaurisse and her mom. So what I did was make the salesgirl sort of nice. She is uncomfortable as soon as Chaurisse and her mom walk in the store, but doesn’t say anything. Chaurisse thinks it is racism and she and her mom try to give clues that they can, in fact, afford such fancy clothes. When they realize the thing about the sizes they are embarassed and so is the salesgirl.
“What size do these dresses go up to?” I asked.
She squeezed her eyes almost shut. “Ten?”
So with just that question mark, I establish that every person in this scene is a human being. Instead of adding insult to injury, I chose between the two. I don’t think I sugar-coated the situation, but I just turned the volume on the injustice down enough for us to hear the characters talk,think, and feel.
Here is another installment of “The Amazing Eight.” Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of Picking Bones From Ash which will be published by Graywolf Press in September.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett is a writer who lives in New York. Her fiction, essays and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Agni, Epoch, South Dakota Review, New Delta Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Portland Review, LIT, The Texas Review, Primavera, Blue Mesa, Carquinez Poetry Review, The Distillery, Fugue, The Ledge, West Wind Review, The Griffin, and Berkeley Poetry Review.
Now you have a listing of her accomplishments, but I urge you to trot over to her webpage and read the more personal account of her journey that is posted there.
Below is her essay about publishing her debut novel as a grown woman. It’s called “The Perfect Age To Get Published.” I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
(author photo by the incredible genius Rachel Elliza Griffiths.)
By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
I wrote the first draft of my novel when I was thirty-one. My husband, who is Scottish and warm and funny but schooled in that British way, read the early manuscript and murmured: “Hmm. I like this one paragraph.” So I put the novel aside, then wrote and published short stories for a while. At thirty-five, I dragged the manuscript back out again. The one paragraph is the only thing from the original draft that is still in my book.
I had always wanted to be a writer, and I sometimes wonder if I might have succeeded earlier in life if I’d attended an MFA program in my youth. We’ll never know. Instead, I worked a variety of jobs—test prep question writer, online store manager, non-profit administrator, failed antique picker—while writing in the corporate toilet stall, on the weekends and during company meetings. When I was disappointed or hurt by rejection, I would try to remind myself to take the long view; it takes time to become a writer, and many of the people I admire have had long careers.
In the beginning, I was often told what many female writers hear: I was talented, but my writing was “too quiet.” I revised. An editor rejected me because she “already had a half-Asian writer.” I was devastated. Much as I loved this other writer’s work, I knew that our material was different. Would anyone else notice? Another editor rejected my book because: “I have just had a child and I cannot accept what the mother in your book has done.” I tried to tell myself that another editor would not confuse her personal experience with an unmarketable product. These rejections were often paired with variations of this one line: “I know someone else will publish this work with the enthusiasm it deserves,” which I dismissed as an empty compliment. As I got to know other writers who had been through the same grueling process, I learned they too had heard the same semi-praise. When I finally met my editor Fiona McCrae, from Graywolf, I was absolutely positive I wanted to work with her. She understood what I was writing, and saw ways to strengthen the novel that meshed completely with my vision. I was relieved. And then I was grateful for all the other rejections that had kept me from working with someone who might not have been a good fit for my book.
My wonderful agent said to me earlier this year, “Sweetheart, you are the perfect age to get started.” I think I know what she means. As writers and artists, it’s our job to develop a vision of the world—to see what others are missing. This is the kind of thing that takes time, and that you cannot learn in school. It’s wonderful to see a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, turning out even more probing material as he matures. I do not mean that younger writers don’t manage complexity, because of course I can think of plenty of examples where they do. It’s just to say that writing generally takes time and can be painfully slow. About the only thing you can really control is the quality and uniqueness of your work. Make this your focus, and I really and truly believe that you too will find someone who will publish your book with the “enthusiasm it deserves.”
Hi Everyone, it’s just me checking in at the half-way point of my getaway. Overall, I will say that it’s been good for my writing, better even than a writing residency like Yaddo or MacDowell. I love those places, but being here has actually been more instructive to me. Here’s why. At writing residencies, there are lots of luxuries like lunch prepared and delivered to your door! They often have a helpful and friendly staff to help! Cell phones don’t work so well, and there is only one landline for everyone to share. In short, the set up of a residency helps you do your work by letting you become a child again.I came here with 333 pages,
For the last two weeks I have been living alone in an apartment on a beautiful island where I don’t really know anyone. I shop for and prepare my own meals. I keep the place tidy. What I am learning here is how I can organize my life in such a way that I can be productive. Although being far away has, of course, made things more peaceful, I am figuring out strategies for making my real life more peaceful. Being here, is about being a grown-up and taking grow-up charge of my life.
So, that said, here are my grown-up stats from the half way point of my visit.
clocking in at 85,558 words.
I now have
clocking in at 94,759 words.
So, to break it down
I have written 36 pages
or 9,201 words
Frankly, that’s more than I wrote in the last 11 months.
More Than You Know, by Rosalyn Story
The Skull Cage Key by Michel Marriott
Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts
Doug Seibold, founder of Agate Publishing and member of our blog community, sent me a sweet care package! I will admit to hinting around that while sunning myself on Martha’s Vineyard’s famous Inkwell beach, it would be nice to have a little something to read… And just like that he sent me three really juicy looking titles:
Agate is publishing some really interesting titles, including Where The Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward.
Thanks again, Doug, for being so generous.
When I teach, I come of with strange associations like this all the time. My poor students are subjected to my connections several times a week. Well, today, I came up with this one, but I have no students with whom to torment with my “wisdom.” So, here it is:
Starting a chapter is a lot like trying to get a roll of packing tape going. You spend a fair amount of time running your hands over the roll, trying to find the seam. Once you find the seam, you pick at it with your fingernails until you pull loose enough tape to get a grip. It may take several tries to get it going. Think of those false starts when you have a little piece of tape and you pull it only to have it turn into a useless sticky little ribbon. And then you start again.
This is what I’ve been up to today. I was really pleased with my progress last week. I wrote a meaty 25-page chapter. I felt so proud of myself and satisfied with my progress. I partied away the Memorial Day weekend without a second of guilt.
But now that the work week is back in swing, I feel like I am struggling with a roll of tape. Feeling frustrated, I found this photo of that you see here. Click on it and look below the photo to read the story of why someone felt the need to photograph this particular roll of tape. It gave me a little chuckle I needed to get back to work.
This weekend, my friend, Jarita, and I saw a zillion stranded starfish, just like in the story.
“From High School to High Security.” Dwayne Betts, friend of the blog and dear to my heart, is recorded on NPR on the occaision of his graduation from The University of Maryland.
The skinny on POV choices and publishing.
When the author hates the movie-version of her book.
Sell your book by giving it away!
Helen Oyeyemi has a new book and I can’t wait to get my hot little hands on it.
This is was very very cool– how a book cover came to be.
Someone has a soft spot for bad second novels.
The Oxford Poetry drama: Derek Walcott was suppossed to be the winner, but he pulled out due to a smear campaign; then it turns out that Ruth Padel–who ended up with the post– was behind the drama in the first place. So who will get the job now?
A HUGE self-publishing success story.
Mosaic has a new look for the new issue.