My Question on Facebook:
In my next book, IF YOU COULD SEE WHAT I SEE, out in August, I explore the concept of marriage a great deal.
Here are my questions for you: Do you think marriage should last forever? Why? Under what circumstances is divorce acceptable? Is not being “in love” with your spouse a reason to split? Do you think our expectations of marriage are too high? Is it reasonable to expect two people – who grow and change during a marriage – to be happy for 50 years, or is a plan of having several spouses through different phases of life a better plan? If you are divorced, what words of wisdom do you have? If you’re married, what words of wisdom do you have? Would you marry again if given the choice? Why? Singles – what say you?
Now and then I am asked to review books, either by my publishing house or by other authors. To be quite honest, sometimes I will read the book and then decline to write a review.
The truth is that I don’t like the book and I don’t want to recommend that someone else go out and spend money on a book that I don’t think they’ll like. Also, it’s my reputation. I recommend a poor book, that reflects poorly on me.
I was asked to review Anita Hughes’ book, Market Street, by an editor at St. Martin’s and this is what I wrote:
MARKET STREET is the captivating story of a reluctant heiress meeting her own dream and running with it…Loved it. Read it in one sitting, coffee and chocolate in hand.
And now I’m lucky enough to be able to interview Anita and again I’m drinking coffee…
1) Anita, thanks for being here. One day I’m coming down to California to run on the beach with you but for now…can you summarize Market Street for us?
MARKET STREET is about the young wife of a philandering UC Berkeley Ethics Professor who must choose between her crumbling marriage and opening a food emporium in Fenton’s, her mother’s exclusive Union Square department store.
2) That was so ironic. The husband is an ethics professor. What a jerk. I hated him. I enjoyed hating him. Good job on creating a character that is so fun to hate. I will say I loved all the food images, as I do so love to eat.
Can you tell us where you got the idea for your book? For example, with my book, Julia’s Chocolates, I had a vision of a wedding dress being thrown into a dead street on a deserted street in North Dakota. Any weird visions like that?
No visions, but a clear picture of San Francisco in my mind. I write very visually – I can see the places and people and I wanted to write a book set in San Francisco, filled with delicious local foods and fashion. I lived in the Bay Area for years and was a big fan of GUMPS – the historic department store just off Union Square. Fenton’s is a cross between GUMPS and Neiman Marcus and I thought it would be a great setting for a novel.
3) It was an excellent setting. I could almost feel the San Francisco fog when I read it and I pictured myself on the wharf reading your book many times. I loved visiting SF in my mind…especially the bakeries.
Which character do you most relate to?
I love both Cassie, the main character, and Alexis, her best friend. Cassie, like many of us, is used to putting others before herself. Alexis is more unconventional – wealthy, beautiful but quite insecure. I love how they support each other and would do anything for each other.
4) I loved how different they are from one another. Sometimes I think people like that make the best friendships. You learn and grow from the other person – even if they say and do things that you would never say or do. It makes the friendship lively and intriguing.
I think I definitely have parts of Cassie in me – I would imagine most mothers do. I love Alexis’s sense of humor and I’ve been told I can be funny but she is much wittier than I am.
5) Have you gone through anything your characters go through?
You get to a certain age and have weathered disappointments and times when life changes course unexpectedly. I think I blended a variety of things that have happened in my life and the lives of my friends and put them in the story.
6) There were so many, many elements in your story that I thought women could connect with from their heart and soul. I certainly did.
What would you say is the theme of Market Street and why did you choose that theme?
The main theme of Market Street is the value of female friendship. I still have great friends from high school that I call on a weekly basis, and we help each other get through life’s challenges. In every stage in life I think a great best friend is so important – if you have one you can get through anything.
7) You’re right. I love all my girlfriends.
I try to write 1,000 words a day – I find that keeps the story humming along and the characters breathing. I write mainly in the morning and then revise at night.
8) What do you like best about writing and what part of it is not, as I shall say, quite as pleasant?
I really enjoy the actual writing – especially dialogue. I also enjoy revising, it is very satisfying to work on a sentence or paragraph and make it as good as can be. I don’t think there is a part of the writing process that I don’t enjoy.
9) That’s good. When I’m on my eighth edit I want to pound my head through the keyboard.
Always wanted to be a writer or were there other career choices? What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was eight I won a national writing award in THE AUSTRALIAN, Australia’s national newspaper. I definitely wanted to be a writer and even sent off a novel at the age of fourteen to a senior editor at Harper & Row. She sent me back a revision letter but I became a cheerleader instead!
10) Cheerleading over writing? You must be kidding. I can’t make fun of you, though. I was a cheerleader, too. I was a terrible cheerleader. Couldn’t remember the cheers or kick right. I bet you knew how to kick right, you’re that kind of gal.
Rumor has it you live in a hotel. What’s that like? I’m going to move in with you.
My family lives in a villa on the grounds of The St. Regis, Monarch Beach. It’s pretty fabulous. What I love most is that I am surrounded by beauty – both natural beauty (the beach, the gardens) and the architecture and interior design of the hotel. I also love the people – the employees have been there for ever and they are like family.
11) Where do you see yourself in ten years? Twenty years?
Hopefully sitting right here, watching the rabbits in my garden and writing!
12) I’ll come watch the rabbits with you. I’m good at sitting down. We’ll name them together.
What are some of your personal goals? Professional goals?
My personal goals are to have happy, well-rounded children who grow into confident adults. Professionally, I would like to just continue to write my books – I have a few more already written and a stack of ideas and characters waiting to be transcribed. I love to write and I love hearing readers’ feedback on my stories.
13) Three places you most want to travel to and why.
Obviously Lake Como, which is where my next book is set. I went as a child and it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I also have a soft spot for Capri – I love a place where there are no cars. It’s a gorgeous island with history, great food and shops.
I love Switzerland, especially Montreux, and would love to go there in the summer and take a paddle boat on Lake Geneva.
I’ve been to Montreaux, as you mentioned above, and loved it. I remember the boardwalk vividly. I was a broke college student so I didn’t shop, but my sister and I did manage to find money for coffee, of course, and it was delicious. I just looked up Lake Como and I definitely have to go there, too, and have lunch with George Clooney. I am sure he’d invite me over if he knew I was there….
Thank you for hosting me on your wonderful blog, Cathy! And thank you for being an inspiration to women writers!
Aw….you’re welcome, Anita. Thanks for your time and the best of luck with all your new books.
I am asked all the time how one should go about getting published.
Here is my answer.
You need to write something good. Really good. You need to write something that a publishing house believes will sell.
So work, work, work on that story of yours. Study writing. Go to writing classes. Study your favorite books and ask yourself why you like them.
Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. On Writing by Stephen King. Writing Out The Storm by Jessica Morrell. And read Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg’s books. See my other articles titled, “For Writers” in this blog.
Study more. Write more. Read more. Begin again. Edit, edit, edit.
When you’re ready to submit your work, you need to get yourself an agent.
Should you finish writing your book before you try to get an agent?
Probably anyone else, in any other writing forum, in any magazine article or in any speech about how – to – publish, here or on Jupiter, will tell you to write a full manuscript before sending the first chapter off to an agent for his review.
This is enormously good advice in many ways. Writing a full book before sending it to an agent makes you nail down those characters. It forces you into the writing process.
You learn about pacing, character arcs, character development, climaxes, word choice, descriptions, dialogue, narration, voice, and a hundred other things, including whether or not you are capable of sitting your butt down and finishing a book. All excellent points.
I, however, will not tell you to write a full book before sending the first chapter off to an agent to review.
Why? Because of my own personal and miserable history which involved piles of rejection slips. After months spending time writing full manuscripts, they would be rejected. Repeatedly.
I wanted to bash my head through a wall. All those months of work…trashed. For nothing.
Looking back, the writing was bad. The idea was bad. The characters were bad. The organization and dialogue and narration were bad. Bad, bad, bad. I’m surprised I got as far as I did in my first go – round of trying to publish with Mills and Boon/Silhouette.
On my LAST attempt at writing a book, and I completely changed genres to women’s fiction, I wrote the first 40 -ish pages of my book, Julia’s Chocolates, no more. I sent it to four agents and a famous editor. The famous editor never responded. All the agents, based on those first forty pages, requested the full manuscript.
I waited until my favorite agent – the one I have now – asked for the full manuscript, told him I needed to do “a little editing,” and worked my butt off for about four months, writing from ten o’clock at night until two in the morning, while taking care of three young kids, a house, and working a freelance writing job.
I used to edit Julia’s Chocolates while my kids were playing at Chuck E Cheese and McDonalds.
I sent the full manuscript to my favorite agent, blurry eyed and exhausted. He loved it and I signed with him in a couple of weeks. A few weeks after that he sold Julia’s Chocolates as part of a two – book deal to the publishing house I’m with now. I was ecstatic and I still love both my agent and my editor.
My advice is to write a bang up 20 pages. Yes, I did say 20. Twenty.
Write a short cover letter describing the plot in the first two paragraphs, the ending paragraph should be about you. Get a book on how to write query letters. Loosely follow it. You can send a short synopsis of the book attached at the end of the first twenty pages.
So your packet out to agents, online or by snail mail, looks like this: Cover letter, one page. Twenty pages of your story. Synopsis, one page.
An agent will read the first paragraph, MAYBE the first page, of your book, before he tosses it if his attention is not grabbed. If he likes the first paragraph, he reads the first page, then the second page, then the third.
He knows QUICKLY if your book is something he can sell to a publishing house. They’re experienced, they’re smart, they’re efficient. Never forget: They are BURIED in manuscripts.
Why only 20 pages? Because then you won’t waste your time. If the subject matter/characters of your book are not appealing, if it is not going to sell, you have not wasted a year of your life writing a book that no publishing house wants. With twenty pages you have limited your loss of time and effort.
The brutal truth is – and here I will say something that will be offensive so put on your tough alligator skin – what you’re writing may not be anything anyone wants. It could be the topic. Could be the market. Could be the wildly insane competition out there.
More likely it’s the writing. It’s just not good/intriguing/gripping/fun enough. Yet. It may never be for that particular idea.
If no agent wants to represent your work after repeated rejections move on to the next story in your head. You may have to eventually change genres, like I did, which worked splendidly.
You may have to edit that sucker four or ten times. I edit all my books eight times before I send it the first time to my agent and editor and I have been writing for years. Address the stuff I mentioned above about character arcs, word choice, description and PACING. Pacing is key. Too slow and you’ll put people to sleep.
Many people will say that this approach, where only 20 – ish pages are actually done when you first send it to an agent, will result in a rushed, poor manuscript if it’s requested by an agent.
Here’s the key: Don’t send in a rushed, poor manuscript. Duh. Send in an excellent manuscript. The very best you can do.
Yes, your manuscript arrives later than the agent wanted but, trust me on this one: If it’s a heckuva manuscript, he won’t give a rip. He’ll lean back in his chair, throw up his arms, look to the ceiling as if in “Hallelujah,” and try to sell your manuscript for as much as he can get.
Your cover letter when you are finished with the requested manuscript is simple: Dear so and so, thank you for requesting my full manuscript I LOVE VAMPIRES AND GOBLINS AND CHOCOLATE. The manuscript is enclosed. I will look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, YOUR NAME.
His letter, where he requested the manuscript, goes below this to remind him that, yes, he did ask for your work.
Once your send in your full manuscript to the agent, if he likes it and thinks he can sell it, he will call or email you. It is unlikely that he will send a smoke signal.
If you still like that agent after that conversation, you will sign a contract with that agent. This means he will represent your book to the publishing houses, which basically means he will contact the editors he knows, either at lunch or a cocktail party or a meeting or a bar, and talk your book up. He will contact editors in houses who sell your type of genre.
Hopefully an editor is interested. If he is, the agent will send the editor your manuscript. If the editor believes his house can sell it and make money off it, he will then buy the book. This involves more contracts. All the contracts are in legalese and are quite long and detailed. They will bore you silly. Get an attorney to review it.
The contracts from the editor/publishing house will go through your agent. You will sign the contracts if you agree to the upfront money the publishing house is offering, and the royalties they offer after the book sells and your upfront money is paid off.
Please people. The number of writers who get upfront six figures – plus is tiny. Miniscule. Do not expect anywhere near this, especially for your first book. I know writers who get all the money they can upfront, because they know they will earn no royalties. Be aware that the vast majority of writers cannot make a living writing, that’s why they keep their day jobs.
Remember, you will also give a portion of your earnings to your agent once you are under contract with a publishing house. All monies go from the publishing house, to the agent, then to you. Royalties are paid twice a year.
Once the contract is signed, you’ve sold your book. Hopefully there will be more contracts to come and you’ll be on your merry way. I wish that for you, I truly do.
Do you need an agent? Unless you are writing category romance, like Silhouette or Harlequin, or you’re self – publishing, more on that later, you need an agent. An agent acts as a screener. If you cannot get an agent to represent you, the general rule is that the publishing house won’t look at your work. In other words, if an agent didn’t like it, they won’t either.
How do you contact an agent in the first place? If you’re in writers’ groups, agents’ names will start floating around. Pay attention to those names. You might also meet agents at writing conferences or workshops. Your best friend’s brother’s half sister may be an agent.
Or, pick up this book, “http://www.amazon.com/2013-Writers-Market-Robert-Brewer/dp/1599635933/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368413571&sr=1-1&keywords=2013+writer%27s+market and find an agent in there under your genre. If you’re writing romance, look for romance book agents, writing thrillers, go for agents representing thriller writers.
Everything you read/hear will tell you to send your partial manuscript to one agent at a time. Don’t follow that rule either. As you can see, I don’t really like rules. Too confining.
Many agents will never, ever respond to you or your pages. Other agents will take months to read it. With others, the rejection slips will come back so fast, you will think the agent didn’t even read your book. And, he may not have. He may not be taking on clients. Or, he may have read the first page and thought it sucked.
People worry about mass mailing their partial manuscripts to agents.
I will be honest with you, if you get ONE reputable agent who is interested in your work, you should click your heels together in joy. I have heard unpublished authors say, hands wringing, all uptight, “What would I do if I send it to more than one agent at a time and they all want it?”
This happens so rarely, stop fretting.
If you are very fortunate and two agents ask for the full manuscript, send it to your favorite agent first, wait a month, send an email to see if they’re interested, and if they don’t respond in a timely manner, send the full to the second agent.
So, out with ten copies of your first twenty pages to ten agents. Wait a few weeks, send it out to another ten agents. Make sure you are sending your work to good, honest agents. Go to this website http://pred-ed.com/ to check.
You will probably be surprised at how fast the rejections come back. It is disheartening, I know it. I lived it. Bang my brain against the keyboard, this part is not fun.
But buck up on the rejections or get out of writing. Rejections are a part of being a writer. Cry. Throw a fit. Take thirty minutes then get over yourself and your pride and your belief that your book should be Number One on the NY Times bestseller list by Tuesday.
If your book keeps getting rejected, analyze it without emotion and figure out what’s wrong with it. You must put your ego aside. Do not give it to your mother or wife to analyze it, they are too close to you and probably won’t be honest.
Consider paying an editor, like I paid Jessica Morrell, a fab editor, to tell you the truth about your work. http://jessicamorrell.com/
(Side note: Do not hire Jessica if you want her to flatter you and tell you that your book is perfect. She is blunt and honest and knows her stuff. Most of the time she is polite, but not always. Only hire her if you want to hear the truth, you won’t get defensive, you want her criticisms, you’re okay with her shredding your prose, and you are mature enough and smart enough to turn around and use the criticisms to write a better book.)
A Few More Thoughts:
Reputable agents NEVER ask for up front money or reader’s fees. If yours does, drop him and move on.
Don’t pay someone to print your books in traditional book form, please, unless you like losing money. In almost all cases, this will not work out for you financially. Don’t write to me and tell me about someone who printed their own books and made piles of money. There are a million people behind him who LOST money. Thousands of dollars. The ones who make money are just shouted out louder by the self publishing industry in the hopes of convincing you that you will be that lucky guy who will also make piles of money.
I have heard some interesting success stories about people who self published their work with Amazon. It’s intriguing. Remember, though, you have to have a reader base to make money on this. There has to be people out there who want to read what you wrote. Be prepared to market and do PR work. For every one person who makes a lot of money on Amazon self publishing, there are thousands who don’t make twenty bucks.
You must keep writing if you want to publish.
You must keep reading excellent books, and learning from them, if you want to publish. I am still learning. Still studying. Still critically analyzing my work, every word of it.
If you want to make a living at this, you almost always need to be with a big publishing house, not a small printing press who will pop off 3000 copies and hope you sell 1000.
If the same manuscript repeatedly gets rejected, it probably is not going to sell. Do not write to me and tell me about Harry Potter and Gone With The Wind and how often they were rejected before becoming best sellers. Once again, a huge hit getting rejected fifty times initially happens about the same amount of times that the moon turns pink.
If your manuscript has been rejected forty times, even thirty times, you have to face the harsh truth that it may never publish. There may be something inherently wrong with your work. Never fear! Start a new book. Change genres. Learn from it. Get back out there.
I recently listened to a woman, who I will call Dixie, read her book aloud at a book fair. I have known this woman for at least ten years. Ten – plus years ago she wrote her book. It has never sold. She is still hung up on it, still believes it will sell. It will never sell. She should have dropped it and moved on years ago. Do not be a Dixie.
Understand that this is an incredibly competitive industry. There are so many freakishly talented authors out there it makes me nauseous. You are competing against them. Never forget it. Bring your best to the table.
You must live a full life if you want to publish. Love. Laugh. Be with family and friends. Dance. Sing. Go have adventures. For heaven’s sakes, travel. Listen to people. Think new thoughts. Open your brain up to new ideas. Read the newspaper. Take an art class. Try photography. Go to the mountains. Play in the waves. Make new friends. Be interested in others. Be interesting yourself. Be compassionate and kind. All this will fuel the writer in you.
The other day I gardened.
This is not my favorite thing to do, primarily because I always have to yank up miles of weeds, and declare war every spring on this annoying, clinging morning glory that seems to grow fifty feet a day. If I were to leave my home right now that morning glory would cover our house by the end of summer.
You’d drive down the street and all you would see is a mass of morning glory. It’s not the pretty morning glory, either, that you imagine wrapped around a white picket fence with blue flowers.
No, this has, maybe, one white flower, as if to mock me. The rest of it is a living, sticky, green plant criminal.
After my fight with the morning glory, I headed over to a gray, ceramic pot my mother used to own. After she died, in 2002, and my dad died, in 2007, both of them from cancer, I took it home with me. I love that pot. Inside the pot, every year, my mother’s mint grows, tall and wide.
In the pot, a small maple tree had the audacity to start growing. Also in the pot was another greenish plant that, like the morning glory, seems to grow everywhere in my yard. It’s like a spreading green monster. I’m surprised I don’t have any coming out of my ears.
With my pink gloved hand I tried to yank the maple tree out again and again. No go. It was in there tight. I had dirt and dust on my face from my fruitless fight with the maple tree when I decided to turn my attention to the green monster. Again, no go. The soil was dry and rock hard, the roots deep and stronger than me. I could hear them both laughing at me. I will win this battle, I told myself.
I tipped the heavy pot over my recycling bucket and tried to shake the tree and the green monster out while holding on to my mother’s mint. More dirt and dust flew into my face, my hair, and all over my shirt. I started to swear, a usual activity I embark upon while gardening.
I have saved so many of my mother’s precious things. Her old books from her mother. Her blue dancing shoes. Her china. A clematis vine in my backyard. A black purse. Her baby bracelet. Her blue bird pin. Her favorite chair.
And yet, there I was, covered in dirt and dust, almost in tears, fighting to keep her mint. A plant.
I shook that damn pot again over the recycling bin. I said one more bad word. The mint, maple tree, and pesky green monster finally fell out, a plume of more dirt covering my face.
I won, I thought. You can stop laughing at me now, you stupid plants.
I balanced myself on the recycling bin, tipped over, head first, butt up, and grabbed the mint, which had broken free.
I felt rather victorious.
I added fresh soil to the gray pot. I dug a hole for a purple petunia next to the mint and a pink geranium. I cleaned the pot off.
With dirt everywhere I stood back, the tears burning, and thought, will it ever end, this wanting to hold on to her things? Will it?
Then I thought: Should it?
If so, why? My life is full, I’m not held back by grief. I know I’ll see her again. But I just can’t let go of anything I have of hers. Nothing. I treasure it all. And every year when that mint pops up, in her gray ceramic pot, I think of her. And I smile. She loved gardening.
Bette Jean was a lovely lady.
She would understand how I feel.
And she would have laughed, seeing my butt in the air, head down in a dusty recycling bin, swearing at the green monster, scrambling for her mint. A plant.
I’m glad I saved it.
Ten Things I’m Worried About:
- Too many wedding dresses
- Not enough wedding dresses
- Going broke
- Losing my home
- Never finding an unbroken, black butterfly shell
- The upcoming interview with the fashion writer.
- Not having peppermint sticks in my life
- Turning back into the person I used to be
- Always being worried
“No. Absolutely not.” I gripped the phone with white knuckles as I paced around my yellow studio. “I will never agree to that.”
“Ha. I knew you wouldn’t accept those unacceptable terms, June,” Cherie Poitras, my divorce attorney, cackled. “Your soon to be ex-husband has a monstrous addiction to being a jerk but don’t worry, we’re not quitting. Quitting causes my hot flashes to flare.”
“I don’t want your hot flashes to flare, Cherie. And I’m not quitting, either. I can’t.” I yanked opened the French doors to my second story deck as lightning zigged and zagged across the night sky through the bubbling, black clouds, the waves of the Pacific ocean crashing down the hill from my blue home. “If I could catch a lightning strike, I’d pitch it at him.”
“It would be thrilling to see that,” Cherie declared. “So vengefully Mother Nature – ish.”
“What a rat.” I shut the doors with a bang, then thought of my other life, the life before this one, and shuddered. I could not go back to it, and I was working as hard as I could to ensure that that wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t enough silk and satin in that other life. There wasn’t any kindness, either. Or softness. “I so want this to end.”
“He’s sadistically stubborn. I have been buried in motions, requests for mediation, time for him to recover from his fake illness, his counseling appointments, attempts to reconcile…he’s tried everything. The paperwork alone could reach from Oregon to Arkansas and flip over two bulls and a tractor.”
“That’s what we’re dealing with, Cherie, bull.” I ran a hand through my long, blonde, messy hair. It got stuck in a tangle.
“Sure are, sweets.”
“He’s doing this so I’ll come back to him.”
“That’s true. He’s a tenacious, rabid bull dog.”
“I don’t ever want anything to do with the rabid bull dog again.” I was so mad, even my bones seemed to ache. Cherie wished me a, “Happy wedding dress sewing evening,” and I wished her the best of luck being a ferocious attorney who scares the pants off all the male attorneys in Portland and went back to stomping around my studio.
My studio is filled with odd and found things. I need the color and creativity for inspiration for the non – traditional wedding dresses I sew. Weathered, light blue shutters from a demolished house are nailed to a wall. Two foot tall pink letters spell out my name, June. On a huge canvas, I painted six foot tall purple tulips with eyes, smiles and pink tutus. I propped that painting against a wall next to a collection of mailboxes in the shapes of a pig, elephant, dragon, dog, and monkey. The monkey mailbox scares me.
I dipped a strawberry into melted chocolate and kept stomping about. I eat when I get upset or stressed, and this had not proved to be good for the size of my bottom. Fifteen extra pounds in two years. After only four more strawberries, okay seven, and more pacing, I took a deep breath and tried to wrestle myself away from my past and back into who I am now, who I am trying most desperately to become.
“Remember, June,” I said aloud as my anger and worry surged, like the waves of the Oregon coast below me. “You are in your sky lighted studio. Not a cold, beige home in the city. You are living amidst stacks of colorful and slinky fabrics, buttons, flowers, faux pearls and gems, and lace. You are not living amidst legal briefs and crammed courtrooms working as an attorney with other stressed out, maniac attorneys hyped up on their massive egos.”
My tired eyes rested, as they so often did, on my Scottish tartan, our ancestor’s tartan, which I’d hung vertically on my wall. When I’d hung it in our modern home in Portland, he’d ripped it down and hid it from me for a month. “Tacky June, it’s tacky. We’re not kilt wearing heathens.”
I am a wedding dress designer in the middle of a soul-crushing divorce. I am a wedding dress designer who will never again marry. I am a wedding dress designer who has about as much faith in marriage as I do that the Oregon coast will never see another drop of rain.
A blast of wind, then a hail of rain pummeled my French doors.
I ate yet another chocolate strawberry. I have been told my eyes are the color of dark chocolate. Not a bad analogy. I washed the strawberry down with lemonade, then a carrot.
No, I have no faith in marriage.
It was a bad day. It became worse after the next phone call.
We had had several other Psychic Nights in the past few weeks. One had been called Organizing Your Orgasms, another had been called Dedicating Your Desires. Tonight’s Psychic Night was titled Your Hormones and You: Taking Over, Taking Cover, Taking Charge.
I thought it sounded splendid.
“Hormones have ruled us forever!” Aunt Lydia scolded me as we worked that morning, the early morning sun cutting through the slats of the chicken house. I glanced at the chicken she held in her hands. She shook the poor bird in her exuberance, and I saw the chicken’s eyes pop in fright. “Isn’t that right, Hilga?” Aunt Lydia yelled at the chicken. She is usually so gentle with her ladies.
“Too much estrogen has robbed us of our inner souls. Hormones flow and fluctuate and dive and soar and make us go damn, damn crazy. I can hardly stand looking at Stash when I’m having a hormone rush. He walks in the door and I feel the need to throw my jam at his head.”
I followed Aunt Lydia through the barn. She let the lady go, and we heard a very grateful sounding cluck cluck. Hilga’s chicken friends gathered around her and cluck clucked sympathetically. “Lydia’s off her hormonal rocker! Hormonal rocker! Hormonal rocker!” I could almost hear them say.
“Hormones take over our thoughts and actions. We must learn to control them!” Lydia jabbed a pitchfork into a bale of hay. I was surrounded by chickens, all clucking contentedly now that Aunt Lydia had released their comrade.
“Hormones are a nuisance,” Aunt Lydia announced, picking up eggs from underneath squawking, resting, clucking chickens. “But with yoga, lots of walking, good sex and a little pot, we can be in control. Of course, there’s other ways to be in control of your hormones, but I’ll save my womanly secrets for tonight!”
“…Women need to vent their problems and trials and tribulations and hormone fluctuation levels with other women. Men are hampered by the fact that they have thingies which make them naturally selfish and self centered and boorish and unthoughtful. Women, however, can do it all. Run companies, raise children, volunteer, and tickle men’s teensies at night. Our work is NEVER done!”
“So what time is Psychic Night?” I asked.
So, you and I became writing buddies after I read your book, Heart In The Right Place and I wrote you a gushy fan mail letter. That is one of my top ten favorite books ever. EVER. I just gobbled that thing up. It’s your own personal story. Tell everyone about that book.
I was Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works when my mother had a heart attack and I was asked to come home and fill in for her on her job for a couple of days. My father was a family doctor in a very rural area near the Smoky Mountains. Momma was his sidekick, receptionist, bookkeeper, nurse, and lab technician.
I did not want to leave my glamorous, fast lane job, but I did, under pressure. What was supposed to be a couple of days turned into four years. I never went back to Washington.
Daddy treated a lot of his patients for free and if he’d had to pay someone to do Momma’s job, he’d have to start charging people who couldn’t afford to pay. The book is about adjusting to public service as an unpaid receptionist and living in my parent’s basement rather than public service Washington, DC style, from a Lear Jet.
2) You are really smart, smart, smart. Tell me about those degrees of yours again and your career path.
I was always good at math, so the easiest degree for me to get in college happened to be in biomedical engineering. Unfortunately, I could never even get an interview for a job as an engineer because it was too early for men to even consider hiring women. So, I went to law school. I was supposed to be a doctor, but I’m horribly squeamish and prone to hysteria, so that was out of the question. I did really well as a lawyer, but hated it because the system is totally broken. Getting forced out of law was a blessing in disguise.
3) I just finished reading your self published, mystery e-book, Out On A Limb and I loved it. I loved the truthful, quirky characters, the suspense, the medical information, and the stunning picture you gave of the Smoky Mountains. I loved that a woman climbed as high as she could in trees.
You said that twelve publishing houses rejected it and your agent told you to “quit writing.” What a dumb agent. Was he sober? When did you decide to to be a daredevil and self publish and what does self publishing with Amazon involve?
Everything I wrote for 7 years after my first book was rejected, even though my first book was a big national success and got on lots of lists of best books of the year. My own agent told me I should quit writing. It was horrible. I genuinely thought the subsequent books were great, but no “professionals” agreed with me. So I was screwed. Traditional publishing had a lock on the industry until very recently.
But then I lost my job as Webmaster for the non-profit with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in a burst of hysteria immediately self-published the book “Medicine Men,” a collection of the most memorable moments from a dozen elderly rural Appalachian doctors. I did it through Amazon’s KDP Select Program and in 24 hours it went to #1 on Amazon. Duh. I hadn’t even proofread it properly. I was genuinely panicked about how to make a living and just published it because it was free to try and because I thought I understood social media after being a Webmaster for years and creating a huge Facebook presence for the Park with no money.
The big insight here is that 80% of book buyers are women, most of whom are middle-aged, and that’s also similar to the demographic of who is on Facebook. Older women are running social media and are not recognized for it (what’s new). But those are my peeps, so I figured if I honestly liked my books, they would too.
I offered the book for free for 2 days and after the first day it was #1 in the Kindle free book store!! Since then it’s been a bestseller and one of the highest-rated indie published Memoir/Biographies.
Two months later I self-published my first work of fiction, a mystery called “Out on a Limb,” the same way. That book had been rejected by 3 agents and 14 publishers. And it went to #9 in the entire Kindle free book store in 24 hours. Double duh.
4) Excellent news. I bet those agents and publishers are pounding their heads against their desks now, sneaking sips of scotch and wondering if they should become plumbers.
This is very cheery, too, for others who want to self – publish. You must be absolutely delighted, down to your Tennessee toes, that you took this route. What are the pros and cons?
Self-publishing has been a revelation. There are no cons, really.
5) What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll continue to self publish in the future?
I am finishing a hilarious and touching memoir for a wildlife ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and will self-publish it the same way as the first two books.
6) On my list. I cannot wait to read it.
I have loved learning about the Smoky Mountains in your book. I want to come and hang with you and have dinner on your deck after we go hiking in the Smokies. I do not want to see growly bears, though, unless they are a long ways away because I don’t want to get eaten and I also don’t want to converse with those wild, snuffly pigs you talked about in your book. Make sure you hammer up a notice on a tree to those animals to keep their distance on my visitation days. I’m sure they’ll read it.
What advice for people do you have about self publishing?
You have to have a great title and cover and a really good descriptive blurb. If the cover looks less than professional, that will really hurt.
In my spare time, I daydream and guzzle too much coffee. What do you do in your spare time?
Medicinal herb gardening.
Aha. Maybe a topic for a new book, then? If I get sick, I’ll call you. I will not eat flowers, though. Heads up on that. And I will not eat anything with the word “wart” in it. I’m game otherwise. Sort of.
Thanks for your time. You rock as a writer, Carolyn, my friend. You do.
1) “Write What You Know” is a ridiculous rule. Don’t follow it.
I have written about the following things that I knew little or nothing about and had to research the hell out of ‘em: Schizophrenia, bi-polar, inserting peanut oil into a condom, abusive childhoods, sexual abuse, blow up dolls, bar fights, lousy mothers, abandonment, being a psychic, stalking, anger management class, running naked along a river, hiding a dead body, germaphobia, drug addiction, being obese, murder, being a legal secretary, building wood chairs and painting them, Down Syndrome, being a stripper, planting a garden, running a bakery, carving a seven foot tall wood penis, being an edgy life coach, atonement, medicinal herbs, greenhouses, running a lingerie company, and organizing a fashion show.
When I started writing I knew only a little about a few boring subjects. If I had followed the Write What You Know rule, I never would have published. Psshht. Write what you know if you damn well feel like it. If you don’t, go do your research.
2) Write what you freakin’ want to write about. Write about that one subject or person(s) that you are passionate about. Does the topic/person light your imagination on fire? Can you feel the flames and smell the smoke? Then that’s what you run with. Address what issues you wish to address. Create people you love to write about who are deep and troubled and interesting. Make them clash with other people/things and themselves. Give them problems, challenges,throw in a compelling setting, and take off like a Maserati.
3) Identify your theme(s) and build your story around it. A theme holds your story together, much like my mugs hold in my copious amounts of Haagen Dazs dulce du leche ice cream. Theme=ice cream.
4) Don’t get all fancy schmancy with your words and sentences. What are you, Ms. Brilliant? You’ll lose the reader and they’ll never buy your books again.
5) Please let your characters loose. Listen to them. Follow them around. Let them breathe and commit crimes and laugh at odd things and chase bad men and be wishful, temperamental, and irritating. They are people. Let them be full people.
6) Get rid of the negative creatures orbiting your personal universe. If you want to be a writer and someone around you says you’ll never make it, don’t hang out with that person again.
7) Write with emotion, unless you are writing about amoebas or worms. If you do not write with emotion, people will not feel any emotion reading your work, and that is where you lose. Dig waaay deep into your own swirling and churning emotions. Now take one of ’em out and give it to your character and let her deal with it. That’s called being authentic.
8) Outline, I suppose, if you must. I don’t. I journal, I scribble, I paste pictures from magazines on the pages, I sketch out characters, I make my notes, I play in my brain, but most of my story is in my head and the story changes as I write. Be careful that your outline doesn’t create a rigid, too organized, non – flowing, too predictable story.
9) Embrace subplots as if they are chocolate chip cookies. They help move the story along, provide entertainment, open up your character’s personality and motives, give a reprieve from the main story line, and bring in other characters who provide humor or interest.
10) Set goals, please, if you wish to publish. Stick to the goals always, unless your left hand has fallen off, then you can get a break for a couple of weeks until you master the keyboard using only one hand.
Go write. Be brave. Be ridiculous. Be wild. But go write.
I love herbs, spices, and flowers. Herbs and spices are in my blood; they are imbedded in my DNA.
As a tribute to our family line, going back to England, we all grow, including Caden: thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, oregano, lavender, Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, lilies, irises, sweet peas, cosmos, red poppies, peonies, and rows and rows of roses.
My mother and Grandma Violet both taught me that herbs have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Some worked, some didn’t. Some healed, some killed. Some were neutral, there was no effect.
Hyssop was inhaled if one had a sore or scratchy throat. Large doses were terminally bad for one’s health, so one had to watch it. Horehound could soothe and calm a bite from a nasty serpent or kill worms wiggling away inside you.
Mistletoe has been used in the past to help with heart disease and with “falling sickness,” gout, and a variety of nervous disorders. It is also, unfortunately, poisonous.
Monk’s hood, quite poisonous, was used to kill.
The witches in my family line have always grown herbs and used them in food, for healing sicknesses and giving someone a sickness, for love, revenge, protection, and to make people die they thought should go. They’ve also been used for spells and chants.
It was those spells and chants that got two of my ancestors, born Iris and Rosemary, into trouble.
Iris and Rosemary, the rebellious daughters of Henrietta and Elizabeth, who started The Curse in our family, were literally chased from their estates outside London by a torch-wielding mob that wanted to flog them after they cast a few drunken spells in a bar.
“As they thundered away on horses,” Grandma Violet told me, peering through her glasses, blue eyes serious, “one of the witch’s petticoats caught on fire. You’ve heard your mother and I use the term a “petticoats on fire” problem? There’s where it came from.”
I remember gasping. “She was on fire?”
“A spark from a torch hit her. Her brother and her cousin’s brother ripped the petticoat off and they all hopped back on those horses and galloped down the road through the night to the port. The brothers told them to change their names from Iris Platts and Rosemary Compton, to Faith and Grace Stephenson, before they scrambled onto the ship to America.”
My grandma reached up to a shelf to reorganize her endless, clear bottles of herbs and spices. “They figured that if they were named Faith and Grace, not only could they hide their identities as reputed witches, they would appear more holy, more Christian, and less likely to be accused of being witches again. Faith and Grace never forgot who they were, despite the torch wielders, and they taught their daughters everything they knew about herbs and spices, spells and chants, like I teach you, Jaden.”
I do not grow herbs for spells and chants, because that is ridiculous, though my otherwise sane and deeply intellectual mother and Grandma Violet taught me a multitude of them as a child and both said often, “Once a witch, always a witch.”
I grow herbs in my greenhouse to make my meals yummy. I grow herbs and flowers because then I feel connected to my mother, Grandma Violet, and all our women ancestors who grew the same herbs and flowers that I do. I grow them because I love to nurture living things…
Today’s “I Want to Be” Series features Cathy Lamb, a fiction writer and mom to three teenagers. Cathy loves to run in the forest near her home, walk, read, and write. She also has a slight addiction to going to plays and the symphony. She has finally learned to ski without falling all the time. Find out how to connect with Cathy at the end of this article.
How long have you had your business? Cathy: I’ve been a full time, only slightly crazed, fiction writer since 2004, although I was writing articles on homes, home décor, people, and events for The Oregonian for years before that. The slightly crazed part really kicks in about six weeks before a deadline when I dive head first into my book and have to restrain myself from believing that I am one of the characters. When my characters talk back to me in my head, and I respond, that’s when I know I need a long cookie and coffee break.
What led you to pursue it?
Cathy: I was sixteen when I knew I had to become a writer or move to the planet Venus and hide under a rock. It was just in me. Everything I did from that point on was geared towards my becoming a writer. I love to write, love storytelling. I did a whole heck of a lot of daydreaming when I was young – still do – and I’m sure that’s what started it all.
How do you market your business?
Cathy: The best marketing for a writer is word of mouth. Ladies talk. They love to talk books. They share with each other what they’re reading and if they like it. I go to a lot of book groups – most through skype – and that’s fun, too. If your book group wants an author visit, email me! I also blog on my website, CathyLamb.org, and I’m on Facebook. My publishing house, Kensington Publishing in NYC, does a whole bunch of advertising for me, too.
What is your favorite part of the business?
Cathy: My favorite part is thinking up new story lines. Every time I start a new book, I buy a new journal (s). I write, sketch, and cut out pictures from magazines for inspiration. (See my latest journal here.) I love how the characters change and become more complicated as I’m writing my books, how they become someone I didn’t plan on them becoming, how their pasts become clear to me, and how the plots get deeper and more layered.
My novels take about eight – ish months to write, and my short stories take about four – ish months. When I’m writing my first draft, I write 2,000 words, a day, 10,000 a week, or I don’t let myself go to bed on Saturday night. I have had some very late Saturday nights. I edit each book eight times before it goes to my editor. Here’s a blog I wrote on writing 2000 words a day.
What one question do you get most from people about your business?
Cathy: People always want to know where I get my ideas. I get them everywhere. One of my books, The First Day of The Rest of My Life, was completely sparked from an 80 year old violin I bought my daughter with a few scratches and dents on it. Another book, Julia’s Chocolates, came from a vision I had of a woman throwing her wedding dress into a dead tree on a deserted road. In The Last Time I Was Me, Jeanne Stewart takes revenge on her cheating boyfriend using peanut oil, a condom, and an exact-o knife. I got that idea from … well, maybe I shouldn’t say. Here’s yet another blog I wrote on that very subject…
What advice do you have for others who want to get into a similar opportunity?
Cathy: If you want to become a writer, read. Read, read, read. Study what you read. Ask yourself what you liked about the plot, characters, pacing, etc., and what you didn’t like. Write every day. Set a word count goal that you achieve every day, come hell or high water. Go to writing conferences and classes for inspiration. Read. Write. Study. Repeat.
What websites or books do you recommend for tips?
Cathy: Read “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “Writing out the Storm,” by Jessica Morrell. Also read, “On Writing,” by Stephen King and Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing. All of these books are great for inspiration, instruction, and advice.
I also write articles for aspiring writers on my blog.