Tag Archive | writers

Categorically Wrong Again.

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Just a few words.

Whenever someone finds out I’m a writer, (because I tell them) their first question is always, “What do you write?” by which they mean, ‘what genre?’

How do I sum up my work in a word? I wish someone would tell me. If you’ve read “Invisible Ellen” you’ll know why. It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s fable, it’s reality, it’s socially conscious, it has story and it’s character driven, and while it’s primarily about two women, it’s not ‘women’s fiction’ perish the narrow-minded dismissal! I understand why people ask, they may prefer cozy mysteries or violent thrillers and are jonesing for their next hit, but I can’ t help them there.

Well, I could. it might be much easier for me to stick to a genre, write the same kind of book again and again. For publishers, it’s easier for them to button hole a writer into a small, easily promotable group. But the entire idea that anyone’s entire body of work can be filed under one word is lamentable. Not to say that writers like Rex Stout aren’t masters of their genre, practically creators of their own library sections, but that is because their work is so complex and compelling to start with, they are anything but simple.

Full disclosure, I have written books based on a label by contractual agreement. In fact after my first book “Loaded” was purchased, the publisher ordered two more books described thus: “Mystery thriller with a romantic entanglement.” So…at least that was two labels in one. I always bucked the identity of ‘romance writer’ not because I don’t love a good romance as much as the next red-blooded, sex-crazed female with a penchant for tactile mental imagery and the well-described monkey noises that accompany them, but because I know so many writers who write romance so much more deliberately and, frankly, so much better than I do. Romance is just not my passion, if you’ll forgive the awkward juxtaposition of nouns.

Which sends me spinning off on one of my tangents; I do this a lot. I’m just cruising along on a big merry-go-round of topical reasoning when something suddenly snags my mind’s eye, I lose my grip on the painted pony of focus, and the centrifugal force slings my thought process into free flight, tumbling my head over my ass off into another part of the zoo. I might return to my original point but I might also spend the rest of the essay admiring the zebras, sorry.

Anywho…speaking of herd animals, isn’t it a relief to sometimes be one? I mean, to just say, “Yeah, I’m not even going to try to lead the pack in this field, So-and-so is so brilliant at it that I might as well not bother.” Giving up on the aspiration to do something or be something you respect and admire is sort of life’s version of screaming “Uncle!” while simultaneously enjoying the experience of having your arm folded up your back like a dislocated chicken wing. There are so many amazing vocations that I would love to conquer, like painting, or astrophysics, but—even making the wild assumption that I had the talent and propensity—without at least one more lifetime of devotion to the cause, I’m not likely to give Monet or Neil deGrasse Tyson a run for their money. Therefore, I content myself with gazing covetously at the transformation of pigment into emotional impact, and listen with rapt reverence to the simplified explanations of a superior intellect.

Not everything. Never give up on everything. Keep something, I say. Find a couple of things you love and even if you stink, you will find fulfillment in the doing if not the adulation that may never come. There’s a lesson in that, is it the proficiency or the laurels you crave? Do you want to act or do you want to be famous? Those are two very different goals, and it is the latter inclination that makes an artist. But then, you never know, maybe your first novel will be ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ I mean, hey, you never know until you try.

Meanwhile, let me climb back onto the carousel of my original thought process here. Why do we feel the need to pigeon-hole everyone and every thing? Okay, maybe it works for some things, like B movies and restaurant types, if I feel like pasta I won’t go to a BBQ pit, but people and creativity? That’s just nuts.

Because I don’t want to be chained to any one thing. If I do something for a while and it works for me but I weary of it, I’ll move on. I’ll write books on topics and characters that interest me, I just don’t have the time and energy for a project that isn’t worth six months to a year of my life.

And here’s something I’ve found out not from writing, but from reading. The books I love the most, the ‘break-out’ books, are almost always true originals, impossible to stuff into a cubby-hole with a computer-printed genre-label gorilla glued on the cover.

Screw that. There are true examples that fit any given description, but there is no description that is true about every example. White people aren’t all racist. Politicians aren’t all crooked, (well, a few aren’t!) Blonde women aren’t all vapid. Not every athlete is a bad student. Some mysteries are magical. Some dancers are clumsy. Good people die. Bad people do kind things sometimes.

Life, like literature, is a whirlwind of variety, constructs that grow or crumble, even things we build on foundations that can be washed away in the worst of a storm. If you look at the sum of someone’s work like a house they are putting on the market, before you buy, you need to see more than the real estate agent’s brochure. And while it takes extra time and energy to walk all the way around and through a house, judging the structure by the curb appeal alone leaves you ignorant of the floor plan and no understanding at all of the possible lives and loves that would be constantly changing inside. And don’t forget that everyone has the potential, at any time, to redecorate and redefine.

So…if anyone can help me with a quick phrase to sum up ‘what I write’ please, I’m begging you, I’m down on my scrubby knees chanting for clarity. Share it! As far as summing up my life and divergent personality in a simple adjective, give it up. It can’t be done. Not by me, or you, or anyone. Not about me, and not about anyone else. There is always more, layers on layers, basements and attics and add-ons, carpeting over hardwood floors, recessed lighting with a couple of bulbs burned out, a backyard filled with weeds on one side and a garden on the other. You can choose to live in a mid-century modern, mission style, or Victorian. You can occupy living rooms, bedrooms, tiled kitchens, and even spend time completely away from that home, possibly in the occasional muddy camp-site. Hey, I’ve done a bit of wallowing, every one occasionally makes a lateral move to our lower selves, so wipe that gunk out of your eyes and follow me to the showers.

But for heaven’s sake, stop limiting your vision, there is so much more to see.

If you want to change, do it! But be ready for resistance.

Because people don’t like it when you change.

It’s easier for them if you stay the same.

And nobody does.

So grow.

Dare.

Be all that you are.

Some one will read it.

 

Shari, November 7th, 2017

 

 

 

Please Forget Me When I’m Gone.

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Where the sidewalk ends

 

I watch a man, a father I think, pushing a baby in a stroller who is maybe a year old.The father rolls his son right to the edge of the sidewalk overlooking the crashing surf below so that there is nothing but salty air between the child and the sea. He crouches next to the child and points out over the shimmering water. There are no words, nothing but the gesture, yet that simple wave of an arm is a lecture on eternity, a tutorial on infinity, of all things. It is a master class in perspective.

Later this day, I stand in line at the grocery store. There are several people ahead of me and only two checkers open in the village-sized store. The older woman ahead of me who is blocking everyone from passing because she seems unaware that anyone else exists, begins to complain loudly. This is an outrage, she complains, she has valuable things to do with her time. Her cart is filled with wine and expensive specialty items. And still she complains. When she looks to me to bitch along, I say, “I have been too many places where parents cannot feed their children for me to complain that I have to wait a few minutes for all of this.” I wave my arm in direction of the unbelievable bounty and choice available to us. “Whenever I have to wait,” I tell her, “I remind myself how fortunate I am to have so much abundance.”

Her face twists in sour indignation, but before she can wind up to vent off more entitled outrage, I shrug comically and say, “Hey, how else you gonna’ keep your sense of humor?”

What I really want to do is scream at her, “There are hungry children on the street outside! They will go to bed hungry!” But it will do no good, this woman has no experience in her ken that allows her to shrug off even this slight inconvenience because she has no gratitude for what she has, who she is, where she lives, the privilege she was born into, nothing. She has a grossly limited perspective. She knows only that the world is ‘supposed’ to be the way she wants it to be, the way it has always been for her.

It’s really such a very small way to think.

How do you change that in a ‘me first!’ society? Can you teach empathy? The issue, of course, is that it’s a matter of standards and awareness. To what do you compare any given thing? Do you see yourself as a member of a vast universe or as the center of the only story you know. The creator or the victim?

Let’s take my writing career as a sample. I have published eight books, I’ve had many people enjoy them very much, (which is the best metric for me), I’ve had glowing reviews, and I adore creating other worlds and lives. I am lucky. Compared to someone who has always wanted to write but who has never had the time, the agent, or the publisher to do so, I’m a success! Whoo hoo, go Shari!

But, if I look at the fact that I’ve never had a best-seller, I’ve never had a movie made from one of my books, and I’ve never been featured in Oprah’s book club, then I’m a resounding failure. Boo Shari.

So what do you think? I think it’s writer’s choice whether to call myself a winner or a loser.

Okay, I know some of you are choosing the latter description with a little too much enthusiasm, fair enough. That propels us into the realm of judging our worth based on what other people think about us, but that factor is so unknowable and immeasurable that the science to gauge it hasn’t been discovered yet.

So let that go, for now, focus on the question of whether you think yourself a success or a failure. Should you be happy with your lot in life or distressed?

Each person’s answer depends on what test they use to arrive at an answer. And what’s your time frame for this assessment? Is it what you are experiencing in this minute that counts? The last year? The bottom line of a balance sheet of your total life? And what goes into that accounting? Money made? Happiness felt? Relationships failed? Tears wiped from another’s face by your compassion? Will there be a statue of you or your name on a bridge when you’re gone? What standards apply?

Watching that man with his son on the edge of the ocean was such an amazing reminder to me to look up, to see and imagine the possibilities beyond my limited vision, to remember that there is so much more out there.

I don’t believe in bumper stickers or tattoos, because I have changed my mind so very many times, and I hope I always will, because the option to that is to stop learning and stagnate, fester, and rot. But if I were to have any kind of constant message or symbol to remind me who I am and what is important, it would be one simple word.

Mortal.

This too shall pass.

Ironic, I know, the idea that once I’ve rotted, or hopefully been scattered as ashes in some magnificent redwood glade, I will be far more enlightened and connected than in life. I don’t necessarily believe in life after death, but I do believe that energy and love never die, just morph into something new that is absorbed into a universe hungry for the infusion. I for one will be grateful to return when the time comes, I hope. It does not frighten me that I will be forgotten. It makes no difference to me at all. But making the world a better place while I am a part of it— that is everything.

Try it, for one day, instead of constantly needing to tell yourself how important you are, how fabulous, how great, and especially instead of having to think yourself more important than others, think this…

You will die. All this will be forgotten. It’s just a matter of how long. Even those who are desperate to believe they will be remembered (be immortal) throughout history must face the fact that all human history will eventually end. Even this planet. Only the echoes of our energy and our love will remain, reborn and blended into something new, something even more wonderful.

So, for today, be mortal. Run to the edge of the ocean, or the top of a tall building, or stand in the rain, or listen to Mozart and weep, and know that this moment is magnificent. Say hello, offer a kind word, slip a twenty in a sleeping homeless person’s shoe, laugh like a child.

It isn’t what you absorb, but what you project that matters.

It isn’t how you are remembered, but how you are that counts.

So count yourself lucky.

Stop complaining.

Know that your breath is shared by seven billion other people.

Seven billion.

We’ll all be gone before too long.

Leave something of worth, something more than a memory.

And when I’m gone, if you do think of me, I hope you smile.

And then forget me.

I’m okay with that.

I’m already part of you.

 

 

Shari. October 12th, 2017

 

 

 

 

But What I Really Want To Do Is Write.

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                    In between laundry loads.                                                                Gussied up.

So here we go, a new novel out tomorrow in stores and on line everywhere!! So I’ve spent many hours on FB and twitter, or addressing postcards or arranging speaking engagements. Of course on Saturday I’ll be at Vroman’s in Pasadena at 4 for the book signing, so, it’s been distracting from my usual routine.

I generally spend about 40 hours a week working, not in a row, of course. I break it up and try to spread it over time that I haven’t reserved for my family. Sometimes I can actually get in 6-8 straight hours, but other times it’s two hours before I go to bed, three hours before everyone else gets up, or, like now, forty-five minutes over a quickly snagged burrito while I’m out buying detergent and other important things for family, like…oh, I don’t know…food.

Meanwhile, my next book, isn’t receiving the necessary time and concentration and is therefore resisting my efforts to keep it progressing steadily.

But writers, let’s be honest. Unless you are a super freak or an automaton, you don’t sit down everyday and write forward 4 to 12 pages. You squiggle around a bit, start a character but aren’t totally sure who they are or what they’ll say yet. You have a basic story line idea, or plot layout, but in truth you’re not working from a blueprint or IKEA instructions, (which to be fair require special tools and a keen understanding of fourth dimensional math.) Writing requires time just thinking, doodling concepts and character traits on napkins, watching people behave badly at the grocery store, talking to the homeless guy reading novels on a bus bench, (to be fair, my homeless reader-friend prefers, ‘domestically challenged’) even screaming at the moon to inspire you.

The book, the idea, and your thoughts about it are incomplete. And no amount of forcing words into the computer will congeal it into one of those pretty molds with sliced fruit suspended in a cake-shaped gelatinous mass.

That’s why I love editing, especially with a great editor. The basic form is already there and all you have to do is fluff, like a designer backstage at a fashion show. The main work is done, just a tug at the hem, a twist of a scarf, and you can shove that creation out onto the stage.

As much as I love writing and the books I’ve produced, I have a major problem with promoting them, and here’s why—besides making me feel vaguely braggadocios, (Mom, mom, mom, watch me, watch me!) getting myself out there involves makeup and an attempt at coordinated clothing, even possibly, god-forbid—high heals. Three things I’m able to avoid on a daily basis for months while I’m writing.

One of the big problems with being a writer is that people assume you are available at the drop of a hat, you are not ‘working’ at a job, so you must be able to go to lunch, answer their emails within seconds, take care of their kids when they are busy, and chat for hours on the phone.

Wrong. I’m not a chatter, I turn off my wifi when I work, I love your kids and will take them to the space center when I can take an afternoon off, and if I eat, it will be on the run. My family has learned that they may interrupt me when I’m writing, but I reserve the right to say “Not now.” (One major exception was when my 8 year old daughter put on her Sailor Moon costume, complete with star-wand and stood next to me saying, “But mommy, I want you to come help me save the world.” I mean, come on, I had to go. The future of the planet was at stake.) My friends—who aren’t writers—don’t get it.

And then a book comes out and everyone says, “Oh, you’re so busy, you have so much going on!” Not really. I’m busier when I’m home trying to focus on my story plot in my torn T-shirt with unwashed hair while simultaneously trying to keep a decent house, do the gardening, prepare delicious meals, and spend time with my husband and my daughters.

So when you think of my recent ‘success’ remember this mental picture of me at home, moving cats off my keyboard, jumping up to check the laundry, the crock pot, the sprinklers. It might not seem as glamorous as speaking in front of a group of people wearing a nice skirt and blouse holding my shiny new hardcover, but it’s the bulk of my life, and frankly I prefer it.

Because, while I appreciate and am eternally grateful for the friends and readers who say lovely things on line, re-tweet my good reviews, and actually take the time to come out and support me… what I really want to do is write.

What will you do today?

Shari, August 10th, 2015

Hiding Behind the Real Me.

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The lady behind the ARC’s of Invisible Ellen

So…last Wednesday, I’m booked to do a radio show. It’s been set up by the Putnum publicity department in NY, and communicated to me by email. The show, “Connie Martinson Talks Books” is ‘taping’ in Santa Monica at 11:00 and she’s featuring me and “Invisible Ellen.” So, I put on some jeans and a comfortable, very wrinkled shirt, throw on some mascara at the last minute, (I hate makeup, but I don’t want to offend anyone) and make the drive. Parking is tricky, and I go the wrong way, and have to run back to make it to the studio on time. I rush in, sweaty now, and look around.

Cameras. In the back of my mind, a little buzzer is going off, Not Radio. Television.

I look down at my wrinkled shirt and almost clean jeans, realize I’m pale and shiny, will be totally washed out by the lights, my hair is frizzy and snatched back with a plastic clip, and all I can think is…. Perfect. As I’ve said, I’m an everyday philosopher, meaning that I say, ‘Oh well,’ a lot. And this one has an exclamation point at the end.

Oprah has her “Aha” moments. I have my ‘Oh Well’ moments. So I get miked up for sound, sit in the hot seat, chat with Connie, who, it turns out, shares an ice skating past in Lake Placid with me, (small world) and then we roll. We have a delightful thirty-minute conversation about my new book. She’s so complementary, has me read a page, ‘to show how well-written it is’ which is delightfully flattering, and then asks me to sign a book for her at the end.

I couldn’t be happier. After years of soaps and movies and modeling, to appear on a TV show where nobody gives a crap how I look, but is interested in how and what I write, is a major milestone for me. Not because of my attitude. I have always preferred to not wear makeup and be liked, or disliked as the case has often been, for who I am. I have spent a life time with idiot men telling me I was “smart for a women” and thinking it was compliment when I was twice as smart as them. And too much time dealing with and diffusing  women  feeling competitive with me because of how I looked. Insanity. Unworthy. Ridiculous.

We count as people. Our actions must speak louder than the surface. They don’t call me Shari Action for nothing. If something needs to get done, I’m usually the first to pitch in. Be it as a mom at school, or my charity, or speaking up for someone who can’t, I’ve just never been able to stop myself.

So much for that. But there is more to this story. As soon as I saw her, I realized that I had been on Connie’s show once before, years ago, and thank goodness, she did not remember either. It was for my third book, “The Man She Thought She Knew,” and the only reason Connie had me on was that she was friends with the publicist. I answered her incorrectly when she asked about a character, telling her that they weren’t in this book, (wrong) thanked her at the end of the show by calling her Colleen, and she definitely didn’t ask me to read from the book. Shhhh. So when she asked me this time, before filming, if this was my first book, I answered, “No I have two series, one is a woman named Calla-….uh, it’s a crime series.” Cutting myself off because I’m embarrassed that the light will dawn and the flattering, soft-filtered veil will fall.

It always does, eventually of course, but sometimes we find a few moments of forgiving grace. Yep I’ve got a past, and it’s back there,but as one friends said to me, “That’s what pasts are for.” We don’t need to wear our learning curves, but we can use them for traction.

‘Oh well’, and ‘Aha!’ They make a good combo, and both are welcome in my life now. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those other moments, those mistakes, those embarrassing scenes, those times I fell on my butt on the ice in front of twenty thousand people. But you know what? I’m glad I did. I lived to tell the tale, as it were. And most likely, as it shall be.

So embrace your fundamental imperfections. Be human, let the wrinkles on your shirt and your face show. You earned them. And if, in spite of all that, you can hold up your book—or better yet, your life—and be proud, then you are a success.

In my case, it’s a success with some pretty scathing memories behind it. That’s me, Shari Action. If my life were a race, I’d look back and see lots of hurdles laying on their sides where they were knocked when I didn’t quite clear them. Look closer and you’ll see my cartoon outline in the brick walls I sped into and crashed through. You’ll see the indents where I gave up for a while and curled into a ball to rest.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the word ‘imperfect’ describes me best. It describes us all.

And isn’t that wonderful?

Shari, June 19th, 2014

The ‘Twenty Questions” Writers’ Exercise.

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This photo has nothing to do with this little exercise, it’s just me looking like a know-it-all which is, of course, perfect for a writer deigning to give advice to other writers.

So, let’s play Twenty Questions.

I’m not talking about how you come up with your ideas for a whole novel, or even your characters, but how to make an encounter or any ‘scene’ in your book work for you. It’s simple, but one of the most functional exercises I’ve found. It’s actually from a screen writing class I took, long ago, which means that it’s designed to create the best picture for both your scenario and your characters.

So let’s get started. You have your idea, you’ve done your homework on your characters, now you need them to encounter each other or perhaps some other obstacle that will forward your story. The very best books and screen plays establish their characters distinctly the first time we meet them. My favorite example of this is in “The Professional.” Jean Reno plays a hit man. The movie opens with him getting to his mark who is highly protected in a hotel room. About 19 people die, very creatively, and then, this ruthless killer, goes home to his empty apartment, sits alone at his table, and drinks a glass of milk in silence.

And we feel sorry for him.

What a great set up. Now, how the heck did Luc Besson pull this off? How in the heck did he create a ruthless killer, and then make us relate to him and feel for him, before he ever speaks a word?

I think it’s pretty clear that he didn’t just go with the first thing that came to mind. But it can be confusing to sit at a desk and try to force yourself to be interesting.

Try this: You have two characters who need to meet, your romantic leads, let’s say.

Your first idea, is, they should meet in a bar. Great.

You are not done. Write that down. Now, make a list of twenty other ways that they could meet, and do not stop until you reach twenty, no matter how stupid they get. You will be amazed at how many mental doors this will open for you. Even if you decide that number 12 is terrific, finish your list. They meet at a bar. They meet at a funeral. They both have kids in the same playschool. They are both given gift certificates to go sky diving, and one is afraid of heights. Etc. Don’t stop, get to twenty.

But perhaps you are writing characters who really should meet in a bar. They are alcoholics, say, or desperate singles. Fine. They meet in a bar. Now make a list of twenty ways they can meet in the bar.

He spills his drink on her. She forgot her wallet and tries to nab his change to pay for her drink. He accidentally goes into the ladies room, and she is in a stall, thinking it’s another woman, she asks if he has a tampax in his purse. She sees an old boyfriend and tries to hide under his table. Etc. Don’t stop until you have twenty!!

Now you have choices, mostly choices that will help you establish your character and story. And I’m willing to bet that you’ve opened up opportunities for dialogue and emotional exchanges, ways to show your character’s traits and not just tell us.

I.E. Instead of saying your male lead is preoccupied and not very observant, his going into the ladies’ room can be a repeated action that defines him. He’s always going through the wrong door, walking into closets at home and kitchens at restaurants. This tells your readers quite a bit about him without you writing down, “Bob was absent minded.”

Which is boring.

Which you don’t want to be.

It’s a simple, but effective technique and best of all, it’s really quite easy.

So there you go!! I’m going to wrap presents now. Unless the ceiling in my office is leaking, or the dog gets into a fight with a skunk outside, or all the gifts have been stolen by the UPS man, or…

Well, you get the idea.

Happy listing!!

Shari. December 12, 2012