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Joseph E Bird

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novel writing

rejections from agents

If you’re an author trying to get published, rejection is part of the process. I have no problem with that. As part of my day job as an architect, we submit our qualifications for projects and are rejected 90% of the time. It’s not that we’re not qualified; most of the time it just means we’re not a good fit for that particular project. It’s the same with writing. And though I’m accustomed to rejection in general, I’d like to see a little more success with my writing.

Authors seeking to be published by a traditional publisher generally seek agent representation first. Thus, agents are the first to offer rejection. Here’s a typical rejection letter (email) from an agent.

Dear Mr. Bird:

Thank you for your recent submission.  We enjoyed reviewing your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel we have a good place for you on our client list. We wish you all the best success in the future.

Just a form letter. No real feedback. Nothing to tell you if your writing is truly bad or if it’s just a wrong fit for that particular agent. And this judgement is based typically on no more than the first 50 pages of your novel, and more often, the first 10 pages. I can also imagine than an agent can make the assessment after the first few paragraphs.

Here’s another I recieved.

Dear Mr. Bird,

Thank you very much for your query below.   I liked the premise of this story, but I am sorry to say that I did not connect with the writing in the way I had hoped.  For this reason, and with regret, I cannot offer you representation.  However, I wish you every success and hope you will find the perfect home for this material. 

Hey! Positive feedback. This was for Heather Girl and apparently she liked the premise of my story! So that tells my I’m not completely off base with the overall story idea. This is good. Great, actually. Now the bad news.

I did not connect with the writing.

In other words, my writing sucks.

This is what authors tend to do. One minute you’re receiving the Pulitzer, the next your pages are not worth lining the bottom of a bird cage. We’re an insecure bunch. Reality is somewhere in the middle.

After a few days of self-loathing, I decided to try to figure out why the agent might not have connected with my writing. Working under the assumption that she started at the beginning, that’s where I start. And one of the first rules of novel writing is to have a good opening hook. So I spent a few days trying to craft a hook. That was more or less a useless excercise.

Did the agent really not connect with my writing because I didn’t have a clever hook? I doubt it. It’s more than that.

What did I do?

I scrapped the first three chapters altogether. I’ve moved one of my favorite scenes to the beginning of the book. I think it’s more engaging and my hope is that readers will be caught up in the story right from the beginning and be completely unconcerned about the words I use to tell the story. It’s the story, after all, stupid. That stupid is for me.

Yes, it’s taken a lot of work to rearrange the pieces and I’ve lost some of my favorite passages in those first three chapters, but wasn’t it William Faulkner who advised authors to “kill your darlings”?

I’m almost ready to begin another round of agent submittals. We’ll see if any of this has helped.

lonely for a while

Mercy sakes. That woman scares me. She sure don’t smile much.  Not that she should be smiling at her brother’s funeral, but she can hardly muster even a polite smile.

She got a little bit of her daddy in her. At least what I seen of him when I first got locked up at Estelle. He was always kind of quiet and respectful, but George had a side to him, mainly if the guards tried to give him any grief. They was bought and paid for and he let them know. Sometimes with just a look. I can see that in her.

Didn’t even know he had a daughter. It’s a curious thing he never mentioned her to me. Course, looking back, I can see that he only talked about his boy cause he came to visit now and then. But she was her daddy’s girl. I can see that, in spite of how she feels about him now.  Reckon I can understand her feelings.

There’s a little something that’s not quite right. She’s ailing in some way. I can see it in her eyes. And she’s a little twitchy. But that ain’t the worst of it.

She got that dark speck growing in her. It’s the way she talked to me. I’m a aggravation to her. She’s bitter at George and I’m part of that. Fair enough. But I can tell she’s lonely, too. Been lonely for a while, if I’m guessing right. No man with her, not even at her brother’s funeral. That’ll put you in a bad way. Not that she couldn’t have a man if she wanted. Maybe she don’t want it. Maybe she had enough of men. Bad husband, maybe. Bad father. Don’t know much about the brother, but I’m guessing there was something there, too.

It ain’t too late, though. Maybe she’ll soften on George. Maybe soften on life a little. I can tell she was a looker in her day. Still got enough to attract a man.  The right kind of man. I been without for a long time now and I know that cloud of lonely. But that woman’s not for me. She scares me. I need a woman that can give me some gentleness. A woman that I can sit with on a porch swing and listen to the crickets. A woman that can take hold of today, live in the moment and not be ate up with the past or fretting about the future.

That Heather, I’ll pray for her. Pray that she finds some relief from her demons. Maybe she can forgive old George. Maybe she can find her smile again.


from the novel Heather Girl
Darnell, also known as Booger, has just met Heather

copyright 2020, joseph e bird

jim lehrer, novelist

You’ve no doubt read about the passing of Jim Lehrer, the PBS mainstay and presidential debate moderator. His day job was a journalist, but this, from the Robert D. McFadden writing for the New York Times, tells what Lehrer did in his spare time.

“Writing nights and weekends, on trains, planes and sometimes in the office. Mr. Lehrer churned out a novel almost every year for more than two decades: spy thrillers, political satires, murder mysteries and series featuring One-Eyed Mack, a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, and Charlie Henderson, a C.I.A. agent. ”

He also wrote four plays and three memoirs.

So, occasional writer, what do we learn from this?

i touched her hand

Heather dropped by today.

I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.

She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.

She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.

Tea?

Yeah.

That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.

I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.

Remember Westwood?

She smiles.

And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.

He’s staying with Owen, she says.

Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.

She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.

How’s Owen feel about that?

They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.

I decide not to argue with her.

The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.

Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come.  Good surprise, though.

The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.

Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.

I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

cuckoo’s nest for writers

Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.

There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.

If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.

Plot Summary:

Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.

The Beginning:

McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.

Point-of View:

The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.

Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.

The Protagonist:

McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.

The Antagonist:

Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.

The Ending:

I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.

Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?

If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.

Read and learn, fellow writers.

how to write a novel

If only it were so easy.

On page 83 of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing, I had a moment of realization.

In the years before World War II, young Billy Parham has trapped a wolf and is determined to take it back from where it came, the mountains of Mexico. How the wolf is trapped, how he frees it from the trap, how he manages to transport the wolf while on horseback, is in itself a captivating story. The details provided by McCarthy, the knowledge of the pre-war cowboy, the behavior of wild wolves, his knowledge of geography, his use of language is masterful.

And on page 83, I realized that he couldn’t have accomplished all of this in the first draft. Or the first major revision. As I marvel at his writing, I know, without the need for confirmation, that this part of the story required so much work. I can see a first draft getting down the basics. Then another layer of detail. And another. And another. I can see complete restructuring of scenes when something strikes McCarthy as unrealistic or implausible or maybe not the right tone.

So much work.

Yeah, it’s hard enough to get to 80,000 words. But if you think you’re done after the first draft, you fooling yourself. The first draft is not worth reading.

It will be better after your first round of revisions. But it will take more. Painful edits. Re-writing entire sections. Killing off beloved characters. New beginnings. New endings.

But the truth is, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. It’s true for anything you do.

Can you handle that?

Buck up, friends. Do the work. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Huntington’s Disease

It’s been described as having ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s simultaneously.  There is no cure and the disease is fatal.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, there are currently 30,000 symptomatic Americans.  That’s less than 0.01 percent of the population.  But if you or a loved-one has Huntington’s, that’s a meaningless statistic.

My family has no first-hand experience with Huntington’s.  The wife of a former associate pastor at our church was my introduction to the illness.  When they came to our church, she was in the middle-to-late stages of the disease.  She was still able to walk and engage in conversation, though it was sometimes difficult to understand what she was saying.  Her symptoms at the time included chorea – involuntary and unpredictable body movements that affected her upper body, arms, and face.  Over the course of a few short years, her symptoms worsened.  Soon she was unable to walk and required a wheelchair.  Then a nursing home.  After a year or so there, she passed away peacefully.

She was fortunate in that she had a husband who loved her unconditionally and was by her side until the end.  I don’t really know what his life was like as the primary caregiver, but I have no doubt that it was unimaginably challenging on so many levels.  He leaned on his faith, as did she, with the knowledge that though in this life she was broken, in the next she would be made whole.

In my novel Heather Girl, Heather Roth has Huntington’s Disease.  I didn’t start out to write a novel about someone with Huntington’s.  My intent was to tell the story of a young woman with challenges, one of which was how she was dealing with a serious health issue.  As the story unfolded, I learned that Heather’s mother had Huntington’s.  It’s hereditary.  If one of your parent’s had Huntington’s, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have it. As my story begins, Heather is becoming symptomatic.  And she knows where it leads.  There are other complications in her life and because her family is fractured, she doesn’t have the best support system.  She doesn’t always act reasonably and her decisions are not always the best.  But this story is fiction.

In real life, the effects of Huntington’s, like the disease itself, are varied.  Some, like the wife of our pastor, have love and support all the way.  For others, it’s a long, lonely journey.  If you know a family living with Huntington’s, you can be a friend.  Little things can help.  A Frosty from Wendy’s is always a treat and good for those with difficulty swallowing.  A bowl of soup for caregivers on a cold, winter’s day will mean more than you realize.  And a sympathetic ear is always appreciated.

Even if you have perfect health – and nobody I know has perfect health – life can be hard.  Be a friend, lend a hand, and help someone find hope in the compassion that we can all offer.

 

Kimo

In my novel Heather Girl, there is a photographer, Avery Graham, who specializes in capturing the true essence of a person through real-life, gritty portraits.

Meet Kimo Williams, an accomplished musician, photographer, and Vietnam vet.  We like to say everyone has a story to tell, but in the case of Kimo Williams, I’m sure it’s true.  Probably many stories to tell.

Though his background is different than Avery Graham’s, their photography work is similar.  (Yes, I know Avery Graham’s photographs exist only in my imagination, but they’re very vivid to me.)

Despite being part of a brutal and horrific war, Kimo Williams was able to find beauty in Vietnam.  It’s what drew him back many years after the war had ended.  His photographs of the people of Vietnam, from his original tour of duty and his return trips, are featured in an exhibit he calls Faces of Vietnam at his studio in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  There are lots of smiling people – kids and adults – but I’m drawn to those who aren’t smiling, those who seem to have something on their minds.  Like they know something.  Like they have a story to tell.

See for yourself.

Here’s the link to an article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Here’s the link to his website, KimoPics.

Writing Tip – Slow Down

At a recent gathering of the Shelton College Review, three colleagues happened to be writing the pivotal scenes in their novels at the same time.  When submitted to the Review for critique, each scene fell short of the author’s desired emotional affect.

In each case, the advice was the same:  Take your time.  Let the scene develop.  Give the reader the nuances of what’s happening, both in the external environment, but more importantly, in what the characters are thinking and feeling.  The subsequent revisions proved the advice correct.

As the author, you’ve been building up to this moment for the entire book.  You feel it before you even write the scene. The temptation is to get right to the pivotal moment.  But the reader is probably not quite there yet and probably needs a little more time to catch up.  Slow down and embellish.  Let the reader steep in the moment and soak in the importance of what’s happening.  If you do, you’ll have a stronger emotional connection.

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