Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Writing

As with most endeavors, writing has its ups and downs. We authors are told we must have a thick skin and must be able to let the harsh criticisms of our work roll off our backs. That can be easier said than done. But it doesn't mean we don't have to find a way to put the possibly harsh critiques and reviews of our work into perspective.

Every author wants a sterling five-star review of his or her book. Naturally. I've yet to meet an author who would say, "If I get three stars on this one, I'll be happy." And we revel in the four- and five-star reviews, the ones that tout our book as brilliant or a must-read.

But how do we handle the other reviews--the ones from readers/reviewers who find our book to be less than entertaining or engaging, possibly even poorly written? Our human tendency is to react out of hurt and shame and with anger and indignation. "How dare that reviewer say such a thing about my book!" It's as if the reviewer said, "Hey, lady, you sure have an ugly baby there."

Developing that thick skin can be a challenge, and often the thick skin is nothing more than an outer cover, a mask to hide the hurt we feel. As professionals, we have to find a way to maintain a balance and to keep things in perspective. I give serious consideration to every critique, every reader feedback, and every review, whether it's a standing ovation for my work or a less than enthusiastic one-handed clap. As a writer, I'm always learning--at least I hope I am. I can learn from the negative feedback as well as from the positive. It's just not as much fun. Are reviewers always right? No, it's a very subjective business. But if they're right just once and, by taking that negativity, I can strengthen my future writing, I win in the end.

Admittedly, there is a difference between a 'bad' or 'negative' review and a slice'n'dice job that's close to being a personal attack on the author. Reviewers have to keep perspective and balance, as well. But I believe that any of us who put our work out there for public consumption and then don't consider the good AND the bad of public feedback does ourself and our future work a disservice.

We can smile at the great reviews and frown over the less enchanting feedback, but it's all a part of this profession we call writing.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Memory of My Dad

No matter how old I get, there are still days that stir fond memories from my childhood. My father, Dale Rettstatt, Jr., (nicknamed Sonny) passed away in 1981 at the age of fifty-nine. It's hard to believe it's been thirty years.

As we celebrate Father's Day, I take time to enjoy some memories of my dad. Mostly I remember him as a quiet, constant presence with a dry sense of humor. According to his high school yearbook, he wanted to be an engineer and to build airplanes. He became a soldier who served in WWII and received a Purple Heart for injuries during battle in France. He was a dedicated husband and father, never quite achieving his high school dream. Still, he worked hard to provide for his family, and did so without complaint.

He was in the high school band and played clarinet. He also loved playing cards and, suprisingly enough, creating paint-by-number paintings. I didn't think much about it at the time, but now reflect on the ways my dad tried to feed his creative spirit. Maybe that's where I get this passion for music, photography, and writing--the need to create.

My father was not a very communicative man. I wonder what he was like before he experienced the ravages of war at such a young age. But the man I knew as Daddy was quiet, sometimes brooding (though he did experience headaches from the shrapnel that remained in his head following the war). But he was 'there'. Always. To play ball in the backyard. To take me and my four girlfriends to see the Beatles movie, Help, at a drive-in theater because none of us could drive yet. (More than should be asked of any man!) To teach me to drive. To keep my car in good repair. To help me move out of my parents' house when I thought I was ready for the move. And to help me move back in a year later when I discovered I wasn't quite ready.

He didn't generally refer to my sister or me by our names. If a phone call came, he would shout, "Hey, you. Telephone." If the wrong daughter responded, he'd say, "Not you, the other one." Got so we signed his birthday cards from Hey You and The Other One.

The last time I saw my dad was the day before he died. I had taken a bus home from Pittsburgh for the weekend. He drove me to the bus station on Sunday before he went to work his shift. He lingered at the bus station with me, even though I told him I'd be fine (knowing he needed to get to work). We didn't talk, but he kept asking me if I needed any money--to which I said, "No, I'm okay." It was as if he did not want to leave.

But he left the next evening because of a massive heart attack. Medically speaking, my father had a bad heart. But my Dad had a great heart, a generous heart, the heart of a hero.

Here's to you, Daddy. Happy Father's Day.

The Other One

Friday, June 10, 2011

Outside the Lines

I awoke this morning and, once my vision focused, gazed across the room at the framed photograph on the far wall. It’s a picture I took when I was more engaged in outdoor photography some years ago. I captured the sunset off Norfolk Harbor (Virginia) while on a dinner cruise. And I experienced a flashback to an arts and crafts fair where I had set up a booth to sell my matted photo prints.

A man came by and flipped through the selections, holding up the print of the sunset. He studied it for a moment and then asked, “May I say something about this photograph?”

“Sure,” I said. He then went on to tell me everything that I’d done wrong in shooting that photo—the horizon is almost dead center and, according to my self-appointed critic, you never center the horizon. (I knew that rule.) You never shoot directly into the sun because you will get sun spots. (I knew that rule, too). The picture is bland because there is not much variation in colors—it’s all orange and brown. (I could see that.)

“I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve studied photography and just want to be helpful,” he said.

“Thank you," I said, "but I actually love this picture.”

When I look at this picture, I don’t see a photo of the sunset over the water, with the horizon almost dead center (violating some precious rule). I see a variation in color and tone and shading. I see the orange stream of light the sun sends across the water and pulls the photo together. I see the beauty that can be captured by daring to step outside the bounds of ‘the rules.’ This picture greets me every morning, like a kiss from God.

Was I irritated by his presumption? Yes. Did I let his ‘suggestions’ change the way I approached photography? No. One might ask, "Why not?" After all, he studied the rules.

I used to always meticulously color inside the lines. And I rarely ever had purple grass or a green sun or an orange apple in any of the heavily outlined pictures in my childhood coloring books. Every color was as it should have been and nothing breached the boundary lines on the picture.

As I learned the rules for life, I approached them much the same way. Whose rules? Well, those of my parents, my teachers, my culture. But one day when I was in my twenties, something amazing happened. A friend invited me outside the lines—and I dared to accept. Wow—there was a whole new world out there. A world where I could be creative and innovative and paint in any colors I wanted. And nothing bad happened. Good things actually happened. I was filled a new energy and passion.

I’m not talking legal lines here. (Well, not for the most part. It was the seventies.) I’m talking music, photography, and the inner freedom that comes with experimenting and bending the ‘rules’ and daring to create something new. Even becoming something new. A musician friend, when hearing a composition I’d finished, said, “You don’t want to end a song on a minor chord.” I said, “But that’s where this song ends.” And it did, and it worked. For me. It turned out to be the favorite song of many on the ensuing recording that included my music and hers.

When I began to write novels, I was fortunate enough to not know all the rules involved. I knew rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, of course. But none of the rules of plot development, characterization, point of view… I just wrote. I wrote what I felt in my heart, what I heard in my head, and what spilled out from this new passion I’d discovered. Writing. That first book finaled for an award, as have two others since. But that's not the point. It's not about gaining awards. It's about the deep satisfaction that comes from the creative process.

This morning as I stared at the imperfect photograph of the sunset on Norfolk Harbor, several threads of a tapestry wove together. That gravitational pull I felt years ago to step outside the lines and give my creative passion free reign. The daring to compose music that came from my soul and may have stretched the boundaries of the rules of composition. And it all culminated in my eighth published novel, Shooting Into the Sun.

Read an Excerpt
I’ve known this book is my favorite (don’t tell the other kids), but I’ve not been certain why that is. Now I’m certain. Because in that book, I have bared my own struggle in Rylee’s journey to get free of her self-constructed boundaries. And in Rylee’s coming to terms with the way her choices have kept her safe and her life orderly, she is free to color outside those lines and create something new. And, when she does, she is surprised to find that the world doesn’t end.

We don’t usually come to terms with these issues in our twenties or even our thirties. We’re generally too busy living life and still building the life we desire. But, if we’re lucky, at some point (and this often occurs for women when we hit forty-five and older) we feel that tug toward something more, something deeper within ourselves. And if we’re smart, we go with it.

Embrace your passion to be creative!


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reaching the End of the Alphabet

Last week, we reached the end of the alphabet and the last posting for The Writer's Alphabet blog series. This week I just want to list for you the excellent writers who participated in this blog over the past months and their websites. Please visit their web pages and take a look at their books.

To these writers, I say, "Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience. You've given us all new building blocks for our own writing."

In order of appearance, they are:

Angelica Hart and Zi         

Mary McCall                   

A.J. Maguire                 

Jim Woods                   

Karyn Lyndon               

Therese Kinkaide            

Celia Yeary                    

Claudy Conn                 

Judy Griffith Gill            

K.D. Pitner                    

Kimberley Dehn            

Billie Williams               

Fiona McGier              

Carol McPhee             

Jane Toombs               

Elaine Cantrell             

Allison Knight              

Lynn Romaine             

Camille Cavanagh        

Angela Verdenius        

Lauren Gallagher/L.A. Witt

Cindy K. Green          

Judith Leger