I 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.
This 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.
Unless 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.
Last 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…
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.
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.
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.
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..
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!
As 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.
Hay hay hay Gracie steel Gwen’s laztop! Why is? Me show no thik 2 be famuzcept lay on futstool and gape mouf cute-like-ish! Hee hee haahaa me LMAO in wate in see how long dis pixtake to make us Innernets censashun! Not long metinks sphessly wit Gwen be a—HAY!!!!!!!
Excuse me, cat? This is my laptop. Do you mind??
Sheesh, I’m not gone two seconds, and this little minx steals my soapbox. Well, you know what they say about while the mice are… Anyway, just too busy finishing a book before my self-imposed deadline, to write anything intelligible outside plot. So bear with me until next week while suffering through this cute cat picture. Lame, I know, but what the hell.
As an instructor of the fine art of writing, I’ve often heard the question bantered about: Is writing truly something you can teach? Is it a talent intrinsic, borne of noble effort and semi-genius genes, or can Shakespeare actually spring forth from a million pant-hooting monkeys pecking a million IBM Selectrics? Although the Law of Averages favors our simian relations, I believe the difference lies in the impetus, which ultimately leads to how the writer is defined, and defines oneself.
In order to attain a college degree, most schools mandate two semesters of composition. Students read various works of fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry, evaluate and analyze the works, so they could ultimately produce critical papers. Prerequisites include reading comprehension, sentence structure, and an understanding of the rules of grammar. At the end of two sections of Composition, students are expected to be able to express themselves clearly and succinctly, so they can carry that writing ability into their other courses and eventually, their field of work. So after years of writing papers and reports, and theses and dissertations if they’re working toward advance degrees, should these students now be sufficiently proficient enough to be considered writers?
Again, it all depends on the impetus.
I have known students who would rather be hog-tied and tossed into the runoff of a hard night of partying than face another semester of English 101 or 102, as opposed to those who live to jot their day-to-day in Moleskines or Marble Compositions, holed up at corner desks or coffee shops, far into the night or cracking the dawn. These are my kindred spirits, who never fail to fascinate me, who remind me I’m not the only one in the world who feels the same way. But what gives a person such a drive to record, reiterate, correspond, expound, create, blog? Whence comes this need for self-expression, this craving to get it out and put it down, whether anyone will every read it or not? I have no idea. All I know is I’ve felt this way for a goodly portion of my life, and there’s nothing that’ll alleviate it except the act of doing it over and over and over again.
So maybe that’s the difference between those who can write and those who call themselves writers. I believe it’s something you’re born with, like blue eyes or wanting to hit tiny balls with iron sticks on Saturday mornings (one thing I will never understand). Perhaps it’s true that one can learn where to put the nouns and the action words, or to spot alliteration or to cite from the Internet, but to describe the way you feel as your lover’s eyes reflect the moonlight? You can’t teach these things. Maybe writers are born with an ability both intra- and extra-terrestrial to crawl so deeply inside themselves, that we are able to become so immersed in the worlds they create for us.
I’ll be spending the Fourth of July weekend down the Shore, on the beach, and for a fair amount of time, in the water. Growing up there you’re taught to respect the ocean, namely by local elders who are only too happy to school you with horror stories of those who didn’t. You hear all kinds of things, and a lot of the time I’m sure they were exaggerating, but there were some things that just came down to good old common sense. Above all, one of the first things you had to learn was to how to swim and I did, courtesy of the local Red Cross. After you had that under your belt you were forewarned to abide by these three rules:
1. Never swim alone.
2. Never swim at night.
3. Never swim with an animal.
Now, two of the three were actually pretty easy for me. I never swam alone because I never went to the beach by myself as it was too boring. When I did go, it was usually when the lifeguards were around from 10 to 5, because before ten was way too early, and by five o’clock I was usually working a summer job and being way underpaid to miss any hours. I also never swam with an animal as dogs aren’t allowed on the beach in the summer, and my horse was 35 miles inland (yes, I had one. His name was Max and he was a palomino.)
Okay, truth be told I DID swim at night a couple of times, but it usually was after the bars closed and a bunch of us would go to the beach and there was this guy who… I think you get where I’m going with this, right? In any event, the older I got the more common sense prevailed and I stopped swimming at night. Because even after the bars closed and even with all that Coors Light in me I knew to keep to the dry side of the beach because the wet side of it probably had sharks in it.
Okay, here’s the thing: sharks live in the ocean and the ocean is on the wet side of the beach. The ocean is their home, and if you walk into their home there is a random chance you could meet up with one. But just so you don’t think even dipping a toe in the ocean will set a shark to snapping at it, here’s a bit of sanity courtesy of National Geographic:
– 93% of shark attacks from 1580 to 2010 worldwide were on males.
– Surfers accounted for 50.8% of all attacks in 2010.
– Snorkelers and divers accounted for 8% of all attacks in 2010.
– Inflatable rafts/inner tubes accounted for 3% of attacks in 2010.
– Over the last half-century, there have been more unprovoked shark attacks in Florida (27 out of a total 139) between 2-3 pm than any other time of the day.
– You have a 1 in 63 chance of dying from the flu and a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark during your lifetime.
– Over 17,000 people die from falls each year. That’s a 1 in 218 chance over your lifetime, compared to a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark.
– In 1996, toilets injured 43,000 Americans a year. Sharks injured 13.
– 1n 1996, buckets and pails injured almost 11,000 Americans. Sharks injured 13.
– In 1996, 2600 Americans were injured by room fresheners. Sharks injured 13. (How do you get injured by a room freshener?)
– The US averages just 19 shark attacks each year and one shark-attack fatality every two years. Meanwhile, in the coastal U.S. states alone, lightning strikes and kills more than 37 people each year.
– For every human killed by a shark, humans kill approximately two million sharks.
Okay, let’s get to my side of the world There hasn’t been a fatal shark attack in New Jersey waters in more than 32,000 days. In fact, there have been only 15 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks on humans in recorded history along the Jersey Shore. So does that mean it’s safe to strip to the skinny and take a midnight dip? Well, if you’re planning on it, think of this: the impetus for Peter Benchley’s book Jaws was based on the 1916 shark attacks that happened off the coast of New Jersey.
Will that keep me out of the water? I think not. But neither will it keep me out of the bars.
It’s a sad, sad fact of the writing life that every book needs a synopsis if you want to sell it. I’m sorry, but synopses to me are like carbuncles on top of boils, about as compatible to my literary mojo as coconuts are to refrigerators. When I know I have to write one, it’s like I have creative mono I’m so not able to start. Fact is I hate hate hate the little bastards, as after all these years, my brain still fights writing one. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then welcome to Writer Hell, sweetheart. Your angsty little life is about to get so much worse.
A synopsis is your book boiled down almost to its skivvies. At the most it’s about five pages, but lately the going length seems to be around two. With such a tight page count, you might think it makes the writing easier, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Actually, it makes it so much harder. How hard? Let me search for a difficult enough analogy. Have you ever tried to gather a bunch of peeled grapes with one hand? That’s kind of what it’s like. (Actually, the literal version of that would be easier, but don’t let me disillusion you). You need to encapsulate all those slippery plot points from start to finish, naming your major characters, their conflicts and motivations, holding nothing back. Don’t want to divulge everything? Then just include something like, Intrigued? Then request the full manuscript to find out what happens next! and you’ll win the race to the ‘delete’ button. (Please, just–no.) Do include a hook at the beginning and a satisfying ending, and no being cagey or overly creative, either. It’s just the facts, ma’am, and do remember to keep it in the present tense, and state your word count and genre under the title at the top. Also, it should go without saying to make sure it’s proofread, spell-checked, grammar-checked and formatted until it’s pink and screaming.
A synopsis, above all, is a selling tool. You need one to get an agent as after you do, she’ll need it to sell your fabulousness to an editor. A synopsis not only spells out your book, it tells an editor you’re capable of finishing one, as very rarely will she have your whole manuscript in front of her at the first pass. Because of their brevity, synopses, at least when they’re written well, can be succinct little works of art. With a well-written synopsis, you’re straddling the fence between novelist and journalist, as it’s a sign of polish and skill to write eye-catching florid-free prose when you’re concentrating strictly on the main points. When it’s done effectively and efficiently, it can make all the difference between rejection and acceptance.