Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Trees


I have always loved trees. When I was a kid, I used to wish I could climb as high as my brother did when he was trying to build his tree house out in the back yard. When the leaves would spiral off the branches in the fall, I always had an assortment of the most colorful maple leaves that I could find. In high school, I had my first trip to Vermont and spent some time hanging out under a stand of trees in a heavily-wooded area, listening to the autumn rain splash down on the leaves and branches above me and laughing when I would eventually get wet, which was surprisingly intermittent. The trees around me were that thickly interwoven.

As an adult, I traveled up to Door County, Wisconsin for the first time in July, and then again that following October. I felt as if I’d found paradise when I saw what fall splendor looked like with all of those trees, against the backdrop of both Green Bay and Lake Michigan. I can never fully celebrate autumn without a trip up north to see all those magnificent giants and their glorious streaming scarlet and flaming orange finery.

Today was a windy day here in Illinois, and the trees rustled and sighed in the gusts that both caressed and tossed their branches. And it’s when the wind is blowing in the fall, whether gentle or harsh, that I feel most as if the trees are talking to each other.

There is a road up in Door County that Jim and I love to walk. The total trip is just a little over three miles, and back when I was still running the occasional 5K, that was my favorite training route. There are trees all along the way, and when the wind gets going, the branches lean back and forth and make their little “talking” noises, and I swear they are having their conversations. During one of our many walks up and down that road, I realized why J.R.R. Tolkien would have come up not only with talking trees, but with Ents. If you were to take that walk with us, you would understand, too. The trees on this road are old and tall and majestic, and when they bother to lean toward each other at all, and only at the wind’s insistence, I would swear they are sharing observations and comments. The writer in me would swear they are conversing with each other. And I wish I could understand them.

People are drawn to different aspects of nature. My grandson, AJ, loves predatory animals like sharks and all of the big cats. His room is decorated with pictures of these critters and he always makes me think of a particular dialogue from Jurassic World: “We need more.” “More what?” “More teeth. We need more teeth.” (If you’ve seen the movie, this will make sense. If you haven’t, it will make sense when you do.) My other grandson, Johnathan, is currently obsessed with poisonous snakes and spiders. He just loves tarantulas and the fer-de-lance, and spends time reading up on “the most poisonous snakes” or “the biggest spiders” in the world.

Lots of my friends are gardeners and they have my complete respect and admiration. I’d garden too, if I didn’t have the unfortunate tendency to kill nearly everything I try to cultivate. It’s like they pop their little budding heads above the ground, see me, think to themselves, “Oh, it’s YOU,” and then curl up and die after giving up completely.

But trees? Trees are my buddies. I always feel better, no matter where I am, if I can look out the window and see trees. Even just one. I feel great when I get to go out among them, like in the north woods of Wisconsin. They make me happy. I think I might even be able to grow one without killing it, but I haven’t tried yet so that the fantasy can continue to thrive within my head. But one day, I may just try growing an acorn. If that lifted its head above the ground, saw me, and kept going, wouldn’t that just be amazing? In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the ones out in nature. Maybe if I hang around them long enough, one day I might begin to understand their conversations.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

From Traditional to Self Publishing

I became an indie author in 2012, after an enlightening talk with two self-published authors: the first was my fairy godmother, Terri Reid, who was--and continues to be-- amazingly encouraging and literally one of my best marketers, since she always tells her gazillion fans when I put out a new book. The other is a lesser-known humor writer named Norm Cowie who sat down over a Portillo's dinner (Terri got a fried chicken lunch! I clearly believe in food as bribery) to tell me that what I needed to keep in mind was that the more content (books and stories) I had available to the public, the better I would do at selling my books. So I listened to both of them, took the plunge, and Haunted saw the light of day that same year.

But the journey really began years and years ago when I wrote an out-of-print little book called Dead of Summer. Because I was too naive to know that when a Scholastic editor (still accepting unsolicited manuscripts back in the early '80s) sent back my manuscript with the note "This seems to be missing the last page" that they weren't actually rejecting the book, I spent six years before winding up with a vanity press. Because I didn't know any better. Sigh. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had responded to that editor with "Here's the completed manuscript. How can I make this a good fit for your company?" But I didn't, and that's neither here nor there.

I wrote Ghostwalk (still unpublished) shortly after that, and that was the manuscript that was rejected by Daniel Pike's agent because it was too soft. He was looking for a Freddie Krueger-type story, since Mr. Krueger was the supernatural poster child at that time.

And then I wrote Saving Jake. After receiving my first handful of rejections (such a familiar  routine!) I remembered a small article I had clipped years earlier about a local woman who had started a small publishing house. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I dug out the article and called her. She was indignant that I would ask if she was still in business, but we did have a long talk and she agreed to look at my manuscript. After months of waiting, and asking for a status update, and then more waiting, and asking for a status update, I got the call that will forever remain one of the highest points of my entire existence on this planet. She called and said "I love your book and I want to publish it." I asked her to repeat that statement just so I could hear it again, and she very kindly did. Saving Jake was released in 2002.

Haunted was the follow-up book I wrote but I took so long about it that by the time I sent it to her, she said that she had stopped publishing novels and was focusing on nonfiction. But she also said that it was a good book and I should try submitting to New York. Oooohhhhh, noooooo... I did try to follow her suggestion. I even pitched to an agent who accepted the manuscript. And about four months after that acceptance, I got a letter from her literary agency telling me that the agent no longer worked there, but that she had taken my manuscript with her. I never heard from that agent again.

By that time, self-publishing was starting to look like a glittering oasis in the middle of the desert. Luckily, that oasis was not a mirage.

There are downsides to being an indie writer, of course. All marketing is on me, although the same would pretty much have been true even as a fledgling writer at a New York publisher. Sales are all on me. Editing/proofing, cover art, and formatting are my responsibility (although I am lucky and grateful to have people to beta read, a friend who is an artist, and a friend who is an expert at formatting.) I also have a gifted artist nephew who designed and maintains my website and set up my FB page. (He's seen me deal with tech: I think he feels sorry for me!) 

I don't mind at all that I have not been published by a New York company. I don't mind not being caught up in their whirlpool of hope, waiting forever, and then disappointment. In a story that will remain untold at this time, I did have one blistering, soul-blasting, mind-tilting rejection, that came over the phone, from a major New York publishing house. It was such a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking experience that I stopped writing completely for three long years. I never want to go through that again. Something like that might not stop me this time, but who needs it?

So thank you, all of you, for listening to my story. I'm sure everyone out there who is doing what I do has a story of his or her own. I'd love to hear everyone's. Writing is a solitary profession, but it's great to have comrades. And it's also great to have readers. Thank all of you.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Paranormal Shows (The Fiction Edition)

       
(Before I get going on this, I just want to say that I’m not including Supernatural in this particular piece because Supernatural is its own beast. And I do love me some Dean, Sam, and Castiel!)

But what put the topic of paranormal shows into my head is the new one on CBS. It’s called Evil and if you haven’t seen it, you really should. I mean REALLY should. It’s well-written, it’s spooky, it has a good cast, and the premise is the investigation of supernatural incidents. As CBS itself describes the first show, Forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard is hired by the Catholic Church to work with David Acosta, a priest-in-training, and contractor Ben Shakir, to determine whether a serial killer is possessed by a demon or merely a psychopath. Kristen finds that she has a taste for the work and is invited to join the team on a permanent basis. And it was excellent.

If you haven’t seen it, please do so right away.

But that’s just this year. The path to this kind of program was forged way back in the early days of television with shows like The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and Alcoa Presents. Later on in the sixties, ABC picked up a summer replacement series from England called Journey to the Unknown and it was fantastic. ABC also produced a series called The Sixth Sense in the early ‘70’s as well.

Fast forward to The X-Files. While I know it’s really famous for its motto “The Truth is Out There”, and while I know the mythology of the show was based on Mulder’s search for what happened to his sister and what-about-all-those-aliens, their stand-alone paranormal stories were truly frightening. I still remember the one about the Golem, or the one about the vengeful spirit that killed it’s victims by strangulation. From inside the victim’s neck. Their tales of apparitions, possessions, and demonic creatures were second to none and I loved every hair-raising minute of it.

But there were also some lesser-known, short-lived shows that explored the same area as the show Evil currently does. Do you even remember a series called Mysterious Ways? It ran from 2001 through 2002, and featured Adrian Pasdar and Rae Dawn Chong investigating strange and spiritual phenomena. I never missed an episode and was truly sorry when the show ended. Then there was Miracles, a show that popped up in 2003 and only lasted one season, which was a real pity, because this one was SCARY. It featured Skeet Ulrich and Angus Macfadyen, and I never missed an episode of that, either. In fact, I own the series on DVD and there were a couple of episodes that never had a chance to air. I don’t know why either of these two series were canceled so quickly. All I can say is that I am happy that the Fox network let The X-Files find its audience because when it did, its popularity was a phenomenon in its own right.

There were other little paranormal blips like Brimstone (Peter Horton) and Proof (Jennifer Beals and Matthew Modine), but nothing stuck like The X-Files, until Supernatural came along.

There always seems to be an audience for this type of show and I’m glad because I, for one, am always looking for this type of show! Of course, there are more alternatives to getting programs like this on the air, thanks to streaming services, and some of them have been amazing.

I may write ghost stories myself, but I’m always up for someone else’s tale. Thank you, CBS, for Evil!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Writer In Search of a Title


We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, how about by its title?

I already know the same is true. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have fallen head over heels for a book titled The Shining. It’s a brilliant title, given the story, but without knowing the story ahead of time and having no familiarity with the term, the title tells the potential reader nothing. I think by the time the book debuted, Mr. King had already smashed through into the bestseller stratosphere with both Carrie and Salen’s Lot, so it didn’t matter. But I’ve always wondered why he, or the publisher, or both, went that route with the title. It doesn’t even hint at the dark and terror contained within the book. Maybe that was the point?

Titles are something I think about a lot, mostly because I struggle with trying to create them. To me, some titles hold the same astonishing magic as the names of both racehorses and rock and roll bands. How creative do you have to be to come up with some of those? I don’t have that talent and frequently wish that I did.

Saving Jake was traditionally published, and the editor and I went back and forth about the title for some time. My working title for the book was Ultimate Magic, and I liked it because it was actually pulled from something Jake Holdridge says during the course of the story. My editor, however, said that such a title would be misleading because using the word “magic” implied a completely different genre. And when she explained it to me that way, I realized she was right. But that left me without either a title or a clue. I ran around and asked my husband, my sister, my friends, anyone who had read the manuscript for help, and after all the lists of suggestions were put together, “Saving Jake” popped up more than once. So there it was. But it took me years to become accustomed to it. In my head, title book remained Ultimate Magic for years.

Now that I’m self-publishing, titles are an even bigger struggle. I don’t have an editor working on this with me, so the final decision for a title is mine, and so are the subsequent mistakes. My first huge mistake, of course, was Haunted. I found out some time after the book hit the Amazon listings that I should have checked to see if any other books had the same title. HA! I just looked on Amazon and went through twenty pages (out of seventy-five) of books either titled “Haunted,” or with that word in the title, and still didn’t find my book. So I learned to check subsequent titles and I might have said I was getting better at it, but She Weeps doesn’t come up right away in a search. These Living Eyes is about number five on its page, so at least readers can find it pretty quickly. But with the exception of Touching Shadow, Stealing Light (the only book with that name! YAY!), anyone searching for my books would need to look not only for the title, but for my name as well, in order to find them. Sigh.

So not only do I labor over trying to come up with a catchy title, I also have to make sure are that it will show up when researched without the additional information of my name. None of this cleverness comes easily to me, which is why my working titles are always numeric. Book Six, Book Seven, etc. If I were a quirky rock star, I could probably get away with those as actual titles, but since I’m in the business of book writing, I don’t think that will exactly work. Well, it will work for those who read me regularly, but I don’t know about attracting new readers.

Oh, and there’s the cover art, too. I remember a couple of years ago when I told my long-suffering cover artist (the very talented Carmen Elliot) that my new title was going to be four words long, as opposed to my usual one or two—or possibly three—words, and asked her to fit that on the front cover in addition to the required gravestones, my name, and the name of the series. She made an executive decision and jettisoned an entire cemetery, as well as the series name, in order to make it fit. But she was right. The cover, featuring a solitary gravestone angel, is fantastic. I am currently working on Book Seven (amazing title right there, don’t you think?) and I gave her a few bits of information regarding the content so she can start thinking about what to do with this one. Can’t wait to see it. Too bad I haven’t finished writing the book yet!

But it’s just as well since I have no idea what on earth I’m going to call it. I guess I could go for transparency and call it “Cassie and Michael See a Ghost” but I don’t know what Carmen would do with that many words.

On the other hand, I bet there isn’t any other book on Amazon with that particular title.