SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
It’s been a while since I’ve posted about my New Orleans experiences. Earlier in the autumn I grew inconsistent with the Read Beans on Monday reviews but was busy and had plenty to report. Conversely, the past few weeks I’ve been diligent about the book reviews but haven’t had much to share otherwise.
This is true mostly because while things have slowed down I’ve been hunkered down to focus on a couple of projects that I hope will bear fruit. During this period I’ve been holding back a post on the Morpheus meeting I attended in late October while awaiting requested revisions from the Krewe Captain to my previous piece on meeting him at Rock-n-Bowl, as he feared he said too much! In addition to staying active with the social rides that I did post about, I’ve attended several literary events such as the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge and a few events suggested by Fleur de Lit, hit different bars to find the perfect spot to watch Saints games, and hosted a few successful ‘Red Beans on Monday’ gatherings. Otherwise, I hunkered down and tried to be extra-studious before departing on holiday travel where I’ve tried to steal as many moments as I can. The focus of this ‘hunkering down has been on developing a new book and trying to revise an re-market and old one.
SOMETHING (THAT CAN BE) BORROWED
While My Year of Mardi Gras continues to evolve in mission and focus, it evolved perhaps most radically over 10 months of pre-planning. Initially I toyed with the idea of moving to New Orleans, getting a job, and—if my adventures were interesting enough after a year—trying to write/pitch a memoir after a year. I quickly realized that both working and writing full time would be impossible, so I investigated jumping between 13-week temporary assignments. When I learned temp assignments were rare in NOLA, I started gravitating to this notion of a self-funded sabbatical where I put the pressure on myself to find a way to make it work, initially giving myself six months before ultimately deciding that if I were going to take the plunge, I should go all in for a whole year.
My decision to shake up my life coincided with several friends starting to whisper in my ear that I needed to start documenting my unique writing voice on a blog and get my work ‘out there.’ The most enthusiastic advisor was my friend Sarah Davidson who has been dabbling in internet marketing and blogging for a couple of years now, most notably with babyflathead.org where she shares advice and product reviews based on experience and research regarding her son. To get started, she referred me to a free online marketing course, called simply ‘The Challenge,’ that teaches you how to start a website and “make your first dollar online.” Originally a 30-day program that claimed to take a half hour a day (actual effort required is much greater), it had expanded to six weeks over the years as capturing web traffic grew in complexity. I followed most of its advice when setting up My Year of Mardi Gras, but Google continues to change their algorithms so frequently (supposedly to thwart spammy, hastily constructed sites though it feels like they’re just squashing the little guy) that The Challenge was having trouble keeping up and thus was becoming longer and more convoluted. Thus, I didn’t finish last year’s iteration of The Challenge and didn’t make my first dollar online.
The Challenge, however, changes every year based on the ever-shifting sands of e-commerce so I was thrilled this fall when they rolled out their latest strategy which involved publishing informational e-books on Kindle. This was right up my ally—far more so than spammy product marketing of past Challenges. It was also scaled back to ‘thirty days,’ though some days such as keyword research took hours upon hours and only a few days were ‘allotted’ for writing your book. Even a short book (mine ended up coming in under 13,000 words, which Kindle estimates is around 57 pages) is quite and undertaking from conceptualizing to rough draft, to refining and rewriting, to finally editing and formatting on Kindle.
Oddly, I initally considered publishing on the jiu jitsu training I’ve had to abandoned due to scarcity of funds and health insurance or about my previous work in dementia care. It was again my friend Sarah, a marketer by profession and thus far more enthusiastic fan of the promotional aspects I find excruciating, who pointed out that I should compile my New Orleans experiences into some sort of resource. This way I could promote it on my site and, hopefully, begin to ‘monetize’ (a difficult word to a literary idealist.)
Why did I not come to this obvious conclusion?!
An idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for a guide to help tourists go beyond the obvious and hit the places locals love. I even had a title: Geaux Local (riffing on the playful regional spelling of the long O sound), but had seen this as something in the distant future. Suddenly, though, it made sense to do now so I backtracked to retool my keywords and began banging out a guide that not only suggested places to go, but included all those things I wish I had known years such as how to pronounce the street names; the best places to walk, bike, etc.; and descriptions of all the neighborhoods which locals so casually mentioin in directions and conversation.
The Challenge started in September, but I was busy revising my novel and when I got back to it in late October I realized that they were taking down all the videos at the end of November. The race was on! This deadline, however, helped me focus and I finished the final video at 11pm on November 30th and had everything formatted and submitted to Kindle by around the same hour on December 1st.
I don’t know if I’ll even sell enough copies (or get enough traffic through an Amazon lending program where you get a percentage of pre-determined large pot each time it’s borrowed) to warrant the countless hours, but there’s a comfort in going on Amazon and seeing myself as a published author of Geaux Local: Exploring New Orleans Beyond the French Quarter & Living Like a Local.
(The cover itself is a whole different story, mentioned in recent blog posts! This is the photo for which I tracked down the subject only to discover he was married to the cousin of someone I met during Krewe of Rocckus and whom I’d just run into while she was in town visiting!)
SOMETHING (THAT MAKES ME) BLUE
I have frequently referenced the novel I’ve spent much of this year revising, though I never intended for it to take up so much time during my writing sabbatical. Jeremiah’s Scrapbook was originally titled Supporting Cast when I wrote the initial draft/first half as my graduate thesis at Radford University in 1996 and 1997. Its genesis stretches even further back, though. The central plot event, the shooting of a coal mining foreman crossing a union picket line during a strike, is based upon a real such shooting in the late 80s while I was still in high school so the idea for a novel inspired by my conflicted loyalties surrounding this strike (pro-union, anti-violence) had been percolating for years before I ever put pen to paper . . . err, finger to keyboard. Yes, this baby has taken its time being birthed.
After graduating in the summer of ‘97 I spent the fall teaching at a couple of community colleges in Tallahassee (where my girlfriend at the time was in grad school) trying to eke out a living. By spring 1998 I found myself broke and unemployed, but spent all the time I had on my hands completing the second half of the novel (for my thesis advisor had made me stop when I blew past 200 pages). After brief revisions I purchased a writer’s guide and began submitting the manuscript to dozens of publishing houses, only to get dozens of rote rejections. The most enticing—and one of the few personalized—rejection I received began by gushing about the sample chapters I’d sent and saying they loved the concept, calling my voice was fresh and intriguing; however, they ultimately concluded that while they were tempted to make an offer, Supporting Cast was too far outside their specialization in nature non-fiction, primarily meditations on fishing!? I don’t know which puzzled me more: how after my careful research I’d accidentally submitted to a publisher who didn’t print fiction or how many freaking books about thinking about fishing—not fishing . . . thinking about fishing—one publisher could spit out.
Sadly, this is the closest I’ve ever come to courting interest from a publisher or agent. I took a break from writing (and reading for that matter) to pursue my Master’s in Occupational Therapy soon after, having developed no love for teaching while growing tired of being broke, and shelved the project. I would spend the six years following my two-and-a-half year program working as an OT in public schools, first in Virginia and then in Florida, and, though I had my summers off I spent them working temporary assignments in nursing homes to make ends meet. In 2006, though, I took the summer off, revisiting and revising Supporting Cast (Between my OT program and this summer I had flirted with writing again, crafting a fan fiction novel that will not be mentioned!) and then submitting it to literary agents, as the publishing world had shifted and few publishers would accept unsolicited manuscripts by this time. This offensive was set in motion during the waning years of snail mail submissions, which are both time and cost prohibitive considering all the stamps, return postage envelopes, and sample chapter copies required, but that didn’t discourage me from a postal blitzkrieg that merely resulted in another wave of rote rejections. Undeterred, a couple of summers later I submitted to a hundred or more agents via email which only served to expedite the process so you can get more rejections more quickly. My inbox was soon flooded in frustration.
Over time, I lost intrest in this project—for it soon felt like a vestige of another life—and focused on regional magazines and short fiction based on my experiences working with seniors with dementia in assisted living facilities (think Scrubs with Occupational and Physical Therapists!), having fled pediatrics burnt out by demanding, rude, and unrealistic parents. Thus I’d long since given up on this project when I embarked on My Year of Mardi Gras, but resurrected it solely with the intention of putting it on Kindle books to build an online presence in advance of releasing my newer short fiction. Several friends, however, offered to Jeremiah’s Scrapbook (for I changed the name to something I hoped would be more catchy and capitalize on cultural trends), and their enthusiastic reactions encouraged me to look it over more seriously. When I read back over it it actually seemed more relevant today that it did when I wrote it in the years leading up to Y2K, and the writer/editor friend I’ve mentioned encouraged me to revise and resubmit it to agents rather than self-publish (which she felt would make it untouchable to agents and publishers). She even helped me craft a more effective query letter, so I resigned to give it one more try.
Instead of a quick edit and upload, I spent months rewriting and streamlining, cutting out over 100 pages, and by mid-October this Herculean task was accomplished freeing me to start working on my Geaux Local guide. Revision was the easy part, though, for as I worked on my new book I began my fourth offensive in a third decade, submitting to 5 agents a day 5-6 days a week for nearly a month.
Most writers will agree that this process of groveling to indifferent powers-that-be who generally respond to your most intimate efforst with inpersonal form letter dismissals is the most difficult part of writing. Getting published is a near impossibility in today’s environment and this constant wave of rejection regarding something you’ve put so much of yourself into takes its toll on your optimism and self esteem over time. So, as I topped 100 online submissions (I lost track after a while and am not anal retentive enough to keep a spreadsheet as some sites suggest) I soon lost momentum in the face of another wave of quick dismissal, usure if I was giving up or getting real. In one breath society urges persistence pays off while in the next cautions that insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. What’s a boy to do?!
This is a conundrum I often wrestle with. If I quit submitting I feel like I am giving up in the face of adversity yet if I continue after literally hundreds of rejections over multiple decades I feel I am simply wasting my time and energy, ignoring a clear and consistent message: This isn’t going to happen. Then I wonder if it’s not going to happen because, despite the feedback I’ve gotten, the book just isn’t that good or if it’s because agents in publishers in LA and NY think no one would possibly care about a story set in WV. It has always grated me that such a disproportionate amount of literature, TV, and movies are set in New York or southern California as though no other place matters (and when other places are featured it is because locale is the focus, ala Northern Exposure, and thus interesting only because it’s quirky and strange, i.e. not NY or LA.)
Now that I’m done with my guide and have a little experience with Kindle, I’m leaning towards focusing my energy on self-publishing and self-promoting. Granted, the odds of getting traction for a self-published novel are slim, but after hundreds upon hundreds of cool dismissals from New York and LA, the odds of landing a deal with the all-powerful arbiters of the public taste seem to be none. Besides, I’d rather not spend a Blue Christmas writing unrequited love letters to indifferent strangers in distant cities.
FRETTING OVER THE RECEPTION (& CUTTING THE CAKE)
This has been the most difficult post I’ve produced so far—I’ve wrestled with it over five consecutive days as opposed to my normal one or two (write one day, revise and post the next). Writing about the nut and bolts of writing, which has been my focus lately, is dangerously boring, and writing about my doubts and insecurities seems indulgent and ungrateful during this season of thanks; however, while it’s easy to say with bravado that there is no way this adventure can fail since merely living it is a triumph, I still stay up some nights wondering if I’ve lost my mind, doubting there’s any possibility I can leverage my writing into even a tiny sustainable income. Yes, I cherish every day I can devote to this task but would be lying if I said I’ll be fine at the end if nothing at all comes of my efforts. Yet the most successful bloggers and businessmen seem to have goals and focus and know-how whereas I feel more like a farmer casting seed in every direction while praying that a garden grows.
I don’t admit any of this for sympathy or pity or to solicit encouragement. I’m not giving up. I’m not moving on. Self-reflection is just part of this process and anyone who ever strives for anything in life is plagued by doubts and second-guessing along the way. It’s easy to write about the good time and adventures, yet while striving to be honest and inclusive it’s difficult to balance between raw and honest writing versus whining and complaining. This post actually began as a lengthy exorcism of my doubts and frustrations, most of which was pasted into another document where it will likely stay. There are no guarantees as to how any of this will turn out and I’m certainly guilty at times of inflated expectations, but I’m still thankful for every step of the journey and, despite a new litany of rejections, I can’t overstate how gratifying it was to publish Geaux Local just days after the holiday. This jouney is like a big, delicious cake and any success will just be the icing on top.
So that’s how I spent my Thanksgiving break. Now let’s cut the cake!