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It’s been a crazy few weeks, with lots of good stuff, bad stuff, and holy mother of moly isn’t it summer YET stuff?  But we are on the home stretch, people!  And I’ll post one or two times more before taking a much-needed break from the internet.

So, I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks, and today’s blog over at Writer Unboxed made me decide to put it out there. (Go read it, btw, it’s an excellent, balanced view of the cranky pants contest Amazon and Hachette are having. Plus, Kevin Cronin always manages the snappy titles.)

Here goes:  My son is nine and has turned into a reader, so my life’s work is complete.  Books have lots of competition in his world — there’s soccer, baseball, throwing a random ball against the house, video games on the weekend, eating, teasing the Slobbering Beast — so I’m always trying to find books I can sneakily leave in the car that will suck him in during our morning commute.  I found one such book recently, and oh joy of joys — it was a Series. With SIX books. Which, after he read the first one from the library and proclaimed it good, I immediately set out to purchase.

By immediately, I mean he said “Great book, Mom, thanks,” and by the time the car door closed behind him I was already ordering my personal assistant to call our local bookstore. I do enough business there that Siri has it on speed dial. They opened at 9 a.m., and at 9:15 I was chatting with the sales clerk.

Me: “Hi, I’d like to order the complete set of series X. I can’t remember the author’s name, but it begins with X, and there’s six books.

Clerk: “What’s the title again?”

Me: “It’s X. Author starts with X. It’s for middle school readers.”

Long pause. “I’m not familiar with it.”

Me: “Okay, but could you check? My son really likes it and I want to order the series.”

Longer pause.  “I don’t see it on the computer. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means I can’t find it here. I need more information. “

Me (thinking loudly — no #$#$ it exists — my son just read one): “The title is X. The author’s name begins with X. There are six of them. It’s for middle school.”

“There’s too many authors that start with X. I can’t find it.  Sorry.”

Now, maybe what she meant was that their distributor didn’t carry this particular book. Maybe she was having an off day and couldn’t be bothered to take my information, do some research, and call me back. Maybe a $50 sale in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean that much to her store, or maybe she’s not personally invested in her store’s success, or maybe she doesn’t like middle school stories that start with X. But I have to tell you, as a reader who has spent plenty of time and money at that shop, I was pretty pissed off. And as an author, I was appalled. What if that had been my book? A single sale of $15 may not mean much to that store, but every single copy I sell means a great deal to my future as an author.

When I finished driving I pulled over, googled the book, and found the series on Amazon. It took me less than a minute.

I’m not the only one who has had this experience.  Several friends, some authors, some not, have been kvetching about the quality of service at their local stores, how snobbery some are, how disinterested in their needs.  I’m the first to say I’ve had great experiences and support from this store and others like it — but the taste I’m left with after this is a bit sour.

I support indie bookstores. But they need to do more than just tell me Amazon is killing their business and how unfair that is.  They need to give me a reason to shop with them. Every single time. Because if they make it hard, it’s far, far too easy to go somewhere else.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

When I used to show my dog in the obedience ring, I had a joke with a friend.  If a dog sat when he was supposed to down, wandered off when heeling, or  jumped out of the ring to snag a jelly donut (before jumping back in!) it was ‘handler’s error.’ Translation: my fault.

My riding instructor said something similar this week.  There are three of us taking classes together, all of us middle-aged, at different levels of experience and with very different horses. We are all having different problems, and the ray of sunshine that is my current instructor blamed it all on us.  If the horse isn’t doing what you want it to do, she said, it’s your fault. 

Either you aren’t communicating clearly enough what it is you want, you haven’t schooled on that particular issue enough, or you haven’t made it evident just how important this action is to you and committed to following through with appropriate consequences when your request isn’t met.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good trainer or rider, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.

It’s the same with publishing.

At Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace two weekends ago, I heard the same message over and over and OVER again from the published writers who were teaching classes: There’s always a way to get better. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always room to make your dialogue sharper, your plot more intense, your characters more believable.

Agents want to say yes.They need to say yes — their income depends on finding that next sellable book.

Editors want to say yes. They want a book that keeps them up at night, that makes them go past their stop on the subway, that has their whole department buzzing.

If they aren’t saying yes, there’s a reason.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good writer, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.  You need to own what you can control, need to work it as hard as you can, so that if a ‘no’ comes your way, you know it’s not because of you, because YOUR writing is tight, YOUR dialogue sparkles, YOUR plot is heart-poundingly intense.

To paraphrase writer Matt Bell (who does so many revisions on his novels he made my head hurt) you have to be in it for the work, not the glory, because the glory may never come.

Do the work.

Spring in New England

photo copyNew Englanders are a reserved bunch.  My sister-in-law down South moved to a new home at the same time I moved to where I live now.  Within a week, she had five pies on her doorstep.  Here, it took me three months to meet my first neighbor.

Which is why spring in New England is so important.  It’s the time of year when we get a little giddy, when we throw caution to the wind, when our faith through the dark winter days is rewarded. This morning I drove past a house I’ve gone by almost every single day since September, a tiny nondescript ranch a long way from better times.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it before today, when the front yard was a riot of color, brilliant sunshine yellow daffodils against the bright pink of cherry blossoms.

Someone had to plant each one of those bulbs, digging down into the hardening earth, had to imagine how the flowers would look against a tree decked in its finest.  I hope the thought gave them a quiet chuckle, hope it helped them get through what seemed like an endless winter. It’s a gray day here today, but I’m carrying that image with me as a promise that spring is really here, even if there’s not much evidence yet.

Because sometimes all you can do is hope for better, more brilliant times, for something lovely to awaken from the darkness.

What, you don't have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

What, you don’t have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

Camouflage

Camouflage

Something Blue

I was going to link to this poem today — it is one of my favorites and I try to read it every spring. But it is gray and rainy here, so I thought we needed something more upbeat.

In my family, I am notorious for becoming infatuated with a song and playing it obsessively, until EVERYONE including the Slobbering Beast groans when they hear the first few notes.  (My son recently reminded my husband how lucky he was not to carpool with us in the morning because “You don’t have to hear about Jane and that dude wearing a corset all the time. Which is just weird.” Lou Reed, wherever you are, I salute you.)

But sometimes I hit on a winner, like this one. It has become our morning wake-up song, our roll down the windows and sing on the way home from school song, our dance around the kitchen after dinner song. Play it a few hundred times — it grows on you. (And read the ticker tape at the bottom if you need a laugh.)

Enjoy.

I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.

Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.

I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.

My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups.  She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment.  She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein.  After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.

“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”

In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein.  From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense.  So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely.  (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)

Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.

When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

 

 

Peas and Publishing

Last week I was sitting on Rory, listening to my instructor correct some point or other in my riding, and another person in the class commented on what a lovely head set Rory had as he stood there.  His head and spine were perfectly rounded, he was mouthing the bit, and he looked like a real dressage horse, instead of a get up and go hunter. (Like this, if you are looking for a visual.)

“I know,” I said. “I can get him to relax into it when we’re stopped, but not when we’re trotting.”

You know how the second the words come out of your mouth, you regret them? I should know better to ever, EVER  tell a riding instructor I can’t do something, because they will take it personally. They will devote the rest of their lives to making sure that I can. Or at least the rest of the lesson. And this instructor is no different.

“Of course you can,” she said immediately. And I silently cursed the person who had commented as I dutifully went off at the trot to get Rory on the bit.

But here’s the thing. People call riding a conversation, and it really is. No matter how big and powerful you are, no matter how harsh your aids, you cannot make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do.  You may prevail for a while, you may get your way that day, or the next, maybe even the third, but at some point in time there is going to come a reckoning, and it is not going to be an attractive one.

Instead it’s like getting a three-year-old to eat their peas.  You ask nicely.  You mix them with a bit of honey, maybe, and you’re not surprised when they come back at you.  You give it some room and you ask again. You mix them with carrots, you use them frozen to soothe sore gums, and eventually, if you’re persistent and you really, really want it, you have a three-year-old who will eat peas.

Let us say that Rory does not like peas in any way, shape, or form.  We’d had this conversation on our own, with me kind of suggesting, in a timid way, that he might want to try them, and him spitting them back out at me hard.  No peas for him, I’d decided.

Because the other part of the conversation of riding is that once you ask a horse for something, you have to follow through. You have to mean it, to really commit, because if you don’t, then the horse has just learned that he doesn’t have to respect you.  That you aren’t serious about this, and he can ignore whatever other suggestions you might have, which can get dicey when you’re outside and you ask him to pay attention to you, not to whatever is blowing in the breeze, or when you ask him to go over a jump.

But here was my instructor, telling me to give Rory some peas, telling me I was capable of doing this, that I NEEDED to do this. So I swallowed hard, and started the conversation.

It went about like you’d expect.  Rory huffed and puffed and behaved a little bit like a punk, tossing his head hard at me and stomping sideways. It wasn’t a full-scale temper tantrum, just a little bitty one, the equivalent of a toddler dumping his dish on the floor. No real malice, just curiosity about what would happen. Nothing personal.

“You can do this,” my instructor said. “And if it helps, I’ve never known him to buck.”  It didn’t help one bit, since I have a mortal fear of bucking based on past painful experience, and whenever anyone says that it’s the equivalent of saying the Titanic had plenty of life boats.

But I stayed with it, despite the huffing and puffing. I breathed and unfroze myself from the self-protective frame I’d immediately folded into.  I kept asking, nicely, and eventually Rory got tired of putting on a show. He recognized that I meant it, and he dropped his head, rounded his frame, and looked a little bit like a dressage rock star.

After, my instructor took me aside and reminded me that I had the skill to do this.  I had the talent, even if I hadn’t used it in a decade. That I should be able to get on a horse even after 10 years and politely and firmly explain what we were going to do, and then do it. That it’s not just skill, but self-confidence too.

Publishing is a very similar conversation.  You can’t make an agent take you, you can’t make a publishing house buy your book. You can’t make readers fall in love with your story.  But you can be prepared. You can be as skilled as you possibly can be before you start that conversation. You can commit all the way to making it happen, to getting better and better, to not taking the rejection personally, but to getting back to a place of strength for the next time you ask. And the time after that. And every single time going forward. Until at last, you get that yes.

Image

My little girl on my big sweet non-punk horse.

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