Hollow Men and Mosquitoes

The book. The book, the book, the book. It’s all I think about these days. I almost can’t wait for the commute to and from work, just to have the uninterrupted time and headspace. (Which is a little scary, considering I’m supposed to be driving. I won’t admit how many times I’ve blown right past my freeway exit because of wool gathering.) So, I spend every day at work, buying books written by other people, wishing I could be home, writing my own. And all the while, the creative pots are bubbling away on the backburner: Plot ideas are at a nice, low simmer, character dialogue is as fresh and al dente as it gets, and brilliant themes erupt in small clouds of delicious steam.

Then a funny thing happens. I manage to carve out some writing time, I get my trusty notebook and V5 pen, and I finally sit down to write … and suddenly I’m in creative purgatory. The brilliant ideas? They turn into mush on the page. The bon mots I thought so clever on that morning commute? Overcooked words, as limp and boring as ruined spaghetti with the blandest of sauces. This happens all too frequently – at the beginning of just about every writing session – and every time I experience it, I think of the lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men“:

…Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…

It’s as though I intimately know the “soul” of the work – I feel it deeply – but something always comes between the internal knowing and the external expression of it. The end result never matches what I have in my head, never comes even close to how fantastical and wonderful it is in my imagination. The self-defeating temptation here, of course, is to give in to that sense of expressive failure and say, “Well, if I can’t convey it perfectly, I won’t convey it at all” and so write nothing. Difficult as it is to drum up and apply, the only real antidote to this is discipline. Well, that and faith. Write it and worry about the rest of it later. Go through the motions and the motives will follow. And for inspiration to do just that, I turn away from Mr. Eliot and seek out the kindlier advice of Annie Dillard as expressed in The Writing Life:

Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

Thank you, Ms. Dillard. Repel, ignore, or kill the mosquitoes, but don’t indulge them. Duly noted.

Art: The Hollow Men by Howard Penning

Log Lines Suck

Can I just admit how much I hate writing log lines? Query letter? No problem. Synopsis? Piece of cake. But log lines? Ugh. They’re my bete noire – even with a solid storyline, I have trouble writing them.

Why? Some of it is undoubtedly just me being pissy: all that marketing-yourself stuff makes me grumpy. And some of it is my dislike of appropriating tips and tricks from the screenwriting/film genre (from which log lines came), especially those that don’t transfer well to written literature. Am I alone in thinking that boiling down your magnum opus to a hook like “It’s Titanic meets Harry Potter!” not only denigrates your own work, making it seem derivative, but also smacks of the absurd? The combinations so often sound silly, and you’re basically calling to mind other people’s artworks in lieu of describing your own.

Ah, but I’m tangenting, trying to dodge truthfully answering the why-do-I-suck-at-writing-log-lines question. Aside from it just being plain old hard to capture the essence of a work in one sentence, I don’t like that log lines can break your heart. Really, they can.

Imagine, if you will, finally completing your first novel. You know, the one that you picked up and put down for over ten years, working on it in dribs and drabs as life’s vicissitudes allowed. The one you poured a lot of heart and fear and hope into. The one that somehow proved you could actually do it, you could actually accomplish writing a book. You glow for a while, riding high on I-finally-did-it endorphins, before putting on your marketing hat and getting down to the business of submitting. All goes well until you try to draft a log line and discover you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because the story refuses to be boiled down. And the reason it refuses to be boiled down is because there are problems. Lots and lots of problems. Big problems. So big as to make you realize that you’ve written something not only unsalable, but also not very good.


Meet the Fitzgeralds

Rereading “Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)” from Sarah Scmelling’s hilarious Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook, I got to wondering what the literary lions comprising the Lost Generation would make of the techno age we live in. Hemingway, for example. While known as the master of brevity, I somehow don’t see him as a tweeter. On the other hand, tireless self-promoter that he was, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine Hemingway-the-Blogger.

And F. Scott? Well. Easy to see him as a master of all forms of social networking, albeit perhaps a frequent user of Google’s Gmail Goggles. Zelda, of course, would compete with him for friend counts on Facebook, and force him to do the reality show Meet the Fitzgeralds (undoubtedly aired on Bravo), in which media-whoring, extra-marital affairs, and excess of all kinds feature heavily. (Oh wait, that’s the Real Houswives series.)

Edna St. Vincent Millay would do for progressive poetry what The Huffington Post has done for progressive politics, employing her considerable talents on her notorious website My Candle Burns to procure not only poetry readings, but booty calls with members of both sexes.

And last but not least, famed Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins, whose website would be so quickly overwhelmed with online submissions by hopeful authors that he would be forced to go the way of Miss Snark, and shut it down. Snail mail queries only, if you please.


As the kind of person who’s always loathed any sort of “group” project, it strikes me as pretty funny that I would even consider collaborating on a novel. I’ve always thought of myself as a solo flyer when it came to writing, yet here I sit, bouncing ideas off my partner in crime – and now my partner in writing.

I know Sassy Man thought I was being paranoid, but mixing business with romance makes me edgy. So, after considerable research on collaboration (and the people crazy enough to try it with fiction), we laid down some very clear – one might even say contractual – boundaries. (BTW, thank you Booklife for your great series on this very topic.) Now I’m breathing a big sigh of creative relief, which makes me realize just how much the ambiguity of who’s-gonna-do-what was bothering me.

Interesting, though, how the discussions SM and I had on idea ownership, oral versus written storytelling, authorship, bylines, writing ability, work styles, etc., led to some deep thinking on my part about how I view myself as a writer, and what I’m willing to do (collaborate on ideas/story/plot) and not willing to do (take dictation/write someone else’s story for him/her).

Art: Record cover by Jim Flora.

Attention All Agents! The Query Letter Checklist is Here!

Dear Agent:

In the interest of giving you exactly what you want by way of a query letter, please select from the following Query Letter Checklist choices. (NB: This author will ONLY accept electronically-submitted checklists. NO snail mail.)

1. Greeting and agent flattery
a) Love it – stroke the ego, pop the question.
b) Skip it – I already know I’m uber-agent so get to the point.

2. Hook
a) I’m sooo Hollywood – give me something a la “Jaws meets Mary Poppins.”
b) I’m not a fish for God’s sake – just tell me about the goddamn book already.

3. Main conflict/plot
a) One short paragraph, tops.
b) One short paragraph, tops.

4. Writing conferences, workshops, classes, etc.
a) I could care less. Any no-talent yahoo with some money can attend a writing conference.
b) I want to know if you’ve devoted time to your craft, i.e. spent yourself into debt on conferences and workshops that involve bad food, late-night on-the-spot critique sessions with other bitter writers who tear your work to shreds, and morning-after hangovers, induced by the massive amounts of alcohol you consumed after a day of botched verbal pitching.

5. Publishing credits
a) If they’re any good and in anything I’ve ever heard of (e.g. New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc.), they should be in paragraph one (after agent flattery).
b) Sure, I’d love to know that you were published in the non-paying ‘zine Wannabes and that you placed third place in the Only-a-Fool-Parts-with-His-Money-$300-Entrance-Fee Contest. I want to know so I can laugh, really hard, as I use your query letter as an example of what not to do on my agency’s website.

6. Closing
a) A “thank you” and a “sincerely” are fine.
b) Hugs and kisses. Throw some gold glitter in the envelope, too, while you’re at it. Oh, and use pink, scented stationery and include a gift, maybe chocolates. That will be sure to get my attention and bump you up to the head of the line.

Please note: I do my best to respond in a timely manner but only those agents submitting a polished and error-free checklist can expect to get the query letter of their dreams. The rest of you, don’t give up! There’s a frustrated writer out there for all of you. Thousands, in fact.