Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Exciting Household Tips from the Product Maven

or A Refreshing Break from Truth

My blog last week about telling the truth of my publishing experience—a truth I share with many other authors—brought a flood of responses, from the sad “oh dear, is this what I’m getting myself into” of the new author to the single word “amen” from those who have been through it. I even got a note from one of my publishers, apologizing for being part of the problem. I was touched and moved by all the responses and grateful that we can talk openly about these things.

But plumbing my own truth, and discussing it with others, is draining. This week, in a refreshing change from all the glory, gloom and passion of publishing, I’m going to revert another mantle so many of us wear: The Domestic Engineer.

As those who know me well can vouch, I do not embrace the shopping culture. With the thirty or forty cents I get from a paperback or the whole dollar and change I maybe get from hardcover sales, I have not rushed out to stock my closet with Jimmy Choos or Manolos or bought an Eric Javits bag. I do relish the treasuring hunting challenge of finding great things at Goodwill (In fact, in Maine, I carry Goodwill’s now discontinued lifetime Gold discount card) and other thrift stores, so I do have a Marni bag that cost $5.49. I go to the Mall only under duress when I can’t do the errand on-line or by mail.

I also watch very little television, so I am generally safe from the blandishments of commercial messages. (I’m so out of it that when the guy in a recent commercial talked about ED, I had to ask someone what he meant.) From what I have seen, they’re not advertising to me anyway. Why would I want to sweep away a sexy young woman in my hot car? Why would I even want a hot car? I don’t think of my car as an extension of myself; my car is a tool to get me where I’m going. Sadly, if my car IS an extension of myself, I need to be vacuumed and taken to the car wash and buffed and shined. And I’m very high mileage.

My primary consumer excursions are to the grocery store and my usual circuit is around the outside edges of the store, rarely venturing into those dangerous inner aisles. But sometimes a coupon appears with the Sunday paper and I do decide to try something new. And even more rarely, I find a new product that is actually an improvement on the one I’ve used for decades, or one that truly does make life easier. So this week, I am going to share three of my recent product discoveries with the world. Maybe, staring tomorrow, your life will be better, too. And perhaps the excitement of these new products will lift the gloom I cast on your lives last week.

1. Dawn Power Dissolver Tired of the back-breaking, knuckle-bruising, nail-bashing chore of scrubbing out the thrice-reheated lasagna dish, the crusted on macaroni and cheese, the stubborn remnants of pot roast gravy? Tired of soaking pots and pans overnight and still wearing your Brillo to a nubbin scrubbing out the pan? Look no further. This product really works. Just spray this stuff on the dried on, dried out, intractable crusts around the sides and edges of your pan, wait twenty minutes and voila! It is magic.

2. Reynolds Release This amazing foil, coated to create a nonstick surface, is wonderful for baking salmon or oven-fried chicken, for making low-fat sweet potato fries (cut into French fry-sized slices, toss with a bit of olive oil, grind on some coarse salt and bake at 4:25), or roasting vegetables. Just cover your baking sheet with this foil. No need to use cooking spray or grease or oil your pan. When you’re done, strip it off, throw it in the trash, and your pan is as good as new.

3. Tide Stick I learned about this one from my law school friend, Judy Dickson. For those of us who seem to have become messier over the years, but still have some public presence to maintain (or a vestige of pride), this is the perfect accessory. Spill wine or food, Coke or coffee on your nice new blouse? Sitting on a plane when the flight attendant manages to spill someone else’s drink all over you? Have you absent-mindedly written on your shirt with your pen? Well, Tide Stick is here to rescue you. With a little persistence and effort, it usually will take out the spot; even when it’s not a complete success, a tiny spot is far less humiliating that a large glob (especially since those globs like to fall somewhere in the chest area, where they’re difficult to hide unless you carry several large, matching brooches in your bag.)

Now it’s your turn to share your secrets. What great product discoveries have you made that the rest of us need to know about? What household helpers are so valuable that they’d almost make your desert island short list? Tell us. We want to know.

Gearing up for the upcoming launch of my new Thea Kozak mystery, Stalking Death, due in May, I’ve devised another one of Thea’s Quick and Dirty Recipes. These are tasty dishes which can be made effortlessly and in a hurry.

Thea’s Quick and Dirty Teriyaki Chicken

In a gallon-sized zipper bag, marinate as many pieces of chicken as

you plan to cook for several hours or overnight in a teriyaki marinade. (I

use KC Masterpiece Honey Teriyaki)

Arrange chicken in a baking dish and pour marinade over. Cut a green pepper

and some fresh pineapple into chunks and distribute over the chicken. Bake at

350 for 45 minutes or until chicken begins to brown. Serve over rice.

(You might add cashews or also use red peppers for color)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Here’s the Truth: Staying Published is like Spending Twenty Years on Survivor

or I’m Sorry but I may be Too Tired to Swim Back to the Island

(Warning: Content May Be Harmful to Unpublished Writers)*

I appreciated Elizabeth Becka’s honest post on Writers Plot last week because, for most us, there are too many reasons not to tell the truth. Most of those reasons are obvious: we don’t tell the truth because this publishing world we inhabit is a very small one, and we don’t want to say or do anything which might have a negative impact on our ability to survive as a published writer and continue to have our books published, sold and read. The agent, editor or publisher who has broken our hearts, destroyed our egos, or treated us shabbily today might bid for one of our books tomorrow, or lunch with someone bidding for our books or considering taking us on a client, or mention what a pain in the rump we are to someone we are heartily hoping will be our ticket out of the midlist slough.

So we smile and say “Thank you” even when we want to beat our heads against the table and weep or scream in frustration that we cannot create the kind of partnerships with our publishers which will help us sell books. We smile and say, “No problem” when we cannot learn our pub date so we can plan author events, or can’t learn the size of the print run, or learn that our print run is so small we’ll never do more than earn out our small advance. We murmur politely when we’re frustrated that we can’t see the cover copy or the cover design or when we can’t get a copy of the cover in a timely fashion so we can print the postcards we’ll pay for and mail or the bookmarks we’ll pay for and distribute. We nod agreeably when we’re advised to have a content-rich web site, which we must pay for. We ask for content suggestions when we’re told to create a newsletter, which means time away from our writing to write about ourselves or find other topics of interest to draw readers to our personalities as well as our writing.

We don’t tell the truth because we’ve already beaten the odds in so many ways just getting to the point where our book is in print that we know we ought to feel lucky, even when it feels to us like we’re spectacularly unlucky. We don’t tell the truth, which is that after spending a year or two writing the best book we can, we don’t make enough money from the book to live in a cardboard box.

We don’t tell the truth because we don’t want to negatively influence our readers. Many readers want to believe that we’re special, set-apart, the chosen ones, the amazing people who, through the exercise of expansive imaginations and incredible discipline, have managed to create entire worlds into which they can escape. Actually, this is true. What we don’t say is that, having done all this at great expense of emotion, intellect and time, as well as great delight, we can’t make a living. I have never yet given a talk to a school group without being asked if I am rich.

We also don’t tell the truth because we don’t want to discourage aspiring writers. We don’t want to cloud their dreams of publication, the anticipated joy of holding a printed book in their hands and the wonderful pleasure of knowing that someone has read and enjoyed the book. We have all been there at that moment and know how sublime it is. We don’t want to color their daily striving toward a great piece of fiction with all the other reality that comes with being published, so we talk about the upward trajectory of their careers as well as the unending trajectory of learning the writer’s craft. It is never mastered; it is always an exciting process of discovery. We don’t tell the truth about the pain of having a beloved series dropped when we still have an emotional and story-telling life with that character. We don’t tell the truth about how painful it is to have a agent say they’re giving up because no one is interested in the book. We don’t talk about the dark days when we wonder if we should just give up, go back to an earlier career, or simply wander out to play in traffic.

We try not to talk about the pain. The heartbreak. The stunning blows to our egos and our self-esteem. We try not to talk too much about how it feels to come back from the mailbox with the rejection letters we’re paid to have mailed to ourselves. To get the cover letters we slaved over for weeks back with “No Thanks” scribbled in pencil on the top, just above the coffee stain. We try not to talk too much about how tired our arms get when we’ve been voted off the island and insist on swimming back.

My career, if something so iffy can be called a career, has been like a rollercoaster. I spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner, stubbornly refusing to give up while I learned to write ever better books. When I sold my first book, it was actually my fourth. It was a three-book contract, and I had been toiling alone and unrecognized for so long that I was working on my sixth book when I signed the contract. Since then, I’ve gone through the lovely period when I thought I’d made it, when I had a book a year, and a series of contracts. I’ve had the “big” book that had foreign sales and was an audio book and a book of the month selection, that didn’t earn out and made me an untouchable in the world of New York publishing. I’ve waited three years for a publisher to bring out a series book, worrying that all my fans were dying off, only to have the book come out in hardback the week after Christmas, then been told that the sales were so bad there would be no paperback.

I’ve had an agent quit the week my book came out. I’ve had an agent I adored tell me that I needed to writer “bigger books” only to respond to my question: “Who writes a bigger book that I could use as a model?” with John Grisham and Robertson Davies. A decade later, I am still trying to triangulate a place between these two authors where I might be located. I’ve had an agent who couldn’t spell my name or the name of my character. I’ve had an agent who taught me an incredible amount about rewrite and made me a much better writer, but could never sell a book.

We try not to tell the truth about our status. Being an author without an agent or a contract is a lot like having a bad case of body odor. As soon as people get close to the truth, they move along. There’s not a lot of cache in being a failure. I’ve sold my last four books myself. One of them was nominated for an Edgar. One of them got starred PW and Booklist reviews. I like to take this as evidence that I’ve still got some talent as an author.

Recently, in the shower, I had the radical thought: Maybe I don’t have to do this anymore. Since that day, I’ve been trying to figure out what “this” is. I’m as passionate about writing today as I was when I sat down and wrote my first novel almost twenty-five years ago. I have two books coming out this year: Stalking Death, my seventh Thea Kozak mystery and The Angel of Knowlton Park, my second Joe Burgess book. I’m deeply into my third Joe Burgess police procedural, have begun the research for another compelling true crime, and have the plots for my next Thea Kozak mystery and a screenplay. I’m as passionate about story telling as I was on the day I twenty-four years ago when I opened a blank page and typed: Chapter One. Maybe more passionate.

I love talking at libraries and I love teaching writing and I love talking to aspiring writers about craft. So maybe that isn’t it, either. Maybe “this” is spending so much time worrying about whether I have a career and all the “other stuff” I try to do to build a fan base. Maybe “this” is all my anxiety about My Space and Blogging and video trailers and handouts and all the trappings of the business of writing. Maybe “this” is all the energy that goes into trying to be a bigger success (or any kind of a success) instead of recalling the times when it was just me and the blank page and the power of imagination.

So maybe “this” isn’t giving up writing. The truth is that I’m tired of feeling discouraged. I’m tired of feeling like a failure at promoting myself. I’m tired of writing really good books and getting nowhere. I’m tired of being so worried about success and promotion and where I ought to be that I lose all the joy I get from writing. So the truth is that maybe what I have to do is just go back to where I started and write, and write, and write.

Because there’s one final truth and that is that for most of us, writing isn’t a choice. It’s a compulsion. We could no more stop writing than we could start now and hold our breaths forever.

*My fellow bloggers made me include this warning.

And for those of you who are always looking for an interesting story idea, here’s this week’s tip: Today via e-mail, the following spam arrived: Got unused cemetery plots you’d like to sell? Visit Graveguru.com. Just think of the possibilities.