It Had to Happen Sooner or Later

I finally broke down and bought a laptop.  Years of working as a transcriptionist has damaged my hands, making my usual writing in longhand slow and uncomfortable; and trying to write in the same space I use for the day job was getting me down.

I know, it’s an extravagant thing to buy when I have a perfectly good desktop in the house, but I’m in a screw-it-I-work-my-ass-off-and-deserve-a-break kind of mood.

I’m not one to plot or brainstorm on the computer.  I still like to sit with a pen and paper on the front porch and scribble down notes about characters and plots.  I use the computer once I’ve roughed out the story and want to give it some shape.  Yesterday, new laptop charged and ready to go, I sat on the couch and typed the opening scenes of the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, with a DVD of Salem’s Lot (the David Soul version) playing in the background.  It was glorious.  By saving the draft to One Cloud, I’m able to easily access it from the desktop when I want to print it out for revisions.

I bought a nifty backpack to carry the laptop in, with plenty of space for my notepad and the reference material I need.  My own portable office.  I suddenly feel wonderfully free.

Now to find a suitable coffee shop to haunt.

 

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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.

 

Winthrop Risk, Detective

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Winthrop Risk, Detective

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If you’re a lousy writer…

…what do you do?

A young woman recently posted on a Facebook page for self-published authors how painful it was for her to read the cruel reviews of her book on Amazon.  I read through the comments, and our fellow authors tried very hard to explain to her why the book was tanking.  They were amazingly kind and diplomatic about it.  Several went through the trouble of reading an excerpt and then offering a critique.

The young lady had apparently been through some traumatic experiences and wanted to share her fight with the world.  Her intentions were good.  She hoped reading her story would help someone in a similar situation.

The problem was, she couldn’t write her way out of the proverbial paper bag.  Her spelling was awful, and she didn’t seem to know the basic rules of grammar.  The spellcheck and grammar check functions on her computer were either ignored or disabled.  Her thoughts, according to other writers, were scattered and rambling.  The manuscript read like a very rough first draft.

They all gave what amounted to the same pieces of advice.  She had to pull the book.  She needed a professional editor.  She needed to revise, revise, revise.

To that I added that she should take a refresher course in basic grammar.  Yes, I said it nicely and encouraged her to continue to hone her craft.

I don’t know if she has it in her to become a good writer.  It isn’t enough to have a compelling tale to tell–you have to know how to tell it.

Look, we’re writers and we want to be published.  There’s no shame in that.  The shame lies in manuscripts that are clicked into existence before they’ve been properly bled over.

So, what’s a lousy writer to do?  Well, if you aren’t willing to do the work, stop.  You aren’t a writer.  You’re a wannabe with romantic notions about walnut-paneled offices, tweed jackets, and brandy snifters.  This is real life, not a Hallmark movie.  Get a grip.

Read.  Familiarize yourself with words and how other writers string them like lovely pearls across the page.

Reeducate.  Take a grammar course at your local adult education center or on-line.  All that sentence structure stuff Sister Margaret Mary tried to pound into your skull really does matter.

Read about writing.  I was having trouble getting started because I was trying to write straight through from beginning to end and knew nothing about plotting a story.  I found it helpful to read a couple of books about writing in my genre and figured out where I was going wrong.  But be careful not to let reading about writing take the place of actual writing.  That’s an easy trap to fall into.

Revise your manuscript again and again until you’re satisfied with it, and then give it to an impartial reader for a critique.  Writing groups are excellent for this purpose.

There is a certain wonderful drudgery to writing.  It’s exhausting.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s the most intense love/hate relationship you’ll ever have.  There are days you give up and swear you’ll never go back to it.  But a few days or weeks later, the Muse returns with flowers and chocolates and apologizes for being such a jerk, and off you go.

Finish the sentence for me:  Any job worth doing is worth doing __________.

 

I’m Not My Mother

I recently celebrated my birthday, which reminded me that I need to send for a copy of my birth certificate. Somewhere among Fort Dix, West Germany, and Michigan it was lost.

My birth certificate is something of a puzzle to me. I have five siblings, all with a first and middle name. My first name is Mary Jane but I have no middle name. My parents told me it was because my first name was a double name and a middle name wasn’t necessary. When you’re different from your siblings, you’re simultaneously proud of the distinction and hurt by it.

I accepted their explanation until I was about 17 and signing up for driver’s training at school. I had to produce my birth certificate and asked my mother to give it to me. I took it out of the envelope and read the details of my arrival, noting that I was born in the morning. But looking at it a second time, I noticed that it listed my first name as Mary and my middle name as Jane. Middle name? I don’t have a middle name. I’m Mary Jane, or “MJ” to family and friends. I’m not Mary. My mother’s name was Mary.

Surely, the folks who printed the birth certificate had misunderstood and listed my name incorrectly. A typo, that’s all. I would have to correct it. We were living in a different state at the time and this was long before the age of the internet, so I had to write a letter explaining my problem and send it via snail mail. A few weeks later, I received the necessary form and filled it out. My mother seemed a bit miffed when I asked her to sign it, though I didn’t understand why and knew better than to ask. I then had to mail it to my father for his signature, as my parents were long since divorced. I have no idea what his reaction might have been.

A few more weeks, and I received a corrected birth certificate. I had them list my first name as “Mary-Jane”, adding the hyphen to prevent confusion in the future. It never occurred to me to give myself a middle name. I was just MJ, as I had always been.

Had my mother not reacted the way she did when I asked her to sign the form to correct my birth certificate, I might have forgotten all about it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know my mother and I had a very bad relationship. It didn’t start when I was a teenager. She just didn’t like me, let alone love me, and I knew that from the time I was a very small girl. Why, then, would she give me her name? I have two older sisters, one of whom was her favorite. Why didn’t she name her Mary? I find myself wondering about it. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was falling apart; and by falling apart, I mean they were openly hostile to one another. Did she name me Mary just to piss off my father? Did he then insist everyone call me Mary Jane instead of Mary, just to piss off my mother?

I can only speculate about my mother’s hatred for me, since it was always present. Her first child was a boy, followed by my two older sisters. Was she hoping that her next baby would be another boy? Did she think that would make things better with her husband? It was the early sixties after all, so that sort of thinking wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Her sister had given birth to a boy just a month earlier.

The funny thing is that my father doted on me when I was very small. He said I was a beautiful baby who was born with a head full of dark brown hair. I used to sit in his lap. There’s an old home movie of him feeding me ice cream when I was about two years old. We used to take naps in his rocking chair. I wonder if my mother was angry because he didn’t hate me, because he wasn’t upset that I wasn’t a boy, and yet her marriage was still a disaster.

I’ll never get any answers, as both of my parents are dead now. By the time I was five, our apartment had become an emotional minefield. My parents never spoke and my father began to disconnect himself from his children. At least I know that he loved me for a few years.

To this day, it irks me when someone calls me “Mary” (no offense to all you Marys out there), and I’m lightning-quick to correct them. I’m MJ. I am not Mary. I am not my mother.

The 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

I’m not one for contests; but a year after self-publishing my first book, I thought the publicity from winning a Writer’s Digest contest would help my abysmal sales.  Unfortunately, I didn’t win.  What I didn’t know when I entered was that each entry would receive its own critique from one of the judges.  To be honest, that made me a little nervous.  What if they hated it?

Each book was judged in six categories:

  1. Structure, organization, and pacing.
  2. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  3. Production quality and cover design.
  4. Plot and story appeal.
  5. Character appeal and development.
  6. Voice and writing style.

In each category, a score of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (outstanding) was awarded.

I scored “5” in every category.  Blew me away.

The judge’s commentary is below in its entirety.

“Winthrop Risk, Detective, is a lively mystery where Winthrop tries to find a missing hamster!  This book has some great lines in it.  Right from the start I knew I’d like it when I read, “I live in the big city, where dreams are broken…like a piñata at a birthday party.”  And that’s just the first simile.  One after another rolls off the page in perfect 40s noir.  There are no pictures in this book, but the cover fits the story well and grabs your attention right away.  The plot was strong, the red herrings were tricky and explained well, and the overall solution was believable.  All in all, the story was an absolute delight to read.  I only struggled a bit with a 40s noir-style so prevalent in a book for third graders (and younger) as they would likely stumble because of the “alternative language” of yesteryear.  I appreciated the definitions after chapter four, and think this book read from a parent to a child is an easy sale…but as a self-directed story, I think it might do better as an audiobook.  But I’m a bit divided.  This book is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable read.  How can I possibly give it a negative mark in any area?  I think it may just need the right visionary or market to help it find a home.  I also suggest, because of the age group, teaming with an artist for an occasional piece of artwork that supports the story.  That would also add to the book’s length and perceived value.  You’ve definitely got a great book here, and a unique, memorable voice that I couldn’t help but read myself and then share with my entire family.  It made them as happy as a dog sitting under a toddler’s high chair.  We need more Winthrop Risk!”

Before I decided to self-publish (Amazon and Kindle, by the way), I did send the manuscript out to a few places.  Unfortunately, I got no response.  At all.  Not even an email.  I self-published based on my own confidence in my work and would do it again; but the judge’s review of the book, from someone who actually works in publishing, was still a surprise to me.  Clearly, my work has merit.  Why didn’t the houses I submitted the manuscript to think so?

As I’ve long suspected, the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript is a highly subjective decision.  Whatever you’re working on or currently shopping around, don’t be discouraged by those rejections or by the silence of no response at all.  When you’ve done the hard work of revision and polishing and know you’ve put together something wonderful, don’t doubt yourself simply because the person who pulled your manuscript out the slush pile can’t see it.

I wrote a terrific little book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle.

Happy New Year!

 

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.

My Day Job Sucks & Doctors are ***holes

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A brief recap:  Like just about every writer on the planet, I work a day job to keep a roof over my head.  In my case, I do medical transcription.

What that means is that I listen to reports dictated by very highly paid neurologists and otolaryngologists and I type what they say.  Well, sort of.  I type what they’re supposed to say.  Clearly, the basics of English grammar are never acquired by these highly-educated buffoons and it takes a woman with a twelfth grade education to make them sound smart.

In addition to being an excellent typist, I have to know the rules of grammar, be an excellent speller (including medical terms like “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty”), and have to know which drugs are used to treat which conditions, as well as the appropriate dosages.  I have to be very aware of details, like making sure the doctor is consistent about things like left and right.  I also have to find current addresses for the referring physicians, most often without being given a first name or the proper spelling of the last name.  This eats up my time and I don’t get paid for it.

For all of this, I currently make (if I’m lucky) 5 cents per line.  That translates to about $6.25 an hour in a good month.  And boy, do those doctors bitch about the cost.  Many have gone as far as to outsource their work to India. Yeah. Chew on that for a while and remember it the next time your computer freezes and you get stuck talking to “Bob” in customer service.

The only benefit to this job, as far as my writing career goes, is that I can say with complete honesty that I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life editing medical reports.  That fact, and this blog, are about as far as I get with the elusive writing platform.

So next time you see your doctor, just remember that behind that façade of concern is a person who will later bitch about how much it costs them to have someone like me make sure the right information gets into your chart.  If your doctor hasn’t poisoned you yet, you may have a medical transcriptionist to thank.

You’re welcome.  Your miserly physician is not.

 

 

It Doesn’t Have to be Real

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I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

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