Advantages of Having Written One Novel, However Lousy and Unpublishable

One of my mom friends (Ms. Connect-the-Dots) and I are going to see New Moon tomorrow morning. And I am not ashamed. I know Stephenie Meyer has her share of detractors, but I think it’s an amazing accomplishment on her part to have tapped into a fantasy that so many people can participate in. What’s not to love about years-long emotional foreplay?  Plus, I think that the pacing in the last three books of the series is superb.

Pacing is not something I ever used to think about when reading a novel, but since I finished writing a novel of my own this past August, it’s become something I pay a lot of attention to. A couple of literary agent blogs I read regularly, Pub Rants and Nathan Bransford, both have had some great posts about what pacing is and why aspiring writers should be obsessed with it.

Writing a novel changed the way I read in a lot of other ways besides the fact that I’m now hyperattuned to pacing. I used to love to just let myself get lost in a story, and I only noticed the writing when it was either phenomenally beautiful (e.g. Cormac McCarthy) or bad enough to distract me from getting lost in it (e.g. Robert Ludlum). Now I find myself paying attention to things like how much the author uses dialogue as opposed to paraphrasing, how much description she includes of the settings and the characters’ looks, and how much “showing” versus “telling” he does.

So, for everyone out there who’s doing NaNoWriMo this month, take heart. Even if your novel turns out lousy and unpublishable, you will still benefit from finishing it. If your experience is anything like mine, it will help you become not just a better writer, but a more sophisticated reader as well. (I didn’t do the official NaNoWriMo myself, but did my own personal NaNoWriMo in the month of August. Thank you, Chris Baty, you are a national treasure.)

Everyone seems to say that you don’t get good at novel-writing until your third one. I read an interesting book called 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might, by a guy who had worked for an independent publisher for years. His press focused on discovering new fiction writers, and one year, if I recall correctly, they had something like 30 first-time novelists. Interestingly, in the case of every single one of those novelists on the roster, the book they were getting published was the third one they had written. So there’s another advantage of having written one novel right there: it gets you closer to that third one which might actually turn out to be decent.

Stephenie Meyer is an example that supports this third-novel theory. It sounds as though she started on a novel once before writing Twilight, so that Twilight was actually her second book, depending on how you look at it. And from a purely technical standpoint it’s clear to me, thanks to my new amazing magical technicolor writer-vision, that Twilight was not all that well-executed, and the pacing in particular was only eh. But from New Moon on, she really gets it. She has mastered pacing, and she has the whole novel-writing thing down pat.

Right now I’m about 20,000 words into my second novel, and I feel a bit resigned and fatalistic about it, given that the odds are so clearly stacked against its being any good. All the same, it’s another step closer to that magical Novel #3. Plus, it’s something I’ve had in mind for a long time and it’ll be nice to get it out of my system and then move on to something else.

Cool Quote from Cormac McCarthy

I don’t know about you all, but I loved The Road and can’t wait to see the movie. Just read the recent interview with Cormac McCarthy in the Wall Street Journal. McCarthy says:

Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It’s not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Things I’ve written about are no longer of any interest to me, but they were certainly of interest before I wrote about them. So there’s something about writing about it that flattens them. You’ve used them up.

I suppose this is kind of a roundabout way of saying that writing about painful stuff can be therapeutic and helpful, although his way of saying it is much more awesome and writerly. I love the image of “flattening” things by getting them into writing. Although maybe you have to be a genius like Cormac McCarthy to really flatten things effectively. The way I write, I’m probably just plumping things up.

First “Real” Post

Hi there. I’ve decided to launch this writing blog/website to link to my published writing and give more information about my unpublished projects. Years ago, I used to do a blog called Strange Violin Music, and I liked that title and its rationale, so I’ve decided to revive it here. I’ve also imported a few of my old (old) posts from that blog, just so I won’t be starting out all naked and post-less. In the past when I used to blog I found that blogging, while fun, took up a lot of time and creative energy. Since I’m now putting most of my energy into more formal types of writing projects, I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting, but I’ll try to give an update at least once a month. Just thought I’d announce that in advance so no one gets all excited about reading this blog and then has their hopes dashed.

This obviously isn’t an anonymous blog, since my name is in the URL and the whole point is to link to my writing, but I do want to make a token effort at protecting my family’s privacy, so in case I blog about them, for the purposes of the blog my husband  ex shall be known as “Jean-Marc,” and my two-year old daughter as “Amandine.” Those are not their real names. Anyway, thanks for reading!

Update: I think I’m going to try for one post per week. Any more than that, and I’ll get too distracted from “real” writing. Any less, and my brain will get all clogged up with unused ideas for blog posts.

Chili for a Chilly Day

Thanks so much to everyone who made such nice comments to me while I was buried under a mound of papers and textbooks and exams … And Happy New Year to all!

So, I have been getting more and more into food and cooking – actually, more like obsessed with food and cooking, especially now that I have Jean-Marc to use as an experimental gerbil in the kitchen. As a result, this blog may be turning into kind of a foodie/cooking blog now. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

(But no one should think that cooking is unphilosophical. According to a biography I was reading a while ago, Gandhi used to give people recipes all the time. OK, so I’m not leading a country out of colonial bondage or anything, but I do belong to the school of thought that says food can be good for the soul.)

Anyways, on to today’s recipe. It began with a trip to the liquor store to find champagne to toast the new year. The liquor store had kindly set out a chafing pan of warm chili along with a sign encouraging customers to help themselves. Jean-Marc and I had a little, and to our surprise, it was delicious, full of rich stewed tomatoes and beans.Continue reading “Chili for a Chilly Day”


I had to see this movie in spite of all the bad reviews, simply because of Keira Knightley’s haircut. I mean, what a cool haircut! I remember trying for a pretty similar look in the mid-80s, when I was about 13 years old. I even bleached my bangs, surfer style.

To my surprise, I actually ending up liking the movie, in spite of the violence. It was funny and also a visual treat. Funky, weird, flourescent colors, and a fun, uber-hip, toungue-in-cheek soundtrack. Nothing very deep, mind you, in this movie – but creative, fun, and full of surprises. In the most surreal scene at the movie’s temporal and narrative center, the soundtrack has a couple of Tom Waits songs, like:

Jesus gonna be here
Gonna be here soon …

And then Tom Waits himself shows up! He plays a grizzled old preacher who runs around waving the Bible at everyone out in the desert and makes a bizarre but poetic prophesy. It’s wild! I love Tom Waits and had no idea he would turn up in this movie, of all places. I first discovered his music in Germany, when I subletted a friend’s apartment the last few weeks I was there and got to listen to her record collection (yes, vinyl records – for those of you too young to remember, people used to play them on turntables after 8-tracks went out of fashion and before iPods were invented), and listened to Swordfishtrombones about a hundred times. So cool!

This movie is not for everyone, but if you’ve ever secretly yearned to wear thick black eyeliner and go around punching people who annoy you, if you’ve ever had anything remotely resembling a goth or teen rocker or punk or straight edge or other youthful angsty rebellious phase, if you ever liked any 80s band involving gelled hair (a la The Cure, the Thomspon Twins, Generation X, the Clash, britpop generally, or Nick Cave), I’d say: What the hell, go see it.

Nick Cave (left) appearing in the 1988 film Wings of Desire, with gelled hair

Update: I this this New York Times review the best.

My New Pal

The other day I drew up the blind on one of my windows and jumped a little, because facing me, about eye level, was a hungry-looking reddish-black spider about the size of a silver dollar. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized the spider was on the other side of the glass. It had spun a web in between the ridges of the window frame and so it looked as though it was sitting right in the middle of the pane. Once I got over my initial startlement, I was fascinated, and kept stealing glances at it throughout the day as I worked at my desk next to the window.

That evening, when I started lowering the blind again, the spider got all panicky and started wriggling around as if it was scrambling to hide itself somewhere, in spite of being smack dab in the middle of a transparent web spun onto a transparent window pane. It didn’t realize that it, too, was safe on the other side of the glass and wasn’t going to get crushed or swept away by the blinds.

The next morning it was still there, and hadn’t moved when I got home in the evening. This time, when I lowered the blind, it stayed calm and collected. As the days went by and the spider was there most of the time, I kind of got used to it and even started to feel a certain affection for it. My little spidey buddy.

Now it’s gone! Poor little thing. I hope it just went to visit one of it’s spider pals. Maybe there is a spider happy hour or something tonight!

You Can Tell Just By Looking That I’m An Expert

This afternoon I was at a street-crossing on my way to the metro to go meet some friends. I was kind of staring off into space, waiting for the light to turn green, when suddenly a woman standing next to me turned to me and said:

“OK, random tidbit from a total stranger …”

I looked around to see if there was anyone else she could possibly be talking to besides me, but there was no one else. She was maybe in her late forties or early fifties, with short frumpy hair and glasses and shorts and was probably wearing Birkenstock sandals – not a glamorous or particularly attractive figure. Basically, she could have been somebody’s mom on the way to pick them up from soccer practice.

She continued: “With internet dating, why is it that it’s the men without the pictures who turn out to be either totally super hot, or extremely talented and interesting?”

Me: Stunned silence. “Ummmmmm …”

Her: “While on the other hand, it’s the guys with the pictures who seem like they’d be handsome and cool who turn out to be jerks and not very pleasant in person. I mean, you’d think this would be a relationship prerequisite, you know, to be pleasant to the person you hope to be in a relationship with. But they don’t seem to get it, and they always ask to see my picture before meeting me.”

Me: Trying wildly to process the information that this random woman who looks like she’s on her way to pick up the kids from soccer practice is suddenly talking to me about internet dating. I grope for a response. “Ummm, maybe you’re just idealizing them too much on the basis of their picture, and so you’re inevitably let down?”

Her: “Oh, interesting. There could be something to that. But you know, I work with facial recognition software on a daily basis, so of course there’s no way I’m going to send my picture out to random people on the internet. And then I’ve had some guys that were into me based on my picture, and then were let down when I turned out to have a head on my shoulders as well. I can only play the bimbo for so long. It’s better if they like me based on my intellect and then see the picture.”

This woman looked about as bimbo-like as Janet Reno.

Then she said she was wondering if she shouldn’t just try to date the rich guys, as there had been several times when she’d had to break up with guys because she lost her job and had to move to another town because the guy she was with couldn’t support her on his salary.

By way of humoring her and making conversation I said: “Well, the rich ones aren’t usually very nice.”

“Oh, really? Do you think that? Hm, maybe you’re right,” she said.

“Well, because often the things you have to do in order to get rich aren’t the things a nice person would do. Like being a lawyer for example – you know the ones in the private firms, you have to work all the time and basically make work your whole life, and yell at people …”

“And the training is all about how to win in every argument.”

“Yeah, exactly, and you have to be super aggressive, and law school – it’s all about being super competitive and being better than other people – you basically have to feel like you’re better than other people to be a good lawyer. And of course DC has the highest percentage of lawyers, basically, in the world,” I continued, warming to my theme.

(In fairness to rich people and to lawyers, I’m sure there are a lot of you who are actually quite nice. But the truth is, in my internet dating experiences I learned to be wary of rich guys and lawyers, because they really did seem to be the biggest jerks most of the time.)

Then she asked me, “So … how do you succeed in this whole crazy business. What’s your advice?”

Of course, my first piece of advice should have been “Don’t take advice from random people on the street,” but that would have been a little self-negating. So I said I thought the key thing was not to get hung up on stupid superficial things (e.g. money or cars or supermodel looks and so on), and to be flexible and patient and forgiving – the main thing was to get your priorities straight and then be patient until you found someone who also had their priorities straight and shared your values.

“Hm,” she said, mulling this over. “Huh. That’s not what a lot of dating advice books say, is it?”

“No,” I laughed. “They mostly say things like: Realize that no one will ever be good enough for you and remind the person you’re dating of this constantly.”

“Hah,” she said. “That’s great. I get the best stuff from random people on the street. I’ll have to remember that … how’d you put it? ‘Realize that no one will ever be good enough for you and remind the person of that constantly.’ Hah.”

Just then we got to the metro station. “Well, good luck,” I said, and we parted ways. I walked on thinking: “I so have to blog about this.”


Here are the two poems, anyway, and my translations:

Der Nachbar

Fremde Geige, gehst du mir nach?
In wieviel fernen Städten schon sprach
deine einsame Nacht zu meiner?
Spielen dich hunderte? Spielt dich einer?

Gibt es in allen großen Städten
solche, die sich ohne dich
schon in den Flüßen verloren hätten?
Und warum trifft es immer mich?

Warum bin ich immer der Nachbar derer,
die dich bange zwingen zu singen
und zu sagen: Das Leben ist schwerer
als die Schwere von allen Dingen

The Neighbor

Strange violin, are you following me?
In how many far cities has your solitary night
Spoken already to mine?
Do hundreds play you? Or only one?

Are there in all great cities
Those who without you
Would have lost themselves long ago in the rivers?
And why does it always involve me?

Why I am always neighbor to those
Who fearfully bring you to sing
And to say: Life is heavier
Than the heaviness of all things.


Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied.

Love Song

How shall I hold my soul still,
That it does not touch on yours? How raise it
Up above you to other things?
Oh gladly would I bury it away
Somewhere lost and in the darkness
In a strange and silent place
That would not stir when your depths stirred.
But all that touches us, me and you,
Takes us together like the stroke of a bow
That from two strings draws a single tone.
Upon what instrument have we been strung?
And what violinist has us in his hand?
O sweet song.