Friday, October 30, 2009

nanowrimo? not for me!

Nanowrimo is upon us again.

For those who have never heard of it, nanowrimo stands for National Novel-Writing Month. It takes place every November, and the objective is to write 50,000 words of a novel (starting from scratch and not one in progress) during the month of November. (If I recall correctly, it calculates to something like 2666 words per day.) All those who make the goal by November 30th "win".

Confession: Ordinary World was a nanowrimo novel. I made my goal of 50,000 words and a few to spare, and the result was the first draft. That was 2006. The year before, I had made a less successful attempt and made it to approximately 35,000 words of a novel that may never be finished, and not because I don't like the idea or the characters -- quite the contrary, actually.

I have my reasons why I'll not be doing nanowrimo again. Or at least not for awhile.

Too busy. With Ordinary World just begging to be released, I've got too much to do with that, and I'm way behind schedule. There's also the matter of being two weeks behind schedule w/ my classes and cramming a lot into the next month to make sure they finish everything in a timely and effective manner.

Commitment issues. It's not that I don't have another novel in me. I'm counting down the days until my co-writer and I meet in NY to work on our manuscript (and probably after that we'll be ready to share the title), and I've already got ideas for two more novels sketched out. But I'd like to finish one before I officially start another. I have a bad habit of leaving too many things unfinished, like reading books, house-decorating projects, etc.

Crappy writing. I fall prey to the same thing I admonish my students for: getting so caught up in the word count that that becomes the priority of writing. I've seen it too many times. Students write a lot of BS (and they know it is, even confess it is) in order to make the page requirement. And no matter how many times I stress that for me, the number of pages is a guideline rather than a requirement, I get a few who keep their focus there rather than on what they have to say, and what their audience needs to know.

Ordinary World turned out to be a pretty good novel, but I can't tell you how much extra time I had to spend getting rid of all the wordiness, the passive voice, the ill-constructed sentences -- right up to the very final edit -- because all I cared about back in November '06 was making the damn word count. Sure, I cared about the story. But the writing came second, and it (and I) paid dearly for it. It's the same reason why the unfinished manuscript remains unfinished (or, at least, one of the reasons). Good story, bad writing.

Nanowrimo can be tons of fun, especially if you're doing it with friends and get involved with the online community at the nanowrimo website (I'm sure there are Twitter and Facebook pages as well, both of which I'm too lazy to look up and link at the moment). And, I'm grateful for the novel I produced. Maybe someday I'll do it again for the hell of it. But for all those who are looking for a challenge, looking for a little excitement and adventure and fun, and who have had that novel in them for ages and never got it on the page, then I say Go for it! Nanowrimo all the way!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

one chord at a time, one word at a time: dispelling fear of failure

Recently a student came to me, practically in tears. He had no draft, nothing to show for the last four weeks, and confessed that every time he tries to write something, he becomes so terrified of failing that he simply can't do it. Unfortunately, his past teachers instilled a false perception of "perfect writing" (ha! and there's really an Easter Bunny too, right?), and he's been paralyzed by it ever since.

"Welcome to my world," I replied.

Ok, I wasn't that blunt, but I was certainly empathetic and confessed my own writers block and fears of failure. I told him that I've been there, many times. That most writers I know experience this. And then I proceeded to tell him some of my tricks:

  • When I'm feeling particularly fearful, the first thing I type is This does not have to be perfect. In fact, it can be the crappiest piece of writing ever, and no one ever has to know.
  • The second thing I type is This is what I want to say. And then I proceed to say it in words. Or, I type I want to write about... and don't worry about how clunky it is. After a couple of sentences or paragraphs, the words come easier, the thoughts become clearer, and before I know it, I'm writing something, sometimes even halfway decent. One word at a time.
  • I watch or read something inspiring.
  • I talk it out with someone I trust. Not just the fear, but the subject about which I am blocked.
  • I seek support and encouragement from my peers.

There's the old saying "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." (Yeah. Tell me that when I'm heartbroken and see if you don't walk away with a bloody nose.) Is writing the same way? Is it better to have produced a piece of problematic writing than to have written nothing out of fear?

It took me almost 20 years to pick up the guitar from the last time I had played it because I had struggled so hard the last time -- I figured that I was never going to be good at it, and I would never be as good as my siblings. And then I realized that I'd never really know if I didn't try. Moreover, my brother (a virtuoso with whom I'd match John Mayer and Eric Clapton any day of the week and twice on Sunday) encouraged me that I'd never have to play for anyone but me. It's true--I'm nowhere near as good as my sibs, and there's still a lot I can't do, but dammit, I surprised myself with what I could do, especially on my own. One chord at a time.

It took Faking It five years from its conception to get written because I thought I wasn't a fiction writer. And since then I've panicked that there's no life after Andi, that I only got one good idea and used up my ration. But then a line, a story, a character comes to mind while I'm in the shower or driving to work or at the coffeeshop staring out the window, and I realize that all is not lost.

The sucky thing is that I have no choice but to issue a failing grade if this student produces nothing by the end of the semester. But my heart will be with him if it comes to that. I sure hope it doesn't. I'll keep doing everything I can.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Have you ever imagined the conversation you would have with your favorite writer (or movie star, or musician, or president, or anyone else who doesn't know you exist at the moment)? Someone living, perhaps at a cocktail party or a lunch or hanging out at a coffeeshop? In my mind, I imagine many such scenes, all in which I am witty, I am intelligent and interesting, and most importantly, I am coherent.

For example, a conversation with Martin Sheen:

Me: Mr. Sheen, it's an honor to meet you.
MS: Call me Martin.
Me: Call me Elisa
MS: Elisa?
Me: Yes?
MS: That's a pretty name.
Me: Thank you, Sir. (laughs) After watching so many West Wing episodes, I feel the need to call you Sir.
MS (laughs) I'm fine with that.
Me: Martin, thanks for raising awareness about The School of the Americas.
MS: You know about the School?
Me: I do.
MS: I'm impressed. What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a teacher of freshman writing.
MS: I love teachers.
Me: Thank you. My favorite part is when the students "get it". I don't want it to be just about them learning what they're supposed to learn. I want them to go beyond that. I want them to come out of my class as better thinkers.
MS: They're lucky to have someone with such dedication and passion.

And that's just the beginning of the conversation. It would only get better from there.
I do realize, of course, that I've made myself look very favorable, almost goddess-like in his eyes. I have to do that, make myself look so fabulous in my fantasy dialogue, because what would really happen would probably be more something like this:

Me: Oh my God, it's President Bartlet!
MS: How's it goin'.
Me: I thought that Visa Check Card commercial you did with your son Charlie was hilarious.
MS: Ummmm...
Me: (sheepishly backs away) Nice to meet you.

With whom would your conversation take place, and about what would you discuss?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

from book to film: adaptations

People often ask me when the movie version of Faking It will be released. Some are joking, while others are dead serious. I confess that there's a rough draft of a screenplay (very rough) sitting in a drawer in my apartment. It was the first collaboration between my writing partner and me, almost four years ago (four years? geez, how the hell did that happen?). In addition to my aspirations of getting an agent and reaching a wider audience with my novels, having my books turned into films would be pretty neat.

My fear, however (and yes, I do think of these things) would be that it wouldn't be done well. That the characters would be miscast, or the jokes would be delivered poorly, or that they'd film in Wilmington and pass it off as Long Island to save money (take that, Dawson's Creek!). I wonder what novelists think of film interpretations of their work? What did Stephen King think of Carrie, or The Green Mile, or Shawshank Redemption (which was actually a short story), or any of his other novels-turned-movies? What did Jennifer Weiner think of In her Shoes?

Then there's the issue of preference. My experience is that whichever you encounter first is the one you prefer. I much prefer the movie version of Chocolat to the book (which I read years after seeing the film, one of my favorites), and not just because Johnny Depp was much sweeter to look at than the novel description of Roux. I preferred Redford's The Natural. And it was the film All the President's Men that sparked my ongoing fascination with Watergate.

The Social Network is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires. Apollo 13 was based on Jim Lovell's book Lost Moon. I enjoyed the former to the later in the second example, and chances are that even if I read The Accidental Billionaires first, I'll still enjoy the film more.

Didn't care for the Harry Potter films as much as the books (and I refused to see them until I read the books). Haven't even seen Twilight. No desire to see Lord of the Rings. Prefer Bridget Jones books to the films (although how can you not fall in love with Colin Firth?)

So, here's my question (more than one, actually): What are your favorite film adaptations of books? Are there any film adaptations that completely ruined the book experience for you? Are there any you would refuse to see? Are there any films that you prefer to the book? Which did you see first? Are there any favorite books that you would love to see made into a film or even a tv series? If so, why? And who would you want to see cast in those films? Are there any films you would love to see made into novels (for example, would I love When Harry Met Sally as a novel)?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I missed family relationships blogging day. I had wanted to participate in it, but then I completely forgot about it. When Tuesday rolled around, I wrote about swine flu instead. You can blame my absentmindedness on said swine flu, if it makes you feel better. It does me.

I cribbed the following from Writers Inspired:
WOW! Women On Writing has gathered a group of blogging buddies to write about family relationships. Why family relationships? We’re celebrating the release of Therese Walsh’s debut novel today. The Last Will of Moira Leahy , (Random House, October 13, 2009) is about a mysterious journey that helps a woman learn more about herself and her twin, whom she lost when they were teenagers. Visit The Muffin ( to read what Therese has to say about family relationships

So, here's my post anyway, even though the moment is over.

Last night my twin brother called me just as I was falling asleep, around 10:45.

Him: I'm sorry, did I wake you?
Me: Well, um, kind of. What's up?
Him: What's the name of that soap, the blue and white one, with the commercials where the people were all bright-eyed after taking a shower?
Me: (after a couple of seconds) Coast.
(Yes, I'm ashamed to say I knew exactly what he was talking about. No, it's not a twin thing, it's my sad attention to soap commercials.)
Him: (yelling to his girlfriend) It's Coast!!
Me: You woke me up for that?
Him: It was an emergency.

This is the way our phone conversations usually go. This, or some West Wing trivia (I'm sorry to say he's better than me), or a debate over the best Pop Tart flavor, or some other recital of something requiring cartoonish voices. Regardless, we end up in laughter. I end up in tears, grabbing my side, sometimes literally falling over.

But my twin brother also often asks me what I'm reading. He's always reading something impressive. Something on a recommendation from Ray Bradbury or Dan Simmons. Those conversations are much more serious, more passionate. I always learn something from him when we talk about reading. And I learn something about him, too.

We always called ourselves the yin and yang twins: He's tall, I'm short. He's right-handed, I'm left-handed. He's straight hair, I'm curly hair. He's got brown eyes, I've got blue eyes. He's smart, I'm beautiful (ok, so I'm smart too...). And so on. We're both writers. He writes literary science fiction, the likes of Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon and Jorge Luis Borges, guys way over my head. I'm more commercial, a completely different prosaic style. He's downright elegant, poetic in his prose. Mine just is. He learned to write by reading. He absorbs what he reads, and he reads voraciously. I was much more academic in my learning. But we even complement each other there. I think rhetorcially. He thinks literary.

He taught himself to play Keith Emerson solos by ear. By ear, the rat-bastard. I can draw portraits by copying from photographs.

Stephen King talks about the writer's Intended Reader (for him, it's his wife, Tabitha). Aside from my writing partner, the reader whose opinion I value most is my wombmate's. I have learned just as much (if not more) about writing from him as from King or Aaron Sorkin or Andre Dubus III or Nora Ephron or anyone else.

I love each of my siblings, each one for special reasons. But my twin brother is probably my most favorite person in the world. I cannot imagine a day, an hour, a minute without him in my life. I can't even begin to conceptualize life as a non-twin. Nor do I want to. It doesn't matter that we're both readers and writers, or that we're as different as can be. We don't believe in twin telepathy, and we don't live down the street from each other. But when it comes down to the real important things -- soap, pop tarts, Toby Zeigler impersonations, cats -- we're right there. We get it.

I've already written a protagonist w/ a twin brother. I doubt the manuscript will ever get finished, much less published, but it's one of my favorite character relationships. I'm drawn to characters w/ chemistry. But I love those two because I understand them so well. And I love that they understand each other.

So, this post is for you, dear wombmate. You fill me w/ joy.
And check out Therese Walsh when you can.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

oink oink

Readers, you may have thought I escaped to the beach, or went pumpkin picking and got caught in a vine; or, perhaps you thought I succumbed to the insanity known as mid semester. Or, perhaps you thought I was going deep and quiet before launching the Ordinary World missle.

Sadly, it was none of the above. I had the swine flu.

Yes, that awfully named H1N1 virus that has nothing to do with swine but everything to do with the flu. I am now a statistic.

It was spreading around campus faster than gossip (a recent memo from my university approximated 900 reported student cases, "presumably" H1N1, since the beginning of the fall semester), and several of my students had already missed class as a result of it. Faculty had also been issued a memo that students with swine flu were to be given special consideration regarding attendance, catching up, etc. I frowned, thinking that they were simply riding on the paranoia bandwagon.

And then I got a tickle in my throat.

I'd dismissed it because it was at night, after a day in which I lectured for three hours straight (which I normally don't do). When I woke up the next morning with a cough and feeling a little bit woozy, however, I thought that maybe it wasn't from all the talking.

I went into school anyway, but by the time I got there I was pretty certain that I should probably turn around and go home (feeling more woozy and throat sore), that maybe I should take advantage of the bandwagon, especially given that in 24 hours I would be on fall break, a break I was looking forward to so I could start planning the Ordinary World launch, line up some readings, etc. (not to mention just relaxing).

Besides, the department secretary said I didn't look too good.

By the time I got home, I was running a slight temperature. Very slight. I made a doctor's appointment for the next day. Even apologized for jumping on the H1N1 bandwagon.

I'll spare you the details of the H1N1 test (other than to say "snout test" might coincide well w/ "swine flu"), but 10 minutes later, my results came back: positive.

That's not what upset me, however. What upset me was the doctor reminding me that I hadn't been there for a physical in quite some time, and now that I'm almost 40, these things have to become regular.

Damn, I'm almost 40??

It turned out that I was too late for Tamiflu, and the doctor told me to stay home for one week exactly and take OTC meds, which I did. No contact with others.

For the next three days, I was sicker than I've been in a long time. The fever was the worst. At some point I finally lost it and burst into tears when my mom called. It was also the first in a long time that I felt lonely. I wondered if this was payback for my criticism of the "special consideration" memo. Had I not already been on vacation (and a sucky vacation it was), I would have had to cancel even more classes. This is not a curl-up-under-the-blanket-and-catch-up-on-soap-operas-or-reality-shows kind of flu. You start to think of ways to put yourself out of your misery: drop an anvil on your head, drink the entire bottle of Dimetapp, suck on the exhaust pipe of a bus, you name it. I had very little appetite for anything other than toast or soup. (I did, however, have the foresight to buy a bag of peanut M&Ms on my way home from school earlier in the week.)

By Saturday, my fever finally broke, but was still 99. On Sunday, I relapsed just a little, but my appetite returned (as did my single-serving instant cake recipe). Yesterday was my first full day w/ a normal temp and w/out needing meds of any kind. Today was my last day off from school. I even got some work done today.

So even though my vacation was shot to hell and the Ordinary World release has been delayed, there are more things for which to be grateful: having a job in which to call in sick; having health insurance to cover my doctor visits; having family close by to deliver orange juice to me; having a mom to call me each day and make sure I'm ok, and a wombmate who made me laugh until I couldn't stop coughing; and lots and lots of dear friends and colleagues and loved ones via Facebook who let me know they were thinking of me, sending me love and healing energy, and simply wishing me well. Besides, better sick now than at Christmastime, when I'm back in Sag Harbor with my writing partner working on our manuscript.

Not only that, but this past week, Faking It climbed very high in the Kindle Store rankings yet again (and, last I checked, is still in the Top 100 for special categories), got its first UK paperback sale (woohoo!), and is a semifinalist in the Best of the Best ebook contest (its Kindle status qualified it).

I have a lot to catch up on, and am looking forward to getting my energy levels up. I'll say this: don't take this flu lightly. I still think there's a lot of hoopla about it; but, it's not something I wish on anyone. I certainly have more empathy for my students now (not that I had none before), and perhaps that's another good thing to come out of this as well. And I'm bringing a can of Lysol to my office on Thursday. That and some Halloween candy. I would've baked cookies for my students, but I don't think they'd really want anything that my hands touched this week.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

readers before royalties

I just had a great month of Kindle sales for Faking It; setting the price at 99 cents has attracted more readers and occasionally put me into the Top 100 special categories rankings (makes for good bragging rights for my parents and strangers, but Amazon rankings are a little tricky; still, it's nothing to frown at, either...).

When it comes to Kindle and e-book sales, however, I kind of feel like I'm both biting the hand that feeds me and selling myself short. I've discussed on this blog how I feel about tactile books and how much I love and support independent booksellers. I know they lose business to the Kindle, and I don't want to see them go away. But as a self-published author, I'm not only a writer, I'm a businessperson, and the bottom line is that I sell books on Kindle and am building a following. Am I underselling my talent by charging so little? Many might say yes. But I look at the bigger picture; I think from the end. Guys like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King used to sell stories to magazines that paid a penny per word, and that was after numerous rejections. Heck, the Beatles weren't exactly staying at Hamburg's version of The Plaza when they first started out.

The money will come -- it already is coming. So are the readers, and the reviews. So far, so good. Most important, I'm having fun.

There's a saying: "Do what you love; the money will follow." Don't listen to those that say there's no money to be made as an author, and don't ever sell yourself short, literally and metaphorically. Know what you want, make a plan, and visualize your plan manifesting itself. Most of all, love what you do, and do it as if it's already raking in the bucks. Do it for your readers, and remember: you're one of 'em.

One more thing: more than any other time, self-published authors have several channels of distribution and communication to get their books into the hands of readers. Take advantage of as many as possible, but be patient.