According to FedEx tracking, as of yesterday morning my first full-manuscript request has arrived at the door of a potential literary agent. This is a big deal! Last week when I was scouring the Internet just to find out how best to format such a thing for delivery, the first few sentences of every post I read said that I should first congratulate myself, because this alone meant that I've made it through the slush pile and attracted the kind of attention that only a few attain.
It certainly is a glorious feeling sending something like a manuscript out in the mail, knowing that the physical pages themselves are being carried across country packed neatly in their own form-fitting, 8 ½ by 11 box. And even now I think about how great those pages are going to look when that box is opened to reveal all of my hard work. I told some friends of mine recently who seem to be quite optimistic about this new step in my writing career that for me this is comparable to opening a business or building a house, that having had no children of my own, these are the kids that I'm raising and sending through college.
Writing to me has always been a constant, a thing that I'm simply wired to do regardless of whether or not I reach any level of success, and so even the smallest of victories feel tremendous. Being home in New Orleans now for a little over two months, I find myself still hunting out the same old quiet places to write from my comparative youth, a habit of mine that only in retrospect did I realized I'd been doing for the better part of the past twenty years. I've done this everywhere I've lived, and it's consistencies like that one that make it easy to understand who I am at my core.
And so now as my fingertips gently brush the golden ring that I've been reaching for since the First Round of queries went out almost two years ago, never before have I felt so much in the game for real. Believe me when I say that email submissions and hard copy submissions are two different beasts. Right now with any degree of luck, the industry person who requested to see more of the rooms in this house that I've built is thumbing their way through the structure page by page and one square foot at a time, and it takes every bit of my writer's imagination not to think that they're hopefully enjoying all of the amenities that I've put into place for their visit.
I want to write about an experience that happened to me during my first month back here in New Orleans, a very full-circle experience that vindicated in some ways my second coming in this city. The experience turned out well for me, because it opened up a new avenue that I would never have thought possible just nine years ago in pre-Hollywood-South New Orleans. It in fact only took twenty years, but a few weeks ago, I was up on the silver screen.
When I was 15, I was rabid for the idea that I wanted to be a film director. Having been given access to a rented VHS video camera for a family vacation to Walt Disney World, my parents just went ahead and purchased the thing because quite frankly I wouldn't let it go after the week was up. That camera was the seed of obsession that saw me making videos that I entered into a student media festival at LSU throughout my four years in high school, and I won the damn thing all four years in a row.
But at some point this urge to make movies faded, and I always site the reason being that selfishly, the collaborative process at the time proved too much. I went to college and made a movie my freshman year, but then I was just done, off and running into the void that would eventually end up with my deciding that the written word would be my main mode of storytelling. In retrospect, I also believe that I would have given up long before Hollywood South and their glorious tax incentives would have ever come to town.
And now back to our story.
It all started during a random conversation with filmmaker John Beyer and actor Corey Stewart, both of whom participate in what is known as The 48 Hour Film Project every year, which they thought I could contribute something to this year in front of the camera. The 48 is an international competition where filmmakers are given a genre to work with, a line of dialogue that needs to be spoken, a character name and a prop that needs to be used and then are told to go out and make that movie in forty-eight hours. The New Orleans-based competition is moderated by an old Bourbon Street friend of mine, Pedro Lucero, and that fact alone should have told me that the universe was about to place me somewhere that I needed to be.
And so on the morning of July 19th, 2014, I was emailed a copy of the script for "Sis-Tours" that had been written overnight and then I was told where to go. I made coffee and grabbed some semblance of a wardrobe from my closet and headed out. When I arrived, the first thing that struck me was the silent efficiency of the set located in an office building that was given to us for the day, with crew members that scurried here and there setting up lighting and camera equipment and set decoration.
I got dressed and was then asked to go into makeup where among other things, the artist made sure that my bald head -- which I dubbed at the amusement of the crew as the "chrome dome" -- was dimmed-down enough as not to be too shiny for the camera. When this was done and after some waiting around, it was then time to do my first take, a voice-over line that I was told just to read. Being at least good at reading things, and knowing that I had the luxury of doing it with no memorization necessary, I nailed the inflection and made director John Beyer giggle.
So far so good.
But next was my first actual on-camera scene, a talking-head shot in which I had to deliver lines without reading them. I stumbled at first and then asked if I could do it again as a stifling hush filled the room that I didn't care to interpret at the time. And when I did it again and opened-up into character under the direction of John, the result was another break-up behind the camera and a restoration to my confidence.
The rest of the day went unbelievably well, and the collaborative experience of this very-ensemble piece -- which also featured Corey Stewart, Laura Flannery, Karen Gonzalez, Jamie Choina, Ed Hubert, Brian Bonhagen and Chris Fontana, and the behind-the-scenes work of Todd Schmidt, Laura Duval, Matt Bell, Alex Payne and Franz Wise -- was as gratifying as anything I can remember in recent years. The ease with which I navigated this environment made me nostalgic for my high school years, where all I wanted to do was make movies, an instinct that perhaps I should never have let grow dormant. The universe is funny that way.
With my part of the eight-hour shoot done, the crew was then off and running to the next location. I went home and officially began waiting for the opportunity to see the finished product. I also did quite a bit of writing that day, inspired by the creative atmosphere that I'd just left.
People in love with storytelling are my kind of people, as are film people, which I learned that day firsthand.
I'd now like to fast-forward to the night of Thursday, July 24th, 2014.
The entire team -- dubbed now "The Sullen Ducks" -- arrived at the National WWII Museum theatre in the Warehouse District of New Orleans for the second of the festival's four screenings. We all filed inside, and a bit of a reunion took place between myself and moderator Pedro Lucero. This recognition would in fact carry-over into the auditorium where as we all sat and they got ready to begin the screening, Pedro pointed me out in the second row and announced into a hot microphone, "And Ted Torres is here!"
That moment meant more to me than you know, Pedro, and I thank you.
And yes, there I was projected fifty-feet high for a few moments that will stay with me forever, strictly for the sake of punctuating how fast things can happen when one simply allows the universe to nudge them back into place.
And ... scene.
Since returning home to New Orleans last month to stay, of the many places that I've revisited was this one, the New Orleans Museum of Art. As I walked all of the conjoined rooms, I was stunned into humble submission as I realized the consistency of the artistic temperament. Last night I was reading through an English Literature textbook before bed (wanting to get into Dickens and got sidetracked) and I started reading Victorian writer and art critic John Ruskin's Modern Painters, in which he says that there is no difference between the painter who uses his series of skillful brushstrokes and the poet who uses language, for they are both simply the tools used to express their visions.
I might add to this, visions that will make them immortal.
And so there was that visit, but then there were also visits to small theatres where I saw stand-up comedy performed three feet in front of me, legendary music clubs where friends embraced me and asked me where I'd been all this time, private movie screenings and restaurants and bars and all those things that make up my roots. The streets materialized around me again as I instinctually just knew where to go, like a great city map that had begun rendering itself block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Never before in my life can I recall ever having had such a sense of belonging, part of a community of creatives that take from this city that which is all that it really has to offer, first and foremost a never-ending spring of inspiration embedded in every square mile.
But back to the Rounds, and the Eight and Ninth have gone out within a month of each other, the latter of which actually produced a request for a partial. Self-publishing has not so much gone by the wayside again, but has dropped down the ladder a few rungs. At some point I'll begin submitting to publishers in addition to agents on a monthly basis, and I'll continue writing new things, and with that nothing has changed much at all.
But can I get back to how wonderful it is to walk these streets again, how nourishing to the soul it is to have conversations that require no background or context and that go on for hours and hours until it's time to go home and begin these days again, and how a man can indeed go home?
Transition, powerful and sudden, a miraculous revelation that put me at one with the universe.
But let's start with Cinco de Mayo.
I wasn't aware that this holiday may or may not have been one of those times of the year when agents automatically delete queries sent to them, much in the same way I'd lamented my rookie mistake months ago (see "The Fourth and Fifth Rounds") by sending a batch off on Christmas Eve. I suppose it's still too early to tell, being that the Seventh Round went out a week ago, but I have to admit that the reception so far seems icy. But paired with some things that have crossed my mind quite a bit lately due to an illness that hit me in the beginning of March and ended with a surgery in mid April, a span of two months that put me in an intense state of self-evaluation about my role if any in this world of publishing, it became apparent to me that maybe my patience is wearing a bit thin.
So, take your time, prospective agents. As much as I wish one of you would latch on to my project and give it the representation that it deserves, I think I may be putting up that particular fishing pole for the time being. Well, at least I'm putting away the one with the kung fu grip in favor of multiple, lighter and less important ones.
The plan is to send out a batch every month, to the few agents that are left all over the country and beyond. But in the meantime, I have been exploring self-publishing options in a turn of events that anyone following this blog probably didn't see coming. Things change, and the marriage of media and technology is no exception.
To say that the world of self-publishing has changed since I did it last would be an understatement, but at the same time a lot of the same things still hold true. For instance, without the backing of a traditional publisher, for the most part marketing and publicity is still left completely up to the author. But that's okay, because hand-in-hand with the strides that technology has made in self-publishing, so has the means of getting the word out.
And then I've heard through some confidants of mine on Team Torres that authors who self-publish now can actually earn a little bit of royalty that amounts to more than just a few cents here and there, something that in the past has always made me look forward to receiving my 1099 every year just for a good chuckle. As a musician, I still gig on the weekends and earn a little money here and there. But the way I see it, with pricing structures now in the hands of the authors, I can now count my books as things that actually make me some cash on the side.
All the arrows are pointing in this direction, even now as I have the manuscript out to three different beta readers whom I don't actually think realize they are beta readers yet. I will follow up with them and initiate them officially, making then card-carrying members of the newly formed Team Torres. Yes, the process has begun.
I'm still keeping one eye open to traditional publishing, because I do still plan to consistently chisel away at least once a month in both the agency and publisher markets. But I've already begun to imagine the cover design, and already have a member of Team Torres ready with his mighty Photoshop sword. There was always something special about the control of self-publishing, about the time leading up to and including the process, knowing that ultimately I would have a say on when and where my children were born.
I have pelted the east coast with queries at this point, with the Sixth Round deployed on March 3, 2014 to ten carefully chosen agencies. Some have come back within a day with rejections, while others are still pending within the time frames dictated on their websites. These things take time, and these agents are swamped by writers of varying degrees of determination, and this is the glacier-like nature of the business.
But it looks as though, at least for now, my attack on the east coast has ended. There seems to be no more agencies left that would be appropriate for my special brand of psychosocial thriller, which while falling under the classification of "genre fiction" is still a bit of a rare subdivision. More and more I'm thinking about re-entering the self-publishing trade, if for no other reason than it seems that the business has evolved exponentially from I when I first published The Petrified Christ and Scenes from the Blanket over the course of the past fifteen years.
And so the next rounds will spread out into the rest of the country, hitting the smaller less selective agencies that may find great interest in the subject matter of my unpublished New Orleans-themed manuscript. They're out there, and I would think that it's a rarity that authors with aspirations such as myself ever really consider querying anywhere outside of Manhattan, while still thinking that they were accomplishing something. But I totally do, because there comes a time when fishing in the big pond that houses the fewer fish may not be the way to sustain the hope that we as writers need to keep going, and this is just where I am in the beginning of my 42nd year.
I've always had a symbol that's brought me great peace simply by looking at it, and I'm not sure if this is a positive byproduct of my Catholic upbringing or what. That symbol is the circle with the cross in the center, extending out evenly in four quarters to touch the circumference, very much resembling the Holy Eucharist of Communion during the Catholic mass.
I've always written it at the top of pages, in the margins of journal entries, just to set my mind at ease. The significance has always been that it represents my life, a large circle with everything inside, and a cross in the center holding it all together. Everywhere I see this symbol, and by that I mean not scribbled of my own doing, I stop to regard it and wonder if possibly it's a sign that that's where I needed to be at that moment.
I had this experience almost a year ago when I re-entered the workforce, going in for an interview at an office where in the conference room, there was an entire window of this design. After getting the job, I snuck in there when no one was looking and snapped a picture. I've been on the lookout ever since.
My job is in Homewood, Alabama, and I don't know if maybe there was some city-appointed architect assigned to keep certain themes going in some of the structures, but I came across the symbol again in one of the most appropriate and eerily telling places that Ted Torres could ever find it.
In a library, the Homewood Public Library, a building that I found this week, eight months after I should have. It is as beautiful and inspiring as the Hoover Public Library, very similar in its design, and in the main study area -- where tables are spread out under the glow of individual lamps -- there is a high window that is a circle with a cross in the center. That is all.
I don’t want to write a negative review of “The Lego Movie” here, because as is always the case when I disagree with the hype, I have to consider the fact that I have no frame of reference for the material. I find that this is sometimes the case with most of the comic book movies that are released lately, where when I'm not entertained in the least as a movie-goer, I'm told that this-and-this was something I’d only know if I’d read the source material. I don’t know if that’s the case here, but “The Lego Movie” was still lost on me.
There were times during this admittedly-upbeat film that I felt depressed, as though perhaps maybe I was really the cold-hearted sociopath I sometimes suspect I am, not amused by such things and wondering what else in life has possibly passed me by. But I don’t know that this was the case here. I went in ready to be dazzled, wanting to get lost in the 3D world, but was instead underwhelmed and cringing quite a bit.
I know this had everything to do with my not having that connection to the “source material,” in this case, never having played with the toys as a kid and thus not getting any of the inside Lego jokes. While I absolutely appreciated the theme of celebrating the innocent, imaginative spirit that frames the movie, I just couldn’t push that rather-late revelation (about 75 minuted too late, in my opinion) to the forefront of what was otherwise a disappointing experience for me.
I wanted to say a few things here about some recent news items that I have very strong opinions on, not that any of what I'm about to say hasn't already been said. I just want to go on record about where I stand on them. Some stories just don't have a shelf life as far as I'm concerned.
First I'd like to say something about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the incredible backlash I've seen on social media about his being just another privileged star who killed himself and so on. Quite simply put, I see my friends when I see Philip Seymour Hoffman. I see an artist that has fallen victim to a very real addiction that no one has any right to judge the validity of in any way.
And that's simply because he made good art.
I also see a man who in death doesn't need to defend himself from a group of people who are finding the need to politicize it, making divisive claims that fit into a weird Christian agenda that sees both sides posturing according to their beliefs. I have people on my Facebook and Twitter feeds that are Christians, and most of them are raging alcoholics, yet they don't consider themselves addicts nor do they care about an artist that has done what artists do. Artists die.
Call me a lifelong Romantic, but there really are such things as tortured artists. Historically, what has tortured them is substance abuse. Addicts that were able to somehow compartmentalize their addictions to entertain us in some way created some of our favorite books, films and music.
Which brings me to one of my idols, Woody Allen. As artists, we can only dream to have been able to produce the body of work that this man has produced while simultaneously having to compartmentalize and navigate through a culture that is more than willing to be the judge and jury. I don't care what he's done, if the claims are true, or if Woody Allen is not only guilty but a heroin addict like Hoffman.
Unless we're going to do background checks on all of our artists and then judge their art accordingly, I suggest we learn to compartmentalize their personal lives much in the same way the addict does. Compartmentalizing seems to be one of Woody Allen's many talents. And after all of this, I can only hope that he can continue to produce the work that he has in this his postcard years (I call them this because all of his movies are like little postcards from around the world lately).
That's it, really. No main point. We're all addicts, we've all done shameful things, and the art is mutually exclusive and really all that matters in the end.
Many a blog has been written about where and when writers are at their most productive, with some even adhering to strict rules regarding their writing spaces and the times during which they can even begin to consider producing pages. Most would like to say that they can do it anywhere, because it goes hand-in-hand with the age-old adage that writers just write, and for some of us, that's what we have to do in order simply to stay content. Therefore, it should hold true that for writers to write, they should be able to do it anywhere the muse should happen to strike them.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, especially for writers who need a certain ambiance in order to do what they do, like environments that allow for background music, or for some the lack of any background noise at all. I have an office at home where I work, and in fact I've always had a designated place to write for as long as I can remember. But when I got my first laptop, back when iPads and such weren't as commonplace as they are now and desktops were the only starting points, I considered myself free to compose wherever and whenever. I looked forward to this freedom all my life, fixated on the newest gizmos that would allow me to take the writing desk with me wherever I went.
Time was never that important. When I was doing it full time, I treated it like any full-time job. I wrote and edited all day long, and the time of day became irrelevant, influenced only by when I'd run out of gas. Now, however, the time to write has become a commodity, and I was forced to find that perfect time in my schedule where I could do what it is that I need to do to sustain me.
So enter the bedroom, on any weekend morning, and you'll find me there.
I have found that during the waking hours, in bed, is where it works for me now. Sure, I still use my office, but that's for editing now. Saturday and Sunday mornings (regardless of a gig the night before) see me up and stumbling to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Then on the way back to bed, I grab the laptop.
Then the still-sleeping mind slowly unravels itself onto the keyboard.
Sometimes the thrill is not remembering what I'd done in those waking hours, because as it goes I'm strong for about three hours, and then I have to stop for fear of losing quality. I put the laptop back in my office, and the rest of the day is me walking in and out, sitting in front of the laptop for a tweak here and there before wandering off again. This works for me now, especially with this new manuscript, in which I've just hit ten chapters and over 100 pages.
Where is your sweet spot?
I'd like to start off this post by first apologizing to the few literary agents that I queried over the holidays. Leave it to the rookie to foul-up the game by not knowing the rules. But I'll get to that soon.
I sent the Fourth Round of queries out on October 6, 2013 after a lengthy revision process to both the manuscript and the query letter itself, making the whole package more accessible based entirely on what I'd learned form the first three rounds and from reading more books. That last part is important. I always feel the need to stress in this blog how I do indeed read in addition to write, but I suppose what I really mean is that I've read a variety of different books in different genres just to get a feel for flow and structure and so forth from one type of book to the next.
The result was not only a more readable manuscript, but also a grabber of a query letter that managed to get ... and may I get a broken snare-drum roll here ... my first request for a partial! Sure, it's since been rejected, but damnit if I didn't frame that thing! In a way, it was the most important correspondence I've gotten to date!
The months then went by as the rejections came in, as well as one more request for a partial that went unanswered. While waiting, and building on the idea that writers are always either submitting or writing new stuff, I continued to hammer out the first draft of a new book. In this area I'm back to my old self again, feeling that sense of peace that I mentioned in a previous blog, where nothing else quite compares. A writer is at their happiest when they're producing new pages.
On Christmas Eve 2013, I sent out a round of resubmissions to agents who I hadn't heard from in a while (who didn't specify on their website the "no response=rejection" policy) in addition to a new, Fifth Round of queries. The latter was a huge mistake, as some came back with immediate auto-replies saying that their offices were closed, while one in particular said that my query would be deleted. It made me wonder how many of the few I sent out in Christmas Eve were actually going to be deleted, and so I now plan to send them out again strictly as a technicality on the first of next month, hoping that these agencies will grant me the Mulligan. In the meantime, the Sixth Round will be put together with an updated query letter.
The lesson: there are bad times to send out query letters, one of which being the holidays. Some blogs disagree with this, but most simply explain the point by asking the prospective author to put themselves in the shoes of the agents and/or their assistants. Would you want to deal with anything at your job coming in when you should be heading out?
Likewise, the first week of January automatically puts you in the "resolution pile" of authors who vowed at the beginning of the year to finally get those query letters out once and for all. This can be an insulting thing to consider if in fact you've been querying all year. But again, put yourself in the agent's and/or their assistant's shoes, and all is understood.
And so it goes. I'm making progress in that the manuscript is floating around out there in some important hands, and maybe some not-so-important hands, and I can only assume that my name has been uttered by more than a few literary agents and/or their assistants. A new book is being written, and so far so good.