Category Archives: Writing a novel

El Troomp: the pinata

Leaving Guanajuato, the book, and explaining Donald Trump to Mexicans

I swear, the longer I stay in Guanajuato the harder it is to leave. But tomorrow the plane is taking off with or without me; my six weeks is up.

I’m writing this afternoon in Café Tal. Best coffee in town, perfect coffee shop vibe. The windows are open, a cool breeze is drifting through, and the endless parade passes by on the street: faces, voices, colors, snatches of conversation in that musical Bajio accent. I’m nostalgic and I haven’t even left yet.

I realized this morning that I haven’t blogged about the book during this trip. That’s mainly because the day-to-day stuff doesn’t seem that interesting: get up, make coffee, eat some breakfast, then start digging around in the manuscript, tweaking some sentences, deleting others, playing around with descriptions and passages of dialogue, then sometimes tossing what I’ve done because I decide the original is still better.

It’s tedious, a lot more tedious than writing the original draft. The best analogy I can conjure is that re-writing a book is like a big home renovation project. Once you start taking stuff apart and pulling down the old structure, things can get very complicated very quickly.

When I got here, I’d hoped to be more than halfway through the revisions by the time I left. My best guess is that I’m maybe a quarter of the way there. That’s largely the result of all the second-guessing I’m doing when I take out the literary crowbar and start pulling chapters or paragraphs apart. The little stuff – tightening up the language, changing the rhythm of dialogue – is pretty straightforward. But the big stuff, like altering a character or the relationship between characters, has ripple effects through the rest of the book. It is not to be done lightly.

I’ll start re-thinking a character’s essential personality or worldview, then I’ll start re-writing stuff, and then I start thinking about how much of the rest of the novel will change as a result. Then I stop and re-read random chapters featuring that character later in the book. And I see stuff I really like – stuff that would have to be cut or drastically re-written if I alter the character too much. Do I really want to ditch all of this?

I have to remind myself that I’m new at this. And re-writing is proving to be the toughest part of the process for me. It’s put-your-head-down-and-slog work. When I was writing the first draft, I’d catch these waves of energy that would carry me through eight-hour days. Re-writing can make my head hurt after a few hours.

I’m glad I’m in Mexico for this part, it’s kept things fresh for me. The chapters that are set in Mexico keep getting new layers and new details, stuff I’m jotting down in my little notebook every time something catches my eye (or ear) on the streets.

Which brings us to Donald Trump (how’s that for a transition?).

I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump, and I sure as hell didn’t plan on talking about him down here. But at least twice a week, someone – a waiter, a bartender, a taxi driver — learns I’m from the U.S. and wants to know what I think about “El Troomp” and all that stuff he said about Mexicans.

They don’t share their own opinions of Trump, maybe because I’m a stranger and a gringo. Mainly, they seem astonished/worried: Could he win? Could he be president?

No, I tell them, he won’t be the president. Not a chance in hell.

But what do I know? Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota – Minnesota! I just don’t want to believe that the dark nativist streak that’s always been a part of the American dialogue on immigration could actually produce a president in the 21st Century.

The Mexicans who ask me about Trump don’t sound outraged – being dissed by their wealthy neighbor is an old, tired theme in Mexican politics. They seem more fascinated and horrified that a candidate from a major American party (who’s leading all the polls) has ditched all the usual tropes about undocumented immigrants –they’re ignoring our laws, draining services, taking jobs from Americans, etc. — and unleashed the ugliness beneath: they’re really just horrible human beings.

He’s wrong about Mexicans, of course – do I really need to say that? Just like the nativists a century ago were wrong about my Italian ancestors: They’re poor, they’re uneducated. They crank out babies by the dozen. They’re criminals (mafiosos! Look what Al Capone’s done to Chicago!) They won’t learn English. They’ll never assimilate.

Rinse, repeat. The Germans, the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians – they were all going to overwhelm (or dilute) America with their strange language/religion/customs.

Until they didn’t.

Xenophobes never change their tune. And they’ve been wrong about every immigrant group for more than 200 years. Anyone still want to kick out the Irish?

Trump’s paternal grandparents were German immigrants, who arrived long after a noted American publisher wrote this screed about the Germans he thought were ruining Pennsylvania: “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation … few of their children in the country learn English … the signs on our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German.”

He went on to say that unless the incoming Germans could be diverted to other colonies, “they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Ben Franklin (who had published America’s first German-language newspaper 20 years before his rant) was wrong about the Germans. Just like Donald Trump is wrong about Mexicans.

“Is that really what people in America think about us?” an 18-year-old bartender asked me a few days after I got to town.

Some Americans, I told him. But not nearly enough to make Donald Trump president.

master new floor 2

How not to write a novel in six easy steps

So anyway… where was I? The Cook Islands, I think. Then a long silence. So let me recap the past six months or so; we’ll call this “Six ways to not work on your novel for months at a time.”

  1. Finish major editing and decide to put the thing down for a month or so. This was the plan – and I say that with the caveat that my life is almost completely unplanned at this point. I got back to Austin from Colorado in September after chopping 200 pages from the manuscript and had a big blowout weekend with my friends at ACL Fest in early October. Then everyone left and … well, I fell into a pretty good funk (guyspeak for “depression”). I clearly underestimated the psychological impact of blowing up some of my life’s main structural features. I’d been a journalist for more than 20 years, and now I was… what exactly? A writer? A wannabe novelist? I just knew I wasn’t ready to dive into the book again. I felt drifty and twitchy. Much pacing around the house. Which meant the only cure had to be…
  2. ripping out carpetStart a major house project. This began innocently, with a Craigslist post in November. I forget what I was actually looking for. A lamp? The ad I spotted said: bamboo flooring, 400-plus square feet, $50. Really? And it was the same flooring I used in the investment house that I’d sold to pay for this whole adventure. Floating floor, cut it and click it together. Easy. I called the woman and within a few hours I had a garage full of slightly used flooring, figuring it was enough to re-do my master bedroom (for the record, I’d never laid a floor in my life). That, of course, led to new baseboards, new door trim, fresh paint on the walls … and hey, guess what? She’d actually sold me about 650 square feet, enough for all three upstairs bedrooms. They gotta match, right? Two positives from this: a full renovation of the bedrooms, and it kept my mind and hands busy all the way through January (which is when I decided to build a platform bed, a headboard and two nightstands, because I’m a masochist). And by then I was starting to think, “Hey, weren’t you writing a novel or something?” So I decided to…
  3. Sign up for writing workshops and dabble around with the novel. The Writers League of Texas rocks. They really do. One way in which they rock is by doing these workshops for folks who are anonymously toiling away on their various books. I signed up for a couple of them focusing on revising and rewriting. They were great. They got me fired up. I started messing around with chapters, sketching out character bios in more depth. I showed my mess of a manuscript to my friend Lisa, who gave me great (and positive) feedback. I was back, baby. There was just one little thing I had to take care of first…AAS
  4. Become a writing consultant/part-time editor. Just before the Cook Islands trip in December, I ran into Bob Gee, the state desk editor at the American-Statesman (my former place of employment), who mentioned that he needed a backup editor to help during the legislative session for a few months starting in February. It paid reasonably well, and it was evenings only. Perfect, right? I could work on the novel during the day, then edit at night. Then I had lunch with another Statesman editor friend, Andy Alford, who wanted me to work with four of their younger metro reporters as a writing coach. Sure, I can do that too. We’ll meet in coffee shops and dissect their writing. Fun. Even more cash flow (my nest egg was shrinking). Plus, I love working with writers. She also wanted me to do a few round-table discussions on writing for the whole staff – which turned into a rather massive open-ended conversation about the state of writing at the newspaper, and that turned into me organizing seven critique groups for about 40 writers. When I looked up at the end of the legislative session, it was the end of May, time to…IMG_1787
  5. Renovate a house you’ve never seen, 750 miles from home. Somewhere in the middle of all that freelance work, Nathan called. Nathan’s the guy who bought the aforementioned investment house from me. He liked what I’d done to it. And he’d just bought a vacation house in Taos, New Mexico and wanted to know if I’d go up and work on it. Taos? Never been. Heard good things. Why not – can’t turn down another income opportunity, right? So a few days after finishing my consulting/editing gig, I left a set of keys for the California family that’s renting my house for the summer (thank you again Craigslist) and drove Nate’s F-150 up to Taos. The house was… well, not particularly fresh. Picture nicotine-tinted walls, rat shit in the corners, and a general air of neglect perfumed with a musty stink. About four days into my 3-week stay I got a nasty sinus infection that laid me up for a week. Taos is worth its own blog post, so I won’t get into the midnight bear visit and all the rest right now. The short of it is, I got the project finished, loaded up the F-150 last Wednesday and spent two exhausting days on the road (thanks to ear infection #2), getting back to Austin just in time to…WLT conf
  6. Go to a writing conference and get reminded what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. The Writers League’s Agents and Editors Conference was last weekend at the Austin Hyatt. Three days of schmoozing and drinking and going to panel discussions on all manner of writerly things. But the highlight is the agent consultations – if you’re willing to lay down $50 for 10 minutes of face time with an agent. Which I was. Even better, I got my first two choices among the agents (it’s a bit like 300 nerdy kids trying to buy dates with the same 10 or 15 prom queen finalists. Everyone walks around asking each other, “Who’d you get?”) And preparing for that first consult was exactly like getting ready for my first real date. Racing mind, sweaty palms, muttering to myself. Except this time I had a page of notes to study beforehand (but no Binaca). The nice volunteer lady showed me to the table, the agent smiled, and I blurted out the entire plot of my novel in about 3 ½ minutes without taking a breath. He smiled, nodded, and said: “Sounds interesting. Send me the manuscript when you’re done with it.” Which, to continue the analogy, felt like getting to second base – better than I did on that first date in 1985 in my dad’s monkeyshit brown Olds Omega. Two hours later, I was sitting across from another agent, who was a bit less amped about the book, but asked for the first 30 pages. First base. I’ll take it. And now that the conference is over, it’s time to…

IMG_4715Go to Mexico for six weeks and get back to work on the novel. My plane leaves in the morning. I’ve rented an apartment in Guanajuato, one of my favorite places in the world – and also the home of two of my characters. So hopefully I can channel them in the winding cobblestone streets while I whip this fractured mess of a book into some form of coherence. I’m not sure what to think about the past six or eight months. I was mostly very busy, mostly earning money, occasionally paralyzed by my freedom, intermittently guilty about not working on the book. But if nothing else, I spent most days doing something I love to do. Even if it wasn’t writing. I’m going to call that success.



How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.


Chainsaws and scalpels

The weather in the San Juans was just about perfect over the weekend: low 70s in the daytime, big fluffy clouds drifting over the aspens and dragging their shadows up the mountainsides. I would have enjoyed it a little more if I wasn’t trying to decide who to kill.

I’m 240 pages into editing the draft of my novel and sometime late last week, I decided someone else needed to die (and die sooner in the story). Writer’s bloodlust, I guess. If I have to lop off big chunks of the story to shorten this beast (147,000 words, if you’re keeping track at home), then someone’s going down with those parts of the ship. It just took a while to decide who would draw the proverbial black bean. It was a little creepy, mentally lining up my characters like the criminals in The Usual Suspects and saying to one of them: sorry, I know you survived in the draft, but…

Why kill someone else? Why increase the body count? Because these characters are making a perilous journey and I realized that the perilous part doesn’t really hit home until the climax, near the end of the novel. That made me think about something in Anne Lamott’s book (the wonderfully-written Bird by Bird), about letting bad things happen to your characters, and I’m realizing that I was a bit of an overprotective parent the first time through this story. So in the re-write, they’re getting knocked around more.

And one in particular gets knocked dead. A minor character. They have much higher mortality rates than main characters (did you know that the average life expectancy for a minor character today is only eight chapters? True fact). It was actually pretty easy once I convinced myself that she needed to go and plotted out how I’d do it. It was, I suppose, like a lot of pre-meditated murders: the planning took a lot longer than the actual deed. About 10 minutes of typing, and it was finished.

I haven’t even started the real re-write yet, by the way. I’m reading through the draft for the first time in about a year, getting familiar with the story again and alternately reaching for the scalpel and the chainsaw. The scalpel is all the little stuff that I can’t let pass without marking: tweaking descriptions and dialogue, minor trims to sentences and paragraphs, fixing punctuation. I’ve made, oh, about 5,000 of those so far.

I’ve also killed off entire chapters – probably more than ten so far. That’s the chainsaw work. Most were just little scenes that I liked, but in the cold light of editing, they don’t serve the greater story so they get the big “X” through them. One of them featured a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to interview a suspected undocumented immigrant near the river and botching the Spanish, while the man patiently answers the questions even though he can tell the agent means to ask something else. Then he starts speaking English because he’s not undocumented after all, he’s a local having some fun with this rookie. “I got the amnesty back in the ’80s,” he tells the agent. “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Hilarity ensues.

It’s gone. Chainsaw victim.

This is slow work, slower than I’d expected. I still had that newspaper mentality when I started this stage of the process, thinking I could burn my way through 50 pages a day (which is what I did the first time I “edited” the draft. Turns out I just tickled it a bit). Now I’m marking up every page, making notes about how I want to alter sections or whole chapters. When sudden inspiration has struck, I’ve re-written an entire chapter or significant parts of chapters. If I get through 25 pages in eight or nine hours, that’s a good day. Some days it’s more like 10 or 12.

Yesterday I “finished” 20 pages. This particular section was part of the buildup to the climax, and I’m seeing what a tangled mess I made. Dead-end plot tangents. Multiple twists that should be straight lines because they’re more confusing than intriguing. Little cameo characters who, like a tepid lover, arrive on the scene and quickly depart without making much of an impression or impact on anyone. Whack, whack, whack.

It feels good knowing that the story will be shorter, tighter – and hopefully a lot better. But I gotta admit, drawing big X’s through entire pages of prose that I remember agonizing over is … not so fun.

And when I’m done making all of my thousands of little marks on the hard copy, I’ll scoop them all up, along with all the new bits and pieces I’ve been writing on the laptop, and all the notes I’ve made in two legal pads, then take a deep breath … and start re-writing the whole thing from the beginning.

Then the real fun begins…


Why my novel is absolute crap (right now)

...and this is just the carnage on one page
…and this is just the carnage on one page

I remember how excited I was when a real, honest-to-god literary agent agreed to take a look at my novel last year. I had just finished what I thought was a thorough edit of the manuscript, cleaning up the rough spots, correcting little errors, re-writing bits of dialogue and description, and I felt pretty good about it. The agent said he was glad I was doing revisions because many authors don’t bother (he’d apparently seen a lot of ugly manuscripts).

Yeah, I can just imagine, I wrote back, feeling a bit smug. But I’m a professional writer, 20-plus years as a reporter and editor. I got this.

I emailed it to him. Waited a couple of months. Then he wrote back and said “this isn’t my style, sorry.” I asked for more specific feedback. I think my exact words were “I have thick skin, let it fly.” And he did: cut big chunks of this draft; stop trying so hard to be “writerly”; and read some books on how to write fiction (he provided a helpful list).

I was disappointed. But I tried to keep perspective. I’m a beginner, and landing an agent on the first try was probably wishful thinking.

Now that I’ve read the books he suggested and I’m looking at my novel for the first time in nearly a year, I see what he was talking about. It’s a mess.

Which is not easy to say. I thought it was pretty good before I sent it to him. People I trust read it and liked it too.

I sometimes switch to the handy ottoman desk
I sometimes switch to the handy ottoman desk

Last week I went into town and printed out a fresh copy of the manuscript, planning to sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting (that was the advice from one of the books). That didn’t happen. I’ve read through about 10 chapters so far, highlighting parts I want to keep, crossing through big sections that should be cut and making pages of notes on a legal pad as I go. I keep jumping to the laptop and writing down bits of new dialogue and thoughts on how certain chapters should be re-written.

The thing is shot through with flaws. Chapters with no clear point of view or multiple points of view when there should be just one. Long sections of description that are all style and no story.

Like this paragraph:

“How did things go at the factory today?” the father asked, his eyes on the panorama framed through the windshield. The flat valley fell away from the road on all sides. A small boy herded sheep on the grassy fringes. A man on horseback bounced into a trot, black cowboy hat dusted gray. The starved land blurred past the window, whitewashed fenceposts like rib bones poking through skin stretched too thin.


I loved that paragraph when I wrote it, because I’d seen that panorama from a bus during a trip to central Mexico, and like a good journalist I wrote it down. Now I read it and roll my eyes. Three separate images and an overworked simile. And nothing’s happening other than a guy looking through a windshield asking a question that doesn’t provoke a very revealing answer.

I have entire chapters with Border Patrol agents hiking through the brush doing Border Patrol stuff. Which I think is fascinating, but now that I read it again, those chapters don’t go anywhere, they don’t really move the story forward. I need to weave the Border Patrol technique into the main action: there’s a coyote (people smuggler) out there who’s been abandoning people to die in the brush and the agents need to catch him fast. They can’t be walking around for three chapters holding a seminar on how to track people through the badlands of South Texas.

And I haven’t even talked about the one-dimensional characters…

It’s discouraging. Sitting in my little cabin with just my evil little brain for company, I’m hearing the vinegary voices of self-doubt and fear of failure: This? You quit your job for this?

Um, yeah. I did.

I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote this novel with no background in fiction writing, mainly just to see if I could do it. I went at it like a newspaper reporter – I banged out the draft in about three months, then gave it a quick clean-up of an edit, as if it were a really long newspaper story and I was on deadline.

Now I have to tear the whole thing apart and basically start over, using the draft for parts. And trying to see it with the eyes of a fiction writer.

I scribbled out a couple of quotes from Anne Lamott and from the writing conference I attended in June, and taped them to the wall above the folding card table where I work:

Every good novel starts with a shitty first draft

Great novels aren’t written, they’re re-written

So this is apparently normal in the fiction-writing world. Good to know.

But I still need a beer now.


Literary speed dating

Over the years I’ve been to a lot of journalism conferences, and I know the drill: Friday morning, check in to the convention hotel and get the badge and the schedule; Friday and Saturday, go to a bunch of panel discussions and hope they’re worth the time; Saturday night, go out for drinks with all your new friends, then blow off all the Sunday morning sessions while you close the blackout drapes and think about coffee.

Which is pretty much the arc of every professional convention, I imagine. So when I headed to the downtown Austin Hyatt at the end of June for the Writers League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference, I was interested to see how a bunch of fiction writers do a conference.

But mainly, I was there to troll for agents, which is one of the conference’s big draws: dozens of literary agents, publishing house editors and others in the business, all packed into one spot for the weekend (They sold out this year).

Of course, every other unpublished wannabe-novelist was doing the same thing. And the first agent-hunting opportunity was the Friday night happy hour.

It was like a high school dance where only six girls showed up. Writers huddled in little packs, trying to recognize the agents from the photos on the conference program (“Don’t look, but over there is the agent from Zarftoggle Literary….”). Every head around the little elevated cocktail table would turn to see the smiling Zarftoggle agent surrounded by a hovering pack of writers waiting for their little bit of face time so they could give their pitch.

I knew nothing of this pitch thing until I signed up for the conference. Don’t you just start talking about your book? No, you don’t. You need to compress your hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs that you can spit out to an agent in a minute or two. Then, at the conference, you can either approach an agent randomly or pay extra for a 10-minute session with an agent – sort of like literary speed dating.

I had paid for my Saturday morning agent-date, so I had one shot at least. And in the days before the conference, I’d noodled out my pitch — a page and a half of notes scribbled on a legal pad. Too long, I know, but I’ve never been accused of being short-winded and I figured I could just talk really fast:

My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set in Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border where a group of desperate people from Mexico meet each other and their smuggler at an abandoned hotel and soon have to rely on each other to survive the journey on foot across the Rio Grande and through miles of barren brushland so they can reach their destinations in the United States… (big heaving inhale)

That was just the first paragraph. I had a half dozen more, talking about some of the main characters, the plot points, the fascinating moral dilemma faced by my Border Patrol agent, and so forth.

I strolled around the ballroom Friday night, drink in hand, hoping to randomly bump into an agent who would give me a big smile and say, “You look like an interesting and talented writer, tell me all about yourself and your fascinating project!”

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that Becka Oliver, the executive director of the Writers League of Texas (who I’ve gotten to know since I joined the League and who’s been a huge help to me), grabbed my elbow and steered me to a New York-based agent and said “This is Dave Harmon, he’s got a project I think would interest you.”

Bless you a thousand times, Becka Oliver.

Now I had the agent’s full attention. Show time. Don’t screw it up.

I’d done a couple of practice rounds with other writers, but I hadn’t delivered my actual pitch to an actual agent with my actual mouth. Thankfully, this agent was gregarious and warm and put me at ease so I could spit out my too-long pitch: My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set…

I got halfway through paragraph two when he stopped me. “That sounds interesting, I like it. Send it to me so I can take a look.”

Wait, what? Already? I hadn’t told him all the nuances of Border Patrol agent’s crucial moral dilemma. But he said he’d look at it, what more could I ask? And I could feel other writers behind me, hovering. So I thanked him, grabbed another drink and quietly pissed my pants with excitement.

The rest of the conference turned out to be worth the price of admission. Since I’m a fiction newbie, just about every panel was a little string of revelations to me. The agents and publishing house editors on the panels were generally smart and funny and encouraging — and ready to answer questions from all of the unpublished hopefuls like me who crowded around them after each session finished.

Saturday morning was the arranged date, this time with a Houston-based agent who mostly represents minority writers who write about minority themes (this was clearly stated in her bio). She immediately looked me up and down and wanted to know why I requested an appointment with her. Because, I told her, all but one of my main characters are Mexican or Mexican-American. She gave me a slightly skeptical smile. “Okay, let’s hear your pitch.”

Again, I got about five lines into the pitch when she cut me off. “I’d like to see it,” she said. She wasn’t looking skeptical anymore. We chatted about Houston and the book business and other things for the rest of the 10 minutes, then I got up to leave, doing a little fist-pump once I was out of her line of sight. Two pitches, two requests to see the novel.

Now I just have to deliver the goods. I told them both I’d need a couple of months to whip it into publishable shape. And now the clock’s ticking…..







cowboy laundry

Reading about writing at the cowboy laundromat

cowboy laundry

It’s probably about time I start writing about … writing. Which is the whole point of living in a plumbing-challenged log cabin in the San Juan Mountains for the summer. I have a draft of a novel that I need to turn into something that doesn’t read like a draft of a novel.

I haven’t touched it yet, the novel. It’s sitting there, a yawning 365-page abyss waiting for me to fall in and start flailing around. Before I take that plunge, I decided to get myself some education in the craft I’ve committed to. Since I didn’t get into the writing program I hoped would provide that education, I’m reading books on fiction writing instead – starting with Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein is a legend in the business, a novelist-editor-teacher whose book was recommended to me – along with several others – by the Dallas literary agent who read my draft and basically told me it was bloated and overwritten (he said it much nicer than that). I went on Amazon and bought every book he mentioned and now I’m slowly plowing my way through them.

I’ve finished two of them in my first 10 days in Colorado. Which is slow. I’m taking my sweet time because Stein’s book is so dense with concepts and tips – most of them new to an amateur like me – that I didn’t try to read more than two or three chapters a day. I’d highlight things as I read, then type notes into the laptop to use as a cheat sheet once I start my revisions.

I’m starting to see what that agent saw. I have a lot of work to do to make this novel publishable. It has too much static description (I do like to paint a pretty picture), characters that aren’t rounded enough – or rather, jagged enough. They’re too normal and likable, they need some secrets, some rough edges. I need to pare down pages and pages of dialogue that don’t have enough tension or conflict and chop out some scenes that slow things down.

This line from Stein jumped out at me: “Journalists know that short sentences step up pace. They also know that frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace … those are simple observations that come to fiction writers only belatedly. And when nonfiction writers turn to fiction, they often forget these simple rules.”


I finished the second book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers (by Renni Browne and Dave King, if it matters to you) yesterday at the Laundromat. This where the cowboy comes in.

First, a little scene setting: like a lot of newer buildings in Pagosa Springs, the local Laundromat is going for that Old West storefront look – complete with a covered front porch. Inside, of course, it looked like a standard-issue American laudromat: cheap tile floor, fluorescent lights, rows of chrome front-loaders sloshing people’s clothes around, and those rolling wire carts that kids like to turn into bumper cars while their parents pretend those aren’t their kids.

I rolled up to this frontier-wannabe laundry house (they didn’t have Maytags in the Old West, did they?), and outside leaning against one of the porch posts was this cowboy. Built like a shot-putter, thick everywhere. A black mop of a beard. Huge hands. He wore a flat-brimmed brown hat that had lost its original shape long ago, a rumpled red plaid shirt and jeans with rips in places that no trendy distressed-jeans designer would ever put them.

And to bottom it all off, a pair of scuffed boots with spurs. And yes, they jingle-jangled when he walked across the wood porch planks.

This man was not going for the cowboy look. The cowboy look was going for him.

We had the following conversation as I walked past him in my cargo shorts, sandals and short-sleeved button-up shirt.

Cowboy: “Evenin’ ”

Me: “Evenin’ ”

I imagined he smelled like old leather and trail dust and cow sweat. I didn’t get close enough to find out, because everyone knows cowboys don’t like people smelling them in public.

This is ranch country by the way. On my way to town, I sometimes pass ranchfolk herding cattle with horses and dogs. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was just the whole cowboy-doing-laundry-with-his-spurs-on thing that struck me.

I wish there was an actual story here, but there’s not. He folded up his laundry, carried it to his truck (no laundry basket, because cowboys don’t own laundry baskets) and drove off.

By the way, he was a Tide man.


The teacher becomes the student

There are no second chances in life, except to feel remorse.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Day four in the mountains. Another big thunderstorm last night. I was in town grabbing dinner (I found a brewpub in Pagosa that makes great beer and a killer lamb burger. Score!) and didn’t want to risk heading to the cabin over wet dirt roads in the dark. With the Hedgehog’s city tires, it’s like driving on grape jelly. The friends who let me use the cabin also have a condo in town. It’s got all the creature comforts (hot shower! A flush toilet!) and it’s a good backup in bad weather, but I prefer the cabin for working (see previous photo of the mountain view).

I’ve been sleeping a lot since I got here; exhaustion comes on fast at 8,500 feet for a sea-level person. Typically I need three days to adjust to the altitude. The long afternoon naps needs to stop soon; I have a lot of work to do.

Work, for now, means a lot of reading and studying. I’m a beginner again. I’ve been writing all my life, but 20-plus years in journalism isn’t necessarily a good springboard for fiction writing. I’m like a lifelong sprinter who suddenly decided to run marathons. I need to work on technique. And endurance. Or I’ll blow a quad.

I don’t have any formal training to fall back on. I applied to a graduate fiction writing program earlier this year but didn’t get accepted. I haven’t done any workshops or seminars. I just sort of dove in, and now I’m having to learn as I go.

living room
The living room/office in the cabin

What I do have is a 147,000-word draft of a novel that I wrote mostly at the cabin over two summers. I haven’t looked at it in months. This summer, I want to chop it down by about 25,000 words (ouch) and do a lot of re-writing to deepen the characters and speed up the plot. Then it’ll be time to send it to agents and start praying.

Before I touch the book again, I’m planning to read several books on fiction writing. I’m starting with Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein – one of several books recommended by a Dallas literary agent who read most of my novel and basically said, You’ve got a lot of work to do. I bought every book on writing he suggested: one on novel editing, another on character development, another on common fiction writing mistakes (wonder how many I’ve made?). And I brought two that I’ve read before and loved: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

The half loft

I’m about halfway through Stein’s book (taking copious notes as I go), and already I see what the agent was talking about. Too much static description that doesn’t move the plot forward (“You’re a storyteller, not an interior decorator,” Stein writes. Yeah, guilty as charged). My characters need to be more distinctive, more layered. And that’s just for starters. It’s a little intimidating, feeling so out of my depth after having a job (newspaper reporter) where I felt like I was ready for anything and a side job (teaching feature writing at the University of Texas) where college students looked to me as the old hand who could teach them how to tell a story.

So for the first week or two, I’m trying to just be a student of writing again. Truth is, I don’t really know what I’m doing up here. But I’m doing it, rather than thinking about doing it “someday” – which is what I did for too many years. Someday is here. Finally.