What I’m Writing

First blurb came in!

Obtaining blurbs for your upcoming book can be an excruciating part of publishing. It’s up to the author to find the leads, have the contacts and make the requests. It’s a big favor to ask- the author whose recommendation you want, has to read the novel for starts. And then craft something useful and enticing to say about your book in a few short sentences. You write to authors you know, or have met once, or (yikes) have never met at all, and you ask really nicely. A few months ago, I went through this hard process, starting by choosing authors who’s work had some overlap with mine, traveled some similar territory, who it made sense to be associated with. Well, I have to admit, Leland is the least of these criteria. His work is darkly comedic- very comedic and satirical. But I kept coming back to him. His work has huge range, tells ridiculous, striving and poignant tales. He writes human beings- who you can see- sometimes naked- often tortured- very flawed. The more I thought about his work, the more I wondered if he’d blurb my book. I exchange work with Leland regularly in a monthly writing group we’re both in. And I also know him to be open, supportive and to the point.

From a writing retreat in a castle in Scotland, he recently sent me this moving and generous blurb. I am so grateful he did, and that I asked.

“Like the best novels, Rachel Stolzman Gullo’s PRACTICE DYING deals with life’s biggest questions, among them: how do we find the courage to live and love in the face of all our collective suffering? Full of surprise encounters leading to even more surprising developments, this is a novel for seekers, like twins Jamila and David, for whom every day is an urgent and beautiful quest for connection and enlightenment.”

—Leland Cheuk, author of THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS

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second novel coming soon!

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Seven years ago, I finished the first draft of this novel. Since then, it’s been re-written three times. The decade its set in has changed, new characters were introduced, another country was added, whole plot-lines have gone and new ones emerged, the title changed and changed back, and the author has been changed as a result of this long endeavor. What has remained the same is the narrators, a pair of twins who have set off on seemingly opposite paths of enlightenment and suffering. Their discovery of how their natures go hand-in-hand might just mean they can finally find themselves and truly see each other.

It’s very appropriate and fitting with the themes of this book, that the publishing of it, required a lot of adaptation and a shift in my perspective. One of the reasons its publication took a long time was that I attempted to go the route that I was familiar with. I have an agent, I’ve been published by a big house. Shambhala would have been ideal for this novel with Buddhist characters, and its exploration of Dharma. They published my first novel, but they have since moved away from publishing novels. My own agent showed this novel around a bit, quite a few years ago. In hindsight, the book wasn’t ready, but the reactions it got, made me think it just wasn’t finding the right people. I went about trying to attract a new agent after my agent decided she wasn’t right for this book. That detour led me to an interested agent, who gave me some great editorial advice. I didn’t know I was willing to spend another year, but that’s just what I did. In a year, I completely re-wrote the book. It got much, much better. But actually, that agent decided to pass too. Time passes, opportunities change. I spent a bit of time corresponding with several more agents. And while this time went by (thankfully I was writing a third novel) the publishing industry was incrementally changing around me as well. I saw more and more of my friends and colleagues publishing with independent presses. Sending their books directly to these indie presses for consideration, not being represented by an agent. This is hardly new, but I began to see that many novelists moved about. Depending on the work, the book itself, it might make more sense going one way or another. I noticed more people I knew and more authors I’d always read, were publishing works under different presses. It makes a lot of sense. Not everything we write has the same weight, structure, subject, style, voice, size and shape. And there are places for all kinds of writing. Once I grasped the idea, that this novel might have it’s own path to follow and I could send it to independent presses- a new experience for me- I leapt t it, and within a couple of months, I received an acceptance from BINK Books, a fairly large independent press, based in California, whose mission is to publish books with female protagonists.

I’m so grateful and amazed that I can share this work, that this insane persistence to write this book and to figure out not just the characters’ paths-but the book’s path- paid off. Publication date is June 1!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shorter the better

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This week my friend Leland Cheuk published a craft piece in SmokeLong Quarterly about how he began to write shorter and shorter fiction and why that’s working well for him. Like Leland, I spent many years only writing novels. For some writers, and readers, the novel is the ultimate form. I revere novels, I love reading them, I’m conditioned to that length and expanse and the long, slow arc that occurs within two hundred plus pages. But, this penultimate form not only takes years to complete, but more and more rarely are novels actually published. The bulls-eye has gotten smaller for what publishers want to publish, what will make them even a few dollars. Another writer friend of mine recently said to me, us literary fiction writers are the poets of thirty years ago. I understood right away that she meant we’re fringe weirdos. Leland embraced short and flash fiction a couple of years ago, and he found that his intelligent, humorous and very creative work was much more readily accepted for publication in literary journals, and now he’s published a collection of short stories, Letters From Dinosaurs, some of them very short. I would believe that if a dinosaur sat down to write a letter, it would short and to the point. I met Leland after he’d turned to shorter fiction (as well as his novels) when he joined my writing group, and I’m lucky to have read many of the stories in his new collection while they were still in development.

I’m trailing far behind Leland in my forays into shorter fiction. I’ve written about five short stories in the last two years, which is five more than I’d written in twenty years, but they’re not very short. I still fall into the old-school tradition of writing say a sixteen page short story. Leland has inspired me try something much more new and different for me, to go for the 2,000 word (four page) story. To pack action and character and theme into sentences that work triple time. To make a beginning, middle and an end occur in a tight, complete, satisfying arc that readers actually have the time to read, and journals actually have the space to print.

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop trying to write novels, and I probably won’t stop writing a 16 page short story when that story bids for my attention. But reading Leland’s article about his stories, one that takes the form of a letter, one all in bullet points, one that is a group email exchange, was a welcome reminder- have some effing fun with your writing- do strange new things with it, and you just might find more of it appearing in print while you’re experimenting. Life and writing are change, after all.

WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

A WRITING DAY

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Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.