Coping with Corona and Social Distancing

And sometimes I read people’s posts on Instagram, about how Zen and peaceful they’re feeling, and how they are one with the universe, and I think, Oh, Go fuck yourself.

It depends on the hour, sometimes the minute. Sometimes I’m fine, like today, I made my own antiseptic handwipes by pouring rubbing alcohol on baby wipes in a plastic bag. I felt invincible. Then, I ventured to the grocery store and bought a 4-roll pack of toilet paper, only one pack per customer, and everyone was nice at the store and eager to make conversation. (Felt good.)

Then I came home and binged leftover pizza and potato chips totally by accident and felt bad—fat.

I also bought fixings to make brownies tonight and six bottles of wine.

One minute, I feel like crying because I have to stay home, and I can’t follow my routine. I can’t go to the gym and dance, which is my thing… Zumba and Hip Hop. Then, normally, I would come home and shower, write for 3-4 hours, coach tennis or pick my son up from school, go to the library, etc.

My son is now doing online schooling. A good thing. I’m grateful to our county for putting online schooling in place so quickly.

For the students here who have never been able to afford the insurance to bring their Chromebooks home, the county has covered the cost. They’ve also supplied the students without WiFi with hotspots free of charge so that they can participate in school at home. This makes me so happy. I’m very proud of our county’s department of education. Good. Happy. Up.

As far as my writing goes, I can’t seem to concentrate. My fourth novel, in progress, is with my agent right now, and I’m really not ready to dive into novel #5, not until I have a good sense of whether I will be doing more revisions anytime soon with novel #4, and then I think, “Hey, what if people stop reading or buying books?” Then, I think, Oh MY GOD, so many people just had books come out, and they aren’t even getting to tour.

I need to buy books. I need to promote new writers and their books. I’m a writer. Writers need writers—that support, that camaraderie.

I bought We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul. It came out yesterday. That was a highlight. Then, I started reading it, and oh my god, it’s amazing, so I canceled my hardback purchase and bought it on Kindle. I Tweeted about it. I don’t even like to read electronically, but it’s that good. I have my afternoon figured out. Up.

Other things I did: I obsessively and messily painted my laundry room and a hallway cotton-candy pink.

My son and I threw grapes at each other, supposedly aiming for our grape/cake holes, but things didn’t work out. Then, my son, who’s fifteen, drop-kicked a grape. It hit a xylophone cat hanging on the wall and made a pretty sound. A highlight.

I took my lizard, Harry Potter, for a walk.

I made banana bread with blackberries and ate it with strawberry ice cream. I binge-watched, I’m talking one sitting, that Big Cat Documentary on Netflix, all about Joe Exotic and the other crazy meth-loving, big-cat-loving lunatics.

I’m on season six of re-watching “The Office”.

Three days into this whole thing, I tracked down the principal of my son’s high school, asking him for a Driving Eligibility Certificate so my son could get his learner’s permit in the midst of a pandemic. The principal met us in swim trunks. Super amazing, nice guy. I think he’d been at the beach with his family. I drove over an hour to an open DMV where I’d made an appointment. My son got his permit. I got my Real I. D. There was a man outside the DMV with a clipboard and a list of questions. “Have you recently traveled outside the country? Do you have a fever? Have you had a fever in the last 48 hours? Are you coughing? Have you felt fatigued? Do you think you have a fever now?” When we got inside, the chairs were situated 8 feet apart. The DMV employees were wiping everything down between appointments.

Two days into the pandemic, I finished those edits on my fourth book and submitted the ms. to my agent.

I’m trying to exercise every day to combat the pizza, chips, and brownie bingeing, but fuck it. No harm in a little snacking. No harm in getting a learner’s permit. No harm in a little TV and a lot of book reading.

Today, I stopped at Lowe’s after the grocery store, and there was a repeating loudspeaker announcing, “Keep your distance from other customers and employees.” When I went to check out, there was tape on the floor and a big X. The cashier told me to please remain on the X until she was finished scanning my items. She wiped off the credit card machine, but I also had my own fancy homemade alcohol wipes, so I used one to protect my finger. Today was my first day out and about in a long time. Thus, it was a pretty good day. I saw people other than my husband and son. I love them… Don’t get me wrong. We’re jokingly threatening to throat-punch one another, and my husband got a spotlight yesterday via UPS for our boat and shone it at my face. …

We’re going to play cards tonight, make those brownies, maybe drop-kick some grapes at one another, watch a little “Survivor”, and I’ll drink some of that wine.

Last night, I woke up at two am, short of breath, panicked. I sat up, thinking I can’t breathe. I have the Covid-19. No. I was having an anxiety/panic attack. I reminded myself that I was going to be okay and popped a Xanax. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to keep calm and write on or paint on or read on or eat on or dance on. It’s going to be okay.

I worry about my mom and all the older people, especially those in nursing homes. I worry about our nation’s infrastructure and the idiotic politicians who don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

I’d revise this thing and put it in chronological order, but this messy hodgepodge feels more representative of the last twelve days.

…I would be sorely remiss if I didn’t thank the truck drivers and cashiers and managers and stock people and all the workers at all the stores who make it possible for us to buy bleach and toilet paper and food AND the amazing teachers who are making massive adjustments to teach remotely AND the incredible, brave healthcare workers on the frontlines risking exposure to COVID-19 and mustering the patience of all the saints AND everyone else who is simply choosing to be calm and rational and kind and hopeful as we navigate unchartered waters. Yesterday was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 101st birthday, which means he was born the year of our last pandemic, 1919. That’s crazy to think about. …

Oh, and sometimes I read people’s posts on Instagram, about how Zen and peaceful they’re feeling, and how they are one with the universe, and I think, Oh, Go fuck yourself. Maybe they’re lying, or maybe I’m just jealous. Maybe both.

How are you doing?

How to Find the Agent Who’s Right for You: How much rejection can you take?

I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

I recently taught my second seminar on how to find the literary agent who’s right for you at The Muse in Norfolk, Virginia.

Just thinking about looking for a literary agent makes me feel sick to my stomach. I always called that part of trying to get published “the business part,” something us creative types loathe. I would sit down and mark eight to ten agents to query. At the time, 2004 to 2008, they all wanted snail mail queries, so I would send my letters out with their SASE and wait for the rejections to arrive, hoping that one of the agents would ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. Then, I’d be off to Kinkos to make copies, and off to the post office to mail them.

I queried every New York City agency accepting unsolicited manuscripts A-Z, not once, but twice! I had close to 1,000 rejections. (I managed to query the agencies twice because I had rewritten the novel.) I would get excited over handwritten, as opposed to form-letter, rejections. Even a signature would shoot me to the moon. “Wow! He took the time to sign his name and write, ‘Best of luck.'” I was up and I was down more times than I can remember.

I also had a lot of close calls: one agent called to ask me not to accept any other offers, she was so in love with the book, then emailed me a day later to say, “Never mind.” She didn’t like the end.

I had another agent say that she wanted the book, only to tell me six months later that she hadn’t been able to find an editor who would take it, but that her husband was a book doctor if I wanted to hire him.

One of the greatest lessons I learned is that you have to find the agent who is really passionate about your work, who feels invested in what you have to say, and THIS IS NO EASY FEAT. (Yep, I’m shouting. It’s fucking hard, near impossible.)

This individual has to know deep down in her bones that she can sell what you’ve written. That’s the only way you’re going to get published. Find someone who can’t imagine the world without your book in it. Yes, the work has to be that good.

If an agent wants to represent your book, she should have a game plan. She should know where she’s going to take it, and how she’s going to produce buzz about the book.

After so many rejections, I would take anyone I could get. I am very fortunate that my agent had a game plan. She told me that in order to represent my first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, she would need me to rewrite it. She gave me specific feedback on what was missing. I went to work. She gave me two weeks. She said that as long as she could get it into editors’ hands before Thanksgiving, she could sell it, and she did. We had two competing offers on November 8, 2008. Pinch me! It was an incredible day: the highest of all the high/up days.

Of course, since it’s a book about lightning strike survivors, and I am one, the day wouldn’t have been complete without a terrible storm, lightning splitting the sky in two, the hair on my arms standing up, and a near-death experience. I was on vacation in Hatteras. I knew that I was going to get struck: it was just my luck. Fortunately, I survived.

Later that day, my agent said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t struck. Publishers won’t publish first-time authors posthumously.”  She’s very funny!

To anyone who wants to publish traditionally, I say, Never give up. This means NEVER stop revising, never stop rethinking the structure, plot, characters, and momentum of what’s on the page. If you ever think that what you’ve written is perfect and deserves to be published, and there’s something wrong with the agents in the world, not you, not your book, because your friends like what you’ve written, well, you’re only fooling yourself. You’re delusional. Books are never “finished”. They’re never perfect. They are only set aside because the author can do no more at the time to make it any better. But, I guarantee, any author worth her salt will pick up a book she’s written months or years ago and find something to improve upon. We’re artists. We’ll see a new angle.

Be resilient. Persevere. Remember that the art, the gold, the manna, the life’s blood, all of it, is in the act itself. WRITE. Hell yes, I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

Go forth and be brave. You got this.

I’m speaking on “Balancing the Art and Business of Fiction Writing” Friday, May 15, 6 pm, at Christopher Newport University’s 39th Annual Writers Conference. The conference includes Agents, Fiction, Nonfiction, Music, Mystery, Poetry, all for adults and children: Virginia is for Writers.

This Writer’s Life… writing the next book, process, and telling the truth to the reader and yourself

Things happened, characters acted in ways I never anticipated, and I felt like I had no control over them. That’s when you know the writing is really good. That’s when the subconscious, the muse, the monkey-mind, the soul (whatever you want to call it) is at work. All inhibition and second-guessing have been lost. The good stuff is pouring out.

I started writing my fourth novel three years ago this month, maybe this very day. It’s been titled George Glass Loves Lily Snow, The Reinvention of Amy Brown, the working title The Reimagining of Amy Brown—because the whole thing needed to be reimagined, and finally, The Hummingbird. My past three novels have had long titles, so maybe it’s time for a short one.

What do I want now?

I want to show you the seven-plus notebooks with every page full. I want to show you early drafts with telekinesis and doors exploding off hinges. I want to tell you the life story of every character in my novel because I know them. I want to tell you how Elisenda swallowed the emeralds and held them in her gut until she soaked in a tub in Barranquilla and passed them into the lukewarm water.

I want to tell you that the main character’s mother used to be his grandmother, and after I made this change—from grandmother to mother, the members of the novel-writing group I was leading, were sorely disappointed. They really liked the grandmother. I’d liked her too, but writing is a process, and one of the things I realized was that this book was my most autobiographical, and I was afraid to make George’s grandmother his mother because it was too close to the truth, to holding up the mirror, and as you know, nothing is better than the truth. The core of all good fiction is its truth. Novelists tell more truths than memoirists. We just don’t admit to anything.

George’s mother wasn’t sympathetic like his grandmother. She was selfish how mothers can sometimes be.

At one point in the evolution of this novel, George’s foster mother was his sister, but again, it was like I was writing around what needed to be written, what had compelled me three years ago to abandon my historical novel-in-progress to tell the story of George Glass, a boy who loses his mother and has to navigate the world without her. Not only does George lose her, but it turns out she was never the woman she claimed to be. He, and the police, have no idea of her true identity.

I want to tell you how much my father’s cancer and his passing influenced this novel, and how much my love for my son, and my willingness to do anything to protect him, influenced this book. I want to tell you that I know, like the dead woman in my book, that I am selfish, that if I could keep my teenager young forever, I would do it. I’d consider consequences, but it doesn’t seem so bad—despite Tuck, Everlasting—no one growing up, no one getting old, no one dying. This might be the most honest novel I’ve ever written.

With every new book, there’s a new adventure. Every time, I hope the process will get easier, but it never does because each book is its own beast, its own treasure, a unique act of discovery. If you’re not putting down layers and scraping them away, you’re not really learning anything. You’re not, as John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction, making art.

This novel, like all of them, was an adventure.

2017

I want to tell you about the miracle that happened when my father died, the miracle I was in too much grief to admit to for over a year, because a miracle flies in the face of anger. A miracle crushes anger. I was reading from The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, a book my father used to read to me early in the morning when he had his instant coffee (and late in the day when he had his beer). My father was dying. We were alone in his room, and I’d woken that morning wondering what I could do to get through the day. I got out a rocking chair and that book, which had seemingly disappeared until just that morning (I’d looked for it the day prior), and I sat across from my dad. I said, “We’ll start at page one,” even though “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was our favorite. I was reading from the poem, “The Three Voices,” (p. 8)

But the stars throng out in their glory,

And they sing of the God in man;

They sing of the Mighty Master,

Of the loom his fingers span,

Where a star or a soul is a part of the whole

And weft in the wondrous plan.

 

Here by the camp-fire’s flicker,

Deep in my blanket curled,

I long for the peace of the pine-gloom,

When the scroll of the Lord is unfurled,

And the wind and the wave are silent,

And world is singing to world.

My father and I were alone, and I knew he was gone. I knew that he had wanted me there to help send him on his way. I knew that he was a part of that firmament.

I want to tell you that this novel is for him. It’s for all of us who love, who grieve, who mourn, and who survive.

I don’t think I’m very good at “writing blogs” because I like to disguise my truth in fiction, but I needed to share the process of writing this novel and how important it is to me and what a journey it’s been thus far.

And I have lots more to share. To be continued…