An Addendum to “The Psychology of Abandonment”

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This image has been spreading like wildfire through the online writing and publishing community. Agents and editors post it with sage nods. Writers post it as a warning to others.

However, the graphic only applies to the reasons books are abandoned once someone has actually started reading them. Many books aren’t lucky enough to get past an initial screening process – usually, reading in the description on the back cover or the inner flap of the book jacket and a cursory look at the first page or two. Here’s what usually makes me pick up a book only to promptly return it to the shelf:

1: Any book jacket synopsis that says anything remotely like “So-and-so has it all.” The only thing that could possibly redeem this is a list of unique accomplishments, but what follows is usually a description of terribly bland Middle Aged White Chick achievements. (Husband, kids, flashy job, blah blah blah.) And it’s fine if your character does “have it all” at the beginning of the book, I suppose (though it doesn’t seem like a very good way to start – what happened to in media res?), but for the love of all that’s good, find a better way to describe it. 

2: A description involving the main character returning to their hometown for any reason – high school reunion, wedding, funeral, ailing parent, etc. It’s such an artless, obvious way to make a character literally confront their past. Where’s the creativity?

3: The flip side of #1 – a synopsis that begins by stating that “So-and-so has hit rock bottom,” or any variation thereof. If your character is literally at rock bottom, there are no stakes. You have already told the reader that circumstances will invariably get better, which is boring.

4: A first page that begins with a character’s name. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about things like “Abigail wished she had stayed at home” or “Clark was tired of being here.” Those are fine. What I’m referring to are sentences that cram a character’s full name in, right off the bat, for no good reason; for example, “Isabelle Lenore Givings shuddered as the floorboards creaked beneath her feet.” I’m not sure that there’s ever a reason that a reader needs to know a character’s full name immediately, and if there is, it can surely be done much more artfully than this. This method of opening a book only tells me that the author is way too proud of their character’s (usually ridiculous) name, and it has been included due to self-indulgence. I’m not fond of overtly self-indulgent books.

All of these leave me dropping a book like it’s a hot potato.

Does anyone have anything to add?

“Think of Colonel Sanders” – Reflections on Rejection

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 In my dream, I’m in my grandparents’ driveway, checking my e-mail on my phone. A literary agent, one who has already rejected me in real life, is being incredibly confusing about what she wants from me. I go to format my manuscript properly, and find all kinds of nonsensical spelling errors.

I wake up and check my phone with the same motivations I had in the dream. As if reminding me that I’m really, truly awake, a rejection letter sits at the top of my inbox. The roach letter informs me that this particular agent “just wasn’t hooked enough,” but “wouldn’t be at all surprised if another agent feels differently.” She wishes me luck.

These letters always make me think of the suicide prevention signs they post on the Golden Gate bridge, or other such locations throughout the world. I’ve seen ones from Japan that say “Please reconsider!” Whatever else you can say about literary agents, they know that anyone’s first reaction upon opening these letters is “Goddamnit,” followed by whining.

I also think of the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, brought to fame partially by real life and partially by Seinfeld. I think every single rejection I’ve gotten has reminded me that this is a “subjective” business and told me to keep trying. I’m not sure to what extent I should believe them. There is no way of discerning, from a roach letter, whether your work, through no fault of its own, just isn’t of interest to that particular agent, or if there is some crippling flaw to it that will make all agents run and hide.

“Think of Colonel Sanders,” my husband tells me. “He tried and tried to get investors into his business, but no one was interested in fried chicken. He was turned down, like… I don’t know, hundreds of times.”

Privately, I suspect he’s been taken in by an urban legend, but the moral of the story still stands. It doesn’t matter how many “No”s you get in these situations. You only need one “Yes” to get somewhere. If the Colonel Sanders story is fabricated, there are plenty of true examples to use instead – Life of Pi was rejected a number of times, and then it went on to be a bestseller and a movie. What if Yann Martel had given up? “Grace Kelly,” one of the first big hits by my beloved favorite singer MIKA, was written as a “f*ck you” to record labels that rejected him – “You only want what everybody else says you should want.” What if MIKA had given up? (I, for one, would be much less happy.)

But it’s hard to continue on, as if success will come as a result of sheer force of will, when your inbox is peppered with little “it’s not you, it’s me” speeches, because there’s a decent chance that it really is me. No one will tell me what’s wrong with my work, though, and I’ll get nowhere by second-guessing everything I do. Until some blessed soul says “Hey, this aspect of your book totally blows, you should fix that,” I have little choice but to stay the course, hoping to be the next Colonel Sanders.

In Which Tumblr Users Miss The Point

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(This post contains spoilers.)

This picture shows up every time I look through the #tfios tag on tumblr.

The first time I saw it, I just rolled my eyes and thought “Oh, teenage girls. You so crazy.” (I’m allowed to say that because I was one of them not very long ago – and I do not mean to disparage teenage girls. We’re all a little crazy. Generally speaking, however, teenage girls are a very particular type of crazy.)

But the more I kept seeing it, the more it bothered me.

The first thing that bothers me is this: Augustus Waters dies. They know that. Everyone on tumblr knows that whether they’ve read The Fault in Our Stars or not. Being a very, very literal person, my thoughts are “So, you want someone to make you fall in love with them and then die a slow, painful death? Okay.” BUT I know that’s not what they mean at all and interpreting it as such says as much about me as it does about the ones posting it, so I’ll give a pass on that.

But my concern is this… what exactly is it about the character of Augustus Waters that they’re idolizing this way?

Good looks? Okay, makes sense. Who doesn’t want an attractive partner? No one hopes for an ugly one, that’s for sure. Sense of humor? Okay. Are they just saying they want someone to fall head over heels in love with them like Augustus did with Hazel? Fair enough.

But here’s the thing: Augustus Waters is not the only fictional character or the only real person who is good looking, funny, and capable of loving someone intensely. So why are they idolizing him in particular?

I’m worried that the people posting this picture don’t actually get the character. By elevating him to this status, they are placing him in the Manic Pixie Dream Boy role. That’s how Augustus was at the start of the book, and for good reason. He was trying to be something he wasn’t.

I know I’m taking this too seriously, but it makes me sad to see a great character with a real personality, from one of the best YA books of this generation, reduced so inelegantly to being an “Ideal Boyfriend Material” trope.

Maybe if the image said “Be my Gus,” I’d react a little better…

Confessions of the Socially Backwards

(Note: I am using the term “socially backwards” where most would probably just say “shy.” I don’t like the word “shy.” It feels a bit precious to me, and I feel like it’s a really awkwardly romanticized personality trait, a trope that doesn’t reflect reality.)

 

1: It’s not that I’m afraid to talk to people. Well, sometimes I am – but even when I’m not, I just can’t think of anything to say. try to think of things to say and can’tI know that’s bizarre, but to meit seems more bizarre that other people – ordinary people – can think of things to say. 

 

2: I never expect anyone to talk to me and am always a little surprised when someone does. As such, I almost never understand what someone says the first time they say it. It’s kind of the worst.

 

3: I have an almost pathological resistance to asking anyone for help. If there is an object I need on a high shelf, I will gladly waste time and walk by several people tall enough to reach it for me and straight to a ladder, rather than say “Hey, can you get that?” Alternatively, I will attempt to climb on the shelf itself and risk bodily harm. 

 

4: I feel some kind of genuine guilt when I get in someone’s way, even if it’s completely unavoidable or the blame is shared.

 

5: I purposefully walk around humming because I think it makes me seem less scary, and I’ve been called scary before. 

Praying With My Fingernails

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Once upon a time, I went to cosmetology school. The sooner everyone forgets that little eleven month misadventure, the happier I will be, but the evidence of the experience will always remain. For example, I know a thing or two about nail polish.

At my school, we sold O.P.I nail lacquer, the same kind offered at the salon my mother went to when I was little. At the time, I couldn’t conceive of spending $8 on a bottle of nail polish – fortunately, as a student, I didn’t have to. I made use of my 50% off discount frequently and enthusiastically.

The first O.P.I shade I ever bought was “Chick Flick Cherry,” a deep, almost gothic red. I have never especially liked red polish – it strikes me as a bit cliche – but I was required to use a plain red to practice manicures, and I was told I would need it when taking my state board exam. I then wore it to my mother’s funeral, for no other reason than red being her favorite color, and I don’t believe I have touched it since.

Since graduating cosmetology school and moving on to a life of dismal food service slavery, I don’t paint my nails much anymore. Manicures don’t hold up well in the cruel environment of a restaurant. The daily onslaught of harsh chemicals, hand washing, and general abuse leave the edges chipped and flaking within hours, but beyond that, the job has compromised my spirit to the point that I can’t bring myself to spend my free time on vain frivolities like nail painting. In this sense, my job has fundamentally changed who I am. It takes far too close to everything I have.

For months, now, I was a food service slave by day and a novelist by night. The wonder of shaping an alternate reality in the hours before I went to bed sustained me through the hours of assisting rude or downright dumb customers. Every day contained the promise of something better; I could go home and write.

Now, the book is done (more or less). The promise is gone – and as such, work seems more torturous than ever, even though I’m better at it all the time and a promotion looms in the near future. Being good at something is little solace if you don’t want to be doing it in the first place.

So, I’ve decided I should start painting my nails again, at least my toes – one particular shade, one of O.P.I’s most famous – a perfectly generic and otherwise unremarkable red by the name of I’m Not Really A Waitress.

I will wear it not for aesthetics, but as a reminder. My job doesn’t define me. It pays the bills, for now, and, God willing, something better will come along and do the same someday. The color itself is a prayer, written across my nails: I’m not really a waitress. I’m a writer.

Should We Mourn the Death of Paper Books?

When was the last time you saw wind?

You’re probably picturing tree branches writhing in an aimless breeze, or long grass flattening to the ground as clouds float overhead in the same direction. You may be thinking of a violent gust that destroys your hairstyle (and perhaps plasters it to your lip gloss), or autumn leaves floating down a suburban sidewalk.

In none of these scenarios do we actually see wind itself, however. We see the results of it, the effect it has on the more tangible things in our world, but not the force itself.

When someone endeavors to write a book – works of fiction in particular, I should say – they are attempting to carry their ideas over the threshold of tangibility. There is a complete world in the author’s mind, a separate universe that no one will ever know about unless the writer allows them to. There are people, planned and understood down to the most minute of details – birthdate, zodiac sign, inconsequential birthmarks – and loved so deeply that their creator must stop and remind themselves “Oh, these people aren’t real.” But no one else will ever love them, nor even know them, unless the author permits it.

Without the dedication and tenacity of the author, the world they have created and the inhabitants of it will never be known to anyone but themselves. Even if the ideas are embodied in text, the results can be unsettling. Once the elation of having completed such an arduous task fades, the author is left with the realization that their ideas, their beloved characters, their entire universe can be condensed into a mere string of oh so many words. The days, weeks, months, or years of hard work and emotional turmoil have given birth only to a file so small that it accounts for just an infinitesimal amount of a hard drive, a grain of sand on a sprawling beach.

Printing it out helps. With the click of a button, the book is pulled out of the technological ether and given a solid form. It can at last be held in your hands rather than just your heart. At first, there is relief in this, and a sense of accomplishment – but soon, the writer will realize that their hard work still, at best, fits into a stack of papers no more than two inches thick. The size of it is cruel – it belies the scope, the importance, of the words it contains.

But, however paltry the magnitude of a printed work may be, it still offers some solace. It is the proof of hard work, the evidence of a difficult task completed – it is the portal through which the imagined world can achieve reality.

And this, I think, is why the e-book revolution is being met with opposition and sadness. The demand for paper books is decreasing, and our precious works are more and more often condemned to stay in the very ether from which they came. The frequency with which our stories will be granted a tangible form will decrease until the practice is unheard of. No ink, no paper, no special editions to decorate our shelves. All that will be left are the stories themselves.

But the stories are all that we ever truly needed. You cannot see the characters. You cannot live in the world formed in your mind’s eye – but they are perfectly tangible nonetheless. Just like we cannot see the wind, only the effects of it, we can see the effect of a story. We feel what the characters feel and puzzle over the meaning of the narrative, just as the blades of a windmill turn.

Books do not need to be validated by paper binding. It does not mater what conduit is used to bridge the gap between our world and the world of fiction, as long as that bridge is crossed. The proof of a story’s significance has never lied in the number of pages it occupies. It has always, instead, dwelt in the effect it has on a reader. Everything else is an illusion, that, in this day and age, serves little purpose other than to ease the writer’s insecurities.

In Defense of National Novel Writing Month

When I set out to write what I will hopefully call my “first novel” in November, I wasn’t aware of the backlash of hatred against the entire practice I was participating in. I did not know that some people found the idea of hundreds of thousands of people writing 50,000 words each in 30 days so offensive, so insulting to writing itself.

I get it. Evidently, publishers are flooded with schlock submissions in the months following November. November has the power to make every Tom, Dick, and Harry think they are the next Hemingway, J.K Rowling, or Stephen King, and the world really does not need more people with delusions of brilliance.

But that isn’t NaNoWriMo’s fault. Most participants have enough common sense (and crippling self doubt) to know that sending a first draft, or even a second, or maybe even a third, to a publisher is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine it, myself.

But, this isn’t the problem a lot of people have with it, it seems. People view writing as some kind of exclusive club. They roll their eyes at people embarking on the journey that is writing a novel, because, in their mind, they are not novelists. If they were novelists, they would have already written! They would already be published, and they would sit around with other brilliant minds, clacking away on typewriters, drinking absinthe, smoking cigars, and swearing! Novelists are born novelists. If you try to write a book for NaNoWriMo – well, you’re just a poser!

And it’s not like anyone ever writes anything good during NaNoWrimo, anyway, right? They admit it! “No plot, no problem” is a motto they use frequently. The forums are full of tips on how to shamelessly pad your all-important wordcount with meaningless garbledy-gook.

In some respects, that’s true, depending on your definition of “good.” No writes anythingready to publish during NaNoWriMo. They do, however, write things with fantastic potential. It doesn’t matter how terrible your first draft is – what matters is how many drafts you’re willing to do after the first.

The magic of NaNoWriMo lies in the dare inherent to its premise. Some people need a challenge to be motivated, and it offers that. Some people need the excuse – they can’t admit they really want to write a novel wen they’ve never done it before, and NaNoWriMo provides a fantastic sort of “everyone-else-is-doing-it-why-not” excuse.

Are the results amazing? No. There will be grammatical errors, bad pacing, plot holes, disappearing characters, you name it. But it can all be fixed. All it takes is some more creativity and a frantic clicking of the backspace key. And yet, without that scrappy first draft, there would be nothing to fix. There would be nothing at all. All you would have is a blank Word document, staring at you with its terrible white eye, and you would have time to doubt yourself. You would try to write, but you would have time to realize the grammatical errors and the stupid ideas, and you would stop. There would never be a book.

Self-doubt is creativity’s number one predator. The point of NaNoWriMo is to write so fast that your self-doubt can’t catch up with you. It won’t give you a perfect book, but it will give you book – just like giving birth will not give you a perfect, fully-formed, well-behaved child. In both situations, what you do with it from that point on is up to you.