Friday, July 30, 2010

Hello My Name is Sarah and...

... I'm a compulsive book buyer. (Hi, Sarah.)

This is something I've suspected about myself for a while, mostly because I can't walk by a bookstore without going inside. Or, if I really do have somewhere to be and don't have time to go inside, I'll slow down my pace so I can least linger in its aura.

This week, however, is when the label "addict" first entered my brain. You see, I was walking by the Strand and well, one thing led to another... I ended up finding Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles on their $1 rack and got VERY EXCITED. The cover was pretty awesome looking and it had that "old book" smell. I knew it had to be mine. So I bought it (along with a book that was more than $1...) and brought it home. Only, when I went over to the sci-fi section of my bookshelf, I found, exactly where Bradbury was supposed to go, a copy of that very same book.

The one I already owned also looked pretty beat up, but it had a different cover that wasn't nearly as fun. Still, I imagine I once found it at a thrift store and had much of the same reaction go through my head. So, now I have two copies of The Martian Chronicles. This is not the first time this has happened to me.

My first accidental duplicate was Coming Up For Air by George Orwell. I bought a new copy at a Barnes and Noble about two years ago because I hadn't read it yet (at the time), but then when I brought it home I found a small, ripped up, identically titled copy (the cover was literally hanging off of it) that I immediately liked 100 times more than my character-less new copy.

As far as compulsions go, buying books is hardly debilitating. It can get expensive, but that's my problem, right? I'm not hurting anyone but me. I can quit any time I want. You're not the boss of me!

Sigh.

Have "accidental duplicates" happened to anyone else? I can't be the only bibliophile out there who buys so many books that I don't even know what I have anymore. Please share with me.

We don't have to go through this alone.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Last Regiment

Wednesday Story Time! Hooray!

Today's story hails from Canada and is by Douglas E Wright, a "supernatural suspense" writer from (you guessed it!) Canada. Douglas has been published in various magazines and anthologies throughout the US and the UK, and works as the submissions editor at Dark Discoveries magazine. After reading, and enjoying, his novel excerpt titled The Last Regiment, feel free to read his previously published story, Crimson Hearts, here or read more by him on his website - here.

The Last Regiment
By Douglas E Wright

“Lord t’underin’ Jesus, where are yas?” Max yelled as he traipsed inside the hilled bunker. His ragged voice smacked into the concrete walls, returning as a phlegm-filled growl. He rose off the cement bench and stepped to A doorless portal that looked out far beyond the scorched hillside.

He breathed in a sigh as the twitter of a lone chickadee broke the grey stillness. Ethereal smoke layered the hillside as he perked an ear into the heated wind, hoping to hear more than just a lone bird; he squinted his eyes, fingered a bushy brow before calling for his friend one more time. A faint whirring chopped the air overhead. He looked to the sky where a series of sparkly lights hung in the stormy clouds while their rapid jeweled flashes reflected off the windswept Atlantic.

He returned his sights to the desolate area that surrounded him. There was a time he recalled that the land was more than desolation and dead scrub brush. A lush forest paraded down the hill where glittering bolders swept from the land into the sea.

Max stepped back into the bunker and returned to the broken cement slab perch that was haphazardly wired to the wall. His eyes traced the uneven concrete wall where he soon caught hold of an icy thread sparkling from the ceiling to the floor down the cracked concrete partition. The crystalized string reminded him of forked lightning out on the sea, back in his younger days when he rode skiffs and tilled the rocky Newfoundland landscape. He raised a finger to his cheek and pushed back a tear before angrily flicking it off his face. Dreaming of the past wasn’t necessary, nor was it healthy. He possessed not only daydreams, but also the damnations of war.

He would have none of either.

Thoughts of his youth shot back. Happy childhood memories. Each complete and alive. He recalled the jig dinners, the moments his sisters teased him about being the only male in the family. Then, without warning his mind wandered to an image of a girl. The one that slept with his best mate during the night of the invasion.

Then, a series of broken semitransparent pictures flooded his mind. Bits and pieces folding into recollections from various periods of his life. Not one anchoring to the last. Every one he had ever known was alive again. All of the folks he had come across were talking. Strolling the land as if the foreigners had never touched down. A time before the country folk had been decimated and the fleshy farmlands plowed into stringy shreds of gravelly earth.

A frosted white flash forked against the velvet sky. His lonesome smile continued as his recollections melted away.

James bellied to the ground. The long grass ahead of him weaved in the blowing wind like worms tunneling through a freshly buried corpse. James shifted his eyes from side to side as he glanced over the ocean for some indication that German U-boat periscopes were slicing its choppy surface. He breathed in the misty air. The fog hovered slightly overtop of him. He stayed flat to the hilly terrain. His thoughts scrambled back to Moose Jaw, to a time where he once heard that the enemy routinely patrolled the Newfoundland and Canadian coasts. Nope, he was not going to take any chances. Lives were at stake. His thoughts went back to Max. The old bastard had promised to stay in the bunker while he scouted the terrain. It was a pact they made. Max would stay as a sentry while James scouted for the enemy.

A crimson flash ignited overhead. The ragged Atlantic crashed into the rock-laden shoreline. Its wet smell was far different than the dry Saskatchewan prairie lands. He turned over onto his back, and looked to twinkles of red, blue and white exploding inside the clouded universe. There they were again. Trying to capture both. He could not let it happen. The mist dragged over his face like a set of moist, lacy sheers. The lights snapped like dead limbs as they veered toward Max. James was not worried. Max could take care of himself. He blinked a couple of times and then rolled over so he could rise onto his knees. He glanced toward what should have been St. John’s harbor. He strained to see the searchlights of Signal Hill. Nothing. Fort Cape Spear had been sealed by the dense ocean haze.

A stubby ventilation pipe protruded from the wet grassy earth. It was the only visible reminder of a storage facility under the ground. Far past that, the faint outline of white clapboard hovered on a two hundred foot cliff. James scrambled across the well-kept lawn until he reached a battery access in the ocean-facing hillside. Rusted artillery sat anchored behind a low brick wall on the ocean perimeter. He scurried toward a vacant doorway and pushed his spine into the damp cement wall. He examined the adjacent area. A breath hitched in his chest when Max’s distant voice caught his attention. “Please be quiet,“ he whispered to himself. “You’ll get us caught.“ He moved into the bunker where a long squiggly interior block wall unrolled before him. His hand slowly fell to his belt. James cautiously touched the right leather loop as he glanced down the dark underground corridor. It felt frayed to his fingertips. A frown crossed his face. He then moved his fingers to the left; his holster had completely vanished. Damp, cold air invaded his lungs. What the hell did I do with it? he thought. I couldn’t have left it with Max. He pushed his hat back over his forehead. Sweat glistened beneath his puffy eyes, fear played his stomach and nervous farts filled his drawers.

Max eyeballed the surroundings until he sighted sails floating over waves of smoke and destruction. The vessel with its golden masts and dark hull penetrated the changing haze. Its far-off tinny bell replaced the intermitted lighthouse foghorn. Faint voices drifted from its bow. Then, all vanished over his head into another roll of fog. He looked about the ravaged landscape, searching for his friend, James. Have they captured him?

Screams of young Turks erupted from above the battleground. Rapid gunshots sent white sheets of gulls winging over the shoreline. A round of laughter and applause followed each burst. War games, Max thought. Funny, t’ey didn’t come for us to play along. Why?

He slowly crept down the embankment opposite of the woods. He rounded the hillside toward the ocean calling out for James. Another entryway reached out of the gloom. Slushy waters had filled the tunnel while grim daylight filled the first gun-well. The emplacement lay deserted; its ancient M1894M1 disappearing-carriage sat frozen against the grey sky.

James plodded through the wet underground interior. A ship’s bell sang beyond the cliffs and its ring ricocheted off the tunnel walls. It certainly didn’t sound anything like the Saskatchewan thrashing machines he had become accustomed to as a child. He stopped at a glassless window. The smell of spilled diesel fuel saturated the air. Outside, the New Jersey cannon remained silent. Moisture coated its rusted exterior like speckles of crushed glass. His eyes narrowed into thin watery slits, “What the Christ?” He stuck his head out the rudimentary window and looked beneath the gun. “It’s gone!” Then, he lowered his voice, “Where’d that damn carriage go to?” We’ll never be able to fire that honey again, he thought. “Shit,” he said. “The krauts’ll take that out.” He looked along the tunnel’s corridor. The gun’s receiving bay stood littered with paper, driftwood and bags of garbage. As James eased toward the open berth, an artillery storage room came into view. Inside, hanging like time-worn skeletons, was a host of gardening implements. A jerry can sat unplugged. Oh, God, he thought, the shells are gone too! He quickly inspected the shadowy room. Dank odors permeated his nostrils while terror filled his gut. Across the hall, sunlight stretched its skeletal fingers into the artillery room.

And then, the burst of colored lights and whirring thunderclaps reclaimed the sky. A bell sounded from the ocean. James unhooked a shovel and swung it over his shoulder. His movements were fluid now. Water sprayed through the open gun-bay window. He inhaled the salty air as waves smashed into the jagged shoreline fifty feet away from the rampart. His mind shot miles away where the cold mist suddenly turned warm. It delivered interludes of wondrous memories: the sound of trashing-machines, the smell of wheat fields, the feel of prairie rain on his youthful skin.

His lips curved into a wide toothy grin.

Then, without warning, the sound of pebbles, sand and rocks trickling onto the concrete floor beyond the first gun-emplacement filled his ears. His weary eyelids fluttered and his ears pricked up. He squatted to the floor; turned and stared at the gunnery shadows.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Being a Snob

A few months ago, my sister asked if I'd be interested in a guy who read Tom Robbins. I told her I hadn't really thought about it before (truth). Then I thought (to myself), what does that even mean? Are Tom Robbins fans certain types of people, the way Tucker Max boys are? I didn't think so. Then I thought that maybe she was asking me about Tom Robbins because, simply, he's popular. This, to me, was a sad thought.

I admit there was a period in my life where I judged people based on the type of music they listened to and genres of books they read. I'm happy to report that these days of complete and utter superficiality are now behind me. (Well, for the most part: I'm still pretty sure I wouldn't be able to marry someone who listens to Nickelback. But that's just common sense.)

As far as books are concerned though, basically I'm just happy if the person reads at all. You only read Carl Hiaasen? Fine by me. Dante in Latin? Excellent. Candace Bushnell fan? Little weird, but sure, I'll take it. And yet. There was a time when I was a snob, and this time wasn't too long ago. Studying creative writing during Da Vinci mania and James Frey controversy made it easy to turn up my nose at those who read mere commercial fiction. Mostly because everyone around me was turning up their noses too. Just the word - commercial - I mean, ugh. Right? The word was dirty to my liberal arts educated writing community.

Then I made the jump to an even more exclusive literary circle - the MFA program. In New York City. In Greenwich Village. I was doomed.

I was recently out to dinner with two other former MFAers (one from my alma mater, The New School; the other from Sarah Lawrence). We, of course, had a long chat about books and agreed that our MFAs have ruined us, but possibly in a good way. Explanation:

You see, in writing programs, the last thing writers are ever taught is how to get published. It's all about craft, craft, craft. And in order to hone that skill, we must read, read, read. But again, we are not told to read New York Times bestsellers. We are told to read the few masterpieces of literary fiction that publishers were kind enough to took a chance on. Most of these authors are dead. Or insane. Or reclusive. Or have been long since considered "classic" or "genius," two titles that the average student will probably not be able to attain upon graduation.

Literary fiction remains a go-to choice for when I read for fun (that is, when I have time for such things!). However, the David Foster Wallaces, Italo Calvinos, Marcel Prousts, and the Thomas Pynchons are hardly beach reading. Yet writers in MFA programs are told that this is the only form of writing worth doing. To me, there is accessible literary fiction (Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon...) and there's the authors I mentioned I above (let's call them the Uberliterary).

The Uberliterary, to me, are the writing equivalent of fashion designers. There are those who design clothes you buy at the Gap and there are those who design clothes strictly for the runway. Walking art projects made by designers for designers, saying "looky what I can do!" There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But sadly, since I'm not in the fashion club, it all just looks like a mess to me. I am, however, in the literary club. So when the Uberliteraries write for other writers, I smile and wink back.

So, why has my MFA "ruined" me, as I said? Well, remember I also said "in a good way." I can be as snobby as I want because I was practically trained to be. Yet, I couldn't choose not to be pretentious if I didn't have this training. (Make sense?) Working in publishing has de-MFAed me. Not only because high concept literary fiction isn't exactly a moneymaker, but because it's surrounded me with book lovers who love the written word. No matter what it is. So, I left my snobbery at the door and didn't look back. I can choose to pick it up again, but why would I want to?

What do you all think? Any former or current writing students care to share your experiences?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In The Summer of My Youth

Since this month is proving to be the sweatiest July ever, what better way to escape the heat than reading a story set during post-WWII summer in hot, sticky Louisiana? My thoughts exactly! Which is why I'm very happy to introduce this week's story, The Summer of My Youth by Lyn LeJeune. This story is actually the preface to Lyn's short story collection, cleverly titled, Each In Its Ordered Place, which chronicles the lives of the Sonnier family within their small Cajun town.

Lyn LeJeune is 100% Cajun and grew up on a rice farm in Louisiana. She has been the recipient of the Paris Writers’ Institute Scholarship and a Summer Literary Seminars Fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was a finalist in the William Faulkner Novel-In-Progress prize. Her work has been published in various literary journals. Enjoy!

In The Summers of My Youth
By Lyn LeJeune

It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.
DARL
As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
                               
 In the summers of my youth, my father woke my entire family up at exactly 4 a.m. every Saturday morning. We packed our lunch, usually pop rouge (red pop) and baloney sandwiches, piled into our old black Buick and headed to the bayous about 20 miles south of Abbeville, Louisiana. We loaded up the boat my father had built with his own hands and sped southward down the Vermilion River, into Vermilion Bay, and then hooked east to Cote Blanche Bay. There we fished for drum and red snapper and seined for shrimp.

The water was cool in the morning and only the surface warmed by lunchtime; if you plunged your hand in the water or dove in from the front of the boat, as we usually did, the water was frigid and clean and clear. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see the movement of baby shrimp, crab, sand sharks, the simple trilling of life. On the distant shore, flights of egrets and gulls and pelicans took wing, descending in search of the silver fish that nourished them, banking and circling the newly installed oil rigs. I will always remember this pure celebration of life. No child could have asked for finer days.  

When my children were young, we traveled from New England to south Louisiana so that my father could take us all to Cote Blanche Bay for a day of fishing. He was hesitant, but, as many mothers do, I wanted my children to experience those same days of joy that I had. Mothers are often naïve in their children’s interests. The water was dirty and fouled. Glycerin slicks and sludge and garbage floated around the boat as we
released the winch and my son walked with the boat into the water, only to make a quick retreat at what he imagined was an alligator nudging his leg. It was a rusted Shell oil can.

The land along the bayou was dotted with abandoned rigs; solitary black pumps emitted noise and the aroma of crooked civilization. Where once there had existed the loud cry of the nutria, the honk of the alligator, the call of the peregrine falcon, now there was the monotonous swish of lift pumps left to draw off oil and gas from the heart of the marshlands. What I remember most from that day is the look on my daughter’s face; it was as though I had told her a fairytale that took place in a landscape much like purgatory.

The following day, we drove from Abbeville towards New Orleans, crossing over the once pristine and life-filled Atchafalaya Basin, which had already become known as “Cancer Alley.” I felt that we had reached Dante’s seventh circle of hell.

That the levees surrounding New Orleans broke, that the bayou communities were swept away by Katrina and Rita, should have surprised no one. Stentorian alarms had been sounded for years. During the past few weeks, we’ve heard from every politician and bureaucrat on every level of government stating that one of the causes was the erosion of the wetlands and by doggit (one really said that) something must be done.

Those who have expressed surprise or play-acted their own personal incredulity are either bad liars or have long ago turned their backs on their responsibilities, giving over to the corrupting force of money and position. Even a child can see what they have refused to see and hear, what we as a people have refused to see and hear.

Is it too late to save the coast of Louisiana? I can’t answer that. But I will say this; that if we, the public, the voters, the citizens, do not hold those in power, those who hold the purse strings, those who call the shots accountable, feet tot the fire not only will we lose the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, we will lose the very life that sustains our species and this country, the wetlands.

It is not that we do not know what should be done; it is that we have lost our will to succeed at greater purposes. I fear that Katrina and Rita will become not an impetus to change but an excuse: Times are bad all over, money is tight, there are fewer and fewer jobs, war takes the resources. The federal deficit is so deep it should be called the crimson tide. Poor and not so poor and even rich countries used to come begging to us,
now we go begging and borrowing from what was once considered the “Third World” — China and South Korea and South America. When the politicians and grossly rich private sector starts thinking that the people – you know us — may not vote for them next election cycle or not buy their products, they start bandying about and using that word: you know, the one we teach out children – responsibility. Only they’ve become a little more sophisticated and all we hear now is about accountability.

Yes, someone must be held accountable for what long ago happened and is still happening to the coast of Louisiana. And someone must be made accountable for making it better. Americans know who must be held accountable, whose feet should be held to the fire until they are on fire. We don’t need a civics lesson at this late date. If we do not act, speak up, write, vote, participate, then it will be our feet, and the feet of our children, that will be on fire. And there may come a day when there will be nothing left to douse the flames. And all manner of things may not be well.

*

I began writing the story of the Sonnier family and Abbeville, Louisiana, the town where I was born, three years ago. These characters did not come to me as enlightened dreams; they came from the pure rationing of my own experience, my own shaded memories, my own inadequate and often unrequited dreams. As a writer, I am fascinated by the places in which people choose and do not choose to live their lives, especially when those people are my characters and they demand the exposure of their truths. Yet it is place that I cannot create wholly from sackcloth, whether it be gunny or white flour.

Place defines a people, a culture, and composes the threads of the fabric that is America. The vibrant thread that I bring to you, the reader, is Cajun country, that area commonly referred to as Acadiana.

I have traveled the world, walked the streets of strange and wonderful cities, but the smells, the night air, the touch of raindrops, are always and will forever be compared to my Louisiana. I am a child of the place in which I lived during the formative years of my life. I have carried in my mind, in my swift chopping hands, recipes for country dishes that, when served to friends unfamiliar with them, solicit something we all need:

Admiration. These stories are true to the people, the place, and the food, and things culturally defined become that which brings both redemption and solace. I have finally set down some of my recipes on paper, rendered like the fat from a new killed chicken, the gleaning for the gumbo, the base for the cornbread, the stuff that makes for good storytelling.

During our lifetime, the place my stories illuminate has been diminished greatly by both human hands and the unpitying winds of change. Louisiana is now defined by the following assignations: an apartheid of solace; environmental alienation; the exorcism of the grotesque; the anarchy of the family tree; and disorder. It will never again be as you read it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number

Lately I've noticed a trend in query letters that does not involve overused supernatural beings or the dreaded rhetorical question. This trend is new to me, but maybe other agents have experienced it. In several letters, the authors, those who happen to be teenagers, are apologizing for their ages. 

As far as query trends go, this is probably the least annoying, but writers - young writers - don't do this! Apologizing for yourself not only weakens you right out of the gate, but it's also completely unnecessary. I mean, did Mozart ever say "Sorry guys, I know I'm only six years old, but I'm about to blow your mind?" No. All he did was blow people's minds! No apology offered or needed.

Evidence of amazing teen writers is everywhere. S.E. Hinton, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Nick McDonell, and Christopher Paolini were all successful teen authors. And the new class featuring the likes of Steph Bowe (GIRL SAVES BOY) and Kody Keplinger (THE DUFF) looks pretty impressive too! (Both writers were highlighted during the Glass Cases "Teen Writers Week" back in April - see Steph's profile and Kody's profile for more info on them!) I doubt today's young writers feel as if they don't deserve recognition for their work just because they never had to write it on a typewriter. Just as I'm sure the former teen all-stars don't feel guilty or ashamed of their early successes.

When I am reading queries, I never wonder how old the writer is. Honestly, I don't care at all until they tell me, and even then I just say "hm.. that seemed unnecessary." If you want to stick in at the end of your pitch that you are a freshman in high school (well, only if this is true), then go ahead. It might catch my eye ONLY if the novel is of any interest to me. And if you are a freshman in high school and researching agents at all, I think that's pretty impressive, so please don't apologize for it!

Likewise, I've received queries from people in their sixties and seventies who have also felt the need to tell me their ages. This, I understand even less. As with their younger counterparts, these writers also ask for forgiveness for being "so old," especially if they do not have previous writing credentials. But when they're not apologizing for things they cannot control, they are attributing various obstacles involved in completing their novels to their ages, as if being sixty-eight years old is somehow akin to having no legs, arms, or eyes.

If I reject a ninety-year-old, it's because the novel wasn't for me, not because the writer is ninety. And if I make an offer to a twelve-year-old, it's because I loved his or her work, not because I love the idea of exploiting their wunderkind-ness to my advantage. The writing is what matters, and good writing transcends age. Always. 

Sure, I might be impressed if I read what I think is the next Gatsby, only to find out the writer is eleven, but age will never be a deal-breaker, whether positive or negative. On the flip side of that, sometimes it is obvious that a writer is not quite mature enough to tell the story he or she is trying to tell, but again, it has nothing to do with their actual age. In the same way a memoirist requires distance and perspective to create a truly effective piece, young writers need time and space and, more often, practice to create an objectively "good" story. Just like the rest of us.

So whether you were born in the Clinton administration or the Hoover,  please stop being so sorry and let your writing speak for itself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Fun Stuff

It's Friday. It's summer. Here's some fun stuff!

Friend-o'-blog, josheverettryan brought this site to my attention: I Write Like. It's highly addicting and very fun, but I warn you NOT to take their word as bond. They told me my blog posts are in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. I've been told I have a dark sense of humor, but there are usually no beatings of hideous hearts on the blog. Usually.

Flavorpill judged us based on our favorite websites this week - here - and I have to say, their assessments of some of my faves, Jezebel, HuffPo, and Twitter are pretty accurate. (What's TweetDeck???)

This is by no means something that just came up this week, but if you are not reading Slush Pile Hell, you are missing out on an hilarious education. And yes, these queries are real. I've even gotten some of them.

Speaking of the slush pile, The Awl offered a brief history of that term we've all come to know and hate.

And finally, to start your weekend off awesomely, please enjoy the funniest thing ever - an audio query to Janet Reid, from Batman - I'm Batman.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sense

It's time to make a little music together for Wednesday Story Time! Today's piece is an excerpt from a novel, The Sense. The author, Ben Spendlove, is a friend of the blog who's been sharing his writing with us in the form of comments. So, I am very happy that he decided to submit his work! 

Ben says of himself that he "survived adolescence... only to find himself writing about similarly afflicted characters ten years later." He lives with his wife and kids on a "noxious weed farm" in far northern Utah. Hope you enjoy his excerpt!

The Sense
By Ben C. Spendlove

“Remember, Claire—scherzo.”
 
I smiled thinly and adjusted the strap of my dress. Dr. Frank, my violin teacher, sat at the piano. He clenched his hands into fists, stretched them wide, and began playing—playfully, as a scherzo should be. I stood with the piano to my left, the audience to my right, my feet planted carefully, and my bow raised in anticipation.
 
I’ll give you a scherzo.
 
I nailed the entrance and the first six staccato echoes. The next six were a little off, and Dr. Frank glanced up at me. I narrowed my eyes as I punched through the first run. He didn’t look up again, so I scolded myself.
 
Piano, Claire!
 
I dropped the next six echoes a fraction late, and Dr. Frank raised one eyebrow. I wished he’d concentrate on his own playing. I didn’t need to be handheld through a Beethoven sonata. Yet, I never got the rhythms exactly right, even on the repeat.
 
Come on, Claire. You’re better than this.
 
After Dr. Frank raised both eyebrows as high as they’d go when I didn’t crescendo the long run, I decided not to look at him anymore. I finally got the rhythms right after the da capo, but I sensed that he wasn’t satisfied. I hadn’t played with feeling.
 
A few people in the audience clapped when I lowered my bow after the movement. Dr. Frank charged right into the Rondo to silence them.
 
I was ready to sit down. I’d shown off to his other students and their families as much as they wanted, I could tell. They didn’t need another six minutes of Claire Martin showing off her expensive instrument, perfect intonation, and uncanny ability to make Beethoven sound like elevator music. Give me Paganini or Sinding, a million fast notes to play, but don’t ask me to play with “feeling.”
 
Fortunately, the fourth movement kept Dr. Frank occupied enough that he couldn’t make faces when I played dryly. I didn’t miss a note or rhythm for fifty measures, and stole a glance at the audience during a long rest. A young girl on the front row was staring at me in awe, with no idea how badly I was slaughtering the piece. No one out there knew, least of all my parents. They weren’t there with me in lessons as Dr. Frank showed me how great music was meant to be performed, with precision but also verve. They missed the subtle changes we worked on to turn my playing from good to great.
 
So did I.
 
Whenever I tried to put it all together, entire compositions flew by while I remembered everything I was supposed to do about two notes too late.
 
I plowed through the next section without even trying to play beyond the written notes. My teacher stretched out a rest and looked up at me. He played the interlude slowly, no doubt hoping I’d learn something about musicality from his example. I lowered my violin and looked down at the floor.
 
I’ll never make it as a pro. I should be making a debut with a symphony or winning competitions, and I can’t even handle a stupid sonata.
 
I raised the violin, resigned to losing my career before it began. When I started playing again, all the notes felt stillborn. Dr. Frank nodded his head, urging me to keep trying.
 
Fine. You want feeling? I’ll give you feeling. How about some magic, too?
 
I had no idea what Alley and Esha were talking about with their open-your-mind-and-let-it-in crap, but if there were ever such a thing as magic, I could really use it. With another performance quickly fading and my teacher practically begging me to pull something out, I didn’t care how silly it seemed.
 
No one in the audience cared how I played. They thought everything was just great, but Dr. Frank ached for me to make it as a professional. I felt it hitting me like bass drum beats.
 
“You have real talent, Claire,” he always said, “More than anyone I know. You could be great.”
 
Fat lot of good it did me. I’d started about six years too late to make anything of it.
 
I played the angriest pizzicatos ever heard, and Dr. Frank looked up in alarm. I almost laughed.
 
You want more? I’m just getting started. Let’s see, how do I let that power inside?
 
The base of my skull burned, shooting heat down my shoulders to my arms. I didn’t know what it was at first, and it startled me so much I completely missed the last two pizzicato notes.
 
Holy crap, that’s it!
 
A burst of heat filled my body right to my toes. The next three notes came out a little late, but almost played themselves. The mistake didn’t phase me; I was too overcome by the power flowing down my arms and out through the violin. I smiled and let it flow.
 
Dr. Frank soon noticed the change and looked up. I looked away from him. I wouldn’t miss another cue. I knew exactly what he wanted to hear.
 
Every note came out just the way I imagined. Every nuance of tempo and stroke of the bow carried a feeling that I’d always known existed, but had never summoned. I played joy, and a few measures later touched it up with solitude. A melancholy note fed a heavy rest and then a happy flourish, and it all came out so perfectly I wanted to cry.
 
My feet broke loose from where I’d planted them a hundred and seventy-five measures earlier. It almost felt like they left the floor, and I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see my accompanist at all—we played as one, anticipating every move the other made, following every lean and hop.
 
I became more and more aware that the driving force behind my playing came from Dr. Frank. The interpretation of notes and phrasing was his, not mine. The feelings I conveyed were what he needed to feel, not what I found in the music. It didn’t make the experience any less sweet. Dr. Frank knew better how Beethoven could sound, and as we neared the end, I knew I’d fulfilled the very wildest of his dreams for the performance.
 
I tossed the last note to the audience and sank into a deep bow. Only then did I realize I was about four feet from where I’d started. I stood up, grinning. The people in front of me were standing, smiling and clapping enthusiastically. I bowed again.
 
Dr. Frank came over and put his arm around my shoulders, squeezing me hard. If I hadn't been holding the violin, I’m sure he would have bear hugged me.
 
“That was amazing!” He released me and stepped back. “You came alive, Claire! The first half was good, but I’ve never heard the end played better by anyone, not even Heifetz.”
 
“Thanks,” I said, still grinning.
 
Can I do magic? Hell, yeah.
 
Sitting in the back of my dad's Mercedes on the way home, I tried to comprehend what had happened.
 
“I’m proud of you, Claire,” Mom said, and Dad agreed. “I don’t think you’ve ever played so well.”
 
"It was like magic," I said.
 
"Yes, Claire."
 
"It felt warm back here.” I placed my hand on the back of my head. "And then it spread. I think it really was Dr. Frank's desire for me to play well."
 
"Of course he wanted you to play well. Why wouldn't he?"
 
"No, I mean I think he's the reason I did so well."
 
"He is your teacher."
 
I sighed and leaned my head back. Dr. Frank had wanted me to play a certain way, and I had used the power of his desire to do it. But was I simply playing what he wanted to hear, or satisfying something deeper? 

When it came right down to it, he needed validation of his own career, a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I’d given him with the music.
 
But if I couldn’t be at my best without someone else, could I really take credit for playing like Heifetz? On the other hand, wasn't it that way for all musicians? The best performances happen when it really clicks between the musician and her audience.
 
I smiled to myself in the back seat. I could be much better than most musicians. I could be great.
 
I took my cell phone from the side pocket of my violin case, and sent a text message to Alley:
 
Got it, did it. Now what?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Soccer = Publishing (Because it's the Only Way I'll Care)

The World Cup ended yesterday. Once again, Gryffindor beat Slytherin by 150 points after the snitch was caught in the final thirty seconds. Very exciting!

While this past month has had my very European neighborhood of Astoria, NY quite literally buzzing with excitement, I felt mostly bored. That is, until, I came up with this analogy. Soccer = Publishing!

Both have...

- Winners. You know, those teams that will obviously make it far. (I'm told Brazil is one of these teams. And now apparently Spain.) In publishing, these teams are called the Big 6 (the top six publishing houses). Or they are stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, or agents like Andrew Wylie. (If you don't know who he is, read this or this. Then feel free to be terrified.)

- Underdogs. The United States, for example, which is probably the only time we will ever be the underdog in anything, other than a "Can You Speak Two Languages?" contest. Publishing's underdogs are the indies. The locals. The ones you root for and support even when it's hard to do so. 

- Competition. Publishing is insanely competitive (agents vying for clients, editors vying for projects, price wars, etc.). But, at its core, it's really just all for the love of the game. I don't think there is another sport as unifying as soccer. 

- Divas. We call them "writers." (But we still love you.)

- A Tiny Fan Base (if you are in America). While publishing appears to be our whole lives - with blogs and tweets and personalities who become like celebrities to us - it is still a very small, very specific world that most other people don't know anything about, and care about even less. I'm pretty sure other countries still refer to us as the publishing industry though, rather than, say, football.

So, writers, when you get that request or sign that contract, sound your vuvuzelas because even though most people don't understand the things that we do or the words that we say (query? recoverable? galley?), there ARE people who care! And we want you to win.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Speak Now Hold

Hello everyone! Hope you all enjoyed your day off on Monday and didn't melt into oblivion. The temperatures lately have been making me question whether the Mayans are onto something after all, but I figure if we're gonna go down, we might as well take something good to read with us. And so I bring you this week's story :)

Getting back to fiction this week, our selection is an excerpt from a story called Speak Now Hold. It's about a woman who specializes in breaking up weddings for a living. That in itself is what hooked me, but then I saw that the writing matched the quality of the premise, and got even happier. The author, Molly Strzelecki, says the idea came to her while listening to morning radio. A woman called in and said her plan for the weekend was to "disrupt the wedding of a friend's ex-boyfriend as retribution for how badly the ex-boyfriend had treated the woman's friend." Molly adds the woman sounded so gleeful that she knew she had to write a story about it. 

Molly is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. For a "Monday-Friday dose of Molly," you should check out McPolish.com.

Speak Now Hold
By Molly V. Strzelecki

She checked the scrap of paper she had clenched in her hand, matching the address scrawled across it with the address on the sign outside the church as she pulled into the parking lot. She looked at the paper again. Tim Duncan marrying Deana Miles. Tim and Deana, Tim and Deana, Pepper thought to herself, committing it to memory. She checked her lipstick and combed her hair one last time before getting out of the car, tottering a little in her high-heeled shoes, squinting in the sun. She smoothed the fabric of her dress as much as she could over her protruding stomach, the threads stretched and showing her growing belly had pushed out her navel. Pepper took a wrong step and her ankle rolled, pitching her forward as she flailed her arms for balance. A middle-aged couple rushed to help her, offering their arms, one on each side of her, for the rest of the walk across the gravel lot.     

“Thanks,” Pepper murmured to the couple as they reached the walk leading up to the church steps. Her hair fell in front of her face and she said softly, “Thank you. I think I can manage from here.” She looked up and smiled serenely, easing their concerned faces into smiles as well. The woman winked at Pepper conspiratorially, boldly laying a hand lightly on Pepper’s belly and saying, “Pregnancy can be tough – a lot more body to deal with. God bless!” The woman and her husband made their way up the path and into the church as Pepper stood for a minute more on the sidewalk looking after them, a bemused look on her face.
           
She took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders before walking purposefully up the steps and into the church. It was cute and picturesque, white clapboard, humble countryside goodness. There were flowers everywhere, thick blooms on the bushes outside and covering every available inch of space leading inside, the scent sticky and cloying, enveloping the church. The groom, Tim, stood inside the vestibule greeting guests and Pepper sauntered past him, catching his eye. He held her gaze for a moment and she raised her eyebrow suggestively before smiling. He smiled back slickly, leering toward her almost imperceptibly. His eyes started to trail blithely downward from Pepper’s face, rolling over her long neck and her stacked, curvaceous chest until he caught sight of her belly bumping out in front of her. He looked up quickly, the slightest look of repulsion crossing his face before looking away. Pepper’s grin turned into a smirk. “Gotcha,” she thought to herself.

Pepper settled into a pew near the back. Not the very last row, but close enough, and on the end, not wanting to be blocked in by other guests. “Pregnant,” she whispered loudly with a smile when they tried to scoot her further into the pew. “Have to use the ladies’ a lot,” she continued apologetically.
           
As the music swelled to announce the bride’s entrance, Pepper’s chest tightened in excitement, it always did at this exact moment, and she cast her eyes downward when the bride passed her row, gliding down the aisle on the arm of her father. The congregation collectively sat back down as the priest started the ceremony, welcoming everyone here today to join in the holy matrimony of Tim and Deana, talking about what it meant to bring these two here together today with love and honor. Pepper rolled her eyes and fanned the skirt of her dress out over her splayed knees. Her stomach was huge.
           
People never actually used the bit about objections to a marriage – not in church, anyway – “speak now or forever hold your peace.” Pepper wondered when it had been dropped from the ceremony, how many years ago, or was it just something Hollywood had made up. “They should use it,” she thought. “It would make my job a whole lot easier.”  In its absence, she had to be creative then, create and opening and finesse her timing.

Pepper started clearing her throat when the priest first paused. She kept going, louder and louder until people on either side of her began shooting her strange looks, watching as she fidgeted in her seat more and more, eventually becoming such a distraction clearing her throat and shifting her weight in her seat that people ten rows up were turning to look at her. The priest paused again and made the mistake of looking up. “Here,” Pepper thought, “right here.” She struggled to her feet.          

“Excuse me,” she called, stepping out of the pew and into the aisle. The priest continued to talk, and she called out louder, “Excuse me!” She took a few steps forward, but not too many, and as people turned to look, she wrapped an arm protectively around her middle.
          
“I’m sorry,” Pepper said loudly. “I’m sorry, but I have something to say.” She paused, as if trying to think of the right words, clearing her throat again. “I – I’m Lindsay Josephs, and I object to this marriage!” At this, Pepper pointed at the bride. “Deana, Tim doesn’t love you. He loves me, and I’m having his baby!” The congregation gasped, sucking in the air of the church tightly, taking the air in Pepper’s chest on the inhale.
           
Tim’s shining and flushed face went from red to white in a flash.  “I don’t know who this woman is! I don’t know what she’s talking about! I don’t know who this woman is!” he yelled in a stammer, and Pepper’s stomach swayed tauntingly from side to side.
           
Pepper dropped her arms to her sides, pushing her hips forward to make her belly stick out further. “Oh, Tim,” she cried, sorrow filling her voice, “why do you deny it? I’ve been trying to tell you for the last 6 months that the baby is yours. I know you remember the night you came over.” Pepper let tears drip into her voice as she said, “It was the night that you and Deana had a fight about where to go on your honeymoon. And you told me you didn’t love her, you still loved me. And that night, oh, Tim, that night, it was so passionate. I know you remember!”
           
“I’ve never seen this woman in my life!” Tim yelled, louder, turning to anyone who would listen, and making the mistake of turning to Deana, whose face was purple with rage. She stood speechless for a moment before her shrieking pierced through the murmur zipping from person to person. “Lindsay? That’s Lindsay? You slept with Lindsay? You got Lindsay pregnant?” Her face was inches from Tim’s, her eyes incredulous and her mouth gaping. Pepper noticed Deanna’s chest begin to heave up and down, straining against the pearl and lace edging her décolletage, and she smiled a little. On the inside. On the outside Pepper managed to keep a distraught and tearful face.

“You told me you were through with her!” Deanna squealed. “You told me it would never happen again!” She reeled back her arm and began beating Tim with her heavy bouquet, petals of orchids flying everywhere.         

“That’s not Lindsay!” Tim shouted, trying to dodge the stems and fingers that scratched his face. “She doesn’t look anything like Lindsay! I don’t know who that woman is!”
           
“Don’t try and deny it you lying, cock-sucking bastard!” Deana dropped her bouquet and clawed at Tim, flailed her arms, punching him in the gut and chest. “I knew it! I knew you couldn’t stay away from her!” Deanna let out a grunt unbecoming of a woman in a puffy and swirling white gown, lunging her full weight at Tim and knocking him down. The congregation gasped and a few people even half-rose out of their seats, their faces canvases of confusion, not quite believing what thought they were seeing. A vibrating whisper waved and crested across the church pews as Deana’s voice pitched higher.

“You told me you were through! You promised!” Deana yelled over and over again, slapping Tim as she kneeled forcefully on his chest, digging her spiked bridal heels into his sides until one of the groomsmen stepped in and pulled her off.
           
Pepper was still standing in the middle of the aisle, and out of the corner of her eyes saw a few of the guests start easing down their pews toward her. “I’m sorry,” she called over the chaos. “I’m so sorry.” She let a few tears slide down her cheeks as she took a few steps backward. “I never meant to hurt anyone,” she pleaded slightly, her voice shaking. “I just wanted to do what was right.”

Friday, July 02, 2010

Happy Birthday, America!

In honor of July 4th weekend, a patriotic question:

What is your favorite Great American Novel? 

While it's not my favorite book, I'd say The Great Gatsby because that's always the first book I think of when I hear that phrase.

Have a good, long weekend everyone!