How I Got Published: Grad School Stories

Back when I first started taking writing seriously, I started going to writing conferences. Almost all writing conferences are the same: there’s some famous author who speaks at the beginning, telling their story about getting published, then a bunch of seminars that coach participants on the basics of writing: character building, plot basics, creating tension, good opening scenes, believable dialogue. The advice they gave us about finding an agent and a publisher was always the same: go to bookstores and find books that are like yours, then find the agents and publishers who represented those books and query them. They acknowledged that each of us would have to query a lot of agents and publishers, and that it would be difficult, confusing and an uphill battle.

What bothered me was that so few of the authors had actually gone that route. The first one I heard was a Chinese-American writer who was doing grad work when her professors told their contacts about her writing. When she came home on vacation, there were messages from agents on her answering machine because Chinese-American writing was hot. Another author said that she took copies of her manuscript wherever she went and handed them out to everyone she encountered, and she finally got an offer from an agent. Another one went to grad school and decided that she wanted to win a particular literary prize. She kept revising and submitting her manuscripts until she won it, then the agents came to her.

This isn’t fair. It makes me feel like there’s a fictional, accepted way of doing things – writing the impossible query letter, sussing out the exact right agents/publishers for our work (woe betide those of us who write a variety of different kinds of work), sending out and tracking a million queries. Everyone has signed a secret contract that this fiction is what we’re going to tell writers at conferences and seminars and MFA programs. It’s like that fiction that you’re going to meet the right person, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

The possibilities of electronic literature complicate the picture even more. Self-publishing ebooks, indie presses, print on demand – they all factor into the equation now, and the rules are changing. I’d like to stop this lie about the golden path to publication. Let’s go ahead and say “Do whatever it takes. Be inventive. Be persistent. But above all, be good at what you do.”

I think that’s the advice I’m going to give.

The Cult of Grad School

Last year, when I went away for my grad school residency, I posted every day about the things I was doing and thinking. For my first residency, I pushed myself to read the required reading for every lecture and presentation, and I tried to do all the recommended and suggested reading as well. Then I got here and found out that even if I hadn’t read the texts, the presenters usually didn’t rely exclusively on them for the content of their lectures. These aren’t multi-part classes where we’re being quizzed on the minutiae of a single text. These are discrete lectures of one or two hours where we’re exploring some big concept as illustrated by one or more texts. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

What I had forgotten about, though, was the physical and emotional toll residency took on me last time. It’s worse this time. What I forgot was just how much of a cult this place is. I looked at the ways that cults use coercive persuasion to bend the minds of their followers.

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations.

There are too many of us, packed into a few rooms of a corporate office building. There are no desks, so everyone either taps on a laptop (a sound that makes my skin literally hurt, so that I want to claw at my clothes as I’m trying to concentrate on the lecture) or (like I do) uses a clipboard or a notebook to take notes the old-fashioned way.  The schedule is so packed that there’s often a choice to be made about where to go next, so that anyone who isn’t careful finds themselves double-booked.

2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized.

Write more. Spend more time thinking about your edits. Who are you in relation to your characters? There’s not a single, simple explanation to all our problems as writers, but the about five explanations there are get repeated ad nauseum. While that can be good if you haven’t already heard that particular solution to your writing problems, it gets exhausting after a while. Last residency, it was “question your beliefs.” It seemed that most of the lectures harped on some aspect of that theme, and it led me to go back to some of my work and think hard about my characters’ motivations, but after a while, I had to question my questioning. And what did all my questioning lead to? It led to me believing that I needed to come back and ask more questions. Back here. Where I am now.

3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance and attention from a charismatic leader or group.

Every single person here is happy to see me. When I show up in the morning, people want me to sit by them and talk to them. They show me their websites, looking for my approval. They show me pictures of their spouses, their children or their pets. They act like they’ve waited for six months to hang out with me, and maybe they have. I do know that I am fond of a lot of these people, and it’s nice to see them after such a long separation, but I also still feel that fierce need to spend some time alone. And of course, everyone talks about the program chairman as though he walks on water, and there is always a queue of people trailing after him in the halls trying to talk to him about one thing or another.

4. They get a new identity based on the group.

Here, you are put into several groups at the same time. You are given a group name based on when you entered the program. Everyone who came in at the same time as me is a jacaranda, and our color is purple. There are blue spruces, yellow aspens, red sequoias and sycamores whose color I don’t know. Maybe they’re green. The aspens are the outgoing cohort, and a bunch of them have elected to wear yellow sparkly capes to show their solidarity and pride. That’s all fine and dandy, but a bit creepy at the same time. You are also sorted by genre: poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, writers of literature for young people.  They often don’t attend the same classes, so they see each other at the cohort events.

5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is strictly controlled.

I’m only entrapped here by virtue of the fact that I’m such a long way from my own family and friends. My best friend lives down here, but he’s got his own life going on. The trickier form of entrapment is keeping us so busy that we voluntarily sequester ourselves so that we can complete everything that’s being asked of us. We’ve got classes, forms to fill out, evaluations, summaries, contracts, all of which has to be done at specific times in specific ways and eats up a lot of what would otherwise be free time. While we have all the access to the outside world we could possibly want, we don’t necessarily have time for it. And our access to information about this little world we’re in is limited to the intranet platform – we use separate email rather than our own email, we have a separate site that houses all the news and information we need from this place.

Given the indoctrination we’re being subjected to, I think I can be forgiven for being a little on the emotional edge. And all that stuff about it being a cult aside, there is some amazing thinking and analyzing going on here. The outgoing graduates have once again been exploring aspects of literature I had never before considered, and I now have the benefit of a brain dump of their previous two years of research. We’ll see what this residency’s themes end up being.

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.

Raising Tech pt 1

Now that TechRaising is over, I’ve been asked about four million times just what happened and what I was doing. It seems like every time I try to explain exactly what happened this weekend, I end up telling a slightly different version of the story. The weekend was so full of action and emotion that it would be hard to tell the whole thing, and I’m always focusing on different parts of it and re-thinking them.

The Back Story

Back in December when I did my first grad school residency, I came up with the idea of writing a non-linear novel. In the strictest sense, any literature that involves more than one character is non-linear because every author talks about what this group of characters is doing, and then backs up in time to fill in what other characters were doing at the same time. As readers, we understand how this works and are able to follow along. We live our own lives that way, doing our own thing all day, then getting together with our friends or family and getting filled in on what they were doing when we weren’t around.

When I talked to my husband about it, he offered to figure out the programming necessary to make it happen, but I turned him down. My husband is a genius of a software engineer, but IOS programming (I had my heart set on an iPad app) isn’t his power alley, and it would take him a while to get up to speed. In the meantime, he just started a new job and he’s still working hard at being a competitive bagpiper. Those were some of the reasons I gave him for letting him off the hook, but the real reason is that I’ve been a project manager for a long time, and my way of getting things done is to be demanding and unreasonable (although in the nicest possible way). These are great when you’re cracking the whip over guys who would otherwise spend all day sending each other links to xkcd cartoons, but less great when you’re working with someone that you have to sit across the dinner table from.

 

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.

 

 

What Are You Doing?

I’m glad you asked that. I really am.

The thing that I’ve chosen to pursue is called hypertext fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a form of fiction that uses the utilities of electronic delivery to allow the reader to customize the story. Examples of it have been around for 20 years, but newer e-reader technologies and packaging now allow for better, more interesting presentations and the possibility that you don’t need to have access to the web to read the text (she says, although she has not solved certain problems just yet).

The story as I have imagined it has 6 characters whose points of view will be shown. It has what I’ve come to think of as 3 theaters of action, each one in a different part of the world. Action is happening in their stories at all times as the characters seek to deal with their situations and remedy their problems.

What I’m envisioning is not just being able to “package” the story from a single character’s point of view, but to be able to switch between several points of view (seeing the same scene from an 8-year-old girl, versus a 40-year-old man), or being able to package all stories told in a particular location. It means that I will be writing the same novel 6 times, and each of them must be entirely distinct, and each one must work with all the others.

There are two difficulties I foresee: the first comes in the writing itself. It’s going to be hard to write each node, or scene, as an independent thing such that you can go smoothly from one point of view to another and have the narrative make sense. For instance, if one character leaves the room after an argument, the other will stay behind and ruminate about the argument, or tear up the furniture, or whatever. The one who left might go and cry, or go and inject poison into the other’s toothpaste tube. Where does the scene end? Can you switch smoothly from the end of the poisoner’s scene to the beginning of the next scene starring the room-tosser? Will it flow, or will there be a backtracking? Not sure how I’m going to solve it. I’m also terribly prone to point of view shifts when I write. It’s easy to start talking about how he thinks she’s dependent and clingy and wishes she would just leave him and then put in a line about how she will never leave him because she’s punishing him for being such a wimp by making him take the first step away. If I did it better, it would be omniscient, but since I don’t, it’s just bad third person.

The other difficulty is in the user interface. How do you represent what the reader is seeing? How do you have them switch from one POV to another? From one scene in time to another? What happens if you push a “next” button? What happens if you choose a different character – do you get the same scene retold, or the next scene from a different POV? There are decisions to be made in the telling that will inform how this thing is programmed, and the Pirate and I have been talking about it nonstop.

While the idea of hypertext fiction is not new, the things I want to do with it are new, and are going to require what I anticipate will be years of work. But I’ve got time. I’ve got nothing but time.

Days 10 & 11: The Home Stretch

Friday was our last session with our writing groups, and to celebrate, our writing mentor brought us sparkling wine (we are, after all, adults). We sipped sparkling wine while giving our critiques, and I was surprised at how amazing the critiques I got were. This particular piece of writing was a comedic piece that I’d read on the radio two years ago, and at the time I thought it was pretty good. I was amazed at the great comments I got, things that really got to the heart of what was missing. Now I’m really torn between spending the next five months working on the piece I had originally started for Nanowrimo and spending that time on this thing.The even better part was that one woman ended up a bit better for the drink and ended up doing that thing where every sentence tailed off in quiet giggles and she kept having to put her arm around the woman next to her and sort of lean on her. We decided that letting this particular woman drink anything is probably not a great idea.

My mentee group met with our mentor to get our contracts signed, and I really thought there would be more of a process to it. More of a discussion, if you will. But deep down, I also knew that it was really going to be up to me, and I was pretty happy with what I’d put together.

Saturday, our very last day, was a guest lecture by Fr. Gregory Boyle. His book had been required reading in preparation for the lecture, and while I had tried to read it, I found the stories so touching that I was never able to read more than two pages before I would break down crying. The lecture was called “The Literature of Witness,” but Boyle talked far less about writing and far more about his own experiences. And, of course, I started to cry. Worse, I was sitting in the front row, so whenever Fr. Boyle glanced at the front row, there’s me and my streaming nose and sopping hanky. By the end of the lecture, I noticed that he was tearing up whenever he looked at me. Whoops.

I drove home, and I wasn’t able to leave until after another meeting that got out 4-ish. Crying always exhausts me, so between getting to bed late (I was up packing), getting up early (to put stuff into my car) and weeping for two solid hours, I was exhausted. The Pirate, being the sweetest man possible, encouraged me to stay for another day so that I could leave early in the morning, but I wanted my own bed, my own husband, my kids, my own dogs. I didn’t miss the cats.

Here’s how amazing my best friend is: when he heard that I was going to have to leave late and make a 6-hour drive alone, he offered to drive up with me and fly home today. Could anyone possibly ask for a better friend than that? This is a guy who’s been my best friend for 25 years, but we had enough to talk about that the time in the car seemed like nothing. By the time we got to my house, I was more awake and feeling better than I had all during my residency.

I’m home. I’m tired. My first residency is behind me. Only four more of these to go.