Down the Rabbit Hole

Hello, my dear friends. I’ve been absent from the blog for almost a month, and since June, there’s only been the chirping of crickets round these parts. Contrary to rumor, I was not abducted by aliens (always a possibility here in New Mexico), nor did I enter the witness protection program. I have, in fact, spent the last several weeks tumbling down the rabbit hole known as REWRITES and REVISIONS.


As many of you know, I finished the first draft of my novel in March. I’ve written quite a few short stories and one novella length piece, but this is my first full length, bona fide, Holy-Dewey-Decimal-System-Batman novel.

When the first draft was done, I thought I was done. Hah! Oh, Leigh, you foolish girl. After I edited and proofed and polished until I could no longer stand the sight of it, I sent the draft out to my eight wonderful beta readers for feedback. Then I got back to writing and stalking agents on Twitter. Oh yeah, and chewing off my fingernails and wondering what my readers would think of the book. And trying to use Jedi mind tricks to discern their impressions from afar.

Sadly, in the process I learned I have no Jedi powers.

My beta readers were a-MAY-MAY-zing. They came back with many nice things to say, but also with insightful and penetrating feedback. I took it all in like a big, absorbent sponge monster, I made notes, and then, after a week of letting it all marinate in the brain, I set about rewriting and revising the novel.

Tip of the iceberg

Rewriting and revising a novel-length piece of fiction was new to me, and a fascinating process. I soon realized that the first draft was only the tip of the iceberg, and now the real work had begun. I had insights about my story in the weirdest moments, like while watching The Wil Wheaton Project, and most of all while doing housework. And when revelation descended, I would drop everything, rush to the laptop, and write.

My revisions took nearly two months to complete, with breaks interspersed to write new stories and, well, try to have a life. Thanks to my beta readers, I believe I’ve now written a much stronger book, a novel that more fully expresses my vision for this story and these characters. And even in those last sessions reworking scenes, those wily characters continued to surprise me. I’d think I knew what was going to happen, and then they’d carry me off in an entirely different (but totally right) direction.

So now I’m dipping my toe into those shark infested querying waters. I continue to read, reread, and polish the novel. Comma placement, these days, is my latest obsession.

Yep, it’s a glamorous life.

The two lessons I take away from this are 1) listen, listen, and listen some more to beta readers. I may not take all their advice, but I’m open to every bit of it; and 2) my characters know better how the story needs to be told than I do. You might have guessed I’m not that writer who outlines and plots. Sometimes I envy those guys. Me, I just go from the hip. And I’m grateful that the story knew what it was doing, because there were many times I did not.

So, yeah. That’s my last takeaway: trust the story. And now — time for a nap.


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The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Yellow Bicycle

Your Narrator, circa 1981 (the year of the Yellow Bike Debacle)

Your Narrator, circa 1981 (the year of the Yellow Bike Debacle)

When I was nine years old, the object of my desire was a yellow bike. It had high, curving handlebars like a chopper, the rubber grips trailing multicolored tassels. It had a long banana seat of richest vinyl. In fact, the bike itself was exactly the color of a banana – ripe and tantalizing. It occupied my thoughts, waking and sleeping, all summer long.

I’d seen it in the toy section of King’s department store in South Portland, Maine. Even then, in the early 80s, King’s was going the way of the dodo. Many of its shelves were nearly empty, the scant offerings opened or broken or covered in a film of dust. It’s where my mom bought my imitation Bean boots and Toughskins for the upcoming school year. And it was on that shopping trip that I first beheld the Yellow Bike.

My mother’s response when the begging began was a flat “No.” I had a perfectly good bike, a red boy’s bike we’d bought at a yard sale the previous year, which was already too short for my legs. But I couldn’t let it go. I fantasized about riding the Yellow Bike through my neighborhood, and through my grandparents’ neighborhood (I practically lived with them in those days), coasting along, maybe even doing daring tricks like standing on the seat or putting my feet through the handlebars. The Yellow Bike was magnificent – so bright, so shiny, so…feminine. My vanity knew no bounds, and I whined and wheedled for weeks. I wanted that damn girly bike.

I had never in my young life experienced this kind of all-consuming need, this wanting. The Yellow Bike haunted me. It wouldn’t leave me alone. I was possessed.

Then one day, shortly after school began, I walked home to my grandparents’ house. When I reached the driveway, I saw the garage door was up, and could see my grandfather inside. As I drew closer, I saw something else: a graceful form of most vibrant yellow, chrome gleaming, kickstand down, leaning jauntily, the tassels curling like unicorn tails. I may have dropped my book bag. I know I broke into a dead run.

It turns out my grandparents bought the bike for me. I remember hugging my grandfather, hanging off him as though he were a tire swing, babbling a gibberish of gratitude. My grandfather (who I still called GaGa) tried to look stern, but I could tell he was pleased.

“Can I ride it?” I asked breathlessly. “Can I ride it right now?

“Just hold your horses,” he said. “I’m almost finished.”

As I watched, my expression of unbridled joy began to sag into one of confusion. Then dismay.

“GaGa, what are you doing?” My eyes darted between him and the bike like those of a trapped animal. What was that in his hands? What in the name of Nancy Drew was he bolting to the back of my perfect bicycle?

“We need to make it safe, sugar plum,” was his cryptic reply.

When he was done, a six-foot orange pole bobbed from the back of the bike. It was topped by a triangular flag, also electric orange, emblazoned with the cheery salute, HEY BABY! He grasped the handlebars and the grip at the back of the seat, beckoning me to climb aboard. “Now drivers can see you.” I hesitated. “Go on.”

Drivers? Astronauts would see me from space. I never imagined I would be reluctant to ride this Holy Grail of bikes, that I would dither for even a moment before leaping onto the pedals and tearing out of the driveway, peeling out in a cloud of dust. But now…

That summer, my best friend Katherine Murray, who lived two houses down, had moved to California. Within weeks, a new family took up residence, and their son (we’ll call him Scut Farkus -yes, I’ve seen A Christmas Story an unhealthy number of times) had made it his mission to torment me every chance he got. That he lived in Katherine’s house, once the scene of so much happiness, was a particularly bitter irony. He chased me around the neighborhood, whipping me with his new Indiana Jones plastic bullwhip. Just last weekend, he’d tied me to a tree.

Scut Farkus

But when I saw the puzzled look spreading on GaGa’s face, I took hold of the handlebars. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or sour this amazing gift – and his equally amazing generosity – by arguing or showing my chagrin. “I love it,” I said, climbing into the seat. And then I set off, pedaling furiously up the driveway. I knew in my heart that Scut might leave me alone were it just me and the bike — but there was no way he would allow that orange flag to fly.

Maybe Scut Farkus isn’t home. Or maybe he’s inside playing with his Hot Wheels. I told myself these comforting lies as I pedaled down the street, feet pumping, and his house loomed into view. Maybe…

Scut was out in his driveway stomping on ants. I knew him by his slouch, his bulk, and his curly brown hair, always oddly moist. In that moment, some terrible synchronicity, or maybe telepathy, made him look up just as I rode past. It was as if he’d heard my panicked thoughts. Our eyes locked. Scut grinned a carnivorous, wolfish smile, his eyes moving from mine to the orange flag fluttering by. Within seconds he was on his Huffy in hot pursuit.

I’d like to say I outran him. Or outwitted him when I veered off onto the path through the woods. I’d like to say I stood up to him, that I fought him and won, or even persuaded him with my impassioned eloquence to leave off the bullying and become a nicer person. But that’s not what happened.

He ran me off the path, and I went tumbling into a stand of ferns. I hid in the underbrush while Scut took hold of my bike and, in an instant, snapped off the HEY BABY! flag. Then he stomped on the yellow bike, just as he had the ants in his driveway, bending a handlebar and breaking a whole lot of spokes. Finally, he carried the flag off like a war trophy, popping wheelies as he went.

I rode home slowly, the wounded yellow bike wobbling, weeping openly as I coasted down the middle of the road. There were no cars, and thankfully, no neighbors outdoors to witness my own little Greek tragedy. When I got back to my grandparents’ house, I sat down on the curb, afraid to go inside. At last, as twilight fell, I parked my bike in the garage and trudged into the house.

I never told GaGa what really happened. I said I’d wrecked the bike myself in the woods, and he was none too pleased. He repaired it within a couple of days (and replaced the orange flag) admonishing me to be more careful with my things. And I was. I took my bike home to my own neighborhood and never rode by Scut’s house again.

For a long time, I carried this scene around inside me in a box labeled Most Embarrassing Memory Ever. I was mortified when I thought about it, sure that it marked me forever as a Totally Pathetic Loser. In time, Scut Farkus moved away, but I made a solemn vow to myself I would never tell anyone of the Yellow Bike Debacle of 1981.

Then one evening in high school, I was sitting around with the cast of our upcoming school play. The director had asked us to share memories from childhood – in particular embarrassing or painful ones. The play we were producing was Stephen King’s Rage, which among other things, deals with the pain kids carry around and the terrible consequences that can follow. I think he wanted us to get in touch with our own demons, and also build the trust we needed to work together on such an emotionally arduous play.

Everyone shared stories that, while unique to the individual, were universal in their themes of childhood angst and tragedy. When my turn came, I was stunned to find myself recounting the episode of the yellow bike. I couldn’t stop my mouth from moving, or the story from pouring forth. But the strangest thing was, midway through the tale (when I got to the part about the HEY BABY! flag) I found I was cackling uncontrollably. I was so overcome by hilarity I could hardly draw enough breath to continue. And everyone else was laughing, too. Not mean laughter, not mocking. But an outpouring of innocent, cleansing, raucous mirth; cathartic not just for me — but I think for them, too.

This is not to say that pain isn’t, well, painful. Nor am I making light of bullying — I can say from personal experience that it’s awful. But sometimes pain can be transformed into something else. Sure, we can learn and grow from it. We hope we can move on from it. But it was when I shared my painful story that it finally lost its power over me. In telling the story of the yellow bike, I made it mine, and the healing effect was sublime.

I think about this when I’m writing. Most writers, either consciously or unconsciously, imbue their characters and stories with the emotional truths of their own lives. Let’s face it: in addition to spinning a good yarn, we’re working out our own…stuff. It’s a kind of therapy, both for the author and the reader. That’s when a story really comes alive. When you tell the truth about life, the good, bad and even the ugly, you engage the hearts and minds of your readers. Because they can see themselves in your story, and they can relate.

The yellow bike taught me that our darkest moments can, sometimes, become something more. We are the authors of our own life story and we decide the tone and theme of that narrative. These episodes from everyone’s lives — joy, pain, sorrow, hilarity, and everything in between — are universal human experiences. They are also the seeds of good and interesting fiction.

What do you think of all this? Is there catharsis in sharing your own stories? Do you channel your memories and emotions into your work? As a reader, are you drawn to stories where characters are vulnerable and flawed?

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Dispatch from Query Hell

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

I completed my first novel early this spring, and now, after many months of preparation, I’m getting ready to query.

“Query?” you ask, intrigued. “What is meant by this thing you call…’query?'”

If you are happily pursuing a sane career that does not involve seeking publication for your novel, this term will likely mean almost nothing to you. For you, “query” simply means what the dictionary says it means: “a question, especially one addressed to an official or organization.”

Seeing the word “query” doesn’t produce in you a host of intense and conflicting emotions: excitement, terror, frustration, confusion, hope and despair.

But for writers chasing the dragon of publication, this heretofore innocent word is enough to send you plunging into the drawer for the corkscrew, gnashing your teeth and rending your garments, cursing yourself and cruel fate for ever setting your foot upon this rocky path. In short, it’s enough to make you C-R-A-Z-Y. And if, like most writers, you started out a little kooky, you’ll just get crazier.

What “query” means to writers, you see, is this deceptively simple concept: a query is a short letter directed at literary agents, condensing the premise of your novel, your main characters, conflict and stakes, into around 250 words. It’s the “hook” that must convince an agent they want to read your novel, and ultimately, if your novel rocks, offer representation.

Everything is riding on your query. No matter how amazing your novel is, how beautiful and evocative the writing, it’s going nowhere if you can’t get an agent to look at it. Any hope you have of seeing your book published traditionally (self-publishing is a whole different world) hangs on writing a successful query.

It sounds easy. But for most of us – including me – it’s more like Advanced Calculus. (And if you know me, and remember my acutely stunted math faculties, you’ll understand this means it’s really, really challenging).

There’s a reason they call it Query Hell.

I have literally written at least 25 drafts of my query letter. As I’ve edited and revised my novel, awaited feedback from beta (test) readers, and researched agents, I have simultaneously been pulling my hair out over the query letter. I mean, seriously, condensing a 300-odd-page novel into a couple of short paragraphs is a mind-bender. And it’s a very different kind of writing vs. writing a novel. It’s more like writing an advertisement; convincing your audience to buy your product with a few deftly chosen, supernaturally compelling words.

Help me, Don Draper. You’re my only hope!

There’s no need for sarcasm, Don.

But there is help out there, and for what it’s worth, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about tackling the dreaded query letter. I am no expert. Like any other writer descending into Query Hell embarking on the query journey, I’m just a fellow traveler, learning as I go. These are the approaches and resources that have helped me immeasurably, and I hope they will benefit you, too. So, with all that in mind, read on for:


1. Step back. Step waaaaaay back. Getting distance from my novel was necessary to even begin to think about the query letter. When I finished the first draft, it was like I’d emerged from a blizzard of words, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I had no idea what I’d done. I looked at what I had written and wondered, “What is this? Does it make sense? Is this even a story? Is this even in English?” My brain was toast.

As with editing, I was much more successful at writing my query letter once I’d stepped back from the book. For me, this meant a minimum of three weeks without peeking at it. My advice is to go and write something new, pore over writing resources on the Internet, take a walk, spend some time with the spouse/friends you neglected while you were writing the novel. Do anything, just stay away from that book.

2. Keep it simple. Einstein offers what is perhaps the best advice ever given on writing query letters: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Oh, ho! I despaired when I first saw this quote. Easy for you to say, Al! At that point, my early query letter draft was a page and a half long. It was more meandering and confusing than the dream I had recently of the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie and her Romany Gypsy mother (???) cooking lobsters for Good Husband and me. Like the dream, my query was kind of weird, sort of interesting, and mostly incomprehensible.

I had to shelve that early version and start over. I asked myself, “What, underneath subplots and a gaggle of characters, is my book really about? What is the heart of the story?” This line of thinking forced me to cut everything else away and ask this:

“Who is the main character, what does s/he want, what is keeping them from getting what they want, and what do they need to do to succeed?”

Sounds easy! Right?! [Cue maniacal huffing and chortling. And gurgling. Yes, gurgling.]

It wasn’t easy…at first. But I kept at it. I kept drafting, thinking, paring, and simplifying. You can always add some spice back in. You’ll need to, in fact, if you want those agenty eyeballs to stay riveted. As I continued to write draft after draft of my query, to cut to the heart of my story, I began to find the core thread. You will, too. And when it feels like an insurmountable struggle, see #1. Step back again. Take a break. Then come back.

3. Learn all you can. There’s a wealth of advice out there in the aether about writing query letters. Take advantage of that, but be careful. Make sure the advice you’re getting is coming from people who know what they’re talking about, with regard to query formatting, content, and other protocols and etiquette. That meant, for me, seeking advice from agents, editors, and writers who have themselves recently won agent representation thanks (in part) to their awesome query. I’ve read a ton of blogs and articles penned by these knowledgable folk.

But be prepared. A lot of expert advice is contradictory, too. It’s all part of the fun.

One blog every hopeful querier should visit is QueryShark. Literary agent Janet Reid (the titular Query Shark) takes time from her busy schedule to critique query letters, point out (bluntly, but not unkindly) what works and what doesn’t, and dispense a whole lot of good advice. Read the archives. You can see query letters go from “mess to success” and apply these lessons to your own query. Studying successful query letters is informative, and seeing what not to do can be as educational as seeing what works. And it’s entertaining, too. The Query Shark is funny as all get out, and when you’re deep in Query Hell, you need all the laughter you can get.

SlushPile Hell is another fun blog, offered anonymously by a self-described “grumpy literary agent and a sea of query fails.” I didn’t learn a lot from this site about querying (except that there are some very strange people out there), but the amusement factor is off the charts — both the excerpts from hilariously terrible real query letters, as well as the agent’s acerbic commentary. Each night before I go to bed, I pray to the old gods and the new that I never, ever see my own query letter on SlushPile Hell. Even though the proprietor of SPH protects the identities of the offending authors, I would still have to change my name and go underground.

4. Get help. No, not psychiatric help, but that might be needed, too, when it’s all said and done. The help I mean is feedback from an actual person(s) on your query letter.

The best, most valuable source of help out there, in my experience, is Query Drill.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could “test” your query on professionals (i.e. the people who decide the fate of queries in real life) and get feedback before you start sending it to agents for real? Wouldn’t you dance a jig of delight and gratitude if this were possible?

Query Drill offers just this opportunity.

Once I felt my query was in somewhat decent shape (after lots of research and countless drafts), I sent it to the good people at Query Drill. These guys are amazing! Query Drill is a free service, a team of volunteers comprised of slushpile veterans (agents, literary agency interns, editors, and the like) who invite you to “practice” querying with them. You send in your query letter (just as if you were querying an agent) and they reply. They tell you what they would do in a real querying situation (reject or request pages) and why. And you can revise and re-query as many times as you want — until you get it right.

Thank you, most generous and patient people at Query Drill. I would love to send you all chocolate and flowers and fluffy puppies.

5. Always remember, it’s a subjective business. No matter how good your query is (or your novel, for that matter), it’s not guaranteed to hook an agent. Agents are people, and they all have unique preferences and tastes. This goes for querying, and beyond that, the rule of subjectivity extends to an agent loving your book enough to offer representation. Market trends, which you cannot and should not try to chase, play a big part, too. Remembering this will (I hope) help me cope with the twists and turns, and emotional highs and lows, that surely lie ahead.

I hope it helps you, too. Query on, my friends, and good luck!

Have you begun the querying process? Or are you an indie author who is bucking the system and self-publishing? What are your experiences? And if you’re not a writer, what do you think of all this mishegas? Do tell!

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Comedy Defends Us Against the Dark

Punch & Judy photo courtesy of Eva Lambert

Punch & Judy photo courtesy of Eva Lambert

As the saying goes, we all have good days and bad, and that’s I suppose as it should be. Without the bad, we wouldn’t know how good we’ve got it when things are going well. And often it’s through pain and disappointment that we hone our strength, our resolve and insight, and discover how resilient we can be.

I’d like to joke that this isn’t true, how it’s just some old saw, but it is. It really is.

This week, I was turned down for a job I really, really wanted, and received the rejection email at the perverse hour of 7:00 am. I wondered, is it too early for wine? I know this is small potatoes compared to the heartache many people are facing in the world. Heck, it’s but a gadfly of annoyance next to some of the travails me and mine have seen this past year. But even so, it stung.

On any given day, week or year, my ability to cope with bad days waxes and wanes like the tide. Usually I’m pretty buoyant, and I just keep on trucking. Rejection in all its forms is a reality of life, and perhaps especially the writing life. I know this to be true. I know persistence is the only viable response, and I know, too, that Stephen King was rejected dozens of times before Carrie was accepted for publication. These mantras usually carry me through, but the other day, none of it made much of an impression.

On rare days like that, when all else fails to cheer, I fall back on what Good Husband calls my Happy Movies. I’ll snuggle up on the couch in my jammies wearing my 1950s librarian glasses, often with that bottle glass of wine, and lose myself in comedy. A friend recently reminded me that humor is often how we cope in the toughest circumstances, and he’s right. And that’s why comedy, and the capacity to laugh while in the jaws of hardship, is one of the most beautiful of all human qualities.

So whether your day is going swimmingly, or if you’re tempted to curl up on your own couch with your head tucked under a pillow, I’d like to share with you a sampling from my pantheon of Happy Movies.

Blazing SaddlesBlazing Saddles
To watch Cleavon Little ride into Rock Ridge astride his Gucci saddle, while Count Basie and His Orchestra play him on in full regalia amid the sagebrush, is to observe a thing of beauty. Mel Brooks takes aim at racism and general stupidity with what may look like a pearl-handled Colt revolver, but don’t be fooled; in this movie, Mel’s brought a Howitzer.

You might wonder how a thinly veiled indictment of Vietnam about surgeons and nurses in wartime Korea can be funny, but Robert Altman makes it happen. I always dissolve into snorts of mirth when Henry says, “Goddammit, Hot Lips, resign your goddamn commission!” And watching these characters find reasons to laugh amid the absurdity and violence of war always puts my own woes in their proper perspective.

The Blues BrothersThe Blues Brothers
When I’m feeling like my life resembles crazy-stalker-jilted-fiancee Carrie Fisher’s “Curl Up & Dye” beauty salon, The Blues Brothers can be counted on to come to the rescue. I start to get ants in my pants when Jake orders two whole fried chickens and a Coke, and Elwood asks for dry white toast, because I know what’s coming. And when Aretha Franklin belts out “Think” with the diner patrons in her pink apron with gravy stains, even if I’ve got a fever of 102, I’m up and dancing.

The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
Sometimes I forget, to my peril, that one should “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but Vizzini in The Princess Bride always sets me straight. Wesley, Buttercup, Fezzik; I love them all. But my favorite, of course, is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. When he battles the Six-Fingered Man to avenge his father’s death, I don’t know whether to cry or cackle at his dogged refrain, “You killed my father…prepare to die!” Inigo is a lesson in tenacity and heart.

So, to the makers of these films, I salute you. You’ve seen me through many a dark day and reminded me that laughter really is the best medicine. Comedy shines a light in the darkness. And wine, too, of course. Definitely wine.

Does a good comedy pick you up when you’re feeling down? What are some of your favorite funny movies? What else cheers you when life deals you jokers? Share your stories with me.

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Me Got the Funk

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

I wrote recently about a wonderful day off I had, likening my Day of Shirk to Ferris Bueller’s famous hooky-playing antics. I took that day of leisure in the wake of an insanely busy time of writing, a time right after finishing my novel when I felt both mentally and physically spent. I was also coping with some intense things going on in my personal life (which are still happening, but are looking a bit brighter). It was a needed respite, a recharge, a well-earned rest from the breakneck pace and emotional pressures I’d been wrangling with.

I’m reflecting now on a different phenomenon — we’ll call it “Le Funk.” (Frenchifying the funk makes it somehow more romantic.) I slipped into Le Funk a few weeks ago, with regard to working on edits and rewrites for the novel. And I don’t mean Le Funk in a Parliament-Funkadelic kind of way. Heavens to Murgatroyd, I would be delighted if my funk were of that variety. I think it would be motivational in the extreme if George Clinton turned up in my living room, pointed at my neglected manuscript, and commanded me to “Turn this mother OUT!” That might be just the kick in the bass I need.

But alas, my Le Funk is of the garden variety; a listless, jelly-brained lethargy that makes me open my novel and go, “Oh, hell, no!” And when opening my novel, or even contemplating opening my novel, I am overcome by the sudden and immediate urge to take a nap. It’s the strangest thing. The manuscript slides from my lap, my head grows heavy, and I lose consciousness. It’s like an extremely specific (and far less serious) form of narcolepsy.

So what’s going on with me? Can somebody tell me, please? I’m used to the usual foibles and eccentricities of writing life. I’m used to fighting through what feels like the most crushing inertia to get started writing, especially if it’s something new and I’m beginning with The Blank Page. I’m used to forcing myself to write even when I feel I’ve got nothing to say, and am lacking the tools and talent to say it anyway. But this aversion to working on my own story, already in draft form, is something new.

I used to think all the neurosis, procrastination, and self-doubt was my own bag. But I’ve spent enough time now with other writers, listening to them, reading their blogs and their tweets, to know that these qualities, almost without exception, are the hallmarks of our odd little species. I don’t know if people who write start out like this, or if writing creates people addled with mild psychosis, but either way, discovering I’m not alone is a weirdly comforting revelation.

An aside: Is wrestling with procrastination and insecurity all some of the time unique to writers? Or do people pursuing other endeavors experience these challenges? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

So back to Le Funk. I think what’s happened, with regard to editing and reworking my novel, is that I have spent too much bloody time with it in a very compressed period. This is the third round of editing and rewriting, and so the third time I’ve read it through (not to mention the countless read-throughs while I was writing the first draft). Imagine reading a book five or more times over a couple of months, and then factor in your own insecurities because it’s yours, for better or worse. Yup. You’d want to put that book away and read something else, or even pull the drapes and binge on an Arrested Development marathon. (This is a purely hypothetical example, of course. Ahem.)

So here’s what I’ve been doing to combat Le Funk, with varying degrees of success:

1. Yard work. Summer is here, and fresh air, physical exercise, and an immediate and visible sense of accomplishment work wonders for the old jelly brain. Also, once I’m hot and thirsty enough, covered in scratches, and the weed whacker has spat enough rocks into my face, editing my novel is starting to look pretty good.

2. Work on something else. I’ve gotten this good advice from lots of people, including many fellow writers, and it’s oft repeated for a reason: it works. Switching gears in the brain, thinking about a new story, or writing a blog post (!) can help give me a fresh perspective when I return to edit The Beast.

3. Read something else. This is my favorite, because I love to read. It also requires the least amount of exertion on my lazy part. I can switch gears and swim around in a new story, with zero effort, aside from holding the book in my hands and letting my eyeballs and imagination do the walking. Reading can also be inspiring. I’m not talking plagiarizing, but seeing how good authors spin a mesmerizing yarn (and also how bad authors fail to do so) teaches me a thing or two about my own writing.

4. Suck it up. Writing, editing, rewriting, proofreading: all of it is work. Sadly, writing is not about me (played by Jennifer Lawrence) sipping a cup of Earl Grey as I sit at my Underwood typewriter, while the Muse (played by Jon Hamm), guides my fingers across the keys. Writing is thinking and struggling to put into words the ideas in my head. It’s putting out words even when there is nothing in my head, and then reworking them and reworking them until I’ve got something that, well, works. It’s not being able to sleep because I’m agonizing over some plot point, or (more fun) because the ideas are coming on strong. Writing can leave me feeling refreshed, inspired and proud of my accomplishment — when I’m done for the day. But it is always, with fleeting and glorious moments of exception, hard work.

So ultimately, I think I am going to take the Suck It Up approach tonight. Sometimes you just have to do it, whether you like it or not, whether there is an Arrested Development marathon on TV or not, and whether George Clinton or Jon Hamm materializes to help you along, or (most likely) not.

Though before I get started, I think it might be time for some inspirational music to put me in the mood. Hmmm…how about “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off That Sucker)!” Of course! George Clinton is here in spirit, and he’s advising me in no uncertain terms to give up that funk. Now, where’s my red pen…

Do you sometimes feel less than giddy about doing your work, even when it’s something you love? Do you experience your own version of Le Funk? How do you break through and git ‘er done? I’d love to hear your advice!

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Lessons from the Great Magpie War

Sing, goddess, the anger of the Magpie King
and his devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon Gaylord Focker,
fleeing to the House of Lauck to take refuge behind the couch…

— with apologies to Homer’s Iliad

The face that launched a thousand magpies.

The face that launched a thousand magpies.

Good Husband and I have lived in our house in Taos for eleven years, a 160-year-old adobe on a half irrigated acre of orchard. Our dogs, Milla and Gaylord Focker, dwell here with us. The lush grass and cool shadows of the fruit trees make for a doggie paradise, with plenty of passing cyclists to bark at on summer days.

For as long as we can remember, a family of magpies has nested each spring in the apple tree at the back of the yard. They rear their young in a giant nest of twigs that looks vaguely terrifying, as if a goblin might live in it. A friend recently pointed out it is reminiscent of something from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man, which frankly is a reference I didn’t need to contemplate.

Creepiness aside, it’s been cool to hear the peeps of the fledglings in their nest, and cool in a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom kind of way to have a reality nature show going on behind our house. We fill the birdbath, we keep them supplied with feed. We have been happy to host them. In short, the Laucks and the Magpies have always enjoyed a peaceful coexistence.

Peaceful, that is, until this year.

One afternoon, I was hunched over my laptop in deep, writerly concentration (okay, maybe I was on Twitter), when gradually I became aware of a ruckus of epic proportions unfolding in the back yard. It sounded like ten thousand magpies had descended upon our little plot, all squawking, cawing, screeching and the frenzied flapping of wings. Alarmed, I rose from my “work” and headed to the door, where I stood frozen by a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

At first I didn’t know quite what I was looking at. It appeared that Gaylord was running straight at me, full tilt boogie, pursued by ten thousand magpies. After a moment, I realized it was not ten thousand, but two magpies giving chase. Their shrieking and diving and wheeling just made it look and sound like there were a whole lot more birds. Also, they were pissed off enough for a multitude.

It seems Gaylord had decided (out of some perverse boredom?) that this was the year when it would be a good idea to harass the magpie contingent. He had chased a baby magpie on the ground, and the Magpie King and Queen had gone on the attack. The baby was now lying in the grass – I was sure it was dead – and Gaylord, in a startling reversal, had recovered his senses and realized he had picked on the wrong birds.

“Gaylord killed a baby magpie!” I screamed, bringing Good Husband at a run. He did his best to soothe me, and went outside to check as Good Husbands do. The baby bird was gone, and I can only hope it had been stunned and was able to return to the nest. It’s a good thing, because I was by that point teetering on the edge of Sobbing Hysteria.

We thought the battle was over, but soon learned the war had only just begun. The next morning, I went to the French doors to let Gaylord and Milla outside for their A.M. constitutional. Before opening the door, I surveyed the yard. Empty, with not a magpie in sight. But the moment Gaylord placed his paw across the threshold, the Magpie King alit on the ground three feet away and began screeching.

Photo courtesy of Tony Hisgett

Photo courtesy of Tony Hisgett

Hostilities continued daily for the rest of the week. Gaylord would sprint out the door, the Magpie King would materialize out of thin air, Gaylord would do his business in a hurry, all the while being heckled, and then gallop back into the house. I watched these antics from the doorway. I can’t say there wasn’t a comic element, for me anyway. But I began to worry that one of these skirmishes would end up with Gaylord losing an eye.

At the end of the week, I was sitting on the couch working on an article for this blog. I thought tensions had cooled, as Gaylord was napping just outside the open French doors unmolested. Out of nowhere, the Magpie King appeared, the exemplar of righteous fury. Gaylord, startled awake, bolted into the house and bravely slid behind the couch. And then it happened. The Magpie King, not quite finished with my dog, strutted casually INSIDE THE HOUSE.

I leapt to my feet on the sofa cushions and screamed as if Count Dracula himself had come for me. The Magpie King regarded me coolly, his gimlet eyes mocking. Everything in his expression said, “That’s right, you pathetic, flightless biped. Scream. Scream! Bwahahahaha!”

And I obliged him. I screamed and screamed. Then, with infinite sangfroid, the Magpie King turned and flew away.

Later, Gaylord emerged from behind the couch and lay down at my feet with his chin on my foot, as he does when he’s afraid of thunder. My heart still racing, I eyed him with a sliver of antipathy. Gaylord was beginning to look a lot like Serbia, and I was feeling a little like Great Britain, and this was all becoming chillingly reminiscent of the opening act of World War I. This morass I was slipping into – culminating with the invasion of my living room by the Magpie King – was all Gaylord’s doing. I wanted no strife with the magpies, but our dog-human treaty bound me to Gaylord’s cause.

I should mention I just finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s, The Guns of August. It’s really good. But I digress.

Strangely, this episode was followed by an uneasy truce, which continues to this day. After the Magpie King’s show of force, the magpies offered peace, and we have unconditionally surrendered. Gaylord no longer ventures anywhere near the Magpie Castle, and a demilitarized zone has been established from the apple tree to the bird bath.

Gaylord tends to do most of his napping inside now, with the French doors firmly closed. But the Magpie King still visits, strutting back and forth beyond the glass, inches from Gaylord, who can only watch submissively. There is a new message in the Magpie King’s eyes. His eyes say, “Who’s your daddy?” It’s not a question.

What I’ve taken away from all this (besides learning not to mess with magpies) is a lesson in self-confidence. The magpies have it in spades, and it’s something to aspire to. For the sake of what they hold dear, they are a force to be reckoned with. The nerve of those birds. They are magnificent.

So the next time you’re feeling low – Shaken by rejection? Creatively blocked? Smarting from harsh criticism of your “baby”? Doubting your talent? – here is a visualization for you. Just picture in your mind an 85-pound ferocious dog fleeing in terror from a 6-ounce bird. Or imagine me screaming from the couch if you prefer. Feel better?

Channel that Magpie King confidence. Embody that magpie insouciance. You are the Magpie King.

And truly, you can do anything.

Do you ever struggle with doubt in your creative work? In your life in general? How do you restore your self-confidence? Tell me your thoughts!

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The Book is the Boss

Photo courtesy of Solipsist, WikiMedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Solipsist, WikiMedia Commons

In the winter of 1989, thanks to the generosity of my grandparents, I went to France to study as an exchange student. It was especially thrilling because two of my dearest high school friends were also part of the exchange program. And so it was that we kids from Maine were turned loose upon the unsuspecting French.

Dressed in black (it was the 80s, after all) we ran wild around Paris with our Frenchie counterparts, smoking Dunhill cigarettes and ordering les rhums cocas (We could ask for rum and cokes! In French! How chic were we?). We were delighted to discover that though we were only sixteen, the worldly Parisians had absolutely no qualms about serving us hooch. It’s a wonderful country.

The trip was not entirely a bacchanalia. We attended classes at the Lycée Corneille (the local high school) outside Paris with our French hosts. We visited historical sites, grand chateaux, cathedrals, and museums aplenty. We even saw the movie Dead Ringers (Faux Semblants) in French, which was a disturbing experience that haunts me to this day. It was a movie about twin diabolical surgeons, and truly scary, especially since I didn’t know what the heck was going on through 90% of the movie.

One day, I found myself in the Centre George Pompidou, the modern art museum, with my friend. We’ll call him Robert Smith, as back then my friend bore more than a passing resemblance to the lead singer of those masters of moody 80s spookiness, The Cure.

Following an afternoon of viewing many amazing examples of painting and sculpture, we stood at last in front of a blue monochrome canvas. Literally, it was a big blue rectangle, like an oversized paint chip. Robert Smith and I gazed at it in silence.

“Well that’s dumb,” I said finally. I was a paragon of artistic sensitivity and sophistication.

“Yeah,” said Robert Smith. “Wait, what?”

“It’s dumb,” I said again. “It’s, like, it’s just blue.” Eloquence, thy name is Leigh!

Robert Smith stared at me in horror. “Dumb?” he asked, incredulous. “Is that all you have to say? ‘It’s dumb?’ That’s dumb.”

And of course, Robert Smith was right. What did I know about art, beyond discerning what I, personally, did or didn’t like? Clearly, I was missing something here, some mystery and message within the blue painting that was winging right over my blockhead. Connoisseurs and curators who knew much more about art than me had deemed this painting a masterpiece worthy of exhibition in France’s premier modern art museum. Right then, I knew I was out of my depth.

I’ve thought about this episode on and off over the years, and each time I arrive at this axiom: Human experience is subjective. Whether it’s art, music, movies or literature, one person’s masterpiece is another person’s dud. No one experiences anything in the same way; even our experience of everyday events is different from someone else’s. “Hey, it’s raining! I love the rain!” vs. “Ugh, what a dreary day.”

Does that mean the blue monochrome (aka The Giant Blue Paint Chip) was bad? Was it not art? Was it devoid of meaning and import? Mais non.

Does it mean that personally, TGBPC did nothing for me? Ah, oui.

My novel is out with beta readers right now. I love my beta readers, those “test” readers who slog through the early incarnation of the story. Their generosity in taking the time to read my book and offer feedback is an enormous gift to me. And they are uniquely positioned: they can see the book in ways I, the author, cannot.

I wonder what their feedback will be like. Beyond that, I wonder, should this book have the good fortune to be published, what reader feedback will be like. I think of the many book reviews I’ve read, where often a story is lauded by some and loathed by others. A reader’s perspective on any story, like everything else, is a subjective experience.

I’ll give you another example from my own life, but please, please don’t hate me.

I didn’t like Harry Potter.

Ouch! Who threw that rock? Was that you?

Where was I? Oh, yes. I received the Harry Potter series as a gift, and I was beyond excited about it. 1) I anticipated a long stretch of reading which is something I get gooey over, 2) the genre was ostensibly close to my heart, and 3) millions of other readers love these books, so surely I would, too. N’est-ce pas?

I made it about halfway through The Sorcerer’s Stone and then put it away wondering what was wrong with me. The writing? Superb and brilliant. The story? Clever and expertly crafted. The characters? Unique and richly drawn. There is nothing in the book I can point to and say “This is what I didn’t like about it.” From a distance, I smiled and congratulated J.K. Rowling on her storytelling prowess. But that was the problem. It felt distant. I didn’t connect. In short, I just didn’t love it.

If I had been the literary agent (ha ha) in receipt of J.K. Rowling’s query, and if loving the book was the basis on which I made my decision, I probably would have passed. And then I would have had to go into exile to escape the shame and snide comments from the masses about what a clueless agent I am. (This is why no way, no how, should I be a literary agent).

All of this is to say, don’t give up on your story (or painting, or musical composition, or anything you care about) because some people (cretins like me) don’t like it. Nothing of any value will ever please everyone. It’s a lesson I am still learning.

I encourage you (and me!) to listen carefully to helpful feedback, even helpful criticism, always with gratitude and openness. Someone cares enough about you and the story to tell you what they think, and that’s a gift. Let it sit. Let it marinate. If something within you thinks they may be onto something, start thinking about how you can make your book better.

But remember, too, the subjectivity of the reader’s experience. Ultimately, you’ve got to listen to yourself and what you know about your story. As science fiction author Alfred Bester said, “The book is the boss.” Listen to what the book is telling you. Take your time. Ultimately, in the context of the feedback you receive, the story will tell you what it needs (and what it doesn’t). You’ll know when to make changes based on reader critique, and when to stick to your guns.

J.K. Rowling is a genius, talented, mega-bestselling author who has written a series of books that ensorcelled the hearts and minds of a gajillion people. Should she care that they didn’t turn me on? Uh, no.

If the famous French painter who created the blue monochrome had listened to people like me, he would not have pursued his dream of making art, and his painting would not now be hanging in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. That would be tragic for the many, many people who look at that piece and are moved, inspired or provoked in some important way.

And that, sans doute, would be dumb.

How do you put critique in perspective? Do you agree quality is in the eye of the beholder? Do you confess to being unmoved by “masterpieces” others adore? Come on…spill it!

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Leigh Lauck’s Day Off




She coughs piteously, her body limp.

I – I don’t feel so good. I’m all tingly and achey-wachey. 

Hacking anew, she falls helplessly back onto the pillow.


Why don’t you stay home today, honey? 


I’ll be okay. 

Her fevered eyes are pained but stoic.

I have to write a blog post today. I have to do it.


No, sweetie. You stay in bed. Just call me if you need anything. I love you.


She stiffens as she draws a shaking palm to her forehead.

It’s nice to know I have such a loving, caring husband. You’re a very special person.

GOOD HUSBAND closes the door. The lock clicks. LEIGH’S eyes slide from the door to CAMERA. Her lips curl in a wicked smile.


He bought it.

Cue 80s montage music.

Photo courtesy of Eugene0126jp, WikiMedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Eugene0126jp, WikiMedia Commons

Okay, so that’s not exactly how it happened. You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m having fantasies of being Ferris Bueller (again). It’s certainly how I felt today. And if you’ve never seen the funny and brilliant John Hughes movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which features a criminally adorable Matthew Broderick, stop reading this blog immediately and get thee to Amazon post haste. No, seriously. I mean it. 

Actually, I have a wonderful husband who doesn’t require me to feign illness. I am lucky that he is so supportive of my writing ambitions, ’cause being married to a writer can be both weird and challenging. I spend a lot of time staring at my laptop or out into space. Or spooking him with non sequiturs, when I decide to randomly share pieces of my constant, internal monologue out loud. 

Good Husband: Standing on chair, leaning precariously into thin air to change lightbulb. 


Hijinx ensue ending in minor first aid.

So today has been a day of goofing off, feeling guilty about it, and goofing off some more. I finished my first novel about six weeks ago, which left me feeling like I’d just emerged from the surf after being shipwrecked. It was a frenzied and fevered process that consisted mostly of me living in pajamas in my cave. There is a permanent imprint on the couch from my butt.

I’ve finished the first rewrite and my little bundle of joy (well, bundle of something) is now at Beta Reader Day Care. And there’s plenty to do while I’m waiting for their feedback: dig into my current work in progress, write a synopsis of my novel, and develop my Auffer Plafform (for the uninitiated, that’s “author platform.” I was stuffing a fudge brownie into my maw when my friend and creativity coach, Milli Thornton, proposed the idea. “Auffer Plafform?” was my horrified response, crumbs flying).

Armed with the best intentions, my day instead ended up looking like this:

Wake up.

9:00-11:00. Surf Twitter reading every single article for writers at #amwriting, including articles I’ve read and re-read countless times before. #AmNotWriting #NotEvenClose #NiceTry

11:00-12:15. Stalk agent blogs online and commit to memory their preferences and peeves. Try to intuit their deepest desires and dreams.

12:15-1:00. Nap.

1:00-1:05. Scarf down a turkey sandwich.

1:05-3:30. Stalk more agent blogs. Ask Magic 8 Ball if my query letter is ready. Admonish self for being ridiculous. Ask Magic 8 Ball if I’m being ridiculous.

3:30-5:00. Check email every three minutes. “Like” my friends’ photos of cute pugs in costumes on Facebook. Take “Which Gemstone Are You?” quiz. Speculate on what it means to be a topaz.

5:00-5:15. Make bed. Congratulate self for being a good domestic partner. Know inwardly that I am a lazy sloth.

5:15-6:02. Nap.

And so on…

I don’t have these kinds of days too often. In the last year, I left a job I’d had for a long, long time (too long) that required me to be on-call and productive almost all the time. Now I feel guilty when I’m not “doing.” Whether that “doing” means writing, the laundry, returning phone calls to family, or working on my Auffer Plafform, it amounts to the same thing. I beat myself up for every moment spent not “doing.”

So, I’ve had a revelation about that.

Ferris Bueller skipped school. He took a day off. If he did that every day, he’d be in real trouble. He wouldn’t accomplish the things he needed to realize his dreams. He’d still be in the twelfth grade in 2022 at the awkward age of fifty-something (awkward for a senior in high school, anyway.)

But on his day off he had rich experiences and adventures with his friends. He sang “Danke Schoen” in a parade, foiled a snooty maître d’, and viewed paintings by Seurat and Edvard Munch. It was a moment in time, magical and singular. And it was but one day.

Admittedly, I didn’t zoom around Chicago in a Ferrari making Memories to Last a Lifetime. But my day of slothing about has its own value. Fallow time – playtime – is underrated. It is the yin to productivity’s yang, a necessary balance we often overlook. Giving the conscious mind a rest allows the subconscious to sort through its backlog. When the mud I’ve stirred up from too much busy-ness settles, the view in the pond is a lot clearer.

Some of my best ideas arrive easily after a short period of slothfulness. They may have been standing there all along, waving for my attention, but I would have walked right past them in my rush, annoyed they were blocking the sidewalk. After a day of naps and Twitter, I finally felt ready to write this blog post, my first bloggy contribution to my Auffer Plafform. It may not be the pinnacle of insight, but without my lazy day, I would have ended up writing some terrible, strained article entitled “10 Easy Steps to Plotting Your Novel.” Others do this very well. Not me. You’d never want to see that article from me.

I’ve resolved to seek a balance of work and play in my writing life. Heck, in my life in general. I’ll make lists of things to do (I am a list nerd) and set reasonable deadlines for accomplishing my goals. I’ll be accountable; I want to reach said goals, after all. But I also resolve (and I may need to come back to revisit this post to remind me!) to intersperse my work with rest and play. And remember that rest and play are vital to my creative work, and to my well-being.

In the sage words of Ferris, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

What do you think of the value of down time? Does it feed your creative life? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!