A Day of Books, Stories, More Books, More Stories, and Long Lines (AWP Day 1)

I’ve been at the AWP conference all day. So many writers. So many choices. Such narrow escalators. Book-fair tables for miles. Only three stalls in each women’s bathroom, talk about lines! Let’s just say it’s been a jam-packed day.

The first panel I attended was “Shaping a Short Story Collection”—first thing in the morning, in a giant ballroom lit by golden chandeliers. Choice quote: “There’s one profitable short-story collection published a year, and Jhumpa Lahiri already wrote it.” —Steve Almond

Speaking of Steve Almond, I love that guy’s writing. His first collection is on my list of favorite collections, but what I remember of him mostly was a reading he had at the Sewanee Writers Conference, before that book had officially come out. The story he read, the power with which he read it, damn, it just blew me away. He was just as engaging at this early-morning panel, showing what he really thought of agents and—cringe—marketing, cracking everyone up. Of course, I’m biased, and I’ll admit that while at Sewanee I also happened to be in a workshop with Steve Almond and he said some super-nice things about my piece, even going so far as to read the paragraph aloud because he liked the way it sounded—compliments apparently go a long way with me.

But you don’t want to hear about my unfinished pieces that sound nice but turn out to have no plot, so back to AWP. Everyone at that first panel was good, and coincidentally next on my pile of library books is The Last Chicken in America, by Ellen Litman, the very organizer of the panel—which I am now dying to read, thanks to hearing what she had to say about short stories, my first love, xoxo.

Of course it came up at this panel how agents will look at your story collections, sure, but what they really want you to write is a novel. Editors want novels. Big behemoth corporations like the one that pays my rent (just barely) want novels. Consumers want novels, admit it. So the question short story writers hear is: Where’s your novel? This just happened to me, and I guess it’ll keep happening. I just love short stories so much—why don’t more people read them?

I’m off-track. That panel was only the first hour-and-a-half.

What came next was me, in a room full of literary journals, swooning. Can you picture it? The book fair was on three separate floors. I was joking to E that I could have brought a suitcase to lug all the journals home I wanted to take. As it stood, my bag, and E’s bag, were so full they could barely zipper shut. I guess I can always bring the suitcase tomorrow.

While at the book fair, I paused near the Tin House table (Tin House is quite possibly, okay, most definitely my favorite literary magazine) and E said I looked like I was staring at a puppy dog in the window. With such longing. (Yes, I was.)

Anyway, a cool moment came when we passed by the table for Gulf Coast, the literary journal that published my first-ever short story. The two editors behind the table asked if we’d ever heard of Gulf Coast and here I confessed, yes, I have, some years ago you published my first story! The new editors weren’t on staff then, but they seemed just as pleased to meet me as I was to meet them. I remembered getting that first acceptance letter, stuffed in my own SASE. I opened it on the subway platform, expecting a rejection. Gulf Coast was the first door that opened to me; I will always love Gulf Coast.

There were a few other panels that day. Joyce Carol Oates was worth seeing. I had planned to go to a panel called “Real or Imagined: The Line Between Young Adult, Crossover & Adult Fiction” when I had a sudden intense desire to ditch it and head over to “Off the Page: Writers Talk About the American Landscape”—and it was the right decision. As someone who writes about place so often, a very specific place, what was discussed in that panel really resonated with me. Besides, Margot Livesey was there. Her novel Eva Moves the Furniture is a personal favorite.

It’s funny—I’d been so excited about that YA panel, but then in the last second I changed my mind and wanted to be somewhere else. Maybe, sitting in that seat while the panel was just getting started, maybe I saw a bit of life flash before my eyes—like I knew who I was, and where I wanted to be, maybe. Like I see enough YA fiction at work and it was time to think about something else, the something else I always meant to be thinking about all along? I’m not sure. I just booked it for the other ballroom.

I love thinking about the imagined landscape, the landscape of memory, the landscape in my memories, which sometimes feel like dreams. This place is there, in me, though I haven’t lived there in forever and never again will, thank god. “You don’t have to love a landscape to write well about it. You can put a curse on it.” —Charles Baxter said, while talking about “The Minneapolis Poem” by James Wright, the best poem ever written about Minneapolis, he said, though it’s not very nice. (Read it here.)

And now final quote of the day, passed on from Grace Paley, during a panel called “Writing the Unspeakable: The Truth Behind Fiction, Fiction as Truth,” about the inevitable advice writers get to write what you know, which I was just talking about with one of my writing friends: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Good advice.

Three Days Off, Lots to Do

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up early, as usual, taking the F train uptown, as usual, sneak-reading some pages of my book while hanging one-handed on a pole, as usual, getting out at my usual stop, just a few blocks away from the office and…

Not going to the office.

Instead I’m going to the annual writing and publishing conference held by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). Most people I’ve mentioned it to haven’t heard of it. I’ve tried to explain it a couple of times, but really I have no idea what it will be like—I’ve never been to one. But to answer some of the questions I’ve gotten, no I am not going somewhere to write for three days—it’s not a workshop—and no I am not going there to market a book or try to snag an agent—no interest in that, not now. I haven’t been an MFA student in a long time, so I don’t even have that excuse. I’m just going. Because I want to. I’m going to just think about writing, to let writing take up a very large space in my brain for the next three days.

So I picked up my pass today during lunch and also came away with an astoundingly thick book that contains the schedule of events and other information—it’s too heavy to carry around but I guess I have to. It came in a shoulder bag that smells like toxic plastic, but I’m not complaining.

Tomorrow I have plans to check out the book fair and attend panels about short stories, what is or what is not young adult fiction, and readings, of course, readings. And e’s coming with me.

Also my plan is to not go to work*, even though I’ll be right there. I’ll leave my swipe card at home so I won’t even be able to get in the building if I wanted to.

* You might be thinking: WHY would she even consider going to work, even for five minutes? I just like to keep on top of things and I hate leaving work for other people. But it doesn’t matter, because I don’t think anyone in the office would let me in!

So, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Hope e is too.

Website Update

I have a website that is not this blog. It’s called novaren.com and was made for me by my awesome other half (I especially love the pale blue stars in the background). I used to not link to it from here, but I have for many months now, so I suppose it’s no secret.

I know I’m not exactly at a level in my writing career to make use of a website, but when I am, when/if I have a book out I want to plug, I will totally do many exciting things in that spot. Until then, for the first time, I decided to admit that I’ve been doing some work-for-hire writing under various pseudonyms… Information on that is added under the new tab called “YA.” Thoughts, feedback welcome. You can email me at the address to your left.

Happiness on the Elevator

Shocker realization of the day while standing in empty elevator: I am not happy. Though who am I to assume I should be happy, to walk around thinking happiness is attainable. What a privileged existence to consider such a thing as mine for the taking. It’s foolish to expect it. Ridiculous. Absurd. The end. Doors open. Walk out. Pretend this never happened.

But I am reading a really good book about writing right now, slow-devouring on the subway. Someone recommended this book. Who was it? I owe you a thank-you.

Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

I’m afraid I might be a lazy writer when it comes to character descriptions. In my own fiction, I usually do the large brushstrokes only: dark hair, dark eyes, the hands in a gesture, the mouth if it matters, just a few telling details are all I need—so I convince myself. Maybe I just don’t know how to poetically describe a person beyond a list of specifics: green hair, blue eyes, seven freckles, pointy nose, tiny mouth, yellow teeth, bat ears, I don’t know, should I go on?

I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t like photos of the supposed characters on book covers. I also don’t like for a writer to tell me so much about what a character looks like, I especially don’t like comparisons to celebrities—I like to form the picture myself. And, of course, I have that pet peeve about characters looking in the mirror in the first chapter so they can then have a long paragraph telling us what they look like (spare me). I also don’t like when scenes in movies end on closing doors, but it can work, so I shouldn’t outright cut out all mirrors and closed doors from stories, I guess.

But as I write this, the last of my freelance assignments (the last, I tell myself, and until the day I’m able to write full-time I should really listen!) I am having trouble with the simplest parts. I have to tell the reader what these people look like. And there are many characters to describe. And my paragraphs flounder there, gasping for adjectives.

So writers, how do you describe your characters? How much, how little, how organic, how specific? Do you just go for dark hair, dark eyes or move beyond that? Do you do the mirror?

And readers, what details do you need when reading a story? Do you like to create a picture for yourself or have it drawn out for you, at least sketched?

Personally I’d like to get away with not describing anybody so I can finish this sooner, have it out of my hands, get paid, and most importantly have the time again to work on my own novel, in which, I now realize, the narrator describes absolutely everyone around her but herself, a problem I suppose I should deal with at some point, huh?

Confessions of an Eavesdropper

I am the person sitting at the table beside you, listening to you talk. I might be gazing down at my plate or into my steaming cup of mint tea, but really I’m committing your words to memory. In a few moments I’ll find an excuse to look up around the room. My gaze will fall on you, linger until you look up and see me looking, then I’ll glance away at some new random thing as if I’m lost in thought—but of course it’s no accident. I’m just putting your words to a picture so I know how to describe you later.

As I confessed in this post, it’s a great way to collect characters, or details to color other more fictional characters later on.

I confess to having “borrowed” from friends, acquaintances, coworkers their:

• Mothers
• Patients
• Dentists
• Baby-sitters
• Ex-boyfriends
• Imaginary friends

…to name a few.

And I’ve borrowed overheard conversations—who doesn’t? Makes you careful what you talk about in public, that’s for sure.

Sometimes I wonder if my imagination is too confined to the tangible. Like I have to see something grounded in real life before I can expand on it in fiction. It really limits what I write about. Maybe this is why I don’t write fantasy (or read it). I should close my eyes sometime and invent.

I guess that’s why the current project I’m working on is giving me trouble. I don’t know these people. I close my eyes… see nothing. Listen… can’t hear them talk. This makes me worry about the outcome, a lot.

The best thing I’ve ever stolen from life were these crushed and crumpled letters I found early one morning scattered near a trash can in a desolate park in an East Coast city that’s not the one where I now live. These letters were from someone in prison to someone on the outside. They were pretty shocking. I can’t recount them here or else you might be inclined to steal from them, too. I have a story I’ve only started that features these letters—someday I’ll write it.

I’m not the only writer who does this. We all do, don’t we?

When I was at a writers colony I confided in another writer how freaked out I was by the total darkness that descended on the property at night—no lights anywhere, how walking back alone to my studio at night scared me, a grown woman, like I was still five. We were just talking, I thought. But a week or so later when he had his presentation I came up. Apparently, my fear of the dark, and other quirks of my personality, had inspired a character for his current play. What do you do in that situation, ask to take it back?

I guess we all write about each other, you about me, me about him, us about them, them about us. We can’t help it. Or I can’t help it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop.

The Writing Meme

I couldn’t help myself. Here’s the meme seen on Charlotte’s Web and Writing Under a Pseudonym:

What’s the last thing you wrote?

For an assignment: a movie tie-in is keeping me in shape this weekend. Don’t laugh—this thing pays almost twice as much as my raise at work for the entire year, and it will take a fraction of the time to complete.

For myself, which is what really matters: Yesterday I snuck into a short story I’d last worked on a year ago and rewrote the first half, changing the distance of the voice to add some dimension. The second half will need to be rethought and entirely rewritten… haven’t started on that yet.

Was it any good?

The assignment: It may be what they want, but I wouldn’t say it’s “good.”

The story: I like what I’ve done. And I’ve had a crush on this unfinished story since the summer of 2001, but no one else who’s read the previous incarnations sees what I see in it. Yet.

What’s the first thing you wrote that you still have?

My mother kept my first attempts at writing books, scribbled out (literally) before I even started school. One is about pigeons, another about aliens. But on my hard drive the oldest pieces of writing I have are from college. I found one a few days ago that was about my trip to Japan. Reading it over, I was equally excited and trying not to cringe.

Write poetry?

Not since college. My poems were godawful and should not be shown to anyone ever. There was once a website that had one of my poems up (without my permission, mind you) and I wrote them asking them to please take it down. I was horrified at who might see it.

Angsty poetry?

See answer above.

Favorite genre of writing?

Literary fiction, hands down. What I’ve also been loving lately, though, since I sometimes get to read them at work or as a freelancer, are the edgy, angsty YA novels. The idea of what constitutes “YA” fiction has expanded in ways that never existed when I was a teenager—as a writer who often writes from the teenage perspective I find this both exciting and confusing. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m writing or should be writing, what direction to take, what label to give myself. Some YA novels I’ve read are more literary than I realized could be done. If you want to see what I mean, check out this stunning YA novel called Feathered by Laura Kasischke (who also happens to be a literary writer and poet). It comes out this April.

Most fun character you’ve ever created?

A., a teenage runaway, sociopath, and deliciously unreliable narrator.

Most annoying character you’ve ever created?

A., a teenage runaway, sociopath, and deliciously unreliable narrator.

Best plot you’ve ever created?

I haven’t created a plot I’m fully happy with yet. This, I believe, is my weakness. Maybe once I get a handle on this, I’ll finally publish an original novel under my own name. Yes, I’m scared of plot. Let’s not talk about it, okay?

Coolest plot twist you’ve ever created?

I said I don’t want to talk about it!

How often do you get writer’s block?

I’d say every few months. I go up-up-up, then I go down-down-down.

Write fan fiction?

Shudder.

Do you type or write by hand?

I type—with two fingers and my thumb.

Do you save everything you write?

Yes, obsessively. I create backups and change the names of files to the date I’m working on them. One short story can have an archive folder filled with thirty or forty or (ugh) many more drafts.

Do you ever go back to an idea after you’ve abandoned it?

I don’t so much abandon ideas as let go of them because I’ve gained truckloads of doubt or lost interest. I could always go back to them one day. I am finicky and change my mind often, so you never know. Besides, sometimes an old idea can be picked up and re-purposed into an entirely new creation. I’m all for recycling.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve written?

A paragraph here and there. One is from a novel I spent five years on and put aside (note: not necessarily abandoned for good). Others are from the novel featuring the fun/annoying character I mentioned above. My current favorite paragraph is from a short story about two sisters and takes place at the reservoir my friends and I used to sneak into to go skinny-dipping as a teenager.

What’s everyone else’s favorite story that you’ve written?

Who knows. If I knew that maybe I’d have more direction.

Do you ever show people your work?

I haven’t been in a workshop in a long time. I’d like to be. Or maybe not so much a workshop but a writing group. But I do show one person everything I write: E, my best friend and love of my life. He’s a tough critic, but he also somehow sees straight to the heart of what I’m trying to accomplish with each piece. I’ve come to rely on his critiques to help me get there. (He says he’s my biggest fan.) He’s also very cute, so, yes, I got lucky.

Did you ever write a novel?

For myself: Two unpublished novel manuscripts are stowed away in various stages throughout the apartment—no wonder the place is such a mess. I’m working on a new novel now.

On assignment: I’m on deadline for my fourth novel for young readers as we speak. In fact, that’s what I should be working on instead of answering these questions… yikes, it’s due in less than two months.

Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?

I cannot write romance. Angsty teen drama, for sure.

What’s your favorite setting for your characters?

Upstate New York. I felt trapped living there—so now I trap my characters there. I’m so cruel.

How many writing projects are you working on right now?

Now I’m going to make myself panic. The number is seven: the movie tie-in, the middle-grade novel assignment due in less than two months, my own novel, I would say three stories are in progress, and an original middle-grade novel is begging me to continue work on it and I wish I could.

Do you want to write for a living?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Seriously, I wish I could and YES.

Have you ever won an award for your writing?

Yes. I’m actually still shocked when I think about it.

Ever written anything in script or play format?

Yes. Okay, let’s be honest. I have tried. I’m considering studying screenwriting to expand my repertoire. That sounds funny, I know, but screenwriting is a big mystery to me and I’m fascinated by the process of it and I want in! (I also think learning how to write a good, well-paced screenplay could help me with my plot insecurities in my fiction.)

What are your five favorite words?

It all depends on what I’m writing—a word could be my favorite for an instant, because it’s perfect in a particular sentence, but then I might never use it again.

Do you ever write based on yourself?

Always. Sometimes obviously, sometimes barely at all, but I’m not above mining my own fears and memories and experiences and loves and hates (as well as those of my own family) for my fiction.

What character have you created that is most like yourself?

Her name started with an R. and she was in my first unpublished novel that started with a B.

Where do you get ideas for your characters?

People-watching. People’s deep, dark secrets—be careful what you confide in me. My own foggy memories. Overheard conversations. Blogs. Magazine articles. MySpace page confessions that probably shouldn’t be up on a public website. Private notes dropped in the subway. Graffiti. The car crash that is reality TV. Just simply walking down the street.

Do you ever write based on your dreams?

I guess, but dreams are usually so much more symbolic to the dreamer. At least mine are. In fiction they need some ooomph.

Do you favor happy endings, sad endings, or cliff-hangers?

I tend to appreciate a good sad ending that pulls out my guts and makes me question the point of my life, but that’s just me.

Have you ever written based on an artwork you’ve seen?

Yes: photography.

Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?

My day job is to be concerned with spelling and grammar. So when I’m writing I am very adamant about letting myself be free and go crazy and NOT CARE AT ALL about spelling and grammar. Sometimes I throw Chicago style out the window and I love doing that. I can’t help but strive for consistency though—there’s always the faraway thought of, one day, a poor copy editor having to go over my work. So I guess what I know about spelling and grammar seeps in even when I’m not trying, impossible to keep at bay. Still, it’s physically impossible for me to copyedit my own work. It’s like I’m blind to it, some weird writer/copy editor condition I’ve been struck with.

Ever write anything in chatspeak (how r u?)

Uhhh. Some of the YA novels I was hired to write have that stuff peppered in there, so yes, I have done this, I admit it.

Entirely in L337?

Um, wha??

Was that question appalling and unwriterly?

I wanted to skip it, so yes.

Does music help you write?

Yes, but only once I’ve played a song on repeat enough to not get stuck up in the lyrics.

Hey, writers. Let me distract you even further: why not try this meme?

Drizzles

Oh I had a tough morning. The morning before the morning—when it matters, when it counts—I did get a decent start on the novel due in March, so that was good. Then I got to work and, I don’t know, the world shifted. No stormclouds, just drizzle I guess. My mood turned all drizzly. I felt antisocial and didn’t want to talk unless necessary and worked with the door closed all morning. I did get a lot done, but I usually hate having my door closed. I realized I had to shake myself out of my mood before anyone noticed so I considered the options: (1) go to store and buy dark chocolate; (2) go to store and buy new black pants and new black tights; (3) go to shoe store and look—again—for boots in this bootless season with styles I refuse to put on my feet because they are so not me. Why did everything have to involve a store? Then it hit me. The library. I owed fines, yes, but I also had no new books to read. I limited myself to three and have started to read the first: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

The drizzles moved away off my head and I felt better after that. I think the reason I’ve been so dreary lately is I’m not reading enough.

But the troubles are not going to go away—books can’t save me now. Can people die from student loans? With Sallie Mae just one of the monoliths on our backs, we may be about to find out.

Write Away

Famous Writer I Admire So Very Much smiled at me as I came in today.

Does this matter? Can’t I write on a day when Famous Writer doesn’t smile at me? Well, of course I can. But sometimes it’s nice to think that I’m here writing, and she’s here writing, and we’re both just, I don’t know, writing.

Like there’s room in the world of literature for her, and maybe also, somewhere back in the corner where no one’s sitting, for me.