Goal vs. Fantasy

Goal vs. Fantasy

At nearly every book fair, festival, signing and event I go to, I run into someone who is working on their first novel. It’s very exciting for them – and for me, because I remember what it’s like to be writing and hoping, excited but overwhelmed by this new venture. Plenty of people rolled their eyes when I told them I was writing a book and I want to be encouraging and positive. I’m living proof that people write and sell their books. Of course, Kim Kardashian is living proof that you can make a lot more money doing less… but I digress.

Within a minute of talking to these as-yet-unpublished authors, I realize that the man or woman I’m talking to falls into one of two camps – the person for whom this is a goal and the person for whom this is a fantasy.

In the goal camp, folks want to hear the truth. They want to know about character development, moving the plot forward, writing schedules, networking…. they are starting a new business and want as much information as possible so they can avoid some of the (many) mistakes I have made.

In the fantasy camp are the people who don’t really want to write a novel. They want to have written one. It sounds cool to be an author. They plan release parties, fantasize about their name on the NY Times Bestseller list, write their Edgar Award speech, and price vacation homes in Aruba. But they don’t write. At least not consistently. And they rarely get to THE END in their books.

As much as I prefer to help the first group, I have to admit I understand the second completely. I too have my “would like to have done” list. I would like to have climbed Kilimanjaro. I would like to have become fluent in another language. I would like to have become a gourmet cook. But will I? Probably not. Because I’m not willing to put the effort in. At the moment anyway those things are fantasies… very different from the goals I have for myself: visiting at least two countries a year, running a 5K in September with my sister-in-law, and finishing all my unfinished quilt projects.

I realize how easy it is to fool yourself into thinking that you’re planning a future when all you’re really doing is daydreaming about one – like the person who pledges to lose weight and then dines on a burger and chocolate cake (That person is me). So I’m trying to be real about my goals, and to let go of those things that aren’t really goals, they’re just fantasies in disguise.

So – what do you really want to do, and what would you like to have done?

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It’s crazy nice outside. March. I’m in New York and it’s in the 70s with word on the street that it will be 80 tomorrow. Too nice for writing, don’t you think? It’s wandering the street, enjoying the sounds and sights weather. Of course I’m in New York working on a television project so my wandering is confined to evenings and weekends, but still…. wandering I go.
I know the weather has been weird this year for everyone. It’s made me at times much more productive because I’m not shut in by the normal five feet of snow that usually hits Chicago – and it’s made me more daydreamy, more excited. It’s taken away my usual excuse not to exercise in the winter.

What’s the weather done to you?

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What Doesn’t Kill Us…

I was walking down the street yesterday when I passed a guy on his cellphone. (Passing someone not on his cell phone has become increasingly rare, hasn’t it?) Anyway, the guy was offering advice, I assume, to the person he was talking to. He said, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.”

We’ve all heard that, nodded our heads and felt better because of the accepted truth that our struggles, as difficult as they were, made us more capable of taking on the world. But for some reason hearing that yesterday I wondered, DO our struggles make us stronger, better people? Or are we forever scarred, albeit functioning, indivdiuals – not better than we would have been without the struggle, just different?

The world of fiction is based on the latter idea. Fiction is filled with damaged people, coping in a kick-ass Lisbeth Salander sort of way, or in a smart-ass Raylan Givens sort of way. But these people, the creations of Steig Larsson and Elmore Leonard respectively, aren’t stronger emotionally, not really. They are screwed up, closed down, and generally hurting (though in wildly different ways for wildly different reasons). And that is exactly what makes them compelling to read about.

They don’t have healthy personal relationships, though each quietly yearns for them. They don’t work and play well with others, though both are exceptionally good at their work because of their individual personality quirks. If either were “healthy” – made stronger by their struggles rather than just different, they wouldn’t be who they are, nor would they be celebrated characters in two very successful mystery series.

I could name other characters… Monk comes to mind… Hell, I could name a dozen or more people in my own life (myself included) who were not made stronger by what didn’t kill them. Just changed by it, maybe for the better, maybe not. So, with all due respect to the gentleman on his cellphone, I’d like to suggest an alternative phrase, less comforting, but more accurate… What doesn’t kill us might not make us stronger, but it makes each of us a damn sight more interesting… in fiction and in life.

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Today I saw a teenager wearing a sleevless top, jeans and sandals. It’s February. In Chicago. Sure, it’s a warm February. 44 degrees today. But is 44 degrees sandal weather? Not to me. I was just happy to be without a hat and snow boots.

So this sleeveless sandal wearer… is she an optimist, alien creature from a much colder planet (like Canada) or goofy teenager who thinks being cool is worth the risk of pneumonia? Not sure. But if anyone wants to know where I get my characters, it’s from people like her.

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One of the great pleasures of doing the Houston Quilt Festival has been sitting next to authors, hanging out and selling each other’s books (so much more fun than selling our own). One of those authors, Sandra Dallas, has become the kind of friend who would be willing to do a guest post even though she’s on the NY Times bestseller list, and she doesn’t have another book out for months. I guess sitting for days in a tiny booth in the middle of 50,000 quilters can really bond people together.

Sandra writes amazing historical fiction. Some of it has quilting, some doesn’t. All of it is beautifully written. But you can see for yourself in her books (sandradallas.com) and in today’s blog.

By the way, that’s Sandra and myself on either side of Leann Sweeney (author of the wonderful “Cat in Trouble” series) at Houston Quilt Festival in 2010. (Look for us there in November!)

Sandra Dallas

Clare’s Life Without Parole and my True Sisters will be published on the same date, April 24. So we ought to be competitors. After all, our readers are the same people, and we both write about quilts. But we are friends, and I would like to think good friends, having shared signing duties at the Houston Quilt Festival for days on end.

My closest friends are writers. We promote each other’s books, share marketing tips, act as a sounding board for ideas, and mostly, we commiserate over things only another writer understands. Writing is a solitary business. Outsiders think it’s glamorous, but it is pretty dull work, sitting at a computer screen with no one to talk to but telephone solicitors. Working alone, you become paranoid, and a fellow writer is the only one who can talk you out of it.

I hadn’t expected to be friends with other novelists. I started out writing western history, and historians, many of them anyway, are snippy. When they talk about your work, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Novelists I know aren’t like that. Shortly after my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, appeared, John Dunning, author of the Clifford Janeway mysteries, invited me to a dinner party. The other guests were Diane Mott Davidson, Michael Allegretto and Warwick Downing, all successful novelists. As the novice in the group, I was surprised at their camaraderie. Shop talk can be boring. While we didn’t sit around conjugating verbs or revealing our favorite words (mine is “blue,” by the way,) we did spend the evening talking about publishers and publicity and book tours. We shared war stories about readers and agents. Our spouses were bored to tears, I’m sure, but I came away not only with a greater understanding of the publishing business but with a group of new friends.

This is not to say novelists don’t do their fair share of backbiting, and there are one or two vendettas going. “How could anyone possibly like his books?” we ask each other about a best-selling novelist whose work is suspect. And we snicker at the bad reviews of works by authors we dislike.

Perhaps the real mark of that friendship is the support authors get from their less successful comrades. Although we may be thinking, “Why did this happen to you and not to me,” we nonetheless share another’s success, praising the author, attending signings, and promoting the book to our own readers.

Each year my husband and I have a party for “writers we like,” as we put it on the invitation, at our house in the mountains. It’s a social event, but there is also plenty of talk about publishing, and that can be valuable. More than once, I’ve overheard an author say, “Your publisher did that to you? I thought I was the only one that happened to.” (That’s an example of the paranoia I mentioned.) The party’s in August, Clare. You’re invited.

Thanks Sandra, Count me in!!!

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A Scrapbook of Secrets

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the first novel by a new author, Mollie Cox Bryan. Well, she’s new to fiction. Mollie has been writing cookbooks for a while, and is also a journalist. After I read the book (which I loved!) I got even luckier. Mollie and I began an email friendship and she is every bit as fun as her characters. Her book, SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS, is being released today and she very graciously offered to answer some questions for me so that I could introduce her to you. Mollie has also agreed to give away a copy of her book to one lucky winner. To enter just leave a comment. All entries must be in by Feb. 14th!

Check out Mollie’s website at molliecoxbryan.com

1. SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS is such a fun book and I’m excited I got to read it before its release. Tell everyone what it’s about.

The book focuses on a group of women in a small southern town who get together to scrapbook, eat, and as it turns out, solve murders. The first book involves the untimely death of a young mother whose empty scrapbooks are left on the curb for the trash collector. Of course, the group rescues the scrapbooks and boxes of paper and photos, wanting to make scrapbooks for her kids. In doing so, they find out that Maggie Rae lived a life of secrets.

2. I’m a TV producer and a quilter – and my two mystery series are set in the world of TV (Kate) and quilting (Someday). How does your background fit into the world you created in SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS – where Annie, your main character is a former journalist/stay at home mom/ scrapbooker?

I hesitate to call myself a former journalist because I really still am one—though I’ve set aside much of my freelancing to work on my fiction. I still write a food column for my local paper and occasionally pitch and take on other assignments elsewhere. But I was never an investigative journalist, like Annie. (I used to dream about that, though. What fun.) But I did give up working in an office, outside of my home, when I became a mom. So Annie and I have that in common. And as far as scrapbooking goes, I’m no expert, but I love to do it and have a lot of fun with it. Like quilting, it can be a social hobby and there’s a definite subculture. That fascinates me as a writer.

3. You’ve written several successful cookbooks. What made you decide to go from pies to murder?

For me, it’s all about storytelling. My first cookbook was a narrative cookbook—it told the life story of Mrs. Rowe, along with the history of her restaurant and food. The second book, Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, wove smaller stories about pie, the family, recipes and so on throughout the book. Many cookbooks tell stories. Food is a great vehicle for it.

So while on the surface, where we like to categorize and label, it doesn’t seem like a cookbook author would be attracted to writing a mystery, it simply feels natural to me. And as a writer, I welcome the challenge to go between fiction and nonfiction and, perhaps even different genres. I simply wanted to stretch a bit, challenge myself. I don’t think readers will hold it against me.

4. As you make the transition into mystery writer, what’s been the biggest surprise? The biggest challenge?

The biggest surprise has been the welcoming community. People are willing to share resources, invite you to sit on panels, and answer difficult questions. I think the biggest challenge is the whole “platform” as a fiction writer thing, which plays into a lot of what’s happening in publishing right now. We find ourselves doing a lot of things that we are not necessarily made for—like doing our own marketing and publicity, wrestling with technologies. Which all leads to getting YOUR book in the hands of readers. What a challenge!

5. Have your friends and family started to worry about your growing interest in poisons and other deadly things? (Mine has)

I have two daughters that think my interest is pretty cool. It’s probably their ages —ten and thirteen. My husband usually just shakes his head. I have had friends worry about my research and computer files. They say things like: You better hope you never are under investigation. But I don’t worry. I write about murder. What better excuse to have computer files on poisonous mushrooms….

6. What are you working on now?

I’m expecting edits for the second book in this series—SCRAPBOOK OF SHADOWS. I’m sort of in the middle of the first draft of the third one. Also, I have a romantic suspense under consideration.

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Two Books, Lots of Waiting….

Feeling slightly crazy today as I work on two books at once. The deadlines for both are in the distance, comfortably far away. Like a tiny dot in the ocean that will – when it gets closer – reveal itself to be a giant ocean liner, the deadlines are easy to ignore for the moment. I could spend the day at a movie, on facebook, writing a blog….. but I know that all ships come to harbor, and all book deadlines eventually come due.

So instead of procrastinating, I am writing. This morning I worked on one, and this afternoon I will work on the other. It’s not really difficult to go back and forth. Not anymore difficult than having brunch with one friend and dinner with another. I don’t usually get people mixed up – real or fictional.

I’m also prepping for a class I’ll be teaching at Story Studio Chicago on February 10th. (Click on “Building a Mystery” at http://www.storystudiochicago.com if you would like to sign up.) It’s about writing a mystery novel. After six completed novels and these two in the early stages, I have a good idea what I will talk about. But now, working on my own books, I’m becoming very aware of whether I’m following the “rules” of writing a mystery – is my first chapter hooking the reader, are my character clearly defined, am I making sure to plan information early on for use later in the mystery? No idea… but I’m hoping.

The good thing, I realize, is that far away deadlines mean I can play with my characters, let them do what they like for a while and see where they take me. I’ll let you know how that goes….



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Desperately Seeking a Barry Eisler Asterisk

I’d like to blog once or twice a week just to keep the habit going, but I’ve realized, I’m just not interesting enough to write about myself twice a week.  Luckily for me (and you) I have lots of friends who are doing cool things… among them author friends with books I’d like to share with you.

First up is Tony Perona. Tony is the author of a mystery series featuring stay-at-home dad and former investigative reporter Nick Bertetto. He has just finished his second term as Midwest Chapter President of the Mystery Writers of America.  His newest book, The Final Mayan Prophecy, is a stand-alone thriller that deals with the end of the 5,126-year-old Mayan calendar in December of this year and speculates on the question, did the Mayans know something we don’t?

This book is Tony’s first foray into the world of self-publishing. It’s intrigued me, because it offers more control and potentially more income than the traditional publishers. But there are drawbacks, and Tony’s guest blog addresses the biggest one authors worry about…

What makes a book legitimate?

by Tony Perona
I’m asking because, just between you and me, my new book comes with an asterisk. You know the asterisk, it follows around those major league home run hitters who achieved their records by using steroids. Makes the record seem … suspect. Not that I was using steroids when I wrote THE FINAL MAYAN PROPHECY. No, the book has an asterisk because: it’s self-published.
I’m one of those guys who usually plays by the rules. When television producer Paul Skorich hired me to write the screenplay for this thing, we both hoped it would be a film. (One film producer who read the script told Paul, “You do realize this is a $300 million dollar movie?”) Next, when we turned it into a novel, we hoped a publisher would buy it. But its path to agents and editors felt at times like the plot of a screwball comedy. (By the time one agent got it, he told me, “It’s good, but I don’t need the pressure of having to sell this thing in six months.”) You see, the book reaches its climax with the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. By December of 2010, with traditional publishers needing at least a year to get it out and then a year for sales, my hopes were shot. In despair, I let the manuscript sit in a drawer through most of 2011, and then … well, I did IT.
Because in my heart I believe it’s a really good story, and that it deserves to be out there. I know that self-publishing allows some books into the world that shouldn’t be there. My inner Woody Allen is afraid I’ll be lumped in with those. I want people to think instead of the successes of John Locke and Amanda Hocking, or the legitimacy spearheaded by the Joe Konraths and Barry Eislers of the world.
What I need is a big, bold, defiant Barry Eisler asterisk.
Or maybe steroids.
Anybody know where Barry Eisler keeps his asterisks?

Reach Tony at his website: http://www.tonyperona.com
Available here:


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So what now?

2012 is the last year of the earth. At least according to some crackpots who are misreading Mayan culture. But that’s good enough for me.

Since 2012 is it, I should do something special, something I’ve always wanted to do (like George Clooney). And take a vacation. I travel so much for my job as a TV producer that I rarely travel for fun. Not this year. And I’ll stop accumulating stuff – since none of it will be of any use after December 21st.

I’ll wake up early to get in a little quiet time before the day gets started. I’ll eat a cupcake if I feel like it, but I’ll try to remember that my body can only do for me if I do for it. I’ll read good books all the way to the last page, but when I’m not feeling it I’ll go ahead and stop without guilt.

I’ll keep writing. I know what you’re thinking, my books scheduled for release in 2013 will never see the light of day, so what’s the point? But I don’t write for you (sorry), I write for me. I write because much of the time I really love it. Not all of the time if I’m being honest, but enough to keep going.

And I’ll mostly try to savor these last few remaining months of the planet, even on days like today when it’s so freaking cold that I have to bury myself under a dozen quilts to keep warm. Luckily I happen to have a dozen quilts, so it all works out. I may even use some of the valuable time left to make a few more, just in case I get a chill as the world comes to a stop.

And, on the slim chance that the nutjobs are wrong, perhaps these “last year on earth” resolutions will just make 2012 a good year.

What about you? What are you doing with the 11 months, 3 days you have left?




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A New Year

Welcome to the new year. So far so good. I managed to do pretty much nothing on the 1st, except meditate, exercise and knit. I’m assuming the rest of the year will be busier, but I’m in no hurry.

I don’t make resolutions mainly because it’s too depressing when I break them, but this year I’ve decided to make a few. Let’s all see how long I manage to keep them.

1. In 2012, I plan to stop thinking that the book I’m not writing is a way better book than the one I am writing. I’m always excited about the idea I have no time to write, which sometimes depresses me about the idea I’m working on. This year I’m going to focus on the book, the chapter, the character, and the sentence that I’m actually writing.

2. In 2012, I will stop downloading episodes of Dexter, True Blood, Justified etc… and telling myself that since I’m at my computer, it counts as “working.”

3. In 2012, I will stop adding books to my “to be read”  pile until I’ve read at least half the books that are already there.

4. In 2012, I will stop checking my amazon ranking because it only serves to either temporary excite me or depress the hell out of me.

5. In 2012, I plan to just have fun with the writing, the readers and authors I meet, and my fantastic team (editor Becky, publicist Mary and agent Sharon) instead of worrying all the time when it’s going to come to a crashing halt.

And, of course, I plan to eat right, exercise, meditate daily, pray for world peace and all that other junk.

What’s on your list for 2012?





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