Month: April 2012

Making the Cut: Part 3

Yesterday was the biggest cut, the deepest cut in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. The contest started with 5,000 novels and has been slowly been chopping away for about four months. Yesterday readers from Publisher’s Weekly cut from 250 down to 50 novels and my novel (Six Summers in Paris) made it. It will be another month before the final three are notified, but I will not be stressing too much about that because I am going to bask in the glory of making it this far.

My novel is a strange wandering journey through Paris in the years 1923-1929, and my writing journey has been equally as strange and wandering. It started when I opened an Atlantic Magazine about seven years ago and read an article about art fraud. Next to the article was a little picture of a baseball signed by Vermeer. I thought that was pretty funny. That little picture sparked an idea and a much longer journey than I ever intended on taking. My mind decided that an even more humorous picture would have been a baseball  covered with signatures from the artists living in Paris after WWI.

I thought a funny short story about artists and writers playing baseball would be a good use of my time, little did I realize the size of the rabbit hole I was about to climb into. Sometimes the journey length is better off as a mystery, had I known how long it would take me to get to this point, I probably would have taken up Karate and earned three black belts by now. Instead I began reading books on Paris, and then more books, and then more books until I had become the foremost expert on reading books about Paris.

I then did the dumbest thing ever, I bought some blank calendars and began writing down all the events from 1923-1929 that took place in Paris. What I began to see was a novel, and I foolishly began typing one word at a time into my computer. It took me about six months to get a first draft done. My wife let me celebrate by using all of our air miles for a ticket to Paris. I spent about two weeks wandering around the city looking at locations and thinking.

Once I wasn’t completely embarrassed with my work (at this point I should have been embarrassed) I asked a friend (Barb Batchelor) to read through the novel for me. Barb was kind, supportive and helpful with her advice. I am certain that she really didn’t enjoy reading through it as much as she said she had, but that’s why she is a friend.

I then took a class at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference with Peter Orner. Peter really helped me make another step forward with my manuscript. I did another draft, had more people read the book (Barb, Wayne, Shawn, Eve, Peter, Rob and Joe) and then took their comments into another rewrite. By this time I was feeling better about my novel, but when you write it is hard to really know what will happen next.

This past summer I went to the Writer’s Conference again and took a class with Pam Houston. She was great and if you haven’t read her latest novel you should: Contents May Have Shifted. Pam was the perfect teacher: critical, funny, insightful and direct. I did another semi-edit and then Brian Berg read through my book and gave me one last idea.

The novel, as it stands now, is drastically different and better than the one that Barb had to slog through and pretend to like. So when I made the cut yesterday I was pretty happy, but I know it has been a team effort and I still have a distance to go.

Writing is a wondrous thing. I sit here at my desk plunking away at my keyboard and those words drift out into the world to be read by others, people I know and don’t know. It is a strange tradition that we humans have created. What I really would like though, is to someday walk into a bookstore and see my novel on a shelf, now that would be super cool.

May 24th or 26th is the final cut.

My Favorite Places: The Art Institute, Chicago

Chicago maintains its reputation as a tough, broad-shouldered city by generously consuming unhealthy foods and living near the farmlands of America where, at least once a year, a farmer manages to get his arms pulled off by some machine.The armless farmer then walks five miles to the nearest farmhouse to call for a doctor. He is airlifted to Chicago where his arms are reattached and he is on the evening news for a week saying things like, “I thought about trying to take the cell phone out of my pocket to call, but I didn’t want to get blood on my pants. I wish I had gone with the iPhone 4s, then I could have asked Siri how to cauterised a wound.” It is this stoic, midwestern attitude that dominates the city of Chicago, at least as far as I remember.  I lived there many, many years ago.

I returned to Chicago a couple years ago to see one thing: George Seurat‘s, Le Grand Jatte. No, Le Grand Jatte is not a restaurant that serves bratwurst covered in green relish and onions–although Le Grand Jatte would be a good name for a restaurant or picnic store–it is a painting housed in one of my favorite museums: The Art Institute.

The Art Institute has one of the greatest collections in the WORLD. That’s right, the WORLD. In other words, one of the greatest museums on planet Earth resides in the city of broad shoulders, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and freight handler for the world. If you don’t believe me check this out:

Bam!

Pow!

Smack!

Judo Chop!

Blam!

Kaplooee!

I would have put another picture in this location, but Hopper‘s Nighthawks was on vacation in Boston when I visited.  Instead I will leave a large blank space here to represent my bitterness and anger after I discovered the painting was on loan and I would just have to live with it.

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I spent four hours in the museum. I wish I had set aside a full day because the four hours I had allotted myself was not enough.  I sprinted through the collection and didn’t really have a chance to savor the paintings like the true art connoisseur that I am, and I am not in great shape so four hours of walking fast wore me out.

So if you are visiting Chicago after pulling your arms off, or just on a regular vacation, you owe it to your eyeballs to go to The Art Institute, it is one of my favorite places.

Seattle and Sunshine

There is a common perception that it rains a great deal in Seattle. Does it rain in Seattle? Yes. Does it rain as much as people think it does? No, but if you were to visit Seattle for a week there is a pretty good chance you would get wet at some point.

When I travel and people ask me, “Where are you from?” I always answer, “Seattle.” It simplifies my life. I can’t tell most people I am from Washington, because everyone always assumes that I am speaking of Washington DC. If I say I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, I get a lot of blank looks, so I just cut the chitter-chatter and say I am from Seattle. It isn’t like I am forming life-long friendships so a little white lie isn’t going to hurt.

Last summer I was in City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and an older couple approached me for directions. I don’t know if I looked like I knew where Chinatown was but I noticed they had one of those unfortunate accents that can only be described as a drawl. I asked where they were from and they said, “Tennessee,” rather more proudly than anyone should. (Okay, I have never been to the American South and I know people don’t run around eating possum every night, but I need to keep my preconceived notions about the groin of the Bible Belt.) The folks from Tennessee folks asked where I lived and when I told them Seattle, their first reaction was to comment on how much it rains there. I got a bit defensive and wanted to say, “At least our hillbillies wear shirts,” but instead I explained that it doesn’t rain that much in Seattle and that our sunshine is epic. I also told them I can go a whole year without turning on air conditioning in my house. My comments had the desired effect; living in a place that is beautiful and temperate should be envied.

Summers in the Pacific Northwest are nearly unmatched in the quality of life: Long days, mild temperatures, and sunshine.

This weekend we had a taste of the upcoming summer and no city loves its sunshine like Seattle.

Sunshine brings the pale hoards into the light and on to the city's green spaces.

A picture of tourists taking pictures of the original Starbucks.

North overlooking the Puget Sound.

Is Seattle a great city to visit? Yep. Is it going to rain when you visit? There is about a 70% chance during the winter and a 20% during the summer. If you are afraid of the rain then I suggest you go someplace like Las Vegas where you can stay inside the whole time, but if you love the outdoors and all the beauty of the ocean and mountains Seattle is best city in the world.

My Favorite Places: Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musee de l’Orangerie might be my favorite art museum in the world. Instead of trying to explain why you should go, I will do the lazy thing and drop a couple of pictures into my blog now.

Like Monet? Here's some Monet for you.

Here's some more.

Feeling lightheaded? Grab a seat and enjoy the view.

The museum is spectacular on multiple layers.  The two upstairs rooms have eight Monet paintings surrounding you like covered wagons in a movie starring John Wayne and those rooms are totally awesome.  I don’t mean totally awesome in a 1980’s Jeff Spicoli way, but in a “I can’t believe someone did this” way. I like Monet just like most people, but I am not crazy about Monet. Monet is a lot like Barry Manilow to me: I like his songs, I know his songs, I won’t admit in public that I like his songs but put on Mandy and I’m singing along with Mr. Manilow in a few seconds. But, if given the choice between Mr. Manilow and something edgier, I go with the edgier, and the edgier is downstairs in l’Orangerie.

The personal collection of  Paul Guillaume is hiding in the basement of the museum and I must say that dude had some pretty good taste in paintings. It’s easy to look at his collection today and think that you could have selected the same paintings if given the chance, but come on, let’s all be honest here, he took some chances.

What I like best about Guillaume’s collection is the weirdness of it. Many of these artists were really stretching the idea of beauty. Do I know that from some art class I took or a book I read? No, I am no Art major, I am just a guy who knows what I like, and I like weird paintings.

Exhibit A

Not strange enough for you? Here is my favorite painting in the museum:

The town is melting...

If you don’t like Chaim Soutine you can still find a nice collection of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. I love Soutine and l’Orangerie has the largest collection of his work that I am aware of. I could spend a couple of hours looking at these paintings, but not everyone in my family likes his stuff, my son asked me if Soutine had a physical disability, not the greatest compliment for a painter unless you are Chuck Close.

The museum is just the right size for a leisurely two-hour visit without having to feel rushed. The line to get into the museum can get a bit long so I suggest showing up just before it opens so you can maximize your time. So, if you are visiting Paris, live in Paris, passing through Paris, visit the l’Orangerie it is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: The Gardens of Versailles

The Palace at Versailles is on several lists of things you should see before you die. Unfortunately places that end up on everyone’s bucket-list are pretty crowded (people take these bucket-lists seriously.)

I have been to the Palace at Versailles a couple of times: once in a driving rain storm which should have sent everyone home, and once during a lovely warm day which should have sent everyone outside to the gardens, but the problem with Versailles is that almost everyone who arrives there is trapped by the clock and their paid tour. Groups of human blobs clog every hallway, vista, and room. The most annoying groups follow a tour guide who holds up a little flag so his flock of sheep don’t get lost. These groups are under the impression that they are descendants of Louis XVI and therefore can take up 80% of the space where ever they go.

The a typical picture from inside the Palace.

The crowds might be frustrating but it is worth the trip to see the Palace in all its crowded splendor. My suggestion is to make your trip to the Palace secondary and spend your time in the gardens.

For me going to gardens usually ranks right up there with going to a fabric store, but the gardens at Versailles are different. First of all, if you plan your trip correctly you don’t have to pay to see the gardens. The gardens behind the Palace are open to the public (except on Sunday when they have a music and fountain show) and if you are bold enough you can walk up to the palace and take a peek inside if you are dying to see what crowds of people look like.

The gardens themselves are lovely, that’s right, I said “lovely.” (I worked in a cemetery for a couple of summers and I know how hard it is to tame wild hedges and keep things looking nice.) The best part about the gardens is that they are almost free of people.

Apollo's Fountain in the garden at Versailles.

Since most people are on a tight timeline, many of them never make it down to the garden area, so while the rest of the traveling world is trapped in the Hall of Mirrors for half an hour , you can be strolling through the gardens getting lost.

Bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes, because the gardens are large.

Maps of the gardens are available for people who don't want to get lost.

Amphitheater hidden away from the public by some tall hedges.

So if you are thinking of going to Versailles, my suggestion is to save yourself a couple of Euros and spend the day in the garden. Pick up picnic supplies in the center of town (they have a farmer’s market most days), grab a bottle or two of wine and sit down by the fake lake and enjoy life like a King/Queen. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you spend the majority of your time in the gardens, it is one of my favorite places.

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