Let’s talk about money

scratchIn an early episode of the hit TV show Downton Abbey, Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel, show up to dinner at the Abbey, which Matthew has recently learned he is to inherit. His mother, who trained as a nurse, asks about the local hospital and inquires, “Who pays for it?”

Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess, played so brilliantly by Maggie Smith, haughtily replies, “Oh, good, let’s talk about money.” That bit—which I’ve seen quite a few times now—always makes me laugh because it’s still considered impolite to talk about money. Yet for a writer, or an aspiring writer, few topics are probably more useful than a discussion on the economic realities of the writing life.

Writing is not something anyone should plan on doing to get rich, and as evidence I submit to you Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, founder of Scratch magazine. Frankly, I’d never heard of Scratch magazine but bought this book because I was eager to learn what sort of writing life some of today’s writers are living.

In Scratch, I found a variety of essays by a variety of authors (Cheryl Strayed, Jennifer Weiner, Jonathan Franzen) who’ve made money, wasted money, and been cheated out of money in a multitude of ways. Some of the pieces I enjoyed, and some I found a bit bizarre, but in a collection like this, I expect a range of writing gifts. But did the book live up to its promise of talking about “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living”? I’d say so. Because some author friends have been very frank with me over the years, I was not surprised to learn how small some of the book advances are and how little money a New York Times Bestselling Author can actually make. Some authors were very open and specific about the money they’ve made from their writing, and others preferred to speak in vague terms. More than the money, though, the book is about persistence, about getting your thoughts and ideas out into the world when there’s no promise at all that the effort will be particularly well received or rewarded.

I liked much of this book, but I don’t happen to like profanity, and today’s writers seem to be angry and use a lot of it. So I disliked having to weed through the muck to get to the meat. That might be a deterrent for some other readers as well, but if you’d like to take a peek into the dollar signs behind the life of a writer today, this book will give you much food for thought. It’s a literary reality check for those who dream of making a living writing.

The Nora Roberts interview on NPR

After turning on the radio the other morning, I realized I’d arrived late to an NPR interview with some author. The woman told her interviewer that she first decided to write a story when she got snowed in with her kids years ago, and I thought, “Hey, that’s just like the story Nora Roberts told me back when I interviewed her in ’92.”

How on earth do I remember that it was 1992? I’d just returned to my job as a newspaper reporter after recovering from ear surgery, and my neck was stiff and I was still feeling a little fragile after spending most of the summer with vertigo prior to having the ear problem diagnosed. But upon my return to work, I was called upon to interview Ms. Roberts at our then tiny little independent bookstore. She was so eager to talk about her books and her writing process, even though I received the assignment at the last minute and had thus committed the unpardonable (to me) sin of not having read her new book beforehand. (Did I mention I was recovering from ear surgery? I remember telling Ms. Roberts so she wouldn’t wonder why I was moving my head so very slowly and carefully, which is what one does when one’s ear has been sliced open and part of the bone removed.)

Today, of course, Nora Roberts is a well-known bestselling author, but she wasn’t quite a household name back then. I’ve never forgotten that she was kind, approachable, and friendly. So when I realized she was the author being interviewed on NPR, I perked up.

My favorite moment in the interview came when host Peter Sagal asked her if she ever gets writer’s block. Frankly, I don’t believe in writer’s block, and Ms. Roberts doesn’t, either.

“I don’t let myself believe in it,” she said. “I feel very strongly writing is habit as much as an art or a craft. And if you write crap, you’re still writing. And you can fix that. But if you walk away, then you’ve broken the habit.”

Did you get that? “If you write crap, you’re still writing. And you can fix that.”

My own philosophy has long been that it’s easier to fix something than it is to fix nothing, and I was so encouraged to hear that Nora Roberts agrees with me. If you’d like to read a transcript of the entire interview, click here.

And the winners are …

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-12-10-43-amI’m so over music and movie awards. I haven’t watched an entire episode of an awards show in years, yet I can’t help hearing about these things on the news. But you know what? If Adele decides to break her Grammy into Chiclet-sized pieces next year and share them with the whole audience, good for her. It won’t affect my life one bit. But the winners I do care about, very much, are the new words that Merriam-Webster adds to the dictionary each year. Now that, I can get excited about!

M-W recently announced the addition of more than 1,000 new words to the dictionary. Some of these include:

Binge-watch, transitive verb, “to watch many or all episodes of (a TV series) in rapid succession.” Example: “When I discovered Downton Abbey several years after the program first aired, I binge-watched the first few seasons.”

Ginger, noun, “a person with red hair.” Example: “Prince Harry is a cute ginger.”

Woo-woo, adjective, “dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific.” Example: “She’s into some woo-woo religion these days.”

I was surprised to learn that SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) and FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) weren’t already in the dictionary, because I’ve been hearing these terms for years.

Click here if you’d like to check out some of the other additions to the dictionary.

10 things to love about books

booksIn honor of Saint Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d share 10 things I love about books!

1. Books keep me curious. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I find that I want to learn. Few things make me happier than finding a new book in the afternoon’s mail.

2. Books entertain me. Some days, though, I don’t care about learning something new or exploring a new field of study—I just want a cheap literary equivalent of “Calgon, take me away.” Books do that. Good ones do that and leave a mark on my mind and soul.

3. Books help me find my tribe. When I find someone who likes the same authors or the same types of books that I do, I know they’re in my tribe. And when a friend hates the same book I do, I’m really ready to high-five them!

4. Books smell nice. Do you smell your books? I do. I’m partial to the nice picture-heavy books with thick, glossy paper, like the new one I got that is the “companion,” as they say, to the “Victoria” series on PBS. I’d buy the perfume of that scent if they’d make it.

5. Books are still affordable. Sure, we can’t all create those maddeningly perfect coffee-table book displays in Architectural Digest, but if the wallet won’t quite stretch to Barnes and Noble, I’ll bet most of us can still swing a used paperback from the local thrift store. (Only in the last year or so did I learn about color coding and half-price books at Goodwill. What a deal!)

6. Books are quiet, nondemanding friends. I like to see mine lined up on the bookshelves, standing at attention like loyal little friends giving me a cheery hello when I want to visit but quiet as a mouse when I don’t. Nice.

7. Books are now accessible anywhere. Although I’d prefer not to read an entire book on my iPhone, I’m grateful that when I’m stuck somewhere without a book, I can access my Kindle library and start reading. A lovely perk of the digital age.

8. Books bring new (and old) worlds to life. Isn’t it amazing that thanks to the magic of books, we can travel into the future as well as the past? And all in the same day, if we so choose!

9. Books constantly surprise us. I’m currently reading The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, a former newspaper legal editor and atheist who became a Christian. I’m still early into the book, but this sentence got me: “Ancient Greek and Hebrew didn’t even have a symbol for quotation marks.” Who knew!

10. Books, like the best comfort food, make us feel good. Had a stressful day at work? A good book will soon have you in a better mood. Filled with worry? A book can help take your mind off your troubles.

What do you love about books?

Collecting words

Words are so valuable and meaningful to me that this year, I have made a practice of collecting them. I keep a list of these newly acquired words that I want to remember, and writing them down helps me store them in my memory bank. When I first made a point of listening for such words on TV and looking for them in the books and articles I read, I realized that writing down the words each week was helping me develop a useful word-collecting habit. What are some of the words I’ve collected?

Escritoire (‘es-krətwär), which Webster’s tells me is an old term for a writing table or desk, is my favorite word so far this week. I came across it in a Regency-era novel I’ve been reading, and I love both the look and sound of this word, which I’ve been letting bounce around in my mind all week.

Mondegreen is another recent favorite collected word. Webster’s says a mondegreen is “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.” For instance, I originally thought the late singer Prince was singing about raspberry meringue until I learned the song was actually about a raspberry beret. That’s a mondegreen. Useful word, isn’t it? (The word origin, according to Webster’s, is “from the mishearing in a Scottish ballad of ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen.’”)

A couple of years ago, I was shocked to learn that there is a word for a simple symbol I’ve used for decades. The word is octothorpe, and you can click here to see one. (Why “octo,” you ask? Count the points in the symbol, and there you’ll have the answer.)

Have you collected any new words lately?

On authors and their politics

As a former journalist, I am and forever will be anti-censorship. Goodness knows I don’t want whichever administration is in power at the moment telling me what I can say/think/write. But should novelists write about their political beliefs? And is it wise to do so? Some might argue that those with a platform have a responsibility to do so.

I visited the Facebook page of a popular author last week. I simply wanted to know what she was writing next, but instead I was treated to her thoughts on the new president and his administration, her experience in a local women’s march, and a brief bit of back-and-forth with some readers who disagreed with her views.

I had mixed emotions upon seeing her political posts. On the one hand, I often admire those with the guts to stick up for what they believe in. This author clearly feels very strongly about some things going on in our country right now, and I assume that she wants to make a difference regarding those policy areas she disagrees with. (Me too!) But while I actually agreed with much of what that politically minded author had to say, I was disappointed that she seemed so in-your-face with those who disagreed with her.

On the other hand, I read a Facebook post by another author who shared an opinion I disagreed with very much. We are polar opposites on the specific issue she addressed, yet she acknowledged those of us who hold another point of view, tried to explain how she views the issue, and was so respectful of her readers that she even invited them to contact her privately for further discussion. I was greatly impressed by her respect for her readers and by her constructive, thoughtful manner of engaging them.

So now I’m less interested in reading the author whose political opinion I agreed with, and I’m more interested in reading the author whose opinion I disagreed with. I finally realized that one author showed her readers respect, and one did not. Respect wins me over every time, no matter what opinion you may hold or which side of the aisle you sit on.

Do you mind reading about an author’s political beliefs? Does it affect how you view the author?

‘Don’t Dangle Your Participle’ by Vanita Oelschlager

dangleI don’t wear white after Labor Day, I don’t talk with my mouth full, and thanks to Miss Arnold, I don’t dangle my participles.

When I was in high school, one of my English teachers did such a great job of teaching me how to avoid a dangling participle that I never forgot it. Her simple example to the class was, “Eating slop, I saw some pigs.” Since the phrase “eating slop” is at the beginning of the sentence, that means that “eating slop” is describing the word “I” and not the word “pigs.” Yuck! Happily, this sentence is easily revised this way: “I saw some pigs eating slop.”

Even good writers will find themselves dangling a participle every now and then, but thanks to Miss Arnold, I know to look for these in my writing and in that of clients whose books I edit. And now, children can learn to avoid the dreaded dangling participle as well.

For several years now I’ve been reviewing books from NetGalley, and I recently came across a clever one for children, “Don’t Dangle Your Participle” by Vanita Oelschlager. She and artist Mike Desantis do a terrific job of illustrating for young readers and writers what they are really saying when they use a dangling participle. For instance, one sentence read, “While riding his skateboard in the park, a deer almost ran into Lester.” The artwork shows exactly what the sentence describes: a deer riding a skateboard through the park. Another page of the book clears things up with this sentence: “While riding his skateboard in the park, Lester was almost hit by a deer.” This time, Lester is shown on the skateboard as a deer hops over him. This book is a charming way to teach young readers and writers how to avoid a dangling participle, and now that I think of it, a few adults I know could benefit as well!