A little redemption goes a long way

I’ve found over the years that my writing life has ups and downs. Specifically, there are times when I feel like I can climb the literary Everest without one of those sherpa guides, and others I feel like I need to trash-can the whole idea of being a writer.

Today, my writer friend Tom reminded me of a time not so long ago, maybe eightteen months or so, when I was dejected and determined writing was a waste of time for me. He reminded me of this at a booksigning sponsored by the northwestern Pennwriters group, where I was surrounded by other writers and would-be writers, discussing my novel The Elf Queen and the sequel, due out next year, and sharing all our writing with each other.

Hmm.  Guess that shows you never know what’s coming around the bend, right? As agent Irene Goodman says, “If you quit, you aren’t an author any longer, and that’s the end.”

Or as Nancy Panuccio says:

There’s a misconception that, in order to be brilliant at something, you need to be blessed with innate remarkable talent. Not so, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell, who studied the most successful musicians, composers, artists and athletes in history, reports that the difference between success and non-success, between genius and mediocrity is 10,000 hours. That’s right. Anyone from Jimi Hendrix to Bill Gates to Hemingway who has succeeded has done so on the back of at least 10,000 hours.

Thank you to Tom, Jean, Eric, Jeff, Carm, Ed, Paul and all of you who reassured me that I was on the right track after all, and encouraged me to keep going. Shame on those who felt it was more useful to tear down my work. I’ve got to approach this more philosophically. All the time I’ve put in, writing novels, over the last forty years? Apparently I’ve paid those dues. Now to start on the next 10,000. Back to the word processor!!

Happy faces at my booksigning--mine, too!

Writers aren’t old dogs

Learning is about more than simply acquiring new knowledge and insights; it is also crucial to unlearn old knowledge that has outlived its relevance. Thus, forgetting is probably at least as important as learning.

–Gary Ryan Blair ( Mind Munchies: A Delicious Assortment of Brain Snacks!)

I spent the weekend at Context 22, a science fiction/horror/fantasy conference in Columbus, Ohio this weekend, but not to watch the old animated cartoons of Star Trek, discuss the future of filk, or to dress up like my favorite serial killer. I went to forget–and then learn again– how to write.

Since I’ve learned about the Master’s Program in Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, I’ve been dying to go. At my level of ability, after publishing for 35 years, I really get the most from a professional level course. The faculty in the program are highly respected, and you can even commute for mini-sessions on campus and work independently the rest of the time. Heaven.

But in the meantime, a Pennwriters member of the Seton Hill faculty, Timon Esaias, sent a memo to the group, pointing out that many of the faculty would be giving significant two- and three-hour writing workshops at this Context conference, similar educational information without the university price tag.

Believe me, I’m there.

So this weekend I learned about maintaining narrative tension from Lawrence Connolly, who one reviewer has compared to Tarantino;  joined a discussion about the new Young Adult market, what’s in (sex and violence), what’s out (Pollyanna stories) and what’s controversial (everything!) from Ellen Klages, who talked about writing historical fiction and read from her book The Green Glass Sea (which I can’t wait to read); got about the best 15 minutes of hard advice about writing and rewriting fiction I’ve ever heard from Tim Waggoner; and soaked in three hours on point of view from “Norbert and the System” author Tim Esaias.

We left with sheets of references, recommendations and notebooks full of hope. For less than $200. Wow.

Of course, the icing for me was a one-on-one session with Juno Books editor Paula Guran, who critiqued a manuscript I started in NaNoWriMo–her suggestions were fabulous and resonated in my heart of hearts. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to hear what she had to say, but then for her to take the time to inquire about what else I had written that might be appropriate for her line, as well as what I was currently writing (which isn’t a Juno-type book, but she had great insight there too!)–I was floored. In a good way.

She has yet to look at my paranormal manuscript which I’ve submitted to Juno under their regular guidelines; she said she wanted to get through the conference first, and she vets her full manuscripts a little differently.  So, I’ll firmly believe that no news on this may be good news. Stand by for updates.

So I forgot some, and I learned some, and I’m considering some. And Little Miss got an hour in the hot tub, so she’s happy. What else can you ask?

Thinking outside the traditional writer’s box

There’s a big debate going on over at Pennwriters right now between those who have been published traditionally and those who aren’t about which writers “should” do.

The old guard insists that if you want to write novels you must get them to one of the five big houses, get the publicity machine and promotion. Of course this means you have to get an agent. If you’re a writer who has tried to do either, chances are 99 times out of a hundred, it’s just not happening.

The old guard then cites the urban legends of authors who just kept sending out until sure as heck, that 101st letter did it. And maybe they did. More power to them.

Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about the state of publishing, and indeed about the world of communication in general. Time Magazine did a whole series of articles about publication in the digital age, and their conclusion is that the traditional routes are no longer exclusive.

Lev Grossman’s article says that “Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be ‘the worst year for publishing in decades.’ A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn’t dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done.”

But at the same time, newspapers are closing their doors, magazine and book publishers alike laying off staff, and paying markets, in the way we have always thought about them, are drying up.

Also at the same time, the whole concept of access to the masses has changed. Once upon a time, you needed to be cherished by Harlequin or Doubleday to even have your book see the light of day, unless you wanted to type out versions on your old Royal typewriter, one at a time, to circulate them. The Internet has changed that game.

Now authors have options. They can self-publish through Lulu.com or iUniverse, or epublishers which pay a royalty for books available digitally, or in print books.

Writers don’t need the fancy publicity tour, either. Authors like CJ Lyons and Christina Katz, aka Writer Mama, do  tours online by guest blogging in as many places as they can. Cost? Your time. The Internet has millions of outlets to reach the people who want your work.

Many professional artists are choosing non-traditional routes to promote work they want to do, and it’s starting to make headlines. Musician Jill Sobule found the traditional music business wasn’t working for her–and didn’t get money in her hands– so her latest album was funded entirely by donations from fans, and giveaways.  Screenwriters like Joss Whedon are thinking outside the box with projects like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, which first appeared on the Internet for free, but only afterward started collecting revenues.

Communication venues like Twitter bring the celebrity even closer to fans.  Time this week has a story about celebrity Tweeting that shows how Shaquille O’Neal, Levar Burton and John Hodgman all use Twitter to connect  directly with regular people. Email and forums bring artists directly to their public, for the kind of one-on-one connection that sells readers, just as it sold Barack Obama to the American people at election time.

So we can all dream about that blockbuster sale, movie rights and New York Times listing right out of the gate. We can even work at it around busy lives of work, parenting and other distractions for 40 years. Maybe some of us will get it.

But in the meantime, don’t you have something to say? Maybe instead we should be out there exploring the new digital publishing world, meeting our readers, and sharing what we have to offer.

Dancing along the walk

As the children trooped dutifully back to school today, I realized some of my very first posts in this blog were about the return to routine and the comforts inherent therein when your family deals with autism.

That means I’ve been on this blog journey for a year. Unbelievable.

This walkabout has taken me many places, both physical and figurative. We’ve seen all three children make strides forward over the passing days. We sang, we danced–some of us were spinning, more than dancing–we visited new vacation spots and museums. We won ribbons at the fair. We were burgled. We came in dead last betting on March Madness and won some great T-shirts.

Ditto Boy saw his school half torn down–the repair’s still not finished.  We’ve been evacuated from our home because of deadly gases. We’ve experienced numbered diseases , lost a handful of teeth, and ended up in the emergency room twice.

We’ve worked through some rough times and enjoyed wonderful family gatherings .

I’ve made a whole group of new friends, people I never would have met if it wasn’t for this vehicle, like daisyfae and birgitte and dee, who watched her Jamaican compatriot reach victory in the Beijing Olympics. I’ve been humbled by other parents of children with autism, whose struggle is more difficult than ours, and I’ve met some adults who don’t consider their autism a disability, but something that sets them apart. I’ve learned from them all. Thank you, friends, for your companionship and your willingness to walk with me along this path, some for a short time, some for longer.

I’ve sold some of my writing, and bonded with other writers through their blogs, through my local writer’s groups, through Pennwriters. I’ve placed work with several agents for the first time this year. I’ve become a writer about technology (says the woman who doesn’t even know how to text from a cell phone!), and taught myself a number of things.

The election impacted all of us in one way or another, and I had the opportunity to get personally involved for the first time in years.  Yes, even old dogs can experience change! They can apparently teach the new generation a lesson too, as we found with the Women in Black protests. Go Ann!

As I review this year and see so many interesting stops on the journey, I’m grateful for this written documentation. I hope some of what I’ve shared has been as helpful to those who’ve read it, as others’ words have been for me, and I’m looking forward to another year together on the trek. As the writer Marcel Proust says,”The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Take a fresh look, and really see your world.

Just write it

I’m a lucky writer.

I participate in two writing groups that are very supportive, both at meeting time and after. One is based in a Unitarian church, and the small group is well-meaning and cheerful, though the members aren’t regularly published; it’s mostly people who like to write for themselves. The other is part of the larger Pennwriters group that’s branched off to meet in Erie, and is made up of people who are professionally farther along, and mostly published writers. I’ve been meeting with this group for maybe five years–they were a group before I came along. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we can evaluate new projects in light of these.  Some write and improve the same pieces over and over to bring for critique, working toward perfection; others, like me, tend to work in mass quantities.

As a result, I’ve been able to accomplish my earlier goals, preparatory to making a run at a second NaNoWriMo, completing a full edit of one on my sci-fi novels so I could send it to an editor I met this spring at a conference, as well as sending out multiple queries for my 2007 NaNo novel, since the agent who had accepted it is now having some serious solvency issues. I have two weeks now to edit my urban fantasy, complete with deep gratitude to long-suffering writing partner Jean, who red-penned it (ouch! but it’s necessary) so I can be ready to send it to yet another agent who expressed interest at the conference. I have one novel under review by Harlequin; another by a well-known New York agent, and not one, but TWO Cup of Comfort books coming out in the next year. (More on that when the publicity packs come out.)

So….with the patient understanding of the Cabana Boy and children, who all know I’m a better person when I’m involved in creation, it looks like I’m on track for the chemical-free rush of NaNoWriMo.  Well, except for the caffeine.  LOTs and LOTS of caffeine….


If you’d like to see a great assortment of pieces on and about writers, come on down to the Just Write Blog Carnival where you’ll find much to interest you, including a piece of mine!

Serendipity and blessings

There is no feeling like the one you get when you experience a gathering, be it conference, revival or reunion, where everyone is excited about a topic and all the energy flows in one direction.

Can I get an Amen?

I had expected the Pennwriters shindig this weekend would be exciting; to be surrounded by so many others who love to do what you do is inspiring. But the serendipity of the particular blend of folk who were there went beyond into a real blessing. The fiction workshop was well-drawn and planned by Susan Meier, who read our opening chapters and tailored a session for us, even though most were not writing romance. Melanie Donovan was a delightful and gracious woman, open and friendly, who joined my traveling companion and I for meals and drinks in addition to the actual pitch session. Joyce Carol Oates was dark and mysterious as one might expect, but gave a wonderful presentation and answered questions on all topics from attendees.

I had two editors and two agents express interest in my work and won second place in the non-fiction contest. (Four of us traveled from my critique group, in addition to my award, one took first place in story beginnings, one took third in short fiction, and the other took first in the costume contest; we are a decorated bunch.)

So I’m pretty pumped.

I also scored an interview with SF writer Keith R.A. DeCandido on his series work, which I will do soon, as well as being published by a fellow Pennwriter at the AIR Equation site. That deserves an Amen!

It turns out autism is now becoming an issue in children’s fiction, according to Melanie Donovan. She said she has one book coming out soon about autism, and another where a character may or may not be autistic. So I’m on the cusp here. Let’s hope that these other authors use their characters to create better understanding of characters like our children, and not just as a token to latch onto the latest flavor of the month.

And on that note, one of the sweetest moments of the weekend was Saturday night when I called home to make sure the Cabana Boy was surviving the chaos. The boys were full of exploits to share; Captain Oblivious had gotten his cast off and was thrilled, Ditto Boy had the latest Lost in Space episode to tell me about. Little Miss, however, has never liked talking on the phone. She mumbles or speaks so quietly that she can’t be heard, and bolts as soon as she can.

Except Saturday, when she got on the phone to speak with me, told me about her field trip to the local historical site, her dinner with her brothers, and then said “I want you to come home.”

And for that blessing, my brothers and sisters, I will give witness any time. Amen! Amen! and Hallelujah!

Still walking those streets

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.” — Moliere

After the joy that was NaNoWriMo last November, when my family and I agreed I could throw everything into those 30 days and write a novel, I’ve worked on many writing projects, including this blog, in off-hours from real life. This week, I have permission to enter the writing life at full throttle again–and I’m grabbing it with both hands.

Oh yes, there are a few client matters to be handled first, and a round of doctor visits for the kiddies, but those are under control. The real business of the week is the Pennwriters Conference, including the special fiction seminar spanning the day Thursday. Ah, sweet abandon. To be surrounded in a place with 450 others as enamored of this vice as I, to speak of it day and night, to learn techniques and shortcuts and formats, to steep in its heady liquor until–

Whoa. I’m getting carried away already. Sorry about that.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Making connections. When I went to my first conference a number of years ago, I was really a fish out of water. Since then, I’ve met a number of folk of the Pennwriters persuasion either online or in person, so I’m a little more familiar. I’m also published regularly now; then I’d been practicing law a little more full-time. I have spiffy business cards from my Firefox gig. I have a blog and a whole new cadre of friends. I’m an author with a book under my belt and a story in another coming out in December.

I have a literary agent– a new development last week that was VERY exciting. My agent read my NaNovel with the autistic heroine and it clicked with her–because she, too, has an autistic child. Serendipity. Her comment was this: “What better way to encourage understanding than through a fictional and incredibly interesting YA novel?” What better way indeed?

At the conference, I have a PennPal–this means I’ve been appointed as the guide and gopher for one of their celebrity guests, in my case Keith R. A. DeCandido. So I’m excited about that, though I don’t even know where it might lead. At least we can commiserate over the loss of my dear Firefly as we curse the Fox Network over a few drinks.

I have an appointment to pitch my novel to Melanie Donovan of HarperCollins Children’s Division. How often do we get to see a real editor face to face? Everyone knows editors don’t put their pants on one leg at a time! Eeek! I haven’t practiced my elevator pitch yet, but I’m giving myself time to do that this week. Maybe I can get it down to a two-floor long speech.

So yes, I’m getting ready to sell myself. I’m even getting my hair done. But I don’t think I’ll be selling myself short. Wish me luck.

The write stuff

Next month, I’m going to the Pennwriters’ annual Writing Conference. It’s a fairly big deal, some 450 writers, editors and others, our keynote speaker being Joyce Carol Oates, and agents and editors falling out the cracks to find their Next Big Thing.

Of course, I’ve signed up to pitch an editor, attend the critique sessions for opening pages, and meet and greet at cocktail hour. I’ve decided not to sell my book at the Author Tea and Book Signing–no one really wants to be seen buying a book on divorce. I’m also passing the Published Authors’ luncheon, even though I’m entitled to attend. I want to manage my time well, as there’s a lot of ground to cover. I was accepted (one of only 15) in the special fiction intensive workshop on Thursday, so I expect my head will be reeling with all sorts of advice and new ideas.

This will be my second Pennwriters’ event; I also attended in 2004. I’ve been to a dozen smaller conferences over the years, those mostly focused on writing and publishing from the technical point of view, i.e., how to improve your work. These big conferences, according to their promoters’ hype, are for The Purpose of networking and pitching your manuscript to an agent. Many of the people supposedly in the know jabber on about this raison d’etre at great length, and name-drop and practice their pitches incessantly.

Last time, I bought into the hype, terrified that I would do something “wrong.” I was a Pennwriters newbie and only knew a few people from the northwestern Pennsylvania region. I’m not what you call shy, but I’m just not good at professional schmoozing, unlike several of my blogroll comradettes. (Jane and Daisy, you know who you are.) I practiced my pitch, got in with the agent, who sat back, coolly disinterested, and asked me to send the manuscript to one of her fellow agents in her office. Blown away, I did–and of course got a polite rejection letter in eight weeks.

Since entering the blogosphere, I have done extensive reading on the subject of agents, at the Writer’s Digest site, and others, and what I’ve discovered is that although conferences are the place where most would-be novelists may have their only opportunity to meet an agent or editor face-to-face, that most agents and editors are not using that interface to select manuscripts and clients. Editors are reading blogs. Agents are reading synopses by email, saving time and paper. While networking is always important–you never know what connection will click in the future–the conference pitch is not the be-all and end-all some believe it to be.

So, I’m spending my energy looking over the delicious workshop list, choosing what will be valuable to my development as a writer, and what will refresh my spark. My critique partner Jean and I are traveling and bunking together, so we’ll probably divide and conquer, gathering twice as much information for our time.

I found, last time, I received as much valuable information from nameless writers sitting at the bar or those casually eating boxed lunches, and from speakers who didn’t remotely write the same genre as I, as I did from the so-called “big guys.” I hope I can return the favor for others.

Wayne Dyer says, “Just as we’re all students throughout life, we’re all teachers. In fact, we learn best by offering what we desire for ourselves to as many individuals as we can, as frequently as we can…..Following this line of thinking, it’s imperative that we make deliberate effort to increase our inspirational energy, as this will lead us to being both a spiritual learner and teacher simultaneously.” Here’s hoping that by working together, we free our spirits to express those stories within us.