A Blog about My Novels

I have three unpublished novels.  I thought I’d blog about the process of writing and trying to sell them.

March 2019

I continue to get rejections for Disorder and it continues to surprise me, because the rejections are not for my writing, but solely on the premise of the book.  I don't get why agents are oblivious to how commercial the story is.

So I've decided to launch a podcast of my work.  My actors have already said yes.  I'm going to have an actress I know read Disorder as an audio book and I'll put it on the podcast, which I'm calling Continuous Dream, from the John Gardner quote.  I'll also post some plays; about half my plays are suitable to pure audio.  I'll start an Indiegogo campaign to begin so I can pay the actors and sound engineer, and then open a Patreon account. 

The actors responded quickly that they would be in. It means a lot to me that actors like doing my work. 

I also got some great news today about a play, but as it won't be announced until the end of the month, stay tuned for details.

February 2019

Last night my husband and I watched a Nova episode about quantum entanglement, and how Einstein always opposed quantum physics.  I don't know a lot about physics.  I have some idea that physicists have been looking for a grand unified theory that would link together quantum theories with Newton and Einstein so that once again the universe would be predictable place, with laws of cause and effect.  

I don't think such a theory can exist.  Because if there were such a formula, we would not be human beings, and free will would not exist. 

If every cause had a single, predictable effect, we would live in a Calvinist universe.  Everything would be predetermined. Including life, every moment of our lives, our actions, our thoughts.  It would be the world of a bad psychologist who thinks choice is an illusion and that every behavior is caused by some single cause in the way we were raised.  Because everything in the world would have been predetermined since the big bang, from the motion of planets to the firing of the neurons in our brains.

But for choice to be an illusion, we would be machines following a program.  And we are not, because the universe is a place that contains an element of randomness.  Since ultimately, on the atomic level, there is chance, that chance is our chance: for free will.  Quantum physics is proof that the universe is not a machine.  And because the universe is not a machine, neither are we machines.  There cannot be a unified theory.  If there were, we would have little to live for.

December 2018

I recently attended a professional development workshop and we talked about Artists' Statements, something we all hate to write.  The main reason I've struggled with mine is because I write such eclectic work.  My characters include Hadrian, a Saturday morning cartoon animator, the patients in a psych ward, and a Facebook hacker.  What do they have in common?  But I realize that to some degree, I'm drawn to larger than life characters.

But I continued to ponder my statement, and a confluence of experience has brought together some ideas.  

A year or two ago, a staff member at Chicago Dramatists announced at a student meeting that the organization was no longer interested in plays by "old white people."  Since 90% of their students and the backbone of their support was indeed old white people, this felt like a slap in the face.

What I'm thinking now is that it could have been better put not in terms of age and race, but privilege and urgency.

I recently went to a showcase of scenes from a class, and was struck by how trivial a few scenes felt, compared to the urgency of others.

The other morning as I considered my play about Hadrian, which involves suicide and grief and guilt, I realized that what it will take for me to write it is for me to change, to become a slightly different person in the future who can write this play.  

What does this all add up to?

The push for diversity is a push for more vital, urgent plays.

Art from marginalized people takes courage. Art from privilege is numbing.  Cozy mysteries, pop music, rom-coms, etc.  These all numb the mind, or numb the privileged mind.  

Privilege requires no courage.

For me to write what is vital and urgent, I must turn away from numbing art and find a fearless way, to be braver and more courageous.  I used to think I needed to develop my craft.  I once wrote an application where I spent a full page talking about my goal of developing my craft, thinking this was an honest and unpretentious thing to say.  

But now I know it isn't about craft at all.  I don't need more craft, I need more courage.

September 2018

This month I had a reading of my play Poet and Warrior, for the first time since I came up with a nonlinear structure.  I had thought that it was flawed by being too many short scenes.  But the reading went much better than I expected and the story flows well.  It seemed like the play was nearly finished.  I just needed to make Yeats a bit more positive, and have scenes where he isn't always asking Maud to marry him.  I revised it the next day and I feel it's done, and while it might not be my best play, it does work.  I wrote the first draft in college in 1982, and it feels good to finish. 

This means I'm not going to continue to work on it as a novel.  I have three novels in the drawer now and I don't want another.  

A good friend of mine just sold her first novel for a big advance.  This inspired me to try to sell Disorder again.  In the entry below I talk about the final revision.  After I wrote that entry, I finished revising Disorder in 4 days.  For the first time, it has a strong voice.  

I feel I've been kind of on fire in my writing lately.  I had a reading of my play Metadata the same weekend as Poet and Warrior.  Steppenwolf Theatre sent someone from their literary department to the reading.  So, that's exciting.  I assumed they weren't interested because it's been over a year since they requested it from me.

I've also decided to produce Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust.  I'd been thinking about it for awhile.  Then I learned that two people whose work I think is terrible got accepted into something that rejected me.  Well, I don't need no stinkin gatekeepers.  I don't need permission.  I'm just going to do it.  It will probably be in January.  

I got to meet Paula Vogel yesterday.  It was at Indecent at the Victory Gardens Theatre.  She spoke afterward and said not to wait for permission, to go ahead and produce yourself.  So that's what I have to do.  But this time, unlike with Leda, I'm going to hire a real PR firm.  I want to get reviews.

September 2018

I'd like to mention that I didn't create this website but now update it myself, and I find there's no consistency to the fonts, etc. The September headline above is supposedly the same font as the August one below, and it doesn't match, for no reason that I know of. Bolding it only made it mismatch even more.

Anyway.  For awhile I've been posting about my playwriting rather than novels, because I'd pretty much given up on novels.  I was resigning myself to the fact that my fiction isn't compelling enough to gain anyone's interest outside my circle of supportive friends.

But a few nights ago, I got a rejection that made me think harder about Disorder.  Once again, Wendy was characterized as an unreliable narrator, in this case, one of the reasons the agent rejected it.  I've always been a little irked at this, even though a lot of people love the idea of an unreliable narrator of a mystery.  I just never really felt she was that unreliable.

Another thing I've struggled with all along is when the story is supposed to take place.  I first had the idea for this novel in 1992, long before the ubiquity of Google, before cell phones, etc.  I didn't want to set it in the 90's, but then I had to explain why she has a land line, why she doesn't have a smart phone, why the Internet isn't a part of the story.

Lastly, my husband asked me years ago, "Who is telling this story?"  I couldn't really answer.  It was in third person, though of course I had the sense Wendy is telling us her story, years later.  But nothing about the voice reflected that.  Voice was the biggest problem of all.  It simply had no voice.

And now it has all hit me.  Because of my reflecting upon the last rejection, I have it figured out.  That the story should be in first person.  That she's telling us about it ten years later, and the action takes place around 2007.  That she has a strong point of view, now that she's older and wiser.  There are two voices in the story: the older and wiser Wendy and her young, awkward self that it all happened to.  It's almost a dialogue between them.  

A new opening immediately opened-up to me, and her voice is speaking to me clearly and firmly.  She is writing this now, she is telling me her story.  And I have a vision of the novel now, a more complete vision, a through-line.  After almost 20 years, I think this novel is finally going to work.  

August 2018

I've just finished reading all of Proust for the second time.  I set out to read it again in May of 2017 when I first had the idea for my play, Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust.  I wrote the play before I finished reading Proust again, which I'm glad of, because it would have been too cumbersome to try to depict the way Proust ended his book in my play.  

What strikes me about Proust in the end is his sense of his impending mortality and how he dealt with it.  Proust had an acute, lifelong case of asthma.  He claims to have gotten started on the book rather late in life, after wasting a lot of time.  He knew his days were numbered, and he feared that he would die before he could start, much less finish, his great work.

So what did he do?  Did he rush to crank out a quick, undeveloped book, just to get something down?

No. He wrote thousands of pages.  He wrote deliberately and laboriously, his paragraphs long and languid. 

He writes as if he has all the time in the world. 

I have been conscious of mortality, too, now that I'm 57, (older than Proust was when he died).  My response is to rush, to dash off a draft of this or that as quickly as possible.  In the past six months, I've written short drafts of 4 different undeveloped plays, from 16 to 40 pages long. 

There's much I need to learn from Proust, about rich language, about how high emotion leads to the most subtle behavior, about how to expand a single moment into a hundred pages.  Most of all, I need to learn that that is how you deal with mortality: not by increasing my speed, but by slowing down. 

It's about expanding Time, not contracting it.   

July 2018

The other night I had a reading of Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust.  It was at a lovely art studio and a dozen or so people came, mostly strangers to me.  Afterward, one person said, "This night will stay with me for a long time."  Jeff Broitman's wonderful performance, the beautiful evening and venue, made for what a friend called "a perfect evening of theater."  The next day, my husband, who is not a thoughtless cheerleader of my work, but a true critic, said, "You sometimes say you want to write something important.  I think this is it.  This is an important play."  

I can relax a little now, I can feel I have something for my legacy.  After years of making so little progress, it means so much. 

I haven't heard back from the agent about Kells, but as it took her 7 months to respond to my initial query, I won't be expecting anything soon.  

Although I wrote a version of my play Poet and Warrior that I almost like, it is still flawed.  So I'm back to working on it as a novel.  But to my surprise, I'm finding I have the same problem with the novel as I do with the play: too many short scenes.  The reader never gets to be immersed in a scene before they're jerked away into another.  I didn't realize that a novel can suffer from that as well as a play.  But I'm working on it.  I've been reading all of Proust for the second time, and I think at last he is starting to benefit my writing.  Many years ago, I read a book that I liked at the time (I no longer think so much of it) that had a huge impact on my writing style.  It encouraged me to write short, simple sentences, in the style of: subject-verb-object, subject-verb-object, over and over.  I have spent the last few years struggling to break out of that wretched stilted voice.  I think lately Proust is helping me to do that. 

I recently found out that a local theater is hosting a festival called Yippie Fest.  I jumped at the chance to participate, because the venue is the main cost of a production, and when a free venue is offered, you have to take it.  So I will be presenting a show of ten of my short plays, anywhere from one minute to ten minutes.  I'm calling the show "Lean Scenes." I have a cast and the rehearsals are scheduled.  When I was in college, I dreamt of having a production company called Mercury Wave, emulating Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre.  My husband Sam and I designed a logo for it years ago.  Now, after all these years, I'm using that name for our company putting on Lean Scenes.  I created a nice program in Word with the logo.  It's satisfying to be able to do these things.  I turned 57 last week, so seeing some things come to fruition at last means a lot.  I'll try to insert the logo here.

June 2018

I have mostly given up on novels, but recently I got a nice surprise.  Way back in October, I queried an agent for Disorder.  In May she wrote back to reject it.  But she said she looked at my website and saw my novel Kells mentioned here.  She's interested enough in Kells that she asked for the first five chapters and synopsis.  I'm not really expecting her to accept it.  She said the writing in Disorder "didn't captivate" her.  I don't think the writing in Kells is any better, so I'm not expecting her to like it any better.  But it was nice she was interested.  I think it all depends on whether I made the protagonist interesting enough.  With Disorder, I have found most people, except my friends, aren't interested in the protagonist.  This has long puzzled me.  My friends are quite intrigued by her, but writing professionals are not.  

I continue to focus on plays.  I recently finished the second draft of my newest play, They Are Distant.  This is a play that when I was starting it, my heart was just exploding, I was so excited about it.  It got a reading last week at Chicago Dramatists' First Draft series.  I got great feedback with ideas to improve it.  I plan to submit it to important theaters this summer.

April 2018

Yesterday I had a table reading of my play Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust.  It is a monologue, 25 double-spaced pages.  I expected it to take about 35 minutes.  The actor read a little slowly, and it actually took an hour and 25 minutes.  Even if he tightened his pace, it would take a good hour.  I'm very happy about that, as it means I don't have to figure out how to develop it further to make it longer, to get it full-length.  It's full-length already.  Discussing it at the reading, it seemed it needed very little work.  One sentence needed a little change, a nod to something from the beginning needed to be made at the end, and I needed to put in a brief passage about the Dreyfus Affair.  I finished it this morning.

This monologue is a big breakthrough for me.  It is head and shoulders above much of my previous work, particularly my novels.  As it is a monologue, it is a work of prose.  What I was able to achieve with this work is a voice.  Voice has always been my problem, the reason I can't sell my novels.  In this work, Charlie Johnson has a distinct and theatrical voice.  I've never written something where someone's voice was so clear in my head.  So I'm very happy to have made such a breakthrough.

I've now written 10 full-length plays.  I'm taking a break at the moment, doing some reading to research my next project, and trying to keep up with submissions.  I need a breakthrough in terms of production.  It's too late for this year, as theaters have already decided on their seasons for 2018-2019.  I'm hopeful the 2019-2020 season will be a breakout time for me.  It makes sense that you need to have written a body of work to get to that point.  I'm proud of all my work, but lately my writing has been going to the next level.  For awhile, mortality has been breathing down my neck.  Would I die before I've written something great, something that achieves, I don't know, something lasting?  I think I can relax a little now, I think I've gotten there. 

I also had a very encouraging realization over the weekend.  While I certainly get a lot of rejections, nearly every play I've submitted has gotten something, either a reading or a semifinalist status.  There is only one exception, a play I haven't submitted since the one contest I wrote it for. Except for that, nothing I've written has been absolutely rejected.  That is a good record, and shows I'm on the right path.   

March 2018

A new feeling has come over me lately, something that has been evolving over the past year, and has emerged over the past few weeks.  

In an earlier blog post, I paraphrased a George Saunders quote, to the effect that to become who you are, you have to be willing to fail at who you are not.  I felt that I had to accept that I was a failed novelist, and I felt that with some sadness.  But now several things occur to me.

I had always felt so undisciplined about my writing.  They say you have to have discipline and write when you don't feel like it, and I would have advised someone (such as my mother, who died with two unfinished novels left behind) that you get over the hump and then it's not so difficult.

But for the sixteen years I worked on Disorder and Kells, and a third novel I also wrote and never mention, I never got over that hump.  It was always a chore to sit down and work on those novels. --Because I am not naturally a novelist, and not very good at prose.  It's hard to enjoy working at something you aren't good at.

And what I realize now is, I was never undisciplined--  I made myself write three novels!  Despite not enjoying it at all.

Now I understand.  Writing plays is something I never have to force myself to do.  I take pleasure in it, and I'm good at it.  I was writing in the wrong medium.  I'm not a failed novelist.  I'm a playwright.   

I never felt comfortable calling myself a writer.  I struggled with that all my life, even as a teen-ager.  I didn't want to be a poser.  And it wasn't that I felt being a Writer with a capital W was some magical thing.  I only write because I can't stop coming up with ideas for stories.  I have more ideas for stories than I'll probably live long enough to write.  I want these stories out there, in the world.  I don't always care if I'm even the one who tells them.  

This new feeling is one of true satisfaction and a feeling of being a professional for the first time.   

It started to grow when we redesigned the study and I had a bright, lovely space to work in.  The new study makes me feel more professional than ever.  

And it culminated with the writing I did over the past two weeks, Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust, and then finishing Poet and Warrior (the Yeats/Maud Gonne play), which I began in 1982.  Finishing a play after 36 years is an accomplishment.  

I've only made about 150 dollars from writing plays.  But I'm a professional for other reasons.  I'm a professional because I have a body of work, and people have seen it at readings, and I join classes and writing groups, and I give and take feedback.  

My career path is still very slow.  I continue to get a lot of rejections.  But I think my progress indicates I'm doing the right thing.  I began playwriting classes in 2010.  I got into my first reading in 2011, and have had at least one reading a year since 2013.  I've been semifinalist for three prestigious things: the O'Neill, Seven Devils, and the Princess Grace Award.

I know I'm finally doing the right things.  I wish I had gotten to this point a decade ago.  But I think I will get there.  

March 2018

I'm veering off the subject of my novels to mention plays and some rejections I've recently gotten.  The really disappointing one was from a fellowship at Chicago Dramatists.  I expected to get it, and I was somewhat crushed.  It's hard not to think age discrimination entered into the decision.  My resume and the stage where I am in my budding career seemed like a perfect fit for the fellowship. I talked about my age in the application, defining my cohort as a "late-blooming generation," saying those of us who were children during Viet Nam took a long time to find our voices.  Guess it didn't help. 

This past year Steppenwolf Theatre requested to read one of my plays. I couldn't expect them to produce it; I hoped of course but didn't have the expectation. They've just announced their next season.  I thought I might get a personal rejection, but I guess the season announcement is the rejection.  It was very exciting they'd even request my play, and another reason I thought I was a shoe-in for the fellowship.

On March 1, I wrote a new play, a monologue called Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust.  I was hoping it would be a full-length play, but it came to about 35 or 40 minutes.  It is the best thing I've written.  As I was writing it, it felt like the culmination of my ten years of writing plays.  Since it's a monologue, it works as a short story, too, so I submitted it to a story contest.  I'll have the result in July.

In my last post I said I was trying to write my Yeats/Maud Gonne story as a novel, because I could never make it work as a stage play.  But this week, I wrote a new draft of the play that kind of, sort of works.  It is not perfect, the main problem being a lot of short scenes.  For the first time, though, I feel like I got the play to work.  Usually a lot of short scenes makes a play feel like a screenplay.  Sometimes it can work; for example, my play Leda is all a lot of short scenes, but it flowed smoothly because there were no set or costume changes between the scenes.  I have seen at least one historical play where it felt like the cast spent more time changing the set between scenes than they did acting. So that can really be a deadly decision.  I'd love to be able to talk to a director about how my Yeats play could be staged in order to avoid that.  Anyway, at this point I don't know if I'll write it as a novel.   

February 2018

It might be foolish, but I'm embarking on a new novel.  At this point, I feel my talent as a fiction writer is limited, and it might have been a waste of time to spend a decade and more writing Disorder and Kells.  My talent is in playwriting.  But I have a play that just doesn't work.  It's the story of William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne.  I have written about 35 drafts of this play, which has had two public readings and three or four table readings.  And no matter what I do, it doesn't work.  So I'm trying to write it as a novel.  I've written the first two chapters.  I don't think it's too bad, and it feels like the story matches my natural voice.  (I fought hard against my voice in writing Disorder.)  I'm going to continue this and see where it goes.  My goal is to enter it in the next Historical Novel Society contest, which isn't until two years from now.  So I have plenty of time.  

In December, my husband and I totally redid the study.  I have a big new white desk and a big whiteboard on the wall.  It's quite lovely and bright, and now the desk faces the window, where I frequently see Canada geese flying past as they circle around.  There's a corner of our building in my view, but next to that a view of trees that ring a cemetery and line the narrow North Branch of the Chicago River, more like a creek this far north.  Though the street going past is a busy one, we're far enough above it here on the fourth floor.  I'm so glad for this change and can't believe I could have been comfortable with the old study.  As I sit at the big white desk, I feel like I'm at John Lennon's white piano.  Well, I guess I have to aim for genius now...

January 2018

I had new headshots taken recently:

October 2017

Once in awhile, I still send a query for my novels, mostly Disorder rather than Kells, since it's rare for an agent to be interested in medieval historical novels.  For the most part, I've given up.  My hope is that perhaps if I become a successful playwright, someone will want to publish one of my novels.  It's too bad I didn't start writing plays a little earlier.  I was writing for about six years before I started playwriting.  

Rehearsals have just begun for my self-production of Leda.  I have never been involved in a rehearsal process for one of my plays, except for readings that get just a couple of rehearsals.  It is always quite interesting to watch a director and actors work.  I'm always surprised how much the director has to explain to the actors.  On the other hand, the director thinks of things I didn't think of myself.  I think the director and actors put a lot more thought into the play than the writer does. 

Perhaps the strangest thing is that when I watch my work, I don't feel like I wrote it.  I feel quite separate from it.  In this case, I wrote the play a long time ago, almost ten years.  Some things I don't remember very well writing.  I don't feel a lot of ownership of my work.  The play belongs to the director, the actor, the designers.  I'm glad if I inspired their creativity.  It isn't "my" play.   

I'm surprised at how "big" the performances are as we rehearse.  I'm an understated person who "doesn't like drama."  So it's weird to see people shout my lines, and literally jump on tables.  I'm a bit taken aback by it.  But I have to trust that this is theater, this is necessary.  I am used to the under-acting one usually has in a reading.

The costumes are also more elaborate than I expected.  I tend to under-do things and need to be pressed to do more.  Once, I was involved in a production by a friend of mine, which took place at an anniversary party and included a dinner for the audience.  He decorated the whole room.  I told him, "You decorated more for this than I did for my wedding."

September 2017

I spent this week reading the first novel written by a friend to give her a critique.  I sent her 32 pages of notes.  It was an interesting experience.  Even though I spent more or less 16 years writing Disorder, I didn’t really comprehend the work it takes to write a novel until I read her draft and saw all the work ahead of her.  I’ve heard Donna Tartt spent 10 years writing The Secret History.  It just takes a long time and a lot of effort.    

I also felt my friend had a lot of the same shortcomings in her writing that I do.  More and more I believe that writing fiction is a talent that you either have or you don’t.  My husband utterly rejects that idea.  He says it is a craft, something you work at.  But I feel like my style is embedded in my personality, like John Gardner said.

You have to convey the experience.  What happens is, you write a summary of the experience, and you think the summary is enough.  Going from a summary to experiencing the dream is a big leap.  And if you don’t have that natural talent, that leap is over a canyon.

I continue gradually to resign myself to the fact that my novels will not be published.  I did finish them.  Ray Bradbury said that you have to write a million bad words before you start to write well.  I’ve probably written half a million.  I’ve improved, I know that. But I don’t think I’ve ever made that leap.

In the meantime, my playwriting continues to be a source of more satisfaction.  An important theater has requested one of my plays to read, my self-production of "Leda" starts rehearsals this week, and the students in a class I'm currently taking seem to love my latest work in progress, "Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust."

July 2017

Yesterday I made a change to Disorder that I think at last addresses its main flaw. All along Wendy has been too weak and vulnerable for a reader’s sympathy. That was the comment I got over and over. One critic said, “We have to see her strengths in order to root for her.” So I finally came up with moments of strength for her in the opening chapter. We see her awkward and unsure, but also capable and strong, in driving a drunk, possibly drugged, woman home from a party. This is the kind of moment the book has needed. I think now I can feel finished with it. I feel I’ve done all I can.  Unfortunately I’ve pretty much run out of agents to query.

I’ve started to move ahead with producing my play in November. I had to get a new director, but I’m confident in her. I made some casting offers this morning.

Earlier this year, a theater in Minneapolis contacted me about putting on a full production of one of my plays. It would have been my first real production. I was over the moon, told everyone, and bought champagne. But then they lost their venue and cancelled it. That was disappointing.

June, 2017

A long time ago, the first line of Disorder was: “In the mirror, her face had lost her mother’s bones.” This was based on an experience I had, when a mild hallucination distorted my face after not sleeping for five or six nights straight. I kept this first line for years, in an opening chapter of Wendy visiting her mother at Christmas. The whole chapter eventually got cut.

But my husband Sam always liked it—he was the only one—because of the tension it raised. I have a new first chapter but now he has persuaded me to go back to that opening sentiment. Still, there was a problem with the sentence, the way “had,” though grammatically necessary, put so much distance between Wendy’s perception and the reader. Finally I wrote, “Where are my mother’s bones?” That is the new first line.

March, 2017

After the last rejection, I felt quite discouraged about my writing.  I read an interview with George Saunders, who said something like, “To be who you are, you have to be willing to fail at what you are not.”  I have been wondering for awhile if I should resign myself to being a failed novelist.

Before I got so discouraged, I impulsively signed up for a new critique of Disorder from a company called Word Mule, that promises they can breathe new life into an abandoned manuscript.  By the time of our meeting, I was ready to give up, especially when the reviewer emailed me some comments that were senseless to me.  I have always had meager descriptions in the book, but he said there was too much description.  He even used the word “florid,” something no sane person would say about my writing.  At first I cancelled our meeting, but then I went through with it.

He qualified his judgment by saying that the beginning of the novel is “valuable real estate,” and that by having too much description early on, I wasn’t letting the reader get into the characters.  I could have replied that the setting is like another character, but still, I could see his point.  

He also made clear for me the main comment I’d gotten from agents who said Wendy wasn’t “three-dimensional,” because she was only ill.  I’ve said before I felt that scenes of her otherwise were drained of suspense.  Besides which, she doesn’t actually become manic until halfway through the book.  What he explained was that we need to see her strengths.  If she doesn’t have any strengths, it’s hard to root for her.  I realized she was weak, weak all the time, and it gets hard to care about someone who is only weak.

So for the past few days I have been working on it again.  I do find it challenging not to continually depict Wendy as gawky and anxious.  Finding strengths for her is difficult.  But I understand now that that’s important. 

I’ve made a lot of progress, and I’ve also been trying to cut boring parts.  A friend of mine who read it last summer said the second half of the book was “gorgeous and scary.”  It’s mainly the first half that is a delicate balance of cutting, revising, finding my way.  It keeps coming out shorter, which is getting problematic, as it’s already around the minimal length for a novel, around 70,000 words.  I’ve felt for awhile that I’d like it to be 80,000, though of course that’s arbitrary.  (A novella goes up to 50,000, the very minimum of a published novel is 60,000, and novels are usually more like 100,000.)  

The young man who gave me the new critique was encouraging.  He said that if he were a publisher, he wouldn’t publish it as is, but he’d certainly accept it with the idea that I could fix it.  But I’ve found an agent won’t take it on those terms.  

I’ve been working on this story, off and on, for seventeen years now.  I’m still trying to make it work.  I still have a glimmer of hope that I can. 

February, 2017 

I waited quite awhile for a big agent in Canada to get back to me about Disorder.  I sent a few follow-up emails with no reply.  So I finally shamed her into replying by writing and saying I had let her have it exclusively for four months and would now move on to querying other agents again.  This got a reply, as doubtless she didn’t realize I was sitting on it while waiting.

She apologized and said she had started to read it several times, but just wasn’t pulled in.  She said I needed to make the main character “more impactful on the story.”

It is the old problem of a passive main character.

I have a very literary friend who read the latest version last summer.  He said the first half of the book was “flat,” but the second half was “gorgeous and scary.”  So I need to find a way to bring more energy into the first half of the book.  He said the writing seemed to reflect Wendy’s mood: her flat, grey world when non-manic, followed by her mania later.

I worry that agents are very busy and read a lot and don’t have the patience to let things simmer.  This agent represented a popular book I didn’t think so much of—very plot-driven with a lot of twists but cardboard characters whose only function was to serve the plot.  Certainly it was a page-turner.  Isn’t there room for stories that build more slowly?

I’ve never been sure of what to degree Disorder is a literary novel versus a thriller.  It straddles both, but that is not an impossible thing.  I think The Girl on the Train straddles both very well.

I’ve had some ideas today for adding more suspenseful things in the first half of the book.  It’s pretty hard to give up on it.  I’m not naturally a novelist and am better at writing plays, which I also enjoy more.  But I spent so many years on Disorder.  I have ideas for one or two other novels, but don’t want to add to my body of work with so much unsold.  I know many writers write three novels before they write one that sells.  But I still feel determined to make it work.

December 2016

Another agent requested Disorder. This time I didn’t tell people, so I don’t have to go back and tell everyone if she rejects it.

I’ve decided to self-produce a play next year. I’m going to write about the process on this blog, since I fear this blog isn’t that interesting. The play is called Leda, and it will be produced at a place called The Cornservatory next November. That’s not a typo; The Cornservatory is the home of Corn Productions. It’s a little black box theater that seats 45 people.

About the writing of Leda:

I had the idea for the premise in the late 1980’s: A slave in ancient Greece is impregnated by a soldier claiming to be Zeus in disguise, and her Master doesn’t want her to keep the baby. She says, but we can’t expose it, because the baby’s father is Zeus. My friend Sam at the time made a good suggestion that the Mayor would be excited by the possibility of Zeus’s baby being born in their town.

I didn’t start writing it until 20 years later. My now husband Sam had another good idea: the High Priest would be terrified of Hera’s wrath. That suggestion sparked getting to work on the play. I hired a writing coach in 2008 and wrote a first draft. In 2009 I staged a reading of a one act version. In 2010 I started studying at Chicago Dramatists and got a critique.

At some point later I made it two acts. I sat on it a long time then—because it has a pretty large cast, and most theaters won’t take plays with large casts.

In 2015 it was chosen for a reading in Ann Arbor. Other than that, I continued to sit on it because I wanted to enter it in a biennial contest for community theaters, and it had to be unproduced. I waited two years to enter this contest, but it was rejected this fall. I think it was rejected because in the first round they only read the first fifteen pages. I feel certain it would have won if they’d read the whole thing.

So, now I’m producing it. I’ve asked a director I know, Charlie, to direct it and she is reading it now. I’m supposed to sign the contract on the space next week. The space is 840 dollars a week and I’ll have it for three weeks—one for tech and two weeks of performances. I’m already running into an annoying problem: we have to strike the set on Fridays and Saturdays to make room for a late-night show. I’m going to talk to the manager about this. If it’s only a stand-up comedy show, I don’t see why we should have to strike the set. I’ve seen plenty of shows put on in the midst of someone else’s set.

Stay tuned.

September 2016

Recently I read through Disorder for the first time in awhile.  I felt it lacked suspense.  I made some changes, especially to the second half, to build more.  

I continue to think about what agents have said about making Wendy more three-dimensional and not only ill.  In The Girl on the Train, I don’t think anyone would say, “We need to see her more three-dimensional and not only an alcoholic.”  I think she feels more three-dimensional because she has longing.  She longs to have a great guy and especially to be a mother.  

I’ve tried to sharpen the focus on what Wendy longs for.  She longs to feel like an adult, and this is embodied in a desire to teach, something she had previously failed at.  

I’m happier with the book than I have been in the past.  

Meanwhile, finding an agent interested in historical fiction to pitch Kells to is almost impossible.

June 2016 

Although I did write a “meta” version of Disorder, I decided I don’t like it.  Recently my husband read the book for the first time since I overhauled it in 2012.  He gave me some good feedback—basically, it still needs work.  So, despite having almost given up on getting it published, I’m working on it again.  I would at least like to get it to a point where I feel mostly satisfied with it, for myself, which I haven’t been.  I think the book keeps improving.  Sometimes Sam feels the more I work on something, the more I spoil it, and also that I’m always cutting things he likes.  But right now it is improving.   

March 2016 

There was a time, a long time, when I felt I couldn’t really be happy until I sold one of my novels, or a screenplay, until I had some marker of success.  But now I accept that it’s unlikely I’ll ever sell one of my novels. 

But I am happy. 

In Kells, I accomplished what I set out to accomplish.  Disorder is a personal story (even more so since I added the “meta” material) and I don’t know if I even want to sell it now. 

I’m having some markers of success in playwriting.  I wrote my first play around 2008, and have been more earnest about plays since about 2010.  I think I’ve come far.  The other night I attended a talk with David Auburn, the author of Proof, at Chicago Dramatists.  A woman approached me afterward and asked if I had a reading in Ann Arbor last spring.  She was there, and she remembered me.  What a surprise. 

Yesterday I got an email that my latest play, The Last Sane Man, has been chosen for a workshop reading by the Spartan Theatre Company, a new company here.  I also got an email out of the blue inviting me to submit to a one minute play festival coming up.  I don’t know how they knew of me. 

I think I’ve made a lot of progress.  I think about pursuing an MFA, but I don’t know if I’d be much farther in my career if I had one.  In playwriting you have to be content with much smaller markers of success than in some other creative fields.  With movies, thousands, millions, of people might see your work.  In theater, you can have a reading where seven people show up, as I had in December.  In that case the satisfaction is in hearing the work aloud, read by professional actors.   Being in a rehearsal and seeing a director interact with the cast is another new and satisfying aspect to my career.  In February my last reading was attended by about thirty-five people.  You have to be content with small successes like that.  And I am. 

January, 2016

I had an idea for Disorder, but I don’t know if I want to do it. I thought of making it a book within a book, and writing some memoir material around it, the novel inside a memoir. I wrote to the agent who last rejected it and asked her opinion. She wrote back right away and said that if I could pull it off, it was a fantastic idea. But I don’t know if I really want to do it. I’d rather the novel could stand on its own.

Meanwhile, I’ve queried two agents for Kells, while a third query for it bounced.

In the new year I’m focusing more on plays, which I’m somewhat better at than novels.

December 2015

Today I finished the latest draft of Kells. For now I am calling it just Kells, after trying different variations for a title. I thought it was done in 2012, and I wrote to people feeling excited and tremulous to have finished it. But I think I knew then it wasn’t done, because I didn’t feel the sense of calm satisfaction I feel about it now. I feel that now I’ve written the book I set out to write in 2005, from the idea I first had in 2001. It probably isn’t a great book, but it’s a finished book.

I also accomplished my goal of keeping it under 500 pages. This was an arbitrary goal, but I wanted it to take less than a ream of paper. The previous manuscript was 565 pages and over 150,000 words, which is a bit risky. Some contests set 150,000 as a cut-off. Now it’s well under.

The title has been difficult because the Book of Kells wasn’t created in Kells, Ireland, and my book doesn’t take place there. It was created on the island of Iona in Scotland. It was brought to Kells later and possibly finished there. Since it’s famously known as the Book of Kells, I wanted to keep Kells in the title. It’s never referred to as the Book of Kells in the story, of course, so I wanted the reader to know that is specifically what it’s supposed to be.

I plan to start querying agents for it in January. As I search for ones to query, I’m not finding many who represent historical fiction who are seeking new authors. Guess we’ll see.

November, 2015

The agent rejected Disorder. She seemed to think I hadn’t changed it enough. This surprises me a little, because I felt I had changed it too much. She had wanted the main character more three-dimensional and not just mentally ill. In doing that I felt I had greatly diminished the thriller aspect. Her illness is the source is suspense. Scenes of her not ill felt drained of any suspense.

I’ve put it aside for now. I’m working on the historical novel Kells, which is practically finished. The last major change I made was to switch the opening section to first person. This has gotten a positive response from those who have read it. I plan to query agents for it starting in January.

Overall, though, I’m not that optimistic about getting a novel accepted by a traditional publisher. I still might self publish, but I don’t know. I don’t know how I would market my books.
I’d also like to start a nonfiction project, possibly as a podcast or blog. A lot of it is in my head and I’ve been doing research.

September 2015

Yesterday I completed the revision of Disorder and sent it off to the agent. I felt I’d done as much as I could, keenly aware of my shortcomings as a writer. I added new material to make the main character more 3-dimensional, but this material took it farther & farther away from being a thriller. From the very beginning, readers said it was more like a regular (possibly literary) novel that happened to have a murder in it. My husband has sometimes suggested I take the murder out entirely and just let it be about a bipolar woman.

June 2015

I got another rejection for Disorder while I was on a trip to Rome. The perils of joining the 21st Century.

While on the flight, I read the entirety of the novel The Girl on the Train. Someone had lent it to me because it sounded to her like it was similar to Disorder. The Girl on the Train is a fun book and a fast read. It definitely inspired some thinking about Disorder.

About three years ago, I read a successful “thriller” book that I thought was badly written. It just had a lazy writing style. It made me feel like I didn’t have to try that hard. I rewrote Disorder emphasizing suspense—like having each chapter end on something uncertain, a question one wants answered. I took that away from this poor novel, but nothing else. But The Girl on the Train inspires me to do better. It shows me I need more plot twists; I need to make my main character more active and my suspects more suspicious. It also shows me I give away who the murderer is a little too early. I see it’s okay to give it away before the end, but not too long before.

One thing I’ve long been worried about is that smart young New York agents won’t identify with an awkward bipolar young woman. I think that is still true. I’ve been told several times to show her before she was so ill, so we can see her normal. I understand that this rounds out the character, but I also think these savvy and tough young agents have a block about identifying with someone so intensely vulnerable. So I’ll continue to try to fill out her character.

I’ve had some new ideas this week to make the plot more complicated. At 65,000 words, the novel is quite short anyway. It needs more complications.

Yesterday I finished a draft of a play I’ve been struggling with for a long time, about William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne. I have a reading scheduled for August 11. So maybe now I’ll try to revise Disorder again. I wanted to think it was finished. But maybe one more draft will be the answer…? One of the agents who rejected it said that if I revised it, she would read it again. I shouldn’t waste that opportunity.

March 2015

The Chi Rho Page
Below is a reproduction of the Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek, and the text of the page is “Christ is born” in Latin. The Books of Kells has several pages with just a few words on it, elaborately done, to introduce the four Gospels and at a few dramatic places such as Christ’s arrest.

When they designed the Book of Kells, they had no rulers. They had an unmarked straight edge and a compass. They used the compass to find their way through the design and to create squares. To the right is a sketch I did of the lay-out, taken from a book about calligraphy, showing the guide lines that were probably used to lay out the page.

February 2015

Uses of Gesture

One problem I and many beginning writers have is that of putting in empty gestures. A tag after a line of dialogue followed by “he folded his arms,” “she sat up,” etc. I attended the AWP conference a few years ago, and there was a talk about gesture. But it was frustrating because the panelists said not to put in empty gestures, but they didn’t say what to do instead. Afterward I devised the following list of how to use gesture:

1. The gesture is a conscious act of the character towards a goal. An action sequence is a clear example. A smaller gesture, such as, she reached for the cup-- Because she wants the cup. The majority of gestures in a narrative should be towards a goal.
2. The gesture reveals something unconscious about the character. A nervous tic. A smile at sad news.
3. The gesture reveals how the character feels about the environment. She shivered-- because it was cold.
4. The gesture reveals how the character feels about another character. She shivered-- because he was cold.
5. The gesture reveals some physical attribute of the character. She squints to read because she's nearsighted.There should be a reason to make her nearsighted, a meaning, it should not be a random attribute. Note, too, that this gesture is still goal-directed. Her active goal is to read.

6. The gesture is seen from the point of view of another character, and the POV character feels some response toward the gesturing character. According to the AWP panel, this is difficult to do in an omniscient POV, and should be used with third person limited. The POV character watches someone light a cigarette. The POV character may be disgusted--it doesn't have to be overtly stated, but the description implies the disgust.

November, 2014

An agent asked for the full manuscript of my murder mystery, Disorder, about a mentally ill college student whose roommate goes missing and is found dead. 

While the agent was reading it, I spent some time working on my big historical novel about the Book of Kells. I was thinking I should try to be ready with my second novel if she takes on and sells Disorder.

I’ve been struggling for years with the main character of Kells, because I felt I didn't know his emotions. I felt so blocked about it, panicky that I just can’t know this character.  He is a scribe, an artist, and a ninth century monk.  How can I cross the centuries to know him?  I researched this story for six years and read fifty books.  But I didn't know my main character. 

I was writing from “the top down” as my husband says. Trying to inject him with a psychology from above the story.  

But this month it has finally opened up to me. I already have a plot for him. The only questions I have to answer are, how does he feel, how does he respond to the plot I've already created? Of course. He’s frustrated about the dispute about the cattle, he loves his sister and feels guilty leaving her, he’s lonely living where he doesn't belong and where no one understands him. All these emotions are obvious and clear, and I had left them out of the book. Now I know what direction to go in at last.

December, 2014

The agent rejected Disorder, though she included a good critique of it. She said I was imaginative and talented. But Wendy is not three-dimensional enough for us to root for her. I tell things about her without showing them.  We also don’t see what she was like before she was so ill and depressed.

My interpretation of the agent’s remarks has led to some disagreements. I think I need to inject some humor and make Wendy more funny and charming, to make her more sympathetic. No one agrees that this is what’s needed to make her more three-dimensional. Or, at least, this idea is only a small part of it.

One thing I do know is she has to be more active. She’s very passive.   

Fortunately, while the agent was reading it, another agent also requested it. She asked me to send it to her if the first agent rejected it. So I’m trying to revise it now, to send to this agent in January. 

Over the years, Disorder was rejected by about thirty agents before they started requesting the full manuscript. In 2012, I did a massive overhaul of the book from beginning to end, and that overhaul seems to have been the improvement it needed to spark interest. I've been working on the story since 2000.  I first had the idea for it in 1992.

Sometimes I get tired of these two novels I've been working on for ten-fourteen years.  I've written other things in between, so it has been off and on.  I knew Kells would take many years (I began it in 2004). But I didn't know Disorder, which is a fairly simple story, would take so long.  But each time I come back to it, it improves. Sometimes I think about putting the early drafts and the most recent on the website, to show you how much it has changed and gotten better.