eject & reject

I’m always so curious to hear how other people deal with rejection. My strategies typically include:

  1. Whining. I find it very satisfying to tell other people — mostly non-writers — how haaaaard it is to get rejected and how they don’t understaaaaaand what it feels like. I’m not sure they enjoy it quite as much.
  2. Pretending it never happened. This works surprisingly well for me, particularly if the rejection is from an agent I wasn’t particularly excited about or didn’t truly think was the perfect fit. I just hit “archive” on the message, update my Google spreadsheet (surprisingly satisfying, even when the news is bad), and banish it from my mind.
  3. Trying to take the input really seriously. This mostly happens when an agent has requested a full and gives me me something usable to work off of — but in the handful of times it’s happened, the advice has been really great and I’ve read the emails approximately 52,000 times to make sure I really absorbed it. I can quote verbatim one recent email, the one informing my current round of edits…

… which I need to get back to right now. No more procrastinating for me (but if you’d like some more, this lovely post from yet another of my favorite bloggers has some great rejection-handling strategies. I like 3 & 4 especially).

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arts & crafts & writing

Sara Zarr is a wonderful YA author; I’ve only read one of her books but am fanatically devoted to her blog. (You see the pattern here, right? The pattern that involves me reading a lot — a LOT — of blogs written by authors and agents… I consider this “research” and “getting to know the field,” not “procrastination.”) (Ha.)

Anyway, Sara Zarr recently did five posts in a row telling the story of the publication of her first novel, and in the last one, she creates a great metaphor around the way she felt after the book was published and in readers’ hands:

I picture a craftsman, making a dining room table. He designs it, plans it, buys the materials, labors over it and does the best work he can. Someone comes along and wants it in her house. Money exchanges hands and the customer carries the table away. Now the table has its own life. The guy who made it can’t know if it will sit in an empty room and get covered with junk mail, or if dignitaries will dine at it, or if it’s going to be the stage where a family’s life is lived. Maybe it will get resold at a yard sale two years from now. Who knows?

Maybe he’ll sometimes run into the lady at the grocery store and she’ll say, “We love your table.” Or maybe he’ll get a note. And that can provide a little boost on days he doesn’t want to head into his workshop. That table worked out pretty good. It was appreciated. But it can’t be the whole reason his work is worth doing. And if he gets a note that says, “One of the legs is wobbly,” he can’t let that stop him.

I think that applies to the agent process, too. Publication can’t be the whole reason; learning from the people making the decisions has to be part of it too.

I am still struggling with this head-hopping thing, writing and rewriting my first chapter. The last 100 pages of my book are better than the first 100. They have more action and better pacing. They hit a groove that the beginning chapters — the first chapter especially — can’t quite find yet.

I’m working on it. No one wants my chair in her house quite yet, and I know that one of the legs is wobbly. And I’m working on it. And I’m going to fix it.

getting a head

So, the last two months of querying were kinder to me than the two before that. I don’t want to be too specific for fear of jinxing things, but let’s say I got some advice about revising the first chapter that could maybe potentially lead to something good, agent-wise, in the future. (It’s hard to type with my fingers crossed all the time, but I’m trying.)

Some of the advice had to do with head-hopping, i.e. point-of-view shifting, i.e. the kryptonite of all beginning novelists.

I’m still in the process of figuring it out, particularly the difference between an omniscient point of view — when the reader knows everything that’s going on everywhere — and head-hopping, when you’re switching too fast from one character’s head to another. Part of my narrative is in close third person, with readers seeing things from Eliza’s perspective, and part of it is omniscient… it’s split just about down the middle, and I’m not sure if it’s working or if it’s too jarring.

I’ve scanned all my favorite books and discovered some interesting stuff. Stewart O’Nan does it differently every time, but my favorite of his books is in close third. Lorrie Moore does all sorts of cool creative stuff in second person; Who Will Run the Frog Hospital has a second-person perspective from a character named Gwen, which is awesome. Margaret Atwood’s older work almost always uses close third person and switches heads only at chapter changes. When she has scenes with multiple characters in one place, the person who “owns” the chapter tells the story; I’m thinking especially of The Robber Bride, which has such amazing interactions between so many characters whose heads we’ve inhabited. (Interestingly, Atwood starts writing in first person for her more recent work and her science fiction, all of which I like less than the older stuff.)

As for mysteries, PD James writes almost entirely omniscient stories — without saying “XX thought,” for example. Most of the other mystery writers on my bookshelf seem to use first person, particularly the women-centric ones, and the voices are very very strong.

I’m trying to take this blogger’s advice about the difference between omniscience and head-hopping, and I think I understand the concept of voice, but it’s hard to apply it to my own work. Advice — and more sets of crossed fingers — appreciated.

hereby resolved

Here are my New Year’s resolutions this year:

  1. Make whatever needs to happen with the book HAPPEN.

That’s it.

Whether it’s rewriting the whole thing from a different POV, or tinkering with commas ’til I’m blind, or querying 50 more agents, or finding a professional editor/zoologist/psychic to read the ms — I’m going to make it happen.

NaAgFiMo resulted in only good things for THE CAPITAL ZOO… new possibilities, new perspectives, new potential directions and reasons for hope. Even though the blogging experiment ended abruptly when my mother had to go into the hospital just before Thanksgiving, it proved definitively that my own perseverance is the only thing that will get THE CAPITAL ZOO where I want it to be: in the hands (or on the screens) of readers.

I learned a tremendous amount in the last two (terrible, horrible, awful, please do not repeat) months of 2011, and I’m still sorting through a lot of it, but it’s not going to stand in the way of this book. Let’s go, 2012.

mind the gap

Somehow I stumbled across this post from YA author Sara Zarr, and it is just unbelievably beautiful and encouraging. A small excerpt (but trust me, you really should go read the whole thing):

Without risking failure, maybe even running headlong into it, there’s no chance for discovering something new and beautiful. Without wandering off the trail that the rest of the world is trudging on, we don’t know where we can go, what we can do, what’s out there beyond our current vision.

I’m reminded that the point of creating isn’t control.
The point isn’t saving yourself from embarrassment.
The point isn’t preserving an image of yourself dear to you, and/or dear to others, or earning out your advance or gritting your teeth as you check to see if your ranking, wherever, is ticking up.

The point isn’t avoiding failure.

Brilliant. Go read it.

meerkats: not mere cats

Last response to the question about the most interesting animals in the Capital Zoo: meerkats!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Wonderful coworker Carla asked whether the Meerkat Manor show helped inform the book, and the short answer is yes. I’d never seen it before I started writing, but I watched a million clips online and I felt like the show did a great job of creating linear stories out of the meerkats’ lives without being invasive at all. (And Yossarian and Flower were my favorites.)

The show actually factored into the book a bit, too. During her job interview for the head veterinarian position at the zoo, Eliza Lindeman brings up creating a second meerkat colony partly based on the show’s popularity. It proves to the zoo’s board of trustees that she’s a younger voice that’s more in tune with popular culture and helps her get the job, and establishing the additional colony is one of the first things she does when she starts.

Meerkats on guard! from vivapets

Meerkats are actually mongooses. They breed like crazy in captivity and have tons of personality — making them popular zoo exhibits in the Capital Zoo (and in real life!)

Awwww. via Animal Fact Guide

Awwww. via Animal Fact Guide

Plus, look at those faces. Meerkats!

‘your job is to write, not worry’

I’ve been reading Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog for months now, and it’s consistently a useful and kind-hearted resource.

Tuesday’s entry — which has the same title as this post — was written by an author telling the story of how he got his work published, and it was very heartening. I particularly liked being reminded of this:

Publishers are not supposed to see everything about a story that “works”; they are supposed to see everything that might potentially make a story not work. Agents are supposed to do the same thing. But just because an agent or publisher tells you something won’t work does not mean they are right.

THE CAPITAL ZOO has a sort of parallel problem to this author’s book, I think — it’s not quite literary fiction and not quite a hardcore mystery or thriller, but somewhere in between the two. I’m really hoping that what that means is that more people will like it and want to read it, and that its genre-bending qualities will actually make it more marketable… but I’m not sure, of course, and it’s hard not to be able to slap a clear label on it. So, this also seems particularly wise:

Until your book is released at last, there is no telling how readers will react. And until that time, your job is to keep writing. Keep working hard. Keep having faith.

the very best deadly sin

Sloth, of course!

Image courtesy of National Geographic

“Sloths” was another response to the question about which animal in THE CAPITAL ZOO you’d like to get to know, and I need to back up to explain the sloth thing properly…

Contrary to yesterday’s post extolling the virtues of YouTube research, the absolute best research I did involved interviewing a real, live person: the chief of exotic animal medicine at the vet school attached to the university where I work.

A librarian told me that he was a nice guy who might be willing to help me, so I emailed him essentially out of the blue. It must have sounded fairly crazy, a would-be novelist asking to discuss his job and zoos and a very particular question about a specific animal sedative. He was amused and easy-going and up for answering anything. In fact, he struck me as the essence of a good teacher: kind, generous, open, curious… he was willing to take considerable time out of his schedule to advance knowledge about a subject he’s passionate about, and to help someone else with no real benefit for himself.

Gratuitious photo of a sloth, from awesome-elephant.com

We met in person that first time and then I must have emailed him a dozen times with more and more questions, many of which started with “is it plausible that __________.” He always responded quickly and gave me a bunch of amazing ideas. One of the reasons on the long long list of why I’d like to get this book published is to publicly, properly, thank him for his help.

Another gratuitious photo of a sloth from awesome-elephant.com, because look at that FACE

Sloths appear in the book partly because my vet source mentioned them as an aside during our first conversation. I can’t remember the exact context, but it made me curious, and I went and looked them up and was totally taken by them.

The Capital Zoo keeps some two-toed sloths, which are loners and spend most of their time hanging from trees, upside down. They’re the world’s slowest-moving mammal — so slow-moving, in fact, that algae grows on their fur and acts as camouflage in the forest. They sleep a lot, up to 20 hours a day, and apparently it really feels as though they’re hugging you when you pick one up.

And, objectively speaking, sloths are adorable (but stay away from those massive claws) and generally awesome. I mean, look at this face:

Image courtesy of slothsaturday.tumblr.com

real chicks

I promise not to make this a blog solely about penguins [editor’s note: that’s a total lie, I promise no such thing] but I think I’m in love with the eight baby penguins in Central Park:

Quite a bit of the research I did for THE CAPITAL ZOO involved watching videos of animals online, particularly on zoos’ websites. This may sound like research in a yeah, right, “research” sort of way — and I won’t argue that it was a great procrastination technique — but the wealth of information about animals that can be found online is pretty amazing, even to a librarian.

I particularly fell in love with a section San Diego Zoo’s website that features different animal blogs and offers perspectives from various zoo employees. Amazing primary-source material and such a great view into a world that’s normally closed off to mere visitors.

Kiwi! Image courtesy of the San Diego Zoo

I like to imagine Jenny, the ambitious young keeper’s aide mentioned in yesterday’s post, writing one of those blogs. I think she’d take it very seriously… although when the disappearances started, I hope she’d clam up. (But maybe she wouldn’t. Hm.)