Monday, December 20, 2010

A Banner Year and a Visit from the POTUS

What's this then? Am I going all political on my writing blog for my last post of 2010?

Not in the least. After all, President Obama IS a published author, so there's a tie-in right there.

But the real reason the POTUS's picture is here is because he paid a surprise visit to my kids' elementary school this past Friday. Is that awesome or what? He even read his children's book Of Thee I Sing along with Twas the Night Before Christmas to my daughter Lucy's second grade class. (That's her there, in the pink shirt and snow boots, kneeling down right behind his extended hand.)

Even though we live just a few miles from the White House, the odds of a sitting president visiting our kids' elementary school is no better than it is for anybody else. In fact, when we heard rumors on Thursday that he might be coming, I said, "Yeah, right. Believe that when I see it." But Friday morning we were greeted with legions of cops and bomb-sniffing dogs at drop-off. A short while later, President Obama arrived. By all accounts he was, and I quote, "totally cool."

And speaking of totally cool guys, I've got another picture for you. This handsome gent here is my older brother and only sibling, Col. Andrew J. Lippert, and he is currently deployed to Afghanistan. He's not usually bald; in fact he's got a full and lustrous head of hair, but he recently shaved it all off in support of a fellow soldier's child, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

So, yeah, he's not only SERVING HIS COUNTRY IN A WAR ZONE but also SHAVING HIS HEAD TO SUPPORT A KID WITH CANCER. 'Cause that's just the kind of guy he is.

Yes, of course he's the favorite. Why wouldn't he be? Believe me, I conceded the loss of our sibling rivalry many years ago, my friends.

We're all missing him this Christmas, and no one is missing him more than his equally heroic wife, who's single-momming it until he returns. But I have to say that I'm particularly sorry not to see him during the holidays this year because that glossy dome of his would be a primo target for a high-yield, thermonuclear noogie bomb. (I'll get you when you come back, bro. As I used to say so often when we were kids, stronger and quicker you may be, but you've got to sleep some time.)

And finally, as some of you may have noticed, I recently did a bit of blog redesigning so I could add threaded comments. In the process, I removed the picture of my muse, Ivan.

I know, I know. It's unfortunate. I fully recognize that Ivan is the coolest Russian bear muse out there, and I just wanted to assure you that he's fine, and we're fine -- he's not run out on me or anything, although if he had, this would be the time of year to announce that. You ever notice how many Hollyood couples announce that they're splitting up right before the holidays? You know, because they hope no one will notice.

Anway, like I said, we're as solid as ever, me and Ivan. Why, here's a picture of him, taken just last night at the "Rock in My Pocket" office Christmas party. We had a great time right up until he passed out after singing a round of Russian folk carols. I got him the usual gift for Christmas -- a crate of apples and two bottles of Stoli -- and he didn't get me anything, but he's flat broke and I understand how that is. Being a muse isn't exactly a lucrative career, and besides, it's the thought that counts and he's fed me plenty of great thoughts this past year. Still can't tell what he's talking about half the time, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying our wrestling matches immensely.

So that'll do it for 2010. I want to thank you all for reading my blog this year. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Be kind to yourselves. Hope to see you all back here on January 5, 2011!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Plush Softness of Your Personal Brand

Years from now, I’m confident that my children will be able to sum up my mothering thusly: “There was always plenty of toilet paper in the house.”

You see, it’s my feeling that there are just some things you cannot fail at and still consider yourself a good mother. Routinely running out of toilet paper will land you in the bad mother column every time. So never has it happened and never will it happen. This is the blood oath I have sworn to my progeny.

Where do I fall down on the job as a mother? I don't sit down with my kids and color or cut up bits of paper and glue them to stuff, and I don’t, as God is my witness, string beads. Considering I have all girls, this has been kind of a sticking point, but my daughters have learned this mantra already, “Mommy doesn’t do crafts.” (You want someone to help you build a skateboard ramp? I’m the gal. Friendship bracelets and paper dolls? No can do, amigas.) Perhaps this will fill them with resentment as adults, but that's the chance I take. All I can tell you is, I don’t do no effing crafts.

So for me, here’s the math: Good mothering = no one is ever stranded in the john, paperless, calling out for assistance which cannot be readily given. I am, in a word, reliable. Reliable when it comes to important stuff anyway and honest about the fact that I can't do everything well.

This phenomenon is true of all jobs. No one can do it all, all the time, and if you try, you will land yourself in a deluxe suite at Nervous Breakdown Village. But there are those non-negotiables of every job -- the things you cannot fail at and still carry on believing you are good at your profession. These are the areas where you must focus your energies. After all, you cannot be a cop on the take or a banker who embezzles or a librarian who isn’t slutty and still have people think well of you.

As much as we as writers all hate the idea of having our work reduced to a few descriptors, we engage in this same practice everyday as consumers of literature. You see an author's name and you think things like “profound” or “guilty pleasure” or "that guy who writes creepy children's stories about clowns." Of course, you might also think of nothing in particular when you see an author's name, which would be bad and probably result in your not buying that author’s book.

Even if you haven’t yet finished your first draft of your first novel, you can still ask yourself these questions:

1) What do I need to succeed at with this novel above all else?

2) What are the things I want to be known for as a writer?

3) When people pick up my book in a bookstore, what few adjectives will pop into their heads? Original? Clever? Romantic? Thrilling? ("Oh,God. It's that creepy clown writer. Put that book back down at once, children.")

Most importantly, I need to know why you only keep one measly spare roll of toilet paper in your bathroom. I’m telling you right now, that’s never gonna cut it. We're talking major catastrophe, public scandal, weeping saints -- it's all looming over the horizon if you run out of TP. Do you really want to take that kind of chance? 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When You Get Published, Will You….?

Here’s a fun one, comrades. And don’t you be a party pooper about this. Answer honestly. We're all friends here, so no harm done if you admit that you’re gonna Google yourself hourly or put a ticker on your lawn with the days, hours, and minutes remaining until your book is published. We promise to wait until after you leave before we start giggling and saying, "Can you believe the ego on that one?"


When you get published, will you …

1) put your picture on the book jacket?

2) read your reviews on Amazon?

3) create a book trailer or post v-logs at your website?

4) arrange to do your own promotional events (book signings, speaking engagements, etc.)?

My answers?

1) No. I see no reason to put my mug on the jacket flap. Never once have I looked at an author’s picture and had it positively affect my desire to buy a book. I have, however, looked at an author’s picture on a jacket flap and thought, “Jaysus, this guy looks like a complete wanker” and then NOT bought the book. So, what I’m saying is -- to paraphrase Depeche Mode, which I so often do -- pictures are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.

2) No. I once had the good fortune to work with a fellow who was a well-known magazine columnist. He was a very generous, happy guy despite being the frequent target of some rather harsh criticism about his writing. A piece of advice he gave me was, “Never read your reviews, good or bad.” I’ll do my best to follow that guidance.

3) Not if I can possibly avoid it...or rather, only if I can prevail upon someone who’s talented and who will work for free to create an awesome, professional-quality book trailer for me (wink-wink: you know who you are, my computer animation genius brother-in-law and my equally fabulous illustrator sister-in-law). As for the v-log thing – come on. There’s a reason we’re writers and not spokesmodels. Why take something painfully awkward (yourself) and put it in motion in a YouTube-like setting? Unless and until pity becomes a strong motivating force in book-buying, I'm staying firmly hidden behind my bloggy curtain.

4) Probably. Because I’m a good little author, and I do what my agent tells me to do. If she told me to walk around Times Square in flesh-colored unitard with a sign on my head advertising my book, I’d do it. And yes, of course, if she tells me I have to do any of the things on this list to market myself, then all bets are off, and I will disavow all knowledge of this blog post.

Your turn.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dear Dumb Diary

As many of you know, I grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Minneapolis. My father was a gifted musician and songwriter, but he never had much commercial success and as a result, he hit the bottle hard and then took his frustrations out on my mom.

To escape the household tension, I struck out on my own to pursue my music. For years I tried my best to make it at a local club, though I was constantly bickering with my band mates. They thought I was completely self-absorbed because I wouldn’t play any of the songs they’d written, just my own, and I seemed prone to long, indulgent guitar solos that alienated the crowd….

Oh, wait just a gosh darn minute. That’s the plot of Purple Rain. I get that confused with my own life story sometimes. That probably wouldn’t happen so often if I kept better track of the details of my own history.

Anyway, I was wondering, do you all keep a diary? Or do you see blogging as the substitute for keeping a journal or diary?

I was supposed to keep a journal when I was in grad school, in case I had some fleeting thought or observation that I could make literary hay out of or perhaps so I could someday reflect on the beauty of my day-to-day existence living on shrimp-flavored ramen noodles and Sierra Nevada stout (see, the details are so important now). I could barely get past putting down the date before I got bored.

While I am quite certain that my life was and is just as thrilling as anyone else’s and therefore worthy of being recorded in the minutest of detail, my theory as to why diaries do not appeal to me is that I seem unable to keep things in the order in which they happened, and your standard diary format is all about that: Today I did this and then this, followed by this. That’s just not how I think. I am incapable of remembering or thinking sequentially, serially, or in anything resembling a lock-step fashion, which makes plotting, scheming, and mathematics a right awful pain in the glutes, I tell you that much.

For the record, I do not see blogging and diary-keeping as the same thing. Diaries and journals have an unvarnished quality. They are, in theory, not written for an audience and thus, they closely resemble your inner monologue as much as anything can. Blogging, however, is different. Though personal and perhaps inclusive of some of the details of your daily life, blogs do have an intended audience and for that reason, should be focused and worthwhile for the reader. A diary, on the other hand – I think – is the last remaining territory where where you can dump out the raw, unformed stuff in your brain and perhaps stare at it like a Rorschach blob to see what mysteries it can unlock. Where ME ME ME writing is still permissible.

But does one have time to write books, maintain a blog, AND keep a diary? ‘Cause I don’t know about you all, but that’s a whole lot of writing and occasionally I need to eat.

What do you think? Has blogging killed diary-keeping for good? Are diaries another thing that has fallen victim to the time-crunch we all experience as adults?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Thought I’d do a quick post today before I have to start peeling potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner.

Not that you should feel sorry for me. My husband is doing most of the cooking for Thanksgiving, particularly the turkey. "Roasting large pieces of meat” is firmly on his to-do list along with killing spiders and weed whacking. (What's on my to-do list? Everything else.)

Somehow this came out different
than I was expecting.
And let me give props to the man. He can make a turkey gravy like you would not believe. I swear, if they ever shoot one of those Voyager space rockets out there again to sail beyond the limits of the solar system, they should not only include a recording of Earth’s sounds but also an ounce of this turkey gravy because it's clearly one of the best things ever produced by a member of the human race. (If you're single, you might want to look for this ability in any potential mate. Seriously, people, I just read recently that eHarmony is adding "competent gravy-making skills" as its 30th dimension of compatibility.)

But moving right along, and in keeping with the holiday theme, the writing topic I’m thinking about today was inspired by a Butterball turkey. Specifically, this question: how do you know when you’re done with something? I mean, you do a draft and perhaps realize you'll need to revise in some way but, let's be honest, you hope not. Or rather, once you're done with a draft, you believe as much as it’s possible to believe in anything that it’s done.

Then, of course, only weeks or months later, perhaps after you’ve already started to query it, you realize it’s not finished. You know this because nobody wants to eat that bright pink slab of underdone novel. So you reluctantly confront the reality that you’ve got to shove it back into the oven for another round of cooking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every book came with the equivalent of one of those pop-up turkey thermometers? Then you'd know when your book was done because you’d see the thermometer pop. There! Look! The book is absolutely done. The little red thermometer tells me so. Time to take it out of the oven so others may enjoy this sumptuous literary feast.

Do you all routinely let your first draft sit for a while before looking at it again and assessing what changes need to be made? If so, how long? And if so, where might we all purchase some of your wisdom and patience?

Wishing all my fellow Americans a happy Thanksgiving, and to everyone else, a very joyous November 25th!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Nom de Plume-o-matic

From time to time I’m sure we’ve all toyed with the idea of using a pen name, either because we don’t much care for the limelight or because we write such horrendously graphic, fetishistic, smut-filled horror novels, we don’t want anyone in the PTA to find out about it.

But how do we choose just the right pen name?

I found a couple online pen name generators, but they were pretty lame. You type in your real name, it spits out a pen name at random. BOR-ing. Come on. You know I can’t abide antiseptic randomness when there’s a far more asinine approach to take. So, here you go. As ever, you’re very welcome.

The Nom de Plume-o-matic
(patent pending)

1) Take your mother’s maiden name. Substitute a y for the first vowel and then add an e to the end even if it already has one. I find that you can never have too many silent e’s.

2) Add either your favorite gym teacher’s last name or the plural form of the street on which you grew up.

3) Reverse the two.

4) Are you married? If yes, hyphenate those two names. If no, that's OK, but I think your mom’s starting to worry about you and frankly, so am I. We don’t want to see you end up alone. It happens, you know. If you’re being too picky or whatever. I mean, look what happened to your cousin. Such a good-looking kid and then whammo – dead at 28, killed by a pile of comic books that fell on him in his basement apartment, and all because he refused to settle down or rather, to just plain settle. And do I even need to tell you how the paramedics found him? Let’s just say that if your grandmother sees “auto-erotic asphyxiation” written on your death certificate, she's going to die of embarrassment, and I mean that literally. Stroke or heart attack or whatever else old people die from suddenly. So consider that, Mr./Ms. Too High Standards. Anyway, if you’re not married, drop the second name entirely.

5) If you live on the East Coast, choose one of the following prefixes -- Mc, von, or del -- and put that in front of whatever you came up with on line 4. West Coast people add one of the following suffixes to the end: -ton, -ville, or –burg. If you live in the Midwest, just leave it alone. You people have enough problems as it is, and I don’t want to add to your confusion. (Mountain time zone, you say? Please. There’s no such thing and never has been. Don't be a dupe of the Feds.)

6) Oh, btw, this is now your last name. Start writing it over and over again so you get used to giving autographs in this name. If you want, feel free to also wear a wig or lifts in your shoes if that helps you get into character but don’t expect your significant other to use this name in intimate situations. Well, not without first rolling his or her eyes while muttering, “Oh, for God’s sake….”

7) Have you visited Africa since 1977, eaten tainted meat products from Scotland or Wales, or had sex with a prostitute who visited Africa since 1977 AND ate tainted Scottish or Welsh beef? Oh, wait. Forget that. You’re not donating blood.

8) You’ll now be needing a first and possibly a middle name. All your great literary lions have three names (moi, for example). I’m afraid to tell you this, but you can’t just “decide” to have three names. You have to earn the right to that third or possibly fourth name, especially if you’re not married and therefore have no hyphenated bogus surname. And if you’re not married -- again, your mother and I want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with you that a good hair cut and some decent clothes wouldn’t fix. Anyway, to earn a middle name, answer me this: do you know how to change a tire? If yes, you get have a middle name. If not, you should be ashamed of yourself. I mean, really, unless you have some other vital life skill to rival tire-changing -- say, knowing how to perform an emergency tracheotomy or something -- you really need to work on getting more practical life experience before you go embarking on some high-falutin’ literary career.

9) Choosing your first name... (And before you even ask, no you absolutely may not substitute initials for your first and middle names. Look, everybody does that because they think they’re being all clever about hiding their gender, and they think they’ll be able to avoid reader biases that way. No, no, no – a thousand times no. Have the balls to declare yourself regardless of whether you actually possess balls.)

10) Back to choosing a first name. Pick ONE of the following:

 a) Your childhood nickname (Tippy, Buster, Dorkmeister in the Highwater Pants);
 b) a diminutive of your actual name (Chucky, Tommy, Sissy, etc.);
 c) your favorite pet’s name;
 d) if you’re still on about that gender-neutral thing, fine. Use Robin, Dana, or Chris if you must.

11) If you’ve earned the right to a middle name, help yourself to the name of your favorite Star Wars character.

So what did you get? Please do share your name with us in the comment section below. I need to know it next time I’m browsing my local bookstore for your latest smut-filled horror novel.

(My pen name as generated by the Nom de Plume-o-matic? Baba Jabba von Brown-Schyffere.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Writer’s Prayer

I know y’all are going to be tacking this up on your refrigerators immediately after reading it.

(I don't want to alienate anyone not of the Judeo-Christian heritage, so feel free replace each reference below to “Lord” or “God” with the Higher Power of your choice. If you’re an atheist, just substitute O Great and Powerful Randomness. It still works.)

A Writer’s Prayer

God grant me the serenity to sit my twitchy rear-end
down in that chair once again
and make that cursor move
across the computer screen,
even if the only way I can do so
is to repeatedly apply my forehead
to the keyboard like a chicken
pecking the ground for meal worms. 

Lord, please help me to accept the things
that cannot be changed,
like the fact that the entire premise of my next book --
the one I'm super excited about –
causes most people to either shrug with indifference
or say, “Ooooh-kaaay. Sounds, you know, interesting.
Good luck with that.”

Give me the courage to change those things
that should be changed,
even though I have damn well changed them enough,
and I don’t want to change them again.
No, I don’t.
I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
La-La-La-La-La…I’m not listening.
I’m not listening to that little voice of doom in my head
(and my gut better shut up too if it knows what’s good for it).

Help me to see the difference between something
that’s actually funny and
 lame jokes predicated on esoteric references
to “BJ and The Bear.”

And when I am in the darkest hour of Querying,
walk with me, Lord, and be my rock and my shield.
Also, this would be one of those times
when I could use some serious smiting of my enemies.
May I suggest one of those plague things You do so well?
Or a flood.
 Whatever You’re in the mood for. Feel free to improvise,
 but be sure to make it extra, you know, vengeful,
since vengeance is exclusively Your thing
and not for me to indulge in
 no matter how much I might really, really want to.

Lord, grant me some more of that serenity
so that I might not freak out at my agent
 when she tells me that I need to revise
based on feedback.
Because You of all people realize
that even if that poor woman were getting
an 85% commission on the sale of my work,
it wouldn’t be enough to compensate her
 for having to listen to all my whining.

And lo, though I may walk
through the valley of the shadow of rejection --
which incidentally is a long-ass
and extremely shadowy valley
and not to complain but, geez, WTF?
How about the occasional peak now and again
just to break up the scenery a bit
(just something to think about
-- even You aren’t immune to suggestions for improvement) –
Yes, O Lord, be at my side during these desolate hours
and try not to take it personally when I lash out
at You, the world in general, and all those
who don’t “get me.”

And finally, Lord, grant me the wisdom to understand 
why it is that I do this writing thing,
 because there must be a damn good reason
or else I wouldn’t keep sitting here,
 day after day,
watching that little cursor winking at me
 like it’s in on some big cosmic joke
that I don’t know about.
 Because it’s not all one big joke, right?


Anybody there?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Enemy Between My Ears

I’m so hating my brain right now.

Here’s why: I’m in-between projects at the moment. I finished a manuscript about three weeks back and decided that I should probably take a break. You know, to sharpen the saw, as they say. Besides, I finished the last manuscript on a Friday, and I really didn’t feel like it fit with my Gospel of Slack to go jumping into the very next book the Monday after. I’m not some workaholic literary drone. (Am I?)

Of course, right after finishing this last manuscript, I started getting this itch in my brain. It seems the brain wanted to get going on something new. I argued with it and said, no, man, chillax. We’re taking some time off. But my brain wouldn’t accept that. So what did it do? Did it respect my wishes to take some vacation days? No, it did not. That same brain that I'm now hating retaliated by choosing the wee hours of the morning for generating new project ideas.

I'm prone to insomnia anyway. The minute stress hits my life -- which is pretty much, you know, every day -- my sleep cycle takes a hit. So I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and sometimes lie there for hours for no good reason (no, reading doesn’t help; no, I can’t do crossword puzzles – I’ve tried it all, believe me). During this recent project limbo, however, it’s gotten way worse. My brain has become like a crazed chipmunk on Mountain Dew. 

Hey! Who’s up? Are you up? Cuz I’m up. Let’s talk. What do you want to talk about? I know! You want to hear all 50 state capitals in alphabetical order? No? That’s good because I don’t know them anyway. I do know some stuff other though, like, here’s some random pieces of various pop song lyrics! It’s a mash-up! La la la Baby baby baby ooohh! Whatsa matter? You don’t like The Bieber in your brain at 4 am? Too bad!

And then we’re off to the races. Thrown into all the background noise are useful things that I actually want to pay attention to: bits of dialogue, character back stories, settings, plot twists, the whole shebang. It’s like getting a middle of the night call from your friend who’s out at some really loud bar, just broke up with his girlfriend, and has clearly had too much to drink but insists on going over the mistakes he made in the relationship while at the same time sharing his insights into how he recently solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. You’re kind of enthralled by the prospect of what he’s got to say, but at the same time, it’s late and you wish he’d stop crying.

Well, I guess there’s nothing for it but to get back to work so I can shift all those machinations to the daytime where they belong. Then perhaps my evil, eager chipmunk brain will let me rest.

So much for vacation days, huh?

Man, I have GOT to talk to HR about this sorry benefits package I have. And to payroll, for that matter. They’re taking so many deductions out of my salary, it’s like I’m not even getting paid at all.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Out There: My First Year of Blogging

Wow. Seems like only yesterday that my husband went away on a ten-day business trip, and I, left to fend for myself, decided, “What the hell. Maybe I’ll start a blog.”

It’s been that hazy focus and lamentable lack of drive that has brought me to this milestone one year later.

My goal in starting this blog last October was a simple one. I felt I needed to get myself “out there.” You know what I mean. At first I resented the whole idea of authorial self-marketing. I really felt – and you may empathize with this sentiment -- “For heaven’s sake, haven’t I done enough just writing the dang book?”

The answer to that question is, alas, no. There is more to do – so much more -- and I guess I finally accepted that last fall.

Of course once you’ve had this reckoning and you resign yourself to blogging – or at least resign yourself to giving it a try -- you’re faced with many decisions about what kind of blog you want to put out there for public consumption. As I meandered through the blogosphere, I realized that there were several kinds of blogs offered up by writers at different stages in their careers and also by industry experts: you’ve got the agent blogs that offer advice and/or public spectacle, depending on the personality of the blogger; there are the blogs by editors, some written openly and some anonymously (and snarkily); you’ve got blogs by authors with book deals and established authors who get to talk about their lives, books, and all the cool places they’re visiting on their book tour; and then there is the vast ocean of the rest of us. The aspirants. I'm sure blogs by aspiring writers must number in the billions at this point.

From the outset I knew I wasn’t the type to dump all the details of my personal life into the cyber-landfill for the seagulls to pick over, and my guiding principle was and remains, “Do nothing regrettable.” I initially steered clear of writing about writing because many of you do that so well already, and what could I possibly have to add? Instead, I started what I thought would be a straight-up humor blog, mostly for my own amusement, as I assumed I wouldn’t have much of an audience. Well, one thing led to another, and somehow I’ve ended up with this hybrid humor-writing blog, which just goes to show you that if you keep at it, you'll eventually find your way, perhaps after some initial flailing about. (I probably knew this already, but it’s never a bad thing to have further proof that flailing is a noble art.)

What I discovered in my year of blogging and reading blogs has surprised me. At first I thought, Yikes. Do I really want to hear everyone’s blah blah blah about their struggles to get published? And the answer has turned out to be, “Yes. I very much do.” I happily follow many blogs, and I really enjoy keeping up with everyone’s story. I want for all of you to find success in your writing careers, and I especially love those triumphant posts about writers signing with agents or getting book contracts.

Which brings me to this: the future of this blog. The plain fact of the matter is that all blogs run their course unless you change and adapt. I’m not exactly sure how this blog will evolve in the next year, and frankly, I'm not going to spend too much time fretting about it. I've devloped a loose-cannon approach to self-marketing, and by golly, I'm going to stick with it.

One thing I am very certain of is this: Though the sun may someday collapse for lack of hydrogen to fuel it, the writing life will never stop providing me ample material. Thus, I will blog – and mock -- on.

I want to say thank you to all my regular readers, especially those of you who frequently leave me comments. Because of you, “out there” has turned out to be a very fun place to be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Big Bowl of Assorted Candy

I must begin by offering a heartfelt thank you to Lola Sharp and Sierra Godfrey, two fine, sexy ladies who graciously pimped last week's query post so convincingly that now I have many lovely new followers as a result. Someday I will take you both to Vegas and shower you with Cristal.

New followers, by the way, will receive the official “A Rock in My Pocket” Welcome Pack, which includes this 100 % polyester dickey (pictured left), a 7-day supply of Proactiv solution and a coupon for $10 off your next bail bond. All delivered COD in 6-8 weeks.

I must admit this post is a bit of a punt, because I’m planning a big anniversary post next week to celebrate my first year as a blogger. Hence the mish-mash of topics you will encounter, like…

  • There is way, way, waaaaaay too much gratuitous use of AC/DC music lately. I’m thinking in particular of this new Will Ferrell/Tina Fey movie, Megamind. I mean, I love me some AC/DC. I think Back in Black was the first album I purchased with my own money. Nothing made your old man freak like the lyrics to Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap or Big Balls. But if you’d told me that Highway to Hell would someday be prominently featured as a kid’s movie theme, I’d have said, no way, man. But there it is. And so completes the warm- fuzzification of another hard rocking band from my youth. Some of you young’uns out there, you’ll see what I mean in another fifteen years when advertisers are using Pearl Jam to sell Pampers and Smells Like Teen Spirit is the background music on a Geico commercial.

  • I now present what passes for a PSA on my blog: I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to begin your chocolate inoculations this week. What is this you ask? In years past, I have valiantly resisted the call of the mini-candy bars only to succumb on Halloween night and stick my head into a big bowl of candy like a pig at a trough. Now what I do is eat two of those "fun size" chocolate bars each day until Halloween, thus putting small, prophylactic quantities of chocolate into my system. This provides me protection against Halloween gluttony. It works. Kind of.

  • Honestly, how much stuff do Harry & David think I’m going to buy from them? I bought one gift from them last year and yet they’ve send me umpty-seven catalogues with pictures of their fruit of the month club. Well, let me tell you something, Messrs. Harry & David, I’m pleased to say that I don’t have any doddering, infirm aunties in a nursing home nor do I know anyone else to whom I would send a box of fancy pink pears or Indonesian kumquats. (I have no idea where kumquats actually come from, but whatever.) If anyone ever sent me that fruit of the month thing, I think I’d put my foot through the box and send those squashed blood oranges back to the gift giver along with a note that said, “Seriously? Fruit?” So if that was on your list for my Christmas present this year, strike it off.

Until next week’s blog-o-versary post, fair writer friends….

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Query Letter Manifesto, Part 2

If you’re joining us mid-Manifesto, please scroll down and read yesterday’s post before proceeding.

OK, where were we? I believe the first round of queries had just been launched, and if I’m not mistaken, things were about to get ugly. Right now you probably feel like you’ve just stormed a machine gun nest with a melon baller in your hand. This is to say, your defenses are woefully inadequate for what you are about to face.

Step 8: Before we go any further, it’s time for a craft project! That’s right. I want you to find yourself a shoe box. Any old shoe box will do. Get out your construction paper and glue and glitter and decorate your shoe box as nicely as you can. When you’re happy with the way it looks, set it aside while the glue dries. We’ll come back to it in a little while.

Step 9: You begin to receive responses to your queries, and they are not favorable. This is that rejection thing you've heard so much about. How to describe this awful feeling? I'd describe it thusly: you feel as if you’re being vivisected by clumsy aliens who keep poking your liver with a stick because they think it's funny the way it jiggles. 

But here’s how you’re going to cope. I want you to now put on your best Newark, NJ accent and repeat the following phrase: “It’s nuthin’ personal. It’s just business.” What you’re going to do throughout your querying process is this: you’re going to stand tall in your black loafers and pinky ring while these agents shoot your cousin, move in on your territory, insult your mother, and feel up your best girl right in front your face. You got that? You’re going to take all their disrespect, all those “not right for our lists” and “lack sufficient enthusiasms” and “best of luck with your search for representations,” and you’re gonna suck them up like mussels marinara. You’re gonna take that pistol whipping they give you, and you’re going to keep repeating through your bloody teeth, “It’s nuthin’ personal. It’s just business.” OK? What I’m saying is, you’re gonna be a man about it. You want to plot your revenge, you go right ahead. But you keep that to yourself.

Step 10: Here’s where we deal with the subject of non-responsive agents. Sadly, about 60 percent of your queries will receive no response. I know, right? That seems wrong, and it seems wrong because it is wrong. But this is where that shoe box you made comes in handy. Each time you are tempted to moan about the unprofessionalism of agents or otherwise whine about the insane business model that is publishing, you write that complaint down on a slip of paper, and you put it in your pretty little shoe box. Then you put that shoe box in the closet or under your bed, and you never look at it again.

You are a writer, you’ve chosen to be a writer. It is the greatest job in the world, but this is the downside of it. Rejection and interminable waiting and indifference. You must remember that this subjectivity thing, it’s true. No one owes you his money or his time, and everyone is entitled to his opinion.

As for dealing with these no responses in a practical way, just decide what your cut-off is for receiving a response. I would suggest 4 weeks. This will allow you to close out these “no responses” as no’s and give you back a modicum of control in a process where you essentially have none. It is cold comfort but still, it’s something.

Step 11: We’ve now reached a fork in the querying road. I’ll start with the happier of the two possibilities, that you’ve gotten a request for your full manuscript. Congratulations! Even one full request is to be celebrated, but it is crucial that you do NOT NOT NOT put all your hopes into this one agent’s basket. Keep querying. That’s right. You heard me. Keep on sending out those queries.

I know it might seem weird to you. You might feel like you owe it to the agent who has asked to see your manuscript because you’re so utterly grateful that he showed interest. Or – and this is more likely – you might want to stop querying because you’re tired of it. I’m telling you, you’ve got to fight that urge to leave off. (I’m assuming, btw, that you have not made a pact with this agent for an exclusive read. If you have, keep that exclusive window short – say, two weeks – and by all means, honor it. But when the time’s up, get yourself back on that query steed and give her the spurs.)

Why do I say this? Look, you have worked hard, perhaps waited a long time for good news, and you don’t have time to waste on time-wasting agents. I’m talking about those agents who let things languish. Hard-working, smart agents work through their TBR pile efficiently and communicate with you effectively. This is the kind of agent you want. Also, if an agent is running behind, he/she will respond to your gentle, polite status inquiries with an honest answer and a realistic time frame for when he’ll get back to you. The sad reality is that some agents will NEVER respond, even when they have your full manuscript. (I know, I know. It’s horrible. Just put that complaint in your shoe box. It’s another thing you’re forced to tolerate.)

Here’s my query catch phrase, and if you remember nothing else from this long Manifesto, please file this away in your brain: Query until someone puts a ring on your finger.

Now, let's hope you do hear back, but let's say the agent has passed. How do we parse these full manuscript rejections? OK, well, sometimes you get nothing useful back from an agent, and you can draw no conclusions from zero information. Unfortunately, most rejections, even on full manuscripts, will fall into the “It’s just not for me” category. Sometimes an agent will say why exactly it wasn’t for him, sometimes not. Sometimes this reason will make you say, “Hmmm, yes. I see what he means. I can fix that.” Sometimes you'll just scratch your head in astonishment, not sure what to make of his response because it's just so...wrong.

The thing you need to remember is that no single rejection is a referendum on your talent. The only thing (entity?) that can tell you when to quit is your gut. If the agent passed, he passed. Oh, well and onward. Tomorrow's another day.

Step 11b: Alas, we’ve now reached the sadder of our two alternative endings to the query quest. Let’s say, after two or three rounds of querying – so that’s about 30-40 queries – you've gotten few if any requests for your manuscript. You can feel defeat. You can smell defeat. It smells like a dog’s ass. Maybe after weeks or months of this process, you are sitting in the VA hospital, missing several key body parts, eating your meals through a straw. The nurse, she averts her eyes when she changes your bandages, and your mother keeps bursting into tears at the mere sight of what you’ve become so you’ve asked her to stop visiting.

Dude. This sucks, but I’m telling you. This is the moment. This the moment that determines what kind of writer you’re going to become. Persistence is the key to this whole crazy endeavor, but smart persistence is what you’re aiming for. You do not want to be that guy who keeps going and going until he’s just a charred torso, desperate and delusional. This is when your gut needs to come and sit at the end of your hospital bed, and you two discuss how you’re going to proceed.

You need to consider that your manuscript might not be ready, that YOU might not be ready. There is no shame in this. Take a break, set your manuscript aside, work on something else. Come back to it in 3-4 months and take another look. Odds are, with a little time and some emotional distance, you will see things that need improving. It is a sobering and difficult thing to do, but if you can get through this stage, you will be better for it. Not just better. That’s an understatement. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this part – being able to realign yourself with reality -- is the single most important skill you will ever master as a writer and possibly as a human being.

Now, having faced up to the fact that you need to revise, you may be afraid that you can't make the changes, that you simply don't know how. You must try. Go on, give it a go. You cannot be afraid of revision because revision, like poverty, will always be with us.

If you do decide, however, that your manuscript just doesn’t pass muster and can’t be fixed, then it’s time to move on. Do not for a moment mistake this for giving up. It’s a strategic re-grouping and can be evidence of what I just mentioned: smart persistence. These are the battlefield decisions that make the difference between ultimately successful campaigns and lots of needlessly dead, maimed soldiers.

Let me just finish with a few hundred more words on the subject of dealing with those painful pangs of envy you may feel toward more successful writers.

About two years ago, I did this 100-plus mile bike ride thing. Why did I do this? I don’t know. I guess I like to suffer even during my off-writing hours. Anyway, during one portion of this ride, you’ve got to get up this absolute beast of a hill. It’s like a mile straight up, and as you are hauling your keester up the right side of the road, trying to keep the vomit from rising in the back of your throat, you see this stream of cyclists coming down the hill in the on-coming lane. And you hate these people. Oh, how you hate them! You want to track down each and every one of them and follow them to their cars and cut their brake cables. Because there they go --- WHEEEEE --- whizzing effortlessly past you while you’re on the other side of the road struggling and sweating and suffering.

Of course when I finally crested the hill, I realized that the route called for riders to do a short two-mile loop and then double-back down the beast-hill I just came up. In other words, all those people I saw coasting down the hill earlier – they had already climbed the mountain.

I think my point is pretty clear. Those people you hear about who are getting manuscript requests and signing with agents and even getting book deals, more than likely they have already climbed the mountain. They’ve had their disappointments and heartaches. God knows I have, and for me, the summit is still miles off. I’ve had my heart broken more times that I can count and have been treated unkindly by a few agents along the way, but I don’t dwell on that. With malice toward none and charity toward all, I’ve carried on. (Jesus, did I just plagiarize Abraham Lincoln in that last sentence? I think I did.)

So I guess I’ve come to the end of the Manifesto at last. I hope you found something here to encourage you because that, at the end of the day, was what I was going for.

Go forth, query bravely, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Now what say we stop all this query talk, flag down the bar man, and have him bring us another round of boilermakers? My treat.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Query Letter Manifesto, Part 1

How is it possible that I'm coming up on my one year blog-o-versary, and I haven't yet tackled the most obvious topic for any writing blog, the query process? Well, that oversight ends right here, right now, my peeps.

While I do have an agent, I am by no means an expert on querying. Still, I believe I have a thing or two to add on the art of querying and so I've pulled together the sum total of my wisdom for the sake of posterity. Here you have it, "My Query Letter Manifesto." (I'm afraid this turned out to be rather a long post, so I've broken the Manifesto into two parts. I hope you'll come back tomorrow for the conclusion.)

Most of what follows is based on my own experience, but I’ve also relied on the guidance of those knowledgeable, humane agents out there who blog about querying despite what must be their total exhaustion when it comes to this subject matter.

So. Are you ready to go? Got your greasepaint on and your knife between your teeth? Let's now pull the ripcord and descend into that war zone known as Query Hell.  Hooyah!

I begin with this set of assumptions about you and your novel:

1) You have written a manuscript of appropriate length for your genre, neither too short nor too long, and additionally, you know what your genre is. More importantly, you know what the word genre means because you have a robust command of the English language and a tolerable ability to punctuate and follow the rules of accepted grammatical usage.

2) Three or more people not related to you by blood or marriage have read your manuscript and offered constructive feedback to you. Preferably one of these people had a personal animus toward you and enjoyed making you suffer. Perhaps this reader was an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend who you callously dumped years ago. As a result, he/she pointed out every single damn thing that was wrong with your book, and hard as it was to do, you addressed each problem, and the novel is, even you must grudgingly admit, far better for it.

3) You have at least a vague sense of who your readership might be and a fairly comprehensive knowledge of who’s writing what in your chosen genre. Let me be clear that you do NOT need to be plugged into the New York publishing scene, be a regular reader of Publishers Marketplace, or have any other special insider information on what novels will be coming out in the next two years. Also, you have wisely ignored anyone or anything mentioning the word “trend,” but have paid attention to the words “market saturation,” lest your book end up being one extra teaspoon of moisture in the ocean.

Having met these three requirements, you feel you are ready to query.

You are not.

It's OK. No one is ever ready to query. Sometimes you need to query to realize that you are not ready to query. Not to worry. It’s all part of the grand adventure. Now proceed as follows:

Step 1: Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Just calm down. I cannot emphasize this enough. You are about to send out a query letter. That's all. You are not trying, through your expert use of prose, to win a pardon for a condemned man or outline the means by which to rebuild post-WWII Europe. What I’m saying here is that lives are most definitely NOT at stake, and everything is going to be all right.

Step 2: Put the first draft of your novel aside and commence researching agents. On a personal note, I will tell you that this seemingly harmless initial step was so daunting to me that it caused me instantaneous gastrointestinal distress. That’s right. I was so overwhelmed at the outset of querying that merely pulling up agency websites made me think I’d somehow contracted a mutant virus that produced the worst aspects of apoplexy and giardia. That’s when I had to grip the sides of my desk and revisit Step 1. I forced myself to calm down. Alcohol may have been involved.

Step 2.1: Oh, dear. Already I'm off on a tangent, but this is important. During the course of your research, here’s what’s going to happen. You're going to identify a person you will come to regard as your “dream agent.” Probably because you read his/her blog or follow this person on Twitter and he/she seems nice and friendly and so understanding. Quite likely this person will be Nathan Bransford. You will imagine yourself with Nathan walking on the beach, hand-in-hand, or feeding each other strawberries while listening to Sting’s Fields of Gold. You will doodle “Mrs. Nathan Bransford” over and over in the margins of your notebooks and sigh pleasurably at the idea of taking Nathan home for the holidays to meet your parents, who will love him because, I mean, who wouldn’t? You may become so convinced of your rightness for each other that you prematurely blurt out an extremely inappropriate query at this person.

I’m going to tell you this straight up: Nathan is going to say no to you. Or whoever your “dream agent” is. He or she is going to form-reject you, in fact, and leave you in spluttering disbelief at this rank betrayal. I’m telling you this not to be cruel but to prepare you. It happens to just about everyone.

Step 3: Having gotten over your shock at being rejected by your dream agent, you should begin compiling a list of agents approximately 80-100 names long. You may not ever query this many agents, but having such a long list will encourage you to see just how many fish there are in the literary agent sea. To compile this list, you will need to read blogs and visit websites and read agent interviews. So many blogs, websites, and interviews that your gums will bleed and you will begin muttering in your sleep, “no more than ten pages pasted into the body of your email” or “NO ATTACHMENTS!!!”

Be aware that this research process may take you several hours a day for 6, maybe 8, weeks or more. I know. It seems crazy and you may find yourself thinking that you’re putting more work into this querying thing that you put into writing your novel. Yes. That’s how you know you’re doing it correctly. The fact is, there’s a lot of information out there, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t make the most of it.

Step 4: Simultaneous with your agent research, you are also reading Janet Reid's Query Shark blog and visiting Query Letter Hell over at Absolute Write. You should read dozens upon dozens of query letters and evaluate the responses they receive. Take note of the common errors. Do not make these same errors as you begin to draft your query letter. What is the single worst mistake you can make in your query letter? Grandiosity. Everything else is forgiveable but not this. Clear evidence that you have an out-sized ego will make agents vomit in their mouths a little.

Step 5: Having drafted your query letter, ask for feedback on it, either from fellow writers or at various writers forums. Listen to the input you receive, but know when to tune out the bad advice. Because you will get some bad advice. Also, you will hear from people who say you absolutely must do this and for God's sake NEVER do that. Query letters, some people believe, have a rigid structure not unlike iambic pentameter, and if you make one wrong move with them, some capricious agent who otherwise might have requested your full will reject you because you left out the definite article in the fourth sentence of your second paragraph.

It is true that some agents like for queriers to launch immediately into the meat of the pitch. I myself could never do this. I always began with a one sentence summary of my book’s stats: “I’m seeking representation for my YA SF novel, Title, and word count.” Some people advise against this because they believe it allows an agent to decide in a matter of seconds if he/she wants to be bothered with your paranormal urban memoir at 90K words. They tell you that you should be -- perhaps not purposefully vague -- but tantalizing in your lack of information so you'll pique the agent's interest. This way he'll ask for a partial or full just to get a better feel for your project. OK, I suppose there's some truth to this, but here’s my feeling: you’re never going to “trick” an agent into liking your book so why not just get the basic information out there first. If it’s not their thing, so be it.

Also? Those agents who have outlandishly complicated or snotty requirements for what they want in a query letter? Don’t query them. Begin to understand, even at this very early stage in your publishing career, that you have the power to say, "No, thanks.You’re not my cup of tea." There are too many really great, passionate literary agents out there. Don’t bother with the trolls.

And further on the subject of bad advice: this will not be the last time you will need to trust your gut over advice from purported experts. Your gut and you – you should be tight at this point. You and your gut should be finishing each other’s sentences by now and maybe even wearing those little heart-shaped necklaces where you’ve got one half and your gut has the other. Your gut will be the only thing that will tell you, “hey, you know, I think this agent's got a point” or “Nah, that’s a bunch of bunk. Don’t listen to that.” Your gut is your wing man. Buy it a drink and tell it how pretty it is. Often.

Step 6: Having compiled your list of reputable agents who you are absolutely sure represent the kind of novel you wish to pitch to them, divide your list of agents into groupings of 10-12 agents. Decide which will be in your first wave of queries. Do NOT put all your “favorite” agents in the first wave you send out. If this is your first time ever sending out a query letter, assume that you might need to re-jigger your query or, if you get a request for pages, the manuscript itself. Thus, by not shooting your wad of favs in your first wave of queries, you will still have some in reserve when you go out with your next round, now using your new and improved query and first chapter.

Also, do feel empowered to interpret an agent’s submission guidelines as broadly as possible. By this I mean, unless they specifically state, “I do not handle X (sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, etc),” assume that when they say YA or commercial fiction or what have you that they mean, yeah, you and your stuff. Send it on. Most importantly, get over your fear of “offending” or "bothering" agents with your unwanted query. They are perfectly capable of saying no. They do it all the time. Heck, I half suspect my middle child will someday become a literary agent. As soon as she learned to speak she said “No! Don’t like it!” to pretty much everything.

Step 7: Having ascertained the correct email addresses for the agents you're about to query and having double-checked that you’ve spelled the agents’ names correctly, boldly hit that SEND button. If you’ve got one, feel free to fire your semi-automatic rifle into the air like an Iraqi militia chief. Then pat yourself on the back. You've now gotten farther in your quest for publication than 95 percent of everyone out there who wants to be a published author. No matter the outcome, courage is what makes you awesome.

Refer back to Step 1 as events warrant.
To be continued tomorrow….

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Not Like an Egg on a Spoon

There was this guy in my MFA program, and he did this thing that some writers do that I hate hate hate.

Here it is: you’d be talking to the guy, thinking you’re having a normal conversation, and then you or someone nearby would say something he found interesting, and he'd respond, “Oh, I’ve got to write that down before I forget it.” Then out would come the little notebook, and he'd actually do it. He'd write down what he'd heard with the utmost self-satisfaction at having captured ... whatever. 

Like the world was his zoology experiment, and we were all just rare macaques for him to observe and report upon. Totally annoying.

I’ve been advised a number of times to always carry a small notebook so I can jot things down in case inspiration strikes. I don’t do it.

I do my best thinking when I’m out walking or riding my bike. Somehow the motion kick starts my brain. For a long time, I’d get these ideas for stories or plot fixes or whatever, and I’d think I’d have to rush home and write it all down before I forgot the details. It reminded me of that birthday party game -- the relay race where you’ve got to carry an egg on a wooden spoon without dropping it.

But then I stopped doing that because somewhere along the line I realized something: good ideas are not that fragile.

OK, admittedly I do still write things down occasionally -- things that occured to me while I was out for a walk -- but I certainly don’t hurry along with that egg, trembling and fearful that I’ll drop my good idea on the pavement before I get home, and it'll be ruined. Maybe I just believe in a survival of the fittest sort of approach when it comes to spinning fluffy new ideas into actual books. If it’s a good idea, I’ll remember it. And if it’s a truly great idea, capable of sustaining an entire novel, it’ll persist almost to the point of my needing a restraining order against it.

This is not to say that I don’t respond to inspiration with the appropriate respect and, rarely, with a sense of urgency, it’s just that I don’t freak out about it. And if I’m talking to someone at a party, I, you know, simply talk to him. I’m not there to study and record behavior, to treat people like they're fodder for my work. Bleh. I don't care how great a writer you are. Who wants to be around someone like that? 

Geez, now I'm wishing I’d had the nerve to rip that little notebook out of my MFA chum’s hands, throw it on the ground, and clog dance on it while shouting, “There. Observe and write about that, Thoreau.” Of course then he probably would have, and I’m sure he would have turned it into a very funny story. You just can’t win against these writer types.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Work Alone

You ever go to a meeting, and it’s a long meeting because all meetings are long – or at least longer than you’d like them to be -- and right at the end of the meeting, just when the meeting is finally about to adjourn and you’re getting all hopeful like a dog dancing around at the front door, about to go out for a walk (“The meeting is ending! Soon I will be able to leave this room!”), the person leading the meeting says, “Is there anything else? Anyone have anything to add? Questions?”

And there’s that one person who raises his hand and asks a long, involved, completely irrelevant question. Worse, the “question” isn’t even really a question at all, it’s more a thinly disguised way for the question-asker to demonstrate their superior knowledge on the subject at hand in front of the boss or otherwise show off in some way.

Or my other end-of-meeting favorite is when someone asks a question that pertains only to their unique situation, and they hold everyone else in the room hostage while the question gets answered in detail. And meanwhile everyone is sending these throbbing laser rays of hatred at the person, who is, of course, oblivious, because if they weren’t oblivious, they would have never asked their self-referential question in a group setting to begin with. And it’s all you can do to not leap across the laps of those sitting near this person and grab hold of his tie and scream in his face, “SHUT UP. DEAR GOD, WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP SO WE CAN ALL GET OUT OF HERE? WHAT HELL DIMENSION ARE YOU FROM EXACTLY?!! OH, WAIT. I ALREADY KNOW. CLEARLY THE ONE WHERE PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHEN TO SHUT UP AT THE END OF MEETINGS!!!!”

Well, as I say so often, maybe it’s just me.

I hate meetings. All meetings. I think this is because I’ve never been to a meeting where anything was actually accomplished. This has created a deeply held bias in me, and as you might imagine, that bias has kept me from participating in any number of activities, like the PTA. I’ve never been to a PTA meeting. I know I should go. I should. But I can’t.

It’s not that I don’t like crowds. I mean, I like parties. I’m an extrovert … or maybe an extrovert with introvertish tendencies. It’s just when it comes to getting things done, I WORK ALONE. That’s my preferred modus operandi. Large groups of people, in a room together, trying to accomplish things and come to decisions -- that makes my skin itch and my throat close up like I’m going into anaphylactic shock.

How about you all? I realize that we all write because (of course) we have stories to tell, but do you also have a personality trait, natural inclination, deep aversion of one sort or another that makes writing a logical choice for you?*

*Having a lot of time on your hands while you await a decision from your parole board would, for example, count.

** Have you seen The Incredibles or was the Mr. Incredible allusion lost on you?
***And, yes, I’m well aware that I’m probably violating some copyright law by using the picture of Mr. Incredible on my blog. I’ll be happy to take it down if I get a call from the general counsel at Pixar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Em Eff Eh?

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while. That is, the writing MFA. I see this question come up regularly on writers' forums. To get one, to not get one. Bottom line: are they worth? And by worth it, I assume people mean, will this get me published?

I have to say, most writers seem to think they are downright worthless, total waste of time, won't get you anywhere. I’ve read agent comments to this effect as well. Some agents seem to take special pride in form-rejecting any query in which an MFA is mentioned.

So let me jump right in and answer the question, was getting an MFA worth it? Actually, I should probably rephrase it to, was getting an MFA worth it to me?

Easy answer there: Absofreakinglutely.

Now, when I went to get my MFA, this was back in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t this thing I’m seeing of late: the low-residency writing program – which is an idea that I find intriguing and probably an option I would have chosen if I’d been able to. My MFA was a straight-up graduate program, meaning we had requirements outside the writing department. I took graduate classes in literature and philosophy, and we had that standard post-grad language requirement, so I also had to finish a class in translation. This is perhaps a long way of saying it was hard. (And for the record, don’t mean to be all secretive here, but I went to Columbia.)

Next question: Would I recommend other writers get an MFA?

Yes, I would. I mean, come on. Devoting a couple years to studying writing, getting the unvarnished truth about your work, and meeting fellow writers who can become life-long friends and critique partners? That is a pickle barrel full of awesome.

But you know what else I would recommend every writer do? Oh, let’s see, how about you take a trip around the world by catamaran. Travel alone through Asia on horseback. Spend a summer as an apprentice to the world’s greatest butcher in Tuscany. Spend a year painting landscapes in Tahiti. And while you’re at it, be sure to get your hands on the new Ferrari Scuderia F430, cuz it is sweeeeet.

Let’s be real. The average middle-class, post-college human cannot afford an MFA. And that’s really what’s at the heart of the “should I get an MFA” question. The MFA is undeniably a luxury item. And when we get to the point of saying such luxury items are required to be a writer, then we’re venturing into the Realm of Wrongness, a realm that is already stuffed-to-brimming, mostly with people who wear track suits and say “it’s all good.”

How was I able to do it? Loans. Lots of them. That I am still paying off and will be for a long while. Even considering that, I still think it was worth it, but that’s probably because I’m someone who doesn’t fully understand how money works, and someday I will probably end up living in a nursing home that bears a striking resemblance to a ditch.

So to be clear, my opinion on the MFA is this: Anyone, in any situation, with any life experience, and any degree of education, who is devoted to improving their craft can become a writer -- and probably a darn good one. Art is nothing if not egalitarian. And frankly as much as luxuriously cool experiences would help build your chops as a writer and artist, so too would living in a trailer park working your way through a series of husbands or spending a decade in a Turkish prison because your roommate stuffed opium into your backpack as you were heading through customs. Do you need an MFA to become a successful writer? No, of course you don't. But if you CAN get one, why wouldn’t you?

Of course if you had to choose between MFA and that Tahiti thing I mentioned -- Tahiti would be a perfectly lovely substitute. The Turkish prison thing? Well, I suppose it would be a lot cheaper and probably far more impressive in a query letter. You got me there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Take Me For Granted!

What is going on here today, folks? I don’t think I’ve ever done TWO blog posts in a single day. Obviously it's a most exceptional day.

The good news is officially up on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators' (SCBWI) website so I’m now free to squee.

I’ve been awarded the 2010 Work-in-Progress grant from SCBWI in the Contemporary Novel for Young People category.

*cue the squeeing*

This is for a novel titled, “The Miracle Conspiracy,” which is the very same novel that I was moaning about in this recent post, about how I put it together all wrong and backwards.

Here be the linky proof.  They called me on Monday to tell me I'd won, but I had to stare at the website a good long time to reassure myself it was real.

Stunned. Happy. Amazed. Stunned.

That’s me.

Off to the store for some champagne now. Stop by after work and hoist a tankard with me if you can.

Goldfish Theory

You ever have a pet goldfish when you were a kid? Something like this, maybe? 

I had one. Someone gave it to me for my birthday. It was in a plastic bag when I got it, and I transferred it to a small glass bowl and stuck it on my nightstand.

That goldfish probably wasn’t going to last out the week in that bowl because basically what goldfish are best at is keeling over. My father saw this sad, oxygen-starved thing and thought, this will never do. So he bought a tank for it. With an air filter and some plastic plants and colored pebbles. The whole shebang.

As time went on, he thought the goldfish might be getting lonely, so he bought a couple other goldfish to keep it company. The goldfish seemed to be thriving in their new aquarium, but then he noticed that they were starting to look a little cramped in their tank, so he went out and got a bigger tank for it. (I can’t remember at what point these goldfish ceased to be mine, but let’s face it, this is always what happens – fish start out as a kid’s pet and end up a parent’s responsibility. Also, my Dad projects a lot of feeling onto fish, apparently.)

So the thing about goldfish is that they do what? They expand to the size of their tank, now don’t they? The bigger the tank, the bigger the fish. With each upgrade in accommodations, these goldfish got bigger and bigger. I think after about 18 months, those suckers were as big as my hand and qualified as registered voters.

The moral of the story? Don’t pity the fish. That’s how they get you. You start out with one meager fish in a glass bowl, and the next thing you know, you’re shelling out for Barbie’s Dream Underwater Goldfish Condo.

The main reason I bring this up, however, is to compare goldfish to writing. Because here’s the thing I have learned: however much time you have to write a book, that’s how much time it takes.

School is back in session and in theory my writing time has just quintupled because my girls are now out of the house 6 hours a day, but I know full well that somehow, I’m not going to get that much more done than I did over the summer when I had four nanoseconds a day to write. Why? Goldfish theory, my friends. Projects swell to the size of your allotted time to work on them. Your progress will be exactly the same, whether you have two hours to work or twenty hours to work.

While this is an annoying fact of life, it’s also good news for anybody who thinks she doesn't have enough time to make headway on a novel because of work, family responsibilities, or nonspecific STUFF that gets in the way. Goldfish theory requires us all to recognize that we should never waste time wishing for more time, or heaven forbid, we should never plan to write only when we finally have more time at some magical point down the road. Even if you’ve only got 45 minutes a day or a few hours a weekend, you can still get a lot done. Because that’s what Goldfish Theory allows for.

So just keep writing wherever, however, and whenever you can, and never succumb to pitying that fish.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Aw, Hell

That’s it. That’s about as far as I go in terms of cursing.

OK, sure, I also use the word crap fairly regularly. Maybe the occasional damn. But really, that’s about all. At least when I’m writing. In my day-to-day life, well, let’s just say I’m not afraid to drop the f-bomb when the situation warrants. Like when the alarm clock goes off, for example.

Granted, I write for young adults and upper middle grade readers, but I don’t mean to play the “Oh! Think of the children!” card. Maybe that has a little bit to do with it. I do hope my own kids will read my books in another few years, and when they do, I don’t want to have to redact anything. But I also know that that isn’t the sole reason why I shy away from profanity on the page. And really, you could make the argument that writing for young people demands you use a lot of swear words. After all, who is more profane that your average teenager? Authenticity would seem to require a cuss word in just about every paragraph, wouldn’t it?

It could be I spent too many years working in D.C. Here you can say anything you want, but when you put something in writing? Well, you better be careful. Writing is forever. You’ve got to hew to a different, higher standard if you’re committing something to paper. Especially if there’s a possibility that subpoenas might ever become involved.

Really, though, it may be simpler than that. It might just be a function of age. As I’ve gotten older, I find the use of vulgarities kind of unnecessary. They seem like the cheapest short cut to portraying intense emotion, and I guess I’ve found other ways to get the job done. This is not to say that I prudishly turn away from books full of swearing. Not at all. The occasional WTF can be perfectly amusing. It’s just that too much cursing is like using too much pepper -- distasteful when overdone. At least to my palate.

I saw a very funny bit once by comedian Nick Swardson, about how our grandparents’ generation listened to big band music and all this gentle, lovey crooning, but in another 50 years, nursing homes are going to be filled with old people listening to profanity-laced rap music. Kind of funny to imagine some 88-year-old granny fondly singing Lil’ Kim lyrics. But kind of gross, too. The image of elderly people with really foul mouths is kind of disturbing, don’t you think? At some point, aren’t we supposed to be too old for that sh*t?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Flight of the Bumble Bee

I worry that my writing process is really, really dumb. That I go about everything all wrong.

Like I’m similar to one of those major league pitchers who throws his arms and legs all over the place, and no one can figure out how he throws the ball at all. Or I have some kind of unorthodox tennis serve style that’s going to land me in rotator cuff rehab eventually.

This is why I'll never feel it’s my place to dispense writing advice. My giving writing advice is like a bumble bee lecturing on aerodynamics.

You’ll probably see numerous references in your writing blog journeys to the question of whether you’re a pantser or an outliner. But what if you outline things and then you create your characters and then nobody does what the hell you tell them to do? What's that called? 'Cause that’s me. That’s how I write. I am out on the ranch, herding cats every day.

And in terms of a sensible creative process, here’s what my latest WiP experience has been like.

Yeah, I know. It’s a house.

My neighbor around the corner is doing some radical home renovation, and it requires moving his house. They picked the thing up with a crane, held it up on these tall stacks of railroad ties, and then they built a new foundation underneath the house. When that was complete, they set the house back down again.

This strikes me as a weird way to go about constructing or renovating a house. Normally it seems like you build the foundation first and then frame the house in. Add the roof. Put in some windows. And then pick out the door knob pulls for the kitchen cabinets. In other words, you build a house by following a logical, orderly progression of steps, starting with the big concept and working your way down into the details as you near completion of your project.

This is how I imagine I should be writing. But finishing up my latest manuscript has been more like the house moving experience. I feel like I did everything out of order, inside out, and backwards.

Well, once again I’ve started one metaphor and ended with another. How did I get from bumble bees to house moving?

See. This is exactly what I’m talking about, people. I’m just a cat herding cowgirl.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Down Periscope

It was a good break, all in all. And taking a break – or “submarining” -- is the theme of this post, in fact.

I came up with this term, “submarining,” because I needed a way to describe the behavior of this friend of mine who, when she was going through a tough stretch, would simply drop out of sight, generally for months at a time. You wouldn’t hear from her, wouldn’t see her. All attempts to reach her would meet with failure. Then, when she was ready to face the world again, she’d reappear, like a sub coming back to port for fresh supplies.

Sub crew at the North Pole. You may not need to go to this extreme but then again, you just might.

I realize it’s just that time of year – August. People are slacking off a bit because it's a sensible thing to do in the summer. But it does seem like I’ve also heard more than a few folks contemplating taking long breaks from their blog, because life is pulling them away from it or because they are downright sick of blogging. Or, more often, because the demands on their time are such that they must choose between working on their novels or posting to their blogs.

And they feel guilty about it.

To which I say, fie! You shouldn’t feel guilty about it at all. (WHY do I not say fie more often? It's an awesome word.)

I’m here to grant you -- such that I have the authority to dispense such things -- permission to go into submarine mode.

As a writing teacher of mine once said, “At some point, you’ve got to just go off on your own.” How true it is.

Writers forums and critique groups and Twitter and blogging. These are all great support systems and also a lot of fun, but as we all know, too much fun can be a bad thing. It's kind of like that group of friends from high school who wanted you to come out with them on a Wednesday night and go cow-tipping. AGAIN. For like the fourth night in a row. And you’re like, sheesh, man, I've kind of had enough cow-tipping for one week, and besides, I should probably finish my college application essay. And they’re like, No way, man! Come on! After we tip some cows, we’re going up to the water tower to break beer bottles with sticks.

Well, maybe that was just my experience. My point is that our primary job as writers is to write books. To do that, you need time and no distractions. And that ‘no distraction’ thing might just require that you board that sub and get out into the Mariana Trench for a bit. Sometimes you need to be out in the still, deep water, where it’s just you, your work, and the giant squid attached to your metaphoric hull.

So if you do decide to go into stealth mode, don’t feel guilty. Just hang a note on your blog and go write. We’ll still be here when you return. Besides, we want to hear your tales of the sea when you come back. We especially want to know how you lost your eye and why you've developed a liking for tinned meat.

Of course, if you don’t like the sub suggestion, feel free to pick some other locale where you can get away from it all. Whatever works for you. I recommend you steer clear of any jobs as a winter caretaker at a resort hotel in Maine, however. That tends not to work out so well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Blogging Lacuna

Hey, all,

I won't be posting for the next two weeks due to the rigors of vacationary demands.  

Come to think of it. It's August, man. You shouldn't even be reading this. Get your squinty, writerly self to the beach or somewhere where you will come into contact with some sunshine.

Go on. Git.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Pandas and Pimpin’

Here I go with the panda thing again.

Loyal readers are no doubt well aware of my hatred of pandas. Here’s the full reference in case you’re new to the blog and my panda wrath.

And just what has reanimated my animus toward pandas this summer? Why nothing less than a visit to the National Zoo, of course. Those of you with a love of this worthless animal, turn back now because I’d first like to direct you to a story that was sent to me by my West Coast colleague who goes by the mysteriously haunting handle, “Denise.” (Not her real name.*) Check out the link, PANDAS ARE LOSERS.

So the dang pandas can’t get pregnant but once in a blue moon, and then when she does have the cub, she has twins, only to abandon one of them and then roll over on the other and kill it?!!! God, could this animal get any more loathsome?

Here’s what totally bummed me out on the latest zoo jaunt. Behold, a picture of the South American Giant Anteater taken by my lovely daughter.

Mr. Anteater looks depressed, doesn’t he? (Or she. I have no expertise in sexing anteaters, but we'll assume it's a he.) You know why this anteater is so depressed? Because his enclosure is off the beaten path, hardly anyone comes by to check him out, and he’s fully aware that he’s kind of not that attractive.

Meanwhile, these rock star diva pandas have THIS in their totally tricked-out panda pavilion.

It’s got a mini-Houston mission control to monitor their every waking (and mostly sleeping) moment and keep track of each linear foot of bamboo that they stuff down their gullets at taxpayer expense. And probably they each have a high-def DVR to watch snuff films (Oh, you didn't know that about pandas? Yeah, they watch a lot of snuff films. I know, right? Awful.)

How could this not be a blow to the anteater’s self-esteem? Who could live in their pathetic little paddock knowing these pandas are up there in air-conditioned, first-class accommodations with people waiting in line to see them? Meanwhile, passersby look at the sign directing them to the giant anteater enclosure and say, “Oh. An anteater….Hey, let’s go get a sno-cone.”

So in summary I say again: Pandas = evil. When will the world wake up and realize that the scourge of panda love must end?

OK, onto other matters.

Perhaps this week you may find yourself in the position of having a few bucks that you don’t know what to do with. Here’s a thought: how about you lay off the hot wings and 50 cent drafts and forego that second blooming onion and do something useful with your money for a change? Why don’t you go and buy Blythe Woolston’s debut novel, The Freak Observer. Apparently it’s a really good book, and what’s more amazing, she typed the entire manuscript with her feet. Not because she had to, mind you. Just to give herself more of a challenge while writing it.

(Of course I made that up. Come on. She wrote the novel with her feet? Actually I probably shouldn’t put that out on the internet at all because this is just the sort of thing that’ll take on a life of its own, and the next thing you know, Blythe will be asked to be on Nightline and be billed as America’s foremost YA foot writer. So I take it back. She didn’t write the book with her feet at all. She is a regular, two-handed writer who did NOT write her novel with her feet. OK, well maybe the acknowledgements page. Maybe. But that's all.)

And since I’ve got my sparkly pimping hat on anyway, I’ll send you over to Sierra Godfrey’s blog for her contest wherein she asks you to describe a certain soccer player who looks like he gamely volunteered to get a haircut from a freshman at some technical training high school. I’m probably not explaining it very well. Just go and have a look see.

Until next week, my comrades.

*Actually, yes, it is.