Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good and The Bad

I met with Janet Reid on Saturday. Face to face with The Agent. It was... anti-climactic. At first glance.

I was sitting in the reception area after lunch with a few minutes to spare before our meeting, observing the other attendees, absorbing the experience. She came over and asked if I was ready. Sure, ready as I'm gonna be.

We went into a private room with a long table and a sky of natural light. She dropped my pages on the table in front of me and said, "Try not to faint."

I picked them up to take a look. Her blue markings were all over the place. She started talking.

She said my opening sentences were too long. She said start with the second paragraph. She said it needs tightening.

Okay. I can take that.

She pointed out a couple of other problems, such as a lack of a compelling reason for a particular action. Okay, I can see that. Sort of. I thought a reader would take something for granted, but I can see how the action could be given a clear motive. Fair enough.

It seemed to me that she thought she was being more harsh than what I thought she was being. Maybe she's used to wannabe writers who crumble under the critical words of a pro. Maybe she made some early presumptions about me based on meeting me earlier in the day. Maybe I'm dense and couldn't read between the lines. I don't know.

She also said, "You're not a bad writer. No, I take that back. You're a good writer."

Okay, thanks for that.

"You've got all the elements of a good opening." Followed by, "It still needs work."

I put the manuscript down and absorbed the comments, and we talked some more. We talked about writing and writers, and the value of many of the agent and editor blogs. She likes Evil Editor's blog. Who doesn't?

She asked me questions. Where do I live? What do I do for a living? We talked regular people stuff. I shared some personal info, and so did she.

Before I knew it, my thirty minutes were up.

It was upon reflection that I found the real value in the meeting. I took a few days to digest her comments and read her marks and comments on the manuscript.

It does need tightening. How could I have missed the things she pointed out? They seem so obvious to me now.

I played with the first two paragraphs tonight. I shortened the sentences. I moved some things around. What do you know? It's better.

I've also been giving a lot of thought to the story itself. It's no secret to anyone who's read my occassional whinings on here, I've struggled with the outcome. I don't like the plot as it stands. The main character doesn't have enough at stake. He isn't conflicted enough for my liking.

I've decided to start over, and I feel liberated by the decision. I'll keep this story and possibly use some characters and scenes, but I'm making big changes.

The main character is going to be darker, with more inner turmoil. He'll be more tragic. And he'll have personal stakes in the outcome. I thought I could write that subtext into the plot I started with, and maybe I still could, but I'm not sold on the story as the way I'm telling it, so I'm going to create a story I can get my teeth into.

While I noodle the story, I'm researching police and investigative procedures much more deeply than I have to this point. It's fun. Writing cop scenes will be fun.

Back to the conference. A great experience. I met some nice people. I learned a lot.

Shorter sentences. Got it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

New Experience

Today I attended my first writer's conference, and it was interesting. Lots of wannabes like me, all ages, from 12 to, I'm guessing, about 85. The first event I attended was a panel discussion with agents and editors. Katharine Sands and Janet Reid (agents) and Benjamin LeRoy (editor for Bleak House books). They started out by telling us a little bit about themselves and what they do, and then opened it up to questions.

I kept my mouth shut. As a wise man once said, better to keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool, than open my mouth and prove it. So I just listened.

I thought most of the questions were pretty good, fairly educated questions. I didn't glean a great deal of new information, mostly because I read agent and editor blogs frequently and have seen most of these questions answered in those forums, but it was still interesting to listen to the answers and see the person(s) providing the answers.

Janet Reid is very energetic and witty, and obviously knowledgeable. She's not shy about making her point, but not harsh about it, either.

Katharine Sands comes across as sophisticated and also knowledgeable. Her style is a little more reserved than Janet's, but she gets her point across.

Benjamin LeRoy is younger than I expected and if I were to describe him in one word: serious.

They all share a common trait. They are passionate about their work. It is obvious that they love what they do. They love books and writers, and they love being involved in the process of making a story as good as it can be and getting it into print and making it available to the public.

The next session I attended was a workshop on character development, hosted by Claire Matturro, author of four published novels: Bone Valley, Wildcat Wine, Skinny Dipping, and Sweetheart Deal. She's a very nice lady and a talented writer, and the workshop was interesting and offered some excellent insights on character development.

Overall, it was an interesting day. And tomorrow, I attend another session hosted by Janet Reid called Going Commando. It deals with the question: do you need a literary agent. I'm looking forward to it.

And then tomorrow afternoon I have my manuscript consultation with, you probably guessed it already, Janet Reid. Strangely, I'm not as nervous as I was earlier in the week. I expect some criticism. I can look at the 25 pages I sent in and see where I need to trim some fat. I expect to be told I need to whittle down chapter two, eliminate some redundacy and get rid of some sections of dialogue that can be dealt with later in the story. I'm going in with an open mind, and hopefully I won't get hammered too hard. Whatever happens, it will be an experience I won't forget, I'm sure of that.

More to come...

Monday, July 21, 2008


Time is ticking down. Days now, rather than weeks. Soon I'll be counting in hours. Friday I'll be counting in minutes.

The Day is drawing near.

The Day when I meet The Agent.

The potential for an emotional extreme, positive or negative, is off the charts. Which means the stakes are high. Emotional stakes are more pulse pounding than most any other kind.

Personal stakes. Hopes and dreams.

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit dramatic, but it's true on many levels. I write because I love to write, but like anything else I undertake with some level of fervor, I want to do it well. I'd like to be published, and if some financial success followed, that would be the dream come true. The dream.

But, I don't live in the dream. I live in the hope.

I write, I read, I learn, I practice, and I get better. I do it because I love creating a movie in your head with my words. I love the process of creating characters and settings and scenes. I love the way the plot emerges slowly in my mind as I'm working on the characters, and then when something connects and the epiphany flashes, it's a spiritual experience. I dig it. So I will continue to write, no matter what the outcome of this looming encounter with a being who possesses the power to crush my hope.

I know, dramatic again. All kidding aside, I will be disappointed if I hear, "The writing just isn't there, yet."

I can handle hearing, "It needs some work but it's close." That I can handle without breaking down and crying like a little boy who just dropped his ice cream cone.

I can handle hearing, "It's not for me." Not every story is going to connect with every agent, such is life.

But given the forum for this critique, I think I'll come away knowing if my skills as a wordsmith are approaching a publishable level.

I'm afraid to dwell on the other extreme of the spectrum. The potential fall is too risky. I try to stay right around the middle. Hoping to hear, "This is pretty good. You need to work on..."

Anything better than that is sugar on top. Anything less, well, I'll keep my game face on until I get back to my hotel room, probably call some people and share my disappointment. Try not to cry.

Tick tock tick tock...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Cool Stuff

That last post was kind of dark, though I didn't mean for it to be. From my perspective, it was kind of a "that's life" train of thought, but the subject matter was melancholy, and I try not to ride that train for long. So I want to share some exciting news.

I mentioned before that I read several agent, editor, and writer's blogs, some more consistently than others. Evil Editor's blog is one I read just about every day, same with Janet Reid, Nathan Bransford, and a few others. I read the blogs of some writers with whom I'm friendly (some damn good friends, too).

A couple of weeks ago I was checking the blog of one of the agents I follow. I was scrolling down, looking at her side bar having read the posts already, and saw that she lists the conferences she'll be attending. I was surprised to see that one of the conferences is only about 90 miles from me. I was immediately intrigued.

I followed the link to the conference website, checked the dates and the sessions in which this agent will be involved. I also read the descriptions of the different workshops being held. One immediately caught my attention. You can submit the first 25 pages of your manuscript to be critiqued by a faculty member of a nearby university, or one of the editors or agents that will be at the conference. That would be cool, to get a professional opinion of the WIP from someone in the publishing profession, and spend 30 minutes getting skewered by them. A face-to-face with someone who can smash my dreams with a pitiful shake of the head, or send me into orbit with an encouraging word.

Unfortunately, the deadline for submitting my work for this particular workshop had passed about five days earlier. No big deal, I would still go to the conference, if for nothing more than to attend the agent's sessions, and maybe try for a chance encounter in the hotel bar and offer to buy her a drink and happen to have several copies of the the first 50 pages nearby, in the event she finds my conversation so enchanting that she asks for some pages. I've heard it can happen at these conferences. It's bad form to ask the agent to read your pages, but you definitely want to have them available if she asks to see them.

So, I called the conference organizer and asked if I could register over the phone. No problem, they take Visa. I tell her I want the half-days for this particular agent's sessions. I tell her that I plan to query this agent when my WIP is complete, and it would be cool to meet her beforehand.

Wonderful, she says. All signed up. Is there anything else?

Well, I said, I wanted to do the manuscript workshop, but the deadline has passed. She says no problem, she hasn't sent the materials off yet. If I can email her the pages that day, she'll still get me in. Cool, excellent, yes sign me up for that. Great, she says. Would you like to do it with (The Agent)?


I can pick?

Hell, yeah, let me do it with her!

So here I am. Registered, paid, and the pages sent.

What the fuck have I done?

I mean, I think the pages are fairly polished, I've been shining them up for a while now, but still. The Agent. Seriously. What the fuck have I done?

This particular agent (I'm not trying to be mysterious, I just don't want to jinx the meeting, not that I'm superstitious or anything) is not known for her gentle handling of us wannabes. At least, not from what I gather reading her blog. She's respectful, but she isn't going to sugarcoat her critique. If you can't handle her opinion, don't ask her for it. Okay, I guess I've asked for it. In a big way. Maybe the drinks should come before the consultation. Lots of them.

It's a strange, pleasant mix of emotions. Excitement blended with apprehension, hope stirred up with dread.

There are many variations of what I might hear from The Agent. Anything from laughter followed by "Oh, you were serious?" to "Send me the full when it's finished."

Realistically, it will probably be somewhere between the two, hopefully toward the "this is pretty good" end of the spectrum.

Whatever happens, I have a feeling it will be an experience I'm not likely to forget. I'm looking forward to it. The ultimate reality check. Pretty cool stuff.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


The last four weekends, I've spent one of the weekend days driving 385 miles, north or south. Yesterday I drove home to the beach from north Georgia, where I spent the week with my father. He's not doing well. His health is deteriorating, sometimes it seems daily. He is, for the most part, quickly becoming unable to care for himself. My sister, who lives about 10 miles from him, and I are doing the best we can to make him as comfortable as possible. So the last three weeks I've been alternating between Jacksonville, FL and north GA. It's about 7 hours by car, the way I drive, which is at a pretty comfortable pace, not reckless but not lollygaggin, either. I do have to make quite a few stops, as I drink coffee and water the whole way. But that's not the point. The point is, I've been spending about 7 hours in the car each weekend, which allows a lot of time to think.

It gives me time to work on the plot lines for the WIP, which seems to be coming together, if I can ever find time to write out the ideas I've been jotting down while trying to keep the truck between the lines at 75 mph. The background conflict in the main character was eluding me, that deep-seeded motivation that drives his life choices. I managed to find it during the hours on the road. Hallelujah.

The other thing I think about during those hours is my dad. The man who raised me and taught me what it means to be a man is slowly fading away. He's 76 and he's led a good life, and he is a good man. He had a successful career, not without some bumps, but very successful overall. He had a wonderful marriage that lasted 47 years before the love of his life got sick and died, somewhat suddenly. If you can call 2 1/2 weeks in the hospital sudden. I do, because up until she went to see the doctor for what she thought was the flu, she seemed perfectly healthy. A very aggressive form of cancer took my mother in 2004, and it took a lot of my dad, as well.

My dad has been getting weaker and more frail over the last couple of years. Losing more hair, losing his musculature, just getting older. But since I went up there the first week of May, for my niece's college graduation, his health has deteriorated rapidly. He was driving his truck in May, getting around okay. Today he has to ride an electric scooter from the den to the kitchen. Standing up out of his chair, to step and turn and sit back down on the scooter, is a chore. He has to psyche himself up for it.

We don't know exactly what is wrong with him. There may be several things, but he has all the symptoms of congestive heart failure, including what I've been told are those symptoms that emerge pretty close to the end. We don't know what else might be wrong with him, because he hasn't been to a doctor in probably thirty years, with the exception of the eye doctor. Not a physical exam in that time, certainly. My mom couldn't get him to see a doctor, and she was the only one who could ever get him to do anything he didn't really want to do. In the last few weeks my sister and I have tried to get him to let us bring a doctor to the house to examine him. I found a doctor that actually makes house calls. Dad said no.

But he can give you a quick examination, cursory, nothing intrusive, and prescribe some things that will help you breathe easier, and help with the swelling.

No, I don't want a doctor.

When I tell people this, I get one of two reactions. One reaction is a shake of the head, maybe a tsking sound to go along with it, and, "Stubborn, huh? Doesn't think he needs a doctor."

Well, yes and no. Yes, he is stubborn, without a doubt. In fact, I get mine from him. For the first 25 or 30 years of my life, out stubborness made for some tense times, but I matured and he mellowed and we've been pretty close for the last 15 years or so. But as far as not thinking he needs a doctor, that's not the way he looks at it. He knows doctors can do things, maybe make him feel a little better, and possibly prolong his life.

There's the rub. He doesn't want to prolong his life. He's tired. He's lonely. His body is failing naturally, and he's ready to let it happen and move on to the next thing. He's a man of faith, believes in heaven. He believes he's going there. And he believes my mom is there waiting for him.

The other reaction I get is, "Can't you make him see a doctor?"

Uh, no. I can't. I've never been able to make my father do anything, and I learned enough long ago to quit trying. He has all of his mental faculties, and they seem to be working pretty well. The other day we were watching TV and a commercial for some local politician came on. I wasn't really paying attention, I was reading The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard. I heard my father say, not very loud, "That's the most ridiculous haircut I've ever seen." I looked at the TV and burst out laughing. It was a fuckin ridiculous haircut, almost a bowl cut with a part up one side, the politician looking like a caricature of a moron. I looked at dad and he was looking back at me, chuckling. "He's going for the pity vote," he said.

Yeah, he's paying attention and knows what time it is. He doesn't say much, never has and especially not now that he struggles to breath, but when he does speak he makes it count.

No, I can't make my father see a doctor. Honestly, I'm not inclined to make him. He's lived over three quarters of a century, he's dying, and he's ready to go. I don't want to lose him, but what right do I have to delay the journey he's ready to take? It's a hard question at first glance, but as I said, I've had time to think about it from every angle.

I don't have the right to say, "You can't choose to die a natural death. We must let the doctors do whatever they can do to prolong your life." No, he's earned the right to make his own choices here at the end.

All we can do is make him as comfortable as possible, and I believe we're doing that. He has a home care lady that comes to his house from 10-4 Monday through Friday. The weeks that I'm there, I'm with him in the mornings and in the evenings. Weeks that I'm not there, my sister goes over early until the lady gets there, then goes back over after dinner for a couple of hours. We get him what he needs, and I help him bathe, and I shave him and clip his toenails. We make sure he eats. He's as comfortable as he can be without the aid of modern medicine.

He has a Do Not Rescuscitate order, signed and hanging by a magnet on the side of the refrigerator. Legally, he's spelled it out. I've got the same thing written down for me. I can't blame him for wanting to be allowed to let nature take its course. If you believe in heaven, I guess you want to go there when it's your time. I can see it from that perspective.

That doesn't make it much easier, though, when I sit there with him at night and know he's struggling to get some oxygen. It's a helpless feeling. It's ironic, too, that one of my oldest and best friends has a respiratory therapy company and could get him hooked up with some oxygen if a doctor prescribed it. I mentioned it again last Thursday, and received The Look. I used to get that look all the time when I was a kid. It means, basically, "Don't push it, you're one step away from pissing me off." Even at his age, in his condition, he can give me The Look. So I dropped it and won't bring it up again.

I'm grateful for this time I'm spending with him. My company is gracious enough to let me work out of our Atlanta office on alternating weeks, which is a huge help to me and my family. It takes some of the strain off my sister when I'm up there. She has a busy household and when I'm up there she doesn't have to manage her schedule around going to his house twice a day. Most of all, though, I'm truly grateful that I can be there for him, after all the years of him being there for me. It's my chance to thank him for teaching me, through actions more than words, how to live like a man. And he's still teaching me now.