Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Canadian Writers' Retreat

Hey hey, remember me?

Okay, I know I promised an epic blog after the Fallon Show, but much to my surprise, so much time has elapsed I've been feeling overwhelmed. So let me tell you the main reason for my absence: I've been working on my new novel so obsessively and on such a rigid time schedule I've had little time or patience for anything else.

Here's the story.

Two weeks ago this Thursday, I boarded a plane at Newark, International Airport for Toronto. With apologies to Anthony Burgess...

"There was me, that is Robin, my three droogs, that is Tish, Susan, and Jessica and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening..."

Okay, so that's not quite it - we actually sat in Tish's lovely vacation home two hours north of Toronto and we knew exactly what we were going to do with not only the evening but the next three days. To say that her place is utopia is putting it mildly:

Here's Tish, Susan, and Jess, respectively, and yes, I know, my girlfriends are not just brilliant writers, they are all goddesses.

But let me backtrack here. We started talking about this writing retreat two years ago, when Tish first bought her place. Oh, you should know that two of Tish's books have already sold to Hollywood but that is her story to tell and I am already neurotic that I am blabbing too much.

Anyway, we all have families -- I am the only one with two adult children; Tish, Susan, and Jessica have teenagers (okay, Sue is our baby and she has a 12 year old, damn her!) so trying to coordinate 3-4 days away from home is a lot trickier than it sounds. We thought we were good to go back in 2008 but then one by one we started dropping out due to all kinds of "life gets in the way" events. It was such a bummer when our plans fell through that I just assumed we'd all given up on the idea. The four of us have a unique friendship...we don't talk for months at a time, we all live many hours apart from each other -- in other words, far enough apart so that it either requires a plane ride or 6 hours of Amtrak so we only get to see each other once a year (if we are lucky). Susan and I live the closest so we probably see each other 2-3 times a year but it's always under Oh My God I'm Going to Miss My Train If We Have One More Drink circumstances. But a couple of months ago, Tish sent the invite around again, and somehow, some way, we realized we could all do April 8-11. But even this time, with my dog sick, even though I had already purchased my plane ticket far in advance, I did not allow myself the luxury of dreaming about how cool it would be because I was afraid that would jinx things and I wouldn't be able to go.

I'm not cheap but how is this for bizarre - to fly non-stop from Philadelphia to Toronto, with taxes and fees -- is close to $700.00. But if I flew non-stop out of Newark, it was only $130.00. Okay, so that was a no brainer. (I am telling you this story for a reason...be patient). Anyway, to get to Newark, I had to take a 50 minute train ride on Amtrak which lead me right to the station for Newark International Airport. Once at that station, I had to take a tram, or monorail, to the Air Canada terminal where I had to check in my bag. Ah, budget airlines do have their drawbacks...my suitcase, while regulation size for most airlines, was too big for whatever toy I was about to board so I could not take my luggage on board with me.

I always take my luggage with me. I know far too many stories about people whose vacations and even lives are ruined by lost luggage at the airport. But oh well, it would be nice not to have to shlep that thing with me through customs and I always overloaded it with too much unnecessary stuff, anyway. Every time I fly, I can never lift my bag up to the plane's storage area myself so I always block traffic in the aisle hoping a big, strong guy strolls by so I can embarrass myself asking for help. All things considered, it would be a relief to check it in after all.

I have traveled all over the world. I am not afraid to fly anymore because I am convinced a far worse death awaits me and that a crash would be too quick and painless. But I've never traveled by myself internationally and I've never flown out of Newark International Airport. I figured Julie or Eric did but nope, though Julie wrinkled her nose at me and said "It's easy, Mom." She then proceeded to talk a mile a minute telling me what I had to do re customs and immigration and I retained none of it.

I was all proud of myself, I figured out where to catch the tram, I figured out that I had to get off at Terminal A, I even had my boarding pass printed out so all I had to do was check in my bag. Did that easily, no problem. So what if I went through security and looked at my watch and realized I was almost three hours early for my flight....hey, there were too many factors involved here for me to wait until the last minute. What if my train out of Philadelphia was late, and I don't say that out of paranoia, practically every time I take Amtrak it's either late or cancelled altogether. I wasn't familiar with Newark Airport. I never took the air tram. Far too many things could go wrong.

By the time I boarded for a 3:50 flight, I was exhausted but proud.

And then we landed in Toronto.

Nothing prepared me for the hell that is customs. It seemed that every single international flight had landed at the same time. They had these roped off mazes you had to walk through, they were each a city block long and there were ten of them. Did I mention it was about ninety degrees in that room? I got stuck behind a huge contingent of people carrying cardboard suitcases. My imagination went into overdrive. Not bad things, just wondering why around 200 people all had the same suitcase and all looked so utterly wiped out. Oh my God, were they earthquake victims? To keep myself from having what felt like an imminent panic attack, I tried to start up a conversation but no one was in the mood or maybe there was a language barrier, I don't know. Yikes, The room grew warmer and I pictured a mass fainting scenario with me all crumpled on the bottom.

It took close to an hour to walk through that maze behind that giant mass of humanity in all that crazy heat and by the time I handed my immigration form to the scary guard at the desk, I could not even remember my name.

"Where are you going in Canada?" The guard barked at me!

"I am visiting my friend, Tish." Yes. I actually said that. And then realized I did not have Tish's address. Oh dear God...I know...I could refer them to her website...what better identification than that?

Luckily, there was such a huge line behind me he didn't press further. What a dunce I would seem like if I tried to send a customs agent to "Tish's website".

"You here on business or pleasure?" He sneered at me. God I hate being middle-aged in a youth oriented world. Bleh. He was probably young enough to be my son (if I got pregnant at 16, of course)

"Pleasure." I wanted to say business because it would validate me further as a writer but even I am not THAT insane.

He waved me through and I was like, "That's it?"

"Yeah. Welcome to Canada."

"Where do I get my luggage"

"Down there." He pointed to an escalator.

I was still trying to process why I went through customs without my suitcase and dreaded the thought that I would have to do it all over again after I fetched it but no, I had bigger problems.

The huge flashing board said I'd find my suitcase at Carousel Two. Okay, down the escalator I went and right to my left, Carousel Two. Okay, then. Suitcases were already spinning around. I picked a convenient place to stand and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After about fifteen minutes and seeing most of the people standing there grab their stuff, I started thinking about all the people I knew, my kids included, who had lost luggage this way and how lucky I was that it had never happened to me. The minute I started thinking it, the more evident it became that my suitcase was not on Carousel Two. After waiting 30 minutes and being the only one left, the conveyer belt or whatever drives those things around stopped.

My worse fear had come true. Air Canada had lost my luggage. I was far away from home without my favorite black shirts, clean underwear, jeans, pajamas, and all of my girly toiletries. Oh god, and my new Nick Hornby book. I did, thank God, have the foresight to keep my laptop with me on the plane or I probably would have had a massive coronary.

Soaking wet with sweat and with tears in my eyes, I walked over to the information desk to tell them about my lost luggage.

"What was your flight number?"

"8636" (I remembered cos' Julie was born in 1986)

"You're in the wrong place!"

"But it says Air Canada...arrivals from Philadelphia," I whimpered.

"8636 flew out of Newark," he said, looking at me strangely.

Oh. My. God. I was so fucking tired and so freaked out I forgot I didn't fly out of Philly. Maybe because it was the first time ever that I didn't fly out of Philly.

I walked over to the Air Canada carousel for Newark arrivals and there, spinning around all by its lonesome, the other passengers long gone, was my solitary suitcase.


But of course by then I was a complete mess. I felt like such a loser, and hoped this incident would not set the tone of the weekend. I was already feeling shaky enough at the prospect of being in the company of these three amazing women for the entire weekend. I am socially challenged, to say the least, and somehow I was going to try and act as normal as possible and God forbid, not bore any of my brilliant, interesting friends.

I called Tish who was already in the airport waiting (yes, in Toronto they do not have stupid post 9/11 rules forbidding friends and family to pick up their friends inside the actual airport) and Jess was on her way down, too (her flight came in around the same time mine did but she did not have to check in her bag). Susan, however, was in some sort of Robin-esque purgatory because her plane from NY, which insanely had a stopover in Philadelphia (and still would have cost me $700 had I met up with her there), was delayed due to thunderstorms...then we got a strange text from her that the plane had to refuel.

So Tish, Jess and I went to a nearby cafe to grab some dinner and wait for Sue. She was supposed to arrive at 7:30 but if I remember correctly, it was more like 9:30 when we finally picked her up. And then lucky Tish got to drive us for two hours plus in the rain to our retreat.

We were so bushed that night we only stayed up and talked a little...the plan was we'd wake up early and have 2-3 one hour writing sessions per day...we'd write to a timer and in separate rooms...then we'd spend the remaining hours talking about writing, walking in the woods, sipping wine, and stuffing our faces.

Awesome, or what?

Friday morning we all woke up ready to start. I was terrified. I'd been working on the same novel since the end of last year and I was floundering. I knew I wanted to write a dark comedy, I also knew I wanted to try something different and more mainstream but I felt lost and then the worst possible thing happened altogether -- I finally figured out how to work Facebook and got into even more trouble. I started wishing I were a public relations person because clearly I loved using my own writing time to promote whatever music J&E were making but in the end, I was growing more and more depressed and frustrated. If I didn't write this novel, then I may as well have gone back to work at a real office job with a real retirement plan and health insurance in case Gary ever parted company with his employer. I was really beginning to freak out so I was maybe unrealistically looking at our writers' retreat as my savior.

But apparently I was not the only one.

Tish was working on both edits and thinking about her pitch for her newest book. Susan, whose debut novel with HarperCollins comes out this September and is already attracting all kinds of buzz, has been spending the last several months researching her brand new book and was now ready to start writing but so far it wasn't happening. Jess is kind of in my boat because while she does have a non-fiction book out there, she's written some brilliant stuff that hasn't sold yet. Notice I say, "yet". During our weekend, she actually had a whole novel written and an agent interested in reading it so she was in actuality far ahead of me...her concerns were editing and a self-imposed deadline.

I had to keep reminding myself I have four books published, am currently rated #1 over at Fictionwise (yeah, #1 in my genre for the past month already...yay me) because compared to Tish, Susan, and Jess, I felt like the imposter.

Let's talk about them for a minute, shall we? Tish has a new book coming out this June and how fantastic does this sound:

"A father abducts his daughter, flees to Los Angeles from their home in Toronto, creates a new identity for the two of them, lives in anonymity for eight years'and then gets diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's just as his wife catches up with him." At the age of 20, Delilah Blue-now Lila Mack-finds herself posing nude for an art class, for she wants to become an artist. She has talent but no money, and she hopes to pick up pointers from crusty art professor Julian Lichtenstein (aka Lichty), far less well known than his famous second cousin, Roy. Until now she's had little confusion about her identity: Her father Victor has persuaded her that her mother, Elisabeth, didn't want her, and Lila readily accepts this explanation. It turns out, however, that flaky mom is now in L.A. (along with Lila's seven-year-old half-sister) because a Canadian psychic had told her she'd find her daughter there. Elisabeth-an artist manqué-keeps checking art galleries for evidence of her daughter's existence and eventually finds a nude sketch of her. Mom is rather vindictive because it appears Victor has been feeding Lila a line-although he kidnapped her to get her away from her mom's lax maternal qualities and her spacey artiste, dope-smoking friends, all the time mom had been searching for her daughter. Victor now has problems of his own, however, for even though he's only 53, he's forgetting his appointments--and showing up at odd times-as a salesman for a medical-supplies company. He's also becoming more irrational and impulsive. (A symptom of the problem emerges when he steals a dog left temporarily in his care.) Elisabeth wants to prosecute her husband for kidnapping, but Lila-who ultimately assumes her original and rightful name of Delilah--acts like the only adult in this dysfunctional trio by trying to protect and care for her father and fend off the mother's pent-up aggression. Cohen (Little Black Lies, 2009, etc.) knows how to focus on character in ways that make readers care. --Kirkus Reviews"

Praise for The Truth about Delilah Blue

“A beautifully written, finely wrought, race-to-the-end novel about finding your family, finding a life and finding yourself. Tish Cohen is the next great thing in women’s fiction.”
-Allison Winn Scotch, New York Times bestselling author of The One That I Want and Time of My Life

“Cohen, who writes with clarity, wit, and warmth, is brilliant in her penetration of the family layers, presenting all sides of the drama by allowing each character to be the star of their own show. This is a book that won’t be set aside until the last page is turned.”
-Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murder's Daughters

You can pre-order Delilah Blue right here or through Indie Bound right here.

Tish is superwoman - she's written some other stellar books as well, and she's even branched out into Young Adult. You can order her grown-up books, Townhouse and Inside Out Girl by clicking those respective links.

Susan is realizing a life-long dream with the publication of her debut novel this September.

Up from the Blue:

"Tillie Harris is in premature labor and has no one to turn to but her estranged father. Their relationship has been strained since Tillie was eight years old, when her mother mysteriously vanished. UP FROM THE BLUE follows young Tillie's startling discoveries about what happened to her mother, as well as grown Tillie's struggle with a relationship that's stuck in the past and childhood hurts that continue into the present."

“A rare literary page-turner full of shocking discoveries and twists. Susan Henderson has created a remarkable narrator—as memorable for her feistiness as for her tenderness. Up From the Blue is going to be one of this year’s major debuts.” (Josh Kilmer-Purcell, author of I Am Not Myself These Days )

“Susan Henderson’s debut novel Up From the Blue is elegant and engrossing. Like a modern-day Scout, Henderson’s child narrator Tillie Harris is both tender and tough, charming and filled with wonder by the difficulties she must overcome. Henderson is a talent to watch.” (Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology and Falling Through the Earth )

“Up from the Blue deftly portrays a family with contradictions we can all relate to—it’s beautiful and maddening, hopeful and condemning, simple, yet like a knot that takes a lifetime to untangle. You will love it completely, even as it hurts you…it’s a heartbreaking, rewarding story that still haunts me.” (Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)

Pre-order Up From the Blue right here.

Jess is the co-author of Time to Make the Donuts, the autobiography of the founder of Dunkin Donuts. But her true love lies in fiction.

"Bill Rosenberg, Founder of Dunkin' Donuts, lived the American Dream. A scrappy, Jewish kid from Boston who dropped out of school at age 14 to earn money for his family, Bill went on to become one of 20th century's greatest retail entrepreneurs. Innovative and indomitable, he built his multimillion dollar fortune on grit and determination. Embracing the food industry, horse racing, franchising and philanthropy he pursued his goals with the conviction of a visionary. In TIME TO MAKE THE DONUTS, Bill narrates his roller coast ride to success with characteristic humor, candor, wit and passion. His winning principles and philosophies have proven viable for more than seven decades and will inspire you to reach for your own life goals"

Buy Time to Make the Donuts right here. Or at Amazon right here

Jessica is also Fiction Editor at Agni Literary Magazine

"AGNI’s History

AGNI was founded in 1972 at Antioch College by undergraduate Askold Melnyczuk, a then-aspiring (now accomplished) writer with his own vision of a vehicle for alternative news, visual arts, and literature. Melnyczuk was interested in creating a magazine that would feature a new generation of writers and visual artists.

Literature for literature’s sake is not what AGNI is about. Rather, we see literature and the arts as part of a broad, ongoing cultural conversation that every society needs to remain vibrant and alive. What we print requires concentration and takes some time to digest, but it’s worth that time and effort: writers and artists hold a mirror up to nature, mankind, the world; they courageously reflect their age, for better or worse; and their best works provoke perceptions and thoughts that help us understand and respond to our age.

Aside from regular inclusion of its work in the annual Best American, O. Henry Prize, and Pushcart Prize anthologies, “[a]mong readers around the world, AGNI is known for publishing important new writers early in their careers,” as PEN American Center put it in 2001. Such authors include Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize, 2000, for Interpreter of Maladies; the title story appeared in AGNI 47 in 1998), Ha Jin (National Book Award, 1999; many of his early poems and stories appeared in AGNI and he was a Featured Poet in 1989), and Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted, first excerpted in AGNI in 1991), as well as Mark Doty, Glyn Maxwell, Sven Birkerts, and Olena Kalytiak Davis, whom we’ve printed alongside such luminaries as Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates, Derek Walcott, and many others"

To any of my writer pals reading this, Agni online is read by everyone from the top writers to agents to editors...if you have a story you think they might like, cllick the above link and submit! You can do it electronically and they make it very easy for you. I should warn you, however, that it is not an easy market to crack. If your story gets accepted, you should feel pretty damn awesome about yourself!

Okay, so now you know about my friends and hopefully you've ordered their books. In the case of Tish and Susan, pre-ordering is a wonderful thing because it will help increase the future print run. And word of mouth is everything. Once you read these brilliant novels, please share your thoughts, okay?

So anyway, there I am, feeling like a total dweeb, and Tish sets the timer. Susan and Jessica went up to their bedrooms and Tish and I stayed downstairs. That first morning was the scariest. Trying to type with Tish sitting in a nearby chair was really, really difficult, as was the silence. I write to music when I'm home. All I heard was the tick, tick, ticking of that timer.

How the hell do you force writing? I wanted to go on Facebook, I wanted to check my email, I wanted to tweet "I'm in Canada!" but I did none of those things because again, I told myself that if I didn't write that weekend and didn't get back on track with my novel, then I may as well start pulling up Craigs List and looking for a job. Arghhhhh!

And so I wrote. I knew I had a story to tell, I had the plot, so I winged it. Before I knew it, the timer rang and I was stunned. I did a word count. Over 2,000 words! So you mean to tell me I'm good for 2,000 words an hour? Christ. I immediately began to mentally beat myself up. If I had known that, I could have...should have...written two novels since April of last year.

Susan and Jess came downstairs. Both were flushed with excitement. So was Tish. All of us had succeeded our first session in. We munched on some fruit and starting talking. And talking. And talking.

I wish I could share what we said, but it was like group therapy. You think you are all alone in the world with your doubts and fears and then you find out that everyone in the room is feeling the exact same way and I dunno, suddenly instead of feeling like a loser, I allowed myself to dream again.

Please do not confuse this with "dreaming of fame and fortune". I am not stupid. Anyone who makes art with fame and fortune in mind is an idiot. But somewhere this past year I had lost my way. Again, I had to keep reminding myself I have four books published and they all still sell. Tish, Sue, and Jess were quick to remind me of that fact, too, and that was all the validation I needed.

Okay. I had validation, but I still didn't have what I thought would be a killer novel. I wanted to write something awesome...I know I am capable of that...but I felt myself falling into the same old traps of borrowing too much from my own life and forgetting I was writing fiction.

"What's your elevator pitch?" Tish and Sue asked.

"Wuh? You mean my query?"

A query is what you send an agent when you finally feel your book is "ready". You try and sum up an entire novel in a couple of paragraphs, send it to an agent you hopefully have researched who represents books like it, and then you pray and wait.

But apparently I was all wrong about that.

"No, not a query. An elevator pitch is one sentence."

"You have to sum up an entire novel in one sentence?"

"Yep. That's why it's called an elevator pitch. Pretend you are in an elevator with a VIP and you have five seconds to tell him/her about your book. You have to make them want to buy it on the spot based on one strong sentence. And once you have that sentence, every single thing you write in your novel should reflect that pitch and your resolution bring a certain closure."

Okay, Tish and Sue did not use those exact words - this is what I get for waiting 2 weeks to blog, but you get the idea.

"And what about your outline?" Tish asked me.

"I never use an outline," I said. "I just write."

Susan shook her head. "Yeah, that's what I used to do, too, and I'll never do it again."

"You have to outline," Tish said.

Jess - if you are reading this - I can't remember if you told me you used one or not but I am guessing you did and I was the only clueless rebel without a cause in the group.

Four books published and I'd never heard of an elevator pitch and not only had I never used an outline, I didn't know what one looked like or how to write one.

But now I had a challenge and my wheels were really spinning. I knew my elevator pitch but I couldn't verbalize it. And I also knew that the past six months of writing had to be trashed because once I chose that pitch, I would have to start all over again. I knew the chapters I'd written were typical Robin ramblings and I was about to fall into the same damn trap I fall into every time and why I have a hard time keeping agents. My last agent tried to tell me but I was so busy telling her that I refused to write "inside the box" that I ended up cutting off my nose to spite my face (ugh, cliche, but you get the point).

Actually, none of us had pitches for our newest work so over wine and in front of a beautiful fire facing that amazing lake, the four of us brainstormed. I do not want to tell you what we came up with but it was such a revelation I could not wait to start writing and when Tish set the timer the next time I was off and running. By the time the weekend was over, I had over 11,000 words of stuff I could use. And a fucking fantastic elevator pitch and now, thanks to Tish who was kind enough to show me one of hers, an outline which I pored over for days when I got back to Philadelphia and is making the writing flow so easy I don't know how I ever managed before.

Not only did I learn so much about the publishing world from seasoned vets like Tish and Susan, I had gotten my mojo back. And we all agreed that the timer was a necessity. When I got back to Philly, Gary was so cute - he actually had one here for me -- but yep, every morning from 9-10AM and every afternoon from 1-2PM I write. I could easily write all day but I am deliberately keeping it to two hours a day for now, though of course I'm so excited by the book's progress I keep pulling it up throughout the day to edit. Mentally, this is a great idea. I get my two hours in, write between 4-5,000 words a day which means I will have a first draft by next month, and I no longer feel guilty about Facebook and Twitter.

An interesting thing has happened, though. Now that I "am allowed" to go on Facebook and Twitter, it's lost its appeal and I would much rather write.

Hence why it's taken me so long to do this blog post.

Right now it's 5:30 PM and I am finally getting around to it. This is the complete opposite of what I used to do. I'd blog in the morning, telling myself "this is writing!" but then people would comment and I would email back and then I'd check Twitter....gah! When I'd finally guiltily pull up my novel, it just seemed like such a mountain to climb I would tell myself "just work on it tomorrow"...

Well, tomorrow is NOW. For the past two weeks, I've been a writing machine. I've never been happier with my life. As I told Jess, Susan and Tish, even if I can't sell this book, at least I know I gave it my best shot and I am already prouder of it than anything I've ever written.

Anyway, there's a lot I would love to tell you about the weekend that's personal but I just can't other than yes, I snore. And that despite the fact that I am a reclusive loner who never went to overnight camp, never lived in a college dorm, and never even had her own apartment, I relaxed with these three women under one roof as if we were sisters and/or lifelong friends. It was truly a life-changing experience.

I can even take international flights by myself!

And on that note...

P.S. One more thing: In a few weeks, I'm going to be starting Book Review Wednesday. I'm only going to review books I love, and I'm going to try and focus on new books written by new or less well known writers. So please send me your suggestions. In the meantime, to get my feet wet because I am relatively inexperienced at this, I'm starting with someone who needs no help from me - Nick Hornby. I just finished Juliet, Naked and I need to share!