Are You NaNoWriMo-ing?

Since I’m taking my first stab at a novel, I thought I’d hitch my wagon to some accountability and try NaNoWriMo this year.

I’m not a “write every day” sort of writer in the sense that I don’t sit down at the keyboard every day.  I spend random moments throughout the day thinking about the WIP but rarely do more than jot down a note or two in my notebook.  My keyboard time is a once-a-week endeavor.  I need to change things up a bit if I ever hope to finish a novel.

I’ve never really had to consider the idea of writing to a word count before.  Picture books aren’t really a word count sort of project.  I’m trying to decide on my writing timeslot for the month.  Lunchtime is out of the question.  I’m knee-deep in medical reports by then and can’t successfully switch to creative mode and back again.  That leaves very early in the morning or after dinner.  My mind is usually pretty fried at the end of the workday, so it looks like early mornings will be it.  I’ll have to get up a little earlier so I don’t have an excuse for skipping either my workout or my writing session.  Setting my alarm for 5 am should do it.  That alone will give me 30 extra minutes a day.  If I start my workout earlier and skip the morning news, I might squeeze in yet another 30 minutes each morning.

Honestly, I’ve always viewed NaNoWriMo with something of a “What’s the point?” kind of attitude.  Nobody can write a novel, start to finish, and have it ready in one month for publication.  That leaves no time for proper revision and editing, and we have far too much of that going on in the self-published world.  But I don’t think that’s the point of the exercise, at least not for me.  What I hope to get out of it is a more consistent writing schedule and a good head start on my first novel.  I also like the sense of community, of writers all over the world cheering one another on.  With only one car between my husband and I, I don’t have the freedom to regularly attend a writing group.  Writers need a certain amount of solitude to write; but too much isolation breeds loneliness, and loneliness dries up the creative juices.

Due to a previously planned kitchen project in the first week of November, I’m going to start in the last week of October, take the first week of November off, and then pick up the rest of the month from there.  Hopefully, I’ll have my new kitchen table by then so I can do my morning writing close to the coffee pot.

I’ll admit, I’m a little geeked about it.

Now What?

Well, the publisher who contacted me said the acquisitions board would meet in late February/early March.

We’re coming to the end of March with no further word from the publisher, so I have to assume they decided not to publish my manuscript.

A dream-crushing experience once again.  How should I, as an author, respond?

I checked their website.  They’re open for submissions once again.  I sent another manuscript.

Stand up.  Dust yourself off.  Get back in the game.

Starting from Scratch–Again

It’s something we all do at the start of a new year, isn’t it?  We start from scratch.  We set new goals, revise plans, and look forward.

I’m doing that in unexpected ways today.

A month ago, I was working with a small local independent publishing service to add a few simple illustrations to my indie chapter book for kids, Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, to be rereleased on Amazon with plans in the works for the sequel.  Since then, the publisher and the wonderful bookstore that worked so hard to promote local authors was suddenly and quite unexpectedly closed down by the primary owner.

Also about a month ago, I received an email from an editor at a small traditional publisher asking if the picture book manuscript I’d submitted to them almost four years ago was still available and if she could present it to the editorial board.  Having lost my indie publishing partner, I gave her the go-ahead.  I’ve been honest here about my misgivings and doubts about traditional publishing; but my dream of self-publishing my picture books hit a dead-end when the local publishing service, with its illustrators that were within my limited financial range, went under.  I haven’t yet heard back from the traditional publisher, so on the first day of 2019 I’m drifting in limbo.

I don’t like limbo.

The small traditional publisher in question puts out some wonderful picture books.  I’ve heard they’re selective because they only publish a limited number of titles each year, so I feel honored to have one of my manuscripts considered.  Even if they pass, I know I’m onto something.  It’s a boost to my confidence when I so desperately need it.

I still love the independence of self-publishing and how it enables me to maintain control over my work.  Unfortunately, despite my efforts to learn, I still can’t illustrate my own stories.  My computer savvy is virtually nonexistent, and marketing is something I don’t understand.  Amazon inexplicably took down the one review anyone bothered to write; and if I had royalties for every book people claimed they were going to buy, I’d be closer to hiring that illustrator.

The most frustrating thing for me as a writer is that everyone who has read my first book loved it, including my judge at the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards last year.  My writing is solid.  My ability to represent myself and my work is not.

I’ve taken a big bite of the reality sandwich that is self-publishing on Amazon, and it gave me heartburn.

What’s an author to do?

Well, an idea for a new story popped into my head the other day.  All I can say is that it involves socks.  Mind you, it’s just the germ of a story.  I can hear the cadence of the words off in the distance, but not yet the words themselves.  As we settle into winter and back to a regular schedule, I’ll have time to sit and listen as the words get closer.  I don’t mean to sound weird or mystical, but that’s how my stories come to me.  It’s a drumbeat, faint and a little indistinct.  I can draw the sound closer by beginning to put words on paper, and then the drummer fades out as my consciousness takes over.

I guess if writing is a disease, then productivity is the cure.

The Winthrop Risk sequel is almost finished, but I don’t know if I’ll bother self-publishing it on Amazon.  Like the first installment, it will need a few illustrations.  I won’t make the same mistake and release the sequel without them.  I’m sure the lack of chapter head illustrations has dampened sales of the first book, and it was the Writer’s Digest judge’s only criticism.

As far as my picture books go, I guess indie publishing is out of the question for me.  Time to restart the soul-crushing exercise of tossing my stories onto the slush pile and hoping someone notices my work.  I haven’t decided what to do with the Winthrop Risk series.  I’ll leave the first book up there on Amazon for now, sans illustrations until I can work something out.  I’ll finish the sequel and put it aside while I work on the picture book ideas I had to put on hold, and I’ll submit the others to publishers for consideration.

While we lost the local bookstore/publisher last month, one of the former owners is charging ahead with plans for a new service to help indie authors promote their work.  Her love for writing and her passion for supporting local writers are an inspiration to me.  I look forward to working with her again.

As I sit here on January 1, 2019, I find myself facing obstacles old and new in my quest to be published and read.  I know many of you are doing the same.  Chin up, everyone.

We’ve got this.

Atmosphere

This time of year, you can’t avoid the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel.  No matter how hard you try.  Trust me.

At first glance, the success of these movies and their popularity with viewers is puzzling.  They’re running a few basic plots that are done over and over again with minor changes in the characters and locations.  The plots are so predictable that you can come in on the middle of one and walk away before it ends, never missing a beat.

This has become a running joke with my husband.  He can come in at the beginning of a movie, ask me what’s going on, and get a full run down from me of how the entire thing is going to play out.

What should be obvious by now is that I’ve gotten sucked into watching quite a few of these.  Why?  I mean, I don’t even celebrate Christmas anymore.  Is Hallmark slipping in subliminal Christmas messages?

I think it’s pretty simple.  As with their mystery series, Hallmark has mastered the art of atmosphere.  Each movie features little towns decked out in impossibly lavish Christmas decorations.  The homes are cozy and festive.  Snow is abundant and pristine–no muddy slush at Hallmark.  Even the characters are dressed in greens and reds.  In the end, wrongs are righted, true love triumphs over misunderstandings and selfish ambition, and the true spirit of Christmas is realized by all.

It’s genius.

The holidays are a stressful and often sad time of year for many people; but 24/7 during the season, you can sit down with a cup of tea or cocoa and enjoy an innocent tale in an ideal town with a guaranteed happy ending.   As a children’s book author, I recognize the need for that sense of warmth and safety in my picture books.  Kids need that more than ever to overcome the effects of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

But the lesson can apply to any genre.  Where is your story taking place? What does that dark room in an empty house feel like?  What kind of couch does your detective stretch out on at the end of the day, and what is she drinking?  Can your reader feel the story?  How are you engaging their senses?  Can you do it without being too heavy-handed?

Trite, formulaic stortelling is something we all  want to avoid, but we can learn something from those who are successful in spite of being trite and formulaic.  We can learn how to immerse our readers in our story’s world and how to keep them coming back for more.

Hot cocoa, anyone?

You’re a what?

A self-published author.  Hold on and hear me out.

Not too long ago, what I do was called vanity publishing (insert sneer).  The meaning of the expression was pretty clear.  It was for authors who couldn’t get a publisher but were vain enough to think they were great writers and that the traditional houses didn’t know what they were missing.  You paid for x number of books and had to sell them yourself.  It was a practice that was ridiculed and looked down upon by “real” writers and publishers.  I recall comments in Writer’s Digest back in the eighties warning against vanity publishing.

I imagine the lack of marketing left many cartons of unsold books in attics, basements, and garages the world over.

Times and technology have changed, but attitudes remain pretty hind bound.  We are still considered by many to be nothing more than wannabes.

Like I care.

A group of us dirty wannabes had a discussion at the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium (Clawson, Michigan) last week about these attitudes.  For newcomers, the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium is a bookstore/publisher here in southeast Michigan.  In addition to used books, they feature and support local self-published Michigan authors.  Walk in the front door and our books are the first ones you’ll see.  They carry some 250+ titles, including mine.  The Scriptorium has become my new favorite place.  They offer seminars, host book signings, link writers with illustrators, and are just all around passionate about local writers.  Led by the fearless and intrepid Diana, there’s nothing they won’t do to help an author succeed, including opening up space in the store for us to just sit down and work on our manuscripts.  You can even bring your dog.

Recently, a man entered the bookstore and inquired about the focus on local/self-published authors.  He felt if we were any good, we’d be published by one of the big publishing houses.  He was getting pretty loud about it and as the store was filled with kids attending a book launch for a local author, he was invited to shop elsewhere.

One of our “Idea Lab” members wondered if our critic expected every NFL player to have won the Super Bowl.

He makes a valid point.

Writing seems to be the only art form in which you aren’t considered a legitimate artist unless you have a contract with some faceless entity.

Remember that musician playing the local club last week?  Did they have a contract with a record label?  How many Grammys have they won?  Did you ask for these credentials or just sit and enjoy the music?  Would you have walked out of the venue if these credentials weren’t produced?

Or how about the local art fairs you enjoy every summer?  Did those artists have showings at the Guggenheim?  Do their paintings and sculptures sit in the homes of prominent people?  Did you turn up your nose and walk away when you found out they had no wealthy patrons?

If you can enjoy the work of artists in other fields without asking who “allows” them to create and sell their art, why don’t you give writers the same courtesy?

Granted, there are bad writers out there.  There are also bad singers, songwriters, painters, and sculptors.  Sour apples, I grant you, but none of that would stop you from listening to or purchasing what better artists offer.  Nor would you malign all artists as wannabes who can’t make it, simply because they work out of their garage and personally hawk their wares to the public.

In fact, we even have a name for these unknowns.  We don’t call them wannabes or losers.  We call them local artists and they are given at least a modicum of respect.

Writing is an art form, no less so than painting or playing music.  It’s difficult; and maybe bad writing is glaringly obvious in the sense that we expect stories to be told in a certain way, following certain rules, while the appreciation of other art forms is more subjective.  I get that.  But how will you know unless you give us a chance?

I made the decision a few years ago to stop banging on doors that were never likely to open to an unknown.  I realized that I could spend the rest of my life trying to get some faceless (and sometimes soulless) publisher to consider my work, reaching zero readers in the process, or I could take that leap into self-publishing and sell a few books.

I haven’t sold many yet, but I’ve sold a lot more than those writers who are still waiting for the publishing gods to cast them a crumb.

Your stories are your art.  Do your best and put them out there.  You don’t need permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

still largely considered to be wann

 

 

When It’s Been Too Long

I haven’t done a great deal of writing over the past year.  I’ve worked a lot of hours at the hated day job, just trying to keep the roof over our heads.  I’ve battled some health issues and I’ve been neck-deep in ongoing family crises.

I’m tired.

Now that my husband is back to work after a very long layoff, I’m hoping to get my Sunday writing schedule back on track.  I have the bare bones of the next installment of Winthrop Risk, Detective, but I haven’t figured out the opening line.  Once I get that down, the actual writing of the story will be easier.  I’ve written some of Winthrop’s snappy dialogue and I know what his new case involves.  I have three solid suspects and have worked in a bit of a surprise about the identity of one of them.  My Winthrop character will be more “fleshed out” in this installment.  He’s turning into quite the guy.

I’m excited about it.  I’m also paralyzed.  How is that possible?

I think my enthusiasm for the characters and the story have set my own expectations far too high.  In short, I’m afraid of screwing it up.

Of all the forms of writer’s block, this is the one I dread the most.  If I don’t have a story idea, I know how to trick my brain into coming up with one.  It usually involves doing anything BUT trying to write.  I observe the world without trying to figure it out.  Look and listen without comment.  Jot down interesting names or phrases that I hear or that just pop into my head.  I use the same technique when I don’t know where the plot should go.  No big deal.

Someone once said (Anne Lamott?) that Fear was an especially vicious monster that smiles and wears lace gloves and says things like, “I just don’t want you to look foolish, dear.”

It will do no good to tell her she’s not invited.  Fear is also a narcissistic bitch if ever there was one.  She’ll show up, convinced of her own importance; but today I’ll resist the impulse to let her take a seat.

Today, I’ll gently court the Muse.  I’ll invite her over for a long-overdue visit.  We’ll sit on the porch and read a little bit.  We’ll read about writers and writing.  Then we’ll go over the story notes and I’ll tell her, “See, this isn’t bad.  We have something here.”  If she agrees, she’ll whisper that opening line and the floodgates will open.

I’ll make some tea.  She likes that.

 

For Mrs. Burgio

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in the third grade. I had this great teacher, Mrs. Burgio, who was one of the few lay teachers at the time at Our Lady of Angels in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She was the audacious type who eschewed the linear pattern of desk placement in favor of creating small groups. Each group had a name. Mine was the Blue Jays. She set up “learning stations” around the room. We had one for science, one for math, one for reading, and another for art. Each day, we were given time to visit the station of our choice and learn on our own. In a school ruled by nuns, this teaching style was downright seditious. At some point during that year, I wrote my first poem. It was awful, and I was hooked.

The year Mrs. Burgio directed the eighth grade’s all-girl production of Fiddler on the Roof, my class had the chance to sit in on a few rehearsals. I had never seen a live performance before and I was entranced.

Mrs. Burgio was also a woman of great foresight. Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies was a place full of very young drug addicts. I well remember seeing a neighbor’s daughter being carried, unconscious, up the apartment steps by a group of friends. Drugs were everywhere; and at the age of about nine, my classmates and I were approaching the day when we would have to make our own decisions about whether or not to use. You have to understand that at the time, drugs weren’t considered especially dangerous unless you overdosed. Drugs were mind expanding. Drugs were fun. Drugs were cool. If you didn’t at least smoke weed, something was seriously wrong with you. Mrs. Burgio took the unheard of step of talking to a bunch of very young kids about drug abuse. She taught us about addiction. I remember her saying, “If I had to draw a picture of someone who uses drugs, I would draw a picture of them with a big fish hook in their mouth.” That image stuck with me and despite enormous peer pressure in later years, I never touched the stuff.

We all meet people who impact our lives, maybe even change our direction. Mrs. Burgio was the first who did that for me, and I loved her for it. I found out that I’m good with words. At home, my daily lesson was that I wasn’t worth the time of day and that all I did was make everyone else miserable. But in Mrs. Burgio’s third grade class, I found the thing that would define and sustain me.

Thank you, Mrs. Burgio, wherever you are.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

Dream Big or Go Home

No writer ever achieved a lot by dreaming just a little.

I seem to have run out of postage.

Good for me.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One commanding general felt that the words a, an, and the were a waste of time and insisted they be purged from all reports submitted to him.  Some doctors will insist on using an incorrect or outmoded medical term.  I had one neurologist who consistently misspelled a common drug.  I kept correcting him and he continued to misspell it in every report.   But when there are bills to be paid and children to feed, you do what you’re told.  I did the whole “supermom” routine (which, by the way, is a crock), working full time and trying to care for a family.  Writing was put on hold, though I would occasionally pull the old notebook out from under my bed and try to write something.  Since you’ve never heard of me, it’s a pretty safe assumption that I never did get anything done.

This went on for about twenty-six years.  I homeschooled two boys who had learning disabilities and I worked full time from home, working around my teaching schedule.  I worked nights, weekends, and holidays.  Once the boys were finished with school and working full time, I hoped to scale back my work schedule to five days a week; but we were barely getting by and it just wasn’t possible.

A few years ago, exhausted and battling what had become dangerous depression, I decided to tell John just how unhappy I was.  He was sitting on the couch.  I sat on his lap, facing him, and I started to cry.  I’m not a crier by nature so he was a little shocked.  I told him what the years had been like for me and how tired I was of doing what everybody else needed me to do.

“Before I die,” I told him, “I want to do what I want to do.”

He looked a little puzzled.  It wasn’t that he was clueless or didn’t notice how unhappy I was.  That he had known for years.  I had just never bothered to tell him I wanted to be a writer; that I needed to be a writer.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to write children’s books; but I need some time to sit and think.  If I can just cut my hours and have one day free to think and write, I know I can do it.”

Now, like I said, we were living paycheck to paycheck, both of us busting our asses at full-time jobs, and all of it going for the basics.  Frills are a rarity around here.  But John didn’t hesitate.

“If you want to write, you go for it.  We’ll get by.”

So at the age of forty-six, I set out to pursue my dream; but with my tongue scraped raw, I found it tough to get started.  I had to relearn creative writing.  I had to find out all over again what it felt like to be inspired, to imagine, for anything to be possible.  I read books and articles about writing and started to feel the creativity stir—like the first time you feel your baby move and it feels like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.  Stories started to form.  I wrote drafts, edited, and wandered back and forth between the land of I’m-A-Genius to the land of I’m-A-Fraud, dragging my briefcase back and forth across the border every few hours or so.

So far, I’ve only received three actual rejections—the rest just never responded (not very Emily Post, if you ask me).  The rejections arrived via e-mail.  They were very polite.  The first one hit me pretty hard.  I closed the door of my office and cried myself blind (looks like this writing thing strikes an emotional chord with me).  I think I even quoted Job.   But I’m good now and took the other rejection in stride.  No tears.  No Job.  Reread the manuscript, looked again for places to improve, and submitted it to someone else.  Still waiting for a response.  You know who you are.

I’ve read several articles about platform.  Platform?  I write children’s books.  I was a kid.  I like stories.  How do you get a platform out of that?  I just started a Facebook page a few months ago and this blog is only days old. The prevailing opinion seems to be that without these things I can’t really be considered a writer, at least not a marketable one.  I’m a rule-questioner from way back, and I’d like an explanation from the shadow puppet who came up with that idea.  Can you imagine telling Mark Twain he had to have a blog in order to be considered a real writer and be published?  I imagine he’d puff on that cigar for a moment or two and give you directions to the nearest cliff.

And let’s not forget the “you’ll find time to write if you really want to” crowd.  I know this sounds like heresy, but I can’t write in five-minute spurts.  I need time to think, to mull things over.  I don’t need quiet, I just need time.  I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with five siblings, so silence is an alien and unsettling thing for me.  As long as nobody speaks to me directly, I can write in the middle of chaos.  I like to write while sitting on my front porch.  One day, I was stuck on a line and just couldn’t work it out.  The neighbor across the street, meantime, was talking on the phone to his ex-wife.  Well, shrieking really.  Called her all sorts of nasty, vile things.  Suddenly, a really terrific line came to me and my problem was solved.  Yes, chaos is my buddy.  You find what works for you and tweak the plan as you go.  Screw the experts.

So, I keep going, trying to find my way around a genre that is largely ignored by the writing magazines.  No website or any sign of that nebulous concept of a platform.  No MFA, creative writing courses, or conferences.  I sit and stare into space and make things up.  Sometimes I use rhyme, talking animals, or even add a little moral to the tale, things that apparently violate every “thou shalt not” in publishing.  I don’t seem to fit the writing mold du jour, and I realize that may hurt my chances of ever being published; but I am, finally, a writer.