Thursday, December 29, 2005

What's Your Hook?

I recently received a rejection letter from an editor—my second—and have consequently been ruminating on rejection lately. (Anyone who hasn’t read Deidre Knight’s recent column on this topic over at Romancing the Blog should definitely check it out.) Both editors have given very positive feedback, saying that the heroine’s voice was engaging, and they liked the rest of the characters as well. The problem, according to these editors, is that my novel lacks a hook and I can understand why, in this extremely competitive genre, they’re looking for something with an obvious and immediate attention-getter.

I mean, I would love. . .love to see my first novel published. I adore the characters I created, I think the plot is solid and there is a lot in those pages that I hate to think might never see the light of day. But honestly, when I finished that project, I’d been working on it for over two years. I know that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The chick lit genre is a different place today than it was when I wrote the first chapter and ironed out the plot.

Anyone who is keeping up with women’s fiction in general, and chick lit in particular, knows that the playing field is massively crowded at the moment. The only thing getting published lately are books that have a clear hook—i.e., vampire chick lit, or reality show chick lit or fat girl chick lit. To be honest, part of the reason it took me so long to finish the project in question was that I wasn’t sure exactly what distinguished my novel from the others out there. Jemima J is the one where the heroine loses, like, a million pounds in three months, In Her Shoes is the one with the psychotic sister who ruins the boring sister’s shoes all the time—how would readers describe my book? In the end, it required a rewrite and the sacrifice of several scenes that I adored for me to figure out why my work was different and special. Now I’m confident that, if it ever gets into the readers hands, it will stick in their memories as the book where. . .well, I’m not going to give away the ending, but let’s just say it’s got a unique set of conflicts and resolutions.

That second rejection letter, couched in the friendliest and most positive of terms, made me briefly revisit my insecurities about my work, but once that passed it made me wonder what we’re missing now due to the industry’s insistence that every book they publish have a gimmick. Really, that’s what it boils down to—a creative title and interesting blurb is no longer enough. Chick lit now needs an obvious hook, something that will make readers sit up and take notice. Frankly, however, a fantabulous hook is no promise of an equally fantabulous story. I can think of several books that I’ve picked up recently because of a unique gimmick (I admit it, I’m a sucker for a concept book) that were just. . .disappointing. Not a bad read, but not a classic either.

I’m not opposed to writing concept chick lit. On the contrary, my current project is so conceptual that my character-loving muse engaged in a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallendas in an effort to keep the concept at the core of the story without sacrificing character development. Over the Christmas holidays, I started sketching out an outline for yet another project, one that will most certainly be described one day as “that book where the heroine _______.” But as I sit here remembering some of my favorite women’s fiction, I realize that it’s not the gimmick that holds me, or the snappy titles or even the gorgeous covers. It’s characters I believe in and wish I could go to lunch with; it’s a vivid setting that means I don’t just know the book is set in London because the heroine refers to the transit system as “the tube” instead of “the metro;” it’s conflict that I see reflected in my life and the lives of my real-life friends. I hope that, when the over-saturation of the chick lit marketplace has subsided a bit, there will still be room for a thousand flowers to bloom because that, after all, is what draws me to those strategically-placed tables at Borders every time I cross the threshold of the mall.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bookmarking the Writer's Journey

Merry Christmas, happy Chanukah and happy New Year to everyone out there in the Blogosphere!

I’ve been in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware (that’s between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for those of you who haven’t driven all of I-95 and thus crossed into the First State) visiting family for the holidays. I'm still sane--mostly--but looking forward to having my own space again once I get back to Boston. I have a fairly large family, and they're all concentrated in this area. At the moment, they're all concentrated entirely too close to my person.

One of the last things I did before I left Boston was mail in my application to join the Romance Writers of America (RWA). Now, it really only occurred to me a few weeks ago that joining RWA might be a good step for me. I mentioned it to a few writer friends and chatted about it to Jana, then visited the RWA website and the websites of a couple of the chapters that interest me—specifically the chicklit chapter and the New England chapter, which meets ten minutes from my office. I will probably end up joining both of those chapters, and am already planning to attend both the New England conference in April and the national one in July.

Until recently, I have thought of writing as a very solitary occupation. You know, a la Henry James, all “we work in the dark, we do what we can.” That kind of mindset. But after attending a few author chats on the Knight Agency web site (which are not to be missed, seriously!), I’ve changed my mind. Chatting with other writers in pre-arranged author (or agent) chats, getting tips from the Yahoo! Chicklit e-group, schmoozing at RWA meetings, trolling the boards for the occasional "OMG--it's [fill in name of amazing author]!" moment--all of this gets me really excited about my own writing, and makes me strive to write more, write better.

All this brings me to the question of the week: what "writers'" sites do you frequent and why? Some of my answers can be found in the links at the right; now I want to hear yours. Help out your fellow writers--post a link if you've got it!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Fifteen Things About Books

This has been going around some of the blogs and journals I frequent, and I couldn’t resist.

1. My mother taught me to read using a series of books that added a few new words to each installment until, by the end of the series, they were pretty much regular chapter books. I went through the first ten without getting up from the floor and my mother had to physically take the box from me to get me to the dinner table.

2. A few weeks after my sixth birthday, my kidneys failed and I was in ICU for over a month. When I was finally allowed to go home, my immune system was shot and I wasn’t allowed to be around other children while I recovered. That winter, my father dislocated his shoulder and my mother had a bad arthritis flare-up, so we were all stuck in the house pretty much until spring. To pass the time and keep from killing each other, all three of us read the entire Little House on the Prairie series. I clearly remember waiting very impatiently for my father to finish On the Banks of Plum Creek so that I could have it.

3. The first romance novel I ever read was called After the Affair and I found it in my grandmother’s laundry room when I was nine. I believe it was a Harlequin that she’d gotten in one of those $5 bags from the library, and she’d probably be shocked to realize that, indirectly, I found out about sex from her. Three years later, when my mother handed me a (non-fiction) book in lieu of “The Talk,” I was like, “Um, yeah. What else have you got?” As I recall, the non-fiction version sounded like a whole lot less fun.

4. My mother started giving me classics to read very early on because she suspected that I was reading books that she considered too adult for me. (She was right.) As a result, I read most of Jane Austen, the Brontës, and Henry James before I started high school.

5. My all-time favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the characters, the story, the humor and the tone. Even though she only ever published that one book, Harper Lee is one of my idols.

6. The first day of my freshman year, I walked into my English class carrying War and Peace, which I hadn’t quite managed to finish before the school year started. My English teacher, who was just out of college, looked at me like I was from another planet and didn’t believe that I had actually read most of the book until she quizzed me thoroughly on it.

7. In college, I was a history major in large part because I read The Zion Chronicles and The Zion Covenant series as a teenager and was fascinated by the history in those. Fifteen years after I picked up the first book, I am still impressed by the amount of research and historical realism in those books.

8. I get very nervous when people borrow my books, particularly ones that aren’t easy to replace. I’ve lost so many beloved books to people who promised to return them that now I practically make people sign a contract just to peruse my bookshelves.

9. On the other hand, I have no problem giving books away if they’re not ones I want to keep and re-read. This goes for most of the trade paperbacks that I read, books I got at used bookstores and anything else I am confident I can replace.

10. Shortly after reading About a Boy, I had a sex dream about Nick Hornby. Yes, I know he’s short and bald—I didn’t care. He’d be pleased to know that, in my dream, he was magnificent.

11. Last spring, I went on a vacation to Hawaii and read nine books in eight days. This was in between snorkeling, swimming, surfing and eating my weight in fresh pineapple. It was heaven.

12. I have an ongoing love affair with Russian and Irish writers. Give me some Dostoevsky, some Wilde and maybe a pint of Guiness, and you won’t see me for hours—possibly days.

13. I love to visit the homes and haunts of authors I admire. I once spent several hours sitting on the stairs outside Maxim Bulgakov’s apartment in Moscow, just breathing in the genius. Last summer, I dragged my protesting little brother into the Dublin Writer’s Museum and spent two blissful hours with Behan, Yeats and O’Casey. Another favorite vacation memory is going on the Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin with my friend Kath.

14. I get extremely nervous when my favorite books are made into movies. I’ve actually sat in the theater with my hand over my eyes, terrified that the movie will fail to capture even an inkling of the book’s spirit.

15. My vision of heaven strongly resembles the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin, which is an enormous room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and battered wooden tables. I just hope heaven has a good Chinese delivery restaurant.

So, do we become writers because we love books, or do we love books because we are writers?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

One Reader at a Time

I recently came across this article in the Boston Globe: Taboo-breaking novel stirs passion, debate in Saudi Arabia.

In a nutshell, the article is about a book called The Girls of Riyadh, which the articles likens to a Saudi Sex in the City. Published in Lebanon in September, the book tells the story of four Saudi women looking for Mr. Right and having mixed success. The book is currently in its third printing, and though it has not been formally approved for publication in Saudi Arabia, bootleg copies of it abound. Reaction in Riyadh is mixed, largely because the book’s characters go against the prevailing attitudes about what is proper for unmarried women. But the author is undeterred, and the book is only getting more popular. After reading the article, I experienced a surge of triumph—followed by an attack of giggles. It’s fabulous: chick lit is changing the world.

If you read “serious” literary journals or have a Google Alert for the term “chick lit”—as I do—you know that the term and the genre are both subject to much scorn from the traditional literary world. A few months ago, I read an article by writer Chris Mazza, who claims to have coined the term as the title of a feminist literary journal. She whined argued that she and her fellow female writers had meant it to be a sarcastic nod to what the stereotypical male chauvinist would think of the journal, and moaned lamented that the term had been co-opted by a genre that she believes plays into the stereotype of fashion-obsessed, boy crazy women.

Mazza isn’t the only woman offended by the term “chick lit.” A quick perusal of recent articles shows the author and performer of a one-woman show publicly objecting to her show being lumped into this genre, and a panel discussion on whether chick lit is even a relevant form of literature. Jess Crispin of Bookslut went on record as saying that readers “should be ashamed of chick lit, because it’s bad.” I admit, that one stung because I am an avid reader of Bookslut and often agree with Ms. Crispin’s reviews. Chris Mazza, also a panelist, objected to the idea that chick lit could one day be compared to female authors like Jane Austen because chick lit is formulaic and only deals with a portion of the world as it is, whereas Austen “gave her women the entire world that was available to them at the time.”

To put it bluntly, I disagree.

For liberated women, Crispin and Mazza certainly have narrow views of what women writers can legitimately write. I’m not sure when Ms. Mazza last picked up Jane Austen, but I reread Persuasion just a few weeks ago and I don’t remember any of the characters discussing the plight of London prostitutes, or domestic violence. If Ms. Mazza believes that women in Austen’s day would have been ignorant of these topics, then she’s giving them even less credit than she gives modern day chick lit heroines. It sounds to me like Ms. Mazza doesn’t give much credit to any work of fiction that isn’t written with a specific political or social agenda, and that’s sad because it means that she’s missing out on the greatness of literature.

Jane Austen wasn’t attempting to strike a blow for women’s rights when she penned Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a story meant to be enjoyed—that she also introduced generations of women to strong, independent heroines was a side effect of her writing genius. I’m sure Austen had many contemporaries who did their damnedest to produce relevant, socially conscious literature, and I’m sure that some succeeded. But generations later, Austen continues to inspire us to be great women, while the earnest social crusading writers of her day are forgotten.

Which brings me back to the article I first mentioned. The author of The Girls of Riyadh did what any good writer endeavors to do—she wrote a book with compelling characters who lead compelling lives. I have not read the book, but from the article I gather that none of the main characters are feminist crusaders. They are simply women seeking to live their lives the way they see fit. Unfortunately, that puts them in opposition to the attitudes and values that govern their world. Does the fact that they don’t actively discuss politics and the war on poverty make them unfit feminist heroines? I certainly hope not.

Literature never changes the world overnight. Solzhenitsyn started writing decades before the rest of the world became interested in what actually happened in the Gulag. Jonathan Swift was not an overnight success when he used satire to point out the ridiculous nature of British foreign policy. And despite Ms. Mazza’s contention, the women of Austen's day did not put down their copies of Sense and Sensibility and immediately organize a Take Back the Night march. But slowly, reader by reader, authors like these did change society. They enlightened us, they opened our minds in subtle ways that made us look differently at the world around us.

I contend that popular literature—be it chick lit, young adult, romance, graphic novels—does the same. I can’t vouch for the quality of all chick lit, and I won’t attempt to. Every genre has its highs and lows. But to suggest that any genre that prizes independent, self-sufficient heroines is irrelevant and even embarrassing is ludicrous. I’m proud to read and write chick lit, and I don’t care who knows it.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Getting Started

Thank heaven for the Internet! What in the world did writers do before the advent of blogs and writing boards and e-groups? Well, okay, they probably got more writing done. But where did they find camraderie? And feedback? What did they do without feedback? I suppose the solitary nature of pre-Internet writing was what Henry James meant when he talked about working "in the dark." He did okay for himself, though, so perhaps it wasn't as bad as I'm imagining.

Personally, however, I need an outlet for my ramblings and, hopefully, people to tell me I'm not crazy when I have a 2am bout of insecurity and consider giving up on this silly "novelist" thing entirely.

So, a word about where I am on this whole "Writer's Journey" thing. I've been writing most of my life. I think I was about nine when I started filling notebooks with stories and even the occasional really bad poem. (Don't worry--I stopped writing poetry years ago.) After a very bad run-in with a very bad "guidance counselor" at age 16, I decided that being a writer was a pipe dream and pretty much put it away. That didn't mean the stories in my head went away, however. About four years later, when I found myself living in a foreign country where I didn't speak much of the language, I needed an outlet for my thoughts and one day I left my apartment, bought a cheap notebook, sat down in a coffee shop and the words just poured out. I've been writing ever since.

Two and a half years ago, I started making notes and testing out voices for a full-length chicklit novel. Two years, a couple of boyfriends and a career change later, I still wasn't finished. That novel, full of characters I adored, had become a monkey on my back and I simply couldn't enjoy writing anymore because I knew I needed to finish that novel before I felt confident to start on anything else. I mean, unless I was sure I could finish one project, how could I be sure I would finish any of the others knocking around in my head? So I gave myself two months to finish--and actually managed to do it.

Once I had a good draft, I sent my manuscript to Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency, who paid me a wonderful compliment when she told me that she'd stayed up late to finish reading it, and then agreed to represent me. Because I already knew that Neph has fantastic taste in literature, I was flattered. Because I knew that she is a dedicated agent and works for a fabulous agency (founded by the lovely and talented Deidre Knight, another lady I simply adore), I was thrilled to be in business with her.

My first manuscript, a chicklit novel set in the wonderful and underrepresented city of Boston, is currently being shopped to publishers, and I recently sent the first draft of my second novel to Nephele. The second manuscript is a cross between a spy novel and chicklit, and I've had great fun writing it. I'm very excited about both projects and about taking my writing from a fun hobby to a serious (and yet still fun) undertaking.

So sit back, comment if you have a mind to, and enjoy the ride. I intend to share thoughts about the process of writing and the literary industry in general. Now, if I can just remember to keep updating. . .