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Books Like Mine

I had lunch with an author friend of mine a couple weeks ago. She is working on her third book and is one of those rare individuals who has managed to actually make a (good) living as a novelist. Given that I am closing in on a finished version of my novel, I asked her how best to go about the process of finding it a home.

She gave me some good thoughts on the query process. She recommended researching books that are like mine, finding out who the agent was for them, and making a long list. Then, when I’m ready, I should query the top ten agents on my list all at once. Then, every time a rejection comes back, and rejections will come, I send my query to the next agent on my list.

Then she asked if I had researched books like mine. I confidently told her that yes, I had, and listed the novels I have read as inspiration. “1000 Acres,” by Jane Smiley, “Winter’s Bone,” by Daniel Woodrell, “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, and a few others. Then she gently pointed out that no, I needed books that were a lot more like mine – not just in style or content, but in who they were written by and when. Her advice was to find books that were debut novels, written recently, with some sort of similarity to mine in style or content. The important thing, she said, was to find an agent who is still hungry (ie – not representing books that are sure to sell because their authors are well known), and will work hard for my book.

So I’m searching for some new reading material. I went to the book store and forced myself not to buy Steve Almond

‘s new one, or Dave Eggars “Hologram for the King.” Theses are decidedly authors who I have little in common with (at this point in my career). Instead I went home and cruised Publisher’s Weekly and came up with one title: “The Age of Miracles ,” by Karen Thompson Walker.

It’s a debut novel, with what sounds like some magical elements, published last month. Check, check, and check. I’m excited to read it.

If anyone out there has any suggestions as to reading material that fits my requirements, please drop me a line. I would appreciate suggestions. I’m hoping to get at least 20 books on the list by the end of the year.

Page By Page

Just over two months ago I finished a draft of my novel. How does two months go by so quickly?

I promised myself I would get back into it on August 1st, and as the day approaches, I feel a tightening in my stomach.

There are plenty of practical reasons for this ulcer-inducing stress. First – I’ve been busy with freelance work lately, and am enjoying the income that comes with it. I’m a little worried about making the time for the novel again. Second I have six copies of my manuscript that have been returned to me with notes. The basic logistics of sorting through it all is daunting. And third: It’s summer time, and I desperately want to run off to the beach with the kiddos.

But the number one reason for my anxiety is this – writing is hard. I so desperately want to write a great effing story. And excellent writing takes serious work. What’s more, (and I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating), writing is like exercise. If you step away from it for a while, it’s really hard to get back into it. Of course, it’s not like I haven’t been writing. I write all day, but not fiction. I’ve (metaphorically) been doing pull-ups, when what I need is quad strength.

All whining aside, come August 1, I will pull out that stack of paper and start wading through it. One step at a time, I will tackle that beast. And the good news is, I don’t think the story is too far from done. There were two or three bigger things that most of my readers commented on, but they shouldn’t be too hard to fix. Then it’s just language. Line by line. Page by page. I will go through and make every bit of it sing.

My goal is to have a completed third draft by November 1. Then another round of feedback from readers. And then (eeep) I’ll start the query process.

Here’s hoping.

Ah, The Military

Yesterday I interviewed a two star Army General. I will admit I was nervous, seeing as he’s a big shot and all. I kept thinking “I should being saying ‘Sir’ more,” but he was quite nice, and easy to talk to.

The thing that struck me was the strategic level at which this individual thinks. He was smart, well spoken, totally understood what I was going for in the piece and gave me great material to work with. I wish all my interviews were so easy.

I don’t mean to sound surprised that he was such an interesting and intelligent individual. I guess it’s just that growing up with an ex-Marine father, I’ve been trained to think that all other branches of the military are inferior. Just kidding. Kind of.

The more likely source of my bias is that my main experience with military men is in one of two contexts: dating grunts from Camp Pendleton as an undergrad, and my dad’s buddies all drinking and telling wild stories about the crazy sh*t they used to get into in Vietnam. Either way, I guess I never connected the military with the people who actually run the country.

Turns out they do. And I’ll tell you what, not only did I get what I needed for my interview, I also got a teeny tiny glimpse of the efforts the government is making to be more efficient. You know, that giant budget deficit we’ve all been hearing so much about? Folks on the inside are actually working on that.

Anyhow, I wrapped up the piece today, and it came out quite well, if I do say so myself.

In other news, it’s looking like I will, in fact, get to help write the pro and con sheet for Prop 37. The work is for the League of Women Voters, which, not surprisingly, has double and triple layers of review for this sort of thing so that no one can slip their own biases into the work (not that I would ever do such a thing). I’m not even the sole writer on the initial draft, so rest assured, the arguments will be thorough.

Grammar Geeks Rejoice

I wouldn’t describe myself as cheap, so much as frugal (I think, in this economy, “frugal” has come to encompass a wider range penny pinching than it did in say 2004). So when I decided a few years ago to invest in a resource I think all writers need to have at their fingertips, the Chicago Manual of Style, I admit, I went to Amazon.com and bought a used copy of the 15th edition for $3, instead of the newer 16th edition for $40. It was kind of a no-brainer. I mean, how often do the rules of grammar really change?

Apparently, often enough that I am now officially behind the times. I was researching a project last night when I came across The Chicago Manual of Style website, and a page that lists the most important updates in the 16th edition. Cheapskates rejoice!

You can find the list here

, if you’re interested (and don’t try to pretend that updates in grammar rules don’t get you hot), but for me the biggest changes were as follows:

Northern California and Southern California are now officially capitalized as geographic and cultural entities. ‘Bout time.

While “Internet” and “World Wide Web” are still capitalized, “web,” “website,” and the like can use the lowercase.

Brand names that start with lowercase letters (iPad, iPod, and such), still use the lowercase, even if they start the sentence or heading.

There’s a lot more, most of it dealing with minutia, but have no doubt, I’ll be printing it out and tucking it into the ratty cover of my lowly 15th edition.

A Deep Respect for Democracy

I‘ve been getting a lot of questions lately about how Daniel’s doing. I’m thrilled to report his recovery continues to fall under the heading of “amazing.” His surgery was on June 7th, and yesterday (July 15) we went hiking. Hiking! We haven’t done that in years.

We loaded the little guy into the baby backpack, and Celeste walked. It was our first hike ever as a family of four. We did 1.5 miles to a water fall in the Angeles National Forest called Stuteravnt Falls. Daniel was a little tired after the three miles round trip (the last .6 is straight uphill), and Celeste was outright exhausted. That’s the longest hike she’s ever done, but she did it (the last .6 was a struggle). I was giddy.

I love hiking, and with Daniel’s back so bad and two little ones in tow, I had kind of just put it aside, accepting the possibility that it might not come back, but then, like magic, there we were. Even with Celeste’s periodic whining, and the little guy pulling my hair, and the crazy crowd at the waterfall, it was bliss. I’m already imagining the back country trips we might some day take in Yosemite. Here are some photos of us at the falls (yes, my girl hiked in  dress – she’s fancy like that).

As for the writing, I’ve been super busy. I’m working on three different articles for one client, wrapping up a newsletter for another, and I *might* get to write up the pros and cons of a ballot measure for the coming election. I have phone call to talk that through today. It’s unpaid, but it would be a great opportunity to write something that actually has a huge impact and I have to admit, it’s not an issue I can claim to be impartial on. It’s Prop 37

– the measure that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods.

In case you don’t know, I’ve done a lot of writing on this topic. For one month in 2010 I tried to avoid Monsanto products, just to see if it was possible and blogged about it on a blog called Month Without Monsanto

. That morphed into a whole “know your food” campaign called Digging Deep that now has nine different bloggers writing for it.

In my opinion, the data on the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods is lacking, and people have a right to know if the food they’re buying contains food that are of questionable safety. Did you know that in the US you can’t study a patented item (say a GM soybean) without permission from the patent holder? So here in the states the only people studying the safety of GM soybeans are the people who make them (Monsanto, among others). That’s a serious conflict of interest, in my book. In Europe, where the laws are different, Monsanto can’t seem to get approval on their GM soybeans. Hmmmmm.

Anyway, don’t get me started.

And that’s why I say I *might* be writing the ballot measure pro and con sheet. If they can provide me with the argument for the con side and all I have to do is polish it up and make it match the pro side, I can do that. But if they want me to actually research the con side, there’s no way I can be impartial about it. I wish I could. I even considered downplaying my passion for the topic, or out-rightly pretending to not care so that they would give me the job. Sadly, I have a deep respect for democracy and an informed voting public.

So I’m not sure if I will get the job. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I’d just like to say – YES on Prop 37!