It’s Fiction, Not Memoir

New business: This photograph is under consideration for the cover of The Angry Woman Suite. Like it/don’t like it? Don’t be shy . . . first thing off the top of your head—good? bad? Do you feel the “wistfulness”? Feedback appreciated!   

Penquin’s online community Book Country has launched a plethora of tools for authors to digitally publish, with distribution to all major outlets that Penquin distributes to. . . .

Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet is making its appearance sooner than initially announced (sharing the love with Amazon’s new Fire).

Old business: Some time back, a non-writer friend, an avid reader, was looking over a very rough first draft of The Angry Woman Suite for me, a story with a double murder at its core (emphasis here for a reason), told by three narrators in different time zones.

One of these narrators is Elyse Grayson, a young girl at the start of The Angry Woman Suite, and eighteen at its conclusion. The other two narrators are males. Now, as I’ve written before, Elyse Grayson had me from the beginning of the story. She is the glue of this book, and the character I relate to. I didn’t want to leave her when the novel ended.    

Is that because Elyse is female and has understandable issues? (rhetorical question)    

Francis Grayson, on the other hand, her stepfather, was the most difficult character to move forward from a first-person point of view. First off, it was über difficult being male when I’m not, and, second, having to stay in Francis’ head for any length of time made me a little nutty—is that because he’s male (redundant) and has issues?

So this friend (the one who’d read the first draft of The Angry Woman Suite) and I were at lunch one day, menus still in hand, when she leaned over and asked almost conspiratorially, “Lee, did all those things really happen to you when you were a child?”

I was speechless—seriously speechless. “But this isn’t a memoir—”

“But what about Francis? Isn’t he—?”   

Since then, as The Angry Woman Suite has grown, and been read by more people and critiqued and commented on, I’ve heard again and again, “How much of this story is you; is any part of it true?”

Okay, so here’s the deal: other than writing these blog posts, I write fiction. Stories. I make things up. 

There is no double murder in my background.

Are you kidding? If there were, I would write a memoir—and a sequel.

As for creating characters with foibles and neuroses, well, ever since I can remember, I have watched and listened to people and wondered, “Really, is what you just said truth or bullshit? And if it’s bullshit—and you are looking like you’re believing your own shit —then which hat did you just pull that one out of?

And this, seriously, is the genesis of my storytelling. I make up stories to explain the otherwise (to me) unexplainable.

So, yes, there are people in my stories who are reminiscent of many real-life people I’ve either appreciated or puzzled over. We all work with the tools we have, what we can lay our hands on, what is familiar; what we know. And, like everyone else, I’ve had good and bad influences in my life—those influences are my tools.  

But, again, excepting the historical references to the American Revolution, The Angry Woman Suite is fiction.

And fiction is an art form I’ve loved from the very first Louisa Mae Alcott “big girl” novel (Rose in Bloom) my mother gave me when I was eight, to the novel we talked of as she lay dying (The Last of the Mohicans).        

Thanks for coming by—oh, and one other thing, and yes, it is about me *smile*: I met my Telemachus editor today. Her name is Karen, and she’s brilliant. She turned 40 pages back around to me thisfast—so there’s much to do (but it’s fun). Except I haven’t quite figured out the sleeping thing, as in where it fits in. I’ll be back on Monday—comments appreciated!

Publishing Revolution and Lazarus

Barnes & Noble

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“There’s a revolution going on and we’re watching it happen.”

“You sure?” I ask.

“The old paradigm has already vanished.”

This was my thousandth back-and-forth with Josh, a well-known non-fiction writer who’d prodded me—and, no, prodded is not too strong a word—into taking the digital/indie route with my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, after my agent made a career switch. He’d convinced me that digital/indie publishing is the future. But he’d yet to reassure me that I’m prime revolutionary material.

Not to say printed books are going to vanish, or that a revolution needs me to thrive.

Just like many of us online news readers still read newspapers too (albeit skinnier ones), there will always be print books via Amazon (I hope!)—also, hopefully, Costco will keep its little book section going—otherwise, I’m just gonna have to plop myself down in an aisle and cry. And, yes, I do have a Kindle and am currently salivating over the Amazon Fire (to be released 11/15), Amazon’s answer to Apple’s ipad—

—BUT I do love the feel and smell of paper and binding—love, love, love. There is almost nothing better than a paper book, Baby Rae, and a muffin on a rainy day, all together on my bed.

Now Josh has many fine qualities, but none are patience, especially when I keep repeating the same thing over and over about going indie: “Am I doing the right thing?”

He read the opening of Mark Levine’s The Fine Print to me, over eggs and hash last Sunday morning:

“Amazon’s rolled over onto B&N and is now the largest book retailer in the land . . . Borders laid off 900 people in 2009 . . . in 2010 Borders announced the closing of 185 WaldenBooks, and Borders stores . . . Barnes and Noble closed the remaining B. Dalton bookstores . . . by the summer of 2010, B&N announced it was up for sale.”

Levine had also written, “Toss in the brewing ebook turf war between Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and wow—this industry is changing fast.”    

“So there you have it,” Josh said, also for the thousandth time, turning off his ereader. “You pacified for the next 15 minutes? Also, don’t forget, in one year alone, ebook sales went up 213% . . . what’s that tell you?”

His tone told me I was on his last nerve—but I was needing something else before my first jump off the high dive; maybe another sign?

That sign presented itself.

It arrived in the form of someone I hadn’t seen for a very long time—a Lazarus, so to speak; rising from the “dead,” back into my life. He wants to remain anonymous for now, so Lazarus will be his spy name.  

Lazarus and I met my last year of high school, when he was in his third year at SDSU. I was ushering at a theater—my first night on the job—and he was parking cars at the same theater. I saw Lazarus before we actually met, walking toward the theater, and thought—well, let’s just say it was a good first impression—and then I forgot him until intermission when he came looking for me.

Lazarus was going to become a commercial pilot—and everybody thought we’d eventually marry—and I was going to become a teacher.

But we went our separate ways, and I eventually married DDF (best decision of my life). I’d no idea what became of Lazarus, but when I did think of him, I imagined him flying off to Paris and Singapore and what-have-you. As time went on, Lazarus faded in importance, even in memory, part of another time, another me, long gone. 

Until I was standing on my metaphorical diving board, looking down into the scary waters of indie publishing (or, better, the scary waters of marketing), and Josh said to me—still over eggs and hash—

“Lazarus Bening is signing at Mysterious Galaxy (one of our remaining book stores)—you interested?”

I knew who the author Lazarus Bening was, but in a very murky, corner-of-my-brain kind of way—so murky I couldn’t come up with the title of his latest bestseller if Baby Rae’s next meal had depended on it. Bening’s niche is fast-paced adventure thrillers, and I mostly read slow, character-driven literary, so Bening wasn’t in my stack of books to read before I die. But he was Josh’s top pick, and apparently every other red-blooded American male’s as well.

And that’s when it hit me: Lazarus Bening.

Could it be? No, it couldn’t be . . . but, maybe—but how could that have happened, Lazarus and I both ending up fiction writers when he was supposed to be piloting a plane to Singapore?  

I’m running late for the office, but I’ll pick this up next time out . . . next post: more about Lazarus and Telemachus Press and Mr. Wonderful. . . .

I post on Mondays and Thursdays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less. Thanks for coming by.

“Legacy’s Excruciating Embrace”

So picking up from where I left off (which was my post of Oct. 24th), what does a girl (that would be me) with a historical/commercial novel titled The Angry Woman Suite, a brilliant Kirkus review re same, and a missing literary agent do next?

Note: Not that my agent making a career switch was a bad thing—for her. It actually made perfect sense, considering the sucky precariousness of traditional publishing these days. The better question might’ve been, “What? Are you still here?”

Um, before she wasn’t, that is.

To keep the record straight, my agent was a nice person who totally went to bat for The Angry Woman Suite—and I wish her every success in her new career choice.

Okay, now back to me. *smile*

I left off (my last post) talking about “Josh,” the potty-mouthed non-fiction writer who told me in so many unprintable words to get my butt in gear and go digital and promote my novel via social media (at which point I went cold with fear; it’s that word promote). 

But I’d bought myself some time, I thought (so I wouldn’t have to make decisions/take a plunge/move ahead/whatever; all that hard stuff), by taking The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus Reviews. I told Josh that if my review came in even halfway positive, I’d proudly go digital and start a blog and buy our next lunch together.  

Seemed a safe enough thing to say.

Oh, but there’s this thing about “safe” I’m not too crazy about. 

Safe is boring. 

More than that, safe is probably not what life’s supposed to be about (and I’m not talking the kind of safe from something truly dangerous). I’m talking the comfort zone kind of “safe,” where we hide, get lazy, or give up. Where we don’t apply ourselves, or test ourselves, and we make excuses for why we didn’t follow through on something we’ve told ourselves and the world we really want. “No time” is the #1 excuse, followed by “I don’t know where to start.”

I often wonder: Is that what we want to be thinking at the end of life; that we had no time? Serious? Or that we didn’t know where to start living? Really?

But if we’re still here, we have time. 

So, it’s not about “no time.” It’s about choices–about choosing priorities. 

Enough said. I’m nobody’s life coach. Are you kidding? A shy girl?  

But I do know I feel pretty ick about myself when I don’t do something just because I’ve doubted my ability. Which is when I make myself so busy that I get to tell myself I don’t have time to do the thing I’m afraid I might fail at, or that I might look foolish doing. And, no, of course I don’t know I’m rationalizing at the time. I’m very good at justifying myself—until I’m not.

And then it’s a clear call to arms.

So, looking back and moving on: 

Step #1 of The Plan: I’d sent The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus—and then happily compartmentalized that move, because it was a 4-6 week turnaround. There was nothing more to add to Step #1: it was out of my hands. Next.     

(For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews has been around since the 1930’s. As a big-time reader, I’ve always looked for books with a good Kirkus one-liner across the top of a cover, assured I’d get an excellent read—they’ve never let me down.)

Step #2 of The Plan: I started a blog while “forgetting” about the Kirkus review outcome. 

Yep—because of the call to arms thing.

I’d been a blog reader for some time, of writers mostly, and agents, and anything to do with publishing—so blogs weren’t unknown to me. Making one was.  

I met a man I’ll call Tim, who came up with a design for the multi-contributor format I had in mind, for a blog to be titled Rooms of Our Own (inspired by the famous Virginia Woolf quote). The “rooms”—actually, the way Tim put the site together, they are separate blogs within a “web,” so to speak—are occupied by photographer Geri Wilson, and writer Shelley Marquez, and me.        

And what I’d been afraid might be a drag or a flop or a timewaste . . .

. . . has morphed into amazing fun. Yes, it does take time to write blog posts, and sometimes I wonder where I’ll find the time to write anything, in-between a fulltime job and taking care of a very ill husband and a house and writing another book—but when something is challenging in a fun way, how hard is it, really, to make it (instead of, say, dusting) a priority?

Plus, how cool is it to disregard a million and one excuses?  

Very cool (and I hired someone for the dusting, because it’s not fulfilling to me—this is only about me—best money spent, ever) . . . now the surprise:

I’d had a horrible day. (A horrible day for me is when my sick husband has not had a good day.) It was a Sunday, 9 pm, and I was almost too tired to check my email (that’s tired).

But the next day was a work day—I work in the medical field—and I wanted to make sure there were no weekend emergencies to follow up on first thing Monday morning.

There weren’t—but there was an email from Kirkus, with attachment. Oh, crap. No, double crap. I was so not ready; it could wait till tomorrow–it didn’t feel safe.    

That word again. (I’ve come to realize that “not safe” means anything out of my control.)       

Kirkus reviews are always structured the same way: three paragraphs, and the last paragraph is the zinger: the one that says it all. The “summer-upper.” The maker or the breaker.

How much worse could my day get? I thought. Plus, if I opened the attachment, I wouldn’t feel like such a dipwad, being afraid to open my own mail—it would be over and done. I’d start the next day with a clean slate.   

I opened the attachment.

I went straight for the third paragraph.

It read:      

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

Yowsa—and, geez, How Very Ironically Appropriate.  

To be continued . . . .

Next up, Part 3 of The Plan: the search for a digital publisher, what all is entailed (a lot)—and a decision.

Thank you so much for coming by; please come back, and comments are very appreciated. I post on Mondays and Thursdays or thereabouts; and sometimes more, but sometimes less.

Going Into The Unknown

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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.

In The Glow

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I write in light. I should say, profuse light.    

Sunlight dances through the windows of my home office, my favorite room, furnished shabby chic-ish for me, and “dog-ish” for my cattle dog, Baby Rae (“dog-ish” being a bed of colorful patchwork quilts). A large stained glass window, in blues, green and silver, is enhanced by the abundant light; it depicts a Classical Greek woman holding a crystal orb, and the title “Sphera Imagination” is inscribed over her blond head—perfect for my writer’s lair. Baby Rae is at my feet—and this glowing window, together with Baby Rae and quilts, and the computer=bliss.  

So, sitting here in my almost completely blissed-out state, I’m thinking about the influence of surroundings, how they can take us places, blissful or otherwise. In many cases a sense of place is so powerful that it’s what brings a novel to life in a reader’s mind, too. “Place” can often be a story’s soul, literally shaping its characters’ choices. What would Gone With The Wind be without Tara? Or—

The Help without Jackson, MS?

Harry Potter-anything without Hogwarts?

War And Peace without Moscow?

The DaVinci Code without the Louvre?

The Pillars Of The Earth without Kingsbridge?

The Grapes Of Wrath without Oklahoma?

The Kite Runner without Afghanistan?

Reading Lolita In Tehran without, um—Tehran?

Wuthering Heights without the moors?

Rebecca without Manderley?

How does a writer fabricate a completely developed sense of place? For my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, I dug into history books, the better to depict historical Chadds Ford and West Chester, PA, real places. And then I imagined an almost Gothic mausoleum of a house– Grayson House–and after that I made up a whole town for The Angry Woman Suite, with East Chester, observing the town in my head first, before even making notes. It was after the entire novel was laid out, almost like a pattern on fabric, and carefully smoothed free of wrinkles, that I could see the extra material—the excess of the spaces that my characters inhabited—and the cutting began. 

Here, though, no cutting required. My little office space is a glowing cocoon filled with almost all my favorite things, right down to the wet nose nuzzling my bare feet. Baby Rae and I are in an exceptional place; my perfect place for imagining. . . . And yours? Where is your exceptional place?

Writing With A Blue Dog

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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.    

 

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

Image via Wikipedia

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).

Writing Our Own Tickets To Ride

I’ve been on a journey with a novel. My novel. A two-year journey post the eight years it took to actually write The Angry Woman Suite, which I incorporated into the larger journey of a little thing called Life; in my case, a brilliant husband, a blended family, a busy work schedule, three much-loved needy dogs (aren’t all dogs needy?), my mother’s terrible last illness, and my parents’ passings. And then too soon after my mother, my too-young sister was unspeakably altered by a shocking stroke, exchanging independence—a good life basically—for residence within a nasty, lonely maelström of grief and hysteria. Time passed—again, too little of it—and then there were just two dogs, and then, sadly, a brain-injured husband living in a world of his own: my own once-brilliant husband.

Now there’s only one dog: a horribly abused rescuee called Baby Rae, who’s shown me that most anything can be survived, and with grace. And, oh, The Angry Woman Suite, the novel that helped get me through this segment of Life survives also, along with its own story, and of course it’s the story I never saw coming—the biggest and sometimes best stories are the ones we don’t see coming. It’s the one I really want to share, about writing fiction and queries; about agents and publishing, and starting over again and again and again, because that’s what writers actually do best: rewrite. John Irving, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, A Prayer for Owen Meany, claims he spends maybe two-thirds of his writing life rewriting, and that he doesn’t believe he has a talent that’s special so much as he has “a special kind of stamina,” which allows for all that starting over again and again.

And about those tickets . . .

Wow, life. It’s a trip, as is writing fiction. They’re parallel, up and down rocky coastlines of certainty and uncertainty, joy and sadness. Crazy, enervating, amazing trips requiring special kinds of stamina.

I just want to know how I got these particular tickets to ride. Did I get in the wrong lines? On the wrong buses? I’m always doing that. It’s amazing I ever even finished school; I kept going to the wrong classrooms. That is not a joke. I am that direction-challenged. It’s Mapquest that finally provided me with semblances of perspective and equilibrium, not the proverbial teacher, priest or rabbi, family next door, or broken heart—if not for a GPS and MQ, who knows what gutter I could’ve called mine? So it’s made sense to me, in a dark, perverse way (my favorite way, actually), that, naturally, life can be extremely challenging (for everybody), and that getting a novel published must entail a lot of missed and wrong turns, and dead ends. Of course.

There’s something else to be said for always getting lost. It mega toughens an already tenacious soul, because there are just two choices when you can’t find the turn in the road that you think everyone before you already has: either plop yourself down and cry—been there, done that—and/or just quit (ditto, but who wants to be a quitter?), or square your shoulders and make a list of options, because there are always options, including pulling up your big girl panties (this is called grace), and getting out of your own way.

Community can ground souls. So I’m happy to be sharing space on Rooms of Our Own, yet I’m equally happy for my own room within this safe place: this is balance. Every woman should have a room of her own. To be, and for sorting her stuff out before hitting the road again, identifying what’s become too heavy or unhealthy to carry and what is still absolutely necessary, two remarkably fluid things on any life journey.

We are so not quitters unless we consciously choose the quitting roads, which are dead ends to life and writing. So, women of the world, and writers of course, check the elastic on your thongs and fasten your seatbelts, because we are just getting started on starting over once again, within this blog. Because we can. Because we possess a certain kind of stamina for rewriting our very own Mapquests, keeping in mind that despite where we start and restart, the bigger points are, first, showing up, and second, staying mindful within the journeys.