Define “Essential”

My friends and I have a new game. It’s called “How the world will be different when the pandemic is over.” HTWWBDWTPIO for short. Don’t worry, you have plenty of time to learn the acronym before TPIO. The rules are you have to guess HTWWBDWTPIO. In other words, what things are we learning that you think will stick. You know, like how children of the depression learned to save used tinfoil.

I’ve spent the last six years writing a novel called THE PUZZLEMAKER, and the journey has turned me into a puzzlemaker. Hell, I’m practically an engineer by now. I’ve learned how to analyze things as if I am solving a puzzle. So here are two hints to HTWWBDWTPIO: What do you need most during self-isolation? And what do you miss most? Generic answer: the essentials. So who gets to define that?

I live in Iowa, one of five remaining states that does not yet have a mandatory shelter in place order. That’s because Iowa’s governor’s campaigns are funded by the large corporations that want to keep doing business. But that’s not my point. Even here in Iowa, it is “recommended” that we do not leave our homes except for “essential” trips. The state of Iowa defines essential as those necessary for food, medicine, or work. Work is defined as jobs essential for public health, safety, and food, and also apparently assembling John Deere lawn mowers (see above comment on Iowa corporations with powerful lobbies). Most of our offices and stores have been closed for weeks now except for grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, and restaurants that do carry-out orders. Other than that, we are asked to stay home. And most people are, thank goodness.

So Maslow was right. Food, shelter, and clothing are the base level of his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. In today’s world we would add prescription drugs to that list and edit clothing to mean sweatpants and pjs. As for shelter … my heart breaks for the homeless, or those with heavy mortgage or rent obligations, or maybe the worst situation of all: sheltering in a place where a person doesn’t feel safe. I worry for those who suffer physical, sexual, or mental abuse in their homes and now have added stress and no time apart. Less extreme but still worrisome, is how this quarantine will affect couples who were struggling before this. Will they rediscover the love they lost over the past few months or years? Or will there be countless divorces and breakups the minute one of them can leave the house again and hire movers? Let’s hope for love. And an end to homelessness.

There are countless jokes and memes blanketing our social media feeds these days about how fat we are all going to be when this is over due to lack of movement and too much Netflix bingeing. Remember this: When you’re going through a hard time, you don’t “deserve” Twinkies and potato chips, you deserve fresh, healthy food to help your body fight the vicious virus that has changed our world. You deserve antioxidants and vitamins that will recharge you and keep your skin clear. If you live in a place that has grocery delivery, order spinach and fresh berries!

WHAT YOU MISS MOST is the second clue to HTWWBDWTPIO. Family. Friends. Work. Exercise. Freedom. For me, it’s definitely family. The first thing I will do is hug my little granddaughter until she squirms for mercy. She’s too young to know what’s happening, but my greatest sadness is not being able to hear her infectious laugh or marvel at her newest accomplishment. I’ll eat her up I love her so. I’ve even heard rumor that people will stop complaining about work. All those who begged for more time at home to do projects or rest … They’ll be grateful to earn a paycheck again when this is over. People need a purpose. And community.

My hubby thinks there will be a new baby boom, and that people will be wary of traveling. I think—I’d like to think—people will become more caring and aware of others, those who can’t help themselves. I think we will be grateful for job opportunities, waitstaff and delivery people, and most of all healthcare workers and first responders. People will appreciate nature and books and cooking more than ever before. And exercise. Also healthcare for all would be nice.

Ultimately, we will all, individually, come out of this with a sharper sense of priorities. We will stop taking things for granted. We will learn to stop saying “one day,” because there are no guarantees about tomorrow. Now is your chance to work your way up Maslow’s pyramid. While you’re contemplating HTWWBDWTPIO, you have time for self-love and creative expression, time to work on what you deem essential, and time to practice altruism, the apex of life.

So join in. H(doyouthink)TWWBDWTPIO?

Horse, Meet Cart

There’s a fine line between optimism and jumping the gun. Getting the cart before the horse. Getting ahead of one’s skis. Biting off … you get the picture.

A few years ago, more years than I want to admit, I sat down with a laptop and began pounding out a novel. Eighteen months later, voilá! My first novel was complete. Back then (and still today), the powers that be insisted a writer must be known and have a following if she hopes for success when her novel sells and hits the shelves. “Build a website,” they said. <“Ok.” check> “Write short stories, submit to journals.” <check> “Get busy on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., etc.” <check, check, check> What all of that other stuff won’t get you is a book deal. Short of returning to school for an MFA, I’ve done all the extras, yet still no book deal. In other words, it’s possible I spent too much time building a platform and too little time honing my writing. Until …

I have recently completed a new novel (my fifth), titled THE PUZZLEMAKER. It’s good. It’s ready. It’s at least ready for a good editor to make it great. The seed of this story came to me in early 2015, so I’ve technically been writing/editing/polishing it for five long years (though if you’ve read my previous posts you know I took a two-year hiatus in there for … Life). So now I’m back, focused, and ready to make this gig official.

So what’s THE PUZZLEMAKER about? Click here to find out. And let the wild rumpus start …

A Year of Living Wordlessly

Twelve months with no writing makes one week weak.

I know a lot of people who’ve told me they’re writing a book. Time will tell if they finish their book and/or get published—not that being published is the end all or be all. Writing is (or rather, can be) a healthy hobby in and of itself. If nothing else, it challenges the brain, which has definite, long-term benefits. As long as a person isn’t imitating Hemingway (think smoking and drinking while typing), there are worse ways to spend time.

That being said, it pains me to add my name to the People I Know Who Are Writing a Book list, like I’m just one more person who thinks it’s a fun idea. After ten years of typing, attending writers conferences, reading thousands of pages of How To Write a Novel advice, and shouldering hundreds of rejection notices, I feel I’ve at least achieved Star Status on that list.

I’ve completed four novels and got about knee deep into my fifth novel. Then, in April of 2016, life changed. Things happened. Not ordinary things, big things. It was an Extreme Year. I feel I’m just now coming out of it. [Cue the horns and balloons and confetti.] I ache, positively ache, to get back to writing. And I will, soon. My husband even bought me this shirt:

I wear it proudly.

So, yes, life happens. I’ve dealt with it. Some would say I won! All I know is I am persistent. I will persist. I will not stop. I have a story to tell. Very soon, I will be blogging and tweeting about my word counts for the day again. Big thanks to my friends who have encouraged me over the past year to hold on to my dream—that would be the dream of moving from the list of People Who Are Writing a Book to the People Who Have Sold a Book list. After all, for some of us, publication is important.

Drumroll Please

Great news fans and friends. A Reasonable Price is ready to roll.IMG_4545

After four or five years of my on again off again love affair with this novel, it’s finished. Spit-shiny, squeaky-clean, and slick as black ice.

So now what happens? Now I begin the search for an agent who loves it, so they can pitch it to an editor who will love it, who will convince a publisher to buy it and send me money. (How much money? I think a reasonable price would be around $50,000. (I’d settle for $50, but don’t tell them that.)) Then 18-24 months later, if luck holds out, you will get the chance to read it!

Or I could self-publish it and you could read it tomorrow. Hmmm … Let me think about that.

In the meantime, I have another novel simmering. I’d better go check on it.

Is the Bookstore Half-Empty or Half-full?

Last weekend I went to Brooklyn to visit two of my sons (the musician and the writer). We were flaneurs. We flaneused. (That should be a word.) We walked, and talked, and laughed. We ate and drank. (oh, did we they drink) It was a wonderful, non-touristy weekend in the city.

On our seven-mile journey each day, we slipped into several indie bookstores. Little bits of heaven, each one. I would rather be surrounded by books than jewels. But here’s the thing: Being surrounded by so many fantastic novels made me feel conflicted. Part of me shouted, Why bother writing, Karolyn? Why work so hard to add one more drop into this ocean of literature? Will it even be noticed?

The other side of me whispered, Go home and write.

Funny how a whisper can overpower a shout.

Building Character(s)

What’s more important than character? Nothing.

As Warren Buffet once said, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” In life, your reputation is of utmost importance; it is your character. And it’s not so different in fiction. Characters (People) are the most important part of any story—short, long, realistic, or fantastic. Readers want to know about and relate to the characters. Then and only then will they follow along with the adventure you’ve created for them.

I’ve made the analogy that characters in novels are like people in photos: people will look longer at other people than they do at even the most beautiful landscape. Likewise, no matter how beautiful the writer’s prose, if she doesn’t create fascinating, believable, relatable characters, then readers won’t really care about the story. Have you ever noticed (of course you have) how much longer we focus on ourselves in pictures than we do on anything else? It’s the same with characters in a novel; people want to see themselves in the characters. They want to say, Yes, I do that, too! I’ve thought the same thing. I feel exactly like that.

A brilliant writer will then do horrible things to the characters so the reader is compelled to see who triumphs in the end. Bingo—bestseller!

But it’s not quite that easy. So …

This weekend I will be taking a class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City on Creating Compelling Characters with Jonathan Blum where I will learn to make my characters just exactly like YOU.

I sure hope you’ve been nice to me over the years—because not all characters triumph in the end. Some die.

(tee hee)

Imagine one step further …

Three-parent babies allow couples with genetic diseases have healthy children. But should this be legal?

This process is the same method Dr. Cate Lowell uses to further her genetic experiments in my novel A Reasonable Price—except she didn’t wait for anybody’s permission.

The world is one brave woman away from making A Reasonable Price a true story.

The Internet Rule Book

Did you get the memo? It was delivered with the Rule Book.

No, not that old dating gimmick, The Rules, but the “The Internet Rule Book.” It was written sometime after “Everything You Need to Know You Learned in Kindergarten.” “The Internet Rule Book” addresses social media. You didn’t learn that in kindergarten.

Rule #1: If you have a blog, you must do an End of Year Reflection. So here goes.

My novel, A Reasonable Price, didn’t sell in 2014. Boo hoo. Question is, why not? If I knew that, I would have fixed it. Then again, maybe I did and we just don’t know yet. Over the past twelve months, I worked diligently to find my novel a home. I received excellent feedback from major lit agents (who shall remain nameless lest they be embarrassed that they passed on a future bestseller) and my instructor and fellow classmates at a novel workshop at the ISWF. Incorporating their best suggestions, I spent September through November doing a major rewrite, then sent out a few queries in early December. I will send out more as soon as the holidays have returned to work days. At times it feels like I’m navigating my little ship through cyberspace—with no certainty of ever finding a place to land. Or, maybe I did make all the right changes, and will soon query the right agent who will snatch it up and sell it tout de suite!

Rule #2: No whining.

GeorgieThis is why 2014 saw so few posts here on your favorite website. They say, “Write with authority to gain readership.” Well, believe you me, I’m an authority on a lot of things … just not on being an author (apparently). For instance, in late June, I got a new puppy. She is George Eliot, a Havanese. I’ve become an authority on her, but I didn’t want to confuse things by writing about my dog on my writer’s blog. Sure, I could have posted an update every day of the year, but “Didn’t Sell Novel Again Today” and “Wrote Some, Deleted Some,” both qualify as whining. I thought it better to stay silent until I have real news.

Rule #3: Be Kind to Others

This rule was stolen from Ellen Degeneres, but I doubt she’ll mind. Only Stephen Hawking could explain how the Internet is both endless and intimate. You can search forever in less than one second. Bullying, name-calling, whining … they will all come back to haunt you. So, as you did learn in kindergarten, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Just go back to your novel and work harder. The harder you work, the luckier 2015 will be.

With that, cheers to 2015, friends! Let’s all play by the rules and make 2015 the best year ever.

Writing Is Like Dieting

Most people—okay, everyone hates dieting; they just want to be fit. Similarly, many writers hate writing; they just want to “have written” something. I’ve often thought we should change the word “diet” to something without the negative connotation it brings. Like T-I-D-E. Just rearrange the letters. We could say, “I’m on a healthy tide.” Better, yes? Or this: E-D-I-T. Change the letters again, and we could say, “I’m editing my food intake.” Still better than saying, “I’m dieting.” If we edit our food intake, and edit our writing, it’s easy to see a connection.

Taking this one step further … If a person, say me, for example, gets a little lax in monitoring her food intake, and at the same time gets a little lax on the exercise front, soon she will start feeling a bit blubbery discouraged. I need to snap my priorities back in line. Similarly, if I take days (okay, weeks) off of writing, I start feeling like a failure discouraged. The trick again is to snap my writing priorities back in line, too. Just never, never, never give up, as the wise Winston Churchill once said. I’ve had that magnet above my desk for years. It’s one of my mottos. Another favorite is from George Eliot: It is never too late to be what you might have been.

IMG_2709Speaking of George Eliot, and my lack of productivity of late … I have a new writing coach: Her name is also George Eliot (I call her Georgie). As soon as she’s done being a puppy, she will anchor me at home, at my computer. She has also motivated me to read Middlemarch, the original George Eliot’s best and arguably THE best English novel of all times. It’s one of those novels I would have read if only I’d been an English major. But it’s never too late …

There’s one more reason I’ve been in writing limbo lately, and it too shall soon be corrected. My “fourth debut novel,” A Reasonable Price, has been out to lit agents for the past several months. I’ve had seventeen (!) requests for the manuscript. I’ve also had nearly that many passes. However, the last rejection letter I received mentioned a key point as to why agents are likely passing: religion. My protagonist is very religious; my antagonist is a doctor who’s playing God. You see the conflict. It makes for a very intense battle! It also possibly makes the novel too explosive for a publisher to buy it. So, because I am not championing a Catholic perspective, it’s time for another E-D-I-T.

Ten days from now I’ll be participating in an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop. As soon as I get my feedback from the wise and recently published Julia Fierro and my fellow classmates, I will do a rewrite and send it out to more lit agents.

How about you? Have you gotten off track of any of your goals? Hey, summer happens! We’ve given ourselves a break. Now we need to refocus. Just remember this: Never, never, never give up.


Are You a Noun or an Adjective?

In my last blog post, I asked the question, Who Do You Think You Are? Since then, I’ve asked several people that question face-to-face, and the answers have yielded new insight. Some people (like myself) answered with nouns (writer, traveler, etc.), more external descriptions. Others, like one man I spoke to, answered with adjectives (thoughtful, generous, etc.), more internal descriptions. This man began his list with personality traits, not hobbies, pastimes, or occupations.

A psychologist could have a heyday with this dichotomy, I’m sure. But I’m no psychologist. I just get to ponder this, and ask you what you think this says about people. Did you make your list of five quick words to describe yourself? I’m sure you did, so … did you choose nouns or adjectives? Neither answer is wrong; in fact, no personal description would be complete without both lists. It’s curious, though, what this says about people. Could it be that people who view themselves via external criteria first tend to be insecure, thus more concerned with the way the world sees them? Or maybe they’re just private people who want a shell around them. Hmm …

When it comes to writing, adjectives are almost as villainous as adverbs. But don’t take my word for it. Stephen King once said: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And here’s strong advice against both forms of qualifiers. Good writing happens in the nouns and the verbs. Yet as a writer, when I am creating characters, I must know ALL about them. I need to know their nouns and their adjectives. In fact, I need to know their verbs and adverbs, too. I was once told I need to know when my protagonist lost his virginity. And not just when, but where, with whom, and how the experience was for him? Facts like these don’t need to be included in a novel, but a writer needs to know her characters as deeply as she knows herself—probably better than she knows herself!

This leads me directly back to how well does anyone know him- or herself? This may sound ridiculously simple, but it’s not. This is a matter scientists study relentlessly. There’s a new book out on just this topic: Mindwise, by Nichols Epley, that explores how well we know others, and in turn, how well we know ourselves. It’s one of those, the-more-you-know, the-more-you-know-you-don’t-know topics that fascinate me to no end.

Maybe I should have been an anthropologist.