Monday, January 26, 2009

My name in The New Yorker

It could be my only chance to get my name in The New Yorker: the cartoon caption contest. I've been submitting captions every week for the past month; once you start, it's pretty addictive.  

Unfortunately it's got me thinking maybe my one-liners aren't that original. But the consolation, it seems, is that neither are anyone else's. Once the magazine editors choose the winner, they post all the losing entries. Perusing the entries, I was struck by how many of them were similar. For example, for the following cartoon, about one caption in ten made some reference to "the long arm of the law."

That's remarkable when you think of how "unique" New Yorker readers are supposed to be (the winning caption: "Please try not to stare at his disproportionately short right arm"). 

As far as I can tell, there are around 3,000-5,000 entries per contest. And when the three finalists are announced, you can bet that about 4,907 of those people–myself included–think, well mine was better than those.

I'm quite proud of the one I submitted for last week's contest:
"I'm gonna have to pay you in cigarettes."

And I think my caption for the previous week should've made the finals:

"Now the large bucket's got warm water, and the small one's got cold. If you don't start talking–well, let's just say you're going to be very uncomfortable."

I'm not holding my breath, though. When I think of the selection process, I picture this tired intern having to comb through 4,000 entries in an hour every Monday morning: skim... skim... no, no... no... NO... definitely not... no... no... maybe... no... no... no... what the hell?... no... whoops, dropped a page–no time to pick it up... no... no... NO!... no... no... I got an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop for this?

Even with such a minuscule chance of winning, it's fun. I'd like to ask for your help on this week's contest. For the below cartoon, the best I've been able to come up with is, "Then she said, 'you tell me, Doc, does this hurt? How about THIS?'" 
Readers, I'd love to see your suggestions–no matter how ridiculous (you can submit anonymously)–in the comments field!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Writer in the White House

Jon Favreau must be pissed. The actor/screenwriter/director of Swingers and Iron Man fame spent 20 years clawing his way to the top only to be upstaged by a young speechwriter of the same name. This morning, if only for a moment, Jon Favreau, the 27-year old leader of Obama’s speechwriting team supplanted Hollywood's Favreau as the top Google result for that name.

I love to see a young writer get so much attention. And it’s exciting that Obama himself is being called the best writer to hit the White House since Lincoln. In a time when everyone from Bill Clinton to Jenna Jameson commands a team of ghostwriters, it’s refreshing to hear that Obama wrote his literary memoir, Dreams from my Father, himself.  

Obama will understandably be too busy to write much during his years in office, but one can assume the legendary control freak will ensure his own literary touch does not disappear from at least his most important orations.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating what a badass Lincoln was. He wrote everything himself. The guy had a few other things going on in 1863, but he somehow found the time to write one of most celebrated prose poems in American literature:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2nd Draft is Done

I finished my second draft! This feels like a more significant accomplishment than completing my first draft. I now have a manuscript that reads all the way through; I can officially say that I’ve written a novel.

So, what’s next? I’m taking a week off to gain some distance from my story, then I’ll read my manuscript all the way through for the first time. Next, I'll start on the third draft, for which I may enlist some outside editorial help.

It’s the perfect time to take a week off. On Thursday I leave for a research trip to Mexico. The majority of my narrative takes place in Mexico, and I want to get some of the details right – the sights and sounds and smells of the places I’ve conjured in my head. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to write about next week.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Read one hundred books, write zero

I'm entering the final stretch for my second draft. I've cut my original draft by half, but at least I will soon have a 50K-word standalone novel. Not bad for eight months' work, considering that when I started I'd never completed so much as a short story, and I had to take a few months to read books on how to write a book.

Lately I've been wondering where I'd be now if I'd taken a more traditional route -- like going to grad school and getting an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction. Never mind that I wouldn't have been able to get in; you need to submit a quality manuscript to apply, and a year ago I wouldn't have had the time or the know-how.

Assuming I could've miraculously gotten into a graduate program, where would I be now? Well, I probably would have learned a lot about the craft of writing. I would've made some valuable connections with professors and other writers. And I'd be much poorer. But one thing is for certain: I wouldn't have completed a second draft of a novel by now.

You do a lot of reading and critiquing in MFA programs. One grad school has the motto, "Read one hundred books, write one." My worry is, what if I don't like, say, 87 of those books -- but I'm forced to read and critique them? That's a lot of time I could've spent writing -- or reading books I enjoy. Right now, I only have to read books I like, or at least books by writers I want to emulate. And I guarantee that all 100 of those books are "literary fiction." Since I'm writing popular/genre fiction (medical thriller), I'm not sure how much this would help me.

Furthermore, traditional schooling goes against the main point of my experiment, which is: what if I cut out all that extraneous B.S. and focused 100% of my time and effort on actually completing a novel?

Don't get me wrong, reading and writing literary fiction is a fantastic way to improve one's writing skills -- it's just not necessarily the route to completing a novel. Once I complete my first book and go back to work, I'll consider applying to a low-residency MFA program. I know I would learn a lot, and it would force me to keep writing in the face of work responsibilities.

Finally, in case you're wondering what the difference is between genre/popular/commercial fiction and literary fiction, David Lubar sums it up in his Guide to Literary Fiction

"If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes."