Sunday, February 28, 2010

Solitary Togetherness

I spend a lot of time alone. I work from home and I write which we all know is a solitary pursuit. That's hours spent not hearing other people's voices or even my own. Except on paper.

I enjoy the quiet. Sometimes. Other times I'm simply sick of myself and my thoughts. Bruce Springsteen, in "Dancing in the Dark," expressed this well--"I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face."

Then again, it is winter (my least favorite season) and we've had record snows so I'm also suffering from some serious get-me-outta-here cabin fever. But, I digress.

That's where having a critique group really helps. Every other week we meet to talk about writing, our lives and each other's work-in-progress. And we laugh. A lot. I mean hysterical, BWA-HA-HA laughing that draws attention. We've had several strangers say things like "What's so funny?" or "What are you having?" or "Cheer up!" Of course, we can't really explain what's funny. To explain it takes away the humor, the perfect synchronization of the moment and the people involved.

Being in a critique group gives me a sense of community. We are peers with the same problems and joys. We push each other to set goals, keep growing and keep changing. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses. We inspire one another, encourage one another and challenge one another. We do things that are uncomfortable.

I have a magnet with a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that says, "Do one thing every day that scares you." I like that. Because a lot of things associated with writing can be scary--blank pages, query letters, submitting to the critique group and contacting an editor or agent. Wondering as you send it if it is any good or just plain crap. But when I do scary things, I'm not bored. And, if you think about it, boredom with your life is the most frightening thing of them all.

I used to be a risk-taker. Then, wave after wave of adulthood rolled over me and gradually I only did the things that I was "supposed" to do. I stopped pushing the envelope. My writing and I stayed in our own safe little cocoon, forced into a dark corner by responsibilities and crises. Being a part of a good critique group has helped me remember that it doesn't have to be this way. What we offer each other is the kick in the butt and the safety net and a lot of times both are necessary.

Writing is a solitary pursuit. But it doesn't have to be a lonely one. And, thanks to my dear friends, it isn't.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What's A Girl To Do?

Today editors and agents run their own blog contests for the best five-minute pitch, they want query letters without actual writing samples, and they tweet about novels they’d like to acquire. How’s a girl supposed to keep up with the fast-paced changes in the publishing market today and land an agent or book deal? And what does it say about the current state of the market?

It tells us that agents and editors are still looking for talent, but they’re looking for it in new ways, ways that save them time and paperwork. We all know they’re overworked. They’d rather download submissions onto their Kindle or Sony e-Reader than schlep that five-pound manuscript with them on the subway. Who wouldn’t? The push to go electronic makes sense. It reduces stacks of paper and helps us all “go green.” Yay! We should all cheer.

The move to e-everything adds immediacy to the process of submitting manuscripts and concepts. It speeds up the publishing “machine.” Good. Right? Hmmm. Maybe. Or is it a double-edged sword? Writers expect to hear back from editors and agents more quickly, but editors and agents want ideas that are streamlined. Professionally pitched. Thus the trend towards the book pitch.

It takes a certain skill-set to write a pitch or a professional query letter that will “win” you an editor or agent. They’re judging your best work on your ability to deliver a concept in a way that tantalizes them in a few sentences or paragraphs.

If you want to get past the gatekeeper, which now seems to be the professional pitch or query letter, you must learn a whole new set of skills. You need to teach yourself to pitch like an experienced screen writer, query with the aptitude of an expert salesman, and distill like the most proficient abstracter to turn your four-hundred-page book into a sparking synopsis.

Okay, so we’re in the business of writing. We write novels. But at the end of the day, we’re writers. We can learn to write anything. Right? Yes. Learn the new skills. Adapt.

So, what’s a girl to do when she has the pitch perfected and the killer query written? She submits. There’s no way she can be in the right place at the right time with the vast number of blogs and twitter discussions out there. Some contend it’s luck. Well, there is a bit of luck involved. Always has been in the publishing business.

However, to increase your chances for those “lucky” opportunities, a wise woman stays connected. She joins professional associations to keep her “in the know.” She becomes part of a network of other writers who are looking out for each other. You need people who are truly looking out for your good. They like you. They love your writing. They know your writing. They support you and you support them. When one of them is on a blog that is suddenly running a contest perfect for your book, they’ll let you know. And you’ll do the same.

But reading blogs is a huge time sucker when you should be writing the next Great American Novel. Yes, spending three hours a day every day on blogs and following tweets would put a serious kink in your writing lifestyle. You might never finish your next manuscript. Yet, what if you could spend ten minutes a night to advance your career and help others in your writers’ support network do the same? Wouldn’t that be worth the effort? So just do it. Book mark your favorite sites and scan them a few minutes before you head to bed each night.

Then, share any juicy tidbits you come across. Give back. If you see a contest announced or a request for a submission for Romantic Suspense, but you write Women’s Fiction, share the info with your friend who writes Romantic Suspense. A “Do Unto Others” mentality will serve you well in the long run. Who knows? One day the perfect opportunity will find its way back to your own inbox. Whether you call it the Golden Rule or Karmic Law, it’s good business.

Whether the issue is time or energy, know your limits. If you’re not good at following blogs, get to know people who are. Network, chat, talk to them about what’s hot and in demand. Or, if you’re the quiet lurker who hates big chapter meetings, but you’re great at reading blogs and following twitter discussions, befriend a more extroverted people-person who loves to work the crowded room. Together you can help each other land your next deal. And you’ll have a little fun in the process.

So what’s a girl to do? Seize the day. Carpe Diem! Start today. Don’t put off perfecting your pitch, hammering out that killer query, networking, or submitting. Add it your busy schedule. Success is made, not found by accident. Work hard, stay connected and adapt. Use all of your skills. Believe in your success and one day soon you’ll see your book in print. Don’t just dream, make it a reality. You know what to do!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Let me out . . . unless . . .

As an aspiring writer of young adult fiction, I volunteered to judge the YA category in my local RWA chapter's contest. All of the entries that I received to judge were in first person point of view.
First person POV is popular in young adult books. I guess that's because it's supposed to make it easier for the reader to identify with the main character? Or because it worked so well for Stephenie Meyer.
And those are pretty good reasons.
But for me, personally, and not just in YA but in any genre, it is my least favorite POV choice.
It's too claustrophobic.
In first person you're confined to one character's head. But what if you don't like them? What if you don't get their sense of humor, or don't like their descriptions or you get sick of their snarky comments? Too bad for you. If you want to know what happens in that book, you have to let that character tell you.
It's like being stuck on the plane next to the guy with the monologue who insists on talking to you about people you don't know doing things you don't care about and the seatbelt sign is on so you can't get up and walk away.
It's exactly like that, except for one thing. You can put the book down.
Sometimes I wish I didn't have to. Sometimes I really like the concept, or the story, and I want to find out what happens. But if I don't like the first person narrator's voice, I drop the book in the bag to take to the Friends of the Library store.
Because I don't choose to torture myself like that. And when I don't like the voice, that's what it feels like. Torture.
At least with third person POV you get the author's voice. So even if you only get the one main character's point of view, you are also getting observations from outside of that character's head. And with third person, you often get more than one character's point of view.
So even if you don't particularly care for one character, you know it's not going to last forever. The seatbelt sign will be turned off soon.
On the other hand . . .
When I was complaining about how much I usually dislike first person POV, two of my fabulous Rockville8 critique partners reminded me that I LOVED their first person POV books.
I was shocked.
Because I did love their stories, but when I thought about them, I didn't remember that they were written in first person. I remembered the characters or the details or the setting or that they grabbed me by the throat. But not that they were written in first person.
And then I realized that some of my favorite books ever are written in first person.
I know! I just said it's my least favorite POV choice. And that's true . . . but sometimes I like the guy next to me on the plane. I get his sense of humor, and I love his descriptions, and his snarky comments.
And when I get off the plane, I will quote him to my friends and make them jealous that they were not lucky enough to sit next to him.
In that same spirit, here are three of my favorite first person POV young adult books:
"And finally," Jamie said as he pushed the door open, "we come to the main event. Your room."
I was braced for pink. Ruffles or quilting, or maybe even appliqué. Which was probably kind of unfair, but then again, I didn't know my sister anymore, much less her decorating style. With total strangers, it had always been my policy to expect the worst. Usually they—and those that you knew best, for that matter—did not disappoint.
Sarah Dessen, Lock and Key
I've loved every Sarah Dessen book that I've ever read, but Lock and Key is my favorite. It's completely in Ruby's POV, but that's not the first thing I remember about it. I remember that it grabbed hold of me and never let me go.
Then there's As You Wish, by Jackson Pearce. It's written in two first person POVs. Viola's and the jinn she calls forth by wishing . . .


All I've learned in today's Shakespeare class is: Sometimes you have to fall in love with the wrong person just so you can find the right person. A more useful lesson would've been: Sometimes the right person doesn't love you back. Or sometimes the right person is gay. Or sometimes you just aren't the right person.

Thanks for nothing, Shakespeare.

A Jinn:

She screams.

Of course. Mortal females tend to do that. It just had to be a female again.

Jackson Pearce, As You Wish

Viola and Jinn's voices are unique and they tell the story in alternating chapters which adds to the tension.

And finally, there's the book I read last night.

The book that grabbed me by the throat and would not let me go, even though I often wished it would.

Living Dead Girl, by Elizabeth Scott. If the first few pages don't hook you, here is Chapter 3. In it's entirety.

But read at your own risk. (I'm just saying.)

Once upon a time, I did not live in Shady Pines. Once upon a time, my name was not Alice. Once upon a time, I didn't know how lucky I was.

Elizabeth Scott, Living Dead Girl

So yeah. I hate first person. Except for when I don't hate it.

And then I LOVE it . . .

p.s. Some day, I will be able to link to one of those contest entries that I read because it was so good it just HAS to get published! It grabbed hold of me and didn't let go and I wish I could read the rest of it RIGHT NOW.

Photo credit:

Monday, February 8, 2010


For many years, the Washington Romance Writers, a chapter of Romance Writers of America, held its annual retreat at the Hilltop House in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I remember driving up from DC for my first one. I had nerves, baby. Just who were these writers anyway?

It took another year before I relaxed enough to enjoy the journey to WV as part of the magical weekend we call In the Company of Writers. I started thinking of the drive as a pilgrimage - a necessary precursor to the weekend that allowed me to slough off work and worries and get into the proper mindset to appreciate the celebration ahead of craft, talent and people.

The other weekend a small group of writing friends gathered at the Boonsboro Inn. Traveling most of the same route from DC to rural Maryland, I experienced that feeling of preparation and transformation again. Of opening myself up to the spirit of the weekend and what it might bring. I had my most comfy fleece, had packed my computer and my favorite pillow. Leaving I70 for Rte 40, I felt my shoulders drop from my ears to, well, my shoulders. I admired the rolling hills and eclectic architecture of western Maryland. I exchanged writing histories with my traveling companion, swapped plotting tips, and hopes for the weekend and the future. We giggled and chuckled and chortled over just how lucky we were to be a part of this writer’s weekend. This journey to an immersion with folk wired with that little bit extra called storyteller.

Alas, the Hilltop House has bitten the dust. Age and the elements ganged up on the old girl and now she’s being scrapped and replaced with a modern day spa. The views will still be stunning, but the building itself will no longer be the Mecca for our writers it once was.

And that’s okay. We have a new home for our retreat in Virginia out Rte. 66. The road might not have the same visual appeal as that I traveled to Harper’s Ferry. But the act of leaving one space and place and way-of-being for another, the intentionality of becoming a modern day pilgrim, remains the same.

Those writers I mentioned at the top? Over the years they’ve become a necessary part of the whole. Fellow friends and pilgrims whose writer souls get wanderlust during cherry blossom season and ache to travel the path that leads them to be In the Company of Writers. Just like me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

With all your might

I'm truly sorry. But it has happened again. And I can only hope that next week when you stop by to read, no one will have died. But someone did, and I feel I must take a moment to tell you why this matters to me.

Salinger is dead. I have no scholarly insight to offer you; I can only tell you that his voice formed the writer I am and the writer I am becoming. It is and has been his lyrical, cynical, judgmental, patronizing, puzzled, thoughtful, idealistic, bewildered, lonely erudite voice that has echoed in my heart and ear for more than two decades. And I cannot believe that he is finally and forever gone, and with his death, that creative voice is now silenced.

There is nothing much to be said about the life or lifestyle of the man, Jerome David Salinger. It neither impressed nor altered my soul. He sounded like the worst kind of misanthrope who took patronizing to new levels. Besides, he was 91. It was probably as good an age to die as any. But I am not here to write about his life, his choices, his reclusiveness. Only, his voice.

No longer will words be plucked out of the universe and set carefully in certain orderly lines that in my view were meant to be written, meant to be read. When Zooey comforted his sister, Franny, and tried to draw her out of her stupor of the Pilgrim's prayer, he shared his idea of Jesus- a man who would join you for a glass of gingerale at the kitchen table. And ask for only a small glass.

Here was a Jesus that I understood. Here was a brother I understood. Here was a writer I understood.

I'm traveling just now, and my copies of Salinger's books, the used paperbacks, the early hardback editions that my brother found for me, are on the shelves in my living room, nestled between Douglas Adams and Jennifer Crusie. And I can't touch them, can't thumb through them, skim, dive in, remember a time when they were brand new to me, when I had yet to have read them, or even thumb through my dog-eared photocopy of "Hapworth 16, 1924" and remember the day I discovered it even existed.

It wasn't Catcher in the Rye that drew me; nor Nine Stories, whose stories saddened me as one by one, the Glass family let me down, those fictional, former contestants of It's a Wise Child who had seemed so precious and so wise in other stories. And "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" nearly killed me - though as a college student I understood both the lure and the hubris needed for suicide. Just not his. Not Seymour's.

No, the clarion call of JD Salinger sounded for me through Raise
High the Roofbeams, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction
and Franny and Zooey. Here was the birth of my writing, and the solidification of my faith. I too wanted to write stories that could make their own way to the editor's desk by train with only a wax paper-wrapped sandwich and thermos of coffee for company. My stories too would one day make other passengers somewhat uncomfortable, I hoped. I felt his words. I understood in my teen-aged heart the Zen of shooting marbles. I wanted to tell Zooey that I would only ask for a small glass of ginger-ale, too.

I was in college when I first discovered his books, published in those solid, plain covers of white and green, mustard yellow, maroon. No frills. No pen and ink drawing of Holden, no shy watercolor of Franny. Just stripped down and serious. I wanted serious, something true and real, no gimmicks, no guile. I was 19 or 20, and really, who is more deep, who has more understanding of how the world works than a 20 year old? And who spoke to me about what really mattered? JD Salinger. Or more accurately, Buddy Glass.

I understood the Glass family. The paths that wove through the stacks of books in their apartment in New York City resonated with my childhood, binding my fantasies to my reality. An apartment crowded with brilliant, opinionated children, books and the smell of cooking meat and cigarettes. Elder siblings handing out reading lists to the younger, privacy invaded even in the bathtub, parents more than a little bemused by their offspring. This was the voice my heart heard.

Salinger in the flesh has never lived up to his alter-ego, Buddy Glass. Should I care? Allow his actions and pretensions rather than his writing to define his genius? Truth be told, the foundations have been laid too long and too solidly in my thoughts and writing for me to ever be released from the affect (some might say taint) of his voice. And I can only join with the cyber-wake in raising a glass- of whiskey as rye is a bit more difficult to come by these days- to salute the passing of the voice of JD Salinger.