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.

 

 

 

‘Cause all I ever have

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Note: I wrote this several days ago and never posted it. I was getting ready to write a very different piece tonight, about the writing process and Alan Cumming and connecting with others and the dog’s injury and then, somehow, it felt wrong not to acknowledge the events of last Sunday.

July 17

…and another horrifying story, this time a national one that took place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the day after I left that beautiful state. As I said, this was the first time I’ve ventured out of New Orleans, down south along the bayous to the tiny and climate-threatened Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, and in so doing I got a fleeting glimpse of an entirely different Louisiana. It bears little resemblance to anywhere else in the world that I’ve spent time, and I was quite taken by its beauty. See exhibit A, above.

Despite all the atrocities going on in the world and despite the personal challenges I and several people in my life face and the fact that he-who-shall-not-be-named is running for president, I left that vacation feeling some semblance of enrichment and extreme nostalgia for ten days’  worth of experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And then this. Oh, this. The person-on-the-street footage of what happened in Baton Rouge is chilling. I wish I could say that that crime makes zero “sense” – but in the world in which we live, it is not out of context. It did not occur in a vacuum. And that is an even less convenient truth than the fact that it happened in the first place. This was neither the first nor the last act of extreme, divisive violence we will experience this year.

I am tired of being horrified. I’m tired of feeling helpless. I’m tired of the front page of the Times having an all-caps headline to the effect of: ANOTHER ONCE-UNTHINKABLE ACT OF VIOLENCE. And I’m tired of the flags just kind of staying at half-mast.

Let’s try to look out for one another.

…and miss it each night and day

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I’ve returned to my beloved hometown. Sharing what I wrote in the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole wide world was fast asleep and I didn’t have wifi:

Gearing up to leave New Orleans for the time being; I will be back in September. I love this place, and though I’m admittedly a tourist, or “an amateur”, as I’ve been called, the more I visit the less tourist/amateur I feel. I had a tiny stable of friends here to begin with, and each time I visit my circle builds which, if you know me, you know I love.

As I write this I am sitting on the porch of a beautiful home in the Bywater, on the market and owned by a friend I made in May who graciously offered it to me for my visit.

I’ve met some likeminded souls down here.

This, my twelfth visit to this place, has offered me many firsts. I had dinner at someone’s home, red beans and rice on a Monday, as is the tradition, apparently. I was taken on a road trip to points south of here, to Cajun territory on Bayous where people fish and shrimp and crab – and, naïve little city gal that I am, this was exotic and beautiful.

As I’m thinking it through, I’m realizing I’ve actually been in six people’s homes this time around.

Other firsts … let’s see … I ate borscht. I grew up eating the stuff, but I’ve never had it in New Orleans. I went to the Country Club (it’s not a country club). I stayed by myself in a reputedly haunted house. I walked a dog. I held my own at the breakfast roundtable I’ve been observing for years. I spoke French. In Whole Foods.

Friends at home ask me what I love about this place and the answers were once, probably in order, “the food, the music, the culture and history”. Now they are all of those things as well as the people, the architecture, the crepe myrtles and live oaks and Spanish moss and satsuma trees. (there is a satsuma tree behind me as we speak; I need to google “satsuma” but I’m assuming it’s not the only one in town.)

I could go on and on about why I love this town. I could talk about the most perfect iced coffee I’ve ever had, and the friendliness of the Lantern, and the fact that I’ve started to recognize familiar faces. That I’ve had some of the easiest conversations of my life here, as well as some of the more challenging. I could talk about the people I’ve just met and look forward to knowing, the animals I’ve encountered, the dog-friendliness, the sudden, perfect rainstorms (and yes, I’m well aware that rain and this town have a checkered and tragic past), I could talk about the much more logical cost of existing down here, and about the fact that the humidity makes my adamantly straight hair kind of wavy and full and what-I’ve-always-wanted-my-hair-to-look-like. And, I could talk about the fact that my writing schedule down here has been unorthodox and yet, I think I might have done some of the best writing/editing on Book that I’ve done thus far.

I could talk about all of this. And I could talk about the fact that so many horrible fucking things have happened in the world since I’ve been here, from Alton Sterling to Dallas to Nice to Turkey to Mike Pence.

Apparently the world goes even more haywire when I follow my bliss and leave New York. Hashtag magical thinking.

On a personal level, a friend died. Someone I did not know well but with whom I shared a lot, and without whom I would not have met some of the most important people in my life. I am in no way trying to take ownership of this loss and its accompanying grief; many of our mutual friends know her much better than I did. But again, if you know me, you know that I don’t really have casual friendships. I get into it, I spill my soul and I look for yours. And this friend and I talked about some fairly heavy stuff in the short time we knew each other.

This is one of the ones that will continue to sink in as time goes by.

Rest, girl. You’ve earned it, and you’re missed.

I can not move down here yet, but I will always be connected to this place.

And though I am a starry-eyed tourist and an “amateur”,  I’m not THAT bad. I mean, I spend zero time on Bourbon Street and I don’t stand in line at Café du Monde, so there’s that.

I like lists. They’re orderly and tangible. This is why I can tell you how many times I’ve been to New Orleans, and to France. This is also why I can tell you the animals I’ve encountered on this trip. In no particular order, I’ve seen or met:

Many dogs,

Many cats.

At least three buzzards.

An emu.

A potbellied pig named Snuffleupagus.

A chicken.

Two toads.

Four giraffes.

A brazen squirrel.

A porpoise.

List #2—advice/wisdom I’ve gained in the past ten days:

Don’t get caught with shrimp dust.

Don’t feed oleander to a llama.

Red fish bite best on purple plastic.

There is a breed of goats that is narcoleptic.

Purple can’t hurt purple.

I have so much more to say about the past ten days. But right now I must eat Italian food.

I love you, New Orleans. Thanks for letting me in.

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.

Stuck in the middle with you

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My friend (Michel) sent me a meme (don’t love that word) that said: Writer’s block: when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you. That sums it up fairly well. Mine are talking to me, but they’re all talking at once and it’s very hard to decipher their individual voices. I need someone to work crowd control, but then he or she would need a storyline, and I’d be right back where I started (from).

In college I read the Luigi Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which six unfinished characters interrupt the rehearsal of a play because they’re desperate to find a writer to finish their stories. They’re in a sort of purgatory until they do. I wrote a little piece for writing group last year based on this concept; my characters gathered in the bar (my characters spend an awful lot of time in the bar) discussing where I’d left them. The ones with marked characteristics and clear voices were relatively okay, but the others were pissed.

I’d always heard that, when writing fiction, characters can come to life and drive the story. This is my experience with this novel; I’d thought I knew who my main character was until the person who became my main character claimed the spotlight; it took me a while to fully realize that this is her story.

Her name is Josie, short for Josephine. About a year and a half ago I met a Josephine at a party; I commented that that was my protagonist’s name, and she asked what she was like. So I told her that she wasn’t always my protag, but eventually she became the most important character in the story. Non-fiction Josephine laughed and said, “That sounds about right.” A year and a half later she is one of the most important people in my life.

Lots of synchronicity in the long, drawn-out writing of this book …

Most exciting development of late … I might finally have my title. I need to mull it over extensively before I commit, though. Titles are hard.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m also writing a pilot with my oldest (in longevity of relationship) friend Tara. It’s been really interesting working on these projects simultaneously, and as different as they are, there have been a lot of parallels in the process. Both stories needed extensive backstory written and then cast aside in order to get to the heart – or the bloodline, as my coach says – of the plot.

Tara has been invaluable in the novel-in-progress as well. She’s a voracious and careful reader and has read my chapters and given me excellent feedback. This is crucial. Without her, and my coach, and my writing group, and other helpful sets of eyes, I would be operating without a net. With the village that is helping and encouraging me in this project (and you know who you are, even those who don’t wish to be named in this forum), I feel fairly confident that I will not leave gaping plot holes and red herrings and guns in act one that don’t go off by act three. Can’t remember who said that – feel free to comment if you know (Mom).

I am going back to my muse city, as JC calls it, in a couple of weeks. I’ve been warned and warned again about the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, but never having experiences Nola in the summer, I know that this is something I must do. For the book’s sake. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will spend the week slathered in sunscreen and bug spray and depending on the kindness of strangers’ air conditioners.

Much more to say on the subject of this upcoming trip, but I shall save it for another post.

I travel extensively in my dreams. While asleep the other night I visited New Orleans, India (there were sharks in the Ganges!) and a cross between Marrakesh and Namibia. Been trying to keep track of my dreams by writing them down. 3AM handwriting aside, this is an interesting process. By writing them down when they’re fresh in my insomniac mind, I am able to recall the emotional imprint of the dreams, not just the storyline.

I will leave you with this. I was watching something late, late one night in which a psychiatrist and a few other professionals were discussing the basic rules to human interaction – what one or two guiding principles help us get along with others. So I wrote down some thoughts and came up with this: meet people where they are. I mean this figuratively, though if you’re my friend in real life you know this also applies to my love of proximity to my home. But really, meet people where they are, accept their limitations, and don’t hold them up to improbable standards. You can expect the best from someone while still embracing imperfection.

And now back to my possibly titled book.