Is Your Character a Vegetarian?

Having, I assume, culled through historical documentation of all sorts, somebody in the world has kept tabs on All the President’s Menus. Isn’t it amazing all the seemingly mundane details we can know about the past?

While reading through the list, comparing my favorite foods to those of past presidents, and upon occasion making fun of their taste buds–squirrel soup, really Garfield? And dear President Harrison, bouillon is not by any definition a food. It’s salty water, for goodness sake–I realized by the end of the article that I had really gotten a flavor–pardon the pun–for each president’s personality.

President Carter, for example, is pure Southern through and through: “Ham with redeye gravy, baked grits, cornbread, pork chops with cornbread stuffing, fried apples, red beans and rice, ham and cheese sandwiches, spicy spare ribs, collard greens, kale, okra, zucchini, butter beans, fried corn, and (of course) peanuts.”

President Lincoln, on the other hand, was a man of simple tastes: “Apples, coffee, bacon, milk, johnnycakes, honey, and chicken. ‘Mary Lincoln set a table at the White House, which included such food as aspic of tongue, pâté de foie Gras, turkey stuffed with truffles, and all sorts of wild game, such as venison, pheasant, or canvasback duck. But all too often the President merely picked at his food.’—Francois Rysavy, A Treasury of White House Cooking”

Not only did their favorite foods give a taste of their personality, their regional and childhood heritage, but it also gave a flavor for their historic setting. I remember hearing stories of my grandmother in the 1940s and 50s searching through the backyard for fresh dandelions for dandelion green salad, a food Teddy Roosevelt apparently favored, but which modern taste buds would more than likely revolt against.

“You want me to eat weeds?!”

John Adams’ craving for Plymouth succotash and Hoover’s taste for Oregon black cherries similarly gives historical context clues to exposure to and relationships with other cultures and the growing expansion of the nation’s states.

I’m not saying that we should detail every meal that our characters eat–the way Eat, Pray, Love dwells upon every food experience–or even make our character’s taste buds incredibly unique in their choices. But we should know everything about our characters and this is another layer worth knowing. Also, I think it might be a great way to characterize them. If someone is a vegetarian, for example, because they love animals too much, this fact speaks worlds about their personality! Also think of all the really interesting scenes this could develop in your book. How would they handle a meat-heavy Thanksgiving menu, hosted by the future in-laws? Or if someone grew up on a farm and now lives in NYC but still insists on eating foods only grown local. A picky eater might have a really abrasive and/or uncompromising personality and refuse to try new restaurants, new experiences, new things. It’s amazing how the way someone eats fleshes out their personality and their background. I can’t believe I never thought how important food in fiction was before!

Just for fun, what do my favorite foods tell you about me?

salmon, pork fried rice, Thai curry, stuffed green peppers, lasagna, French onion soup, brownies, sweet potato (in all forms; fries, pancakes, baked), oatmeal, stuffed crab bisque, gnocchi, asparagus, cherries, pork roll, crispy bacon, blueberry pancakes, walnuts, chicken cacciatore, tea, dark chocolate

What are your own favorite foods? List them below and you might be amazed at the character sketch it provides!

(Images #1,#2)

The 6 Secrets Every Writer Needs to Know

Me, cheerful, despite the doomsday speech.

My May 2011 commencement address was so bad, so completely depressing rather than inspiring, that it’s the only Bloomsburg speech in the past three years that isn’t posted on YouTube.

Officially, Eduardo Ochoa, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, “discussed how Bloomsburg University has prepared students to be active and engaged participants in the global economy of the twenty-first century.”

In reality, the speech was about how, considering the economy, we would have to retrain for new career paths at least five times before retirement. Either because there weren’t enough jobs available for whatever major we were currently graduating with that day (are you getting the warm fuzzies yet?), or to get a better position, or simply because the industry we started out working in would go extinct. He talked about how we would be forced to professionally reinvent ourselves several times to stay employed; we’d have to go back to school, get master’s degrees in completely different topics, maybe even start at the bottom rung and intern in a completely different field. He talked about how our current degree would probably expire and be worthless in the next five years, but, at least, the skills we had learned in our time at Bloomsburg (this is the encouraging part) would help us as we reinvented ourselves over and over again, struggling to hold a job. The ability to learn, to ask questions, and to think–abilities we allegedly could never could have acquired without the university’s help–were the invaluable lessons Bloomsburg had gifted us.

Let’s just say that Neil Gaiman’s commencement address made me wish I had been a super-senior at the University of Pennsylvania this year instead.

For all you unemployed, underemployed, and menially employed liberal arts graduates–you English majors and Graphic Art majors; you Creative Writing, Painting, Sculpting, Music, and Interpretive Dance majors–here’s a little secret advice, from Neil Gaiman to you:

Ever since I listened to the speech a few days ago (and then re-listened a few times since then) I’ve been repeating the one part, about the mountain, over and over in my head. With each story I’m editing, each article I’m starting to write, each hour I spend on Twitter or watching reruns of Law and Order, I think “Does this take me towards or away from the mountain?”

I have two mountains in my life:

  1. Become a published author. Specifically, a published fiction author. Maybe a memoir too.
  2. Have the most awesome, friend-filled, adventure-filled, fun personal life possible.

In the arts, in writing, and,  in my opinion, in any career, if your only life goal is a professional one, you’re going to miss out on so much living. I’m starting to realize that I spend a lot of time–way too much of it–doing stuff that takes me on a steep hike in the complete opposite direction of my mountains. Mostly, I’ve got some really awesome opportunities on my plate, things that are practically a short cut to my mountains, but I’m prioritizing other things, thereby burying the good stuff at the bottom of the pile. I’m starting to carve those distracting activities out of my daily routine. And I’m suddenly having so much more fun and so much more time to create good art.

#1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate

Let me tell you a true story.
It’s a horror story.
A publishing horror story.
The following is not for the faint of heart.

I work at a social science press. We publish history, economic, sociology, psychology, and urban planning books (among others). On occasion, we publish memoirs but these books are usually the memoirs of significant leaders in the above-mentioned academic fields. We have our own website, clearly illustrating what we publish.

So it boggled my mind when I found out that some of the editors at my company receive query letters for fiction titles. Action adventure fiction, mystery thrillers, literary fiction. These aren’t poorly written query letters either; the writers’ have obviously spent a lot of time editing their manuscripts and researching the appropriate format of a catchy query letter. They just haven’t bothered to research their market at all. After all that work, the editors at my company barely give those query letters a glance before throwing them out; with them, they throw out an author’s misplaced dreams and hopes. (Don’t worry. The editors are kind enough to reply and explain that the manuscript just isn’t our thing).

Your book might be amazing. Your query letter might be phenomenal. But it’s not going to convince a publisher to change their business plan, alter their distribution method, and design a unique marketing method just for you and your special book if they simply do not publish/acquire that genre.

An adult fiction literary agent or publisher will not suddenly decide to publish a YA title (and if they do accept your submission, despite it being way outside their range of expertise, you should be concerned. How well can a literary agent, for example, shop your book if they’ve never represented a YA book before and never had the chance to cultivate those critical editor contacts?) A serious academic press will not change their tune and start publishing romance novels. Cookbook publishers are not going to be interested in publishing a collection of short stories.

So writers, do your homework. After all the hard work of writing and editing a book, then a query letter, and then building up the nerve to submit it all . . . don’t waste all that effort (and everyone’s time) by submitting it to a literary agent and/or editor if you both know it’s not going to be their cup of tea. Don’t do all that work and then sabotage yourself and send it to somebody who will, without a doubt, say no.

When querying literary agents . . .
Look at their website and see if your book would fit what they’re looking for. What do they tell you they like to represent? What do they tell you they will never–even if the world ended–represent. Respect their wishes.

When querying publishers . . .
Look at their website. First, make sure that they accept unagented submissions. If they require every submission to be agented, they will not make an exception for you. Your query letter won’t knock their socks off because they won’t even bother reading it before throwing it in the recycling.

If they do accept author submissions, then check out what their mission statement or About page says they publish. Search for comp titles (books they’ve published that are similar to yours). Do they publish books for the same audience (ex: adult vs. children)? Do they often publish the genre your book is (ex: romance, thriller, literary, fiction, memoir)? Are the comp titles recent publications or from decades ago? (This might reflect that they’re moving in a different direction and don’t acquire those types of books anymore.)

So the #1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate?
Submit to somebody who’s going to want your book. You can’t guess ahead of time who will definitely accept it–if you did, writers would never get rejection letters–but research enough to know who would never ever in a million years consider representing/publishing your manuscript.

(Image, No Copyright)

Writing is Like Digging for Diamonds

I was once told that writing is like excavating diamonds. Raw diamonds are naturally stuck in big chunks of worthless rock that is in turn buried deep in the mud. Stories, similar to diamonds, have an essentially perfect, natural form and the writer’s job is to chip away all the rock and crud until the pure diamond is exposed.

I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time and I like it, in theory. It makes the purpose of editing rather clear: all the superfluous descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that add no real value to your writing is the worthless crud you need to scrape off the diamond. Story therefore already exists, lurking beneath the surface, perfectly formed. It’s just waiting for the right person with the right excavation tools and skill set. This doesn’t mean that everyone can succeed if they start digging. Even if the diamond already exists, the writer could leave too much “in the rough,” or could possibly dig up only a portion of the story, thereby reducing its ultimate value. A one-caret diamond might be great, but not compared to the ten-caret diamond you might have just broke it off of.

I’m not sure if this is true for fiction writing, because when I write fiction the story is always evolving and I don’t think I ever end up writing–or excavating, as the metaphor would say–the original gem that I expected to dig up out of my imagination. But I do believe this metaphor is true when it comes to creative non-fiction, or memoir.

Like most writers, I normally go through drafts and drafts and more drafts when I’m writing a fiction story. But when I’m writing a piece of memoir, I have to stew on the moment, the specific memory or event that I want to write about. Because to me, it really only happened one way. There is only one way to tell it. And I have to wait for the correct sentences to float to the surface of my imagination:

  • Using a metal detector, I search over wide areas looking for the hidden treasure. I dig up a lot of worthless dirty pennies along the way.
  • Once I’ve located a diamond, it’s time for the careful process of chipping away the crud still clinging to it.

When I wrote my most recent memoir piece, “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father,” I only wrote it once. In fact, it was already completely written in my head before I wrote it down.

I used to drive 2.5 hours from university back home for occasional weekend visits and holidays. I like to drive late at night when it’s dark and nobody else is on the road to cause traffic congestion or stress. Free of distractions, the title popped into my head first. Then the first line, “Usually, the first question people ask is how long it’s going to take before you ‘get over it.'” Then the whole first paragraph and then the entire story gurgled up out of my subconscious, bursting with the desire to be written down in its pure unadulterated form before I dropped it back in the mud. For the rest of the ride, I repeated those sentences over and over to myself so I wouldn’t forget them. When I snuck into my mom’s house at 1 AM, I wrote the whole story down, as fast as I could, before falling asleep.

Honestly, I don’t think I altered more than a few words here and there, to avoid repetition, when I edited that story the next morning. To me, then, memoir is already written. It’s just a matter of mining out the perfect gem.

What do you think? Do you agree with the diamond-digging metaphor?

(Image, Creative Commons, The National Archives)

Dear Writers: Read This For Your Own Good

Making editorial assistants cry is the equivalent to killing kittens: (1) it’s soulless; (2) selfish; and if these adjectives don’t scare you off, at the very least it’s (3) frowned upon. So read about how to avoid this cardinal sin over at the INTERN’s blog. (Here’s a hint: be a smart submitter and savvy negotiator before you get giddy and legally-foolish over the opportunity of being a published author.)

Also, if you’re having a hard time figuring out which writing contests are legitimate, or if you’re consistently losing money in a never-ending pattern of failed contest submissions, consider asking these six questions before entering another writing contest.

In more light-hearted news, for your significant other’s own good–or a potential significant other approaching upon the horizon–have them read the “10 Reasons Not to Sleep with an Essayist.” It’s only right to give them fair warning.

Does Your Writing Reek Enough to Pass the Five Senses Test?

I’ve been reworking a short fiction story for the past two weeks and though I really liked the idea, and was growing increasingly fond of many of the sentences and some of the full-length scenes, I could tell the story wasn’t really popping off the page. If I were being honest with myself, I knew it was a little flat. I kept adding more and more description, attempting to make the settings and characters come alive through elaborate imagery. But depending so heavily upon sight was leading to some clunky, wordy, never-ending paragraphs. According to “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?,” by Jill McCabe Johnson over on the Brevity blog, my writing didn’t stink enough. The solution to limp prose? Make it stink to high heaven.

Literally.

Smell, according to Johnson, is a powerful writing tool:

Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores . . . Smell . . . has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know.

It’s such a simple thing, but upon reviewing several samples of my writing, I realized that I rarely include scents.

You might not realize it, but most of your favorite books snuck in some distinctive odors. Take Harry Potter, for example. The Amortentia potion wouldn’t mean much if, to Hermoine, it didn’t smell like “freshly mown grass and new parchment and–” something else associated with Ron. Maybe smell is the secret ingredient used by the great and the published?

And though this other fabulous blog post by Sammy, “Writing in Style, or Style in Writing,” over at Stet That returns to the sense of sight, it reminded me how important it is–and how non-verbally descriptive it can be of both the character and the situation–to shine a brief spotlight on their choice of wardrobe. As Sammy wisely puts it, “black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement.”

With both those suggestions in mind, I added the scent of burnt coffee and some cheap foam flip flops and–I know this might sound cliché–my story suddenly had new depth to it. Just by adding a detail about one of my character’s five senses, it led me to write more details about other senses, and even led to some more character motivation:

Original prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car to follow him into the building. In the waiting room, Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

New, invigorated, smelly, and well-dressed prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car. The heat of the summer-soft tar seeped through her foam flip-flops, burning her feet, and she scurried through the parking lot like she was escaping a runway of hot coals. The faint smell of burnt coffee greeted her, and the smell grew stronger when she walked into the waiting room. Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

I know that there was a lot more rewriting and development in the second example than the strict insertion of (some of) the five senses, but by integrating touch and smell, the details led to more details and really fleshed out the moment. Personally, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s developing.

Now your turn. Will your writing pass the “Does My Writing Stink?” Test?

Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose. [Click here to find out what your score means.]

Speaking more broadly about all the senses, I think having 3/5 senses (or include the sixth sense, if you prefer) per page is a solid win. In my opinion, though, 5/5 might be a sensory overload for the reader. I say this because, unless your character is a chef, you can’t have them tasting something every scene, your characters can’t constantly be groping things to describe their texture, and you don’t want to overdose on the odors. Do you agree or disagree? What’s the perfect balance?

What are some of your favorite sensory-satisfying scenes? And what do they score?

The Moral of the Story: What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Even though there was a rehearsal dinner, a wedding, a weekend spent upstate visiting my beloved roommate, Thanksgiving, and, at the very end, a very nasty head cold, I survived and WON NaNoWriMo this year!  Hurray!

I now have a very crappy, embarrassingly awful, but decently plotted 56,000+ word novel (I only wrote 50,000 words this month, but I had 6,000 words previously written for this story).

No Plot?  No Problem!, which I actually found to be quite good company throughout the month of literary abandon, recommended that I celebrate with champagne.  Being that I looked (according to my mother) and felt a bit like death warmed over, I settled for some very delicious and throat-soothing chocolate ice cream instead.  And then I rewarded myself again and had some for breakfast this morning.

NaNoWriMo was quite the experience and I learned a lot about myself and my abilities as a writer.  I went to regional library write-ins and met some great people; some of whom have done NaNo before and actually self-published their previous manuscripts and were working on the sequels this month.  I feel successful and accomplished on one hand, and completely terrified about how much I might hate the whole book when I go to edit it in a few weeks on the other.  But nevertheless, even if I have to rewrite the whole book and realize that my writing skill itself hasn’t improved, I think I’m a better writer and now have better writing habits because of NaNo.

Most Important Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011:

  1. Writing out of order is perfectly acceptable.  I got really stuck half-way through Week Two because I was writing under the unconscious assumption that I needed to write each scene, as much as I dreaded it or could not think of what exactly happened next, as they occurred in chronological order.  So when one of the pep talks encouraged us to write out of order, it was completely liberating.  Being allowed to hop around my manuscript and dump a scene or one thousand words wherever the mood struck me was much more effective and fun.
  2. It’s not that hard to write a whole novel in a month.  Yes, I had to give up blogging, tweeting (for the most part), exercising (which was not ideal considering the fact that it was Thanksgiving), and generally reduce the amount of television I watched.  But I was shocked by how much extra time I had after finishing my daily quota.  I had plenty of time to bake, see my family, read (though, admittedly, most of my reading was reduced to audiobooks during my never-ending commute and while waiting in doctors’ offices), and sleep.  Now that I know I can do it, pushing myself to write a book in two months seems completely reasonable.
  3. Accept that the first draft will be awful and write the whole crappy thing so that there’s a beginning, middle, and end before editing.  I normally do this with short stories, but with past book attempts I kept editing individual chapters before moving onto writing the next chapter.  With my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I figured out that you don’t really know where the plot will end up going; with all the twists and turns, you’re going to have to end up rewriting and reorganizing the first chapters anyway—something that was originally a red herring is not critical, and needs to be fleshed out, for example—so don’t waste your time or use those first three chapters as an excuse of why you haven’t written the rest of the book.\

How was everyone else’s November?  Did you do NaNoWriMo?  Did you write something less lengthy, less messy, but equally fabulous?  Did you get any awesome writing accepted for publication somewhere?