Author Archives: Julie Brown

Too (not 2) Frequently Asked Questions

When people find out a person is a writer, they’re intrigued. They ask questions. What do you write? Where do your ideas come from? Are you published? Do you have an MFA? Where can I read your work? Are you rich and famous?   

I’m often asked by friends and family: What’s going on with that book you’ve been writing? Is it published yet? 

Answer: Not yet. I’m querying agents. 

Then the follow up question: That’s what you said last month. What’s taking so long?

Short answer: Ugh. 

Long answer: That’s sort of like asking a first year med student, “How’s that MD coming along? You a doctor yet?” Finding a literary agent is not easy. It takes time, hard work, and more persistence than you can imagine.

Here’s another: You wrote a book? What’s it about?

I love and hate this question. I love it because I’m thrilled when anyone is interested in my writing, but it’s a hard one to answer. How do you describe a 300 page book in one sentence? I’ve written a million (okay, maybe not a million) one-liners that describe my book and have yet to come up with the perfect answer. But I’m getting closer.

And the all-time “favorite” question/request: I have a great idea for a book. I’ll tell it to you, and you write it. Then we can split the money. What do you say? 

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No, thank you. 

Longer answer: Here’s my card. I charge by the word.

I don’t mean to sound snippy, but every author I know has received this request. The truth is, if you really have a remarkable story (you survived a shipwreck or just discovered you’re the bio-child of someone super famous), you should hire a lawyer and a good CPA, because the tabloids will offer you a fortune. 

Another very FAQ: Isn’t being a writer easier now that there’s self-publishing?

Short Answer: No

Long answer: Writing is hard work regardless of how one publishes. Self-publishing has cleared the way for many excellent novels and works of non-fiction to be released more quickly. It also has opened the floodgates for thousands of books that are not well-written or properly edited. Most of these sell few copies. Writing anything requires time and patience and dedication. Even this short blog post has taken me three days! 

In case you’re wondering, here are my answers to the first five questions:

What do you write:  Novels, short stories, short plays, blog posts, and many to-do lists.

Where do ideas come from: Imagination, observation, contemplation, aggravation, conversations, and sometimes my dogs.

Are you published: Yes

Do you have an MFA: No

Where can I read what you’ve written: There’s a lot of it right here on my website. Or google my name. Something will pop up.

Are you rich and famous: Not yet. 

As a bonus, I’m going to ask you a question that has nothing to do with anything except for giving me a reason to post this adorable picture:

What’s your favorite kind of dog? Mine’s BOXER 

Give me your answer in the comments. Feel free to share a photo! And ask me more questions, too. 

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A Cautionary Tale

I’m lucky! My husband has cousins who live in New Zealand, and over the years, we’ve visited a number of times. Every trip promises many adventures, and I always come away with new stories.

Our cousins live on a sheep farm outside of Auckland. They have horses. They play polo. They grow their own vegetables, eat eggs from their own chickens, and catch fish in their own lake. Pretty different from what this California girl is used to. And I love it. 

Last time we went, we arrived just in time for the New Zealand Open, the biggest polo tournament of the year. I couldn’t wait to get there. We were welcomed by our “Kiwi” cousins and friends who happen to be among the nicest people in the world. I walked right into the middle of a Ralph Lauren ad – rolling green hills, white canopies and tents, ladies in wide-brimmed hats and silky flowered dresses, dogs, horses, antique cars, babies in prams, and flowing champagne.

As I accepted a flute of bubbly and took a seat under our canopy, I noticed a line of red droplets on the grass. I followed the trail to my husband’s hand, blood dripping off his fingers. Mark’s palm looked as if he had dipped it in red paint.  

“My God, what happened?” I asked.

“I caught my hand on the barbed wire fence.”

“How’d you do that?”

“I was following the guys who climbed through it.”

Why is it that when grown men get together they function like little boys? What kind of nut climbs through barbed wire? And what kind of nut follows the nut who climbs through barbed wire?

“I guess you discovered why it’s called barbed wire, didn’t you?” I suppose I could have been a tad more sympathetic. 

Everyone rallied around Mark’s bloody hand to assess the damage and give advice. One of our new friends, who claimed to be a nurse, thought it looked nasty. After chastising all the men who crawled through the fence, she told us to pour salt on the wound.

Salt? I always thought that “putting salt in a wound” was a cliché for making something worse (which it is), but evidently, salt will disinfect a cut. At this point, it was either salt or gin, but the gin was too expensive to treat it like rubbing alcohol.

Mark held out his hand, and the our nurse-friend dumped a pile of salt into the cut. I cannot write the words Mark uttered. Suffice it to say, adding salt to a wound is painful. After his hand was cleaned and wrapped in white gauze, another helpful friend suggested Mark needed a tetanus shot and offered to give him one. We were a bit leery, because this friend was not a doctor or pharmacist or in the healthcare field in any way. However, he said he had a good supply of sheep tetanus vaccine at home and felt sure a double dose would do the trick. And he had a few clean needles. Such a kind offer, but Mark politely declined. 

The following day, instead having a grand time on the farm, we drove out to the A and E (accident and emergency clinic) for a tetanus shot. The doctor was somewhat impressed with the salt cleansing and gauze wrap around his hand. When asked what happened, Mark tried to fudge the truth, but the clever doctor had seen enough skin shredded by barbed wire to know exactly what happened. Usually on children, she told him, not fifty-something-year-old men.

My guess is Mark won’t be climbing over or under or through barbed wire again. At least I hope not. As our Kiwi nurse-friend said: “If you can’t set a good example, you’ll end up being a cautionary tale.” And it might involve blood. 

 

Feel free to share my story with your friends!

Confessions of a Conference Junkie

A few months ago I attended a writers conference in San Francisco. Prior to my leaving, I did some research on how to prepare. With workshops and speakers scheduled from early morning to well into the night, I figured a little planning would go a long way . . .

Most of the advice was commonsensical: prepare a schedule so that you know exactly where to go when; be friendly and open to meeting new people; wear comfortable shoes. But then I stumbled over one suggestion that made me sit up and take notice. It said, “Stand out. Agents and editors will be meeting hundreds of writers over the course of a few days, so make yourself memorable – put on a flowery hat or wear a bright purple jacket or carry a statement bag . . .”

Wow, what great advice! Every woman there would be in a uniform of black pants and white blouse or some variation on that look. What could I do to make my outfit special? Hat? No. Crazy color jacket? Don’t think so. Statement bag? Absolutely! The next day I ran to TJ Maxx and purchased a leather tote in candy-apple red. I imagined people admiring my chic accessory and later recalling my stylish fashion statement.

“I was the one carrying the bright red bag, remember?” I would say.

As soon as I got to the hotel, I unpacked my suitcase, freshened up, and transferred my materials into the new red tote. With my “statement piece” slung over my shoulder, I headed downstairs for the opening session. As I got off the elevator, somebody tapped my shoulder and asked if I knew where the ballroom was. I turned, and to my surprise, there was a woman with a tote bag almost identical to mine. I laughed and said, “Follow me. And by the way, great bag!”

Imagine that, two of us walking into the room looking like we’d just gone shopping together. I found an open chair, sat down, and put my bag in front of my feet . . . right next to another red tote. What was going on here? I glanced around. Three more women carrying red bags (one was a beautiful raspberry color, even prettier than mine!) entered the room. There were so many red bags it looked like a red-bag-convention! I thought about tagging mine so I wouldn’t pick up somebody else’s by mistake. So much for a statement piece when everyone else was making the same statement.

I crossed my arms, sat back, and focused on the welcome presentation. I forgot all about my disappointing red bag and absorbed every drop of wisdom the speaker had to offer. During the Q and A, I raised my hand. The speaker pointed to me, and I began my question. But then she said: “No, no back there. The one in the flowered hat.”

Next time I’m wearing my mini-mouse ears.

The Totally True Story of Julie and Jack

Searching for my Broken Heart

It’s been six months. My mom died last summer. Although she was elderly, she was in pretty good shape, so her death, while not untimely, was unexpected . . .

We sat in the rabbi’s office and shared stories to prepare for the memorial. Everybody laughed. Everybody cried. Everybody except for me. I felt nothing. After the meeting I asked to speak to our rabbi alone. I told him something was wrong with me, that I felt no emotion – no sadness, no loss, no heartbreak. He said I was in shock.

“I’m not in shock,” I said. “I feel fine.”

“It’s sort of like being in shock,” he explained. “Your subconscious is not ready to deal with the loss of your mom.”

I had trouble with this explanation. “But that doesn’t make sense. I should be devastated. I should be sobbing. I cried more when my dog died.”

“It’s normal,” he assured me. “Your broken heart is there. You’ll find it.”

I left feeling skeptical. I went through the motions, played the role of dutiful daughter, took care of arrangements, hovered over my father, prepared food for visitors, wrote my speech. At the service I spoke with confidence, laughing in the right places and not crying when expected to do so. The tears of people in front of me, some who didn’t even know my mother, failed to move me. All I wanted to do, what I needed to do, was take care of everyone else.

The Friday night after the memorial, we went to services. We said mourners kaddish – I tried to cry. Nope. People visited me, brought treats, and gave comfort. It was nice, and I appreciated it very much, but still no tears. Yom Kipper came and went. Nothing. I took my mother’s things home with me – her nightgown, her cuddle pillow, some half-used cosmetics, the red infinity scarf she wore every day because she always was cold. It held the faintest scent of her.

I prepared myself for the worst Thanksgiving of my life and my birthday the same weekend. The proverbial first “fill-in-the-blank” without my mom. We ended up having a wonderful Thanksgiving. And my birthday, well, I don’t really remember it.

I stopped searching. Maybe I would just be one of those who would weather the death of a parent without feeling loss. Maybe I was so relieved not to be worrying about her anymore that the relief outweighed the sadness. Maybe I didn’t care as much as I thought I did. Oh God, maybe I should go back to the rabbi or see a therapist . . .

I had a plant of my mom’s. It was ugly. I think it had once been two plants that she had stuck into a pot together with a scoop of dirt. One piece of it was a wispy fern and the other a more hearty-leafed thing. I liked the pot, so I brought it home intending to plant something that flowered. But the ugly plant my mother had created seemed healthy, so I just left it alone. I did nothing to it – maybe a bit of water now and then. It thrived. Ugly as ever, it just kept living. Then one day, my dogs made a play-thing out of it. I went outside and found my mother’s ugly plant knocked over and ripped apart – the wispy fern shredded, the hearty leaves scattered across the grass. I stared at it for a moment or two, and my eyes filled with tears. The tears ran down my cheeks like streams of melting snow. The sob that came out of me scared the birds away, and my heart broke apart. I frantically gathered what was left of my mom’s plant and tried to find one root that could be salvaged. I yelled at my sweet dogs who had torn up the plant because I had left it where they could. It was all my fault. My fault the plant was dead. My fault my mother was gone.

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. My mother was old. She had many health issues. But I’m a second-guesser, a “what-if” kind of girl. What if I had done just one thing differently?

Now the tears come easily. When I see her handwriting; when I walk by Chico’s and think “Mom would love that top;” when I see her little soap dish and remember how she washed her hands; when I make the cookies we used to make together.

Mother’s Day is coming. Another “first.” The first mother’s day of my life that is not about my mom. I cry just thinking about it.

Real Writers Write Every Day . . . except for those who don’t

Writers are often asked: “What is your writing routine?” It’s a good question. After all, people want to know how it’s done. How do writers find time to write between jobs, kids, pets, chores, distractions, and the endless list of things that must be done before we allow ourselves the luxury of indulging in our creative passion.

Hmmm – this is where “the plan” comes in. My schedule is rigid. I am asleep every night by ten pm and up at five am – before the household stirs. I make coffee, settle down at my laptop, and click away, letting the words flow from my imagination without interruption. I don’t stop until the sun sends golden rays of light through the window and I’ve pounded out at least 1000 words . . . And of course, I write every day. 

Oh please, rigidity is not even a concept I understand. I’m the queen of loosie-goosie, the wing-it girl, the juggler of all things that probably shouldn’t be juggled. I stay up way too late watching animal videos on you-tube. My mornings don’t even begin until the sun assaults my eyes with razor-like precision. My husband makes coffee before he leaves the house (it’s one of the things I like best about him). My three dogs paw at me to get out of bed. I find an excuse to text my children or spy on their now defunct FB pages. Then I get caught up in posts and photos – photos of glorious vacations my “friends” are on and the perfect lives of people I don’t even know. I tear myself away from social media when the phone rings, the wash machine buzzes, or a dog throws up.  How the hell do I ever find time to write?

Here’s the truth. Writers do not “find” time – at least not the ones I know. We make it. We carve it out of our days in bits and pieces. I put “write” in my calendar wherever there’s open space. I say “sorry, I can’t go” to a lot of fun stuff. There’s no magic, no roadmap, and definitely no one-size-fits-all answer.

Writers without editors or agents breathing down their necks to meet deadlines can be like untethered balloons. We are at risk of wandering from project to project, changing goals, touching down in random places, getting lost. It’s up to us to tether our strings, preferably to the back of a chair in front of a desk, and focus.

So do I follow the “rules?” Sometimes, maybe, sort of . . . but for every rule that exists, there are exceptions to prove it wrong. And I can tell you this – I do not write every day. But I sure do think about it.

“The Golden Rule is that there are no golden rules.” George Bernard  Shaw

The Art of Forgiveness

I submitted this essay in application for the Dr. Ellen Taliaferro Scholarship to the San Francisco Writers Conference 2017. The prompt was this: Write 500 words or less on the power of forgiveness. So I did. And I won! The conference took place at the Mark Hopkins Hotel this past weekend. It was fabulous. Thank you Dr. Taliaferro!

“It took a long time, but as soon as I let go of my anger and resentment, I was free. I dropped the chains I’d been carrying around like Ebenezer Scrooge and felt as if a single balloon could lift me off the ground and carry me to the sky.”

I wrote those words some time ago while working on a story in which my main character had been betrayed. She was suffocating under the weight of her own hostility and venom. As the writer who created this character, I understood her refusal to forgive. In fact, I was quite sure I didn’t want her to. But as any writer knows, sometimes characters have minds of their own, as if they can jump off the page and poke the author on the shoulder and demand we go in a different direction. That’s what my character did – she forced me to allow her to forgive . . . of course that changed the trajectory of my plot, but that’s another story!

I used to think forgiveness could only be given following an apology. I mean, why should I let someone off the hook who isn’t sorry for acting against me? It makes sense that apology and forgiveness go together. They are opposite sides of the same coin. They complement each other like ingredients in a recipe: 

Sift equal amounts guilt, remorse, and admission of wrongdoing into bowl. Add an open mind, a kind heart, and a scoop of understanding; stir gently; bake as long as it takes. Enjoy the delicious blend of sincere apology and heartfelt forgiveness.

But over time I’ve learned that forgiveness is like a piece of art that stands on its own. It might be part of a set, but it is still complete and rich with possibility all by itself. A willingness to “let it go,” with or without the apology, makes us better people. People who forgive readily are happier, easier to get along with, and have more patience. They don’t hold grudges or revisit old arguments and are kinder than those who choose to stay angry. And what I find most interesting, people who forgive are quicker to recognize their own faults and apologize for their own misdeeds.

So, back to the story in which my character decided to forgive her betrayer . . . She and I ended up parting ways, and I decided to set the story aside. But my opinionated character left me with a wonderful gift, a message whispered into my ear:

“The true beneficiary of forgiveness is not the one who receives it . . . it is the one who grants it.”

I’d love to hear from you in comments below. And if you aren’t already, please follow my blog by entering your email in the box on the right. Thanks!

Should I Stay or Should I go?

I’ve gone in and out of several writing groups over the years. For the most part, I’ve gotten at least something out of each one — encouragement, sympathy, advice . . . and oh yeah, homegrown vegetables – writers have all kinds of interesting hobbies! For many of us, however, there comes a time when a critique group fails to serve its purpose.  Here are FOUR situations that indicate it might be time for you to move on.

Continue reading

In Defense of Prejudice

And what’s that got to do with writing anyway?

One of my writing colleagues recently published an article about prejudice against beauty. What? Who doesn’t like beauty? We all enjoy seeing beautiful things, places, faces. But what we don’t usually consider is how that pretty face makes us feel. Envious? Intimidated? Intrigued? Superior? Before that gorgeous gal utters a single word, have we judged her based on appearance?

Drawing conclusions, positive or negative, and making assumptions about people according to how they look is human nature. If I see a good looking guy driving a fancy-schmancy car, I think he’s rich. But he could be the chauffeur, the son of a rich guy, the boy-toy of an heiress, a car thief . . . who knows? From a young age, we are taught not to judge a book by its cover (or a man by his car), but we can’t help it.

From Science Daily: “Contrary to what most people believe, the tendency to be prejudiced is a form of common sense, hard-wired into the human brain through evolution as an adaptive response to protect our prehistoric ancestors from danger.” Okay then, it’s all about survival. While we’ve come a long way since the caveman days, we cannot ignore our instinct to be wary of those who might harm us, thwart our plans, or get in our way. Stereotypes help us make sense of the world, and we want to be able to look at people and think we know what they’re about.

So what do stereotypes have to do with writing? For starters, it’s one way writers create surprises, twists, and tension. We take preconceived notions and turn them on their heads. The drunk, depressed girl with no life becomes the one who solves the mystery (The Girl on the Train); the nerdy newspaper reporter turns out to be the super-hero (Superman); the ambulance chasing, low-life lawyer is at his core a noble advocate for the truth (The Night Of); the outcast, scrawny dog/wolf steps up to be the leader of the pack (Balto).

As writers, we often give a protagonist prejudices as a way of showing character arc and creating tension. The protagonist must evolve, have a change of heart, or experience a revelation in her quest for whatever it is she desires. And it’s the “will she or won’t she” question that keeps the reader in suspense.

So the next time you draw a conclusion based on nothing more than appearance, don’t feel bad. It’s your inner caveman at work. Just know, you might be wrong . . .  then again, you might be right.

Read Mark Fine’s insightful article here: http://www.thefinemaxim.com/are-searchyou-prejudiced-against-beauty/

Would love to know what you think . . . And please follow my blog by entering your email in the box on the main page. Thanks!

A Point in Time

I’m sitting in a dark room sandwiched between two old women in wheelchairs. The one on my right is my mom. We are watching An American in Paris. I don’t think I’ve seen it before. Over the last month, my mother’s health and well-being have preoccupied my life. As a writer, I’m not happy to have my writing schedule thrown off track, to miss deadlines, to feel my creativity stifled. However, as a daughter, I am far more distressed to see my mom decline.

As I adjust to my new normal, I find time to write, as I’m doing now, in odd places and situations. In a strange and sweet way, Mom has become my muse. I’m spending more time with her now than I have since I was a child and she was the one who tended me – keeping me safe and fulfilling my needs. The ultimate role-reversal.

Hanging out in a senior home, surrounded by elderly, is both heartbreaking and humorous. If you think kids say the darndest things, try talking to old people. In general, they have no filters – they say whatever comes to mind without regard to appropriateness. The other day at lunch (yes, I eat lunch here on occasion), an old lady said to her friend, “Don’t order dessert, you’re getting fat.” I nearly choked on my orange jello. As it turned out, her friend didn’t hear her, or she pretended not to, or she just didn’t care. She ordered pie a-la-mode and a cookie.

As writers, we are keen observers – every person is a story. I’ve seen countless interactions here  – a loving moment between husband and wife; an adult child holding her mother’s hand; a family bringing a new baby to meet Great-Grandpa. I imagine the pasts of these old people, who and what they used to be. The man who worked for the CIA, the woman who raised eight children on her own, the military couple who lived all over the world. vintage-1319058__180I think about the lives they were living decades ago, when they could run and drive and use power tools. The lives they lived before their bodies aged, their minds faded, or illness robbed them of independence.

I’m trying to remember my own mom as the woman she used to be – my mommy, my advocate, my champion. Right now, I  can’t, it’s just too hard. But someday I will. She would want that.

Note: I wrote this on August 24, 2016. My beautiful mom passed away six days later. I will be eternally grateful that, almost on a whim, I decided to spend that afternoon with her, watching a movie and holding her hand.