Thursday, February 28, 2013

Q & A about writerly things

Last August I participated in a blog tour sponsored by Orangeberry Book Tours. At the outset they gave me a list of questions to answer that they distributed to their participating bloggers. Here's the list and my answers. I've corrected a couple since some things have changed since August.

By the way, Pandora Poikilos, who arranged my tour, is terrific and very supportive.

 Questions and Answers

1. What is one book everyone should read?

Be Here Now by Ram Dass

2. What is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?

Peanut butter and blueberries

3. Please tell us in one sentence only, why we should read your book.

My book has much to share with anyone grieving the loss of a loved one or suffering any kind of loss.

4. Any other books in the works? Goals for future projects? 

I’m writing an historical novel based on a small aspect of my family’s history, yet with a huge plot twist. I also want to have a book of poetry published. I also want to have a CD made of my son’s jazz music with proceeds of sales going to a charity that helps erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide.

5. What inspired you to want to become a writer?

Writing always seemed to come naturally to me, and because of that my teachers were very encouraging.

6. Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.

After my first publisher went out of business, I was fortunate to find a wonderful new publisher, Dream of Things, that recently released paperback and eBook editions of my book. The first publisher going out of business was a blessing in disguise.

7. What is your dream cast for your book?

Jane Fonda as the main character (me), and my son Ben playing himself

8. What was your favorite book when you were a child/teen?  

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

9. Is there a song you could list as the theme song for your book or any of your characters?

My son was a very talented jazz composer and pianist. I would want his music as the theme song with sprinkles of John Lennon, Miles Davis, and J.S. Bach throughout the film.

10. What's one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?

Don’t give up. No matter how many rejections you get, keep on asking. Be persistent.

11. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?

Italy. It is my goal to live in Rome someday and travel throughout Italy by train. First stops would be Sicily and Naples – places I haven’t visited yet. Plus I love Italian food.

12. What is your favorite Quote?

"How old would you be if you didn't know your age?" Golda Meir

13. When you were little, what did you want to be when you "grew up"?

Brenda Starr Reporter or a shoe designer. I loved to draw and paint as well as write.

14. What's the best advice anyone has ever given you?

A friend called me ten days after my son’s funeral and advised me to come back to our morning aerobics class. I did. Working out again helped me begin my healing process. I still workout every day.

15. What movie and/or book are you looking forward to this year?

11/22/63 by Stephen King [I have read it, and it is a terrific book - my favorite in 2012]

16. What was your favorite children's book? 

Me Too, story and words by Fritz Willis (The Marcel Rodd Company, 1944). My dad gave me the book because I always said, “me too,” whenever I wanted something my brother had. (I recently bought a first-edition copy of it.)

17. How do you react to a bad review?

I haven’t had one yet, but if I did I would want to know why or if the reader even read my book. Needless to say, I wouldn’t feel good about it. [I've had a few lately. I still don't feel good about them.]

18. If you could have a signed copy of any novel what would it be and why?

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. One of my all-time favorite books.

19. What do you do in your free time? 

Workout, take long walks on the beach, read, go to movies, theater, and opera

20. Who or what inspired you to become an author?

I was inspired to tell the story of my son’s bipolar illness and how I survived his suicide. I felt that if my story could help just one other family, my writing it would be worthwhile. Also, my writing teachers encouraged me to get my story out into the world.

21. In your wildest dreams, which author would you love to co-author a book with?

Norah Ephron. She had the career I wanted early on. But she didn’t live long enough to get to write with me.

Denver visit

While spending the weekend in Denver visiting family, we got caught in a blizzard. We're now happily back in Southern California.

I love my great nieces

 View out the window

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reading like a writer

So about the big read. (See my February 11 blog post about this process.) I’m about two thirds through, and it’s easy to tell my novel in progress needs a lot of work. In fact, in the words of Anne Lamott in her wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird, it’s a "shitty first draft." I just don’t know if I’m clever enough to give it what it needs to turn it into a "good second draft" and a "terrific third draft" that she predicts will happen.

Anne Lamott

I’m finding little problems like lots of typos, inconsistencies, and redundancies – those I know how to fix. It’s the big problems like creating more interest in the characters and the story that is the major work. I need to describe the characters better; I need to make the story more interesting and suspenseful. In truth I need to figure out a way to make my readers want to turn the page.

This morning I read a LinkedIn conversation about whether to include prologues or not – lots of pros and cons on the subject. So I need to revisit leaving mine in or weaving it into the chapters as backstory. And then my major decision before I move on with any revisions at all is whether to change the narrative from third person to first. So my first step is to rewrite a scene or two to see if I can pull that off as well.

Another thing I came upon this morning is this wonderful quote by William Faulkner: "Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good."

William Faulkner

So even though I’ve been thinking in the back of my head about abandoning this project, I’m going to keep on for the time being. Faulkner has given me the push I need.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It takes a village to write a book

When Eleanor Vincent and I were at pages: a bookstore the other night discussing our memoirs and how writing helped us heal, we continually mentioned how it takes a village to write a book.

I’m now in the process of writing a novel, and I continue to believe in the importance of many helping hands in the process. I’ve just completed a novel revision workshop and got useful comments from my instructor and classmates. I also belong to a writing group, and I’ve used the resources of The Next Big Writers website to get reviews of my book as I review the work of others.

Here I discuss how I got my memoir written and published, not only once but twice. A member of my village helped me connect with my current Dream of Things publisher when my first publisher went out of business.

Even though writing is a lonely business, a village of resources helped and nurtured me from the time I started writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I started with journaling, at first sporadically and later, after reading and doing the exercises in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam’s Sons, 1992), I wrote my morning pages, not missing a day of keeping my fingers moving across the pages of my journal.

 After amassing about three years worth of journal entries I began to think about turning them into a book. But, I was not a creative writer. My writing experience consisted of writing, editing, and training engineers on reports and proposals in the aerospace industry. So I went back to school to learn.

I took fiction, essay, and memoir writing classes through UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The people from my first fiction class formed a writing group, meeting monthly, sharing and gently critiquing each other’s writing. Unfortunately our group disbanded when my son who was bipolar took his life. But, one of the pieces from that first class ended up in my memoir.

A member of that group spoke lovingly about Jack Grapes of the Los Angeles Poet’s and Writer’s Collective, who taught classes in the living room of his family home. Three months after Paul died I enrolled in Jack’s level one method writing class, and for five years I worked my way up the level ladder, ending with a poetry editing class. Many of the poems I wrote in the Grapes class are also in my memoir.

The prompts in Mourning & Mitzvah—A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992) also kept me sane. However, I keep returning to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California – my healing and writing place. Early on I discovered Ellen Bass’ “Writing About Our Lives” workshop and almost immediately poems started to flow from my pen. I still attend poetry workshops there with some of the same people I’ve written with at Esalen for years.

Once I amassed enough material, I had no idea how to put it together. Then my son Ben introduced me to a former literary agent who reviewed my work, gave me writing prompts, and suggested I structure my book based on the sequence of poems in my poetry manuscript. Though the book went through several changes later on, her suggestions formed my book’s organization. Because I based my book on my list of poems I was adamant that my poems appear in the book. My publisher agreed and even asked me to add more.

Once I had a draft manuscript – edited by a woman referred to me by one of my memoir-writing instructors – I started querying. Again through an introduction from Ben, Mark Shelmerdine, a CEO of a small press critiqued and advised me on my query letter and book proposal. I also used How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). And once I found my  publisher, I spent months revising my book. I relied on techniques I learned while working on proposals in the aerospace industry and a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published.

My village generously helped me write my book. More later on how it also takes a village to market a book.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A successful bookstore reading and discussion

My friend, Eleanor Vincent came down this weekend to fulfill our commitment to do a reading and discussion at my local independent pages: a bookstore. She arrived on Saturday afternoon, and after much stalling we got to work planning the event Sunday morning after breakfast.

We quickly decided to alternate two or three readings with short chats related to them, and then open the discussion to the audience. We chose on our reading portions – I chose two and Eleanor chose three – and then we practiced and timed the whole piece, including our remarks. I also created an agenda so we could each have one at the ready as we sat in front of the attendees later in the afternoon. I had already purchased a few bottles of wine and sparkling water and some veggies and dip to serve. Mike O’Mary shipped us books to sell. Eleanor’s went directly to Pages. Mine came to my home.

With all that we declared ourselves ready – mainly because we are very knowledgeable about our books’ messages and the commonality of our stories. That enabled us to easily play our experiences off one another.

I did have the usual worry of: suppose you throw a party and no one comes. As usual, several people who said they would be there didn’t show, and several people I didn’t know would attend did. I think that has happened with every event I’ve participated in so far. The good thing is most of the chairs were filled – about twenty people were there.

Reading and Bantering

I think our banter and readings about writing as healing went very well. And we had many questions, comments, and tears from the audience. But the disappointing part was that we didn’t sell many books – I think we each sold four. Lisa DeLong from my writing group, who is also a bereaved parent, attended and sold a few of her book, Blood Brothers, too. Of course our Dream of Things publisher warned us that authors don’t usually sell a lot of books at bookstores. (I was definitely spoiled by the over sixty I sold at my book launch in 2011, so of course I expected to sell more.) As Eleanor said, people just don’t get it. When they come to a reading and book signing they need to be prepared to buy books.

Lisa, Madeline, and Eleanor

So, Eleanor and I are now ready to take our show on the road – to other venues pertinent to our subject matter where we can sell books in the back of the room: libraries, book festivals, conferences, speaking engagements. Anyone out there, who wants to book us, please let me know.

All told, I think we had a great event. Like I’ve always felt, it’s not really about selling books. It’s about erasing the stigma of mental illness and preventing suicide. If my events help do that, I’ll feel successful.
Eleanor’s book is Swimming with Maya
just out in paperback and eBook 
(Dream of Things, 2013)

(Dream of Things, 2012)

Thank you Mike O'Mary of Dream of Things for publishing both our books. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

My memoir revision process

Since I’ve been on the topic of revision, I thought I’d share the revision process I followed while getting my memoir ready for publication.

I eagerly took on the task of editing and revising my memoir manuscript. I had spent many years editing and rewriting proposals to the U.S. Government, and I used much of this experience to revise my book. One of the first lessons I learned on that job was to plan before doing, and that was the first thing I did before embarking on my rounds of revisions. Here’s my process.

1. Create a revision plan. I created a revision plan based on my publisher’s and first reader’s notes. Once I buy-in from my publisher to this plan, I was ready to get to work.

2. Don’t edit as you write. Write, wait a while, then edit: Leave your work alone for as long a time as you can before sitting down to edit it. While I spent over two years querying agents and small presses, my manuscript laid dormant. So when I finally got my book contract, I read it front to back, chapter by chapter, with my revision plan in hand. I marked up a hard copy with a red pen. Also I made no electronic changes to any part of my manuscript until I completed this first round of edits. And surprise, surprise, I found lots of things to edit, including typos, awkward sentences, repetition, and inconsistencies. Unbelievable! After all the times I had gone over it! During this first edit pass, I also looked for places to insert the new material necessary to my story and where I needed to update material that was clearly out of date.

3. Post a hard copy of your book on storyboards. I set up foam storyboards along the walls of the long hall next to my office and pinned up a printed copy of each chapter as I electronically finished incorporating my first round of edits. Storyboarding allowed me see the book all at once and better spot redundancies and inconsistencies and places that needed cutting, moving, and expanding. I also saw where each chapter best belonged. I highlighted my problem-child text in yellow, so I could see where I needed to go back and revise again.

My storyboards

4. Have others review your work. After I completed the first round of edits and reworked the yellow-highlighted portions, I gave an electronic copy of the book to three willing writer friends. One person did a line-by-line edit – and he too, found punctuation and sentence structure problems. Another friend looked at the content for repetition, inconsistencies, and writing accuracy. And the person who originally helped me create my revision plan read it again for ways to best organize the book. She made suggestions about where to move things around and which chapters could be eliminated or combined.

5. Take your reviewer’s suggestions as just that. I made sure I was still in control of my book. I decided whether to take my editor's notes or not. I was the person with the last red pen. Even my publisher said,
"I know you are working very hard on the final draft of your book, and I like that you are keeping in mind that it is YOUR book, YOUR story, and YOUR voice. Others can only offer advice. Only you can write this book."
So I reviewed each comment, fixed what I thought relevant, and filed the rest away.

6. Create a schedule with real milestones and stick to it. Because I was reliant on other people’s inputs, I needed a schedule with hard and fast deadlines for them, and me, and in keeping with my publisher’s schedule. I made it tight. I gave myself five months to complete everything, including incorporating my revisions and reviewer’s comments; merging the finished chapters into one document; gathering photos for the cover and body of the book; getting permissions to use quotes from other authors, and writing dust jacket and book cover copy.

7. Keep going over your manuscript until you’re satisfied with it.  I kept asking myself, what does finished really mean? Even after incorporating the relevant review comments I realized I still needed to make a few little changes, add a few little things, and make a few more edits. In all I must have gone over each of the manuscript chapters at least four (some many more) times during my entire revision process. I knew I was really done when I stopped thinking what I could to the book, when I didn’t have any more changes or adds or deletes or reorganization ideas left in me, when my mind stopped living and breathing the book every waking moment of every day, and when I was comfortable letting it go.

This piece was originally published at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents website on May 20, 2011