Dog to Writer: Life Isn’t a List

Baby and LeeBaby Rae, my Australian cattle dog, is talking to me.

How do I know? She’s bringing me things, all sorts of things: dog-speak for, Hey, down here!  So far, she’s deposited a muddy ball in my lap, a sock from the laundry room, and remnants of the newspaper front page.

I get it: she has a valid point. I’ve been “missing in action” again, my head firmly up—watch it—in the air. Lost in the ether. Inside myself. Not part of the world.

I’ve been gazing at a computer screen the better part of a weekend, tying up loose ends and marketing stuff re my novel’s release (The Angry Woman Suite) at the end of this month; getting taxes out of the way, and trouble-shooting my husband’s long term care insurance reimbursements, grrrr (note: this is how insurance actually works: you pay the provider—much the same as you pay premiums before you’re ever eligible for benefits, on time—and then the insurance company gets around to reimbursing you at their leisure).

Leisure being the operative word.

But back to the point: Baby and I have a “contract.”

When I brought Baby across the border to the U.S., I vowed never to let harm come to her if I could help it; and to feed her, exercise her, give her rawhide treats, groom her, take her to the “puppy doctor,” throw balls for her to fetch, and sit with her in the sun, preferably for hours on end. And to sing “How Much is That Doggy in the Window?” before she falls asleep at night (don’t ask).

For her part, she shows up.

See how uncomplicated dogs keep things?

But this is what Baby keeps reminding me: Love isn’t a list. And neither is life.

Instead, it’s about showing up, sharing food, and not biting others. Pretty simple.

And I know this, but I sometimes forget. That’s why we need dogs, who teach by example, and so of course they never forget the lesson. And the lesson is that somewhere in the middle of anything is the balance for everything. And balance, not a list with everything on it crossed off, is the goal, the optimum—the whole point of sucking air.

Not that I can leave my lists behind. Or doing. You might as well ask me to make my tall self shorter.

But I can keep aiming for balance.

The muddy ball is back in my lap. And we all know where this is going.

I’m closing down the computer. Baby’s an excellent teacher: we’re going outside.

We’re going to be instead of do.

New Release Critics’ Pick: The Angry Woman Suite

Hi all, First off, a big SORRY to my poor dear friends reading this and already so over hearing the following, BUT—    

Just. One. More. Time. (promise) . . . so here goes:

My soon-to-be available novel, The Angry Woman Suite, about a Pennsylvania murder and its effects on two subsequent generations, was named a “New Release Critics’ Pick” by Kirkus Reviews last week (google Kirkus online newsletter of 1/4/12).

I did have champagne for dinner that night . . . and that’s all, just champagne.  

Second, while I’m so obviously aboard the “all about me” train tonight, I’d like to talk more about The Angry Woman Suite, starting with the lovely cover design by artist Laurie Fuller, which several people have asked about, as in who is this beautiful woman?

Still others have asked if The Angry Woman Suite is biographical or partly autobiographical (no, it’s not; it’s fiction, although it incorporates many historical elements); and others have asked about the title, if it means what it sounds like; i.e., a bunch of pissed women off their meds.    

The novel’s title refers to a famous suite of (ten) portraits that figure predominantly in the novel’s plot. This collection of paintings is called The Angry Woman Suite.  

The woman on The Angry Woman Suite cover is Magdalene Grayson, the model for this suite of portraits.    

The novel—mystery and love story and coming-of-age (three intersecting stories)—is told by three narrators in different time zones (between the early 1900s and 1968), in Pennsylvania.

Magdalene Grayson is not a narrator, but she is pivotal to the lives of all three narrators.

She is the love interest of one narrator, Aidan, and the mother of a second (more about him later). The third (and lead) narrator is her step-granddaughter, Elyse, who is the glue of the novel (and we know everything about Elyse, every thought in her head, from page one, on). But Magdalene remains a bit elusive, which is why I chose not to make her a narrator: I wanted her elusive. She is a beautiful cipher wrapped up in a riddle—and I think the book’s cover art captures her mystery.

So moving forward with what I love best about writing fiction, creating characters, two excerpts from The Angry Woman Suite follow. Both concern Magdalene Grayson from Aidan’s point of view. But the second excerpt, which shows Aidan’s new, wavering perception of Magdalene, reveals as much about Aidan as it does Magdalene.     

We meet Magdalene briefly when she is in her early thirties—but then, moving back in time, we get another, different picture of her through Aidan’s eyes, when she is sixteen—and it is not love between them. It is not even like.

What it is, is disdain on both sides.   

Because Magdalene is one of those people born observant and curious, and so she questions everything. She will listen, but all the while she’s likely to be thinking, “I wonder when the bullshit ends and your real story begins?” The much older Aidan finds this threatening to his walled-off existence.

This is what Aidan says about Magdalene when she is sixteen, in 1916:

“And from the back of Magdalene, I could tell nothing. I saw only a fall of long blond hair, the way she straightened her broad shoulders, and the dirt on her skirt where she’d been sitting . . . when she turned back around, her pale eyes were anguished. Other than that, she looked fine, same as always: large and awkward for a sixteen-year-old. What I didn’t see was that Magdalene Grayson’s bigness was smooth and symmetrical, even classical. I didn’t see it because, primarily, Magdalene did not impress me, never had. And I had my reasons (and it’s a long list). Let me condense it for you: Magdalene was difficult. She was damn difficult. Even as a first-grader she’d been difficult, restless and moody, regularly declining participation in the schoolyard, not wanting to be in my band, looking at me with disdain, as if she knew more than I.”

But a year later, on the eve of America’s entry into WWI, at Magdalene’s wedding reception—and Aidan has not seen Magdalene during this year—this is what he has to say about the woman destined for imminent widowhood, who will subsequently and unintentionally start a war on their own rural home front while having to choose between two men, and shield her disfigured sister from murder charges. . . .

Again, this is a year later, at Magdalene’s wedding reception through Aidan’s eyes:

“. . . But then, when they were almost on us, Magdalene turned her head. Our eyes locked, as did the breath in my chest.

            “I’ll close my mouth,” Jamie whispered in my ear, “if you close yours.”

            Her beauty was more spectacular than even Lothian’s. Whereas Lothian’s face was soft and oval-shaped, Magdalene’s had become chiseled angularity, fine and even—yet she wasn’t just beautiful. She had mystique, something rarely seen; it was something in her eyes. Tendrils of pale hair escaped the white snood she wore, making a halo around her damp forehead and flushed cheeks, and I sensed rather than heard Matthew’s own soft exclamation when she laughingly brushed Frederick’s cheek with her lips, lips that were wide and red and ripe, parted slightly, teasing, yet weirdly circumspect . . . 

            She was real, the dream existed, and of course she was not a good woman, this lovely dream of mine. How could she be? She’d been a challenging child to put it mildly, so she couldn’t be long-suffering like my mother, or generous like Sahar. No, Magdalene Grayson was interesting. She was inquisitive, fractious, self-absorbed and judgmental. And to top it off she was totally out of reach, and the absolute worst thing in the world for me.

            Of course I wanted her.

            Exhilarated, I looked closer and saw those pale eyes weren’t actually unkind; how could I have ever thought that? It was question I now saw in those eyes, and suddenly I also saw the rub . . .”

 Okay, so what’s the rub? Well, The Angry Woman Suite will be available at the end of February, so stay tuned.

 Not nice, huh? *smile*

However, what the rub is not, in this story, is truth. And the truth is that sometimes when we fall in like/love/lust—as Aidan’s apparently beginning to do—we are compelled to square that decision with a previous assessment. I mean, who’s going to say to him or herself, “I’m attracted to so-and-so because no one sets buildings on fire the way s/he does?”   

No sane person. So the first assessment has to be modified. Also, this last bit of narrative suggests our walled-off Aidan possesses at least a modicum of vulnerability.     

Thanks for coming by, and more on The Angry Woman Suite characters later—and, oh, my “metaphor,” the wooden ship! More on it, too. I’ll walk down to the bay and get new photos (see my post of 1/4/12), and be back with you in a week or so.  

Because you matter . . .

 
Books I've Read: The Immortal Life of Henriett...

Image by Myles! via Flickr

The other day I visited a friend—I’ll call her Amy—whose mother had just passed. A close friend of Amy’s had also recently died, and her dog had passed as well. All within weeks of one another, although only Amy’s beloved dog’s passing had been unexpected.

Still, even when a death is expected, it’s often a punch to the gut when it happens—a pretty amazing thing, really, when we’ve already projected and think we’re ready, only to stand in the midst of pent-up emotions flying free when it occurs, facing down a new paradigm of knowing zip about the enormity of loss—of knowing zip about anything, actually.    

Amy told me about packing up her mother’s clothes and books—and then we talked of the photo albums—in this case, dozens of photo albums that her mom had so carefully put together; every photo captioned and arranged just so. Catalogs of life—all intended for her progeny. 

My mother died young and I inherited her albums and my grandfather’s as well, so I know about this photo album conundrum. As a little girl, I’d loved sitting beside my mother, listening to stories about the people and events documented on her and my grandfather’s album pages—it was one of our sacred pastimes.  

But I have not looked at my mom’s albums since she died, except to find a photo that a relative requested.

But can I just toss those albums out?

Can I just stick a rusty fork in my eye?      

So I said to Amy, “It’s sad about these books, that someday when we’re gone, our mother’s books will be gone, too, and all their stories lost.”

But Amy said, “Does it matter? Are any of us really that important?”

I didn’t dismiss Amy’s words. I examined them instead, turning them over and over in my head—which wasn’t at all pleasant. But I kept thinking, Even if I don’t want it to be true, what if it is? What if our stories don’t count for anything?

Then what’s it all about?   

Open for Business

Now, I have this perception of the universe as analogous to a big invisible computer hard drive holding all the answers (and even the questions) about, well . . . everything. But in order to see or hear the answers, revelations, affirmations, what-have-you’s, we have to be open for business, all senses attuned.   

So that same night, still pondering Amy’s words, I sat down to dinner with a newspaper, and wouldn’t you know it, on the front page of the local section was a piece about Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  

Here’s the story: When Rebecca Skloot was a biology major, she was constantly running into references about “HeLa cells.” (HeLa is code for Henrietta Lacks.) When she asked her teachers who Henrietta Lacks was specifically, no one seemed to know.

Well, Skloot found out. She spent ten years finding out, and when she published her biography of Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five, it became a mega bestseller. Huge.   

Long story made shorter (because you must read the book), Henrietta Lacks had a diagnosis of cancer and wound up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors removed two pieces of her cervix for research. Henrietta died at 31, several months after this.

Turns out, Henrietta had some remarkable cells. Strong, sturdy cells—and those amazing cells of Henrietta’s became the first human ones successfully grown in a lab. And since then, billions of those cell lines have been grown in labs, and the medical treatments they’ve given birth to changed the world. For example, by 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk was using HeLa to develop a vaccine for polio.

I went up to bed that night with Baby Rae and a smile, not only because the universe had delivered the goods, but because I’d liked its answer:

Henrietta Lacks had mattered. Amy’s mother had mattered—and Amy’s friend mattered, and her dog mattered, too.

My mother mattered.

Every story matters.

It just took a writer to dig up Henrietta’s (another big smile here), so we could all know just how very much Henrietta mattered.               

I post on Thursdays and Mondays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less—and thanks for coming by, because you matter.

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.

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.

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?

The Absolutely Best Book On Writing, Ever

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...

Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’m cleaning and purging. Out with the old. 

When I was a kid, one of my ambitions was to create my very own library, complete with card catalog. So I collected books I loved, novels and non-fiction; books I’d read someday, reference books on everything in the entire universe … and eventually the inevitable happened: books took over my life. I became the bibliophile version of the crazy salt and pepper shaker lady who lived on the same street I did as a kid, whose sole high in life was adding more salt and pepper shakers to an already mind-boggling collection. 

This “gotta-have-it” nuttiness was no more attractive on me than it had been on her. Books were everywhere in my first apartment, first condo, and then my house (more room for books in a house), wresting counter spaces from doo-dads, and artfully arranged on “tables” that were actually rounds of glass perched on top of book stack-bases, which is so obviously just this side of pathologically pathetic. 

Thus, the purging. Big-time, baby, and it’s taken years. Learning to let go of stuff is not easy. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered: too much stuff can get heavy. Real Heavy. It can actually get in the way of relationships, goals, and even thinking about the stuff that really matters. Plus, if we get to thinking our stuff (like our real estate, bank accounts, cars, and wardrobes) is who we actually are, we’re going to need way more than the recognition that we’re pathologically pathetic. Long-term therapy isn’t cheap. 

And now, today, finally, I’ve arrived at my shelves of books about writing. Okay, now this part of letting go really hurts. Hoo-boy. All these gems I so lovingly, carefully collected over the years, and read over and over, as if they were scripture. And then one small book–a paperback, actually–caught my eye. Worn, tattered, like the Velveteen Rabbit but way more than just regular-real, it had been my bible when I’d started writing bigger projects–and this book I will keep. Forever.

It is Stephen King’s On Writing, an awe-inspiring combination of memoir, instruction manual, and encouragement.      

The copyright date is 2000, so it’s been around awhile. Most writers and readers know of it, but if you don’t have a copy, get thee to Amazon now. Read it. Then read it again. And then keep this little book forever. It’s that good.