Forteenth through the Twenty-First

Ah, free-lance work. Feast or famine, caffeinated or non-caffeinated, never an even keel. It’s what I love and what I adore about being my own boss but it is annoying when my desk is clean, the phone is quiet and there’s no one to interview. Lately I’ve been pretty busy so my blog has felt the short end of typing–my goal to write every single day for 365 days has definitely fallen short.

Next week, mid-week most likely, this blog will resume it’s course of action. Even though I have missed writing every day, it has given me a chance to think about interesting topics, creative twists and more focus on the surveys that all of you have completed.

Until next week, my friends!

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Twelfth and Thirteenth

While writing for a local business today, it struck me that the life of a freelance writer is akin to a vagabond in search for continuous work. It’s a measure of tenacity, commitment and pure dumb luck. Where the feet fall, work shall follow.

I usually stumble on projects by accident but it isn’t always easy to find work. In fact, sometimes it’s incredibly hard, especially in the beginning when fresh out of college and no one knows that you’re brilliant and witty and full of more adjectives than a Thesaurus. C’mon, I have a degree to show for it, loans that will last into my child’s adulthood, and a lovely set of paper plates with the name of my alma mater in burgundy and gold.

When I first stepped into free-lance writing, I had great ambition with a whole lot of hot wind in my sail. I was forward bound and not even a nor-easterly would knock me down. But oh, I was definitely knocked down by the greatest minds of my fair city. Rejected on doorsteps of publishing companies, turned away empty-handed from advertising firms…I was this close to packing a knap-sack, tying it to a stick, and walking away.

But then something extraordinary happened.

I learned to write for free.

There is no shame in giving your talent when talent ought to be shared. Slowly, after several places agreed to take on my green-eared pen, I earned tiny sums of respect that were reverently placed in the vaults of compassionate memories. The wind slowly picked up again, gentle and prodding like an autumn breeze trying to dance with a single, independent, golden-specked maple leaf.

And then the gale began. Hired by an advertising firm, working on private projects on the side, author of a biography for a local family. My time had come and the free work had paid off.

I look at The Gardener in the same light. No one is paying me to write books. No one gives a damn if I write the alphabet a 100 times a day and call it good writing. Absolutely no one is looking over my shoulder to make sure I have a certain quota by the end of the quarter. I’m on my own and I write books for free.

But someday. Someday.

The wind will start out as a tiny swirl, barely noticeable, and as my dream turns into reality, I will find a storm worthy of all this time.

An artist has to believe, has to have passion, has to have a blind resolve that challenges everything sane in a paycheck world. And by doing so, an artist lives on bread and water but thrives on the very essence of being alive.

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Eleventh

Today’s survey of choice brings up an element that I consider essential for any good story: mystery.

What makes you turn the pages of a book? What makes you curious to find out what happens to the main character?

Excellent writing is good but a solid storyline with methodical sprinklings of mystery takes a story into an elevated class.

When I first planned The Gardener, I wrote a brief outline that spanned from the beginning to the end. With a bird’s eye view, I then broke down each chapter by having a single sentence that described the main point that would be explored. Once I had those main ideas in print, I added depth by inserting location names, conflicts of interest and detailed descriptions of each character.

Before I was able to create the detailed descriptions of each character, however, I compiled a list of 40 names. These names would later become every single character in the entire book. Next to each name I would gradually add the details that would create a well-rounded individual bursting with personality, unique physical traits and their position in the story itself.

It was like being a Greek god for a brief moment in time. I was free to shape, mold and perfect every single “living person” in the book. It was exhilarating and time-consuming. I still don’t know if I actually liked it.

On top of characterization, I carefully planned the mystery factor. A hint here, a hint there, something dark and foreboding around that corner, someone dies, another person lives, two people hauled away to isolation…I had to meticulously and scrupulously focus on the small hints in order to build up the inevitable end. It was a calculating method that I had never experienced.

Most of my writing is fairly whimsical and simple. When I write professionally for commercial businesses, I sketch an outline, set up interviews, study the business location…and I listen to people talk. What they say, I put into prose. I never go to great lengths like I did for The Gardener. I never plan everything in advance when tackling a commercial project. Many times I’ve ditched an original idea because the owner of a business gives me so much food for thought that speaking to her is inspiration enough.

So when a survey flutters into my view that applauds the essence of mystery and asks for more, I am terribly pleased. The footwork, the ground laying, all the tiles perfectly placed while I stand above with my hand on my chin, eyes narrowed, focusing in on any possible mistake…and to have someone take notice of the very thing that I spent more than just time on…it’s uplifting and breathtaking and utterly beautiful. It’s like someone who has been underwater for 3 ½ minutes and suddenly a tank of oxygen appears. They breathe in the clean air and realize, in stark clarity, that they’re not only going to survive the ordeal, they’re going to have one helluva story to tell.

Now I just need to figure out how to tell the story. For the moment, however, I’m breathing again.

Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Ninth and Tenth

Today a friend of mine came over with a pleasant surprise: a printed copy of my entire book with notes that she had written in the margins.

When we first greeted each other, I noticed a plastic bag in her hand and I figured she had brought her lunch with her or had a couple odds and ends in her bag for whatever reason someone has a plastic bag.

After light chatting and laughter, she said. “I have your book.”

“My what?”

“Your book. I have your book.”

I’m not used to hearing the word “book” in reference to my writing. I talk about how my “book” was rejected. How the “book” has lain dormant for a long time. But if someone says the words “your book“, I have to really think about what they’re saying.

So when she said that she had my book, my mind raced, wondering if I had asked her the day before to pick up a book for me or if she had had a book in her car that she wanted me to look at.

Just yesterday we had been hashing over details for a future publication and I *almost* wondered if she had compiled it in a single night. She’s definitely ambitious, hardworking and creative but the idea was so ludicrous that it ran away before I really paid attention to it.

I must have looked confused because she pulled a thick bundle of papers out of her plastic bag and said. “I printed off your book and made some notes.”

My heart erupted and I grinned like a fool. To go so long without any feedback and to suddenly have a friend take this journey seriously…it was enough to make me want to jump up and down, shout something inane and silly, and rush into her with a big hug and a sappy soliloquy.

Instead, I nonchalantly suggested we sit down (still grinning like an idiot) and go over her notes.

And what notes! There weren’t a lot but they were excellent and sincere, filled with the ideas of a reader who thinks ahead, who wonders while the words fly beneath her eyes and who completely understands the path the author chose to go.

While she mused about the ending and I searched for a particular clue in the middle of the book about Anna’s older brother in order to expand on a previous thought, it struck me that I had just been given an author’s dream afternoon. I had the undivided attention from an audience member who was not afraid to say, in person, “hey, this needs some amping up. And maybe this section could use a little less of this emotion or maybe just this particular word needs to be deleted…?”

Heaven. Absolute heaven.

Although I will never disclose the ending on this blog, or even the middle of the book, her suggestions about the ending were marvelous. In a moment of spontaneous courage, I also asked her about the beginning. “What if I did this?” and quickly expounded on details that had been running through my mind. “What do you think about that for a start? Would that draw you in?”

With a spark in her eyes, she said, “Yes. Definitely. But I think you should have a Psychologist begin the narration. Or maybe Anna’s older brother.” With her hands gesturing and her eyes serious, she continued to describe what was becoming, in my mind, the best introduction I could ever dream of.

Which makes me wonder…who is writing this book? Me? My friend? The responses from the surveys and my pondering about the results?

Which then makes me wonder how any book is ever written. I imagine that successful authors take their audience into account. They consider their target audience and find a niche that will attract the numbers. I doubt that these successful authors sit down with their audience to ask questions while in the midst of writing but I figure that since I don’t have an audience, I have to find a way to gather one together.

What better way to find the answers than to ask for help from my friends, family and complete strangers?

And what better afternoon could be had than one where a friend treats my dream as a reality, giving me the precious gift of time and unhurried creative conversation?

Thank you, dear friend, for your thoughtful and compelling ideas. You went above and beyond.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Eighth

The original format for The Gardener was journalistic. When I received a comment from a literary agent who said that the idea was marketable but not the format, I immediately sat down and rewrote the entire book. I resubmitted it to the same literary agent who, within three days, rejected it completely.

Before I started this project, I had no idea why he didn’t like the revision. I thought it was excellent. But there were three things I did not consider that all of you have pointed out to me through the surveys:

1. I did not have a setting to create the mood for the audience;

2. I used formal speech and writing that is not popular in today’s fiction;


The meat of the book, the very essence of what thrills me about the subject, is found somewhere after chapter 4.

I have to reconstruct those first four chapters. I have to.

This reminds me of knitting a wooly scarf while watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I have a lot of passion for both knitting and the trilogy but one with the other is complete destruction. After the 50th row of yarn and needles (approximately when Frodo Baggins approaches the innkeeper at The Prancing Pony as Mr. Underhill), I’ve dropped a stitch and somewhere between row 25 and 26, I also have one stitch less. The borders are sloppy, there’s a hole where the stitch was dropped, and I know, with all my knitting heart, that I have to undo the entire scarf in order to fix it. I also need to turn off the trilogy if I hope to have a completed scarf within a reasonable amount of time.

So what should I turn off in order to reconstruct the first four chapters?

Three things.

1. My inner nervousness to please the masses. I need to write, to write well, but while writing, not worry if it will be enough;

2. My coffee-pot. I’ve been known to burn an entire batch of coffee while immersed in writing. I’m not drinking coffee lately but my husband is and that means I have to be extra vigilant about such details;

and, 3. Switch off those old stories I admire that are long-winded and full of beautiful passages: The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, The Faerie Queen…so many stories that are colorful and descriptive and long past their expiration date.

I must express, in so many words, my delight and belief in the main character so that you will love her, fight for her, and clamor for more when the chapters draw to a close.

When I wrote The Gardener, I cheered for the innocent and loathed the wicked–it is my job to find that voice in the first four chapters.

By doing so, I just might find an audience.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Seventh

I love beer in the summertime.

I equate happy moments to that satisfying first sip on a hot summer’s evening. The air is muggy and still. Half of the crickets are too tired to chirp and the other half give it their best. There’s a peacefulness as friends crack open a beer and their voices rise and fall as the fuzzy sun of August fades to black.

I remember my first taste of beer at the sweet age of seventeen. I wasn’t a wild adolescent. I was pretty boring and fairly timid so when I cracked open that Old Milwaukee at my grandparent’s house when they weren’t home, I was sure I was going to hell. I took a fearful sip, swallowed quickly and was in the midst of another sip when the taste hit me. I immediately spewed it out into my grandma’s sink and dumped the rest out, throwing the can away without a second glance. I made myself a little dinner, turned on a movie and waited for my grandparents to come home from their Friday night fish fry.

I hate to admit this, I’m so liberal and free-thinking these days, but I didn’t have another beer until I was 22. Like I said, I was a pretty boring kid.

When beer and I met again, it was under different circumstances–music, summer air, and my best girlfriend, Kelsey, who happens to be my sister-in-law. Legends are born, heroes are revered but a best girlfriend is the universe tapping on the shoulder of an angel who chooses to take off their own wings, dismantle their halo, and give them, willingly, to a human being…who then walks into our lives, heals us, and changes us forever.

So how do beer, my sister-in-law and this first book that should be titled “rejected-so-many-times-this-blog-is-already-becoming-commonplace-with-the-overused-word-rejected“?

As an English major, I’ve been brainwashed to read into everything and while under collegiate hypnosis, I learned to apply this pseudo-philosophical approach to my entire life. It’s like when you have that one beer too many and you’re beyond brilliant in every conversation–if only people could understand you between the slurs. And then the next day, you try to grasp that brilliancy but it slips like desert sand between dry fingers. The best part is that this approach is a lifetime perspective. It’s like a hangover that never lets up.

Which brings me full circle to the paragraph preceding the last. The three elements, beer/sister-in-law/book…they all have something in common. All of them are bright positives in an otherwise ordinary life. Good beer is a symbol of summer. My sister-in-law is a symbol of good conversations and a lot of laughter. My book is a symbol of achievement, albeit rejected and overhauled by the masses, but it is a symbol, to me, of excellent achievement. All in all, these three elements have filled the cup of my life.

When I go through the surveys for my book, I’m reminded of this perspective (a.k.a. collegiate hypnosis) and as a whole, the people who have filled out the survey agree explicitly on one very important detail: why the hell is this book so formal?

Which makes me wonder why I chose to do that in the first place if it’s so unattractive. Was it attractive to me at one time? In the meantime, I also wonder about the people who are reading the excerpt. What is it about formal speech that turns them away? Why do they feel absolute disgust when they read it? Did I read too much of Chaucer and Conrad and Dickens? Did they somehow infiltrate what I figured was freedom of creativity?

When I go back and read my first book, I roll my eyes. Really? Did you really think this was any good?! I ask myself.

I suddenly long for a muggy summer evening with friends. I want to crack open a cold one, kick my feet out and cross my shins and wonder out loud, with all of you, what I should do, where to go, what to think. “How should I write this?” I ask you, as I sip the tiny bit of beer that collected on the lip rim before taking a deep swig.

The sun fizzes out and I feel myself surrounded by friendship, good advice, and the kind of open-ended conversation that leaves a person satisfied and yet eager, ever ready, and completely willing to see tomorrow’s face. No matter what that means.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Sixth

Many of the surveys that I’m receiving are outstanding with clear, concise and thoughtful criticisms. A couple of them, however…not so much. I like this contrast a lot. It shows a difference that is extremely black and white. I haven’t received any surveys that are only sort of interesting. They’re either very interesting or not at all. I’d like to think that this is how literature feels to people in general. You like this author or that author, or you don’t.

As an author, my book, according to the masses, is in the…“not like” category. I agree now that I’m seeing it with corrective lenses. I feel fortunate to have this feedback in so many forms and in so many different words. Both elements were severely lacking whenever I was rejected from agents and publishers.

Today, the survey that hit home was definitely the one that discussed the potential of not using the name “Gardener…a million times…it makes me uncomfortable.”

Oh Lordy, I love this comment! I love it so much that I’m going to print it and hang it on my wall to remind me that repetition, although lovely to me because I wrote it, is seriously distasteful and easily misused.

I’m enjoying the perspective of this audience. I’m enjoying the core-cutting and salvaging and the dirty details that make readers think.

I will change the number of times the word “Gardener” appears. I will certainly make sure that the setting is more colorful and more defined in order to set the scene. In the meantime, keep your comments flowing. You are a part of this project, every one of you, and you are making it happen. For that, I am incredibly grateful.

Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Fifth

I had a good laugh when I read the following survey comment in regard to the main character, Anna. “…she has the rebelliousness of a teenager and you feel like giving her a good slap straight off the mark for being so angsty. She’s already pushing the limits to see what she can get away with. Typical Adolescent.”

Exactly, kind reader. Exactly what I was aiming for. Can we not relate in one aspect or another?

I also liked the critique from this same person when they wrote that they would read my book but…

“I think I might struggle to get into it based on this excerpt. It seems a little stilted, like it knows where it wants to go and wants to say but its got a bit of stutter so the flow is not 100% there.”

Thank you, thank you, thank you! How enlightening to read that there’s the feeling that the book wants to point in a certain direction but it’s awkward.

I’m wearing my spectator-spectacles these days and I can clearly see where I’ve gone wrong with the beginning. It’s almost laughable. When I reread what I‘ve written, I find myself cringing. How could I have not seen the awkwardness? How could I have wondered, even for a second, what was wrong with it?

I have spent quite a few days laughing at myself since the onset of this project. I feel both foolish and comical–as if I should have known the real problem once I received that first agency rejection. It all comes down to complicating the story more than it needed to be complicated.

I have a grand scheme for Anna Ellins and by the end of the book, you understand the need for formality. But I expected readers to patiently sludge their way through the muddy outline of my medium in order to reach the climatic moment when it all comes together.

If a writer doesn’t have a stellar beginning, it’s creative suicide to expect an audience to stick it out. This is an audience who is busy not only with their professional life but with walking the dog, drinking a cup of coffee before the bus arrives, quickly scanning the paper during a five minute break at work…and all the things that fill their lives until they’re brimming and brewing at mach speed and they barely have time to enjoy leisure reading…much less the works of a writer who is unable to write an attractive, coherent beginning.

So I return to my keyboard, bound and determined to find, and rewrite, *the* beginning.

Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Fourth

When you envision a struggling artist, what do you see?

I usually picture Einstein pulling at his moustache and banging his head against a table. Is it strange that I use Einstein as an example for a struggling artist? I believe that artists and scientists are similar in that they’re trying to prove something or bring something into the physical world that wasn’t defined in so many words, formulas or illustrations.

I have no doubt that Einstein felt frustration. Just look at his theory of relativity. How long did it take him to find the words to express his calculations? Did he struggle with simplifying his ideas?

On this same note, how long did it take Picasso to create L’Atelier a Cannes? Or when Leo Tolstoy was struck by the idea for War and Peace, did he rack his brain and pull his hair out of frustration? Go days without eating or drinking or bathing?

This is the image I have of struggling artists: magnificent minds reaching for the proper medium in order to articulate their study…and millions of hours sacrificing their social life, their hygiene, and their health in order to finish the project.

I am nowhere near Einstein’s genius. Neither am I Picasso nor will I ever aspire to be anywhere near Tolstoy’s importance.

But I am a struggling artist. I sink into a project and emerge hungry, thirsty, eyes blinking stupidly, and my brain mushy and cold like yesterday’s oatmeal. I often wonder why I keep trying when my books have been rejected.

Then a jewel of a survey crosses my computer screen and I tell myself “this is why.” A recent survey confessed that even though the excerpt was hard to read, after a fourth perusal, the reader felt completely fascinated by the subject and would love to read more of the book.

At first I was overjoyed. I pumped my fist in the air and shouted. “I have a reader! That’s one!!”

But then I sat back and really read the survey.

They had to read the excerpt four times.

How many people would go into Barnes and Noble and read the beginning of a book four times before they decided to buy the book?

I was instantly humbled. I would never buy a book if the introduction didn’t interest me. At the same time, I am deeply touched by this person who loyally read the excerpt more than once just to understand the theme…which means I have a lot of rewriting to do, a lot of hair pulling and perhaps, just perhaps, the beginning of an audience.

As Einstein has been quoted many times: “There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, and the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I wonder which way this budding audience leans?

In the face of this project, every survey is a miracle because I didn’t think anyone would participate. But here I am, here you are, and what a miracle that we’re meeting every day because of an artistic idea.

Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 11:42 am  Leave a Comment  

The Third

Inspiration comes in many forms: an evening around a bonfire drinking wine with friends can inspire me to write a story about a horrific fire that consumes a house.

Don’t ask me why a casual, lovely evening with friends would bring this to mind. For some reason, with the pine trees bending in the wind and the bonfire flickering in the calm evening, I suddenly think about who I would have to haul out of my house. I’d sip my wine and wonder if I could get to the fire extinguisher in time. The fire extinguisher sits next to our fridge and depending on where I am when the flames start to roar, it could be difficult.

After the evening with friends, morning will come and I’ll sit down and write a story about a house that goes up in flames. The main female character will be unable to get everyone out of the house and it haunts her. She becomes a fire-fighter in an effort to repent of the third glass of wine that kept her from being completely coherent.

This entire story ends up in the garbage because it’s a piece of crap.

The Gardener wasn’t like that at all. It began as a daydream and I remember hesitantly telling my husband about it. I felt awkward because the story felt weird, strange, communistic, and unlike anything I had ever thought or imagined. It made me uncomfortable.

I related the dark details to him and the more I talked, the less he did. By the end of my 30-minute explanation, his eyes were bright and his forehead was furrowed. It only furrows when he’s thinking or analyzing so this is a good thing. After a moment of silence he said, “You need to write this book.”

So, I did.

I wrote it feverishly and lovingly, sometimes waking in the middle of the night and wondering what Anna was thinking or doing. I had to remind myself that being that close to a character was license for insanity.

When I finished the book, I toasted the computer screen and felt instantly alone. Anna had suddenly vanished and she became nothing more than letters and numbers and sheets of paper.

I wonder if actors feel this way when they finish a movie? Artists when they complete a still life? Holmes when he solves a crime and reaches for his trusted cocaine to ease the absence of a challenge?

While reading a recent survey, it hit me that even though an inspiration can leave a writer exhilarated and wide awake at night, the outpouring of words can lose the essence of what was intended.

A thoughtful survey pointed out that the “formal titles of Mother and Father were a little cold.”

I had intended to portray a rigid family structure but it hadn’t crossed my mind that it would feel cold. Who wants to read a story that feels cold? And yet, I fear that I will lose the fabric of the story if I change this one feature. Should I decrease the amount of times I mention the names of the parents? It’s tempting. While writing this story, I felt that it was repetitive to write “Mother this” and “Father that”. Through all of my college lessons, I had been told to show the story, not tell it. I had hoped to show that the family relationship was formal and unnatural.

I feel that this is a worthy challenge–something to tinker with and draw from–because I have to stretch my abilities to show this story, perhaps without the chilling titles that could create reader discomfort and lose a reader’s interest before the third page.

If I rewrite the excerpt, do I have an audience to critique that as well?

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment