Monday, April 27, 2009

Enjoy The Lull

The lull in this case is the few days after the Muse and the Marketplace writer's conference I attended this past weekend. I plan to bloggety blog all about it (I took pics!), but just not tonight.

In the meantime, enjoy this Chinese translation of my blog! (Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My So-Called Writing Life

Work’s busy, evenings I’m beat, and there’s always a lot to do on the weekends. I write for about an hour each morning before work on weekdays, and for a few hours on weekend mornings. So it’s easy to let slide an aspect of writing life that’s imperative to moving forward: getting published.

It takes an entirely different writing muscle to send out material for publication or agency placement. It doesn’t matter if you’ve attended the most prestigious MFA in creative writing program ever, all that learnin’ won’t help you place your brilliant writing. (Okay, an MFA can get agents’ and publishers’ attention more easily, but that’s another story for another blog post.) It’s after you finish your poem, story, or novel that a new sort of dogged creativity gets tested. Now it’s time to write the perfect query letter, research the agents and/or publishers that seem the best fit for your manuscript, and target the literary mags that best suit your stories. This is a full-time job. It can get immediately disheartening and even the small stuff can throw you off your game.

Recently I looked at my Excel spreadsheet where I keep track of my query activity on the novel front, and submissions on the story front. For "A Little Disappeared," the novel I worked-shopped at Grub with Ms. X, I have about five or six queries still out to agents and publishers. I have about eight or ten instances of stories or novel excerpts out to literary journals. Some of these have been out for over a year.

I realize, looking at the sent dates, that there’s a new publishing biz practice. No longer will an agent, publisher, or lit mag guarantee a response. If the answer is no, you may never get a response. I suppose I understand this behavior, as they are getting more and more queries and manuscripts, and have fewer and fewer employees to handle the slush piles. Still, that great big NO meant closure, allowed me to move on to try again somewhere else. Now, with no real NO to work with, I need to remind myself to move on myself after, say, three months.

I always try to stick to a self-imposed schedule: send out a story or query once a week. But, after a few weeks I always fall off the wagon, either because my writing isn’t going well or the rejections become overwhelming. I recently showed a new story to Liz. She had some good ideas, and I rewrote the story. Then had my writing group critique the story. I got a good response and also some great ideas on how to make it better.

So, for the first time in a few months, I’m excited about sending out writing again, and this is bleeding over into trying to again place "A Little Disappeared", and getting back to my so-called writing life.

Muse and the Marketplace Update

I was alerted this week to the workshops I will be attending next week, and I’m happy with the choices:

- Marketplace Panel: The State of the Industry
- Eternal Rocks Beneath: the Relevance of Setting, with Lewis Robinson
- Building Character, with Stephen McCauley

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Writer's Conference: Muse and the Marketplace

Two more weeks until the Grub Street writer's conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, April 25-26. There are still some workshops that have not sold out, so register now if you haven't already. Unfortunately, the ever popular Manuscript Mart is sold out. I didn't have a manuscript ready for a critique, so I didn't sign up.

I'm attending the Saturday session and will be a volunteer for Sunday. I haven't found out which sessions I'm attending. Meaning, I've signed up for a first and second choice. It's first come, first served, so I find out this week which workshops I got into.

Here's my wish list, by session:

Session 1:
- Marketplace Panel--An overview of the current state of the publishing industry, with panelists: Hallie Ephron, Jane Rosenman, David Langevin and Joseph Olshan. Always good to hear a realistic and up-to-the-minute discussion about this timely topic.

- From Premise to Plot, with Tess Gerritsen. She talks about how to come up with a story premise, then and how to turn that premise into a novel. Sounds good to me.

Session 2 (I chose 2 out of the following 3, but I forget which!):
- Eternal Rocks Beneath: The Relevance of Setting, with Lewis Robinson. She talks about how choosing your story locations is just as important as dialogue, characterization, plot, etc.

- Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Creating Characters from the Inside Out, with Lynne Griffin. She discusses how to create believable characters and making their motivations psychologically real.

- Literary Idol. This last one sounds terrifying. From the Grub website: "Professional actress Marty Johnson will perform the first page of YOUR unpublished manuscript for the audience and a panel of three “judges.” The judges are agents and/or editors (as of press time, Sorche Fairbank, Kirsten Manges and Asya Muchnick are the judges) with years of experience reading unsolicited submissions. When one of the judges hears a line that would make her stop reading, she will raise her hand. The actor will keep reading until a second judge raises his hand. The judges will then discuss WHY they would stop reading, and offer concrete (if subjective) suggestions to the (anonymous) author. If no agent raises his/her hand, the judges will discuss what made the excerpt work so well. All excerpts will be evaluated *anonymously.*" Yikes! Can't wait!

Session 3:
- Building Character, with Stephen McCauley. Talks about how to build a strong cast of characters, by "...look(ing) at specific examples from the Greats and Not-So-Greats to understand the ways in which writers bring their characters to life."

- Marketplace Panel: Agents on the Hot Seat. All struggling writers need an agent, so these panels are an invaluable addition to any good writer's conference. Includes panelists Mollie Glick, Rob McQuilken, Lane Zachary, and Elisabeth Weed, with moderator Michelle Seaton. They'll answer, among other questions, "What does an agent actually do? Do you really need one? How do you choose the right one to approach? What are some general “do’s” and “don’t’s” for sending them manuscripts? Then (they'll) open it up for a free-for-all Q&A." Because the publishing business changes every day, these panels are great for staying current.

I don't care which sessions I get into this year because they all sound like great and necessary tools to further a writer's craft and career. And that, my friends, is why they call it the Muse and the Marketplace.

At the end of the day comes the "hour of power," from 3:45pm to 4:45pm. There are a choice of five large-group seminars with no pre-registration, which makes it easy to check them all out:

Option 1: Blueprint for Book Publicity, with Jocelyn Kelley and Megan Kelley-Hall of Kelley and Hall Book Publicity. They answer the questions, "What makes a book a blockbuster? What pushes it to the top of bestseller lists, onto bookshelves across the country, and into the hands of eager readers? What helps an author create a strong following?" Interesting for the published and non-published.

Option 2: Jumpstart Your Writing, with Adam Stumacher. "What better way to end the day than by producing new work to take home with you? One of Grub Street’s award-winning instructors will provide unique and inspiring prompts that get you brainstorming ideas for new stories and writing new scenes." Sounds good. I better bring a pad and pencil. I never thought I could write from prompts until I took Rusty Barnes' 10 Weeks, 10 Stories class at Grub a few years ago. He gave a prompt each week as a jumping off point for a short story. I was amazed that, a) I wrote a story a week for ten weeks (albeit not always keepers), and, b) the prompts didn't stymie my output, but gave me new ideas that pushed my characters and plots down paths I never would have otherwise gone. Note: Rusty Barnes is the co-founder and editor of the most excellent Night Train magazine.

Option 3: Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal, with Chuck Sambuchino, Editor, Writer's Digest. I'll probably skip this one, not that it doesn't sound juicy. Just not for a novelist.

Option 4: Guided Open Mic, with leader Hank Phillippi Ryan. I've done two or three public readings, and each time I fripp it up. I generally read a piece that's too long, and either send the audience to sleep or speed-stumble through the text. I've heard Hank read before. She's excellent and will make the perfect leader for this shindig. I don't plan to read but I might check it out to see who is.

Option 5: The Art of Column Writing. With Suzette Martinez Standring. Being a blogger, I guess I fall into this category. Especially with a review gig (currently only one-time, but hopefully that'll change) at the The Review Review, this will be another helpful workshop.

After that, if you still haven't passed out or hyperventilated from the stimulation, there's a Meet and Greet (cash bar) from 4:45 to 6:00. At 6:05 all writers turn into their pale, exhausted true selves, donning coffee-stained bathrobes to chain-smoke clove cigarettes while revising pages.

So, maybe I'll see you at the Park Plaza in Boston in a couple weeks. Tune in to the Unreliable Narrator after the conference and I'll let you know how it went.

Chester is upset that he was not invited.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I was Johnny Rotten’s Roadie

Let’s clarify: it was 1989, and one Mr. John Lydon hadn’t gone by that Rotten moniker for over a decade, since the untimely demise of The Sex Pistols. And for one day only I became a member of the road crew for John Lydon’s second and longer lasting band, Public Image Ltd. (PIL).

I was living in Bridgeport, Connecticut at the time, a few years out of film school, working a few jobs in the fringes of the film and video business, while planning my escape to Los Angeles. My roommate, John, had a friend (we’ll call him Steve) who ran a small lighting/rigging company and he needed a couple of bodies to help him for one day at a PIL show at the Capital Theater in Port Chester, NY, just over the Connecticut border. So John enlisted my help, and early on October 4, 1989 we headed out in Steve’s van. It was rush hour, and at the time I worked a second shift job. Rush hour seemed like something from another culture, the dizzying scurry to make it to an office by 8:30 or 9:00.

When we reached the Capital Theater, the tour trucks had already arrived and there was a confusing mess of energy as tour regulars and day players like us stood around waiting for the whole operation to gel. In other words, we didn’t really know where we fit in. I wasn’t use to being up so early (before 10!) let alone physically working. I’ve never been that handy. I never made a good grip in film school, preferring to be camera operator or to sit solo in a dark editing bay. So I pushed myself to jump into the fray. First was unloading the equipment. Heavy metal cases containing the instruments and parts of the stage set. It was a bright morning, and I remember walking this stuff right off the street and onto the darkened Capital Theater stage.

After we off-loaded, there was setting up to do. We put together the stage on little risers (I think) and then had to hang a big drape as a backdrop. Then it was mostly hanging around watching the drum, the bass and guitar, and keyboard techs painstakingly assemble the instruments and running cables. All these guys were British, as were the musicians. Nobody said boo to us. We were just American scrubs off the street. After everything was set up, we had the rest of the morning and early afternoon off. We walked around the Capital Theater area, got some lunch and sat in the sun. This part I liked.

Some background. John (my roommate) worshipped John Lydon, in any incarnation he chose. He liked not just Lydon’s music, but his attitude. No matter how old Lydon got, he was still an anarchist mixed with the charms of a money-grubbing careerist. He had learned much from Malcolm McLaren back in London’s punk scene of the late seventies. Certainly no reason not to milk this image for the rest of his life. Side note: John Lydon is still going, not with Public Image, but by resurrecting the remaining Sex Pistols for reunion tours every couple of years since 1996. But my roommate John loved the allure of the Lydon mystique, and on a good day could be counted on for a Rottenesque rant, hilarious, while also often painfully cutting. Anyway, it was a dream come true, to walk the very stage of his idol. And getting paid for it. I was happy to witness this history.

Mid-afternoon and we all had to reconvene and prepare for the arrival of John Lydon for sound check. We milled about, out in the seats and backstage, until we heard the official news: John Lydon was in the building. Rumor went out that he was sick, and for an hour or two it was thought that he might cancel. Roommate John and I went backstage and there he was: Johnny Rotten. I almost walked past him before I realized who he was. He was short, shorter than me anyway, and was sporting an orange spiky flattop. He was silent and it seemed everyone was leaving him alone, giving him a wide berth. Do not upset Mr. Rotten.

Back out front for sound check and suddenly there’s Public Image Ltd., ripping through two or three of their tunes in full. And Mr. Rotten: he never seemed happy, he never appeared pleasant; he appeared like his image of a thoroughly pissed off rock star. Being sick wasn’t helping. From the moment he got on stage he wanted everyone to know how sick he was by spitting. That’s one of the most vivid memories, Lydon continuously turning his head from the mic and hocking a louey onto the ramps of the stage. It was absolutely disgusting and for the rest of the afternoon and night I had shudders imagining that I would be called upon to somehow deal with it.

PIL went away until show time, but now it was time for opening act The Ocean Blue (straight outta Pennsylvania) to set up their gear in front of PIL's stuff and do a little sound check. They had just put out their first record and had a minor alternative radio hit with the Cure-sounding Between Something and Nothing. They looked the part of newbies on the scene, but it was still an odd paring: clean cut guitar popsters and sneering punk icon.

Off for dinner, then back for the show. John and I got crew tags to wear, and during the show we got to walk around wherever we wanted, and act as security I suppose. But, it was an old theater (much like the Orpheum in Boston) so there was no moshing or body surfing aloud. Everyone had an assigned seat. Strange way to see a punk band. Although at this point, Mr. Rotten was more new wave post-punk dinosaur than a true punk icon. Had Sid Vicious taken Rotten with him to an early grave, then history would remember Johnny Rotten’s career a little differently.

PIL had released their album “9” earlier that year, and when they finally came onstage, they played liberally from it. Overblown and danceable, “9” was yielding a bunch of alternative radio hits like Happy, Warrior, and probably my favorite late-career PIL tune, Disappointed, with the telling lines Disappointed a few people/When friendship reared its ugly head/Disappointed a few people/Well, isn't that what friends are for. Lovely. The stuff of real anger: relationship problems. Post-school angst that I could sink my teeth into.

PIL had an extensive backlog of material at that time, so they ripped through all their greatest hits, from their ‘theme’ song, Public Image, into their early-mid 80s makeover as a dance band with This is Not a Love Song, and modern rock hits Rise, Seattle, and The Body. Lydon spit throughout the entire set. In Britain, spitting is an accepted practice between punk band and audience, so I’m sure it didn’t seem a big deal to the band. The audience was into the music, but still: having to stay seated for John Lydon is like watching somebody else take drugs, it’s just no fun.

A 1983 live performance of This is Not a Love Song:

After a brief break, the band came back for an encore. John and I took that opportunity to go down front and stand in front of the stage with a few other lucky souls who either had all-access passes or defied Security. This was where the real show was, and John and I dug the last few songs in close proximity Mr. Rotten. He preened and pranced and spit and glared, bearing a fake/scary smile that should be co-opted for a horror movie villain. Whatever his music, Johnny Lydon/Rotten still put his heart into it.

Then it was over. The house lights rose, the crowd filed out in an orderly manner, and the stage crew started taking apart the equipment. It was a reverse process. Breaking down went much more quickly than setting up. I envied the band, which were quickly carted away, back to their motel or possibly into a van to head up to their next gig, in Boston at the Orpheum. Which, by a strange fluke of scheduling, I had bought tickets to a month prior, where the opening band was Flesh for Lulu?!?! I also had seen PIL play that summer at Connecticut’s Lake Compounce as part of “The Monsters of Alternative Rock” shed tour, along with New Order and the Sugarcubes.

All us day-players had to load back up the truck. It was a daisy chain of weaklings, following the lead of a road manager who didn’t seem to have a) anyone’s respect b) any real knowledge of how to pack a truck. This was the first gig in America on this tour, so obviously the kinks were getting worked out. Still, at one point I found myself underneath a huge metal crate inside this tomb of a truck, helping pass one of many cases overhead. At one point, the road manager insisted on passing one of the crates to me, even though I wouldn’t be able to lift it from my awkward position in the middle of the truck. He kept insisting, until finally it was obvious that there would be a big lawsuit on his hands if an uninsured day laborer got smooshed. We all climbed out of the truck, reconfigured the packing, and, finally around midnight, got it done.

Peter, John, and I waited around to get paid. Finally the road manager came by with our cash (about 80 bucks each) and gave us each a tour t-shirt. We drove back to Bridgeport in happy, exhausted silence, with t-shirts to prove it was real, and private memories of being Johnny Rotten’s roadies for a day.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Literary Magazine Review

I wrote a review for the online literary magazine review site, The Review Review. I take on the feisty bluster of Salt Hill #22. Check it out here. The Review Review is a tireless engine of lit mag reviews, covering the literati rainbow, from the esteemed Agni and Glimmer Train, to upstarts you've never heard of like MacGuffin and Subtropics.

The Review Review is for readers and writers alike. Readers will love it for the reviews and information about specific issues. The site's stable of reviewers don't hold back, letting you know when something strikes a resonant chord and also when a magazine drops the ball. Writers will come back for all the tasty contact information supplied for each magazine, such as website URLs, publishing guidelines, response time, and the always popular pay scale (cash, copies, first born).

So, whether you're a reader, a writer, or somebody who wishes they could be, check out The Review Review. Come for the reviews. Stay for...more reviews.