Saturday, April 6, 2013

On My Next Big Thing

I have been tagged by the uber-talented Jennie Wood for this pyramid scheme for writers to answer a series of “interview” questions about their books—-upcoming or on the market—-and then tag three others. So here’s my opportunity for a little advance self-promotion.

What is the working title of your book? How to Write a Best Seller: A Novel

Which genre does your book fall under? For the moment, I’m going with upmarket women’s fiction with a touch of humor.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? This novel originally started out as a screenplay so many years ago that my friend with whom I originally wrote it and I thought that Goldie Hawn would play the single law professor; Sally Field, the married market researcher; and Peter Gallagher, the young love interest. Clearly, none of these is age appropriate anymore.

What is a one sentence synopsis of your book? Two women in their middle years set out to write a novel about a woman with a perfect career and perfect romance only to realize that their own grittier lives offer the more compelling tale.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? That depends on what the starting point is! We finished the first draft of the screenplay in about six months and then spent years on revision. When I began novelizing it in 2006, I took at least two years to complete the first draft because I was working on another novel at the same time. It has been through many revisions since then, most recently with the crucial help of my Grub Street Novel Incubator class in 2011-2012 and my two incomparable Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I think more in terms of other authors whose work has some of the same flavor: Claire Cook, Elinor Lipman, Nick Hornby. It could also be considered a kind of Bridget Jones Diary for women in their middle years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? In the mid-90s, my friend and I decided that we could write something along the lines of Bridges of Madison County. In the course of concocting the original story, we realized that our own adventures in doing so were way more interesting. So this novel has autobiographical/ biographical roots, which we used as a jumping off point to tell the story we wanted to tell. My friend really does teach law to educators and her area of expertise is privacy rights/strip-searching of students, as is her fictional counterpart’s. Sometimes reality beats out fantasy (a major theme of the novel).

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest? I have a background in developmental psychology. A lot of my work could be classified as coming-of-age across the life span with the characters figuring out who they are, what they want, and how they can conquer their demons, often demons from childhood. So although this novel has a humorous bent, I believe that many women might recognize themselves and their struggles in my two protagonists. It’s also a book about deep friendship. The story alternates back and forth between the points-of-view of the two main women protagonists. Structurally, it’s a meta-story. A story about a story. Of course, the hope is that the book my protagonists are writing will become a best seller, and so the meta-story is also about my fantasy that my novel will be a best seller.

When and how will it be published? I have started to query agents, so the answer to that question is out of my hands for the time being. I welcome representation. Stay tuned.

The following writing colleagues all have books out that they’d like you to take notice of. Check them out on Amazon. Guys, you’re it!

Jack B. Rochester Wild Blue Yonder: A Novel of the Sixties.

Stephen Turner All the Sad Goodbyes. A World War II saga.

Daniel Evans Weiss His latest- The Magic of Middle-Aged Women. Non-fiction. Hot!

Monday, April 1, 2013

On the Cycle of Creativity--Part II, The Writer

The Muser has returned!In my blog entry of July 2012, I discussed Jeanne Carbonetti’s seven stage Cycle of Creativity. So how might this process apply to writing a novel (or two), a central task of mine these last few years? I’ve taken a crack at it.

WAITING: The germ of the story forms until you can no longer resist it. You have a desire to create.

OPENING: You design your main character(s) and uncover what makes them tick; you begin to form the shape of the plot. Your mind is spinning with the possibilities. Maybe you start making lots of notes, creating character sketches, composing shards of unconnected scenes. Maybe you do some research. The project is still a fantasy without a body, but it has a spirit.

CLOSING: You are in the thick of your writing process, fingers flying on keyboard. It is all you can think about if you don’t let other things distract you. You are goal-focused.You produce a first draft at this stage. You’re proud of your baby. You feel like a writer.

HOLDING: Now what? Despite having a draft, your novel isn’t nearly finished. It needs revising. You may feel stalled, wanting to work on other projects. Maybe you let it gestate awhile until you are ready to attack it anew. You have a dream after all.

RELEASING: Now is the time to share your work with others and get feedback (and support), which you must accept gracefully and ingest rather than fight back. It is not your job to explain to your critiquers what they can’t see. It is your job to take what is right and good, to fix it so that what others see matches your vision for the project. You make as many revisions as you need to, sometimes feeling constipated and unable to let go. Take a laxative if you need it, whatever that is. Allow yourself to continue to release your story. That is your mission.

EMPTYING: When you can do no more, you will stop. It is done. It is time to send out your manuscript to agents and hope that they appreciate your vision.

SITTING: And then you wait until the agent calls with the good news, or you move on…. Time for another project. You will accept your destiny, whatever that is, and soldier on, hoping that a new desire starts to form.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Finding a Sense of Direction

For 15 years, I have been coming to Somers Point, NJ, to meet up with a close friend whom I only see once a year. Another long-term friend of hers gives us the use of his cozy ranch house (with central air) while he is abroad. I fly or take the train. She picks me up and does all the driving. For 15 years I had no idea where I was or where we were going beyond our straight walk up the bike path or the occasional late afternoon meander to one of our watering holes a mile away. She was my tour guide, and I relied on her to get us to our destination--the Acme, the movies, Atlantic City, Ocean City, the market with the fresh Jersey produce, the shopping plaza with our favorite store and its annual markdowns. Occasionally, she would take a wrong turn, and I was of little help. The area was just a set of landmarks to me, with no connective tissue. There were no maps in the car, and until recently, no GPS. And all those years I didn’t pay attention because I didn’t have to.

This year because of an illness in the family, my friend had to cancel our pilgrimage, and my husband, a mid-westerner who had never been to the Jersey Shore, agreed to come in her stead. We drove down from Boston. Although I have GPS, I always Mapquest a journey and study the map, zooming in on those final steps. When I am behind the wheel, I want to know the contour the trip, to understand when the GPS lady is steering me wrong. She often does. Mapquest wanted to take me to a different exit from the one we usually take. I took in the shape of the town. The main road names were familiar. But this time I saw their relationship to each other--how far apart they were, where they intersected, where the bridges were connecting us to the island communities along the coast. I created a mental map of the region for the first time.

I listened to the GPS lady, with her monotone voice, and we did what she said (because Mapquest had also endorsed that same final route). As we exited the Garden State Parkway at Exit 30 (instead of the usual Exit 36) and came to our required left turn, I had a Eureka moment. All of a sudden, the world was familiar. But unlike all my previous journeys, I now understood where we were and how we could get to all our haunts. Perhaps I had absorbed some of the specifics after all these years, but this was the first time I had a big picture, and all the pieces were falling into place. What surprised me was how empowering that was. Previously, I had ceded control, and now it was in my hands.

I think there is a life lesson here. Even as adults, sometimes it’s freeing to let others guide us for awhile, to make short-term decisions. That is especially true in times of grief or illness. Other times, we yield responsibility because we are on someone else’s territory or we don’t want to be the bossy one. But in general, we shouldn’t rely on the GPS lady for direction. She doesn’t know our needs. Far better is to have a big picture in our heads--to know that we can take different routes to a destination, that we can even meander a bit, if we so choose. We can do our own “recalculating,” thank you very much. And if we get a little lost, it’s fine to ask for help.

As for me, I am going to appreciate Somers Point and surrounding towns in a whole new way. But next time I am here with my friend, my challenge will be to keep my mouth shut, even if I think I know a better way, because part of friendship is knowing which battles to fight and taking Exit 36 rather than Exit 30 isn’t one of them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On the Cycle of Creativity, Part I--The Artist

Two weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a water color workshop taught by artist/ teacher/ writer Jeanne Carbonetti at her beautiful and restful home and studio in rural Chester, Vermont. I am not a watercolorist, but rather a dabbler in the arts, seeking an antidote to months of focusing on words in an intensive creative writing experience. I hoped to learn something more about the medium than the primitive amount I knew and to enjoy the sensation of dabbing color on paper. What I did not expect was a well-thought through theory of the creative process.

I love getting my mind around a good theory, and Jeanne’s did not disappoint. Her ideas, which are inspried by Eastern thought, are applicable to creative pursuits of all kinds and perhaps to a life as a whole. She poses a seven stage “cycle of creativity.” As someone who currently feels creatively stuck, I was at first pleased to learn that only in one of the seven stages is one actually producing!

Jeanne likens the process to an oyster creating a pearl. Each stage poses a task, a challenge, and a gift, and Jeanne illustrates each one with a work from literature. The process is more fully described in two of her books: Making Pearls: Living the Creative Life and The Heart of Creativity: Imagination, Inspiration, and Destiny.

Here are the 7 stages, briefly summarized from my rather crude notes, omitting the stories and the analogies to light:

1. WAITING (Desire): The desire forms. Maybe there is an image floating in your mind. Be alone and let it form. The Challenge of the Heart: Making sure that it is your desire and not someone else’s.

2. OPENING (Fantasy): This is a time of experimentation, a time when you fall in love with the idea. The Challenge of the Heart: To see the truth behind the fantasy or dream.

3. CLOSING (Goal): The oyster closes his shell around the seed that will become the pearl. Imagination has become a goal. You don’t want other energies to take you away from it or casting negative energy on it. The Challenge of the Heart: You know what you want to happen but you can’t force it. This is the ONE stages that seems as though it is true production.

4. HOLDING (Dream): This stage is a plateau. Your goal is becoming real on the “quantum level,” but it’s not there for other people to see yet. (The pearl has grown, but the oyster can’t let go of it yet.) The Challenge of the Heart: Holding onto your dream in the face of all your chores. There may be a feeling of not wanting to commit.

5. RELEASING (Mission): You are one with your mission. The Challenge of the Heart is not to “get missionary” about what you are doing. Let others do their thing; you don’t need to talk about yours.

6. EMPTYING (Vision): You are letting go of your ego, and a higher self is taking over; you are one with your creation. The Challenge of the Heart is to ground your vision. You will let it be whatever it is and will know when it is finished.

7. SITTING (Destiny): The pressure is now off until the process starts all over again.

How did this cycle play out for me in my artistic retreat? I arrived enthusiastically, my unopened tubes of color and sterile brushes in hand. I had no anxiety because I had no expectations. I enjoyed myself, but I struggled through my first few paintings, trying to apply Jeanne’s techniques and then taking in the suggestions she gave me. I was never at one with my creations. They were all experiments, misformed pearls at best that allowed me to learn about the properties of the paint. I watched as some of the other artists confidentally filled gigantic pieces of paper. It hardly mattered when I ripped one of my creations as I removed the masking tape. The painting was good in parts but not as a whole. Finally, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to paint small, to create tiny works of focused art. When I let go of the external voices, in less than half an hour (with a gap in between for the holding period), I produced my favorite painting of the weekend, my perfect little pearl (for a novice). It felt right and true. I was content for a brief moment. And now I sit and wait.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Returning Home

Dear Blog,

Before you scold me for abandoning you for a full year, let me first say that I missed you! I’m not trying to butter you up. I really did. Yes, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

I was honest with you. I told you on in my last entry to you that I was temporarily leaving you for another form of writing—a year-long novel writing program. Maybe you would have been willing to share me, but alas, my energy was too depleted to court two of you.

Please don’t be jealous. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I am not a one-project kind of gal. Let’s face it; I was never monogamous with you. While I dutifully gave you two thoughtful entries a month, I was also quite serious about my three novels and even dabbled in the odd short story, flash fiction, or (cough) poem. Each one met a different need and contributed to my overall happiness. You do want me to be happy, don’t you? If you recall, our last date on June 14th, 2011, focused on happiness. As excited as I was about my new venture, the Grub Street Novel Incubator program, I expressed some doubts then about the kind of singlemindedness it would require.

I am proud to have stuck with it, to have learned and accomplished so much, to have made the acquaintance of so many fine writing colleagues, and to have enjoyed myself. But after the program was over, I needed a break from "Best Seller," my hot and heavy romance of the last year. I couldn't even bring myself to look at it. I felt guilty—we’d been with each other day in and day out. I’m pretty sure we’ll be lovers again, but not for awhile. Does that make you feel better? Perhaps you will be a beneficiary of that liaison. I hope I have become a better writer and editor. You may even gain some readers

And I’ve come home to you. I feel confident that you and I have something solid. It’s regular, but we don’t overdo it. There’s mutual respect. You let me express myself in a way none of the others have. I can talk about anything with you whenever I want. And when we’re finished with one topic, there is that satisfying sense of closure. Not the nagging doubt those demanding, pesky, never-ending novels give me. Yet, I am drawn back to them. Remember, it’s me, not you. I’ll introduce you if you like.

If you are confident enough to let me mix it up with them, I think you and I will be friends for a very long time. What do you say? Can we give it another shot? I have a dandy idea inspired by a funeral I just attended. Who else will let me share my thoughts, without judgment? If you say “no,” I may have to throw myself at the mercy of “Twitter.”

Yours faithfully,

Musings from the Third Half

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Happiness



Happiness has been in the news lately. My own town of Somerville, MA is the first city in the USA to include questions about happiness in its local census. One of the research goals is to find out what local factors may be related to a person’s state of well-being. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/us/01happiness.html. In England and France similar questions are being asked.

Gretchen Rubin in her best selling book, The Happiness Project, and a similarly named blog http://www.happiness-project.com/ shares her ten personal commandments for happiness and a slew of articles that translate her abstract principles into the practical.

Last week, in our local paper, Richard Griffin expanded the concept into “Elements for bringing happiness in later life.” http://www.wickedlocal.com/somerville/news/x311054268/Griffin-Apply-Somervilles-happiness-survey-to-later-life#axzz1PImWVPem.

I remember what a sensation Charles M. Schultz’ Happiness is a Warm Puppy (1962) caused. It was a book of sweet aphorisms all beginning with “Happiness is…” (first edition available on Ebay for $130), We all came up with our own versions. It’s natural that satire would also result from this sappy concept. Apparently, the Beatles song, “Happiness is a warm gun,” was inspired by the cover of a gun magazine (probably not satire). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_Is_a_Warm_Gun.

But an interest in happiness is rooted in our own “Declaration of Independence.” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/freedom/doi/text.html

Is happiness always a desirable state? According a research brief in the June 2011 Monitor (American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/06/inbrief.aspx ), “Happiness may not fend off depression in Asian cultures as it does in Western cultures” because happiness may be seen as a “precursor to jealousy and disharmony with friends and family.”

Research also suggests that genetics plays a part in about half of our ability to be happy. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2008/11/the-happiness-i.html. That still leaves the other half.

And then there is spiritual enlightenment. http://www.chopra.com/happinessrx.

I believe I am one of those people who tend more towards happiness, at least in this third halfof my life. I am told I was a very happy baby, I recall a generally happy childhood, followed by a supremely miserable adolescence, and a very up and down early adulthood. My best friend and I even charted our level of contentment from day to day. Our moods were generally a result of how well the boys we had our eye on responded to us. I eventually landed the target of my affection and fell in love (and then out of love); she did not. But she seems very happy now.

As a consequence of my natural disposition and relative good fortune (partly the result of good planning, partly of luck and geneti cs) I don’t find myself thinking about how I could be happier. I gravitate towards things that give me pleasure and meaning and away from things that bore me or irritate me. To some degree I put off the undesirable, from the daunting, such as the need to downsize, to the more mundane and every day, such as doctors’ appointments, housecleaning, and maintaining my email inbox. Spending time with good friends and family gives me great happiness, and those people need not be all sunshine and light themselves as long as they engage in life and take responsibility for their own actions. I am happy when I challenge myself and continue to grow as a person.

Thus, I am embarking on a new stage of my writing career that may take me away from this blog for awhile or severely limit my ability to create new entries. For the next year I will be part of a pilot program for novelists—those of us with a completed draft. We will share and receive critiques from our fellow students and instructors, analyze books already in print, and read about writing, among other activities. There may be times that the stress of reading nine draft novels not of our choosing in 10 weeks (in the summer no less), or hearing harsh words, or having assignments will not induce a state of happiness, especially on top of life’s other duties (such as paid work). I may wonder why I brought this burden on myself. But I do believe that in the end I will be happier for having stretched myself. And I might even find out whether getting a novel published will lead to that ultimate state of American nirvana, known as success.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Dancing without the Stars


Over the last couple of months, I’ve taken a semi-hiatus from writing. It hasn’t been a complete separation—more like a vacation where you stay in touch with your colleagues through email. I’ve kept up with my blog, participated in my bi-weekly writers' group, and completed some rough editing on a draft of a novel. But I’ve rediscovered my 80s dancing persona. Actually, it started with folk dancing in college and the years immediately following, with a twice weekly habit the year I lived in London. I even went to Maine Folk Dance Camp, where in my mid-20s, I was one of the younger attendees.

In the late 70s, I saw "Saturday Night Fever" and fell in love with disco. After 30 classes, satin jeans, and practice sessions at Faces, a now decaying club on Route 2, I had to concede that disco had lost its steam, so I switched to swing—-reminiscent of my grade school jitterbug days. And then on it went, through foxtrot, cha-cha, rumba, waltz, meringue, samba, mambo, salsa, all the way through Argentine Tango V. I'm sorry to say that most of that kinesthetic knowledge has faded in the two intervening decades. Other than the basics of ballroom, the only dance that really stuck was swing.

A few years ago, a writing friend introduced me to a local dive frequented by middle-aged patrons listening to middle aged bands at a sensible hour on the weekend. But it was a rocking good time. The ladies and I would get up to dance to the bluesy, r&B, country, honkey-tonk, or doo-wop sounds. Every once in awhile, my husband would come along, and we would trot out the old swing moves-—often the only ones on the floor to do so. Over time, more couples joined us, and we were no longer an anomoly. But I went only every couple of weeks, sometimes skipping weeks in a row.

Until this February when I became the dancing queen. It coincided with my fitness kick—-my weekly butt-killiing sessions with a trainer, my losing five pounds, my cutting out all sugar except for my daily square of chocolate. But the exercise factor became a side benefit of the more central fun factor. And the fun factor was a result of that great epiphany of one’s middle years—that the space between us and death is narrowiing.

So to the Saturday sessions I added the more mellow late Sunday afternoon set (for which you didn’t need earplugs but you definitely needed a glass of wine), the twice monthly Saturday afternoon with an Irish-Cajun band at a long-standing Cambridge pub (where a waltz or a polka is a possibility and a beer, a necessity), and then Wednesdays in the gospel-like atmosphere of the “Church of Fred” in an even tinier bar where the lead singer sashays down the narrow aisle, and we all chant the chorus. The repertoire becomes as familiar as the faces of the other regulars.

Only the first bar has something ressembling a dance floor. In the others, space is at a premium, but we push back a few chairs and make do. Sometimes, there are later night sessions at actual music venues with cover charges, or heaven forbid, the odd foray to a real dance, where everyone knows how to do two-step and zydeco and the dancers flow counter-clockwise around the room. There are casual and surprising opportunities to dance. Two weekends ago my town held a “Porchfest,” with 75 bands playing on front porches to the sidewalk audiences. And just this past weekend we attended a music festival where we danced a marathon eight hours.

All this activity doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing, but oh, the stories I am gathering and the characters I have met, liked the grizzled fellow with a missing tooth and alcoholic breath but some cool dance moves. Although I will always love dancing as long as I am physically able, I suspect that my recent frenzy will die down one day—maybe soon or maybe later. For now, my explanations of how I spend my time in my advancing years elicit surprise, sometimes envy. It makes more sense in these "Dancing with the Stars" days. But to those of you who remain skeptical, pick your venue from the above and join me. You, too, may become a convert. And if not, I can get you home early enough to use your evening in another way.