Composing a Writer #9. Beta Readers, Secrets, and Dead Darlings

Most families have an odd relative. It’s an uncle with hairy ears who drinks too much on holidays or a cousin who converted to a strange religion. We are a species of odd ducks and eventually we quack it out.

Do I sound dismissive? It isn’t that I don’t have empathy for awkward turkey dinners. Problems are relative. My family kept a filthy secret that some of us barely survived.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

I was almost half-done with the manuscript for Stable Relation when I shared it with my first beta reader. He was complimentary. The first chapter was good, he said, but the biggest thing was missing. He was an old friend; he knew the family secret and without revealing it, he thought nothing else made sense.

I fumed about it. I was having a good time writing funny stories about moving to the country but he was right. It was as if there was a decomposing skeleton in the room and I was arranging flowers to brighten the place up. I started over, dreading the truth that needed telling and not at all confident that I could find the words, even all those years later.

I had to work up to telling the secret, so I laid a trail of breadcrumbs, intermingling painful scenes from my childhood farm and setting the stage, while practicing writing about the emotions that changed my life’s course. When the time came to write about the final incident, my first draft was only two paragraphs long. It took a month to bleed out the other three thousand words. The chapter title came last: The Worst Thing. That chapter took on a blinding importance to editors and beta readers, even if it was hard to talk about. Just like a family secret.

A shout out to beta readers; what a lousy job. A beta reader is someone you hope will be more honest than kind. Someone you know who is seriously knowledgeable about books. Someone who will tell you the truth before the general public gets the chance.

Each time I sent a version of the manuscript to an editor, I sent copies to three beta readers as well. There was a list: A childhood friend who was a life-long reader and professional librarian. A riding client who was younger and a writer herself. A friend I’d written a screenplay with who was now a pro writing in L.A. An ex-boyfriend I’d written about in the book –and so on.

As I spent the next year working with editors, I also weighed the opinions of my beta readers. One thought the book should start with the Worst Thing chapter and another thought it should be somewhere in the middle of the book.

One beta reader told me that that Worst Thing chapter totally ruined the book. It was too sad and too ugly. With an ironic smile, I thought, yes. I’d certainly edit it out of my life if I could but for me and millions of women, we’ve had to find a way to survive the unthinkable in our lives. I didn’t know where to put this odd duck of a chapter but the chapter would stay. Sometimes the awkward thing no one wants to talk about is the most important part to share.

I never wanted children; I wasn’t sure a family like mine should procreate but as I wrote the book, I thought about my niece and nephews. After my parents passed, the worst thing secret was told and they learned the reasons for my strange behavior in hindsight. I hoped they understood. I think that’s often how we get to know people, in present time with flashbacks to the past, so that was how I arranged the book.

When Stable Relation came out I was a wreck, feeling naked to the world, while relying on the mixed opinion of my beta readers. In that first year, I lost count of the number of personal letters women sent me, thanking me for voicing their experience. It was humbling …maybe I wrote the worst thing chapter for all of us.


This Week: Your writing gets more comfortable every day. The words are bright and clean and as comfortable as your own skin. What used to feel like getting dressed up for a court date now feels like beach attire. Writing is brilliant sun and a day off, all at once.

Your assignment this week is to write something dark or hurtful or embarrassing. Tell a secret or confess to a crime. Be a witness to heartbreaking destruction. Write about it with dispassionate clarity. Use the best words (think tired, write exhausted) and physical descriptions of locations that evoke a feeling. Show the reader what it was like. Be scary like a campfire ghost story. Think about pacing and suspense. Kill your darlings. Remember that whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing is still an art. Then share your feelings about writing what’s hard to write on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Most of all, keep on writing.


Last Sunday, I had to stop for groceries on my way home from teaching in the wind for hours. It was the time of day that my post-surgery foot swells to a size larger than its boot. As I shuffled through the produce department, I heard a voice first. It was a woman leaning against the lettuce shelves, telling a story.

As I stepped closer to get some spinach, it sounded like she was doing stand-up comedy but I couldn’t tell who she was talking to. A little boy stood by her side and a man was buzzing around like a hornet, doing a hissing scream-whisper at a little girl backed up against the apple counter.

I swallowed hard and hesitated. She was thin and pale, maybe four-years-old with her little shoulders flinched up around her ears. The man bent low to get in her face and rage-whispered even deeper. I heard her tiny voice barely squeak her answer, “I didn’t have to then…”

The woman glanced to the side, still talking, as the man lifted the little girl by her upper arms and slammed her against his chest as he stalked away.

My jaw tensed as I shot a look at the woman, holding hard eye contact for long seconds. Then I walked toward the checkout, meeting my husband on the way, and keeping my gaze down. I told him that I’d just seen a little girl get grabbed but the voice that came out of my mouth sounded just as tiny as hers.

Writing is just like life; a struggle to find your footing between the darkness and the light.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Crossing a Line, One Year Later

clara loveletterWhen I was twenty-four and just a baby goldsmith, I decided I wanted to show my one-of-a-kind jewelry in a New York gallery. Most of my friends were just out of college and I wanted to think my self-taught education was in line. I steeled my heart, borrowed a typewriter, enclosed some slides, and mailed off an inquiry to the best fine art jewelry gallery in Manhattan, located on Fifth Avenue across from MOMA.

Pigs fly; I got a positive response by return mail and then borrowed money to buy the gold and gemstones for the new pieces. A few weeks after that, I boarded a plane wearing jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a backpack with new collection of work tucked inside. Such a risk. It all felt like watching a foreign film–precarious and surreal.

I checked into the Fashion Institute Dorm, changed into a ridiculous white dress with huge shoulder pads that made me look like an aircraft carrier, and set about walking the two miles to the gallery. That way I’d have plenty of time to get up a good head of anxiety and blister a toe in my new shoes. The meeting was a blur; I remembered to shake hands when I met the gallery director. In a conference room, I pulled my work out one piece at a time and he critiqued as I went, using phrases like “negative space” and “visual tension.” All I could think was Just say it–not acceptable, you don’t need to explain how bad my work is… and then he finished with a question, “Can you leave the pieces with us today?”

The rest of the day is even more of a blur. I blistered the rest of my toes going back to the dorm; I might have skipped most of the way. When I got some of my wits back the next day, I called the gallery to thank them again and got the news that one piece had sold already.

I said the word out-loud: Artist. Calling myself that name in my basement studio was one thing, but now I’d crossed a line. Okay, skipped over it really, but it changed things. Over the next year, I had work in galleries across the country, and almost as an afterthought, my work got more popular at home. I also lost a couple of friends. They stepped away quietly but I noticed. The attempts to reconnect failed. Is there such a thing as success guilt?

Maybe you know the feeling. A dear friend plans a wedding on the heels of the worst break-up of your life. You get a promotion in your dream career when your sister is out of work. If you’re in a place of scarcity it can feel like there isn’t enough luck to go around and one person’s gain depletes your possibility. Or if you’re the one with good news, you bite your tongue because mentioning your good fortune would be like rubbing salt in the their wound. Most of us have been in a place where it takes as much courage to say congratulations as it does to put on the white dress.

A year ago, I crossed another line. I went from writing endlessly in a little studio to holding an actual physical copy of my memoir, Stable Relation, in my hand. When I exposed it to the world, and I exposed myself as well. It took Zen-like focus and wild audacity. I knew a hard reckoning would come. On the high side, no silly white dress.

Writing is like constructing Frankenstein. Playing god with an 80,000 word manuscript, and when it’s finally done, being brought to your knees, trying to wrestle five words into a byline. It’s a hope that your words will catch the wind and at the same time, the profound understanding that you are less than a fleck of dust in this big, complicated world. It’s yelling, “Hey, look at me!” and knowing that your underwear is on your head.

And then, I saw a photo online of my book on someone else’s tablecloth and my mind imploded. In the next few days, more readers posted photos of the book and Stable Relation became my traveling gnome. I was over the moon. I was hiding under my bed.

Reviews started coming in and most were positive. People commonly said that they couldn’t put the book down; they’d finished it without taking a breath. Where’s the next book?

Wait! This literary “snack” had taken me two and a half years to write, a few thousand dollars, and a serious time commitment every single day since. What’s the word for simultaneously choking and laugh-howling with horror?

A year later, this is what I notice: I can laugh without choking again. My list of improbable things has been severely edited and my battered confidence is standing steady. I’m word-fearless and inspired to write stronger every day. I even dabble in poetry; fearless I tell you!

I’ve received heartfelt emails from kindred spirits in other countries, made friends with people I’m in awe of, and my rural mail-carrier told me her mother loved my book.

Now and then, I notice something missing. Someone missing. I don’t need a parade but those who have remained silent are noticed. I hope they’re well. What does it mean when we choose to miss events in our friends lives? When we don’t acknowledge passages like divorces or children born or new paths taken? Have I offended them? Could it be that our emotional landscapes at odds with each other?

I spend so much of time trying to be a human thesaurus, always searching for the right words to understand these inexplicable contradictions. All the while I’m painfully aware that I can’t control how those same words will be heard…in my writing or in my life.

In the end, maybe assuming good intention is a more productive use of energy than doubting motives. Change has an ironic sense of humor and we might do better to smile and act like we’re in on the joke, even in hard times. The other word for that is grace.

To my blog readers here, I’ve used this space to transition myself into my new surroundings. It’s been the place where I confess my dreams and my shortcomings. I wander around in old pajamas and spill coffee on my keyboard. Mainly I sit in slack-jawed amazement, balanced between wild joy and abject dread. If you have been with me here from the start, what tolerance you’ve shown. I’m sure I haven’t thanked you enough. I’m equally sure you can’t know how much your support has carried me. It’s been the very best part.

Thank you. Big. Always.

 

Quote-Hoarding as Therapy.

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It was called The Book of Quotes, curated by two guys in my high school. They were skinny/tall, a bit too smart, and not remotely athletic–way before that geek title was claimed with pride. Back when a dork’s best defense was his intelligence. The Book of Quotes was their prized possession; a spiral notebook carried everywhere, poised to immortalize the key words, when the world became bizarre. Entries were made daily, of course.

I was friends with the dark-haired one but definitely not smart/male/cool enough to hang with these guys on a regular basis. We were self-segregated in those days. Okay, that part hasn’t changed much. But one day when we were sitting in the library, they opened the sacred book and read a quote–obscure and out-of-context. It went splat out on the table, followed by snorting, giggling, and faking sophistication while pushing my glasses back up my nose again. We all just wanted to be in on a joke instead of the butt of one.

I had a secret. I kept a book of quotes, too. It wasn’t like theirs; mine was meant to be an oracle for lost girls. Like this:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”― Eleanor Roosevelt

You catch my drift. Mine didn’t involve arcane jokes or adolescent innuendos. Mine was literary and heartfelt. The quotes were my battle cry because if a good quote is repeated enough times, it becomes an internal tattoo.

 “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” Shakespeare
The habit stuck; I’ve been a quote-hoarder all these years but never so much as when I was starting to write my memoir, Stable Relation.  My studio was wallpapered with tape, thumb-tacks, and hand-written quotes that I relied on like a professional therapist. Every morning, I rolled out of bed hours before breakfast, let the dogs out, and started writing. I had no idea that birds were up in the dark, too, but they warbled and chirped a soundtrack to my book. I typed on, in the shadow of the quote that was my long-time favorite:
Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark. –Rabindranath Tagor

When an old-friend-quote shows up in real life, take it as an omen.

This blog started out as wishful thinking. I’d just finished my book and I was strangely confident. Sink or swim; Stable Relation was just what I wanted it to be. Every word of it.

The problem was what to do next. How had it not occurred to me that writing the book wasn’t going to be enough? Now what? I had no confidence in the process.  I was still that girl who chanted the magical words from other books. In a world of literary giants, my little book was invisible…unless I spoke up for it. A daunting prospect, so I recycled an extremely well-worn quote for that:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Or in my case, one blog post. Here’s where I thank you, dear reader, again and again. It’s been a wild hike this last eighteen months.

The full-circle-crazy part? It happened while scrolling through Facebook. I came upon a quote that I thought about copying for an instant… but then I recognized the attached photo. It was one of mine, and now that I looked closer… I hadn’t recognized the words out-of-context. For all of the editing and word arranging needed to tell a story just right, I’d never once thought of dissecting my writing into a small bite. But umm, now that I think about it, that is how a quote happens, isn’t it? What a world!

Are you a quote collector, too? Words are free magic. We share them like our breath, our experience, our mutual lives. Words come from teenage boys, or ancient texts, or our own imagination, to remind us we are more alike than different.

The magic happens when a printed word takes flight, and carries us along.

Shrews for Shakespeare

mousekiller ShakespeareI was an above average student, as long as I could avoid any science class involving frogs. Then in junior year English, we had to read a play by Shakespeare. I joined the chorus of moaning and whining. For crying out loud, what language was this anyway? But then a crazy thing happened; something that I couldn’t explain because in 1970 we hadn’t invented the word GEEK yet. At first the Bard’s language was intimidating… but it dawned on me that I understood most of the words. Even more bizarre, I liked the writing. Then in true teenage fashion, I really liked liking it. No one was more surprised than me. Well, except for my family.

My father ruled our home with a strong hand and no one was smarter than him. Not the stupid people on the news or the stupid politicians or the stupid rich people. And most certainly, not his daughter.

His rant began when he saw my school books. What a waste of time to read something that old! He said schools didn’t teach anything worthwhile and when I defended reading Shakespeare, he accused me of trying to get above my raising. Not actually good news in his world view. You would have thought I was pregnant with Shakespeare’s baby. My response was, well, shrew-ish.

Public school had been a godsend. While books might have been the passport to the world, we didn’t have them at home; without school I would have been lost. And reading Shakespeare was how my particular rebellion began.

After graduation, I took a trip with my boyfriend but that wasn’t the worst part. I did something that proved I was a smarty-pants. We went to a Shakespeare festival in the next state. The response from my father was predictable. Other kids wrecked cars or had drug problems but all that paled in comparison to my father’s problem: A daughter with the beginnings of an education and a desire for a bigger life.

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.”   

Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew.

Surely every parent feels this rub. My father was defensive and I almost understood. He was a product of the depression, holding onto a feeling of lack all his life. He believed in the class system that put him down; that had never given him what he felt he deserved. It wasn’t that my father wanted me to fail; he just didn’t want me to do better than he had. He didn’t want to be shown up by a girl.

I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. It’s still all the rage to try to intimidate girls and women into silence. In 2012, Malala Yousafzai reminded the world there is nothing as scary as a school girl with a book. She survived an assassination attempt and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; extremes on the continuum that all women walk.

I recently read that the most prevalent human rights issue in the world is the oppression of women. I can believe it; the impact of sexism crosses lines of race, age, education, and income–across cultures and down through time. Insidiously common because it starts at home, misogyny is just an inbred superiority complex, and as common as dirty laundry and dishes in the sink.

When college didn’t happen, I home-schooled myself. I spent my twenties with an endless line of Penguin Classics in my backpack, sometimes writing unsolicited papers on them. An artist by vocation and an English major by avocation.

I learned to own my words and to translate other words in my favor. Society called men ambitious, while the name for same traits in a woman was not nearly so flattering. I wish that B-word that rhymes with witch would be replaced with Shrew. It’s a nostalgic word that reminds me of the first time I consciously became aware of my own intelligence. Shrew. Just hearing it makes my shoulders straighten a bit.

Understatement: I’m no Shakespeare.

Sometimes at book-talks, people ask me who my favorite authors are and I rattle off a list–mostly women, I notice. I never mention the Bard. I sound like an elitist even calling him the Bard. As if I can still be shamed for exercising my brain. As if being a geek shouldn’t be something to brag about.

Well, I’ll raise my shrew-ish hand high and proclaim it: Shakespeare was my first.

Chime in; who got inside your brain and stirred it up? How did you first get above your raising?

Happy New Year: It’s Still About the Tortoise and the Hare.

spirit arthur ReinventIt seems to me that we sometimes approach this whole New Year resolution thing like school-yard bullies.

We start by nitpicking one bit of self-loathing: maybe it’s a bad hair day but usually it’s our thighs. And then we multiply it to a wide rant about fat bellies, lazy exercise, old muscles, clothes that don’t fit, sore feet, and ugly hands. Then, not to be accused of lacking vision, we add on hating our lousy job, never having enough money, and being under appreciated in our relationships. Did we leave anything out?

Next we make a strict plan that starting January first we will change everything.

Don’t even try. Focusing on what’s wrong never works. The reason New Year resolutions fail is that we cut our throats right before we start. Short of being incarcerated in a prison cell, totally changing an entire life in a day is pretty unreasonable. Sure, who wouldn’t want to be young, thin, smart, and rich in the time it takes to eat a bag of chips, but we inevitably fail. Life gets demoted to the chronic dieter’s dilemma: Losing weight fast, and then gaining it right back with an extra five pounds.

That’s when our evil twin, the part of us that’s the mean girl in school, puts her hand on her hip, flips her hair, and shakes her index finger to inform us we’re still the same loser we used to be, and a year older. In other words, we get cynical.

But I’m still a sucker for New Years. I love the idea of getting a fresh start; a do-over with a breath of optimism. The secret is to plan to under-achieve. Like three years ago when I decided I could write a book–just one page at a time.

I think there’s a reason that the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare has endured so long with its message of patience and kindness.

And so my wish for each of you in the New Year is tiny turtle-like change, small enough to accomplish with ease and self-love. Let gratitude be the cherry on top. What if real personal success comes from lowering our expectations enough that every breath is a joy? That every breeze is a spark of inspiration, until every step becomes an affirmation of the next step, until we pause from praising the path, and notice we’re at the destination. Less suffering, more gratitude.

THIS WEEK: It’s been my habit here to include an update, but in light of this holiday that I love… I’ll just say it’s crazy: I’m working on three books, writing two blogs, a smattering of articles, and doing book promotion, along with my usual occupation–boarding and training horses. And my dogs still like me. If you had told me this was even possible three years ago as I stared at page one of Stable Relation, I’d still be slumped in a paralyzed flop sweat, squinting at a blank page.

Happy New Year! Look in the mirror and thank your best friend. Then find an itty-bitty, tiny corner of a dream and sink your teeth into it like a ten-pound terrier.

It’s Not Exactly Like Seeing Dead People

L'AmourClaraMy father came to my last book talk. For those of you squinting, tilting your heads, and doing the math… Yes, he departed this world twenty-four years ago, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t enjoy a good haunt. We’re family, after all.

This book talk was at the local library and the program director introduced me to a man before the talk started. He was a generation older than me, sitting in the back row wearing a ball cap. His faded eyes narrowed as he stood up. The first thing he told me was that people usually got really mad at him when he came to things like this. He didn’t smile.

That was when I recognized something familiar in this contrary old man. Lots of us have complicated relationships with our fathers. It’s a love so humorless and fierce that it can feel like hate. I’ve tried to make peace with that dark love forever, but I’ve settled for getting better at recognizing it dressed up like someone who knows what buttons to push. Not that my father would have gone to a book talk during his life. Unless it was Louis L’Amour at the local pancake house.

The book talk started by playing my book trailer on a projector. I am so sweet on that trailer; the music makes me mushy. Then I read a couple of passages and answered a few questions. After we adjourned, the old man came to me and announced that he disagreed with me on a few things. He said he was against five acre horse properties. I nodded; it would be fine with me if we all had more land. He said all he ever rode where rescue horses; that he retrained them. So I thanked him for helping the horses.

See how good I’ve gotten at this? I used to be more defensive but I’m the one who thinks you can improve family relationships post-death. It wasn’t obvious at first; I’d get aggravated by someone, or even just uncomfortable. It would stick in my brain until it dawned on me that it wasn’t them at all, but a splinter of memory, still festering. And I had one more chance to get it right.

Then the big finale… he told me that all my horses were therapy horses and that was fine for me. He was dismissive of my training methods. His horses needed to earn their feed and not just stand around, he said, and this positive training thing didn’t work. He’d seen Parelli, he said. He gestured with both hands, wet his teeth, preparing to tell me the biggest, filthy-worst thing–that he’d seen Parelli hit a horse. I wish that was news but he’s nowhere near the first person to make that claim. He was looking at me hard, waiting for a response. First, I did the thing horses taught me. I took a breath and exhaled, to slow things down. My shoulders dropped and I smiled. I told him that I grew up just like him; riding the bad horses until they were good horses. He’s like lots of horsemen who think women are too soft to train horses, so I assure him that I’m not the one who baby talks and carries treats in my pocket; I like a good working horse as much as he does. And I thanked him for coming.

Just as he turned to go, he leaned close again and whispered, “I liked that you did what you had to do. And that you said how it felt.” and he was gone. Was that a compliment? It’s crazy what you think you hear when the blood isn’t pounding in your ears.

THIS WEEK: If you’d like a signed book, there’s a link above. This Saturday, the 19th from 2-4pm, I’ll be at The Tack Collection, 104 N Harrison Ave, Unit A, in Lafayette, Colorado. (303-666-5364) It’s my first stop in Northern Colorado and I hope to see you there.

And there is a bit of finger drumming, as I wait for the new year. The second book, Relaxed & Forward, Relationship Advice from Your Horse is ready for the final proof process, but rather than letting it get lost in the holiday rush, I’m waiting for 2016. Impatiently.

BTW: If you’ve already left a review on Amazon, thank you, and if it isn’t too much, please consider asking your friends to do the same. It takes a village for an indie book to float–a boisterous, insistent village who calls all the neighbors in to help. As always, I’m in your debt. Thank you for supporting Stable Relation.

 When I moved to my farm, I wanted to tell my father. Even after he passed, seeking his disapproval was a habit hard to break. At the same time, there’s a peace that comes with realistic expectations. So I don’t wonder what my father would have thought of my book. He would never have read it. We both know I’m no Louis L’Amour.

Is Blogging the Ugly Step-child of Writing?

Spirit,Precious lifeI tried out another writer’s group last month. They tell you it’s important to hang with other writers. I have some friends who write, but no critique group, so I was hopeful. The group was friendly and informative, with a wealth of common internet knowledge. One person was asking advice about ways to get people to her website, so I asked if she blogged. Then I defended blogging. That’s how I made no new friends.

They informed me that real authors hate to blog. Maybe, but I know some who cross the line. It takes too much time, they say. Boy howdy, no argument–it certainly does. There’s no money in it, they add. No money in napping with cats either. My writing is valuable and I won’t just throw it away for free. Now, wait a minute!

I have a confession: I don’t just love my blog; I’m in love with it.

In the beginning, I was shy. It was all I could do to hit the publish button after four hundred awkward words. Then I begged all nine of my friends to read my blog. When I checked the stats, if fewer people had read it, I worried. If I did write a blog that I liked, I was certain I would never write another as good. If I somehow managed to get two good blogs out, I knew I would run out of ideas before three. And no one ever left a comment.

Nothing about the blog was good, or fun, or remotely easy. Writing it was a scheduled, self-inflicted wound. So I did a crazy thing; I didn’t miss a deadline for almost six years. If that wasn’t bad enough, I gave myself assignments (to be humorous, to be poignant, to describe something hard to describe), and required myself to do the very best job of writing that I could. Gradually something shifted in my attitude and I found a voice. That’s how I fell in love.

Next, I fell in love with the readers who eventually contributed heartfelt comments, when my words finally invited them out. Hearing back from readers is still the best part. And with the confidence I borrowed from them, the memoir, Stable Relation, became possible. The whole thing worked a bit like a boomerang–logical but scary at the same time.

THIS WEEK: The next book is close. I completed the edit of Relaxed and Forward: Relationship Advice From Your Horse. I’ll give it one more read through, come up with the blurbs, and then it’s off to the book designer. It’s a combination of my best blogs (essays) on training advice for horses. Available by the end of the year hopefully.

There are a few local book events coming up soon for the memoir, Stable Relation:

Wednesday, November 18th, I will be at our favorite hometown tack store, Bingo’s D&S Saddle Shop from 6 to 8pm. In Kim and Diane’s words, “This book made us laugh and cry and has many of the “ah ha!” moments, so indicative of a great book.  Thoughtful, brave, sentimental and stoic, it was a pleasure to read and we were only sad to see it finally end… so looking forward to Anna’s next book!” Space is limited so call for a seat. 719-634-6070, Bingo’s is located at 418 S. 8th Street, Colorado Springs.

Saturday, November 28th, I’ll be signing books at Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument, Colorado from 12 to 2pm. They’re located in the Chapala Building, at 105 Second Street. (719-481-BOOK) This indie bookstore is a wonderful stop for holiday shopping. I hope to see you there.

Join us December 5th, Saturday, at High Prairie Library here in Falcon, Colorado between 1-3pm. I’ll be reading, taking questions and signing books. The library has also purchased books that will be available for lend soon. Libraries are the place dreams are born, come and say hello!

Is blogging the ugly step-child of writing? I guess that depends on how much you put into it, before you put your name on it. For me, one writes the other, and then returns the favor back again. In the end, it’s about getting meaningful words on the page. I’ll trust the rest to readers.

No Permission. No regrets.

Spirit,Precious life“No Regrets.” Such big words. I’ve been thinking about future regret since I was little. Parents warn us early on to do the right thing for fear of regret; the negative reinforcement we’ll feel if we don’t follow all the rules. Maybe that means don’t talk in class so we won’t get detention after school. It starts innocently enough and we all want that pat on the head a good dog deserves. No harm in that.

Unless, of course, a pile of years pass and you wake up one morning and don’t recognize your life. Unless there is a small voice in the back of your head that keeps reminding you of the path not taken; reminding you, forty years later, that there’s still a little girl inside and she still wants a pony. You gotta love a good meaty midlife crisis.

In a non-literal way, it’s almost like our parents are still telling us to clean our room before we can go out to play, but no matter how hard we try, our room just never gets clean enough. Even after our parents pass, we never get to play. It’s as if restriction is the adult thing to do.

So there we are at the intersection of “I’m being responsible” and “can I go play”. We all get there a few dozen times in our life. It’s the awareness that maturity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That’s normal. The real question is what’s next?

The ugly truth is that we are a culture of whiners. We make excuses. In defense of excuses, they are probably true. We do have to work for a living; we do have others who depend on us. But just because we have a valid excuse for not living the dream, it doesn’t go away–the inner voice doesn’t shut up.

Two weeks ago, I blogged that there was something about living here on the farm gave me permission to just stop feeling the rub of judgement, and a reader asked for more about that. It’s a great question: when do we stop trying to please our parents, metaphorically or literally, and when do we start living for ourselves. It’s the place where regret perches like a vulture on your shoulder, and the excuses are deafeningly loud. Will someone name-call you selfish? Is doing-for-yourself is a bad thing?

Somewhere inside, pretending to be asleep, is that dream too precious to name. We all have one. But what no one tells us about dreams, is that they don’t just magically come true. You have inconvenience yourself and squeeze them into reality. At first they fit like a lycra bike racing suit on a donkey. No one is impressed.

“If you want to live an authentic, meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing others and live with the reality that some people just won’t like you.” –Cheryl Richardson.

The great thing about a midlife crisis, in hindsight of course, is that once you come out the other side, you might still be a donkey, but you don’t care how you look in a lycra bike racing suit. The other words for that are living the dream.

Writing this book was part of my dream. Word by word, with time stolen from responsibilities, in a graceless and braying sort of way. I’m keenly aware that no one gave me permission, but I would have regretted not doing it so much more than the inconvenience of having a dream. Bottom line–wearing lycra always takes guts.

WEEKLY UPDATE: This week I got my first bad review. Someone is disappointed with the book. It was as inevitable as animal hair on my clothes and the opinion was delivered with the kind/blunt honesty a donkey like me appreciates. It was a moment I’ve been waiting for…. and it was okay. No excuses. No regrets.

But being okay with not pleasing everyone is doesn’t mean I don’t care what you think. Even cheesier than that, I care what Amazon thinks. Does that make me selfish. Well, so it goes. You all have been monsters at leaving reviews. Thank you so much; there are 56 reviews now. Pretty spectacular for a first time author, and the Amazon search engines are mumbling, “Anna Who?”

THEY SAY around 20-25 reviews, Amazon starts including the book in “also bought” and “you might like” lists. This increases your chances of someone finding your title. Around 50-70 reviews, Amazon looks at your book for spotlight positions and the newsletter. 

I’m not sure when the dream of finishing my book came to include becoming a spotlight ad on Amazon, but there you have it. Still no apologies. Please, if you like this book, and even if you don’t, leave a review.

And then spend some time making friends with your own midlife crisis. I hope you have some ungainly lycra in your future.

The Yin-Yang of the In Between. (Book release July 13th.)

lindberghSunset (640x394)Remember at the end of the first Terminator movie when all the flesh was burned off Arnold and the shiny metal skeleton-that-would-not-die was climbing the ladder, with his eyes glowing green, still hunting his prey? That’s pretty close to how I felt last week.

Now it’s a pre-launch flop sweat; this week it’s more like that feeling you get on a roller coaster after that long slow chug-pull to the top of the first hill. There’s an instant between when the metal gears stop the pulling, but just before the first gut-dropping hill; it’s a quiet second before the coaster clangs metal-to-metal as it slams against the rail and the free-fall begins. In that still second you know you can’t go back, and no matter how wildly you throw your arms up over your head and scream a howling yodel, but there’s no getting off until the ride is over.

So, sure, I’m fine. Just fine.

Technology has changed publishing totally. These days warehouses are no longer stacked to the rafters with boxes of books published but languishing for lack of sales. Print on demand is the most common method now–it’s easier on the trees, too. Production is lightning fast and so the proof that the printers send to authors for approval is the actual, literal book. Exactly like it will look in real life.

So I have a copy of Stable Relation. When I opened the box and saw it for the first time, I didn’t squeal or do a one-footed happy dance. To tell the truth, I was inside that quiet pause at the top of the roller coaster.

Stable_Relation_3D_Cover[1]Since then I’ve kept my book proof in the truck with me on the passenger seat, where I can casually glance at it while I drive. I wanted the cover to have a sort of yin-yang feel because it’s so common in life that the light-dark, good-bad, anticipation-dread balance resides within the same small instant. I tried to describe that in the book. When I stop at a light, I open Stable Relation to a random page and pretend I don’t know every single word by heart. I read a paragraph as if I’m a stranger and try to hear it for the first time. I try to see it through your eyes.

And then, in that same yin-yang sort of way, I try to decide if I’m more worried about success or failure, while I look down and check to see if I’m wearing my underwear on the outside of my clothes. Again.

Like I said, I’m just fine. Maybe we all have nine lives just like cats. I know I used one when I moved here to my farm fifteen years ago. I might be using another one right now.

The update: This week Amazon foiled my master plan for world domination. You aren’t surprised; they invented the game. But the eBook version still needs just a bit of tweaking and I haven’t been able to convince GoodReads that I exist yet. While I work that out, I’m going to send the first chapter out in the newsletter. (Sign up for it here if you haven’t.) I think developing a leak might feel good.

And in an effort to outwit Amazon, I’m moving the release date closer! STABLE RELATION release date is JULY 13TH. Monday!

Just ten days away. That’s when the roller coaster pulls to a stop on the platform, we disembark, check our underwear, and all act normal again. Of course, normal is relative.

Gatekeepers and Temple Grandin

GrandinTrotI went to hear Temple Grandin speak this week. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen her now, but she’s my hero. There are a million reasons to love her; for what she’s done for animal understanding and welfare, and for people with autism, but also for her confident opinions and one-of-a-kind self. It can’t have been easy. She has made not fitting in an art form. Over the years, she seems a bit more comfortable, or maybe we are more accepting of her, but now at 67, she’s a live wire. A force of nature. She has a lot to say and she says it fast!

Living with her particular autism has given Temple Grandin a voice to admire, not that she hasn’t paid for it. But then, don’t we all pay a price for what we say or don’t say? Pay a price for who we are?

I first met Temple Grandin while reading her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Her words filled a gap for me; she gave me a more positive way to see my own species. Like her, I’m extremely visual and I struggled with people, thinking that we all “saw” the same thing. When she described how her brain worked, I recognized it. I’m not autistic, but I didn’t know our method of thinking was different until she explained how most people think. She almost made too much sense.

Like the rest of us, Temple Grandin bumped up against Gatekeepers: people who maintained the status quo. But sometimes the standard practice needs improvement, so she found a way around roadblocks to do her work. Change is hard; shaking up the status quo, whether it’s mainstreaming autistic kids or saying slaughter houses need to be re-designed from the bottom up, is going to agitate people.

Gatekeepers have a purpose; there is a value to order and tradition, and at the same time, growth and evolution is inevitable. In publishing, the tradition is that a few publishers have control over what books come out. Authors are powerless, hoping to get a nod of validation, even as the ocean of manuscripts totally drowns publishers every day of the year.

There are well-worn stories of rejection and redemption, but do you ever think about the ones that got away? The Pulitzer manuscripts stuffed into drawers? When I studied art history, I was always left wondering about painters who were not men or who didn’t have a patron. How many possible Old Masters were just never discovered? How many women painted secretly? Somewhere in the soup, there is luck. Just dumb luck.

Technology is blowing the publishing industry apart right now. No one knows what’s next. Traditional publishers are resisting the change, previously published authors who have a stack of rejections are considering taking another path, and anyone can upload an eBook to Amazon and be an author in an hour, with not so much as a spell-check required. It’s chaos.

Temple Grandin says, “What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” The person who doesn’t fit the norm might be the best thing that ever happened.

My week in self-publishing: I’ve heard from two small presses in the last two weeks. Each asked if my manuscript was still available. It doesn’t mean they want it; they just took longer to say maybe. Part of my brain says, “Wait, give them a few months and maybe they will want it–most likely with a few story line changes and a new title. Maybe they will make my book legitimate.” The other side says, “Just do it.”

So the learning curve continues. It’s been a week of ISBN numbers and formatting questions. What size should the book be, what kind of binding and production, and how will I promote it? My newsletter is coming together. The first cover reveal will be there and a sneak peek at a chapter or two. I’m studying up on giveaways. If you want the inside skinny on my book, sign up on the link at the top of the page.

Two days ago I met a person who looked at me with disdain for self-publishing, probably assuming I was another idiot who couldn’t use spell-check and didn’t deserve publishing. It’s a Catch-22. I don’t have a physical book so I can’t ask her to reconsider.

Maybe some of us were never good candidates for fitting in. Maybe self-publishing is a better fit for someone who believes her right to a voice shouldn’t be dependent on the judgment of others. (No surprise it’s a theme in Stable Relation as well.)

Is there something simmering inside of you, too? I dare you… take a cue from Temple Grandin.  Be the real, weird, funny, smart, and utterly beautiful person you are, and then speak up. Like a force of nature.