Monday, August 13, 2012

What Makes a Memoir “Great?”

I just finished reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking from California to Oregon after the death of her mother sends her life spiraling downward. I'm still aching from the powerful punch of this story, delivered with so much grace and humor that I didn't even see it coming.

This book didn't just knock my socks off. It knocked off my t-shirt, jeans and knickers, too. It's a gripping adventure story that's brutally honest on every emotional level, and I was left open-mouthed with awe by Strayed's brilliant observations about everything from what it feels like to wake up with thousands of tiny frogs hopping on your body to her profound grief over the dissolution of her family.

As a writer, I've been mulling over this book, trying to think about what made this memoir—along with others I've loved by writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, Haven Kimmel, Peter Matthiessen, Michael Ondaatje, and David Sedaris—rise to the level of art that's good for the soul. Here are a few thoughts:

Make Your Memoir about More than Just You
Unless you're Bill Clinton or Mick Jagger, nobody but your best friend cares about your life story (and she might be pretending). How can you make your memoir compelling? Find something unique about your narrative and focus the book around that instead of navel gazing about your first dog, your last lover, etc. For instance, Haven Kimmel does a brilliant job of this in Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. She broke out big with this book by weaving her hilarious observations of small-town life around her own coming-of-age story. And, in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes about traveling in Nepal and tracking the snow leopard as he asks some of the deepest life-and-death questions common to all mankind. We learn about the flora, fauna, and culture of the deep Himalaya as we follow his spiritual quest and the two narratives meld to create a mystical, timeless read.

Don't Whine.
Enough said.

Do Your Research
Whether you're writing about kayaking through Brazil after your Wall Street breakdown or the summer at Aunt Mary's lake cabin when your father went nuts, do your research. This means reading up on Brazilian history and wildlife or interviewing family members until your memories of that lake cabin become vivid and true. (You'll be amazed by how much your memories differ from, say, your little brother's.)

Be Respectful
Here's the thing: you may have grown up in a dysfunctional family —if you're a writer, the odds are pretty high that this is fact. But writers, no matter how neglected or abused we were in our youth, have an unfair advantage: We have public voices. The people we're writing about often don't. Think long and hard about baring other people's secrets without asking permission.

Be Generous
Okay, so your mom liked to stand on her head naked in the back yard and forgot to pack your lunches for school. It was a tough life! But the point of writing a memoir about it is to show how you resolved conflicts, just like any character in a novel. This isn't therapy. The story has to go somewhere. The best memoirs are those where writers arrive at a place of acceptance and even forgiveness—as Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, and Cheryl Strayed do in their books.

Build a Narrative with Tension and Shape
From that first scene, you want to build enough tension into the narrative so that readers are turning pages to find out what happens. Think about the natural start and end points, and what the climax of the story looks like. Each chapter should be shaped like that as well, with its own narrative arc.

Play with Time
Your memoir doesn't have to be chronological. For instance, Strayed does a great job of playing with time, starting the book in the middle of her journey, at a point where her hiking boot literally tumbles off a cliff, then backtracking to where she was before she left. She proceeds on her trip and backtracks many times throughout the book to highlight various high (and low) points in her life story. By the time we finish reading about her journey, we understand why she had no choice but to walk the Pacific coast alone to mend her heart and soul.

Now that, my friends, is a truly great memoir.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hey Writer! What's Your Brand?

Most of us are cynical enough by now to see that life is all about branding, whether we're being bombarded by ads for colleges, books, cars, shampoos, or a new designer line of t-shirts ($90 for a white GOOP t-shirt, Gwyneth Paltrow? Really?). Brands are built via movie placements, billboards, your Kindle's sleep screen, your radio station, your Twitter Feed and Facebook page. Sure, you can DVR your favorite TV shows and zip through commercials, but there's no hiding from the marketing trolls.

I know this. Yet, somehow I was still shocked when a writer friend recently asked me to change her quote after I interviewed her for a magazine story.

“I can't say that sort of thing in print,” she explained. “I've worked hard to build my brand, and I need to be consistent.”

“Uh, okay,” I said. I edited the quote, but I was stunned. When did writers start being brands?

This question led me through a maze of other squirrely musings. If you write a memoir, are you forever a memoirist? Is a writer of so-called “women's fiction” always doomed to have a slender woman's body parts on her book covers? What happens if a thriller writer dares to try his hand at romance?

Did Mark Twain have a brand? Was it “Southern novelist and humorist?” What about Hemingway? “Lion hunter, womanizer, and minimalist?”

These questions really made my head spin as I was redesigning my web site. (These days, a writer without a web site is like a McDonald's without the golden arches.) I had a perfectly lovely web site—one that I paid to have built when my first book was published--but it was constructed using a software program that made me sob like a napless toddler every time I tried to navigate it, so I decided to switch over to every writer's best friend, WordPress.

In the process, I had an identity crisis. What was my brand? Who was I?

I hadn't felt this confused since trying to follow the plot of those Bourne movies. My first book was a memoir. My second one was a novel categorized by some reviewers as literature, by some as women's fiction, and by others as that poor stepsister of women's fiction, “chick lit” (which everyone knows is sexier and will probably catch the prince's eye at the ball).

My third book, The Wishing Hill, is being published by Penguin in spring/summer 2013. It, too, is a novel. This one, though, is decidedly not chick lit, and more women's fiction/literature. However, my next book—the one I'm writing right now--is a paranormal novel featuring a dead voodoo priestess.

Oh, and I also write humor essays and feature articles for national magazines--usually about parenting, psychology, or health.

So, who am I? What's my brand? Do I have to spell it out in a theme of five words or less?

It would certainly be a lot easier for marketing purposes if my work could fit neatly on one shelf in a bookstore (even a virtual one). Think of bestselling writers who have household names, and you'll see what I mean: Elizabeth George writes British mysteries while Toby Neal sets hers in Hawaii. Stephen King writes books that make you look under your bed at night. John Grisham is known for his legal thrillers; each of Jodi Picoult's novels is women's fiction with a contemporary news hook; and Elin Hilderbrand writes books about women falling in love on the beach. See what I mean?

On the other hand, what about writers who ignore the rules? I've just finished two splendid books by writers who dare to scribble outside the lines. One was Wild, a terrific memoir by Cheryl Strayed, whose first book was a novel and who is widely known as an advice columnist by the name of “Sugar.” Another is Carsten Stroud's skin-crawlingly creepy book, Niceville, a horror novel along the lines of Stephen King, but one that reads like a police procedural with snappy bad guy dialogue worthy of Quentin Tarantino or maybe even Raymond Chandler. Previously, Stroud was known for his nonfiction and more standard crime novels.

What about Tom Perrota? His early novels, like Election and Little Children, were satirical edgy domestic dramas. Then he gave us The Leftovers, which crosses over into another realm ( literally), as he explored what would happen if there really was a Day of Rapture where only some residents of a certain town were chosen to be whisked into the heavens.

How do you brand Tom Perrota, other than calling him “brilliant?” And don't even get me started on writer Neil Gaiman, a man who grinds through every genre like a happy kid with one of those multipacks of tiny cereal boxes. Gaiman has one quote on his Amazon page that says what I feel: “I make things up and write them down.”

At the end of a good day, that's what any good writer hopes to do.

Ultimately, I decided to stop worrying about my brand and just put myself out there. What I want people to be able to do is find me—and find out about me. I chose the tag line “Writer and Red Dirt Rambler,” because my favorite place on earth to write—and ramble—is Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes.

Whew. Thank heavens that's over. My new web site will be live soon. Meanwhile, I can go back to making things up and writing them down.   

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Are Women Afraid of Mice?

I am not afraid of much. I have hiked through the Andes and the Himalayas, zip-lined through a Mexican jungle, driven on motorcycles far too fast. I have given birth to three children and beaten off two separate muggers intent on grabbing my purse. I have jumped out of a moving car to avoid a man.

Why, then, am I afraid of mice?

Recently, I came up here to Prince Edward Island to open up our summer home. Not surprisingly, I had a special greeter on the front stairs: a tiny gray mouse, a little bitty guy who was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I tried to stay calm and rational. But, since my husband wasn't here, I had to deal with the intruder myself.

“Get me a pan with a lid and a broom!” I yelled to my friend Emily, a poet who had accompanied me on this trip and who, despite being nearly six feet tall and having sailed the seas in Newfoundland and conquered sweaty Buddhist meditations, is even more panicked at the sight of a mouse than I am.

She fetched me my weapons while I stood guard, looming over the rodent. Being just a child mouse, he didn't know whether he should go up or down to escape this giantess who, in his little mouse mind, would most likely swoop down and eat him if he didn't seek cover. He scrambled up, but couldn't summit the stair; he then sat and washed his worried little face, awaiting his fate.

Emily handed me the broom and I got to work, trying to brush the mouse into the pan. In my mind, it was a perfect plan: brush the mouse into a tall spaghetti pan, cover it with a lid, and take him outside (where the mouse would no doubt turn around and come back inside for more yummy toast crumbs.)

Sweeping up a mouse isn't nearly as easy as you think it will be, though. The mouse zipped back and forth on the stair to avoid the broom, with me going, “Oh no, don't you run up my pant leg!” in both English and, for good measure, and who knows why, in Spanish. Finally the mouse decided to take his chances and tried climbing up the wall beside the staircase.

Now, mice are good climbers, but this wall had no wallpaper, so down he went, plummeting to the floor. If it were one of us, it would be like falling from the Empire State Building. But the mouse just scurried down the hall as if he'd meant to do that, with Emily doing a little Mexican hat dance in the hallway to keep her feet out of his path. The mouse then found his bolthole beside the front door and made for the safety of the wall, if only to drown out the shrieking of his tormentors.

All that first night, I had to keep the light on, imagining the mouse scurrying up the bed frame and burrowing into my pillow. All the next day, I kept slippers on, for fear of stepping on this mouse or one of his many, many litter mates who are no doubt just waiting for the cover of darkness before they raid our cupboards.

I told myself this was ridiculous. Irrational. I should be ashamed of myself, I thought, especially since my dad raised gerbils for a living, and I routinely lifted them out of their cages to change the shavings and even fed those little buggers treats from my fingers. Yet, after I accidentally dropped one of the chocolate covered almonds I was eating at my desk and it rolled into a place beneath the heavy bureau that I can't possibly reach, I panicked all over again, imagining a whole army of mice running out to carry that huge treasure home, and oh yeah, me along with it, like some giant Gulliver.

I'm not the only woman in the world afraid of mice; in fact, I don't know a single woman who isn't. “I would have died if that had happened to me,” my friend Andrea agreed. Then she told me a story of her own: something about finding a mouse in the trunk of her car, and her driving to a neighbor's house at sixty miles per hour with the music blaring, hoping to scare the mouse out of its wits and keep it in the trunk. They set a trap in the trunk of the car but never caught it; to this day, Andrea checks the seats every time she gets into her car.

I finally went down to the hardware store and had a long discussion about pest control with the clerk. I couldn't bring myself to buy traps, because I knew I'd never be able to empty them. The “have a heart” traps wouldn't work, either, since they're basically just fun rides for mice who can easily figure out how to hike back home. In the end I bought poison. Or rather, “mouse treats,” which I suppose are the same kind of euphemism we use when buying “roach motels.”

“I nail mine into place,” the woman explained. “That way, the mice can't carry the bait off with them and you'll know how much you have left.”

I haven't put the treats out yet. I keep remembering the look on that mouse's face, and his courageous, foolhardy attempts to scale a staircase that was his personal Mt. Everest. He was, by far, braver than I'll ever be.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

One More Careless Teen Breaks Our Hearts

This past week, when 18-year-old Aaron Deveau of Haverhill, MA, was convicted of violating a recent law that bans drivers from texting, he made history. He also broke a lot of hearts on both sides of the case—especially among those of us holding our breaths every time one of our teens gets behind the wheel of a car.

Deveau, who'd had his license just six months and was only seventeen at the time of the accident, swerved across the yellow center line on the road and crashed into an oncoming car driven by father and grandfather Donald Bowley, age 55. Bowley died and left behind a grief-stricken family. Deveau, who was also found guilty of motor vehicle homicide, is serving a year in prison, doing community service, and having his license revoked until he is 33 years old.

Not punishment enough, say many, to pay for the life Deveau took. But let's not judge him too harshly. This kid could belong to any one of us.

To me, in fact. I have four children old enough to drive, and every one of them has gotten into an accident of some sort, ranging from scraping up the side of the car while backing down the driveway to driving into a ditch while trying to switch stations on the radio.

Nor am I immune from carelessness behind the wheel. At age 22, I was driving too fast when my car slid on black ice. I ended up doing a 360-degree turn into oncoming traffic. I was just lucky that there wasn't any traffic coming at precisely that moment. At age 28, I bought my first brand new car; two weeks later, I drove around a city block too fast and sideswiped a parked car. I was just lucky that nobody was inside that car, or getting out of it at that exact moment in time.

And, just a few years ago, a cop pulled me over for swerving over the yellow center line because he thought I'd had too much to drink. I hadn't been drinking at all. I was just trying to reach down and push the lid onto my travel cup so the hot tea wouldn't slosh around. I was just lucky that nobody was coming from the opposite direction during those two seconds I took my eyes off the road.

I was just lucky all of those times. I was also stupid, stupid, stupid.

We are all stupid sometimes. Mostly, thankfully, we are also lucky. Think about how many times a day you—and your children—climb into the driver's seat of one of those sweet death machines, crank up the tunes, and zoom off to dinner or a movie or the grocery store. We talk on the phone, put on lipstick, sip hot coffee, and eat while we drive. We also make optimistic assumptions about the other drivers: Oh, that guy won't go through the red light. No, that jeep isn't going to pull out in front of me. That woman wouldn't dare turn left in front of me at this intersection, no way!

We are just lucky enough, until that one sad moment when we are not.

I grieve for Donald Bowley's family, I do. They lost a man they loved. But my heart breaks for Aaron Deveau and his family as well. This boy, so proud of his new license and working hard as a dishwasher while still in high school, was as stupid and unlucky as you can be. We must find it in our hearts to forgive him—and to remind ourselves that it could have been any one of us, or one of our children, behind that steering wheel.

We must remember that we are lucky until that one bleak moment when we are not.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Do It Yourself or Die Trying

     My husband came upstairs last night sporting a satisfied smile.

     “Did you fix it?” I asked.



     “Paper clip,” he said, and we both laughed.

     What my husband had done was mend our broken toilet by using a paper clip to reconnect the flush lever to the flush valve, thus proving once again how we're not only surviving this Do It Yourself time in our lives, but getting better at it.

     We have never been rich, but once upon a time, we had a little extra money every month. That was before we put four kids through college, my husband was laid off three times, and we had to pay for our own health insurance. What did we do, back in those heady days of plenty?

     We paid other people to do things for us: the plumbing, the house painting, the carpentry, the snow plowing, the lawn mowing. When I look back at those days now, I think, wow. What a waste. Think of the fun we missed.

     Why did it take me so long to get into the whole DIY thing? I blame it on growing up with a father whose motto was “Do It Yourself or Die Trying.” My father was a Navy officer who dreamed of becoming the world's most famous gerbil farmer. After a popular magazine hailed gerbils as “America's Newest Pets,” Dad spent his shore duties secretly raising them in our garage. He was still in uniform when he bought a remote, rundown farm and built a gerbil dynasty.

     As Dad's first employees, my brothers and I posed with gerbils for photographs he could use for pet books. We cleaned cages and doled out green food pellets. Meanwhile, Dad constantly reminded us that “frugal” was our new middle name.

     Whether my father had wanted to make it big by selling gladiolas or garage doors instead of gerbils, the bottom line of any start-up company is microscopic. Small business owners don't expect bailouts if they fail. Dad reminded us that sweaters were cheaper than heat. His office floor was a flotilla of coffee cans crammed with recycled screws and rusty nails. If something needed doing, we were to do it ourselves or perish in the process.

     We put our backs into making that old farmhouse a home. We built a stable for our horses out of an abandoned barn that we tore down and hauled across the street on a wheezing, Dr. Seuss tractor. Meanwhile, Dad's gerbils went about the happy business of breeding. When they'd multiplied enough to need a home of their own we built that, too, turning sheet metal siding and bags of bolts into the nation's first gerbilry.

     With me, Dad was a total stop-spending vigilante. I had already cost him more money than his other children combined; at age 12, my horse bucked me off and I landed mouth-first, losing seven front teeth. The year that Dad built his gerbilry, a dentist crafted a pricey, permanent set of teeth for me. I was thrilled. No more dental humiliations, like the time I laughed at a cute boy's joke and sent my false teeth flying onto his shoe. 

     The down side was that Dad now materialized at my elbow if I did anything more extreme than sleep. “Watch out for your teeth, Holly!” he'd cry, trotting after me. “Teeth don't grow on trees, you know!”

     Dad monitored my hot showers to the minute. I turned the toilet paper roll as stealthily as possible, because if Dad heard me using it, he'd come pounding up the stairs to knock on the bathroom door. “No more than three squares!” he'd call. “More than three squares is wasted!”

     This penny-pinching paid off. By my third year of college, Dad had nearly 9,000 gerbils housed in three buildings. He proudly announced that we could afford a family vacation. “It's a celebration,” he said. “This year, I made as much money as the governor of Massachusetts.”

“Wow,” I said. “You must have sold a ton of gerbils.”

“Of course, the governor enjoys a few more perks than I do,” Dad added generously. “A mansion. A staff. A secretary. A car at his disposal, and so forth.”

“You have a secretary,” Mom reminded him. “Grandmother's right upstairs.”

Given my history, you can understand why, even when my husband and I started struggling financially a few years ago, I dug my heels in when he suggested that we become DIY sorts of people, taking on projects like reshingling our own barn and putting in kitchen cabinets from Ikea rather than pay a carpenter.

The more we did things for ourselves, however, the more I realized that we were doing more than just saving money. When we dug an entire garden bed and laid the stone paths, when we stripped bedroom wallpaper and repainted the walls, when we shoveled out the old pig sty to create a pond, my husband and I felt, if not invincible, at least like a strong enough team to face nearly any economic or emotional challenge. Instead of drowning every time the economic tide turns against us, we know that we're going to bob to the surface of whatever happens, because we're both paddling like hell and getting stronger every day.

So far my husband has rebuilt that same toilet flush mechanism using dental floss, paper clips, and strips of aluminum. Meanwhile, I've become adept at street picking, gardening, painting, and refinishing. Each DIY victory is sweet indeed.

These days, frugal is the new cool. Boxed wine is in. Fashion magazines trumpet vintage finds. Waste not, want not, is the new reality--only it feels like old times to me, the daughter of a gerbil czar who wanted to do it all himself.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't Do What I Did: Make the KDP Select Program Work for You

Self-publishing is about as democratic as anything else, in the sense that 1) anyone is free to try it and 2) it takes money to make money.

I have one self-published friend who recently admitted to spending over $15,000 to market her Indie novel. She's doing well and has more than tripled her investment. In addition, she has built a platform of readers who are now eagerly awaiting her next novel.

That story has a happy ending. But what if you don't have $15,000, or even $5,000, to spend on publicity? What if just getting your book published wipes out your savings, because you already had to cough up a few thousand for the cover, the design, the ISBN number and an editor, too? What do you do then?

That's the situation I was in when I published my novel Sleeping Tigers.

Fortunately, there is advice aplenty for authors on how to advertise cheaply. Check out web sites for Novel Publicity, Ereader News Today,World Literary Cafe, Digital Book World, TeleRead, and The Book Designer for useful tips. These all offer great advice on book marketing—and, yes, it's all free! Indie authors J.A. Konrath and John Locke also have helpful blogs.

Now, after three months of testing out book marketing strategies, I can honestly say that probably nothing can help you market your book more effectively than the KDP Select Program.

What is the KDP Select Program?
Read the fine print on the Kindle Direct Publishing web site, but here are the bare bones: if you agree to participate in the KDP Select Program, you sign up for a three-month exclusivity term. This means that you agree to sell your ebook only in the Kindle format, but you can continue selling your paperbacks however you wish.

In exchange for this exclusivity agreement, you are granted five free promotional days during your three-month term. Your book is also included in the lending library for Amazon Prime members; this means that people with Amazon credit cards can borrow your book for free—and Amazon will pay you a royalty for each borrow.

Many authors object to the KDP Select program. Indie authors are a crowd of wild Mustangs and we hate being reined in—that's why many of us self-publish. We object to some of Amazon's monopolistic business practices. Plus, why would anyone want to give a book away for free?

I was one of those resisters. On the other hand, despite my steady blogging and my shiny new Twitter account, I was selling very few books. The first month after publication, Sleeping Tigers sold just enough books for me to take my husband to a movie or dinner, but not both. My novel was a cross between literary fiction, chick lit, and romance—no zombies, vampires, serial killers, cowboy lovers, or psychic detectives. In other words, there wasn't the usual genre crowd to rely on for sales.

I wasn't trying to get rich on this novel—in fact, I didn't even imagine making back what I spent on publishing it. But I am a writer who longs to reach out to readers. I had tried everything but the KDP Select Program to market my novel, so I signed up for the three-month term and chose my first two promotional days. Then I sat back and waited.

Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did
That was my mistake: I sat back and did nothing.

While I did have more downloads during the first two days my book was free—the book ultimately reached a rank of #18 in Kindle's contemporary fiction and a rank of 185 in the free Kindle store—after the promotion I was still selling only one or two books per day.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked a friend who also happens to be my guru in the Indie publishing world.

“Did you advertise the fact that your book was free?” she asked.

Uh. No.

By the next month, my book was back down in the ranks, sliding as low as 70,000 or so. I was getting desperate; I had always sold my book at $2.99, but many Indie authors who make it into the Amazon stratosphere sell their ebooks for $.99. My next experiment was to try this strategy. I decided to lower the price to $.99 to see what would happen. (This is called a “price pulse” and you can find lots of authors discussing this strategy online.) I even did a mild book pimping run on Twitter and Facebook to see if I could garner interest in a week-long $.99 promotion.

The result? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, my book rank plummeted, languishing around 134,000 or so.

“You have to do another free promotion,” my friend urged. “But advertise it this time.”

Do This Instead
For my second KDP Select Promotion, I waited until I had that magical tenth positive review on Amazon, courtesy of a generous book blogger in England. Then I set my promotion for three days, choosing the end of tax season, April 15 to 17, as my dates, figuring people would finally be finished with nasty paperwork and be ready for a fun read.

A week ahead of time, I emailed some of the big e-reader sites that my book would be free on those days, like Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today. Then, to take the “layered marketing approach,” as the saying goes, I bought a (very cheap) ad on Digital Books Today to run right after the promotion.

As I waited for April 15, I began second-guessing all of my efforts. Was I making a mistake? April 15 wasn't just tax day, it was Patriot's Day, and the day of the Boston Marathon! Who the heck would want to download books if there was a holiday to enjoy? Why didn't I wait?

Plus, even by April 14, I still couldn't bring myself to blog, tweet or Facebook about the promotion. Authors who spend their time sending out book pimping messages make my teeth hurt. Yes, everything these days is “soft” marketing, but I prefer content with my advertising. I didn't want to inflict sales spam on people I'd come to know through social media channels.

I nearly pulled out of the second free promotion for another reason as well: I was having a crisis in confidence as a writer. How many readers are left in the world? In my most pessimistic moments, I imagine everyone sitting around in sports bars or lying on the couch watching American Idol or YouTube videos. Maybe everyone who would be interested in reading my book had already downloaded it.

On April 15, I could barely bring myself to check the downloads, but bam! There they were, and they were coming fast! In the very first day of the second promotion, I had as many downloads as the first two days combined! By the last day of the promotion, my book had hit #1 in contemporary fiction and #3 among all free Kindle downloads—with twenty times as many downloads as during my first promotion.

What's more, sales have declined but have remained steady. Thanks to the KDP Select Program, I may actually make a small profit from Sleeping Tigers. More importantly, I am creating an audience of readers and book bloggers who I hope will be interested in the next novel I publish.

What the heck happened to make this possible?

The answer is easy: I took full advantage of KDP Select Program's free promotional days. You can do it, too. Here's how:
  1. Before joining the KDP Select Program, check your book sales. Are you selling more on Smashwords or Kindle? If the answer is Kindle, then you have nothing to lose by going with the KDP Select Program—you can opt out again after three months.

  2. There are two schools of thought when it comes to deciding when to go with KDP Select: one is that you should wait until you have at least ten positive Amazon reviews (4 or 5 stars). The other is to do it right away, when you launch your book. That will give your book a higher ranking from the start. However, sites like Pixel of Ink are less likely to pick up books without customer reviews, because so many authors contact them, and of course it's in their interest to publicize the best free books possible. I'd advise contacting reviewers early, before your book is out, and waiting until you have the reviews posted on Amazon before advertising your free promotion.

  3. Remove your book from Smashwords and other sites at least two weeks in advance. I ran into a slight snafu, because I thought that removing the book from Smashwords meant I'd successfully made my book exclusive to Kindle; however, Smashwords distributes to a number of other sites, like Barnes & Noble, and it can take 2-3 weeks for them to remove the book.

  4. Once you sign up for KDP Select, make use of all five free promotional days, but don't do them one at a time—spread them out between a two-day and a three-day promotion. That gives readers time to see your book and download it.

  5. Follow up your free promotion with some modest paid advertising.

And that, my friends, is it. Simple as can be. Will I sign up again for KDP Select? I already have. I'll let you know how the next round goes. I'd love to hear your experiences, too. What has worked for you?

Friday, May 18, 2012

How Obama Won Me Over with a Single Speech

I am not a gushy sort of person when it comes to celebrities, nor am I particularly political. So, when I heard that President Obama was going to speak during our daughter's graduation from Barnard College last week, I was less than thrilled.

 “Think of the security,” I said to my husband. “What a nightmare!”

 “We can't even bring water through the gates,” my husband grumbled, reading through the detailed commencement regulations. “Maybe we should skip it.” He gave me a hopeful look.

 We both wanted to bow out of the event. New York City is enough of an ordeal as it is. But New York plus Obama? Chaos. We actually considered missing the first half of graduation, figuring we could order photos online and sneak into the reception tents later.

 But of course we went, because we love our daughter, who worked hard to graduate from Barnard with honors. We're proud of her, and this is what proud parents do everywhere, every day: we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs in gymnasiums and stadiums and auditoriums, trying to unobtrusively read our phones or Kindles during the boring parts of school celebrations and athletic events.

All of the advice from Barnard indicated that we should arrive on campus by 9 a.m., since they were going to close the gates by 11 a.m. Graduation wasn't scheduled until 12:30; there would be no food available, but the campus was providing water and paper cups. They were even confiscating umbrellas, I guess so nobody could stab Obama.

We didn't arrive until 10:30. (I think that my husband was still hoping there might be an excuse to go to the Museum of Natural History instead.) The security screening was remarkably efficient—pretty much like airport lines—and it was amusing to watch the collection of confiscated umbrellas grow by the gates as we plodded through the maze of barricades constructed to control the crowd. Inside the tent, we sat on the dreaded metal chairs and waited. And waited. Every building on campus was closed; this meant standing in line for forty minutes to use a portable toilet. The only food handed out consisted of one puny granola bar per graduation goody bag.

Eventually the graduates joined us, a vibrant ocean of nearly 600 young women in pale blue robes. Then, like magic, Obama was beamed into place, presumably escorted onto the stage via one of the tent tunnels rendering him invisible to snipers. I had been cynical about this whole idea of Obama giving a commencement speech. The election is coming up; this seemed like a pretty damn convenient move. I voted for this President, and I already knew I would vote for him again, given the choice between him and Romney. I disagree with Obama on certain issues (mostly military), but I agree with him on many, including abortion, gay marriage, and health care. At the same time, I'd have to say that for most of my adult life I've been that sort of passive, head-in-the-safe-suburban sand kind of liberal rather than any kind of activist.

But, when Obama took the stage, I was suddenly cynical and passive no more. I don't know how to explain this bizarre transformation. The closest I can come is to say that the President emanated an energy that was so generous and good in spirit that I swear I could almost see the halo. (No, I'm not religious, either.) The effect on me was such that I wanted to move closer to him, to be included in that circle of warmth, the way you edge closer and closer to a fireplace on a winter's night.

Obama is capable of being too academic and calm when he addresses a crowd. But he wasn't on this day. On this day, perhaps because he has two daughters of his own, the President's speech was inspired and inspirational. He made a few jokes and then talked seriously about the economic crisis—surely of uppermost importance in the minds of all new college graduates—and of how far women have come in the roles we play professionally, athletically, and politically.

And then he laid things on the line, telling these young women, “After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world. But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world—well, that will be up to you.”

Rather than spend too much time telling these remarkable young women just how extraordinary they were—which was the stump speech of almost every other person at the podium that day—Obama urged the graduates not to sit back and watch events unfold in the world, but to “stand up and be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.”

This part of the speech transported me to my own post-college attempts to make the world a better place. I volunteered as a Spanish translator in a juvenile court; I served with the Big Brother, Big Sister organization; I tutored inner city kids in math and science; I wrote grants to fund science enrichment programs for at-risk high school students; I volunteered as a mentor to teen mothers. Somewhere along the way, though, I got tired and my volunteer efforts flagged. These days I volunteer with local schools and libraries, but just a few hours a month, because I'm a working mom operating on too little sleep. My husband has been laid off one, two, three times. We worry all of the time about our own children and whether they'll have jobs, health insurance, and roofs over their heads when we're gone. Forget buying a house. Our kids will be lucky to pay their car repairs.

Yet what have I been doing, to stand up and be heard? Not enough. Finally, Obama urged us all to persevere. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said. “No one of achievement has avoided failure—sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don't quit.”

The President then shared a personal story of his own attempts after college to try and organize community meetings in a Chicago neighborhood plagued by gang violence. “Nobody showed up,” he said, despite the fact that they had done everything possible to get people there. He was tempted to quit. So were the other volunteers. But they didn't give up. They just kept chipping away at the problems in the neighborhood.

“Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism,” Obama told the Barnard grads and their families, “whenever you hear those voices say you can't make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower—the trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves; they did it for other people.”

After the speech, Obama was whisked away immediately through another secret tent tunnel. One minute he was there. Then he was gone. Except that he wasn't gone, not at all. I could still hear his words ringing in my ears and feel that warmth and goodness, even as the gates to the campus were flung open and we cheered the graduates crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, young women with big smiles and, I hope, even bigger hearts, who will always stand up and be heard.

I am back in my real life now, away from New York City. Yet I still hear the President urging me to do my part. It's never too late to “reach up and close that gap between what America is and what American should be,” as Obama concluded, and I intend to do exactly that.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Are We Ever Too Old to Be Called “Promising?”

When I received my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, I did what I always do: I put it in a special place on the nightstand, where I could devour it after finishing work, dinner, dishes, and putting my youngest son to bed. I've been subscribing to this magazine for many years, and the ritual is always the same. I treasure each issue for the same reasons my software engineer husband loves his subscription to Technology Review: these magazines help us feel connected professionally, and keep our dreams of being successful alive.
Imagine my horror, then, when I read the interview in this recent issue with Ben Fountain, one of my favorite fiction writers since the appearance of his brilliant collection of stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, in 2006, and stumbled across this quote: “It's slightly ridiculous to be fifty-three years old and about to have your debut novel come out...There is an absurd and pathetic aspect to that...”
Really, Mr. Fountain? Really? These are the words of inspiration you have for the rest of us, on the eve of publishing your novel, Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, with Ecco?
Come on. It's not like writers are ballerinas who can't do splits without injuring ourselves after a certain age, or even football players too fat to run. Is it?
Or maybe it is. For a little while after I read that interview, I was fretting, thinking my prime must have zipped by me so fast that I didn't notice it leaving me behind. I didn't have the successful law practice Mr. Fountain had before luxuriating in the full-time writing life (courtesy of his very supportive attorney wife). I am a working mom, a fixer-upper of houses, and a wife. All of that means that I'm juggling more spinning plates in the air than I can count, and yes, I do occasionally drop one and smash it. Should I feel absurd and pathetic? Or even slightly ridiculous, on the eve of my own debut novel?
Many years ago—when I was a mere slip of a girl, scarcely 32 years old—I had a short story “almost accepted,” as I joyously raved to friends, by an institution no less brag-worthy than The Atlantic Monthly. After receiving compliments in a letter from the magazine's fiction editor at the time, I decided to zip on down to the stately Atlantic offices in Boston. Since I had no day care, I brought my first child with me, a son who today is old enough to be writing his own fiction.
The Atlantic editor was a curmudgeonly New Englander outfitted in a Mr. Rogers cardigan. He very gallantly admired not only my fiction, but the baby as well. Then, after we discussed the state of fiction at some length—at such a length that I had to nurse my baby right there in the office, to keep him quiet—the editor said something that made my blood run cold: “The thing is, you're a little too old to be called promising.”
Of course I was crushed. Once I could pick myself up off the chair, I gathered the baby, stuffed him into his snowsuit, and drove back to my seedy little apartment north of Boston, weeping the entire way home.
Did I stop writing? For a few days. And then I had another story idea, and another, and yet one more, and soon I was happily weaving together sentences for my own amusement. I got an agent, who tried to sell my novels but failed, until finally he sold my memoir. I cobbled a living together as a journalist and essayist, still writing fiction, still failing to sell it. Until, one day, I did.
It took me twenty-five years to sell a novel. I am, as the venerable Steven Tyler said recently on American Idol, “Much too young to be this old.” And yet I don't feel pathetic, or absurd, or even slightly ridiculous, Mr. Fountain, thank you very much. I just feel happy. Really, really happy. My main thought is this: “Holy cow, I did it!”
I suppose it has helped that my husband has fantasies of creating his own software product, and he isn't much younger than I am. He has worked for big companies and small start-ups, and he occasionally rants over seeing one of his friends—a billionaire, usually, who has sold some world-altering innovative product—featured in Technology Review. In his darkest hours, my husband also wonders if he's too old to become successful. We prop each other up however we can during these crises in confidence. I know that my husband can create a cool new product and have fun trying to bring it to market. It's just a matter of time.
Are we ever too old to be called “promising?” Do we really have to feel pathetic or absurd if we don't succeed at achieving our dreams until we're in our forties, fifties, sixties, seventies or even beyond?
Not even a little bit, Mr. Fountain. For what is life, without passions to follow? That is the point of it all.

Monday, April 30, 2012

“Keep Your Book Warm” & Other Tips for Fighting Writer's Block

No matter how long you've been writing, you've probably experienced that panic-induced paralysis known as writer's block. Common causes are a recent rejection, a good friend's sudden literary success, and the certainty that whatever you're writing is absolute crap.

So what do you do? The obvious answer is to quit while you're ahead. As Homer Simpson once said, “If something is too hard to do, it's probably not worth doing.” Really, nobody asked you to be a writer. It's not like there is a phalanx of agents and editors breaking down your door. Why not just read other people's books, which are surely better than your own?

Seriously. Just quit writing. It's easy! Lie down with a cold cloth over your eyes and say to yourself, “There, there. I don't have to feel bad anymore.” On the other hand, if you're already addicted to the writing life and want to tame the symptoms of this nonfatal but debilitating condition, here are some home remedies to try:

 Keep your book warm. Yeah, yeah. “Real” writers say that you should write 500 or even 1,000 words every day. But who are these people? Don't they have jobs and kids? Many writers are lucky to find just a scant half hour to work some days. Life gets in the way. But it's important to keep your work warm during slow spells. Even if you're not writing, visit your work. Just read it over once a day for five minutes.

Know what comes next. When you do write, stop only at a point where you know exactly what words you're going to put down next. That will make it easier to sit down the next day, because you've sidestepped the fear of the blank page or screen.

Be armed and ready. Always carry a small notebook. Sure, you think you'll remember that great idea you had while watching Jon Stewart, but you won't. Trust me.

Unplug. This should be obvious, but somehow it isn't to most people. Find a place where you can't get WiFi or plug in. You'll have the jitters at first, feeling sure you're missing something, but eventually you'll get used to the idea and focus better on the screen in front of you.

Change locations. If you typically write in the dining room, take your laptop to the bedroom or out to the screened porch. Being in a different location will help you read your work differently, because your senses will respond to the change in your environment. You can also change positions: try writing while you're standing up, or switch the chair at your desk.

Describe what you see. If you can't think of anything to write, try describing the things right in front of you: the weather, the scene outside the window, the pictures hanging on the wall. Go all out with the descriptions, too, and play with them: remember where you bought that picture, and what your roommate or boyfriend said when you brought it home. Or describe what the neighbor is wearing as she gardens and what kind of person would buy a hat like that.

Retype sentences. Sometimes our obstacles to creativity are all mental. Physical activity can get the creative breezes blowing again. If you can get out to walk or ride a bike, that's great. But what if it's midnight and snowing? Let your fingers do the exercising for you. Retype the last few sentences you wrote—and suddenly you'll find yourself being propelled forward, because your brain will no longer be frozen.

Switch up the point of view. Let's say you're writing a very romantic historical novel from the third person, and you can't quite get into the character's head. Put it in first person and rewrite two pages—that will give you a new understanding of your character even if you go back to third person. Or, if you're writing in a limited third person, broaden the perspective and write it from another character's point of view, or even from an omniscient point of view, as if the entire town is telling the story. That will allow your mind to stumble upon new descriptions and bits of dialogue that you wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

Create a ritual. Just as athletes have lucky objects in their pockets or ritual chants before a game, you might find it's easier to get into the writing zone if you have your own ritual: making a cup of mint tea, watering your plants, or feeding the cat just before you sit down can all be pre-writing rituals.

Draw a story board. Creating a visual map of your writing, complete with cartoon characters acting out some of the scenes, can help you understand the narrative in a new way and spot holes in the plot.

Have fun. Writing has three stages just like we do: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. When you first start writing, let yourself play like a little kid, bouncing around with the language and forgetting everything you know about editing. As you revise what you write, you're creating an adolescent shape, taking off some here and there, letting it get bigger in other places, and giving it room to rant and rage if your writing needs to do that. Eventually you can give your writing some manners and polish up that final, sophisticated adult draft—but you have to have fun first.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why One Aging Hippie Mom Loves Twitter

My friend Melanie finally lured me into joining Twitter Nation by bribing me with scones and tea.

“It's really easy, and it's great once you get the hang of it,” she said as we buttered scones. “Come on. I'll show you how to set up an account.”

“Next, you'll be pressuring me into smoking cigarettes and trying Botox,” I muttered, following her into the office, where she had already coerced another friend of ours, Anne, into Twitter Nation.

Melanie's rationale was simple: we're all writers. Writers must tweet if we're going to build name recognition. “You're building your brand,” she said.

“I'm not a cereal,” I said, still muttering.

Melanie is a tech-savvy journalist currently working on a nonfiction book about the oil business as well as a novel. Anne writes historical fiction. And me? I work as a magazine writer and celebrity ghost writer; I just self-published a novel and sold another one to Penguin. All three of us are old enough to have launched (or ejected) our kids out of the house; I still have a young teen at home, but he's already taller than I am.

In other words, all three of us are aging moms and, in my case, a bonafide aging hippie mom. Examples: I marched on Washington for various causes throughout the 1970's and into the 1980's; I worked as a Vista Volunteer; and I still prefer wearing natural cotton.

Another example: I hate carrying a cell phone. In fact, most of the time I hate having a cell phone. Why would I want anyone to know where I am at all times? Why would I want to answer the phone when I am, say, walking on the beach or sipping tea with my aging hippie friends?

Yet, I followed Melanie into the thick, mysterious, shrieking Twitter jungle, and guess what? I love this crazy busy place—but not for the reasons she thought I would.

As a book marketing tool, Twitter is fairly useless. Maybe it's because I'm not one of those people who tweets all day long about my books—I don't ever tweet great lines from my texts, I don't announce giveaways, I don't pester people with book reviews. Not because I think these things are necessarily a bad idea, but mainly because I don't find these kinds of tweets very interesting.

Instead, I delight in Twitter for other reasons:

1) I love checking in with Twitter as a ticker tape kind of news service. I receive updates from various news feeds--yep, you guessed 'em, the New York Times, NPR, CNN, and The Daily Beast are right at the top of my hippie news feeds.

2) I use Twitter to drive traffic to my blog posts on Huffington Post, Open Salon, and guest blogs.

3) I rely on Twitter to gain professional insights on the rapid upheavals in book publishing, mainly by following writers, publishers, business journals, and book reviewers. Twitter leads me to all sorts of fascinating blogs and news articles, and has been enormously useful in helping me both think about my writing and decide where to sell it.

4) Most importantly, I use Twitter to support other writers—and to be supported. In this way, I have discovered that writing doesn't have to be a lonely business, despite the fact that I work alone in a barn about eight hours every day (dressed in my hippie cotton pants and flannel shirts, a cup of tea at my elbow). In fact, through Twitter, I have made great new friendships, like the one with a mystery writer in Hawaii. This writer and I now exchange manuscripts for critique and chat on the phone. We hope to meet some day. Our friendship never would have been possible without Twitter (unless there's some kind of for women writers that I haven't found yet?)

I still wonder about those people on Twitter who have gazillions of followers. Where did they get all of those followers? Do they ever interact with them? Do they have interns who post tweets for them? Maybe they're outsourcing their tweets?

Another friend once suggested, as we were sitting in a restaurant with relatives, that I should get a better cell phone so that I could tweet from it. “Just think, you could be sitting here right now and tweeting about what we're having for lunch.”

Really? And why would anyone care what I'm having for lunch? I'm not Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber. Thank God.

“You could even use a service that schedules your tweets,” she added. “You know, write them all at once and then have them sent out on a regular basis to stay in constant contact with your followers.”

No, thanks. I'll keep tweeting in real time, venturing into Twitter for a few spare minutes here and there during the day. I love Twitter—especially for the friendships it has brought me. Otherwise, you can find me alone in my barn, pondering sentences and sipping tea.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Probably Not.

Many of my friends have children who are getting their college acceptance letters—or rejections—this month. This means that I'm doing a lot of cheering--and consoling.

The cheering is easy. We all love to see those nice fat college acceptance envelopes in the mail, proving that everything those kids (and their parents) have done is worthy: The sports practices! The play practices! The debate teams and chess clubs and robotics competitions! Our exhausted children and their cranky parents want proof that it was all worthwhile.

Then there is the consoling. This is much harder. I haven't figured out how to convince my friends that where their kids go to college doesn't really matter, or that a rejection from that “first choice” school might be the best thing that could ever happen to their kids.

I speak with some degree of experience about this as a parent—and also as someone who has worked in college marketing for the past twenty years.

Let's look at my anecdotal experiences as a parent first: I have four older children who have all gone to college; three have graduated and one is about to in May. Of my four children, only one got into his top choice school, one of the small New England independent colleges. You know: brick buildings, liberal arts, lots of snow and parties. He graduated with an English degree and got a great job right out of the gates as a marketing writer.

Our other son didn't make it into his first choice school. He chose one of his second choices—a mid-level private college too far west for him to be happy. He transferred to a local city college, graduated with a film studies degree, and is now working with special effects shops in Hollywood.

The oldest daughter also wasn't admitted into her first choice college—another small, private independent—and had to settled for the State university. She hated the idea of a huge school with lecture halls instead of small classes. Nonetheless, she stuck it out because it was the best financial package. Within a year she loved the school and had great friends, wonderful roommates, and went on to graduate with a degree in natural resources. She got a job immediately with an environmental engineering company in California, moved across country, and is now headed to Alaska to work for the U.S. Forestry Service.

Okay, on to daughter #2: She got into her first choice international school in Paris. After two years there, however, she decided she wanted a U.S. degree and transferred home, this time to an Ivy League women's college. She'll graduate this May. Her plan? She'll waitress and live in a cheap apartment, then spend next fall traveling through Brazil for a while.

So. Were my kids in the “best” colleges? Maybe. Eventually. For them, anyway. But that's not why they were happy, or why they got jobs.

The son now working as a marketing writer landed that job because he had started earning money writing for web sites while he was still in college—on his own time. The son who went to Hollywood? Sure, he has a film studies degree, but what got him started with special effects shops is the fact that he worked as a carpenter all through high school. His tool belt was his ticket into the movie business.

Meanwhile, the daughter who went to the big university took every opportunity that came her way, working as a laboratory assistant for one professor, doing field work in Indonesia, studying abroad in Spain, and doing environmental work with another professor over the summer. Yes, she graduated with honors, but her extracurricular activities got her career launched—and helped her discover what she loves to do.

All of our kids are passionate, curious, and smart. Their college experiences gave them time to explore and grow. But truthfully? They could have had those experiences at almost any college.

To those students who have been accepted into their top choice colleges, I want to say a hearty congratulations. You've worked hard and you deserve those honors. I hope the colleges turn out to be not just “top choices,” but also the best fit. If they're not, I hope you'll transfer out and find a place you belong.

And, for families whose kids are despairing because they made it only into their second- or even third-choice schools, I'm going to put on my college marketing hat for a minute. The reasons your child didn't make it into her top choice school probably has nothing to do with who she is or what she is capable of in the future. It's more about what those colleges had as an applicant pool this year.

What's more, as someone who writes college marketing materials and helps institutions “brand” themselves, I know firsthand that all of the literature and web sites you've looked at to find out more about your dream schools are carefully crafted (by people like me) to show you the best of the best. You know: the student profiles of talented kids, the enlightening community service opportunities, the innovative curriculum and honors courses, the close relationships with caring professors, the internships that lead to jobs, yada yada.

Yep. I've written about all of those things for dozens of colleges, from small four-year schools with minimal reputations to huge schools with lots of international clout.

And you know what? I wasn't lying. Every college has great students, wonderful professors, and boundless opportunities to enrich student learning outside the classroom.

In fact, the experiences that students have outside of class are probably more important than the degrees they earn. Every college offers work study opportunities, activities, sports teams. Every college offers an alumni network and career counseling, too, and many encourage study abroad, even if it's just for a short term.

A designer degree doesn't matter nearly as much in the long run as the things a student does while getting that piece of paper—especially the activities and jobs between classes and during the summer. Those are the things that will truly contribute to a depth of self-discovery, transforming college students into adults with not only education, but confidence, job skills, and a global perspective, too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

2011 Book of the Year Award Finalists Announced

I'm pleased to announce that my first novel, Sleeping Tigers, is a finalist for the 2011 ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award.

ForeWord Reviews is the only review trade journal devoted exclusively to books from independent houses. Representing more than 700 publishers, the finalists were selected from 1200 entries in 60 genre categories. These books are examples of independent publishing at its finest.

In this new Wild West of publishing, ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards program was established to help publishers shine an additional spotlight on their best titles and bring increased attention to librarians and booksellers of the literary and graphic achievements of independent publishers and their authors. Award winners are chosen by librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines, working everyday with patrons and customers. For a complete list of Book of the Year finalists, go to their web site,

Sleeping Tigers is available as a paperback or ebook. Order it through your local book store or online here:

Friday, April 6, 2012

That Chipped Teacup Feeling: Life after Breast Cancer

Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This wasn't the “do something or die” kind of cancer that my friends Rachel and Kim went through last year. It wasn't even the “lump the size of a grapefruit” breast cancer my mom had removed after getting her first mammogram at age 78. It certainly wasn't the wildfire kind of breast cancer that killed my son's English teacher in high school, when my son and her daughter were both just sixteen years old.

Nope, my breast cancer was, thankfully, the “almost missed it” variety. I had a lumpectomy (described by my nurse as “the size of an orange”--why do they always use fruit metaphors?) Clear margins, no radiation or chemo. Nothing much to go through, by almost any medical standard. Why, then, was I so terrified?

I'd heard a lot about breast cancer—I am a journalist, after all, and I've known plenty of cancer survivors (and others who were less fortunate). But nobody told me about the fear. For several years after my lumpectomy, I felt as damaged as a chipped teacup. I worried that one more time through the dishwasher might shatter me completely.

As a mother whose youngest son was in kindergarten when I was first diagnosed, my biggest fear was that the cancer would return and kill me while my kids still needed me. I had other, lesser fears, too: losing what's left of my boobs, having my husband lose interest in me.

Gradually, though, I have somehow stopped being afraid. I had a couple of new scares, resulting in biopsies. My husband was diagnosed with diabetes, my stepsister with colon cancer, my mother with emphysema. Another good friend just found out that her son—the same age as my oldest boy—has lymphoma.

All of this was scary, but it also made me realize that each of us carries sleeping tigers inside us. That's what it feels like to me: that my cancer is this capricious jungle animal asleep inside me. It could wake at any moment, sharpen its claws, and slash my life to bits. Never mind feeling like a chipped teacup. Now I visualized a caged and potentially lethal animal inside me!

Somehow, though, this image has given me the strength to live without fear. There are some things you can't control in life—you can only accept that you, like anyone else, might experience disease, loss, grief, survival, death, surgery, whatever. We all go through something. Why worry about it until it happens? Let sleeping tigers lie, and get on with your life in the meantime.

After breast cancer, I became resolved to do things I'd always put off. I took a pottery class with my husband and finally made a solid commitment to write fiction and get it published. Our family traveled to England and Spain, and we bought a farmhouse on Prince Edward Island near my favorite beach. I bought a membership to AMC and started hiking in the White Mountains and joined a knitting group. I restored the old garden behind our house and, this summer, I'm going to try laying the paths through it myself. I'm also going to buy a new bicycle and map out some routes through my favorite small towns north of Boston.

No matter how short your life might be, or how deliciously long, why not cram in as much as you can? Sure, live in the moment, but glory in your past and plan for the future, too. Take on every adventure that appeals to you—and you're sure to embrace new opportunities to live with love, grace, humor, and compassion.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wrestling with Point of View in Your Writing

When I was in first grade, I had an art teacher who shamed me into crying in front of the entire classroom.

She had given us an easy assignment. Handing out blocks of wood, she asked us to draw faces on them. I loved art, and happily got to work drawing a man's face. When I'd finished with his features, he looked more like an alien than a man, so I painted his face bright blue. (I blame my mother: she always read to me from her science fiction novels rather than from any of those boring children's books.)

The art teacher went down the row of student desks, nodding and smiling as the children held up their wooden faces for praise. And then she got to me, and nearly went into one of those whirling fits of rage I now associate with Roald Dahl characters.

“You painted your face blue?” she shrieked. “You can't paint a face blue! What kind of face is that?”

“It's an alien's face,” I said, tearing up.

I might as well have said “Satan.” The art teacher hauled me over to sit in the corner and made me paint another face while the rest of the kids tittered.

Now, this story happens to be true, but if I were writing fiction, I could have chosen to relay it from a different perspective. For example, I might have written it in limited third person from the teacher's point of view, or from the point of view of the town sheriff, who is called into school after the art teacher is found dead. Or I might have chosen to begin the narrative after an alien invasion, during which the art teacher and several other people in town are abducted! Then I probably would have used multiple points of view.

Wrestling with point of view is something that writers do every day in fiction, and it's one of the most frustrating—and fun—aspects of writing. Sometimes it takes several drafts before you get the point of view that works for a particular story. For instance, if you're writing about an alien invasion, you might want what's called an “author omniscient” point of view, which basically means that you're relaying the story from on high, from multiple points of view or even in multiple time frames.

In Sleeping Tigers, my first novel, I chose what's called a “limited third person” point of view—this means that I can only be inside the main character's head, and nobody else's. I did this because I wanted to create a tight emotional connection between my protagonist, a young woman named Jordan, and my readers, while still having the literary freedom to write lush descriptive passages of other characters and the setting (San Francisco and Nepal, in this case).

For my next novel, The Wishing Hill, to be published in spring 2013 by Penguin, I created the story of two women who are bound in ways they don't suspect, so I decided to alternate points of view between them. That lets the reader discover their complex interconnectedness even before the characters themselves know what's going on. I had to be careful to differentiate the voices. One speaks in longer sentences while the other has more hyphenated, staccato thoughts.

Now I'm writing a paranormal mystery. For this one, I initially tried a third person point of view for the first two drafts. I'm contemplating a first person point of view for the next draft to see if that will help ramp up the scare factor. Maybe the reader will be more likely to feel something cold and damp behind her in the hallway if she is the “I.” Using first person is an avenue for getting even deeper into the protagonist's psyche; at the very least, if I try it, I can always go back to the third person point of view, having learned new things about the character, right?

Take a closer look at the book you're reading or writing. What would have happened with another point of view? Try it—you might be surprised.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Cat Living a Dog's Life

I never meant to adopt two cats instead of one, much less to fall in love with a cat that thinks he's a dog. But sometimes life surprises you. Or, in cat terms, sometimes life is a ball of yarn that unwinds into unexpected pleasures.

It all began when I gave into my son Aidan's request for a kitten. Aidan had a tall order: his kitten had to be gray, white-pawed, and female. After weeks of driving around New England, we finally found a shelter with the perfect gray kitten, snowdrop paws and all.

As we waited for the paperwork at the animal shelter, I glanced into a cage across the aisle. There, all by himself, lounged a cat as long as my arm, butterscotch gold and with a kinked tail. On impulse, I scooped him into my arms.

“Put him back,” I scolded my own impulsive self. The last thing I needed was another cat, much less two more. We already had two dogs and a gerbil.

On the other hand, I thrive on animal chaos. I grew up on a gerbil farm—at the height of his career, my gerbil czar of a father had 9,000 of these endearing rodents housed in three Sears prefab buildings behind our house—and my mother raised horses. Just for fun, we also had pygmy goats, sheep, geese, chickens, barn cats and house cats, a furious parrot, at least three dogs at a time, and peacocks that could scare the life out of you because their cries sounded like somebody being murdered in the back yard. In many ways, I get along better with animals than with most people.

At the animal shelter, the big yellow tomcat was as languid in my arms as he'd been in the cage, purring like a motorboat as he nuzzled my neck. He didn't care that he'd been abandoned. Life at this moment was a good thing and he was going to make the most of it.

Just like that, I was in love. Aidan and I walked out of the shelter with two cats instead of one.

It soon became clear that my new cat, Mini Wheat, was no ordinary feline. He is a CatDog like that hybrid cartoon animal on Nickelodeon, the one with a cat's head on one end of his body and a dog's on the other. If I walk our dogs on leashes, this CatDog struts between them as if he's on a leash, too. When I call the dogs to come inside, Mini Wheat comes running, tail wagging. If I toss a toy, he fetches it for me, purring. Our clever Cairn terrier wisely snubs Mini Wheat for his doggish antics, but our Pekingese lovingly accepts this CatDog into the pack.

As I write this, MiniWheat is curled in my lap, catlike. But I know that he's waiting expectantly for three o'clock, when it's time for our afternoon walk: me with a Cairn, a Pekingese, and one enthusiastic CatDog, who shows me how to think and live outside the box.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pimping Your Book, Indie or Traditional

Now that I've got feet in both camps, I have a unique perspective on the good, the bad and the mysterious truths about book marketing. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, was published by Random House. I leaped into the indie world when I self-published my first novel, Sleeping Tigers, a couple of months ago. My second novel, The Wishing Hill, will be published by Penguin in spring 2013. These experiences have taught me a lot about book publicity, but I'm still learning new things every day. There are some differences in how traditional and indie books are publicized, but those differences are shrinking by the nanosecond. The truest thing I can tell you is that, no matter how your book makes it into the world, you'll need to take an active part in the publicity. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Mine the Free Resources
The Internet is a wonderful tutor. There are more free resources out there about marketing your book than you'll ever have time to read. Google anything from “picking a book cover” to “social media for authors,” and you'll get enough hits to last through a few thermoses of coffee each time you do it. Make good use of these resources. One of my favorites is Novel Publicity's “Free Advice Blog” at

Prepare Your Platform
No matter who you talk to in publishing—agent, editor, publicist, or sales team—they'll tell you that their ideal is a good book written by an author with a “solid platform.” Basically, that means that they want you to be famous before you even give them a manuscript—or they want some hook, like you chewed off your arm during a battle with a grizzly bear. (Even then, they hope you've been blogging about it.) One easy way to start building your platform is by crafting a virtual identity. Social media tools are free and easy to use. Start a blog, create an author facebook page, get a twitter account, and set up a Goodreads page. Give people useful information—don't just pimp your book. If you know how to do something—anything from fly fishing to quilting—blog about that, guest post on other people's blogs, and people will start following you. Yes, it's time consuming, but it's also incredibly fun to connect with people. If you're trying traditional publishing avenues, it will help your editor sell your book to the publisher if she can prove that you have an active presence online. Indie or traditional, you're cultivating a loyal readership.

A Publicist Is Just Part of the Picture
If you're traditionally published, expect to be assigned a publicist. It is that person's job to advocate for your book with print media, radio and television stations, bookstores, and online sites. Make yourself part of the publicity team. If the publicist suggests that you do something, do it! The more you help your publicist, the more she can help you. On the other hand, don't take it personally if the publicist is too busy to do more than a few early rounds of marketing pushes. She'll probably have a minimum of time and an even smaller budget to devote to your book. You'll have to keep up the momentum. Likewise, if you're an indie author, be prepared to devote part of every week to promoting your books. Writers with deep pockets may find it easiest to hire a publicist; even then, log the hours if you want results.

Your Book Launch Is What You Make It
Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, a book launch in traditional publishing was a Very Big Deal. Authors were sent on book tours to do readings and signings on the publisher's dime. The pre-sales of books, both online and in bookstores, determined pretty quickly which books were hits. That's because they knew that shelf life in bookstores was brief. This is all changing. Sure, it's great to gain traction the minute your book is available. However, with the advent of online book sellers and e-books, your book will stay around forever. Don't despair if it takes weeks, or even months, to see sales results. Keep at it, and eventually the numbers will climb.

Give Away Your Books
Traditional publishers know that the best way to sell a book is to give it away first. They target who they give it to, of course—book reviewers, TV producers, book clubs—but, ultimately, the idea is to “seed” your book around the country so that people start talking about it. You can do the same thing on your own. Participate in giveaways on your own facebook author page or through Goodreads, or ask book bloggers if they'll host giveaways for you.

Befriend Book Bloggers
Book bloggers are fairy godmothers for writers. Without their support and generosity, many of our books would never be read. Check out as many book blogs as you can find. When you discover a book blogger who reviews books like yours, write a personal note and ask if you can send a review copy. You might want to send her an e-book because it's cheaper than mailing a paperback, but if she says she'd rather have a paperback, send it! Media mail is cheap postage and print-on-demand paperbacks are inexpensive, too. Remember: she is the one doing you a favor, and it's a good investment. Most book bloggers post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; once they're up, be sure to tweet and post those links on your own pages. Add them to your Amazon Author Central page as well.

Look for Out-of-the-Box Marketing Opportunities
Just like parents know their own children better than anyone else can, you know your book: its content, style, and target audience. Use that expertise in thinking about out-of-the-box marketing opportunities. I contacted pet groups when I published The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, for instance, and found a loyal following. For Sleeping Tigers, I'm contacting breast cancer groups, because my main character is a breast cancer survivor, and I know other cancer survivors will connect with this story about hope and starting over.

Lasting Impressions
All of your marketing efforts will eventually come together. If you're a parent, think about how many times you had to show your toddler peas or carrots before that child stopped thinking of veggies as too weird to eat. The same is true of your book: keep putting it out there, and pretty soon people will start saying, “Hey, I remember that title. I meant to read that book!”

Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Sell a Novel in Just 25 Years!

When my agent called a few weeks ago to say that an editor at Penguin wanted to buy my new novel, The Wishing Hill, I literally had to lie down. Otherwise, I might have fallen out of my chair. After all, I've been waiting for this call for 25 years.

How did it take me so long to publish a novel? And why was this novel chosen, but not one of the other half dozen my loyal agent sent out?

I don't really know. I was doing what all writers do, really: I was writing fiction around the edges of my life. I've been married (twice). I've had children (three of my own, plus two stepchildren.) I've done some traveling. I've renovated old houses and summer cottages. I've made a good living as a nonfiction writer.

Despite having so many people to love and things to do in my life, however, I never stopped trying to write a novel good enough for an editor to say, “Hey. I want to publish that.” I got so frustrated with the wait that I finally published my own novel, Sleeping Tigers, just a few weeks before I got the call about Penguin wanting to buy The Wishing Hill. I'm delighted that not just one, but two of my novels, will now be in print. To those of you longing to do the same, I hope it takes you less time than it did me. Meanwhile, here are a few tips for outlasting the rejection letters:

Watch Reality TV
Shows like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance can be just the antidote you need to a crisis in confidence. That single mother with the lip ring, the doughy girl who thought she'd never be a dancer, and the guy with the cowboy hat all have talent. But, just like writers, they have to hit the audience and judges at the right time to win the gold ring.

If You're Writing, You're a Writer
Lots of people say, “Oh, if I had the time, what a book I could write!” It's true that everyone has great stories to tell—but only a few of us actually write them down and revise them again and again. If you're writing, you're a writer, and you will get better as you go.

Every Rejection Is Just One Person's Opinion
We've all heard the stories about various novels being rejected, like, 800 times, before editors taking them. Every rejection letter is written by just one editor. Tear up the short, nonsensical notes (I once received a rejection that said, “This does not amuse.”) Editors send those out because they have to say something. Keep sending your work out. It can only get published if it's out there.

There Really Is Such a Thing as a Good Rejection
When a friend called recently, despondent because she'd received a rejection letter, I asked her to read it to me. The editor had clearly taken the time to read her novel carefully and had made constructive comments. Even better, the editor said she'd take another look at the novel if my friend rewrote it. There really are editors out there willing to take the time to do that. My advice? Put aside your ego and do it, then send your book back out.

Be Not Afraid of Young Pups
Pick up an issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and you can't help but envy all of the babes-in-arms out there winning fiction contests and earning publishing contracts before they're old enough to need their author photos digitally enhanced. Yeah, well. Some people are talented and lucky, and some of us are talented, but don't get sprinkled with lucky stardust until later in life.

Never Equate Being Published with Being Rich or Happy
What did I do after I sold my first novel? I celebrated, of course—but only after picking my son up from school, throwing in another load of laundry, and doing the supper dishes. The thing about publishing a novel is that it won't make you rich, especially now that advances are lower and publishing companies are paying out in thirds or even fourths. Plus, don't forget to subtract your agent's commission and taxes on earnings.
As for being happy? My contented writer friends were happy before they published their novels. And my writer friends who are unhappy? Yep. They were that way before they published their books, too. Being published really won't change your life, unless you happen to become as well-known as Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling—and my guess is even those two could shop at the local Market Basket for eggs without being recognized. They just drive better cars.

Surround Yourself with People Who Believe that Writing Is Worthwhile
Writing is a long and sometimes lonely business, so it's key to have a constructive writing group, writer friends, and a spouse or partner who believe that the act of creating a story is a worthwhile use of your time. Without my incredibly supportive husband and my LIW (Ladies in Writing) group, with whom I swap not only manuscripts, but stories about rejection letters and agents, children and spouses, I never could have made it through the past 25 years of crafting stories and surviving doubt. They helped me remember that the creative journey itself is worth savoring and sharing.