In my dream, the old house stands on a downhill slope, three wearily dignified stories crowding a sharp spit of corner rimed in brick.
She rises darkly and alone at the far edge of a small town–isolated from that mountain-cupped, all-American pocket of life, where the roads rise and fall like roller coaster tracks, streets are tree lined, and Memorial Day erupts in laughter and picnics, parades and bright bunting.
Years of neglect can be counted–like an old woman’s wrinkles–in her flaking paint and bare wood, weathered gray.
But inside–oh, inside! The first floor is a chockablock tumble of rooms scattered with dressers, desks, cupboards, and bookcases. Drawers and more drawers, drawers within drawers, and each one a mini pirate chest. Dreaming, I delight in my finds: sparkling rings and necklaces, books of poetry, a fountain pen with a delicately caved nib.
One flight up, the space is open and airy, the floor a cool-blue lake of marble flowing down three steps to a lapis lazuli hearth flanked by tall, swan-necked ceramic vases filled with white lilies. Glass doors at either end of the long room open onto balconies, one with a view of gently rolling hills, the other overlooking my backyard ponds.
The third floor? I don’t go there. It’s haunted, you see, by the ghost of a woman who watches and waits. Coldly waits, daring me to climb those stairs and open the door. Maybe she’ll kill me if I do.
So I live half a life in two-thirds of a house, surrendering that upper story and the brightest edge of my happiness, trying to pretend she isn’t there. Trying to convince myself she can’t turn the knob from her side and come for me.
But you can’t pretend away dead lives that lie in wait. Everyone who walks through my door knows about her. She makes them edgy. They don’t even stay long enough to sit and talk.
Except for the hard-eyed, wiry-haired, redheaded scarecrow who sold me the house. She doesn’t see the problem. What do I need with a third story anyway? “Live down here,” she says. “Ignore her,” she says. “I did.”
The neighbor recommends exorcism.
The ghost waits.
Until one morning I wake up and realize the ghost is my past.
I do not know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness.
If I had a nickle for every writer who associated past (or present) unhappiness with the art, I’d have … well … at least a few dollars.
Rudyard Kipling said, “(An unhappy childhood was not) an unsuitable preparation for my future, in that it demanded a constant wariness, the habit of observation, and the attendance on moods and tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech and action; a certain reserve of demeanour; and automatic suspicion of sudden favours.”
According to Steinbeck, it takes an unhappy childhood to make a writer.
And Avi Steinman insists, “We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight”
Well, that’s depressing. I’d rather not buy into their sentiments, thank you very much.
But there’s that ghost in my dream, the ghost of a personal past populated with plenty of pain. (Alliteration as a tension-relieving device. Who knew?)
Based on my dream–and the frequency with which it visits me–I suspect I’m not quite through dealing with the bad old days. Based on my dream, it’s clear I’d dearly like to avoid doing so. My haunted third story strikes me as a dangerous place to visit. But, you know, one does what one must, if one wants to boot the ghost out of one’s attic.
And, trust me, I do.
What I find interesting is, the books I’ve written so far don’t deal much with pain. They’re not deep, they don’t explore the third story. They’re entertaining, humorous at times, edge-of-the-seat at others. Most telling of all, they tend to end happily. This is no doubt a fair indication of how determined I am to live on the fun floors of my old house. Also, how much I enjoy telling stories that might, for a short little while, let other people live on the fun floors of their houses.
Given the attics that haunt us all, I figure a respite on the fun floors of the house is a fine and good reason to write what I do. We can’t spend every minute of our lives facing our ghosts.
I’m 64 years old, so let me just say 1:15 a.m. is way past my bedtime. Yet here I sit. Sweating, because I’m too cheap to turn on the AC. Thinking. Blogging. Sweating. Pondering. Basically driving myself nuts, trying to answer one yes/no question: Is it time to stop writing novels?
Notice the absence of the adjective <em>simple</em>, as in, one <em>simple </em>question. I don’t do simple. I complicate. Everything. It’s a gift.
See, here’s the rub. I used to love to write. Maybe I still do. But, you know, I got caught up in the whole indie marketing frenzy–not to be confused with a shark feeding frenzy, although, hey … maybe they’re not that different. I tried, but I can’t keep up. I’m shell shocked. Seriously. I sometimes think I’ll run screaming down the street—wild-eyed and possibly buck naked—if I see one more Facebook post about how I could be “10 Tweets Away from Bestseller” or make a killing with “5 Benign Book Signing Strategies” or “Instantly Instagram an Irresistible Author Platform.”
So I ask myself. Should I, an unrepentant marketing failure, a crotchety promo dropout, continue to write? I have neither yen nor breath to toot my own horn. I get cranky just thinking about it. Ergo, wouldn’t it make sense to just stop, for God’s sake?
Absolutely. And I’ve made up my mind to do exactly that, at least a hundred times. Except ….
I can’t stop thinking about writing. No problem at all resisting the urge to actually <em>do</em> it, but I can’t stop thinking about the books I have out there or the ones in progress or the unborn stories running laps in my brain. I’m afflicted with snippets of dialogue, plot points, conflicts, characters. I get ideas, dammit.
I recently confided in my blog-tour coordinator—employed back when I could afford such—my urge to switch off the Mac, throw out the pencils, burn my thesaurus. She said no, don’t do that, all our reviewers loved your books.
I spent all night updating my website. The one I won’t need, on account of I’m not going to write books any more.
I need another glass of wine.
As a writer, I was a late bloomer. Eighteen years ago, I was in my early forties when I decided to write my first book. Crazy, right?
But you know what they say: “Better late than never.”
In my case, better took a quantum leap into fabulous when Bantam bought that book and its sequel for its Loveswept series romance line. I was delighted (read: exuberant, bordering on rapturous). I learned a great deal from my experience with Bantam—thanks in particular to my editors Joy Abella and Beth De Guzman—and I owe them more than I can say.
Now let’s fast-forward a decade. Or two.
Those two books—which remain dear to my heart—are sadly, out of print. They were never available as e-books. To boot, these engaging stories, once critically acclaimed—For Love or Money won a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award—are now hideously dated. (I mean, who knew back in 1997 we’d all carry around cell phones one fine day?) Finally, in the past eighteen years I’ve grown as a writer, giving new meaning to the ever-wistful refrain, “If I had it to do all over again ….”
Taking those factors into account, the decision to “remix” the two existing books as semi-sweet romances (a genre I personally invented for books that are sensual but not explicit)—and add a third to create the Golden State Hearts Trilogy—was a no-brainer.
Book one, the new and improved For Love or Money, will launch on April 1st. (Making me an April Fool for romance.) Book two, Hunter In Disguise, is slated for late July. And book three–featuring two middle-aged romantic leads and as yet untitled–will debut just in time for Christmas.
Meanwhile, I’m making like a Mixmaster (Mixmistress sounds sort of kinky) and having the time of my life!
Many, if not most, writers are introverts at heart. That being the case, I thought we could all unite here–separately, in the comfort of our own homes, of course–to chat about our common foibles. Sure, I get the fact that we’re far from a new topic. Since the dawn of time–or thereabouts–introverts have been pleading for understanding and offering tips on how to get along with and make life easier for us. Cyberspace teems with blogs and articles about same, and Susan Cain wrote a bestseller about us.
Unfortunately, our cries for acceptance, heart-rending though they may be, all too often go unheard by our bee-busy-buzzy extroverted friends. Still, on the off chance some stray, snowed-in extrovert is dying for company, scouring the Interweb for somebody, anybody, to talk to, I’m willing to oblige. Listen up.
To begin with, seeing as how introverts make up a mere 25% of the world’s population, I decided I ought to provide a checklist of key characteristics you can use to recognize us. You may even discover you’re one of us. If you do, don’t be surprised if your first reaction is denial. That was my first reaction, at least until I learned introversion ≠ shy, a fact I’m constantly explaining to those who know me and my big mouth only too well. As for retiring, you’d be amazed at the far-reaching effects a few good introverts have had on history. For example:
Shy? I don’t think so.
But I digress. We were talking about how to recognize an introvert, and I promised you a checklist. Never let it be said I didn’t have the chutzpah to follow through.
You might be an introvert, if …
There. Does that help? Did you recognize yourself or someone you care about? If you find yourself facing that most disquieting of epiphanies–i.e., that you have (or are) an introvert in a family of extroverts–don’t panic. I’m about to suggest a few coping strategies. Not that we introverts expect to be coddled, mind you, but remembering a few salient points will keep feathers unruffled all around.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to comment and let me know!
ster•e•o•type /ˈsterēəˌtīp/ noun 1. a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
I get this. If you’re an indie author, you get this, because, let’s face it, indies have a bad rep in some circles. Now we can’t do jack about folks who believe writing is easy, and/or we’re in this for the money. No changing minds that color all indies as half-witted hobbyists, geeky basement dwellers, ditzy housewives, or bored retirees.
But before I tumble off my soapbox laughing–or foaming at the mouth–let me add this: Even Psychology Today admits some stereotypes grow like twisted pearls around a kernel of truth. Our kernel is this: We’ve got too much half-assed writing out there. Not the sole province of indies, I’ll grant you, but we can only clean our own house.
And speaking of houses, you wouldn’t try to build one without tools–well, not unless you’re Popeye the Sailor, who used to drive nails with his fists, and even he couldn’t build a book without the right tools. For the next few weeks, I’m gonna make like Lowe’s, offering tips and tools for your building pleasure. Today’s special, laying a strong foundation.
We start by repeating our mantra for this Saturday:
You bet they do, so don’t get sloppy with them. Would you get sloppy with a band saw–whatever that is? No way. Well, to paraphrase Edward Bulwer-Lytton, words are mightier than band saws. Think about it.
Words are wonderful. Hobgoblin, finagle, lambaste, titular, weensy, claptrap, crackerjack, fluff, knucklehead, quisling, snout, porcine … I mean, you gotta love ’em, right? So choose the right one. If you won’t listen to me on this, listen to Mark Twain.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Choosing the right word is key for, oh, let me count the ways. Nail your nouns, you won’t need to swaddle them in adjectives that bloat your writing. A strong verb will free you from adverbs, which as Stephen King assures us, pave the road to Hell. So forget the bad storm and heavy rain. You’ve got your deluge, your downpour, or, if you’re in Texas, your frog-strangler. Jettison smiled wryly or widely or sweetly in favor of smirked, beamed, leered, grinned, or simpered.
Sad to say, sometimes the perfect noun or verb is nowhere to be found. In that case, you’ve got nowhere to go but adjectives or adverbs, so go for the heavy lifters. And use as few as possible. Sticking with the storm theme: sheeting rain, shrieking wind, soupy fog. Smile fleetingly or darkly or crookedly. And for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of the unusual. Check out this evocative image from J.D. Robb’s Conspiracy In Death: “the thin and sticky hand of charity.”
See what I mean? And I may I just say, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.”
Make use of all your word tools. Onomatopoeia, for example. You probably know, but in case you don’t, onomatopoeia is “the formation or use of words such as buzz or murmur that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.” (Thanks for the cut-and-paste, thefreedictionary.com!) You’ll find a nice list here. In case you’re curious, a few personal faves include plunk, jitter, plop, babble (referring to speech, not brooks), eew, grit, and gurgle. I could go on and on, so please … stop me now!
Alliteration is another handy tool, but you want to use this one with caution, unless you’re writing standup comedy, and even then, you don’t want to go all Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Check out these powerhouse examples:
Finally, as I’ve often said–much to the dismay of friends and family everywhere–if you’re serious about words, if you want to learn to unleash their power, you need to read poetry. (I heard that groan. Suck it up.) Poets rule when it comes to the efficient, effective use of words. Read and learn:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Frozen-ground-swell, spilling boulders? Oh yeah, words have power ….