70’s Flashback – Rest In Peace Kenickie

Sad news for 70’s fans.  Jeff Conway, best known for his role as T-Bird Kenickie in the 1978 summer blockbuster Grease, passed away today after a long, rough road.  There’s plenty of internet news articles that are focusing attention on the saddest aspects of his life.  Let’s dwell on the good times:

You know you can’t watch that without singing along….I don’t care who you are!

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Atlanta Writers Conference & the Information Hangover

It’s been two weeks since I’ve posted anything.  I need to blog.  I don’t want to.  What I want is to curl up in a ball with a glass of Shiraz and the new Sarah Dessen novel, but I need to blog. Because I am NOT a quitter (she says to herself while rocking back and forth in an erratic manner).

On Saturday, I attended the 4th annual Atlanta Writers Conference, presented by the Atlanta Writer’s Club.

This is a difficult subject for me to write about without sounding too cynical.  Still, I’m going to try.

Let me start by emphasizing the positive.  I’ve been to quite a few regional and national writing/literary conferences and this one was the best organized for the money:

  1. $180 to participate in all activities, including a professional critique and a pitch session, is a bargain! 
  2. The faculty was quite impressive for a small, regional conference – 5 successful literary agents (in this case, successful = has actually sold some fiction &/or non-fiction books to major publishing houses within the last year) and an editorial manager from Sourcebooks (independent publisher founded in 1987 that produces some truly wonderful/profitable titles, including one of the best contemporary YA novels I’ve read within the last year – Songs for a Teenage Nomad.)
  3. Participants were given focused, valuable insight and information  without being beaten over the head with a laundry list of do’s & don’ts.

Let me emphasize that I was NOT a wide-eyed innocent walking into this conference.  I understand the writing conference game.  I understand the rules of conduct.  I understand the odds.  Most of all, I understand that this whole process is more like online dating than a science or a business.  I had no delusions of walking out of that conference with the perfect agent or a lucrative book contract.  These events are really just a networking opportunity, a chance to get professional feedback, a place to recommit to the dream of publication and a way to hear the latest news, trends and gossip coming out of the publishing industry.

So why do I now feel like somebody just slashed both my bike tires and told me to pedal over to Anchorage, Alaska…in winter…with no clothes on?

Here’s a few disheartening facts every writer struggling to successfully navigate the obstacle course to a traditional publishing contract should know:

  • There is a nearly INFINITE supply of terrible to mediocre manuscripts out there. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.  Every one of those manuscripts represents someone’s hopes and dreams, but the vast majority will never be suitable for publication.
  • There’s also a HUGE supply of good to spectacular manuscripts out there and not all of those talented writers will ever obtain a traditional publishing contract.  Even if they do get published, the book could fail to make any money or (gulp) lose money for the publishing house.  And that does not bode well for your next project.
  • An almost unfathomable number of manuscripts are submitted to publishing houses and literary agencies every year.  Many agents claim to receive 50 – 100 unsolicited submissions every single day.  Large publishing houses receive even more than that.  Hence the infamous “slush pile.”

OK, I’ve always known about this gargantuan slush pile and I’ve always believed I have the talent and tenacity to find a way to the top of someone’s slush pile…hopefully that someone will understand the deep and lasting impact Star Wars could have on a young, creative girl.

I have never seriously considered going to a “vanity press” and paying loads of money to print my book and sell it out of the trunk of my car.  I know that Jane Austin, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman (among others) did it, but I never intended to go that route.

However, my position was softened somewhat with the recent evolution of hybrid publishers (such as Outskirts Press or Windy City Publishers).  These publishing models employ editors and marketing professionals who work with the author to produce and sell the finished product. They offer ISBN numbers and national wholesale distribution.  While the author makes the larger investment, I believe the company also invests in the project and the author has much more power in deciding things like title, cover art and price point.

It’s a step up from the old vanity presses, but still not my true dream.  I’ve promised myself I will not choose this route until I’ve submitted this novel to just about every agent and editor listed in those massive Writer’s Market guides.

With such crazy odds against getting a publishing contract, it’s no surprise that many authors choose an alternate route to their dreams of immortality.  I totally understand and, in many cases, support that choice. When I hear the stories of first-time authors who have circumvented the system and found huge commercial success, I want to pump my fist in the air and yell, “You go! Create your own destiny!!”

And yet, I also hear Yoda’s voice in my head saying, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive…beware the dark side.”

Undeniably, there is much more respect and higher legitimacy afforded to authors who are published under the traditional publishing model.  In fact, there is quite a bit of fury and loathing directed at self published authors by those who have successfully “run the gauntlet” to land a coveted publishing contract.  Since self published books have started to flood the market through Amazon and author websites, I’ve witnessed a vicious backlash from traditionally published authors as they struggle to rise above the unedited masses. I can empathize, but I can’t condone all of the anger and negativity.

Yoda chimes in again with, “Anger, fear, aggression.  The dark side of the Force are they.”

Now there is a surge in eBook sales (thanks to the confluence of many awesome technological advances packed into a tiny, lightweight reading package such as a Nook or Kindle) and a parallel surge of free or nearly free opportunities for aspiring writers to get their manuscripts into the hands of consumers as eBooks.  Until this weekend I believed this could be a wonderful thing.  I mean, eBook sales are growing.  Consumers are buying and reading more content than they have in many years.  Good news, right?

Well, now I’m not so sure.

During this weekend’s conference, a sudden, very disturbing thought occurred to me…

Uh oh, the slush pile!  Remember that colossal pile of unpublished material with its nearly infinite number of terrible to mediocre manuscripts?  It’s all going to get out there and flood the market.

Oh wow.  I don’t know how I feel about this.  I don’t know what it all means.  The publishing world is changing.  Some would say it’s evolving, some argue it’s collapsing.  The situation is what it is no matter how I feel about it.  What will be, will be.  Why worry or fret?

Why?  Because I find this sudden epiphany makes it so much harder to force myself to write, rewrite, edit, pitch, query and accept rejection without accepting defeat all in hopes of one day being published…especially now that I realize there’s a chance no readers will actually purchase my novel because they simply can’t find it among a vast, unfathomable sea of eBooks created by amateurs who cannot be bothered with punctuation or editing. 

And if I decide to jump in the escape pod and go that self publishing route with my best possible novel….turns out I’m still going to be slogging around in the same slush pile I’ve been trying to climb out of for years, only this time I’ll be fighting for readers.

Zoinks!  I need to stem the flow of negativity here.

Slay the Writer:  Yoda?  What have you got for me?

Yoda:  You must unlearn what you have learned.

Writer, Know Thyself

After last week’s post on Weighty Issues, I decided that what I really, really need in my life right now is MORE STRESS.

(OK, not exactly.)

Actually, I am theorizing that my recent increase in emotional eating is directly related to three factors:

  1. Too much spare time on weekday evenings (Mon – Thurs)
  2. Anxiety over submitting my first novel and waiting for responses
  3. Procrastination related to my next novel

All of which could be alleviated by getting into the flow of a new project.  So I’ve signed up for a Writer’s Online Workshop called 12 Weeks to a First Draft with the intention of kicking my fiction production back into high gear. 

The cost is expensive.  The lecture materials are aimed at first-time authors who have never completed a novel-length work of fiction.  The course content contains nothing new or earth shattering that I have not learned in the many other workshops, seminars, books on writing, author interviews, etc where I have previously invested many of my hard-earned dollars.

The scientific-minded man in my life asked, “WHY?!?!?  You are a talented writer.  Why don’t you just break down the task into weekly mini-goals and work through it?”

Why indeed.  That’s an excellent question.

My answer:  Writer, know thyself.

I honor my commitments.  That’s why I’m a great employee who can readily ask for recommendations from any former employer.  I was an honor student because my mother told me, “Your entire job in life is to get good grades and get a scholarship to college.”  Done.  If you want to get astrological, I’m Capricorn – work horse of the zodiac. 

And yet…I have this weird kink in my “Good Girl Friday” nature that causes me to let my own precious self down over and over and over.

If I had a contract or agreement with an editor to produce X number of pages by Y date, only a cataclysmic disaster would stop me from delivering those pages.

However, if I tell myself I need to produce X pages by Y date….hello Law & Order marathon on TNT.

Until that book contract arrives, I need to set up a surrogate editor/writer relationship.  Hence the expensive workshop with weekly assignments that must be turned in every Sunday for 12 weeks.  Hurrah!  Instant artificial editor.

Latin American Studies – 70’s Flashback Style

Yesterday’s Cinco de Mayo festivities (which I believe to be a U.S. holiday to celebrate the glorious introduction of tequila and tortilla chips to our cultural melting pot?) got me thinking about how little I knew of Latin American culture growing up in the late 1970’s.  Let’s face it, a child in a small, midwestern, blue-collar community didn’t exactly have many opportunities to learn about authentic Mexican/Latin heritage.  Which brings me to…

Slay’s Totally Imperfect List of her Top 6 Latin American Icons of the 1970’s: (because I couldn’t come up with 10 or narrow it down to 5)

#6 – Tony Orlando and Dawn

#5 – Dearly departed Freddie Prinze on Chico and the Man

#4 – Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter

#3 – Luis & Maria from the Street…Sesame that is 

#2 – Cheech & Chong, “the original high riders” in Up In Smoke “Don’t go straight to this movie!”

#1 – (No shock to anyone) the quintessential 70’s icon across all cultures….Erik Estrada as “Ponch” on CHiPs

Let’s Talk About Weighty Issues – Void Patterns

I’m not happy with my weight right now.  That is a difficult and shameful thing for me to admit, because I am a weight loss success story.  I’ve been an “After” picture for 4 years.  Not only that, I’m a highly trained weight loss professional.

Before Weight Watchers - 2005

Weight Watchers Leader training in 2008

I lost over 40 pounds with Weight Watchers in 2006 and stayed within my healthy weight range until this year.  For part of that time I was a delightfully happy, but desperately income-challenged Weight Watchers Leader.  When a more profitable career presented itself, I jumped back into corporate life joyfully.  Unfortunately, I also jumped back into some very bad habits.

Here’s the thing – I love healthy foods and exercise. I really do.  I would prefer a ripe, juicy, colorful fruit salad over a doughnut any day.  Going a whole day without a good walk or a long hike in the woods or even a refreshing session on the elliptical machine feels like misery to me.  I know just about all of the tips and tricks on how to live a healthy lifestyle

So what’s my problem?

As any scientist can tell you, nature abhors a vacuum.   As any writer can tell you,  creativity abhors a blank page.  As any successful Weight Watcher can tell you, willpower abhors an empty cupboard.  And yet, any great artist or photographer will tell you that the empty spaces are key to the composition of a beautiful picture.

Personally, I have trouble dealing with the empty spaces.  I tend to fill them with junk.  This tendency takes a variety of forms.  I live in a cluttered house, work at a cluttered desk and drive a cluttered car.  When there’s a lull in the conversation, I’m too quick to fill the silence with babble.  Despite my belief in the amazing benefits of a regular meditation practice , it’s nearly impossible for me to be still in the silence.  And, even though I know better, I consume way too many calories when I’m bored (or lonely, or stressed or…yeah, you get the idea).

My theory of Void Patterns and how they relate to my self-sabotaging behaviors came to me while watching an episode of CSI.  If you are familiar with crime scene investigation at all, you probably know that a violent, bloody crime creates blood spatter evidence. If someone or something was in the path of the blood as it was flying, and that person or thing leaves the crime scene before the forensic investigators arrive, there will be a void in the blood spatter.  Obviously, voids can be invaluable clues in solving a crime.

One night, while watching two of my favorite fictional investigators solve the “how” of a vicious murder based on voids in the blood spatter, a sort of half-baked theory started forming in my brain.  It goes something like this:

  • Everybody, everybody, everybody creates voids in their lives—sometimes by accident, sometimes by design and sometimes by doing nothing at all.
  • Some voids are good (no criminal record is a good void to have).  Some voids are bad (no money, no food, no shelter and no friends…all generally accepted as not so good).  Some voids are neither good not bad, they just simply are. (I am probably never going to work as a rodeo clown or walk on the moon and I’m pretty OK with that.)
  • You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their voids and, more importantly, how they deal with them.
  • Therefore, voids can be invaluable clues in stopping and resolving the vicious cycle of self-sabotaging behaviors (such as emotional overeating).

Are you with me so far?

In Weight Watchers, we address the issue of emotional eating with a three-step approach:

  1. Ask yourself if you are truly hungry.  If not, ask yourself if you are trying to soothe an emotional need (fill a void) with food.
  2. If you are trying to soothe an uncomfortable emotion, put a name on that emotion (describe the void)
  3. Do something that will better address the emotion in a healthy way.

Yeah…..it’s just that simple.  It really is.  But simple does NOT = easy.

During the year and a half I worked for Weight Watchers, I probably led over 50 meetings dedicated to the exploration of this three-step approach, usually ending with a brainstorming session designed to get members thinking about new behaviors that could take the place of emotional eating.  No matter how many times I’ve facilitated this discussion, the topic never ceases to fascinate me.  Maybe because I’ve never completely mastered it.

I know I’m not alone.  Whenever I think about this topic, I remember the day one of my more successful members stormed into the meeting room, threw her gym bag down, and exclaimed, “I have got to find something I like to do as much as I like eating!”

Exactly!  And you know what else?  I swear, it’s a moving target!

When I wrote my first novel, this theme of finding creative, empowering, healthy ways to feed the soul instead of stuffing the stomach emerged unexpectedly as a factor in my main character’s story arc.  I let that aspect of the story grow and I think it bloomed into a much more rich and satisfying journey for my main character.  Can I do the same thing for myself…again?

Based on a first look at my Void Patterns, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Evenings are treacherous.
  • I have no/low tolerance for boredom.
  • A regular practice of writing is lovely, but it’s not the cure-all for emotional eating (as claimed by some), though it can help.
  • Ditto for reading.
  • When I take the time to plan meals, fill my pantry with healthy options (that actually taste good), and try new recipes, I tend to make better eating choices…but that takes quite a bit of time away from my writing.
  • Exercise is not optional for me, it’s absolutely vital to my mental health, but (again) it takes up a good chunk of my writing time.

So…where am I going with this?  To be honest, I’m not entirely certain.  However, many of us have empty spaces in our lives that can feel overwhelming:  missing pieces, unanswered questions, goals not achieved, dreams deferred.  Many of us have bad habits we’d like to change.  I keep thinking that if I can crack this mystery in my own life, I might figure out something that could help others.  Maybe.  Stay tuned.