Are You There, Judy? It’s Me, Elisa

I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about.

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When I talk about the writers who have most influenced me as a writer and a storyteller, Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron—two screenwriters, predominantly (although Ephron began her career as a journalist and wrote everything from plays to essays to blog posts, and Sorkin is also a playwright)—come to my lips first. In Sorkin I see a kindred spirit of one who hears dialogue like music, and I worship at his altar of “intention and obstacle” when it comes to my novels. In Ephron I find less a kindred spirit and more someone I want to like me, even from beyond. Consequently, after reading Richard Cohen’s book about her, it seems I was far from alone in that regard.

Aaron writes dialogue that sounds smart. Nora wrote smart stuff.

But the writer I talk little about, who perhaps has had an even greater influence on me, for a longer period of time, is Judy Blume.

I was introduced to Judy Blume books in the second grade, when my teacher, Ms. Millman (she was the first woman I knew who insisted on being called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.,” and she was my favorite grade-school teacher), read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to the class.

I was hooked from there. As I’ve often said, when it comes to reading, I am a creature of habit—when I find an author I like, I read just about everything s/he’s ever written, often more than once. That was Judy Blume. I took Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing out of the library and read it again. And again. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great came next, followed by Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself. I remember when Superfudge came out, and my female classmates all clamored to be next on the waiting list at the school’s library to read it.

And then, of course, there was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

It was the book to read if you were a twelve-year-old girl. And it made an impression on every one of them. Three of my friends and I started our own PTS’s club, complete with boy books and discussion about bras (neither the club nor the books lasted very long; besides, I only had one boy and Paul McCartney on my list—this was post-Shaun Cassidy and pre-Duran Duran).

I ordered a Starter Kit after reading that book. Two girls in my sixth grade class threw a co-ed party and announced they were going to play “Spin the Bottle” (I was relieved not to be invited). Like Margaret, I wanted breasts (I got my wish, albeit not during my teens). I wanted my period. I wanted knitted sweaters with special labels (my grandmother made me dresses for my brothers’ weddings, wraparound skirts, funky vests, and knitted booties, so I’m not complaining).

It’s Not the End of the World turned out to be a refuge after my parents split up, although their demise looked nothing like Karen’s parents. Deenie, Blubber, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t—these were all the books of my childhood and adolescence. I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about. I wrote lots of stories in my head. I wrote stories in my notebook and hid the notebooks. I wrote in my diary every day and made up stories in which I inserted myself into a soap opera plot or a Duran Duran video.

Last week I began Judy Blume’s Master Class, and was validated all over again from the very first lesson, this time as a grown up. A writer. An author. A storyteller. And a woman.

I found out that Judy and I share the same phobia of thunderstorms.

I found out that Judy gets ideas in the shower and/or on walks, just like I do.

I found out that, like me, Judy re-purposes the things and truths she both witnesses and experiences and feels in and from her own life into her stories. Not consciously or deliberately, but because they’re there and, to step back into Nora Ephron’s shoes for just a moment, “everything is copy.”

She tells stories about herself as a writer as simply as she writes.

I also found out that there are still a bunch of Judy Blume books I have yet to read. I’ll be visiting the public library in the near future. And heck, I’ll re-read all the other ones yet again, because it’s been so long.

I never got the chance to tell Nora Ephron what her writing meant to me. I got to tell Aaron Sorkin online, and even shook his hand in person. I hope I get those opportunities with Judy Blume. I hope I get to tell her that she’s one of my favorites. I hope I get to show her my novels, and tell her that Andi from Faking It voraciously read Judy Blume’s books. Even mentioned that she did. Sage from The Second First Time probably read all her books too. And Sunny from Adulation. And Eva from Why I Love Singlehood. How could they not? I hope I get to thank Judy Blume for knowing me and writing for me, even though she’s never known I exist. I hope I get to hug her.

I am truly a student of her craft as much as I am a reader of her stories. And I am honored and privileged to be both for the last forty years.

 

judy blume books copy
image from http://ashrocketship.com/tag/back-to-school-with-judy-blume/

Holiday Gifts for Writers

If you have a writer in your life, whether they are aspiring or well-established authors, may I recommend a few gift ideas for them…

Today I’m directing my post not to writers, but to friends/loved ones of writers. If you have a writer in your life, whether they are aspiring or well-established authors, may I recommend a few gift ideas for them…

 

Writing journals

If the writer on your gift list is like me, s/he is probably constantly jotting down snippets of scenes, dialogue, novel ideas, and so on. Nowadays our phones come with apps that allow us to do this, but some still prefer the old fashioned way. Journals cost anywhere from $10 to $25 and they are easy to carry, store, and use. Add a couple of nice pens, too (although, if they’re like me, they might be picky about their pens).

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Writing software

Journals are great, but writers need more sophisticated tools, like computers. If the writer on your list has been really nice, a new MacBook Pro might be just the thing. However, chances are they already have a desktop or laptop. What they might need, however, is writing software. Scrivener is great because it accommodates just about any kind of writing, be it novels, screenplays, term papers, etc. It offers features that support the drafting and revision process, a virtual corkboard for outlining and plotting, and will export your files to other programs such as Microsoft Word. It will even format your book for digital readers. Scrivener has both Mac- and PC-friendly versions, and even an app for smartphones. The price is quite affordable as well.

 

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Books about writing

If the writer in your life is just getting started, then books about writing might be just the perfect gift. They’re way cheaper than MFA programs, and many are just as effective. Or, your writer might want a refresher, or to start writing in a different genre. I keep going back to Stephen King’s On Writing, for example. Here are a few of my favorite writing books (including one by yours truly).

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Books for pleasure reading

Writers don’t just write; the really good ones are also voracious readers. We love books. If you ask a writer what’s on his/her TBR (To Be Read) list, chances are it’s a very long list. And depending on your budget (or the book), you can spend as little as $5 for a used or electronic copy or as much as $30 for a hardcover or special edition. Bonus points if you buy the book at your local independent bookstore and support their business. Books make great gifts, and not just for writers!

 

Craig's books

 

Coffee mug

Let’s face it: Ask a writer to name the most important component of their writing and they won’t say their laptop or their craft—they’ll say coffee. Thus, writers can never have enough coffee mugs. And although I don’t drink it, I love fixing some tea or chai and carrying it to my desk in one of my many favorite mugs (including Duran Duran, of course), signaling my readiness to make magic on the page—or, at the very least, add to my word count. Online stores like Zazzle, CafePress, and Etsy have some clever mugs that will delight any writer, be they grammar nerds, sci-fi authors, Harry Potter fans, or plain ol’ coffee addicts. Many independent bookstores sell coffee mugs as well. And you can spend anywhere from 5 to 20 bucks.

 

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Time and space

This may be the best gift for the writer who works at a full-time job and/or takes care of a family full-time. In that case, making time and carving out a writing space, be it the dining room table or a desk in the bedroom corner, if not a room or office, is precious gold to this writer. Perhaps you can take the kids every Saturday morning for an hour, cook dinner and do the dishes every Wednesday evening, or buy a small desk at a flea market and refinish it for them. Maybe you can help clean out the clutter in the basement, or even a walk-in closet, and turn it into an office space. Or you could buy some gift cards from their favorite coffee shop so they can write there. Anything that validates and supports the value of the writing, and of them as writers, is a gift that keeps on giving.

 

What Does it Mean to Be “Well Read”?

I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality?

When I was teaching college writing, I used to assign my students a literacy narrative in which they write about their history with reading and writing. I had written several as a grad student, and when my peers read their narratives out loud, I used to feel self-conscious because I didn’t believe myself to be as well read as they were.

It didn’t stop there. Often times I’d hear colleagues use “well read” as a marker of character. “I wouldn’t put much stock into what he says; he’s not very well read.” Or: “You’d like her. She’s well read.”

My students also had an expectation of me to be well read. To them, “well read” was not only having read all the classic literature in the world, but also having memorized it. Especially Shakespeare. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many of my students were shocked that not only had I not memorized Shakespeare, but I could remember the few plays and/or sonnets of his I had read. In fact, some students had decided me a substandard instructor the moment I told them my bachelor’s degree was not English, but rather psychology, which, trust me, has served me way more and better than an English degree ever would.

For most of my life, I too believed “well read” meant one who had read—and absorbed—a lot of classic literature. Willingly and aptly. When NPR or Publisher’s Weekly or some other bookish media site releases a list called The 100 Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime or something like that, and my Facebook friends proudly boast their numbers: “I’ve read 60 of them!” “72!” “85!” I keep silent because I don’t come close.

So what, and how much, have I read?

It’s a question I’m asked as an author, and I’m always afraid to answer it for fear of being judged. But I’ll try to go out of my comfort zone here.

For starters, I have always been a creature of habit. If I fall in love with a writer (not literally, with the exception of my husband), I’ll read just about everything in his/her canon. As a child, I loved Dr. Seuss. Then Judy Blume. I didn’t only read each of their books once, but repeatedly. Like listening to an album and then letting it play over and over.

As a teenager, I can’t remember reading much of anything, especially whatever was assigned in school (with the exception of The Outsiders; my older sister loved it so much she read it to my twin brother and me, and I was totally stoked when we were finally assigned it in school.). I especially can’t remember liking any reading that was assigned. I was a teenager and a Duranie, so naturally I devoured every magazine that featured the Fab Five: “Simon Tells All!” “A Day in the Life of Jaunty JT!” and so on. I didn’t only look at the pictures (although, come on—it was all about the pictures). I read the articles (probably few of them true), and during this time I wrote Duran Duran fan fiction, not knowing there was a genre by that name. I read a few novels here and there, but none that stick out in my memory.

In my late teens and early 20s, I had lost my way. I was in a rather toxic relationship with someone who abhorred reading, couldn’t be bothered with it, found it lame and unsexy (how wrong he was). As I started to break free from his clutches, it was books that helped me escape—some were of the self-help variety (I recently wrote a post about the most influential one), some nonfiction like All the President’s Men and Barbarians at the Gate because I’d liked the movie adaptations, and eventually I found my way back to novels.

Then, in 1995, I went back to college.

At UMass Dartmouth, I was immersed in academic reading, including novels for classes such as “Comedy and Satire” and “Literature and Society,” essays for “Writing About Popular Culture,” and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for a psychology paper on existentialism. (Also a book that has left a lasting impression on me.) The reading intensified in grad school—by then I was immersed in Aristotle, rhetorical scholars like Kenneth Burke and David Bartholomae, and a little Noam Chomsky here and there.

At some point I found myself craving “pleasure reading,” and sought more humorous work, including Douglas Adams, Nora Ephron, and David Sedaris. I’d wanted to write more humorous essays, and found them influential.

Reading Stephen King’s On Writing was the game-changer, however; King’s classic advice of “read a lot and write a lot” sunk in. I was astounded when he said he read sixty to seventy books a year. My graduate work prevented me from coming anywhere near that total, but I definitely upped my game. I listened to audiobooks (including the Harry Potter series) in my car, read a little bit before bed, and tried to get through two or three books per summer. I still don’t come close to the sixty-to-seventy total.

So what do I read now?

Anything from books on how to improve productivity or boost your Kindle book sales to a memoir about Cary Grant or Dick Van Dyke to my friends/ fellow authors’ novels to novels that have come highly recommended in Facebook book groups to books on writing craft. I’m not loyal to any one genre, especially not my own. I also read the occasional blog post, political article (although I’ve cut back on those because they anger me too much), or Top Ten list.

And I’m still a creature of habit. I named 2017 A Year of Nora Ephron and (re)read just about everything of hers that I could get my hands on. I enjoy Marian Keyes’ and Jennifer Weiner’s and Sarah Pekkanen’s books. I read screenplays written by Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman. And all of Craig Lancaster’s books, of course. The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter is my favorite, having read it three times, including before it was released. I have standalone favorites: Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s memoir, In the Pleasure Groove. And more.

And yes, I’ve read a few of the classics. They’re not in a league of their own, as far as I’m concerned. Some I liked and some I didn’t, like anything else I’ve ever read.

As a writer, it’s hard to read anything these days and not be looking at it with a critical eye. All part of the profession. But I love when I read something and think, “God, I wish I’d thought of that.” I also like reading something, putting it down, and thinking, “Well geez, I could do way better than that.” Both instances motivate me need to step up my game. And I don’t ever want to sit back and think I never have to be better than I already am.

So am I well read? I’m sure some will tell me I’m far from. Others will tell me they wish they were as well read as I am. I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality? If it’s the latter, then who is the gatekeeper of that quality?

If you know the answer, tell me later. I’m in the middle of a really good book.

 

Craig's books

 

The Writer’s Habit “Introduction”: Read It Here for Free!

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based.

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based. I hope it will make you want to read more. You can buy it here. You can also go to elisalorello.com to learn more about me as well as my other books.

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If you liked what you just read, please consider subscribing to The Writer’s Habit mailing list for updates on course information, spin-off books, and more!

4 Ways To Cope With Rejection

One thing is for sure: rejection sucks.

Last week good friend of mine’s manuscript was rejected by a publisher with whom he had past success and got along with exceptionally. In fact, he’d signed with this publisher when they were just beginning as a newbie imprint ready to take on the world.

A manuscript may be rejected for any number of reasons. Aspects of the story or writing may be problematic. Or the story and writing might be great, but the genre doesn’t match the imprint’s mission. Or an editor/agent isn’t confident that the book can sell. And sometimes it’s just a matter of personal taste. What one reader loses sleep over might be another reader’s insomnia remedy.

One thing is for sure: rejection sucks. The act sucks. The feeling sucks. The aftermath sucks. Especially when you thought you wrote a sure thing. Especially when you were hopeful or, more than hopeful, longing.

This kind of rejection not only happens with a manuscript, but also with a book. An author may be showered with praise and critical acclaim from editors, marketers, fellow authors, and readers; and yet, the book still manages to commercially tank. Or a slew of scathing reviews file in. I’ve experienced this with one of my own books.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t experienced some kind of crushing disappointment at some point during their writing career.

So how do we cope? How do we get past the hurt? How do we not internalize it, let it affect our self-esteem and our writing process?

Here are four things that work for me:

 

1. Look for the Positive Aspects

I try to do this with any negative or challenging situation. For example, if I’m stuck in traffic, I find positive aspects in the comfortable car, good music on the stereo, full tank of gas, no snow or ice on the ground, etc. (Of course, some situations are particularly arduous, like the tragic flooding we’re seeing in Houston.) In the context of writing and rejection, it may be difficult to find positive aspects when a manuscript you’ve pored over for weeks, months, even years, has been turned down. But it’s possible, for example, that rather than your story not being right for the publisher, the publisher wasn’t right for your story. Maybe there’s someone else who will not only be able to see its potential, but also know how to capitalize on it. Maybe the rejection has given you an opportunity to develop the writing, collaborate with someone you’ve always wanted to work with, or independently publish.

If I’m really struggling to find positive aspects in the moment, then I’ll usually trust that they will reveal themselves in time. For example, my decision to self-publish my debut novel, Faking It, following the rejection of some fifty agents, was probably the most positive aspect to have come out of the situation. But at the time I wasn’t sure if I was committing writing career suicide or taking a leap of faith.

 

2. Be Like Jed Bartlet

At some point, after the sting subsides (and even before), I ask myself the famous words of The West Wing President Jed Bartlet: “What’s next?”

Asking What’s next? is about being proactive. Are there other agents or editors you can pitch to or query? Is independent publishing an option? Is it best to put the manuscript aside and work on something else in the meantime? (Temporarily setting a manuscript aside isn’t throwing it away or invalidating its worth; it’s just taking a break from it and returning to it at another time with fresh eyes and renewed momentum.) Are there lessons to be learned for why a book failed following its launch? Perhaps a new cover design or marketing strategy is in order?

My husband had written a novel that had been rejected by both his agent and his editor. He put the manuscript away and moved on to a new novel, one that was published and sold well. A good friend of his, however, thought that manuscript was excellent, and would occasionally ask my husband about it, urging him to do something with it.

Years later, my husband opened the file, read the manuscript, and saw what his friend had seen in it. He revised and edited the story, designed a cover, and released the book under his own imprint. Not only has Julep Street been critically acclaimed, its story is also more timely now than it was when my husband had first submitted the manuscript.

The point is, you have options. As a writer, you probably have more options than ever before. Explore each one. If you love your story, if you believe in your book, then you owe it to yourself and your brainchild to leave no stone unturned. What’s next?

 

3. You Are So Much More

As I’d mentioned, at least fifty agents as well as a prominent acquisitions editor had rejected Faking It. Since its publication, approximately 10% of its Amazon customer reviews are 1- and 2-stars. And while each rejection stung, some more than others, it didn’t change the fact that I believed I’d written something good. (In fact, none of the agents or the editor had said the writing was the problem.) Moreover, the poor sales of one of my published titles didn’t change the fact that I’d had exceptional sales of others. It didn’t change the fact that I was a good writer—better than some and not as good as others—or that I loved to write. It didn’t change the fact that readers liked my books. It didn’t change the fact that people liked me.

Because that’s what I believe we internalize most when our writing is rejected: I am not good enough. When I think those thoughts, feel unworthy, I change the thoughts to I am good enough. More importantly, I am more than my manuscript, more than amazon sales rankings, more than other people’s reviews, more than the books I write, more than my career. I am more than a writer. I am so much more.

 

Perhaps the most important way to overcome rejection is this:

 

4. Persevere

Just as I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t experienced rejection, I also have yet to meet a writer for whom patience, persistence, and perseverance hasn’t paid off. As in life, a writing career is all about ebb and flow. Embrace it. Jump in. And keep swimming. Or, if need be, just float.

 

Note that I am not advocating a just-get-over-it approach. I think rejection needs to be validated and recognized, and that you need to allow yourself to feel the pain of it. Lean into it, if you must. However, you don’t want to wallow in rejection for so long that it paralyzes your ability to keep writing or jeopardizes your self-esteem. If these approaches work for you, put any or all of them into effect as soon as possible.

 

Discussion: As a writer, how have you coped with rejection? Please share in the comments.

 

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