The other day, Mark had plans to go into Atlanta to take a woodworking class. It so happened that there was a featured author reading at the Margret Mitchell Literary Center whom I was very interested in as well, so we decided to make a day of it and go in together. We spent the afternoon visiting a small coffee roasting company and visiting one of their three shops, checking out antique stores and finally ending at Akeia where I purchased every sort of coffee and tea making device imaginable – for experimentation you see. I brought home a French press, a nifty glass teapot that has a built in infuser and a few steel German coffee and/or espresso pots – all for people who might want to order a personal pot of coffee to nurse while hanging around the fireplace.
The problem with this full day plan was that my reading was from 7 – 8, but Mark’s class was from 5 – 10pm clear across town. While he is familiar with Atlanta, I was bound to get lost. It began as an overcast, mid-temperature day but by afternoon, it was freezing and windy, and of course, I was dressed in just a thin raincoat. Ah well. I had Mark drop me off at 4:30 and I nestled into a booth at a coffee shop near the literary center (after inspecting their bakery case and menu and doing a bit of sleuthing, of course). I am reading a book about screenwriting now. I’ve very interested in learning more about that genre, so the time went quickly enough.
At 6:00, I scurried over to the Literary Center, the blasting wind almost carrying me past the front door. Burrrr….The moment I stepped inside I knew it was worth baring the cold, the wait, and the unknown. The cozy museum had been transformed. They set up a small stage and seating for a hundred or so literary enthusiasts and the room was awash with mood lighting, a bar serving wine (bingo) and a room filled with intelligent and enthusiastic readers. I felt instantly at home. Best of all was the music playing – wonderful blues filtered from speakers overhead. Now, if this wasn’t an event designed for me (mental, audio, visual, and orally pleasing) I don’t know what is.
I bought a glass of wine, purchased the author’s book (I had already ordered it from Amazon, but it hadn’t arrived yet and I wasn’t planning to come and not have a book for reference or to have sighed, so I took out my crowbar and bought the dang thing again) and took a place front and center of the seating area. And I started reading.
The author, James McBride, would soon be discussing his novel, Song Yet Sung. It’s a novel dealing with the issues of Slaves and the Underground Railroad in 1850 (happens to be the subject and background of the book I am now working on, so of particular interest to me). I read the first three chapters while nursing my wine, thrilled because the book has the beautiful flow of a literary novel while also a wonderful plot. Something actually happens in this story and each page compels you to read on– which if you read many literary novels, is rather rare. (Sad, but true.)
At seven James McBride took the stage. He was a wonderfully unassuming man. As a young man, he went to Oberland for a degree in music and it just so happened we were listening to his CD on the speakers. (He made arrangements to give one to everyone in attendance as thanks for them baring the horrible wind to come to a reading. Yippee!) He later got his Masters in journalism at Columbia and wrote for many prestigious journals and newspapers. Then, he wrote a memoir about being raised in a bi-racial family called The Color of Water, and this book received critical acclaim and was a best seller. His second book was about war and it didn’t sell so well, but they are making a movie of it and he just finished the script for Spike Lee.
He said, “If I’d known so many people were going to read my first book, I would have written it better . . .”
Ha. He claimed he has grown into a much better writer now. I believe that. We all do as time marches on and experience pushes us forward.
His lecture was filled with easygoing jokes and down to earth honesty. He only spent about 10 minutes actually reading from the book (which was nice and brief, but I do love hearing an author’s work in his own voice) and then took questions.
Most people asked about his writing process or about how he gathered historical information to write such an authentic book. Most were fascinated with the subject of the book. I listened, enjoying his answers, but then had a question of my own.
“Why no quotation marks?” I asked. “Is it a style thing, or an allergy, or what?”
You see, he only uses a dash to denote a conversation. There are no quotation marks in the manuscript, and I found it peculiar.
He explained it was just an experiment – he felt dropping the quotation marks gave immediacy to the dialogue. I asked if he had to fight with his editor to keep his choice, but he said the first book was so successful they pretty much let him do what he wanted. He doubted he’d write a book without quotation marks again.
I always have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. To me it is sort of affected, as if someone is trying too hard to make an artistic statement and can’t come up with another way to accomplish uniqueness. I feel great writing doesn’t need to break rules, because it only makes it harder for the reader to follow. Communication is key, and to mess with uniform language always means giving up control of how the work is interpreted to some extent. But I also recognize that art has no rules, so I try not to pass judgment. Still, these kinds of experiments always seem self-indulgent to me. But I must admit it didn’t take away from the book, because it took two chapters for me to even notice. But then, I couldn’t help but notice and notice and notice and notice…..
McBride was inspirational, informative, and fun to listen too. He made more than a few derogatory remarks about Margret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, because of her stereotypical portrayal of slaves. But it was done with good humor and respect too, and it was obvious he recognized that she was a product of her times.
A woman leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think he is offended to have to read here?”
I said I very much doubted it. He could always refuse a gig if it truly went against his moral code. I think he just spoke of that book in a comparison of his own as a way of social commentary. It brought forth a true example of the great diversity of how people view slavery and how today, he can write such a more authentic book.
He is remarkably talented. Remarkably likeable, and I enjoyed every moment of the lecture.
Since I had hours to kill after the reading, I hung back at the end of the line to get the author’s John Hancock. This gave me time to enjoy some vibrant conversation with some of Atlanta’s elite. The people standing with me just bought a penthouse in a high rise next door (they came just to see what goes on in their neighborhood) and they talked about their personal jet…..
I was like, yea, that’s nice. I don’t have a jet, but I do have a donkey…. Believe it or not, they found that fascinating, and we ended up talking about why a person who loves literature can adore mud too, and we talked peacocks and mountains, and books and what is good and bad about living in a big city (I’ve done that too) ….. Well, it was a diverse conversation. Needless to say, it was fun.
When the line cleared and I got to meet with James McBride, I said, “I want to be the only person on earth who has quotation marks in her book, so can you put your name in quotes?”
He laughed and said “sure”.
He wrote, “To Ginny, Peace, love and truth . . . the only quote here in this book is “for you”.” And followed it with some scribble that I suppose is his name. Why is it men can’t write legibly?
It was a wonderful night. I came home and read the entire dang book the next day. It was moving beyond description. Anyone who loves good literature would appreciate it. Song Yet Sung. Buy it.
After the reading, I braced myself for the biting wind and walked a few blocks to a raunchy bar to hold up till Mark was free to pick me up. Funny, but I felt just as at home there in a smoky bar as at the refined reading. I was a bartender when I was young and living in New York, so I’m only too comfortable sliding into a worn wooden seat at a bar and having someone slide a glass of wine over the brass rail my direction. This bar was filled with pin-up posters of girls from the 1940’s. Inspirational! I was just sort of sorry Mark wasn’t there with me to discuss the reading and enjoy a drink. Always makes these things more poignant when you share them with another interested party.
Mark left his class early to pick me up – I told him it wasn’t necessary, but he didn’t like the idea of me traipsing around alone in Atlanta at night. Really, I was feeling fine and didn’t feel the least bit abandoned, but it was sweet he was concerned. He picked me up and we went back to his woodworking class. I read a bit in the car, then we had a hamburger and a glass of wine at a little Atlanta dive on that side of town, and drove the 1 ½ hour home –with plenty of conversation to share about what we experienced this night. That is one of the joys of going different directions when you’ve been married a long time. Makes for inspired conversation when you touch base.
Anyway, the reading inspired my own writing, which is important.
Speaking of which . . .
This week I started getting responses to my agent query letters. The first few were rejections. I figured as much, considering they were boomerang responses. Sigh.
But the third response was from a very prestigious agent and she made a request for the full manuscript with exclusive rights. I was delighted and yet, I felt I should wait the weekend and think about it. Don’t know why.
And the next day, I received another request for the full manuscript – from the agent of my dreams….. She happens to be the woman who discovered and represented Rosemary Rodgers (author of Sweet Savage Love, my favorite historical romance of all time) and several other very renowned and beloved historical romance writers. If you know my writing history and what motivated me to begin writing historicals– you would know just how significant this agency’s history was to me…. I sent the manuscript off within the hour. It doesn’t hurt that the agency is called Coffey (pronounced coffee). Ha. It has to be a sign, don’t you agree?
That night, I got another full manuscript request from another very prestigious firm. They said, “Your proposal sounds very intriguing and your writing sample is promising. Please send us more so we can consider representation…..”
Someone else might want me? I’ve been doing the happy dance ever since.
Mark started seeing these positive responses (four years ago my queries for the same book resulted in not a single offer – which goes to show I’ve improved either in the writing, the idea or the way I present it… perhaps the MFA opens doors because it is a statement of my commitement to writing). And he said, “Wow. You’re going to really sell this book. You’re going to do just what you set out to do…” ‘
Then he grinned and added, “Not that anyone ever doubted you would…”
That’s my guy.
I reminded him that getting an agent to read your work is a big step, but it is a long way from being represented and/or selling a book. I don’t want to get my hopes up….. I might still have lots of work ahead… and disappointment and …. Well, this is only a promising start.
But I know he is right. Because these agents will either represent me (required to get in the door of a publishing house now a days), or say no and with their rejection, they’ll probably make an explanation of why not. And that will give me direction so I can go back to the drawing board and make changes which will enhance my work. Every “no” is one more dart getting closer to the “yes” bulls eye, ya see.
As I printed my book to send out, I kept pulling out pages and reading. Often I thought, “Not bad . . not bad at all…” Then I thought, “I can do better….”
This is funny, because a teacher I had at Lesley often wrote “You can do better” in the margins of my submitted work and it drove me crazy. Because I felt I was trying hard, and I wasn’t sure I could do better….. but of course, I’ve learned I can. And now, that is the overriding theme regarding how I feel about everything I write.
I can do better.
And I will.
I know that there is only so much fixing I can do on a book I wrote 4 years ago. My next book will be better – because I’m a far better writer now. And the book after that will be even better. I’m actually looking forward to starting something from scratch soon, knowing my newer material will be so much stronger than the old.
So it doesn’t matter if this book sells. Of course, I hope it will because I happen to adore the characters and the story and it represents time and energy and hope. But if it doesn’t, the next one will. Or the next.
The point is, I have put ego aside, I am open to learning and I understand growth takes time. And frankly, I’m not in a hurry or inclined to get frustrated because writing is hard and breaking into publishing harder. Growing and learning is a joy in itself, so all the effort is valuable. Publication is sort of secondary…
At least, that is how I feel today.
Anyway – my book is now in circulation. And if agent one says, ‘Not my thing” perhaps the next agent will adore it, or agent three, or one of the others I have yet to receive a response from but might show an interest…. The point is, I’ve dipped my toes in the water of publishing at long last. Feels refreshing and I seriously can’t wait to plunge in head first. Hope I don’t drown.
When I took my manuscript to the little country post office, I told my friend working there that after all those dozen of packages I picked up during my MFA, I was finally sending one out – I told her to send it with care and good vibes. It was my book finally leaving home.
She said, “About time”.
P.S. Every morning, Prism walks out to the sunshine and opens his tail in a huge fan of irredessent color and circles. My girl peacock dances through the feathers, adoring him. I can’t believe something so beautiful is right in my back yard. And I’m guessing I’ll be discovering fertilized eggs pretty soon. Yippee.
I’ll take a picture when I can find my dang camera….. A peacock showing off is impressive and inspirational and a marvel of nature! Like all th emost splendid things in life – it was worth the frustration, the mistakes, the wait, and the painful learning curve….