Sunday, September 28, 2008

Feng Shui: If I Rearrange Will the Story Come?

To the left is a painting by Maurice Prendergast, American post-impressionist artist. As you can see, no details are detected in the subjects. They are faceless; the tree limbs blotchy. Only the theme is obvious - people gathering by a lake.

In April of this year I viewed my first Prendergast in the flesh, or oil as it were. It was part of a class field trip for Art History to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. My sister-in-law tagged along and when we stopped at the Prendergast collection I said to her, "See this painting? It's exactly how I see things with my left eye."

I'll never forget that day because up until then, it was hard for me to describe the vision in my left eye and the lack thereof. Eye doctors have no idea what it's like - they usually have clear vision. (Believe me, I wouldn't want a doctor working on my eye if he had vision like that in my left eye - uncorrectable vision.) This has always been a frustration for me because with the left eye in such a state it affects the right, which has 20/20 vision. So when I look at something the subjects are a bit distorted on the left.

I'm not trying to gain sympathy for my eye plight. Been there - got all the "Oh you poor things" I can take. But today I revisited the Prendergasts and realized that my writing is exactly like the paintings, at least lately. Now that's a frustration. The theme is obvious, but the details are missing. Not the five senses thing. It's this: I can feel the story; I can see it unfold in my mind. It's just that when I sit down to write it my pen stutters. Everything is haphazard, scampering across the paper in a nonsensical mambo.

Could it be that my mind is taking up with my left eye? Perhaps it's showing support for the handicap by crippling my creative edge. Or could it be how my office is arranged? I've whined to my friend Marcia and she suggested writing in a different part of the house. She always gives the best advice, and I follow 99% of what she suggests. So, I did. I sat in the living-room, pen and pad in hand, and coughed up a scene which at the time looked brilliant. It smacked Nobel! Pulitzer! Or at least something that might have been written by a published author.

I took hand written work and plopped down at the computer. That's when my work looked like something the governor of Alaska might have written. Two words: It sucked. I kept at it, but throughout, my heart beat a sad cadence. It all looked like shit. All the energy I felt in the living-room somehow leaked out as I walked to my computer.

Is it the room? Do I need to re-arrange? Why is it that the story is clear in my head, but when I spill words to the paper, they skitter around and make no sense?

Is my inner critic on crack?

The BIG question: Is it just me, or has anyone else felt this frustration? Chime in. I have a story to finish.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Slightly Shifting - Addendum

Today's horoscope; dateline September 21, 2008, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: Taurus (me) - You're about to get wildly busy doing something you've never done before. This whirlwind will invigorate your life. The first signs that it's coming happen this afternoon.

After reading that I sat back and pondered what the hell it meant. Will I finally get the lucky scratch-off lottery ticket winning me one million dollars a year for life? That would certainly propel me to "get wildly busy doing something," such as planning a tour of Europe, or maybe looking for a residence in another country (who knows what's in store for the future after the November elections?).

But, for one fleeting moment as I pondered "The first signs that it's coming happen this afternoon," I imagined the contest coordinator from San Francisco Area - RWA calling me to say that I won their "Heart to Heart" contest (it was a Sunday afternoon when I learned I had placed first in the category I entered, so I assume since today is Sunday...). Yep, for one silly moment I imagined my reply to her:

Me: Do you speak French?
Her: Sort of...
Me: Get the f**k outta here! I won?

So as you can see, although my previous blog post revealed my new calm about writing, I still desire the feeling of knowing that, at long last, my efforts have come to fruition. And it only makes sense that said contest win would bring me an agent, because I'll be "wildly busy doing something," because the manuscript entered needs a TON of work, and if Ms. Agent asks to see more, well, I better get my writing ass in gear. "This whirlwind will invigorate (my) life." Hell yeah it will!

Perhaps writing doesn't define who I am, but, I'll admit, the feeling of accomplishment will bury the needle on my happiness meter. Just imagining it nudges the needle toward the "I feel really good right now" segment of the meter.

What buries the needle on your happiness meter?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Peacefully Centered

Listen and watch, if you will, to three of my favorite things. It is all I need to remember who I am in this lonely writing life, for I'm not sure I could have enjoyed this video as deeply before I recently reclaimed my center.

My Center. Lately I've run off course. Lately as in the last three years. It began with the eye explosion and slowly from there life as I knew it, splintered in every direction, taking my writing life along with it, for before then, I was doing pretty damn good. Before that I'd completed three manuscripts in three years. Blissfully happy with myself for accomplishing such a feat, it was thereafter that my focus got a little warped. Not the focus that comes with having two fully working eyes; that was a feat in itself to overcome. It was when the completed manuscripts started looking like two out of three had a shot, in my very ill thought out wisdom, to see the light of publication.

So there I was, pre-eye explosion, prepping myself for greatness, making sure that I learned the art of the query letter, synopsis, networking, hanging with those-in-the know. Each day I'd work toward the big goal: a contract with an agent or publisher. And right on the cusp of eye explosion, I made headway into a new manuscript, for that's how I did things, writing my ass off each day, keeping my eyes on the prize.

And then "it" happened. Torn retina with a detachment chaser. My time at the computer became more and more limited. I got more and more frustrated seeing my prized goal sinking further from sight, like a oar-less boat on a strong current - I wasn't on board. Four in depth eye surgeries later, my energy dwindled. I wondered if I'd ever see that publishing dream come to fruition.

I grew increasingly frustrated because I no longer spent each day writing. I thought that's what writers did. They sat and pounded out word after word, letting them snowball into sentences and ultimately the "great American novel." For isn't that what everyone in the writing business did? Isn't that what every blog I visited talked about? All involved in the road to publishing made sure to share how they did it. "They" sat before a blank page each day, and to paraphrase an infamous romance author, "to start is to just begin with one word."

As if it all flowed endlessly from just one word. It used to for me. And then it stopped. And then I had to stop. The doc said, "Step away from the computer screen, give your eye a break for about a week, if not more."

How could I possibly do that? No way, I said to myself. No fuckin' way. So I grabbed a pen and notebook and did it like Twain. I pushed that pen and the story came - there was no way I was not going to write. Writing is my life! I said to myself.

Writing is not my life. It does not define who I am. Yet, I was determined to make it so, and with that my wrists never saw so many close calls to a straight edge. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) Up and down, day in and day out. I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning because I wasn't in the mood to write, and without that I didn't want to...

Have you ever heard the sound of a hockey skate screeching toward the blue line? Maximize that sound by five thousand and that's what I heard exploding between my ears. I dared to put all my happiness eggs into one basket. What if the basket dropped? What if best case scenario, I got a publishing contract and then, worse case scenario, my book got so-so reception? Or, I got a three book deal and suddenly the publisher decides, "Your books aren't selling because no one is into YOU anymore?"

The straight edge swings like a runaway pendulum over my wrists. All the eggs in the happiness basket are now a very undercooked omelet. I forgot to stop and smell the roses because I had to make sure to write, write, write in order to feel writerly.

Not so much now, folks. Kath has risen to a brand new day and smelled the Costa Rica blend, for if happiness is based on one thing, then utter disappointment can't be too far off. Writing stopped being fun. My life stopped being fun. Writing defined me all right - I started to look like a Bates Motel resident, only more fashionably dressed.

It's been over a week since I last wrote a word in my manuscript. Somewhere five agents have looked, or are looking, at a sample of my writing skills. I could sit here and chisel away a fabulous manicure worrying, but do you know what? I'm not. One out of five agents might like my work and want to see more. Do I have more for said agent to see? Not completely.

Do I care that I might just blow a shot at getting an agent? No, I don't. I'm through with making "getting published" the center of my universe. Only I can be the center of my universe, for if I'm not, I'm missing various other happy moments, as well as developing several holes through my stomach.

I have felt a certain calm this week, like those I'd get as a child sitting by the small creek that flowed along side the house. It'd gurgle over the stones as the sun sparkled like gold coins riding on a tiny surf. Nothing could ever be wrong; all was innocent; I was happy without cause. That was my peace.

The publishing road is still one I'll travel, but these days it's just another satellite orbiting around the sun. I'll not let writing define me - it's just what I do, same as breathing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Funktified Aftermath - The Power of Friendship

Marcia Colette is my confessional. Yes, that's right, although I don't enter a booth and wait for her to slide open any door; I don't say, "Bless me, Marcia, for I have sinned..." Nope, I just send her a rambling email expressing my writing concerns.

The latest rant consisted of my recent writing slump. Somehow a brick wall grew around my muse over night. It was tall and wide, and really really thick because whenever I called to it I got nothing in return. No mumbled inspiration, just plain dead air. So I zipped off an email to my friend, Ms. Colette. It went like this: My writing has slacked off this past week. At this rate I'll never see light of publication. It doesn't help that I'll be out of commission for a few weeks, either. You'd think I'd start cramming in as much writing time as possible, but I'm just not feeling it and that's a problem. My focus isn't there. I can only hope it'll come back. Maybe I need a visualization wall depicting a finished book.

Her reply: You have a right to be as funk-tified as you want.

There was more, but that one line shouted in my face because it gave me this: permission to feel the angst - that it is okay to have the off days. Feel the pain and move on.

As writers we lead a lonely life. It's a solitary profession. We don't show up to the office and sip coffee with co-workers; no one to chat to about how drunk we got over the weekend; no "I might have made a real ass of myself, I think..." before diving into the job routine. It's just our minds, eyes and fingers facing that keyboard or pen and paper. ALL ALONE. So when we feel the walls going up around our muse, hell yeah, hyperventilation rears its ugly head. How are we going to get over it? Who's there to keep us from dragging that WIP over to the trash bin? We stop writing, stop thinking, even stop envisioning our books on the best sellers' list. And the angst evolves into guilt.

Oh how I hate it when that happens, and I'm really good at self-imposed guilt. I spent years in Catholic school back when lay teachers were a novelty. Yes, nothing but hell bent nuns eager to teach shrinking self-esteem.

I'm preaching to the choir, I'm sure. I'll bet that most every writer has felt what I've felt, and I hope that those who've been in this position have someone who will listen to their rants - someone they trust with their entire heart and soul.

Sharing my angst with Marcia lightened my load, and right after I sent her my "Saturday Funk" email, I received an email from WriterU announcing a new class called "No Plotters Allowed". It stated the following: "Are you having problems in your WIP?" That hooked me, and more so as I further read: "Everyone gets stuck at one point or another."

DING! DING! DING! This couldn't have happened at a better time. Ranting to my friend Marcia was like putting a message out to the Universe that said, "HELP! I'm drowning!"

Today I awoke feeling the focus return and I attribute that to two things: 1.) Sharing my angst with a trusted friend, and 2.) giving myself permission to wallow in self-pity, because if you skip the wallowing it's an eternal pity party and you'll stay firmly planted on square one.

I treasure my friendship with Marcia. She pulled me out of the funk on numerous occasions, and I hope I do the same for her. Without her I think I would have tossed my entire collection of manuscripts into that dreaded trash icon on the desktop.

We all need a Marcia in our lives. She's like having a good cry; the next day everything is all shiny again. Everyone should have a confessional buddy. Care to share yours?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lost In Space

Ask anyone. The milkman, your librarian, the kid at the Wendy's drive-thru, my kid, your kid, grandmother, aunt, uncle, favorite singer/songwriter, just to name a few. They all have them:


So I signed up and got one, too. I like to be part of the pack and so I hopped in and followed all the lemmings. There we all are! Who knew I had so many friends? I didn't. I've even gained a few I'd never known, but that's cool. The more the merrier, right?

Yet trying to figure out the "how-to" of it, well, one needs a PhD in HTML. For all the exposure it touts you can get as a result of MySpace, the damn thing is about as friendly as a hairy-assed tarantula.

Like I need one more distraction in my writing life. And that's what it has become because I won't rest until I've figured it out. That's just how I am. Give me something new and I'm intrigued beyond mystery and go on a quest to master it - take Sudoku for example. When it first appeared in the daily newspaper I dug in. I wore out a few erasers, but damnit, I won! I now skip the easy ones and only do those appearing later in the week - the ones with three to five stars beneath them (difficulty level: the more stars the harder the puzzle).

But MySpace? ARRRRGH! What evil person developed it and why? That's all I'm asking here. And is there a "MySpace For Idiots" guide somewhere on this planet? Most likely not. Most likely I'm the only one on the planet who hasn't mastered the mother-hucking, "everyone has one" thing. You know what else everyone has? Think real hard, and if you don't know, send me an email and I'll forward the answer to you privately.

MySpace. It's not fun; it doesn't improve my day. Why in the hell did I get one? Oh yeah. Because everyone else has one. Well, everyone else who has one, is your life better off now that you have a MySpace?

MySpace, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing - uh-huh.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What's Up, Cop?

A cop approaches, sits down and says to me, "Hey, can you write a story about me?" I tell him, "Not a problem," and dig in, or should I say, he digs in. Because that's how it's really gone since said cop paid me a visit, and by the way, this all took place in that vast gray area located between my ears.

Since 2003 this cop has told me his story. But his isn't a story about life as a cop. His is a story about life. Cop doesn't define him, and therefore doesn't define my story in which he plays a major role - he's not young and ripped, doesn't have a great head of hair and dazzling smile. He's just an older, emotionally bankrupt, guy.

So how do I sell this story to the genre fiction world? Ever since I created the story it's come under scrutiny for not depicting a cop by whatever the cop standard is. I've had comments such as, "I've never known a cop to act like that? Shouldn't he be retired by now? That doesn't follow standard cop procedure."

"Fine. You're all right," I say, but then do what I want anyway because it's not a cop story.

Follow my drift, please. I write about the human condition. The characters are based on people whose paths I've crossed somewhere in time. These characters come to me from deep in my subconscious where aspects of several personalities have accumulated. Cops, doctors, stockbrokers, artists and cowboys, to name a few. All people whose paths have crossed mine, leaving a bit of their blue print tattooed to my gray cells.

Yet, this could possibly impede my quest for publication because as soon as an occupation makes itself visible, then somehow scrutiny tries morphing the story into a play-by-play of the job description.

I do so hope that I'm wrong about that. To date no agent has rejected me because the story wasn't cop-ish. They seem to find other reasons for rejection, such as, "Not selling now; love your voice - hate the character, etc."

Another impediment that concerns me is that my stories have a strong male point of view. And again I face where to market my gems. Women's Fiction? I don't know. My current finished, but still a work in progress, has both hero/heroine, yet, it's the hero who gets the first part of the story. Her point of view doesn't come into play until much later.

Writing novels can be so baffling. At times I think that maybe I should stick to essays or poetry, but always there's a character popping in to say, "Hey, write my story." Doctors, cowboys, cops and artists, to name a few, all come knocking and sometimes so loudly they shake my cranium loose.

How can I ignore them all? How can I not allow one story to pigeon hole my career into several more of the same thing? How can I convince others that I don't write about cops, doctors, artists and cowboys, but that I prefer sticking to who they are an not what they do for a living?

For in my world what one does to make a living doesn't define who they are. There is no one personality that fits all cops, cowboys, doctors and artists.

It's the heart that defines my characters, their soul a back-up. Is there a genre for them? Must all my stories be about ones life occupation rather than pre-occupation with life?

Put on your agent hats and tell me how you'd market my work.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

And the Tumblers Fall, the Dice Rolls...

I've wondered: which is better to have? Luck, skill, or both. So many times I see rather "meh" stories land on the best sellers lists or gain some other worthy prize. The "meh" stories to me are those that don't exactly rock my world, but then my world is a little out of whack most times anyway.

Yet, just because my world is whack, it doesn't mean the "meh" story is a bad read. I have to believe that the lucky writer submitted it ad nauseum until the planets lined up correctly. Could have been for a number of reasons, that it slid across the slush pile just as an agent or editor was in the mood for that particular story - that on that particular day the trends changed in the writer's favor. Who knows?

Luck vs. Skill vs. Both. I've given this plenty-o-thought lately because finally after entering contests willy-nilly, I got a win. Mind you, I haven't won the entire ball of wax, but I did place first (see previous post) and the next step is five pairs of agents' eyes leering my work.

If not for the preliminary judges liking what they saw, my entry wouldn't be under the scrutiny of agents' eyes. My work has been in that position before. I came tenths of a point to making the finals of several contests, one the prestigious RWA Golden Heart, yet it fell short by the few tenths of a point because not every judge was wowed by my entry. Same goes for the other contests. I'd review the final score sheets, and there was always one who didn't see things the way the others did.

But this time was different. Three out of four (or was it four out of five?) preliminary judges of SFA-RWA's "Heart to Heart" liked it. They gave it rave comments, which completely floored me - I was all digging my toe into the ground and saying, "Oh shucks. Really?"

Yes, I've done nothing but marvel over this recent adulation. Little old me who submitted the same damn thing over and over...hmm. Luck, skill, both? I truly believe that luck plays an important and large role in every passing life event, but it sure as hell helps to have great skill when the lucky moment arrives. It's imperative to be prepared to take it to the next level, because surely it was more luck than skill that got me through the first level of judging.

Prepared for the next level? That's what I'm striving for. I won't be one of those American Idol contestants lucky enough to get sent to Hollywood, only to crash and burn under the pressure. You know, partying instead of concentrating on the next goal.

Let the partying come after the big one, that's what I say, and party I will if I get a win, request or sale. If none of the above, then I'll keep on keepin' on because sooner or later it'll all fall in to place - lucky seven, safe opens.

What's it gonna be for you?