Tuesday, December 25, 2012

This is how it happened.

Four years ago I received an e-mail. From an editor at HarperCollins.

Let's just say I wasn't planning a trip to NYC. That prince from Nigeria never panned out, and let's not talk about the deposit I lost for that 5 bedroom house in San Francisco that was renting for $99 a month on Craigslist.

So yeah. Right. Editor from HarperCollins. Sure you can read my book when it's finished.

Turns out, this was an editor from HarperCollins. And, after a bit of hyperventilating, I e-mailed her back. I played it cool, like you do. Told her I was close to being finished. That I was tying up the loose ends of a revision and, yes, I would be happy to have her read it. Cool. Smooth. As you do.

She wrote back and told me to take my time--that she wouldn't forget the offer. I made grand plans to do nothing but write. I imagined walking into restaurants and casually saying, "Yeah, I just sold my novel to HarperCollins." I e-mailed every writerly person I knew. I called my mother. I told my wife. I dreamed.

And then I re-upped on World of Warcraft and began rolling a warrior dwarf. I dinged 50 before I decided I should probably get back to that revision, which turned out to be a little stickier than I expected. I worked on this book--The Legendary Days of My 17th Year--for another six months, polishing, dreaming. And when it was ready, I e-mailed the editor back and told her I was going to find an agent. Then I went about the business of querying.

Two weeks later--I had an agent. A fine agent. Michael Bourret. Many a writer shed tears of frustration that day, my friends. Two weeks. A blip. Nobody gets an agent in two weeks. People un-friend you on Facebook for such things, but only after telling you how excited they are about your success--double exclamation point.

But I saw it as providence. Proof that this e-mail, this editor, knew what she was doing. I, obviously, was on my way. My agent and I were going to sell this book and I was going to be famous, or at least published. But I really didn't care--as long as I could go into Borders (sigh) and find a copy of my book on the shelf.

And then we revised the book. Twice. I took out an entire subplot that dealt with professional wrestlers and Guatemalan baggers at a local grocery store. Six months later, the book was ready to go out to editors. Polished, perfect--ready for prom. Twelve editors would read it. I expected success.

But that book had some boomerang in it, and it came flying back to us with all sorts of praise and regrets. This is good, they said. But we won't be publishing it. I was rattled. I admit it. But I had something most didn't--a connection. An e-mail. The editor from HarperCollins! She was probably standing before an acquisitions committee right then--My eyes! This! Prophetic! Yes, my prose had rendered her incapable of anything more than single word communication.

She e-mailed my agent. She passed.

But she wasn't alone. New York was not ready for Bryan Bliss. So I wrote a new book! It had everything you could want in a novel. Words! A plot! I even resurrected that Guatemalan bagger and gave him a starring role. Almost two years after I received the initial e-mail, I found myself in New York City for a writing conference. My agent sent me a text--the editor wanted to meet me. We'd sit down in the bar, have a drink, and chat.

Of course she asked me what I was working on and I told her it was brilliant. She said she was excited and I left New York certain that it would happen. I worked on the book for five months, rewriting it twice, and finally sent it to my agent.

I waited as he read it, sure he'd e-mail me soon and tell me I had Achieved Something Great. That this book would sell, possibly for enough to let us both retire. Sometimes I imagined him closing the final page and whispering, "...brilliant."

Instead he called me and said, "It's not really working." Nothing major, just the entire plot--all 400 pages of it. I started drinking heavily and tried to figure out a way to fix the problems.

And that's when it happened. I was in Los Angeles, having drinks with my agent (my life is, in fact, this fabulous) when I said, "So, I don't want to write this book anymore. I want to write a book about religion."

We'll fast-forward here. He liked the idea. I wrote the book and we revised it. As I wrote it, the editor--from HarperCollins--caught wind of what I was working on and seemed to be excited. She told me she wanted to read it. Specifically, she said she'd cut my agent if she didn't get to.

I respected this.

I finished the book, a process that left me both hopeful and terrified. This was an important book for me to write, the first time where I felt as if I had something to say. But I knew the reality. I had just written a sad book about religion and the last time I checked, that wasn't topping most editors wish lists. I told myself--my writer friends--that it didn't matter if this book found an editor. It was something I needed to write. I was better for it. I was lying to everyone. Because if this book didn't sell?

Well, I wasn't thinking about that.

So I waited--two, three, four weeks. And then I got a call from my agent and he said, "Well, we've got an offer."

Molly O'Neill read my book. She wanted to buy my book. I called my wife, my mom--my writerly friends. And I told them, "I just sold my book to HarperCollins."

Molly wrote that e-mail almost three years before, telling me she liked what she had read about Legendary Days. She sat and listened to my failed idea for a book--encouraging me. We became friends via Twitter, talking semi-regularly. Creating a rapport.

And then she bought my book.

I don't know. I thought that was pretty cool.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I'm not really back, but...

I haven't posted here in forever, mainly because all my blogging energies have gone to Boys Don't Read (where I blog every Wednesday with two other hilarious and talented YA writers.)

You should check it out:


I'm not saying it will change your life. But it might. Especially if your life is particularly sad.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

literary blog relay - transformation

Hey, I was a part of a literary blog relay. Here's the gist: 

One writer writes at 250 word post/story/fragment and then tags the next writer, etc., etc. We can write whatever we want, so long as our posts begin with the last line of the previous post and are linked to a central them; in this case, “Transformation.” Kind of like a track and field relay–except we’re writin’ it!

This, of course, is awesome and stressful and not the sort of thing I'm used to doing. And, of course, I got sick the week mine was supposed to post. But, even a day late, I gotta say that I'm pretty happy with what came out.

But yo - do yourself a favor. Go read all the posts. Every one of them is amazing. And then come back and read mine.

  1. Christine Lee Zilka czilka.wordpress.com
  2. Nova Ren Suma novaren.wordpress.com
  3. Wah-Ming Chang wmcisnowhere.wordpress.com
  4. Nina LaCour ninalacour.com/blog
  5. Stephanie Brown scififanatic.livejournal.com
  6. Jamey Hatley jameyhatley.wordpress.com
  7. Matthew Salesses matthewsalesses.com
  8. Krystn Lee blog.kryslee.com
  9. Bryan Bliss bryanbliss.blogspot.com

"My love,” she says. “You’ve changed.”
            It took me by surprise, of course, because, like most things, it happened slowly and we were never the type to acknowledge the cracks – even as they snuck across every part of our life.
            It would be a lie to say either of us expected it. But there were times when I was unable to shake the feeling that everything was backwards. It itched places I couldn’t articulate – a slow, tickling sense of disorientation. Like one of my contact lenses was the wrong prescription. And that just grew and grew.
But even now, I can’t explain it - the attraction had always been there, striking like a match the first time I saw her. God, there were days when we got lost. When we couldn’t wait for the bedroom. The floor, the kitchen, everywhere. Even the backseat of her car, too small for passengers and, most certainly, for the sort of things we tried.  
            Yet, when she smiles at me – just now, her hair falling across her face – I can’t say where it went wrong. I can’t say that she isn’t beautiful, isn't the same woman who made me stumble so many years back. The one who’d break into my apartment, who can still make me smile, even when I don’t want to. My love – first, truly, fully.
            It’s enough to hold my tongue. To pause before I finally say it. Before I agree and everything changes.
            She smiles again.
            “Your shirt. You were wearing the blue one before?”

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Happens Next.

I haven't looked at it since I finished. I haven't peeked at the first page, which I already know I love, or played the game where I scroll through the manuscript and stop on a random bit, hoping to find something that surprises me - evidence that I am not a hack. That I deserve the confidence so many people have in me. I haven't worried about the revision ahead, or how I know that the end doesn't match the middle and, maybe, the beginning. That I have a ton of work ahead of me.

Instead, I took the last few days and I let myself read some books I've kept in the wings. I've eaten good food and showed my kids how to properly get bodyslammed onto the couch. I've watched the fourth season of Breaking Bad, climbed a few crags, and made a trip to Portland, then Eugene.

But I admit: I'm scared and nervous. I'm worried my execution won't live up to the vision. I'm worried that Abigail's story won't be told in the way it deserves to be. I'm worried I'm going to be didactic, moralizing, or worse - sentimental.

Yet, where else is there to go? What else is there to do but open the document and begin the work? Not doing so seems to be the harder choice. Because there are moments when this story flirts with beauty. When it shows me the power of family and how people can remain connected and committed and loving even when everything is falling apart. It's about having faith, but also doubt, and how both are crucial to growing up - to finding what is really true.

So, tomorrow I start. Maybe even this afternoon. And despite the fear and anxiety, despite the frustration and pain, I can't wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Week

Today, I made the mistake of mentioning my (admittedly crazy) attempt to write 15 pages every day for the next week. Like most of what I say on Twitter, I expected this to get lost in the white noise of people's feeds.

Yeah, right.

First, my friend Lisa Schroeder did some math and pointed out that - if I wrote one page per 30 minutes (slower than my normal rate, of course) - this plan would require 7.5 hours of writing per day.

Then Steve Brezenoff retweeted it with a simple "Lol" that made me think, "Wait - is this really that crazy?"

And then there were various Fear of God quotes and remarks about Holy Production, Batman! and other sorts of comments that, really, I never expected.

It's actually pretty simple. I'm trying to recreate the first moments of my writing life. Years ago, in graduate school, I'd spend hours in my living room - writing until I could barely keep my eyes open. Loving every minute of it. It was nothing for me to write 20-30 pages a day then. Granted, most of it was shit. But still - I was writing.

Eight years later, I've got an agent, obe unsold novel, one that never went out, and I'm writing something that makes me look at all the time I've spent working, all the failure and disappointment and thoughts of quitting, and think, "Okay, this is the reason. This one is good." It makes me feel the way I felt in graduate school. Like the next sentence could take me someplace I never expected.

So 15 pages a day. Yes, it's excessive. And there's a good chance I won't reach my daily goal - kids, life, Netflix all seem to get in the way, right? But after I spent so much time - a year, a year - nitpicking my way to the end of a book that ultimately didn't work, I want to do something a bit daring. I want to do something that pushes me. Then, at the end of the week, failed or not, I will be closer - to the end, to knowing who these characters really are. To having a book I can send out into the world once again.

So 15 pages. Right or wrong, win or lose, stupid or not - there it is. And here's hoping that, when it's over, I'll have something that surprises me. Something that helps me catch a glimpse of what this story can be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I'm Vegan - I don't do Cheesy.

I like to write - and read - stuff that is emotional. Stories that reach down into my core and pull up something real. It can be sad, funny, tragic - it doesn't matter. I just love it when a book I'm reading makes me stop reading and say, "Well, damn."

Just a few: Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Looking for Alaska, Catch, Sweethearts, The Absolute Value of -1, How to Say Goodbye in Robot.

These killed me, in that good way - the way that makes you feel alive. And, largely, it's what I'm trying to do when I write: give the reader (and myself) something genuine. Something real. And for a long time, it was nearly impossible. I was afraid to put what I really thought down on paper. I was afraid of going there - wherever that might be. I was afraid of making people angry. Of hurting their feelings. I was afraid of making a certain kind of joke and I was even more afraid of not making a joke. Because being real - being me, for everybody to see - will probably always feel uncomfortable.

And now I'm writing a book that isn't very funny at all. Yes, it has it's moments - but mostly it's kind of a sad book about a brother and a sister. And as I re-read pages, as I start to tinker a little bit, I'm worried that it's gone beyond feeling and into a place nobody wants to find themselves. Cheesy. Melodramatic. Worthy of a Dashboard Confessional song. You know.

And then I remembered something from graduate school - an essay first. And then I found the book it was in, still sitting on my shelf. And I read it once again. It dealt with irony and writing and religion. And it ends this way:

But as for [David Foster Wallace's] notion of who the next literary rebels might be, I'm banking on his being right. The scandalous move right now is to have hope, to look out at the world in love in order to discover it anew in whatever way you can, in whatever form you can....risking all the while cheese, corn, schmaltz. The scandalous and radical move right now is to infuse our post-ironic age with hope, and with love, risking, as it always and ever should be, your own heart. - Bret Lott, The Best Spiritual Writing of 2002 

And maybe it is sentimental to write with such hope, even if the book is ultimately sad. But I like the idea of writing with a chance of being cheesy. I like the (possibly cheesy) idea of risking my heart in my work. Because, hopefully, the reward becomes the sort of book I love to read.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It Doesn't Have to be Good.

That's what I keep telling myself as I write the first draft of this new book. It's weird, because the first book - Legendary Days - was my epic, the thing I worked on for years. And the next one - untitled and shelved for the time being - was so intentional. Synopsis. Outline. Discussions with the agent. And to top it off, I edited each chapter as I went - if only to give myself a cleaner palette for the next round of revisions.

But this one - I've had to let go a little bit and write. It's like letting my kids play in the pool by themselves. I know they can swim. I know they've had lessons. But then I see the water rushing down the waterside. I see all the other kids - bigger, meaner, you know - and suddenly I need to be the only dad sitting in the 2 foot section of the pool.

And that's what it's like writing this book. It's flowing, more than anything I've written before. Like a pinched hose that finally became un-kinked. And I want to control it. I want to stop at the end of each chapter and tinker. I want to make it perfect.

But it can't be perfect - at least not yet. Because I don't know where these characters are going yet. And I don't know who they are, what - who - they love. I don't know what they're scared of, or the things they can't stand to lose. And with every page, it becomes clearer. A little bit of the story opens up to me every time I sit down and open Scrivener.

And so, as I get ready to write this morning, I tell myself again: It doesn't have to be good.