Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Three Notes To Self from The Writer Unboxed Unconference: Risk Aversion, Agency, Make a Mess

Earlier in November I had the great good fortune to attend The Writer Unboxed first ever UnConference. It was mind-blowingly awesome and my take-aways were many, but three in particular keep rolling through my system a couple of weeks later. As Lisa Cron would urge, it's time for me to get specific:

Risk Aversion:
Meg Rosoff led a session on voice that consisted of 40 questions to ask yourself. Ranging from What is something you really love, to If you died tomorrow, how would you spend your night, to Is there a person you'd like to change places with, the questions were designed to drill down into issues and themes that resonate deeply within you and which you could use consciously to inform your writing. What you choose to write about is as important as the words you string together. Voice is more than vocabulary and syntax.

One question we spent some time in the session on was Name a turning point in your life. In sharing a catastrophic event from my early adolescence, I realized not so much that it still affects me today (I knew that) but HOW it affects me. I am a risk averse person. That shows up in my writing in characters who avoid conflict. Ah! Epiphany-ville!

Who wants to read a book with no conflict? Not me.

Note to self: Beef up your conflict.

Time and time again, session after session, in group chats or tete-a-tetes, the same encouraging message was shared. Only you have the power to prevent forest fires. No, seriously, the message was only you can write your book and if your draft is currently broken, YOU CAN FIX IT. You've got the power (and so does Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty).

Nora Roberts says she can fix a broken page, she can't fix an empty one. Well same here and same for you too.

Note to self: You can do it!

Make a Mess:
The last day of the conference, Donald Maass presented his Writing 21st Fiction Century workshop (totally fab, if you ever have a chance I recommend taking it). His take on writing? If it's tidy, you're not playing. Make a mess. Don't be afraid to turn your characters' lives inside out, squeeze out all the layers of emotion, really get into your stories' guts and twist them (but let that be the only gut twisting allowed anywhere near your MS. As Mr. Maass rightly decrees: telling your reader about a character's guts twisting is not the same as making your readers' guts twist FOR the character).

Not to self: Go make a mess!

Are you ready to make a mess?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Confessions of a Clutter Junkie

Part One: The Junk Attacks

Last month, I moved out of a house that I'd been living in for over fifteen years. The change has been a welcome one: our old place was a one-bathroom, two-bedroom-plus-oversized-closet house which we outgrew years ago. In our new place, we not only have an abundance of bathrooms, but enough elbow room that I can turn in a complete circle without either bumping into a pile of stuff, or stepping on a cat.

That's the good part.

The not-so-good part is this: I have. A lot. Of junk. A lot.

The "junk" has been collected with the best of intentions: it's mostly books, dvds, and family treasures. But best intentions or not, that stuff takes up space. And gathers dust. And sometimes gets knocked over when you're rushing around trying to get ready for work in the morning.

Part Two: The Fantasies Form

So, thinking myself extraordinarily clever and efficient, I decided that instead of trying to move everything, we would donate a lot of our excess. But then the obvious truth smacked me in the face like a dust mop: just because I wasn't taking something to the new house didn't mean it didn't have to be packed. Like it or not, I couldn't just use a bulldozer to shovel it all into a pile, then put two fingers into my mouth and whistle for the Salvation Army to come pick it up (although the bulldozer was a frequent fantasy).

(Speaking of fantasies, I also invented a fantasy device which is basically a giant vacuum tube that would have allowed me to press a button and all my stuff would be sucked out of the old house, into the new. There are a few mechanical issues to be worked out, but as soon as technology catches up I'm sure it'll be a big hit.)

During our Great Pack-Up, I often told my family that we were going to become minimalists. "From now on," I'd say, "we're not going to own any more possessions than we can carry on our backs!" This idea didn't go over well, of course. And since I'm not up to carrying a sofa and flat-screen TV on my back, even I had to admit it wasn't really a practical plan.

Part Three: The Truth Becomes Unavoidable

So, the bulldozer was out, and living out of a backpack wasn't looking too workable (where would we have put the catboxes?). Although our former residence was small, the sheer volume of our possessions was astounding, and until it was time to move, I had allowed myself to just keep accumulating. Even now, after the bulk of the move is done, I own too many things that I don't use. That kind of abundance doesn't make me feel happy or prosperous; it just makes me feel exhausted, and a little sad.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read Marjanna's post here on the R8, The Burdens (and Vintage Kitchenware) We Carry that Aren't Our Own, and I realized that I'm not alone. Marjanna has been dealing with a similar challenge: helping her mother move from a house to an apartment. And packing her mom's kitchen, with its collection of memorabilia disguised as labor-saving devices, had been particularly difficult.

It seems that living with an overabundance of Stuff has become a common affliction. Kitchenware, clothes, electronic devices... so many of us have Too Much Stuff Syndrome. But the good thing about having a common affliction is that there are usually many people who are looking for a cure. I went in search of a few of those who have found a way to assuage the pain of possession. As usual, the Internet held all the answers.

Part Four: The Answers Begin to Take Shape

Online, I found three resources which have been particularly helpful:

The Minimalists - The very popular blog of two thirty-something guys from Ohio who found balance in their lives by reducing their possessions and hopping off the corporate track. I perused their blog for information and also listened to their audiobook. My biggest takeaway from the book was this realization: The things I own do not define who I am.

The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno - I'm always attracted to "journey stories": tales of people who have made a dramatic change in their lives and have come out better on the other side. This book is the story of a man who reduced his personal items down to 100 things, and lived that way for a year. Biggest takeaway from this book? Sometimes we buy things as a substitute for doing things. In my case, this would include an embarrassing number of blank journals. Those empty pages made me feel like a writer, because they "reminded" me of all the words I could write in them... but then never did. Weird, I know, but that's how I ended up being a clutter junkie.

Tiny - This is a documentary which I actually watched on Netflix some time ago. Although the description reads, "A young couple with no construction experience attempts to build a tiny house in this documentary that contemplates shifting American values," the thing I loved most about it was the pretty pictures: seeing how a variety of people had created big, beautiful lives for themselves out of tiny little homes. From this documentary, I took away the knowledge that if you want to live large, sometimes you have to build small.

Part Five: The Next Step Develops

Although I'm not quite prepared to live with only 100 things, or in a 100-square-foot home, I am more than ready to simplify my life, and that includes whittling down what I own to the things I need and love most. I'll let you know how it goes over the next year or so. In the meantime, do you have any tips for me, or any stories to share about having too much stuff?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Covers: Revealed!

Mom always said, "Don't judge a book by its cover!" But truth be told, we do judge, don't we? That reality makes many authors shake in their shoes. Why? Because covers speak to readers. And we don't want the cover of our novel saying the wrong thing!

But what makes a cover appealing? Is it the color? Is it the image? Or is it something else we can't quite define?

As a reader, I love covers with combinations of colors. I love images that are true to the action found inside the book. And I love an over-all look that makes the cover comes to life on my computer screen and e-reader.

As a writer, I wondered if my cover would even have one of these elements. When my fabulous editor at Random House's e-imprint, Alibi, sent me the cover for my December 2 debut e-book, THE KILL LIST: A JAMIE SINCLAIR NOVEL, I clicked open the file with fast fingers. And here's what I found!

Available December 2, 2014 wherever e-books are sold.
In that kaleidoscope of gorgeous color, there's my heroine, Jamie Sinclair, the ultimate outsider, relegated beyond the barbed wire fence of an army installation where a little girl has been taken from her bed. For me, color, image, and everything came together on this cover. And it's true to the story I crafted.

But my good fortune didn't stop there! The good folks at Alibi have just put the finishing touches on the cover to the sequel, THE KILL SHOT: A JAMIE SINCLAIR NOVEL which hits the virtual shelves on March 17, 2015. It's my pleasure to share that with you now.

Coming March 17, 2015 to an e-reader near you.

And there, in another sweep of rich shades, Jamie's one step ahead of trouble, running for her life through London's Heathrow International Airport. This design isn't only true to my story, it's a beautiful blend of color and image. If it's possible, I think I love it even more than the cover for the first novel!

So whether you're drawn to color, image, or something else, if you'd like to judge my e-books by their covers, please feel free! I hope you'll like what you see.

In the meantime, let the R8 know. As a reader or as a writer, what draws you to a book's cover? Is it color? Image? Or something else altogether?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Warm Hugs

As I mentioned in my last post for the R8, I spent my summer sitting in cars with a girl. Also at splash parks, adventure land parks, pools, the indoor playground at the mall, and (Shhh, don't tell her mother...) the indoor playgrounds at various fast food establishments.

What can I say? Unlike her grandmother, the kid's a runner!

And because her grandmother's not a runner, the other thing we did was cuddle on the couch watching Every Kids Movie I Could Find.

There are a lot of really really good kids movies.

And still, by the time they flew home, my brain was:

Partly because that was her favorite of the lot. But mostly, if I'm being honest here, MOSTLY because I (all too easily, scarily scarily easily) put my writing aside for the 2.5 months she was in town.

Which left me, yet again, trying to find my way back into the writing. Sigh.

As my friend Deborah says, "Action is always the answer." And while I can't say that I've taken a lot of action in this direction, I have taken some!

First: I started making dates with one of my other writing friends (not naming any names here, but their initials are J. Keely Thrall) to meet up after work on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I still get a little panicky, just before I leave for a writing date. Will the words be there? But I don't give in to the fear and just the fact that I push through the fear to get there feels like a victory. New words on top of that? Bonus!

Second: I had to miss the RWA national conference this year, but thanks to my wise friend Deborah, I have in my hot little hands the flash drive full of mp3 files of the conference workshops.

So I've been listening to those. It's not the same thing as being there, but it's my RWA this year, and I'm finding a lot of information and inspiration in those workshop audio files. So yes, I'm counting that as action, too! And what's the rule here, kittens?

That's right. Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart!

Er, I mean, "Action is always the answer!"

And taking action feels like a nice warm hug... so get out there and take some action!

It will make you feel better.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Burdens (and Vintage Kitchenware) We Carry that Aren't Our Own

Over the last several months, my siblings and I have been clearing out my mom's house, and getting mom settled into a new apartment. It has been an all-out effort by all of us. Mom was actually very quick to decide what to take with her to the new flat. Until we came to the kitchen.  Drawer after drawer, mom needed it. From the wacky looking spatula thingy that is actually an egg white beater to the Tupperware Jell-o mold with interchangeable centers - Christmas tree, heart, Easter chick, St Patrick's Day shamrock, and I can't remember the July Fourth center.  She actually had two sets of the Tupperware.
No. I'm serious. Two sets.
Mom tells me, as she mournfully watches me discard 3 of her potato peelers (at least one of which is from the 60s and so dull I doubt it could shave butter let alone a cucumber), that she always wanted a complete kitchen because her mother "never had one". Besides, she insists, her three 2-quart saucepans, as well as her 4-quart, 1-quart, and 6-quart, are all Good Pans. Same with her frying pans, saucier, and Corning Ware casseroles.  She has a drawer full of strainers, another of measuring cups, and another drawer with potholders from when she moved into the Wehawken Road house. In 1965. The orange, brown and autumn gold are back in style, so no point changing those out.
Of course, every time I drove away from her house, I said, "I'm going straight home and throw crap out." Then parked my car, set down a box that held the egg-white beater and a pie dish, and turned on the TV. Because the emotions of disbanding my mom's house is exhausting. So exhausting that I also have one set of the Tupperware Jell-O molds because it was hidden in the cake carrier I brought home with me. The cake carrier reminded me of Wednesday Night church suppers and family birthday parties. We didn't have Facebook, we had every item in mom's kitchen to remind us of life events. The harvest gold fondu pot. The cookie sheets. The cheeseboard.
Yeah. It will come as no surprize that I have trouble separating the gift from the giver or the item from the event.  And every trip that I make to the thrift store feels like a victory. (and I have to do it quickly or the item gets piled up in the corner, because I might need it/sell it/gift it).A friend told me that my father's passions (his books, tools, musical instruments) didn't have to become mine, and nor does my mother's need to have a complete kitchen. Because, let's be honest, if I ever have to beat egg whites, do you seriously think I'll be doing that by hand? 

Do you have a difficult time de-cluttering or letting go of clutter? Or are you one of those who can live a Spartan existence where too many possessions would be more than 20 items of clothing, a chair, a bed, a toothbrush and a TV? If that's the case, tell me your secret? Because you much have superpowers.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

D.E. Ireland Bringing to Life Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, & Edwardian Mystery

D.E. Ireland: Meg Mims (left) and Sharon Pisacreta (right)
This week's guest is D.E. Ireland, author of Wouldn't It Be Deadly: An Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins Mystery released by Minotaur Books September 23rd. A delightful first book in a new series, Wouldn't It Be Deadly is full of rich historical detail, quirky memorable characters, and an intriguing mystery plot where Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins join together as amateur detectives to clear Higgins' name and track down a killer who threatens the streets of Edwardian London. You won't want to miss this 1913-set mystery romp. 

Let's take some time to get to know D.E. Ireland. D.E. Ireland is a team of award-winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Long time friends, they decided to collaborate on this unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully witty play, Pygmalion. While they admit the lovely film My Fair Lady and its soundtrack proved to be inspiration, they are careful to stick to Shaw’s vision of the beloved characters from Eliza to Higgins to Pickering, Mrs. Pearce, Freddy Eynsford Hill and his family, while adding a slew of new characters they've dreamed up to flesh out their own version of events post-Pygmalion.

I posed a few questions to our talented writing team. Let's see what they had to say:

Q.: How did you settle on the time period and the detective couple (Higgins/Doolittle)?

A.: Inspirational lightning struck when Meg  was driving to Sharon’s house in west Michigan, something that frequently occurred since we are longtime friends and critique partners. During the two-hour plus drive, Meg was singing along to the My Fair Lady soundtrack when the thought occurred: “What if Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins teamed up to solve mysteries?” Every editor in New York says they want "something fresh and different.” Well, this idea was pretty unique. As soon as Meg arrived, she explained her latest brainstorm and fortunately Sharon also thought the idea of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins as amateur sleuths was fabulous. Since we had been looking for something to collaborate on, this seemed perfect. And what fun to bring these already beloved characters to life once more. 

Q.: What did you enjoy most about writing a cozy mystery set in the Edwardian period? (And I'm calling it a cozy mystery because that's what it feels like to me).

A.: It's both a traditional and a cozy mystery, since all the violence takes place "off stage" - meaning the murders have already happened or the victim is dying. And ours wouldn't be considered a "dark" mystery, since we infuse humor into the characters and situations. We also love that Eliza and Professor Higgins have joined the genre’s other celebrated male-female detective duos, and hope readers really love the rivalry and interactions between the two of them. In addition, we are huge fans of Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge, Upstairs/Downstairs, Edwardian costumes, English teatime, the changes brought on with World War I, etc. Such an exciting era.

Q.: I understand D.E. Ireland is a collaborative team. Can you explain how a collaboration works?

Sharon and I both have similar writing styles, and have critiqued each other's writing for over twenty years. We have also been published separately under our own names: Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Sharon wrote four historical romances and one contemporary with Dorchester (one of them under the pen name ‘Cynthia Kirk’), along with several mystery and fantasy short stories. Meg has five books as well under her name--two western mysteries and three contemporary romance novellas. For our first collaborative effort, we came up with the pseudonym D.E. Ireland: D.E. is Eliza Doolittle backwards, and Ireland is a nod to G.B. Shaw's birthplace in Dublin. We also had to put together a way to write as a team. We plot the outline in great depth (from 20 to 30 single-spaced pages!) and then assign chapters to each other for the first draft. One to two revised drafts follow before undertaking a complete read-through aloud to each other. This is done over the phone – several chapters at a time – since we live so far from each other. That way we can hear any awkward phrases or catch any typos or punctuation problems. Whew. It works for us.

Q.: What's next?

A.: Book 2, Move Your Blooming Corpse is coming in 2015. It's set at Royal Ascot, of course, and includes horse racing as well as the suffragette movement. We're both also working on separate cozy series. Life is busy, but good!

Thanks so much for visiting us this week, D.E. Ireland. I loved your book. As I mentioned above, I found Wouldn't It Be Deadly a fascinating glimpse into the time period, with its skillfully layered historical detail and it's intriguing plot mixed with characters that are familiar and beloved. Nicely done. I love mysteries in general and cozy mysteries more specifically. This book had the feel of a historical cozy mystery to me. Rich in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Thanks for sharing your time and talent with us.

Readers, be sure to check out Wouldn't It Be Deadly. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by this twisty, fun mystery which springs from George Bernard Shaw's beloved characters in Pygmalion.

Buy Links for Wouldn't It Be Deadly:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Writers on Writing

Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
            Since I’ve been able to write more now that I’m getting better, I’m discovering a new joy for writing.  I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy it.  How satisfying it is.  How easy it is to lose yourself in it.  But, I’m not the only one who’s carrying the torch for writing.  The great writers, both past and present, have as well.  Here are some of my favorite quotes.

            "I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark." Henry David Thoreau

            I’ve done this.  I’m sure you have as well.  The idea that burns a hole in your brain just as that sleepy feeling washes over you.  You know you’re tired but you can’t stop your brain.  You love this inspiration even though you’re going to be SO tired the next day.

            "Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward…" Franz Kafka
            Writing feels like coming home, getting back in touch with old friends and reacquainting myself with them.  Yes, they’ve changed and grown but they’re still the same people that I’ve always known.  And, they welcome me back with open arms.
            "You become a writer because you need to become a writer - nothing else." Grace Paley

            The times when I haven’t been able to write either as much as I’d like to or not at all, I don’t feel “right.”  Like something is missing and I’m not complete unless I’m doing it.

            "Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else." Gloria Steinem 

            I always begrudge the time I spend on things that I aggravate me.  Like waiting in lines, sitting in meaningless meetings, or doing errands that seem to take forever.  I want to be sitting at the desk and writing. 

            "Thoughts fly and words go on foot. Therein lies all the drama of a writer." Julien Green

            Isn’t it great when this happens?  When the words are coming so fast that your fingers on the keyboard can’t keep up.  What a rush.  It’s like a runner’s high—floating, not feeling any pain or difficulty.

            "Real writers are those who want to write, need to write, have to write." Robert Penn Warren

            This weekend, we went out of town.  I sat in the car and wrote while my husband listened to the ball game on the radio.  It was not something I thought I should do but something I wanted to do.  The sun was streaming through the window, warming me while I wrote with the computer in my lap.  Heaven. 

            What is it about writing that makes you happy?  I’d love to hear what makes you excited about the creative process.