Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Young People at the Orchestra

"It's so nice to see young people at the orchestra!"

I opened my mouth to reply to the first elderly woman when another, even greyer one leaned right across me like the comment had been meant for her and remarked, "Well, it's so nice to be young people at the orchestra!"

Amen to that, though.

I went to see the Regina Symphony Orchestra the other night with Theresa, and now I think all I want to ever is sit in a room with a bunch of old people and strings and horns.

Have I ever told you I'm into classical music? I am. I wouldn't say I'm a big geek about it or anything, but I'm possibly a little geek about it.

Just a little geek.

My geek credentials: I have my grade 10 RCM and I taught piano for a few years and one of my favourite songs of all time is Rachmaninoff's Etude-Tableau Op. 33 No. 8 in G Minor.

Honestly, though, underneath the geeky part - the theory classes and the composers history book that I look through for fun sometimes and the trying to teach Barclay how to play my classical piano studies on his electric guitar - there's a hugely sentimental bit. Classical music is my Linus blanket. It's comforting and schmaltzy and tangible.

Remember how I hated high school? I talk about that on here sometimes. High school was so weird and lame, wasn't it? (I like to pretend that everyone hated high school and that I wasn't just a loser all by myself.) Well, back when I hated high school, like all the rest of you, that was when I loved piano the most.

I grew up in this tiny town where everyone left their doors unlocked all the time - including the church doors. And during school when I had a spare or a noon hour or whatever, I'd sneak over there and sit in the big, empty, echoey sanctuary and play. Sometimes I'd just play Etude-Tableau Op. 33 No. 8 in G Minor over and over and over, because it really is the most beautiful song ever. Sometimes I'd learn a new song or work on my exam songs.

But I played them like a 16-year-old. I played them like a teenager who was really into emo music (I was, after all, a teenager who was really into emo music). I slowed all my fast songs down and played everything two octaves too low and turned all of my staccatos into lingering, wailing legatos. I imagined that I was playing the soundtrack to my own life. Oh, man alive, it was pitiful. My piano teacher would've hated it.

But it was also soothing and comforting and maybe the only okay thing about high school.

And I guess that's what I think of when I think of classical music. I think of a safe, calm place. A sanctuary, literally. With a high, vaulted ceiling and rows and rows of wooden pews.

You think I'm more than just a little geek now, don't you?

Anyway, the point is that I went to the orchestra and loved it because of this deep-rooted connection I have with that genre of music as a whole.

But I also have to tell you about the intermission.

At the intermission, I met three people. The first two were men, both dressed formally and looking rather imperturbable. They were like a couple of pallbearers at a funeral. Theresa introduced them to me, and then she introduced me to them. She said, "This is Suzy, she's my son's piano..."

And then she trailed off, because she was distracted or something.

(Sometimes, Theresa gets distracted. It's because she's always so busy observing everything. I enjoy this about her.)

She had been about to tell the men that that I was her son's piano teacher, because I was that, once. The first, without cracking a smile, extended his hand to me and said, "Hello. I hear you are a piano."

And then the man beside him, also unsmiling and in the same dry way, said, "A-ha, that's grand." He had both of his hands folded behind his back and he spoke into the upper right corner of the room.

And I was just like, Was that a piano pun? Are you wanting a pun war right now? Because, hello, I can do piano puns. I will own everybody in this room full of grey-haired classical music buffs at piano puns. 

Because I'm sharp. 

Take notes, everyone. 

Puns are my forte. 

I didn't say anything out loud though. I had, like, fifty ready to go in my head just in case, but no one said anything after that, and I think I missed my chance. And these men never actually smiled, so I don't know. I may have been imagining things. Barclay and I always have pun wars, so I think I imagine pun wars where there aren't pun wars.

The third person I met was an elderly lady whose husband had recently passed away. She said she'd bought season tickets to everything you can get season tickets for. She said she was tired of smoking cigarettes and playing FreeCell. She said her and her husband had been crazy in love, like in movies. She said she was okay because she had to be okay because she'd told him that she'd be okay. And she looked like she might be about to cry and I wasn't sure what to do. Should I have hugged her? I'm never sure where hugs are appropriate. Some people don't want a hug, some do. And I don't really like hugging strangers, but I would've done it if I thought it would make her feel better.

But then the lights dimmed and the conductor of the orchestra came out and started talking about Brahms, and about how Brahms was therapeutic. And then the orchestra played Brahms.

And it turned out the conductor was right about Brahms, because when I looked over at the lady, she was smiling.

And I was smiling too.

And so was Theresa.

And as the music faded, an adorable old gentleman seated behind me exclaimed (enthusiastically and probably louder than he meant to), "That Brahms is so exciting!"

Amen to that too.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Mountains and Minefields and Query Letters

Writing a book is easy and fun. Trying to get a book polished and published is like having someone suck your soul out with a vacuum cleaner and put it through the washing machine on the heavy duty cycle with a bunch of thumb tacks.

In retrospect, that sentence seems to be filled with latent guilt about all the chores I haven't been doing this week. Stop it, subconscious, I'm trying to be an artist here.

When I first embarked on this ridiculous venture, I read a blog post by a guy who had written a book but never got it published. It was all about how the odds of actually finding a lit agent to represent you and then them finding a publisher who would buy your book was a lot like winning the lottery. He said, basically, that he never even attempted to get his work published because he knew how slim the chances were and how much work he'd have to put into it.

I was like, "Dude. You are grossly pessimistic and lazy."

It turns out, he'd probably just done his research.

Getting a lit agent is hard. It's hard. Harder than climbing a mountain, actually. Because in order to climb a mountain, all you have to do is find a mountain and climb it. The mountain doesn't have to like you. It doesn't have all these rules about your grammar and your online presence and your formatting (some of which you don't even know about until you break them). The mountain won't say to you, "Hey, climb almost all the way to the top! It's a lot of work and it might not even pay off!" only to fling you off of itself when you're mere steps from the summit.

Mountains are fairly easy-going, that way.

For those of you who know as little about this process as I did two months ago, here's the little bit more that I know now:

First, you write a book. You read what you've written and you fix it. Because it'll need fixing.

Then you get someone else to read your book and tell you if it makes sense and also if it makes them feel anything and also if they noticed a glaring lack of grammatical adeptness. You ask a few other people to read it too and ask them a bunch of questions about it. You take their responses super seriously even if you disagree with them, because you'll have a lot of blind spots.

(Aside: This is why it's good to choose your readers carefully. I chose a few friends whose taste in entertainment I really trust - the kinds of people I normally ask for music and movie and book recommendations. Two of them are librarians. And I said to them, I said, "Be stupid honest with me." Because otherwise, what's the point, exactly?)

Then you basically rewrite your whole entire book again. And then you read it again and you go, Oh, yeah, these people were all right even though I thought they were wrong at first. It makes way more sense now. I like this character better. I hate this character more. I patched up that massive plot hole. That's much better.

This goes on for a while, the fixing. It turns out you can't just sit down and write a book perfectly the first time. Well, I mean, it turns out I can't. Maybe you can. Good for you. Shut up.

Enter the lit agents. They're like real estate agents for books. Most big publishing houses require books to be represented by one, so they're important. But they're unicorns - catching one feels near impossible.

You start by picking an agent that you think might like your book. There are a grizillion different kinds of books, and all of the agents have different tastes because, despite what I said earlier about them being unicorns, they're actually people. And not all people like the same things. So, basically, research. You have to research these people and see what books they like and what books they're already representing and what kinds of books they're looking to add to their lists. It's a lot of work. It's, like, the first day of your climb up this mountain.

So, after you've picked an agent, you have to write them a query letter. And all of the agents have different rules for what they want in a query letter. Some of them want you to tell them about yourself, some of them don't. Some of them want a synopsis, or a word count, or a note about why you're the best person to write this book, some of them don't. Some of them want you to include a sample chapter or three, some of them don't. Some of them have their very precise preferences written out for you on their website (bless them), some of them, gulp, don't, and you have to guess based on what the majority of the other lit agents want. If you get it wrong, they most likely won't even read your letter all the way to the end.

It's crazy.

It's like this mountain is also a minefield. Imagine that. Climbing a mountain minefield. You're so screwed.

And you do all this work, you research this agent and write them a personalized letter and include whatever they want you to include and make sure it's error-free and lemony-fresh...and then you wait. For probably six to eight weeks. And then you get a form rejection that's really polite but very short compared to your initial query that says something like but not necessarily, "Good try! Keep trying! I'm flinging you offa my mountain!" (Lit agents are actually really nice though. They just can't represent every single book or else they'll die.)

So then you pick a different agent and start all over again. You can query more than one at a time, too, so some days you'll get flung from three or four mountains in a row. Those days are tiring.

Perspective? Do you want some perspective? I've heard stories about published authors who sent out more than 100 query letters before finding an agent. I've read countless articles encouraging authors to not even breathe a breath of defeat until they've sent out at least 80.

80 mountains. That's a lot of climbing. That's a lot of almost summits and mountain minefields. Phew. I am a little winded already.

But, if we can stay with the mountain metaphor for just a second longer, this is also the cool thing about searching for a lit agent: all this climbing makes you stronger.

You send out a letter, you get back a reply, you reread your initial letter or the chapters you sent and think, "Ah!" (and a cartoon lightbulb appears above your head) "I bet they rejected this because..." And before you send your next letter, you make some changes, you do a little more research, you ask a few more questions, you make more changes. You like your book more, you get better at writing query letters - it stands to reason that you get better at writing in general. It's good for you if it doesn't wring you out first, if your heart's strong enough for it.

All of this is to say that I'm enjoying this process, mostly. I'm learning a lot. I'm not discouraged yet. I have been catapulted, kicking and screaming but not crying, from nine mountains. I have written the equivalent of nine books, and the ninth one only vaguely resembles the first, but I like it much, much better. I feel like I've been part of an intensive literary bootcamp.

And I have a whole new huge respect for published authors. And lit agents.

I will definitely keep you posted. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Continuing On...

I wonder if maybe one of my legs is longer than the other? Because a large amount of my vacation pictures are lopsided. They lean, is what I mean.

Or maybe I subconsciously took them that way to emphasize them. Like italics. Like, I really like this building, so I'm going to take this picture just ever so slightly slanted...

That's so smart. What a great idea.

Anyway. Just something to be aware of. The lopsided pictures are extra important and not at all just sloppy photography.

The week before we left for Montreal, a friend who just so happened to be in the city herself posted a picture on her Instagram of a cool-looking wall. I know that doesn't sound like much, but it was a really cool wall. I promise. I decided that I wanted to see it, but didn't know where it was, so this is the very logical and rational way we went about finding it:

We rode the metro to Old Montreal, because we wanted to see Old Montreal anyway, and got off when Sullivan started getting antsy. We came up from the train and I found a lady wearing a vest (because all women who wear vests know everything) (but also, she was sitting underneath a sign that said 'Information'), and I pulled up my friend's Instagram account. I said, "Do you know where this wall is?" and she pointed behind me and said, "Yes, it's just down that hallway."

The wall was cool, and so was the rest of the building (it's the Palais des Congres at the North end of Old Montreal).

From there, we headed south into Old Montreal. There's a very distinct place where the pavement ends and the cobblestone starts. It's like standing on the battle line between old and new, the straight, sleek lines of the skyscrapers over your head on one side and the jagged, turreted skyline of the old city on the other.

The Old Port is, predictably, right next to the Old City. We went there once in the evening when the mosquitoes and tourists were overwhelming, and once in the early morning when there were none of either. I highly recommend the latter. There's a little beach down there on the St. Lawrence River called the Clock Tower that costs $2 to get into and has a pretty sweet view of the Jaques Cartier Bridge and the city skyline.

On Sunday afternoon, we headed to Mont-Royal Park to see the Tam-Tams, a free weekly drum festival around the George-Etienne Cartier Monument. The cool thing about this event? It's not really an 'event' - in that it's not official; it doesn't have advertising, or sponsors or a fee or any kind of rules at all. It's just a bunch of people playing drums and selling stuff from blankets on the lawn. As far as I can tell, you just lug your little drum situation over there and have at 'er. For hours. There are little pockets of drum circles, surrounded by spectators. They start at, like, 10 in the morning and go until they feel like it's time to quit, sometimes late in the evening.

Our home base was right next to Jarry Park. We took coffees there from Cafe Vito one morning and let Sullivan chase birds with the umbrella stroller (kids have weird hobbies). There was a guy with a boomerang, too. I'd never seen a boomerang in real life, but I think now that I would like to own one. We found a little island, accessible only by stepping stones, and we sat on it and threw rocks into the water. So chill.

Let's see, what else...

I can't not mention Place de Castelnau, which was just a block from our house in the opposite direction of Jarry Park. It had two good coffee shops, a game store, an amazing little bread place, the chocolate shop I mentioned yesterday, painted sidewalks, and church bells that chimed every hour.

We also hit up (and quite loved) the Mile End, another place a short metro ride away known for its coffee (and bagels!) and shops. We found a record store and a book store, and I even bought a little French comic book as a souvenir for one of my friends' three-year-olds (but upon closer inspection on the way home, I discovered that it was maybe a comic book for an *ahem* older audience. Oops. Had a good laugh, not gifting it to a 3-year-old).

Aimless Wandering really was the theme of the trip though. We sat and listened to a guy play Pink Floyd and Yann Tiersen on a piano in a park, searched for (and found) crepes in Mont-Royal, poked around the Olympic Stadium a little, stumbled across a country music festival (left immediately; sorry, country music), and explored the McGill University campus. Just enjoyed being away together. Drank copious amounts of coffee. Poured water into our empty coffee cups so Sully would think he wasn't missing out.

We ended up spending a lot of time at our apartment too. Again: we have a kid who naps and goes to bed early (the time change worked in our advantage though - he goes to bed at 7, which is 9 Montreal time. It was nice to be able to do a thing or two in the evening without gouging into his bedtime). So our evenings were low key, but it was nice. We bought a game at the place in Castelnau and had poutine on the terrace and just hung out. Which, luckily, we like doing.

So, I guess, that's that. It was a really nice week. I'd go back tomorrow if I could. Unfortunately, real life is a factor in my decision making. Thanks for the memories, Quebec. You're so fancy.