Now I wanna be your dog

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Yesterday, I had the following conversation at the vet’s office.

The scene: a man was encouraging his dog to “say hi” to Louie.

Me: Oh—he’s not great with other dogs!

Man with other dog: Are you sure? He was sniffing mine before.

Me: No, he wasn’t—I think it was that guy (pointing to third dog).

MWOD: Well let’s just test it out. (releases more slack on leash)

Me: Oh trust me, I wouldn’t—he’s not great with other dogs.

MWOD: So you don’t socialize him?

Me: Actually, when he was-

MWOD: Because you really should socialize them

Me: I know, and I used—

MWOD: The vet says it’s very important..

Me: Yes, of course it is, but—

MWOD: How old is he?

Me: 15.

MWOD: Well that explains it. Have a nice day.

Me: You too.

My reaction brought you by the makers of Transcendental Meditation. There was a time when it would have been super important for me to interrupt the interruptions and reassure this man that yes, I socialized him from the time he was a few months old and he used to be quite social, then he had a bad experience with a couple of dogs but was still okay, then he got injured in the dog park and needed surgery, so we stopped going to the dog park, and his tolerance for other dogs faded. But since he’s turned 15 he seems a bit more tolerant, though as it’s not something I can depend upon, it just seems easier to say that he’s not great with other dogs, even though I feel badly saying so because that verbiage makes it sound like it’s a deficit on his part and it is not that. But sometimes it’s easier to just smile and nod and say, “You’re right, I should have socialized my dog.”

When you have a dog in this city people like to tell you how you should have a dog in this city. My dog has arthritis and his back legs shake; therefore, people assume he is a) cold and I’m not dressing him properly or b) scared, and I’m not comforting him properly. In fact my dog is warm, brave, has arthritis and is not great with other dogs.

Last night I dreamt that I was going on vacation and I stayed over at Tom Petty’s house because it was closer to the airport, natch. It was a bit of a mess but who was I to complain? I commented to Tom that many of his songs are quite literal, that he doesn’t use a lot of metaphor, at which point my mother walked in and said, “What about ‘Last Dance with Mary Jane?'” and I was impressed because I didn’t know my mom knew that song.

I’m trying to get back to this 500+ words a day in the new book by way of plowing (or  plodding) my way through the “shitty first draft.” Must resist the urge to edit and must doubly resist the urge to give up. Got another “I like the premise and the voice but just didn’t connect enough with the story” email today from a literary agent about my first book. I’m not sure at this point if I should keep sending it out or if I should, once this other one is a bit more under way, go back over the first one and do another round of revisions. Or the third option, which would be to tuck the first one on a shelf and forget about it for a while. If anyone wants to weigh in with advice, I’m open to it.

I’m currently taking a beginner’s American Sign Language course and it’s very interesting. It’s intense—we are learning a fair amount of material in a short amount of time. And it is a lot of body language and facial expression, which I hadn’t realized but yeah, of course it is. I’m learning it because it’s something I’ve always been curious about and because one night, when I couldn’t sleep, an ad popped up on my computer for inexpensive ASL classes. I’m learning tiny bits of many languages, mostly self-taught through some of the many programs available online, and I wonder if I should pursue any one of them more thoroughly? Focus is not my strong suit. But every where you turn these days you hear about mindfulness and the power of now (and The Power of Now) and all evidence points to doing one thing at a time and not multi-tasking. I can’t recall the last time I did one thing at a time for any extended period of time … which is why writing is a good exercise for me because I can’t really do anything else while I do it, can’t listen to music or eat or pet that freezing, anti-social dog of mine. So if I write more every day perhaps I’ll get better at Doing One Thing At a Time.

I would like to end this post on a note that is either profound, witty, charming, or thought-provoking, but I got nothin’. One of my goals for autumn is to write in this more, too, so if the muses allow, I’ll regale you soon with profound, charming, thought-provoking wit.

Until then, au revoir, arrivaderci, adios, auf wiedersehn, tchau, Прощай*.

*I actually hadn’t yet learned how to say it in Russian. The More You Know!

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I’m going to attempt the possible … I’m going to try to write this post in one sitting.

I’m inspired to write these days and that is a beautiful thing. Though the process itself is daunting AF (as the kids say), the fact that I am now in the querying stage of my novel is kind of liberating. It means I have paused the revision process and can start on something new, or at the very least can think about the next thing.

I’d like to take my writing more seriously; no matter what becomes of it, this is what I do. This afternoon I got together with a new friend, one who has been wanting to write a book for years and who has been collecting material by living her life—that’s how we do it, writers like us. She has felt blocked lately and when we first met a couple of weeks ago we talked about our projects and, she told me today, this opened her up a bit to the possibility of finally sitting down and starting to write.

I started my book a decade ago because I wanted to try to write a novel (of my own; I’d ghostwritten one once before) and because I had the germ of an idea. I worked on it a bit and put it away for years. Then a couple of years ago I realized that whenever someone asked me what was new in my life, I responded by telling them what was new in my boyfriend’s life. I needed something; I was in a deep and deeply rooted rut.

So I signed up for a novel writing workshop and started a second writing group (short lived but very valuable) and some months later I started working with my writing coach and I wrote and wrote and deleted and deleted and second guessed myself, then wrote some more, chopped off half of what I’d written, filled in lots of gaps and then revised the shit out of the thing over and over and over. And over. The cows have yet to come home, but I’m done for the time being.

It’s all fodder—the overheard snippets of conversation, the quirky people you see on the subway, the places you’ve been, the heartbreak and demons, the absurd dreams. The name you make up because it sounds funny and you decide you need a character named ____. The thoughts you have that are so wise and profound that they must be shared with the world and so you will assign them to a character who happens to share your deepest childhood fears. The ridiculous thoughts that make you laugh but that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else in the moment you think them. The piece  of blue sea glass you find in the sand that you decide is from a bottle of Saratoga Spring Water that was broken on a yacht during a heated argument … a yacht that never made it to its destination. The photo lying on the sidewalk for which you invent a story.

If you want to write, write. It’s not easy, but it can be. It’s not always fun, but it can be. A percentage of it is extremely cathartic. You’ll be filled with self-doubt, it’ll never be perfect, but not a word that you write will be valueless. The drivel will clear the way for the good stuff and the good stuff for the great and every now and then you’ll craft a sentence so hauntingly perfect that you know it will have an impact on at least one other person.

One of the very best things about writing is that it’s never too late to do it. You can publish your first novel at 83 and your first op-ed at 100.

I’ve been contemplating starting a blog based on the exercises we do in my current and longstanding writing group. Each time we meet we come up with a prompt and the interim assignment is to write a piece—doesn’t have to be polished—inspired by the prompt. The results are rarely mundane, sometimes brilliant, often funny, and it’s really cool to see the wildly different directions that four very different writers can take from the same starting point.

Maybe I will start this blog. The best thing about deciding I’ve finished the novel for now is that, no matter what becomes of my novel or future projects, I finally feel like a writer, and not just like someone who says she is one and hopes it comes true.

 

Just like starting over

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“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” -James Joyce

Granted I’ve not tried to write much in other languages, but this book writing thing (did I mention I wrote a book?) can be maddening. Maddening! And yet so many books get written and published and a fair amount of them are really good. How do these people do it?

I’m in the mountains celebrating Father’s Day and then taking a few days to, as I keep saying for some odd reason, as it’s not an expression I’ve ever used before, “bang out my revisions.”

I saw a friend last week who comes to town a couple times a year and he said, “Wait—weren’t you working on revisions when I was here in December?”

WHY YES, I WAS!!!! And then, based on those revisions, I needed to copyedit, which led to further changes. Then I submitted my draft to my editor and my writing group and my beta readers and more revisions stemmed from that … and so on and so on and so on.

I found a metaphor for this today. I love metaphors. Not in writing per se, but in life. I took a longer walk this afternoon than I’d set out to … this is a hilly walk and is decent exercise and exercise is something I wish I loved more than I do. It’s a walk where, once you reach a certain point, it’s silly to turn back, you might as well just keep going up that road and take the long way back—you’ve gotten this far. So I kept bargaining with myself that I didn’t have to do the whole thing—I just needed to do something, which is my general approach to exercise. I would turn around once I got to the bend in the road, which I could see many steps in the distance. Only I’d never get to the bend in the road because once there I’d realize it wasn’t a bend, it was the suggestion of one. So I could never really catch up and I had to keep going. And that’s what this revision process feels like. I’ll revise until I finish this draft, only once there I realize the draft isn’t finished after all.

However, I want to move on to new projects, and so I must finish this one for the time being. In so doing I will start pitching to agents—in fact I already have begun this process, and it is a long and arduous one that uses a very different part of the brain than the writing does and a different part than the revising and maybe I should go back to school and learn a trade or follow a new pursuit?

But since I’m not going to do that, I’m going to “bang out” these revisions, continue my agent research and querying, and move on to my next writing project.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do set goals at other times of the year. This feels like a starting point. My goals for the second half of 2017 are: to become a better writer, to read more, to spend less, to finish revisions (for now) and move on to the next thing, to purge a bunch of stuff that is cluttering my apartment and mind, to meditate and exercise regularly, and a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t want to put on record.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

Here by the sea and sand

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This photo was taken at the Montauket during what would become the most brilliant sunset I’ve seen in quite some time. I have a feeling this couple wound up in many photos from that day. They were summer’s end personified,  and were it not for his unfortunate man-bun, they could have been of another era. Timeless.

We spent the week in Montauk, a perfect way to celebrate summer—the ocean and shooting stars. So many stars—Montauk is aptly nicknamed the end of the world and when you’re out there, looking up at the night skies and listening to the symphony of crickets and tree frogs and things that go chirp in the night, it feels like the most remote spot on the planet.

Then you drive past the Surf Lodge and realize it isn’t.

I did a lot of reading and a decent amount of writing while there—fell short of my writing goals but made progress, and more than that, I was inspired. I seem to have written myself into a corner in terms of the relative ease with which I write anywhere but home. My writing retreats to New Orleans, my time in the Berkshires earlier this year, Montauk … one of the speakers at the conference last month advised that we “not be too precious about our writing environment” — and that is good advice. It’s important to have sacred writing space, but it’s equally important to get words on paper when and where inspiration strikes.

To that end, I scrawled some notes on a piece of paper one evening while enjoying an exquisite sunset and a decent cocktail. I had just read The Alchemist on the recommendation of a very young man who, much to my delight, reads books. The kind with pages. I understand why this book is not to everyone’s liking, but I enjoyed it—and it’s a story, an allegory, about finding one’s true purpose in life and pursuing it, while remaining open to change. About trusting the process. So this is what I scrawled:

If we can remind ourselves how vast and unknowable the universe is, we can better enjoy the ride. We can weather misfortune, even the greatest of all, the death of those we love, because it is all part of the process of being alive. We are all on a pilgrimage toward the same place, and that is really the only fact about living that there is. Complaining, lamenting, manifesting conflict, all become futile, then. Let it wash over you and know that there is not a single experience from which we can’t somehow become richer and wiser.

I was reminded of someone I met shortly after college, when I was having a tough time and was overwhelmed by the responsibility of being human. This was long before we were bombarded with messages about “living in the moment” and “being present”. I met a friend of a friend at a party, a guy who happened to be deaf. I don’t remember much about the conversation, though I imagine I was dwelling on the malaise of “the real world” and the days I’d wasted, and he said, “No day is wasted. If I have a good conversation with someone, or see something beautiful, the day was not wasted.”

I try to maintain that outlook and I often succeed, but I do need to be reminded of it from time to time.

Autumn is a good time to be productive. I have another draft to revise by the time I go to my next writer’s conference in October. And then, soon, I’ll be calling on those of you who’ve offered to be beta readers.

Happy end-of-summer, friends.

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.