Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pirate Talk, My Dad's Birthday and How I'm Not Special

Aaargh! Thanks for droppin' anchor at me swashbucklin' blog, matie! Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I always thought it was funny that International Talk Like a Pirate Day fell on my father's birthday. He never saw the humor in it, but if you knew my Dad, you know that overt silliness wasn't really his style. He had a great sense of humor; but it was usually aimed at the ridiculousness of what most people consider normal human behavior, rather than at things people intended to be funny.

He was a scientist through and through: always observing, always analyzing, never taking even the simplest of cultural assumptions for granted. He saw everything with an intensely critical eye and put practicality and rationality above all else. This made him a huge asset to the scientific world and, by extension, to the defense of our country. As you can imagine, it also made him a teenage daughter's worst nightmare. 

Dad would have been 64 today, but last year, just four days after his 63rd birthday, he lost his short battle with lung cancer. I miss him. We had a complicated relationship, but I'm happy to say that overall it was more good than bad, especially in the two years before he died. I could say loads more about him, and my mother who died ten years before him, but maybe another time. Hell, that's a book unto itself, probably....

Today is also AT&T's Pledge Day against texting while driving. Normally my first reaction to these kinds of things is "oh, yeah right, that will fix it." [I *may* have inherited a bit of Dad's cynicism]. But I took the pledge and I think you should, too.

A few years ago, Dad and I made a deal that he would stop smoking if I would stop talking on the phone while driving. He knew I did most of my chatting in the car -- because what on earth would I do with myself if I weren't multi-tasking? -- and it made him nervous. For a couple of months, we both kept our word; but it wasn't long before I was sneaking in a quick call here and there and he was sneaking out for a cigarette. I've been lucky that my use of the phone has so far not resulted in any accidents. Dad was not so lucky.

Ever since Monkey and Fozzie have been around, I've been much more careful about talking on the phone while in the car. I use the hands-free system in the car whenever possible, and I try to avoid talking while in traffic or on the Interstate. I'm extra careful about doing things that require me to look at the screen. So, I pull over if I need to dial a number I don't have on speed dial. I save texting until I'm parked. Or I wait until I'm at a red light. Or a stop sign. Or if I just need to check the map, very quickly, or just see if I still have the e-vite with the directions on it. Or just to see if the person I'm meeting just texted to ask if I'm running late (and let's face it, I am). Or....

And that's where it all starts to unravel.

It happens so fast. Because most of us are not involved in car accidents on a regular basis, the risk starts to seem less real. If you ask, of course, we're not stupid -- we'll say that we understand the dangers. But we don't feel them, usually. Life is busy, and being connected all the time makes us feel almost as though we are not allowed to unplug, even while driving. The perceived urgency of whatever is going on -- being late to meet someone, getting lost on the way to the interview, having an argument with a friend -- presses on us. And our recent experience as a driver -- I haven't been involved in a car accident in years! -- gives us the false perception that the pattern is going to continue, no matter what. [There has to be some brain science to back this up, I just know it!]

So we focus only on what we're trying to do, sweeping the risks under the rug and minimizing them in our heads. We choose, just for a second, to think of the world as though it's a video game, and if we make a mistake, we'll simply start over. We choose not to think about the people in the cars around us, the workers on the side of the road, the child waiting at the bus stop, our own kids in the backseat. Our overwhelmed brain is trying to process too much at once, so it allows us to take a seconds-long break from reality while we just glance at this one little thing.

On top of that, there's this little fact of human nature: we all think we're special. We treasure our individuality so much and have such an inflated view of our own skills, that we believe we are the exception to the rule. No, no, the people who have accidents doing this are teenagers. Or they're stupid people. Or they only happen on the interstate. Or those people text much more than I do, and they look down for longer periods. Not me, I can do it. It's just a quick glance. I'm a great driver. I can handle it.

Well, I might be special to the people who love me, and I might have some special talents, but being able to fully concentrate on moving a 4500-pound piece of machinery down the road when my eyes are on the center console isn't one of them. And I know myself all too well, that if I don't make the commitment today, if I don't promise myself or someone else that I won't do it, it will only be a matter of time before I'm glancing down more and more often, feeling a little guilty but doing it nonetheless.   

So, I'm taking my own personal It Can Wait pledge today. No texting while driving, even when stopped at a red light. No searching the map, or checking my email, or just glancing at one quick thing. Not while I'm alone, not while the boys are in the car, not while I'm on the highway, not on the slow-moving residential roads near my house. Not with a fox, not in a box, not on a train, not in the rain.... It can wait. I can pull over. The world will not end if I am late to an appointment or keep someone waiting on the other side of a text conversation. We all have to die someday, but there's no reason to die being an idiot (or worse, kill someone else). I owe more than that to the people who do think I'm special, especially the two little ones who are watching every move I make.

I'm making the pledge today, for everyone I love, and I hope you'll do the same.

Happy Birthday, Dad.   

Monday, September 10, 2012

New Blog Soundtrack by Kenny G?

Nah, just kidding. 

You'll notice, though, that the blog has undergone some changes in the last couple of weeks - a cleaner look (which will continue evolving) and today, a new name. Yes, the name is partly a nod to my formative years moping in my room and listening to The Cure. And -- to my slight embarrassment -- to Tesla. Remember Tesla? Raise your hand if you're singing "Love is all around you..." right now. You know you are.

You can read a bit more about the name change here, but it comes down to having a shorter title that encompasses more of what I actually do with this blog. I appreciate those of you who've commented how much you like "Doll Hair Doesn't Grow Back" but it is a bit cumbersome. Especially when you're trying to tell people about the blog at a party and they leave halfway through the name to refresh their drinks!

In addition to simplifying this blog, I'm also acknowledging that I have been serving a couple of different audiences here: fans and friends who are interested in my personal reflections on life, love and everything else; and those who are interested in my journey as a self-pubbed author (largely because they might like to begin or continue that journey themselves). So I'm spinning off a writer's blog here: It's called Front Matter and if you're a writer or entrepreneur, or just interested in my take on the whole publishing process, I invite you to follow it. And, of course, share. :)

Meanwhile, hang here for more lessons learned, reflections on current events, funny kid stories and general navel-gazing. I'll post book information in both places for now. And I promise to keep it interesting or fall on my face trying!

As always, this lovesong is for you...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sock Puppets and Ethics

It's funny how things collide sometimes. Lately I've been giving a good bit of thought not just to writing, but to the business of being a writer. I've realized (get ready to point and laugh at someone with too much education and too little common sense) that if I want my books to be really successful, I probably ought to dust off all those marketing and business principles I learned as an MBA and, you know, use them.

In this scenario, I am totally the cardiologist who smokes and eats cheeseburgers. Sometimes you forget to apply your professional knowledge to your own life.

So I started making notes for mission and vision statements, business model, and core values. Along with core values I began thinking about my own personal code of ethics when it comes to my writing, and asking myself questions. Will I ever plagiarize someone else's work or intentionally ride someone's coattails? Hell, no. Will I be okay with writing characters who drink heavily and to make jokes about promiscuity or infidelity -- even though those very things have harmed people I know and love, and will definitely turn some people off to my books? You betcha. Life is not always simple or comfortable, and I don't write it that way -- even in my lighthearted, happy-ending romances. That might alienate some people, and I respect their feelings, but it won't change the way I write.

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

Oh, wait. I am selling something. But I digress...

It turns out that there are some ethics and values questions I either hadn't considered or hadn't bothered to quantify as I worked around this new publishing and marketing world by pure moxie and intuition. There are also scores of stylistic and etiquette choices, about which some writers seem to feel so passionate that they almost sound like ethical issues when discussed in the blogosphere. Is it okay to follow another writer on Twitter in hopes that they will follow you back? Can or should people review other authors' work in hopes of receiving a reciprocal review? What about trading blurbs? Are Direct Messages on Twitter inherently creepy?

And, in the midst of my personal musings, the news broke that several prominent authors have "massaged" their public image by paying for positive reviews. These include self-published icon John Locke, who admitted in this NY Times article that he paid for many of his early amazon reviews.

I've read Locke's book on successful self-publishing and do find it interesting that while he was happy to highlight his once-monthly blog and Twitter-friendship strategies, he neglected to mention his "purchasing the first 300 reviews" strategy. As someone who paid to read about his methods, I find the omission annoying and maybe unethical (at least by my personal standards) but not criminal. To his credit, he's not hiding from the actions now that they're public, nor is he apologizing for what I would guess he sees as the fair purchase of advertising. It also seems that he told the now-defunct reviewing company he didn't care if the reviews were positive or negative, he just wanted numbers. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I am pretty sure that no one cares how I feel about that.

In addition to purchasing reviews, positive or otherwise, authors have been outed this week for creating 'sock puppet' identities so that they could praise their own works (eh - more pathetic than egregious). The worst offenders, however, are those who use sock puppets to trash rival authors. This, in my opinion, is particularly disgusting. Unforgivable, actually.

In response to the hubbub, some writers have banded together on this no-sock-puppet statement. I 'liked' it on principle, but I'm not sure it's the right tone or level of thoroughness to address the whole issue. A  cohesive, comprehensive code of writing ethics to which authors could commit and self-certify would be more appropriate. Please don't tell anyone I said that, though, because saying the world needs something is the step before someone appoints you as head of a committee. And, truly, I think said committee should be headed by author Barry Eisler, who posted the most coherent response to all of this here.

For fans, friends and fellow writers, and for the imaginary "record" to which all blogs like this one are permanently and indelibly inscribed, here's my take on all of it:

None of my reviews, on amazon, goodreads or anywhere else have been bought. I have never and will never pay anyone with money, chocolate, or free dog-sitting to review my books. I just don't roll that way. In the few cases in which I have provided free reviewers' copies (a common industry practice) to bloggers/reviewers, I've encouraged those people to disclose this in their review, and most of them have.

Like many first-time authors, I found the blank review section a little daunting when I first published The Marriage Pact, and so I encouraged friends and family who'd read the book to provide an honest review of it. Six of them did. Half were 5-star, half were 4-star, and all were (as far as I know), thoroughly honest. In fact, a couple of my English-major friends were harder on me than the first several non-friend readers who reviewed it.

Full disclosure: As I was trying to drum up more attention for The Marriage Pact, I posted a contest on my Facebook page encouraging people to review it for a chance to receive the sequel free. I was aware that this would self-select toward positive reviews, since people who hated the book wouldn't be on my Facebook page and probably wouldn't be interested in reading the sequel, but I was having a hard time thinking of other ways to encourage people to write reviews. I asked fans to be honest, and since many of the reviews included both positive and critical evaluations, I have to assume they were at least somewhat true to that request.

Following those positive reviews and on the heels of my first free promotion, I also received a rash of negative reviews -- people who were really distracted by the book's problems (of which there certainly were a few), readers for whom it wasn't a good fit, or for whom the subject matter was inherently offensive. It was painful at first, as I've blogged about, but it was also a great learning experience and helped me become a better writer. Honestly, while I'm certainly glad to be more positive than negative on my first work, I wouldn't trade the bulk of those negative reviews for an MFA in Creative Writing. They were seriously that valuable.

By the way, I've noticed that the reviews ebb and flow in little waves. People tend to review things when either they have strong feelings one way or the other, or they think the previous reviewers have been wrong. With TMP, my experience was that some people would read and post glowing but short reviews on how much they liked it; and then a few would come and crucify not only the book itself but all the other readers who gave it 4 or 5 stars. It's a matter of taste both ways, I think.

One big thing that impacts amazon's review system, IMHO, is that you can't leave a simple rating. You HAVE to write a review of at least 20 words in order to rate something, which discourages lazy people like me from rating things -- either because we don't want to take the time, or don't want to be scrutinized and lambasted by other reviewers for whatever we might say. The reality is that goodreads probably has a more accurate rating system, tending more predictably toward a normal, natural bell curve. The basic principles of statistics would say that most books ought to be 3-star books. Most books are average by definition. But that's not how it looks on amazon - because of the review structure and people's attitude about writing reviews.

With Regrets Only, I've been fortunate enough to have only 4 and 5 star reviews, 25 so far, and only 3 of those reviews are from people I know personally. I've been unsure with Regrets whether to hold my breath and wait for the other shoe to fall, or worry that people will think I paid for reviews since they're all positive. Maybe I should pay someone to write a mediocre review for credibility....

In the end, I've decided against fretting over it. Instead, I'll be focusing on my own ethics: working hard to provide my readers with something worth buying and doing so in a way that allows me to sleep soundly at night. I'm happy to subscribe to a thoughtfully created code of ethics within the writing community, or to establish my own and display it proudly. But other than that I don't have much room for righteous (writeous?) indignation in my life right now.

Other people's successes -- however they're achieved -- are not my failures, nor the other way around. I view relationships with other writers as a chance to learn and gain support, not to be artificially propped up or cut down. Healthy competition is great, but frankly I'd rather compete against myself than anyone else. For one thing, I'm always available to respond to my own smack talk. Plus, no socks of any kind are required.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mom, There's a Hooker in My Room (Things I Learned in August)

Here's my top 5 from the month of August:

1. A couple of weeks ago, Monkey came running downstairs. "Mom there's a hooker in my room!" After a sidelong glance at his father, and a little investigation, we figured out he was talking about a clothes hanger on the floor. Bill Crosby was right, kids really do say the darnedest things. What Bill didn't say was that kids are funniest when they are inadvertently R-rated.

2. Sometimes when someone tells you they've had an 'epiphany,' it means they genuinely feel they've received an enlightening message from a diety and/or the universe. Other times, it means they just don't want to take responsibility for their own emotionally-driven, irrational or just plain inconsiderate decisions, so they're blaming G-d. Somewhere, the Divine Presence is out there shaking his or her head. "Don't put this on me, dude. I've been trying for weeks to get you to change your oil and you weren't listening to that."

3. The city of Cincinnati is really a lovely place, with an excellent zoo (among other attractions). Monkey is still talking about becoming a temporary Reds fan when we caught a game at Great American Ballpark. When you're a three year old Braves fan in a new city, it takes some processing to keep your loyalties straight. We are well on our way to visiting all the big MLB ballparks before the boys go to college: two down, thirty to go. (We also want to visit all the national parks, but that's another post). Many thanks to our wonderful friends Nan, Carl and family for hosting us in their new hometown. We'll definitely be back soon!

4. While I'd like to say I'm not a slave to positive feedback, I have to say that having people write/post/tweet me insisting that I write a third book in THE MARRIAGE PACT series is an amazing feeling. Most of the jobs I've worked in recent years have been of the "doing good is its own reward" variety, and while that had its charms, a little praise and encouragement goes a long way toward fueling the creative process. I know there is still so much to be learned and I'll never be "past" the point of needing to receive criticism and improve... but, still. Just one tiny rest? On this teeny-tiny little laurel over here? I won't fall asleep, I promise!

5. Okay, I know everyone older than me is going to roll their eyes at this one, but my body just isn't what it used to be. I don't mean flab or wrinkles (though those are making themselves known, too), I mean recovery time after an injury. I hurt my back a couple of weeks ago, a strained muscle that normally would've just been sore for a day or two, and just when I thought I was out of the woods - SNAP! I re-injured it. Now can't sit for more than a few minutes straight, can't carry the boys up and down stairs, and sitting on the floor is completely out of the question. It is so frustrating!

Some of this is hereditary: back problems run in my family on my Mom's side. But that's part of what is so discouraging about it. For as long as I could remember, my mom had such severe back problems that she spent many, many key moments in our childhood lying on the couch on a heating pad (or in a hotel room at Disneyworld - yuck!). I hated that for her, and selfishly I hated it for me, too.

Well, friends, the minute I can move around without cringing, I'll be starting a rigorous yoga/walking/doing whatever the heck it takes to keep my muscles healthier so I don't have to go down that road. I'll camp out at my chiropractor's office if I have to. I'll buy a Roman bench - as soon as I find out what that is. I'll..... [gasp!] do crunches. If that's not a sign of desperation, I don't know what is.

My point is, I don't want to be the "on the couch with the heating pad" mom. I want to be "hiding in the bathroom with a martini and a trashy novel" mom. Way more fun.


So here's what's on tap for September... My wedding anniversary (six years, and he's headed for sainthood for sure), the Jewish holidays, closing out my therapy practice for now, incorporating business and psychological skills into my writing work, creating a mission/vision statement, and lots of other good stuff.

Technically, I've given myself until October to begin work in earnest on the next book, but I've caught myself making notes when I think I'm not looking. I think that's a sign that you've found your true passion in life, when you have to hold yourself back from doing it to get other stuff done.

Have a great long weekend and a wonderful start to September.