Monday, April 26, 2010

10,001 Names for Baby

I’m really bad at titles.

Last week, I lamented to my mentor that although my novel is really coming along, I still didn’t have a title in mind. It was starting to feel like a character flaw.

One title had been rattling around in my mind for a while: The Face of the Earth. It spoke to the central mystery of the story – the missing girl – and also the narrator’s longing for the physical landscape of her childhood. Or maybe it just plain sucked. It was hard to tell.

I queried some friends and the response was lukewarm at best. “Ehh,” Will said, his face twisted in an unpleasant grimace. It wasn’t the most positive sign.

I sat down with an open Word document and typed out thirty different titles, all variations on the original. After an hour I was coming up with such gems as Place Title Here! and Don’t Look at My Title.

Choosing a title for a book is probably as difficult as choosing a name for a child, something I also know nothing about. (Baxter’s name came to me organically. It was somewhat close to Bailey, the beagle of my childhood, and also the last name of a student I had at the time. It fit his squirmy puppiness perfectly. But I digress…) Some of my pregnant friends have announced the baby’s name months in advance of the actual birth. Last year I attended a pre-baby shower and was a little surprised to hear everyone calling the baby-to-be by name already, even delivering monogrammed gifts. What if the name didn’t fit her? What if the ultrasound had missed a certain tiny something, tucked between his legs? My sister and brother-in-law, parents to the lovely Sabine, resisted telling anyone the name they’d picked out. “I didn’t want anyone to talk us out of it,” my sister explained. Wise – something I should have learned from.

Recently I tuned in late to a discussion on NPR about band names – the basic thrust of which is that pretty much everything that could be a band name is already taken. A few bizarre names were suggested as proof that not everything was already used, to which the subject of the interview replied, “They’ll be taken by tomorrow.” He was half joking, half bitter. I remember often thinking the same thing of movie titles – the good ones are already gone.

I talked to my mentor again, lost in my greedy-neediness. Maybe The Face of the Earth is the one, I mused. But it feels too wordy. Too many single syllables. Maybe I needed something like Facing the Earth. No. Face in the Earth. Or maybe what I needed was my head, buried in the sand.

In the meantime, the ever-astute Paige observed, “It doesn’t really matter what you call it now. That’s something the publisher will decide.”

Okay. True. But there’s still the matter of the thesis binding, the title page, the signature page that has to be mailed by… tomorrow.

My mentor wrote back. What about Face of the Earth?

I held the words in my mouth, chewed on them, expelled them to the admiring silence of the room. Face of the Earth. I liked it. How was it possible that one single syllable could make such a difference? And that in my tortured hours of brainstorming I hadn’t come up with this myself?

So. Face of the Earth it is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Almost, Not Yet

I hate libraries. I'm guessing my dislike stems from all of the late fees I had to pay in my youth. On Saturday my dad gave me my allowance and on Tuesday I passed it off to the white haired woman behind the circulation desk at the library. I'm not sure of the total amount I paid over time. But my mother jokes I single handedly funded the Elkins Park Free Library renovation of 1982.

For as much as I detest libraries, the awkward silence and musty smell, I adore bookstores. When I'm traveling, I love to wander around local shops. Tall wooden shelves display pressed spines. The shopkeeper readily offers intelligent suggestions. His excitement makes my mouth water, as if I'm watching a movie preview. From Mitchell's in Nantucket to Foyles in London, independent bookstores always make it onto my to-do list.

Here in Philadelphia, I couldn't even name one local bookshop. This leaves me no choice to visit Barnes & Noble and Borders. And truth be told, I like these places too. Meandering through the aisles, an iced skim latte in one hand an my wallet in the other, I pluck interesting books from the shelves, I skim the first page to see if it grabs me.

Many people are claiming the debut of the iPad, following the relative success of other e-readers like the Kindle, will save the publishing industry. From chatter on Morning Joe to articles in Wired and The New Yorker, people question if the introduction of e-readers just might be the boost books have long needed.

I've pondered buying a Kindle. Or at the very least, I strongly hinted to my previous beau, a man who owned not one but two Kindles, that it would be a divine gift for yours truly. Seeing he forgot my last birthday, it's fair to assume he won't be getting me one. Which has led me to strongly consider buying one for myself.

You know what holds me back? Not the cost. The Kindle seems to be priced quite nicely considering it saves me from lugging ten books on my random adventures. Not the lack of paper. And I'm fine reading online. After testing out a friend's Kindle, I'm more than comfortable with the layout and lighting. But if I buy books online, what will happen to bookstores? Right. That's when I close the Amazon website and put it off for another day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Do You Write For?

When my college alumni magazine arrives, I flip quickly through the articles about new construction and advancing technology on campus and head straight for the alumni notes. You know, the good stuff – who’s married who and who’s had kids and who has what degree. I’ve never contributed anyway myself – mainly since I don’t have much to report, and those things I do share go in my snarky status updates on Facebook.

But after three emails and two postcards entreating me to update my information for a new alumni publication, I finally caved and called the 800 number to reach the private company handling the printing.

The woman who answered had a slight Southern drawl and somehow managed to sound homey and robotic at once. “Spell your name for me, honey?”

I complied.

“Can you confirm this is your address?”

I confirmed.

“And what is your occupation?”

I hesitated. I could picture her on the other end of the phone, a headset growing out of one ear, her fingers poised above the keyboard. (But what to say? I’m a former teacher… I substitute teach when there are bills to pay… right now I’m rating written exams for California State University… this summer I’m doing my last [I hope] stint as a summer school teacher… No. I am none of those things.)

I took a deep breath. “I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yes. I’m a writer.”

I was expecting a follow-up question, something along the lines of what do you write? Fiction? Memoir? Poetry? Textbooks? News articles? Film scripts? Ad copy? Little notes to yourself in the margin? Postcards to your grandparents?

Instead she asked, “Who do you write for?”

“Um, what? I don’t really…” Well. Now this was an interesting question. Who do I write for – other than myself and the handful of family members who more or less have to read my musings? Who exactly is my reading public? Who is my target audience? I would love to say “Everyone!” but of course that isn’t true. Not everyone reads. Some people read only biographies, others only vampire romances. My students, I often suspected, only read the books being shoved down their throats.

This is not, of course, what the woman on the other end of the phone meant. She was asking, do you write for a company? Do you have an employer? Do you get paid? Do you want your fellow alumni to think you have achieved any sort of legitimacy? I tried again. “I’m a fiction writer, actually. Short stories, novels.” (I was crossing my fingers behind my back on this one – being ¾ of the way through one novel certainly does not mean I’ve written novels.)

“Okay,” the woman said, with a forced cheerfulness. This is probably when she realized I wouldn’t be forking over $110 for the alumni publication. “Should I say novelist, then? For your occupation?”

No. Not yet. One day.

“No, I think just writer,” I said. After all, I could always call back with another update.

Friday, April 16, 2010


A few weeks ago, after roasting fourteen pounds of potatoes, I sat down to a Passover seder. In usual tradition, we went around the table reading from the haggadah. The leader explained the meaning of the items on the seder plate. The youngest, an eighteen year old, sang the four questions. People of all ages munched on olives and celery sticks, carrots and pickles, as we waded through the holiday rituals.

Somewhere along the way I stopped paying attention to Moses and Pharoh. You see, I was too busy line editing the haggadah. The story of the four sons? Yeah, this could be tightened and shortened. A little less forced drama might also help pull the reader in when discussing the plagues. Show, don’t tell. I knew I was in a bad place when I felt the urge to reach for a pen and jot notes in the margins.

“Paige, how about your recite the motzi?” the leader asked.

“Oh, sure,” I answered as I glanced at my neighbor’s book to confirm the page number, ten higher than where I was editing.

When I was in law school, my newfound knowledge of torts and evidence completely ruined my enjoyment of shows like The Practice and Law and Order. Oh please, no judge would ever permit that kind of rambling rant while interrogating a witness. And that attorney’s whore length skirt? Yeah, nice try counselor. Well, it seems pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing has momentarily ruined the joy of reading. Or at least reading subpar writing.

This might not sound like much of an issue. I mean, who wants to read subpar writing anyway? Except when my brain hurts from working on my thesis, struggling to properly develop a character or generate a worthwhile plot, the last thing I want to read is Faulkner or The New Yorker. What I really need is something mindless.

“Read Twilight,” a friend suggested.

“I really liked The Girl with the Tattoo Dragon,” another noted.

The other night, unwilling to accept my current state, I went to Barnes & Noble and roamed the aisles. I plucked books off the shelves, leaned against the wall as I scanned the first few paragraphs. Some choices were definitely better than others. But in the end I walked out empty handed, feeling the same sense of disappointment as when I eat an apple instead of diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

When I got home, I poured a glass of wine and settled in on my sofa. There were plenty of magazines piled up in my basket, a collection of unread books stacked on my shelves. Instead, I reached for my latest knitting project. And when I tired of the yarn and needles, I worked on that day’s New York Times Crossword. Just before crawling into bed, I considered breaking back the spine on White Tiger, I wondered if now might be the time to start Divisadero. Instead, I turned off the light, pulled up the covers, and drifted off to sleep.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back to the Books

Understand this – I’m a bookworm. When I worked at a conference center in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my teambuilding name was “RIF” – Reading is Fun. I was twenty years old. Now every six months or so Will and I marvel at our bookshelves, which despite our efforts to “pare down, buy less, borrow more” sag under the weight of our new acquisitions. I will admit here that I have been a two-books-a-week reader for most of my adult life. I say this not to gain your admiration – I’m often not proud of the fact that I’ve neglected people, pets, house and lawn to cuddle up with a good book. More than once I’ve suspected an intervention is on my way – “Put down the IndieBound pick of the month, Paula!”

And then there’s lately.

Okay, I have been busy (thesis yada yada), mainly with my own writing. The books I do read are thesis- and graduating-presentation-related. I’ve begun the terrifying process of thinking through what’s next -- pursue writing with passion or get a job that pays some of the bills? I’ve finally awoken to the fact that my house, under a fa├žade of surface cleanliness, is really quite a mess. And then there’s the allure of Sporcle, which feeds my alt-obsession, geography. When I do end up sitting down with a book, it’s in the last minutes of my day, tucked beneath the comforter, backlit by a bedside lamp. I might make it through a few pages or only a few paragraphs. Sometime during the night I realize that my cheek has been indented – perhaps permanently – by the edge of the book. It makes for slow-going, to say the least, which is why I can’t entirely blame the book. Or the author.

Then last week, I spent three days in the company of my niece, the charming eighteen-month-old Sabine. Other than digging through kitchen cabinets for Tupperware containers and her all-time favorite, the strainer, her chief form of pleasure comes from books. My sister – an English major and teacher – keeps Sabine supplied with books from steady trips to the library. (Last week’s haul? The Very Busy Spider and Time to Pee!) Sabine could, quite literally, spend hours dragging books from her bookshelves to a waiting lap, listening intently and carefully turning the pages. Her favorite, dramatically intoned by my sister or her husband, is Drummer Hoff by Barbara and Ed Emberley. The story is a rhyming build-up to Drummer Hoff’s firing of the canon, which goes off with a big “KABABABOOM!” Sabine knows every moment of the story; she can even point a chubby finger to the tiny little “click” right before the canon is fired – that “click”, she knows, is imperative to the outcome.

I took my turn, too, sitting on the floor next to the couch and accumulating quite the stack of books, including some of her outgrown “baby” books – with ducks and geese and 1, 2, 3s.

“Why are you reading those, Sabine?” her dad laughed. “You haven’t looked at those in months.”

I knew the answer, even if Sabine didn’t. It was for nostalgia, for the peaceful, all-is-right-with-the-world feeling you get when you slip back into a favorite book. You already know the outcome, so for once you can just relax and enjoy the story. It’s like meeting up with old friends – the quiet, non-judgmental kind. And right about then I started missing my bookshelves, the long rows of books with cracked spines and worn corners and dogeared pages. I wanted to rediscover what I had once known, and what Sabine has already discovered – that reading is fun.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mystery in Middle America

Given my recent lack of blog inspiration and my current attendance at the AWP conference in Denver, I think what we need here is a writing prompt. So you here you go.

One of my oldest friends, a single woman who loves her dogs, Gilmore Girls reruns, the Indianapolis Colts, books on tape, and cooking, has recently discovered men’s underpants on her property. Not just one pair.

The first pair of tighty-whities appeared in the dog pen. It was odd, yes, but there was the possibility that one of her crafty dogs had discovered them and pulled them through the fence. Also, where we live, underpants sometimes go missing on the side of the road, over a light wire, and in other extraordinary places.

But then there was another pair in the pen. Then a pair by her mailbox. Then a pair under her car. Yesterday, a second pair appeared under her car. She called the police, who were largely uninterested, though one officer did concede that it sounded like someone was "messing with" her.

She has no enemies that she knows of. No one has expressed an obsession with her. No old lovers are the sort inclined to try to woo her back with their bedraggled underpants. She’s perplexed. Her friends and family are perplexed. Even her small dogs are perplexed.

Only a writer could solve this mystery. So get to work.

Monday, April 5, 2010

(Insert small sigh of relief here.)

Last week, I mailed off 177 pages of my novel to my mentor and five other unsuspecting people who had offered to read the manuscript at one point or another and had no idea that I would send them 177 pages in one fell swoop. The book is actually 230 pages at this point – although it’s accurate to say the last 53 pages are a muddled mess and it didn’t seem fair to subject anyone to that stream-of-consciousness madness. And I know there’s more to the story, too, sandwiched in little files here and there on my hard drive (and backed up on my Passport, too, don’t you worry), waiting for the day the story will magically be ready for them.

So, officially, I’ve met the page count for my thesis. With a few days of revision, it will be done. (Insert happy graduation dance here.)

But I’m not done with the book – and it’s my desperate personal goal to be done with the book.

I’ve heard back, thus far, from two people. My mentor, who is paid to read my work, analyze it, take it apart, make suggestions, tell me what works and doesn’t, what I need more of and what I need less of, etc., responded in two days with, essentially, a thumbs up. My husband, who is technically paying for me to write this book, responded in three days. His suggestions (other than a well-meant comment I am trying to ignore, that the story reads a bit like “an R-rated Judy Blume”) were surprisingly helpful. I don’t mean to imply that his comments usually are not helpful, just that with this read he saw things in the story that I hadn’t seen, and his offhand comments have suddenly refocused my vision of the story. (Insert happy dance of marital bliss here.)

There is, of course, a significant distinction between being a book being completed and a book being finished. A few months ago, Delusional Me thought I would have the book finished. Done. Printed on half a tree worth of paper and happily on its way to an agent. Now Realistic Me says, wouldn’t it be great if I could just get a draft of the book completed, bound in my thesis, and then I could sit down at the end of the summer and begin a thorough revision? And there’s Still-Hopeful Me, who thinks that maybe I’ll fall somewhere in the middle.

As it stands, here are the stats courtesy of Microsoft Word:

Pages: 230
Words: 51,532
Characters (no spaces): 278,204
Characters (with spaces): 339,931
Paragraphs: 1,331
Lines: 4,823

I realize it’s not about the numbers, but when I look at it like that, it feels pretty good.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Think, Dammit!

At around two o’clock on Sunday, shortly after turning on my television and flopping backwards onto my sofa, my phone rang.

“Happy Birthday!” my cousin Erika sang.

“Aw thanks.”

“Come over!”

“Oh, I can’t. I’m writing,” I said as I watched Tool Academy on mute.

“Cool, have you written a lot?”

“Well, technically I’m thinking about writing.”

Before starting graduate school, I only wrote when I felt inspired. Thought was obviously part of the process but I had always already gotten to a place where I could write without hesitation. Even with my other blog, a site where I once forced myself to post twice a week, I didn’t think all that hard about what I was writing. When you grow up in my mildly dysfunctional family, there’s plenty of material to pull from. But now I am penning a novel I plan to pitch to agents and editors. And just thinking about it makes my armpits get a little damp.

An hour before I needed to leave for my birthday dinner, I wandered to the kitchen to get some water. Standing at the sink, I could hear the hum of my laptop’s fan. I hesitantly sat down at my desk and lowered my hands like a classical pianist preparing to play for a sold out crowd. Then I started. The blank page filled quickly with letters, words, paragraphs. After an hour, I had four pages, perhaps even four pages I might keep!

I saved my draft but left my laptop on. It would be a gentle reminder to write some more when I got home. And exactly three hours later, with my belly full from eating a ridiculous amount of cake in the span of one day, I stumbled through my front door. I kicked off my shoes, threw my hair up in a clip, glanced at my computer. Then I let out a sigh and plopped down on my sofa with a ball of yarn and needles. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. Instead, I needed to do some more thinking.