Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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I finally completed a tablecloth I started embroidering 60 years ago. It is a stamped cross-stitch. Counted cross-stitch didn’t become a “thing” until much later.

I forget now why I bought the cloth and embroidery silk. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I wanted something for my “hope chest.” I do remember Mom buying it for me and I lugged it off to college. And forgot about it.

Then I graduated and got married. I dug it out and worked on it a little, but then the babies came and I put it up again.

It survived several moves. Every few years I’d “discover” it and add a few more stitches until something more interesting came up.

And so it went. Until I cleaned closets last Spring and found it again. I’d used some of the thread for other projects and almost threw it away. But then I searched online for thread and found the very same company I’d bought from all those decades ago and the colors still matched. So I ordered the skeins I needed. When I received my little package, I sat down and started embroidering. (And binge-watching “Ozark”.)

This week I tied off the last stitch.

 

Yes,  I hear you saying, “What has this to do with writing?”

The answer is: Perseverance.

Do you have a story you started years ago and stuck in the back of a desk drawer or in a box under your bed? Do you bring it out every once in awhile and decide it’s too much trouble, it will take too long to finish, you’ve run out of words? And put it back again?

Maybe it needs revision. (I had to pick out some areas and start again because I’d used the wrong color.) Maybe the pattern isn’t clear and you don’t know what it’s going to look like at the end. Maybe you’re just too busy living life to sit down and pick up the needle–I mean, pen.

But it nags at you and you can’t quite let it go. So you work on it for awhile and then you put it away.

And then one day you decide to just finish the d**n thing. And when you do…you’ve become a writer. You persevered.

Congratulations!

 

 

 

 

Feeling validated

Well, whoop-de-do! My latest book, “Riverbend,” got a 5-star review in the September issue of Ind’Tale magazine. Naturally, I want to exploit this in the nicest way possible, which is to say putting it on Facebook.

But Facebook reaches only so many people. I’m sure that you (if you are a serious author) are always seeking ways to promote your book because frankly, we are the only ones who will.

I wanted the world (or those who don’t subscribe to Ind’Tale, which is a great on-line magazine, by the way) or follow me on Facebook to see the good news. But how?

I have often wondered how authors get those glowing editorial reviews on their Amazon book pages. Did the magazines and newspapers submit them? Common sense told me the New York Times has better things to do.

So like all curious people the world over, I Googled my question. And duh, you can do it yourself. Go to Author Central, click on the book page you want the review to appear on, and lo, there is a form you can fill out.  Look on the left side where it says “editorial” and click on “add.” You have to do it for both Kindle and print editions.

I didn’t copy-past the entire review as it was too long, and the rules say if you are copying another’s words, you should limit it to two sentences. So I picked the most glowing.

If you are not on Author Central at Amazon, why on Earth are you not? It’s another tool in your kit. Maybe not everybody visiting your book page will click on your link, but those who do get to see every book you’ve written, links to your bio, blogs, videos, or anything else you want to add.

I promised long ago to share any insights I have into the writing game, and sadly to say, promotion is a big part of it. Some of us are not good at self-promotion as we think it is tantamount to the bragging or parents scolded us for. We need to get over that notion.

You wrote a book. Now get out there and sell it.

 

 

The Kitchen Table

The theme this week for the group, Upbeat Authors is ‘Places you’ve found inspiration for stories’. As you can imagine it’s a theme that is seductive in it’s range. I thought of places I’ve lived, places I’ve hiked and places I’ve worked -all have sparked ideas but the one place that has been a constant place back to my earliest memories has been the kitchen table. It has always been a meeting place in my family. I remember sitting at or under the table listening to my mother and female relatives. It seems men were in the living room or out in the yard.

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But in the kitchen, at the table, sat the matriarchs and the sisters, cousins and daughters. Best friends and even the Avon lady gathered at the kitchen table -there were plates of cookies or a coffee cake and ruling all was the fountain of elixir –the MrCoffee machine fueling the words. All news, gossip, raves, rants and sorrows were shared over coffee at the kitchen table.

Memories spilled from the circle of women. Mom and Gram with my sisters and me shared the latest letters from aunts in Ohio and D.C. After school girlfriends and homework littered the table while dreams and crushes were shared. My family was definitely populated with more women than men and yet, this oddly gave the men more power. They ruled from their place at the head of the table but it was only for quickly eaten meals. Suppers were times when we listened to tales of bravado and masculine work dramas, while my mother sat silent eating her supper of dry toast and black coffee. We never questioned her diet, it was why she was thin and pretty. Suppers were times of extremes and their memories provide tension and black moments in my writing.

But the rest of the time, the kitchen tables of my life had more healthy, happy times. Scrabble games with Gram and Mom enveloped me and my sisters in fits of giggles. I learned some words and combinations sounded funny, their music was joyful. Even at the end of my Grandmother’s life a gift of a can of baked beans from Harris Teeter sent her into peals of laughter. Her last name was Harris and the Harris Teeter brand caused her to lose it, the contagious laughter leaving us gasping for air and wiping away tears. I think this love of the sound of words made me fall in love with poetry.

Listening to stories and memories around the kitchen table. It was the throne of matriarchy in my family. So much of my life was filtered through the gatherings at the table. So many old stories became the spark of a story that made me wonder ‘what if?’ The kitchen table in my life became the opening line for so much of my life and what I write. Certainly every poem ever published bore circular fee cup stains from the kitchen table. #UpbeatAuthors

Family secrets

Secrets and lies. Every family has them. Events are omitted purposefully from the family history, questionable relatives are white-washed, stories are half-told or not at all.

This makes for great reading. We want to know why and who and how. We cheer the plucky heroine as she unravels the mysteries of the past to explain the present.

I’ve been playing with writing our family history. I say playing because, like the tablecloth I’ve been cross-stitching for 50 years or more, I pick it up and put it down again, leaving it for months at a time. I could tell the story with no trouble. It’s what I put in and what I leave out that makes me give up and go to something else.

There are amusing anecdotes that come easily. But how do I write the sometimes horrendous events that also make our family who we are? Does posterity really want to know? Do they need to know? Or should some secrets stay buried until they are pushed so deep that no one remembers?

It’s easier when you are writing about fictitious characters. They can be as angelic or evil as our imaginations can paint them. Their stories hurt no one except other fictitious characters. And as the author of their imaginary lives, we can heal them with our words.

But in real life, the truth can hurt. It changes how we feel about not just our forebears, but about ourselves. If they are not who we thought they were, then we are not who we thought we were.

So I write a few pages and then come to a stopping point when I realize I don’t really want to include some things. I wrestle with the necessity for telling the whole truth or not telling the story at all. I hope some day I will be brave enough to include the ugly as well as the noble.

It’s much easier to write fiction.

 

 

Reviews…and how to write them

I just finished writing reviews for two books I recently read. I don’t bother writing reviews for best-sellers or established authors, but I do for friends and acquaintances if I’ve read and enjoyed their stories. I hope they help.

I know writers, myself among them, who have asked, begged, and bribed friends and relations to write a review. Some say they will and never do. Some do, God love them. And some say, “I don’t know how.”

My response is, “Just write one sentence: I liked the book. Or hated it. Whatever.”

I know it’s hard if the only thing you’ve written lately without relying on emoticons is a thank-you to Grandma on a pretty note-card because she doesn’t have a computer and still uses a land-line phone. I concentrate on what it is about the book that makes me keep reading. What do you enjoy most in a book? It might be the plot, or it might be the characters. Maybe it’s the quirky humor. There has to be something noteworthy about the book or you wouldn’t have read it in the first place. So start with, “I enjoyed this book because…” and fill in the blanks.

Do people read reviews? I do. I realize not everyone is going to  like every book written, but I try to find a middle ground between gushing praise (written by the author’s mother, perhaps?) and crushing criticism (which may well have been penned by an envious fellow writer). I read a few five- and four-star reviews and then one or two one-stars before making up my mind to purchase the book.

Okay, in a stab at honesty, to download the free or 99-cent book.

Do reviews help the author? I think they do help people make up their minds to click the “Buy” button, but no one is going to read them unless they’re at least curious enough about the book that they’ve visited the site, be it Amazon or another distributor, the publisher, or the author’s web page. How do they find out about the book in the first place? Ah, that’s a subject for another blog. And when I find out the answer, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you’ve complimented a writer you know and she asks, boldly or hesitantly, that you repeat your kind words in a review, please do it. It isn’t all that difficult, honest. Just say what you said aloud to them.

And if you don’t know the writer personally, but liked their work enough to recommend it to a friend, you might do the same. Writers love it if you buy their book, but they love it even more when you tell them–and the world– how much you enjoyed it.

 

 

How am I doing?

I have been a widow now for a year and a half. I’m not sure if this means I should be “used to it” by now or if I should be still actively grieving. There aren’t any rules to follow, so I’m not sure what is normal. People say I’m “handling it well” so I guess I’m doing all right.

I’m reading On Second Thought by Kristin Higgins. One of the characters, Kate, is suddenly widowed when her husband of less than a year trips and hits his head. Her reactions are funny and poignant, and I see myself in her, even to the morbid humor when she thinks at least now she has more closet space. I never went to the store and realized I’d forgotten to put on shoes, but I did do some very strange things that first year. I look back now and wonder what I was thinking.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking. I was on auto-pilot.

I still make  decisions and wonder if Jim would approve. (Or I make a decision knowing full well he wouldn’t approve, such as painting the living room walls, with a sense of defiance and yes, a little guilt.)  Or I accomplish something and exult aloud, “Look there! See what I did?” as if he would suddenly appear and give me that approving grin.

But, I did manage to finish two novels, one published in May and one looking for a home. People handle their grief in different ways  and mine was to lose myself in someone else’s world and someone else’s problems. Neither are not about being a widow. I’m not sure I could write about that, but then…

I already did. Long before Jim died, I wrote a story about a woman who is struggling after the death of her husband. I re-read it now and realize I didn’t know a thing. I’m going to re-write it and hope the story will reveal some true things that I have learned the hard way.

So we go on and the people we loved and lost are still a part of our lives. I pretend sometimes Jim is just in another room, or outside working and will come in and ask if I want to go get lunch.

I know it’s pretense, but that’s what I do. It helps get me through the day.

Maybe, just maybe, it will help me get through the next novel.

 

 

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