Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth: A Review

The Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a brilliant book. It's the kind of book that kids should be reading. The kind of book that might just make a huge difference in a teenager's life. That might even save a life.

This expansive novel follows Cameron Post, a gay teenage girl, on a long journey of self-discovery after the death of her parents. Raised in Montana by her grandmother and her well-meaning evangelical aunt Ruth, her sexuality is a dangerous secret. It is also something that her family seems to think can be remedied.

Exiled to a school which promises to "bring her back to God" (by "curing" her of her deviance), Cameron struggles with her identity, with her place in her family and community, and with the loss of her parents.

The ending chapter is simply gorgeous. It made me weep. A beautiful, important book.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Day Off

I just realized last night that for the past four months I have not taken a single day off from writing. Not on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not even when I had the flu. I have a tendency to get a little compulsive...which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. But I didn't expect that taking a day away from my work would be this difficult.

Patrick is in Arizona, and the girls are at a sleepover, and so I had no obligations this morning. You'd think that would be enough to make me snooze like a baby. But, creature of habit, I woke up at 5 a.m. brain buzzing and humming. I forced myself to stay in bed until the sun came up (!) and then made my coffee and sat down at the computer.

Normally, I locate my work-in-progress and pick up exactly where I left off. I have been revising my novel for almost two months now. I know exactly where to find its weak spots (those fragile fissures and fault lines). I know those paragraphs that need to be shifted around. I know where I have to build up the one character who remains just a tad bit shadowy. I've read and re-read it so many times, it feels almost like some sort of prayer.

But today: Email. Facebook. New York Times Sunday Book Review. Add books from the NYT to Goodreads.

It's agony not opening that document. And it's not that I love revising. I really don't. But it's a habit. It's something my body wants to do, needs to do. I feel a bit lost.

And so I opened a new document. And wrote 104 words. And suddenly I feel better.

So I cheated. But just a little.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Quitting

Two years ago today I quit drinking.

I quit without much fanfare. No last hurrah. I simply decided I needed a break, that my body needed a break, that, maybe, it was time to just give it up.

I love drinking. I have loved drinking since the first time, when we all snuck peach schnapps from my friend's parents' liquor cabinet the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I love the warm happiness it offers, the confidence, the way it eases the buzzing of an overactive mind.

And I love the social aspect of drinking. Sharing a bottle of wine and stories and gossip with friends over a nice dinner. Or going out for a few drinks at a bar. I love bars. I met my husband in a bar.

I love the ritual of it: a cold beer at the end of a long day, in the middle of a hot summer day, to celebrate a good day or to make a bad day not so bad. It was a part of my life the way anything is.

When I was pregnant, I didn't drink, and after I had my daughters I stopped drinking the way I did (and could) when I was in my twenties. But motherhood brought on new reasons to partake. More than ever, I appreciated the palliative qualities of a drink, or two, or three.

So why quit? Because as much as I love a pretty cocktail or a Corona with a sour wedge of lime, there are many, many things I don't love about drinking. I didn't love the way, at 41, it made my body feel wrecked. The way it interrupted my sleep. The self-loathing I felt each time I thought of something I'd said that I might never have said without a little buzz, my tongue loosened by a few too many. The guilt I felt when my daughters asked if I needed a beer whenever they got up to go to the fridge.

So I quit. I just stopped. I wasn't a heavy drinker, a problem drinker, but a regular drinker. A habitual and happy drinker. But I am also an all-or-nothing kind of girl (for both good things and bad), and so I quit.

The hardest part was explaining my new abstinence to friends. It wasn't until I stopped drinking that I realized what an enormous role it plays in so many adult social gatherings. People seemed baffled by my decision. Respectful, but bewildered. Why on earth would anybody who wasn't pregnant or an alcoholic give it up? I came up with a variety of answers until people just stopped offering me drinks and pointed me to the sparkling water instead.

And two years later, I don't miss it. Not much anyway. And there are certainly perks to being a non-drinker. For one, I never get hangovers. Secondly, I am always available to drive anyone home safely. Third, instead of going to bed with a fuzzy brain and fuzzy tongue at night, I go to bed with a book. I have read twice as much in the last two years than I would have before. And lastly, I feel no shame around my daughters who are still young but are also very smart and very observant. I want to set a good example; that matters. I also want to be present for them. Fully present. I feel like a better person without drinking, like I might if I did yoga or ran or did anything else that's good for me. Two years. I'm kind of proud.

Now I just need to figure out how to quit sugar...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: A Review

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 - 4 stars. This book has gotten so much buzz, I decided to select it for my book club. We haven't met yet to discuss, and already there's been a lot of complaining. However, in general I liked it. I think the premise is interesting (a US soldier comes home with his platoon after a successful battle in Iraq and they are paraded around in a tour of the country to drum up support for the war...the entire novel takes place during a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game during which they are to appear alongside Destiny's Child during the half-time show). The writing is wonderful, hypnotic even. The main character, Billy Lynn, is a likeable 19 year old kid. And it is an illuminating commentary on "patriotism" and commercialism (there is a producer at their side vying for the film deal) and even on war. But, as my book club friends have complained, it kind of drags. I have tremendous patience when it comes to slow-moving books, but I found myself fine with setting this one down each night. I also found most of the characters, besides, Billy to be somewhat flat, more caricature than character. Still a worthwhile read. The writing is lovely.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Dispatches from Revisionland: A Progress Report

For the last month, I have been mired in the revisions of my newest book. This part of the process for me is both the most agonizing and the most rewarding. But mostly agonizing. Here's what I am up against:

1. I have no title. I just don't. And so every single time I open the document, I am staring at a blank page before I scroll down to the beginning of the remaining 320 pages. This is doing something to me psychologically. I am tempted to give it a placeholder name just so I don't get that sinking feeling in my gut every time I open the manuscript. It's like a nameless baby.

Any suggestions? (Maybe something about a bridge?)

2. Today I realized the timeline was screwed up. Not irrevocably, but enough to cause me a significant amount of grief. The novel takes place over the week leading up to Hurricane Irene's landfall in Vermont. Well, all this time I thought the rains came on Saturday. Guess what? It was Sunday. Sunday was the day. So now I have to create an entire day's worth of events to make it work. And no, I can't just push the whole book forward a day...because one of my damn characters has swimming lessons on Friday. She couldn't possibly have them on Saturday because the pool is closed. Alas.

3. I am still figuring out how and when to offer the big twist/reveal. There's this horrible thing about knowing more than your reader does. It's like keeping a secret about a surprise party and worrying that whoever you are trying to surprise has already figured it out. I'm crouched down in the dark waiting to jump up, but worried that somebody's going to say, "Don't bother. I see you."

4. Sorrow. There's a lot of sorrow here. And there are dead animals and bad moms and mean friends. It's hard to go into this book and not come out feeling a little bit helpless. Of course, the plan is that things will get better...but not at page 220. That doesn't happen for another 100 pages.

5. Self-doubt. Every single day I second guess every single sentence. I don't trust my instincts. I think it sucks.

6. The Vacuum-Effect. I am the only person in the world who has read even one word of this book. These characters exist only in my head and in this document. Nobody in the world cares about them yet except for me. This is scary.

7. Other more interesting things. I am not sure why this happens, but when I am at this stage of the novel-writing process, I have a million ideas for new books (better books). Well, maybe not a million. But three. All I want to do is buy a fresh notebook and start writing the next story. But I can't. Not yet. 

Anyway, my plan is to complete a good draft by the end of this month. I know I am close. I think I am close anyway. That means 20 pages a day until next week, and then 25 pages a day until the 28th. Until then you can find me here. At the computer. Blogging when I should be revising.

Friday, February 01, 2013

On Rejection

Fifteen years ago I had just written my first novel, and it had been universally rejected by every major and minor publishing company in the industry. It had lost contests. It had been spurned by agents. Fed up, I wrote my own rejection letter in response to one particularly patronizing editor.

I just found it.

Thankfully, I never sent it. But boy, did it feel good to write. I'm slightly mortified now, but it's a good reminder to me that I am a fighter when it comes to my writing. I always have been. I am also reminded that tenacity, a sense of humor, and hard freaking work are all necessary if you want to survive as an artist of any kind.

Dear ___________,

Thank you for submitting your rejection for my perusal and consideration. Regretfully, your work has not advanced to the final round: "Having a Significant Impact on My Writing Endeavors."

I know that this letter brings disappointing news, but please don't be discouraged. All the rejections received are very worthwhile projects and deserve to be further developed. Because I have such a high volume of rejections submitted in response to this manuscript, I cannot pass along to you an individual evaluation. What I can do, however, is give you an idea of why your rejection did not advance.

Rejections that stayed at the semi-finalist round ("Minimal Impact on My Ego and Sense of Self-as-Writer) had problems in the following areas:

1. Dialogue - None. Most rejections lack this altogether. Diatribe and dialogue are not the same thing which brings me to...

2. Point of View - The point of view is unclear here. Is it truly the voice of _________ or some other greater entity? One does not get a sense of who the narrator is here. What are her motives, desires, fears?

3. The Establishment of Plot - There is no hook here. What compels the reader to read on? From the second sentence, the reader knows that rejection is inevitable. Perhaps a little mystery might render this rejection more interesting.

My suggestion to you, in order to achieve your rejecting goals, is to continue to read as much as you can, paying close attention to the craft and then finding ways to decimate it. Also, if you don't have one, please locate a classic novel and tear it to shreds. (Like the ones you read in high school or college.) You can look at thrift stores, garage sales, or used bookstores. Study these relics and learn ways to articulate your critical sentiments in the nastiest of ways.

I know this sounds a bother, but when I see new critics follow this advice, the overall improvement in their criticism is quite noticeable and their chances for success increase and, in time, success is attained.

As always, I applaud you and all of your fellow critics for rejecting me. Successful rejection takes time, courage, dedication, and discipline. Soon you will have a significant impact on the egos and drives and passions of many a young writer.

Please know that I recognize your efforts and offer you encouragement to keep moving forward.

T. Greenwood