Thursday, May 31, 2007
My first Pennwriters Conference was fantastic. Not only did I meet new people, I was thrilled to meet up with many who I only talk to through email, blogs, and list-serves. The conference itself was well-run and well-stocked with professionals who were generous and savvy.
Having the opportunity to pitch to agents and participate in the read and critique session provided me with face time I would never have otherwise.
The elusive Daniel Lazar even requested my manuscript based on the Friday night critique session. Alas, he declined to represent me--he just wasn't in love--but I feel more confident than ever that I'll snag another agent soon.
So, the weekend was full of great experiences and I can't imagine skipping it next year. I've done the isolated work--the writing no one can do for me or even with me. And now, spending time with other writers who are encouraging, having the chance to see others make their dreams come true, I feel like I'm almost there and that I'm not alone in the process.
Cost of Conference: $240
Cost of Hotel: $160
Cost of Read and Crit: Your Ego
Hanging out with friends
who love to talk writing
Thanks to everyone at SINC for being so sweet and including me at every turn! It meant everything.
As writers, we all have those real-life crime stories that hit home for us, whether it's a crime that happened to us personally, to someone in our family, or perhaps even within the community where we live. For some of us, those experiences and stories are what prompted us to become crime writers in the first place.
For me, there are a few news stories that have really touched me. I have the clippings in a file folder. I don't know whether or not they'll actually make it into a book plot or story, but I know they are there. Often times, I'll open the file folder and look through it as a way to connect with why writing crime fiction is so important and meaningful to me. Reading about these crimes, most of which have never been solved, reinforces in me a sense of purpose. I write crime fiction to make sense of a world that doesn't offer simple answers.
Sometimes the story is too fresh for us to write about. Lately, I've been researching a murder that happened nearly 15 years ago. I always knew I'd write about it, but I was too close. It happened to a friend of mine. Only now do I feel I can explore it in my fiction objectively.
Let's face it. What we do is difficult. Spending time in the underworld exploring murder and crafting believable villains is not easy. No wonder such a high percentage of writers suffer from depression and anxiety. Writing about the dark side is not for the faint of heart. But for those of us who find it to be our true calling, it's a task we accept because it's our job. It's our place in the world and our purpose.
When a writer is able to pull it off, it can be pure magic.
Let us celebrate our calling as writers. It's a special gift, one that needs nurturing and (as we all know) is rarely appreciated by outsiders who don't understand the power of language or why we'd rather sit at our computer within our fictional world than go to a movie or talk about the latest celebrity scandal.
How will you embrace your gift and make the most of it today?
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
I owned horses for twenty-five years. And for many of those years, we spent every summer baling hay.
We had a deal with Zelda, a neighbor lady who was well into her seventies. In exchange for giving us enough hay to fill our barn, whenever she called stating that she was baling, we would be there to help. With the cost of hay, it seemed like a good idea. At first.
The process of putting up hay begins around Memorial Day. My mom always says that first cutting should be done by the fourth of July. Then you have a couple of weeks to breathe before it’s time for second cutting. In other words, it never stops. The only way I knew I wouldn’t be called to come help with hay was if rained.
You gotta make hay when the sun shines.
Early in the season, we’d have help from the neighborhood kids who thought working on a farm might be fun. And from Zelda’s daughter’s friends who came for all the beer you could drink. There were also home-grown funny little cigarettes for those who wanted them. But baling hay is damned hard work and evidently booze and drugs can be gotten through easier methods. The kids and the stoned friends soon stopped answering their phones.
But we had a deal. So hubby and I went each and every time we were called. All summer long. Year after year after year.
Did I mention that it’s about 120 degrees in a hay mow? Did I mention how heavy bales of hay get especially when you’re throwing them from the ground up (way up!) onto a hay wagon already stacked several rows high? I never had to worry about putting on weight back then. I sweat it off. I walked hay fields stacking bales. I tossed those bales onto the wagon. I stacked them on the wagon. I tossed them off the wagon and onto the hay elevator (a conveyor belt contraption that gives the bales—and an occasion kid—a ride from the ground to the second story of the barn). I stacked those bales in the hay mow. Not usually all on the same day. But there were a couple of times when hubby was working his real job and the neighborhood kids and druggies were otherwise occupied leaving Zelda and me to manage an entire hay field on our own.
Did I mention that Zelda was well into her seventies? Tough old broad. How can you whine about the work when a seventy, almost eighty year old woman is doing twice the work that you are?
All those summers of back-breaking work and no vacation days unless it rained, served as excellent preparation for my writing career. Okay, so now I spend those hot summer days sitting on my backside in air conditioned splendor, pounding away at the keyboard. But long days of hay baling taught me tenacity. If I wanted the horses to eat that winter, I went when called to labor under the scorching sun. If I want to eventually get this novel published, I will stubbornly stick with it and do whatever it takes. Long hours? Hard work? Bring it on!
Monday, May 28, 2007
Writers’ conferences have a rhythm of their own, and the Pennwriters 2007 gathering was no different. It was a chance to renew old acquaintances (thank God for name tags!), escape the household chores and that mysterious leak in the basement, pitch your best-seller-to-be to an agent or editor, and maybe learn a thing or two.
There was a lot of talk in the hall ways, at the meals, and in the Hospitality Suite. The speakers had a lot to say too--about plotting, revisions, how TV shows have made life hell for forensic pathologists (and police in general), the character’s arc, and, as usual, the dismal state of the publishing business (hopeless, yes, but defying logic and reason, still going strong but for how long no one knows).
Out of that cacophony of words one word usually emerges, lodging itself into the brain. For me this year that word came from editor Colleen Sell. In her presentation she detailed what causes an editor to say no to a submission--a sloppily prepared manuscript, the overly aggressive writer, the writer who wants to be the editor’s best friend, and the writer who fails to deliver as promised. That took up most of her hour.
It was when she was explaining what will make an editor say yes to a story that I had my ah-ha moment. A story that is original, engaging, intelligent, and well researched and well told will get her attention. And one more thing--if it is honest.
Honest. At the time I didn’t know why that word struck me so. Now that I’ve had a few days to give it some thought, I have to be, well, honest with myself and answer a few important questions:
How honest am I about my commitment to a “writing career” (stuck in neutral all these years)?
Am I being honest when I tell people who ask how it’s going, Oh, it’s coming along, when I haven’t touched the damn manuscript in three weeks and don’t know when I’ll get the motivation to do what I know I have to do?
Then there’s the more specific aspect of honesty, as in, am I being honest with my characters?
Do I believe in them and the world I’ve created, or am I just playing games?
And what about those future readers? Do I respect and honor them with the words I put on the page, or am I hoping I can sneak a good one past them (and we all know instances where that’s happened)?
I’ve thought about “honesty” a lot in the past week, and know I’ll be thinking about it in the future too. After all, what’s the point of writing if, at heart, you can’t be honest with yourself and your readers?
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Robin Burcell has worked as a police officer, a detective, and a criminal investigator. After more than 20 years in law enforcement, including work as an FBI-trained forensic artist and a hostage negotiator, Burcell is now writing full time. She is the author of the SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels: EVERY MOVE SHE MAKES (nominated for an Anthony), FATAL TRUTH (winner of the 2002 Anthony Award for best paperback original), DEADLY LEGACY (winner of the 2003 Anthony), and COLD CASE (nominated for an Anthony.) Robin is working on a new series featuring an FBI forensic artist, the first of which should be out next year.
A virgin no more. Yes, it’s true. This is my very first post as a guest blogger on Working Stiffs. I had thought about writing something on my old career, that of being a cop for a couple of decades, a career that certainly helps when it comes to writing crime fiction. Then again, maybe I should admit that my kids aren’t exactly thrilled about my past career. I tend to be a bit on the overprotective side, because I know what goes on out there, and it’s not just something I’ve read about somewhere else. I’ve seen it, experienced it, investigated it.
And my kids suffer for it.
Typical conversation with my oldest daughter, currently 16, after discussing something that usually concerns boys or crime as seen on TV news:
Me: I’m locking you in your closet until you graduate from college.
Daughter: You can only lock me in until I’m 18, and then I’m getting my bellybutton pierced.
Me: Not while you’re living under my roof.
Daughter: (raises eyebrows in that “we’ll see” look she’s perfected over the years).
Ah, my firstborn. Someone near and dear to my heart--maybe
a more apt description would be someone who makes my heart
stop each time she steps out the door,
no doubt because I was a cop for twenty years, and
I know what goes on out there in that big wide world.
You see, about a week ago, she passed her driver’s test
and is now an official licensed driver. This is the rite of passage
that nearly every teen aspires to.
And it’s the moment in life every parent fears.
It already costs me about a hundred bucks every six weeks to get my hair colored, and that was before my daughter was licensed. Now what am I supposed to do? I’m fairly certain that the speed in which my hair grays is commensurate to my children’s movement toward young adulthood and their knowledge that I can’t really lock them in the closet. And having experienced parenthood this far into the game, I’m absolutely certain that if any parent knew what to expect, knew what it felt like when their kid walks out the door that first time and each successive time thereafter with car keys in his or her hand, the population growth of earth would be about zero.
Really there should be some type of manual that is required reading before you ever contemplate having a kid, a manual that prepares you for these milestones and the untold money you will spend supporting the hair coloring companies. After all, there’s a book on WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING. And the popular sequels WHAT TO EXPECT THE FIRST YEAR and WHAT TO EXPECT THE TODDLER YEARS. I loved those books. They were well-worn in my house, especially the section that listed illnesses and diseases. If the pediatrician thought I was neurotic, it had everything to do with what was in the books. When my kids got sick, I’d look up the symptoms of such maladies as chicken pox and Fifth’s disease. Who would’ve guessed that the horrible rash my oldest daughter continually got as a toddler was from feeding her corn. That discovery was one little line, tucked in some chapter, and saved us a fortune in diaper rash prevention. And that whole fingernails-turning-blue thing that indicates pneumonia? Yep, found that in the back of the book, too, thereby getting my youngest to the hospital just in the nick of time.
Personally, I believe they stopped this wonderful series too soon. I think the last book ends at the age of five, or maybe that’s the last one I bought, because by then, I knew every symptom for every disease my children could possibly get. I was prepared.
Or so I thought.
Too late I thought of the book I really need: WHAT TO EXPECT THE TEEN YEARS. Someone needs to write this. And like the earlier books, it should have lots of photos. Especially of the parents and what they’ll look like each time their kid walks out the door with the car keys in hand.
And that’s where it should remind you that you might want to invest in a CPR manual and maybe a defibrillator so that when your kid starts up the car and pulls out of the garage, you and your significant other are prepared to resuscitate each other. Especially after the insurance company quote arrives to tell you how much it actually costs to insure your little darlings.
Anyone else hold stock in hair coloring companies?
Robin Burcell attempts most of her parenting skills in Northern California. Feel free to visit her website HERE or HERE. All teen parenting tips welcome.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
May has been a month of waiting for me. I’m waiting for my book to come out. I’m waiting for my agent to read and respond to the new book I sent him. I’m waiting for my editor to send me my revision letter for my second mystery.
And I’m waiting for June 6th. That’s my tenth anniversary. While Nancy Martin gets a trip to Venice for her anniversary, I get five days in Tucson, Arizona. The destination was chosen because that’s where TapeOp Magazine (which my other half writes for) is having their conference. Yes, I’m going to a music industry conference for my anniversary. But while you may see a marriage in swift decline, I see a luxury hotel with a swimming pool, lots of mojitos, and a new band every night we’re there. And desert air free of allergens. I miss breathing.
I’m also going to be one of the only women there. It’ll be like being the prettiest girl at the monastery.
I’ve been getting pretty misty-eyed lately thinking about our anniversary. We married when we were mere zygotes and have done a lot of growing up together (and, judging from my recent attempts to squeeze into my wedding dress, a substantial amount of growing out). I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about writers with unsupportive spouses and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get up and write everyday knowing that the person you chose to share your life with resents what you do. We face enough rejection in this business without having to face it at home.
My husband is a voracious reader, but his books of choice are fantasy. He’s a big believer that my fiction would be better if I included a dragon or a troll in the story (and given the current popularity of cross-genre stuff, he might be on to something). Yet despite my stubborn refusal to write the kind of book he’d most enjoy reading, he’s been my biggest supporter over the years, reading drafts, helping me parse rejection letters, encouraging me to get over myself and start writing again. And holding me when I needed to let it all out and cry.
I’ll never forget the day the man who would be my agent called me. My husband and I were…er…in flagrante (which just goes to show you that that call really does come when you least expect it). We had neglected to turn the phone off and as it began to ring, we glanced at the caller ID. My husband asked who Trident Media Group was. I replied it was a literary agency and my husband immediately screamed for me to answer it. I didn’t do so fast enough, but rather than returning to our previously scheduled activity my husband demanded that I call the agency back RIGHT THEN. That, my friends, is love.
When The War Against Miss Winter sold, however, he greeted the news with much more muted enthusiasm that I would’ve expected. Oh, there were flowers and a lovely bottle of wine, but I expected him to be as gob smacked by the news as I was. Unable to stand it, I finally asked him why he wasn’t hopping up and down. Wasn’t this unbelievable?! Wasn’t he excited?!
Of course I’m excited, he told me. I’m just not surprised. I always knew you’d eventually be published. I just didn’t know when.
So who are your biggest supporters?
Friday, May 25, 2007
A few days ago, my husband Alan changed the sunflower seed feeder on the small window to our deck to the hummingbird feeder with its sugary, liquid contents. The winter birds can fend for themselves now, and we watch with breathless excitement as the little hummers swoop in and hover or sit to feed. We're breathless because if you move within the house, they instantly dart away.
It's a dreamy time, watching ruby-throated darlings with their bright green coats and red throats. The tiny birds induce magic with their wild wing choreography, and I've heard them buzz past me on the deck as I sit unsuspectingly. The whirring's too loud for a winged bug or yellow jacket, and no matter how statue-like I am, my presence scares them off.
This year's different, for little Missy, the new cat, devised a method of terrorizing the chickadees and cardinals who came in the winter for seeds. She crouched on the television just below the window, then "attacked" the birds that flew in to feed. She's applying equal zest to the hummers, jumping on the window sill just after they arrive. Only time will tell if hummingbirds like surprises.
How do these tiny wonders relate to us? Ted Andrews in his book Animal-Speak talks of totem animals whose spirits can teach us valuable lessons. He believes that nature coexists with us and can give us information and messages through these animal spirits.
According to Ted, the hummingbird represents tireless joy and reminds us to find joy in what we do and to sing it out. The hummingbird can hover, fly backward, forward, and sideways. It cannot survive without flowers (or my feeder) and can help you find joy and sweetness in any situation. Its swiftness is always a reminder to grab joy while you can--as quickly as you can.
Hummingbirds are playful, fiercely independent, hard workers, master architects, and can hibernate overnight. Over 300 species of hummingbirds are identified. Some ruby-throats have been known to fly over 2500 miles, from Alaska to Central America. This migration makes the hummingbird a symbol for accomplishing the impossible.
So this summer as we sip nectar (or some other nameless brew) and exude great joy, we'll be accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks in our writing careers (finishing the manuscript, getting an agent, selling a book). This will be the summer of the hummingbird.
Unless Missy scares them all off.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Seeing as I'm still brain dead from the Pennwriter's Conference, this post is going to be a rambling mess. In other words, if you're here to read something that makes sense, I'll excuse you now.
There's not much going on in Shaler these days. Most of our calls have been for EMS, lost dogs and cats, disorderly juveniles and people who lock themselves out of their cars. Yawn.
At home, I have more than enough to do. There's always laundry, cleaning, cooking, more laundry, gardening, more laundry...you get the picture. But all this is boring, too. Sigh.
I'm calling it post-conference stress disorder. If it's not a real syndrome it should be. I don't know about anyone else, but the weekend was such a high for me. It was so nice to talk to people who know what the hell I'm talking about when I mention protagonists, villains, drafts and revisions. People who look at everything that happens and think, this would make a great story. People who chat about murder, bodies and autopsies over dinner without even flinching. My kind of people. This was the first conference where I felt like a "real writer" and not someone pretending to be one. I loved every minute of it.
At home after the conference, my family listened with interest--for about ten minutes. Then everyone wanted to tell me what they did while I was gone. I was back to mom and wife mode. Not a bad thing, but it was nice being a writer and nothing else, even temporarily.
Then on Monday it was back to work. I tried to tell the guys about the conference but all they were concerned about was how much overtime they were going to get working the new traffic detail where the railroad is replacing the tracks. I went back to my office where I could daydream about my next scene.
At least I had my book to work on this week. I could put to good use everything I learned at the conference. I'm itching to get it finished so I can start on the revisions and try Hallie Ephron's tips.
So, anyone who has been to a conference--either Pennwriters or another one--tell us about your experience. Did you suffer from post-conference stress disorder? How did you deal with the aftermath of real life? Who else is already planning for the next one?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Well, it's that time of year again. I'm not speaking of violets and rhododendron in bloom, or shedding coats and boots and being able to wear shorts again. I'm talking about the time of the year when television shows are wrapping up their seasons.
Maybe, with my writing hat on, I'm more critical this year, but does anyone else dislike what many of the shows are doing at the end of this season?
I'm not talking about the shows that you know the premise is lousy and the writing is uneven, but you watch anyway because it's your area of interest or your spouse is watching or you enjoy seeing a good train wreck.
I'm talking about the shows that had decent to excellent writing all year, interesting plots, good character development, and in the last few episodes it's like the writers are on speed.
And maybe they are. I've never written for a television show, so maybe it's like finals. By the end of the season you're so sleep-deprived you'll put anything on the page just to get it over with?
And I guess not only do writers have to think about how to wrap up their current plots and subplots but also how to keep viewers interested enough to want to tune in next season.
But still, why do they think we like cliffhangers manufactured out of thin air?
And here's the thing. If the season comes to a satisfying conclusion, if it ties up loose ends, if I breathe a sign of relief like I do at the end of a good novel, that's when I'm going to be tuning in again next year. If the writers' drop a bombshell, turning everything I've taken for granted upside down and making it a whole new show, then I'm going to think twice about sticking with it.
But maybe I'm in the minority. What about you? What will get you to tune in next fall?
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
No, I didn't mean Niece or any other N word. I meant Nice. I hate my Niceness, my civility, my willingness to please, my adaptablility. I am NICE.
Case in point. Last year at the Pennwriter's Conference I met an agent who wanted to represent me. He promised fame, fortune and contracts galore if only...... I would also hire him as an attorney to trademark the project name. Large bells should have started ringing in my ears. I have attorneys I work with all the time. Heck, we even have our own Pgh Sister who is an attorney. But I didn't want to upset the balance so I signed on. My gut told me he was too good to be true. I didn't really "get" what he was going to be selling. But, I went along, sent him the moola, did the web page, produced video and waited for the big sell. Nothing. I was too nice. I didn't push him to tell me who he had been talking to about our project. I suggested but didn't insist that we meet in New York where he supposedly has an office. I didn't barrage him with emails insisting on anything. At this point Nice became Stupid.
I almost didn't go to this year's Pennwriter's Conference because I was embarrassed. My Big Agent who bragged to everyone at last year's conference about what he would do for me, had done nothing and I felt badly. I was being Nice.
Well, thank heavens I went. The Sisters in Crime who had heard all his promises were eager for my results. Did I have a television show yet? When was a book coming out? I fessed up. Nothing was happening or was going to happen. He was a dud and I had been too nice.
But instead of laughing, the Sisters got mad and by the time I left the Conference I no longer felt nice. I felt like the businesswoman I should have been all along.
My certified letter firing Evan Fogelman is going in the mail tomorrow. And it feels NICE!!!!!!
Tell me your "too nice" stories.
Monday, May 21, 2007
I feel like somebody beat me.
The house across the street is beige. Not a little beige. Totally beige. Beige siding, beige brick, beige railing and the garden consists of ……drum roll please……beige river rock. Wooohooooo!
The view from my dining room window is like a near death experience, except instead of going into the light, you are going into the beige. It makes me do crazy things. Last week, it caused me to have a total flame-out and decide that the front of my house was getting a makeover. The front door was going to go from poppy red to cobalt blue –“hyper” blue to be exact. No fear of color here! On the way to work, I took a detour to the Sherwin-Williams and bought the paint. Just like that. I’m going to FORCE color on my neighbors. It is just not fair that I have to look at their crappy beige and they get to look at my shiny front door and my garden.
Well, before the front door can be painted cobalt blue, the flower beds had to be mulched and the perennials divided. If you spread the mulch right after painting, the dust will stick in the paint. Is anything ever easy? We spent two days in the gardens mulching and dividing the perennials I have been cultivated for four years in the hopes that they would swallow my house, or at least block the view of the beige.
The garden project is the source of the physical pain, but it is nothing compared to having the sight of the beige house burned on the back of my retina. By Memorial Day, I should have a cobalt blue front door, and short of putting a sign in the front yard bearing the Diana Vreeland quote, “People who eat white bread have no dreams,” I don’t know what else I can do to announce to the world that I hate things that are boring. Which reminds me of something else Diana Vreeland said:
It is better to be vulgar than boring.
Friday, May 18, 2007
Every other Saturday since last summer I've been blogging about the many jobs I've held. Most recently, I blogged about my present job -- attorney for an electric utility -- and my decision to accept an early retirement offer.
Today, it's my turn again. I had planned to write about dealing with vampires (selling blood plasma), or editing dissertations, or traveling to remote county courts to present motions, or taking inventory in stores, but the fact is that I've run out of time. My dial-up connection must have realized that I'll soon be getting broadband and, in retaliation, is acting out. Today it's very, v e r y s l o w. It is also disconnecting me from the internet repeatedly, which means I have to (very slowly) sign on again and again.
I have to leave early this morning because there's this writers' conference I'm attending, and I have an appointment with a potential agent. It's hard to sell a fiction book without an agent, and I have five completed manuscripts just cluttering up my writing space. I'm trying not to be too hopeful, but you can't succeed unless you try, and you can't try if you don't make it to the appointment on time. So here I go, into yet another career -- fiction writer. Like an old time shopkeeper, I am closing up this blog entry for the day and putting out a sign, "Gone Fishing." With a little luck, I just might catch an agent.
Over the past week, I've cheered my sons through four baseball games, sailed the Three Rivers on the Gateway Clipper Mother's Day brunch cruise, washed, dried and folded seven loads of laundry (including four pairs of grass-and-dirt-stained white baseball pants), done the weekly grocery shopping, paid bills, delivered local election results on live television, finalized a 612-page electrical catalog, typed six pages of minutes from my writers group's last board meeting, attended another board meeting for the same writers group, and prepared a presentation on writing catalog copy for afore-mentioned writers group's annual conference.
I am woman, hear me roar.
What I haven't done is write my blog. As I was racing home from work yesterday, I tried to think of a subject, but all I could think about was how tired and stressed I was. And wonder when I would ever learn to quit being so stupid and just say NO. That reminded me of a proposed anthology for which I submitted a story a couple years ago. The anthology, which had a great title, "Girls Gone Stupid: Dumb Things Smart Women Do," never happened, and I never knew what else to do with the story. It's been sitting idle on my hard drive ever since, but today it's going to come to my rescue. So without further ado...
* * *
ONLY AN IDIOT
By Lisa Curry
My husband accuses me of only listening to half of what he tells me. I’ve always denied that, but if there is any truth to it, it’s an occupational hazard. I’m a writer. Even when I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about a story I’m working on, instead of paying attention to what’s going on around me. That must have been the case one December a few years back.
My husband, Glen, came home from Christmas shopping at the mall. “I saw a pair of gloves that match the jacket you got me for my birthday,” he said, referring to an expensive designer ski jacket I’d purchased at a bargain price from an outlet store.
I’d already finished my Christmas shopping for him, but a few days later, I went to the mall to buy the gloves. To my dismay, they were very expensive -- half what I’d paid for the jacket, in fact -- and not on sale. I didn’t think they were worth the price and was reluctant to buy them.
But Glen clearly wanted the gloves, or he wouldn’t have mentioned them. Only an unloving wife could ignore such an obvious hint. I gritted my teeth and paid the outrageous sum.
On Christmas morning, Glen opened the other gifts I’d bought him and seemed very happy with them. The last package contained the gloves. Eagerly anticipating his reaction, I watched him tear off the wrapping paper and open the cardboard box.
I was stunned. “What’s wrong? Did I get the wrong gloves? Weren’t those the ones you wanted?”
When he finally stopped laughing, Glen looked at the gloves, looked at me, and shook his head. “Lisa, I told you, you only listen to half of what I say.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You said you saw gloves that matched your jacket. Those are the gloves!”
“Yes, they are, but apparently you didn’t hear the rest of what I said.”
“What else did you say?”
Glen smiled and kissed my forehead. “What I said was, ‘Only an idiot would pay that much for a pair of gloves’!”
* * *
That's my stupid story. Let's hear yours.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
When I worked at my last office job, we used to have a yearly sales meeting. It happened every spring, and it was a big event. We’re talking months of planning and schedule coordinating. The corporate honchos would provide breakfast and lunch. All the sales reps would fly into Pittsburgh. It was the only time of the year when the entire staff was together in one spot.
I’ve heard this is common practice at magazines, although some of the more glitzy publications actually have their meetings at tropical resorts or at fun places like Las Vegas. Our staff, however, had to settle for donuts in a conference room, but hey, even that was a treat.
Anyway, at the meeting, we would all sit down and take stock of how things were going. Were we meeting our goals? What wasn’t working? What was working? How could we make things better? Which advertisers needed extra attention? It would be a grueling day, and by 4:00 p.m., even the sugar rush of the left-over donuts didn’t help.
I was never a fan of these meetings, and honestly, I found them to be a waste of time. By the next day, it was business as usual. Nothing changed from year to year. The brainstorming sessions were long forgotten as we were more concerned with catching up on all the e-mails and work that was left behind from the day before than implementing anything new.
But then I got to thinking, how can I use this concept in my writing?
Spring is a great time for evaluation, so I plan my own version of the Spring Sales Meeting now. I gather my characters together. I bring reference materials in the form of my outline and synopsis. I take stock of where I am in my writing and look to my characters for input on how to make things better. And yes, I order lunch for myself as a treat, although I’ve skipped the donuts because they aren’t very figure friendly for a writer who spends her time sitting on her butt all day long.
I invite you all to schedule a Spring Sales Meeting for the sake of your writing. What would you do during the meeting? Who would you invite? Where would you have it?
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Ah, well. I still have something to strive for. And I really am honored to be among the runners up. It was a tough group this year!
The Winners are:
FLASH STORY: "Vigilante" by Barry Ergang (Summer 2006, Mysterical-E)
SHORT-SHORT STORY - We have a tie: • "Four For Dinner" by John M. Floyd (Seven by Seven) AND • "Elena Speaks of the City, Under Siege" by Steven Torres(September/October 2006, Crimespree Magazine)
MID-LENGTH STORY - "Cranked" by Bill Crider (Damn Near Dead: An Anthologyof Geezer Noir)
LONGER SHORT STORY - "Strictly Business" by Julie Hyzy (These Guns for Hire)
Congratulations to all the winners!
At the risk of running afoul of our Working Stiffs therapist, I’ve been obsessing a lot lately. My cat has cancer, so I watch her every move and question whether or not that behavior is something new—some sign of the cancer progressing. Yesterday, she slept all day and I freaked out. Maybe she’s getting worse!
Or maybe she’s a cat. Cats sleep. A lot. Today, she’s fine.
All last week I obsessed over the new neighbors. I’m not used to new neighbors. I’ve had family living in the houses around me all my life. Until last week when STRANGERS moved in. Honestly though, I don’t know if I’d call it obsessing. More like curiosity. Okay, RABID curiosity. But the window in my home office looks out at their house. Just because I turn my head (and crane my neck…and squint through the new foliage on the trees—damned leaves) to see what’s going on over there every time I hear a door slam, doesn’t mean I’m obsessing.
Well, maybe a little. But I’m better now. The novelty has worn off. Besides, I’m too busy watching my cat to see if she’s drooling to bother with the folks next door.
And now it’s D-day. The day the Short Mystery Fiction Society names the 2007 winners of the Derringer Awards. Actually, YESTERDAY was supposed to be D-day according to the website. I waited patiently (all right, NOT so patiently) all day for the announcement. Then I learned that it wouldn’t happen until today.
You see, I’m a finalist.
You know how those TV and movie stars on the Oscars and Emmys red carpets always proclaim that it’s an honor just to be a nominee? It’s true. When I heard that my story “A Signature in Blood” had made the short list, I was beyond ecstatic. It is an honor. One that completely blindsided me. I didn’t know that my story had been nominated (along with 170 other stories) until it had survived the judging panel to be one of five finalists in my category. What a rush!
And that was enough for me. I’ve been telling everyone that I don’t expect to win and don’t care either way. I’m a finalist. That’s huge.
Yesterday, I realized I’ve been lying to myself. I do care. I mean, how cool would it be to be able to list 2007 Derringer Award Winner on every query letter, every cover letter, every bio I ever write again in my entire life? Very cool.
Do I expect it to happen? No way. Not considering the competition. But then again, I never expected to be on that list of five, either. I’ve already made it through the judges’ panel. My story has already survived this far. Who knows?
And so I wait. And wait. And chew my nails. And, yes, I obsess.
But it is definitely an honor just to be nominated.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
As a teenager, I was a competitive swimmer---a pretty good one. I learned that getting off the starting block fast was crucial, that a long glide underwater often gave me an even greater head start, and that fast flip turns with a powerful push off the wall gave me a surprisingly advantage over swimmers who were more eager to start their exhausting kicking and stroking as quickly as possible.
One lesson learned early: Anticipating the starter's gun too much meant sometimes getting penalized for a false start. Two false starts, and you're disqualified.
Now I'm a writer, and I find myself thinking with surprising frequencey about those years I spent underwater. I learned a lot then.
I forgot one especially important lesson last week, and it came back to bite me in the proverbial butt.
Against my better judgment, I sent my manuscript to my editor. It was way too early to let anyone see it who's not related to me or not my critique partner. (Who is related to me by blood, if you count how much of each other's red corpuscles we've spilled over the years.) False start.
The draft was not ready for public consumption, but my editor insisted I send the manuscript. Something about needing it for the upcoming sales conference. So I caved.
Despite dangling more plot threads than a coat at the Salvation Army and employing prose more lifeless than the concrete statuary in my garden, I sent it off. Then I took an hour to go to the grocery store to re-stock the larder (we actually ate Five Guys hamburgers during Deadline Mandess, and although they're delicious, I could feel my liver afterwards) and then I got down to work on the re-write.
Which, for me, starts with printing out the ms, finding a comfy chair with a footstool and reading my work with a Bic XXL in one hand and a stack of Post-It notes in the other. First order of business: Make sure the story makes sense.
About ten pages in, I realized, hooboy, I am in trouble. There was a lot of work to be done. The story was unclear, the murder suspects all muddled together, and my protagonist's motivation for solving the crime just felt . . . dopey.
Over the weekend, I made it through half the manuscript--slashing weak prose and trying to clarify the subplots while cutting so much of the fat that I began to worry the pace might actually be too fast. On a tablet, I started a list of plot issues that needed to be addressed in later pages, and the list quickly reached two long columns. And I'd only read halfway through the manuscript!
Did I mention my editor planned to read the book over the weekend, too? So the whole time I was reading, I was also cringing. I imagined her dismay growing to exasperation and finally disgust.
This morning, her preliminary revision email arrived. What she doesn't hate, she's lukewarm about.
I think I got off easy. At least I wasn't disqualified.
I know better. If I wasn't 100% confident in every page, I should have continued to work on the book and endured her frustration about my delivery schedule.
Stephen King advocates putting the drafted manuscript into a drawer to "rest" for a minimum of six weeks before plunging into the re-write phase. I think he's absolutely right. Time gives a writer sufficient distance to honestly judge a manuscript, but six weeks in a luxury most of us don't have. I keep thinking of the tantalizingly fat on-delivery check that awaits me as soon as I send the finished product, so I'm lucky if I can wait a day before starting over.
Stephen King knows what he's talking about, of course. And that point is brought home to me every time I pick up his book ON WRITING because in the back he lists the best/most inspiring books he read during a three or four year period, and one of the books was written by my sister's husband, Bernard Lefkowitz. It took Bernie seven years to write the book King praises.
Yeah, I was in too much of a rush to send a book that wasn't truly finished. I should have remembered that it usually takes me another eight weeks after the draft is complete for me to clean up the book enough to send it.
Now I've lost my editor's confidence. And I cheated myself out of the happy phone call full of praise and ego-boosting strokes. Worst of all: I know how to fix it all, but I feel like a chump.
So it's revision time here. Mind you, I love the re-writing process. It's the time to polish prose, clarify the story, make each character count. Pump drama into every scene. Slip some humor onto every page. Good thing I enjoy this phase, because I'll be doing a lot of it in the coming weeks.
What's your best re-writing tip? Because I need to use them all!
Monday, May 14, 2007
I just completed the process of getting my son into "the college of his choice" of which the main activity was to travel hundreds of miles and participate in the hour-long college tour. This was the basis of our most expensive decision of our lives and it was made by a 17-year old boy.
The college tour scene is a dysfunctional family parade and as writer I loved it. It seemed there was always, regardless of the city or state, some variation on the following cast of characters:
Rape Mom: Every stairway, lonely library stack, or thicket was under suspicion. This woman could spot a blind spot in the campus video surveillance so small a pair of Pekinese couldn't breed in private. And the poor daughter, who's mere presence was apparently enough to transform mild mannered college boys into rutting satyrs, was usually too mortified to raise her head and look around.
Cell Phone Dad: Really, we saw more than one of these guys who took calls and clicked away on his blackberry through the whole tour. Sometimes Mom (or wife number two) and child would wait for him as the tour moved on, sometimes not.
Stump the Guide Dad: This guy would always have lots comments and would eventually ask a totally inane question that would cause the guide (usually a kid) to stare at the man for a very long beat while the rest of us wonder "Why? Why? Why?" and his kid tries to slither under a concrete pad.
Cajolers: These parents have a kid that they've been begging to eat, sleep, study, breathe, since the day he was born and now they're doing back flips trying to get the kid to pick a college. They're often from some place really far away and this school is extremely inconvenient to visit but it's the only one the kid expressed any interest in at all. These parents love everything and are trying to beam their enthusiasm into the kid by nodding, smiling, and pointing at anything that the kid might deign to like. "Look, a low cement wall, you could grind your skateboard here!"
The Whole Fam Damily: This is a crowd of no less than 6. Two parents, one Nana or Papa, two siblings (one bored teenager/one annoying ten year old), and the poor kid that's looking for a college.
My advice to all parents on these tours is to not speak to anyone, anyone--your child, another parent, the guide and especially not to any of totally cool college the students on campus. And, if you really love your child you will somehow manage to become invisible during the tour but readily available when it comes time to buy the very expensive logo wear, which they will not wear unless they select that particular college and only after you send in the housing deposit. (PS: you, your husband and other children are expressly forbidden to don any college logo wear, ever.)
Saturday, May 12, 2007
This week I had a business trip that required me to be in Cincinnati for a few hours. From my home to the location was five hours and I travelled there and back in the same day. That gave me 10 hours total driving time. I used the opportunity to listen to a new audiobook.
I don't want to name the author or the title but let me say the novel was a recent thriller and the author has several times topped the New York Times Bestseller List. The book I read was the author's 14th book and all of them were written within 12 consecutive years.
Let me also say that as I endeavor to start my own writing career, I have been reading many books on how to write or how not to write. These books routinely list the do's and don'ts of professional writing.
So you can imagine how I felt as I listened to the book and heard virtually every "don't" these books had to offer. From characters who are walking cliches to an overabundance of adverbs to unrealistic dialogue to inaccurate factual data to forced plot points, this book had it all. Every "don't" in the book was well represented. And yet it was published and was, by all accounts, highly successful.
Undoubtedly the fact that this author had previous best sellers helped pave the way for books like this one that are less than stellar to go through the publishing process. Having books meet the arbitrary annual deadlines seems to outweigh the story getting a necessary rewrite in order to produce a high quality product. And that's really a shame. While I understand the monetary aspects of the writing world and acknowledge that, when all is said and done, it's a business like any other, there's something profoundly sad about stories that don't really need to be told getting the spotlight while those more deserving sit in stacks on prospective publishers' desks.
In a way, it's almost self-defeating. When you get talented writers to start cranking out novels without the necessary time investment it takes to make the novels great, the quality of the stories deteriorates. As they deteriorate, the author loses fans. As the author loses fans, the publishing companies lose money. You'd think they'd be more willing, therefore, to give the authors a little more time to ensure a consistently higher quality of product than force their people into mediocrity.
But the forced mediocrity of today's star writers only serves to help usher in new authors. With luck and persistence, maybe some of us will get that redirected spotlight. If only we can take the time to ensure our stories are worthy and our writing does those stories justice - especially now, before we get contracts, while we still have the luxury of time.
Friday, May 11, 2007
I have nothing to say, it seems. Oh, I am overflowing with ideas as soon as I turn the computer off, but as soon as I sit down to put those ideas onto the screen, my brain goes blank.
This isn't like me. I always have things to say. Too many things, usually. And I'm hardly one to shy away from controversy, or to jump in to play devil's advocate or mediate.
This utter inability to put words to screen is a bit disconcerting. Especially because I can open a file of some fiction and fall into as easily as I can fall into a bed at the end of the day. Maybe even easier.
I can hear my fictional character of Trevor Wolff scoffing at me, a cigarette dangling from his lip in his best James Dean imitation. "The problem," he says with a drawl, "is that you're undisciplined lately. Look at you. Write two sentences here and then flip to another window. You're checking your feed reader, you're surfing blogs. And then you whine about having nothing to say!"
He is, of course, right. As he is right when he adds on the part about me being full of it, too. It's a question of discipline. Isn't it?
It is true that there's actually too much to keep up with. My feed reader regularly has over 100 items waiting for me. My network of fellow bloggers grows by the day, and everyone wants me to notice them, just as I want them to notice me.
I love it, I do. I have always been a bit of a loner, and this network makes me feel more connected to people than I ever have been in my life. I've found that they inspire me as I sit down to write.
It's weird; you'd think that there'd be performance anxiety or fear that they'd hate what I write next. Certainly, when no one commented on a recent post within the first few hours of it being posted, I was worried I'd offended. Then again, I was writing about my fictional band's early road trip, the morning after a late-night Mexican dinner. Bodily functions are always a dicey affair, one I usually steer clear of.
I was in my late twenties when I said to a friend, "I've just realized I'm a competitive person." I'd never thought about it; how can a virtual hermit be competitive? With who?
Her response went along the lines of, "What rock have you been living under?"
That competitive nature saves me from the typical writerly anxiety and instead pushes me to challenge myself. To constantly raise my own bar and expand the scope of my imagination.
So maybe, I ought to tell Trevor, what I'm really doing isn't avoiding anything. Maybe I'm working as I surf the Net and visit my friends' blogs, letting my inner voice burble along until I'm finally ready to put words to page.
Trevor's not buying it, but what does he know? He's not real anyway.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
No matter how many blogs I read, or how many authors I talk to, we all suffer from the same thing—angst. According to dictionary.com, angst is defined as “a feeling of dread, anxiety, or anguish.”
To our way of thinking, our words are never good enough. That paragraph we just wrote? Pure trash. The dialogue that looked so right only minutes ago? Stilted. The chapter we finished yesterday? Better write it over. It never ends.
I’ve always been somewhat of a perfectionist at heart. I’d anguish over each and every word, sometimes taking days to write one scene. My muse finally rebelled.
“At the rate you’re going, this book will be done, oh, maybe 2050,” Muse told me.
“What do you know,” I said. “Maybe if you’d show up a little more often, I’d be finished by now.”
Muse sniffed. “I’ve been here all along. If you don’t appreciate me, maybe I’ll just leave--”
“Wait! I’ll do anything you want, just don’t leave me here alone.”
She agreed to stay, provided I follow certain conditions. The first of which was to WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY—NO EXCEPTIONS. Do you know how hard that is? I don’t know about all of you, but real life tries to interfere with that on a daily basis. What I’ve been doing lately is leaving my laptop booted up with my book open. Even if I’m busy, I can take a break for five minutes and write a paragraph or two.
Her second condition was to QUIT REWRITING AND FINISH THE DAMN BOOK. That’s another tough one. I love rewriting. Love it, love it, love it. To me, that’s the fun part of writing. Taking the raw prose and tweaking it until it’s just right. Lately, I’ve only been allowing myself to go back ONE page before I write something new. And believe it or not, it’s working.
Muse’s third condition wasn’t quite as hard to swallow as I’d been thinking about it for awhile anyway. STOP PLAYING IT SAFE. She was definitely right about that one. So, I killed off an important character (see my blog). Just doing this one little thing (okay, maybe not so little) gave the story so much more pizzazz. I’m so thrilled to write now that (gasp!) the laundry is piling up and I have dust on my furniture. And the world has not come to an end because of it. On the contrary, I have more energy and feel more excited about everything than I have for a long time. No more angst for me.
Is anyone else listening to their muse? What has she told you lately?
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
This is the last segment in my, "Why People Do Bad Things," series, and I've saved most disgusting for last. At first, it may not be obvious why I grouped together sadists and pedophiles. However, I believe that they share a similar motivation, in that they are basically disorders of sexuality, or what turns someone on.
What arouses both sadists and pedophiles are things that your average person finds horrifying. Pedophiles are turned on by young children. Sadists are turned on by the look of fear or pain in their victim's eyes, or the act of dismembering a body (living or dead.)
Sadists and Pediophiles both have an active fantasy life, day-dreaming about their crimes before and after they happen, trying to work up the same arounsal they got when they performed the act. Writers, too, have active fantasy lives. But most writers are satisfied with the writing process and don't actually perform the deed. What makes the difference between someone who can stop at the fantasy level and someone who acts it out? That's something I wish I knew.
Villains with these types of sexual deviancies are gross and creepy, the kind of bad guy readers love to hate. It can be oddly reassuring, at those moments when we question ourselves, to have absolute confirmation there's someone out there who is sicker than we are. And their very creepiness gives readers a chill, that ripple up the back of our spine that is why some people read crime fiction.
The difficulty writing about such villains is that they can be so repellant that readers disconnect from them emotionally. Sadists and pedophile characters, in my opinion, need to be given qualities to which your average person can relate or they fall flat.
It's hard to imagine a better sadist than Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. One of the reasons he was so effective as a villain is his relationship with Clarice Starling, the young FBI cadet played in the movie by Jodie Foster. I believe it was his desire for contact with her, as sick and twisted as it was, that helped the audience relate to him. Ironically, his very humanness made him even scarier and more distorted.
As a side note, the movie database I used to check names and spellings gave the following tagline for the film. "Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Brilliant. Cunning. Psychotic." I don't believe he was psychotic in the psychiatric sense. (See my April 25th blog.) He knew exactly what he was doing. However, his inner compulsions led him to perform inhuman acts.
Do you think it's necessary to "humanize" a villain in order for them to be effective? How have you seen that done?
Monday, May 07, 2007
Hypothesis: women who can drive standard transmissions are superwomen.
I arrived at this hypothesis recently when I hopped into my boss's Saab wagon with her. I noticed that the car had a standard transmission. This is a woman managing staff, projects, family, household and husband. She is extremely smart. So much so that some men are actually terrified by her because they can't cope with the brain in the pretty package. When something needs doing --she does it. She steers and shifts all at the same time.
Another quailty of chicks who drive sticks is the power and willingness to reinvent themselves. My mother, for example, went back to school in her late forties, found a new career, and then morphed that career into another. There was no lamenting about being stuck in life. There was only the sound of shifting gears and squeal of tires as she headed toward new things. This is a woman who once won trophies for drag racing and who can drive a stick in platform wedgie sandals.
One of my colleagues is perhaps the best example of a superwoman. She recently began a conversation by saying that she had a visitor from India staying with her for two weeks. Coming from someone else this would be remarkable, but it is something I've come to expect from her. Rather than yammering about how the world could be better, she is doing things to make it better. The remarkable thing is she is doing multiple good deeds at once. This is a woman committed to community programming at the museum while tutoring Somali refugees, teaching piano lessons, providing moral support to her adult children, babysitting a grand-niece and grand-nephew and about one hundred other things I don't know about or can't remember.
Physically steering and shifting gears everyday is a metaphor for life. I need to learn to drive a stick, so I can start a campaign to teach young women how to drive a stick in the hope that they will absorb all of the qualities that seem to go with it.
What do you think about chicks who drive sticks?
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Electricity has always seemed magical to me. You flip a switch and lightbulbs glow. Depress a lever and a slice of bread turns into toast.
For the past 18+ years, I've been working for an electric utility company. Seeing the process from the inside, I've realized that a lot of knowledge and hard work goes into keeping that current flowing. Even under the best of circumstances, it isn't easy to send enough power to meet customer needs through the lines at a consistent voltage. On top of that, events conspire to stop the flow: Trees fall onto wires, contractors dig into underground conduit, squirrels commit suicide by touching two wires at once and turning into biological conductors. Poles fall victim to errant drivers and sliding hillsides. Lightning strikes, causing what is called an "over-voltage" situation -- way over voltage! Equipment fails.
I was hired in 1988 as a staff attorney to handle commercial collections, suing businesses that hadn't paid their bills. Then my responsibility shifted to litigation before the Public Utility Commission (PUC). It's kind of cool that any customer who has a grievance (real or imagined) can file a complaint with the PUC and get a hearing before an administrative law judge who, if the evidence shows that the utility has done wrong, can impose a fine and/or mandate better behavior in the future. Part of my job is to present the company's position in those hearings, and to do it without suborning perjury, falsifying documents, or concealing evidence. A lot of people assume that there's chicanery involved, and that the PUC does whatever the utilities want it to. I can attest from personal experience that this is not the case.
In the past I've blogged about the jobs I used to have, and avoided mentioning my present position. I decided to blog about it now because it, too, is about to become a job of the past. I have decided to accept an early retirement offer and leave this job behind.
Before I came to work for Duquesne Light Company, I thought electricity was magic. Now I know the truth: it is magic! Best wishes to my colleagues who remain. You light the world.
Friday, May 04, 2007
The other night I was searching for a way to avoid revisions. This wasn’t hard to do with the internet at my fingertips. Through some convoluted path I can’t recall, I ended up reading Amazon.com reviews for some of my favorite books.
There are two books I like so much that every word I read makes me want to toss my computer into the Allegheny and if possible, rip any inclination to put words to paper from my brain or heart, or wherever the drive to write comes from because why should I bother writing if these two authors have already written my story and better than I ever will?
A lot of the reviews mirrored my thoughts and feelings toward the books. But I was shocked to read a good number of reviews were not only negative, they were scathing. Nearly word for word the negative reviews were the polar opposite of the positive ones. And mean, those things were mean.
Putting the tone of the angry, searing ones aside—what makes people say such incredibly rude things on a public forum deserves its own post—I learned a lot about the process of getting published.
What I learned was nothing new. I’d heard it before, but this time it became tangible—the notion that reading is subjective and the world rarely agrees that the same books are great.
I’m well aware everyone has their favorite authors and categories of literature and I know humor plays different to different ears, but when I started reading those reviews I never in a million years suspected people could think these great writers, are crap (not my word). But there it was.
I felt a surge of relief. Maybe the people who rejected me are wrong. It is just their opinion.
It’s not that reading the reviews let me off the hook for preparing the best manuscript possible (I did eventually get back to my revisions), but it was comforting to see even the published ones aren’t categorically praised by the everyday reader. These two authors, well respected, widely and well sold were told they can’t write for anything—that their work was unreadable, unworthy, the result of nepotism.
There will always be people who think I can’t write, that my stories aren’t well-done, that I single-handedly forced the earth’s temp to rise a degree from wasting trees on my book. But there will be the others who enjoy my work, find meaning in it, who smile while reading it.
Mostly, I learned that avoiding my future Amazon reviews will be top priority. No good can come from reading those bad-boys.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
We’ve all had those days. Maybe we’re sick with the flu. Maybe we’ve had a rough day at the office, and the last thing we want to do is sit in front of a computer. Maybe we’re busy with household and family duties. Whatever the reason, we abandon our characters and our stories. We stomp our feet like we did as children. We long to crawl back into bed and take a sick day watching cartoons all day. Our characters nag at us for attention, but we look away.
The reason? We just don’t feel like writing.
I’ve read a lot of interviews and articles about the work ethic surrounding writing. Professional writers write. They don’t let anything stand in their way. I’m always reminded of a famous writer (I can’t remember his name) who said that he never, ever stopped writing. Not even for his son’s funeral. That may be pushing things to extreme, but I can see the logic.
In a way, I agree with that. An unwavering dedication to the craft is what separates the professionals from the wannabes. But even professional, serious writers have their days when temptation gets the best of them and they push aside that manuscript for something more…unwriterly. I’ve done it. You’ve done it (C’mon, admit it). I’m sure even a prolific writer such as this one has done it.
If you ask me, I think these bouts of writing burn-out are all part of the process. You can’t keep running a marathon day after day without stumbling a bit. Life is happening out there, folks. If you don’t stop and pay attention once in a while, you’re going to miss something important. Living life is when we gather the best material for our work. If you don’t experience or know what’s going on in the world, your writing will suffer. You need to touch reader’s hearts, and the only way to do so is to get out and learn what’s affecting people.
So I invite you all to take a mental health day or two in support of your writing. Go out and spend a few lazy hours at the park. Walk your dog. Go to the mall and window shop. Get your hair done. Get a massage. Whatever you want to do.
Then, dust off that computer and get back to work. Your characters are waiting.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Ever since I was a little girl, the first Saturday in May always finds me glued to my TV. I’m not alone. The Kentucky Derby symbolizes spring’s hope for almost anyone with an interest in horses.
It isn’t difficult to own a racehorse. Owning one that makes more money than it costs to keep it is another matter. Owning or training a horse that has the potential to run for the roses is a dream for many. It begins each spring with the crop of foals—potential in the form of long legs, tiny hoofs and baby whinnies. (I love the sound of baby colts whinnies!) Over the next three years, those that have the heart to make it to Louisville reveal themselves. But there is heartbreak, too. Champion two-year-olds don’t always develop into champion three-year-olds. There is so much that can go wrong.
This year’s crop of Kentucky Derby hopefuls brings with them the usual assortment of backstory. I don’t know which I like better—watching the actual race or watching the pre-race coverage where we learn the path that the horses, the trainers, and the owners have tread to make it to Churchill Downs. Probably it’s the pre-race stuff. That’s what brings me to tears when an underdog or some other horse I deem as well-deserved crosses the wire first.
Don’t ask me tell you who to bet on. I’m the world’s worst handicapper. Inevitably, the horse I pick to lose will win in a big fashion and the one I’m convinced can’t be beat proves me wrong. That’s the thing about this sport. As my friend Jessi Pizzurro who trains at Mountaineer says, “Anything can happen in a horse race.”
I’ve witnessed it. The favorite, who has been trained to perfection, has beaten everyone else in the field, who looks fabulous and ready in the post parade, gets bumped breaking from the gate, stumbles and loses ground, then gets boxed in and ends up finishing out of the money.
There are those few true champions who always seem to overcome and fight their way back to win. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, is one example. What a story. Undefeated horse trained by Olympian Equestrian Michael Matz. Could anyone defeat that horse?
As previously mentioned, anything can happen in a horse race. We’ll never know if another horse could have beaten Barbaro because in the Preakness, the second of the Triple Crown races, he broke his right hind ankle in front of the entire world.
As for me, I look forward to the Kentucky Derby, not only as the premiere horse race of spring, but as the first step in the Triple Crown. The second jewel of the crown, the Preakness is run two weeks after the Derby. Three weeks later comes the Belmont Stakes. This is a very short span of time to bring a horse back to race again. Maybe that’s why Triple Crown winners are so rare. The last to win the honor was Affirmed in 1978. Before that, Seattle Slew won the big three in 1977. Secretariat (my all time favorite race horse) won in 1973. But before him, the last winner was in 1948 with Citation claiming the crown.
I really want to see another horse win the Triple Crown before I die! I have to admit, if the winner of the Preakness is some horse other than the one who crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby…the Belmont Stakes holds little interest for me.
But right now, in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby anything is possible. Any of the three-year-olds whose trainers and owners have their collective eye on the Derby could possibly be the next one to make it into the history books. Hope springs eternal.
Of course, the same can be said for all of us seeking out publishing deals for our novels. Anything can happen. Sometimes the underdog does pull off a miracle.
As for this year’s Kentucky Derby, the latest word is that Cobalt Blue, one of the favorites, has bowed out. If I had to pick my personal favorite, I’d have to say I like Tiago. However, with my luck at picking winners, I may have just jinxed him. Bet on anyone except him and you stand a good chance of making money! I can definitely tell you who I’m pulling for in the Preakness…whoever wins the Derby!
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Working in a company where “no” is a four-letter word forces one to be creative when faced with an impossible request.
Ten years ago, when my department numbered 13 (editors, assistant editors, proofreader and administrative assistant), I helped create a writing workshop. The workshop was offered as a follow up to our in-house proofreading and editing workshops.
Teaching the basics of proofreading is possible, even fun. But teaching people how to write in a six-hour workshop—yeah, right! But logic isn’t a valid argument when put against the dreaded “performance plan.” Mine that year included “co-facilitating a writing workshop” as a “development goal.” Management let us add a half day to the writing workshop, and it went on. We got good ratings, and plans were made for running it annually.
Corporate dictates have a way of changing, however, especially after a major downturn in the business. The following year—1999—was just such a year. Our staff was cut to four. The writing workshop became history. I stashed the course materials in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet, awaiting the day when I could give them a much-deserved burial.
As anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows, nothing ever really dies. Last month the manager of a technical department—urged on by one of his “team members” who recalled the writing workshop fondly—decided his staff (all 33 of them!) needed to attend the writing workshop.
His vision for the workshop was, well, expansive. Here’s his response to my e-mail question, What are your expectations? “That each member of TSS understands what goes into a professional communication, particularly in the new ‘one global company’ paradigm; that every member of TSS is equipped to produce professional business e-mails relating to their daily tasks, and basic technical documentation related to their areas of expertise; and that those who are already capable of these tasks may develop the ability to craft announcements and notices for general consumption.”
“One global company paradigm”? What in Hades is that supposed to mean? Technical documentation? I don’t think so. Technical editing is a craft for which I have no interest or inclination.
He did throw us a bone in his final comment (typed in red and italics): “It is worth emphasizing that we do not need to train for our staff to write lengthy texts that are persuasive, entertaining, or deeply descriptive.”
Oh, good, that’ll save us some time.
I spent a week devising a response to this manager. In essence I told him we could dish up burgers and fries in our Workshop Diner but we weren’t willing to serve a five-course gourmet dinner at Chez Editois.
I’m still waiting for his response.