My friend and mentor Dr. Digby from CW Post LIU (my alma mater) has asked be to take her small English class to Manhattan to see the world of Cid Wymann first hand. They’re reading Open Wounds now. I’m going to talk to them about how you can make the past come alive in a historical novel.
I’m very excited about it (not the amount of work I will put into it – more than I need to probably but that’s my problem). I went to talk to The Fencer’s Club (on 28th) folks today to see what time on a Saturday October 20th, would be good to bring a dozen non-fencers to watch the goings on and maybe get a short talk about the history of the club – and… not get in the way of the fencing.
I’ll have them sit and listen to the sound of fencers going at it. I love that sound. Then there’s that smell of sweat from fencers who haven’t cleaned their uniforms in ages. Ahhh.
Then the Hotel Chelsea where Cid lives with Lefty down on 23rd. It’s under construction with a new interior renovation and new owners so we can’t go inside but at least the outside looks the same.
Then two avenues over to where I placed the fictional Gotham Fencer’s Club but where at some point prior to 1930 there was an author’s club near 28 West 24th Street.
Then down by subway – the R train – to the bloody angle (not from Gettysburg) in Chinatown on Doyers where the Rescue Society Mission used to be and where I placed an alley that leads down and deep underground to an opium den where Lefty tries to disappear from the pain of life.
Finally we’ll end up a little north at the lower east side on Grand where Siggy lived at the Amalgamated and over to Orchard where he worked selling pickles from a push-cart.
I might be a little too ambitious.
I’ll let you know as I get closer.
Oh… and just ignore the fact that I’ve been away form a month and some. I’ll tell you about it later.
This is the final question from a CW Post student from my reading there last month.
How do you deal with a returned and edited manuscript? It’s perfect when I hand it in.
The woman who asked this question was terrific. She knew exactly what she was asking and knew the answer but wanted to know how to deal with the red pen of perfection. Most of us think our work is perfect or close to perfect when we hand it in. Otherwise, why would we hand it in? Then an editor gets ahold of it and either slants it with language they like, find ways to make it better, punctuates it in another style, or challenges us with new questions that we have to answer in order to make the piece complete.
I knew exactly what she meant. Man did I know what she meant. Even though by this time in my writing career I’m accustomed to revision after revision after revision I still hate to see an editor’s red marks on my manuscript. It hurts. There’s no way around it. Why do they want to change my words or punctuation or thought process as filtered through the words on my page? Usually it’s because… it could be better.
I think every writer gets to the point when they’re working on a book that they just don’t want to see it again – ever. I love my books, but I also want them to be finished. I always get to the point that I don’t want to work on them anymore, even if a little part of me knows there’s more work to do. For me it’s usually a good time to let the manuscript sit like for a month or three or six. Even a week’s break after an intense period of time with a manuscript can give a whole new perspective on the piece – especially if it’s not working – and I realize it’s not working – even if I don’t want to admit it out loud.
But feedback is always difficult to take in if it’s negative and if it’s true. Either one. Now saying this – know that sometimes editors are wrong. The same goes for fellow writers in a critique group and your life partner (but my wife is always right about my work – she just is). You just have to follow your gut as to what needs to be added to your manuscript, what needs to be cut, and what needs to stay the same. Over time working with someone on different projects you learn to figure out what to ignore and what to listen to. And as a writer I think each of us learns to shape our work and give it structure that is true to what we’re trying to say. Your sense of structure – of beginning-middle-end – tells you you’re on or off target with what you’ve written.
So how do I deal with a red-inked manuscript? I take a deep breath, read through the edits, accept what’s better, and cross out what’s not. It sounds simple but it’s really a lot harder than it sounds, because it will only work if my ego is in check and I can honestly tell what’s better and what’s not. And the ego, my ego, is a tricky writing partner. But the subject of ego is for another post and a brand new, rollerball, red ink pen of perfection.
Back to the fifth question from the CW Post LIU reading last month. I got a similar question last week from an 8th grade student at MS161 but I’ll tell you that one in another post because it’s more business oriented and I answered better.
I want to get published. How do I go about it?
She was a young woman with a big smile and she asked the question with an earnestness that broke my heart. “I’ve always known I want to be published,” she said. “Always.” She stood in front of me, nervous, smiling, smiling, smiling.
“That’s great,” I said, smiling back. We both stared at each other for a few moments. It felt a lot longer to me so, uncomfortable I forged ahead. I’d just had a conversation with a young man before her who wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask me and I’d had to investigate by getting some clarity from him about his needs. “Do you want others to look at your work? Do you want to be published?” I asked these questions because I know not everyone who is a writer wants to be published and I want to be respectful of that. Anybody who writes in any context is flexing an important creative muscle and should be encouraged to continue. Some people write just for themselves. Some for their friends and family. I’d asked him because I wanted to find out what his writing needs were. This woman with the big smile knew what she wanted, very similarly to myself when I was her age. I wanted others to read my work. I wanted to be published.
But I needed more information to be able to answer and she seemed stuck. So I asked, “Do you have finished work – a novel, or short story, or poetry?”
We stared at each other a little longer. I took a breath and nodded. “Then… you should finish your book, or short story, or poem and… send it out. That’s kind of how it works.”
She nodded and her smile (I didn’t think this was possible) got even bigger.
Then I realized what an idiot I was being.
“Okay,” I said. “I mean try not to stress over how to get published until you have something ready to publish. That’s what I really mean. You know what I mean?’ Yes, I know I was getting more eloquent as I went on. Right about now I wanted someone to get a hook out and take me off stage with a yank. Or a brick and hit me over the head with it. But there was no hook or brick and I went on anyway. “And when you’re ready you can go to The Writer’s Market and search out markets to send to, unless you already have them in mind for your work depending on what you’ve written. But, as my grandfather used to say to me, ‘How you going to get something published if you don’t send it out?’ So if you are the kind of writer who wants to see their name in print then sooner or later you’re going to have to do some marketing and The Writer’s Market is as good a place as any to start.”
“Thank you,” she said and she walked away.
Fortunately there was one more person behind her on line so I had one more chance to redeem myself. I’ll tell you her question tomorrow.
Question number 3.
How do you deal with presentation anxiety? And how did you get over your fear?
Okay. Here’s one I actually have some expertise on. I know a lot about anxiety. You could say I’m an expert on it. I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder most of my life and in spite of this have performed as a reader, an actor, and a teacher in front of thousands of individuals over the last twenty years – and I’ve taught public speaking classes to just almost as many individuals.
The woman who asked this question had taken speech class and still had tremendous anxiety when she presented in class. I told her, “Welcome to the club.” The old stat from The Book of Lists is that people are more afraid of public speaking than death, taxes, divorce, and marriage. So If you’re scared of it you’re in the right spot.
So, to the first part of the question. Am I over my fear of public speaking? Yes and no. I still have some but I’d frame it as anxiety. Some days it’s higher and some days it’s lower but I am almost always anxious before events, the bigger the event the more anxious I am. But it’s normal anxiety – what you are supposed to have in situations like this – not overwhelming. And… the anxiety is much more manageable and that is why I can function and succeed with it. And yes, I even enjoy it (the public speaking not the anxiety – though we are friendly and exchange birthday cards).
What I did was do a lot of public speaking.
I practiced and practiced in my jobs. I liked teaching so I taught in all the different jobs I had. I watched other speakers and took techniques I liked, tried to avoid ones that I thought didn’t work.
I also took improvisational acting classes and found these to be tremendously helpful in building my confidence in my ability to deal with brain freeze (when you can’t think of what to say and stand there with your mind blank like you just drank a 7/11 slurpee way too fast) and in realizing there are many ways to get from point A to point B (ie: I don’t have to be perfect in what I say – I just have to get my point across). I will also say that taking acting classes and specifically improv classes helped me as a writer to see how ideas can be generated and grown very quickly with a minimum of effort. It also helped me to learn about character archetypes and how a 3-act narrative structure works.
I also swear by yogic breathing practices (pranayama), meditation, and asana (physical practice). I’ve practiced daily for the last five years and have been studying actively for fifteen. It has been the single most powerful collection of tools I’ve found to help me deal with life in general and anxiety in the specific.
Books to look at on public speaking:
The Exceptional Presenter (the best accessible, practical, and hands on resource I’ve found so far)
Public Speaking for Dummies (hey, don’t laugh, it’s a good resource!)
Question two from CWPost students.
How do you start a blog?
This was asked by an older adult (not a younger 18-21 adult) returning to school and clearly enjoying herself. So she wanted to write for herself – “I like writing,” she said – “and knew there was this thing called blogging and wanted to know how to start one. “Can you keep your blog private or does it have to go out to the world and can you just ignore twitter and Facebook and stuff like that in your blog?” If I could ignore twitter and Facebook I believe I would but they are necessary tools of the trade. Blogging on the other hand is both fun and stretches writing muscles.
But seriously, when she asked me this question all I could think of is that I am so not the guy to answer these questions. Although I’ve started four blogs in my life so far and written for an equal number of other blogs, I’m not an expert in any way shape or form on blogs. I’m not disciplined enough (though I’m getting better) to write every day on mine, and I struggle with writing short rather than long. So I’m going to direct you to some great writer’s blogs and a blog on blogging that gives you a primer on how to start at the end of the post.
Matthew Rush’s The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment – because he has a number of great posts on blogs in general and how to use them for marketing. He also runs an incredible clinic on writing query letters.
Andrew Smith’s Blog Ghost Medicine because he has this terrific voice, keeps his entries short and weaves an ongoing narrative each and every day. Oh yeah, and he’s a great fiction writer to boot.
Cheryl Rainfield’s blog because of all the cool things she does on it with video’s and photos, and contests. And she’s a great fiction writer also.
How to write a blog that People Want to Read – it’s from about.com so it has to be good.
How to write great blog content – from Problogger (how can you go wrong with a name like that?).
How to Create a blog in 4 easy steps – again from about.com and very helpful/practical.
WordPress linkbecause I use them and I like them. Click the button that says get started here…
What I told this woman was the following. First I said you don’t have to pay attention to twitter of Facebook if you want to just blog for yourself. Second I said there are things called privacy settings that you can use so you blog only for yourself and no one else can or ever will see your work if you don’t want them to. Then I said there were two blogging programs to look at -Blogspot and WordPress and that although I’d used both I liked WordPress more because for me it is more intuitive and easier to use. She had tried Blogspot also and didn’t like it so she was excited at each of the concrete answers I gave her. I told her to follow their tutorials – they walk you through the process. That’s really all I’m qualified to say about blogging. Really.
But here’s what was so cool about talking to this lovely woman. She wanted to exercise her writing muscles. She wanted to see what she could do. It’s the kind of response to writing that is so hard to get from most people because I think most look upon writing as a chore and not a pleasant one at that. Writing is so much a part of the way I express myself I almost forgot about this aspect of writing. This woman had just discovered writing as an act of self-expression and it had turned her on. How cool is that?
Here is the first of six questions I received at the CW Post LIU reading last week. It’s still strange to me why one year ago nobody would ask me these questions and now I seem to have grown in my knowledge of the publishing world so much that I now both be asked and feel like I can answer. As my wife and son would say, now I am a somebody. Somebody or nobody, here’s my answer to the first question.
Why didn’t I get an English degree? Why did I get a business degree?
I have asked myself this same question many times. I think I would have been happier in school if I had gotten an English degree or a degree in creative writing. It’s a strange thing to say but it’s the truth. I did not like getting a business degree. Two years of business school was more than enough. My honors electives and some good teachers helped me to make the best of my last two years.
I know I thought of getting a degree in English in high school but when I talked to my parents about it, my father, always practical, said, “If you get a degree in English the only thing you’ll be able to do is teach English and there are no jobs out there for English teachers. If you get a business degree you can do anything.”
So it ends up he was both right and wrong at the same time. He meant well and I was not strong enough to disagree.
When I got out of school I got a job in a small medical publisher doing customer service work. I worked next to a bunch of people like me only they had degrees in English and Philosophy and History – degrees they mostly enjoyed getting. I’ve worked many places in a variety of types of jobs since then and my degree has helped in each of them because of its practical nature. Yet, I wish some days I had gone the other route. Perhaps my path to publication would have been faster? Or maybe it was slow because I had lessons to learn about writing and simply needed time to learn them.
It comes down to two things.
One was that I was not confident enough in myself at the age of 17 to be able to say, “I want to get a degree in English because I want to write.” My father would say, “But you can’t make a living writing so make sure you have a degree to get a day job.” By the time I developed enough confidence to say, “But creative writing is what I want to do and I need training in it,” two years had already passed. By then, I figured it was best to just finish the program I’d started. So I used what I had available to me, as Lefty from my novel Open Wounds would say, “I used what I found in the trenches.” With the help of the honors program I used my elective classes to take writing workshops and business classes focused on the publishing industry so all was not lost. I graduated with more credits than I needed but I was out in four years and wrote on my own during the whole time.
The second thing is that I didn’t know enough about life, what I could and could not do, what I could challenge my parents over and what I couldn’t. That was something my brother did very well, but I did not. So using black and white thinking typical of a young adult with a still developing pre-frontal cortex and an executive suite that was just not there yet – I did what I was capable of doing. I went to business school and developed my belief in myself as a writer by writing. I can neither blame myself for my inabilities nor my parents for suggesting what they thought would be best for me.
The moral of the story? Work with what you can and what you are capable of – don’t regret what you didn’t have or were not capable of. And of course, no matter what – if you want to write, write.
… as in evocative of past memories.
The reading at CWPost was great. At least I had a good time. I think the students did also. As my friend and professor from undergraduate days, Dr. Joan Digby said, “There were a lot of people asking questions so that’s a good sign that you didn’t scare them away.”
I’ll get to the student’s questions and my answers over the next few day’s posts. Today it’s about the pictures and what resonates for me.
I went to Post as an undergrad and Dr. Digby (who is in charge of the honors program and has been so since I was there) has since invited me back a number of times to read short stories and talk about my various careers to students. It’s great to have a teacher believe in you especially long after your class-taking days are over. I’m taking her to lunch next time we get together. This kind of faith keeps a writer writing.
So the reading, in the art museum at Post, as the inaugural event for their newly opened poetry center, was very cool. There was standing room only with over 70 folks in attendance – young adults to older adults pretty much 18 and up. It was something to stand there with my book in front of me and speak to folks who were in my seat thirty years ago.
It resonated like a long, loud, ringing, Om.