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Field of Burning Children

Alright, then. I’ve now read most of the notes from my “test” readers, read most of not one, but TWO books about revising your novel, and taken a full-day class on novel revision.

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that nothing I’ve seen out of any of my recent crash course has led me to believe that I’m out of the game. Readers were generally encouraging in their comments. Where they couldn’t be encouraging, they had great, constructive feedback regarding places where they thought it could be stronger. Nobody had anything terrible to say! Ok, almost nobody, and… depending on your definition of “terrible”.

The bad news is twofold. The first part of the bad news is that no one was completely knocked out of their chair by the dramatic, intellectual or emotional powerhouse that is my first novel. Nobody said anything about Pulitzers or PEN/Faulkners, nor were these awards or the possibilities of them hinted at, nor alluded to between lines. Believe me, I looked. Mostly I think I’ve achieved “This doesn’t suck. There are very great places, and there are some not so great places.” That’s alright. I can live with that.

What’s a little harder to live with… didn’t come from my readers. It came from my own self-assessment after reading James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing for Publication and taking Michelle Hoover’s excellent “Facing Your Revision” class at Grub Street. By my reckoning, I’ve actually got miles, thousands of miles to go. I’m poised right between being exhilarated by a sense of what’s now possible with the novel, and being devastated by how much work I might still have before me. My problem isn’t that I have an unworkable piece of crap. My problem is that I have already put so much time into this project, thought I was near the end of the journey, and just learned I haven’t even left my own village yet.

These are biggish problems, but not insurmountable. I have some big technical changes to make, which do not daunt me. But I also have to do some things that will feel a lot like standing over a meadow filled with my own children, and letting rip with a massive flamethrower to see which children are strong enough to survive. Some of this will hurt, but it’s my own damn fault for getting so attached without really knowing what I was doing.

I think I’m going to need some kind of plan.

[ps & fyi the title of this post comes from one of my all-time favorite stories, Tennessee Williams' "The Field of Blue Children", which I've mentioned here before]

Speaking of Which

Interrupting my current trilogy of entries (started here, continued here), to share this piece I wrote a couple weeks back but never posted. It seemed thematically similar enough to my last entry that I figured this would be a good place for it. After this, my next entry will be (I promise!) my only-slightly-varnished reactions to the feedback I got from the last round of guinea pigs readers.

I’ve been writing a novel for a long time, so long that cocktail party inquiries about my progress have started to dry up. Nobody, least of all me, knew it was going to take anywhere near this long. I actually have no idea when I began it. It’s been moving in and out of the foreground and background of my life for so long now, I can’t imagine which shift in focus represents the beginning. I can say I gave my first public reading in the fall of 2011, and did most of the work on it the summer before that. It’s taken me almost three years to move from that first draft to this current third draft. Three years may not seem like a long time to you, but, after that first draft, I thought I’d be done with it, at the very latest, in mid-2012.

You know what, I’d like to put some happy schmappy glitterfrosted sunshine face on this, but goddamn if this isn’t all-out fucking war. It’s a war of attrition between Me and I don’t know who… maybe every voice in my head, or in my past that wants to just say FUCK. THIS. SHIT. A war of attrition where I was always the entire single-person army, and I fight every day, and all that has to happen is for this one-soldier army to say, “You know what? This is bullshit. Nothing is worth this.” Sometimes it seems less like I’m fighting my own self-doubts and fears, and more like I’m fighting something much more inexorable and native to the fabric of the universe, like gravity or entropy.

The worst part is that it actually gets harder the closer I move toward a final product. The more I migrate the work toward a state of being able to say “This is it, the best I can do,” the more riotous and frenzied the interior assault becomes: “That?! THAT CRAPFEST? You call THAT a book? There’s… there’s not even a story there! Who do you really think you’re going to fool? Because it won’t be any self-respecting agent, that’s for goddamn sure.”

I only have a contributor role when it comes to deciding when the work is done. I can spend as much time as I want working on it, and working on it more certainly seems like it must bring that day closer, but what done means and how I get there, well, that’s all bound up in the “mystery” of the “creative process.” It’s done when the muse and I say it’s done, and the muse is pretty tight-lipped with regards to that particular detail. Plus she also has like 90% say in the vote. So a lot of times it feels like I’m waiting for it to be done. After a certain point, you have to wonder, “Should I stop waiting for the bus and just walk? Or would it be stupid to walk away now, since I’ve already put so much time into waiting already?” For most people, the cut-off for waiting for a bus is usually around 20 minutes. For me, it’s at least three years and counting now.

I’m not complaining, just telling you how it is… in strongish language. And even though the enemy’s resistance mounts, so has the thickness of my own carapace. Walking this road, and advancing this front, I’ve been assailed constantly by the smaller darts and teeth of lesser demons of doubt and fear, but all those little attacks have bled, scabbed, scarred, toughened and healed. At times, I feel like a shambling keloid mass, and I look forward to a day when that doesn’t have to be true.

Because that will be the exact same day I hear back from an agent, informing me that she’d like to represent my work in the marketplace.

Is that all you got?

To quickly recap: in the spring, I finished another draft of my novel-in-progress, Bad Romance. I sent that draft around to five friends who read it over the course of June (or so) and now that I’ve taken a little vacation from novel-writing, steeled myself, and taken a deep breath, I’m ready to read all the feedback those friends were kind enough to provide. Except… not really. I’m not ready to read that. I mean, I’m ready to read the good feedback, but less ready to read the more critical stuff. This is partly native insecurity, partly the anxiety native to realizing you’ve put your soul on public display, and partly the effect of having just read this book, which made me realize what’s wrong with my book. Which is pretty much everything.

I’m about to wade, naked and unarmed, into the safe, small pond of critique five of my friends were recently kind of to provide for me regarding my novel-in-progress. Here is the orbit of my thought.

From the highest, macro level of themes, profluence, and plot structure, all the way down to the cellular level of word choice and sentence rhythm, the “work,” if you can call it that (and, really, I hesitate to) is shot through with flaw. It is richly veined, through and through, with a cancerous rot of mediocrity. The author has clearly spent the last four years of his life either dicking around when he should have been hunkering down and actually writing something not abhorrent to the intellect, OR he’s been working super hard and he’s just so far below the bar of talent requisite to produce something, anything actually worth reading that THIS was the best he could do. Or maybe both things are true – he’s not really trying, AND he’s really trying, but he just sucks. It may defy logic, but so does the utter penury of both his spirit and talent.

There’s no plot. Nothing interesting ever happens. This is a regurgitation of other ideas, malformed, and then recapitulated on the page in some semblance of order, intelligible only to the quote unquote author, if that. It’s hard to imagine how he doesn’t intend this as offense of against the narrative traditions of Western culture. He ought to have his finger bones run through a flour mill to prevent him from ever typing again. Nothing interesting happens, and the characters are so insipid and poorly drawn, no reader would would care if it did.

The fact is, this guy should stop writing, but God love him, he’s been working on it so hard, I don’t have the heart to tell him. He’s just so freaking earnest, and he’s been slogging away at it for so long, how can I possibly be the one to break the news. You have no talent, and you have no skill.

These aren’t really the things I think my friends think. They’re the teeming hordes of little defeatist voices that I’ve mostly kept corralled and in check for the past couple years, through dint of willful ignoring. But those demon voices have a lot of pent-up rage and energy, and I’m afraid that reading the critiques will be what applies the last foot pound per square inch to break lock’s hasp on corral’s gate. Apres that, the fucking deluge.

These are my enemies, these fears, doubts, and attempts at self-assassination. I don’t talk about them much, publicly or privately. It feels like to even acknowledge their presence is to acknowledge the possibility of defeat… which feels like taking one step down the slippery slope of giving up, the very definition of defeat. With any other enemy, I’d say this is a stupid approach, but, for me, this is the only that works. La la la, I can’t hear you. Chanting prayers. Turning on my force fields. Hardening my carapace. Stuffing my ears with wax to not hear the call of the implacable and remorseless sea. Turning to narratives of my choosing, to deflect and enbubble me within a sphere into which no other narrative may penetrate.

At a certain point, yes, fine, I admit it: you have to think about throwing in the towel. That’s true. I know that as only the divorced can. But I am nowhere near that point. No matter what comes out with me on the other side of that pond, I am not near that point. Sometimes, sure, maybe the thought crosses my mind. Sure. But you know what? Every time that self-corrupting whisper drifts in like poisonous smoke, I’ve always got another weapon ready, another shining crucifix to hold up and stave off the baddies. I collect them for just such insidious wisps. Today it’s this quote from Andre Dubus:

Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.

Another great one is this little number.

Boom (the Crystal Method Remix by P.O.D. on Grooveshark

Is that all you got?
I’ll take your best shot.

Oysters & Thunder

Our soon-to-be-wedded friends A&K recently invited us out for dollar oysters (a Boston tradition observed by only the finest dining establishments), drinks, and picnic after. The place they picked for us to go for dollar oysters was a place E and I had been to a few times before, but whenever we’d gone there for dollar oysters ourselves, they’d been unable to seat us, even at the bar. This was, to my knowledge, the first time A&K were going to this particular spot, and I didn’t want to worry them or be a downer with my concerns about possible seating snafus. So I quietly did some research into nearby options, so that if we couldn’t get seated at Plan A, I could at least have a Plan B or C to suggest.

Well, nothing ever works out quite the way you think it’s going to, does it? Not only did we get seated, but A&K arrived a little early and managed to snag one of the nicest tables in the house. Since I’m pretty thick, though, the universe had more in store to drive home that evening’s lesson, which was, apparently, there are limits to what mortal planning can account for. All day long the chance of rain had been less than 10%. Then, without any kind of warning, just as E and I arrived at the restaurant to meet our friends, thunderheads rolled in and a tornado warning was announced for our county. Tornado. Warning. We never get tornado warnings here. Then the lightning cracked and the storm came, and our plans for a picnic were just about dashed. E and I offered our place as a Plan B location, since we have air conditioning and the squall that had just hit didn’t do much to lower temps.

After oysters and drinks, then, we headed back to our place… where we found that the A/C was actually out because our block was one of about four or five in Cambridge that had lost power due to electrical equipment being knocked out by the storm. It didn’t ruin our plans, of course, but it did make it a little less comfortable than it might have been. All of which served to very effectively remind me that a) the things you worry about and plan for are not usually the things that actually happen, b) the things that actually do usually go wrong are not anything you could have guessed in a million years, so c) stop worrying so much already.

All of which I’m just saying as preface to my next exercise on this blog: recording for posterity my Before/After emotional states around finally reading all the feedback my friends have delivered to me regarding my novel. I haven’t read any of it yet, but, as of this writing, I’m about to. I’m kind of getting myself a little twisted in knots around it. So, entirely as an object lesson for myself, and maybe for you if you want, I’m going to make my next entry here a catalog of what I feel and think BEFORE reading the feedback, and then I’m going to read the feedback. The second entry after the next one will be reactions and thoughts AFTER reading the feedback.

Hopefully this will be an insightful lesson for all involved and not just one of those “It seemed like a good idea at the time” type deals. Only one way to find out: stay tuned!


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