Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pitch Problems (In the Category of Say What You Mean.) #52Weeks

Now I remember why I gave up on trying to publish Novel #1. I really hate writing pitches and cover letters. It should startle you to read that I hate any certain style of writing. It startled me, just now, even thinking about typing it. Me, hate to write something? That never happens.

Until I started to gear up for Contest The First of my 2014 #12Contests challenge. The contest opened 23 days ago, and it will close with the receipt of the 200th submission. Novel #2 is ready to go, but before I can submit it, I need to write a pitch. My stomach dropped when I read the requirement.

In 500 words or less, describe your novel and why it's the best book ever. Include a full synopsis (not a tease).

The best book ever? Here’s the problem – I’m pretty sure it isn’t. I mean, I’m pleased with it, given the haphazard nature of its conception. I’ve proofed it carefully (though I’m sure errors remain), and I’ve cleaned up the slop induced by a NaNoWriMo writing frenzy. The story is silly in places, exciting in others. It includes a satisfyingly unambiguous ending. But the best book ever?

Publishers put so much pressure on the pitch. I find writing them more nerve-wracking than proofing the novel, to be honest. It seems I’m not alone. In fact, the writing industry has devoted entire conferences to mastering the art of the pitch, which I’ll consider attending the first minute I have a spare $595.00 lying around and nothing better to spend it on. In the meantime, my pitch problem is endangering the first contest deadline of the New Year. To pitch is to self-promote, and I am abysmal at self-promotion. Shyness prevents me from putting it out there.

Go ahead, yuck it up. I can hear you guffawing from here (the ones of you who know me personally, anyway). Shy? Kim? Yeah, right! But I am...or I was, once. It started when I was five. The ophthalmologists had reached a new phase of torture to try on me in their ongoing battle against my lazy right eye: The Patch. Worn over the left lens framed within baby blue cat-eye shaped plastic, the beige, adhesive-backed patch didn’t fit the almond shape of the eyeglasses, so Mom just folded the excess over the edge. The doctors devised the patch to cut off sight to my hyper-functional left eye and force my lazy right eye to get off its ass and see. Sometimes, when Mom put a fresh patch on my eyeglasses (they get dirty when you climb trees) strands of my hair got caught between the tape and the lens.

I fucking hated wearing that patch.

Children of all ages (and two or three nasty adults) pointed and laughed at the “funny looking pirate kid” over the course of the twelve weeks I wore the patch (it felt like eternity). I kept my head down a lot that summer, but it wasn’t as easy when I started 1st grade. The entrance to the 1st graders wing of the school took us right past the hang out for the 7th graders, and they had much to say about the tall gawky kid with the pirate patch and the stringy hair. I probably could out-spell half of them already (and I mean vocabulary style spelling tests, just to be clear). It mattered not, and the daily, dreaded 7th grade sidewalk gauntlet became my little piece of hell on Earth, five days a week.

I tried the strategy of head-held-high defiance for the first day or two, as had been suggested to me, but that just goaded the older students into acting out with even greater in-your-face style taunts. Thereafter, I held my head down, made no eye contact, and walked quickly to the door. Things did not improve much once I got in the classroom. I was taller than most of the other kids, geeky, wearing an eye patch (for a short while longer), and kids my age were no kinder than the 7th graders. Over time, I guess I internalized the message that self-promotion equaled the potential (probability) for humiliation and rejection. I kept my head down.

Fast forward to adulthood, the lazy eye is fixed, and I have zero problems with shyness these days, but I still have no stomach for self-promotion. I find that contradictory, as I do marketing for a living. I know how to write a pitch – for someone else’s creation. For my own, though, it feels awkward, desperate, self-aggrandizing. How arrogant am I to think what I have to say is worth hearing? My old friend, self-doubt, has hobbled me before, but when it comes to pitches and cover letters, my insecurities are the kiss of death. Tell you why you should read my novel? Well it will probably waste your time, so you shouldn’t.

This sort of crappy internal dialog isn’t productive. I remind myself daily that a feeling of relevance is irrelevant. This is about a process, developing a habit, relearning the mechanics of a trade, doing rather than planning. If I get bogged down in relevance now, I doom the mission. I need to sort this out, and the sooner, the better. I mean I am literally writing this blog post as an excuse to get out of finishing my 500-word pitch for Contest the First.

I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days. Five hundred more describing the first 50,000 seems like a straightforward and reasonable request. I’m at 375 and blocked. I need a big finish, and I’ve got nothing.

The process, Kim, not the outcome.

I’ve made that my 2014 mantra, and it will (hopefully) motivate me to get the pitch written and the contest entered today (hopefully). I have no expectations of winning. I’m not entering to win; I’m entering to enter. I’m entering to force myself to finish the pitch. Write the new fiction in 500 words or less: Why You Should Read My Book, the Best Book Ever.

#52Weeks becomes #12Contests

(By my calculations, I have posted for 52 consecutive weeks at this point, so mischief managed. I’m going to try to keep this weekly blog habit, but I am dropping the #52Weeks hash tag after today. If I slip and miss a week, assume it’s because I have a contest deadline to meet, and not because I quit blogging. I’ll keep you posted. This time next year, I expect to have a tale of #12RejectionLetters to share with you.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kneading (In the Category of Be Where You Are.) #52Weeks (Only One Left To Go)

Today I indulge in a guilty pleasure of mine — two actually. Today, I knead.  I walked away from my bread and pasta habits a few years back, necessary sacrifices to achieve a goal. I reached the goal some time ago, and I celebrated with a bread and pasta orgy of sorts. I made macaroni and cheese for Sunday dinner, whipped up a fresh loaf of sourdough bread to use for lunches through the week, and then repurposed the stale half of it to make amazing bread pudding for dessert the following weekend.

Briefly, I felt very in charge of my life, maintaining my goals while eating whatever I wished. This sort of happiness never lasts, though, does it? The scales and my clothing agreed; I had reached a “certain age” where nothing came without a price. Nothing. The choice felt like punishment: Maintain the weight goal or eat bread and pasta every week. I had a mini midlife crisis and felt very sorry for myself for a few days. Quality of life matters so much more, I reasoned. Who wants to live a long healthy life without macaroni and cheese?

I decided on a compromise that allowed me to shift my midlife crisis to other, more meaningful (and thus agonizing) aspects of my life. If I hit the weight range numbers for three straight weeks, I get to indulge and eat, without shame or repercussions, all the pasta and bread that I desire in one meal. And if I am going to indulge, I want it to be the freshest damn bread and pasta it can be. Which brings me to kneading. Fresh bread and fresh pasta both require a good bit of it, and I have tendonitis in the area of my hand that makes my left thumb functional. (I think it’s tendonitis…it is definitely some sort of repetitive motion injury…an occupational hazard.) My grip isn’t what it should be, and it hurts when I try to snap the fingers on my left hand.

It hurts to knead, too, but I found a way through the pain today. I have met my three-week weight maintenance responsibilities, and I cannot think of a more pleasant way to spend a Sunday than kneading, proofing, braiding and baking cheese bread to go with my take on marinara with Italian sausage and portobellas. I’ll toss the sauce, which uses tomatoes I grew in my garden last summer and sauce made with more of the same, with fresh, scratch-made fettuccine. I kneaded until my left hand became too sore for me to continue. My husband finished the job for the last two minutes, and together we worked the pasta roller and then the fettuccine cutter, laying out the long yellow strands to dry.

Kneading has a rhythm. The cadence arises from hands slapping dough, rolling and pushing and stretching. Muscles in both hands and arms tighten and relax, tighten and relax, tighten and relax until a smoothly elastic form emerges – the unlikely marriage of flour and water, egg and salt. My motions follow in traditions that are hundreds of centuries old, creating staples as necessary to life as breath and water. The repetition creates a kind of Zen state, and everything drops away except the back and forth, the push and pull, tighten and relax, tighten and relax, tighten and relax…


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Be Verbs (In the category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks (only two left to go)

“Am (clap), is, are (clap), was, were (clap), be (clap), being (clap), been (clap). Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Again! Am…, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”

My fifth grade teacher, Miss Daniels, would clap in syncopation, chanting the mantra while my class joined in, usually off rhythm by a half-beat. The echo still rings in my head. Sometimes, when I’m taking my morning shower, I chant the Be verbs over and over, just like we did in 5th grade, during English period – the lessons I felt good at – not like math. For some reason, it helps me wake up.

I loved Miss Daniels. The summer before she became my fifth grade teacher, she became my stepmother… sort of. My father and she had been cast to play King Sextimus the Silent and Queen Aggravain in a spring production of Once Upon a Mattress put on by the Little Theater of Virginia Beach (LTVB). Dad figured since their characters were married, that made her a stepmother to his daughters. She played along.

Dad had custody of us for one full month in the summer as well as every Saturday and Sunday night during the rest of the year, so Sis and I were, at the very least, a part of the crew for every show Dad did. He had trod the boards for most of his life, growing up doing little theater (the Bergen County Players in New Jersey) with his mother, Elma, who also loved the performing arts. The Bergen County Players have an excellent standard for live theater, and Hackensack’s proximity to New York City and Broadway allowed Dad to land a part in the children’s chorus in the original production of The King and I. He stayed active in the theater until he became a naval officer after graduating from the Naval Academy. He married mom, they had Sis and me, and there was no time for the theater.

When Dad and Mom divorced, he returned to the theater to form a new normal, a new family, and he took my Sis and me with him. Over the years, I ran spotlight for Oliver, painted sets for Kismet, Tartuffe, Arsenic and Old Lace, handled props and quick costume changes for the leading lady in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I played a no-neck monster in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I am forever grateful and enriched by my early exposure to the brilliant Tennessee Williams. Dad fell in love again during a summer production of The Music Man. We all performed as members of the chorus the following summer in Oklahoma. I loved that theater.

The Green Room backstage at LTVB had no air conditioning, just a few ceiling fans that moved the air but also the sawdust – the scene shop was located at one end of the Green Room. Dressing rooms were located at the other end. On the other two walls, the backstage door stood opposite the hallway that led to the backstage wings and the front of the house. During warm weather matinees, when the temperature and the humidity vied for first place, the cast sweated quietly backstage, listening to the ongoing performance from the speaker system so that no cues would be missed. Those performers whose scenes were not eminent played Rummy or Cribbage.

Miss Daniels graded papers – the school year was coming to a close, and she brought her schoolwork to the theater. We both already knew I had been assigned to her fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary for the following fall term. I was too shy to call her anything other than Miss Daniels, although as a member of the crew, I had permission to call her Mary at the theater. She had taken notice of the books I carried with me to the theater to kill time during the performances. (I helped set the stage before the opening curtain and at the intermission. Beyond that, I had nothing else to do for the entire two acts.) She also knew I had won the fourth grade spelling bee at my school earlier that spring, so she gave me the master list and let me grade spelling tests while she worked on the trickier composition papers.

“Of course, next fall, when I’m your teacher, you probably shouldn’t mention this to anyone. You aren’t doing anything wrong,” she said quickly, when she saw my look of alarm. “You have a master sheet to grade from, so you can’t make a mistake. But the other kids might think you are teacher’s pet.” She smiled down at me. “You wouldn’t want that, would you Mini Flea?”

My father’s nickname for me – everyone at the theater called me that, and I didn’t let on that I hated it. These grownups really liked me for not being one of those whiney stupid brats, so why start acting like one over a nickname? She was letting me grade papers for kids who were a class year ahead of me, kids that picked on me at recess because I was skinny, tall, wore glasses, and needed braces (I would later get teased for having braces). I felt some vindication in knowing that Sean G. couldn’t spell worth a crap, and neither could mean girl, Michelle. Knowing that nerdy little Timmy could spell made me like him better.

Did I mention I was 10?

During rehearsals and then performances, when we weren’t grading, Miss Daniels and I played Rummy. Or we would read, sitting side by side, each engrossed in our own tomes. I probably had a Nancy Drew mystery or one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, or maybe I was visiting Narnia. Miss Daniels always had something literary or historical. Her books were much thicker than mine. She would challenge me to match her page for page as we held our books spine to spine to compare the heft of them.

When the school year finally began, I greeted Miss Daniels nervously, but her warm smile and conspiratorial wink put me right at ease. She called me Mini Flea the first day during roll call, and the rest of the class laughed. I was humiliated until Miss Daniels told the class about our summer together, backstage, playing cards, making theater. (she made no mention of grading papers.) She didn’t build me up too much, but no one teased me about it after that.

I meant to tell you about my relationship with Be verbs and instead Miss Daniels came out of my fingers. But the two are so connected…she taught them to me. She taught me punctuation too: commas, colons, semi colons, and ellipses. (She also discovered, and told the world, that I suck at math…it surprised everyone but me.) Under her tutelage I wrote poetry, stories, my “first novel.” Under her booming alto voice I chanted, “Am…is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”

Yesterday, I turned all the Be verbs in my latest novel-in-process red. One Be verb at a time, I searched and replaced present and past tense. The manuscript is half red now, and I have to revise until the manuscript goes back to black.

My eighth grade composition teacher, whose name I don’t recall, taught me why Be verbs in a sentence MIGHT be a sign of crap writing, but that lesson would have failed to resonate had Miss Daniels not successfully drilled the Be Verbs into my head in the first place. (The eighth grade Comp teacher was a cool lady too, and she taught me much about writing. She would physically cut every use of “you” out of our homework, and before returning our graded compositions, she would hold them up to the window. The greater the number of holes, the lower the grade.) When I am done revising (again) the novel will be better, tighter, leaner. Some Be verbs will remain, but many will go away, replaced by stronger, more active verbs that kick and punch, kiss, fire, jump, twirl, sip, tease, and survive.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Written in the Stars (In the category of Want What You Have.) #52Weeks

I am in the process of writing an astrological natal horoscope for my newest family member, L’il Cuz (LC for short). He was born in November, a Scorpio like his daddy, and his daddy’s daddy, too. In the words of The Electronic Astrologer, Maritha Pottenger, a natal portrait is:

… a map of the sky for your instant of birth, looking from the viewpoint of your birthplace. Your moment of birth gives a “freeze frame” — an exact snapshot of the positions of all the planets. No one else has the same horoscope as you — unless they were born in the exact same place, at the exact same minute, as you were.
Writing natal horoscopes is another one of my strange hobbies, along with blogging, reading Tarot cards, and my crystal ball collection. Like the others, no true “magic” occurs. As far as astrology goes, someone very human (and probably terrified) “made up” the “astrological” context for each planet and their places in the heavens — assigned meaning to the meaningless, and wrote it down. We’ve been passing on these arbitrary assignations for thousands of years.

The majority of the reports I give to my friends and family are automatically generated by a nifty piece of software I bought in the mid 1990’s that (astonishingly) still functions on my current PC. Its author, Ms. Pottenger, did (does?) not share my standard for grammar and proofreading so I refuse to simply copy and paste her verbiage, but as for the content, I do not write those parts, I merely proofread them. Other portions of this report I will derive from multiple sources. (I include a full list of credits at the back.) But the writing is mine.

I’ve written many natal portraits for adult friends, but I enjoy them more when I write them for newborns. A newborn’s life, as yet unlived, hasn’t conformed (or failed to conform) to any preconception that was written in the stars and transcribed in my sources. If, in fifteen years, L’il Cuz’s personality perfectly matches the 55+ page report’s description of his temperament, his strengths and weaknesses, and his romantic compatibility, I cannot be accused of shaping the outcome of this report based on what I already know.  (If his personality doesn’t match, I always have charlatanism as an excuse.)

My bff gifted me with my own astrological natal portrait when we were both in our mid-twenties; she knew a service that charged a reasonable fee, and she felt strongly about having mine drawn. She presented it as a birthday gift, and I still have it. While I only agreed with about 1/3 of it the first time I read it, I re-read it not long ago, and now I find most of it to be spot on. The longer we live, the more complex we become. The more complex we become, the more easily the arrow shot wide at us finds a mark with which to connect.

But for the unlived, much less unexamined life, the potential qualities conjured by a natal horoscope are both beautiful and frightening. Like any Tarot card, a horoscope is a mere list of words, ideas, and symbols. Apply them as you contemplate the daily mysteries of your own life; you may gain insight, you may achieve a new perspective. Will it change your life? No, silly, of course not. Only you can do that.

LC’s natal portrait, the picture of my L’il Cuz, as painted by the zodiac and written in the stars, is a fun one. My Cuz (the proud father of L’il Cuz) captured a lovely picture of LC the moment he opened his eyes, looked out on the new, colder, less aquatic world, and saw his daddy’s camera staring back at him. Cuz’s dad (Papa Lou) has a similar picture that he took so many years ago — proud papas, both eager to capture every expression, every yawn — wary sons, both with the classic expression of, “Oh Dad, not again!”

No matter what is written in the stars, LC has so much ahead of him. Will that Moon in the House of Friends & Hopes & Wishes truly mean that:

his family may breed in him individualism, change, open-endedness and unusual approaches?

It’s hard to tell. We share DNA, and, well, that trait is in me. I’m a Pisces, 47 years older. So was it written in the stars or the DNA? Or does it actually  and truly  remain untranscribed until LC writes the story for himself?

If, at the time of his birth, because the Sun makes a challenging aspect to Neptune, will LC really be “inspired, swept away by passionate experiences (and have the capacity to touch the hearts and souls of others)?” Is he truly (and I hope so) likely to have charisma and a native, whimsical charm along with marked creative capabilities? Will I love him less if the stars are stupid? Never. L’il Cuz and I have not yet met, and I love him fiercely.

May the stars shine over him, blessings each bright light, all the days of his life.