Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Covers, Backsides and Body Parts

In the book world, you can easily spot novels designed to attract women by the body parts and backsides on their covers.
Don't believe me? Go to Amazon and browse the postage stamp images for anything that falls into the category of women's contemporary fiction, and you'll see what I mean.
Here are a few examples of covers graced with body parts, all featuring legs: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, Falling Home by Karen White, and Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer.
Even more popular for novels destined to be pitched to women's book clubs (the Great Last Hope of the publishing world) is the human backside. The humans are generally women—always slender, usually blonde, typically with their hair in disarray and in a style that shows off a slender neck. They might also be back views of children, usually in motion, and often with flowers around them or held in their sticky little hands. Contemporary examples of what I call BBC's (Backside Book Covers) include Julie Buxbaum's After You, Elin Hilderbrand's Silver Girl, Juliette Fay's Shelter Me, Wendy Wax's Ten Beach Road, and Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark.
I suppose that, in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that my own first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, also shows the back view of a little girl running through an orchard of flowering trees. When my editor at Broadway Books first showed the design to me, I was appalled—this design was for the paperback, and I'd become enamored of the hardcover, which showed gerbils peering out of a pair of rubber boots. What did a little girl running through an orchard have to do with gerbils? Who was that child, and what the heck was she wearing?
Anyway, that was in 2010, and now I've been through another cover design process, this time for my novel, Sleeping Tigers (due out in December 2011). God help me, I have a body part on the cover.
Let me explain. When the designers sent me a form asking for my ideas, I wrote up a little synopsis of the novel: Jordan O'Malley has everything she ever wanted: a job she loves, a beautiful home, and a dependable boyfriend. When her life unravels after a breast cancer scare, Jordan decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, Cam, who harbors secrets of his own.
When Cam suddenly flees the country, Jordan follows, determined to bring him home. Her journey takes her to the farthest reaches of majestic Nepal, where she encounters tests—and truths—about love and family that she never could have imagined.
Funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful, Sleeping Tigers reminds us all that sometimes it's better to follow your heart instead of a plan.
For cover images, I suggested that the designer look for something representing the title—the “sleeping tiger” within is breast cancer, as my main character, Jordan, sees it, because it can awaken and sharpen its claws at any moment. (Yes, it does sound like an obvious, hit-your-thumb-with-a-hammer image when I sum it up this way, but I'm trying to write a blog post.)
The other images I suggested to the designer were anything that represented Nepal, because I had traveled to Nepal and loved that country so much that I had set a good part of my novel there. I wanted this to be a sort of fictional little sister to the massively successful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (which, by the way, has neither backsides nor body parts on the original cover).
The result: two completely different cover images. One showed a very literal (if reversed) image representing the title, with a woman sleeping and a faint drawing of a tiger in the background. The other was a gorgeous shot of a Nepali temple with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Neither worked. The sleeping woman was intriguing, but looked very Jersey Shore, with her mass of teased blonde hair, pouting lips, and obviously fake eyelashes. That cover might have worked for, say, a paranormal thriller about a woman who morphs into a tiger when she's ticked off, especially when men do her wrong. The other cover, while beautiful, and while certainly in Nepal, was more like the cover of a travel book—maybe one of those Lonely Planet guides, telling you where to buy a coffee for thirty cents in Kathmandu.
What to do? I went back and forth with the designer several times, looked at countless photographs online, and checked out other book covers. It dawned on me, as I made my study over a couple of weeks, that the reason you so rarely see an actual face on a book cover is because then it's harder to imagine the story in a way that lets it surround you completely.
If you don't have a face on a book cover, then you're left with household objects, typically set against a blue background (check out Deep Down True, by Juliette Fay, and Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos), or backsides and body parts that give you the emotional feel of the book—happy, sad, searching, longing, scary, or whatever.
That realization gave me a new idea for the book cover. I asked the designer if she could try just one more thing: show me Nepali images with women in them. She promptly sent me several more possibilities. All of them had Nepalese temples (she must have read Eat, Pray, Love, too), but these included women in the photographs. Most didn't work. The women in the photographs were almost always too young (my character is in her thirties), or too touristy (taking pictures of the temples or standing in line to go into them).
There was one image, however, that I loved: an ancient Nepalese prayer wheel in gorgeous colors, with a woman's hand tentatively reaching out to turn it. But did I really want to contribute yet another book cover with body parts to the genre?
The more I looked at that picture, the more I loved it. The image captured the book completely. There was hope and longing in the touch of those fingertips on the prayer wheel, and the colors were exotic enough to suggest a woman on an adventure.
The woman turning that prayer wheel on the cover of Sleeping Tigers isn't just traveling. She is on an emotional and spiritual journey, like my main character—and like all of us who read because we love being transported to other worlds and other lives. It was perfect.
Yes, my new book cover has a body part. But at least it's a hand and an arm—no legs in sight.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Writer for Hire

Yesterday, my mother asked what I was working on.
“Oh, I finished copy editing that memoir and now I'm writing a marketing brochure,” I said. She shook her head. “And to think that your father and I used to worry about you.”
It's true: they did worry. At one point, my despairing father even said that if I didn't focus on a real career, I'd end up “living on cat food.”
They couldn't see where I was headed. Neither could I. In college, I tried on majors like shoes, swapping animal science for sociology, then Spanish for biology. Finally I decided to become a doctor, the sort who wears Safari clothes and saves entire villages from infectious diseases.
My last semester, though, I took a creative writing class. I wrote my first short story and couldn't stop writing. I put off applying to medical school for a year.
A year went by. Then another. My desperate father sent me brochures about nursing school, dental school, and physical therapy. But I couldn't stop writing. To support my habit, I did the kinds of odd jobs all writers do: construction, teaching, editing, waiting tables. Eventually my tiny, poorly paid writing jobs led to better ones. I proofread telephone books, wrote marketing copy for a publishing company, served as a stringer for a newspaper, wrote press releases and newsletters for a school district.
When I had my first two children, day care cost more than my salary, so I quit working full time and consulted in a public relations office part-time. I kept writing, too, when the kids were sleeping or throwing sand at each other in the playground—and eventually paid for day care so that I could write more.
“You can't make a living as a writer,” my father said, still despairing. He had also been against me majoring in English in college, because what could an English major do for a living?
A lot, it turns out, which is why I encouraged my own son to major in English when he went to college. My paying jobs as a writer have included training manuals for a pharmaceutical company, feature articles for newspapers and magazines, ad copy, video scripts, view books and brochures for colleges, institutional newsletters, press releases, advice columns, humor, essays, and, yes, a memoir of my own. More recently, I have been working as a book doctor and ghost writer for celebrities, churning out four of these books in the past two years.
“Doesn't it bug you to write other people's books when you could be working on your own?” another writer asked me recently.
Not a bit. In fact, I love telling other people's stories. What other job would allow me to walk in another person's shoes so completely that I'd feel their blisters? Working as a book doctor or ghost writer, I have the opportunity to immerse myself in worlds as disparate as the priesthood, cooking, fashion design, and Tejano music—I just finished ghost writing an incredibly moving memoir for Chris Perez, the husband of the fantastically talented Mexican-American singer, Selena. Ghost writing isn't just a paying job for me. It's a passion. Sharing stories is what makes us human.
I can hear my writer friend snorting at this. “Okay, maybe memoirs,” she might say. “But university brochures? Really? Is that a passion, too?”
You betcha. I love interviewing students and academics, and finding whatever sets a particular college apart from all the rest.
In fact, I love everything I write. Being a writer for hire is sometimes like being a plumber—you have to get on your knees and stick your head under the sink to fix the leaks. Other times, crafting sentences feels like a delicate, time-honored art that takes your breath away.
Either way, the joy is in the process of writing as much as in the final product, whether those words are for someone else, or all mine.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Juggling Motherhood and Writing

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one: “When do you write?”
The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow. They want me to say something like: “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.” Or maybe: “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you'll have a novel in a year! Easy as ABC!”
Even people who aren't aspiring writers ask me this question. Maybe it's because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do. They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.
“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me. “When do you write?”
Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there's no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you're a mother. Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we're doing something else when we're writing. We're burning dinner because we're working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.
In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success. I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides. I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.
My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor. Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?” I couldn't imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.
Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question. They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids. “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”
As a mother, I couldn't crack this secret code. How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school? How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?
Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time. I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”
“Oh, that's easy,” the famous novelist said. “I have a wife.”
I swear to you that this is true, but I won't divulge this man's name. His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn't already.
Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use: the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley. When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”
Day care! I mulled this over in my mind. I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing? How could I justify such a debutante expense?
I couldn't. There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter. How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?
For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life: while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma. I had a ritual, where I'd make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.
Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers' retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day. Not everyone's idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.
Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty. I'd abandoned my family! I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!
Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me. I'd feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first. Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn't knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.
Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing. It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.
The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home. I'd face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I'd despair again because I wasn't making any progress as a writer. I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.
My husband, luckily, was supportive. He urged me to essentially buy those hours. “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said. “We'll get by somehow.”
God bless him. I lined up extra day care hours. Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time: day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.
Amazingly, it wasn't long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay. I didn't sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies' Home Journal magazine, and then another. An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I'd like to write an article for them. From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.
It wasn't long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work. I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations. I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.
Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn't writing. Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days. Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.
When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this: the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them. On days I didn't have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I'd never been able to tap into before.
Okay. I need to work on that metaphor. But you get the idea. Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There's never a time that I'm not writing, even if it looks like I'm doing something else.”
And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You'll write best if you pay for day care. Run away from home sometimes, too. Your children will survive. They might even be proud of you.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mothers, Teach Your Daughters about the Herman Cains of the World

As Herman Cain strives to rise above the sexual harassment allegations dogging his run for the presidency (and I do mean “dogging”), almost every woman out there is uncomfortably recalling some former teacher, boss or neighbor who did the same things to her.
I have no idea if Cain is innocent or not. I suspect not, since more than one woman has come forward. The important thing about these stories is that here's one of those golden teachable moments: every mother should educate her daughters about the Herman Cains of the world.
I have been in similar situations as Cain's accusers. Most of the men who touched me or said inappropriate things did not frighten me. But these events did make me feel sour and wretched afterward, as if I had somehow caused them to happen.
For starters, there was the neighbor I babysat for who offered me a raise if I “just touched him a little in the car.” I was fourteen at the time.
One college professor—Sociology of Religions, of all things—took me to lunch and promised me an A if I went to Bermuda with him. There was another, less playful chemistry professor who showed up at my apartment when I was home with the flu, under the pretense of bringing me a lab report I could revise. He then proceeded to try and rape me. Lucky for me, he was crying about his divorce at the time, so I was able to fight him off despite having a fever of 102.
Shall I go on? Sure. While putting myself through college, I worked as a waitress in a restaurant. The owner of that place was a notorious groper—not just me, but any waitress was in danger if she made the mistake of being alone in the kitchen with him. His wife was a hostess in the dining room, but none of us ever spoke up because we needed the tuition money.
In one of my first jobs after college, the vice president of the publishing company I worked for promised to make me an editor if I gave him a blow job. “I won't even come in your mouth,” he wheedled. “It'll only take a minute.”
Years later, I worked as a PR consultant in a school district. There, my boss loved to take me to lunch. He never tried to touch me, but constantly referred admiringly to my “shelf,” as he so delicately put it.
Shall I go on? Nah. You get the idea. In fact, if you're a woman reading this, you probably got the idea long ago. Like me, you were probably neither stunningly beautiful nor desperate for attention, yet various men in power seemed to think that it was perfectly legit to make sexually explicit suggestions or advances.
These incidents did not damage me, but that's only because I am one of those fortunate women who had a strong, independent mother as a role model. My mom was a Navy wife accustomed to fending for herself; she taught me early on that there was nothing a man can do for me on the job that I can't do for myself. I managed to sidestep these men and keep moving forward in my life without them.
I hope that I have successfully taught our two blonde, gorgeous daughters—one a newly minted college graduate, the other about to complete her degree--about the Herman Cains of the world. I want our girls to be confident enough about their own intelligence and abilities to know that, when certain men make advances or inappropriate remarks, they don't have to put up with it.
I didn't speak out when these things happened to me, but I wish that I had. I hope that my girls, and generations after them, will know that our voices give us power.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bad Vacation? Treasure the Memory.

A couple of weeks ago, I convinced my family to drive to the White Mountains and hike up to Lonesome Lake hut on the Appalachian Mountain Club trail. Our plan was to sleep at the hut and do some day hikes, maybe see a moose and the last of the autumn foliage.
“Won't you be cold?” my mother asked.
“It'll be great,” I assured her. “How cold can it get in October?”
Pretty cold, as it turns out. We hiked through freezing rain, hail, and even snow at the highest elevation. We couldn't see more than a hundred feet in front of us at times because we were literally hiking through clouds. The trails were slippery and treacherous, too—wherever there wasn't mud, we were skidding on icy rocks.
It was definitely one of those trips that will go down in our family's Vacation Hall of Fame.
We've had a lot of those vacations. There was that foolish train trip to Florida, for instance, where our kids proved to be too young to contentedly look out the window; their idea of fun was playing tag in the aisles. We had another trip to Florida where two kids got strep throat and a third came down with a stomach bug; every time he vomited, he announced, “I tossed my cookies again!” causing the other kids to want a share of those treats.
Then there was our ill-fated trip to Washington, D.C. Determined to show our children the wonders of the cherry trees in bloom and the Smithsonian, we arrived and realized we'd forgotten a stroller for the baby. We managed to buy one, but that mistake cost an entire day. The cherry trees weren't in bloom because winter had lingered, which also meant that the hotel pool was frozen over and out of commission.
Oh, and let's not forget that trip to jolly England, where we rented a restored mill house in the countryside and it rained every single day we were there—so much rain that we finally bought the kids Wellingtons and hiked in it anyway, for fear that otherwise we'd die of cabin fever.
Ah, and the trip to Spain! We brought along my mother as well as all five kids on that vacation, which meant that we had to rent a nine-passenger van—not an easy vehicle to navigate on twisty cobblestone streets through Spanish villages. To make matters worse, they gave us a red one. We might as well have added a neon sign to it, proclaiming, “Stupid Loud American Tourists Here.”
At one point, we drove into the center of one small town and had to back all the way out again because we couldn't turn the van around. The mayor's widow, dressed in her black weeds, her gray hair coming loose in a fountain from her bun, helped direct us, screaming at all of the village men to move their scooters out of our way. Meanwhile, one of our kids (a different one) was carsick enough to toss his cookies, causing the others to shriek.
“That was an awesome trip, Mom,” my son declared after returning from the White Mountains, as we stuffed soggy clothes into the washing machine.
It was, it was. I can say that now that I've thawed out.
Here's the thing: bad vacations are the real family keepsakes, because you survive them together (ideally). You have to play games or tell jokes, you have to get each other through the hail or the flat tire or the flu. Surviving a bad vacation as a family requires everyone to step up and show determination, loyalty, and yes, even courage. Blue skies, sunshine, and a white beach are all pleasant, but what fun is that kind of vacation to reminisce about later?
Remember this, as you're packing up to go away for the holidays this year.