Wednesday, September 25, 2013

To Putting Out the Fire and Climbing Down the Tree

First, some lovely pictures. I was in San Diego last week, having followed Derek down on a business trip. He worked 12-15-hour days, so I had lots of time, and I used some of it to visit UCSD's Birch Aquarium. Here's a collage of some of the pictures I took:

Exterior, Clockwise from Top Left: Pregnant wolf eel, bubble coral, sea lettuce in outdoor tidepool exhibit, moon jellies (I touched these at the Long Beach aquarium!), moray eels, a cute fish whose name I didn't catch, giant black jellyfish, view of the ocean from outside the aquarium, coral reef exhibit, Garibaldi, vermillion rockfish, giant seabass; Interior, Clockwise from Top Left: sea nettles, sardines, hermit crab, kelp forest exhibit
All photos © Danielle Behr 2013

I am in Revision Mode. I finished my novel a few weeks ago - for the second time, by the way. I started sketching out ideas for Safira's story in 2009, while I was still teaching. I finished the first version (beta-read, revised and everything) in April 2012. But I knew there was something off about the MS. It was the story I wanted to tell, but it was like Frankenstein's monster before the electricity - there was no life, no spark. A lot was lost in translation between my mind and the page. So I worked on something else. I got half of a new book written.

Image Source: Wikipedia
Then last May I read a news article that made me remember Safira's story and I decided to re-write the whole thing in a new narrative voice because I LOVE THIS STORY. And I know it's love because sometimes it scares the crap out of me. I wrote scenes in this book in which my characters realize some of MY worst fears, and while that sucks for them, it's also tricky for me because I have to think deeply about things that terrify me. And then there's the guilt over what I do my characters. I've always loved the adage, "Chase your main character up a tree, then light the tree on fire." Everytime I come across that saying I think of the chapter "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire" from The Hobbit. The dwarves, with Bilbo and Gandalf, just escaped from Goblin Town, only to be chased by wargs. They seek shelter in the tops of trees, which works well until the goblins catch up and light the trees on fire. What follows next is what Tolkien coined a eucatastrophe - one of my favorite words ever.

Right now I feel like I've chased myself up a tree and lit it on fire. My anxiety is through the roof. I feel pressured to query this fall. From careful observation of the writing world over the past few years, I have concluded with considerable certainty that fall is the best time to query. The deadline is the holidays - Thanksgiving, then Christmas. By mid-December, most agents are closed to queries until after the new year.

What's pulling directly against the time constraint is my fear that this book needs time. I've been reading lots of books - some about writing, most just examples of great writing - and with every new thing I read, I gain an insight into my book and a few more ideas for how to make it better. If I kept reading, how long would this go on? Please don't say indefinitely because that is my fear. Yet I know it's true. Practice leads to improvement. With every new thing I read and every new thing I write, I am convinced that I will become a better writer.

So when agents say "Show me your best work," if I take that literally, then they're in for a long wait, because I wouldn't be able to query until I'd spent a lifetime writing. I'm sure you can see the practical implications of this plan. While a lot of writers hit their peak with their first book, I know I'm not one of those people. I'm the kind whose future work will be better than what I write now, even if the ideas aren't necessarily better. And a huge catalyst toward making me better is publication. Having professionals and countless unknown readers give my book a chance and react to it, that will give me feedback unlike anything I can get from the small circle of well-loved beta readers I have now.

I feel frenetic - another favorite word, although not a nice feeling - like my muscles are itching under my skin and there's a tornado in my brain. I'm alternating between research, reading, planning revisions, reading notes from betas, and doing comforting things to ease my anxiety. I've probably spent 30% of my time lately just coping with the stress of whatever this phase of the writing process is. I've downloaded some new music (and I've been playing it as LOUD as possible). I've napped when I can, done my make-up for no particular reason (I usually don't unless I'm leaving the house for something other than groceries), watching movies - which feels just like reading and gives me the same number of new ideas for my book.

I've also played hours of Plants vs. Zombies 2 and I've been coloring (see above). Yes, my name is Danielle Behr and I color. I got the idea from a dear friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher. She suggested colored pencils and Dover coloring books - cheap yet fancy "grown-up" coloring books - for stress relief. And god is it relaxing! There is something so pleasing about staying within the lines, shading and blending colors, and filling in a white space until it's exploding with color.

I think what this all comes down to is the idea of giving order to chaos. Chaos is an inevitable result of the passage of time. Right now my MS is chaotic because the margins are filled with notes telling me to revise. I know that if I can just focus on those notes, incorporate them into the book (i.e., REVISE) then the notes will go away and order - in the form of prose - will reign again.

To putting out the fire and climbing down the tree. Cheers, my friends.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Moment of Victory Before the Fear Sets In

I finished my complete re-write of Safira's story on Labor Day - very appropriate, don't you think? Derek had promised to take me out for "fancy drinks" to celebrate once I was done, but it was late by the time I finished on Monday, so we went out last night, on Tuesday.

We went to the shmanciest place we know - the Langham Huntington. Gorgeous old hotel with a really cool bar. That's what I love about fancy hotels - even if you can't afford to stay there, you can usually afford a drink or two and you still get to enjoy the ambiance!

It is such an ordeal to finish a novel - to get through the conception, sorting your ideas, outlining, developing characters, researching setting, writing and re-writing and re-writing some more. In my case, I re-wrote an entire book that I finished over a year ago. I switched the mode from 3rd-person omniscient to 1st-person with three narrators. I'm so happy with the result. With the 3rd-person draft, I felt like a lot was lost in translation between my head and the page, but with 1st-person, the reader is so up close and intimate with the narrators, they get to experience the emotions and the chaos, it's wonderful. And here's another clue that I made the right move: I cried when I wrote this draft. Not all the time, of course, but during the scenes that I meant to be sad, boy, did I cry! And it's not like there was anything else going on with me at the time, so I was definitely crying about the story. I still feel terrible for what I did to some of those characters.

The point I was trying to make above is that, since it is such an ordeal to finish a novel, it's important to celebrate. Finishing a novel is a momentous achievement, and something for which I am very proud of myself. Especially because I have so much faith in this novel. So while my temptation was to type the last word, send it off to my beta readers, and immediately jump into pre-query mode, I resisted. I took the rest of Monday night off. I got into that research mode Tuesday morning, but we still went out and celebrated the book itself. But by that point, my ability to celebrate was already compromised. THE FEAR had set in. I had spent the day researching agents and reading advice for querying.

What I love about writing is that I have total control. I can put my characters through hell or I can send them on vacation. I can let the villain win or I can cut off his head. But after the book is done, I lose control. I have to send off letters and hope beyond hope that the agents who read said letters like my pitch, that they don't have something like it already on their list, and that they believe it can sell. There seems to be so much luck involved in this phase of the game and that makes me nervous. I have no fear of hard work. But I have great fear of things that I can't attain even with all the work in the world. And querying feels a little like that.

While I was writing, I did an excellent job of avoiding distractions. I didn't draft query letters or synopses or check in on agents on Twitter or read any of their blogs. Doing that stuff plays tricks on my mind, and I know that my story is the product, so it deserved my full attention while I was crafting it. Of course, as soon as I was done, I headed for those sources that would have been distractions before but are now my job. And they still play tricks on my mind. I read agents' advice for writing a good story, I read the reasons why they pass on a hundred books, and I wonder if my book will fall into those categories. It will inevitably fall into some, sure, but will it fall into all of them? Is my setting great and the pacing good but my narrators' voices weak? Will the agents be able to connect with my characters? Will the book push the boundaries of the genre and make agents doubtful they can sell it? Will they think the writing is decent but that the story needs more work?

My FEAR has set in. I fear the answers to the above questions, and my only hope now is that my two trusty beta readers will send me back buckets of criticism that will help me make the story even stronger. Until then, I will try to gather data on agents without getting bogged down by the fear, and I will try to look at this picture often and remember that no matter what happens with querying, I still have something grand and dandy to celebrate:

Photograph by a lovely couple from New Zealand