the day my computer screen went black

It had happened before. My MacBook Air screen goes black and it takes many rounds of on and off button pushing to get it to wake up.

But it had never happened in conjunction with spilled water.

I didn’t panic at first. There wasn’t that much water. The blank screen was more annoying than anything. I had been struck by the inspiration bug, finally ready to revise the opening chapter of my work in progress after undergoing a workshop critique. I was itching to get my thoughts on paper, and my computer’s lack of cooperation was stymying that effort.

“Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll take you to Apple,” I said to my computer, convinced by the time I drove to Georgetown, found parking, and got to the Genius Bar, the screen would defiantly light back up at me with nothing worse than a crash version of my word doc. Doesn’t all technology behave in front of the experts? “Really, it wouldn’t turn on,” I heard myself explaining to the tech.

But that was not the situation at all. The computer wouldn’t cooperate with my 23-year old wiz kid helper either. He took it in the back so they could check out the guts. His report was grim.

“We found severe water damage.” I groaned and put my head into hands. He quoted the price to fix it, a figure high enough that I considered buying a new computer instead. Then Wiz Kid told me the real bad news. “Unless you pay for data retrieval, the chances are we won’t be able to save anything.”

Those words echoed through my head as tears sprang forth and the contents of my stomach threatened to make an appearance all over the shiny clean lines of the Apple store. It would cost at least $1000 on top of the repairs to potentially retrieve my word files.

I continued to cry. Okay, sob. I shook. I could feel the customers around me both trying to ignore me and to figure out what happened. I had recently started saving documents to Google Drive but I couldn’t remember what I had saved there. My novel? My agent queries? My entire work in progress or just the few chapters I had sent out for critique?

In a moment of clarity, I asked Wiz Kid to let me sign in to Google on one of their computers to check what documents I had access to. I could barely see through my tears though and was unable to focus on the file names.

“I don’t see what I need. I don’t see what I need,” I chanted, desperation spilling off me.

“I get it,” Wiz Kid sympathized. “If I, like, lost a paper for school or something I’d be really upset too.”

“I’m an aspiring novelist,” I snapped back. “I wrote an entire book and am three-quarters of the way through writing the second one.” He didn’t respond. Then my eyes honed in on the two file names I needed. Both books were safe in the Google Drive.
Everything else? Expendable.

But I cried all day nonetheless. I tried to find peace. Hey, I had the two most important documents. I didn’t lose my only hard copy of my novel to fire, wind or theft. But I couldn’t ground myself, and the more I thought about my first world loss, the more despondent I grew.

Today is better. A few people have commented “not having your computer is like not having a limb” but I refuse to buy into that sentiment. I have hands and pens and paper. I still have my imagination and the means to express it. Maybe these five to seven business days while Apple repairs my computer will be good for creativity. Maybe it will be good for me to not be constantly tethered to and reliant on a piece of technology.

So on this cold rainy day, I’m curled up on the couch instead of sitting at my desk. I have a blanket, cup of tea and two cats. I have four printed out chapters of my work in progress. And today, I will write like so many did before a power source and the right software were required to get the job done.

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on writing sex scenes

When I mention I wrote a novel, it’s amazing how many people ask if it has sex scenes. It’s a fair question. Sex intrigues. Sex sells. But honestly, while there’s implied sex and the hint of sexual activity, a go for broke sex scene just didn’t fit. (Yes, I am aware of how many copies the Fifty Shades series sold.) In my pages, you won’t find ripping bodices, pulsing anything or turgidity, except a little bit in one self-love scene that may or may not make the cut as the story moves through the process.

Frankly, it’s a little intimidating to write a sex scene (unless your name is Pavarti K. Tyler, my erotica writing friend). For starters, you have to use the right vocabulary, and that’s hard to do without blushing or giggling. I recently read an article written by a poet who was trying her hand at prose. The one aspect in the conversion she found most difficult was sex. In poetry, fruit can serve as a metaphor for sex acts and body parts. But “he cupped her ripe mangos” isn’t exactly going to fly, even in chick lit.

Seriously, the synonyms for the real words are worse than the words they are meant to replace.

But it wasn’t the difficulty of writing sex scenes that kept book number one on the dirty side of chaste. I just wanted to emphasize the other ways my main characters bond.

But gird your loins for my second book. It’s going to be steamy.

 

and now the waiting

94,400 words, two professional rounds of edits and an uncountable number of marks with my dying red pen later, I’ve started pitching agents.

The first experience was only made tolerable by the help I got from my dad, who it turns out is an ace at writing proposals. On Facebook, I compared sending the first query to the first time having sex. It was dreadful. Uncomfortable. I was full of self doubt, but experienced a sense of relief when it was done. Six hours later, the agent in question rejected me (another parallel to my first sexual encounter) but each query I’ve made since has been easier. Better. And on the plus side, it only took two hours and four minutes for an agent in my top three to request my full manuscript.

Yes, as I described a few months ago, the agent pitching process is a lot like online dating. But worse in a way because you can’t tell whether someone peeked at your profile, and it could take four to six weeks to get a wink. Or you might not get a wink at all, as the downside to electronic submissions is that many agents only respond if they are interested. So at some point in the average response window, if you haven’t heard anything, you have to reach your own conclusion that s/he is just not that into you(r writing). I’m not good at reaching that conclusion in my dating life, so this part is going to be particularly tough for your favorite debut novelist wannabe.

In the meantime, while I wait to either hear back (or not) from the remaining 24 agents I’ve queried, I don’t really know how to channel my creative energy. Do I start writing the second book? Enter some writing contests? Revamp my Modern Love essay that was rejected? Reconnect with the real world, which I’ve more or less disappeared from since the  beginning of the new year? Recommit to finding a new client? Bask at the pool and read?

Or maybe, while I’m steeled for rejection, I’ll try online dating.

Reinvention

When I was in high school, I planned to major in drama when I went I college. But then I didn’t get the lead role – or any role for that matter – in the senior play, crushing my Broadway dreams. I went to the other extreme: I decided to major in pre-law.

My step-mother talked me out of it. “Do you really want to be a lawyer?” she asked. “You’re too diplomatic for that.”

Diplomacy wasn’t a major so I went with International Relations. “What kind of job are you going to get as an IR major,” the adults around me asked. I didn’t really know. I figured I’d travel the world and eventually become a diplomat.

Senior year, the need for a respectable job looming, I took the Foreign Service exam.

(As an aside, my creative writing instructor encouraged me to become a writer. “You’re talented. You should really consider this writing thing.” His words still ring through my brain on a loop.)

On the Foreign Service exam, I scored one point lower than the cut-off for an interview. (14 years later, pregnant with Colin, I was offered that interview as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit, but I wasn’t really in a position to take a post in a third world country, as amazing as that sounds to me now.)

I wanted to go abroad, mostly because I was in love with a foreigner. I applied for the Peace Corps. Got an interview. Was told my liberal arts degree didn’t arm me with any applicable skills. “I want to volunteer,” I pleaded. “I can teach English as a Second Language.” I needed experience to prove it.

So I applied to a program to teach English in the Czech Republic for a summer. It was a fabulous experience. This was the answer. I’d go home, get a Master’s degree in Education, travel the world teaching English.

I got a job teaching ESL in Boston and went to school at night. But three days after graduating with my M.Ed., I had an epiphany: my lifelong dream was to work on Capitol Hill.

I didn’t know the first thing about how to get a job on Capitol Hill. I flew to DC. Walked unscheduled into Senator Susan Collins’ office.

“Hi, I’m from Maine. I’ve always wanted to work on Capitol Hill and was wondering if someone could talk to me about the process.” That “talk” ended with a job offer.

I moved, driving solo in a U-Haul truck with all my worldly belongings to a city where I knew two people. I made friends. I figured out what “recess” meant and how to get to the Senate floor. At some point I was given the responsibility of writing letters on environmental issues, which led to a job on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

A moderate republican environmentalist was born. The rest is on my LinkedIn page.

Everything opportunity I’ve had in DC happened by accident. I’m some weird poster child for being in the right place at the right time. But were all these career moves right?

While I balance consulting for myself with writing my novel, more and more of my passion flows toward the latter. Just have coffee, lunch, a drink with me and time how many minutes I spend talking about the book versus talking about lobbying. I don’t picture myself pounding the marble halls of Congress forever. In an ideal world, I don’t picture myself pounding the halls of Congress next year. I know how dangerous it is to put that in writing; some future employer or client could use it against me. “She’s not dedicated enough to policy. She just wants to write her book.”

But that’s far from true. I’m still passionate about my issues, and as long as working on them helps me sustain this dream of being published, I’ll continue to pursue energy work with gusto. It’s admittedly hard. This isn’t a town that embraces the unconventional. By my own invention, I don’t fit the norm.

But for now I’ll wear the label of wacky lobbyist-slash-aspiring-writer and hope that my professional luck continues. Maybe someday, that long ago writing instructor will see my published book and remember my name.

the winter of my contentment

I know it’s technically spring, but my down coat still hangs front and center in my closet; I dare not put away my snow boots or pack up the hats and gloves. Many have groaned and sighed at the beating we took this winter. We may not have had storms that packed the punch of those belonging to snowmaggedon, but the season was long and bitter and won’t soon be forgot.

I loved it.

Sure, I rolled my eyes in sympathy with the complainers, commiserated with the cold and weary. But I had my fingers crossed behind my back as tightly as the scarf was wound around my neck.

Winter is the most romantic season of all. And while I spent it alone, there’s nothing like wind chills in the single digits and a fire roaring in the fire place to inspire great writing.  I haven’t exactly been the most social being the last four months. Winter exacerbated my reserve, and writing gave me something productive to do behind closed doors (sometimes under piles of blankets). Now I get why there are so many great Russian writers.

Perhaps my favorite day this winter came just before spring officially came on the books. The St. Patrick’s Day storm lived up to the hype, dropping nine inches in our town, closing the federal government and schools. (As a sole proprietor, I follow whatever closing decision is most advantageous to my needs.) My dear friends hosted happy hour. Outside. In their backyard. A fire blazed in the fire pit. Snowbanks kept our Guinness and wine cold. We bundled up and sat close, making the most of what we could not control. I felt truly social for the first time since December, huddled over a fire as the snow fell and kids sledded nearby. I wanted that night to never end.

I’m out of tights. Open-toed shoes are waiting in the closet. It feels awkward to wear a black sweater in mid-April. (Easter dress, schmeaster dress.) My down coat really does need a turn in the washing machine and my wool coats are ready for dry cleaning. My yard is happily popping with tulips and daffodils and I would like to open the windows, but I’m sad to see the winter go. This winter was made glorious summer by my embracing its chilly offerings.

 

where have all the bookstores gone?

Remember the days when if you had a little extra time, you’d meander into a bookstore? Walk between the aisles, looking for something new or maybe a long lost book written by a favorite author? Nowadays we instead spend our leisure time taking Buzz Feed quizzes and following on Facebook the lives of people who wouldn’t under other circumstances make the friend cut.

I miss bookstores. Hey, I fell for it like everyone else. I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon early. It felt safer to travel with an e-reader in case I’m ever stuck on the Tarmac for so long that if I finish my book, I conveniently have another waiting without all the bulk. But lately I’ve been craving books. Real paper and binding books.

I love the way books smell. I love the way they feel. You can bathe with them, sleep with them, and even dribble ice cream on them without concern.

My desire to trade my electronics for paper did not come out of nowhere. I’m inspired by the fact that I JUST WROTE A NOVEL and at some point in the undefined future, I’m going to want people to buy my book. And not the electronic version (though if that’s the only way to get you to read it, then fine). I want you all to buy the tangible version and take it with you everywhere so passers by ask, “hey, how is it?” To which you will reply, “I can’t put it down.”

But I digress.

These days when I buy a book, I usually order from Amazon because there are no more bookstores. I read an interview with a literary agent who said if you are a debut author and you aren’t going to a bookstore at least once a month to buy in hardback another debut author’s work, you aren’t supporting other writers. I want to help, I do. I believe in karma. Please someone let me pay full price for a hard cover book. But where?

Today I tried to hit the only Barnes and Noble I can think of, which I know is really no better than Amazon but forget finding an independent bookstore. Traffic jams, too many tourists and lack of parking got the better of me and I gave up the mission. This evening I stopped by Busboys and Poets. While I appreciate the curated (i.e. small) fiction collection, it wasn’t as satisfying of an experience. You can’t get lost in between two bookshelves.

I’m determined to bring back books. Let’s make it sexy again to carry a book. (I’d totally date that book toting guy.) If we demand it, they shall build it, right? As shopping trends move toward buying local, don’t forget that there are and should be more places to buy your reads than Amazon.

finding an agent: worse than online dating

If you’ve been around me at all over the last three months, you’ve probably heard me make the joke that as a debut novelist, the process of finding an agent is worse than online dating. Except it isn’t a joke at all. Not that I’m a huge match.com expert. The one time I tried it many years ago left me permanently scarred even though I went on zero dates.

Let’s hope I have better luck on my agent search.

If you don’t have a literary agent [eligible dating material] running in your social circles, you have to make a list of whom to query [join an online dating site]. That’s hard. There are agent databases [online dating sites] which share basic information like agency [bachelor] address [age, exaggerated height, eye color] and the genres [desired age range, kid preference, hobbies] the agent [prospective suitor] is interested in representing [finding in a partner]. You also get a sampling [photos] of their authors [adventurous vacations] many whom [places] you’ve never heard of [traveled to] which makes you feel guilty because you consider yourself an avid reader [traveler].

I’ve spent weeks amassing my initial list of 20 dream agents [dates]. I could end up querying [trying to date] 50-100, depending on my success with the first tranche [few suitors].

In all seriousness, once my manuscript is ready, the next step is to cold call agents, except I can’t actually call at all because phone calls are prohibited. Some agents accept email, though no attachments. Just one long message that includes cover letter, synopsis (sometimes 2-3 pages, sometimes 10-15) and maybe an excerpt from the beginning of my story. In many cases, you’re instructed to send the cover letter, synopsis and manuscript by snail mail, unless the literary agency has noted to only send a cover letter and synopsis because they’ll reach out if they want to read more.

Each query [photo] has to be personally tailored [perfect] so that they agent’s intern [bachelor’s best friend] who does the first round of cuts doesn’t throw me in the discard pile. I can’t compare myself to any classic writers [supermodels]. I’m supposed to share why I think I’d be compatible with that agent [bachelor].

Oh, and don’t forget to include a SASE for the rejection letter. Yes, you have to pay for your own rejection. That’s worse than a breakup text.

Speaking of, you don’t get rejected on the quality of your work [personality] at all, but on how riveting [gorgeous] your cover letter [photo] is. Are you kidding me? I just wrote a 95,000-word novel [am witty, warm, charming] and I have to catch your attention with my cover letter [looks]?

My first choice agent was written up recently as a rising star. She seems like someone I’d like as a friend. I picture us drinking a bottle of wine and talking books. She happens to be looking for the next hot debut author, a definite bonus. Then I saw her picture. She was wearing great, Chelsea-like eyewear and tall black boots.

Yes, I could work with [date] her.