AngerSometimes I see questions like these in social media groups: “Just sent my book out to an editor / reviewer / contest / publisher…but now what? I can’t STAND waiting!”

My usual glib answer is to suggest the writer find something else to do. Start another project. Pick up one you’ve put aside. Write press releases. Update your website. Beta read for another author. Distract yourself from thinking about whatever is hanging out there. Because sending your stuff out takes TIME. Professionals are doing professional-type things to it, some are being handled by volunteers nice enough to give you their attention and expertise, and it’s going to take however long it’s going to take. So the best thing you can do is get on with your day.

Until I’m the writer waiting, of course. I’ve written three first drafts since November. One is “composting” until I’m ready for the next draft. One is out with beta readers. Another is in that irritating, luffing-in-the-middle stage and I need a little break from it. I have books submitted to three different contests. And a bunch of reviewers. So I whined to a Facebook group about the current state of agitated ennui in my writing life, and the answer was… find something else to do.

Yeah. I’m sensing the irony here. That’s why I’m making a list. I’m including all the things I put off while I was working on two first drafts since November, held captive by a character who kept insisting I listen to Frank Sinatra while I wrote his stories. Maybe I can get around to some of these things now:

  • Buy Christmas presents.
  • Dust my penguin collection.
  • Rinse and return all the Sam Adams bottles that have been accumulating on my bookshelves.
  • Find a pen that works. Maybe two.
  • Install the software that my husband gave me for my birthday. In August.
  • Throw away the empty peanut butter jars in my writing room.
  • Ditto the Nutella jars.
  • Stop buying Nutella.
  • Vacuum.
  • Get a haircut. (You’re welcome.)
  • Go through the closet and find the two manuscripts I wrote and only have on floppy disks.
  • Cut up the three bottle’s worth of seven-year-old solidified Bailey’s Irish Cream and dispense. (Yes, if it sits that long, it becomes a solid.)
  • Read the seventh Harry Potter book.
  • File the three-foot-high stack of printouts of old manuscripts that exist on backup media newer than floppy disks.
  • Write more blog posts so I don’t have to resort to lame lists.

What do you do when you need a distraction?






On Losing a Friend

Fran was usually the first person I’d see after checking in at the YMCA’s front desk. She kept the place clean, especially the ladies’ locker room, but she did so much more than push a mop or a cleaning rag. She was the finder of lost things, the smile and joke I needed after a bad day, the shoulder to cry on after a really bad day. I went through a rough patch about nine years ago when I hurt my back and slipped into clinical depression and a major fibromyalgia flare. I knew I needed exercise; it had always helped me before. My physical therapist advised a return to activity, that I should get out and see people. But simply leaving my house seemed like a monumental task. I tired just thinking about walking across the parking lot, changing into a bathing suit, changing afterward.

Fran not only took care of me when I was there, she took care of all of us, like the self-appointed den mother to the ladies of the YMCA. She fastened the straps of my suit when I didn’t have enough flexibility to reach them. She listened and hugged me while I poured out my frustrations, from losing my job to having to learn how to walk again. When I passed out from a combination of a too-hot shower, a new medication, and the twenty pounds I lost while I was ill, Fran was the first one there with a cold cloth for my forehead.

She had been one of the few to notice my improvement. “I see you getting better,” she said. “I see you making eye contact and stuff. That’s a good sign, right there.”

One day when I came into the locker room, well after my recovery, Fran turned from what she was doing and flashed me a broad smile that showed the missing teeth on the right side. “I got somethin’ for you, chick-chick,” she said. She called all the women “chick-chick” or “chickie.” Then she gave me a pair of flip-flops she bought for a dollar at the mall, because she saw I didn’t have any.

I was heartbroken when the Y let her go last year in favor of an outside cleaning service. The place was never the same: the warmth, the chickies, and the Fran-ness were gone. It certainly isn’t any cleaner, either. Fran’s chicks were angry that the Y had done her dirty, and we were worried for her, that without purpose, without feeling needed, her health, already not the greatest, would fail.

And as we’d feared, it happened. We still don’t know the exact cause of her sudden death, but just a look passed among the ladies in the locker room spoke volumes: her heart had been broken, too.

The last time I saw Fran was at a potluck supper our aqua-jogging instructor hosted in her honor. It was a beautiful day and we were laughing, drinking sangria, and making jokes that we barely recognized each other with our clothes on. She always laughed the loudest. That’s what I want to remember about our chick-chick.

The Baby Boomer Generation Gap


(Special Note: The Joke’s on Me, ebook edition, will be on sale for $3 off its regular price from Friday, June 28 through Saturday, June 29)

The burgeoning genre of Baby Boomer Lit fascinates me. I love the stories authors are telling about the challenges confronting this generation as we face our mortality but still want to squeeze more out of life.

Often forgotten, however, is that technically, baby boomers represent (mostly Americans) born between 1946 and 1964. That’s a span of eighteen years, for those of you good with math or who happen to have a calculator handy. So theoretically, two generations could be contained within this one moniker: two generations with very different goals and ideals. Continue reading

The Other Half of the Story

P&L-Cake-TopperYou can’t stay married to the same person for almost twenty years without amassing a goldmine of writing material. In some form or other, I’ve used a lot of events from our “real life” in my fiction, good and bad. The bad ones somehow end up funnier. Heck, if life gives you citrus fruit, why not squeeze them into tasty adult beverages for other people’s entertainment?

This past weekend, we were with family, and one story led to another. It never takes much prompting for my husband to start telling the Tale of the Worst Day of his Life. Although the years have magnified each horrible turn by a factor of ten, it originally started like this: Continue reading

Tools of the Trade: Graphic Artists

SD505One snowy evening last year I was goofing off taking a well-deserved break on Facebook when I started chatting with a woman from Rhode Island. It turned out we’d both worked in graphic arts in the days before desktop publishing. We grew nostalgic about the tools we missed: T-squares, melted wax, non-reproducing-blue pencils, drafting tables. I told her that I’d worked late every Thursday night for three years in the bullpen of a Boston advertising agency to type-spec and paste up ads for the Sunday newspapers. Every sweater I owned had bits of border tape stuck to the elbows. One time I even found a piece on my cat. Soon we’d attracted a small crowd of our former colleagues, and we swapped X-acto knife horror stories and fond memories. Continue reading

The Writing Hat

LAURIE_1982_WIDMER-RDIn three months and one day, Husband and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. And we were together for six years before we made it official in the eyes of New York State and a rabbi who spilled wine down my dress. Anyway, that’s a heck of a lot of years to live with the same person. It’s made me kind of lazy about some things. Grooming. Watching my language. Putting away laundry. Whose turn it is to toss the dead mouse into the back woods. But one thing I’m trying not to get lazy about: defending my writing and editing boundaries.

Fortunately, I have a door that closes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a door that locks. Also, I need to get out of said room from time to time, to attend to certain vital functions like recaffeinating and grabbing snacks. Husband is a sensitive and intuitive guy, an artist as many of you know, but it’s only natural that he, well, forgets once in a while that even though I might not be actively pounding keys at the point when he chooses to interrupt me to tell me something funny he just saw on the news or that he’s going to get the mail, THERE’S STILL A BOOK GOING ON IN MY HEAD AND YOU’RE NOT INVITED.

Maybe I need a hat of some sort. Nothing fancy like those silly things Fergie’s daughters wore to Prince William’s wedding, but just a particular accessory to alert Husband that I’m not mentally present. So when he surprises me with the fact that I need to get in the car because we have to be at such-and-such’s house in fifteen minutes because I TOLD HIM IT WAS OKAY and even that I’d make a side dish, I can avoid further argument by hat default.

Yes, hat default. Was I wearing the hat when you asked about it? Yes? Okay, your protests are now null and void. Have a nice day. And don’t forget to put black olives in the pasta salad.

Challenging Your Preconceptions

iStock_000002423329XSmallEunice Scarfe, a Canadian author and professor, led (and presumably still leads) a popular workshop at a women’s writing conference I used to attend regularly. We were given prompts: a few words, a sentence. We were to write whatever spilled from our brains and when time was called, draw a line beneath what we had written. Under that line, she asked us to write what images, emotions, and conclusions that exercise had stirred up.

One prompt she gave was “my mother’s hands.” Start with your own hands, she suggested, and drift back through the generations, to your mother’s, and her mother’s. I looked at my little paws and thought about my mother’s hands, the relief river map of the crisscrossing tendons and blood vessels, the elegant fingers, the carefully-coiffed nails. And then I looked back at my own. I had a hell of a time getting inspired. So I wrote about my mother’s hands, and the strength within them no one would suspect, and what the years and the Florida sun and had wrought upon her skin. But the words came in lumps and had no connection to my ten digits.

Eunice called time. I looked at my paltry prose, my weak words, and felt…uninspired. So that’s what I wrote below the line. Uninspired. Nothing. Feh. And I looked at my hands again. Still nothing. My hands are small, unlined, with squarish palms and utilitarian nails kept short through years of training on piano keys, typewriters, computer keyboards. Then Eunice invited women to line up against the wall if they wanted to read their wanderings to the class.

I chose not to. I listened, still thinking of my below-the-line comments, when I took another look at my squatty little hands. I realized why I had not connected with this exercise. My hands more closely resembled my father’s. And that was my biggest revelation of the week. Even though our faces, our noses, our eyes, our hair, so much the same that nearly everyone gasps and says, “Oh, you are your mother’s daughter,” I am more like my father than I’d ever considered.

What am I writing below the line for these few freewritten paragraphs? That it’s good, every so often, to have your conclusions about yourself challenged. Good as a writer, good as a daughter, good as a human.

Honor a Banned Book

Sometimes we won’t read a classic work of literature until a teacher plops a copy on our desks or they show up on a college “recommended reading” list. True, I have randomly picked up books like Moby-Dick, The Catcher in the Rye (banned as late as 2001), Cat’s Cradle, and The Sun Also Rises (also banned, and burned in Nazi bonfires), but I’m more likely to go for a contemporary novel. As a novelist and as a person I want to be well rounded, but since I write contemporary novels this is what I usually like to read.

Then I got an interesting freelance assignment: to help write test prep questions for an international academic competition. Each year the organization chooses a theme; that year it was The Great Depression. The students were to address it from a bounty of angles: the literature of the times, popular music, the economy, politics, the legal milieu, and how geological conditions contributed to the Dust Bowl in the Midwestern United States that further depressed the economy and pushed a large chunk the population west.

Before the category assignments were given, I bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I applied to the company to write about literature, film and poetry, so I thought I’d get a head start. But because I was fairly new to the team, a freelancer with more experience scored the literature category and I was assigned to geology.

Although I find the fossil record and many aspects of geology fascinating, science was never my strongest subject. But I still had my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and I felt it calling. All I knew of Steinbeck were the novels my teachers assigned me – The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men (banned and/or challenged so many times the references take up two pages in the list of classic banned books.) I didn’t know much about Steinbeck’s life and why he chose to write about this particular subject, but his prose style hooked me from the first page.

As I read, I could see why some people wanted it banned. Yes, we have the usual complaints about taking the Lord’s name in vain, the cursing and the sexual references (which are laughably tame by today’s standards) but the biggest one was that Steinbeck took the side of the fledgling unions, which, at the time, was tantamount to declaring yourself a communist. Although the record shows that nobody who wanted this book off the shelves or out of the hands of young people referenced its politics.

Many an artist, writer, or filmmaker had been blacklisted for writing about communism, back in the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and it was extremely brave of Steinbeck to write this novel. Which made it that much more appealing to me.

Not only is he a brilliant writer, but in pinpoint focus he takes a snapshot of what life was like for a subset of Americans during this time. How deep their struggles, how they bore their losses and kept their heads high and moved on. In a community where you lose your land, can barely afford to eat let alone bury your loved ones when they die, it makes complete sense that a preacher would lose his faith in God, a father would want to work to feed his family no matter the consequences, and occasionally people would swear. I can’t imagine a world where a book like this would be banned, where the only fossil record of the Dust Bowl years would be found in dry textbooks and not through the eyes of the Joad family.

What’s the last banned book you read? Did you like it? Do you think it deserved to be banned?

Celebrate Writers and Editors!

Like every month, September contains a basket load of oddball holidays and observances. There’s National Lazy Mom’s Day, Wonderful Weirdos Day (technically, September 9th, but celebrated every day in my house), Stay Away from Seattle Day, and the delightfully amusing Talk Like a Pirate and One Hit Wonder Days. Although we just missed International Enthusiasm week, I hope you might have a little excitement left for one of my favorite September observances: Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month. No, I am not making this one up. In 1984, someone at Lone Star Publishing fielded one too many questions about to when use “lie” or “lay”, went completely off his nut and covered the entire office with red-Sharpied conjugations of several naughty Latin irregular verbs. Continue reading

It’s Showtime, Folks…

In 1969, I was probably the only eight-year-old in Hopewell Junction, New York who knew the entire soundtrack of Fiorello!

For that, I blame my mother. Her love for Broadway show tunes meant that the soundtrack of my youth was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Lerner and Loewe, depending on her mood.

They reminded Mom of her own underscored childhood in Brooklyn, escorted by her family (when ticket prices were much cheaper) to original productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

The comforting and sprightly melodies of shows like The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Oliver! were perfect, she said, for cleaning. In her clever way, I’m sure she knew that a jaunty tune would make my two brothers and me more likely to join her. Little did Leonard Bernstein know that his beloved scores were the backdrop for vacuuming or dumping out the kitty litter box. To this day, I can’t listen to West Side Story without wanting to pick up a little here and there. Continue reading