Sunday, November 17, 2019

Writers Are a Desperate Bunch

There is a website called "Writer Beware" that acts as a bullhorn to let authors know which publishing entities are withholding royalties, which ones do not act in good faith. etc. You get the picture. In the last several month there have been two exposes of fairly well-known publishers (in two different genres and that's important to keep in the back of your mind). Both of them are not paying royalties due to their authors, both of them have been stalling for months (sometimes for years) in an effort to not pay royalties, all the while collecting money from sales of their authors' books.

The accounting system of publishing is unbelievable arcane. I STILL don't understand my statements and I've been writing professionally for twenty years. I trust my publisher so I don't query my statements, but I have to admit then if I didn't, I'd probably stay quiet for a good long while. Because I'm desperate to stay in the market and keep my name out there.

You say, why are the authors being so dumb to keep publishing with an publishing house that is stiffing them. We aren't dumb, we are desperate. Should you be so lucky to get a publishing contract, you are so grateful, so happy you don't have to go the self-publishing route, that you are willing to accept the fact--for much longer than you should--that emails aren't being returned, that checks aren't arriving in a timely manner, and that surely these are accounting errors. The point is that unless you are publishing with a reputable publisher, then you have NO IDEA how many books are being sold. None. You have to take on faith that they are reporting your sales properly. Because you are desperate, you might find yourself essentially writing for free. Some people with these publishers have not been paid, ever, and others have been paid in the past, but are not being paid now. In some cases we are talking thousands of dollars.

The semi-reputable publishers or those who had a decent rep in the past, but are now holding on to your royalties or are essentially running a Ponzi scheme, will give you back your rights. No questions asked. Of course this means that they don't have your books to sell anymore, but I would imagine the number of queries they get in a given week means they will have fresh product to market in a very short time. Will all of these new authors generate as much income as the previous set? This is debatable, but with so many authors getting bounced from trad publishing, it's not a stretch to consider that these houses are going to capture a few decent authors who have a history of publishing and sales. And those authors are desperate.

If you Google the average salary of authors you will get ridiculous article after ridiculous article that says something like the average "take" for an author is on the order of $60,000/year. This is total hogwash, as pointed out in the sobering blog post by the author's guild (https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/six-takeaways-from-the-authors-guild-2018-authors-income-survey/). For 2018, the average income was something like $6500, which was down from 2017. That sounds more like it.  Because that average author figure includes people like J.K. Rowling, who I assure you is not pulling down $65,000/year. Add a few zeros to that number.

So, as my publisher told me when they phoned me with the good news about my first book, "Don't quit your day job." I was really lucky because I have an ethical publisher. Sadly, I also know that I was so desperate to get my novel published (I didn't have an agent), I probably would have signed with Fraud-Publishers-R-Us.

Because I was desperate.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

New Book!

RESOLUTION IS FINISHED AND UP FOR SALE!!!!!!! My amazing sister, Valerie Mighetto, designed the awesome cover, and I'm really pleased how it turned out.
I've finally formatted and wrangled my words into something that resembles a book using technology that was determined to thwart me at every turn. The mental scars will fade eventually, but what a difficult and frustrating process. Anyway. Resolution, my second Jane Austen pastiche, is done! It is for sale at all the usual haunts, both as a digital and paperback copy. Persuasion is the most melancholy of Austen's books, and I hope I was able to capture what makes Anne Elliot the character in all of Austen who deserves the happy ending.
Resolution is a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic Persuasion. Instead of sailors, we have academics and instead of Bath, we have Carmel. Our story opens with Anne Elliot packing up the family home. Her father, a professor at the University of California, is book smart but a financial idiot. In an attempt to recoup his losses from a disastrous business investment, he rents out the family home to the Crofts, who happen to be the brother-in-law and sister of Derrick Wentworth, Anne’s former love. They met while students at university and had an acrimonious parting the spring of her junior year. Now thirty-five, she’s dated other men, but no one has made as deep dents in her heart as had Derrick Wentworth. We have the selfish father, the odious sister, and whining malcontented sister set against the backdrops of California cities of Berkeley and Carmel. There is commentary on academia, grief, love in the modern age, and marriage in the modern age, and stubborn young men who learn to regret their arrogance and the women who love them.

Friday, October 11, 2019

I Have Been...

Fill in the blank. I have been traveling. I have been staying with my wonderful daughter and SIL on the East Coast. I have been editing a textbook. I have been SICK. I am very far behind on writerly-ish stuff.

BUT!!!!!


Monday, August 12, 2019

The Fight with Technology is Never Over

I have finished making the last of the minor tweaks on my latest Austen pastiche, Resolution (a modern retelling on Persuasion). I have a couple of shout outs to make. Many thanks to Abigail Bok, who gave this a rigorous copy edit. The cover is courtesy of my sister, Valerie Mighetto. I thank her profusely and do appreciate her squeezing this in when she has a zillion demands on her time these days. Now all I need to do is format it and post it, right? So much easier said than done. I deal with technology all the time in my job, and I've managed over these many years to bash around and  eventually get there, but it's not without a really ugly fight. I was born far too late to feel like I own technology; it owns me for sure. Three days and an aching wrist later, I think I am close. Of course, I said that yesterday. And the day before. And...

Anyway, it will appear soon on a variety of sales platforms (I hope). Here's the cover. Pretty sweet, isn't it?



Sunday, August 4, 2019

Our New Normal

It is difficult to write anything when every time I turn around, there is a new mass shooting. The latest one but two (imagine having to type that and have it make sense) occurred not an hour from where I live. At what point does the insanity stop? I don't own guns. I have no desire to own a gun. I don't understand the passion that people have for their guns. Flat out don't get it. I don't want to. It speaks to a fear and loathing that lurks in the souls of gun owners that I don't understand. Again, I don't want to know. Hatred of government? Fear that brown people will swarm your house and take your fifty-six-inch television. Rape your wife, your daughter, your son? I don't know. I have fears but they are more of the variety that I will get a phone call from a dispatcher telling me that my son or daughter has been gunned down in another senseless killing. THAT IS WHAT I AM AFRAID OF!

Okay, keep some guns. Fine. Clearly it strokes something in your psyche. Keep them. You have to register them in a national registry. You cannot own assault rifles because these are designed to kill masses of people, not the brown person stealing your television. I don't understand why you would need body armor, so in my world you can't buy body armor unless you are in law enforcement. You cannot buy truckloads of ammo because that says that you are going to try to kill a whole lot of people with it. Oh, and no bump stocks. That's it. You can own a gun. Be my guest. Don't invite me to your parties, don't even talk to me if you feel differently. This is not about rights. This is about your belief that you have a God-given right to kill people. Lots of them. Own it.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Not Writing Today

Today is the first anniversary of my mother's death. Some days you have nothing to say.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Boycott Alert

I have been traveling, and I owe you a "chat" on the writing workshop I attended, and I returned to work, and it was a deluge of delugy-ish tasks to complete. So. We will catch up, I promise. Except I've been checking my stats on amazon (pointless endeavor, I know, and why I do this is a form of perverse masochism not worth exploring at this juncture), and what keeps popping up on my amazon page, but plugs for Gilbert's City of Girls.

Nope. Not going there. For a lot of reasons, but the title itself disqualifies it. To cover myself, I did look at a synopsis and it is not about children. No, the book is about a young woman in New York in the 1940s. What I wrote in 2017 still holds true:

My latest pet peeve is this persistent insulting trend of books that are about women that have "girls" or "girl" in the title. I am now boycotting all such books. I don't care HOW good they are. This stealth sexist bullshit by reducing adult women into the role of a powerless "girl" has to stop somewhere, and it's going to stop at my pocketbook. I walked through one of the last remaining Barnes and Nobles in my area and I counted--I AM NOT JOKING--eight books with the word "girl" in the title, And I wasn't even looking. I was just strolling along trying to find a Father's Day present for my husband. Did I see ONE book with the word "boy" in the title. I did not.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This will be short and sweet. I'm leaving on a jet plane to participate in a writing retreat that I had to cancel last year because of my husband's emergency open heart surgery. (Fun times!) I've never been to a writing retreat so I'm stoked and hope to write a huge hunk of this new book I'm writing. 

The more ephemeral goal is to find the path to writing enlightenment: how do I bring writing up a notch. The one aspect of writing that most people don't talk about is that there are plateaus in your ability to write. Every writer I talk to wants their current book to be the best they've ever written. And that's what I want, too. There is a point where you've stopped flailing with voice, pacing, and plot. Sure, you struggle to keep these balls in the writing air, but you know that you need to do that. Believe or not, that's a hard hurdle to jump. But say you have the basics down, and now you have the luxury of stepping back and viewing your writing with objectivity, its strengths and weaknesses, and you ask yourself, how to I capitalize on my strengths and chip away at my weaknesses?

The longer you write, the slower the learning curve. The first five years of my writing seriously, the direction up was phenomenal. I learned so much and improved to the point where I could get a book published and pickup some nice kudos. Then I plateaued out. I wrote a ton more and could see my writing improve until I reached another plateau. By about the fourth plateau, the changes were incremental but critical. And here I sit. On the fourth plateau. This is where you are a decent writer but not much more than that.  I've been sitting on this fourth plateau for a couple of years now, twiddling my thumbs, occasionally have small campfires and toasting marshmallows, planting a few daffodils when I have the time, but I'm not moving upward. It's lonely and frustrating. I want more. I'm hoping this retreat will give me insight in how to get better. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Industry Groups Want You!

You bite the bullet and you lock-down a domain name and pay for hosting for a website for a year. At this point your next step is to join industry groups. Genre is easier than, say, straight fiction. Romance, Science Fiction, and Mystery all have robust national industry groups that would welcome your membership checks. Many of these groups have monthly meetings where you can meet industry professionals or just writers who are having the same struggles you are. Industry groups like Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime will keep your toe in the water while you write that first book or that next book. Also, I've found that the mystery writing community is a rather fine bunch of people, and who doesn't need more fine people in your life?

At a certain point you have to bite the second bullet and acknowledge that you are running a business: a writing business. It doesn't take a lot of money to learn how language works, cultivating your voice, and then writing the best book you can possibly write. It takes discipline but not a whole lot of $$$. Joining industry groups is also minimal sunk costs, and, more importantly, it gives your name a face. All industry groups I have belonged to offer great classes, motivating speakers, industry insights, and all around information about the business of writing. These insights might not get you a publishing contract ASAP, but they will give you invaluable information about the minefield you're about to walk through. Because at some point it's likely you will enter the phase where the real $$$ pedal meets the metal.

The convention circuit.

The focus of these cons varies greatly, and whether you attend any of them depends on where you are in the process and how much you have to spend. Many of the classes/advice offered in the industry cons are also available through the industry groups for free or nominal fees as perks of your membership. But the sheer numbers of agents/editors and industry professionals at these cons makes it worth attending a convention if you can afford it. If you do a Google search on writers conferences, it will take you hours to plow through all the possible cons you can attend. Based on my perusal of various Google searches, the industry cons break down into two different categories: those cons geared toward improving your writing and those cons that are network oriented, i.e., how to write successful query letters, polish your pitch, common mistakes in trying to market your book, etc. There are industry cons for every step of the process in writing a book, from typing "Chapter 1" to typing the "The End."

 All you need is a credit card.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Biz

I've been talking to a number of other authors about the biz as it stands today. Sales are way down, across the board, and those markets that seemed to be hot two years ago--specifically paranormal and Young Adult--have now seemed to have worn out their welcome. What is selling? Um, nothing seems to be selling from what I can gather. As I am currently writing a paranormal YA novel, I'm a little depressed by this news.

Where does that leave you? In some ways this is very liberating because, hell, take chances, get messy (Ms. Frizzle, I do love you so much). You really do not have much to lose by letting those creative critters that are currently doing the rumba in your brain let them loose and snake around some wild ideas that might actually work. I've always found that writing to market is dangerous, which is why I am going to write this book because it's yelling at me to write it.

The reality is that as soon as one book grabs the market that does not mean that a hundred books on wizards will sell, yours being one of them. Generally speaking, it takes two years to get a book to market. Two years. Chew on that. I will say that only series that I thought took the wizarding concept and gave as good a ride as Harry Potter was Grossman's The Magicians series; as a rival to the Harry Potter series, the Magician's was a contender. Grossman's books had a completely different and much smaller audience so perhaps it wasn't as much of a financial success for him, but the writing was a zillion times more sophisticated, as were the themes, and he certainly gave Rowling's world building skills a run for their money. He also didn't have to deal with the issue of writing a children's book with adult themes (or an adult book that was also catering to children, JKR's perpetual dilemma). He wrote for adults and it freed him in many ways to write a dark and gritty tale that was mature (he avoided the sight gags that JKR loves so much) and, for lack of a better word, urban. I have issues with books two and three of that series (I have book reviews on my website so check out why those books didn't quite work for me). I had issues with Rowling's last book for the same reason. Both authors let the world-building triumph over plot and character arcs, but that's a separate issue entirely. As usual, I'm digressing.

Anyway, so nothing is selling and you have this great idea but the only books that you see for sale feature wealthy young adults with a romance shoved in there for good measure. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians, I'm looking at you (and a host of other books featuring wealthy protagonists). You have a gritty, dark tale of wizards who are in college and they have sex and they drink and take drugs and they are mean to each other and betray each other and... Okay, that book has been written (see Grossman's The Magicians series). BUT, write your idea like you want to write it. Don't discount passion. It matters. I am sure that a zillion people told Lev Grossman, do not write about wizards. Are you crazy? That market is so ten years ago. And now he has a television series based on his novels. He didn't listen to those naysayers and neither should you. Even though I have critical issues with his books (book 2 is very weak), I cannot deny that he really cares about these characters. He identifies with Quentin and loves Alice. I hope that Lev Grossman has an Alice in his life and that it's not a fantasy of the woman he wishes he has. And that love for someone special or even hope for someone special comes through in neon letters. So write about what you care about. I was disappointed in book two, but that hasn't stop me from having all three books in a prominent place on my bookshelf in HARDCOVER.

I have read books that if I pulled them apart they would actually hit my "fail" buzzer, but the passion of the author for their story pulls me along, and while my finger might be poised about the "fail" button, it never quite pushes it, because you, author, you trickster, you, bamboozled me with your words.

Bamboozle, people. Write what you love because the market is moving so quickly, what you think will be selling will not be selling in a week.

I keep postponing this, but next week we talk about the authorly-type endeavors worth investing $$$ in.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Day Late, but Man, It's Hot

Yes, I'm a couple of days late, but I've spent the last couple of days grousing about the heat. I am NOT a warm-weather person. By virtue of the fact I've lived in a suburb where it routinely climbs into the high 90s and low 100s for most of the summmer, I have become immune to temps below 90 degrees. Above that I become a creature of discontent. Even, sigh, a malcontent. So, yeah, it's been hot. How hot, you say? It was 100 degrees in Berkeley today. IN BERKELEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's how hot it was.

Anyway, we are returning to our regularly scheduled program because I do have air-conditioning and, therefore, I am slightly less of a malcontent at this moment. Even though it is--checking the weather app on my phone--94 degrees at 6:45 pm.

What do we have today? Well, it was announced that some big mucky muck who runs Waterstone in the U.K. has bought Barnes and Noble. He has big plans to revamp it and bring it back to being, gasp, a bookstore. His formula of catering to the local markets has worked wonders with Waterstone, and he plans to implement the same strategy with Barnes and Noble in the U.S.

I’m so happy for this news. Unfortunately, you need a behemoth to fight a behemoth. It has been no secret that B&N has been hanging on by its fingernails for years. It probably got a bit of a bump when Borders went under (my chain of choice), but it hasn’t been able to sustain a working model that challenges Amazon. And at this point, it’s the ONLY entity that can challenge Amazon and their monopoly over publishing.

Sadly, the reality is that if this is not a go, and B&N does go under, authors might as well hang up their cletes. What will be available for sale will be limited to what sells big: Oprah picks, self-help books, and the odd mystery. Serial killer books seem to be selling well, so those will be published. You will have NO depth in the market because publishers need to sell books to survive. If the market shrinks by the demise of B&N, then the bookselling market will look a lot like what you can find in airports. The big sellers. Not the quirky, wonderful books that are increasingly hard to find.

Of course, always go to your independent bookstore and buy a few books. But I ask that you also purchase the odd book from B&N. In my opinion, they are the only game in town that can challenge Amazon and their ownership of the entire market. Amazon are already publishers. They own the self-publishing market. And they do it well. Full disclosure: I self-published a book through them and it was a seamless and professional process. They know what they are doing. That is part of the problem. Traditionally, publishing has been somewhat hidebound and resistant to change, and Amazon took advantage of this clutching of pearls and a smugness devotion to an outdated model, waltzed right in, and took over.

Amazon is now opening brick and mortar stores (where you don’t need employees because you can self check out books like a head of lettuce). If B&N goes under, you will see all the major publishers take a huge financial hit and few will survive. Irony doesn’t quite cover my championing of an entity that ten years ago I deplored because of their deep discounts and how that affected the indie bookseller. All of that was true at the time, but we need to pick our battles.

So I’m cheering this sale because the demise of B&N means Amazon will own the entire book selling market. The indies just don’t have the shelf space to challenge Amazon. We need a biggish store that has a decent selection so that you can browse the shelves. The indies thrive on hand-selling books, and that is wonderful and fills a niche, but it can’t compete with Amazon in terms of volume or “reach.” And given Amazon's past record of changing their algorithms so that it limits access to LGBT authors and anything that is remotely erotic, and especially if it involves participants of the same sex protagonists (remember when you couldn’t search for “gay” anything, which meant that your search would not bring up Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain?), we should be horrified at the thought of B&N going under. This is why B&N has to stay in business. Because Amazon doesn’t sell books. It sells widgets that happen to look like books, smell like books, and sort of act like books. But if their widget masters tell them, oh, we can’t promote that because it will alienate the evangelicals who buy a lot of widgets, you better believe these books will be hidden and eventually will not be sold.

Widgets will rule.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

What Must I Afford?

This is not a small question. Writing is a money pit. What are costs you must absorb?

1.  Let's start off simple. Business cards. Carry them with you as a matter of course. Yes, people still use them. I can't tell you how many times I've been in professional situations where I'd have given my right arm for an old-fashioned business card.

2. Any costs associated with a website, including domain name registration and hosting fees. Many hosting companies will provide web design services for a monthly fee. People with some tech savvy use WordPress, and for those who are really tech-challenged, it doesn't get any easier than WIX. I don't think you need a lot of bells and whistles. People don't have a lot of time to be wowed by your brilliant website. A beautiful website might sell one book, but if that book doesn't live up to the promise of a fabulous website, then you've lost a reader forever. My advice: go simple until you can afford the website designer of your choice. There are LOTS of free templates out there for you to experiment with. Again, it doesn't have to be fancy but it should be free of typos and topical. If you're writing a mystery set in the cooking world, do not populate your website with pictures of your adorable Golden Retriever--no matter how cute your dog is, and it's a truth universally acknowledged that my Golden "Bear" is THE most AMAZING dog on the face of this earth. Just sayin'.

Google and YouTube are your friends. You can glean basic web skills in pretty much no time flat. I just taught myself some basic LaTex skills all from YouTube because my job said, hey, do you know LaTex. I said, give one week and I'll have the basics down. Please note that if you do break out and go all crazy and decide to create your own website, understand that different hosting sites will NOT, I REPEAT, will not upload you files if you are using Google as your browser. I wasted something like thirty hours trying to determine why I couldn't upload and see my site on Google Chrome. Because my hosting site abhors Google.

3.  Let's say you Googled your little heart, and with your newly acquired awesome html skills put together a simple but effective web page. What do you do with all those extra $$$ floating around? You get a decent author photograph to put on the back of your books and as a promotional push for your simple but professional looking website. Lots of people feel uncomfortable having their photograph everywhere, but this is an age where readers want to know who you are, not just what you write. I deplore this level of intimacy, but that's another post. I think you need to accept that there is the professional you and the personal you. The professional "me" used to be a pastry chef who became a writer, and the personal me is someone who must confess to having had popcorn for dinner when my husband's out of town and who writes fanfiction. Truth.

What do you we have so far? A decent looking website, and an author's photograph that you can put on your website (and Facebook). I have not used any of the advertising gimmicks offered by Google or Facebook because I don't have the money. I have asked others who did if that worked out for them? Did they get an appreciable bump in sales? All I got were shrugs. I have heard that Instagram is the hot new thing, but that Facebook still works for authors in generating interest. I will say that what I think Facebook does is generate interest in you but not necessarily your books. Authors who use it as a relentless marketing push eventually alienate people. Except that readers now want a much more personal relationship with authors that has nothing to do with the books they write. I know. It doesn't make sense, just go with it. I think the rule of thumb is something like 70% personal stuff and 30% marketing.

Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. The more you get to know about people, the less you might want to read them because the veil between author and reader is now mighty thin. I tend to rant on Facebook about the political nightmare that is currently our country, so, yeah, I've alienated a ton of people already, but I made a conscious decision to voice my disgust with the current administration over books sales. I suppose if I had a vibrant career, then it might be different, but anonymity has its pluses. Just be aware that if you do use Facebook as a soapbox then it will be less effective for you as a way of generating interest in your books. I have stopped buying books by authors whom I believe are homophobic and racist, and I'd be a fool to assume that they won't return the favor because I'm a raving socialist.

Next Sunday I'll chat about costs that you might not be able to afford but that you feel you have no choice but to absorb.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Technology, How I Hate Thee

If you are an unknown writer like I am, then you shoulder all the burden of the "trappings" of the modern day writer. You cannot sit your cottage in the Cotswold or the Lake District, away from the drudgery of life, penning your fantasies. You struggle with technology, screaming at your keyboard, and Googling how to do the simplest of mundane tasks because, well, technology owns you whether you want it to or not.

I work on a computer day and night. Literally. My day job requires that, aside from feeding my meter so that it forces me to get up from my chair in two-hour increments, I sit at a computer 99% of the time. Given this, my hands are now toast, with marked weakness in my dominant (right) hand. Picking up a pen and writing for any length of time is impossible, so writing longhand on a notepad is a pipe dream. It's a vicious cycle. I've screwed up my hands because I spend so much time on the computer that I can't hold a pen, which would alleviate the stress on my hands from working on a computer. I spend all day on a computer and if I want to write, I have to do it on a computer.

Technology is not natural to me or would, I say, many in my generation. I learn what I have to learn, but I have no intuition about it, and I often have to revisit what I thought I'd mastered two months earlier because it just doesn't stick in my head. That I was able to set up this blog I consider a minor miracle.

Over the years, I have produced books for myself and also for other people okay. I can dabble in Photoshop to a minor degree, which lets me keep my job. I did set up my own website, which doesn't look great, but it's okay, but am now fighting with numerous entities as to why my website is not working, right at the time when I am trying to shop my latest book my website is dead. I have no idea why. I am at the point of pinging the "chat" function of my host and begging for mercy.

And yet this is what you have to do if you don't have the money to pay others to do it for you. Which I don't. There is only so much money you can throw at this writing business before you start to feel guilty about using marital funds. At least I feel guilty. I don't see these as "sunk" costs, but when your last royalty check was $14.23 (no, that isn't a typo), then you try to absorb as much of the "freight" associated with writing as you can. Or at least I am doing that. I am lucky in the sense that my job forced me to learn basic formatting skills, basic Photoshop stuff, basic web design stuff, basic Dreamweaver stuff, etc. A lot of people use WordPress, but I find its limitations frustrating, so I put on my technology hip waders and slop through the Adobe swamp, hoping for success. Apparently, not very successfully, as my current website nightmare attests.

Next week, I will talk about the minimum costs you must absorb as a writer, and where I feel you must dump some $$$ and where you shouldn't if you're operating on a shoestring.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday and Food and Talk

I went to college in my home town. As soon as I could, I moved out, not because I hated my parents, but because it is almost impossible to meet people if you don't live in situ. And I went home for dinner on Wednesday and Sunday nights week after week for four years because of the lure of table.

My mother was still working then, so we weren't eating elaborate meals. The menu was pretty much the same. Big Sunday dinner: roast beef with potatoes, Yorkshire pud, two veg, and sweet of some sort for dessert. My mother was a haphazard cook. Her desserts always looked sloppy, cake tiers always slightly askew and pie crusts with a very rustic look, but it all tasted delicious. Monday was cold meat, mash, and frozen peas (a reason why I never went home on Monday nights for dinner). Tuesday was pork or lamb chops. Wednesday was often quiche (which I was responsible for making). Thursday was spaghetti night, and Friday was something like shrimp curry because although my mother wasn't Catholic anymore, old habits die hard. When I was a kid we had fish sticks. I love fish sticks. If my mother wasn't working on call, on Saturdays she often made something a little more labor intensive like steak and kidney pie. My sister and I would pick out the kidneys and with a practiced stealth feed them to the various dogs. No, it wasn't a culinary extravaganza that drew me home twice a week. It was the people.

As they say, your mileage may differ. I know many people who found dinner with their parents to be nothing short of an ordeal, but our house was different. Table was where we talked about stuff while we handed round the veg. The political and social upheavals of the day were dissected and pondered over, and everyone's opinion was valid. To a point. History was the silent diner at our table. Yes, history is often written by the victors, and even historians have their own personal biases, but at least if you had a historian backing up your opinions, your argument would be coming from a position of strength rather than ignorance. If your opinion wasn't backed by facts, you weren't ridiculed nor were you told you were stupid. I think the best way to describe it is that you were considered young and slightly misguided. Youth wasn't a curse; you were just young and didn't know a hell of a lot even though you were going to Berkeley. And your opinion was valued nevertheless. You had a voice at that table. You were heard.

I also learned to be a listener. My stepfather grew up in England during the era when you were apprenticed out at fourteen. He went to work with his father at the railroad because that's what fourteen-year-old boys did then. Then he went to war and was captured by the Japanese in Java during World War II, and he spent five years in a Japanese prison camp. Of course, the stories that he told were the stuff of novels and movies, but my mother's stories of growing up in Ireland in the 1930s during the depression were equally interesting and moving.

What I'm saying is talk to each other. Value your table. Share your stories with others. Get off your phone. Boil some spaghetti noodles, use a jar of Newman's own tomato sauce to top your noodles (I'd add a teaspoon more dried basil and oregano and a few pinches of salt), buy a small tub of grated Parmesan cheese, dress some greens, buy some ice cream and chocolate sauce, and spend some money on a decent bottle of red wine. Sit down. Unfurl your napkin. Toast each other. And talk.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

My First Mother's Day without My Mother

I had a wonderful mother. Note the word "had." As I've said before, she wasn't perfect. She wasn't the sort to hold grudges but she could form instant dislikes and that was that. There was no redemption. She was also the most generous person I've ever met. After my stepfather died, I'd buy small things for her house, fun things for her kitchen (the heartbeat in her life), only to find she'd given them away. Oh, so and so needed that. So and so needed this. Finally, I had to tell her, I spent a fortune on that decent wine opener. Do NOT give this one away.

Anyway, today is hard for me. My sister and I were talking about how both of us were surprised at how well we've been dealing with her death. I've been saying for years that I'd be a weepy mess when faced with her death because I loved her so much. But that didn't happen. I think of her every day and sometimes I fool myself (or forget) that she hasn't died, but I forge on with only a few sad sighs. I think it's because we had so little baggage with her. Again, she wasn't perfect but her honesty and forthright approach to life, and her acknowledgment that we were people and deserved respect doesn't leave one with a whole lot of resentment to carry around. She was two weeks shy of her eighty-eighth birthday, died in her sleep, didn't suffer, had her marbles until the day she died. I mean, really, what more can one ask for?

Still today is hard.

Because we never relinquish that part of us who is our mother's child. It might grow smaller over the years, and, indeed, my mother and I switched roles quite a long time ago, with me being the primary caregiver and watching over her. But every now and then she'd say to me, "You look tired. Is everything okay?" essentially reasserting her role as a mother, a caregiver. And by that I mean one who cares and gives what they can. I don't mean it purely in the clinical sense of making sure one brushes one's teeth. I mean it as someone who cares. A role she never relinquished. One whose shining lights in a world that had lots of dark, dark days--where even a candle would have been appreciated--were her kids. There was NOTHING more precious to her than her children. And my sister and I knew and know that.

That tiny part of the child in me misses that today. Will always miss it. Of course, I am surrounded by people who care and love me, and who could and do fulfill that role, but it's not the same. It's not my mommy with a furrowed brow worried about her little wee one. That sense of mommy will make it right. No one else has that power and now she's gone. I can no longer bury my sadness in my mother's metaphorical lap.

Mom, I hope that in the afterlife ether, you're on some beach reading a book, no macular degeneration slowly robbing you of your sight, all that shit is gone, and you've got a mai tai in your hand, with your beloved Ken next to you, who is also reading a book and sipping a mai tai, in the background is the sound of waves hitting a calm beach and the occasional breeze teasing your hair, which you've finally stopped dying because you held onto hair dye years longer than you should have. Just sayin'.

This is what I wish for you for on mother's day.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

So What Happens Part III


I am manning the booth at the Bay Area Book Festival this Sunday. It’s held every year in Berkeley near the high school. How wonderful to be in a sea of people who care about books.

So let’s return to the reality of not being published. First, you will not get second chances in this new publishing paradigm, so work on your grammar skills. I’m serious. The Blue Book is a good reference, with nifty little exercises/tests. Their website also has tests you can take. I love wee little exams like this. Anyway, I’m talking about honing your basic grammar skills. I refresh my knowledge every year, and I’ve been known to read books on grammar as part of my bedtime reading. I moved around a lot as a kid, and I have wide gaps in my knowledge base. I blame this on my total inability to do math (anything beyond adding and subtracting is hell), but also on a weird tendency to put together words in a combination that isn’t quite correct. I’ve cobbled together my language skills from a host of different sources, and like with math, I never got the whole picture. So I have to keep revisiting the basic tenets of grammar so I don’t fall back into my illogical and just plain wrong language patterns.

In this day and age, it’s easy to get sloppy about this, and you think, well, I have this great idea, so of course the weird, misplaced comma won’t matter. Or is it “i” before “e” or “e” before “i”. Hmmm. Yes, it matters. If an agent gets one hundred books a day to vet, and he/she is reading a book whose first ten pages is great but is pitted with some basic spelling and grammar mistakes, and it’s followed by another great submission whose spelling and grammar are perfect, then who is going to get the nod? You know who. It doesn’t matter that forty pages down the road the second book falls apart with a major plot bust, and your book with its sloppy approach to spelling and grammar is really kicking ass by page forty. Your book has already received a form email thanking you for your submission, but, sorry, your manuscript doesn’t have a place in our stable and good luck with your future endeavors.

Put your best foot forward. That you have control over. The things you do have control over you have to maximize their effectiveness, because the reality is that you only control 10% of this crap shoot. As for the other 90%? Welcome to my world.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

So What Happens, Part II

You've been slogging away, stealing hours away from your family, staying up late to write another chapter and end up being useless at work as a result, and this book you've slaved away on for weeks, months, and, yes, even years is molding on your hard drive. What do you do?

I used to think that writers needed to be market savvy. Not write to the market, because I think that's the kiss of death, but be aware of what is selling. Note to self: the wizard market has been covered.

But I'm not sure about that strategy anymore. I read books that I can't imagine why they were published--I also read books that I adore, by the way--and I'm scratching my head at the marketing departments? Are these books really selling? That plot bust on page 139 is okay? That ridiculous scene on page 173 works for you? Apparently the answer is yes to both questions. But aside from these issues, there are definite trends. Let's discuss.

The overall trends that I see fall into two categories of books; the beach reads and the Oprah book club reads. I will point out that both of these types of books are featured prominently in airports. First of all, let's visit what characterizes the beach reads: (1) based on the comments I read on Amazon, readers want books that are linear in structure with simple sentences; (2) happy endings are de rigeur; and (3) they want likable protagonists. Those readers who want a "simpler" book want to tear through a novel and then throw it down or click on their kindle for another similar type of book. Here's where the Amazon algorithm gets a workout.

The second type of book is what I would call the Oprah book club book. They are considered on the literary end of the spectrum. I've read a host of these books over the last three years, and what strikes me is that the language is often beautiful but it doesn't make sense. There is no story OR character arc. Things may happen, but it doesn't affect the protagonist, and often the ending is identical to the beginning in terms of the character's emotional state. Basically, the protagonist is moribund and maybe that is the point, but I find it unsatisfying. I call this the existential novel but written by someone whom I suspects takes lots of selfies. And, finally, I've been reading about rich people whose problems are supposed to be identical to mine but somehow aren't.

As an author, these trends don't work for me. I work full time, so pushing out a book every nine months is literally impossible for me. Also, I search for those books that push a reader, challenge me a bit, so the books that are super linear aren't exactly anathema, but a book that plays with the time line always has a bit of an edge because the author is saying to me, "Come on. Let's play. Let me take you on a little journey. Trust me." Also, it's a good way to create tension. We know that Colonel Mustard was killed in the library but how? To make that work in a novel is tricksy, so banging out another novel in nine months isn't happening. Also, as you keep writing, YOU as the writer don't want to be bored. At one time I was a pastry chef, and the day I started questioning my career was the day I made 279 pumpkin pies. That day. Not that week. That day. It was an assembly line. I wasn't installing fuel pumps in brand new cars, but it was close. So as I hone my skills as a writer, I want to challenge myself.

So where do you go? You keep writing and you continue to beef up your skills. How do you do that? Next time.

PS two recent books that I thought were amazing reads are Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (such a fine command of language) and Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman (what an unusual voice; keep reading because it starts with an unlikable protagonist who over the course of the novel wins your heart completely--at least it did mine).

Sunday, April 21, 2019

So What Happens After You Can’t Sell a Book? Part 1

I published my first book in 1999 and my second book in 2005. I have written four books since then—not a bad track record when you’re working full time. I self published two because I couldn’t find an agent to represent me, and am now shopping two more in the hopes of finding an agent. All these books are decent reads and the book on Pauline Pfeiffer is, IMO, excellent. So this will be a series on what I have learned over the twenty years about writing and what you do when you can’t sell a book to save your life.

First we will start with the negatives because this is just the reality out there, and I believe in facing issues head on. The marketplace has changed and whittled itself down to nothing. When Borders was in full swing and Barnes and Noble wasn't hanging on by its financial nails, you’d have a big marketplace to sell your idea. Sure, publishers were looking for blockbusters, but they could also carry a number of books that had decent sales but weren’t going to be the next Harry Potter. More marketplace, physical marketplace, meant, in simple terms, shelf space for one’s book. Then Borders went under and Barnes and Noble continues to struggle (at least in my local Barnes and Noble they seemed to have returned books to the floor as opposed to stocking lots of toys and stuff with higher mark-ups), and the marketplace became Amazon and airports. Amazon treats books as widgets (literally like books are akin to hair brushes), and airports only stock blockbusters and the Oprah sanctioned “thoughtful” books that were supposed to speak to your soul. Your book has no place here.

But, but, you say, Amazon. Well, this is where it gets tricksy, because if publishers want to capitalize on whatever sales they can glean from Amazon (remember their physical--not cyber--marketplace has shrunk to the size of a pea), then it behooves them to take advantage of Amazon’s algorithm. If you buy this book, you will like THIS book. All of this is math, and let’s add another reason why I hate math. It tends to aggregate types of books together, which is fine and dandy to a point, but it also does nothing for that book that isn’t easily categorized. These are the sort of books I tend to like because, hello, this means said book isn’t formulaic crap. And sadly, in the latest push to get books out there, many of the authors I used to love are writing formulaic crap. More on formulaic crap in another post.

Basically if you have two feet of space to sell books, what are you going to sell. The latest J. K. Rowling book or the latest book by an author who has only had minimal success in the marketplace but who is a good writer and could build a following? Or not. There's a bit of the roll of the dice there. Guess who gets the spot on the shelf? This is just common sense. But THIS is the reason why publishers aren't selling books outside of their top twenty sellers because the shelf space has become minimal.

But. But. Amazon has zillions of terrabytes worth of books to sell. How do you find those books? I assure you, I have never turned up in an Amazon algorithm in my life. The books with more sales always rise to the top. It's self-defeating. Your book doesn't sell because it doesn't sell. But if it were in a bookstore and you browsing around the shelves and you happened to be a foodie and, look, there's a mystery about a chef. Hmmm. Of course, you can't do that now because my books don't have space on any shelf at the moment, but certainly there was a time when that was possible.

What the publishers now want is a book by a tried and true author who will have sales out the gate, like Michael Connelly in the crime fiction world. A Harry Bosch novel will sell. It just will. A book by a no-name author with a character whose name is Larry Mosch? Not so much.

What about the independent book stores? They are coming back interestingly enough (and, yes, Amazon is now toying with brick and mortar stores but IMO is only a bigger and better airport bookstore without the planes). And again, limited shelf space.

Where do we go from here?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Deck Is Stacked Against Us

Even though last year was very productive writing wise (I finished the two books I've been writing and why-oh-why did I think writing two distinct types of books a good idea?), it was also a lesson in the house of cards we all inhabit. Come to think of it, perhaps I was so productive writing wise is because my real life was a kaleidoscope of cards hitting me in the forehead, the back of my neck, my nose, and me scrambling to grab as many of these metaphorical cards as I could so that I'd have some shelter from the emotional cold. Escaping to imaginary worlds where I was master and commandeer probably made a whole lot of sense.

So, my husband wakes me up (a year ago pretty much to the day) in the middle of the night and says he's having trouble breathing. We are both the offspring of doctors. Anyone whose parents are in the medical field know that short of cutting open an artery, you do NOT go to the doctor. I knew this was bad. Normally I have to browbeat him to go for even mundane things like check-ups. In fact, at one point he had something wrong that demanded medical attention, and in the period between the last time he saw his doctor and the next, his doctor had gone bald. That will tell you how much he hates doctors.

The long and the short of it is that his mitral heart valve failed and a week later he's having open heart surgery. He sailed through the procedure and the aftermath, and for that we are all grateful. Then three months later my mother dies.

My mother lived on a cul-de-sac and every time I'd turn the corner, I'd say to myself, I hope the newspaper is not in the driveway and the curtains to the living room have been pulled open. And one day the newspaper was in the driveway and the curtains to the living room still tightly closed. She was elderly and died in her sleep in the house that she'd lived in for fifty years. I'm positive she didn't suffer. Her hands were tucked under her ear and she looked like she was asleep. Initially, I thought she was asleep and that maybe she was sick. I touched her shoulder to gently wake her, and she was icy. Dead people are cold. It's a cold so fierce that it travels up your arm and chills your heart.

I was a good daughter, and I can I say that my relationship with my mother is the only relationship in my life where I feel no guilt about what I should have done or could have done. I wanted to be a good daughter. My mother was a delightful person, the most generous person I've ever known. Funny, sweet, the sort of person who was an animal whisperer. Both domesticated and wild animals flocked to her, sensing her gentle spirit. The dogs in heaven are barking in ecstasy. There wasn't a coat pocket of hers that wasn't filled with dog treats. She was honest and didn't believe in keeping secrets. She wasn't a saint. She could form instant dislikes that were immovable (and irrational), which made traveling with her a little dicey at times. Somehow, she had a "thing" for desk clerks. She believed that human connections were the most important thing in this world, and she expected you and others to honor invitations and obligations. Family was everything to her. She was, at heart, a rather timid and shy person, but with a feisty personality, which I know makes no sense but there you are. A woman with simple tastes, every meal was the "best I've ever had in my life." She loved her daughters, her grandchildren, her various mutts, her garden, and her Waterford glass. There was nothing more satisfying to her than to have her entire family sit at her table and eat her food. I will miss her every day of my life.

What I've taken away from these twin events is that the anchors that moor our emotional ships are being tugged at by the tides, so be kinder, more mindful, and determine what matters to you most. It's easy to get surrounded by stuff that doesn't truly matter (which is only hammered home when you have to clear out a home that isn't yours and you discover that your mother had a passion for polyester pants and enough Christmas wrapping to last several lifetimes). You can't catch those cards from falling down on you or stop the anchors from slipping away from their moorings, but you can learn to truly appreciate what you had and have.

I haven't gone all zen. I still loathe Trump with an unholy passion.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Dusting Off (SNEEZE!)

This blog has been moribund for a while because life has been awful. I’ve always had to shoe horn in the writing around the rest of my life. I can’t imagine having the luxury of being able to write full-time. The books that I would write! And the peripheral necessities of being an author these days always get left until last, i.e. blogs, etc. There aren’t enough hours in the day and any promotional stuff always gets punted because I must write another 500 words. And if I have to chose between the 500 words of the current book I’m writing and this blog, then the book always wins out. And then life happened in a big way and everything sort of went to shit. Although the emotional fallout from the last two years continues, life is slowly lurching back to normal, and it’s time to start thinking about rebooting this writing career in a serious way.

I’m going to revisit these two years here and there, sprinkled with tidbits of writing/authoring stuff,  and to try to keep to a schedule whereby I write every Sunday morning before my yoga class. I’ve got several projects in the works, and woke up yesterday with the most KILLER idea for a book.

So, recap, over the last two years:

I have written two books that I’m shopping around.

  • Book No. 1 is another Jane Austen pastiche of Persuasion. I have found to my enormous disappointment that Austen pastiches are not marketable. I suspect it’s because they are deemed too close to fanfiction, but I’ve never received a reason WHY no one wants to buy it (or the previous book). If it doesn’t sell, I will self-publish. Janites are legion. I don’t write these books to make tons of money. I write them because they are fun.
  • Book No 2 is historical fiction, a first-person narrative from the point-of-view of Pauline Pfeiffer. This is the best writing I have ever done. I will move heaven and earth to get this book published.
My husband had to have emergency open heart surgery.

And my beloved mother died.