Tuesday, January 28, 2014

La Douceur de Vivre

So after being notified that I have high-ish cholesterol (particularly high for someone who eats a plant-based diet and is active), what do I do? I fly to France, land of puff pastries and promptly eat my little heart out.  Just this week, I’ve had the following:

This tropezienne is a delicious treat with whipped buttercream sandwiched between brioche cake, rock sugar sprinkled on top. YUM.

This is called a meringue. It is hard on the outside with a marshmallow-y center. It’s gooey and lovely, but there is something just a bit strange at the end. Not an aftertaste exactly, before that. Hard to describe.

The caramel scoop on the bottom (which left oo so delicious caramel bits stuck to my teeth) was better than the pistachio scoop on top.

I was slightly disappointed with this éclair because it was full of something like chocolate pudding when I was expecting a decadent whipped buttercream. But the dark and swarthy man who sold it to me was charming, with the little children running in and out of his shop, calling his name, and catching the little chocolates he threw at them.

I’ve forgotten what this was called, but let’s call it AMAZING. The whipped middle is hazelnut and mind-blowing and the crust is a light, flaky pastry shell, made sweeter with sprinkled powdered sugar.

…and this does not include the croissants, chocolates, macrons or chocolate-covered tea biscuits that have also been happening in high frequency.

And should I feel bad about eating all of this? Maybe. Except I don’t. And I especially don’t after I just finished reading “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey—which basically outlines how most artistic types are extremists of one kind or another, with poisons ranging from opium, to alcohol, to snails (did you know that Patricia Highsmith loved snails so much that she smuggled them into France, six under each breast?!?)

So the bottom line folks, is if the worst I can do is gorge myself on puffy pastries in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so be it. I’m not sorry. And neither should you be, my weirdo-artsy-type friends. Embrace your strange and amazing gifts. The world will be sweeter for it. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Are There Really No Original Stories?

I’ve often heard the maximum that writers are simply telling the same old stories over and over again—that there is no such thing as “original” or “unique” anymore. And when I think of all the retellings in the world, all the stories featuring the same ideas or character archetypes as something that came before, this begins to feel especially true.

What makes a story original?

Is it a never-before-seen world? I can think of many “worlds” that felt incredibly unique at the time of their creation—Harry Potter comes to mind. How many children began to wish they’d receive their letter from Hogwarts? But what about other aspects of that story—a boy facing adversity. Good versus evil. The importance of bravery in the face of opposition—

All of these “stories” have been told before from ancient mythology to biblical parables to modern retellings. And even the world of Harry Potter itself isn’t completely unique. The Ministry of Magic, private schools, etc., horrible aunts who blame us for everything, all bear resemblance to  our world.

So if it isn’t the world, and it isn’t the plot/story itself—maybe it is the character?

To have a character that is unique and one of a kind would certainly feel fresh. After all, nothing makes a read more boring than a stock character which we can identify from a mile-away. Yet there are many kinds of characters that get reused as well, particularly in the genres that I love most: vampires, werewolves, fae, succubi/incubi—they are all regurgitated from lore.

So at face value, characters are not necessarily original. Even if they possess unique traits, a unique hubris that sets them apart from another icon, the flaw itself (pride, greed, vanity, etc.) is surely a trait that belonged to another character first. Would it be a combination then?

(i.e. Werewolf + Chaetophobia [fear of hair]= original?)

Or maybe it isn’t the trait itself, the “race” or even the description of the character that makes it unique but rather the character’s perspective. I think of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles particularly. The reason why her work became so wildly popular was because it took a well-known trope (the vampire) and gave it a fresh perspective—we were able to hear the vampire’s story instead of the victim's. After all, is it not true that if 4 people were involved in a single car accident, we would have four different perspectives of what happened. So maybe perspective IS the key to an original tale.

Then there is the problem of a human wanting to tell a nonhuman’s story.  I’ve heard it argued that something is lost in such translations (in humanizing ‘beasts’). After all, for those who are hardcore fans of vampires as savage, blood-lusty creatures, then Anne Rice’s vampires are too romanticized and weepy. In this argument, we encounter the difficulty of describing the supernatural with human eyes and a human tongue—their experiences, motivations, and beliefs would not be as human as we often make them out to be. And maybe here lies the possibility for a truly original story.

I don’t know.

Are there really no original stories left? Or can a new story be invented at any time—and if yes, how?


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Reason for Paris

Bonjour à Paris!

I am not going to apologize for another delay in my posts. I will only say that in the time since I’ve last posted, I have traveled to Paris (in rather turbulent conditions) and I’ve been adjusting to the (beautiful and fabulous!) city. This post will be different than the last several posts, as it will be more personal in nature and less instructive. It may be a nice change of pace for you, for those who are tired of me telling you what to do—or it may be incredibly boring or downright melodramatic. Which is to say, I am rather self-conscious about this post, and would not be adverse to positive affirmations of any kind. 

I came to Paris to write for a very specific reason. For the most part, I’ve been rather down in the last few months (years) and I’ve had to do some serious self-reflection (and I picked up shamanic drumming, which is a whole other story) these last few months in order to get myself to an okay place.
Most writers are fickle creatures. So I know I am not alone here. We can throw ourselves on the floor and cry about some of the simplest things (no more coffee? The dog pooped on the carpet again? My favorite scarf has a chocolate smear on it? Mon Dieu! ) Personally, I feel that I vacillate between trop sensitivity to full-blown apathy. 

As much as I wish I were a more consistent person, I’ve had to accept that in the Chinese element sense, I am more Wind and Water than Earth. At first I crash upon the rocks and then I smooth into a current again. It’s just my style.

But this first book, Dying for a Living is drowning me. 

So I came to Paris to be a little less dead inside. I thought, if the most beautiful city in the world can’t inspire me to get my shit together (as an educated, white person in a privileged country—what do I have to cry about!), if it can’t spark that passion in me again—then I am probably a lost cause.
But in the name of fairness, the little voice says, there is a reason why are you this way. Perhaps you aren’t dead at all, but just exhausted. After all, it is hard to sustain enthusiasm for something (a dream) that is entirely hypothetical (enough $$ to be a writer full-time).

Let me explain.

I, after a great deal of mental turmoil, committed to being writer in 2003. This is when I changed my major (again) from pre-med/psychology to English. And in that moment, I felt completely and incandescently happy with my decision. The turmoil was lifted. I’d reached the point when didn’t care what my friends/family thought of me anymore and shrugged off their expectations of me. It was perfect—and somehow I lost this magical feeling—but not all at once.

I then spent five years writing a bunch of crap. Jesse and Ally (leads from my forthcoming book) were there, but my work (3 really bad novel manuscripts and a ton of shorts and poetry that were teenage diary material, never to see the light of day) was far from publishable. But it didn’t matter. I was happy. I was having a good time. I blame this on the fact that from at 20-24 years old, I didn’t care as much about the direction my life was going.

Then in the summer of 2008, the idea for how to rewrite Jesse in just the right way came to me. I was on a hillside in Italy, in a state of delirium, dragging my bags up the side of a mountain (Cinque Terre) to be exact) in the August heat. It was breakthrough moment for me, and when I got home on August 28, 2008, I sat down and began the book that would become Dying for a Living

But then something changed.

Somewhere in the year of getting an agent, followed by the three years of remaining unpublished even though I’d written two more (pretty good) books, that ridiculous love and passion for writing had tapered off.

First it became just a day or two of not writing. Then longer. I started a lot of stories and a lot of novels that I couldn’t finish—all of it tapering off until I just stopped writing at all.

And I couldn’t quite figure out what had changed. I had some suspect variables: I’d finished grad school, where I’d completed an MA, then a MFA. An MFA is an incredibly supportive time in a writer’s life. The validation, encouragement and rich cultural/literary stimulation are great food—and that was gone. 
I suddenly started to care a great deal about the direction of my life and what the hell I was doing with it. I got a job as an adjunct writing instructor. Nothing like a job that overworks and underpays to destroy the best of you. After grading 80-100 essays, I had nothing left in me to put toward my own work. But I couldn’t not work. I didn’t want to be a literal starving artist.

And there was the fact that I was approaching thirty (for those of you much older than me, bear with me here. I know I sound like a whiny little snot).  For a woman my age, there is a lot of pressure to be settled, popping out babies with a stable job right about now. Everyone is asking about these things. My dentist is asking about these things.  And when I tell someone I’m writing—whew! The looks! The derision! And when they reluctantly ask what I’m writing (contemporary/ urban fantasy) and what I’ve published (nothing but 25-ish poems as of yet)—the replies get even icier. 

And it struck a chord because it was sort of true.  I didn’t have a published book—no validation for all of my efforts. I didn’t have children to blame for my slow progress. (I have a dog, who sleeps most of the day, and therefore, she isn’t a great alibi). So on the worst days, I felt like I had nothing to show for a whole lot of work. I felt like the whole world was right about this writing thing.

And even though I list out these factors and try to pinpoint which of these ultimately ruined me—I can’t say for certain. Except that perhaps, being wind and water, I’m terribly susceptible to the pressure around me.

So here I am. 30 years old in a Paris café, hoping to rekindle some of that unfettered joy that I had for writing at 20—just because that’s what I do. That’s what I am meant to do—despite living in a world that values money, progress and the material, rather than art and the conceptual. Do fall in love with the process of writing, not the outcome—some shit about the journey and not the destination, you know?
And hopefully this trip will help me re-center myself. Better yet, help me to build those inner walls that are so necessary to protect an artist against the greater world.

Hopefully, I will find what I am looking for. Because right now Paris just seems like a bad idea--an extravagance that I can't really afford for a problem that only I (regardless of location) can solve

If you’ve experienced some flavor of this yourself, feel free to share your story with me. More importantly, how you got your mojo back. I'm looking for tips. Obviously, I am desperate enough to pack my bags, empty my account/face destitution, and fly to Paris--just to find the answer.

À Bientôt,


Sunday, January 5, 2014

How I Got My Agent, Step 5: The Finish Line

So like a modern avatar, you summoned the waters of publication and sent out wave after wave of query letters until an agent of choice washed up on your sandy shore.

You finally heard a version of the magic words: “I’d like to offer you representation.”

Congrats! Celebrate!  You’re awesome! And then once you’ve burned off some of this…

…focus on the task at hand. First, you may want to read this. I wish I had. It does a pretty good job of answering all the questions you might have about this precarious step before committing to an agent.

And here is what I want to say on the matter from personal experience.

*Ask questions. When the matter of representation comes up, have your questions ready. It is OK (even expected) that you’ll ask questions. The questions should include anything that you are unsure about regarding the agent-client relationship. This might include:

*What percentage will (s)he take for commission? (15% for domestic rights and 20% for foreign rights is standard).
*Is (s)he only interested in this book or in representing all of your future work as well?
*If you write other work (i.e. poetry, screenwriting, etc.), does (s)he have an interest/the capacity to represent this work too?
*What are the rules regarding the “reimbursement of expenses”?
*If you write in multiple genres, do they have connections (and with who) in your other genres as well?

Not all of these questions may apply to you. That’s okay. The point is, you should be thinking about your writing in this way, and how your agent may serve you in the promotion of your work.

*Be professional. While it is true that this is the moment where most agents are wooing you instead of the other way around (finally!), that first call is still an “interview” of sorts. The agent is trying to get a feel for you as much as you are for him/her. And this is true long after you sign a contract. All of your communication should be professional regardless of how you might actually feel in the moment.

*Go with your gut. You should feel good about signing with your agent.  If you do not like your agent or do not feel it is good match, then the relationship will be a difficult one. And believe me, the publishing world can be brutal. No need to wrestle with your own agent—someone who is supposed to be on your side when few others are. So be sure that you have the same vision for your work as they do. And that they have the resources and stamina to support you in your journey.


*Review the contract carefully. If your gut says, yes, the only thing standing between you and a celebratory booze-fest is a contract. If your agent sends you a contract to sign, this is normal (mine did). Just be sure to read it carefully. Make sure everything that you agreed to in the “ask questions” section holds true in writing. If you read something that doesn’t sit well, ask your agent about it. Usually the agent is capable of clarifying any confusion. However, I know a few writers who went ahead and paid a lawyer to review the contract on their behalf before signing. It’s your call how you’d like to handle it. The point is to double-check. Better safe than sorry.

So with all of the above out of the way, only one thing left to do—celebrate with the loved ones who helped to get you here:

Bonus Tip:

*Be prepared for revisions. It is not uncommon for you to submit something that you consider “done” to your agent (before or after signing) only to have it returned with pages and pages of corrections. And that is okay. It is their job to point out any weaknesses in the writing before they show it around to potential editors. So don’t be turned off by this request. It will likely happen often.