Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Facts of Life, redux

I spent most of the weekend writing, revising and re-writing my current ms. I’m so deep into that mess, when I tried to think up a blog topic my mind went blank. Then my older sister called and we had a conversation we’ve been having in some form or another for three years now. Yes, three. Many things have changed during that time; her tenacity is not one of them.

I hung up and remembered a blog post I wrote about her back then and wondered whether it would still resonate with me today. It does, perhaps even more so. Because when the words won’t flow and you’re convinced they’re the wrong ones anyway and the whole damn thing seems to be taking forever, I think it’s easier to deal with the frustration if you can find humour in the situation. So here it is (with apologies to those who read it three years ago), my irreverent view of this thing called publishing:

The Facts of Life

I have an older sister. I also have two younger sisters, but I’ll probably get around to them another day. They all live in another state. My older sister (I’ll call her Babs because that isn’t her name and, even better, she can’t stop me) has been calling me on the phone quite a bit lately. Maybe once a week. A noticeable increase from the usual once every month or so. Stoic Minnesotans that we are, that seemed quite sufficient, thank you. And during these conversations she invariably asks how the writing is going. Yeah, silly me, I told her I’m writing a book.

I’d reply with something like: Just fine, thanks. And how are the kids?

So the other day I finally asked her about it: Babs, what is with all the recent interest in my writing progress (or lack thereof)?

Babs [in her bossy yet supportive oldest sister voice]: Well, I want you to hurry up and finish it so it can get published.

Me [after a stunned silence]: Okaay, but you’re asking ONCE A WEEK. Just when, exactly, do you think this is going to happen?

Babs [impatient with my inability to see things her way]: I don’t know. Soon. Next spring?

So after I stopped laughing, I shared with her my take on the publishing business. It goes something like this:

Publishers of mass market fiction are a bit like pimps. Unlike the heroes in romance novels of olden days, they are just not interested in virgins. They want writers who have done it a few times. Writers who can do it consistently, time after time, and on schedule. Writers who can make the next time seem as good as the first time and look good doing it, no matter that they have a headache and hungry kids to feed and a dog grown fat and lazy from lack of daily walks.

Babs interrupted at this point to chide me for not walking the dog.

I continued, undaunted: They don’t care that you really want to do it, that you’re sure you’ll be good at it or at least get the hang of it after a few tries. Enthusiasm and good intentions don’t count.

Babs: But I’ve read some of your stuff and it’s pretty good.

Well, thanks. I think. But teasing and flirtation and short excerpts don’t count. They want finesse and polished technique and proof that a writer can make it all the way through to a completion that leaves the customer satisfied and ready to pay for it again next time they’re in town. And most of all, they want writers who can rake in the big bucks from lots and lots of happy repeat customers.

And the truth is, I’m a virgin with no regular customers. Haven’t even done it once yet. And those publishers, they’re going to want to see some proof. Word on the street is that I’ll probably have to do it quite a few times for free before they think I’m good enough to get paid for it.

It’s going to take a while.

And I’m working on it.

Between. Phone. Calls.

OK, so maybe I got a little testy there toward the end of the conversation.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard from Babs since I explained to her the facts of publishing life as I see them. She’s probably walking her dog and counting her blessings that she doesn’t hear voices.

Either that or she’s devising a way to speed up the whole publishing process. I’m confident she’ll tell me what to do once she figures it out.

Hang on, the phone is ringing…


Filed under laughter, publishing, writing

The music of writing

When my mother-in-law died several years ago, it was decided we would be the proud recipients of her piano. Recognizing the futility of protest — none of us played, it’s not exactly inexpensive to move a piano halfway across the country, never mind that I had no space for the darn thing — I accepted the gift graciously. Some things you do in the name of family peace. And then later claim it as wisdom.

For a while both kids messed around with it, banging on the keys and trying to drown each other out with simultaneously awful versions of chopsticks. My son quickly lost interest. But my daughter, then in 5th grade, began to spend more and more time picking out simple tunes, trying to make real music. So we signed her up for piano lessons.

I decided before she even started that I was never going to tell her she had to practice. If she wanted to do it, fine. If not, end of story.

She had an amazing teacher, a man who had once been a concert pianist with a major symphony and who simply expected the best without demanding it. And it turned out she had a true gift for playing the piano [see above re: wisdom]. Not to mention a determination to get it right that was truly awe-inspiring. There were times I practically begged her to STOP ALREADY because she’d played the same section of notes over and over and over again for an hour and a half and showed no signs of relenting.

Yet she kept at it. She loved it. And she got to the point where she could play an entire song without making a mistake. Yes, it was a simple song, but still. A triumph that sounded a lot like, um, The Star Spangled Banner. And then came the classics. Longer songs with more complicated sections requiring more repetition and even more endless hours of the same notes played over and over and over . . .

You have no idea how much you can grow to despise a song until you’ve heard the individual notes of it played badly and repeatedly for hours on end. This went on for years. YEARS, I tell you. But it made her happy.

When she was learning Variations on the Kanon by Pachalbel, she had George Winston’s sheet music of the piece and she’d take my CD “December” and put it in the CD player so she could play along with him. It was painful. All these years later, I still know Every Single Note of that song. And then came the day she played it all the way through, without stopping, matching him note for gorgeous note. It was so beautiful, so emotionally evocative, I almost wept. Okay fine, damnit, I stood in the next room and cried like a baby.

More songs followed, including Debussy’s Reverie and Clair de Lune. (The linked video of Clair de Lune has fascinating graphics.) And yes, I know Every Single Note of those songs as well. She now plays them beautifully. But this was accomplished only by her putting in hours upon endless hours of hard work and tedious repetition and hitting all the wrong notes on the way to getting them right. Each new song was like starting all over again. She’d take the first dozen notes or so and play those until they shimmered with perfection. Then she’d move on to the next section. And she kept on in that fashion until she had mastered the entire piece.

The point of all this rambling is that somewhere along the way, I realized learning to write is very similar endeavour. You start by determining whether you have a basic aptitude and liking for it. Then, if you’re lucky, you take lessons from a master. You learn to perform simple short pieces. Then you tackle the more complicated stuff, practicing the same few sections over and over and over until everyone around you wants to scream, “Just play a song, already!” But you’re not content performing a simple tune. So you wait, biding your time, continuing to practice each stanza repeatedly, paying attention to the nuances of every note and listening intently to how they all fit together to form a whole. Because you know you are creating a masterpiece.

And you know that once you’re ready, once you can hit each note clearly so it resonates with confidence and passion, people will stand in their kitchen, holding a forgotten spoon dripping spaghetti sauce onto the floor, tears of joy streaming down their face at the sheer beauty of your music.

So I’m practicing. Frustrated and despising my efforts yet enduring the tedium because I recognize its necessity. Writing and writing and re-writing . . . until repetition becomes proficiency and perhaps turns into artistry and I can hit Every Single Note. Clearly and with passion.

Be patient. Mastery takes time. One day soon, you will listen to my song and weep.

With any luck, they won’t be tears of bitter disappointment.


Filed under creativity, deep thoughts, writing

Welcome to my new blog!

This a short test post, just to see how things look over here. So far, so good. Maybe. The place echoes and seems kind of lonely, albeit clean. I’m sure that will change.

Come on into the comments section and chat a bit. I’ll check in with you all once I’m done decorating.

EDIT: Wow. I just imported three years’ worth of prior blog posts and comments from Blogger. And it looks like I didn’t break anything. This is pretty exciting, if you must know.


Filed under blogging

Time to do blog crafts!

Okay, I need advice. Now that life has calmed down somewhat, I need to do something about this blog. I’m going to be creating a WordPress blog with multiple pages, one that will look more like a serious writer-person website and will also, I hope, appeal to readers.

But I suspect the reasons I visit certain websites are different from the reasons non-writers enjoy (or dislike) particular sites. And since those of you who read this blog are avid readers as well as some of the smartest people I know, I thought I’d ask you:

  • What do you like/dislike about author websites? What features do you enjoy and which just irritate the heck out of you? 
  • What keeps you coming back? What makes you visit the site of a writer you’ve never heard of?
  • Any suggestions for things you think might help me attract new readers (without being annoying)? For instance, I’m thinking about featuring a quarterly email newsletter (with news, duh, but also maybe short stories or an on-going series, perhaps even pictures?) and urging subscribers to share it with friends — do you subscribe to author newsletters and, if so, what do you enjoy/dislike about that? 
  • Is it useful if an author provides sidebar links, do you ever click on them and which ones? 
  • Do you find it entertaining when authors have guest bloggers and why/why not?
  • What am I not considering that I should?

I realize what you probably want most is to know when the book is coming out, and I’m working on that. But I also need to do this and I want to do a good job of it.

Feel free to post links to author sites you particularly love and I’ll go look at them (if you don’t give me a link, I might not be able to find it).

I recently read this blog post by author Ann Aguirre addressing the topic and she covers quite a few of the basics, with more feedback provided in the comments.

And that’s very helpful. But I want to know what you all think. I can promise there won’t be music or things that flash. Or pink. Beyond that, I’m open to suggestions.

Enjoy the word verifications while they last . . .


Filed under blogging, marketing, reader opinion