Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just Another Long, Fly Ball


I know you’re not supposed to talk about these things online, but I’m going to. 

I’ve just had a big disappointment.

Big.

To speak plainly, I had a book on submission for almost a year, and now it’s no longer on submission.

Some of you know me and know more about what’s been going on behind the scenes. Let me just say thank you to all you awesome writer-buddies for your support and camaraderie. I know you know what this feels like. And to everybody who’s visited the blog and left comments this year, I thank you as well and apologize for not replying to comments as much as I should have. My energy, especially this past month, has been at an all-time low. 

I hope you’ll forgive me if I withdraw from The Internets for a while and lick my literary wounds. The timing is right anyway since the holidays are almost here, and I’m sure, like me, you’ll soon decamp to your bucolic winter cabins in the Catskills to make mulled wine and popcorn strings with cherished family members, all of whom are wearing matching sweaters. (Oh, no, wait. That's the L.L. Bean catalog. I get that confused with my own life sometimes....)

For sure there are bigger tragedies in the world than not selling your book. But, still, it’s hard to see the ball go sailing for the fence and think you’ve hit a home run, only to hear the sound of it hitting the center fielder’s mitt at the warning track. Yep, it was just another long, fly ball.  

I’m all right. I may be standing atop the smoking ruins of my hopes, but I’m still standing. And can I say that I’m actually kind of proud of myself? Weird, huh? Just two short years ago, I started this blog, barely able to publicly admit that I was a writer. I used to get physically ill when I so much as thought about writing a query letter. Why? Because I feared what would happen if I failed. What if I worked my heart out on something and it went down in flames?

Well, that’s where I am.

And you know what? It’s really not as bad as I thought it would be. So if you’re reading this and you’re in the same boat, seriously, it’s OK. Failure is just a step in the process. The Monday after I heard the final nail being banged into the coffin for my manuscript, I sat down at my desk and worked just like any other day. I'm writing something new that I’m excited about, and I’ll keep at it. What else can you do?

So there we have it. 2011 has left me older, wiser, and frankly, somewhat appalled, but I’m still feeling feisty.  


Just wait 'til next year.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mistaken Wisdom

This is a wee bit embarrassing, but such is the stuff of blog posts, right? 

So here’s the story.

At my kids’ school they’ve started this program to increase good citizenship and civic awareness. They’re encouraging kids to be more respectful and mindful of their behavior. You know, basically to have good manners and be polite to their fellow students and teachers. I have to say, it’s worked to some extent because I’ve noticed, for example, some kids actually holding the door for the kids behind them as they enter the school in the morning. This is something my kids could use help with because I tell you, I could be climbing the steps of Mt. Doom with Frodo Baggins on my back, trying to save the dang world from the forces of ultimate evil, and my kids would still walk ahead of me and let the door slam in my face as we went inside. 
"Uh, kids, could you hold the door for me, please?"

So a couple weeks back, as part of this civic awareness program, they put up a motivational poster or two in the school lobby. The one that caught my eye said this:

Your attitude determines your attitude.

The first time I read it, I was like, whuh? Your attitude determines your attitude? And then I thought about it, and I thought, hey, yeah, that’s kind of true, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t have control over our circumstances all the time, but we do have control over how we approach things. People often think their attitudes fall into that category of “things I can’t help,” but they don’t. Attitudes are absolutely adjustable. I mean, your attitude may be the only thing that you do have a choice about.

Huh. That’s kind of a cool idea. And definitely a good message for kids, right? To let them know, hey, you have more power than you think you do.

The past month I’ve been thinking about this a lot because, for reasons I can’t go into, I’ve pretty much needed to recharge my positive attitude on an hourly basis. I swear, if I thought it might have helped, I’d have hooked myself up to the car battery with jumper cables by now. But tough as it’s been, I’ve muddled through, occasionally thinking about that banner. 

My attitude will determine my attitude, I told myself. Yes, indeedy. 

OK, so here’s where this delightful, inspirational tale would end except that this past Monday evening, I looked at the banner again for the umpteenth time, and I realized that what it actually says is, “Your attitude determines your aLtitude.”

Ooooohhhh!

ALTITUDE. Not attitude.

I wondered why there was a picture of a hot air balloon on there. I guess that banner is saying that your attitude will determine how far you go in life. Something like that?

OK, well, duh. Guess I got that wrong, but whatever. I think I like my erroneous interpretation better. It helped me get through the past few weeks even if I was mistaken about the message. 

Additionally and obviously, it may be time for me to investigate the getting of glasses.

How’s your attitude this week?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bail Out or Keep Going?


If you’ve done any kind of endurance event—running, cycling, walking—you may be familiar with the concept of the SAG wagon.

It’s a car, sometimes a bus, also called the Sweeper. It rides along at the back of the race and picks up anyone who’s had to drop out due to fatigue, injury, or a shameful lack of intestinal fortitude.

Oh, and you can also get picked up if you’re still chugging along, but at the rate you’re going, you’ll finish long after sundown and even your mother has given up on you and wants to go home.

In the Tour de France, when you quit the race, they strip your number off almost as soon as you dismount your bike. You then climb into your team car, and that’s it. You’re done. On your team roster, next to your name, is written a single word: “Abandoned.”

Ugh.

ABANDONED.

What a horrible word.

I think there’s a point in writing every novel when you wonder if you should keep going or abandon. Maybe you’re tired of the story or you’ve got doubts about whether you’ll be able to finish it before the leap year after next. Whatever. There are lots of reasons to quit, and you can probably think of them all when you're staring uphill, panting and sweating.

Of course in writing, for better or worse, there is no SAG wagon gonna pick your sorry butt up if you bail out. And it’s probably fortunate that you can’t be DQ’d for going too slow because we’d probably all be sitting in the SAG wagon singing “99 bottles of beaujolais on the wall” right about now.

When I get that “I’m not gonna make it” feeling, though, there’s something lurking along the literary roadway, something that goads me on when I’m having a bad patch. I wish I could say it was inspiration, artistic drive, a passion for truth and beauty. But it's not.

What keeps me out of the SAG wagon is this: I simply hate not finishing something. HATE. IT. 

And I’d feel like an especially big loser for quitting when I was more than halfway done. So unless I’ve got three broken clavicles that keep me from typing or a raging case of flesh-eating bacteria, I’m going to finish if it kills me. 

So there. I guess shame is a pretty strong motivator for me. Or pride. However you want to look at it.

What about you? What gets you across the finish line when you feel like getting into the team car, going back home to your villa in Spain, and making excuses to the press all winter?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Meanwhile, In Other Dimensional Realms…

This week I’ve been struggling against all manner of enemies, both foreign and domestic--OK, mostly domestic--in my attempt to get the words down.

Hey, that's the way it goes. Sometimes you can’t get the numbers on ye olde manuscript odometer to roll over, not for love nor money. Things get in the way. 

But, you know, that doesn’t get me down too much. Because distractions and obstacles are part of life, and you need to plug away regardless. 

Here. This about sums up the attitude I try to adopt every morning when I get to work:

CHARGE!!!!

The reason these small, everyday frustrations don’t bother me too much is that I know they’re nothing compared to the much greater obstacle I faced in the past, namely my own attitude toward writing and my lack of courage to just do it.

I can’t tell you how much time and energy I devoted to the subject of Should I Be Writing when I was in my 20s. Gah. So many, many journals filled with tremulous maundering on the question, “But what if I waste my entire adult life pursuing something I have no real aptitude for when I could have put those years to more productive use?”

Yup. That’s about the size of it. Thems the chances you take.

And then one day I decided to proceed even though, all things considered, yeah, it probably would be best if I didn’t. Because writing was what I wanted to do, and all the shoulds in the world weren’t going to change that.

Occasionally I think about what Alternative Reality Kristen is doing right now, in some other dimensional realm. That girl who overpowered her silly desire to write and got a law degree or some such thing. Maybe she’s got a closet full of power suits and terrorizes her assistant for failing to put the correct ratio of sugar to milk in her macchiato. Who knows?

Mostly, I feel sorry for her.

For this I have learned: you can live quite happily without your dreams ever coming true, but you can’t live happily without pursuing your dream at all. And if you’re going to fail, fine, but make the world say no to you, don’t say it to yourself.

You've got to be committed.

Exactly.

Like a crazy person.

What do you reckon your Alternative Reality/Non-Writer You is doing right now? 


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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Likeability


Twice in the last month I’ve had occasion to be sitting in an audience, listening to a keynote address. Once at the SCBWI regional meeting a few weeks back. And again this past weekend when I attended a foodie event in D.C. featuring some Food Network celebrity chefs.

And lest you think, wow, that Kristen is livin’ large with all her conference/special event attending, I’ll just tell you that these two events were the only times in the last year that I was out for more than, like, 90 minutes. Seriously. The Junior Mint and his older sisters don’t often let me up for air. And to be honest, the only reason I went to either event was that my husband forced me to get out of the house and not come back for several hours or else he’d give me a whack with a pair of nunchuks. 

So here’s the lesson I learned while at these two events: likeability -- you either gots it or you’re sunk. And if you don’t gots it, you better pray that I’m not in the audience with a laser pointer.

We’ll start with the keynote speaker at the SCBWI event, Han Nolan. She was fabulous.

Why?

Well, for one thing, she knew her audience. You know how we writers are. We’re a wretchedly envious lot, and here we’ve got this National Book Award winner, talking to us about perseverance. It would be very easy to alienate people in this situation because you’re basically going to tell them: “Here’s why I am so successful, and you may never be.”

But she was so human and likeable, and her stories were so relatable for any aspiring writer that she had the whole room groaning along with her as she told us about her early trials and tribulations. The one story I most remember was how she got a review for her debut that was so bad, she was certain her publisher was going to cancel the print run for her book as a result. Within five minutes, she had us all rooting for her. The hour flew by. She left me feeling inspired.

Now to my other example--the foodie event.

There I was, beaten-down mother of four who gets to go out about once every ten weeks, sitting in the D.C. Convention Center, anxiously awaiting a Certain Food Network Celebrity Chef, and the emcee says, “Before we bring out the person you’ve actually paid to see, I’d like to introduce a woman who’s going to talk about stuff you’re not interested in!”

Well, that’s what the emcee should have said because that’s what we got. This woman was basically the human equivalent of a pop-up ad.

Who was this person?

I’ll tell you who she was. She was trying too hard. She was rambling on and on about … what? Something about her website? No idea. I know she told some self-congratulatory story about having Martha Stewart over to her house for dinner and how it went so well despite how nervous she was.  (I mean, who hasn’t been there, right?) After about 30 seconds, I began tuning her out, and the more she talked, the more I wished I’d brought a laser pointer so that I could shine it in her face. 

Not that I would do that or advocate doing that because it’s childish and also illegal.

(OK, maybe I’d do it, like, once. But then I’d put the laser pointer away and pretend I didn’t know what security was talking about if they asked me, “Ma’am, did you just shine a laser pointer into that woman’s face?"

And I’d be all, “What! How dare you insinuate that I look like the kind of woman who would shine a laser pointer in someone’s face? I mean really. I’m the mother of four kids, for heaven’s sake.”)

Yeah, needless to say, this speaker had ZERO likeability. Not for a moment did I think she understood what her audience wanted nor did I believe she really cared. We were there for her, not the other way around, and she left me feeling like my time had been wasted. And that, my friends, makes me very, very cranky.

So an interesting comparison and yet another important reminder for when you’re writing: you need to create empathy, be sincere, and above all, know your audience if you really want to get your story across effectively.

AND.

I should be patted down at every conference I attend to make sure I’m not packing a laser pointer.

AND.

I really do need to get out more. 


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Paranoia Pays Off

There's nothing a paranoid person loves so well as when something bad actually does happen, just so he can say, "Yes! I knew these last few years of tin foil hat-wearing would pay off big someday!"

What am I talking about? 

Total computer meltdown. Virusy mayhem. The sad, sorry badness visited upon my otherwise lily-white hard drive by casual, cyber-social intercourse.

You hear it all the time: back up your work. Without fail. And, you know, I heeded that advice so I have been spared Greek tragedy-level misery this week.

Of course, I backed up my stuff less because of a concern about a virus wreaking havoc and more because I've always feared my laptop being stolen, because, you know, I live in such a high-crime area. But still, one paranoid fear is as good as another.

But, seriously, I am ever so glad that I make a separate copy of all my work every day and keep it on a removeable drive because if I hadn't done that, I'd be cryin' in my pie* right about now.

(Actually, let's be real. It's not that I'm so good about following basic, common sense advice and more that I'm motivated by the fear of doing something painfully obvious that might have prevented a disastrous outcome. If I hadn't made a back-up and then whined about a virus laying my hard drive low, you know somebody would have said, "Well, did you back up your work?" And then I'd have to admit, no, I hadn't. Because I'm a blithe moron who deserves what I get.)

So just a friendly reminder to all of you out there. Make a back-up. Keep it separate from your computer. Do it every day. Wear your tin foil hat. Paranoia pays.

Oh, and let me just add that while it's incumbent upon all of us to take responsibility for protecting our precious files, I do hope whoever these people are who create these viruses someday enjoy a swim in the deep fat fryer of hell. They deserve it. Them and the people who don't pick up after their dogs and those ladies who tinkle on toilet seats in public restrooms and then look you in the eye as they exit the stall. You guys should all be turned into Satan's hushpuppies.


*Bogus Scottish expression. Feel free to use it. 


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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Obviosity


I know at this point in my blogging career, readers have probably lost count of the number of things I’ve listed as literary pet peeves, but let me add this one: excessively quirky characters.

You know what I’m talking about:
Her name is Calliope and she’s a welder by day, an assassin by night. Her assassin’s weapon of choice? A spear gun! The darts of which have been dipped in radioactive curare! (Can curare be radioactive? I’ve never heard of that.) She loves mah-jongg, cranberry gelato, and dyes her hair a different color each day (Really? How does she have time to do that with all the assassinating and welding she’s doing?) She's on a mission to unearth the truth about her missing parents, both of whom were circus freaks/CPAs. (So they can, like, do my taxes while swallowing flaming swords or something? I'd actually pay extra for that, assuming they could get me a decent refund.)
Come on.

I think the reason for these sorts of over-the-top characterizations is that we authors are trying to avoid making obvious choices about what characters should be or act like.

I’m sympathetic. I am. Nobody likes to feel like they’re trotting out clich├ęs at every turn. There have been many times I’ve taken out references or changed direction plot-wise because I decided I was being too obvious (read: lazy) in my narrative choices.

So, yeah, obviously one should avoid being too obvious. But let’s not swing too far in the opposite direction either. I’m sure we can all count on one finger the number of people we know who are internationally-sought-after computer hackers and also accomplished flamenco dancers.

Have you ever created something—a plot twist, a relationship, a setting—and thought, “Hmm. No, that’s far too obvious.” What did you do about it?

And since no one says the word, “Obviously,” like Alan Rickman, I leave you with this:



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