writing

Apple falls up

A talented writer in his own right, my oldest son AJ has been named Student of the Quarter twice in a row for WRITING. Last year in fifth grade, he wrote a short fantasy story for school that blew me away. The title is “Eugallado” and, after begging him to allow me to share it, I’m thrilled to post a sneak peek at the opening:

Eugallado. Chapter 1. The Cave.

It was a day like any other when the secret world was discovered by two ordinary boys.
The trees and the ground were covered in prestigious, sparkling white snow, and the sun made everything shine so bright it was almost hard to look at it. We gazed at the beautiful trees, sprinkled with glistening sugar-white powder, longing to explore the woods. My mom said we could never go in, but she wouldn’t tell us why. Of course we wanted to find out.
“Let’s go,” my best friend Ryan said excitedly . . .

People like to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that jazz, but I think it’s the opposite. In our case, the apple falls up! And writing is just one of his many talents. I’m so proud of this kid. He inspires me. He’s an inspiration to our whole family.

QMS Student of the Quarter

Excellence Award in Writing

On my school visits, I always tell students that the best way to improve your writing is to READ. Read everything. Always be reading. AJ is proof of that. He’s participated in the Battle of the Books program at school since third grade. He’s usually got at least 2 or 3 books going at one time. He reads books he likes, and books he dislikes. And maybe it’s his youth, but he seems to remember EVERYTHING!

I’m honored AJ is such a fan of my books! He read Forte twice — and after reading the first draft of its sequel, he gave me feedback that will be cherished forever: “I loved your book so much! I loved the description, and I felt like I could really feel the characters. I loved the combonation of music, magic, and mythology. Definetly one of the best books I’ve ever read! – AJ <3”

YA magical realism Concerto

AJ almost done with Concerto

When Concerto was published several months after he read the first draft, he was eager to read it again (gotta love this kid). Now 12 and dealing with middle school antics and LOTS of sixth grade homework, he found the time to read my book. It was my gift to see him peek out with a smile from behind my book as I tucked him into bed. As soon as he finished, he wrote a review on Google docs and shared it with me.

*Warning: contains spoilers!* (But too precious not to share!)

Concerto Review By AJ Spero

Mom, I thought your book Concerto was absolutely amazing! And I’m not saying that just because you’re my mom. If I went to Barnes & Noble and bought your book and read it, I’d say, “WOW! This book is so cool!!” First thing: I thought the characters were awesome! They were so real, I felt like I could really feel and connect with the characters. I also really liked how there was some suspense that made you ask questions that really kept you turning the pages! I always wanted to see what happened next. And the drama between the characters was really good! I felt like it was emotional but not over-the-top, you know? For instance, When Sami started to date Miles, I was like, “No! What about Jason?” Then when she went to visit Jason, I could really feel the awkwardness. I was cringing myself! Then when Jason gave Sami a pat on the back, oh man. Total cringe fest. Then at the end, I loved how they finally started to get back together again. I didn’t really like how they broke up in the first draft, though, it was even painful for me! I know I have a big, long, rambling list of all the things I loved about your book, so I’ll wrap it up with one more thing. I loved the sneak peak chapter of “Cadence”! I want to read it so bad now! I love how you see the other side of that conversation Lauren and Sami had. Sami seemed so oblivious! I also like Lauren’s fun personality, and I can’t wait to find out more about Lauren. I felt like, in “Forte,” I couldn’t really connect with Lauren as a person, but I like how I’ll find out her side of things. Overall, I thought your book was SO GOOD and I can’t wait ‘till “Cadence” comes out! 

 

Insomnia

It hits me off and on. At least once a week. This morning, I awoke at 3 AM, thought about going back to sleep for about one minute, then bounded out of bed with a surge of adrenaline. Why? Because I’m approaching the finish line to launch my upcoming release CRESCENDO, the sequel to Forte. Up and at ’em to work on content edits to send to Xchyler Publishing by 6 AM. I rock.

But not every 3 AM bout of insomnia is that happy or productive. Most times, my mind plays cruel tricks on me and I’m sick with worry about anything and everything. Sometimes, I go completely Macbeth and feel like I’m losing my mind altogether. It happened this past summer and I wrote the following passage in my journal — bleary and exhausted, messy and scribbling in all directions. It’s raw and unedited and, hopefully, strikes a chord.


Can’t sleep
Worrying about cars and dogs
Regret tugs — losing my patience
I want to be happy
It should be easy
Why am I so anxious?
Lots to do, wasted Sunday
Summer’s too short. Why was I so eager to fill it?
Hopes smack against fears
Spider crawling down the wall
Haven’t written in awhile
Does this count?
Is it enough to be a mom?
and wife
Hope for yes tempered by guilt
Worry fears losing what we have
Do I love too much?
Why can’t I be kinder? Why do I get so irritated? Why is smiling hard?
Are we missing something?
Is it slipping away?
Am I trying hard enough?
Am I succeeding?
Where did my babies go?
Are the memories safe? Are the moments captured?
Big, fat black ants
too much stuff — for what?
Time slipping too fast
Too busy, not busy enough
my loves keep them safe please
vacuum broke again.
My hair gets everywhere.
My stomach sticks out.
I get angry easily.
I don’t know why he loves me so much.
I’m alive.
Every moment is precious. Why waste it with worry?
Can’t sleep.
Stopped trying.
Tomorrow is here.
I’m not ready.

WDC in NYC

This past weekend, I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. Having just launched FORTE, it was not only an opportunity to hone my craft but also to continue the celebration. The best part about it? My brother, Jim Davies, flew in from Ottawa to attend the conference with me.

Jim Davies & JD Spero on the street

Jim & me in Times Sq

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bryant Park. Our digs, courtesy of my husband Anthony Spero, held amazing views of both water and Times Square from the 34th floor. The 6:35 am Megabus dropped me a few blocks away, and when I got to the hotel at 10am, I pushed the elevator button for the lobby and…there was Jimmy!

Times Square, NYC

View of Times Square

We dropped our bags, checked the map, and headed toward the Roosevelt Hotel for the conference check-in. My sleep deprivation got the best of me, but my misguided confidence convinced Jimmy I knew where I was going. Our hour-long detour didn’t deter our fun — and got us some cool photo opportunities and a yummy lunch.

Kinky Boots

Jimmy in some Kinky Boots!

We made it in time for registration and the first session, Pitch Perfect by Chuck Sambuchino (nothing to do with the movie but everything to do with pitching literary agents). And so it began…

WDC15 name tag

WDC15 name tag

Some gems from the workshops:

Don’t pigeon-hole yourself! WRITE EVERYTHING! – Jonathan Maberry (Keynote)

Take off your pants and write using the hybrid approach of “plantsing” – Jeff Somers

It’s the small things that break your heart. – Rebecca McClanahan on Word Painting

Writing is both mirrors and windows. – Jacqueline Woodson (central keynote)

Slip the pill in the liverwurst. – Jon McGoran on Exposition & Economy


In addition to the workshops, I attended the Pitch Slam — where I pitched my latest book to 8 or 9 literary agents and came away with lots of genuine interest. Hooray!

We met lots of other writers, including a fellow Xchyler Publishing author! It was a miracle we found each other. There were 1000 people at the conference, who all squeezed into the lobby area for the mixer. I felt like I was back at college at a keg party.

JD Spero and Jamie Potter

Me and Jamie Potter at Saturday’s mixer.

Jimmy and I write in somewhat different genres, so at times we attended different talks throughout the conference. Years ago, Anthony and I attended a Forensics League competition which was being judged by my one-in-a-million grandmother — Grandma Honey. Being newlyweds, we were hesitant to leave each other’s sides, no less let go of each other’s hands. But Grandma Honey insisted, “You need to split up, go experience different things, so that when you come back together you have lots to talk about. And you end up with twice the fun!”

I shared this wisdom with Jimmy, who agreed. So we coined a new term (which wouldn’t fly on the Scrabble board, but would sure make Honey smile): Splitskis!

It became our mantra and moniker. At times, we’d have to find each other among the sea of writers passing in the halls between sessions. I could be heard calling above the crowd: Splitskis!

“Which session do you want to go to next? All right, I want to go to this one. Okay, Splitskis!”

My favorite sessions were those we attended together, however. And I benefitted as much from our whispered side commentary as I did from the speaker’s. It’s way cool my brother and I have this writing thing in common. I’m pretty sure we were the only brother/sister team there. What’s more rare is the heartfelt support and encouragement we give each other — without a smidge of competition.

WDC15 mixer

At networking mixer Saturday night

I can honestly say that — by far — the best part about the conference was spending quality time with my bro. Our final Splitskis was a melancholy one.

 

 

 

It takes a village

My children will probably never have a traditional upbringing: growing up in the same house, markers of their growth lining the closet door, surrounded by familiar neighborhood kids, rooting for the same alma mater kinder to senior. Our first two boys were born in Massachusetts. Our littlest, in Indiana. We called Texas home for two years and are now living in upstate New York. More than likely, we’ll be moving again in the near future. Are we giving them an unstable home life or character-shaping adventures?

When I was fifteen, my parents moved me from my childhood home. I was so devastated, I wouldn’t help Mom pack. Not even my bedroom. And I wasn’t even changing schools. My grief turned to gratitude soon after we settled into our beautiful lake home. Years later, my parents moved again. This time, I wasn’t living at home but at college. Still, it was bittersweet. But when a friend made the comment that it must be hard to leave our lake home, my brother replied: “Home isn’t a place. It’s where your family is.”

Today, my family of five shares a home with my parents who live there part-time, half the year. It’s not a fancy house, nor is it lakeside. But, right now, it’s home. We share this house not due to financial strain or mid-life crises, but because it makes sense for us. Not only does it make sense, it’s been an absolute blessing. My children are growing up directly alongside one set of grandparents, and just a day-trip away from their cousins and another set of grandparents. They are surrounded by family. They are surrounded by love. This is obvious. The less obvious benefits have been revealed over time.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. My boys’ lives have become so rich in experiences, moving and traveling across the country. And now, living with my parents, their lives are enriched in another way. My mother brought them to the theater when I feared they might disrupt the onstage drama. My father talks physics and math-y stuff with my oldest while I’m allergic to numbers. My brother — who lives within driving distance — has introduced role-playing games to all the boys, gets them to make their own board games, and creates art with them. These are minor examples. The list goes on…

Our other “home” is at the beach, where my boys learn from their Nunu about ocean safety and how to be neighborly. They talk about books with their grammy and are lovingly folded into the glorious chaos of their cousins’ home as if they were more-the-merrier siblings within the eight-person-family.

No, my boys won’t have the traditional one-home-forever upbringing. But what they have is pretty great. Maybe better. Our boys will grow to be better, smarter, stronger, happier, and more confident — because they have a vast collection of love and experiences shaping who they are.

The end result is always better when you have a team behind you. Isn’t it?

Like with, say, BOOKS!

Last night at a book club discussion, I was asked the question: “How is it different working with a publisher versus self-publishing?” I get this question a lot.

When I self-published Catcher’s Keeper, I agonized over my story in solitude. Sure, I hired a myriad of editors, a cover designer, a formatter. I enlisted the help of many an author friend. I networked online and at writing conferences. I had a huge amount of support from family and friends. I certainly wasn’t alone, per se. But when it came down to it, it was up to me and me only to make it great. To make it flawless. Was it ready to be published when I finally uploaded it and — egads — people started ordering it? Was it as good as it could be? Aghhh! I hope so.

When I signed with Xchyer Publishing for FORTE, I couldn’t appreciate the expertise they would bring. I was hesitant. I’d been through the process. I’d learned so much. I’d self-published successfully and my attitude was: “What could you do for me that I couldn’t do myself?”

Well, let me tell you. I humbly stand corrected.

My team at Xchyler Publishing (my X-team) has scrutinized every single word of each line, each chapter. I had a team of five talented individuals who had a vested interest in making my manuscript the best it could possibly be, which sometimes meant rewriting scenes multiple times, writing lengthy character sketches and/or timelines that would never be included directly in the story, and examining dialogue and relationships to convey realistic characters. I was far from alone. Not only that, I was boosted up.

Granted, there were times when I’d see track-changes comment from my editor: “Not enough. Falls flat. Needs more tension.” I’d grunt at my screen in frustration, go through a short-lived cycle of denial/anger before coming to accept it and rework the scene. At times it would take hours. At times I’d have to throw the whole thing out and start anew. At times I had to add entire chapters to show what I thought was already pretty clear. In the end, the scene was always better.

Not only that, but we worked together to come up with a new title, a stunning cover, and a marketing plan. And, to my utmost delight, they took care of the critical and notoriously hard-to-write back-cover blurb. (I’d rather write an entire book than a back-cover blurb!)

LOCK 12 - original cover

Original cover and former title of FORTE

Forte_Bookcover_front

New FORTE cover design from Xchyler Publishing

 

Just yesterday, I sent what I was told had to be “absolutely the last go-around” version, and I’m thrilled with it. I have to say, the end result is so worth the effort. It’s so much better than it had been when I thought it was done. Frankly, I cringe to think of publishing the book without their input.

My “baby” launches July 25, 2015. It takes a village to launch a book. So many people have made FORTE rich in so many ways — I’m brimming with gratitude.   The best part? My boys can’t wait to read it. And the adventures continue…

Case of the Stolen Manuscript

Over a year ago, I read an article in Vanity Fair magazine about how Harper Lee has been royally screwed (my words) out of her fair share of royalties for To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved, world-famous American Literature classic. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and it implies that her experience was so negative that it prevented her from wanting to publish anything else. When directly asked, she reportedly replied: “Because I wouldn’t go through all the terrible publicity and the strain of what happened with Mockingbird for any amount of money.”

As an author, a teacher, and fan of TKAM, it was a pretty disturbing read. Those feelings are swirling back as I read article after article about a manuscript that was written by Harper Lee eons ago and has been miraculously uncovered and submitted to HarperCollins by a London-based agent. There’s much speculation as to whether or not Harper Lee—at 88 and in extremely fragile health ever since her stroke in 2007—is even aware that her work has been sold and published now that her lawyer and sister, Alice Lee, (known as Harper Lee’s “protector”) has passed away. Regardless as to whether or not “Go Set a Watchman” will satisfy fans of TKAM, it undoubtedly will sell millions. The entire literary world questions whether Harper Lee wants this book out there at all…and whether or not she’ll reap any monetary reward from its sales. The Wall Street Journal recently reported how “Watchman” was presented to HarperCollins, the process suspiciously without author involvement. There is no evidence that Harper Lee does not want “Watchman” published. Agent and publisher claim she is “delighted” that the manuscript has been found after all these years, although where exactly it was found is still a mystery. *(Update: one of my former students sent me this link, which includes a very odd interview with Harper Lee’s editor. Worth a read.)

It’s just too delicious not to speculate…what if this manuscript is being published behind her back? What if it’s been “stolen” from Lee—and is a precursor to more stolen royalties?

How much should author interests be respected here? The literary world is also eager to read uncovered manuscripts of JD Salinger, as outed in the documentary “Salinger” by Mr. Shane Salerno. Did Salinger ever want these manuscripts published? If so, wouldn’t they already be out in the world? Are we so eager to hear from the famously reclusive author that we no longer care? Or, on a more morbid note, now that he’s dead, is it all fair game? (This Buzzfeed article discusses this ‘author intent’ issue. Some of the authors included might surprise you.)

My mom pointed out the similarities between the WSJ article “Harper Lee Bombshell” and the book publication shenanigans in CATCHER’S KEEPER. One of my favorite scenes in my book is when Jerry, during a slump in his screenwriting career, walks into his agent’s office with his brother’s journal under his arm. What happens next is quintessential SNAFU.

This scene—one of my favorites—is rare in that it’s hardly been revised. It’s essentially stayed the same since my very first draft. My writer friends will know how improbable that is! Enjoy…

EXCERPT

“Hey-ya Jerry!” Mitch says over his desk as he hangs up his phone. “Good to see you! Did we have a meeting?” He runs his finger down his planner.

Mitch, my agent, is about ten years my junior and hasn’t got a single strand of grey in his full head of dark brown hair. I used to have hair like that, Janine was always quick to remind me. His shirts—collar always open—are perfectly bleached white, which make his teeth look slightly wan. Other than that, he’s a decent-looking guy, if you’re into Italian types. Some girls go nuts for those dark, intense eyebrows. He’s got an excessive amount of energy, which puts me on edge. But he’s the best in the business and I’m lucky to have him. I just can’t afford to piss him off again.

“No, no,” I say. “I won’t bother you. I know you’re busy. I was hoping to use that spare machine for a while.”

“Yours broken?”

I shake my head. “My brother is staying with me for a bit. He needs to use it. Well, I offered to let him use it.”

Mitch rubs the back of his neck. “Jerry, we reserve that spare for non-local authors who are on deadline. Who have a contract.”

I hear the emphasis. But what can I say? It’s been a tough dry spell since the divorce. And the M*A*S*H fiasco, I don’t even want to think about that. Mitch and I haven’t been the same since.

Mitch weaves around his desk and closes the door. “Hey-ya,” he whispers. “I happen to know it’s available for a couple weeks. You could squat until our next out-of-state author comes in.”

“Really? Wow, Mitch. That is just great—”

“But! Hold on.” He points a hand at me. “You have to work on an approved project. Something I’m going to sell. You can’t just sit and tinker.”

“Tinker? Mitch, you know me. You know how hard I work.”

“Yeah, when it’s your own stuff. You work your ass off on whatever interests you. Someone wants you to make war doctors funny and you get so obtuse, you offend the entire studio!” He waves his arms as if to shoo a school of fruit flies. My skin seems to swell on the spot. Weird how shame makes you feel huge when you want to shrink away. Thank goodness the door’s closed.

“I can’t apologize enough for that,” I say to the floor.

“Nah, forget it. Onward and upward. Whatcha got?” He settles back into his chair and taps his fingers on his desk protector, eyeing Alden’s binder in my hands.

My stomach drops. I forgot I was still holding it. “Oh, this? This is nothing. I mean it’s something, but—”

It’s out of my grip and open on his desk before I can object. As Mitch reads, I start to hyperventilate.

Shit!

I tell a half-truth. “Mitch, I have this amazing idea for a screenplay. I’m sure it will sell on the big screen. Maybe we could get Jackie Earle Haley to play the lead—”

Mitch shuts me up with a wave of his hand. I force myself to sit as sweat collects beneath my shirt collar. Mitch’s eyes are moving at lightning-agent speed over Alden’s binder, but his expression is blank.

He flips to a random page in the middle and reads on. Outside his office door, Nancy the secretary looks in, her eyes question marks. When I go to open the door for her, she retreats, vehemently shaking her head. Please interrupt, I want to say. But she knows better, especially when Mitch is reading something.

He flips to the end and reads back a few pages. I strain to see. I didn’t even get that far. Shit. Poor Alden. I’m so sorry, brother. I’m silently chanting this apology until my tongue goes dry. Maybe I’ll sneak out to the bubbler.

“You son of a bitch,” Mitch says.

My jaw drops. “Excuse me?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! So this is what you’ve been doing? This is what you’ve been hiding from me?”

“Well, no. Not exactly, see. This is a journal—”

“I know! I can tell! The point of view is extraordinary. A kid. A spoiled brat of a kid with a quirky way of talking. He’s funny, this kid. Got an interesting voice. You have a few inconsistencies, I see already, but it might work considering it’s written from a kid’s perspective. Yes, it just might work.” He sucks on the end of his pen, his eyes on the ceiling. “We have to think of a good title. But that will come. How soon can you get this typed up?” He gets up, starts pacing.

My mouth is agape. I should interrupt him, but nothing comes out. It’s been so long since he’s been excited about something from me—

He claps his hands, giving me a start. “Get the first thirty pages to me by the end of the day and I’ll start working on a pitch. We’ll send it out tomorrow to Tracy at Little, Brown.” He slaps me on the back. “Hell, yeah! You’re back, Jerry. I knew you could do it.”

He slides back into his chair and starts typing, his lips pursed and eyes narrowing.

I clear my throat. There’s got to be a way to save this. “Mitch? I was planning on converting it to a screenplay. And I’m not tied to the names. I was planning on changing them.” Jesus, at the very least I have to change the names.

He stops typing—he does not like being interrupted—and glares at me. “Wha? What are you saying? Screenplay? No, that won’t work at all. You’ll lose the voice, which is the best part.”

“Yes, but with a narrator—”

“Fuck, no. Please. What you have here is going to work. Don’t mess with it. Do what you want with the names. I see you worked your own name in there. A little autobiography in every piece is expected. The title, that’s what’s important now.”

“But—”

Mitch cuts the air like an umpire. “No screenplay. Change names. Find a good title. Got it?”

He starts typing again, bobbing his head with the rhythm of it. I feel like I might throw up. He finally likes something I’ve got—wants to sell it—and it’s not mine. What the hell am I going to do?

I start to back out of the office. “Hey-ya, don’t forget your binder, Jerry.” Mitch hands it over with his signature wink. “That’s gold right there.”

Where are they now?

“Children’s lives are fiendishly hard. Adults, having survived childhood, turn their minds to the future, and if they have a choice, generally retain only the rosiest of childhood memories.” ― Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

You know those irresistible sites that show you how child celebrities look now as grown ups? That’s kind of what I’ve done with Catcher’s Keeper, yet focusing on voice rather than appearance. It was the subject of my recent talk at the Chronicle Book Fair yesterday.

The Catcher in the Rye perfectly captures a voice of the quintessential troubled American teen, whose problems seem so insurmountable there is no option but to run away. This famous, coming-of-age story captures a tenuous time in a young person’s life in a realistic voice that is—ironically—honest as well as unreliable, as most teens tend to be. Having taught high school (and remembering what it was like to be a teen), I know first-hand the phenomenon of the adult/child that is the teen. They may look like adults, but they are children. They still need clear boundaries. They need clear explanations on right versus wrong. Unable to foresee consequences for their inevitable misguided actions, they need leadership. They need unconditional love. They need forgiveness. They are confused and fragile while trying to figure out exactly who the heck they are and what role they could possibly play in the world and society, facing huge life choices (college, career, etc). At the same time discerning peer pressure, as well as juggling homework and hormones and activities and work and, now, social media…

Can you think of a better embodiment of “the teen” other than Holden Caulfield?

What would this teen be like as a grown up? How would you hear his voice?

In order to answer these questions, you have to first answer: What happened to him from the time we met him as a privileged, anti-war, anti-phony 16 y/o in the 1950s to the time of Lennon’s death in 1980?

My answer?

He was a hippie, of course. A draft-dodger. And as a 40 y/o in 1979, he’s emerging from his drug-induced, carefree lifestyle funded by the family trust. He’s trying to get his life together, but he still struggles with the loss of his baby brother, Allie (a huge theme in The Catcher in the Rye), and (in recent years) the loss of his mother. Here’s my version of him, coming home to his big brother’s pad where he’s crashing a while. (Character list is as follows, Jerry: big brother, Janine: Jerry’s ex, Fiona: little sister, Allie: deceased little brother)

 EXCERPT

Lucky me. Jerry’s gone when I get in. I shuck off my kicks and watch a little news. But then I get sucked into this true story of a football player who battled cancer and won, and then came back out to play before all his hair grew in again. And he was better than ever. Coach said he played with more heart. They made this big deal about his hair growing in different. Curly. They say that it sometimes happens with cancer survivors. The story just about kills me. I mean, I have to wipe tears off my goddam cheeks. The heavy background music doesn’t help. Geez, they really know how to tug at your heartstrings. I get that this is a totally awesome outcome for this guy, but all I can do is think of Allie, whether his hair would’ve grown in different. If it had a chance to.

I click off the boob tube and decide to take a shower. Sometimes I think better under a rush of hot water. I can’t get Allie’s hair out of my mind, though, which makes me think of Fiona’s hair when she was a kid. I’m still dripping from the shower when I search the closet in Jerry’s spare room for an old photo album so I can see it—the color. Just the brightest, most far-out red. Neither one of them loved it. Fiona knows how to work hers now, though. Besides it’s changed, like it’s matured along with her. Now it’s this dark auburn shade other chicks go bananas for.

I find a thick forest-green album of Jerry and Janine’s vacation to Aruba or somewhere beachy. One photo catches my eye. Jerry’s beaming at the camera, just beaming, and Janine has her hand near his face, her fingers curled around his ear. And she’s looking at him with this half smile, like she’s thinking of something else. I can’t stop looking at this pic, see, because it seems to explain why they called it quits. I’m sure to you they would look like a sweet, happy couple. But I can see it in her eyes; she’s not totally there with Jerry. She’s already halfway gone.

I slam the book away and dress in haste. Suddenly it’s way too quiet in the apartment. I turn on Sgt. Pepper. Loud. Good ol’ “Penny Lane.” I sing along at the top of my lungs. Boo-yah! I sit down at the machine, the tunes full tilt, and start typing with my pointers. I’m totally fast now. Just cruising. I crank out two chapters lickety-split. I decide to stretch my legs and print out what I have so far.

The sound of the printing is driving me crazy, so I venture out to see if Jerry’s got any Coke. Something tells me I drank his last. And I’m right.


Some readers have criticized Alden’s voice claiming it is too immature for a forty year old man. However, at 41, I know from personal experience that some forty-somethings still act like children. (Heck, some fifty-somethings still act like children.) With affection, my inspiration for Alden’s childlike character was inspired by one of my childhood friends who is now a grown man with a free spirit, a liberal use of jargon, and an enormous propensity for fun. Perhaps Alden’s use of slang seems unrealistic to some, yet if you consider who he was (Salinger’s Holden) and what he would have lived through (death of sibling, failure at school…and then Vietnam, hippie 60s), perhaps his mannerisms are not that unrealistic. Taking poetic license as an author, it was also a clear way to distinguish his voice from his brother’s, which was a concern of mine.

For Catcher’s Keeper, getting voice right was crucial. If my readers did not believe in my characters, they would never believe what happens when they do finally meet Mark David Chapman—who appears as an overzealous fan who shows up on the book tour.

What do you think—will my characters succeed? If Holden Caulfield were a real person, would he be able to save Lennon? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!

Retreat into Chaos

This past weekend, I not only attended my first-ever writers’ retreat, I hosted it. “Sandy Feet Writers’ Retreat” took place at our new house on Salisbury Beach, where four writer friends joined me.

A month or so prior, I sent out an “itinerary” for the weekend, in which long stretches of writing time were mixed with a dinner out, yoga on the beach, and sunrise meditation. It seemed unrealistic and implausible to expect a group of five women in a small-ish house to sit quietly and write all day long, so I wanted to offer activities to reset our minds, nourish our spirits, and soak in the coastline. Also, part of me felt it wasn’t enough to simply provide the venue. I wanted to make it special.

It soon became clear, however, that all this planning was unnecessary. When I came downstairs on Saturday morning, two of the four were already hard at work on their computers. To my delight, coffee was made, and a fruit plate complimented the homemade blueberry bread on the kitchen island.

“Ooo, this is good,” I thought. “Forget the sunrise meditation.” (It was well past sunrise anyway. There were some night owls in the group…wine-drinking night owls.)

A steaming mug in my hands, I opened my laptop and started in. The day before, I’d imagined I would hole up in my room, where a writing desk juxtaposed our upstairs balcony–the view from here even more glorious than from the main level. Instead, I planted myself where my laptop had been waiting for me, on the dining table, where I usually check my email during our mini vacations to the house.

I was soon lost in my story, and time became an abstract phenomenon.

The remaining two writers awakened much in the same manner as I, and soon all five of us dotted the living area at different “stations,” and the day opened into an sea of creativity. No radio. No television. No media at all. The only sound besides the gentle roar of the ocean was the clicking of computer keys. The limited conversation was hushed, and revolved around food: “I’m making myself a sandwich. Want one?” (Though in truth we were all so nourished by practicing our craft, we barely ate.) Later in the afternoon, three of us walked the beach—the only real break from writing all day—and wasted no time in getting back to it upon return. Our 8:30 dinner reservation came too soon; I’m sure we could’ve kept going, contenting ourselves with the five separate tubs of hummus in the fridge. (I’ll have to plan the pot luck thing better next year.)

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Just before heading to dinner.

At times, the miracle of what was happening struck me, as I took a break from my work to observe—the collective productivity more inspiring than the setting. At one point, Anika joked that, judging from the excessive clicking, Betsy and I were on impressive writing streaks. This kept her going. And when I felt stuck with my story, instead of shutting the screen and doing laundry (which I’d do at home), I forced myself to get through it. Maybe taking a moment on the deck to work out the next scene. While some of us walked the beach, others opted to stay so as not to lose their momentum. I was proud of our little group. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.

A common attribute of all writers, I think, is the ability to focus. Sure, the weekend was set up for this. We all planned to focus on our projects. But if there had been hidden cameras in the house, the footage would make for a remarkable display of perseverance (albeit boring to watch, perhaps).

I honed my skill to focus years ago. In my mid-twenties, I started a web design company with a friend. In the early days, our office was his second-floor Somerville apartment. In a time before Wifi, we used one phone line for Internet, fax, and phone (the latter only when our dinosaur cell devices were out of charge). Our first client was Johnson & Johnson, and we conducted conference calls on the living room floor via the fax/phone on speaker. It was ridiculous and thrilling. Things moved extremely fast. I remember one day in particular, sweltering in record humidity and insufficient AC, I was on deadline. Our client expected a proposal for a new website design by end of day. For whatever reason, I crafted this document while sitting on a crate—my laptop propped on a box which contained a yet-to-be-opened printer/copier. Hours passed and my ass turned into a waffle. We won the project.

Weeks later, we moved into office space. We converted the third floor of a Summer Street warehouse in Boston, just past the sandy construction of the never-ending Big Dig. In favor of the open concept office space that had just become popular, our desks were lined in rows with no dividers. Our “conference rooms” were sectioned off with floor-to-ceiling fabric (“like a sail,” my partner had said wistfully as he described his design). This meant that my client calls could be heard by anyone within earshot (and I have a tendency to project). There was no privacy. On more than one occasion, some of us celebrated a launch in one corner while others toiled late hours to fix the online glitch-du-jour in another.

I developed a keen ability to tune things out. At times, my colleagues would have to stand directly in front of my desk, calling my name multiple times, before I answered. Without that extreme focus, though, there would be no way I’d be able to get my job done.

(I’m happy to say, that job is long done! )

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Photo by Betsy Devany Macleod

On Sunday morning at Sandy Feet, I noticed the five of us had adopted not only our favorite writing spots, but also a variety of writing uniforms—and this was the one and only use for yoga pants all weekend. (Except Betsy, who even in her pajamas looked like something out of a magazine—and I still refuse to believe she has grandchildren).

Later that day, as we all felt the weekend pulling away from us, Michelle shared how happy she was with the progress she’d made. “When I get home, it will be tempting to use the excuse for not writing because I don’t have the ocean. But that’s crazy. As much as I love it here, I don’t need the ocean to write.”

It’s true. None of us need the ocean to write. None of us even need a dedicated place to create our stories. I love the idea of an office with a quaint writing desk, flanked with bookshelves and framed, inspirational quotes. But my reality is a constant juggle of household tasks, negotiating sticky spots on the counter, and bargaining with my kids for computer Minecraft time. I’m used to working in the midst of chaos. (Remember the bedlam that surrounded my book launch?) Secretly, I think I thrive on chaos. I wonder if I would be nearly as productive if I had all day long in a quiet house, every day, to write. Even if it was on the ocean.

Although, when I opened my story last night, taking advantage of a short pause within my mommy duties, it all came back. Seeing my characters’ names on the screen with a glimpse at my last scene-in-progress—something magical happened. I could almost hear the rolling waves. I could almost feel the salty wind snapping my hair. I could almost smell the foamy tide, the curls of kelp along the beach. I could almost feel the tiny shells that stuck between my toes…

…the sand at my feet.

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Photo by Betsy Devany Macleod

From Participant to Presenter

Yesterday, I returned from the DFW Writers’ Conference (DFWcon). It was my second DFWcon, and like last year, I was overflowing with inspiration while at the same time so overwhelmed with such valuable writing tips I wasn’t sure what to use first with my writing.

But unlike last year, I felt a new confidence as a writer—with my debut novel out in print rather than waiting to be signed with an agent and into the elusive and coveted “big-publishing-house route.” There was another significant difference this year. Not only was I a taker at the conference, soaking up all the strategies from the experts, I was also a giver. I was somewhat of an expert myself.

About a month ago, I’d emailed the conference director (the awesome Kirk Von Der Heydt) offering to present on the topic of self-publishing. I had acquired quite an education in the process of publishing my novel, and thought my story could help other writers. But, unsurprisingly, the schedule was full.

But then…

Before the conference officially started, word got around that there were cancellations. Two agents were unable to attend last minute. And at least two educational workshops were canceled.

My good friend and former Texas neighbor Veena Kashyap is to blame for what followed.

As roomies, Veena and I shared more than a bathroom as the conference weekend got underway. She also knew in good time that I had a presentation written and ready for an upcoming event in my hometown.

What happened next happened in pajamas early Saturday morning.

“You need to email Kirk,” Veena said. “Text Kirk. Call Kirk. They need presenters. They need to fill the slots. They’ll put you on the schedule.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I should do that.” *yawn*

“You should do it right now.”

“I think I should find him and ask him in person.”

“Time is of the essence. You need to get to him as soon as possible.”

“You’re right.” *rubbing eyes*…*stretch*…*yawn*

*palm-slap mattress* “Get up, girl! I don’t know what you’re still doing in bed. What are you waiting for? Get up right now and email him.”

So I did.

By the time we got to the conference an hour later, Kirk still hadn’t responded to my email. And, frankly, I was perfectly willing to let it go.

But Veena wasn’t.

“Go talk to Jason,” she said. “He’s right in the lobby.”

“Okay,” I said, perusing my schedule, mentally organizing my day of passive observation.

“Go now!”

Pushy bitch, I responded silently and with affection as I went off in search of Jason (Kirk’s right hand man & founder of DFWcon). Jason directed me to Michelle, the “master scheduler.”

Opening remarks were beginning in just minutes. You can imagine what kind of pressure a “master scheduler” was feeling right then. And there I was, grinning with my book in my hands, offering to fill an empty slot.

“We already have a workshop on self-publishing,” she said. (I’m sure she had no interest in dealing with me or anything unexpected at that particular moment.)

But I wouldn’t give up. (In truth, I was a little terrified to report to Veena I’d failed.)

“Actually, that one is about formatting e-books. This is different. This deals with the process of self-publishing.”

Michelle gave me an exasperated look. Then a half-smile. “I usually vet presenters. I can’t let just anyone present…”

“I totally understand. Here is my card. Here’s my book. I’d emailed Kirk a month ago about my topic…”

Just then, Kirk swaggered up to Michelle in his bold black cowboy hat—looking more like Butch Cassidy than a fiction writer—wanting last-minute changes for his opening remarks. Michelle waved a hand at me, perhaps hoping Kirk could take the issue off her plate. I pitched my idea to Kirk in three seconds flat. He nodded and turned to Michelle.

“Okay, get me an index card with the information and I’ll make the announcement,” Kirk said, and turned on his cowboy-boot heel and left us.

*expectant smile at Michelle*

She gave a weary sigh and said, “Okay, I’ll give you that slot. Tomorrow morning at 9am.”

Veena was pleased with my report. (Whew!)

Opening remarks at a conference are usually unremarkable unless the information makes your heart gallop out of your chest.

Kirk’s voice boomed through the ballroom where over 350 listened: “There are a couple changes to the schedule…We’ve had some cancellations…We have a couple additions…Tomorrow at 9am in room E/F there is a new class on self-publishing by Johannah Spero.”

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YIKES!

Veena beamed at me across the table like a proud mother. Gave me a thumbs up.

It’s hard to imagine I was able to enjoy the rest of the day, but somehow I managed. I tried not to think about what I had to do the next morning or how exactly I was going to do it while also trying to take full advantage of conference offerings. For the rest of the day, I was one of the crowd. Bouncing from workshop to workshop, connecting with my buddies in the hallway, eating a taco lunch during Jonathan Maberry’s awesome keynote, even pitching to an agent.

But I did leave early to work on my Powerpoint, using my blog post “A Year in the Life of a Book to Be” as a reference, so I could go to the networking mixer that night. At dinner before the mixer, I shared tidbits of my presentation with Veena and the rest of our group (shout out to Zetta Stevenson and Michele Shriver).

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Patio dining at Italianni’s (left to right: Michele Shriver, Veena, me, Zetta)

“I’m going to open by saying that I’m by no means an expert on self-publishing,” I said.

“Don’t you dare say that,” Veena scolded.

“But, Veena, I’m not an expert. I had no idea what I was doing. I fumbled along, making a million mistakes as I went.”

“And that’s exactly why you need to share your story.”

“But…”

“Nothing negative,” Veena said. “Use only positive language.”

The next morning at 9am in room E/F, I heard myself open with: “There are many ways to self-publish. If you talk to someone else who’s been through the process, they would have a completely different story. But this is my story. And I think it might help you…”

From there, I explained exactly what I did, who I hired (with costs), and the mistakes I learned from—taking them through my journey.

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Photos courtesy of Veena Kashyap

There were about 350 attendees at DFWcon this year, and workshops overlapped and filled the six or so conference rooms at the Hurst Conference Center with coinciding time-slots. At any given time, there might be seven different talks going on, so attendees had plenty of options from which to choose throughout the day. Perhaps if it had been on the schedule or if it had been announced again, I would’ve had more of a crowd. But as it was, I presented to about ten people. In a conference room that could’ve held close to 100.

Which was fine by me.

After my talk, one woman told me, “You made me feel comfortable with self-publishing. And I hadn’t felt that way before.”

Later, I received Tweets:

“Thanks for a great class on self-publishing! So helpful!”

“Thanks for sharing your journey. So cool!”

I wanted to share my story not to add “DFWcon Presenter” to my resume, but to pay it forward and help other writers who are thinking of self-publishing. If I only helped one writer, it would’ve been worth it.

But it seems I helped at least three, if not ten.

All the better.

(And, yes, I’m hiring Veena as my publicist.)