The Gift of Enthusiasm

With the recent passing of actor Peter O’Toole, I was in mind to watch How To Steal A Million, one of my favorite movies. I fell in love with this movie before Netflix, before cable, before Blockbuster video rentals. It was being rerun one weekend afternoon, and my mom said I might like it and asked if I wanted to watch it with me. I don’t remember how old I was at the time. Fourteen, maybe? But she was right. It’s not only my favorite Audrey Hepburn movie, but it’s probably in my top five movies of all time. Style, romance, humor, art, and a caper. I do believe it shaped the type of books I now write.

Either because of this particular incident, or because it’s woven into my DNA, I like to share the things that I discover that I think others will like. When I watch a little known  TV show from the seventies that I think a friend of mine will like, I tell them. Sometimes, if I really really really trust them, I’ll loan out my copy. (Three “really”s because I’ve been burned by this. Curses on you, Moses, for never returning the first episode of The Prisoner! And Louise, who still has my copy of Down With Love! And Kevin, for not returning Danger: Diabolik!) Okay, scratch that. No more loans.

I think we all get bogged down with the idea of gift giving during the month of December, and the pressure is on to not only find something someone will like, but to wrap it and deliver it on time. But why should we limit ourselves to December? Why not share those things we fall in love with, those movies, books, TV shows, plays, musicals, and bands that ignite something within us?

Leave a comment about something you’ve discovered in the past year that you loved and enter to win a copy of THE BRIM REAPER, the latest book in the Style & Error mystery series!

The Gift of Mentors and Mentoring

Writing feels like a lonely business.

Each day, I sit at my kitchen counter punching away at the keyboard alone, in my own little world.

But when I look around, I realize that while writing is a solitary endeavor in practice, I am never alone, and that my success as a writer takes a team.

Along with my invaluable critique partners, and of course, my agent and editor, others have made a huge difference in whether my book ever saw the light of day.

I’m talking about other writers — mentors, if you will, — who are in my corner, encouraging me and helping me improve as a writer. Published writers who are busy with writing and contracts and marketing and book deals and yet have taken time out of their lives to spur me on and offer endless encouragement.

I’ll never forget the first time I entered and won a writing contest. Two of the judges, published writers, included their name and contact information on the judging form. They have been my champions and supporters ever since. Thanks and love to Joelle Charbonneau and Donnell Bell!

Other busy writers have gone out of their way to help me get published. For instance, Owen Laukkanen and David Corbett both offered to give me blurbs before my book was sold. I am forever in their debt.

On my own writing journey, I’ve sat back and quietly taken notes about how these successful, published writers treat other writers and their readers — (in some cases, these are the same people, right?)

One day, I want to be just like them. My role model is Adriana Trigiani, who is unbelievably kind and extraordinarily accessible to her readers.

A few years back, she called into my book club meeting. I had her on speakerphone and when I picked up, she said, “Hey, baby, how’s it going?”

She talked to us about the book we’d read, asked our advice on what should happen with the characters in the next book in the series, and even invited us to come be extras in the movie being filmed about one of her books.

Recently, I signed my first book deal — a two-book deal with HarperCollins. My excitement knows no bounds, but what has been fascinating to me, is the way the pendulum has shifted.

In the blink of an eye, I’m the writer that others are turning to for help and advice on query letters, on their manuscripts as a whole and on the query process. Now, I’ve done that for years — as an exchange with other writers. But now it is a one-sided proposition. And I’m totally cool with that. If I have time, and I often do, I’m more than willing to lend a helping hand. This is how it works — it is now my turn to give the gift of my time and myself to other writers, the exact same way writers have done so for me.

The reality is people are now looking at me as a mentor. Holy smokes!

This switch, while lovely and flattering, also feels a bit odd since I’m no different than I was a few months ago before I signed that book deal.

While I’m welcoming this new role, I’m also taking it very seriously.

I know how many people took time and effort to help me get where I am and now I see my new role clearly — along with continuing to write, my new role is to be that supporting and encouraging person in other writer’s lives. It is to help them polish that query letter or give them lists of agents to query. It is to say yes to that last minute request to judge a national writing contest and then it means providing thoughtful, constructive feedback to the writers with entries.

In my case, I used my own role models and included my name and contact information on the best entry so that writer can turn to me in the future. It’s exactly how my friendship with the two writers who judged my entry years ago began.

I’m ready to help in any way I can. I have the best role models before me.

So, God willing, I’m going to be the type of author who is accessible to her readers and who takes the time to help other writers along the way.

Hold on, my phone is ringing.

“Hey, baby, how’s it going?”

The Gift of Time

ImageThis month, the Mysteristas have posted about the myriad of gifts that we appreciate. We’ve written of the gifts of reading and books and the ability to write, gifts that books have brought to us, and even how challenging choosing gifts can be. I had a different blog post planned for today, and then I added just a few too many things to my to-do list, time got away from me, and here we are–with me posting this quite late. Which made me think about time.

Time is a gift.

I often hear about people “making time” for this or that, but really, can we make time? Oh, I wish. (I’d love to get my hands on Hermione’s time-turner gadget! Now that would be a gift!) No, we can’t really make time, but what we can do is prioritize those things we choose to spend time on. My time is a gift I can give to others–to my daughter, when we bake or read or draw together, to the organizations I volunteer with, to myself when I prioritize my writing, and so on.  Time is a gift that is given to me when cherished friends and loved ones get together, when I’m doing something that I love. Time to ask “what if?” (see the Gaudy Bath post by Donna)! In fact, I suggest that time is a gift that you give and receive all at once.

As I get older, and more importantly, as my parents get older, I am increasingly appreciative of this gift, of the ability to choose where and how I spend my time. Why not give myself a few additional gifts? I think my holiday wish list next year will have only this one thing on it.  I can just picture it:

Hubby: Honey, the family would like to know what’s on your wish list this year.

Me: What would I like as a gift? Time with family and friends, time to read and write, time to choose what to do with my time. I’d just like some time, please.

Hubby: Um, how do we wrap that?

Of course, sometimes I have to give time to things I’d rather not (paying bills and doing the laundry top my list), but that’s okay. Those less pleasant tasks make me appreciate the gift of time a little bit more–especially when I’m hurrying to finish them so I can go sledding with my family. Hurray for time to appreciate new snowfall!

Happy Holidays, everyone! Enjoy all the gifts the season brings to you and yours.

Gifts My Books Have Brought Me

I have a friend who back-engineered the Great Pyramid and wrote a book about his findings. He wrote a second book about advanced engineering in ancient Egypt. Scientists did a double take when he reported space-age tolerances in the monuments. That means some stone is polished so that the surface is all the same smoothness to within 2/10,000th of an inch. That’s way smaller than one human hair. This is Christopher Dunn (http://www.gizapower.com/). He told me recently that the biggest gift his books have given him is not the trips to Egypt he’s led, not the many radio and TV interviews, but his new job consulting at a cutting-edge company envisioning the future.

My latest novel, The Star Family, is bringing me a great gift this Saturday. I’m returning home and signing in Old Salem during Candle Tea. Old Salem is now a living museum, but was one of the three original settlements of my ancestors in North Carolina in the 1700s. Candle Tea draws many of visitors to watch people in period costumes made beeswax candles and trim them with red crepe paper to catch the drops of wax when they’re lit during the Candlelight Love Feasts on Christmas Eve.

All during my childhood and adolescence, I would walk the cobbled streets of Old Salem to enjoy the peace and symmetry of the buildings, to look through the antique glass windows at the slight distortions, to visit my grandparents and older ancestors in God’s Acre where now my parents rest. I felt rooted there, truly at home. In my twenties, I taught meditation in a white house at the bottom of Old Salem, weaving spiritual teachings of my past and present together.

Christmas Eve found my mother and me in the choir singing for the love feasts, enjoying the smell of beeswax, Moravian coffee and buns. Then we went home. As a child, me clutching my candle, still in my velvet dress and black patent leather shoes, I ate Moravian ginger cookies and my parents’ pleaded for me to go to bed now, so Santa could come.

On Saturday, I bring my Christmas mystery back to its origins. It’s an offering of love and appreciation.

What’s the greatest gift your writing has brought you?

Gaudy Bath

My favorite part of the writing process is plotting. Next favorite? Revising. I’m weird that way. When I start plotting a new storyline, I use the simple “What if…?” technique. What if Letty found a bloody sock on her floor after one of her clients left his therapy session? What if Letty ran into an old friend who pretended not to recognize her? What if the murderer was a one-armed librarian who, after a lifetime of shushing people, decided to silence them forever? (All fake what-ifs, by the way, although I kind of like the psycho librarian one.) It starts like that and then I just follow the trail of more what-ifs making life more complicated for Letty and, hopefully, adding suspense and complexity to the story.

Strangely enough, the first what-if in my writing career came not at a desk but in a bathtub one day while I was reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers—a lady who ranks right up there with Dame Agatha in my heart. I was first introduced to Sayers when Gaudy Night was an assigned read in a women’s study class in college. Although I’m not at all an anti-feminist, it was still the best thing I got out of that class.

Gaudy Night is a mystery about a poison-pen writer who sends obscene and abusive letters to the students and professors of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College. As the threats gain in intensity, Harriet calls in Lord Peter Whimsey to help her stop the prankster before it’s too late.

On a deeper level, Harriet Vane goes through a self-examination process regarding the choices she’s made in her life, her decision to continue writing mysteries, especially in light of her own past (read Strong Poison if you want to learn that), and her tumultuous relationship with Lord Peter.  Sayers writes, “[Harriet] had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.”

Back to the bath…

So, there I was, reading about Harriet’s decision—no, compulsion—to write and I realized how deeply that sentiment resonated in me. There were differences, of course. For one thing, despite loving to write and, of course, read, I’d never have believed I could write a book. Honestly, it just never occurred to me. To me, authors seemed like some strange, mystical beings that flitted through the shadows and hid from “regular” people in caves and dark woods. Kind of like fairies, but with pens and paper. Or, I guess, laptops, which would require long, long extension cords. (My metaphor is falling apart.)

So, as I lay there soaking, I dared to asked myself “What if… I wrote a book?” The image felt as fragile as the lavender-scented bubbles softly popping all around me. (I didn’t have kids then. Bubble baths are now a distant, almost decadent memory.)But I held on to it, toweled off, and did what every good reader does when confronted with a new idea—I ordered up a bunch of books so I could read about writing. And eventually, still hanging onto that pivotal, new vision of myself, I started writing.

I hope one day that I might give that gift of encouragement to someone who, for whatever reason, thinks he or she just isn’t good enough to reach for their dream. Heck, I’d even settle for the “Well, if she can do it, I know I can” variety of inspiration.

My advice to them would be: whatever it takes, follow that what-if.

The Gift of Writing — You’ve got it

Gifts are most often physical expressions of love. Especially this time of year. Something to be received, torn open, cooed over and cherished.

But it’s the other use of the word that is such a spot of difficulty for writers.

Every writer loves writing. Cherishes it. The ability just to be able to do it—in whatever capacity you prefer—is a gift.

And it’s wonderful to be able to tell stories. Create characters. Weave a plot that keeps even your own brain guessing.

But then there’s always that bit of doubt in the back of a writer’s mind. Magnified by the subjective nature of the business.

Do you have the gift?

Is your very favorite thing to do something you’re actually good at? Something  you’re gifted at? And does it matter?

Here’s how I look at this. It might not be a popular opinion. It might be considered a bit to hippy-dippy to be accurate. But here it is anyway: If you like to write, you’re gifted at writing.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, to be sure.

It’s one thing to be gifted at plotting. Agatha Christie? Probably the most gifted plotter of all time.

It’s one thing to be gifted at characterization. Tim Dorsey? His characters leap off the page and threaten to strangle you with their off-the-wall realness.

It’s another thing to be able to create a story and characters so beloved that households across the globe know every intricate bit—J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, I’m looking at you.

We all have our strengths, even the everyday, non-household name writer.

The ones with book deals but not big names, or with agents but no contracts, or those just tootling around hoping to get an agent or small press interest or, heck, have more than just their own eyes reading the first line?

Those people have the gift, too.

The gift of writing strikes us all differently, but it’s there, whether your work has been praised or ripped apart or—most likely—both.

No matter where you are in the process or where you think you might go with it, repeat the following four words to yourself, especially in those deep moments of doubt: I have a gift.

Now, go write your heart out.

Interview: Carol Goodman

Please welcome Carol Goodman, author of fourteen novels — most recently, Blythewood.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Write in the morning, walk with a friend at nearby Poet’s Walk in the afternoon, dinner with family at night, then curled up with my dog, a cup of tea and a good book.

Do you haBLYTHEWOOD COVERve a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My Cath Kidston bag, dark green, rosemary mint, “Would you like some tea?”, tea and scones.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dubinsky, who introduced me to creative writing; my eight grade teacher, Jim Johnson, who first told me I could write; and the writer Sheila Kohler, who said to keep going with my story about a Latin teacher and her students.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I keep the radio tuned to my local NPR classical station.  Even when they talk it’s kind of soothing.  I also love the little bios they give of famous composers.  My favorite one starts, “Depressed and deeply in debt, Handel wrote his masterpiece …”  It always gives me hope!

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Earl Grey infused dark chocolate with a crystallized violet on top.  Ava and her friends often take tea at Violet House in Rhinebeck, which was once the violet capital of the world.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
My daughter Maggie started a webcomic a few years ago (Pennydreadfulcomics.com) set in 1911 and I loved the era.  I also love books about girls’ schools set in the turn of the century.  I started picturing a girl of that period who worked trimming feathered hats and who heard bells in her head.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
People haunted by the past, the sometimes frightening power of the imagination, the journey to find the place where you belong and the people you belong with.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Avaline Hall has grown up with a secretive mother who is hiding from her past.  Ava has been isolated from family and her social class.  After her mother dies she is on her own, trying to survive in 1911 New York City, supporting herself by working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  She hears bells in her head and is afraid that she might be prone to the same melancholy and delusions that plagued her mother.  She doesn’t know where she belongs.  When she finds out that she is not suffering delusions, but that there is magic in the world, she’s determined to find out the secrets of her mother’s past and find a place where she belongs.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Jane Addams meets Hawkgirl meets Veronica Mars

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, PD James, Val MacDermid, and Elly Griffiths.

What’s next for you?
Tea … and then the second Blythewood book, Ravencliffe.

***

Carol Goodman is the author of fourteen novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and, under the pseudonym Juliet Dark, The Demon Lover, which Booklist named a top ten science fiction/fantasy book for 2012.  She has taught creative writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz.  She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.

Website: carolgoodman.com

Twitter: @C_Goodmania