Friday, December 16, 2011

Hey, that's MY baby...

Last summer, I was invited to join a book club. I belonged to one many years ago when I lived in New York state and realized how much I had missed it. It didn't take me long to accept the invitation.

We studied "The Shack" for several months and when we finished, the group decided on its next project. I was surprised when they all agreed to read "Angels Unaware." And embarrassed. I offered to drop out while they read it, but was voted down.

"We want your input," they said.

"Angels Unaware" is my first published novel and frankly, by the time it was out in print and e-reader, I was throughly sick of the editing and rewriting process. I hadn't even looked at in in months. So in a way, it was like reading an unfamiliar work.

But not quite.

The women attacked the book from an entirely different perspective. They called Jordan, Kat's selfish and controlling husband, "Jerk Man." Then they divided a sheet of paper into columns and listed all his good qualities on one side and his faults on the other. The faults led by far.

Like all writers, I try not to make my heroines too perfect or my villains too evil. They must have a flaw or a redeeming quality or no one would believe in them. So, I tried to point out places where I had had Jordan act, if not nobly, at least a little less self-centeredly. "Look," I said, "where he tells her he's sorry she's sick and offers to pay for a second opinion."

"Huh. Just like Jerk Man to throw money at a problem," sniffed one member.

"He must have a reason to act like he does," mused another. I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut before I gave away too much of the plot.

"Well, she might have questioned where all that money came from at some point. She just accepted it."

As they argued, I had the feeling they were talking about people they knew, friends or acquaintances whose foibles they were dissecting. It was hard to remember Kat and Jordan were just words on paper, people who lived only in my head. Except now they were living in someone else's head as well.

Although I tried to accept their opinions, it was a little like parading my first-born child at a tea party and hearing everyone both praise and criticize my darling's every feature and mannerism.

I don't know if I'll go to the next meeting. They might enjoy reading the book more without worrying about hurting my feelings. (Although no one has yet -- they seem to like the book and ask innocently why it isn't on the best-seller list.)

On the other hand, how many writers get to hear their readers react honestly to what they've written? A carefully written and thought-out review is great, but to see someone read a passage for the first time and blurt out an emotional response is entirely different.

So they hate Jordan and cheer for Kat in her struggle to discover herself. And that is exactly what I hoped would happen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where Ideas Come From

I am not a joiner. Oh, I belong to two writers' groups and a book club, and do some volunteer work at the church, but that's the extent of it. A good week is when I have no meetings penciled on my calendar.

Mom was different. Once we kids were grown and out of the house, she became a social butterfly. If she didn't have at least one meeting reminder on her kitchen calendar she would go into a depression. For her, a good day was a committee meeting with coffee in the morning, a bridge club luncheon, a late afternoon bridge club and an evening with friends after dinner. Or an evening with friends with dinner.

Whnever I visited she hauled me along to her bridge clubs, thinking I "needed to get out and meet people." I couldn't convince her that I had plenty of friends of my own and viewed playing any card game with the same joy I greeted a dentist appointment.

There was one club she belonged to, though, where I did enjoy tagging along. This club had no name, no officers and no charter or bylaws. It grew, if I remember correctly, from Newcomers Club meetings when all the ladies were strangers to town and to each other. Long after they were settled, they continued meeting for lunch. That was it. The only rule was the members took turns choosing a restaurant for the next month's meeting.

There was no adgenda. They caught up on each other's lives, exchanged news of mutual friends, discussed the latest book or movie (or Hollywood scandal), and enjoyed a good meal.

So when I needed a reason to have my characters come together in my next book, it was a no-brainer to adopt Mom's monthly lunch meeting -- with one difference. I gave it a name: "The Lunch Club."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just do it

I finally did it.

I bought a Nook. I'd researched e-readers, talked to friends who had one and knew exactly what to buy when the time came. I feel a tiny bit guilty about not buying a Kindle since I used CreateSpace to re-release my journal, "I'd Rather go to California," but the scales tipped about an ounce in favor of Nook.

I hadn't planned on getting one just yet, but then an on-line writing friend published a book. When I tried to buy it, it was in e-format only. That alone did not make my mind up to take the plunge, but then another friend published a book and it wasn't available in print either.

Now, I could have ordered the book anyway and had it downloaded to my computer. I've done that, but I find it hard to read a book on the computer monitor. No matter how engrossing, my back tends to protest before very long.

And, my readng time is confined to the hours after five, when I stop work for the day. I like to curl up in my favorite chair and read while Jim watches television. If the show is interesting, I might watch it but the book comes back out during the commercials.

You can't do that with a computer.

So I went to Wal-Mart and bought a Nook. I took it home, read the directions, and had one book that very day and pre-ordered the other which came online this week. Then I visited Smashwords and re-downloaded a book I had purchased there some months ago and had gotten only as far as the first few chapters.

Okay, this is like giving a kid the key to the candy store. You can access the entire B&N site from the Nook and if you see something you like, you just press "Buy." No connecting cables or special codes. It charges your account and the book is in your hand in less than a minute.

I could see right away that I would have to set myself a limit or I'd have my credit card maxed out in no time.

When my son found out I had bought my new best (electronic)friend, he sighed and said he had planned on getting me one for Christmas.

"That's okay," I reassured him. "You can get me a gift card to buy more books."

Nothing like hinting very, very broadly.

Like everything else in my life, I now wonder why I waited so long. My device will not replace printed books--I still go the the library and stock up. It just adds another dimension to my reading list.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Continuing Education

There are two great advantages to belonging to a writing group. One is you get to meet other writers and commiserate or congratulate. And, you get to talk about writing with people who understand the joys and frustrations.

The other advantage is that most groups have either a guest lecturer or a hands-on workshop at their meetings so that you get to learn more about your craft.

I belong to the Carolinas Romance Writers, a chapter of Romance Writers of America. I went to a meeting Saturday and the guest speaker was A.J. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. That sounds as impressive as it is, but Dr. Hartley was both informative and down-to-earth. He writes in several genres (see Books to find out what he's written) and generously shared with us both the advantages and pitfalls.

I was interested because I have written an historical romance (unpublished, but finished -- if I can ever stop tinkering with it), two contemporary women's fiction (one published, one awaiting word on my submission), a contemporary romance (also awaiting word) and a book that is a paranormal romance in an alternate history.

Dr. Hartley said that agents don't much like their authors to genre-hop because a "brand" leads to longevity. In other words, readers associate an author with a particular genre and might be disappointed to pick up a book under the author's name and find out it is something quite different from what they previously read. Also, he warned, it is more difficult to completely know one genre and to know its market.

On the plus side, he said, "Do it because you want to."

That's what I wanted to hear, besides learning that he has done it successfully. More than that, he used his own name on each book. No putting a different name on his young adult books than his adult mysteries, it's the same name on ALL his books.

Some other points he made during his lecture were:

Push the limits of your genre to create something else; write in more than one genre so if one genre should collapse (paranormals, believe it or not, are getting harder to sell); and meld two genres together to create a new genre or a niche market. I thought, on hearing this, there is hope for my paranormal, A Question of Boundaries, after all.

Model your work on what other people are doing. This does not mean plagarize, but if you do not know what is selling today, your out-of-date pace and structure may not catch an agent's eye. If you want to write romance, you should be reading other romance writers every chance you get.

Lastly, after you read enough to know what is popular in a genre, figure out the rules so you can break them.

Of course, none of this matters if you are writing for fun, but if you are serious about breaking into the industry, you have to know what is selling now and why.

I pay my dues to belong to CRW, and I drive over an hour each way to the meetings. If I didn't think it was worth it, I wouldn't go. I'd stay home and write. But it isn't likely I'd ever get published without the help I find there.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Ghost Story

I love ghost stories as well as anyone. My favorites are "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James and "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson.

We once lived in a haunted house. I would wake up to see someone--or something-- standing at the side of the bed. My husband and sons backed me up on this, for at one time or another they all had heard or seen or something they couldn't describe.

My most vivid encounter happened on a beach in midsummer. We were vacationing on St. Simons, an island off the coast of Georgia. We took a day trip to Jekyll Island to see the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, where injured turtles are nursed back to health. Told that there would be a turtle walk that night, we decided to return in hopes of seeing one of these creatures crawl out from the sea to lay her eggs.

Our little group set out about nine o'clock. We walked along the beach, but according to our guide, there were no turtles around and about that evening. We had about decided to turn back when a jeep drove up. There were two rangers aboard and they proceeded to give us an impromptu lecture. As I listened, I became aware of someone standing close by my side. Too close.

After a few minutes I turned to give this person "The Look" to let her know she was invading my space, but there was no one there. I say she, because I had a distinct mental image of a fortyish woman, rather stocky and about shoulder-height to me.

I returned my attention to the stories the rangers were telling, but the sense of this woman standing so close as to be all but skin to skin distracted me. I looked again, but the nearest person--a man--was a good 18 inches away.

The sensation was so strong, however, that I moved to the other side of my husband, where I enjoyed the rest of the lecture in peace. The strangest thing about this encounter was that I was not one bit afraid. Annoyed and irritated, yes, but I never felt the least twinge of fear.

I often wondered if this woman was as pushy when she was alive as she was as a ghost. I imagined her as the kind of woman who edged ahead of you in line and elbowed her way to the front of the sales table. Maybe she saw us standing there and came to see what we were looking at and was trying to get closer, not quite shoving me out of her way.

Lately, I had another thought. What if she had died on that particular stretch of sand and was unable to leave the scene of her death? In that case, she was not invading my space, but we were invading hers.

Either way, I swear to this day that I physically felt somebody next to me when my eyes could see nothing but air. I leave you with this quote from Shakespeare:

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Routine or procrastination?

Here it is, almost lunchtime and I got up early today to work on my blog. Really early. But first I had to have my coffee and read the newspaper. Then I did the crossword puzzle, because how else would I know if my brain was running on all circuits?

Then I went to my computer. I had to check my e-mail, and there were a few that I had to answer right then. And someone sent a cute video that I looked at -- only three minutes, right?

I noticed that my e-mail in-box was overflowing, so I deleted some of the old messages. Of course, I had to re-read them to make sure they weren't something I needed to save or do something about. After trashing them, I opened the trash file and deleted all 400 pieces of the previously deleted mail.

I have three e-mail accounts, so this action was repeated twice more.

Then I decided my workstation was too messy, so I went though the slips of paper where I had scribbled down urgent information, addresses, URLS I mean to visit someday, minutes of past meetings, invoices and a newsletter from a health organization that I had to skim in case it contained important, new information.

I finally turned to my blog site and entered my ID and password. My eye was caught by the list of blogs I am following and I just had to read Eliza Knight's, blog where she has posted a video on the worst jobs in history. This was really interesting, so I watched it and then checked my other favorite bloggers to see what they had to say this week.

And so the morning went.

It isn't that I don't want to get to work, it's just that so many other writers are posting so many great articles that I'm afraid I'll miss something if I don't look at them right now.

I don't know why I can't wait. I have a stack of library books, but I don't open my current read until I have finished my writing goals for the day -- usually around 5:00 which coincidentally is glass-of-wine time. This is when we turn on the TV for the 5 o'clock news (I read during commercials and the weather report). The TV is silent until then, so don't ask me if I saw Good Morning America or The View.

Maybe because the books and television set are in another room, their siren call is muted and I can ignore them.

Alas, I can't put the computer in another room and still work on it. What I need to work on is my self control.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fashion statements then and now

My husband is not a fan of the droopy pants look. I'm talking about the guys who wear the waistband of their pants somewhere below their buttocks, exposing their underwear. So far his response is reserved to muttering under his breath and grinding his molars.

For some reason this "fashion" reminds me of another men's style popular beginning in the 14th century, when tunic hemlines became shorter to make men's legs look longer, exposing their "naughty bits" when sitting. The Church declared the Black Plague was a divine punishment for this sinful flaunting of private parts.

Then the working men began to take off their tunics and waistcoats in deference to th hot summer sun and worked in their shirts and breeches. The young men of the aristocracy gleefully adopted this "look" to the bewilderment of their parents. Unfortunately, removing the outer garments made the gap between the shirt and breeches (leggings that were laced to the shirt) even more noticable.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and so the codpiece appeared to cover the gap. Over time, this practical answer to propriety was decorated, padded and eventually shaped to represent a permanent erection.

After some 200 years of popularity, breeches grew wider (think of the Dutch) and the codpiece disappeared except for rock stars and comic book heroes.

I hope this currrent trend of exposing the buttocks, although decently covered by plaid, polka-dotted and striped drawers, won't last as long or I'm afraid my husband will grind his teeth down to nubs.

Yes, I can be tolerant when I put this look into historical perspective. But can someone tell me why so many young girls and boys are wearing their flannel pajamas to McDonald's and Wal-Mart?

Friday, September 9, 2011

My take on the future of print

People keep asking me when I am going to get an e-reader. I tell them I will probably break down and get one in the not-too-distant future because while I enjoy downloading books (we are 60 miles from a bookstore), I don't enjoy reading them on my computer monitor quite so much. If I'm reading for pleasure, I'd rather be in my comfy chair in the den.

But when people tell me that e-readers will make paper books obsolete in the near future, I beg to disagree.

According to IDC market research, 12 million e-readers were sold in 2010.That's a lot, right? But there are 312,175,400 people in the United States alone, leaving roughly 300 million people lacking this device. Further, the figures reflect world-wide sales, including China. The world's population is 6,960,965,142. Hmmm.

I bet these people aren't buying Kindles and Nooks and iPods for the same reason I'm not. They are expensive and fragile. I've heard people say textbooks will be downloaded into reading devices in all the schools in another generation. Please. I'd trust a first grader with my precious cloisonne vase before I'd give him a Kindle.

In this economy people are shelling out for mortgage payments and groceries, not electronic gadgets. They aren't giving up reading, though. I see people at the library checking out armloads of books. I see them rifling through the sale tables at discount stores and grocery stores. They visit used books stores and flea markets and estate sales and come away with precious books in their hands. If printed books disappear, what will these avid readers do?

Another argument is that printed books are a waste of natural resources My rebuttal is that trees are a renewable resource just like corn and wheat. Trees take a little longer to harvest, but they are a cash crop just the same. As for the price of paper going up, have you looked at the price of corn and wheat lately? Everything's going up.

We've had stories ever since the cavemen sang, danced and related their exploits in hunting or warfare. When printed books came along, did singing and dancing and storytelling fade away?

Drama has existed since the Greeks and was kept alive during the Middle Ages with the church's morality plays. Theater gave us Shakespeare. The traveling Chatauqua brought drama to the hinterlands of the United States and Broadway has entertained us for over two hundred years. Did live theater curl up and die when motion pictures came along? Did movies slink out of sight with the advent of TV?

I think printed books will be around until e-readers are cheap enough for anyone to buy and not worry about them breaking and having to be replaced. And I think that day will be a long time coming.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wrongs and Rights of Getting Published

I was leafing through the October issue of Writers Digest (that appeared in my mailbox the end of August) when a headline caught my eye: "The gamble of posting your fiction online..."

What? I read the articles and discovered that "Many agents and editors are also leery of attaching themselves to writing that's already been published online--because once you post it online, it is considered published, albeit digitally."

I can't say I wasn't warned. I just didn't believe it. But now that I have been convinced, I am pulling "A Question of Boundaries" from my website. Alas, with but 3 chapters to go. Die-hard fans (are there any?) can request the final chapters and I will honor them with the title of Beta Reader.

Whew. Next time I will listen to my betters. Like the writers who get contracts after entering a contest. I have been leery of contests: they take a lot of preparation and there is postage, lots of paper and ink for printing out copies, and a fee.

The upside is that agents and publishers read the winning entries, which is better odds than getting them to read something in the slushpile.

So -- maybe I will reconsider. It's like winning the lottery -- first, you gotta buy a ticket, right?

So I'm going to enter. Not "Boundaries." because it does need a lot of polishing and editing, but one of my other finished manuscripts that has been looking for a home for far too long.

Yep, gonna buy a ticket.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What "The Help" has to say about marketing

My husband and I saw "The Help" yesterday. I'd read the book and was curious about the movie version.

I'd also read enough reviews so that I knew most comments were along the lines of How Far We Have Come, It Wasn't Like That With MY Family, or Thank Goodness That Can't Happen in This Day and Tine.

I wsn't thinking that at all. I was thinking of how Kathryn Stockett's book shot to the top of the best seller list and garnered a film contract. I'm pretty sure she wasn't Tweeting back in 2009, when the book was published. I checked her website and it was copyrighted in 2010, so that came after the fact also. As for a blog, she may write one, but I haven't found it.

No, her primary marketing tool was word of mouth.

You could see it working in the movie as the camera panned over scenes of women reading the book, cover prominently displayed. There were scenes of women talking about the book, face to face or over the telephone. People told people about the book and they bought it and told other people.

Isn't that the phenomonen we all wish for ourselves? That somehow our book would be talked about, praised, and finally pushed to the top of the Times best-seller list -- and stay there for weeks on end?

Last week a woman stopped me while I was walking. "I'm reading your book right now," she said and went on to flatter both the book and me to the point that I stopped her with a gesture. "My head is getting too big," I apologized. I thanked her for the kind words and said how much I appreciated hearing them.

In retrospect, I should have asked her to tell all her friends and relations the same things she had told me, and asked them to tell their friend and relations.

Facebook, websites, blogs and Twitter can do only so much. Ads are expensive. There are only so many book clubs in the area. In the end, it's whether or not people like your book well enough to tell their friends that will get the word out there.

So I'm keeping my fingers crossed ...

Because it really is a good book!

Monday, August 8, 2011

My work partner and I have decided to phase out our little business. He and his wife are moving, and I would rather spend my time writing and promoting my own work. One of the services our business offered was developing and maintaining simple Web sites.

I say simple, because when I first started an image slide show and a mouse-over were considered about the height of technology. Things have progressed until I am not just bewildered by the advances made in the past 10 years, but realize I have no desire to learn. Frankly, my brain won't absorb any more technology.

But one customer asked me to please help him out and I agreed because he is a friend and because I really do enjoy the challenge. This is for a hospital in Liberia, so you can see why I was hooked at doing something a little different.

When I started playing with the overall design, I was struck by the similarities to writing a novel.

1) What is your site/book trying to sell/say.

2) What is the hook on the home/first page that will make visitors/readers click on/turn to the next page?

3) Is it easy to navigate/does the plot flow smoothly?

4) Do the illustrations/scenes add to the information/story?

5) After viewing the site/reading the book, does the visitor/reader know something he didn't know before?

6) Will the visitor/reader return/buy your next book?

I could probably think of more if I didn't need to be actually doing the work. Oh, there is one more:

7) Is the design/plotting so much fun that hours go by before you realize it?

I hope you are enjoying your writing. I know I am.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The 'Noes' have it

I said no.

I actually, truly said no to a request to be in on the start of an exciting new project. It is something in which I used to have a great deal of interest.

Notice that I said "used to have." I spent a dozen years involved with an outdoor drama that I helped write, sewed costumes for, collected props, acted as general manager, sold ads in the program and acted as gofer. One year I helped with the sound. I loved it. Well, most of the time.

Okay, let's be honest. It was probably the most stressful time of my life.

But that was 10 years ago. Since then, I've developed new interests. My project right now is to finish my work in progress. This has been a good week. I have been writing like a crazy woman, scenes and dialogue tumbling from my head to my fingertips and onto the keyboard. No writer's block, no "where do I go from here." I have only to wrap up the plot line and I will be finished.

And ready to re-write until I polish it as much as I can before asking someone else to take a look.

And, my Plotz co-writer is wondering when I am going to start pulling my weight with the sequel. Soon, I tell him, soon.

To add to my plate, a publisher told me if I took her suggestions and made some changes to a book I'd submitted, she'd take another look. No generic rejection this, but helpful and concrete advice.

So, no to the enticing invitation to get a community theater group up and running. Ten years ago, I'd have said yes and then wondered where my writing time went.

I have finally learned to say no.

I think I deserve a pat on the back. Or maybe I've finally learned what it means to be a writer. It's not something you do in your spare time.

If you are serious at your craft, there is no spare time.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Even retirees need vacations

Some people think of retirement is a permanent vacation. Those are the people who haven't yet retired.

Retired people find themselves busier in retirement than they did while holding down a job. They are trying to do all the things they promised themselves they'd do when Social Security kicked in and they could quit their day jobs.

Retired people (and by now you know I am using the term with tongue firmly in cheek) need vacations, too. Our vacation coincides with our family reunion and we plan it a year in advance because planning takes the tactical abilities of a four-star general. Once we vote on a location (this year it was the mountains), one person is charged with finding a cabin with enough rooms for everyone who wants to share expenses, a nearby pool for the kids and a hot tub for the adults. This takes time and a lot of e-mailing back and forth as everyone shares his or her opinion on the view, the amenities and the size of the kitchen or great room. Usually, this person resigns before the reunion is over, declaring they will never do it again, and another unwary soul takes up the challenge.

Then, when we get there, bedrooms must be allotted, cars unpacked, and volunteers solicited to cook the communal meals.

You'd think we'd know how to do this after all these years. When we started holding the reunions, our kids were younger than their kids are now. But, as always, everything worked out. The kids commandeered the game room and the adults took to the rocking chairs on the deck like turtles on a log. We older folks visited, read, or just sat with a cup of coffee (mornings) or a glass of wine(evenings) and looked at the view. The younger crowd went rafting or hiking and played miniature golf. One afternoon my sister, our niece and my daughter-in-law and I visited some arts and crafts shops and treated ourselves to lunch out.

This year was doubly special for me. We welcomed a new member, our son's fiancee; and all three sons and their families were present. I think the last time this happened was at a wedding or a funeral; I can't remember. And I don't think it will happen again for many years. One lives in Georgia, one in California and one in Virginia. They all have jobs and responsibilities that make long-range planning difficult. Two just started new jobs and we were thankful they could get time off at all.

The days passed much too quickly. We packed our bags, said our goodbyes, and one by one returned to our homes and responsibilities.

And, we're already planning for next year. I don't know where it will be yet, or who all will be able to be with us, but I'm ready.

By then I am sure I will need not just a vacation, but the joyful reunion of family.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is anybody really out there?

I can remember when we got our first telephone. Only Mom and Dad were allowed to use it: it was a utility, not a toy. Dad worked for the railroad and a mysterious person called "The Caller" would phone and tell him what train he was scheduled to work on (nowadays we'd call him a dispatcher). These calls were important because if Dad missed one, The Caller would go to the next person on the list and Dad would forfeit a day's wages.

Mom waged a constant vigil on the neighbors who shared our party line. If she thought they were tying up the line too long she would ask them politely to hang up so Dad could get the call he was expecting. Most of the time they cooperated because they knew they might have an emergency and need the same favor themselves.

What really made her mad was when she caught someone listening in on a conversation. You could tell by the "click" when a person picked up and if they didn't hang up as soon as they realized someone else was on the line she would make some comment to let them know that she knew they were there. This didn't always work and she would fume about "people who don't have anything better to do." Of course, at that time television was just an idea in someone's head.

Even as teenagers, when Dad had moved up to a supervisory position and pretty much knew what his schedule was going to be like, we didn't spend hours on the phone. We made arrangements to meet at someone's house or at the pizza parlor or soda shop and did our talking there.

As a young mother, the telephone became a link that no doubt saved my sanity. I could call friends who were similarly housebound with infants and toddlers and have conversations that didn't include "Spit that out--now!" or "Please stop banging your brother on the head with his bottle."

When our sons reached adulthood and migrated like so many radarless geese to three different states to raise their own families, the telephone became a necessary link because -- let's face facts -- the generation after mine does not write letters. But we called to transmit information, not just to chat. Long distance calls cost money and we watched the minutes carefully.

All this has changed in a breathtakingly few years. Everyone has a cellphone. I am no longer startled by a person walking down the street apparently talking to himself. I just assume he has a phone attached to his ear.

People can text on their phones and send e-mails. There is no lack of a way to communicate-- just pick one.

What amazes me is that people (including myself) are no longer satisfied with communicating with friends and relatives. Now we reach out to everyone on the planet and beyond with our Web pages, blogs and tweets. I have discovered so many interesting, informative and humorous blogs that I could spend my day just reading them.

The reverse side of this observation is that when I blog or tweet or update my Website, I have to wonder if anyone is really paying attention. Of course, friends make comments on occasion, but mostly I have no idea if anyone has seen my posts. But I can't be certain, and that, as someone famously said, "is the rub." So I am careful of what I post because I don't want some rash statement to come back to haunt me.

Alas, some people aren't careful at all, as we have learned. The Internet is like a vast party line and you'd better watch not just what what you say but the photos you send out there to the ether because nowadays nothing is private. Yes, someone really is out there. And they are listening in.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Dreaded Deadline

After 10 years of newspaper work, I retired with dreams of never having to meet a deadline again. Or of having to write a specified number of words to exactly fit the space alloted to it on page four.

Not to mention writing headlines that both made sense and spanned two or three columns of type without running out of space.

Now I find that these skills still matter. While the length of a title may not matter, it must hint at the content of the story in a way that catches the casual bookbuyer's eye. The title is your first "hook."

Writing to an exact word count is a little more difficult. I mastered that skill by writing a weekly column that had to measure 11 1/2 inches. No more, no less. I learned to cut sentences and find one word that meant the same as a two- or three-word phrase. Conversely, there were times I had to stretch my brain to add another sentence so as not to leave that dreaded empty space at the bottom of the page.

I worked with a publisher who insisted on writing a column. Because I was the editor and responsible for layout, I would tell her how much space she had. Invariably, she went over by five or six inches. I would politely tell her she needed to cut. She would not so politely tell me she either didn't have time or that her prose was too precious to drop one word.

I never understood why she couldn't learn to trim her words to an acceptable length. War and Peace is one thing; a weekly outburst of what she was feeling at the moment was another.

That's why it is important to understand if you are writing a short story, a novella or a novel. If you read a publisher's submission guidelines and they ask for novels of 60,000 to 150,000 words, you don't send them a 300,000-word epic. If your novel is too long, look through it for places you can cut: a scene that doesn't move the action forward, a meandering backflash that doesn't really add anything to the plot, a detailed description when a few well-chosen words could just as easily evoke the scene.

In the newspaper business, deadlines loom over everyone involved, from the publisher down to the to part-time clerk. I don't miss the stress of writing with one eye on the clock.

I work at home and no one is standing over me insisting I write at least one chapter a week. It's hard to set your own deadlines after having them externally imposed for so many years, but I do realize their importance. If I didn't set internal deadlines I would still be on chapter one and my last blog would have been written six weeks ago.

Newspaper writing and fiction are worlds apart, but what I learned in the newsroom has given me a solid foundation for my writing. The three rules I took with me were 1) Don't act as if you have a lifetime to write your book or you will never write it; 2) Make certain you have chosen just the right words to convey your story; and 3) Write what you have to say and then stop.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Self-publishing or self-immolation?

My writing partner and I decided to take the plunge. We had finished our novel, Plotz, and were eager to see it in print. We'd read the pros and cons of self-publishing and thought, "Why not?"

Isn't that akin to saying "Why not?" when someone invites you to join their trek up the Matterhorn? Doable, but not without a lot of struggle and pain first. But you don't think about that when gazing at the summit.

He designed a cover and I formatted the book in Word, as advised, and we sent for a proof copy. Looking through it, we found many typos not evident when reading the manuscript on the computer screen. Moreover, the cover that looked so good as a .JPEG on my photo editing page was chopped off on the book. The design depends on balance and that was sadly askew.

I reworked the cover more times than I can count before getting one that came near our vision. And I reformated the copy, correcting all the typos. I thought.

We ordered another proof copy and lo! we found mistakes. We also had some other readers look at it and they found additional errors. No two readers found the same errors, which is interesting.

So we ordered another proof copy and looked through it. My partner said he thought everything had been corrected. I couldn't look at it again. I was getting heartily sick of the entire project. The cover looked as good as we could make it and the chapters started and stopped where they were supposed to. We put it out there, hoping someone would buy it.

Then I reformatted the thing for e-publishing, which is an entirely different matter. It took more hours and if I was tired of reading the same sentences over and over before...well, you can't throw a computer across the room although I was sorely tempted.

That done, I thought I would move on to another project. My mistake. My husband asked if he could read the book. I was thrilled. I've written several books and this is the first one he has shown any interest in reading.

A few minutes later he came into our office where I was busily adding a chapter to "A Question of Boundaries."

"Honey," he said, his finger holding his place in the book. "I'm not sure, but shouldn't there be a quote mark here?"

"Yes, there should be." I gritted my teeth. Maybe no one else would notice.

A few minutes later -- "Honey, this sentence doesn't make sense."

Of course not; in the process of editing an entire line had been eliminated. No chance of anyone not noticing that!

I gave him a blue marking pen and made him honorary editor. He is now happily marking typos and errant copy.

I guess we are going to have to repeat the process one more time.

Self publishing is not for the faint of heart. I hope the story is good enough that the people who purchased the book will excuse a few errors.

I hope there are only a few errors.

PLOTZ is available in paperback and e-reader on, and coming soon on

But you might want to wait a week or two and get the latest, hopefully-error-free-edition.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Letter

I could tell the minute I took the envelope from the mailbox -- a rejection.

An acceptance would have come in a large kraft envelope, big enough to hold a contract. It would not have come in a slim #10 envelope that I instantly recognized as the one I had enclosed with my manuscript almost a year earlier.

Yes, a year. The publisher had told me up front that it would be 11-12 months before I received an answer, so I put the submission in the back of my mind and tried to forget about it. As the year drew to a close, I began imagining The Letter. Or better yet, The Phone Call.

As if to add salt to the wound, the rejection came the day before Mother's Day. I guess that's not as bad as coming on my birthday. Or Christmas.

A year is a long time. I know you can send multiple queries, but sending multiple manuscripts is frowned on. Once a publisher has asked for en exclusive look, a writer has to hold back on further queries lest another request to view the story comes along. And then what do you do?

I know, it's a long shot and I probably should have continued sending queries. At the very least I could have written an agent and told her "Hey, I have two (or three) publishers wanting my book, how about you representing me and getting the best deal?"

The blog title says it all: I am by definition, a dreamer. For a year, I dreamed of that acceptance.

Pop! A rude awakening.

I am not giving up, though. I immediately wrote another query letter, attached a synopsis, and sent it off to a different pulisher.

And tomorrow --well maybe not tomorrow, my husband has promised to take me out to dinner for Mother's Day (and his birthday) so maybe it will be early next week before I send another query. And another. Until I get The Letter.

Friday, April 29, 2011

In Your Easter Bonnet ...

Remember that old song? "In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ..."

Alas, somewhere during my lifetime the Easter bonnet went the way of the Easter parade and white gloves. In fact, Jackie O's pillbox is the last hat I recall seeing on a woman's head unless she was at the beach. Or happened to be Queen Elizabeth. Or an African-American church lady. Oh, those hats! Make me weep with envy, especially when I think of all the bare heads in my own church.

I used to have hats. I loved hats and occasions to wear them. I had a hat covered with pheasant feathers, a felt slouch that made me feel like Greta Garbo, a cloche of white roses. I wrapped them in tissue and put them in boxes to keep them clean. The time between removing the hats from the boxes became longer and longer and eventually the hats disappeared during a spell of intense closet cleaning.

I did wear hats during chemo. It got so I could spot a fellow sufferer a mile off by the hat on her head. No one else wore them.

This year, I noticed an advertisemment for hats in a store ad. Pretty hats with brims and flowers. Hmmm. Could hats be making a comeback? Did someone else besides me recognize the perfect diguise for a bad hair day, let alone a no-hair day?

Went to church Sunday and gasped. Someone wore a hat. A perky yellow straw hat that sang out "Spring!" An Easter bonnet.

I hope more women follow her example. A hat is necessary accessory, not just to disguise a bad hair day, but to make a statement. Choosing the right hat reflects who you are. A hat can lift not only your mood, but the spirits of those who see you. A hat makes you feel feminine and yes, let's use that old-fashioned word, ladylike. I can't see a young woman cussing like a sailor while wearing a frilly hat.

African-American women already know this. In our hearts, we know it, too.

I could seque from this to a metaphor on writing, but I'm not going to.

Sometimes a hat is just a hat.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Just do it

When my middle son and his wife moved to Texas, I planned to visit them ... soon. But something else always seemed to take precedence. We drove to Florida, to New York, to Ohio. but not to Texas.

The trip seemed so long, and let's face, it unfamiliar. I had been to those other places before. I knew the rest areas and the best places to stop and eat. I had a favorite motel if we decided to break the trip up into two days. And so I kept putting it off.

When I said I didn't want to drive that far, someone suggested flying. Oh, no, too much hassle and besides I'd have to drive to the airport in Charlotte. I hate Charlotte traffic.

I looked into taking a train, but the price was higher than an airplane and it took four days. Not for me.

So when my son announced they were thinking of moving to California, I said, "Well, that's a long way to go for a visit."

'Mom." Pause. "You can not visit me in California just as easily as you don't visit me in Texas."

Wow. Talk about a wakeup call. Had it really been 10 years since they moved from Louisville? And yes, we did visit them there.

So, I said to myself, I'm going. Now. I thought I would have to go alone, but my sister agreed to go with me. We set a date, notified the kids -- in their forties, but still kids to me. (My mom was calling my sister and me "you girls" when we were in our sixties.)

We set off, armed with a Google map and TomTom.

We made it. We had a grand time, the kids were wonderful hosts, and I saw parts of the country I never thought I would see. Our only problem was getting lost in Houston traffic, but we managed to get back on track to arrive at our destination. Now I wonder why I waited so long.

Isn't that like writing a book? You think about it, you make tentative plans, but never start. Then something happens and you know it is now or never. At first it goes along easily, but then you bog down. The plot is going nowhere, you can't see your way to the ending you visualized so clearly.

Then you find your way out and go on and suddenly realize you have accomplished what you put off for so long.

Happy travels!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It seems I still have a job

One of my long-deferred dreams was to take a trip to Texas to visit our middle son and his wife. I kept postponing it, always busy, always thinking I'd have time. Then he announced they were thinking of moving to California and I decided to follow Rabbi Hillel's advice, "...if not now, when?"

So my sister and I decided to drive down, leaving her husband with mine to fend for themselves. (Note: their idea of fending was to go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day we were gone.)

What has this to do with writing? It was like having written a book instead of telling everyone you are going to write one. Making the trip was similar: now I can say I did it, not that I am going to ... someday.

Three days after our return, I attended the daylong Carolinas Writers Conference. I was impressed that the main speakers gave their presentations and then went on to attend the workshops just like the attendees: accomplished writers both teaching and learning from fellow writers. I came away with many new ideas, not only about improving my craft, but also improving how I approached it.

When I retired from my full-time job, I thought I would have loads of time to write. It hasn't turned out that way because I am constantly sidetracked: volunteer work, part-time paid work, books to read, housework, a husband, and yes, spontaneous trips across the country.

But what I heard, over and over again, was treat your writing like a job. It is your career. Have a work space that is yours alone and set definite hours.

I do have a work space, but my hours have been wildly erratic. This is going to change. After setting definite number of hours to work each day, I plan to set goals. I do this all the time in my head, but I realize now that doesn't count. So now, I am going to write my goals on paper and give them a deadline. My hope is that looking at a list of goals each morning and noting the date they should be accomplished will make me keep my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard. No surfing, no reading e-mail, no games until that day's goal can be marked off with a checkmark.

I think I can do this.

I got to Texas, didn't I?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Getting past the hard stuff

My goal since my last post was to start sending out query letters for "Dear Sister." I would rather write another novel than to write a query letter. That "grab the reader with the first sentence" scares me to death. Of course, you have to grab the reader with the first sentence of your book, too, but hopefully having opened it and gone that far, the reader will continue, at least for a few paragraphs. I never give up on a book until I am at least 30 pages into it.

And, readers aren't as busy as agents; they only have to read one book at a time and take can as long as they please. But writing a query is like walking up to a perfect stranger and saying, "Hi, I'm Sandy and here's why you should listen to me for the next three minutes." Nope, can't do it.

And then there is the synopsis. That's like condensing a three-month camping trip from Virginia to California in one page. You can tell people what you saw, but there's precious little room to tell them how you felt about it.

I wrote both a one-page and a two-page synopsis because different agents ask for different lengths. I wrote a query letter and when that got a too-prompt rejection, re-wrote it, and then re-wrote it again, still trying for that elusive hook. Then I copy-pasted the first five pages, the first 10 pages, the first 50 pages, the first chapter and the first three chapters -- coincidentally, also the first 50 pages. Because each agent asks for something different.

So far I have sent out eight queries and have received five rejections. One agent replied so quickly that I told myself it must have been an automatic reply. That's more comforting than thinking she never got past "Dear Ms. Agent." (And yes, I used her real name; I know better than to send a blind query addressed to whom it may concern.)

The other three queries are still out there and I realize that I may never get a reply from them. That means I need to keep sending them out. It doesn't mean I am discouraged. It's just a chore I need to do before going on to my next project, "A Question of Boundaries." Writing this story is fun and I'm enjoying the process. I almost dread when I finish it and have to start the query rounds again.

Seeing your book in print and holding a copy in your hands is beyond triumph -- it's the culmination of all your dreams.

But to get to that point, you first have to do the hard stuff. And I'm not talking about writing the novel.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reactions and Actions

I had an unprecedented number of replies to last week's blog. All of them advised me to get off my keister and start sending out query letters for my novel -- the one I have been working on on and off for the past 10 years.

Now, I haven't been working on just that story all that time. I did manage to write a couple others, one of which was published in 2010. Another is being read by another publisher. I put it in the back corner of my mind because I was told it would take a year before I got a reply. That year is almost up, so I have been keeping my fingers and toes crossed. Still a third is at my original publisher awaiting a response. So I haven't been idle.

This past week I did a final manuscript check. The biggest hurdle was making sure all the chapter headings were in order after all the cutting and pasting I did while trying to make events flow with some kind of logic. Then I finished my outline. Using this as a guide, I wrote a two-page synopsis. It took a while, but I managed to cut it down to one page.

I sent out five query letters: three were single-page letters only; one query with the two-page synoposis and first chapter; and another query with the one-page synopsis and first 50 pages. (It seems every agent wants something different.) My goal is to send out a new query for each rejection.

Oh, speaking of rejections, I received my first one yesterday. It was short and sweet: "Not for me, but thanks." So now I have to go back to my list of possibles and sent out another query.

Meanwhile, as soon as I get some deadline-sensitive projects completed (both due March 1) I am starting another novel. This one will be a departure for me. I love what-ifs, and this one is "What if, after George Washington rejected the crown offered to him it was offered to Thomas Jefferson -- and he accepted."

Our lives would be a lot different -- or would they?

I'l keep you all posted.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Crawling to the finish line

Right now I am doing what I do best: procrastinating.

The closer I get to finishing the final (I hope) edit of my WIP, the slower my progress. One would suppose I would be hurling to the end, eager to finish and begin sending off queries.

Instead, I go over a few pages, take out a sentence, read the pages again, put the sentence back and change a word. Then I minimize the page and play a few hands of Spider Solitaire and check my e-mail before wandering off to make a cup of tea and engage my husband in a conversation about whether or not we need to make a run to Wal-Mart.

I have been working on this manuscript for almost 10 years now. I thought I had finished it once and sent out queries. One agent kindly told me "It isn't religious enough for the Christian market and not steamy enough for the historical market."

I put it aside. I could no more take out the religious slant than I could ignore the costumes of the period. Back then, the church was the focus of the community and people believed God was looking down on them with an angry and judgmental glare.

And, I couldn't make it "steamier." Some people can write erotic passages; I cannot.

But the story still called to me. I decided to rewrite it in 2009 and took out some of the "preachier" passages. I allowed the heroine to feel all warm and tingly whenever she was around the hero. I even had a secondary character destroy her reputation by running off with her son's tutor.

My critique group encouraged me to keep on and so I managed to complete the revised story. Because I had added passages, I needed to go back over it and make certain that everything flowed smoothly.

Now I am going over it again to see if I had missed any glaring errors. I have less than 100 pages to go. And each day, I go over fewer pages than the day before.

I don't want to get to the end because the next step is submission. I dread the process of sending out a query letter, synopsis and bio. I dread opening an e-mail or letter and seeing that rejection slip.

I guess I am afraid I did all that work and the novel is still unpublishable.

But I won't know until I try. I made one projection that I would finish by Feb. 1. I missed it, for all the reasons listed above. My next goal is to have at least one query sent out by March 1. There is no reason I can't accomplish this.

No reason at all.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why my computer is my friend

Although my first book (well, I hope it is the first of many) was published just six months ago, I started writing about 25 years ago. My long, rocky road to publishing had many detours and long stretches of not writing at all. What I did write was consigned mostly to the trash. I mean the garbage can outside the house, not that tiny trash can icon on the screen that eats everything up with a little whoosh.

I started writing with a pen on a yellow legal pad. My daughter-in-law, who had just graduated from college, gave me her electric typewriter. I thought this technological advance was the cat's pajamas.

Then I got a word processor. I loved it, but it frequently had to be sent back to the manufacturer for repairs. When it went down the last time and I couldn't retrieve what I thought was a fairly decent romance, it got recycled.

Then we got a computer, more for its word processing program than the Internet. With dial-up, assessing the Internet was time-consuming and frustrating.

Then we got broadband. In two decades we progressed from the kitty's nightwear to groovy to ace, or whatever the current phrase is.

The best thing about the computer is that it connects me with other writers.

Way back when, I did an unprecedented thing. I took a week's vacation from work, spent $500 and signed up for a writing camp at Duke University. Among the presenters were Reynolds Price and Anthony Abbot -- big names then and now. (I was saddened to hear Price had died. He was a sweet, gentle man and a fantastic writer.)

One day, while eating lunch with other attendees, Josephine Humphries came along and sat down at our table. She showed us some souvenir t-shirts she had purchased for her sons. "Gosh," I recall thinking, "She's a famous writer and she acts just like us!"

Then she asked, "Have any of you ever felt like even your own family doesn't understand you?"

Every hand went up. All of us confessed to feeling isolated as we worked, trying to share with people who had no idea what we were talking about when we moped through a difficult scene or had a sudden breakthrough and yelled "Yes!" to an empty room.

That's what I love about the computer (besides the cut-and-paste feature). I am in contact with other writers. I belong to two on-line groups that e-mail daily. I read blogs by on-line friends I will never meet in real life. We support each other during the rough times and celebrate each other's success. We understand.

And that is why I have a computer. I could still write with a ball point pen and a tablet. But they don't help me connect with other writers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing: a lost art?

I read recently that a study has been published that claims that, after four years of college, students are graduating without learning "the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education."

Okay, I know that high school students can't write, as in picking up a pen or pencil and connecting it to a piece of paper. Educators claim they don't need to learn to write in cursive because they all use a keyboard. Nowadays, a little, bitty one on their cell phones. And what they write is in code as far as I'm concerned. It took me months to figure out LOL means "laughing out loud." I thought it meant "lots of luck."

But not being able to write, as in "written communication skills?"

There have been many changes since I attended good old Alfred University including coed dorms and tuition hikes that today could pay for a small home. Whatever happened to essays, term papers, reports and all the other assignments? Looking back, it seems I spent my four years researching topics in the campus library, followed by typing reports on what I had read. On a manual typewriter. Without Wite-Out. You had to be pretty sure what you were going to write made sense before you hit the keys because you couldn't correct it by backspacing. You had to start all over.

I get Internet vs. library. Why get dressed and trudge across the quad when you can do research on your laptop? Unfortunately, it is too easy to copy/paste information found there and present it as your own. Some students have never heard of plagarism. Hey, it's on the Internet, it's free for all, right? Right, but it's not writing. It's copying someone else's ideas and not using your own critical thinking. skills.

When did I learn to write? I think my first assignment was, "You can't play with your new toy until you write and thank your grandmother for it." In elementary school, we started class every fall with "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Then there were the Regents exams in high school: two facts and an illustration for every essay question.

I know some students are writing. Every year our writers club holds a contest for students from third grade to seniors. I've judged essay contests. And I try to withhold judgment on grammar, punctuation and spelling because I realize it isn't the student's fault he never learned it.

But college? That scares me. Writing is an essential, reasoned and thoughtful form of communication. If our emerging leaders don't learn this skill during their four years on campus, I really fear for the future.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A farewell

Life is filled with losses: at my age, I know that. I have attended far too many funerals in the past few years. And I know that it is not the dead, but ourselves we weep for.

The funeral I attend yesterday was held at a small country church -- way out in the country. Even though we arrived early, the parking lot was full; more cars were lined up on each side of the road and along the adjoining pastureland.

The sanctuary was full, as well as available space on the small porch and vestibule. The number of mourners was visible testament to the many people who had been touched by this special life.

Phoebe had a varied career but her talent showed most clearly in her role as director of the county library. When I first met her, she was learning the job as well as attending college to get her master's degree in library science. It was a full and demanding load, but she handled it with ease and grace. She was never too busy to talk about a book she had read that she thought Imight enjoy, or ask about my own fledgling career.

Phoebe was a nourisher. She brought local writers to the library to speak about their books and the writing life. She was delighted to be told about a new author that she could persuade to come and talk at the monthly Brown Bag Book Club. Held at noon so working people could attend, the idea was that everyone brought something to share. Phoebe loved to cook, so there was always a pot of soup, chili, or corned beef and cabbage as the main dish. She loved photography, so each session was well documented.

She initiated programs for children and adults. Younger readers could find their books in a fairytale castle. Teens were encouraged to paint seasonal murals on the windows. Older adults were entertained with programs that included musical groups and storytellers.

When asked to help with the Carolinas Writers Conference, Phoebe threw herself into the project with her customary enthusiasm. She not only suggested authors and helped with the planning, she persuaded her Friends of the Library to supply goodies for the authors to nibble on between their workshops. It was not her fault if they returned to their homes a few pounds heavier than when they arrived.

Not everyone knew that Phoebe was struggling with her health all this time. A mysterious illness was eventually diagnosed as lupus. The treatment seemed to cause as much damage as the disease. There were other problems, both medical and personal. Phoebe never lost her smile or that great laugh. If you asked how she was, she'd tell you, but somehow you found yourself discussing the latest bestseller instead, or how the conference was shaping up, or if we'd had an acceptance from this or that writer. Her outlook was always optimistic and her goal was to live life as fully as possible.

When she was admitted to the hospital, she was promptly added to prayer lists in nearly every church in the county. People called or stopped by the library daily for updates from the staff. Although the news was seldom good, people never stopped believing that she'd conquer this obstacle as she had so many others. "The doctors don't know Phoebe," we said.

But the complications were too serious. Even her tremendous courage and strength couldn't overcome them.

The minister giving the homily said that Phoebe was now in heaven, using her myriad skills to make the place "more better."

So we grieve for ouselves, for we know what we have lost. But every time I enter the library, I will be reminded of the legacy she left. And, somewhere in the distance, I will hear her laughter.