Since it’s Spring Break for me this week and my brain’s on vaca, you get to suffer through these for the Ides of March…
Those familiar with this blog know I also teach college, both undergrad and graduate, and this past weekend I finished reading a grad student’s thesis. It’s a young adult urban fantasy, quite inventive, and intrinsically reflective of the everyday life and culture of modern youth (as long as that youth is also a witch, a werewolf, or a supernatural of the author’s own fabrication). The piece was written by a young adult, though not as young as the protagonist, but still young enough to be fully vested in the reality she was presenting. And because of that, I was struck by one thing which has definitely changed since I started writing many years ago–how much our plot devices have been changed by our modern devices.
Think about the plot of the underground classic Rocky Horror Picture Show–a young couple’s car breaks down on a back road in 1975. They have to walk to a house so they can phone for help, thus entering into strange environs where hijinks ensue. But everyone has a phone now, so they’d just call AAA or Roadside Assistance and wait in their car until the tow truck arrives. Or in 1969, when Claire of Dragonfly in Amber needs to find a copy of the Fraser’s deed of sasine. She must travel to Scotland and ask a county clerk to research it for her. These days, she would simply do a Google search, and locate the county website, communicate through the county portal or email the clerk directly. And how long would a modern Jane Eyre have to wait to find out about the mysterious Mr. Rochester? Seconds via another Google search, or maybe go right to LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter, or even TMZ or eOnline, hoping whatever trash-talk site of the week has covered he and his latest arm candy, the big player that he is. So how do we work around these new solutions to old plot twists? How do we throw the wrench into the mystery or the romance, tossing a roadblock into the long, complicated trail that leads to our story unraveling?
Damned if I know. But what I do know it’s got to be more than just the phone’s battery dying, the lack of hotspots or WiFi, the profile erased, or any other iteration of deus ex machina. It’s going to take a work-around of creative proportions. Maybe the tow truck arrives is haunted, the deed of sasine has been destroyed in a conflagation, or Mr. Rochester is actually a woman. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as it’s so fresh the pages start turning by themselves.
I really don’t have anything to bitch about. I’m finally deep into this work-in-progress, the characters are getting human and quirky, the plot’s clipping along, and I’m pretty sure the people who have taken an interest in it won’t be disappointed. But here’s the thing: I’m still a slave to my day job, I still have family responsibilities that voraciously command my time, and I’m involved in a couple of professional organizations I wish I had more time for. Then there’s the fact that the deeper I get into this book the more the damn thing follows me around. Like today when I was in the shower and the whole thing decided to coalesce. I mean fuck! I’m in the shower! You know what a royal ass pain it was to hurry out and get to my notepad before it was sucked away by my severely-overworked brain cells? I think I managed to get it all down, but still!
Doesn’t help I’ve put myself on a deadline. No, it’s not from the publisher this time. It’s positively my own. I think I work best that way–assinchair assinchair assinchair. Every single solid free minute not already spoken for is devoted to the act of writing–early mornings before work, complete weekends, after dinner, and late into the night. Sometimes I just sit stare. Other times the words flow like wine. I get up only to stretch my legs and refill my tea mug. Consequently my wrists hurt, my eyes feel strained, my back aches. As I write this I have a shooting pain in my thumb. I have Post-it notes all over my laptop. My bulletin boards can’t fit one more scrap of research and notes. The hard copy of my synopsis is folded over on page four and I still have seven more pages to go. My phone needs charging. My stapler’s empty. Tea’s cold. I have a stack of bills yet to pay. My TBR pile’s getting out of control. I need chocolate. Fritos. Mint chocolate chip gelato. I’ll end up having yogurt eaten over the sink. I have an invitation to a new bar opening in town on Saturday and I still want to go. Roman Holiday‘s on TCM tonight and I still want to watch it. I’ll probably do neither. Still, still, still.
Still, I write. Sometimes so badly my Composition students would probably split their sides laughing. Sometimes so wonderfully I astound myself, thinking I’ve subconsciously plagiarized. Either way I’ll write.
Yes, this is what the beach looks like in the winter, and being a Jersey Girl from the Shore, it’s a sight I’ve seen many times. Still, it’s no less strange, seeing snow on the beach, and it’s something that I’ll probably not see soon nearly as much as I’ve seen in the past. We’ve put the old homestead up for sale since the ‘rents have passed on, though if you live in Jersey, you’re never too far from the coastline. It’s where I grew up and it’s what has sustained me all these years, but change is good, and I’m looking if not for greener (or sandier) pastures, but different ones.
Like where? Well, I’ve always loved the mountains. My father’s side of the family comes from the Catskill region of New York State (though their roots are in Iowa and South Dakota). I have friends in Vermont, and having only been to the Rockies once, I’d like to see more of them. My sister is contemplating moving to a house on a lake, and at least if I swam in it (which is a given), I wouldn’t have to think about sharks. Not that I worry too much when I swim in the ocean, but it’s one less thing I have to worry about.
Anyway, we still have the beach house a bit longer so here’s one more pix. It’s a hell of a lot better media than I’ve been gawking at lately anyway.
I really have nothing to say. Actually, I’ve been pretty speechless these days, mainly because most of what has been going on around me, especially in the media, has made my jaw drop. One of gaping maw moments hit me this afternoon when my husband banged at my office window. He told me to hurry to the other side of the house where I saw this huge beaver (expand to see its big paddle tail), just chomping on some grass in the neighbor’s yard. We live on a lake, and beavers have been known to steal our sapling trees, but I’ve rarely seen them, rather the evidence of them visiting, such as the sharpened-to-a-pike stumps of trees they’ve hauled off to their lodges. But this one was live and in person, though I recalled hearing somewhere they were supposed to be nocturnal. Hyper-aware of that fact because just that morning, we had taken our cat for his annual check-up and shots, and a nocturnal animal in the day was a red flag for rabies. So tried to get some info before going outside, learning that although they are basically creatures of the night, they do often come out during the day to feed, and that their prime mating period is January to March. So maybe this was just a gestating female doing the beaver equivalent of running out in the middle of the night for some beaver pickles and ice cream. What the hell. It’s possible.
I cannot even begin to tell you how I feel these days. Off-kilter may be a good descriptor. Or how about on edge. Nervous. Keyed up. Obsessed (with the news, at least). Angry. Defensive. Inspired. Hopeful. Determined. Renewed. The last few words come courtesy of what I’ve seen happening around me, on the Mall, at airports, in public squares. People becoming more engaged in the process. Millennials taking to the streets and making their voices heard. Journalism has been reborn and invigorated (when’s the last time you heard about a Kardashian?) recalling its roots and the First Amendment. I mean seriously, who’d have thought Americans would experience a world we previously imagined only in dystopian fiction? But it it’s real, and if you think it’s not happening, look around and see the signs invading our daily lives. I can even give you an example of how it’s affecting my writing. My work-in-progress features a man who’s in the U.S. armed forces. I like this character, he’s smart and funny and charming, and has all the qualities–and foibles–I’d expect from a fully functioning rational human being. But since he’s an officer in the service, I can’t help thinking how he’d view his commander-in-chief, how he’d react if he were sent to engage in a military action he’d find indefensible. Would he let his moral compass guide him? Or would he blindly obey orders because that’s what all military are supposed to do? I just don’t know. We are living in extraordinary times. I told a friend the other day this is what it must have felt like right before the Civil War. One thing I do know is I’ve never felt more patriotic, and that’s not just jingoism, kids. I’ve never believed in the wisdom of our founding fathers more. Because their true genius lay in the fact they knew their experiment in democracy was flawed, trusting in future generations to pursue a more perfect union. Which is why we need to keep working on it going forward, and never ever back, never again.
As a follow-up to my sage advice on formatting you manuscript, I asked three agents about how much it matters in their determination on whether to ask to see more or simply hit the delete key. I might add that although there’s varying opinions on its importance, ambivalence aside you always want to make the best impression, so why play fast and loose? Make it the best it can be. But then again this is only my advice and the more you get rejected, the more publishing space that leaves for me. Just sayin’. Anyway, what they said, verbatim…
Marisa Corvisiero of The Corvisiero Literary Agency:
“We don’t put that much importance on the formatting in our decision making. Of course a clean well formatted easy to read manuscript is needed, but unless it makes it difficult to read or is clearly an issue with the authors aptitude, a ms. will not be declined because it isn’t well formatted. However, an agent might not continue reading if difficult to read. They may not even be aware that they don’t want to keep reading because figuring out the format is tiring them out. We prefer Times New Roman font size 12. 1 inch margins. Clear chapter headers.”
Lois Winston of the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency:
“Professionalism is very important. If a writer doesn’t take the time to present a professional query and manuscript, it says to the agent and/or editor that this is a person who will be a headache and take up far too much of the agent’s or editor’s time. There are too many good authors out there who are looking to get published and very few publishing slots in comparison.
“Agents and editors routinely and immediately weed out the unprofessional ones without giving more than a cursory look (if that) to the work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for any agent or editor to devote to a writer who won’t bother to learn how to present a professional looking submission. There are plenty of books and articles on the Internet that tell writers how to do this. Nowadays, most agents and editors won’t even bother to send a form rejection letter. They immediately hit the delete key.
“MS Word is the standard. I don’t know of any houses that use a different word processing software at this point. The ms. should be formatted in 12-pt. serif font. Times New Roman is the standard, but others are acceptable. (I once had a writer submit a sci-fi ms. in 8-pt. “Star Trek” font. He probably thought he was being ingenious; he was ignorant and stupid. I couldn’t read beyond the first few sentences without getting a headache.)
“Mss. should always be double-spaced. Margins are 1” – 1-1/2”. Typos happen, and we all understand that. I doubt there’s a book that has ever been published that didn’t contain at least one typo, even after multiple proofing from various professional copy editors and proofreaders. However, a manuscript that is loaded with typos from the first page onward will be an instant rejection. Spell-check is a writer’s best friend—as long as you don’t use auto-correct.”
Margaret Bail of Fuse Literary:
“I don’t think there’s any “standard” requirements, but the expectation is definitely for a clean, professional-looking manuscript. It speaks a lot to the author’s seriousness about their career and profession. The decision of an agent and editor should be based on the story itself, not on the formatting (unless formatting is integral to the storytelling in some way), so fancy formatting really just gets in the way of reading the story. Besides, as an agent I’m going to have to clean up and “fix” any fancy stuff before I send it to an editor. And a side note–clean also means a well-edited manuscript. I don’t want to have to spend hours fixing an author’s grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. If I get that in my inbox I’m not going to request the ms, much less read it.”
So that’s it. Ignore this advice at your peril, or if not, well, you’ve been warned.
Hey, why not post them? I was there, but they did come out pretty shitty. The Random House Open House was a Hunter College on December 15, not as exciting as being on their home turf, but the line-up was pretty darn stellar. Can’t really complain about that. So here’s my pix taken with my little Canon camera, and don’t bitch about them. If I’d used my phone they’d be even crappier.
Yes, okay, they’re really dark crappy pictures. But I have stellar images in my head! So glad I was there!