Plans & Dreams

I’ve been dreaming up ideas for my new position as Program Director with Detroit Working Writers. One of the things our President asked me to do was facilitate some workshops myself. Once a teacher, always a teacher, so this was an easy YES.

In addition to planning events, hiring speakers, and scouting locations for the next 18 months or so, I’m also figuring out what kind of workshops I want to teach. I’ve got two lined up, one in July and one in October. The great thing is these workshops are not just for DWW members, but for the entire local writing community. Anyone can sign up. Including you.

I’m designing a new web page that will include a registration form (with some tech help) and that should all be in place in a week or so. But you can look at what I’ve got so far on the Events & Workshops page. I did that myself, with easy-peasy Word Press. I think it looks pretty good.

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Big ideas for 2016 don’t stop with teaching workshops. The other idea is something a bit more outside my comfort zone, but I’ve decided to do it, because it will be good for me and for my books. I’m taking my Blue Lake series on a long dreamed about tour of Lake Huron bookstores this spring/summer.

What stirred this idea up again was a phone call. The folks running the Alpena Book Festival (Alpena is a little town on Lake Huron that has a passing resemblance my fictional town of Blue Lake) emailed asking me to participate in the festival this fall. And I thought, wow, I should get my books in stores around there.

So I ran the idea by my road manager, ah, my husband Al, and he said sure, let’s do it.

When your publisher doesn’t have brick and mortar distribution, you can still get your books into stores. Simply order from your publisher and distribute the books yourself. Author friends of mine have done this two ways: one is to set a price and sell stock outright to the bookstores. The other is to take a commission when the books are sold.

Not sure what method I’ll try yet, just sure that I’m going to do something about getting my Blue Lake series in stores this spring.

 

Fishing for Creativity

12033034_10207897902913517_7496019220559347527_nI have been searching for something in my writing, even in my life, since they inform each other to an absurd degree only other obsessed writers can understand. And yet, focusing just on writing at the expense of a larger life is limiting. As Julia Cameron says, you can’t spend your entire life fishing in the same pond or eventually it will empty. Creativity needs to be replenished and sometimes that happens in unexpected ways.

Yesterday I did something I always dread. I went into the marketplace and sold my books to real people. This was not a safe writerly enclave of a conference or a workshop but a retail store that sells furniture, candy, and candles. Also gloves and purses and paintings. It used to be a roller skating rink. Something about the charm of Leon & Lulu’s (the young woman who served the writers coffee came to collect our mugs on roller skates) inspired me in ways I was not expecting. It really had nothing to do with selling my books, although I did that too.

There is a sort of electricity in the air when a group of writers comes together, especially when we are placed in an unfamiliar setting. For once, our animation comes off the page and greets other people face to face. We exchange stories and snap photos and, perhaps inadvertently, reveal secrets. Insatiable curiosity about people and the meaning of life is what keeps me writing, and while someone once said a writer has all the experiences she needs by the time she graduates high school, it’s just not true for me. I need to replenish that fishing hole.

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And that’s what unexpectedly happened yesterday. Maybe it was the way the shop scattered the writers over the vignettes that make up the store. I was against a wall with a large abstract painting above a sofa, a nicely upholstered chair to the side, and a huge coffee table full of my books. Other writers were just as creativity enfolded into the setting as I was. The store fed us hot dogs and popcorn from the original machines used in the old rink and later came around offering wine for a job well done.

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In fact, it was less than work and more like a social occasion as so many of my friends came to see me. Some of them even bought my book. I struck up a friendship with the guy across the aisle and he introduced me to his friend, the star of the show who sold probably as many books as the rest of us put together. His was the fertile story that grabbed me and started an avalanche of ideas bubbling up from my suddenly overflowing imagination.

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This star-of-the-day author wrote four books before he hit upon the idea to set one of his mystery novels in Detroit…in Greektown, a popular destination for metro Detroiters. The books prior to the Greektown series didn’t sell like the new books. Not even close. One smart marketing move was using the word Greektown in the titles. I lost count of how many people I saw carrying those books around. Maybe it helped that his was the first display as you entered the front door, but I have a feeling people just gravitate to the familiar and fun.

Which got me thinking about my own books, sales, marketing and more. I started thinking about my life in general, about how I have been coasting as if on roller skates since I retired. I still write, but after a lifetime of fitting writing in I’m finding it hard to transition into just writing, only writing. I need to do more with my life. I wasn’t sure what that could be until this morning when I woke up brimming with ideas like a freshly stocked fish pond. It will take me some time to sort out all of this stuff. I want to carefully consider my next move before I plunge into it, and plus, the holidays are coming!

Still, I’m very happy I ignored my introverted dread of the marketplace and just went ahead and splashed right into the middle of it.

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How To Find Writing Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? For writers, that is the most frequently asked question. It seems to vex many of my writer friends, but I’m not sure why. Maybe they don’t want to admit that they do nothing to produce ideas, that ideas simply float into their heads. Well, anyway, that’s what happens to me.

It starts with one little thought and builds from there. Does that sound difficult? It is.

For example, Sister Issues. I got the idea for my first published novel, an indie, while driving down a charming, winding river road in my town. I noted, not for the first time, that the quaint old Victorian houses were being torn down and cheap chain restaurants, strip mall drugstores, and branded coffee shops were replacing them.

I noticed this with some dismay because the house I was passing, one of the few actual homes left on that road, had always been a favorite. The lawn in back sloped down to the river, where the delicate leaves of an ancient willow tree trailed in the stream. What would happen to that house, it’s gingerbread architecture and flower gardens so lovingly painted and trimmed?

I felt a pang in my chest. Not for the first time. But what to do? People have to shop and eat and so forth. It’s progress. Which I cannot stop. But I can, in my head, put a young woman in that house and have her open a coffee shop on the main floor. She lives upstairs. Cher’s place is called the Sugar Shack because that song, from the early 1960s, floated into my head once the woman was up there getting comfortable.

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An early cover from Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack eventually became Sister Issues

And so on. From the first idea comes setting or character and before I get too far down the page I start thinking about conflict. Which also comes out of the character and setting. I’d just been feeling conflicted about suburban sprawl, so that’s the larger issue, or the theme, as we former English teachers like to say. So the original idea bursts and flowers and then I pick it apart and arrange it in a vase…I mean a novel. I arrange it all into a novel. And there will be lovers because there just always is—I like to see people happy together. Well, first they have to suffer a little bit. That’s conflict, too. Then maybe they’ll be happy together. At least some of them.

So much of my novels come from my life. Not one word or deed in any of them is taken from my own experiences, but every single emotion of all the primary characters is something I’ve felt. This is not alarming, I’m just telling you the real answer to the question. Happily, I have never written from the point of view of a psycho-killer, at least not yet.

But I have had evil characters. Just like there is evil in life, and I have observed it, so too do my flawed, imperfect (but not psycho-killer) characters observe the evil around them. Frankly, they’re as baffled and dismayed as I am by all the hate and mayhem. Sometimes there are unexpected grace notes, too. You need them in life and in fiction. For example, soon after I self-published Sister Issues, The Wild Rose Press offered me a contract for my second novel, The Paris Notebook.

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Library at USC where my son matriculated from grad school

At the time I came up with the idea for novel number two, I was teaching, it was my very first day, at a university. Before that I taught at a community college and before that I taught high school. So climbing the rungs of academia was a bit daunting for me, but I was a good enough teacher of English to muddle through. Except in my very first class on my very first day we heard The Simpsons coming through the wall. And another class laughing and laughing. I was teaching these young people how to write a college essay, and writing is not easy, and nobody was laughing.

My students looked at me like “Why aren’t you showing us cartoons and making jokes?” I did apologize for our rather dry subject matter, but I was curious. What was that other professor teaching? So being the questioner that I am, after class, I went over, introduced myself, and asked him. Turns out he was teaching the same exact course as me. He just did it different. We became friends, despite the fact that he was younger than I was and single to boot. And we still see each other once a year or so. He’s a Shakespeare scholar now.

And I write novels. That little story of meeting John set the first scene (later cut, alas) for The Paris Notebook. Two English teachers, with wildly different lives and at-odds ambitions, share an office. Sparks ensue. Also mayhem and evil. You know, I have to take my former comment back. I did delve a bit into the mind of a would-be psycho-killer in that novel. Just a bit, but the way I did it was to take that Super Ego “it’s all about me” part that is in all of us (but perhaps larger in myself than in you) and enlarged it to Big Box store size.

That’s how you find your way into a psycho-killer. Ha! Also, I read a couple of books for research. One was called The Psychopath Next Door. Evil becomes much less bewildering when you understand that most murderers and bad people simply have no empathy. They are born without a conscience. And they learn to hide this fact very early in life. They are charming and you probably love some of them, at least the ones who are not evil psychopaths. The gentler form of folk who lack empathy are simple sociopaths. Most sociopaths are not murderers or evil. They just don’t have the “I care” gene. Or, they only care about themselves. There’s more, and it’s fascinating and creepy, but I read that book a long time ago so I don’t want to muck up the authors’ research any more than I might have already done.

I love research. Usually non-fiction books. I like social science a lot, neuroscience and psychology, but I’ll read anything if it makes my story better. I’m a reader after all; most writers are. All writers should be. I read everything, including every genre of fiction. I like strong female characters in fiction. I also like strong females in real life. I once knew a strong woman who invited me to her place on Lake Huron up north.

She and her husband had bought these beat up hunting cabins. There were six of them. Together, they renovated these places, just as they had their historic home in our town. Then, the strong woman, who could plaster walls and refinish wood and hammer nails, also decorated these now sturdy cottages in the most adorable shabby chic style.

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I’m from Michigan, so I love big water. 

I spent the day in awe of her and a few years later I wrote the novel that would become the first in my Blue Lake series for The Wild Rose Press, Blue Heaven. My husband gave me the idea for Luke’s #1 Rule, the second book in that series. We’ve literally been married half our lives, but back when we were still newlyweds he said “I only had one rule when I was dating.” He kind of chuckled ruefully when he said this. But I was intrigued. “What?” I wanted to know. “No single moms.” He looked at me with his big blue eyes and we had a good long laugh because he’d married me, a single mom, and we were both pretty happy about it.

Our wedding almost didn’t happen. We broke up for a minute after we were engaged. But then we got back together and it was quite romantic and we went on in this fashion for more than twenty years before I remembered that remark and asked him if I could use his “one rule” idea to write a book. He wasn’t thrilled with that plan. But I begged and he said yes as long as absolutely nothing in the book resembled our real lives in any way. I promised. Then I asked my sons, who were little boys when we married but were now grown up men. “It won’t really be you and it’s not about us.” They didn’t mind, so I went ahead and wrote that book.

Husbands aren’t the only givers of ideas. Writers sometimes have critique groups that help. My critique partner gave me the final scene of Luke’s #1 Rule. She read my final scene and said, oh no, you don’t want to do that, do this instead. So I did. And then I had to turn in my next novel and I didn’t have the right title because hate and mayhem had ensued and it wasn’t the sweet little love story I thought it would be.

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The largest writing group I belong to is Detroit Working Writers.

They’ve been around for more than 100 years.

I emailed my partner and said “Any ideas?” I listed all my bad ones. She felt so sorry for my broken brain that she sent a list, and down that list a bit was the perfect title. That is the name of my next book: Love and Death in Blue Lake. I hope it comes out sometime this summer, but you never know. I’ve had lots of writing partners through the years. Really, I can’t get by without them. And then there is my editor. She’s lovely. Having an editor is one of the best things about working for a publisher instead of going indie.

I have a couple of indie novels too. Sister Issues of course, with my daughter-in-law and her real life sister as cover models. Then I wrote a couple of indie paranormals and one of them, Sweet Melissa, actually does have a segment that is from my real life when I was a young hitchhiking hippie. Everything in that one section where Melissa’s friend talks her into hitching to Colorado really happened; I just moved it from a short story I’d written years ago. So writing is also about being willing to break your own rules for a story idea’s sake. And just following thse ideas wherever they lead you.

Why Write?

People write books for mysterious reasons. They think they “have an idea.” But for me, it turns out to be a bit more complex than that. My latest release, at least in part, was written as a do-over. I was once a single mom. I keep the true story of that time here. It won a local award and was published in a national anthology because being a single mom is not easy and overcoming hardship makes good story.

I got the idea to write a novel about divorce and how difficult it can be on children (and the adults who are supposedly the mature ones). It would have a happy ending like my own story did, but it wouldn’t sugarcoat the devastation of divorce. When I added an addiction subplot, my publisher wisely decided to market the book as “contemporary fiction” and not romance like my other books.

Divorce is not romantic. Neither is addiction.

Before I embarked on this project I asked permission from the men in life: my husband and two sons. Not because there would be one true detail in this novel but because there would be an eventual husband and two little boys figured prominently in the single mom’s life. That is where reality stopped and imagination took over.

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The relief of writing a better journey than my own was immediate and lasting. Healing, even. Of course fiction needs conflict and the small problems of the lovers were supplemented by an equally fictional ex-husband, who I made a terrible addict. That was not something I’d wish on my own ex-husband, who hardly takes a drink of alcohol let alone any other substances. Sure, the real guy, the father of my children, might not like the fictional ex-husband’s role in my book, but it had to be done for the sake of the story.

I’m pretty sure my ex does not read my books anyway. And no, I didn’t ask his permission. This is fiction I’m writing, although in the thick of it, it feels very real. I used real feelings. My own and and those I could clearly read on my sons’ sad faces those many years ago. Writers use emotion the way actors do. It’s a tool and we manipulate it.

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That doesn’t sound very nice, but then there are zillions of articles that talk about how writers aren’t good people, that they’ll use anyone and anything if it serves their story. I take exception to that idea. It’s because I don’t want to hurt the real people in my actual life that I don’t write memoir. I make up the people in my novels.

So why write? For the pleasure of a do-over. For revenge. For absolution. To right wrongs, to dive deep into my peculiar fascination with the human psyche, to create order from chaos, to control the actions on the page so I can let go in real life, where there is no such thing as control, or anyway very little of it. And maybe, to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and learn, through this exercise in empathy, how to love a little better.

What about money and fame and glory?

Nah. I wouldn’t bet on those things if I were a young writer. They may come, but the odds are not in your favor. The odds of becoming a happier person, content in a world of your own building, now that is a distinct possibility.

7 Stages of a Writer

AYLI.1_1251Shakespeare had his “7 Ages of Man” and as I look toward the cusp of big change, I celebrate my own, happier (but not even close to as brilliant) version.

Stage 1: She opens a book full of words, reads. Then another, then hundreds of others. Next, alongside, in fact, she opens an empty book, one with a lock and key, and day after day she writes her secret heart out. She will continue these two endeavors for the rest of her life.

Stage 2: She meets her original mentor, Mrs. Grow, who will help her grow into her true destiny. She learns the thrilling joy, like nothing else ever, of seeing her words in print in the Cardinal, West Jr. High’s school newspaper. No “A”  on any report card can compare.

Stage 3: She follows her desire, a three chord progression, music-lyric-poetry. More publication, in literary magazines and a brief stop to fall in love. She doesn’t know yet that another love, her first love, the love of words, will win out after all.

Stage 4: She writes everything now: stories, poems, diary entries, book reviews, even (very bad) novels. Some things find publication until another romantic misadventure sends her off-track and into a new world entirely. Still, she holds fast to her pen and paper.

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Stage 5: She must teach and in teaching she learns the craft of writing. She writes a book for her students and in writing this book, her only full length non-fiction to see print, she fulfills a long-held dream: to hold her book in her hands. And she blogs, taking her diary public, but keeping a private one as well. The bad novels turn better as she teaches and learns and never ever stops reading. Now in fact she is paid to read and write about what she has read.

Stage 6: She finds a way to fold writing into her life, a summer here, a winter there, a five year sabbatical that led to an agent and — at last! — a few novels that are not terrible. A small publisher offers her a contract and now 7 novels in, she has realized all of her dreams and more. Who, in 1960, could dream up the internet? So as some modes of writing fall away, others replace it. Tweets instead of poems, blog posts instead of book reviews. Life is rich and rewarding if a tiny bit too full … until finally retirement from teaching opens a new door.

Stage 7: I am here. Still writing. And reading. My children are grown, my life is serene, and I sit in winter at my desk, revising my best book yet. The book I am writing is always the best book.