Writers, Beware

It started with a post by a friend about a writing conference at an idyllic spot in New England over the Halloween weekend. It was billed as a workshop for people working on a horror or mystery novel, and I had about a hundred pages written in my first attempt at writing a vampire novel. This conference promised to be fun seminar to help me learn to navigate the horror book market.

It was a five hour drive from my home to the small town, and it was pouring rain when I arrived at the hundred-year old inn. Low-hanging gray clouds hid the mountain vistas the area was known for. The driveway was mud that threatened to suck the boots off my feet. Determined to make the best of it, I lugged a couple of bags from my car, grumbling to myself about my tendency to bring my entire house with me when I traveled, and made my way in.

The woman who ran the charming old inn welcomed me with a friendly smile and helped get my suitcase and various bags up the stairs. I would have the Emily Dickinson room, with a comfortable queen-sized bed, well-used dresser and desk, and ancient radiators that hissed and gave off a metallic smell that reminded me of the radiators in the Victorian-era home I grew up in. Two shared baths were around the corner. I set up my computer at the desk and made a few jots into a journal I would keep about the four day stay, freshened up a bit, then headed down to a get-together wine and cheese for the group.

As it turned out, there would be only five participants this weekend. Four would-be participants had canceled at the last minute, we were told. After a lovely dinner, we all sat around a warm fireplace in the comfy living room. One of the event organizers, a man named Steve, asked us to introduced our writer-selves. One writer was working on a mystery novel. Someone else was working on a history of the Japanese during World War II. I shared how, over the previous few weeks, I had sent out a dozen or so queries to publishing agents and small presses to see if I could get my memoir published, and I had received the expected few “no thank you’s.” I told the group about my frustration, then explained I was interested in focusing this weekend on my vampire novel, and spent a few minutes talking about where I was on that.   “But what about your memoir?” I was asked.

Over the next day and a half, I was subjected to a full court press of efforts to get me to sign up for the sponsor’s “pitch contest,”  an American Idol for writers, where I could pitch my completed memoir to three possible publishers. If I signed up for $15,000 worth of editing, marketing, book cover design, and other services, I could be one of eight writers who would be selected to present to the judges (a la American Idol) who might pick me for a $50,000 book deal.

I tried to pay attention to the workshop on ghostly apparitions and the nuanced differences between horror, mystery, and suspense. And then, as the group broke up, Steve would again ask, “Have you thought any more about joining the pitch contest?” After a sleepless night, tossing and turning wondering if I should take the deal, I came to my senses. I got up at six, packed, went downstairs for a quick breakfast, and left, arriving home just beginning to emerge from the after effects of a marketing slam.

Within a couple of days, my answering machine had eight messages on it. Where did you go? We were worried about you. I called back, and Steve tried his damnedest to get me back into the game. I called four people who had participated in previous years’ marketing slams, and a couple of them had not done too badly. They were out $12,000 to $15,000, but hopeful their book would do well. The other two were less than thrilled at the experience; one owed a great deal of money (for her) for the effort; she had won two years before, but her book was still not published. I eventually found the gumption to give him a definitive no. I felt relieved.

I have come to the conclusion that publishing has become a confidence game, and the con men and con women are everywhere! Do they think writers are made of money? What happened to the stereotype of “starving artist?”

We writers sit at our computers working at our manuscripts, and I assume that other writers, like me, eventually abandon their book for a few minutes and check out the internet. And what do we find?

free offers: Give my free teensy bit of advice you probably already know a try, and I will then pitch my editing/inspiration/marketing services daily, weekly, monthly, until you succumb and ask what is it that you do? Then you will be pitched the $2,000 to $6,000 in services you undoubtedly need to get your manuscript completed and fit for viewing by an agent.

 webinars – probably what I hate the most: A Tweet, Facebook post or junk email advises me that someone (the sender) will be giving away a FREE webinar that will help me solve some marketing problem I have. How to get an agent’s eye, how to get my self-published book to fly off the shelves… something most writers will fall for. When I sign into the webinar, I hear 10  minutes of talk describing the problems many first time authors encounter. “You all know how it goes,” the potential consultant says, ” you try and try and don’t get anywhere.” There are twenty different examples of frustrating experiences.  The next ten minutes describe how happy I would be if I could overcome this obstacle.  And then… And then, by this time, I have signed off.  I presume that eventually there will be a pitch to hire this consultant for hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars, to help me solve whatever it is they say I am doing wrong. But I am gone. The free advice they were offering never appears.

Help finding a publisher — really a pitch for me to spend $6,000 to $10,000 self publishing: I still get phone calls and emails.

So this is a message to my fellow writers: If you need help – whether editing (and we all need an editor) or marketing or whatever, ask a published author for the name of someone to work with and skip the free offers. They’re not really free.

 

 

My 2016 Thank You List

 

The week after Christmas has become a time of reflection for me, and with recent events fresh in my mind, I would like to end 2016 with a list of ten things I am thankful for.
1.  To Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, thank you for finding your way back to each other during your time on this earth. You survived times when one or the other behaved badly and still found a way to show each other how much you cared for one another. You are role models for all the mothers and daughters out there.
2.  To Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and the dozens and dozens of mental health advocates from D.J. Jaffe, to the folks at Treatment Advocacy Center, to Teresa and Anthony and Amanda and Kathy and Laura and Ilene and Joy and G.G. and Jennifer, and the rest of the gang. Thank you for working so hard to pass legislation to improve the lives of people with serious mental illnesses.
3.  To my siblings. Thank you for coming to my house with your enthusiasm and appetites for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Without you, how would I celebrate the holidays?
4.  And thank you for so thoughtfully leaving me so many of the scalloped potatoes. I admit that I DID complain after you took home almost every last shred of Thanksgiving left overs, leaving me only a little stuffing and pumpkin pie, neither of which I could eat because I am gluten and lactose free. Remembering the locust-like activity of that get together, for Christmas I had prepared two vast casseroles of scalloped potatoes, omitting the onions and substituting rice flour and lactose free milk for the wheat flour and cream that the recipe called for.(The Joy of Cooking said to use three pounds of potatoes for every six people. With 22 people expected, I had peeled and sliced ten pounds of them.) About seven pounds were left for my husband and I to enjoy this week. A nice change from chicken and white rice. So thank you.
5.  To my husband and children, thank you for heeding my request for events instead of things for Christmas. I look forward to our dinners and shows in the coming weeks. (See item #1)
6.  And to the dozen or so agents and small press publishers who declined any interest in my latest manuscript, thanks to you, as well. Even to the three or four who didn’t even send a rejection note, I am sure you were just worried about hurting my feelings. I know that the extra time I will now have to mull over what to delete, what to add, and where to simply try to “elevate the prose” will help make it a better book.
7.  To Comedy Central and Jon Stewart. Thank you for giving me the gift of more sleep. Over the previous year I had stayed up too late watching Jon and Larry. Without those old buddies I am going to bed earlier and getting close to seven hours of sleep per night.
8.  To Bosch dishwashers, for making an appliance that actually gets my dishes clean, and makes so little noise I can hardly tell it is on—although, I do wonder if it couldn’t have been possible to do this in less than two hours. Perhaps in the next model?
9.  To my nutritionist, Amy, and whoever invented the FODMAP diet. Thank you for discovering that essentially everything I eat gives me gastro-intestinal distress. If I avoid not just wheat, shellfish and dairy, but also onions, garlic, apples, peaches, baked beans, honey, and a list of about thirty other seemingly random food items, I will feel great. Of course, this leaves little on my OK to eat list—primarily chicken and plain white rice—but there you go.
10. Which brings me to item number 10. To chicken. To all the chickens—and I should probably add rice plants—who have sacrificed and will sacrifice their lives so that I can eat homemade chicken and rice soup (with no onions, garlic, soy, wheat, MSG or high fructose corn syrup) everyday for the rest of my life, thank you. And now on to 2017

Why We Write

an interview with Katherine Dering, Author of Shot In the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle

by Max Ellendale

KD: Best wishes on the launch of your newest book, Max. Writing has led me through quite a zigzag course; I hope your journey is a good one.

If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would retire early and be writing a paranormal mystery when I was almost 70, I would have laughed in their face. I was the chief financial officer at a community bank, a position I’d attained after a hard fought battle against the sexist nonsense that was so common in the 70’s, 80’s and into the 90’s. But almost on a whim, I signed up for an introductory creative writing class at SUNY Purchase the semester after my youngest child went off to college, and I’ve been writing ever since.

It took a long time to get out my first book. First I was trying to write part time, evenings. I found it very difficult to sustain the mood of a piece for the amount of time it takes to put together a long story. I managed to get some poetry published, and a couple of essays, but my writing life was sputtering.

Eventually I decided to retire early, and thought, Now I’ll write my book.

But family obligations derailed my memoir about my travails in the business world. Eventually, I gave up on that project, turning to writing about caring for my younger brother, which was taking up much of my time. Two years later a small press – Bridgeross Communications – agreed to publish Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle, my book about caring for my younger brother, who suffered from treatment resistant schizophrenia and then lung cancer.

I cannot say enough about what I went through, first as I took care of Paul, and then as I wrote about the experience. It was transforming, not only for the introspection and reflection I went through, but I was totally unprepared for how I would feel about the response from readers. Every time someone reads Shot in the Head, they feel like they have to hug me or write to me and tell me how much they came to love my brother and my family, that they cried when they read it, yet wished it would not end. All of which has tended to push me back into the experience of losing my brother – not just once, or twice – first via his mental illness and then his physical death of lung cancer – but then again and again as I have received readers’ condolences.

It’s been an exhausting journey, both spiritually and physically, one which I could never have predicted when I was embroiled in fighting for my place in executive management.

Which leads me to my paranormal mystery. Max, you’ve been working in this genre for some time now, while I was doing the memoir thing. And now I find myself drawn to the genre, too, perhaps sensing in the un-lives of the mysterious enemy a way to place a face on my worst fears, pouring my sorrows into the hapless victims of those unexplainable, unpredictable horrors. And because it’s fiction, I get to decide how it will end this time.

So again, best wishes on the launch of your newest book, I’m sure it will be a fabulous ride!

~~~~

For more information about mental illness, visit: National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Treatment Advocacy Center, and/or Mental Illness Policy Org.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

This interview appeared on the blog of Max Ellendale.  Please visit her blog  at maxellendale.wordpress.com

 

My Shadow

My shadow wears a leather mini-skirt
over a black body stocking, which clings
to her slender body. As she moves, her hair
wafts sandalwood incense, and dangling
earrings tinkle, like wind chimes
in a soft, sing-song breeze.

My shadow is an unrepentant beatnik,
who snaps her fingers instead of clapping,
and spouts Kerouac at chic Village nightspots.
She’s an actress and painter, spending months
at a time in her ancient stone cottage on the
isle of Ibiza, where she whiles away
her Mediterranean days counting
turns of windmills
stray clouds at the horizon
and lovers at her doorstep.

My shadow and I have been one, for
a few cherished weeks at a time.
Years ago, outside Valencia, we spent days
watching citrus trees grow,
listening to melancholy guitar, and
zipping down dirt roads and cobbled
streets on a Vespa with Pepe.
We lit bonfires on the beach one night,
then hid from the Guardia Civil.
And at the saint’s day fiesta, Pepe gave
me the bouquet, as he entered the plaza
for the novillada. We danced
the Pase Doble until dawn.

Lately, my shadow’s been urging me
to rejoin the world tour, but the me
in business suit and sensible pumps demurs.
She insists, though, that I save travel brochures,
and is planning a journey for us to watch
the sun set over Macchu Pichu.
From there, we’ll head to the Galapagos,
and on the back of the giant sea turtle,
Urashima Taro, we’ll be whisked away
to its crystal palace under the sea
and count the seconds of eternity.

 

 

 

On Writing a Memoir

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“I should really write a memoir some day.”  Have you ever said that?  Many people tell me this when they read my memoir.  Most of us seldom write anything longer than a five sentence email or a ten word comment on someone’s Facebook page, and then suddenly we’re thinking about writing our life story.  Other people have played with the idea of writing for a long time.  Whether we are still in our thirties or into our sixties and retired, the idea calls to us.

We humans are story tellers, going back to the days of the hunting scenes painted on cave walls, and continuing through to our Facebook posts about the baby’s first birthday party.  The memoir is heir to that tradition.  “I need to tell somebody about this.”

Maybe, like me, you’ve just been through nursing someone through their final illness, and you feel like you are going to burst with all you’ve been through. How that last afternoon you spent with your brother, eating ice-cream and listening to Stevie Wonder stretched, out like a glorious bouquet.  Or the rainy October afternoon when your mother lay back on her pillow and told you about the pony she had when she was a girl in Slovakia, before she came to the United States.  “I had a pony once,” she says. “I never told you about my pony.” She slips into Slovak and doesn’t know it. Her wan face lights up with that last day with the pony and her hand moves faintly, brushing it and feeding it an apple. “So sweet,” she murmurs over and over, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

Or you want to tell everyone about the day back in 1973 when your newborn baby wouldn’t stop crying. Your husband has gone back to work and you and the baby are alone for the first time. You pick the baby up and walk from the nursery into the living area, do a loop around the kitchen table, bathrobe sash dragging through the crumb-littered floor, and you look down and see her little face finally relaxing into sleep. Little half sobs, then quiet, slow breaths. You keep pacing slowly around the apartment, afraid to stop, almost asleep on your feet, until you are crying softly with a mixture of love and exhaustion.  A neighbor women you don’t know very well knocks on the door and insists on holding the baby while you take your first hot shower in two or three days.  When you emerge from the steamy bathroom, the baby is asleep in the bassinet, and your new friend has swept the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. That story needs to be told, you have said many times.  I love that woman.

The time your purse was stolen while you were asleep on a train in Germany and the old couple in the American Express office insisted on loaning you some money.  The summer you were a camp counselor and that tall, dark-eyed older boy tried to force you and you almost agreed. That horrible, sexist boss you had.

The stories are good.  Now to transform them into a good memoir.

For this we need to merge them with another tradition, that of the diary or personal journal.  Like Anne Frank, we sometimes feel the urge to pour out our souls on paper, thrashing through the disappointments and confusions of daily life with a twist–not just reciting the facts, but considering how it makes us feel.  We wonder, pen in hand, how to make sense of the non-sensical.  We relive the unfulfilled longing, the fear of death, the anguish of loss. Special moments call to us, and we return to them in our heads, finding solace, anger or melancholy in our repeated visits.

And this is what makes a memoir worth the incredible hours and hours of work to write and rewrite: finding that special story arc that zings, that blend of incident and truth-telling, humanity and spirituality.  A group of anecdotes may just sit there.  But when they distill a story of growth and change, when your heart and soul bleed onto the page along with a compelling narrative, that’s a story worth telling.

That’s what happened to me when I found myself caring for my mentally ill brother after my parents died.  And I couldn’t stop writing.  “I was shot in the head,” my brother Paul said to the daughter of his elderly roommate at the nursing home. “How awful,” she said to me when I arrived later that day.  I shook my head.  “Well, not really,” I began.…

When you find this story, keep writing.

noname

Katherine Flannery Dering earned an MFA from Manhattanville College in 2012 and also holds an MA in Spanish Literature from SUNY at Buffalo and a BA from Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, New York, as well as an MBA from the U of Minnesota at Duluth.  Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle,” was published in 2014, and is available on Amazon ( http://tinyurl.com/pakb5ga ) and at Barnes & Noble ( http://tinyurl.com/mkdnh5o ).  She is working on some new stories in her book currently in progress.