I set out to write twelve short stories over twelve months. I’d finished my novel, ‘A Measured Thread’ and wasn’t ready for another marathon. A number of short sprints seemed like a better idea. I’ve never written short stories, although I suppose all the letters I’ve written over the years are just that. Still, the format allows for many more lies and fabrication. Although I’m a month or two behind my stated goal, I’ve just started on story #11. It’s been such fun, especially as I have a group of wonderful beta readers who are not shy to give me excellent and critical feedback. With Covid-19 lurking around every encounter, spending time writing is a wonderfully safe alternative. I’ve been surprised at what, when and how ideas pop into my brain for stories. Towards the end of the month when I am wrapping up a story, reading and editing it for the umpteenth time, it will get ‘bumped’ by an idea so compelling that I cannot wait to move on. At other times I’ve dragged out the story I am writing, not wanting to let it go because the location is so compelling… and of course with Covid-19, I’m not traveling. My plan is to publish the collection (title: Kernels) next year. I’m also going to ask my beta readers for their top three stories, and which of them, if any, might make a novel.
I hadn’t realized that I chose the feast of Beltane for my book launch. Auspicious indeed. A Celtic celebration, half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice that marks the beginning of summer. I just remembered: The first party I threw when I moved to the log cabin where I still live was on Beltane, and of course there was a bonfire!
Writing A Measured Thread reminds me a little of doing a PhD with all its ups and downs, creativity and challenges, elation and worries… and it took about the same amount of time, 4+ years. And how do I feel now with manuscript delivered and proof of accomplishment in hand? Strangely bereft.
Yesterday I sent an e-mail to everyone whose addresses were in my contact list, telling them about the May Day Book Launch: friends, colleagues, relatives in Ireland, ex-students, and some people I hadn’t contacted in years. The e-mails I’ve received in the last twenty-four hours have been wonderfully affirming, filled with delight at my accomplishment. I want to hug everyone.
The proof copy of A Measured Thread arrived yesterday. In case you are wondering, I changed the title of my new novel after much consultation with my beta readers and my editor, Christine Keleny. The original title came about because I was going on a trip to Morocco and a friend said, “bring back one beautiful thing.” I took her advice and purchased a magnificent pair of silver and bronze antique stirrups that Genghis Khan would have been proud of. I gave one to my sister, Valerie, because it felt right; they are together essentially even if they are 1000 miles apart. When I look at mine, I think of Val, and I expect she does the same.
Oddly enough, seeing the proof copy of the novel was a bit of an anti-climax, even sad. Maybe it’s because this particular writing journey is coming to an end. Also, I’m leaving for a 3-week vacation and cannot proof read it just now. It’s top of my list when I get back, but for now it sits on a bench in the living room reproaching me for not truly finishing it!
Of course, then there are the next steps including organizing a launch party and advertising it on social media. The former will be held at Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains thanks to Mary Devitt, a special place that several of my beta readers frequent. Fortunately, I have another wonderful writer friend, Valerie Biel, who said she would help me with the social media aspects. And I’m seriously thinking of recording the book. My voice should work well (it’s the story of an Irish immigrant to the USA), and I enjoyed the experience of recording Abbey Girls at Paradyme Productions in Madison with Jake Johnson.
I now have a fantastic cover that comes with a great story. One day in June 2019 after Yoga class, I noticed a painting on the wall at Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains. It looked ‘right’ for the cover, at least at that moment, and I took a photo of it with my cell phone. It was called ‘Pastoral’, a great title. Fast forward to January 2020. I was in Ireland and decided to take some photos of a piece of sculpture on St. Stephens Green that features in A Measured Thread, thinking it might make a good cover (It’s called Fountain of the Three Fates by Josef Wackerle). Christine Keleny mocked-up the two covers and I sent them out to my beta readers for a vote. The painting won hands down. Fortunately, I was able to track down the artist, Gina Hecht (from Waunakee, WI) and purchased both the piece and the rights. The photographer George Siede, an old friend from my rock-climbing days, helped with the digital image. I love the cover!
What a wonderful statement: I finished my novel! Actually, I finished it in August, but it’s only now as I am beginning a new project that I feel it is truly done, complete, executed (I should look up more words in a thesaurus, but you get the idea.) Once I had something to actually try to sell, I began to send query letters out to literary agents all over the country. Literary agents are the gate keepers to most large publishing houses. They try to sell your story, and if successful, get a share in the profits. The ultimate middle-person, unlicensed, unaudited, unburdened. Fifty queries was initially my goal, but after talking with other authors, I realized that 100 queries or even 125 might be more appropriate. It’s a tough world out there. I’ve pitched 75 queries so far, with not a single bite, and I’m definitely running out of steam. One agent was interested but they wanted a major rewrite. That’s when I knew I was truly finished because I didn’t want to change anything.
My plan for the new year is to self-publish One Beautiful Thing. Meanwhile, I set myself a goal of writing a short story every month for a year. I have a wonderful group of beta readers who are willing to give me feedback as to what they liked, what worked or didn’t, and where they stumbled or got distracted. I’ll definitely try to get some of the stories published. Eventually I’ll assemble the best of them into a collection. It’s fun, especially when a beta reader tells me they enjoyed my last story and are can’t wait to see what I’ll come up with this month!
“I’m working on a novel”.
I now understand this statement! It has a completely different meaning from “I wrote a novel” or “I finished the first draft of a novel”.
I was feeling proud and glib and successful using those last two statements until I gave the first draft to my Editor in November. I had expected her to get back to me in late January as I planned to be away for much of December and January. Instead, she got back to me within a couple of days! She was kind and encouraging, but she also identified a lot of shortcomings. I should have listened to our Workshop lectures more closely about having a well-outlined plot!
So, I’m back to the drawing board for now. I need to step away from the novel I wrote (the first draft was definitely written for myself), and create a novel that other people might want to read, and not put down until the very last page. Isn't that what all writers need to do?
So, it's back to the drawing board for me for a few months... or longer!
Writing is such a fascinating process.
I was in Ireland recently, and delivered some copies of 'Abbey Girls' to Des Kenny at Kennys Bookstore and Art Gallery in Galway. Visiting Des is always a pleasure. I had sent him the story about the New Glarus Book Sale (September 2017 Blog) and he got a good laugh out of it. He had a few of his own Book Sale stories, needless to say - good ones that had me in fits of laughter. A couple of days later, I got an e-mail from Des asking how soon could I get more books to him. Seems that there was a backlog of demand, and all the ones I delivered had already been sold. It's not often you get an e-mail like that!
New Glarus (pop. 2,100) is a small town in southern Wisconsin that heralds its Swiss heritage. What that translates to in 2017 is a couple of bakeries with German-style lettering. Ditto for the hotel and the downtown bars. Those on the outskirts, the Blatz and Miller Lite beer places, don’t care one way or the other. Tourists come and go, but regulars are their meat and potatoes. Every Labor Day, New Glarus has a William Tell Festival. There’s a craft fair, and the local eateries do a great trade. The Swiss Church (Protestant) ladies donate home-made pies, slices of which are sold at the fair, topped liberally with ice cream. (I had the pleasure of listening to the banter of said ladies in the church basement as I made up some sandwich boards to advertise the book fair. Hilarious!) On Saturday evening of the Labor Day weekend, there’s a William Tell pageant in a field on the outskirts of town, to which hundreds of people come. I’m told that the players dress in costumes, and that there are cows and horses and donkeys for authenticity. I presume that there’s an apple and a bow and arrow, but I didn’t pursue that particular conversation any further, because I was way too busy making eye contact with everyone who wandered by my table at the Book Sale. Rule number one: engage them in conversation. I felt like a carney at a circus!
The Book Sale was organized by a lovely lady whom I know well, for she did the lay out for Abbey Girls. Christine is a local, a member of the church, and each year she organizes tables in the church grounds where Wisconsin authors can try to sell their books. There were about a dozen of us, sitting at long tables arranged on the sidewalk by the church, opposite the park where the Art Fair was going on. I’d never been to one of these events before, and wasn’t too sure what I should bring. The minimalist in me went for 6 copies of the book and a stand on which I could prop one of them. A neat fan of bookmarks. Oh yes, some dollars and coins for change. The day before when I was in Madison, I sprung for a blow-up of the back of our book, about 14 x 9, mounted on foam board, with its own stand. Good idea (except for when it got windy). Otherwise, I doubt that anyone would have noticed me sitting there!
I got to New Glarus early, helped Christine carry tables and set up sandwich board signs on the sidewalk, and chose my half of a table. Julia, another author, soon joined me. She was a minimalist too, although she had two stands and two different books. She writes mysteries. We were flanked by veritable altars. Table cloths, front drop cloths to hide feet and/or the stacks of boxes of books that were obviously going to sell. The lady beside me was selling at least five different children’s books and had huge piles of them interspersed with cuddly toys. On my left, there was another altar. She had written a book about her quadriplegic brother who recovered through the patience and orthopedic intervention of her father who designed home-made prosthetic devices for the 12-year old. There were photos of the devices, her father, the whole family, the hospital bed... She had little bags of M&Ms with the name of the book printed on the candy. I heard her story at least 25 times in the next four hours and could have delivered it myself. When Julia left early, I was joined by another woman (desperate to leave the guy with whom she was sharing a table, and who was boring her to tears). As she laid out her shrine, two matching cushion covers overlapping artistically, and set up her book pile, the book stand, her name plate, a dish of mini chocolate bars, her business cards, bookmarks, etc., I noticed that she even had a name tag. Then came the coup de grace: the medals she had won, huge things, bigger than the Olympics, on colorful ribbons that matched the cushion covers. What could I say, or do? I gave up any idea of selling and decided to get her life story instead! We had a great chat.
Actually, I got several life stories. It’s fascinating to learn how and why people take up writing, and which genre they choose. Julia, a retired nurse about my age, and married to a farmer, wrote murder mysteries. Susan, the postmistress at a local town, wrote the inspiring story of her brother. Rose, the Italian Catholic, wrote heresy, as she herself admitted. Paranormal, or religious fiction might be a better term, but after she told me the plot, I think her Bishop (for she is still a practicing Catholic) might agree with the heresy thing. In another time she’d have made a great witch.
All of these women were delightful, friendly, encouraging, funny, and made my day. As people passed on the sidewalk, each would try to engage them in conversation. If they walked on, nobody took umbrage. If they stopped, they might take a book mark or a piece of candy, although that seemed to be reserved as a reward for a sale. The conversations with the passers by could be utterly hilarious. One fellow, in the space of five minutes, admitted to being incarcerated in a mental institution at age 23, ‘had written a lot” and could easily throw together a book, but he had retired and was too busy…painting interiors of houses. “Just buy the right equipment and set yourself up. It’s not difficult. The paint just goes on if you have the right brushes.” Then he went into a lengthy description of the magnetic glove he used to hold his brush, where to buy it, and how well it worked on a ladder. By this time, all of us were desperately trying to break eye contact, hoping that he would head for the food, or the church, or anywhere!
I sold a book. Julia had told me to talk – that everyone would love my accent, and that would draw them in. So, I began to say to people walking past: “Any Irish connections?” A few said “No” which shocked me. Everyone in Wisconsin has a little bit of an Irish connection, don’t they? But after all, we were in a Swiss village, so perhaps those pure bloods were particularly proud of their heritage. Some responded to my question by telling me about their last trip to Ireland, or Scotland, or both. Phew! Two different couples claimed that they ‘came’ from County Cavan, so I demonstrated how to actually say it, in my flattest Drogheda accent. Anyone who sounded vaguely interested in listening to my accent were encouraged to check out the audio book which I assured them was perfect entertainment for a six-hour drive. The actual buyer of a paperback was a middle-aged woman with her friend, whose elderly mother was going in to hospital for surgery. They both thought she might enjoy it, assuming she lived! Actually, I think she will enjoy reading it. Her name is Rosemary and she was born in Ireland. The transaction made my day, and the book seller at the table across from me even took my picture, me wearing a shit-eating grin of achievement. She was feeling generous - she had sold at least a dozen books by that time. But then again, she’s from the area, and also a member of the Swiss church congregation.
When I got home, Tim asked would I do another. The answer was swift and clear. NO. But it was a hoot!
It’s been a long time since I queued to see a movie. It reminded me of the old days in Dublin, except that we weren’t escaping the rain and wind and damp and cold. There, it would have been a perfect place to go for a warm afternoon with entertainment, hand-holding, and even a few kisses, in the only private place we knew or had access to. This was in downtown Ottawa, and the line stretched around the block. At first we couldn’t believe it, assuming that they were there for a more popular film, not the story of a young Irish emigrant in the 1950s. But ‘Brooklyn’ was the draw. The patrons were mostly older, some genuinely old - the sort you would expect to see at an art house theatre, which this was. As the screening time came closer, and the line didn’t seem to get any shorter, a young woman came out to inspect the crowd. The second time she came out, she announced to the line that it was OK: the movie would not start until everyone was inside. The cinema was huge, with a balcony too, and it was almost full by the time we climbed up there. It’s years since I’ve been that far away from the screen. Fortunately the little old man sitting in front of me had shrunk sufficiently that I could easily see over his head. A pleasant young man went to the front of the theatre, shushed the crowd, and asked that if there was an empty seat beside you, to put up your hand so that those still filing in could find a place. He pointed out that if your coat had not paid for its seat, then it would have to give it up to a human. Everyone laughed and the mood of the crowd was warm in an Irish way. Val and I compared the theatre to the old Savoy Cinema in Dublin, and the woman sitting beside us asked where in Ireland we were from. She knew the Savoy too. She emigrated in 1971 – just for a year, but then stayed. It was that sort of afternoon: strangers comparing stories because many were certainly just like us and our neighbor - emigrants.
The film was superb. There was not a single false note. Val and I had both read Colm Toibin’s book, but it didn’t resonate the way the movie did. The emotions, the experiences, everything was familiar - some funny, some incredibly painful. It struck me that Saoirse Ronin looks just like Mummy did at that age, absolutely lovely.
I just put the files away. There’s a folder for each of the challenges that the book brought. I had forgotten so much of the details. Here's the list, and memories of each:
"Audio book" (Paradyme Productions and the ever-smiling Jake. I loved those recording sessions.)
Europe marketing (The Book Depository was an effort to find a way to sell the book in Europe because Amazon's shipping charges were ridiculous. It failed. )
Kennys (meeting Desi was a joy and now I am a member of his infamous Book Club! Will I ever get paid? Who knows, but it doesn't really matter. He has spread the book to corners of the globe that I will never know about).
Madison Public Library (ah yes, I missed that book reading because of Val's surgery)
Kindle Direct Publishing,
I was trying to describe to Tim last night how I felt about the end of 2015. It’s not just the end of a year. It’s also the end of innocence, health innocence, with Val’s cancer. It also brings the end of ‘Abbey Girls’. There’s a certain sadness now that it is completely finished. Writing that sentence, a huge wave of nostalgia floods over me. It was this time of year, seven or eight years ago, that it all began. I wrote a bunch of letters to old friends, a substitute for the December birthdays that we used to celebrate amongst the climbers with a big party in early December at the cabin. Everybody stayed overnight, and so there would be hilarity, bodies everywhere, huge meals, warmth and friendship and love. Missing all of that, I wrote letters to each of those birthday folks. Sitting, composing those letters, I would daydream about letters in my past. I remembered my first mailbox here at the cabin: a post stuck in an old milk churn, that Guy filled with cement and put his initials in it while still wet. It’s still there today, 31 years later. The mailbox is a little rumpled, smashed by school kids on their first evening of freedom. Still, it continues to serve me well.
I remember writing to Val about getting letters at boarding school. That was the first ‘Abbey Girls’ letter, and her response had me weeping with laughter as I realized how differently we saw things. We continued to write letters about the Abbey over the next few years. At one point one of us must have suggested putting them together in a book. And we did.
As if watching a series of images on a screen, I remember assembling the letters into a semi-coherent narrative, collating and revising, removing redundancy. We chose a title. We scoured old photo albums and boxes at home in Ireland, for images and memorabilia. These were scanned by both of us with greater or lesser success, and images sent by Dropbox or a mailed memory stick. There was a long drive to Columbus Ohio where Val was teaching, to agree on fonts and sizes and lay-out – pages spread over the king sized bed and a check list of things to be accomplished before I drove back. The husbands read a first draft and liked it. Guy suggested an introductory chapter which Val wrote. Amazingly, neither of us changed things that the other wrote, just occasionally suggested that the ‘tome’ could be altered slightly. I loved writing my last letter as much as my first. We agreed on a cover image, a back page, blurb, a photo of us. I spent hours in the Prairie Du Sac Library uploading files to Smashwords. How many programs did I learn? How many places I sought help when my frustration levels maxed out. But suddenly there was an e-book. What a fabulous achievement that was! We were elated. Next came the hassles with Amazon’s Create Space, finding Christine (meetings in coffee shops in Mount Horeb and New Glarus), and finally having a beautiful manuscript that could be sent to a real printing company. We became Laurence Gate Press, with a logo. When the boxes arrived, those beautiful, physical manifestations of our labors were like birthing a baby. I notified everyone for whom I had an e-mail address, and sending out orders was a joy. The letters to Irish publishers was an experience. Best of all, though, I found Desi Kenny. As Val recovered from breaking her foot in Mexico last January, we learned how to work with Weebly and make a website. She created bookmarks. After that there was the pure fun of reading for the audio book at Paradyme in February inbetween snow plow noise. Val came to do her part in June, and we had a completed audio book! But then cancer happened, and the next phase of working with ACX was delayed. Finally I had time to upload the files, but was sent back to the recording studios for two missing words: “The End”. We got the final notification that the audio book was released while I was in Canada with Val last week. I announced it on Facebook, updated the Weebly website, and closed the files.
It has been a remarkable personal journey. I have come to know myself better. It has brought me contentment, peace, and a sense of accomplishment that never came with research, teaching, publishing scientific articles, writing grants. I am immensely proud of both of us. As Tim reminds me: unless it is written down, nobody will know or remember.