Up to My Eyes and Paddling Like Hell
I just looked back at my last two blogs and had to cackle. Bread baking. Bread baking? Who has time for bread baking?
So Beaches is closed and I had a week of overlap between that and the start of rehearsals for The Threepenny Opera, both at Signature Theatre. Being as 3P is emotionally and theatrically kind of the anti-Beaches, it’s been an interesting adjustment as well as making for some long-ass days.
I’ve been doing a lot of auditioning and have got myself booked through the end of the year now (announcements to come), have a couple of rapidly-approaching one-night gigs (announcements to come) and if that wasn’t enough, decided rather foolishly that I needed to participate in Camp NaNo and gave myself just an easy 20k word goal for the month of April. I’ve written a grand total of 600 words in the first week, accomplished in two 300-word spurts. Pathetic. What was I thinking?
Someone on one of my writers’ forums asked the question in what order do you do these things: writing, editing, research? Here’s my answer:
Tweak/write write writey write write.
Tweak/write write writey…wait.
Realize I need to know more to finish the scene.
Research research research.
Write the scene. Only use a fraction of the research.
Write writey write write.
Backspace backspace o crap just highlight it all and delete.
Realize I shouldn’t have deleted what I deleted.
Tweak/write write writey write write…
Repeat as needed.
Meanwhile all around me spring has sprung and the daffodils are budding and the garden needs to be tilled and I at least remembered to take the cover off the fig tree so the poor thing can bud, unless the one-two punch of deer munching on it in the fall and all the wintery precip of the past few months hasn’t killed it. Same with the freakin’ cherry trees. Both the rosemary and the eucalyptus look like they’re winter-killed, too. At least the ornamental cherry we planted last year is showing signs of life.
Off to rehearsal now. More later.
::doggy paddles into the sunset::
When Worlds Collide
It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged anything of substance, and for that I apologize and offer the usual excuse that I’ve Been Busy. I’ve already mentioned the industrial work that took me right up to a flurry of workshops, cabarets and one-night events, not to mention the start of rehearsals for Gypsy at Signature Theatre; what I haven’t mentioned is that on November 1st, I started writing a new book.
See, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo which happens every November. Essentially, you pledge that you’ll write 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during the 30 days of November. They don’t have to be polished words – in fact, you could be writing utter crap – but the idea is to just get yourself to put words on paper on deadline.
Now, you would think for someone with a journalism background that putting words on paper on deadline would be dead easy, but it ain’t so. I am a persnickety author with a very strong Internal Editor so my M.O. when writing is to write a few sentences, edit them, polish them, and then move on. It works for me (after all, I’ve already got two completed novels under my belt) but sometimes you’d like the Editor to back off a bit so you can just let the words flow. I thought trying NaNo this year would help me achieve that goal, and I’d made tentative plans to write a light romantic comedy for the competition.
Problem was, I was so busy in the weeks leading up to November 1st that I wasn’t able to do the necessary planning for the rom/com novel. Hadn’t anything but the roughest idea of a plot, hadn’t decided who the main character would be – in other words, all I had was a title (it’s a great title, though, which I will share once I write the darn thing). So I was a little panicked by mid-October.
I was already about 30,000 words into the third book in my fantasy series and was running into a series of hiccups with it, mostly centered around motive and personality for my lead protagonist and antagonist. Just as an exercise, I’d written some material about both characters’ childhoods and upbringing, and I was growing more and more interested in exploring that further. Why not write that book for NaNo? I asked myself, and myself, feeling exceedingly harried and irritable at the time, responded “YES YES DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”
So on November 1st, in the midst of an extraordinarily busy week, I started writing a new novel. It was helpful that I had a good clear idea of where I wanted to go with the story, but it was hard making myself just spew the words rather than stop and polish. And I did need to spew. In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write at least 1,666 words per day. That’s a lot of words, particularly when you don’t have a lot of focused time. So I squeezed in the writing whenever I could, sometimes getting up a few hours early, sometimes writing while I ate, sometimes grabbing a spare 20 minutes between rehearsals, just to get the words down. There were days when I couldn’t write at all and had to make it up the next day; there were days when what I wrote was so heinous that the Internal Editor leaped in before I could stop her; there was a particularly awful morning when I discovered that I had somehow neglected to save my work properly the day before and had lost some 1300 words that I then had to recreate in addition to that day’s quota.
In spite of all this drama, what I was writing wasn’t half bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Maybe all these years of writing means that the ratio of Junk Spew to Decent Spew has tipped in favor of useable material. Once I got past the first couple of weeks, it started to come easier. Part of that may have been that when Gypsy rehearsals began, I wasn’t called all that often so I had more time. Part of it may also have been that I’d disciplined myself to grab those precious free minutes to write, rather than cruise the Internet or sit in front of the TV (or sleep). I actually ended up crossing the 50,000 mark a few days shy of the deadline and was able to call myself a NaNoWriMo Winner. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to log in my word count on the NaNo website that day and see this screen pop up on my computer.
Of course, that didn’t mean the book was finished, not by a long shot. I continued writing through December, difficult as that was what with the holidays and all, but since I had a great deal of downtime in Gypsy, I was able to write in the dressing room and log in several hours a week that way (witness the photo at the beginning of this blog). I continued the pattern in January, with a helpful push from like-minded writers at Absolute Write. I made myself a new, easier goal – to write 500 words a day – and a few days ago I was able to write THE END on my NaNo novel. I did a quick editing pass on it and put it aside, intending to give it a week to percolate, but impatience got the better of me and I rewrote the beginning, made another editing pass, formatted it into chapters and fired off an email to my faithful beta readers to see if they’d be willing to give this new book a go. It’s shorter than my other tomes – a mere 71,000 words – but I’m pleased with it.
The question yet to be answered is if this book is going to be right for the series. In other words, will I need to position it as the first book in the series and try to get it published that way, or should I view it as an interesting exercise and put it aside? Only time will tell. In any case, as Grand Experiments go, I’m calling my NaNo experience a success, and I’m already making plans to participate in the 2014 event. I still have that rom/com to write, you know.
This is just a quick post to share some haiku that I’ve written. I’ve mentioned in the past that I use a website called oneword.com for one-minute writing prompts, but this same site has a little haiku challenge that I do occasionally, too, just for grins. Here are a few of the challenge words and my resulting poems:
Fussy in fuschia
She pouts into the mirror
Posing and preening
The ocean curls its
Fingers into a huge fist
And punches the land.
And though you remain
I still smell your fear.
Aging hipster with
Gangsta clothes and attitude
Only makes me smile
This argument is
Like a mobius strip
An endless circle
“We are one,” you say;
“Kindred spirits, you and me.”
Then you lick your lips.
Count on your fingers
The times you didn’t listen
No wonder she left
Whiskered, weighty yet winsome
How’s your self-esteem?
Four syllables, which makes it
Tough to write haiku
The kiss was sweet but
Sometimes it’s not nice to share
When you’re infectious
Listen to your gut
They say. When I cock my ear
I hear rumbling
“Catch me if you can,”
The boy jeered, and so I did.
He was delicious.
This week I have been writing the final chapter of the sequel to my first fantasy novel, Kinglet.
The sequel is called Fiskur. I’ve been working on it for a solid year. I’m generally really happy with it, except that I think it’s too long. I’m not worried about that; I edit pretty well and can probably lose several thousand words just by tightening up my prose.
Why, then, am I sad as I write this last chapter? It could be because the chapter itself is sad. It could be that the last couple of chapters have been tough to write, simply because I have a lot of loose ends to tie up and a lot of new plot lines to lay out for Book Three. It could be that it’s been kind of a weird week and I’m just tired.
But I know it’s not any of those things. I know it’s because I’m having an attack of Major Self Doubt. I finished Kinglet last year and it isn’t published yet. I haven’t even found an agent for it – only a nibble or two. Who am I kidding? Have I wasted hours and days and weeks and months of my life writing a sequel to a book that no publisher will ever want? Have I been foolish in closing my ears to the people who tell me I should trunk this project and spend my time writing something more marketable? Am I a hack? A fool? And worse than that, a stubborn fool?
I know I am not unique in having these thoughts. Heck, you can go to any writers’ forum (I frequent this one) and find plenty of fellow writers in similar mental anguish to share your woes and keep you company. But as comforting as sympathetic company and shared misery might be, ultimately you have to return to your manuscript. Ultimately you’ve got to put your fingers back on the keyboard and your brain back into the world you’ve created and tell that story you want to tell – that you’ve been driven to tell all through the hours and days and weeks and months and hell, yes, the years.
And to do that, you’ve got to beat back the Major Self Doubt. You have to summon up your courage and your spirit and your muse and Get. Back. To. Work. But sometimes that’s real hard.
So I’m sharing a little tune here that comes from my other world – the world of theatre. This is a song called “Die, Vampire, Die!” and it’s from a musical called [title of show], written by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell. It’s brilliant. It should be the Fight Song for anyone in the business of creation. (In my opinon, the real meat of the song really begins at 1:40.) So I hope you enjoy it (warning: may not be suitable for playing at work or around small impressionable children).
Me, I’m headed back to finish that final chapter.
Believe it or not, this is a photo of a battleground.
It’s the corner of our guest room, and it’s the site of the final confrontation between a home intruder and me.
The first skirmish occurred last night. I was not involved. I had gone to bed but was still awake, reading, when my husband came in from the living room. “I saw a mouse,” he said. “It was running across the top of our living room drapes.”
“On TOP? Of the DRAPES?” I responded, with my usual keen grasp of the situation. “How could it be on TOP of the DRAPES? Maybe you imagined it.”
“I didn’t imagine it,” John said, with some asperity. “I was laying on the floor and I heard something jingling overhead and I looked up and the mouse was looking down at me.”
“Well, where is it NOW?”
“I don’t know. It ran off. I checked the trap downstairs and it’s been sprung, but there’s nothing in it.”
This is not generally the kind of information one wants when one is tucked up in bed for the night. We keep a pretty clean house and are usually, mercifully, vermin-free, but we do get seasonal incursions – ants in the spring, the inevitable stink bug in the summer, and the odd mouse when the weather turns cold. (There was also this little incident some years ago, but that wasn’t in the house, exactly.) A little more than a week ago I was in the basement and thought I’d heard one between the floors, so John had set our usual trap in our usual spot, and it was this trap that had been sprung. We agreed that we’d pursue the matter in the morning, turned off the light and went to sleep.
About 8:30 this morning I was awakened by a loud, inarticulate shout from my husband – something along the lines of “AUUUROWRGH!” John talks and hollers in his sleep at times, but this shout had a slightly more insistent timbre and was followed by him sitting up. “What the heck are you doing?” I asked, or words to that effect.
“A mouse just ran across my face.”
“ACROSS your FACE?” I was still half-asleep and therefore querulous. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
(I don’t know how he kept his temper; when one has been awakened by the scuttling of mousy feet over a portion of one’s anatomy, one can hardly appreciate one’s experience being questioned – and this was the second time in less than twelve hours that I’d suggested the mouse was All In His Head.)
“I wasn’t dreaming. A mouse ran across my face.”
That woke me up competely. “WELL WHERE IS IT NOW?”
“I don’t know. I flicked it away.”
We both got up, threw on some clothes and started looking around. John got a flashlight to look under the bed as I picked up shams and decorative bed pillows off the floor. A dark shape scuttled past my feet and I emitted a sound kind of like this and jumped back on the bed. A certain amount of chaos followed; we were pretty sure it had gone under the bed but as we store the extra leaves for our dining room table under there, encased in special zippered covers, visibility was limited. John went off to get a broom for chivvying purposes and I continued to shift things around. I moved the curtains near my bed and once again did the Goofy Yell as the mouse ran past. Again, I didn’t see where it went. We rattled around the room some more but couldn’t find the mouse. Hooray, it’s gone. We baited a couple of traps and put one in the usual basement spot and one in the living room and got on with our day. Since I’m between projects at the moment (actor-speak for unemployed), I was tasked with pulling everything away from the bedroom walls and vacuuming the place thoroughly while John was at work.
I was making my morning tea and John was showering when I realized the house seemed awfully cold. I checked the thermostat, which read 64 degrees, along with the statement SYSTEM MALFUNCTION CALL TECHNICIAN. Great. I inform John that something’s wrong with the HVAC system and place a service call. They’ll be right out – huzzah. John and I swap places in the shower; he decides that he’s going to telework today but he has to fetch his computer from the office about ten minutes away, and will get a couple more mousetraps while he’s out. I’m dressed and already vacuuming by the time the technician arrives. John leaves, the tech gets to work in the basement, I fold some sheets in the laundry room and carry them upstairs. As I’m on the approach to the linen closet, I look into the bedroom and see THE MOUSE, sitting up pert and unconcerned, on the freshly vacuumed bedroom rug. I squawk and it turns, squeezes under my sliding closet door and disappears inside.
I confess to being completely skeeved out by the thought of the mouse amongst my clothes and shoes. I call John on his cell and he tells me to get the baited trap from the living room and put it in the closet. “I don’t want to,” I tell him. I have visions of opening the closet door and having the mouse run over my hand. He tells me to butch up and do it, and I do. Nothing happens. The mouse is lying doggo (oh, look it UP).
I am poised in the bedroom doorway, broom at the ready, fully expecting to hear the sudden snap of the trap at any moment, when the tech comes upstairs to check the thermostat. “Screw on the flame sensor backed out,” he says. “I tightened it and she fired right up.” I know I look wild-eyed and explain about the mouse. He is sympathetic as I sign his work form and see him out the door.
I head back to the bedroom and see THE MOUSE ambling out into the hallway. I let out another Goofy Yell and it darts next door into the guest room, which I have already partially prepped for vacuuming. The bedspread is turned up on top of the mattress, which is a Good Thing because even though I am hollering and brandishing the broom, THE MOUSE is making vigorous attempts to CLIMB UP ONTO THE MATTRESS. Stymied, it runs underneath the bed. Stored beneath the bed is one of those Space Bags – those things into which you stuff your out-of-season bedding, use your vacuum cleaner to suck the air out of and then shove someplace out of the way only to discover later that the damn thing has somehow expanded again and is now jammed tight into the spot where you shoved it. The mouse tap-dances around the edges of the Space Bag but can’t get over it as it is firmly wedged between the floor below and the box springs above. It disappears into the darkness behind the Space Bag. I notice it isn’t moving very smoothly and surmise that perhaps it’s stunned or maybe injured from being flicked off the bed early in the engagement. I grab my cell phone and call John again.
“What is it now?” He sounds less than thrilled.
“The mouse is in the guest room now. WHEN ARE YOU GONNA BE BACK?”
“I’m at Home Depot getting traps. Then I gotta get gas. Put the trap in the guest room and I’ll be home soon.”
I start to argue with him about the trap and THE MOUSE COMES OUT AGAIN. It still wants to climb the mattress. I make an ineffectual jab at it with the broom and it looks at me like “What is it now?” “IT’S OUT AGAIN GOODBYE” I tell John, hang up and stuff the phone into my back pocket. The mouse disappears under the bed again and I stand there in the doorway, broom poised, hurling a steady stream of invective in the direction of the bed. If I go in after the mouse, I’m afraid it’ll just elude me again. I decide to stay where I am. I find that I am shivering even though the heat is back on in the house – some primal instinct has kicked in, and while I have absolutely no desire to kill the mouse, I know I have to, and I’m repulsed by the thought. My invective takes on a pleading quality – “GO AWAY! JUST GO AWAY!” – but it’s to no avail. In a few moments the mouse comes out again, this time at the far end of the room, and hesitates.
So I took its picture.
Yes, I was shaking THAT BADLY.
I put the phone back in my pocket and stand there with the broom raised. The mouse does not move. I lower the broom a little bit. The mouse does not move. I adjust my grip and angle the broom so that it will strike the mouse not with the broom straws, but with the flat plastic base. The mouse does not move. The whole time I am lecturing the mouse, telling it that if it had just stayed outside where it belonged, none of this would be happening – it would be going about its mousy business undisturbed and I would be drinking tea and writing – and the whole time my voice is scaling up and up and becoming more distraught as I realize The Time Has Come. I let out one last whimper, grip the broom tight and slam it down with all my strength.
The mouse is flattened, but only for a moment. It makes a halting, crippled run for the corner of the bedroom, under a little incidental table which holds family photos. It leaps against the wall as if hoping to find an escape. I am making awful noises as I chivvy it out and land one or two good whacks before it backs itself tight into the corner again. I can’t get at it there; the table is in the way. Nearly sobbing, I shift the family photos and use the broomstick to push the gateleg of the table out of the way. Now I have a clear shot at the mouse, but not enough room to whack it with anything but the broom straws. I think about reversing the broom and using the stick end like a pool cue, but I am trembling so that I am afraid I’ll miss and the mouse will get away. I jab hard at the mouse with the straw end of the broom instead, but it only turns its back and smooshes its little face into the corner, like a child in Time Out.
That does me in. I start moaning. I know I’ve hurt the mouse badly; I know if I leave the room to get some more effective killing implement that there’s a chance the mouse will escape and hole up someplace to die and later stink. I see a heavy plastic container in the room, grab it and put it on the floor near the mouse, then began to push and sweep the mouse toward it. The mouse makes a few ineffectual attempts to run, but it’s clearly crippled and eventually I shove it into the plastic container and clap a towel over the opening.
So now I have a partly dead mouse in a plastic container and have no idea what to do. Quivering and snuffling, I put on my shoes and walk outside in the cold drizzly morning with the idea of maybe throwing the mouse in the trash or in the gutter. It’s then that I remember the young red-shouldered hawk that’s been hanging around the neighborhood, and I decide to take the mouse to a place where maybe the hawk will get it. The hawk likes to sit in a small tree in a neighboring yard; the house is currently vacant so I have no qualms about putting the mouse there. I slog through the mud into the neighboring yard, uncap the container and pitch the mouse beneath the tree. It’s not dead; it hops a bit and falls down, hops a bit and falls down, but now I am completely undone and can’t think what to do for it and so go back to my own house crying. I call John and tell him “I got it” and he’s just pulling up to the house and is delighted until he sees how upset I am. He hugs me and tells me I’m a Mighty Mouse Hunter but I’m still a mess. He wants to see the mouse so I show him where it is and then go back inside. I see him bending over the mouse; I see the mouse hop a bit and then John comes back to the house, gets a shovel, goes back to the mouse and does what I was unable to do.
John marked the little corpse with a twig so we can train our scope on it from the deck window. If the hawk comes back and makes a snack out of the mouse, we may finally get a good look at our feathered visitor.
It seems a terrible shame, though. I guess I’m glad I got the mouse – after all, mice are vermin and can carry lovely diseases like the hantavirus – but the image of the mouse with its head tucked into the corner still harrows me. The only comfort I got out of the whole incident was the thought that a hungry young hawk might get an easy meal out of the carnage. But I’m guessing not. As of this writing the mouse is still there, but it’s dusk and we have foxes and cats and raccoons prowling the neighborhood at night. All of them would likely find a mouse corpse of interest. Failing that, there’s a good chance of significant snow tomorrow and the mouse will be buried then and out of sight.
No snack for a hawk, no comfort for me.
Scrag End of Summer
I’m not a summertime person. I don’t like hot; I don’t like humid. I don’t even like summer clothes. When summer is fresh and new in June, it’s tolerable, but I hate it when you get into September and it’s still sticky and miserable out and every day feels like a leftover.
I haven’t done a great deal this summer except write, read and send out a few more query letters. I did a little bit of traveling in August: made a quick jaunt down to Raleigh to visit my sister Margaret and audition for the North Carolina Theatre, and a week or so later drove to Kentucky with John and one of his buddies. I hadn’t been in Kentucky for years, and our route took us through a particularly beautiful part of West Virginia as well. To the right is the New River Gorge, where we stopped on a whim on our journey, and I’m so glad that we did. It was breathtaking.
I left John and his pal in KY to do things that manly men do, rented a car and drove on into Tennessee for a quick visit with my mom. Normally I drive the interstate route from Virginia to Tennessee, and while it may be quicker (nearly 12 hours instead of 13-ish), the Kentucky route has it all over the interstate for beautiful countryside. Next trip I make to Mom’s, I’ll be going that way.
Meanwhile it’s been writey-write-write as I carry on querying agents with Book 1 and try to complete Book 2 of my fantasy trilogy Once again my beta-readers have been invaluable with their insights, comments and encouragement.
I took a little time out from the writing to appear in a racy revue called “The Summer Hummer,” which was for the benefit of Taking Care Of Our Own, an initiative sponsored by theatreWashington (the folks who bring you the Helen Hayes Awards every year). Taking Care Of Our Own assists currently active Washington area theatre professionals and artists in personal emergency situations, and it’s a project I believe in and support wholeheartedly, having seen far too many of my theatrical comrades-in-arms devastated by personal illness, injury or other disasters. The George Clooneys and Meryl Streeps and Kristan Stewarts of this world aside, those of us in the acting biz don’t usually make a lot of money, and when something unforeseen happens, it can hit us hard. It’s good to know that the TCOOO initiative will be there in an emergency. For a good cause, I’m willing to put on a skimpy costume and sing a naughty song, and that’s what I’m doing over there on the left. If you’d like to know more about TCOOO and maybe even make a donation, follow the link above.
For those of you eager to know my next stage gig, I’ll be appearing as a bad-ass Wicked Stepmother in the Olney Theatre Center’s holiday production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s directed by my good pal Bobby Smith and I can’t wait to start work on it in October.
First, however, I gotta get through these last few weeks of summer.
Compare and Contrast
I’ve been in the acting business for a long time – by my count, some thirty years. Long enough to know the ins and outs. Long enough to grow a pretty tough hide. Long enough to be called “old pro,” “experienced,” and even “an institution,” which makes me feel particularly ponderous. Long enough to be considered enough of an expert that people even ask me to teach what I’ve learned to the wide-eyed and innocent.
This writing business, now – I’m new to it. Not to the writing part, but to the business end. I’ve been scribbling away for years, but it’s just been in the past couple of months that I’ve actually tried to get someone to pony up the money to publish what I write. And when I was in a particularly bad mood this morning, I began to enumerate all the ways that the acting biz and the writing biz are the same. I’m not talking that artsy-fartsy stuff about how both involve Creation and Communication and Storytelling. I’m talking about the process of getting work for pay – either booking a gig or selling a book.
When you audition for a gig, you’re putting your physical self out there: your voice, your body, your mannerisms, your speech patterns. You may be super-talented and a hard worker and a sweetheart into the bargain, but what it boils down to is whether you’re what the director is looking for, at that moment in time, for that particular project. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve prepped, nor how good your audition is. If you don’t fit the bill, you’re out of luck. As I tell my students, not getting the gig is not an indictment of your talent, just as booking the gig is not necessarily a validation of your talent, either. It’s simply that you’re the right person, right now, or you’re not. Next week, things could be just the opposite.
When you fire off a query letter to a potential agent or publisher, you’re also putting a part of yourself out there, but it’s a different part of yourself. It’s not your body or your voice that’s on trial – it’s your creation, your dream, your little helpless child of a book that you birthed and laughed and wept and cursed over; your baby that you’ve nurtured and massaged and tweaked. You’re sending it out into the world praying that someone will love it as much as you do. And again, the cold cruel world only wants it if it’s what the CCW happens to be looking for at that moment in time.
Now Lord knows I’ve been in show biz long enough to develop the thick skin and the requisite shrug when I don’t book the gig. But the book rejections sting more than I thought they would. The first couple of rejections were sort of exciting (“See? I really did submit my query to an agent and look! he/she actually responded!”) but now the excitement has worn off. Since I started submitting in late June, I’ve sent out 15 queries and received nine responses, of which eight were form letter rejections and one was a request for a partial. I understand that for an unpublished writer, this is a pretty good track record. But it’s the six agents who haven’t responded that have me pacing the floor. A lot of writers fire off a dozen or more queries at a whack, but I’ve been going slower while I figure out how best to do this, so my rule of thumb has been to send out a new query immediately upon getting a rejection. Last week was so slow that I deliberately queried an agent I was sure would reject me, just so I’d have something in my writing inbox. Then I went into second-guessing mode and started pinching and poking at my query letter, like one does with a stubborn zit. Zitlike, my query got all inflamed and annoyed at me, so now I’m slapping my hand away every time I start trying to revise it for the umpteenth time.
This, too, is a parallel between the acting biz and the writing biz. It’s rare in show biz that you get any kind of notice that you didn’t land the gig; instead, you do your audition and you either get notified that you landed the gig or you hear nothing. Limbo Land. So you tap into your gossip mill to find out what you can that way, and maybe you’ll learn that So And So got the gig and you’ll be pissed for about 12 hours and then you’ll (a) move on or (b) start second-guessing everything you did in the audition. And if you pick that particular existential zit long enough, you won’t be worth a damn the next time you go in to audition. So you learn to shrug and slap your hand away.
I whined to John this morning about how both the Biz of Show and the Biz of Writing are rife with rejection, but after I’d passed through the whining stage and had moved on to the infinitely more satisfying Full On Sulk, I realized that what was bothering me most about the writing is that fact that it’s so solitary. Acting is highly collaborative: from the first rehearsal to the final performance, you are surrounded by people who are all working with you toward the same goal – to produce a show. Even when eyeball-deep in your work, there’s always someone around to bounce ideas off, to joke with, to complain to. You are never alone when you’re acting.
But damn, are you ever alone when you’re writing. Oh, there are groups and websites and forums and chat rooms where you can talk about the business and kick and compare notes, but ultimately you have to go back to your computer and write. When the writing’s going well, it’s a great place to be, but when the writing is not going well, it’s the loneliest spot in the world.
So now – I’ve had my whine and my sulk and now that I’ve sounded my barbaric yawp over the internet, I’m feeling less forlorn and a lot more capable as well as hopeful. Back to the chair and the computer, back to the manuscript and the query and the long list of agents. Thanks for listening.
Less of Me
Here we are well into the summer and I am late, late, late with everything. I didn’t get my vegetable garden going until early July. I never did a Crass Commercial Announcement for The Music Man at Arena Stage, where I’ve been playing Mrs. Paroo for weeks and weeks now. I haven’t talked about my writing work. “Are you ever going to blog again?” John asked me, so today I have resolved to sit down and do it. It may be a bit disjointed so please forgive me in advance.
So first things first – a Crass Commercial Announcement for The Music Man. We only have 14 more performances to go and there are some great ticket deals available, so I suggest you hustle on over to Arena Stage‘s website and take advantage. The show is a lot of fun and has a great cast. Two of them are pictured with me in the photo above: Burke Moses as Harold Hill (bamboozling Mrs. Paroo, who seems to be delighted about it) and Ian Berlin as Winthrop Paroo. I don’t do a great deal in the show – don’t dance, barely sing and generally just do the Irish accent and make the occasional funny – but there’s so much else going on that you won’t miss me. The photo, by the way, is by Joan Marcus, Broadway photographer extraordinaire.
The garden is kind of pathetic this year. John got it tilled for me, but it was so wet in the late spring/early summer that the soil clumped up in great nasty clods and then dried that way while I was occupied with getting The Music Man up and rolling. I finally took a hoe and bashed the biggest clumps into submission and put in a scanty version of my usual vegetable patch: three Roma tomato plants, a Black Cherry tomato, a Brandywine and some kind of orange hybrid (the name of which escapes me now), a basil plant, a Red Cherry pepper plant, and a couple of watermelon seedlings. This is a wee little watermelon, but I have hopes that it will be less wee in the days to come. I must say that, even with a late start and probably owing to the combination of decent rain and absolutely vile heat in this area of late, the vegetable plants are growing at a lusty pace and I may actually get something to eat out of the patch by September, maybe.
And now the writing. After hammering away at it almost nonstop for the past year, Book 1 is finished. It’s an adult fantasy (and by adult I mean it’s not for kids, you dirty-minded people) and it’s tentatively entitled Kinglet. Three people were kind enough to act as my “beta readers” for the manuscript and have given me a lot of really terrific feedback, and all three brave souls are now launched into reviewing the sequel while I tweak the first book. Knowing full well that the odds are completely against me, I have also begun pitching agents to represent the book and have already received my first two rejections (yippee!). I’ll pursue this Plan A until I get an agent or dissolve into an ink-stained puddle, whichever comes first, and then there’s a Plan B and a Plan C and even a Plan D. I also submitted a short story into a competition and didn’t get squat from that, so said short story has been fired off to yet another contest and we’ll see what happens there. Meanwhile I writewritewrite and the whole process makes me curiously happy, rejections and all.
And now, as briefly as I can (because there’s nothing more boring than listen to someone yammer about their weight), to the title of this blog post: “Less of Me.” Those of you who’ve known me for years and have seen me in the flesh lately know that I’ve lost weight. No, check that: I’ve lost a LOT of weight. One lovely lady wanted to know if I had been sick, which made me guffaw. No, I’m not sick. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. At the end of 2010 I was at my highest weight ever (210 pounds on a 5’7″ frame) and my knees hurt and I was tired all the time and I was sick of not being able to wear cute clothes. At my request, my husband gave me a Wii Fit for Christmas and the first time I stepped onto it and it told me I was “Obese” it was like being slapped. But I was, and it was time to face up to it. I’d tried the Atkins diet and it had worked, for a while, but as a middle-aged and fairly sedentary lady I felt it would be a mistake to start eating all that fat again. I knew what my problem was: I just ate too much. So I joined the Lance Armstrong Live Strong website and punched in my weight and height and age and it told me what I should weigh and I started recording what I ate. Faithfully. Every single day. It was tough because I had to remember it until I sat down at a computer, but then I got a smart phone. Unfortunately the Lance Armstrong folks only had an app for iPhones at the time, but a friend turned me on to My Fitness Pal, which had an app I could upload to my phone and have with me everywhere I went. It has been a godsend. How much of a godsend, you ask? Well, as of yesterday I weighed in at 152.5 – which means that the Wii now tells me I am “Normal” and My Fitness Pal says I am within 12 pounds of my goal weight. Here’s a before and after, so you can see I’m not lying:
Making waffles, early February 2011. Now granted, I didn’t know my husband was going to take this photo, and it was early in the morning and I was wearing my sweats and an old sweater of my dad’s, but still…
Backstage at Arena, a couple weeks ago, getting ready to go to a post-show event. Now granted, I’m wearing a dressy outfit and I’m fully aware that I’m getting my photo taken (even if the flash wasn’t working right), but still…
And no, I didn’t do a lot of working out. I did at first, and felt better for it, but for some reason when I’m doing a show, it’s hard for me to get motivated. Once The Music Man is closed and I’m at loose ends for a while, I’ll probably get back into some sort of program. John gave me a bicycle for my birthday (and I should really be out riding it now, because it’s a beautiful morning) and I still have the Wii and now that I’ve lost so much weight stuff is starting to sag, but there’s no huge rush.
My major barometer for this whole weight loss process has been jeans. I have been wearing the same style of Target Merona Fit 1 jeans for the past two years, and when I started working on dropping the extra poundage, I was wearing a size 16. Every time I lost more weight, I treated myself to a new pair of jeans in the next size down. Yesterday I put on my size 8 jeans and they’re a little too big, so it may be time to see if I can wiggle into a size 6. I haven’t worn a size 8 since I was in college; a size 6 seems incredible, like something out of a dream. I kind of wish I’d held on to one pair of the big jeans so I could do a photo of myself wearing them now, but as soon as I’ve outgrown clothes I’ve gotten rid of them so I won’t backslide. I’ve been buying clothes from Target and consignment stores until my weight stabilizes, but I have to admit that I’m tickled over the fact that I can wear cheap clothes. And I never, never, never get tired of being told by surprised friends that I look “FABULOUS!”
Writers Block – Post Script
I slept well, woke up early, had a refreshing walk and then met up with the remaining writers at the main building for the final day of the conference. Some writers had already left; others were leaving as soon as they had their meeting with Gadfly. Since leftovers had been on the menu for lunch the day before, and leftovers were all that were being offered for breakfast, the consensus was that breakfast out was a reasonable option. The writers who weren’t in a hurry to leave went to breakfast in one group, and those of us who were more interested in getting our one-on-ones over with stayed.
My meeting with Gadfly wasn’t unpleasant in the least. I selected a portion of my novel on my laptop and busied myself making tea while he read. He told me I was an excellent writer, better than the majority of fantasy writers being published. I told him that he was the first person who had read any portion of my manuscript, and he seemed stunned. He said that if I had been able to get to that level of writing without input from anyone, then I had a natural gift. He urged me to bypass any writers’ groups and to find an editor. Then he fired off a LOT more ideas about what I could do to make my book stand out from the crowd (steampunk got mentioned again, along with setting the action in the Crusades – his opinion was that historical fantasy would be The Next Big Thing). Gadfly then told me he was honored to be the first person to read my manuscript, but let me go with this caveat: “It would be a shame if you end up being one of those great writers who never gets published.”
I tucked that into my figurative pipe to smoke later. I waited for two more writers to have their meetings with Gadfly so we could all go to breakfast, while the second group of writers, already fed, arrived back at the main building. Dauber joined us and said that she didn’t feel comfortable meeting with Gadfly on her own; apparently their argument the night before had been so heated that she felt she wouldn’t get a fair assessment from him without someone else’s presence to keep him in line. Just about that time Gadfly appeared in the doorway and brusquely asked Dauber if they were going to meet. She told him she wanted someone else present and Gadfly went ballistic. He began shouting at Dauber, nearly every fifth word an expletive. She asked him if he could “be professional, just for a moment,” and that only made him angrier. To Dauber’s credit, she never raised her voice nor used any bad language. She turned to one of the other writers and asked him to sit in on her session, and they all went back into the main room. The rest of us stood gaping at each other, but at last I gathered my breakfast group (I was driving) and left.
When I got back, everything was quiet. Gadfly was meeting with another writer in the main room, so I got packed and began to take my things out the car. When I was ready to go, Gadfly had finished his meeting and was sorting through the leftovers. He asked me if I wanted any of them; the food didn’t interest me but I did take a case of Diet Coke. We said our goodbyes; Gadfly told me to get in touch if I needed any guidance, and I think he was sincere. “Be happy,” I said, giving him a hug, and I meant it.
Writing out the events of the conference has helped me come to terms with the experience. I know now that major rewrites are in order for my novel, but I’m not blocked – as I told John, I needed process everything I was told and cull what I think will work for me and what will simply get in my way. Was the conference valuable? Yes, it was. Do I wish it had been run differently? I certainly do. Do I think Gadfly’s credentials are legit? Not really, but he did give some good advice. Unfortunately, the packaging of the advice made it a bitter pill to swallow, and I wasted time and energy being angry and upset about it. Instead of creating an atmosphere conducive to creativity, Gadfly’s abrasive and sometimes abusive personality created an atmosphere of anxiety and a fear of failure. Maybe he thought he’d toughen us up; I don’t know.
One nugget of his advice I chose to ignore. One of the first things I did on returning from the conference was finally attend a meeting of one of my writers’ groups. I took the short story I’d written at the conference and I read it aloud. It was a huge step for me, and the writers could not have been more supportive. I got some excellent and very specific feedback on ways I could tweak the story. This week I did a little research online and found several literary journals that were having short story contests. I picked one, and I sent them my piece. I don’t expect anything to happen from it, but I felt that it was important for me to make that step. I finally have the courage to share my creative writing, and for that, I thank the writers at my group and the writers who made the difficult journey with me at the conference.
And with a certain grudging, unwilling admiration, I have to give credit where it’s due. Thank you, Gadfly. Be happy. I mean it.
Writers Block – Part 5
The final two days of the writers conference went by in alternating rushes and lulls. Our two agents came to chat with us and hear our pitches; one seemed positive about what I’d written and the other bored by it, but as both specialized in non-fiction, hearing what they had to say was an interesting exercise for me, no more. A 50/50 split seemed a fair example of what will probably face me out in the publishing world. Both agents gave solid advice, but what it all boils down to this: if they’re not buying what you’re selling, then you move on. The pitch process is just like auditioning. You may be a bundle of incredible talent, but if you’re a middle-aged white woman who sings alto and the casting folks are looking for a gorgeous young African-American baritone, then you’re not gonna book that gig. You move on. Or better yet, you do your research, find out that they’re not interested in what you have to offer, and you don’t waste your time trying to fit your square peg into their round hole.
For me, the high point of the conference’s last days was finally getting to hear some actual examples of what the other writers could do. Unless we made the time for it ourselves, there was never a point at which we shared portions of our novels with the group. Because the conference was aimed at getting published, it was all about the pitch. I knew that going in, but I really wanted to hear the work of the people I’d gotten to know and like over the past week. Saratoga and I made a private date to read a little of our novels to each other, and I found it extraordinarily helpful – especially because reading the beginning aloud to a human being made me realize how much stronger that beginning needed to be.
I was so pleased with what I’d written for our writing exercise that when the time came to read them aloud, I volunteered to go first. I knew I was going to get dinged for not following the instructions explicitly, but I didn’t care; I wanted Gadfly to stop judging my writing on my pitch alone. What I’d written for the exercise had turned into an actual short story – roughly 1,350 words with an actual beginning, middle and end – and I was tickled to death because I have never considered the short story to be my forte. (As you can tell from my blog posts, I do tend to run on.)
The other writers gave me a hand when I was finished, and I know I must have looked smug. Gadfly seemed startled; he actually complimented me and told me that I should try to get the story published. Then he reverted to form and as anticipated, tried to criticize where I hadn’t followed the instructions. But I didn’t care. I just smiled and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t do it correctly,” and he gave up. All I’d wanted to do was show him that, even though my pitch wasn’t what he thought it should be, I’m not a dummy – I know how to write.
Unfortunately for the other writers, Gadfly made them all mark up their writing assignments to show where they’d followed the instructions and included all the things which were supposed to be included, which I’m sure made it a lot less fun than it had been for me. Still, there was some terrific writing going on. We did another assignment, more of a speed-round thing where we had about 30 minutes to write dialogue, but I didn’t find it challenging – I can write dialogue pretty well, but without developing the characters who speak it, it ended up sounding facile and overly clever. Again, many of the other writers did a great job, but some chose not to do the assignments. I can appreciate that; writing on demand, on a topic not of your own choosing all the while trying to follow fairly persnickety instructions, can be cramping rather than freeing. But what I found intriguing were the absences. More and more, writers would step out of the sessions, not just for a smoke break or to go to the bathroom, but just disappear for fifteen or twenty minutes. A couple of writers didn’t show up at all. One decided to sleep in rather than attend a morning session; another simply went shopping instead of coming back for an afternoon meeting. I could tell that Gadfly was irked, but I wish I’d had their chutzpah; long portions of the final two days of the conference were spent listening to Gadfly pontificate, and it was dull as dishwater.
Over the course of the week, Gadfly had done a lot of self-promoting. He claimed to be an agent but we couldn’t find him listed on querytracker.net or any other listing of agents. We’d been required to buy and read his book prior to the conference, but we never made use of it in our sessions even though the story of getting it published would certainly have served as an object lesson for us. I looked up the publisher and discovered that it was a non-profit rather than a commercial publishing house. That seemed odd as well, particularly as Gadfly shut down any discussion of the new opportunities in independent publishing via Amazon.com – although interestingly enough, our guest author/speaker had told us that he was selling his older titles that way and was making money at it. Gadfly’s constant posturing and attempts at positioning himself as a major player in the literary world rang false, and I wondered if the writers who opted out of the sessions were showing Gadfly that they weren’t buying what he was selling any more.
Wonder of wonders, our final sessions with Gadfly were to be private, one-on-one meetings during which he would actually READ a portion of our novels. The conference was to end early Sunday afternoon; since some writers needed to head home Sunday morning, Gadfly started these final meetings Saturday in the late afternoon, until it was time for dinner. We all went out together to a place of Gadfly’s choosing, and he kindly picked up the bar bill. We were joined by an individual whom I can only call Gadfly’s protege (or perhaps fan); this 60-ish gentleman was an as-yet unpublished writer who had attended FOUR of Gadfly’s conferences. FOUR. It boggled the mind. The gentleman was seated at my end of the table and talked incessantly about his books in progress (of which one was a what-if involving domesticated rhinoceri) to the point that three of us had to excuse ourselves and go outside for a smoke (none of us smoked). At least my meal was good. We got our bills and I paid up and made a visit to the ladies’ room, but when I came out I discovered that there had been an altercation at the far end of the table. Gadfly had mixed it up with yet another writer (yet another female writer). Gadfly was standing off by himself looking wrathful; the female writer (whom I shall call Dauber) had gone to the ladies’ room – I must have just missed her. Eventually she came out, angry and upset, and we headed back.
The writers adjourned to a different location and we had ourselves a little drinking party. After a while Dauber joined us, still a bit shell-shocked, and we proceeded to pick apart and examine the conference. The consensus seemed to be that while Gadfly was clearly a jerk and may not have been everything he purported to be, we’d all gotten useful information out of the conference. Whether we’d be able to recommend it to any other writers remained up in the air.
For my part, I was most grateful to have spent time with this particular group of people: writers who were supportive of each other’s work, every one of them willing to work hard, and not just to be published but to be good – something Gadfly had brushed past in his emphasis on pitching the novel.