I’m a writer, at least that’s my daily affirmation. It even says so on my Rotary name tag. I enjoy writing stories both real and imagined but this is the first creative scribble I’ve done all week. I have my excuses of course and they are quite legitimate. The truth is that I can’t write all the time. I need other time to think about what I’m going to write in burst mode. So I have other creative things to do while I roll around in the back of my head stories or scenes in stories that have to be worked out. I’ve been doing that, honest.
One week ago, today, I was sitting in a classroom at Grub Street in Boston, taking a class on how to write a query letter from Jenna Blum. Writing a query letter is harder than writing a novel. Writing a rough draft of POPLAR HILL took about 800 hours over three years. I’ve spent an equal amount of time trying to sell it and editing it. Three years, ten different query letters and several hundred rejections later I took a day off and paid $65 to find out what I did wrong. Here’s my takeaway:
1) Keep the description so simple it hardly tells the story:
a. An old woman faces death from a heart attack
b. She has lots of stories to tell
c. A friend of the old woman, a rural housewife becomes fascinated by the stories
d. A pentecostal preacher tried to “convert” the old lady, over and over again
e. Never use an adjective in the description (the story may be a tragedy just don’t say so)
2) The authors biography: Besides keeping it very short, taking a course at Grub Street, apparently, counts more than having already written a lot. Also being on a panel at AWP gives you more street credibility than just about anything else including having written a bunch of non-fiction trade books. Apparently I should also include the fact that POPLAR HILL was a finalist in the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction (I won’t mention that there were 23 entries for 27 finalist sub-genres).
3) Ultimately, the only thing that counts in a query letter is who’s name you can drop or who you know. I know Jenna Blum now.
a) Ideally, you met the agent at a conference and they still fondly remember you. Conferences cost a lot of money and don’t do anything for your creativity except take time away from it.
b) Second best, You know a successful author who is willing to promote your work to their agent. Hello Jenna.
c) Third best, you got an MFA from some school where the agent also teaches. Doesn’t matter if they know you or not, it’s a contact baby!
d) Fourth best, do some name dropping even if you don’t really know the names you’ve dropped: “Best Selling author Joe Blow suggested that I contact you.” He probably would have made the suggestion even if only to get you off his back. That’s your rational in using his name. Note “Best Selling author” doesn’t mean what you think it means: I’m a best selling author too and I sell about 10 books a year in Amazon’s Travel>Oceania>Fiji. I’ve been in the top 20 for years. Doesn’t really mean much.
I think what I learned was worth $65. If I took a “Master Class” in novel writing at Grub Street I’d be a shoo in but I can’t afford it. Getting an MFA is totally out of the question. I do want to retain some creativity.
So what else have I been doing that’s kept me bottled up and unproductive for the past week? I learned a long time ago that the only people who make money from writing are printers, designers and (if they are lucky) a few publishers so I learned to design books and magazines. Mostly I design books which is what I did all Friday morning.
Book design is an arcane field. It has some very rigid rules that must, on occasion, be employed very creatively. The book I was working on was one such book. The text had the annoying but very modern feature of being a series of paragraphs with no connective tissue. That is to say, the story would go on for a few hundred words then end. Normally there might be a segue sentence between scenes but not in this book. In past books like this I’ve added a dingbat to make it obvious that there is a discontinuity in the text but the author didn’t want this so I had to make sure there was at least a line above or below the break to make it obvious. I must have spent an hour trying to resolve one such paragraph. I couldn’t and eventually gave up. It stands as a tombstone.
Then I went to a Rotary function. Rotary International is my “normal” outlet. Around 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon I headed over to the Rotary District 7910 conference where I was assistant Sergeant-at-arms. That means I helped haul stuff around, put things up and take them down later. That lasted Friday night, Saturday afternoon and into the evening and Sunday morning. It is a big annual event supporting 53 clubs in central Massachusetts and 1500 Rotarians.
Most of my friends are writers and poets. That means that most of my friends are a little neurotic, creative types, for whom the act of creation is more important than, well, almost everything else. It’s hard to describe the mental state of a writer beyond saying that it’s a lonely, emotionally and intellectually intense business, fraught with failure. I love writing; I don’t like being a writer. That’s where Rotary comes in.
My Rotary club is full of outwardly normal people. These include a soft spoken retired Air Force Colonel who thinks he should be a politician. He’s running for Selectman. That’s got to be a letdown from commanding a squadron of F-16’s and 6 or 700 people – I can’t say men anymore. He never kept up his flying license. I suspect he flew a little too close to the ground for comfort one too many times. I’m studying him. He’ll make a great character in a story someday.
Another Rotary character is the soon to be retiring chief of the water and light department who’s nervous energy alone could power a dozen houses. And that’s without drinking coffee. I imagine him bouncing off rubberized walls in the office they’ve promised him after he really does retire. He’ll also make a good character someplace.
Yet another character looks like an ex-Sumo wrestler from American Samoa. At least that’s what I pictured when I first met him. He punctured that bubble when he finally identified himself as an African-American. That removed a lot of depth to the imagined character I was already creating somewhere “back there.” The rest are pretty “normal,” average suburbanites who just happen to like volunteering in good causes. Who can object. It’s a fun club and the projects are always engaging. I wouldn’t know anyone in town if I hadn’t joined. What is disturbing is the fact that an awful lot of people know who I am but I don’t have a clue who they are. I suppose that’s an advanced warning of what celebrity status might be like.
One of the unexpected pleasures of being a Rotarian is that I have instant friends all over the world. There are over 30,000 Rotary clubs in mumble, countries. When I had a job that took me all over the United States for weeks at a time I always found entertainment at the local Rotary club. It sure beat sitting in a hotel room alone. I once had a job teaching people from the NSA (Oh come on, who else would be in Fort Mead MD?) and I was stuck in a small Motel 6 on a strip full of McDonalds, Burger Kings and other assorted cardboard venders. I went to a different Rotary club every night. One club met in a diner near the Baltimore airport. Another met in an Antebellum mansion and yet another met in the grand ballroom of a modern motel. By the end of the week I was on a first name basis with the District Governor.
I’ve been to clubs in rural Michigan, suburban Detroit, Suva Fiji and Paris France. One of the odd things about Rotary is that no two clubs are the same. Most clubs serve a meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner, but the club I went to in Paris was a wine drinking club. By the time I realized there was no meal coming I was well under the table. In Fiji we had to drink Kava before anything else. Kava is a strange drink with the taste and consistency of old fashioned Kaopectate, a chalky and slightly bitter remedy for indigestion and diarrhea. In Fiji Kava is supposed to have sedating and aphrodisiac properties, according to the locals. My cab driver in Fiji said they drank Kava because it was cheaper than alcohol. I experienced neither a sudden urge to rut or a desire to sleep after drinking Kava.
The Rotary dinner Saturday night was the big event of the weekend. Hank Phillippi Ryan was the keynote speaker. She got her start in radio because the radio station she applied to didn’t have a single woman reporter. That wouldn’t work today, not where she works. Most of the reporters there, Channel 7 in Boston, are women. She wrote yet another mystery novel and was promoting it. I don’t know how many books she sold, a dozen maybe. Being a writer sucks, I’d rather write.
My job Saturday evening was to march a bunch of flags into the room in the right order. We got the order wrong and we couldn’t find a Ukrainian flag (some wiseass suggested substituting a Russian flag) and we substituted the Italian flag for a Mali flag – they look the same. What didn’t go well no one noticed. I’m sure I’ll be stuck doing it again next year. By Sunday afternoon I was tired and in gaga land. I futzed around in my garden, managing to pull a muscle in my arm which makes moving a mouse painful.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I finished the design of three books. I finally caught up with what I had not done because last Thursday I was at Grub Street learning about query letters.
Have I written a new query letter? No. have I gone back to work on one of my new novels? No. I’m taking a break from fiction and complaining, or explaining why I’m not working hard on my novels. The truth is I’m at a plot twist watershed in all thee of the stories I’m working on.
THE SOCIAL REGISTER: Is a retelling of the stories in POPLAR HILL. In that story, Kitty, the protagonist, alluded to her belief that many of her friends were spies. In the retelling of the story they are all spies, including Kitty. One plot twist is that the real members of the White Rose society were in Munich University the same time she was. There is plenty of drama but no real hinge. I’ve written about 30,000 words but I don’t want to put much more time into it until I can plot out the rest of the story. I’m wondering if I can get away with just a spy story without any sex. Are chaise scenes a good substitute for sex?
WAR STORY: Is the story of a Vietnam War vet who sees more action than most and lives to tell the tail. 40,000 words in and I still can’t find the hinge besides having the protagonist trying to get out of the Army. So far no romance or sex but that may be in the book too. Very gory, very scary, lots of action. Rambo meets Radar O’Reilly meets Harry Flashman.
FENWICK: I’m having the most fun with this right now. It’s a semi-autobiographical novella of how I wish my last two years in high school went. Fenwick, pronounced “Fenick,” looses his virginity, smokes pot, becomes an emancipated minor, buys a motorcycle, out runs a local bully and a cop that’s a bigger bully and accidentally becomes the local drug dealer and head of a Yiddish speaking gang (He’s not Jewish). Finally he doesn’t get into MIT and discovers that his draft number won’t be called. He’s exhausted, broke, living in an MIT frat house when he is thrown out of the building after it’s discovered that he’s attending classes for free. He ends up a homeless street urchin sleeping in the stacks at a Harvard University library.
OK, I’ve ranted enough. Time to get back to work.