Where I’ve Been

Everyone says, “Oh, I’ve been so busy.” I have, too, but in a low-key way. In January of this year, my brother-in-law Dennis was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. I had just made a rigorous plan for my books, writing, and marketing for 2014, and had gathered full momentum already. But I realized that some things are more important than writing blog posts or tweeting about my writing projects. So I put most of my work aside and made myself available to help.

My late brother-in-law Dennis, in the mountains he loved so much.
My late brother-in-law Dennis, in the mountains he loved so much.

Dennis was a Vietnam veteran, in the 25th Infantry, 1969-71. He was just a kid, but he did his duty, was injured twice, earned two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Along the way he was sprayed with Agent Orange. One of the most stunning things the VA man told Dennis earlier this year was that, because of where Dennis was on certain dates with his division, “That was the day you were killed. It’s just taken this long to catch up to you.”

I took Dennis to the doctor when he needed a ride. He wasn’t able to drive with his oxygen tank, and walking was also a challenge, but we sped around the open corridors of Kaiser Santa Rose popping wheelies in a borrowed wheelchair. I sneaked a few Playboys to him. Because of various health reasons, radiation was not an option, and neither was surgery. Chemo was brutal. He suffered multiple strokes that left him incapacitated and in a long-term care facility, was anointed by the monsignor and made a miraculous recovery to almost his former self. He was able to walk, talk and reason again, and soon was home. But there could be no more chemo. It was a matter of enjoying what time he had left.

I was with Dennis on his last day in early June, a scant six months after diagnosis, taking my turn at companionship, preparing food and tracking medicine. It was a very long day. He wasn’t himself, didn’t feel well, and the hours dragged. By the time my sister Carolyn got home from work, I was exhausted but it was clear he wasn’t well, so I stayed. The nurse came late that night, and we had him settled for bed. But when we went to give him his next round of meds, he had stopped breathing. That was it — life and death, just a breath between the two. We held him and said thank you and how much we loved him, and he was gone.

A few days later my sister asked if I would speak at Dennis’s memorial, and while I was honored to do so, I knew I had to figure out what to say, and for me — a lifelong writer — that was an assignment that, for once, kind of sent me into a tizz. I don’t get writer’s block, as a rule. Because I have been a journalist and have written to deadline since high school, on newspapers, in the heat of rushing to press, very little stops me from getting words onto the page. But this was a tough one.

During the springtime and early summer, my husband and I had purchased a fixer-upper, and I found that throwing myself into cleaning house, clearing garbage and weeds, and shoveling dirt — I could think again. So I wrote the short essay of my life, and delivered it at his funeral earlier this month. And after the sound of the gunfire salute, the playing of Taps, and the long memorial barbecue afterward, I found that I still have a writing path, I still have a career that needed my attention, and I kind of wandered back to my desk.

So here I am — and that’s where I’ve been. And I have news. Not fallen from heaven like a meteor, unexpected and surprising, but some things I have worked for over the years, with diligence, endless writing and earning my way up the ladder.

Last week, I signed with BookTrope, a new publishing company that is changing the way books get out into the world. I am very excited to be a BookTrope author, and the first offering will be my new chick-lit novel, formerly called Shell Game, but with a title change  in the works. The heroine is Veronika Layne, a tattooed and pierced young reporter who stumbles on a mystery in her town, and has to race against real estate developers to save shell mounds from destruction. Drawn from my days as a weekly news reporter in a small city, this heroine is smart, rebellious, and persistent, has a crush on her rival reporter, and is determined to save the day. Sassy, sexy, smart — Veronika will steal your heart. First in a series, by BookTrope!

BookTrope will also republish both of my Doris Diaries books as well as my novel, Tongues of Angels; watch for that news on social media and links here. The Doris Diaries will become part of the “matriarchal legacy” line at BookTrope, and will be released together in March 2015 as part of Women’s History Month.

And last but not least, I got this letter in the mail yesterday:

The letter I received naming me Alameda's Poet Laureate.
The letter I received naming me Alameda’s Poet Laureate.

It’s true! I will be appointed as Alameda’s Poet Laureate (a two-year term) in September at a City Council meeting. Very exciting! I will be leading poetry readings, visiting the schools and senior center, and judging contests. I will be using the hashtags #PoetLaureate and #whypoetrymatters on social media — look for them!

So I’m back on track, with lots to do. Thanks for hanging in there and know how much your readership means to me, today, and every day.

 

 

 

 

 

Merry, merry month of May

I spent April in a frenzy of family activities, spring break, out-of-town visitors, and then playing catch-up, but when May 1 rolled around, it was nose-to-grindstone time. I am working a 31-day fast-draft challenge to finish my WIP, a genre chick-lit novel that is sexy romantic suspense. It will be released under the Scarlet Letter Press indie imprint in early summer under my pen name of Jae Bailey. More deets to follow. But trust me. It will be fun.

News on Reaching for the Moon:More Diaries of a Roaring Twenties Teen (1927-1929) — the second Doris Diaries volume received an honordoris_cover2able mention at the San Francisco Book Festival.

One of my short stories, from my unpublished collection, Wedlock: A Fictional Memoir, won honorable mention, that is, fourth place nationally in the Women’s National Book Association short fiction contest in late April.

I taught three rounds of kids’ journalism classes in Alameda over the school year, and, in fact, just finished the final class today. Three sessions of four weeks each gave the kids exposure to news-writing, what makes a story, parts of the newspaper, and the difference between hearsay and fact-based news.  With students from fourth through seventh grades, the classes were rambunctious, enthusiastic and ultimately dynamic learning environments, as we talked over animal rights, the Olympics, climate change and racism, depending on the prevailing winds. Good times for all, and a real newspaper of their own making in their hands at the end of each 4-week session.

I’m freelancing on some magazine work just now, and will have some stories up in the next few months. I have deadlines next week, and have been interviewing and gathering info along the way. My favorite kinds of assignments are literary, food and beverage, and arts, and that’s just what’s on the agenda for me. I’ll post links when the stories go up.

The other news is that I set aside Volume 3 of The Doris Diaries for now, which I had planned for fall release, and am focusing on Doris in San Francisco. The year is 1938, and I am working hard to get a manuscript together for a July 1 deadline — for a historical book award. The prize is publication, so I am writing hard and fast to make it happen. If that falls through, I will still shop the volume to regional publishers, and I have high expectations of success with Doris’s vivid writing and historical cachet. Go, Doris! I can’t wait for her fame flag to fly.

Happy May, and may all be well with you.

 

What’s new? “My Writing Process” blog tour

Vintage grapefruit crate label This week I’m writing as part of the “My Writing Process” blog tour. I’d like to thank Rebecca Lawton for inviting me to write my story as part of the blog tour. You can read more about the lovely and talented Becca Lawton at http://beccalawton.com/ and http://beccalawton.com/blog/.

 1)     What am I working on?
Currently I am hard at work transcribing diaries from 1930. I’ve been editing and publishing Doris Bailey Murphy’s diaries for about two and a half years now; I’ve published two books about the 1920s and am heading into the Great Depression, 1930-33, now. I transcribe her fountain-penned pages and laugh at her thoughts, and then I stop and go look for background information to tell me what she means. Sometimes I learn a lot about one thing – like grapefruit farming in the Arizona desert in 1930. Or the real estate business as the economy was crashing in 1928. Or Portland architecture.
   I’ve also got two novels under construction. One is in the resting phase before major revisions begin; it’s a literary contemporary novel. The other is a work-in-progress as we speak, about 32,000 words of a genre romantic suspense about a girl reporter and her sidekick on the trail of some buried Native American bones. I’m aiming to finish that and get it up on Kindle later this year.

 2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My work is a little niche-y – or cross-niche-y. I’m a journalist by training, so I write fast and generally pretty cleanly. I don’t struggle over sentences or word choice; I keep writing til the thing is done. This comes from years of hard deadlines, editing my own and others’ work, and no time for revisions. One learns to write well in the first draft, or one doesn’t keep one’s job long.
    I was early on the scene in the blog world; I had been writing a column in the newspaper since 1996, and it was an easy step to take it to the Internet. I’ve been blogging for 11 years now, and have kept my main blog (Modern Muse) alive all that time. That has given me a facility with the conversational style that newspaper writing or literary writing haven’t. I’m also a literary scholar; I’ve written for publication about Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and the Harry Potter phenomenon. My training in literary research has helped me immeasurably in the Doris Diaries project.
   When you put all this in a cocktail shaker and agitate it, you get my conversational novel style with rich literary allusions. My editorial reportage tends to be more readable, and so does my literary work, I’ve been told. So there ya go.

 3)     Why do I write what I do?
Short and sweet? I have stories to tell. And I am pathologically afraid of being una dona priva di narrativa. I hate being censored.

4)     How does my writing process work?
I write early and late in the day, with down-time in the middle of the afternoon. I let the pot boil, as it were, for some time, and then sit down and just pour out the story. I wrote my collection of short stories in just a few weeks, but I’d been stewing on them for about six years. If I get stuck, I start typing notes. I work on the story, leave a gap with a note like “add conversation here” and keep going. Don’t let those things slow you down, writers. Just keep telling your story. Come back and fill in later.
   I’m a good editor, but I need editing, because I often can’t see my own errors. So I will do the first or second pass, then hand off my work to other trained eyes. I do a lot of editing for others, and it’s a pretty fair exchange. I’m used to being told what to fix. My ego is not involved. And if I think the editor is wrong, I won’t change it. 

You are the god of your story. Do what you want.

 

What I’ve learned: Publishing and the march of times

When I was in my twenties and reading voraciously and spewing poetry on the page like a hydrant hit by a drunk driver, I wanted to get published more than I wanted a happy marriage, a suburban house and 2.5 children. In fact, I didn’t have a happy marriage, although we did get that house, and three whole children; my desire to be published outlasted everything but the children, who are grown up and doing very well on their own now; thanks for asking.

I subscribed to Writers Digest and Byline Magazine, and kept a journal and wrote every single day, if I could, if I didn’t have sick babies or sleepless nights, or, you know, life in general, which means I wrote a couple of times a week. Mostly about how tired I was. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted to be a writer. It was the being, not the doing, that I wanted, more than anything. This was before the Internet, and email, and the writing I did consisted of me with a notebook, scrawling verses, and me, with stationery, sending letters. I wanted to be a published writer now, today, not tomorrow, and not, by all that is holy, when I was forty, or fifty, or sixty, with Birkenstocks and a gray ponytail, just getting my first book of crappy poetry published. I wanted precocity. And I wanted it yesterday.

Then we got a computer and a modem, and email.
And we got the Internet.

I made a few email pals via chatrooms and I joined some listserves, and about that time I went into college classes and started working on my Masters’ degree. There were no MFA programs yet. And then, almost overnight, there were MFA programs everywhere. My university switched over from the MA in English with a creative writing concentration to the MFA in (whatever) the semester before I graduated, so I could have paid for another three terms, or just finished up and been done. I finished.

I submitted work, and it was rejected. I went to open mics, where I sat through the horrors of other people’s work, and the horrors of reading my own. I went to writers’ conferences, those soul-sucking, money-sucking ventures where sci-fi poetry dudes in tweed with elbow patches flirted awkwardly, and my goody satchel contained a copy of Writers Digest, an emery board, a couple of free pens and a Visa application (kind of like the first day of college, minus the condom). I sent out work, and some of it was accepted. More and more, as I went on. My rejections were better, and then my acceptances were easier, and then I learned to target my subs, and my ratio increased.

So I was published.

Then I wrote a novel. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. And I sent it out. I gave up. I got a call, I got some letters, and I sent it out some more, and then I shelved it. I got divorced. I went back to newspaper work to earn a living, and then had the opportunity to start an indie newspaper with some smart people. Within two years, they wanted to expand the publishing business, and to print a novel. I showed mine, and they agreed it was a good start for the company. It was published.

You’ve never heard of it, so you know how that went.

But I was published. Right? And I was working as a writer, and I was writing, so I was being a writer. Right?

Guess how old I was? 40.

And over the next few years, I pushed that novel around, I taught some classes, I found a new project, I spewed out a couple more projects, including indie publishing my women’s history project, and working in a women’s publishing consortium. And this thing called social media popped up on the screen, and indie publishing was no longer a filthy abomination, and I’m still writing every day, and I don’t wear Birkenstocks and my hair is not quite gray yet.

On my self-made book tour for the Doris Diaries last fall, one of the book stores dismissed me, saying, “She’s not Stephen King.” A reviewer dissed the books and the project, because “It’s not like Anne Frank’s diary.” I had readings that went awry and events where the mic or the computer or the slide show didn’t work. I tore out the entire back of my vintage dress just getting out of my chair at a reading in my hometown.

Still no red carpet. I rode in the 4th of July parade last year dressed as Doris. Dorky? Yes. My idea of fame and fortune? Not exactly. But what the hell?

At some point along the way, I realized that I couldn’t be precocious because although back then I had the will, and a lot of the skill, I didn’t have the experiences, the treasure trove of life to explore. I hadn’t have the goods. No material. Somewhere, later, I realized that all of those struggling months and years were my apprenticeship. And I mine that shit on an almost-daily basis now.

About three years ago I stopped using the words “submit,” “acceptance” and “rejection” with regard to my writing work. I stopped giving the power of my worth as a writer to people who might or might not like it. Now I send out my work, and they like it or they don’t. It serves their needs or it does not. My work is good. I wouldn’t have lasted this long in newspaper, which is about as fiery a crucible as you’ll find for a young writer, with deadlines and editors who won’t worry about crushing your little feelings to get the story right. Editors who kicked my ass about word choice, grammar, punctuation and spelling eons ago. Before Spellcheck. Before Autocorrect was a thing.

So here I am. Not as successful as you, and way more successful than you’ll ever be. I’m somewhere in the middle, making a living at it. I’m writing what I want, sending it to people who will probably like it, helping others who ask for advice or “new eyes” on their work. I mentor those who ask for it. I share resources. I support my sister and brother writers. I keep working at it. I might get “there,” wherever the hell that mystical place is, someday. I might even have a gray fricking ponytail.

It doesn’t matter as much, knowing, as I do, that at least I’m on my way.

Oodles of goodness

Catching up here at blog-central with some announcements and news and previews and hints at future nonsense…

1) The Doris Diaries is doing beautifully. So beautifully that we won two awards in the past week. In the past day, actually. Yesterday, Monday, May 6, I got news from two separate book contests that I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do did very well. Not quite the winner, but close. Which is better than the proverbial poke in the eye, no? The San Francisco Book Festival gave IGSLTD an honorable mention in Biography! And I also received this email: “Your book has been named a Finalist in the Memoir category of the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.” 

2. So far so good! I also had a fantabulous review of IGSLTD posted yesterday by a San Francisco writer on the Broadway Books web site: BWW Reviews: “Party Lines and Party Dresses: A Look at New Work from Julia Park Tracey.” 

3. But that wasn’t enough. My article in Alameda Magazine also just hit the stands, a feature on the Altarena Playhouse, which is just celebrating 75 years of theatrical hooha.

4. What next? IDK… How about the (re)release of Tongues of Angels in a matter of days? Like, Friday? How about that? You’ll see that there’s a giveaway on GoodReads right now through end of the month, and if you click on the link, you can enter for a free copy of TOA. You can order this through your local book store or you can click online and buy it there. Whatever works best for you. The ebook will not be up for another six weeks (it takes longer to format than print, if you can believe that one). I’ll announce that when it’s ready.

There will be an online party, what we call a virtual release party, on Facebook, and I’m also planning a brick-and-mortar, 3D, HD, real-time, face-time party. Otherwise known as a party. The theme? Tarts & Vicars, of course. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you are welcome to attend. Photos will be posted.

That’s what’s new. Exciting times, my friends. Glad to be here.

xx

me