Thursday, November 19, 2015

Don't read down.

"Don't read down."
Those were the words of best-selling novelist Elizabeth George during a panel at New England Crime Bake, a mystery writers conference I attended earlier this month in the Boston area.
Those were the words that set me free.
The moment I heard them, my muscles and my mind relaxed, releasing a tension I hadn't known existed.
It didn't take long to figure out why.
With my gradual immersion in the mystery/thriller genre over the past decade came a feeling of obligation, a need to read novels published by authors I'd met, or  novels beloved by other writers more successful than I in the business.
I wasn't choosing for myself anymore.
I was letting obligation dictate my reading list while sneaking in a few fictional "treats" on the side.
While I discovered some wonderful works among that obligatory pile, I also wasted a lot of time pushing through pages that didn't hold my attention.
Part of that disinterest might have been personal preference. Sometimes best-sellers just don't click with me, despite all the five-star reviews. Other times, I recommend books that turn other people off. That happens.
But many of those novels were simply not that good.
I was reading down.
When I returned from Crime Bake, I looked over the books on our shelves that remain unread, books that I had scheduled for the months of December or January or February. Most of them I know nothing about. I bought them out of obligation.
So here's my plan.
I'll give each book a few chapters.
I did pay for them, after all.
But I'll give myself permission to close the cover if they don't keep my attention beyond that. I will no longer waste time reading down when the direction I want to travel in is up
Thank you, Elizabeth George.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It's submission day (again)!

Oh, the ecstasy!
The emotions are etched in my memory like a high-contrast, high-definition photograph.
I actually screeched that day six years ago when my then-agent emailed a list of editors at various publishing houses who received my manuscript for consideration.
It would all fall into place from there. I just knew it.
My novel would be on the shelves within a year.
The next novel would result in a bidding war.
Everyone would be reading my stuff.
Yup, that's what happened.
What a contrast from today.
Today, marks my third submission day (My fourth if I count rewritten and resubmitted work.) and the emotional picture is far less jarring than it was six years ago. It's more like soft-touch through a sepia filter. I feel no euphoria. Only a pleasant buzz.
And I like it that way.
The first time around, rejection was devastating. I had jumped so high that I had a long, long way to fall and the landing hurt -- a lot. My then-agent was new to the business and had set his own expectations just as high.
We had buried several truths in our ignorance:
- The manuscript was not ready.
- My agent did not have the necessary connections. (He now represents only nonfiction.)
- Debut authors are a hard sell.
You know that saying, that ignorance is bliss?
It's not.
Ignorance, in this business, often invites disillusionment. Disillusionment takes weary, broken writers by the shoulders, spins them around and encourages them to walk away from that which has hurt them. They leave their dreams behind because they don't want to experience that kind of severe impact again.
That could have been me, but one thing kept me from surrendering to disillusionment's power: my journalism experience. When the first novel failed to sell, I started researching the business of publishing while writing another novel. I connected with established authors and aspiring writers like me. I asked questions. Lots of them.
I needed realism and I found it.
I met authors who had written multiple novels before they celebrated publication. I became friends with a writer who sold her first novels in mere days, not only because she is that good, but also because she is smart and savvy. She had spent as many years researching the markets and the players as she had writing.
I also met writers who had simply gotten lucky.
I opened my eyes and saw the mistake I'd made in signing with an agent who had no experience beyond his previous job working for a publisher. He knew a great deal about the after-market end of the business, but not enough about selling to publishers.
I left my agent with two completed novels in hand and started all over.
I had just started a third novel when I connected with my current agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, a woman who has been in the business longer than I can ever hope to be. Liz is calm, but enthusiastic. She is practical, but ambitious. She's connected, but in ways that run deep. Her contacts are more than business associates. Like her clients, most are friends.
And she's worn off on me.
I hope this novel sells, and I'd be lying if I said I don't dream of it. But I won't let those dreams overwhelm or distract me. I refused to pour all of my being into the fate of this one novel. If it sells, I'll be screaming from the roof tops, but I'll wait until that happens to climb up there.
For now, I'll just sit on my porch, where the ground is only a few feet below me, and focus on the next novel like the one under submission doesn't exist. I know I'll lose my balance if this novel doesn't sell. I'm only human, after all. But the landing won't hurt so much and my recovery time will be minimal.
And I'll climb right back up the stairs to the porch and start writing again.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pink: The color of opportunity

I told myself I would remove the pink silicone bracelet when my sister was cured.
Then she died two months ago and I didn't know what to do.
I couldn't take it off.
I couldn't bear the sight of it.
I nearly kicked down the display of pink I saw in the grocery store only a week after her death, more than a month before the kickoff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I wanted it gone. Pink made me angry.
A symbol of false hope.
A cash-cow for certain companies that dupe buyers into believing they are donating to the cause.
A month when simply wearing a color makes people feel like they've done something when they've done nothing at all.
All the pink in the world couldn't save my sister.
Pink was a constant reminder of what I'd lost, what her children and husband had lost, what my siblings and her friends had lost, and it was unbearable.
Until last week.
I was at the grocery store again, the same grocery store with the premature display. The clerk was ringing up my groceries when she asked me about the bracelet. I told her about my sister, Kathy Riley. She offered condolences.
"That's why," she said, "I never skip a mammogram."
For a moment, I was furious. How dare she assume my sister didn't heed the same advice? Our mother is a survivor. Our grandmother died of breast cancer. We were vigilant, my three sisters and I. My sister's breast cancer was detected a month after her mammogram. Her then 2-year-old son leaned against her breast and it hurt. She checked and felt a lump.
Then, through my anger, I glimpsed opportunity.
I told her my sister's story and stressed the importance of monthly self-checks. I explained that mammograms can miss cancer in people with dense tissue and that further, more sensitive tests, can sometimes be necessary.
She expressed surprise that anyone could be diagnosed so soon after a mammogram and admitted she never did self-checks. She would from then on, she promised, and suddenly, pink didn't make me so angry anymore.
I am still bothered by the commercialization of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and by those people who seem to revel in the color itself rather than in the meaning behind it. But I am no longer torn when I look at my bracelet.
Pink started that conversation, and who knows? Maybe the insight she gained through our talk will someday save a life. Maybe she'll find a lump early enough for a cure, or maybe she'll tell a friend who will tell a friend, and the conversation will keep going, moving others to do self-checks regularly.
So that's what I ask this month of anyone who reads this.
Don't just wear pink.
Wear it with a purpose.
Wear it as a reminder, as motivation to educate, as a conversation starter. Buy it from companies that donate to research, education or support. Wear while you send a note to someone who is battling the disease or make a meal for a cancer patient or participate in a fundraiser.
It doesn't have to be bold and brilliant.
It can be small and subtle.
Sometimes, it's the little things that catch people's attention.
Little things like the bracelet on my wrist.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Don't forget to live

I was proud of myself.
All four kids were fed and appropriately dressed, and we had made it to the high school recognition night on time. We'd even picked up my mother-in-law on the way. That was a huge success for me, considering all I had tried to juggle that week.
So I was smiling inside and out as I made my way to the table full of cookies, veggies and cheese with crackers.
Until I looked at my feet to determine why my gait felt funny.
I was wearing two different shoes -- both black, both ankle boots, but one with a slightly higher heel than the other. I made the best of it, pointing out my error my family and to the women serving the food. We all had a good laugh.
But I knew it wasn't a good sign.
Summer was quickly approaching and I wanted to enjoy the time with my kids. Stress was threatening to make that impossible. Something had to give. So I examined my priorities.
There were people who needed me: the kids, my husband, my mother-in-law and my father. My sister was terminally ill and lived a state away. I wanted to be available if she or her family needed me, too.
I wasn't willing to push the people in my life to the sidelines.
That left two possibilities: my health or my writing, and I had already vowed to improve my health.
The timing was perfect.
I had just finished one novel rewrite and was almost done with a second. My agent would need time to read both. I emailed my agent and told her I planned to take the summer off. She agreed to read the manuscripts over the summer and start the submission process in the fall.
So here we are.
I've had wonderful summer with the kids, though it never seems long enough. I was able to be there for my sister's husband and children when she died. I visited my father in the nursing home weekly and helped with my mother-in-law's care as she recovered from a heart attack.
My husband and I shared many-a-coffee and glass of wine on the porch, watching the deer.
School starts in less than a week.
I began to prepare about two weeks ago, organizing my notes and my thoughts. As I sat there, I got thinking about the advice so many writers hear and take to heart, that we need to write every day, that daily writing is essential to the craft.
And I got the urge to type.
I wrote a blog post.
The post was picked by a magazine that is well-read by fans of my genre.
I wrote a short story.
The story was accepted in an anthology that will be released next year.
I'm writing another blog post now.
I'm sure daily writing schedules work for those who can do it, but I've never had the time. I am fortunate if I can write for a few hours twice a week. Yet it hasn't hurt me. I've completed  four novels and I have an agent who believes they will sell. I took two months off and immediately placed two pieces in publications. I plotted out my next novel during swimming lessons, long walks and long drives
Of course, we all need to practice our craft to improve, but what we often forget is that sitting at the keyboard is only part of the process. Thinking, experiencing, and thinking some more is just as essential.
For two months, I produced no writing, but I wrote in my head, collecting experiences, analyzing those experiences and letting my imagination roam.  My creativity did not fade during my time away from my laptop. Rather, I would argue, it was enhanced.
My advice to aspiring writers?
Write, but don't forget to live.