Monday, August 22, 2011

Kathryn Stockett Is My Hero

We like to make heroes of those who press on against mounting odds, so Kathryn Stockett qualifies. For those who don't recognize the name, she is the author of "The Help," the hugely successful novel about African American domestics in Mississippi during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement. Do I praise her for diving into sensitive subject matter? Not now. If she had written the book in the 1960s or early 1970s, then yes.

I regard Stockett as a hero because she stayed with her dream. She received 60 rejections from agents before one finally took "The Help" as a worthy project. Sixty!!!! She went for more than three years, sending out query after query. Rejection letter after rejection letter followed, some of them with nasty wording about her ability to write.

But let's analyze this just a bit. There were 60 agents armed with extensive college background in fiction writing, 60 agents with experience in the publishing trade, 60 agents who had dealt with varying degrees of writing success with their clients. They all took that experience and knowledge and deemed Stockett as not worthy of being published, or even requesting a partial manuscript. But here is the really delicious part:

They all were dead wrong!!!!!!!!!

"The Help" has been near the top of the NY Times bestseller list for numerous weeks. Why? Because readers liked it!!!! What a novel (no pun intended) idea. Writing something that readers like, even though it is out of the box. Sticking with your dream even after agents with Sarah Lawrence and Ivy League degrees say you aren't worth their time. Staying with your project until someone takes a chance. "The Help" is a major movie, and a pretty darned good movie at that. (I thought it could have been better, but it's a cut above most of the garbage Hollywood is putting out these days.)

Kathryn Stockett has taken a place next to Ken Kesey and my mentor Lyman Jones as heroes. Here's to those who stick to their dreams despite considerable pain. (By the way, I just finished the second chapter of Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... which goes from page 43 to page 99 and includes sections with five different characters talking about unrelated things in the same paragraph and a rambling stream of consciousness by a drug-influenced young man who just tried to commit suicide. Great stuff, tough to get through, but worth every bit of effort.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spending Time With Ken Kesey ... And Others

Ken Kesey and I have been spending late nights together. That's one of the great things about literature ... the ability to spend time with an author even though he has been dead for almost 10 years. His work lives on.

I have been struck by Kesey's opening to "Sometimes a Great Notion" when compared to some of the publishing do's and don'ts that many agents accent. One don't is, "Don't put backstory early in your novel." Another rule, judging by just about everything I've read lately, is to make chapters shorter ... don't let things drag on.

So what is Kesey's opening to "Great Notion" all about? The first chapter is nearly 45 pages long. Almost all of it is backstory. I can imagine Kesey's reaction if some agent tried to tell him that opening would never work. Oh, my, what a ruckus!!!! Pity that poor agent.

One of the early mentors in my journalistic career was a brilliant man named Lyman Jones. He had been a top editor at one of the Dallas newspapers, but he had an affinity for the drink. It caused him problems and he bounced around. I had to bail him out of jail one night, and we both went to a San Francisco Giants game one Sunday in what was one of the most memorable days of my young life. I will relate that story sometime, but not today.

I met Lyman while we both worked at The Sebastopol Times in Northern California in the late 1970s. It was a weekly newspaper, and Lyman knew the old curmudgeon who ran the paper, an equally memorable character named Ernie Joiner, from their days in Texas. Lyman wasn't around for that long. He just suddenly disappeared one day, and I haven't seen him since. He always claimed that he could just vanish and take on a new identity if he wanted to.

Anyway, he was a great mentor. As I said, he was a brilliant man, exceptionally intelligent. I take one bit of advice he told me to heart. He said I must learn every rule of proper English, then break those rules when the situation calls for it. He said some of the greatest works of the language had been done by people who had committed such violations.

I think Lyman and Kesey would have had some enjoyable moments together, and they would have rebelled at some agents these days.

I can still spend time with Kesey because of what he left behind. I wish I could do the same with Lyman. But I will write on with their lessons as part of my life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Little Touch-Up, And Then ...

My latest rewrites have been a fantastic experience. My first John Craft chapter is split into two. The introduction to Sean McNabb is completely different ... much more streamlined, much more to the point. I have added a bit of a preamble, in which one of my characters is up at night and thinking about one of the main points of the book ... which I will detail later.

I also am learning to write. Not write in a journalistic sense ... I have done that for 37 years ... but as a novelist. My biggest flaw earlier was that I was still writing like a journalist. When we write a story for a newspaper, we have 10 to 30 inches (that latter number is generous on most newspapers) to tell about the event or person. We get in, establish facts, give supporting information, wrap it up. I was writing the opening of my novel the same way ... and it doesn't work. Or at least good novels don't work that way.

The key for me? I am relaxing as a writer. My later chapters let events and characters flow, but my opening chapters were burdened by that journalistic pace. That isn't the case now.

I am approaching a select few agents with my changes. Most of them will be those who have shown interest before but thought my writing needed to be upgraded. One will be an agent I sent to but never heard from, but I hold him in such high regard that it is worth another shot.

I have some touch-up to do on my manuscript ... page numbering and such ... and then it will be a go as far as casting my hopes onto the publishing waters again. I am dedicated to this project, and I know it will work. I also want to get back to my second novel, which is a kick to write.

So, away we go ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Turning a Character's Life Upside Down ... Again

None of you know Sean McNabb, because I have been keeping him a secret. I have trumpeted this great writing project I have done but told you very little about it. I don't want to give away plot, don't want to put sections of the novel online lest I start the publishing clock ticking. I am still sold on the idea, but I need to improve the writing. The silence from agents is telling me that. So that is what I'm about to do ... and Mr. McNabb is none too happy that he is going to get jerked around again.

So, with no more hesitation, here is Sean, one of my two protagonists. Young man, not quite 30. Divorced, talented, committed to his job and his dreams, damaged goods by history, motive and happenstance, recovering self-absorbed fool and still addicted to hope. He is trying to smoothe the rough edges of himself and his life, and some others are happy to take part in the project.

Sean: So, what's all this crap I'm hearing about you changing me? Haven't you done enough damage already?

CM: Changing you is not entirely correct. I am not planning to revise plot ... at least those aren't my plans now ... but I am changing the way you are presented. Your life was told in third person; now it is going to go to first person.

Sean: And you are stripping me bare before the world for what reason?

CM: To let people understand your heart and soul better. I think by letting people climb into your body and mind that they will feel more of what you are going through. That way they will understand your wants, your needs, your desires, your transgressions. You know, you aren't the easiest guy to get along with sometimes.

Sean: The problem is not me, it is other people.

CM: One of my points exactly. We will still confront that, and that is rock-solid promise.

Sean: You novelists are all alike. You think you are your own little God.

CM: That is true, but with a difference. God gives you a choice. You can believe ... or not. You can hear good advice like "thou shalt not covet ..." and you can take it to heart ... or not. It is all free will and choice, and those are gifts. A novelist doesn't allow choice. If I want you to feel the thrill of holding a woman you love in your arms, then tear her out of your life, I will do it. If I want to build a dream you reach for with all your heart and soul, then deny it, I will do it. If I want to put you on the knife's edge as far as life or death, I will do it.

Sean: That is my greatest fear. Be honest here ... am I going to die?

CM: We all do, Sean, but in the context of the novel ... no options are off the table. It makes no literary sense to take away one color from the palette.

Sean: Well, if you are going to be that cavalier with my life, then screw you.

CM: Ah, it's not wise to be sharp with the one who holds the keys to life and death in his hands. I can erase you simply by putting fingertips to keyboard ... but I prefer to mold you, put the knife to your faults and make you dangle in midair a bit. You know all those literary devices ... goal, conflict, black moment. Maybe I will postpone resolution. And maybe I am acting a little more like God here. It is all for your own good.

Sean: How long is this going to take?

CM: Could be weeks, could be months. The standard I need to reach for keeps taking me a little deeper all the time. I am big about reaching for certain standards.

Sean: Are you going to continue to toss so many elements into this story ... all the crime, passion, romance, spirituality? You would make it easier to sell this story if you stuck to a single genre.

CM: Oh, you sound like a novelist yourself. The answer is yes. I want you to read like a real life, and every life has elements of love, loss, tension, defeat, renewal, great questions and search for answers. I will lead you through various phases. Maybe I want people to see a bit of themselves, feel great triumphs and face their greatest fears. If it makes it harder to sell, then so be it. I have never been one to worry about going against the grain.

Sean: And you think you can do that, form my story and make that happen?

CM: Why do you think I am rewriting so extensively. I am committed to making you and John Craft that real.

Sean: Ah, poor John.

CM: Yes, poor John. As I said, no options are off the table.

Sean: I have one last question: Will this hurt?

CM: I promise you you won't feel a thing ... until your pain makes literary sense.

Sean: Oh, screw you.

CM: Sean, I warned you once ...