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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Clearing Rejections

This week I met a delightful woman who is a fellow writer of the same vintage as I am – i.e., we both worked when writing still paid (for example: HuffPost expects writers to contribute for free) and midlist authors weren’t being dropped by the Big Five publishers as they acquired smaller houses. We were reminiscing about back in the day--gaaah, that makes me feel old!--when we sent print queries via snail mail (don't forget your SASE!) to agents and waited weeks, sometimes months, for a reply.

I was recounting the story of seeking an agent for Blood Exposure, the first of my novels. 

Organized (compulsive?) as I am, I diligently tracked every query with a spreadsheet and saved every response. I used to segregate the responses in categories – Request for Full MS, Request for Partial MS, Rejection, Handwritten (getting a handwritten comment was almost as good as getting a request for a partial), Rejection, Form Letter. Far and away, the thickest file was the latter. If nothing else, I figured my paperwork would stand up to an IRS audit in case they questioned my status as something other than a “hobby” writer. I have all of these in neatly labeled files in my office.

In my previous life in corporate America, I had a boss I admired greatly.  One day, waiting in his office prior to a meeting, I noticed a neat grouping of about seven letters, matted and framed on his wall. Perusing these documents, I was astonished to find that they were all from companies with whom he had interviewed that had subsequently decided to hire another candidate. I was incredulous. Why would you not only keep, but display those rejections?

“It keeps me humble,” he said.

So when I began querying, I told myself that saving all that paperwork ensured my humbleness. Well, I was good and humble fifteen months and nearly one hundred (!) queries later when I found an agent who loved the story and wanted to represent it.

Discussing the subject with my new writer friend pointed up the absurdity of this thinking. In retrospect, I see that the need to prove myself  as “real” was my own insecurity. Far from keeping me humble, holding onto such negativity only substantiated this insecurity.  And, IRS or no,  I don’t need to hold on to anything that simply says “It isn’t right for us.” Which meant it wasn't right at that time...for that agent or publishing house...for that market...but that, deep inside, I translated as “YOU aren’t right for us.” I internalized the rejection by legitimizing it.

So in my ongoing quest to clear out what doesn’t bring me joy in order to make room for what will, why would I keep the negative paperwork of my past?  

Its's outta here. Today.

Oh, and that agent that I finally found? Disappeared without a trace after about two years, having never sold the book. As I never saw any physical proof of his efforts despite my requests for information (e.g., "okay, Putnam said it's not for them. Did they say anything specific? Did the characters not ring true? Any problems with the plot?") I have no idea to this day whether he actually sent the book out at all.

By the time I finished Net Stalker, I'd decided that I'd find another agent who would now have two books to market. Another year of queries, by this time updated to emails with a great tool, QueryTracker, that kept all my records without keeping the actual rejections at hand. The brilliant creators of the site must have known that writers are often far too prone to self-doubt as it is.

In the end, right or wrong, I eventually chose another path, that of self-publishing.

In clearing the files of rejections, I did come across another file I hadn't looked at in a while: my "YAY!" file of emails and notes from readers who have enjoyed and have been touched by my work.
Which certainly meets the criterion of "that which brings you joy." 

That's a keeper.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Many unhappy returns

Print-on-demand (POD) technology and, especially, has changed book royalty reporting and payment dramatically. A Butler's Life was first published by Frederic C. Beil Publisher, and as in most traditional publishing practices, I received a royalty statement twice a year, roughly three months after the end of the reporting period, to allow for returns by bookstores to be deducted from your sales. Bookstores, that pay roughly half the list price to begin with, are also given the option of returning unsold titles at little or no penalty. So if Barnes & Noble orders six of your title and after a set amount of time determines that your book isn't likely to sell out, they cut their stock losses and ship your book back.

What is greatest at? Data collection. So being able to generate a report that tracks sales, borrows, etc. is a no-brainer to them and doesn't require three months of sorting through invoices to tabulate. Amazon Kindle, which represents all four of my "main" books in e-book form, pays royaties monthly on sales lagging two months.

Over the past few months, authors were notified by Amazon that their Kindle Unlimited program (for a set monthly fee, you "borrow" the books for free) will begin paying authors by number of pages read. (We don't even want to think about the creepiness of the level of data collection that allows Amazon to know exactly where, and when, you quit reading that ebook.)

July statements were the first to reflect this new system.  On one hand, it's gratifying, because due to their algorhythms, someone who borrows and finishes Choice will actually make me a few more cents than someone who buys it outright.

On the other hand, someone who doesn't finish a book sets off all sorts of author insecurity. What happened on page 40 that stopped the reader in her tracks? Was it the topic? The writing? The characters? WHY DIDN'T YOU LIKE ME?!?!?!? (sob)

But the real gut kicker in Amazon's monthly royalty report is the column labeled Returns.

Wait, what? Isn't one advantage of ebooks that there won't be any returns? I mean, you're transferring data, no trees have been cut down, etc., right?

Um, no.

In the traditional publisher's distribution model, you had no idea which bookstores returned your book, but the "why" was clear: It didn't sell (fast enough). Now that decision is made by an individual, and the presumed reason is simply that they didn't like your book enough to pay even a paltry $4 for it. Or--equally likely--they took advantage of a little known policy that allows one to return an ebook within a set amount of time even if already read. (Kind of like the woman who buys a party dress, saves the tags, wears it to the wedding, then returns it the following day. Really, who does that?)

Recently, there was an article about how a Michigan bookstore, Brilliant Books, offered a refund on Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman. This unprecedented move was not because the store thought it a disappointing book after all the hype, but rather because the the owners felt the public had been misled about the book's origin. Go Set A Watchman is not, as the publisher's website had trumpeted, a "new" manuscript unearthed among Lee's things but rather her originally-submitted manuscript, suggested revisions to which became To Kill A Mockingbird.

If bookstores took back books that disappointed, there would likely be a far fewer copies of Fifty Shades of Grey in thrift shop racks. But ebooks, as we continue to learn, are a whole 'nother animal, still in the evolutionary stage. While ebook authors make a larger percentage of royalties over trad pub contracts, it's evident that e-publisher will still find ways to chip away at those pennies. The winner will not be the author.

I need to grow a thicker skin...

Sunday, April 26, 2015


I wrote last about decluttering with an aim to opening up some literal as well as mental space in my life. Well, things are progressing.

After much research, I managed to find a vinyl collector for the majority of Dad's old jazz albums. Armed with a special turntable that records straight into a computer music file, I spent a whole weekend copying some early folk and contemporary trad jazz that will never be sold on iTunes or found on YouTube. It was a rainy weekend, perfect for soaking up the memories that bubbled up in me as I sang along with the old music. Then I catalogued and uploaded the tracts to my iPod, packed up one hundred pounds of vinyl record albums, and shipped them to Tennessee. On tax day. It was, quite literally, a weight off my mind.

Next up? A doll collection.

I was never the sort of child who played with dolls. But I spent my college years working at Disneyland in the gift shops in Fantasyland. I became friendly with Elyse, the Doyenne of the Doll Department in Tinkerbell Toy Shop (alas, the shop is long gone). Elyse was British, and I admit I first made her acquaintance in order to hear her beautiful Sussex accent. Soon, though, I became fascinated by Elyse's knowledge of her stock and began to love her charges as she did, and to request the department on my shifts. The Doll department was tucked into the quiet back end of the large shop, near a back door that wound around the side of Sleeping Beauty's castle...far from the counters selling t-shirts and pencils and rulers and pens with a Monorail that floated from one end to the other when tipped. Everything in our end of the shop was expensive: we sold what are nowdays called the Princess dresses (Snow White, Cinderella, etc., sized 2-6x), and dolls by Effanbee and Madame Alexander.

The Madame Alexander dolls were by far our best sellers. Yes, we occasionally had some truly special (read: $$$$) editions such as a 21" Scarlett O'Hara in the deep green "drapery" dress, or lifelike, life-sized baby dolls, but the biggest sellers were the 8" dolls. The word on the street at that time was that Madame Alexander herself was 85 and in very poor health, and that when she passed away the molds that produced the dolls would be broken. For this reason, we were allowed to sell no more than two dolls per person, we were not supposed to alert our many collectors to a new shipment, and we weren't allowed to specify what we wanted to order. The company simply shipped us what they felt like shipping us when they felt like shipping it to us. We inventoried then sold it...often selling out in a matter of days.

So given that level of exposure and excitement, I started to grow interested in collecting them too. I started with some of the Storybook dolls (the Little Women series, Scarlett O'Hara) and moved into the International line. True to my training, I kept every box, the packing material, and often even the hang tags, carefully stored in an old footlocker. I've added a few dolls to the collection over the years, but for the most part, it's remained static, not least because there is limited room in the glass cabinet I display them in.

But...the dolls are of a period my life from which I have grown away. It was time to find them a new home. So I started doing my research on eBay and elsewhere. And found, to my disappointment, that all that hype back in the late 1970s was just that--marketing hype. Madame Alexander sold her company a couple of years before her death in 1990, and there hasn't been so much as a slowdown in the production of dolls since. The average closed auction price for one of the dolls was one-seventh of what I'd paid for them in 1980.

Still, I kept reminding myself, the point was to rehouse these lovelies where they could be more fully appreciated. And thus, the exodus. As of today, all but four of the Madame Alexander dolls have left for new lives in new places.

Which left me two nice empty shelves in my display cabinet, located in the dining room at A Butler's Manor. Hmmm. What to fill the space with?

Ah hah! Simple. Something representative of where I am now, what I do now. My "grown up" self.

I set up a display of all of my books for sale.

Yeah, I've still got some porcelain dolls to find new homes for. But instantly, what a change it made to the feeling of the room. And to my heart. This is who I am now. This is what I do now. This is my past...AND my future.

And sure, perhaps my books will remain "collectible" only to me. But they're my best sellers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


It's often said--and I believe--that decluttering frees up blockages, and allows the Universe to send you what you might truly need.

I hope so. I feel I've been at an impasse lately with my writing. I need to clear whatever junk is in my head that is blocking me from moving forward.

The bigger picture is that I want to declutter my life in order to be able to more nimbly move forward into whatever new opportunities may arise. And frankly, I just have way too much stuff.

My project last fall--proudly accomplished--was to convert my boxes and boxes of snapshots to DVD, which in turn I categorized and saved to Dropbox. Doing so cleared out much of a cupboard. Every so often now I open that cupboard just to admire its emptiness.

The next cupboard has the record albums.

My parents, especially my dad, were aficionados of Dixieland jazz, a.k.a classic or trad (traditional) jazz, and through immersion, I too became a lifelong fan. From the time we were small, my siblings and I were taken monthly to the Sunday afternoon meetings of the Los Angeles-based organization called Jazz, Inc., and to regional Dixieland music festivals, especially the Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee. After my parents passed away, I took the majority of Dad's LPs home, thinking I would somehow accomplish what he never got around to doing--transferring the music to an easier-to-store medium. (His medium of choice was his beloved TEAC reel-to-reel.) Alas, though I did acquire a turntable with the capability to transfer LPs to my computer, I found, as I think Dad did before me, that it was quite a task if you wished to be thorough in doing so (e.g., not only the name of the band, album, and featured tunes, but band personnel, record label, and label number). And then there are those fascinating and evocative covers and liner notes...

Music is a huge source of memories for me, and even researching online for potential new homes for Dad's collection, I found links like this that allowed me to go back in time to those days when I used to sip my cup of Coke and dance in the aisles to a live Dixieland band. Those were such good times.

But I have to accept that I am not slated to be the archivist of this collection; trust that someone else with more passion for documenting the past will love these albums as Dad did. So my project to rehouse them begins today as I start cataloging what I have, consoling myself that nowadays, almost anything is findable online. (Thank you, YouTube.)

Let me clear cupboards of that which doesn't serve me anymore, and thereby create space to fill up with what I need in the way of new findings, new ideas, new words.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Route 66 in our '67 -- End of the Line!

Starting time: 7:15 AM MST, Flagstaff, AZ
Starting mileage: 59382
Yesterday's mileage: 617

Whether due to the change in time, an unusual amount of traffic noise, or just anticipation, we were up and out early this morning for our last leg of the seven-day trip.

Some more history: Chris bought the Duchess sight unseen, off eBay, where it was listed through a dealer on behalf of a client. The gentleman had owned the car for 25 years. About 14 years ago, he had shipped her from his home in Northern California to his summer home in Nova Scotia, where she became the "summer driver," until the gentleman grew too old to drive and reluctantly decided to sell her.

No garage, so the Duchess gets a blankie for the night
Chris and he spoke for hours over the phone prior to the conclusion of the sale, and one of the funniest moments was when, at Chris's instruction, the old gentleman and his daughter, armed with an iPhone with Facetime, gave Chris a virtual test drive. ("Okay, now start the car. Zoom in to the oil gauge. I make that about 42, is that right?...Okay, now give her some gas...")

The mountains towering over Flagstaff, first thing in the morning
The Jaguar was shipped from Nova Scotia to Boston, where the dealer was located, and Chris traveled there to bring her home to Southampton. She had about 55,000 original niles on the odometer at the time and came with a suitcase full of pedigree, including original bill of sale and all mechanical records, the original toolkit including a quaint grease gun, and a box the size of an undercounter refrigerator full of spare parts. Chris pored through all the records like an archaeologist, using them to compile his own list of questions for our mechanic in Southampton prior to our journey.

One of the things he found was that when she was made, she was shipped directly to a luxury car dealership in Beverly Hills. The keys were attached to the original leather keyfob with their logo on it, and that dealership is named on the license plate surrounds still on the car.

So, like me, the Duchess is going home. And I swear she knows it. Each day it seems she purrs a little more contentedly, and her ride becomes that much smoother. She is heading back to the sun and warmth where she "grew up" to become our winter driver. I swear her performance increased 1.5 MPG once we hit the state line.

I am a California native and very proud of it, but I have to say, of the entire journey coast to coast, the final approach through the Mojave Desert is the ugliest of all. Okay, you either love the desert or you don't, and I don't; even banked by majestic foothills and mountains, the floor of the desert is flat and featureless, with sand and rocks and scrub and Russian Thistle (tumbleweeds to you). We laughed because when we encountered the California Welcome Center, it was 150 miles from the state line, not the two to five miles that was customary in every other state we'd passed through. I figure that's because until you get to Barstow, CA (and, in my not so humble opinion, not even there), there is certainly nothing welcoming about the landscape.

Except that you can open the wind wings and enjoy the breeze, even in December.

Cresting the long grade of the Cajon Pass on the west side of Victorville, heading into San Bernadino the Duchess took in stride, despite the rotten roadway (Caltrans had apparently added another lane to the existing road while imperfectly scrubbing out the previous lanes). Nine months of the year, I drive in the tiny Hamptons, so my first few days (weeks?) of California driving are an exercise in recovering my nerve, and going over the pass was a bit of a white knuckler. Cars and trucks sped by us on both sides on the 6% downgrade even with the choppy, weather-beaten roadway.
I don't want to live on this street either.

Some observations en route:

-- Descending from the mountains in Flagstaff, we encountered the first instance of skunk as roadkill. This is common out west, but I have never seen or smelled a skunk out east. Maybe they don't grow there?

--Similarly, until we hit the Arizona state line we had not had even a single bug killed on the windscreen. Maybe bugs hibernate in cold climates.


--Sign advertising what food was available off the next exit: "Roadkill 66 Cafe." (Really!!!)

--The smell of eucalyptus as we approached Laguna Canyon!!

And we made it!!!
Safe and sound. Unpacking at our winter home!
Arrival time: 2:35 PM PST (3:35 MST), Laguna Beach, CA
Ending mileage: 59844
Today's mileage: 482

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Route 66 in our '67: The Classic Experience

Starting time: 7:45 AM CST, Amarillo, TX
Starting mileage: 58744
Yesterday's mileage: 571

The mesas of Arizona
These are the long days, on long, mostly straight intertates with few outposts of civilization. The hours en route are artifically shortened by the fact that we are gaining time as we head west.

Amarillo was shrouded in cowshit-scented fog as we pulled out onto the westbound highway this morning before 8 AM seeking a place for breakfast and coffee. Except that we hadn't realized we were staying on the western edge of town, and within a mile we were once again on the open road with not even a truck stop in sight. Thankfully, almost as soon as we cleared the city limits the dense fog lifted, exposing unpopulated prairie as far as the eye could see, broken only occasionally by things like a small windfarm or a stockyard. I am VERY cranky when I don't have coffee and some food in the morning, so between that and the fog, the fifteen or so miles to tiny Vega, TX, where we filled both the Duchess's tanks and our own were pretty tense indeed.

Sign on the road: "Don't Mess up Texas! $400 fine for littering."

One of the metal sculptures along I-40 in New Mexico
Shortly after you cross the state line into New Mexico, the landscape changes, with the famed colored sandstone mesas rising in the desert. Overpass bridges are cast in colored concrete and decorated with bas-relief Native American symbols. Large sculptures in copper, bronze, stainless steel appear every so often along the sides of the highway, especially near larger towns like Albuquerque and Gallop. Albuquerque's interstate highway junctions, cast in shades of salmon and sky blue, are works of art in themselves. We laughed to see a tumbleweed snowman perched on the side of the road.

The bizarre vending options in a truck stop in New Mexico

But between the far-flung towns, scenery is pretty monotonous on the road. Which makes the stops for gas and snacks an event that the truck stop retailers have learned to capitalize upon. At one such stop, called Clive's Corner (no corner at all. It was the only thing off the offramp, at an intersection of I-40 and a road that led north to Santa Fe and south to Roswell), the building contained a Subway, a convenience store, and a souvenir and gift shop the size of a supermarket. The merchandise included every form of tacky souvenir and "Indian" crafts mostly made in Mexico or China.

"Indian Village," near the AZ/NM border
Whereas New Mexico seemed to want to emphasize the artistic, Arizona's interstate commerce seemed determined to invoke the classic era of the Route 66 road trip, with (intentionally?) kitchy Navaho trading posts (advertised for ten miles on either side with dozens of billboards), or stylized forts, or crumbling circa 1950's camper/RV parks. Anything to draw the family with a backseat full of bored children to a stop. (I know. We were those children 40 years ago.)

All the highways we have thus far travelled are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, created as a result of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. US Highways MapAs you can see by the map, this is a vast system of roadways, almost all of them kept in great shape. (New Mexico has periodic signs informing you what a stretch of roadwork is costing, and when it is slated to be completed.) And no wonder. It is said that every item we buy has been on the interstate system at some point. Eisenhower considered the act one of the greatest accomplishments of his two terms in office, and historians agree.

On a related subject, one of the sights common along Rte 66 are the freight trains that seem to always be heading east. Often these trains are several MILES long, and the cars each contain a double stack of shipping containers, pulled by four engines. Less frequently, we'll see a train loaded with coal or perhaps other minerals. Again, these trains can be two hundred cars long. It is mind boggling, impressive, and very humbling to see what must be unimaginable quantities of goods being transported over this vast nation.

The long days' travel across plains and desert does not prepare you for the fact that you are actually the time we were partway across Arizona the elevation was 5000 above sea level. And then, most surprisingly, you rise from the desert into a forest which surrounds Flagstaff, AZ, a pine-covered outpost 7000 ft above sea level.

That's our stop tonight.


Arrival time: 6:15 PM MST (7:15 CST)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Route 66 in our '67!

Starting time: 8:40 AM CST, Topeka, KS
Starting mileage: 58173
Yesterday's mileage: 325 miles

MADE IT!  Now on to California!!!
 I have a confession. Semi trucks give me panic attacks.

Yes, Doctor Freud, I can trace this back to my younger days. I was in my first year in college, driving the second-to-fast lane on the 57 Freeway from Cal State Fullerton to my job at a restaurant in Tustin, CA on a rainy day in November. A double-trailered semi truck in the slow lane of the six-lane highway hit his brakes and they locked up, and on the slippery road he lost all traction. He careened across the six lanes of traffic, hit the cement center divider, and slid back across the freeway. His second trailer fishtailed into the front quarter panel of my 1966 Mustang GT, sending me spinning into traffic. My car stopped spinning facing north on the southbound freeway, and I said a quick prayer that all those cars heading straight at me would stop and...they did. Shaking, I drove off the freeway. Indented into the driver's door and front quarter panel was a perfect mold of a semi's large dual wheel. The frame of my Mustang was buckled, the driver's side now only 2/3 of the width of the passenger side.

But I didn't have a scratch on me.

Thirty years later, I still feel my heart race in instances where I am sandwiched between a semi truck and a concrete divider on a highway. This is especially true when driving through large cities, where the big rigs seem oversized and out of place amidst the spaghetti junctions. When traffic is feeding from many directions and the roads are curving in a way that the trucks seem likely to either topple or merge into me, or when I'm driving through constricted areas of road construction, I start to feel short of breath. It's a challenge that still confronts me during a road trip.

Chris, Ron & Betsy and the Duchess, bathed and
well rested  after her garage accommodations
Anyway. So this morning at eight AM, before we left the safety of my cousins' house in Topeka, Chris took the Duchess to a mechanic to check the oil leak situation.

"Sure," the guy said, "I can look at that for you right now," and he put the old girl up on the lift. Diagnosis? Yes, there is a little leak. Prognosis? No, it isn't a threat, or something we need to address before we reach our final destination. Watch her, he advised, check her at gasoline fill ups, add oil when needed, and enjoy your trip.

No charge. I love Midwesterners.
What is "Red Dyed Diesel??"

So, Chris added one quart of oil late this afternoon, and we inflated the tire pressure to 36 psi (which we should have done in the first place, as this is recommended pressure for touring while fully loaded). Immediately noticed a much smoother ride as we headed south on I-35 towards Wichita, then west through Oklahoma to Texas, through miles and miles of open prarie or farmland.

Lots of cows. Lots and lots of hawks. Sort of surprised to pass a field in Oklahoma with cotton boles still on the leafless rust-colored stalks. I didn't realize cotton grew this far west.

It was a long but exhillerating day of driving. We made it over 500 miles, stopping only for gas and coffee, with Lucas Davenport keeping us company on our audiobook.

The final hour was hair-raising, as we journeyed through northern Texas in pea-soup fog, unbroken by any lights of towns.

And here's when the semi trucks redeemed themselves for me. Unable to see more than 300 feet ahead, we were eventually passed by a big rig. Tucking in behind him, Chris sped along in his slip stream, mimicking anything he did. And I felt safer, surrounded by the big rigs. Fog or no, that lead trucker kept on at 75 MPH (!!!) and Chris gritted his teeth and followed him with blind trust until the mist lifted as we reached Amarillo.

It was a white knuckle ride. We really needed a glass of wine tonight!

Arrival: 7:13 PM, Amarillo, TX