Breathe, stay calm, sew a mask

homemade cloth masks

In light of what has been happening these past weeks, I felt I needed a short break to help out some of my friends in New York, where the virus was taking on the bizarre proportions of a science fiction film, with bodies stacking up like cord wood, hospitals overrun with patients on ventilators, surgeons using week-old masks and gloves, and nurses donning garbage bags in place of proper PPE.

With a dearth of equipment, and the little that could be scrounged and rounded up for health care personnel and first responders, N-95 masks were all but nonexistent for the rest of the city’s residents. When I saw that friends of mine were venturing out for groceries and other essential trips without any face protection, I hauled out my rusty sewing machine from my closet. And fortunately, due to a “hoarding” gene I inherited from Mom’s side of the family, I located the scrap material I had intended to donate but couldn’t bear to part with in one of the many plastic bins I’d stored in the garage.

I’d forgotten how soothing the ritual of sewing can be. There’s something comforting about the sound your scissors make as they cut through a piece of fabric and the hum of the machine as you join material together. While my sewing skills will never win any prizes, I was able to get the job done. Using up my last bit of elastic and strips of cloth for ties and material scraps for the masks, I made almost fifty.

Rising from my chair, though, after spending four days bent over was another story. Ever read the story, The Hunchback of Notre Dame? You get the picture.

The next day I mailed my packages to various friends, wondering if they’d shake their heads over some of the crazy patterned material I’d used–bright green and orange bird-of-paradise, Pepto-Bismol pink designs that eerily resembled giant-sized coronaviruses, and white dragonflies buzzing on a palette of bright blue. I’d also sewn in tiny pockets on the inside of every mask where I’d inserted a felt circle infused with essential oils. Breathing in the scent of lavender or vanilla is known to provide a sense of calmness and relaxation. Anything to help reduce stress, I figured, was worth trying.

What I didn’t expect was the response I received when I posted the photo (above) of my finished project on Facebook. I felt embarrassed that people thought I had charged for masks and, even worse, that they nonetheless were requesting them. That meant that there were a lot more people out there who desperately needed them.

When I received a private message from a woman who worked at a nursing home in SC where they had no protective equipment for some of the staff, I knew where the remaining masks I’d made had to go. I thought about my mom, who’d spent the last four years of her life in a skilled nursing facility near my upstate home in NY (which, by the way, had its first coronavirus case) and all the staff who cared for her, and experienced a profound sense of appreciation and gratitude toward this woman and the personal risk she and her fellow staff members were taking by caring for our nation’s most vulnerable.

Cutting through politics and finger pointing, isolation and sickness, and sorrow and grief, I find that people remain full of grace and gratitude, which leads me to believe that through all of our challenges, we will continue to press on and get through this.

The sky is falling

I live in Florida. Need I say more? While New York City hospitals were being inundated with hundreds of patients a day, Spring Break and Biker Week were in full swing, with college kids and motorcyclists crowding the beaches and bars on both coasts. That’s about as political as I’m going to get because this is not a blog about politics but about writing. You can catch up on the pandemic on whatever news channel fits your partisan leaning. I learned the hard way about showing my hand from a single Facebook post I wrote expressing my concern over a particular incident. I didn’t slam the other side or insist my view was the “truth,” but, none-the-less, received death threats couched in colloquially colorful language, describing the exact method of torture befitting a “biyatch” like me.

I’ve been described as a scrappy kind of gal, but I have to admit this degree of hostility unnerved me. Fortunately, my social savvy teenager showed me how to block the trolls from my page. Now, I only post videos of cute kittens and talking dogs.

I thought about all this as I lay flat on my back in bed worrying whether I was suffering from the flu or Covid-19. Writing a proposal was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to stop coughing.

I glanced at the pile of comp books on my night stand. Grabbing the one on top, I skimmed its book jacket for a description. Jeez, some nice, light bedside reading, I thought. Here was a story about a girl forced to spend her adolescence covering-up her mother’s extramarital affair. I grabbed the rest of the books, dumped them next to me on the bed, and read their book jackets. Another story of a girl who spends her childhood grappling with a bipolar mother. Another one, who escapes a life with her homeless parents. Two more stories about young women who engage in solo adventures, one along the Pacific Crest Trail, the other sailing up the Atlantic coast. And finally, two dysfunctional families, one which buys a run-down zoo and one which buys a dream in the jungle.

The degree to which the protagonists will rise above and learn from their mistakes, I will discover, will vary. But as I read and judge the characters’ motivations and behaviors, I wonder how different or similar they are to the individuals in my story and what makes my otherwise tragic tale different from all of the above? I make the wry observation to my husband over morning coffee that while characters who possess a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous, ones with a whole lot of ignorance can make you laugh. We certainly had plenty of that.

I have representation, now what?

Yeah, that’s me smiling. Happy that I wrote my book. Happy that I signed with a great agent. But completely oblivious to the work ahead. “I’m gonna sell your book on your proposal.” MY WHAT? I thought that was what you wrote BEFORE you wrote your book! Well, that’s true. I happened to do it backwards. So, in case you are thinking of sitting down and finally writing the story of your life, save yourself a lot of grief by writing a proposal first. All memoirs fall into the non-fiction category and all non-fiction is sold using a proposal. (This, btw, pertains to first-time authors and not seasoned ones who’ve proven the salability of their craft). By doing this, you will find out whether there is any interest in what you plan to write about before giving up a few years of your life staring at a computer screen, pecking at the keyboard with your permanently curled carpal-tunnel fingers.

I liken a proposal to a long, extended pitch, where you try as hard as you can to persuade publishers your book is so fabulous, unique, and on trend that they willingly hand over as much moolah as possible–in some cases engaging in frenzied bidding wars–in exchange for exclusive rights to your book. Sounds doable? Here’s the rub. They keep a death grip on their cash until they’re absolutely convinced that what you’ve written will not only give them their initial investment back but plenty more. They are in the money-making business. It’s your job to convey and convince them that your book is publish-worthy and that’s by writing the perfect proposal–distilling the gist of your story in a few paragraphs, who will buy it, how you’ll market it, comparing and contrasting similar books that have been critically and financially successful, the size and reach of your social media, why you want to write this particular story (or in my case, why I wrote this story) and your qualifications. And finally, a detailed outline of each proposed chapter. In other words, as involved as a grad paper but way more compelling. In show biz terms, your opening line better have pizzazz.

“Here’s a list of books I’m suggesting you read for your comps,” my agent said. “Got a pen and paper, ’cause I need you to write down exactly how I want you to write the proposal.” Comps, if you’re not familiar with the vernacular, are books published within the past three to five years that have sold well (made money for the publishers), fall within your genre, and offer a similar theme or story line. Not too similar, mind you, because then who’d want to buy or read the same book? But it has to be similar enough for the money-people in publishing to say, “Yeah, that will sell, cause it’s just like such and such that sold a million copies, except that now the story takes place on a submarine, or a ranch, or an iceberg.” You get the point. The same but not the same.

As soon as I hung up with my agent, I ordered my list of books from Amazon Prime and even found a few more that I thought I might be able to use. He also recommended I purchase Michael Larsen’s classic, How to Write a Book Proposal. I ordered both 4th and 5th editions. The next afternoon my books arrived. The day after, Covid-19 dominated the news. The day after that, I caught what I hoped was just a nasty bug from my teenaged daughter. Whatever it was, I was down for the count.

A chance meeting

View from writers workshop in St. Augustine, Florida

While the view outside was serene, the ten writers, including myself, were getting a good thrashing inside by our mentor, who, after listening intently to our unrehearsed pitches, proceeded to eviscerate our work. “That’s already been done. Change the ending. You need a dead body on the first page. Decide your genre. Where’s your voice?” Initially relieved that the woman on the opposite side of the room had volunteered to be the first casualty, thus leaving me at number nine, I quickly realized after listening to each writer’s pitch, that what I’d imagined as my story’s pitch was not a pitch at all. As the writers took their turns, I scribbled in my notebook, hoping by the time I was called upon, I’d come up with something. Anything.

My turn. Deep breath. “I am pitching my memoir titled….”

“Too long. Story begins in the middle. Get rid of the rest. Cut the ending.” BUT, BUT, BUT . . . I could feel myself doing exactly what I’d promised I wouldn’t. I was resisting, pushing back, and feeling defensive. I felt ten years old again and wishing I could lob a spitball at the hateful teacher.

Relax. You didn’t put all that money on your credit card not to listen, I told myself. Take it in. If you feel she’s full of shit after this is all over, then fine. But for the next four days, just listen and learn. At the end of the day, I learned I was not alone as I see-sawed between revenge and despair. Without exception, everyone was dismayed over their individual critiques. I didn’t know about anyone else, but I was ordering a big, fat martini before dinner.

Three days fly by. Bonding. Laughing. Working hard. Perfecting the original three-page pitch down to fifty words. The moment is here. We have exactly ten minutes on the phone to pitch to a big-time editor of a big-time New York publishing house. Our mentor gives us our final instructions. “Say your pitch, shut up, and let her speak.” I mouth it as I wait in line, adopting it as my new mantra, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth.

Only the editor doesn’t follow the rules. She asks me question after question. I answer again and again. I need to shut up but I can’t. Ten minutes is over. The door bursts open and my mentor barks, “Times up!” I have to cut this big-time editor off mid-sentence. I stumble from the room, shell shocked. It did not go well.

I have to pull myself together because I have to pitch again. This time, it’s a big-time literary agent who’s flown in from New York for the day. He’s sitting outside on the deck, interviewing one of the writers. Two people are waiting in front of me. That gives me thirty minutes to figure out what went wrong with my first interview and not repeat it with this guy.

I pace around the living room, look out the window, and finally take a walk out on the boardwalk to the ocean. I stare at the waves. Fuck it. I can’t figure out what to do. I’m too old to try and second guess people. I’ll just be who I am. It can’t be any worse than what just happened on the phone call with the editor. At least I’ll be able to look him in the eye.

I introduce myself and shake his hand (this is pre Covid-19). He’s open and friendly. I pitch my story. He nods his head and smiles. We talk about New York, where I lived for most of my life before I exchanged it for a life of sand and sun. He asks, “I’m curious, how old are you?” In the past, I would have bristled over such a question, but now, writing this story has freed me. I have nothing to hide. I’ve written a memoir that is set in the sixties. Do the math, I tell him. He responds with another question. “What took you so long?’ Have you got a year, I answer. After a few minutes, he offers me representation. I accept. His specialty is book-to-film adaptation. A perfect fit for my story.

I discover my work has just begun.

The one word you should never use to describe your memoir

“Never, ever use that word.” This was the advice given to me by a hardened, retired veteran editor, who had perused my query letter as a favor, before I sent it out to the list of agents I’d culled from Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents.

Inner journey, outer journey, long journey, complicated journey, violent journey, slow journey, intoxicating journey, revelatory journey, whatever journey you’ve been on, use another word to describe it, if you want your query letter to be read and not tossed in the wastepaper basket.

OKAAAAYYY!

Out came the thesaurus. Was there a word that I could find to replace the one that I felt captured my narrative? What could be better than journey–c. 1200, from Old French¬†journ√©e “a day’s length, a defined course of traveling, one’s path in life.”

One by one, I tried them on, like a new hairstyle or outfit, each one worse than the next. All fifty-five of them.

I typed “journey” back in. Tomorrow’s another day.

Welcome to my literary journey

After searching YouTube and blog after blog to learn what happens between the start of a book and its successful publication, I came up with zilch, zero, nada. There was a lot of advice from literary agents, former employees to literary agents, and published writers. But nothing from first-time writers about their struggles and eventual successes or failures in getting their book out to the public, either through a traditional publisher or as a self-published work. So, I thought, why not share with those of you who are interested and write about my own journey, as I learn to navigate the agent and publishing world with my debut memoir.

For an aspiring writer, the odds of landing a six-figure deal from a traditional publisher, with attached foreign and film rights, is about as likely as winning lotto. The good news is, like lotto, you have to play to win, and SOMEONE eventually does win. Sometimes they win the whole enchilada and other times, they have to share with other winners. So, why shouldn’t it be you or me, or if the stars are aligned, you AND me?

Having had a career spanning decades as an international runway and print model, I know a little about odds. I also know that what I accomplished in my former career isn’t going to matter a lick in my new career as an author. Spoiler alert. My memoir is NOT about my wild and crazy years I spent globe-trotting, working for world-class designers.

The one thing that I HAVE learned over the years is how to grow thick skin. In fact, put me up against any rhino, and I’d beat them, hands down. So, the first thing I’d suggest, is to make sure your hide is as thick and impenetrable as (whatever tickles your fancy) a rhino, croc, ‘dillo, shark, or giraffe. But, pick one ’cause you’ll need it! I’m wearing my rhino cape.

How thick is your skin?