When two worlds collide: motherhood and writing

I told a fellow writer recently I would not be attending two appealing conferences this spring and summer because of conflicts with my children’s lives. One falls on the weekend of my son’s first-ever prom and the other clashes with summer camp drop-off.
She commended me on my “sacrifices,” but suggested I reconsider.
I need to put my writing first, she said.
I need to ensure that I am taken seriously if I want to succeed.
I was taken aback.
I just don’t see it that way.
I chose my career, but I also chose to have children.
I believe in balance, but when I am forced to tip those scales, they will always tip in favor of my four kids. My husband is no different in his approach to his career, though it’s less obvious because he doesn’t have as much flexibility.
Motherhood has made me a better writer, so if it slows me down a little, that’s okay.
My perspective is unpopular, at least that’s what I gather from forums, blogs and books on the subject. We female writers are supposed to protect our writing identities at all costs and forgive ourselves the selfishness required by our career choices.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am selfish sometimes.
Um, plenty of times.
Just this morning, I encouraged my sick ten-year-old son to watch YouTube videos so I could write in peace. The house could be a lot cleaner. I could put better meals on the table. I could be doing art and science projects with my kids during school breaks and on the weekends to keep them off their iPods and computers.
I could also take a regularly paying job and earn money for after-school activities, upcoming college costs and educational summer outings. I have sometimes worked part-time when our finances required it. Most recently, I was a taxonomy specialist for a media company.
But as soon as our finances allowed, I quit.
Why?
Because I’m selfish.
I want to write even if I can’t guarantee that my writing will sell.
But I have my limits.
No conference is worth missing my son’s first prom.
I want to see the flush in his face when I tell him how handsome he looks in a tuxedo. I want to see him give his date her corsage and wave as the two of them head off for a night of dinner and dancing with friends. I want to hear all about it when he gets back.
No networking opportunity is worth missing camp send-off.
I want to hug my twins before they disappear into their cabins for their first full week of overnight camp and squeeze my daughter before we let her go for two weeks, longer than we have ever been without her.
And no novel of mine is going to suffer because I didn’t go to that one workshop.
Look at all the real-life experience I am getting through my kids.
You can’t buy that.
We women have good reason to be protective and defensive when it comes to our identities as writers. Despite all the strides we have made as a gender, society as a whole still tends to see male writers as professionals and women as hobbyists.
But we don’t have to deny one identity in order to reinforce the other.
I completed four novels while my children were in the most physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding stages of their lives. They still need me now, but their needs have changed. These days, the conflicts with my writing are more about the schedule.
Achieving a balance is easier and it will only get better.
If I get published now, my youngest kids are old enough to understand that I will have to travel for signings, to teach workshops or to participate in conferences. They are old enough to be excited for me, to be proud of me and maybe even to sometimes travel with me.
And it goes both ways.
I am secure enough in my identity as a mother to do all that without guilt, to enjoy success as a writer.
I have not sacrificed.
I have compromised to get what I want, an entirely different concept.
We are not going to change society’s view of female writers by mimicking the success of stereotypical male writers. Why would we want to do that? We need to show the world something different. We need to show society that parenthood (fatherhood included) is a valuable asset for writers, not a complication or a burden.
I will go to a conference this year, but I won’t miss a child’s birthday, a school event, or a milestone to do it. Childhood lasts for only so long, but I intend to write forever.
Where’s the sacrifice in that?
(Margaret Atwood, you are my idol!)

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.

Preparing for the inevitable: negative reviews

I’ve yet to publish a book, so I can’t say what a negative book review feels like.
I’ve had only one review on my published short stories and that got five stars, so I’m in la-la land over that.
But my journalism days … oh, my journalism days!
You’d think those experiences would have hardened me, but newspaper articles don’t really get reviewed.
They get reactions.
In the best cases, I received loads of phone calls, interest from the national media, thank-you notes and teary-eyed visitors offering hugs, cookies and flowers. Those reactions made me feel good about my career choice, like my stories made peoples lives just a little bit better even for only a day.
In the worst cases, I was lunged at by prisoners; yanked into a mob angry relatives (It wasn’t even my story! I was just returning the photo.); stalked by a man who was grateful  I had made public his illegal incarceration, but who was also mentally ill and untreated (He later proposed to the female deputy who told him to leave me alone!); stolen from; cursed at; and wished an early death for myself and my future children.
But even such negative reactions to news stories can be, in a sense, a good thing.
Bad people don’t like it when their wrongs or their weaknesses are revealed, especially to the general public.
They get mad.
That’s okay by me.
So even 11 years of journalism has not prepared me for the inevitable — for my first negative novel review, the day when someone takes my heart right out of my chest and stomps on it, ripping my work to shreds.
That must be what it feels like, right?
I think about this whenever I read a novel that, for whatever reason, rubs me wrong.
How would I react if my work were publicly bashed?
Could I stand it?
I found comfort recently in a post by author/blogger Beth Revis.
She has a good point.
I don’t like beef.
Why?
I just don’t like it, so I’ll never give a steak or a burger or a pot roast a good review.
Yuck!
That poor chef will just never win over a non-beef lover like me.
That’s what I need to remember.
I have to think beef.

The learning curve

Way back in the old days when I was I was still a querying virgin, I stumbled upon an online discussion about the number of novels writers completed before they were published.
A talented few were published immediately.
Most had written two or three books before their writings went public.
But a surprising number kept writing even after half a dozen novels were rejected.
I scoffed.
That will never be me, I thought.
If the first novel wasn’t published before the second one was finished, I was sure I would have deemed myself a failure. All the stamina would be gone, all the excitement, the fervor, the self-confidence. There was no way I could go on.
Yet here I am working on my third novel while the other two have yet to see a bookshelf.
And what shocks me is that I am more confident, more excited, than ever before.
This is why.
The first published novel sets the tone for a writer’s career. It also starts the timer for the completion of another work and then another and then another. The pressure is on and learning curves can be incredibly dangerous if they are taken too fast.
Those who want to make careers of writing cannot afford to make mistakes early on.
At least not publicly.
I made mistakes and, thankfully, they were neither permanent nor public.
Better yet, I learned from them.
Like so many before me, I was too excited by my first novel to sit on it for a while. I rushed into queries before all my beta readers had finished. When the verdict came in, the errors were glaringly obvious to me. I couldn’t believe I had queried it.
I cut characters, revised the first half and tried again.
It worked.
But then came more mistakes.
I signed with an agent who was not a good fit for me. I wrote my second novel too fast. I approached my third novel with sales figures in mind instead of focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I was letting ego overrule passion.
Again, I stepped back and re-evaluated.
I needed to slow down.
I terminated my contract with my agent and started the hunt again, taking a more cautious approach this time around. I revised my second novel and entered the first novel into a contest that targets the appropriate agent/publisher audience for its genre.
I ditched several chapters of my third novel and started over again, being true this time to my desire to write a mystery that is both suspenseful and worthy of the term “literary.”  I am so much happier and my passion has recovered its strength.
With two completed novels and a third underway, I have more choices and more experience.
I learned a great deal about the business in my two years with my first agent, who is wonderful person and was always willing to talk with me about such things. I am not sure precisely where I want to take my career, but I know where I don’t want to be.
And, in this business, that knowledge is equally important.
I look back at that woman who scoffed at the thought of banking completed novels and try to see her with a sense of humor. At the time, I also thought I had a pretty good handle on parenting with two young kids close in age.
Then came a surprise set of twins.
The twins have taught me that I have a lot to learn and that the learning never ends.
Writing multiple novels has provided the same kind of lesson. Balance is key in this business just as it is in every other aspect of life. With each mistake, I have gained confidence — confidence that has led to positive change. That confidence comes not with perfection, but with the ability to see and correct those mistakes and to learn from them.
The twins opened my eyes as a parent.
The novels opened my eyes as a writer.

The long summer

It’s been a long summer.
A very long summer.
With early sunrises and late sunsets, no one sleeps in our household.
And no one wants to stay home.
That means no writing at night or early in the morning, and no sneaking in a few words here and there during the day.
I can’t even jot down notes at the pool or the lake because our youngest two are still swimmers-on-the-verge. Both have taken their first independent strokes. One even started swimming a little distance the other day. But at 4 years old, they still have no judgment and they certainly don’t have enough endurance.
My eyes must remain focused on them even when lifeguards are present.
I know.
I could make it a priority.
I could squeeze a few words in here and there.
But we have four kids and they tire me out.
What I really want at the end of the day is a glass of wine.
What I really want in the morning is a cup of coffee.
But my mind won’t rest.
Even without a laptop or a pencil and paper, I find that I am writing. I am writing in my head constantly, focusing on my characters when I should be focusing on the road, blurting out plot dilemmas during conversations about minnows and tadpoles, revising while I’m loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots and pans.
When September comes around and the kids return to school, I know that I will have trouble doing anything but writing. I will obsess. I will forget my vow to exercise more. I will procrastinate on those home remodeling projects. I will be surprised to realize that it’s time to get the twins from preschool and nearly time for my husband to bring the older kids home.
I will have my hands on the keyboard, banging out those words — those characters, plots and settings — that are fighting for space in my head. The experience will be freeing just like it was last fall. I will be productive. Very productive.
I am excited.
But …
why then do I still dread the fall?
Why do I find that I am reluctant to send the kids off to their classrooms, where they will be challenged daily, where they socialize with their friends, where someone else will feed them lunch?  Maybe even saddened? Maybe even a wee bit depressed?
I love to write, but the reality is that I love my kids more.
And it’s healthy to be pulled away from my keyboard, to get a little color on my arms, legs and face, to have lunch on a picnic table that is situated between the beach and the playground.
It’s good for me to converse with other moms while the kids swing or climb on the monkey bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit into a chair at night with stars bright above me and fire crackling in front of me and my husband beside me, watching the older kids instruct the younger ones on the qualities of a perfect s’more.
The things is that every September brings us closer to ages when the kids won’t be interested in hanging out with mom in the summer anymore. Every September, I realize that they’ve grown just a little bit more. Grown a little more independent of me.
That makes me proud, but it also makes me appreciate the time I have with them.
I will always be able to write provided my mind remains sharp and my hands can still navigate a keyboard, but I will not always be able to a push swing or coming running to see a captured crayfish in a net or catch a child jumping off the edge of a pool.
Because the kids won’t need me that way.
So for now, the words in my head will just have to move over, cram closer together and make room for more.
They are not going anywhere.
But I am.
The pool, the deli, Darien Lake, the library, the playground, the beach, up and down the street in front of our house, grandma’s, Aunt Karen’s, cousin Amy’s, maybe Aunt Angie’s one more time, the mall, Market Street, a hike, and who knows where else.
Who knows.

Who needs money, right?

For the second time in a year, I let guilt over the lack of a steady paycheck get to me.
It’s not like I’ve been lazy. I’ve written one novel and I’m nearly done with another. I’ve published a few short stories and I’ve started freelancing again.
Oh yeah, and then there are those four kids who need my love and attention.
But my novel hasn’t sold yet, I got paid for only one of those short stories and I can handle only one or two freelance assignments a month while still working on my fiction. The twins are in school 16 hours a week and the older kids go full-time.
I wanted to make a greater financial contribution.
I wanted validation.
The first time I felt this way, I took a job moderating for a national online moms forum. It was great in the beginning. I was on the site often anyway, so why not get paid for it, I figured. I was the lead moderator only two shifts a week and simply had to help out during other times.
What I had not realized was that good moderators must be fully immersed, especially with this particular site, where the moms could get down and dirty, mean and nasty often. I was cooking dinners with my laptop on the counter, trying to ignore the personal attacks that came my way whenever I intervened.
The hours were long. The pay wasn’t great and my stress levels were high.
Worse, I had no time to write.
I finally gave it up after a few months.
That was in the spring.
I’d forgotten the lessons I’d learned this December when a magazine/publisher I write for asked whether I’d be interested in social networking. I jumped at the chance, but I should have exercised restraint. I should have sat down and thought.
The job is a good one for someone who is interested in a career in social networking or who simply wants to earn a few bucks. It involves creating and posting nearly 50 tweets a day on 14 different blogs. Easily done with tools like hootsuite.com.
But doing it right, especially in the beginning, took me away from everything else.
Within a week, I realize that the job was far more involved than I had first believed. If I continued, in the limited work time that I have, everything else would have to end.
Little or no freelancing.
No fiction.
Less time for my kids.
I gave notice today, but said I’d hang in there until they find someone else.
I hope that next time this type of opportunity comes up, I think a little harder and I look back on what I’ve written here because I need to remember a few things:
I am not a moderator.
I am not a professional social networker.
I am not worthless simply because I don’t produce a steady flow of cash.
None of things describe me.
I am a writer.
I am sometimes a teacher.
I am a mother and a wife, who needs to balance all those things to be there when the people she loves need her.
That’s what I am.
And that’s perfectly valid.