The Wallet and The Road Trip

Between grading finals and working like crazy to meet my May 21 deadline, I am not posting any new content today. Instead, here is an oldie but goodie. (Part 2 will be posted Friday.)
This has to do with writing, take my word for it. Think of it like a Cosmo quiz– you know the ones that try to explain how the way you eat pizza determines who you’ll marrry. Answer the question below and I’ll get back with you to tell you what it all means.
Here’s the set up:
You are on a road trip, in a fabulous mood as you burn up the highway. About 100 miles down the road, you realize that you have forgotten your wallet! You make a u-turn, go back home, get the wallet, and then set out again.

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Getting My Freak On

The word is “freak.”
It’s funny how words that you think means one thing can mean something else to another person. I am going over the editorial notes on THE SILVER GIRL and for the most part, I agree with my editor. However, every now and again, I will be a comment that makes me scratch my head and say, Aroo? These moments usually are due to region and/or cultural understandings of language. Although the example here is pretty minor, it’s a serious issue worth talking about.
The sentence from my manuscript goes like this: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Marcus changed me, that he took a sweet innocent girl and turned her into a freak. My editor wrote in the margin, “How is she a freak? What is freakish about her?” I’d confused her with my sentence and she’d confused me with her answer. I stared for a while, drank some coffee, and then I got it. She understood the word “freak” as in “freak show”. I was using freak as in “The freaks come out at night” as in “she’s a very kinky girl/the kind you don’t take home to mother.”
What to do?
The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way.
Of course, if I were to change it, what would I change it to? There is no real equivalent. A “freak” is not the same as a “slut”—although there is some overlap. Sluttiness is about lack of exclusivity, but freakiness involves a sort of adventurousness. It’s as much about depth of experience as breadth.
(Sidebar: There are a lot of casual words that sort of defy translation. I will send a signed copy one of my books to someone who can give me a clear definition of “trifling.” And if you can give me a synonym, I’ll send copies of both.)
It’s sort of the issue that Latino authors deal with about the use of Spanish in a story—to translate or not to translate. But the matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.
For now, I am leaving the word “freak”, where it is. For me, it’s worth potentially confusing some readers for the sake of preserving the voice, and meaning.

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You Can Censor Yourself Later

Self-censorship is not always a bad thing. I think we all have things that we would like to write about, but don’t think it would be worth the fall out. The question of what’s worth it is entirely up to you. That said, never censor yourself while you are still writing the story. Save the censoring for the final draft.
Here’s why.
Self-censorshipisn’t an exact science. While you’re making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don’t block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it’s published, it’s private, so be honest, frank, and free.
Side Note: Sometimes I meet young writers who are living in a special sort of artist-hell. On the one hand, they are anxious and are convinced that they will NEVER publish. But these same writers totally freak out and become blocked because they self-censor for fear of what people are going to say about their work. This is the worst of both worlds. Learn to let your insecurity work for you: If you really feel you will never publish, let that free you up. Cut loose! Who’s going to see it anyway.
But seriously, “What should I write about” and “What should I publish” are two really different questions. You should write whatever comes to your mind. Writing is personal, it is art. It’s between you and the page.
When it comes to publishing, I recommend letting the story sit a while and then read it over carefully. If there is someone who knows your situation– be it family or whatever– ask that person to read it too. Consider your loved ones’ feelings. Don’t let them steal the show, but consider. (Also consider if they are ever even going to read your book in the first place.) If there is something that may be ouchy, but isn’t that crucial to the story, take it out or tone it down. On the flip side there may be something that’s freaking you out, but your reader may convince you that it’s not nearly as out there as you thought.
There are folks out there who disagree, who believe art is the only obligation of the writer. And I must admit that I have been very enriched by the work of the take-no-prisoners writers. I’m just not one of them.

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Learing To Read Your Editorial Letter

Step One: Read The Letter

Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

Yesterday, I had a quick phone chat with my editor at Algonquin books. She called to tell me that she was finishing up her edits of the latest version of the manuscript. As Octavia in Leaving Atlanta said, “I call myself being cool, calm, and collected, but my stomach balled up in a knot while I waited for her to tell me…” Sensing this, Andra said, “I really like it. You nailed it.” Oh relief, relief, relief.
I will now post something I journaled when I was working on the manuscript after seeing her first round of comments.
How To Read An Editorial Letter
So, I am working very hard to revise the novel using the guidance of my “editorial letter” which was submitted to me by my editor. The editorial letter is a long documents– about five pages, single spaced, telling the writer what to do to make the book stronger. Some of it is praise, but most of it is criticism. No matter how much you know that it’s necessary to receive criticism, it’s never exactly fun. (Girly metaphor: It’s like getting your eyebrows waxed. You want it, but it’s gonna hurt.)
When I got the letter, I scanned it. I didn’t have the nerves to read it closely yet. I just read it really quickly to see what jumped out at me. I saw mostly plot type issues. Then, I put the letter away and started going through the manuscript with my green pen. I made a lot of changes, listening to my own impulses, rather than being guided by the editorial letter’s specific concerns.
The next step was finally reading the letter closely. I used my pink pen to write my comments and questions on the letter itself. I really analysed and digested it. Some of the issues I had resolved already, which made me feel sort of happy. Others still needed tending to.
For the last month or so, I have been going through the manuscript AGAIN, chapter by chapter, consulting the letter as I went along. This is MUCH harder.
The biggest challenge is learning to read the letter. Editors are not writers and they don’t exactly know how we do what we do. Because of this, it’s hard for them to give instruction. It sort of reminds me of when I go visit my dressmaker. Sometimes, the dress hangs funny or is too tight, or gaps somewhere. I will say “The sleeve is too small!” And she will then fix it by doing something with the dart at the bust. Because I don’t sew, I can’t quite tell her what needs fixing, but I know something’s off. Or it’s sort of like going to the dentist. Sometimes I am sure that I am having pain in one particular tooth and my doctor eases the pain by treating a whole ‘nother tooth. Editors are good and knowing when something is off, but they can’t always tell you how to fix it.
It gets tricky because unlike dentists, writers can get prickly when someone tells you what’s wrong. Even professionals have feelings. And editors don’t mean any harm, they really want you to write a better book. But they can still hurt your little feelings.
My pet hang up is the phrase, “I’m not buying” this or that thing. I always want to snap back, “It’s not for sale! You don’t have to buy it.” Still, I have learned that “I don’t buy the mother as a thief,” really means, “Can you provide clearer motivation for the mother’s stealing.” The first sentence gets my ego all riled up and the second makes me want to work.
But here’s the thing. A professional writer doesn’t have time to be all sensitive like that. You have to do the translation and go forth to improve the book.
Of course, there are going to be some things that you just won’t change. (For me, it’s the Al Green chapter. I need it.) But I am going to try and make the connection more relevant. But that chapter stays.
My editor doesn’t like a technique I applied at the end. I dug it but I can see how it might not be working. I am going to try to apply her suggestion because nothing is lost by trying. I think that’s the thing to remember. You don’t lose a thing by taking advice. Remember, you always have your original.

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On Writing With Empathy

As a professor of creative writing and also the facilitator of many workshops, I have learned that sometimes the problem with a story is a personal problem, not a writerly problem. For example, a person who relies too heavily on dialogue– that’s a writerly problem. The same for overuse of adverbs. But often when the characters are stiff and undeveloped, that can indicate a personal problem.
By a personal problem, I mean that the issue is rooted in the writer’s way of moving through the world. There are many personality quirks that can spoil the writing, but today, I want to talk about empathy, or a lack thereof.
Writers are often motivated by something/someone that angers, irritates, or appalls them. Some people write to get even with a person who has hurt them, or to expose some sort of destructive force in their community. These subjects could be anything from the mean girl who picked on you when you were ten to the evil dude that owns a payday loan company on the corner. What about crusades against “gold diggers.” And so on. If your story is going to be any good, you are going to have to get past this.
This is going to sound crazy, but I can sometimes tell from conversation with a writer whether she is going to have this problem with her work. If conversations often begin with “I just don’t see why she did that…” Or, “Any fool could tell that wasn’t going to work…” Almost any sentence about another person that begins with “I just can’t understand…” exposes the sort of emotional flatness that may show up in the work.
So how to break through?
One thing I like to do is to write journal entries in the voices of other people, or even characters in my books. I sometimes do it for people who have hurt me deeply, so I can kind of get a grip on their behavior. The challenge is that you have to discover something new about the person or character. If your exercise reveals only what you came to the page with in the first place, then you have not tapped into the empathy you are going to need to write the story you want to write. The thing is that you are really going to have to want to understand that person, which means you may have to let go of that anger.
In my new novel, The Silver Girl, one of the major characters is James, who has a secret family. You can imagine the pain this causes everyone else in the story. Still, I had get next to James and really see his side of things.
One of the tricks I employed was to look at what he was doing, and think how it could have been worse. So: in the novel he has a secret daughter whom he sees only once a week, but he pays bills, and constantly lets her know that she is just his #2 daughter. So then I said, well, it would be even worse if he was not in his daughter’s life, denied paternity, did not support her in anyway. Okay, once I had that together, I asked myself, why didn’t he do the really ugly thing? Then, I tapped into the part of him that was trying to adhere to some sort of moral code, the part of him that had an understanding of responsibility and family. When I came to that, he stopped being a cardboard cut-out and became flesh.

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A Note on the Typos

Can I haz spellcheck?

Originally uploaded by arnoldziffel2007

I have never been a good proofreader. This has been true since I was a kid in grade school. My teachers used to get so angry with me over it and I admit, as a professor myself, I sometimes get personally offended when students hand in work that is full of typos, and other goofs. However, I have since come to the conclusion that a lack of proofreading isn’t always a lack of respect for the project.

Sometimes people don’t proofread because they can’t stand to read their own work. It’s like listening to your own voice on a tape recording. There is also the fear that you will read over the story closely and find out that it’s terrible and then what would you do? The story is due? So you just print it out and turn it in.

Insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some people’s insecurity makes them perfectionists. They sweat every little details for fear that one typo or error will somehow invalidate all of their hard work or cause people to mock them. These folks may hang onto a manuscript way longer than they should have for fear that it’s not perfect.

Because I am not a good proofer, I hired someone to proof my manuscript before I submitted it to publishers. ($600. More than mere chump change.)Imagine my dismay when I made a mistake with MS Word and accidentally left a few “notes” in the margin! I think one said, [Should I double space here?]

I called all my friends hoping that one of them would say, “That doesn’t matter. No one is going to disqualify your manuscript because of that little mistake.” Rather, almost everyone said, “Oh no! Can you get the manuscript back?!?!?! Certainly there is something you can do!!!!!” I was really freaking out about it. I felt as though a few little margin notes from a professional proofreader would somehow undermine the five years of work I had done on this book.

Finally, I called my agent who wasn’t all that upset. “That’s too bad,” she said. “But we’re not going to worry about it.” I called my publicist. “How about you act like you never even noticed. It’s not a big deal.”

The difference in the reactions is that my agent and my publicist are professionals, not artists. They don’t have the same insecurities. They had distance and promised me that no one was going to say, “I reject this manuscript because the professional proofer asked about double-spacing on page 104!”.

The other day, at Greenlight Books, Tiphanie Yanique told us about a story that had been chosen as a prize-winner by Junot Diaz. She said he contacted her and said, “I am about to choose your story as a winner, but you really need to clean up these typos! This is ridiculous.” Everyone laughed, because everyone loves a happy ending. Tiphanie is a great writer. Of course Junot would see it despite some carelessness.

I guess the obvious lesson is that you don’t want to turn in a manuscript full of errors. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too obsessive about the details either. When I met with my editor for the first time, I sheepishly mentioned those margin notes, and she didn’t even know what I was talking about.

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Workcrastination, Again.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my arch enemy WORKCRASTINATION. (This is when you avoid your writing by doing other work. You don’t feel guilty like you do when you waste your weekend watching Law & Order, but you still haven’t written your book.) Well, I am revisiting the subject.
Networking and other marketing concerns are particularly slick forms of workcrastination. It’s very easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are making progress on your book because you are going to this and that conference where you got to meet a certain famous author (OMG she gave me her card!!), etc. You tell yourself that publishing is all about who you know, so this is all very positive. It’s taking your career into your own hands. And, since you don’t have access to an Old Boys Club, you have to hustle harder. And maybe you should order up a new set of cards now that you think about it. And what about your website, your blog?
You get the idea.
Cut it out. It’s workcrastination. Working for the book is not the same as working on the book.
Working on marketing and networking is easier than finishing your book– especially once you have reached that 100 page mark and you feel like you are trying to bathe an octopus. Endlessly researching agents and scouring Publisher’s Marketplace is a lot easier than figuring out what’s hanging you up emotionally and keeping you from being able to develop your characters. And who wouldn’t rather drink a Bellini at an awards ceremony than read your entire manuscript aloud to check for pacing problems? And anything you do in a party dress is more exciting than sitting at your kitchen table in your robe, struggling to get your heart on the page.
You know what you need to do. Just do it. Sit down, get quiet. Write your book. No one can do it but you. No one you meet at a cocktail party can write your book for you. Even if you were to save Oprah from a burning building, in all her billionaire gratitude, she couldn’t help you write your book. It’s all up to you. Don’t let yourself down.

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Moleskine,Where Have You Been All My Life?

Spring Break is here, so I will be blogging more and I won’t be blogging so much about ways to keep going when you think you’re about to crash and burn. Since vacation is here, I will be blogging calmly in my robe and my reindeer slippers. (This robe is great. A shop lady in Martha’s Vineyard bascially gave it to me so I could finish my novel. I wish I had her contact info to say thank you. The robe is not sexy, but it’s snuggly, and it helped me make it over the finish line.)

Anyway, a few months ago I blogged about wanting to start keep ing a journal. So many people recomended their favorite notebooks and a few folks even sent me journals in the mail. (Y’all are the best best best.) Well, none of the notebooks went to waste. I pressed them into service for various purposes, but I hadn’t yet found the journal for daily use.

Well, I have worked it out.

I have been using a thin moleskine notebook. It’s about the size of a regular sheet of paper folded in half. I use the pink one, but they come in lots of pretty colors, and there is always the moody black one. Dainty without being precious or fragile, it can easily be thrown in my purse, or even hidden up my sleeve! The picture on the right shows a hardcover, but I use the inexpensive paperback. Since it has only 96 pages, it only takes me a month to fill it up. Then, I just get a new one. This works for me because I DO NOT like to flip back through and revisit my old thoughts. It’s like listening to my own voice on a tape recording. Can’t stand it.

I write in the journal while I have my coffee. I wake up with my mind brimming and sloshing. I feel like an over-full martini glass. When I spend just about twenty minutes with the journal, I feel much more stable. Even though those extra minutes mean I have to get up even earlier on a school day, it’s worth it.

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I am in the home stretch with the (current) round of revisions for The Silver Girl. I don’t know if everyone knows how this works, so I will give you a little overview of the process.
Once a publisher agrees to publish the manuscript, the editor sends the writer an editorial letter, which is basically a few pages of critique. The writer gets a few months to address the issues. I always make a good faith effort to take the editor’s instructions. However, if there is something that I just really disagree with, I leave it be. Sometimes fixing other issues with the novel, will make it where things that used to be issues aren’t issues anymore.
I do try and address every point she brings up, even the ones that seem crazy on their face. You have to trust your editor enough to believe that she knows how to make the book better. As I tell my students all the time– take every suggestion. If you don’t like it, just change it back to the original.
This morning, I rewrote the ending. Tomorrow, I will do one more read through, but then I’ll be ready to submit. It’s a really big deal. I half want to celebrate and the other half of me would like to get in the bed. I am exhausted.
Over the next couple of weeks, my editor write me another editorial letter. This is when we will really tangle over the little stuff. I will turn it in one more time and we will basically be done.
Maybe then I will be rested up enough to party.

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It’s time to introduce a new term– Workcrastinaton. If you’re like me, you think that procrastination involves Law & Order marathons and twitter, and these are insidious forms of procrastination, for sure. But there is another, more sneaky, incarnation– Workscrastination.
This is when you blow off your novel for important stuff that needs doing, not fun stuff, but neccesary stuff. For example, right now. I know I need to be working on my novel, but I am doing things like grading student papers. (It must be done! It’s my job!), paying bills (It’s the first of the month!), etc. Other instruments of Workcrastination include updating this website. (I spent half the morning updating my “appearances” page. Check it out. I added a lot of new stuff.)
But really. This has got to stop. I am about ten pages from the end. Why am I acting like this??? I am going to have to get a zero-tolerance policy with myself– If it ain’t the book, it’s procrastination. If the house is burning down, grabbing a hose = procrastination.
Time to get to work.

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