Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and A Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and A Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.

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.

Writers as book club members: Is it even possible?

When we first moved to rural Pennsylvania three years ago, a few well-meaning folks suggested I join a book club to get to know like-minded people.
I thought about it … for about two minutes.
While I would greatly enjoy the wine (What’s a book club without wine?) and the socialization, I know I would be a lousy and annoying member.
I cannot think of a novel I have read in at least the past two decades without an edge of criticism, and it’s not the kind of criticism other readers would want to hear.
It’s sentence structure.
It’s word choices.
It’s how well and with how much artistry the author has suspended my disbelief.
It’s logical flow of plot and voice.
It’s pacing.
It’s whether the facts are right (because, yes, a good author strives for accuracy even in fiction).
While other members reach for deeper meaning, I can imagine myself reaching for a red pen.
So my question is this: Am alone in this?
Can writers succeed as book club members?
Or should we just skip the criticism and stick with the wine?
Do you, as a writer belong to a book club, or do your book club have a writer as a member?

NaNoWriMo mom-style

November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: start with a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper and write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The effort has its own website with forums and everything. It doesn’t matter whether the words are coherent; Everyone who reaches 50,000 words wins.
I can’t do that.
There’s no way, not with four young kids, a freelance article due in early December, Christmas shopping, a century-old house that needs lots of TLC and–oh, yeah–not without further neglecting my own physical health.
But something happened today that got me thinking.
I was talking with my agent about the progress of my next novel. When I got off the phone, I felt a rush of creative adrenaline. In less than 45 minutes, I wrote another 1,000 words–solid, strong, plot-moving words. It was the thrill of deadline pressure that had motivated me, even though it wasn’t real.
My agent made it clear that he didn’t want to rush me, but I can’t resist a challenge, even an imagined one. In my 11 years as a full-time newspaper reporter, I never missed a deadline (though I’ve made some editors sweat). I thrived on the breaking news, the kind of stuff where targeted reporting, fast writing and just the write amount of clarity and creativity could land my story on the front page.
So why not put that to use.
I can’t write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can write 25,000 words. That’s less than 1,000 words a day, 834 words to be more precise. I don’t want to start fresh, not when I’m already one-third of the way through my next novel, so I can add to that instead.
I won’t officially join the NaNoWriMo effort either. The forums and emails are too distracting. I have trouble enough with Facebook, other writing forums and the twin parenting forums I frequent. I’ll be a loner unless some other busy writer out there wants to join me in some parallel word play.
Instead of answering to NaNoWriMo officials, I will answer here on my blog. I will provide updates in the middle of the month and at the end. And I will remain choosy about my words. No junk pages. No ramblings. Nothing expendable.
Though the stream-of-consciousness writing can be helpful for newer writers who are intimidated by the length of novels, I find it’s too much work to sort through the yucky stuff. It’s easier just to write well to begin with.
One last thing.
I won’t wait until November 1.
I’ll start right now.

Slump. Please help.

I am in a reading slump.
And it’s disappointing.
Until recently, I’d always had two or three books going at once. I kept one on my nightstand, one on the kitchen counter and one near the treadmill in the basement.
Now, only the nightstand holds a book and it’s gathering dust.
I just haven’t had time to pick it up.
Time.
Maybe that’s the problem.
I haven’t used the treadmill since summer.
I’m always on the defensive in the kitchen these days, trying to keep our very-independent twins from emptying the fridge, pretending to cook on the stove and pushing chairs up to cabinets to get the van keys out of my purse.
I never seem to sleep anymore.
I have too much to do.
But I love to read.
I crave a good novel.
I enjoy the escape.
This is a place where I cannot remain.
It is time to map a new course.
The trouble is that I don’t know where to begin.
Do I try to get more sleep, foregoing the measly hour a night I get to hang out with my husband, cuddle, watch silly sitcom reruns and talk uninterrupted?
Do I climb on the treadmill more often, ignoring the editing, writing, cleaning and cooking that tear me in other directions? And, oh yes, our four kids?
Do I remove all glass and hot sauces from the fridge, disconnect the gas from the stove and disable the horn button on my key chain so I can just set the twins loose in the kitchen while I read?
Or am I looking in the wrong direction entirely?
Is it the novels?
Is that the problem?
It seems that over the summer, the novels I picked up were impossible to put down. They pulled me out of my world with so much force that I couldn’t resist. Not even four kids, a messy house and a pile of unedited interviews could keep me in reality.
Nothing I’ve read lately has done that for me.
So, perhaps, it’s not the time constraints at all.
Maybe, what I really need is a good book.
Any suggestions?

Message to Amazon: moms are Kindle people too

Hey you!
Amazon!
Kindle makers!
Over here!
Look at me!
Okay, so I’m not a business traveler looking for a good airplane read; I’m not a corporate something-or-another perusing stock quotes while racing to yoga class; and I’m not a techie who needs the latest gadget.
I’m a mom, a mom of four young kids.
And I am your market.
You just don’t know it yet.
Think about it.
I had a career once. I was a journalist. I was in the know all the time and it was great. I was childless too and, in my spare time, when I wasn’t running or hiking or barbecuing or taking classes, I was reading novels.
I miss it.
I still read the newspaper every day, or at least some of it.
I read magazines in the kitchen while I’m cooking, or in bed at night when I can’t fall asleep.
I still read novels.
I need novels.
Sometimes, I keep one on each floor of the house so I can pick up a book whenever I get a few minutes.
What I don’t have is something small and convenient that I can pull out of my purse (or diaper bag) on a rainy day while the twins are watching Blues Clues on the DVD player and I’m waiting behind the wheel for the school bus, which seems to always be late on rainy days.
I don’t have anything for traffic jams, or for Jump Joey’s when the twins are having so much fun on the play mats in the fully enclosed room that I actually find I have a few minutes or maybe even an hour to myself.
I don’t have anything for the doctor’s office (the grown-up kind) when I’m so engrossed in giving directions to the sitter as I slip out the door that I forget to bring a book. I don’t have anything for those days when I finish a novel and I can’t get to the library or the bookstore immediately to pick up another.
And I need another.
Now.
I don’t want to read news shorts on a Blackberry or check my email from my cell phone or sing along with Blues Clues.
I don’t want to chat on my cell phone with a friend.
I want to choose a novel, download it immediately and read it right away.
I want a Kindle.
Are you listening?
Are you looking?
Please?
Can I have a Kindle?

Know the source

Originally posted Feb. 5, 2009

I have learned a great deal from the folks on the forums of Absolutewrite.com, but a recent thread bothered me. Someone had written an intriguing query letter and had posted it in the “Share Your Work” forum, hoping for advice on improvements.
The responses came quickly: other writers confidently tearing it to shreds.
After the first few replies, some voices of reason began to emerge, published authors or those with agent contracts who suggested that the writer simply polish a few sentences and go for it. It really was good. It just needed a little tweak here and there.
I can only hope that the original poster read beyond those first few replies.
The lesson: know your sources.
The Internet is flooded with forums, blogs and private groups for writers. Absolute Write is one of the good ones. If ever I actually sell a book, I will make a donation. Those folks saved me from doing such crazy things as paying fees to agents, sending silly query letters or signing with publishers that are nothing more than self-publishing companies in disguise.
But every forum has its less-than-credible members and it is important to take advice from their members with a healthy dose of cynicism. Helpful writers will be in tune with your needs and your goals. They will ask questions. They will give answers with confidence, but not with arrogant confidence. They will make you feel good about their replies even if they’ve just suggested that you are going down entirely the wrong path.
I belong to another online writing group that is private. I have found wonderful advice and support there from women who face similar obstacles with their writing, but one fellow writer stood out among the rest. Her advice was often loudly written and left me shaking my head. She always punctuated her harsh words with her experience as a published author.
So I bought her novel (It was out of print, so I had to buy it from a used book dealer.). Her book was awful. The publisher went out of business long ago. When I Googled them both, I found that they had worked together previously. The publisher was likely a friend.
Worse yet, the copy I purchased had been autographed, a gift to a person who had helped her with her research.
Now, when I see her responses, I skip them.
I know the source.