The Angry Woman Suite Comes In From The Cold

Happy Halloween! And thanks so much to all of you who sent encouraging emails and/or left comments at my Oct. 27th post.  

For those checking in with me for the first time, my back story is that I’ve written a historical-commercial novel called The Angry Woman Suite (about a double murder in the early 1900’s, in Pennsylvania, and subsequent fallout on two generations). The novel, both mystery and love story, garnered very good reviews, and a literary agent.

But back stories, like life, never have straight trajectories, and this one is no exception. In my case, my agent left the publishing business (I’d nothing to do with it, I swear! I’m not that powerful!) . . .

. . . though e-readers are. . . .  

And so my new paradigm became a sudden and succinct bottom line of no agent = no contract. The Angry Woman Suite went from promising, front and center, to Nowhere Land, out in the cold—and took me with it.

What to do next? Well, after some impressive dithering and waffling on my part, I met two men whom I’ve introduced via previous posts: potty-mouthed Josh, who looks a little like Ashton Kutcher on a bad day, with glasses (which is still an excellent look). Josh is a successful non-fiction writer who told me to get off the dime (and with the program, with digital publishing and a blog).

The other man is Tim, who’s a much shorter, much younger version of Obama (though I’d bet Baby Rae’s next chicken treat Tim’s never seen the inside of a business suit). Tim’s a rumpled genius. A kind, rumpled genius who put my blog together (and never once laughed or snickered, at least so I could hear, at my lack of computer skills).  

And now here I am—and if someone had told me a year ago I’d be a blogger, I’d have sniggered and said odds are I’ll strip to my skivvies and run half-naked through Balboa Park first—and we all know that’s never going to happen.  

Put another way, never say never.

My last post ended with Parts 1 and 2 of scary things to try before I die, so coming up next, naturally, would be Part 3 of what I now call The Angry Woman Suite Project—as in Manhattan minus the bomb stuff.

I pretty much thought I’d get at least ten blog posts out of the arts of dithering, waffling, whining and attendant nuances before moving forward with Part 3, which was to name who will format my baby (The Angry Woman Suite) and put it out there—but here’s what’s happened: another never.  

I met a third man. Actually, I met two more men. One I can’t talk about—yet. Mystery man.

(Hint: I knew him a long time ago, in school, and could never have predicted what he’s become since, or how it could affect the “project.)    

The other is Steve Jackson (aka Mr. Wonderful, and he is). Steve is the voice for Telemachus Press. I’ll be writing more about Steve and Telemachus as we go along, but for now my headline in the sky reads:

The Angry Woman Suite is coming in from the cold.  

So, Part 3 of the “project” has been implemented—already! I have a publisher, and I’m very excited at the prospect of working with Telemachus.

Know what’s odd? My entire writing life has been mostly shadowed (in a good way) by women; i.e., my mother, teachers, my critique group, my agent, my editor. But have you noticed that all the new people in my “project” story are men? Four—count ’em—four. And I’m just getting started.  

Poor me. *smile*     

Thought for the day, courtesy of Kristin Lamb:

“Learn to have a healthy relationship with failure . . . if we aren’t failing, we’re not doing anything interesting.”

Next post will be more on digital publishing and coming in from the cold; mystery men, and Telemachus Press.   

I post on Mondays and Thursdays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less. “See” you next time, and be good to yourselves.

Have fun tonight!

Going Into The Unknown

The cover of the first edition of Adventures o...

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Is anything scarier for a writer than total blankness?

As in his or her mind? And the blank screen in front of same?

In a word: no. Though rejection runs a close second.

“Going into the unknown is invariably frightening, but we learn what is significantly new only through adventures.” M. Scott Peck, MD (psychiatrist and best-selling author)

I sort of love that quote. So I’ve reframed writer’s block—the dreaded blankness—as Peck’s unknown. And Peck’s interesting use of the word adventures, as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is infinitely more seductive than the word discipline (what is actually required for trudging through the darkness of blankness). And, see, I can’t help translating adventure as fun: a night on the town, an exotic vacation, and/or white water rafting. Now we’re talking.

We’re talking a method of making writers block palatable, even … adventurous. Because writing can be hard, people.

So why do it?

Excellent question—but it’s like asking why climb Everest, or build outrageously tall buildings, or do Sudoko. (I get the first two, but Suduko?)  

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is generally regarded as the first Great American Novel, is my conception of the complete man. He was smart, brave, a little dark—okay, a lot dark—funny, and hot, and a first-class adventurer.   

So hot that I initially (and unconsciously) fashioned Aidan Madsen, the romantic lead of my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, after Mark Twain—er, till someone told me rather derisively that George Clooney might actually be hotter than Twain (and way less dead). An apt observation–and so, yes, Aidan Madsen is now Clooney-hot . . . he also has layers. And secrets. He is, in a word, complicated–maybe even dangerous. But more about Aidan later.   

Mark Twain put the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn away for months, even years, before finally finishing it. Maybe because he was drawing blanks all over the place. Or maybe it was the fear of confronting the realities of slavery—but in the end, Twain the adventurer followed through on the theme of his novel, doing what he had Huck do: the hard thing. 

Despite the occasional “blank-out” or boredom, rising to a challenge, along with tenacity, are the primary characteristics of writers (and mountain climbers and builders-in-the-sky).

Okay, and Sudoko savants, too. The act of writing is not an unknown. Neither are the acts of scaling mountains and building skyscrapers. The mind itself is the unknown. Whether blank (asleep), or awake, it’s the uncharted.

So, going into the mind—what all adventurers do—is the ultimate game. The kind of work that’s fun. It’s why writers confront the dark blankness of fear, and keep going back to it again and again, meeting self-imposed challenges and repeatedly raising their bars. Simply put, writers are competitors who write to best themselves.

Writing With A Blue Dog

Thommo is a blue Australian Cattle Dog with a ...
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Sometimes it’s in the act of saving something else that we save ourselves.

Which I was newly reminded of this morning when Baby Rae nuzzled me awake. Baby Rae—or just plain Baby—is the Australian cattle dog I rescued when she was a sick, battered puppy—oh, and bald except for a dark Mohawk that started strong at the top of her little head and ran out of gas just before segueing into a tail that had been too crudely and recently halved.

Her skin, where it wasn’t an open wound, was tough to the touch but wrinkled like crumpled paper. Her eyelids were matted shut, blinding her: she was a study in absolute misery—and was being kicked around the Tecate, Mexico plaza by a federale when, without thinking, I’d taken off my sweater, intercepted a kick, and hustled the dog away, all eight pounds of puppy-misery swaddled in wool.  

But then I couldn’t hold onto what I’d just saved; she was too covered with bleeding sores and cuts. I couldn’t reassure her with my hands. She was too damaged. We couldn’t bond.

To complicate matters . . .

I picked the puppy up from the emergency animal clinic, which had been my first stop back on the US side of the border, and my two other dogs disliked her at first sniff (sick dogs are instinctively shunned by a pack, so my sick one would have to be carefully watched), and my husband, and my veterinarian, had looked at me as if I’d just sprouted a second head, for bringing home this thing.

I am not naturally impulsive. I had no non-emotional explanation for sneaking Baby Rae across the border.        

Heart sinking, I gazed at the tiny, wrinkled, wounded creature sleeping in the basket I’d made up for her and thought, Well, I can’t love her, she’s unlovable, but I can’t take her back, there’s no return policy. Second thought was, I’m just gonna have to suck this one up. Third thought was, this is what I get. . . .   

BC, or before crises, the shape of my life was determined by a craft—writing—and my discipline, exercise, and the joy of family, friends, and dogs. I’d say I felt a semblance of inner harmony back then—but, oh, how easy it is to be at peace when nothing is asked, nothing is tested.   

But then the “tests” rolled into town: cancer hit my family, then deaths, and I lost friends, even certainty. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all.  

At the time I found Baby (or she found me), my family was still recovering from a terrible fissure caused by my parents’ long illnesses. I was sad; a to-the-bone kind of sad. I’d stopped exercising, and begun eating and drinking junk, and as a result was tired all the time and not the least bit hopeful. I rarely wrote. I wasn’t as social. I was adrift on an island of misery—and the island was mine, all mine. An “investment” in carefully nurtured hopelessness, so of course I didn’t care to give it up. 

And then came Baby Rae. A horribly beat-up, wrinkled mess rocking my island, causing me to stretch awake and step outside myself. Dang—how utterly inconvenient.

Surprisingly, life took on a certain, steady rhythm.   

Though, for the longest time, I only picked Baby up in a towel or wore gloves. Her Mohawk began to grow, and she graduated from the basket at the foot of my bed to a bassinet at the side of it. She followed me everywhere. I so much as lifted an eyebrow and she was front and center, studying me for clues, for expectations (how could she have known I had none?). If I closed a door behind me, she was there waiting and smiling when I opened it again (and, yes, cattle dogs not only dance–see my Sept. 20th post–but they smile too).

Her wrinkles filled in, and her sores smoothed into thin white lines. She began coaxing me to play, bowing and nipping at my heels. Actually, being a natural-born herder, she was trying to herd me, and that’s what got quickly nipped. One day it occurred to me that she was actually happy, and that she’d not only begun a real healing, but was well into it, miles ahead of me—and that’s when something stirred in me, finally: a humongous admiration for Baby, for where she’d come from and where she was now, and pride, and even a small, warm burst of hope, because if Baby Rae could survive immense cruelty and pain and still be so dang happy, there had to be hope for me, too. For the first time in a long while, if even just a second, I felt a smidge of the old inner harmony, and I couldn’t help thinking of the adage, “When you give another being joy, there is the peace.”

Eddie Murphy eyes—and a blue coat is black hairs distributed fairly evenly through white . . .    

On a morning shortly after this, I bent over and touched Baby. Really touched her. I caressed her and crooned love words. I’d finally fallen for her. At almost 35 pounds, she was nearly an adult. Her coat had grown in, masking her scarred flesh. Who could’ve known she’d be blue? I marveled, thinking of the miserable bald puppy she’d been not so long ago. A beautiful midnight-blue. I ran my gloveless hands along her well-muscled body, relishing the thickness of her glossy blue fur. She turned just her head and looked back at me—and her eyes are huge and dark, ringed by thick hoops of white sclera. I call them Eddie Murphy eyes—and they are soft. It was a pure, overwhelming, uncomplicated love they conveyed.

I heard my own soft intake of breath.

Because it was at the precise moment of this truth, of understanding that Baby’s healing had begun the very second I’d picked her up in Mexico, that something inside me loosened further, quite literally working its way free of me—and then, like that, the heaviness was gone. Gone. I stood up, shoulders and back straight, feeling strong again, and my breathing felt easy, each breath satin-smooth.   

I looked back down at Baby and smiled, and her skewed tail thumped the floor a million miles a minute, because–and I could read her by then–she knew I’d finally gotten the message that was at the core of her being, the sole reason for her sudden appearance in my life that day in Mexico: It’s the second that counts, stupid. Stay with the seconds.   

And then there was that grin again.

I take another giant step outside myself and I see us:

I see Baby pass her contagious joy off to my strong, reinvigorated self and I see myself running with it, like I ran when I first grabbed her in Mexico, but this time it’s a sweet run, made sweeter by what came before it—the pain, the sadness, the giving up—before our sudden, unexpected save.

Then the win: the realization that in the process of saving Baby, she’d saved me by taking me out of my pain and into hers—and then she’d taught me how to live well again, joyfully, in the now, by example.     

It’s eleven years later. I’m still structured, which is my basic nature, but nowhere near as wary of spontaneity. I’ve been back to writing for some time. My novel, The Angry Woman Suite, will soon see light of day (it got a great review from Kirkus Reviews, “World’s Toughest Book Critics,” which is a link on this blog). 

Baby Rae—resting at my feet while I wrote this—is just up and at my side, rubbing her forehead against my arm. It is time for bed, she is telling me; for closing another day of writing with a blue dog who dances and smiles, and still, despite aches and pains, those inevitable harbingers of advancing age, finds joy in every second of our life together.

And I’m reminded yet again: every being has purpose and everything is connected. I feel Baby’s peace—it is mine, too.    

 

The Angry Woman Suite Kirkus Review

 

Fullbright, Lee

Kirkus Review September, 2011

THE ANGRY WOMAN SUITE

Secrets and lies suffuse generations of one Pennsylvania family, creating a vicious cycle of cruelty in this historical novel that spans the early 1900s to the 1960s.

Raised in a crumbling New England mansion by four women with personalities as split as a cracked mirror, young Francis Grayson has an obsessive need to fix them all. There’s his mother, distant and beautiful Magdalene; his disfigured, suffocating Aunt Stella; his odious grandmother; and the bane of his existence, his abusive and delusional Aunt Lothian. For years, Francis plays a tricky game of duck and cover with the women, turning to music to stay sane. He finds a friend and mentor in Aidan Madsen, schoolmaster, local Revolutionary War historian, musician and keeper of the Grayson women’s darkest secrets. In a skillful move by Fullbright, those secrets are revealed through the viewpoints of three different people—Aidan, Francis and Francis’ stepdaughter, Elyse—adding layers of eloquent complexity to a story as powerful as it is troubling. While Francis realizes his dream of forming his own big band in the 1940s, his success is tempered by the inner monster of his childhood, one that roars to life when he marries Elyse’s mother. Elyse becomes her stepfather’s favorite target, and her bitterness becomes entwined with a desire to know the real Francis Grayson. For Aidan’s part, his involvement with the Grayson family only deepens, and secrets carried for a lifetime begin to coalesce as he seeks to enlighten Francis—and subsequently Elyse—of why the events of so many years ago matter now. The ugliness of deceit, betrayal and resentment permeates the narrative, yet there are shining moments of hope, especially in the relationship between Elyse and her grandfather. Ultimately, as more of the past filters into the present, the question becomes: What is the truth, and whose version of the truth is correct? Fullbright never untangles this conundrum, and it only adds to the richness of this exemplary novel.

 A superb debut that exposes the consequences of the choices we make and legacy’s sometimes excruciating embrace.

Kirkus Media LLC, 6411 Burleson Rd., Austin, TX 78744

Query Hell

Neurotic.

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I’ve been asked to post a piece I actually wrote some time back, about querying literary agents, so here we go:

Welcome to Hell (and producing a drop-dead query truly is). . . .     

First, don’t go all neurotic over dropping into hell. It’s not uncharted territory. Second, get to work familiarizing yourself with AgentQuery and the AAR database—there’re a million other Internet resources, but AQ is my favorite (see link opposite column). It’s chock-full of info about the pub business, the agents, and it’s easy to navigate. Please follow the agents’ submission preferences! To think they’re irrevelant, or your work so dang brilliant you can enclose fifty pages when an agent clearly specifies five, is a little like flipping someone the bird on a LA freeway: it’s just not going to go well for you.

On the other hand, breathe deeply and believe. Living in hell is, well, hell, but some over-anxious mindsets make the stay harder than need be—and who’s looking for a harder way to do anything, unless of course you’re a committed neurotic? Remember you’ve already completed a whole manuscript of fiction, or, if non-fiction, manufactured an exciting, with-a-twist! proposal on the invention of the ball bearing—meaning you are already so not a slacker, my friend. So there.

That scary query . . .

A whole industry has been built on the back of the query letter (whole books! too numerous to count!!) about how to write one (and how scary the statistics are: only 1% of queries get a positive response). People have made a whole lot of money off this puppy. Now, though, all the how-to, plus examples of successful queries, can be found on the internet—again, check out AgentQuery.    

Simply put, the query letter is your calling card with a pitch. Its anatomy is one page, three basic paragraphs; four if you must. Don’t forget to include genre, word count, and title!—and if you’ve done your homework, you know a bit about the agent you’re querying, so tell her or him why s/he’s the the Chosen One (because s/he repped a book you love; because you love her/his blog, etc.).

Resist making your opening a rhetorical question, as in “Ever wonder why everyone’s so surprised when their obviously insane next door neighbor turns out to be a serial killer?” Consider a “When” opening instead. Maybe like, “When the charred bodies of America’s premier artist Matthew Waterston and his wife were recovered from their burned-out mill house, all eyes turned to the reclusive Stella Grayson, and for one shameful reason only: Stella Grayson was physically repellant.”   

Or, “I’ve read of your interest in representing fiction, especially commercial with a literary bent, and would like to introduce The Angry Woman Suite, a 105,000-word story about two unsolved celebrity murders in Pennsylvania, and the fallout from those murders on two generations.”

Yes, both mine–and I know, I’m shameless (but I did get an agent).

Paragraph #2 describes the basic plot, with resolution (though resolution can be “soft”). This is the hardest paragraph. Squeezing a whole book into one teensy, fascinating, lyrical, literate paragraph is the very definition of hell for writers (who, of course, love words). 

Paragraph #3 is all about you. Finally! BUT–if you actually think there’s nothing particularly worth the retelling; i.e., you’re not an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and you’re currently unpublished, then share what inspired you to write your masterpiece. In two very awesome sentences, period.  

Show your query drafts to friends and your critique group; ideally, until eyes glaze over and they plead for you to stop already.  

Now, when you’ve finally got IT—a polished, irresistible query—resist the temptation to blanket the country with your little beauty. Send to no more than eight agents at a time. This is all-important, because if you don’t get one positive response (the aforementioned 1%), or any comments, you’ll want to tweak the query and make it even more irresistible (you may have to do this several times). See what I mean? If you’ve already done a mass submission, you’ve somewhat kissed that strategy goodbye.

Now put on your suit of armor and get ready for the rejections. They come in all shapes and sizes: form letters, pre-printed postcards (so the entire world can know your business), or even just a scribble across the top of your returned query letter. 

On the other hand, a personal rejection letter, or phone call, is almost as feel-good as an acceptance (almost, and try explaining that to a non-writer). It means you at least made someone sit up and notice. But don’t take rejection (as opposed to constructive criticism) too seriously. Yeah, right. No, really. Agents don’t know you. Remember this. Make it your mantra. And not every agent will give a flying fig about the history of the ball bearing, no matter how brilliantly presented. So, after sending your first round of queries on their way, vow not to do the whole neurotic thing over the whole rejection thing. Instead. step out of hell and into your zen place. Go philosophical, not theatrical. 

So much better for the soul.

More On The Making Of The Angry Woman Suite

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Some time back I was invited to contribute some pieces for another blog. I immediately outlined my first piece (“Dateline: Query Hell,” so titled for obvious reasons), and my second (“Dateline: Unsold Novel Hell”), about what it’s like to sit hoping for a call from my agent saying my debut novel, The Angry Woman Suite, has sold.

But turns out I didn’t submit those particular pieces after all, primarily due to a sudden line that moved into my head having zip to do with queries or agents, and everything to do with dumping outlines that can immobilize us as writers. That line is:

Tell the one about getting so mired in your own brilliant notes that you couldn’t move forward, backward, anywhere, until a big bad headwind knocked you flat, and then and only then did two simple “saving” words pop into your nimrod brain.

Those two simple words were meant to transition a relationship between a protagonist of The Angry Woman Suite, Elyse Grayson, and her controlling father. It’s a scene I’d actually written several gadzillion times, because this scene—Elyse’s scene—had been a monster, impossible to nail. Yet, armed with my outline to keep me on point, I’d kept going back into the scene, feeling my way through a valley of words, searching for those phrases meant to convey game, set, match for Elyse Grayson—and, oh, to be delivered in an above-the-fray manner, too. Sounds easy-peasy, right?    

Oh. So. Wrong. I struggled.      

And then I heard a simple “Goodbye, Daddy” on the night wind, like a prompting. I typed the words, glanced at the time: 8:42 p.m. Though they didn’t interface with my outline at all, they were monster-smashing perfect—yet, I felt strangely depleted, not elated. Not only because “Goodbye, Daddy,” had just opened a window onto the resolution of my novel, putting me thisclose to ending my daily visits with Elyse Grayson, but because it felt as if something else was also pulling away from me—but what?                  

Almost everyone who’s read The Angry Woman Suite has asked if I’m Elyse Grayson.

The answer is I’m not.

And I am. We’re connected—everything’s connected.        

At exactly 8:50 p.m. that same night my phone rang, and I had a premonition: I suddenly knew why I felt so gut-emptying awful when I should’ve been feeling celebratory.         

Hello?” Heart thumping, I looked again at the time. 8:51 p.m.

Someone from my father’s new life told me rather coldly that he’d just died.

Damn—no, double damn . . . and oh, geez, the irony . . . how often does something like that happen? Writing an actual hard goodbye heard on the wind mere moments before a real goodbye? A whole life kind of goodbye. And that voice I’d heard on that wind? It wasn’t unfamiliar. . . . 

My relationship with my father had been a neurotic mess. He’d been the neurotic, and I’d been the mess, and eventually we’d fallen away from each other, never speaking of why in detail, never actually speaking, never “officially” finishing us.         

I looked up at my screen, at Elyse Grayson’s words, “Goodbye, Daddy,” and I wept, finally. For my father. For me. For never being able to play on the same field, for now being finished, and for my novel being almost finished too—they are linked. Big caterwauling vessels of tears I’d kept stored inside for eons, and was always tending, always checking for cracks, hyper-vigilant against leaks.

Later, I filed away what had become a totally non-helpful outline of The Angry Woman Suite, and invited my inside voices to line up again for closer examination. And that’s when those final chapters of The Angry Woman Suite also fell into place, not as initially planned, but as inspired by Elyse Grayson’s “Goodbye, Daddy,” on the night my father died.         

To anyone who’s asked me how in the world one ever finally finishes a novel, I’ve laughed and answered, “Don’t be afraid.”  

Because these stories, Elyse’s and mine, are both about letting go. Not just of outlines, and stubborn positions, and control, but fear of failing, and fear of rejection, and fear of the unknowable. It’s entirely possible I might never have known this (the way I think I know it now) had I not been emptied enough to hear a prompting delivered by a long-missed voice on a night wind.      

So consider setting aside The Plan—go ahead, try it—and letting your voices free to soar above what you’ve spent countless hours planning (whatever it is—doesn’t have to be a book). And then look at what you’ve got on the screen in front of you. The words left there might just be the freest, most monster-smashing ever.

And, yes (because someone just asked me), freest is a word (best kind, too).

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

An Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler).

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Baby Rae and I began a recent morning dancing to “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” by The Beatles: “You make me dizzy Miss Lizzy, the way you rock and roll. . . .” How can anyone not dance to that? We ended up in a heap on the kitchen floor, a tangle of legs (six—count ‘em).   

That same evening, after a quiet day of writing sad things, drama things, we slow danced to Gregory Page in my kitchen office while dinner cooked.     

To non-dog people, it must sound odd, a dog dancing (not to mention a woman dancing with a dog), but, oh, they can. An Australian cattle dog is not otherwise known as a blue heeler for nothing.     

But the point of this little story is that of course I know Baby Rae and I are occasionally silly. But why not? The act of writing is solitary, and so it follows that most writers are happily inward by nature, but we often overthink—I think. A good free-for-all dance in the am loosens the cogs, but an improbable dance with a blue dog slowly and inexplicably brings the real world back into focus after a day lost to the world, writing.    

I’ve often wondered how others, writers and non, bring their worlds back into focus after hours spent in their heads? How do you?