Writing Life, Writing Tips

The Sophomore Book Slump

When I talked to other authors who had one book out, we discover something: we all struggled to get that second book finished!

For some of us, the problem was coming up with a second idea worthy of a novel; for others, it was writing a whole second book only have it rejected by the publisher. All of us struggled with fears over whether this book would be as good as the first. Would readers shake their heads, saying, “Too bad. Her first book was so good!”?

Join me and author friends Anika Fajardo and Laekan Zea Kemp for a discussion of the slump that often happens when we go write that sophomore book. THANK YOU, Las Musas, whose Sophomore Social podcast series includes this episode to which I was graciously invited: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5rarIG0zVRhuYyqgj7QSXc

Happy ending: all three of us did succeed in writing that second book, and they all come out this year, 2022!

Writing Life, Writing Tips

Applying to Benn AGAIN–Risking a Re-do

Liam Rector 1949-2007

The landline phone rang, and the when the speaker introduced himself, I almost fell backward. It was Liam Rector, American poet and director of Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He wouldn’t call with a rejection, right? Does this mean I’m accepted? His voice wasn’t comforting; it was gruff. His “Is this Rebecca Balcárcel?” sounded more like a demand than a question.

I had applied to Bennington’s Master of Fine Arts program a few months before. TBH, I wasn’t expecting to get in. In fact, I knew from experience that they sent rejections by letter. I knew because I had gotten that letter a year ago: “Thank you for your interest . . . We’re sorry to inform you . . .” I’d almost cried.

That first application I sent had been a long shot. A long shot that cost $50, a huge sum for me and my wasband (then-husband) — a month of no eating out. With only a handful of poems published in journals and a couple of generous letters from former teachers, I knew my application wouldn’t be the most impressive one. Heck, I didn’t even have a Bachelor’s Degree. I repeat: no BA. Yet, I’d changed my major enough to know that creative writing was my love, and a tantalizing sentence in the program’s promo materials stated that an undergraduate degree wasn’t strictly required “if the strength of the writing warrant[ed] such an exception.” I clung to the wild hope that my work would merit that exception and assembled my packet — poems that I hoped were my best, an essay that I hoped sounded professional, the recommendations, and the fifty bucks. I sent it off in a fat envelope with a line of stamps across the top.

Then came the rejection letter. Sigh . . . I shrugged. I wailed. I ranted that I didn’t want that degree anyway. But I did.When the application period came around again, I didn’t consider applying at first. I’d done it once, with nothing but a bruised ego and a fifty-dollar deficit to show for it. Why try?

But their wonderful ad in Poets & Writers called to me, as did their slogan: Read one hundred books. Write one. If I did re-apply, what would be different? Well, there was my writing life. I hadn’t gone out and won some big award, but I had joined a writing group, subscribed to some lit mags, and performed at an open-mic or two. I’d volunteered to teach writing at any little club or gathering I could find. In that pre-Facebook world, I couldn’t connect to distant writers easily, but I connected to my local community. If I were to apply again, I would have a better essay at least.

I’d also kept writing. And sending out my work. My handful of pubs had grown to more like a dozen. Not that most people had heard of Mystic River Review or Mutant Mule Review, but that wasn’t the point. The point was: I hadn’t given up on myself or my work.

So maybe I could re-apply. But what about the fifty bucks? I couldn’t imagine wasting that amount of money again. We were living on hourly wages, and I was home nursing twins. It seemed impossible that we could squeeze fifty whole dollars out of an already-lean budget. But my wasband said to go for it. “We’ll eat rice and oatmeal,” he said, or something like that. He believed in my work, and he believed in following one’s dream.

And now Liam Rector was on the phone. Not only did he invite me to attend the Bennington Writing Seminars, he also informed me that I was a Jane Kenyon Scholar, one of two entering poetry students to receive the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize scholarship. I couldn’t have been more shocked. I stammered out a “Yes, I’ll see you in January,” and jumped up and down squealing non-words for the next hour.

Me today with my Bennington MFA from 2002

Two years later, Liam handed me my MFA at graduation. The take-away, writing friends — and artist friends and engineer friends and linguistics friends and just human friends! — is not only to try again and to not give up. Even more important is the truth that no program or single person, even the formidable Liam Rector, made me a poet. I loved every second of my MFA experience, but the writing itself turned my brain into a poetry brain. And by writing, I mean the re-writing, the dropping the pose and getting down to the real, the self-doubt, the crafting and crying, the reading of the greats, the click of the right word on the right line. And it started years before. The MFA gave me much! Deadlines, community, models. And yes, a sense of legitimacy, which let me say, “I am a writer,” with a straight face. But process made me a writer, not permission.

This lines up neatly with Bennington philosophy, actually, and with Liam Rector’s, but I didn’t know that then. I also didn’t know that my first book of poems wouldn’t come out for eight more years or that my first novel wouldn’t come out for seventeen more years! When I was a beginner with a bunch of words and wishes, clamoring to get in, I didn’t know the door opened to the inside.

Latina Heritage, Writing Tips

Why My Novel Doesn’t Italicize Words in Español

fullsizeoutput_202.jpegAs an English prof, I’m usually the one showing students the ropes of active voice and helping them fix format mix-ups. I’m an Oxford comma fan, and don’t get me started on people’s misuse of the word literally. (Ok, I’ve about thrown in the towel on that one!) My point is that I normally like the rules, use the rules, savor the rules — but not this time.

When I sat down to type my novel, The Other Half of Happy, Spanish words showed up right away as part of the world of the story. My training told me to italicize each of them. The MLA Handbook on my shelf specifically says to “italicize foreign words used in an English text.” And MLA is not alone in this. But that didn’t feel right. MLA Handbook

These words didn’t seem, well, foreign. The dad in the book is a native Spanish speaker, and the mom is fluent, too. For my main character, their twelve-year-old daughter, Spanish words are part of everyday life. They don’t need emphasis.

Even MLA admits that some foreign words have been “naturalized into English,” and therefore need no italics. These include “raison d’être” and “e.g.” Other words are fully anglicized — “taco,” “flamenco,” “vista.” These don’t need italics either.

But my book doesn’t use just “burrito” and its cousins. Here’s an early instance of a Spanish word in my novel:

His shoulders drop. “Pues.” This is his word for agreeing. And his word for not agreeing. “Pues” means “well” and “there it is” and “if you say so.”

“Pues” is not an anglicized word. In fact, its meaning is so slippery that the narrator needs three phrases to explain it. Then why not italicize?

Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala
Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala

For one thing, the book has a lot of italics. It contains many passages of introspection, also normally italicized. The main character, Quijana, talks to herself quite a bit. At one point she says, Get a grip, Qui! In another place, she introspects using a Spanish word. She knows her father wants her to wear a huipil (see photo) on the first day of school, but Quijana opts for jeans. She says inwardly,

Yes, you’re seeing correctly, Dad; I’m not wearing the huipil.

In a sentence like this, the Spanish word would have to be un-italicized to stand out. But then it would look like the rest of the text. The convention breaks down and doesn’t help readers.

And of course, the whole point of italics is to help readers. Italics signals that the foreign TexasOutlineword is not a typo or a word they are expected to know. But how many American readers can’t figure out that a Spanish word is probably Spanish? How many are tripped up by a word or even a sentence in Spanish? Mind you, I’m not expecting my readers to know what the Spanish means, only that it is Spanish. Maybe it’s because I live in Texas, land of hueros and mestizos and Spanish-speaking gringos, but I think they can handle it.

RulesSometimesApply.pngSo we’re back to my real reason for not italicizing the words from Español in my novel: I don’t want to. To me, these words are not from the outside, but from the inside of my character’s world. Flagging the Spanish words as different in some way doesn’t feel real for Quijana. Readers may challenge me here, pointing out that the words are outside of their worlds, but I’m betting that they can meet me in Quijana’s Texas without much confusion. For characters who code-switch, italics is even more problematic, as illustrated so well by Daniel José Older in his two-minute video. I wouldn’t push my choice on others — each author will have his or her own take on this, and not all languages are as familiar to American readers as Spanish is. I do support the right of authors to decide, without a rule book’s help, whether italics works for their books. 

I want to give a shout out here to Chronicle Books and my wonderful editor there, Taylor Norman. She never once asked me about my choice not to italicize. She intuited the reason for that judgement call and turned her attention to bigger problems — like whether the grandmother should really die in chapter four. (Spoiler: She shouldn’t, and now doesn’t!)ITALIC_TYPEWRITER__font_preview_77832_2So, let’s celebrate all the ways language can be rendered on the page. Let’s use every tool we can to communicate, including italics. But let’s be the users of the tools, selecting the right moment for their use, and not let the tools use us.

Writing Tips

How I Got My Literary Agent

I spent a couple of years writing my manuscript, revising, and taking my writing group’s critique to heart. I knew I wanted to find a traditional publisher and realize my dream of becoming a published author. I had, actually, had a book of poems published by a little university press, but I hoped my new book could appeal to a wider audience. In short, I wanted the dream, the dream of seeing my book on the shelves of an actual bookstore.

To do that, I needed an agent. Ideally, an agent who loved my book and could shepherd it to a publisher.

The is the story of how I found that agent, from the actual query letter and examples of rejections to the phone call that led to representation.

 

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