Monday, January 31, 2011

The Kitchen Table

When I sit down to write (especially to blog) I sit down to tell you something. As if you and I are sitting across from one another at the kitchen table. Maybe you're sipping coffee. Maybe I'm laughing in between mouthfuls of vanilla ice cream. You are telling me what happened. I'm telling you how it should have been.

The kitchen table is, always, how I envision storytelling because it's where I got all of my stories. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in my cousin Rosemary's kitchen. She made the sweetest iced tea. Her cheese sandwiches were better than everyone else's. And I would sit quietly, my legs dangling from the chair, while she and my mother traded stories. They talked about their group of cousins, their childhood summers in Rocky Point. They talked about people I never knew. They talked about people they didn't know anymore. They talked for hours.

Rosemary had a coat rack. I remember that, because I didn't really know anyone else who had a coat rack. In the winter, the coat rack nearly toppled over with the weight of all the coats because so many people came in and out of her house. Neighbors, her children who were all grown and had moved out of the house, the friends from her mah jongg club. It was a revolving door. And, to be honest, there really was no better place to be. She always had coffee. And Entenmann's crumb cake. And stories.

As a child, I listened to every story that was told across that kitchen table. I even stole some of them and made them my own. One was called The Party Girl. Rosemary had told me so many stories about being a teenager in Astoria, Queens, about all the dances she used to go to, all of her boyfriends, and the two marriage proposals she received in course of one week. She had chosen Louis, the man she eventually married (who would sit in the other room watching television while we sat in the kitchen) only because he was the better looking of the two. So, I presented her with a story about a young girl who liked to go to parties, who was the belle of every ball, and she kept it, proudly, on top of the refrigerator, curled up in a jar. It's probably still there today, even if she is not. It belongs there, in her kitchen.

I thought of her today as I do on many days, wishing I could toss my coat on the rack and sit down. Settle in. I wish, more than anything, that I could listen to her stories and tell her mine. I don't think I have ever laughed as hard as I did when I sat at her dark wooden table. I learned so much about my family, my mother, myself whenever we walked into her house and pulled up a chair. There is such thing as a writer's journey. Mine began there.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oh The Shame

I recently joined a new book club. The group had already been established by several of my co-workers and I managed to get invited. Which was no easy feat, let me tell you. Apparently there was serious discussion about whether or not I should be let in! How exclusive.

The reason I was asked to join the club is because the group had decided to have, what they called, a 'bodice ripper' month. Of course, when I think 'bodice ripper', I think Melissa Sarno, don't you? Considering that I've only read 2 romance novels in my entire life and I didn't read the first one until a few months ago when the lovely and talented Sarah MacLean became my friend...I find this ironic. But somehow, false word had gotten out that I read romance and, so, I was asked for my opinion about what the group should read, which led to an invitation to join.

So, I became a member and I was put in charge of selecting a juicy 'bodice ripper' to read. And of course, I suggested the lovely and talented Sarah MacLean's "Nine Rules To Break When Romancing a Rake" because, as I've said, it's one of the only romance novels I've ever read. Another girl suggested a novel by Christy Reece, which became the third romance novel I'd ever read and I enjoyed it very much.

We had our first meeting and we all had a grand old time discussing the romance genre and all the ways you can refer to the male member and the female 'sex' and very mature topics like that. :-P

In any case, after saying the word vajayjay far too many times, we artfully transitioned into other topics, such as chick lit. I was surprised to hear that so many people were ashamed to read chick lit. It also came out that they were embarrassed to read romance on the subway. It wasn't that they had a low opinion of these genres (in fact, just the opposite). It was just that they didn't consider it real 'literature'.

I felt pretty proud, because I'm not ashamed to read anything. I'll read Tolstoy one day and "The Devil Wears Prada" the next. I proudly display bodice rippers on the subway, opening up the jacket covers, on purpose, to reveal the long legs and wanton chests and see my fellow passengers reactions. By the way, I noticed the word 'wanton' is a widely used term in the 3 romances I read. I like it.

But this wasn't always the case. In fact, I thought pretty highly of myself back in high school and college. I could not be found reading Grisham or Patterson. No, no, no. Dostoevsky for me. James Joyce, pretty please. And, I certainly could not admit that I enjoyed "The DaVinci Code". What self respecting English academic type would? In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to admit it now.

Of course, I want to know, why? Why are people embarrassed to admit liking certain books that aren't considered great works of literature? Or, just the opposite, why are we ashamed to say that maybe Moby Dick didn't quite turn us on? Maybe our reading tastes reflect something about us we don't want to reveal. What does it say to the world when we crack open the latest Danielle Steele? What does it say when we sit on a park bench reading Hemmingway?

So, it's time to have a little fun and bare all (bodice rip, if you will).

I offer you the chance to get rid of the shame! Because, I believe there is no shame in reading a book, no matter what it is.

1. Name a book you are ashamed you like.

2. Name a book you are ashamed you don't like.

I'll go first.

1. The Da Vinci Code
2. Pride and Prejudice

Monday, January 24, 2011

Death of A Character

My work in progress is progressing slowly. I feel I have to measure each word, even if it is first draft. There is a natural crawl through each paragraph as I feel my way through one moment and then the next. And I realize that the action is deliberate, even though I haven't plotted or outlined a thing. I have found myself stopping to think more than I normally would in a draft and I have willed myself to do things I have not wanted to do. I don't mean sitting in front of the blank screen (though I haven't wanted to do that.) I don't mean turning off the television and twitter and gmail, closing the door, and sinking into the old wooden chair at my little desk (though I haven't wanted to do that either.)

I mean that I am forcing myself to do things to my characters that I have not wanted to do. Just moments ago, I waded slowly through a murky scene. And I realized that I was going to have to do something really terrible. Really awful. I've been avoiding it for a long time. I have to send a character off to die. I've reached the point where I have no other choice.

I've never done this to a character I truly care about. This is brand new. How about you?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Move On

Have I ever told all of you how much I love the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim? I'm not sure I have. Well, I do. I remember, when I was unhappy at an old job I had so many years ago, I used to study Sondheim lyrics. I used to marvel over A Little Priest, from the musical Sweeney Todd, which if you have some time, is worth a look and a youtube search to take a listen. When an enraged barber slits the throat of a man who came in for a shave, there's the question of what to do with the body. Mrs. Lovett, the friendly meat pie maker has a brilliant idea. After all, she needs the meat... :-)

The song turns into a commentary on social order, imagining what different members of society might taste like, and the rhyming schemes and double entendre in the song are nothing short of brilliant.

Today, I was listening to a favorite song from Sunday In The Park With George, a musical about a fictionalized George Seraut painting his masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte" (photo above). The lyrics are just what I needed to hear today. So many times we worry about the things we create, we find ourselves stuck.

Here are some excerpts from this beautiful song (from one of only eight musicals ever to win a Pulitzer)

"Stop worrying where you're going, move on.
If you can know where you're going, you've gone.
Just keep moving on."

"Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision . . .they usually do.
You keep moving on.
Look at what you want.
Not at what you are.
Not at what you'll be."

"Anything you do, let it come from you--then it will be new.
Give us more to see."

In my head I always sing: Give us more to read...

Painting by George Seraut

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Singer

There comes a point in time, at most elementary schools, when you have to choose what instrument you'd like to play in music class. Somewhere along the line, my parents came into possession of an old upright piano and, so, the instrument was chosen for me. I began playing when I was seven years old. When it came time to choose an instrument in school, I felt pretty good about myself, Well, I'm sure I put my hand on my hips, as eight year olds do, I already play piano, so I don't need to choose an instrument.

My teachers didn't really agree with this, but I stuck to my guns and refused to lug any ridiculous cellos back and forth to school or play the dainty, girl instruments like the clarinet or the flute. I remember that my arch nemesis, who was my arch nemesis because she and I battled for 1st place in the 100 yard dash at field day and because she and I shared the same name, which forever made me known as Melissa S., when I just wanted to be Melissa for goodness sakes, and I didn't want to have to take all that extra effort to put my last initial on every school assignment I ever turned in ever, was very smug and proud of herself because she was the only child who chose to play the oboe.

It was decided that everybody had to play an instrument whether they played piano at home or not and if I wasn't going to play a physical instrument, then I had to be in chorus. So, for four years in elementary school, I had to stand up in front of audiences and sing things like Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love Of All" which made everyone cry at assemblies and talent shows and annual concerts, because there is apparently nothing more moving than 50 out-of-tune children singing about "learning to love themselves". When I got to middle school, I was required to take music classes and, still, no one considered classical piano training worth the credit, so I had to take two more years of chorus. And when I got to high school, I was required to stay in chorus for one more year of music credit and, before I knew it, I was going on seven years of chorus so I figured: why not finish up the next three years of high school in the choir, and while I'm at it, sing at Christmas concerts and graduation too?

When it was all said and done, I spent ten years playing an "instrument" (But your voice is an instrument! my chorus teachers would exclaim) I never intended to play. And, to be honest, I never once considered myself a singer. Chorus had been chosen for me and, for years, I blended into the soprano section, quietly singing my required part as if it were simply my duty. I remember having to go to small practices where I would barely sing above a whisper with 5 or 6 other girls, and my chorus teacher, who had known me for years, became quite startled, one day, and said, "Melissa, that's almost perfect. Now, if only we could hear you." Of course, I had no intention of being heard.

But towards the end of my senior year, something came over me. Perhaps it was the shock of being almost perfect that made me feel I could audition for a solo. You had to do it in front of the entire class and I remember impulsively raising my hand and jumping out of my seat, my heart racing, and I listened for the piano, and somehow, no matter how many times I had practiced the part in my head, I could not keep track of the rhythm. So that, when I sang, my voice was completely ahead of the music and it sounded totally thrown off. It was a train wreck. It remains, to this day, one of the most embarrassing moments of my life and it confirmed what I had known for a very long time: I was not a singer.

Now, at thirty years old, I find myself in a strange place. My job does not require me to sing, but I have found myself in a position where I can sing if I so choose. And I do. I often go into our little media room and sing music demos for songs that will go into our toys. And, oddly enough, Vice Presidents and CEO's of major corporations listen to recordings of my voice in many pitches and presentations. I have prefaced nearly every presentation with "I'm singing the demo, so you can't laugh" and have been surprised when no one does. In fact, I have been told I sound more than okay and one person, God bless her soul, told me I sounded like Belle from Beauty and the Beast (a comment that nearly made me cry of happiness).

As it turns out, I am a "singer". And it took me a long time to figure it out. I don't regret the years that I sang quietly in the background, but it does make me wonder, what if I had auditioned for a solo when I was 8 instead of 18? Why didn't I want to be heard? What was I afraid of?

You're probably asking me, why are you telling me this long (I'm sorry it's so long) story? Well, only you can know. Whatever it is you don't believe you are, I urge you to rethink it. Don't waste your time being afraid.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Story Giveaway

Thanks everyone for your encouragement and for sharing your own stories about the road to publication. We're all in this together and I'm pretty sure there's safety in numbers :-)

Today, I have a really random post for you about this bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn called Sunny's. I'm obsessed with this bar. And as you read on you'll see why.

Last weekend, I was sitting up at the bar at Sunny's. Most of the bar stools there are glued to the ground and the little wooden seats wobble and swivel around, like a Frisbee on top of a skinny stick. Fortunately, I had found one of the only two free-standing stools that wasn't stuck like a post in the ground, so I was sitting steady. I sipped my warm apple cider, which had been topped off with a little bourbon and I was feeling all edgy and cool with the whole bourbon thing (I've never had bourbon in my life.) The band, which consisted of 2 guitarists, a drummer who doesn't wear shoes, and a bassist, was playing a lovely little diddy about walkin' in to your kitchen, slippin' on the tile, and goin' straight to heaven. The bartender, a short, smiling woman had been walking around with a metal bucket asking us to give tips to the band, and she had just slung the bucket up on a little wire hanger that dangled above the bar. All of the sudden, this roly poly looking fat man walks in with a checkered shirt and denim overalls, his chubby cheeks all rosy from the cold. He walks directly to the back room of Sunny's and, a few minutes later, follows the same path right out the door, this time carrying a life size, naked mannequin.

So, there I am at Sunny's, realizing that I had walked into a novel. I mean, seriously, does this not read like fiction to you? It's Red Hook, Brooklyn, for goodness sakes. A place full of yuppies and hipsters and people riding bicycles past fancy little farm to table restaurants and boutiques. And there I am, sipping bourbon, listening to bluegrass, while people do crazy s*** like walk into a dive bar and walk out with naked mannequins. I was in the middle of a scene.

So, somebody, please take it. I am giving this scene to you. Because I'm hooked and have to know. What's the bartender doing when she's not pouring me bourbon and cider? Why is the drummer barefoot in the dead of winter? And why, on earth, did the fat man take the mannequin and where the heck is he going with it?

It's all you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Query Game

So, I've decided to jump back into the query game.

I took a very long break to gather my emotions and reconsider my manuscript. I also took the time to work on several new projects. I love the new novel I'm writing and I'm in a wonderful position where I don't have to worry whether anyone else does.

Not so when it comes to my novel Spared. It turns out that as soon as you decide to seek publication, you will be in a constant state of worry as to whether or not someone will love your work, whether you're looking for an agent, a publisher, or your book has hit the shelf. Which, I've learned, can be very stressful to your mental health.

I debated for a while whether to post about my query process. It seems like a very big secret I shouldn't share. Several people who are much smarter and well-respected than I am have said it's not wise to share the terrible secrets of the long journey of rejection, since it can deter agents from wanting to represent you. I cowered in fear, believing that if I revealed that I had indeed been rejected by an agent, I would never be able to find an agent. But, let's be serious... Is there any one of you out there who believes I have never once been rejected? Come on.

So, I'll just say it: I've been rejected.

Shocking, I know. (And because I have my pride and I'm still petrified to admit that, I'll follow it by saying: BUT! BUT! I've also received requests and opportunities to resubmit. So, it's not all one big terrible losing fest.)

Phew, now, that's out of the way, I can tell you that I queried a small number of agents last May and took the entire summer to edit my manuscript based on that feedback. Then, I queried a small number of agents in September and took another month to make small edits (flesh out a B storyline that had fallen flat and revised the beginning to create a stronger hook.) I put the book aside and have not queried since then. To be honest, I was impatient, tired, and scared s***less to jump back in.

Not to mention that my manuscript is still out with agents who requested it during both of those rounds. Yes, my friends, that means people have had it since frickin' May. And that is why I no longer refer to that month in 2010 as May. It's known as frickin' May.

The process so far has been long because I query a small number of agents at a time. And I query a small number of agents at a time because worrying about whether or not someone loves my work is exhausting.

As it turns out, my process so far has been excruciatingly slow and is really just stringing along the emotional exhaustion over a longer period of time. So, I'm jumping back in the game with a little less trepidation than in the past. You probably don't particularly care, but I thought I should tell you.

So, how do you decide when to submit and when to hold back? Do you cast a wide net and see what bites? Or, are you like me? A scared little snail? This here's a place where you can share them fears, so let 'em loose friends...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A New Kind Of Community

A few weeks ago I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir which explores her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Not such an easy relationship to define. They had a love and devotion to one another that few people experience, both of them completely absorbed in the other's creative energies, so dedicated to the idea of 'becoming' an artist as they sat in dingy quarters, sharing grilled cheese sandwiches, trying to express themselves through poems and photographs and sculptures and song.

As I was reading, it occurred to me that, back then, everyone knew one another, whether they were all hanging at the Chelsea Hotel or milling around Max's Kansas city, desperate to make their way into Warhol's Factory. One day someone would be sipping an egg cream and run into their mentor at the local diner. The next they would be sitting on a concrete stoop in the village and share a cigarette with Jimi Hendrix. All the sudden a crooning little bird named Janis Joplin would be in the neighboring apartment writing a song.

A few years back, when I read Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, a book that follows the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, I discovered the same thing. Early in their careers, well before fame and fortune, whether they were sitting at the piano in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, summering on the beaches of Cape Cod, or setting up camp in Laurel Canyon, everybody knew everybody. They all lived together sharing this desperate creative energy to become.
I began to wonder why I didn't live in a hotel full of fiction writers. Why I wasn't having poetry slams in abandoned warehouses, or setting up camp with painters and singers and actors and photographers. Tyler is sitting next to me on the couch watching British football, not agonizing over a blank journal or a tortured canvas.

So where are all the little communities of artists today? Where are all the collaborators forming their relationships? Is anyone sleeping in the Bowery hoping the next Bob Dylan will invite them to sleep on their couch until they sell their first book of poems?

It occurred to me that we're all gathering in different ways. With hash tags and @ replies and blogger comments and guest posts and RSS feeds and Mr. Linkys. I may not be camped out at the Chelsea Hotel, sharing chance encounters with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, but sometimes I'll tweet a #Fridayread and the author and I will get into a twitter conversation. I'll see acknowledgements in published books for groups of people who formed critique groups on the Internet. Everybody's out there but are we together?

It's interesting to me that the successful artists mentioned above all found one another before they were successful in the streets of cities, in the back rooms of restaurants and warehouses, surrounding themselves with creative people to support and learn from. And that, now, we're all doing the same thing through such a new medium.

So, what do you think? Do you wish we were all sleeping on one another's floors in the East Village of Manhattan? Or are you happy to be sitting in your bathrobe tweeting with the next @jk_rowling?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bring It On

I'm back from my blogging hiatus, where I fell out of reality for a few days, eating my way through the holidays, reading two books for two new book clubs, sleeping well, and napping, which is something I haven't done in quite some time.

The New Year begins and so begins the idea that we can begin a-new. I have many resolutions swimming around inside a still sleepy mind. I make resolutions a lot, not just at the beginning of a new year. Time has a knack for beginnings and endings. It's very good at closing doors and opening windows. There are falling leaves and grey days and spring flowers and anniversaries and the reminder of all the tomorrows that allow you to put today and yesterday to rest.

This year, I plan to write a new novel and I'm very excited about it. I am entering a story I don't yet fully understand, a world I am fascinated by, and this book is bringing out things I have always wanted to write about: forgotten amusement parks and a network of underground canals. Musicals and singing and the beautiful stars of old films I once loved.

I'm excited to nestle inside of this world for a while but there is a little bit of trepidation. This is my 'second' novel and I realize how wonderful it was to go into the first one blindly. This time around, I am carrying a lot of fears with me and a lot of feelings of inadequacy. You would think it would be the opposite, now that I have one under my belt (ha!), but it's not shaping up that way. There was a bold arrogance when I began writing Spared that I am not experiencing this time around. But there is a lot of excitement about this new place, these characters. I am hanging on to that joy for now.

Obviously, I don't yet know what the year will bring. But there are things I can bring to it and I very much want to bring this new book into the 'world'. I don't expect it to fall into so many hands, but I'll be happy enough to just let it be.

What do you plan to bring to the new year?