Ripping off the Labels

I say: “I’m a self-published author.”  “I write chick lit or you know, women’s fiction, or whatever.”  “My novel is more commercial than literary.”

Which sounds a lot like: “I’m not ready.” “I don’t believe in my story.” “My book isn’t worthy.”

Outside the writing/publishing industry issues about  traditional publishing, self publishing, chick lit, women’s fiction and the never-ending battle between commercial fiction and literary fiction aren’t particularly hot topics.  I’ve  never understood their divisiveness and command of debate within the industry.  I still don’t.

What I have come to understand is my role in perpetuating the power of these labels.  Every time I qualify something I write in one of these ways it sounds like I am making an apology.  Which I most certainly am not.

So instead, I will say: “I am an author.” “I write.” “My novel is awesome.”

I encourage you to do the same.

My Love Affair with TED

I’m totally in love with TED.  It’s true . . .

So when I found out that TED was coming to town, the anticipation was nearly more than I could handle.  March 22 is the magic date for Richmond’s very first TEDx conference. I filled out my application to attend more than a month ago, and March seemed so very far away.  But now March is here, we’re  10 days in and in less than two weeks TED and I will finally meet face to face.

Here are just a few of the reasons I love TED:

Susan Cain – I’ve sung her praises before and I’m sure I will again.  Her book is phenomenal.  A must read for introverts and those that love them (so, you know . . . mostly everyone).

Neil Pasricha – I have shown this video many, many times in various classes that I teach.  I have never gotten tired of it and the message always catches me at just the right moment (which is . . . awesome!).

Amanda Palmer – Connection, respect and authenticity as the new commodity for promoting one’s art. Beautifully simple.  Perfectly conveyed.  There’s also a really nice breakdown of the theme of her talk as it relates to publishing over at Huffington Post Books.   (Amanda Palmer can sleep on my couch any time . . . seriously).

What about you?  What made you fall in love with TED.  Let me know in the comments below.

The Happenstance Effect

Aside from having a story burning inside of you that demands to be told, I believe the desire to understand how other people go about setting free their stories is the mark of a true writer. The process. We’re fascinated by it. And rightly so; there are hundreds of means to the same end. Ask ten writers about their process and there won’t be a matching answer among them. One will describe her elaborate outline, another will wax poetic about storyboards. Another will proclaim he starts with the ending and writes backwards while the person sitting next to him can’t imagine starting anywhere but the beginning. The fascinatingly beautiful thing about process is there is no right way, only the right way for each individual.

I don’t outline and I can’t imagine starting anywhere but the beginning. I have a general feeling about how I want the story to end and about the themes that are important to me. I take the rest a page a time. There are always surprises along the way. Some of them end up on the “cutting room floor” while others alter the shape of the story in lovely and amazing ways I never could have planned.

When I began writing Neverending Beginnings, I knew that I wanted my main character to be working through a fear of committment and that I wanted her to learn something about the importance of taking risks. When I presented the first chapter in my writing class, someone expressed concern about, Kate, the main character’s drinking and wondered if she was an alcoholic. Since this was the furthest thing from what I intended to portray, I decided that I needed there to be a motivation for Kate to dislike weddings and seek an escape. Enter her recently deceased mother. This one little shift in the story made the plot richer and refined the theme into something deeper, more existential (full living in response to acknowledgment of the brevity of life).

So what exactly was my process? I had an idea. I wrote a bit. Someone had an opinion. They shared it. It shaped my story. A classic tale of right place, right time. Serendipitous coincidence. The ability to trust in the happenstance.

And therein lies the magic of it.


Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

The instructor of the first writing workshop I ever attended shared this quote with us all on the first night of class and it has stuck with me over the years. We live in a success focused world. Yet, seldom does success occur in the absence of failure. Listen to any person you consider to be successful speak about how they arrived at the place they are today and I’m certain they will mention something that went wrong. You have to listen closely though, because they will likely give this a prettier name than failure – it will be a challenge or setback or stumbling block.

This instinct to dress up failure stems from the need to make certain that it wasn’t all dust and ashes and scraps; make it clear that there was a lesson. “I faced a challenge that made me stronger.” “It was a setback, but now I’m back on track.” “I stumbled just a bit, but I’m standing upright again now.” I am a fan of the positivity of these statements, yet find myself drawn to the bluntness in Beckett’s words. To me, there is freedom in simple and dressed down statement – I failed. The permission to close the door and move on.

I wrote a second novel. I wrote it to fill a formula that I created from editors’ rejections of Neverending Beginnings: a big premise, strong secondary characters, and a separate story line for those characters. I sent it out to a few agents and received standard rejections (note: this is not the part about failure, this is normal). I sat the novel aside for just a few weeks while I waited to attend a workshop on query letters to polish mine a bit. After this event I sat down to re-write a super-shiny new query letter and decided it would be helpful to skim through my work again for inspiration. With that foolproof formula I had created no longer so front and center in my head, I realized something that I had missed until that moment – my story had no soul.

There was a big premise, and strong secondary characters moving through a lovely little vignette but there was no spark. When I was writing Neverending Beginnings I would lose myself in Kate and Ben and Amy and Jack for hours. Sometimes I would forget they weren’t actually people I knew. With Novel Two this never happened. I never connected. I failed to let the story lead me and instead tried to cram it into a very specific, incorrectly sized box. I tried to treat this experience as a little hiccup (a stumbling block, if you will). I tried to make edits to revive it, but it was really still a crumpled mess. Labeling it a unrevivable failure is what finally allowed me to move on.

And yes, of course I learned something from this; there are huge lessons in the mess. But I am happy to say I failed.

Setting the Scene: Perly’s


As I mentioned before, I chose to set Neverending Beginnings in Richmond.  When I first started writing, I debated whether or not to create fictional restaurants for my characters to frequent.  When I was writing the original draft, Sex and the City was in the height of its poularity and I didn’t want it to seem like I was copy-catting the restaurant name-dropping trend.  Ultimately I decided that it was infinitely easier to use places I already knew and that as long as I didn’t overdo it, readers wouldn’t be annoyed.  So far I’ve been happy with the reactions from Richmond readers.  Many people have mentioned that it is fun to see places they have eaten at featured in a novel.  Occasionally  it even prompts someone to share their story or memory of the place with me (which I love).

Perly’s is one of my favorite restaurants.  Recently at a conference I attended, one of the out-of-town presenters mentioned having breakfast there and went on the say that you know a restaurant is good when you are already planning your next meal there before you finish the first.  I couldn’t explain it any better myself.  The banana chocolate chip muffins featured in my novel are amazing, as is the curried split pea soup, the baked apples, the fried potatoes and the biscuits.  Ah . . . the biscuits . . .  there could be a whole blog post on those perfect homemade biscuits*.  Seriously.

Here’s a scene featuring Perley’s:

When I first arrived at the restaurant, I felt relieved that this large group might somehow provide insulation from Amy’s mother, until I realized that the only two seats left were right next to her.  Even though I was on time, the other guests had all come together from the hotel and arrived en masse.  I hadn’t gotten a room, since I lived just a few blocks away and didn’t see the point.  Until now.

“Katherine, how nice of you to join us,” Mrs. Moore greeted, somehow making it seem as if my on time arrival was late.

“Glad to be here,” I greeted and waved back at Amy happily seated at the other end of the table.

“Mimosa?”  Amy’s sister asked, holding out a pitcher.

I took the pitcher from her.  Here’s to taking one for Amy, I thought as I filled my glass.

“Now girls, it really is a little early for champagne, don’t you think?”  Mrs. Moore commented.

“That’s why they mix it with orange juice,” Amy’s sister shot back, rolling her eyes at me.  I’m pretty sure I saw Mrs. Moore tense, but she didn’t say anything.  At least I had an ally. 

I ordered my favorite banana chocolate chip muffin, which was just out of the oven according to the waitress, a side of fruit and a coffee so I wouldn’t be tempted to have a second mimosa.  Not so bad.  Fresh muffins, good coffee.  Lots of things to keep my mouth occupied.

“No eggs or bacon or sausage?”  Mrs. Moore asked.

“Nope.  The muffins are absolutely amazing here.”

“Plus, aren’t you a vegetarian?”  Amy’s sister chimed in.

Since far less-opinionated people than Amy’s mother had opinions about my diet I just sipped my mimosa, took a deep breath and waited.

“I just don’t understand that at all . . .” she started and I just shrugged and sipped. 

She was quiet for quite some time, and I started to think that by some miracle I was going to get off that easy.  But I knew better.  She finally added, “I think there is something to be said for balance.  Too much of anything, even vegetables, can’t be good.”

*If you plan to visit Perly’s for a biscuit, get there early – they show up on the 86’ed list quickly!

The Truth about Self-Publishing

You can be assured the publishing industry is in a state of flux.  I can’t remember a time in my  (relatively short) “writing life” during which we weren’t discussing the effect of e-book sales on traditional book sales.  Or the importance of protecting author’s digital rights.  Or the relevance or irrelevance of the big 6 publishing houses.  Or the effect of Amazon on . . . whatever.

The hot topic du jour in the writing world is the effect of self-publishing on the way in which literary agents acquire new talent; the notion that cruising the self-pub bestsellers list will render the query letter irrelevant.   This blog post from Rachelle Gardner directly addresses the topic.  I recommend you read it, as Ms. Gardner makes a very clear and concise case for why this will not happen.  I want to add to the discussion with what I have learned as a newly self-published author:

1.  Your self-published book will not be the road to a book deal and big advance from a traditional publishing house.  Publish because you want people to read what you wrote, fall in love with your characters and get lost in the world you created.

2. Marketing and selling your self-published book is a full time business.  Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean people will read it.

3. You are a brand and your work is your product.  You have to be okay with self promotion – no one is going to do it for you.

4.  You cannot write to a market or make yourself create a product that you are certain will sell.  You must write what speaks to your soul.  This is the art of writing.

I have made mistakes over the course of self publishing my first book and still occasionally struggle with the aforementioned points.  But I’m going to keep working at it.  Why?  Because I believe my words are meant to be read.

Please share your truths about self-publishing in the comments below.

A Love Letter to 5 Guys & 3 Ladies

     It all started with a weekend getaway with my husband.  Heading to a mountain cabin after work one Friday night, we stopped off at a 5 Guys Burgers and Fries  to grab a quick dinner.  While the getaway was much-needed and relaxing,  the meal selections didn’t get much better over the next two days (trending towards fried and greasy and processed).  I have always prided myself on being a healthy eater and so despite the awesome scenery and even better company I wasn’t in a  great place physically or mentally.  That weekend was a tipping point: I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired!
     As always in life, when the student is ready the teacher appears.  In this case the teacher was Hayley Hobson.  I  first encountered Hayley when she followed my blog (thank you!) and was intrigued by her three-day cleanse.  I had always been skeptical of the “cleanse”, imagining deprivation, starvation and all sorts of scary things.  But Hayley’s plan actually included eating food and I was ready.  I approached my husband about doing the cleanse and, feeling much like myself about the previous weekend,  he was enthusiastically on board.  At the end of the three days we both felt amazing and wanted to incorporate more plant-based meals into our diet.  It was through Hayley, that I discovered Kris Carr’s Crazy, Sexy Kitchen which I have been working my way through and enjoying all the plant-based goodness contained within (and to think it all started with a hamburger).
     I was a Crazy, Sexy convert and immediately signed up for Kris Carr’s weekly newsletter, which is where I first heard about Marie Forleo.  Marie’s passion for helping women succeed in business is infectious.  The free videos posted on her site really opened my eyes to the fact that my writing wasn’t just a hobby, but an actual business!  Even after all I went through to publish my book, Neverending Beginnings, I had never really considered myself a businesswoman.  She asked probing questions which made me reevaluate what I wanted from my writing and how to get it.  I know my second novel, and my approach to marketing my writing will be a better as a result of the insights I gained.
     Even though we have never met, I feel a connection with these women. They have helped me on my journey.   So on this lovely St. Valentine’s day I offer a heartfelt thanks to these ladies and a commitment to keep the goodness and connections going!  And to the 5 Guys that started it all . . . well, here’s to inspiration in the oddest of places.

Brooklyn, Brooklyn Take Me In

There are train tickets and a hotel confirmation on my kitchen counter. Date: early March. Destination: Brooklyn.

Last year, right around this time we travelled to New York with friends for a birthday celebration. It was an amazing experience. The “main” birthday event was a trip to Brooklyn Brewery, but we stayed in Manhattan and caught the train over for the day. This time we’ll reverse that pattern. Spending the majority of our trip diving deeper into the borough that peaked our curiosity in a matter of hours. The one that whet our (figurative and literal) appetite for more. The one that felt a bit like home, away.

Here’s what I’m already excited about:

  • a return visit to Brooklyn Bowl (which I think I have now shamelessly linked to about 5,000 times on this blog . . .)
  • visiting Brooklyn Brew Shop and finding someone to personally thank for the amazing spent grain recipes on The Mash (holy Barley & Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars, Batman)
  • Checking out some of the coffee shops and restaurants documented here
  • Checking out more of the amazing-ness in Trust Neely’s Guide (which served us so well the first time)

Also, I can’t stop singing this in my head.

And it’s just the beginning – I have a whole month to plan. If you’re from Brooklyn or have spent more time there than me (*easy, since I was there less than 8 hours) leave me a comment and let me know what it is essential that I add to my list!

Trending Up

In a class I am teaching this semester we are using selections from the book (and television series) Roadtrip Nation.  The series revolves around interviews conducted by a group recent college grads who set out on a cross-country trip interviewing folks about their career paths along the way.

One particular concept sticks out for me each time I watch the pilot episode (though I can never remember the name of the person who offers it).  The question that sparks the comment has something to do with job satisfaction and “right fit” within a chosen profession.  The executive being interviewed acknowledges that one isn’t always going to love every single task in their chosen vocation.  Every day isn’t going to be the best day.  Every project isn’t going to fall together like choirs of angels singing.  There will be undesirable tasks, unpleasant days and unorganized projects.  He stresses the importance of watching the trends and acknowledging the inevitable “dips” but determining if the overall arc is up or down. If it’s trending up, all is well. If the trend is sloped more downward, it’s probably time for a change.

I love this concept because it gives permission for the little dips.  Those not as great days when you feel a bit itchy in your own skin.  I love it because it acknowledges that movement in a positive direction isn’t always in a straight line, but it’s all good just the same.

So here’s hoping that things are trending up in your life today.  Not perfect, just in the direction of.