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.