Monday, December 29, 2008

Finished: PILLARS OF THE EARTH, by Ken Follett

Wow. Just ... wow.

I really loved this book. And I enjoyed seeing how the author managed some of the same challenges I've had writing in this period - the lack of measurement for time and space as we are so accustomed to today, the sparse furnishings and lack of familiar occupations, the domination of the Church in all aspects of daily life.

Ken Follett's writing is very detail-driven: you really get a feel for the setting and the characters' moods and motivations. The plot is a collection of arcs in the lives of the characters, each of their stories rising and touching one another to form together a coherent, beautiful story whose structure mimics the cathedral that is really the primary character of the book. And although he gets into the minds of both his male and female characters, his perspective and "voice" are decidedly masculine - linear, relying on power struggles as the driving force, focusing on the world of men, in which the women still play a role, but only as side characters.

I've just begun THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I'm already struck by the difference in voice. I'm only 50 pp in, but this is very clearly a story about women written by a woman. Bradley's prose also has more sense of place and time in it than Follett's. For the most part, Follett tells the story using modern language and phrasing. This was also my own approach; I was concerned that trying to modify the prose and the way the characters spoke to something that would be suggestive of ancient times would come across as contriving and distract with its awkward unfamiliarity. Somehow, though, Bradley uses words like "hearkened" and "foemen" with such fluidity that I feel I'm a visitor to another world that is complete and rich.

I'm realizing as I'm reading these books that I may have over-edited some of my writing. As I revised, I was so focused on eliminating redundancy and using correct grammar that I may have taken out some of what made the writing uniquely mine. I guess with experience, a writer gains the confidence to know when breaking the rules is necessary to the story, and when it's just bad writing.

I'm hoping to begin the re-write on GWENDOLYN'S SWORD this week. My day job is still pretty demanding, even through the holidays, but my head is racing with thoughts and lines and ideas so I'll need to start writing again soon. The prospect is both exciting and daunting - I'm a little worried about disappearing into the story again for months on end, and how hard it was to still manage the rest of my life and be present with the kids and Kirby. But write I must.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Inspiring Young Writers

I picked up this story on Publisher's Marketplace's Automat and had to share.

A teacher in Provo started his own online publishing business focusing on schools and educators to allow schools to cheaply publish the works of their students.

What a great idea!

There are other online self-publishing businesses, but they were cost-prohibitive for schools, students and teachers to take advantage of. But with prices starting at $7.95/book, www.mightyauthors.com puts publishing easily in their reach. The students get really excited when a work of theirs shows up in the school library or on a classroom's bookshelf, and the kids are checking out each other's books. So exciting!

I'm close to 750pp into PILLARS OF THE EARTH now, and it's funny; even though there are 200+ pages yet to go, I can feel the tempo of the story shifting. The plot has had a steady, climbing arc, and even with enough yet to go that it could be a novel in itself, the various threads are coming to fruition and mysteries are resolving and things are starting to settle into place. Mary Gentle's ASH: A SECRET HISTORY literally arrived on my doorstep today from England, and at over 1,000 pages I've got lots more hand cramps ahead of me, but I can't wait to dive into it.

And my own writing? Still simmering. I've thought of other things that need to be corrected. I've had a ton of work show up in the last few weeks, which is a very good thing. I'm still planning how to approach such extensive revisions without accidentally deconstructing the whole book. I received another rejection yesterday from an agent. Just another confirmation that I really need to rework this manuscript. I'm thinking next month, if work will give me a break, I'll be able to get back into it again. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Now That's Humbling

One of my favorite writers, who had said he was done, is apparently writing again. And he has written 4 (FOUR) versions of a novel and may be now working to pull together the best of each of them into one work. Jeez. I'm getting my panties in a wad over the major rewrite I have ahead of me, and this man has written FOUR VERSIONS of the same novel. I'm just humbled by the commitment to artistic integrity. What a man. What a writer.

According to The Guardian, a friend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (author of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD, and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA)has reported that the Nobel Prize winning author is working on a love story, but that he's become highly demanding and critical of himself.

I recall from the exhibit on Miro in Barcelona that Miro went through a similar crisis late in his life. One of his final works was simply a series of canvases with a single black line slashing across them. He was obsessed with the line. All of his artistic vision and focus had finally become so abstracted, so distilled, that he was now conveying everything through a single line. It was a very emotional and touching moment, looking at the canvases and listening to the art critic narrating my audiotour through my headphones describe how a master like Miro had gotten to the point that a single line was all he needed, and yet it was the most impossible thing in the world to do justice to. It was so hard for him to get right, and in the end, I'm not sure he was finally satisfied with how it turned out.

I love Marquez's writing. I'm thrilled that there may still be more work forthcoming from him.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Revisions, Rewrites and Redrafts

After nearly 20 queries and only one request for a full (which ended in a polite rejection), I've decided I need to do some serious re-working to the manuscript. I looked into hiring an editor to help me, but for the developmental-level feedback I need (not just a proofreader), it gets pretty pricey. I have some ideas about things to re-work - certainly the opening, give the main baddie more depth, clarify the heroine's motivations and eliminate an awkward prop for something more meaningful. So I'll forge ahead on my own.

It's hard to gauge on your own how good/bad your writing is. And judging only from the polite form rejections, you know something is awry, but it's impossible to put your finger on exactly what that might be. Certainly some portion of the rejects could relate to some arbitrary factor completely unrelated to the quality of the manuscript - I used the word "review" instead of "consider" when thanking an agent for having a look at my sample dutifully pasted into the query as instructed, for example. Not all agents are knee-jerk like that, but some admit to such habits. Which apparently must be working for them, so that's fine. I've had plenty of friend readers, but they are reluctant to criticize, which is understandable although I'd certainly appreciate the feedback.

I've got three months until the deadline for the Writers League of Texas' manuscript contest. Surely I can get a lot of work done by then, considering it only took 9 weeks to write the original work. I'm daunted by the possibility of failure with this book, and by the amount of work still ahead of me. But I love the characters and their story. I have to keep trying.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RIF Takes On a New Meaning for Publishers

Remember when RIF stood for "Reading Is FUNdamental"?

As a tech sector refugee, I'm much more familiar with the other, pinker meaning for RIF: Reduction In Force.

Having only recently turned my attention to publishing, I'm not sure how inured the industry is to these cycles. When you work in software and chips (even as a lawyer), you get used to the RIF cycles. Hopefully you get at least a few weeks' severance out of it, and if you can manage to pick up another job quickly, then hey - BONUS. All's well that ends well. On the other hand, if you get no severance and it's a few months before you get your next job, then start working on your positive attitude now because you'll need it for the long haul.

So, all hell's breaking loose at the major houses right now. Not that the holidays aren't stressful enough on their own. Having had plenty of experience on both sides of the table with RIF's, I thought I'd share some wisdom if you find yourself sitting down for one of these painful meetings.

RIF-er:

1. Don't try to be a friend.

Allow the person who's getting the bad news their anger. After all, when the meetings over, they're going to go put their stuff in a box and try to figure out how to pay for COBRA insurance for their kids. You'll go back to your desk and your job. No matter how compassionate, empathizing and caring you try to be, you will still be The Asshole On The Other Side Of The Table. Accept the situation for what it is, and don't try to rob the poor RIF-ee of their right to hate you for the next 20 minutes. At least allow them that much.

2. Have a neutral third party in the room with you.

Here's the lawyer in me coming out: have a witness, but not someone who would be provocative in the sense of making the RIF-ee feel ganged up on. People tend to behave better when there's someone else in the room, plus it will help with any he-said-she-said arguments that may come up later.

3. Be prepared and organized.

Have all your exit paperwork ready and at hand. Have packing supplies ready. Have security available on call, even if you don't think you'll need them. Be ready to answer all questions.

4. Never, ever RIF anyone over the phone, email, twitter, or any other method than a face-to-face meeting.

Don't be a weasel. RIF's suck more for the RIF-ee than the RIF-er. Suck it up and at least have the courage to allow the RIF-er the dignity of a personal meeting.

RIF-ee:

1. Get the hell outta Dodge.

Seriously. Get your stuff and go. Quickly. Hanging around will only make you bitter. Trust me on this.

2. Don't burn bridges.

Keep your snarky comments to yourself. Don't take anything with you that isn't yours. Be a consummate professional about it. RIFs happen all the time. It's nothing personal, and if you take it personally, you're only digging a deeper hole for yourself to have to climb out of again when it's time to go get the next job. Something about RIF's: they tend to spawn new ventures, new opportunities, new companies. You want to be thought of well when those new things are coming together and someone like you could fill a spot in it. Keep your contacts up, start making coffee and lunch and drinks dates with everyone in your network. Remember birthdays and anniversaries.

3. Get ready for the long haul of positive thinking.

Finding a job in a down economy is hard. Keeping your energy and enthusiasm up after a string of dead ends and rejections is hard. Whatever you have to do to prepare yourself for that, do it. Go for more walks. Get more sleep. Eat healthier. Set aside some of your free time for pleasure reading, crosswords, drives in the country - whatever it is that recharges you. Be kind to yourself and your body. You need all the resources and support you can draw from. Now is a good time to re-think self-destructive habits and toxic relationships. Maybe it's time for a complete change of career. Clear your head and get yourself to a good place so you can make that decision based on rational deliberation.

4. Figure out what you want, but don't put people on the spot.

Something I learned during my own series of layoffs was that people wanted to help me - I didn't need to ask them for help. Asking people directly if they knew of any jobs or job leads put them on the spot and in the uncomfortable position of having to tell me they couldn't help me - it was a real downer for both of us. I realized that when I met with someone over coffee or lunch, if I could tell them with enthusiasm what I was looking for, what I was interested in, who I was talking to, what my plans were, they would naturally get swept up by the possibilities and suggest leads and other contacts without my asking. Really, try it. People are drawn to a can-do attitude and want to be a part of your success.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

50 Hottest Women Sword Fighters

Okay, I'll be honest: personally, for my gawking moments, I'd rather stare at the 50 hottest men sword fighters (Gerard Butler, Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Clive Owen, Jet Li, Johnny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen ...). But I couldn't help but bring attention to this fabulous listing of sword-fighting heroines from tv and movies. Some were surprising (Kim Cattrall? You GO girl!) and others may have been badly under-rated (Sandahl Bergman, I thought, was a revelation of feminine machismo in Conan). But it's a great reminder of our long-term fascination with the idea of sword-wielding women.

http://www.onlyknives.com/the-50-hottest-women-sword-fighters/2/

Monday, December 1, 2008

What I'm Reading - Medieval Fiction and Chicks with Swords

But apparently never the two shall meet. I've had a bear of a time finding examples of stories of women swordfighters set in the middle ages. You'd think it wouldn't be that hard. Here's a shout out to Mary Gentle for writing ASH: A SECRET HISTORY, a blend of historical fiction and fantasy set in 15th c. Europe that features - ta da! - Ash, a sword-fighting heroine. I can't wait to get my hands on it (hopefully I can find the UK version that's all one book instead of having to hunt down the 4 paperbacks here in the US) after I finish everything else I have in front of me right now.

Here's today's list:

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, by Ken Follett
GRACELING, by Kristin Cashore
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, by Philippa Gregory
OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon
SWORD OF EIBHLIN, by Jack Sorenson

I'll post mini-reviews for each as I finish them.

Between work and the kids, I get about 2 hours a day to read. Not great. But I'm trying to readjust back to a normal sleep schedule in preparation for another long haul of regular nights up until 12 or 1 (and then up at 6 or worse with Ada) if the manuscript gets any attention. I'm also taking a little break from the querying right now. I've found about half a dozen more agents that I want to query, but I need to focus on billable work again. Also, I'm hitting about the 3-week mark for my first wave of queries, so I'm hoping to get a few more responses this week and the next.

If anyone has any suggestions for books about sword-fighting heroines from the middle ages (not pure fantasy worlds), I'd love to hear about them.