No More “Fun Size”

It’s that time of year again, and some things haven’t changed since I was Virginia’s age—pumpkin carving, kids in costumes, “fun-size” candy. Of course, Halloween also brings with it pranks, rude behavior, trick-or-treating teenagers in minimal or no costume, doorbells that keep ringing after 10 PM. I know, I know, I’m starting to sound like a “get off my lawn” crank. But, I feel that Halloween was intended to be reserved for the three- to twelve-year-old set (the begging for candy part, not the dressing in costume part). Am I wrong?

As Virginia gets older, I’ve started to wonder when Halloween will change for her. I sense her trick-or-treating days are numbered, but I really don’t know when I need to cut it off and throw out her pink, plastic pumpkin bucket. My parents forced the switch on my siblings and me during sixth grade. Eleven, my parents decided, was the official time when you age out of trick-or-treating. And I’m guessing they arrived at that decision from years of experience, handing out treats to kids of all stripes. Eleven is right about the time when your sweet kid turns into your obnoxious adolescent. I now know from my own experience that handing out candy to obnoxious adolescents in an Elmo t-shirt asking you to “smell my feet” is far less fun than handing out candy to a four-year-old dressed as a pumped-up superhero and actively practicing his “pleases” and “thank yous.”

This is why I have now left the job of candy distribution up to my husband. Instead, I join my daughter and her friends as they romp through the neighborhood dressed as Pokémon characters or police officers or deranged, incompetent doctors (VA’s costume choice for this year). They are not rude or disrespectful, but they are kids who will soon be too old for tricks or treats. In one optimistic vision, I imagine Virginia herself dismissing trick-or-treating as babyish, and instead opting to attend Halloween parties at friends’ houses, or maybe even joining Josh on our porch to pass out candy to costumed children. I doubt it, though. In a year, maybe two, I’m going to have to give her nudge. She can’t be trick-or-treating as a teenager, no matter how nice and polite she might be, or how clever her costume. I will not have that. The kids today pushed in strollers and toddling unsteadily, clutching their parent’s finger will soon become the next wave of costumed kids, trick-or-treating in excited, sugared-up packs. As much as I’d like for Virginia to stay a kid forever, she’s not, and nowhere is that more apparent than Halloween.

Finding Time to Write

One thing that many writers (and other creative types) with day jobs kvetch about to no end is when to find the time to write. How the heck are you supposed to write the next Great American Novel (or Young Adult Dystopian Adventure Set in a Not-So-Distant-But-Bleak Future Where Kids are Pitted Against Kids and Centers Around an Empowered Teenager Girl Who Not Only Has Special Powers but also Has Cancer and Must Choose between the Two Boys Who Don’t Know How to Live and Love and only Learn to Do So Through the Limited Yet Caring Time Spent with her in Her Final Days) if you work 9-5 and juggle other responsibilities like a spouse and kid(s)? I mean, it’s hard enough to squeeze in exercise and home-cooked dinners, let alone find time to write a book. I can’t say I have the end-all-be-all answers to this dilemma, but I know what works for me. At least, I know what works for me today. If I can find at least one, quiet hour a day to devote to a writing project, that’s a win. But it’s a struggle for me, a target that refuses to stay in one place. I try to write every day, even on weekends, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve.

  1. Write early. As my semester progresses, I get slammed with papers to grade. That’s not a bad thing—I love that my students are completing their work, but it means all of my daytime hours are monopolized by grading. To get my writing in during these times, I’ll start early and write before Josh and Virginia get up to start the day. For me, this means a 5 AM wake-up, which takes some getting used to. My New York Pitch Conference friend, Monique, who not only works full time, but is also a mom to four kids and a wife. She’s writing a memoir and is up and in front of her computer, coffee in hand by 3:45 AM. Mad props to her—that takes a level of commitment and discipline not shared by everyone including myself.
  2. Write late. My husband can do this. He’s a night owl and can often get as much or more accomplished after dinner than a lot of people can during bank hours. And often this strategy can work for many writers. Like writing early, the house gets quiet after everyone else goes to bed. This can be an ideal time to concentrate and rack up your daily word count. If I’m not nodding off to Dancing with the Stars by 9:30, I might be scribbling something down, too.
  3. Write anywhere. An opportunity to write can spring up anywhere. Unfortunately, it seems like I come up with my best ideas when I’m running, a time I don’t carry around my notebook and pencil. I take advantage of those ideas by recording them with the voice recorder on my MP3 player. Although I look like I’m talking to myself, more than a few times that recorder has been my savior. An old writer friend of mine said that she used to write in her car at stoplights. She was a single mom of an infant and chipping away at a master’s in journalism. Car trips were only few times Ariel would be able to be alone with her thoughts, because that’s when her daughter would nap in her carseat. She’d have her spiral notebook open on the passenger seat next to her, and when she’d come to a stop, she’d scribble down a sentence or two before moving on to the next stop. That’s some bad-ass determination.

A lot of this is tied to me just trying to keep to some sort of a writing schedule, even if my kid comes down with the stomach flu, or the hot water heater conks out and I’ve got to scramble to find a plumber. It’s a commitment to fitting in time for all the work that goes into creating something you hope to share with an audience at some point. When Josh and I lived in L.A., we knew a handful of unemployed actors who sat around complaining they never got any acting jobs because they didn’t have an agent. They weren’t doing anything in the meantime, i.e., auditioning, putting together a reel, taking improv classes. They simply pointed to the fact that they had no agent and used it as an excuse to do nothing and whine about it. We also knew a bunch of actors who hustled every day and put themselves out there relentlessly so they could make themselves available for their big break. They just went for it. Sometimes I think that a big difference between creative people who eventually make it and those who fall by the wayside is a sense of stick-with-it-ness. Going for it even when there is no tangible reward other than the work itself. There’s no easy way to do it. You just work harder at it and become better, and with a bit of talent and a dash of luck, eventually it’ll pay off. Fingers crossed. Of course, if you’re writer and your uncle is the president of HarperCollins, if you can’t get anything published, you’re a lazy, no-talent schmuck. Then you clearly don’t need my advice.

Binging Like a Queen

I have an embarrassing admission. Since Hulu made every season of every Housewives franchise available for streaming, I have become horribly addicted to Real Housewives of Orange County. This show makes me feel so dumb for watching it, I would not be surprised if Andy Cohen himself were sneaking into my bedroom every night to pluck brain cells through my nose with tweezers in my sleep since midsummer. On the surface, I can’t figure out what I like about it. Certainly nothing about the lives of the women on the show is like my own. I don’t live in a giant, new construction in a gated community in Orange County. I don’t walk around in public in high-end, designer clothes and full makeup. I have never had my nose, my boobs, or my face “done.” I don’t drive a Mercedes or a Hummer. And I don’t drink Chardonnay with every meal. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t relate to their lives in any meaningful or shallow way, because I am completely obsessed with it

I like quality, Emmy-worthy TV. Breaking Bad. Mad Men. The Daily Show. Modern Family. Orange Is the New Black. But I also love a lot of shit. Dancing with the Stars. Survivor. Downtown Abbey (sorry, but it’s so bad now!). And yes, Real Housewives of Orange County. The amount of manufactured drama on that show in one season could keep the average soap opera afloat for years. On one episode, the girls all went on a camping trip together. Really, it was glamping with high thread count sheets and bathrooms and kitchens and lots and lots of wine. But, they did have to barbecue their own dinner and dispose of their garbage. Watching Vicki, Heather, and Alexis wave away bugs and complain that they were pissed they couldn’t just order a pizza did give me a small swell of joy and a sense of superiority. Even I could have dealt with camping better than those high-maintenance bitches. (My husband disagrees about that.)

Crap entertainment has always been around. During the Renaissance, a popular form of entertainment was what was called “bear baiting,” where dogs fought bears chained to a post. The dogs were trained to attack the bear’s throat, while the bear could take potentially lethal swipes at the dogs with his paws. This is what passed as entertainment for the aristocratic class. Commoners had Shakespeare, the rich had bear baiting. In fact, Elizabeth I loved bear baiting so much, she’d watch it for hours at a time. She was binge-watching. Comparatively, this puts Real Housewives in an entirely new perspective. Obvious parallels aside, at least the ladies are only trying to cut each other down with insults and gossip, not their fangs and nails. But if I have some time to kill, I can settle in sometimes and watch three episodes in one sitting. I don’t feel very proud of myself after, but at least now I can think, if bear baiting is good enough for the Queen of England, RHOC is good enough for me.

The Unbeautiful Game

In general, I don’t really mind getting older—people tend to take you more seriously, my experience and world seem to broaden with each passing year, I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin—but nowhere does it suck more to be the oldest than when you play contact sports.

I played quite possibly the worst soccer game I’ve played in decades last Sunday. It was embarrassing. The whole game, my lungs felt like they were on fire. I was slow. I kept losing my balance. I wasn’t communicating to my teammates. My passing was weak and inaccurate. In the few times I did find myself in control of the ball, my confidence would evaporate, and I’d find a chance to get rid of the ball as soon as I could. Ugh. This was not what I had envisioned for myself when I fantasized about making a return to soccer last summer—sprinting hard, winning the ball, and scoring goals. I certainly didn’t expect to be the best player, but I never thought I’d be the worst. I was the worst. And by a pretty wide margin.

It got me thinking, when is the appropriate time to plan a graceful exit from the game? My contribution to the game now is limited at best, and at worst, I just get in the way. It’s too late to pull a Derek Jeter and retire with my dignity still intact. No one’s going to name a sandwich after me, at least not one that’s any good. The closest I’ll ever get to a parade of fans wishing me well after my final exit off the pitch would be Josh, Virginia, and maybe my mom taking me out to lunch at our local Indian buffet. That doesn’t sound so bad, actually. And what would post-soccer-retirement look like? Well, I’ve essentially handed the baton off to Virginia already, who plays soccer in the spring and fall. Watching her play is heaven. I freakin’ love it. She’s not the star of the team, but she holds her own and manages to make smart plays every game. She improves with every game, every season. And the best part is watching how much fun she has out there.

I can see my soccer-playing days are numbered, but in the end, that might be a win for all parties involved. My new role will eventually be restricted to the sidelines, which is already a pretty good fit.

Pitch Conference

This past weekend, I attended the New York Pitch Conference. For the most part, my life as a writer is spent in isolation. I don’t mind it. I consider myself an introvert, and solitude suits me. I think many, if not most, writers are like this. But every now and then, we pry ourselves away from our computers and get out of the house/library/Starbucks long enough to show up at writers’ conferences. In a nutshell, the NY Pitch was a rush of excitement and fear and exhilaration and nerves rolled into one, which extended over the course of four, full days. Yep, four days of talking about writing was even better than it sounds. Nerd alert.

Thursday: I knew I’d need to do the unthinkable and call Uber for a ride to the train station. Josh hates Uber. The guy was late and needed for me to give him turn-by-turn directions to 30th Street Station. Yes, the name of our train station is its location. He dropped me off, I hurried to make my train, which turned out, was running 45 minutes late. Of course, this made me tardy for the first day. When I finally rolled in, I’d missed the intro by Michael Neff, the conference director, which pissed me off, but he was kind enough to reassure me it was fine and to just go to my group. I was part of the women’s fiction/memoir group, led by the peerless, Susan Breen. Susan herself had gone through the conference back in 2006, which resulted in her getting her novel, The Fiction Class, published. She knows what the conference is like on both sides of the desk. I feel very fortunate to have met and now worked with her.

We jumped in immediately and read our pitches. I went first. Susan had some bits and pieces of feedback for me. I’d been working on my pitch for a solid month, so I hoped it was pretty tight. But I did get a couple of very helpful comments, which I implemented immediately, and I think my pitch improved as a result. Everyone’s project sounded interesting. Seriously, I could see commercial potential in each one—this was a strong group.

Friday: We started the day meeting as a group once again, pitching to an agent, Michelle. I went first again, and was so, so nervous. Michelle is really smart, super quick, and has a great sense of humor. I read the pitch without passing out. After getting the first pitch out of the way, I could feel myself start to relax a little. Our group debriefed afterward, with Susan offering more feedback. That afternoon, we had the opportunity to meet with an expert to go over the first page of our manuscript. I happened to meet with Susan’s agent, Paula, who suggested something I thought was great—under each title, write a short line that helps establish the world of my novel. Thank you, Paula!

Saturday: This is the biggest day of the conference, where we’ll have the opportunity to speak with two editors. Everyone’s nervous, jittery. Some pace. Some continue picking away at their pitches. Some zone out with their headphones on. And many, myself included, chatted with other writers. I’d met some amazing people this conference, people I probably would not have gotten to know otherwise. Since I’m up last in the first round, I’ve already had a run in the morning and then walked to the studio, so I’m feeling pretty OK. Also, I was so relieved that both agents from the day before were so approachable and genuinely nice, I really felt mostly relaxed and focused on my pitch. On Saturday, both editors continued the “nice, friendly” trend. All of us in our group noticed that each seemed to love writers and books, which is a total bonus at a writers’ conference.

Sunday: Final round with another editor. This editor decidedly hated my book concept. It was not her genre and definitely not her cup of tea. OK, OK, not interested, got it. A book really can’t be for everyone, you know? I had my last one-on-one with Susan, who seemed to think my pitch was really working. By the end, I’d pitched to two agents and three editors, and four out of the five wanted to see more, which was super encouraging. I boarded my train home with a bit of a swelled head, feeling like I had a manuscript that could sell. This was a 180 from the previous year, when I queried agents and all rejected my book. I took a hard look at my manuscript and with the help of a book coach, figured out the problem was with my tone, which meant I needed to do a page-one revision. Back to the drawing board. But after working so hard on the novel this year, I was grateful for all the feedback I received from this conference over the weekend. Now that I’m home, I’m back to querying. I’m feeling hopeful and excited, but that knot in my stomach isn’t going anywhere.