Friday, July 31, 2009

Short story sampler

Before I actually started writing a novel in earnest a couple of years ago, I made a number of half-hearted attempts. It's not that I didn't have a story to tell, but I couldn't imagine an ambitious enough narrative arc to serve as scaffolding for a rich, complex story with lots of characters and subplots and action. After a few pages, the story would kind of peter out and I'd lose interest. It struck me that maybe creative writing wasn't my thing after all.

Then one birthday I was given a volume of Raymond Carver short stories as a gift. I'd never actually been much of a short story fan. Just when you're getting interested, the story ends and if you're reading a collection of them, every few pages you have to get acclimated to new stories and situations. I've always been a big fan of James Thurber, however, but I always viewed his work as humorous essays rather than short stories, and the fact that you knew they'd be funny virtually guaranteed a reward for the effort.

But I found the Carver volume extremely compelling. He gave each story a sense that what happened before and after the scope of the narrator's reportage was at least as important as what was in the story itself. In fact, it's not what was happening in the story that was so interesting, it was how the characters thought and behaved in what were generally quiet though emotionally tumultuous settings that made them so rewarding.

Thus inspired, I decided to see if any of my scraps could be turned into a short story, and if any short story-length plots came to mind. I managed to complete one before getting involved in my novel, but have at least three or four more that are in various stages of completion, all of which I hope to continue working on when I have the time. Here are brief descriptions of them, from most complete to least:

Elevation - At 4,500 words, this one is complete. It's an idea that I've had for a long time, inspired by a friend of mine who, despite his success with women, has expressed to me that he wished it were permissible to approach a woman and come right out with, "I'd really like to sleep with you." In my story, a guy wants to do something similar, although he claims to want to do it for purely altruistic reasons. He believes women tend to devalue their own looks, so he wants to give out cards to deserving individuals that simply say, "You're very attractive." That's it, just give out the card and walk away. When he finally gets up the courage to do it, he finds it more intimidating than he thought. There are plenty of candidates, but he finds it hard to seize an opportunity. Eventually, on the subway, he finds himself seated across from four women whom he would not have initially thought to give a card. As he looks more carefully at how they look, how they're dressed, what they're doing, what they're reading, he begins to see more than he did at first. One in particular grabs his fancy. When she gets off the train, he follows her and fumblingly gives her a card. She challenges his intentions and he comes clean that he doesn't really know what his motives are, only that he's captivated by her. They decide to have a drink and get to the heart of the matter. The title comes from the main character's conclusion that there is indeed beauty to be found in those who are "unbeautiful" and his parting advice to the reader that "an unbeautiful woman will elevate you."

The Untangler - I've always been fascinated by knots, both the intentional kind and the frustrating tangles that seem impenetrable. I think that people tend to make their lives tangled as well, and wise people can help you untangle them. So the main character in this story is someone who has difficulty committing to women and he gets himself in sticky situations. His most recent ex-girlfriend had given him a set of wind chimes that became hopelessly knotted in a storm. The woman he's living with (to whom he hasn't been faithful) suggests he take them to her uncle, a retired handyman who is known to friends as The Untangler because he's very adept at untying knots and fixing thorny problems. As the old man works on the knots, he casually imparts to the main character a great deal of wisdom and insight into knots and life. By the end of the story, the wind chimes are in good shape, and his relationship will be, too. I have a few pages written here, but coming up with the wisdom will be challenging. I'm also researching nautical knots to inform the uncle's testimony.

The Triumphant Return of Chip Chumley & the Champions - Here's an example of a story that was intended to be a novel but it ran out of gas. Maybe it will be a novel someday, but it could also be a short story. When I come back to it, I'll see where I think it could go. It tells the story of a group of estranged friends who had been in a high school band together and have agreed to reunite to play at their 25th high school reunion. There's some funny stuff about music in here; I started writing it shortly after reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, so it's heavily influenced by that book's style.

The Second Chance - I have just an outline and one torrid sex scene written for this piece, which talks about a man who meets up with a woman he nearly had sex with 20 years earlier when they were in college. The woman is 15 years older than the man and had left school initially when she was 19 because she had become pregnant. Though the two were attracted to each other while in school together, she was in a very different place than he and wouldn't let their making out advance. Now in the present, he's in his mid-40s and she's 60, but the flame still burns. There is praise of older women here.

There are other scraps that may turn into something as well, but this is plenty to keep me busy given I'm still working on my two novels: one in 5th revision, the other still in progress.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The search for a literary agent

Writing a novel is fun. Getting an agent to represent it to publishers is not. I guess they're both difficult endeavors, but one has more control over the former than the latter. I had long been procrastinating about sending query letters to agents, perhaps thinking that so long as I don't offer it up for rejection it would not be found rejectable. As a social late bloomer, I realize I basically did that to myself in high school. Better to not ask a question than risk getting the answer you didn't want to hear, I thought.

Well, so anyway, I finally did it. I sent query letters and manuscript samples to seven literary agents. Within days, I got three rejections, all form letters of course. All stating that even though it was a form letter, they really did read and consider my work. I was just a little dejected about being rejected because, after all, I expected I would have collected a few of these red badges of literary courage along the way to being published. Also, as an occasional buyer of MegaMillions tickets, I am accustomed to disappointment. And, of course, it was my hero, Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote, "I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

So I responded to the three rejections by sending out three more query letters. This made me feel I was still in the lead. Shortly thereafter, I got another rejection, one from the first bunch. Today, I got my first rejection from the second bunch. But it was NOT a form letter! In fact, it was so nicely worded that I want to cherish and share it:
Dear Jason,
... There is much to admire in your work. It’s an incredibly intriguing premise to base a novel on an 17th century English folk song. We both loved how you follow the poem's lyrics but also make colorful embellishments of your own. The descriptions of life at the Barnard estate, spring festivals in Lancashire County, and background history developed for each main character are all rich and add important substance to the novel. Unfortunately, however, I’m sorry to say that THE GRAVE AND THE GAY did not garner the unanimous support we require when taking on a new client. We are forced to be particularly cautious about representation given the intense competition in today’s marketplace, and there were concerns that there was a bit more “tell” than “show” here in the novel. Additionally, while characters based on a folk song are potentially fascinating, we did not connect with them quite as much as we would have liked.

Fiction is such a tough sell these days and we must be incredibly selective about the few projects we take on, but do know that opinions differ greatly in this industry. We could certainly imagine another agent being quite enthusiastic about this. We wish you the very best of luck and hope to see your name on a bookshelf soon.

You know, this letter started out so nice that I knew a BUT was coming. Still, if only the girls in my high school were as gentle at saying no as this person was....

So according to my scorecard, I think I'm 0 yeses, five nos, and five haven't heards. That still gives me some cushion for failure. My plan is to send out more letters in the next week, but at the same time I'm going to put my second manuscript (32,000 words to date) on hold while I continue to work on the first one because, to my way of thinking, as nice as this latest response was, I'd rather a tepid acceptance over an enthusiastic rejection.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reflections on a year of blogging

I started this blog on June 27, 2008. Not knowing exactly what I'd use it for, or how frequently I'd post to it, or whether anyone would ever read it or comment on any of my posts, I decided to enter the blogosphere and see if one could do so without resorting to the temptation to make it a semi-public diary full of private, egocentric minutiae. Instead, I tried to keep it to my life as a writer (both my day-job and freelance writing, as well as my late-night creative writing), as a means to detail and organize the many project ideas I come up with (and test their viability), document some of the more interesting projects I've undertaken in the past (and those I am in the midst of), and explore some of what inspires or moves me that may inform or otherwise be revealed in my writing.

I can't say I've been wholly successful in this attempt, but looking over a year's posts, I'm happy with what I've posted and am frankly a bit impressed with the scope and arc of my posts and the projects and ideas they represent. Whether it's family history or novel writing, ghost-writing non-fiction or even lamenting the loss of my biggest celebrity crush, it's been a busy and fairly productive year for me, in spite or because of personal issues in my domestic life and the ever-present stresses and strains of work and finances that plague any writer.

If you've popped in here occasionally, thank you for checking in; I hope it's been mostly worth your while. If you've come here accidentally or purely out of curiosity, I hope you'll take a few moments to browse around and see if you find anything at all interesting - and if so, please leave a comment.

Currently, I am 30,000 words into my second novel and still hoping to set aside a day to send off the first one to some agents. Those are my top two priorities for the next few months. More on them later.

In the meantime, I am happy to celebrate the one-year birthday of my blog. The little tyke is crawling along; I hope that we both grow this year.