We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

the-more-i-ignore-him

Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

A couple of weeks ago, I co-presented a stimulating session entitled “How to Write a Cover Letter that isn’t Boring”* as part of a day-long marketing boot camp. When the program organizers requested that I discuss “writing tools and resources” as part of the presentation, I got to thinking. What are a few of my favorite things? And since I’m a giver (not unlike Oprah minus the $10,000 refrigerators and $500 face cream), I will share them with you here.

Wordle.net (free) Wordle creates a visual representation of the most used words in your text. Businesses often use this as a tool to delve deeper into a client’s vision and mission statements, assuming that the most often used words are of particular value to the company. But I use Wordle to determine which words I use too often. For instance, I was horrified to find that “like”, “just” and “little” are among the most common words in my novel. There is no excuse for such lazy writing. I did a search for each instance and weighed out the necessity of each word in context. Of course, now that I’ve cut back on those pesky qualifier words, I may find something even worse lurking around the corner.

Small Legends Wordle

Like? Just? Little? Back? WTF??

 

Hemingwayapp.com (free) I use the Hemingway App more often for business than creative writing, but it is handy for both. Simply paste your text into the site and receive a color-coded critique to rival that of your high school English teacher. The app highlights sentences that are difficult to read, use passive voice, or include the most dreaded of all writing faux pas, the adverb. It also determines the grade level for overall readability. The app does not suggest how to “fix” these issues, but leaves it up to the writer to make a judgment call. After all, we need not all write like Hemingway.

Hemingwayap

What’s so bad about adverbs anyway? And so what if my sentences are hard to read? Maybe I don’t want anyone at less than an eighth grade reading level to read my book! Harumph!

 

Visualthesaurus.com (paid but trial subscription available) Visual Thesaurus is a nifty tool that creates interactive word maps, building off of a root word to offer related words and meanings. The sidebar provides definitions by: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. While the tool doesn’t perform miracles beyond those of a regular thesaurus, the interface is easy to use and fun for us word nerds.

Visualthesaurus

I’m surprised it doesn’t branch to “procrastinating” or “pulling out ones own hair”.

 


* A rather boring title that I promptly subtitled “Always Judge a Proposal by its Cover Letter”. Total marketing nerd humor.

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Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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And Then There Were Five

I recently wrote about the impending demise of my writers’ group, at least in its current form. One guy was mad at another guy, and then a third guy jumped on board, and suddenly the rest of us had to pick sides. Awkward, to say the least. But I wasn’t prepared for how much this discord would affect me. I had a weight in my chest and unease in my belly not dissimilar to that feeling you get when you know you’re about to be dumped, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Dread.

Let me rewind a bit.

The backstory: Gus emailed a few members of the group the previous week, asking if we shared his view that the group’s founder, Eric, had been increasingly negative and unhelpful in his critiques. He also missed a fair amount of meetings. While I didn’t have a problem with him, others did. A few more email exchanges, and Gus and another member Jake decided to start their own group. Anyone who wanted to come was welcome. These two guys in particular have provided me with a lot of valuable feedback over the last two years, so I decided to go with them.

Gus’ and Jake’s plan was to wait until the end of our next meeting to tell Eric they were leaving, and that it was likely others would go with them. When the time came, I skedaddled out of there. I wanted no part of that conversation. I was certain Eric had no idea what was coming at him, and would probably be shocked and upset. The situation reminded me of the cruelty of middle school: one day someone is your best friend and the next, she isn’t speaking to you. And you have no idea why.

(Shudder.)

After the meeting, Gus emailed everyone to apologize for his part in the drama and to reaffirm his hope that we would join in the new group. I responded that I would, as did a couple of others.

The next morning, I received the email from Eric explaining his side of the story. It was clear that he was indeed surprised by Gus’ and Jake’s departure, and felt the need to defend himself against their assertions. The uneasy feeling in my gut deepened as he made his case for why the rest of us should remain in his group, and touted his solid track record of recruiting new members. The clincher was his comment that yes, he does often miss meetings due to his travel schedule and therefore he “would need a co-facilitator that would help me run the group, preferably Lisa, if she decides to stay.”

My stomach took another turn.

In response, I expressed my regret at having to choose a side and wished Eric well. I hadn’t instigated any of this, yet I felt terrible for abandoning him. I felt even worse when several days later, the one member who had yet to pick a side decided to stay with Eric. He couldn’t bear to be yet another person to jump ship. While I was crushed to lose him – he’s writing a great novel and I’ve always valued his critiques – I understood his decision and wondered if I shouldn’t have made the same one. But at the end of the day, I joined the group to improve my writing, not because I felt sorry for someone.

macarons

Never underestimate the healing power of delicious.

So the eight members are now five and three. I approached the first meeting of the newly formed five with some trepidation, worried that I wouldn’t be able to shake my bad feelings, that the group was now ruined for me. But then Gus said a heartfelt thanks for our support during this uncomfortable time and gave each of us a box of the loveliest macarons from his favorite bakery to show his appreciation. And I knew everything was going to be okay.

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Breaking Up the Band

It happens all the time in rock bands: one member starts turning up late for shows, blackout drinking every night of the week, and/or just being a belligerent asshole. If this member is, say, the bassist or the drummer, the rest of the band will probably kick him out and release a statement wishing him a successful stint in rehab.

But what if the problem child is the band’s founder?

The founder of my writers’ group is getting on other members’ nerves, and one in particular – I will call him Gus – who emailed me last week to ask about my feelings on the matter. Have I noticed our founder’s shift in attitude of late? Have I noticed that his critiques are increasingly condescending and mean-spirited?

In truth, I have not. He can be blunt sometimes, but it hasn’t bothered me thus far. What I have noticed is that our founder – I’ll call him Eric – takes a heck of a lot of long vacations, which results in sporadic attendance on his part. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I was a short story writer, but when it comes to critiquing a novel, it’s difficult to provide valuable feedback on chapter 20 when you’ve missed everything after chapter 5.

breakup-heart.jpgGus sited a few recent examples of Eric’s bad behavior and negative critiques, one of which had bordered on accusing Gus of stealing story ideas from other writers. Gus said he had already spoken to a couple other members, and they were getting fed up too.

I took a diplomatic approach and suggested that Eric may not be aware of his behavior, and perhaps a calm and rationale conversation would set him right. But for Gus, it was too late for diplomatic measures. He had made up his mind. He would leave the group.

I am not one for indulging unnecessary drama, and I did wonder if Gus wasn’t being a little oversensitive. But then another member, Jake – who is as levelheaded as they come – said that he agreed with Gus and would leave with him. As he said, “Writing is hard enough without people routinely telling you your output sucks.”

During my time in the group, Jake and Gus have consistently attended meetings and have consistently delivered valuable feedback. I may not have any particular issue with Eric, but majority rules. If they go, I go with them.

So we’re breaking up the band. Tonight at the end of our meeting, Gus and Jake will take Eric aside and tell him they are leaving the group. And that other members plan to come with them.

I don’t particularly like the middle school “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” vibe to this approach, but Gus and Jake are convinced he will not leave on his own. So we will dissolve and reform as a kinder, gentler version of our group, one that doesn’t involve Eric.

But make no mistake, this sends a strong message to the other members: misbehave and we will shut you down.

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The Jury is Out

Jury duty is a little like dating. You want a date to go well, but if it doesn’t, you want it to go terribly wrong so at least you have a good story to tell your friends. The “meh” dates are zero net gain. No love connection, no horror stories. You can only hope that the food is decent.

I had to report for jury duty last week. I’ve been summoned probably fifteen times in my life, had to show up five or six of them, and served twice. I am all for the “judged by a panel of ones’ peers” philosophy, however it doesn’t seem fair that some of those peers are called every February like clockwork. But I digress. 

INO PARKING took an Uber to the courthouse, and it seemed deliciously ominous when the driver dropped me off beside a street sign that stated: “No Parking: Homicide Only.” I had been summoned to criminal court. Would I be placed on an assault case? Armed robbery? Now it seemed that murder was a real option.

At 9 am, I filed into the jury assembly room and pulled out my laptop, prepared to document every gripping moment, every compelling character. But most of my fellow perspective jurors looked tired or bored. Resigned. They played games on their phones or typed away on their laptops. One or two of them pulled out real paperback books or magazines. A young woman in a hoodie closed her eyes and rested her head on the arm of her chair. A thin man with graying hair and a Where’s Waldo striped shirt walked the perimeter of the room, his hands wedged into the pockets of his bright red trousers.

We were all waiting for something to happen.

I didn’t want to serve. Sitting in that assembly room was disrupting my life. I had deadlines at work. I had plans in the evenings that I would have to cancel so that I could meet my deadlines at work.

I also kind of wanted to serve. How many movies and TV shows have I watched about crime and the justice system? I’ve been binging on The Killing for the last several weeks, trying to unravel who really killed Rosie Larsen. I have willingly handed over my free time on countless occasions for make believe crimes, and now here was the real life experience right before me.

We waited around for a while, watched the standard issue PSA video about what it means to serve on a jury, and then waited some more. At 10:30, the clerk announced that we were all free to go, that we had fulfilled our service for the year. I figured the defendant had weighed out his or her chances and took a plea deal.

I headed back to work, feeling disappointed. As storytellers, writers are always looking for the good parts, the key elements, and to trim out the fat. But much of life is fat. And my jury duty experience wasn’t really worth writing about.

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Even The Meanest Human Beings in the World Need Books

My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.

I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?

rude-tweenFor weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted. 

Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.

But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.

While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.

My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since.  Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?

And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.

 


 

The smoke was so thick that Molly pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. She looked over at Lauren to see that she had done the same. They squinted at one another, their eyes burning from the smoke, but they didn’t stop running, even when they heard the sirens coming up behind them. First the fire truck then the engine sped past them, and they ran even faster into the gray haze. By the time they’d covered the three additional blocks to Molly’s street, the firefighters were already directing thick streams of water at the burning house.

“It’s Mrs. O’Reilly’s house!” Molly called out, at once excited and relieved. Her own home was safe. For now.

“Do you think it’ll catch the other houses on fire too?” Lauren asked through her t-shirt.

Molly’s was four houses over from Mrs. O’Reilly’s, and it seemed unlikely that the flames would travel that far, but Molly still felt a pit of worry in her stomach. What if the firefighters weren’t able to contain the fire? What if it spread and ate up every house on the block? Everything that she had known her whole life would be gone, just like that.

It was the staggering figure of Mrs. O’Reilly herself that snapped Molly out of these thoughts. Mrs. O’Reilly was dressed in the same blue housecoat she’d worn as long as Molly could remember, but she looked madder than Molly had ever seen her before. Her hair was wild, and singed in places. Her face and neck were streaked with soot, and one of her bare feet was bleeding. Molly wondered if she’d barely made it out of the house alive.

Mrs. O’Reilly yelled something toward the house but her words were swallowed up by all of the commotion. Molly inched closer, cupping her ear and listening hard. Then she heard it.

“Burn! Let it burn!” Mrs. O’Reilly shouted, but the firefighters weren’t paying any attention to her. Until she rushed toward the burning building, and then one of the firefighters blocked her path, but she fought against him, still shouting. It took two firefighters to hold her back, and then two police officers took over, forcing her into the back of a patrol car. She fought them the whole way.

Lauren’s eyes were wide despite the smoke. “I think she’s lost her marbles.”

“I don’t think she had many left to begin with,” Molly said. Mrs. O’Reilly had always been odd and unfriendly, and without being told Molly knew it was best to keep clear of her. Of all the houses on their block, Mrs. O’Reilly’s was the only one Molly had never set foot in.

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Cats and the Art of Appreciating What You Have Before It Is Gone

I have fought and won a difficult battle over the last couple of weeks: I have resisted the temptation to add to the Internet slush pile of self-reflective odes to David Bowie’s creative genius, and Alan Rickman’s acting talent and purring voice. Instead I wrote a tribute to someone who is still very much alive: my cat.

Yes, my cat.

My cat, Buddy, will be 16 years old in May. His back legs don’t work as well these days, and he’s developed the unfortunate habit of peeing on any floor-bound item that vaguely resembles fabric. He is on twice daily pain medication and special food. He is an old man, and his body and mind are showing the symptoms.

Buddy Kitten

About 3 months old and all ears.

He was nine weeks old and fit in the palm of my hand when I brought him home. I was worried that my older cat would squash him, but the very first time they came face to face, Buddy leapt onto her back and started chewing on her head. She didn’t speak to me for weeks.

Buddy jumped up onto the table and counter tops, crawled up my legs, flung himself onto my shoulders, and ran across my head in the middle of the night. He shredded my plants and gnawed off the heads of flowers. “Why must you destroy everything that is beautiful?” I exclaimed, but he was too busy climbing the screen door to listen.

I’d never had a kitten before and asked a friend if Buddy’s insane energy level was normal. He said, “That’s the thing about kittens: they’re really fun. But they’re really fun all the damn time.”

I lived near a busy street and intended for Buddy to be an indoor cat. But he had other ideas. One night, he slipped out through an accidentally unlatched door. I spent hours walking through the neighborhood, calling his name and trying not to picture him hit by a car, dead in a ditch. When he returned the next day, he was covered in dirt and cobwebs but clearly thrilled by his experience. After that, I understood that it is the cat and not the owner that decides whether he’s indoor or outdoor.

When Buddy was almost two years old, we moved to a hillside apartment surrounded by mature trees and dense bushes that housed a multitude of suburban wildlife. This is where Buddy perfected the art of evisceration. When I spotted the first flailing, disembodied lizard tail on the living room floor, I screamed like a little girl. Within a couple of months, Buddy had caught on to the lizards’ trick and I was escorting disgruntled tailless lizards out of my apartment on a daily basis. Then came the mice, the birds, the snakes, the occasional large insect. I recognized the sickly sweet smell of death the moment I walked through my front door, it was just a matter of finding the body. The vision of the dead mole tucked up into my comforter still haunts me to this day. I scooped them all into the Dustpan of Death and tossed them out into the bushes.

One time, Buddy watched with disdain as I discarded a mouse he’d left on the ledge above my bed. The next morning, the mouse’s head was perched on my doormat.

Buddy honed his surgical skills and soon left not bodies but body parts behind. Intestines. Hearts. Feet. At least they were easier to clean up.

BuddyThere was the time he got stuck up in a redwood tree for eight hours. The time he was locked in my neighbor’s shed for two days. The times he came home with rips in his ears and one of his toes hanging off. The time…

My cat was a psychopathic murderer who was always getting into trouble. But there was no doubting his affection for me. When he wasn’t busy destroying the natural world, he loved nothing more than to roll around on my lap and have his head scratched. I started to ever-so-slightly understand how the parents of serial killers must feel. “I know he does terrible things, but really he’s such a sweet boy when he’s at home with me.”

The murders stopped six years later when we left the quiet suburbs for Oakland. Although we moved to a residential street, there are not nearly as many critters hiding out in the decorative shrubbery around my building. And while Buddy continued to prowl around the neighborhood on a daily basis, his territory had shrunk considerably and he started spending more time indoors with me, indulging in the comfort of the couch. At nine years old, he was finally starting to settle down. By the age of eleven, he had transformed from the frisky kitten that couldn’t sit still if a butterfly flapped its wings on the other side of the world into a lazy lap cat.

He is sitting on my lap as I write this, butting his hard little head into my bicep.

A little over a year ago, he had a spinal aneurysm and couldn’t use his back legs. He also lost control of his bladder. I washed the caked litter and urine and feces from his butt and legs, and held him and fed him salmon and did everything I could think of to make his last days more comfortable. Within a week, he regained some use of his legs, but they would never be the same. He can no longer get up onto the couch by himself, or the bed. He can no longer go outside.

IMG_1615Sometimes he meows all night for no reason. Sometimes when I’m not giving him the attention he wants, he taunts the dog so that she’ll growl at him and I have to step in. About six months ago, he stopped using his litter box. I’ve thrown away one destroyed area rug and put another in storage, along with all bath and floor mats.

He peed on my Hello Kitty slippers.

But despite all of his (our) suffering and his loss of independence, he is still happy to curl up in my lap and have his head scratched.

A few weeks ago, late on New Years’ Eve – I looked around at my slumbering cat, dog, and boyfriend – and I made this wish: I hope we are all still together this time next year.

This is love.

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So Now What?

Over the holiday break, I finished the third draft of my novel. And by “finished”, I mean forced myself to turn off the computer and walk away. This week, I will distribute the manuscript to my beta readers, who will then spend the next six to eight weeks reading it and preparing responses that I desperately hope will be lovely pairings of accolades and useful notes for improvement.

And in the meantime, I will spend my free time doing…what?

drumming-fingers

My nails have never looked this good.

Possible answers include: finish watching Game of Thrones, start watching Mad Men, crack open one of the unread novels piled up on my nightstand, put away the Christmas decorations, repaint the hallway, do more yoga, plan a vacation, and clean out my closets. And so many others.

I can also use this opportunity to…write something else. For instance, that essay about the all genders bathroom sign. Or about my hoarder former housemate. Or the really funny story about the time I saw the guy who  broke my 18-year-old heart (Spoiler Alert!) making balloon animals at Ghiradeli Square. Or I could begin to revise the forsaken first draft ‘tween novel I cranked out and set aside two years ago.

Or I can pick a few items from each list. Where to begin…

(As I have just now finished writing this blog post, I will reward myself with the new episode of Downton Abbey. Cheerio!)

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To Blog or Not to Blog

“I thought you were going to try to get that piece published,” a writer friend said to me. This was just about a year ago, and I had recently posted a work-in-progress — a personal essay about the stigma surrounding public displays of emotion — on my blog. My intention was to continue to work on the piece until it was ready to submit to online literary journals. As far as I was concerned, publishing it “as is” on my blog was a kind of dress rehearsal.

But my friend set me straight at once. “Never post anything on your blog if there is a chance you’ll want to publish it,” she said, exasperated by my naiveté. She explained that most journals don’t accept submissions that have been published elsewhere, even in part. And that there is no point in lying about it since editors Google every piece prior to publication; if they find you out, you’ll be blacklisted forever.

I hopped right onto the Internet and scanned through the submission rules of several journals. They all said essentially the same thing: We accept only original material; we cannot publish anything that has appeared elsewhere, even if it’s just on your personal blog.

Keys

Not only did I feel like an idiot, I was disappointed that I had already blown my chances of publishing my essay before I’d even finished writing it. Luckily, I later found an online journal that didn’t object to its debut on my blog. But I’d learned an important lesson.

Since then, as I ponder the theme of my next post, I am faced with the difficult task of determining which topics are a) interesting enough for my blog, but b) not so interesting that I may want to submit them for publication elsewhere. To put it crudely, I must be careful not to shoot my wad.

This here blog post was going to be about the “all genders” bathroom sign I saw in the San Diego airport and the power of words. But since I may want to publish an essay about this topic in the future, instead I am blogging about the trials and tribulations of blogging.

See, I’m learning.