Friday, October 29, 2010

Improvement, Not Defense

Yes, I am still writing about the Write Angles Conference. It’s funny, one of my dive buddies jokes about how only divers can take a 30 minute dive and turn it into a 4 hour long conversation. Well, only a novelist wannabe can take a 1 day conference and turn it into 3 blog posts.

We went to see the keynote speaker after lunch, and then to the last break out session “What Agents Really Think.” At this section a random selection of the first pages that attendees submitted ahead of time would be read aloud. The four agents would respond to each one as to whether they’d read on to the second page, or whether they’d request more from the author. Just from one page.

Michelle and I sat in the very front so we could get a good look at the agent reactions. From where I sat I could see the stack of first pages in front of one of the agents. I could see that the first one on the pile was not mine. I grew antsy and wondered how many first pages were submitted and whether mine was selected for reading.

The first one read was an astoundingly beautiful description of Malawi at sundown. The author talked about how the air grew cold once the sun went down, the darkness closed in and the cooking fires were visible from the road. It was so beautifully written I swear I could smell the campfires. I applauded after the reader finished. But then I stopped when I realized that Michelle and I were the only ones clapping. Yes, we were the dorks in the front row clapping. Mr. McAgentton (the one I’d met with) said “I don’t know who you are, but you need to send that to me.” All of the agents swooned over it. I slouched in my seat. It was way better than mine.

But then I remembered what Michelle and I talked about in an earlier session in which we talked about the self-doubt that creeps in after rejection. We both had the same thought “When faced with rejection we say ‘So, what can I do better next time.’” And while I may not be able to describe nightfall in Malawi as beautifully as this person had, I had other parts of my book that were just as good, but they were a different kind of good. Who knows, maybe this Malawi person can’t write dialogue for crap. I feel I can. I commanded myself to turn on my sponge and learn about what I can do better.

Then the reader read the next one, and the next. Damn, all of these were good. I fought to keep myself sitting up straight in my seat, not letting the self-doubt seep in. The agents shed their politeness as the session wore on. I think that some of the first pages weren’t as polished as others (not like that Malawi one. Damn!) and they picked up right on it and asked questions like “Who is this person? Why are they doing this? What’s going on here?” All very valid questions.

I kept my eyes on the stack of first pages that the agent closest to me had on the table in front of her. Then I saw mine. I elbowed Michelle, “Mine’s next! Holy crap!”

And it was read, and I watched the agents react. There was one who was particularly expressive. She rolled her eyes, she sighed and scribbled a note in the margin. The rest remained poker-faced.

Now, keep in mind that this first page had since been re-written. So, it wasn’t the best representation. And I wondered what Mr. McAgentton was thinking about it at the time. Was he annoyed with himself for having requested my first 50? Would he ignore my email once he did get those pages? Have I blown my chance with him?

The reader stopped reading. I think only one of the agents raised their hand before the end of the reading, which is the signal that they would stop reading at that point. They had done that on a few others as well, so I didn’t feel singled out. My heart pounded as I waited for a response.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Post-Agent Meeting Glow

I shook the agent’s hand before standing up, “Thanks for meeting me. I hope that you find some good material today.” I figured it would be cool of me to acknowledge why he’s there. He’s there to support his livelihood, as he makes a commission off of the authors that he sells to publishing houses and he was there to find new talent.

I strode out of the room and went back to the break out session. I made my way to the middle to sit beside Michelle again. The way they set up the chairs in the session rooms was kind of strange. The aisles in the center of the room were way too small. I bashed about 4 different heads with either my bag on my left shoulder or my right hip. “’Scuse me… pardon me…” I whispered so I wouldn’t interrupt the speaker any more than the “Oof! Ouch!” from my victims already had.

Exhausted from the trek I flopped down next to her, “How’d it go?” she whispered. I smiled and nodded back while I pulled my notepad out of my bag. I bobbed my knee as the Q&A session went on. I am trying to remember, but I have no real idea about what was said after I’d sat down. I was busy replaying every little bitty microsecond of the agent meeting.

I wished that we weren’t sitting in a break out session; I needed someone who’d done what I had just done. I needed someone who understood the feeling of exhilaration that I felt after having a positive discussion about this thing I’ve been working on for three years. In the discussion he asked me questions about my work, he took notes, he said things like “That’s interesting.”

Mercifully the breakout session ended and the other attendees filed out.

“OK, tell me.”

“Oh my God! It was exhilarating!” I replied. I told her all about it and then I said “He asked me for my first 50 pages. But I think he’s just asking everyone for that.”

“No, they don’t just ask everyone for their first 50 pages. If he wasn’t interested he would say ‘I’m not interested in this’ because he doesn’t want to waste his time. When I went to that conference in San Francisco I met with 6 agents and only 3 of them wanted more. The others said that they weren’t interested in it. Believe me, if he wasn’t into it he would have said so.”

My hopes climbed a bit after she’d said that. We went to another session and then upstairs to lunch. We were in line at the buffet when a woman struck up conversation with me, “I saw you meet with Agent McAgentton. I met with him right after you did. How’d it go?”

I told her that I thought it went well and she said, “Yeah, he asked me for my first 50 pages.”

I looked up at Michelle as if to say “See, he’s totally asking everyone for their first 50.” She shrugged back at me.

No matter if he asked everyone in the conference for their first 50. He still asked me for mine.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kind of Like a Job Interview, But Better

Last week I had posted that I would be attending my first literary agent meeting and writer’s conference on Saturday. It’s now Wednesday (I think… weren’t there like 4 Tuesdays shoved into this week already?) and I’ve had some time to obsess about my meeting and the conference and replay the meeting over and over in my mind.

I went to the conference with a high school friend, Michelle, who is also writing a book. Michelle just went to a big writer’s conference in San Francisco where she met with a half dozen or so agents. In the weeks leading up to the conference I annoyed the crap out of Michelle with ‘What are you wearing on Saturday?’ and ‘What should I bring? What should I prepare?’ questions. Then I changed my outfit at least three times before going to the event.

When I signed up I knew I wanted to meet an agent and submit my first page for critique. I wrote a query letter, submitted it, and was fixed up with an agent meeting at 10:10 in the morning. I also submitted my first page for the critique at the end of the day. And then I re-wrote the damn page right after I submitted it because that’s just how I roll.

I met Michelle in the morning and we got caught up, we went to see the keynote speaker and then went to a break out session on launching your book on the Internet. I kept a close eye on my watch, and at 10 left the session to use the ladies room and touch up my lipstick.

I went upstairs to find out where the meetings were being held and a man looked at my nametag “Oh, you’re BJ. Come with me.” He sat me down on the couch outside of the meeting room where I struck up a conversation with a woman writing a novel about squatters in New York City. Then the guy showed me into the room and I met “my” agent. (Well, not really MY agent, just the agent I had the appointment with. It’s shorter to call him “my” agent.)

I had researched this agent as much as I possibly could. I pasted relevant facts about him and his quotes from articles into a word doc, and studied it as I sat on the couch. I learned a bit about how he likes to be approached from one of his quotes and decided that I am going to treat the meeting kind of like a job interview. Lord knows I’ve been on enough of those, I am comfortable with job interviews. I calmed right down as I shook the agent’s hand.

He asked me about the book. I gave him my pitch, which I’d practiced in the car all morning, and he took notes and asked me more questions about the characters. Things like “What motivated Vince to do this, that and the other…” And we talked about the plot, and he filled the sheet on his little notepad. He asked me what my next book is about, and I just so happen to be writing another one long hand.

And then he asked me to send him my first 50 pages. And then the sun streamed through the window and the angels sang. And then I levitated out of my chair and went back to my break out session.

More later. This is getting kind of long.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rewriting History

Last night Todd had put on a “Family Fun Night” for work at the Roger Williams Zoo. The event included dinner and a visit to the Jack-O-Lantern exhibit that the Zoo puts on every Halloween.

The exhibit is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It includes thousands of intricately carved pumpkins done by students at the Rhode Island School of Design. First the exhibit started out with ghoulish depictions carved onto pumpkins, and then it evolved into the theme “A Walk Through Time.” The pumpkins were carved with scenes of historical significance and pop culture significance. We saw Ben Franklin carved on one, and then further down the path “Alf” and ‘The A Team’ were carved on others.  The pumpkins lined the path through the zoo, and were floated on rafts in the pond.  Smaller ones were lit and strung from the trees, at the end a gigantic one belched smoke. 

At the beginning of the segment on American history themed pumpkins, the first pumpkin had “1620, A New World” carved into the face.

“Look,” a nearby woman I didn’t know pointed to the pumpkin, “that one says ‘1620, a new world’ on it. What does that mean?”

Her date replied, in a thick Rhode Island accent, “That’s from the battle of 1620.”

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

On the Eve of My Deflowering

It’s been three years since I started writing the book. Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten sick of it yet, as that is often my M.O. I will start a project, get obsessed with it, and then drop it like it’s hot and move on.

I’ve written, I’ve edited, I’ve slashed some 11,000 words out of the final manuscript, and still want to find another 21,000 to blow away. I’ve had others read a few chapters and told them to be brutally honest and wonder if they’re just being polite. I re-read the book and think “Man, I am really on to something here.

Then on other days I re-read it and think “This is shit, do I really want to go on with this?” But I think what’s kept me going on this project is knowing how I’d feel if I stopped. I just spent 3 years of my life writing it. I’ve just spent 3 years of my life talking about it. I can’t just dump it, right?

I haven’t gotten burnt out yet. Instead I am moving to the next level. I learned about a local writing conference—well, if you count a 2 hour drive as local—and signed up for it. Then I found an old high school friend on facebook who is also writing a book. The conference is local to her as well, so we’re meeting there.  I haven't seen her in years.

Then the weeks went by. I signed up for an appointment to meet a literary agent at the conference. I submitted my first page for critique, and then promptly re-wrote it. I’ve never met an agent before; I’ve never had my pages critiqued before. And I am scared shitless. I am also excited to get feed back.

But I really wonder which voice in my head will be validated. Will it be the “You’re really on to something here” voice or the “This is shit” voice. I know it’s just one agent. And I know that I am supposed to get rejected by something like 4,397 agents and publishers before the book gets sold. I am at the very beginning of this part of the path to publication.

I have a few more things to do to prepare for Saturday. I need to assemble a packet with my synopsis, bio, and first 50 pages. Most of it is written, but I’d like to format them so they’re all nicey nice. Then I’ll go to Todd’s office on Friday after work and use his bitchen color printer so they look flawless. Should I get nicer paper?

I ordered business cards with the name of the book on them with a paragraph synopsis on the back, and I’ve been checking Fedex tracking all day long so I know precisely when they arrive at my house.

I just bought green folders from Staples in which to assemble this packet, a cute pen and a little notebook to put in my bag. Green is my favorite color, and I think it’ll bring me luck.

I need to Google the agent and compile research on him in just the right way so I don’t appear stalkerish, yet informed about what he’s sold and what he likes. I could do it at work, but my Internet access is so restricted there that I won’t find much. I could do it at home, but our printer doesn’t work.

I need to find that black tote bag I bought from the Gap Outlet when I used to commute on the train to work. It’s a stylish yet functional bag that will look more professional than my lime green backpack I tote around every day.

But most importantly, I need to not do that thing where I talk a lot and say something incredibly stupid on Saturday at 10:10 AM.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Buttoning Up

We headed north again on Lake Champlain, but this time it would be the last trip aboard Sabine for 2010. We set out from Chipman Point, and of course the wind came from the north—because the wind always comes from the direction we’re heading into. Sabine’s not a fan of sailing to windward, and we rarely take the time or the effort to zig zag perpendicular to the wind so that she’ll sail happily.

My mother in law came along for the ride, and so did a 6 pack of Coronas from her fridge. We stopped at the super market in Fair Haven, VT on the way to Chipman Point and stocked up on plenty of junk food to sustain us until Sunday afternoon when we’d arrive at Shelburne Shipyard.

We spent the night in Converse Bay, just south of Garden Island, which is and always will be one of our favorite places to anchor. My in-laws keep a power boat at Chipman Point, but don’t anchor out to sleep as they prefer to stay at the dock. I’ve heard the stories of lousy sleeping nights at the dock when the wind has kicked up. But on Sunday morning she woke up and said she’d slept soundly—which rarely happens when she sleeps aboard their boat.

Being at anchor is vastly more peaceful than sleeping at the dock is. When the wind shifts while the boat is tied to the dock, the boat will rock on the waves in protest, and will bash into the dock if it wasn’t tied carefully. But while the boat sits on anchor it obeys the wind, rotates on anchor to face into the wind. It’s not tied to a fixed object and forced to stay facing one way. The wind on Champlain often changes 180 degrees over night. When we woke that Sunday morning in Converse Bay, we were facing the south even though we had faced the north when we’d set the anchor.

Sunday we pulled into Shelburne and tied to a temporary spot on the dock. We filled the diesel tank to the very brim to prevent condensation from forming on the inside wall of the tanks. The condensation would eventually dilute the fuel and render it ineffective. (And then we’ll also have one less thing to buy in the spring, as the tank will already be filled with fuel and ready to go.) We packed our bedding, our clothes, the food in the pantry, and anything else we wouldn’t need to keep aboard for the winter. I packed our stash of toiletries and tried to be happy about the fact that I wouldn’t have to buy any replacement face cream for awhile because I could just use up my stash from the boat over the winter.

We emptied the water tanks, and then disconnected a hose so that the water pump would suck directly from the gallons of bright pink antifreeze. Todd handed me mostly empty gallons, and I handed him full ones. I consolidated the remaining inch of antifreeze into 1 bottle and salvaged a half gallon that way. We pumped 12 gallons of antifreeze through the pump and the hot water heater. We watched the water flowing from the taps until it was tinged with pink. We turned off the pump, but left the taps open.

I started the diesel. My mother in law stood on the dock and watched the water sputter from the exhaust. She hollered when it too turned pink and I shut down the engine. Another 6 gallons had flowed through the diesel’s fresh water cooling system. We closed the hatches and hauled our things up the dock. I sighed heavily and looked back at Sabine as she waited at the dock for hibernation. I shuffled my feet on the gravel and dragged a dock cart overflowing with our things behind me. We made plans to go back to Shelburne at the very end of October to dress Sabine in her custom made canvas cover for the winter.

Thank you, Sabine, for a wonderful season. Thank you for taking us on our adventure up the Hudson and being so tolerant as we laid you down in the mud and scraped your keel on the rocks. You not only kept us safe, but you seemed to have fun right along with us.

We can’t wait to see where you’ll allow us to take you next year.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Damn Hippies

I was a surly 14 year old. I would have rather stayed home, but she insisted I go with her. I don’t even remember where we were going. I think it was to meet Dad at work for lunch and to do something scintillating like grocery shop, or worse, shop for clothes for Dad.

It was summer, and I would rather have stayed home. I would have liked to sit out on the deck in the sun, listening to Rush, and trying to get tan. I’d just bought a copy on cassette of “Hold Your Fire” which I was *thisclose* to wearing out. But no, that was not to be the plan.

I scowled as I sat in the passenger seat. I slipped off my sandals and put my feet up on the dash in just the way that annoyed her. She raised her eyebrows, and I think she was counting to 10. I defiantly stared back.

Mom’s second language was English. She often said things incorrectly. Like I said yesterday, she thought that “junk” had a plural. We drank milk chocolate sometimes, instead of chocolate milk. She measured things with a measure tape. I think at one point she’d even used towel paper to wipe up a spill on the counter.

But her arch nemesis was the hippies. Mom didn’t really know who the hippies were, though. To her, hippies and hoodlums were synonymous despite my efforts to explain who hippies were. She pointed out the window at the trash can that was left at the curb. The garbage trucks came through that morning.

“Hey, bring that garbage can back to the house before some hippie steals it,” she ordered. I burst out laughing. (Years later I relayed the story to Todd and he said “Yeah, because hippies are always looking for things to put their recyclables in.”)

She asked me what I was laughing at, but I was too far gone to explain. I got out of the car and dragged the bin back to the house, and then got back into the car.

A few years later Mom came home with a blue bin that said “Western Massachusetts recycles.” We didn’t live in Western Massachusetts. But she beamed as she set it in the garage, “Look at this great bin I found on the side of the road.”

I flashed her the peace sign and went back into the house.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

What I Miss

I miss how you never understood that the word “junk” didn’t have a plural. You’d say something like “I need to clean up these junks.” Thinking about it now makes me smile. But it also makes me sad because I’ll never hear you say that again.

I miss the messages you used to leave on my machine. Your accent combined with the awkwardness you felt when speaking to an answering machine were pure comedy gold. “Bih Jeh….. eet’s me. Eeet’s yurr Mum.” I used to smile and say “Yeah, no shit. How many people do I know talk that way?” I used to gather my co-workers in my cube so they could hear one of your adorable yet unintentionally hilarious messages. I wish I’d thought to tape one of them, because now I’ll never hear one ever again.

I miss walking out into the cold with you. You’d react to the cold blast of air the same way every single time. You’d jam your hands into your pockets, snuggle inward and say in Polish, “Oh how cold!” I can still hear you say it, as clear as day.

I miss your blueberry pierogi. I miss your homemade applesauce and crepes. I miss the apple pancakes you used to make for breakfast. I miss the way you did scrambled eggs with bacon pieces inside. I can’t seem to cook any of these things.

I miss the way you’d fill me in on all the family gossip, whether I wanted to hear it or not.

But most of all, Mom, I just miss you.

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