Archive for the ‘a writer’s life’ category

Cross-cultural amusement

January 12, 2013

As Rach and I begin gearing up for next week’s trip to Marscon, Mark is making plans to break the monotony of our absence with a visit to his mother. They’re planning a menu of traditional Eastern European favorites. Mark returns from at least the third phone discussion of this extravaganza with this announcement:

My mother wants tongue.

He finds this conversation humorous because his mother has gone the extra mile in consideration: enjoining him not to get the aforementioned delicacy until Rach and I are safely away. “I’m sure Barbara doesn’t want to look at that in the refrigerator.”

Now, for the record, I’ve had tongue. Let’s just say I have texture issues with it and leave it at that.

But that’s not what has stopped me cold this afternoon. I just can’t get past the horrifying image.

My mother wants tongue.

Mark rolls his eyes.
“From a COW,” he says.

That doesn’t make it better.

My first review on Publishers Weekly

January 20, 2011

Yesterday, to my surprise, I discovered that Publishers Weekly had reviewed my forthcoming novel The Shadow of the Sun in this week’s issue. I knew PW had received a review copy, of course, but for the last couple weeks, everything PW had been reviewing bore March release dates, and Shadow is slated for February. So I figured they had passed the book by, and just checked in to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something.

And there was my name.

Usually when writers talk publicly about their reviews, their comments fall into one of two categories: either “Hey, look, I’m AWESOME!” or “Why did this awful, mean reviewer abuse me so?” This post is meant to be neither of these; as always, I use a single primary criterion for deciding what to talk about here: whether what I want to say will be of use to others, particularly writers. I hope this will.

The title of this post is something of a misnomer: this is not the first time PW has reviewed a book I’ve worked on. But in all of those cases I had been editor and/or publisher; I had a certain distance from the experience. I generally look at PW reviews from a marketing perspective: good or bad, a review in PW means sales for a book, so I always welcome them. And any reader of PW reviews knows PW pulls no punches; they tend towards the snarky and judgmental. Which, of course, is natural for a publication that serves the book business, which is composed almost entirely of New Yorkers. Nobody does snarky better than New York. As an editor, it’s generally my job to talk any writer lucky enough to capture the attention of PW down from the ledge they invariably occupy after reading the review of their work: to remind them that what they’re seeing is just PW’s way, and they really are good writers, and there are quotes we can use, however slim, buried among the barbed wire. Presumably after we get off the phone they go away somewhere quiet and drink a lot.

Last night I needed that phone call. Fortunately I am married to someone who has listened to me deliver that speech more than once, and he knew his lines.

So, back to my tale. There was my name in the Publishers Weekly review listings. I was alone in the office, doing One Last Thing before I went upstairs to make dinner. When, against all expectations, I saw my name, I said, “Holy f**cking s**t!” (Yes, with asterisks.)

And then I read these words:

The Shadow of the Sun
Barbara Friend Ish, Mercury Retrograde (Ingram, dist.), $20.95 (502p) ISBN 978-1-936427-01-7
Mercury Retrograde founder Ish debuts with a clumsy but enthusiastic epic fantasy piled high with Celtic-themed fantasy tropes, conventions, and clichés. Disgraced former wizard Ellion has turned away from gods, magic, and conflict. When a power-hungry wizard begins conquest in the name of the old religion, Ellion flees to the Tanaan realms, but assassins pursue him, as does a dynastic crisis. As his allies fall one by one, Ellion is forced to choose between the talents he forswore and the triumph of evil. Ish’s prose is competent without being noteworthy. The grander conflict that drives the book will be familiar to readers, but Ellion gives hints that his eventual solution to his inner conflict–to be resolved in future books–may yet demonstrate a bit of welcome innovation. (Mar.)

When I hit the word “clumsy”, my head began to ring the way it does when one’s chin connects with a really solid uppercut. I knew all along that beginning this series in this place was going to lay me open to the accusations that are all over the rest of the review, but *clumsy*? Ouch.

I took my ringing head upstairs to find Mark, bewildered by conflicting emotions. A debut genre author getting airplay in PW is huge, and the publisher in me was pleased, but Writer Brain was reeling.

Publishers Weekly threw up on my book,” I told him. “I can’t figure out how I feel about this.”

Mark looked at the review. He is on the finance side, and thus has a certain distance. It was not a bad review, he patiently pointed out. It was just PW being PW. And look, there was a quote we could use.

Nevertheless dinner was a shambles. People had to step in and help me with stuff that is ordinarily effortless; Writer Brain had hijacked me, and I was gone. I wasn’t weepy or offended, just mentally hamstrung by the ringing in my head and the conflicting responses.

Needless to say I took the evening off and watched TV, and once I’d slept on it, I had it back in perspective. This morning I’m delighted and honored to have been reviewed by PW, and I understand that I brought much of the snark on myself by beginning this series in overly familiar territory. But as usual, my experience as a writer of a debut novel has given me perspective I will take back to the other side of the desk.

Like all writers, I am painfully insecure about my work. If in a given workshop session I receive ten compliments and one really withering criticism, it is the criticism I will take home. As a published author it is my task to put that aside; to be glad that people take the time to read my work, to understand that we all have our own reactions and opinions, and to do what I must to nurture the belief in my own vision that allows any of us to commit words to formats less ephemeral than Facebook. It is incumbent upon reviewers to speak the truth as they see it; else they are no more useful than that woman who became a top reviewer on Amazon by writing positive reviews of EVERYTHING she ever encountered. And the old saw quoted to me by Tara Maya is absolutely true: There is no such thing as bad publicity.

So there’s really only one appropriate response to this turn of events:

Holy f**king s**t! Publishers Weekly reviewed my book!

Too cool for suburbia

September 7, 2010

Talking book tour with one of my wisest friends this morning via Facebook. She advises avoiding certain areas under discussion: where, she says, “it gets too suburbanitey for your stuff”.

I’m too cool for the suburbs.  How awesome is that!

Fabulous New Me: Day One

July 2, 2010

So, yea verily, it is time to become more Fabulous. Sonja* has a Plan that she has successfully executed on patients in the past; we will do it now. It has taken a couple weeks to assemble everything we need, including reinstituting spring water delivery and acquiring a digital scale (Alberto, the talking scale who only speaks Spanish). In the meantime we have begun inching towards our new rule-set, which involves a lot of meat and vegetables and not much else. Sonja has promised a hunger-free program; she’s promised an average of a pound lost per day. Since I want to lose a LOT of weight, I like that pace, as long as there will be no suffering.

Day 1

We get up and weigh in and take our morning lemon-water: this last is a thing we’ve been doing for a few years. Breakfast consists of fruit (first), a single piece of whole-grain toast, 2 or 3 eggs and tea. I’m using the Cholula sauce on mine. This breakfast is not outside the standard deviation for me. After breakfast Rach & I do the dishes (eating like this seems to generate an alarming number of pots & pans, and we’re catching up from last night) I do my morning check-in on Facebook and Twitter, and we convene in the living room for yoga.

I’m way out of practice on yoga; we’ve begun doing yoga intermittently again lately, but the 45-minute DVD we’ve got is still a big deal for me. Today it’s interrupted 3 times by Mark, who needs me to weigh in on our ongoing wrangling with a wholesaler who will (for the moment, at least) remain nameless. By the end I’m as tired as I would have been had we worked straight through, but without the pleasant relaxation.

As soon as we finish that, it’s time for our prescribed morning snack: no matter that, because we got up at 9, it’s now about 1: it’s snacktime. Fruit and yogurt all around. Finally I settle into the study–or try to. My head has been involved in conflict in the office already today; there will be no writing. I turn my attention to other tasks instead. Mark takes a couple of conference calls, and then it’s time for lunch.

Lunch is supposed to be salad followed by meat and steamed vegetables. I avail myself of some smoked brisket from the smoker bar at Whole Foods, but usually when I eat this it’s in the course of a pleasant tapas-style meal in which I’m drinking wine and enjoying a variety of cheeses and breads. No bread after breakfast on the Plan; and no cheese, at all.

Let me repeat that, because it is the main cause of suffering: NO CHEESE. AT ALL.

Suffice it to say I am bored by my lunch and abandon the effort before I’m really satisfied. This will create problems later.

As promised, by about 4 I’ve got a problem: I am not hungry, particularly, but the feeling I get in my brain when I’ve forgotten to eat has settled in. The Plan does not allow extra meals; I’ve got to tough it out until dinner. The miasma recedes a bit by 6 or so, and I finally start getting things done; it’s a struggle to pull myself away to prepare Yet Another Meal. (It’s worth noting that we’re preparing all our meat on the grill these days, so either Mark or Daniel is preparing the meat. All I have to do is salad and some vegetables.) I’m tired (remember the out-of-practice yoga this morning?) and I’ve cleaned the kitchen twice so far today; I drag myself through the process.

This is a thing I remember from last time we made a lifestyle change, which –even though the hard-core routine we’re observing now is temporary–I already recognize we are engaged in. The first couple weeks are exhausting, and I can’t seem to get out of the kitchen. Then I’ll get in better shape and develop routines in the kitchen, and the whole thing will fall together. Right now I just want to go sit down.

At dinner I load up on protein, though I do eat my salad (first!) and my veggies. I should empty the dishwasher again, but instead I retreat to the study a while. We still have our evening walk to fit in, and we’ve got to take out the trash.

Man, I hope Alberto the talking scale has good news tomorrow morning.

*bff and homeopath





Sign of the times

November 8, 2009

I’m not sure how to spin this, but I do know it’s weird. And absolutely typical of how we live now.

Last night around 11, Mark, Rachael & I were hanging out watching one of our guilty pleasures on the DVR. The phone rang; it was Daniel, calling from his dorm at the University of Chicago. (Naturally my first thought, which is a sign of my age, is that it must be something Serious and Important because he was calling so late. But those are old attitudes; we’re all routinely up at that hour on weekends, and Dan know this, of course.)

But as it turns out the subject of his call was time-sensitive: he had just changed his relationship status on Facebook, and he didn’t want us to find out from Facebook rather than from him that he was, as it says on FB, In A Relationship.

He is a considerate soul, and that’s one of the many things I love about him. But I cannot escape the sheer bizarreness of living in times when your parents can Facebook Stalk you from 1500 miles away. I mean, isn’t having a little privacy the main reason to go so far away to college?  Distance has become immaterial.

I am very pleased for Dan, and for his girlfriend Sarah who I don’t yet know: there is a reason why college is where geeks go to spawn. That’s where geeks have to go to find people of analogous levels of geekiness. I am proud of their ability to balance having the kind of relationship geeks crave with the demands of the educational path they’ve chosen. And I’m glad to know about it, because the idea of their happiness makes me happy.

But I also appreciate that there is a natural interval between being ready for your friends to know about the relationship and being ready to make the announcement to your parents. And Facebook has just closed that gap.

I don’t know how to spin this. But I do know it’s weird.

Stupid novelist tricks

November 7, 2009

Well, as a famous sidekick once observed, I’m back.

After really screwing myself on my fall schedule (more on that anon. Yes, I know I said that already.) I am finally back in the study, where finishing my own novel is actually the hottest project in my queue. ‘Cause, yeah, back when I said I’d publish it next May, it seemed a totally attainable deadline. Meanwhile, I have (according to the word count thingy in Power Writer, my writing program) a little more than 88K words written. I know that number’s inflated; it includes a lot of planning and previous-draft material. A better gauge is that I am a bit more than halfway, in terms of distance my characters must travel, to the midpoint of the novel. If this one has four acts (and I think they do, but I also think the first and fourth acts are more in the stage-drama than the screenplay tradition: which is to say they’re meaty) then I am in the second half of act two.

What I know is that, if this book is going to press in May, I’ve got to finish it by early December. It’s going to be interesting.

The good news: this is not a first draft. I know the story. The bad news: the previous drafts are mostly not up to my current standard, and I’m writing every scene from scratch–and, in fact, most of the scenes I’m writing are wholly new.

During the golden period when all I did was work on my fiction-writing skills, I could produce about 7 pages per day. Now, of course, I’m also running a publishing house–and I believe I need to be producing at least 10.

“Nervous” is an understatement. In fact I’m waxing the cat right now.

Off I go, then. Wish me luck.

Taking a moment to appreciate the magic

November 2, 2009

I had a wonderful conversation with a reader this morning. He had heard about the free eBook giveaway for Ed Morris‘s There Was a Crooked Man and wanted to know how to lay hands on a print copy. (Amazon, which can never quite get the dates right, is amazingly late in getting the Trade Paper version of Crooked Man live on their site. Probably trying to make up for the time they listed one 6 weeks before its pub date.) We started by email, but soon he picked up the phone. And that was when I re-encountered the magic of what I do every day.

The reader (his name is Jason) made a point of telling me that he knows Ed Morris; they went to high school together, and he remembers how Ed was always The Creative One. I shared with Jason what an enormous kick I get out of working with Ed, and how quickly his star is rising. We took care of the business for which Jason had called and I went about my business.

A few minutes later, it struck me: what a magical thing it is that those of us in the book business do every day. Everything comes down to the readers in this business, of course; but they are not who we talk to, day in and day out. Our days are full of talking with other authors, with agents and members of the book trade, and press in-genre and out. And all those people spend their days on the business of books, too; it’s easy for all of us to think it’s normal.

But Jason gets it, where most of us don’t remember on a daily basis: this is magic. For people not in the book business, the wonder of books and authors is readily apparent, and all the rest of the stuff we think about every day is beyond imagining: because, of course, it’s not really relevant to the experience of reading, of opening up a book and having realities of which we’d never dreamed come to life in our heads.

Strange how all of us who are in this business came to it because we were in love with the magic. And yet as soon as we begin working in the business every day, we forget it’s magical at all.

It’s not just those of us in the book business who fail to see the magic in the things we do every day, of course. All of us think our daily lives are normal, while at least some element of what we do is like magic to people who see it only from the outside. All the blessings we enjoy every day, all the wonder in which we take part: they are our particular magics.

We can’t exist in a state of constant wonder over our own lives, of course; not and get anything done. But today, I’m glad I’ve been reminded of all the wonder in my daily life.

I make books. Every day. Surely I am one of the luckiest people on the planet.

On how to have a sane writing life

October 22, 2009

I’m not sure I’m qualified to say how to do it. I’m still working on it. Fortunately, Jeff Vandermeer has weighed in.

If I really knew how to have a sane writing life, I’d be blogging about writing much more. Fortunately, I have nearly come out the other end of Mercury Retrograde‘s surprising-even-to-me fall release adventures, and expect to be here, and in the study, much more soon. I have a novel of my own to finish, after all.

But more on that, and on how I screwed myself this year and what I learned from it, anon.

Everybody’s Doing It

January 1, 2009

What do we do on New Year’s Day besides wander around in a slightly hung-over state channeling Bono? Why, we make resolutions, of course. As a writer, I am required by law to set writing resolutions: you know, to write every day; to write MORE every day if I actually succeeded in the first goal last year (which, as you know, Gentle Reader, I didn’t). As a publisher, I should set resolutions having to do with doing more, bigger and better; that’s not going to happen, either. I will do more, bigger and better; I am too driven to do otherwise. And that’s one of the primary problems I face as a writer.

My goals for this year have to do with balance: balancing the two sides of my professional life rather than allowing all the things on my publishing to-do list to push me out of the study; keeping enough sanity in my weeks to allow things like yoga, eating right, taking walks and spending time with my special people; thinking about my fiction like a writer while I’m developing the work, and only then putting on my publisher’s hat; not letting any one project derail everything else; accepting that my resources are far outstripped by my vision, and that writing and publishing comprise a marathon, not a sprint.

In a year in which we will all continue to redefine prosperity, it seems senseless to set goals regarding productivity. This year I will concentrate on quality: not just in my work, but in everything I do. This will be the year I rip out a flawed chapter or subplot and rebuild it rather than worrying about self-imposed deadlines, the year I choose not to flay myself over mistakes or perceived imperfections but simply extract the lessons learned and move on. This year will be a road trip in the direction of goals: we’ll arrive, but the exact time of arrival is impossible to predict to the minute, and detours may arise without warning. I will strive to enjoy and learn from them all.

But I’m not making any resolutions.

Waxing the cat

October 28, 2008

I’m doing it right now. I’m supposed to be writing this morning, but first I simply had to pop over to Facebook to see what’s happening in my little universe, and there was a post for Russ’s periodic stint on the group blog “A Good Blog is Hard to Find”. About cat waxing.

Talk about synchonicity. I think I need to write about waxing the cat this morning.

What, some of the sane people who have mistakenly wandered here ask, is waxing the cat? How could you wax the cat? Wouldn’t the cat object? And what would be the point?

The answers, of course, are:
(a) waxing the cat is what you do when you’re supposed to be writing but are running out of good excuses why you aren’t. “I had meant to write this morning, but the sink was full of dirty dishes, the TiVo was 99% full, and I simply had to wax the cat.”
(b) If you try to wax a real cat, it’s hard. You need protective gear and some sort of cat-restraining device. Possibly one involving duck tape. Or goose tape. Whichever you can find.
(c) Yes, the cat will object. Violently. Art doesn’t come without cost.
(d) Nothing whatsoever. And that is the point.

Cat waxing is about coping with authorial insecurity. If you can’t find the time to write, you can’t be blamed for being a hack. You can die secure in the knowledge of your blazing talent, which simply never had time to be realized.

Some of us are better at this than others. I’m freaking AWESOME.

Sadly, this is a far less important accomplishment than finishing the freaking novel. I’m going back to the study…just as soon as I finish commenting on Russ’s blog post.