Do you have a project you need to finish? Is it driving you nuts?

FinishedCropWouldn’t you feel great if you finally got it done?

Finishing School is a way to get things done when nothing else has worked.

It doesn’t matter what the thing is. Finishing isn’t about the mechanics of the task. It’s about the process, or method, of finishing. It’s very simple. It is easy to learn.

If you have tried scheduling, will power, time management, getting up earlier, taking off a day, enlisting the help of experts, doing copious research, asking your friends for help, starting over, and a million other things, and this one thing still isn’t done, then try Finishing School. Because obviously those other methods didn’t work.

And don’t give up! Come to Finishing School and let us help you get it done.

This method will work. If it doesn’t, just tell me and I’ll give you your money back. I’ll be glad to give you your money back because I’ll be learning something from you. It’ll be useful research-type information. Nobody has asked for their money back yet but eventually someone will, and when that happens I will congratulate them and thank them, because that will help us improve the method.

But for now, people come to finishing school and they finish whatever it is. And you can too.

What are you putting off? Is it a lifelong dream? Is it a project around the house? Does it involve the prospect of an unpleasant conversation? The risk of rejection or disappointment?

Whatever. The main thing is that it’s something that needs to be done and it’s not done so it’s bugging you. But you’re finally ready to do something about it.

Good for you.

sign up.

Or if you’re not quite sure, email me at cary@carytennis.com and tell me about your situation.

My reading is private–so why start reviewing novels?

Into my awareness a few weeks ago came this strange, unbidden thought: My reading is private. I don’t really want to talk with you about the books I love. I just want to love them in my own way. I mean, I like you and you’re interesting to me, but the reading I do is mine, all mine, and I don’t even all that much want to share it.

Is that bad of me?

The truth is full of paradox, of course. Because in practically the same breath I’m going to say: I’ve decided to start writing about books.

People expect you to want to talk about the books you’re reading. Why is that? Is it because books are supposed to be important? Is it because of a presumed duty, as a citizen, to sharpen your perceptions, to make sure you’re not misguided, or to share your insights with others for their enlightenment? That takes the fun out of it. Reading novels and poetry and short stories is one of the few pleasures left in which I do not incur an obligation. All I have to do is read. What a glorious pleasure! Why mess that up with a duty to discuss, analyze, explain a viewpoint and defend it? Aagh!

And yet. And yet I am interested in my own thoughts about why books do what they do, and how. And writing is a nice way to explore one’s own thoughts.

But here’s the real impetus behind my decision to start “reviewing” books. I want to be a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

It has to do with my longing to belong. I may not want to talk to you, but I want to belong to your club. So I was sitting in Java Beach writing my weekly Wednesday advice column this morning when, because I got on the mailing list for the NBCC at the AWP Conference (I can see the more I get involved, the more the acronyms are going to pile up), an email came from the National Book Critics Circle and I read it and suddenly I wanted to know who all these writers were that I had never heard of. I mean, I’ve heard of the ones that it’s obvious I’ve heard of and you’ve heard of them too, but the other ones I haven’t heard of and it made me curious and even a little excited. Of course, I’m used to massive disappointment, too, so it’s a guarded interest.

I’ve been on a kick lately, see, to find books I really like, and writers I can meet and talk to. Mostly it started when I read a San Francisco Magazine piece on Litquake and it was so disgustingly clubby and mutually congratulatory. This bothered me. But rather than simply make a face and take an attitude like a high schooler, I decided to embark on a project. I decided to be an adult and read all the novels by San Francisco Bay Area writers that I could stand, and be really, really honest about my own reactions, and see if I could find some that I really, really liked.

So far I’ve only found two novels. Well, three actually. To be honest. I read some interesting things but I only found three novels, lately, from the Bay Area, that I really could say I loved. Oh, and I found one short story collection that I really liked. Then I went up to the author of that short story collection after a reading and told him one story made me think of John Cheever and he said kind of dismissively—but also maybe self-protectively, as it’s a drag to hear the same old dumb first impression, when your work is much deeper and more complex than that—that he’d heard that before.

I’m still looking for more. I’m checking books out of the library all the time, whenever I hear of something I might like. I don’t like much. And I’m only going to write about novels and short story collections that I like. I mean really like. Like when I was a kid, when I read just because I liked it. I might mention books of poetry too but I don’t know if I can really write about poetry.

I guess writing only about books I like would make me not an official critic. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a critic. I’m not out to enforce my standards or influence the world’s taste and judgment. I just want to join the NBCC and get their magazine discounts.

I’m not really all that interested in having a dialog with you, either, about the books that I like. I say what I say and you read it in private and that’s that. That’s how it used to be. Your enthusiasms are probably different from mine, anyway. Mine are strange but also at times very quotidian. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy what I have to say about the books I like. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it so I can have three reviewer’s clips and then maybe they’ll let me into the National Book Critics Circle as a charter member sort of. And then I can get those magazine discounts.

Like I say, to tell the truth, I’m just one of those people who just wants to belong. I want to be in the club. You can be in the club with me. I’d like that. I just don’t want to have to explain and agree and disagree and all that. It’s like, the cool thing is, I’m not getting paid for this, so I can do it however I want! Isn’t that great! No more pretending!

Oh, and also I figure it’ll show book editors and agents that I know a little bit about how novels achieve their effects. Since I’m writing one myself, I ought to know. I think I kind of do.  I think I kind of know how to do it, I think. So I’ll enjoy talking about that.

Soon I’ll do my first one. I hope it’s not too hard, like a test, or an assignment in school. I don’t think it will be. I’m not trying to prove how smart I am or anything. I already know where I stand with that whole business.

Can I write and publish this book?

Dear Cary,

What a delight that you are continuing. Bravo!  The quality of the world dipped there for a moment, but now it is leveled up again, thank, goodness. I’ll be sure to do my part to spread the word so that everyone I know can enjoy your column.

On another note, I do want to ask you a few related questions about my writing. Some background: On a deep and sweet level, I am an artist–singing, composing, writing, playing. This artistry was supplanted seven years ago when I discovered the intense pleasure of teaching and facilitating personal growth during a five minute segment I was asked to teach in a personal growth class in which I was assisting. That kind of activism attracted me.

To be part of the solution, rather than a complainer, I wrote a roughly 400-page book six years ago by sitting down every morning, remembering my divine nature and writing what came of that. It was an incandescent journey, saving me while I was going through a total financial meltdown. (Real estate; says it all, doesn’t it?)

To my bafflement and distress, I was unable to pull the book together into one coherent entity. I had 57 short chapters and no single through-line, no simple overarching context.

I tried to cobble the chapters together, writing segues. But each attempt seemed to destroy what I had already written.

I hired an editor. After viewing the first chapter, I decided not to continue. She had no better luck than me; it seemed her efforts, as mine before, were extinguishing the light in a text conceived during, what felt like, illuminated moments. I decided to set the book aside.

Last Wednesday evening, a dear close friend, a horror writer, of all genres (!) suggested I frame the book as a collection of essays. This has sparked a little hope.

I am currently reading an exquisite book, When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, who is an artist, teacher and writer. This book seems a little outside of the usual and expected in every way. In how she circles back to a theme; that there is more than one; format changes; images of a bird in the margins that “flies” when you let the pages run through your fingers. The non-conformity is subtle but adds up to something unique and genuine, even pure, perhaps.

And here are my questions: If I let myself be encouraged and inspired by Ms. Tempest Williams’ example, being unknown and untried, do I have a candle in the wind’s chance of appealing to a publisher? Would it be tantamount to a pointless labor of love? Should I stick with the recommended approaches that have been suggested in How to Get Published workshops?

And secondly, from your perspective, is wanting to be widely read an “evil” I should shed, or is that a legitimate consideration? As an artist, I feel that the work is its own raison d’être. But as an activist, I don’t see the point in writing something my five closest friends will read.

I am so looking forward to your thoughts.

Blessings,

Writing from the Heart

Dear Writing from the Heart,

Of course you can write and publish a book. Whether you actually do it will depend on whether you are willing to put in the time and effort.

Right now you sound like you are not exactly sure if you want to do it badly enough to devote your life to it. It’s best to assess that possibility now, before undertaking what could be a long and painful journey. It doesn’t take just time and effort. It takes unexpected personal sacrifice. You say you do not want to write the book unless many people are going to read it, but you cannot force people to fall in love with your book and recommend it to their friends. All you can do is devote your life to writing it well and seeing that it is published, and then do everything you can to bring it to people’s attention.

Here are some of the difficulties you may encounter along the way.

You may have to guess, from a sentence or two from a professional editor, what actually has to be done in concrete terms to fix a problem in the manuscript, and then try several different approaches to the same problem — writing the same paragraph, or same chapter, over and over, not knowing when you might hit on the solution. Then, after doing that, you might find that the solution actually lies elsewhere. Such frustrations are common, and there is no clear way to eliminate them, because the material has its own secrets.  But if you are willing and able to endure such frustrations, then of course you can publish a book.

You may have to listen to and take advice from people you don’t like, people who seem arrogant and short-tempered and dismissive. The book business has such people, and their knowledge is valuable. If you can learn from them and not dismiss them, then of course you can write and publish a book.

You may need to acquire certain traits, skills, knowledge and sensibility. It might be necessary to spend a few years reading all the books you can find, thinking and taking notes and studying the inner workings of sentences. Yes, sentences. You might have to change in certain fundamental ways how you perceive units of meaning, how you structure your thought. This can be hard, especially after the university years. But if you can do that then of course you can publish a book.

You may discover what you are saying has already been said by geniuses, in clear, evocative, compelling language. How then will you persuade an editor or agent who has read most everything and is not easily amused that what you have written is relevant and important and moving and salable? How will you recast your insights to apply to specific people in our time? Will you be willing to take the time to solve this problem, coming up with flawed solution after flawed solution until you find one that is uniquely suited to your style and your time? If so, then of course you can publish a book.

Experts can point out the flaws in your manuscript, and people like me can cheer you on, but you will eventually meet your own shortcomings, your own darkness, and you will be alone with your insufficiency. Writing and publishing a book may require you to face a kind of spiritual desolation you had not counted on as part of the price. But if you are willing and able to go through those things, then of course you can publish a book.

If your life is such that distractions arise, or if disappointments set you back, or if you do not know how to continue writing after you have lost interest and do not feel inspired, or if you are not able to differentiate between when your sentences are clear and when they are muddied, or if you do not know what kinds of linguistic phenomena offend cultured and sophisticated readers, or how long the average attention span is, or how the brain works when it reads, or how to create tension on the page, then of course it may take longer than expected. But of course you can write and publish a book.

Writing talent is just part of what is required. Can you motivate yourself to learn difficult new skills; can you manage your own emotions over a long period of time; can you bounce back from rejection; can you creatively solve problems; can you find the money to hire professionals when needed?

The difficulties are not insurmountable. They are merely huge.

Assuming you have the resources, you could begin today. You could begin by finding a careful, experienced nonfiction book editor currently in the business who would read the book and tell you all the things you would have to do to make it marketable. You would have to commit to that process. If it was unpleasant hearing these remarks, then you would have to sift through the unpleasantness, seeking to know what was unpleasant because it challenged a false assumption you had, and what was unpleasant because it failed to address your true intent. Having worked through that, you could come up with a plan for how to address each perceived shortcoming in the manuscript.

Then you could hire a coach and/or editor to keep you on track and coach you along the way.

I suggest you spend the next few days or weeks on this one essential question: Is this something that I must do, that I am driven to do, for which I am willing to make any sort of sacrifice?

Links for Writers–Books, Blogs, Lists, Etc.

Here are some of the links I mentioned in the Santa Barbara Novel Mentor workshop in February 2013, about dialog, pitches, queries and beginnings of novels.

dialog

Writing Dialog by Tom Chiarella. I lent this book to somebody and have to get it back. It’s a good book. Useful. Interesting.

“Are we still doing the dishes?” This is the page I took that dialog exercise from that we did in the workshop together. I suspect that it’s something Mr. Butler might use on occasion, as it’s on the FSU site. I liked doing that. I liked the suppressed tension that many of our writings had. And then if you recall I thought, now let’s raise the stakes, and so suggested that we write a dialog between two characters, one of whom asks the other, “What do you want more than anything else in the world … and what are you not willing to do to get it?” That last bit, expressed in the negative, is hard to grasp at first but it’s basically saying, “Would you stop at nothing?”

12 Exercises for improving dialog by John Hewitt. Some of these are pretty good. You can’t go wrong trying things out. The more you do, the more you learn.

And how can you go wrong with dialog advice from Stephen J. Cannell, right?

pitches

Here is former agent Nathan Bransford on the one-sentence pitch.

This from writer Hilari Bell on writing a pitch I find useful because it takes us through several iterations of a hypothetical pitch.

Now, of course, this is all in addition to all the things that Michael Neff has to say and all the resources that are on the Algonkian site.

queries

I thought this query letter madlib idea from Nathan Bransford was funny. And it could be useful. As long as what you build on it sounds reasonably like it was written by a human.

openings

I love this long list of novel openings, as well as these 5 ways it can go wrong, both from DarcyPattison.com. Forgive me if I didn’t really know who Darcy Pattison was … I’m not your ideal student of contemporary fiction.

I guess it couldn’t hurt to read this list from the American Book Review of 100 best opening lines, but somehow it leave me flat. I think because there’s no analysis. We don’t really know if those are the best opening lines or they just happen to be the opening lines of some really great novels. Worth thinking about: Would they be in there if the novels that came after them sucked? For instance a couple of them might stop an agent cold. Like No. 65, “You better not never tell nobody but God,” from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Or Saul Bellow’s No. 69, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” If it wasn’t a famous and great novel by a famous and great novelist, would it get recommended as a great first line? I dunno. I’m just saying. Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964). And there are among them, of course, lines I like a whole lot, like: 67. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963) and 75. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929). And here is an appropriately doubting and irreverent take on those same 100 first lines.

OK, so that’s it for now. I just promised at the Santa Barbara conference that I’d get back to you on those links and stuff. You could look forever on the Web for such stuff. I’m not saying all of it is great. I also have some favorite books about writing. Maybe I’ll put some of that together too.

Best

Cary T.

 

 

 

Whatever Happened to Sara Jane … and Learning to like Michael Chabon

I do not remember exactly how I developed this huge attitude about Michael Chabon. I think it was the book Cavalier and Clay that sort of sealed it. We did not like the “innovative” language. But I have felt guilty about this for many reasons. Not only is Michael Chabon sort of local, and we should be nice to locals, but he is a brilliant writer in his way and also a father and husband and no doubt a nice man in many ways. Why is it that in matters of literary reputation we find it wholly acceptable to think and say awful things about people? It is not a desirable trait, I will say that; the desirable thing to do is to read carefully and judiciously and take note of where we differ with the writer on matters of style and preference and so forth. Yet, I suppose to those of us who take writing seriously, it is a matter of life and death and so we get all bent out of shape and conjure up these elaborate and childish peeves.

Also, it was sort of a secret perversity: How could anyone not love Michael Chabon? One sensed that it was a civic virtue to like Michael Chabon. So I wanted to come to some rational and reasonable opinion.

This is sort of the story of how that happened. That is, again today Muni took me to a library, this time somewhat by a perverse accident, and that is how I came to read the Michael Chabon story “A Model World.”

I also want to say — indeed started out this letter intending to say — that I took Muni to Powell Street today to go to the Exit Theater at 155 Eddy Street for Ady Abbot’s solo performance Whatever Happened to Sara Jane? today and it was really, really great. And that is what led me indirectly to read the Michael Chabon short story called “A Model World,” first published in The New Yorker in 1989.

If you live in SF and take Muni you will relate: After leaving the theater I found that an “equipment failure” had occurred in the Civic Center Muni station and the underground was not running. (Yes. You know.) So I took BART to 24th Street to catch the 48 Quintara out to West Portal Station where I had left the car. When i arrived at 24th Street, I found the 48 would not leave for 33 minutes. But voila! There is the Mission Branch Library so I did what I used to do all the time, which was go in and hang around among the books. And that is when it occurred to me that I have certain somewhat reflexive and not wholly rational prejudices against certain perfectly acceptable and even brilliant writers. So I browsed. I thought to myself, Let me see something Michael Chabon wrote when he was young and not such a brilliant big shot; I’ll bet I can learn to like his work if I read the early stuff, before it got fancy and full of aspiration toward something — and I don’t mean to be harsh here, I’m just guessing — perhaps only partially realizable. That was when I found the short story collection A Model World and took it home, along with also A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of T.C. Boyle stories Tooth and Claw and finally the Raymond Carver collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? since I realized I have been using Raymond Carver as a sort of marker and totem of a certain kind of voice and style without really any great passion or clarity lately, having not really read carefully any of his work, and thought, hey, I should get a taste of that if I’m going to talk about it. Tastes change. We come back to things and feel differently about them. Reading is a constant series of corrections.

So one interesting thing about “A Model World,” published in 1989, was the place that “the so-called greenhouse effect” plays in the story. It’s a moral tale, and it’s indeed riveting and entertaining but also offers a glimpse of mid-1980s academia, academic life and the state of computers and as well the state of climate science and the state of Michael Chabon, which seems, at that time, quite likable. Competent, warm, likable. So I will stop hating on Michael Chabon. I feel much better now, thank you.

But about Ady’s performance, which was great: This was the last day of the Fringe Festival so you will have to wait to see more of the Sara Jane thing (Sara Jane Moore, that is; it’s the story of her grandmother’s friendship with the woman who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975 — a few weeks after Squeaky Fromme’s attempt).

Well, so that is my letter today; I will stick to the five-day-a-week schedule except for the weekends, when I may write only once or now and then not at all. I figure that is doable.
Now I have some more books to read, and for my birthday, Karen is taking us to Dixie, the new Southern-style restaurant in the Presidio …

So much more to say, always, but that is enough for now.
Best
cary t.

p.s. In matters of literary taste, I am not a bold leader and discoverer. Although I am indeed quite a strange individual, and though my real tastes will be often outlandishly avant-garde, I wait until someone else expresses a taste, a like or dislike, and then I second it. I am a seconder.

But it is also true that I am one of those people who does not like anyone who has too much success or gets too much attention, and if someone wins the Nobel Prize I am sure to get on him for something. This also, I suspect, comes from being a middle child: You are taking food off my plate, sir, if you become too big in the world. We must share. I, too, want some of the limelight. Not all, like you are taking; just my share. (Yes, I know how absurd this is, I who have never published a novel or play or even short story in a big magazine. I live a “literary” life wholly divorced from observable truth. It is one of the small luxuries of having no literary success: You are free to imagine your status in any way you please.)

Anyway, I am hungry. I want to go to dinner.