The incurable itch

A high school senior told me recently she intends to pursue creative writing in college. I mentioned this to her father, who sighed.
He is trying to talking her into something else, he said.
Something more practical with more job opportunities.
Good luck.
I was that girl.
I fought it.
I lost.
The forces of my childhood pointed me toward a career in writing.
I won a local poetry contest in elementary school. I wrote radio commercials for our small, always-broke Catholic school. I wrote short stories for a short-lived junior high school publication.
Writing was my therapy when I sensed trouble between my parents, when my parents finally separated and when they later divorced.
(Okay, writing and alcohol, if I must be honest.)
But I’d grown up with no money and I wasn’t about to grow into the same situation.
I didn’t even consider majoring in English or creative writing.
Instead, I chose geochemistry when I enrolled at SUNY-Oswego. I loved rocks. I loved chemistry. I was strong in math and science. I could work for an oil company like my cousins. It made sense.
Until I took the first course and realized it was (gasp) work!
At a loss for a major, I enrolled in an interpersonal communications class because I wanted to become more confident. At the same time, I registered for a fiction writing workshop just for fun. An elective, I told myself.
Even as I grew more interested in interpersonal communications and declared it my major, I continued taking classes in creative writing through the English department: ficton, poetry, journalism.
Why not take a few literature courses as well, I thought.
I even enrolled in summer sessions so I could take more classes in both fields.
I told myself my involvement in the college newspaper — first as a writer, and then as an editor — was simply communications-related. Same with my internship at a Pennsylvania television station.
Then my advisor enlightened me: With just another course or two, I would have a double major in interpersonal communications and English/creative writing.
A newspaper journalism internship was among the creative writing courses I needed, so I tracked down the regional editor at the Syracuse Newspapers and asked whether I could write for free. The free work became a paid internship and the paid internship led to a full-time job when I graduated.
And there I was, writing for a living.
Great, right?
End of story?
Of course not, because that itch is incurable, that desire to write fiction.
It lay dormant for several years, satisfied with the human experiences journalism afforded me and the opportunity to grow within the craft of writing nonfiction, but I missed voice. I missed character. I missed plot.
I missed it all too much.
So what did I do?
It took me six years of working full time and driving two hours each way, twice a week to Binghamton University to get my master’s degree in creative writing. But the need to scratch kept me in motion.
A degree still wasn’t enough though. Just before I graduated, my husband and I made a deal: We would move to Arizona to pursue his dream job. When we were settled enough financially, I would pursue my dream of writing fiction.
It hasn’t been easy.
Kids came along (Yay!) and finances dictated that I bring in some money, forcing me to set aside plans to write fiction full time. I have worked part time as a college English instructor, a magazine freelancer, a book editor, a website moderator and a taxonomy specialist, trying to balance work with family and writing.
So far, that has resulted in three published short stories and four unpublished novels that are in the hands of my wonderful literary agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli. Two more novels and a couple more short stories are in the works.
I have come to terms with my passion for fiction and my need to constantly scratch that itch (I suppose I could come up with a more pleasant metaphor.). It’s been a long and complicated road, but that instinct, passion, itch — whatever you want to call it — never let me stray too far.
I am not alone.
I know so many other writers who also went to war with their natures and lost.
Some are best-selling authors. Some are mid-list. Some are still looking for publishers. Many gave up lucrative careers in other fields — interior design, law, education. Why? Because the forces that drive us to create in such a way are simply too strong.
Fighting it leads to depression, and who wants to be depressed?
So don’t be surprised, my friend, if your daughter ignores your advice and majors in creative writing anyway, or if she heeds your advice and later gives up her financial stability for the pursuit of the written word.
She’s not being disrespectful or trying to mislead you or acting out of youthful ignorance.
She is simply abiding by her nature.
She’s scratching that incurable itch.

It’s submission day (again)!

Oh, the ecstasy!
The emotions are etched in my memory like a high-contrast, high-definition photograph.
I actually screeched that day six years ago when my then-agent emailed a list of editors at various publishing houses who received my manuscript for consideration.
It would all fall into place from there. I just knew it.
My novel would be on the shelves within a year.
The next novel would result in a bidding war.
Everyone would be reading my stuff.
Yup, that’s what happened.
Not!
What a contrast from today.
Today, marks my third submission day (My fourth if I count rewritten and resubmitted work.) and the emotional picture is far less jarring than it was six years ago. It’s more like soft-touch through a sepia filter. I feel no euphoria. Only a pleasant buzz.
And I like it that way.
The first time around, rejection was devastating. I had jumped so high that I had a long, long way to fall and the landing hurt — a lot. My then-agent was new to the business and had set his own expectations just as high.
We had buried several truths in our ignorance:
– The manuscript was not ready.
– My agent did not have the necessary connections. (He now represents only nonfiction.)
– Debut authors are a hard sell.
You know that saying, that ignorance is bliss?
It’s not.
Ignorance, in this business, often invites disillusionment. Disillusionment takes weary, broken writers by the shoulders, spins them around and encourages them to walk away from that which has hurt them. They leave their dreams behind because they don’t want to experience that kind of severe impact again.
That could have been me, but one thing kept me from surrendering to disillusionment’s power: my journalism experience. When the first novel failed to sell, I started researching the business of publishing while writing another novel. I connected with established authors and aspiring writers like me. I asked questions. Lots of them.
I needed realism and I found it.
I met authors who had written multiple novels before they celebrated publication. I became friends with a writer who sold her first novels in mere days, not only because she is that good, but also because she is smart and savvy. She had spent as many years researching the markets and the players as she had writing.
I also met writers who had simply gotten lucky.
I opened my eyes and saw the mistake I’d made in signing with an agent who had no experience beyond his previous job working for a publisher. He knew a great deal about the after-market end of the business, but not enough about selling to publishers.
I left my agent with two completed novels in hand and started all over.
I had just started a third novel when I connected with my current agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, a woman who has been in the business longer than I can ever hope to be. Liz is calm, but enthusiastic. She is practical, but ambitious. She’s connected, but in ways that run deep. Her contacts are more than business associates. Like her clients, most are friends.
And she’s worn off on me.
I hope this novel sells, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t dream of it. But I won’t let those dreams overwhelm or distract me. I refused to pour all of my being into the fate of this one novel. If it sells, I’ll be screaming from the roof tops, but I’ll wait until that happens to climb up there.
For now, I’ll just sit on my porch, where the ground is only a few feet below me, and focus on the next novel like the one under submission doesn’t exist. I know I’ll lose my balance if this novel doesn’t sell. I’m only human, after all. But the landing won’t hurt so much and my recovery time will be minimal.
And I’ll climb right back up the stairs to the porch and start writing again.

Writing for … glamour?

I emailed an author a while back for information about her experiences with a publisher who was interested in one of my novels. She insisted I call her immediately and sent her phone number.
The reason for her urgency?
Apparently, the publishing world had deceived her.
Authorship wasn’t glamorous at all, she said, and she suggested I get out of the novel-writing business before I suffer similar disappointment. Her advance was small, her sales were slow and she wasn’t becoming famous.
What?!
It took me a while to respond.
First, I thought she was joking.
Then, I thought she must be insane.
Finally, I realized she was quite serious.
So, I laughed.
It never once occurred to me to pursue fiction for celebrity status. Nor did I ever consider the profession “glamorous.” I expect to spend every penny I make on my first published novel (and then some) promoting it, so I certainly am not anticipating wealth.
Where did this illusion come from, I wondered?
How could someone who managed to write a novel, find an agent and land a publishing contract remain so ignorant to the business for so long?
So I started paying attention and this is what I found:
Novel writing has its celebrities: JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James are rolling in cash. What so many people fail to recognize, however, is that most of their money comes from movie options, movie royalties, etc.
They were popular writers before their novels became movies and probably made some admirable amounts of cash, but glamour struck when their novels hit the theaters and their incomes reached seven to ten digits.
In fact, many of their fans are not even avid readers.
Take the woman who excitedly told me someone had entrusted her with the ending of a Harry Potter film he was working on. She was thrilled to have such privileged information. Giddy, even.
Little did she know everyone who’d read the series was already privy to the end.
Unfortunately, the attainment of millionaire or billionaire status is not the norm among authors, though many sell movie options (the exclusive rights to a film production company to someday make a movie of the novel if ever they feel like it) for perhaps $100,000 or so per novel.
Success like JK Rowling’s is probably one in a million, if not more.
But those are the writers we hear about.
Those are the stories we know.
Add to that the magic of social media, and forces behind the misconceptions quickly become clearer.
Search for “author” on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, any of those sites and face-upon-smiling-face will appear. Promote, promote, promote. That’s the buzz word in the writing world these days.
A self-published author with sales of ten can appear to be a celebrity simply because he or she has created that illusion via social networking, web pages and blog tours. What looks glamorous is often the result of a ton of effort and, sometimes, loads of money, on the authors’ parts.
All this was starting to make sense to me.
I was beginning to understand the star-stuck author.
But then came the kicker: House Hunters International.
I rarely watch television during the day, but I was sick the other day — can’t-get-off-the-sofa sick — and I needed something mindless to occupy me. So I chose House Hunters International, intrigued by the fact that its focus on a crime fiction writer.
According to the narrator, the husband gave up everything to follow his wife to Australia, where she had an opportunity to promote her novels. That was the first thing struck me as odd. Why move to Australia to promote her novels?
Couldn’t they just visit?
Next, I noted they were leaving behind a 7,500-square-foot home in Texas.
Then, they set a budget of up to $4,000 for rent.
On a writer’s salary?
Surely, I must have heard of this woman.
I researched her, figuring she was someone famous who had slipped past my radar.
Nope.
She published her novels through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company and a choice many writers make who want full control of their work. Her novels are far from best-sellers and I’d never heard of her.
So how could they afford this?
After further research, I found an article from an Australian newspaper. According to the interview, she and her husband were leaving Australian because his temporary job appointment had ended. She had sold 1,000 of her six novels overseas, for a total of what?
Maybe $3,000 in two or three years?
Surprise.
The producers had lied, further enforcing the illusion that writers live glamorous lives and make tons of money.
Here’s the truth.
I know many glamorous writers. But they are not glamorous because they sold a bunch of novels, made a ton of money and are recognized in supermarkets worldwide. They are glamorous because that’s who they are.
They are kind, charming, witty women and men who write with passion, not with dollar signs in their eyes. They are personable, helpful and accessible. They love their readers. They love their art (though who wouldn’t mind seven-digit checks for doing what they love!).
The woman I called didn’t have that.
And I doubt she ever will.

Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don’t want to read these novels anymore.
I don’t stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it’s a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don’t blow heads off.
I don’t want to be that writer — the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it’s amazing how many people know that stuff.
That’s why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?

New agent, new energy

I was excited last year when I dropped the kids off for the first day of school.
I had recently terminated my contract with my agent and couldn’t wait to find out what the future would hold. It was a scary thing — going agent-free after two years, especially since my former agent is such a good guy — but I knew instantly I’d made the right decision.
We were not a good match.
Sometimes, that happens.
I was careful when I started firing off queries to new agents.
I didn’t want to go through that again.
Some rejected me instantly.
Others asked for full manuscripts and have yet to respond.
Others read partials or fulls and decided against representation, or were interested in only one of my two completed novels. The latter were the agents I chose not to pursue. I want an agent who will stick with me throughout my career, regardless of what genre I write. I’d hate to shelve a novel simply because it’s not a particular agent’s “thing.”
Then came the response from Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary.
She’d found flaws in my mystery/suspense novel that no other reader had, and offered to reconsider after revisions. She opened my eyes to those logical errors and immediately inspired confidence. In her emails and on the phone, she struck me as sharp, honest, and experienced.
But it was that confidence that impressed me most.
She knew what both novels needed and she knew how to express that.
She had plans.
She offered strategies, visions and direction.
She knows the industry and knows it well.
She is the kind of agent who can sell my novels and steer my career in the right direction.
I like her but, more important, I trust her.
So here we go.
It’s that time of the year again.
All four kids will be in school full-time for the first time ever.
I will have time to write and, as much as I will miss them, I am excited.
But this is a fresh kind of excitement.
This year, I get to write — just write — without worrying about the business side of things. 
I feel focused.
I feel encouraged.
I feel, once again, like I made a wise decision.
Two more days and I’m off.

Hunting, hunting, hunting for my ticket to artistic freedom

I was so excited to sit down at my computer when all four kids started school this fall and write.
Just write.
It’s been six months since I’ve had regularly scheduled work hours and I had all kind of visions in my head of fully immersing myself in novel number three, taking running breaks whenever I suffered a bout of writer’s block, and maybe having a clean kitchen now and then.
Almost two weeks into the school year and I have yet to write more than a blog post.
I’ve gone running twice.
Dishes fill the sink.
It’s my own doing.
A few months ago, after the completion of my second novel, I amicably parted ways with my agent.
So now I am on my own again.
With my agent went the luxury of writing without a care.
I once again have to worry about the business of writing.
And I’m not happy about it.
The innocence that inspired me in the agent hunt the first time around is gone.
I no longer get giddy when I find an agent I want to query. I am well aware that the agent is receiving about 50 other queries on that same day and that my query might not get more than a glance, regardless of how hard I try to get that agent’s attention.
I no longer get my hopes up when I get a request for a full manuscript.
It’s affirming, but it’s just another step in the process.
A rejection is still more likely than a contract offer.
I no longer query any old agent with a web page.
I am pickier now, seeking only agents with proven sales records in my genre and carefully researching their reputations as human beings (No refection on my previous agent. He is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.). I want this agent to be my last agent.
I don’t ever want to go through this process again.
But I know I have to grin and bear this.
A good agent, in my opinion, is a godsend.
My fingers are itching to write, my mind is racing with plots and characters, but they will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The right agent will set me free.
Free to write.
And that freedom, I know, will be well worth it.

Time to smoulder

So close.
I am so close to finishing my second novel.
The first draft is complete.
The second is underway.
But writing will have to wait.
A line has formed in recent months that includes painting the newly re-walled living room, painting our oldest son’s room, baking a tent-shaped cake for the Cub Scouts cake auction and tilling a garden plot. All things that have to be worked around kids, kids and kids.
Something is always waiting.
But, when it comes to writing, waiting can be a good thing.
The longer writing waits, the more it smoulders.
As it smoulders, it builds strength.
Plot inconsistencies become clearer with each stroke of the paint brush. Characterization problems are resolved with a few dozen turns of the soil. Novels restructure themselves in a bowl full of cocoa powder, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla.
When I return to the keyboard, I will have plenty of creative energy to burn.
And the novel won’t have to wait long.
I’ve decided to take a break for a few months from freelance work with the exception of one book editing job that I am excited to tackle. That will give me a few extra hours a week to devote to the novel. I should also be able to sneak some time in at night when all the kids are asleep after the painting is done.
I’m still hoping to be finished, really finished by summer,and the time spent thinking without the distraction of writing might just enable that.
Fewer wasted keystrokes.
Fewer wasted words.
More intense focus.
It’s so hard to be patient.
But it’s so important to wait.

Short Story America: the future of short fiction?

A cool thing happened today.
I got a call from Tim Johnston, publisher and co-editor of Short Story America. I had submitted a short story to his site less than a month ago and he wanted to publish it.
Even cooler is the site itself.
Short Story America is a start-up with a unique business model. My story, “Balance,” will appear as the Story of the Week beginning Friday. When its run is over, it will be moved to the Contemporary Library with all the other formerly featured stories. At the end of the year, Tim and his co-editor, Sarah Turocy, will compile those stories into an anthology, which will be sold in book format. At some later point, all the short stories will be available as audio downloads.
I get $100 for the story plus 15 percent of royalties on all audio downloads. I will share 15 percent royalties with the other authors in the anthology. All royalties will be calculated after publication and marketing expenses. A little different, but I’m okay with that since all the start-up money is coming out of Tim’s pocket.
That’s not a lot money as far as royalties are concerned, but I can’t think of many other short stories publishers who offer royalties at all. In fact, I can’t think of any.
Short Story America keeps permanent nonexclusive rights, which might be a dilemma for career short story writers who plan to publish collections on down the line. But not for me.
I am primarily a novelist. If publishers so desperately want to compile my short stories into a collection, they are still welcome to use “Balance.” If they don’t like the deal with Tim, I’ll write another one to fill the slot.
Coolest yet is the look and feel of the site.
Short Story America uses flash technology to make the stories look like real books with illustrated covers, bios and all. Readers click and drag, or just click on the page corners to turn them and it makes a sound like a real page flipping.
My kids had a blast tonight just playing with the pages.
Readers must be members to access the stories, but membership is free.
Personally, I’m thrilled just to be part of this new venture. Some folks are critical, of course, but the short story market must evolve somehow and this seems to me a different and interesting way to do it.
I wish Tim, a short story author himself, and Sarah the greatest of success, not just for my sake, but for the art of short stories and its the survival in this ever-evolving technological world.
They might just have something here.

Perspective: mother vs. mother-in-law

My mother and my mother-in-law both read the same book recently, a gift from me.
A New York Times best seller.
Both left the same message on my answering machine:
“I need to talk to you about this book.”
I had just started the novel and had not yet formed an opinion.
“I couldn’t even finish the last chapter,” my mother said. “It just wasn’t real.”
My mother was disappointed by what she felt was an exaggerated plot with exaggerated characters. The main character, a 12-year-old girl, suffers emotionally after the death of her mother and abandonment by her father. My mother didn’t find the traumas to be all that traumatic. She didn’t find the resolution all that satisfying.
Great, I thought.
The author is a friend of mine.
What if I feel the same way?
Would I be able to face her?
Then I returned my mother-in-law’s call.
My mother-in-law, a woman known for guarding her emotions, could barely contain her excitement.
She loved it.
She even cried when she read it.
“I never cry when I read a book,” she said.
I was baffled.
Such intense, polar-opposite emotions from two women who are only a year apart in age. Why? I mentioned the conflicting reactions to my mother-in-law. She wasn’t at all surprised. My mother, she explained, has an entirely different perspective on suffering.
Here I am. A writer, a journalist, someone who should understand audience.
And she was right.
I had missed it.
The problem is that I am also a daughter, and daughters can’t always sympathize with the children their parents once were because we are naturally selfish. We want to be emotionally cuddled when we hit bumps on the road, to become objects of our parents’ sympathy, recipients of their wisened advice.
We don’t want to see that our parents are still vulnerable themselves, even as adults. We don’t want to deal with their unresolved issues because we want them to help us resolve our own. So, sometimes, we are unintentionally blind.
Of course it wasn’t real for her.
My mother grew up in Germany during World War II. Her father fled to Romania to escape recruitment in the Nazi army. She was taken from her family at 10 years old and sent to Youth Camps. From there, she was placed in people’s homes, where she worked for her keep.
Her siblings were also taken away.
She saw her mother only occassionally.
She has told stories of beatings and hunger and loneliness, but she rarely goes into great detail. Instead, she often recounts her childhood with stories of her youthful rebellion. How she sneaked out windows to pick flowers, how she refused to stay in bed when sick, how she wandered through old castles and played imaginerary games.
If only some rich great aunt had swept her up at 12 years old and gently placed her in a mansion-of-a-home with a private bathroom for each bedroom, a maid who adored her and all the clothes and delicious food she could imagine. How could someone so lucky possibly be suffering to the extent that the main character suffers?
I picked up the novel a few days ago and started reading it with a new curiousity. The writing is beautiful. The author worked her entire life as a different kind of artist and her talents carry into her writing. The images she paints with her words stir all the senses. I see, feel, taste, smell and hear when I read. The experience is exhillerating.
But at the same time, I am guarded.
I am aware of my mother’s perspective even as I am drawn in by this young girl’s plight.
I feel sympathy for the girl, not because her situation is so horrible, but because of the way she endures it and because of who she is, the way the author has drawn her. I feel joy with her, not because she landed in a wealthy home with lots of love, but because of the way these unique and charming characters surround her and pull her out among them.
My mother’s perspective and my mother-in-law’s observations dimished my expectations of the novel … in a good way. They reminded me to tear down my own psychological defenses, to read beyond the literal plot and to focus instead the author’s portrayals and resulting portrait of human nature, of the nature of community.
And I got something even better out of it, better than I could have imagined.
The novel, and this experience with it, brought me one step closer to understanding my own mother.

Waiting

The Waiting Place …
… for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

–Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Place You’ll Go!-

Including me.
And it’s killing me.
I thought the hardest part of this whole publishing thing would be finding an agent. So when I did, I figured I was relieved of the stress, that my agent would take that load off me and I would be free to pursue everything else.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was naive.
I had no idea just how hard it is to wait.
Yes, I had to wait when I was sending out query letters to agents, but that was active waiting. I never knew when I checked my email whether I would find a rejection; or a request for a partial or full manuscript; or a request for my nonfiction proposal.
And, if I got a rejection, I didn’t let it get me down.
I just whipped off another query letter and prepared to wait again.
I’ll admit it; it was kind of fun.
It was even kind of exciting.
This is different.
Don’t get me wrong.
I appreciate being in this situation.
And I have a great agent who will do great things.
But, while he is submitting to publishers, I am simply doing everything I possibly can to distract myself. I’m trying not to get my hopes up every time the phones, trying not to check my email every ten minutes, trying not to imagine a whole bunch of editors saying, “Nah.”
I’m really trying.
I’ve written another chapter of my second novel. I’m working on a freelance piece. I’m tearing wallpaper off bathroom walls. I am concentrating on my four children and on making their summer a good one.
But it’s not enough because I still have time to think.
Think.
Think.
Think.
Sigh.