Just a few snaps from the “First Line, First Para, First Page” writers’ workshop Linda J. Parisi and I gave at Ye Olde Warwick Book Shoppe in Greenwood Lake, NY, this past Sunday, January 21. Great turnout and great press, with a radio spot on WTBQ, Orange County Radio on Thursday, January 18, and in their local Times Herald-Record, a great local newspaper, a paper that’s the way local newspapers used to and should be still. Anyway, it was fun, the attendees packed the shop, and they want us to come back in the spring. They’re just asking for it, I suppose. Many thanks to store manager Maria Stasolla for hosting us!
1 NOVEMBER, CAMDEN, NJ 1:22 AM
He held her face between his hands and whispered, “I love you, I always will,” not waiting for an answer, tucking her against him. Then, with his hand on her hip, his breath warm against her neck, he fell asleep, deeply and soundly. And when she kissed the hollow at the bend of his arm, she realized this was the only part of him she didn’t know intimately, as unlike her, even with his kisses over every inch of her naked body, he still knew nothing, as what we wish to bare is in reality, subjective.
© Copyright Gwen Jones 2017
One of the most depressing days in a writer’s life is when they finish their work-in-progress. You’d think it’d be a James Caan break-out-the-bubbly moment like in Stephen King’s Misery, but truly, it’s more like Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, crying like a baby as she types The End. The latter’s an apt analogy, because there ‘s definitely some postpartum issues going on, and although you feel a sense of release, it’s also pretty scary. Mainly because although the creative part is finished the business end kicks in, and suddenly the kind of terror you’re facing makes that Scary First Page look like all kitty and bunny cuteness. You start going all agoraphobia, freaked at the idea of sending Baby out into the cruel, cruel world, completely certain everyone will discover you for the hack — or even worse — the fraud, the imposter you are. “Take THAT bitch!” you imagine as another rejection skids into your inbox, “who ever told you you can write?” (actually, a “mentor” once did say that to me, an Iowa Workshop graduate who I now can only remember as Dick.) You start doubting yourself, convinced everything you ever wrote is shit and trash-worthy, and you end up with your ass still in pajamas at 4:00 PM eating Tater Tots and binge-watching old episodes of Family Ties. Pathetic.
Of course, this is the most extreme scenario, and not completely reflective of my reality. I’m fortunate enough to have an agent who believes in my work, and a couple good leads on this new thing. But that doesn’t mean everything I described above hasn’t gone through my head, and it’s certainly nothing I haven’t faced before. (Okay, no Family Ties, but I did recently binge five episodes of Outlander and nearly the whole season of Girls.) The thing is no matter what stage you are in your writing career, you’re not immune to self-doubt and imposter syndrome and the fact that you’re only as good as your latest success. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let go. I did, and as proof–oh what the hell, here’s the first chapter of my latest book to prove it. Go ahead and read it and let me know what you think. Just don’t make me call you Dick.
Cyber Monday means Bargain Romance at .99! But don’t think you aren’t getting your money’s worth. Take a look at what’s in store for Andy and Julie with a free Sneak Peek above, just under a buck at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and everywhere tomes of this genius are sold.
Get crackin’ kids! You don’t want to be the last on you block to be one of the in crowd!
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?
In 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.
I’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?
Where 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.
Last 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!
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.
Here’s to Fall. Bring it, suckas.