Today I surrender to the glorious storytelling of Kristan Higgins in her recent book Out of the Clear Blue Sky. When I first read the blurb, I thought not for me. But I’m often swayed by her stories and took the leap. Thank goodness! Not only do I root for the good guy, but I also have sympathy for the bad guy. And her seamless moving back and forth between 1st and 3rd person—how does she do that? I am trying not to read it too fast.
I’m grateful for writers and friends who suggest good things to read and watch. Sam and I are in the middle of Exorcist III and I’m waiting for the jump scare a coworker warned me was coming. George C. Scott is a national treasure.
Like Chandler Bing, I learned my parents were splitting up on Thanksgiving. Over decades, I made a big deal of this and convinced myself to be miserable every year, no matter how many hours my hosts worked to create a festive occasion. It didn’t matter that my parents were much happier apart, that I had other opportunities I might never have had if they’d stayed together. It didn’t matter that I completely ignored other reasons why Thanksgiving is, oh, dicey. My loathing was one-dimensional.
Letting go of personal history tends to happen much later, but better that than not at all. What a burden to be miserable on an anniversary of something that happened a long time ago. Something you don’t think about all that much anymore.
To be honest, I really don’t hate Thanksgiving. There are the pumpkin products. What’s not to like about at least two days off from work? If you’re not traveling, you might be the luckiest person on earth. Rolls with butter on them. Such a massive pooling of foodstuffs for consumption with loved ones. The preparation may be frightening, but not for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have a black thumb in the kitchen. People invite me to their homes and they feed me. There are leftovers and stories for eons. It takes too much energy to hate things that are delicious and good.
My first Thanksgiving with Sam’s family in Florida is one I’ll never forget. It was my first time meeting some of Sam’s family members. Also, Florida was a mysterious place far removed from my New England/Mid-Atlantic roots. There is sun down there. You can see the sky without buildings blocking your view. The one hitch, we had to fly down to Florida and I was deathly afraid of getting on those aluminum tubes. Being in love means going places even when you’re scared. It took me days to get ready emotionally, even with medication. Oh, and my mother and stepfather were coming to meet Sam’s family. No anxiety there.
On the day of the trip, my stomach felt kinda funny. I pushed it aside. The Great Diviner in the Sky would never do that to me, make me sick as I go down for big Thanksgiving celebration with his family and my family, and did I mention low-grade terror about trying to have a baby at 42? I was fine, dammit.
When we landed, I experienced the usual terra firma euphoria and hunger. I ate whatever I could find. Steak! So far, I was killing this nerve-wracking Thanksgiving thing with new expanded family. And my mom, she was having fun in Florida. Oh the places we’d been together. I loved that she didn’t have to cook and could just party over three days. Everyone got along great. The next day, I had thick pancakes, a Starbucks sandwich, walked with Mom around town, marveling at the ducks in a pond, and then, oh no.
I was walking back to the hotel when I felt that dread of knowing I would be sitting in a dark room by myself for a day or two being sick. Time stopped, perspective shifted. People brought me ginger ale and crackers, medicine. No one shamed me for being sicker than I’d been in a while. I was so embarrassed before realizing that my healthy family was probably having a blast. That made all the difference, actually.
By the time Thanksgiving came, I felt a little better physically and utterly revived by the people around me. That was ten years ago and while still not 100% sold on this holiday (see U.S. history), I am so looking forward to being with my family, however it happens.
Here’s a picture of me on Thanksgiving 2012, kind of sick, but so grateful for the person next to me.
A very long time ago, I thought that sharing my depressing stories would attract boys and friends. This might be a Gen-X thing since we have woes tacked to every inch of skin. Remember how hard it was to find a job in 1990? There was crack, the Cold War, not enough cigarettes, our unhappy childhoods, undiagnosed mental illnesses that didn’t get diagnosed early enough, our unhappy adolescences so filled with apathy, weed we had to smoke from a pipe, and worst of all, shoulder pads in all women’s clothing.
Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I know how to embellish, so I gave myself a stream of sob stories to woo a potential suitor. Needless to say, my MO acted as a repellent. Those who stuck around for my recounting of Bad Thing 1, Bad Thing 2, the dishonor I brought to my family when caught smoking in my room, my Did Not Pass in Economics, well, they were not to be trusted.
I’ve learned a lot about romantic conflict from my work as an editor. It’s not about sitting in a bar and talking about your problems. The main character usually doesn’t relay their tragedies to attract a partner. First, you have a spark, an encounter, a bit of inching closer together before the knowing: This is a love story. Revelation happens gradually and often under duress. Those extraordinary circumstances force characters to confront their bad stuff and reveal it in order to graduate to happily ever after.
Lately, I’ve seen submissions where a main character will unleash every ounce of suffering over pages, just to set up that they deserve love. But love is the last thing I’m feeling as I reach for an extra anti-depressant. Pandemic, global distress might be contributing to a low tolerance for depressing things. Also, I understand how one needs to tell us why characters act in certain ways. But here are a few thoughts on showing character conflict without metaphorically clobbering us with sorrow.
It’s always a good idea to write down for yourself all the feels of your characters. Why does your heroine have trouble going outside? List the details of their backgrounds. First loves, first heartbreaks, parents. Strange things they don’t want to tell anyone. Secrets–all the secrets. Keep this in a folder and try not to reveal any of the details within the first few pages. Those opening pages are about whetting the reader’s appetite.
If you have one character’s emotional conflict figured out, think about what would totally bruise them. It’s not as simple as putting a pilot with someone who hates to fly. But if you did something like that, think of the layers underneath these characters’ conflicts. A pilot who might be trying to combat their own fears as they get on a plane. A person scared of flying because they saw a plane explode in the sky. What is the last thing your character wants (but might secretly need)? Give your character that thing, only don’t make it perfect. I am a strong believer that a person’s issues don’t get solved at the end, but love does make them a whole lot better.
In helping authors through the editing process and my own writing, I’ve learned that conflict can change or reveal itself as the story evolves. This can be one of the most exciting parts of writing, the discovery. Keep shaping the conflict and guiding it carefully. If you ever feel stuck, watch your favorite movie again or flip any channel and dissect the characters who have to interact with each other. What creates the friction between them and keeps them golden for viewers?
My friend and I have been obsessed with The Vow (I just typed The Cow, haha!). We’re both horrified and intrigued by how such a malignant putz–the headband during volleyball dead giveaway–felt emboldened enough to lure intelligent and some maybe not-so intelligent people into his cult. After the most recent episode, I thought maybe my life’s purpose could be to rescue people from such assholes, but how do I know I won’t get brainwashed myself? I guess I would need training.
Bachelor in Paradise is a much happier place. The drinks are flowing, adorable crabs sidle next to you, and, unlike Hotel California, you can always leave! My favorite part of this show is Wells, who is the love child of Mike Brady and Gopher from The Love Boat. For anyone crying in their tequilas, he has the best advice, jokes, and refills. He’s Paradise’s Dad!
What I’ve learned from BIP is absolutely nothing. Well, that alcohol poisoning is real, and so is the brilliance of fake fainting to get out people turning on you. It’s like high school all over again. Every end of summer, I look forward to a couple months of twenty-thirty-somethings acting like they’ll find true love in this beachy Petri dish. Will paradise last? Maybe not, but I’m rooting hard for Brandon and Serene. Kindness and respect are a lovely aphrodisiac for these two.
I guess I shouldn’t type here that I have dipped into Dahmer. Maybe I’ve gone through 6 episodes. Also The Exorcist II, which is trash. What was Richard Burton thinking? Being in that movie would make me want to be wasted, too.
A year before my parents split up, my mother and I lived together in my childhood home in Upstate New York. Mom was working on her dissertation–or doing something PhD-ish–and I did my kid thing, mostly hunting for candy, making a mess. We squabbled a good deal because I’m sure I was a pain in the ass and she had mountains of work.
What I do remember with fondness about that year is that Mom and I shared our love of certain female artists. She introduced me to Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Roberta Flack. We rasped with Janis, spelled it out with Aretha, and followed Roberta on a heartbreaking journey. Whenever “Killing Me Softly” played, I thought Roberta Flack was singing about literally being murdered, like stabbed, by this guy who was also humiliating her in public. It took a while for me to understand what she meant. But Mom and I sang the song compulsively because how could you not? Flack’s bold, silvery vocals brought us out of dark despair and into the joy of her beautiful song.
I am very sad to learn that Roberta Flack has ALS and can no longer sing. This disease is such an unfair bastard. Hopefully, she is surrounded by everything and everyone she loves forevermore. As I go through her music right now, I’m remembering her classics, one right after the other. We are so lucky she exists and has given us so many gifts.
I’m waiting until the last minute to post. My Nanowrimo buddy is also catching up. We’re not even halfway through the month because this is hell. A microscopic version of hell is the pet peeve and I have many. Here is what I’d love to avoid in future:
Characters who are overloaded with trauma, agita, quirks, predictably too much sadness to lift their heads for the virile foil or romantic interest. I just can’t help with this one. Sure, a character can have major issues in their life, but not everything all the time. As in real life, that person who always shows up at three in the morning needing your help, well, you kind of want to run in the other direction. Kitchen Sink characters don’t do it for me.
Shocked and pregnant heroines don’t always toss their cookies (a repeat): I’ll admit, barfing in movies or novels grosses me out and gives me a case of the eyerolls. It’s an obvious way to show a person’s reaction to terror or the heroine’s being in the early stages of pregnancy. Writers, why don’t you try something else aside from this obvious act that we all know is coming? Not everyone barfs as the plane is crashing or in the 8th week of pregnancy.
I’m only realizing now that I care about how the toilet paper roll should go. This could be a pandemic thing.
Omitting the comma of direct address. I feel as if my message isn’t getting through. At least once a day, I read a submission where the comma of direct address doesn’t exist. Hi mom. Did you get dinner Brad? The first crime is leaving out that comma. The second is not capitalizing “mom.” The third is killing Brad for dinner. We can’t let bad grammar take over the world.
Canceling anything but meetings. Even though the world would be a better place without certain abhorrent humans, I’m over the term “canceling” anything except meetings. Can we take back this word so that it only applies to appointments? Canceled people come back after a period of mourning. We forget. We think, okay maybe they weren’t so bad. We put them in movies again. We hire them. We publish them. Create documentaries about them to examine what went wrong and even if it’s from the victims’ POV this time, it’s really still from the canceled a-hole’s POV. The canceled ones return and are loved anew, raking in our $$$ because flaws are juicier than virtues. Damn. Have I become cynical?
Now it’s time for Unsolved Mysteries to see is Bigfoot exists.
A lovely follower of this blog asked me to write about how to read professionally for publishers. How does one go about this? I have a lot to say because I read professionally and it *is* a dream job. If that’s what you want to do as a side hustle, awesome. Even as a career, that’s cool, too.
To begin, know that publishers have mountains of submissions to read. They used to come via post office and, literally, you would see piles on editors’ desks. We would even gets phone calls to find out the status of a submission. Now, many of us use different systems to receive these submissions, what we used to call “the slush pile.” Instead of piles, we have pages and pages of submissions on a computer screen. It’s much easier to submit projects to publishers, and in some ways, tracking submissions is less cumbersome. This old lady likes the old way of doing things, but I’ll admit the technology is good.
With greater efficiency comes tedious other systems that shorten an editor’s time to read. This is a slightly cryptic and long-winded way of saying, we rely on freelance readers a lot more these days. Despite this, getting into freelance reading can be tricky. Often, it’s who you know, where your experience lies, and what pockets of publishing are open to new people. In my experience, our submission-reading freelancers are former employees. Who knows what we want more than someone who’s worked for us? Before you get depressed, I know that publishers are definitely on the lookout for more freelancers, who would be new to the company. It’s been a rough couple of years with a lot of turnover in most fields. So there’s hope.
Here are some tips for breaking into freelance reading for a publisher:
Get to know a publisher’s list, inside and out. If you love thrillers, search for imprints that focus on thrillers. There aren’t *that* many. Be sure to read a whole lot of thrillers before you apply.
Scrutinize your experience. Figure out how to put your best foot forward. Did you major in English? Have you worked for a publisher, interned, edited someone’s dissertation, ghostwritten, anything that has to do with writing, books, literature? Publishers are not likely to just hand you a reading assignment. But we may give you a test to see how you do.
Start talking to friends about your dream to do freelance reading. You might know someone who can introduce you to someone else. This may feel awkward, but it’s a way forward.
Visit blog sites that review books. There are the big ones like Publishers Weekly, New York Times, Huffington Post, and countless others. Read less flashy, obscure blogs, if you can. This will help you get a feel for what’s floating out there.
Go to publishers’ job boards. There may be links to freelance jobs, though I think a lot of times, these jobs aren’t posted anywhere (not 100% on this). Of course, go to other job sites (www.bookjobs.com, http://www.indeed.com, which might list freelance work).
Another, perhaps more fun, avenue would be to research literary agencies. They get tons of submissions, too, and in fact, this may be the best way to get in the door. If you build a relationship with an agent/agency, it might lead to any number of exciting things. Agents definitely rely on outside readers.
Major caveat, you won’t make Wall Street money doing this. But it’s fun! And why not? Finding a freelance gig is like any other endeavor. Just do one thing every day that moves you forward. It might be a fabulous accident that lands you in a nice reading situation. You just never know.
Lastly, if you have any other topics you’d like me to write about, please share.
I didn’t plan well enough. Now it’s almost 9pm and I’m with my beautiful mother and husband. I have no time left to post. We may never leave since Mom and Sam are talking about stocks and some guy who lost 14.6B in cryptocurrency (which I don’t get). While they are talking $$$ I am secretly typing this on my phone.
Why can’t they talk about something more interesting like Bachelor in Paradise? How Eliza made a terrible decision in leaving Rodney to go after Justin. How dumb it is to buy powerball tickets. How satisfying coffee cart coffee can be. I’d love a cappuccino right now. Or an Ambien. I’m hearing “municipal bonds”—this has to do with municipalities I think. Chipotle, price points, shares, splits. It could be a long night. Two people I love very much enjoy talking about finance and not Essie nail polish, White Lotus 2, or Jennifer Aniston’s reveal in Allure.
I think they’ve just figured out I’m not listening…