Monday, April 25, 2011

The American Way: Bigger is Better

            There has been a trend in America for quite some time and, by association, it nearly defines us as a nation of people.  It’s that whole “bigger is better” attitude.  And it really is the American Way, or more accurately, the American Dream itself.  We, in America, firmly believe that anything worth having will be even better if it’s bigger.  I see this in so many ways, the most obvious being in our consumption of food. 
The portion sizes of the foods we most love to eat have increased astronomically.  Twenty years ago, an average serving of pizza was 500 calories.  Today it is 850.  A serving of coffee used to be 8 ounces and 45 calories.  Today, it’s 16 ounces and 330 calories.  A 3-inch bagel, 140 calories vs. 5-6-inch at 350 calories.  And the staple of the American diet, a hamburger:  330 calories then vs. 590 calories now.  Of course, all this has resulted in much larger waistbands, as well.  The rate of obesity is twice as high as it was twenty years ago. 
            This “bigger is better” trend shows up in many other ways across our country.  The average home has increased in size by nearly sixty percent since 1970.  The small, local stores we used to patronize have given way to big-box super-sized stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.  And when it wasn’t enough for them to just sell household goods, they started offering their patrons a full line of groceries, too.  In 2005, the average CEO's compensation compared to the pay of manufacturing production workers was 39:1.  And in 2007, CEOs in the S&P 500 averaged $10.5 million annually, 344 times the pay of typical American workers. 
One area that is laughable in its increase in scale and grandiosity of theatrics is the music video industry.  Just look at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry as examples.  They are both often compared to Madonna and Britney Spears, but when you contrast the content of even the most controversial of Madonna’s or Britney’s videos with that of either of today’s popular artists, you will be amazed at the higher levels of both vulgarity and profanity, not to mention the scope and scale of visual spectacle.  American audiences are requiring more and larger spectacle just to remain merely interested in what’s playing on the video display before them.  We are becoming so desensitized that only the most audacious performances entertain us.
And what about the movie industry?  It seems only those films with the biggest budgets, the most popular stars, the most nudity and sexual promiscuity, or the biggest explosions and car chases reach large audiences or make any profit.  When a small film makes it, we are all shocked and amazed.  Many films today are adapted from popular books, but even the books are too big for one movie.  Producers have taken to splitting up some of the most popular books into two films to get the most mileage out of the content.  Look at the final installments of both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises.  They could not find a way to condense either novel—each of which comes in at nearly 760 pages—into one all encompassing film, at least not without running over two and a half hours, the extent, it seems, of the American attention span.  And the special effects of these films will have to be spot on perfect, not to mention huge, because the American audience is way too sophisticated for anything less. 
Even natural disasters seem to have become bigger and more dangerous, not to mention more deadly.  If you look at the data here and here, you’ll see that the incidences of natural disasters has increased, again astronomically, with the exception of the number of earthquakes though the number of people affected by earthquakes has increased exponentially.  Now, you’re all probably wondering what the hell my point is and how this relates to writing or publishing since those are the things I blog about.  Well, I’ve been thinking about this trend a great deal since my last “conversation” with the great Anne Mini, author, editor and blogger extraordinaire. 
She blogged here and here about the importance of conflict on page one of a manuscript submitted to a literary agent, citing that the agent’s assistant—whom Anne refers to as Millicent—needed such content in order for her to forward those pages to her boss for consideration.  I objected slightly, stating that it felt like pandering to simply construct our first pages primarily for Millicent’s eyes.  Of course, Anne gave me many reasons why this is so, most predominantly, it seemed, because poor Millicent has to read so many submitted first pages that she only has patience for the most boldly written.  And while I understand that poor Millie is over-worked and constantly behind in filtering queries for her boss, it still strikes me as…well…wrong to construct our novel in this way and for this singular purpose. 
I suppose Millie and her boss are only reacting to the current market, that is to say that she knows that American readers, much like their counterparts in the movie and music industries, are so over-exposed to big blockbusters that they have become desensitized to everything else.  Simply stated, they need the explosion in the first scene to get and hold their attention.  We are a nation of ADHD consumers whose need for something bigger has overwhelmed our sense of quality in such a way that bigger has become better in our eyes.  No matter my distaste for this trend, I cannot ignore it, so I added content to the first pages of my manuscript.  Instead of starting at the aftermath of the conflict, which I believed would intrigue the reader, I had to go back and start with the conflict itself.  And while I do like the two new pages of added content, it still smacks of pandering to me, that I should have to do so in order for anyone to even consider reading my novel.
            It certainly hasn’t always been so, that the reader needed all that spectacle on page one.  Several agents have blogged about the fact that many of yesterday’s classics would never be able to successfully run the gauntlet that is today’s process to publication and that writers today cannot base the likelihood of their own success on that of the authors of books written in their own genre as little as five years ago.  And they’ve also said that it’s primarily only debut authors that have to grab the reader’s attention at line one page one, that established authors do not need to submit to such tactics, even in today’s wildly competitive market. 
            I sort of take this to mean that it’s not the quality of the immediate writing or jacket blurb style query that will garner attention of first time authors, but the ability to submit to trends.  I wonder why books published today cannot be more like classical music that starts off interesting, yet often quiet, building to wave after wave of crescendo until the story crashes over you like a tidal wave before it gently rolls to a stop along a sandy beach, retreating back into the ocean.  I’d like to think that people who read are somewhat more sophisticated than the average couch potato watching music videos or the latest film release.  Reading takes much more attention to detail and dedication to a story than either of the others.  So why do we have to be whacked over the head with a story?  Why can’t the writer take their time—with the economy of words, of course—to lay out the bones and the meat to their story? 
            I get that there is a formula and in order for a writer to be considered, they must show they have done their homework and are following said formula, but it seems the current market—the publishers desperately striving to survive a volatile industry gasping its last breath, and the agents who serve them—is shortchanging both the writer and the reader by bowing and therefore humbling themselves to current trends.  By definition, it’s transitory and will never last.  And by constantly rewriting the rules, the market may eventually erase what once made outstanding and interesting novels.    

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mid-life: Crisis or Celebration?

            While watching the Today Show this morning, I saw a story about mid-life crisis.  My attention was instantly glued to the tube because I have unexpectedly been suffering from such a malady.  Before a few months ago, I never really understood what that was all about.  I had this vague idea that it was something men went through in their late 40’s or so.  They would often dump their high-school sweetheart wife for a newer, younger version.  Or they would trade in their practical sedan for a brand new Corvette or Porsche.  I believed it was about their fear of stagnation.  Had they accomplished what they thought they would by that age?  If not, well then they would shake up their lives in an effort to feel better about themselves.    
            I never really worried about aging too much myself.  I never saw anything wrong or unattractive about a man going bald or a few wrinkles around a woman’s eyes or mouth.  I thought it created more character in a person.  I know a lot of folks are obsessed with their looks and how age is progressing across their face and bodies.  I guess I don’t worry about it too much because I have pretty good genes and have aged rather well, at least on my face.  No wrinkles yet though I am forty-seven years old.  Most people cannot believe how old I really am.  I can mostly thank my parents for that.  And while I think I have more than my fair share of age spots on my face, it doesn’t bother me too much.  I’d love to be thin again, of course, but I enjoy life too much on a day to day basis to put too much effort into losing weight when it is a battle waged against a chronic metabolic disorder.  It’s futile war I will likely never win.  So why try too hard.  I’m healthy regardless.
            So it came as a great surprise a few months ago when I started to have these feelings of inadequacy.  Now, like a lot of people these days, my job has been greatly affected by the terrible economy.  I work in the new home building industry, and in California no less.  I consider my industry to be the canary in the coal mine.  The first indicator of a downturn is often felt in new home construction.  So it’s been a great setback for me since not many new homes have been built in California over the last 3+ years.  I suppose my lack of work has considerably chipped away at my sense of usefulness and self-esteem.  But a year ago, I decided to try something new, something I’ve never done before.  I decided to write a novel. 
            I love writing in general and I loved writing that novel in particular.  It was so exciting to live vicariously through my characters, experience their heartaches and loss, their joys and triumphs.  And when it was complete, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  Not a lot of people can say they’ve written a book.  But then came the hard part, trying to find an agent for my novel.  When I started researching for this stage, I found I was competing with mostly young people, people in their mid to late twenties.  The older folks had already had years of experience and several published books beneath their belts.  I was a newcomer at forty-seven, with no experience, and no other product but the one I had just finished.  I felt like a mother who had spent the last twenty years at home with the kids and was now trying to re-enter the work force.  Who is going to consider me when there are so many bright, young, fresh faces out there, faces with creative writing degrees behind them, not a twenty-some year old design degree?  That’s been a rather cold, wet slap in the face, a sour dose of reality I had not foreseen.  How do I compete?
            Apparently, only ten to twenty percent of the population experiences a mid-life crisis.  They often try to spice up their lives by doing something they’ve never done before, like climbing a mountain or, as one woman in the Today Show piece said, write a book.  Funny that she would turn her crisis around by writing a book while it’s been writing my book that has turned my life into a crisis.  So even while residing in the minority, that ten to twenty percent, I’m still in an even greater minority, someone whose mid-life crisis is caused by spicing up my life.  Great.  Perfect.  How typical of me. 
            I must admit, I have been asking myself those questions so many other mid-life crisis sufferers ask:  Who am I?  What am I besides a wife?  A mother?  It was that “ah-ha moment” of profound discovery that led me into crisis instead of out of it.  So what to do, what to do?  Most of the time, that “ah-ha moment” is one in which we wonder how much time we have left and what we are going to do with that time.  How do I adjust my life to make my remaining years more fulfilling?  I can only come up with one answer since, apparently, I have been going about this all backwards:  keep trying.  Keep moving forward.  Keep reaching for that dream no matter how far out of reach it may seem.  I think the longer I have to wait and the harder I work to attain that dream, the sweeter the payoff will be.  The more rewarding it will feel. 
            As we get older, our dreams and aspirations change.  They evolve.  When we are young, we want to get into the best college so we can get the best job.  When we get that job, we aspire to meet the love of our life and have the perfect family.  We hope our children will reach their full potential, providing proof that we were successful at the most difficult job on earth:  parenting.  Then we send them off on their own path of dreams.  But who are we at that point?  With all the big dreams behind us, what new dreams will we reach for?  I suppose it doesn’t really matter exactly what those dreams are, as long as we know what direction we want to go in.  Having a dream pushes us forward, keeps us motivated to get out of bed each day.  The road to our dream is often difficult and full of potholes and roadblocks, but if it was smooth and clear all the time, perhaps we would not find as much fulfillment in the accomplishment. 
            So I know when I finally reach my goal of being published, whether it’s with my current book or the next one I will write or the one thereafter, I can look back and say it was all worth it.  I will get over that hump of mid-life crisis and the downhill ride will be fun rather than anticlimactic because the battle to make it over the crest was hard won.  And the pot of gold at the end very shiny.  

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Great Opportunity

           As many of you already know by my near-constant complaining about how demoralizing I find the road to publication to be (sorry about that, by the way), I have been on a roller coaster ride for the last few months—or more accurately, for the last year.  Last spring, I had this crazy idea to write a novel and I completed that task and rejoiced at the accomplishment because, let’s face it, not many people accomplish such a thing, at least none that I know.  Of course, that was just the beginning.  I found out that the original draft was nowhere near ready for the next step, which was querying for a literary agent.  So I worked with an assortment of critique partners—other writers in the same boat as I was—and polished my manuscript to a crisp spit shine.  Another major accomplishment, considering how much the narrative changed, and another rise on the roller coaster ride.
            I started querying in earnest—which I see as on the down slope because I hate it doing it—and received several requests for fulls and partials.  Yay!  Big ride up on that roller coaster.  Then came the ride down, for not only was I receiving near daily rejections to my query, I also received rejections for all but one of those requests, too.  I’m almost too afraid to contact the last agent to find out what he thinks.  I realize that if he liked it, he would have contacted me again to request more pages.  So down, down, down I go on the big, scary roller coaster. 
But I did have to take a break when I received a request for an exclusive read and while she ultimately turned me down, I found that break refreshing.  It was the flat part of the ride, the part where you get your bearings and take a breath in anticipation of the next hill or dip.  And while I have not been querying at all during this flat part of the ride, I have continued to read and comment on writer and agent blogs.  And, again as many of you know by past posts, one of my absolute favorite bloggers is the incomparable Anne Mini .   
            Her blog is very different from most bloggers out there.  She freely offers advice—a lot of advice—to writers pursuing their dream of becoming published authors.  As Anne admits, many find her blog posts a tad long-winded, and while she does generate an inordinate amount of words per post, I consider each one a gold nugget to be snatched away and horded with greedy pleasure.  You just cannot pass up that kind of advice and disregard it.  She is, after all, a published author with a boatload of awards and degrees and accolades, not to mention that she makes her living editing books for publication.  Why would anybody want her to be brief when sharing her hard earned information?  In fact, I find she raises questions in me that require I comment in order to alleviate my concern or confusion.  Yeah, I probably comment too much.  I often wonder if she cringes whenever she sees my name pop up at the bottom of her posts.  But if she does, she doesn’t show it and she always answers my questions or comments on my opinion.  
            Last week, she continued her series on pet peeves in material submitted to literary agencies.  She expressed how important it is for a writer who wants their story to be read in full by the agent to construct a first page with conflict while introducing the main character and telling the reader what the book is all about.  The way I read her post, I determined that she was advising us to start our novel off with a big bang, a blockbuster explosion, so to speak, to grab the attention of a tired, over-worked, bleary-eyed literary agent’s assistant—Anne refers to them as Millicents—who is the first obstacle a writer encounters on their way to the ultimate gatekeeper, the agent herself. 
This advice kind of took me aback and I commented to Anne:  It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.” 
Anne advised me that that is just the way it is.  So I briefly explained the content of my first chapter—which actually reads more like a prologue, but prologues are out of fashion these days, so chapter one it is.  And my chapter one is only two-thirds of a page long, introduces the main character and delves into exactly what the story is about:  Can a good man who has been affected by outside forces to do an unspeakably bad thing, redeem himself and find the man he once was?  This leads into chapter two which does, in fact, have conflict, or so Anne judged by my description. 
            But a funny thing happened in our discourse over this issue.  She wrote me a personal email explaining that she was “intensely curious” about how I had structured my novel.  Since it would be difficult for her to give me further advice without actually seeing the pages, she had a proposition for me.  She wrote:  “Would you be willing to allow me to use the first two chapters as an example on the blog?  That way, I could give you specific feedback on a structure that does sound as though it might give some Millicents pause, and it might provoke some interesting discussion…It would involve a certain amount of bravery, but my gut feeling is that a professional reader might respond quite differently to these pages than a room full of writers.
            Well, uh…hell yeah!  Of course I would love to provide my first two chapters to someone I admire and respect who, in turn, would evaluate its content, therefore making it better.  That was my first reaction.  Then I focused in on her words about it taking a certain amount of bravery on my part because, as she states, her “blog has a surprisingly large readership amongst Millicents and in publishing houses.”   Ooooh, scary!!  No really.  Scary!  But these are the exact people I want to read my pages.  These are the folks who determine what is read, what is voted on, who is contracted and what gets published in America today.  Yes, they just might ream me out, tear me a new you-know-what, embarrass me, humiliate me, ground me into the cold, hard earth, turn me into dust, a quivering mass of tears and nerves.  But they also might just make my content better which could, at some point, lead to another agent reading my material in full.  I would be insane NOT to want that. 
            Yes, I am afraid.  Very afraid.  When people have the chance to critique without being seen, they can be, and often are, fairly brutal.  They don’t hold back.  And since I have suffered a bit at the end of the rather large stick of rejection lately, I am concerned about just how hard I might take their criticism, but in the end, it’s all about making the book better, about getting read.  And Anne added that “It's never a bad idea to have those people know one's name!” 
            So here I go.  I’ve already submitted my first two chapters—about four pages total—to Anne.  She says it will be a few weeks since she is under a deadline to get a current client’s book edited for editor number three at Random House.  (God, how I envy that author who has Anne Mini editing her words!)  I don’t know what will happen.  At the very least, I pray that I receive advice that will turn my first pages into something that will eventually catch Millicent’s eye, that she will want to tell her agent boss about it, who will then be so intrigued as to request more pages.  So I consider this a big ride up on that roller coaster.  And while I do worry about the part where I come down, I know that part down can be a lot of fun if I look at it in the right way. 
My skin is getting thicker with each rejection, especially after the personal ones, the ones where the agent read my full manuscript only to turn me down without any real advice on how to make it better.  I guess I wouldn’t mind the rejections if they came with some constructive criticism.  But that’s not the way it works any more.  The agents and Millicents are simply too busy.  So this step with Anne, however big and scary, is one way in which I might actually receive some constructive criticism—constructive being the operative word here.  So, am I crazy to go through with this?  Perhaps, but I’m just telling myself to check my sanity at the door and enjoy the ride.         

Monday, April 4, 2011

Everyone Needs a Champion

Let's face it, I'm lost.  I don't even know how to get started finding my way back home.  For some reason, I decided to take a path with no roadmap.  And when I started, I didn't know anyone else in my life who had ever taken that road before.  So there I was, blindly barreling down an unmarked, uncharted road with no idea where it ended or the places I would travel through along the way.  I can tell you one thing.  It's a lonely road.  Sparsely traveled.  
I don't know what it is I'm searching for while I travel this road.  Some kind of fulfillment.  Another soul, perhaps, to ease the loneliness.  It's seems counterintuitive, choosing a lonely road in order to find someone to ease my loneliness.  And I can tell you, I am afraid.  Some days I wish I could just die already.  Because it would be so much easier to give up, to let God hold my hand and pull me along.  It seems so much easier than paddling against the current of my life.   
That road I'm traveling feels a lot like the edge of knife and I'm trying to find something to help me balance myself so I don't fall off.  And I feel compelled to rush along that edge instead of taking each step slowly and finding my balance before I take another step.  I mean, have you ever seen someone on a tightrope or a narrow tree that has fallen across a raging river?  The person crossing always seems to practically run across the bridge.  Running seems easier, doesn’t it?  That they are less likely to fall off?  Well, I think that’s my ignorance rushing me along.  My ignorance is my greatest enemy.  It’s like a road sign turned around the wrong way.  Or better yet, it’s like that person on the side of the road you ask for directions, only they don’t have a clue though they point and speak anyway, sending you on a wild goose chase.
I hate being lost.  I feel so out of control.  Lost and lonely.  Is there anything worse?  Probably not, but I have found a few things out along the way.  Though they are not right beside me on the road, I have a few champions who often help me out, shouting out directions or calling me up so that I have a familiar voice to coax me along, urging me to not give up.  It’s too easy to just plop down where I am and hang my head in my hands.  But when those voices call out to me, I sigh and pull myself back up.  It’s still not easy.  It takes a lot more effort to pull myself back up than it would have if I never stopped to begin with.  And I’m still a bit lonely, but knowing I have a few champions in my corner really helps motivate me, keeps me moving along, to find the end of the road and learn from the mistakes I’ve made along the way.  
I have my friends here in town who pat me on the back and reassure me that there are other agents to query, who might be interested in reading my full manuscript even though two have already taken a pass.  Yes, that’s right.  Super Agent X, the one I spoke of here, turned me down.  She was very pleasant, made a few complimentary remarks about strong elements to the narrative and had nothing bad to say except that she didn’t think she could market it as effectively as I would like.  At first, I thought, well I knew that was coming.  I thought I was prepared.  Boy, was I wrong. 
This second rejection on my full manuscript hurt much worse than the first since I had garnered it without any help from anyone along the way.  It was a crushing blow and it devastated me.  So much so that for the first time in my life—and that’s a not so short span of years—I was driven to drink, to drown my sorrows.  For the first time in my life, I took shots of hard alcohol.  Almost as if I was following in the footsteps of my poor misguided protagonist.  How ironic is that?  Funnier still, even though I drank at least half of that bottle of Silver Patron myself, I barely even caught a buzz.  There must be some lesson in there somewhere, right?  Maybe it’s that I should not allow myself to be thrown from the course, even if I am lost.  So here I am, picking myself back up, brushing myself off and craning my ear for those voices, the champions who occasionally shove me from the shoulder back onto the road. 
My husband is one of those champions, though he’s had his faltering moments, as well.  He tries to be stoic and support me even though he’s quite tired of seeing me cry.  He’s the one I have at home whom I see everyday, who gives me a smile and says, “Well, fuck her.  She’s not the only agent out there.”  I know it’s not easy for him either because he cannot be there beside me on the road.  He cheers me on from a distance, unable to steer me the right way because he has no clue which way that is.  But still, he is there. 
My true GPS is my friend, Lisa.  I have spoken of her many, many times.  She is my compass, my true north.  As I’ve said before, I would be completely lost without her, without any hope of finding my way.  She is the only one who also travels this road.  And while she does not stand beside me for the simple reason she is further down the road than I am, she does leave me breadcrumbs along the way. 
She’s been lost on the road many times and for a very long time, but she recently acquired a map in the form of an agent.  So she knows the roadblocks I am experiencing, the stalls and flat tires that slow me down.  She’s experienced them all.  And she cautions me, too.  She’s the big yellow sign that says watch for falling rocks ahead.  Sometimes I’m too busy keeping my head down to take notice and when I fall, Lisa is always, always there to pick me back up, brush me off, turn me back in the right direction and shove me along.  She is my truest champion and has never faltered even once. 
I know it is because she has been there and done that.  But it’s more than just a shove she offers.  Lisa is my one-man cheering squad.  She keeps telling me my book is great and could easily be on a bookseller’s shelf, that it has no problems to speak of.  She says it’s just a matter of finding that one agent who will become my next champion.  That I just need to persevere.  Keep on the road even though that road is long and winding, full of hazards and roadblocks that will slow me down.  She’s always saying she knows I will get published, that I am talented.  And coming from her, man, is that ever a compliment.  So Lisa is the reason that I hoist my big ass from the side of the road.  She’s the reason I keep putting one foot in front of the other, blisters, sprains, broken bones, and all.  She is my champion and I could not find my way down this long, lonely, winding without her. 
           God bless you, Lisa Regan!