I love writers’ conferences. Anything can happen at them, and it usually turns out that the most memorable events are not those listed in the program: the editor who called me out in the middle of her keynote address and asked me to submit my Royal Ascot Award-winning manuscript; the Golden Heart finalist on the airport shuttle who, upon discovering that I was the author of the 1991 Bantam Sweet Dreams title Wrong-Way Romance, squealed,
"I remember that book! That book is the one that made me want to write romance!”
But one conference that will live forever in my memory is a mystery writers’ conference I attended in 2006, when I quite unexpectedly found myself the belle of Malice Domestic. Mind you, I was never a great beauty; people who knew me in high school will remember me as a
brainiac and a band geek (although neither of those terms were in use in the mid-‘70s) who usually had her nose stuck in a book.
But back to writers’ conferences. Up to that point, the conference I’d had the most experience with was the Romance Writers of America conference, which averages about 2,000 attendees, the overwhelming majority of whom are female. (In fact, the female-to-male ratio is so lop-sided that at once such conference one of the men’s restrooms was confiscated in an effort to shorten the lines at the ladies’ room. I can still recall the white sheets draped discreetly over the urinals.) Malice Domestic, however, is a conference for writers of “cozy” mysteries, and its attendance breaks down along much more balanced gender lines.
I was attending the conference as a new mystery writer, my first work in that genre, In
Milady’s Chamber, having just been published in January of that year. I was one of four published mystery authors taking part in a panel discussion on the use of humor in mystery. At the beginning of the panel, each of us introduced ourselves and made a few opening remarks. When my turn came and I began to speak, the man on my left interrupted me to say, “Don’t let her accent fool you! Sheri Cobb South is really British!” (Since my mysteries are set in early 19th century England, being taken for British by readers is, in my opinion, a Good Thing, although I don’t flatter myself that readers in the UK would be so easily deceived.)
But the surprises at the panel discussion were far from over. Later in the discussion, the man on my left (yes, that one) was making a point about how much of humor derives from the unexpected—whereupon the mega-published man on my right grabbed me, “dipped” me, and pretended to kiss me. He certainly made the speaker’s point; everyone in the audience howled! (I wonder if it’s any coincidence that, when I visited the conference bookstore later that afternoon, every single copy of In Milady’s Chamber was sold out.)
But wait! There’s more! On the plane back home, the man seated beside me tried to hit on me. We had been chatting back and forth during boarding and, once airborne, the flight attendant came through and asked, “Can I get anything for you?” My seatmate promptly pointed at me and said, “How about her phone number?” We both laughed, but I had the distinct impression (after all, women have an instinct about these things) that if I had volunteered it, he would not have turned it down!
Yes, it was a memorable conference; sadly, I haven’t been back to Malice Domestic since then.
My husband won’t let me.
I started writing a book this week. When it’s complete (notice I didn’t say “if”!), this will be the fourth book in the John Pickett series of Regency mysteries. And as eager as I am to be writing it (I’m impatient to get to Book 5!), I find the process more than a little bit daunting.
It’s always this way. I look at my book-to-be—at this point, nothing more than a handful of color-coded sticky notes on a tri-fold foam board—and think, “I’ve got to get an entire book out of this?” It doesn’t look like I have
nearly enough plot to fill up 15,000 words, much less 65,000. Maybe I should take more notes, do more research, try a new plotting method I saw on the internet. And sometimes I do those things. But at some point, I have stop
jotting in notebooks and on sticky notes, get off the internet, open a document file, and write.
I never feel ready. I’m always terrified that I’ll get all the way to “The End,” then run a word count and discover that the whole thing is only 40 pages long. It always happens this way, and yet the feeling that the task is too big, too overwhelming, always feels new.
To me, writing a book is an act of faith. Just as God told Abraham to leave his home and travel to a strange land, basically saying, “You’ll know it when you get there,” I set out with a keyboard and a blank Word document, certain in my mind of what will happen in the first couple of chapters, a major scene or two in the middle, and, of course, the ending. But then there’s that vast unknown Middle. That’s the part that always scares me.
After sixteen published novels, though, I’ve learned one thing: if I wait until I have the whole thing plotted out in my head, I’ll never write at all. I must plow ahead with the little bit I have, following the light I’ve got, trusting that when I need it, that scene will be in my imagination, waiting for me to catch up. This, to me, is the miracle of creating. It’s happened too many
times for me to doubt it: in the violin that magically appeared among James Weatherly’s belongings in Of Paupers and Peers; in the gypsy lad who turned up at the vicar’s funeral in A Dead Bore; in the fishing boat on which poor John Pickett gets seasick in my upcoming mystery, Family Plot. None of these things were in my original vision of the book; all were things that came to me along the way, and each one took the book in new and unexpected
directions. That, for me, is the joy of the journey that is writing fiction.
And so I’ll celebrate the Easter season this weekend, and then on Monday morning I’ll take my laptop to Starbuck’s, order a nonfat mocha frappuccino, and plug in my flash drive. And I’ll write.
My guest blogger today is the great romantic suspense novelist Mary Stewart! Okay, I’ll admit, I didn’t get to interview her, much less meet her in person, but something I came across recently in one of her novels really spoke to me, and I thought other writers would enjoy it, too.
First, a little backstory: for reasons I’ll probably never understand, my current work in progress insisted on being set on the west coast of Scotland. As you might imagine, this would have been a lot easier if I could afford to go to Scotland myself, but the money just isn’t there right now. So I researched as best I could, and finished my rough draft yesterday. In the meantime, I discovered that a novel by Mary Stewart which I had somehow missed, The Stormy Petrel, was set in the Hebrides, the islands off the western coast of Scotland. I decided to treat myself to a “new” book by an old favorite, and at the same time compare her vision of Scotland(which she has no doubt seen!) with mine.
It was on page 110 that I made a discovery far more universal than any fictional portrayal of
Scotland. For it was on this page that Ms. Stewart’s first-person heroine, a novelist, struggled
with writer’s block. Here is how she describes it:
“From experience, I knew what to do. Write. Write anything. Bad sentences, meaningless sentences, anything to get the mind fixed again to that sheet of paper and oblivious of the “real” world. Write until the words begin to make sense, the cogs mesh, the wheels start to turn, the creaking movement quickens and becomes a smooth, oiled run, and then, with luck,
exhaustion will be forgotten, and the real writing will begin…
“[So] I wrote. A year or so later, or it may have been an hour, I crumpled up four sheets of paper and threw them to the floor, and started another, and I was there. And in another light-year or two I was through the word-barrier, and the book had suddenly reached the stage—the
wonderful moment to get to—where I could walk right into my imaginary country and see things that I had not consciously created, and listen to people talking and watch them moving, all apparently independent of me.”
Wow! While I may never enjoy Mary Stewart’s success as a writer, I know exactly what she is talking about. For although these words may have belonged to the fictional Rose Fenemore, is there any doubt that they were based on Ms. Stewart’s own experiences as a writer? I, too, have had those moments when I was not writing so much as I was simply narrating what these
people—my own characters—were doing, as I watched the story unfold in my mind like a movie on a screen. And in spite of all the frustrations of writing, which are many—the isolation, the rejections, the endless editing, the shrinking advances, the self-doubts—this, this, is why I write.
As I write these words, there are exactly five days before my son Trevor will be heading off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for basic training. This will mark the first time in his twenty years of life that he won’t be home for Christmas. Of course, I’ve been seeing the signs coming for years: when my daughter Jessamy went off to college, Thanksgiving weekend suddenly became the preferred weekend for decorating the Christmas tree, since that was the only way she could be in on it. And with our move to Colorado last year, it meant we met her at my parents’ house for Christmas rather than her coming to ours.
“Through the years we all will be together,” promises the old song, then qualifies it with “if the Fates allow.” But the Fates don’t allow, do they? Children grow up, parents grow old, marriages don’t always last forever. Change is inevitable, and not all changes are bad. We’re
proud of Trevor, and support his decision to join the Air Force. We’re pleased with how well Jessamy is doing in her chosen career in the museum field. And it isn’t just my husband and I who are going through these changes. My sisters adore having grandchildren to share Christmas with, even though it means they must share their own children and grandchildren with other sets of doting grandparents—the in-laws, after all, deserve equal time.
And that, to me, is what gives family Christmas celebrations their poignance. For all their illusion of permanence and tradition, we don’t really know what the coming year will bring, or how many more family Christmases we’ll have. All we can do is celebrate the times we’ve had, and pass those memories down to the next generation. “Do you remember the Christmas we all had the stomach flu?” someone in my family will say at some point within the next week, to be greeted by a chorus of groans. “What about the time when the bird flew into the house and Daddy had to throw a blanket over it to get it back outside?” Jessamy is usually the one who brings this one up. “Trevor and I stood at the front door to watch, and it flew out of the blanket and right back into the house! Daddy had to capture it all over again! I've never seen him so mad at us!” They howl over this story as if it happened yesterday, instead of ten years ago. We rehash these stories as if by keeping them alive in our memories, we can somehow preserve them against the day the major players are no longer on the stage. My sisters and I grew up hearing the story of how Santa once took back our dad’s Christmas toys when he didn’t take care of them. We passed the story along to our own kids, who are now passing it along to theirs. I even adapted it as a children’s book, for which I am currently seeking a publisher. My only regret is that I didn’t write this book years ago, so that my paternal grandmother could have lived to see it in print.
Who knows? Someday Trevor may regale his own children with the story of his Christmas at basic training. But in the meantime, I’ll spend the next few days making his favorite Christmas goodies (chocolate-covered orange slices, anyone? Turtle cookies? Pecan pie?) and cooking his favorite meals, doing everything I can to give him as normal a celebration as possible in a year when there is nothing at all normal about this Christmas.
So hold your loved ones close this year, while you still
can. And don’t sweat the small stuff. After all, this year’s dinner disaster or
gift-giving goof-up may someday be the stuff of family legend. And have
yourself a merry little Christmas, now.
Two years ago at this time, things were not going well at the South domicile. Mike (having been let go by Ciba after 28 years) had just taken a job paying 1/3 of his previous salary. While it helped his severance package stretch further, we knew it was only a temporary fix. Trevor had just started his freshman year at the University of Alabama. How were we to pay for it all? Friends and family, no doubt trying to lighten a bleak situation, laughingly urged me to “write fast!” Instead, I couldn’t write at all. I was stuck halfway through the manuscript that would become Babes in Tinseltown, too worried and anxious to write. And even if I finished the book, how could I submit it? I didn’t know what my home address might be by the time an editor made a decision on it.
Fast forward to October 2012. Now I sit at my computer, looking out my office window at the vibrant fall colors across the street. The ash and aspen trees are such a bright yellow they almost hurt my eyes, and beyond them the eastern face of Long’s Peak is dotted with pockets of snow. Mike has a new job that he enjoys, one that pays a little more than he’d been making at Ciba. Trevor is no longer at the University of Alabama; he’s joined the U. S. Air Force and will be leaving for basic training in December. Babes in Tinseltown is not only finished, but selling well and garnering positive reviews, and I’m halfway finished with a new book, the third in the John Pickett mystery series.
We’ve been very fortunate, but I won’t pretend it was easy. Unlike books, life won’t let you peek at the ending to make sure everything works out happily. Even after Mike had the job offer in hand, it was scary selling a house that was paid for, moving across the country, and buying a new house in a more expensive area. But sometimes risk is necessary for reward,
and sometimes a crisis can thrust you out of your comfort zone and into new opportunities that wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.
The same thing has happened to me (albeit much less dramatically!) several times in my writing career. In 1995, I was quite happily writing teen romance for Bantam’s Sweet Dreams line when the series was cancelled. After five published novels, I’d joined the ranks of authors
“orphaned” by their publishers. What to do? Fortunately, there had been rumblings for the last couple of years that the series might be on its last legs, and I had already been toying with the idea of trying my hand at a Regency romance for grown-ups. But by the time I had finished it, the Regency market had collapsed, with first Fawcett, then Signet, and finally Zebra dropping their Regency lines. Having by now finished my second Regency romance, I believed in The Weaver Takes a Wife so strongly that I took a chance and published it myself.
The large-print sale of TWTAW and its sequels opened a door for me to sell my Regency-set mysteries to Five Star, who published them in hardcover editions for the library market. When Babes in Tinseltown turned out to be too short for Five Star’s required word count, I was forced to return to self-publishing, and found it a very different world from the one I’d known at the turn of the 21stcentury. Print on demand and electronic rights have put much more power in the author’s hands, with a much smaller financial investment than it had been before. When I finish the third John Pickett mystery, I’m going to face some tough decisions: do I offer it to Five Star, or do I publish it myself? Five Star now retains electronic rights to the books they acquire; am I willing to surrender those rights in order to get a larger advance up front, or do I delay payment in order to put a more affordable product into the hands of readers sooner rather than later?
These are strange and unsettling times in the publishing world, but as I look back over the events of my own life over the past two years, I’m reminded that a crisis is sometimes an opportunity in disguise.
“I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I just never have enough time!”
“I’m going to write a book someday, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
“Someday I’m going to write a book, maybe after the kids are grown.”
“Maybe after I retire, I’ll finally be able to write that book I’ve been thinking about.”
As a writer, I tend to hear this sort of thing a lot. Everybody’s going to write a book “someday”; far fewer ever actually get around to writing it. (I confess, the opening sentence above is the one that annoys me the most, as if writers write because we have so much time on our hands!)
I can’t be too hard on them, though, because I was once one of those people who was going to write a book “someday.” I’d written my share of angst-ridden teen poetry at age thirteen, and began several short stories that were never finished. But by the time I’d entered my twenties, I’d all but abandoned my writing—all but that vague idea of writing “someday.” After all, writing was a waste of time: everybody knew it was practically impossible to get a book published.
For me, “someday” came as I saw my thirtieth birthday looming on the horizon. I became aware of the passage of time, and decided I could spend the rest of my life saying “someday”—or I could sit down and write, and let the chips fall where they may. I started writing at age 28, and saw my first book published 3½ years later, five months before my 32ndbirthday.
It can be a scary thing, putting your dreams down on paper. In some ways, it’s much safer to write a book “someday.” You don’t have to worry about losing momentum and struggling to finish your masterpiece; making revisions you don’t necessarily agree with; ugly cover designs that hurt sales; scathing reviews in Publishers Weekly or on Goodreads. No, your imaginary book is always a bestseller, adored by everyone who reads it.
So why spoil a good fantasy? Because writing is one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do, regardless of the end result. Because when you’re finished, you’ve created something new, something that didn’t exist before. And that feeling is the greatest thing in the world!
What are you waiting for? Don’t wait for “someday”—write
that book now!
The Olympics are over, and I’m suffering from withdrawal. What to do? Hmm, I guess I could always fire up my laptop and write, huh? First, though, a few thoughts on the Olympics and the writer’s life…
Whenever I watch the Olympics, I’m struck by the contrasting reactions of the athletes. While everyone is thrilled to win the gold, the responses to the lesser medals are often strikingly different. One athlete appears disappointed to win “only” a silver medal, while another is ecstatic at the prospect of claiming a bronze. Still others seem delighted simply to have competed in the Olympics, whether they win a medal or not. Clearly, success means something different to each of these athletes.
I sometimes wonder what it would take for me to feel truly successful as a writer. At first, my whole ambition was to see my book in print, and I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing my first book, of holding it in my hands and flipping the pages to see my own words printed inside. But almost immediately, that wasn’t enough. Would I ever have a second book in print? A third? Would I ever attract the attention of the major reviewers? What about foreign language editions? Fan mail?
I’ve accomplished all those things, and yet still something seems to be missing. So, what would it take for me to feel successful? The New York Times Bestseller List? If so, I’m afraid I’m doomed to failure. I don’t write the type of book that makes the list, and don’t really
want to. What about money? If I got a six-figure contract, would I be satisfied? Again, I'd better not hold my breath. I don’t write the type of books for which there is that sort of market. But that’s okay; I made a conscious decision to write the kind of books I like to read, and I don’t regret that decision. While income from writing is nice (okay, it’s very nice!), it’s not like I have to make a living that way. I’m fortunate enough to have a loving and supportive husband with a good income. And a good thing, too: I can’t think of anything more muse-killing than the pressure that would come with knowing I must make a big sale!
Where, then, can I turn to feel good about what I’ve accomplished? I remember my own words while watching the Olympics. “Hmmph!” I remarked to my husband and son, “if she doesn’t want that bronze medal, I’m sure there are plenty of gymnasts (or swimmers, or volleyball players, or pole vaulters) who would be happy to change places with her!” Likewise, there are plenty of writers who are where I once was, wanting desperately to see their names in print. They would be happy to be where I am now. There are other things, too, little things that make me realize it’s possible to have an impact without ever hitting the New York Times Bestseller List: the chance encounter with a young adult writer (two, in fact) who says she was inspired to write after reading my Bantam Sweet Dreams title Wrong-Way Romance as a teenager; the terminal cancer patient who was given a copy of The Cobra and the Lily, and told all her hospital visitors how much she enjoyed the story.
I may never be famous, but my stories are being read and, in at least a few cases, have made a difference in readers’ lives.
Maybe that’s success enough for any writer.
Random thoughts on the 2012 Romance Writers of America conference in Anaheim,
This was the first conference I’d attended in 12 years, having taken a break for my kids’ summer activities—and, to be perfectly
honest, during some of those years I wasn’t bringing in enough income from my writing to justify the expense. I was struck immediately by how much had changed—and how much had not. E-pubbing and self-pubbing, once anathema to RWA and considered a last-ditch effort for those who couldn’t see any other way of getting their books published, was now the subject of numerous workshops. Social media, in its infancy twelve years ago, was another hot topic. But some things remained the same: book giveaways so extravagant that attendees had to ship their bounty home (to the relief of numerous sky caps, I don’t doubt!), the editor & agent appointments, the literacy signing, the RITA and Golden Heart awards, to name only a few.
A conference highlight for me is the Beau Monde’s min-conference the day before RWA kicks off, the culmination being the Wednesday night soiree with its Regency costumes and period dancing. I made a new dress for the occasion, and I am pleased to say that this, along with my
turban and quizzing-glass, was much admired.
One of the enduring delights of RWA is the discovery every year that the best things are not on the conference schedule. No, the conference highlights are those things that happen spontaneously: the agent seated next to me at luncheon, who expresses interest in my work, then hands me his card and asks to see more; the surprising discovery that some of the Big
Names in historical romance seem to know who I am(!); the passenger on the airport shuttle who exclaims, “I know you! I read your book! I loved that book!”
I also was reminded of the big rewards small courtesies can bring. After eating dinner in the hotel restaurant, I slipped a bookmark into the little leather pad along with my credit card. The waitress saw it and thanked me with an enthusiasm far out of proportion to what I thought the gesture deserved. It was such a little thing on my part, but she seemed so
These are the things that make me eager to return to RWA next year. Maybe I’ll see you in
Atlanta in 2013!