Road Trip!

We went on a road trip on Sunday.

Headed for parts unknown, but desertish.

One has to be careful with those unknown desertish parts, because here there be dinosaurs.
And something that I first thought to be the Easter Bunny, influenced perhaps by the Easter Sunday stuff all over the car radio. On second thought…. no, I’m not really sure what it is.
But you can buy a lot of petrified wood. Just in case you wanted to.
We escaped the dinosaurs, weird monuments and petrified wood lots and dropped down out of the mountains.
First sign of warmer weather? Saguaros!
Followed by palm trees!
The view from our balcony. Yes, it’s a gorgeous warm evening. Lovely.

Standing on the Shoulders of the Little People

The lilacs are just now starting to pop. The air is warm and still. Spring at last!

This morning at the gym, the 7am Zumba class was well under way when we left. Lots of people show up for this class – easily thirty every day. Possibly more. We walk past the windows and they’re in there, dancing and smiling. It’s clearly an exercise people love to do. Always a good thing, I think.

Not everyone does.

I used to teach a Tai Chi class at the Senior Center. People loved that class, too. At least, at first.
They glowed and smiled, learning the movements, practicing the graceful form. Then my teacher, the head of my school, would come visit and tell them Tai Chi wasn’t good for older people. That studies have shown that *anything* that gets a person up and moving around improved their health. Tai Chi Ch’uan didn’t have anything special, he’d tell them, unless they did it right. According to him, they could never do it “right” because it’s a martial form and unless they learned it for combat, it wasn’t real.

If you read martial arts magazines (which I don’t recommend in the least), you’ll see a lot of this kind of attitude.

As you can imagine, many of the seniors would not return after these lectures. My teacher said that was good, weeding out the weak. He took pride in his school, his students and himself by elevating us in comparison to everyone else. Himself most of all.

The last couple of days, people have been abuzz about Jennifer Egan winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Lovely to see a woman writer win such an honor. However, the excitement quickly turned sour following this interview in the Wall Street Journal, where she said:

My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?

As one of Egan’s erstwhile fans, Jamie Beckman points out:

When she says “the Harvard student,” she’s referring to Kaavya Viswanathan, a very young novelist whose first young-adult work of fiction, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, plagiarized veteran chick lit authors Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Megan McCafferty. The book was pulled from the shelves by publisher Little Brown and Company, and Viswanathan’s contract for a second book was canceled. It was ugly.

The remarkable part of Egan’s exhortation – the thing that has the literary community beyond dismayed – is that Egan seemed more bothered that the young woman chose “banal and derivative stuff” to plagiarize.

This attitude is far from new. There has always been, and perhaps always will be, a contingent of writers who seek to elevate their work from the banal and derivative stuff – however they might decide what that is. Usually it’s by dismissing entire genres, completely disregarding that there’s good quality and poor quality in everything. Usually the person doing the dismissing has never sullied themselves by reading any of that “stuff.”

I suppose this is part of our society, that we seek to validate our own choices by dissing others. Zumba isn’t *real* exercise. The way I do Tai Chi is better than yours – I don’t care if you enjoy it. My books are far more elevated than yours.

I hope Jennifer Egan enjoys this tremendous honor. She just disappointed an awful lot of readers.

Missing the Moon

I missed the moon this month.

Back in September, I promised to do a post each month on the full moon. I’ve hit them all until this month. I don’t really know what happened. The Planter’s Moon rose on schedule Sunday night. At first I was too early to catch it, then I was too late. I tried to photograph it setting in the morning, but the light was wrong. Here’s one of the landscape shots I took while trying to capture the faint moon at dawn.

Some months it’s just not meant to be.

I can say that it’s been ferociously windy lately and so I haven’t been lingering outside. It’s a good thing we haven’t been planting, because the 40- and 50-mile per hour gusts would have ripped the seeds from our hands. Springtime here is windy. I think of it like lake turnover – all that cold air warming up and rising, a turbulent transition. It will settle soon.

In promise of that, this morning is gorgeous warm and still. Everyone is loving it.

Besides, it’s not like any of you called me on it. The full moon. All the blogging advice says you have to keep these contracts, to satisfy your readers. “They” also say you have to keep the same schedule. Then there are the massive exceptions like Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half. She has only posted three times so far in 2011. Her third post, which went up last night, already has over six hundred comments. The love is not lagging.

Instead of the exception proving the rule (how I hate that line), the exceptions prove there are no rules, I think.

And that, every once in a while, it’s okay to miss the moon.

Silver and Gold and Cautionary Tales

I’ve been thinking about the Gold Rush lately. And Baby Doe Tabor.

I grew up in Denver, so this is a natural metaphor for me. We spent a fair amount of time in school studying Colorado history, the modern piece of which pivots around the arrival of all the people chasing gold and silver in them thar hills.

One of my favorite stories was always Baby Doe Tabor. Horace Tabor ditched his first wife, the very severe-looking Augusta, for the very beautiful Baby Doe, whose mother would never let her do manual labor, so she could keep her hands pretty and land a genteel husband. They lived a rich, high-spirited life and many opera houses, banks and other edifices bear the Tabor name. One of my favorite bits of the story is how Baby Doe commissioned her dressmaker to dress the nude statues on their property, because the neighbors were offended.

It’s a cautionary tale, too. When the country moved to the gold standard, their silver holdings lost their value. Horace died a poor man and Baby Doe lived out her days in the cabin next to the Matchless Mine, which had once fueled their fabulous fortune.

There’s a decent summary of the story here, if you’re interested in details.

Those are the gold rush stories – the dramatic ascensions, the terrible crashes. Denver grew from a muddy mining supply camp into a major city with diverse industries.

The whole ePublishing thing has put me in mind of that.

There’s this wild scent in the air that there are fortunes to be had. Everyone is scrambling, in their own ways, to stake a claim. Some are panning the streams, some digging their own mines by hand. People are forming groups, new ePubs popping up all over, mining the writers for their talents. Is gold the way to go? Silver?

I’m sure some people will make lots of money – that’s pretty standard for a gold rush. Others will be the colorful tales, the ones who slog away in the hills alone and trudge into town for supplies, not noticing the gold dust on their boots. Others will be like the Tabors, with a glamorous and prolific burst of fortune that fades into nothing. Such is the nature of all cautionary tales.

It’s easy to look at the Tabor’s story and make judgments. If only they’d invested better. If only Horace had listened to his friends’ advice and diversified. If only they’d seen the money wouldn’t flow in forever and made plans accordingly.

Someone asked me for advice the other day and then ignored it. Their prerogative, I suppose, but I won’t claim it didn’t bother me. I worry about what some of my writer friends are signing up for, dazzled by the promise of riches. It’s true that big gains require bigger risks – but that doesn’t mean the risks should be ignored.

Here are my cautions, for what they’re worth:

1. Track record is more important than ever

This feels like an iconoclastic era, and perhaps it is, but anyone can declare themselves an editor, anyone can set up an ePress in their living room, anyone can have a book printed. The only way to predict the future is to examine the past. If there’s no track record, your risk goes up, fast.

2. Anyone can have a book printed (see #1)

Writers want to see their books in print. We grew up holding books, loving books, seeing them stacked around us on the shelves. There’s a legitimacy to print that we long for. But because anyone can have a book printed, and even carried by a legitimate distributor, that does not mean books will get into the stores. Major publishers are struggling with getting books into stores. Major bookstores are collapsing under their own fiscal weight. Print books are doorstops if they’re not getting into readers’ hands. Pretty doorstops, maybe, but nevertheless.

3. Multi-book contracts are not always good for the writer

For years now when people ask me what I want for my birthday or Christmas I’ve been saying “a lucrative, multi-book contract.” We all want it. It’s the brass ring. In this dream, a publisher promises to publish my next three books and gives me a chunk of money up front, theoretically so I can feed myself while I write them. Now there are ePubs offering multi-book contracts, which has that lovely guarantee, but without the advance. So, now you’re committed to the publisher, without money up front, and possibly no track record. (See #1) What happens if your book doesn’t do well? What if the publisher runs into issues – personnel, financial, legal? (Back to track record.) Now your next three books are tied up, possibly for years. There are plenty of cautionary tales on this one. *cough* Dorchester *cough*

4. Easy come, easy go

Okay, this is the one none of us wants to hear, but that fabulous ePub who loves loves loves our baby novel that everyone else says is unmarketable? They could be wrong in that love. We *want* to believe they’re seeing what everyone else missed, but it’s also possible that the new ePub simply doesn’t have the industry experience to see that it’s not marketable. Also, they might not care. More than one start-up has employed the “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” method of defining what’s profitable and what isn’t. It’s hard to look at this objectively, but bears considering why they want what everyone else turned down. Maybe they’re brilliant visionaries who alone recognize your true genius. Maybe not.

5. Think long term

A writer told me the other day that she would never again publish with a particular ePress because her profits weren’t as good as with another. Sure, this is a legitimate business choice. However, that less profitable ePress has a lot going for it – personnel with established industry track records (I know, I’m harping on this), strong financial and legal backing. I see them as ramping up in a steady, fiscally conservative way that promises much for the long run. Sure, you might not be picking gold nuggets up off the ground, but for a lifelong venture, maybe you don’t need to fill your pockets with gold right now.

As writers, we don’t always like to worry our pretty heads with business. It would be lovely if we didn’t have to. I wonder sometimes, how Baby Doe saw things. Did she try to give Horace business advice or did she while her days away in play and dressing sculptures? Was she bitter that she died poor when she’d once lived so glamorously? I imagine her hands were cracked and gnarled in the end, chopping her own wood, digging through the rocks for silver.

It’s tempting to chase the gold. Without the dream, no one would pack up their lives and head for the hills. Some will strike it rich.

Just remember the cautionary tales.

Good Wishes

Yeah, I get why people are sick of the royal wedding hype.

Yesterday I saw someone on Twitter mention that they’d looked up the date of Prince William’s wedding to Catherine Middleton, just so she could be sure to keep the tv turned off for the entire day. (It’s Friday, April 29, at 11am, if you wanted to know.)

And no, I’m not planning to watch it. It will stream over the interwebs, I’m sure, so I could theoretically watch the wedding at 4 am and the build-up during the night before that. After all, I did last time. A lot of us did. I suppose that’s what has us all conflicted.

Charles and Diana married one month shy of my 15th birthday, back in July of 1981. Like so much of the 80s, everything about it was over the top. The dress, the romance, the freaking glass carriage. That royal wedding was Xanadu and Sixteen Candles rolled up into one giant puffy-sleeved confection of glam.

Yes, I stayed up all night. I had a slumber party, even. My stepdad set up a tv in my room and my best girlfriends and I stayed up, ate junk food and mooned over how princesses really did exist. It was lovely and perfect.

And all a lie.

I think that’s what gets us now. We knew that we didn’t get to be princesses, really. Despite what Disney told us, we learned that no one really got to marry the prince and live in the castle. We were cool with the reality of it. Sure, fine, whatever.

Then Diana did. And she was all we could want in a princess. Pretty, demure, fabulous dresser. They offered us the fairytale ending and we gobbled it up. We gobbled up the Happily Ever After, too. I think, on some level, at 14 I believed Charles and Diana would be forever a part of my life. They’d become King and Queen and have little princes and princesses, an ongoing fairytale.

Instead, we all know what happened. Maybe what’s most surprising is that we ever fell for the fairytale at all.

So, here we are, almost exactly thirty years later. We carry our cynicism like an armor in an uncertain world. The glam of the 80s looks tinny compared to the realities of our polarized country and economic woes. Sure – let William and Kate get married. More power to them. Maybe it will help that they seem to like each other, that they picked each other out, that she’s not a sheltered 20. Maybe they’ll form a good union and become the leaders we hoped for.

Maybe, they too, are cynical and sorry to be that way.

No, I won’t stay up to watch.

(But I will look at pictures of her dress. The giddy 14 year-old in me demands it.)

Magic Circles and Experiments in Physics

We’ve been hiking on the weekends lately. Doesn’t always make for panoramic photos, but it’s lovely and familiar to be up in the mountains and woods again.

The other day on Linda Grimes blog, she listed lessons learned the hard way and encouraged us to share. I mentioned one of my most salient in the comments and thought I’d share here. A bit of a Friday cautionary tale.

Not that any of you would do this.

Back when I was a kid, I went to this open-space elementary school, meaning we didn’t have classrooms or desks. We had chairs and tables for some activities, otherwise we sat on the floor a lot. Every day started with Magic Circle. We sat on the floor in – you guessed it – a circle, and went around discussing the topic du jour.

One day, one of the girls was all scraped up and bruised. She’d wrecked on her bicycle. She didn’t give many details except to say that she’d been riding her bike back from the pool and her hair was wet, so she shook her head to try to dry it. She finished with “Believe me: never shake your head while you’re riding your bike!”

Now, you have to understand the kind of kid I was. Something would never let me take anything anyone told me at face value. I always had to know why. Or how the person knew.

Yes, I drove my mother crazy. She sent me to school a full year early so someone else would have to answer my questions.

Very shortly after that, I’m riding my bike back from the pool, my hair is wet and I remember this story. Why, I wonder, would shaking your head make you wreck your bike? It made no sense to me.

So, I tried it.

And I can tell you the answer: when you shake your head while riding a bike, you lose some of your balance and you twist the handlebars. This drives your bike into the concrete curb, launching you over said handlebars to faceplant on the sidewalk.

Now we all know.

I don’t know if I ever explained to my mom just how I came to wreck on my bike that day.

Really, I blame it all on Magic Circle. Damn sharing.

Resurrecting the Dead Elephant

I might have to revamp my writing file organization system.

Yes, gasp if you will. After 15 years of using the same system, I’m now discovering it doesn’t quite fit the writer I am today. I’ve kind of outgrown it, which is both thrilling and daunting.

Okay, you all know I’m a fiend for organization. It’s that little bit of Virgo easing up on my Leo cusp. If you’re just reading so you can make fun of me, well… okay. But if you don’t have a bit of Virgo, you might get bored.

I keep email folders and then organize my files on the computer into folders with the same names. For lo these fifteen years, I’ve been using three major categories for my writing work: In-Progress, Ping-Pong and Published. In-Progress is divided into Incomplete and Draft, and all have further sub-folders for individual works. My Ping-Pong folder is for works under active submission. I read an article in Poets & Writers when I was first starting out that suggested viewing the submission process as a game of ping-pong. You hit the ball out there, they reject it and pop it back, you send it right back out again. When the ball doesn’t return? Score!

This system worked great when I started out because I mainly wrote essays and short stories, submitting them to popular and literary magazines. It was a fairly straightforward process that moved at a lightning pace compared to the geologic time of submitting novels.

This might be spreadsheet TMI, but I keep an Excel workbook, called Progress Count, which has a tab for each manuscript I’m actively working on. I also have a Submission workbook. When I finished drafting and polishing something, I transferred that one spreadsheet to the Submission workbook, where I’d then track the submission process. And I’d move the folder for it, in both email and on the hard drive, from In-Progress to Ping-Pong.

And yes, it made me happy. I’ll even confess to a special thrill when I moved the folders to Published.

Well, now it’s not so clear.

See, for my first novel, Obsidian, it moved nicely from the Incomplete folder to the Draft folder to the Ping-Pong folder. After being kicked around the gutters of NYC, it came limping home, a battered and dented ping-pong ball. It needed rehab, in a big way.

I should have moved it back to the Draft folder. But I didn’t. I never had gone backwards. It stayed in the Ping-Pong folder, but – and this is a big BUT as all your organization fiends will recognize – I had to move the working spreadsheet back to Progress Count, so I could track the revising. You all recognize the problem here, right?

Right. Non-synchronicity of the filing system.

You can pause to steady your breathing – I totally understand.

I revised. The word count changed hugely. I gamely sent Obsidian back into the volley again. I think someone in NYC stepped on the ball because it just stopped coming back. No score.

Sad, I just left it all in the Ping-Pong file, when really I should have moved all the files to some kind of Elephant Graveyard folder. I started a New and Better novel. I put the past behind me.

Well, now someone is interested in Obsidian. (I know – tentative yay!!). I have detailed notes for revision. I hauled the files out of all the various folders I’d left them moldering in, but I feel like I have no place to put them. Resurrection folder, perhaps? Frankenstein’s Lab?

It lives!

I know this is likely all a bit much, but the upshot is that I’m finding there are more gradations to being a published writer than draft, submission, published. And there’s a certain maturity in recognizing that.

I’m off to create a few new folders.

Yeah, no one knows how to have fun like I do!

How Old Is Too Old?

This New York Times article annoyed me yesterday. Oh, it’s an interesting article (thanks to @wolfsonliterary for tweeting it!), about the inspiration for Suzanne Collins’ young adult Hunger Games series. It’s fun to read as a writer because, no, Suzanne didn’t spring from Zeus’s forehead as a full-grown bestseller. She’s been honing her craft and working as a writer for years.

No, what annoyed me was a toss off sentence in regards to Collins’ first book: “When it was published, Collins was already 41.”

The implication being, of course, that omigod! She was already really old!

I looked up the staff writer of the article and she’s not the fresh-faced 20-something I’d imagined. Perhaps some of her own angst leaked in there. It happens. She might be feeling the passage of years, wondering how much time she has left to do everything she dreams of.

It seems I know a lot of young writers. Perhaps because more young people tend to use the interwebs than older ones. Many of the hot new YA writers are young, too, so that could be part of the surprise with Collins. I hear a pervasive restlessness from the younger crowd, bemoaning the loss of their twenties, lamenting that they’ve hit a milestone birthday without reaching their publication goals, watching the approach of OMG 40! with horror.

The thing is, we’re not football players or ballerinas. Our careers aren’t over at 28. Most writers write their entire lives. And, writing is the kind of pursuit that improves with age. In fact, a number of studies show that the average age for writers to have a bestseller is 50.5.

(No – I have *no* idea why that article is on a golf cart website. I’ve read lots of studies/data like that and that was the first I found. Perhaps they think retirees searching for high-end golf carts might also want to finally write that novel? Could be.)

I went through a stack of notebooks and journals last night, looking for some information for author and writing buddy, Laura Bickle. I don’t really journal extensively, but starting in about 1993, I took notes from writing classes, visiting authors, martial arts and philosophy classes, and wrote down story ideas and research in bound journals. It kind of makes for an interesting chronological mishmash of what I was thinking.

One thing that struck me, though, from those early writing notes, is how much I’ve grown since then. Confidence as a writer, yes. But also in perception, craft and skill. I *know* so much more now than I did at 27. That might seem self-evident, but the novels I write now are not ones I was capable of writing then. It’s exciting to think of what I might be capable of in another twenty years.

By then they’ll have really good voice-recognition software, too. I’ll just lay back and dictate. While handsome men feed me grapes.

What were we saying about fantasy yesterday?