Monday, November 24, 2008

Let Us Give Thanks

What do you get when you cross turkey, cigars, shell shock, and needles? My childhood Thanksgiving tradition, of course. For almost 20 years, my family eschewed the hyper-American ritual of dressing in Cosby-esque sweaters, gathering with extended kin, and gorging on roast beast and stuffing while the grunts and groans on the gridiron bellowed from the TV. Instead, we created our own tradition (or, more accurately, my parents did – I was too young to really have a say in such matters). Around 1984, my family and four other families decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together. The adults were a who’s who of our small town—educators and PTA presidents and business owners and lawyers and, importantly, a pharmacist, a doctor, and a nurse. That first year, sometime after dinner, when once-full wine bottles had turned into candle holders, the pharmacist, the doctor, and the nurse harangued the lone pregnant woman into taking them for a drive. They returned with more wine and . . . flu shots. The doctor and the pharmacist conversed about proper dosage, and the nurse administered a shot to each of us. Mind you, this was before flu shots were all the rage—before your local supermarket used flu shot clinics as an enticement. While we were still rubbing our shoulders, cigars appeared, courtesy of the lawyer. Those of us who had been at the kiddie table snuck outside with the adults and tried to blend into the darkness so the adults wouldn’t shoo us away. Under a haze of smoke, I heard my first Vietnam stories. My dad and the lawyer had both served during the war, but I’d never heard it mentioned at home. They joked and they laughed, but their vocal cords were strung tight. I didn’t realize until years later that my dad couldn’t talk about it with anyone but a fellow veteran—we just wouldn’t understand.

For the next two decades, each of the five families (sounds like the Godfather, doesn’t it) traded hosting duties. Sometimes one family couldn’t make it, but the tradition continued, nonetheless. Boyfriends and girlfriends came and went, some of us moved to the adult table, and I introduced first my husband, and then a third generation, to the mix. Still, the important things remained constant—turkey, cigars, Vietnam stories, and flu shots (administered in the later years by the second generation of doctors, while the second generation of lawyers nervously looked on). We haven’t had one of those Thanksgivings for 5 years. My parents divorced, most of the kids live out of the area, cigars are bad for you, and experts recommend getting the flu shot in October. But that’s okay – my husband and I have new traditions involving nephews, Santa pictures, board games, Rock Band, good red wine, and homemade bread. It’s a more standard way to celebrate the holiday, but it’s still lovely, and no one comes at me with a syringe.

Not so standard is “Jayne Lynne’s” Thanksgiving tradition. Oh yes, even though she’s only our pen name, she has her own Thanksgiving tradition. For four years, Kris and I, in Jayne Lynne’s name, have done the same thing every Thanksgiving . . . scrambled to get queries and manuscripts to the post office. The very first year of The Pecking Order, when Liza Dawson showed interest, we made ourselves sick putting the manuscript together late at night after working 16-hour days at the Firm. It was imperative that she received it before Thanksgiving, in case her tradition involved reading manuscripts by a crackling fire in Aspen. The next few years, we found ourselves somehow sending out more queries or responding to manuscript requests just before Thanksgiving. Nothing like giving yourself more to do before hosting dozens of people in your home. Last year, we reworked the manuscript at an agent’s suggestion over Thanksgiving. This year, we thought we were ahead of the game. We sent out queries in October (around the same time I got my flu shot). But, like the Velveeta commentary accompanying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, some things never change. An agent responded this week, indicating she loved our voice, would like to read the manuscript, and might be interested in working with us on a revision. I think I now know what Jayne Lynne’s Thanksgiving tradition is all about – hope, faith, and keeping the dream alive. For the love of the Pilgrims, Hallelujah! And, whatever your tradition, blessings to you and yours.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Change Came to Rammelsbach Germany

I recently spent several hours huddled around the desk in our spare bedroom, shuffling letters to agents, excerpts from our book, and the book synopsis (a beast of a document warranting its own blog entry altogether) into various piles. I cross checked literary agent addresses and submission requirements before sliding the papers into envelopes and off into the world with a wink and a promise. Only, it wasn’t really a wink. It was more like a twitch. You see, this is the not the first time we’ve gone through this query process for the The Pecking Order. It is, however, the last.

And as I drove to the US post office on the military installation closest to our house here in Germany, I wondered if I should have stuck a note in the envelopes letting the agents know I had to clear armed military guards to reach them. Surely that would get The Pecking Order the attention I believe it deserves--an agent would see the military APO return address, read my note, and feel duty bound to read the manuscript. And The Pecking Order would be as good as on the shelves. I didn’t include such a note, of course. Unlike when we first started this process, when I'm not sure I was beyond including naked photographs of myself (and Laura, witting or unwitting) to get the book noticed, I couldn’t muster the energy to be inspired or hopeful. I don’t know if it was the dreary weather, the aforementioned armed military guards, or the fact that sometimes the pursuit of a dream is made up of doubts and cynicism and self-flagellation of the “who do you think you are and and why can’t you just do what you’re trained to do, go forth, and continue being a lawyer” variety. Whatever the reason, I unceremoniously tossed the envelopes into the mouth of the squat blue mailbox and then stopped by the store for dish towels and toilet paper.

The following morning I was in bed with the computer on my lap. If that conjures up a vision of sloth and indulgence, you’re spot on. (Here’s where I qualify and self-promote - I'm training for the Florence marathon, so I’m not generally slothy, just occasionally, especially on gray German mornings, and sometimes after a long evening with my friends Moet & Chandon, Tattinger, Mumm, I could go on and on . . .). It was post-election and I was scanning the headlines. (We have no television programming in Germany and so we skated through election season free of talking heads, hyperbolic campaign commercials, and punditry.) I came across's Yes We Can video. And, in that instant, with tears streaming down my face, I knew we could. I knew we could in that Oprah-live-only-your-best-life-be-always-in-relentless-pursuit-of-your-dream kind of way. No, it might not be The Pecking Order and, yes, we might ultimately have to bury Abby in the graveyard of unpublished fiction. But it will be something-a short story, a new novel. Whatever the case, I know we can.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

High-Class Problems

Boy, if we had a nickel for every time someone asked us, “how do you write together?” Well, let’s just say we could buy our way into the publishing world, like Ethan Hawke or Jewel. (Though there may be some sort of monetary penalty for using that terrible “nickel” cliché.) It’s a good question, though, and at some point we’ll sit down and write (together, of course) a long, truthful answer full of insight, war stories, and a-ha moments (I’m referring to epiphanies, of course, not the awesome Norwegian pop trio). For now, let me just generalize. We write well together because we’re wired the same way. We’re both pleasers. We both thrive on order and organization (some might say we’re obsessed with order and organization, and to those people I say, let’s make a color-coded list of the salient points in your argument and address them one by one). And we both have anxiety issues.

Truthfully, to say Kris and I have anxiety issues is like saying David Beckham is kind-of-okay-looking. We’re strung higher than a boy-band falsetto. It’s tempting to blame this facet of our personality on the years spent slaving away at a big law firm. And yes, the firm, with its deadlines, impossible billable-hour requirement, partner power plays, and litigation disasters (which, as Abby will tell you in The Pecking Order, “appear out of nowhere like Midwestern tornadoes”) can surely be blamed for at least one or two of my permanent frown lines. But there’s a chicken and egg dynamic at play, as well. I think we both can now admit (after years of collective therapy and a large dose of much-needed hindsight) that we were drawn to litigation in the first place partly because of our anxious nature. We understand stress. When we were working at the firm, we bathed in stress. Stress sustained us like a drug. And, like a drug, it affected the non-firm aspects of our life. The book was no exception.

When The Pecking Order was still in its infancy, all shiny and cuddly and new, unmarred by criticism and rejection, we created anxiety. We fabricated problems which, looking back now (battle-scarred and thick-skinned by four years of rewrites, critique, refusals, and stagnancy) can only be described as high-class. I wish-I-may-wish-I-might actually have such problems today. We worried about whether the firm would sue us when our book became a success, because the fictional characters somewhat resembled our bosses and colleagues. We rented a P.O. Box near the firm so we could check it together, because we worried if we used a home address one of us would have the pleasure of reading the inevitable acceptance letter before the other. Then we worried our co-workers thought we were having a lesbian love affair because we snuck off in secret to check the box every day. When two agents showed interest at the same time, we obsessed over what to do if and when both wanted to represent us. We stayed up until 4:00 a.m. for an entire week after work, because we convinced ourselves all was lost if Liza Dawson didn’t have the manuscript on her desk before Thanksgiving. Because, you know, obviously she was going to read it on her private jet to the Bahamas or wherever fancy agents go during the holidays. We answered our phones at all hours of the day and night, during dinner, and at the movie theatre, just in case an agent had to reach us right then! We stressed about whether to take our children on the book tour with us, and what to wear on The Today Show. We fretted over the sex scenes, concerned about the impact on our mothers when the book hit the shelves.

Seriously. Sounds crazy, but at the time, these issues seemed so important, so real. The book consumed our thoughts, and created strong, sometimes irrational emotions - like a new love affair. The idea of the book was exciting, but it wasn’t grounded in reality. Now, we’ve eased into a comfortable kind of anxiety – a long-term relationship with real problems, like Liza Dawson's phantom e-mail, and the teeny-tiny little fact that we still don’t have an agent. But even these problems no longer nibble away at our stomach linings. The book stands on its own, we’re proud of it, and we’re working to get it published. If the firm sues us, we’ll deal with it. If two agents want us, we should be so lucky. If an agent gets our voicemail, he or she will leave a message (though if it's Liza, that message will no doubt be left as she's driving through a tunnel and we will be able to make out only her name). As for the sex scenes . . . Shoot, at this point we’d write porn starring our parents if it would get us published.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Living in the Brackets

When I was 18 and in college, I started hearing the term “living in the margins” to describe those people who, for whatever reason, don't live in what is generally considered mainstream society. The burgeoning psuedo intellectual in me loved this phrase. I commandeered it. I took it as my own and in all my baseless arrogant glory, repeated it as often as possible, definitely much more than necessary, and no doubt incorrectly at times. I did the same thing with the word paradigm. "Paradigm shift" was a particular favorite. I also insisted upon calling my 18 year old pledge sisters "women". And not just women, but "ahhhhmaaaazing women". And it’s not necessarily that they weren’t amazing (or women for that matter), but it just seems a little much, especially considering they had been out of their parents' homes for all of 63 days, were spilling bong water all over their sheets, and puking out of their dorm windows. But I digress.

While some people live in the margins, as a writer I live, and die, in the brackets. There are those who know exactly of what I write. (Or what I write of. Don't look at me, Grammar Girl says its perfectly proper to end a sentence with a preposition.) For those fortunate folks who don’t, here’s how it goes: you're writing, it’s flowing, you have a grasp on the big picture, and the small stuff is coming together. Then, boom, you hit a spot where you know just what you need-a tight description, the perfect metaphor, whatever. But your brain refuses to cooperate. And its there, you can feel it, almost see it meandering around, elusive, in the gray matter. In this situation there are those who persevere, who sit and wait until it comes, perhaps flip through a thesaurus or a dictionary. Not me. Or Laura for that matter, which is one of the million reasons we are kindred writing spirits. Instead, after a long writing session, our word documents are filled with this: [insert description here]. And let’s call a spade a spade - its procrastination, one of my many unproductive strong suits. But in that moment I choose to bracket, I rationalize that I need to move forward. And I have faith - no I don’t just have faith - I know the right words will come . . . later.

And so I move on, clicking the keyboard and patting myself on the back until I finish the chapter or paragraph or scene, read it and re-discover the brackets. It’s like spending hours cleaning your house only to realize you forgot to clean the toilet. What were my greatest friends turn into my greatest foes. And, sure, sometimes the words come easily. But other times, most of the time, it might as well read [F--- you] in those brackets. And this, my friends, is one of the many upsides of having a kindred writing spirit. If the brackets are telling me to do something vulgar, I know they will be kinder to Laura and that she will find the word or phrase that eluded me. Its often a better word or phrase. And I think she feels the same; her brackets just seem to like me a little more. But most of us are not so fortunate to have the better half of a Jayne Lynne at their disposal. So my fellow writers, in the spirit of the paradigm-shifting, margin-living writer William Shakespeare, to bracket or not to bracket, that is the question . . .

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One Novel to Live

One of the seven thousand reasons I love David Sedaris is his willingness to embrace the soap opera. Not with some convoluted, high-brow argument that the soap opera is an overlooked art, but rather for its beautiful absurdity and the fact that it played a mentionable, if not significant, role in his formative years. And here’s my horribly predictable confession: I love soap operas. No, let’s be clear. I love my soap operas. It’s like sports that way. You don’t just love baseball or football or basketball; you love the Giants, the Niners, or the Lakers. I’m a CBS soap fan myself, but I'm not afraid to spend an hour with Bo and Hope, Marlena and John, and whatever purgatorial beast is haunting the docks of Salem these days. And I won’t mention Passions other than to thank the go fug girls for blazing the trail so other smart women can admit they watched something so, so wrong.

The Pecking Order, as it turns out, is our own personal soap opera. It's on live feed in our heads, not to mention our hearts. The protagonist, Abigail Taylor, is our plucky heroine-our Reva, our Cricket (I grew up in the 80's - she'll always be Cricket to me). And as any faithful soap fan will tell you, the role of plucky heroine is not for the faint of heart. There are murders and miscarriages, affairs and kidnappings, demonic possessions and organized crime. Children often grow 10 years in the span of 2 without so much as a second glance or unreasonable explanation. Our Abby (as Laura and I call our heroine) doesn't have hyper-speed-growth kids or a philandering, murderous husband who is really her brother, but she faces her fair share of battles, nonetheless. She's a stretch-mark-covered, billable-hour-crazed BlackBerry junkie trying to hold her marriage together and make partner at a premier law firm - a heroic, if not impossible, endeavor. In Abby's words, she's a "half-ass lawyer, part-time mother, and non-existent wife." She has a sadistic boss, backstabbing colleagues, and a neglected husband who's been spending too much time with a hot young female friend. So sure, she may not have to dress like she's going to the prom every day and, no, she hasn't been stalked by a man-child sorcerer, but her road has its fair share of bumps.

Abby's life outside the book has been full of twists and turns, as well. She's had fleeting success (like the many marriages of Ridge and Brook) and repeated failures (also like the many marriages of Ridge and Brook). She’s been tweaked and reinvented more times than Erica Kane's been married. She’s evolved with each successive draft, so much so we realized we didn’t even like the first iteration of Abby - the woman we created and about whom we wrote nearly 100,000 words. I’m sure that’s an issue ripe for psychological analysis, but I’ll leave that to Marlena.

Like any good woman with a favorite soap character, we've stuck by Abby. We've seen her through the toughest of times; we love her despite of and because of our past together. We are proud of who she’s become and we think you’d like her, too. You might even enjoy spending about 300 pages with her, but the problem is we haven't yet found someone to agree with us. We’ve been close, so close there were committees discussing our manuscript. And while they were doing so, we saw ourselves perfectly air-brushed on the back flap; we felt the raised title on the velvety soft cover. But we visualized too soon. The Pecking Order remains unpublished and Abby now languishes in the bowels of our computer, saving her family and charting a path for working moms everywhere like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods. She's in Fiction Limbo. Publishing purgatory. The only thing left for us is to query more agents and write this blog in hopes of sharing her with the world. Or we could grab Tabitha, have a séance, and raise John Black from the dead so he can save our lovely heroine from this wretched fate.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ms. Reality Check's Proof Statement

Well, we did it again. We started writing without a Proof Statement. Know what that is? Yea, we didn’t either. We wrote our rambling, plot-thin, 94,000-word first draft of The Pecking Order without having heard of a Proof Statement. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I think I may have heard of a Proof Statement in high school geometry, maybe. Then again, I’m not sure. I became a lawyer partly so I wouldn’t have to think about math.) After a couple of rounds of rejections we had our first meeting with the local professional writer who agreed to give us a private workshop—let’s call her Ms. Reality Check. We drove to her house in the country, handed her a cool grand, and perched on the edge of our folding chairs like baby birds waiting for mama’s return. We waited for words of wisdom, for insight into our manuscript. For the name of an agent. “What’s your Proof Statement?” she asked us. We looked at each other and stammered inaudibly for a few moments. You’d think two litigators would feel comfortable answering a question on the spot, but this didn’t come from the bench. Now we had to defend our own personal work, our passion, our proverbial baby. And we were afraid she’d kick us to the curb (or the gravel road, as it were) when she found out we were mere amateurs; that we didn’t even know what a Proof Statement was. (A ridiculous fear, really, because who else would pay for a professional writer to butcher their life’s work if not an amateur? I doubt Stephen King pays the Castle Rock junior college English professor to give him pointers). Ms. Reality Check elaborated.
“Every written work must have a Proof Statement. Every single word in your manuscript should support your Proof Statement. You should write it down and tape it to your computer. It should state, ‘I am writing this to prove that . . . .’”
My heart stopped.
“So,” she continued, “what’s your Proof Statement? Why are you writing this book?”
Kris and I glanced at each other. I’ve never asked her, but I can bet some of my initial thoughts were somersaulting through her cerebral cortex, too. We’re writing to prove we’re more than litigators. We’re writing to prove law school was just a stepping stone on the path to bigger and better things. We’re writing to prove it’s possible to pay down mountains of student loan debt without selling our souls to the firm. We’re writing to prove that tax law and the rules of intestate succession and the elements of inchoate crimes didn’t suck all the creative juices from our marrow.
But I responded, “We’re writing to prove you can’t have it all.”
Kris’s eyes met mine in an ocular high five. We leaned back in anticipation of Ms. Reality Check's praise.
“That’s not a Proof Statement,” she said. “It’s a truism. Try again. Come back when you have one.”
Oh crap. We had toiled, for years, over 350 pages that had no proof statement and, therefore, no purpose. We struggled for two weeks to come up with a Proof Statement, and finally landed on, “We’re writing to prove that everyone has to make difficult choices when they try to have it all.” She loved it. Now, why our first stab was a truism, but this was a Proof Statement is still a bit filmy, but I’m over it at this point. And I will say, despite my initial grumblings (I seriously considered asking for a refund and vowing to only show my work to family members who would, no doubt, lavish it with praise), the Proof Statement helped us have a focal point, especially when our writing felt forced. More often than not, when we struggled we’d come back to the Proof Statement and realize the scene didn’t shore up the book’s theme. Many well-written, witty sentences became victims of the delete key because they didn’t fit the Proof Statement. At least one character lost her fictional life—erased from the pages forever because we realized she was superfluous. The Proof Statement solidified our vision . . . who knew? I, for one, will never sit down to write another piece without taking that pivotal first step. And yet, we didn’t come up with a Proof Statement before beginning this blog. So why are we writing? To feel relevant? To work together again? To satiate our lust for the written word? Probably all of the above, but if I had to distill it down to one overly broad thematic sentence . . . we’re writing this blog to prove that there’s life after rejection . . . even if we have to artificially create it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Liza Dawson Effect

What causes two up-and-coming litigators at an international law firm to morph into angst-ridden artists? I think Laura and I can soundly blame New York literary agent, Liza Dawson, for the the fact that we now embody the cliché of neurotic aspiring writers. Were we not also room mothers, soccer coaches, yoga junkies, and nutrition freaks, I’m pretty sure we’d both be cloaked in black with cigarettes wedged permanently between our fingers. We would no doubt pass hours in a gritty coffee shop debating existentialism and mocking the mainstream. On the other hand, had no one shown interest when we sprinkled the literary world with our The Pecking Order query over 4 years ago, we likely would have cashed it in and dove back, headlong, into the billable hour abyss. We would have continued killing ourselves for the large law firm . . . continued whittling away our souls . . . but at least we would have been the richer for it – Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin richer, not Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle richer. Oh, and how a new pair of heels rivals a deep downward dog any day of the week. But someone did show interest. The “I’d be happy to read the first 100 pages” Liza scribbled in the upper right hand corner of our query letter sucked us in like Facebook and there was no turning back.

It turns out, though, that Liza Dawson is like my high school boyfriend. Technically, I’m still going out with him (and therefore cheating on him with my husband of 10 years) because we never officially broke up. Instead, we simply stopped speaking to each other after five years of dramatic, adolescent love. The break-up is clearly implied and/or understood, but I’m a lawyer, and I can’t help but stick to the formalities. It’s the same thing with Liza. We readied the manuscript, held it like a newborn as we handed it to the post office employee, and then proceeded to check e-mail and cell phone messages incessantly. We calculated time down to the last minute, trying to guess who opened Liza's mail, at what time, and what would happen if the manuscript arrived on a Friday. Did she work on the weekend? Would she shove her desk clean when it arrived and devour our manuscript like the delicacy that it was? We built a one-sided relationship with this woman – one in which we swept off to New York to sign papers, sip champagne, and mingle with Liz Gilbert and Lauren Weisenberger, because that is clearly what happens when you actually land a literary agent. As time passed, we began to spin out scenarios that became less like new love and more like a desperate break-up. We were the raw and rejected, the what-not-to-do girls, the How to Lose an Agent Who Never Actually Represented You in 10 days girls. We refreshed our e-mail incessantly, counted the calendar days obsessively, called and hung up, called and left messages. We even spoke to her once. She was very kind, said she was looking forward to reading our work and would be back with us soon. Four years later, we have yet to receive a clear message from Liza.

But for all the insufferable waiting, the rejection, and, most importantly, the initial interest, we thank her. Oh sure, there have been agents since Liza. Agents who summarily rejected us, agents who praised our work, even an agent who gave us detailed, constructive criticism and then was kind enough to read the manuscript again after we re-wrote it entirely. Those agents have shaped our work, certainly. With them we have had our hopes raised and dashed and raised again, enough to continue writing despite full-time jobs, to continue sending The Pecking Order into the world, continue churning out short stories, blog entries, and the beginning of another novel. But it all comes back to Liza and those few scribbled words - "I'd be happy to read the first 100 pages." With her came the genesis of hope, the pursuit of a dream. For that we thank her and from her we need nothing more.

We did finally receive an e-mail response from Liza Dawson, just a few months ago. After living a lifetime of emotions in milliseconds, we opened the e-mail to find nothing there. It was as if someone just hit reply and then send, without writing any text in the message. I suppose one could argue that rejection was implied, kind of like with my high school boyfriend, but on the other hand, someone who’s really inspired by the work might actually have been too excited, too anxious, and accidentally hit send before crafting the e-mail, right? So we wrote her back. Just to make sure. And I’m sure she’ll e-mail any day now.