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!

. . . .

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.