Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Surprise in Gray

O, Gentle Reader, hello. I'm feeling a smidge vulnerable right now. There's a stomach bug in my house and I'm helpless against it; when I lose sleep I turn into a slow, uncertain version of myself; I have multiple drafts of blog posts that I can't decide the time is right to write, and the clogginess of them makes me anxious; the remote control in my bedroom has been cosmetically damaged with wintergreen essential oil, which I don't even know what to do about; the pile of books I have to read in January is not getting any smaller, but it's because editors are saying yes to my pitches, so I can't complain.

I cried this week. (I cry about once a year.) I'm having a medical procedure I don't want next week, with anesthesia, and I'm dreading the helpless feeling I'll have afterward. On Tuesday I was able to run longer than ten minutes without wheezing and giving up. I wrote a version of an article I've worked an inordinate number of hours on since early December, and per my editor I have to rewrite it, and although I think he's right, I'm balking, despite the ticking clock, because of despair at having to redo. I am strongly motivated by not having to redo things. Part of why I don't play video games.

SIX things I wrote were published this week. As I said elsewhere, I'm grateful for the riches, but risking overexposure is a problem I never thought I'd have and don't know what to do with.


Also, I feel overwhelmed at the spring books I have yet to place. Lots of cool titles in March and April that I have pitched, had no response, and haven't managed to pitch again. I'll probably end up scrambling to place them less than a month out, which I hate, but that pile of books I have to finish in the next fourteen days...! Pitching takes a short time but lots of energy; reading takes lots of time but little energy (and is much nicer). I'm overly insistent on landing this one book in this one specific place, and it's stupid of me because I could just write it up for a different place and be done, but the editor asked for phone calls, and I've left him two voice mails and he hasn't called me back, and why would you do contact that way? Unless you want freelancers to be mad at you?

At the end of March I go to AWP and then immediately to Iceland, which is very exciting but it keeps getting closer and I have no coherent plan and haven't lost any weight or gotten my chipped tooth fixed, and last AWP it was fine because I had no one to impress and mostly loved ones to meet, but this time the stakes are much higher based on the "let's meet up!" emails and messages I've been exchanging for the past six months, and I don't know what to do, and I dreamed about Iceland last night, and it was scary and clean and efficient and everyone was bundled in attractive cold-weather gear and speaking in lovely textured consonants and I felt very American.

The bugged of stomach is tossing a bit in bed and I should really go ask if he needs anything. The pile of books isn't shortening and I should really go read. January is running out and I should really arrange an interview and rewrite that article and write another review.

DESPITE ALL THIS, I feel happy. It's been raining for four days here, which sounds awful, but it's actually lovely, like a surprise in gray. When you have months on end of stalwart sunshine, not a cloud in sight from one season to another, rain can be a delight. And I'm hugely blessed by all the publication, and a particular pitch-yes I received this week, which hasn't really sunk in yet because it's so meaningful. Can't wait to tell you about it.


Out in the world:

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Weekly To-Do, 1/6/19 - 1/12/19

Fairly representative week. I wish I'd written a couple more reviews. Next week is going to have so much promotion that I know I'll have a hard time getting things done.

Disclaimer: I'm including selected names of pubs and books because making this list would be ten times harder, and therefore not worth the effort, to anonymize them entirely. Any of the acceptances could fall through at any time. By naming them, I am not badmouthing the publications who rejected or didn't reply. This is data, not trash-talk or promotion.

Writing:
Dual memoir review
Wang review
Edits on other dual review
Edits on Stenson review x2
Draft Roupenian review

Reading:
Smoke & Summons
Gatsby's Child
Horse Latitudes books (3)
You Know You Want This

Pitching/Queries:
Highbinder agent query (rejected)
Serpent's Tail query (sort of)
Shields to New Republic (responded!)
Hygiene thing to The Loop
EHS email/call
ASFM to WSJ

Followups:
JTG (answered)
BWDR (answered)
Pitchfork
TLS

Correspondence:
Emails w/ UW publicist
Emails w/ Madison, Eric
Emails w/ Meg
Locus business
Emails w/ Dahlia
Emails w/ Renee
Emails w/ Sophia

Other:
Promote Narrator review
[secret thing]
Promote other dual review
Promote Virtuoso review
Answer private client questions
Submit hunger story x2
Social media stuff
Update website

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Weekly To-Do, 12/22/18 - 1/5/19

This post represents the past two weeks of work. The week of Christmas was marvelously quiet - I didn't write a single review - so I combined it with the week of New Year's, which was a little busier. I took some time off during these weeks, but also, Matt was off work, so we spent more time together than usual.

Disclaimer: I'm including selected names of pubs and books because making this list would be ten times harder, and therefore not worth the effort, to anonymize them entirely. Any of the acceptances could fall through at any time. By naming them, I am not badmouthing the publications who rejected or didn't reply. This is data, not trash-talk or promotion.

Writing:
Oraefi review, edits
Something Like Breathing review, edits
Thirty-Seven review
Callbacks/Frail Sister review
Edits on G review
Edits on Virtuoso review

Reading:
Horse Latitudes books (5)
Callbacks

Pitching/Queries:
Interview request to DB (accepted)
Query to CW
Interview to NPR
Multiple to TLS (responded)
Multiple to Pleiades (responded)
BW/DR

Followups:
R&RG (answered)
A/V (answered)
JtG
Guardian (answered)
Bust (answered)

Correspondence:
Review request from Neal (accepted)
Galley request (resolved)
Locus administrative stuff
Graywolf emails on interview
Publicist emails (multiple)
TWRP emails

Other:
Blog posts, promotion thereof
Rejections (3)
Full MS pass for private client
Mentoring stuff
NetGalley stuff
[secret thing]
Contest entry
Promote G review

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Resolute, 2018 Edition

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Hustle. Success, possibly too much. I got really damn busy as a writer, and I'm proud of it. I wouldn't have traded my overwhelm for being underworked, but I wish I could have figured out how to feel less stressed about all the work I took on. I did get it all done, and almost all of it was on time, so the stress...did me no good? Or was it the prod at my back? I don't know. The hustle worked, is the point; I think it's the main reason I am where I am as a writer at the beginning of 2019.

2. Keep to my own rhythms. Success. I slept more in the past eight months than I think I did in the prior three years. I'm still trying to sort out acceptance of this, feeling no shame about napping most days. It took years to accept that I need eight to nine hours of sleep per night instead of less, so I'm not expecting that acceptance of my own rhythms will be easy.

3. Fight fear. This resolution was a mistake. I don't need to fight fear; I need to let fear in, feel it, and move on. At that I did pretty well, but no better or worse than last year. I'm calling it a no-foul draw.

4. Plan better on a small scale. Success. I worked out a daily schedule for myself, and it kept me afloat when the looseness of freelancing threatened to drown me with excess time.

5. Give myself credit for hard work. Success. Matt helped me with this, telling me over and over how much I deserved credit for hard work. But something else that helped me was making to-do lists, but not throwing them away, and instead reviewing the finished items later. This had the effect of showing me, with hard evidence, the plentiful work that I'd done, instead of my mean ol' memory saying I didn't really do much.

6. Let go, let go, let go. Success, on balance, although I failed a lot. A very difficult, very necessary resolution for this year, much more so than I had imagined. I let go of my day job painfully, over a long period of time, but at present I have some peace about it - even if I still have bad dreams sometimes. I let go of expectations a bunch, and it made certain disappointments much easier. This resolution came to pass in exactly the right year, but it's a lesson I'll carry with me.

7. Take better care of my body and my home. Fail. I did better with flossing, but I am still the poorest housekeeper on this earth, and I exercised way less than in prior years.

8. Avoid travel. A draw. I didn't travel much, but a couple of trips were necessary, and I didn't die. This was sort of a dumb resolution, because I always want to avoid travel if possible. I think it came out of the unfortunate travels I had in the fall of '16 rather than anything real I needed to shift in my life.

This year I had a hard time thinking of resolutions. Not because I didn't feel there was anything about me that needed changing (we all need tune-ups), but because I'm deeply content. In such a state of mind, it's hard to think of what I want to change. Also, a lot of the stuff that ties me up in knots internally has been resolved by prior resolutions. Which is the point of resolutions, so it's nice that they're working, but it also leaves me with less to do in the future.

Anyway, I did come up with a few.

1. Rethink productive. There's always a little voice in my head that nags at me to be productive in a given day. Do laundry. Clear the coffee table. Organize your calendar. Marinate that pork roast. Read a book. Write something. It's hard to ignore this voice even if I've spent days on end being productive and want/need to spend a day resting. And it's part of how I failed to take a day off for multiple weeks at a clip this fall and winter. High productivity is nice, but burnout is not, and I'm quite nearsighted about the latter so I need to build in rest time.

I think there's got to be a way to redefine "be productive" for myself so that the voice stays quiet but I don't descend into sloth. I don't know what it is, but that's why it's a "rethink" resolution.

2. Lean into a hobby or two. When I did finally find the time to take a day off, I didn't know what to do with myself. Many of the things I would normally have done (hiking, museums) were not practicable, but some of the other things I might have done on past days off (reading, writing) had evolved into the stuff I needed time off from doing. An unexpected consequence of making avocation into vocation. That means I need to work out at least one hobby that I can do on my days off. Right now that hobby is phone games, which is a trashy hobby. I'd prefer to cross-stitch or do a puzzle.

3. Bring collage and horses into my life. Maybe collage is one of the hobbies I should pursue. I need to do it! I need to make it a regular part of my creative life. I've been thinking about it since September, and still haven't done it. I also need to bring horses more distinctly into my life in 2019. Being around them during Labor Day showed me how much happier and calmer I am when I spend time with them. I don't know how I'm going to do this, because incorporating horses into one's life is not necessarily an easy thing, but I must not keep putting it off.

4. Be smart about yes and no. I said yes to too many reviews in the spring and summer, but I didn't think I was in a position to say no to any of them. Now I'm starting to worry I said no too much in the winter, because my workload beyond March is so light I might have time to get back to writing my book (GASP). The timing of yes and no when it comes to reviewing is complicated because of lead times and editorial ghosting, but I can still try to be savvy about yes and no, rather than blundering into too much or too little work.

This is a hard thing to get right. Only trial and error will get me there, so I have to practice self-forgiveness if I mess it up. Which is also a good thing to work on in 2019.

5. Be aware of the networking vs. friendship, promotion vs. information percentage. Particularly in a year when I'm going to AWP, I'd like to be more cognizant about how loudly I'm self-promoting, and how much that sounds like annoying kazoo sounds as opposed to useful information offered to people who want to know how my writing is faring out in the world.

Similarly, I've made a lot of wonderful connections in the writing world this year. I'd like to call some of these people friends, but I'd be happy to slot others in the category of "networking contacts," meaning I don't have to comment on all their tweets. Some of these connections are about half and half, I think, friendship vs. networking (like, I'd probably hug them at AWP, but wouldn't be offended if I didn't get a birthday note from them). I think it's best not to be naive about these connections, though, and comprehend that even if I do like X Publicist as a human being, she probably likes me as a reviewer.

This resolution is advising general awareness, rather than naivete, of what I'm up to as a networker and self-promoter. I don't want to be slide into the mode of hustling all the time, but I also don't want to invest the softest parts of myself into what turn out to be professional relationships.

6. Teach. This might be more of a goal than a resolution, but I'd really like this to be the year I get a classroom full of minds to play with. It might come as a surprise to those of you I've told that I don't plan to teach, but I still don't plan to make teaching my primary job. One class per semester is about all I want.

7. Travel. Ha! Surprise reversal! I'm making this a resolution so that I will ENJOY the travel I do this year. Portland, Iceland, and possibly New York and Australia (!) are all on my list for next year. Plus a family trip with no destination in mind yet. So I damn well better change my attitude about hating travel, even if just for one year.


I don't know how we got to 2019, but here we are. Happy New Year, friends. I hope you stay here with me; I'd miss you if you decided to find another year to inhabit. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Books I Read in 2018

This is probably the most intense year of reading I've had since I was a book-addicted kid. The total is 150-160 (inexact because of chapbooks and books I didn't finish), or just about three per week. I consider that an awful lot of books for one year.

I was dissatisfied at the lack of year variation in my book diet - it was almost all new releases, very few older books - and that I didn't successfully read a Big Book. I read several books that were ~450 pages, but none of them were classics, even by my very loose standards.

Here's 2017's version of this post, and I think it's worthwhile to repeat the first paragraph of that post:
It's possible that I'm doing this to show off, I'll come out with that up front. But if I can try to step back and use myself as an example: as a writer, you should be prepared to read a LOT. Voraciously and omnivorously. Poetry, nonfiction, avant-garde, pulp, scholarship, everything. Read it all and then get back to me if you still want to be a writer.
The ^ marks a book that I did not read for review, interview, or another kind of research. (There were a lot fewer of them than books I did read for review/research.) The * marks a book I didn't finish.

The bolded books were my favorite books of the year. Very subjective. Others I read were more skillfully written, or more fun, or more memorable, or easier to recommend to readers who are not me. But the bolded ones were the books that ensorcelled me, the ones that made me want to keep reading late into the night or tiptoe out to read them early in the morning.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 12/16/18 - 12/22/18

Not much to say about this week. I read a lot, and Musalaheen was one of the best books I read all year. (I've kept up with a list of all the books I read this year, which I'll post here soon. It's...long.)

In case you missed the conversation on Facebook, I'm doing a multi-book project involving the phrase "horse latitudes," so this week's reading involved a few of those. Two were poetry, and one was a novel. Many more to come. This mystery will be solved within a few weeks, I promise.


Disclaimer: I'm including selected names of pubs and books because making this list would be ten times harder, and therefore not worth the effort, to anonymize them entirely. Any of the acceptances could fall through at any time. By naming them, I am not badmouthing the publications who rejected or didn't reply. This is data, not trash-talk or promotion.

Writing:
Locus roundup
Lost Gods review
Blog post
Last Woman Standing review
Unmarriageable review

Reading:
Lost Gods
Frail Sister
Musalaheen
Stranger in the Pen
Horse Latitudes books (3)
Tides of the Titans 

Pitching/Queries:
TCS to Psych Today
Feature to K (responded)
Sissy to WaPo
Op-ed to LAT (rejected)
TCS to Folks
Sissy to NPR

Followups:
LARB (accepted I think?)
TLS

Correspondence:
Emails w/ WD publicist
Emails, texts w/ Malhotra

Other:
Promote Ariana Grande piece
Promote podcast appearance
Promote TBS list
Promote Egan review
Promote Nemett review
Update website
Submit to contest

Thursday, December 20, 2018

See Me Now?

I am so tired of year-end roundups of books that I could start screaming and never stop, like that guy who cracks in Real Genius.


Seriously. I had no idea how many of them there were until this year, when paying attention to them is kind of part of my job, but now I feel like I'm drowning in them. And what good do they do? So often they're just composed of all the same books I heard about ad nauseam this year. I wish all the best to the authors of these books, really I do, but if I read one more article that gushes over The Incendiaries, The Third Hotel, and The Great Believers, I'm going to, well,


I could write a very long list of things I learned this year as a writer. I think I picked up about 100 bylines, based on inexact estimates, and that's a lot to learn from. I got into too many arguments, and I made some wonderful connections, and I alienated a nonzero number of people, unfortunately. I went to book parties and I joined Twitter and I wrote for outlets I've been wanting to write for since I was in my mid-twenties. I felt lucky and cursed, miserable and exhilarated. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But there's just one thing I want to write about today: using the first person in book reviews.

I've never believed that subjectivity in the majority of writing types is a bad thing. The only places to preserve objectivity are textbooks or journalism: areas where the meretricious struts of objectivity are necessary or the infrastructure crumbles. For nearly everything else, I find it pretty important to remember the existence, the bias, the shades and emotions of the genuine human being who's composing the words you're reading. Hi, here I am.


In my reviews, I turn to the first person when I want to offer my subjective experience of reading the book. Again, I see nothing wrong with this. When I read poetry and have a hard time with it, I want you to know that. I hope my first-person truth-telling will make other readers who have a hard time with poetry feel less alone, and help them choose to forge on with reading poetry anyway (because if a reviewer has a hard time with it, what do you have to be discouraged about?). A few of my editors, though, have flagged my dips into the first person and asked me to remove them. It took time and guidance for me to understand why instead of getting defensive.

A great example of why came from a review that was just published yesterday, of Adam Nemett's We Can Save Us All. In the second paragraph, the finished review reads:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, he is inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
While my original draft read:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, I found him inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
In my draft, I wrote this judgment in the first person because I'm not sure that every reader will find David inadequate. It felt harsh to indicate that. I'm a critic, but I'm one reader, and I'm willing to bet that readers who resemble David more than I do will find him more adequate than I did. And his ordinariness and insecurity are part of the point; I think it's still way too big a book for such a schlub to be the center of, but I do see why Nemett did it that way. The point is, I felt like I was opening myself to more hostility by using definite language (here's how it is) than by using subjective language (here's how I found it). I think I'm right but I'm willing to be wrong, and I don't want to stamp out other readers' points of view. The first person demonstrates that efficiently.

My editor pointed out that subjectivity weakens the certainty of the passage, and thus of the review in general. It's like using seems instead of is: weaseling out of saying what you really mean. This is true. It just is. Without definite statements instead of "I think/I feel" statements, criticism has no air of authority. Thus, first person should be used sparingly, or not at all, if the critic is going to maintain her authority as a critic.

But I am dubious about saying that any single critic's opinion is the only way to receive a given book. As one of my teachers said, if everyone in the room has the same thing to say about a book, it's a dead piece of literature. So to say that how I received the book is how I received the book, rather than how the book definitively is, feels more correct, kinder, fairer.

And I know I don't know everything about reading, writing, or reviewing. Without some subjectivity, I start to sound like a know-it-all, or a snob, or worse.

Still. My editors are right. Criticism is messy and unconvincing with too much subjectivity. I keep seeking the right balance of I and you, of critic and reader, with some author thrown in there, too. Without that balance, criticism feels either too limp or too steely. I am a good enough reader to suss out what an author is doing most of the time, but I don't want to lose track of the flawed and biased person who's reading, or start proclaiming myself the Great and Powerful Oz of book critics. That's not in anyone's best interests, not readers nor writers. Nor me.

For more subjective opinions, see below.

Out in the world:

I reviewed Anne Boyer's bring-you-to-your-knees essay collection A Handbook of Disappointed Fate for the Los Angeles Review. It's too, too good. And this review is very subjective, but hopefully in an authoritative way.

For Locus, I reviewed the third book in B. Catling's well-received Vorrh trilogy. I read all 1,400 pages of this trilogy in a week, and I know the overload involved there is not the only reason I fucking hated the books. I was on pins and needles the last couple of months waiting for this review to go on the website, because I am so proud of pointing out the sick colonialism and the dark, hideous horrors of these books. If you haven't read one of my reviews in a while, read this one.

I reviewed a short novel that seemed to come and go quickly despite being a lyrical wonder, Alyson Hagy's Scribe, for the Carolina Quarterly. The editor there is super nice and we're going to be working together at least a couple more times in the coming months.

I did a breathless three-minute review of a second PANK chapbook, Stacy Austin Egan's You Could Stop It Here, which was very good, for Pleiades. I hugely enjoy this format.

I feel bad about giving a net negative review to Hollywood vs. the Author, a collection of essays about writers in Hollywood, because it's the first book I've reviewed for Rare Bird and I really like the people at that press and the work they're doing. But the book had obvious flaws. What are you gonna do?

Also for Book and Film Globe, I wrote a snarktastic piece about the video for Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next," which pissed me off. My take pissed off some other people. Oh, well. My editor at that site is assigning me almost everything I pitch, so there will be much more to come there.

Finally, I wrote an essay about writing without pay that I posted (...behind a paywall) at Medium. If you find it interesting, I'd appreciate a share.