Monthly Archives: November 2009

We’re looking at different horizons

My daughter sent me an email the other day, telling me about her boyfriend’s Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony:

…the guest speaker was Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, so that was pretty cool. His two main messages were: no matter what you’re doing or how unimportant it may seem, it’s important to learn how to do it well; and try to find something you love doing so that when you’re old and retired you still do it because you love it so much you can’t stop. Another fun thing he said was “think outside the box…but know what’s inside it too.”

I read that and thought, This Smithies guy may be a science geek, but he understands what it means to be a writer. And that’s when it hit me, when I realized just what exactly has been irritating the hell out of me about this whole debacle with Harlequin and its new vanity press.

Everyone is missing the point.

People have claimed to be stunned and perplexed by the swift decisive condemnation of Harlequin’s vanity press and its stated intent to steer rejected writers to its coffers. They’re confused by the vehemence of writers who are angry and indignant. A few writers have even said they’re angry but can’t quite put their finger on why. Yet everyone has been busy speculating.

I’ve read a variety of reaction from people on the publishing side of the business, very smart people whose experience and opinions I’ve come to respect. I’ve read blogs and comments from writers, including those who are published, not yet published and self-published. Readers have weighed in as well.

Some people have concluded the furor is due to an inability or unwillingness to accept change. Others think it’s because Harlequin betrayed their brand or presented the change ineffectively. Others fear readers will become disillusioned by a glut of newly inferior books. Some writers worry their work will be diminished in the eyes of those who might see no difference between it and that of those who choose the vanity press route.

Disturbingly, much of this rhetoric also has a subtle yet pervasive overtone that presumes most unpublished writers are rather dim-witted uneducated fools in need of protection from blind ambition and who will be easily duped by the lure of a vanity press.

I’m tempted to say, “Bullshit on all counts.” But that sounds so rude. Besides, it’s not that these people are wrong, necessarily, so much as that none of the commentary really addresses the heart of the problem.

The truth is, most writers I know are cautiously open to the idea of change in publishing, especially if it means getting their work into the hands of more readers. Most writers I know don’t give a rat’s ass about Harlequin’s “brand” and whether they change it, however inelegantly done. Most realize full well that books (we’re talking fiction here) produced by a vanity press and lacking marketing and distribution won’t ever make it into the mainstream of readers and will be read only by a handful of the writer’s friends and family members. And the vast majority of writers I know are already quite aware that vanity presses exist and are not about to be deceived into subjecting their work to that process. Really.

So, why the anger and condemnation?

Writers give all sorts of advice to other writers. It varies widely and usually comes with the disclaimer to pick and choose what works for you, disregard the rest. But there is one consistent message you will hear from every single writer who has achieved publication. Every single one of them will tell you about their multiple rejections, about the quantity of books they wrote and the number of years it took before they got published. Every single one of them will tell you the same exact thing: Don’t give up and don’t stop writing. Your work will improve with practice.

This is not mere hopeful wistful dreaming or a platitude to soothe desperate yearning (yes, that’s how writers have been characterized, of late). It’s a simple fact. Look at the backlist of any writer who has been around for more than a few years. Pick up any early book and compare it to something recent. There will be a difference, a distinctive improvement in quality but also in tone and confidence. Writing improves over time.

Writers know this. We accept it for the truth it is. In spite of what you may have heard, most writers are levelheaded, clear-eyed professionals who know hard work and time spent learning and practicing craft are the bricks paving the path to publication. Unfortunately, in our impatience and inexperience, we tend to misjudge the length of our individual paths.

This is why what Harlequin proposes to do is so offensive and just plain wrong, regardless of what they call it. Have you read the verbiage on the website of their newly renamed Dellarte Press? It claims to be all about you, the writer. It talks about the next chapter on your journey and achieving your dreams and indulging your passion. About taking control of your dreams and not wasting your precious time. About reaching your goals with the book of your dreams.

Oh please. Harlequin and their new business partner have missed it by a mile if this is what they assume to know about our “dreams.”

Sure, there are writers who are exceptions, and good for them for making their own informed decisions and realizing a different dream. But for most of us, the “dream” is not just to hold a book in our hands. The “dream” is not merely to see our name on a glossy cover.

The dream is to be good enough. Good enough to be published, to gain recognition for all our hard work, good enough for our stories to be purchased and enjoyed by readers. Good enough to receive monetary compensation, as professionals.

Here’s an analogy, though perhaps not the best one: Imagine you’ve signed up with a matchmaker, or a dating service if you prefer, with the goal of finding the perfect mate. After a few attempts that didn’t quite work out they suddenly declare you to be unlovable. For your send off, as a consolation, they show you a selection of truly fine wedding rings, since they know that’s what you really want more than anything in the entire world. Aren’t they lovely and sparkly? The more you’re willing to pay, the bigger and shinier a ring you can have. You say, but what about a partner? What about love? They say, oh no, trust us, no one will ever love you. But look, you can even have the wedding you’ve always dreamed about, just pay a bit more. And you say, that’s nice but I was looking for love and a life with someone. They say, sorry, never gonna happen, but look, here are the designs for invitations– it only costs a bit more for those, how many people do you know?

And here’s where the analogy breaks down, because you can’t really make yourself more lovable by working at it. Or maybe that’s just me. But you can and will become a better writer with hard work and practice.

Will you ever become good enough that people will pay to read your stories? Tough question. One for which there is no single correct and true answer. The odds say some of us may never be good enough, yet can’t predict which ones. It’s one of the risks we live with as writers. But there are answers to that question that are wrong and harmful and completely unacceptable and one of them is to tell a writer who is not yet quite good enough, “Here, buy something shiny instead.”

It is wholly inappropriate for anyone, let alone a major publisher, to blithely offer a vanity press as an alternative to — or worse, present it as a step to achieving — publication. It is the antithesis of our efforts and our “brand” as writers, a slap in the face of our professionalism. It’s a message that says, “Not only are you not good enough now, you never will be good enough, no matter how hard you try. The only way you will ever see your work in print is to pay for it.”

Damn it, Harlequin, you don’t know that.

If there is a message that should be sent with every rejection it should be one based on truth and integrity and respect, offered with a genuine tone of encouragement. Perhaps it should be the same message we writers give each other, time after time, without hesitation, without deviation:

“You’re not there yet. Go work on your craft. Practice. Write five more books. Read extensively. Learn all you can from your peers. You will get better. Just keep writing. And please, keep trying.”

We say it because it’s true. Because we understand what it means and what it takes to be a writer.


Filed under deep thoughts, publishing, writing

More from Camp Hale

I’m busy writing, so here are a couple more letters from my Great Aunt Mabel. For those of you who are perhaps just joining us, this is not “me” writing these, pretending to be Aunt Mabel, these are letters that really were written back in the mid-1940s [see earlier post].

The only editing I’ve done is to abbreviate some of the names as initials, mostly those of officers, though I am sorely tempted to add a few paragraph breaks. But paper was scarce and they used every inch of it — this is exactly what the letters look like. Judging by the dates, I get the sense she wrote each letter over the course of the month, adding on as she found time and had more to say.

Back to writing for me. And hoping that in 60 years or so, someone will find my words to be of interest. Enjoy!

Camp Hale
U.S. Army Ski Cantonment
February 11, 1943
2:45 A.M.

       This is my 7th night on Night Duty. 8 more to go. We stay on only 15 nights at a time and that is long enough of 12 hour duty. It isn’t half bad – in fact I rather enjoy it. The only trouble is you don’t do anything but sleep and work on this shift. Before I went on nights I was a patient in the hospital for six days with a sore “Pando” throat. I had it for several days before and worked but when my temperature was elevated they put me in for a rest cure. Gladie got the measles. We have to be on duty at seven P.M. I have three wards to look after. There is a ward boy on each and I have decided that a good one is worth his weight in gold or silver or whatever else is valuable these days. They really are a great help. Ward 12 is orthopedic.. a back injury – a fellow who got kicked by a mule. Several knee injuries and fractures. Most of them are ambulatory. Ward 14 is a surgical ward.. that had always been my pet ward. Have a couple of new surgicals as of yesterday – a hernia and an ingrown toe nail – big stuff!! Last night we had an emergency appendix – spinal. They do most everything under spinal. They brought a Sailor in off the train with an arm infection.. a Sailor of all things! He needed quite a bit of attention – such as getting his arm all fixed up with hot packs – sulfathiazole – forced fluids etc. Guess the boys thought I was taking too good care of him – they were all more than kidding us. Then to top it all off – he is from Chatfield… so I asked him if he had ever heard of Rochester. Then the boys just knew for sure they wouldn’t get any more attention tonight… the Navy had taken over Camp Hale! Ward 16 is the woman’s ward. Wouldn’t you know it – they’d have one even in the Army! We have 10 private rooms – use them for nurses as far as they reach. I make rounds several times to all three wards – feel like Florence Nightingale herself, walking through those big wards with a none too bright (at times) gov’t issue flash light. Often I expect someone to go “Boo” at me out of the dark but no one has as yet. Guess they are too glad to have a nurse come around. I find them sleeping in the funniest positions – sometimes I’m almost sorry I looked! But the main thing is to find them sleeping. They all wear gray p.j.s (gov’t issue) and red bath robes – when they wear one. I know for sure it will be a treat to see a man with civilian p.j.s on again ! We have so much snow. Everything is covered. Sometimes it thaws a little during the middle of the day and the snow is swell for snowballs. The icicles continue to fascinate me. They are so huge. They say it can snow here all the year around. See where shoes are being rationed. I feel quite at home. I must transplant easily – like a dandelion or some such weed. Wonder if they put me over in Siberia if I’d feel right at home.

Camp Hale Colorado
March 4th, 1943

       Beginning this month the girls on nights have to work a month instead of 15 nights. I went back to my favorite Ward 14 when I came off nights. We had to take an overflow of orthopedic patients on account of having to turn Wd 12 into a nasopharyngitis ward. Yesterday I thought for sure they had had open season on the 87th for we got so many sprains and fractures. Capt. B wondered if some mountain had fallen down on them. One day we actually had a urethral dilatation- imagine! He had a catheter in for a while and when Capt. B asked me if I thought I could fix up something so it could drain into a bottle alongside the bed I sort of chuckled inside to myself. He should see all the contraptions I have fixed for such – in a row! It isn’t so easy here of course for you about have to make some of the equipment yourself. We make our own dressing and keep up the supplies. The patients help… Hernias stay in three weeks and by the time they leave you sort of hate to see them go if they are good. Last night the R.C. had a movie for us – a training picture showing the importance of not telling any military secrets etc. It was rather gruesome. We went to Pando to the only Notary in the place to have him notarize our State Income tax. We found him in the Administration building and he very pleasantly did it for us. We were so happy about having our tax on its way and off our hand that we celebrated by having P.M. coffee in a cafe there. Then we shopped at the General store – crackers and cheese. Pando is some place! Right now it gets very muddy during the day – and I mean muddy! There are no sidewalks – you jump over the bigger puddles. There are several buildings now – low one story affairs – some are tar paper covered. The General store is a pretty good size – they have a little bit of everything. Shoe repair shop in the back – also a beauty parlor but very often the water is turned off – water main freezes or breaks or something. They have funny pot bellied stoves – the post office is not much to look at but it serves the purpose. The Administration building is quite large and looks much like the others on the outside. Then of course the Depot. The places where the Civ. population live are awful. We even saw a few trailer houses. Saw “Random Harvest”.


Filed under Aunt Mabel

Taking offense — it’s a gift

You ever had one of those days — that turned into one of those weeks — where no matter what you did, no matter what you said or to whom you said it, it was just inexplicably wrong?

It has been one of those weeks for me.

The kind of week when simply saying “good morning” to a random stranger comes across as an affront that earns you a fierce scowl. Or you say, “what a beautiful day” and someone hears it as an insult to the night, which they indignantly inform you is their favourite time.

Or you think you’re encouraging someone with a hearty, “You go, girl!” and it’s taken as a directive to go straight to hell and not come back. Or you tell a co-worker her new shirt is a good colour for her and she sniffs and replies, “Oh, and I suppose that means all my other shirts are a poor choice?”

People don’t usually react like this. It’s as if the rules of polite behaviour have changed. And no one told me. Is this something we were supposed to set back along with the clocks a couple weeks ago?

Then there are the people to whom I’ve said, “Can’t talk. I’m writing.” Which used to be Just Fine and they’d mumble something vague about calling them later. It is now, apparently, considered to be a great insult. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea.

You know it’s bad when you can’t even get it right with the cat, when telling her she’s a “pretty kitty” results in her turning her back in regal displeasure before she stalks off in a stiff snit to hide for the next five hours.

It’s enough to make you want to hide away too and never speak to anyone again. But even that gets you into trouble. Just try not answering your phone for a couple days. Not that I did that or anything. I wouldn’t dare do that. Again.

Because you get terse emails, “Mom called me. You didn’t answer your phone. Now she’s worried. Call her.”

Or impatient text messages, “WTF? Mom R U there?”

And surly voice messages, “So. You’re just not going to return my call? I hope at least you’re writing.”

At this point, I’m almost afraid to write anything. I’m pretty sure it won’t turn out to mean what I think it means.

And I know — really, I just know — that even this blog post will offend someone. Most likely it will be the three people I have so far managed not to offend this past week. They’re going to come over here, read this, and say, “Well, I was not offended by you this week. What made you think I was? You always misinterpret everything. How can you say you’ve offended everyone? Am I not someone? Am I that insignificant to you?”

I’m telling you, it’s been that kind of week.

How was yours?


Filed under miscellaneous bits

Remembering, paying tribute

AuntMabelMy Great Aunt Mabel was a nurse who trained at the Mayo Clinic and then enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. I thought about her, and about all those who served or are currently serving in the military, during this past week while reading the many tributes related to Veterans Day. And while it is right and fitting that we remember the brave men who fought and died in service to our country, it saddens me that we so often overlook the women who also played a role. They too left behind families and loved ones to travel to foreign lands where they endured hardships and made great sacrifices in the name of patriotism. More than a few of them died serving our country. They deserve a place in our remembrance of history, as well as in our hearts when we pay homage and give thanks.

Mabel wrote dozens of letters and sent them back home while she was in service. We’re not quite sure to whom they were addressed — so many of those who might have known are no longer living — but we assume they were sent to one of her sisters, one of whom was my maternal grandmother.

The letters begin with her first assignment at Camp Hale, CO in January 1943 and take us from there as she was deployed to Charleston, SC to San Francisco, CA to crossing the Pacific Ocean to serve in Australia, New Guinea, Manila and finally Luzon in October 1945. I’ll be posting them here occasionally over the next several months as a tribute to one of the many strong women in my family, but also as a means of remembering a part of history too often overlooked or forgotten. As a celebration of women whose stories are seldom told but whose role was of immense value to our troops and to our country.

Camp Hale, Colorado

Jan. 12th, 1943

         This is the army sure enough and it is everything they said and more. So far we have gotten a tremendous kick out of it all – certainly is different. The place is so new it isn’t completed by a long ways. They are beginning to get more and more supplies now so expect the worst is over. The first nurses came about Nov. 26th and there wasn’t a thing they say. They really started from scratch! All they had was aspirin. They were so happy when they finally got some sulfathiazole. The Corpsmen are a great help and do much of the work and help us raw recruits out of many tight spots.  I landed in a surgical ward and we have a little bit of everything.. hernias, orthopedics, appendectomies, obstructions (I don’t wonder they get such, some of the food is very heavy) spinograms, skull fractures etc. etc. All these ornery mules here raise havoc with many of the men. I didn’t know there were so many mules! We see them go by on the way up the mountains every day. The altitude is a bit rough on some of the newcomers. It is so dry that we about crumble. The water isn’t too bad but is quite highly chlorinated so we have to get used to that. Most everyone get sore throats and colds. “Pando throats” and “Pandomonia”.

Note: Pando is a railway stop town in the mountains of Colorado near where Camp Hale was constructed. More information about Camp Hale and the famous 10th Mountain Division that trained there can be found HERE.

Note: Sulfathiazole is a sulfa drug once commonly used to treat bacterial infections; it has since been replaced by less toxic sulfa drugs (sulfonamides) and other antibiotics.


Filed under Aunt Mabel

Finding truth, facing fear

A while back there was a discussion about fear on another blog (which shall remain nameless, because it’s bad enough to realize you’ve spilled your guts in a place where more than three people can read it — no need to provide a link to the darn thing). The discussion had to do with how fear keeps us from achieving goals and living up to our potential.

So I thought about it and “confessed” that I fear success. And in a way, that’s true. But the more I think about it, that’s not real fear so much as worrying about how I’d handle success — I’m talking about huge success, not the polite kind where you finally get published but your mom and eight friends are the only ones who buy your book — and how it might change my life. And it would, in the unlikely event it ever happened. But I’d figure out a way to deal with it. I’ve survived worse.

Then the other day I was wandering around on the internet and came across a blog about . . . okay, damnit, I can’t remember exactly what it was about. Or who wrote it. I’ve looked but can’t find it again. It was in the same vein of encouraging writers to face and overcome their fears in order to become more confident writers. If you find it, let me know and I’ll link to it. It was good.

The post included a quote about fear that rang so true it stopped me dead in my tracks. And then, typically, I got distracted by something shiny and forgot to bookmark the blog. It took me forever to find the quote itself, since I didn’t remember it verbatim. Here it is:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson

There’s more to it but I’m not going to quote the rest, partly because it has religious overtones that make me uncomfortable, but mostly because this first part is what hit me in the gut and whispered, “That’s it.” That is exactly what I fear the most. Not success, per se, but my own power. The fear that I might be, through my writing, “powerful beyond measure.” Just saying it makes me cringe. [Insert standard disclaimer here about how fear is often irrational.]

I’ve had a few days now to mull it over and I think this is the reason my writing lately feels flat. Uninspired. Lackluster and tepid. I’m at the point in the story where big things are meant to happen, where powerful emotions are evoked and characters do and say significant memorable things. Instead, I’ve been pulling my punches and avoiding anything too strong or meaningful. Not on purpose, no writer does that deliberately, but subconsciously.

This fear has apparently set up a filtering barrier between my brain and the page. It has its own little monologue going on up there: “C’mon, who are you to presume you have something significant or meaningful to say? Who are you to provoke the thoughts and emotions of others? Who are you to think you can write something daring and different? You want to get published, you’d better play it safe.”

For months I’ve been thinking I’d lost the ability to tell a story (if I ever had it). But I now suspect I’ve simply been hiding from myself, from my own power.

Oddly enough, recognizing and acknowledging that fear has given me a sort of “permission” and the determination to embrace it. Which I believe was the entire point of the blog post first referenced above. It just took me a while to dig deep enough — via a superficial surfing of the web — to get at the truth of my fear.

So. There you have it. I’m still trying to come to terms with the concept — not that words have power, but that mine do. That I do. Beyond measure.

If I’m quiet for the next little while, it’s because I’m trying to find the courage to write through the fear. Trying to create something bold and powerful and true. Regardless of the consequences.


Filed under writing