An Honest Look At My Dream of Being a Novelist

I started writing my first novel about twenty years ago. It took more than half a decade to complete. Back then, I used to spend my lunch break in a tiny bookstore near my job (I worked as an administrative assistant for a busy medical practice). I’d buy the latest issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine the minute it came out. Each issue felt like a secret only I knew about. The magazine was filled with advice from authors I loved, authors who (I was convinced) had the potential to help me fulfill my dream of being a novelist–authors like Stephen King (my then-favorite writer) and Terry Brooks (my second favorite) were featured beside headlines like, “The Ten Rules Successful Writers Always Follow!”

I was about twenty-two at the time and I held on to every single copy for more than a decade. In the mid nineties, I began working as a marketing writer for a web development shop. At first, I mostly answered the phone, but occasionally I got to write actual copy. The job kept shifting until I eventually found myself in the role of Director of Internet Marketing. That was the decade I got married, the decade I learned what stock options and an IRA were, the decade I was invited to participate in meetings instead of plan lunches for them. I felt like a grown up for the first time in my life.

By then, my novel was done. A friend and fellow writer edited it for me. I incorporated her changes and submitted it to one publisher, Tor (with no agent – I’m not sure I even knew what an agent was at the time). I’d chosen Tor because my newest favorite writer, Tad Williams, had just released a book called Otherland which blended fantasy and reality together in a way I’d never seen before. So, I thought an editor at Tor would like my book which was a fantasy about Eros, the Greek God of Love screwing up at work and being forced to live among mortals until he could relearn the meaning of love.

This was written before books like Twilight and The Lightening Thief bent the rules, bringing fantastical and/or mythical characters into the present world alongside ordinary people. Tor Books publishes fantasy. They’d published Otherland. That pretty much encompassed my entire decision-making process when choosing them. I printed out my 500 page book, put it in a cardboard box with an SASE enclosed (remember those?) and hoped for the best.

Three months later I received the manuscript back with a form rejection letter. I put it in a drawer where it remains to this day. I was tired of that novel and tired of working towards my dream of being a novelist, or so I thought. Looking back, I took that rejection as proof that I wasn’t worthy of the likes of Stephen King, Terry Brooks or Tad Williams. I didn’t have a thick skin. I let one rejection beat me. I threw out all my old issues of Writer’s Digest.

I buried the dream beneath many things including a new baby and my surprise career which now involved directing a department of 4 or 5 people and traveling to various companies to pitch new business.

I wore the role of middle manager uncomfortably. I missed my baby while I was at work, plus I’d never wanted to climb any kind of corporate ladder. In fact, I hated corporate life so much that my first book was devoted to making fun of it (I’d imagined Mt. Olympus as a corporation with Zeus as a sociopathic CEO). My daughter was 4 months old on September 11th, 2001 and I watched the buildings come down on a television set in the break room of my office, then I drove home to be with her, crying all the way. I got laid off a year later after the Internet bubble imploded, and I’ve been freelancing ever since (about 14 years).

I never stopped wanting to be a novelist. I was just distracted–by becoming surprisingly successful at a job I never really wanted in the first place, by having children and, again, by finding surprising success at my own home business. I continued to write through the years, but not fiction. I blogged and wrote articles for web sites (either my own or other people’s) about a variety of topics but mostly work and parenting.

I found happiness in self-employment. I told myself writing blog posts and occasional poems was fulfilling enough for me. But, really, it wasn’t.

In 2012, my 11-year-old daughter got cancer. That became my unyielding focus and I wrote about it in a way I’d never written about anything before. Many people read that blog (it’s now offline) and followed her journey. People told me my writing was beautiful. They were riveted to every blog post and with each update, they got to know me better, they got to know my daughter. I asked for help the only way I knew how, by writing about it.

After six harrowing months of treatment and heartache, my daughter had a liver transplant. She was in remission. I saw my life clearly for the first time in years, realized I wasn’t happy with blog posts and occasional poems. I wanted to write novels, but I was afraid. That fear–crystallized by that rejection letter from Tor–that had been there all along. I’d been lying to myself. The cancer was behind us (briefly) and suddenly I realized how much damn time I’d been wasting, afraid to write because I didn’t want to fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do. So, I wrote my second book.

Twenty years had passed since the days when I’d eagerly bought each new issue of Writer’s Digest and dreamed of seeing my books in Barnes and Noble. I was 41 and had no connections to the literary or publishing world. All I had was the Internet, like every other aspiring writer.

And things are sure different. Border Books is gone. Tiny bookstores are also mostly gone. Amazon reigns and somehow Barnes and Noble remains. E-book readers–something I used to dream about–are now ubiquitous (I love mine) which theoretically makes reading more accessible, but the sheer volume of books published each year combined with the fact that people read less, poses a huge problem for writers. How can people find us amid the clutter of new books?

Having an agent is now mandatory to get a book in front of a traditional publisher, but the Internet makes it super easy to query agents. Agents are, therefore, inundated with queries (hundreds each week). The glut of new books being published both independently and through “The Big Five” publishers is also an obstacle, as is the disappearance (or absorption) of small publishers. Querying has itself become an art form, one that I’ve had to learn from scratch.

This is the what I came back to after that lone rejection letter drove me away. But, even so, I wrote a book–a middle grade fantasy that was 120,000 words which I soon learned was FAR too long for the age group. I split it into two books and queried, queried, queried about 30 agents. Only half responded, all with rejections (though a few had encouraging things to say about my writing). I started out determined not to let the rejections get me down, but…

It was too much for me. I took to my bed and sobbed. By then, my daughter’s cancer had returned and I wasn’t sure I would ever have the strength to pick myself up and reignite my dream. I couldn’t bear the thought of receiving one more rejection letter. So I ended up self-publishing both books (parts 1 and 2) in 2014. I didn’t sell many books, but I did learn a lot. I learned I gave up too soon. I learned I don’t have a thick skin and probably never will.

I learned that I still love writing–I still have the dream. I learned there’s nothing more important than doing what you love most in the world because time is not limitless. I learned to love my business again, because 1) I’m good at it and 2) it pays for stuff–my house, my food, my car–and because it allows me the time to write.

So where am I now? I’m working on the third revision of my fourth novel (if you include that first book I wrote twenty years ago, which I do). I’m writing it because I love to write, but I’m not going to lie–I want to make a living as a novelist. I’m not sure that’s possible, but there’s no shame in dreaming.

Every day I ask myself, “why do I write?” What is the point? Agents are over worked and cynical. Reading material is easily accessible and often free. Attention spans are shorter (thank you, Internet). My dream of writing novels in a room filled with books–hunched over my computer, my window half-open and overlooking a lake surrounded by willow trees…well, it’s as real as Hogwarts, as the Raggedy Man, as Narnia and Oompa Loompas. That is, it feels like fiction.

Often…it feels hopeless, but it also feels worthwhile. It keeps me connected to a younger version of myself, before heartache bent the shape of my life into something unrecognizable. When I die, I’ll leave a trail of words behind me and I think that means I realized a tiny bit of my dream. In the end, that’s what matters.

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The Underbelly of Querying

For many aspiring novelists, querying agents and sometimes publishers is a requirement. Most big publishers won’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers and even if they do, you’re up against a mountain of slush. It stands to reason that if your work is submitted by an agent that has a standing relationship with your dream publisher, your manuscript will rise to the top of the pile.

I started educating myself about the querying process in 2014, when I’d finished my middle grade fantasy novel, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO. My education included reading Janet Reid’s blog QueryShark from cover to cover so I could hone my query writing skills. I also combed the archives of Writer’s Digest and basically scoured the internet for any nibble of advice or insight. That’s when I discovered that agents and publishers are extremely active on Twitter.

I started following agents, writers (indie and main stream), editors, publishers, and book cover artists – pretty much anyone I could think of that had a hand in the industry. Even with all this preparation and after months of querying roughly 25 or 30 agents, I got discouraged. Rejection is hard. I wanted people to love my book as much as I did. I wanted to stand out, but it seemed impossible when agents were Tweeting about receiving hundreds of queries each WEEK. At that point I jumped on the indie author bandwagon and set about self-publishing DOORWAYS.

Self-publishing taught me a lot, but the biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that I really, REALLY needed an agent – a navigator to help me get my books out there where they won’t sink beneath the constant influx of new indie titles (in 2014, TechCrunch reported that one new book was published on Amazon each MINUTE).

I wrote a third book – the first in a new fantasy series. By now I’d been writing books pretty much nonstop for three years, learning about the industry and also learning to be a better writer (I hope). When I “finished” my latest novel, SPIRITWOOD, I queried with a lot more confidence and a newfound resolve not to let the rejections get me down. There were a few agents I’d queried with DOORWAYS who liked my writing style and told me to query them with any new books, so I started there. Yadda, yadda, yadda, I got a couple of requests for partials or fulls, but still…no agent. After about 35 rejections, I went back and took a look at my manuscript and revised it (based on very insightful feedback from one of the agents who read the full). Then I queried a few more agents and, by chance, met a writing coach who loved my premise and wanted to see the book. I met her on Twitter, by the way…

She read the book and pointed out some major issues that she felt were fixable and we started working on revising the book back in November. I’m on my third revision and, yes, I’m discouraged that it’s taking this long and more than a bit anxious that I won’t find an agent who loves the story as much as me, but I am LEARNING. I’m learning so much about what it takes to be a successful writer. It’s work. It’s hard. Some days it feels futile, but it’s my dream. I mean, what else is there?

And this is where I want to mention a recent train wreck that started when a young agent Tweeted about a writer she’d rejected, and who had posted a very unkind blog post about her on his web site. I saw her Tweet and I knew…I just KNEW…it was going to go viral in the writing community. Essentially, she’d rejected his book via the normal querying process, but for some reason he still met with her at a writing conference where she expressed zero interest in his book, once again. He likened himself to Hemingway, so I’ll call him Mr. Hemingway going forward…

Mr. Hemingway disparaged the agent’s appearance. An older (white) man, the tone of his entire post was bitter and condescending. Why should HE have to go through HER (such a young thing), to get his brilliant book published? This wasn’t his only post either – there were many, MANY others. Mr. Hemingway was pissed and he wanted to let everyone know it. His many posts include agents names, profile pictures (creepy!), the nature of the rejection and long, soliloquies about how misunderstood he and his brilliance were.

It didn’t take agents to find his post and begin a firestorm of Twitter outrage which included some people taking screenshots of the post and reblogging it (why, people?) and others threatening to blacklist him (I don’t think he needs any help there). And this is where I really felt my breath catch in my throat, because I didn’t realize before this all started how much resentment is bubbling under the surface on both sides of the agent/writer dynamic.

And this is also when I realized that we’re in this together. It’s not writers against agents or agents against writers. We’re all just trying to make a living in the same industry. Duh, right?

As a querying writer, each day can be discouraging. Each rejection can make you question yourself. Form rejections can make you feel pretty worthless – and egos can get ruffled. I GET that, I do, but it’s not okay to be mean to agents – or anyone – because they rejected your work. I’m not saying you have to simper and bow (e.g., THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?), but…man…if I had to sift through 500 emails every week, I’d come up with a form letter too. Also, as much as I’d like to write whatever the hell I want to write, it’s my job to understand the market and try to write something that agents can actually sell. Yes, I may feel my creativity is stifled because I can’t write my retelling of Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective, but ultimate freedom of creativity will have to wait until I’ve established myself, it’s that simple.

When a writer like Mr. Hemingway is bitter, nasty, threatening or demeaning to agents, it makes us all look bad. To the agents out there, I’m sorry that you have to deal with that shit. He doesn’t speak for me though, or the thousands of other amazing writers who dream of getting representation.

From a querying writer’s perspective, agents can seem dismissive and uncaring, particularly when they Tweet under the hashtags #querytip and #tenqueries, complaining about how their name is mispelled or writing a snarky comment about how a book is too long or too short, etc. etc.. Writers have a lot of rules to follow and we do our best, but we’re not perfect. If you’re going to tweet tips, make them helpful, “e.g., 200,000 words is too long for a YA Romance, the industry average is 50 – 70K” or whatever. Better yet, respond to the person who queried you and THEN tweet it – because I guarantee you that 9 times out of 10, your advice will help the aspiring writer.

So, now that the smoke as cleared and we all pretty much agree that Mr. Hemingway is a huge ass and no one wants to be associated with him, let’s all have a group hug and move on. We’ve got work to do.

 

 

 

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Work Is Personal

Last Saturday, the NY Times published an article titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas In A Bruising Workplace. I found the piece fascinating, horrifying and uncomfortably…familiar. I’ve worked at startups before and I’ve been a card carrying member of the online marketing industry for *gulp* 18 years.

I started out at a tiny web development shop in upstate NY. I was about 26 years old, engaged to be married (along with about four other people at the company). I was one of the old ones…

No one had children except the CEO, but he worked relentlessly, his wife stayed home with the kids. We worked 60 hour weeks on average, more when deadlines came up, which was often. This was before everyone owned a cell phone, but email was ubiquitous. It’s when I got in the habit of checking my email when I woke up in the morning, and right before bed at night. If I was starting out at the company now, I shudder to think of the always-on connectedness I’d be willing to participate in  – texts and emails at all hours from all locations thanks to my shiny new smartphone, working late into the night on my laptop (Internet was slow in the late nineties -you couldn’t really get a ton done from home with a dialup connection…) I was never a burn-the-midnight-oil kind of person, even back then. I’d leave at 6 most days or 7 if I was working late. I’ve always been more productive in the morning anyway…

Well, what does this have to do with writing? This is my author web site, after all. But this is also my platform – as an author, as a worker, as a person – and I have a complicated relationship with Amazon. I’ve been a customer almost since the beginning when all they sold was books and the name “Amazon” was baffling. What did it have to do with books?

I am also a writer with books on Amazon, but that wasn’t the case at first. When Amazon first launched back in 1994, I was working on my first novel. It was a book that took me over six years to write, and by the time it was finished that start-up job I mentioned above was my top priority. Dreams of being a novelist faded in the excitement of being part of “the company” and I had little time for anything else. I loved my fellow employees. The idea of “snitching” on my colleagues so that I could potentially move up in the company was (and still is) repulsive – and reading about this in the NY Times makes me sad. I hope it’s exaggerated. I hope we’re not teaching people to work like this…

At first glance, the viral sideshow of Amazon’s soul-sucking work environment doesn’t seem to be about me – but it is, isn’t it? Because Amazon has become a part of my daily routine – like food shopping, getting gas, feeding the cats… I bought into Amazon Prime almost the minute it was launched. I got into the habit of checking on Amazon first for anything and everything so I could take advantage on the free 2 day shipping. I said to my husband, “I know what they’re doing here. They’re hooking me. But that’s okay…” My most treasured possession is my Kindle. I buy books like candy – inhaling at least one new book a week thanks to the ease of Amazon’s platform. As a writer, I’m conscious of my dependence on Amazon. My dream is to write full-time within 5-7 years. Can I realize this dream without Amazon? Probably not.

That brings me back to the reason why I’m writing this post in the first place – Amazon’s work environment, which is somewhat reminiscent of my early years at that startup (it’s gone now – purchased by a larger company then dismantled). After five years of putting my heart and soul into that company, the twin towers fell. We were all there – 100 employees – crowded around a television screen in the break room. We saw the first one fall together. I drove home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday to my husband and my 4-month-old daughter and questioned the value of slogging off to work every day when it could all end so suddenly…as it had for thousands of people that morning. How many of them had a dream deferred because of work? How long was I going to defer mine?

I can blame my fizzling enthusiasm in that job on 9/11 but, in truth, my blind devotion to the agency had already begun to fade after a series of layoffs and inept management decisions that left me wondering why I’d worked so hard in the first place. At that point in my career I was the Director of Internet Marketing – a title I never thought I’d see with my barely-bachelor’s degree. I was 30 years old and I had a new baby. I wanted to leave at 5 p.m. – and for the first time I realized that I was one of the only ones leaving at that time. I felt guilty. I felt torn. Getting laid off a few months later, while shocking and upsetting, was actually a huge relief. That was around spring of 2002. I’ve been freelancing ever since.

So, I guess the entire point of this article is to bestow some wisdom to Amazon employees from someone who is older, possibly wiser and a total skeptic about corporate bullshit.

The company doesn’t own you.

You have choices.

It’s not okay to be belittled in any way shape or form. If someone does this to you in a meeting, or in an email, or on a conference call – speak up. Tell them it’s not okay.

Your family is MORE important.

Your family is MORE important.

Your family is MORE important.

This thing that is your job – this place – this company that has become the most important part of your identity. It’s not your identity. You don’t have to say it is, either. You can work hard and still be you. Amazon belongs to Jeff Bezos and his elite group of managers. Don’t ever forget that you are expendable (and most of the top brass at Amazon likely is as well). You know what’s not expendable? Time. It’s limited. It’s finite. You have every right to have a life outside of work. It doesn’t make you weaker. Perhaps wanting to have time for yourself, or your family, or your children makes you poor “Amazon” material – but is that such a bad thing? When your time at Amazon is over, take the good with you and leave the bullshit where it belongs.

Amazon – or any company that expects you to give up your entire self for their bottom line – is asking too much. And what do you get in return? Definitely not job security. Loyalty should be a two way street. I’m directing this to you, Amazonians particularly the young ones – the ones who have heard “Do What You Love” as an excuse to squeeze work out of you – as if shipping toilet paper and Barbie dolls is something you could possibly feel passionate about forever. Do what you love at a company like Amazon? That’s total crap. Do what you need to, put your time in, move on.

Amazon seems to have taken a brutally honest approach about how it views its workers. Employees are producers who lose value when they lose productivity – if you have a problem with that, then don’t work here. Okay…so maybe it’s time for employees to admit, candidly, what Amazon is to them – a means to an end. It’s a paycheck, a way to get experience so they can start their own company, or work for a BETTER company (and there are many…) It’s all just business, right?

But let’s not pretend that it’s okay to treat people like crap, okay? Let’s not tell people to “suck it up” and accept that this is a good way to work. Because it’s not.  There are obvious diminishing returns when you consider your health, your family, and the fact that human beings grow older and can’t keep up a breakneck work pace forever. That doesn’t make them weak, by the way. It seems to me that pitting people against each other, creating a toxic work environment that burns people out so you can hire younger, hungrier people (for lower wages), is actually the weaker approach compared to putting the time and effort into cultivating a healthy work environment…but I digress.

And even Amazon, in all it’s next-day-shipping glory, is expendable. There are other web sites, other stores, other e-readers waiting to take their place. I no longer do all my holiday shopping at Amazon (I once bragged about doing this). I’d rather shop at local stores or on specific web sites (Etsy, OpenSky) where it may take longer to get stuff, but I can almost always find unique things sold by small business owners or artisans (and are truly satisfying to give as gifts).

As for Amazon, well…I hope the NY Times piece inspires some change in their corporate culture.

 

 

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The Reluctant Hero

sadsupermanOne key ingredient of an epic hero – the kind of all around good guy (or girl) that you want to get behind in any story, is their reluctance to be a hero in the first place.

Luke Skywalker. Katniss. Harry Potter. Tris. Superman.

Why do we love them? Because they’ve suffered, they’ve sacrificed and they’ve overcome huge obstacles to save the day (or they died trying).

And they do suffer. They lose their loved ones. They are tortured, tormented, forced to make impossible decisions that no one should ever have to make. They are lonely and lost. When they hit bottom – whether it’s at the beginning of their story, the middle, or the end – no one wants to suffer what they’ve suffered because it’s truly horrible.

I wonder if people read about tragic heroes as a way to appease fate – kind of like riding a roller coaster. You’re almost guaranteed to survive when you get on that ride, but maybe you’ve fooled the universe enough so that it looks the other way when when it counts – on that winding snow-covered road when you take the curve too fast, in that crowded movie theater when the gunman shows up, when you – or your child – gets that routine scan just to be sure…

As a writer, I’m fascinated with the voyeuristic compulsion that keeps me glued to the book or screen, routing for the hero – crying with her, cheering with her, hoping against hope that she makes it. And, yes, imagining myself in her shoes.

As the mother of a child with cancer, I’m…careful…about the heroes I create, especially the ones with cancer. My daughter has asked me, in the past, why people say she’s brave, and strong – why they look up to her as a hero when she didn’t ask for this, and she has no choice.

She has no choice.

Do heroes ever have a choice? Isn’t that one of the things that draws us to them? It’s not so much that they’ve had awfulness thrust upon them – so many of us have – but it’s that they took this awfulness and they did something positive with it, maybe even helped someone else, or maybe just SURVIVED it and moved on. Survivors inspire us. They show us that life continues after the worst case scenario.  This is incredibly important information to have if you find yourself living the life of a reluctant hero (I imagine).

The children in my books aren’t epic heroes because they have cancer. They are children who have cancer, who happen to become epic heroes. My goal is to accurately represent what it’s like for a child to live with this disease without glorifying it – or dwelling on it. It becomes an aspect of my character’s character – like eye color or hair color, but not the focus of that character.

Cancer likes to stand up and be noticed. It takes things away – sometimes little by little – sometimes all at once. In my first book, I didn’t shy away from this even though I wanted the main protagonist (an 11-year-old girl) to save the world. And – spoiler alert – she does.

In my new book, the main protagonist (a 15-year-old boy) is called on to save multiple worlds. He happens to be in remission at the start of the book, but has battled leukemia three times in his short life. He starts the book out as a hero (at least in my eyes.) My goal is for him to see himself as a hero by the end of the trilogy, and not because he’s survived cancer, but because he truly recognizes his own bravery. I want this character to be a mirror that makes it absolutely crystal clear why a kid with cancer is really a brave, though reluctant, hero.

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The Search for Meaning

Demeter Mourning Persephone

Demeter Mourning Persephone

“Human beings like to tell stories.”
–Professor Peter Struck, Associate Professor, Classical Studies
University of Pennsylvania

I just finished an online Greek mythology course with Coursera, a web site that partners with universities throughout the world to offer free online courses. (If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should.)

I took the class because I’m creating a unique mythological chronology in my new novel, CUT, and wanted to learn about myth from a classicist, and directly from texts that have survived for thousands of years. It’s one thing to read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (which is brilliant), or get a summary of the gods and heroes from Bulfinch’s Mythology. It’s quite another to read The Odyssey translated from its original Latin into a book-length epic poem written over three thousand years ago.

It wasn’t easy. I’ve never been a particularly good scholar and it’s been years since I had to sit for regular lectures followed up by (very difficult) reading and weekly quizzes. I went into the class thinking I’d get a refresher on all the old myths that I love like the one where Aphrodite is born from the foam of the sea (but I didn’t realize that the foam was created by the genitals of Heaven – cut off by his own son Kronos at the request of his mother, the Earth). Don’t try to figure it out…it just IS. The main thing I learned from this ten week class is how much I don’t know and, surprisingly, how much of the writing I was able to relate to, particulary the tale of Odysseus.

I didn’t really know much about Greek heroes before I took this class, which is funny because when you write an epic fantasy book, it’s all about the hero’s journey. It’s Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (in Oz), Bastian in Fantasia…well, you get the picture. But before all of these epic heroes, there was Odysseus trying to make his way home from Troy but faced with the wrath of Poseidon (Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, who was Poseidon’s son). Homer says this about Odysseus:

More than all other men, that man was born for pain.

This line in Homer’s Odyssey occurs early on. It’s a foreshadowing of the trials and losses that Odysseus will suffer before he finally reaches the shores of his beloved Ithaca. But if you take out the words “men” and “man” and substitute them with “creatures” and “creature” then it becomes a universal truth. We are, all of us, born for pain. We are doomed with self awareness and, because of that, plagued by an endless search for meaning.

Why is there loss? Why is there sickness? Why must the hero struggle?

There is something exquisitely comforting about reading stories written thousands of years ago that speak to the same uniquely human anxieties as we experience today.

Our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times.
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth,
turn as the days turn. [Fagles, 150]

The hero’s journey is our own journey. The eternal search for meaning in life and  death, and the perpetual struggle to understand our place in the world are part of this. The discovery of our own frailties, and how we overcome them (or not) is also part of this journey. The gods themselves experience it. The myth of Demeter, who loses her daughter to Hades and mourns this loss bitterly, is – at its root – the tale of a mother’s love and sorrow.

But golden Demeter
sat there, far away from all the blessed ones,
waiting, wasting away with longing for her daughter.
She made that a most dreadful and bitter year
for people on the land that feeds them, and the earth
sprouted no seed [The Homeric Hymns, Rayor, 300]

The goddess was bereft and because of her sorrow, everyone on earth suffered. For those of you that know the myth, you know that Demeter gets her daughter Persephone back for two-thirds of the year, but for the remaining third, Persephone is lost to her. Nothing grows during that time.

A mother’s sorrow = bleak, desolate winter.

Damn. I get it. We all get it!  There’s a lot we can learn from reading these ancient texts about the stories that were told over and over again so many centuries ago. It’s a kind of shared consciousness, a collective history of what it means to be human. My summer goal is to finish reading all of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis before rereading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It’s a labor of love.

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Letting Sadness In

sadness

I saw Inside Out with my 11-year-old daughter last week because I love Amy Poehler and I doubly love pixar films. That was my purpose for going, but what I ended up seeing was something entirely unexpected – a nuanced film with an emotionally fragile character that experienced real distress. I wept, and not just because my 14-year-old (who saw the movie with a friend) recently experienced the transition that the main character in the movie, Riley, experienced (only instead of becoming uprooted from her home and friends, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 11).

So, yes, it pushed a lot of buttons for me in that respect, but I also wept because the newest 11-year-old in my life still has LOTS of Goofball Island left inside her head, and I’m really going to miss it when it goes away.

goofballisland

Not that it will ENTIRELY go away, but it won’t ever be the same. She was (of course) extremely embarrassed at my tears, but once I was able to pull myself together, I realized that it was a great opportunity to talk about some of the issues that the movie brought up: the biggest one being that it’s okay to let sad in. In fact, it’s disastrous not to. We’re still getting around to having that conversation…

As far as characters go, Riley was secondary to the movie’s true characters – the emotions in her head. But even so, the movie made me think about the kinds of books I was drawn to as a child (and the kinds of characters I aspire to create in my own books).

Many of the characters that I love in children’s literature are 11 or 12 years old. Charlie Bucket was 12. Harry Potter turns 11 in the first book, right before he’s whisked away to Hogwarts. Meg Murry is 13 at the start of A Wrinkle In Time, but her trauma happened when she was 11 (the disappearance of her father). Meg’s ultimate discovery in the book? Parents can’t fix everything.

The main characters in these books are sad. Their heartache is often extreme (Charlie Bucket is desperately poor). There is a chapter in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory titled, “The Family Begins to Starve.”

charliesmellschocolate

I have an early edition of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, carried with me through the years since I was a child, and one of the defining illustrations is the drawing of a very gaunt Charlie looking absolutely blissful as he smells the scent of chocolate coming from the factory.

This is one of my FAVORITE childhood books of all time, and it’s rife with sadness. It was hugely influential in my decision to create an 11-year-old protagonist. Everything changes when you turn 11. That’s no joke. But my first book also included a different character – a girl who was terribly, painfully lonely (my own experience of being 11.)

Loneliness, isolation, fear, pain — as parents, we try to shield our children from these emotions and experiences. When they are little, it’s somewhat easy to do. But eventually, our kids learn the truth. Sometimes it comes crashing down on them all at once – the tornado that rips their world apart (Dorothy’s age is never specified in The Wizard of Oz, but a reference in one of Baum’s sequels indicates she is about 11). And sometimes it starts as just a glimpse, some sort of deep disappointment, the pain a friend is experiencing, the hurt of a lost pet…and they begin to seek out stories that embrace the very things we’ve been trying to protect them from since BIRTH.

They do this….we do this…through books and movies. The stories of Charlie Bucket, Meg Murry, Harry Potter, Grace Woodward (my character in DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO) and my newest character, Zachary Daryl Lyon not only learn that parents can’t fix everything, they learn that it’s okay to let the sadness in.  They learn that endings aren’t always happy. They learn forgiveness. They learn how to begin the healing process.

These are painful lessons and stories about characters who are in the midst of hardship are comforting. We go through so many of these traumas alone, living them inside our own minds and pretending we’re okay when we’re not. It’s just such an incredible RELIEF to connect with a character who is experiencing real pain. That’s the brilliance of Inside Out – to see for ourselves that hey, it’s not just me.

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The Next Five Years

Curved Two Lane Country Road Winding Through a Forest

I keep three sometimes-updated blogs; three slices of myself, separated under unique domain names , neatly categorized with the help of modern technology.

The first, and most important – the one I update at least once a month, but usually more often, is the blog about my 13-year-old daughter and her ongoing battle with cancer. Although, in truth, it’s as much about me – and how I’m doing, dealing, coping, or not coping with this disease that is often the largest thing in my family’s lives.

The second is the blog I maintain (not often enough) for my business, Twelve Thousand, LLC. Here is where I let my inner geek roam free and I write about my work, and what I think about my work, and stuff about search engines and marketing and all the things that go along with making a paid search campaign tick. At least, that’s what I aspire too. Most of my posts end up being extremely technical, or extremely conceptual (e.g., “What does it mean to work productively?”) For this reason I can never label myself a “thought leader,” or a “pundit” or a *shudder* “guru.” I’m too ambivalent about the concept of being an expert in anything, because I always feel like there’s so much more to learn.

The final blog is this one – a blog that has a total of seven posts. Well, now it’s eight I guess, which is about writing (mostly mine) and the process of figuring out how to become a full-time writer when I still have a full-time business and no idea what the hell I’m doing in the vast, ever-changing landscape of publishing.

So I am three people, not one, but really I’m five people, or ten people – and all of this was floating around in my head during a recent call I had with a new business prospect. It seemed to be going well, but then he asked me where I saw myself headed in the next five years. What do I want to do? I wanted to say it was all about search marketing for me and getting new clients like him. I knew that’s what I SHOULD say, but I couldn’t bring myself to lie. It’s not that I don’t love my job – I really do – but at this point in my life, and in my business, five years from now looks very different than it used to when I was first starting out.

I haven’t had to answer that question since, well, since I worked for BIG EMPLOYMENT and got a paycheck and benefits and time off – roughly 13 or 14 years ago. Even back then I was never good at answering that question, because my answer was supposed to be that I saw myself in a leadership role, moving into a director and then a VP level position which actually wasn’t what I wanted, or how I saw myself. But what could I say? I want to keep doing what I’m doing, become ridiculously good at it, and make as much as you, Ms. VP?

Moving up meant that I would be moving away from what I most liked to do – my job at the time – planning and launching online media, creating pretty reports to show clients how their campaigns were performing and constantly learning. It meant hiring people and actually managing them. It meant 85% of my time spent in planning and new business meetings. It meant a ton of travel when I had a 12-month old baby at home. How could I manage a team of people and still be good at what I loved to do? And still see my baby at 5:30 p.m. each evening? And still avoid tons of travel?

When I was last asked that question (probably during a performance review), I’d already been at the company nearly five years. I couldn’t imagine staying there another five years. I was already bored, and tired of the insulated environment of being in one company – a giant echo chamber of – we’re the best, we’re cutting edge, we’re doing it right. -I knew we were very much NOT cutting edge and, in fact, we were kind of doing it wrong.

Ruminating about where I’d want to be within that company in five years seemed old fashioned and out of touch. Who stayed at the same company for ten years anymore, anyway? But I couldn’t very well tell them the truth. Where do I want to be in five years?

NOT HERE!

In five years…I wanted to build and create my own thing, I wanted to work from home full-time, I wanted to stop reporting to people who had absolutely no idea what I did all day long and thus had no clear understanding as to why the company was doing so poorly.

Luckily, I got laid off.

Five years from that day, I had built a (fairly) reliable freelancing business which met most of my goals – though learning how to run a business has not been easy, and I’m still learning. So now I’m in my forties, and I’ve been working on my own terms for over a decade, and I’ve seen cancer walk through my door and settle down to stay a while, so the question of “the next five years” looks very different.

Where do I want to be in five years?

I want to be writing. I want to spin novel after novel after novel and have hundreds of thousands of readers. I want my daughter to be there to see it all. I want her to graduate high school and think about college and when she chooses her course of study, I want her to remember that she doesn’t have to sit in a cubicle. She doesn’t have to give herself up to just ONE company. She should absolutely learn about business, and how to run one, and how to talk to people and present herself, but she certainly doesn’t have the luxury of giving her life up to a company for five years. I mean, technically, none of us do. But really, she very much doesn’t.

And so this post is about the beginning of a new career path for me. It’s also about honoring and continuing to love my existing career path because search marketing campaigns aren’t as boring as they sound, especially when I get to manage them the way I want to, and work with clients who I respect (and sometimes even adore). It’s an industry that’s been good to me, giving me a way to make a living without feeling guilty when I stop work to watch my kids get off the bus at 3:30 p.m. each day, backpacks bumping against their legs, eyes on the ground – or their phones – walking towards the house, and my office, and me.

Think about where you want to be in five years. Where you REALLY want to be – and try to understand that the company you work for is only as good as the people who work there. And then spin it around. Where is that company going to be in five years? Do you want to be part of that?

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Why My Main Character Has Cancer

grace_nohairI self-published my first novel, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO, in May 2014 after submitting it to roughly thirty agents. I heard back from about half of them, mostly with variations of this sentence, “we like your writing, but the book is not for us.” It was…disheartening, but not unexpected.

I knew the book was going to be a hard sell because one of the main characters – Grace – is an 11-year-old girl with cancer. Grace was deeply inspired my daughter, Ana, who was diagnosed with a rare, malignant liver tumor a few months after her 11th birthday, spent weeks in the hospital, underwent chemotherapy and endured many scans and other procedures before having a liver transplant in February 2013.

My reason for creating the character of Grace was simple. I wanted to cast my daughter in the role of a heroic protagonist even though she was sick. I had this memory of her initial 40-day hospital stay when she watched the Hunger Games over and over again. It was September, and she wanted to be Katniss for Halloween. At the time her hair reached the middle of her back. She couldn’t wait to braid it the way Katniss braided it in the movie. Ana started chemotherpy in early October and two weeks later she lost her hair -right before her school’s Halloween dance. She wore a fake braid, but it wasn’t the same.

The main characters in Ana’s favorite books and movies are strong and healthy. Katniss, Tris (Divergent), Thomas (The Maze Runner), even Harry Potter (not a favorite of hers, but I loved these books) – while all plagued with challenges that included poverty, suppression, loss of parents and violence – are beautiful. They are whole. They are healthy.

I mean, how can a child who has a port in their chest go on a quest? How can a kid who has to take medication to stay alive, truly be free to save the world? It’s a logistical nightmare, but I knew it could be done. I was compelled to figure it out. I created a world called Arkomo that could only be reached from the hospital and a princess from Arkomo who was lonely and driven to find a friend. The girls’ shared need is what brought them together, and keeping things in the setting of the hospital  enabled me to work around my main characters’ failing health. Grace can only get to Arkomo from the Hospital. And Sorel (the princess) can only enter our world from within the Hospital.

So it’s out there – a book with a child who loses her hair, has to get chemo, scans and shots and can barely walk by the end of her adventure, but still saves the world.

And now I’m finishing up my newest novel, CUT, which features – you guessed it – a main protagonist with cancer. His name is Zachary Daryl Lyon and he’s got leukemia. Did you know that kids with leukemia often undergo years of treatment and that if they relapse – they have to start it all over again? Zach is in the hospital when the book begins. He’s in remission for the third time in his life and he is as epic as they get – as far as heroes go.

I know I’m facing the same challenges with CUT as I did with DOORWAYS. I’ve begun submitting the manuscript to agents, testing the waters on how receptive they are to the concept since the characters in this book are all teenagers and the story is solidly young adult as opposed to middle grade. I’m envisioning eye rolling out there in agent-land. Not another character with cancer! Another Hazel, another Gus (riding on the Fault in Our Stars bandwagon). There’s just no market for that!

Only I think there is.

My books are about honoring the children that I’ve met these last few years since my daughter’s diagnosis. It’s about seeing them, authentically, and honoring how hard they fight for each day, each moment. It’s about letting them see themselves as heroes – without hair, without health, without the guarantee of tomorrow.

My daughter often rolls her eyes when people call her brave. She says, “what choice do I have?” But she endures the blood draws, and the medication, and the constant scans, and the surgery – she lives with the scars and soldiers on, looking and sounding like a normal teenager, but forced to be twice as strong. That is the biggest reason why my main character has cancer. I want my writing to be a mirror. I want kids like Grace and Zach and Ana to recognize how strong they are – how truly heroic.

 

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Book Review: Eleanor by Jason Gurley

“If the sea that swallowed them both did not exist, Agnes would weep and invent it.”
From Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Gurley_Eleanor I just finished reading Jason Gurley’s phenomenal new novel, Eleanor. It’s inspired me to start blogging about indie books – something I promised (myself) I would do since many mainstream book review sites won’t consider self-published novels. So, this is my first official indie book review post, but definitely not my last. Full disclosure: I will only review books I like and highly recommend.

Now for the important stuff.

Eleanor started making waves even before its official release on June 27th, 2014. Amazon had a preorder button for it and the book had accrued over one hundred reviews on both Amazon and more than 20 on Goodreads before the official release date – quite a feat for an independent self-published author. The reviews are overwhelmingly glowing – and with good reason – Jason’s book is masterful, original and inspiring on many levels.

The premise defies categorization. I will say that it’s solidly literary in that the writing is exquisite. Beyond that, it could happily coexist in multiple categories including paranormal and possibly fantasy. But my feeling is that the author uses the elements of fantasy and the paranormal to further the ultimate story, which is – at its core – about family tragedy, emotional heartache and the ability for the human spirit to heal. Mr. Gurley’s writing is poetic and deliberate. Here’s an excerpt from a passage I absolutely loved, and is a great example of the kind of poignant, vivid imagery that is present throughout the book:

The earth here has never forgotten its pain. It cradles the heat of its own death, always just beneath the surface, as though releasing the memory would be to forget it forever, to risk succumbing to the fresh hell of fire again and again.

I mean..DAMN that’s good.

The plot in brief: Eleanor‘s main protagonist is a 14-year-old girl named Eleanor who has survived a horrific tragedy that’s torn her family apart. Eleanor’s story begins before she’s born, when we get a glimpse of a tragedy that befell her own mother and shaped how her mother (in turn) relates to Eleanor and reacts to the tragedy at the start of the book. I’m being really careful here not to give anything away because Mr. Gurley very deliberately sets the pace and direction of the book by introducing these two dual tragedies early on.

The story quickly takes a supernatural turn, bringing the main character into different worlds via portals that appear, drawing her within them, throughout the book. This book is absolutely un-put-downable once you’re around 40% into it, but I will say that I read the first third of the book with a terrible lump in my throat. The tragedies are vividly real and emotional, and the characters’ pain so exquisitely depicted that I found myself reluctant to continue because it was so real. There is a lot of pain in my own life right now due to my daughter’s battle with cancer, so this is definitely my own personal, visceral reaction and is not meant to discourage anyone from reading the book! In fact, I’m glad I continued reading. My initial reaction was really a testament to Mr. Gurley’s skill as a writer and story teller.

As a reader, this book met every single possible expectation I could have had – great writing (flawless, really), great and very original plot, and a meaningful ending that tied the various threads of the story together nicely. The book, written in the third person present (my least favorite tense) had an ethereal otherworldly quality to it that was a perfect match for the tense. It changed my mind about third person present, actually – it was another tool that Mr. Gurley used to turn this into a masterpiece which is sure to win more than one writing award.

As a writer, this book taught me a lot about great writing and what I personally aspire to with my own stories. I love that it doesn’t fit one particular mold, and isn’t afraid to be character driven within the realm of fantasy and the supernatural – something (quite frankly) you just don’t often see.

I highly recommend this book and will be eagerly looking forward to Mr. Gurley’s next work. In fact, I am now solidly a fan. You can purchase it on Amazon or get a signed copy from Mr. Gurley’s web site.

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Doorways to Arkomo is On Sale Now!

comp1-v2_wattpadDoorways To Arkomo is on sale now on Amazon.com and Smashwords. It was accepted into the Smashwords premium catalog, which will (eventually) make it available for purchase in the Nook store and on iTunes. Click here for links to all ordering options.

 

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