History Stuff

I just finished listening to Astoria by Peter Stark, and this book is incredible.  I’m tempted to try to make my 13-year-old read it; it’s that engaging and interesting. (And there’s a really great description of scalping and scalping victims in it that is just primed and ready for putting on screen.)

We are making the kid read the diary of Anne Frank along with Red Scarf Girl. I don’t know if they are giving him an appreciation for history—or for all the stuff he has—but at least it’s a change from Marvel comics and YouTube.  (That’s not really fair. In the past month, he’s also read Ready Player One and three Robert Cormier books and loved them all, so I shouldn’t make him sound like a total screen-head.)

My husband is putting the finishing touches on his second book. It’s a follow-up on his first book; this one focuses on 1856. I’m looking forward to editing it.

Still in a holding pattern on my own book. Still busy thinking about next moves and assiduously not actually doing anything.

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What’s Next?

While I’m sitting around waiting for someone to publish the book I’ve written, I vacillate between thinking I should start on the next project and thinking, “Why bother? Nobody’s taking this one, who’d take the next one? Wouldn’t my time be better spent scrubbing the bathroom grout with a toothbrush?”  Some days, the toothbrush wins.  (And some days, chocolate wins. OK, most days, chocolate wins.  But chocolate is usually augmenting whatever else is going on.)

But some days, planning the next project wins.  Right now, I think my best prospect is to rehash a book that my husband shopped around more than a decade ago—a Civil War history of the Willard Hotel and its owners.

It’s a charming story. The hotel, which was a watering hole and gathering spot for anyone who was anyone during the war, was impeccably run by the Willard brothers, one of whom was a major in the Union army. He ended up falling in love with a woman who was arrested as a Confederate spy, and they got married and had a son.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it; a whole book’s worth. The good part is the research is already done. The bad part is I’d have to chase down a little more research—and, you know, write the thing. (Well, rewrite it. My husband wrote a pretty thorough history, but it really lends itself to a more engaging love story of the people involved, and probably deserves to be written that way.)

But it’s almost Christmas, and we are closing in on the time of year when there are no sports to distract us, and that means two months of binge watching TV series that we assiduously avoided while they were airing once a week. I think we are going to watch Boardwalk Empire. And maybe Justified.

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No News Is Good News

I’m still waiting to hear from two of the six publishers I queried last month.  I am choosing to believe that they have not replied yet because an outright rejection would take less time.

Meanwhile, I came up with a list of 12 new places to ply my wares, and I’ll get started on the new round of queries one of these days.

Meanwhile-meanwhile, I finished listening to Simon Winchester’s book about the 1906 earthquake. He’s a bit snobby, but it was a fun book.  I am also almost finished with Go Set a Watchman, which is an interesting study. I can see it posing as a sequel (sort of; there are some plot probs that should have been reconciled if that was the intention) but I also see it as the discarded first draft it apparently was. I find it interesting that the idealized, childlike view was the one that sold; I think that says more about audiences than it does about the writer’s abilities. I can see why this version would turn people a bit, and I’m not surprised that its attempt to show different points of view was met with hostility–regardless of anyone’s love of the original. I don’t think it’s as horribly written as some of its louder detractors say, though I’m not sure if I’d feel this way if I were reading it on the page instead of listening to it on my commutes.

I’m not actually reading much of anything on the page these days; work and family obligations have worn me out to the point that reading for fun seems too much like work, and thinking about reading makes me think about writing, which only adds to the Ugh, No, Work-ness aspect. We are going to a lot of movies, however, and I’m getting my storytelling fix that way. (The Martian was excellent, SPECTRE was excellent fun.)

But mostly I’m in a trough. Anyone got any good recommendations to get me going again?

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I’m No Expert

I have spent three weeks trying to finish two beautifully written books, one by David Mamet and one by Simon Winchester. Such writing leaves me alternately inspired and despairing: Look what a person can do with words! I will never be able to do that with words!

(Aside: This is also why I do not read books of speeches very often. For a real lesson in what a person can do with words, with actual historical consequences, I suggest this link, where the orations are chosen based on style, substance, and impact.)

(Aside to the aside: If you leave out factual historical impact, then there’s probably no greater bit of rhetoric ever written than Shakespeare’s amazing Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.)

Anyway, these fellows know their stuff, both on the wordsmithing side and on their topics of choice. I admire the tenacity displayed in having done their homework at least as much as I admire their language skills.

Honestly, some days I wake up and think, “I want to be the world expert in something,” but then realize that while I have a pretty varied range of interests, I have no idea how to choose a single topic I might care enough about to drop everything else and put in the work required to become a world expert.

For example, I have days where I think I would like to know more than anyone else about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But I know I won’t, because even if I could somehow gin up the time and attention required to ingest hundreds of years of history (plus maps), I tend to get lost in those dusty tomes and I tend to get angry reading contemporary accounts. Plus, no matter how much I know about it, there’s no way I’m going to be as much of an expert as someone who actually, you know, lives in Israel and sees it every day.

So then I think, maybe I should go for being the world expert on chocolate? But that’s pretty hard to do because Hershey and Cadbury and chefs and SO MUCH COMPETITION.

So then I decide maybe I shouldn’t be a world expert, maybe I should just go around poking the existing World Expert Bears with sticks to get a rise out of them and see what they say. Except I don’t personally know all that many world experts, so the bears I end up poking tend to be unsatisfyingly inexpert/misinformed/hesitant to express a firm opinion because someone might be offended/interested in advancing an agenda rather than pursuing an honest examination of a subject/just want me to shut up so they can get back to their caves and their salmon. So I form my own opinion based on this relative dearth of information and move on to the next thing.

Maybe I just miss journalism. Or maybe I need a new project. But thinking about a new project puts me back at the first phase of the cycle: What topic holds enough interest for me to put in all that time and effort?

And then I realize that my day job plus parenting commitments are eating up 18–20 hours a day at the moment, and I decide that these are my areas of expertise, at least for now. And I also realize why it is taking me more than three weeks to finish reading two books.

(Update: six new publishers queried, two form rejections, and one absolutely lovely response from a real person who is clearly working through a pile of proposals and will respond when mine reaches the top.)

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DingDing: Round Two

I heard from the agent.  I’m a lovely writer, but my story is too small and centric. So I am going to look for small and centric publishers. I have a list. Now it is just a matter of compiling the info and sending it off.  Onward!

It’s a lot like applying for jobs. You have a basic chunk of info that you reword and reshape into assorted customizations for assorted recipients.

It is a weekend project.

Since I am doing that anyway, I’m hoping to get enough free time that I can go all out and run this process for two or three projects I’ve had sitting. I mean, why throw a few strands of  spaghetti at the wall when you could throw a whole pot, right? (And while I’m waiting for responses, I can actually take a fresh look at some of the manuscripts and clean them up if need be. It pretty much always need be…)

We have been busy doing assorted other things, so my reading dropped off last week, and probably won’t pick up again til next week.  No critiques this week! But maybe two next week.

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Bits and Pieces

So, Stephanie Meyer is re-releasing the Twilight series, but with all the names and genders changed?  That’s a new way to milk a cash cow, I guess. I wonder if she’ll make Edwardine a creepy stalker in the image of her male precursor. (I don’t wonder enough to go out and read it. But if anyone else reads it, let me know, yeah?)

Breaker Morant is on television right now. This is a fantastic film. Get it. Watch it. Thank me later.

I’ve been reading a slew of conservative books. (So far, David Mamet is the clear winner in terms of artful language. Big shock, that is.) I suspect that they suffer from the same problem as left and right news outlets, not to mention every single person expressing political opinions on social media: The choir being preached to already knows what will be said and has no reason to listen; the opposition will sniff haughtily, slap a derogatory label on it, and ignore it completely. So why bother?

It struck me today at my job that 90 percent of bad writing isn’t really my biggest problem as an editor. It’s fairly easy to fix bad writing if you can figure out what’s bad about it. My biggest problem as an editor is a particular form of bad writing—I have a terrible time with sentences that wander around, stop for coffee, see shiny things and chase them, and end up in a place on the exact opposite side of the globe from where I  thought they were going at the outset. Any advice on this particular issue is welcome.

I am waiting one more week to prod the agent about the book. I am a coward. Or maybe I’m just lazy. Or a lazy coward. Probably that one.

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Walk

image1

When we were on vacation, the little camp store at our timeshare was selling these silly mantra rocks. I had been wanting a worry stone anyway and intended to get one. But when the next trip to the store arose, I was too embroiled in my book and too lazy to get up and go along, so I told my husband to pick one for me, and let our kid pick one for himself.

The kid got one that said “Relax.”  Fitting, in that he gets all spun up very quickly on fairly minor things. Funny, because we were on vacation and so relaxed at that moment in time as to be comatose.

The rock above is what was brought home to me. Anyone who knows me knows that exercise and I are not particularly well acquainted these days. So this was a cheerful tongue-in-cheek motivator to get off my duff and move. It made me laugh.

After I’d had it for about a week, however, I realized that it was a useful command going in the other direction, as well. When I was losing my temper and ready to snap or scream or throw something, “walk” was a reminder to take a breath, slow down, be patient. (And, yeah, sometimes, clench my teeth.)

I dropped the thing in a parking lot shortly after getting it; that’s why the left side is all jagged like that. But that’s been good, too. I keep rubbing the rough edge, intending that in another 35 years or so it will be smoothed down (unless I drop it again, natch).  I find this fitting. Walking is a slow, steady process that leads one to a destination. Rubbing off a rough edge is a similarly slow, steady process — be it a rock or a personality.

But, you know, it still requires getting off one’s duff and moving.

I love wordplay like this. Anyone who has a twofold word they turn to in this manner should please say so in the comments!

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OK, Break’s Over

(I only ever hear this phrase in my head as spoken by David Foxxe on that Sting song “St. Augustine in Hell.” This is not so odd for someone of my age and musical taste. What IS weird that I remember the speaker’s name is David Foxxe. As far as I know, I’ve never seen him in anything else and have zero reason to remember this bit of minutiae.) 

Anyway.

It has been a lovely summer of sloth in terms of Self-Improvement. I have been working like a dog, I took some good vacations, I read nothing but brain candy, albeit well-written brain candy.  Eighty-kerbillion pages and five months later, I’m very happy my mom handed over her copies of the Outlander series. Diana Gabaldon has an engaging voice and many enjoyable characters, and I learned some interesting techniques on characterization and plot points. My only critique is that some of the blind spots she was obliged to create as a means of maintaining suspense seemed rather forced, to the point that I found myself going, “What? No. Come on. Why would you assume THAT?” But if there were three of those in 80-kerbillion pages, that’s not such a bad track record.

I am also glad that I’ve finished it, so that my mom can stop gloating that it took me five months to accomplish what she did in one (though she does acknowledge that she doesn’t have an office job, or a kid to raise, or very many reasons to go outside between December and March).

So now I am resolved to plow through some stuff that’s been on my to-read list for ages. This morning’s commute saw me begin the audiobook of William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire.  I’m not far enough into it yet to have an opinion, except to say that he’s a very engaging writer and I enjoy his voice. I’m not part of the Manchester fan club; I’ve only read bits of his Churchill books. (I’m sure that my husband, upon seeing this, will stack the full bibliography on my pillow tonight.) The rabble-reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem fairly polarized, but I can’t tell if that’s because he’s flagrantly disregarding the facts or people just can’t stand his opinions.

At night, I’m working on Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda, which I am enjoying a lot. Much of what he says is fairly obvious (to someone of my stripes, anyway), but it’s nice to see that other people watched Family Ties and thought Alex Keaton’s lines were funny-because-true, not funny-because-dumb.  It has also left me wondering why vast investment has been made in conservative news, talk shows, etc., but none has been made in the field of TV entertainment. I’d like to see that happen. No idea how to make it so.  I’d like to see a TV show where teenage girls are funny because they are smart and kind, not because they are vicious and sex-crazed. I’d like to see a TV show where men open doors and women let them and it isn’t a big debate about NOT HELPLESS and MALE OPPRESSION, but a simple gesture of respect and recognition of that gesture. Civility, not mockery or defensiveness or noise.

(For the perfect — if outdated — representation of this, I direct you to the movie Singles: He opens her car door, she reaches over and unlocks his. And without a word actually spoken between them, these gestures are perfectly understood by the receiving party.  More, more, more of that, please.)

In other news, I heard from the agent. I am still on hold.  She seemed to like the writing, but have no confidence in finding a buyer/market for the story. I was more or less prepared for that and ready to shop it around to smaller, niche houses, but she waved me off and has a colleague looking at it now.  So I can still go to sleep at night with an ember of hope in my heart.

While that is going on, I am resolved to wrapping up and maybe shopping around some fiction. I have promised my kid that he and I are going to work together on some projects; based on previous experience, this will end in a combo plate of enjoyable memories mixed with passionate, angry-tears arguments about absence of logic and stomping of creativity. If nothing else, it will be an exercise in teamwork. If more comes of it, that will be nice, too.

And, of course, there’s always the day job. Word work is word work, and finding elegant ways to rephrase clunkers is always good practice.

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Nothing to See Here

Still working my way through the Diana Gabaldon series.

Still enjoying my summer and not working very hard on improving myself in a literary fashion.

Still in a holding pattern on the book.

Still not working on a Next Project.

Still prefer Facebook to Twitter and not doing much to boost my presence on either, much less any other social media.

Still not going to ag school.

Still pretty happy with life, all things taken together.

All of which serves to explain the month of silence, and may be an indicator of more of the same in the coming month.

All is well.

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Good Storytelling

Honestly, it’s been a bit of a relief to not be writing anything beyond work and blogs. I’ve spent that time reading and watching a lot of movies, instead. (Along with the usual job/yardwork/etc.)

Last week we went to see Jaws on the big screen as part of the Turner Classic Movies thing. In the introductory bit, Ben Mankiewicz referred to it as a movie that has had people “jumping out of their seats” for 40 years. I murmured to my husband that I’d seen it countless times and not jumped once.

This is the difference between seeing a movie on TV and on the big screen. I jumped at least twice.

But honestly, I was more impressed by how different that movie feels when you watch it in a theater. With no distractions, in a dark theater, it’s a very different experience, and one of the few movies I’ve really felt that difference. The pacing feels like a slower buildup, and it’s more of a treat to watch how the different pieces fit together.

I haven’t read the book. I should, I know. It generally goes against my philosophy to see a movie before (much less without ever) reading the book. But this movie came out when I was five, so I wasn’t about to read the book then. And although I didn’t get around to seeing it until 20 years after that, it’s always been “that movie” more than “that movie adaptation.” I’m not sure I knew there was a novel until about the same time I saw the movie for the first time.

It’s also, really, a masterfully crafted story. There’s the shark, of course, and the money shot at the end that sold all the tickets when the movie first came out. But what’s really amazing is the structure of the story and the characters. Brody serves as the audience proxy, bringing us along as he gathers information and explanations. Hooper is the voice of reason, the smart guy who can offer those explanations. And there’s Quint, who’s deliciously crazy and creepy and impatient and keeps things interesting.

The big monologue in the movie is Quint’s, of course, talking about the USS Indianapolis. But to me, the best scene is where Brody is at the dinner table with his son and the kid is mimicking his moves. It’s humanizing and sweet and touching, in a way that invests you in the character.

Admittedly, this is pretty much a Spielberg trademark. Many of his best scenes are the “make you care” small moments, set around a family table. Think pizza in E.T.,  breakfast in Poltergeist. Maybe it’s hokey as all get out. Maybe it’s a cheap manipulative trick. Don’t care. It works, and well. And it’s those small moments that make the big horrors seem That Much Bigger when they come along.

And not for nothing? Humanizing moments are hard, y’all. I know they’re hard to write, and I bet they’re hard to act. It requires utter sincerity and a willingness to show total vulnerability. I think it’s safe to say that most of us care more about our families than anything else and at the same time are at our most exposed with them. It’s hard enough to do that in real life, when it’s a real thing and the emotions are real. Trying to conjure up that feeling when you are creating a scene about someone else, and do it in such a way that will affect a reader or viewer, even further removed from the scene—it almost borders on arrogance. But when it’s done well? Wow.

It’ll be interesting for me to watch Jaws again next time it’s on TV and see if I have the same reaction to the storytelling. I bet I don’t jump out of my seat, though.

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