My galley proof is here, and I have a lot of feelings about it.

The proof of my new book, The Eagle and the Arrow, arrived on Monday, causing me so much agitation I couldn’t write for the rest of the day, so I took a bunch of photos that looked like this and posted them on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo 34

Shamelessness: Just one of the reasons you should follow me on social media.

Here’s the thing, though; excited as I am when a galley (a proof, galley or galley proof is a preliminary version of a book) arrives on my doorstep, I’m also filled with dread. Why? Because when the galley proof arrives, that means I have to sit down and read the whole thing.

I know that probably sounds weird. But now, a month before the book itself is released is the absolute worst time for me to sit down and read it, because at this point in the process, I am always convinced that whatever it is I’m publishing – in this case, my book – is the most horrendous thing I’ve ever written.

 I ride a roller coaster of self-consiousness when I’m writing and publishing. it goes a little something like this:

  1. When I first write something, minutes after my fingers have lifted from the keyboard, I’m convinced that I’m a genius.
  2. When I look at it again, I regain my sanity and revise.
  3. When I revise again, after my writers’ group has seen it, I’m once again convinced that I’m brilliant.
  4. Then I submit it somewhere, and am certain that it’s the worst thing I, or anyone else, has ever written.
  5. If it’s accepted, I believe I’m a genius again.
  6. If it’s rejected, I also believe I’m a genius, but that no one appreciates me and that somehow makes me more awesome and when I die an old hermit, someone will discover my manuscripts under hundreds of tins of cat food and realize I was a genius and then people will teach graduate courses about my work.
  7. When the publisher and I start work on rewrites, I regain my sanity for a while.
  8. But when the rewrites are done, the copy editors have done their thing, and it’s time for me to read the galley proof before it’s finalized and sent out to reviewers, I hit my biggest low since Step 4 and I believe that this book is the crappiest crap to ever have been written in English or any other language.
  9. I also go through a mini version of this whenever I stand up to read from my work to a group of people.
The Eagle & The Arrow, book, A.J. O'Connell, Vagabondage, Battered Suitcase, Beware the Hawk

It’s here!

Why do I do this? I don’t know. At this point in the process, several sets of eyes have been over it and the book is certainly better than it was back when I thought I was a genius.

Maybe it’s because the reviewers will be the next people who read this and OH MY GOD THEY MIGHT HATE IT. Maybe it’s because after the reviewers read it, everyone else will be able to read it and OH MY GOD THEY MIGHT HATE IT.

Although the insanity doesn’t last long; last year, when my first book came out, a couple of weeks after the release, after I forced myself to look at my reviews on Amazon, and then I was fine. I’m hoping that’s what happens this time, too.

And so my first reaction, after the galley arrives is to be very excited about it and then to carry it around in my purse but not read it for a day or so. And then when I try to read it that thing happens where I read the same page three times but no words actually get from the page to my brain.

Luckily I have my husband, who reads the whole galley first, points out errors, and then, somehow it’s easier for me to read it.

The thing that makes me feel extra divaish about all this is that I’ve only published short stories and novellas. I can sit down and read my books in a few hours. I can’t imagine what it would be like to publish a full-length novel and have to sit down and read through the whole proof by the end of the week.

Someday, though, I intend to find out.

The sequel! (Because guess what? There’s going to be a sequel.)

Beware The Hawk novella

I am so excited to announce that there will be a sequel to Beware the Hawk!

I signed the contract with my publisher, Vagabondage Press, on Sunday and have been working this week on the first round of edits and revisions. I’m super-excited to share this news, and plan to be posting this spring about the process of getting ready for a release.

I’ve been hanging onto this news for a few days. In fact I announced it on my Facebook Page on Sunday, but for various reasons, I didn’t feel like I could post it here until now.

The fact that I found out Sunday morning doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been bubbling over with this news all week. I still can’t quite believe that I published one book. To be on the brink of publishing a second book is beyond my hopes.*

What can I tell you about this new book? Well, not much. The working title is The Eagle and the Arrow. The release date is looking like June. I’ve been working on the first draft of this piece since last March or February, but although it seems like I’ve spent an age on it, it’s still novella-length.

At the moment that’s all I can say, but as I continue to work with my editor over the next few months, I will be able to release more tidbits.

Also, I haven’t forgotten the winner of the naming contest. The protagonist of the last book now has a name, of course. The namer will find out who he/she is when the book is released this summer, and will get a copy of the new book as a prize.

Stay tuned for more. I am so excited to share this journey with you all.

*Literally. My ambition as a kid was always to write a book. I really never thought beyond that first publication. So maybe announcing it on the date of the supposed end of time is appropriate.

I’m on the The Fairfield Writer’s Blog today!

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Alex McNab, a novelist and journalist who writes for the Fairfield Writer’s Blog, to talk about revision and drink caffeinated beverages. McNab began reading The Garret a year and a half ago when I began revising my novel, and – since he’s revising his own novel – he was interested in knowing more about my process.

His post about our chat went up this morning. I am so excited about it, and I hope you check it out.

We talked about re-typing work, when to look at notes from writing workshop during the revision process, strengthening prose, and returning to written work after a long time.

I should disclaim here: This is just my process of revision, and it’s an ever-evolving mishmash of ideas and tips I’ve picked up from members of writing groups, books I’ve read and professors I’ve had.

The short form: An interview with the editors of ‘Spry,’ a new literary journal

Linsey Jayne and Erin Corriveau, founders of Spry Literary Magazine.
(Photo by James McCready.)

On Monday, I had the pleasure of g-chatting with Erin Corriveau and Linsey Jayne, the founders of Spry, a brand new literary journal.

I know both Erin and Linsey from our MFA program, and I was intrigued by their mentions on Facebook and Twitter of a new literary magazine dedicated to brief literature.

As someone who naturally writes short, I really wanted to find out more, and so I asked them for an interview. After g-chatting with them for an hour, I’m excited about their project, which will showcase short, powerful pieces of writing, and I hope all the writers who read this blog will be as well.

Below is the interview, which is divided into three parts with page breaks. Click through, and enjoy!

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Lols have been removed, g-chat typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some  sections of the interview have been moved around.

(Also, the ladies make reference to a “Third Semester Project.” That’s an academic project that Fairfield University makes its MFA students do in order to obtain their degree.)

What is Spry?

ASpryJ: So tell me about Spry. What distinguishes Spry from the other journals out there? What’s your vision for this publication?

Erin: Well, Linsey and I both studied “short” or “brief” literature during our third semester projects and we also really respect how well words are used when the space is limited. I’d say that what distinguishes Spry from other journals is the dedication we have to concise yet well-done writing.

AJ: So all the pieces in Spry are going to be super-brief?

Linsey: Yeah, we want to reward the bravery and power and experimentation that exists in shorter forms.

Erin: Ditto to LJ, that being said though….We’ve seen a lot of poetry that is concise to a fault (even though I wouldn’t really want to put it that way) I think we have a lot of poets sending us work that is quite sparse… While we don’t want epic poems, we also aren’t only searching for haikus.

AJ: That’s pretty cool. For short-form work, I’ve seen a lot of flash fiction journals, but not so many cross-genre journals dedicated to the short form. You’re accepting a few different genres, right?

Linsey: We sure are! We’re accepting submissions in creative nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction and poetry.
Sorry. Flash anything, not just fiction.

Erin: Yes, and…. flash creative nonfiction too.

On Brevity:

AJ: This might seem like a silly question, but what’s the difference between flash and short fiction or non-fiction? Is there a word count cutoff? How does it work?

Erin: We had many discussions about this.

Technically Linsey is the expert here. I can say, though, that for our journal, fiction and creative nonfiction must be under 2500 words for the “normal genre” and then for the Flash category, all fiction and creative nonfiction must be under 750 words.
I don’t know if Linsey wants to speak more to how we came up with those numbers or anything, but I can say there was a lot of discussion…. and also a lot of forgetting what number we chose.

Linsey: I can if you’d like – in my Third Semester Project, I studied the superfine lines that exist between prose poetry and flash fiction (and flash fiction / short fiction), and while more often than not this is something that is dictated by the presentation of content, most publications seem to consider flash fiction as being around 750 words. Sometimes it’s a bit longer, no longer than 1,000 usually. So since our passions were driven by the shorter, more agile work of the economy of words, we stuck to the shorter end of that spectrum. And when I say flash fiction, again, I just mean flash prose.

Next section: Submitting to Spry, Issue One and Naming Spry

Making time to daydream (or, Aliens are more exciting than anxiety.)

I need some daydream time, or what Julia Cameron calls in The Artist’s Way an artist date, or what educators now call free play.

Whatever you call it, I need to get back into the mental state I used to occupy as a kid, back when my head was filled with aliens, pirates and pegasi, and I need to get back there pronto.

There aren’t enough unicorns in my life.

I’m writing the first draft of something, and I’m writing it on a deadline. The first 25 pages wrote themselves, but then  – like Wile E. Coyote, stepping off a cliff and looking down – I started thinking.

I started worrying about my deadline. I started fretting about the plot. I started mapping out the intricacies of each character’s individual problems and backstories. I created a complex timeline.

In Hindu mythology, nothing would be created if Vishnu didn’t spend all his time dreaming. (“Shiva Dreaming,” shared courtesy of Alice Popkorn on Flickr.)

That’s when the writing began to be a problem.

Not only did the joy go out of the work, but the plot snarled up. The characters ceased to have direction. I couldn’t get into their heads. In desperation I showed what I had done to people and they asked me what happened to the good work I’d started in the first 25 pages.  I didn’t have an answer for them at first.

But then I started thinking… I haven’t given myself the space to play. I haven’t allowed myself to sit back and daydream, and that’s the space in which I develop my best work.

Aliens are more interesting than triple-digit subtraction.

I think a lot of writers will sympathize with the following statement: I was at my most prolific when I was young.

As a kid I was an incorrigible daydreamer. I enraged my second grade teacher by staring out the window* during every math lesson. I didn’t sleep at night.** I tuned out for the tedium of school bus rides or disappointing recesses.***

At some point, someone gave me a Walkman, and then,from  the time I was a pre-teen right into the first years of college, I spent a lot of time listening to mixtapes, making movies in my head, just imagining characters and adventures.

I wrote them down as an afterthought at first, but by the time I was 16, I had six novels, one screenplay, one collaborative piece and a sheaf of poetry in progress.

When I was in my early 20s, I didn’t have a car, so  I spent a lot of time walking places or sitting on buses or trains or whatever, listening to a CD player, and imagining stories. And then I wrote them down. And that’s how Beware the Hawk started.

Pirates & spaceships are more interesting than that guy you hope will call you,
but in your 20s, you don’t always remember that.

Then I grew up. I got a car, I got a job that required a lot of time and mental energy, and I started dating. My imagination was directed at my love life.† My mental energy was directed at problem-solving. Anxiety took the place of daydreams.

It’s time to bring the daydreams back. I need them if I’m going to be able to work, and honestly, I prefer them to anxiety.

Show me the unicorns!

This is tough. Today I feel like I’m always with people who need me to have my ears open to them at all times, and with the Internet and smartphones, it’s hard not to be available to the world. And honestly, I feel a little guilty putting on a pair of headphones and tuning people out, like a teenager.

But some of my best work has come out of music, so I’ve put together a playlist for the piece I’m working on, written a page about why I chose the songs on the playlist, and told my husband that I’m going to need an hour each day to listen to it. I spend that hour doing yard work, because I thought, well, at least if I don’t get anything out of my daydream time, the lawn will look decent.

Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, because for it to work, I need to enjoy the process, and I’m often keenly aware that what I’m doing is playtime on a deadline.

That can be counter-productive, like trying to fall asleep when you know you have to be up early in the morning: if you worry too much about falling asleep, you can’t fall asleep because you’re not relaxed.

But for the most part, the playlist is working wonders.

For the first time in a while, some of my plot issues are being resolved, and new scenes – scenes of which I’m proud – are being written. I feel like the characters, allowed to roam freely through my head, are growing again. The story is much more sound than it was before.

I’m convinced that when I present this story to my editor, it will be a better story than the one I would have written without this daydream time.

There have been some unintended side benefits of daydreaming as well: I’m calmer and happier, and the yard looks great. Also, although I’m not writing about them, sometimes my head is filled with aliens, pirates and pegasi. It’s nice to know that they’re still in there.

*and imagining that aliens were about to invade the school. Only I could save us!
** because I was telling myself stories about the wall next to my bed opening up so that I could enter a world in which I rode a unicorn through outer space.
***by imagining that spies were hiding in the nearby shrubbery.
Should have stuck with aliens.

A clean office is a bad thing for a writer.

Anne Lamott, the author of Bird by Bird, opened one of her lectures with this: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”

I don’t have a child, but man, does that hit home.

My office has three states:

  1. Hot mess – If the office usually looks like it’s exploded, like it does now,  I’ve been busy working in it. The closets are open, the desk is surrounded by paper, pens, packages of Kleenex, chargers and a few unidentifiable objects. Things (plants, books, papers, cats) are hanging off my bookshelves. My closets are open and things are falling out. That’s what it looks like now.
  2. Cold mess – If there are a lot of boxes and laundry baskets in the middle of the floor and it hasn’t been vacuumed in a long time, I’ve been avoiding it – and my novel – for a long time. I’ve just kidnapped my laptop, closed the door and fled. This is what it looks like after the holidays.
  3. Clean -  Have you ever seen Poltergeist? Remember the little psychic lady who says “This house is clean”? If so, you know how creepy “clean” can be. It is the worst state for me office by far. Everything is tidy. Spotless. Dusted. Everything’s been filed. The carpet has been cleaned, the laundry is gone, and worse, the desk is immaculate. If my office looks like this, it means something’s wrong; I’ve spent a lot of time in there but all I’ve been doing is cleaning.

I’ve done that sort of thing for weeks at a time; gone up to work and ended up dusting the room instead, or rearranging the books on the shelves. It’s a habit I started in college, when during my sophomore year, I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to work unless my tiny room looked like a glossy page out of Dorm Beautiful.

It was the sort of habit that kept me  – for years – from working on my writing, which is strange, because when I started writing as a child and teen, I was able to write anywhere, under any conditions – it didn’t matter if the room was messy, or the radio loud, or conversations happening around me, or if my mother was asking me to please come downstairs and do my chores. I just wrote for the sheer joy of it. Very little was able to stop me. I think that year in college, is when I realized exactly how badly I wanted to be a writer, and also, that if I sat down to write, I’d have to take the next step and finish something. Then I’d have to show it to someone else. And then they might reject or criticize me, and I could very easily fail at what I most wanted to do with my life.

So instead, I cleaned.

I carried my Clean Desk Rule out of college and into the world with me, and I allowed it to expand. At one point, I couldn’t work until my whole apartment was clean. It’s worth noting that the Clean Desk Rule never applied to my workspace in the newsrooms I worked in; I was always on deadline, regardless of the state of my desk. The work had to be done.

Those days are over. Right now, my office is a hot mess.

Allegory of Music.

The Allegory of Music, by Filipino Lippi.

There is just enough room on my desk for my laptop and my hands. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is taking up half the left side of the desk and threatening to slide off a copy of my manuscript. The bookshelves and tables overflow with tangles of charger cords and craft books. One of the walls is hung with rejection letters. The floor under my feet is strewn with copies of literary magazines. I look like an allegorical painting, only without the flowing robes and hair and classical allusions that you see in Renaissance works like The Allegory of Music. Instead, I’m The Allegory of The Contemporary Fiction Writer, clad in grubby jeans and a tee shirt I got for free somewhere, hair stuffed under a baseball cap from my MFA program.

What changed? I think I started looking at writing differently when I joined my MFA program, but when I left my newsroom job, that’s when things really changed. Writing became my job; not something I wanted to do in a distant, perfect future, but something I was already doing.  Just as I didn’t bother cleaning my workspace in the newsroom before getting to work, I don’t clean my home office before getting to work.

The work needs to be done. Even if there’s a body in the sink.

I’m pleased to report that the office hasn’t been clean in some time.

Behold: The finalists of the Name My Character contest! Now I need you to vote.

The names are in!

It’s been kind of a neat two weeks. I received a dozen name submissions which ran the gamut from Sarah (as in Sarah Connor) to Devon Sharktopus (thanks, Phil.)

But alas, as in Highlander, there can be only one. And because I like to make up arbitrary rules, there can be only three finalists.

One of the three names below will be the real name of the protagonist in my novella, Beware the Hawk. And to keep it a secret until the big reveal next installment of my story, I shant be revealing the winner until the next piece is published. (Although if you can do math and see the poll results you’ll probably be able to figure it out.) The winner gets to name the character, obviously, and will get a signed copy of the next story featuring her.*

Below are the finalists.

Vanessa Pye, submitted by Daisy Abreu

Hendrikke Penelope Brackensfeld, submitted by Beth Callahan

Harleigh McManus, submitted by Karen Morrissey Covey

You can vote here or on my Facebook page. Hell, vote once here and once on my Facebook page, twice a day, from different computers. Vote for your favorite name. Vote for your favorite person on the list. Just vote a lot, because I really want a clear winner.

And anyways, it’s not like this is a race governed by the elections commission.

The poll is below. You guys have until next month (August 19) to vote. So vote often.

*There’s no money or anything else attached to this prize, as you know. Just glory and a free story. Hey, that rhymes.

When Joan Didion noticed my dress.

I wore it last night because it reminded me of a feeling I get when I read her early work.

It’s olive green, and loose, and I wore it with sandals and a poncho and a bag with tassels on. I chose it because I’m a synesthete and I think of the world in terms of color and taste. The whole ensemble made me feel a little like one of her essays from the late ’60s, or like the sound of a Joni Mitchell album.

And when she signed my copy of Play it as it Lays, she looked up and complimented me on the dress. “I’m partial to that color,” she said.

When I was a young writer, hungry for wisdom and mentorship, that comment would have been anti-climactic for me, coming from the mouth of one of my heroes.

I first read the work of Joan Didion as a young journalist. An editor, choosing my name from the hat in our newsroom’s Secret Santa, gave me a copy of The White Album. It was exactly what I needed at a time when I was becoming jaded about my job. Didion’s essays lifted me out of the drudgery of school board meetings and graduation speeches. Her work taught me how to see the people and the pathos in my news stories. Her prose taught me how to describe them. Every essay I read was a challenge to be a better reporter.*

There are certain people who take sharp notice of the world, and who transmit their mindsets with a startling clarity.  Didion is one of these. It was a shock to discover her work. When I was a self-centered 23 year-old, she made me able to see a larger world through older eyes. I think I grew some compassion when I read her essays.

If I had met Didion at that age, I would have wanted to wring writerly wisdom from her during our five-second interaction. I would have wanted her to impart some pearl, some insight, anything that would help me to be more like her.

I’m proud that I’m over that stage.

Today I’m happy to know that she liked my dress, because it means that those eyes, which have noticed so much and which taught me how to see the world as a writer, had seen and acknowledged me, too.

 

*I loved that book, but I never finished it. I’d been reading it slowly, savoring it essay by essay. I’d read and re-read an essay, then put the book away and spend a few days trying to emulate Didion in the stories I wrote for my daily. One day, the book slipped away from me. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and I refuse to buy another copy, because I’m convinced it’s around here somewhere and my editor gave it to me and that means something. That was six or seven moves ago.

Last night’s author event at the Watertown Library.

Photo taken by my husband during a smoke break.

Wow. I’m still a little overwhelmed by last night’s reading at the Watertown Library. Going into the event, I was having nightmares that I’d walk in to see hundreds of folding chairs and that only a few would be filled by my family and by the folks who work at the library.

In reality I walked into a room decorated with balloons bearing the world “e-book.” There were just barely enough seats for the people who came out to hear the lecture and reading. And those people included my friends’ parents and siblings, my neighbors when I was growing up, the people who employed me when I was a teenager, a high school teacher and his wife, and of course my family.*

I was kind of nervous, even with all the familiar faces. I’ve done readings before – but always as part of a group. This was just me, and part of the event was a lecture about e-books. I’ve been doing a lot of research about e-books lately and I had note cards and everything, but there was this one dreadful moment when everything I knew just disappeared and I accidentally entered that blank-slate state of mind that I’ve been trying – and failing – to cultivate during meditation. Holy horrible timing, Batman. But then the moment passed, and everything from that point on went smoothly.

One of the most thrilling things about last night: there were people I don’t know in the audience, including a 13-year-old writer who wants to have his own book published someday. I used to be the 13-year-old going to readings with my parents. I don’t think he could possibly know how much it meant to me to sign his copy of Beware the Hawk (even though I told him to wait a few years before reading it.) It’s the circle of life, people.

Speaking of circling, I read with my back to a huge window, and I’m told that a hawk was flying around on the other side of the glass during the reading. As I posted on my Facebook author page last night, I want to try to duplicate this experience by naming future titles after animals that might appear outside of a library window. I’ll name the next one Beware the Squirrel. Or something. There is an interesting discussion about possible common-animal book titles going on over there right now.

Thank you so much, Watertown Library, Friends of the Watertown Library, and people of Oakville and Watertown. You’ve made me so happy.

*My father took scads of photos last night. I will post them when I get them.

 

 

Scavenger hunt, day 10; An impressive tattoo.

We’re in the home stretch. Today is the tenth and final day of the scavenger hunt. Tomorrow, Beware the Hawk becomes available at Vagabondage Press and tomorrow I will announce the winners of the hunt!

But that is tomorrow. Today, I am looking for one more item from you scavengers – a photo of a tattoo. The protagonist in my book has a, shall we say, all-encompassing tattoo. You don’t have to take a photo of a full body tat, but take/find a photo of an impressive tattoo. You know the drill by now, folks: Tweet the photo with the hashtag #bewarethehawk or post it to my Facebook author page.

Now, let’s talk about pain. Yesterday – in honor of my protagonist’s cover-to-cover ankle injury – I asked you to tell me about a time when you had to live with an injury.

Mary-Jo Bates wrote this on my Facebook wall: “Being the fat kid, I made the best tug-of-war anchor. Unfortunately, being able to stand is a function of that post. Back in middle school, the class bully showed an odd moment of insight, whipping the giant jute rope around, catching my ankle, and twisting it something fierce. Still bitter my team lost on that field day.”

What a jerk that kid was. I hope s/he got a detention or a time-out. Or at least a dressing-down from the teacher.

Alena Dillon tweeted this: “I burned myself on the oven last weekend. That’s what I get for cooking. On the bright side, the scar is pretty badass.”

That must have been one hell of an oven burn to leave a badass scar. Hope it’s healing.

Lastly, Tamela Ritter made my day by walking by – and photographing – the Chinatown gate in D.C., which I’ve never seen before. Feast your eyes. It puts Boston’s gate to shame: