Monday, September 28, 2009

A New Orleans - Chicago comparison

About fifteen years ago, my friend and I moved to Chicago into a sublet in Lincoln Park for the first four months. There was plenty of traffic and people walking around, as there were so many shops, restaurants and bars. The young people hustling and bustling was contagious and exciting.

So, here’s how I compared New Orleans to Chicago when I first arrived:

I tried telling people hi as I saw them on the street and the reception was not so positive. I was ignored, looked at funny and even avoided. I quickly learned to stop greeting people for no reason. But, come to find out, the people here are just as friendly as New Orleans once you know them.

Driving was strange. I was flipped off for the first time in my first week and not because I was driving poorly. I just wasn’t in a rush. People that are bad drivers in New Orleans are oblivious to it and the bad drivers in Chicago do it on purpose. I do find it very irritating when people in bumper-to-bumper traffic won’t let you merge in front of them. I think it’s either a control thing or a power thing or an entitlement thing.

My accent was either charming or a source of ridicule and throw in pronunciation like “C-ment” and it was the funniest thing to them. I’ve since lost most of the accent.

Chicago is clean and New Orleans is not so clean.

Overall, I love living in Chicago or I would’ve moved back a long time ago. Every now and then, I run into a New Orleans native and the connection is instantaneous. We can spout off locations and in many cases, people we know in common. There is one girl I met in Chicago that had eleven people in common with me and we had never met. I think I’m very lucky to have had the experiences in New Orleans as well as Chicago, two of the greatest cities in America and possibly the world (I can’t say for sure until I experience them).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Famous To-Go Cup

I in NO WAY encourage drinking and driving, but I will preface the following by saying that if you are leaving a bar and have a drink in your hand, you are either going to finish it all at once or, as in New Orleans, going to grab a to-go cup and leave with it in your hand.

When I first arrived in Chicago, we had gone out to some bars in Lincoln Park and I could not get used the fact that there wasn’t a stack of plastic cups by the door. I’m not a fast drinker and I had to stand at the door of each bar and try to down my beer or throw it away. What the hell?

In New Orleans, it is perfectly normal to walk around with your alcohol and when I was in my late teens and twenties, it was also normal to drive around with your alcohol. I’m not saying the cops didn’t bust DWI drivers, but my we were never worried about having that cup of beer in our hand. If we weren’t drunk, we were fine. We even had drive through daiquiri shops (but you weren’t supposed to put your straw in it – wink wink).

In the French Quarter, it would make sense as everyone was walking, but outside of the Quarter is where you took your chances driving around. My friends and I have never been pulled over while bar hopping, but I attribute that to lax law enforcement at the time. Like I said, it was normal. A lot of times, the cops working the door would be the one’s to hand you the cup.

Yes, to an outsider, this may seem bad, but I will only speak about my own case, because we weren’t black-out alcoholics and we didn’t drive like fools. Whether you don't agree, or think I was lucky, you may be right. I probably was in some cases and I would never do, or condone this now. But I was smart and an awesome driver. No tickets, no accidents – ever. My drunk was never a sloppy drunk and at that time, in the late ‘80s and early 90’s, the New Orleans kids 18-25 years old, lived the life that they knew.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Finding a publisher does not mean finding an agent

Okay, so I got the call from Medallion Press to publish my first novel, which will be out in two years. After I the shock wore off, I thought to contact a few of the agents that I really wanted to represent me. You know, let them know that I was making things happen. I figured if my first book does well and Medallion accepts my second book, then an agent may be in order to tweak the contract.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that they didn’t care. I told them (in not so many words) that I had done half their work for them. I was going to have a published novel and they would be able to represent the rest of them. No dice. They wanted submissions, just as any unpublished writer would have to do.

I suppose it’s good business to want to believe in the work of the author they’re representing, but I’m entitled, right? Nope. Reality had set in. I need to have a real money-maker first or interest from a major publishing house.

After a few more weeks, it sunk in that the agents are doing the smart thing. There are as many one book authors as there are music groups with one CD you’ve never heard of. The risk is still there, along with their time and effort. I don’t blame them and I’m not offended, but after more than ten years of struggling and finally getting a publisher, it’s a bit discouraging to know that the battle isn’t over and then comes the marketing and getting the word out, which I’m learning, is the actual hard part.

But by the looks of things, I won’t need an agent for a long time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Katrina Experience (Part Two)

As soon as people were allowed back into New Orleans, I drove down to help my parents try to retrieve any items that might have been salvageable. It was extremely creepy driving into our neighborhood as it was a ghost town. There was no law and every time a vehicle came by, we had to be ready. We’ve heard terrible stories of robberies and murders from people offering help.

We looked around the house first, wearing rubber gloves and facemasks. There wasn’t much to save. Everything was lost; pictures, greeting cards, everything made in elementary school by my sister and me. It was all gone. Gutting the house was a gut wrenching experience, but I couldn’t let it show. Eventually, we had dragged everything we could to the curb. This was a requirement of Road Home buying the house.

My parents, grandmother’s, sister, her husband and child had lived in the one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge for a while. I called constantly, getting updates on how FEMA’s assistance was coming along. A month or two into it, my parents managed to get their own apartment within the same complex and that saved their sanity for the short term.

My sister had the patience of a saint, dealing with the entire situation. She called FEMA everyday, making sure my folks wouldn’t fall through the cracks. One of my grandmothers was able to move into a FEMA trailer on her property in Slidell while my other grandmother continued to stay with my parents.

Eventually, FEMA came through with Road Home money and my parents started a new mortgage on a house in Baton Rouge and my sister also got her first home just a mile away from them. Although they are still adjusting to a new life, their new home is in a better neighborhood than the old one and the house is nicer, but it’s not the same, so they tell me. They miss their old life, as would anyone. The way I see it, Baton Rouge has gained a lot of character.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Katrina Experience (Part One)

At the time of Katrina, I was working at a print shop in Niles, Illinois, just north of Chicago. My parents, who lived in New Orleans East, pretty close to the Lower Ninth Ward, got out a day early, going to Baton Rouge with my grandmother to stay with my sister. They only took enough items for a two-day stay.

After I found out that the levees broke and they couldn’t leave Baton Rouge is when a life changing reality set in; my hometown was under water. My experience was a lot different than my parents and those who still lived in New Orleans. I had the guilt of not being with them and of my life not being turned upside down and the deep sadness of knowing that the home I grew up in was no longer.

My parents lived in the same house in New Orleans East since I was three. I moved out when I was eighteen and my grandmother moved into my old room. After I graduated from the University of New Orleans, I waited tables in the Quarter until I moved to Chicago for a job at twenty-six, about ten years before Katrina.

New Orleans East was a lower-middle class area that was mostly black, with some gangs, but overall, not the worst neighborhood to live in. There were shooting and robberies that you would hear of, but luckily, my parents were never involved in a crime statistic. After Katrina, my parent’s house, which was two blocks off Lake Pontchartrain, had about five feet of water and was totally ruined.

So, at this point, my parents and two grandmothers were staying in my sister’s cramped one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge with her husband and child and they had no where else to go. I could only imagine the heartbreak and tension they were feeling, not knowing what their future held or what they had to go back to. They had no clothes and their medicine was all at back at the house.

The following weekend, I took off work and drove down to Baton Rouge. I don’t know why I did this to myself, but I listened to New Orleans and Mardi Gras music and I found myself crying at different moments during the thirteen hour drive. It became scary when I hit Jackson Mississippi, as every gas station off the interstate had long lines of cars waiting for gas. For a while I didn’t know if I’d have enough gas to make it, it was getting dark and there was no cell phone reception.

Along the way, I encountered many service vehicles, fire engines, and such heading down. There were campers and SUV’s with Katrina relief written on them. When I finally made it to the apartment complex, I ran up to my family and hugged them and cried, trying to tell them it would be okay, but here I was, feeling that guilt; feeling like an outsider, but this wasn’t about me, it was about my parents and my sister and the hell they were going through.

I stayed with them for few days. There was nothing for me to do but offer support. They told me I shouldn’t have come, but what could I do? I needed to be there with them, if nothing else, but to be a distraction. When I left, we hugged and cried again and I continued to cry on the way back to Chicago. The total shock of all of these events and the adjustment to a life to follow was going to take a huge toll on them. This was a long way from being over.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The "DO's" didn't work, but the "DON'Ts" did.

I started with the "DOs."

When I began to submit my first novel to publishers and agents, I had no idea I was doing everything wrong. Like most first time novelists, I looked up how to submit and learned about the query letter, the synopsis and the style of double-spaced manuscripts with an inch border, headers yadda yadda. My query letters sucked. In the beginning I wasted a lot of money in postage trying to convince the publishers of my talent in my queries. All rejected.

I continued to polish the letter (and the book - always go back and edit) while working on my next book. I read more info and eventually had a query that publishers and agents wanted; a no-nonsense description and bio that was intriguing and well written. Years of rejection followed, but I did get some personal feedback, which I learned was a step forward. I let more than forty people read my book with flattering reviews, so I know I had something. I was at the point where I had three other books nearly finished and I was still trying to hock my first baby.

I became desperate enough for the "DON'Ts"

It became clear to me that I had to self publish. At first, I printed several versions and had them bound just so that I could see my novel in real novel form and thought, maybe that's what the publishers needed to see, but then I learned that publishers and agents wanted their submissions in basic manuscript form and would not even look at a printed version made to look like a real novel. Every source I looked into told me that publishers and agents would not touch a self published book or a print on demand and it would be near impossible to get it on the shelves.

So, what did I do? I created my own publishing company, bought ISBN numbers, printed the book, designed the cover and began to sell my book on the internet. I didn't like this. I had to take matters into my own hands, but soon I learned the publishing business is a lot harder than it seemed (and expensive). My new plan was to try to get a publisher interested in taking over my book (I had collected some great reviews) and as luck would have it, The Book Expo America was coming to New York.

I bought my ticket and went to the Expo with ten or so copies of my book (which looked like a real novel) and planned to convince these people in person. The first day went well, I handed out eight of my books and was told they would check it out and I should call them back. The next day (I wasn't even going to go) I spotted the Medallion booth and remembered that I had submitted to them years back and they rejected me. What the hell? I talked to the vice president and told him my story. I had not signed a contract with my own company, so the book wasn't legally anybody's property. He took the book and told me to call him in two months. And as I posted in the previous blog, three weeks later, they called me to tell me that they loved the book and wanted to publish it!

I did exactly what I wasn't supposed to and finally had success! Now, this is not meant for any inspiring writer to do the same. I truly believe this was right place, right time for me. I don't go back to the Expo on Sunday and I'm still on square one. You could conceivably ruin your chances if you follow my lead, but if anything can be taken away from this is that after you've exhausted all of your legitimate options, you need to find what works for you. If your work really has merit, maybe you need to make it stand out from the slush pile.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Very First Blog

I’m 42 years old and just signed my first publishing contract, so I guess that means I need a blog, right? It has taken over ten years of rejection, but when Medallion Press called to tell me they wanted to publish my book, I couldn’t believe it was real. That moment will forever stay in my memory. The book is called ABSINTHE and it is a detective thriller set in New Orleans. Right now, the plan is to make it a trilogy, but each book will stand on its own.

The book was written before Hurricane Katrina and has been revised to fit in the New Orleans of post-Katrina. I don't preach about the aftermath of Katrina or anyone's lack of involvement or the suffering of the residents. I just tell the story with the after-affects in the backdrop. I try not to beat the reader of the head with it, is what I'm trying to say.

I was caught off guard when my editor told me Absinthe was slotted to come out at the end of the year – 2011! I did some online checking and I guess this is pretty normal, but I’m telling you, the anticipation is going to kill me. But, it does give me plenty of time to get the other books in order and from what I understand, there is some marketing that I need to plan for.

So, this blog will document my journey into the world of publishing, my efforts to get my book into the public eye, as well as be the release valve for crazy thoughts that go through my brain - and I've been told that I am a bit crazy.

After they read Absinthe, they made add twisted, also.