Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Golden Goose

Once upon a time, I called up a friend who worked at a big New York publishing house to ask for some professional advice. I was nearing completion of the third draft of a novel and had yet to dip a single toe into the murky waters of agents and editors and publishing deals (oh my!)*. My friend inquired as to my novel’s subject matter, length, and genre. When I told her I thought it fell under the category of Literary Fiction, she audibly sighed.

“Literary fiction is a hard sell,” she said. “Genre fiction is much more marketable. And if you really want to get published, Chick Lit is HUGE these days.”

I just about choked on my tongue. I knew my friend meant well, but I would have rather abandoned writing all together than pen some vapid romance novel disguised as female empowerment, one where the core conflict centers around who the spunky young heroine should date: the sweet but shy guy at work, or the hot asshole at the bar.

Fifteen years later, my feelings have not changed. For the last two and a half of those years, I have toiled away at yet another literary fiction novel; this is not out of some sort of pride or obstinacy, but because I cannot write a story that I do not love. But of course, there are many shades of love.

Next month, some friends and I are going on a week-long creative retreat to an Internet- and television-free cabin just outside of Yosemite. I am excited to spend time with dear friends (and our dogs), to meander through the wilderness and lounge by the lake, but I’m extra jazzed because I’ve decided to use this getaway as an opportunity to take a break from my current novel-in-progress and work on another project for a little while. The only trouble is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of two projects to dust off for the occasion.

Project No. 1: The mostly complete second draft of the accidental** young adult novel (working title Sooni Greene) I wrote four years ago. It has some good things going for it – interesting characters, important social themes, and conflict well beyond dating matters – and I have always planned to revisit it at some point.

Project No. 2: A quick and dirty first draft of a ‘tween book (working title The Burnt House) that I wrote about a year and half ago. Missing persons, neighbors burning down their houses, and tears in the space-time continuum…what more could you ask for in a mystery/coming of age story?

Golden-GooseAs I pondered my options, my publishing friend’s words echoed somewhere in the back of my mind: “Genre fiction is much more marketable.” At present, I have two genre novels to chose from: Tween or Young Adult***. Instead of instinctively selecting the storyline that feels the most compelling to me right now, I caught myself contemplating which of the two would be more likely to get published.

So does this mean that I am finally on the trail of the Golden Goose, that elusive “marketable” novel that I can both love and publish?

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*Sadly my knowledge in this realm has improved only marginally since then.

**Accidental in that I did not set out to write a young adult novel. But it’s interesting what you discover when you vomit out 70,000 or 80,000 words in a short period of time.

***And wouldn’t it be ironic if my first published book was for the under-eighteen set?

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Choose Your Weapon

Last week I met up with a friend at Local Edition, one of many hip theme bars to open in San Francisco lately. The drinks and decor pay tribute to old timey newspapers and post-war prosperity: I sipped an Ava Gardner while admiring what were either original or very good reproductions of 1950s news and advertising spreads framed on the walls and set into glass display cases that double as cocktail tables. But the bar’s extensive collection of cool vintage typewriters was hands down my favorite part. I’ve long loved the aesthetic of old typewriters, and if I were the collecting type, my shelves would be lined with them.

As much as I like to look at them, I have never actually used a manual typewriter. Starting in the third grade, I wrote stories by hand into wide ruled notebooks*. Somewhere around my thirteenth birthday, I went from ballpoint pens and lined paper to an electric typewriter, a gift from my dad. I remember the thrill of seeing how much more professional my stories looked in those perfectly formed and spaced letters. But it wasn’t long before my fingers were too fast for the keys to keep up, so that sometimes letters were missed or struck twice. And then there was the disappointing realization that editing meant retyping the whole damn page over again.

While other teenagers begged for Nintendos and CD players, what I longed for more than anything was a word processor. I’d never used one in real life, but from what I’d seen on TV, I was certain that a word processor was just what I needed to become a critically acclaimed novelist by the age of 21.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was fifteen, my dad came through again and bought me a Brother word processor. It was large and clunky, had a tiny screen, and no memory to speak of – all documents had to be saved onto floppy disks – but I was elated. At last, I had the proper tools to really write.

And write I did, sometimes going all night and until the sun came up. I was drunk with the freedom to edit at will, to print out multiple copies with the push of a button (although each page took 2-3 minutes to print). I had that word processor throughout most of college, and then replaced it with a newer model with a larger screen but still reliant on floppy disks. And I continued to write, until the day I accidentally wrote over my floppy disk. I lost the first three chapters of what was supposed to be my debut novel. Technology had turned against me.

But I couldn’t go back to either the pen or the typewriter. I’d been ruined for such pedestrian tools. To this day, while I always carry a small notebook for moments of inspiration, I can think a lot faster than I can write by hand and typically default to the Notes app on my iPhone. If nothing else, I have at least learned to employ multiple back up systems for both my phone and my laptop.

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So what is the root cause of my romantic association with vintage typewriters? They conjure up images of the writer who lives hard and full, and then stays up all night writing about it, tie off and cigarette dangling from his mouth. Or of well-coifed secretary-by-day, novelist-by-night women writers who take the world by storm with their immense talent and wit, often overshadowing their male contemporaries.

While I am no longer a night owl, and taking smoking back up sounds as unappealing as joining the secretarial pool, the common theme here is passion: these writers had something to say, dammit, and they were going to say it, even if it meant they had to retype it 100 times. And that’s dedication.

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*I would like to claim that this is why I had such good penmanship by high school, but I’m pretty certain it was actually the result of habitually writing out my favorite song lyrics during class, and forging notes.

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