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A blog about my creative life... writing, knitting, and the kids that get in the way.
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pixels of suckitude
One of my favorite motivational tools while doing NaNoWriMo is getting that year’s tee. In my last three NaNo years (2009, 2010, 2012), the only time I didn’t get the tee, I also didn’t win. (Sorry 2012! I just don’t know what happened there.) So you can bet that as soon as I decided to do NaNo again this year, I went straight to the online store to buy my t-shirt and guarantee my November 30th victory. I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. 100% success with tee. 0% without. But what I saw made me hit the refresh button a few times hoping it would change.
THIS is the NaNo ’13 t-shirt? Seriously?
novelist-eating blob monster? nowhere on the tee!
I’m all for arcade games and retro geeky stuff, but this t-shirt doesn’t go far enough in its pixilated embrace. The pictures of the people modeling the tee are more interesting. Where is that novelist-eating blob from the picture? Is it on the back? (Please say it’s on the back.) Where is the starburst of phaser fire that shows novelists blowing up words? Maybe it would have been more interesting if the pixillated people were larger? Or the background was something other than basic black? PC-screen-of-death-blue?
Well, t-shirt be damned, I am participating in NaNo this year. I have a sequel to write, which should be motivation enough. But if it isn’t, if I get to November 30th even one word shy of 50k, I’m blaming this sucky t-shirt.
Children’s book publishers have always looked to the school market to find niches for their catalog. I remember the days when creating a new Reading or Language Arts program meant that reps from publishing houses would give presentations of their catalog and leave us with piles of awesome books. It’s big money to get into an educational anthology. Something that many writers don’t think about when they’re penning books, but it’s good money, and steady money at that (once you get your cut from the publishing house, that is).
As the editor of those anthologies, my job was to find books that were at the right level, satisfied themes, were high interest, and did a delicate balance with ethnicity percentages that reflected population statistics. But now that Common Core asks educators to use more diverse literature, there is far more literature about non-white cultures in current educational programs than there was just five years ago. This is from my own observation from the many educational programs I’ve worked on in the last ten years.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of diversity in literature. Mitali Perkins noted that the diversity in published kids’ lit does not match up to population statistics. The CCBC notes that when you compare numbers of published children’s books to authors/subjects of color year by year it’s dismal to downright embarrassing. And it’s not getting better. Author Colleen Mondor has pretty much had it with the diversity problem, and links to other notable kid publishing dustups in a post. (She also mentions my favorite kerfuffle: the Liar cover.)
There seems to be an ingrained idea that children’s books about different cultures don’t sell. But where are the actual figures on that? Seriously, if anyone has those figures, please pass them on. If your character is non-white, non-male, and non-straight, your book may get relegated to a marginal niche market. Don’t believe me? Hear it from a white male author.
My guys reading at Target.
This isn’t just a literature problem. Or an author problem. A recent study links people’s levels of empathy with how much literary fiction they read. Kids’ lit is not literary fiction. But is it really that far a jump to understand that connecting with diverse cultures might be aided by reading about them? Some connect recent social hot-button topics to a dangerous lack of diversity.
But that brings me back to the Common Core State Standards, which seeks to bring a more diverse range of literature to the classroom. Publishers that I’ve worked with in the last year have been looking to meet Common Core standards which means they are seeking diverse materials. And because the old multicultural standbys are, well, OLD, they’re looking for fresh new writers and books. Those of us who represent diverse cultures, or write about them should be happy about that.
The change that children’s literature needs may not come with a march, or a protest or grassroots effort. The change we’ve been looking for may come from a series of codes like this one: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.9 Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures. Which is not everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.
There are many different scenarios that set off a bout of writer anxiety. All of mine can be traced back to my ambition and a feeling of “when is all of this writing going to start paying off?” To wit:
1) Reading articles about all the books being released by favorite authors, or those who write in your genre. (I’m looking at you, Neil Gaiman.)
2) Facebook/Twitter posts by authors about their awesome writer life. (Like randomly meeting a fan buying your book at the checkout of a bookstore. Yes, Jay Asher, your coolness gives me anxiety.)
3) A blank page.
4) A filled page with nothing discernibly useful.
5) Friends asking how that book that’s been on submission is faring. (This never comes from family. At least not immediate family. They are well aware of the anxiety it causes.)
6) Anyone asking about your current WIP.
7) Catching a glimpse of your wake-up face/hair the morning after working late at night/in the wee hours of the morning on a manuscript…when you still have to get to that day job.
8) A deadline. Even the self-imposed ones.
9) Waiting when you’re querying/when you’re on submission/for feedback from your beta readers/for a response from your agent/for your contract/for notes from your editor…(I could go on).
10) Awesome story ideas that pop into your head when you haven’t had a chance to write down the last few awesome story ideas that have popped into your head.
What else gives you writer anxiety?
Many years ago I came across a poster from a kids’ book that said, “When things are falling apart, look at how many ways there are to keep it together.” It was illustrated with a rubber band, paper clip, paper fastener, staples, glue, and tape. I kept the poster for years because I am not the kind of girl who can naturally keep things together. I need that rubber band and glue and tape. So when I got the idea for a plot with multiple storylines, my immediate thought was: I can’t remember when the kids have their next violin lesson, how am I going to manage multiple threads without actual humans to remind me what they’ve already done and what they’re supposed to be doing next?
Foolishly, I told an editor about this nebulous project, for which I had no real storyline, main character, or even a working idea of the outcome. Fortunately, she did not laugh outright. We were having a lunch meeting outdoors on a sunny day, so maybe the tasty guacamole and warm weather made her kinder with me than she ought to have been. She suggested I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life which follows protagonist Ursula through several lifetimes in the same timeframe, where she dies over and over again, each time, trying to preserve herself from death, and each time heading toward a predestined path. The concept is amazing, but I found getting into the book to be difficult. The storyline goes back and forth in time, and then there are the multiple lives of Ursula to deal with. At the beginning, it’s quite confusing. But now, 155 pages in (and a month later) the beauty of the novel is beginning to unfold, and I wonder. How did Atkinson keep it all together?
Then last night, my husband and I watched The Cloud Atlas. I also tried to read this book a couple of years back, and found it equally confounding. We settled in to watch it after the kids went to bed so we could avoid distraction. That was good thinking. You really need to pay attention. The multiple storylines and multiple timeframes, and actors playing multiple roles make it interesting and distracting enough that I’m going to need to watch it a second time. Hugh Grant as cannibal. That really needs a second look. But at the end of it, a little after 1am this morning, I turned to my husband and said, “I wish I could write like that.”
Doesn’t really bode well for my little multiple storyline novel, does it? And yet, I’m intrigued by the concept, if only because I have not attempted it before, and also because I see it can be done well (though perhaps not by me). I tend to be a low-tech girl, with my index cards, and my sticky notes. But something this unwieldy requires technology, I think. So I downloaded Scrivener, a writing program designed to hold a writer’s hand through multiple documents, drafts, and a mishmash of ideas. I am making my way through the tutorial this week. Hopefully, it will help me to muddle through and come out the other end with something marginally readable. If nothing else, I’m going to learn to be organized! And juggle ideas well! And not lose my mind in the process!
That’s the goal, anyway. But if you come across me out in the world looking dazed and confused, muttering nonsense, just hand me a binder clip, or some string. It’ll remind me to keep things together. Even if it’s just on the outside.
It’s banned books week. And thank goodness. Everything that is horrible, morally lacking, and unfit for human eyeballs is listed pretty much everywhere this week so I can find them! Ah, freedom. It smells like old library. I’m so grateful for book banning and challenging, I can’t even tell you. You’ve probably already heard about how Rainbow Rowell was disinvited to a school district to talk about her novel, Eleanor and Park. I might not have heard of Eleanor and Park if it wasn’t for that. And now I can buy the book. Here! Stuff like this keeps happening, right? And usually backfires, showing people like me what they should be reading, giving authors loads of press, and showing the world who the morons are and how they find new ways to couch their censorship talk.
But probably my favorite, favorite thing about censorship is how much it reminds me of Footloose. Can you ever get enough of Kevin Bacon dancing? I know I can’t. So the next time someone bans a book, do like Kevin Bacon. Dance in the headlights…all the way to the bookstore.
Go here for all your banned books week activities. Enjoy.
Most people in the publishing industry spent yesterday reading, discussing, and responding to Jonathan Franzen’s Guardian essay What’s wrong with the modern world. Franzen acknowledges being called a Luddite, but insists that he isn’t. Rather, he pushes back against technology that seems smug. As a result, he’s a PC user who prefers the Nook over the Kindle. While I see Franzen’s point, and find it amusing that we have something in common (I also prefer the PC and Nook) it’s also annoyingly clear that this is the essay of a privileged person. Do you think the people in Syria are concerned with whether using a smartphone at dinner is ruining their culture? There are so many other things to be concerned about, like the shooting at the Navy Yard and the impotence of this country’s leaders to reduce gun violence. And then there are all the things that technology is so good for, like saving low-lying areas from the inevitable devastation of global warming.
Technology feels like it’s dehumanizing us sometimes, but it also gives us access to human things we would not otherwise be a part of. Remember when profiles turned green on Twitter to support the Iran election in ’09? Or how you can talk to your grandma over Skype even though she lives thousands of miles away? And how old school chums are finding each other on Facebook and getting together to laugh about old times?
But like Franzen, technology does not feel like natural integration. It’s like that thing over Seven of Nine’s eyebrow. It’s handy, but distracting. Enter: mindfulness, the total opposite of technology. And the thing that so many of the famously successful have turned to, like Oprah, and inexplicably, Rupert Murdoch. I’m not much for meditation, but I see the value in being still for 20 minutes, without the phone or my shiny new Surface machine. My own version of mindfulness has been found in a familiar place. Ballet class. There’s peacefulness for me in the plié, and in finding the steps in the music.
The place between technology and mindfulness happens when I warm up with my earbuds in, and my smartphone tucked into the top of my tights, listening to old recordings of Sting.
Yeah. That’s the stuff.
Once a year, sometimes more, I get together with some of the women from my all-girl Catholic school in Trinidad. The SJC girls have a lot in common, and though we weren’t all friends back in the day (I don’t think I was close with any of them, in fact) we all realize that we have far too much history not to spend time together. Even better, as we’ve all matured, we’ve all learned to be less judgmental and more supportive.
I’m also fortunate to have a close knit group of work chums from my days at McGraw-Hill. Three of those women are my kids’ godmothers. All of them have seen me at my worst, and have stuck around to tell the tale. (Though they know I’d kill them if they did.)
In the friend department, I consider myself pretty lucky. And yet, this week, when it felt like things were falling apart again, I turned to none of them. I didn’t even turn to my husband who is known for giving excellent and well-tempered advice, or my mother whose reminders to turn to prayer usually calms me down. The reason is this: I always get over it. And I’m tired of giving in to the panic, even for a little while.
For the last couple of years I’ve been in a constant level-orange panic based on the assumption that anything can and will go wrong at any moment. Cancer taught me that. But experience has taught me that I’m pretty good at coming up with clever solutions. Nick-of-time turnarounds seem to be my thing…if I don’t let the panic get to me first. Still, panic has become my default setting. I’m like an old lady walking down the street with a cane. Someone passing by can bump into every other person on the street, and they would walk on, slightly annoyed, but perfectly fine, but the old lady drops on the sidewalk, broken hip, sprained wrist, crying out that she’s going to probably die right that second. And then after the ambulance comes, they send her home because she doesn’t actually have a broken bone or sprain. She’s fine. Ugh. Being like that old lady is getting on my last nerve.
The flip side of this is that cancer also taught me to smile no matter what level of panic I’m experiencing at any given moment. I have perfected the façade of calm. A work colleague yesterday called me “cool.” She didn’t know that I’d had to walk around the block a few times saying the Our Father and Hail Marys until I was calm enough to get back to work. (All that good Catholic school training.)
So why write this? Why reveal the panic to everyone when I would tell no one person in particular? I’m hoping that by being public (without getting too specific) I can, by electronic osmosis, rid myself of the orange-level panic which goes to panic-level red in a snap. Even if nothing is better today, I would like at the very least, to only be on panic level blue, the default setting of average moms. I beat cancer. And this panic feels like the last vestige of that time. It’s time to beat this too.
“I am the greatest.”
On Saturday I spotted a poster of Muhammad Ali in the window of a karate school. It read, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”
Think about that for a moment. First: I am the greatest. Then: I said that even before I KNEW I WAS.
That’s two slaps of confidence for the price of one. In the first place, you have to be audacious to say to yourself “I am the greatest” before you even know what that is, or how you will come by this greatness. In the second place, to feel at some point in your career or your life that you in fact are “the greatest” is another kind of confidence entirely. Some might even call that arrogance.
But as an up and coming writer (or artist, or athlete, or anything, really), when you are still unproved and no one knows who you are, you only have belief in yourself. In the beginning, there are no acceptance letters, no encouraging agents, no book deals, no paychecks, and no accolades, even if you have the backing of family and friends. (Sidebar: my mother loves to tell me that she has more confidence in me than I have in myself. While this is undoubtedly true, and gives me the warm and fuzzies, it’s not particularly helpful.) The publishing biz is a tough slog, and you are often alone in it for years, watching the success and perceived happiness of others. It’s not an environment that breeds confidence. The opposite, rather. To have confidence, even marginally, even occasionally, in the face of the uncertainty of ever “making it” is a triumph.
So Ali may have been on to something. To say “I am the greatest” to yourself may be the difference between feeling you can’t do it and giving up, and imagining that you can do it long enough for you to actually become great. Whatever that is.
Repeat after me: I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest!
Now get out there and punch someone in the face. Um, I mean, punch some words on your keyboard? Oh, just go write something.
It’s no big revelation that I have a thing for story retellings. It’s not the re-hash that I like, it’s that I love some fairy tales so much, that reading them in new and varied permutations brings back the joy that I had reading and re-reading my Grimm’s as a child. My favorites (like many other fairy tale aficionados) are Cinderella and Snow White. No surprise, my agent is currently shopping a Middle Grade novel based on my retelling of a Cinderella-y Caribbean folktale.
So picking up Meyer’s Cinder was no stretch. I was intrigued immediately by the setting in “New Beijing” many years in the future. And then my daughter snagged it while I was otherwise occupied, and I didn’t get it back for a week.
So I started it again. Spoiler alert! There’s no glass slipper. The symbol of fragility would be out of place in this version where a plot filled with political and personal intrigue and twists that makes readers bend and crush and rip pages from excitement, horror, desperation, and the rest of the emotional gamut. At least I can only assume that’s the excuse for my book looking the way it did when my daughter returned it. I would have protested, but after getting a few more pages in, I found myself gripping the edges of the book too as if it was some kind of portal that I was trying to sink into. I finished the book yesterday and had meant to pick up the sequel, Scarlet, today. Alas, I didn’t make it to the bookstore (much to the chagrin of my daughter, who I assume will be pre-reading my book for me. Again). If you haven’t read it yet, do.
But I promised you a rant. And here it is.
Cinder is set in New Beijing. Cinder, by all accounts, is white. And if there was one more mention of a person with blue eyes, I was going to lose my gourd. This seems to be a new trend in literature–the locale is “exotic,” but the hero, European. Which leaves the indigenous people of the chosen locale to play second fiddle to the main character, and add color, spice if you will, to the backdrop. Frankly, I’m tired of it.
While I can’t blame any one author for doing what they think is right with their own story, I rage at the collection of literature that for years has pushed people of color aside, and now, when it seems as though we are getting more progressive with more characters of varied hues and cultures, they’re still not quite in the limelight, are they? Maybe their native homes are deemed worthy of descriptions so nuanced that they could be considered characters themselves, but the people? Scenery.
On behalf of readers everywhere (yes, all, because to shuffle some of us off to the sides is to do a disservice to all of us) I’d just like to say: For the love of God, Allah, Ganesha, Someone/thing else entirely, or no One at all, please stop that crap. It’s hurtful.
Thanks. (And happy reading.)
I’ll do my “blinking” in the hammock.
My husband asked me to do nothing for six months. No extra projects. No volunteer work. No extending my help to others at the expense of my own time. I balked at first. Six months of doing nothing? I asked. Yes, he said. That’s boring, I told him, but I compromised, agreeing to take a break for one month. I didn’t even notice when that month turned into two. It turned out that not feeling tense every day about a constantly-replenishing to-do list was pretty nice. But it wasn’t just that. My brain needed to blink.
There was a documentary about creativity on the Science Channel tonight. I turned it on just as a scientist was explaining that the moment of epiphany does not happen in an instant like we think. Before it happens, our brains have a burst of Alpha waves that shuts down visual information. Like your brain blinking. Then the idea has a chance to bubble up. You probably have experienced this: when an idea is coming, the world goes a little fuzzy. At least it does for me. That’s Alpha waves slowing how much information comes in, allowing us to get those good ideas. Just like my husband’s idea about not doing anything for a while allowed many more ideas to come to me.
Of course, I didn’t exactly do NOTHING. I worked on a client’s manuscript, met my agent for dinner after BEA and talked shop, kids, and the joys of dessert, finished the final revisions to my novel, began to research two other books, spoke on two panels and moderated a third at the BooksNJ event last Sunday, and I even finished reading a few books. But for me, it’s as close to nothing as I get. The point is, now I’m itching to start writing again, though I wonder how much more I’d get if I let my brain “blink” for a little while longer.
A few more days on hiatus won’t kill me…
Didn’t today feel like a Friday? All day I was exhausted, felt like I was behind the 8 ball, and didn’t feel I accomplished much even though I was running around doing stuff all day. I wasn’t the only one in the office who felt that way. I think today was meant to be a Friday and the calendar (who is clearly also having a weird day) is off by one.
The one saving grace for today is that it’s my t.v. watching night. That’s right. I don’t watch that much t.v. and all of my shows gang up on one night: Project Runway, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal. Now that PR is over, I only have 2 shows to deal with, but still. It’s make dinner, get the kids to bed early, and everyone zip it come 9pm. A perfect evening where the only person I’m thinking about is me. Actually, I’m not even thinking about me. Me is lost in a t.v. screen and whatever it is that I was thinking/worrying/cringing about has disappeared for a few hours. I don’t even care about the plots that much. What I care about is the mental transport to some other place for a few hours one night a week. The only thing that would make Thursday better is if it fell on a Friday, so I could sleep in the next morning…not that the kids ever let me do that.
I better go start dinner.
There’s a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I had as a child. It was large, heavy, and filled with gorgeous illustrations. I lost it when I moved to the U.S. because I foolishly did not bring it with me, and I have been searching for a copy ever since. Well, the search is over. Not because I found the Grimm’s that I had as a child, but because I’ve found an amazing replacement.
Enter this illustrated Grimm’s that focuses not just on the stories, but on the illustrators who brought them to life.
Each story has a different illustrator, and illustration style, each one engaging and nostalgic. A series of biographies of the artists at the end tell who the artists were, and the influence their time period had on their work. Not one of them is still alive today. Illustrations like these will not come around again.
So I will not continue the search for my old Grimm’s. I still miss it. But the sting has been lessened by this beautiful replacement.
There is no such word as superconscious. I checked. There is:
hyperconscious — acutely aware
subconscious — operating beneath or beyond consciousness
semi-conscious — not entirely aware
unconscious — not aware
If you try to find superconscious, an online dictionary might suggest “collective unconscious” but there’s not really a definition for that either. It’s more of a theory developed by Jung about the collective unconscious mind of a group.
But superconscious has to be a thing because I have actually used it–twice! I think you guys know that I have been revising a novel, and that my agent suggested that I change the name of my villain and the title of my novel. I decided to take the advice of my betters (like Sharon Chreech) who take power naps when they’re stuck. I set myself the task of coming up with a new name, and a new title before I went to bed. The first time, it worked immediately. I woke up with the name in my head, as if I had whisked it out of a dream. The second time, I woke up with nothing, but after sitting down later that day with a pen and notebook, the name jumped right out at me, the third title in a list I hadn’t even finished writing.
It almost made me worried how good the names were and how easily they came once I knew how to summon them. It was almost as if my brain was mocking me with its super power.
You think this is hard? Honey please.
I highly recommend trying it to see what your mind can come up with while you’re sleeping. Imagine the breakthroughs! Imagine the creativity! Can world peace and a cure for cancer be next? What can’t the superconscious do? (Don’t ask. she’s rolling her eyes.)
It’s the bane of many writers. We tell rather than show. Editors hate it, of course, and will use its mere presence, even in brief, as their automatic out. This week, I’m working to revise a battle scene in my most recent novel. It’s an eleven-page series that my agent thinks is too passive. I tell what happens to the kids. I don’t show them doing much of anything. If I have any excuse at all, it’s that I cringed at putting these characters in danger. I did not want to dwell on it too much. I wanted to merely observe from a distance, with my hands over my face and only one eye peeking out. Well, you can’t write that way.
Passivity in its best form. Ghandi was active in his pursuit of passive resistance.
I’ve been thinking about passivity in another way too. I have recently waged a battle that some would say I lost. (I simply walked away.) The fact was, I didn’t want to be fighting in the first place. I mistakenly believed that fighting on the right, ethical, true side of things would bring me an automatic win. But it turns out that the side of bad, unethical, and lies, uses all their underhanded methods to achieve their aims, and this is especially true when those who are watching the whole thing take place, are passive. Passivity is lazy. You want something to happen, but you want someone else to take care of it. It’s apathetic. You see, but don’t think you can do anything about it. It’s wrong. It helps the bad guys win.
Yesterday everyone was changing their profile pictures to red to support marriage equality on Facebook. Me too. I did it. But what does that really mean? Does that make us less passive about equality because it took two clicks to change a picture? Not really. I’m watching this one on the sidelines. I changed my picture, but did nothing else. If I really want this to change, I’m going to have to get off my ass.
The thing about being passive, in life and in literature is this: you get what you work for.
If I write a passive scene because I’m too afraid or lazy to get down and dirty, the reader won’t either.
If I am passive about a cause and right does not prevail, it’s my own fault for not doing something about it. There are people who are out there, doing things, protesting. But they need support. Based on what I just experienced, I know. There is a lot of pressure and strain in fighting, but it’s so much more difficult when you’re fighting alone for people who are sitting around waiting for you to get it done already. It’s enough to make a person stop and ask “why am I doing this?” And then with no champions leading the charge, what happens next is this: the bad guys win. And it’s your own damn fault.
“How important it is to take the time to read literature, to look at art, to go to concerts. If all parts of your brain aren’t nourished, you become really limited–less sensitive. It’s like food. You’d get pretty strange if you ate ice cream all the time.” — Kent Nagano, orchestra conductor
Last Monday, my husband took me to an all-women’s jazz concert at The Schomburg Library in Harlem. I didn’t want to go. I never do. But I’m so glad I did. Not only were these ladies amazing, but just being in their presence made me remember what it is I love about what I do. The creativity. The spirit. The wild abandon you can have when you know all the rules and feel just damn fine bending them. There’s also something about jazz that ignites the soul. It’s so kinetic. I came home itching to write. And that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To make us feel, to make us want to act.
What art have you been enjoying lately?
[Image from the New York Public Library: http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/64/node/199287?lref=64%2Fnode%2F132394]
Someone reminded me of that this morning for my birthday. It’s not something I think of often. I am hard on myself. But today I gave myself a present. I walked away from something I should have a long time ago. There is corruption in the world, and bad people, and there are plenty of petty little minds. But I have to pick my battles. Cancer. That was a battle worth fighting. Petty people’s nonsense is not. (It has been 2 years since my diagnosis, btw. A coup!)
So many people wished me happy birthday today. People I love. People I like. People I’ve never even met in person, but have had great times with online. I didn’t need presents today (don’t tell my family that). The warmth from all of you has been tremendous. It’s really all I need. A new buddy I made at work took me out to a slightly fancy lunch. So sweet. My daughter took money out of her piggy bank to buy me a book that she knew I would like. It’s ART2-D2′s Guide to Folding and Doodling. She knew I would like it because I bought her all of the Origami Yoda books last year, and I have another book on doodling that I keep near my bed just for fun. Such an amazing present! I mean her. The book is too. But what a kid I have! My son offered to loan me his Lego R2-D2 as well. If you know my son, you know that is Big Generosity. It is love with a capital L.
Tonight, while it’s quiet in the house (the kids and my husband are at family night at school), I’m going to meditate. I haven’t done that in a long time. I pray a lot, but I can’t tell you the last time I’ve meditated. That’s going to be my next present to myself. Just time with myself and nothing else. I could easily watch t.v. or write or read a book, but I deserve a little time for me to be with me. After all, I am good people. And good people are good company no matter how many or few of them there are.
Thanks for all the birthday wishes guys. I love you all!
I met Rochelle Jewell Shapiro at a book launch where I literally knew no one, not even the host. I arrived late, after Rochelle had finished her reading and moved on to the Q&A portion of the afternoon, which included a little psychic fun. I sat in the middle of a circle of women who meditated and then called out things that came to them about me. Of the responses, I thought Rochelle’s actually was the most spot-on. Of course it was. She’s the psychic.
Rochelle’s novel, KAYLEE’S GHOST, follows a phone psychic named Miriam whose family does not always treasure her gifts, and her clients, who don’t always value it. Miriam’s struggles to please the family while still be true to herself is a familiar dynamic that kept me intrigued. And though psychic, Miriam doesn’t have all the answers, and makes several mistakes of her own.
I asked Rochelle to answer a few questions about KAYLEE’S GHOST…
1. Your first novel was also about Miriam, and became an award-winner. Did you intend for KAYLEE’S GHOST to be a sequel to MIRIAM THE MEDIUM? And if so, does Miriam have more stories that readers can look forward to?
Kaylee’s Ghost can be read all on its own, but, it does feature Miriam Kaminsky, a phone psychic like me, and her family. But characters grow just as people do. In Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) Miriam is the mother of a rebellious teenage daughter, Cara, and in Kaylee’s Ghost (RJS Books, 2012) Miriam is a grandmother and Cara has a daughter of her own. The clashes continue, but the stakes are different. In this saga of five generations which Kirkus review called “an intriguing mix of family drama and contemporary fantasy, the dead are still quite opinionated about how the living should live. I already have 175 pages of a first draft of a third novel involving Miriam. As in color field painting, when the artist puts a red square on a green canvas, it has a completely different effect than on a blue one, different parts of Miriam come out when she’s faced with new characters and new situations.
2. I know that after working with a traditional publisher (Simon & Schuster), you decided to go indie for your second novel. Can you tell us what were the benefits and pitfalls to this change?
Frankly, I think it was a grief reaction that made me decide to go Indie with Kaylee’s Ghost. My first agent who sold my novel left the business. It took me time to get another agent. The one I landed turned out to have her own ideas about what I should be writing, such as a non- fiction book about being a dog psychic. “It will sell,” she assured me, never mind that although dogs often pad their way into my visions, I am not a specialist in communicating with dogs. “Woof, woof.” So I got another agent, the best in the world, I thought. A top New York agent who owned his own agency and was fun-loving and encouraging and had umpteen years in the business, representing tons of bestselling authors. “Everyone will want to read Kaylee’s Ghost, he’s said. Three months later, he died, leaving me bereft and with a manuscript to peddle to yet another agent. I had just turned sixty-five and said to myself, Enough already! The pit falls of self-publishing for me is that I’m not tech-savvy. Oh, I can do a lot, but there’s so much I can’t and although I can find biblical and Freudian symbolism in the work of Henry James, for example, when I read tech material, my eyes glaze over. I would love to find an Indie publishing consultant. “Hello, anyone out there? Hello?”
3. You’re also a working psychic, and when we first met you mentioned that people sometimes try to get free readings from you. How do you handle the lack of respect for what you do?
I’ve learned to chuckle over it. I say to myself, “You can’t blame a girl/or a guy for trying.” Listen and you’ll hear guests at wedding receptions trying to get free legal advice from some lawyer who just wants to eat his stuffed derma in peace. You’ll hear parents asking eating disorder therapists what to do about their daughter’s vomiting while the therapist is working on a mouthful of chopped liver. It’s human nature. But it is frustrating when a reporter calls purportedly to ask me about my novel and instead wants to know if he’s going to become editor –in-chief and when? Or when I agree to do a radio show about my book and the host only wants to know which college her
daughter will get into. I earned my chops as a writer. I’ve been writing and publishing since 1985 and I even teach writing at UCLA Extension. So please, after you ask me if you’re going to sell your house by April, please ask me about the structure of my novels, how the plot comes to me, or whatever else you might ask a writer. Thanks so much. . .
4. Do you have any advice for people who want to try to access the more spiritual and psychic parts of themselves? Meditate! Meditation allows you to hear the contents of your mind and possibly the contents of someone else’s. I meditate at least once a day by sitting still and paying attention to my breathing, letting thoughts drift in and out, in and out. Uh, oh, is that the wind I hear or someone else breathing?
5. Finally, what question haven’t I asked that you’d like to answer? I wish you had asked if I do book clubs. The answer is YES. There are challenging and fascinating discussion questions in the back of my book. I do them by phone. You can make arrangements and we can do a conference call by contacting me at my website at http://rochellejewelshapiro.com.
In Kaylee’s Ghost (RJS Books, 2012), Grandmother Miriam, a phone psychic like me, is thrilled that her granddaughter, Violet, seems to be psychic, and wants nothing more than the chance to mentor her the way her own Russian grandmother had done with her. Kaylee’s Ghost is a family saga of five generations where the ghosts are quite opinionated about how the living should live. But it’s also a story of how a psychic’s mind works, how visions arise. Miriam’s daughter, Cara, a modern businesswoman remembers all too well the downside of living with her psychic mother, digs in her heels about Violet being her grandmother’s pupil. As things become more fractious in the family, Violet is torn between her mother and grandmother, until Miriam’s gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves. Can Miriam put things right in time, or is it already too late? Like Miriam Kaminsky, all of us want our children to be gifted. I once saw a cartoon in The New Yorker of a teacher behind a desk in the midst of a parent-teacher conference. As the teacher studies the student’s records, he tells the parents, “I’m sorry to inform you that your child is definitely on the charts.”
Kaylee’s Ghost is not only a story about life here on Earth and the Hereafter, it is also a story of how all of us need to forget what others want of us and discover and claim our own identities.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Kaylee’s Ghost (RJS Books, 2012.) She has chronicled her psychic work in The New York Times (Lives) and Newsweek (My Turn.) Articles have been written about her gift in Redbook, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times Long Island Section and in the Dutch magazine, TV Gid. Aside from her psychic practice, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension. http:// rochellejewelshapiro.com
KAYLEE’S GHOST is available on AMAZON and Nook.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro http://rochellejewelshapiro.com
I am learning to let go
I am learning to stay out
of those dumb
I am learning to stand up
Even though sometimes I
I’m surprised at my moxie
I wasn’t sure that I had it
One of the scariest villains in literature, Medusa was just a woman done wrong by a goddess.
As I steadily made my way through some edits my agent asked for, I came to a note that asked me to reconsider the villain’s name. “It seems dowdy,” she said.
Vera isn’t the most modern of names, but the book takes place nearly a hundred years ago. Still, I never loved it. Even though I agonized over the protagonist’s name, changing it three times, and soliciting help from blog readers, I didn’t give that kind of attention to the villain. I figured I didn’t need to love her name. She’s the villain!
But today, as I considered a change, I decided to look up bad gal names, and came across this yahoo.com post from 2010. I knew about Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, and it feels like a fit since it’s a Caribbean story, and there are plenty of Hindus in the Caribbean. But I also like the name Callie, which sounds the same. Eris seems like the next best choice, but I’d have to use Eris’s in the book, and that’s the kind of thing that will trip kids up. Deyanira? No.
Then I considered the Disney/obvious route and using a name that begins with Mal, like Malificient. Even Rowling got in on this with the Malfoy clan. But there are plenty of great young Mal’s out there like Malala Yousafzai and Malia Obama.
Last night I thought of something between sleep and wake. Today, I discovered it’s been done. Back to the drawing board! If you can think of anything that’s creepy but still pretty, throw it my way. I’ll happily take suggestions.
In the meantime, check out this list of the 50 greatest literary villains. (Voldemorta? Nah!)
[Image from morguefile.com]
With the publishing world moving at the speed of a glacier, you have to be prepared for a whole lot of waiting before things happen. Good things, bad things. If you’re impatient, publishing is not your field. You could wait months for a response to a query, even when you have partials and fulls requested, it could still take months for a response. If you’re waiting to be happy until you get the actual book deal, you’ll be waiting a hell of a long time.
I used to reserve my happy to the end. And then I realized, there are plenty of happy moments along the publishing road. Granted there are no bigger happy moments than making the sale and getting an award after it’s published, but you can be happy in smaller increments for some many other things leading up to the big one. Among my favorites:
- finishing a first draft
- editing a first draft
- feeling that a story is done
- writing a damn good query
- getting a request for partial or full
- getting a bite of interest
- reading good reviews
- getting nice fan e/mail
With all of that to celebrate (and much more), what’s the point of waiting? Be happy now.
Having trouble? Let Bobby McFerrin, Mr. Noodle, and Mork show you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU
For years, I’ve been telling people that they can make time to write. Even with the full-time job, and the full-time parenting, and everything else that they do, it’s possible. But I had been working from home, which is far less exhausting than commuting an hour into the city and back, dealing with energy-sucking co-workers, and then arriving home to help two children with homework, make dinner, and then summon up the energy to be creative. It turns out, I could do it, but writing while exhausted is good for nothing. It’s not good for me, and it’s certainly not good for my books.
So the first thing I’m going to do is apologize to anyone who may have felt awed, or floored, or cowed by my seeming ability to juggle 8 million things at once. Working an 8 hour day is quite different without the exhausting commute and succubi.
But I’m not giving up. I have a plan. And that plan is to make the most of my weekends. I have been spending my Saturdays running errands and driving the kids to their extra-curricular activities, but for the next couple of weekends, I’m making that my husband’s job. He will do the running around for groceries, etc. Or the kids just won’t go to their extra-curriculars. Sacrifices must be made, after all, and I am going to be ruthless in my need for TIME TO WORK. It’s the only way it’s going to happen.
I see the light.
This weekend was devoted to finishing edits to my novel. A novel that I started maybe ten years ago. One that I spent the last six years or so trying to raise from the muck. I had wanted to write this story for such a long time, but I never seemed able to start it, or when I did, to get it quite right. I had plenty of encouragement from some editor friends, and from my own book-loving pals. I thought I was there, but my first agent was lukewarm about it. We parted ways. I continued working, then sent it out to a few agents. Several asked for partials and fulls. One asked for edits. I was game. The edits took me several months but when I returned them, I got a polite no. I did another round of changes, sent queries again, and got similar responses. The third time was the charm, though by then I felt completely burned out. In all, I had 21 rejections. Then I found Marie, who believed as I did that this story was something special.
But she too had some changes in mind.
I got her notes on December 12th, but didn’t start working until January. Today, I finished typing up the last edits.
It’s not over yet. I still need to do a final read and there will certainly be some tweaking. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. And boy am I glad to see it.
It’s not news that I don’t like Valentine’s Day. In a word, it’s dumb. But this is the first year that I remember Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday being neck and neck. It’s interesting that all the denial associated with Lent starts up right before a day when people go to unnecessary excesses to prove their love, or their worthiness for love, or perseverance in the face of a cruel dating scene, or whatever the hell it is Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about with all the candy and overpriced roses. I know, I know. My husband’s a lucky guy.
Anyway, while others are embalmed in syrupy goo, I am thinking about what I’m going to give up for Lent. A friend of mine is giving up Facebook. I would too, but I get a lot of editing clients through Facebook. I considered giving up bitching, but a friend insisted bitching was essential therapy. Then, while trying to track down a Prabal Gurung jacket at Target, it hit me. Shopping. I’m a bit of a shopaholic. Not a deep-in-debt shopaholic, or a whiny but-I-deserve-it shopaholic. Just an average, oh-isn’t-that-pretty? shopaholic. So can I go 40 days without buying something that isn’t food or groceries?
Okay willpower. You’re on.
Among the notes my agent gave about my current story, was encouragement to change its title. I did not. Not for a lack of trying, mind you.
Titles are tricky. They’re used to market the book, and to give readers a hint of what’s inside. The title of my first novel, ANGEL’S GRACE is a pun, only you don’t realize what the pun is until you get to the end of the story. I thought Simon & Schuster was going to change the title, but it turned out that they loved it.
This new story doesn’t feel that clear-cut. I keep waiting to have a moment like Madeleine L’Engle had when her mother lifted the title A WRINKLE IN TIME from a line in the story. My story involves jumbies, Caribbean spirits, but there’s already a YA book out called THE JUMBIE. My original title was eleven words long. And while I loved it, it had some problems (besides the fact that it was eleven words long).
Those that I’ve shared my current story with seem to like the title, but my agent feels it’s too generic. I see her point. But I haven’t been able to summon up something better. So how do you title a story?
You could go epic, using the name of the character, like PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF. You could go with something more subtle, like WONDER, leaving readers to wonder what it’s all about. You could go with something very obvious like ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, or something really vague like THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. Personally I like simple, like FRANNY AND ZOOEY. But none of that has helped me so far.
The title search continues.
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We all deal in language, us writers. We are limited by the alphabet, by punctuation, and the curve of the font. Yet, some vowels, commas, and deckle-edged pages come together in such a way as to produce magic. Spun gold that leaves the rest of us wondering if some people are working with better materials than others.
You might argue that artistry is about innovation. And that’s true. But isn’t artistry also about availability? You have to work with what you have, but what if you don’t have everything you need to elevate? To wit:
I came across this image today. It’s fly larvae that made cocoons out of gold leaf and precious stones that were provided by a forward-thinking artist. Ever thought fly larvae interesting? Me either. But suddenly….
I realize there is no way to literally gild writing. But writers sometimes short-change themselves of the most precious of all commodities: time. We rush, we waste, we stall, and all the time, that material is slipping through our fingers.