Tuesday, July 1, 2014

About the Book, pt 1

The Blog About the Book, part 1
I’ve tried to write novels before.  There was one I started when I lived in Mexico called Ballet Commandos of Tacoma, which collapsed into plotless mush 20,000 words in.  Then there was Wrestling Zebedee, an epic graphic novel about a young woman cast out of her small-town, Fundamentalist Mormon community for getting raped, who is taken in by a Ute Indian elder, hitchhikes to Seattle with a peyote dealer, and eventually becomes a pirate radio DJ.  Once I did the math and realized that since I was working full time, I’d be illustrating the story for the next five years, I sensibly walked away.  I did, however, paint this awesome cover.   Then I swore to myself if a story ever swept me up again, I would follow it doggedly, not in graphic novel form, until it left me. 

Siglinde, from Wrestling Zebedee
I began writing my new novel, The Januarium, as a phantasmagoria.  I’d just finished Kraken by China Mievelle, who, by the way, I worship in a creepy, I want-to-be-you kind of way, and put the book down thinking ‘I could do that.’  I could layer bizarre, imagination-stretching situation upon absurd character upon known physics-defying plot point until I had something truly new and inimitable.  I started with Alcatraz Island, covered in a glass dome, and converted into a refrigerated arctic research station.  Then there was the main character, and her quest to create a human-propelled flying bicycle, then her teacher’s workshop, with clockwork-timed mirrors that follow the sun like sunflowers to bounce light down the alleyway through the glass window water heater, identical twin old ladies who live together, playing cello and piano.  The wild leaps of imagination mostly stopped there, but those first few images had enough energy, I was able to follow them through into a complete story.

Writing it was like stumbling through a cave system with a weak flashlight.  I had no idea where I was going, only that there was another safe step forward to take, moving constantly towards completeness.  I think I could do it again.  I think it will be easier the second time; processes discovered accidentally collapsing into efficient, organized structures. 

I’ve been reading first novels lately:  Jean Kwok’s stunningly good Girl in Translation, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, which makes me want to tear my hair out because her main characters are petty, a little cruel, and their emotions leap around nonsensically.  Margaret swears the second book is better.  I’ll probably read it, just to see how.  Then there’s the first two books in a trilogy by A. R. Ivanovitch, Haven, and its sequel Dragoon.  Both were self-published directly through Amazon.  Haven made me want to stab my eyes out.  It was well-plotted, but the whole book manages an awkward word choice or dangling participle with almost every paragraph.  An example from the third page, “My professor Barry Block, had a knack for enthusiasm that was usually wasted on the students.”  First, we’re missing a comma after professor.  Then does he have a knack, or does he have enthusiasm? And if it is wasted on the students, is it really a knack at all?  In the second book, the writing improved enough that I could enjoy the story. 

I can’t help but hold The Januarium up against each of these, and see a different fear.  In Girl in Translation, there’s the fear of unrepeatable goodness.  Jean Kwok’s incandescent coming of age story will be a brutally tough act to follow.  If I had her experience, I’d be completely thrown, terrified to ever write again.  I wonder if that’s why Harper Lee didn't.  Who knows why one book was enough, for her?  Maybe another would just have been superfluous, maybe a lifetime of meaning and love and poignancy condensed itself down into one work of art.  There’s certainly a lifetime of all those things in either Girl in Translation or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Knowing you've put so much of yourself into one book there may not enough left in you for a second is terrifying.  The Januarium felt that way, about three quarters of the way through.  Although I’ll admit my love and poignancy reserves have bounced back a little since then.

The Januarium isn't going to be Girl in Translation.  I’m okay with that.  Jean Kwok earned the right to study writing at Harvard.  I've done the best I know how with help from some awesome people, (foremost Tom Dylan) and I hope I've created something entertaining and full of love and rich, untasted flavor.  But it’s not as smooth and sparkling as I would expect of something coming out of a major publishing house.  Neither is the Dragon Prince. Rawn's books went big, but if I'd reached that big an audience with a book I’d later consider regrettably bad . . .ugh.  I’m sure I’d find a way to live with myself, chalk it up as a lesson,  and go on, but I would be constantly uncomfortable with it.  Hopefully it would gnaw at my ribs late at night until I made that monster a friend who pushed me to write better.  Anyway, what sucks is you can only write as well as you can.  I’m sure Melanie Rawn worked her ass off.  But, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, even with a mirror, there’s always that little spot at the back of your head you’ll never get to see.  And I feel like her agent, renowned for her support and nurturing, as well as the editorial staff who worked with Ms. Rawn, let her down.  That book shouldn’t have made it past the gatekeepers, in my opinion. 

Last in my narcissistic tour of terror is A. R. Ivanovich’s first book of the self-published War of the Princes series, Haven.   Haven makes Rawn's The Dragon Prince look sleek and polished. But unlike Melanie Rawn, Ivanovich‘s entire support and production team comprised her sister.  It has the problems of Dragon Prince—unsympathetic main character with inexplicable mood swings, along with persistent sentence-level problems.  For all I know, I could be doing this, too, and I wouldn't know it.  Hard work does not guarantee good work.

I hold The Januarium up, mentally, against these three books, wondering where on the spectrum it will fall.  Better than two of the three, I hope.  Publishable?  Maybe.  Ideally with help.  I'm probably being naive, but I want an agent and a big publishing house because I want to see how the professionals work, what they do, and, if I’m lucky, to receive the blessing of as many swift kicks in the pants as it takes to become a significantly better writer. 

To this end, I have a goal of querying 100 agents.  I maintain a spreadsheet of names, agencies, predilections, emails, and submission guidelines (they’re different for every agency), plus mostly empty columns for submission and rejection dates.  When I hit 100, I have my own permission to e-publish, just like Ms. Ivanovich.  In the end, that’s not a bad option.  Her first two books review well among readers on Amazon, and if the third book in her trilogy, Monarch, (out this May, haven't read yet) improves as much as the second did, she’ll have something seriously good.  Good enough that an agent or publisher would be stupid to ignore her, plus, she’ll have a ready-built audience of readers waiting for whatever her fourth book will be.  Her first book is free, the second is $3.99, the third is a dollar more, so she's got the double-plus of a small income to show for her efforts.  So pardon me while I put down my gavel of judgement and thank her for the inspiration, and remind myself to keep my head down and get back to work.

Also, should Ms. Ivanovich google herself and find this, I apologize for casting shade.  I hope everyone who reads this blog buys your books just to prove to me what a shade-casting chump I am, and you can laugh and watch your PayPal numbers grow. Or, email me if you want me to make amends as your editing minion. It would be an honest honor.

Post Script!  I just found out Jean Kwok just published her second book, Mambo in Chinatown, last week!  So exciting!  Also, crap!  Now I have to drag myself by the shirt collar through the rest of The Dragon Prince so I can read it!

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