Considering my obsession with numerology and the fact that I haven't posted in a while, is it any wonder that not only am I resurfacing today on my own blog, but that today I've sent out my first round of queries to some possible literary agency contacts?
I might as well share some thoughts on this special day, and by special I mean the culmination of lots of energy toward actually taking this next step toward my dreams of traditional publication, and not so much the 12/12/12 thing. Although I have to say that again, with reference to my love of number sequences especially when it comes to dates, I'll always remember the day that I quit drinking as 9/9/09. So there.
But back to the agent hunt, and first I'll say that like anything else, I plan to learn from this experience. I know that this won't come easy, and I'm quite sure that I've made some mistakes even on this very small and selective round of agency queries, the lessons hopefully benefitting me for now more than the prospect of actually landing representation. Second I'll say that I have another round that is slightly bigger than the first that I'll begin working on and modifying according to the outcome of this current round, and even after that, I have enough leads to fill many a day and month and even year while I continue forward with new writing projects.
Because that's what we writers do.
Another thing that has happened over the course of learning about the process of finding an agent is the pleasant discovery of the amount of different kinds of books and genres that there really are out there, and I would like to say that this is refreshing, because it seemed for a while there that at least to me everything had something to do with solving some sort of a crime. It got to a point that I started playing a little game with myself while on the road with my band, where during visits to truck stops I'd snatch random paperbacks from the spinning displays and count the number of FBIs and CIAs and former-this and former-thats of the FBIs and CIAs on the back covers, and it was all very discouraging. I refused to believe that the novel existed in this day and age merely as a medium to tell cops-and-robbers stories.
I've read many books recently as a result, and that being said, I recommend Velocity by Dean Koontz (which, okay, was a mystery but was also a writing course for me) and The Beast House by Richard Laymon (which is one in a series but reads well on its own as an almost "grind house" horror novel).
As you can see, fingers are crossed during this first round of queries, even though they may not be fingers of my own. There's no way I could do that. Just ask my chiropractor.
In my last post I compared using the tool of the Synopsis in writing the first draft of a manuscript to the way that a tattoo artist lays down a stencil before they start applying the ink. And I don't know why these metaphors are necessary for me, but for some reason I enjoy making these real-life comparisons to the process of getting published, probably because in no way is trying to get published really a part of anything comparable in the real world. The only exception to this statement would be the basic structure of the very-real business, with a protocol that exists even to this day, and this formality does demand respect.
Which is why I have a new metaphor, this time, one that inspires me as I try to land the elusive Literary Agent.
When I was a kid I used to love the movie "All the President's Men" with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The story of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the movie follows the reporters' every move as they take the notes and make the rotary-phone calls to chase the leads, and ends as they blow apart the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. It's exhilarating filmmaking, and it's amazing that I don't have such a soft spot for all of the nine hundred "Law and Order" and "NCIS" shows that are on television right now, but I do not.
But what I do have is an appreciation for the meticulousness that these characters portray, and I think that landing an agent from the pages and pages of listings and specifics that agents want and require is kind of like finding that break in the story, that one lead that's going to give us the prize. In a reporter's case, it's the confirmation from a source that a story can go to print, but for the novelist it's the agreement that the agent will take them on as a client. Either way the process of examining every lead, so to speak, is very similar.
And so it is helping me at this stage to imagine that I'm at least one of those Washington Post reporters (I guess I would prefer to be Dustin Hoffman) in a version of "All the President's Men" that would resemble something a little more modern, like the aforementioned cop shows where they sit in front of a computer data base as a flickering list of suspects flow by for their consideration. Truth is, the same task-oriented attention to detail that writers have is the same skill that is needed, which is strange when one thinks of how artists make terrible business people. But research we can do, like Dr. Walter Bishop in his lab on "Fringe," but that's a metaphor for another post.
I discover more about myself as a writer every day that I write. Learning one's process is part of the process and it's why the rule of "writers write" holds so true. My latest discovery is this: I love the idea of the Synopsis, and I capitalize the word out of respect for its distinction, the closest thing that a writer can get to a first draft without ever actually writing one.
It really is all that you need to get started, and as I've come this far on the Writer's Journey, I've realized that the structure that I crave is inherent in the Synopsis. It gives me the confidence that I need as I dive headlong into a new project, and I know this because so far, my latest work-in-progress has quite literally blossomed from something that had existed only in the abstract universe of my mind to something traceable and real. It's very much the stencil sketch the tattoo artist uses before they add the color and the shading, the blueprints to the building, the ... you get the idea.
And wouldn't you know it that the discovery of this new and liberating tool came at a moment that was anything but liberating? When I was writing the Synopsis for the novel manuscript that I've recently completed and am querying agents about now, an exercise that forced me not only to be objective but to look at the book for what it was as it was quite literally spread out before me, I understood the absolute value of the Synopsis. I have since read that some authors use the Synopsis instead of a standard outline, and they carry this document throughout the entire process with only slight modifications here and there as they produce the manuscript all the way into the querying stage. This is indeed the writer that I have become, and trust me, it makes something out of nothing really fast.
Whether or not this "something" that comes from nothing is worth anything comes from the process as well. That is, if you have something worth writing by the time you get deep into your paragraph-per-chapter Synopsis (which is how I do it), then you'll know it by then and you can proceed with all the spontaneity and joy that comes from writing a first draft. I say, get that out of the way to make room for the real work of the coloring and the shading, and what a better time-saver then a ten or so page structural Synopsis rather than a five hundred page manuscript?
So far, I've discovered today without ever completing a first draft that my new book will be longer than the planned twenty chapters, and the book itself told me that. How did it tell me? It used the Synopsis as its mouthpiece to give me its vital stats, its characters and conflicts, its height and weight and the name that it would prefer to go by!
On September 13, 2012 at 5:38 p.m., I completed the fourth and final draft of my new novel manuscript. But the feeling of closure was eluding me, even as I wrapped up being a writer for the week and hit the road as a musician for the weekend, and it wasn't until days later that the point was driven home. And it had everything to do with Page 333.
But first, fellow writers, a peek into my process.
Every chapter, regardless of whether or not I'm writing it for the first time or revising it for the thirtieth time, gets copied and pasted into my MacBook's "TextEdit" program. Here, I use the program's "Speech" function to literally read the chapter back to me, and I do this to catch all of the dropped words and weird grammar and spelling problems that my tired eyes may have missed. I then print out the chapter, put it in the binder, and move on to the next one.
Now, sometimes as I'm revising, I may find a few consistency problems in the manuscript that require my going back and making corrections to specific issues throughout. Like any Word document, I use the "Find and Replace" feature, and then these pages get re-printed and then inserted into the binder where they belong according to page number. Well, my aforementioned lack of closure was wiped away as working in conjunction with my obsession with the number three, the Universe dictated that the very last page out of approximately twenty-five insert pages would be Page 333.
I have since moved on to writing the Synopsis for potential agency representation, as it is all a part of the package, a crucial step in the traditional publishing game that I intend to play. In a way, the Synopsis is harder to write than the book, as it forces an objective view of the material in order to include only the crucial plot points. But even this step has enforced the closure, for as I go back into the actual manuscript to find where I've left off in the Synopsis, I find myself reading with a freed-up mind that's just enjoying the quality of the writing as a result of over a year's worth of hard work revising.
And it's all because of Page 333, the page that told me to stop, the key that locked this baby up ... at least for now.
The journey begins.
I don't know exactly what Hurricane Isaac has planned for the city of New Orleans, but I do know two things, and it's that lessons were learned during Hurricane Katrina and that subsequent improvements have been made.
Which is why I don't understand the media hysteria right now, and the feeling that I get that most of the national coverage, and even one-such New Orleans meteorologist (who I won't mention by name here but will say that it rhymes with Sbob Sbreck) all seem downright disappointed that this storm in fact will not be another Hurricane Katrina. Here in central Alabama, I have been as obsessed as a New Orleans native raised on hurricane-watching can be, keeping The Weather Channel on in the house, and then pulling up the local coverage on the Internet and the radio apps when I want to hear more-familiar voices. And I do this because I want to get the perspective of those still weary from seven years of recovery, the ones who certainly celebrated (as I did) upon hearing that New Orleans was recently named the fastest-growing city in the United States, and who through all of this hype understand that New Orleanians have been through this less-than-Katrina type of storm before.
Again, I don't know what the storm has in store for my hometown, but I do know that 14 billion dollars have been spent to upgrade the levee system to withstand a Category 3 storm. And believe it or not, the majority of what almost killed the city seven years ago was flood damage, inflicted upon a city unaware that the walls protecting them had not been touched in the forty years following Hurricane Betsy. So, as much as some of you news people seem to want to, please don't go signing a new death certificate for the Crescent City just yet.
But I will say that I have been as preoccupied as the city has been today, and yesterday, and probably all of tomorrow and into the next day. It's in my blood. And I do hope that my comments here aren't premature, but in all honesty, I think they got this.
NOLA ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon.
I'm still buzzing over an experience that I had a little over a week ago. What you see here was my perspective for about ninety minutes, a fifth-row center seat to the Hottest Band in the World, and it's something that I'll never forget. I felt as though I'd actually spent quality time with the band and was quite sad when they went away.
I've always said that KISS, along with "Star Wars" and "Saturday Night Live," were the three things that I was practically raised on. All three were there during my developmental years, with "Love Gun" being the first album that I ever owned at the ripe old age of five. So you can imagine how warped I was back in 1996 when KISS put the makeup back on and went on tour, during the same year that George Lucas re-released "Star Wars" in neighborhood theatres, confusing my subconscious into thinking that it was 1977 all over again like Christopher Reeve in that "Somewhere in Time" movie.
How's that for an obscure film reference, huh?
But now here I was, sixteen years and two more KISS shows later, and I was literally standing about thirty feet away from the band as I watched them do their KISS thing. I didn't know what to do with myself, and the experience was almost awkward as I stood there, watching a show that in all honesty was designed to be seen from a distance. Aside from the occasional point to my section and a few guitar picks thrown around me (I was too much in a sentimental daze to even reach for them), the band played to the rest of the amphitheatre, a facility that I turned to notice the immensity of only during breaks in my nostalgia trance.
It was one surreal episode in this life o' mine!
Case in point, I only took one picture the entire night, and it's the one that you see right here. I take that back. I took more, but then I realized that this was one part of my day that I didn't want to experience from behind a phone.
I did a little assumptive research before starting this post into why the universe now has a movie called "The Amazing Spider-Man" as part of its cinematic tapestry, and I have to admit, when you're good you're good. My hunch was that there was trouble in paradise in the Sam Raimi camp, maybe over some sort of contract dispute or creative differences that sent him packing. And with the arrival this weekend of the final chapter of a real reboot, "The Dark Knight Rises," my intent was to rip apart the new Spider-Man movie, offer my definition as to what a "reboot" was, and then, in the case of Spider-Man, ask why we needed one so soon.
But now I know.
Let me first say that the term reboot is being thrown around far too liberally for my taste these days. It seems that there are a few Hollywood executives that need to flip back through their producer's glossaries and look up that word. Good reboots involve a good amount of reimagining, and really, this latter term should be used in place of the former. "It's getting a reimagining." It may clarify some things around the production table when ideas and scripts are given the green light. Christopher Nolan, for instance, reimagined Batman. He took it from the weird ice-capade that Joel Schumacher turned it into and brought it back to where I think Tim Burton really wanted to go in the first place. Of course, this Burton thing is just my opinion, and I'm saying this because I believe that the original franchise helmed my Burton had a marketing and promotional team that was teasing us with the reality of such a film without actually delivering. We were all salivating over the vision of a sinister Gotham that was closer to the comics than the Adam West camp. But the truth is, as soon as the opening credits started in 1989's "Batman," in came the camp. The follow-up, 1992's "Batman Returns," was showing signs of derailing even then and really doesn't stand up to multiple viewings. They were good movies, but not great movies. Then came Joel Schumacher and his two films that I won't even mention by name, delegating them to that same place where the knowledge that Joel Schumacher even directed two Batman movies resides. Who cares about the "nipples on the Batsuit" thing when there were questions like: did Jim Carrey's Riddler have a light and sound guy in his hideout? I mean, designing all of those spinning, green-neon question marks would have been the least of my worries as a villain.
But I digress.
I think what we have here in the case of "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a Joel Schumacher-type thing. The Marc Webb (I know, "Webb", right?) vision is less of a reimagining than it is a regurgitation brought about by some Hollywood one-upmanship. I can appreciate the idea of taking Peter Parker back to his roots, and in some strange way, bypassing the origin story of his spidey powers was merciful. But this was only because I didn't want to see it again! The only problem is that this is a reboot, and unfortunately, it goes with the territory. In all actuality, when I saw this movie two weeks ago, my first thought was that it was nothing we haven't seen before, and in fact, it was a lot less. I smelled a rat. And now I know why.
And it seems that it was just a matter of making a deadline. Sam Raimi just couldn't do it creatively and put his name on it, and thus, neither could any of his cast or crew. But from what I've read, it was an amicable split, complete with the standard-issue statements about how incredible the opportunity was and all of that. If only I had known this going in, not only would it have forgiven this reboot that happened just five years after the last Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, but I probably wouldn't have had such high expectations.
Now, I'm not going to go into why Christopher Nolan's reboot is the real deal. Just look at "The Amazing Spider-Man," and like Gene Wilder said in the first Willy Wonka movie, "Strike that, reverse it."
See what I did there? Because not only was there a new Willy Wonka movie that wasn't as good as the original, but it was directed by the original Batman director, and ...
Perhaps I need a reboot.
I just got off of the phone with a close friend of mine from New Orleans who reminded me of a lesson, one that he had actually taught me while Jess and I were there less than a month ago. It was a lesson and a reminder all rolled into one. It was a lesson in the little reminders!
I have been struggling lately with the idea of being stigmatized as a self-published writer, and I have gone on about it here on this blog in a number of different ways, all of which if you were to put them into one, cohesive statement, would read: STOP! NO! DON'T SELF-PUBLISH!
Now, there is a big part of me that still feels this way. In this business, the best way to go will always be the traditional way, and that way is by going from the agent to the publisher to the contract. But what if your books are already out there? What if, as is the case for me, your first two books are already formatted and saturated on the Internet and are available now in all of the relevant formats? Do I just turn my back on my own bibliography?
Believe it or not, this was indeed my plan. I had already done the research weeks before my trip to New Orleans on how to pull my titles from the Internet as to not even exist as a published writer, saving that distinction instead for when something would actually happen, for when I finally sold my first book. That's right, I was going to destroy everything that defined me up until this point, all of the celebrations by myself and by my family while we held my books in our hands for the first time, shaking the proverbial Etch A Sketch on my vocation as a writer.
I use the word "vocation" intentionally, mainly because I couldn't use the word "career" during the time I was considering erasing myself. In my mind, I didn't have a career unless I could consider it how I made my living. "Vocation," then, became a more appropriate word. So, there it was. I was going to rip my forty years as a writer-to-be from the history books, regardless of the fact that it would be virtually impossible to remove the books from every database that ever had an Internet spider go out and grab them and put them on their site. In my mind, all I had to do was cut off the blood source, and the body would die.
And then I took a trip back home to New Orleans.
The last part of our trip was a visit to see some old friends, one of whom I just got off of the phone with, and together we walked through his recording studio and looked at all of the visual art that had poured out of him over the past few months. It was astonishing. There were paintings everywhere. And hidden away underneath all the canvases was the actual recording studio, its shelves still holding tapes from recording sessions that were done years ago, still waiting in some cases to be mixed and put out into the universe. And it occurred to me just then that no matter how much tinkering would be done to these master tapes, no matter what harmonies would be taken out or added in post, that the songs would still maintain their integrity by their titles alone. They would all fall into a certain, chronological record of artistic productivity. As my buddy said to me only a few hours ago, "It would be something else to add to your Wikipedia page!"
This last trip to New Orleans reminded me of what it is that I do, of where it is that I come from, and where I come from is a city of defiant creatives. The audacity that we had in scheduling entire days around sitting in recording studios was almost as important as what we were recording. It's where I get the discipline that I have today. And judging from what I saw on Facebook and Twitter before our trip, it was still happening, and I got confirmation of that as I strolled through my friend's skull there in his recording studio.
And so, during the drive back, I decided that I was going to play ball with my fate. I contacted my publisher and asked them about the possibility of reissues, like any, say, non-fiction book that would have to be updated in order to keep the information inside pertinent, and they said it was no problem. Do I plan to do this? Maybe. But that would be between my publisher and myself and it would be undetectable. The point is that I have that option, and the fact remains that those two books, the ones that exist in the universe with their covers and copyright years and ISBNs all over the world, are my first and second books respectively. Period. They are mine. And they mark where I was then as a writer.
Self-published books get picked up all the time now by traditional publishing houses, which marks yet another change in the industry over the years, and so having books out there that I can be proud of is simply the foundation on which everything else can be built. Regardless of what harmonies may have been added or taken out, and no matter what changes are made to the original compositions, they are still the same old melodies by title alone that inspired me to want to launch them out into the universe from day one.
In summary, here is an excerpt from the "Acknowledgements" page of Scenes from the Blanket that I think says it all. Written during the year following Hurricane Katrina, it is exactly what I meant when I said that I was reminded of a certain lesson while returning to the city that made me who I am:
"Lastly I would like to thank the great city of New Orleans, my hometown and infinite muse. This book is about you -- about your people and your geography, about your spirit and your darkness, about your culture and your ideas. You exist far outside your city limits, within me and within us all, through the aesthetics you've so graciously given to your children. For this gift, New Orleans, I humbly thank you."
About two months ago, during the week of January 30th, 2012, I commenced to temporarily shutting down as a writer. I put every one of my writing projects on indefinite hold, and I envisioned the main one -- the final revisions of my newest manuscript -- to be lying under the sheet in my imagined lab like Frankenstein's monster. Or in the case of someone with a mechanical bent, like a car without an engine, sitting under a tarp in my imaginary garage. Either way, you get the idea. I was walking away from some unfinished woodshed projects, and even though I was leaving them as such, they were made tidy and clean in their incompleteness.
The next month would be an experimental excursion into corporate America, a journey that I had always fantasized about but never really had an opportunity to realize. The ideal version of this fantasy starred me sitting in a cubicle doing my work quietly, whatever that work was, as long as it was my responsibility and as long as I could do it without much thought. But in taking the opportunity that was available to me, I was unexpectedly thrust into a world in which I simply didn't belong, one in which I could not function in any healthy sense. Sure, the month-long training was a snap. I can navigate through any classroom-type situation being that I'm an admitted career student. But graduate from the hypothetical and into the applied, and, well, I soon understood why I was approaching the age that I was and had not yet held a job in sales. I have since decided to give teaching a second stab, having already done all of the legwork a few years ago to get into the system. I just never did any actual teaching, putting it on hold as my musical opportunities took off. Such has been the story all of my life. And my music career is still well into liftoff, it's just that this year, I'm all about the Benjamins! I am thankful, however, for my journey into that particular level of corporate America, reminding me of where I belong, teaching me that although I have no real confidence when it comes to arguing with small business owners about their business, that I can certainly argue with younger, less-experienced students whose education is my business.
Which brings me back to the monster under the sheet, and the thrill I allowed myself on Monday, March the 19th, 2012, when I yanked back the cover and revisited my works-in-progress. The truth was that I really couldn't afford the time to think about them in any productive way, and on more than a few occasions, I've actively had to put my work out of my head. I know, "Who doesn't?" Sorry. In my case that would be suicide. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning. Say what you want, I don't think that's any way for an artist to live. And live I will, as will my work, both of us once again, alive!
Writers have a certain universality of concern, and I know this not just because I'm a writer, but because there are books and films and music and all kids of art that reflect this commonality, stories that touch to the heart of what all writers tend to think are unique only to themselves, whether they truly are or not.
And Woody Allen knows this. Which is why "Midnight in Paris" has quickly become one of my all-time favorite "writer movies."
I first discovered "Midnight in Paris" last summer during a solo trip to the movies, satisfying both my need for a flick and my enduring fascination with the Woody Allen cinematic canvas. The trailer didn't show much, and as the surprise of the plot unfolded, I understood why. I hadn't felt that treated by a movie in quite some time, and it had everything to do with the fact that I am a writer and that there are others out there like me.
And Woody Allen knows this.
I revisited the film recently after having the DVD handed to me on Christmas Day, and it held up completely on second viewing, and even a third viewing as I had it running in a little window on my Mac while I worked on my own writing. What is it in particular that I found so alluring about this movie? I love the idea that the Woody Allen-type protagonist, played this time by Owen Wilson, is a shameless Romantic who finds himself in Paris with the freedom to explore the city streets at night. What he finds would be a spoiler here, but let's just say that he is left to his own devises to take these walks at midnight and explore the fantasies (and let's be clear here, his fantasies are more literary than anything, and there is nothing darker going on here), fantasies that, dare I say, are important only to a writer. He rubs elbows with the literary elite who show interest in him and in his writing, who want to read his novel manuscript, and he returns to his hotel during the day to obsessively sort out not only the details of his nightly wanderings, but to also "re-write, and then re-write the re-writes," and he does it all with the wide-eyed enthusiasm that only a writer experiences when they know that they're in the right place at the right time. The movie is in fact heavy on this theme, of one's position in life with relevance to some imagined ideal.
And Woody Allen knows this, too.
If it seems like I'm latching onto the idea that only writers can appreciate this movie, I'm only saying that because the temperament certainly does allow one to experience the movie differently. Otherwise, "Midnight in Paris" is not to be missed if one is a fan of the prolific Woody Allen, as this one easily goes down as one of his best if not the best of his annual offerings in recent years.