Monday, March 19, 2018

8th annual National Chin Up for Writers Day

Seven years ago, I designated March 19 as National Chin Up for Writers Day. Each year on this holiday I've written an update post. This year I'm trying something new ... er, old. I've recently been introduced to the term "evergreen" in terms of posts that are always relevant. I'm going to recycle this evergreen post, and in 2019 I'll write a fresh one. So here we go!

I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves. I remember that before traditional publication, if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and I'd have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard I've tried, and I came close with that one agent, and I attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how I keep trying and I…

Yes, it sucks.

So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.

1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing. It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.

And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.

2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published. The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully. I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too.

3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously. 4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to send a query to. Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling.

See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target. You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet,, but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?

Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.

Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:

Second year
Third year

Sixth year: As I look for it to link to, I am just now realizing I forgot to do it last year! Oh dear. Rats!

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Ireland will always be in my heart

You never know how the experiences of youth will sculpt the future. I took my junior year abroad in Cork, Ireland, mainly because I was following a guy, but can it be a coincidence that two of my novels feature Irish protagonists? I love the brogue but more than just the accent, it's the imaginative nature of the language. I will never forget sitting in the tiny living room in the rental flat in Prosperity Square (close to the Murphy's Stout brewery, and those hops are forever living in my nasal memory), watching the peat fire burn, and my Irish roommate said, "I watch the flames and I fall to dreaming."

I fall to dreaming!!!

And no, she was not in my poetry program, and no, she wasn't trying to sound poetic. She was a grownup with a regular job. That is just how people sometimes speak in Ireland, reared on a literary island.

I'd like to tell you a bit about my two Irish characters, each of whom wound up on American shores. One fictional and one based on a real-life historical character, the maid to accused murderess Lizzie Borden.

Dodge City prostitute that I saw as "Nora." Her image appears
on the front cover of Woman of Ill Fame

First, Nora Simms. She's part of a Boston Irish immigrant family and departs for California as soon as she hears the reports of gold. She's an unapologetic prostitute who wants to capitalize on the chance to make money, fast. She arrives in San Francisco when it's rough, crude and open to any possibilities. Unfortunately, Nora's path entangles with that of a killer targeting the women of ill fame (a euphemism for prostitute in that era), and she has to use her quick wits to ensure she's not the next victim. The novel Woman of Ill Fame launched a decade ago from Heyday Books, a small press in Berkeley that is still going strong after 40 years in business. Their rights in the book elapsed, and now the book is only available as an ebook under my steam. I'm hoping to repackage this with a sequel in the next year and give Nora new life.

The real Bridget Sullivan on the right. At left is actor Kristen Stewart
portraying her in the upcoming movie Lizzie,
which is not based on my book.

Next, Bridget Sullivan. She was the real-life maid in a household where a husband and wife were brutally murdered by repeated blows to the head with a hatchet. The younger daughter of the family, Lizzie Borden, was accused of the murders. That day, she and Bridget were the only people in the house besides the victims. After a circus of a trial (every major newspaper sent a reporter to Massachusetts to cover it), Lizzie was acquitted. Bridget provided testimony against her employer, and I can only wonder how nervous Bridget was for her own safety once Lizzie was released from jail. Legend says she returned to Ireland to buy her mother a farm. Her traces fade as there were many, many women named Bridget Sullivan in this late-1800s era. The Murderer's Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel was my first book written involving real historical people, which definitely provided a challenge in terms of getting it "right." The Lizzie Borden story also has a following of many passionate people and I hoped I got it correct for them. A few months ago, I learned that a woman who loved the Lizzie Borden narrative so much that she got married in the murder house gave my book a glowing review: I felt jubilant! This book launched in October 2017, so apparently the trend is that I publish an Irish novel every 10 years. I'd like to carve that down significantly for the next one!

Go wear your bra, Erin!

P.S. It wasn't until I started uploading the book covers below that I realized my two Irish books were both blurbed by the magnificent and generous Diana Gabaldon. Her Scottish kindness has reached across the sea to my Irish women. :)

P.P.S. I hasten to say I hadn't forgotten she blurbed them. Far from it!!!!!! I just haven't ever done a post before that connected the two books' Irishness.

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Monday, February 05, 2018

...In which I attend three literary events in 24 hours

"One of these things just doesn't belong here..."

And I don’t even live in Manhattan!

Friday night I went to an author event for Kelly Corrigan’s book Tell Me More. Although I read fiction until my ears migrate to the front of my head to compensate for the deteriorating eyesight, I’d somehow missed the nonfiction phenomenon that is Kelly Corrigan. This is great, though: now I can binge-read everything she wrote, because I adore her.

This is a lot like my experience with the Harry Potter books; I was clueless until Book Six or so. And then…180 miles an hour.

Back to Kelly. Luckily, my friend Jeannine knew all about her and invited me, knowing I would love her too.

Imagine the scene. A Barnes & Noble filled to the gills, the organizers having to bring out more seats, freeflowing wine and appetizers…we had to be wristbanded to be there. I marveled and thought someday I want people to be wristbanded to hear me.

And pay $45 a ticket.

But the ticket price was fine because it included a gift bag with her hardcover, a wonderful little book light which I’m very excited about, a Random House stadium cup (wristbands, stadium cups: I think they’re working on converting authors to athletes) and a copy of …Glamour magazine. Jeannine laughed and said she didn’t think that had been preapproved by Kelly. I bet she’d want Mother Jones in there.

(In case that sounds mean of us, one of Kelly’s ongoing riffs is about foregoing showers).

Kelly is freaking funny. I found myself laughing very hard, the sharp bark of surprised laughter, and the murmuring laugh of “oh yes.” Women everywhere were exchanging glances as we/they laughed, because much of what Kelly said was universal, bonding.

And then she spoke of loss, and even though I made a vow a few months ago to cry less, I just couldn’t stop some of these tears. Jeannine said she’d been listening to the audio book on her way in to work and bawling her eyes out. I would add some hard-earned advice to readers here: don’t listen to Schindler’s List in your car.

If you have a chance to see Kelly in person, take it. It’s incredibly rewarding and will make you feel good about being a human.

The line to have your book signed snaked around and around, and thanks to our arrival time, we were literally the last people in line. And when I finally got up to Kelly, what did I say to her? “Thank you for all the feels.”

It would be good if Barnes & Noble could provide a trapdoor immediately in front of the author signing table for people who say stupid things like that. I never even use the phrase “all the feels.” How did that come out of my mouth? Worse, it sounded glib after Kelly had just evoked truly genuine emotions out of all of us and shared some devastating things about her own losses, which reminded us of our own losses, and connected us in the communality of grief.

Accordingly, she responded, “What’s your name?” and signed my book.

Jeannine and I went around the corner, had gin and tonics and some weirdly-cold (but delicious!) truffles with raspberry dipping sauce and only went home when her husband texted us that he was falling asleep watching our brood of kids.

I went home, I slept. I recharged for …Literary Round Two! Ding ding!

Saturday morning, I went into Sacramento for our monthly brunch gathering of the Historical Novels Society friends. We have no agenda and just meet to talk shop and encourage each other. I love this group so much. We meet for two hours in a closed-off room at Ettore’s Swiss bakery and there’s always good talk and laughter.

This time, we were all asking about our leader’s situation with a dearly loved one that is facing cancer for a second time. He’s such an incredibly kind person (and a great writer) and it was hard to see the struggle etched in the lines of his face. It’s always so difficult to know what to say, but I hope he knows how much we all are concerned and want to be supportive and listen while his family undergoes this horrible time. Mark, I hope everyone who reads these lines will pause and send a little heartfelt ping of support to you.

There’s another Erika M. at the group, and she just released a lovely early reader book called Big and Yellow. It has wonderful illustrations and so far, a neat story. I read the first chapter to my kids last night and they were enthusiastic, wanted me to keep reading when it was time to turn off the light. 

The Adventures of Big and Yellow by Erika Nyhagen

She’s using a pen surname Nyhagen, but it was still fun to see her signature on the title page as a flourished Erika. The book involves two bears fretting about being released to a new caregiver now that their boy has grown up (one thinks they are being given away because he failed to learn how to fly when the boy tossed him in the air). It is sweet and funny thus far. And the illustrations threaded throughout are absolutely gorgeous, created by a former Disney illustrator. Nice work, Erika!

Next, I carpooled with my friend Gina and her husband to Jackson, California, for the book launch of another HNS friend, Kathy Boyd-Fellure. Aside from Gina’s brilliant book launch on a boat on the Sacramento River, I have never seen this many people at a “real” person’s book launch before. I mean, she nearly approached Kelly Corrigan levels! I was thrilled to see so many friends support her as she launched her book Language of the Lake. She held the event in the upstairs of Hein & Co. Bookstore, where there is a charming area that has been built out to look like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street. She had a wonderful spread of cheeses and Snook’s chocolates. And five of her eight sisters were there! (or maybe she is the eighth). As one of four sisters, I find that thrilling. Can’t wait to start reading, Kathy, and congratulations!

The Language of the Lake by Kathy Boyd-Fellure

Can you tell I had fun staging these book photos?

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When God closes a window, he opens a door

Today's view from Bridget's attic window

It's my last post in #BlogADayJan and I'd wanted to end on a really high note. I was going to write about Bridget's attic window. I had something interesting to say about it. But it's 9 p.m. and I've been brought low by events of the day.

I had planned to get three projects off my desk today, and maybe even four if I was especially productive. These ranged in significance from an email to which I wanted to pay special attention to crafting well, to a big layout job I do for a nonprofit a few times a year. I didn't get those three jobs off my desk.

I didn't even get one off my desk.

So tomorrow I face the same to-do list. Luckily, an out of town overnight trip got canceled, so I have the entire day to face these same jobs and maybe move them from "pending" to "completed."

Will I continue to blog daily? No way.

Will I blog more frequently? I think so. But...I'm not totally sure. I track statistics at my blog and while there has been steady traffic this month, it's been small. Loyalty is wonderful, but if there are only so many hours in a day (and I understand some people say they are finite), I guess I'd rather address my attention to writing fiction.

So, those who read World of Mailman, I'll be back in a few days to post about Bridget's window...but not too soon.

Statistics: Of the 31 posts this month, here's how they break down by topic:
Lizzie Borden: 13
Travel: 10
Rambling posts: 4
Writing/other authors: 2
Straight-up history: 1
Martin Luther King, Jr.: 1
I gently ease the blinds closed.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mark Twain's cabin on Jackass Hill

It requires a little uphill drive from Angels Camp on a dirt road to find this cabin. You pass some donkeys who give their name to this place, Jackass Hill. You think you're the only history-minded person trying to find it, and you arrive, park, poke around... and then five other cars come and you exult that other people care!

It may seem at first flush that the cabin looks too fresh, too new to have been a place where Mark crashed in 1864.

Yeah, it's made of wood, but it doesn't look OLD somehow

 But you still walk around and marvel.

At least the fireplace looks old, right?

So, if you read the plaque at the site, you learn that this is not the original cabin. It was rebuilt 2002-2005 by the Rotarians. However, not even the original cabin was original! It was built in 1922 to commemorate Mark Twain's stay approximately 60 years earlier. Now who feels like a jackass??

Turns out the cabin is an imposter
This is a nice old plaque. Let's focus on that instead.

1929 plaque also deemed "not old enough"

Am I the only one who wants to put a "C" in the word plaque? I always type "placque" and then fix it.

Sometimes it can be hard to chase down history. If Twain wanted the cabin where he stayed to remain into perpetuity, he should've asked for brick.

It's interesting to contemplate that Twain wrote "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" here, as the placque suggests. Especially since the other plaque suggests the cabin is situated in Tuolumne County. #Hm.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Angels Camp

Mural in town, showing Twain holding a frog

This small Gold Rush town in northern California is also known as Frogtown, because Mark Twain based his short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," on a story heard here in 1865. The hotel where he heard it still stands. PETA members, please don't read this story.

Each May, Angels Camp hosts a jumping frog contest, and a plaque gets laid in the sidewalk for each year's winner.

I think this is the biggest jump I saw, at 19'11"

This one is a wink-wink, based on the story

The town is sweet to wander through and straddles a beautiful creek.

It has an arts center.

And of course it has to have a saloon.

And not too far away, a Barrel of Monkeys, described as "If you were given $5,000 and told to open your own version of John's Incredible Pizza":

Built on a hill, Angels Camp has many staircases that link parallel streets:

And statues throughout town celebrate the froglike history.

It's worth a visit! The jumping frog jubilee is always the third weekend in May; here's a link. The Mark Twain story is also reprinted in its entirety at that site.

Fun fact: the town isn't angelic; it's named for early founder Henry Angell (no one could spell in the 1800s).
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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Writerly community: showcasing recent books

Part of being a writer is finding community. What we do is so solitary that we need to talk to others, realize afresh that we're not as wierd as we think (or at least we have a splinter group of friends who are also wierd), and support each other through all the ups and downs of writing and publishing.

Today's blog post is going to showcase books recently released (in the last six months) those I call friends. Crazily enough, as I started to compile the photos, I realized they all have a J or G name. Guess it's a good time to be publishing if you start with a "Jeh" sound!

Jo Chandler's Y.A. book, start of a series

Jen Laam's latest Russian historical

Gina Mulligan's book of letters written to women with breast cancer;
I sent this to my mom for Christmas

My whale loves Joe Quirk's latest

Jordan's wonderful craft of writing book, in a new edition

At an event for Jim L'Etoile's newest, Bury the Past (I also bought it besides the
At What Cost I'm holding). All of us in this photo are Writers Coffeehouse people.

 So there you have it: Jo, Joe, Jen, Gina, Jim, Jordan. 

(Don't worry, Kathy: yours hasn't released yet so I'll get you next time along with any K or C friends we know...)

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