Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Emotional Hangovers

I am very excited to bring you today's story for two reasons: 1) I'm continuing with my change-o'-pace story time themes and bringing some non-fiction into the mix! Yes, we've had essay and memoir excerpts here before, but they're pretty rare. 2) The author, Janine Yu, is a former MFA-er who graduated with me from The New School. 

A little about Janine: She is originally from the Philippines and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Most of her writing has been for travel magazines and websites, and she is currently working on a travel memoir. Here is her essay, independent from her memoir (as you'll see) describing what it means to have an emotional hangover. Enjoy!

Emotional Hangovers
By Janine Yu

It used to be that I could go to sleep belligerent, passing out from the sheer intensity of negative emotion, then wake up calm, peaceful, as though I had awoken from a lovely dream, seemingly with no emotional imprint of last night’sexplosive exchange. I could go to bed drunk with ire, frothing with anger and resentment and all the corrosive feelings that wear down a relationship, and emerge from this dysphoria a new and transcendent person. These difficult nights even the most passionless among us must know --nights spent fighting with the person you love.

Everyone says that you should never go to bed angry, that successful marriages work partly because couples sort out their problems before approaching sleep. I’ve always been dubious of this, because, in my experience, solutions do not materialize just because it’s 4 a.m.Heightened emotion eventually gives way to exhaustion, in effect making me one to “sleep on it.” It was a tactic my first boyfriend relied on when we argued at night –when the conversation started becoming futile and running in circles, he would do whatever he could to get me to sleep. It served two purposes: we avoided saying things we might regret, and it was pretty much a guaranteethat I would be in chipper spirits after a full night’s rest.

The more I’ve had these late-night arguments, the more I’ve realized that the pitch of the arguments stays at the same alarming volume, whether it’s over the dirty socks he just can’t manage to throw in the hamper that’s two feet away, or about how I’ve changed and have stopped working to save the relationship. The more I’ve had them, the more I’ve realized that insults and accusationssurvivepast the deepest of sleeps, and I must deal with them in mornings that follow.

These mornings, I can no longer begin on a fresh slate. The bitter swill of the night before lingers in my head like a heavy,heady cloud. Like a hangover.An emotional hangover. I must be getting old.

At 26, I feel too young to be jaded, but clearly too old to bounce back as effortlessly as a younger, less encumbered version of myself. When I was 19, I downed 15 shots of the most awful alcoholic mixes (think tequila and Tabasco), and got my name engraved on a copper-plated wall of a cheesy beach bar in a Southeast Asian island. The feat was called “15 and Still Standing.” The standing part is, ironically, the hard part. Bravado and the cheerful stupidity of youth can get any teenager to throw back those 15 shots, but staying conscious afterwards is the trick. My friends cheered, the bartender congratulated me and handed me a T-shirt (because, truly, this is as taxing on the body as running a marathon), then I passed out. My next memory, four hours later, was of me back in the cheap, one-room hut I rented with three girlfriends, throwing up over the side of the bed. I had apparently vomited so much at the bar, I had nothing but bile to wretch. I felt like I was dying. I vowed never to drink again. One week later, I was on another island, pounding a tequila shot.

Resilience is, of course, the territory of youth. Young, healthy bodies recover. Just as young, unhurt hearts heal easily. I have always thought of myself as one who heals easily, both physically and emotionally. I guess I continue to think of myself as that 19-year old. These days, though, scars take longer to disappear. Hurtful words take longer to forget. I may no longer experiment with alcohol poisoning, but in my attempts to be an adult, to have serious and dynamic relationships, I sometimes give in to thepotent, and often toxic, ammunition that fuels heated arguments. Passion flares. Pain lingers.

And sometimes, I feel like I’m no longer standing.

I used to think that my emotional resilience had to do largely with my inability to sustain an emotion. I could never stay angry with anyone or at anything for long. Contentment, in my life, has always beenshort-lived. Falling in love –that most elusive of states—happened as suddenly as falling out. Emotions were temporal, and it seemed, so were their consequences.

Which is why this hovering –this hangover—is surprising to me. Maybe there never was a magical morning slate that set the tone for a new day. Maybe I just used to care less where he threw his dirty socks, and I used to care more about the relationship enough to do the little things everyday that would save it.

One thing’s for certain: there are no hangover cures. No crazy concoctions that wipe away traces of last night’s bender. Only time cures a hangover, and only self-control keeps me, and him, from the mornings heavy with the after-effect of squandered emotion.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Winners Circle

As you know, I recently participated in a contest over at The Siren's Song and I got to read dozens of amazing pitches. Renae announced the winners on Friday, and she's graciously allowed me to post the winners here too. I thought it might be a good idea to say why I chose what I chose. By the way, choosing just three was definitely a tough decision. I repeatedly deleted and re-pasted entries in my response to Renae. But, here's what ultimately did it for me!

First Place: Before Prince Charming rescued Snow White; before he fought her evil step-mother in a knock-down, drag-out battle, he faced his biggest challenge to date: training his inept little brother, Prince Bob, to be like him. This is Bob's story.

My love of "fractured fairy tales" is what won me over with this one. I also like the idea of a taking a lesser known fairy tale character and creating an entire story from his perspective. All we ever know about Prince Charmings are that they show up just in time to kiss the girl and save her from unspeakable doom and/or life in a tower. (Apparently Disney is sexist against men too.) Also, the name Bob made me smile and made me want to know more about this royal family.

Second Place: When Ares, God of War, regrets his life of senseless slaughter, he leaves Olympus to live as a single father in America. He’s happy passing as a human to his teenaged daughter and refuses to tell her the truth -- until the Olympians are after them.

Like the previous pitch, this one grabbed me because of its attempt to put fantastical characters into a more realistic setting. Ares living as a single father somewhere in America definitely has the potential to be funny and poignant. I liked the idea of taking a well-known fictional character and making him come to terms with the consequences of his actions. The author adds that Ares' past will come back to haunt him, and I'm interested to see how he might deal with the Olympians the second time around after living his life as a human.

Third Place: An alien invasion isn’t always preceded by world-wide military reaction and breaking news reports, sometimes a thirteen-year-old boy is the only one who knows. Tim Madison always thought he was ordinary, if not a little boring. When he wakes one morning to find the world frozen in time and all the colors mixed-up, he learns how special he is.

In three sentences, this pitch took the basic premise of a science fiction novel and turned it on its head. With a nod to a War of the Worlds-style news report, the author pays homage to his predecessors and lets me know that this won't be the same story I've heard before. What also struck me was that the main character "always thought he was ordinary." Too often, sci-fi characters, especially young ones, seem to know they were destined for something greater than their dreary lives. I want to know more about this normal kid, with no predetermined path to greatness, who will save the day.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Location, Location, Location

While I'm sitting in my favorite cafe in my lovely neighborhood of Astoria, I'm thinking about the importance of place in the writing process. As much of a writing & literature enthusiast as I am, I am also a cafe enthusiast. Being able to find a place where I feel comfortable enough to stay for hours on end without feeling judged or ridiculed by the owners is important to me. Plus, I'm becoming enough of a regular here that I get the "Hey!" greeting when I come in. Sense of family in unexpected places isn't so much important to me as it is just fun, but I enjoy it all the same.

For whatever reason, when I am in my apartment I cannot concentrate. It's not the actual apartment either. It's been this way in every place I've lived. There's Internet and TV and free food in my apartment! How can writing compete with all that? (Note: I can't read in my apartment either, at least not what I'm "supposed to be" reading.) That's why seeking a comfortable place outside the home matters so much to me in my professional life.

Where do you all go to do your best work? Do you have a separate office in your apartment (that I am jealous of)? Is Starbucks your best friend? Or do you sit under a tree in a park to wait for inspiration?

Further, just how important is location to you as writers anyway?

Have a good weekend, everyone! And as you think about your favorite writing spot, I leave with you this AMAZING BLOG that I can't believe I've only just discovered: The Daily Corgi (and no, I do not have a corgi, but as many of you have figured out from reading this blog, I desperately want one!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Androids, Ninjas, & Floss: A Memoir

I'm very excited to bring you another change-of-pace story today! Presented to me as "the literary equivalent of movies like Hot Shots! and Airplane!," I knew I couldn't resist. The author, Gregg Podolski expressed his shock over my decision to publish him, to which I asked "why?" Absurdists are people too! Plus, how could I not be intrigued by a title like Androids, Ninjas, and Floss that that claims to be a memoir? (Note: this is a fictional memoir!)

Gregg is a writer from New Jersey who was first published in Highlights magazine when he was nine years old. It was called "Buck, The Horse Raised By Wolves," which he says is "a cautionary tale about capitalism's growing influence on the global socio-economic landscape. With horseys." I suspect he's kidding there, but I believe him when he says his humor pieces have been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.

Androids is his first novel. In this excerpt, the fictitious twelve-year-old Gregg Podolski has been recruited by Brigadier General Brick Mason to infiltrate a Communist terrorist cell operating out of a Catholic junior high school in Boston, called Our Lady of Brain Dead Uniformity. Enjoy! I look forward to the comments that follow, and I hope no one's head spins too much.

Androids, Ninjas, and Floss: A Memoir
By Gregg Podolski 

I dressed for my first day at Our Lady Of Brain Dead Uniformity in the official school uniform that Mason had provided: blue polo shirt, khaki pants, and a glazed-over facial expression that didn’t even hint at the capability of independent thought. Earl dropped me off and wished me good luck. I took a deep breath and joined the clump of kids squeezing their way through the front doors.

Inside, the halls were packed as students made their way to homeroom, talked with friends, and haggled over the going market price for pure, uncut cocaine. Ah, the innocence of youth. Little did I know just how much I’d miss it later in life. Especially when I died. I’d really miss it then. But more on that chapter of my life in another chapter. Chapter 47, to be exact, if you’re one of those lazy people who likes to skip ahead to the end of the book without reading any of the stuff leading up to it. You think I wouldn’t like to do that, too?

You think I wouldn’t rather just write the last chapter, turn in a five-page manuscript, and be done with it? Of course I would! Writing a book is a real pain in the ass. What author wouldn’t prefer to just write a killer ending and then sit back and collect his royalties? The ending’s the only part any of us really know in advance anyway. The rest of this bullshit we make up as we go along, killing time page by page until we finally get to write that kick-ass coda. Wanna know what mine is? Try this on for size:

I’ve been dead the whole time.

Creepy, right?

I’m just playin’, though. I know M. Night already did that one. The real twist ending is that, all this time, I was actually Keyser Soze.

Okay, okay, for real: Even though my name’s Gregg Podolski, I’m actually a girl.

Everybody sing!

I know all there is to know
About the Crying Game
I’ve had my share
Of the crying game

Seriously, though, if you skip ahead to the end right now, you’re a dick. Put in the work like the rest of us, asshole.

Back to 1985. According to the intelligence reports Mason had me study prior to leaving for Boston, the Marx Brothers cell in this school numbered anywhere from 15-175 children, mostly Caucasian, mostly male. Either that, or it was a bunch of goats armed with flame-throwers. Details on the actual make-up of the group were sketchy, due in large part to the fact that the individuals who had written the reports were members of the CIA, which as an organization does many things well, but spying isn’t one of them. In fact, every file on the Marx Brothers that I read was nothing more than a series of Eastern European and Arabic ethnic groups arranged around a cardboard wheel. In the center was an arrow that you spun with the words “These Are The Bad Guys” printed on it.

So it was with limited resources that I attempted to infiltrate the group’s inner sanctum. That meant I had to be cautious in my approach, careful not to tip my hand with the wrong turn of phrase or inappropriate gesture to one of the group’s senior members. No, if I was going to maneuver my way into this underground legion of snakes, I had to do it with the right combination of subtlety and stealth.

“You!” I shouted as I grabbed the shoulders of the first student who passed by, shoving her against the wall so hard the right tire on her wheelchair popped. “Where are the Marx Brothers! Tell me, before I rip off both your thumbs!”

In my head I’d worked out several possible reactions the cute, curly-haired brunette I just accosted might have to my simple request:

1. She would tell me who the Marx Brothers were, where to find them, and what type of special move was required to defeat their main boss.

2. She would scream, but not real loud, so I could just pretend she had seen a spider and walk away unnoticed.

3. She would scream, loudly, so I could just pretend she had seen a spider and walk away unnoticed. After snapping her neck to stop the loud screaming, of course. (If questioned, I planned on blaming the spider).

4. She would become so terrified by my physical prowess that she would pee her pants, after which I would point at her and laugh. And then I would snap her neck. (Still blaming the spider).

What I didn’t expect was for her to lift her right leg violently up into my crotchal area, and then follow with a powerful kick to the chin with her left leg only seconds later. The combo sent me flying onto my back, clutching both my swollen nuts and bleeding mouth.

“What the hell?!” I sobbed. “Why are you even in a wheelchair?”

Curly Hair gave a little “harrumph,” turned up her nose, and wheeled away--the busted tired apparently causing her no trouble whatsoever.

After a few minutes, when the colors stopped swimming in front of my eyes and I no longer was able to see through time, I attempted to stand up. I got halfway before I decided lying down might just be the best thing mankind had ever invented and was on my way to doing a little more of it when a hand grabbed me by the arm and lifted me onto my feet. Fearful that it was Curly Hair--or another of the school’s sugary-sweet cripples trained in martial arts--I threw both my arms in front of my face and began to whimper defensively.

From behind the protective wall of my forearms, I heard a voice say, “Did I hear you say you were looking for the Marx Brothers?” The words were wrapped in a thick Russian accent, the kind found only in cheesy spy movies or poorly written books with paper-thin characters.

Slowly, I lowered my arms and stared into the face of a boy whose name I would later learn was Percy, although everybody called him Ivan for short. He was my height but taller. He wore an eyepatch, was completely bald, and had a mustache that had been deftly shaved to spell out “I heart Communism.” 

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something suspicious about this guy.

“Who wants to know?” I asked.

“Percy. But everybody calls me Ivan for short. What’s your name?”

“Gregg,” I said, instantly cursing my own stupidity at using my real name while undercover. Quickly, I came up with an alias. “But everybody calls me Not A Spy for short.” Well played, Gregg, well played.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Spy.”

Crap. “Uh, just call me Not A. No need to be formal.”

“Nice to meet you Not A.”


“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Who me? Heck no. I’ve been here since pre-school.”

“They don’t have a pre-school here.”  

“Since kindergarten. Mrs. Smith’s class.” 

“There is no Mrs. Smith who teaches kindergarten.”

“Mrs. Thompson. I was in Mrs. Thompson’s class. I sat second row from the front.” 

“Mrs. Thompson arranges her students’ desks in a circle.”

“The desk closest to the window, that’s what I meant.”

“There are no windows in her class; she teaches in the school’s underground bomb shelter.”

“The chalkboard. I was the kid who sat right by the chalkboard every day.”

“They don’t use chalkboards here, every classroom has a dry erase--“

“Hi,” I said, sticking my hand out, “my name’s Gregg and I’m new here. Would you mind showing me around the place?”

Ivan smiled. “Sure, come with me.”

Monday, June 21, 2010


The wonderful Renae Mercado interviewed me on her blog (which you can read here) and ALSO announced an Agent Pitch Contest that I am very excited to participate in. The details of the contest are also on her blog, but I've listed them below too:

The Rules:

1. You must be a follower of Renae's blog. (The Siren's Song)

2. You must follow my blog (which you probably already are if you are reading this - thanks, by the way!)

3. You can only enter one pitch - in one of my preferred genres (which you can find out here). Your pitch can only be 1-3 sentences long. (not long run on sentences!) Leave your pitches in the comment section today's post on The Siren's Song. (Don't accidentally post them here because then they won't count!)


1st place - entire manuscript submission
2nd place - partial (first 3 chapters) submission
3rd place - query critique

The contest begins today and will be closed tomorrow (Tuesday) at midnight. I hope to see some of your pitches over on Renae's blog, and good luck!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Methods to the Madness

Every writer has a different approach to writing, a different method. My writing process, for example, has to involve a pen and paper (at least at first), and a very fragmented style. Meaning, if I get a scene in my head, or even just a line I think sounds good, I write it down. It is never, ever the opening paragraph. Then I'll get an idea for a different scene, and write that, but it is rarely the scene that directly follows what I just wrote. Eventually they all come together.

There are also linear writers who can't move on until the opening scene is secure. That, to me, would take forever. I'd be staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours if I was forced to think of beginning before I could continue. But they would probably think my process takes forever, and then we'd both disagree with someone else's third approach.

Other choices writers are faced with when deciding which method works best for them are usually along the lines of "paper or computer?" "inside or outside?" or "gin or coffee?" But, the process that most fascinates me about writing is revision. You cannot be a writer and not revise. And then revise again. Something unavoidable, like the actual writing of words themselves, often means that it involves an entirely different approach.

I love revising more than I love writing a first draft. I don't usually finish a first draft before I begin revising what I already wrote. But of course, there are those who loathe the revision process with a passion that rivals our collective disdain of whoever slighted Sandra Bullock this week. What are your methods and opinions on revising? I have a feeling you're all going to say something different.

Lastly, something else that I've been wondering lately, as I ask for revisions, is what do writers prefer to hear from agents or editors? Would "complete re-write" would induce vomiting? Is it better to hear "add more" rather than "delete?" Things to ponder...

Enjoy the hot weekend everyone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Buddy and His Kiss

Happy Wednesday, everyone! Today's story is reminiscent of the dog memoirs of yore (yore = a few years ago), and I thought it would be a refreshing change of pace on Glass Cases (between the heavier fiction and my various rants on vampires, how books are never happy, etc.) to bring you something lighter.

The author, Emil DeAndreis, is a teacher from San Francisco who has been published in the University of Hawaii literary journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. His story is about his "cat- hating dog and how he ended up being kissed by a cat." Enjoy!

Buddy and His Kiss
By Emil DeAndreis

It used to be that no cats came into our backyard unless they were drawn to the idea of an early death.  This is because my dog, Buddy, had a Capulet-Montague hatred for them that no meow could ever mend.  We tried to introduce him to the little purring creatures but he proved our experiments futile by nearly treating the cats to his version of the guillotine.
He was a big lab with the markings of a border collie.  When cats saw the white line separating his two eyes, and those sturdy black-spotted legs inching towards them, they knew that they would have to flee if they wanted to live to see another Fancy Feast.  Understandably, when Buddy became part of my family in 1995, cats disappeared from our property entirely.
Me and Buddy essentially grew up together.  Our journey began when I was in fifth grade and we were relatively the same age (according to the arbitrary sliding scale of doggie year vs. human years).  I never had a brother, neither did he, and we relished in the opportunity of being youngsters together during an age of bottomless energy, exploration and vicious tug-of-war battles.  We were brothers—we dug holes together (not at the same time or in search for the same things, but we did dig holes at the same points in our lives), we wrestled, we appreciated sunny San Francisco days in the backyard and slept next to each other at night.  
For about eight good years, I took him down to the West Sunset soccer field after school and hit the tennis ball around for him.  On the walk down, he tugged on the leash until I was being dragged the last ten feet.
While playing fetch, little sparrows dove near Buddy and dared him to chase them.  They zig-zagged and did figure eights and Buddy barked and tore the field up chasing them in the dizzying directions they flew (I later learned that sparrows did that to distract any potential predator from their nearby nest, but Buddy thought they were testing his manhood).  In his younger years, it took a good thirty minutes before Buddy was so tired by the birds that he was sprawled out on the lawn drooling out exhausted barks of defeat.  And as he grew up with me as my brother, something I never considered was the unfair certainty that dogs, our best friends, grow up much quicker than we are ever prepared for.
I started to notice that Buddy was older than me when little grey hairs began to pepper his snout.  They fought their way onto his face sometime in the middle of high school, and it seemed he had entered another stage of his life.  He was calmer and more obedient.  At night, my dad sat on the couch with a glass of wine and listened to Coltrane.  Buddy was always curled up at his feet, taking comfort in the presence of his father and the warmth of a peaceful home, his home.  He was no longer a boy with me, but a man with my dad.  On the walks, Buddy tugged less to get to the soccer field, and when he was there, it only took about five minutes for the sparrows to have him collapsed on the field, breathless.
And still, in his old age, cats chose to exist in backyards outside of ours.
I was in college when Buddy went blind.  Evidently it happened over night, and I was twenty five hundred miles away.  Vets thought he had a stroke, and we as a family began to prepare ourselves to part ways with the most cherished part of our lives.
To us, he was glue, the cartilage or the jellied substance in between bones that prevents them from grinding into dust.  He was the common denominator.  And when he went blind, he became helpless and was forced to succumb to the fact that he depended on us like we had always depended on him.
We began to guide him around corners and tried our hardest to prevent him from playing bumper cars with the walls of the house.  When someone knelt down to visit with him he lifted his snout and sniffed furiously to recognize who it was.  He developed a slow, cautious, bowlegged walk- one that involved him sticking his paws out as far as he could with each step in order to prevent himself from running into things and getting more bumps and cuts than he had already accumulated.  In the middle of the night he whimpered for someone to come pet him because he was lonely.  We gave him peanut butter biscuits, kissed him on his snout and on the pointy crown atop of his head just like we had been doing since he was a puppy.  It was the only way we knew how to let him know we were still there.
He was an old man now and with that came a new set of worries: no longer were we concerned about him sneaking out of the house and wandering down along busy Sunset Boulevard or chasing birds into oncoming traffic.  Now we worried about whether or not he was drinking enough water; we worried that he might be living in pain.
Around the time he went blind, a family of black and white cats began to appear in our backyard and the neighboring ones.  They traveled in a herd of five and looked like a moving pack of Oreos.  There was never four, or three, or two.  Always five.  On sunny days, they lounged on our back lawn and absorbed the sun.
Sometimes they ran patterns around the grass and chased each other up our trees.  Occasionally, while outside, Buddy caught a scent of the cats, but for the most part he was oblivious to their presence.
“Ohhhh if he only knew,” my mom would say from the window upstairs as she watched the five cats lay in close proximity to our blind, cat-loathing dog.  “He’d turn those guys into ground chuck.”
he’s become a peaceful cur,” my dad would offer.
A meow would cause Buddy to perk his head up as if he was hearing a hit song that brought him back to his youth.  But he always laid his head back down and returned to the warmth in his grassy kingdom.  As time passed, the cats naturally grew less weary of Buddy, the king Black and White Beast, figuring if he was going to kill them he would have already done it.
The other day, something unfathomable happened.  The cats took their historically curious lifestyle to a new level.  In plain view, the most audacious of the cats, a girl, approached Buddy.  She crept right up to my old, precious brother who was deep in a dream, his paws quivering madly.  She got closer and closer until finally she put her nose on his. A kiss.
I stood, stunned and a bit uneasy.  If I knew Buddy, this cat wasn’t going to be living much longer.  He began to snap out of his dream until he too was stunned; his eyes wide and cloudy, his nose being tickled by his enemy’s dainty whiskers.  Buddy was missing one of his senses, but at that moment he knew quite well that a cat was within chomping distance.  But he laid there, his snout puckered and his chompers hidden, permitting the cat to live.  It lasted a year if it was a second, as frozen as a still life painting.  A kiss, long and felt.   And then it was over.
Their noses separated, and the cat strutted away, leaving Buddy in complete shock.  His ears remained perked long after she disappeared into the foliage of our backyard.  My parents couldn’t believe it, and neither could I, and Buddy certainly belonged in the category of disbelief.  Perhaps he sensed the cat was black and white and found that reason enough to spare her, or maybe he didn’t want to humiliate himself with a failed attempt at her life, or maybe he wasn’t particularly hungry.
Since that day there has been lots of speculation in my house as to why our dog allowed himself to be kissed by a cat, and why the cat was allowed to walk away without severe blood spillage.  If you told me ten years ago that at one point in Buddy’s life he would kiss a cat, I would have said “Yea right.  What else are you going to tell me, we’re going to have a black president?”
Personally, I think at the moment that Buddy accepted the peace offering from the Oreo cat, he knew that soon his time would be up.  Though he spent the greater years of his life exercising a zero tolerance policy towards the strays, he has had a lot of time to think since he went blind.
We can learn a lot from animals.  In many cases, we feel they teach us how not to behave; we like to think we’re above the traits of wild animals with their meat-tearing fangs and pack mentality ruthlessness.  But there is usually a flipside to every coin.  Buddy, a dog who at one point would have mangled a cat beyond identification, proved it the other day with the simple permission of a kiss.  And after dedicating a considerable amount of thought to this matter, I believe that Buddy has reached a point where he would prefer to be remembered by all critters, even his lifelong enemies, the same way his family will remember him.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Happily Ever After

I once had a teacher who claimed there was no such thing as a happy ending in "great" literature. By great, I can only assume she meant those classic novels which are still taught and/or have been revered and loved throughout history (The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, etc).

This brings me to my question of the day - What is the best novel with a happy ending? As in, truly, 100% happy. (I have a thesis-like response at the ready for anyone who says Pride and Prejudice!)

In the way that most "great" writers are tainted by pain, loss, or addiction, do novels need to suffer the same fate in order to be respected?

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's Not Me, It's You (Or, My Breakup With Vampires)

Something that always surprises me when I'm reading a perfectly decent query is when a vampire shows up and ruins everything. The havoc the vampire wreaks on the characters is nothing compared to the damage it does to me personally. I read about four vampire queries in a row yesterday, which is what got me thinking about this, but truthfully I've been thinking about my relationship with vampires for a while. They once held a pretty special place in my heart. 

It was a sad day for me the first time I rolled my eyes at a vampire book, and an even sadder one when I audibly groaned in frustration. You see, writers, I was once, as they say, really into vampires. Which is also to say, I totally get their appeal. The reason vampires have stood the test of time, other than immortality, is that they can be the perfect hero and the perfect villain at the same time. On their worst days, they want to kill you, and on their best days, they still want to kill you, but feel bad about it.

They are also eternally sexy. Let's put aside the metaphors involved with them wanting to control you and suck you dry. Instead, let's focus on the fact that they never look older than 30, they're mysterious, and for some reason they all seem to have mastered the art of dry wit. Sure they're dangerous, but what's hotter than knowing that after being around the block for centuries upon centuries, they still want only you. Even Dracula had a soft spot for Mina, and he's Dracula!

Before I really knew what sexy was, I fell in love with vampires through Christopher Pike books that were probably too old for me, and through cheesy '80s movies like Once Bitten and My Best Friend is a Vampire (both amazing by the way - add them to your Netflix queue now!). I also let my angsty self out in reading The Book of Nod (also too old for me) and being mildly fascinated by goth culture and vampire lore. 

Then Buffy, the Vampire Slayer came along. I was a fan of the movie because it is hilarious and Luke Perry is in it. The show, however, is one of the best written shows of all time. It hooked me immediately and I still watch it pretty much everyday in syndication. Seeing the show was also the first time I said, hey, vampires are sexy as hell (no pun intended).

There was definitely teen vampire lit to be read, and I enjoyed the less sexy - but still sexy in a "I might have issues" way - vampire horror. In adulthood, even in the midst of vampire mania, I enjoy the modernized vampires of Charlaine Harris and Jeri Smith-Ready and the villainous vamps of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's Strain trilogy (also looking forward to reading Justin Cronin's The Passage!). 

That said, the reason those queries I mentioned were surprising to me is because I can't believe people are still trying to pitch vampire books. Despite everything, aren't we sick of them yet? The answer from the industry standpoint should be yes, but I guess what should be more surprising is that these books are still being sold. To me, vampires have jumped the shark. I don't really blame Twilight, but it's an easy scapegoat. Twilight didn't start anything that wasn't already there. Edward, after all, is just a poor man's Angel. All Stephanie Meyers really did was reaffirm that nothing is the new vampire, nor will something ever be. But she also reawakened a craze that proved perhaps there can be too much of a good thing.

So, vampires, you've shown me, with the above-mentioned modern examples, that you still have what it takes to be in my life. But unfortunately, that's not enough for me anymore. You've changed. I liked that you were starting to show a softer side; I was even excited about it. Then things got out of control. You were showing up in places you didn't belong: classic literature, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and prime-time network television. You're everywhere and you're becoming a mockery of yourselves. We can still be friends, of course. I just need space. I'm in a place in my life right now where I need more stability. I need to know you'll always be the person I fell in love with, and I hope once you get this madness out of your system, you'll be able to find that side of you again. It just won't be any time soon, I'm afraid, so I must say goodbye for now. 

We'll always have Nod...

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Traveling Light

On this rainy New York Wednesday, today's story will take us away. To where, exactly, doesn't really matter. The author, Jeffrey Tompkins is a writer and cartoonist living in Brooklyn, and is sharing an excerpt from his recently completed novel, Traveling Light. In it, the main character, Casey, buys an old Honda Civic which leads her to a life of increasingly longer rides and being seduced by the "thrill of going nowhere."

Traveling Light
By Jeffrey Tompkins

On a brilliant Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, at the lower end of the New Jersey Turnpike, a few miles above the Delaware River, she hits it. She’s just exited the Clara Barton Service Area and has no sooner merged with the main traffic—still, for Casey, a nerve-racking endeavor in its own right—when looking ahead she realizes that the bus a couple of hundred yards in front of her has apparently stalled and she’s going to have to perform an evasive maneuver. In less time than it takes to work out in her head, Casey accomplishes three steps: she glances in both mirrors, she bears down on the accelerator, and then swings into the middle lane so smoothly that to someone watching it might look as though she’d intentionally piloted the Civic in a single gliding motion all the way from the service area’s exit road right to that very spot. And no one honks. That’s the main thing: not one yahoo in any of the three lanes behind her is so full of impacted rage that he has to vent his disapproval by blaring his horn at the woman in the blue Honda Civic, and for a moment, just a moment, it seems possible Casey has the makings of an adequate driver in her.

Okay, okay, she tells herself a few minutes later, so maybe it wasn’t that impressive. But when you’re a recent graduate of Brown University who’s hungry for experience (and not just on the road), who’s been driving less than a month, and whose ability to navigate through mechanical reality, the vast world of things, barely extends past coin-operated washing machines and laptop computers, any little indication of competence comes as not only a boon to the ego but also as an encouraging suggestion that the course you’ve embarked upon isn’t, in fact, one of suicidal recklessness. You can even be forgiven, you think, for presuming that there’s actually a place for you out here in this great race.

(Driving for real, that is. Sure, she’d earned the license back in high school, practically claiming it as a birthright like any normal teenager but until this past month she was lucky if she got behind the wheel three times in a year, helping Mom out with the errands during summer vacation or ferrying a friend to the Providence train station at the end of the semester. And the bus had always been there to shuttle her back and forth between school and her hometown in eastern Connecticut. So for four years, all her real excursions were mental.) But not anymore. Each one of these strikes down the highway etches a line of force between Casey and the larger world, and announces that this particular bookworm will no longer be content with a library carrel and a laptop. Here I am! Somewhere she had seen the word momentum defined as the dynamic by which the force a body exerts increases with its velocity and although Casey has trouble with nearly any kind of scientific concept she can’t help feeling now that her own momentum increases exponentially every time she leaves another state line behind in the rear-view mirror. That first foray? Rhode Island. Days later, Connecticut. Within a week came the degraded Mordor-like wastes of northern New Jersey, followed by the Turnpike’s sinister narcotic monotony, and her thinking all the while, in her giddiness, This can be mine,too. I can encompass everything.

Her fingers have a tendency to get stiff on the wheel—she has to remember to flex them from time to time. In front of her now a maroon Corolla flashes its brake lights, and on a barely conscious level Casey tells herself, Corolla—that’s a Toyota. As someone who knows nothing about cars she still finds it remarkable how she can connect a maker to a model every time she sees a name on the back of the vehicle in front of her. Explorer? Ford. Caprice? Chevy. The years of saturation advertising must have done their work well, because other pieces of data that would presumably be more valuable to Casey, like the first-person conjugations of Spanish irregular verbs, or the entire plots of certain Victorian novels, haven’t lodged in her brain with nearly the same tenacity. Sentra? Nissan.

In northern Maryland, still headed south, the Susquehanna River strikes her as more gorgeous every time she crosses it, a kind of reward for having endured the Turnpike’s doldrums on the way down. And coming back over the same river, she is greeted with an almost ridiculously picturesque sight on the north bank, over to her left—two silos and a barn, like something one of the Wyeths would have painted, standing watch in a cleared patch of land above the river and the bridge. Every time she sees those buildings and that field Casey is half-incredulous, wondering how such a perfect slice of pastoral is still allowed to remain within hailing distance of this busy ruthless corridor. But those unlikely grace notes have a way of turning up down here. Another time—also northbound, somewhere on either side of the Delaware River—she looks over to her right and spots a Canadian goose and her flock of goslings waddling along on the grassy strip that borders the road, so close it’s almost as if she could reach out and feel the young ones’ fuzz caress her palm as she drives by.

The cranes in the port of Baltimore all look as though they’re giving the Nazi salute. But elsewhere in Maryland come highway signs for bodies of water called runs, a term she’s never encountered before and immediately takes to, while still other signs have the names of counties on them and even though she knows it’s corny the rustic note appeals to something in Casey as well. That ends once she begins to approach DC: there’s a surprisingly dull stretch before you reach the city proper, as though the infamous Beltway (which, she understands now with some embarrassment, really is an actual road) acts as a centripetal force that sucks any life out of the periphery. Somewhat disappointingly, all the iconic monuments appear to be off somewhere there to the right; since her only real-life experience with them came during a ghastly eight-grade trip when she was still too bratty to appreciate anything to do with American history, Casey thinks it would be cool now to be able to situate Honest Abe or the needle in relation to the highway or the river, but she’s already across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before she fully comprehends where she is on the map.

The further south she drives, the more yellow ribbon bumper stickers there are on all the cars around her. Below DC the HOV lane starts to seem like an implicit rebuke to a driver like her, flying solo and without even a destination in mind. But maybe it’s because she’s so far from home, removed from native climes, that she begins to feel tentative; at any rate she hasn’t gone very far south of the Potomac before deciding it’s time to turn around and declare herself satisfied with this latest reconnaissance mission. She can’t do it all, at least not this trip. There is an inconceivable amount of highway still to go, the rest of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and what looks on the map like an endless stretch of Florida before I-95 runs out of continent altogether, and however much the horizon line always beckons it’s the ad hoc, improvisational nature of these forays in her new (old) Honda that makes them fun for her. She isn’t ready to have to make plans, isn’t ready to be responsible and call people just to tell them where she’ll be at a particular point in time. (But think of it: all she has to do is keep the car pointed in one direction and she can end up in Miami, a day, a day and a half from now. Practically another hemisphere. Although Casey’s excitement at the prospect wanes when she admits to herself she wouldn’t know how to talk to any of those people down there, not the retirees, fashion models, Europeans, Cubans, any of the exotic Miami tribes she has half-formed notions of from movies and TV. And on top of that she wouldn’t have the faintest idea of how to dress for the place anyway.)

Back in Delaware the highway becomes a free-for-all again, people changing lanes as though they spend the entire rest of their lives waiting to live out their racetrack fantasies in just this fashion, so many tail and brake lights blinking that Casey regularly fears she may become disoriented and ram straight into the guardrail. Here and elsewhere she surprises herself with the vehemence of the epithets she directs at thoughtless drivers: someone cuts in front of her without warning and the word asshole leaps into her mind with startling clarity. Cowboy doing ninety? Cocksucker. And again. Dickweed. Perhaps there is just a little of her, after all, in the bumper sticker she’d seen on one of these forays:


Momentum. Dynamic by which. There are almost nineteen hundred miles of this stretching from Maine to Florida and somewhere, Casey has no idea if it’s spurious or not but somewhere she read that I-95 and the Great Wall of China are the only two man-made structures visible from space: which makes it fascinating to speculate that one day the highway will become what the Great Wall is today, a ruin, majestic in its way but also crumbling and fragmentary, an enigma to be pored over not only by scavengers but also by archaeologists desperate for clues to the nature of the people whose truest monument this is.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Dear Sir or Madam

And so begins The Beatles' writer's anthem, "Paperback Writer," whose lyrics are quite possibly the best example of what not to do in a query letter. (You may also remember my former colleague's brilliant dramatic interpretation of these lyrics, here.) Generally, if you begin your query with the above-mentioned salutation, the agent you are querying will either a) groan, b) make fun of you via Twitter, or c) delete your query unread (this is a worst-case-scenario). 

There was a really great blog post today on Write It Sideways called Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter? that I think basically every writer who's querying needs to read. Among their reasons why YOUR query might be getting deleted without even being read are:
  1. The manuscript is incomplete (if fiction)
  2. The agent doesn’t represent the author’s genre
  3. The letter isn’t personalized, but is part of a mass query (Dear agent…)
  4. The author hasn’t taken the time to research how to write a proper query letter
  5. The author hasn’t followed that agent’s submission guidelines
  6. The query or sample pages (if requested in the guidelines) are sent as an attachment
As a newer agent, and a writer myself, the term "instantly deleted" is terrifying, even if I'm the one doing the deleting. I try to be fair and give writers the benefit of the doubt. I'm aware that querying is hard. That said, agents, myself included, get easily frustrated when people don't query "correctly" because there are a bazillion resources online on how to write a proper query, not to mention the agent-specific guidelines. (I've also heard writers complain that "it's confusing because every agent has different guidelines." This is true, but the differences aren't usually that vast. If a writer can't take the time to make minor adjustments, it's not that unfair of a stretch to think, "Geesh, what'll it be like if I ask for a revision?")

Of the above examples of "potential instant deletion," I'm guilty of #3 and #6. I delete mass queries and queries sent as attachments for what I hope are obvious reasons. (This includes "click this link for my query" emails.) I assume it is spam, and therefore it is dead to me. 

I also instantly delete "pre-queries" because they are so incredibly stupid. In case you don't know (which I hope you, dear blog readers, don't), pre-queries are emails that basically just ask if the writer can send a query. The answer is always, "YES! JUST SEND IT! WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME WITH SUCH A DUMB QUESTION!?" So, instead of getting an all-caps rant, they just get deleted.

There are agents out there, usually the more seasoned ones, who will delete your query for lesser reasons than the ones I mentioned above. You don't want to fall victim to an instant deletion, so while it is a lot to remember and can be frustrating to accommodate to, pay attention to agent-specific guidelines and pet peeves; read articles and blog posts like the one on Write It Sideways; and stop sending things as attachments. Almost NO agent ever accepts attachments unless he or she asks for it. It might be the one guideline every agent agrees on. 

One last note: there is no such person as Curtis Brown. I am not Mr. or Ms. Brown. Thanks :)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Dialogue With Matter

Welcome back from the long weekend (and Tuesday). Hope some of you got to make it to the beach and/or barbecues on Monday. It was insanely hot and humid in NYC, which some people enjoyed. I say give me an air-conditioned cafe and an e-pile of manuscripts any day! (Well, most days...)

Story time today comes from Tyler Theofilos, who is a writer, musician, and e-commerce expert living in
Brooklyn. He's a graduate of Yale University, where he studied poetry and journalism, and his poems have been published in the Connecticut Review, Yale Literary Magazine, Sphere Magazine, and The Gaze. 

Tyler is sharing a short piece called Dialogue with Matter, which, as Tyler put it, is
about "the rapidly closing gap between a deteriorating subjective world and its siamese twin, reality." Tyler also warned me that this piece might be "more pretentious than it needs to be," which I thought was funny, mostly because I'm a big fan of pretension, but understand that it's usually unnecessary, which in turn only makes it more necessary to me. My conflict could be the result of my formerly MFA-addled brain, but I digress. Anyway, you be the judge!
Dialogue with Matter
By Tyler Theofilos

I walk to the sink for a glass of water. There is a strange lack of closure to the sunset outside… not that there’s anything particularly inaccurate about it. The light is correct. It decorates exactly.

I usually find it difficult to determine the beginning of night. The blue sky hesitates just as the sun is prepared to drop. But this time is different. Even after it sinks below the horizon, the long shadows loiter on the ground, stuck in some circular reference like a bad DOS command. Skittering blades of grass become serrated black pillars threatening the vinyl siding of houses. They rise and overtake basketball hoops until the presence of even a single mosquito would blot out the whole stretch of neighborhood. Soon enough, cars refuse to start and static takes over the fringe radio frequencies. The nights cascade into one another like shingles. It takes only one week of night to remake that roof of black glass into a cage of obsidian.

Outside, the landscape is baptized in stone. Trees spiral up and around themselves; they reach like glass sculptures of trees. As the days collect, a local widow puts together a search party for the lost. I arrive in thick, underdeveloped boots. I am not early, not late. We leave in silence with small black and white photographs. Among them, faces busied in motion, blurred and overexposed. I recognize Mary, frigid and amplified, in an opal nightgown. Our chorus of flashlights uncover expanding arcs of space before gently tucking them back in. I am really concentrating now, but in my more conscious moments, there are only flashes of wet grass. Marginal stains on parking spaces.

Getting accustomed to this new world is something that sets in only when one becomes willing. The eyes of new infants become dense with arteries, as if their bodies both knew what light was, and were desperate for it. I begin hoping that our faces might be visible momentarily through an expanding iris.

The night becomes a thick costume we wear in public spaces. I make deliberate mental movements toward unwillingness. I am Shackleton leaving his men after a fusillade of heavy handshakes.

I buy a train ticket to some equatorial oasis and board before discussing my own existence with the engineer. He is doubtful. At the Buffalo stop, I awake in a haze, caked in drowsy ocean. On the television, the panic is beginning to reverberate in San Diego, in Albany. Whole continents are consumed by night.

But outside the window, where I expect to see the passing of some dark gradient, there is just more silence; shadowy figures picking each others’ pockets and finding pictures of their own children, as if these faces, blue-eyed, chicken-pocked, could somehow redeem them. My hands are buried in my pockets. The train pulls off and leaves behind nests of unread magazines.

Inside the station, the snow is building drifts in corners. By the automatic door, a bag lady has built a pillow from it; the air nipping at her exposed skin whenever a leaf lights up the electric eye. The parking lot comes in in some enigmatic Morse code.

I keep telling myself that if there were shadows here, they would be frozen to oblique sections of tile. I can almost believe that they existed. But there is something inside me that needs something else, and it isn’t shadow, it isn’t sleep; but it feels like sleep. It feels simple and distant.

I’ve been lowering myself down some stretch of highway for hours. Occasionally, a pair of lights will barrel down a slow bend and leave two parallel white lines gleaming on my brain, but they’re no indication of distance.

* * *

The hinges let out a long pent-up wail as I pull them open. At first, the house seems a certain shade of restless. The furnace kicks in over the mock cackles of dresser drawers. Poltergeists stew in erroneous corners. I suddenly have the desire to reexamine the angles of love seats I have lived in; gently press them back into old carpet grooves. But the restlessness gives way to the calm invisibility that has been sweeping through my brain lately. I place myself on the couch, our couch, and squint my upturned eyes.

The fireplace is another television where I watch reruns of house fires. Cut to commercial. The refrigerator lets off a momentary click of light as I pull open the seal. Inside, the monarch butterfly, asleep on a bottle of Merlot, has come alive with lingering disinterest.

How did I spend my life? This atmosphere glazed in the coal of peristalsis; this ever-expanding colony of semi-colons. It will swallow me where I stand, this empty living room, this wallpaper of dream fleece. A baby raccoon cocks its head to a rifle shot, and ten dozen moths form a funnel around my feet, brushing ankles, wrists, the backs of my neck with their felt wings. I will be consumed. There were corrupt phrasings hidden in my marginalia. You will find them in a hermeneutical panic, lose yourself in the explosion of dust.

* * *

Four months in, I am everything I touch. Blades of grass hesitate like a girl’s wrist or murmuring car door. I am nothing at all until I begin to rephrase myself. As I walk, footprints build beneath me. I am larger than them and must cast a horrible shadow.

But even behind this winter veil, this thick Cartesian pitch, moments arise—real moments plucked from the matte of quiet, like the passionless scrawling of waves on a beach. In these tiny moments, I am reloved.

Rain is something I could not have expected. But I hear it surround me. There is no lightning. Only the rain, a hollow mesh settling on the roadways. Only the gentle crash of rain that might reveal the irregularities of parking lots. And then, in the afterimage of thunder’s accidental photography, I am the sole witness of myself.

There is a terrible moment that I have only rarely experienced in my life, in which the world, and all things cease to have any sort of meaning. But never before had I experienced the cruel transcendence of self-cessation; the loss of losing. My body wet, indeterminate, I collapse, my hands shaky and invisible, my dialogue with matter at an abrupt end.

Above me, the swelling of aurora borealis, at the Northern ridge. The horizon twists into itself. My senses go numb and digest me until I become a piece of light; the thin, passionate ribbon signaling not hope, not calm, not closure, but some more modern ending—completion. I derive no pleasure from the world. I derive the quadratic formula from a young girl’s lice-ridden scalp, an overanxious uncle collecting mental images of the hidden skin above her hairline. Am I the world? She will wake in the morning craving passion—the passion inherent in absence, the silence surrounding a kiss. They are passing, even in this darkness. They are all passing. I check my scalp for coefficients and shut my useless eyes.