Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What Are You Looking at? Are You Writing About Me?

The other day, a group of my friends and I went to lunch, and at the table next to us, a woman was sitting alone, looking around the restaurant. She dug furiously into her bag, checked her cell phone, clearly agitated, looked around again, checked her phone, looked, checked, looked. My friends may have noticed her, but if they did, they didn’t comment on her behavior. They were too busy talking about the drunken weekends they had all had. But I kept sneaking glances at our neighbor. What was she doing? Was she waiting for someone? If so, who? Her husband? Were they in the middle of a nasty divorce and his tardiness was the reason for their relational demise? Was she about to be interviewed for a new job while taking a lunch break from her current one? Was she the first to show up to a blind date? Why was she so angry? Was she just an unpleasant shrew? Or did she have reason to be upset? To anyone else, she might have just been a harried patron, starved to hypoglycemic irritation. But to me, she was a story, a character with hidden motivations and goals, which were clearly being stymied. And as I turned to my friends and added my own snarky comments about debauched parties and office politics, I realized that I did the same thing with them as I did the woman. I noticed their inflections, their tilts of the head, the way they used their hands to emphasize the funnier parts of their stories. I absorbed the way they laughed or snorted, how their eyes sparkled or reflected prismatic colors in the sunlight. I took in what they were wearing, how one kept adjusting the collar of her shirt and how another scrunched her never-will-be-wavy hair. And I listened to their stories, the content and details of what had transpired on their Saturday nights, but perhaps with less ridiculousness than the version they were then giving.

As a person, I’m naturally perceptive, I think. I’m quick to pick up on someone’s mood, on the fleeting looks she might give another to relay her dismay or bewilderment. I’m also fairly introspective, and will keep events and conversations in mind for a long time, often rolling them through my head repeatedly like movie scenes so that I can layer them with my observations. I linger over these things because relationships—human interactions in all their levity and curiosities—arrest me. What goes on inside a person’s head fascinates me. It’s because of these interests that I write character-driven fiction instead of mysteries or horror (and also because I spook too easily to write those genres). And when I’m in the middle of a draft, I find that these qualities kick into high gear, sometimes rendering me hypersensitive. Or at least I feel as though I’m overanalyzing everything, not just in my writing, but in life in general. I don’t know if other writers experience the same heightening of his or her senses, if a horror novelist starts to see evil lurking in the mundane. At some point, I have to stop myself from thinking that every comment or email or silence is indicative of anything more than the face value of it. That sometimes, a statement is merely the product of impulse, that unresponsiveness is the result of distraction. Why do I do attribute meaning to everything when clearly not everything carries it? It may be because in a book, there are no wasted scenes. Or insignificant dialogue. Or haphazard action. Novels are the grand distillations of life, the collection of conversations and events placed specifically to move the story forward. And through these lenses, everything in the world garners import, deserved or not. Some people call that insight. Others may call it obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it’s where I draw my inspiration, the myriad possibilities why a person acts the way she does, why she says certain things, why she looks the way she does. And so I watch. And listen. And try not to look like a freakish stalker as I absorb the kernels of the everyday that may ultimately drive an entire book.

So there you have it. Yes, I may very well be looking at you, and yes, I may be writing about you, too. But it’s because you are endlessly fascinating, a relentless source of inspiration and potential that feeds my imagination. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing more a writer can ask for.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Come On—Let Me Give You a Hug and Tell You that You’re the Shiznit

I’m something of an affectionate person. Smile at me, and I’ll smile back. Wave, and I’ll return the gesture. Give me a hug, and I’ll just about smother you with my exuberance. I tend to touch people on the arm when talking to them, and I have no problems squeezing into a crowded couch (or onto a friend’s lap for that matter) at parties. More often than not, my personal emails are filled with emoticons and exclamation marks, and depending on the recipient, my work emails are, too. I’m quick to tell someone that I think she’s the shiznit, am quicker to tell her that I love her, and for every snarky comment I make, I’ll rattle off three sincere compliments (I’m pretty sure that’s the ratio). I like to give little gifts to my friends just because, and I’ll leave smiley face-ridden notes in my husband’s car because it’s Tuesday. In other words, I’m terribly—perhaps irritatingly—expressive. Pretty much all the time.

I didn’t use to be, though. Or at least not as effusively so. For sure, I grew up in a rather non-stereotypical Asian family, and my parents have always been generous with their “I love you”s, hugs and pet names. But they also have their culturally archetypical attitudes, and they prize discretion as a virtue. So much so that by the time I left home for college, I couldn’t imagine telling someone that I adored him or her unless I knew exactly how said person felt about me. And was sure that the sentiment would be reciprocal. Likewise, I wasn’t about to tell someone that he or she was awesome just because the thought occurred to me at that moment. Part of the reason for my hesitation—and perhaps for my parents, too—stemmed from pride and the balance of power that emotional vulnerability can tilt against my favor. Another reason was the assumption that I’d have future opportunities to express how I felt, that some things were best saved for special occasions so that they were rendered more precious by their rarity. After all, how much do we treasure a grumbled “good job” from a jerk boss who never exalts his minions? And how much do we value the “you complete me” from a significant other who’s maddeningly stingy with his thoughts?

My attitude changed a few years ago. Doctors discovered a golf ball-sized tumor in my cousin’s brain. Surgery was risky, they said, but inaction was deadly. So they excised the bugger, leaving behind remnants so that they wouldn’t nick his gray matter. He was in his twenties. He survived, but he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life monitoring the tumor and have it removed again when it grows dangerously large. Which, if I am to believe the neurosurgeons, it will. And each operation will bring bated breaths and clenched fists for both him and his family members who won’t know if he’s being whisked into the OR for the last time. Three months later, one of my husband’s close friends found out that she had a tumor on the base of her brain stem. She went to the hospital. And died two days later. She was thirty-six. A month later, my husband’s grandmother passed away. So did my father-in-law’s best friend. For the next year, we started to believe that brain tumors were going to grip us all, that death was hungry and lurking for the unexpecting at every corner. With each announcement of yet another horrible disease and another passing, I heard so many regrets from family and friends, so many statements like, “I should have told him more often how much I loved him. I should have told him what a wonderful person he was.” The more I heard comments like these, the more I felt like I was watching an awful after school special with its sickeningly axiomatic message. And the angrier I became. What kind of bullshit was this, everyone having held back their feelings for who knows what reason? As for my own reticence, was the fear of appearing uncouth really preventing me from expressing how I felt about others? Was I so afraid that my expression might not be reciprocated? What occasion was “special” enough to warrant what we should be telling each other every day? And the answer I kept coming to was, “Who cares if you appear unladylike? Or if the person doesn’t reciprocate? If it means something to you, for God’s sake, just say it.” So I do. Almost as often as I think it.

I think about Clueless every now and then. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies (and a surprising source of life lessons). In it is a scene where Christian asks Cher whether he should keep the leather jacket he just bought. Her response, in all of its teenaged, California glory: “Carpe diem. You looked hot it!” I like that for so many reasons. More than anything, though, I love her attitude toward the seemingly trivial. Why worry if you’re going to end up looking like James Dean or Jason Priestly? Do it anyway. Say it. Express it. Carpe Diem, indeed.

Now, let me give you that hug. Because you, my friend—and if you’re reading this and made it all the way to the bottom, then you are my friend—are the shiznit.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Writing? Life? How Hard Can It Be?

Some years ago, my husband and I were lounging around in the family room of our first home, which was wood-paneled in a hideous shade of Eighties dirty dirt brown. We’d been living there for over three years and had complained every day about how dated the house was, and that Saturday morning, I suggested that we strip the walls and restain them with a more genteel mahogany (because nothing says warm and inviting like dark, cave-like walls). “How hard can it be?” I asked. “I bet we can knock this baby out in a weekend.” Cheered by my optimism, my husband and I ran to Home Depot, were advised that varnish was the best solution to remove wood stain, bought two gallons of the poison and then went home, excited to renovate the three hundred square foot room. Two hours later, we both had massive headaches and were completely disoriented from the fumes, and this was after we’d opened every window in the house. The varnish didn’t work, and to our dismay, we now had a gaping section of lighter dirty dirt brown wall. We couldn’t restain the wall to the original color because we had no idea what it was, and we couldn’t add another stain over the original hue. So, we decided to paint the entire room a Pottery Barn pale yellow, which was perfect, considering that our family room was page 59 of the catalog (interior design is neither of our fortes). We returned to Home Depot, selected the color, bought five gallons of paint, and then went for Round Two, to which I said, “How hard can this be? I bet we can knock this baby out by the end of the weekend.” 

Three weeks later, we were almost finished. 

Six weeks later, the room was beautiful. 

It took forever to paint because the room was twelve feet high with an obscene amount of wainscoting, picture framing and crown molding. It also took forever because both of us were working thirteen hours a day and were painting whenever we weren’t at the office. One would think that I’d learned my lesson in timing. But several months later, a friend of ours asked us to help him move. And as I am now notoriously known to do, I asked, “How hard can it be? I bet we can knock this out in three hours.” Of course, we didn’t. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a cheerfully confident—and borderline delusional—outlook on projects and goals. And I’d always harbored a desire to write, even when I majored in Biology and French, when I pursued a medical career, when I went to law school, and then when I worked at a law firm. The one passion that nagged at me constantly, I put aside in favor of “real life.” Then one morning, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Barnes & Noble, reading a book, and I thought, “I’ve wanted to do this for so long. What am I waiting for? I mean, how hard can it be?” 

So I did it. Got a laptop and started writing. And discovered that it was damned hard to write a novel. And that it was even harder to become published. But I kept at it until I finished my first book. And I kept at it when it didn’t sell. I kept at it when my days had become so long that I couldn’t tell when one ended and the next started. But like the family room, I couldn’t stop writing. For every “I don’t think I can do this anymore” thought I had, I had two of, “but I still love it.” I took a step back and listened to my environment, to the complaints my friends had about their own career trajectories. I discovered that we were all in the same boat, wondering how our lives had turned out the way they had when our passions were elsewhere. We talked about it so much that it became the backbone of OFF THE MENU, that conflict of living up to everyone’s expectations while hiding the love of our existences. And because it was so close to my heart, the subject grew organically into an entire novel. 

After several iterations, the book sold to NAL/Penguin. I was nearly manic with joy. I don’t have children, but I imagine that the exuberance I felt is not unlike childbirth, when one forgets the pain and hardship and difficulties and long nights and debilitating self-doubt the very instant her agent says those magic words—“they love it. They want to buy it.” 

So that’s the lesson we can all take away from my experience. It wasn’t because I’m so awesome (oh, how I wish I were) that I was able to make it in an insanely difficult industry. It was that I continued writing, even when it seemed like everyone in the world was saying “no.” And I kept at it, even when I knew just how slim my chances of publication were. I love the movie Galaxy Quest, and as a rather unfunny joke, I often wander around the house, saying, “Never give up. Never surrender” (in full Mathesar nasally inflection). But it’s become my motto of sorts. That, and my litigator’s philosophy of, “I will take your ‘no’ to mean that you are open to further negotiations.” But it got me to where I am. And now, I feel like I’m living my dream. I’m working on my second novel on nights and weekends and holidays (I still have a day job that takes up a good bit of my time). And as I muddle my way through the manuscript, often wondering if it’s any good, if it even makes any sense, I find myself saying what I’ve always said: “Come on Christine, you can do it. I mean, how hard can it be?"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Publishing Is a Bit Like Shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch. Really.

A few weeks ago, I ditched work early, went to the mall and sat on the floor of a mammoth Barnes & Noble for three hours, reading a pile of books that I eventually cradled in my arms like a paper baby, hauled to the cash register and bought. I had told my husband that I’d take care of dinner, and across from the B&N is a Cheesecake Factory, so I placed an order for an inhuman amount of food (which, of course, I would claim to have cooked from scratch), was told that the wait would be half an hour and then wandered around the mall instead of returning to the bookstore, where I’d likely lose myself in another three-hour reverie. Now, unlike most women I know, I despise shopping and am not afraid to admit that I’m mildly terrified of bustling, sale-crazed crowds. At the same time, I was on a quest for some kick-ass fitting jeans (aren’t we all?), which might be the only item of clothing I can’t buy with a click of a mouse. So, what do I do? Go to the two stores where I get all of my clothes? Of course not. That would be too easy. Instead, I gawk at what has apparently become a nightclub in the middle of Suburbia, Texas. 

            It’s been a long, long time since I stepped foot in an Abercrombie & Fitch, and while I was aware that the company had revamped its image in the last fifteen years, I wasn’t quite expecting this. Gale force exertions of a fragrance akin to Drakkar Noir. Gut-thumping bass. And this was even before I entered the store. Which I did. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it was curiosity. Or disbelief. Who knows. 

            If I thought that the stench outside of the store was overbearing, then the inside of it was beyond breathable. The house music drowned out my gasping and eventual choking. Which wouldn’t have caused alarm anyway because no one seemed to work there. Or maybe they did. I couldn’t see them in the pitch blackness. Racks of stuff bumped into each other, making free movement impossible. And while I waited for my eyes to adjust, all while feeling enormously ridiculous with my overstuffed B&N bag, I spied jeans. An entire wall stacked from floor to ceiling with jeans. All of them sizes 00, 0, 2 and 4. Clearly, A&F is catering to the prepubescent. Which, for better or worse, is how I’m shaped. So, I grabbed as many pairs as I could and tried them on. What wash or color they were, I couldn’t tell in the dimness. And if I passed out while fumbling in the changing room, for sure no one would ever discover me. But here’s the kicker—despite the lack of lighting, despite the air filled with what can only be described as douchebaggery, despite the complete dearth of customer assistance, the jeans fit. Miraculously so. And that excitement—that notion that I wouldn’t have to trudge around the outlet malls (“What size are you?” “Irregular, apparently.”) thrilled me to death. I bought all of them. 

            So, what in the world does this have to do with publishing? Well, in so many ways, my road to publishing felt like my quest for jeans, and as I bumbled about the store, I kept thinking about its similarities to getting OFF THE MENU published. The industry is, intentionally or not, designed to intimidate a writer so that she questions whether she even wants to try. And when she finally shores up the courage to give writing a go, a thousand obstacles block her path. Want to write fiction? You need an agent. Want to get one? Well, most of them don’t want you. One wants you? Well, editors don’t. One of them does? Guess what, the editorial board doesn’t. The editorial board likes you? Huh, the publisher doesn’t. And so on, ad infinitum. After a while, it’s hard not to take rejection personally, to feel like a failure when you’ve poured everything you’ve got into a novel. It’s suffocating, too, not unlike the fragrance A&F apparently can’t get enough of, the yearning of publication when no one seems to be there, the feeling that you’re wandering around blind. But at the end, I did walk into the store, I did try on jeans, I did find some that fit me. And so it is with publishing. Try, try, try. And try again. Because there’s a word for someone who never gives up—published. And there’s a word for fitting jeans—readers. For whom I’m enormously grateful.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Show and Tell

By nature, I’m a very verbal person (no, you don’t say!). Wonder how I’m feeling? I’ll tell you, sometimes in patience-exhausting detail. Want to know what I think? I’ll blurt it before you ask. Words are my primary form of communication, whether in spoken or written form. It’s why I’m a litigator. And a writer. They’re perfect vehicles for reasoned expression and absurd fantasy, and while the former stokes my inclination for bluntness (“I know that we’ve only just met, but I totally love you!”), the latter indulges my creative side (“But you’re a fairy god, and I’m a minotaur. How will this ever work?”). I’m endlessly fascinated by the things people say, the stories they tell, the jokes they make. And while I may forget an acquaintance’s name or even what she looks like, more likely than not, I’ll remember what she said.

So, it’s a bit of a challenge when I encounter people who aren't verbal creatures, when I have to deal with those whose predominant form of communication are body language and facial expressions and actions and other non-verbal cues. One of my college roommates was the perfect example of this. She was a lovely girl, kind and thoughtful, but verbose, she was not. If she was happy, she might walk a little faster, smile a little wider. If she was sad, she might shuffle and purse her lips. And if she was pissed off at me, she would slam a cabinet door while giving me a death stare before stomping into her bedroom. She wasn’t mute, of course, but only once in a blue moon would she tell me why she was feeling the way she was, or what I had done to irritate her so. In so many ways, her behavior was absolutely maddening. But it also attuned me to watch her reactions to gauge what she was thinking, to be more sensitive to her demeanor to understand the reasons for her emotions. She didn’t have to tell me what was going on with her. She showed me.

Which is better — conveying one’s thoughts through chatty stories or emoting through action? In real life, they’re both vital, and they’re both effective. They both have the power to delight and to overwhelm and to charm and to frustrate. But one is never purely one or the other. A person would be completely one-dimensional if she were.

Fiction, on the other hand (and by definition) is the opposite of real life. Or at least, the conveyance of it is. Everyone in the industry has heard the following at least a million times—“Don’t tell me, for God’s sake. Show me. Show me, show me, show me.” And every writer I know — including me — struggles with the nefarious “showing versus telling” dilemma. How much exposition can a reader take before she starts to skip pages? Or even worse, to throw the book into the trash? How much internal monologue can I set to paper before I exasperate her and lose her interest? In a huge sense, it’s a question of pacing, of delivering information through action and dialogue, of imparting a tone through the same. It’s a matter of describing the background environment so that we can see it, of moving the character toward her goal, of giving her speech that rings true to her character. Of creating verbal pictures instead of staid documents. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and it becomes even more difficult when I think about it too much. So instead, I try to remember how my college roommate’s face scrunched up and turned beet red, how she balled her fists into white knots, how her lithe body stiffened with outrage before slicing through the air toward me in slow motion. And with little difficulty, I recall her opening her Elmo-esque mouth and stating with surprisingly thunderous power, “Christine, when I came home last night, I totally bruised myself walking into the couch again. Would it be too much to ask that you not rearrange the living room furniture every damned day?”

Sometimes, I’m glad that she wasn’t so verbal.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Back in law school, I was at a bar, and a total douchebag sat on a stool next to me and shouted his conversation to his similarly predisposed buddies. Over the course of the night, I discovered that he was in a band, that he was about to “tour,” and several other factoids that I’ve since forgotten. But I still remember that he uttered three sentences that I swore would never cross my lips:

○ “Man, last night I was so wasted that I…[insert douchebag comment].”
○ “Yo, dawg, who’s your publicist?”
○ “Dude, I’m part of an online networking site that has totally changed my life.”

Fast forward almost ten years. To my mild disgust, I’ve said all three (although usually without the “man,” “dawg,” and “dude”) and can pretty much bet that I’ll say them again in the future. I’ll skip the first one (I mean, really, who hasn’t said that?). The second, I’ll get to in a minute. The third is what I want to talk about. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that an online networking site—in my case, Facebook—has totally changed my life, but I know that it has broadened it significantly. Before I started writing, and even after my book had sold, I never considered getting a Facebook page. I didn’t know a soul who had one, and all of my friends felt too old to learn what the Internets had to offer. It was the cliché of clichés of prejudices—FB was unfamiliar, and we were too ignorant to give it a go. So, it became that thing, that generation-defining eccentricity that had ensnared young people (okay, I’m only 32, but there are so many times when I feel like an old 32. I mean, come on, I love soft foods that don’t require teeth. It’s just a matter of time before I’m leaving the house in a housedress to yell at the kids to get off my lawn).

Then, my publicists said that I had to get a FB page. It’s marketing, they said. It’s effective. Please. Just. Do. It. So, I did. With great trepidation. I filled out my profile info and added my headshot. And then I waited, wondering what it meant to poke people, to super poke people, to write on each other’s walls, and to engage in the thousand other bizarre, Japanese-game-show like applications that came with it. A list of suggested friends appeared in a column, inviting me to invite them to be my friend. I didn’t know any of them. And it seemed to me that if I invited strangers to be my friends, they would likely say, um, no, loser who’s destined to eat soft foods and yell at her neighbor’s kids, I don’t know you. Who wants to be rejected online when the non-cyberspace world is already chock full of rejection? Then a sweetheart from work added me to his friends, which took away the pressure that I’d be alone on FB, sad that the cool kids hadn’t invited me to sit at their lunch table. And then another kind soul invited me. And then another. Soon, I started inviting people to be my friends, and now, I’ve got an overwhelming number of friends who are constantly updating their statuses, posting pictures and links, super poking and writing on each other’s walls.

Well, as it turns out—FB kind of did change my life. Or at least my perspective anyway. A large number of my FB friends are writers themselves. They’re successful, multiply published authors. Or they’re struggling to find an agent. They’re serious non-fiction creatures. Or witty, comic playwrights. Wherever they are in their careers, they’ve been uniformly and incredibly encouraging and thoughtful and uplifting and inspiring and funny and everything I value in a person. They’ve written me heartbreakingly kind notes in an industry that is anything but, compelled me to do the same for them. And over the past six months or so, I got to know them so that they’re no longer fuzzy ideas of people, but my real friends. What’s even crazier is that they shrunk my perception of the publishing world from a vast ocean into a very small pond, and in a true game of Six Degrees of Separation (or in this case, only one or two degrees), it seems that everyone in the writing community knows everyone else. Including me. And the knowledge that there are people who understand exactly what I'm going through — that I’m not alone in this erstwhile solitary journey — is the reason I plan to stay on FB.

P.S. I said that I’d come back to the publicists part. Indeedy, I have two—one in-house, the other independent. They are a vital, vital part of the book world, and, I’m happy to say, also my very dear friends. I know that I’m ultimately a product, an ISBN number who’d do best to run in the black, but I also know that my publicists care for me as a person, too. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

P.P.S. So, I’ve come to discover that many of my pre-FB friends aren’t the Luddites that I thought they were. They’ve got their own FB pages, and the number of applications they’ve got running is proof that they’ve broadened their notions on communication and relationships. And in an age when time and geography can wreak havoc on rapports, I’ve found that we can all connect on this wonderful place called the Web. Maybe I won’t be sucking pudding through a straw and terrorizing my neighbors anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Just Be Yourself

This post is for my writer peeps who are just starting out with the craft. It’s also for my non-writer peeps who wonder why I sometimes stare blankly into space.

I’m in the middle of revising my new novel, and as I write and rewrite and rewrite again, I’ve been wringing my hands over showing versus telling, the reader’s patience for internal monologue, diction and most importantly, whether a character’s words or actions ring true — that is, whether her dialogue and actions sound like something she would say or do (by the way, I’m going to use the pronoun “she,” but it applies to boys, too. I’m just too lazy to use “he or she” constantly). And in the middle of struggling with all of the above, particularly the latter, I thought of a comment that a reader who knows me made about OFF THE MENU: “Christine, I love how I can hear your voice in your book.” Which made me think of voices in general. What does it mean, to have a voice in a novel? It’s so amorphous, like saying that one’s food has soul, or that a face has character. What exactly, is voice?

I think at the heart of the matter is a defining characteristic, or a set of defining characteristics that immediately identify a writer. I can describe friends as having certain traits because for the most part, they’re consistent. Friend A is quiet, kind and perceptive, and minus an atypical bar brawl, she is always those things. Friend B is caustically witty and unabashedly lascivious, and apart from an introspective moment or two, he is always those things. Those, by way of analogy, are their voices, and if you were to give me a quote from one of them and then ask me who said it, I should be able to tell you. So it is with writers and our voices. It’s the way we convey a message. The tone we use. The effect of our sentence structure, length and verbage. It’s how I can tell Nick Hornby apart from say, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Patchett from Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. All fabulous writers with their own distinct voices.

So, why am I talking about voice? One, because this is my blog and I get to talk about whatever I feel like (ha!). But two, because recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether my voice is getting lost in my WIP, if the way I’m piecing the work together sounds like me. It’s an odd exercise, which I’m trying to keep in check for fear of going insane (“Does this sound like me? Does this sound like me? Who am I? What am I?”). I’ve also been thinking a lot about a couple of people I deal with on a regular basis, people who are incomprehensible to me because, for forced use of analogy, their voices are off. And after some time considering why this is (hence, the staring into space), I think the reason is because they’re trying to be other people. They’re embodying who they think we want them to be. Or who they think they ought to be. It’s not unlike the themes of OFF THE MENU, except instead of pursuing activities that fulfill everyone’s expectations, they’re changing their personalities to do so. And the result is a confusing mess that leaves me with either the wrong impression of them, or none at all. Which is likely the last thing they were striving for.

So, what’s one to do? Well, if you’ve read this far into the post, then maybe you’ve figured out why I’ve titled it, “Just Be Yourself.” It’s kind of become my philosophy as of late. Whether you’re witty, dry, boring, super serious, mousy, a Star Trek-TNG enthusiast (anyone else but me?), a dance freak—whatever—just be it and not some poor simulacrum of something else (exception: if you’re an asshole or douchebag, I would suggest that perhaps you do try being something else). Because if you’re not, the only thing people end up taking away is inauthenticity. And that takes me back to my characters, for whose dialogue and actions I keep gauging against who they are as people. It also takes me back to my own voice, which has to be my very own. And at the end of the day, what it is is what it is when I’m not trying so damned hard.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Day in the Life of Me

Since people found out that I’m a writer, they’ve been asking me a lot of questions — how did you do it? What made you want to write? Is such-and-such character based on so-and-so? How are you still working a day job? Which almost always leads to the question, What does a typical day look like for you? And to my astonishment, a number of people want to know what it’s like in excruciating detail. Why, exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe they’re curious about how much time is involved in writing a book to see if they can pull it off, too (we’re all closet writers, aren’t we?). Maybe they’re wondering if there’s a secret to time management. Maybe they’re simply inquisitive. Maybe one day, I should ask. If I had to guess though, I think that a lot of people simply share my own draw to a quick trip into someone’s life and head, which is why I love the Proust Questionnaires in Vanity Fair and the Pivot questions that James Lipton asks his guests at the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio. Some time ago, there was an article in Time magazine that showcased what ten families from ten different countries ate for dinner, pictures and all. I was obscenely fascinated. So, in celebration of curiosity and unadulterated narcissism, here’s what my writing days (let’s do weekdays) usually look like, give or take an errand, happy hour, nervous breakdown or two:

4 a.m. — Open eyes two hours before the alarm clock goes off. Sometimes, it’s 3:30. I don’t know why God has given me a Circadian rhythm like this. Get up, make a cereal bowl-sized cup of coffee, get on my computer, answer emails (I always, always do, if you’re wondering if yours will get a reply), play a few games of Spider Solitaire, fiddle with Facebook, listen to music (I’ve been on a Massive Attack streak as of late), read CNN, MSN, Fox News, NY Times, The Superficial, Perez Hilton and The Onion to see what’s going on in the world. By 4:30, I’m ready to roll on either my Work-In-Progress or revisions, depending on where I am in the process.

6:20 a.m. — Shower, fix face, figure out what to wear to work work, curse misbehaving hair.

7 a.m. — Wake up snoring husband, kiss him goodbye, leave for work work. Thank the sweet baby Jesus that my commute isn’t what it was when I was at the firm.

7:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. — or later. Or earlier. Try not to screw up too badly as an in-house lawyer. Defend The Man against lawsuits and other nefarious happenings.

6 p.m.-7 p.m. — back at home. If husband is there, debate what to do for dinner (“What do you want to eat?” “I don’t know.” “What do you want to eat?” “I don’t know.” Repeat for next 15 minutes).

7:01 p.m.-10:30 p.m. — write, play on FB, play Spider Solitaire and music, respond to work emails if important, eat if dinner vacillation has taken longer than usual.

11 p.m. — write if creative juices are still flowing (Internet will be shut down at this point so as not to attract my goldfish-esque attention). If not flowing, as is often the case, then catch up on all the TV we’ve DVR’d and fret over word glut and deadlines.

Sometime after that — go to bed. Consider ramifications of a single REM cycle on memory and sanity.

So, there you have it. Weekends are about the same, but without the day job, and every once in a blue moon, I'll conk out for an embarrassingly, possibly worrisome, long time (somewhere between 5 and 14 hours). Now, before you think that I have no friends and that my husband is about to file divorce papers for spousal abandonment, I do have friends, and I’ve been reassured that no proceedings are about to take place. Lucky for me, my friends and husband have about as much going on in their own lives. Lucky for them, I’m pretty good about knowing when to shut down the maddening, obsessive hole-myself-up-in-my-office-like-a-hibernating-bear mode and spend time with them. If there’s an event that’s important to them, I’m there. If they need me to lend an ear, I’m there. If my husband just wants to lounge on the couch for a while and watch TV with me, I’m there. My days are long for a purpose that’s extraordinarily important to me, but I also know that at the end of the day, it’s all for nothing if I can’t share it with the people that matter most.

Until the next one!

Monday, September 1, 2008

What in the World Have I Done?

Happy Labor Day, all! It's been way too long since I've posted, and this Labor Day, I'm making a resolution to post more frequently. I have loads of topics that I want to talk about, but not enough time! (oh, to be able to stop time so that I can write more). So, while I get my act together, edit my Work-In-Progress (what a mess that is), think about fun topics such as Facebook, generational gaps, the use (or overuse) of exclamation marks (which goes back to the generational thing) and so on, I thought I'd post a blog that I had written as a guest for other blogs. Enjoy!

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Writing is wonderful. Magical, even. With words, one can create imaginary worlds. Can delve deep into a character’s head. Can render a fictional scene from a true event that had gone horribly awry in real life. Writing can result in delicious, popcorn entertainment. And it can move a reader so that she recognizes that what she’s experiencing is art in its purest form. I love writing. I obsess over it. And in hindsight, I love even the difficult bits of the process, the word glut-filled nights when I think that my novel-in-process will never go anywhere. I love how writing makes me feel, how it opens up my perspective and makes me more empathetic. As isolating as the exercise of writing can be, it’s also a strangely humanizing activity, one that makes me feel more connected to the rest of the world.

Publishing, on the other hand, is another bag altogether. It’s a business that’s hideously generous with rejections. Hideous, as in having something like a 99% rejection rate for fiction writers. With those kinds of odds, I’m much better off at a craps table in Vegas. Still, I was foolhardy enough — and, like most writers, unreasonably optimistic — to think that I might creep into that glorious one percent. And after years of work, no sleep, a two-foot stack of rejection letters and a divine miracle, I did. My first novel, OFF THE MENU, sold to Penguin, and I celebrated as if I had just won Powerball. I celebrated as if I had achieved something better than winning Powerball because I had. My husband jumped up and down for joy. Literally. My friends congratulated me and told me that I was awesome. My coworkers (unfortunately, I have an arduous day job) gawked at me enviously. Life was good. It was better than good.

Fast-forward thirteen months to eight weeks before publication. My publicist told me that my first book signing was going to be August 15th, and suddenly, I felt exactly the way I’d made my characters in OFF THE MENU, which is to say that I was gripped by paralyzing fear. After all, it’s one thing to hide away at home and write, to have my baby safely within my grasp. It’s a different thing entirely to have that work out in the public where everyone can see it. I kept thinking, what in the world have I done? What had possessed me to push so hard to get my book before an audience that might judge? What if my friends laughed at me? Or worse, thought I was a hack? A fraud? The self doubt that was plaguing me was made worse by the fact that everyone was telling me to laud myself, a characteristic that my Korean parents — who had adopted genteel Texas sensibilities — had spent their entire lives telling me not to do. It’s unseemly, they said. Terribly uncouth. And yet, as an author, I have to sell myself. I know that. I knew it even when I was praying that a publisher would notice me. And still I went for it. And still I was terrified when everyone was telling me that I should be nothing but thrilled.

Of course, I am thrilled that OFF THE MENU’s out on bookshelves now. But I’m still anxious and nervous and all the other nail-biting emotions that go along with having such a personal piece of me out there. Maybe all authors feel this way. After all, we want our readers to enjoy our books. To feel like they can escape from the real world for a few hours. To feel uplifted and inspired and entertained. In a way, having my novel in the public is like hosting a party. I want everyone to be happy and taken care of. And if that’s why I push myself so hard to make my second book better than the first, and the third better than them all, then maybe this anxiety isn’t such a bad thing.

Post script: I feel much better now that the signing's over, but the nerves are still there. Maybe they'll always be. But that's okay.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Yes, it CAN happen!

My debut novel, OFF THE MENU, hit bookshelves on August 5th, and recently, a bunch of people have been asking me how I went about getting published. The short answer? By keeping my chin — and optimism — up even though I was receiving stacks of rejections every day. The long answer takes me back to a Facebook question I answered for my profile, which called for my most embarrassing moment. Unfortunately, my life is riddled with heinously embarrassing moments, and one of them occurred at a writers conference I attended in the mountains of California, where I met my agent. I’d been invited to an industry cocktail party out of the graciousness of one of the conference’s board members, and being an unpublished writer who was desperate to make a good impression, I researched the guest list, which included dozens of publishers and agents. This was my chance to wow them, I thought. And maybe snag an agent. So, I perfected my pitch. Practiced my smile. Wore a cute outfit. As ready as I’d ever be, I showed up at the party, determined and excited. And it would have been a great party had I managed to stay upright for more than thirty minutes. I can’t say what exactly caused what happened next — the high altitude, perhaps, or maybe low blood sugar, or the single sip of wine in my system — but in front of God and everyone who mattered in publishing, I fainted. As in, hit the floor face first. With my wine glass still in hand. I don’t recall the fall, but a number of revelers told me afterwards that I then did a pushup before a couple of concerned hosts helped me to a chair, brought me water, and then guided me back to my room, where I spent the rest of the night horrified and cringing. I’d never fainted before, and of all the times in the world to pass out, I couldn’t believe that my body had chosen that moment to try it out. I wrung my hands (literally), sure that I’d forever blown my chances to find an agent. I worried that publishers would think that I was a jackass at best, and a liability at worst. I fretted all night, wishing that I could turn back time and praying that there might be at least a few attendees who hadn’t witnessed my complete lack of grace. Alas, everyone heard about the fainting girl in the darling ruffled shirt.

The next morning, I spent some time apologizing to people I recognized from the night before, and my pitiful conversation with a striking woman turned into a long one about the troubles with thin mountain air, me and my book. She asked me to send her the first chapter of it, which I did as soon as I returned to Dallas, and three days later, she called to request the rest of it. The next week, she signed me on, made me change a few things in the manuscript, and then sent it out to a bunch of publishers. It went nowhere. But I began writing what would become OFF THE MENU, and after a number of rewrites, it sold to Penguin.

So, there you have it in a nutshell as to how I went about getting published. I worked really, really hard, wrote during every free second I had, learned the industry, went to several writers conferences, attended a cocktail party and then passed out. I guess the road to publishing is a bit like that — a mix of preparation and luck. It’s incredibly labor intensive, and sometimes, what seems like the worst thing in the world ends up becoming the best. Because the kicker of it all is that my agent would never have noticed me had I not caused a ruckus at the cocktail party.

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