Scrambling to the Pub Date

It’s fun to get dressed up and go off and be “the author” at the various events I get Marquet-WomanWritinginvited to, but I do have to laugh at the rather glamorous view a lot of people have about  a published author’s life.

Most don’t ask how much money authors make, though I suspect some are dying to. When I explain how little the royalty is on an original paperback, after the agent fee and taxes are taken out, they are always disappointed, because it’s easy to see you have to sell a lot of books to make a eye-popping or even a quit-the-day-job amount of money.  “By the hour, you’re far better off babysitting,”I tell people who really want to know, but of course it isn’t only about money, and I know that. People hold authors in great esteem, and that doesn’t vary that much, I imagine, by the size of the royalty statement.

I’m not sure what people picture when they imagine writers at work (maybe something inspirational, like the image here?) but my guess is it has a least a touch of class. I can speak for myself at least, and say that if I look halfway decent at the keyboard it’s because I’ve either been or am about to go somewhere.  Many times, I look up and see its 6PM and I am still in my running clothes from that morning (though at least the sweat is dried) and I have barely enough time to take a quick shower before my sweetheart comes through the door.  I can picture the look on his face as he thinks “wet hair again, huh?” although all he says is “it must have been a good day.”

I am thinking about this today because PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER is coming out in less than a week, and everyone is commenting on how excited I must be.  Those who are authors themselves might be more inclined to say they know how exhausted I must be.  Yes, it’s very exciting, although less so than for the first book where I was waiting to become a published author, and one day would throw the switch from “no” to “yes.”

This last few weeks has been grunt-hard work, with guest blogs and Q&As to write, links to make with other writers on line, requests for interviews, requests for appearances, emails I have to send and answer, and just one thing after another for days on end.  Sure, it will pass. I’ll get back to my regular rather overworked normal, and then, after a few months to breathe, it will start up again for FINDING EMILIE, out in May 2011.

I wouldn’t trade this author’s life I’ve made for myself, but sometimes I wish I could scribble myself up a character who would do some of this work for me. Maybe I could ask that pretty lady over there on the upper right of this entry. At least she looks as if she’s had time to brush her hair.


Adding It Up at a Crossroads

I am reaching a crossroads this week.  As of Friday, when my new novel PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, is launched in an evening of drama and dance at San Diego City College, I will be the author of two works of historical fiction.  Next May, with the publication of FINDING EMILIE, I will be the author of three.

Until now, as the author of one novel, when I get invitations to appear at events, it’s usually because people are interested in my novel THE FOUR SEASONS, and its subject matter, Vivaldi, Venice, and the famous all-female orchestra and choir of the Pietà. I’ve got a busy calendar this fall with events focusing on PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER and presumably I am headed for the same with FINDING EMILIE next year.

There’s a different focus now for me, though, and I am finding that I want to speak not only about  individual books but about my work as a whole. I mean, of course, as far as the whole has reached to this point, with the completion of novel number four, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. I hope for many more to come and indeed the competition in my head among ideas for novel number five is pretty intense right now–but that’s another diary entry!

My sense of myself is evolving from being the author ofPenelope's Daughter flyer-1 particular books, to being an author person, by which I mean always fully both when I write.  I’ve learned a lot about myself from writing these novels–what I believe deep down, how I think, how I perceive problems and solutions–because these are expressed in how I develop plots and characters.

People say all fiction is autobiographical, and it is, but not in the way people think.  My books express fundamental things about who I am even though they are not my story. I want to talk about these bigger things now when I address audiences.  What do my books add up to?  What do they have in common?  What do they say about my view of the world?  What do they say that might be of interest about me as a person? Where do they come from?  Why do I write?  Why do I write what I write?  Why do I not write what I don’t write?

It’s hard to do that as the author of one novel, although my one non-fiction trade book, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, helped me to develop a sense of myself as an author.  But it’s with fiction that I have found where I want to be when I write, using my imagination and my professorial training to create smart reads, with meaningful messages bound up in great characters and stories.

What does it add up to at this point?  What do I really have to say?  I’ll be exploring that more in future entries here, as I use the words I have put on the pages of my novels as a means to grasp for myself, and for anyone else who is interested, what I think life has to say to me and to us.


Waving Goodbye

I have just started writing the last chapter of THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, and Ifarewell-have-a-nice-trip-woman-waving-handkerchief-goodbye-dont-forget-to-write-pen-ink-drawing recognize the symptoms of meltdown that accompany this milestone.  I played tennis this morning, and almost cried a few times when I played badly, and dropped my racquet (TWICE!) in disgust when I played worse.  I didn’t throw the racquet–more of an “I give up” than court rage, but this is not me. I don’t do those things.  I can take just about anything in stride.

Except, apparently, finishing a novel.

Why is it so hard? In a week or less I will have a completed book on my computer (and external drive, flash drive, and email attachments–yes, I have learned  from experience about backing things up).  Why can’t I just say, “well done!” and make a dinner reservation somewhere?

I suppose it’s a cliche to say it’s like a child leaving home, but it’s true.  I’m not losing anything, really, except a period in life that was taken up with novelrearing. I like raising a novel, especially when it turns out as well as this one has. And it will be back. The good thing is that it won’t ask for money, it will bring some, and it will buy me a pretty nice present on my birthday.  But like parenting, it isn’t done for a long time after that first foray from home, and I will have lots more work before this one is out all by itself in the world of readers.

I have something I call the 60 percent rule: when you’ve finished the first draft of a book you’re about 60 percent done. That comes as kind of a shock to a lot of people, who I suppose have seen movies where a hand writes, “The End,” and the credits roll.  In this case there are revisions and then re-revisions and then re-re-revisions, and that’s all before it’s even sold.  Then there’s more, and more, and more until it’s too late to change anything.   Someone whose name the author probably doesn’t know says at some meeting the author isn’t aware of, “okay, I’m good with this,” and that’s how “The End” really gets written.

But I digress (I guess I really am in denial!).  It’s hard to say goodbye because it’s intense work to write a novel. It takes a sustained commitment to something that is not obligated to turn out well, and often may not seem headed that way. It’s mine.  I birthed it. It turned out!  It feels good to hang onto that for just a while before sharing it.

Beyond that, though, authors leave something of themselves behind when they finish a book, a force they can’t have back, and energy they have permanently spent.  Perhaps I’m in mourning for that.  Perhaps the end of a novel speaks to other finite things, like life itself. And then again, it’s hard to say goodbye when you’re having fun.  More than anything, that’s what being a writer is for me.


Finding a Title

Authors get possessive about their work, and it’s very uncomfortable to be told well

Emilie du Chatelet
Emilie du Chatelet

into the publishing process that the title of one’s novel has to go.  In a way it feels a bit like someone saying, “we really like your child, except for his/her name.”

A few months back the editor for THE LAWS OF MOTION delivered me just that news. The marketing division representatives didn’t think the title would work.  Too arcane, perhaps, not attention grabbing enough, not evocative enough–whatever it was it was clearly not enough of something the marketers needed it to be.  And marketers, I must add, need to be happy.  They are the ones who pitch the book to retailers, and every author wants and needs their enthusiasm.

I learned many years ago through my YA work with Lucent Books, that publishing is a team process in which the author is very important, but not the only one with a vested interest in the success of a book.  I’ve learned to listen and not think I always have the best idea.  In this case, though, I had to admit I was floored.

Newton’s Laws of Motion, in reduced form are these:

–an object in motion will remain in motion and an object at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force comes along to change that

–momentum equals mass times velocity

–for every action there is an equal, opposite reaction

These are bedrock principles of physics but they are also quite beautiful metaphors. Life illustrates all three quite nicely. As I wrote the book, I thought about the application of each of these laws to the story and built the novel to be an illustration of them.  For me, therefore, this wasn’t just a title, it was THE title.

I’ve had to be flexible about titles before.  In fact THE FOUR SEASONS  wasn’t originally called that.  I completely agree that despite my initial resistance, the title Hyperion came up with is better than mine, which was VIVALDI’S GIRLS. In my mind now, the book simply is THE FOUR SEASONS and the other title sounds very, very strange.  If someone had a better title than PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER for novel number two, I would have taken it in stride, and I feel the same about my work in progress, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD.

I suffered over the loss of the title THE LAWS OF MOTION, though, and for several months my agent, Meg Ruley, and editor, Kathy Sagan, along with my two biggest supporters, big sister Lynn, and sweet partner Jim, came up with one title after another than I revolted against. I even hated the dozen or so titles I came up with, and felt more and more entrenched that there was one and one title only for this book, and I had already named it that.

Late summer is not a good time to have to make decisions in the publishing world. People are getting in last-minute vacations and trying to finish up old projects before the fall season gets underway.  The book remained without a title for so long I was beginning to worry.  I didn’t know how to talk about it, because calling it the “book formerly known as THE LAWS OF MOTION sounded as strange as–well, something that Prince tried a while back.

Then the breakthrough.  Kathy Sagan suggested FINDING EMILIE, and the rest of the team probably wondered the same thing I did:  why didn’t I think of that?  It’s a great title. Though Emilie du Chatelet is not the main character, she is truly the reason I wrote the book.  She a fabulous, brilliant, charismatic woman I wanted the world to know more about. In the novel the reader discovers her slowly and comes to understand that the main character, Lili, must find Emilie (her dead mother) also, if she is to have a chance to shape the kind of life she wants.

I first “found” Emilie in a casual reference in one of the textbooks I used in the humanities survey I teach. I found her more and more as I dug into her remarkable story.  Now, from the moment they see the cover of the book, readers will be invited to find her too.