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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Time Travel

"Imagine yourself as a young twenty-something who would like to work in a large publishing house."  

When I was applying to college I told my parents I wanted to major in English because I wanted to become a writer. Here's how that went:

Me: I want to major in English.
My mother: ......
My father: .......
Me: No really. I want to be a writer and I need an English degree for that.
My mother: .......
My father: What the hell are you going to do with an English degree? You can't make money as a writer. You need a backup plan. Like teaching.

And so, that's what I did. I went to Elms with the intention of majoring in secondary education so I could teach high school advanced placement English and creative writing while I wrote the great American novel in my spare time.

Then came my early 20's when I accidentally fell face first into special education. It's a long story, and one that involves getting a mechanical pencil jammed in my hand (see earlier posts) but I found myself working at a residential treatment facility and researching my first nonfiction book (even though I didn't know that's what it was at the time).

Even though I was enjoying teaching and applying to grad school for special education, I still occasionally crept through the job postings in the publishing industry. I was never brave enough to apply for them but I certainly dreamed. I thought I wanted to be an acquisitions editor, slogging through the slush pile to find that one diamond in the rough that would become the novel of the year, of the decade, the voice of a generation. I pictured myself kicking off my Jimmy Choos and propping my feet up on the desk in my cubicle while I read manuscripts. Later I thought I might want to be an editor, going through manuscripts with my red pen, helping to shape a book the way Max Perkins did with Thomas Wolfe.

Then I discovered that I hate editing. I hate reading raw material. I also discovered that I'm much better at interacting with authors and helping them build a platform for their already finished book. Eventually, I also discovered the production aspect of a book, creating a schedule for a book's creation and launch, writing jacket copy, having input on the cover design. Laying out a book and formatting a text gives me a much greater sense of accomplishment than editing does. In fact, I've discovered I have neither the attention span nor the patience to edit a manuscript.

I still enjoy the thrill of meeting a new author who has something to say and hearing them pitch their work. I love discovering writers who have an incredible story that wasn't right for other publishers but might be right for a small indie press that can devote more time to the work. But most of all I love being the last person to touch a book before it's released, the person who coordinates all the moving parts and makes the author's vision a reality. Production is the behind the scenes machine that makes the book an actual thing, a product that we can put in a reader's hand and say, "Enjoy".

I'm still teaching and still an idealist when it comes to publishing. I now have friends in the industry and I love listening to them talk about the authors they're working with or the great manuscript they found that they hope the editors will love. I still sometimes wonder what that would be like. But I'm also a realist and I know that I want to be on the other side of the fence, behind the curtain, working to put the finishing touches on a book. Just call me The Wizard....


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mistakes Were Made

This week we were asked to take a look at some common publishing terms and reflect on our understanding of the business jargon.

The word of the day kiddies:

And no, I didn't choose it because it sounds like erotica. Get your minds out of the gutter.

In publishing errata is a loose sheet detailing errors found in a printed book. It's a literal accounting of your failures as a writer even AFTER having gotten published. Now isn't that a slap in the face.

I find a certain kinship with this word because this list of errors reminds us that at every step of the publishing process we are all human. Even though there is a team of professionals working tirelessly to make your work the best it can be for public consumption, nothing can ever be 100% perfect.

When I wrote my first novel I assumed I would just edit it myself. I would print it out, chapter by chapter, and line edit my own work.

Then one day my eyeballs exploded and my brain liquefied.

No, not really. But that's what it felt like. So I hired an editor and I thought, now it will be perfect.

I got it back and my head exploded a second time.

My editor and I swapped that manuscript back and forth at least four times and likely could have done it more (if I hadn't gone broke) and still found more errors.

Once it was published, what's the first review I got on Amazon? One star because the book was "loaded with errors".

That's it. I quit.

No, not really. But my first thought was, how the hell could this book still have errors? I've been staring at it for SIX YEARS. It has to be right by now! But it will never be right. It will never be 100% because the human brain can't pick up every error every time. There will always be mistakes and I've come to the conclusion that these are what makes the book human and reminds the readers that there is a real living, breathing person behind those pages. A whole team of them in fact! And none of them is perfect.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying, don't pick on authors when you find errors in their books. Even the largest publishing houses miss typos or small grammatical errors.

And no, your author friend WILL NOT appreciate you handing them your own carefully constructed errata after you read their book. If you do this, you will no longer have friends.


Friday, August 31, 2018

The Adult Thing

Today a student was trying to guess how old I am, which is a popular game for all ages. It's great how skewed their sense of time is because most of them assume I'm in my 20's. Although I'm beginning to think they're judging less on looks and more on maturity level...or lack thereof. So I finally tell them that I'm 38 and one student tells me I look younger than her mother who is 33. I almost said, "That's because I don't have a teenaged girl in my house" but I caught myself. Her next question was, "How old was your mom when she had you?" I told her both my parents were 30 when I was born and of course she blurted out, "That's OLD!" I laughed because their concept of "old" is so warped, but then she seemed to reconsider her opinion. "Actually, that's not old. That's responsible!" Gotta love teens.

This week in class we are being asked to consider what it means to be an "accomplished" writer and it's funny because this is something I think about often. Like most people, I buy a book, I read it, and sometimes I'm left with barely lukewarm feelings and all I can think is, "How did this person get published and not me?" I think it's only natural that we as humans spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others. If you asked me ten years ago what I would consider accomplished, I likely would have said something about the NYT bestseller list and a piece published in the New Yorker. At one time I even had dreams of seeing one of my books become a film.

By the time I actually had a finished book in my hand, I lowered the bar a bit. Accomplished began to mean simply published. I thought getting an acceptance from an agent or publisher would mean I had "made it" as a writer, until I started papering my office with rejection letters. I knew I had a good book and it occurred to me that an agent/editor's job is so largely subjective-- I would never be able to please everyone with my work so I had to work to fulfill my own desires.

Once my first book was self-published and I ambushed the world with it, I realized that true accomplishment as a writer is having someone come up to you with your book in their hands as they tell you how much your book meant to them in some way. My greatest accomplish became the conversations I had with folks who had read my book and come away from it having learned something. I enjoyed the press, I saved every article (and still do) written about my work, and though I could collect these little mementos of accomplishment, it meant more to me that I had started a long-running conversation.

I didn't consider myself successful until I started getting messages from strangers who thanked me for my work. When you write about something as complicated and socially taboo as mental health, positive reactions to your work are cherished. When someone reaches out like that, it means you've broken down a barrier, scaled a wall, kicked a stigma in the face. The greatest success I've had as a writer is turning my book into someone else's accomplishment. Some folks who read my books would never have openly discussed mental illness without my books as a vehicle. I've raised their social consciousness in a very small, but powerful way. On top of that, participating in the MFA program has helped me remember, regularly, that as long as I keep writing, I will have accomplished something profound, even if it never sees the light of day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Blogging Out My Laziness

So as you can see, I haven't updated this blog in two years.


My goodness, what have you missed? Let's see. I got engaged, changed jobs twice, wrote two more books, under contract for three more, started a PhD, dropped a PhD, started an independent publishing company, adopted a handicapped dog, and pissed off an entire town.

I've tried a number of times to maintain a blog or even keep a journal and I've learned one very important thing: I suck at it. Do I write every day? Absolutely. Do I have the discipline, hell the organizational skills, to blog or journal every day?


However, after a false start with a PhD that made me miserable (more on that later) I decided I wanted to finish my MFA in Creative Nonfiction instead and classes start on the 27th. I was looking over the syllabus for one of my classes and realized there was a module about blogging which necessitated either maintaining a current blog or creating a new one and let me tell you, I panicked. Hard. The only reason I'm even able to update this blog is that it's tied to my Google account otherwise I don't think I ever would have remembered the login info. I'm not kidding.

Now here I am, writing an entry for the first time in two years so I don't look like the laziest grad student ever (I'm not-- I promise. I just have literary ADD) and I don't even know where to begin! I started the MFA in CNF two years ago, shortly after my last post. Originally I had started in Creative Writing-- pure fiction- but the program wasn't what I was looking for. I finished and published my first novel in between that program and the new one but I had always loved nonfiction and wanted to learn how to make my work more accessible to wider audiences.

Here's something you might not know about me: I like asylums. No seriously, it's true 😂When I started writing in 2006 I was determined to write just nonfiction. I wrote very clean, very fact driven accounts of each asylum accompanied by full-color images that I had taken. My first book, Behind the Walls: Shadows of New England's Asylums was exceptionally well received. It sold out every time we printed it and it became a worldwide bestseller. It launched my career and got me a lot of press, but I noticed a rather disheartening thing: the people who attended my lectures were the same folks over and over again. They were nurses, psychiatrists, teachers, professionals in the mental health field. They were the people who were already used to talking about mental health every minute of every day. No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to broaden the scope of my work, this book I had worked so hard to produce, that I was so proud of, that was now held in college libraries up and down the East Coast.

I eventually realized that it was my writing that was the problem. I was the problem. My approach was dry, factual. I was never really able to convey what it felt like to walk into one of these buildings with nothing but a camera and walk the halls of some of the most infamous buildings in human history. So I turned to fiction instead. I wove my favorite asylum into a novel using as much historical fact as I could while weaving this tale of mystery that could have happened on the wards of Northampton State Hospital in 1959. Hospital Hill also became a bestseller and eventually won a regional literary award; I suddenly saw a shift in the folks who were coming to my lectures, who were now willing to talk about mental health in the context of a cozy mystery. They connected to Valerie, my main character, and they reviled the evil doctor who made her life miserable. They wanted more.

So I wrote another novel. Another asylum. Another mystery. But I wanted to do more with my writing. I wanted to go back to my roots and write more nonfiction, but I knew I didn't want to produce another textbook. I wanted to write something that people would enjoy reading, like a novel, while learning a whole ton of random stuff about asylums and mental health.

Enter the MFA in CNF. It was the kick in the ass I needed to learn how to write for a reader, a real reader like the ones who might pick my book up at the bookstore. I stretched my own weird reading boundaries (very weird, trust me) and started reading writers like Cheryl Strayed and Ariel Levy. I picked up memoirs by my favorite actors like Lauren Graham and missives on writing by Stephen King and Charles Bukowski. I even got up the nerve to cold call some of my favorite authors and bend their ears about their own books.

Am I babbling? I'm babbling. Dammit.

Long story short, my goal this semester is to keep this up to date and let you all in on my writing life. I'm beyond excited about this particular class this semester and for completing my thesis, but also about the next few books I have on tap. I realize too that I'm not the only one going through this process, especially the process with my current publisher, and it might be nice to share with other writers. Who knows, maybe I have some wisdom to impart! Let's hope...

Do come back.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Paint Chip Post

I don't know how many of you fine folks are aware of this, but I decided to take my writing to the next level and make it official: I'm getting my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at a local university and at the beginning of the semester we were asked to choose a paint chip color that represents us right now. Now no one who follows this blog should be surprised by my answer- gray. Shocker, right? In fact over the past few years that we've actually been putting the house together rather than taking it apart, I've chosen to paint each room a slightly different shade of gray. The kitchen has a blue undertone while my studio is more of a minty shade. My love of gray is lifelong but right now, here is how I came up with my response:

I chose the paint chip, "foggy day" but not for the reasons one might think. First, I have a deep and abiding love for the Victorian era and there is no more Victorian weather than fog. As a kid I grew up watching Jeremy Brett star as Sherlock Holmes in the miniseries and I became addicted to the image of 19th Century London with its gas lamps and cobblestone roads. The color gray was synonymous with the air of mystery that wound its way through Arthur Doyle's prose, making his stories come alive.

Later, when I started developing an interest in history, gray also lent itself well to my growing appreciation of all things mysterious and creepy. Gray has gotten a bad rap, being generally associated with doom and gloom, but often times it is doom and gloom that inspires incredible bouts of creativity—like every horror film ever made. Most every corner of my imagination is clouded with fog; the fog of history, of spirits, of death.

I have some very vivid memories associated with the color gray, most of them of photographing various buildings. The first time I photographed Northampton State Hospital for the Insane was in the fog. It was winter and the ground was covered with snow. Because the hospital is at the top of a hill in the bowl of the Pioneer Valley, the fog settled in and hovered just about the roof line of the asylum, floating in wisps in and out of the empty window frames. The fog made the red brick of the hospital look like granite instead, like a desaturated photograph.

There is a great deal of mystery in the fog and dark and because of that, human beings have become inherently frightened of both, yet the waning light brings us closer to a state of true meditation where we are uninterrupted by the demands of the day. But instead of embracing the fading of the day, human beings have learned how to fight the darkness with artificial light that draws out the hours, pushing back the nights when we could be embracing the darkness of thought and the spark of imagination it ignites.

I love gray, rainy days when all I want to do is sit, cozy in my reading chair with my old Rochester lamp burning and my cat in my lap, pretending I’m in 19th century London around the corner from Baker Street. Or I imagine I’m walking through the haunted halls of Ohio State Reformatory, or the back wards of Westborough State Hospital. I will settle in with a cup of tea watch my favorite thrillers, or perhaps an episode of Masterpiece Mystery, the opening credits of which also fostered my love of grey scale, the muted, less colorful sibling of black and white. To this day when I hear the sounds of the lady fainting in the opening credits, I get a thrill and remember watching Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express for the first time.

Strangely gray fog also transports me to our campsite on days when summer thunderstorms rock our trailer and a heavy mist rolls off the reservoir. Sometimes we will take the boat out after one of these storms and it feels as if we are the only ones on the water in a land that time forgot, bobbing along on the gray, misty waves until the sun breaks through and warms the day, chasing the gray away.
In many ways, the grayness of fog is also the herald of sun and light. It is the end of the storm, the gray day that breaks and brings warmth and new beginnings. It is the absence of color, yet the foundation of so many. It is the fog of creativity in which I live on a near constant basis, and I find I’m alright with that!

So there you are kiddies, don't be afraid to think gray thoughts and if any of you teachers out there are looking for an activity to try with your students, grab a few paint chips at your local hardware store (go ahead, they're free!) and ask your kiddos to do the same. I bet you'll get some interesting answers!