Wishing You a Wondrous Holiday Season

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Haven’t written much on this blog this year. My only excuse is work and life have taken more of my attention. But I didn’t want to let this season of love and peace go by without expressing my gratitude for all of you who are (or have been) clients, family and friends. You sustain me throughout the year.

I will be taking on new projects in the new year, and I’m excited about what will come into my life. I am so grateful for the clients I have had over the years, and especially those who have become friends, as well. If you have a book you’ve been working on that’s ready for an experienced development editor, or you would like the little nudge that comes from working with a writing coach, I would love to hear from you. May the peace and promise of this season settle upon you. May the love of family and friends surround you. May the abundance of the natural world visit upon you the nurture of nature. May you feel the love of the people who hold you in their hearts. Happy Holidays.

How to Know When Your Book is Done

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One of the issues that comes up frequently with my clients and students, especially those who have been working on a particular project for a long time, is “How do I know when it’s done?”

1)    The most telling indication, I believe, is when you realize you are simply moving furniture around and not revising. You are no longer improving your work, but simply changing it. It’s not better, it’s just a different way of expressing what you want to express. When that happens, it’s time to put down the pencil (pen, cursor, etc.) and let it be.

2)    When you find yourself having trouble choosing between one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph or another, it’s time to stop. You’re not improving, just changing things. (See above.)

3)    You spend inordinate amounts of time in indecisive revision. Despite the stories of famous authors spending days on one word, you’re not them. Hemingway is said to have rewritten the ending to A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times. Fine, he’s Hemingway, and he probably drove his editor to near suicide. Don’t be that crazy.

4)    Read your work out loud. How does it sound? If it flows, let it go. If not, fix those spots, but don’t agonize over the whole manuscript.

5)    Let it marinate for a while. Put the book (story, poem) in a drawer for a period of time. Advice varies on this—I would say at least a month, some say a year. Whatever it turns out to be, you will come back to your work with fresh eyes (and a fresh sensibility). Things will jump out needing work, or the whole manuscript will wow you. Either way you will know what to do.

6)    Go for a walk! Get away from the work. Put some space between you and the writing. This is similar to No. 5, but it’s more appropriate while you’re in active revision. I have always found a sojourn into the woods or to the beach opens up new approaches to the writing. Get away.

7)    Recognize when things aren’t working and likely never will. Sometimes the story just isn’t working. LET IT GO! At some point it may morph into something else. But sometimes you have to be brutally honest with yourself and realize some projects just aren’t ever going to work.

8)    There are writers who outline and writers who don’t. If you’re one who doesn’t, and find yourself stuck in a cul de sac, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Consider an outline.

9)    Do you still care? If you have come to the place in your heart where you HATE this project, it’s time to step away. Perhaps not forever, but for now.

If any of these things are true for you, take stock. You may be ready to submit. Or perhaps not.

One final thought: I am assuming you are in a writing group or have been able to take advantage of writing workshops or the expertise of a good editor to get feedback along the way. If not, get yourself into a competent group or hire a good writing coach. You can’t learn how to write in a vacuum; it takes years of practice and mentoring. Take advantage of every opportunity to master writing. Then trust your gut and heart when deciding if your book is done. 

Unmasked Launched; Rabbi Mysteries Unveiled; Yuko Ready to Fly

  Unmasked  contributors, from left, Renata Golden, editor Marcia Meier, Tania Pryputniewicz, Lisa Rizzo, and Barbara Rockman.

Unmasked contributors, from left, Renata Golden, editor Marcia Meier, Tania Pryputniewicz, Lisa Rizzo, and Barbara Rockman.

 Marcia and Kathleen at Carr Winery.

Marcia and Kathleen at Carr Winery.

So much has happened in the month or so since I returned from Greece, both personally and professionally. Kathleen Barry and I launched our new anthology, Unmasked, Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, at two events in October: A reading and signing at San Diego Writers, Ink, with four of the contributors to the book, and a reading and signing at Carr Winery in Santa Barbara. We had a wonderful turnout at both, and look forward to another reading at Tecolote Books in Montecito on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 5 p.m. Also in the works are readings in Venice at Beyond Baroque (8 p.m. January 28), and an early February performance at Center Stage Theater of "Unmasked LIVE, Women Read About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty." Stay tuned for more details. 

 Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer signs a book for a fan.

Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer signs a book for a fan.

A week ago, more than 60 people came out to Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara to celebrate the publication of Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer's second mystery novel, The Rabbi Wore a Fedora, and the reprinting of his first, The Rabbi Wore Moccasins

Next Saturday, Nov. 11, at 3 p.m., Tecolote Books will help us bring out Dick Jorgensen's second memoir, Yuko, Friendship Between Nations, about his world tour as he traveled back to the States from Japan in 1957, and his subsequent work with The Asia Foundation in San Francisco, promoting improved ties between the two former World War II enemies. Come join us!

Keep all these Weeping Willow Books in mind as you make your holiday lists for the bookworms in your life!

What Feels Dangerous in Your Writing?

I recently completed an online poetry workshop with Kim Addonizio. She is a perceptive and skilled poet and teacher who was both fun to work with and discerning in her critiques. I highly recommend her. As part of the workshop, each participant was asked to pose a question for discussion on the group blog. One of the questions was, What feels dangerous in your writing?

Interesting, yes? Here’s what I wrote: Everything. The fear of not getting it right, of not being able to express exactly what I want to express in the way I want others to receive it (ridiculous control issue there). The fear of being rejected (especially by the “people who matter”—I'll come back to that in a minute). The venturing into a way of writing that I haven’t done before, whether it be poetry or something experimentally genre-bending.

Vulnerability is scary. We open ourselves up in our writing, more than most artists do. There is arguably greater risk, it seems to me, in writing something that has potential to bring on condemnation—if not death, as in the case of dissident poets in totalitarian regimes—than in painting or musical composition or dance. And if we assume the persona of another, whether in fiction or poetry or even nonfiction (as in the case of trying to understand someone else’s motivations), we are inevitably being dishonest. But sometimes it takes that to get to a larger truth.

I was intrigued by the Lionel Shriver controversy last year, because I think novelists particularly have the right to and should write what is true for them, and if it means assuming the persona of another gender or ethnicity or race, then I’m okay with that. Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a man. But I also see the other side. Sherman Alexie writes a lot about what it’s like to be a Native American in a white world, and I, too, found the problem of choosing work based on the ethnicity of a name pretty provocative. At AWP in 2012, Claudia Rankine took Tony Hoagland to task for writing in the voice of a racist narrator in his poem, “Changes.” And Kate Gale added to the fray last year by suggesting that the organization didn’t have a diversity problem, when it clearly did. All of this is to say that we, the writing community, perhaps has as far to go in communicating and understanding our diverse voices as our divided country does today. Okay, I veered off into politics, so let me get back to voice and vulnerability and risk-taking.
 
I think any time you pick up a pen or pencil and write something from the deepest places inside you with the intention to share, you step into a place of risk. There have been many times when I’ve read something I’ve written to an audience, and had people come up later and tell me what they got from it—and frequently it’s not at all what I intended. So, yes, it’s scary and risky and makes us vulnerable, but in the end we write for ourselves, because we have no control over how others will respond to it.

Now, as to writing for recognition from the groups we aspire to be a part of. There is inherent risk to sending out work and seeking approval from the “legitimate” literary community. I sought approval for a long time, then decided I would learn as much as I could and apply it the best I know how.  If something is accepted for publication, I’m thrilled, of course. But I don’t stake my self-worth on it. Sadly, I have some writer friends who do. What I’ve learned is that if you do in fact write outside the expectations of others, you’re less likely to win the approval of editors (especially younger MFA-trained ones) who follow the latest trends. And that’s okay. The only critic you really have to satisfy is yourself, and sometimes that’s the toughest one.

On Writing Badly

"Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."—Eric Partridge

Do you see the bird's claw prints? They are interspersed with those made by some human who trod along the sand at the headwaters of the slough at Avila Beach recently. They are so large I assume they are probably those of a great blue heron, but I can't be sure. What I love about them is their size—nearly half the size of a (wo)man's foot. The other thing is I was frustrated that I couldn't find a spot where the heron's footprints weren't "marred" by the human prints. I wanted the image to be perfect, to reflect a perfection that doesn't exist in nature, or, really, anywhere. 

We all try to make things perfect. Mostly we fail. Writers strive to create the perfect story, essay, novel, memoir, and what we end up with (most times) is flawed prose. Still, we persist.

John Steinbeck, who is one of my favorite writers, struggled (as most of us do) with his early writing. In fact, his first book, Cup of Gold, was a flop that never earned back his $250 advance, according to the Writer's Almanac. Steinbeck wrote to a friend: "The book was an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting all the wise cracks (known by sophomores as epigrams) and all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system [...] I think that I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won't be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above average."

That was 1929. In 1935 he started work on his masterpiece Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorite books), which he didn't finish until 1937. During that time he and his wife, Carol, lived in his family's vacation cottage near Monterey Bay. She worked as a secretary and his family gave him a monthly stipend of $25. In spring 1936, he wrote to a friend that the work was going well and he was excited about its prospects. Then his new puppy chewed up the manuscript. He wrote to a friend: "Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn't want to ruin a good dog on a ms. I'm not sure it is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter."

Steinbeck's good humor shines here, but so does the sense of inevitability so many writers know: It can always be rewritten—and improved. In my experience, the result is usually better. In Steinbeck's case, the final version of Of Mice and Men was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club pick before it came out and got rave reviews. It soon became a successful Broadway play.

What is the lesson here? Trust that the work will become what it's meant to be, get out of the way, and don't be afraid to revise.

Michele Wolfe's Debut Novel

Michele Wolfe’s lovely debut novel, The Three Graces, takes readers on a wonderful  journey with the three protagonists to understanding and wholeness.

Jessie, Isabel and Sara meet in a class during their senior year of college in Colorado, and quickly discover they share strange and frightening out-of-reality experiences. When the three decide to travel to California’s Central Coast and visit Hearst Castle on break, they have an extraordinary experience with a statue on the grounds – the Three Graces. These three deities – Brilliance, Joy and Bloom – guide Jessie, Isabel and Sara as they come into their own and discover their unique gifts.

The Three Graces is sure to become a great book club read. For any young woman who has struggled to understand her path, The Three Graces will show the way.