The Job You Want to Have


If you’re an artistic type, you probably got the link to author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Ted.com about creativity and genius.

It’s an interesting talk, one worth listening to. That’s not what I’m hear to talk about. Today is cross-post day with the Fashionista blog.

So, we’re talking about Elizabeth’s outfit.

I know, I know. She’s a creative genius and doesn’t have extra brain matter to devote to fashion. Like it’s hard or something. One writer friend of mine — who put in hard time in the VERY fashion-conscious world of NYC’s big publishing houses — sent me this link and said “I’m concerned about her outfit.”

This is a big talk after all. In front of a large audience. Filmed, even. Take home story: if you’re going to appear on a ginormous screen, give some thought to the turtleneck/scraggy hair thing.

What’s that? Her appearance doesn’t matter because what’s important is what she thinks, says and writes? Oh but see, she is making a deliberate choice here. She’s going for the scruffy/academic/I-can’t-be-bothered-to-brush-my-hair look.

Everyone makes these choices and buys clothes accordingly. How you dress is a deliberate communication to other people of what you think is important about you.

Examples?

Stephenie “I don’t care about the millions, I’m still just a Mormon housewife” Meyer.

Laurell K. “I think I’m a vampire” Hamilton

Stephen “I don’t care about the millions, I’m just a guy from New England” King

Jonathan “I’m just a scruffy academic, too. And kind of British with it, really” Franzen

Okay, okay, it’s a little snarky. And one day, when I’m a bestselling author and they snap a photo of me at the grocery store in 80’s leggings, a nasty t-shirt and my hair pushed back by what passes for a headband, you can reference this blog post and give me all the grief you want to.

But I can tell you this — if there’s a huge video screen involved, I’m going for professional make-up.

That’s MY genius.

No, but What Do YOU Think?


This morning in the Water Cooler, we had an interesting conversation about contests and a pitfall I’d never considered.

The Water Cooler is a chat room on the website of our Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Chapter. One of our board members is an amazing web designer and she created these various chat rooms for us. The Water Cooler is for hanging out while you write. Sometimes we do timed sessions and then report back word counts or pages edited. Sometimes we throw out problems we’re struggling with, for feedback.

Sometimes we just yak.

This morning, one gal mentioned that she wasn’t working on her WIP — lingo for Work in Progress — but instead doing penance and judging a contest entry. Penance because she’d failed to notice that one of the entries given her to judge was the exact same entry she’d judged for another contest the week before. These are for our chapter On the Far Side contest and everyone is supposed to be done judging by tomorrow.

She turned the entry back in and took another because she “would have had to write all the exact same comments.”

So, it’s an interesting thing. So many RWA chapters sponsor contests that the market is arguably flooded. And yet, these are opportunities unmatched in the business, that you can get your work in front of agents and editors who serve as final judges, but who won’t accept unsolicited submissions. Some people get caught up in collecting contest finals and wins (one group keeps count and actually gives the person with the most finals in a year an actual TIARA — yes, these are all women). But really, the point is that this is a chance to get your manuscript that much closer to publication.

The real prize.

The editors and agents serve as final judges, meaning that they judge the finalists. As determined by the chapter members who volunteer to judge. And sometimes people from outside the chapter, if the chapter in question can’t get enough volunteers.

Now, many people in RWA belong to several chapters — maybe a local one or two and a couple online groups. So there are two or three contests you’ll be hit up to judge right there. More if you’re feeling generous and volunteer to help another group. The pool of people submitting to the contests is largely this same group and they usually hit as many contests as they can, to maximize their chances.

There’s a word for this syndrome.

MFA programs have been accused of producing literary clones. (I tried Googling “MFA Syndrome” to give you a good link to an article, because I know I’ve read a couple, but all the hits were in other blog posts. Hmmm….) The academic/MFA environment produces literary writers who get university posts to teach MFA programs.

Right! Incest.

And we all know what the product of incest is. Lethal mutation at worst; reduced heterogeneity at best. Reduced heterogeneity in biology leads to weaker individuals, for those not up on their genetics and evolutionary biology.

There have been complaints that the contests are past their prime. That the agents and editors don’t request full manuscripts as much. That they aren’t making as much money for the chapters.

Maybe we should think about doing something different.

Houston, We Have a Plot

Yesterday’s post left our heroine (that’s me) fretting about whether her novel has a plot.

And yes, I know most writers out there would worry about this at some point before they, oh, say, finished it, polished and sent full manuscripts to agents and editors.

Hey, I follow my own path.

But here I am, coming up with a more conclusive ending at the behest of one agent and it started to niggle at me that maybe I didn’t have an actual plot arc. So I started the online plotting class on Monday, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Loglines first, now two-word descriptors and mottoes for the main characters. The latter was more fun than the former.

But I’m impatient.

I’m 70% through my revision and I have two more weeks at home before I enter a five-week cycle of business road-trip hell. I seldom get much in the way of writing done when I’m on the road. Which bites, but there it is.

I want this revision done done done before October 18. Mark your calendars.

Feeling this pressure, last night I went to Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog. She’s the very dramatic blond above. I met Alexandra at the RT Convention and caught the tail end of her workshop on The Index Card Method of viewing story structure. She’s primarily a screenwriter, so she thinks in terms of scenes and movie structure. Which, particularly for genre, can be a really useful way of approaching a novel. I didn’t see much of her workshop — it was one of those deals where I figured I know how story structure worked (ah, those blissful days of ignorance) and I only popped in because the other session I was in ended early, and there she was, talking passionately and tacking up and tearing down index cards from the carpet wall, while the next session trickled in.

But what I did hear was fascinating and I gleaned enough to get that she has the whole thing up on her blog.

So, last night I worked her method.

The good news? I have a plot! Who knew??? At least my Act I, II and Midpoint climaxes happen very nearly at the exact pages she says they should. Apparently that Liberal Arts education of mine managed to shape my consciousness enough for story arc to sink in without my knowing it. (This is, by the way, based on story arcs as in plays developed in Ancient Greece.)

Oh, yeah — the bad news? Well I have no discernible climax in Act III. Oops. And that agent, bless her heart, said I needed a more conclusive ending. Hmmm. How about an ACTUAL ending, Jeffe?

Alas.

But now I have a strategy. All this foreplay is now leading up to something.

Just wait — you’ll see.

(12 days and counting.)

Full Moon on the Rise


I’m taking a plotting class.

For the second time now. Not as in, I flunked the first time so I have to take it again to get a passing grade for my major. That was Immunology. Why Immunology among all those hard-core pre-med courses I took? I have no idea. No one knows which heel is the one that didn’t get sufficiently dipped, I suppose.

No, this is a different online plotting class that I’m trying because I keep feeling like I should learn how to plot better.

And no, this has never been feedback on my book, that the plot has to be stronger. I think I have this idea that if I learn to plot, everything will be much easier. See, the RWA folks are all about plotting vs. pantsing. In fact, they ask you that after they ask your name and where you’re from at receptions. The first time someone asked me, I couldn’t even figure out what word they were saying. “Pantser” is a person who writes by the seat of her pants, rather than plotting out the story ahead of time.

I’m not fond of the term, frankly.

I dropped out of the first plotting class because I hated it so much. They had us start with loglines, which is basically your pitch line. “A beautiful young girl, abused by her family, sneaks into a dance where she captures the heart of the local charming ruler. Afraid that he’ll spurn her once he discovers her base origins, she flees, forcing him to search for her so they might live happily ever after.”

That kind of thing.

And my deal is, I don’t know how you can know what the story is about until I write it. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write essays the same way. And these blog posts. You can probably tell that half the time I don’t know what my point is. I start with an image or an idea and talk about it for a while. Sometimes I make it to a point, sometimes I don’t.

When I *do* find a point, it’s a wonderful moment. My friend, Craig Arnold, now a dead poet, which he might actually find kind of amusing, taught me a way to think of it. I think it was the Chinese, he said, who talk about the moment the poem “opens its eyes.”

I live for that moment. Which I suppose makes me a crazy writer, even if not a cinematically worthy one.

Starting with the logline is, to me, like starting with the moment the story opens its eyes. Which feels fundamentally wrong and backwards, like I’m jumping to the end without having earned it.

Like all ventures that can end in a thrilling reward, there’s also doubt and fear. Which is probably why I keep thinking I should learn to plot. Just in case. So I started a second class. And we’re starting with loglines. I’ll give it a few more days.

Prophylactic heel-dipping, as it were.

Simple Pleasures

Some complain that Teddy doesn’t get much press.

And it’s true, she gets much less attention, writing-wise, than Isabel. Lately. Teddy did get her own entire essay once, that was published in The Raven Chronicles, lo these many moons ago. I also notice that I don’t have a previous post label for Ted, so she is currently neglected.

It’s the price the low-maintenance cat pays.

Teddy just turned 16 and her favorite activity is sleeping. Sleeping in the sun. Sleeping on the dog bed. Sleeping between David and me at night.

But best of all is sleeping on the big blue exercise mat.

I don’t know what it is exactly she loves about it, but when David gets the mat out, Teddy beelines from wherever she is — and this is not a cat who beelines anywhere — to get on the big blue exercise mat. And love on it.

She rolls on it. She rubs her whiskers. She drools. She likes to gently bite the edge, but David stops her and makes her get off if she won’t quit. You can see here that she especially loves to rest her cheek on the velcro edge.

Teddy is a cat of simple pleasures. Isabel believes Teddy hung the moon, and it’s likely she did. Just to see how beautiful it looks, hanging in the sky.

Your Local Bookseller

I love bookstores. And libraries.

I suspect all writers do, because we all started out as readers. My mom would take me to the library every Wednesday afternoon where I was allowed to check out five books at a time. (My mother’s rule, not the library’s.) I would have to make those five books last all week. Wednesdays became my favorite day of the week.

Then I started getting an allowance and was old enough to go to the mall by myself and I discovered bookstores. When you could buy the book and keep it forever and read it as often as liked, at least until it fell into tatters. Not that I didn’t have lots of books, but now I could have the ones I picked out for myself.

Even better, the bookstore people were as smart as the librarians, but they could talk without whispering and could show you new authors you’d never heard of!

Everywhere I visited or lived, I would check out the local bookstore. It was part of the character of a place for me. I liked talking to bookstore people. When I began to write, and my own book was published, the independent bookstore people were the ones I turned to. My favorite local store sponsored my book launch party.

All of this is on my mind because Neil Gaiman referred to this blog post of his via Twitter.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll want me to just tell you what it says so you don’t have to go read it. Though it’s an interesting read.

Basically an independent bookseller is castigating Gaiman for a free Harper-Collins download and accuses Gaiman of not caring about the survival of booksellers. Which Gaiman refutes. He also says, and this is what’s interesting to me:

My local bookshop (now deceased) was physically arranged so that finding a book and then buying it was harder than walking around around the shop and going back out again; the bookseller mostly sat at the cash register in the middle of the shop playing online chess, and he tended to be unhelpful, vaguely grumpy and to treat people who wanted to buy things as nuisances (he was nice to me, because I was me, but still); he didn’t stock paperback bestsellers because “people could always go to Wal-Mart for those” and when the she shop closed its doors the final time they put up a note on the door saying that it was Amazon.com that had driven them out of business, when it manifestly wasn’t — it seemed to me that they didn’t work to entice people into the bookshop (which is what those paperback bestsellers were for), and didn’t give them a pleasant experience when they were there…

I knew exactly what Gaiman’s referring to. David and I even spent time helping a young, enthusiastic manager of a local store rearrange the shelves to prevent this exact situation. The owner for time out of mind, put the shelves back the way they had always been.

The young, enthusiastic manager was terrific at selling books. She learned me and what I liked. She became like my crack dealer, luring me to the shop with books I couldn’t resist. She would call or email me and say “Such and so author has a new book out next week — I knew you’d want it, so I put it on order.” And, of course, I couldn’t resist. She passed me review copies of new books to read and give my opinion on. She asked customers who were fans of particular genres to set up recommended reads tables. When I did my taxes, I noticed that a huge chuck of my book purchases went to that store.

Of course she didn’t last. And now the owner has everything back the way it always was, the recommended reads are only “literary” ones and I stopped buying books there. Amazon was faster, easier and more fun.

What I’m thinking happened is this: back when I discovered bookstores, those were the only places to buy books. I was happy to get whatever they threw my way. Then came the BIG bookstores and they were like the candyland paradise in Charlie and Chocolate Factory — everywhere you stepped, you could simply pluck a wonderful book off the shelf. Then came Amazon, where you could access paradise without leaving your house.

I love bookstores. Always will. But the bookstores no longer always give me what I want. I don’t think the solution is for them to try to change me.

Welcome Tabitha!

Yesterday, we made a wish.

And it was granted. Tabitha Claire Beck was born in the early afternoon on October 1, the 40th anniversary of my father’s tragic death.

I was bemused to write that Alison, Tabitha’s mother, is my stepsister-in-law. My own family is so small now that there are very few people in it who are not step- or -in-law, in some fashion. I am a stepmother and step-grandmother in one direction, and a step-sibling and aunt in another.

The beauty of the blended family.

Some people have enough in their core families that they don’t have to let the steps and in-laws in. They keep them on the outer fringes. Forever not-exactly-family.

But those of us with dwindling blood families are grateful for the chance to blend. And in this case, for new blood to change our luck.

For 40 years, October 1st was our bad luck day. A day of car wrecks, broken hips, broken elbows and death.

Now it’s Tabitha’s birthday. Blessings on us all.

October 1

Those of you who know me, or who read my book, which is pretty much the same thing, know that today’s topic is inevitable.

Today is October 1st. Long a bad luck day in our family.

So, for those who don’t know the story — judging by my sales for Wyoming Trucks, there are a lot of you — today is the touchstone for it.

Many years ago, before the turn of the century, back in ththere was a young woman who married an Air Force fighter pilot. There she is, posing on one of the planes.

A paragon of sixties loveliness.
After a few years — five years of fertility worries, actually, but that’s another story — a baby came along. Not a paragon of loveliness, but reasonably cute.

Alas, the story is a sad one. October 1, 1969 rolled around and my dad died when his fighter plane crashed, along with his wing man.

I’ve written about it before. How my mom and I found the field where they crashed, the trees still broken off halfway up, 25 years later.

Other things happened on other October 1sts throughout the years, some greater, some minor. None as significant as this one. But enough to keep us careful of it.

We‘re hoping that will change.

My stepsister-in-law, Alison, is checked into the hospital now, to have her first baby.
There’s sorrow around this one, too. My stepbrother, Davey, lost his mother to cancer a few years back. And Alison’s mother is now fighting serious health problems.

My mom and Dave will head out to help with the new baby tomorrow. My mom will be playing grandmother for the duration.

We’re hoping the baby will be born sometime today.

The Cat Who Walks by Herself

I said to David last night that it’s very tempting for me just to tuck in here with him, in our house in the country where I know practically no one.

This was after he didn’t mind me jumping up to take a picture of the moon after he’d made love to me in a particularly sweet way, because I was feeling all distressed about a social conflict. (Sorry if that’s TMI — just keep going, I won’t do it again.)

Some philosophies promote the idea of becoming a hermit. The whole fantasy of living alone in a cave or on a mountain top. Or even in a cloister with a lovely vow of silence.

I come by this naturally, as an only child. I love to be by myself. It’s soothing. A friend once argued with me that I only like to be alone because I don’t have to be. Meaning that I have a partner where she didn’t. I could see her point, but I don’t think that’s the case.

In fact, David is a miracle of a person for me because being with him feels as good as being alone.

I think it’s a harmony thing. I have friends that draw energy from social interaction. They thrive on it and spiral up ever higher. For me, it’s a drain. I can do it for a while, but after a time I have to be alone to recharge.

But I think the hermit thing is a cop out.

The way I see it, we’re all here on this planet, crammed together, to learn something. And the something clearly involves interacting with each other. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so damn painful. And joyous, too.

It’s a funny world now. Though I live out in this quiet house and frequently see no one but David and the fur family all day — and yes, I love love love it — I talk online to many many people. Some friends, some acquaintances. It’s almost like being on campus again. Some people I just wave to. Some say something funny as we pass on the sidewalk. Others I sit down and have lunch with. It feels like a full social day.

And, as you probably suspect, I love that I can turn the connection off again, too.

Hey — at least I’m not doing the hermit thing!

Burning Words

This is banned books week, for any of you who’ve been under a rock.

Hey — even *I* know about it, so you have no excuse! In honor of the event, I picked a banned book from the recent list that happened to be one of my all-time favorite books, ever, to enjoy a little sunshine here. And yes, I read it in high school. (Of course, I also read The Joy of Sex in 6th grade, so I’m not a good case-study.)

Author Jeri Smith-Ready sent ’round this interesting link that shows a map of book challenges. She commented that she found it surprising. I’m betting that she’s surprised there are so many challenges in the liberal East and so few in the conservative West.
I think there are two things going on here:
1) Teachers and librarians in the conservative West are much less likely to rock the boat by choosing questionable books in the first place.
2) The general population are less likely to be busybodies and get in anyone else’s face about what they are reading.
I recall a conversation I had in the wake of Matthew Shepherd’s murder. My friend, a writer, had relocated to Laramie from Boston. She thought the town guilty of allowing the hate crime because Westerners don’t confront issues in the open.
“My landlord,” she told me, “sees me bring women over. I know he can see me bring women over and never once has he said anything to me about me being a lesbian.”
I told her I thought this was a common courtesy thing. You live your life and I’ll live mine.
This is how I feel about books. Leave people be. Even young people. I truly believe that no one was ever harmed by reading. Our minds are meant to take in and filter information and it’s up to each of us to do that for ourselves. Any time we take the step of filtering for someone else, we’re depriving them of some of their humanity.
Not to be confrontational about it.