Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Time to Every Purpose

On late summer evenings,
I straddle the edge between awake and asleep,
lights all out and
windows open wide.

The wind,
tired of lining out leaves and branches that refuse to stay straight,
sidles into my bedroom,
knocking around the blinds and
checking some papers on the dresser
before wandering back out.

I know these nights are not the time to make plans.

They are only for listening --
to the faint, minor tones of a near wind chime, and
to the plaintive chirrup of a nearer cricket.
Listening to the rustled whispering of dreams queueing up.
But mostly, listening to
tomorrow settling in to wait until dawn.

For hope is a morning bird,
but peace hides in the shadows of dusk.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Flash of Insight On Being The Writer

Dear Writer,

I've been thinking about this for a long time -- years, actually -- ever since I started down the road of pouring my energy, my ideas, my whole soul into a manuscript I hoped would someday blossom into a real, published novel. I've spent decades opening myself up, like you, to judgment and criticism, exposing the dearest parts of myself and my dreams to strangers and critics. I've been a critic myself, as a writing teacher, as a beta reader, and now as an intern. But I am absolutely convinced that

the writer's job is the hardest of them all.

That's right. Sure, it's difficult to develop the taste, the skill, and the sensibility to identify what's wrong with a manuscript and to offer that kind of criticism. It's hard to judge someone else's work -- or, at least, it's hard to do it well. It can be challenging to find exactly the right words to describe what's not working and why. It's also hard to just say no without offering a querier any feedback on what's going wrong. But no matter how difficult it is to identify the flaws in someone else's work,

it's harder to actually write a good book.

So when you feel judged and critiqued and mistreated because so many people standing between you and your publishing goals seem to be looking down their noses at your efforts, when you wonder who died and pronounced them the gods of taste and literary refinement, when the last shreds of dignity and pride bristle at yet another form rejection in your inbox, remember this: their critiques may be spot on, they may be exactly right about what's wrong with your work and what you need to fix, but that doesn't mean they're better than you or they can take anything away from you.

You are still a writer. You are doing the hardest job of all.

I have played the piano since I was a child and the organ for almost as long. I have had numerous occasions to play the organ for large groups of people: 500 to 800 church-goers in one room. I love playing the organ because it has all kinds of stops and associated sounds. There's something satisfying about feeling (not just hearing) the sound reverberate under your fingers, especially if you turn on the great bass coupler. Have I ever made mistakes while playing the organ in front of those 500-800 people? You bet! But one thought provides all the solace I need to move past those mistakes and keep playing: I'm the one on the bench. None of those 500 to 800 people are playing the organ. 99.9% of them wouldn't even begin to know how, and of the .1% that do, none of them are volunteering to take over for me.

So it is with you. You're on the bench, pounding out your story with all the stops open. Your job is the hardest of all, but you're still doing it. Props to you, fellow writer. No matter how much the critics rage or rave, you're still doing the hardest job of all. And don't you ever forget it.

Love,
Shaunna

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Thoughts on Reading Queries

I've found myself in a most unusual position this summer. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. I know of more than one published author who started out interning for a literary agency and then used what s/he learned to write an effective query letter (and manuscript), land an agent, and get a book deal. I don't know of anyone who started out querying and then became an intern. Until now.

In the course of my work for the ELA (Excellent Literary Agent) this summer, I've been tasked with sorting through her query inbox and reading partial and full manuscript submissions. It's enlightening to be on the other side of the query stream.

When I wrote my first novel (over ten years ago) and started learning about publishing, agenting, and querying, I didn't know what I was doing (of course). And even though I haven't exactly come full circle, I do have some valuable thoughts on the subject that might be interesting to...nobody actually. I don't think anyone reads my blog anymore, given my two-year radio silence, but I've started posting again anyway, mostly for my own amusement.

So here is a thought: sorting through incoming queries is like taking a standardized test. That's something I know lots about, actually, because I taught LSAT and SAT prep courses for the Princeton Review (in what feels like another lifetime), and because I'm very good at taking standardized tests.

When you take a standardized test (if you wish to do well on it, that is), you have to approach it from a certain frame of mind. If there are five answer choices, four of them will always be the wrong answer. If a test taker approaches each answer choice by looking for how it could be right, she'll never get through the test. The only way to succeed is to look for something that's wrong. After all, there's an 80% chance that any given answer choice is wrong.

When you take a standardized test looking for what is wrong with each answer, you chug through the questions before the time expires, and you usually do very well. I have found that the same frame of mind applies to the intern reading queries.

If she spends her time looking for what's right with a query, she'll probably find something about 80% of the time. The world is full of writers, and each person, as a unique child of God, has a different story with a unique set of strengths. While it would be truly heartening to request to read the full manuscript for every query in an agent's inbox, the intern would never get through them before the time expired. Just like a standardized test, see?

So the smart intern who has an inbox of three dozen queries to sort through in less than an hour does what any good test taker does: she looks for what's wrong with the query so she can quickly weed out the ones that aren't going to work. And like any good test taker knows, some wrong answers are easy to spot. In the world of queries, here are some good ways to eliminate a query without reading it twice:

1. Character soup
The intern doesn't need to know the first and last name of your main character and his or her five best friends. If you want to include those characters, you can simply refer to them by their relationship(s) to the MC. So the MC's mother doesn't need a name, just a designation as the MC's mother. You don't need last names, either. Those just take up precious word space. We populate our books with characters we grow to love almost as much as our own children, and we don't want them to feel left out of anything. But the query is not the place for them. Here, as in Coco Chanel's world of high fashion, less is more.

2. Word Count
A first-time author with a YA Fantasy clocking in at 200,000+ words is a first-time author who hasn't spent any time researching what sells and what is traditional. If you want to write a 200,000+ word YA Fantasy, you can. It just can't be your first. Plus, it feels like it's only 200,000+ words because you're too in love with your babies to kill them, and no agent wants to hold your hand through chopping your novel in half. Not going to happen.

3. Theme v. Plot
Wordsworth said literature should both delight and instruct. It's fine to put themes in your writing. Don't point them out in a query, especially at the expense of detailing the plot. The plot is the delightful part of a book; the theme is the instruction. Leave the theme analysis to those stuffy college professors who have nothing better to do than publish papers in literary journals that nobody, not even the intern, reads. Use the query to tell the intern who the MC is, what choice s/he has to make, and what's at stake.

Of course, if you haven't read the QueryShark archives, you should do that first. But I think it's valuable to consider the query process from the intern's point of view. If you realize that your query is read, not for what's RIGHT but for what's WRONG, you can pass the first hurdle by making sure nothing is glaringly wrong.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ode to Dirt or How Do You Vacuum a Vacuum?

O Dirt! Where do I find thee? Let me count the places.
Under my children's fingernails and in the folds and grooves of their ears,
In the washing machine where the water doesn't reach and the lint collector where the crevice tool won't reach either,
On the window blinds (of course) and the tops of the baseboards,
In the bathtub after draining the water to find each rubber duck traced in dirt on the porcelain,
Ground into my carpet and tracked across my kitchen and (after a rousing wrestling match) sprinkled like salt on my sheets,
In all the places I clean daily and weekly and monthly and never, and even in places I thought were perfectly sealed.
You sly exfoliant, you!
I lay awake at night, conjuring schemes for your eradication, my critical thinking skills taxed to the utmost at the contemplation of your demise.
And yet, without you, where would I be?
What would I do with myself, had I no dirt to clean?
How would I sleep at night, not knowing how to fill the endless hours of the next morning, frozen in the suspense of a spotless day?
And so, I salute you, devil though you may be, in your red and dusty glory, for because of you, I have learned.
Because of you, I am strong.
And also, you can vacuum a vacuum with another vacuum or with a husband willing to give you a hand.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Living Deliberately

I've been thinking about how to live more deliberately—about how to get as much as I can out of life while I still have time.

There are a lot of options. I could abandon my family and live in a cabin in the woods that I built with my own two hands. But I love my husband and children and hot showers and indoor plumbing.

I could build a well, install solar panels, disconnect the internet, and go off the grid. But I'm not Amish, and I don't know how our landlord would feel about that.

I could sell or give away everything I own and join a minimalist commune. But my family members must reach their own conclusions about the value of material goods; I can't do it for them.

I've decided that, rather than follow some extreme, transcendentalist measure, I can simply make more conscious deliberate choices about what I consume, especially what I consume online.

This leads to my decision to abstain from participating in two of the largest social media outlets: Facebook and Instagram. Of course, since Facebook bought Instagram, it's just THE largest social media outlet.

I haven't really been active on Facebook for several years. I deleted the app from my phone two years ago and only logged in to post something really significant—such as notice of my acceptance to law school and the fact that we were moving.

When Facebook bought Instagram, however, and started using the FB algorithm to order my Instagram feed, that was the last straw for me.

You see, I like having choices. I don't believe the companies who run these social media outlets should decide which of my friends' posts will interest me the most, which ads will be most likely to make me pause in my scrolling, etc.

When a computer algorithm chooses what to display, and when a company accepts marketing dollars in return for filling my newsfeed with ads, I no longer have a real choice in what I consume. If I open my account and look through my Newsfeed, I've already consumed all those ads and all those "relevant" posts, even if I didn't want to.

I know that opting out of social media is not a realistic solution for everyone. For me, however, it feels like the right thing to do. I'd like to take more care of how I spend my time and attention. I want to live deliberately and consume modern culture deliberately.

What about you? Any ideas on how you can better "suck all the marrow out of life so that, when you die, you do not come to find that you had not lived?"

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Fall

The trees are tired
in this wild rush of fall,
tired of the leaves
constantly clamoring to be up
and bursting into brilliant flame,
tired of being awake.

They feel the frost nibbling at both ends of the day,
sense the coming of winter
when sleep and death
hover peacefully in the air
and all the leaves are silent.

This last effort is not for them,
the straining of the colors
and the trembling against the wind.

It's a lost cause, 
as they have always known, 
and all they care for now
is a still night with a pale moon
and the starlight
singing them to sleep.