secretary20pinup8dnDear Editor,

I simply must tell you how fantastic you look today. I know your job is tough and you’ve been relentlessly busy, but honestly, it doesn’t show. You look fabulous. Quite the contrast to me as I’ve been working my fingers to the bone. Have these creative synapses been sparkin’ and how!

But that’s the way I roll. Banging out the genius day and night, living, eating, breathing. Sometimes it’s hard to contain but I eventually get it down. Love the pressure, too. I live for the deadline. Haven’t missed one yet. See, I’m all about honor: honoring deadlines, honoring advice, honoring the miraculous fact there are people out there who honestly want to read what I have to say. It’s an awesome concept. One I wouldn’t dare take lightly. Insert derriere in chair, remove pretension. And never, ever forget you’re only as good as your latest.

I would like you to believe I’m worth the risk. I’d work hard for you. I’m seasoned. I deliver. If there’s anything I believe it’s writers write. It’s what I do. I just can’t help myself. If there’s a writer’s dominant out there, I’m his bitch. See for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, have I told you how fabulous you look today?

Many thanks,

Gwen Jones

Look up and shut up

IMG_2766In a odd spate of convergence this week, my freshman students have an essay due based on the observations of writer and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, whose editorial appeared last Sunday in The New York Times.  It’s Turkle’s contention in “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” that students as well as adult smartphone users should ask themselves the question, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”

Turkle uses data from a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center,  stating that 89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during their last social gathering, even though 82% percent of the same adults felt using them somehow took away from the conversation. Counter that with the “rule of three,” or how  a group of college students Turkle interviewed handle the use of devices in social settings. While conversing with six or so people at dinner, “you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. ” The idea is you can continue to converse “but with different people having their heads up at different times.” Turkle contends that this “rule of three” tends to keep conversation light, focusing mainly on topics where people feel they can drop in and out. By following the rule, the students say, ” You never have to be bored. When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone.” But students also lamented the downside. As one college junior put it, “Our texts are fine. It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Yet if you’re a writer, it’s not only your conversations that are suffering. Your writing is suffering, too. Because if all your talking is fluffy and all your observations are out of Instagram, Twitter, or Google, chances are your writing is as deep and as substantive as Jell-O. I once had someone ask me why a writer would interview people when she could get the same information online. Could she? Then from where did that information spring? From the info pixies? Too many of us rely on “research” done via online, because too many don’t want to do the heavy lifting that comes with face-to-face or real world interactions. I know of one popular writer of 19th century historicals who worked around this by first writing the book, then doing a quick online fact check before submitting. This same writer had an actual book published with a scene from the 1860s that featured a telephone.  You could say that a simple Google search would have corrected that in a snap. But how could it when the writer didn’t know enough about the era to know what to check?

The point is a writer needs to be observant, to turn his or her attention away from the virtual and into the world going on around them. Honing the art of observation is the first skill a writer needs to master before they could ever strike a key to start a story. Ask yourself: Is Wikipedia is the first place you turn to for research, instead of that hot history geek bartender spouting random facts as he pours your Guinness? If it is, then maybe you need to look up from Tinder instead of just sitting there swiping left.

Damn! What a week!

IMG_2762I’m as bad as my students. I have no excuse for posting so late this week. I don’t even have a good excuse for a picture.  Mine is the photographic equivalent of opening up a can of tuna for dinner and only adding a fork. This was simply the last picture I took and it was for a Facebook comment I don’t even remember to.  (One book I actually read all the way through. Can you guess which one?) The point is now that the flush of the Fall semester is finally chillin out, the rest of my life is heating up in ways that are at the very least, interesting.  Yet believe it or not, it also means I’m finally getting some time to start writing again. Do you care? Only if you want to read my blather. Which of course if you’re reading this, you do.

More cogent commentary next week after I finally clean my rather dusty house, get a pedicure, and find out why John Boehner took a powder today.  I mean you do care, don’t you?

Plotting for plot

shopping_groceryWhere do story ideas come from? Do they drop like rain out of the sky, or sprout beneath our feet like crack-in-the-sidewalk weeds? Do they barrel into us like a runaway train, or slip into our consciousness like a movie’s product placement?  Fact is, all of the above are correct. You just never know when a great story idea is going to hit you. But it’s also true you can’t wait for the Book Pixies to drop one into you lap. Great ideas have to be mined,  and there are several places where you can start digging. For instance…

1. Look to History – This method is the easiest of all. Just pick up any history book, open a page and point, and there’s guaranteed to be a story in it. How many bestsellers have been written about World War II? The Civil War? (A certain radish-hurling Southern belle springs to mind.) Or the Napoleonic Wars and hello! the Regency period in England? Honesty, how many United States history books ever even mentioned the Prince Regent, “Prinny,” yet his era spawned a wildly popular American subgenre of romantic fiction. Imagine today forty years from now. Meet-cute on Tinder? Love it!

2. News Stories, slightly libeled – There used to be a popular movie trailer come-on that went, Ripped from today’s headlines! Which nowadays has been slightly altered to read, BASED ON A TRUE STORY. It’s the same thing, but honestly, that CNN home page or local newspaper (newspapers–remember them?) is still a great source for plots. In a further variation on the above history theme, don’t discount headlines of yesteryear, either. Writer Peter Benchley got an idea for his book, Jaws, from the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that started on Long Beach Island. Who could argue with that success?

3. Family – Oh, yes, the original source of embarrassment and inspiration. How many of you have a weird Uncle Albert or Aunt Ada, the hoochie dancer, your father the war hero, your mother the self-made CEO of a multinational conglomerate (if you’re the latter, have her buy you a publishing company, and never worry about plot again). As for my own family, I have an original ‘49er, a nightclub singer, and a somewhat tenuous relation to Wyatt Earp’s brother, Virgil. Trust me, you never know.

4. Steal From Someone Else’s Story – Seriously, this is a viable option. Now, I’m not talking about opening up some New York Times bestseller and jacking right from the page. What I’m suggesting is taking a book in the public domain, and tell the story behind the story, what happens before or after, or from another character’s point of view. Jean Rhys prequeled Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea, and more recently, March, by Geraldine Brooks, tells the story of the absent father gone-to-war of the March girls of Little Women. Who hasn’t read a book and thought about an unexplored secondary character and wondered what their story was? Now’s your chance to clear it up.

5. Take a Walk – Any walk, anywhere, from your own street to a street far, far away. Take in the sights, the sounds, the buildings and the people, sit on a bench in a park, in a cafe, on a bus, at a museum, on a beach, by a lake, on an observation deck. If you can, do it alone to keep distractions at a minimum, allowing yourself to absorb everything that floats, waltzes or rolls past you. Leave the phone turned off and the ear buds in your pocket, and let the milieu do the talking. You’ll be amazed at what it tells you.

I’m so much more about autumn

pine-barrens-whartonLast week I was ragging on and on about my Summer of Suck and how I was more than ready to get it over. Total party poopage, I’m sure, but had you been me you’d totally be down with that. But you have to agree that Fall isn’t too shabby either. For one thing the temps will be a whole hell of a lot more bearable, at least what’s been passing as “weather” in my part of Jersey. I’m so over these 90 degree days. But to give a bit of a better insight what I’m talking about, look at these reasons I am so much more about Autumn than I was about Summer (at least this year):

1. Apples – Gala, Cortland, Mac, Granny – sure you can get them at the supermarket all year ’round, but this time of year, you can pluck them right off the tree. And here in the Northeast, there’s no shortage of apple farms. Matter of fact, this time of year there’s no shortage of Apple Festivals, with their accompanying Hard Apple Cider samples. And this abundance of apples leads to the inevitable apple cakes, apple muffins, apple sauce, fried apples, apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple doughnuts, applesauce, apple lasagna…

2. Cooler Nights – Seriously, I have nothing intrinsically against summer, but I also like to get a good night’s sleep. And I don’t care what you say about air conditioning – the only difference it makes to my downtime is I get a bit of Sinus Inflamed Fitful Sleep instead of wallowing the night away in a pool of sweat-soaked sheets. Big difference from leaving the window opened a tad and tucking the covers under your chin. Plus you can snuggle up with the person next to you and not have your skin go phwhuck! from the contact. So much pleasanter. And quieter!

3. Better Movies – With the summer blockbuster season behind us, the studios finally roll out their “serious” films, as we get closer to Oscar time. Goodbye car chases, blue screens and dick flicks, I can finally revel in some meaningful dialogue and decent acting. Now if I could only find a theater that’s actually showing  one I would be happy.

4. The Elections Will (finally) Be Over – What am I thinking? No they won’t.  They’ll go on and on and on like a bad case of the scabies.

5. Scarves Are Back – Love them. LOVE THEM. They make you look artsy and dramatic, and keep your neck warm at the same time. What other article of clothing can you buy at Target that says so much for so little? Plus they keep the collar of that wool jacket you look tres chic in from itching so bad you’d like to rip your skin off. Ah, the price of fashion…

Let the leaves fall!


Happy Labor Day and Good Frickin’ Riddance Summer of Suck

Gretchen and Gwen 8.29.15I have nothing constructive to add this week. My header says it all. This has been one trashcan of a summer for me, no sense in sugarcoating it. I had more health issues than JAMA, I spent waaaay too much time watching TV (thank Christ for Poldark, TCM, and John Oliver), and I didn’t go swimming in the ocean once. NOT ONCE. Terrible bad form for a Jersey girl, and it’s not for lack of trying. Still, for all my bitching, a few good things did happen. I no long need contacts or glasses (since I was six), except these RayBans of course, and after losing a few parts I’m good for another million miles. Plus I finished a new book. It’s out there making the rounds and there’s a sample up top if you want a sneak peek. Outside of that, I’m done with this being down. That’s me and my sister, Gretchen Weerheim, sporting our new Wonder Woman bracelets. Definitely feeling badass.

Here’s to Fall. Bring it, suckas.

Why this writer (and maybe you too) needs the beach

IMG_1725This week while I’m running around getting ready for classes to start next Tuesday, I came across this photo, and right away I started pining for the beach. It’s been a hell of a summer for me, and the fact I haven’t had my toes in the sand since Fourth of July weekend has left me  a bit addled. You see, at least for this writer the beach, or rather the Shore as we say in New Jersey, is an essential muse to my literary existence, and here are five reasons why…

1. The Horizon – Stressed? Have a bit of the old block? I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like zoning out at the beach. You sit your fanny in a chair, bury the toes, slide on your shades and simply fix your sight on the horizon. By the time your gaze glides past the sand and surf and out over the water, your blood pressure’s dropped twenty points. After a few minutes your mind blanks and oh boy, do the ideas start flowing.  Compound that if you’ve got your fingers clamped around a Yuengling.

2. The Surf – Still stressed?  Dive in. This is especially effective if the water’s particularly rough that day. There’s nothing like a wave ass-whooping  to bust the kinks out of those tense muscles. In fact, it’s practically mandatory for an effective day on the beach. Why? Because a dip is an absolute precursor to the…

3. Beach Nap – You’re heaving like a busted bellows, there’s sand in your crotch, and your hair looks like the wet mop coming out of Nardi’s men’s room after a Saturday night. So the only thing left to do is fall on your face and pass out under the sun. Let me tell you, I’ve solved more plot problems through the bizarre REM dreams I’ve had during these snooze sessions.  Or maybe they weren’t.  Hmmm…

4. Chat ‘n Chew – More often than not I have a friend or two (or three or four) along with me as a I sit on the beach, and often that friend or two are fellow writers. I cannot tell you how many books were started or finished in that rumpled milieu, whole characters developed, titles created, contracts debated. Often these brainstorming sessions are aided by a new pack of Twizzlers, various summer fruits – peaches, watermelon, plums, etc  – as well as the mandatory chips ‘n dip. Inevitably, this is supplemented with the Red Carpet chatter that ensues watching the various forms of scantily-clad humanity plodding near the shoreline, invoking even more spirited discussion. Oh–the stories we can weave!

5. And then, as I look to the West… – As our day on the beach comes to a close, and we trod homeward, after we shower, barbecue and before we hoist a few more Yuenglings, we venture to the other side of the Island and Barnegat Bay. In a blaze of red, gold and orange, the sun sets, staining a path across the water, eliciting oohs and aahs. And if that isn’t inspirations, well, I just don’t know what.

External Hard Drives, Leather and Otherwise

db3b094a0a9f7f84387592c2540a12ecUnless you’ve spent your entire life in a social void, you should know you never ask a woman past twenty-five what her age is. That said, you can assume I’m past that age (though not quite OF the age) when my age is all that obvious. So when I say I’ve been keeping a journal since I was sixteen, know I won’t be insulted if you take for granted I spent my teen years in the other century. (And don’t be a smarty; I mean the Twentieth.) In any event, I’ve been keeping one for a long while, and believe me when I say, it’s been my salvation for all those years in between.

Sometimes your significant other or your friends just aren’t enough as a sounding board for your troubles, and let’s face it, your honesty. There’s always that intrinsic filter that keeps your guard up just a little, and that’s where writing it all out can be such a release. A journal can also work as an external hard drive for your memory, a place to record what’s happened without all the exposure and potential future regret of all those impromptu social media postings (you’ll be the only one who knew you were sauced when you wrote that). But there’s one more purpose a journal serves, tailor-made for a anyone who considers themselves a writer: the fact that journals are specifically intended to be, well…written in. And just that fact that you’ve decided to keep one should be a commitment to keep on writing.

But just because you have one doesn’t mean you will, though here’s a bit of impetus beyond my mantra, writers write: a journal’s very existence will compel you to write OR ELSE. Case in point: my journal, a simple 4 x 6 leather-covered notebook, has a meaner stare than any animal of prey. I have never seen anything, inanimate or flesh-and-blood, that can produce such an overwhelming rush of guilt when ignored, ten times worse than your mother can when you’ve forgotten her birthday. And it doesn’t even matter if I keep mine in my desk drawer. Somehow, you’re always aware it’s there, as I swear, at times I could almost hear it calling to me. So sooner or later, you end up writing in it, and the crafty thing that it is, will then make you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something, and you know what? As the pages pile up you know actually have. You wrote.

But journals are more than just tableau rasas for inner angst; they’re repositories of sketches, plot points, anecdotes, snatches of dialogue, characterizations, and any number of tidbits you can draw from later on in your writing. I take mine with me whenever I travel, and some writers I know bring along a separate volume just to record that specific trip. After you’ve been keeping one for a while, you’ll find out an event just doesn’t seem fully realized until you’ve chronicled it, making it so much richer when you do. But most of all, for all its neediness, you’ll know it’s always there for you, ready and waiting to receive your genius, a touchstone into the writers’ world, one we can always access, with no judgments on our genius, and most importantly, no rejections ever.

So the book’s done. Now what?

retro-porn-3Last week I gave you a sneaky peeky of my new novel, and this week and next, I’m taking a well-deserved rest. But what do you do after all that resting is over? After you’ve nipped and tucked and primped and preened it until it’s pink and screaming? After you’ve made absolutely sure you couldn’t get it any better, after you’ve edited it one more time, after you’ve saved it in several places, and now you’re sitting back and admiring this positively stellar work of art? Well, I’ll tell you – now it’s Business Time. And what does that consist of? Let’s start with…

  1. The Dreaded Synopsis and Blurb– Oh my aching neck – is there anything worse than writing a synopsis? Yes, a blurb, which is a one sentence encapsulation, boiling your 85k word work of art down to its very essence. I thought of one the other day while I was making my lunch, so maybe they aren’t as hard as they seem. (Right!) Maybe because they’re all foreplay, and you don’t have to go for the beginning, middle and bang-zoom! Now synopses…well, they’re a bit more of a challenge. Used to be synopses were five to ten pages, but now my agent tells me the industry standard is getting closer to two. And that’s double-spaced sweeties, with the same formatting rules applying. And don’t make it a tease like the blurb–agents and editors will just spank the delete button if you try to play cagey. Give the plot, characters and theme, and make sure it covers your work from beginning to end and in the present tense. They’re looking for content, not for coy. Save that for your fabulous prose.
  2. More Dread – The Query Letter – There really is an art to writing these things, no kidding, and you do so need to get them right. Even before you begin your search for an editor or agent, create a good query shell as once you do, you can tailor it to each house or agency’s preferences. There’s much more information that ‘you’ll need about crafting one than I can give you right now, so click here to an earlier post for more in-depth instructions.
  3. Now do your research– What do you write? Romance, science fiction, mystery, commercial or literary fiction? Whatever the fiction (as it’s slightly different for non-fiction, and for that, I’m not quite the authority), you need to do your research so you’re targeting your work to the right house or agency. If you’re a genre writer – romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc. – there are some houses that still accept unagented fiction. It’s YOUR job to find out who they are. To do this, you might want to search the web for each publisher, pick up the latest copy of the Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest or their Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck  Sambuchino, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors or Literary Agents,. Or take a trip to the library and check out the Literary Marketplace Database (the definitive guide, a pricey subscription to get on your own, so use it at the library for free). But even those guide aren’t going to help if you don’t know what kind of fiction they buy. I always like to go to the local bookstore and browse the authors I feel my writing is most like, and then check the Acknowledgements page. See which editors and agents they thank, and that should send you in the right direction.  Another great source is the database on agents, Agent Query.  But nothing will get you in the door better than a personal invitation. Go to writer’s conferences, attend writer’s clubs, join national organizations for your genre. At conferences, you’ll have the chance to meet editors and agents in person during pitch sessions At writers’ clubs you’ll get to hobnob with published authors who might like you well enough to recommend you to their agent or editor. Put yourself out there! Face-to-face is always the most effective.
  4. Send it and forget it – Does the manuscript shine? Did all your research? Found the perfect editors and/or agents? Now start querying. Most, if not all agencies and publishers, post their submission guidelines on their websites, so do your research first. Send queries in small batches, though NEVER send an email blast to everyone at once, and NEVER use a form letter. If you’ve created a good template, you can tweak each letter for each specific agency/agent and publisher/editor. Thank your lucky stars and talent if a request comes back for a partial or a full, though only send attachments upon request or per submission guidelines..
  5. Now get back to writing – You’re only as good as your last book, and writers’ write, my dear. If you’re not doing what you should be doing, there’s no need to pay attention to any of the above. Now get back to work!

Sneak Peek – Down Dorothy

Great Bay Blvd.Research CenterAs a writer and an academic, I’ve had to somewhat compartmentalize both of my professions, giving my all to each at different times of the year. During the few weeks right before a new semester and right after, I’m all about the courses I’m teaching, such as with the prep, setting the curriculum, the first days on campus when I get to know my new students, and settling into a routine. And then there’s the end of the semester when it’s all about final papers and portfolios, and for my grad students, the final projects or theses. During all of this, I’m usually working on one writing project or another, but the real meaty work gets done in the summer–and I think this is true of all writer/academics (as there are many more out there like me). This is when I can write from dawn to late into the night, the project becoming a living, breathing monst–baby you bring to fruition.  For me, that birth happened this week in the form of Down Dorothy, a contemporary piece of fiction that runs the gamut between romance, woman’s fiction and just a plain commercial read. The short description is: A writer on vacation stumbles onto a curse surrounding the enigmatic descendant of the Rochesters of Jane Eyre. But you be the judge. A sneak peek is available right here.

Seriously Snark


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers

%d bloggers like this: