Tag Archives: Writing

Integrating my Author and Therapist Selves

#Debut2022 #WritingCommunity

My father took my aspirations of being a novelist seriously from the start. His advice? “Get your first four chapters in, get your advance, and get to work.” Which was the way of the publishing world when he was Chief Art Director of Viking Press back in the 60’s. I don’t remember Dad ever using terms like “query letter,” “agent,” or “submission.” He certainly never mentioned “Platform.”

Today, you need a completed, polished novel and an agent to sell it in order to get an advance—which may or may not cover expenses so you can focus exclusively on revising your book. And you’re also required to have a platform, to put yourself “out there,” to maximize your social media presence. I cannot imagine what Dad—who died in 1995, before the internet dominated all our lives—would make of that last sentence, or why I need this very site.

And here’s the thing which makes expanding my online footprint daunting. I’m a psychotherapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to be precise. Being discreet—not “out there”—is part of my job description. Not just regarding the lives and identities of my clients, but also my own. Not that anyone expects therapists to be total blank slates anymore. We are no longer silent, bearded men upon whom patients superimpose whatever traits their unconsciouses desire. We’re people. Google-able people. Clients read our bios, view our profiles and photographs, learn about who we are from our practice mission statements, accessing anything about us that feels relevant to their therapeutic experiences.

In the 22 years I have been practicing, I’ve found that clients want you to be real with them, open to sharing bits of your story that may increase the connection between you without making it about you. It’s a tough balance, knowing when and how much to self-disclose. Many of my Black woman clients chose me because they wanted a therapist with first-hand knowledge of racism, particularly the racial trauma that comes from being an American woman of African descent. Again, many of my clients are mothers who appreciate knowing that I’ve raised children of my own. When I self-disclose, it’s usually in the form of a brief illustrative anecdote that relates to the client’s story, though I’m always clear that their experience is unique. It also depends on the situation and the individual. Some clients feel safest when they know something about me, others prefer to know nothing of my existence outside the office.

Another factor is that I live in the town where I practice. Over the years, plenty of clients have seen me out walking my dog or herding my children around a grocery store. The notion of being spotted by clients while I was out living my “real” life used to fill me with anxiety.

My finest moment was when my son, then two, completely lawless in the manner of two-year-olds, barreled into a client of mine at a swimming pool. The client was an older male—hence not a mom—and for what it mattered, I had on a bikini. Awkward enough to run into a client while your child is acting out, dashing the fantasy I believed clients had of therapists having their shit completely together. It was another thing entirely to stand in front of a male client wearing what was essentially underwear. Cringes all around.

My supervisor at the time, a lovely older woman who had raised two children while practicing therapy in the town where she lived, said, “You’re human. They all know you have a life.” She encouraged me to raise the encounter with the client when I saw him next, which I did. We both laughed about it. He asked how old my son was and I told him. No mention was made of the bikini. It would take me years for these encounters to stop rattling me, to stop trying to present a shrink-perfect image at all times.

Being a writer means making a conscious choice to present a public version of my private self. This process actually began with a talk I had been invited to give at a synagogue about the meaning of being a Black Jew, a member of two distinct groups—one ethno-racial, the other ethno-religious. An announcement of the talk caught the attention of author, journalist and now my friend, TaRessa Stovall, who is also Black and Jewish. I credit TaRessa with coining the term “Blewish”—an identity of multitudes, including Daveed Diggs, Rain Pryor, Rebecca Walker, and Tracee Ellis Ross. TaRessa interviewed me before the talk, wrote a piece about it for our local paper. While I ultimately published the talk in Interfaith Families Online, it was TaRessa’s article which gained the most attention. Some people got confused and thought I’d written it; others read it and googled me, turning up little besides a scholarly article—the first thing I ever published—in Social Work and Healthcare, about African American Women and their exclusion from the literature on body image disturbance and eating disorders.

But there was such a difference between a social worker writing about clinical issues and a woman sharing her personal story. The former was about research, interviews and observation; the latter was just about me. My visibility surged in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted it to.

Nevertheless, I started blogging a few years later, which was the biggest breakthrough for me. I wrote about my first career as a ballet dancer, my residual relationship with ballet, my subsequently complicated relationship with my body. I wrote about my eating disorder history, my experience as a Black biracial child growing up under the umbrella of my mother’s white privilege, how it vanished when I was with my Black father. I wrote about my parents’ marriage, my father’s death and, much later, my mother’s. I wrote from my heart, uncensored, sharing my raw, unfettered emotional core. I wrote about my grandmother’s rejection of me, my evolving Black identity, my evolving Jewish identity, motherhood, Obama, dogs, Betty Grable—you name it, I wrote about it. And … it was out there on the internet for anyone to see. Including my clients, most of whom frankly don’t read it. That’s not what they need from me. Either way, it’s okay. As my supervisor said, my clients know I have a life.

Soon online journals were publishing my essays. If you read those, especially the ones in Longreads and The Common, you know exactly who I am. Again, it has to be okay. At one point I considered a pen name to separate the writing me from the therapist me. That didn’t feel right.

By now, I’m experienced enough, confident enough as a therapist to handle the duality. As a writer you don’t want to hold back. You need to be real, not stiff or sanitized. You need to dig deep and notice what you feel. Which is why writing has made me a better therapist and vice versa.

Which brings me to now. I have a novel—a work of fiction—not a work about therapy or my own life—coming out in about a year.

Without using any “material” from clients, Embers on the Wind touches upon subjects I discuss with them daily—motherhood, family, race, gender, and identity. What does it mean to love and loathe a sister at the same time? What does it mean to be underestimated, undervalued, and yet resented for one’s perceived good fortune? What does it mean to struggle when others appear to have everything handed to them? What does it mean to be a modern Black woman living with the weight of the past, of your ancestors’ hopes, fears and dreams?

And suddenly, the overlap of all my work is clear, without need for compartmentalization. I wear multiple hats, but remain the same, integrated self beneath them.

It is in this spirit that my blog is reborn as my Author Website—the tagline of which I’ve changed from “Writings on Body Image and Identity” to “Stories of Motherhood, Identity and Being.”

This is the site where I can record my honest thoughts about life, parenting, race, and politics. It’s also for general therapeutic observations which readers can take as advice or leave. And of course, it’s for my new author life, my book news. It’s all here. It’s all me.

Thank you for reading and for accompanying me on this journey.

Breaking Out of a Post-Revision Rut

(3 Easy Steps which may or may not work for you) #WritersLife #2022debuts

Recently, I received an editorial letter that was beautiful, complimentary, insightful and inspiring. I couldn’t wait to plunge back into my book, tackling my editor’s suggestions, transforming the story into everything it needs to be. I spent two full weeks furiously rewriting, revising, recreating, even hatching a brand-new romantic subplot between two characters who’d barely met in the last version. While solving some minor plot holes, I discovered that my roster of characters included two Peters, a Westly AND a Wesley. Oh! And a woman who tearfully fled a room in Harlem not two paragraphs after lighting up a cigarette in Quebec. But I fixed it all. Got it in on the due date, awash with relief. But then, once the holy-shit-I-did-it euphoria faded, I was wordless.

You’ve felt this too, right? The crash after flying on literary adrenaline? Whether it was completing your NaNoWriMo draft, a huge revision for your agent or critique group, line edits for your editor, or polishing a masterpiece in time for the last submission day of an essay contest. You hit send. Only to find yourself devoid of language, unable to write another phrase.

What if nothing comes? What if that was it? Everyone experiences wordless days, even weeks. But knowing you’re in good company doesn’t make it any less unnerving.

While I don’t claim to have anything resembling a magic formula to end writers’ block, here’s what has worked for me.

Step 1. Acknowledge the rut and find some other way to feel a sense of purpose. If it’s not your non-writing work, clean out a closet, make banana cake, volunteer to help someone with something—anything.

Purpose is the first thing that shakes me out of my rut. I am fortunate that my day job, my profession as a psychotherapist, is all about other people and what they need. When my writer-brain goes blank, I still have a shrink-brain: wholly absorbed in my clients, their strengths, their struggles, pain, and victories.

(And no—in case anyone is wondering, I have never, will never, use my therapy clients for “material” in my fiction. Those are two separate plots of turf. That is a strict rule which I will never violate. Though I do believe that my ability to think through stories and motivation enhances my work as a therapist and vice versa.

That said, if I am writing non-fiction that involves mental health or my experience as a therapist, I might write about a client—just with permission and a disguised name.)

Having a therapy practice is a gift when I’m struggling to get back into my writing. Partly it’s the sense that there are other ways I can have an impact. Partly it’s a reminder that there is a world out there much bigger than my books, a world of real live people with complicated histories, emotions, and aspirations.

Step 2. Read. Fill up on other people’s words until yours start to flow again. To jumpstart my process, it always helps to read something by someone I respect.

Have you noticed that throughout this post I keep slipping into the 2nd person? Maybe because I just read a raw and powerful essay by Deesha Philyaw about writing about love—which happened to be second person voice. (Also, if you have not yet done so, please pick up a copy of her masterful The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) Read and keep reading.

Check out my Instagram for recent books I’ve recommended.

Step 3. Look over the last paragraph of the last thing you wrote.

Open up a document with a writing project you’ve got going—full of words you once wrote (that was you, remember?). Read over a paragraph. If it needs some work—fix it up till you like it and take it from there. If it’s good, you’ll feel re-energized, maybe enough to add another sentence. And one more. And before you know it, you’ve got your momentum back.

Full disclosure: just now, between the above sentence and this one, I took a break and read over a chapter in a WIP I’d been working on before I got my editorial letter. I read the last paragraph and was inspired to fix it up a bit, to add a few sentences and then stop in a place where I’ll be excited to pick it up tomorrow.

Alternately, open up a blank document. Stare at the blank screen for a minute and then tell yourself you’re just going to play around with some thoughts, maybe write a quick post—something about how it feels to be wordless. Because even those words count, right? Better than nothing.

And onto the blank screen, force out some of the residual words which did not make it into your revision, or which got extracted from some old version of something you wrote somewhere. Free-floating, aimless words, looking to partner with one another and make a bit of meaning. There might be just a few of them, disconnected, but words nonetheless. And when you look over the no-longer-blank screen, possibly adjust the spacing, it looks like you’ve got the start of something. Maybe.

You know, I think writing this helped. I think I’m back now.

Tomorrow on Longreads.com

Guess what, guys? I have another story going live in Longreads tomorrow. I am so proud and honored to have my second work published by this amazing online journal. That said, to have this particular piece of work OUT there in the world, on the internet, where anyone–including my psychotherapy clients, including my kids–can read it, fills me with something between jitters and trepidation.

distracted

See, this one is not just a personal essay—it is a really, really, super-duper personal story—that I began in a workshop, inspired by a prompt, with no intention of publishing. Then, editor extraordinaire, Sari Botton, asked to publish it and I said “yes.”

It is the kind of story I read online all the time, admiring the writer’s courage and boldness to say something so private that so many of us can relate to. The difference is that I am a therapist, guardian of my clients’ deepest secrets. Yet here I am, sharing one of my own, hoping readers can connect, even if my experience is alien to them.

This is a story about my body; the story of a journey—actually, a few stories within a story that I am proud to share. Mothers and therapists are also human beings, with human flaws and human solutions.

My clients and kids may not want to read this. Then again, they might. That’s up to them. Either way, I share this personal tale with love, humor and humility.

Stay tuned ❤️

O Distraction!

O Distraction, against thee, I am powerless.

Whether trivial: a click-bait suggestion about Kylie Jenner’s alleged pregnancy—or weighty: panic about an unaccounted-for friend in Puerto Rico, or gnawing uncertainty about my mother’s health—I am unable to regulate my concentration these days.

distracted

Even if I weren’t riveted to the news reports about hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires striking close to the homes of people I care about, terrified that people who have not yet declared themselves SAFE are NOT SAFE—I would still be distracted right about now. (By the way, friends in disaster zones, please, if you have power, post to let me know if you’re okay. I will be on Facebook waiting until I hear that you are.)

Where was I? Right. Distraction.

Aside from the confluence of natural disasters that have absolutely nothing—no, of course not—to do with climate change—there are plenty of man-made ones on my mind too. Not the least of which is THE man, made about seventy-two years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Trump. Whereas I once opened a newspaper or a magazine and read an entire article, I now click on, read a paragraph, lose patience with the information I am taking in—because I can tell within three words that the article isn’t going to conclude with the sentence, “So it turns out, the 2016 election was a total sham and we’re scheduling a do-over”—and click something else. Click, scan, click, scan, then click again. Check social media to see if anyone there has insights to sample before my fleeting focus shifts elsewhere.

And then, Facebook, my reliable friend, my chief brain-appropriator, lets me know at least once per day that the followers of Lisa W. Rosenberg haven’t heard from me for a while.

Dear Facebook. What would I do without you? Who would entice me with photos of my friends’ teenagers learning to drive, or the same teenagers turning sixteen, seventeen, juxtaposed with adorable baby photos of said teenagers—stirring in me the nostalgia to post baby photos of my own teenagers?

Who would cleverly draw me in and obliterate endless hours of my day, usurp acres of my mental space, while daily enhancing my skills of procrastination? My tolerance for dog videos? Impromptu math challenges? On-the-spot invitations to describe the president using one choice word?

Aside from all that’s going on in the world—natural and unnatural—I have my own personal preoccupations. I’m in the sandwich generation, with teenage children and an aging parent. My worry ranges from mild to catastrophic in proportion, but is always present.

Not at work. I’ve been a therapist for almost twenty years and I know how to be present with my clients, shutting off my own life when I’m in session. In fact, what I love most about my work is helping others to identify their own inner resources, master their own obstacles to fulfillment. In other words, helping them do what I’m currently struggling to do myself.

But I’m a writer as well—or so it says on my blog. I have an agent who believes in me, three novels and a book proposal—all at various stages of revision.

But my creative energy is sapped at the moment. I face this fact for my own mental health, just as I encourage my clients to face their own realities. Some things simply ARE. It’s best not to hide from them. It weighs on you to hide from them. So, with this statement, I shake off the guilt and shame of being a “writer who isn’t really writing right now” (except for my column and sometimes this blog). This is my “I forgive you, self” moment, that so many of us need and deserve.

So—I forgive you, Me! For focusing on your children, your mother, your clients, the news, your friends. And I encourage everyone reading this, everyone who has a Self that they’ve been judging for not being enough—in every way, at every minute—to forgive that Self as well.

I’m not suggesting checking out and binge-watching reruns of Friends or That Seventies Show. Forgiveness-of-Self doesn’t mean avoiding the stuff you have to do. I’m talking about finding a balance, however you can. Sometimes you’re extra-energized, well-rested, or at least hyper-caffeinated and ready to take on the world. Other times, you’re more vulnerable—tired, overwhelmed, overwrought by the news, preoccupied about the safety and health of loved ones. At times like that—and it’s a time like that for most people these days—you need to breathe. Be. And pace yourself

The Alchemist of Time

images[3]Forgive me O blogging muse, for it has been over two months since my last post.  In the meantime, much has happened.

Our house, which suffered a terrible post-Hurricane Sandy fire is nearing the point where we will be able to move back into it.   My children had an incredibly eventful summer, mostly in the form of day camps to which I sent them so I could finish my revision.  And speaking of the revision, I don’t remember whether I mentioned it here or not.  In any case, I was offered—not representation—but a “Revise and Resubmit” by an agent with incredible vision regarding my book.  She gave me a ten page document on what I needed to change, so I spent the summer changing it.  Exciting, yes, and downright scary, to essentially lop off the second half of your book and write it all anew.  But it’s done-ish, not yet submitted, but in the hands of “beta readers” who have been reporting back bit by bit.

So that’s me.  How are you??  Because, the thing is, I haven’t just not been blogging, I’ve also not been reading many blogs, and not commenting at all.  It was hard to let go; I missed my fellow bloggers and was curious about what they were up to.  But I know myself; once I start reading and commenting, it leads to more reading and more commenting and I often lack the discipline to stop and get back to work!  It had to be all or nothing.  So I gave myself permission, not just to step back, but to step out of the blogosphere altogether for a summer.  As Jodi Aman noted in her guest blog several months ago, we all need to prioritize without second guessing ourselves.

And just yesterday, the inspiring Dahlia Adler did a post on time, specifically making time to write when it looks to the naked eye as if there is none.  Working, writing mothers are known create time out of the ether.  How do they do it?  All too often my way of making time is to rely on the wee hours when everyone else is asleep.  But when you’re parenting, working and trying to be a decent human being, when your life requires you to drive, or otherwise operate machinery, not sleeping can really backfire.  So you find other things that can give for a while.

I have a friend whom I’ve known since college, who has always seemed to me an alchemist of time.   At school, what she accomplished in a day, took others a month.  She aced her courses, wrote plays, acted in them, participated in many student-run organizations, managed a relationship here and there, and taught herself to play the guitar.  Really well, as a matter of fact.   How did she do it?   With a lot of creativity.  Which is how she did everything.

Fast forward twenty-some-odd years: my friend is a successful corporate executive, managing a large staff.  She is also the mother of two little girls.   Spare time, needless to say, does not exist.  Nevertheless, out of the ether, my friend has managed to publish a novel this year.  Her first, but certainly not her last.  I don’t know how she did it.  But I do know that her creative side could not be silenced.  Her imagination was too entwined with her identity to be forgotten.  She had to do this.

(Spoiler alert: this very friend same friend, Louella Dizon San Juan, will be writing a guest blog later in the week!)

There are always things in your life that you can skip, at least temporarily, for the things that matter most.   You might feel guilty at first, for not volunteering to be class parent this year, for dropping book group for a month or two.  But in your heart, you know what you can’t sacrifice.  Your family, for example.  And the pieces of your identity that you hold most dear.   If you are a writer, professional or aspiring, one of those pieces is writing.  You have to do it.  You just have to.

Guest Blog on Magic and Fantastic

I’ve just had the honor of writing a guest post on my multitalented friend and fellow writer-blogger, Louella Dizon San Juan’s blog, Magic and Fantastic. Louella is one of the most multitalented people I know: working mother, businesswoman, playwright, author/illustrator and advocate for women and girls in math and science.  Louella recently published her first middle grade novel, The Crowded Kingdom, which my son and I loved!  (Available on Amazon).   

I was thrilled when Louella asked me to write a post for her guest series: Reboot: Start Up Your Life Again. Owning the Gift, my first guest blog, is about the life-changing moment when I realized that writing was no hobby, but part of my identity. 

Here’s a sneak peak:

Owning The Gift

“So you call yourself a writer?”

Am I a writer?

quill

Without a doubt, though it took me years to say it so emphatically.  Writing was always background music, my secret identity, like a private security blanket that accompanied me through my every incarnation.

CONTINUE READING

Let the Querying Begin … Again

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy (patient and supportive) followers know: if I’m neglecting this blog, it’s because I’m letting my other writing take  center stage.   Still I wanted to update my home page because I have some exciting entries coming up, including a guest blog and hopefully an author interview.  Several of my fellow bloggers,  Louella Dizon San Juan and Robyn Oyeniyi have recently self-pubbed and I have to say I am so proud of them and very much in awe.  I’m also in the process of writing reviews for Amazon, which is a daunting task in itself!  For my part, I’ve decided to hold out for now and go the traditional route, which means all (well, much) is riding on one teeny weeny little document that can make or break me.  I mean, of course, my query letter.  A query letter is your calling card to agents (one of whom will hopefully rep your book one day, and go on to find you a deal with a publisher).   The most important part of your query is the plot summary, which you write to entice–just as the blurb on the back of your book will do for readers.   It should be grabby–not gimicky–intriguing enough for an agent to ask for pages, and–according to various sources at the many, many query letter writing, and pitch prep seminars I’ve attended-NO  MORE THAN TEN SENTENCES LONG.

Of course, your query letter is meaningless if your book isn’t done–really done.  I have learned this the hard way.   When I first wrote Birch Wood Doll, I struggled so much with the query letter; I just could not find a catchy way to summarize the plot in ten sentences.  I revised my letter over and over, never satisfied that I had correctly portrayed my book while making it sound interesting.  This, I have to say, was a red flag.  The reason I struggled with my query letter, the reason it sounded like a different book each time ai rewrote it, was that Birch Wood Doll, though I had gotten to the end, was not finished.  What was it even about?  It didn’t know.  I didn’t know.  Sure, it was a biracial jewish girl with an eating disorder, torn between two men, struggling with dual identity, unresolved about her career in ballet versus her academic life at University.  And her father is dead.  And her grandmother threatens to disown her.   And her friend falls off a building high on cocaine.  And there’s this guy who whittles her a doll made of birch and … Yikes.

So I took the book back, whittled away myself, figured out what I was trying to say and finally … no I didn’t get it published, but I was able to come up with a heck of a pitch. No fewer than five agents asked for partial or full manuscripts when I attended the Pitch Slam at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference.

Just for fun, here’s my “Before” pitch for Birch Wood, followed by the “after” letter that worked for agents.

BEFORE:

Birch Wood Doll (mainstream fiction, complete at 85,600 words), is the story of a biracial, bulimic ballerina’s search for self and true love.

Navigating two cultures, two divergent career paths, and two lovers, Amy, a biracial (black/white/Jewish) dancer, uses sex, cigarettes and starvation diets to cope with stress.  Forced by her wealthy grandmother to give up a ballet contract and attend Princeton University, Amy meets and falls for two men: smooth, sexy Jack, also biracial, quick with a love song and access to cocaine—and sweet, noble Kole, a white, rural-bred, wood-whittling, football player who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Over the next fourteen years, as her identity  unfolds in the context of the love triangle, Amy learns—with the help of a symbolic doll made of birch—to let go of the past, trust her instincts, and find her own way to self-respect, wholeness and love.

Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Amy’s story is inspired by my own experiences as a Jewish, biracial dancer who took a leave from Princeton to join the Cincinnati Ballet, as well as by my own eating disorder struggle and recovery.  Like Amy, I stopped dancing to become a clinical social worker and later hung out a shingle as a psychotherapist.

This wasn’t my first attempt at a pitch by any means (I’d be too embarrassed to share that) but, I think any agent who made it to the part about “over the next fourteen years …” probably checked out then.  Now here’s my after-pitch, the one that more or less worked.

Birch Wood Doll, set in the 1980s and 1990s, is the story of a young, biracial ballet dancer’s search for self and true love.  Amy loses half her racial identity at 10: she’s mixed but looks “any race,” her black father dies and her white mother’s family tries to erase his memory.  Amy grows up searching for ways to define herself.  At first it’s ballet; she’s a gifted dancer with a knack for self-starvation and a cool stone-face to rival Morticia Addams.  Then—convinced she can only find herself when she finds love—Amy turns to men.  When she’s forced to give up a ballet contract to attend Princeton, Amy falls for two male classmates who satisfy opposite needs.  Jack is biracial too; he helps Amy rediscover her “lost black childhood.”  Kole is a linebacker, generously proportioned, which gives Amy a nice break from her eating disordered mindset.  Through college and beyond, Amy holds her position at the center of the love triangle, certain that either man could be the soul-mate who resolves her conflicts and heals her pain.  The devastating, unexpected result of her choice will break Amy’s heart but ultimately teach her who she is and open the door to real adult love.

It turned out that none of the agents who went for my pitch wanted to represent Birch Wood Doll, but the book did wind up being a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist.  Based on feedback the Nilsen people gave me, I now believe that Birch Wood is one last sweeping revision away from being really, truly done.  I’ll get to it, but for now, I’m focused on my YA book, Second Company (formerly known as Twice the Dazzle) …

…which is, I now believe, really, truly done itself.  Of course, a few months ago, I believed it was done, though I had not in fact heard back from all my beta readers.  And because I couldn’t resist, because I just couldn’t wait—even though my query letter wasn’t perfect yet either–I queried a few agents.  No big deal, querying before you’re ready, except that you may be wasting an agent’s limited time, as well as wasting opportunities for yourself.  Those agents I queried before I was ready are agents that might be great for my book, but agents I can’t query again.  Nor can I get away with querying other agents in their agencies.  That’s considered bad form too.  But you live and learn, sometimes the same lesson a few times over before you get it.

The good news is that my beta readers liked Second Company a lot (some said Love!) AND were really great about giving me fine-tuning suggestions.  One more revision, another month of well-worth-it hard work.  (Another tightening of the query, too.)

Now my query letter is good; my book is the best it can be (I believe).  I have changed the title (on the advice of a well-published friend) as well as reordered my chapters, so it begins in the middle of the action, rather than with an emotionally introspective scene.  You can read my new, improved first chapter here.  So I am really ready.  I’m also strong enough to say, bring on the rejections, because they’re not personal, because everyone gets them, and all you really need is one solid, enthusiastic “Yes!”

Wish me luck.

I Like It. Now Add Suspense.

What will happen next?

What will happen next?

So, about two weeks before Hurricane Sandy and three weeks before our fire, I had a consultation with the brilliant Arielle Eckstut, agent, entrepreneur, and one half of the amazing husband-and-wife team known as The Book Doctors.  I’d first met Arielle and her husband David at one of their famous (in the literary world) Pitchapalooza workshops, held at Montclair’s beloved Watchung Booksellers, back in January.

I’d just come from the pitch slam at the Writers Digest Conference, where I’d successfully pitched my adult novel to five different agents. (To be clear: by “successfully,” I mean they had all asked for pages, not offered to rep me.) Anyway, I didn’t feel I needed to work on my pitch for that book, but wanted to try something new.   So, the night before the Pitchapalooza workshop, I wrote a brand new pitch–just for the fun of it–for a book I had not written yet: a YA ballet novel which would become Twice the Dazzle.  To make a long story short, David critiqued my pitch and then told me to let him know when the book was done. Nine months later, I emailed him with just that news. He read a few chapters and suggested I have a consultation with his wife, which is just what I did.

Arielle helped me tweak the pitch letter and fine-tune the list of agents to-be-queried.  Then, after reading several excerpts of my actual book, she gave me some great advice.  She loved my writing, she said; she liked the characters and the story too.  But …

“You play all your cards in the first hand.”

Meaning, via the dreaded info-dump trap, I had given away my characters’ back stories and motivation in the first chapter.  Suspense was the thing my book needed. Entice the reader along, Arielle encouraged me, trickle out clues as to why they might be this way and what happened before. Draw the readers in with the suggestion of what a glance, a touch, a turned back might mean later on.  Lead up to a big reveal. Make BIG MOMENTS your landmarks.

So, I got right to work. For example:

The first chapter (which used to be a prologue) involved the seventeen-year-old twins, Oliver and Olivia, simultaneously flashing back to a traumatic moment from their childhood, when their mother had abandoned them in a taxicab.  For some reason, I was convinced that I had to begin with this scene; it shed light on the twins’ own relationship as well as both twins’ relationships with each of their parents. You saw Mom’s mental illness, Dad’s brutal temper, as well as Oliver’s delight in wearing the tutu that chubby Olivia couldn’t squeeze into (foreshadowing both the gay theme and the weight struggle/body image theme). All in all, an exhausting two and a half pages (artfully handled or not).

What I needed to do, Arielle had explained, was take the story of the early trauma and hint at it, revealing it organically later on. She’d helped me figure out where and how to do this, and also–since I wasn’t going to start with the flashback any more–where I should start the book in the first place.

When the hurricane hit, I was about two thirds of the way into my revision. I barely took a break though.  As soon as we were staying with friends-with-power, I resumed the process. Then came the fire. Then the work screeched to a halt. Twice the Dazzle, about seven eighths of the way revised was dangling in the air. Until now.  I had a conversation with my husband last night, during which we agreed that, while the kids and the various home-reconfiguring issues need to be my priorities right now, as well as my therapy practice, I can’t put the book aside–not when I’m this close to the finish line.  Of course, I can’t quite do what I did before the fire, which was write the whole time my kids were in school. But I can still write, even if it’s an hour or two here and there. I can still finish this thing and be ready to query by, say, February.

I’m beginning today by putting the new, improved, post-Book Doctor Consult Chapters 1 (Olivia’s voice) and 2 (Oliver’s voice)  here on this blog for curious followers.  Comment if you like.  Know that I’m around here somewhere, trying to make it all work.

L

Blog vs. Book Part 2

Unlike some dedicated bloggers who announce their hiatuses (hiatae?) in advance, I just up and took one without planning to, without any word at all.  Though I thought I’d start blogging in earnest again as soon as I’d completed a draft of my novel, once I had that draft in hand (in my docs) my momentum picked up, rather than slowing.   A draft is only a draft, after all, and a completed, submission-ready novel is quite another thing and I wanted that other thing ASAP.  I became obsessed—remain obsessed (as I think you have to be to finish any book) with that goal of completion.  (I know: many novelists say you’re never really done; there are always possible revisions to make, but I’m talking about that stage when you can finally query an agent re: “my completed novel.” )

Once I’d finished what was really a second draft (meaning the first draft with all notes-to-self replaced by actual writing, a real ending and finally, finally, a title (more on that in a moment), that goal seemed imminently doable.  The next milestone—right before the point where you can revise with intent to query—was the “done-enough-to-give-to-beta-readers” point.  I can get there by the time my husband gets back from his business tripI can get there before my daughter leaves for sleep-away camp (and my son needs me to actually hang out with him).  I can get there by the time my mom gets home from Russia (she’ll be so proud of me and so surprised that she’s got a new book to read!).

It became a race against the ordinary events in my life, a race against myself, my stamina, the clock, sleep.  As a writing mom with kids home for the summer, work is all about brief periods of intense focus, then lots of big vats of pasta so my kids can have all their friends over and won’t miss me if I need to keep writing.  But when I’m done writing for the morning or the afternoon, my kids have me.   We make up dumb songs, tell each other stories, dance around the kitchen, swim, read to one another and, of course shop (which is sometimes fun with kids, other times not, but it’s important for kids to learn to take the good with the boring).  In other words, even when my writing takes center stage, kids are top priority.  For example, my daughter had a bad scare when she was convinced that a cookie crumb was lodged in her lung; believe me, I dropped everything to make her tea and hold her hand while she coughed tearfully away.  A blog, on the other hand … well, a blog is not your kid.

To be perfectly frank, this blog, the blogosphere in general, dropped completely off my list of priorities.  And, unlike past occasions, I didn’t feel a lick of guilt about it.  Partly that’s because I believe my fellow bloggers–those I follow and who follow me–would not only understand, but would be cheering me on as I’d cheer for them.  We’re a group of supportive women (mostly) and men (still a nice handful) who respect one another and know that each of us is an adult (mostly) and that we all have goals that may sometimes take up all our energy.   (Though it’s only been ten days since my last post,  it feels like much longer; I haven’t been reading, commenting or even going on She Writes.)

All that said, I’m returning to this blog after an unannounced hiatus, because it matters to me.  The blogs I follow matter to me.  I am curious to see how they’re all doing, what’s up with my fellow novel-writing bloggers, what’s happening in Australia, Lebanon, Alaska, Calgary and The Blue Ridges (for a few examples).  What people are thinking vis à vis gun control, post Aurora; about the Boy Scouts’ sad and curious choice of encouraging homophobia.  I’m eager to see how the new bloggers I know are doing and enjoying the colorful visuals of the photo-blogs I follow.  (Please check out my blogroll in the lower right hand corner!)

Please note that I have added a second Novel Excerpt page for anyone interested in checking out my new Y.A. baby:  Twice the Dazzle.  It took finishing the book to come up with a title I felt was right!

Thanks for your patience and all your support in the past.

Lisa

P.S. If you didn’t catch the original Blog vs. Book post from March 15th, you can read it here.

A Stench in the House … Someone Must be Writing.

The other day, I posted about my friend, Emmy Laybourne’s newly released YA novel, Monument 14.  So, what about my own YA novel in progress?  Rightly or not, I feel I owe my followers at least a tiny explanation.  Here’s what I meant to do after that “Ghost Blog” post, in which I explained the reason I was slacking off on my blogging was that I’d given myself a June 15th deadline for finishing a draft of my YA novel.  After making my deadline with flying colors (which I actually did, but more on the later) I was going to write a big victory post announcing the completion of the draft, the launching of the new revision phase and possibly throwing in some resolutions about how much more religiously I was going to blog, it being summer and all.

Well, here’s what happened instead.  I finished a draft on June 12th, a couple of days before my deadline, but rather than posting about it to celebrate, I dove right into the revision process without even coming up for air.  The reason being momentum, of which I had tons seeing as I’d been eating, sleeping and breathing the world of my twin protagonists, slamming through that last chapter, that final delicious moment when Olivia gets her dazzle on after 17 years of being outshone by her talented and dynamic twin brother Oliver.  I didn’t want to blog about it, talk about it, write about the process of writing it or do anything but just keep on writing—starting over at the beginning!  And let’s face it, is there anything more fun and exciting than combing through and tightening up a big 288 page mess that you made?

Writing a first draft can be scary.  Even though I used an outline and tried to stick to it, there were times when I got lost and self doubt consumed me.  What if I couldn’t finish?  What if the plot just didn’t work?   I admit it; there were lots of doubts and lots of periods of time where I’d finish a chapter and the thought of filling in the blankness ahead was so daunting,  I had to force myself to sit in the chair and write.  I did a lot of procrastinating, sometimes using the blogosphere itself as an escape.  I didn’t use a writing group because I find that getting feedback as I make up the story tends to hold me back.  I do better when I just write the whole thing, revise a few times and then test it out on people.  A first draft is for you, the writer.  It’s the progression through the whole story, with lots of notes-to-self (can this be told as a flash-back?  Do we even need the zany, mad-cap aunt?) woven in.  A second draft is the one you can start sharing with your writers’ group, or your mother or your husband or that one devoted friend who likes to read anything you seem to put on paper.  A second draft is the one where someone besides you can read the story and kind of get it; it’s the one before the third fourth and fifth drafts you might give to some beta readers—where it starts to count.

Nevertheless, a first draft is a huge milestone.  Before, you had an outline—better than a blank page, but still just a big map with no guarantee of arriving at your destination.  Now …

  • You know your outline works at least well enough to get      you from starting point A all the way home.
  • You have a beginning, middle and end and hopefully a      bunch of stuff to work with in between.
  • You no longer have just a story in your mind to invent, you have a book to tinker with: hundreds of pages of material      to tweak, sort, toss and turn into something potentially magical.
  • Best of all, since it’s for your eyes only so far, it’s      okay that it’s a mess … for now.

My friend who is a creative writing professor recommends leaving your first draft alone in a drawer for a few months while you work on other projects.  The idea is to come back to it with some distance and be able to clearly see what works, what doesn’t and what just needs to be deep sixed.  I think this is good advice.  However, I’ve got this momentum right now and I don’t want to waste it.  With this draft in hand, the fears, the tendency to procrastinate vanished and momentum was hard to break.  I still had about a week left before my kids’ summer vacation arrived to cut short my writing time, so instead of taking a breather from my book, I plowed on.

With the second draft, things happen more quickly.  If I have an hour, I can rewrite a whole chapter or a scene that doesn’t work, or write the sick aunt out of the book altogether.  If I have thirty minutes, I can pick a pretty OK section and make it pretty good.

On the downside, since I can’t wait to finish this draft and the going is pretty easy (for now), it’s really hard to stop and do other things.  Like laundry and dinner.  And getting immunization records for summer camp.  The other day, I’d been multitasking:  cooking dinner, folding laundry, helping my daughter pack for a camping trip, when I stole a “few” minutes to revise the chapter I was working that morning.  In retrospect I did smell something foul as I sat there, but for better or for worse, I was too focused to care what it was.

My son is much more independent than my daughter and therefore less likely to come up to my “writing room” when I’m working (when I’m up there, he can usually sneak in some precious unauthorized moments on the Wii).   I knew something was up when I heard his little feet padding up the stairs.

“Mommy,” he said, “I think there’s a stench in the house.  It’s starting to hurt the inside of my nose.”

A stench?  Indeed there was.  It was the wok full of broccoli and other assorted vegetables that I’d walked away from twenty minutes earlier and was now blackening away in a malodorous disaster.  (Yes my husband was home, as was my daughter, but their allergies often preclude stench detection.)

So this is where I’ve been, writing, revising, burning broccoli, letting wet laundry sit for a few days racing to get out a draft that someone can actually read.  I am in a big hurry to get to the end for reasons I’ll disclose in another post, but I must say, I am at last enjoying the process.  I think many followers are in the same boat with their own books, or somewhere in the vicinity.  Godspeed to you all.  Best of luck and keep me posted on your process!