Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Writing Makeover (In Three Part Harmony)

Photo courtesy of Ritesh Nayak

Who doesn’t love those makeover shows? All over TV land you see people making over their bodies, their wardrobes, their businesses, their homes, their obstinate children. At the end of the show comes “the big reveal.”

We get to see the once overweight, ramshackle, bankrupt, mousey, insecure, temper prone protagonist, the ninety-pound weakling transformed into a ninety-pound giant as my late beloved brother used to say.

The hero rides off into the sunset and the viewer thinks well, if that bozo can do it, so can I.
And now along comes The Daily Writing Coach jumping on the bandwagon. I’m going to tell you the story of my writing makeover.

Writing is one of the great passions of my life, second only to the love I have for my daughter. I am, however, an unlikely writer, I think. I am of the generation where young girls were taught that their ambitions should center in the home. As a Cancer, domesticity came naturally to me. But after a while, I found it wasn’t enough. Something ate at me, a desire that eventually framed itself as a need to do something significant. That was the phrase that beat upon my psyche. I wanted to do “something significant.”

For a long while, that significant thing was cooking.  I love food and anything related to it, even grocery shopping. But this was a generation before the Food Channel. Other than Julia Child on public television or the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I couldn’t find anyone to give me hands on cooking lessons. I wanted to go beyond Hamburger Helper and The Joy of Cooking. I wanted to know what Julia Child knew. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, now one of the major hubs of masterful cooking in the world. Yet in the ‘70’s, nobody was giving cooking classes.

So I cooked my way through Julia Child (that movie was the story of my life, minus the blogging), and one day, for the fun of it, offered cooking classes in my kitchen. I had six takers and it changed my life.

Because teaching cooking was so unique, I was featured in a local newspaper, got more students, offered more classes at night, after my day job. I thought I had found my “something significant.” But deep down I knew that, while I loved teaching cooking, it wasn’t it.

My fifteen minutes of fame in the Palo Alto Times caught the attention of a cardiologist friend at Stanford University where I worked as a medical secretary. He asked me if I would write a low cholesterol cookbook with him. I said, “Sure. What’s low cholesterol?” No joke, my exact words. Remember, I worshipped at the altar of butter and cream a la Julia Child. The notion of a low fat, healthy diet was almost as unique as cooking classes.

I thought it was a lark, the idea of writing a cookbook, not really believing we would pull it off. But such is the power of a book proposal on Stanford University letterhead that we got a book contract with some actual money attached to it. Off we went, John Schroeder back to saving lives in the hospital, me to figure out how to write the book.

John had more of a role than merely flaunting his considerable credentials at the publishing world, but the actual writing fell mainly on my shoulders. And that is why I am here today telling my story.

I remember it as though it were yesterday. Sitting in my kitchen in front of a new electric typewriter that I bought with my share of the advance, staring at a blank sheet of paper and finally typing the first sentence.

I think of it as the moment of my rebirth. In my mind, angels sang, trumpets blared and a deep, throaty voice announced, “She found it, folks. This is her significant something.”

The feeling of astonishment, pleasure and discovery I felt as I sat down to write that day has never left me. I did not know the trials that lay ahead, however. I had to learn how to write, an expedition as arduous, soul wrenching but rewarding as any taken by any explorer. My readers who write will understand this.

So there I was, a writer who had to learn how to write. Traveling along this narrative of discovery was another important facet of my life. Though I had no formal training or education in anything, somewhere I have tucked away my single diploma, the one from high school, I have always loved to read and listen to stories. I was raised before television. I spent my childhood with my ear glued to the big console radio in our living room listening to Let’s Pretend and The Lone Ranger.  As I look back on it, radio was excellent training for the imagination, for which I am grateful.  But reader that I was, I lost myself in books starting with Little Red Riding Hood, up through the Russians that I devoured in high school and anything else I could get my hands on after that. Before I began writing my first book, I’d read a novel and think, I don’t like that sentence. It should be this way. I didn’t know it, but that is what writer’s do. We edit everything we read, even our grocery lists. I guess I had the soul of a writer, if not the talent.

Fast forward through the next several decades, during which I discovered I loved writing fiction, took many, many writing classes, imagined myself on the cover of the New York Times Book Review as author of the Great American Novel. I was enthralled with the literary masters, the winners of the big prizes. I was deeply moved by language and words beautifully wrought, complex characters that helped me understand my own life. I practiced, practiced, wrote and wrote. I sold very little, until another cookbook project came along.

By then I knew how to write. I knew that a good cookbook contains good writing as much as a novel does. I was and am enormously proud of that book, but by then my desire to do something significant had shifted from food writing to fiction. I began my life’s work, my great Irish novel.

At this point, some twenty years ago, I had developed a hard won daily writing practice, hence this blog. I taught classes, worked with other writers on their manuscripts, had been accepted in the world’s greatest writing group. We gave public readings and I received praise for my story and my writing. I knew that being a good writer, and I believed by then that I was, did not automatically lead to a publishing contract.

In one hand you had the art and craft of writing and in the other, the business of writing, the publishing world. I had no idea how to crack that code. I knew that for most writers, never the twain shall meet.

I had to satisfy myself with the knowledge that I had transformed myself into a literary writer and hoped the publishing gods would smile upon me when I finished my novel. That I could call myself a writer was not only a great source of pride and satisfaction, I had worked very hard at this craft, but it was my identity as well. I might not be setting world on fire as a 9 to 5’er or as a published author. But by god I could write a ringingly beautiful sentence. I knew that because a writing teacher told me so. I was all about the art of writing. At times, this self- image was accompanied by a great deal of hubris, though I would not admit that to myself. I was too modest! I sneered at romance writers, paranormal writers, mystery writers. Those were genre writers. They didn't produce "art." 

Two years ago I experienced a sea change in my circumstances. I needed to earn money and I was no longer able to work at a day job. I didn’t realize that in a short year, I would also undergo life-threatening health challenges, as well.

I didn’t know it, but, in addition, I was about to be knocked off my literary high horse. It was the beginning of my writing makeover.

To be continued.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Here she comes apologizing again . . .

Photo courtesy of Michael Rad

It seems that every time I post this year, I have to start out with an apology. I do recall promising to post three times a week, but now I'm six months late. So here's my latest apology.

I am writing every day, because that is what I preach to my students and followers.

Yes, writing but not blogging. A week from now I will celebrate the first anniversary of publishing my first book on Kindle. I believe it sold 20 copies and I earned about $48.00. I was astonished that there was even one sale. It was a mystery to me that anyone found it among the two million ebooks on Kindle.

But I followed the lessonsI I had learned in an online class to make my book visible and, sure enough, it worked. Today I have eighteen titles on Amazon, seven of them are paperbacks and last month I sold over a thousand books. One thousand fifteen, but who's counting?

I have made many friends in ebook chat rooms and facebook groups. Some of those might find my numbers encouragement to start their first book, others will scoff and call me a loser. Well, not really. These people are too nice, but some people sell a thousand books a day. And more. I know of one woman who, in the course of two years, had sold one-hundred thousand copies of her list in January, 2013. That's huge.  In June, she celebrated her millionth sale. That's nine-hundred thousand copies in six months. By September, it was a million and a half.  If a book goes viral, it changes the author's life forever.

In August, I took a shot at changing my Kindle fortunes. My sales were in the 200-300 a month range. I was definitely moving up, happy and grateful for that bit of success, but I knew if I changed genres, I could possibly do better. But which genre? I am a literary writer and food writer. I was not into the moneymakers, zombies, paranormal, young adult, romance and mysteries. Those types of books required a totally different skill set and mind set. Then I heard a woman who was to become an online friend, Lee Dobbs who publishes as Leighann Dobbins, talk about her success with cozy mysteries. I didn't even know what a cozy was, but she was selling, at that time, five thousand copies a month. I checked out her books, read a couple and decided to give cozies a shot.

For those of you who don't know what a cozy is, Think Murder She Wrote, Agatha Christie and the like. The fun is in figuring out the whodunnit, with no blood and gore or overt sex.

Pshaw, I said to myself. I can do this. And then, Olivia M. Granville, OMG to her friends, was born.

However, much of what I've learned over the years did not serve me well as a mystery writer. I needed to cut to the chase, instead of languishing in pretty sentences. I had to figure out how to write a who dunnit. For example, who dunnit? Who was it done to? How did they do it and how would the scoundrel get caught. Along the way there had to be red herrings and other possible suspects to draw the reader off the trail and heighten the suspense. And then there was the background, the aspects of my protagonist's life and the town she lived in that added interest and fun and create fans for my books.

Many chewed fingernails later, six weeks to be exact, on August 9, 2013, I launched Armoires and Arsenic, A Darling Valley Mystery by Cassie Page. To my astonishment, it sold ten copies the first day and is now my best seller.  I have added a second mystery, A Corpse In A Teacup, A Tuesday's Tea Leaves Mystery, based on Olivia's best friend. That also has garnered sales and since I added those two titles, and put my cookbooks in paperback, my monthly sales have doubled and my royalties are even better.

I am now on my third mystery, the second in the Darling Valley series, Groundbreaking Murders. I hope to launch it by the end of the year, along with another children's book, When Mikey Made the Rules, and will start serializing my Irish novel, The Equal of God, my literary effort.

So that's what I've been doing when not blogging, writing ebooks. I have seven paperbacks, three (about to be four) self-illustrated children's books, five cookbooks and two (soon to be three) cozy mysteries.

I detail all of this because I think you all, as writers, should know that there is an opportunity to publish your work that does not involve the agent/publishing house merry-go-round. Many ebook writers have enough success that they get picked up by a legacy publisher, as hard cover pubs are called, and some writers have so much success that they wouldn't think of signing up for the paltry royalties offered by a traditional publisher. Which is to say, there are many more options available to the writer.

Does this mean I wouldn't accept a publishing contract? Sure, if the terms were right. But if I were selling enough to get notices, I might not. I'd love to have my Irish novel picked up by one of the big houses. It would be so good for my ego, but the others, not so sure. I don't discourage anyone from going after a good agent, but if that isn't happening, Kindle is.

I'm going to write more about this new world of publishing. In the meantime, please feel free to write with any questions.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

New tricks: I've published a paperback of How To Cook Healthy In A Hurry

Well, I feel I can put publisher on my resume now.  I've just finished up the task of putting my cooking out in paperback and it is available here:
It will take a week or so to be linked to the ebook on Kindle.  The price is the same whether you buy it the createspace link here,  or on Kindle.  But the difference to the author in royalties is huge.  I don't understand why Amazon takes such a big cut if it is on Kindle, createspace is owned by Amazon as well.  But it's in the range of a 50% difference.

This is more of a business post than you are used to seeing from me, but I am so excited to have another book out, that I just had to leave a message here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

That quote, as many of you know, is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.  It has inspired me for decades.  However, I was primed for it because The Little Engine That Could got under my skin in the first grade.  Writers need to take hold of both of these fonts of wisdom.  In my experience no endeavor produces performance anxiety like writing.  They don't call it writer's block for nothing.

Recently, as I've posted, I ventured onto Kindle.  I have published in the past, but always with the acknowledgement of a publisher or magazine editor.  Kindle requires that you draw upon your own confidence, often lacking in writers, and just put yourself out there.

While my mantra is write every day, I don't necessarily advise people to pass their work around indiscriminately.  If you show your work too soon to an audience or reader who does not understand the process, you may get criticism from inexperienced reviewers that hurt rather than help your motivation.  However, when it is time to put it out there, go for it.  Another homily I'm fond of--don't hide your light under a bushel.

Okay, easier for me to say, right?  I'm already published.  But let me tell you a story about my Arty book (, my first children's book.  I've always backed away from children's fiction.  Can't do it, can't relate to that type of storytelling I've always said.  And illustrations?  How do they happen? Do you say magic words over the page and the perfect picture appears?  Because I certainly couldn't draw anything I'd want anyone to see.

Well all that changed when I decided to take the plunge with Arty.  Miraculously, the story, and 12 others, tumbled out in a burst of steroid energy one night when I was being treated for a nasty ailment. All of a sudden, there was Arty on the page.  That was my first surprise.  But then the pictures had to accompany the story and I didn't know an illustrator.  So I just started on my own.  Truly, Eleanor's quote got me going.  I had nothing to lose, really.  If they didn't work, end of project.  But I had a hurdle to overcome. When I was in grammar school and we had mandatory art classes on Monday mornings, the nuns hung my picture in front of the classroom with the work of the other talented students just once in eight years.  One time.  This experience, and probably some verbal backup as well, convinced me I couldn't draw.

In my thirties I took a self hypnosis class for writers to tap into creative depths.  One of the exercises was to draw something in the room while under hypnosis.  I drew my shoe.  When we came back to a normal state, and I saw what I had drawn, I burst into tears.  It looked like a photograph--well close.  It certainly looked like a shoe, well drawn at that.

I realized I had believed my brainwashing, and that there probably were many hidden talents criticized out of me over the years.

At any rate, I never pursued drawing until Arty came along.  Then I needed to produce something and just went for it.  Arty went live three weeks ago and has now received 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon.  People are loving the story (funniest thing I've ever read say many of them).  But the big surprise is that the drawings are a big hit.

Had I held back and decided I couldn't draw, AJ, a ten-year old in Australia, would not have written "One of the best books I've ever read."

Fortunately, I have reached an age when I listen more to myself than other people's opinions.  I'd like to bestow this gift on all of you who doubt your writing.  I've always said that it isn't up to us to judge whether our work is good or bad.  Our job is to write and let our readers decide.  Arty and AJ are a case in point.

Write every day for at least 15 minutes.  And for the rest of the day, believe in yourself, no matter what some voice from the past is ranting on about.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kindle ebooks have taken over my life

I do practice what I preach.  I have been writing every day since my last blog post in January, I just haven't been blogging about it.

This is an "if I can do it, you can" post.

Since December, I have published seven ebooks on Kindle.  I've sold about 1500 books, plus or minus and made a bit of money.  By Amazon terms, they all hit the best seller lists.

But additional perks include finding myself in a wonderfully supportive community of writers-authors as Amazon calls us, or publishers, and seeing the tallies add up every day knowing there is some Amazon love for me.

I intend to write more about Kindle, about having my prejudices about self-publishing shot to pieces, about moving from the safe tried and true for me--cookbooks-to publishing fiction and my foray into writing and illustrating children's books.  Writing the kids books has completely rejuvenated me, as well as astonished me.  While I can usually put together a few sentences on almost anything, I never though I could write for children and have never been able to draw anything, ever.

If nothing else, Kindle has been a terrific restorative to my creative passions at a time when my physical abilities were at a low ebb.  I started the first book six weeks after open heart surgery and have slogged through various illnesses since, the Kindle books giving me a new lease on life.  I know that is a cliche, but it is true. So I will nudge you get your work out there, because (you know the drill) if I can do it, you can.

For tonight, it is late as I write this, I will post my books.  But I will commence promoting Kindle/ebooks as another way to challenge yourselves as writers and enjoy the thrill of seeing your work in print.  So here is my Kindle Bookshelf:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Don't Just Write What You Know

Photo courtesy of mrsdkrebs

The generic writing advice for the novice always insists you must write what you know.  Balderdash.  If you studied at Cambridge or Oxford in the early 20th century you were expected to write poetry, essays, memoir, fiction and literary critiques.  You studied language, the classics, read the Greeks and Romans in the original to prepare you for the challenge of putting your thoughts, ideas and imagination on paper.  The task of writing was one of engaging the reader on any subject.  What mattered was your originality, use of language, imagery, the specificity with which you developed a scene or idea.  These requirements applied to all forms, from food writing to an examination of social mores. You didn't try to wedge yourself into a particular slot as we do these days.  We call ourselves bloggers or YA authors.  At university they called themselves writers.  If you don't know how to tackle a form, you can learn.  You may not master it, but that doesn't matter.  The process of challenging yourself is what counts, the lessons you learn, either about craft or yourself.

We refer to creative nonfiction as though it is a special category when all writing by definition is creative.  Writers love language, story, characters and ideas.  If you develop your facility with these elements of writing, you increase your range as a writer regardless of the genre you prefer.  Writing a poem sharpens your imagery in describing a scene.  Writing a biographical sketch of a family member enlarges your compassion when creating a character for a story.  

When was the last time you attempted a piece of writing that challenged your skills?  Perhaps you are most comfortable writing fiction or travel pieces for adults.  You might be amazed at what comes forward if you develop a critical examination of the essays of Montaigne or a story for toddlers.  

I hear people say they don't have time for anything but their current project.  However I encourage you to devote one of your daily 15 minute writing sessions to trying something new each week.  You would be amazed at the dividends this investment in your craft will pay when you return to your ongoing piece.

Once you have finished this new effort, I also challenge you to send it out for publication or put it on your blog.  This will help you take your new writing seriously.  If you've never written a poem, read them for a week (of course it takes a lifetime of reading poetry to crack that code--but start with a week's worth of poems).  Then create a poem.  You don't have to show it to anyone if you are self-conscious about it.  But it is far better to submit it to a review site for a critique. 

Of course I am practicing what I preach.  I am halfway through a children's story and I know nothing about connecting with a young reader.  I've written half a dozen poems I would never show to anyone, but have new respect for the power of an image.  Memoir terrifies me, yet I am learning to expose myself on this blog more and more.  I finally said the D word, and I cannot tell you how difficult it was to expose that sad chapter of my life.  Yet I want to connect with my readers, many of whom also struggle to write when their marriages, health or life circumstances unravel. Yet, this does not mean I have given up on my first love, the novel.

See yourself as a writer, not as a genre writer and expand your gifts and skills.  The experience doesn't have to become an everyday effort, but it will pay dividends for a lifetime.  Once you've learned something, you can't unlearn it.  Good luck.      

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The subject today is one close to the heart of almost every writer I’ve ever known.  Self-sabotage.  It is very hard to write when you think you can’t, when you believe your story is garbage, when you’ve received some hard criticism, whether it’s a suggestion to rethink your protagonist or rethink the placement of a comma.  I don’t know about you but some days a comma comment can undo me.

A writing practice requires control over our negative thoughts.  Otherwise, we believe what we think, that the story is worthless, nobody is interested in what we have to say so why bother, and only real writers know what to do with commas.

But thought control, or confidence or belief in what we do does not mean we are not plagued by negativity.  I have yet to find a way to rid myself of doubts, fears and insecurities as I write.  We are raised in a judgmental culture.  Look at the lead stories in the past week.  We are drowning in The Year’s Ten Best lists. What about the other ten thousand movies, books and songs produced last year.  Are they pond scum?  Must be if only ten made the cut, right? 

Or, we make resolutions.  I will exercise more.  I will complain less.  I will work harder.  I will write more.  The fact that we even make a resolution means we are coming up short in our own eyes.

Of course there are products and works of art that rise above the others.  But very few people agree on the lists.  The New York Times Book Review trashed your favorite novel; you wouldn’t drink a certain red wine touted by Robert Parker if your life depended on it.  Your main squeeze thinks you’re just fine without losing ten pounds.  Who is right?

The question alone should teach us the folly of judgment.  The process by which a particular effort rises above the others is mysterious at best.  Sometimes it means that a best selling writer had an agent who was married to a friend who finagled a read.  But an equally talented writer, with perhaps a superior book, can’t get noticed because said agent is not accepting new clients.  The best seller can believe she is better than she is merely because she is published, while the rest of us want to give up after a dozen no-thank-yous, forgetting how many rejections it took Jack London, for instance, to break through.  We can’t look at anything without giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  

This is the stuff, not of dreams, but of nightmares as we sit down and attempt to summon the confidence to continue with our work while our judgmental engines are churning away.  How do we write through negativity, to push our story or essay forward through the muck of self-judgment, as thick as tar on some days? 

I had a revelation one morning years ago as I was rereading a few pages in my writing session before work.  What seemed like deathless prose as it poured out of my soul, seemed dead on the page as I reread it.  I could almost hear that chorus of naysayers that taught me over the course of my life to criticize, condemn, and ultimately give up because something of mine didn’t measure up.

But as those voices came through loud and clear, something happened for me that was pivotal in my writing career.  All of a sudden I heard them as voices on auto pilot, not words from the mount.  Not some inarguable truth about my work, but merely a segment of the tape that runs through my head.  The tape takes turns calling me a good writer and a bad writer. If I wait a few minutes, I might love that page again.  Which side of my brain would be right? The flip or the flop?

I kept on writing not knowing the answer to that question.  As sentence after sentence appeared on the page I realized I could write feeling doubtful, afraid of someone judging what I wrote, of not being a good enough writer.  Those thoughts come and go.  My job, it came to me, was to write.  To learn my craft and do the best I could to let the art in my work flow.  It was up to other people to judge it.  I must write in spite of the way I felt about my work, not because of it.  The thoughts that I was a good writer had no more validity than the thoughts that said I was an amateur. Henry Ford said whether you think you can or you can, you are always right.  Only someone who dealt with doubt and came out the other side could say that.

I realized that having confidence in my writing meant I had the confidence to write no matter how I felt, that the words would come even if I thought they were the wrong words.  Who knows, an agent might think they were the best words she had ever read.  And at that point, I wouldn’t care whether she was right or wrong.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Back Again

It has been a while since I’ve posted on this blog, which should knock my credibility as a daily writing coach, right?  Well, I have been writing every day for the last two months.  In fact, I published my first ebook on Kindle two weeks ago.  The story of what happened between July 9th, my last post, and November 2nd, 2012, when I started on the ebook will take a few posts to tell.  I don’t want to blast you with a 3,000 message when you are still trying to get over the holidays.  Suffice it to say, I have a note from my doctor.  Well, all my doctors, the cardiologist, the neurologist, the team of surgeons and sundry other medical personnel who saved my life after I returned from Squaw Valley.  The note says, please excuse Helen from daily writing because she has to have open heart surgery and will be very sick and very weak for a long time.

Well, I’m back, mostly.  They were right about the sick and weak part, but it didn’t last forever and, the blog, is alive and well.  So is Helen Page, the writer behind the blog. 

For now, I just want to wish everyone a happy and healthy, make that HEALTHY new year and much success with your writing.  More to come on a regular basis.  I promise.  Cheers, Helen 

“There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart...pursue those.”~Michael Nolan

Photo courtesy of katerha