Unlatching the Music Box

I could relate to Kevin Kline (as Harold the perfect man) in The Big Chill, in the cleaning-up-the-kitchen scene, where he puts vinyl on the record player, and The Temptations “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” blasts.

Jeff Goldblum as Michael shakes his head.

The cast of The Big Chill

Michael: “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?”

Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”

Michael: “There’s been a lot of terrific music in the last ten years.

Harold: *completely non-plussed* “Like what?”

Though Harold was stuck in the sixties, for the last forty years I’ve been trapped in the seventies. After classic rock stations became “a thing” in the nineties, there was no longer any other music in my house. I happily leap-frogged over the new country craze, the dreadful dark days of hip hop and rap. So, my music box. I imagine pix of The Eagles, The Doobies, Fleetwood Mac, The Allman Brothers, Steely Dan, Heart, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Tom Petty, Mod Podged to the surface, the lid securely latched.

Then, last year I turned sixty. I found myself mellowing. I unlatched the box and opened it an inch or so. But what slipped inside took me not into the present but farther into the past, to folk rock. My go-to playlists are populated with Neil Young, The Mama and the Papas, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, some really fabulous stuff.

At sixty-one, I feel freer, more authentic, more open to exploration, empowered. Hopefully, wiser. And all of a sudden, my ears have pricked to some new tunes. Today my thirty-year-old daughter and I were driving and listening to one of her playlists. I heard the song “Flowers” by Cibo Matto and immediately downloaded it. Click here to give it a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9gtG0hsYPw.

Me: *Bobbing my head, feeling super hip* “I really like this new sound.”

My daughter: “Mom, Cibo Matto has been around for about twenty years.”

I’m keeping my music box unlatched. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

The Unmasked

I know what you’re thinking. But this piece isn’t about those who eschew the practice of wearing masks to protect others against COVID. Rather, it’s about what happens when we take off the “masks” we wear as defensive structures, e.g., my Author mask, my Social Butterfly mask, my Badass mask, my Smile-At-My-Pain mask. My masks serve me, but I don’t want to confuse them with who I am.

Who Am I?

And who am I without my masks? Who are you?

I have a mask but I am not my mask. I have a story and I am more than my story. I have faith, feelings, beliefs, a history, dreams, habits (good and bad) and that is not the whole of me.

When we take off our masks we open ourselves to intimacy. We show ourselves, beyond the Good-Looking mask and into the darker masks: control, anger, prejudice, fear, doubt . . . The list is long and personalized, carefully crafted from the material of our own experiences and specifically from the fabric of our own wounding.

The path is not easy and it’s likely a life’s work. But the invitation is clear. We can continue to put on more masks, moving farther from our true selves, or we can let them drop away, revealing who God perfectly made us to be.

It will be a lovely day when we no longer have to wear COVID protection masks. When at last, we can visit and kiss and squeeze our family and friends to pieces. hen we can smile at a stranger who really needs a smile and they can see it. Until that great day comes, let’s think of the simple truth of who we really are as our only mask. We will achieve greater intimacy. And freedom. The capacity to love ourselves and others well. Then we can blossom and grow, in ways we cannot imagine.

Developing a Visual Setting for Readers

While writing my first book baby, IN ROBIN’S NEST, I sat out to “show” readers main character Dean’s one-hundred-year-old horse farm, Villeneuve (French for new settlement) in Keswick, VA. A horseshoe full of luck led me to equestrian-born Shelley Payne. Over cups of coffee, Shelley educated me on all things horses, then arranged for me to visit lovely Willowbrook Farm “down the road.” One sunny Saturday, I bumped my SUV along the scenic lane, past the training paddocks to the eloquent Georgian of a main house, and then hoofed it, photographing the property.

Breathing the organic air to the sounds of the horses nickering in the barn, I knew I’d found my setting: where Dean would be born and reared; where he and Billy would work; where Mary and Leslie would train the event horses; where Robin and Lark would come to visit Dean that pivotal summer; and the only place for which my POV character Robin would leave her New York City. With the sensory experience in my rearview mirror and photographs for the bulletin board above my desk, I was prepared to create scenes that readers later told me made them feel as if they were there at Villeneuve and a part of the story. Btw, the big, handsome stud in the largest picture boards at the equestrian center near my home. I chose him for the character of Dean’s elegant Kirby.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

When you’re researching for a manuscript.

I’m seriously thinking of giving a nod to Google in the acknowledgements section of my new book. How the heck did writers accomplish their research before it? I feel like must have sat in libraries until they began to take on the scent of mildewed print. Google is fab. And it’s crazy interesting how many places you’ll go to find what you need to authenticate a setting or locate that obscure chunk of info.

For TOPANGA CANYON, I’ve journeyed to site after site on intentional communities, learning how to purify a house with white sage and rose water and read a juicy story or two. I’ve visited mommy sites–that didn’t exist when I had my daughter–for info on everything from contraction duration, to Moses’s beds, to baby-moons, to gender neutral paint colors, and mommy brain. Even found a cute “How Big is my Baby” chart that tells what week the baby looks like an apple or a cauliflower. I’ve traveled to Columbian culture sites for common last names, quirky superstitions, comfort food, and how to say “Get the hell out of here” in Spanish. I’ve been to 3,682 flower pages. And an handful of real estate sites in Klamath Falls Oregon. I’ve learned more than I wanted to know about composting, metronomes, bronze casting, and n dimensional manifolds.

But readers are pretty good at seeing through nebulous references. Research is a time-suck, but an essential one, and still light years faster than before search engines.

Thanks, Google.

Signs

In our family, if a vibrant male cardinal crosses our path, we take it as a sign that something great will happen that day. When it comes to my writing, I am hyper attuned to signs I believe mean that my work in progress will be THE ONE, the manuscript that's finally traditionally published. Oh, the signs I've received in the ten months I've labored over this book. But I'll include only a trio: a framed print of Jazzman Miles Davis, for whom I named a beloved young character, hung in my room at The Library Hotel in NYC; a front garden of brilliant sunflowers surrounding a bronze statue (both figure prominently in the story)captured my eye right across the street from the river rafting outfitters in Scottsville, VA, where my family waited for kayaks; and most extraordinarily, the tiny note clipped to the rim of a cocktail a D.C. bartender placed in front of me revealed a poem written by an author I cite in the manuscript. 

Is this THE ONE?

I'll keep you posted. In the meantime,  

Send me a sign.

The Wisdom of the Drishti

In the practice of yoga, a Drishti is a gazing point, a means for developing concentrated intention. That point might be knot in the woodgrain of the floor, a light switch, a small design detail at the top of your mat, anything stationary. Keeping your eyes on your Drishti, increases your ability to balance, to hold a strengthening pose. During a practice this week, as I stood in mountain pose on one foot, the other off the floor and held out to the side—a super challenging posture for me–my instructor Carole reminded the class to “Find your Drishti.” And then she added something that resonated with me as a metaphor for my writing goals. “The longer you can hold on,” she said quietly, “you’ll find that your determination grows and the stronger you will become.” 

Since February, my literary agent has been submitting my third manuscript, A Cleft in the World, to major publishing houses. We’ve had eight very positive and encouraging rejections and five editors are “still reading.” This week, I had an unexpected opportunity to submit (on my own) my still unpublished second novel Georgie Girl to a small press for publication in 2020. That’s next year, my friend. What a heady feeling! Because, if you’re not aware:  

The traditional publishing process moves at the pace of evolution.

Even if my agent sold A Cleft in the World tomorrow, it would likely not be released until 2021 or 2022. I was sorely tempted to take my eyes from my focal point of traditional publishing, to waver, to wobble, to cave on my dream.

I wrestled with it for about a day. And then I hopped on the phone with my agent. She reminded me that my job is to focus on the new manuscript I’ve begun, my fourth novel Topanga Canyon, while she continues to find the best home and deal for A Cleft in the World. My yoga instructor Carole’s words flitted through my mind again. The longer you can hold on, you’ll find that your determination grows and the stronger you become. What wisdom.

I’m holding on. I feel more determined and passionate about my craft than ever. With continued hard work, my writing skills will only grow stronger.

I’d love to hear about a goal you are working towards.

What’s your Drishti?

Elizabeth

Differentiating Characters:

How to be a nose for characters

Keswick Vineyards, Keswick, Virginia

Near my home, a world-class vineyard and winery nestles into a pastoral valley limned by blue mountains. “Yes, Virginia,” more than fifty award-winning vineyards make the central part of our state a destination for oenophiles. At Keswick Vineyards, there’s a popular annual competition in which wine club members are invited into the cellars. There, oenophile aka “nose” teams compete to create a blend labeled as Consensus.

The Right Blend

Different varieties of grapes make wines more complex and maximize the expression of a bottle, as do the right blend of characters in our stories. As a little Merlot can help soften Cabernet’s tannins or a touch of Syrah can give some oomph to watery inexpensive Pinot, giving characters distinguishing traits make scenes interesting and robust, worth savoring, and with just the right finish.

In his (completely brilliant) craft book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, agent Donald Maas says, “Character differentiation is the technique of making the characters in your cast different and distinct from one another . . . contrast is the key.”

Aim for contrast by focusing on personality, voice and worldview:

Personality

Like sweetness and acidity in wine, characters need each other for balance.

The good-guys need foils–black-hearted scoundrels–to highlight the good-guys’ white-knight personas. (While an antagonist acts in opposition to the MC, a foil simply provides a contrast.) Consider Cal and Aron in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a novel modeled after the Bible story of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel. Aron is pale and delicate, the beloved son, while the murderous Cain is dark and secretive. Not only do the boys’ personalities provide contrast and complexity to the story, they affect the choices they make throughout the novel.

Voice

A great wine speaks. Characters resonate with readers when they’re given accents, nicknames and quirk. A memorable scene in Susan Isaac’s novel RED, WHITE AND BLUE features a jumble of soldiers sharing a WWII foxhole. Issacs gives each man a different regional accent making the scene interesting, compelling, and yes, hilarious. (Though I grew up in Chattanooga, I still giggled at the guffawing bumpkin from Tennessee.)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, Jay Gatsby nicknames Nick Carraway Old Sport, which implies that Nick desires an old-money lifestyle; he wants to play rich men’s games at the mansion estates of East Egg, Long Island. Old Sport. How catchy is that?

STAR WARS Yoda, the ancient Jedi Master, says his wise words using an object-subject-verb pattern. (Maybe that’s what everyone did 900 years ago.) Old style and direct it is. Quirky and exotic it is. And love the wrinkly little green badass we do.

Worldview

Oenophiles use the term “earthy” to describe wines delivering a sense of place and origin, from where the grapes were grown, even to the type of soil.

Great characters have complex root systems. We empathize with them–even the rascals–because we know where they came from and how their experiences have shaped their worldviews for better or worse. Even if opposing characters have similar desires or goals, it’s the origin of what drives them that matters.

Contrasting worldviews make characters believable and relatable. Sharpen your shovel, and dig deep. Give your characters deeply buried secrets and internal struggles that will trigger the decisions that drive your plot.

Just as Keswick Vineyard’s Consensus competition affords noses an inside view of what makes great wines work, allowing readers to see what makes our characters tick as individuals, makes for richer, fuller, and more satisfying reading experiences.

Cheers!

The Inevitable Question

When someone asks me what I do, the conversation typically goes something like this.

“I’m a writer.”

*Smiles/lifts brows* “Ahh, what do you write?”

“Women’s fiction.”

*Brow furrows slightly* And wait for it . . . “What exactly is that?”

So, I thought it might be fun to create a little presentation that helps define the genre. Click on the PowerPoint below and let me know what surprised you.

Keeping It Real

How relatable is your pitch?

Relatable: (adj.) that someone can understand or feel sympathy for.

I’m one of the three or four women in America who has never watched an episode of TV’s “The Bachelor.” But the other night, while randomly thumbing the remote, I landed on the show’s season finale.

SPOILER AHEAD.

With time to spare at the end of the show, the host proposed (pun intended) that the woman chosen as next season’s bachelorette offer a red rose to one of five new bachelors. An “I like you the best at first blush” gesture. By the audience’s gasps and giggles, I guessed it was an unprecedented, slightly scandalous move.

One at a time, the bachelors approached the gorgeous bachelorette, Hannah, and gave her their personal “pitches.”

Then Hannah made her selection: the guy, who in only thirty seconds had captured her eye, sent her heart a-flutter, and piqued her interest, the dapper Cam.

Cam was polished. He had done his homework, personalized his pitch. He’d performed a ten-second rap he’d written for Hannah, tacking a reference to her Alabama alma mater onto the end: “Roll Tide!”

The guy risked making a fool of himself on national TV.

And it worked.

Hannah understood; Hannah sympathized. “How you pumped up your jams,” breathed the giddy bachelorette, “that was awesome.” Cam gave her a glimpse of who he is and left her wanting to know more. He stood out from the pack, and Hannah tucked a rose into his lapel.

Do your homework. Personalize your pitch for each agent you send it to. Make your characters relatable, even if they are post-apocalypse zombie tax accountants. Don’t give away too much plot too soon. Make the agent want to know more.

You just might receive a rose.

How I Landed My Literary Agent

In 2015 and on the heels of a twenty-year teaching career, I began writing my first book. I had no experience with creative writing, simply a passion for evocative women’s fiction. Nine months later, the manuscript was complete. I emailed query letters and sample chapters to literary agents. While I received several requests for additional chapters, the manuscript was ultimately rejected by more agents than I have teeth. I decide to self-publish. Six months later, the big brown truck unloaded two-hundred books on my front porch. I threw myself a fancy book launch party and expected to become the next Anne Rivers Siddons.

I had a lot to learn.

For the next year, I spoke to book clubs, made eight Barnes and Noble appearances in eight cities and vended the book at countless Saturday farmers markets. Despite my efforts, IN ROBIN’S NEST never took wing. Too late, I learned that self-published (vs. traditionally published) authors need publicists. After paying the publisher, my writing budget was nonexistent. And publicists cost more than foot surgery.

But I had another story to tell. In 2017, I began writing GEORGIE GIRL and studying the craft of writing. I hired a young freelance editor, who affirmed my talent, while teaching me more about the craft than I believe any MFA program could. A year later, the manuscript was complete. Believing it was “the” book, I again queried agents. Unfortunately, this was the boom period for thrillers such as GONE GIRL. A coming-of-age story set in the seventies wasn’t making agent pulses race. Though I did receive encouragement, another barrage of rejections (which aren’t personal, but leave you feeling as gutted as fresh-caught trout) hit my inbox.

I moved on. I read everything I could get my hands on about the craft and joined the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Writing can be an isolating endeavor. Every writer needs a tribe of supporters. Through WFWA I met my Nashville-based critique partner with whom I’ll be friends to the grave. I helped others celebrate landing agents, while thinking it would never happen for me. But I wasn’t giving up.

In March of 2018, I began writing my third novel A CLEFT IN THE WORLD, the story of an agoraphobic French professor whose raison d’etre is a women’s college on the skids. Midstream chapter six, my wonder girl editor took a health-related leave of absence. Scrambling, I was fortunate enough to find a powerhouse book coach through Author Accelerator and finished the manuscript in September 2018. Again, I faced the dreaded querying process. With heart in mouth, I emailed queries. A few rejections hit my inbox. But one month later, I had received full-manuscript requests from two agents.

The day before Thanksgiving, I received an email from Pamela Harty of the Knight Agency. She had just finished my book, loved it and wanted to “chat.” I screamed and prayed and prepared. That afternoon, I had a delightful conversation with Pamela, and she offered me a contract. Me! I hung up, screamed some more and cried. I celebrated Thanksgiving with special gratitude. And then dove into the revisions she suggested.

This week my agent began submitting A CLEFT IN THE WORLD to publishers. A manuscript can sell in a week. Or a year. Meanwhile, I’m outlining a new book and deciding what I might do with GEORGIE GIRL.

In today’s market, it can take two or three or ten books to garner the attention of an agent. If you are pursuing a career in traditional publishing, learn from rejection. Do your research. Interact with other writers. Most important, don’t give up! Keep writing and honing your skills.

*Today I serve as Director of Craft/Education Programs for the association.