New computer angst and bad writing

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve worked on my novel in progress. Not because I’ve been a slacker, but because I was forced to change directions, temporarily. About two weeks ago Harry’s computer crashed, at least we thought it did. He sat down to the blank screen of death and when he tried to manually turn it on–nothing. He tried unplugging it, but when he plugged it back in, his PC made a moaning whirring noise—not good. Turns out, it was his on/off switch. He decided it was more economical to buy a new computer than pay the hundred bucks to fix it. Since Harry works for IBM, he could get a refurbished PC for a little over twice what it would cost to fix his old one.

So what does my husband’s computer problem have to do with my NIP? The answer is in this question, “Do you want a new computer too?”


I didn’t even think about it before answering. Didn’t want to go through the hassle of transferring all my documents to a new computer—little did I know that was the least of my worries.

So, I sat waiting for Outlook to open so that I could read my e-mail, tapping my fingers on my desk top and reconsidering. My PC was slow. It had a 20 GB hard drive with 512 ram memory. My PC only had 5% free space and that was after I’d added memory cards a couple years ago to bump up the ram. Knowing that it was only a matter of time until it crashed, I backed up all my work regularly on memory sticks. I needed a new computer. Still, I waffled. Until Harry found such a sweet deal on two computers, I couldn’t pass it up.

I’m typing this post on a refurbished IBM computer with 71.8 GB of space! I have 78% free space as opposed to only 5 on my old PC. It is awesome. It took me only five minutes to transfer all my Word files (over 175,000 words) and pictures onto it. No problems there at all. File transfer is quick. Surfing the net is quick. Opening programs, booting up, all at record speed.

And that’s were the good news ends. This is an IBM PC, so it came with Lotus SmartSuite. Sorry IBM, but in my opinion Lotus Word Pro is an inferior knock-off of Microsoft Word. I refuse to use it. Likewise, Microsoft Outlook far exceeds Lotus for e-mail use and storage. So I loaded my Microsoft Office onto the new PC, no problem took about 3 minutes. However, I lost all my shortcuts and the default smart tags were driving me crazy until I turned them off. It’ll take a while to get my Word back the way I like it. Irritating, but still minor in exchange for the faster speed.

Downloading Norton 2008 yesterday was not minor. It was a three hour process. It took me that long to download all the updates I needed for my computer to be compatible with Norton. When Norton install gave me the message that I needed Windows XP Service Pack 2 before it could finish installing, I visited thinking I’d spend only a few minutes. Was I wrong. My “new” refurbished PC did not qualify for the Windows XP SP2 update. I had to install other updates before I could install Service Pack 2 and then download Norton. By the time I was done, it was three hours later.

I should ‘a paid a pro to load my entire hard drive onto my “new” computer. As Samantha Jones said on Sex and the City, “Should ‘a, could ‘a, would ‘a.” Next time I buy a new computer—probably when hell goes through an ice age—I’ll know better. On the other hand, I saved hundreds of dollars by spending my own time updating the refurbished PC.

One good thing that came as a result of my “new” PC is that in the process of organizing documents to move, I read through some of my old work. I also deleted a lot of unnecessary files. Why was I keeping ten drafts of a story? A first and last draft is probably all I’ll ever need.

Okay, so here’s where the bad writing comes in. I understand why I’ve earned 135 rejections. As I discussed in a previous post I’m a better writer, now, than I was when I earned all those rejections. And, my query letters for some of my early work sucked, big time. I tended to summarize and ramble, not hook the reader. (My stories still tend to ramble at times, but I’m working on it).

I cringe at the query letter for my first novel that I sent in 2002. It begins
I want you to be my agent. I know you represent women’s fiction, contemporary issues, and horror genres of fiction, and I think you would be the perfect agent for Within, because it is all three.

Not, “I would be honored if you would represent me,” but “I want…” I am embarrassed to have sent that query. I have stopped looking for an agent/publisher for that first novel. I realize the writing is awful. I had written an autobiography and then tried to fictionalize it. It didn’t work—duh, that’s not how you write fiction. Writing that first novel did help me to learn the art of writing fiction, though.

Here’s part of an equally bad query letter that I sent to an editor in 2001 for a chapter of the novel as a stand-alone story, Within. It is five single spaced paragraphs long. No greeting, btw, the letter just starts. Needless to say, the chapter didn’t get published.

When Kari walked into the doctor’s office Mom and Dad looked very serious. “Kari you have spherocytosis. It is a hereditary blood disease,” Dad told her. “That is why you’ve been sick lately. Your mother has it. That is why she had her spleen removed when she was nineteen.” Kari felt a weird emptiness in her stomach like she was riding a roller coaster. Her hands were sweaty. She knew she was scared. Kari knew her mom had a scar on her stomachf rom her chest to her navel.

This is from “Spherocytosis,” which is a chapter from the novel, Within. It is a true story of an adolescent hero. The story is set in Florissant, Missouri. Kari and her eight-year-old sister are diagnosed with spherocytosis, ahereditary blood disease. The disease and surgery to have her spleen removed are described from Kari’s thirteen-year-old perspective. Kari is a true hero. Kari is the oldest of five sisters. Kari’s mother is “sick” from apersonality disorder, paranoid schizophrenia. Kari and her younger sister take over the caregiver roles of their younger siblings. Kari’s youngest sibling is born in this chapter. …

The letter went on for three more paragraphs like that. Why not just hit the editor over the head. It would probably be less painless. Wow! I’m laughing so hard at myself right now I’m crying. Talk about repetition and wordiness and telling, not showing. I didn’t notice “a hereditary” in the second line and three glaring spacing typos in just the first two overly long paragraphs. The writing in the chapter isn’t any better than the query. It is not surprising I wasn’t getting published.

I’ll end this post with part of the last paragraph from the horrible “Spherocytosis” query letter.

I have taught middle school for thirteen years, currently in North Carolina. I have a bachelor’s degree in education from the State University of New York, where I graduated Summa Cum Laude. I have a master’s in Reading Education, also from SUNY Cortland. I have written math and science curriculum for Orange County School district in North Carolina and DeRuyter School District in New York. I have …

Gad zukes! I have … I have … I have … learned a little bit since 2001. Notice I didn’t list a writing class in my credentials. Should ‘a, could ‘a, would ‘a.

Tess Gerritsen: Mistress of Suspense

“The career of chart-topping mystery novelist takes a new twist with her first historical murder mystery,” says Jordan E. Rosenfeld of Writers Digest.

Tess Gerritsen has become my favorite author over the past few years, so I read the interview in Writers Digest with rapt attention. It is not just the way she weaves suspense that pulls me into her books, it is also her well developed characters. They have problems and hang ups like the people that I know (including me), but they are also complex.

Gerritsen touched on character development when asked this question:
Besides reading a lot of them? When you write any book you have to pay attention to your emotions. What makes a really salable book that people grab onto is one that tells a story that causes you to feel something. That’s what I base my ideas on. Does the premise evoke some really strong emotion in me? Intellectual mysteries are interesting but it has to have something that moves you. I find action on the page very boring. If I read about a car chase, it’s ho-hum for me. What gets me on the edge of my seat is an interrogation, in which you know the answer is around the corner and it’s just two people talking in a room. New writers don’t understand tension or suspense—they think it’s about gunplay.

Writing is a matter of trusting your heart and gut more than logic, because people aren’t logical. Characters should do crazy things because that’s real life and I think that’s what we should write about.

This interview inspired me not only to keep reading Gerritsen, but also to use her as an example to improve my own writing. Gerritsen has the same problem that I do, not wanting to stick with a book. Unlike me, however, she overcomes and finishes her books.

I don’t plot my books ahead of time. Like a lot of writers, I’m a plunger rather than a planner. I have an idea but somewhere in the middle I start to feel I’ve lost my way for the trees. Every single book has given me trouble and made me depressed because two-thirds of the way through, I think it’s a total disaster. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you stick with it. But it means that your second and third drafts will be pure drudgery.

I remembered reading something similar that Gerritsen had said in a previous interview, so I did a Google search and found this on Writers Write:

What was the greatest challenge in writing that first book?

Maintaining the drive to finish it. It’s a terrible temptation to give up on a book and start something new. Over the years, I’ve learned to persist through thick and thin, even when the book is not going well. Only after you’ve written “the end” can you truly evaluate whether you’ve been writing drivel or a masterpiece.

So, I am going to use Gerritsen as my motivator. I have resolved to finish my YA novel in progress. I want to write “the end.”

When does gender matter?

As part of my New Year’s resolutions to finish every story that I start, I’ve just finished Good Game, a story about a man visited by his dead father, although I think the dog steals the show—see below. For you chess players, the story is centered in the world of chess, hence the title. For anyone who doesn’t play chess, you won’t hear players wish each other “Good luck.” That would be considered bad chess etiquette. Since chess is a game of skill, most players would be offended if you wished them luck. The term used before a game and also coinciding with the handshake at the end is “Good game.”

Finally, I’m getting to the point of this blog: when does gender matter? I play chess, but I am unusual in that–I am a woman. Very few women play chess. In fact, when I taught chess both as an elective chess class and an after school chess club for middle school students, almost all of my students were boys. I had one girl only one semester in the chess elective class. I had a couple of other girls start the class and then drop it after a few days. Chess is simply a boy’s sport. Therefore, the audience for Good Game will likely be men.

Here was my dilemma. The main character in the story was a woman who plays chess. I wondered, would men read 2,900 words about a woman? Could they relate to her? And would women want to read a story about a chess player? I wanted to keep her, but I rewrote the story from a male point of view. Did I cave or was I being smart? The male perspective changed the story completely. Men react and show emotion differently than women. A man won’t cry so easily, for example. Since the story is written in first person, it is now a different story than the first draft. But, like my dog trainer says about our dog, “He is what he is.”


As a side note about dogs, in researching the role of the dog in Good Game I ran across the Carolina Canines Web site. Service dogs trained through Carolina Canines for Service, Inc. are able to perform the following tasks for their partners:

• Retrieving dropped/distant objects
• Pulling wheelchairs and loading wheelchairs into vehicles
• Opening doors
• Carrying items/packages
• Rising to high counters
• Physical support for mobility and transfers to/from wheelchairs
• Physical assistance to recover from a fall
• Dressing or undressing
• Assisting with household tasks such as bed making and laundry

Now, we’ve got to quit working with Alex on his aggression issues–as a result of his history before being rescued–and start training him to do household chores. I’ll let you know when he starts making the bed and doing laundry.

I was not surprised to learn that the extensive training required for each service dog takes 18-24 months in basic training and 6-12 months in advanced training. These dogs are provided free of charge from Carolina Canines to people with disabilities including: cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, spinal cord injury and seizure disorders. This is a savings of $2,000 – $12,000 for the disabled. What a worthy endeavor. Some people do have a two to three year wait for a service dog, though.

As far as my progress on my young adult NIP, I have reached a standstill. I’m still trying to decide whether to include Pocahontas and, as a result, have lost momentum. I’ll get back to it, though. I always do. Meanwhile, I’m trying to set realistic goals and then focus on one goal at a time. My goal for today is to revise Remission, a story I wrote earlier this year, and submit it to the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. Deadline is February 1. Wish me luck.

Write. Edit. Polish—Submit

My young adult novel, THE MAGIC QUILT, is still in progress. The end. I have not yet written those two little words that would see her finished. Regardless, I am happy with my recent writing progress. Except for Christmas and New Year’s Day, I wrote for several hours on each of the twelve days that I was off from my day job (December 21 – January 2). I polished my way through chapter 13, of the 24 chapters in THE MAGIC QUILT. Because of the trickle down effect from the later chapters, the first half of the book needed a lot of rewriting. Fixing minor plot flaws, correcting some point of view issues and deciding which minor characters need bigger and smaller roles took up most of my editing time. The ending chapters will not need as much work.

In the original version of THE MAGIC QUILT, Katharine traveled to several places and time periods, both in the past and future. Minor characters from those places, including Jamestown, Virginia, visited Katharine in the present. As a result, Pocahontas was in several scenes. I had decided to remove her character from the novel, including a middle chapter where she had a central role. I thought the chapter slowed down the plot and didn’t add anything. The women in my writing critique group felt differently, that the chapter is needed to both lighten the novel and show another side of Katharine’s character.

So, I decided to let my thoughts on the novel percolate in the background for awhile, and I did some organizing. Looking though my computer files, I was shocked to discover that I have written 19 stories, of which only 3 are published! Yikes. I had neglected these stories, some for several years. Why? Short attention span. I hate editing, polishing and submitting. I love the thrill of first draft writing: getting to know the characters, discovering where the story goes. After that the story and the characters get cold to me. This is why my YA novel is not finished.

Looking back over my older writing, I discovered something else. I have really grown as a writer. I recognize some novice mistakes in my older work, like POV issues–I couldn’t seem to find the MC’s voice, plot holes and leaps, telling instead of showing, needless description, repetition, dialogue tag problems, and tense changes. In fact, some of my older stories are real stinkers. Back when I wrote them, thinking they were awesome works of art, I sent each to friends and family. I apologize for that—I should have sent a clothespin with each story. I even submitted some of these stinkers for publication. Many stunk as much as the bad story JA Konrath wrote to illustrate newbie mistakes. Not surprisingly, I accumulated many rejections

So, over my 12 days of Christmas, I polished three stories, submitted two to a contest and one to a periodical. In so doing, I cut 1,450 unnecessary words from Stand-in Santa, a whopping 40% reduction in the story. Eh gads. Similarly, I cut almost 400 words from Project Golem, a futuristic story about WWIV. I apologize to anyone who read the earlier versions of these stories.

I’ve got a lot more work to do. My new edict for 2008 is: Write. Edit. Polish—Submit. With this in mind, here are my New Year’s Resolutions.

1. I will finish THE MAGIC QUILT
2. I will choose my next book length project and begin working on it
3. I will research the market and agencies representing YA historical fiction/fantasy and search for an agent
4. I will always have at least three stories—YA or adult—(and one article idea) on submission, while working on a fourth
5. I will finish every story I start
6. I will submit every story I finish
7. I will subscribe to the magazines I submit to and read them
8. I will read the Newberry winners and finalists from the last two years to grow in my YA writing
9. I will continue to blog – the process improves my writing
10. I will update my website after reviewing other YA writer sites
11. I will attend at least one writer’s conference, and introduce myself to agents, editors, and other writers
12. I will refuse to get discouraged, even in the face of daunting odds. I love to write and my imagination contains stories that only I can tell. For now, that is my reward. I will not dwell on the fact that I have written drafts of three novels – not finished any, penned over 175,000 words. Although I have earned 135 rejections, I have sold only one story and one essay. I received nada in the way of monitary compensation for the rest of my publications.

I am a better writer than I was when I received all those rejections. To illustrate the point, here is the original opening from “Her Sister’s Ghost,” written in 2002:

Ashleigh Richards stepped into the rear of a small commuter plane and walked past an attractive man, with long, wavy, black hair and sunglasses, who was seated in the last row of the plane. She glanced at him as she passed him; an intense look indicating her attraction for him, which she noticed was reciprocated. She immediately cleared him from her thoughts as she walked toward the front of the plane. She was relieved that seat 4D was a window seat; she would be able to look out the window and think. She stowed her black cashmere coat and carry on bag in the overhead compartment. Ashleigh had her driver’s license and $200 cash in her jeans pocket. Her Gateway, Solo 1200 notebook Ashleigh kept with her. The laptop computer barely fit under the seat in front of her and Ashleigh didn’t have room for her feet with the computer there. One of the drawbacks of being tall is there is never enough legroom. Ashleigh knew that even a shorter person would have trouble compacting themselves into the small seating area of the Express Jet.

I am embarrassed to admit that I submitted this story for publication. The one long opening paragraph screams novice: telling instead of showing, needless description, repetition … Who would want to read more?

The new opening, while still not pefect, is much stronger:

The police would find him, dead in her house. It didn’t matter that he had deserved to die.

Ashleigh Adams shoved her crutches into the back seat of her Cavalier, wincing in pain as she lowered herself carefully into the driver’s seat. She accelerated down the long driveway, tires spitting gravel. As she entered the onramp to the highway, she was already traveling at over eighty miles per hour, speeding to get away from the fear that caused her hands to tremble on the steering wheel.

“Ashleigh, I had to kill him. He gave me no choice,” Erica said.

Sighing, Ashleigh turned toward her sister.

Erica was gone. The passenger seat empty. Ashleigh was left only with the image of Erica standing over her husband, holding the .45 with two steady hands. A bullet hole between his sightless eyes.

Wine news from across the hall: Dec/Jan

The “from across the hall” category will feature posts from and about my husband Harry Calhoun, who writes a monthly wine column, Ten Dollar Tastings.


Hello wine lovers!

The latest column (December/January) is now online — a special one, because this marks my first anniversary with Ten Dollar Tastings!

While 2007 was a hard year in many ways, I certainly have my share of blessings. They start with Trina and extend to good health, good friends and our “son” Alex the Labrador. As you’ll see in the column, Trina has snagged a little bit of celebrity and I’m revisiting my past career as a small-press poet and fiction writer.

This month features my top ten affordable wines for the year. Is a red wine or a white the top choice? Those of you who know my tastes may be surprised. There’s also the red wine I pick each month for Charlie Hart and my featured wines, from Redwood Creek.

As always, I hope you enjoy Ten Dollar Tastings.

Harry Calhoun

Web site: