Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Like Meat, Just Not in Ball Form

My kids tend to amaze me on a regular basis. The funniest thing about parenthood is the realization that they are their own people. You can’t teach them how to be what they are. You guide, or try to. You teach, sometimes scold, often laugh... but you don’t really make them what they are – they are what they are... not because of or in spite of their parents, but because it’s who they’re meant to be.

There are a million ways to relate this, from infancy with all three of my kids, but maybe a good example is their taste in food. I cook on a pretty regular basis, and since they’re growing up here, all three of them are eating the food that I like to prepare... but they have their own taste. I get this. I, myself, was a picky eater as a kid and I still am... I was actually a weird eater – I loved broccoli and fish – hated chicken and steak and barely tolerated hamburgers until I was a teenager and learned the beauty of the greasy dive... but that is another story.

My daughter has very adult taste and always has – ever since she started on solid food. Her favorite meal at three years old was Steak and Fettuccini Alfredo – I started making Fettuccini as a side dish in the first place because I hate steak (sorry, Travis), so I just eat the pasta and salad. She loves steak. Loves shrimp and fish. (okay, maybe she has expensive taste)... but, get ready for it – she’s not partial to gravy. I should explain, when I say ‘gravy’ I mean my homemade sauce with meatballs. It’s good, it’s my favorite, again, it’s good. She doesn’t particularly like pasta. She eats the meatballs and just enough mostaccolli so I don’t yell at her.

My oldest son has kid taste. He loves hotdogs and pizza. He hates pretty much any vegetable except raw carrots – he won’t touch them if they’re cooked. He won’t eat hamburgers, or meatballs, but he devours pasta. He’s even kid-like in treats – he loves suckers and any kind of flavored sugary candy but doesn’t so much like chocolate – the other two looooove it.

Littlest guy is a riot. He eats everything. With gusto. He loves steak, hamburger, hotdogs and pizza. Loves pork, sauerkraut, and dumplings, and asks for it often. Adores meatballs and the pasta. And will eat any kind of treat you put in front of him. Whatever I’m serving, he’ll find something he likes.

We had pasta this week. My gravy takes about five hours to make, so I don’t make it every Sunday – maybe twice a month. When I do, all three of my kids are happy. None of them makes the dreaded gag face upon learning the menu for that day. But the three of them are starting to notice each others’ preferences in food. Commenting on how oldest son won’t eat steak so I substitute chicken nuggets, or how oldest daughter leaves half her pasta.

This week, my daughter was looking around at the plates during dinner, and here’s how the conversation went:

Daughter: (pointing at oldest son’s plate) Wow, you’re the only one who never eats the meatballs. How can you not like meat balls?

Littlest guy: He just doesn’t like meat (shrugging his shoulders, his eyes got all wide and then he crossed them, as if too say, “craaaaazy!”)

Oldest son: I like meat.... just not in ball form.

Okay, I liked the line. I think I laughed for five minutes – he’s 8, it was a pretty good reason as far as I could see...

And then I started thinking about that statement and their tastes in general, and writing. We talk so much about writing being subjective, about the voice or style not resonating with some readers or others, and it’s kind of the same thing. All of the ingredients sound right – I just don’t like the way you presented it.

So often, agents and editors will request manuscripts because the ingredients sound right. They like the genre, like the story line, but then they get their eyes on the full and realize that they don’t love it enough to fight for it. And they shouldn’t take it on if they don’t believe in it – but how do you know?

This post isn’t meant to be rhetorical – I think this is a question every writer has to answer for themselves, because we’re all going to face rejection, have and will again. What I’m wondering is how do you, personally, know whether the meat is there, but the reader just doesn’t like it in ball form.. or loaf form, whatever’s clever?

What’s your criteria for being able to determine when the problem is your writing and when it’s just a miss on that particular audience? That’s it in a nutshell. So far, for me, I’m uncertain. Maybe that’s the standard of life for most writers, or at least the great unwashed. I’d like to say, I missed here or fell flat there – or even, hey, I didn’t hit the right desk yet... but I’m not sure. My answer so far is time. Time to let it cool. Time to forget enough of my phrasing and technique so that when I re-read I can really see all of the rhythm and meter of my prose and see what, if anything, I’m missing...

How about you? How do you know you’re using enough spice and not burning the sauce? How do you know that your cooking is awesome, even if a few guests abstain?

13 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

This is an awesome post.

I think you "know" you're getting closer or whatever by the tenor of the rejections. When my agent sent my first novel, Spanish Disco out, he got four rejections and then it sold. The rejections were (S&S, guy editor high up the food chain): "I think Ms. Orloff has it in her to be a best-selling novelist, I just don't think this book shoudl be her first novel--too quirky. Send me anything else she writes." Editor #2: "She sure is funny, but I loved the secondaries more than the main character . . . couldn't warm up to her." Editor #3 "LOVED the main character, didn't think the secondaries were strong enough for her. Send me anything else she writes." Editor #4 (at Avon): "I adore this book . . . BUT it's way too edgy with the alcoholic nature of the main character and the cursing and language--WAY too edgy for my book. So much as I love it, I am going to tell you to send it to Margaret Marbury at Red Dress Ink, who is a friend of mine. I bet she will love it. Use my name." A month later, I had a deal.

So it seemed like yeah, it was TOTALLY subjective, but none of them said it was a "meh" or too bland, or too ordinary. They were specific comments regarding their tastes or their lists. And two of teh four wanted to see anything else my agent had by me. So . . . for what it's worth, that's when I felt like I was nailing it.
E

Erica Orloff said...

Merry:
Oops. The Avon editor said it was too edgy for her BOSS. As in editors sometimes answer to a higher authority.
E

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

Thank you, both for the compliment and the input.

I agree, in general, if you're getting mostly positive feedback except... whatever the thing is, it's always a good sign.

For me, I'm still trying to decide if I just didn't push far enough as far as querying enough people (I really did narrow my list to much less than most of my writing friends suggest), or if it's just not there yet.

I had a fair amount of standard rejections on the query - that in itself doesn't tell me much about the writing, just that the book wasn't up their alley. Of the ones that requested partials and full - I got some variation on "I just didn't love it as much as I had hoped" - which could mean "meh" or it really could be a stylistic subjective thing. There's no way to tell... I also got a few comments on liking the sense of humor... which, yay, because I'm never sure if what makes me laugh is going to resonate with other people - I've said before, I've got kind of a dark sarcastic side to my humor.

So really, I'm grappling with the self doubt thing. I know that's what it is. You hit that point where you just wonder whether you're on the right track. I've improved, my writing's improved, and I can see it... but has it improved enough? And how do you know when to keep pushing and when to take a step back and figure out which quality you're missing the mark on?

Maybe I just need a drink :-)

Realmcovet said...

Excellent analogy Merry.

I find myself wondering about the same things, putting myself into the "editor's perspective", asking of one's self, "Is this shit, or is it good?" But then I just have to quit stirring the "gravy", put the spoon down and serve the bitch already. :)

Well wishes your way.

spyscribbler said...

I love this post, too! (And hilarious quote by your son!)

I think part of it is knowing yourself, knowing who you are as a writer, and which bits can be changed, and which bits, if changed, will take away that magical kernel that is you.

If that makes sense. The latter bits must be protected.

Stephen Parrish said...

How do you know you’re using enough spice and not burning the sauce?

That's the problem. You don't. Neither does anyone else reading your manuscript. I think 30 publishers turned down Hunt for Red October, mainly because they considered it too technical. Yet that was one of the aspects its fans liked best.

I listen to what my dinner guests say, adjust the sauce if doing so feels right, and keep cooking.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Realmcovet!!!

How are you doing?

But then I just have to quit stirring the "gravy", put the spoon down and serve the bitch already. :)

Point taken!! And that, my friend, is an excellent analogy.

Well wishes back at you.

Hi Spy,

I think that makes perfect sense - and it is hard to keep the little kernals while whittling out the external crap. Finding the balance, maybe is the real key.

Hi Stephen,

Nice - wouldn't it be easier if someone could just give you a difinitive? Well, I guess we all wouldn't want it so much if it was easy, though.

Zoe Winters said...

LMAO @ "I like meat, just not in ball form." OMG OMG that rocks! hahahahahahaha. That's a cool kid.

Shelly said...

Great line from the kids, and nice application of it.

I am like Erica, I think that the content of the rejections is important. I have one cycle of three poems that has been rejected by several magazines, but all have praised the quality of the work. One editor bluntly said that it doesn't fit in with her ideology, so she won't print it, but she loves the series. That was disappointing in one way, but good to know. I have a good friend who is a publisher, starting a new print literary journal. He has requested a lot of poems from me for the inaugural issue, and selected about half of what I sent him. This three-poem cycle was not amongst the included poems, but when we met last week he told me it was one of his favorites, actually. He loved the topic and the writing, but that it reflected to much of an interaction with specific historical figures that might not reach his audience. He suggested that footnotes might make it work for some magazines better. I had not thought of doing that, but after hearing his suggestion, it makes sense.

Having said all of that, though, I can just say that sometimes it doesn't make sense when a piece is rejected. I usually put away a piece that has seen a lot of rejection, and take it out later. Often I can see why it was rejected, and sometimes not. The most common reasons I've been able to uncover for the rejection, after giving it a second look, have been either submitting it to the wrong type of market (I have lots that have been accepted when resubmitted to a more appropriate market — very hit and miss with poetry), or sometimes that the poem is an excellent idea, but needs a little bit of fine tuning. Those two have been the biggest reasons I've seen for consistent rejection of a piece. As I am getting better at reading the needs of the various markets for poetry, I am experiencing a lot more success. The work of understanding those needs is kind of tough, though!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Zoe,

Glad you liked it - I just had to find a way to use it in blog form because I thought it was too funny.

Hi Shelly,

I'm so impressed with the great strides you're making with your poetry - I'd still love to see you publish some essays, as I love your treatment, especially of literature but also of pop culture.

Maybe it's the eyes that my ms. went past, but I think that's the part that sticking for me - the lack of specific feedback may in fact be telling me that it's just not good.

Mary Witzl said...

Yep -- this is a great post.

I've cooked up a fine dish, but I've used the wrong seasoning, not put in enough of a few ingredients, and timed a couple of the processes wrong. It's not easy to go back and redo the dish; I'm wondering if I should just start all over again.

Merry Monteleone said...

Egads, Mary, isn't the thought of starting over terrifying?

I've been there myself, and might well be again - for most things, I think revisions will fix the issue, but sometimes I guess it is better to start over... like baking a cake, if you forget the baking soda, well, you might as well throw it out and start over.

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