Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Waiting Game

What a time it has been! I’ve gone from tentatively sticking my toe back into publishing waters to swimming in the whirlpool of anxious possibility…

Ah, but you have no idea. Let me explain.

erica-study3I finished my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, at 10:30 PM on June 26 while my family watched a noisy shoot-em-up in the next room. Even as I hit “save” in at least three locations – my computer, external hard-drive, Dropbox and a couple others just in case – I opened an email that swept me away into the riptide of The Writers Circle’s Summer Intensives. I didn’t have a moment to think about my own work again until the end of the summer when I mentioned at the last class of my beloved Wednesday morning Adult Writers Circle that I was finally looking for a new agent.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself, which is my usual pose in the teacher’s chair (this blog post notwithstanding), I didn’t mention who or what I was planning beyond what would be useful to my students when they were ready. But one of our circle, Maude, finally said, “Let me see your list.” She was quite insistent, so I finally did.

“I know this person, and this one.”

I stared at her, astonished. In fact, a couple of people in the class knew others who might help me. I graciously and somewhat breathlessly accepted their offers of introduction, realizing that this is exactly what The Writers Circle was meant to do. I just hadn’t expected to be one of the recipients of our communal largesse! I always thought it would work the other way around.

A few days later, a message came through inviting me to send a query. Which I did – from my family vacation in Maine. Of course, we had to choose a place off the grid! But after several trips to a wireless hub, I managed to send an appropriate query letter not to one agent, but two. Within 24 hours, requests came from both for the manuscript. OMG!

Not long after, I was meeting my brand new agent in NYC, feeling the first tentative tendrils of hope growing into sturdy roots as I discovered that what I’d been struggling with and nurturing for so long had a champion.

WaitingAll this was about a month ago. Right now, my former editor at Viking – who, by contract, has first option on this book – has my manuscript in hand. Or someone does in her office. Hopefully it’s made it past her assistant. Maybe it’s making its rounds through the marketing department by now? Maybe finding its way to the final arbiters of a reasonable (dare I hope!) deal? Or is it simply languishing, waiting for a response that will send me searching for the courage and endurance that I’ve preached about so often in these blog posts?

I’m told that, if Viking turns it down, there are lots of other options. In fact, there are more options than ever before. I’ve said it myself, I’ve said it to you, and I know – I really do know – that it’s true. But the brass ring for any author is still to find a traditional publisher who will stand behind their book, or at least get it into the stores across the nation and some attention here and there where it counts. Before and after that, trust me, there’s lots to do. But for now, I can wait.

I’ve waited this long. I can manage a little longer.

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Great Speakers, Great Events, Great Opportunities

Check out these great happenings at The Writers Circle and in our broader, connected creative circles.

First, we’re officially launching our monthly Writers Circle Speaker Series with a talk that goes beyond writing to all aspects of creative thinking.
The Writers Circle Speaker Series
Join me and TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron on October 2, 2-4PM for “Tapping into Creativity” at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. We’ll be talking about how to bring creative thinking to the classroom, the workplace, and yes, into your own creative work, with hands-on exercises that will challenge your imagination. Tickets are $25/session if pre-registered, $35 at the door, and only $20/session for TWC students and parents (former and current). Students should’ve gotten an email with the discount code, but if you didn’t, just let us know. Register online and, while you’re at it, check out the entire schedule of ten great events. (It’s only $150 for all 10 sessions!)

Second, my good friend, novelist Christina Baker-Kline, shares this terrific mini-retreat for creative women. (Sorry, guys. I’ll find something for you next time!)

Rejuvenate Your Writing Life!
mini-retreat logo
A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Creative Women

with authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel
Friday, November 4, 9:30am – 3:30pm, Montclair, New Jersey

This one’s not just for writers. As Christina says, “it’s for anyone who may have a story (or stories) inside but needs a little inspiration and encouragement.” Christina and Deborah are both professional writing mothers who believe that writing is vital — even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives. (How true!) They held this workshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn this spring with wonderful results. Find out more at Christina’s blog and take advantage of these great women’s wisdom and a day of creative community.

Finally, this from one of the participants at my workshop at the Maywood Library last week. Katie O’Connell writes:

“I have a website, SocialJersey.com which is an event listing site and blog for young northern NJ professionals in their 20s and 30s. I’m updating the site and would like to update it monthly with new content. If you are interested in gaining clips, please email: SocialJerseyEditor@gmail.com.

Thanks, everyone, for spreading the word, sharing the talent and networking around. Now get to writing! I promise I’ll have something substantive to contemplate in the next post. Till then, see you at The Writers Circle.


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Deconstructing the Reconstruction

Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.

Orwell 1984 Draft

George Orwell's "1984", work in progress


I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.

Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?

I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”

OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.

I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?

So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.

Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….

And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.


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Another Nice Writers Circle Re-Post on STET!

As they did about a year ago, Backspace‘s blog STET! has graced me by re-posting one of my early summer pieces, We Are What We Read.
Backspace, The Writers Place
Backspace is a great online writers community with plenty of wise advice, both online and to be had at their conferences, often held in New York City.

Thanks, Backspace! I love being a part of what’s going on.


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Social Networking for Authors: Reaching Out and Beyond

In anticipation of Stuart Lutz’s book launch party tomorrow night – a Writers Circle first! – I feel compelled more than ever to emphasize the need for a writers community. This extends beyond our own small but growing circle to embrace family, friends, and hopefully an enlarging group of readers who find our work, like it and share it with others.

Writers have always been notoriously solitary characters. We work in isolation, sometimes with only the company of a cat (like the one peering out from behind my computer screen right now). Our stories and characters speak inside our heads. We carry them around with us, an ongoing but invisible conversation that feeds us but also removes us from the immediacy of human contact. Sometimes the only sounds that reverberate in my office throughout the day are the dull clacks of my overused keyboard.

Rosie
Making direct contact these days is vital, both in the creation of a writer’s work and as the finished product reaches for an audience. I have been privileged to work with published peers and struggling first-time writers alike, delving deeply into the creative process, poking, nudging and plucking to find the best way a novel, memoir or book proposal should be shaped. And I’ve relied on peers and confidantes to do the same for me.

Once a book is ready for market, another kind of community steps in. This blog has already seen the contributions of authors Michelle Cameron and Stuart Lutz. I guarantee you’ll see more in the near future. (One’s already in the wings awaiting the launch of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell‘s latest novel, Claude & Camille.)

These “visits” are all part of “blog tours” – the best and sometimes only way authors have found to harness their own destiny in the supersaturated, dwindling book market. Amidst the bewildering churn of digital media, most authors get little or no publisher support. They either hire a costly publicist with generally mixed results or ambitiously go it on their own.

Back in the good old days (like in 2006 when my novel The Thrall’s Tale first came out), publishers still sent a few select authors on the road for a formal book tour. The intention back then was to meet and greet. Publishers were usually less concerned with gathering a receptive audience anxious to hear the author read aloud than with the brisk glad-handing authors shared with favored booksellers who, charmed by the mere appearance of a living, breathing author in their stores, would feel compelled to hand-sell the debut novel, memoir or self-help book to their customers.

I suppose these meet-and-greets were effective in their day. But my tour experience was one of disappointment descending into depression. Try as these lovely booksellers might to draw a crowd, my events were no match for the Superbowl, no draw against the wiles of a violent Seattle rainstorm. The best attended events I had were in towns where I knew lots of friends. (Thank you, now defunct Coliseum Books and all my former colleagues from HBO right next door!) The final stop, in yet another ubiquitous superstore somewhere in the Midwest, amounted to reading to only two people and signing a stack of hardcovers in a back storeroom.

For this, I assure you, I was entirely grateful. Most authors got far less! What impact all this had on sales is anybody’s guess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the money the publisher spent on my excursion (which took me away from my five- and two-year-old for an unbearable two weeks) would’ve been better spent on a strategically targeted marketing scheme.

The way books are bought, sold and read these days is changing so rapidly that no publisher, publicist or lowly author has any idea how to reach out and grab that virtual outstretched hand. These days, an author tour more likely takes place via Skype, Facebook, Goodreads, Shewrites or on the blogs of other writers and friends. Making direct contact is becoming rare indeed. If these new digital forays are adequate substitutes is hard to tell. And although a web presence is absolutely mandatory, I have yet to hear from anyone whether the ROI of a book trailer (almost always paid for out of an author’s meager advance and conceived, written, and directed by him or her as well) is really worth the trouble or expense.

So with all our websites, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, how is an author meant to reach out to real readers? And how do we break the wall of our own self-imposed and circumstance-inflicted isolation?

Some authors are touted for the D.I.Y. Book Tour, another way that we have tried to take our fates in hand. The overall experience seems less about selling books than about meeting people, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and listening to readers who never thought they’d even want to read our books. I’ve had the most glorious times in my hosts’ living rooms, listening and laughing to startled responses to my book as we sip wine and nibble cheese. I’ve spoken at endless gatherings where neighbors and friends who either hated or loved my work debated right in front of me their reasons. And I’ve come full circle, supporting my own friends and passing on the tradition to my children, as I did this past weekend at Marc Aronson’s reading in Maplewood. (Yes, that’s my youngest having his copy of If Stones Could Speak signed by the author!)

Passing it On
I’ve begun to realize that, as much as we all long to see our books at the top of bestsellers’ lists, it is community that counts, if only we can find a way to grow and sustain it.

So I encourage all of you to come out tomorrow night and to go to the next reading of an author you know or don’t. Because in the end, we writers don’t often get to bask in the limelight. The few times we do stand in front of an audience are far more satisfying than a blog tour or a Skype talk because the hand shake, gentle pat on the back, and the applause are real.


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Happy Anniversary – The Writers Circle hits #15 on the Preditors & Editors Poll!

Check it out! The Writers Circle blog tied for #15 on the 2010 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll!
Preditors & Editors
I know it’s not #1, and I never expected it to be. But even reaching #15 in the overcrowded conversation that goes on every day on the web is impressive, especially because, as far as I’m concerned, the purpose of The Writers Circle is very personal, intimate, specific and REAL.

Most of you (those I’m aware of, anyway) are people I really know, see and work with face to face on a regular basis. That our community has managed to reach a broader audience signifies just how much we all long to connect, even across this vast digital “cloud”.

Each of you inspires my thoughts and directs my posts. As I leave our weekly meetings, I’m filled with ideas about how to best encourage your work, how to guide you in your efforts to express your thoughts and imaginings, and how to press you onward against the inevitable tide of other obligations and distractions.

Over the last four years, we’ve committed to each other. We’ve worked hard to nurture a safe, supportive community that exists and extends across multiple facets of our creative and personal lives. A perfect example is the collaboration of Stuart Lutz, Ross Minichiello and Sandra Joseph, all coming together to create a book trailer for Stuart’s upcoming release, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors.

I’m thinking of Mary Mann, editor of Maplewood Patch, who has pooled the writing talents of so many in our Circle, including Lois Cantwell, Marcia Worth, Elias Zwillenberg, Stuart Lutz and, yes, yours truly! (Is there anyone I missed?)

I’m thinking of our excitement over members’ achievements, with or without our help, like Chris Harder’s essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul and in The New York Times’ Motherlode; and Lori Sender‘s and Marcia Worth‘s many articles in The New York Times.

I’m thinking of our local readings and Stuart’s book launch coming up on March 26th at Maplewood’s Words. (Be there!)

And I’m thinking of our holiday gatherings where we share food, company, work and laughter.

To me, you’ve all become part of my larger family. I’m proud to be among you, thrilled to cheer you on, more than willing to cry or even argue with you, and most honored to celebrate the successes as they come, paragraph by paragraph, day by day.

I started this blog as an extension of our work together – partly to maintain a public record of the many essays and articles I used to email to you. (And to save all that paper from the ones I used to copy and staple each week. Remember those days? And you all know how I HATE to kill trees!) Yesterday was exactly one year since I wrote my first post, so this small, formal recognition is a lovely first anniversary gift.

Blogging is an unusual opportunity for direct contact with a vast, unknowable audience. But too often I’ve seen it used as public journalling and wondered why anyone would want to world to know their most private thoughts. Perhaps it’s enough simply to be heard, as Carla Cantor (another one of our own!) details in her Psychology Today blog, Small Steps: Through Struggle Comes Strength.

Through The Writers Circle, I have found a purpose for my own blogging. Rather than blathering about my private trials and minor triumphs, I use this blog to gather the experiences and wisdom of many terrific writers and thinkers, and to share my own perspectives, hoping to help us all find the courage and discipline to continue with our work. For me, looking back at all my posts, it’s satisfying to realize how many times in the past I’ve had these thoughts and let them slip away into the ether. Yet now here they are – a record of our growth and progress together.

Thanks to all of you who voted and to all of you who write, read, struggle and share this journey. I’m thrilled to watch The Writers Circle as it grows and embraces a broader writing community. And to our readers and writers who join us in the “cloud”, I wish I could meet you face to face. Good writing. Thanks for traveling with us.

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Writers Support Circle 2009

Our group, in no particular order: Chet Ensign, Pamela Friedman, Sandra Joseph (in photo #1), Stuart Lutz, Birgit Matzerath, James McHugh, Lynn Simmons, Stephanie Staszak (in photo #2), Mary Whithed, Lois Cantwell, Betsy Topitzer, Jerry Kaplan, and Judith Lindbergh.