Tag Archives: writing

Scheduling Rejection

I’m a writer and right now I have a book manuscript floating around the Internet, looking for an agent. Which means, of course, that I’m collecting a lot of rejection slips (emails, really).

A lot of books and articles and blog posts purport to teach you how to deal with rejection, usually by telling you about famous authors whose novels were rejected any number of times before they were accepted. This doesn’t cheer me up or comfort me any, as all I can say is, “Well, I have way more rejections than J.D. Salinger ever did.” It’s a competition I don’t care to win.

Instead, I have decided to schedule my rejections, so that they come in a little more slowly and I can handle them, psychologically. To me, at least, getting a few rejections at a time is better than getting hundreds all at once. That would truly drive me into depression and immobility.

Actually, no one gets hundreds of rejections. Most agents have a policy of “no response means no.” This means that many of my query letters, writing samples, and submissions are lost in limbo – not a yes, not a no, just nothing. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church has given up on Limbo as a Thing. That doesn’t make my metaphor any less appropriate. But I digress.)

So, here’s my schedule: Every day I send out queries – but only three. That’s just the basics, though. Every time a get a rejection email, I cross that agency off my master list of queries sent, and I send an extra query that day. And add it to the master list, of course. The master list also contains the date the query was sent and the name of the specific agent it was addressed to, as well as the agency.

When I say “cross that agency off,” I mean it literally – I don’t delete it from the list. (Strikethrough is a function I use often in Word.) The info remains encoded in ones and in zeros. It’s just that I can’t remember the names of all the places I’ve queried. So whenever I find another potential agent, I use “Find” to see if I have sent to them, been rejected by them, or whatever. (I know there are apps like Query Tracker and just any old database that would do this for me, but I stubbornly stick to my low-tech version.)

I also use the list to keep track of any additional notes: “Closed to queries until March 1st.  Try again then.” Or “Re-query in eight weeks.” (That one’s a rarity.)

I must admit that I am running low on agents to query. I don’t think I’ve contacted every available agent in the US, but I’m having a hard time finding lists of agents who are willing to consider mysteries or lists that contain a number of agents to whom I haven’t already submitted.

I have received one semi-positive response – one agent wanted to see a copy of the whole manuscript. And another rejection email – one that I considered a good one – said that I could try them again when I had another project. Although if they didn’t want the first one, I don’t know why they’d want the sequel, which is what I’m now writing.

Maybe I should take on a different project altogether. I don’t really love the genres, but maybe a cozy mystery (if only I could think up a suitable career for the “detective” to have and a, well, cozy setting). Or a romance, though I wouldn’t be able to use my own experience to base it on. I haven’t had a “meet cute” since I met my husband, mumblemumble years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a folk festival.

Actually, what I’m working on is a sequel to the mystery novel I’ve been sending around. My theory is that publishing companies like series more than they like stand-alone novels. Or maybe I should resurrect my early attempt at a mystery novel in which I killed off my rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life. If that doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll kill him off again in the sequel.

 

 

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

How the Pandemic Changed My Life

The pandemic has changed lots of peoples’ lives. They’ve taken up new hobbies, learned new skills, and bonded more closely with family and friends. They’ve learned what things mean the most to them and what they miss the most. Some have lived in fear and others have found new strength.

Post-Pandemic

As for me, since the pandemic struck last spring, I have been working from home, on my Macintosh. Because of that I can – and do – spend most days as well as nights in my pajamas. I have not had my hair or nails done since March.

I no longer go out, except for vital appointments like visits to doctors. I have a mask (actually I have two – one leopard print and one camo) and I wear one or the other religiously whenever I do go out. In general, when I do go out or want to look even semi-respectable, I pull my hair back into the fortunate ‘do known as a messy bun – my favorite of all the recent fashion styles.

My husband takes care of most of the errands, such as grocery shopping. He’s not able to work from home, so most days are very quiet, allowing me to do my work and my writing.

Speaking of writing, I have had time to work on my mystery novel. It’s now in shape to where I can send queries to agents and start collecting rejection slips. (I’ve done this before and am used to them.) I haven’t taken up any other hobbies. I have resisted the allure of homemade bread and jam and homemade Christmas decorations as well.

I don’t really have pandemic panic. First of all, I have a third-degree black belt in social distancing. I have no aesthetic, medical, or political objection to masks. And I’ve mastered the art of creative procrastination.

My philosophy has for a long time been not to worry about things I can’t do anything about, and to postpone worrying until the looming whatever-it-is actually hits. So far the pandemic has not invaded our house (not to put a kinnehara on it). Since I have been taking all necessary precautions, I won’t worry about it until it does.

That said, I can’t really say that I miss my life before the pandemic. You see, it has changed almost not at all.

Pre-Pandemic

I’ve worked from home for a number of years, so that’s no challenge for me. And I can just sit down at my computer and work on my novel as I always have. My typical uniform has always been pajamas, or a nightshirt when the weather is pleasant. I never had much of a social life anyway, mostly conducted by phone and computer. For “formal” Zoom meetings, I could half-dress, which is still true.

I not only haven’t had my hair and nails done since March, I haven’t had them done in years. (Unless you count clipping my nails, which I do regularly, or biting them, which I do occasionally.) 

Also, pre-pandemic, it was rare for me to leave the house, except for doctor’s appointments. And when I did this before the pandemic, I didn’t wear a mask, of course, not even for Halloween or when robbing banks. (I wonder how bank personnel feel about having masked people coming into the branches that are open. It must be at least a little unnerving. But I digress.)

My husband has always done the grocery and most other shopping, as he works in a big box store that has a grocery section. He has worked third shift for years, so it’s always been quiet, both during the morning when he sleeps and at night when he works.

I still have all the things that are important to me – my husband, my home, my work, my novel, my cats, enough food, and my medications (which can be picked up at a drive-through). The pandemic so far has taken none of them away. There is almost nothing I miss.

Except going out for lunch. We’ve done take-out, but it’s just not the same. At home, the cats bug us shamelessly for little nibbles of whatever we’re having. Even if they don’t like the food, they can’t resist sticking their little noses in. At least in proper restaurants, there are no intrusive noses.

 

Meeting With a Publisher

The other week, I met with a local editor/publisher, David Braughler of Braughler Books, to pick his brains about the publishing industry and how I could find someone to take on my recently self-published books. (It’s a long story. See https://wp.me/p4e9wS-118.) This was suggested to me by a friend from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which I attended a few years back. Actually, I had met Mr. Braughler at that workshop, too, but only spent ten minutes talking to him.

So, here’s what I learned about meeting with a publisher.

First, it’s necessary to dither (at least for me, it is). I wanted to make a good impression, so I had to overplan every aspect of the situation. Where was the Starbucks we were supposed to meet at? What should I order? Would I even know how to order from their arcane menu, this being my first time at any Starbucks? Honey Citrus Mint Tea? Short Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate with 2% Milk? And OMG, what should I wear?

The next thing I discovered was that I needed to be prepared (yes, I was a Girl Scout). I rounded up copies of my two books. I got a small notebook to record any suggestions and placed it in my purse. I acquired a small thumb drive and loaded my work in progress on it, just in case. (I was going to ask for advice about that, too.)

And I followed the publishing company on Facebook and checked out the company online – how long they’d been in business, how many books they’d published, testimonials from satisfied authors, etc. Best to be able to ask a few intelligent questions or make knowledgeable remarks.

Then I started the conversation. What I most wanted to know about was promotion and marketing. I made a list of all the things I had done to promote my first book and ideas I had for the second book. Mr. Braughler validated the things I had done for the first book (a reading/signing, postings on Facebook) and some additional ones I had done or planned for the second book (an ad on Jenny Lawson’s blog page, since our audiences overlap) and an email to an author I know whose WIP is in the same genre as mine. (I never got a chance to give my WIP to Mr. Braughler, but I did give him copies of my two published books.)

I paid attention and made notes. I wrote down the info about the local authors’ day. I made notes on how to convert Word files to Mobi or to convert Kindle to Mobi (the software is free at Amazon) in case I wanted to take advantage of Amazon’s services in order to resurrect my first book, which was going out of print. I asked about Kirkus Reviews and received a suggestion about getting free reviews in writers’ or subject matter newsletters. He told me about a local library that has monthly author days and a local university that has a free workshop.

I followed up. I called the library and booked a date to participate in the local author day (assuming the libraries will be open again in May), and noted their suggestion that I get signage and a credit card reader for the occasion. I wrote to the author about my WIP and received a nice email back. I went ahead with the Jenny Lawson ad and am still debating the Kirkus  Review and an IngramSpark ad. I connected with alumni newsletters from my alma mater.

I evaluated what I learned. Mr. Braughler told me I was doing many of the right things when it came to promoting my books. I discarded the idea about producing a Kindle edition because of all the software hassle and went with IngramSpark to get my second book published and my first back in circulation. I learned that I should keep doing what I had been doing, only more of it.

I am grateful to Mr. Braughler for taking the time to talk to a local author and found the 30-minute conversation very informative and helpful. If in the future I need the services of a hybrid publisher, I shall certainly go to him. In the meantime, I will do my best to put into practice his wise suggestions and hope they will help my books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, go viral.

Don’t Mention It

Headline writers – love ’em or hate ’em. Sometimes they write hilarious headlines (though usually unintentionally) like “Murder victims seldom talk to police.” Those are the ones that make me laugh.

Then there are the ones that piss me off – the ones where the headline writer (usually not the same person that wrote the story) feels compelled to tell the world a woman’s reproductive status as if it were vital to the story. You know the ones I mean:

Grandmother locks intruder in basement

Mother of three wins science prize

Mom of the Year saved from serial killer

In each of these cases, the news is that someone foiled an intruder, won a prize, or escaped a terrible fate. If you must say it was a woman, which may or may not be relevant to the story, at least leave out whether she has managed to reproduce.

“Grandmother” headlines usually indicate that an older woman accomplished something. What do they put if she’s not a grandmother? That’s right, they focus on her age. “75-year-old woman locks intruder in basement.” I say, pick one. Either “75-year-old locks intruder in basement” or “Woman locks intruder in basement.” That’s enough information to make me want to read the story.

Or use a sex-neutral term: “Professor won science prize.” “Kettering resident locks intruder in basement.” “Intended victim saved from serial killer.” And think about it. You never see a headline that says “Father of three runs for city council.”  Deep down, the writers know that reproductive status is irrelevant to the story – as long as it’s a man who’s done something worth mentioning.

I also despise what is known as “inspiration porn” – those stories that tell how some brave boy invites a disabled girl to the prom. There’s always a photo so we can see that she uses a wheelchair, or has Down’s Syndrome, or something. We all applaud the boy for being so courageous and understanding.

These stories, while they may be meant to demonstrate that a person with a disability can still “live a normal life,” actually stress that it is rare enough an event for it to be news. The boy is the hero of the story, with the girl merely a prop for his altruistic nature. He’s seen as doing good by asking an “otherwise-undateable” partner to the dance. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to be singled out in the news as either one of the couple.

Then there was Chopped, which I watched the other night. One of the guest judges had a prosthetic hand, a hook sort of arrangement. I was so pleased to see that no one even mentioned it, as it was not relevant to whether the man had a discerning palate.

Eventually, it was mentioned – by the man himself – during a discussion of harvesting stinging nettles. (He said that when foraging for them, he “used the hook.”) At that point, one of the other judges asked about it, respectfully, “if you don’t mind sharing,” and the guest judge told how he lost his lower arm to electrocution and should have died. I give all the Chopped team credit for carrying on as usual. Until and unless the man brought up the subject himself, I doubted that anyone would have said a word.

True, judge Chris Santos might have refrained from asking about the disability even then, but at least he had a legitimate opening. And once asked, the gentleman couldn’t easily back out of acknowledging his difference and answering the question on TV. But it was handled with a modicum of sense and sensibility.

It’s also worth mentioning that Guy Fieri often introduces contestants on his Food Network game show as a “father of twin girls” or “dad to five children” as often as he refers to mothers and their kids. American Ninja Warriors also announces the reproductive status of its participants, usually in heartwarming featurettes about Dad training with his kids.

I know “grandmother” stories are thought to be more interesting. I know that prom stories make people feel warm and fuzzy. I know that. But they also reduce people to stereotypes – a mom, a person with a disability. Maybe someday these aspects will not be deemed newsworthy, but until then such stories (or at least headlines) will continue to be written.

 

 

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Adventures in Publishing (Indie and Self)

I wanted to publish a book. And so I did. The second book was more difficult, and not because it was harder to write. I had some things to learn about the realities of publishing.

Oh, I did go through the usual rounds of submissions and rejections with my first book. It was too specialized. I didn’t have a big enough platform. It was a niche market. I didn’t want to self-publish, turned my nose up at it, in fact, but after a while, I started to think it was my only choice.

Then I found a small indie publisher (or they found me). They published just the kind of stories I had to tell – books about trauma, loss, renewal, and especially about mental disorders. And my book was about my struggles with bipolar disorder. Within two weeks after I submitted it, they accepted my manuscript.

There followed the usual rounds of back-and-forth. I’m an editor myself, so my book was in pretty good shape, but their editor made some excellent suggestions and tried to tame my idiosyncratic use of commas. I worked with a designer on the cover. He took my ideas and put them into visible form. After only a few tweaks, it was done.

There were still proofs to be approved, formatting decisions to discuss, a dedication page I had forgotten to add, a photo shoot for my author photo, copy for the back cover, a press release, and the myriad other things that had to be supplied, written, proofed, and approved. At last, less than six months after my manuscript was accepted, my book took final form and was published, in both paperback and ebook versions.

I was over the moon, needless to say. I looked for opportunities to promote my book, Bipolar Me. There weren’t that many and, as you may have guessed, the publisher was not a lot of help in that area. I did scare up an hour-long interview on a podcast (where it was clear the interviewer had not read the book), an interview (with picture) in the local newspaper and online edition, and a reading/signing at my local Barnes & Noble. (Very few attendees, but some interest from other people sitting in the café, which is where the event was held.) I sold very few copies.

The indie publisher also accepted my second book, Bipolar Us, a sequel to the first. Things didn’t run on the same rails as the first time. It was nearly a year until the manuscript was edited and formatted, the cover image produced, and all those other steps I just mentioned. It was frustrating to move so slowly when it had gone so smoothly before.

Then.

Just when my book was on the point of completion, ready to go to print, the publishing company folded. My first book would be available for only a few more weeks, and my second book would not see the light of day.

It was time for me to reconsider my notions of self-publishing. It seemed to be the only way I could get this almost-finished book over the finished line, as it were. Since then, I have been dealing with IngramSparks, providing them with the materials that the indie company had released to me (I still own the rights).

This week I approved the final paperback version for printing. (The ebook will come later, once I get my epub file.) And I fully intend to rerelease my first book as well.

I’m going to try to be smarter about publicizing and promoting my book this time. I’m going to make sure it gets reviewed and gets into the hands of influencers in the field. I’m going to take out a few strategic ads. I’m going to contact the local libraries and the local college bookstores to see if they will stock my book.

And in the meantime, I’ll be working on my next book, one in a totally different genre, that has been on hold while I wrestled with these two.

Writing Is Art, Too

You know all those posts you see this time of year about how important it is to support artists and local artisans?

I have no quarrel with that. Artists and artisans need and deserve our support. Most of them contribute to the local economy and many are barely squeaking by.

But let’s also give some love and support to the writers. Writing, after all, is an art, too.

Let’s take painting as an example of an art. How, you ask, is writing like painting?

First of all, writing, like painting, takes practice, at least if you want to get better at it. Painters create works that they know they can never – don’t even want to – sell, especially when they are just starting. One thing they can do with these beginning pieces, though, is analyze them. What could I have done better? That section of the painting is muddy? What could I do to adjust the colors next time? That hand doesn’t look realistic. I need to work on painting people’s hands. I can’t just hide them in every painting.

Painters are often influenced by famous painters whose works they admire. They study these paintings. Some even try to paint in the same style or using the same color palette or the same type of subject matter. They may experiment with cubism, pointillism, art nouveau, impressionism, photorealism, or all of the above. They may imitate the style of Monet, Hopper, Cassatt, or O’Keefe. They’re not being copycats or attempted art forgers. They are acknowledging the greats and learning from those who came before them.

Writers, too, must study and practice, if they are to improve, and especially if they want to produce work that is saleable. Most writers have favorite authors and analyze what it is about those authors they admire. Does one a novelist write elegant description? Does a mystery writer use tight plots and exciting dialogue? Does a short story writer pack a wallop in a small space? These are qualities that can be learned and practiced. One writer of my acquaintance pores through her favorite authors’ works and highlights dialogue tags, for example, or sensory descriptions, or foreshadowing.

The next step for many writers is also to imitate the greats. A mystery writer may try to emulate Sue Grafton. An aspiring fantasy writer may study George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien. A neophyte poet may be drawn to confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton or to sonneteers like Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When it comes to supporting local artists, you can often find their work at local art festivals and craft fairs. Some conventions, such as science fiction conventions have art rooms with paintings and drawings for sale or auction and general merchandise rooms that feature handmade jewelry, glass blowing, and other arts and crafts.

But where do you find the work of local writers? It’s not like anyone’s selling poems door-to-door. Well, just as there are local art fairs, there are also local or regional book fairs, where writers rent tables and try to entice passersby with their works. Frequently, when you buy directly from the author at one of these events, most of the money is likely to go to the author and not to a far-off publishing company.

Readings at bookstores and even libraries are other places to meet local or regional authors and get a sense of their work before you purchase. If you like the writer’s books, but are unable to purchase one, call your local libraries and ask them to stock that title. An author is thrilled to make a sale to a public library and by encouraging that, you are helping that writer.

There are other things you can do to support writers as well. Leaving a review on Amazon – even a two word “Liked it” – is import to writers. Amazon really cares about the number of reviews a book gets. Goodreads is another excellent place to write reviews.

Most of all, show love for your local authors by talking about them. Word-of-mouth sales are still important, even in this digital age. It’s the same with local painters and other artists. The more you spread the word about how good they are, the more you are helping talented community members make a living so they can keep doing what they do best – making art.

The Naked Audience

I had a public speaking engagement coming up. In fact, my publisher had arranged to have me do a reading/signing of my first book, Bipolar Me, at the local Barnes & Noble.

I do suffer from anxiety but, perhaps surprisingly, this did not have me paralyzed with fear. For one thing, I had supportive friends. Although the most common advice given to people who do public speaking is to picture the audience naked, a friend of mine offered to picture me naked instead if I thought it would help. And my husband offered to stand in the back of the room and shout, “Show us your tits!” if I started to freeze up. Such helpful friends I have!

Perhaps the reason that public speaking doesn’t terrify me is that I studied speech and debate in high school. Once you’ve been in an extemporaneous speaking contest and drawn the topic “If a chicken had lips, could it whistle?” there’s little that can daunt you in the future. (For those interested, I said, no, it could not.)

I also have some experience teaching college and business school English. Sometimes this endeavor was fraught with peril. Once I was teaching a lesson based on a reading about AIDS and one of the students informed me she had heard that it started in Africa with people “messing with monkeys.” I told the class that I denied that was what happened.

One student piped up, “People do screw sheep, you know.” (He did not say “screw.”) I knew this was meant to disconcert me. “Mr. Chadwick,” I replied, “can you please tell us what disease you can get from screwing sheep?” (I did not say “screw” either.) He did a perfect spit-take, the only one I have ever caused or indeed seen in real life.

(I referred to my students as Mr., Ms., or any other courtesy title they were entitled to, on the theory that if they were required to call me Ms. Coburn, I should extend the same dignity to them. But I digress.)

I had even done public speaking at business functions. Once I had to address a group at a power breakfast meeting, introducing a new magazine that the publishing company I worked for was launching. I even opened with a joke. (“I thought that since we’re launching a new magazine, I should open with a toast. My husband said, ‘A toast? At breakfast?’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘how about cinnamon raisin toast?'”) There were gratifying chuckles.

Another time, I was asked to give a humorous talk at the retirement dinner of my boss. (Again, my husband was prepared to stand in the back and heckle.) I borrowed a technique I had seen used at a business conference and created an imaginary slide show. I used one of those little clicker gizmos that nuns used to carry in Catholic schools to “advance” the slides and then described whatever scene I wanted to set up a punchline. (“Here’s a picture of Carl dressed as The Big Bad Wolf for Halloween. The next day he called in sick with distemper.”) Afterward, they gave me $100, so I suppose now I can call myself a professional stand-up comic.

My Barnes & Noble talk, though, didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Only two of my friends showed up (plus my husband). Luckily the event was held in the bookstore’s cafe and I managed to suck in a few patrons, especially during the question and answer session. I had to skip my introduction, as the audience already knew me, and cut my joke, too. (“What is bipolar disorder like? It’s like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.”)

Anyway, I counted the appearance as a success. I read a few short pieces from my book, which I had cleverly printed out in large type beforehand so I wouldn’t squint. I signed a book for one of my friends and a bunch for the store so they could put “Signed by the Author” stickers on them. One member of my accidental audience asked for my autograph and a few words of wisdom, though she didn’t buy a book.

And the store said they’d be glad to have me back when my second book, Bipolar Us, comes out later this year. No joke.

Projects: The Back Burner

Even regarding a life-long passion, I think a person can be too devoted to something. Note I said “something,” not “someone.” I’m not here to deny that kind of passion. In fact, I rather enjoy it. I just think that, sometimes, being too devoted can get in the way of accomplishing anything.

Take projects, for example. I know many a crafter or artist who has a back room filled with fabric, yarn, beads, canvas, clay, or patterns, but nothing at all in a state of completion. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When the muse refuses to cooperate, it helps to have a backup plan. There’s always a different pillow to stuff, doll to repair, painting to start, song to write, or sweater to knit.

I’ve had my share of unfinished needlepoint, counted-cross stitch, and latchhook projects, but they fell to the wayside as my eyesight has worsened.

I still have partial writing projects, though, simmering on the back burner.

I have recently had my first book published, but I’m here to tell you it’s far from the first one I wrote. I had more or less abandoned it and gone on to other projects when exactly the right publisher appeared, hungry for exactly the manuscript I had in the back of my drawer.

The fact that it was in the back of my proverbial drawer (actually a folder on my computer) may have meant that I had despaired of placing the manuscript, but not that I was done writing. All through my life, I’ve had several writing projects going, in various stages of completion. When one stalled, I would work on another.

I once wrote a murder mystery, a thinly disguised version of killing off my Rotten Ex-Boyfriend Who Almost Ruined My Life. I figured if that didn’t make me feel better, I could kill him off again in the sequel. But aside from a few positive comments on my “voice” and some great advice from Sue Grafton at a writers’ workshop, it went nowhere except to the back burner. And has stayed there ever since. Will I ever turn up the heat on it? I wouldn’t rule it out.

I tried again, with a nonfiction book this time about cartoon character Lisa Simpson. I ignored the fact that Fox would have a thing or two to say about a book based around one of their copyrighted characters. This time when I submitted a proposal to agents, I got back the one thing I never expected: not an acceptance, but a really great rejection letter. It was obvious from it that the person had done a thorough reading of my manuscript and thought about exactly why it wouldn’t fly.  Then she told me, in detail.

I abandoned that project (no back burner for that one, just lessons learned) and moved on to blogging. I had been blogging weekly for several years when it occurred to me that I had enough material for a book. A friend suggested that I give it a try. So off went proposals for Bipolar Me. Dozens of proposals, for several years. No dice. Eventually, I gave up. Back it went, on the burner or in the drawer, until an indie publisher swooped in and resurrected it. Now it’s available on Amazon, Nook, and Apple.

I haven’t completely given up the idea of fiction. I’ve got a new mystery that’s pretty close to being finished – if only I could figure out what needs to happen in that one pivotal chapter that still hasn’t come together. Right now, it’s on the back burner, waiting for a burst of creative fire to get me going on it again.

I’ve also got a number of humorous essays from this blog that I’m eager to turn into something. That’s what I’m working on now while I wait for the mystery to come together. And if neither one of them shows any forward motion, I’ve always got these blogs to write. I may never run out of manuscripts, circulating out in the world, stagnant on my hard drive, or on the back burner, just waiting to bubble.

At least they only clutter up my hard drive and not my whole study.