Friday, December 31, 2010

Gratitude in Gran's Garden

I'm staying with my sister, Tessa, in Texas for a while. After my mom passed away in 2003, Tessa began creating an outdoor space she's called Gran's Garden (my niece and nephew called my mom Gran). It's beautifully and magically overgrown with bushes and trees; stone cherubs peek out from beneath the groundcover; a rusty metal archway teems with vines; a flagstone area beckons visitors to sit and meditate.

It's one of the most peaceful and spiritual places I've ever been. I love that I can end the year in such a place. I was standing in the garden yesterday, eyes closed. Dozens of birds were flitting about from limb to limb. All I could hear was the fluttering of their wings.

And I said "Thank you" aloud. To whom? I don't know. Spirit. The Universe. Mom. Doesn't matter. The moment was about gratitute. Not longing, not expectation.

2010 has been an amazing year. Did I get an agent or sell my book? Nope. Doesn't matter.
  • I finished my first novel. I revised it and revised it again. It's being read by agents. I have to trust the process is out of my control now.

  • I found a critique partner via a former work colleague. She's 2000 miles away but I feel her support as if she's in the room with me, sharing a cup of coffee. Her insights help me to be a better writer.

  • I wasn't accepted into the Hedgebrook writers-in-residence program, but out of 800-plus applications, I made it to the 80 finalists. That's a compliment I don't want to lose by being upset with the final outcome.

  • I have an amazing spouse, amazing family and amazing friends.

  • I have shelter, food, health, financial security when there is such poverty and want in the world.
My sister tells me I don't need a physical space to feel this way...that I can carry Gran's Garden in my heart. How true.
Do you have a space you go to for reflection?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yes, Virginia, You CAN Wait for Santa Claus

When I was a kid, waiting for Santa seemed an interminable space where day-to-day life was put on hold. “I can’t wait! I can’t wait!” became my daily (internal) mantra.

I’m not waiting for Santa this year but I’ve put myself in a similar tizzy waiting in other ways.
  • One agent who has my full manuscript tweeted that she is going to read all submissions and reply to authors by the end of the year.

  • Three other agents have had my manuscript for weeks/months and I’m still awaiting word on those.

  • By the end of December, I’ll be notified whether I was accepted for a prestigious writing residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in 2011.

Living more in the present has been a lifelong struggle. When I put this much effort into waiting, I become a permanent resident of limbo. It’s not a good way to live. My stomach twists, I stress-eat, I obsess about things completely out of my control.

And if/when I don’t get what I’m waiting for, I’ll feel letdown – both because I didn’t get that agent/residency/big break, but also because I can’t get back these days that I’ve wasted not living presently, joyfully and gratefully.

Sounds like I’ve begun my New Year’s resolution list early.

Any resolutions emerging for you yet?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Gift of Voice

The best Christmas present I received this year was from a complete stranger: an author who put an excerpt of my book in front of 13 literary agents, editors, published and unpublished authors. (see previous post)

While I received some great input on how to improve the opening of the novel, the most important thing I received was affirmation of my writing voice. When I’d completed the novel last May, I knew I’d nailed Cissy’s voice. She spoke to me more clearly than any other character I’ve created. There was no way I could have resisted that voice. It was the reason I dropped two other novels in progress and jumped into her story.

The reviewers who read a snippet of my book heard Cissy, too, and for that I am incredibly thankful. Here are just a few of the comments. While these make me feel great, I have Cissy to thank for allowing me to tell her story.

“Hello voice! I’m right inside her head.”

“The voice here is fantastic- you've nailed it!"


“While I don't gravitate toward books with darker themes- there are some great ones out there (The Color Purple, The Lovely Bones). It was the voice that captured me in both of those and made me want to read the dark plots. Again, magnificent voice! And that's often the hardest part!”

“I actually really enjoyed this first bit of your story. I was drawn right in to her head. Her voice was great. Very believable. From the log line I got that the story is not actually about the incest (which, yes, is really tough), but rather about the adventure and relationship with her grandmother that brings healing to her life. That is what I found myself eager to read about.”

“As for the excerpt, the voice is fantastic and I have absolutely no problem with it being backstory because it gets right to the point instead of being irritatingly coy. The last paragraph is enough conflict to hook me (if I weren't already hooked by that amazing voice).”

“Totally hooked. Beautiful voice, unusual setup of what might be a cliched problem. This character's got spunk, and I'd be interested to read how she handles the aftereffects of her father's abuse and her own actions to stop it.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Selflessness and Rejection

This is the “speechless” edition of The Writing Life.

1. The Good Speechless
I follow the blogs and tweets of several literary agents and writers. I’m utterly dumbfounded by the generosity of some to help up-and-coming writers. AuthoressAnon, a writer trying to get published herself, actually hosts contests where agents agree to critique other writers’ work. Yeah, that’s right. Everyone’s work but her own. I recently got accepted into one of the contests called the Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction. On December 4, a snippet of my book will be posted with those of 39 other writers. Thirteen agents (and the public) will then give feedback on said snippets. Priceless!

Then, earlier in the week the Knight Literary Agency hosted a similar contest in hopes of finding a new client by Christmas. More than 180 writers sent in three pages of their manuscripts. Deidre Knight and her fellow agents chose 50 writers to send in three chapters. Later, the field will be whittled down until they find an author worth representing. I didn’t make the cut but I’m heartened to see busy publishing professionals adding extra work to their schedules just to offer another opportunity for writers to get a leg in the door.

2. The Bad Speechless
In both these contests (and on Twitter) I read of instances of disgruntled writers acting out, sending negative rebuttals and insults when rejected. Not only is this rude, it’s dumb. So dumb. The publishing industry is small and word spreads fast. Rejection is part of publishing. Move on and improve your work.

Since most of my blog readers are NOT writers, here are my general thoughts on 1 and 2 above.
  • Everywhere and everyday, people do thoughtful, selfless things. We only have take notice – and hopefully say thank you. Maybe we might try being selfless!
  • We all tend to take things too personally: not getting asked on a second date, getting a grumpy sales person, having our food order come out incorrect. The list goes on and on. Let’s take some advice from the Four Agreements: don’t take things personally, be impeccable with your word, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. The world is a happier place for all of us when we take this advice.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Giving Thanks for Blessings: Big and Offbeat

Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of A Writing Life. I noticed that since moving to Durango I’m much more aware of the blessings in my life. For one, I look at the valley and mountains EVERY DAY and am friggin’ elated that we moved here in 2003. Two, Durango is a very outdoorsy town so I’m more aware of my health – and am thankful my legs and lungs are able to move me about this gorgeous, awe-inspiring world.

These are BIG things I’m thankful for – but there are so many things I forget to give thanks for – but I will now.
  • I am expert at wrapping gifts and making bows.
  • I can iron men’s shirts so that they look they came from the drycleaners.
  • I never get insomnia.

At this risk of sounding like your mother at the Thanksgiving table, urging you to name one thing you’re thankful for… Share something weird or offbeat you’re thankful for that you sometimes forget about.

  • Are you a great dancer?
  • Do you tell jokes well?
  • Type 100 words or more a minute?
  • Do you know how to tie sailors' knots?
Have a great week and remember to wear those elastic pants on Thursday.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Take Anything, but Not My Blankie!

My niece had a cuddly toy bear she named Chubby. It was one of those soft toys made out of terry cloth. After years of loving, Chubby was worse for the wear. My sister, an excellent seamstress, fashioned a new body out of a cotton, waffle-weave baby blanket. When that “body” wore out, she sewed still another body and then another body until the baby blanket was no more.

Today, my niece is 18 and away at college, but Chubby is still stationed on her childhood bed back at home. There’s no other way to put this: Chubby is disgusting. He’s dirty, his stuffing is falling out, there’s very little left of him. But my niece will not part with him.

What is it about humans that makes us cling to things that are comforting even when it *might* be time to give them up? An old sweatshirt from college, a chipped coffee mug, our VHS tapes?

We do this with our actions and emotions as well. For those of you familiar with astrology, you might remember that the Moon’s South Node in your chart represents habit patterns from childhood or from past lives; those experiences and qualities that come naturally to us, that are over-developed, and that we tend to fall back on. The North Node represents the kinds of experiences that we must work to develop in order to work with our karma, and to grow spiritually. If we over-emphasize and fall back on the qualities of our South Node, at the expense of developing our North Node, we may have a difficult time feeling personally successful.

I have quite a few “safety blankets” that I cling to as desperately as my niece clings to Chubby. Lately however, I find myself gravitating more and more toward my North Node, the life I truly want to lead – even if the transition is scary and unknown.

Thoughts? What’s your North Node calling you to be?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Living Your Life Awake

Before moving to Durango, I was a working zombie. Each day melded into the next; routine pushed me along like an airport’s moving sidewalk. Every decision felt as if it had been made a thousand times before: wake, feed cat, exercise, shower, dress, eat, pack lunch, commute, work, commute, let cat outside, eat, watch TV, sleep, repeat. Memories of my childhood and youth in Granger, TX, and of my adult life in Houston, TX, and then Silver Spring, MD, remain muted. There’s no vibrancy or crispness to the details. That’s because I was asleep for all those years.

Living *awake* is hard work but worth it. Staying present means appreciating the subtleties that make each day meaningful.

I spent the last week in Texas with family. I made a conscious effort to soak in my environment, to really be in the moment. Some things I recall:

  • The pungent scent of burning incense at my uncle’s funeral, a powerful reminder of the daily masses I attended as a child.
  • A rainbow of plain tee shirts (71 of them) hung neatly in my brother’s closet.
  • The glorious first bite of the homemade Czech kolaches that my sister and I baked – for the first time – and our squeals of delight and high-fives that we’d succeeded.
  • The downy-soft hug of an elderly aunt I hadn’t seen in years.
  • The strange and uncomfortable nostalgia driving the pot-holed streets of my small hometown – recognizing some houses and landmarks, and others not at all.

Perhaps all the rich details I noticed will find their way into a novel or short story. At least these memories are crystal clear because of choice; because I remained awake rather than shutting down.

Are you present in your world? Do you have to work at it?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time Has Come Today

Transitions have been on my mind lately. The onset of fall color and cooler temps is one reason. Another is that a dear uncle, almost 90, is ready to die but his body hangs on. Still another reason is that I celebrate my 45th birthday later this week.

These transitions remind me that much is out of our control including aging and death. This realization doesn’t make me sad. I’m comforted by the things I can control. Such as:
  • How I use (or waste) my talents while on this earth.
  • How I appreciate (or ignore) the universe’s plan for me.
  • How I nurture (or harm) my body and spirit.
  • How I treat (or mistreat) others.

My new career path (writing fiction) is a daily lesson in letting go of control. I cannot force an agent to read my manuscript more quickly or to offer representation. I cannot will a publisher to be excited enough to make an offer. I cannot guarantee that readers will buy my book.

I *can* carve out time to write and make it a priority. I can do my best every day, learn what I can, improve my craft, and enjoy the process instead of lapsing into “wait until” thinking.

What things have you tried to control in the past and have you found ways to release that control?

Here's a song to get you thinking: Time Has Come Today by The Chambers Brothers and covered by the Ramones.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oh Yeah, That Bird-in-Hand Thing

Yikes. There goes my goal of writing a blog post weekly. I'm going to blame my apathy on my sugar detox which has left me cranky, tired and demotivated. (Oh, my day job does that to me, too. Hmmm... is there a detox for that?)

I'm feeling sort of poopy about writing right now. (I know, same old story!) At least there are waves of productivity to counteract the blue periods of self-doubt.

A vice president at a major publishing house gave me phenomenal feedback on my writing during the Taos Writers' Conference this past July. She asked what else I was working on and I described "23 Conversations before My Funeral," a manuscript I've started and stopped a hundred times. She LOVED the idea and offered to review the first 100 pages when I got that far. She gave me her personal email address. Bazinga!

So, what did I do? I jumped into writing on my young adult novel "Hannah's Half" and didn't touch the manuscript that interested her.

My husband (Logical Science Man) reminded me recently that the VP is actually a bird in the hand. He wondered why I wasn't jumping all over "23 Conversations." I don't know why. I'm not "feeling" it? It's a tough story with tough themes? Crap. I don't have the answer. But I know he's right. And so, I started back at it again this weekend.

Have you ever put off something you knew was in your best interest because the next steps were hard or ambiguous? How did you re-motivate yourself to do what you knew was best for your personal life or career?

ADDENDUM: Holy sychronicities! I did a search for the bird photo for this post and downloaded the one above. Then, I just saw the page it came from: an article on procrastination! Check out this quote:

Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Exposing Your Guts and Trusting You Won't Get Kicked There

I recently reconnected with a woman (Allison) I used to know back when we were both nonprofit executive directors. I had no idea she’d written one book and had great ideas for two others. I asked if she wanted to be part of a writers’ group and she hesitated at first.

Seeking support can be scary because we’re putting ourselves out there, in the big wide world where criticisms can feel harsh even when given with the utmost care and respect. She’s not alone in her hesitancy. One of the women in my writers’ critique group is going through a crisis of confidence – and almost wanted to give up writing. And she’s written three books!

Writers (and other creatives) can lead isolated existences. We can fall into troughs of self-doubt and struggle to reach those creative heights that used to bring us such joy.

Allison finally gave in and is ready for a writers’ group and to “expose her guts.” She wrote: The joy of writing is one thing; the act of being an author is another.

How right she is! Being an author is very different than writing. It entails seeking constructive criticism, refining our craft, growing as writers, understanding the publishing industry, slogging through writing even when we feel like never writing again.

The great thing is we don’t have to do it alone. All it takes is trusting that the women in your circle have the same fears and dreams you have -- and that they won't kick you in your exposed gut.

Have you found the support of others important in your life?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can Dreaming Be Harmful to Your Mental Health?

A recent and controversial blog post by literary agent Nathan Bransford cautions writers about letting their big dreams turn into expectations that are impossible to reach. He wrote: After dreams are eroded by reality, there’s a hollow place where those dreams used to reside. It doesn't feel worth it anymore, even if you've achieved modest success that you should be extremely proud of, and would have made you happy if your expectations were in check.

While most comments supported his theory, many people disagreed. One woman posted:
Those dreams that get you through should be treated as little prayers, hopes for the future. Write with the intent that you will be famous or on Oprah’s couch. That intent acts as a goal you aspire to reach. I'm a big believer in "shoot for the stars, if you hit the moon it's still way farther than the couch in a suburb surrounded by Stepford wives."

I like to dream big. Do I dream of writing a book that Oprah puts on her favorites’ list? No. But I do write out my dreams and post them on my “intentions” bulletin board. I ask the Universe to support my dreams and aspirations. And I believe we are all worthy of success.

I do understand that Bransford is describing a point where dreams morph into unrealistic expectation. And yes, that can be harmful. But I say let’s err on the side of dreaming. It’s a lot more healthy than setting your sights lower than necessary.

I'll leave you with three quotes on expectation to ponder. What are your thoughts about dreaming big or setting high expectations for yourself?

  • Expectation is the root of all heartache. -- Shakespeare
  • High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation. --Charles Kettering
  • We must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectation. --Ivan Illich

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Not YA?

The YA (young adult) book market is thriving. In fact, some literary agents are only accepting YA manuscripts. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer are two publishing phenomena that drive the rush to find YA authors and their potential blockbusters.

Teens and young adults are savvy buyers and want literature written for them about the issues important to them. This means that authors must know how to talk (write) and behave like teenagers. It also entails skillfully addressing once-taboo subjects like sex, drugs and homosexuality because those are part of the teenage experience.

When I was a teenager (a hundred years ago), I read what was assigned for English class (books like Lord of the Flies and 1984) but not much else.

  • What books did you read as a teenager and were they written specifically for a younger market?
  • As an adult, do you read young adult novels? Why?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Do You Get Mileage Points for Flying by the Seat of Your Pants?

August seemed to go out like a deflated balloon. I haven’t had a lot of energy the past week for writing, or much else for that matter. I’m glad the summer is over – too much travel away from my beloved Durango. I’m hoping the fall brings with it some renewed energy and a chance to nest during my favorite season of the year in Colorado.

Regarding the writing life, the second book is coming along although not as quickly as I had hoped. To keep me on track during the writing of the first book, I used a storyboard (see photo) to mark progress and to outline. I started a similar storyboard for the second novel and am doing much more outlining of plot on this book.

My question to you is whether you consider yourself a planner (outliner, list-maker) or more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type person. Or are you a little of both depending on whether it’s your personal or work life? I definitely fall into the category of planner/list-maker but hope to be more of the 'fly-by' type with some practice.

Off to make my list of favorite fall activities. Notice I didn’t write ‘chores.’

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Death of Subtlety in Books and Film

I’m a big fan of old black and white movies, particularly those starring Kathryn Hepburn. The other night I stayed up watching “Without Love,” a comedy with Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I knew that they’d end up together in the end, but I wanted to SEE it! At 11:30 p.m., I started to regret staying up so late… then, at last, witty, rapid-fire dialogue about how they’d fallen for each other. The finale: they hug. Hug? Where’s the passionate kiss? Well, there’s the subtlety in these old films. “Philadelphia Story” with Hepburn and Cary Grant is the same way. There’s innuendo and some titillation but it’s up to the viewers to use their imaginations rather than have the directors include explicit love scenes.

As a writer, I faced a similar dilemma recently. My current protagonist, an 18-year-old psychic/medium starts seeing the ghost of a teen boy who’d been killed in a tragic car accident. She learns that she and this guy have shared numerous lifetimes together – including lives as adults who’ve had sexual relationships. While they don’t remember exact details of those lives, they know they’ve ‘done the deed,’ so to speak. They consider trying to have a sexual relationship as human and ghost. I deliberately wrote these scenes without being in-your-face explicit.

People knock Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight trilogy for its archaic, prudish treatment of the two main protagonists who wait to have sex. In the last movie, “Eclipse,” there’s a scene in Edward’s bedroom where they consider having sex. It’s sexier than many of the films I’ve seen with outright coitus and full nudity. “Cold Mountain” is another great example of showing an intensely passionate relationship between two people without looking between the sheets.

I believe we’ve lost subtlety in describing passion, suspense and horror. Books and films beat us over the head until we no longer feel the building emotion.

Do you agree or disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Six Words -- The Sum of Me

I’m borrowing an idea from one of my favorite agent blogs. On August 22, Rachelle Gardner asked her readers to submit memoirs of six words. Yes, that’s correct. Six words. She’s received a whopping 212 responses and they keep coming in.

At first glance you’d think the assignment was next to impossible. We’re known for using lots of words to describe who we are, what we feel, where we've been, where we're going. The genius of this exercise is in its simplicity. Once you strip away all the garbage (i.e., memories, hurts, fears, regrets), you’re faced with the core essence of who you are. You may come up with a few different six-word combinations – and that’s okay. Keep going back to the one that resonates.

Please post your six-word memoir here. It’s a great exercise to get you thinking about what’s important and true in your life. Plus I'd love to get to know you in this meaningful way.

Here’s mine: Workaholic saved by mountains and writing.

If you're curious, check out Rachelle's blog and the many memoirs posted there.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When Comfortable Doesn't Necessarily Mean Happy

On a recent visit to Texas, I bought an inspirational magnet at my sister’s gift shop. It reads: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I intended to give the magnet as a gift but kept if for myself instead.

My friend, Alison, posted the same quote today on Facebook, asking friends to comment on what the statement means for them. Which got me thinking…

Despite my well-laid plans for a comfortable life (which I described as no surprises, no ups, no downs), I have consistently been faced with a flashing sign warning me: Scary stuff ahead! Leave comfort zone at your own risk! And yet, I kept going despite the fear and discomfort.
  • I grew up in a town of 1,200 people yet picked a university of 48,000 to attend.

  • My husband and I gave up a house, our cars and our careers and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to work for the UN.

  • A second time, we gave up a house and careers (and Washington, DC salaries) to move to Durango, CO, where we now feel richer than we have at any point in our lives. And it has nothing to do with money.

  • In July 2009, I asked my employer if I could work part time so I could devote time to writing fiction and developing a career as a novelist. And today, I’m working on novels number two and three, and pitching finished novel number one to literary agents.

So, dear friends, what comfort zone have YOU left and was it worth it?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

And the Little Writer Went Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

And today, a blog edition on all things social media.

CellStories
My short story, Coffee with Satan, was the featured piece on CellStories today. This nifty service brings a different short story to your mobile device daily. I love the idea of writing getting out there in new and interesting ways. Cracking into the literary magazine market can be tough and demoralizing. Kudos to Paul Davis at >isgreaterthan.net for this ingenious way to share great writing.

WriteOnCon
This week, I attended an online writers’ conference that was COMPLETELY FREE. Sessions have been live chats, guest blog posts, and vblogs. Although the conference is targeted to the young adult/children’s book market, the concept is what’s truly brilliant. Literary agents and authors volunteered their time to give great advice to writers in a solely online environment. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Time, WriteOnCon has been chocked full of good information. You don’t have to watch or read live because everything is archived. In fact, that’s how I’ve attended – during lunch and after hours. If you have an interest in writing for the YA or children’s market – or just want general advice on the publishing industry, check it out.

And the Dinosaur Goes the Way of...the Dinosaurs
I think I’ve bored myself (and most of you) by my longstanding claims of being a social media dinosaur. The fact that I use Facebook, attend online conferences, read agent blogs faithfully, and now follow multiple agents and authors on Twitter proves me to be a hypocrite. I use social media for my writing career and I’m fascinated by how much fantastic information I’ve been able to glean from these platforms.

In what ways have you used social media or are you still resisting the leap into that realm?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sometimes Even Iced Tea Won't Cut It

In true broken-record fashion, I found myself lacking motivation to write this week. Instead, I looked up quotes about motivation on the Internet. Not quite what I needed to actually motivate myself to SIT AT THE DAMN COMPUTER AND WRITE.

Next, I decided to buy myself a $1 iced tea from McDonald’s as a treat when I didn't have a reason to reward myself.

I *almost* sat down to watch the special features on the “New Moon” DVD for the hundredth time (go Team Edward) when I finally guilted myself into opening my laptop. For a couple of hours, I revised a short story from the Taos Writers’ conference (incorporating workshop participants’ critiques). Then, I rewrote a chapter on my second (actually first) novel, “23 Conversations before a Funeral.”

Tomorrow is Friday, which means WRITING DAY. Just the little bit of writing and revising I did today jumpstarted me. I don’t think I’ll even need my iced tea fix but I’m not making any rash judgments.

What’s your favorite way to procrastinate?

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Butcher, A Baker, A Candlestick Maker?

I was recently in Rockville, MD, for some face-time with my employers and co-workers. All satellite employees come in for a week of team-building, meetings and the company picnic. Unable to take my lack of enthusiasm any longer, my dear friend, Arlene, told me to buck up and I tried my best.

One of the team-building exercises entailed sitting with a co-worker for 10 minutes and talking about our lives outside of work. (We switched off three times.) I faced a long-standing dilemma: do I reveal I’m a writer and just finished a book, or do I pick something else out of my life to share? I went the authentic route. The absolute biggest thing in my life now is my writing and I said so. My co-workers were genuinely interested and supportive.

I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about revealing this part of my life because I haven’t published and I have no idea if/when that will happen. But I’m a writer NOW, each and every day. It’s what I do and who I am.

The exercise also opened my mind to who my co-workers are beyond their roles at Goodwill. An expert quilter, a weekend sailor, a baker. It’s taken me 20 years to recognize that our work doesn’t define us completely.

How do you define yourself? Has it been a struggle to share your deepest passions with others?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Taos Day 5&6: Wine and Espresso Chocolate to End the Week

What an intense week. Loved the discourse. Loved the writing exercises. While I feel the Taos Summer Writers' Conference was a good investment of my time and money, I'm feeling a little deflated tonight. In class today, it became really apparent what a division there is between writers of 'literary fiction' and commercial or mainstream fiction. I felt the instructor and some of the group today were acting a little elitist, as if popular, best-selling books are drivel.

I'm caught between worlds -- my writing style isn't exactly literary and it's not genre (like crime, mystery or romance). I guess I will just be true to my voice and the stories that demand to be told. Despite how exhausted I am, I am excited to jump back into the novel "23 Conversations Before a Funeral," to revise the short story that was workshopped here and keep doing writing exercises (which forces me to write without self-editing).

Now that I'm through with critiquing papers and completing writing assignments for class, I can truly enjoy a glass or two of wine and some espresso chocolate. Back to the real world tomorrow. Next week in DC-metro area for work when I just really want my own bed!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Background Checks: But I Walked Those Half Marathons!

I read an interesting item on publishers doing background checks on authors to ensure they’re not taking a chance on some crazy whack. When I searched my name on Google I had some expected results and some that surprised me.

EXPECTED

  • Links associated with my work as writer/editor at Goodwill Industries International, the
  • American Nurses Association, or the UN/World Health Organization.
  • Links about me being the executive director at the Women’s Resource Center.
  • My blog, The Writing Life.
  • Me being a party in a lawsuit to expand rights of independent political candidates to gain ballot access.

UNEXPECTED

  • Random Tweet that I was going out to get an iced tea.
  • That I was crowned Miss SPJST in 1982. Long story.
  • My results in three half marathons. Which are pathetic and don’t explain that I WALKED.
  • My review of a cake recipe (4 forks) on epicurious.com

The Twitter thing has me worried, especially since it came up pretty high in the search results. It just seems dumb. Overall, I’m OK with a publisher reading everything that was posted about me (at least in the first 22 pages of results). Can you say the same thing? If you’re under 20, are you concerned that your random Tweets will reflect who you are to the online world?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Taos Day 4: Are you a Simon or an Ellen?

Today's assignment was to write a 26-sentence story, each sentence beginning with a different letter of the alphabet (in order), one sentence had to be one word, one sentence had to be 1oo words, and you could substitute a letter for x or z. Lots of fun. So much fun I convinced my writer nephew to do the same. Can't wait to share stories.

Class today, however, was a little uncomfortable. The writer who probably needed the most tender treatment seemed to get it from all sides. Several writers just seemed too brusque, too flip, too off-handed in their criticisms. But the scenario presents an interesting question. Do you withhold criticism because you think the writer can't handle it emotionally? Isn't that a disservice? I guess it's all in the delivery. Do you take a Simon Cowell or an Ellen Degeneres approach? I erred on the side of Ellen today.

Have you ever had to give tough feedback to someone? What was your approach?

Taos Day 3: Affirmation of My Path

And it was a very good day...
Had a short story workshopped by my 10 classmates and our instructor, author Pam Houston. Such great feedback -- they got the subtleties I intended, the emotion beneath the surface. What more could a writer ask for.

Well, now that you mention it. How about a fantastic consultation with a VP at William Morrow Publishers?! Yes, in the same day! She began her critique with: "I have no doubt that you'll be published." She suggested that "This Side of Crazy" may not be the book I publish first, meaning it might be a tougher sell because of subject matter and a 16-year-old narrator. She LOVED the idea of the other book I've worked on, "23 Conversations before My Funeral." Both my friend Katrina and sister Tessa said more than a year ago they thought that was the book to go with -- well, it took me a circuitous path to get back to it but I will.

Heard and noted at the conference:
  • "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it." -- Pablo Picasso
  • "In 1910, we stopped reading for plot and starting reading for characters." --author Pam Houston
I don't necessarily agree with the second quote. What are your thoughts? Is it a difference between literary and mainstream fiction?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taos Day 2: Locking the Analytical Bitch in the Closet

Two big takeaways from our first morning with author Pam Houston:

First, she talked about her process. She says she’s the opposite of an outliner. In the beginning, when she’s getting the raw stuff on paper, the writing is associative, not logical. Pam says this is the time to shut up the analytical bitch who just wants to organize a ‘story’ rather than capture the ‘glimmer’ moments. These moments are potent, resonating ticklers that may become part of something larger. For her, the longer she stays in the ‘not knowing,’ the better. Don’t over-determine, don’t over-direct. So many of us do just that with our writing. We want to know the beginning sentence or who does what to whom and how to get there. Here are three questions she never allows herself to ask when writing:
  • What does it mean?
  • Where is it going?
  • How does it end?

I didn’t outline my novel. Several sections wrote themselves as I witnessed twists in the storyline I couldn't have dreamt up in the beginning. Some authors like my favorite author, John Irving, outline. Irving says he always knows the last sentence in the book first. Loved the group’s discussion on process. We’re all so different.

Second, Pam admits to failures of confidence where she goes days, weeks or months without writing. What? She’s an established, successful author. Most of us who are not figure that the pros have figured out the confidence issue; that their ‘process’ involves some way to keep writing the good stuff, the publishable stuff.

Well, she has figured it out. Start writing the unedited glimmer moments, the stuff that sticks out and begs to be written down. When the analytical bitch jumps in to edit, move onto the next glimmer moment. Keep going. One day it you will have the raw material for that story or novel or essay and can begin moving around those bits and pieces and creating again.

Now, I have a writing assignment and manuscripts to read for our critique tomorrow. Good day from Taos.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Taos Day 1: Aromatic Rain, 'White Heat' Writing and the Cultural Value of Poetry

I'm at the Taos Summer Writers' Conference until Saturday. The four-hour drive to Taos not so bad considering the incredible scenery. At one point, I could smell a rainstorm for a mile before drops starting hitting the car.

At the welcome dinner we were seated with the writers who will be in the same workshops for the week. My workshop is advanced short fiction led by Pam Houston, who also ate with us at our table. Nice ice breaker before our class begins tomorrow morning.

The keynote reading was by Cristina Garcia, author of Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters, Monkey Hunting and The Lady Matador's Hotel. Such rich, vivid imagery in her complex tales that take place around the world but all have a Cuban thread. I asked what type of research she conducts for books set in other countries like China, Iran and Mexico. I received the most unexpected and intriguing answer: she reads poetry from those countries (from the specific time period) because she says the poets capture the culture and essence of the people so much better than history books.

When someone asked about her process, she said that only a small fraction of the time is the writing the "white heat" periods where the passage writes itself, almost perfect in form. The rest of the time is adding detail and layers; the document alive and changing.

I'm fortunate that I've had those "white heat" periods. Garcia says the trick is capturing the same beauty and perfection of those passages in the rest of the book.

More from Taos tomorrow.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Just a Boring Saturday Killing Dogs


Last September I blogged about a book called "What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers." One exercise asked the writer to kill a dog. The thought being if an actor can portray a serial killer with realism, writers must be able to write about things they have never done and may never do -- rob a bank, rule a country, kill a dog.

My nephew, Hunter, also a writer, is living with us this summer. He and I kind of moped around most of the day, not really wanting to do anything but not wanting to sit around either. We both knew we should be reading or writing but hey, sometimes it's hard to be motivated on a lazy Saturday.
When he suggested we try an exercise from the "What If?" book, I thought it'd be fun to do a timed writing prompt with him. He chose the 'kill the dog' exercise. The pressure of a 30-minute exercise really jumpstarted my creativity and motivation to write. I was pleasantly surprised by the resulting short story. (I killed two pitt bulls with rat poison pressed into a raw rump roast. Hunter killed a jack russell terrier by wrapping its legs in electrical tape and then backing up over it with a car. You really need to read the full stories.)

I'm looking forward to more writing exercises this week at the Taos Writers' Conference.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Reading, Writing and Smiling at Hamsters

Miscellanea today because I'm busy and scattered and not feeling any word love.

TAOS, HERE I COME
I’m trying to wrap up some urgent work stuff before I head to the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference next week. My instructor assigned some reading – short stories in an anthology edited by author Joyce Carol Oates. I enjoyed all of assigned stories. One, in particular, is probably one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Ever. Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace drew me in and twisted my insides out. If you read it, let me know your reaction.

BEING ‘PRE-PUBLISHED’
I recently read a blog by a literary agent encouraging would-be writers to savor the time prior to becoming published authors. He included this story about a writer he knows: Before publication, when she sat down to write, she could do whatever she wanted. There were no expectations about what she’d write, no deadlines to write to, and no promotional commitments to take her away from her creative time. She felt that she lost a little something when she became a published writer, and she wished that other authors would stop and enjoy the process.

The blog got both positive and negative comments. The jury’s still out for me. I do enjoy this time because yes, I feel creativity is within my control. I can tell the story I want to tell. Once published, will that be the case? Or will I worry more about what would sell?

I wonder how others feel about major life events and whether they can savor the time before those events: the years we spend in high school or college, the weeks leading up to a wedding, the days spent training for a marathon. Thoughts?

SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT
This has nothing to do with writing but I have to tell the world how freakin’ obsessed I am with the hamsters in the Kia SOUL commercial. I watch the YouTube video at least once a day. Hey, it makes me smile. Shouldn’t we smile at least once daily?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When Safety Becomes Dangerous


My friend Wendi e-mailed me a list of 50 quotes associated with risk taking that she found on BusinessWeek.com. I’ve culled the list to the six that resonate.



  • Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” —Helen Keller

  • “If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.” —Mario Andretti

  • “Don’t be afraid to take a big step. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” —David Lloyd George

  • “Do one thing every day that scares you.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

  • “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” —Goethe

  • “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” —Anais Nin

Of course, risk is one of those words that knots my stomach and closes down my mind instantly. Growing up in chaos created an almost obsessive desire for control and safety in my adult life. So, what do I do? I pursue a risky profession that holds no guarantees and requires big leaps of faith — almost daily. Ha! The universe chuckles at the irony.


Goethe probably put it best in that ‘safety’ is one of life’s dangers. Pursuit of it can close down our spirits to the breathtaking heights we can reach without fear. Safety makes the world very small. It’s a death shroud, shielding us from the wonders of life and living.


There is so much joy in creativity when we put aside the idea that it can be controlled. Has fear of risk kept you from a dream? What help do you need to blossom?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When Preciousness Gets in Your Way

One of the hardest things an author does is let go of something personal – like a title of a book. For many, many months, I’ve stuck to one working title: God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread (and Other Things She Told Me).

The title comes from my favorite chapter in the book. I became so attached to the title, the words became precious and sacrosanct. I think I became attached to its differentness, its cleverness. God and cornbread? God’s a She?

When I thought of changing the title before, I became defensive and sought out opinions that mirrored mine. This doesn’t have anything to do with God being part of the title (although an earlier fear was that someone would think this was a religious book).

The issue is capturing the public’s attention and reflecting the book as a whole, not just one chapter. I perused the New York Times Bestseller Lists for the past several years. The vast majority of titles are two, three or four words.
The Overton Window
The Help
Low-Country Summer
Naamah’s Curse
Fever Dream
The Mermaid Chair
Haunted
Vanishing Acts

This isn’t about wanting a bestseller (but what author doesn’t). This is about having a fighting chance to at least pitch the book and Cissy’s story without having an agent shut down because of the title.

What book titles have attracted you in the past? Do you agree about the brevity in today’s titles?

Monday, June 28, 2010

When Roadrunner's Anvil Hit Mandy's Noggin

I hate traveling.
I hate hotel rooms.
I hate conferences.
I hate conference food (i.e., rubber banquet chicken, too much sugar and caffeine).

So, there. You’re prepared for the state of mind I’m in while writing this blog entry.

When traveling, I usually bring a magazine for the flight. Something light since my laptop already weighs a ton. I decided to bring a flat, little book titled The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The quote on the cover from Esquire: “A vital gem. A kick in the ass.”

I’m still at the 'kick in the ass' part. Wow, holy crap and all that. I read a lot of books about developing your craft as a writer, overcoming self-doubt, following your dreams. This little book trumps them all. It’s an adrenaline shot to your heart and the Roadrunner’s anvil dropped on your noggin.

RESISTANCE will do anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully cajole. By definition, it is self-sabotage.
COMBATTING RESISTANCE (Turning Pro): The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear to do his work. The pro knows that fear can never be overcome.

I am going to buy this book for everyone I know that has erected obstacles to their own success. More than that, I’m going to keep reading this book…over and over and over until I start believing I wrote those words myself.

Now, I need to leave for another rubber chicken banquet. Flight back to Durango tomorrow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Miscellaneous, Caffeine-Induced Thoughts


No one theme for this morning's blog. Just felt like writing. Imagine that!

Could it be that I eat chocolate-covered espresso beans with my DECAF coffee?

1. FINALLY decided to open a Twitter account to follow agents, publishers and other stakeholders in the publishing industry (in addition to The Onion and People magazine, of course). When agents tweet about reading queries or partial manuscripts (sometimes at coffee shops and sometimes by the pool!), it kind of makes my head hurt wondering when they'll get to mine. Their personal tweets, though, make them seem so much more human (and so much less scary). I still feel like an icky voyeur but I'll get over that soon. ;0

2. With inspiration from Joanie T., my therapist, I've developed a system for surviving agent rejection! On small bits of paper, I've written ways to treat myself. These bits go in a basket and will be drawn randomly as I receive rejections. An espresso, a walk around the block, a Cowtail from Fuzzywigs Candy Factory, a candy apple from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a phone call to a friend in the middle of a workday. YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Help me come up with other ways to treat myself that won't break the bank! I'm expecting quite a few rejections.

3. Am gearing up for the Taos Summer Writers' Conference in mid July. I'm taking a weeklong advanced fiction workshop led by author Pam Houston. I'm terrified to workshop my writing but I got so much out of last year's Ghost Ranch writers' retreat that I am looking forward to the 'growth' I will experience. If you get a chance, read Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness." An amazing collection of short stories. Perfect summer reading. In fact, my second novel is turning out to be a collection of linked short stories. Serendipity!

4. Wow. Caffeine is an amazing thing after you've been off it for a while. Where can I find a marathon to run?? Well, a hike on the Colorado trail will have to do. Oh my Goddess, I love living in Colorado.

Happy weekend to everyone, and don't forget to add to my "Ways to Treat Mandy" basket!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Offering Your Egg to the World

Today, I ran across an interesting blog post from author Mary DeMuth. This paragraph has stayed with me:
It's time we step out of the shadows of fear as writers. It's time we view our art not only as art, but as a risky gift. Something that costs us. Something that worries us at night, makes us tremble in the day. Breaking the mold and innovating involves that kind of sacrifice. The question is, are you willing?

While writing Cissy’s story, not once did I think the story shouldn’t be told. Yet, after finishing it, I wondered if the themes were too ‘hard’ for a mainstream novel. I told myself that’s why I was reticent about sharing the draft of the book. In fact, I was scared out of my mind about offering up a part of myself and risking that it wouldn’t be received well.

A women’s group I belonged to used to refer to this as offering an egg. As we heal and grow stronger, we hold out our hands, gently offering a fragile part of ourselves. We do so tentatively at first, then more boldly. We constantly assess who we trust enough to hold our egg, to treat it with respect and to honor what the egg means to us.

Yes, Mary, I do worry at night and I do tremble in the day. Yet, I’ve never been so sure that the time is right to risk whatever awaits me as I offer up Cissy’s story to the world. So far, the people I’ve trusted to read my draft have given me the greatest gift of all: their certainty that the book will find a home one day.

Have you offered your egg to the world? Was it worth the risk you took?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Humanity Is Not Always Pretty But It Binds Us

I read an interview in the Boston Globe with Michael Zadoorian, author of The Leisure Seeker. He said that 16 agents turned down the book, mainly because it was the story of a couple in their 80s, one dying of cancer and one who has Alzheimer’s. The couple yearns for one last adventure and takes off in their ’78 Leisure Seeker RV along Route 66 to Disneyland against the wishes of their grown children and doctors.

One agent wanted him to make the couple younger. After all, aging and death are not sexy. As a society, we do everything in our power to resist both. Yet, the agents who passed on the book failed to recognize that there can be beauty and tenderness and humanity in these stories that are just as important (more important!) than sparkling vampires and crime-fighting forensic medical examiners.

The good news for Michael is that an agent “got it” and signed him right away. A publisher snapped up the book a week and a half later.

I have to believe there will be an agent that gets Cissy’s story. The one agent who critiqued my first chapter for a webinar loved my writing and the story premise but wondered how much the book would refer to the heinous act (incest) and how much the story would stay in the present.

The book is not about incest and Cissy is not a victim. My hope is that the reader (well, first an agent) will see that she is a thoughtful, quirky, funny and passionate protagonist trying to figure it out just as we all are. Her relationship to her world is a little off center but the lessons she learns are ones we all faced at one time or another.

The good news for me is that Michael’s agent presented at a writers’ retreat I attended last year. I queried her last week and she emailed to request the first 20 pages of my manuscript, which I mailed her today.

Even if nothing comes of this, I feel lucky to have an opportunity to share Cissy’s story beyond a one-page query letter. It only takes one person to get it. It may be sooner or it may be later. But I know someone will.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Being Sufficiently Enthusiastic

I was intrigued by your query but not sufficiently enthusiastic to ask for more.

This is the latest rejection to my book. I’d be more upset except that I love the phrase ‘not sufficiently enthusiastic’ and can add it to my repertoire of comebacks.

Andy:
Would you like to see a movie?
Mandy: I’m not sufficiently enthusiastic.

In all seriousness, I’ve queried 12 agents and received six rejections. For a while this week, my gmail account (the one set aside only for my writing life) became a sinister boogie man. My heart would race every time I checked the account, fearing another rejection would be lying in wait to shout ‘Boo!’ at me. For five days, the account has been empty, making me think all agents had gone on summer vacation or that my gmail account was broken. (After all, five had responded with form rejections within a day of getting my email query!) This morning’s email has assured me that neither was the case.

I’ve been hopping from blog to blog recently, reading about writers’ adventures and misadventures with agents and publishers. One writer broke it down this way:

  • 158 queries sent out
  • 17 requests for partial manuscripts to review
  • 82 no responses
  • 51 passes
  • 25 requests for the full manuscript

In the end, it took a brief conversation via Twitter for her to attract her agent. Wow. And I’m feeling hurt by six rejections? I’m not really feeling hurt. I’m feeling the enormity of the life I’ve chosen. That life entails querying, sometimes hundreds of times; bravely revising my manuscript; practicing patience; and most importantly, working on the NEXT book.

So, tomorrow, one of my designated writing days, I leave behind Cissy Pickering and her story and start up again with Hannah, an 18-year-old reluctant psychic.

At least this life isn’t boring.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Laughter, Pinot Grigio and a Quick Trip Back to the Happy Place

On Monday (deflated balloon day), I decided to go out to happy hour with friends. It’s amazing what a little sunshine, Pinot Grigio and laughter can do to wash away the mully-gullies.

However, I think it’s going to take a lot more than Pinot Grigio to ride out the querying process. Novelists can say they’re prepared for rejection – and lots of it – but it’s a different story when the form rejections start pouring in.

I guess it doesn’t help that my naturopath and I are trying to regulate my hormones, or that I’ve been listening to every sad song ever written. If I’m going to be blue, then bring it on in a big way. Those vanilla faux Oreos on sale at City Market aren’t helping things either.

What has helped a teensy bit is a blog I found today called Literary Rejections on Display. (The subtitle is Join the Revolution, Join the Pity Party.) Ahhh, I don’t feel so alone anymore. It’s one thing to know others are going through what I’m going through; it’s another thing altogether to read the rejections others are receiving and to laugh alongside them over the misery we’ve brought upon ourselves.

The blog also features those “good news” stories writers always want to hear about. They keep us going more than Pinot and vanilla sandwich cookies.

Nearly 60 agents turned down Kathryn Stockett's debut novel “The Help” before publisher Amy Einhorn picked it up in 2007. The book has sold more than 800,000 copies and is now being made into a major motion picture. Way to go, Kathryn!

Another thing that’s helped as much as Pinot and sugar is reaching out to my sister, Tessa, who’s been my biggest supporter. This from her in an email today:
Now get back to that "HAPPY PLACE" in your head the way it was the week you completed your book!!!!! Don't make me have to come all the way to Durango to kick your ass. :0 ( meant with much love. )

Headed to the Happy Place now, Tessa. Thanks!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Deflated Balloon Seeks Air and Confidence

I’ve been blessed to receive amazing feedback from a handful of people reading the book draft.

My sister, Tessa, wrote: I'm so glad Paul's out fishing and the girls are both still sleeping — because I've been sobbing nonstop. I just finished your book. Words can't quite relay all the emotions it stirred in me. You have such a way of writing that I could visualize the characters faces, mannerisms, and even the tones of their voices (if that's possible).

My brother left me a voicemail to say he stayed up all night to finish it — something he hasn’t done with a book in a very long time. He also said it was “fucking amazing.”

So, I soak in these comments and smile deep down from my soul, and then the nasty little judging voice says, “They’re your family. What do you expect them to say?” I reply, “They’d be honest if the book didn’t work.” And the nasty judge, “No, they wouldn’t.”

And after a few rounds with nasty judging voice, I resemble a balloon after the air has escaped. Limp, lifeless and a thousand miles from the nearest helium tank.

Husband thinks I should just start querying, even before my writer’s group gives me feedback (which is July 28). I vacillate. I’m proud enough of the manuscript to want to start querying literary agents. I’m terrified enough to think I should wait for more feedback.

The worst thing about deflated balloon limbo state is that your confidence goes to sh**.

And, so when I get in these moods — the one I’m in now — I go back and read Tessa’s email to me. Especially the last line which is like life-giving air to this tired old balloon.

I can see the front cover so clearly, Mandy. Be ready — because this could be very BIG!!!!!!!!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Stay the Course -- No Matter How Rough or Easy

I explained to my therapist Joanie a few sessions ago that I was prepared for the arduous journey to publication and the hundreds of rejections just waiting to be sent my way. “I know it will be hard,” I said. She answered, “Why does it have to be hard?”

I’d read so many accounts from writers who described the demoralizing, time-consuming process of querying, waiting for response (rejection), querying some more, and repeating the ritual, sometimes for years. These ‘cheery’ accounts did nothing for my confidence.

But Joanie had a point. She’d relayed the story of how she went back to school to become a therapist and how many people warned her of the difficulty of establishing a practice in a small town. And yet, she’s extremely successful and didn’t encounter any of the roadblocks everyone warned her about.

I’ve been fortunate to receive some early positive feedback from two literary agents who presented webinars for Writer’s Digest. Both offered to critique query letters and/or first chapters of participants. Here’s what one agent wrote about my first chapter of God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread (and Other Things She Told Me):

I started reading and was immediately engaged. Such a strong and compelling voice, and what a story! I wanted to keep hanging out with Cissy. You are clearly a wonderful writer. But at the same time, the subject matter is so horrendous that I’m not sure if I’d keep reading. It would depend on how much you referred to the heinous acts of the father versus staying in the present. In any case, if I were reading this manuscript, I’d sure keep reading for awhile to see where it goes.

I just added a new post-it note to my inspiration board at the office that says, “It doesn’t have to be hard. Believe.”

Sometimes I think we make ourselves sick by anticipating the worst instead of expecting the best. Setting intentions is so important -- they keep us on the right path, regardless how rough or easy the journey. That's what matters.

In my next blog: Writing about horrendous acts and people without turning off your readers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

334 Pages! Hallelujah and All That!

At about 4:45 p.m. Central time on May 26, I finished the first draft of the novel. 334 pages. 82,000 words. It took everything in me not to type “The End” to make it official. I reached this milestone on the back patio of my sister’s house in Glen Rose, Texas. A huge grin came over my face. Then I felt like bawling. Then I felt like shouting. Then I grinned some more.

Alone for the afternoon, I had no one to tell in person and cell service was spotty out in the country. I actually didn’t feel like telling anyone at first. I kept downplaying the significance. My heart wanted it to be a big deal but my mind took the critical road, reminding me it was a ‘draft.’ “What’s the big deal about a draft?” it said. “Draft means unfinished.”

When my sister got home from work I asked for a hug and she asked me what was wrong. I said nothing was wrong but that I finished the first draft of the novel. She hugged me like nobody’s business and insisted she and I go out to dinner.

Facebook friends have been enthusiastic over the news, which helps me give that critical voice the finger. I texted Micki, my friend and fellow writers’ group member. She called, shouting her congratulations from Durango, Colorado. I could feel her smile through the cell phone, which was going in and out, but I got the gist of the message. She understood the significance of the moment because she had experienced the same gamut of emotions after completing the first draft of her book last October.

Like Micki did with hers, I took my draft to a photocopying place and made spiral bound copies for the writing group to review and mark up. Then my sister and brother each wanted a copy. I ordered six and charged a hefty amount to my credit card. Worth every damn penny because it gave me a substantial and ceremonious way to say “This phase has ended! Hallelujah and all that!”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Kill Michael Ventura: He's Only the Messenger

This week, I ran across a fascinating column by Michael Ventura (well, all his stuff is thought-provoking but some pieces slice to the bone and leave you bleeding without a tourniquet).

Here’s an excerpt:
Writing is something you do alone in a room. Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room. Before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years can you remain alone in a room?

Ventura had validated the insanity I’ve felt at times (ok, often) when trying to find a literal room in which to write or the writer’s room in my mind that allows me to create anywhere and anytime. It gives me pause to think about being in either room for YEARS, silently creating, desperately rewriting, anxiously waiting… Waiting for what? I’m going to be in this ‘room’ for the foreseeable future, whether or not I publish the current novel I’m writing. Why? Because the second one has been waiting patiently (not so patiently) for me to finish the first. Then the third one will tap at the door, asking to be written, and I’ll still be in that room -- me, myself and I.

I used to think the anxiety I felt before sitting down to write was because I hadn’t found the perfect room. That search could be endless: a comfortable chair and desk, the right rug, a piece of art, maybe a favorite mug. The room would have to be the right temperature in all seasons. What a time suck (and mind fuck) to search for the elusive room when it's right there in front of us, scary as hell and empty, waiting for an occupant with the sheer mental tenacity to be a writer.

What I love about Ventura is his bluntness: regardless of your talent, you must find strength of mind and spirit to survive the isolation of a writer’s life.

Oddly, I don’t feel overwhelmed by this message. It’s the smelling salts I need right now to face what I’ve always known: writing is hard, writing is lonely, writing is as essential as air and water.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Of Marathons, Cupcakes and Champagne


I recently posted on Facebook that I’m close to finishing the first draft of the novel but I needed to stay motivated. My friend and work colleague, Janet, posted a comment saying my situation sounded like “mile 10” of a half marathon. She described it as a point when she feels almost a sense of relief, yet knows she still has 3.1 miles to go. She said she just digs in, focuses her mind and pushes through.

I haven’t run a half marathon but I’ve walked three. Janet is so right. By mile 10, I’ve put in so much hard work I want to cry. I get an odd sense of euphoria and despondency about the last push to the finish line. I start making deals with myself. “Dear body, if you just finish, I’ll let you eat whatever you want. I’ll find you a hot tub to soak in. I’ll find some ice for that knee. I’ll schedule a massage.”

Today, I can see my writing finish line, just right there, off in the distance — 85,000+ words committed to paper, ready for review by trusted friends and writers.

That’s just the end of the first race, though. Completing a rewrite is half marathon number two. Landing an agent is a marathon. Getting a publishing contract is the Iron Man Triathlon.

Each finish line deserves respect and celebration. I could have sworn that Deonne (a writer whose blog I follow) celebrated her first draft with champagne and cupcakes, yet I can’t find that on her blog. Maybe I was daydreaming of the way I wanted to celebrate. In fact, that sounds damn good. Champagne and cupcakes all around (if you’re in Durango, Colorado, that is.)

I'll cross the finish line sometime in late June or early July. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, any ideas on how I should celebrate other than sobbing hysterically and napping for 18 hours?
P.S. Cupcake by Yellow Carrot, Durango. Photo by Carson Jones, Red Scarf Shots.

Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Damn Near Impossible to Interview the Dead

When I attended a writers’ retreat last August at Ghost Ranch with about 80 other writers, I was surprised to learn how many were writing memoirs. I always thought of memoirs as something you wrote as you neared the end of your life (like we can even guess when that will happen!). A woman I met there just finished the first draft of her memoir. I never asked her age but she doesn’t look like she’s hit her 40s yet. Still, she’s committed to paper a history of her life.

I’m ashamed to say I used to think memoirs self-indulgent (what makes your life so interesting, huh?). I’ve done a complete 180 on this. Every life is interesting! More importantly, if you think you’re going to remember all the juicy, painful, intoxicating moments of your life when you are on your deathbed, you are wrong. It takes work to remember the past, analyze it, sort out what happened and how you felt about it, as well as its significance in your life today.

The first novel I started more than a year ago (23 Conversations Before My Funeral), I called a work of fiction when in fact I used many experiences from my own life, only I expanded on them and called the character Audrey. She had children; I do not. She’s dying of cancer at 48. I’m not ill, nor am I 48. The point is that there are compelling, heart-wrenching, lesson-filled experiences in my past that make for interesting reading (or at least I think so).

Both my parents are dead, and buried with them are the many fascinating stories of their lives I will never know about. My dad was in WWII but speaking of his time in the war was taboo in my home. I knew his experiences were painful enough to lead to alcoholism and a very angry life. His younger brother, now almost 90, served in the Navy in WWII as well. My brother, Paul, visits this uncle every Sunday to have lunch. Recently I asked Paul to ask my uncle about details of his time in the war as well as my dad’s. It struck me that my uncle is nearing the end of his life — and he is the last one alive who can pass down the stories of my father’s life. I almost had a panic attack that he would die before my brother could ask him the questions!

Through my brother’s visit with him, I learned so much, including that my dad served aboard the USS San Francisco in the Battle of Guadalcanal. His ship was being blasted from all sides. Daddy was on the gun crew, the guy who put the powder charges into the big gun. The last guy in the "bucket brigade" tossing powder charges to the gun saw an enemy plane diving for them and at the last minute tossed the 50-pound charge *at* my father who, unaware, was knocked off the platform. The rest of the gun crew was killed in that battle, Daddy the sole survivor.

You don’t have to be a memoir writer or published author to capture your family’s history, including your own. The significance of knowing where we come from can’t be underestimated. Don’t wait until it’s too late to ask those you love about their lives.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yes, Detective, She Was Wearing a Purple Wig

I spent a portion of the weekend revising chapters that my writing group critiqued last week. I was a little put off that one member of the group said a chapter was unpolished but a good first draft. What?! Well, she was right. It struck me that handing over pages for review is like submitting a police report. I provide the details as I see them but then the detective’s job is to ask more questions.

What color was the car? Was the car still running? Who else was in the store? What was she wearing? Could you tell us more about her surroundings? When X was standing in the hallway, where was Y?

The funny thing is that one member of my group is actually a police detective AND a damn fine writer. So her questions probe for details my mind has brushed past in order to get the story on paper. At times, I rush through the telling and need someone to slow me down and ask those questions that allow me to fully develop scenes and characters, to paint a picture that others can see as clearly as I do.

It also struck me that everyone – not just writers – can benefit from slowing down. When your spouse or significant other asks you to describe your day, do you rush through it perhaps missing those details that are most important to convey?

When you describe a movie, do you fall back on clich├ęs like “lots of action” or “too much gore” instead of describing how the purple-haired, 12-year-old Hit Girl bounded through the narrow hallway like an acrobat, climbing the walls at times as she stabbed one bad guy after the other, finally landing on top of the last guy’s shoulders and stabbing him through the top of the head.

I’m just saying that life is in the details.

Monday, April 5, 2010

When I'm Not Really the Author and I Realize I Can Fly

The last two weeks, I’ve enjoyed a period of prolific writing on the novel. I've leapt ahead from halfway to almost two-thirds complete. I’ve felt an urgency to write that I haven’t felt in more than a year. Actually, I’ve felt an urgency to tell the story. The hitch is that I don’t always know where the story is going.

I’ve taken to writing long hours in my recliner-that-is-made-to-not-look-like-a-recliner. Andy wanders in and out of the living room where I sit and write. He reads the paper or plays Sudoku or watches a bit of TV. I mumble aloud sometimes, partly to him and partly to myself.

Last Saturday afternoon, he asked why I was crying. I said, "Because Grandmother is dying of cancer and has to tell her best friend." Until I had written the scene, I had no idea that’s where the book was going. This development has serious implications for Cissy, the protagonist. Grandmother has been the only family member to stand by Cissy after she killed her father and was committed to a state psychiatric facility.

When he caught me crying, I was writing the scene where Grandmother would tell her black housekeeper, Natty, also in her 70s, about the cancer. This was one of those pure moments of inspiration, written from both within and outside myself, where I’m the author and yet I’m not the author. During these precious moments, I try not to think too hard about it lest I wake from a beautiful dream where I'm flying.

Here’s a snippet from that chapter.

Natty and I have been together longer than I had been married, but we didn’t always get along. She came from a family of women who took care of other people's households. Her mama had kept house for my in-laws since the dawn of time. When Beau and I married in 1922, Natty joined our household. I suspect she resented having to wait on someone her own age. My people weren’t from money, so I crossed boundaries Natty had been reared to never breach. I wanted her to like me and I wanted her to respect me as her employer. Reconciling those two desires took some time and more than a few shouting matches to stake out our respective territories.

After I had Caroline, we called a truce and territorial lines blurred. That baby mesmerized Natty, softening the hardest of her edges. She couldn’t bear to hear Caroline cry and would cry along with her. Some nights I’d find Natty, tears running down her cheeks, rocking a squalling Caroline and singing an old Negro hymn. More than a few mornings, I found them asleep in the nursery rocker, Caroline slumbering across Natty’s sizable bosom. After Caroline’s birth, I’d miscarried two other pregnancies and Natty mourned for weeks, heartbroken she’d been deprived of loving two other precious souls as she did Caroline.

“I love you, Natty,” I said and patted her forearm. “I don’t tell you often enough.”

“You’ve never said it, Mrs. Clayton. Is the heat getting to you again?” She winked.

“Natty, you can call me Janelle if you like.” I didn’t know why I made the offer. Lately, my words had declared independence and it proved impossible to stop them.

“I’ve called you Mrs. Clayton for too long to go changing to your first name,” she said and let out a deep, throaty laugh. “You needn’t worry. I know we’re friends.”

“I haven’t always been a good friend,” I admitted.

Natty let the comment sit between us, its truth too heavy to dispute or joke about.

“I know you have the sickness,” Natty said.

“I figured you did.”

She didn’t ask for details and I offered none.

“It’s getting to be lunch time,” she said slapping her thighs. “How about some cold fried chicken?”

“That’d be fine. And why don't you bring the rest of the blackberry pie as well.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Boo!" Said the Devil on Facebook

I’m lucky to be able to use the written word to ‘say’ things I wasn’t able to say at one time, to right wrongs, to heal old wounds, to raise consciousness. Writing has helped me process some of the most painful moments in my life. Sometimes I’ve written essays that are private, never to be published or shared. Sometimes I’ve fictionalized my experiences or used humor to soften the horrific.

I survived Catholic School, but just barely, so God, religion and nuns make their way into a lot of my writing. Some memories are 35 years old – deep, twisted scars that cannot be lasered away or tattooed over.

My friend, Emil, posted on Facebook some class photos from the Catholic school we both attended, although I was one year behind him. Late last night, as I was perusing the photos, I came face to face with some of the nuns who reside in my short stories and essays. I literally lost my breath as if the Devil himself appeared on my computer screen. My memories haven’t been so crystal clear because I remembered those nuns as black, amorphous blobs in habits, no facial features. The photos, though, sharpened the memories, giving them razor edges and form they haven’t had in a while. "Boo!" they said. "Remember me?"

“Stop looking at that stuff,” my husband chastised. “They’re long dead. They can’t hurt you anymore.” The thing is, they aren’t dead for me – and may never be.

Here’s a snippet of a short story:

The crack of a hardbound text book against the back of Eddie’s head stuns us into silence. Although we sit perfectly still, we fight to control our limbs that have been flooded with adrenaline.

I am ashamed to admit how grateful I am that Eddie is attracting Sister Olive’s attention.
I cannot look at Eddie as tears stream down his mud brown cheeks. He is the son of a migrant worker and only in school a part of the year. When he is asked to read aloud, he is unable to pronounce many of the words and his accent makes others unrecognizable.

At 10 years old, I am still too young to attach the label of abuse to what I witness almost every day. Fear is a classmate and together we learn to read, to multiply, to love Jesus.

Despite what I see and experience myself, I am happy to be in school each day because then I don’t have to be at home where I am more afraid.

Most nights I dream of the devil in vivid detail. During the day, she is real and teaches me to fear God and pray for my soul.

In first grade, Sister Mary holds up a clean glass of water and tells us that it is like our pure souls at birth. She walks over to the potted begonias on the window sill and digs out some peat and soil to mix with the water. “This is your souls today, children, because you are sinners,” she says. From that day on, I am grateful for every opportunity to pray for my soul and gladly sprinkle my bed with holy water each night as she instructs us to do -- insurance against a visit from the Devil.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm Not Leering, I'm Peeking at Your Kindle

My friend Arlene forwarded me an article from today’s New York Times about the e-book era bumping book covers off the subway, the coffee table and the beach.

Book covers have had such a profound importance to both readers and publishers and I became a little panicked after reading the article. I LOVE BOOK COVERS! When I’m on an airplane or in a coffee shop, I always sneak a peek at what others are reading. And when I browse Maria’s, my local independent bookseller, book covers are what draw me in — the graphics, the colors, the typefaces used. A captivating book cover invites strangers to ask what you’re reading and whether you’d recommend the book. I wouldn’t feel the same about peering over someone’s shoulder to read their Kindle. (And with my deteriorating eyesight, the task would prove impossible or dangerous anyway.)

Publishers stand to lose as well. Book covers are an important marketing tool, a chance to create an iconic look that others recognize. (For example, the blood-red apple used on the black cover of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight.)

In the bookstore, where a majority of sales still take place, covers play a crucial role. “If you have already passed that hurdle of having a customer be attracted to the cover, and then they pick up the book,” said Patricia Bostelman, vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble, “an enormous battle has been won.”

I haven’t considered a Kindle because I love the heft of a book, the way the paper feels, how bookshelves add warmth and interest to a room (and say something fairly public about who you are by what you’re reading).

Have you purchased a book based on the title and book cover alone? Do you have a favorite book cover to share? I especially liked “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” whose cover has a cut-out of the black poodle. Or have you given up printed books in favor of e-readers?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Platforms (and I Don't Mean the Shoes)

I recently attended a Writer’s Digest webinar titled “What Editors and Agents Want.” Great information but sobering. Not only does a writer’s manuscript have to be well-written with a fresh theme, he or she must provide proof of platform. The 60 of us on the call paused for the punch line. Platform. Our ability to build a community willing to purchase our book. Examples include blog followers and Facebook friends. Well, that sent a panic through the group. The vast majority didn’t write a blog nor could they imagine building up 1,000 or more followers (the presenter’s recommendation).

Publishers aren’t willing to take risks as they did in the old days. They want to know a writer will be a partner in marketing the book and generating sales. The presenter acknowledged platform is more important when pitching a non-fiction book. You have to be an “expert” of sorts to prove your book has credibility and platform adds to that. Fiction writers won’t necessarily be held to the same standard but the question will be asked. “Who will want to read your book?”

I have 126 Facebook friends. I could increase those numbers by adding work colleagues from Goodwills across the country or school mates from childhood but the platform would be artificial. Just because someone remembers me from grade school or has met me at a conference doesn’t mean he or she would buy my book. Plus, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook right now. Posts I want to read are buried in hundreds of non-sensical ones from people with whom I rarely connect. Do I really want to add another 500 people who really don't give a hoot about me?

I have a hard enough time writing my blog regularly and only a few people actually read it once I post (thanks, guys!). Sitting in my chair, this dreary Friday morning, I’m overwhelmed with how to build my blog readership. If you have ideas, just let me know. I think it counts if you sign up your pets as followers.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Does Resisting Hardwork Make Me (gasp) a Slacker?

I had a friend and my sister both tell me they’ve been checking for a new blog. And it’s been more than a month. I tell myself I’ve been too busy with work, writing on the book, writing short stories and sending them out, etc. That’s a crock of doo-doo.

Writing on a consistent basis – book, blog, journal – is hard work. On some level, I’ve been resisting that hard work.

The same friend sent me this quote:
"The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired," wrote music critic Ernest Newman, "but becomes inspired because he is working. Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Mozart settled down day after day to the job in hand. They didn't waste time waiting for inspiration."

I’m not comparing myself to a great composer but the reality is the same. Any creative person must be committed to his/her craft, good days, bad days, rainy days, sunny days. I’m admitting to my readership of nine or so people that I’ve not been committed.

I’m still at about the 40,000-word mark on the novel. That’s about halfway. I’ve been stuck at this point like a dieter who’s reached a plateau. Like someone with OCD, I go back over previous work and rewrite, tweak, rearrange.

Slogging through that first rough draft is priority one. Blogging on a more consistent basis, priority two.

I think the principle can be applied to most people and most endeavors. Have you wanted to learn to paint or take a photography class but work, children, life get in the way? Have you wanted to open your own business but the timing hasn’t been right? We’ve all been stuck. What have you done to become unstuck?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Your Writing Makes Me Vomit (or Words Not to That Effect)

Reject (the verb) is such a god-awful word and its literal definitions are downright depressing:

--To refuse to accept, submit to, believe, or make use of.
--To discard as defective or useless.
--To spit out or vomit.

It’s a shame that we use the word so liberally in the writing world. “Honey, I got another rejection today!”

I know that journal editors are not vomiting my writing or saying it’s defective. How rude would that be! Yet, they aren’t saying much when they send the generic note card or half slip of paper that looks like it’s been photocopied a thousand times. Sure, some of those note cards are mighty fancy and would be something to ooh and ahh over if they were party invitations and not the bearers of bad news.

In five months, my “no” pile has grown to 36 and my “yes” pile is a lonely one acceptance. The good news is that those 36 rejections (no thank-yous) were for 13 different pieces. A published author I know said not to dare complain about rejection until one piece has been turned down 10, 20, 40 times. Some of my short stories and essays have only received 2, 3, and 4 rejections. I’ll hold the tears for now.

The best news is that from time to time you’ll actually hear from a real live person who reads your work and responds with feedback that will help you improve the piece. I submitted a short fiction piece to Our Stories literary magazine. Today, I received a critique from an editor. Below is a short excerpt from her much longer review:

As you have noticed, I hardly made any corrections throughout the text: your prose is really clear and beautiful; the voice sucks you in and doesn’t let go till the end. Right now, however, this entry has a feel of an exercise in the character’s background, voice and working out of the mother-daughter relationship dynamics, rather than a complete short story. The dramatic arc is lacking in the present. There is a slow reveal of information, but it has minimal effect on characters in the current set-up. So, given these wonderful, fully-formed, complex characters with distinctive voices and personal histories, launch them into a real story, while keeping all of the other info in either flashbacks or exposition or – in part – in the bride’s thoughts.

Eureka! This gives me something to chew on. I get what she’s saying and have tangible advice to guide my revision. That kind of “rejection” motivates me to rewrite rather than turn to chocolate ice cream. Hurray for these kinds of days in a writer’s life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Swirl and Swing of Words


Last year, my sister sent me a Laini’s Lady ornament called The Writing Muse and I keep it near my computer. On it is a quote from James Michener that has special significance as I reignite the passion for my work. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

It was exactly a year ago when Cissy’s story first came to me in a hotel room in Phoenix. That morning as I waited to check out of the hotel after an amazing weekend with an old friend, Cissy’s voice was as clear as if she were in the room with me.

I’ve been afraid that I was losing Cissy’s voice over the last month. I got bogged down in self-doubt. I worried if the story was marketable and the story wasn’t even finished yet!

After some compassionate and insightful feedback from two fellow writers whose judgment I trust, I have delved back into Cissy’s world to add more setting description. Initially, their feedback shut me down a bit. I spoke about these feelings to a dear friend of mine who said something that turned my mood around. She said that when people ask for more details and description, they are not pointing out a deficiency in my writing. They are asking me to give them a gift of the details I already have in my head and have not committed to paper.

Once I let go of the self-doubt -– and did some serious talking to my guides and the universe -– a dam came crashing down and words rushed out almost faster than I could type.

Here are two rewritten paragraphs (from different chapters) infused with what Cissy and I “see”:

Mama said painting a wall white was telling the world you had no imagination so our rooms at home were bright yellows, greens and blues, colors of the Old South, she’d say. The utter lack of color at the hospital made me self-conscious. I suspected that my red hair, whipped wildly into knots from the drive, drew the girls’ stares or maybe it was my hot pink sandals, which I regretted wearing on my first day.

Sometimes when I’m not so interested in what Dr. Guttmann is saying, I think about how many things in his office beg to be touched – the sheet of thick glass that covers his cherry desk, the rough pile of the brown carpet beneath my slippers, the sleek coolness of the black leather couch. Although smell is my favorite sense, touch is close second because the surfaces of things sometimes speak louder than words. A porcupine’s quills say “Back off!” while kitten fur says “Squeeze me carefully.”

I can't wait to continue Cissy's story. She still has much to say.