On Bright Young Things

Life Drawing by Robin BlackRobin Black’s New York Times commentary, What’s so Great About Young Writers?, struck a huge chord with me. Far more than European or Asian cultures, Americans embrace the cult of youth, likely because we still are a fledgling nation ourselves and equate energy, innovation, freedom and individualism, all prized American values, with being young.

I am among those lucky enough to have grown up in the relative safety of middle-class America, where there was always healthy food on the table, a place to rest my head at night, money enough for ballet classes or piano lessons, and parents who strongly believed in the importance of education and cultural and social awareness of the larger world.  I also am a product of a childhood in which of series of tragic deaths and illnesses resulted in a chaotic family life permanently scarred by trauma, loss and embitterment. When I was a child, novels, and to a lesser extent, movies and live theater, served both as my escape from that traumatic chaos and also as a way to help me make sense of it.  As such, books were these miraculous gifts created by mysterious, sentient beings known as authors, who were as remote as they were omnipotent.

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What Comforts You When Another Year Dies

Aside

For my day job I work as a Director of Public Relations for one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms, a highly demanding position which generally requires me to work 50-60 hours a week.

In that capacity, I got to know Richard Smolev, a partner, who after being diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) about five years ago, immediately retired from the firm.

Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he decided to do something he had always aspired to professionally–write novels.  Two of them, Offerings and In Praise of Angels were both published by Chicago’s Academy Press last year. While I only met Richard in person once when my team helped organize a firm book signing for him in honor of Offerings’ publication, likely because he knew that I too was a writer, he and I became “email” friends.

He would send me updates on his book reviews, or when he received a kind note from someone about his work, saying how much it touched him. I receive more than 400 e-mails a day at work, so it’s rare for me to spend much time over each message, but I always took such care with my responses back to him, not wanting to tire him out (he was already living in an assisted living facility by this time and confined to a wheel chair), nor wanting to treat him too gingerly which sometimes happens when those of us who are healthy interact with the chronically ill.  I once expressed to him my frustration and despair at having to invest so much of my time and energy working at the firm, when I really wanted to be working instead on the first draft of my latest novel. He sent me back a short two-sentence reply: “It’s better than starving. Keep at it.”

Keep at it. Indeed, as ill as he was, Richard did keep writing. In late December, I emailed  to congratulate him on an essay of his that appeared in Poets & Writers.  He thanked me and forwarded on a query from an editor of a medical publication who had seen that essay and asked if Richard wanted to write a piece for them about coping with ALS.  He ended his email saying, “Sadly, I had to decline. Not much time left now.”

On New Year’s Day, facing again the difficult task of resuming work on chapter five of my novel after not having had a moment to think about it, let alone write something, for more than two weeks, I procrastinated by writing a list of people and things that I turn to when life felt both fragile and challenging at the same time and realized he too was on the list. I didn’t send it to Richard, though, because with so little time left, why should he have to waste any of it by reading a silly list of my inner thoughts?  And he had never seen any of my writing before, my real writing–neither a story, nor an essay, I didn’t want this one  piece to be his first introduction to my work.  I didn’t want him to think badly of me; I didn’t want to let him down one writer to another.

Still after deliberating about it for several days, I finally did send it to him, my potentially wounded ego notwithstanding, because I wanted him to know how much he had come to mean to me even though we didn’t know each other well.

I sent it to him ten days ago. He responded within hours, saying he enjoyed seeing it, “especially the part about ‘fracking.’  My wife has worked very hard campaigning against fracking in the area where we live,” he said.  I did not hear from him again.

Last night he passed away. So though this may not be up to the usual standards of The Lyon Review, I hope none of you will object to my including this small tribute to him:

What Comforts You When Another Year Dies
To R.S. for teaching me the true meaning of courage

What Makes You Afraid

  1. Global warming
  2. Fundamentalism
  3. Watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo
  4. FOX “News” commentary
  5. Sharks
  6. Snakes
  7. What to do next after typing “Chapter One” on a blank computer screen
  8. Jack-in-the-Boxes
  9. The pointed tip of an umbrella
  10. Tuesday, ten p.m. on any deserted street in America
  11. Falling through a subway grate
  12. A gun

What Makes You Feel Safe

  1. The back of your father’s head as he drives you to ballet class when you are ten
  2. Spooning with your cat
  3. The feel of your husband’s hand when he strokes your hair
  4. Watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  5. Reading a novel in your hammock while eating an apple
  6. Laughing incessantly for no reason with your best friend
  7. Extended child pose in yoga
  8. Walking through the Accademia in Florence
  9. The sound of waves when the tide shushes in
  10. Freshly laundered underwear
  11. Checking your bank balance online and seeing your automated pay check posted
  12. The smell of sunlight

What You View as Essential

  1. Universal healthcare
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Mint chocolate chip ice cream
  4. Friends
  5. AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time
  6. Libraries
  7. Hot showers
  8. A liberal arts degree
  9. Protecting the U.S. Bill of Rights
  10. Empathy
  11. The sound of your cat purring
  12. Self-respect

What You Wish Didn’t Exist

  1. Panty hose
  2. Brussels sprouts
  3. Avarice
  4. Malls
  5. Bed bugs
  6. Self-doubt
  7. People who hold grudges
  8. The five-day work week
  9. Chlorofluorocarbons
  10. Hate groups
  11. “Reality” television
  12. Famine

What Inventions Enrich Humanity

  1. The toothbrush
  2. Crayons
  3. French toast
  4. Kissing
  5. Immunizations
  6. Printing press
  7. Blue jeans
  8. Flush toilets
  9. Replacement limbs
  10. The hula hoop
  11. NGOs
  12. Theatre

What Inventions Do Harm

  1. Religion
  2. Fracking
  3. The AK-47
  4. Gerrymandering
  5. Concentration camps
  6. Atomic bomb
  7. Suburbia
  8. GMOs
  9. Fascism
  10. The “G-string”
  11. Asbestos
  12. Money

What Makes You Despair

  1. Deliberate ignorance
  2. Sex trafficking of women and children
  3. Mendacity
  4. US Congress
  5. Cruelty
  6. The smell of rotting raw fish on Grand Street in NYC
  7. Having to wait an entire year to watch the last five episodes of Mad Men
  8. Stories about how Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Kim Kardashian represent the new face of feminism
  9. Bullies
  10. Intolerance masquerading as piety
  11. Tweeting
  12. The Koch brothers

What Inspires You

  1. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset from the B line
  2. Eating fresh pesto at a café overlooking the Mediterranean in Cinque Terre
  3. Meryl Streep
  4. A line of books on display for sale at The Strand in Greenwich Village
  5. Defiance
  6. Making lists
  7. The marble lobby and staircase at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue
  8. Novelist Richard Smolev, who, despite being in the late stages of ALS, asks his wife to tape a pen to his right forefinger and thumb so he can still write each day
  9. Contradictions
  10. The essays of Joan Didion
  11. Olympic athletes
  12. That shiver of pleasure that occurs when you look at words on a page and realize they are yours

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist and the Managing Editor of The Lyon Review. Visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com for more.

Marks on the Path to Publication

Aside

Options abound for writers these days. In fact, the options can multiply like fruit flies on an old banana – but swatting the options away may not be the best choice. I laid out some plans for myself, steps to follow to hopefully end in publication of my debut novel.I thought of these marks a bit like mileage markers on a highway — they would help me see progress. I’m not there yet (meaning, my book is not yet published), but I’m getting closer, and, I’m increasingly confident with each step forward that my book will find its readers.

There has been some discussion on the Mount Holyoke Wordwrights group on LinkedIn about trying to create a list of MHC alumnae who are working as literary agents.I don’t know if the list will be developed or not. And, I have some angst for our alumnae agents who probably deal with hundreds of email queries on a regular basis. I would NOT want their jobs!

Certainly, seeking representation is an option. And, a well-informed writer knows that her odds of actually landing with an agent are quite high. (I find different numbers all over the place from one in five thousand to one in eleven thousand, and so on.)

So, I have not yet acquired an agent and therefore, you should feel free to make my advice with several grains of salt. But, here are the steps I chose to follow to work my way toward publication:

1. Writing, revising and seeking advice from established authors

I workshopped my novel — and paid for the opportunity — with authors at juried conferences. I did this twice — in 2010 at the Tin House conference with Antonya Nelson and in 2011 with Adam Braver at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Both Nelson and Braver’s advice guided me to some key revisions that I am confident have made the novel much stronger and ready for publishing.

2. Establishing publication credits.

I realized that I could be taken more seriously by an agent if I already had some credits. I did not begin with submitting novel excerpts, but I have since had novel excerpts published. (For links to some of my work, check here.)

3. Developing online presence.

Again, I realized as the publishing world (traditional print especially) is being squeezed by economic and other pressures, authors are expected to promote their work — whether they have the good fortune of landing with a “big” house or not. I post and try to be an encouraging, motivating presence, both here, and on my personal blog — pamwrites.net. I’m active on Facebook , Goodreads and Twitter, a little less so on LinkedIn. According to some social media experts, I should consider Tumblr and Pinterest as well.

4. Write and then revise, revise, revise the query letter.

Yes, it’s a one page letter but plan on it taking much, much longer than the longest chapter in your novel. For some of us, it does. For others, who can crank them out quickly and well done, I don’t believe them. 🙂 If any of your contacts who are established in the publishing industry are approachable to review it, do it! A generous editor I met at Aspen Summer Words this summer offered to review my query letter and I was so grateful. (Yes, I followed up quickly, got the feedback and thanked her promptly.)

5. Develop contacts/networks to help with referrals to agents.

This is probably the toughest category for many of us. But, does it help if you can get a true referral to an agent? Yes!! No doubt about it. I am waiting to hear from an agent now, who has my manuscript, and I can thank another extremely generous editor I met at the Aspen Summer Words conference for the referral. Those referrals get you an email address that is not the general submissions email address – and, gets you the gold star or thumbs up from someone the agent already knows and respects.

These are the steps I’m taking to try to increase my chances of publishing my novel. I do understand though that it is still possible that all my hard work could end without me landing an agent. Do I have a back-up plan? You bet. There are many paths to publication – not just the traditional get-an-agent and hopefully get a publisher path. For a discussion of some of the different paths to publication, check out this article at Poets & Writers. And, if my back-up needs to get dusted off and put in place, it will. But, for now, I like the road I’m on. I like my odds. And giving up doesn’t agree with me.

What steps have you followed? Do you have any advice to someone just starting on the path to publication?