Monday, February 28, 2011

I Finished My Novel in Paris

I started my novel in the year 1999. The first idea was to write a novel about a woman who was pregnant for the first time. I was also pregnant for the first time. This level of imagination was about all I could manage as a newly pregnant person. Before pregnancy, I was always a bit of a live wire. While my first two books are questionable in terms of lasting literary value, no one can say they weren't lively. While pregnant, I was reduced to simple declarative sentences. Most of them started with "I" and ended with "am nauseated" or variations on that theme. I wanted to write about a person making the transition from being a person into being a mother. Mostly all I could manage was to talk about puking. I remember that my character at one point climbed to the top of a ladder and then puked. And that was the conflict in the scene.

Then I had the baby and lost all ability to write about anything that didn't end well. Because I so earnestly wanted the baby to be safe and happy, I could only create fiction in a safe and happy world. Which was boring. And disastrous to the plot. Everyone felt fine, did nice things, and tried to blend in. Instead of writing vomit-related conflict, I wrote no conflict. Which may be therapeutic, but does not make a novel. I still wanted to write about motherhood, but had no ability to get beyond the level of "Motherhood is nice."

My second idea for tackling this material was to write about three sisters and a cul de sac. Babe, the oldest, was unmarried, a rover. Ronnie, the middle one, was married with two children. Kate, the youngest, was married and pregnant for the first time. They were mother, wife, girlfriend -- their characters illustrated the transition that I was trying to unpack, from single girl to mother. Ronnie had bought a house on the cul de sac when she was first married, and now Kate had bought the house next to her. There was one house left and they were trying to get Babe to settle down with her boyfriend and move into it. The novel was going to be called, brilliantly, Cul de Sac. I introduced some conflicts. Someone was sleeping with someone else's husband. I wrote quite a lot of this draft.

Then I got pregnant again. On purpose, even. Goodbye, brain.

My third idea, upon emerging from that second stupor, was that the three women would actually be one woman. My next idea was that the woman would be bald. Other ideas stacked with that one -- that she would have an astronaut husband (thanks Susannah), that she would already have one child (with autism), that her mother would be sick and dying. Everything came together from that point. I staggered, stalled, and sprinted, and when we left for France in summer of 2010, I was within a few thousand words of finishing. I had taken some days off of parenting, I had had help with the children, but mostly I had fought it out in spite of my job as a homeschooling mother -- stealing time between lessons, or usually at 1 am, with the children upstairs asleep.

When we reached Paris at the end of our month-long adventure, I was immediately inspired. I sat down and wrote a thousand words the first night. We were, after all, in Paris. I had read the relevant Hemingway. I had read in fact the guidebook that told me exactly where to go to follow the path that Hemingway took when he wheeled Joyce home in a wheelbarrow after a night out drinking. This is what I'd always had in my head -- a trip to Paris, a literary explosion, my hands on fire, my brain turned to molten ideas. My husband, beautifully compliant after a month of climbing Alps on his bicycle and following the Tour de France, agreed to take the children out in the city so I could work. And I did work. I worked with the floor-to-ceiling balcony windows open behind me on an antique table in a mirrored room. I worked with gritty coffee next to me, and then French wine, and then more coffee. I worked fueled by awesome cheese and some sort of internal engine. I worked so much that I was within one scene of the end of the book, and then I stopped.

I had an idea. To finish my novel, I would go out into the proper neighborhood. I would walk from our swank apartment in the 8th arrondissement down to Pont Alma, Joyce's favorite bridge. There I would stand where he stood, dictating Finnegan's Wake, and I would think very important, excellent thoughts. Then I would take the Metro over to the Left Bank, and I would walk around down there, scuffing my shoes where Gertrude Stein walked, treading the path that Hemingway trod, and then I would wind up with my netbook at Les Deux Magots, where Fitzgerald and Joyce and the rest of them drank, and I would open the netbook and finish the novel, right there, in the midst of it.

It was a plan that did not happen. I could have done it. I was in the right place at the right time. My husband was going to take the children to a movie. However, when it came down to it, I had a breathtaking realization that this scenario would be all wrong. It would have been antithetical to the book I was writing to shed the trappings of my housewife life and try and inhabit some kind of imagined literary nirvana, deny the person I was in trying to emulate something that had nothing to do with me. I wrote my novel about becoming a mother, and I would write the ending as a mother would. It's the only thing that would work.

I did finish the novel in Paris. But I finished it at that dining room table, wearing my old brown shorts, with my hair twisted this way and that, my husband asleep in a room to the left, my children asleep in a room to the right, the window behind me open on the city -- not the city of Gertrude Stein, but the city I was living in right then. Kids, husband, reasonable sandals and all.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Query a Literary Magazine

I have a client who writes very tight, literary short stories. He has not been able to place them yet with a literary magazine, however. I asked to see his cover letter so I could critique it for him. The cover letter he was using was so representative of many earnest unpublished authors and so full of typical well-meaning noob mistakes, I thought I would make my critique public. A lot of people struggle with content on a query when they have nothing to say about writing career, previous publications, seemingly nothing to say at all. This letter follows all the rules of writing a query, and yet it's squeaking with awkwardness. It screams "Ignore me; I'm new."

The first step to a successful pitch to a literary journal is to write the best short story or poem you can possibly write. Write, rest, rewrite, rest, edit, line edit, format sensibly, print clearly.

The second step is to do a hell of a lot of research. Wear out your Google searching your target markets. If you can afford it, buy and read the physical publications. You will know within ten pages if your work is a fit for their editorial vision. The best story in the universe will not make it past the front door of a magazine that just doesn't do that type of thing.

The third step is to write a bitchin' query letter, or cover letter, and stick it on top.

Here's the original letter he sent me:

February 1, 2011

Fiction Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

To Whom it May Concern,

Please consider my 1,200-word, previously unpublished manuscript, "[Title Redacted]" for publication at The Georgia Review. I am a previously unpublished writer, but I work with earnest on the craft. This piece is a part of a collection of stories that will one day comprise a novel.

This piece is being simultaneously submitted. I will notify you immediately upon an

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

And here are my critiques:

1. Dude, find out the name of the editor you're addressing. It's not hard to do this research, especially with the internet. Even if you end up addressing it to someone more senior than the person who actually reads their slush, that's okay. It's better than "To Whom it May Concern." That is the kiss of death. For example, look here: Out of the staff listed I'd choose David Ingle to query.

2. Don't say you're previously unpublished. The fact that you're not mentioning pub credits tells them that, and you don't need to draw attention to it. You also REALLY don't need to say that this story specifically is previously unpublished. Now you just put the words "previously unpublished" twice in as many sentences. Did you want to add a neon sign over that? ;D

3. Put a little more color into it. Personal color and literary color. You don't have a publishing resume but you can say something about yourself that makes your query sound a little warmer, a little less robotic.

4. Not necessary to say you're simultaneously submitting -- just let them know if it gets accepted elsewhere. Paper and ink literary magazines do not move at a blinding speed -- it will be alright if something good happens somewhere else and you have to withdraw the submission for some reason.

5. It's good to thank the editor, but yours sounds very formal and therefore insincere.

Try this:

February 1, 2011

David Ingle
Assistant Editor
The Georgia Review
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-9009

Hi David,

Please consider my 1,200-word, story, "[Title Redacted]," for publication at The Georgia Review. It's a Texas story, sparsely told, about a death in the family and also a death out in the yard. I'm a writer living in Mississippi with my wife, dog, and antique car collection.

Thanks for all you do -- I appreciate the time it takes to look this over, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

[Name Redacted]

I hope my client hits with this new query letter. His writing is great. However, his success in this will depend on his research skills, his ability to direct his work at the right market, and his willingness to exercise the same restraint in his pitch as he is able to pull off in his fiction. Play it cool, play it simple, play it warm but not hysterical, straight but not snippy.

Got any other advice for him? Should he leave out the bit about the antique cars? What's your go-to query line?