Tag Archives: writing advice

Jodi Picoult’s Occult Mystery

Occult: adj: “of involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena.”

 

Jodi Picoult’s 23rd novel Leaving Time, is surprisingly so much more than a moving saga about grief, loss of a mother, and the wonderful world of elephants. I just finished reading this nearly over-whelming book, even as her next block buster debut’s this week. Leaving Time has haunted me for a week since I completed it. Not just because it confirms what I’ve always considered: that elephants live more dignified, loving lives within families who protect and support one another. Or that love lasts beyond time and space, so when we lose someone we love, the love survives. But what intrigues me most, as a writer, is how Jodi interweaved the occult within the fabric of this mystery in a way that slips the unassuming reader—the reader who would not normally read a book with paranormal aspects—into the thick of the drama. Not until the very end do we learn that two of the main characters are, in fact, dead and were the entire manuscript. We are left questioning the dimension in which they lived, one where the dead continue living a bustling life which contains a world with school, family, binging, boozy nights, dating, money problems, work issues, rent to be paid, etc. It’s a dimension where it’s possible they (and everyone within it) don’t realize they are dead, and they don’t have all the answers, nor the ability to find the people they love. The notion that we die and all the answers are revealed, is turned on its head. The common held belief that our dead loved ones are a thought away, is also dismissed, as 13-year-old Jenna, the main character, searches for her mother Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior. Jenna hires a broke, formerly-famous psychic named Serenity, and a washed-up, pessimistic, alcoholic detective, Virgil, to help her find Alice. In the end, we learn that Virgil and Jenna are both dead (as well as everyone else they connected with, such as Jenna’s grandmother, a policeman, a lab assistant). Yet, they all seemed to lead vibrant lives with other people in them, bars to go to, cars to drive, policemen to talk with, school teachers, clients, landlords, etc. But apparently their world must lie on another plane of reality, like fine line of ice below the surface of our perception, that somehow, Serenity can see. But even Serenity doesn’t realize Jenna and Virgil aren’t alive, until the very end.

 

Most of Jodi’s interviews about Leaving Time concern the plight of elephants, how they grieve, and how wonderful a metaphor their ability to grieve, is, to her then first empty nest at home. She doesn’t say what motivated her to create such a walloping metaphysical surprise at the end. Stories of the elephants are woven into the book via Alice Metcalf’s notes, that Jenna reads. Alice is a researcher who has lived in Africa, as well as on a New England sanctuary with her husband and then three-year-old daughter Jenna, when she disappeared after a tragic accident leaving one person dead and one mentally insane. Jenna, who was three at the time of the accident, can’t remember what happened and had to be raised by her stoic grandmother. This story alone, is compelling enough to be a best-seller with all the ups and downs of who actually got killed and who slipped away and why. And the glimpse into the world of the elephants and how they are tragically being hurt by poachers, is critical for the world to understand. See this video for example.

What I find ultimately puzzling, is how Jodi manages to pull together so many subplots and themes into one novel, without losing me at any turn. She tackles the occult and afterlife, the plight of elephants, a murder, mental illness, spousal abuse, infidelity, suicide, mother-daughter and grandmother friction, the struggle to follow ones dreams as a mother, and a daughter’s unfailing love for her mother, and the huge emotional and unbearable loss a child endures when a parent abandons them.

It’s a beautiful novel. It’s powerful. It’s unlike any other I have read. Jodi Picoult is only getting better with each novel. You need to read it.

And with a side note to my fellow writers, isn’t it remarkable to think that Jodi Picoult, New York Times best selling author (whose last nine novels debuted number one on this prestigious list) was rejected by 100 agents before one believed in her?

Keep going my friends. And read her book for inspiration!

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What’s Driving You?

driving youAt any given moment, a mother is somewhere in America close to her breaking point. And I imagine that she’s smiling, like I am, in this picture taken last week. Can you see it? Look closely. Behind the smile, somewhere in the eyes, can’t you almost feel the tightness in my chest, the held breath, the swirling thoughts that I’m trying to manage and keep at bay. I was behind the wheel, getting ready to take a kiddo to school, when I snapped the picture. Why did I do this? Because it dawned on me that I no longer knew what was driving me or where I was going mentally that day. As I was getting into the car, un-showered, with my teeth not brushed, my hair not washed, that morning, I had hundreds of thoughts swirling in my mind and none of them had to do with taking care of myself AT ALL. And that’s the life of a single parent, especially the full-time single parent. Not one ball can drop. No sick days allowed. And there’s no family to call nearby to help. And the guilt that comes from me striving to follow my dream to get published, when my kids are in need, bubbles up like ancient frozen methane gas rising to the surface.

But what’s life without dreams? And as much as I love these boys, and I do, I have to still carve out space for me to exist separately. My writing is what centers me and motivates me and has ever since I was 18 and writing for The Red & Black newspaper at UGA.  It’s just hard to juggle all the demands and carve out space for my writing… so typically hygiene, self care and a personal life, is what gets sacrificed. But I think it’s worth it. And in the end, I keep telling myself that it will show my boys that a mom is more than a servant, driver, cook, maid, tutor for her kids. A mom is also a woman who has dreams and aspirations that are just as important as their father’s. I just wish that I could manage to squeak in more balance between the parenting needs, writing time, yoga teaching, to add in a little personal life. But all in due time.

Last week I received great news, insanely welcomed news: a few publishers are interested in my 3rd novel! I am meeting with them in New York in mid December when they will review chapters of my novel for five hours on three different days and then decide if they want to work with me. I can hardly believe it! For months I have been sending agents pitches every week and began to reach out directly to publishers too and … it’s working. 😉

So I’m racing to figure it all out. If their dad can’t fly back, I will likely leave the boys solo for five days to fend for themselves, asking a good friend and neighbor to pop in every now and then. My 16-year-old will be in charge and I’ll just pray that the house is in tact and our kitten still alive when I return!

It’s dawning on me that maybe, just maybe, it’s time for them to do more. I see my friends who let their kids bike and walk to school every day solo and wonder why I never let my youngest do this. Some have their kids make their own breakfasts and lunches and then do their own laundry. We are a single parent household, yet, I hardly ever ask my kids to even take out the trash. I do too much.  Maybe I’m trying to overcompensate for their dad leaving. But in the end, maybe the kids will benefit more from the value of pitching in, helping out. I asked my oldest to take the trash out this week. SCORE! My youngest is making his own breakfast, too. Hip Hip for little victories! Maybe now, I’ll shower and brush my teeth in the mornings before heading out, lol!

The morning of that picture I was experiencing confusing brain drain (see article here) before my day had really begun. Scientists call brain drain the syndrome of over-working brains from multi-tasking non-stop to the point that it becomes hard to make simple decisions. I had stayed up late the night before, after teaching yoga classes, cooking & cleaning up from dinner, trying to wash our kitten’s infected paw (that’s insane! you should see the scratches on my legs!) then filling out applications for financial aid for my son’s symphony trip to Spain, and answering questions from my other son’s therapist. I couldn’t sleep. Yes, I had meditated, but life was too lifey. In the morning, instead of showering and brushing my teeth, I had prepared breakfast, made a lunch box, and dumped out kitty litter and signed parental slips for something or another, while slipping into an energy of fear and lack of gratitude. I suddenly forgot something major, but didn’t know what it was.

It’s time to get more help around the house. I can’t keep up with it all. Shouldn’t I let my nine year old do his own breakfast and lunch box and dump kitty litter for me? I bought the cat for him, right?

The morning of that picture, I had raced through my calendar and a mental list of parental duties/worries I needed to perform, that seemed like they’d over-take my life. Orchestra meeting, check. Soccer dues, check. Dad note regarding birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, check check check. Yoga classes scheduled or subbed, check. Therapist note about my youngest, check. Teacher meeting note, check. PSAT nagging for oldest, check. New York flight and hotel for writer conference, check…can I actually GO??? Easter trip to visit colleges, oh shit. Summer symphony trip shit shit shit.

It’s so easy to get over-whelmed and since my ex and I don’t really talk, I end up managing it all solo, and in my mind, I have discussions with my universal guides about what I should and shouldn’t do until I just drop and feel like I need to wave a white flag or give up teaching or writing. But giving up means giving up a part of myself. I now understand why my mom insisted on working as a social worker while raising four children nearly solo, since my father was away most of the time. If she gave up working in a field she was passionate about, and had worked so hard to achieve, she’d be giving up a part of her soul, her identity.

It’s worth fighting for. It’s just not worth getting sick for. My health and sanity need to be a priority too. So, for now, I’m asking my boys to do more. OH! I signed up for health insurance and dental, as I’ve been three/four years without. I know. I know. … it was just too expensive, but I’m biting the bullet. And, I asked my ex-mother-in-law to fly in for a weekend so I can take time off this month. I asked my boy’s dad to fly in when I go to New York. Baby steps, right? It’s a journey of self discovery. I have to ask to receive. I have to believe that I’m worth it, in order to strive to take better care of myself. Balance requires effort and vulnerability and the willingness to receive help. I love to do for others, I’m a giver. But I need to allow others to give from time to time. I’m learning, slowly. A sense of humor is necessary! 🙂

Have a blessed week!

Laura x

 

 

 

Creating Powerful Characters

So I’m writing my next novel right now. And it’s what agents would call plot heavy. Anyone who loves a good mystery or action story, doesn’t mind that. Yet all the agents I’ve been talking with say they are seeking that magical character.

“I want to connect deeply with the main characters,” one said. Another said, when describing why she turned down a well-written manuscript: “I loved the detail and plot, but I just didn’t bond with the main characters like I wanted to.”

So, what makes people bond/connect with main characters? Think about the characters that you have fallen in love with over the years. What was it about them? Why did you keep reading and then miss them after the novel was over? I’m on a journey to discover what makes us bond with a character. As I was listening to my 16-year-old get ready for school at 6 a.m. this morning, it dawned on me: we all want to hang out with someone who makes us laugh, is entertaining, lightens us up, yet is still tackling major life issues. My 16-year-old, who happens to be sick, still woke up, like he always does, humming. He puts on a playlist, of a lot of 70s music, country, rap, 80s, you name it, and jammed as he prepared for another day. He always has a girl friend offer to pick him up and take him to school. Why? Because he’s the kind of guy who will make you laugh, says insightful things, is smart without being snarky or stuck up and is charming. He’s the kind of guy that will start your day off well and who puts you in a better frame of mind. And he’s constantly joking around, giving ridiculous birthday gifts to friends, like a bidet (french water spout toilet seat) that he gave to a friend who is anal and part Japanese (as Japanese love bidets). He’s silly, yet insanely smart, confident: plays violin and soccer and could care less what ‘hip’ kids think of that. And he’s stylish in his own way, not following surfer trends here in Southern California, but more dapper, like a Londoner or New Yorker. He stands out. Yet he misses his dad insanely and doesn’t understand why he left nine years ago or why his dad lives abroad and chooses to be out of touch, not engaged in William’s day-to-day life. Yet William chooses to be happy, while also not partying or throwing himself into drugs or alcohol, as he’s determined to get a scholarship to college. Maybe, just maybe, my son would make for a great main character—someone the reader would want to pick up and have ride with them on their way to work, so to speak.

I’m re-reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, such a great writing advice book that is insanely funny and helping me to not take my writing life, and the tedious task of getting published traditionally, so seriously. She compared the creation of a good character to that of picking a good friend. With good friends, you’d “ride with them to the dump just to be with them.” Boring friends, on the other hand, (I’m paraphrasing here) could offer to take you to a show and a five-star restaurant, and you’d rather stay home and wash your cat.

And that’s it. Plot really doesn’t matter so much, which is putting me in a quandary with Orbiting Jupiter, my next novel. It is a mystery and is plot heavy and I’m not sure my main character is someone I would ride to the dump with, just to keep talking to. I mean, she’s going through a lot and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown that any woman who has been cheated on repeatedly can relate with. She’s also lovable and kind and artistic, but these are attributes that feel like labels on a name tag. I mean, can she make me laugh? Does she laugh at herself? Is there some quality about her that is so priceless and unique that her friends would be shattered by a life without her? If I’m honest, not yet. She needs to marinate more.

With the development of compelling characters, Anne Lamott says to look at the closest people in your life, or the ones that draw you in, and observe what it is about them that attracts you or is lovable. For me, someone has to make me laugh, help me not take myself so seriously, (while also not poo-pooing my feelings). A person who is tackling their own demons with dignity, or who, upon closer inspection, is more conscious and aware then people would assume, as he/she is humble and not self righteous, pious, or one of those over-the-top spiritual people who seem like they are trying to impersonate Buddha or Jesus himself.

It’s laughter and the ability to be aware and conscious, yet also see through bullshit that usually pulls me in. I once had a lover look at my new tattoo, for instance, and ask what it meant (It’s Japanese). I said “Don’t give up on Life” in a serious, quiet voice. He replied, “It probably means ‘I shop at Vons’ but you just don’t know it.” I laughed so hard at myself afterwards and wanted to see him again. See what I mean?

My sister Sarah is another person that I love with an intensity that I can’t explain rationally. She is insanely lovable to many people, yet can’t see her own light as she battles many demons. I used to wonder why she always attracts men like flies to honey (I know, a competitive little sister thought) but even now, at 53, she has 25-year-olds asking her out! She always has, even when she finds herself in the darkest of places. I think it’s because of her raw honestly, combined with an ability to laugh at herself and others—and her surprising kindness, that can make a person stop and fall to their knees feeling unworthy or ashamed of their own selfishness. With half moon dimples, crystal blue eyes, a horsish, rough chuckle that erupts into a brook that bubbles over, Sarah is just plain fun to be around. She is humming, singing all the time, even when sad, usually Janis Joplin or older country that only she can land perfectly. She also creates art that is breathtaking with sea shells or tiles, like tile sunflowers that somehow seem to move in the light. And when she’s not laughing, or singing at a club with either or the two bands she is in, or playing piano or creating art, she’s able to listen to a friend in need and convince them to back off the mental ledge they are getting ready to jump off of. Sarah is someone people trust—she sees issues with clarity, calls people on their shit in a funny way, and then will be there for any of her friends anytime. She’s just plain fun to be around. I recently heard her answer her phone, laugh to a young man who comes to her shows, and say: “I’m onto you buddy. Listen, you just want what you want when you want it and are trying to make me feel like I’m lucky to have you because I’m older. But you’re the one calling me. Hey, you want to hear a line from the song I’m writing?”

Once when I was with her, on a particularly hard day, (as she is struggling financially and recovering from addiction and depression), she walked up to a homeless woman who had two children beside her and gave this woman a big hug. “You needed that didn’t you?” she said laughing and looking directly into her eyes before giving this woman $5. Sarah bent down and looked at the art the children were making and asked what they were drawing and if they needed more crayons.

As we walked back to the car Sarah said, “I fucking hate people who walk by homeless women like they are lazy or don’t exist. How can people be so cold?”

That’s Sarah. And that’s why the more you get to know her, the more you want to know her, as she inspires you to be more compassionate, thoughtful, creative, and to be honest about your own bullshit and to laugh a little about it. She’s one of the best people I know on this Earth. If she doesn’t succeed in fighting her demons a part of me will die. And that’s the truth.

None of my characters are as compelling as Sarah or William. I’m not planning on putting them into my novels, but they serve as examples of people/characters readers would follow anywhere—even to the dump.

Now Lucy, my main character of Orbiting Jupiter, the novel I’m working on, is not quite there. I’m on the fence about her, which has me stuck in the process of continuing with the novel. Lucy needs to percolate more. I need to see more of what makes her tick and why I should give a shit that her husband cheated. Sorrow and pain and sympathy aren’t enough reasons to fall in love with a person. And maybe that’s why Lucy snaps and takes on another persona? Her alter ego is someone who can make any man stand up, pay attention, laugh and fawn after. I just need to be sure I can captivate the readers long enough with Lucy, until she turns into the more provocative and entertaining Jupiter. There are a lot of pages to read before she makes this transition, and if readers don’t like Lucy, they won’t want to trudge along with her, even throughout the gorgeous backdrop of Hawaii.

So I’m going back to the drawing board, back to the beginning, to discover and develop any qualities in Lucy that would make her feel like the type of friend I would feel lucky to follow anywhere.

Fellow writers, any of you go through this? I’m on the verge of starting this novel over, or throwing it out! I won’t trash it just yet, but am on the verge, lol.

 

 

Seeking the Write Life

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What a dreamy writing spot I had last year in Greece! This is where I wrote a bulk of my last novel, Between Thoughts of You.  I led a Yoga & Writer’s Retreat in a remote area of Styra, Greece on the Delenia Cliffs—about a 30 minute drive from Nea Styra port and where few cars enter, due to hair-line turns on rocky, unpaved roads. These ancient roads roll past trails leading to ruins called Dragonistas, or pre-historic Dragon Houses of unknown origin mentioned in the Iliad. What an inspiring spot to write! For me. (But it might have been too remote for some of my yogis, lol.) I have a bohemian side from my North Carolina roots where I was raised near horse farms and in what Californians would consider rustic terrain.  I love being close to nature, hiking, listening to crickets—especially when they are competing with crashing waves. Add a night sky filled with stars and you can see why I didn’t mind living in a barn for a week—even if it had bats and huge spiders! I gave the main house to the yogis, who had pool and cliff and Aegean views, as I had my private writing spot every morning and most afternoons.

Greecepool

As the yogis decided to snorkel or sight see or hire drivers to take them to towns with restaurants and bars, I stayed put and wrote. Yes we had sunset yoga & meditation classes daily and three writing workshops, but days were open to explore. I mainly stayed put. Maybe I should have ventured out more, but I was focussed. I did this in Rome the previous spring—writing most of my days in seclusion, and walking around after sunset for inspiration. It helped me craft this novel and finish the first half. I was so close to finishing the whole draft when we were in Greece, that I just had to keep going.  As a full-time single mom, I get so few full days to write. You may say that I fight for the time to write, when most of my friends lament of paralysis and procrastination. I can’t wait until that’s all I’m battling! For me, I juggle school stuff and homework for the boys, cooking, laundry, cleaning and soccer during the week—and I admit that I may not juggle it all that well. The minute I start to visualize where my novel is going, I find a way to sit down and write, whether at school, on the side-lines of a game, or even in bed at 5 a.m. where my black notebook lives in my side drawer. I dream of the days when I live “the write life” —meaning a life where I can devote five hours a day to my writing. I’m not even sure how I’ve managed to write three novels and am starting my fourth as the last nine years have been filled with sorrow, diapers and now a teenager all navigated solo. But it’s my journey. While I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’m not completely. I’m determined to get better at my writing and at managing my time & life with my boys. I sent my last novel to beta readers and friends and must have edited it five times. I dream of the day when I get published traditionally. I love collaboration. I’ve been an editor of magazines, and I dream of working with an editor and agent and having that contract so I can write full-time, while of course teaching 2-3 yoga classes a week for balance and sanity! Until then, I will sneak writing time. I will steal a few moments here, a few moments there, and have a messy home for it and prepare too many frozen dinners.

My boys know that I’m focussed. I spoke with an executive at Random House earlier this year, showing him my synopsis and he said to me: “can you just get an agent so I can help you.” The traditional route demands representation. Self publishing demands marketing and self-promotion savvy. I don’t mind doing some, but I’m already writing my next novel. Who knew it would be harder to get an agent than to write to novel? But I continue to try and I continue to learn. I’m pitching an agent every week, as well as small publishing houses, a few have my novel now for consideration. I’m submitting to writing contests as well. It’s a business and I need not take rejection so personally, as many agents and publishing houses have specific genres/voice they are seeking and it changes constantly due to fluctuations and trends in the market place. I’m keeping an open mind and open heart.

And until that contract manifests, there is always another yoga & writer’s retreat! Next summer I’ll be in Spain watching my 16-year-old perform in opera houses and symphony halls. Isn’t that amazing? I can’t wait to watch him play violin, (and probably cry!) and then set up shop for my yogis. I’m debating between Madrid & Barcelona…I love both. There is power in creating space virtually, emotionally and physically to write while in inspiring get-a-ways. There’s just something magical that happens when taking that plunge—getting on a plane, leaving our bills, our neighbors, our little world behind that can become suffocating or distracting. It allows us to open up to possibilities. In the very least, it allows us to get inspired and talk about our dreams. As adults, it’s easy to shut down and lean into responsibilities, demands and fear. But without a little adventure and a little exploration, life becomes dull and heavy. We all need and deserve an injection of inspiration!

I can’t wait to tell you where the next retreat will be. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to juggle: to seek balance between loving my boys and supporting their needs, while striving to write another captivating novel that hopefully shows the power and survival of love—that always exists, even in the broken places.

Until then, have a beautiful month.

Laura x

Want to Get Published? Sell More Books? You Need This: Q&A w Mike Larsen

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Feeling a little fatigued or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of publishing advice out there today? There are so many options that it can leave us creative types wanting to bury our heads and surrender. But that’s not an option. Whether you plan to self publish or to garner an agent and secure a publishing deal—small or big house—you need to get on top of your own brand, marketing plan, sales goals, and platform. It’s a new world order demanding that we balance our time between business and creating. It’s not easy for everyone to juggle. Which means that some extremely talented writers may push out a book that fizzles out with low sales, making it more challenging to publish later with traditional houses. If that’s happened to you, don’t give up until you consider all the other areas to your writing career that you may not be on top of yet. For advice, I turned to Mike Larsen, author, agent with Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency since 1972, and currently an author coach.

I met Mike at the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) this past February. If you don’t know Mike, and you’re a writer, you need to get to know him and his work. He is the author of How to Write a Book Proposal, which is in its fourth edition and has sold more than 100,000 copies. He also wrote How to Get a Literary Agent and coauthored Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work. Mike and wife Elizabeth Pomada also coauthored the six book Painted Ladies series about Victorian houses, selling more than 500,000 copies. As agents from 1972-2015, Larsen-Pomada, sold hundreds of books to hundreds of publishers and imprints, before declining to accept new clients in 2015. As an author coach, and co-founder of the SFWC, Mike speaks at writing conferences across the country and firmly believes writers need to support and network with other writers.

Being on both aisles of publishing as an agent and an author since the 1970s—as well as currently coaching authors—Mike has a wide-range view of the industry and solid, positive advice. Today’s marketplace demands that authors do more than ever to make their books succeed—even when securing a book deal with a publishing house. For many, it’s hard to navigate time spent on business and promotion (and what that looks like or costs), verses time spent on the craft (why we are doing this in the first place). Time spent on promotion can often induce fear, thwarting, or delaying, time spent on creation. This is why inspiring writers conferences where experts such as Mike speak, are so important. (See Mike this June at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.)

 I firmly believe, as Mike does, that writing is a life-long, ever-evolving career. You and I are already a success if we love what we do and have found the way to carve time out every week to create. Control what you can, with a positive mindset, and embrace Mike’s belief that “Now is the best time ever to be a writer.”

         Skeptical? Fearful? Daunted? Then this Q&A is for you!

Q: Friends who self publish and have not broken even financially moan about how much money they invested in marketing, editing, cover art and design, SEO optimization, travel, promotion and printing. I suggested they teach for additional income. What advice do you have for them?  

MIKE: Writers have more ways to earn money from their books than ever: movie, audio and foreign rights; a blog or newsletter that attracts advertising. For nonfiction authors, speaking, coaching, consulting, training for individuals and groups, online or off, may be a possibility. Get to know other authors in your field and see what they are doing. Maybe you can partner with them.

Q: I’m assuming that you are not just suggesting submitting to online writing contests, but are referring to crowdfunding publishing options and Patreon?

MIKE: They may be able to bring in additional funds through those tools. But an author needs to learn who his/her readers are, where they are, and reach them on the platforms were they congregate: video, podcasts, or blogging, and social media.

Writers need to go events. They can give readings or interviews, attend book clubs, in person or by phone or Skype. Whether writers self-publish or sell their books to a publisher, the challenge of promotion will be mostly on their shoulders. Big and midsize publishers expect authors to be on top of their promotion. Being as visible as possible in as many ways and places helps sell books. Writers have to look at building their platform as an investment in their career.

Q: Some of my friends cringe at the idea of using Patreon as an additional revenue stream, as if it is the equivalent of begging.

MIKE: It’s high-tech patronage. Hundreds of years ago, it was fashionable for patrons to support artists whose work they enjoyed. Patrons have a deep appreciation for the arts: for playwrights, authors, painters, musicians. One must build up a following first. Then fans will want to contribute to help you keep writing. I think it is brilliant, especially at a time when writers are often expected to write for free. Writing is a noble endeavor that takes time, skill and effort. It deserves support.

Q: As a former agent and now a coach, where do you see writers most often slipping up? What are the most common mistakes writers make?

MIKE: New writers usually have no platform or promotion plan. They have to know more and do more than ever, including building communities of fans and writers. The moment you decide to write a book, maximize your visibility platform. They need clear writing and publishing goals. How big a house do you want? Do you want to self-publish? How many copies do you want to sell? At what price? Be consistent in how you communicate, building a brand to create your identity as a writer.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying writers need to take charge of their career and treat it like a business and write a business proposal.

MIKE: Yes. And it’s also important for writers to stay visible and accessible. Go to events. Support other writers, network, stay engaged. There are so many opportunities for writers to build communities of fans. But they have to be both writers and merchants, and balance between the yin and the yang of creating and writing with sharing their passion for the value of their books.

Q: Any other advice to budding authors trying to publish traditionally?

MIKE: Agents and editors need to know two recent, successful books that prove that your book is salable. Publishers are relying on authors. Prove that you can promote the book. The bigger the house you want, the more they will expect of you. If you’ll be happy with a small house, platform and promotion aren’t as important.    

Q: Parting words of advice?

MIKE: You can do anything you want. Social media can make any book sell. Be clear about where you want to go and the best way to get there. Assume it will take you five books to build an audience. Find an author to model your career after. Keep turning out books that sell each other. If you love what you do and keep doing it, nothing can stop you.

 

Rejection Sucks

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I love this picture. You can literally feel this new dad’s love for his newborn can’t you? It’s so precious. As an artist and writer, my books feel like babies to me. They aren’t true stories, but fiction often digs deeper to the underlying feelings and truths within our inner lives. They reveal a bit of our soul’s path. So when an agent rejects our work, even if they didn’t read it, that rejection will sting. It’s just part of the process.

I’ve come to believe that all artists have to feel these emotions, pause, take some time off, then get right back into the arena again. Feel the fear then take baby steps forward anyway. What I don’t agree with, is swallowing the hurt feelings and leapfrogging intellectually into a fake persona of gratitude and bliss. I’ll explain. Yesterday I spoke with a friend who has a degree in spiritual psychology. As I was telling him that the query process deflated me and inflamed my insecurities, he interjected that I needed to explore my judgements based on past experiences. Well, the query process is hard, I replied. Before I could elaborate, he then asked, “Is it hard? Or is that the judgement you choose to live by based on past experiences?”

I SO get where he is coming from as I do believe that most humans live a pseudo Pavlovian life, trying to avoid repeating things that they decided hurt, or is scary from the past. Sometimes it’s tragic, like not dancing or traveling or dating due to past hurts, anxiety created by ‘stories’ or pre-determined outcomes. BUT, and I say this will so much respect, I disagree with this expert when it comes to trying to get my book published.

The query process hurts. There’s no way around that. Am I wrong? Since I finished Between Thoughts of You I’ve received 4 rejections from agents. Now a few others and a publisher are still considering it, but the rejections still give a walloping thump to my confidence as a writer. EVEN if they didn’t read a word of my writing.

For instance, on Thursday the president of publishing agency rejected my synopsis and pitch saying that she was ‘extremely selective’ based on her list of established authors and for that reason she wouldn’t be asking me for a writing sample. Interestingly, she responded to me within a day and thanked me for a great pitch and for doing research about her and thought I was talented, so she strongly encouraged me to pitch one of her junior agents. Ok, ouch. It was a bizarre rejection. I tried not to get into my ego, but I felt as if I was holding my baby in my arms and she had thrown it into the trash before even looking at it. I’m selective too. I didn’t think her junior agents, most just out of college, would have the contacts to help me get published. I wondered why she had told someone at Publishers Weekly that she was open to queries from new voices, as it sounded like she wasn’t, or had changed her mind.

So, I needed to feel the sting of that rejection and then distract myself by taking a day off from pitching. I’m not giving up. And intellectually I know that maybe she and I aren’t in alignment and that I’ll find an agent who will read my writing and who will feel strongly that I do have some talent and have two other novels under my belt with another on the way, so can be pitched easily to publishing houses. Right? Intellectually I understand that I need gratitude for the process. But, stuffing emotions so I can put on a spiritually evolved persona, doesn’t do me any good. One of my friends said, “What a blessing! The Universe is sending you the perfect agent who will be completely in alignment with you. BE HAPPY!” Um ok. But can I at least feel this disappointment first? Why are so many Americans afraid to feel?

Kind of like my other friend last night. He wanted me to call into question all the judgements I hold about the query process, insisting that the mind is powerful and I could just think it into a fun process. Ok, yes the mind is powerful. But so is the heart and our world of emotions where my creativity lives. Let me feel bad for one day regarding this rejection of my baby, I won’t wallow in the sadness, but I think I need to feel it.  I’ll get back into the arena and pitch another agent next week. We really do need to feel and move through the feelings, don’t you think? Not being allowed to feel, like many of us in our childhoods, just builds up a lot of resistance and anxiety that lives in our tissues and demands to come out somehow, someway eventually. It creates an unauthentic existence in my mind. Like a woman smiling and laughing and saying how blessed she feels as she’s burying a child. It just doesn’t work that way. Every rejection calls into question whether I should continue writing and birthing new babies, or just bury the ones I have with the understanding that maybe, just maybe my writing isn’t good enough. And that, my friends, is painful. There’s no way around it.

So today, I feel a bit better after a day off. I’ll take the weekend to just breathe, hang with my boys, teach yoga, I’ll get back at it on Monday. I will take my friend’s advice on this point. When I said I wonder when I’ll get my signs that it’s time to give up on trying to get published traditionally or venture into self publishing, he advised me to pause and not force anything out of fear. I won’t change the course of my goals based on this one rejection. I’ll wait, give myself some time, and then see if I feel any different. Self publishing is daunting for this FT single mom as I feel as if I’d have to give up my paid jobs of teaching and freelancing to dedicate myself solely to it, while also investing to pay for it, and that pulls me out of creativity and into self promotion with less money coming in… which is daunting for me…

Any of you writers out there know what I’m going through? Any advice? How did you navigate this choice? Chime in! I could use some words of advice from experience, instead of criticism for allowing judgements to filter into my statements, lol.

Love & light ~

Laura

To Self Publish or Not … One Writer’s Positive Experience

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Today I met with a talented poet and artist who self published her first book in 2017 with Amazon, for less than $2,000. That’s amazing. And it’s gorgeous. Shani’s Whispers of Grace is a delicious compilation of paintings and spiritual poetry, inspired by her time in silence “with Shiva” at the holy hill of Arunachala in Tamil Nadu. Mystical, lyrical and emotional, Shani could have sought out an agent and tried to publish traditionally. Instead, she chose to self publish and to hire a friend to create her cover. As we chatted today about her next book, now in the works, we both began discussing the pros and cons of the self publishing route. As most of you reading this know, I’m pitching agents and have written three novels, now working on my fourth. Intrinsically, I worry about the costs of self publishing and managing all the self promotion, printing costs, pr costs, platform management and search elevation, contractual issues, etc. by my self. I’ve always held agents in high regard and read experts advice such as Shawne Coyne (who published this article today lauding what good agents can do: What it Takes: Art + Commerse = Better Art.).

 

But after speaking with the kind-hearted and spiritual Shani today, I see that in the end, whether a writer decides to self publish or pursue traditional publishing, it all boils down to expectation and time. Shani is happy to let her book grow organically through word of mouth referrals (including mine, buy it please!). She allows placement to happen organically within appropriate settings, such as spiritual book stores, or yoga and meditation retreat centers. As Shani said: “if I touch one soul, I am happy.” She isn’t bogged down by what frightens me: all the time consuming PR, self promotion pitching and travel and speaking engagements. And her work is doing just fine since she kept creation costs relatively low.

I love her perspective and choices. Because in no way does her choice to self publish affect the quality of her craft. In fact, I think this journey of Shani’s has allowed her to focus 100% of her time on her art, and perfecting that art, without worrying about the business side. She lets her art speak for itself—and it does.

I love this last line of her poem Song of the Self: “It is only the Supreme non-dual “I” that destroys ignorance and pure Knowledge shines forth as Self.”

I think all of us writers could learn from Shani. When one continues to write for the sake of writing and for the gift it gives us by honing the craft—while enjoying the journey—the writing will intuitively and intrinsically get better. And it is more likely that an author will make deep connections with her readers as well. From the heart-felt intention of creating an inspiring piece of art, for the sake of art, that art, in turn, will flourish and the right organic opportunities will arise.

Thank you Shani for your words of wisdom today. I can’t wait to see your paintings and your next book!

Namaste ~

Laura xo

 

The Artists Guide to Finding Time

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I wear many hats, but my purpose in this lifetime is to write and to publish compelling stories with characters many would not pause to consider or feel compassion for—people on the fringe of society, whose inner light is rarely acknowledged. This is my passion. Yet it seems that all my other ‘work’ demands my primary focus. Intention plus Attention, Manifests. Yet most of my Attention, for years, has been drawn in too many directions. I am a single mom who has been raising her two boys solo for nine years. I am the author of three novels seeking representation, as I desire to publish traditionally. I am a freelance journalist who writes for magazines. I am a yoga teacher who has taken 5 yoga trainings and led a yoga and writers retreat in Greece, hoping to run more! My ex lives in Europe and I have no family help, so I have few weekends off to re-charge, and no help when a kid is sick or there is an emergency at school. I guess you can say I am a master juggler. Yesterday a friend told me she can’t find time or motivation to write/create her blog because she has too many demands, yet she has no children or full-time employment. Our demands, are our demands, however. What we focus on, grows. If we focus on fear and lack, we will scramble in too many distracted directions and lose our willpower.

I am finally mastering the balance and carving out more time to focus—even within my hectic schedule. Trust me, between school runs, lunches, dinners, homework, soccer games and practices, violin performances, Taekwondo, volunteer requests, yoga classes I teach, etc…My daily life can become a blinding, dizzying, depressing grind that used to relegate my passion for writing to a mere 30 minutes a day—and that was on good days! I’ve now cut out the major fat, the time-suckers and distractions and am working on my fourth novel. If I can find more time—trust me—you can too. I want to help. Here is the first of a five-part-series on how to find the time to create:

First, cut out ALL the distractions. By that, I mean, ALL SOCIAL MEDIA HAS TO GO. For a year. It’s been seven months of no social media for me in my first year cleanse. During this period, I finished my 3rd novel (click here for excerpt), edited it four times, attended a writers conference and submitted the novel to agents who are currently considering it. Also during that period, I taught yoga classes, helped manage a studio, worked with private clients, attended a meditation retreat, raised two humans by myself and dealt with health issues. If I had stayed on social media, I would have been sucked into its time-wasting trap—losing momentum, motivation and self confidence—while wasting valuable time better spent writing. Now I know all authors and artists need a “platform” to sell their art. But while you are still struggling to create & produce art and then garner an agent or deal, social media needs to go. Here’s why social media is not only a waste of time for budding artists and writers, but it actually makes us less creative, less authentic, and less productive:

  1. Social media thwarts momentum. Why? because it turns the focus outward and not inward. You may be half -way through that novel, or composition or mural, and suddenly you become overwhelmingly self-conscious and fearful and less sure, losing your drive to move forward. We lose our ability to connect deeply to our core and hear our intuition (the birth place of creativity) and our desires, when we focus on others: on what they are doing, how they are doing it and and on how others feel about us and what we do. To create, we need to turn inward, tap into our inner power, our inner passion, our inner purpose and JAM.
  2. Social media drains our Motivation and lessens our Gratitude—which can spur bad habits that actually suck more time away from our projects becoming successful. Looking at what others are doing, can thwart us from realizing our dreams and we can become filled with thoughts like:  Maybe I should be going out more? Those drink looks good, I need a happy hour. I need to have a spa day, why don’t I get to have a spa day? I love her dress and shoes, I haven’t had a new outfit in years. etc etc. Yes we all need balance, but spending more, getting hung-over, or spending money we don’t have or time with negative friends, will NOT help.
  3. Social media lowers self-confidence by comparing our lives and our projects with others. This is an expansion of the last point. Artists often live with less before they are published or discovered. If we compare our lives by what we have or own and are constantly filling our minds with visions from Instagram or Facebook of ‘friends’ new houses, new cars, new relationships we can develop thoughts of fear and lack, that dissuade us thinking in affirmative powerful ways that manifest. Thoughts like: I should be doing more. Or I’m not as good as him. Or I need to focus on money-making projects or pick up more part-time work in order to get a date like his. etc …
  4. Studies have shown that even a mere 20 minutes of social media photo sharing or scrolling increases anxiety, depression and feelings of lack. Studies proved social media lowers self-esteem and it creates disrupted sleep patterns (likely from light erupting from a phone by the bed). One study says that not only does social media foster addiction, but it re-wires the brain to become more addictive and reactive in general. All thwart inspiration to create authentically and powerfully.
  5. The more time we spend on social media, the less we take ourselves and our art and our passions seriously. Sure, you may post a pic of yourself painting or writing, and love the 100 likes you receive, but are you really delving into the project for hours, connecting to your inner voice, inner guides and moving forward in a powerful way? Answer this truthfully.

So, my advice, drop the Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook for a year and gain back the two—or more hours a day—to focus on your art, your potential, your inner fire.

Next installment covers what to replace those two hours with. SO GOOD.

Have a beautiful day!

If you liked this article, you may be interested in:

Is Social Media Bad for You? BBC, January 2018

 

Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write

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Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?

These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!

What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.

A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.

As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”

IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.

It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.

When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.

So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.

To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.

These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂

If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:

When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex, HuffPost.

The Four Rs of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender Writers Digest.

Whose Life is it Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation The Guardian.

Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race? The Good Man Project.