Quarter-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition

Back in January, I entered my first unpublished novel, A Useful Life, in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition, along with about 5,000 other fiction writers (there is a separate competition for Young Adult manuscripts). I didn’t have high hopes for advancing to the next step because the judging was only on the 300-word pitch, but I did make the cut to 1,000. A few days ago I learned that I made the quarter-finals cut to 250. This was unexpected.

I have queried some agents with this novel. I had revised it and was about to start sending it out again when I entered the contest. I do have some ambivalence about the contest route versus the traditional agent-seeking route, which I’ll blog about at some later date. In the meantime, reviewers from Publishers Weekly are reading the entire manuscript and will decide whether it goes on to the semi-finalist round.

Update: 4/26/11

My novel did not make it to the semi-final round. I did get very positive reviews from the Amazon reviewers and the Publisher’s Weekly Reviewer. In the meantime, I’ve been rearranging and editing again, and I think it’s stronger now. I’ll begin querying agents once again soon. Thanks to everyone who reviewed my excerpt while it was posted on the Amazon website.

The Cool Book-Recommending Mom

Is there such a thing as a cool book-recommending mom? Because if there is, I might be one. My kids have always been big readers, and I kept them supplied with the latest and greatest by reading lots of book reviews. For a while, I was also their school librarian, so the other kids got the benefit of my obsessive searches for the really worthwhile books. Several of them would come to me every time they finished a book and asked me to find something else they would like.

At some point, my kids began to reject kids books and even young adult books. That was about the age of 10 or so. It was a bit of a challenge to find reading material for them in those “tween” years that was challenging enough for them intellectually but not grossly inappropriate for them emotionally.

The most fun has been since the oldest started high school, when I was able to recommend books that I really like and know they were old enough to appreciate them. They both enjoy reading fiction (although they’re not in the habit of it the way they used to be) and they usually ask me for a suggestion when they’re in the mood to read. Our reading taste has a lot of overlap, so this is fun for me and, I think, useful for them. I have several hundred linear feet of bookshelves in the basement where I store the fiction I’ve read. We go downstairs and I start pulling books out for them.

When my older son was in high school, the book recommendations extended to his friends. He would sometimes lend them books of mine (which I didn’t always get back) or give them titles to read. Occasionally when one of them was at our house we’d look at the shelves together and choose something.

A couple of days ago, my younger son had a friend over whom I don’t know that well. I was upstairs trying to fix a desk drawer when my son came into the room and said, “How about I work on that while you go downstairs and give N some book recommendations.” Recommending books is way more fun than fixing a drawer, so I handed over the screwdriver and headed down the stairs. We spent 15 or 20 minutes talking about what sorts of books he’d enjoyed in the past (Dostoyevsky, Ishiguro) and I tried to match him up with some new authors (Richard Powers, Donna Tartt). I’m looking forward to getting a progress report from him.

Beginning 2011 with a Win

Well, I actually found out about this at the end of 2010, but now it’s official. My story “No Harm Done,” which is a long-ish scene from my second novel, won third place in the Shaking Like a Mountain 2010 Fiction Open.

From the beginning of November until the end of December was a period of frenzied contest-entering for me. I submitted various pieces to probably twenty competitions, large and small. This one caught my eye because the subject of the magazine, and the contest, is music. I realized I had a pivotal scene in my novel that took place in the back of a guitar store at a jam session, so I decided to see if I could revise it to be a stand-alone story. The judge apparently felt I was at least successful enough for third place.

This was the very first contest I entered during the frenzy, on October 31, so I’m hoping it’s just the beginning of a long string of wins ;-)

Seriously, though, if you have any stories or poems with musical themes or settings or some connection to contemporary music (of any kind), submit something to Shaking Like a Mountain.

Fondly Remembering Phone Tag

Back in the day, we all complained about something called “phone tag.” I would call you on the phone and leave you a message, asking you to call me back,  you would call me back and leave a message, and we would take turns doing this until such time as we both got on the phone at the same time and had a conversation. At the time, this seemed frustrating and inefficient.

Sometimes you called to leave a message when you knew I wouldn’t be able to answer, so  you could discharge your responsibility without investing your time in the real conversation. Sometimes I deliberately didn’t pick up when I figured it was you; I just wasn’t in the mood to talk. Eventually, though, we would have whatever conversation we needed to have, resolve whatever needed resolution, and cross something off our lists.

When email first became popular, we thought our communication would be so much more efficient. We would lay out our questions and arguments in clear prose and, pronto, receive a response. We could send messages in the middle of the night and, magically, the answers would be in the “inbox” when we awoke. It would solve all our problems.

Those were the days before the 100-message-a-day inbox. The correspondence has become so voluminous that email programs now keep track of “threads” and gmail offers to help you prioritize incoming email. I’m not even counting spam here, which is already filtered and filed away in the “junk” box, when I tell you that all my inboxes combined hold more than 12,000 email messages. I’m not one of those people who saves everything forever, either. I love deleting messages I no longer need. The problem is this: I have multiple “conversations” going on at any one time that all require 8-10 messages to complete to the point of deletion or filing in more permanent storage.

“Phone tag” has now been replaced by “email tag” or “facebook tag,” except for the missing voice conversation in which the loose ends get tied up. I send a message to you saying, “Want to have lunch next week?” on Thursday morning. By Friday I probably have your response, which is something like, “Sure, what day?” I respond with, “How’s Wednesday?” and then leave your message in my inbox to help me remember in case you don’t reply promptly. It will likely take 6-7 messages back and forth to set our lunch date. More complicated interactions are more protracted; days can elapse between messages.

Sometimes I get frustrated by the whole thing and pick up the phone to cut through the fog. But wait, I no longer have your phone number. The phone book is useless because your number is unlisted and I don’t have your cell number. I’m going to have to email you or message you on facebook to get it.

I have two teenagers. They informed me a while ago that it’s now considered rude to phone somebody without first contacting them on facebook to make sure it’s ok, unless it’s a very close friend. In that case, you should probably text instead. We now have more ways to contact each other and more barriers to using them.

I started writing this post two weeks ago and just got around to finishing it. In the meantime, the Wall Street Journal has caught up with my thoughts.

I have a radical proposal. If you need to communicate with me, how about giving me a call…on my landline.

Metaphors and Distractions

A blackberry vine is growing up between the floorboards in the middle of the screened-in porch. It has traveled under the latticework, under the ground, from the main stalk twenty feet away, which climbs up the side of the house. It must be a metaphor for something—things popping up in unexpected places, pioneers venturing into the unknown, iconoclasts refusing to stay where they belong.

I asked my son to crawl under the porch and see if he can reroute it somewhere back outside, but he’s been too busy. It’s next year’s vine; at the end of each season the vines that have already produced berries are pruned so that all the plant’s resources will go into the new growth, which will produce next year’s berries. I thought we could establish a new colony on the other side of the porch.

It’s a domesticated version of the blackberry, with no thorns, and it produces a prodigious amount of fruit. On a summer’s day when I’m sitting on the porch listening to the pond and trying to write, I glance to the side and a dark berry will catch my eye. Immediately captivated, I can’t be bothered to go into the house to retrieve a bowl or a colander for berry picking. Instead I make a cradle of the bottom of my t-shirt, like a woman in some past era might have done with her apron, and gather the berries into the white cotton. The grocery store or the CSA co-op we belong to charges $4.99 for a half shirtfull, and I’ll gather at least that much every other day for weeks. I can’t contain my excitement over all that free food, every summer, right next to my screened porch.

After I take the berries into the kitchen and rinse them in a colander, sampling a few and yelling to whomever else might be at home that there are fresh berries, I go back to my seat on the porch. Where was I? Oh, yes. The stray blackberry vine. A metaphor.

I am now older than my main character

When I first started writing my novel, I made my main character several years older than I was. There were several reasons:

  1. People I know might be less likely to confuse my main character with me, the real person
  2. The main character would have grown up with a different set of ideas about how women should live their lives, which was useful in giving her the husband I gave her
  3. Her kids would be considerably older than my real kids and less likely to be confused in people’s minds with my own kids (see #1)

All that is now out the window. Technically she is still older than I am, because her birth date is before mine, but she is frozen in the present-day of the novel. I am, apparently, not. To my horror, I am now older than she is in the present-day of the novel and my children are rapidly approaching the ages of her children. It’s going to be more difficult to convince people this is not my life and my family if (when) my novel is published. Unless it takes another twenty years, in which case, no worries.

Suggestible Parents Look to Fiction for Naming Children

Twilight Drives Cullen Up 300 Spots in Name Rankings; Atticus and Holden Stay Strong – mediabistro.com: GalleyCat

Last year was a good year for the name Cullen, which jumped nearly 300 spots in the Social Security Administration’s list of most popular names. The New York Times points out the clear connection between the name’s new popularity and Edward Cullen, the vampire star of the Twilight series.

Apparently the American public has so little imagination and/or such a tenuous grip on tradition that they look to fictional characters for baby names. Wow. I wonder what the demographics were of the parents. Are 25-year-olds fans of Twilight or is it the teen parent cohort naming their kids after a vampire? How will they explain that in twenty years? I say either stick with Biblical or traditional names or go the other way and make up something unique.

Need names for your fictional characters, or just want to make sure that the character born in 1920 could plausibly be named Brittany (no)? I recommend Name Voyager. It’s a web-based tool that shows the popularity of first names over time. Don’t distract your readers by being sloppy with the character names.

To MFA or not to MFA

I have two friends now who are enrolled in low-residency MFA programs. They are both female and have both been out of college for a while now. A few years ago I considered going the MFA route. At the time, I was only beginning to take my writing seriously and had a vague idea that I needed the imprimatur in order to go forward. After some consultation with my workshop instructor, who has an MFA from UVA, I decided I probably wouldn’t get more out of it than the workshops I’d been taking. Soon after, some classmates and I formed a critique group that I’ve been with for several years now, and that carried me forward in the development of my craft to finishing my novel and sending out queries.

Over the past few years of learning about the publishing industry, and after reading the enlightening New Yorker article “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” I’ve come to realize that one of the main reasons for getting an MFA degree as a writer is for the connections. Study under a famous author and chances are that author will blurb your book or introduce you to his/her agent/editor. Meet other authors at conferences and maybe they will write recommendations for you to writers’ colonies, etc. Yes, you need talent to have your book accepted for publication, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone in your corner to introduce you to people who otherwise might not have the time to seriously consider your query.

I swore that I would never go back to school once I got out, and I’ve mostly kept that promise, except for writing workshops and a community college German class. I don’t particularly want to, but from time to time I consider whether it might make sense. When I asked one of my friends why she was enrolling in her MFA program, her response was that she wanted a mentor. She’s already written a novel and sent queries to a few agents and not been accepted. She wants someone to help her hone the novel and find an agent. Seems to me getting an MFA might be an expensive way to get a book published. I’ll be interested to see if it’s effective for her. In the meantime I’m sticking to sending out queries and seeing what happens, working on my second novel and sending short stories out to journals and contests. I’m probably just at the beginning of this part of the journey.

Virginia Festival of the Book 2010

Still getting caught up with WriterHouse business after having been gone a week and then caught up in the whirlwind that is Virginia Festival of the Book. I was on one panel and attended several others, and then there were the lunches, dinners, receptions, and finally the big program:  a reading and Q&A with Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Colum McCann, and E. Ethelbert Miller.

These were four outstanding authors with four outstanding readings. Normally I get bored and fidgety when people read aloud, but this held my attention. Colum McCann was particularly riveting, even though I had read his book and so was hearing the text for the second time.

I was particularly proud of my sixteen-year-old son who waited in line to ask Colum McCann about a particular passage he remembered from Let the Great World Spin and then bought an extra copy of the book with his own money so he could have it autographed.