The only thing a writer must do, to legitimately call herself a writer, is write. Period. While it is true that the world is full of writers who will never be published, you will never find a published author who doesn’t write. (For simplicity’s sake I’m ignoring the existence of ghost writers and plagiarists.)
Writers write. This simple phrase reverberates in my mind over and over, getting louder and louder, the longer I go without writing. While it’s easy to dismiss a lapse (it was Thanksgiving, I crashed my car, I got the stomach flu and wound up in the hospital) the simple fact is, if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.
All of this is my way of confessing that, despite the best of excuses, I haven’t been a writer since last Tuesday. It’s gnawing at me, like a hungry cat that has decided to chew on my sweater for sustenance.
So I declare this morning a belated day of thanks dedicated to this blog and my readers. If not for my commitment to posting a new entry every Monday, I might continue to avoid sitting at the keyboard, but even the small feat of spilling a few hundred words onto the page gets the fingers nimble and the brain ready to work once more.
Here I go…
I finished my first draft on Tuesday. It weighs in at 247 pages, and I almost can’t believe I did it. When I sat down in August to start this process it seemed so far away, but five pages a day (on average), five days a week, for ten weeks landed me right where I wanted to be.
To be honest, I haven’t so much as opened the file since then. I gave myself last week to celebrate, by not working on it at all. Instead I caught up on some reading (you have to read good fiction to write good fiction), and worked on some other projects.
Today is when it really gets interesting. Today I start taking those 247 pages, and molding them into a really good story. This is not to dismiss the work that I’ve done, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I never edit as I’m writing, and the story morphed considerably as I went along. Certain themes presented themselves, while elements that seemed critically important in the beginning now seem superfluous.
The trick is, I’m not sure how to take this next step. I have a feeling that the best thing to do is outline the whole story, scene for scene, then step back and really consider what it’s about. As my thesis advisor is always pushing me to consider – what question am I trying to answer with this story?
Yikes. I think I’m more daunted by rewrites than I was by those first pages, ten weeks ago. If any one out there has any words of wisdom – lay ‘em on me.
On Thursday I drove to Beverly Hills for my meeting with the Fancy Hollywood Agent (FHA). His office was buzzing with assistants. The man at the front desk told another that I was there, and I could hear word being passed back through the office that I had arrived. I would like to say that it sounded like a nervous, conspiratorial “she’s here,” “she’s here,” but really it sounded more like “who?” “oh, yeah.”
Once inside FHA’s office, the walls lined with dark wooden bookshelves exploding with tomes of all kinds, I told him my new ideas for my story. We talked about what makes a novel sell (and by correlation makes an agent interested). He said he liked my ideas, but was serious when he told me a book like mine would have to be exceptionally well written.
After about ten minutes, we said our goodbyes, and he told me to send him the first two pages when they were ready. “Two pages?” I asked. “Ah, make it three.”
This is the biggest lesson I took from my meeting with FHA. Nothing short of brilliant writing will be considered, and don’t dick around with the small talk. If the story isn’t juicy by page two, you’re not going to get anyone’s attention.
This stirs up a whole new batch of questions for me. Do we write to get attention, or do we write what we love and hope people pay attention? Is there a middle ground? How much can a writer tailor her writing to appeal to an audience and still consider herself an artist?
Right now I’m going with the theory that I am not a unique snowflake. I am, in fact, one of over 6.5 billion people living on this planet. If I write a story I love, and write it well, odds are that there are other people out there in the world who will love it too.
“The Feathered Tale of Talula Jones” is my thesis project for USC’s Master of Professional Writing program. It’s been an awesome experience, and to top it off, I’ve been fortunate enough to have writer/net-worker extraordinaire Gina Nahai (author of “Caspian Rain”) as my advisor.
In Gina’s class a few weeks ago, my classmates and I had the chance to pitch our stories to a fancy Hollywood agent (I’ll call him FHA, for both privacy and brevity). Off the top of his head he tossed some interesting and unique ideas back at us (that’s why he gets paid the big bucks). The whole experience got me thinking about a few key elements of my story. After just one five-minute exchange with this guy I’m toying with some exciting changes – nothing that would a require a total rewrite, just a slightly different, more magical framing.
After letting these ideas roll around in my head for a few days, I emailed FHA and asked if I could have a few more minutes of his time, and what do you know, he said yes. So this Thursday I’m going down to FHA’s fancy Beverly Hills office to pitch him a revised outline for my story.
Would I be totally grateful if he were willing to read my manuscript when it’s done? Absolutely. Would I dance down my street singing the “Fame” anthem if he actually decided he wanted to rep me some day? Um, hell yeah. But for the time being I’m just excited to get feedback from someone who knows this business so well.
Now I just need to get a revised version of my new outline ready to pitch succinctly, so I don’t get nervous and screw it up. My mantra this week is “be cool, girl, be cool.”
Tune in next week and I’ll tell you how it went.
As it turns out, the best teacher I’ve had on the topic of avoiding cliché was my high school art teacher – Mr. Miller. He used to talk about the difference between symbols and art. A symbol, he said, is something like a stick figure. It conveys a basic idea, and keeps us from walking into the wrong bathroom at the movie theater, but that’s about all it does.
To create art, you have to work past the stick figure. Art shows you a unique person – the scar on his hand, the wrinkles around his eyes, the hunch of his shoulders. The details, and how you depict them as the artist, are what make it art.
In writing, that stick figure is what we call a cliché. It gets the idea across, but lacks any artistic inflection.
I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Miller lately, and not because he was super dreamy (though he was). The fact is, setting my story in the desert gives me a specific and sometimes limited pallet. It is hot, dry and dusty. Browns and yellows dominate. The sky is usually clear. So telling my story in this fairly monochromatic setting is a challenge. How to describe this specific place, not just a symbolic place?
As inspiration I decided to reread “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, because it too sets down in an environment without a lot of variation. Opening in the dust bowl, Steinbeck had to dig deep to paint a picture of the place, to find the words to make it real. Check this out:
“A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the dusk.”
“Ahead of him, beside the road, a scrawny, dusty willow tree cast a speckled shade. Joad could see it ahead of him, its poor branches curving over the way, its load of leaves tattered and scraggly as a molting chicken.”
That is some juicy description. No linguistic stick figures here.
What I’m learning is that it’s not easy. Writing descriptions like that is like painting a picture. You can’t just drag a dark line for the horizon and blob a yellow circle for the sun. You have to really look at it, and then chose your words carefully so as to tell exactly what it looks like. It takes attention and dedication. No dark stormy nights, no girls as thin as soda straws.
More recently my teacher Janet Fitch (amazing writer of “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black”) told our class that anything you’ve ever heard anyone say before is cliché. It’s the way you tell it that makes your story unique. The more I pay attention, the more I notice stick figures in my writing and have to erase them, stop, and ask myself, “what does it really look like?”
So, this is what I’m shooting for. Nothing short of Steinbeck. A girl’s gotta have goals, right?