Monday, May 21, 2018

Authors Respect Each Other: Traditional or Self-Published

Despite the soaring popularity of self-publishing, it seems some authors still see this as something to disparage.

At a recent writer’s meeting, the question was asked: Why do some agents still want query letters and manuscript samples sent snail mail? One writer answered it was “to weed out” all the self-published writers. I have no clue how he came to this conclusion or the evidence to support it. And while there may be truth that agents are overloaded, the fact that at least one or two authors in the group had gone the self-publishing route made the comment feel to me a bit snobbish.

I self-published because I liked the creative control, didn’t have to wait years to be published and felt I had written something worthy of a reader’s attention. I'll be researching publishing options for the August workshop I'll be teaching in our Women's Writing Circle on traditional vs. independent publishing.

My hope: Authors of any stripe who work hard to create good books should be respected.

The writer's meeting then devolved into how to write query letters ... often amounting to a marketing hustle that saps authors of energy and questions the merit of their work. A lengthy and exhausting process, the query can leave writers deflated even after the query is rewritten. I’ve heard this story repeated many times over the last ten years since I self-published Again in a Heartbeat.

The one time I pitched an agent at a writer’s conference, she looked at me and said that she thought I was going the correct route by self-publishing and tying that in with the Women’s Writing Circle. I thanked her because it validated what I hoped to accomplish, that writing is a creative expression open to all.

And what about marketing your work? Even if you are traditionally published, it still falls heavily on the author, difficult for anyone, even myself, a seasoned journalist.

In this 2016 article in Forbes Magazine Nick Morgan, writes:

For fiction writers, the answer is increasingly pretty simple: Self-publishing is the way to go. That’s because you can keep 70 or 80% of your book sales revenue, as compared to 20% under the traditional model. Simple decision, right? Here goes: All books, fiction or non-, need to be marketed heavily in order to stand out in a field of something like a million books published every year in the United States alone. While many authors assume that getting a traditional publisher means that publisher will take care of the marketing chores, the truth is that a traditional publisher will only put real marketing muscle behind the one or two books per year that it truly believes has a shot at becoming a bestseller. If a publisher brings out a hundred books per year, it’s expecting that one of those will outsell the other 99 – combined.
Nonfiction may be another matter. If you are publishing a book related to your business, then it might make sense to seek a traditional publisher, giving the book more professional cache in that niche, perhaps.

Why a big name publisher would publish an unknown author’s memoir is questionable. It gets back to why I created my own imprint, Writing Circle Press.

The snobbery inherent in espousing that writers must go through gatekeepers and other hoops relating to “apprenticeship” remains prevalent even after the explosive changes in publishing I’ve witnessed over the last decade.

I’m not one to worry who has published a book. As illustrated in the top photograph, both traditionally and independently published work has earned my readership. The proof, as they say, is in the written word. If a book is good, it is good. I do wish libraries would buy more copies of independent work, for example, especially of local authors and that book clubs would take advantage.

In the end, I just wish that as authors and writers we could respect all authors. Is that too much to ask?

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Draws and Drawbacks of Finding a Writing Partner

At Saturday's read around, a woman mentioned the importance of a writing buddy. Her sister was her writing partner. I’ve never had a writing partner ... unless you consider my Dell computers, past and present. The  ‘e’ and ‘r’ and ‘s’ and ‘t’ keys were pounded until they faded to black ... after finishing a novel, two memoirs, several short stories and hundreds of blog posts.

Or maybe Lily and Lucy, the house dogs, the Labs I've loved over the years, are writing buddies. As I typed away, they faithfully remained at my side, or my feet, on snowy winter mornings and sunny summer days

I wonder: Can a writing partner check our "procrastinator" at the door, provide that spark of validation that keeps us going? Would we be friends?  Sisters can explore shared experiences and their lives. But what if we don't have a sister? And why would I need a writing partner? Writing, after all, is a solitary pursuit.

Coincidentally, right after Saturday's read around, a writer phoned me. He also happens to be a former pastor. He wanted to know what I was working on. I've known him for years so I gave him a brief outline of the new novel. A little surprise call that ended up being quite useful.

“Ava is where she needs to be, where she wants to be," he said of my novel's main character. "Jay has never left her side.”

It’s not how beautifully we write, it’s saying or writing what’s important, I think. He opened me up to ideas: Like death is never final and absence is powerful. Absence serves as reminder of the arm, once flung across the bed, no longer. 


I remember when I was in high school and my best friend, Paula, lived across the street. We decided  to write a book together; historical fiction romance a bodice ripper. She would write a chapter and I would write a chapter.

We worked on it all summer and then when we spread all those pages on my parents’ dining room table, figuring how to organize it into a coherent story became too much. And then Paula went away to college. No Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman were we. I remember thinking how hard collaborating on a novel with another person, even my best friend, turned out to be.

A writing group is another matter. It eases the isolation of writing. You have built-in writing buddies, several of them all at once, like we do in the Women’s Writing Circle, offering feedback and critique, on occasion. I like that, listening to the others and their take on life. They offer up new approaches to a topic that begins with: “My mother only had two basic rules.”  Some of the writers parsed it in a way I never would; interviewing friends and family about their rules or memories of those rules; or remembering a moment from childhood where the rules were oft spoken and repeated like a mantra, then incorporated into the writing, giving it a rhythm.

This is the unique voice, the magic of the creative at work.

I guess if you don't have a writing group — or even if you do — a writing buddy can encourage you to keep writing, offer validation. Go for it, as long as it does not become toxic or derail your work. For me, the hard work of writing, the discipline writing requires day in and day out ... and finding Lily next to me, is enough although I stay open to the little surprises along the way .... Oh, and, of course, the Women's Writing Circle.

How about you? Have you had, or do you have, a writing partner? Thoughts and experiences welcome.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Motherhood: Reflections on a 'Contract' In Perpetuity

After years of swearing I had no interest in becoming a mother, I got pregnant at the age of thirty-three. I guess I heard the biological clock ticking, drowning out years of declaring that I would travel, write the Great American Novel and never, ever, be tied down to changing diapers. Then, one day, I turned to my husband. “I want to have a baby. Is that alright with you?”

We had been married five years ... five years of luxuriating in lazy Sunday mornings after making love and working The New York Times crossword in bed ... five years of traveling to Yosemite and the seaside cliffs of Big Sur ... five years of dawdling over candlelight dinners. But, I suppose five years wasn’t that long when you consider that we met and married within a year of meeting.

“So, do you want to have a baby?”

John looked at me. “I’m happy just being with you, but if you want a baby, sure, let’s do it.”

And, just like that, I became a mother. Not once, but twice over the next four years, the first time the same age my mother was when she had me. Talk about a milestone. It beat turning twenty-one and becoming “legal” … it beat walking down the aisle and saying “in sickness and in health” … it beat turning sixty and trying to convince myself it’s the new “middle age.”

Motherhood, a friend said to me yesterday, is “a contract in perpetuity.” There’s no getting out of it or around it. It doesn’t end one day when your son or daughter turns eighteen and walks out the front door to attend college. It doesn’t end when they turn twenty-two and start careers. It doesn’t end when they bring home crises and you feel useless, knowing this is a journey they need to travel on their own.

Which brings me to my own mother. There was much about HER contract with motherhood that took me years to appreciate. Although she rarely offered advice and when she did it was "try marriage at least once" and "shave your legs on your wedding night" ... she packed school lunches day in and day out for me and my brother. She planted zinnias and cooked a mean rhubarb stew. She drank cocktails as she saw her possibilities dwindle — this after working as a baby sitter, and then as clerk in the local gift shop, and, finally, at the John Wanamaker store. In her 50s and without a college degree and no work experience (other than housewife and mother), this was all she could get … the price she paid to fulfill her "contract."

Those lessons — her lessons — served me well as I focused on reading and educating myself as a way to escape a similar fate.

Yet, what mother hasn’t put her ambitions on hold? What mother hasn’t had to leave the office early to pick up a child from soccer practice, attend a parent-teacher conference, rush home in order to make that school play? Being a single mother made it that much harder. It’s not something I regret — it is what it is. I was never going to be that star reporter at The Washington Post or write the Great American Novel — motherhood meant time to grow up.

Travel — I exceeded my wildest expectations. Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, England, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, Nepal and Morocco .... Who would have imagined that when I first held those squirming little bodies, powdered those bottoms and changed those diapers, my sons — and I — would travel the world together?

This job is not for the faint of heart.
Motherhood is about teaching trust, integrity, loyalty and faithfulness and trying your best to model that behavior. It's about discipline, teaching them that actions have consequences and taking away privileges. The lessons we teach should require a doctorate in philosophy and psychology. As mothers, we do the best we can — learning and teaching life skills, wrapped up in the wisdom of the ages, by the proverbial seat of our pants.

Writing the Great American Novel or the Great American Memoir could hardly have been as challenging or rewarding as this. Now when I introduce myself to people, I talk about my writing, but I also talk about the bigger part of my life. My sons. So what if I sound just like a million other proud moms? The fact is, this is who I am. A mom who holds close to her heart that "contract in perpetuity" she made so long ago.

Top Photo: Serious little girl with her mom, Gertrude

What are some of your reflections and memories about your mom or being a mom this Mother's Day?

Monday, April 30, 2018

Reflections From a Connecticut Writing Retreat

How does a writing retreat renew and inspire? Maybe just getting out of the comfort zone. I don't mean sleeping in a strange bed or driving four and a half hours. Maybe it’s being alert to learning, to staying open to new writers and their way of viewing the world which might be different than yours.

The downside to a writing retreat — you are forced to sit and write spontaneously. Some people don’t do their best work creatively that way. The retreat demands time commitment to the craft. Retreats offer raw writing from prompts. Write this ....

But no one is asking you to write a polished piece for publication, or at least they shouldn’t and critique was not our focus. This wasn’t a competition as to whose work is “better” than another’s’ so confidence boosting isn’t the reason to go on retreat.

I drove to the retreat from Chester County, Pennsylvania to Chester, Connecticut, another place whose namesake derives from that county town in northwest England. As I parked along the winding Main Street, our writing teacher, June Gould, pulled up in her car, and waved.

"Let me show you the town," she said. We walked past a pottery shop, and a brew pub. We entered a boutique June liked. A colorful top caught my eye. “That’s you, Susan,” June said when I modeled it. Elegant, artsy, chic. A good way to start this retreat. That and lunch at the River Tavern with seven other women who shared their excitement and pleasure at being on retreat.


“A labyrinth,” (Wikipedia notes), is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world.”

We spent three and a half days at the Guest House, immersed in poetry —"The Berlin Wall Tune” by Joseph Brodsky …"The Asians Dying” by W.S. Merwin — as jumpstart to writing about injustice, racial discrimination and discrimination against immigrants; the horror of the Holocaust; disease and untimely death. It wasn’t what I expected, but, then again, I didn’t know what to expect. I like June and valued her expertise in facilitating creative writing workshops which I have taken with her before through IWWG.

The Guest House is a restored 18th century farmhouse and barn; flowered wallpaper, private bedrooms and lobby replete with grand piano, gorgeous floral arrangements and original artwork offer picture-perfect ambience. Woodsy trails winding past creeks brimming with skunk cabbage and leading to a labyrinth serve as meditative and mindful outdoor resting spots.

No matter our experiences, our social or political proclivities or backgrounds, we all have stories to write. How and what we chose to tell matters and each voice is unique.

I write on retreat: There’s the fear of becoming useless …. There’s the fear of losing the writing; the fear of the black tunnel of writer’s block. But then, I think, maybe it’s just me taking a break, and soon I’ll be back, tapping away at that keyboard.

With June Gould

June titled the retreat, “The Stamina of Language.” The strength, the endurance of the written word. Language defines us." Language sums up who we are, our place of origin, our “social status.” Why has English been deemed “superior” to Spanish?

Our group of writers talk about code-breaking poetry ... a line of Spanish here and there to express the plight of Chicanos in the distinctive voice of the Hispanic poet. We learn about confrontational poetry that is insistent and unrelenting in its message of injustice. No apologies. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.

Stay alert to learning. Stay open to voices different from your own. Read your work aloud in community. Luxuriate in the joy of moving out of your comfort zone. 

I write on my Connecticut retreat: There is a place where the artist goes, built on pain and sadness. Pages torn from the past lead to the present, to this day, this place, somewhere on the dividing line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Can you share a writing retreat and your experience? Comments and thoughts most welcomed.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Pitfalls, Detours and Lessons Along the Writer's Way

Real and true stories bring us together in community. That’s the excitement, the fear and the challenge of writing.  

Last week I wrote a story which several readers thanked me for, saying they related to it on a deep level. There is no greater compliment for a writer. Unfortunately, the story did not sit well with someone I loved. So, I took the story down, asked the publisher to remove it from their website. A lesson learned.

Writing under a pseudonym or writing fiction is perhaps the better way to go if we love, value and honor the most important relationships in our lives. Each writer must decide this for herself. My situation was a sobering reminder of the risks inherent in writing and last week I put my writing on hold … took time to reflect. In the final analysis, I wrote that story to help others, but it ended up turning into an emotional minefield.

When I started the Women’s Writing Circle nine years ago, I hoped that one or two women would find in writing a place to share her story… to pursue her creative voice and vision, not just in service to herself, but to others. It’s a rocky road, filled with detours and danger and I was extremely na├»ve when I began this little endeavor! Since then, dozens and dozens of women have gained something from the Circle, they tell me. Now, I realize there is nothing “little” about this undertaking of offering a writing community, which must be built on trust and non-judgment. It must honor the fragility and vulnerability the writer brings to the "sacred container."

Understanding who you are, what you can and cannot write, what you will and will not write, is essential to offering an invitation to your readers to enter your world—and theirs.
As I advise my editing clients, your story must be authentic. It can’t be a disguise. How you do this, the genre you select, comes with time and experience and a gut feeling of what feels right for you.

This morning I felt a rekindling of motivation to write. It’s a way of life now, like breathing in the spring air or appreciating the beauty of a tree in full bloom. Tomorrow I leave for a writing retreat in Chester, Connecticut. The retreat is led by June Gould, a sensitive and generous facilitator; a teacher who cultivates writing as a vehicle to learning about ourselves and the craft. A small group of us will gather and share the connections brought forth through telling our stories.

This brings me to another reason I write, despite the unsuspected pitfalls and detours. There is an opportunity to connect and publish our stories in real and viral time. This week I received an email from Story Circle Network, reminding contributors to help get the word out about its anthology, a collection published on the group’s twentieth anniversary.

Story Circle Network’s anthology, Inside and Out: Women’s Truth, Women’s Stories is chock full of voices and stories, reflections and takes on a woman’s life.

As Story Circle Network founder, Susan Wittig Albert writes: "I rejoice in this collection, for they are the real, true stories of real women who write about the ordinary events of their ordinary lives.”

My story “The Wedding Dance” is part of this anthology. It begins: Our wedding reception was held at an old Victorian-style mansion with wrought-iron gates along Philadelphia’s Main Line. Many of you might recognize it as an excerpt from Again in a Heartbeat, which I wrote ten years ago.

What I also love about Inside and Out its cover. A partially opened door is featured, serving as invitation to enter … curl up and delve into those “ordinary lives.”

In the final analysis, only the writer can decide for herself how wide she wants to open that door ...  for herself  ... and, ultimately, her readers.

What pitfalls, detours and lessons has your writing journey entailed? Thoughts and comments welcomed.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Criticism and Confidence Along the Writer's Way

This past weekend I attended a story swap held at a small bookshop in Philadelphia. Few were in attendance as these things usually go, but swap stories we did.

I told a story about two single, older women talking over dinner. One woman kept her late husband’s ashes in a container in her office, hoarding them as a way to get even with his family who wanted them buried in the family plot. They had never shown her respect when he was alive, so why should she let them have the ashes? The other woman in the story listened, shared her own story of a mother-in-law who had never respected her and then the two women began talking about forgiveness and moving on.

I'm a writer who values the importance of feedback. "What did you think of my story?" I asked the small group.

A retired librarian, probably in her late 70s, said the story held little interest for her. “The subject of women living alone,” she said, “is of no use to me.” When I asked what sort of stories she did like, she said, "mostly, historical fiction."

The sole man in our group had little to offer in the way of feedback about my story, which translated into either a lack of interest or else an eagerness to get on with his own story about piloting a small plane for an animal rescue group and a seal spewing water on the cockpit. I found it interesting in itself, although the storytelling rambled and seemed to go nowhere in the end. We’ve all read those books where the story might have had potential but the writer lacks the skill to keep us turning the pages.

Another woman joined us late and shared her “fear of flying” story about a young stewardess on several unnerving flights, including one horrifying experience where seagulls flew into the engines over Long Island Sound and the plane almost went down. She spared no details and had a strong voice in the telling.

She had missed my story but when she heard what it was about, she immediately began telling stories of single women; women she knew in their fifties and sixties who prefer to stay in unhappy marriages, rather than striking out on their own. As for herself, she married late. “When people live as long as they do now, monogamy in marriage hardly seems feasible,” she added. She went on to say that she knew a woman who was sixty-two, alone after thirty years of marriage, who had been trying Internet dating for over a year. “She’s so discouraged she’s ready to give it up. She said it reminded her of endless job interviews. There are a lot of women alone out there.”

As Ray Bradbury once said, “Your intuition knows what to write so get out of the way.” The former flight stewardess offered reinforcement that writing about a topic I'll call "the woman alone" had relevance, even if not a story of Mary Queen of Scots. I left those stories behind in my teens. But one person's cup of tea is not another's.

I have never known a writer worth her salt who didn’t live in fear that what she wrote was simply no good. And there’s a whole lot of people out there who will tell you what you write is great so that they can get your publishing dollars. That aside …artists have always questioned the authenticity of their work and feared that it is merely a forgery of another writer’s genius. As Sylvia Plath once said, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

I think of May Sarton and Virginia Woolf.
I will never achieve those heights, yet feel as if they are mentors in the wings. I hear them whispering that they too suffered insecurity and lack of confidence. They received harsh criticism in their day. Sarton lamented for years being shut out of literary circles for memoirs about solitude and writing, which, unbelievably, were not considered of value. Woolf was heavily criticized by the male literary establishment for being too wealthy and too hysterical to be taken seriously.

Confidence, however, is one of those words glibly thrown out, as in, “Confidence is all it takes!” If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be whole books on the subject of how writers can cultivate and maintain self-confidence; or how to stay inspired. Inspiration is, of course, key to confidence in this solitary business we call writing. If you’re not inspired by your own story, how can you expect a reader to be? 

This weekend I'll be facilitating our Women's Writing Circle critique. A writing group breaks the isolation of writing and, hopefully, provides feedback of worth and value.

One final note: Accept criticism graciously. Rejection comes with the territory.

How about you? Can you share a story or technique that has helped you overcome self-doubt or do you let the criticism of others derail your work?

Monday, March 26, 2018

When Family Says, "Don't Write My Story"

A woman who knows me and has read my memoirs said: “I was moving from my house to my husband’s house and the box containing all my writing was thrown out. I even had ‘writing’ written on top of the carton and still it ended up in the trash,” she wailed. "These were my journals about my grandchildren which I planned someday to publish. I’m sick."

How many of us have lost our work through some terrible mishap? It happened to me and the feeling is indeed sickening. Could she reconstruct some of the stories and write them with a new eye, so to speak, I asked? Then, she added that when she read aloud one of the stories in her grandson’s elementary school class a few years back, her grandson ran into the bathroom and hid. “I don’t like that story at all. It’s a bad story,” her grandson said.

When I wrote memoir I had the joy of sharing my story of love and loss and moving on beyond grief. Yet just last week when I mentioned to my sons that many of their experiences as young men in the work and dating world offered material for new stories, they were appalled. “Don’t you dare. And, if anyone is going to write them, it should be me. They’re my stories,” my son said. He wasn’t kidding.

How do we decide if it's not worth writing family stories?

Although I would write the story differently than my son ─ Anais Nin comes to mind ─ “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” ─ it gives a writer pause. This is where fiction comes in ... after the memoir journey has been exhausted to the limits of what a writer feels she can give both personally and professionally.

We all know we draw from the stuff of life. To again quote Nin: “My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”

I saw a meme on the Internet this week: "We are told to write what we know. Write what obsesses you," it said. There is no shortage of people, places and events to write, but the pull of certain stories that can "obsess" the writer is undeniable.

It is a natural reaction not to want the privacy of your life shared in a public way. And I have written about breaking family myths, rising above the stereotypical and portraying real people in memoir, not black and white caricatures. I had it fairly easy when I wrote my memoirs. John and my parents were gone. The pull of fiction, the leeway it offers the writer to let loose and not be defeated by possible retribution or angst of family and friends is why writers have always transformed memories and life events into children's stories, YA novels, women's fiction.

I believe that woman when she told me she was saving those stories of her grandchildren as legacy pieces, family history to be published. Her intentions were honorable. But somehow, someway, they ended up lost to a trash bin.

Has family taken away or encouraged you to write? Comments and thoughts are welcome.