Meet Author James L’Etoile

(I ran out of room for my full interview with James in my November newsletter, but his answers were all too good to waste. So, I decided to run the full interview here in my blog.)

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include: At What Cost, Bury the Past, Little River -The Other Side of Paradise and Black Label.

A bit about his latest novel, Black Label, released in July by Level Best Books:

Big Pharma has a secret and it’s costing thousands of lives. Prison gangs and corporate board members make strange bedfellows, but where there’s money to be had, peace exists through an off the books Black Label drug lab. Until a pharmaceutical executive wakes up in a strange apartment and finds herself suspected of the CEO’s murder. Believing she’s insane, or a murderer, Jillian Cooper is on the run from the police and gang enforcers as she tries to unravel the secrets of Black Label.

The Interview

Q: For almost three decades, you have worked with criminals through the prison system. When did you realize you also wanted to write novels? How did you hone your skills?

James: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. But I didn’t start writing fiction until I retired from my career in the California prison system. I recall reading a novel and it wasn’t particularly good—predictable, tons of plot-holes, and characters I really didn’t care about. Something in me snapped and I thought, “I could do better than this.”

I didn’t have the confidence to jump in and write fiction, until I thought back to one of my early assignments as a probation officer. I prepared pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. To prepare those reports, I interviewed the defendant in jail, taking down their version of the crime, spoke with the investigators, read the arrest reports, and meet with victims uncovering the impact of the crime on them, or their families. I’d then have to sort through all this information and cobble together a narrative about the crime and make a recommendation for how long in prison or jail it deserved. What I didn’t realize until I thought about writing crime fiction was, I’d been writing crime stories all along.

With that confidence—that I’d been down this road before—I began learning more about the craft of fiction writing, attending writer’s conferences like the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference outside of San Francisco.

Q: You have written both serial mysteries and a standalone thriller. Which do you prefer and why?

James: What a good question. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. Writing a series allows you to take your existing characters and move their stories even further along. You have the setting in place (usually), existing players ready to act their roles, and character traits/motivation established. It’s familiar. Throw in a new villain and a unique problem to overcome, and you’re on your way. I like writing standalones because of the absolute freedom. You, as the author, get to create a new world, fresh, new characters, and there are no limits on where the story can go because of the constraints of an established series. What I attempt to do in a series is keep the story as self-contained as possible, so the creative freedom is there in a sequel. And readers can pick up any book in the series and not feel lost.

Q: You worked in the prison system for twenty-nine years, yet the protagonists in your serial fiction (both published and forthcoming) are detectives. Why detectives rather a protagonist based on your experience in parole, or as a hostage negotiator, an associate warden, or a facilities captain?

James: Good catch, Lori! I’ve taken that direction intentionally, because most readers have a general idea of police and police work—even if it’s from bad episodes of CSI-Miami. Ask people about what goes on in prison and people tend to have a vacant stare. That said, most of the novels and short fiction I write have some sort of tangential relationship to prison. A character has been to prison, the detective visits him in prison, or as in the case of a manuscript being shopped around now, a man comes home after a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and the only way to prove his innocence, is destroying the entire town, including the one woman who stood beside him.

Q: How long did it take you to write your first novel, land an agent, and then sign your first publishing contract? Were there any surprises along the way?

James: The first novel, a manuscript which shall forever be entombed in my bottom drawer, took about two years. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? So, with a little practice and a few craft workshops under my belt, my debut novel, Little River, took another two years before a publisher picked it up. I was working on At What Cost and had an elevator pitch to throw out when I attended a mystery writers conference at Book Passage. I listened to an agent panel, approached one of the agents, gave my pitch and she told me to send her the manuscript. Six months later I was represented, and a publisher offered a two-book deal after a short submission period.

As far as surprises along the way—I had to learn a new business model, which was nothing like running a prison, or managing a half-billion-dollar budget. Everything moves in slow motion, except for your deadlines. The biggest surprise, I think, was finding out the crime fiction community is incredibly supportive and actually nice. Where I worked before, folks were generally not nice, and I needed to wear a stab-resistant vest.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Black Label?

James: At What Cost and Bury the Past were straight up police procedural thrillers. Police detectives on the chase to bring down the bad guy before the next bad thing happens. I enjoy writing them and they kind of play into my wheelhouse with my former career in the California prison system. The inspiration for Black Label came from a session I was teaching at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference a couple of years back. A few of us were talking about using fear in our work. Not the fear that you won’t hit your deadline, or the fear that no one will read your book, both real, but I’m talking about that base-level fear each of us have at one point or another. Fear of heights, fear of the dark, or in my case fear of being utterly helpless.

There’s something about being helpless that scares the bejesus out of me. Maybe it’s the control-freak in me, or it could stem from working in prison where you always had to be in control and be prepared for the bottom to drop out from you at any second. So, I wanted to create a character and a storyline where that kind of fear was thrust upon them. What could make someone feel helpless more than being accused of a murder when you’re not sure if you did it or not?

Jillian Cooper is faced with evidence that she’s either a murderer or insane. I like the idea that she must struggle through the helplessness, when the police, the press, the corporate boardroom, and her own mind are ready to take her down.

Jillian is like so many of us who devote our lives to the company, even take on the job as part of her identity. Jillian is smart, focused, and driven to succeed. Her Type-A personality is probably in response to her childhood experiences—told she never measured up to her older sibling, witnessing her mother’s declining mental health and eventual suicide. These all combined to push Jillian to excel and prove to herself that she was good enough.

I think Jillian would tell readers that she is a cautionary tale. When you are so single-focused, spending all your waking moments emptying your life into a job, you miss what’s happening all around you. Sometimes that means you sacrifice relationships, or social interaction. In Jillian’s case it threatens to kill her. I think Jillian would now advocate for a work-life balance.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming series and the first book, Dead Drop, which is due for release in July of 2022?

James: I’m looking forward to the first installment in the new series. Dead Drop is a return to a procedural thriller. It takes place in the Southern Arizona desert where Detective Nathan Parker confronts the deadly consequences of illegal immigration. He’s got a reason he wants strict enforcement of the immigration laws—his partner was murdered by a coyote smuggling people over the border. Parker follows a series of migrant deaths in the desert and soon finds himself relying on very people he chased back across the border for his own survival

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

James: Oh, Lordy. Publishing is a weird business. And it’s just that—a business. It doesn’t care about you personally. It’s very much a what have you done for me lately thing and even then, publishers have been known to change course and focus on different genres to take advantage of what’s hot in the market. Rejection comes with the territory, and it might sting, but when it’s all said and done it ain’t personal it’s just business. That said, I’ve met some of the nicest, most generous people in this business. There are authors, editors, booksellers, bloggers, and readers, who make all the hard solitary time worth it.

So, to a new author, I’d strongly recommend you get involved in this writing community. They are an incredibly supportive bunch, and you can find them in Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.

Preparing for publication is like planning a wedding: Lots of waiting, negotiations and more waiting

Accepting a book contract is much like saying “Yes!” to a marriage proposal.

The moment of commitment is overwhelming. You want to explode, to shout your news to the world. So you do. You tell anyone and everyone, infecting them with your giddiness.

And just like an engagement, the big announcement evokes big questions: When is the wedding (release) day? Do you have a dress (cover)? What are your honeymoon (book tour/promotion) plans?

Self-publishing is akin to elopement or a small, quick wedding. Plans are entirely in your control and either the release itself is over and done with by the time it’s made public, or the book is published soon after the announcement.

No waiting. Answers to all questions are readily available.

Not so with traditional publishing.

I signed my three-book contract with Black Opal Books in February.

I want so badly to answer those questions, to know exactly when the first book will be released, what the cover will look like, where I can do book signings and book discussions. But I can’t. This is the first lull, the time when committed couples meticulously compare calendars, settle on the size of the wedding and look for venues that will work for all.

The first of the novels, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, awaits that kind of meticulous overview. It sits in the Black Opal queue, waiting for an editor to review it for any major plot problems, inadequate research or facts that are incorrect. About four to six months later  (in June, July or August), the manuscript will emerge and the editor will likely request some changes.

My hope is that I will be thrilled with the editor’s suggestions, that I will quickly and effortlessly revise the manuscript and we will move on to the next stage of planning. But it is possible that, like couples planning a wedding, there will be a little back and forth before we settle on these big and important details.

Next comes the nitty gritty.

This is the final round of edits, when someone will comb though my manuscript, studying every chapter, paragraph and sentence for errors. If this were a wedding, Black Opal and I would spend this time carefully sampling the food of recommended caterers, reviewing photographers’ portfolios and listening to the music of various bands. The goal is perfection, a book that creates lasting memories, that moves people to recommend it to others, and makes them clamor for more.

But this isn’t a wedding. I made my selections when I wrote the book. Now I will have to wait another six months (until December, January or February) until the second-round editor has a chance to scrutinize my every choice, look for mistakes and give me feedback. It is not something I want to rush. This book has my name on it. I want to publish the best book possible.

Once that second round of edits ends, the process will pick up speed.

Black Opal will give me a release date and I will have a cover to reveal. I will suddenly find myself in a hurricane of preparations. I expect to hound friends and family for space on their basement floors where I can blow up an air bed and crash for a night in order to do promote my book in every city, village and hamlet I can manage. I will seek out bloggers for reviews. I will send out press releases to news outlets in every place I have where I have even the most remote connection.

While all that is happening, the second book in the mystery/suspense series, NEVER BROKEN, will enter its second round of edits in preparation for release five months later.  NO STRANGER HERE, a stand-alone thriller, will likely be published five months after the second novel.

So what do I do now? Twiddle my thumbs? Not a chance. The key to getting through this period with my sanity is keeping busy. I recently completed a second thriller and I have started writing book three in the mystery/suspense series. My goal is to have the third book in the series ready when the second one comes out.

Between writing, teaching and my family, I am hoping the time will fly.  So, please, toast with me to a happy, healthy and long-lasting relationship with my publisher, Black Opal Books.

 

 

 

 

Embracing ignorance

I entered my first marathon as a favor for a friend. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend by running one with her, but he needed a training partner.

I was fueled by ignorance.

I didn’t train enough. I wore shoes made for running 5Ks. I knew nothing of protecting myself from chaffing and other long-distance injuries. My legs were leaden pegs when I crossed the finish. My toes bled through my sneakers (I eventually lost nine toenails.). I was so sore in the days after that even driving was difficult.

Still, I finished the 26.2-mile route in less than four hours, pretty respectable for a first-timer.

I wrote my first novel the same way. I knew nothing of novel writing. I had too many primary characters in the first draft. The pace in the first half differed from the pace of the second half. I edited as I wrote, which slowed me down. It took me six years to write my first novel, and I spent another two years revising it.

Still, it was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, respectable for a first novel. It remains my favorite and it has been the favorite of two literary agents. I have shelved it for another look at a better time in my career.

I credit ignorance for my success in completing that first novel, the same kind of ignorance that carried me through my first marathon. I believed all through the writing process that novel would sell, and I became more firm in that belief when I signed with my first agent. I even told the kids we would celebrate its sale by buying a Wii.

A year later, my husband and I caved and bought them a Wii anyway.

For first-timers, the novel-writing process can seem daunting and the goal, unachievable. The greatest obstacle is self-doubt and the greatest feat is pushing through that doubt to cross the finish line. So why not allow them that ignorance? Why clue newbies in on the perceived impossibilities?

Let them write. Let them make mistakes without knowing they are mistakes. Let them cross the finish line just once with pure joy, unaware of the bleeding toes, chaffed skin and torn muscles they acquired along the way.

I had started my next novel before I knew the first one wasn’t going to sell immediately, and that was a good thing. I had learned from my mistakes and inefficiencies. The next novel took two years to finish and that is a pace I feel comfortable with at this stage in my life, with young children to raise and elderly parents who need me.

I recently signed a contract with Black Opal Books for that second novel, a thriller entitled No Stranger Here, and for the two novels I wrote next, which are part of a mystery/suspense series. I am happy with my work and thrilled by the contract, but I’m not sure I would have made it to this point without the gift of ignorance that first time around.

I ran five more marathons after the first one. I trained smarter and ran faster for the second two. For the last two, I focused only on finishing injury-free, relying on my previous experiences as a guide. I ran a few minutes slower than my first marathon, but I finished without lasting pain and was able to hit the roads and the track again two days later.

I loved it.

I stopped running marathons when I started my first novel. The two decisions were unrelated, influenced by other factors in my life, but I am not sure I would have succeeded in one without the experience of the other. Marathon training prepared me for novel writing, but it was ignorance that got me hooked on both.

 

 

 

Happiness is a book contract

I have waited a long time to say this, and here it goes:

I have signed a contract with a publisher, a three-book contract with Black Opal Books.

I am beyond thrilled.

I am beyond giddy.

I am sore from jumping up and down, but I still hop whenever I think about it

I have no release dates yet. The editing process takes a while — anywhere from six to eighteen months — but my thriller, No Stranger Here, and the first two books of my mystery/suspense series, Dead Man’s Eyes and Never Broken, will finally make their ways into readers’ hands.

I have Pennwriters to thank.

I first heard about Black Opal Books in May during a Pennwriters conference, where I met a couple of authors who had signed with the Oregon-based company. It is important to be cautious with small publishers. I’ve heard stories about contracts and rights lost when small publishers folded, but Black Opal Books has been around for a while. They are also approved by Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, two high-profile groups that advocate for crime writers.

Even more important though was that the authors I met were happy. Black Opal Books was founded by people in the publishing industry who wanted to do more for authors. They wanted to publish high-quality, well-edited works while offering a percentage of royalties that surpasses the big publishing houses.

I looked into submitting when I returned, but the publisher was closed to submissions until June.

The summer got busy with a family reunion and the high school graduation of our oldest. In the midst of it all, I forgot about submitting to Black Opal Books, focusing instead on writing a new novel. Then I got an email from Pennwriters. I had won first and second places in the organization’s 2017 Novel Beginnings Contest. Pennwriters wanted updates from past contest winners for its newsletter. I remember my conversations about Black Opal Books.

This was in November. Black Opal Books was open for submissions until Dec. 31.

So I did it, and I am glad that I did.

I will post more about the release dates when I know more.

And now, if see me hopping, you’ll know why.

Authors: Don’t quit your day jobs

A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.

He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.

I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.

We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.

But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.

The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.

From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.

But those figures include everyone.

Here is a more specific breakdown:

  • Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
  • Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to  $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
  • Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.

These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017.  Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.

It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:

  • Traditionally published: $305,000.
  • Self-Published: $154,000 

But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.

Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?

We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services.  We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.

Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)

I want that for him.

A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.

 

 

 

On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.

Writing for … glamour?

I emailed an author a while back for information about her experiences with a publisher who was interested in one of my novels. She insisted I call her immediately and sent her phone number.
The reason for her urgency?
Apparently, the publishing world had deceived her.
Authorship wasn’t glamorous at all, she said, and she suggested I get out of the novel-writing business before I suffer similar disappointment. Her advance was small, her sales were slow and she wasn’t becoming famous.
What?!
It took me a while to respond.
First, I thought she was joking.
Then, I thought she must be insane.
Finally, I realized she was quite serious.
So, I laughed.
It never once occurred to me to pursue fiction for celebrity status. Nor did I ever consider the profession “glamorous.” I expect to spend every penny I make on my first published novel (and then some) promoting it, so I certainly am not anticipating wealth.
Where did this illusion come from, I wondered?
How could someone who managed to write a novel, find an agent and land a publishing contract remain so ignorant to the business for so long?
So I started paying attention and this is what I found:
Novel writing has its celebrities: JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James are rolling in cash. What so many people fail to recognize, however, is that most of their money comes from movie options, movie royalties, etc.
They were popular writers before their novels became movies and probably made some admirable amounts of cash, but glamour struck when their novels hit the theaters and their incomes reached seven to ten digits.
In fact, many of their fans are not even avid readers.
Take the woman who excitedly told me someone had entrusted her with the ending of a Harry Potter film he was working on. She was thrilled to have such privileged information. Giddy, even.
Little did she know everyone who’d read the series was already privy to the end.
Unfortunately, the attainment of millionaire or billionaire status is not the norm among authors, though many sell movie options (the exclusive rights to a film production company to someday make a movie of the novel if ever they feel like it) for perhaps $100,000 or so per novel.
Success like JK Rowling’s is probably one in a million, if not more.
But those are the writers we hear about.
Those are the stories we know.
Add to that the magic of social media, and forces behind the misconceptions quickly become clearer.
Search for “author” on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, any of those sites and face-upon-smiling-face will appear. Promote, promote, promote. That’s the buzz word in the writing world these days.
A self-published author with sales of ten can appear to be a celebrity simply because he or she has created that illusion via social networking, web pages and blog tours. What looks glamorous is often the result of a ton of effort and, sometimes, loads of money, on the authors’ parts.
All this was starting to make sense to me.
I was beginning to understand the star-stuck author.
But then came the kicker: House Hunters International.
I rarely watch television during the day, but I was sick the other day — can’t-get-off-the-sofa sick — and I needed something mindless to occupy me. So I chose House Hunters International, intrigued by the fact that its focus on a crime fiction writer.
According to the narrator, the husband gave up everything to follow his wife to Australia, where she had an opportunity to promote her novels. That was the first thing struck me as odd. Why move to Australia to promote her novels?
Couldn’t they just visit?
Next, I noted they were leaving behind a 7,500-square-foot home in Texas.
Then, they set a budget of up to $4,000 for rent.
On a writer’s salary?
Surely, I must have heard of this woman.
I researched her, figuring she was someone famous who had slipped past my radar.
Nope.
She published her novels through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company and a choice many writers make who want full control of their work. Her novels are far from best-sellers and I’d never heard of her.
So how could they afford this?
After further research, I found an article from an Australian newspaper. According to the interview, she and her husband were leaving Australian because his temporary job appointment had ended. She had sold 1,000 of her six novels overseas, for a total of what?
Maybe $3,000 in two or three years?
Surprise.
The producers had lied, further enforcing the illusion that writers live glamorous lives and make tons of money.
Here’s the truth.
I know many glamorous writers. But they are not glamorous because they sold a bunch of novels, made a ton of money and are recognized in supermarkets worldwide. They are glamorous because that’s who they are.
They are kind, charming, witty women and men who write with passion, not with dollar signs in their eyes. They are personable, helpful and accessible. They love their readers. They love their art (though who wouldn’t mind seven-digit checks for doing what they love!).
The woman I called didn’t have that.
And I doubt she ever will.

Writers as book club members: Is it even possible?

When we first moved to rural Pennsylvania three years ago, a few well-meaning folks suggested I join a book club to get to know like-minded people.
I thought about it … for about two minutes.
While I would greatly enjoy the wine (What’s a book club without wine?) and the socialization, I know I would be a lousy and annoying member.
I cannot think of a novel I have read in at least the past two decades without an edge of criticism, and it’s not the kind of criticism other readers would want to hear.
It’s sentence structure.
It’s word choices.
It’s how well and with how much artistry the author has suspended my disbelief.
It’s logical flow of plot and voice.
It’s pacing.
It’s whether the facts are right (because, yes, a good author strives for accuracy even in fiction).
While other members reach for deeper meaning, I can imagine myself reaching for a red pen.
So my question is this: Am alone in this?
Can writers succeed as book club members?
Or should we just skip the criticism and stick with the wine?
Do you, as a writer belong to a book club, or do your book club have a writer as a member?

NaNoWriMo mom-style

November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: start with a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper and write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The effort has its own website with forums and everything. It doesn’t matter whether the words are coherent; Everyone who reaches 50,000 words wins.
I can’t do that.
There’s no way, not with four young kids, a freelance article due in early December, Christmas shopping, a century-old house that needs lots of TLC and–oh, yeah–not without further neglecting my own physical health.
But something happened today that got me thinking.
I was talking with my agent about the progress of my next novel. When I got off the phone, I felt a rush of creative adrenaline. In less than 45 minutes, I wrote another 1,000 words–solid, strong, plot-moving words. It was the thrill of deadline pressure that had motivated me, even though it wasn’t real.
My agent made it clear that he didn’t want to rush me, but I can’t resist a challenge, even an imagined one. In my 11 years as a full-time newspaper reporter, I never missed a deadline (though I’ve made some editors sweat). I thrived on the breaking news, the kind of stuff where targeted reporting, fast writing and just the write amount of clarity and creativity could land my story on the front page.
So why not put that to use.
I can’t write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can write 25,000 words. That’s less than 1,000 words a day, 834 words to be more precise. I don’t want to start fresh, not when I’m already one-third of the way through my next novel, so I can add to that instead.
I won’t officially join the NaNoWriMo effort either. The forums and emails are too distracting. I have trouble enough with Facebook, other writing forums and the twin parenting forums I frequent. I’ll be a loner unless some other busy writer out there wants to join me in some parallel word play.
Instead of answering to NaNoWriMo officials, I will answer here on my blog. I will provide updates in the middle of the month and at the end. And I will remain choosy about my words. No junk pages. No ramblings. Nothing expendable.
Though the stream-of-consciousness writing can be helpful for newer writers who are intimidated by the length of novels, I find it’s too much work to sort through the yucky stuff. It’s easier just to write well to begin with.
One last thing.
I won’t wait until November 1.
I’ll start right now.