Last night, I attended the Issaquah Writers' Group meeting. The people were congenial, and I felt welcome right off. I got my times mixed up and showed up a half an hour too early. So the host and his wife, fed me dinner while we got to know each other. It was a smaller group than normal last night--one lady is a CPA, busy, busy. Actually, this worked out well for me. It's hard to be the new person in a large group.
The interesting thing about this writing group is that they don't pre-read the work. Each writer reads his/her work aloud during the meeting and then the others critique it. I presented the short story I included here on Wednesday. I knew, before I went, that the piece needs work. It moves too slowly in places for a short story. Their critiques were gentle, yet spot-on about what I was seeing, but there were comments that I hadn't considered, like moving things around to allow the description to stay but to speed up the pacing. (Thank you all!!).
The one thing I didn't realize is that--understand that I'm the only Southerner in the group--no one else in the room knew about oven vaults and the "year and a day" for crypts in New Orleans. My friend Steve calls this the curse of knowledge. He says, and I agree with him, that we tend to assume that others know as much as we do. Well, that theory works for all of us except those sadly pathetic people who have to be the smartest person in the room. (No one in my writing group falls into this category, thank you God.)
When I explained it about New Orleans burial practices, the creepiness of the opening was more evident, and I went home trying to figure out how to expand that section without having to do an information dump. Somewhere in the process of letting this information percolate in my head today, I realized that I could expand this story significantly, minimum to a novella.
Just to give you an idea, I'm thinking about having the protagonist learn how to lay bricks. Does that give you a hint?
Tomorrow night, I'm joining a new writing group. The organizer gave me a lovely compliment when I submitted a sample of my writing. She said, "...after just reading a couple of pages [of my novel], I can see that you are a good writer!!! I'm eager to read the rest..." How could I not join?
I joke about it, but actually her compliment buoyed me up from a low spot and made me feel much better, especially after the rejection letters I've been getting--two more since my last post, both lovely rejections, both stating that my story was not what they were looking for, but rejections none the less.
Tomorrow night I'm going to present my first few pages of the short story that I'm re-writing. I'm including here a few paragraphs. Let me know if you would be interested in reading more. I've renamed it Hindsight and am making it a bit more sinister.
The cement wall of the oven vault warms my back as I sit in the pleasant May sun, and I wonder whether the idea of a year and a day is absolute. It has been nearly a year. At this point if the crypt was opened, would anyone know the difference? I suspect not, but on days like this, when I come to visit, when I look back and wonder, I contemplate whether I should have, would have done something different. Probably not. I’m not exactly known for making the best decisions—thank you, Momma—but I like to think I learned from the experience, at least as much as I benefitted from it. Then again, probably not.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only mid-August of last year and hot as nine-hundred hells as I walked up to the ramshackle storefront. The sign on the door said Laveau Botanicals, and as I walked into the building, the cloying smell of patchouli and sandalwood loitered heavy in the air already laced with the musky smell of sweat. The lack of air conditioning made the room stiflingly hot, the humidity smothering. The shelves covering the walls added to my sense of claustrophobia, shelves holding hundreds of jars, all labeled by hand. There were large jars with what looked like herbs, barks, and roots. Medium jars with dusts and powders. Tiny jars with oils, unguents, and ointments. There were jars holding things I didn't recognize, and, even now, I hesitate to guess their use. Other shelves held candles of all colors and shapes, one shelf devoted to human shaped candles: men, women, hands, penises. I can only imagine the spell that requires some of the paraphernalia housed on those shelves.
The woman behind the counter, she knew that she was beautiful. I could tell by the way she carried herself. She also knew that I believed her beautiful, more beautiful than I could ever hope to be. She could tell by the way I carry myself. My dishwater blonde hair, fuzzy from the humidity, had nothing to attract the eye the way her coffee colored braids did. The beads of jet and gold woven through her braids only added to the exotic air surrounding her, making me feel all the more dumpy and dowdy. She wore what must have been twenty pounds of jewelry, with four or five gold bracelets adorning each arm. Gold against cafe au lait. She smiled at me, a brilliant toothy white smile broken only by a single gold eyetooth on the left side.
Her smile announced that she knew why I was there, but she asked anyway. "Help you?" she said as she played idly with a gold coin hanging around her neck, her thumb rubbing back and forth over the disk’s surface.
Fearing her contempt, I faltered, wiped the sweat from my face, not sure what to say. That fear made time seem to drag like a knife through cold honey. In my memory, the room still takes on a surrealistic golden sheen as if I am looking through that same jar of honey. The woman, the shelves, the jars, everything in the room appear in tones of gold and sepia, except for the painting behind the counter. From behind the shopkeeper’s head, a fluorescent Mary and Jesus glared at me, their cartoon-like faces reproaching me for being there.
The past couple of weeks, since I've let the endless editing go for awhile, I feel adrift, like I have no direction. I've all but forgotten what it's like to be at the beginning of the story-telling process, to just let my mind wander until an idea leaps fully formed from my head, to not know every detail of every character in the story. It's nice, but scary.
Right now, I feel like I'm not being productive. Yes, I know that we all need to take a nap every now and again, but I have an internal barometer that says I need to accomplish something, that napping or reading is time wasted, that I'm being lazy if I spend the afternoon watching TV.
I want to just be. To not care what everyone else thinks, especially agents. Even if only for a little while, I want to forget about whether the last book is publishable and whether I should attempt to start a new one. I think I know why a lot of authors/artists take up drinking (or doing coke or whatever). My mind is constantly spinning, and I need to find a quiet place inside me and just let it go for a bit.
I am going to a St. Patty's Day party tonight, even though I'm of Scottish descent. [I may wear plaid, just for the hell of it.] There will be drinking and eating, and more drinking and eating, and much convival companionship. Maybe, just maybe, I can find that still point, even if only for an hour or two. I hope so.
Last night, Kathleen and I watched Woody Allen's new movie Midnight in Paris, mostly because it has Owen Wilson in it, but it turned out to be a pretty good movie about a writer wishing that he could have lived in Paris during the golden age of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Kathy Bates, playing Gertrude Stein, has a great line: The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. This movie made me miss the fun part of writing, the creative part, the "I'm going to create a whole new world" part of writing.
I still have plans for getting an agent, which includes writing a shorter more catchy query letter and attending the PNWA conference. And if I don't have an agent after the PNWA conference, I'll look to e-Publishing.
But for now, I'm taking Dustin's advice and putting the existing story away for awhile. I already have a few ideas percolating in my head, not that I'm going to share them. At least not right now.
I've been remiss in posting, but as is evident from my last post, work has been hectic.
Most days, I fall asleep around 2am, if I'm lucky, and get up, somewhere between 6am and 8am. Before work there is the issue of taking care of my two ancient kitties. Pye needs meds twice daily now, and both demand love and attention, and food, at least twice daily. No breakfast for me. I'd rather sleep those few extra minutes. My commute is hellish at best. I love living in West Seattle, but the twenty miles to work can take as long as two hours depending on when my first meeting starts. And if the City of Seattle is doing some new road construction project, that number increases exponentially depending on the idiocy of our city council.
Stay with me here, I'm leading up to my excuse for the big pity party I'm having. Work means juggle multiple projects for as long as I can without killing someone. There are few built-in pressure release values these days. We used to go out to lunch, to decompress more than anything, but now going out to lunch is an "event". These days I grab lunch and eat during a meeting. Once I've finally done as much as I can for one day, I usually go out to dinner with one or more friends, because cooking dinner takes a lot of energy that I don't have right now. The problem with having dinner with friends is that I come home sated and sleepy. And useless.
If you've gotten this far, and you know me well enough, you'll know that I needed to write this, needed to vocalize (or at least record) that I'm burning the candle at both ends. (I know, bad Nellie bad; don't use over-used idioms in serious writing.) Anyway, due to some situations better left in my childhood, situations that I'd rather not write about, I don't have a "stop button", don't have a way to say, "it's okay to do nothing today, to sleep and read, and just enjoy the day". When I try to do those things, I feel guilty. I steam cleaned the carpets last weekend with a raging migraine. But enough said.
Let's just say that I'm exhausted. So when I checked my personal email during a meeting yesterday to find a rejection letter, I believe I have a halfway decent reason for the tears that came to my eyes. (I quickly blinked them away, of course.)
Maybe it was because this was one of the agents I thought would be interested, seriously interested. Maybe it was because she wrote a lovely rejection letter. Maybe I'm not dealing with the rejection as well as I thought I would. Maybe, maybe, maybe...
So I whined to several friend, who gave me good advice, especially Dustin who pushes me to be better than I am, and I told myself the story of Steve Berry, who I heard speak at a retreat in Hawaii. I'll let him tell the story. The following is from the web site of a writer who has over 12 million books in print in 51 countries:
He [Steve Berry] made the decision to write a novel in 1990. It was something Steve thought about for years, but finally decided to act on. That first attempt was long and awful. The second and third attempts weren't much better. It wasn't until the fourth try that he began to appreciate the reality that writing novels is hard. Steve kept writing for 12 years and produced 8 manuscripts. Each one was a learning experience and, as he wrote, Steve studied the craft. His education was one of trial and error. He attended a writing workshop once a week for 6 years, where the participants would tear apart everything he wrote. Then he'd go home and put it all back together again, hopefully a little better than before. Between the workshop, the writers' group, and writing everyday Steve taught himself the craft. Not until six years into the process was he fortunate to land an agent. She kept him around for 7 years until May 2002, when Ballantine Books finally bought The Amber Room. During those years five different manuscripts were submitted to New York publishers, each one was rejected, 85 rejections all total, until eventually, on the 86th attempt, the right-editor-at-the-right-time-with-the-right-story was found. Like Steve says, 'he may or may not know much about writing, but he's an expert on rejection.' http://www.steveberry.org/berry-faq.htm
I decided to write a novel is 2005. I'm seven years into the project, of which I've only really put any effort into it for the past five years. I have four rejections, to date. So in the words of my friend Dustin: The worst that could happen is that your book won't get published and you'll have to take all that you've learned from this one and write a better one. The best that could happen is that it will get published and you'll still have to take all that you've learned and write a better one.
With that said, I'm still having a pity party, but at least I have good, supportive friends, and I'm in good company, rejection wise.