Sunday, August 24, 2014

Current Project: Helping A Friend Facing Death

Dear Lit Loves,
I'm the closest I've been to getting published in that two editors have my book proposal and man uscript entitled Riding The Spinning Teacups about life adventures with an inner ear disorder and all the strange ailments and medical encounters that accompanied that diagnosis.  The other day someone asked me what my current writing project was about and truthfully, it's a little difficult to talk about much less write about due to the heavy nature of the subject matter.  I must say though I haven't really read or seen a memoir manuscript that attempts to confront the subject matter of death via long distance communication, but that's what happened.  My current writing is about conversing with a former coworker and true friend while she was in the midst of coping with a terminal illness.  This lady was single with no family living near her.  When asked by her doctor about her support system she firmly told him, "You're looking at it."   She was a fiercely independent woman and one of the most dedicated instructors with whom I've ever taught. 

Let's think about it:  What would you do if someone called you and needed your long distance support while coping with a diagnosis that would eventually rob the person of his/her life in the next seven and a half months?  Would you hope the person finds someone else for support?  Stop answering the phone?  Let the answering machine pick up the calls and hope the person gets the message?  Or, would you answer the call each and every instance in which this person needed support and assistance while making the journey to heaven's door?  I took the latter road.  And I don't regret it because I tapped into a part of me that I didn't know existed and the whole experience forced me to confront the reality we all will eventually encounter:  mortality. 

At this point in the conversation about my current writing project most people are struck speechless, freaked out, or wonder how they would respond in a similar situation.  Others have honestly told me they encountered something similar and chose to not participate or rather, exit stage left.  I don't judge them because before Labor Day of last year I had no idea how I would respond either.  Which brings me to my current blog writing topic:

Why Writing About And Encountering Death Makes People A Little Uncomfortable

1)  It brings back the death of a loved one.  I'm not going to kid you here in that I've had a bit of experience staring down the grim reaper.  My dad survived quintuple bypass surgery, two bouts of anaplastic large cell lymphoma, and a stem cell transplant.  When you encounter that degree of illness you definitely know there's a possibility that it's your "time".  I have to say though that seeing my dad face his own mortality helped me counsel my friend even though she eventually lost the battle against a debilitating disease.  I also had flashbacks to my grandfather's death and funeral along with my grandmother's.  With my grandmother, my dad had to make a decision about withdrawing life support and that's a whole other excruciating experience. But it makes you THINK, not remain numb. 

2)  It brings to mind your own mortality.  This is the first time I've encountered somone near my own age coping with a terminal diagnosis.  And as I witnessed her anger, denial, frustration, and surrender to death, it made me wonder if I myself was ready to "face the music" so to speak.  Do I live in fear of death?  Am I still living in my invincible teenage years when death happens to those "other" people who are older?  How would I react to a terminal diagnosis?  Would I run and hide?  Live as if it's not happening?  Or, take the bull by the horns and say, "Let's get on with it"? 

3)  It makes you assess if you are prepared for death.  Seriously, if you get advanced notice, as my friend did, that you've only got a finite amount of living left, you start wondering if you're prepared.  Do you having a living will?  Who do you want to make healthcare decisions for you if you can't make them yourself?  How about financial power-of-attorney?  And do you wish to be cremated or buried?  Do you have a will/trust or both?  Eventually, we're all going to come up against these type of decisions. The absolute worst thing is when a person dies and none of these decisions have been made.  It causes the people left behind to feel overwhelmed and bewildered.

4)  It forces you to become more aware of those around you making their final journey.  During my conversations with my terminally diagnosed friend, I became acutely aware after learning of someone else's death that he/she must have experienced some of what my friend was experiencing.  I began to read the obituaries in the newspaper and felt a particular affinity to those dying from a diagnosis similar to my friend's.  My family lost three family friends during this particular period and it made me think profoundly about what each of those people must have experienced.

5)  It makes you ask yourself, will I be ready?  I'm always reminded of the questionnaire on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine where someone famous is interviewed and asked, "How would you like to die?"  Most people say "in my sleep."  It makes you wonder, have I made my bucket list?  Did I accomplish what I wanted in this life?  Is there something I still need to do or make peace with in my life?  And it will really force many of us to ask ourselves if we believe in a higher power or not.

6)  We're all slowly dying once we're born.  I didn't used to think about it like this, but now that I'm in my mid forties, it has become readily apparent that I don't have the knees I once had at sixteen.  Heck, I definitely don't have the vision or hearing I once had either.  I'd rather go ahead and admit it as opposed to try and live in denial about it or God forbid, have plastic surgery and try and turn back time.  I'm not going to try and fool anyone about my age, least of all myself.

7)  Did I do everything I could to help a dying person?  After the experience with my friend, I now have started asking myself if, once I learn someone I know has a critical surgery or diagnosis, did I do everything I could to help that person?  Did they reach out to me and ask for my advice or help?  If so, did I give of myself such that I'm at peace that I did all I could to help someone make the best decision or get the best care they could?  I mean, how would you want someone to respond to you if you had a terminal illness or critically important surgery?  During my time helping my friend with a terminal diagnosis, I had another friend be diagnosed with a brain tumor in the frontal lobe.  She had been having health problems and finally, a doctor did a CT scan and found the tumor.  She called to ask me about the neurosurgeon she had been referred to and asked who would I have do this surgery if this were my diagnosis.  Well, I researched the surgeon who was recommended and discovered he had several malpractice suits against him.  Then I called one of my doctors at Emory and asked him who would he get to do the surgery if his daughter received this diagnosis.  He didn't hesitate with an answer and that's the surgeon who eventually successfully removed my friend's benign brain tumor.

8)  Who would be your support if you had advanced notice of dying?  Seriously.  Who would you call upon for help?  Could you count on that person?  Would you call clergy?  Would you hire a counselor?  These are all questions I've asked myself since my friend's death. Do I have a support cavalry?  If so, who is it and how many people are members?

9)  What's been your experience with death?  Were you present in the hospital when a family member or friend died?  Do you know what that's like?  Have you ever had to make a decision about someone's healthcare or whether to end life support?  Do you prefer a memorial service at a church or a celebration of life get together at someone's home?  Have you been to a graveside service or ever been the recipient of someone's ashes? 

10)  And finally, I think it's important to ask yourself, do I live in fear of death?  Am I at peace with my eventual mortality?  Or am I travelling along life's peaks and valleys preferring to think that death/mortality happens to "other" people and it's not something I have to consider until much, much later.  Well guess what folks?!  Sometimes much, much later is tomorrow, or a month from now.  You just never know.

That's it from the peanut gallery this week! 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Top Five Rules Regarding The Query Process and Literary Agents

Dear Literary Loves,

Oh my, my!  It's been a dastardly week here in the deep south.  The heat and humidity are driving people to rage against anyone: note the driver who passed me in the median while I was in the left lane.  The Braves are on one major losing streak.  And why oh why are people making bomb threats against Emory Hospital for taking in the Ebola patients from Nigeria?!! 

And then I checked this morning as all new writers should be doing just to keep up with literary agents and what they are accepting and rejecting.  I did not expect to find writers making some really common errors in relation to their prospects as potential debut authors.  Lord. Have. Mercy.  I've decided to post my top five rules regarding the query process and literary agents.  For those of you who have no idea what the query process is allow me to introduce you:  It's when you construct a one page letter introducing your manuscript to a literary agent and grab their attention by the throat until they are screaming "I Must Sign This Writer Now!"  Comprende?!

Let's Begin.

1)  For heaven's sake, do not query a literary agent until you have researched what genres they represent!  This does not mean only one reference site because websites can be seriously outdated.  Check Google for the books they have represented over the last five to ten years.  Check the literary agent's personal website or blog.  Do check the literary agency website where the agent works.  Honestly, I read a lot of interviews with literary agents to get an idea of their likes/dislikes.  Let me tell you there is one agent who went off on a vile tangent in reply to one writer's query because he/she DOES NOT accept queries for the memoir genre and it's written in capital letters on her agency's website. Do your homework lovies!

2) If you query a literary agent and they turn down your query, don't get all huffy puffy about it.  There's more than one fish in the sea as my dad says so move on to query the next literary agent.  It's that simple really.  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT reply to a query rejection with a nasty reply.  You do not want to burn bridges.  It's a small business and it could come back to haunt you.  Now, if one of your formerly favorite authors disses you as a new writer and you decide to go find the nearest trash barrel and burn all her/his books or donate the books, you have my complete sympathy. 

3)  Let's be polite and professional folks.  If you have met a literary agent at a conference and you didn't exactly become BFFs or you have knowledge of their office decor and it's lacking in your estimation, DO NOT post this on a query site, your blog, or anywhere else publishing folks and writers lurk.  Guess what folks?  The literary agents and their assistants read some of the same sites!

4)  Get the query right.  Honestly, it is hard to summarize a two hundred and fifty page manuscript in one paragraph, but give them what they want folks.  You've got to sell the manuscript in one paragraph.  And for heaven's sake, do not just rely on your computer's spell checker when editing your query.  Give it to other people and see what they find.  Better yet, after they read your query, ask them what your book is about and why a literary agent could potentially market it to a publisher.  If they can't answer those questions, the literary agent probably won't be able to either. 

5)  Remember it's all subjective.  Some folks just don't connect with a book that shares five points of view while telling a story.  Some people will scream if they come across one more book containing a vampire or werewolf.  And some folks will say they cannot connect with your main character even if the main character is you as is the case in memoir.  It's just personal preference.  I like Tuesdays With Morrie and you like Divergent so we'll be on opposite sides of Barnes and Noble.  You like to read on a tablet and I like the old school printed version; it all just boils down to personal taste. 

Now, I'm off to break for lunch, contemplate my next query targets, and reach out to some editors.  And BIG CONGRATS to my stylist brother on getting to cut and style the hair for Gavin DeGraw and his band; you really rocked it backstage bro! 

Later Lit Lovies,