Too Old to Write Your First Novel?

Think again.

Consider, from Rivka Galchen’s rundown in Harper’s of twentieth century author family life and age demographics, among them:

Alice Munro: Two husbands. Raised three children. First book of stories at age thirty-seven.

Toni Morrison: Two children. First novel at age thirty-nine.

Penelope Fitzgerald: Three children. First novel at age sixty. Then eight more.

 

Rock on, Penelope Fitzgerald*.

Read these author’s books, take a walk, and write your own. Bloom late.

write hard

*Author Allison Lynn recently recommended Fitzgerald’s “Offshore,” which went on to win the Booker Prize.

Another to Read: Penelope Fitzgerald biography, “A Life,” by Hermione Lee

And subscribe to Harper’s already.

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My Creativity IV Drip: Madeleine L’Engle Herself

While recovering from my summer vacation heart attack last July in the small Colorado western slope town where I lived when my children were small, I stumbled upon hidden treasure on the bookshelf of my dear friend’s guest room. Like an IV drip of creativity energy, leafing through the pages of Madeleine L’Engle Herself pinked up my cheeks and kept me going while I was in limbo.

All these months later I bought my own copy. Here’s a 2-cc dose that sets me to writing again now that life’s back to normal and I have the luxury of thinking I’m too busy to create on a daily basis.

An Incarnational Event

Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.

What book pumps your creative juices?

 

Wrangling An Elusive Essay Form: Mosaic

1.

Collage, fragmented, montage, segmented, lyric, sectioned: a mosaic by any other name was still a thorn in my flesh. The first mosaic I ever tried to write amounted to little more than a clumsy knockoff of a Richard Rodriguez essay assigned in my first MFA nonfiction workshop.

2.

Three years later, I tried again. I picked up the same Rodriguez and works by Montaigne, inventor of the form.

3.

I read and froze.

4.

I re-read Rodriguez. I couldn’t grasp the peculiar features of the form firmly enough to do it myself. Reading Rodriguez did not help.

5.

Stained glass makes sense, the image my professor used to illustrate the mosaic essay. Like stained glass in a church, each paragraph or group of paragraphs a single scene, which viewed with all the other scenes, make sense alone but make the most impact only when the last scene clicks into place.

6.

But my own mosaic attempts continued to be stilted, round-peg-square-hole experiments. Shrinky Dinks in my mother’s oven.

7.

More research. More reading. If I can grasp “the rules,” I can write a mosaic.

8.

Montaigne, On Some Verses of Virgil. I meditate more on Montaigne’s words searching for clues. Of Books: “Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.”

9.

Nester’s Teaching Blog. Daniel Nester: “What Papa Montaigne means, I think, is that the form of the essay, the way the essay reflects the consciousness of the writer, is just as important, if not more, than what is addressed.”

10.

Ned Stuckey-French lights a candle and guides me toward understanding in his characterization of Rodriguez’s Late Victorians. “(Appearing) as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects.”

11.

Closer to clarity, I can’t think of a single topic to squeeze into a patchwork prose quilt. Maybe I’m trying too hard to get it.

12.

I scour my public library, the Internet. Ninety-day diet.

13.

I gobble up every mosaic essay I can find. Over three months, I rack up $10 in overdue fines for the convenience of Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies on my bedside table for multiple nighttime readings of the same mosaics.

14.

Magic. Osmosis. Click. Eula Biss breaks through with pure, original mosaic, with only the faintest hints of Montaigne or Rodriguez.

15.

Robin Black grabs me by the throat, her heartfelt essay reflecting the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.

16.

Ander Monson’s quieter mosaic offers another, contrasting example of how a fragmented essay can be daring in its structure, through the use of titles, tone and pace.

17.

Dev Hathaway breaks my heart. “North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” presents medical facts with deft restraint of sentiment.

18.

All my favorites differed from examples left by the inventor of the mosaic and from one another; but they are all indeed mosaics. I immersed myself in these works. I stopped trying to apprehend the concept of mosaic and gave in to the experience of mosaic. And I got it.

19.

The more I tried to comprehend the rules the more I realized that the key to mosaic is its suspension of the usual narrative rules. Nester’s rationale behind Montaigne’s approach to mosaic personal essay was the final tile in the mosaic of my search that made the form clear to me, at long last:

The demands of a narrative, of exposition, of having to explain everything can frustrate the writer who has other things to say. The desire to write a piece of nonfiction that lets other, perhaps nonlinear, factors affect its shape goes back to the origins of the essay itself.

Nester nailed it. I had other things to say. I scanned through my daily writing entries, found one with a topic that had eluded me for ten years, and started riffing. Riffing sans structure freed an essay to collage itself to life. I gave it permission to emerge in tiles that tell a story individually and in the aggregate” with its its content and its form.

Me and Mosaic

In the process of grasping a form I’ve found a new friend, a secret weapon that helps me write about the most complex and slippery subjects from as many different angles as my mind can think to write.

via The Institute for Sacred Architecture
via The Institute for Sacred Architecture

 

Inspired by Koreanish, My Year in Review: 2014

I’m no Alexander Chee, and by comparison my brushes with achievement are mere crayon self-portraits on the fridge. Chee’s are more Matisse in the MoMA, with categories such as “Best of Me on NPR” and “Best idea I had in public where people could hear it.” You know that whole Amtrak residency thing? Yeah, that was Alexander Chee’s idea. My big NPR and rail travel accomplishments of 2014 involved listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and watching Hell on Wheels, but the year in review Mr. Chee offered on his blog, Koreanish, inspired me to take stock. “It’s good for perspective,” he said on Twitter.

And so here we go, for perspective:

Surprising Career Development: After a few years of writing and editing consulting-only while chipping away at my MFA, I went to work for a publishing company that hired me as copy wonk for a newly created content marketing team. Best. Boss. Ever.

Meaningful Day: Butler MFA grad ceremony. Toasting and roasting with friends and writing compatriots after years in the workshop trenches, it was nearly as sweet as my wedding day on the Gunnison River.

Prescient Failed Blog: I started 2014 with a verse and then began a blog, “To Number My Days,” to keep that verse in mind and try to abide by it. I didn’t promote my posts much—they were more for me. Then life got busy (see Surprising Career Development), I forgot the blog, and the verse took on uncanny meaning (see Exciting Medical Event).

Exciting Medical Event: On July 23, the morning after spinach enchiladas, margaritas, and much laughter with best friends at Buen Tiempo, our favorite Ouray, Colorado eatery, I survived a heart attack, my second. After three days plugged into the ICU at the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter fifteen years earlier, I spent one week admiring deer and Grand Mesa vistas from the deck of my dear friends’ home before flying back to Indiana. I spent the next six weeks sleeping before heading back to work. Five months post-MI, I’m feeling 100%.

Visible Changes: two dress sizes dropped in an effort to prevent a third heart attack. Here’s to staying a 6 in ’15. I can’t afford another wardrobe makeover.

Biggest Writing Accomplishment: my thesis revision, wherein I murdered about 40 pages of darlings with the ruthless help and incisive input of advisor Andy Levy and reader Lili Wright.

Best of Someone I Know on NPR: The latest book by my dear MFA thesis advisor just dropped. Read what Linda Holmes had to say about it on NPR — “In ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ A History in Echoes.” And, from the buy page:

An eye-opening, groundbreaking exploration of the character and psyche of Mark Twain as he was writing his most famous novel, Huck Finn’s America brings the past to vivid, surprising life, and offers a persuasive—and controversial—argument for why this American classic deserves to be understood anew. See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Huck-Finns-America/Andrew-Levy/9781439186961#sthash.VekSn1Tg.dpuf

Best (only?) Publication: an essay selected for the Brevity-promoted American Vignette. Wordpress Freshly Pressed it. I suppose submitting more than one or two essays to five or six publications in 365 days might improve my odds in 2015, because math.

Personal Best: stopped dogging my senior about homework. In direct proportion to grades slipping peace in the home increased.

Second Personal Best: unfriended Facebook. I’ll get back on when I secure an agent for my MS. Maybe. I’m enjoying the fresh air.

Feats in TV Viewing: I mentioned Hell on Wheels, but it was also the year of recovering from Breaking Bad with my Mr. Bates, with a little help from Frank and Clare Underwood.

New Cyber-Friends: It was a good year in friendships with imaginary people, all of whom made my life a little less confusing (Heart Sisters), richer (Coffee), lovelier (Butterfly), and a whole lot weirder (Shouts). By far, Greg Adam York takes all, though: I don’t know how he’s surviving his life at the moment. Thank you, fairy godpeople.

Reading That Stuck: I can’t keep track of all I read—I’m a bad Goodreadser—but the stuff still lodged in the brain folds came from Goldfinch, Orphan Master’s Son, Unbroken (finally), TMR, Harpers, three volumes of Creative Nonfiction, and issues of CNF Magazine (thanks again, Lerner, for the subscription).

Writing: back to the novel, half-written over a year ago and patiently waiting for me to finish my essay collection. On to act 2.

Peace and health to you and yours in 2015. I’m going to keep on numbering my days. How about you?

  1. And what did you read that most stuck with you in ’14?
  2. What are your 2015 reading plans?

Which reminds me, writing plans for the new year. That’s next.

So long, 2014. (Thank you, A.C., for the idea.)

Creative Nonfiction, Gumby of Literary Genres

images

Creative nonfiction is a gloriously flexible genre. What we don’t know or can’t know doesn’t have to wreck our writing. Instead, what seemed at first to be only an empty space can be an opportunity to shape and expand a narrative, exploring the gaps and writing our way through the myths.” 

Jessica Handler, author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir

The Traditional Publishing Path: a Midwest Writer’s Workshop agented author shares her wisdom, from how to find a literary agent to what to expect while you’re out on submission

Annie Sullivan celebrates Vietnam
Annie Sullivan celebrates Vietnam

With NaNoWriMo coming to a close, you might be wondering what the next steps are. Here is a handy list you can use to figure out how to query literary agents and to trace your path through the publishing industry.

1. Have a completed, revised manuscript.

This means you didn’t type “The End” and then declare the book ready to be sent to agents. Make sure you have other writers read it first to look for pacing issues, plot errors, etc.

2. Draft a strong, attention grabbing query letter. (See link below.)

3. Thoroughly research the agents you want to query.

Find the best agent for you based on location, how many clients they take on, whether they give editorial feedback, whether they give a lifetime contract or a single book contract, etc.

4. Follow agent submission guidelines as mentioned on their agency website.

5. Treat finding an agent like a business.

Start a spreadsheet of what you’ve sent to each agent and the date you sent it. It can also be helpful to record the date you heard back from them in case you want to query them again later you’ll know when to expect a response.

6. Wait. (And start working on something new!)

7. Revise your query/manuscript based on agent feedback.

8. Get an offer.

9. Inform all other agents that you have an offer.

10. If you receive more than one offer, select the best agent for you and negotiate a contract.*

*If you don’t get an offer with your first book, always write something new and start over again at step 1.

11. Sign contract and celebrate.

12. Revise based on agent’s thoughts.

13. Go out on submission to editors.

14. Wait some more.

15. Either get an offer or get a rejection.

If it’s an offer, celebrate. If it’s a rejection, decide if you should revise, and then submit to more editors.

Why Choose the Traditional Publishing Path?

1. An agent to bounce ideas off of and who knows the market.
2. Direct Access to the “big” New York publishers.
3. More time to write (because you don’t have to deal with the business side of things)!!!
4. Advance Money
5. More marketing and publicity support.

 Helpful links:

1) Literary Rambles
• Great for finding Young Adult and Children’s agents

2) Absolute Write Water Cooler
• Find out what other writers are saying about agents

3) Query Tracker
• Find out what other writers are saying about agents

4) Preditors & Editors
• See if an agent is legitimate

5) Query Shark
• See examples and get advice on query letters

Annie Sullivan graduated in 2012 with her MFA in creative writing from Butler University. Her work has been featured in Curly Red Stories and Punchnel’s. Her novel won the Luminis Books Award at the 2013 Midwest Writers Workshop, and she is currently working with her literary agent to get it published. She lives in Indianapolis and loves traveling and exploring new cultures. When she’s not off on her own adventures, she’s working as the Publicity Coordinator at Wiley, a 207-year-old publishing company based Hoboken, NJ.

Connect with Annie Sullivan –
Twitter: @annsulliva

Read Annie’s flash fiction story “Blarney”.

Which Way to the Vomitorium?

Which Way to the VomitoriumAs I’ve mentioned before, being a mom to this particular son* is a gas—and always educational. This morning I decided to visit him in his room before he fully woke up and remembered his mother irritates him to no end. He rewarded me by reading aloud, in Latin and then English, selections from “Which Way to the Vomitorium?” My personal favorites came from the “Girl Talk” chapter, which offered handy phrases for any modern woman:

“I need 8 slaves to carry my litter.”

“Can you pass me the rat head mixture? mM hair is getting a bit thin.”

“Please don’t read any of your poetry out loud again at dinner; we’ll lose all our friends.”

With holiday season upon us (I know this because of the piped-in carols I heard at my grocery store last night 3 weeks before Thanksgiving), you’ll want to add this book to your gift list for your favorite Latin teacher or smarty pants polyglot friends and family. Merry Holidays!

*He prefaced his recitation by explaining to his Latin-ignorant mother that “vomitorium” means “theatre exit,” “from ‘uomere,’ meaning to spew forth.”

Guest Post From The Tolkien Scholar In My House: English to Orc (Orkish?) and Back

Since the thesis gods have smiled upon me and I’m finally churning out chapter intros, I’m pleased to share the blog today with my resident Tolkien Scholar, JPC. Enjoy.

an Uruk, by the author
an Uruk, by the author

For those of you who wish to learn Orkish, a less-pretty language spoken by Orcs, Trolls, and some Men in Middle-Earth in the Third Age. Orkish dialects were usually vulgar forms of the Black Speech of Mordor, the language written on the Ring. These words are scrounged from what little Tolkien wrote of the Orkish language as well as some reconstructions by Tolkien linguist David Salo.

An example of formal Black Speech as written on the One Ring:

“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatûl,
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatûl”
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”

Some examples of colloquial Orkish written by Tolkien himself:

Improper Nouns

“ghash”
“fire”

“hai”
“folk”

“sharkû”
“old man”

“snaga”
“slave” (lesser Orc, common Goblin)

Races:

“Uruk”
“Orc”

“Olog”
“Troll”

“Nazgûl”
“Ringwraith”

“Golug”
“Noldor” (Golodhrim, Exiled Elves)

“Tark”
“Man of Gondor”

Places

“Lugbúrz”
“Dark Tower” (Barad-dûr)

An actual quotation, from the books:

“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búb-hosh skai…”
“Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!”
– Grishnákh, an Orc from Barad-dûr, Book III of The Lord of the Rings

A Few Helpful Phrases in Orkish (courtesy of this website)
“Ashdautas vrasubatlat” — “Someday I will kill you” (a standard Orkish greeting)
“Nar udautas” — “Not today” (the standard reply)
“Nar mat kordh-ishi” — “Do not die in bed” (This has several meanings.)
“Ang gijak-ishi” (Angijak)– “Iron in the Blood” (a high compliment)
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (usually in reference to Elves)
“Amal shufar, at rrug” — “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.”
“Snaga nar baj lufut” — “Slaves don’t make war.”
“Ambor mabas lufut” — “Liquor after war”
“Vras gruiuk” — “Kill the women”
“Mabaj nar armauk” — “I have no enemies” (an Orkish lament)
“Mabaj bot ob armauk” — “I have a world of enemies”
“Mirdautas vras” — “It is a good day to kill”
“Vrasubatburuk ug butharubatgruiuk” — “We will kill all the men and take all the women” (the Orkish equivalent of ‘cheers’)

Orkish Oaths
“Afar angathfark” — “By the forge of my soul!”
“Afar vadokanuk” — “By all the dead!”

Orkish Insults
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (literally “bloomblood”) (interchangeably “Elf” or “Wimp”)
“Zanbaur” — “Elfson”
“Nar thos” — “No Sack”

Some Orkish Names
Azog
Balcmeg
Boldog
Bolg
Golfimbul
Gorbag
Gorgol
Grishnákh
Lagduf
Lug
Lugdush
Mauhúr
Muzgash
Orcobal
Orthrod
Shagrat
Snaga
Ufthak
Uglúk

Enjoy croaking in the foul tongue! –JPC

Adventures in Parenting Jack: Translating Halldór Laxness (Say HUH?)

I was working on a meditative essay to post on this here writey blog, but the following Facebook status update by my dear son, pictured below (in what I think should be his online dating profile picture, should he ever online-date in his twenties), derailed me. You’ll understand why.

Oh, and as any good anglophile, he punctuates the UK way. Also, why do I even try to write? OY, this kid:

For those of you reading Independent People, the protagonist’s name, Bjartur, is Icelandic. That means it’s not pronounced like American English. It’s not pronounced “buh-JAR-der” or “buh-jar-TUR” but “bee-ART-oor”. The letter j in most European languages besides French and English is just a consonant version of the letter i. That means it makes the same sound as i does (ee), but is not stressed as a vowel. It’s kinda like the consonant y in modern English.

Also, the word “bjartur” comes from Old Norse (bjartr) and is cognate with Old English “beorht”, whence comes “bryht” and thereby “bright”. “Beorht” in Old English was later shortened to “Bert” and was often used as a suffix in names like Albert, Athelbert, Egbert, et cetera, so to avoid all this pronunciation confusion, one could simply refer to Bjartur by his English cognate name:
Bert.
"Oh....hello, ladies." Username: LiteraryCatMan
“Oh….hello, ladies.” Username: LiteraryCatMan
DISCLAIMER!
DISCLAIMER!

Disclaimer: I take no credit for the kid’s head. He had it when he emerged from the womb. Credit goes to his Designer and to Jack, for all the study and research that led to his acquisition of linguistic knowledge. It’s a beautiful mind, in spite of his mortal mother. It’s just Jack.