The Music of My Novel

The Music of My Novel

I’m writing a novel. Well, I wrote a novel. A draft of a novel. 85,000 words, 250 double-spaced pages. The novel follows a seventeen-year-old girl, Beanie, as she searches for her missing father while simultaneously becoming an Academic Games superstar. Set in the late 1990s, the novel is inspired by parts of my childhood and set in my hometown – New Orleans. While the setting and the time period are, hopefully, well-represented in the book, one thing is not present, and that’s the soundtrack. Partially, music is absent because I didn’t know how to write a book with music that isn’t about music. I didn’t want to just name-drop certain songs so that reader’s could identify the era. And, to be honest, my character, Beanie, isn’t really into music. It’s not part of who she is in the scope of the book. So, while she does listen to her Discman once in order to drown out something she’s afraid to hear, she doesn’t watch music videos on The Box or order CDs from that awful subscription service, Columbia House.

That being said, in the late 1990s, I did those things! I think I mistakenly ordered an Amy Grant CD and had it up until Hurricane Katrina. I would sit in front of the TV and write down the codes for all my favorite songs on the Box, then order them after begging my mom to allow that extra $2.99 to show up on our phone bill.

So, in honor of Beanie, here are some songs that she maybe would have heard if she had been in my Mid-City house instead of hers, back in 1999.

Time” and “I Only Wanna Be with You,” by Hootie & the Blowfish

Before Darius Rucker became the country superstar that he is now, I used to live to hear the strumming of his guitar and the beginning of “I Only Wanna Be with You.” And, I remember being asleep in the passenger seat of my dad’s old Honda Accord, driving home from Florida, waking up to “Time,” when we pulled in front of our house. Both these songs give me goosebumps, still.

Diggin on You,” by TLC

Ah, TLC. “Diggin on You” was our song, me and my eighth grade boyfriend. So sappy, but so sweet.

And finally, “One Sweet Day,” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. This song makes me so weepy, because whenever I hear it, I think of my dad. I remember sitting on a sofa at an eighth grade dance, singing the words with my eyes closed, bawling.

Even though these songs didn’t make their way into the book, I thought about them often while writing. If I ever felt blocked up or like I couldn’t get into the mood required to write, I would make a – admittedly cheesy – YouTube playlist and get revved up and back in writing mode. I definitely had all of the CDs at one time or another – what up, Columbia House – but, in the techno-connected-web-mess of now, they are all just a few clicks away.

 

 

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Carry On Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I am 150 pages into Eleanor & Park and it’s official: I love it. I love Rainbow Rowell. I love Jennifer Niven. I love Young Adult. I wrote a Young Adult novel before really getting to know the genre, and I would say that I’m pretty much just scratching the surface with these books, but having finished All the Bright Places and now barreling through Eleanor & Park, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this genre, about how well-written, literary young adult could capture me and somehow, retroactively tell my thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. self that everything I felt and thought was totally valid and normal and – dare I say – fantastic. When an agent read the first ten pages of my novel, before I’d written very much of it at all, and suggested that I write it as Young Adult, my initial reaction was shock and, I’ll admit it, disdain. I didn’t want to be labeled a YA author. People wouldn’t take my writing seriously. We don’t write YA in MFA programs.

Holy shit, I was wrong. That agent probably wanted to tell me I was being ridiculous but instead, she took a deep breath and explained that readers grow up and keep reading the authors they loved when they were younger. And that – gasp – adults still read YA. They read YA to better understand their own kids, they read YA to remember being young themselves, they read YA because the writing is good. They read YA. Full stop.

I’m almost thirty-four and I would, in a heartbeat, read anything by Rowell or Niven, because after reading these two books, I trust them completely as writers. They draw their characters so well, so completely. They illuminate their feelings, their emotions, with writing that makes me feel what they feel, like all good writing should. These two Rowell books are next on my list!

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

I read the first few pages of this novel and it’s both mysterious and comical. I’m not sure how it’s both those things so I will read it to find out. An older widow who lives in a somewhat secluded beach house thinks she hears a tiger skulking around her den one night. The next morning, a stranger shows up, claiming to be a government caretaker, sent to wash her windows and make her lunch, to take care of her for a few hours a day. The premise is incredibly intriguing, the mystery intense but shrouded in mundanity. Very excited about this one.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel has been the subject of A LOT of buzz, and I’ve stayed away from most of it since I so often allow other people’s critical opinions cloud my own. But, the summary alone makes me super-excited to read it! Below is the full description from Penguin/Random House’s website:

“A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

I didn’t even know I was pitching my novel. I was a teenager on the cusp of pubescence ejaculating all over my pants without even knowing what was happening.

The first time, I had volunteered for a local literary conference. One of the perks of volunteering was a free meeting with an agent and an editor. I guess I didn’t know how to use google back then – two years ago – or I was just mightily suffering from impostor syndrome so I didn’t prepare AT ALL for the meeting with the agent. Instead, I binge-watched The Mindy Project and avoided the conference except for my two ten-minute meetings. Needless to say, they didn’t go well. I had a very disjointed, multiple-perspective manuscript about a Bangladeshi girl and a British college admissions counselor, ten pages of which the agent received before our meeting.

When I met her, she was cozily sipping a glass of wine, all turtlenecked up in the hotel bar. I blabbered through an introduction, did not pitch at all – was that what I was supposed to be doing? I literally had NO IDEA – and finally, this very kind woman asked out loud what she had written on the first page of my manuscript. What is this novel about? What is its structure?

I had no idea.

Before I ended our meeting, a good five minutes early because I had nothing to say, I put myself out there and asked the one question that had really been plaguing me for the last fifteen years: Is the writing any good?

Yeah, she responded. The writing’s great.

I asked her – I seriously asked her – like, on a scale of one to ten?

What cheek! For shame! But this is where I was at! Insecure. Sad. Unmotivated. No confidence. As bumpkin as they come.

She told me it was probably a seven, which inflated me, but then she said, A seven isn’t good enough. It’s got to be a ten. 

This exchange was exactly what I needed. I had talent. I could write. This attempt at it, a dart thrown blindly against a wall, with no thought for craft or story, it was ok. It was a seven. A ten felt within reach.

Hopefully, this agent does not remember me.

The following year, I attended the same conference, with a lot more confidence – my novel-in-progress had won a prize, which shocked me – and a meeting with an agent from my dream agency. Dream. Agency. Again, I wasn’t quite sure that I was pitching anyone, because the manuscript wasn’t finished. I had written 7,000 words or so, had no idea where it was going and was deep into my second year of my MFA program, the semester that has been the most challenging thus far.

I already made a favorable impression on this agent when I introduced myself at breakfast, hours before our meeting, and suggested we meet in the hotel bar (thanks Agent #1 for that idea!) instead of the dark, windowless ballroom, for our consultation. She shifted all of her meetings to the bar because of that suggestion. By the time I went to meet with her, I had already had one fair-to-middling meeting with a different agent. I didn’t know what to expect. I sat down. She praised the eight pages she read. She said she loved it. She actually said the words, Let me be your agent.

I don’t think I’m making that up…

I didn’t do a great job of pitching her, because I hadn’t thought about the manuscript’s destiny enough. She suggested I find a container for the timeline – a school year – and that I write it as young adult. I hadn’t ever considered that before, but the more I worked on the revision, the more sense it made. She advised me to take some more time to work on the manuscript, get some more pages completed, then query her when I felt ready, in a few months.

But, this was Dream. Agent. This was A. Big. Deal. This was The. Big. Time. And I fumbled.

I took some of her advice, but made the mistake of writing to her the following Monday – too soon – and directing it to the email address we’d been using to communicate about our meeting. I didn’t follow the submissions guidelines on her agency’s website. I didn’t let her advice germinate. I didn’t do enough revision and rewriting. I was that little boy, again, with some weird, sticky substance all over my pants.

I did, though, follow her advice about the content of the book. I spent about six months thinking it over, mercilessly cutting passages that were in the excerpt that won the prize, reading YA authors and authors whose work straddles the line between YA and literary fiction – which is where I’d like to see this book. She gave me great advice. The best advice. I’m so glad I met with her, even if I fumbled completely. Her advice propelled me to finish the full draft I have now.

And now, going into another year of conferences and potential meetings with agents, I will have my pitch practiced, I will have questions to ask – about my work, my query, etc., but also about agenting, publishing, writing – and will trust that, if I learned this much from these two dismal failures, I can keep failing, at least to a degree.

Even though I hope I won’t.

The UNO Publishing Lab & Each Vagabond by Name

The UNO Publishing Lab & Each Vagabond by Name

Last fall, I took my favorite course of my MFA, a Publishing Institute run by UNO Press. The course requirements included reading through a slush pile of submitted short story collection and novel manuscripts, picking ones that gave me the feels, ones that I felt were publishable, ones that could make it in the world. The class then debated all of our favorites to select the one we would work on editing and publishing. That selection turned out to be Margo Orlando Littell’s Each Vagabond by Name, a novel about a one-eyed bartender whose life is disrupted when a group of wandering gypsies roam into his small Pennsylvania town.

You can check out our process on the Lab’s website!

Littell came to New Orleans to launch the novel at the Tennessee Williams Festival this past March. It was amazing to listen to her give a reading from a book that we as a class closely read and edited. I learned a lot from working with her manuscript. She used short vignettes at the beginning of chapters to build setting and create an air of mystery. She slowly revealed backstory about the damaged characters’ pasts in a way that wasn’t tell-y or overwrought. It was all well-integrated into the story.

And she taught me another very important lesson. She trusted the editing process completely and gracefully.

Today is the Publication day for Each Vagabond by Name. If you’re looking for an engrossing, fast-paced but substantial summer read, I can’t think of a better book! Go buy it!