Tag Archives: Wally Lamb

Long Live the Editor!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.

Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*

Editing an English language documentBut what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.

Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”

While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.

But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…

It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.

Everyone needs an editor. Period.

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*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.

** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.

*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.

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Thank You, Books

I can be a bit of a curmudgeon around the holidays. As much as I would like to blame the PTSD from my days of working retail at Christmas, most of my holiday-based anxiety is of my own creation: pairing my general intolerance for shopping with the self-induced pressure to find the “perfect gift” is asking for trouble. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, I am fully on board. I love everything about Thanksgiving, from the kick-off cocktails to the requisite crisp, after-dinner walk to make room for dessert. And although the cynic in me can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a nationally designated day of thanks, I do appreciate the nudge to, well…appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday – and in the theme of this here blog – I have listed below just a few of the many, many books for which I am thankful:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I enjoyed this version almost as much as the original.

Now With Zombies!

I first read Pride and Prejudice whilst studying at the University of Swansea in Wales. I was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in my life, and – despite being three years into an English degree – totally intimidated by many of the classic works of the language. Pride and Prejudice was not assigned reading for a class, but rather a recommendation from my friend Emma, who proclaimed it as not only “a good laugh” but also as one of the smartest books she’d ever read. And she was right.

From Jane Austen, I learned to appreciate wit, social commentary, and early 1800s feminism. I also learned that I was perhaps more intelligent than I’d previously believed. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a half a dozen times, and choke up every time Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: “Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” I am such a sap.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos-vonnegut-kurtI was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut by way of my father’s bookshelf. Vonnegut taught me about satire and how to find truth in the absurd. With literary tongue in cheek, he reveals the darkest parts of the human mind, yet his writing never despairs of hope. He also demonstrates the indisputably powerful punch of the well-placed short sentence: “And so on.”

I have read and loved many of Vonnegut’s books, however it was Galapagos that inspired me to seek out that living diorama of evolution for myself. For my 40th birthday, I crossed off the item in the top spot of my Things To Do Before I Die list: Visit the Galapagos Islands.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

She's Come UndoneAt the risk of being over-dramatic, this book changed my life.  While the cringe-inducing coming of age story is at times almost too painful to read, it feels 100% genuine throughout. The central character is complicated – her behavior sympathetic and abhorrent in turns – and her journey leads the reader to a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s beautiful, flawed heroine, but I am indebted to She’s Come Undone for inspiring me to start writing again after a very long, very dry spell. Read all about it in this blog post from last Spring.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

hppmeab05-w813I’ve probably lost a certain amount of credibility by including this on my list, but I’m willing to risk it. I wish these books had come out when I was a kid, because that’s really the only way I could love them more. Okay, so they are a tad formulaic in structure, but they have all of the elements of a compelling story: an underdog to root for, mysteries to solve, good vs. evil, and of course, magic. Who doesn’t want to be magical? Rowling is not only a master of world building, but also of long-haul plot development: her clear vision for her characters and storyline allowed her early on to plant the subtle seeds that germinate into major plot points in the later books. As a fellow writer, I am damn impressed.

I have reread this series more times than I can count, and have a special love for the audiobook versions, which for me are like aural comfort food. When I am anxious or unsettled, or can’t get to sleep, I can nearly always find calm in narrator Jim Dale’s soothing voice.

Road Trip, Party of One by Lisa Thomson (that’s me!). Unpublished.

BookQuestionMarkMy early attempts at novel writing were not unlike my attempts to quit smoking: I started off full of inspiration and determination, but within days or weeks – and often after a couple of drinks – I’d stumble off the wagon. My plot lines, like my will power, were too thin to carry a story for more than a dozen pages.

I finally quit smoking at age 24, but it was another few years before I was struck with the inspiration for my first completed novel. I was listening to the R.E.M. song Night Sleeper on my pre-iPod portable music device whilst on my way home from a long day at work when an intriguing character popped into my head: a misanthropic shift worker in his late 20s, cut off from all family and friends, almost without hope. Almost. He was both my alter ego and my cautionary tale. I was hooked.

Although this novel isn’t likely to make it out of the figurative box in the back of the closet, I will always be grateful for it. Through my experience of developing this story over a somewhat turbulent four year period, I learned that with a little inspiration and a lot of determination, I could create a whole new world. I wasn’t a failure as a writer; I simply hadn’t yet found the right story.

 

 

 

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The Book You Should Have Written

I had a minor crisis as I approached college graduation. I was just months from leaving school – possibly forever – when it hit me that I had virtually no marketable skills. My Bachelors in Creative Writing essentially qualified me to be a starving artist, or to pursue more schooling so that I could teach others to be starving artists.

I took an administrative position with a consulting firm that specialized in increasing profits for quasi-public electric utilities. I answered phones and created spreadsheets. I took out my nose ring. I stopped writing.

Since I was a child, I’d dreamed of being a writer when I grew up. And I wrote A LOT. To this day, my father likes to tease me about my teen years, when he’d hear me tapping away at my typewriter at 2 am if he got up to use the bathroom. I was dedicated. I was determined.

For four years after college, I didn’t write a single scene or story. I still read plenty, spent hours walking the creaky floorboards of my favorite used bookstore, Green Apple in San Francisco, lovingly fingering the dusty dust jackets. While I loved going to the bookstore, the come down was often hard: my stomach contents turned to sour jello and my skin ached with a million tiny pinpricks of envy. I had fooled myself for nearly my whole life, thinking I could be a writer. That I was equal to – or perhaps even better than – many of the authors whose books I admired simply for the fact that I could hold them in my hands, flip through their printed pages.

I heart this book.

I heart this book.

And then I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. At the risk of being overdramatic, this book changed my life. It’s a great book, yes, but more than that, it inspired in me a moment of profound realization. I was on the bus on my way to another administrative position at another consulting firm, nose buried in my book, when an odd feeling – one part awe and two parts envy – crept its way up from my belly and into my esophagus, lodging in my throat. I flipped to the back of the book and scanned Wally Lamb’s headshot, read his bio. Somehow a forty-something year old man had crafted a compelling coming of age story about a teenage girl growing into adulthood without any adults to guide her through her journey. I thought, I should have written this book. 

But I wasn’t writing anything anymore. And that was the problem.

Of course, Wally Lamb was a teacher for many years before the success of She’s Come Undone allowed him to write full time. Long before he was a published author, he was sneaking ten minutes here, an hour there in which to write. In retrospect, it seems embarrassingly naïve but I finally understood that I didn’t have to choose between a day job or being a writer. That writers write because we are compelled to do so, despite how we pay our rent.

Within a month of that pivotal bus ride, I’d formed a small writers’ group with a few friends. I started writing again. And I haven’t stopped since.

I will end with two questions for anyone reading this post: What are the books that changed your life for the better? What are the books that you should have written?

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