Friday, August 23, 2013

On Not Winning

Last week, I didn’t win a contest.

Earlier this summer, I entered the first three chapters of a Young Adult manuscript in a contest called (unsurprisingly) The First Three Chapters.  The first prize was e-book publication.
The reason I entered this particular manuscript was twofold: 1) I like it, and 2) my agent hasn’t been able to sell it.  She told me the reason lies (in part) with the fact that since the story takes place in 1968, it is considered “historical fiction,” and editors aren’t buying much historical fiction these days.

(So much about this just boggles my mind.  In the first place, how can 1968 be considered “historical”?  I was eleven in 1968: acing spelling bees, building model cars, outfitting Barbies, and falling helplessly in love with Peter Tork.  Isn’t there a difference between “history” and “the past”?  And also, even if 1968 is considered “history,” why aren’t editors buying books that take place in it?  Why must all teenagers be forced to buy books about vampires and slutty girls who drink too much?  Isn’t there any room for something else?)

I should note that the title of my manuscript is EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED THE SUMMER HELEN KELLER DIED.  The reason I should note this is that it is by far the best title I’ve ever come up with.

I should also note that I came in second.  Which is gratifying, although not as gratifying as coming in first.  I imagine.

The second-place prize is free copy editing with a company that specializes in bringing e-books to market.  I had my first conversation with the “publishing associate” at the company today.  He is named Shea and he is from South Carolina. He is very gentlemanly and has a cute accent, but he will not be my “publishing consultant,” to whom I will speak next week.

Despite all the aggravation involved in this process, I am planning to proceed with this new way of doing things, even as I nurse the secret fear that e-publication lacks the prestige of traditional book publication.  This, I know, betrays my own snobbery, which is based on my own preferences. For so long, I have loved not just literature, but books themselves: how they look, how they smell, the way they feel in your hands.  The fact that I have written seventeen of them is something in which I have always taken great pride.
I do not know if I will feel the same way about an e-book.

But the world is changing.  Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine needing a smart phone.  “Why do I need internet access on my phone?”   I used to say (snobbishly).

I will post about the process as it unfolds.  (I am very happy that my great friend, the artist Brigid Manning-Hamilton, will be designing the book’s cover.)   In the meantime, I will wait to hear from my “publishing consultant” and ruminate on all the ways that old preferences can yield gracefully to new ones.  (As it turns out, I now think Peter Tork is ridiculous.)

Monday, August 5, 2013

On Clothes and Writing

Someone I love very much—a member of my ex-husband’s family—is terribly sick, and all my sad thoughts are keeping me from getting much done.

I thought I would blog about it, but I can’t yet: it’s too new and too upsetting.
So instead, I’m going to write about clothes (because they are frivolous and distracting) and what they have to do with writing (because this blog is supposed to be about writing, at least tangentially).

Recently I was at a party where someone significantly older than I was inappropriately dressed.  By that I mean that she dressed “too young” and didn’t take her particular body into consideration.  I might add that this woman is extremely slender.  (Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that being thin isn’t the equivalent of being stylish, which you might think if you believe the dunderheads who yak about this in the media.)

You can tell that this lovely woman looks in the mirror and sees her twenty-five-year-old self.

This happens to be something I don’t do, because I like myself more now than I did when I was twenty-five.  However, I can sympathize.  I have stopped wearing various items of clothing because at a certain point, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and saw with horror that I was trying to recreate an image of myself that can no longer be captured.  Into the Goodwill bag have gone ripped jeans, boxy t-shirts, midriff-baring workout gear, super-high heels, anything with shoulder pads, tankinis, and short skirts that no longer flatter me, even though I am thinner and fitter now than I was in college.

(I did keep one dress—short, figure-hugging, and backless—that I believe I wore out to dinner in 1984.  Recently I tried it on.  Still fits.  Looks ridiculous.)

So what does this have to do with writing?

Yesterday I was parking my car in the garage and I noticed atop a box in the corner three copies of the magazine in which I was first published as a children’s writer.  (I cannot explain how I hadn’t noticed these magazines before, given that I park my car in the garage every day.)  I thumbed through the June, 1990 issue of Cricket and found “Elliot’s Tough Decision,” a story I have almost forgotten.

Of course I read it, wincing as I did.  Treacly, obvious, preachy.  I hit readers over the head with what I wanted them to learn. (Ugh.  Bad writer, no scotch.)  And the dialogue sounds as though it belongs in a terrible 1950s sitcom.

Well, okay, it was my first published work for kids, the beginning of a new career.   I was just starting out, learning the craft.  I consoled myself with the fact that I don’t do those things anymore.

That’s when I thought of my clothes and the way I have learned how to dress myself over the years.  I wasn’t one of those girls born knowing what looks good on her.  It took me a long time to figure it out.

The analogy doesn’t hold completely: some of what I no longer wear was once fashionable (whereas bad dialogue never is).  But I still say that there is an aspect of honing—and of ever-increasing self-knowledge and self-confidence—that informs both fashion and writing.

I’m hoping that by the time I’m in my seventies, I’ll get both of them right.