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.