Wednesday, May 27, 2015

De Niro, Angela's Ashes and Being an Artist

This past week, it suddenly got hot and humid here in southeastern Pennsylvania. Summer, with its languorous and lazy touch that slows life down whether you want it to or not, slipped in through the open bedroom window during the night.

I spent much of last week reading. I went to the library and found a copy of Angela's Ashes shelved on the discard table - in fact, it had been signed by Frank McCourt himself. It got me thinking - if a signed copy by a famous author could so casually be discarded  . . . .

Then I  heard Robert De Niro’s commencement address at Tisch, NYU's school for the arts. I watched the video and listened to his advice to the up-and-coming writers, directors, choreographers, actors, who graduated Tisch.

Tops on his list: A lot is out of your control. Do the best you can. If you don’t get the part, realize it isn’t personal. The director just had a vision, someone else in mind. Move on. Next!

Made me think of McCourt's signed memoir and the reader who said, Next!  . . . the reader who passes over my book, not because it isn't well written, but it's just not what they want to read.

De Niro added that every project he’s worked on has been a collaborative one. Perform your part with excellence.

And always remember . . . you're not an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor or a businessman. You're an artist . . . this  is about passion, not common sense. It's a calling.

Here’s the link to DeNiro’s 16-minute address at NYU.

For the last month I’ve been involved in promoting and launching my new novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor. People tell me it's my best work yet. In some measure I tend to agree, although each book has its own merits.

De Niro said it. So much is out of our control. Rejection - get used to it.

Sales have been slow, yes. I’ve sold $600 worth of books in the first month, which I consider slow.

I’m not sure why, but I do know that I have developed more patience; patience in setting up signings and talks – I did three talks and signings in six days and it left me exhausted . . . patience rooted in knowing I gave this creative project the best I could.

My advice for writers/authors about to get into this business of authoring:

  • First off, write a good book. If you do that, half the battle is over.

  • Write what moves you, not what the market "demands."  Realize that this can present its own set of “challenges” – A Portrait of Love and Honor does not fall into any one category; romance, literary fiction, memoir.
  • Reviews – If experience is any guide, they come in time. And people often tell you they’re going to write a review, but they don’t. Forget it. Move on. Next!
  • Blog tours – I had crossed this one off my list as too exhausting. Now I’m reconsidering. I need to find some way to connect with audiences. That said, blog tours offer little in the way of tangible stats in terms of whether or not they sell books. Love to hear your experiences with that.
  • Take risks. This week I contacted the cadet bookstore at USMA in hopes they might consider selling the book at West Point. The bookstore manager told me to send her a review copy. It’s a long shot, but one worth taking. 
  • When someone tells you they’ve read your book, encourage them to tell their friends and networks. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to sell anything, not just a book.
  • Realize that when you least expect it, a break might happen; an invitation to a signing, a new contact, a chance to promote your work in a new and visible way. Believe in the magic of your art.
  • As De Niro said, keep handing out those business cards . . . that resume. He does. 

And remember, we're all going to end up on that "discard table" some day.  So enjoy, do the best you can and then move on  . . . . Next!

Love to hear your thoughts about authoring, marketing and just putting things in perspective.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Launching A Book With A Little Help From My Friends

It’s hard to finish writing a book, close that chapter in your life, release it to the world and then wait. Authors can’t be sure of much – will or won't it sell? Will readers like it, find it, remember the story?

The important part of any launch . . . not how much money a book makes, but that it’s out there to be read. It's really not about giveaways, timing, pre-orders, promotions. It's about people.

With the launch of A Portrait of Love and Honor this past week, the memories I most cherish are the people . . . the men and the women who came out and supported me and the book in myriad ways  . . . taking time out of their busy lives to attend signings, talks, purchase the book, post reviews, share their own aspirations to write and publish.

This past weekend marked a special Armed Forces Day signing and celebration for a A Portrait of Love and Honor. I met a Vietnam veteran who shared his story . . .  his year there as a young soldier . . . his story tinged with both candor, sadness . . . and reluctance to go to war, but a casualty of the draft.

I  met a young man who served with Army ROTC at Camp Buckner, which is where Jay spent his “Whiter Shade of Pale” summer as a Yearling at West Point. Alex's journey as an avid reader of military fiction and nonfiction, as well as memoirs, led to conversations and a book he selected for me to read - a memoir by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

It is these experiences and encounters that make life special in a world - to quote Jay Scioli, the hero in my book - where honor is often lost or considered the naive aspiration of youth.


This has also been a week of firsts as an author:

My first Google Hangout entitled Breaking the "Rules" of Writing on Memoir Writer's Journey. Watch it here. What can I say? Although I worried too much about how my hair looked, the lighting in the room, and whether my dog, who gnawed a bone at my feet during the interview would be heard on the audio, it was both fun and educational.

I am so very appreciative to memoir author and friend Kathy Pooler for interviewing me about my books  . . . and for those writers who took the time to watch our Hangout and comment.

This week also marked my first PowerPoint presentation to go with my talk “Writing a Novel Based on a True Story.” I highly recommend this technique.  Everyone agreed that the photos of the Santa Catalinas in Tucson, the cadets at West Point, a farmhouse in Chester County, enhanced the  readings I selected from the book and helped bring the story "alive."

Another wonderful moment: A beautiful review from Renee Roberson at WOW! Women on Writing, who compared Jay’s story to a Pat Conroy novel. You can read Renee's review here.


Friends enhance and make a book launch a journey of the heart and soul. As Thomas Aquinas said: "There is nothing on this earth more prized than friendship."

Special thanks to Diane Yannick, who attended both my book signing at Chester County Bookstore and my talk at Chester County Library. And to friend and editor in dark shades, Edda Pitassi, who - while we may have disagreed at times on the direction and the vision for the novel - has been there throughout. I couldn't have done it without her.

Thanks also go to authors Maureen Barry and Boyd Lemon for their heartfelt reviews this week of A Portrait of Love and Honor. And to Betty Madden; friend and muse.

The journey goes on, goes forward and is ever gratifying.

How about you? Please share your own launch, or memories of those who touched you on this journey of authoring.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Single Mom's Journey Reflects Everyday Perils and Joys

The thought that someday I might be a single mother would never have occurred to the little girl growing up in a two-parent household in the middle of bucolic suburbia. My “reality" . . . the lens through which I viewed the “normal, well-adjusted” life . . . a mom, a dad, a big brother and a blond cocker spaniel.

My parents would remain married for 55 years; my marriage ended after 17 years.

“I don’t know how you do it!” women remarked at soccer games when they heard I was raising eleven and seven year-old boys alone.

Trying not to let my hackles rise, I coolly answered, “You‘d be able to do it too, if you had to."

I don't know if their comments were well-meaning as much as you might exclaim over a strange specimen in a museum; looking at it from different angles, trying to determine its manner of oddity. 

What I do know is that more than anything, I didn’t want their pity. I remained determined to appear strong - especially to my sons who no longer had a father – that precious influence, mentor and guide that only a father can be to his son. We had to get beyond that – I had to get beyond that. “Your father didn’t want to leave us," I told the boys over and over . . .

In recent Pew Research Polls, respondents were asked to rank a list of seven trends, such as interracial marriage and gay couples raising children, as being good, bad, or of no consequence to society. More respondents—nearly seven out of ten—ranked “single mothers” as being bad for society—more than any of the other choices.

The stigma of the single mother resides in the notion that we handicap our child’s growth and well-being simply because we are women who cannot cope without a husband. I feel it is a way for some to promote the virtues of marriage at the expense of the single mother, who whether by accident or design is lumped into one stereotypical group.

The most recent example of the "stigma" – a single mother in Baltimore is viewed on national television slapping and berating her 16-year-old son following riots protesting police brutality. If a dad had been seen doing this, it wouldn’t have caused a ripple, let alone gone viral or incited yet another national debate about the perils of single mothering  - stigmatizing and blaming us for everything from lack of education, inability to find work, "loose" ways with men, irresponsibility in not providing our children with a father.


The journey of the single mother - its perils and its joys - is a microcosm of life itself.

The boys at the arcade in Long Beach Island, NJ, winning, not one, but eight brightly colored stuffed animals.

Starting our own traditions: celebrating Christmas Eve day by taking in the new Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movie; boiled lobster with sides of spinach, rice, and drawn butter on New Year’s Eve.

Watching my sons master the art of cooking and whip up sophisticated dishes I had only read about in magazines.

Seeing them become black belts in the art of aikido.

Swimming together in a lake where my younger son’s eyes popped out as my girlfriend stepped out of the water with the bottom half of her bathing suit askew . .

Getting a call from the police.

Watching both of my sons walk away from the podium with a college degree in hand  . . . and doing it in four years.

I can never speak for Alex and Daniel as to what they went through without a dad. As a writer who has penned two memoirs, it's my belief that when it comes to memoir we can't get into another person's head.  What we can do is observe and offer the "truth" as we see it, know it, have lived it and how that truth reflects back on us.  

Looking back over the last two decades, here's my "truth" as a single mom.

It’s the toughest and the most rewarding job in the world.

Believe in yourself, celebrate your strength, your resilience. You're going to need it.

We owe it to our children to be the best possible parent we can. They didn’t ask to be born.

It takes just ONE charismatic adult to raise a child.

Don’t let society dictate to you what a family consists of and what it doesn’t. A family is any configuration of people who live together and love one another.

Discipline your children. If homework isn’t done, grades slip, or trouble with the law, use it as a teachable moment - actions have consequences. Privileges will be taken away, punishment of some nature must follow. Children actively seek a strong parent. They don't want a buddy.

Children are capable of supporting their moms (almost) as much as Mom is capable of supporting them. It's okay to lean on them once in a while.

It's okay to make a mistake in judgment now and then.

Always tell him you love him.


Now as I grow older, I have begun to look to my sons to take care of me – small ways, here and there, incrementally creeping up like old age itself – going to the bank where we notarize the power of attorney papers; carrying the heavy cast iron base of the umbrella stand from the shed to the deck; cutting down branches of dying trees in the backyard.

Yet I always remind myself that no matter how old a child, he is still my child and he still seeks a parent, an older, wiser person he can lean on  . . . and if he wants, a shoulder to cry on, a place called home where he can be as vulnerable as he likes. His parent – his mother –  me . . . is, and always will be here to give him that for as long as I can.

I would love to hear about your journey as a mom or dad. Please feel free to join the conversation.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Intentional Mindfulness And the Author/Entrepreneur

Intentional mindfulness seems to be one of those trending topics these days. So many people want to break the “urgency addiction” habit – get off the hamster wheel, live in the moment and awaken to experience.

Well, why not? You don’t have to be an indie author – you can be published by a small press or mainstream publisher - and still you know you can go a little crazy answering all those emails, responding to yet another blog post, feeling like you’d better get on the stick with that book trailer. (Looked into that - very expensive  . . . about $2,000 unless you do it on your own.)

How does intentional mindfulness apply to the author entrepreneur? You have to keep reminding yourself: You had a story to tell and you hoped it might resonate with your readers. Now focus on devising a strategy to achieve your goals, reach your target audience, without sacrificing your well-being.

Declutter your mind of all the dos and don’ts, the should haves and would haves, the comparisons with others. It gets you nowhere.

I hope that my work continues to garner interest and attention. I like having creative control – for example, my choice of an editor. What did I seek in an editor? I believe editors have to be true friends in that they work with you, but are not intent on changing your vision, or even most of your words.

Uppermost is a dedication to a creating a professional product, although I dislike using the word “product” when referring to a book. But it is that because you are asking the public to spend their hard earned money – not to mention time – on your book when there are a million other choices out there. So being an author/entrepreneur entails responsibilities and commitment to excellence. It means prioritizing without being caught up in busyness or urgency addiction that can waylay important goals and decision-making.

Strategies and hints:

Have a vision for your book. Think about the message you wish to convey to the reader; why should they read your memoir or your novel? Write a compelling blurb on the back of your book. Think about this . . . your synopsis serves as your marketing pitch time and time again in press releases, on social media, at talks and at signings.

Hire professionals to format your manuscript for the ebook market.

Don’t sign off on your book after just viewing the digital proof. Take a deep breath, sit back and relax, always have a physical proof mailed. Holding your book allows time to read through it and do a final copyedit – in the comfort of a sofa or chair.

Once you create your own imprint, as long as your book can be ordered by bookstores and on the Internet, my feeling is if libraries and colleges want to order, then they can do so through Amazon, Barnes and Noble or IndieBound. (That ends a lot of the ISBN angst.)
Pay the $25 for a Library of Congress control number. It doesn’t guarantee your book will go into the Library, but offers it a chance. Why not? What have you got to lose? 
Be aware that the Look Inside feature on Amazon now takes two to three business weeks to appear. Be patient. You have absolutely no control over Amazon’s timelines. Two years ago when we published Slants of Light it took two DAYS. The Look Inside feature is crucial. Why would someone buy your book if they can't browse it online?

My first shipment of books arrived – beautiful, but the background a rosy hue, not the creamy yellow background I selected and approved in my physical proof. I called and complained. One of my goals for A Portrait of Love and Honor and all my books has been to have a beautiful and unique cover to this book. Why settle for less? Savor your book’s beauty: its own “exquisite” style. My printer checked into it, they indeed discovered the error on their part in their printing plant and sent me another 50 books free-of-charge. 
Try to avoid mind racing . . . the proverbial  hamster wheel. Take a deep breath, meditate, walk a mile, grab a cup of coffee with a friend. 
In the end, it pays to practice perseverance and patience; to live in the moment of first holding the book; followed by the first reading, first signing. 
Practice intentional mindfulness . . . one step, one triumph, one goal, one reader at a time.

This post I wrote about the New Author Success Story still applies:

Comments? Thoughts? Love to hear how to enjoy your book and the marketing journey.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Welcome To West Point - A Portrait of Love and Honor

Since I had been old enough to read, I had a burning desire to enter West Point. I never toyed with the idea of any other career, except maybe for a passing flirtation with the priesthood when a priest in my church told me I had the “intelligence and seriousness” to serve God.

Hollywood movies made during and after World War II formed my perception of the Army. I thought West Point meant one’s background didn’t matter, rich or poor, white or black, Catholic or Protestant, WASP or Italian – all blended into one.

Didn’t every unit have an Italian, a Jew, a WASP, an Indian, a farm boy and a short-haired leader from West Point? This mythical assemblage always melded into a cohesive fighting unit with one mission in mind WIN FOR THE UNITED STATES, our country. Dying for one’s country meant the ultimate sacrifice and noblest of deaths.

To call me naïve was an understatement.

It took me two years and hundreds of letters, but I finally got an appointment from Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania. At eighteen years old, I believed West Point was my ticket to the new world, my chance at greatness.

My first impression of the post was the total lack of shading in any of the colors. Everything was bright, clear and stark, no subtlety; a brilliant blue sky, slate gray buildings and lime green grass. Off in the distance, the Hudson River reflected the hot yellow July sun. I kept trying to sneak a look at the buildings. I loved to study architecture. I always felt as a kid growing up in Philadelphia that you could tell a lot about the buildings and the people in them if you studied the facades. West Point, I later realized, had very straight and rigid angles with little or no artistic flair in any of its facades. I soon learned that the men of West Point were reflected in their buildings.

In a welcoming letter, they said bring two bags or suitcases – no reasons given. An odd order I thought, but my father said the Army had a reason for everything, so I didn’t question. I obeyed when told to empty the contents of my bags. The contents were marked and tagged.

The new cadets, dressed in gray gym shorts, white T-shirts, black socks and shoes, were led by an upperclass detail to the main area. The straight-backed white-hatted upperclassman wore white gloves.

“Drop those bags! Pick them up! Drop them! Pick them up! Drop them! Stand at attention!” Their commands reverberated off massive three-story stone gray unadorned buildings surrounding us on all four sides. The only entrances to this main area were through four passageways known as sally ports.

I wondered what I had gotten myself into; not that I felt regret or sorry for myself, just the realization that I had no control over my life anymore. It dawned on me why they had us empty our bags in the gym. My own luggage was being used as an instrument of torture. The upperclassman barking out orders taught me my first lesson in military discipline. Obey an order quickly and don’t ask questions. In combat there is no time for debate or for questions, just orders.

I also received my first language lesson that day. My three answers to any question were, “Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir.” This was the limit of vocal communication permitted with my new superiors. No room for head movement, feet shuffling, or heaven forbid, hand gestures. For a second generation Italian American, that was tantamount to cutting off my left testicle.

Later, I found out that the idea of the so-called Plebe or Fourth Class System was to break you down into nothing, to strip you of your dignity and your past achievements and to rebuild you in the image of the West Point cadet. Although I didn’t see it at the time, I was already starting to break down, and I would never again be able to make myself whole. ~ Jay's memoir, A Portrait of Love and Honor

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Love Scene From A Portrait of Love and Honor

“Shall we dance?” Jay smiled, holding out his hand.
She nodded and set her wine glass down.
They stood up. His hand cupped hers against his chest and they began swaying to the romantic music.  He leaned back and looked at her. “So where did you learn to dance?”
“Mrs. Hill’s Dance Academy. My parents made me attend ballroom dancing classes.”
“Ah . . . and what was that like?”
She laughed. “Well, after I mastered the box step, it was still pretty awful. Mrs. Hill, a very sophisticated matronly woman, made all the girls sit in chairs along the side of the dance floor. Then she would instruct the ‘young gentlemen’ to choose a partner. I remember sitting there in this stiff white organza dress my mother bought for me, wearing black patent leather flats, waiting for some boy to ask me to dance. It was dreadful because even then in the sixth grade you were so afraid you’d be a wallflower. How about you? Where did you learn to dance?”
“Ten years of an all-boys Catholic school which included etiquette and dance classes took care of that.”
They danced slowly to the seductive Latin rhythms of Jobim’s music.
“I’d like to hear how you became a writer.”
She smiled. “I was fourteen when I wrote my first short story. I couldn’t sew – I was terrible in home economics, couldn’t even sew a straight seam. I wasn’t athletic. There really wasn’t anything I was good at but writing. Like you wanting to be an officer in the Army, I never thought of being anything but a writer. I was a terrible romantic.”
He nodded. “Poetry, romance, it’s the stuff we live for.”
One solitary lamp lit the living room and the music beckoned one more dance. They swayed to the strains of yet another love song.
Ava jolted herself out of her reverie. “We should go,” she said, hoping she sounded brisk. “I have an early morning appointment.”
Jay pulled back. “Ok.”
She moved across the room to switch off the living room lamp. She turned and looked at him. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
He smiled. “Better grab a coat. It’s getting cold outside.”
  ~ A Portrait of Love and Honor

Monday, April 20, 2015

A New Home For Our Women's Writing Circle

Change isn't easy. But with endings come new beginnings. As our Women’s Writing Circle celebrates its 6th year, the popularity of our Circle continues to grow. So change is inevitable.

Whether memoir, fiction, poetry or personal essay – we honor women’s writing and voices. As we light the candle, our memories, imaginations and words illuminate the writer and the listener. We devote a morning to ourselves and shut out the distractions of the outside world.

Wellington Square Bookshop has been our home since the Circle's inception in November 2009. Its elegant, literary ambience is something I hoped to capture in my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square. But this is the situation . . . we've outgrown the time and space the bookstore can offer our group on a Saturday morning.

Like ripples in a pond, the word that the Circle is a safe and sacred space for women to share their voices through writing has quietly spread in our community.

Beginning with the May 9 read around, the Women’s Writing Circle gathers in its new home, the reading room in historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Glenmoore. 

St. Andrew's comfortably accommodates both a small and a large read around. Our time remains unchanged – 9 to 11:30 a.m. the second Saturday of the month.

The church also offers ample free parking and a convenient location at the corner of Routes 401 and 100 in Ludwig's Corner  . . . about two miles north on Route 100 from the bookstore and less than half a mile from the Henrietta Hankin Library.

As many of you who attend read around in the bookstore will attest, privacy is important. Aqua and tan deep-cushioned sofas, plush chairs and ottomans await in the quiet privacy of the reading room where I have spent many hours. 

We even have our own private entrance.

Many times I wondered how long our group could last . . . would women continue to attend read around? By my own informal count based on my email list, over 300 different women here, and, more recently, in Tucson, Arizona, have dipped a toe into the “magic” . . . the support, validation and camaraderie of our Circle.

Directly behind the church is the quaint Ludwig’s Corner Village Market, as well as the historic landmark eatery Ludwig’s Inn and Oyster Bar.  Pick up a croissant or fruit at the market and bring to read around  . . . enjoy lunch at the Inn afterwards. Let's support the local community.

I'll have coffee - regular and decaf - brewed in the church kitchen before read around.

For more information about read around

Directions to the church are here.

With gratitude for all you do to make the Circle a special place . . . Susan

Please leave your thoughts, comments and questions.