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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Can Radiate Everything You Are

I’m teaching a two part workshop this weekend and next at my favorite indie book store in Connecticut, RJ Julia. I’ve titled it THe Agony and The Ecstasy. We’re going to talk query letters, titles, hooking a reader with your first page. We’re going to talk about how to get an agent and how to go about it. We’re going to talk about social networking, proposals, editing, and selling. And something new that I’ve added into the mix: how to determine where you are as a writer. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but I feel it’s important to know if you’re a novice, an advanced beginner, ready to submit work, ready to put that novel away, ready to take a class, in need of additional feedback, etc. I think it’s important to get a sense of where you are in your career and go from there.

Do you agree?  And where are you?

74 Responses

  1. Betsy, I have no f*cking idea where I am. I just signed a two book contract with a prominent indie publisher, but my WIP sucks. I have a book coming out this year, next year and the year after but I still feel lost and unfocused Not sure what YOU can do about it. Probably nothing. But it feels good to share.

    • dear lord.
      i thought betsy’s question scared the hell out of me,
      but then your comment poured rubbing alcohol in my already useless third eye. prominent indie publisher! three book deal!!! does the questioning of oneself ever, ever end???

      (i should go back to the beginning with a very real and very heartfelt congratulations. really, congrats, congrats!)

  2. In California. Much too far to attend your workshop.
    I have a manuscript out and am working on the next book.

  3. I used to know but I don’t anymore.

    • And yes I agree.

      • The thing is there’s always more to be done. Always. The question is what kind of more needs to be done and why and who for. Trustwothy people told me five years ago I needed to start submitting. I did. Got an agent. But not the right one. So am I a beginner or someone living in the wrong century. Because the later seems more true to me than any quality assessment.

      • Keep going, CJ. I’d pick the 800s. Lots going on then. You could hand write your MS and your audience would be monks, maybe the odd interested noble. But I’d need antibiotics, hundreds of toothpaste tubes, and other assorted necessities.

  4. Crap, Betsy, we need to talk! That’s exactly the class I’m teaching at Lit Reactor. Well, almost, ’cause I don’t have the cachet of being a literary agent, and I’m nowhere near as engaging and fabulous as you–but I’m thinking that I’ll send all my students whiskey-infused chocolate, and then lower the boom.

    Seriously, my thing is that every writer has a natural talent toward some aspect of writing: voice, language, fascinating history, the ability to plot–and I’m all for doing what you do best, better, and learning how not to suck too bad at the stuff that doesn’t come naturally.

  5. Can’t we all PayPal you $100 bucks for 5 pages and a CV and *you* tell us where we are? Self-diagnosis is so inaccurate.

    • This is brilliant. For another $100, Princess Sisi (see above) can tell us what we do well and what shouldn’t be allowed out of the house.

      • Or, we can pool our dough and rent some Hawaiian beach cottage and write tiny novels on our iPhones when we’re not swimming with dolphins or downing Mai Tais.

      • silly suzy, we can’t take phones to the beach. we’ll have to carve our stories on random planks of driftwood. or write them upon the shore and the tide can be our backspace key. whichever, i’m in.

      • We can become the first Twitter Driftwood community! This is brilliance.

      • Silly amyg, if we’re going the veggie-burger-in-paradise route, let’s just skip writing altogether, burn the driftwood, and sit around the fire telling stories that are carried aloft like sparks on the wind. Cut through all the BS and go straight to the primal tools of story-telling: the voice, the ear, the face, the eye, and the heart.

        Plus, we’d all have killer bodies in no time, living on green coconuts and taro root.

    • Query fifty agents. Save $100.

      • Is that really the final say? Really? What if they all want a chest of drawers and you’re a potter or a sculptor? What if they only know how to judge what they know they can sell?

      • There is no final say, CJ. There’s just ‘a sense of where you are.’

  6. Four chapters from the end of my WIP and one third done, sitting next to a pile of research I need to incorporate and another pile of notes on the go. And one scene that refuses to budge.

    But I also have the strangest feeling I’ve Leveled Up somewhere along the line . . .

  7. 51°03′N 114°04′W

  8. Of course I agree. Why would I not? And I am walking slowly backward down the other side of that hill over there.

  9. I think that’s a great question to explore in a class. It’s so confounding and nerve wracking–exactly the kind of thing that any of us would likely relish in mulling over together (as opposed to in the isolation of our own brains where we usually mull it over). At least I would love that. Too bad I’m in California.

  10. Yes, I agree. And I’m right here. I just touched myself to make sure. Same as I ever am. No matter where I go, I’m right here. A caterpillar dreaming he’s a man with light, scaly wings and a proboscis for swilling whiskey.

    • I really don’t think Betsy’s blog is meant to provoke touching oneself, but we all have our kinks.

      • I am broadminded enough to have several of nearly everyone’s kinks.

        And I’m creative (i.e., egotistical and narcissistic) enough to be happy to share whatever kinks I may have with anyone passing by slowly enough.

  11. “I’m not sure I understand the process of writing. There is, I’m sure,
    something strange about imaginative concentration. The brain slowly
    begins to function in a different way, to make mysterious connections.
    Say, it is Monday, and you write a very bad draft, but if you keep
    trying, on Friday, words, phrases, appear almost unexpectedly. I don’t
    know why you can’t do it on Monday, or why I can’t. I’m the same
    person, no smarter, I have nothing more at hand . . . . It’s one of
    the things writing students don’t understand. They write a first draft
    and are quite disappointed, or often should be disappointed. They
    don’t understand that they have merely begun, and that they may be
    merely beginning even in the second or third draft.”

    — Elizabeth Hardwick, Paris Review Interviews

  12. The workshop sounds like it will be a SRO event! (Hopefully the guy in the denim shirt won’t be sitting in the front row.)

    As for me, I am in a self-induced, short-term exile from writing – having to focus on Day Job and accruing those billable hours that keep the lights on, pays down the SBA loan and may allow me to buy groceries next month. This month, I’m seeing if I can get by with only what is in the pantry. Ah, the joys of self employment and creative cooking!

  13. YES!!! That is my biggest question – where the hell am I as a writer? Or better yet, am I a writer? Or the worst one, am I any good?

    Your workshop sounds phenomenal. Do you ever do any in Los Angeles – would you mind emailing me any details? simonesays@gmail.com

    Good luck!

  14. For years I thought I was a fake chasing my dumb teen dream – the writer. I wouldn’t even mention and feel stupid if I did. But now things have shifted and my books are coming out. While feeling I have crossed a threshold, and my wishes have finally come true, I am now starting to fret about reviews and sales, and feel like a slightly different creature. Allowed to call herself a writer, but worried about public speaking, people not liking my books, the graphics not done right.

    I think the topic is great. Sometimes you need to know where you are on your timeline and act concretely no?

  15. It’s a practical question Betsy, it helps–locate where you are and plan the next step. I had scientific works published, but at a turning point, moved to writing fiction-short stories I prefer. Having joined a number of writing classes/workshops in the US and UK, now I feel I would be somewhere between an advanced beginner and somebody ready to submit work–I mean one among my draft short stories that I consider at final final shape. That will be a tough journey. Thanks for a chance for me to talk about this.

  16. Breaking through, baby, on the verge of breaking through.

  17. Nowhere but now I really want to take tap dancing lessons.

  18. Getting to the end of the first draft and getting scared about the second. Wondering if I’ll ever ‘make it’. Worrying that all this selfish time I spend alone with the computer and my WIP will ever come to anything. Imagining myself in the Home for the Elderly, knitting socks and thinking…’if only.’
    ‘I’m everywhere and nowhere, baby.That’s where it’s at’.

  19. I’m lost. Somewhere between ready to submit work and ready to put it away. Maybe I need additional feedback. Or just a sizeable pair.

    Is it possible, really, to achieve self-awareness? I don’t know where the hell I am.

  20. I do agree. The single most important trait that has helped me parent 4 vastly different children is self reflection. I think the same rules apply to writing. If you know where you are, you have a better chance of getting to where you want to be.

    I’m one of those people who think things happen for reasons (save death, disease, poverty, injustice). If I get caught in a traffic jam, I think to myself, “This is preventing me from speeding. I probably would have sped and would have gotten us all killed so this is actually okay.” My agitation subsides and life continues on as it should.

    In terms of my WIP, I’ve only just begun. Or, as I like to look at it, I’m exactly where I need to be.

  21. “First-page hook,” ha! I figured that out years ago as a reader, and now when I’m in a bookstore I read page 13. And page 157. And page 234. Because sometimes that first-page hook is the best writing in the book, and I’ve been disappointed too many times.

    Where I am as a writer is an advanced beginner who needs a smack upside her head. “Showing promise” is fine, but I need to finish a few things.

  22. Excellent question. I’m working my ass off to get to the stage where I can deal with word choice and sentence order rather than the wracking existential questions of “What the fuck am I doing exactly?”

  23. Agree.
    I’m green, a little blue and not quite ready to burn bright red. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years, largely due to finally grasping what lies beyond the writing; it’s taken me decades to finally get it through my impenetrable skull that nobody is going to come knocking on the door begging to publish my work. So, I’m nearly ready to submit, appreciate additional feedback, am anxious to dive into the work and feel guarded but confident.

  24. Where am I? Up against the usual wall. Happy to write and rewrite and critique and be critiqued, and can see improvement in my work. But it’s always changing, so how the hell do I know?

    What I am ready for is an old-fashioned editor-writer collaboration–and let the literary world argue after my death if my editor made me what I became.

  25. As for my position on the slippery pole of author ascent, let me say that any classes, consultations, or reinventions had better be quick. I gave my young wife a bottle of expensive wine for her birthday four months ago; I think she is saving it for my funeral.

  26. I am such a dolt for not checking out your event tab. I would have signed up for this in a heartbeat–especially to figure out that where are you as a writer question. It would definitely be useful to think about this in terms of where you want to be and how to get there.

    Alas, you have sold out. Oh wait–that’s another post entirely.

    Have a blast & tell us what you see/what you learn.

  27. Last night I wrote “The End”.

    Today I’m thinking about the disaster that is my draft, and the amount of typing and cutting that is about to be done. As with most things, I jump headfirst, and reflect later. I’ll let you know where I am after I’ve gone somewhere new. I won’t know while I’m here.

  28. Hell yes I agree, Betsy. The unexamined life…….

    Where am I? My stories have been a regular feature in a magazine since September ’04, and I get good feedback from readers and my editor, who recently sent a care package with a copy of The Best of Damon Runyon, some T-shirts, and a couple of checks.

    I’m a beginner who needs to expand, with new characters, ideas, and a longer story. The pieces are right here, and I am afraid, putting off until tommorrow, and tommorrow.

    • Which magazine, Frank? The people want to know.

      • Small Craft Advisor, Mac. It’s the last piece in the pie-pan, each issue, with a shot of a typewriter and half-full glass on a nautical chart, under which it says “From the desk of B. Frank Franklin”.

        The mag is about doing, but it’s not without thinkers, and I’m astonished at the good fortune that got me there.

        Thank you for asking, and reminding me of that good fortune.

  29. Baltic Ave. with a stack of fives, and I’m the little Scottie.

    • Can I be the shoe?

      • Yes, and we’ll let August be the race car.

      • Can I be the thimble?

        I’ve had something weird happen. Here I was, hoping to be the next Tea Olbrecht or Karen Russell, digging deep and feeling profound and also eternally frustrated. My problem is I read across every genre (except crime) and have a weak spot for a good romance. I’ve had manuscripts rejected by agents, more than once, because my writing “straddles several genres”. Which is apparently a bad thing. I’m also a Publishers Marketplace addict, scouring for the big deals. So one day – I think it was last October – I come across a couple of significants in the women’s/romance categories and think to myself: right, I’m gonna write one of these suckers. I need money and it can’t be that hard, right? There’s a basic formula here. So I sat down and wrote one; it took me exactly one month. I used my husband for inspiration. Let’s just say he had a good month. Anyway, I sent it off to my agent who just emailed me this week saying he’s got a 3-book deal on the table. It’s not big bucks but it’s a start. So now, ladies and gentlemen, I’m casting my Pulitzer aspirations aside at least for today: I’m about to become a Harlequin romance novelist. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this.

        God I wish I could attend your seminar, Betsy.

      • Okay, I figured out how I feel about it: extremely excited. I was knocking on one door that so far my key hasn’t fit into. Another door opened and I’m going in.

  30. Addressing the “where are you as a writer” question seems like the best idea I’ve heard in a long time. I just hired a very experienced book editor primarily because I didn’t know my level, despite numerous story publications and acceptances of my story collection and a novel by two small publishers. Even with decent credentials, it’s tough to know if a writer is ready for an agent and a serious publisher–there is almost no feedback out there. And, unless you’re within a university or living in a big city with access to sophisticated writers’ groups, you’re on your own. (By the way, the book editor was extremely enthusiastic so I’m about to stay sending queries.)
    Best of luck with the CT program…sounds excellent!

  31. Where am I?
    I’m in Connecticut querying two novels, writing a column, and devastated that the workshop is full. Please please do this again.

  32. Since you asked, I just finished chapter 30, thinking 45-48 might do it (not basing that on any scientific evidence but know I have to wrap up this frick— thing up some day). Already I know the first 10 chapters are toast and will probably meld out to five. I’ve written four different versions for the start of chapter 1, neither of which is the “one,” but each might contain a little something I might ultimately use. This is all I so can get to the second draft. When I finish the second draft (historicially does that take longer than first–I hope not!), well, I can’t see beyond that –other than I may have the courage to show it to more that two people who currently have read parts. I’m boring myself right now but gonna keep going…
    Betsy, I do think that a lot of workshops get the cart before the horse and talk about agents, publishing, etc before many of the people in the class have the actual goods written–but then, that assumes a lot; for instance, that they can write in the first place, and I’m sorry if that sounds snide. When I took workshops, there were always one or two people in the class who wrote amazing stuff and could go to the next step if they had proper information and guidance.
    Sorry for this long post!

  33. I’m ambivalent at the cross roads.

  34. Two steps back from where I stood yesterday.

  35. That should be the first (and sometimes only?) question covered in workshops or clinics! I have sat through conferences next to scores of beginner writers just going nuts for info about querying, agents, and publishing. There is nothing wrong with being a beginner, of course, or even being more advanced but still not ready to query, but so often this crucial question (“Are you ready to query in the first place?”) is completely avoided.

    It’s the uncomfortable question, and the one that hurts to ask. I know because I’ve asked it myself many many times, and sometimes way too late, and I still keep asking myself today. Which is why so many of us avoid it entirely.

    And the good thing about Betsy prompting writers to think about this is that she can probably do it without making anyone cry.

    • I am so late to this party. I agree with you, Laura, that “where are you?” should be discussed up front. Nobody wants to hear it because it’s the destroyer of illusion —- but how helpful this would be.

      Kind of like finding out where you really are with your finances. Is it ever the news you want to hear? But you still need to know.

  36. I’e published in many areas, but I think a run-down would be to long.


  37. Betsy, how about doing a workshop in Boston? Magnificent indies here include Brookline Booksmith, Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books (in Cambridge). Let me know if I can help you set something up. Enjoy the weekend!

  38. I think it’s a good idea to ask the question and explore it.

    I’m in need of classes. I’m an advanced beginner in one genre, a novice in another, still trying to determine my strengths and direction. That’s what I would really want help with from a course – figuring out where to put my energy.

  39. Scribbled for twenty-some years. Landed terrific agent. Secured two-book deal with big-six house. Delivered first book. Currently trying to re-believe the last bit of “idiot savant.”

  40. Betsy, is somebody recording the workshop, either video or audio? A cheapo camera on a cheapo tripod, with a cheapo editing job (or free-but-slightly-rough editing, if you let me do it), and you could put it up on YouTube for all your faithful followers to see. It would also help you get more workshop gigs, if that’s what you want.

  41. Wishing I could be where you are, Betsy, damn damn. I need that workshop in my life. Neeeed, I tell you, need.

    O, where am I? Preparing for my senior lecture, graduating in creative nonfiction/dual concentration in poetry. A completed manuscript in the second draft of editing. Losing 16 pounds so I can weigh 120, 8 down. Watching the laundry not fold up itself.

    • I spent years trying to train my laundry to fold itself, for all the good it ever did me. The socks were like children with separation anxiety, clinging to the legs of the pants and sleeves of the shirts. The towels, one long and dismal night, outright revolted. They said they would have no part of a hegemonistic capitalist folding regime and would under no circumstances volunteer themselves into the slavery of self-folding. Two of the bath towels conspired with a pair of briefs to strangle me. I had to beat them into submission with a mop.

      • That explains it. I’ve strangled. This is why I can’t get my second set of revisions done to query Betsy. The laundry, it’s all the laundry’s doing. Socks dancing alongside my headboard, thongs showin’ out all nastily, big oversized wrinkled towels.. Tet, they’re throwing tantrums.

  42. This is a great question. I’m finishing up a young adult historical fiction novel. And getting a truthful self assessment of its quality and where I stand is critical because it can relieve the pressure of wanting something, like publication, if it truly isn’t ready. Of course, reaching beyond yourself is the best way to pull yourself through to the next level! Good question and subject.

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