There are times when I’m deeply focused on a particular book and I read it in the morning when I wake up, just before I go to sleep, and in every bit of time I can steal in between. Then there are times like now, when I can’t seem to settle on one book, so I have several very different books going at once and I go back and forth between them depending on my changing mood. A few pages of a political book before bed. An hour listening to a genealogical memoir while I’m driving. An essay during a break from work. It’s a chaotic approach to reading, I’ll grant you, but it gets it done.
Here’s a look at the odd assortment of books and audiobooks I’m reading now:
The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters by Julie Klam
This is a perfect follow-up to the genealogical course I took earlier this year. Julie Klam details her experience tracking a set of fascinating sisters that she was distantly related to—only to find out that much of what she was told about them wasn’t accurate. Klam’s story has me itching to try harder to track one of my own distant relatives who was the subject of some amazing (and possibly untrue) stories.
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
I don’t find Lord Peter Wimsey a very fascinating sleuth, but I love the Harriet Vane character that Sayers introduces in this book (and who features in all the subsequent Wimsey stories). But what I’m most interested in is the extremely well-plotted mystery Sayers crafted in this tale.
The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman
The author is also an actress (I only recognize her from her brief appearances in Downton Abbey) and she brings that inside knowledge to this Hollywood mystery. It feels a little draggy and there have been several points where I’m screaming at the main character when she’s ignoring obviously key clues, but it’s a mostly fun read.
Rage by Bob Woodward
Apparently, I can’t let go of my outrage over the Trump years so I’m still re-hashing the horrors with political books like this. This could be termed a masochistic read.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
I’ve been reading this slowly, essay by essay, for several months. Didion is high on my list of favorite writers, so any collection of hers is something to savor.
Finding Meaning by David Kessler
This is something I’m reading because of a project I’m working on related to memorial gardens. Kessler proposes that there is a sixth stage of grief (meaning) beyond the five (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about decades ago. The way things are going, we should all be learning how to better handle grief.
What are you reading?
After a year and a half of staying home to write, I’ve started venturing back out to a café to get some writing done. I’m again organizing a once-a-week Shut Up & Write session in Alameda and (mostly) I’m happy to get back to this practice.
But, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it feels a little like the way I imagine an astronaut might feel when she takes that first space walk. While I eventually got quite comfortable writing in cafés in the pre-pandemic days, it did take me a while to get there and I had to learn a few tricks to make it really workable and productive. Then the pandemic hit, the lockdown began, and I had to re-adjust to writing at home. Now, as I get back to café writing, it once again feels like a foreign environment that I’m not fully prepared to handle.
For one thing, I’ve had to re-assemble my go-bag. In the past, I was so well-prepared for café writing that I kept a backpack or canvas tote ready with all the things I considered essential to get my writing done. It included a paper notebook, a few pens of different types, any notes or files I needed for my current project, and earphones so I could listen to music and block out ambient noise. All I needed to do was slip my laptop in the bag and I was ready to go.
But over the intervening months, my go-bag was disassembled, and a half-hour before I was supposed to leave for my first Shut Up & Write session, I realized that I had to first remember exactly what it was I needed to bring with me, and then scramble to pull it together.
OK, so go-bag in hand, I’ve been to four SU&W sessions now and I think I’m starting to get the hang of things. We are meeting at a new café, one that has outdoor seating available because in spite of being fully vaccinated, I’m still a bit leery of being indoors as long as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is an issue. When the weather turns cooler, I’ll have to figure out what to do since the indoor seating in this café is limited. There’s also a lot of street noise at this place and my old earphones are not good enough to block it out, so I just invested in a new pair of noise-canceling headphones that I’ll be test-driving at the café later this week.
I’m also remembering what I’ve been missing this past year and a half: The energy you get from sitting with other writers striving to find the right words. The fun of meeting people and hearing a little about their works in progress. The reminder that writing doesn’t have to be an isolating slog. And the way a really good latte can make the words flow just a little bit easier.
So, having made some successful pitches to book editors last week, I’m now in the position of having to put the final polish on two book proposals.
It. Is. Not. Fun.
And it makes me think that book proposals really do have a lot in common with marriage proposals. In both cases, you tend to go into it a little starry-eyed, thinking “Wow, if I can just get a ‘yes,’ I’ll be soooooo happy!”
But there are more similarities than that.
Let’s face it, both book proposals and marriage proposals are kind of a hard sell. You have to hit the highlights. You have to know how what you’re offering compares to similar options on the market. You have to promote yourself. And you have to do all of that while feigning confidence that you’ll be able to work through any bumps in the road and still deliver something good—probably on a much smaller budget than what you expected.
Probably the main difference between book proposals and marriage proposals is that there’s no way that a book proposal is going to get an immediate yes or no. Once you send it in, you need to prepare yourself to wait. And wait. And wait. Weeks will go by. Sometimes, months will go by. Earlier this year I got a rejection from a publisher that I had submitted a proposal to so many months earlier that I had completely forgotten I’d sent it to them. That did help take the sting out of it—at least a little bit.
There is one other important difference between book proposals and marriage proposals. With book proposals, it’s a good idea—a really good idea—to have more than one proposal to shop around. I have three proposals for three very different books. I would be happy to do any one of them and I hope eventually that I can write and publish all three books, even if it means self-publishing.
But for now, I’m focusing on making these two proposals as good as I can make them right now and sending them on their way. Because in the end, whether you’re proposing a book or a marriage, all you can do is give it your very best effort.
And, for god’s sake, remember to spell-check!
I’ve been attending the virtual conference for GardenComm this week and it’s been great. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this brave new world (new for me, anyway) of virtual conferencing. On one hand, it’s just not as good for networking as meeting in real life. The best connections I’ve ever made at conferences have been made over a meal or on a bus ride while we were touring gardens. That just doesn’t transfer to a virtual context. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for attending sessions in my pajamas or while I’m doing a load of laundry.
But so far I’ve attended really useful sessions on creating book proposals and on moving from nonfiction to fiction. That last one was with best-selling author Amy Stewart and I learn something new about writing every time I hear her speak.
The keynote address by Shaun Spencer-Hester was also great. She’s the grand-daughter of Anne Spencer, one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance and she talked about her grandparents and Edankraal, their home and garden in Lynchburg, VA, as well as their connections with writers like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, who were among the many luminaries of their time that visited their home. The house and garden are open for tours and that’s now on my list of writers’ homes I want to visit when the world opens up again and we’re finally out of this damned pandemic.
But so far, the highlight of the conference for me has been the round of pitch sessions we were able to sign up for. I have two garden-related book proposals that have been simmering on the back burner for a while and the time felt right to move them to the forefront again.
Now, for those who don’t know, pitch sessions are a publishing device that has popped up in recent years where an author has a 10- or 15-minute session to sit in front of an editor or agent (or, in this case, meet in a one-on-one Zoom session) and tell them about your book proposal and try to sell them on it. It’s actually a pretty efficient way to get a read on how receptive publishers will be to your project. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the whole concept of pitching was dreamed up by some sadist who really gets off on torturing writers. A lot of writers, maybe most writers, are introverts, so this face-to-face process of hanging your baby out there to get picked apart or rejected outright is just a wee bit harsh. That being said, I’ve pitched a few times now and I’ve never met an editor or agent who was anything less than gracious, even when what I was pitching was clearly not something they were interested in.
So I was scheduled for four pitch sessions with editors from four different publishing companies. One session ended up not happening, possibly because of technical issues. But the other three sessions went great. Two editors asked to see one of the proposals and one of the editors asked to see both. I tried not to appear too shocked, but honestly, that was a better reception than I was expecting. Of course, that just gets my proposal in the door and it’s a long, long way from an offer but for the moment I’m allowing myself to feel encouraged. I’ve learned to take my wins where I find them!
I've been spending the past week going through the recorded sessions from the InkersCon 2021 Authors Conference. The conference ran over three weekends in July but I was so busy I wasn't able to attend any of them live. But I'm so glad I had registered for it. It was the first time I've attended InkersCon and I was thrilled to find that it is so worthwhile. There were great sessions on craft, marketing, business, and advertising in addition to a number of roundtables and author Q&A sessions. I haven't gone through it all yet, but I've already learned a lot. If you haven't already heard of InkersCon, check it out!
This is the time of year when lots of writers are looking ahead to November and what is possibly one of the most masochistic things writers ever do to themselves: National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The objective of course with NaNoWriMo is to write an entire novel of 50,000 words over the course of a month. Although many writers like to jump in on November 1st with nothing more than a bare idea and a blank page, others choose to do prep work. If you're playing by the rules, you can't write any text of the novel prior to November 1st, but you can make notes, do outlines, write character sketches, and any other kinds of pre-writing that may (or may not!) help you hit the ground running and make that 50,000-word goal easier to achieve.
I am still considering whether or not to jump into the NaNoWriMo frenzy this year. I tried several years back and got to about 27,000 words, but I think I could do better now. While I try to make up my mind whether or not to commit, I'm sorting through story ideas that I have in reserve and considering how I would want to prep one. This morning, with this in mind, I came across a blog post from writer Amy Stewart, who has a great idea of how writers can adapt the concept of thumbnail sketches that artists use to create a painting to their own work. Basically, she writes out a brief sketch of what will happen in the next scene or chapter she's going to write, discussing what the scene or chapter needs to accomplish, and what she may know or not know about how it's going to play out. With that done, she's then ready to write the full piece based on the sketch she's written.
I like the adaptability of this idea, because you can go micro (sketching out one brief scene) or macro (sketching out a whole novel, basically a synopsis or treatment) with it. You can sketch out all the scenes or chapters in your book, or just the key ones that are particularly complicated or challenging. That avoids the problem I've run into with outlines--I can never finish them because I never know enough in advance to fill in all the holes. I also like that sketching out scenes in advance is a good way for me to remind myself to make sure I'm injecting enough conflict into the story and not letting things just coast along.
So now for the rest of October, I'll be playing around with written thumbnail sketches while I make up my mind whether to NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo.
Image credit: Terry Pittman
I confess that the book I'm completely obsessed with is the same book that a lot of Americans are reading right now: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. It is as compelling and laughable as the best gossip rag, while also being horrifying and, in some places, downright chilling. I'm listening to the Audible audio version, and the narration is kind of amusing because the narrator, Holter Graham, reads the Trump quotes in a little bit of Trump's voice. I may end up finishing it this weekend--that's how hard it is to put this book down.
Beyond Fire and Fury, I have some reading to do related to my research on the SS City of Rio de Janeiro. I just got Crossing the Bar: The Adventures of a San Francisco Bay Bar Pilot by Paul Lobo. I'm hoping it will give me some good insights into the issues of navigating the Golden Gate and the Bar Pilots organization.
Also in the lineup for January is The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay.
So what are you reading?
In January 1998 I made the leap from full-time employment with a major publisher to full-time freelancing as a book indexer, editor, and proofreader. My reasons for jumping ship were common to many other freelancers--I didn't see much of a future with that company in terms of quality or security of work, and at the time I had a nightmare of a boss. I quit and my former employer became my first--and for a while my only--client. Twenty years later, that company is still one of my major clients. But along the way, I've learned a few lessons about freelancing, some painfully obvious, others a bit more obscure.
Lesson #1: Never jump ship with just one client! Lots of people do this and, to be honest, the one-client life worked out OK for me for a while and I did add clients slowly. But it's really dumb to be a single-client freelancer. It's like having all the limitations of being an employee with none of the benefits. I'll never make that mistake again and I'm actively on the hunt to add new clients, particularly for the indexing side of my business.
Lesson #2: Don't let yourself become isolated. As a new freelancer, I was a member of a few professional organizations, but at that time they didn't have the online resources that those organizations have now, so unless you went to their conferences, which could be expensive, it was hard to benefit from them. Eventually I let the memberships lapse, and with them the connections with my peers. But gaining and maintaining connections with other people who do the same work as you is invaluable. In recent years I've found or re-discovered two professional organizations (the American Society for Indexing and the Garden Writers Association) that have been a big boost to my business. I've found new clients through them and established real friendships with people who understand the triumphs and travails of the freelancer life I'm living.
Lesson #3: If you're spending more on upgrading equipment than you are on upgrading your skills, you're doing it wrong. Fast, dependable equipment is definitely important, but it only gets you so far. After all, anybody can get a fast computer and smart software. Investing in your own skills--adding skills, polishing skills, and occasionally reaching out into new areas--makes you unique, and uniquely appealing to clients. When I studied horticulture a few years back and started garden writing, it not only led to my publishing two gardening books; it also opened up a whole new subject area for my editorial services.
So now it's January 2018 and I'm celebrating my 20th anniversary as a freelancer. I have big plans for the year ahead. I indexed 25 books in 2017. I want to double that number in 2018. I've revised some procedures, learned some valuable new tips for greater efficiency, upgraded some of my technology, and I'm ready to hit the ground running. And here's how what I've learned can benefit you:
If you hire me in January 2018 to index a book for you (even if that book isn't quite ready for indexing just yet), I'll give you a 10% discount (up to $50 maximum) off the total cost. As long as the book will be in final pages and ready to index by March 31, 2018, you can book me in January and I'll give you the discount when the book is ready. Want to talk about it? Shoot me an email at CASplan@sbcglobal.net to let me know about your project. We'll set up a time to talk by phone and work out the details. I can't wait to work with you!
So happy new year to one and all! And happy anniversary to me!
Back in 2013 I discovered a group that really was exactly what I needed as a writer. I had published my first gardening book the year before and had been blogging for several years but at that point I wasn't really sure what to work on next. I just knew I had to keep writing and I was unsure how to keep the momentum going. The group that proved to be a major boost in keeping that momentum going is Shut Up & Write.
Shut Up & Write is a writer community with over 16,000 members in 20 cities and four countries. I don't remember how I found it, but somehow I came across a listing for a Shut Up & Write meeting in my town at a cafe. I RSVP'd on Meetup.com and just showed up. It was a small group, maybe four or five of us that day. But there were two things about it that really clicked for me right from the start. First, I loved hearing the variety of things that people were working on because Shut Up & Write is open to anyone who is writing anything without regard to subject or publication status. And second, perhaps most importantly, the emphasis is really just about getting the writing done. Nobody reads your work or checks to see if you've met a word count target. It's all about showing up to commit some time to writing. And let's face it, that's how books (and poems and screenplays and theses, etc.) get done.
I kept going to that Shut Up & Write meeting and when a new organizer was needed to take over the session, I happily took it on. I'm still the Event Organizer for that group, which now meets for three hours every Tuesday afternoon. I attend other Shut Up & Write sessions on occasion as well and am the Co-City Manager for the SF Bay Area chapter. These sessions energize my writing and make it a less isolating endeavor.
Since I've been going to Shut Up & Write, I've written and published another gardening book, written and self-published a short gardening ebook, and written and begun shopping around a proposal for a nonfiction book I am dying to write. In addition, I've continued to work on a novel. I honestly doubt I would have gotten that much writing done without Shut Up & Write. In addition, I've made many new writing friends and learned so much from them.
If Shut Up & Write sounds like something you'd like to check out, go to shutupwrite.com to find out if there's a group meeting near you. If there isn't and you'd like to start one, fill out the contact form on the website and the folks at HQ will help you get started.