“Brace Yourself”

I’ve been slowly coming to the inevitable conclusion that I’m going to have to revise Pomegranate Seeds (again!) if I want it to sell.

Here are the cold, hard stats:

  • 8 form rejections
  • 1 closed query (no response after a follow up email and 5 months)
  • 1 rejection with feedback that opening was too quiet
  • 2 contests “wins” with ultimate rejections (one cited voice; the other said it was a little “flat”)
  • 1 request for a full with a pass (too many fairy tale retellings on the market)
  • 1 open request for a full
  • 2 open queries
  • 1 pending contest (PitchWars)

Counting the PitchWars agents who haven’t seen this yet, that’s about 20 agents.  Now, we’ve all heard the stories about writers who went through numerous rejections before hearing yes on the 21st, or 51st, or 99th query.  We’ve also heard the stories about writers who self published after being rejected by the publishing world and went on to sell over a million copies on Amazon.

This isn’t that book.

Kids, when I wrote this, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  I’d written a handful of short stories in college, and a NaNo project the previous year (it’s since been locked in a drawer for its own protection).  Now that I’ve finished a draft of a novel that was plotted and outlined and beat-sheeted (hat tip to Authoress), I understand so much more about how a novel works.  Enough to know that while Pomegranate Seeds isn’t irreparably broken, it could definitely use an overhaul.

All of which is leading me to the point where I need to make a pretty difficult decision.  Do I put Pomegranate Seeds back in the drawer? Or do I take a deep breath, get out my notebook and pen, and begin to quietly murder my darling?

War is Hell

About two or three weeks ago, I came across something called #PitchWars, a multi-part writing contest.  First, you submit your query letter and the first 5 pages of your novel to a “mentor” (generally a newly published or aspiring to be published writer).  Second, the mentors each pick one person and work on polishing that person’s 3 sentence pitch and the first 250 words of their novel.  Finally, toward the end of January, the pitches go live on Brenda Drake’s blog for a bunch of agents to request fight over.

I entered Pomegranate Seeds but wasn’t sure what to expect.  A huge chunk of the mentors were looking for kid lit; the ones that were looking for Adult didn’t seem as interested in women’s fic.  I was cautiously ecstatic when one of the mentors asked me to send her the first fifty pages.  I was floored to see my name on the page announcing the teams.

The mentor who picked me is Suzanne Palmieri, a new writer whose first books will come out next year.  We emailed back and forth a bit, I checked out her blog and twitter feed, she probably checked out mine, and I agreed to work with her.  From what she wrote yesterday,  it sounds like she’s already got some ideas for revisions.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.  On the one hand, I could really use some good, honest feedback on what does and doesn’t work in the story.  On the other… this is my baby!  The novel I spent six years writing.  The first novel I finished.  And while I want people to like my baby as she is, the writer in me wants this to be the best book possible.

The next few weeks are going to be very, very interesting.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

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Once upon a time, there was a boy who built a snowman.  And in the dead of night, while all the world was sleeping, the snowman came to life and took the boy for a marvelous adventure.

I stayed out much, much past my bedtime last night, at a housewarming party in Brooklyn that was exactly what I thought adult parties should be like when I was a child:  candles burning, mulled wine on the stove, and a group of people clustered around a piano, singing.

If I were writing this in a story, I would pull you into the scene, make you see his fingers flying across the keys, playing Liszt so fast his knuckles and fingertips blurred.  You would know that the room was warm, almost too warm, windows fogged from all the bodies in motion.  You would smell the cloves and cinnamon and orange peels from the wine simmering in the kitchen.  At the end of the party, you, too, would feel a faint regret that the night was winding down, that the magic was beginning to ebb.

If this were a story, you would leave with some handsome young thing you’d found there, still singing to each other as you walked reluctantly toward the L train and the city and the apartment you live in alone.  You might even stop somewhere along the way and kiss, and because this is fiction you will be standing under the streetlight in exactly the spot where the raindrops misting down look like falling stars.

The real world is somewhat more prosaic than the fictional world though, and though I walked out of the party with a handsome young thing, I left him somewhere around Grand Central, setting off in pursuit of a young thing of his own.  I did, however, walk under a series of streetlights on my way from the subway to the apartment, and the raindrops falling through that glow of light looked exactly like falling stars.

“All This and Heaven Too”

My husband and I have been married just shy of a year and a half.  Before that, we dated for for years.  Before that, we were coworkers and friends.  I am still learning how to communicate with him.

For me, this is the most challenging, maddening part of marriage.  How is it that this man who I have known for so long, who is the other half of my soul, doesn’t instantly understand what I mean?  How is it that I, writer, poet, mistress of all things written, cannot make myself understood?

We fit together so perfectly that I forget, all too often, what different worlds we come from:  I from a family of bookworms and PBS programming; he from the world of pop culture and fast cars.  I spend my days crafting arguments; he spends his crafting meals.  I speak quickly, in half formed thoughts.  He deliberates, settling on his words with care before saying them out loud.

When we argue, our words fly by each other, meaningless as babble without our own frames of reference.

This too, I am learning: you can choose not to fight.  To say, I am too tired, too hungry, too stressed to have this conversation.  And you can say, yes, ok, we can talk about it later.

It is these small things, I think, on which the marriage is built.

“Tell me on a Sunday”

Another Sunday afternoon alone in the apartment.  I finished up the first draft of a new story, a short about the Wild Hunt, that I’m rather pleased with.  After spending the past five months on the same novel, it’s nice to be able to bang out a whole draft of something in a few hours.  My writing plan for the rest of the year is to focus on getting some good drafts of short fiction done, things I can polish up and start sending out to magazines after the new year.  There’s also a secret plan involving the new novel, but I don’t want to say anything for fear of jinxing it.

I’m also planning on entering a couple of year end pitch contests.  Pitches, by the way, are so not my thing.  I’ve had an inordinate amount of trouble trying to get the description of Pomegranate Seeds into something resembling pitch length.  Either it ends up sounding like a romance, which it is definitely NOT, or my antagonist comes off as a total douchebag (he’s NOT), or it sounds so generic as to be unreadable.

Back when I was still doing choir and theatre, one of my favorite teachers used to tell us that what mattered about an audition was the process, not the result.  My sixteen-year-old self thought that was the kind of bullshit teachers say to make kids feel better.  Now, after two contests, three major revisions of my query letter, and more rejections than I care to think about, I get it.

I’m viewing the pitch contests not as an end, but as a step along the way.  Here’s what I’m hoping to get out of them, in this order.  A good, solid pitch for Pomegranate seeds that I can use when people ask what my novel is about.  A few more writers to follow on Twitter and possibly connect with.  A few agents to query that I might not otherwise have considered.  And, possibly, maybe, if I’m really, really lucky, some interest in my manuscript.

“Welcome to the Jungle”

In case you’ve wondered where I’ve been for the past few months, the answer is that life has simply been chaos.  A and I are in the process of buying a house, which has got to be both the most terrifying and the most bewildering thing we have ever done.  So far, the process has contained a great number of “two steps forward, one step back” moments.  The broker and the lawyer don’t seem to think there’s anything extraordinary about the lack of progress.

Meanwhile, because our lease ended at the end of September, A and I have been moving from sublet to sublet.  We spent October in Ridgewood, which is this cute little neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens.  By the time I’d finally figured out how to direct taxi drivers to the place, the hurricane hit and the midtown tunnel closed.  By the time I figured out the directions for going over the Queensboro bridge, it was time to move.

We’re now up in Harlem, in a ground level apartment that A has taken to calling the “Love Palace” because the living room has five couches and pictures of naked people on the walls.  It’s steam heated, which means that when the heat is on, it is ON, at which point we call the apartment the “Love Jungle.”  

No idea where we’ll be next month.

In other news, we’re planning to head back to the Bay for part of January.  Because nothing says “tropical vacation” like San Francisco in the rainy season.

“Doll Parts”

A few months ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a great article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  If you haven’t read it yet, you should.  Go ahead.  I’ll still be here when you’re done.

My reaction to the article was somewhere in between “of course” and “there’s no way that kind of systemic change will ever happen.”  Then I went on with my life.

I’m one of those women who has been told, from Day One, that I can have anything I want as long as I’m willing to work hard enough for it.  So I did.  Husband?  Check.  Career?  Check.  Kids?  Not yet, but on the horizon.  Lately, though, I’ve been feeling stretched over too many places, as if there’s not enough of me to go around.

I feel guilty that I don’t have enough time to spend with my husband, frustrated that I don’t speak another language (or another two or three) fluently enough to work in, stressed because it seems like there’s never time enough in the day to go to the gym or to yoga class.  The only time I feel peaceful is when I’m writing — but that means waking up at early o’clock to claw space out of my day.

I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.  For me, so far, the balance has been in learning what things I can let go.  Getting fluent in Spanish?  Forget it. Nightly workouts at the gym?  Not gonna happen.  Even so, it feels like there should be a way to move to a place, not where we can have it all, but where we don’t have to feel guilty about letting it go.

 

“(500 more)”

A wise man once said, the secret to being a great writer is to apply ass to chair.*  So far as wisdom goes, it seems to be accurate and, remarkable of remarkables, working.

In January, I started tracking my writing via spreadsheet.  Eight months later, I have a novel with an agent, a short story ready for submission (already rejected once, poor thing) and a new novel that’s already 1/3 of the way done.  Which is not bad at all.  But what I’ve really noticed, even more than how much I’ve written and how submission-ready it is, is the learning curve.

In 2005, I did NaNoWriMo for the first time.  I wrote a 50,000 word story about a girl who set off to rescue a kidnapped boy from her village and fell in with a group of amazon-type women along the way.  I don’t remember it having much of a plot. For that matter, I don’t think she even rescued the boy.  I haven’t looked at it since the end of that November.  I expect it’s rather terrible.

In 2006, I did NaNo again, after a year of not writing much of anything.  Again, I didn’t have much of a plot, and most of my writing was a frantic attempt to stay one step ahead of my daily word count.  This time, though, I submitted the opening pages to a writer’s workshop.

In January 2007 I workshopped my Persephone story with a mystery writer named Laura Lippman, who gave me enough encouragement that I thought it was worth doing a rewrite.  That spring, I took myself and my new laptop to the Oakland rose garden or to Lake Merritt or anywhere else that was bright and sunny and wrote.  When it was done, I had a passable second draft that still needed a lot of work.

In August 2007, I started law school.  It took me until last summer to drag my novel out of the box it had been hiding in, brush it off, realize it wasn’t half bad, and start revising with a vengeance. That project finished up around March, and of it went into the world.

Around April of this year, I started the new book.This time, instead of writing from scene to scene, I outlined.  I deliberated.  I thought about the choices the character would have to make.  I thought about who she might run into along the way.  Then I started writing, almost every day, with the understanding that if I went to bed at a reasonable hour I would make myself get up and write, but if I had one of those days where I didn’t get home from work until after midnight I wouldn’t beat myself up for sleeping in.

 More than anything else, it has made me a better writer. I think about what I’m doing with the story and what I need to be doing constantly, not just while I’m in the chair. Because the muse may come when and where she chooses, but if I’m in my chair in the morning, she’ll always know where to find me.

*  http://samjmiller.com/2012/08/14/clarion-2012-every-brilliant-piece-of-writing-advice/

“A Lack of Color”

Yesterday, the city closed Park Avenue to traffic and opened it up to everyone else: bikers, runners, walkers, roller-bladers, guys in duck suits. My husband and rode our bikes all the way down to Foley Square, stopping briefly at REI so that I could buy a neon pink sports bra to replace the much too hot T-shirt I was wearing, and decided to go over the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked me.

“Why not?”

Because the pedestrian walkway over the bridge was a knotted, tangled mess of bicycles and people spread out four abreast. Even so, I’d rather dodge people than taxis any day, and as we got closer to the top the walkers and bikers sorted themselves out to (mostly) the correct sides of the path. Even so, when we got to the bottom, we decided to go back via the Williamsburg or Manhattan bridges. We made a left at the foot of the bridge, rode north until we saw another bridge, and turned towards it.

That’s where things got interesting. My husband rode up onto the sidewalk toward the bridge (so as to not be crossing the Manhattan bridge in the same lanes as the cars). I stayed on the street, because it looked like the sidewalk made a dead end a few hundred feet up. As I got closer and realized the sidewalk turned rather than ending, it seemed like a good idea to get on it. I didn’t quite turn my wheel parallel enough to the lip of the sidewalk, though, so instead of going up onto the sidewalk the front wheel of my bike slid along it for a moment before the bike went over, sending me bouncing along the pavement.

I threw out an arm to brace myself, and slammed into a dark green plywood wall, taking a bit of skin off my ankle along the way but otherwise unhurt. Then I stood up, shook myself off, and realized that my shoulder hurt. A lot. I did the visual — no bones sticking out, no bleeding — concluded I may have pulled a muscle but hadn’t broken anything, and leaned against my bike to catch my breath. At about this point, my husband came back to make sure I was okay.

“I’m okay,” I told him. “Just give me a minute.” A really weird thing started to happen. First my ears started to feel like I’d stuffed cotton in them, and everything sounded kind of far away. Then things started to get brighter. It was pretty sunny and bright out already, but the leaves on the trees started to look less green and more white, and the pavement was so bright it almost hurt to look at. I closed my eyes a few times, thinking that would make it go away. It didn’t.

“Everything’s getting brighter,” I told my husband. “I’m having trouble seeing.”

“Did you hit your head?” he asked.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t, but it happened really fast – one minute I was riding toward the sidewalk, the next minute my shoulder was slamming into the plywood.

“You’re okay,” he told me, and he decided we were going to go across the street to where it was shady. The walk across the street took forever. It was one of those big two-way streets, with an island in the middle. It took us an entire light to make it to the island. I could barely see anything – the whole world looked like one of those “turn to sketch” photoshop filters, where everything is black and white and drawn in crisp, bold outlines. Nothing that I was seeing made sense.

My husband made me wait for what seemed like an eternity on the traffic island, even though I didn’t see any cars going by, and other pedestrians were walking by us. I wanted to get off the street and somewhere I could sit down so much that I forced myself to focus. Colors started to appear again: the brilliant orange of the “don’t walk” sign, the green leaves of the trees in the shady area in front of us.

By the time we crossed the street and I sat down on a ledge, I could see again: the gray granite of the ledge, the faded brown of the benches, the orangey-brown of the wood chips around the bushes. It had probably been about five minutes from the time I fell off my bike, maybe ten. I can’t remember a scarier ten minutes in my life.

We sat for a little longer. I pulled a wipe out of the bag and cleaned the dirt and bike grease off my legs. It was enough to make me feel fully human again. Then we got back on the bikes, and rode back onto the sidewalk and over the Manhattan bridge. I rode so slowly on the way up that even the rollerbladers passed me, but I didn’t care. My ankle was still stinging, and my shoulder hurt, but that was nothing compared to the total terror I had felt a few minutes before.

On the way down the bridge, I smoked those rollerbladers.

“Your private New York”

Tonight, I did something that absolutely terrifies me. I went out, in New York City, by myself.

Let me back up a bit. About a week ago, @amandapalmer hosted a discussion on twitter about going out alone. People were all over the spectrum, from “I’ve found some of my best friends by going out to events alone” to “movies, yes, dinner, no” to “I don’t go anywhere without my wubbie and at least ten friends.” But it got me thinking that it’s been forever since I’ve really gone out anywhere alone. I’ve been with my husband so long that if he’s not around, I don’t go out.

So tonight I decided to do something different. I found a 1920’s themed event going on at a bar in midtown and went.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I got all dressed up to go to the party at the bar in midtown. Then, about five minutes after I left my house, I got cold feet and went to the neighborhood bar instead. Where I sat at the bar with a glass of wine and nobody to talk to, feeling rather lonely, and decided I would got back to the house when my glass of wine was empty. And I would have, but then the bartender asked me where I was going, since I was obviously dressed for something, and I told her there was this jazz party, and her eyes lit up light I had the most exciting plans ever.

So I left the neighborhood bar and headed for the subway that would take me to the bar where the jazz party was, half intending to turn around and go back home the whole time, until I found myself at the subway. And even once I’d gotten on the subway, even once I’d found the bar where the party was, I was still tempted to go back home … worried that I wasn’t dressed right, that I wouldn’t find anybody to talk to, that I’d stand in a corner and feel silly.

As I was walking down the steps to the bar, though, a girl having a cigarette asked if I would bring a candle back in to the hostess. And said she loved my dress. And that with the candle I looked like the statue of liberty. And I thought to myself, this might be a good idea after all.

Which feeling lasted precisely until I got down the stairs and into the bar, where I saw that girl taking the cover charge had a pile of cash and no credit card reader. “Do you take cards?” I asked her.

“I think so,” she said. “Let me check with the guy who’s running this. I think he has the swipe thing.”

But he didn’t, and I, having transferred only a credit card and my drivers license to my going-out purse, had no cash and no way to get any. I sighed, and said thank you and I’m sorry and I should have brought cash. Then a remarkable thing happened. A random guy stepped up and said, “I’ll pay your cover charge.” And the girl collecting the money said, “I’ll pay half.”

So he paid my cover charge, and I bought him a drink, and then I met some really interesting people. Nobody asked for my number or asked to buy me a drink or asked me to go home with them. It was the New York I’d always wanted to be a part of, the New York I was sure was out there somewhere. It was, for the first time, my New York.