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.

 

 

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

I have said that I feel a bit more liberal about mining my real life for writing topics – something I tried really hard not to do, basically because I didn’t want to just fictionalize my life. It was boring when it happened and it would be boring on the page. Jk, jk – it wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – fiction. It’s real life, and maybe I’ll write a memoir one day, when I’m rich and famous – lololol – but until then, my goal is to write compelling fiction.

Even so, a lot of what has happened in my life has very definitely informed what I end up writing about in fiction. For example, here is something that happened in real life once:

I was driving on S. Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, approaching Earhart, and a group of well-coiffed 7 & 8 year-olds were on the streetcorners with buckets, asking for money to attend a basketball tournament out of state.

I used this scenario to write a story, called Service Learning, whose protagonist, once upon a time, did this very thing. Eventually, her mother stopped giving a shit about her but luckily she took the reins, managed to get a scholarship to a private high school, hoping it would be her ticket out of her bad neighborhood. All goes pretty well for her, or at least well enough, until the service learning trip for her grade goes back to that bad neighborhood, her neighborhood, in order to “help” people like her.

The story is wildly different from the scenario at the corner that I saw, but the two things go hand in hand. I wouldn’t have had the story without this experience.

I was thinking today about some things that have happened in my life that could be good fodder for stories or novels – these kernels of things that could provide an image or a scene. I was also trying to describe a setting and fumbled, describing the place I was (a university) because it was right in front of me. I had to scold myself into writing the setting I saw in my imagination. Fiction, after all.

Anyway, here is a short list of some of the many crazy things that I’ve experienced that could inspire something fictional:

  • When I was climbing out of the above-ground pool in my childhood backyard, I slipped and slammed my vagina – straight-up scissor-style – on the wall of the pool, but was WAAAAY to embarrassed to let anyone see.
  • At 18, a bouncer checked my ID at ladies night, saw I was 18 – old enough to get into a club but not to drink – and then handed me an empty cup because, “Ladies drink free til midnight.” Ok, so he shouldn’t have really wondered why I ended up rolling around the concrete at 2 in the morning, completely blitzed. His fault, am I right?
  • My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I had breakfast at the same place almost every Sunday when we were in college. Once, I opened a packet of butter and slammed it on his glasses, rubbing it in. He had to get new glasses. We still talk about this, ten years later.
  • I have stayed awake for 72 hours, biking, running, hiking and canoeing, as an adventurer racer on Team Engine.
  • I bought my first plane ticket abroad – to Paris – the day in fall 2001, on November 12, 2001, two months after 9/11, when AA Flight 587 crashed in Queens.

I’ve been alive now for almost 34 years and, trust, this is just a SMALL sampling of crazy or interesting stuff that I’ve seen, done, experienced or caused, that could inspire a short story, a novella, a full-length book. I think keeping this list is a great way to force myself to feel inspired, to remember something wild, to start with a scenario or a spark and then just free-write.

What would be on your list?

Travel Writing

Travel Writing

I am the worst travel writer. When my husband and I spent three weeks in India this year, I struggled to write a single creative word. The best I could do was scribbling out lists of things we did, along with a few words to jog my memory about funny anecdotes and things that happened – like the way our driver, Jagdish, would get very excited whenever some free space opened up on the highway, and would exclaim, “Yesh! Yesh!” while gripping the steering wheel. He also called me sheeshter – sister – more times than I would have liked. Voluminous writing just doesn’t come naturally to me. Words don’t pour. I’ve had to establish a routine in order to have big writing days, and even when I break the routine – writing in the afternoon rather than the morning, for example – I have to turn that deviation into a new routine in order to trick myself into writing.

Travel – the way I like to travel – generally sees me having no routine. I let myself wake up and decide what I’d like to do, in tandem with my travel mates, and let the day follow whichever course it would like. Even though this mentality can wreck my writing routine, travel has been so important to me as a writer. It has infused so many ideas in my head. A whole novel draft that I wrote last June – while traveling, believe it or not – was inspired by the time I spent in Spain, Germany and Morocco. A new novel idea is also inspired by my experience in India. So many little snippets from things I’ve written have started as an interaction I had while traveling. That exposure to things outside of my comfort zone, outside of my routine, actually help my writing. But, I still need to make a word count!

Tomorrow marks the start of a crazy summer of travel for me. I will be road-tripping with friends to Texas, road-tripping to St. Louis and Chicago with husband, flying to Portland for the Tin House writing workshop and then taking a week-long, post-bar-exam girls vacation with a good friend in Mexico. This summer of travel will be punctuated by a long weekend in New York City for the wedding of some good friends. I am also supposed to be finalizing my thesis draft this summer, while incorporating revisions into my novel and starting a new full-time job. HOW TO DO THIS WITH SO MUCH TRAVEL!?!? ARGH!

Just like I’ve done with smaller deviations in my routine, I need to come up with some goals and mini-routines within my non-routine vacation. Sequestering myself for some alone time when I can, always having my notebook handy, forcing myself to write while sipping coffee in the morning, going for long walks and talking to myself about what I’m seeing, hearing, imagining. All of these are good, tried-and-true tactics to get me to generate words while I’m on the road. And I think, since I don’t have a minimum word count hovering over me, it might be good to simply get into the habit of free writing, letting the travel experience really inform my writing.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Write about the setting – where am I? What am I looking at? What looks the same as home? What’s different? What’s the most interesting thing I can see?
  2. What are the silly snippets of conversation going back and forth between me and my travel mates? Can any of that conversation be used to inspire some snappy dialogue (probably!)?
  3. Could any of my characters from my thesis stories – or anything I’ve written – be found in this new environment? How would they react to being in the desert or in the Pacific Northwest? This prompt can help me get to know my characters better, even if they never find themselves in this situation.
  4. Imagine what is happening back home. Normally, I like to be in a place, really be there, and forget about my life back in New Orleans. But this prompt can really stoke my imagination…
  5. FOOD! What am I eating? How is it reacting to me? How am I reacting to it? Is it making me full? Sleepy? Is it better than food at home?
  6. Behind the scenes – What is happening with the staff at the hotel? What happens in the kitchen or the bar? Who has to clean the pool? Imagine miniature relationships going on between all of the people that come to this place for work.

What are some other ideas for writing prompts while traveling? How do other people keep the word count up while they’re on the road/plane/boat?

Writing through Trauma

Writing through Trauma

I have experienced my fair share of “the traumatic” in my life, some of which I didn’t even recognize as trauma for a good amount of time after it happened. Probably the most defining and pivotal trauma – the unexpected and violent death of my father when I was thirteen years old – has both shaped my life since then and provided the inspiration for my novel. With Father’s Day this weekend, and the imminent workshop I will be attending to critique this novel inspired by his passing, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about how I finally came to write this book that is both about him and not about him, and how writing it has changed me.

Every fall that I can remember, I would start to feel antsy and unsettled as the warm October days became chillier. As soon as November hit, I would inevitably snap at my loved ones more often than normal and cry more often than normal as well. I didn’t really realize the cause of this until, in November of 2012, I was finishing my Master’s thesis at the University of Oregon and had some bad news from a potential job prospect. The stress of writing the thesis plus the disappointment of losing a job threw me into a bit of a tizzy. Luckily, I had lunch with my mentor and, in the process of debriefing with him, I realized that one of the contributing factors to my spiraling out of control – or at least out of a sense of wellness – was that the anniversary of my father’s death was coming up. In fact, I unwittingly scheduled my thesis defense on the very day he was found, his official date of death.

It’s crazy to think that I didn’t realize it, but it makes sense. I had, for fifteen years, tried so hard to prevent his death from defining my life. I came to this conclusion fully when I recounted the realization to my therapist and she was shocked, not that I had this experience but that she had been treating me for months and I’d never disclosed that my father was dead, much less the traumatic way that we lost him.

Three years later, as my husband and I were dealing with his mother’s sickness and ultimate passing-away, I started writing poetry about her. I wrote about how I imagined she was feeling, how she must be existing in that liminal space between our world and another, how close we are all to being in her position. I made an error here – I submitted these poems to my workshop that semester. After reading the rightfully-scathing feedback from my classmates, I decided that part of the reason the poems weren’t quite working was because I wasn’t writing about the thing I wanted to be writing about. I should have been writing about my dad.

But, I don’t want his death to define my life! I was kicking and screaming that…what did I have to say? What is MY story? Not his, but mine!?!?

I pushed those questions and second-guesses from my mind and decided to just go with it, to free-write whatever came to me. I wrote seven-thousand words, the opening chapters of a novel about a girl, not unlike me, on a quest to find her missing father. In writing that opening, I had to admit that, although he had been physically gone from my life for years, I had been seeking him, looking for him, from the very moment we put him in the ground. His death, it wasn’t my life, but it was a HUGE part of my story, a huge part of the story of my life.

So, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I edited. I revised. I rewrote. I shared the book-in-progress with people. I rewrote more. I cut huge chunks of what I wrote. On and on and on.

Although the novel is completely made-up – truly, it is not just memoir parading as fiction but is fiction in the realest sense – the protagonist suffers through much of what I did and, undoubtedly, every time I wrote about the father in the book, I thought about my own. The last 15 months, over which time I composed the text, off and on, have not been easy. During the weeks that I intensively wrote – sometimes, up to ten thousand words per day – I found myself feeling depressed, edgy, easy to snap. Other times, I felt as though I was in a totally different world, separated by some gauzy wall from my husband, my family and my friends.

But, I forced myself to write, revise, and rewrite.

Now, on the other side of the experience, with a moderately polished manuscript and the major tenets of the plot in place, I no longer feel the tense, antsy-ness that I did, consistently, while I was writing. As Father’s Day approaches, my husband said, Whatever you need this weekend, just let me know. And when I thought about what I might “need” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need anything. Writing about this trauma, as difficult as it had been, actually exorcised so many of the negative and painful feelings I’ve had over the years, and has truly brought this odd sense of peace to me.

I never thought it would have been possible.

In the days, weeks, months and years following this personal tragedy, I could not write about it. I could barely talk about it. But, not addressing this thing that had become such a major part of my story really stifled my ability to write about anything. In suppressing this one event, I had to suppress everything. I don’t know exactly what flipped the switch in me, to make me feel like I had permission to write about the sadness I’d experienced. I’ve mentioned David Vann before and I will again here to say that his novel, Legend of a Suicide, freed me so greatly. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith also made it permissible for me to write about the grief I had inherited. I am so, so grateful that these authors, and others, had the guts and courage to write about their hardest things, so that I may have found that same courage. Once they opened my eyes, I was able to really look around and see how much of the art in the world is a reflection of the artist’s experience. It seems like a super-obvious thing to realize, but it took me a while to get there.

And if I ever get the book published, if I ever get into a position where I can teach a class about writing, I would want trauma writing to be a part of it. We all have traumas, large and small. We should write them. I’m so glad I did.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

I picked up the Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Daddy Love, when I was in the library last week.

(I have this compulsion. No matter how many ordered books I’m coming to pick up, I always scan the shelves to find something else to add.)

I have only ever read one other book by Oates, the novella Black Water, based on **a true story** which deals with the death of a young woman who had been having an affair with a powerful, married man. Daddy Love interested me because, like Black Water, the novel focuses on a deviant topic of interest to contemporary readers. The plot could be described as the inner lives of victims of kidnapping and sexual assault. The character, Daddy Love, abducts five-year-old Robbie from his mother’s care in a parking lot in Michigan and over the next six years, trains him to be an obedient son while also raping him. The novel is not quite as explicit as Ramsey Bolton’s attacks on Theon, i.e. Reek, in Game of Thrones, but still, it’s explicit enough to disturb even the most morbid of readers, i.e. me.

But, I read it because I write stories like these, about these deviants and their misbehaviors. One of the stories from my thesis collection, formerly titled “Photo Shoot,” and in the process of being revised/rewritten, follows a fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie who must move to a new town before starting her freshman year. She and her mother move to escape the nasty legacy left by her father, who seduced, photographed and sexually assaulted girls in Sophie’s class. The story will hopefully show Sophie picking up the mantel where her father left off, turning from a victim herself into one who unwittingly becomes a perpetrator.

By the end of Daddy Love, Robbie is out of Daddy Love’s grip but the reader is left with the sense that he still craves the type of relationship he had with his abductor. Robbie is much changed by the brutality of his captor. My hope, in my story, is that Sophie will be much changed by her father’s actions as well, to the point that I reader, despite their desire to feel sorry for her because of the pain she’s suffered, will also feel an inkling of fear, as the reader will know how dangerous she will become.

Oates, in Daddy Love, really tows the line between enough and excess in her descriptions of the torture and assault that Robbie undergoes. But the descriptions are necessary to ensure that the reader knows the extent to which he was abused. I am taking some lessons from this novel in the revision process of “Photo Shoot.” How much do I need to explicitly state what Sophie’s father is guilty of and how much can be inferred? How much does Sophie need to cross over into similar behavior in order for the reader to develop that sense of fear, that sense that Sophie is capable of similarly disturbing actions? How quiet can the story be while still instilling the feeling that something dangerous will happen?

Beyond picking up lessons for my own writing, I enjoyed Daddy Love for Oates’ play with time – she repeats the first few scenes of the story before the abduction takes place, as Dinah (Robbie’s mom) and Robbie are in the parking lot. This repetition reminds the reader that there is a moment – in this case, Dinah being slammed in the head with a hammer – after which there is no memory. The repetition creates the sense that Dinah is replaying, over and over, that which she can remember, because there is so much that she can’t.

Oates also plays with voice and point of view within sections, moving from one character’s POV to the other. Robbie and Daddy Love also have other identities, created out of their own psychological necessity, and Oates moves artfully between them. The characters themselves are also specific and richly drawn, but in very sparse prose. (The whole novel clocks in under 300 pages.)

One more lesson, though, that I took away from this novel, is the importance of an engrossing narrative and believable, interesting characters in a mystery. At its heart, this novel is a mystery, among other genres, because the reader is wanting desperately to know what is going to happen to Robbie. Will he completely forget himself, his parents, his previous life? Will Daddy Love kill him when he reaches puberty? Will he ever be normal again? But, the novel was so engrossing that I didn’t rush through simply to find out the end, to answer these questions. I really sat in the pages, sat with the language and with the story as it unfolded. It was too complex a tale to just be wrapped up neatly. (Although, it did end a bit too quickly for my taste…)

I’d totally recommend this novel, but not for the faint of heart!

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.