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Confessions of an Author: What Happens in Traditional Publishing and What It Means for Indie Authors


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Portrait of the Writer as a Woman: My New Year’s Resolutions, 2016


UnknownDecember 2015 was a very rough month for my writing. In fact, I believe I only got one blog done, and nothing on any of my books. One of our cats was diagnosed with uncontrolled diabetes, had stopped eating and drinking, and was doing an excellent imitation of a Zombie-cat: she could have done a cameo on The Walking Dead without any previous acting experience.

Tom and I hadn’t even realized that cats could get diabetes.

After the first shock of the diagnosis, we were hammered with the cost of the insulin: $389 for 10ml. I began to weep, despite the fact that the vet said that bottle could last as long as 6 months. All I could think was that one of my babies was going to die because I couldn’t afford her medicine. Tom was too deep into shock to register much of what happened after he heard the diagnosis: he just assumed it was a death sentence, so I don’t think he heard much of the consultation beyond that, though he did hear the cost of the medicine.

Apparently, human insulin, $25 for the same amount, doesn’t work as well on cats, and the more expensive one has been shown to put many cats into remission.

Not cure.


But I didn’t have $389. I’d just spent almost $500 on new tires for my ’99 Jeep Wrangler: my old ones had no tread, and winter was coming to the mountain. Without off-road tires and 4-wheel-drive, no one can make it up here. Over the past few months, as my car had broken down several times, with parts simply wearing out from age, I’d also paid our mechanic $2300 on a “back-up vehicle.”

Which wouldn’t start.

images-2So I didn’t have the $2300 I’d spent on my back-up vehicle, whose insurance is more costly since it’s a “classic.” I thought the insurance representative was playing a joke on me in May when I bought the ’94 Jeep Cherokee Sport, but, apparently, it is considered a “classic,” and so my insurance is higher. So there was that cost: $89/month since May, on a “classic” car that I didn’t even have, and for which I bought new tires, a new windshield, new brakes, etc. Yet it was still sitting at the shop because, despite my mechanic’s insistence that he could start the car, I couldn’t. Ever.

I still can’t.

Only now it’s sitting in my driveway.

Waiting to be towed back down to the shop, where we’ve decided to “swap it out” for another vehicle. Or, at least, to swap out the $2300 I already paid and apply it to a more reliable (read, it starts right away when you turn the key, not three days later if you’re lucky) “back-up” car.

stethoscope-1-1541316And then there were all the medical expenses.

Since the blessing of Obama-Care, my deductible has gone from $500/year to $7K in 2013, to $8.5K in 2014, to $12K in 2015, to $15K in 2016. Needless to say, I’m still paying off the “deductible” bills from 2013. Despite the fact that it is illegal to have a medical insurance deductible higher than Obama-Care’s $3K, the President or Congress or some idealist didn’t realize that you cannot have “government” health care provided by private,  for profit providers, like Blue Cross / Blue Shield (who is the only provider of Obama-Care, as far as I can determine), nor can you force other for profit insurance providers to lose money. So, technically, as my insurance provider has constantly assured me every time I’ve protested or vociferously complained, my deductible is only $3K a year.

My “co-insurance,” which I never had before and which is, apparently, unlimited, makes up the balance of what I have to pay each year.

I say deductible, you say co-insurance… let’s call the whole thing off.

So there’s that, too.

And then we got slammed with Trixie’s “uncontrolled diabetes” diagnosis and the cost of the preferred insulin.

IMG_1005My grief over the thought of losing Trixie because I didn’t have the money for her medicine encouraged the Vet to suggest that I save for the medicine that might put her into remission, while using human insulin to keep her alive and out of the Zombie-cat mode.

I’ve spent the entire month of December managing Trixie and her hypoglycemic crises. Yes, that’s hypoglycemic, as in her blood glucose falls too low. The Vet insists that this is good, and that she might already be going into remission. Apparently some 15-20% of cats can go into remission on any insulin, relatively quickly after they start treatment. We can’t know if it’s happening with Trixie yet because she needs to stabilize, and the Vet has had to lower the dose virtually every day this past week.

These are the kind of things that prevented me from writing in December 2015.

They’re also the kind of things that made me think of how different writing can be for a woman than for a man.

After all, though I’m sure Tom could take care of Trixie if he were forced to, he mostly hurriedly volunteers to take the dog out to the bathroom or to shovel 4-6′ snowdrifts away from the vehicles and the gate rather than to test her blood glucose or give her the insulin shots. Mommy is the one who does that.

Mommy also watches for the Invasion of the Zombie-cat, which means Trixie is hypoglycemic and could go into a coma or have brain-damaging seizures. It’s Mommy who rubs the Karo syrup on her gums when she becomes non-responsive and sits staring at the wall. The one afternoon I went out to do some food shopping and get a medical massage (which helps reduce my hemiplegic migraines) and asked Tom to keep a “close watch” on Trixie, he promised to do so but went out to work in the barn and was out there all afternoon. In fact, when I got home, he didn’t even know where Trixie was. Oh, he knew she was in the house since the cats don’t (can’t) go out up here on Big Rock Candy Mountain because of the wild animals, but he hadn’t been in the house himself to see where or how she was.

These are some of the events that have made me re-evaluate my usual New Year’s Resolutions: I was born a woman, but I believe I was also born an artist.

The artist in me chose writing as the medium through which to express herself, so any Resolutions have to include the fact that I’m a writer simply because that’s who and what I am.

Resolution 1:
Write More

images-5I must write more blog posts, more regularly, as I was doing for most of 2015.

If that means that Tom must do more grocery shopping and meal preparation, as he’s been willingly doing since Trixie’s diabetes diagnosis, then he’ll have to do more of the household chores as well. We’re both liberated, and we’ve always shared the chores. Now that one of my jobs as a woman and as the Mommy seems to be nursing the sick animals, Daddy will have to do more than half of the chores. We’re both retired, we both have our own businesses, but his is more seasonal than mine, while mine is much more time-consuming than his. Therefore, it’s off to the market and into the kitchen more often for Tom because Mommy, who nurses any of the animals who’s ill, needs to blog more.

My blog-reading audience is actually contacting me via the twitter and the book of face and asking me to blog more, asking me if I’m all right because I haven’t been on the social media sites during December, asking me for suggestions about what shows or films to watch (I mostly blog about entertainment). They keep telling me they need my blog posts.

They are the boss of me.

I resolve to blog more.

Resolution 2:
Lose Weight

Me & PatrickI know some of you don’t believe that’s me there with Patrick, but it is. The year was 2000, my second novel, Only with the Heart, had just come out, and since he’d optioned my first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, to star in it himself, he asked me to come out to LA so we could meet in person and discuss the book. (We’d talked many times on the phone in the previous 6 years, but had not met). And that was not my heaviest, my highest weight. Of course, I don’t even recognize myself in that photo with Patrick, let alone in the photo Tom recently found of me at (almost) my highest weight, when we met and fell in love in 1994.

Between 2005 and 2007, I lost 275 pounds.

I don’t know how much more than that I lost because my therapist in Ohio wouldn’t even let me look at a scale until I’d lost 40 pounds (she brought the scale in to her office and weighed me). I was at 450 the first time she let me look, and I wanted to die of shame. Instead, I resolved to conquer my eating disorder and get my weight back under control for my own health.

Here’s how I did it: I ate whatever I wanted but only when I was hungry, and, even more important than that, I stopped eating as soon as I was no longer hungry. I didn’t continue eating until I was full. Not even just a little full. I put the food away as soon as I no longer felt any hunger.

That meant I ate several small “meals” during the day. It meant that if I wanted to eat ice cream, for example, or a candy bar, then I ate that as a meal but stopped if I found I was no longer hungry even if there was only one bite of candy bar or ice cream left. I kept telling myself that I could always have it later.

I ditched my parents’ Clean your plate rule.

I threw away the Three Meals a Day rule.

I didn’t care if anyone else thought my “diet” was balanced or not.

I have an eating disorder. In the past, it manifested mostly as anorexia, when I lived on sodas and sugary iced tea rather than on food, dropping down to 120 pounds (I’m 5’8″ with a large frame: my non-dominant wrist, at my lowest weight, is 7.75″ around the bones). After my first book was accepted, the anorexia changed, for some reason, to compulsive overeating: I literally could not stop myself from eating, even if I was in physical pain from eating too much already. And I was a complete failure at bulimia, which horrified my therapist when I said that to her after I sought help.

Drugs did not help me: I had an allergic reaction to virtually every one I tried, or it made it impossible for me to lose weight.

Restricting my food intake by calories or types aggravates the eating disorder.

Weighing myself daily does that, too.

Because my Muncher mother used to starve us children.

Women who practice Munchausen’s by Proxy — called Munchers by law enforcement and medical professionals who discover their abuse, torture, and killings — do so much damage to their children, it is virtually impossible to heal it all. They’re more than the female equivalent of male serial killers because they do damage to their own family members and to others dependent on their care — in the privacy of their own homes, where no one sees them, and with few people believing those who tell what is happening within the home.

M is for Munchers cover w mask 1In any event, I needed to lose weight for my health — even though I had no obvious medical problems — as well as for my own self-esteem, but I had to do it in a way that would not trigger the Muncher-abuse-induced eating disorder, which I and all my siblings suffer from. That’s how I came up with my eating plan.

Because it had to be for the rest of my life.

I lost the 275 pounds and, mostly, I’ve kept it off.

When my favorite cat died of heart failure in 2012, my grief tipped me over into the eating disorder again, and though I knew it was happening, I couldn’t stop myself. That’s what makes it an eating disorder: you cannot stop yourself without help. I gained 50 pounds before I got my eating disorder under control again.

Then I hit what has to be one of the longest plateaus in weight-loss history ever: 2012-2014. I didn’t gain any weight, but I didn’t lose any either. No matter how little I ate or how much I exercised.

Last year, I re-dedicated myself to my personal eating plan, and I lost 26 pounds.

My doctor insists I only have the original, re-gained 50 pounds to lose, and so now I only have 24 more to lose.

I think losing 50 pounds would be better (taking me down to 150), but he insists that I’ll look like a skeleton and that he’ll be really annoyed with me if I lose more than 24 additional pounds. I say it’s my body and I can lose whatever amount of weight I want. But… this is a woman thing, I think, and even writing about it too much is treacherous because I begin to convince myself that if I could only be anorexic again — which happens after I don’t eat anything for a few days — it would all be so much easier…

And I would be treating myself just as my serial killer Muncher mother did: starving myself.

As my first therapist asked me, “Would you do that to a child of yours? Would you ever do that to one of the abused, abandoned, neglected cats that you rescue?”

No, no I would not.

So, I resolve, once again, as I did last year in Jan 2015, to continue to lose weight.

In a healthy way.

Resoultion 3:
Write More

POV cover 2015 webI will finish the revised edition of my 2001 book Mastering Fiction and Point of View. Not only have writers, experienced and new, published and not, been asking me for the new edition, but my editors actually were planning on publishing the Revised, Updated, & Expanded edition in December 2015. But I didn’t get it finished. I didn’t even get to the point where I could give it to my editors for their feedback.

Was I blogging too much?

Was I spending too much time on social media?

Was I working too much on my memoir of life with a serial killer mother, M is for Munchers?

Was I doing too much of the household chores, errands, etc?

Was I too busy learning Kundalini Yoga?

Was I spending too much time watching movies with Mads Mikkelsen — for blogging, of course…

Was I spending too much time staring out the windows?

Whatever I was doing, I do agree with my editors that I was not spending enough time working on the revision of my POV book.

I resolve to work on it until it is finished, get it to my editors so they can give me feedback, rewrite — taking their suggestions into account, and then get the book back to them so they can publish it without having to change the cover again.

They are also the boss of me, and though it probably won’t take them (or their graphic artist) too much work to change the words 14th Anniversary Edition to 15th Anniversary Edition, I really need to get this book done.

Resolution 4:
Walk More

pink-fitness-center-1432405When I originally lost that 275 pounds, I not only ate only when I was hungry and stopped when I was no longer hungry, I walked. Not fast: we live in the mountains, and you can’t walk fast in the mountains. At least, I can’t. But I walked every day.

I started with 5 minutes a day for a month. Then I moved up to 10 minutes a day. Each month, I added 5 minutes until I was at 30 minutes a day.

Despite eventually dropping down to 175 pounds, which was not the lowest weight I’ve ever been at, or even what I considered “normal” for most of my life (that would be 150 pounds), I was thinner than I had ever been. I was wearing smaller clothes, higher heels, and feeling better about my body than I ever had.

Walking, even slowly — I walk about 1-1.5 mph — can dramatically change your body shape. It takes a lot longer than running, but I can no longer run. In 1995, I fell down a mountain in Wyoming and shattered my L leg and ankle. It took 3 years to heal from the surgery, which replaced most of my bones — which had shattered into such fine dust, the surgeon had to use a surgical vacuum to get the bone out of my leg — with metal plates, bolts, and really big, long screws. Both the surgeon in Wyoming and the surgeon in Ohio, where we lived, told me I could never run again. They said that the plate would buckle and take the entire bone it’s attached to with it, necessitating another surgery and even more extensive recovery time and physical therapy.

They told me I would have to become a Walker, and this was long before most of us had heard of The Walking Dead.

I’ve walked since then.

In 2008, I was eventually walking 45 minutes a day, albeit at the same 1.5 mph pace.

Then I got a stress-fracture in my pelvis.

The doctors at the ER and those at the Sports Medicine Center told me “humans weren’t built to walk 45 minutes a day.” I think they’re all crazy: what did humans do in our ancient past, before we had animals to ride or vehicles to transport us? Still, that’s what all of them except my GP kept telling me. In any event, the stress-fracture side-lined me for several months while it was healing.

Two years ago, I discovered, during my annual physical, that I had virtually no vitamin D or calcium in my blood, and, after a bone-scan, that my bones are thinner than they should have been for my age. It’s a condition known as osteopenia rather than as osteoporosis, I guess because the bones didn’t just snap and break. They eroded over time with exercise (bones are supposed to release calcium etc into the blood when you exercise: that’s how they signal your body to send more calcium there and the bones get stronger), but my bones were too thin to begin with, and the doctor suspected that the osteopenia, combined with my exercise, caused the three stress fractures I’ve had in the last 10 years (2 in the pelvis, one in the foot).

The most likely reason for the osteopenia and the virtual lack of vitamin D and calcium in my blood?

Childhood dietary deficiency.

That’s another word for being starved by your Muncher mother.

I took supplements until I got into the low normal range, then began walking again, but I had to start all over again with the 5 minutes a day and adding 5 minutes a month routine.

In 2015, I walked 30 minutes a day, at 1-1.5 mph,  81% of the time: 297 days out of the year. I didn’t walk at all in February because I had bronchitis. That means I actually walked 297 days in the remaining 11 months.

When do I walk? After I feed the cats their breakfast — canned food, which is the only time of the day they get it; the rest of the day, they eat from the buffet of dry food — at 5 a.m. Why so early? Before we moved to Big Rock Candy Mountain, when I was teaching, I used to get up at 5 to write for at least 2 hours before I went to teach my classes at the University. Our cats thought that since I was already up, I might as well feed them breakfast.

Though I’m now retired from University, the cats still think breakfast is served at 5 a.m., and for much of the year, here in the Desert Wilderness, the temperatures are in the 90s before 7 in the morning, so, actually, walking after serving them breakfast at 5 works for this writer-Mommy, because I usually write after that.

Though I only lost 26 pounds in 2015, I lost 5 inches all over (except my bustline, which is genetically large… to Tom’s delight). In the past, when I was anorexic or “dieting,” losing an inch off my waist, hips, etc equaled losing 10 pounds of weight. Not so with walking. It may take longer than it takes with running, but walking gets you to the same place eventually. And you end up thinner at a higher weight.

This year, I resolve to continue walking and to add 5 minutes a day to each walking session.

I’ll walk 35 minutes a day, at 1-1.5 mph, and my goal is to walk at least 90-95% of the time.

Resolution 5:
Write More

The Zombied Trilogy Book One webIn January 2015, the first volume of The Zombied Trilogy was published: Love is a Many Zombied Thing. According to my editors’ plan, the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the trilogy were to have been written, edited, revised, and published in 2015.

I think it didn’t happen because, in 2014, I began completing their suggested (major) revisions to my memoir, M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door. That book has taken me years to write, and not just due to the editors’ suggestions about changes. I entered an earlier version of it in a contest in 2007, and was given enough praise and critical suggestions for me to completely change the way I was doing the book, given its subject matter. So I know I had an entire manuscript of the book, with a different title — which none of the judges in the contest liked, by the way — in 2007.

After Love is a Many Zombied Thing was published, I felt a blank about where the second and third books in the series should specifically go, although the editors and I were clear about where they should generally go. In short, I had the ideas for the remainder of the trilogy, and the editors heartily approved the ideas, but I didn’t know how to start book 2.

As is my usual practice when something won’t come in a book, I begin working on a different one. That’s how I began the revisions to Munchers.

But what stopped me from writing any of the other books was the intense grieving that writing the memoir caused.

I thought I’d done all the grieving when I wrote and revised Munchers originally.

Apparently, I had not.

The grief almost overwhelmed me.

Though Munchers was published in 2014, the grief prevented me from finishing Zombied on schedule. By the time I finished Book 1, I had already missed the deadlines for Books 2 & 3. My editors were not pleased, though they claimed to understand the grief-delay.

I resolve to finish — or at least to start — the final two books of The Zombied Trilogy.

After all, those characters, and my readers, deserve to have the story finished.

Resolution 6:
Spend More Time
With Those I Love

Ling and SophieThat means Ling (L) and Sophie (R) as well as Trixie. After all, Sophie is the one who has Feline Stomatitis, an auto-immune disease or disorder, whom we would have had to put down if extracting all her teeth, including the roots, had not put the disease-disorder into a manageable state. She gets NSAIDs every other day. Each time we’ve attempted to increase the time between doses or to reduce the dose — to protect her kidneys — the painful inflammation and swelling of her gums, tongue, and throat return. In the wild, she would have starved to death, in great pain. We have to get her blood tested every three months, to monitor the kidney function, and she’s staying steady — at an already slightly elevated rate — so Mommy has to take care of her, and that includes checking her mouth every time I give her the meds to make sure she’s doing fine.

Ling and Sophie are the ones who contracted Bubonic Plague in 2012 (and gave it to us) and almost died. I didn’t even know Bubonic Plague still existed when we moved here, but it still exists all over the world, not just in laboratories, but in dry, arid climates like the American Southwest. We already almost lost them once.

IMG_2520 It means spending time with Sascha (middle) because she’s been operated on twice in the last two years for cancerous tumors on her lower lip that have gotten so close to her jawbone that the Vet promised she would never take Sascha’s jawbone, even if the suspicious cells became malignant. When Mosie died, we didn’t even realize she had cancer until the week before she died: she began breathing strangely, and X-rays revealed the tumors. Though Mommy checks Sascha’s mouth regularly, the next surgery and pathology report — if there is one — could reveal malignancy rather than “suspicious cells.”

IMG_2397It means spending more time with Shooter Tov, the oldest of our cats (12 this month), who has FORLS. I can’t recall right now what it stands for, but 20% of Rescue cats have the condition, which has also been found in the skeletons of sabre-tooth tigers. The enamel of the teeth doesn’t re-form, eventually exposing the root or simply breaking the tooth, leaving the animal in great pain. Additionally, if the affected teeth are not removed, the disease moves into the bones of the jaw, face, head, neck, etc., killing the cat.

Shooter’s already lost 3 teeth to FORLS, two years ago, and two weeks ago, he began crying out if anything touched his face. Two more teeth have broken, exposing the roots. He’s having surgery Wednesday (and has been on pain meds until the Vet could get him in: it takes special expertise to get the teeth, root and all, out of the jaw, so that the disease will not eat away the jawbone).

I know that, even if the Vet had to extract all of Shooter’s teeth, he’d be fine. After all, Sophie’s had no teeth for over 2 years now, and she not only eats dry food just fine, she hops, skips, and dances around the house like she owns the place. Still, Shooter’s in pain now, so I’ve also been nursing him for the past 2 weeks, and he’ll be in more pain after the surgery: he’ll need Mommy, whether Mommy thinks she needs to write or not.

IMG_2417IMG_2429I resolve to spend more time with Baxter (top) and Mr. Eli (bottom), who are virtually always with me in my office while I’m writing, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but simply because we rescued them and they deserve love and attention even if they’re not sick.

IMG_2165I can’t forget Sadie-Doggie, who had to have a molar extracted last month after she began vomiting and we discovered an apricot-sized lymph-node under her jaw. Her immune system was trying to fight the infection from the rotten tooth, but it was losing. It the infection had gone systemic, she would have died. Because she’s part Border Collie, part Terrier, and part Hound, she has the loose neck-folds of a Hound, and we didn’t notice the lump till after she was vomiting.

I love all the pets we’ve rescued, and have been devastated each time we’ve lost one. As one of my friends who also rescues cats said, upon hearing of Trixie’s diagnosis, “We know they’ll most likely have health issues because they’ve been abandoned, neglected, or abused, but we have to just act as if each day with them is the last. Because it might be.”

This year, every day, I’m going to act as if each day is the very last I’ll ever have with each of my babies.

Because it might be.

Resolution 7:
Don’t Forget Tom

I know this might sound corny after 22 years together, but sometimes I probably do take Tom for granted. After all, he’s a reliable, faithful, good man, and I certainly don’t “forget him” on purpose. Other things drag at my attention — like a dying cat — and it takes me a while to remember that’s he’s right there beside me, grieving just as much. He completely morally supports my writing, and so stays out of my office and doesn’t disturb me when I’m writing — no matter how long I’m at it. (He sometimes even makes dinner, fixes a plate for me, and puts it in the fridge for me to eat after I’m finished for the day.)

Tom’s gotten up with me every single morning at 5 since Trixie’s diabetes diagnosis to take Sadie out to the bathroom, wash all the animals’ breakfast dishes, and give me a kiss before he’s gone back to sleep, and I’ve headed for the treadmill. (He’s horrified that it’s still dark when I wake him: when he worked, he worked second shift virtually his entire career, so it was always light when he woke.)

Though he doesn’t admit to panic over the animals when they’re ill, he’s clearly stressed. He could probably use some more attention and comfort, too.

He also was diagnosed with diabetes himself last year, and though he lost the 20 pounds as directed, and mostly keeps to his “diet,” he has suddenly decided that he needs to take care of himself better.

And I need to love him and appreciate him more.

I need to tell him so.

Because each day might be the last.

Resolution 8:
Read More

Because it makes me happy.

Final Resolution:
Write More

stock-photo-20291293-vintage-woman-writerBecause it’s who I am.

And because, sometimes, as women, we have to make a greater commitment to our art due to all the other things vying for our attention.



Filed under Blogging, Books, Caregivers, Cats, Creative Writing, Editors, Memoir, Munchausen's by Proxy, New Beginnings, Point of View, Real Life of a Writer, Writing, Writing & Revising

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two


If you haven’t read “Urgency in Fiction, Part One,” I’d suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that one, won’t make much sense. Part One was about the types of Urgency and putting it into the actual fiction you are writing.

Though these posts are aimed at fiction writers — since they are excerpts from the upcoming Mastering Fiction & Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 14th Anniversary Edition of the original 2001 Mastering Point of View, published by Story Press — the concept of Urgency applies to all types of writing, from non-fiction to poetry, from screenplays to memoir. Because the first edition of the book was aimed at fiction writers, the revised version is, too.

This post is about how editors in the Traditional Publishing Land of New York use it in titles as marketing tools — which is their job — and how you can learn to do it, too. There are plenty of examples from Indie and self-published authors here. If they can do it, so can you.

And by the way, no one taught me about Urgency when I began to write fiction. Another writer I knew who was accepted into a prestigious MFA program read one of her stories in class — a story that I’d read and liked a lot — and was blasted by the professor in front of the entire class. The writer was told that she needed to put something in her story that would make it “a lot more urgent.” When she asked the professor what he meant, he said, “You’ll have to figure that out yourself.”

Since she knew that I’d borrowed $18K at 17 7/8% interest from the bank to take a year off work, without pay, to write my first novel, she passed that “message” along to me via a mutual friend. So I had to figure out exactly what the professor meant by making fiction “a lot more urgent.” It took me a while, but eventually I figured it out, coined “Urgency” as its name, wrote my first article on it at the request of editor Sylvia Burack (for The Writer, in 1997) and have been passing it on to writers ever since.

The original article has also been anthologized in many books and other magazines, including those published by Writer’s Digest Press, so you may have seen shorter version of it there, or on my website, under Mastering Point of View since a shortened version appeared in the first edition of that book.

Urgency in Titles

In traditional publishing, the contracts give the editors the final say on the title of an author’s book — because the title is part of marketing, and that is the editor’s job. All authors can learn to put Urgency into their own titles, however, so that they do not get changed by the publishing house.

Urgency in titles is also vitally important if the author is Indie publishing since he’ll have no editor helping him make his book more marketable by making the title have Urgency.

Here are some examples of titles which have Urgency, randomly chosen from a variety of genres, including short fiction, novels, plays, memoir, and non-fiction since all titles must have Urgency to get readers’ attention.

  • My Date With Satan (Stacy Richter)
  • Church of Dead Girls (Stephen Dobyns)
  • The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson)
  • I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich)
  • Waiting to Exhale (Terry McMillan)
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy (Alice Walker)
  • The Killing Gift (Bari Wood)
  • Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)
  • Cracking India (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  • As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)

A trip to your local bookstore or library — or a scan online — will reveal an exciting array of titles.  Some are good; some aren’t. Unless the authors are already bestsellers, however, only the titles with Urgency are likely to attract readers.

 images-4 copy 3

Urgency in Classic Opening Lines

Most stories and books, no matter when they were written, contain Urgency. And they have it in the very first sentence, despite what some neophyte writers believe. Look at the wonderful Urgency in these classic opening lines, in various Points of View.

  • I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. (Isaac Asimov, I, Robot)
  • It must have been a little after three o’clock in the afternoon that it happened. (Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot)
  • Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. (Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ( Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • They found me in the gutter. (Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters)
  • Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith. (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Though the concept of Urgency may have been called different things in the past, or may not have even been called anything at all by the earliest storytellers, it’s always existed, and it exists to keep the readers (or the listening audience, when storytelling was oral, before books were readily available) attached to the story to find out what happens.

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Urgency in Contemporary Opening Sentences

Most fiction, whether contemporary or classic, starts with Urgency. That means in the very first sentence. Some authors call it a “hook,” and some call it the “attention-grabber,” but it’s all Urgency by other names. It gets the reader’s attention and makes him want to continue reading. Look at the opening sentences of some contemporary novels, and you’ll find wonderful examples of Urgency.

  • When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. (Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)
  • When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent. (Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy)
  • Throughout the long summer before my mother’s trial began, and they during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county — her character lynched, her wisdom impugned — I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked. (Chris Bohjalian, Midwives)
  • Stupid me — I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. (Peter Straub, Mr. X)
  • Red is the color of violent death. Red is the color of strong feelings — love, passion, greed, anger, hatred. (Tami Hoag, A Think Dark Line)
  • Through the doorway which led from her receptionist-secretary’s office into her own, Catherine Morris Perry instantly noticed the box on her desk. (Tony Hillerman, Talking God)
  • I was late, and I don’t mean the kind of late where I spent too much time doing my hair and was now stuck in traffic. (Gemma Halliday, Spying in High Heels)
  • People disappear all the time. (Diana Gabaldon, Outlander)

images-11 copyUrgency in the Opening Sentences of Indie Authors

When the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View was published by Story Press in 2001 (it had been researched and written in 2000), e-books did not exist. Neither did the concept of Indie authors. Only traditionally published authors and self-published authors got their books into print, and only the former had a chance of getting their work into bookstores.

Print-on-demand (POD), which allowed publishers to print books only when they were ordered by bookstores rather than to do print-runs of thousands of copies in advance — necessitating warehousing of any un-shipped copies — revolutionized the printed book industry. Furthermore, the creation of e-books and portable, functional e-book readers allowed more authors without traditional representation in the New York publishing conglomerate to get their books out to potential readers. Since those markets didn’t even exist in 2000, none of those authors were included in the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View.

Since its initial publication, however, with the advent of POD and e-books, more Indie authors have been able to get their fine, well-written books out to the public via online bookstores. Many of these authors have become best-sellers, and all of the Indie authors cited in this book, many of whose work will be found excerpted throughout, are excellent authors who deserve special recognition for their courage in choosing Indie publication as well as for their mastery of fiction fundamentals and Point of View. All these authors, writing in many different genres, have Urgency in their opening sentences.

  • I have a way of becoming invisible. (Cecily Anne Paterson, Invisible)
  • This is the way the world ends — not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door. (Amanda Hocking, Hollowland, Book 1, The Hollows)
  • His movements were slow, his roots ripping free of the earth and then replanting with every step. (Emma Kathryn, “Tidal,” Puppets & Dolls)
  • From the first moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I was going to murder him. (Peter Dawes, Rebirth of the Seer, Book 1, The Vampire Flynn)
  • The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker was finding one to pick up. (Blake Crouch & Jack Kilborn [J. A. Konrath], Serial)
  • Sarah Sawacki checked her watch against the clock on the dash and returned to her vigil. (John Potter, Chasing Innocence)
  • Killing someone is a lot harder than you’d imagine. (L. T. Vargus, Casting Shadows Everywhere)
  • The planet recedes rapidly in the viewport as I gaze upon it. (Drew Wagar, “Metal,” Fusion)
  • It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. (Seumas Gallacher, Vengeance Wears Black)
  • Boone Sumner sat in his pickup truck, gnawing the same thumbnail that he always gnawed when his nerves went a-jitter. (Aaron Saylor, Sewerville)
  • Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening. (John Dolan, Everyone Burns, Book 1, Time, Blood, and Karma)
  • The ship hung above the earth that had created it like a giant, old style compass needle, pointing towards the stars and potential salvation. (John Hoggard, “Baby Babble,” Fusion)

Don’t take any chances on not grabbing your reader’s attention from the very moment they pick up your book or look at a sample of your work. Put Urgency in your first sentence.

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Urgency must be maintained throughout the piece of fiction to be effective. Chapter 2 of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, for example, begins with this line: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” That’s fantastic Urgency and it’s in Unlimited Point of View.

Though it may seem artificial for you to continually have to be aware of Urgency as you’re writing the novel, it will not be artificial to your audience. On the contrary, even when an experienced writer reads other books with Urgency, the writer is still turning the pages as rapidly as he can to figure out what’s going to happen, just as any other readers would. As you make the Urgency integral to the plot, character development, or Voice, you can write in any Point of View and effectively maintain your readers’ interest.

Successful authors in all genres maintain Urgency. Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Outlander demonstrates consistently maintained Urgency in First Person Point of View: her female protagonist, Claire, while on her second honeymoon in Scotland, is transported from 1945 back to the past in the early 1740s. While there, Claire constantly worries about getting back to her own time, even as she agrees to a marriage of “convenience” with a young Scottish clansman whom she finds physically and sexually attractive. Gabaldon maintains Urgency through plot (conflict) and character development.

In Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, author J. R. R. Tolkien ends virtually every small section within each chapter with Urgency. So each time there is additional white space — when a scene is changing — Tolkien puts in Urgency. He also puts it at the end of each chapter, but, surprisingly, that Urgency is not always as compelling as the Urgency at the end of each section. In any event, he consistently includes it — in plot (conflict), dialogue, character development, or Voice — to keep the story moving steadily forward and to keep his readers engaged.

George R. R. Martin does the same thing in his Song of Ice and Fire [Game of Thrones] series, which is written in Unlimited Point of View. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and the chapter is titled with the name of that character. (Martin calls them “viewpoint” characters, but I’m not sure what that means; what I do know is that while most of the events in each individual chapter are related from said-title-character’s perspective, the entire series is written in Unlimited Point of View.) At the end of each character’s chapter, Martin ends with Urgency, usually in plot (conflict).

Chris Bohjalian, author of several best-selling books, including Midwives and The Law of Similars, is an absolute master of Urgency in plot (conflict), character development, and Voice. Many of his books use First Person Point of View, often presenting different perspectives. No matter the perspective, the Point of View, or the subject matter, Bohjalian consistently maintains Urgency throughout all of his works. As a fellow author, I can see perfectly well when he is putting Urgency in, but that doesn’t stop me from staying awake all night to keep turning the pages and discover what happens to his characters.

Maintaining Urgency, in any form, will keep your readers interested in your work, even if it is a series of books, running into thousands of pages. Without Urgency, readers will quickly lose interest in the fiction, so you need to master it before you attempt to master anything else.

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Since Urgency in achieved through plot, character development, and Voice, it can be maintained in any Point of View. Voice may be easier to develop in First Person Point of View, and so, the more fascinating the Voice of a narrator, the greater the Urgency would be. There are many examples of novels in First Person Point of View that have Urgency in plot and Voice, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there are many other books which develop and maintain Urgency in various Points of View, including Second Person (Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), Unlimited (C. L. Bevill’s Bubba and the Dead Woman), and Outer Limited (Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy).

Urgency takes a little practice at first, but once an author understands the concept of Urgency as “the thing which keeps the reader turning pages” through plot, character development, Voice, or any combination of the three, then Urgency can be present in all Points of View.

Also, this is where your beta-readers (called “family and friends” when I was first publishing) will be most helpful in giving you feedback: to determine if your work has lost Urgency, simply ask your beta-readers, whether they be friends, family members, or paid professionals, to indicate any points in the work where they lost interest, put the work down to do something else that was not an emergency, or wanted to read some other book. If all your readers mark the same places, then you know you need to work on Urgency in those areas of your book.

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1. Go to the bookstore and spend an hour or so reading the opening lines of novels. How many of them impart Urgency? How many of them keep you turning pages, right there in the bookstore? How many of them do you buy so that you can finish reading? If a book can’t pass the Urgency test, it isn’t very likely to have either a large or an enthusiastic audience.

2. Write the first sentence of your novel and make sure it has Urgency, whether in plot, character development, or in Voice. The point of view doesn’t matter, so long as there’s Urgency. Pretend this is the only sentence your audience will read, that they’ll buy the book based on how intriguing or interesting they find this first sentence. Make it the best piece of writing you can. Now, show it to as many other people as you can and ask them the following questions:

  • Would they want to continue reading based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you do have Urgency. If not, you need to work on it.
  • Would they want to buy the book — as an e-book — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have good Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in paperback — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have better Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have excellent Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover or paperback — and every other book you’ve written, based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have fantastic Urgency, and you’ve definitely mastered this concept.

3. Write the first paragraph to the first sentence you wrote for exercise 1. Make sure you periodically include Urgency in the paragraph and that you end with Urgency. Show this paragraph to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “the first paragraph” for “the first sentence.”

4. Write the title for your novel and make sure it has Urgency. Show this title to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “title” for “the first sentence.” (Don’t get too attached to your titles, however, since editors and publishing houses have the contractual right to change the title: a title is for marketing purposes, and there are many stories of famous authors who say they simply never got used to the title of their published book, which was chosen by the editor. However, after my first book, none of my titles have ever been changed, so you can learn to put Urgency in your titles — marketable Urgency — and keep the titles you like: just think of the title as a marketing tool.)

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View


Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
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Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
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Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
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Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
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No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader ...
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Writing Effective Dialogue

Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The ...
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from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.


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Bernard Rejects Rejection


Writing is very hard work. Being an author is an incredibly difficult job, one fraught with constant rejection. The only career I can think of that probably has even more rejection than being an author is being an actor. Still, if you are to survive as a writer, you must constantly write, improve your craft, and deal with rejection: from family, friends, colleagues, grocery clerks, neighbors, and even strangers.

If you wish to go beyond the “career” of writer and become an author, you must deal with rejection on an exponentially larger scale, experiencing rejection — and sometimes insults — from agents, editors, publishers, readers, reviewers, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, the person who bags your groceries, and even strangers.

Bernard is a writer who wants to be an author, and he found a unique way to  deal with all the constant rejection in an author’s life. Bernard rejects rejection.

I advise every writer and author to follow Bernard’s example.

You’ll feel so much better after writing that letter.

Just don’t ever mail it.


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