Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I want to share a little piece of my novel with you. I have impressively hearty self-esteem (despite recent rejections of my writing, my grandmother once asking me why I'd ever think Harvard would want me, and the fact that I have gained 10 lbs in the past year, drat it), but still, when I find myself doubting SHARDS, I find it helpful to go back and look at it again.

I just really think this novel doesn't suck.

So check it out - my first chapter - and let me know if you think it sucks or not. Don't worry, you can be critical and you won't destroy my self-esteem. Not if those 10lbs haven't.

Chapter One: Live and Die by the ‘Shrooms

High School.

April killed her father while Mom was at a PTA meeting.
Her teachers were probably saying great things about her. April was the kind of teenager who makes adults wish they could go back and try high school over again. She was (in order of ascending importance) intelligent, funny, athletic, beautiful and popular.
And she was also, at the moment, searching for poisonous mushrooms.
April stepped delicately over the splayed branches of a fallen tree, stopping to pull a puff mushroom out of the dark, moist innards of rotten wood. She thought about it for a second, brushing her light bangs out of her placid blue eyes. Then she dropped it on the ground and continued through the woods. Lot of people knew that “puff” mushrooms, or amanita phalloides, were poisonous, and they weren’t as easy as many poisonous mushrooms to confuse with edible ones. Just in case someone found her out, she didn’t want any doubt that this was purely accidental.
She found what she was looking for at another downed tree; its trunk had become a farm for galerina mushrooms, whose deadly toxins quickly destroy your liver. Other edible fungi were spotted throughout the bunches of little brown mushrooms. She plucked them all, dropping them into the white mixing bowl she had used throughout her childhood to collect blackberries from the woods behind their farmhouse.
Tears blurred her vision as she worked, but it didn’t matter; she wanted a mixture of safe and deadly mushrooms, so it didn’t matter which ones she twisted off the dead tree.

In the kitchen, she quickly sautéed the Italian sausage, onions and mushrooms together, then turned down the heat and left them simmering on the stove as she walked down the hall to her father’s room. She worried just leaving her toxic dish alone for a minute; it was unlikely anyone would wander into the house and taste-test, but the burden of one death was quite enough for her.
“Daddy?” she asked, sticking her head in the door. He looked up and smiled when he saw her. His face was so thin now that his smile seemed too big, oddly jarring. But April smiled back, her wide smile the mirror image of what his had been.
“Come on in, Princess,” he said, patting the bed besides him weakly. “Is dinner ready?”
April nodded as she went to adjust the covers over him, fussing with the blue-and-white quilt on the transplanted hospital bed. “It’s ready. But are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“I’m sure,” he said. “We’ve got a solid plan. I’m sure this will work.”
With the sheets and quilt straightened, she made herself sit down, even though she was buzzing with nervous energy. “Well. I must say I’m disappointed with you, Daddy. I always thought you were too much of a bastard to ever die.”
“That hardly seems fair,” he said. “I’m nothing but proud of you. You’re gorgeous, very bright – despite that one incident with the toaster – and you grew into one tough young woman, to do this for me.”
She got up, leaned to kiss him on top of the head. His thick sandy-blond hair had come out as easily as new grass, almost a year ago; it had been replaced with white puffs, dandelion seeds across his scalp.
“I’ll get your dinner,” she said.

In the kitchen she poured him a glass of sweet tea and filled a bowl with the food she had made. The smell of cooked onions and mushrooms made her mouth water, and she had to remind herself not to sample her own cooking.
She had to open the bedroom door with her foot, since her hands were full. Dad seemed pleased when she set his dinner down on the bedside table and dragged it over, positioned it over his lap.
“I’m glad I taught you how to cook,” he said. “At least I can die with a good meal in my belly, instead of starving to death as a lunatic in that damn hospital.”
There was a pause for a second, April awkward at the mention of the death that loomed before them both and the hospital he was so desperate to avoid. Then she said, “Well, it’s not like you really taught me how to cook. You’ve been keeping your chili recipe a bigger secret than our country’s nuclear information has ever been.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He gestured towards the dresser. “Bring me that paper and pen.”
April had to search through the rubble on the top of the dresser; his ties and briefcase from work were still parked there, even though it had been months, and so were the novels he had been reading and National Geographics and Scientific America. She finally dug out the legal pad and found a blue Stilton pen in the pocket of his briefcase.
He wrote busily for a few minutes, then ripped the paper off the pad. “Here,” he said, handing it to April for her perusal.
She wanted to read it, but she couldn’t focus then. “Thanks, Dad,” she said. “I’m sure this’ll help me catch some man someday.”
“You won’t have any problem catching a man. Only cook if you want to keep them.”
“I’ll remember that. So much wisdom, you’ve given me: nothing in life is fair, nothing in life is free, it’s fine if people call you a bitch. I’m all set to succeed in life.”
“I did what I could.” He picked up his fork, speared the first mushroom. “Do you have the letter I wrote?”
“Still sealed, hidden in my sports bag under my cleats and shin guards. Mom’ll never wander across it there; she’s strongly against smelly things.”
“Good, good. And where are you going to open it?”
“Hopefully never.”
“Good,” he said. And he ate his first mushroom. “This is funny, you know. Back in the seventies I damn near lived by the ‘shrooms, and now I’m going to die with them.”
April put her hands on her hips and heaved a sigh. “You were all up in the ‘shrooms, and I’m not allowed to smoke up or pierce my belly-button?”
“Times have changed.”
“How have times changed so much?”
“I became a father,” he said, winking at her.
“Happiest day of your life.”
“So you keep telling me.”
He ate his dinner, calmly, drank his sweet tea. It was the first time April had seen him eat a normal meal in what seemed like ages; he was always sick after, and it was hard to find anything he was even willing to attempt. She sat next to him, making small talk, her hands twisting and worrying beneath the side of the bed.
“You should go,” he said, when he was done.
“I want to stay.”
“But you should go. Otherwise you’ll move something, it’ll be obvious that you were here at the end—”
She cut him off. “I’m smarter than that. I won’t change anything. But I’ve never been particularly obedient, and I don’t know why you think I would start now.”
It was his turn to sigh. Then he acquiesced. “Fine. I don’t have any particularly strong desire to die alone.”
“Good boy,” she said, patting him on top of the head. It made him smile.
“I should have died in ‘Nam, you know,” he said easily, settling back into the pillows. “Anything after that is, as you like to say, ‘money’.”
“Don’t try to be a thug, Daddy.” She laid down on the narrow strip of the mattress next to him, her head against his painfully thin shoulder.
“I’m just quoting you. You’re the thug,” he said. And then she felt him shudder, felt his knees start to pull up involuntarily towards his belly as it started. He drew in a shaky breath, but managed to say, “Take care of your mother. And stay tough. The world needs more women like you.”
“Women who can cook?” April asked, but he was shuddering again, and even for the two of them, the time for bantering had come to an end.
By the time he was still, the sheet had fallen off his shoulder and it was the shoulder of his pajamas wet with her tears. His cheek was still warm as she kissed him goodbye, then went to fix her face, to head over to Ben’s house. He was supposed to be the alibi for a crime she never wanted to commit.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Today I received a form email back from the agent who asked me for a full. And we all know what a form letter means. "Thanks for your work, it's great... for someone else."

Le sigh.

I really wonder... is SHARDS ready? Do I need to change the ending? Is there too much action? Is it just too... out there?

The problem with taking this whole writing thing seriously is that it makes it like a job. And I've never had a job that was as fun as it seemed in the abstract!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I've been quite delinquent on blog entries lately. Jeesh. Well, I've been reading a lot, writing less, which is a trend I need to change (I want to read AND write a lot, but I'm not sure time stretches that way...). I just finished "Marley and Me", and am currently reading Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild".

I did begin to jot down some fragments for a future memoir - about this past year in Iraq and about my father's time in the Marine Corps, too - but I realize I need to do some research to talk about Daddy. I have a short written account of his experience in the battle of Ban Lan II - from a letter he wrote to a friend - and my vague memories of the stories he told me as a child, but that's hardly enough to write from. Luckily I am sure the Alfred Grey library in Quantico will have more background for me on Viet Nam in general and Ban Lan in particular (one time when Google failed me), and Daddy has a twin brother I can bug for stories as well.

There are so many little things to write about from this year, but I don't see how it will really string into a coherent narative. That's all right; SHARDS actually began as a short story and a couple of scenes I wrote, all based around my dad's death. It seems that for me, at least, a novel needs some time to develop. It's like a compost heap - lots of random crap thrown together, and the next thing you know, you have great fertilizer for the real work!

Well, now you know that, while I have snappy dialogue and strong characterization, my analogies suck. :p

Friday, January 16, 2009

I'm always writing the wrong story.

The problem, as a writer, isn't inspiration; it's perseverance. Because eventually, that neat story with the great characters and witty dialogue that you're almost a third into? It turns into something more annoying than a flock of mosquitoes after you've spilled lemonade all over yourself. And that's when the other story, the new shiny story that's faster, slicker, sexier, makes its move.

And right now, when I'm trying to get deep into another project, I keep getting distracted by faster, sexier stories. What is it today? Of all things, it's an idea for a horror story, and I don't even LIKE horror movies or stories. I've only written one my whole life, and that was cheating (I had a bad dream with neat resolution, woke up and wrote it. My conscious mind only had to spend about an hour on the story. I love cheating!).

Anyway, I am outlining the story now, so I won't lose it, and then shelving it.

Perhaps to be resurrected for this?

I know, I know, the last thing I need is a movie script to try and market. That's even worse than trying to market the bloody novel.

I wish I could just be commercial, writing to sell, or just be an artist, and (frankly, my dear) not give a damn. But I want it all. If you know me in real life, that probably comes as no surprise.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just an update on the query letters for Shards. I've submitted nine query letters so far. This past week I received two more rejections. That brings me up to one request for a full, and three rejections, so I'm at 25%. Or at 75% rejected, but let's not go all glass-half-empty.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Yesterday morning, I woke up to my first request for a full from one of the literary agents I had queried (a “full” being the complete manuscript). She was amazingly quick to return my query. I am surprised by how fast some of the responses are (I didn’t like the quick rejection nearly so much, though).

This led to a little bit of frantic effort, since I had not thought all the way through to someone wanting to READ my manuscript (not due to a lack of confidence in the thing itself… I mean, it is pretty brilliant… but more because I refuse to get too excited and ahead of myself. Unfortunately, getting ahead of yourself can also be categorized as “planning”).

Luckily I found some excellent advice on AQ, which I blogged about recently. Not only do they have a very helpful FAQ that covers things like this, but even better, they have a very helpful online community. I posted my question, and people responded with directions on how to set up my cover page, how to format the document, and even a template for the letter to the agent. It made me so happy – I love that sense of community.

Oh, and you know what else I love? A beautifully formatted cover sheet on a beautiful novel, especially the part that says:





Anyway, I am continuing to Not Get Ahead of Myself. I am not expecting that this whole business is going to be that easy, that the first agent that reads the first finished draft of Shards is ready to represent it…

[cue fantasy]

Scene: Literary Agency in New York City. Book-lined conference room, decorated warmly (this is how the pictures on the agency’s website looked).

GUINEVERE, AGENT, PUBLISHER are sitting around conference table.

PUBLISHER (holding up manuscript): This is absolutely brilliant!

AGENT: I know! That was what I said the first time I read it too!

GUINEVERE: Oh, stop, guys…

AGENT: She's promoting the book on Oprah in two weeks.

PUBLISHER: We need to talk about movie rights!

(Cut to 5th Avenue, New York City)

GUINEVERE: Hmm, this royalty check is burning a hole in my pocket. I think I’ll buy myself something pretty…

(Fantasy fades out)


Well, I’ll be over here, going back to writing away in the real world…

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back from my irresponsibly long Christmas/NYE break (not that I was doing anything fun, but that's a story for a different blog)... I just have to give a little testimonial for a helpful resource I had to share (which is also, delightfully, free... except for the blood, sweat, tears and remote possibility of success, this writing is such a cheap business!).


This is a wonderful place to search for agents, and also a great online community for help with the business side of the writing gig. In the community, you can have your query, synopsis, first sentence/paragraph/page critiqued (the things that an agent or editor sees first). You can also find great links to industry blogs you might not have found on your own… as I explore these, I may blog about some of these blogs (Something about that delights me, but I’m easily amused).

So if you’ve made it to the “finished” stage and have a manuscript in hand (a place many writers never seem to get to), I highly recommend checking out this website. You can even friend me once you’re there… leave me a comment here with your AQ screen name and I will add you.