The lazy Mississippi

IMG_5110If you are lucky enough to know what it means to miss New Orleans, then you likely recognize the area where I took this photo, Jackson Square. Yes it’s the heart of the Quarter and yes the Quarter is riddled with tourists but some of my closest friends who are not tourists live and love in this historic part of town.

If you pay attention to this blahg you may have noticed that, until today, I’ve posted quite minimally since 11-8. It’s been really difficult to do anything since then, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My life will not change dramatically because of what is going on in Mar-A-Lago on the golf course in D.C. But life, and any semblance of security that many of the people living in this country may have, has and will change dramatically, and this is what I now fight for every day.

But I digress. I have not written in FSP much because I’ve not really been inspired to do so, and now, having made my first trip of the year to New Orleans, I am inspired to do a lot.

This was my 13th visit to the city, and it was wonderful. I saw some of my favorite people and made new friends. I played among the Mardi Gras beads and stray cats that line the streets. I know that the city is far, far from perfect. I know its political and social and infrastructural problems are many. And I know that when I visit there, I feel creative and I believe a little bit more in the magic that I so want to believe in.

I love that, on this trip, I met a woman who has a pet pig, and that on hearing this, I asked , “Oh! Do you live on Frenchmen?” and she replied, “No, my pig doesn’t get along with the one who lives on Frenchmen.”

I love that I was invited to conflicting crawfish boils at 4pm Sunday, and that when I didn’t go to either because I wanted to stay in and write, no one questioned me.

I love that people I barely know and have not seen since last July remember that I’m “the one from New York who’s writing a book.”

Speaking of which, I’m almost done with said book.

This time around I didn’t feel sad leaving New Orleans, because I know that I will be back soon. I left there looking forward to my life and loved ones here. And I look forward to getting back to my life and dear friends there when I can.

Thank you all. You know who you are.

 

Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

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…it was my first writers’ conference. I’m being dramatic, of course; such is the danger of absorbing 72 hours-worth of advice and tools for writing fiction.

If you are not interested in the writing process, this will be a very dull post. I’m a bit burnt out.

I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York this weekend; if you are a writer I highly recommend a) subscribing to Writer’s Digest and utilizing its excellent website b) attending this conference next year, or in October of this year in L.A., and c) looking into other conferences. I’ve just registered for my next one. If you are lucky enough to write in a commercial genre, which I’m not, there are conferences and associations created JUST FOR YOU!

There is not, however, a conference or association dedicated to the literary-ghost story-that’s-not-entirely-a-ghost-story-but-is-sort-of-speculative-and-sort-of-magical-realism genre, but that’s where conferences like this are helpful.

I learned a ton, about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and it was everything — inspiring, encouraging, exhausting, discouraging, enlightening … I learned that freedom from genre constraints, while wonderful for those who love the written word, makes for a tough sell. But all is not lost; there are plenty of agents who appreciate literary fiction.

Before I seek them out, though, I have a tremendous amount of revision to do, and this weekend was invaluable in helping me to strategize.

Following are the events I attended and my main takeaways from each:

  1. Pitch Perfect: This was open to everyone who planned to attend the following day’s Pitch Slam (see #something, below). Here I learned that once an agent expresses interest, the offer, in theory, “never expires”. This is because the emphasis is on the quality of the work and not the speed with which you submit it. Which is not to say one should pitch prematurely, but if revisions are necessary, take the time to make them.
  2. How to Be Your Own Best Publicist: Well, this was interesting, because suggestion #2 was to hire a publicist. Other than that, the speaker emphasized the importance of a platform (this was repeated in many different ways by many different people throughout the weekend) and of social media fluency.
  3. The Changing Face of Publishing: Another recurring theme of the weekend. While this is not news to me, it was very helpful to hear it outlined so clearly by the literary agent who ran this session: there are strong advantages to publishing in untraditional ways. Of course being published by a Random House or Simon and Schuster, any of the big guns—or the small guns, for that matter—brings prestige and a slew of advantages. But … there is potentially more money to be made through self publishing, partner publishing, co-op publishing, or a hybrid approach. Beyond the money, there is the advantage of having absolute control of one’s book, from title to cover art to things-I-learned-the-next-day.
  4. Story Trumps (← ugh) Structure: I took a lot of notes on this one. The fundamental message was to ignore the rules; if you have a good story, it doesn’t need the classic three act-structure. A good story depends on tension, and tension is caused by unmet desire. It is the pursuit of the protag’s goal that propels a story forward. I knew this, but the speaker made some excellent points that I applied to my book, jotting down specific notes as he spoke. Among them: repetition undermines escalation. The best way to move action along is to get to know your character(s) well enough that you know how they would likely react to escalating tension. If you focus on what would naturally happen next, versus what would further your plot to its predestined climax, your story will flow. Write logically, not chronologically. In every scene, consider what your reader will think, worry about, want, be surprised by … and deliver. Give the readers was they want, or something better.

**Brief break: I apologize if this is clunky and hard to read; the outlining function on WordPress is not as sophisticated as I’d hoped. Or perhaps it is, and I’m not a sophisticated enough user to figure it out. Either way, chicken or egg, I will be very happy to answer any questions you have about any of this or to clarify any confusing points.**

5. How to Write a Query Letter: Write like you’re handing a letter to your best friend. State what the book is about. Begin with the protagonist and her problem. Do not mention themes of the book. Do not provide back story. Share only the essentials of Act One. A query is not a synopsis. Do not ask rhetorical questions; who would want to read them? Do not put live links in your email query. Use a query tracking system.

6. Say Yes to the Writer’s Life: This was the first keynote speaker, Kwame Alexander, who spoke at the end of Day One (yep, this was all the first day). He was excellent — funny, charming, inspiring. Basically, he took matters into his own hands for 20 years, never letting rejection stop him, until a book he planned to self-publish (after he made the rounds and got rejected) was picked up by Houghton Mifflin and won the Newberry Prize. Earlier in his career, when he couldn’t find a publisher he started his own imprint. When he wasn’t invited to a festival he wanted to attend, he built his own festival. When he was turned down for a fellowship, he created his own fellowship, and one year later had raised enough money to invite the recipients of his DIY fellowship to spend three weeks on a writing retreat in Tuscany. He was not financially solvent when he did all this; he was impulsive and optimistic. The last question of the day was, “How did you stay so positive and keep going after all that rejection? What meds to you take?”

Change of plans … I’m going to stop here and write another post about days two and three. Because this is a lot to process and write, as I imagine it is to read.

I have a lot of revision ahead of me, and I’m half-excited and half-nauseous about it all. Eventually I will need beta readers, who have not read any of this before. I will be reaching out to some of you.

It was wonderful spending the weekend surrounded by writers and words, and it was absolutely worth it.

Overheard in the hallway, “I’ve just chopped 110,000 words from my manuscript!”

Sigh.

 

A Creole tune fills the air

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The day I was leaving Louisiana I drove past the image above. Josie is my main character’s name, the one whose experiences I’ve tried to capture and absorb during my visits to New Orleans this year. This was either a cool coincidence or a sign from beyond, depending on your point of view on such matters.

I’m somewhere in the middle.

I was telling someone about my book and where the inspiration for it comes from, and he said, “Sometimes I wish I had a less scientific mind. I could use a little more magic in my life.” I think we all could use more magic, the good kind.

This was a first—the other night I dreamt a live-action scene from my novel, in which  two of the characters sit at the bar having a conversation. I recall the gist of their discussion, but not the dialogue.

One of the things I love so much about my visits to Louisiana is the generosity of the people I’ve met, generosity of time and spirit. As I said in my last post, on this most recent visit I was a guest in several homes, I was treated to meals and shown parts of the city and state I’d not have discovered on my own, I was given gifts of sentimental and spiritual importance to the givers. The people I’ve met have a deep appreciation for their city that I’ve not experienced elsewhere; they’re proud of its culture and history, and they love to share their knowledge with visitors. And every person I speak with has a unique perspective on what makes it the special place that it is.

Somewhere I once read that Mark Twain described New Orleans as “a beautiful woman with dirty fingernails”. I’m having a hard time finding that quote now, so maybe I dreamt it, too; either way it’s accurate. A new friend who lives there reminded me of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, which I need to re-read; I read it long before my first visit. In researching literary New Orleans I found this quote from the book:

Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time.

The same friend described his neighborhood, which is fast becoming one of my favorites, as “mostly quiet, not touristy, with the sweet, soothing sounds of gunshots most nights after midnight.” I think that’s a slight exaggeration but I defer to the people who live there. In my experiences, like most places I’ve been, you’re safe if you keep your wits about you and don’t venture into unknown territory.

I worried that I didn’t get as much writing done on this trip as I’d set out to, and my amazing editor/coach assured me that what I did get was of great value to me as a writer, as part of the “writer’s life” that she assures me I am living. It feels at times like a cop-out because being a writer does not mean constantly writing. And the other aspects of the writer’s life are fun and interesting, the research, the mining of peoples’ stories, the surrounding myself with creativity and inspiration. My trip coincided with a visit by my friend Richard Grant, the wonderful travel writer who was in town to discuss his latest book, Dispatches from Pluto, at the Faulkner House. I’m reading the book now, in so far as I’m reading much of anything these days, and it’s wonderful. It’s hard for me to read while I’m on deadline; it just makes me aware that I should be writing. But once the conference is over and I can briefly relax, I plan to inhale this book and a few of the others stacked up on my nightstand.

So much has happened in the twelve days since I’ve been back from Louisiana. So much more mayhem and malice in the world. Another horrific terrorist attack in France, more suicide bombings (Somalia comes first to mind but of course there’ve been others), lots of gun violence in this country, the shooting of another unarmed black man … and the conventions.

I wish that I could express myself as eloquently about American politics as so many of you can … but I lack the deep understanding and historical context, as well as the ability to discuss the state of things objectively, free of emotion. What’s going on right now is incredibly emotional to me. This is why I am asking any of you who can articulate your point of view well to write a post for this blahhhhgggg in the coming weeks … happy to share your words anonymously, if you prefer. I have some very smart, informed, and articulate friends and I’d love to learn from you.

I need to maintain my faith and optimism. We’ll get through this.

 

 

 

Where did all the blue skies go

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I started to write a post on the 4th of July and decided not to publish it, didn’t finish it. I couldn’t find the words to express what I was feeling, couldn’t quite figure out how to acknowledge a celebration of our country’s freedom when so much of the world is not free. I don’t usually get political here and it felt inauthentic somehow, though my feelings were 100% sincere.

That was four days ago, and I think had a fair amount to do with a new friend I’ve made, through my cousin – a fellow who lives in Iraq. I reached out to him after the latest spate of suicide bombings in Baghdad and he was, of course, devastated and angry. He asked to see photos of the mountains and woods where I spent the long weekend; he wanted to see beauty and positivity and freedom. He sent me a photo collage of the victims of Sunday’s attacks, and it was a collection of beautiful, young, vibrant faces.

The next day there were attacks in Saudi Arabia. This week two young black men in the US have been killed by police for the “crimes” of selling music and driving with an allegedly busted tail light. Last night, snipers shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded several others.

I do not know how to react to any of this. I am infuriated and saddened and tired of feeling helpless and I don’t know what my recourse is.

I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Donald Trump is not the answer to any of this. Hate begets hate. Intolerance begets intolerance. Ignorance is dangerous and hubris does not a successful leader make. And I do not want to speak his name more than absolutely necessary, so that’s that for now.

I am in New Orleans again, working through the final third of the book. And it is hard to concentrate on what at times seems such a trivial pursuit in light of all that is happening in the world around us. But this is my job, and so I will do it.

Since I was last here about six weeks ago, there have been terrorist attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Somalia, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan–and that’s just off the top of my not-terribly-informed head. Since I was here, a monster shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

There is so much to grieve in this world. And there is so much to love and admire, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where we are allowed to love and admire who, what, and when we choose to.

I’ve been accused of having a Pollyanna-like outlook on things. I don’t. I’m more realistic than I let on. But there are many people who can speak of the world’s atrocities much more eloquently than I can, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from these people and their words.

I have long been saddled with a need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to believe that people are inherently good. I am fortunate to have many good people in my life.

But it’s a scary, uncertain world, and I am aware of this. So if I veer toward light and love in the things I write and post and choose to talk about, do not mistake it for blindness. I can’t fix all the bad, and so I choose to try my best to contribute more good.

Time for coffee and Chapter Ten.

Looking over my yesterdays

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Continuing my trip down memory lane, I went through that last box that had been in storage. I found this masterpiece as well as three books that I wrote when I was somewhere between the ages of six and eight. There was a Torah-style Halloween story, written before I learned which way to staple the pages, a first-person narrative about a 12-year-old boy who had a run of great luck, called “Yeah for Today”, and my favorite, the riveting tale of a group of feline musicians called “The Cat Band”.

In Chapter One, a cat named Lenard [sic] decides to “have a band”. He phones his friends Pierre, Fuzzy, Arthur, and Montecon, and all agree that having a band is a fine idea. Rehearsal is going swimmingly until two of the band members clash over the hour; apparently it’s midnight and the neigbors [sic sic] are sleeping.

Things look tense for a moment until Pierre opens Chapter Two with a witty anecdote from his days “back at France”; laughter ensues.

Enter: Wendy, a “very, very, very pretty cat” who walks into our boys’ lives at the start of Chapter Three and promises them a gig at the Cat Rock And Roll Meowy Theatre. The boys head down, sign a contract (yep, I’m an agent’s daughter), and perform to a packed room, with Wendy as backup dancer. The book ends on a high note, with the promise of many more shows to come.

Somewhere along the line the artist formerly known as Fuzzy changes his name to Fluffy.

 

Speaking of hep cats, I’m learning a new song with my voice teacher: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? That was on the roster of songs we were going to learn even before I went back down in March. It’s a challenging one, and I love it.

And since I do know … hoping to get back down in July, when it will be humid and sultry (it’s always sultry) … the New Orleans chapters of the book I’m avoiding writing take place in summer, so I must ignore my aversion to being uncomfortably hot and embrace it instead.

Next Saturday there will be a Second Line to honor pets, those who have passed and those who are still with us. My Louie will be represented in poster form … Lou-on-a-stick. Photos TK.

I met someone last night who lives in Billie Holiday’s old apartment in Sheridan Square. Apparently the building used to house the jazz club Café Society, reputedly the first integrated jazz club in the country, and artists lived upstairs. Very cool. All roads lead to New Orleans.

Back to book …

Down in New Orleans

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This’ll be a quickie as the day’s gotten away from me … but I’m back in this lovely town for a short writing retreat. I had every intention of writing between visits, and it just didn’t work out that way … all of my writing energy went into the book and another project, about which more later, as my mama would say.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here in May and this is my first time visiting during “termite-swarming season”. According to my dear host, said swarming takes place around 8pm, but doesn’t last too long. At 8pm last night I was blissfully tucked away at Three Muses, on Frenchmen Street, eating dinner and hearing great music … can’t recall the name of the trio and don’t want to break the momentum to look it up but I’ll get back to you on that detail.

The good news is I’ve missed “Bucket Moth Caterpillar season” wherein, according to the aforementioned host, large caterpillars spin and drop from the trees, stinging whomever they land upon in the process.

It’s a town full of colorful characters, of the two- four- and 600-legged varieties.

Every season is cat season, and one can easily get turned around should one decide to follow a group of stray cats and take photos. Happened to a friend of mine.

So  the book … major changes are in the works, which is daunting and exciting. I won’t bog you down with the  details but there is going to be extensive chopping and moving and killing of darlings before this draft is through. Turns out my story begins much further into the current plot than I’d intended … and according to my coach this is often the case, that first-parts-of-books wind up on the cutting room floor.

I am attending a writing conference in August, my first ever, and will have the terrifying opportunity to pitch the book in what is essentially speed-dating with literary agents. So I will  be immersed in it between now and then and will probably babble about it a fair amount.

I had lunch at the friendly and haunted Muriel’s yesterday . Dined at the bar and chatted with the same bartender I met last time around, the one who filled me in on the ghostly happenings there, including one involving her departed mother. She remembered me and I told her that I’ve thought of the story about her mom a bunch since then. A few minutes into our conversation, one of her mom’s favorite songs came on the radio—an obscure tune by a one-hit wonder (her words) whom her mother loved and saw live once. I assumed it was her own playlist but no, she explained calmly,  it was the radio—her mom had been around a lot lately, to the point of occasional distraction. Still, she said, her worst fear is not being able to feel her anymore—a line that went straight into the book. Not being an expert on these matters I don’t know what the chances of this happening are, but I hope for her sake that it doesn’t.

The gentleman sitting next to me told me that he, too, had a ghost story from Muriel’s. Seems this fellow’s sister was in town and he took her there for lunch and showed her the seance room upstairs. They took photos of one another and in all the photos of him, there was a mysterious glowing orb hovering, which was likely Antoine, the restaurant’s shimmering resident ghost. I asked to see one of the photos and didn’t have the heart to point out that it was a selfie he’d taken in the mirror. With flash.

Whatever gets you through the night.