Overcoming Obstacles

One of the best ways to learn a new language is by plopping yourself into a foreign land where you have no choice but to figure out how to ask for food, bathrooms, and shelter. (If you think you’re going to use Rosetta Stone, be prepared for a thousand hours at your computer–or failure).

I’m using that same logic to learn how to write in “less than ideal” conditions.

At home I have a writing nook, a small room that’s all mine. My room, mind you, doesn’t have a door, but my hubby and I are empty-nesters, and our home is generally pretty quiet. (Word to the wise: If your partner is a TV-lover like mine, buy him/her wireless TV headphones. Best $50 bucks I’ve ever spent!) Point being, of course, is that I have the ideal writing conditions; it’s quiet, focused, and organized.

The correlation is that I have a mental block about reaching my MDWR (minimum daily writing requirement) if my space and time frame isn’t ideal. I generally won’t even try to write unless I can isolate myself from noise and distractions.

Additionally, I have ADHD. I used to be ashamed to admit this, but I now hope to help others learn from my experiences, help them master this disorder and improve their lives as I have. This is an extra barrier to getting into my “flow” in order to be creative.

So… when my husband and I decided to take a road trip from Iowa to California, I knew I had to think this through before I pulled my swimsuit out of my dresser.

Writing for me isn’t optional. Writing for me is like running for, well, runners. If I don’t write (or work on my writing career in some fashion) everyday, I get quite cranky. Something about writing keeps me grounded and sane. I have an intense passion to be published, and I knew taking a road trip wasn’t going to get me a book deal unless I found away to write under less than ideal conditions like (gasp!) country music on the radio. (If I wasn’t going to chat with my husband, the least I could do was let him pick the radio station.)

Now, I have heard that there are people who can write well amidst chaos (though I have yet to meet one, so it could be an urban myth). And I could site a thousand examples of others who’ve overcome worse hardships than the Dolly Parton Torture Test. But I figured if others could do it, so could I.

I made a vow to break my dependence on Ideal Conditions.

A recent study (sorry, I can’t remember who or where), said that our world has become so crazy with TV and the Internet that human attention spans have diminished over the past few decades. Plus, as the mother of four boys, I once had to train myself to pay attention to every noise, not block them out. But if the above is true, then a determined woman should be able to train herself to improve her concentration, right? It’s mind over matter, and you all know by now that I am a very persistent when it comes to achieving goals.

As I write this, it’s only Day 4 of our trip, so it’s too early to say how successful I will feel by the time we arrive at our destination in California. I have gotten a little writing done so far—including this blog post—but I realized that my husband and I chose to drive in order to see the country and visit family, so gluing my nose to my laptop was defeating the purpose of our trip. Western Oklahoma, however, did prove to be a fair time to take my regular dose of Adderall and practice blocking out distracting noises.

Above all, though, there is one thing that works for me every time: When my mind starts to wander, I picture my book propped up on the front table of a Barnes & Noble and tap out another decent sentence.

Now, please, if you have suggestions that can help me, I would really like to know: What works for you?

How To Be An Optimist

There’s a saying: We make plans; God laughs.

Whether or not you believe in God, truth of the matter is that we’re not in control of our lives. If you think you are, just wait. One day you’ll see what I’m talking about. Certainly we have to make plans and decisions to tackle day-to-day life, but occasionally the gods/stars/planets/marshmallows fall out of line and all goes astray. Marshmallows? Ok, who knows what has to align, but how you respond to unfortunate situations is what really matters.

It is possible that once or twice in mylifetime I might have been accused of being a pessimist. Only in the last few years (under the loving tutelage of my husband) have I learned how to turn limes into margaritas. In the past three years, we have spent about six months in Costa Rica. In the past few weeks, I have had several chances to whip up a pitcher of optimism.

Let me offer you a taste test:

1) If you hate tarantulas, but happen to find a fine example of one in your bathroom when you are home alone, killing it with a broom handle will give you an enormous sense of accomplishment.
2) If you have trouble digesting gluten, you will find that a caveman’s diet (meat and fruits and vegetables) is very healthy. Man lived like this for thousands of years–yes, without pizza or beer.
3) If you create anything (e.g., a novel) on a computer, and said computer gets stolen, you will learn the absolute necessity of backing up your work.
4) If said thieves steal ALL your electronics, but spare your life and limbs, you are one lucky sonofabitch.
5) Once said thieves have fractured your sense of goodness in the world, you will learn to be safer and smarter. In fact, you will learn to hire a security guard with a shotgun.
6) If you love, love, love to sit quietly in the morning, sipping amazingly delicious coffee while over looking the Pacific Ocean, but said security guard wants to tell you all about his life and his country-in Spanish–because he has spent the last 12 hours walking the perimeter of your villa while you watched David Letterman in subtitles and got eight refreshing hours of sleep, then you will learn that your guard might be the best Spanish teacher you will ever have.
7) If you wake up one morning to the smell of smoke from the wildfires approaching your villa, you will learn how the infrastructure of a country such as Costa Rica actually works: Do it yourself, and help your neighbors. What did you think the damn garden hoses were for anyway?
And lastly,
8 ) If you think that The Good Life involves a villa, an ocean, tropical weather, and tequila, you will learn that there’s no place like home. AND, all of the above can be excellent material for your next novel.

Adios, Costa Rica.

The Most Important Thing of All

It’s easy, fun, smart to post happy news, positive outlooks, positive outcomes.
It’s difficult to post bad news.

But sometimes, shit happens.

My husband and I just returned home after five weeks in Costa Rica, five out of our planned eleven weeks. Our home was robbed while we were there, asleep. A home invasion.

We are safe, and we know that’s the most important thing of all, but I can truly say we were shaken to the core. The bad guys, “los hombres malos,” came into our bedroom and stole our iPads from our beside tables. Inches from our faces.

I wrote about it. I had to. The feelings, emotions, fear, they haven’t let go. Even now, almost a week later, as I type this, my throat tightens and my eyes well with tears because I realize how close I was to never coming home, never talking to my children again, never saying “I love you” again, to anyone. You may find this melodramatic, unless you’ve been violated or felt absolutely vulnerable to evil. Then you might remember how this feels.

Los Hombres Malos

Sound asleep, wake to a noise, the unmistakeable noise, of a person, an unknown person, 
a bad person, close.
“There’s someone in our kitchen.”
Try to wake up, stumble to the door, turn on a light, face to face with a masked man.
Shouting, anger, the fear and primal rage of two grown men—
one fueled to survive, the other to save his wife.
Protect ourselves; hide; find a weapon. 
Now wait. Let them leave.
Long enough? No, wait. Wait. Okay, ready? Ready.
Quiet preparation, caution, caution, exploration.
Are they gone? Gone?
Are we sure?
Grab shoes, phones, keys—now get out! Call the police. 
What? What’s that? Don’t you speak any English?
Anger, fear, frustration—unleashed.
Slowly, finally, help.
A foreign country, a foreign language, a foreign system.
A helpless, total realization of vulnerability.
Then the visions.
They were standing over us, over me, in the dark, while we slept.
Pillows, fluffy and white, and capable of death.
Or a knife, or a gloved hand against my throat.
Or worse.
All for an iPad, or two.
Then a guard, a man, another strange man, with a gun.
This one’s on our side. Right?
Try to sleep, in the dark, in the same bed.
A noise. A branch in the wind? A bird?
No more sleep.
Take an inventory, make a list. What’s missing?
This, that, those too.
Counting. Still counting. And more—how bizarre… soap?
But nothing rivals our peace of mind. It’s gone. All gone.
Moving on. Chopping vegetables while detectives roam the house, 
dusting for fingerprints, black dust.
Okay. We’re okay. We can do this. We can replace it all.
All except a sense of peace.
We can stay. Limp along. Make changes.
No. Why?
We’re better than this. We don’t have to endure.
This isn’t normal. This wasn’t our fault. We did everything right.
We have options. We’re in charge.
Not los hombres malos.
We are safe. We are smart. We are in charge.
We’re going home. We live in the United States. We’re okay.
But, what if?
What if panic, instinct, fear, surprise, madness took over?
What if “something went wrong”, “that wasn’t supposed to happen”?
Feel your neck.
Imagine someone else feeling your neck.
With their hands. With their knife.
Feel your heart.
Feel it stop.
Close your eyes.
Never open them.

Only The Dates Have Been Changed

Costa Rica, Year 3, Day 1: It’s like we never left, only more so.

I’ve been reading The Best American Travel Stories 2011, edited by one of my favorite authors, Sloane Crosley. In her introduction essay, she states that she never wants to go back to the same place twice because the world is so big and wonderful. I used to agree with her, and in many ways I still do. In a previous life (about 15 years ago, I suppose) I spent 10 days on the island of Mustique. Mystical, to be sure. Ah, Basil and his friends (rock stars, clothing designers, European royalty, entrepreneurs and trust fund babies). What’s not to like? The beaches, the views, the restaurants. Ok, there was only one restaurant, but it was fabulous—a lively lobster once scampered across the dining room floor trying to escape his devilishly hot fate—heaven on earth for us humans. And here is where Ms. Crosley’s point is valid: my return trip the following year had none of the awe and fascination. I went back hoping to repeat the wonderment. Alas, it was, “Oh, yeah, I remember this beach.”
But this spot in Costa Rica where we (my hubby and I) have found… We love it more each year. We’ve met people here, found the best places to eat and buy good meat (organic beef and pork from Nicaragua), my Spanish has greatly improved, and I am over the culture shock that overwhelmed me on my first visit. But I post this post as a marker, taking my emotional temperature, if you will, so I can compare how I feel about it at the end of our trip.
Here’s my Costa Rican recap:
First trip to CR: 1 Week in Tamarindo: Fabulous. Me, hubby, 4 sons. Great time, great food, great town, great house though it didn’t have an ocean view.
Second trip to CR: 1 month near Coco Beach: Not so fabulous. Hubby and I land after dark; by the time we got our rental car and found our house, I was depleted of all positive emotions. An afternoon wildfire had scorched the hilltop just below our house, but our host insisted they’d hosed everything down so we’d be fine. The house was in disrepair, though the ants and geckos didn’t seem to mind. The tarantulas loved our pool, but they can’t swim so it wasn’t that scary to scoop them out in the mornings. But by Week 3, when 5 (grown) kids arrived, I had adjusted and relearned to sleep at night out of pure exhaustion from all the local adventures we mastered. This is how I felt about it at the time!
Then we moved to another house for 1 month: Ah, much better. Clean, airtight, no bugs inside. Wonderful. Enjoyment! A writer’s dream. Lovely. Until our final night here. That night, sound asleep, pure bliss, and then BANG! Ouch! OMFingG! My husband was stung by a scorpion who had crawled into our bed! After we killed it, we wondered if it had a nest of friends nearby…
Year 2: Back to the Scorpion house. (yes, I agreed to this… hey, it wasn’t me who got stung!). (We did have 10 scorpions in the house during our stay, but no stings. They were mostly dead due to perimeter fumigation by the time they snuck into middle of the rooms.) This year, no kids, no adventures, only peace, quiet, calm, happiness, and writing: 45,000 words on my “third” novel, The King of Liars. I also did a lot of blogging about our time here (See January 2011 archives). Some of it’s worth reading. Most of the last 20 or so entries relay our adventures. (Note: This link is to my “old” blog via Apple. I have since moved my blog to where you are reading now.)
Year 3: Now here I sit, in the Scorpion house again, in my “writing studio over looking the Pacific Ocean.” I wonder what lies ahead for us over the next 11 weeks. We’ll have most of our kids visiting for parts of 3 separate weeks. With any luck, our children will outnumber the scorpions, although that still leaves room for too many scorpions! This year, I’m working on a new novel—my “breakout” novel? Yes, this is the one!—A Reasonable Price. I’m at 35,000 words now (125 pages), but no telling how many of those I’ll scrap in the next 11 weeks. My current friends—I mean, characters—have different names from last year, but my intensity persists.
So, friends, I hope to entertain and inform you in the coming months. I’d love questions or comments from you along the way so don’t be shy. Take care and I’ll write more soon! Hasta luega!

A Reflection for Sloane Crosley

I’ve recently begun reading The Best American Travel Writing, 2011, edited by Sloane Crosley, whose work I adore. She wrote, among other things, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of essays that I have often referenced for its humor and poignancy. I follow her on Twitter, and I always read anything I run across with her name on it. This post is in no way a criticism of her; this is my thirst for literary discussion in blog format. Oh how I would love to have a cup of coffee with Ms. Crosley and talk about this (and hope that she would start by saying, “Oh, please, call me Sloane.”)

I’m about one third into the Travel the stories so far, but I keep coming back to something Ms. Crosley said in her introduction. In her explanation of her selection process, whittling hundreds of stories down to the 18 that made it into this year’s book, she talks briefly about her own travels. Here I quote:
“As we grow up, most real experience is increasingly hindered by two factors. One is the infamous prism of our own perspective (the real terrain of exploration is seldom external). I would argue that the second, equally intuitive but less discussed obstacle has to do with a kind of virginity of the mind. We can only learn something—I mean really be introduced to it—once… I will say now that I’ve been to Puerto Rico three times in my life and won’t be returning. Because Puerto Rico is a terrible place? Well, it ain’t no Bali, but no, that’s not why. It’s because of the other 30 percent of the planet Earth covered in landmass. I have the one life and the one brain to match it, and I’d rather not waste either on knowing a foreign locale like the back of my hand unless the front of my hand is singing a lease there.” 
(Ms. Crosley goes on to add a few disclaimers to clarify.)
In any case, here is my thought: What about getting past the “wow factor” to experience the authenticity of a foreign locale? How can someone from the Midwest (or anywhere for that matter) not be overwhelmed on their first visit to the ocean, waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, cocktails, and everything else that people seek out on trips to vacation locations? If vacation time is limited, of course one wants to see the highlights. But, I would argue, to really get to know the best of any place, one either needs to know a local, or spend enough time there (in one trip or multiple trips) to get past the awe of salmon-colored sunsets, warm, white-sand beaches, jagged, snow-capped mountain tops, and the 4-star restaurants with an English-speaking waitstaff, to find the family-run “restaurants” where the locals go for breakfast, find the hidden waterfalls, and meet the native with the juiciest mangoes on the beach.
Over the years, I have known many people who have “vacation homes” around the world, and I have said repeatedly that I never wanted to own a second home for exactly the same reason that Ms. Crosley gave above. Why would anyone want to limit herself to one (primary) vacation spot? Once a person owns a vacation home, they’re often either financially or “common-sensically” bound to spend the bulk of their time there over traveling to new places.
However, I can say from experience that my travel experience has been deepened by leagues because we’ve gone back repeatedly to one location. I’ve been lucky enough to spend 19 weeks in Costa Rica in the past two years, and my husband and I are about to head back there for an additional 11 weeks.
The first time I went to Costa Rica I was a “victim” of culture shock . (The scorpions in our house were difficult to get used to.) The second time I went to Costa Rica, I was enthralled by the beauty of the ocean, the volcanoes, the zip-lining and hiking through the rain forests. It wasn’t until the end of our last trip that we began to venture down gravel roads (on purpose), talk (in broken Spanish) to the locals, eat food from roadside vendors, and explore beaches off the “monkey roads” instead of those listed in the Lonely Planet Guide Books.
Now, whether or not one likes scorpions, the first visit to a new location (generally, I would think for a week at a time, maybe two) is often dominated by the wow factor; only upon additional or extended trips can one really get to know a place—and discover a different sort of “wow.”

A Writer’s Silver Platter

When is the last time you counted your blessings? Is it possible to prioritize them?

Health might be the most important, neck and neck with family; food is a necessity, as is financial security; intelligence cannot be minimized or taken for granted—and with that, education; and don’t forget love. No, this is not an impostor sitting in for Karolyn… who only a few short years ago might have mentioned new black pumps, Prada purses and pearls. Now all I want is to be published—and to retain the aforementioned blessings.

Why do I not have a whiskey in my hand?

As I type this, I’m sitting in a beautiful Colorado home, where my husband and I will spend the next week. He’ll be drinking coffee and reading. I’ll be transcribing pages and pages of notes I took last week when we were lucky enough to spend the week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on my research trip for my current novel… the one I wrote while we spent the winter in Costa Rica.

Please forgive me here, I’m not bragging. This admission scares the shit out of me.

I spent eight years as an art dealer with an evermore lucrative art gallery (i.e. it started out paying me zero, and ended up paying me a monthly pittance). When the moment came to re-up my lease or close, I closed it so we could travel and I could begin writing. Now I’m back to being paid zero.

The scary part is that I have every opportunity and every bit of the responsibility. I have been given the Writer’s Silver Platter: a laptop, a location, loving support and lots and lots of quiet time. When I publish, I will have so many people to thank: my husband for his unending support, my parents for my brain and their encouragement, my children for growing up and leaving the nest, and countless friends who’ve given me so much encouragement and advice (specifically my former artists and Twitter friends who will not let me quit). But no excuses, and no one to blame if I can’t make this happen.

So, now I must produce. I have counted my many blessings, and I’m ready to test my skills. By October 1st, I will be querying agents for “Invented Lives.” Get ready World, here I come.

I Used To Be Funny

It’s difficult to keep up with me, I know, but I take full blame. You are busy. You are involved with highly technical and weighty issues every day. Me? I sit home and read and write most days (the days I’m not getting pedicures), and I haven’t been blogging regularly.

I am lucky to be married to a wonderful man who hates winter. Further adding to your reasons to hate me, he’s retired and takes us to Costa Rica for the worst months of Iowa cold—all of them. We came back this year on April 1st. Since then, I’ve noticed, my blog frequency and quality has slipped into the doldrums. For this I apologize.

I have excuses, but I hate excuses, almost as much as my husband hates winter. All I know is that in reviewing my posts that were written in Costa Rica (see archives from Jan, Feb, Mar, 2011), I noticed they were really funny. (At least I thought so.) Since then? Not so much.

The good news is that I’ve been very productive in my writing career since I’ve gotten home but in different ways from my productivity levels in Costa Rica. In the 10 weeks we were there this winter, I wrote 45,000 words on my novel, developed a Twitter habit, created a Facebook Fan page, and so much more. My production since I’ve been home has been more “big picture” stuff, albeit of less blog-able interest. I’ve also recently found the erudite blog by Kristen Lamb about social networking. She has promised me fame and fortune if I blog more! (Just kidding, kind of.)

And so, dear friends and family, all 10 million of you, give or take, I will once again attempt to blog more often—three times a week from now on. Oh, the pressure! BUT, Ms. Lamb insists that I shall not bore you all with blog posts on writing… anything else is acceptable, but my deepest passion (other than my husband) is off limits. I cannot tell you about how lightning has struck me and I am closer than ever to success. You’ll just have to trust me, and I’ll just have to produce that novel I’ve been talking about, the one that caused my meltdown 10 days ago, the one where I blogged about not working… well, people, it’s working. And THAT is why I haven’t been blogging as much.

Oh, the irony.

Vacationally Challenged

An Essay by Karolyn Sherwood

When my husband asked me, “How would you like to spend two months in paradise?”  I said, “Define ‘paradise.’”

It’s the second time around for both of us, married for six years now, and before I met him I didn’t think true love really existed. It does. However, when it comes to the perfect vacation, he likes to relax on a sandy beach; I like museums and theater and energy. Just the mention of remote villages, hot sun, and high tide makes me start looking around for sunscreen and Free Wireless Internet signs. And sympathy. Few people understand my reluctance to leave our home in the upper-Midwest for two of the coldest months on record for a villa in Costa Rica that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

My husband is older and wiser and retired. Together we have seven children, ages 19 to 29; now official empty-nesters. With record snowfalls across the country, it is the perfect winter to get away. And, being a writer, I can, theoretically and according to The Dream, write from anywhere. Writers long for the day they can sit perched on a mountain top, overlooking the deep blue sea as I am doing now. So, one might ask, what’s the problem? Go, relax, enjoy!

The problem is I don’t want to relax. I’m a city girl with goals and an agenda. Scratching through each entry on my To Do list makes me happy. And what about family, friends, kids? I will not have access to my omnipresent iPhone, my ancillary brain. Even if we can Skype occasionally, it won’t be the same. Writing, reading, working out, watching the stock market, lunching with friends…. I love my life no matter what the temperature is outside my door. Now I’m supposed to find time to learn Spanish and explore a new country?

My husband has a different perspective on life. He turns sixty this year, a milestone he never thought he’d see. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with a rare, congenital disease. In 1995, he quit working and eventually sold his company. Now, each day is a gift he opens at sunrise, never to be taken for granted. Not a day goes by that we don’t laugh. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell me how much he loves me. Going to a third-world country for two months is the least I can do for him.

I admit I’m a bit high-strung. (Play laugh track from kids here.) It’s not that I want to be high maintenance, I just like what I like. And I don’t know how to say, “Just cover the grays,” in Spanish. So in my extra-large suitcase, I’ve packed a few sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, swimsuits, and flip-flops. No heals, no Prada, no diamonds. Instead, I have a box of hair color, sixty days worth of vitamins, basic pharmaceutical supplies, face products (Please, no wrinkles!), and a full-size Pilates mat with five workout videos. Four thick novels, two Spanish phrasebooks, my iPod, camera, various chargers, and most importantly, my laptop, and I am prepared for paradise.

When we board the plane, it’s two degrees outside, twelve below with wind chill; ninety-five and sunny when we land. My husband stretches his body, soaking in the warmth. I break out in a cold sweat, panicked that I might have forgotten my clinical-strength deodorant. It’s late, I’m tired, and culture shock begins swirling through my body like venom. Just as we find our car, a lizard slithers by my feet, and I jump onto the hood. The look in his eyes says, “Ah, you’ve arrived.”

The first week is a sneak peak into my personal hell: sunburn, heat rash, dripping sweat, three showers a day, dusty winds blowing hot air through the house. Tarantulas, scorpions, geckos, monkeys, and vultures surround our villa, and a few rudely invite themselves inside. Carved into the steep cliffs, the streets are so rough they put the average roller-coaster to shame. My husband thinks it’s heaven.

By the third week, I learn to navigate the potholes and that the geckos that scamper through my bedroom, down the walls, and into our kitchen are really our friends; they eat bugs, I’m told. I try to smile so they don’t realize I am more afraid of them than they are of me, the Giant. I take tree-top tours and natural mud baths and devour juicy ceviche sprinkled with just-picked mango while watching salmon-colored sunsets.

After a month, I finally start to relax. Once, I actually fell asleep on the beach for almost ten minutes. My new challenge is remembering what day of the week it is. (If it weren’t for my pill box, I’d really be lost.) Thankfully, this is the twenty-first century and our villa has Internet access so I’ve been able to keep in touch and even accomplish a few goals. I’ve learned to focus like never before. “Efficient work, efficient relaxation” is my new motto, leaving me more time to spend with my happy husband.

And so we sit on our balcony, enjoying the evening breeze, drinking club soda, suddenly the final week of our stay. My husband is contemplating life. I’m not quite that far down on my To Do list yet, but the good news is, having the perfect marriage means I get to choose the next vacation.  Paris anyone?

A Fresh Start

After a ten week escape to Costa Rica, I have now been home for five days, trying to re-assimilate to my “real” life. Things are almost back to normal, piles of mail and magazines are under control, taxes are ready for my accountant, the refrigerator is full of my “normal” food (very different from my Costa Rican food).

But what I want is to get back to writing!
There are many events in life that necessitate a Fresh Start. Most of them aren’t good, but the fresh start usually is. For instance, after an injury or illness, getting back on a regular workout schedule feels great (at least for a while). Vacation may seem like heaven, but I like being productive so it feels good to get back to my desk. Perhaps a breakup or divorce might necessitate a fresh start. Or a new job, a new week, or even a new book. I guess that makes me an optimist.
I have said before, if you dread Monday mornings, change your life. Every Monday morning is a fresh start. I love Mondays, always have (For a mom with kids in school, it’s the beginning of a little peace and quiet!). Very soon I will be back on my writing schedule. I recently finished the first draft of my WIP. After being away from it for about two weeks, I cannot wait to see it with fresh eyes.

My Third MFA

“Thank you, thank you. Thank you all for joining me here in Costa Rica to celebrate the completion of my third MFA in Fiction Writing. The past ten weeks have flown by, and it is now time for me to return to Iowa. But, yes, I’d be happy to say a few words about my experiences.

“I remember, oh so many years ago, I believe it was 2007; yes, I was 45 at the time. I bought myself my first MacBook, in fact the one I still use today. Oh, those were wild times, only one son left in high school, the rest all in college, and boy did I feel free. Take one hour a day, I told myself, to sit still and begin working on my first novel, Any Day Now. Eighteen months later, I sent my masterwork off to agents, only to discover, “I had no hook.” But I didn’t care what they said, I had just completed
My First MFA.

“In those 18 months, I learned how to sit still. I learned how to write dialogue. I learned about voice and the arc of a plot. Any Day Now was undoubtedly naive and autobiographical (I’m sure it will be requested for publication once I’m famous), but it was good practice. It fueled me on to bigger and better things! By the time I put that sweet novel to bed, I was 60 pages into my second book, On A Midnight Street. I was unstoppable, writing almost four hours a day.

“Oh, I knew I still had a lot to learn, so I read Hemingway, Salinger, Highsmith, Wroblewski, DeMille, Brown, Proulx, Wolfe, Franzen, and many more. But most importantly, I bought and read, cover to cover (at least the good parts), The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. What a wealth of knowledge! Aha, My Second MFA.

“But this, my friends, My Third MFA, is without a doubt, the most important one of all. In the past ten weeks, while finishing the first draft of my third novel, The King Family, I learned about the business side of creative writing. Let me tell you, it’s intense! Writing is a long, slow, solitary process, but the publishing industry is quite the opposite. Yes, I know, anyone can publish a book these days, but only a few can reach the top; I want The New York Times Bestseller list. That is my holy grail.

“This valuable/invaluable, sea-level education, well worth the sweat and isolation of being in Costa Rica I might add, will undoubtedly help me reach my goal. I will now share with you the most important lessons I’ve learned while attending

The Costa Rican/Thank-Gore-for-the-Internet School of Writing:

1) Publishing is a business with tough competition. The goal is profit. Go hard or go home.
2) The Industry is small. Get your name out there, and play nice.
3) Since not everyone follows Rule #2, the Industry can be brutal. Be prepared.
4) Social Networking is not an option, that’s how you play the game.
5) Twitterati are real people, so are Facebook Fans. Be entertaining and be grateful.
6) The transition from “friends and family” as fans and followers to “strangers” as fans and followers is a good thing, unless they’re creepy, which they might be. Beware.
7) Goodreads, Shelf-Awareness, Writers Digest, Query Tracker, GalleyCat, Publishers Marketplace, NYT Books, Paris Review, Kirkus – okay, I can’t possibly name them all – plus every agent and every major author who has any sort of a web presence… You must read every word put online by each of them every single day, and still carve out 6 or 8 hours a day to write. Also read every book in your genre that’s ever been published. I cannot understate the importance of this.
8 ) No one is going to “happen upon” your web site and make you rich and famous. If you want to be rich and famous, you must do the work to make it happen. If you don’t promote yourself, “they” will find someone else who does. Self-promotion is vital, now more than ever.
9) There’s no such thing as an overnight sensation. Even “New Artist of the Year Awards” go to musical groups who’ve been performing for years. Published authors are not born, they’re made, and it can take years. Be patient.
10) Karma is real. You heard it here first.

“And so, my friends, in closing, to wrap up, with no further ado, here is the bottom line: The dictionary is available to all. Chose the best words; use them sparingly; do the work; then, maybe then, if you’re really lucky, you will dazzle and shine. And visit Costa Rica at least once in your lifetime.

“Adios, mis amigos. Adios, Costa Rica! Te quiero.”