Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aloha and A Hui Hou to the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference

I am proud of my accomplishments last week. I created a single color-coded index card for each of the 88 chapters plus the prologue, interlude, and epilogue, and a four-page written storyboard for Catch a Falling Star. I also completed the prologue and transferred it to my new MacBook Pro.

Now, to Maui.

I’m going to miss the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference and probably won’t realize how much until years down the road.

No. That’s not true. I miss it now. Wish that I could have one more chance to attend with the wisdom of eight conferences behind me. I would do it right this time, the whole thing, instead of doing just a few things right by pure accident. I wouldn’t make the mistake of shoving my novels willy nilly under the indulgent noses of agents and editors before knowing to a moral certainty that they were ready.

Looking back, I know that they were not. They showed talent, but lacked the polish the professionals sought. So I became known to many as perseverant and determined and talented, but not quite ready. One agent even wrote to me, “This is 109.8% there. Unfortunately, I require 110%.” That one drove an iodine coated knife into my solar plexus and twisted. Looking back, I see that it’s best to stay under the radar until ready to make a splash. Looking back ... well, it’s time to stop looking back. And I will after considering the good things about my experiences there.

At the retreat, I had the opportunity of studying with some amazing writers like Gary Braver and Steve Berry, and was selected for Jacquelyn Mitchard’s masters class where six of us in addition to Jackie went over each other’s full novels in great detail. I learned more in those few weeks than in years on my own.

Most importantly, the retreat and conference afforded us all to mix and mingle in a magical setting of palm trees, breaking waves, and trade winds. Someone once said, “The paradox of the writer is how much time s/he spends alone trying to communicate with others.” These annual get-togethers let all of us know that we are not alone, that others know the agony of rejection on top of rejection, and a few the thrill of success.

I met so many wonderful people and made a few lifetime friendships there, including my amazing friend Dawn Ius, who was the first person to hear my true writing voice and made me listen to it. She did that at the retreat and conference in 2006.

I don’t mean to make light of my own writers group we call The Writerie, headed by my friend Kat Goldring, and including Glenna, Shirley, and Jane. In fact, I always look forward to my treks to Cleburne, Texas for our semi-monthly meetings and gain enormously from them. I’ve grown logarithmically under their eyes and hope I have helped some of them along the way.

I also don’t mean to slight the Wayward Writers online class headed by Ariel Gore. It’s so wonderful I can’t give it its due here. Soon. But as much as we comment on each other’s work and have our once-per-session conference call, I’ve never physically met any of them. I know many through their writing and comments, and they know things about me that few (if any) others know, but it’s not quite the same as in person discussions over lunch, drinks, or walking the beach at sunset.

Make no mistake, I need The Writerie and the Wayward Writers. But there is something special about a pack of writers converging on a place and hanging out that is nourishing and healthy. The Writerie and Wayward Writers are the meat and bread of my writer’s life diet. But the retreat and conference were the fruits and veggies. Maui itself, the dessert.

Looking forward, I need to find another conference, one where writers commune, both the highly successful and the not yet or not so successful. One where agents and editors gather to help us with valuable information on the business end that only they will know and look for that next bestseller. I’m not sure exactly how to look for that replacement yet, but I will start with Google, and see where the breadcrumbs lead.

I will find one somewhere, but it won’t have the spirit of aloha, or ohana. At least not in the beginning.

When I logged onto retreat and conference website and saw the cold letter from a law firm announcing that it was helping “... the Hawaii Writers Foundation with winding up its business operations,” my heart broke. I couldn’t believe it could go on and say that, “In light of this termination, there will be no further HWF sponsored Retreats or Conferences in the future.” A tiny little piece of me died that day.

So, mahalo nui loa to John and Shannon Tulius for all of the years of joy. Aloha mai e. And to Sam Horn, the presence of the retreat and conference. And to all the wonderful writers I met, and/or studied with and under, and/or had a drink with, and/or communed with. I hope to see all of you somewhere down the road.

I hope to see Maui one day soon as well. Because Maui no ka òi. And, what is a meal without dessert?

This week, I will begin the new outline for Falling Star and work on scene/sequel structure for the first few chapters. I’m setting myself a goal of two months to complete lucky draft 13.

I’ll let you know how I did next Sunday the Fourth of July.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Murder Your Darlings

Last week’s assignment: I submitted one of my short stories to Glimmer Train, and seriously rethought, Catch a Falling Star. And I cleaned my apartment. BOY did I clean it. It looks good, but I’m walking like a cowboy who rode one bull too many. More now on writing ...

I promise the blood flowed this past week, but it flowed from the past. How many people do we learn from over the course of a life? I have to say thousands. And each contributes in his or her own way.

Every writer has heard from every other writer, “You have to kill your babies,” or some variation on a theme. I traced the saying to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his book “On the Art of Writing,” published in 1915. There, he states that, as a writer, you must, “murder your darlings.”

THAT was the toughest lesson I’ve had to learn so far (apart from overwriting). I didn’t want to get my characters into serious trouble. Plain and simple. Like a parent wants to protect his or her child, so, too did I want to protect may main characters.

I wrote the first novel manuscript I will admit to in 1994. It was loosely based on my experience working as a driver on a television show and was – take a guess – about a driver on a television show securing a deal to direct a movie by the end of the first season. Besides being a tad long at a tad over 384,000 words, the worst thing that happened to my lead character ... not the worst thing he observed ... the worst thing that happened to him was that the director of a particular episode yelled at him. I was right there with him. I FELT the humiliation my character experienced, too.

I knew in my soul that this novel was worthy of Dickens and, closer to what I was going for, Thackeray. After all, ol’ Bill Thackeray wrote huge books where not a whole bunch happened, just magnificent characters relating to each other in humorous ways. Gotta love Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Had to love Cary Clark in Transpo (my tome). That’s right. Hatley and Thackeray in the same breath. Can you dig it?

Well, William Makepeace Thackeray died in 1863, just shy of ninety-four years before I was born, and can anyone name a friend, colleague, or anyone outside of academia who has even heard of Vanity Fair or William Makepeace Thackeray?

I didn’t think so.

I have gotten better about putting my characters in peril, but not good enough yet. So draft thirteen of Catch a Falling Star is where I get good at sadism. Because that’s what Quiller-Couch was saying in a way. The actual quote referred to taking out brilliant writing that doesn’t fit the story. I can do that. That’s not a problem. But I’ve been letting Jerry and Gina and Chris and Shirley off the hook emotionally for twelve drafts. I’m going to put them through absolute hell this next draft, because that will keep the reader turning the pages. Only that will get a publisher. Only that will secure an agent.

So I become the sadist. At least until the climax. And I start at the beginning, when Jerry meets Gina.

Over the next few weeks, I want to take a little bit and acknowledge some people who have opened my eyes to my creative potential. I’m going to start by referring back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. No, I didn’t study with him. Q, as he was known, died in 1944 at the age of 80. But this person did study with him, albeit briefly. He is best known as an actor from the Old Vic in England who appeared with Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness, Vivien Leigh and so many others. He also appeared in a number of Hammer Films in the 50’s. His name is Richard Wordsworth and yes, he was the great-great grandson of the poet William Wordsworth.

The first class I took from him was “Shakespeare,” and he was the first teacher from whom I got it. Who brought me underneath Shakespeare and let me grab a few handfuls. Even still, he told me, “Rocky, if you really want to truly understand Shakespeare, you have to be part of a production. I’m directing The Merchant of Venice. Come audition for me. I’ll give you a part.”

He did. He cast me as Tubal. The only scene I had in the play was a rather lengthy one with Shylock, played by Richard. Wow! He did that, I’m sure, because this was my first appearance on stage ... ever. I held my own, even covered for him one night when he forgot his lines. After all these years, nearly thirty, I can say that I appeared on stage with an actor who appeared onstage with Olivier and Gielgud, Guinness and Vivien Leigh.

I spent more time with him in the summer of 1981 in Grasmere, England at the Conference on Romantic Poets. There, he told me I was a good actor.

Wow! Me!

And it was through this connection that I met my longtime friends Chris and Bruce.

Richard died in 1993. I’ve attached his picture.

Next week’s assignment: I will begin a detailed outline of Catch a Falling Star paying particular attention to getting my leads into real trouble.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Risking The Blood

Boy did I stink on this weeks assignments. I barely managed to keep up with my class’s assignments. So, here is what I learned, though.

Coach John Wooden passed away a week ago this past Friday. He coached basketball at the college level for nearly 30 years, lived nearly 100. And just listening to all of the comments and interviews and tributes this past week and two days, I was struck by what a genuinely decent, kind and thoughtful person he was. As a coach, he won ten national championships in twelve years with UCLA, a feat never likely to be equaled, much less surpassed, but most of the comments and interviews and tributes focused on his accomplishments off the court. As a human being.

So what does that have to do with my journey toward publication? Not a lot, I suppose, outwardly. But looking at Coach Wooden’s life through the eyes of others holds a mirror up to my face and shows me the kind of person I would like to be, and the kind of person I’m just not.

He spend 54 years with his wife Nellie, before spending another 25 without her after she died. If I married today, and stayed married fifty-four years, I would be nearly 107. Many of Coach Wooden’s sayings have become platitudes. Like “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And, from the basketball coach, my favorite, “Love is the most important thing.” As my friends will say, my most oft repeated line is, “I’ll have one more Chardonnay.”

Many of his actions should become platitudes. One of his last requests was for a good shave because he wanted to look his best when he next saw his late wife Nellie. Wow!

On the other hand, though, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I want to tell had I experienced that kind of life or any other, for that matter. My stories come out of the life I’ve lived. Then again, no one has shown interest in publishing my stories so far. So there’s the real fear, isn’t it? That no one cares. That I’m that tree in the middle of nowhere that no one has ever seen.

Do I exist?

So I ask, are my stories interesting/compelling/poignant enough to present by the publishing world to the reading public? My answer is I think so … I hope so. But can a writer really know until the public sees his or her stories? Until it chews them up and, either swallows them or spits them out?

I want a chance to find out.

So, Coach Wooden wouldn’t have shied away from submitting manuscripts had he manuscripts to submit. I haven’t submitted in several weeks. Why am I lollygagging around and not jumping in and submitting to at least agents even though I set myself the task?

Actually, Coach did shy away from submitting once. After his wife died, on the 21st of every month (the day of the month she died), he visited her grave the went home and wrote her a love letter. The sports writer Rick Reilly suggested fifteen years after that he and Coach publish those letters as a testament to love. Coach finally told Reilly, in tears, “I can’t. It’s too soon.”

In other words, it hurt. And that was when he had a guarantee to publish.

Wow! Despite my protestations to the contrary, each rejection takes a couple of drops of blood out of me. Weakens me just a little. Makes me wince a lot. So Mutiny on the Bounty last week really was important … even more important that even I was willing to admit to myself at the time. It let the wounds heal from the last round of rejections.

So, plunging in means risking more drops of blood. So be it. I begin a seven day weekend this next Wednesday. I’m risking the blood this time.

I mentioned my favorite Coach Wooden quote earlier, but another of his has haunted me all week. “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” I have been in the same routine for several years now. Some circumstances have caused some change. But I think I need some all out changes in a number of different areas of my life. More on that later, because, I’m really not sure yet what those changes might be. Rearranging my apartment might be an option. At least a good spring cleaning. And in the next few days, I’ll let my stories call me to them. They always have. They always will. And when they do, I return to them with all I have.

Oh! One more detail … Coach Wooden passed away 100 years and 1 day after William Sydney Porter … better known as the master short story writer O. Henry.

Assignments this week: Keep up with the Wayward Writers assignments. Clean my apartment. Allow my stories to call me, then heed the call. ONE submission to an agent. We’ll start there then see how it goes. But, I’ve got to risk the blood. I've got to!

I’ll let y’all know next week how I did.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reading is Nourishment

Assignments: This week was good for everything except writing. I broke down and bought a MacBook Pro which I barely had time to register, much less play around with. Work was a little on the crazy side. Wednesday evening, I began an extended journey down the lazy river with a complete paddle complement. I’m barely going to finish my assignment for Wayward Writers to post this afternoon. So what can I claim to have accomplished this week?

Well, my assignment for Wayward Writers had nothing to do with Catch a Falling Star, and is, in fact, a 2700 word short story. Whew! I didn’t TOTALLY blow the week.

A confession. The paddle used on that extended journey down the lazy river was a novel ... Mutiny on the Bounty to be exact, one third of what, to my mind, is the greatest sea story ever told. Oh, it was amazing to shake mental hands with Roger Byam again, as he unfurled the mainsail of the Fletcher Christian led mutiny against the tyranny of Captain Bligh. Of how he, himself was hauled back to England in irons and condemned to death.

If you only know the story through the films, please read it. I’ll beg if I have to. In fact, read the whole trilogy, which includes Mutiny on the Bounty, Men against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island. It’s more than just a sea story, it’s a story of human interactions, of consequences, of relationships. Just as the women of Jane Austen’s novels are far more complex than most people think, so, too are these men Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh. The gentleman Master’s Mate and the blue collar Captain locked in a battle of natures.

My point is that I have to recharge my writing batteries from time to time by reading, by diving into the sea of someone else’s world and letting it permeate me and brine me to the core. And working a full time job means that the writing may suffer for brief periods of time to get the reading in. That happened last week when I devoured Mutiny on the Bounty. I’m not completely recharged, but I feel so much stronger and viable.

Here’s a question. Can a writer truly be good if s/he doesn’t read, at least in his or her writing sphere? Somehow I don’t think so, though rumors claim otherwise. Every writer I know craves reading. Whether they devour fiction or non-fiction doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t to me. It’s the stimulation, the synthesis of new ideas and perspectives It’s the other writer crossing time and distance to tell me her or his stories. I love that mystical and magical telepathy that happens between one person and another through the printed word.

Reading is more to me than just scanning words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It takes me by the hand and walks me into different places and times. Writing does the same thing, but I need more than just my own worlds. I am best friends with David Copperfield and Harry Potter and Elisabeth Bennett and more recently Bella Swan (Team Edward), and they are there for me whenever I need them. Never would these people replace my corporeal friends, but I hold those from novels close to my heart as well.

For me, living in the worlds of others for a time helps me create my own like walking into people’s homes gives my ideas for my own. Reading a book about the sea can remind me of breezes blowing through the tree tops, or the undulating Hill Country of Texas, or any number of things. It doesn’t necessarily spur me to send my characters out to sea. Though that would be be fun one day.

Some may call me borderline insane, but my memories of these people’s worlds rivals real world memories in intensity and emotional impact. What keeps me on the sane side of things, I think is that I KNOW the difference between real and imaginary. The dividing line is as thin as cheesecloth sometimes, but it’s always there.

My goal this week is to keep chugging away. Three submissions to agents. More polishing. Keeping up with my assignments.

Take care, and I’ll let y’all know how I did next week.