Saturday, August 4, 2007

When We Were Orphaned

Barbara Fister (Guest Blogger)

I’m a crime fiction fan. I want my stories to come with conflict and angst, plots that double back on themselves, and moments of sheer, gut-wrenching panic. So if I have to choose between a simple-minded fairytale and a good, dark thriller, which am I going to pick?

I have to admit, in real life, fairytales are tempting. My life of crime started out that way. I wrote a book, threw darts at Literary Marketplace, sent out queries and got an agent. He secured a generous three book contract in a preempt the day after it went on the market.

Big yawn. And they lived happily ever after. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the angst? Come on, you call this fun?

Hold on. I’m just getting started.

The editor who loved my character left the house, with all of the love apparently stuffed at the bottom of her briefcase. (Technically, this is called “being orphaned.”) Nobody could find the memo about why they’d bought the book in the first place. There were rewrites to do. Lots of rewrites. The economy started to slide downhill and on one sunny day in September the world became a darker place, cast in what Art Spiegelman so brilliantly called “the shadow of no towers.”

All in all, it took more than three years from that fairytale beginning before On Edge was finally published. Some people liked it. The LA Times called it “gripping” and the San Jose Mercury News put it on their list of best mysteries and thrillers for 2002. But by the time it was on the shelves it was becoming clear no matter how many times I reworked the second book in the series, no matter how hard I tried to mind-meld with my new editor and figure out what I could do to fix the problems she saw in it, there really wasn’t a place for me and my series character at the fairytale publishing house.

I should have known better. Should have noticed that gingerbread siding, the frosting on the roof, the suspicious trail of vanishing breadcrumbs. Bad things happen in those fairytale houses, and no wonder. Have you read any fairytales lately? The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm put their orphans through the tortures of hell, and Hans Christian Anderson . . . forget the Disney version, read the original. That dude was seriously twisted.

Eventually it came, the phone call from my agent that I’d been dreading, giving me the bad news. (Technically, this is called “being dumped.”) He suggested I work on something new while he worked hard at discovering that nobody else wanted the sequel, either. I dealt with disappointment by being brilliant at my day job, seeking elegant-sounding euphemisms for “dumped,” and skimming through “Publication is Not Recommended,” a selection of rejection letters from the Knopf archives reprinted in The Missouri Review. Reading rejections of works by Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, and Stephen King isn’t just about finding good company for your misery, it confirms that publishing is, indeed, a crap shoot.

And, of course, I wrote.

Writing has always helped me make sense of things, makes me reach for meaning by taking whatever it is that’s bothering me and giving me a sideways approach at understanding it. When a social issue I’ve been reading about in the news is put under a fictional lens, I can examine the fissures and faults, the right and the wrong of it. The craft itself is all about making sense. Sometimes it doesn’t go well, and I delete more pages than I keep, but there’s something intrinsically satisfying in the effort to find just the right words, the right flow for a scene, the emotional heart of a story. And when it works, when things come together, when that problem you couldn’t wrap your head around when you read about it in the newspaper takes on meaning through the nuances and shades and structure of a story - that makes it all worthwhile.

There’s a lot of emotion tied up in writing that has nothing to do with the stories we want to tell. Part of the grief of being dumped is knowing you’ll never get to learn the rest of the story of a character who was real to you, an orphan who will never have a home except in your own imagination. The other, less attractive part has nothing to do with writing. Humans are hardwired to have cravenly Pavlovian responses to praise or criticism, whatever its source. And sometimes that buzz turns out to be coming from a chainsaw.

It’s hard to remember, in the clamor and clang of the attention economy, as those Pavlovian responses do bad things to your head, what the point of it all is. But eventually you get to a place where the clamor dies down and the chainsaw shuts off and in that sudden stillness you ask yourself, Why am I doing this? A question quickly followed by its ugly stepsister: Would you keep writing if you knew nobody would ever publish your stuff again?

I wrestled with it for a while, then told the stepsister to get her ugly ass back to that fairytale where she belonged. I want to write crime fiction. Period. I want to keep looking for the perfectly-formed Platonic Mystery, the book that is exactly the one I want to read. When I find a book that delights me it makes me want to stretch my own muscles and try to find my own best voice. That’s the part that I love, the thing that got me started in the first place. I know it will come with setbacks and plot twists, doubts and moments of panic. Trouble is my business, after all. Down those mean streets a woman must go.

I’m blessed with an agent who stuck by me. I was fortunate enough to have several people at St. Martin’s read the manuscript of In the Wind and decide they liked it enough to take the financial gamble of publishing it. It’s thrilling to work with an editor who reads with heart and skill, who can put her finger on something that seemed vaguely off but can suddenly be fixed. And yes, trivial though it is, it’s a relief to be able to stop searching for a better way to say “Actually, I was dumped” when well-meaning friends ask when my next book is coming out. Now I can say “next year.”

As Chandler said in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in everything we call art there is a “quality of redemption.” He wasn’t talking about being published, getting reviews, getting praise while ducking the beatings that come with the territory. He wasn’t talking about “happily ever after” endings. He was talking about the writing itself, the adventure story that at its heart is a search for a hidden truth. Whatever happens in the next chapters of my life, that’s something I want to keep working at. As the man said: such is my faith.

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Deb Baker said...

A terrific, poetic take on "getting dumped". All we can do is focus on our writing and learn to adapt. Great post.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Loved what you said about "making sense of things." Me too. It's what keeps me writing. That and wanting to share the story with others. Thanks so much for guest blogging with us.

Barbara said...

Thanks, Deb and Lonnie - there does seem to be an emotional cross-current in the writing business, one strong current being the writing itself (which has its own eddies and rapids) and the undertow that's all about self-image. Sometimes they're pulling in different directions.

I suspect one is more vulnerable when writing fiction than non-fiction (at least that's been my experience) because your imaginary world is more interior, closer to the center, more individual, so harder to intellectualize.

Whatever it is, it's eerily reminiscent of high school. Eek.

Cyndy Salzmann said...

Great post. I so hate the pull of that undertow...

Barbara said...

It's powerful, isn't it, Cyndy? Probably the same kind of undertow that leads to eating disorders among other things.