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.