Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

What Writers Mean When They Say "I've Been a Writer Since I Was 6"

Well, the insurance adjuster declared my sister's house too unsafe for us to empty it ourselves--snapped rafters, etc.--so while we waited for professionals to do that job, Dan and I spent the weekend moving things from my parents' house into storage. Yes, Pru is moving her family into my old bedroom, even though the insurance would pay to put her up in an apartment while her house gets rebuilt. Her ulterior motive: to save my parents from their hoarding behavior. We're all hoping that, when she moves back out in 6-12 months, she'll leave a more livable space behind her.

We unearthed some wonderful stuff: my father's love letters to my mother from basic training; disturbing 19th century jewelry made of woven human hair, which entirely fails to commemorate whatever dead relative it was supposed to remind the living of; a handpainted scroll from the Shinto shrine at Tagata, home of the infamous fertility festival, with detailed illustrations.

After years of holding onto them, my mother has finally given me my earliest books. Not the ones I learned to read on, but the ones I wrote. Back in 1976, my first grade teacher organized the PTA moms for our class to type up our stories and bind them into books, complete with covers made of festive, waterproof wallpaper. We then illustrated the stories we'd written. My mother informs me that I was the most prolific first grader at Fort Knox. Something tells me the Vassar archive will not, after my demise, give pride of place to Little Billy Goat's Piano, The Island of Moloona Loona, nor even to Charlie Snake Reads a Book.

I had the biggest fight with old Mrs. Bennett when one of the PTA moms censored What I Saw at Monticello. My parents had taken me on a trip to Thomas Jefferson's very spiffy home, which he had designed and erected himself. Erected. The word was in the tour guide's patter, and when I got home, I looked it up. Apparently the word reminded the PTA mom who typed my manuscript of something she thought first graders ought not to know about, so she changed the word to "architected." I protested that I had used the right word, and that it had come back to me changed into something that wasn't a real verb at all, and it wasn't fair. Why, I wanted to know. Poor Mrs. Bennett. What was she supposed to do? She couldn't very well go to a PTA volunteer who was already giving lots of hours, and ask her to retype and rebind the book for me on my ungrateful say-so, and Mrs. Bennett certainly couldn't explain to me why the PTA volunteer had thought she needed to change the word "erected." On the other hand, she couldn't dispute with me over the word when I showed it to her in the dictionary. I loved Mrs. Bennett, but my attitude toward my teachers never recovered. From first grade on, I was ready to jump to the conclusion that I knew better than they did, anytime they disagreed with me. And this, when the list of things I was too young to understand about the situation was longer than the full text of What I Saw at Monticello.

I have mellowed out a bit since 1976.

Anyhow, the Bob manuscript is ready for beta readers. Anyone who reads it to the end will see why it absolutely cannot keep its current title, "Bob and the Black Head of Atho." I'm having difficulty getting past my affection for the title it can't keep. Proposals for alternative titles will be greeted with glee. Proposals for cuts will be greeted with gratitude. Proposals for additions to the ms will be greeted with weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, because it's 37,000 words long at the moment.

matociquala, who was very encouraging about the storytelling when she read the first few pages in the workshop session at the conference, sighed when I told her the word count--people are always sighing over my word counts--and said, "Don't bother cutting it down to 25K. It won't be any easier to sell at 25K than it will at 35K." She knows her stuff, and her advice is always worth listening to.

I suspect that, in my place, a sensible person would have resigned herself either to cutting it back even further than 25K, or to pumping the story up to 80K (the low end of the novel range), in the interest of appeasing the market, which is not especially welcoming to novellas. Novellas are problematic. Some magazines still buy them, but they eat up a lot of pages, and no editor is at ease dedicating a quarter of an issue to a totally unknown writer.

But do I have any sense? Judge for yourself. I received her advice with relief, because it meant that, instead of spending my energy on a desperate effort to cut the story back by a third of its length, I was free to concentrate on making the story good. If Bob is doomed to be trunked, I might as well please myself.

Probably this ms will finish making the rounds of the very few markets that publish novellas in my genre right quickly, and sooner rather than later will get trunked indefinitely. Let it be a lesson to me: if I need to carve miniatures, I should start with smaller blocks of marble. Read it now, if you're curious. It'll be a long time before I have the kind of name that makes a magazine editor want to look at a 37K novella.
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