Summing Up

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm terrible at the so-called elevator pitch. I know it sounds grandiose and obnoxious, but the idea of summing up a novel--something I lived and breathed for months and months, even years and years, such that the characters were like real people I knew, and often spotted in public--just doesn't come naturally for me. The point is, if you ask me what BROOKLYN, BURNING is about, I will talk in circles, say too much about certain aspects, not enough about others, and eventually have to take a break so you can go add change to your parking meter.

So it's quite a nice surprise that the Library of Congress has written what I consider an excellent summary of BROOKLYN, BURNING, and here it is:

Sixteen-year-old Kid, who lives on the streets of Brooklyn, loves Felix, a guitarist and junkie who disappears, leaving Kid the prime suspect in an arson investigation, but a year later Scout arrives, giving Kid a second chance to be in a band and find true love.

Thanks, federal librarians!


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

According to a widely accepted authority on the subject, fear is a major hurdle for writers. I tend to agree. I have frequently described some of my favorite writers as brave, so it stands to reason we must have something to fear when we sit down to write, however irrational it might seem when we're not at the keyboard. (I think most writers worth their fingertips have experienced moments of varying lengths during which that fear is gone completely. For myself, I know these times to be when I've written my fastest, best, and most honest work.)

What am I talking about exactly? What do writers have to fear when they're writing? I think many writers might not see these things as fears, really. They might see them as difficulties, constraints, grammatical hangups. Who the heck knows. But maybe the best way to explain what I mean by fear is a list. A list like this one:

Things I fear when I write
  • Slipping into "genre" fiction, and then having no idea what to do once I'm there
  • Using "look" too much, not to mention "shrug," "glance," and "smile"
  • Too much dialogue and not enough narration, so I seem lazy and my readers are confused
  • Too much narration and not enough dialogue, so I seem self-indulgent and my readers are bored
  • Placing my protagonist in a situation with which I am not intimately familiar
  • Placing my protagonist in a situation that will be hard to navigate
  • Creating a scene that doesn't launch the story forward, losing readers to boredom
  • Creating a scene that is so plot-focused that I end up with under-developed characters and barely attended settings

I could probably go on and on, but here's the funny part: All of those fears appear from the moment I start to write. We're talking first-draft stuff, here--stuff no one, and I mean no one, will read. Yet I am reticent to even put the words into a document because . . . well, because of fear. How irrational is that! Very irrational is how.

Let me give you an example of fearful writing. Brooklyn, Burning, my second novel, centers on an actual event that took place in Greenpoint in May of 2006. A warehouse burned for days, and investigators immediately suspected arson. If I was going to have my protagonist involved somehow, the police would have to get involved. Two fears: a real event about which I knew very little (the fire and arson itself), and a character about to get into a situation that might be hard to navigate, for the character and for myself (a run-in with the police that wasn't going to end with a warning, let's say).

I'd already written quite a bit in my Greenpoint story, but I hadn't committed to the central place the fire would play. It took me weeks to accept that this was the story I wanted and needed to write. It took me weeks and months more to actually do the work of writing it. At first it was slogging through mud in heavy boots, until I said, "Aw, screw it," and wrote a scene with detectives in it. Guess what: Dick Wolf didn't come smashing into my dining room, shouting, "You have no idea what you're doing!"

No matter what fears a new scene, paragraph, sentence, or even word might present, I save myself from nothing by backing away from it. If I barrel through and find a difficult spot--a spot I hadn't expected or had expected thoroughly and had known would give me trouble--that's fine. I'll barrel through that too. And if upon re-reading I decide, yeah, that scene needs more stage direction, I can put it in. I can rewrite the scene.

I can do whatever the hell I want, is the upshot, because it's my goddamn story anyway.


Got back from New York City on Monday. I'd been out there ostensibly for the national SCBWI conference. I was also there because I love New York, as I may have mentioned now and then. This post is a wrap-up of sorts. It's also a summary of advice.

A week or so before heading east, I got this gem from local author and friend Kurtis Scaletta. He recommended I work on my brand, and--in direct opposition, I think it was, to the adorable and pure John Green--focus on becoming YA's "bad boy." I believe Kurtis felt I was already halfway there, what with my tendency to wear knit hats indoors and occasionally create characters who smoke and curse. With this advice in mind, I went to this year's SCBWI conference without registering.


Don't freak out. I didn't crash or anything. I didn't attend seminars. Okay, so I watched Sara Zarr's keynote on Sunday morning. Send me a pro-rated bill. Jeez.

But the weekend, and other advice. That was my next point. Friday night I had drinks--several drinks, I suppose--with ENIV and his assistant. I saw some old friends and new. Here's a photo. But my next gem of advice didn't present itself till the next day.

I was sitting in the lobby of the conference hotel, working on a WIP if you can believe that (have I mentioned how productive I've not been lately?), when I spied a certain amazing lady and blurber coming at me. I nearly tripped on my headphones and destroyed my laptop trying to get quickly to my feet. It was time for my second valuable advice: Stop reading the reviews. Sure, I'd heard it before, but probably never to my face, and from three respectabiggles* at once. As soon as our little meeting was over, I applied the advice:

It was Ms. Zarr who, this time from the front of a crowded room the next morning, gave the most filling advice of all: there is no endgame. She wasn't talking about Beckett, either. That was exactly what I needed to hear, and it's what I couldn't have put my finger on before her talk. If you asked me last week why I read reviews, and why I follow awards, and why I so look forward to getting cover concept emails and foreign rights sales and ARCs and finals et cetera, I would not have been able to give an honest and accurate answer. But Zarr hit it: I am always looking for that endgame, that event that will make me feel satisfied, even happy. But here's the irony: the only part of writing that has ever made me feel fully and truly satisfied is the work itself! Why didn't I know that?

One other well of advice came from two unlikely places this weekend: my mother and Stephen King. They're not friends, but my mom happened to get her hands on a copy of On Writing, and she held it for me, and I read it. Wait. I devoured it. I am a wildly slow reader generally, and I've never read any fiction by King outside of The Stand my junior year of high school, but I couldn't stop. Much of it wasn't new to me, but what was (or what I hadn't ever given much thought to before) felt like a revelation. No small part of that was similar to what Zarr told us: the happiness comes from the work, not from the reward. That's why I got into this to begin with! That's why, when I was fifteen, I wrote stories about dwarfs and wizards. It's why when I was seventeen I wrote abstract short fiction about nothing. It's why when I was twenty-one I wrote a short story called "Looking Down on Havoc," and it's why I eventually turned that story into The Absolute Value of -1.

I write because I love to write. The sooner I come back around to that, the better.

*A shout-out to my favorite Marsh-wiggle.


This post is ridiculous. It might make some readers mad, either because it mentions someone they adore, or because they'll see it for it really is: a waste of time. But I was thinking today how much I just don't like David Byrne or any of his projects. Sure, there's the occasional Talking Heads song I've enjoyed, but even their radio hits (or is it hit? "Psycho Killer"? Are there others?) I find at best boring, and at worst positively grating. So why do I respect and even admire Byrne*?

Byrne's bands are not alone. There's Sonic Youth, for example. I enjoyed that one song from the early nineties, the one with Kathleen Hanna in the video, and to be entirely honest, I might have enjoyed it simply because Kathleen Hanna was in the video. Beyond that, though, I can't think of many successful bands I find more irritating. However, I consider every member of that band to be something of a musical, well, genius maybe.

And these acts are not only in the avant-garde, to be sure. There's--let's see--Operation Ivy. Widely hailed, and so. Freaking. Grating. Just the same, I love them in principle. I'd probably even wear a T-shirt with that dancing fedora guy on it. I keep mentioning them in my current WIP. Why?!

There are other bands that are widely hailed, and that I can't stand, and that's the end of the story, such as U2. Loads of serious music heads like and respect those guys. I don't, and I'm okay with it. So why are Op Ivy, Sonic Youth, and David Byrne a different story? Is it simply that I know how critically important those acts are, and so I (subconsciously, I suppose) have decided I respect them? Or is it something more?

I think, and certainly hope, it's something more. I think I have a deep respect for artists that step out from the crowd and lead the way a little bit: even if I don't love the results, the very act of sticking the nose out is worth a load of respect, more than I'd reserve for some artists whose music I actually enjoy but who, when you get right down to it, haven't done anything particularly new or interesting.

So the question is, does this apply to other art, as well? And apropos of my field, does it apply specifically to fiction?

The questions I posed here are rhetorical. I don't have answers. You probably don't either. But hell, I'd be happy to consider any answers that come along.

*This is just to say that I have lately begun to respect Byrne for his pursuits outside of music per se, and that's not what I'm talking about here.