"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, November 21, 2008

What should I write about?

Everyone knows about my book that's with Echelon Press and will be published whenever it's ready, whatever that means. All I know is that I've been through the editing rounds. Perhaps we're on to the swimsuit competition next. And if you've read even one of these blogs, you know about the accidental romance locked up in a folder on my laptop (yes, and on my backup drive).

But what you don't know is that there is a third book out there, and I don't mean the one I'm currently writing.

Every week, I write an essay for my very local newspaper, the Placentia News-Times. It's a mostly humorous look at my life in and around Orange County, and what my husband and son do to frustrate me. I've been doing this for almost four years now, and I enjoy it, which is why I still do it. I have a small, devoted following, some of whom ask why I don't put out a book of my columns.

Well, why don't I?

I haven't (yet) for a few reasons. The first is because I don't want a book of columns that looks like every other book of columns. The second reason is that there are lots of books of columns out there and I'm not certain I could be competitive enough. The third is that the traditional publishers I have approached with my idea of a book of columns have all said, "Um, no. No, thanks."

That being said, the idea still festers in my mind, so here is how I've been mitigating all of these obstacles:

1. Instead of tossing a bunch of columns together and calling it a book, I've written a sort of memoir that takes the reader through my journey as a columnist. It begins with why I wanted to do it in the first place, goes through how I landed the gig, and ends somewhere around my third editor. It's a chronological look at how I come up with ideas, how I deal with hate letters, etc. I've tentatively named it, "What Would Erma Do?" (Subtitle: Adventures of a First-time Humor Columnist)

2. I've considered self-publishing this book. Several experts, including Gordon Kirkland (humor essayist and author) and Michael Steven Gregory (director of Southern California Writers Conference) have encouraged me to look into this option, instead of trying to find a traditional publisher. The problem with this genre is that most publishers don't know how to market it, unless you are a FAMOUS essayist. So, Dave Barry shouldn't have any problem. I know that makes him feel better.

3. How do I make it competitive enough? Here's the really hard brick wall I've got to find a way around. I suppose I've got as strong a platform as someone like me can have, trying to claw my way out of the millions (billions?) of bloggers/websites/twitterers and make my voice heard. But a traditional publisher supplies that extra "oomph" that self-publishing does not. It's not just Gayle walking the aisles of the bookstore and handing out bookmarks. It's Gayle's publisher telling everyone, "Hey, read this! You'll like it!" Granted, I don't believe that it's the publisher's job to do all the publicity, but I do see it as being able to stand up to the neighborhood bully because your big brother is behind the door.

Lately, I've been throwing everything I've got into my novel, which is probably driving Karen Syed, my publisher, crazy (from 3,000 miles away, I can hear her thinking, "Gayle, relax, will ya?") but in February I'll go to the SCWC conference in San Diego. There will be some agents there who are looking for nonfiction works, so naturally, I'm tempted to submit my book of columns to them. Because at the end of the day, I'd like to get it published traditionally, by a reputable press.

Who thinks I'm insane? Can I see a show of hands?

Friday, November 14, 2008

What a character

Before I tried writing an entire novel, I used to listen to authors talk about their characters as if they were real people, and I admit, I wanted to smile and nod while I slowly backed out of the room. I mean, at the very least they sounded a little too precious to hold a serious conversation. And some of them sounded plain old-fashioned nuts.

And then I wrote a novel. I began with good intentions and a basic plotline: a young, shy girl hits the road, grows up, and finds her spunkiness. It could be fun, or literary, or even literary fun.

I created a girl, Beth, who has a domineering mother, a libertine for a boyfriend, and an unsatisfying job. I thought these elements would naturally force her to leave town and allow her to blossom on the road. Except that Beth proved to be too passive. I had to practically burn down her house to get her out of town. I tried to get her anger up, to give her some righteous indignation over being micro-managed by her mother, ignored by her father, and casually cheated on by her boyfriend, but every time I tried to put words in her mouth, they sounded false. The only way her voice was true was when it was passive, denying that things were as bad as all that.

Once she hit the road, her car broke down in Amarillo (she was traveling from Illinois). My plan was for her to stop in a town I knew. I don't know Amarillo. I've visited there exactly once - my family drove into town at 10 p.m., got up the next day and visited the American Quarter Horse Museum, ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel and hit the road. I thought perhaps she could wrangle a different car and continue on the road. But Beth is no wrangler. She accepts whatever is offered, and what is offered is a waitressing job. So now I'm stuck in a strange city.

I kept trying to force Beth to grow a backbone, and leave Amarillo. But the words were forced, false, wasted. Instead of leaving for Taos at the end of the book, she falls in love with a cowboy, a character I hadn't even created when the book began.

It took me 90,000 words, but I finally learned my lesson. Your characters are real people, in that, once you set up their personality and their history and their basic parameters, there are physical laws you must obey in their actions and dialogue. Beth could not change as completely as I wanted her to, because she was shy and passive and damaged by her upbringing. A couple of weeks in Amarillo would not bring out her spunk.

This was a good lesson to learn when I started writing Freezer Burn. Benny Needles began life as a seedy, slimy, little man with no redemptive qualities. He hires Peri (my protagonist) to find his Dean Martin-autographed ice cube tray. I even toyed with making him a serial killer. But once he started interacting with Peri and the police, he took on a more human form. He became an OCD personality who is a rabid Dino fan. He was suddenly misunderstood, a social outcast who was basically a sweet guy. He may or may not have killed someone (not to spoil the plot), but he's not the sleazebag I envisioned. Seeing him evolve that way meant I had to re-visit the first part of the book to soften my description of him, and Peri's early responses to his requests.

But it was okay now. I was able to accept these characters as real people and adjust the story to their true natures.

For any of you who are writers - is this a common occurrence, or have you already slowly backed out of the room, nodding and smiling at me?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A slight detour to these posts

I wanted to use this blog to talk about the writing process in general, but today I need to cross-pollinate a bit and talk about my book specifically.

My editor told me that the tentative release date for my book is April 2009. Eek! Six months away! One of the things I have to figure out is my launch party - mostly, a place and a theme. As far as a place, I’ve got some ideas, but a theme? I may need some suggestions in that department.

Here are some of the main elements of the story:

1. Peri (my P.I.) used to clean houses for a living.
2. Her favorite drink is a dirty martini with four olives.
3. Her client is a Dean Martin fanatic.
4. The case revolves around a severed hand and a famous piece of jewelry, called ‘The Forever Roses’ ring, because the biggest diamond has been cut so its facets look like rose petals.

Now, what do I do with these ingredients?

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