Tuesday, February 21, 2012

laistrygonians and cyclops, wild poseidon: on difficult revisions

Thus far, INTERN has been rather shy about discussing her own novel-to-be on this blog, in part because she is wary of writing too much about herself, and in part because until recently, she would often wake up in a panic that she Won't Be Able to Pull It Off (the novel) and should therefore refrain from mentioning it until it's safely done.

INTERN's has not been one of those manuscripts that slips and slides, barely tinkered with, from writing desk to agency to publisher to bookstore. On the contrary, the number and scope of changes (and change-backs. and changes-again) has been dizzying. Although INTERN is increasingly stoked with the way things are coming together, she has felt, at other points in the revision process, like a wretched third grader held back after class to struggle with a math problem she just can't solve, long after everyone else has finished and gone out to play.

Panic. Despair. Self-laceration. Improbable solution after improbable solution, none of them surviving the delete button for more than a day. Googling, for chrissakes. Googling.

What finally turned it around for INTERN was some good advice from her editor (of which more in a future post), and an ultimatum from Techie Boyfriend: you are creating a Work of Art, not engineering a septic system. Act like it.

In short, it has been an Interesting Process, by which INTERN means an embarrassingly emo process, and while INTERN is happy to report that the panic and despair are safely behind her, going through them was an experience she will never forget.

Then late last night, while unwinding after an (exhilarating and productive!) revision session, INTERN came across this poem that seems to explain EVERYTHING. In his poem Ithaka, the poet C. P. Cavafy writes of the creative process:
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Perhaps it was the 4 AM, post-revision high, but this poem seemed to reframe everything about the revision process in such satisfyingly mythical, Hero's Journey, psychoanalytic terms that INTERN read it ten times, in total wonder.

Of course! The Cyclops of the dozen placeholder endings (= unwillingness to confront the fear of death!), the Laistrygonians (whatever the heck those are) of the bungled character arcs (= the writer's inability to understand where her own journey is taking her!) etc. etc. etc. Every problem in revision was really a Struggle With the Self! How meaningful and even necessary all that wretchedness can seem in hindsight, with the help of a dead poet!

This whole adventure—for it has been an adventure—has lead INTERN to wonder: is there inherent value to suffering over the course of a creative endeavor? How much of it is meaningful and growth-inducing, and how much of it is avoidable and unnecessary? Is a difficult manuscript a kind of hero's journey, or is that just a story you can tell yourself as a consolation prize for things not having been more of a breeze?

INTERN would also like to know: are panic and despair something you grow out of as you become a more experienced novel-writer? Or are they more of a constitutional thing? To what extent does one doom oneself (by having the wrong outlook, or not enough confidence, or whatever) and to what extent is a particular manuscript doom-causing?

Wishing you all good luck with your Cyclops.

Monday, February 13, 2012

don't panic: why your publishing disaster matters less than you think

Since this blog's inception in 2009, INTERN has been the happy recipient of all sorts of panicked, confessional e-mails and requests for advice from readers undergoing their own personal Publishing Disaster. These Disasters are spread fairly evenly over the course of the publishing process.

There's the Beginner Phase Querying Disaster:

I put down "Won second place in the My Little Pony poem-writing contest 2003" in my query letter, but then my writing friend told me it wasn't a relevant credit and I shouldn't have included it, and now the ENTIRE PUBLISHING UNIVERSE is going to think I'm some kind of My Little Pony-writing IDIOT and should I e-mail those agents and explain?

There's the Advanced Phase Querying Disaster:

I sent out my queries and wasn't hearing anything back, so in the meantime I kept revising the manuscript, which is now significantly different from the manuscript I pitched in my queries—and today I got a request for a partial, so do I send the old version or the new and possibly better version???

There's the Clusterfuck of Doom Disaster, Agent Version:

I just got off the phone with Agent Z, but then I checked my e-mail and there was a last-minute full request from Agent Y, not to mention the fact that I already promised Agent X I'd get back to him by tonight, except I think I like Agent Y better than both Agents X and Z, and holy crap what do I do?

Fast forward a month or two and there's the Clusterfuck of Doom Disaster, Editor Version:

My manuscript just went on submission, and I'm TOTALLY FUCKED because I tweeted a joke that could possibly be interpreted as a negative review of one of the books Editor A worked on, and I wore the wrong color pants to a conference that Editor B was also attending, and I think Editor C goes to the same gym as my sister-in-law, with whom I am engaged in a blood feud and who will not hesitate to RUIN ME if she finds out?

What all these e-mails share in common is the author's conviction that he/she has a) committed a terrible blunder that is b) extremely urgent to resolve or risk c) a lifetime of failure and regret.

After reading and responding to dozens of these tortured missives (and tracking their outcomes), INTERN has something to report:

With very, very, VERY few exceptions, these situations (or in some cases, non-situations) resolve themselves.

Sometimes it takes a polite e-mail to the right person. Often, it takes even less (that editor whose book you could theoretically be perceived as slighting on Twitter? If you send her an apology, SHE IS GOING TO THINK YOU'RE INSANE.)

Here's something else that INTERN can tell you with confidence:

These kinds of situations happen all the freaking time.

Do you really think you're the first writer who sent the wrong version of a manuscript to an agent? Or went on submission to an editor who has endured the sight of you wearing an unfortunate pair of pants? This kind of thing happens every day in publishing. Agents and editors have seen it before and know how to handle it (often, by saying, "No worries!")

If INTERN had a nickel for every crisis that mysteriously ended up NOT RUINING SOMEONE'S CAREER, she would be a very rich lady indeed.

So please, writers—don't panic. You're doing OK. You really are. Some day soon, you will look back on this disaster and laugh until you cry.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

tell a dream, lose a reader...but why?

The first time INTERN heard Henry James' pronouncement "Tell a dream, lose a reader," she was baffled. Why not "write a training montage, lose a reader" or "use Comic Sans, lose a reader" or any other writing peeve? What is it about a dream sequence that makes readers roll their eyes, yawn, or chuck the book onto the floor?

After a several years of having this question gnaw at her (and writing and discarding a few doomed dream sequences of her own), INTERN has a few theories about why, despite writers' ongoing love affair with writing them, readers tend to dislike dreams.

Dreams feels like cheating.

You'd cry foul if the very tool your protagonist needed dropped out of the sky on a silver parachute (unless your book is The Hunger Games, that is). All too often, writers use dreams to parachute information to the protagonist ("the key is hidden in the banana grove!") rather than having the protagonist do the hard work of figuring out those problems on her own.

As a result, these discoveries feel unearned: rather than marveling at the protagonist's skill and intelligence in solving the mystery, we roll our eyes at her ever-so-convenient subconscious. We may even start to actively dislike her: "Come on, guuyyys—I totally dreamed that! I swear!"

Suggestion: Never use a dream to hand your protagonist something she ought to have worked for.

They're repetitive.

Often, dream sequences do no more than rehash, in a slightly more surrealistic or jazz handsy way, emotional content or plot information we've already covered in other scenes. Real Life Scene A shows the protagonist having a heart-wrenching visit with his dying grandmother; Dream Sequence A shows the protagonist having a dream about his grandmother in which she repeats the same life lesson she delivered that afternoon, except now her wise old face is lined in silver etc etc. In other words, many dream sequences are redundant (for more on redundant scenes, see INTERN's post on the topic.)

Suggestion: When a dream scene and a lived scene replay the same event, ask yourself: Do both scenes bring something new to the table? Do both scenes have distinct and different functions? Or are they merely two versions of the exact same scene?

A dump is a dump is a dump.

Dream sequences are easy to write and dastardly difficult to cut. They sometimes contain the most beautiful writing in the entire manuscript—or it can feel that way to the writer, who poured every gorgeous image that wouldn't fit in other parts of the novel into the dream sequence.

Just as writers use "reading the newspaper" scenes as info-dumps, we tend to use dream sequences as poetry-dumps. And while a dump of poetry is arguably nicer than a dump of information, the fact remains that a dump is a dump is a dump.

Suggestion: If you feel like your writing isn't beautiful or literary enough, a dream sequence isn't going to make up for it. Put your energy into line edits.


Do you skim the dream sequences in other people's writing? Can you think of an example of dreams done effectively in a novel? Do dreams work better in some genres than others? Have you ever held on to a dream sequence that really ought to be cut? Do dream sequences get too much flak for being boring and self-indulgent? Do they deserve more respect? INTERN wants to know!