Thursday, October 3, 2013

Upcoming Readings

I will continue to update the list of upcoming readings as I confirm with new venues. In the mean time, if you would like me to come read, meet with a class, or visit your book club, let me know and we'll see what we can work out. I would love to come!

Oct 11 7:00 PM Utah Humanities Book Fest Reading with Alyson Hagy and Stephen Tuttle at The King's English, Salt Lake City, UT (Advanced copies of  Borrowed Horses will be available for sale!)

Oct 16 1:00 PM Ladies Literary Society Reading and Q&A with Janine Joseph, Ogden, UT.

Nov 7 4:30 PM Class visit: Practicum in Publishing at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead, MN.

Nov 7 6:45 PM Book Launch! Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead, MN.

Nov 8 9:00 AM Reading for Equine Sciences department, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

Nov 14 2:00 PM Weber State Faculty Reading with Mario Chard in Elizabeth Hall room 229, Ogden, UT

Nov 19 (late morning) Reading at Utah Valley University, Orem, UT

Nov 19 2:30 PM Class Visit at Utah Valley University, Orem, UT

Dec 4 7:00 PM City Arts Reading Series at the Salt Lake City Main Library (210 East 400 South) in the 4th Floor Auditorium, Salt Lake City, UT

Dec 12 7:00 PM Reading at Helicon, Utah State University, Logan, UT

Jan 16 3:30 PM Reading at University of Utah, LNCO 3850, Salt Lake City, UT

Feb 28 4:30 PM AWP Off-Site Reading, Caffe Ladro, Seattle, WA 

Mar 27 TBA Reading and class visits, Dixie State University, St. George, UT

Monday, September 16, 2013

New Agent! New Book!

Good news, y'all! I've just signed with a new agent! The hunt is over, and I'm very proud to say I am represented by Kathleen Nishimoto at William Morris Endeavor. Now, onto the next round of revisions on New Brighton--which will definitely be retitled (but what??) as I revise. Finding the right agent is absolutely exhausting, but I'm so happy to have Kathleen on my publication team.

It's less than a month until the birthday of my first book, Borrowed Horses. I'm 90% excited and 10% terrified. After so many years of relentless revising, it's strange to have it out of my hands, to know that I can't change it any more. I'm way too aware of all the things I wanted to make better--which I suppose is only natural when you've been flaw-hunting for nine-plus years. I'm trying to forget that, though and, instead, remember all the things that I'm proud of. I really hope you all like the book and that you fall in love with Joannie Edson and Zephyr and Timothy every bit as much as I did.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blog hiatus

I need to focus my energy on finishing revisions on my second novel and finding an agent to represent it. I'll see you all on the flip side.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Another Borrowed Horse

I Facebook-friended the writer Luis Alberto Urrea this morning, whose book The Hummingbird's Daughter I loved and highly recommend. (I've just put the follow-up, Queen of America, on my wishlist.) The unexpected benefit of friending Urrea? He posts awesome horse art. I owe today's borrowed horse to him.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why I Can't and Can Live My Dreams Through Fiction

My lifelong dream, the goal for which I've long yearned and pined, has always been to eat like a teenage boy and not gain weight. Unfortunately, I was not born that way. I have never been able to look at a pumpkin pie without imagining what it would be like to eat the whole thing at one sitting, just me, the pie, a fork, and good dollop of whipped cream.

Alas, it is not to be. As much as I love food, I've always had to cut myself off before things get out of hand... and then run several miles to try to work off whatever damage I did before the cut off. Even still, I'm still more soft than lean.

According to the common wisdom, it should be a blessing that I can write my fantasies, that I can live them vicariously through my invented characters. But I'm working right now to write a fourteen year old male speaker, and I gotta say, if I'm doing this right, if I'm fully imagining my character and his experience, all it does is make me hungry.

There's a metaphor there somewhere. Something about artistic hunger. Something about striving. Something about intensifying unfulfillable desire through language.

Lately, I've been wanting to buy some work by Jess Walter, whose story in the latest Best American Short Stories absolutely blew me away. I feel like this is a writer I always should have known. He's from Spokane, for goodness sake! How could I have not always been reading his work? I want to start making up for that right now, but MAN. Where to start? I'm scrolling through his novels, and the dude has been prolific.

Staring at the list of his books has made me hungry in a different way. Hungry to write, to revise, to finish and start again. That, at least, is a hunger I can satisfy by writing. May we all stay hungry, my friends.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little More On the Business of Writing (with just a little touch of Franco rant)

I wanted to say a few more words about "New Yorker Rejects Itself."

Shortly after The Review Review's story on the New Yorker rejecting one of its own previously published stories, Slate published this rebuttal, in which David Haglund argues that big journals have no time to respond to plagiarism with anything more than a form rejection. Thus, he suggests the journals recognized the piece from the start. Unfortunately, he offers no evidence to support this assertion.

My own experience (one year of working as a graduate assistant at the Georgia Review) contradicts Haglund's argument. The editors were as time crunched as any, yet they treated plagiarism with the utmost seriousness. They would definitely have contacted the author of a plagiarized submission had they recognized it--and would have told that author never to darken their door again. And I'm not just guessing that this is the case. While working there, I found a story that had lifted a line from a story I knew. I brought it to the associate editor's attention and watched the result first hand. What's interesting is that the Haglund does not seem to have asked the editors at the New Yorker what policies they have and follow regarding plagiarism. He only speculates.

Though Haglund's defense is based on speculation, I do think the New Yorker's rejection of a New Yorker story is defensible on different, more modest grounds. Every journal has its own style and space limitations. Just because a piece suited the taste of one editor at one magazine, no law states it must naturally suit all other editors' tastes as well. One New Yorker slush reader may have loved the story in the past and passed it up the chain. Another didn't. Or they did but this time, the story was up against unusually stiff competition and didn't make the cut. That hurts, but I understand that those decisions are part of the business.

What's less defensible and also sadly true is this: literary fiction magazines must sell copies to stay in business. Why else would Esquire publish this bit of dross by James Franco? Or Ploughshares for that matter? Why else would Graywolf accept his collection? Franco may not be a talented writer, but his name will sell copies. I won't launch into my full Franco rant, but this is where I get conflicted because, generally, yes, I feel optimistic about the business. I feel that if we strive and try long enough, we can make it. I wasn't simply blowing smoke when I wrote last week's post. But Franco still stares me in the face, contradicting that faith.

Here's what I don't know: will Franco sell enough copies to allow Graywolf to take a chance on an unknown writer? Will his name work like a carbon offset? Will Graywolf purge itself of the pollution of his poetry by taking on more projects from the kind of writers it has long been respected for--namely, the little known literary talent? Did Esquire and Ploughshares bring other writers, more talented but less known, into public awareness because they were in the same issue as his piece?

And I'm asking sincerely, because I do want to stay optimistic. And also because it fits with my experience with editors so far--including the many who've rejected me--which is that they care passionately about words and art and have suffered many years of low paychecks and long days to give that art a forum. I know that optimism tends to be read as naivete or, worse, stupidity, but the questions we face as writers are too easily written off with cynicism. It's equally simple-minded to be passively jaded or actively angry because of one instance of rejection. There is no one kind of editor or journal or publisher--and thank God for that. Every day, people sit down to their work at small presses and magazines and attend to their business with the same passion with which I sit down to my own work.  
The truth is, I have no idea what goes on in the New Yorker's editorial office. I hope and suspect they still are driven by passion, but I don't know firsthand, and it's fruitless to speculate. And you know what? At the end of the day, fretting over what they do or don't publish only distracts me from my own part of the writing business, the humble business of sitting my bottom in a chair, placing my hands on the keyboard, and writing.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why I Should Not Have a "Career" (and why I do)

I've seen a lot of gloom and doom lately about the state of the literary publications market. Last week, for example, The Review Review published a story aptly titled "New Yorker Rejects Itself" in which the author takes a lesser known New Yorker story, replaces the author's name with an invented one, and submits it for publication there and several other highly regarded journals. At each one, it is rejected.

My friend Jeff Newberry (author of Brackish) saw the article and said it reminded him of this piece from, in which a novelist resubmits his own best-selling novel (name & title changed) to his own publishing house's slush pile, only to have it rejected.

Both articles seemed to confirm what so many of us feel in our darkest hours. It was the old Catch-22. Namely, that the odds are impossibly stacked against us, that one can't get published without a name and one can't get a name without publishing.

In the face of such stories, it's easy to give up hope. As painful as writing is, why keep doing it if there's no chance it will reach an audience outside ourselves? Why did we sign on for this? Where is that bottle of Bourbon?

I've been there. Sometimes, I admit, I still feel that way. I talked to an author last summer whose first short story collection is garnering huge praise everywhere (major awards and prizes, full color spreads in popular magazines, etc, etc), who told me that she had never had her work in the slush pile. A few years ago, her MFA director had told a highly reputed literary magazine's editor-in-chief to look at her work, which he did. That editor published her story, and her career was off and running. Sometimes, editors asked her to send to them directly. Sometimes, friends put her work in their hands. Either way, her stories skipped the slush pile altogether.

The thing is, I know that kind of treatment doesn't happen unless you have incredible talent, and, knowing that, I wanted to be happy for her. This writer struck me as a thoroughly cool person. As fellow strivers, shouldn't we all be cheering each other on?

Instead, I felt the cold gut punch of jealousy. There was no one in my life who had that kind of clout, no one willing to stick his neck out that way for me. I was doomed.

I got over it. She is talented and amazing. I don't want to be a bitter, jealous person. I want to cheer her on sincerely because she, too, is a writer, and even if publication might have come a little easier in the end, the words never do. She got her reputation because she sat down to the keyboard like all the rest of us and wrestled phrases and images into the magical spell that is all good short fiction. She worked--and that's something none of us should take lightly.

What's more, I've come to see it as much role as a writer much differently. I'm not a person who's ever known people in high places. My role, instead, is to claw and scratch my way through the backdoor of the publication world. And I have. I've gotten pieces in journals I'm incredibly proud to be in (Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, Versal, etc)--places whose editors were willing to take a chance on a girl they'd never heard of just because they liked her words. My first novel is coming out from New Rivers Press in October--the same press that published Charles Baxter, one of my all time favorite writers--for the same reason. Somehow, over time, my work has begun to find an audience.

I'm going to be honest: back in those undergrad days, my writing did not stood out above that of my peers. I had no discernible talent. By the time I began my Master's degree, I recognized how poor my own writing was compared to my peers. I spent the next six years struggling to be better. Slowly, my work was starting to get acceptance letters.

What I have going for me isn't untrained ability, and it certainly isn't "connections." What I have is perseverance and a willingness to learn. What I have going for me is a world in which editors do care and do want to find new voices. What I have going for me is a writing community of people who support each other, even when things look bleak. And you know what? It's enough.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I'm Late! I'm Late!

OK, so I haven't put up my weekly post yet, and the promise I made myself was that I would at least post a writing prompt every week, even when I was slugged down by life and didn't have a chance to write a longer post. This week's prompt is inspired by the fact that I missed my deadline, and by Alice in Wonderland.

As you no doubt recall, Alice is lazing in the field when she chases the white rabbit, who's running late, down his rabbit hole. Here's the prompt: Write a character who appears somehow average at first but whose voice reveals him/her to be anything but. This character will chase his/her inverse--someone who appears strange but turns out to be concerned with mundane affairs--and the chase will result in a spectacular story, something wholly unexpected.

Good luck, my friends!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

If It Hadn’t a Been For That Horse: Semi-Connected Thoughts on Image and Strangeness

1. There’s a Louis Black stand-up routine in which he rants about two girls he overhead talking in a restaurant. One had said to the other, “If it hadn’t a been for that horse, I would have never made it through college.” Black did not have the opportunity to ask what this dropped phrase meant, and it drove him nuts that he would never find out. Like so much language, it dropped into his ear context-free. Worse, he could not imagine any context in which the statement made sense.

2. On an Air Schooner podcast, an interviewee discusses writing ekphrastic poems. She says, it isn’t enough to write about art from the outside; ekphrasis at its best imagines a way into the artwork.

3. Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure to attend an AWP panel on Larry Levis, put together by poet Joshua Robbins, whose book Praise Nothing has just been released. One of his fellow panelists, Kathy Fagan, talked about the Levis poem “Sensationalism,” collected in Winter Stars, an ekphrastic poem responding to Josef Koudelka photograph of a man talking to a horse. It struck me as a perfect example of a writer imagining himself in, as Levis begins to imagine the absent context back into the photo. He writes, “I begin to believe that the man’s wife & children/ Were shot & thrown into a ditch the week before this picture,” and continues his imaginative flight from there.

4. As writers, we strive to find what Eliot called the “objective correlative”—the concrete image that captures an abstract emotion and thus creates that unnamed emotion in the reader. It strikes me now that there is an implied formula here: 1) Locate emotions you want to write about, 2) Substitute things to create that you hope will emotion, 3) Remove traces of abstraction so the images can do their work.

What I’m wondering now is whether this formula is accurate. It seems to me what makes Levis’s poem so successful is that he finds the strange image, the one without context, the one that has no implied response, and then contextualizes its strangeness into his own life’s story—the story with which he is most deeply familiar and with which he makes the reader familiar as well. I want to make a connection here to Russian critic Victor Shklovsky who said we must make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, but the interplay here is more complex. Strangeness and familiarity are intertwined, perhaps even parasitic.

5. Levis writes, “Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her/ My face altered & took on the shape of her face.” He tells us, “She went mad, waking in tears she mistook for blood.” The familiar, the strange, the imaginative leap from self to not self, the inability to recognize what we make.

6. Today, I want to find a piece of strangeness. I want to feel along the seams of its door and then climb into it like a sports car. I want to press the pedal to the floor and shove the gearshift hard into one place then another as I move from second to third and upward. I want to hear the tires of that strangeness squeal across the pavement and smell the rubber burning under my feet. I want to drive that strangeness hard and fast until it takes me where it always does: that place where horses speak and guide us straight into the truest and most distant part of the familiar, the place where art lives.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Literary vs. Commercial: A Panel Report from AWP 2013

Yesterday, I went to a talk on bridging the gap between “commercial” and “literary” novels. The speakers (Ed Falco, Julianna Baggott, Lisa Haines, and Benjamin Percy) were phenomenal. They were the kinds of writers you want to be friends with so you could sit over beers late at night talking about favorite books. They were all that a panel should be—funny and insightful, approachable but authoritative—and they made a number of comments that I’ve been mulling over ever since. For example, I liked Ed Falco’s point that we should not be judging books by genre but by quality. He rightly argued that there are badly written literary genre books and well-written commercial ones, and that the quality of goodness or badness in the writing itself (rather than genre) should determine how we judge it. He said that the text, once done and sent to the publisher, is not inherently “literary” or “commercial.” It’s the author’s attitude when writing the book that puts it there. If you’re thinking only about your needs as an author and what you feel you must write, you are writing from a literary impulse, but if you are thinking about the audience and how the book might appeal to them, then your impulse is commercial.

Perhaps it is because I agree with him that I found the question and answer portion of the talk to be a bit frustrating. A young writer behind me asked about how the literary/commercial distinction affected the writing of the book—a good meaty process question—and the panelists (I want to attribute this answer mostly to Haines and Baggott, but more might have chimed in) responded that you write what you feel you must write, ignoring the generic question altogether. I am sure this answer feels utterly true to them, and I’m also sure that it is the best answer available, but I have to say, I can’t help but recognize it as an oversimplification. After all, anyone who has written creatively has faced the wealth of artistic choices, each beckoning with its own siren song. We have ridden through the yellow wood and faced, over and over again, the divergent paths. Sometimes, the street signs on those paths might as well be labeled “commercial” and “literary.” They lead us to different ends, but it isn’t always clear which is the better path.

Let’s be honest: our choices determine the book’s audience and the level of respect it earns with The New York Times book review or, as Haines pointed out, a tenure committee. Haines and Baggott both said that their most commercially successful books were left off their academic CVs or listed as supplementary to their other work because they knew those books would hurt rather than help their cause, and failure to make tenure means the loss of a job and the primary means to feed the family.

I’ve been at the cross roads with my second novel now for the past few months, trying to decide exactly how gritty, how “real,” I want this book to be, knowing that making it too gritty may not appeal to young adult readers who are likely to be its primary audience. The creative genies have yet to come to tell me which path I should take, and this fence rail has long become uncomfortable.

Who was it who said “the truth is rarely pure and never simple?” That’s the message I wish the panel had given the young writer in the audience struggling at her own crossroads. And maybe if they hadn’t been on the spot, under pressure to give the quick answer, they would have. Or maybe I am projecting too much. Maybe the choices have always been clearer for them. Haines and Baggott, after all, are talented and prolific—far more so than I am. Maybe they don’t get stuck on these questions as I am and have been. Maybe they don’t wallow in indecision. Maybe that’s the heart of genius.

Since I am not a genius, though, I will simply say this to that fellow writer and struggler who asked her bold question: many of us share your doubt. The answer Baggott and Haines gave is undoubtedly right—we must determine the road by being true to our work. Yet I come back to Falco (silent during this portion of the Q&A) who said that it is during process that we find ourselves following a literary or commercial impulse. Sometimes, those two masters give contradictory orders, and the writer must determine which s/he serves. The choice is rarely pure and never simple.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Donkey Spatula

My students were feeling their oats last Wednesday. As often happens in a writing workshop, the creative energies bounced off one another, colliding and colluding, building into a sort of fervid silliness. Wednesday, this silliness was taking the form of random word pairings and uproarious laughter that was eating into the start of our class. "We have to get to work," I told them, feeling that I had better take charge lest someone lose precious workshop time.

"We are working," the students replied. "We're being creative."

"No," I told them. "Putting random ideas together is not creative. It's just absurdity. I can't say 'donkey spatula' and consider myself creative. To be creative, the two words must come together to create something."

I should be crediting someone for this idea because I know it is not original with me, but my mind cannot lay its finger on the name. (Gardner? Roethke? Readers, you'll help me out in the comments section, won't you?) Nevertheless, the distinction is an important one. Two disparate ideas yoked together by force doesn't necessarily create something. It's the poet who puts the disparate together in a way that becomes harmonious and enlightening, that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. The words might create an idea or a setting or a character or a voice or perhaps even a sound, but unless something is created by the seemingly random pairing, then it has failed its work.

Our class has a running list of mottos we should put on class tee shirts. I'd like to nominate "donkey spatula" as a tee shirt idea and a reminder to all of us that creating is harder and nobler work than it may seem--but I'd like to nominate it, too, as a celebration of the silliness that allows us a much needed reprieve for that work.

I'm so grateful for my students, who add levity and light to every class.

Friday, February 15, 2013

There are many things I'm good at...

...but blog design is not one of them.

This week, my publishers at New Rivers Press sent me my cover design, giving me the first glimpse of what my novel will look like when it comes out in October. (Squee!!) I decided that, now that I have the art, I'd better redesign the blog to match, hopefully bringing the blog design more up to date along the way.

I'm no graphic designer, though, and I'm afraid it shows. I see how things could be improved but have no clue on how to improve them. I guess this is why it's my job to write the books and someone else's job to make a beautiful cover.

So, for this week, rather than a reflection on writing, I thought I would offer this writing prompt for a story, poem, or screenplay:

Write about a character whose heart's desire is to do a job well, but who has no talent whatsoever for that job. Let the job be one that others would see as mundane or easy. Let the character have another talent, perhaps one that would be lucrative, but let that talent be ignored or dismissed. Your character can't see how what s/he's good at is any help at all. The job has become his/her sole focus.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Genre and Its Discontents

Yesterday, I gave a lecture on selling a novel that I ended with the following advice:

There is no easy way to do this.
You will be rejected.
Rejection will hurt.
You will survive.

I told my students that success in this business relies on three things: talent, luck, and perseverance. We have no control over the first two, but the third trumps everything.

It is perhaps poetic justice that after such a speech, I had a story rejection in my e-mail inbox that night, gently letting me know I had failed to make the finalists of a short story contest I'd entered. I'll be honest, I set my hopes high on making the finalists. Worse, the rejected piece was the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, which I had adapted to stand on its own as a story. My first attempt at sending the book into the world had just been flung back. And I was right: it hurt. Though I have clearly survived, I have also been giving a lot of thought to the reasons for the story's failure, both because I want to persevere and send it out again and because the most important part of failure is learning from it.

In this case, I think my point-of-view character is a tough sell. He's a fourteen year old boy.

That may not automatically sound like a death knell to some readers, but in the literary fiction market, a young POV character doesn't help sell your book. I knew this going in, of course. I'd played around with young adult POV characters in grad school, and a professor had warned me that it marked my book as young adult fiction, which would prevent it from being taken seriously. "Try to think of one work of serious literary fiction that has a child as the point-of-view character," she said.

"What about Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?"

She looked at me pityingly. "I would hardly call that a great literary novel."

I won't try to determine the literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird here. The question, though, has stuck with me. Could you write a literary novel told from the point of view of a kid?

This question was driven home to me further this summer at a writer's workshop I attended. My workshop peers acknowledged the piece was well written, but they wondered whether "young adult fiction" was really appropriate in a literary fiction venue. The workshop leader, John Casey (whose work I highly recommend), came to my defense. "What makes you think this is a young adult novel?" he asked. "Just because we're in the point of view of a kid? This strikes me as literary."

The truth is, though, that I too had come to see book as a young adult novel. I had edited myself for language and sexual content that--let's face it--are a part of a real-life fourteen year old's experience. I came home and found myself writing a masturbation scene, and I'm happy with the results. In fact, scenes like this are becoming some of my favorite scenes in the book because I can feel the risk I'm taking there, and that risk feel authentic to the character I'm creating and the gritty world he inhabits. My rejection yesterday made me realize that I hadn't pushed the first chapter as much as I could--the character is still pretty squeaky clean there. I wasn't living up to the psychological reality demanded by literary fiction.

That said, the risk I'm taking by adding sex, drugs, and language back into the book takes me right out of the YA market, a market with significantly better selling potential than literary fiction. I'm happier with the book, but I may have just made it much harder to sell. The honesty required of literary fiction marks the book as "inappropriate" for younger readers, however more accurate it is to their experiences. Meanwhile, the fact that my POV character remains fourteen years old may make the book a no-go for literary fiction audiences. I want so badly for the book to be both literary and YA-friendly, but it seems I have hit a crossroads. I may lose both audiences by writing the book as I feel it should be written.

Should genre conventions govern the decisions we make as authors? On the one hand, surely we have to write towards Truth, or else what the hell are we writing for? On the other hand, if we want to have our book in the hands of readers, don't we have to acknowledge the realities of the market in at least some regard?

Yesterday, Richard Bausch posted the following advice on Facebook:

"Seriously, it's best to realize that it never does get easier, and the writer who thinks it should get easier is involved in a dangerous self-deception. Because as you go on and keep practicing this craft and art, you know more all the time, and are therefore apt to see with greater and greater clarity the large number of possibilities that exist in each line or gesture--and so the task just becomes all that much harder. And the heavy doubts never do go away. Better make friends with them now, because they really won’t ever, ever go away."

He's right in so many ways. There are endless possibilities in the line and gesture, and so many more in each scene added or deleted. I've signed on for the long haul; doubts will be my road companions. Perseverance is more than just sending out again after rejection. It's about facing your work every day knowing that each decision you make as a writer is going to be rejected by someone, and trying to determine what decision is the necessary one for you. It's about conjuring these decisions out of air and trying to make something that is authentic. There is no easy way to do this.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

25% of the Time: Questions of Process

I watched the documentary Bad Writing for free on Vimeo last month. The film maker Vern Lott (whom I learned from watching was a fellow University of Idaho Vandal--woot woot for Brink Hall on film!)

did a remarkable job of collecting interviews with some of the best writers and writing teachers working today, including George Saunders, Steve Almond, David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, among many, many incredible others.

The film is a wealth of thought-provoking insight, but in particular, I find myself coming back to a comment from Daniel Orozco, who commented that he loves writing 25% of the time and hates it the other 75% of the time. I'll be honest, this made me sit up, say, "me too!" and feel awash in all sorts of warmth and kinship. What's made me keep thinking of it, though, is what he said next--that drafting is least favorite part of the process. For him, to draft is the painful process of forcing down words when he can see that the syntax and words aren't working and everything is so, so bad. Revision brings the joy of relief, when he can make the language do what it needs.

For me, the reverse is true. I love the magic of discovery when I write into a scene and begin to envision the place and start to understand the complex reactions of my characters to their private and public conflicts and feel their humanity. I love getting carried away by a sentence and feeling like I'm an oar-less canoe floating along its whorls and eddies.

Revision, though? Oh revision. It would be unfair to say I hate it. Hate is too strong. As I tell my children, I'm too young to hate. I don't want to hate or be hateful. And honestly, I don't hate revision. Dread, yes; hate, no. Revision can offer the same magical and exciting surprises, the same writer highs, the pleasure as drafting. Unfortunately, they're often fewer and painfully far between. Revision is the necessary work, the moment where I acknowledge that the draft that carried me away is nowhere near good enough, the part in which I tear the scenes along their seams to try to determine what stuffing is missing.

The thing is, I probably spend 75%-80% of the time I'm "writing" a book locked in this final battle, trying to revise it so that the text resembles the vision at least in small part. And I'm wondering whether, for Orozco, it's the reverse. Does it take him 75% of the time to ache out a draft so he can have a joyous 25% time revising it? Do writers, by our natures, rush the part we love in the frenzy of our delight only to slog through the other part, and vice verse? If so, can--or should--we spend more time in whatever phase is the "good" part?

Ultimately, I find I don't trust the desire to prolong the joy or to mediate the hard parts. As masochistic as it may sound, I suspect that the painful 75%, wherever it lies, is the part that actually makes the finished book good. It's the part we can be proud of later. I suspect that, whatever the painful part of writing is, we avoid it at our work's peril.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Next Big Thing, continued

This week, I'm passing "The Next Big Thing" torch to Kirsten Kaschock, whose book Sleight is one of my favorite novels published in the last few years. The world Kaschock creates here is our own touched with a surrealistic feathering. Inhabiting this landscape are Lark and Clef, two sisters who dance in a Sleight troupe, an invented art form in which dancers create intricate architectures and sometimes disappear, or "wick," from the stage. When the sisters are confronted with the news of the mass murder of children, they are left to navigate the turbid question, what is the proper artistic response to horror? Would creating a dance that responds to this atrocity be exploitative, or cathartic, or something else, something wholly unimagined?

Kaschock has published two collections of poetry in addition to this thoroughly gripping novel, and her language sings in every line. She is the rare writer whose mastery of stunningly gorgeous word choice, rhythm, and syntax does not soften the harshness of the ideas she explores. She doesn't flinch from difficult questions, but instead finds the images and narrative that allow us to question with her. I'd love to put a copy of this book in every reader's hands.

For more on Kirsten, her work, and her "The Next Big Thing" interview, check in at

Find her books here:
A Beautiful Name for a Girl

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

NOTE: The Next Big Thing is a blog series, winding its way through the internet. I was invited by writer Eric Sasson, whose short story collection MARGINS OF TOLERANCE is published with Livingston Press. Check back next week for the blog addresses of the other writers whom I've invited into the challenge.

What is the title of your book?

Borrowed Horses

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The novel started as my dissertation at the University of Georgia. For a long time, I'd resisted writing about horses or riding. They were my passion, but I felt that few readers would share that passion. I couldn't stand the idea that the thing that I loved might bore other people, so I silenced myself rather than taking that risk. Then one day I stumbled upon Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which had only recently come out. I knew nothing about her or the book and hesitated to buy it because it was about opera and what did I know or care about opera? But for some reason, I did buy the book. I immediately fell in love with it. She wrote so beautifully about opera that it made me care. I thought, if she can do that for me with opera, then I must try to do the same thing with horses. I realized that the wonderful thing about great language is that it can transcend our prejudices and biases. The root passion is what we respond to, even if that emotion triggered by different objects for the writer than it is for the reader--which is ironic because, to transmit that passion, one must write in images and things. That's the paradox of fiction and what makes Eliot's idea of the objective correlative so sticky. It's what Patchett had realized and I had to learn from her. If the language is right, the writer's feeling for the objects trigger the necessary emotion even if readers do not share the writer's emotional associations with those objects.

Patchett's book gave me permission and, thus, I had a subject to write about, but not a plot. In fact, I was frantically plot-less for quite some time, which is terrifying for any writer but especially one with a self-inflicted deadline. (I was bound and determined to finish my PhD in 2006, come hell or high water.) Aside from journaling and note-taking, I stopped work on the book while I was studying for my comprehensive exams, simply because I was spending nearly every waking moment reading. About midway through that terrible nearly writing-less year of relentless speed reading, I re-read Jane Eyre for my Victorian exam, and as I was reading, I kept thinking about what an amazing book it is. I first read it when I was thirteen, and I've read it over and over since, and every time, it holds up. I kept thinking, I wish I could write this book, and then I started wondering if I could... Would the plot bend to the characters I envisioned? My speaker was no Jane, but she might be a Rochester. I started to wonder if I could tell his story through a female speaker. What would happen if my main character had a mad man who wouldn't stay safely in her past? I worked from that idea forward into the book.

What genre does your book fall under?

I like the word choice "fall under" here. I'm imagining a steam roller called genre about to roll me over. I imagine myself tripping on a curb and being pressed into steaming tarmac.

I call Borrowed Horses a "literary pot boiler." I don't think book stores are using that genre label yet, but wouldn't it be cool if they did?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I kind of love this question because when I was workshopping early chapters, Jeff Newberry, who is a good friend and an amazing poet, said that he pictured Dave (my madman) as Matthew McConaughy, an actor whom I adore, and it really helped make Dave clear in my mind.

Beyond that, I'm afraid I'm going to run out of answers quickly because I am really bad with celebrity knowledge. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think the characters shouldn't be played by known actors. I often love movies best when I don't recognize any of the actors and can, therefore, utterly buy the idea that they are exactly the people whom they play on the screen. It removes a layer of artificiality for me. In Borrowed Horses, the male and female leads would need to feel authentic. Joannie sees herself as a kind of Clint Eastwood/ Spaghetti Western character, in spite of which--or perhaps because of which--she is extremely attractive to men. She's athletic and smirks a lot and has curling dark hair. Timothy is tall and thin with hazel eyes and a kind of punk-ish vibe, but also exudes a lot of quiet wisdom. The actors who played these two would want to embody those kind of traits.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Borrowed Horses retells the love story of Jane Eyre, inverting the genders and re-setting the story in Idaho with lots of horses and fence-jumping.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Borrowed Horses will be published by New Rivers Press in October 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This is a tough question because I had been taking notes on the book and letting ideas percolate for about ten years before I started writing the novel in earnest. I'll say though that I wrote the first draft in roughly a year and a half, and then re-drafted for the next six years--including rewriting the entire manuscript from page one. The novel that will be published is a far, far different book from the one I defended as a dissertation in 2006.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It seems somehow egotistical to compare my book to those that I love, so rather than comparing, I'll just mention a few books that I admire and wished to emulate: Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, everything by Louise Erdrich, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (of course), and Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow. I'll also say that I had Sherman Alexie much on my mind, both because he and I write about a similar region and because my character Timothy is part-Native American, from Spokane like Alexie, and I wrote very much afraid that I would fall into stereotypes or, inversely, that I would fail to capture the culture. It was really important for me that Timothy be a person rather than a caricature. Alexie's poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" was very much on my mind. I don't want to be the writer he parodies there.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by two of the great loves of my life: horses and Idaho. I wanted to capture the feeling of flight a rider has when jumping a fence, and I wanted to give the world a glimpse of some of the most beautiful landscape this country has to offer.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Joannie is an x-ray technologist, so I did a lot of research into bones. I don't know if that actually peaks anyone's interest, but our bones are amazing, fascinating things, and far, far stronger than most people would imagine. I worked a lot of bone research into the language because I found it so beautiful and inspiring.

Also, I know writers are supposed abhor cliches, but I've always loved the old saw "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger." This book is an exploration of how true that is for my main character, but also of the ways that personal strength, if it becomes cold and removed, can become its own brand of weakness.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pursuing Endings

My ten year old daughter wants to be a writer, and we talk about writing a lot. The other day, she was telling me about a short story collection she admires. "The ending lines are so good," she told me, "that sometimes I take them for my own stories."

I closed my eyes and bit back the lecture on intellectual property. She's ten. It can wait. Instead what I said was, "don't you think, though, that what makes an ending line really good is all the sentences leading up to it? I mean, doesn't the story have to earn its ending? If your stories are different than that writer's stories, don't they need different last lines? your own last lines?"

Easy for me to say. Lately, my project has been to revise my 2nd novel, a novel whose ending needs major work. As I'm reading, I'm trying to decipher my own tracks, to determine where they might lead. I know I've stopped short somewhere along the way, but the snow looks pristine all around, and I don't know where I've been leading myself.

I'm also trying to find chapters within this novel-in-progress that might work as stand-alone stories. I've got two in circulation right now, and what's my primary worry about both? The endings. In each case, I've revised them to try to achieve a little more closure (for lack of a better word) so that they feel like something that has ending, rather than a piece of a long story building up to another end altogether.

I've been reading a ton of short fiction as I do this, looking admiringly at how nuanced good writers are in their endings, how gracefully they let us go, allowing us to close the story and feel done with it, even as it haunts us. In good stories, the writers earn their last words.

And the best stories start earning their ending with the very first line, which is not to say that they're circular or "pat." I'm not talking about the gimmick ending here where the writer circles back to the same line or image and says "ta-da." Good openings feel subtle and effortless--a sure sign that a writer has done a hell of a lot of work.

Part of me wishes I could end this blog entry with a nifty formula or tips for writing good endings, but if I believed writing could be so easily reduced to formulas and tips, I wouldn't be doing it for a living. It's the hunt, the following of the tracks, that makes the job so interesting in the first place.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Coming to Terms with "Voice"

When I worked at The Georgia Review, I saw plenty of examples of failed voices. A story would start in heavily misspelled vernacular, heavy with the y'alls and yokelisms we might expect from a bad actor, and I'd find myself scanning ahead quickly to see if it ever redeemed itself. They almost never did. And because I associated "voice pieces" so heavily with bad writing, the concept of voice itself became suspect. I cringed when I heard people talk about a writer finding "his/her voice," as if it were lost change in the couch cushion that had to be dug out. I figured, a writer's voice was whatever was natural, and if I had to think about it too hard, then the piece was doomed to feeling hackneyed and artifical.

Lately, though, I've realized just how wrong that assumption is. I've been listening to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts (which are free through iTunes and are, for the most part, mind-blowingly good). A few weeks back, I was listening to Eudora Welty's "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" while scrubbing my toilet, and Joyce Carol Oates, who selected and read the story, talked with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman afterward about the title and how crucial the voice was to the piece. The language seemed so natural. Welty said that she felt she knew this person because she had grown up with him. He was her neighbor, her uncle, her grocer, etc. He was a part of her community and thus a part of her--though, as the title suggests, a part that perhaps she didn't know was there and may not have wanted to acknowledge.

On Thursday, Joshua Ferris read George Saunders's "Adams" intimately into my ear while I ran around the track (again, thank you New Yorker Fiction podcast), and I felt the same impulse driving the story. The speaker's voice was crucial, as Ferris pointed out, to mediating the violence of the story, allowing it to flirt with the comedic while we are simultaneously horrified by the speaker's action. It's the same trick Burgess pulled off in A Clockwork Orange, a book I've always loved for its language, its voice.

It dawned on me just how many books I first loved for the voice of their speakers: Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, or more recently, Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime) and just about any character by John Green. Their voices made the speakers real to me. They drew me in.

A speaker is a book's emissary. We have to like them if we're going to root for them--especially if they're as despicable as Burgess's Alec or Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. I think a part of me always recognized that voice was a part of this liking, but I've arrived at the conclusion that it's more than that, that voice is nothing less than the embodiment of personality in language.

This is perhaps what is most terrifying about finding the voice for a novel. Let's face it: most of us worry about whether we're likable enough. Do we have the necessary charisma? Are we witty enough? Can we create a character who is?

I suspect that it's this fear (that no one will like me enough) that drives my avoidance of voice-driven fiction, but, in this season of resolutions, I vow to avoid it no longer. I still believe it's inaccurate to talk about a writer finding "his voice" because that implies there is a single voice to find. The voices a writer seeks are multiple: the voices of all of those characters, the embodiment of all those personalities. In Welty's example, the killer's voice is and is not her own. Her and her speaker's language are related but not identical. Welty allows what's familiar in their common language to draw her into a vernacular of racial hatred that was not her own, and the story is terrifyingly successful as a result.

Whether they come easily or not, the best voices draw us in not because of any politician's false charm but because they feel natural and authentic, because the writer erased the footprints that got him there.