The Dangers of Flowery Advice

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My youngest niece is in the process of choosing a college.  She visited one of the campuses this past weekend hoping for some lightning bolt moment where she would know it was the right one.  In one of the panels she went to for her chosen major, a prospective student asked how each of the panelists knew that particular college was for them.

“I just knew.”

And my niece was just… left cold and wondering what was wrong with her that this was not her experience.

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This got me thinking about the subtle dangers of this kind of flowery advice.  Follow your dreams!  You’ll just know when he/she is the one!  Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’re still among the stars!

Two things:

1)  Life is complicated.

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What if you don’t “just know?”  What if you want someone who’s been through it to be authentic and sit down with you and tell the truth of things.  Why didn’t someone on that panel say, “You know what?  I didn’t know for sure.  I was scared and this place felt the most right, but I also gave myself permission to change my mind.  Mostly I was just scared.”  Flowery advice takes the messy humanity out of things.  It doesn’t offer itself up for a follow up question, you know?

You: Oh, you just knew?  Like how?

Them:  I just knew.  

You: Right. But, how?  Like… what did that feel like?  

Them:  I just knew.

You: Right. But…

Them:  I just knew. 

Why is it that we’re compelled to rewrite our own history so we have all the answers?  What is it about us that wants to smooth over our past and make our entire life look like a shampoo commercial?  What are we getting out of making someone who’s struggling feel like they’re alone in it?  Who benefits from this?

This kind of advice feels like a shallow placeholder for a never gonna happen future conversation.

And yes, I get that that panelist may have just “known.”  That absolutely happens for some.    But what I also know is that — and God, I hate how true this is – the really juicy connections are made in moments of vulnerability.  Why is the appearance of effortless, wafting ease tantamount to authenticity and actual kinship?

You’re not alone.  I feel lost, too. Shit can be messy, right?  It was hard for me, too.  It’s going to be okay.

2) Sometimes advice is kind of boring

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A writer friend of mine got an email from a newbie writer.  The newbie was struggling.  Her debut novel was a smash, the second one not so much.  She was writing my friend asking for advice.  So my friend – a writer whose work ethic is enviable and has finally (and so deservedly) landed her on top – said that the only power any of us have is to sit back down in the chair and write another book.  Do the work.  This is what my friend did during the trials and tribulations of her own career.  The newbie writer was luke warm at the prospect. Months later my writer friend read a blog by this newbie saying she was going to wait for the muse to strike!  She was going to follow her bliss!  No mention of actual work.

I’m all for a great pep talk.  Sometimes it’s just about listening to someone talk about how hard shit is.  No advice.  Just a friendly ear.  My worry is that there are those who rely on flowery advice so much so that one’s role can lean towards enabling from time to time.

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And of course I’m not advocating for some kind of black and white Giver-esque world where everyone finger-wags at each other to get back to work.  A beautiful meme prominently featuring delicious words of inspiration has hit me right when I needed it. I love a good quote.  I love a moody lyric.  I’ve even been known to spout luxurious poetry more than my friends and family probably would have liked. I’m also not proposing we walk around as open wounds spouting our grief and misery for anyone and everyone.  Pretty sure people who do that are just as into appearances as the ones begging us to look for the rainbow after the hurricane or whatever.

That’s not what this is about.

Whatever the advice you decide to give someone, please let it be rooted in the truth of things.  How it was, not how you wished it would have been.

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And PS?  If you do decide to tell the truth of things and admit that things were hard?  There will 100% be some sighing douche who is all, “Oh?  It was super easy for me.”

Ooooooh.

JOAN.

But, in that moment there is a person in the audience who doesn’t feel so alone because of your bravery to speak the truth.  And that? Is far more valuable than acting like one’s entire life could be soundtracked to Enya.

(not that there’s anything wrong with that)

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The 5 Secrets to Publishing Success No One Tells You About

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We all know the greatest hits of writing advice.  I’ve waxed rhapsodic about them myself:  Be the best version of you you can be! Put your butt in the chair!  Say yes and figure it out later!

Those are all good, solid likable pieces of advice.

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Now let’s talk about the grit and grime you encounter in The Fire Swamp.

1.  GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE

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If you’re looking for any kind of certainty in publishing or the arts (or life)  in general you are going to be chronically disappointed.  As writers we must learn to embrace – not unlike Lennie in Of Mice and Men – UNCERTAINTY AND IMPOTENCE.  This isn’t about us writing another book or finding another corner of our creativity to mine, this is about sales and numbers and the sometimes glacial time it takes for things to happen and unfold.  Trusting the timing of our lives is the hardest thing in the world.  And of course when we look back we can see very plainly that it was the right path, but the discomfort we must sit in as we learn these lessons can be utterly unbearable at times.  What I’ve come to learn is that the discomfort is part of the ride.

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COUNTER MOVE:  Get ready for the Vulnerability Hangovers after we venture out of our comfort zones.  Those lovely hours where we second guess everything we said and feel utterly exposed and impossibly awkward.  I weather these by communicating to loved ones and safe writer friends.  I busy myself with another project.  Even just acknowledging that I’m having a Vulnerability Hangover and that my catastrophic thinking is not real helps me crawl through it.

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2.  YOU WILL BE INCONVENIENCED

No one owes me a life as a writer.  And no one certainly owes me a life as a working writer or even a successful one for that matter. Believing I am good at something isn’t enough. And I know this is basic shit, but I feel like it’s something I need to revisit from time to time.  If I want this, I am going to have to work and hustle to get it – beyond what is convenient, timely or even “fair.”   Whether it’s a pressing deadline or living frugally, each of our inconveniences is different.  And after all is said and done I still might not make it to whatever finish line I envisioned in my head.  And yes, there is a fine line between being inconvenienced, being annoying and being taken advantage of …

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COUNTER MOVE:  When I’m going out of my way for something, it’s always a good time to assess why I allowed the inconvenience:  I didn’t want to say no, it’s the bottom rung of the right ladder, did I undervalue my time.  And for me, these factors can only be measured when they’re in play, so the only way to learn is in practice.  However shitty the inconvenience was, it was for a reason.  If I can learn the lesson, it was worth it.

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3.  THE ELEGANCE OF HUMILITY

This isn’t about hiding our lights under bushels or not being happy for our successes.  No, the humility I’m talking about is the one that focuses more on ego as it relates to writing.  If I put my ego above the writing, it does not go well for me.  If I put writing above my ego, things tend to flow better.  If this whole thing is an apprenticeship, then I have to be open to the fact that lessons are everywhere – even in something that – to some – might look  “beneath me.”

COUNTER MOVE:  Switching it up and trying something new can shake things up a bit in a very good way.  Also, it’s nice to be reminded at what being a beginner feels like again – in that nails on a blackboard kind of way.  Seeing writing from an entirely new perspective.  Say yes and figure it out later and then be ready to BE BAD AT IT.  Get uncomfortable.

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4.  THE RESILIENCE OF RESILIENCE

I tend to get a bit Galaxy Quest in my Never Give Up, Never Surrender-ness.  My Mom always tells me, “Don’t quit 5 minutes before the miracle happens.”  And then the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt added “You can do anything for ten seconds”  to my Nose to the Grindstone Book of Affirmations.  I was talking to a writer friend about this piece of advice and she likened our lot to those inflatable clown punching bags that just KEEEEP COMINGGGGG BACKKKKK.

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And I think we all get that this is a hard road and takes an insane level of tenacity.  The part I have to keep learning is to remember not to take anything personally while somehow extracting whatever lesson I can from the process.  It’s a surgical separation, to be sure.

COUNTER MOVE:  Rejections are part of this business.  I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to them, but they always sting.  In a business of overnight successes (that take 17 years) it’s hard not to hang all of our hopes and dreams on any one project.  The best thing I’ve ever done is to have several projects going at one time. And different projects – books, scripts, blogs, storytelling shows, collaborations, fun projects with friends and GASP creative hobbies that are just for fun.

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5.  DIGGING DEEPER

When we are good at a thing, it is very hard not to do that thing the way in which we are good at it.  What we don’t see happening is that the thing we are doing is now becoming stale.  Ruts.  Being in the groove.  Churning it out.  This is what happens when we don’t dig deeper  – which is the best worst advice ever.  There is another way to look at things.  A way that is the road less traveled.  A way where I don’t know all the answers.  A way that challenges me and makes me feel kind of dumb.  Go. That. Way. Sometimes.

COUNTER MOVE: Oh, is it going to feel clunky, but at the same time?  It’s going to be kind of invigorating.  Widen your net.  Go outside of your usual haunts.  Shake things up.  Read other genres.  Watch new shows/movies.  Talk and geek out with other kinds of artists.  Explore your own creativity.  Let yourself evolve.  Shed the old skin.

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Ten Tips for a Great Book Signing

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There are two sides to every artist. No. Scratch that. There should be two sides to every artist. Whether we actually have those two sides is another conversation. Another painful, tear soaked conversation that yields a raging vulnerability hangover.

The side of us that locks ourselves away and creates is where we find the truest versions of ourselves – raw, real and fulfilling. And then there is the side of us that must put our art out THERE. Outside of the sanctuary in which it was created. Outside of the net of safety we would rather it stayed in. Outside for others to experience it in a totally out of our control kind of way.

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Both sides have their own minefield of risk.

*breathes into paper bag*

One of the ways we writers do this, is by having readings and book signings. I’ve been doing this now for over ten years and I’ve made every mistake, survived every calamity and am here to offer my advice.

TEN TIPS FOR A GREAT BOOK SIGNING

1. WEAR SOMETHING COMFORTABLE

I know. You want to look nice. There are going to be pictures and you want to be put together. Here’s the thing. You are going to be a nervous wreck. Like beyond your imaginings. To add to that equation something you’ve never worn before, teetering heels and too much make-up – you are now so outside of yourself you’ll be lucky if you can focus on anything – let alone your own words.

Find the middle ground. A lovely outfit you’ve worn before that photographs well – do test runs. The biggest thing? Shoes that will ground you when your knees get wobbly and your stomach starts to flip.

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2. TELL PEOPLE YOU’RE NERVOUS

This is the most freeing piece of advice I’ve ever gotten. Let people know you’re nervous – it gets them on your side and relieves them of the worry they have for you. I usually open with some combination of a joke (“I passed my first test, I didn’t trip coming up here.) and then some kind of flight instructions (“I wasn’t nervous all day, I’m so happy it finally kicked in just as I walked up here!) You’ll get a laugh. Everyone will calm down (including you) and everyone in the audience will be pulling for you. Being human is a good thing. Show it.

3. KNOW HOW YOU’RE GOING TO START THINGS

The worst thing I ever did was think “I don’t know, I’ll just get up there and read what I planned and you know, take it from there.” NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. For the first few minutes you’re at that podium, you’re in this weird auto-pilot fugue state. And the more you plan those minutes, the more Your Future Self will thank you. I try to have some story to tell about my day – some anecdote that will feel conversational. Warming the crowd up before you launch into your reading settles people in, including yourself. This anecdote can then lead into a general Elevator Pitch of your book – as much as the audience needs to know to understand the bit you’re going to read – and then maybe some backstory about the journey of the book. (PS: This opening bid usually clocks in at around 5-10 minutes at most)

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4. CHOOSE WHAT YOU READ ALOUD WITH THE UTMOST CARE

I was at the Texas Book Festival touring for Nowhere but Home and the moderator for the panel chose the bits of our book she wanted us to read – and she picked a passage I’d never have chosen – BUT IT WAS PERFECT. This gave me an idea. You can’t go wrong with reading the opening chapter of your book. That’s always a great choice. But, maybe have two or three other shorter sections (page and a half?) to supplement that choice just in case you read faster than you thought or the audience isn’t responding the way you would have liked or it’s going well and you want to offer another thread/tone to what they can expect when they buy your book.

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I was once at this reading and the last reader of the night read for I AM NOT KIDDING upwards of 45 minutes. Just droning. Reading. Not any performance of the passage just… mumble mumble mumble. And? Because he was the last reader, it was already super late and his reading took us well past 1130. It was so tone deaf and inconsiderate that I’ve actually been fascinated by his choice ever since. Did he not know? Did he think people were enjoying themselves? Was he just nervous and locked in and hadn’t done a test run to see how long that passage was going to actually take to read aloud? I still don’t know.

What I will say is CHECK IN WITH YOUR AUDIENCE. Are they glazing over? Can you make a quick aside or a joke to reel people back in? Something. DON’T BE THAT GUY. Practice what you’re going to read ahead of time and give it a level of performance. These are the words you wrote. Give them the life that they deserve.

A reading/signing usually lasts about an hour. The reading part of that should last maybe 20 minutes. After that, people start tuning out.

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4a. THE ART OF PHOTOS

There is the reading and then there is the reading as it is seen on social media. A not well attended reading can have a whole new life on social media with the right spin.

Take pictures of stuff – the sign with your name on it. The bookstore. Tag the bookstore (so they’ll retweet). Your book. Any swag you brought. Tap someone you trust with taking pictures of you during the reading. Someone you trust, meaning they’re not going to upload a picture of you looking like the Colossus of Rhodes, eyes closed and mid-sentence. You don’t have any control of the pictures your audience posts, but the ones you choose to post should be curated wisely.

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(these are the pictures that happened when I gave my niece the camera, btdubs)

5. MASTERING THE Q&A

We’ve all been there. “Any questions?”

Crickets. Tumbleweed rolls through.

a) Enlist a shill. No shame in this game. Because the truth? Once the first question is asked – more people will come forward. The audience has stuff they want to know, they just don’t want to go first. So, get a friend. Tell them to ask the first question. They’ll be happy to.

b) Cut the tension. I usually say something about… okay, I’m gonna stand up here and awkwardly stare at you until someone asks something. Or you can make a joke like … I can talk about what happened last night on Empire for a full hour, so… Something to loosen people up so that someone will come forward.

IMG_58666. GOODIES:  YAY OR NAY?

At this last big launch for Girl Before a Mirror, I had both cupcakes and little conversation hearts for the audience. They loved them and moreover it made the reading look like AN EVENT. This isn’t a necessary one – I’ve done readings that went fine without swag, but it did add something. It was a way for me to say thank you to the people who schlepped out on a school night. It’s definitely something I’ll be doing again.

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7. BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF THE DAY OF THE READING

It’s the nerves. They sneak up on you. For me, writing has always scared me a little because I care about it so much. And a reading seems to really bring out a lot of hidden shit. From my secret fears that I’m not worth all this fuss to the out and out fear that my work is not good enough to be read aloud. And what are people going to think. And IT’S SO VULNERABLE. You’re running around and keeping busy and you think you’ve got it under control. Sure, you’re nervous, but… My advice. Be gentle. You’re going to be all over the place and it’s going to manifest in a very visceral way. Your body isn’t buying what your mind is selling. So watch what you eat (your stomach is going to be a wreck) have Pepto on hand, bubble water and give yourself a break. Also? Communicate with your loved ones. Let them in on – as much as you can – what’s happening. Once again, being human is a good thing.

It’s not just a reading. It’s so much more.

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8. WHEN TO ARRIVE AT YOUR READING

This one is kind of tricky. Sometimes the bookstore has a place in the back you can crash with a cup of tea. This is the best option. Maybe call ahead and ask if this option is available, getting the name of the person handling your event in the process (also ask when they prefer you to arrive.) If this option is not available, then arriving early at your event with nowhere to go except to LURK and act like you’re TOTALLY NOT FREAKING OUT is going to be an issue. If there’s a coffee place in the bookstore that could work, too.

What you’re battling between is that 13 year old no one’s going to show up for my party syndrome and getting cornered by the wrong kind of person just before you go up. It’s a tight wire act, to be sure.

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9. WHAT TO DO IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE READING

After the reading/signing you’re going to be a lovely blend of amped and super vulnerable.  Now. Because you can’t experience your own reading, the first and foremost thing on your mind is HOW DID I DO? And this is a tough answer. It’s gotta be the right blend of specific details, positive feedback and measured criticisms to not send you running for the hills. The Car Ride Debriefing is about quelling those fears that you somehow embarrassed yourself, while at the same time gossiping and talking about the event itself. So choose that person WISELY. Maybe even let them know the boundaries of what you need from this debriefing. You’re too raw and vulnerable to be around someone who is going to pick apart how you did. Protect yourself.

I’ve found that I needed something after the reading to help me decompress before I went home. This may not be the case for you. You may need to get home, get your 8oclock pants on and wind down thusly.

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10. WHEN THINGS GO WRONG

A bookstore invited me to come read and they also invited the local high school to perform The Grapes of Wrath. I have had no one show up. I have had no one show up, but an elderly gentleman who meandered through my reading only to tell me my grammar was terrible. I have had two people get into a weird fight in one of my signing lines. I have been so nervous that I couldn’t get a breath and almost passed out. I have never been asked a weird question, but I saw Dennis Lehane be asked, “I loved your series, but hate your stand alone books. Why do you think people like your stand alone books?” To which he replied, “A writer never defends their work. Next question.”

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Shit happens. Your reading is not going to be perfect. There is no perfect. There is you doing the best you can and realizing that the only way to get better at this thing is by allowing yourself to first be bad at it, learn and grow. And the only way to learn and grow at readings and signings is by doing them. You will survive. You will learn. And those anecdotes then become your war stories to tell around some bar table at a book conference. You are not alone. Everyone has had a terrible reading/signing. Everyone.

When you wake up the next morning after a book signing, you will most definitely have a Vulnerability Hangover. You will second guess and pick apart everything that you said and did. Embarrassment. Shame. Any emotion that you can hang on to so you won’t feel that discomfort that comes with baring one’s soul. Be gentle with yourself. You did not do as badly as you think you did. Start there. You actually did quite well. You are making art and putting it out there. Always remember that.

You are brave.
You are brave.
You are brave.

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The Life of a Book: From Inspiration to the Shelf

My sixth book, GIRL BEFORE A MIRROR, just came out on January 27th, 2015.

And on the 28th, I looked like this:

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By the time the 27th arrived, I’d been living with this book – or some version of this book – for a little over two years. Here is a timeline of how GIRL BEFORE A MIRROR was born:

Summer, 2012 – The idea is hatched that my next book should be set at a romance novel convention. I don’t know anything more about it than that. I know the world. I build from there.

September, 2012 – November, 2012: Pitch, hatch, percolate. Pitch, hatch, percolate.

November 30, 2012: I send the first 55 pages of the book that was originally called HUNK to agent.

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December 16, 2012: Send book/proposal to the publishing house that I’ve been with for the last two books.

WE WAIT.

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March 5, 2013: Publishing house makes bid for newest book.

March 14, 2013: We accept offer

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FULL DRAFT OF HEROINE IS DUE SEPTEMBER 1, 2013

April 2, 2013: NOWHERE BUT HOME launches

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July 10, 2013: Deal is announced.

September 1,2013: Draft One of the then called, HEROINE in to the publisher.

September 18, 2013: Call with editor, in re: notes on first draft. It is decided that the beginning needs the most work. I am to get my editor the first hundred pages by Halloween for her to read and then give the okay that I can continue.

October 30 – November 1, 2013: I go to Phoenix and stay at the Biltmore. Do all the world building research for the book.

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October 31, 2013: First hundred pages of edited manuscript into editor.

November 22, 2013: Editor gives notes on the first hundred pages and the green light to continue

December 13, 2014: Draft Two of HEROINE in to editor

January 15, 2014: Editor sends notes on second draft.

January 22, 2014: I pitch a thousand more titles, GIRL BEFORE A MIRROR is one of them.

February 7, 2014: Polish of the book in.

April 15, 2014: Copy edits to me.

April 19, 2014: Copy edits back to publishing house.

June 17, 2014: Rough sketches of the cover start to come in.

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June 18, 2014: Receive page proofs.

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July 7, 2014: Mail back Page Proofs

July 9, 2014: Rough cover is leaked onto Goodreads.

July 28, 2014: Final questions from production.

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August 28, 2014: I receive ARCs. Cradle them to breast, spin around mountaintop with them.

September 8, 2014: Final official cover

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September, 24, 2014: Reading group guide questions into publisher. They make pretty banners like this for my social medias:

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And I think this is hilarious. (PUG BEFORE A MIRROR, GET IT???

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October, 2014- November, 2014: As per my my amazing publicist, I generate content for the launch of Girl before a Mirror for various book sites.

January 2, 2015: I see the final book for the first time. I cry.

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January 26, 2015: I send a proposal and the first 100 pages to my agent for BOOK 7.

January 27, 2015: GIRL BEFORE A MIRROR LAUNCHES

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