June 16, 2009

Made It Moment: Jeffrey Cohen

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 6:34 am

Jeffrey Cohen is a writer whose work manages to straddle two lines: humor and mystery. His books are both well plotted and rich in clever allusions. Since I am a writer who almost never pens a funny word, I am in awe of Jeff’s abilities. Read below what he has to say about some of the struggles and triumphs he’s experienced in this business.

Jeff Cohen
A Night at the Operation

When did I “make it?” There are two schools of thought on the subject:

1. I made it the day I held the first copy of my first novel in my hand. That was the culmination of a lifelong dream, a journey that had taken me from the streets of Irvington, New Jersey, to…

Ah, forget it. Writing novels wasn’t my lifelong dream–that was writing for the movies. So I spent 20 years writing screenplays that were just good enough to get production companies interested, but not enough to get them sold or produced. I fell into writing novels when my latest screenplay wouldn’t cooperate, and insisted on being told as a first person narrative. I had, before that, assumed that only “real” writers wrote novels. They had so many words in them, after all! So holding my first book, which had sold on the first try (go figure), was a triumph. Take THAT, Hollywood! The people who REALLY know writing wanted me, after all!

2. When did I “make it?” The minute it happens, I’ll let you know. When I can pay tuition bills without breaking into a sweat, when I can turn down work I really don’t want to do because the book is taking up too much of my time, when I’m a mostly-full-time novelist (only doing the freelance work I really like doing and the teaching I enjoy), when I don’t have to stay up nights wondering every time the contract with my publisher is about to expire, then I will have made it. Until then, well, have I mentioned that A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION is available at a bookstore near you for $7.99 or less?

2.a.: When you pick up one of my books and laugh at something I’ve written, I’ve made it. Pure and simple.

June 15, 2009

But you’ve at least heard of Oprah, right?

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 7:14 am

So I’m reading writing books, I’m writing, I’m still working as a psychotherapist, and one day my husband comes home and says, “Would you be interested in this?”

It was a flyer for a writers group just starting up at a Little Professor Book Shop, though that particular branch has, sadly, closed.

Of course, I had participated in writers groups of sorts at college: workshops, really, where permission to enter had to be procured by some often intimidating literary giant and which roughly followed the rules of any critique outfit. Start with a positive. Voice negatives constructively. And never, ever consider the possibility of doing this for any reason besides the fulfilling the pure desire to create.

As I’ve said in another post, this is exactly why I wrote, and so I never felt short-changed by these workshops. But now I wonder if they were overlooking some essential part of the process. If I am ever lucky enough to get to teach, I plan to talk shop almost as often as I discuss the power of a stricken adverb.

I attended the first meeting of the writers group with more hesitation than I’d ever felt approaching a literary giant. These were real people who wrote, and I was admitting for the first time since I’d slunk away from the possibility of an MFA that I did the same.

But the people were wonderfully friendly and supportive–much more so than I’d experienced in college. I remember one bearded fellow who had part of a humorous novel down and an enviably slim, dark-haired Goth who wrote poetry. Oh, and then one pleasant looking, neither tall nor short, fat nor thin housewife who had begun hesitantly putting thoughts on paper for a memoir.

Her name was Dorothy and I will never forget her.

The day I was scheduled to read, I held up the first ten pages of Arugula’s Mother in one quavering hand. My voice shook when I started to read. I had nothing more at stake than what this delightfully motley collection of people said to me a few minutes hence.

That was enough to fill me with abject fear.

I remember Bearded Fella liked the fact that I began the chapter with a line by REM (though these quotes were to disappear in the second draft).

I remember the Poetess smiled.

And then Dorothy said, “Wow. That kind of reminds me of Deep End of the Ocean. Have you read it?”

I looked at her blankly, still trying to accept that no tomatoes had been lobbed my way.

“It’s a huge bestseller,” Dorothy went on. “Oprah chose it.”

I had never heard of the book, much less read it.

You see, I didn’t read much popular fiction then, and although I had been weaned as a babe on mystery, horror, and suspense, which the librarian was always calling my parents to make sure I was allowed to check out–Trixie Belden quickly bleeding into Doris Miles Disney and then Stephen King, William Blatty, Ira Levin–I had largely abandoned such early loves when those college workshops handed me William Carlos and other Williams–like Blake–and then Updike and Cheever and Mary Gordon.

But you can be sure I bought a copy of Deep End in that bookstore that night.

It was like I had been wearing a disguise all those years and once it fell off I could return to the realer me underneath. I read Jacqueline Mitchard’s novel in a couple of sittings, and went on to read my way through vast swaths of women’s fiction, soon finding myself back in the land of mystery and suspense.

All the writers who had appeared while I was gone! Carol O’Connell, Thomas William Simpson, Andrew Klavan…any list will be wildly incomplete, but how had I never heard of these people?

Dorothy did something besides give me back popular fiction.

She planted the seemingly simple, yet heretofore utterly elusive, idea that I could write something people might like to read.

It was a short leap from there to wondering how a person might go about getting published.

June 12, 2009

Writing books

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 11:11 am

By the topic title I don’t mean the act of writing books. I mean books about writing.

They have been pivotal to me. I didn’t go for that MFA–because I feared rejection–and I’m pretty sure I’m glad that I didn’t. From what I have seen, MFA programs can be a bit of a fish bowl, where students develop a style and voice in conjunction with each other, which is the opposite of what an emerging writer needs. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, and if you’ve had a great experience with your MFA, then of course I stand corrected. Perhaps my feeling only results from envy that I never got one!

But I don’t think that last is true, because I found my way to the novels I write via my work in psychology. The intensity of the experience I had at that rural mental health center–the range of people I was able to come to understand–my exposure to psychopathology–all led me to suspense fiction as a medium.

Before practicing as a psychotherapist (which I did for thirteen years), I wrote poetry, I dabbled in short, plotless fiction, I had written a YA “novel” when I was a YA (at fourteen, that is, complete with illustrations in magic marker), and finally a Victorian-toned novella while I was reading the Victorians and hooking up with this guy who wasn’t particularly interested in me and onto whom I could hence project all sorts of futile, Victorian passions.

Nothing like the fits-a-niche, real, actualized novel that was taking shape in my hard drive.

Of course, I didn’t yet realize it fit a niche. That was the second thing my husband did for me.

The first was buy me a writing book. When I saw it–unwrapped it, for it was a gift–I sort of shrugged and said, “Well, I mostly read fiction.” As if he didn’t know that already! “I know,” he said. “I just thought this might be interesting.”

My husband is much more of a renaissance person than I am. He hungrily looks for new sources of stimulation and learning, whereas I tend to stick with what I know I love, with the few things I am truly good at.

But something made me open up that writing book, and within a few pages I was lost. I read the entire thing avidly. I devoured it. Each new page sent me running for my notes to jot down some things that would later appear in the Book. As soon as I finished, I asked, like a toddler, “Is there any more?”

As most writers know, there are indeed more, as many books on writing fiction as there is fiction itself–and then others on publishing, marketing, and the like–and I began to fly through those as well. It got to the point where books on writing were virtually all I read during the writing of a first draft, although I hadn’t established this practice quite yet.

All thanks to my husband, who’s willing to try almost anything new.

I’m going to take a pause over the weekend, since we’ll be away. Back on Monday to tell you about that second thing he did.

June 11, 2009

Thanks to my husband

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 8:35 am

My fifteenth wedding anniversary was last week and this weekend my husband and I are going away for the first couple of overnights since I was pregnant three and a half years ago. So it seems fitting that I talk about his role in this whole crazy period that is Writing the First Novel.

There is nothing like the first time. For novels as for everything else.

My husband has made possible my so far mostly unsung (and certainly unrenumerated) dedication to this pursuit in two concrete ways. A) He supports our family financially. B) He does his damndest to get me the time I need to work.

In the beginning, of course, time wasn’t divided into stolen slivers the way it can be when you’re taking care of two babies, and then two pre-schoolers. Back before we had kids time was relatively easy to come by, although it might not seem that way to judge by my writing schedule.

I wrote at 4 in the morning and then went off to work. I wrote when I got home from work at night, at eight, nine, or ten o’clock. I–confession time here–scribbled notes after seeing a patient, which had nothing to do with his or her therapy, then closed my office door and furiously banged out a page or two.

This schedule became unwieldy and my husband stepped in to allow me to cut back from seventy hours a week of work to forty, and then to part-time, then to one day a week…you get the picture.

My passion was taking over. As much as I loved psychology, meeting people and trying to help them with a blend of empathy, validation, support, and insight, this career had always taken a back seat in my heart.

My husband did two other key things that, although neither of us had any way of anticipating their import, would allow me to finish the book and consider publishing it.

I’ll tell you about them in the next post.

June 10, 2009

And you’re going to make money how?

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 2:24 pm

So, I had more than two hundred pages of a suspense novel, and you may not believe this, but I didn’t have the slightest intention of one day publishing it. Hadn’t even considered it.

To understand this, I may have to take a brief foray back in years. I was born on a wintry day in…

No, not quite that far.

But I did write stories almost all my life. “I was writing before I could write” went the line in my college admissions essays.  Apparently, I used to dictate stories at bedtime to my mother, who wrote down what I said.

My unsuccessful college admissions essays, I should’ve said. The sad fact is I was rejected from every single place I applied. For a girl who had hungered to go to college through every one of her high school days, this was a serious blow. I can still remember receiving the final letter, feeling how thin it was, opening it with a burst of pure desperation, then going up to my room to sob.

A good friend of my father’s was there, a Scotsman named Jim, and he just happened to be leaving for home that day. I was too bereft to come say goodbye. This man had known me all my life–since I was dictating those bedtime stories to my mom–and so he braved the sturm und drang of adolescent turmoil.

And when he did, he offered some of the most valuable words I’ve ever heard in my life. “Sometimes, Jenny,” he said in his thick Scottish brogue, “the things we think are the worst turn out to be the best.”

It was another dear family friend named Margie who identified the college she always thought would’ve been perfect for me. Somehow between her and my parents and my high school, I was able to apply late, get accepted, and a few months later set off for what I still recall as the best freshman year anyone could have had. Intellectually eye goggling. Socially as reassuring as warm honey tea. It was everything my high school stung soul needed.

Sometimes the worst things turn out to be the best.

It was during my sophomore year at Bard that my parents approached me about what I was going to do with my life. I was an English major. “Oh, you know,” I said. “Write poetry. Live in the woods.” In a log cabin of my own making. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t vocalize that last part.)

“Huh,” said my parents, who had drummed into me from birth that the way to a happy life consists of following your passions. “You might want to also think about a way to earn money.”

Well, like any writer, I was fascinated by people, and because of the kind of writer I was destined to be, I was especially fascinated by scary people. So I’d already taken several abnormal psych classes. Plus, my mother was a psychologist. I knew that biz. So, nodding amicably, I agreed to a double major in psych.

Remember all those college rejections? They were the sole reason I didn’t apply for an MFA in writing. Writing was my heart, the purest, corest part of me. If I had been rejected on that playing field, I think I might’ve broken. So I took the coward’s way out and applied to Ph.D. programs in clinical psych, which must have been oh-so-reassuring to my parents.

I was rejected from a lot of those, too–they don’t like you straight from college–but you see, in psych it didn’t matter.

By then I’d met the love of my life, which rendered most everything else temporarily meaningless, and certainly took the sting off those rejections. I made it into one program and off I went, knowing it wasn’t exactly calling with a siren’s song, but I was in love–engaged at this point–so who cared what I did with the next five years? I had a wedding to plan!

All of this is to say that it never occurred to me–or my parents–that one could make a living off of writing. Indeed most do not. But something happened to me once I had those 200 pages–as eye opening an experience as that Scotsman Jim’s bit of advice–that me start to wonder if just maybe, possibly I could.

I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

June 9, 2009

Made It Moment: James LePore

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:15 am

James LePore -- The World I Never Made
James LePore is the inaugural correspondent for the Made It Moments feature. He is the author of the literary thriller A World I Never Made, which deals with international terrorism, romance, and the care and repair of one imperfect father/daughter bond.

Here’s what Jim wrote:

This is not as easy a topic as it seems. I give “made it” its common meaning, which is essentially to have succeeded, after a struggle of some substantial duration, to the top level of one’s chosen profession or field of endeavor. That being the case, I cannot write on the subject as I have not made it as a writer. However, I have observed the effects of making it on numerous artists and they do give pause for thought. We can all name any number of writers, singer/songwriters, painters, etc. whose early work is authentic and really good, who then descend (often swiftly) into churning out formulaic “art” that sells terrifically because it has their name on it. They are selling a brand that the consuming public either doesn’t know or doesn’t care has become boring and pedestrian.

I can also name a few who, after initial success, continue to strive for excellence. Sometimes they don’t hit the mark, but there is something in their work that speaks of effort and risk and humility, in other words taking the road less traveled.

Do I blame the artists who take the well traveled road for getting rich, for cashing in on their version of the American dream? No. Getting rich is probably a lot of fun. Do I want this to happen to me? The answer is, I want the option. At that point I’ll know I’ve made it. What I’ll do, I don’t know, but stay tuned.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 8:34 am

I don’t have any clear memory of beginning to write Arugula’s Mother. What I do remember is that during that spring and summer, life at the clinic where I worked began to get very…exciting.

Some might call it scary. Once a patient broke through the front doors (literally leapt through them, shattering and spraying glass) and I was caught in the hall beside him, as he looked around derangedly, wielding a knife. I ran on pure instinct–an Olympian 100 meter dash–luckily grabbing the patients near at hand and towing them along with me. (Otherwise I would’ve had to live with the fact that when faced with an emergency, I saved myself, and let the others drown.) Another time a patient brought a gun into group.

This was pre–9/11. Security was a whole other thing.

Anyway, every bit of that fear and drama went into my evolving manuscript. I realized I was writing a suspense story. I hadn’t known what it would be that day back at the gym.

I do have two clear memories of the writing of it. The first is of driving home from work in an equally driving rainstorm and pulling over to call my husband. The experience of the cessation of the rain when I drove through an overpass was taking shape in words in my head and I wanted to preserve them for the Book. So there in the thunderstorm, I dictated, and my husband scribbled down what I said.

The other is of talking to my brother, three years younger. Just the kind of catching up talk two people do who used to witness the day to day of each other’s lives but who now lived independently and had to describe what was happening in bigger blocks.

“My novel’s really coming along,” I told him. “I have more than two hundred pages.”

That was back in the time when I didn’t even know if I could finish a whole novel–when that was the hard part. The metaphorical pile of pages on my hard drive was a reassuring signal to me.

At first, writing it was the hard part, the primary source of uncertainty.

This was going to change.

June 8, 2009

How do you do it?

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:40 am

A writer named Amanda Hatfield posted the following question on a terrific site for mystery lovers:

“I need some tips on how to start writing my novel. I have a plot, characters but I dont know how to start it out. Can any one help me?”

So I wrote back the following:

The first thing I would do is sit down and see what comes out. Start with “Once upon a time” (you can always cut it later) if nothing else leaps to your fingertips. Writing is 90% about sitting in front of your medium (computer, tablet, stone side of a cave) and putting in your time there. At the end of the day (or three hour block, or one hour one) you should have something to work with, and editing is easier than creating (or hard in a different way).

Ask yourself some questions. What is this character you’ve come up with doing when the story opens? What “incident” starts his or her story off? At what moment does the character’s life begin to change?

I would also buy a book on writing the novel, a practical guide on the subject versus a great writer’s musing on his particular process (such as the terrific ON WRITING, which has been talked about here). Writer’s Digest has a great series on various elements of the novel (plot, character, dialogue, description) and James Frey writes volumes I & II on the novel overall. It’s not that this kind of concrete advice will teach you what to do (although it may), but I’ve found that it really triggers ideas and can be a great source of inspiration.

If you find that you yearn for more explicit teaching, you might look to take a writing workshop at your local community college.

Finally, I would not talk too much about what you’re doing, at least at first. I know this differs from writer to writer, but personally, I find that it can drain the energy off your gestating baby, that there’s a secret source of excitement when you anticipate unfurling this great thing you’re working on once it’s finally done. That alone can propel me toward the finish (although it helps to really, really, really need to find out what happens)!

I think this writer asked a great, elemental question here, and I admire her bravery, not just in posing it, but also in beginning this momentous process. What’s the quote? The journey of ten thousand miles starts with the first step? Amanda really nailed what that first step is.

I have a story. Now what do I do with it?

Some people think that finding the “idea” (the plot/characters) is the hard part. That’s why sooner or later, if you admit you’re a writer, you’ll probably get the ubiquitous, “I’ll give you my idea, you write the book, and we’ll split the proceeds.” (Assuming the thing, once written, gets published, AND that there are proceeds to split, you, the writer, have now done 99% of the work.)

Good luck, Amanda! You’ve begun a great journey.

Do other writers have different answers? A writer named Terry Odell talks about her method today. Maybe we could start discussing a stream of approaches right here, and between them all, this writer will find the way to HER way of writing a novel…

June 7, 2009

This morning someone made my day

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenny @ 7:19 am

It’s only 7 am and look what’s happened. A book lover whose reviews I’ve read for ages, tracking down her selections and nodding over her assessments, read my short story. It is my first ever review, and no, it’s not for a novel, but it’s by someone whose opinions I respect and she read my work, and if this happens oh, I don’t know, a few million times, I’ll probably get used to it, but right now I can’t stop smiling…

June 6, 2009

Today my daughter turned six

Filed under: Kids and Life — jenny @ 10:04 pm

It’s momentous enough that I’ll take a break from writing the story of, well, my writing, and just muse a little about my six year old (who’s a story teller in her own right…but she can blog about that).

We gave her an extra year of pre-K, not for any of the usual reasons, like wanting her to have time to mature socially or progress in skill level, but because she’s a kid who makes great use of free time and I didn’t want to fill all of it up so soon with lessons and structure.

When we get home from preschool, she goes right to her room, and begins making up stories. She uses china animals or figurines as characters and book illustrations as scene set ups and it’s as if the story just explodes out of her, dialogue, metaphor, and all, pent up for the prior two and a half hours of school.

Example: “Darling, what’s wrong?” said her mother. “You’re pale as a lima bean!”

There are adult writers I know who would get that wrong, overdo it, say “gasped” instead of “said.” I think she’s got the knack. But of course, I am her mother.

Anyway, now it’s time for kindergarten, and she got a lottery placement at a nearby charter school, which I suspect will foster more of this side of her. But she has an awful lot of sweet little friends going to the neighborhood school, so that feels compelling, too.

Many of those friends were at the party we had today. It was a princess party and Belle came. It was amazing to see how the kids reacted to this obviously costumed actress. “You’re beautiful!” gasped one. (See? Even I used “gasped.”) And when Belle asked, “And who fell in love with the Beast?” all the kids said as one, “You did!”

Princess Cake

This wasn’t about suspending disbelief. The children had no disbelief.

The illusion, so fractured and thin to my adult eyes, was as good as reality for these six year olds.

After Belle left–not in a chariot but in a Chevy Lumina–we had a cookout and a castle cake. That was the magic part for me. Friends and family, sitting around, laughing and eating and watching our little girl grow up.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress