Sunday, October 31, 2010

Requiem for a Grumpy Kitty


As I type this, it’s T-minus twelve hours to the start of NaNo; by rights, I should be scribbling  a post about writing: my anticipation and trepidation about the month ahead, personal tips or maybe a pep talk, even an anecdote from my writing life.  However, circumstances have intervened, and this post has nothing to do with writing.


It’s Halloween morning, and I’m in my back yard burying a cat (a dead one – I’m not like that).  Early yesterday morning our oldest cat, Digit, died.  It came as no surprise and in fact, was something of a relief.  He’d been sick about a month, a tumor-like growth that he’d had on his side for years ruptured and slowly began eating away at him.  I’ll save save you the gory details, but eventually it was just too much for him.  Even before he got sick, we new his days were numbered; he’d been on a sort of “death watch” for a couple of years now.  I guess I should mention he was twenty years old.

Digit was a shelter kitten.  My brother-in-law, Chad, got him as a birthday present for my sister.  Digit and Leonard, a female tabby mix, stayed with Michelle and Chad for five years until the couple’s first baby was born.  Neither cat took to the new arrival, and Michelle and Chad scrambled to find a home for them.  Almost to the week of their asking me, I had broken up with my live-in, allergic-to-cats girlfriend, and with a suddenly empty apartment, I took the refugees in.

Over a month into our co-habitation, I still had barely seen either cat.  Only the tousled litter of the cat box and the dwindling food and water levels were the only hints that I even had cats.  Eventually, as we all do, they came to terms with their situation; the mom and the dad, and even the strange crying, pooping thing that had been their eGrumpyworld were gone.  This apartment with that strange guy they kind of knew was their world now.  Leonard was fat and happy; she loved attention, especially if she didn’t have to move to get it.  Digit, however, wanted nothing to do with anybody.  He accepted the apartment, and later the house, as his home, but it was just that: his home.  I heard it described somewhere that dogs have masters, but cats have staff, and that was true of Digit, who was soon to earn the affectionate nickname “Grumpy”.

Routinely, he’d sit on a desk or counter and face the wall, staring at it for hours.  He’d let you pet him, sometimes, but only on his terms.  Every once in a while, I’d violate his house policy, and he would voice his displeasure in creative ways.  Once, he peed on me while I was sleeping.

Leonard’s death changed him, however.  He was still grumpy, but he became more tolerant.  Instead of the jerk that kicks your chair out from behind you, he became the old curmudgeon, cranky and irritable, but always willing to sneak in a kind word or deed when no one’s looking.  He was with me when my first marriage fell apart, and through my sometimes disastrous attempts to put my life back together.  Eventually we found Kristy and her boys, and her cat, Keiko.  We added three dogs and a few more cats to the mix, and Digit was recognized by all as the elder statesman of the four-legged family members.  He even became the alpha dog somehow.  He would never admit it, but he was happy.1121090932a

Digit collapsed Friday night walking to the kitchen (food was his passion).  I gave him a bath, redressed his wound, and put him in bed.  The last few hours of his life were as comfortable as I could make them, wrapped in blankets and snuggled between his mom and his dad.  When I woke up in the morning he was gone.  His eyes were open, but there was nothing in them.  I let him rest there a while longer, then wrapped him in a towel and put him in a box.  When I went to gather all the linen for the laundry, I noticed a wet spot on the bed; death must have released his bladder.  Digit’s last act on this plane was to pee on my bed.

He would’ve wanted it that way.

Thank you for indulging me.  He was more than a cat; it’s hard to explain.  My next post will have something remotely to do with writing, I promise.

SONY DSCDigit the Cat

1990 - 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Writing Downhill - In a Good Way

NaNoWriMo starts in three days and I’ve been note-taking, outlining, character arc-ing, and the closer I get to the sheer cliff face that is November, the larger it looms, and the steeper it becomes.  I had intended to do it privately so no one would see me fail, but I was overcome by the moment and “came out” a few days ago.  Being an acknowledged participant not only gives me one the most time-honored incentives to not give up (shame and disgrace), but also allows me to be an active part of the NaNo community, sharing and receiving tips, anecdotes, and pep talks.  Plus I get to play with word count widgets.

I’ve been reading about other writer’s strategies and philosophies relating to starting a novel, especially one that’s supposed to be all done thirty days later.  I consider my own strategy to tackling the novel-in-a-month  mountain and realize this:

I don’t have one.

It took me nearly three years to finish my last – and first – novel.   In the time it took me to write it, I changed careers, then changed back again.  I moved three times, bought a car, went back to school (again) and had to quit (again).  I broke up with my girlfriend, then later met a beautiful, spunky waitress and married her.  I also became a father to two teenagers.

Writing was, in my head, a priority, but everything else got in the way.  I love to write, but somehow it became a chore, something I had to do.  I tried everything – writing schedules, deadlines and quotas, dedicated space to write, changing scenery.  Nothing helped.  It wasn’t my strategy that was the problem; it was my approach.   I was writing uphill.  A finished novel was the unattainable goal, number one on my “bucket list” and gateway to my future as a Beloved Author.  Some days I would whittle off two or three thousand words in a day, but that was rare, and never more than one day in a row.  More often, I’d hammer out a couple hundred, or none at all, waiting until everything else in my life was taken care of, or I was in the mood, or some other excuse to push the goal further away.

I’m taking a different approach this time.  I’m not going to climb the Mountain of November, but rather I’m riding the ski-lift to the top now so I can throw myself down, building up speed as I careen toward December 1st using whatever analogy (skis, soapbox derby cars, super-happy-fun slide) you prefer, hopefully spilling 50,000 plus words and a complete novel all across the finish line.  No writing schedules, no quotas, no perfectly feng shui-ed writing space.  Just me and the novel.  It’s not my adversary; my novel needs me as much as I need it.  Nothing technical has changed, just my attitude, but that could be the most important change of all. 

Writing shouldn’t be an unconquerable mountain.  It should be what it is: a super-happy-fun slide.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sloppy Zombie Seconds

Didn’t think I’d have a topic to write about today, but unfortunately one presented itself last night.
I have my story all set for NaNo.  I’ve taken extensive notes; I’ve outlined the plot.  I even have a query pitch all ready for it.  I’ve been almost giddy for November to come so I could tear into this project.  I showed the pitch to a friend at work to drum up moral support for the undertaking.  I waited impatiently for her to finish as she meticulously and lovingly devoured each word.  I kind of suspected she’d like it, but you never know.  Finally she finished it with what I swear was a gasp of delight (okay, maybe not).
“What do you think?” I asked. 
“You really need to write this; it is so good.”  Kind of what I thought she’d say, not that I’m cocky, but because my “inner circle” tends to like anything I write, even if it’s crap.  But before I could gush about the details, she added:
“In fact, I saw something just like this.”
Now, I’m no stranger to investing my time in ideas that have already been done.  One of my first projects was a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch (yeah, didn’t finish that one).  I came up with a more intelligent version of Little Nicky about a month before I saw the trailer for the Adam Sandler version.  The list goes on.  It was so bad I could almost conjure a book I wanted to read or movie I wanted see simply by independently coming up with the idea myself.
But that was then.  I wasn’t a writer, not really.  Yeah, I had the mountain of writing books, the perfectly sharpened no. 2’s, and the meticulously cluttered writing space.  But I hadn’t written anything, not really.  I was a dreamer, a wannabe.  I wasn’t ready then.
This is now.  I’ve done it, whatever else happens or doesn’t happen, I’ve finished a novel.  The more I delve into the business and the more I despair of my little-manuscript-that-could disappearing forever under the sea of competition and form rejections, the more confidence I gain in my actual abilities.  I’m a writer, damn it.  Whether or not I ever make a dime off it.
Which is why I took it so hard when I found out my “fresh take” on the zombie genre was about two years old.  As soon as she told me, I hit Wikipedia and found the offending item, a cable anthology show.  I read the article, plot spoilers and all, and yes, it was pretty much my idea.  The crappy part is that I’d never heard of this show, much less seen it, so I couldn’t have stolen anything, even subconsciously.  My idea was original, it was just someone’s else’s original idea first. 
After the initial blow wore off, I realized it wasn’t all that bad.  The “zombie twist” was the entire plot of this episode, it’s only a small but important part of my book.  Also, it’s a different medium, television, and a different target audience; I see the book as (mature) Young Adult.  Anyway, I’m going to write it.  It’s either that or line edit The Wind Maiden again, and I’d rather shove a perfectly sharpened no. 2 in my eye.  I think everybody knows there are very few new ideas out there.  It just stings when you think you caught one and reality snatches it from your grasp.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

That’s 120 Novels in Ten Years – Sure, No Problem…

I didn’t want to tell anyone so I didn’t look the fool if I didn’t do it, but I’ve decided to participate in the National Novel Writing Month’s write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge coming up in November.  Seeing as my only previous complete novel took me almost three years to finish, I wouldn’t exactly bet Timmy’s college fund on my chances.  On the other hand, I feel pretty confident about it.  The hardest part of writing your first novel is that you’ve never done it before; you don’t know what it’s like to finish.  I know how to finish now.
I have about a week to decide which idea gets the golden ticket to novel-dom.  I have a witch, some teenage zombies, and killer alien bug-like things (oddly-enough, I don’t read a lot of horror novels; maybe it’s the siren song of All Hallows Eve.)  I’m leaning towards the zombies, but we’ll see. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Investment

My wife works as a waitress at a local restaurant.  She is better at her job than I’ve ever been at any job I’ve had.  And I’ve had a lot.  She works the day shift and still manages to bring home a ton of money.  Unfortunately, the owners recently eliminated breakfast from their menu, cutting into my wife’s tips.  Without her regular breakfast customers, business has been a trickle and her tips have suffered.  I feel bad for her because she enjoys her job, and she works her butt off.  She doesn’t work as many hours as I do, but she does a lot more when she’s there.*
The point is, we don’t have a lot of money coming in (through no fault of hers), and as I plunge deeper into the haunted forest that is the road to Publication, only now do I see what a financial commitment it’s going to take.  I knew about the time commitment: writing, revising, research, marketing, but I never realized how damn expensive the whole thing is.  It cost seventy bucks to have five copies of my book printed – single spaced (!) for my beta-readers because I couldn’t afford to double space it.  Aren’t we supposed to be starving artists?  Aren’t organizations like Writer’s Digest supposed to know that? 
I just spent ninety bucks on a writing webinar.  It was worth it; the advice I got took me from not having a clue about querying to potentially writing a killer pitch.  But my point is, I really couldn’t afford it, I definitely can’t afford that next one that rolls around, whether or not that one also could prove invaluable.  I was looking at writers’ workshops online today; so many caught my eye.  Then I noticed the price tag.  What good are workshops if the people who really need them can’t afford them?  Some may say if it’s important to you, then you have to spend the money.  True, but eating is also important to me (and my family).
Anyway, before this turns into Broke Writer’s Lament, I found an online writer’s conference in New York this January.  I can’t afford to go, but in this case, I think I can’t afford not to.  In addition to the seminars, guest speakers, and networking opportunities,** they have what they call a “pitch slam,” where they lock you in a room with fifty agents who slam your pitch.  No, not really.  It’s an opportunity to essentially do what I did with the pitch critique fifty times over (actually thirty-four if you consider three minutes per agent plus “shuffle” time over two hours).  I’ll get a chance to verbally pitch my novel to as many agents as I can, and they’ll tell me what works and what doesn’t.  Theoretically, I could even get an offer for pages, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
I told my wife about it and what it costs; not only is she okay with it, but I think she’s making me go.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to have the support and patience she gives me, and yes, I do appreciate how rare that is.  Maybe that’s my secret weapon.  I can’t afford writing workshops or fancy software or a ton of accessories.  But what she gives me is worth all that and a universe more.  I just hope I’m worth it.  

*I once heard being a paramedic described as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.  It’s not unusual for us to go for hours on end without a call, then get that one really bad call, where nothing goes right, and the stakes are literally someone’s life.
**Yeah, I don’t ‘network’ well; you should see me at the few parties I attend (“Dan, this is the hydrangea in the corner; hydrangea, Dan.”)

Road Map

I got my critique for my pitch proposal a lot sooner than I expected.  Crushed are my unrealistic dreams that she would be so in love with it that the world would fall away, and only she and the pitch would remain, their eyes locked in a fiery…
Anyway, that didn’t happen.  No short cuts for me; it’s the long and winding road for as long as it takes.  It’s a long road, treacherous and lonely, but at least I know where I’m going and how to get there.  Actually, it wasn’t all bad.  Heck, just getting honest feedback from a professional was worth the price of admission.  I don’t how polite she was in crafting the comments, but she had some positive words.  She complimented two of my sentences (I only had seven, so pretty good batting average) and said the opening was nice, if a little generic.  She was confused about Thea’s attitude toward her home and felt the mission was too vague.  I got the impression she liked it overall, but that it wasn’t specific enough, that it didn’t give her anything to make her want to pick my book out of the hundreds of letters she gets in a week.
Even though the miracle ending didn’t happen, this was a very positive experience.  The hardest thing for me to know is just how much of the Wind Maiden’s world people can “see”.  I’ve been living there with these characters off and on for five years; It’s as real to me as any place on Earth.  More so than some.  To everyone else, though, it’s just words on a page, and my biggest mistake in the pitch was not providing enough words.  I was so worried about overdoing it that I never considered I might under-do it.
Anyway, I’ve got great notes – a road map to along, as well as proof a respected literary agent thinks I can craft a good sentence (hey, we take the victories where they are). 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Here we go...

Well, I’ve finished the pitch proposal.  Actually, I finished a few days ago, but I’ve been staring holes into it ever since.  And I’m still not convinced it can’t be better.  I’ve showed it to as many people as I can (which, sadly, is about seven or eight), and for the most part have gotten the standard “Oh, I’d read it,” response.  That’s good of course, but I lack the discerning eye of the industry professional.  Although my wife has given me surprisingly insightful feedback (surprising because she praises everything I write – not necessarily because it’s any good, but because she is wonderfully supportive).  She pointed out some repetition as well as part that don’t quite flow.  I’ve taken her opinion to heart and made some changes; hopefully it’ll be enough to generate some interest.
After that, it’s all up to the book.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Short but Hard

No, I’m talking about my pitch paragraph.  Our ‘homework’ for the previously mentioned webinar was to revise our query pitch paragraph, and e-mail it to the agent who presented the webinar (I can’t stop saying ‘webinar’) for a personalized critique.  The query pitch can get your foot in the door, or it can kill your chances before anyone’s read a page of your book.  Naturally, I want to do my best.  I’ve been working on it for over a week now, and it’s proven harder in its own way than the book itself.  Eight to twelve sentences to convince an agent your novel is better than 99% of the thousands of queries they get a week. 
No pressure.
The webinar (heh) proved worth the admission fee and more, as I went from describing my novel in endless circles that either drove people away or into deep bouts of I-don’t-give-a-crap, to being able to not only present my story in a tight, coherent fashion, but also to generate actual interest in the book itself.  Until it gets read by industry professionals, I’ll have no idea how good it is – the query or the novel – but on both counts, I know I’ve done my very best.
Well, maybe one more touchup.

Friday, October 1, 2010

First Contact

Yesterday, after six months revising and nearly three years writing my novel and over a decade before that of failed attempts, aborted story ideas, and general foot-dragging, I finally took my first baby steps into the business end of the book world.  No I’m not published yet not by a mile, but for the first time, I interacted (sort of) with an honest-to-goodness literary agent and a tiny piece of the literary world.  It may not seem like anything to those actively immersed in the world.  To me, however, Publication* is now no longer a mythical city on a hill, but an obtainable, albeit challenging, reality. 

I’ve spent the last ten years working on an ambulance.  Wonderful people, but not exactly the literati.  It’s been difficult just finding people to read my manuscript, finding like-minded souls to muse about the peculiar life of a writer, particularly an unpublished one.  I work a crazy amount of hours, and of course there are no writing groups in my immediate area.  My friends are all paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters; it would be tough starting a reading group, much less one for writers.  Therefore, like the solitary witch, I write without a coven; I edit with only an inkling of feedback.  And as I put the finishing touches on my manuscript and prepare with trembling hand to send that first query letter into the world, I do it alone.

Which was why this seminar was so important.  To hear from an agent in her own words exactly what she’s looking for, to have her address my questions and even look at my pitch proposal gave everything weight; it made it all real.  I can get Published; it’s hard work and could take years, but I know it’s possible.  There are people like me, no experience, no background in publishing, that every day are selling  their manuscript, or finding that perfect agent who’s passionate about their work.  I’m in the game now.  It’s the fourth quarter, I’m down by three touchdowns, and my offensive line has snuck off to Applebee’s, but I’m in the game.

As I get older, so much about life seems to involve endings.  This, however, is a beginning, and a big one.  And beginnings are so much better.

*I've decided to capitalize Published and Publication until I am Published.  Or until I get tired of it.