Monday, November 28, 2016

Confessions of a Drunk Writer

This will be the strangest and most difficult post I've ever had to do. It's about writing. And it's about drinking. Because lots of writers have had problems with the bottle over the years. I'm not trying to put myself in the category of the greats when it comes to talent ...

But when it comes to drinking, I'm right up there.

However, this post is not about A.A., rehab or quitting forever. It's about how I reversed my problem without all that.  

My first author photo. I was drunk and depressed.
The story begins at the shoot for my first author photo (above). It was taken in the spring of 2003 for the release of my debut novel (DEVIL MAY CARE/Simon & Schuster/Atria).

I was always nervous to get my photo taken - still am - so before I left the apartment that day, I had a few glasses of wine. I also tucked three small bottles of sparkling wine into my gym bag to 'take the edge off' during the shoot. But that wasn't unusual. 

Because I never went anywhere without wine in my purse.

Truman Capote
I usually filled a water bottle with pinot grigio. But because it was a special day, I brought sparkling wine instead. Incidentally, nobody knew back then that I didn't leave the house without wine. Not even my husband.

That day at the shoot, while I was changing outfits in the change room, I would quietly unscrew the cap off one of the bottles and slug away until it was finished. Then I would go out to the makeup chair and sit in front of the mirror while the makeup artist dabbed my face. I'd sit for the photographer for that set-up ...

Then go back to the change room and do it all over again.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
By the time the shoot was over, with the wine I'd already had before I left, I was pretty drunk. Let's just say I forget most of the afternoon. What I don't forget is that I was depressed - as usual. "Why wasn't I happy?" I asked myself, over and over again.

I was getting published! I'd been dreaming about this all my life! 

As happy as I look in that shot, I felt ashamed, guilty, terrified - and depressed. As I always did back then. But there was a reason for that - and it had to do with something that affects a lot of us without our even knowing it. Alcohol addiction. 

Ernest Hemingway
At the time, I was probably drinking two bottles of wine a day by myself. Then I'd drink more at night when my husband came home.

I didn't have a single meeting with my agent when I wasn't drunk.

I didn't talk to my editor on the phone even once when I wasn't drunk. I didn't edit a single page of my first book when I wasn't drunk.

If I drank too much - which I did several times a week - I blacked out. I was so angry and depressed, I often got in fights with my husband. Then, in the morning, I always felt so full of remorse. How did that happen again? 

Dylan Thomas

Yet I still didn't want to join A.A. or go to rehab.

So I was at a terrible impasse. I didn't know what to do. But something happened at the photo shoot that day that changed my life. The coincidence is so bizarre, you couldn't make it up.

At one point, the makeup artist commented on how irritated my skin was. I told her I had a mild case of rosacea - but my skin was really red and full of broken capillaries from drinking so much every day.

Dorothy Parker
She seemed to take the rosacea story in stride. But suddenly, she said, "I'm reading a really good book right now. It's called Drinking: A Love Story. You'd like it I think. It's all about a writer who was an alcoholic and how she dealt with it."

My heart almost stopped beating. Why had she mentioned a book about drinking?

Could she smell the alcohol on my breath? Could she hear me slugging away in the change room? Did she know the real reason my skin was so irritated? I was floored by the coincidence.

After that shoot, my drinking continued to escalate. The blackouts got worse. And so did the shame, guilt and depression. But I still couldn't stop.

Hunter S. Thompson
About two months before DEVIL MAY CARE was set to hit the shelves, I had a particularly bad binge. I knew I had to 'do something' - soon. So I went to the bookstore. I found the self-help section and I read Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp.

For the first time, I didn't feel alone.

Caroline Knapp
Unfortunately, the Boston journalist had managed to control her drinking through A.A. I was as leery as ever about the twelve steps, but I still learned so much in that book. Especially about the natural - and reversible - link between alcohol abuse, dopamine production and depression. Which is really what 'addiction' is.

That book soon turned into another and another and another. 

And endless researching online. I began to devise a plan that might help me get control of my drinking - without permanent abstinence.

Tennessee Williams
Based on what I'd learned, I decided to take my first 'alcohol cleanse' in the summer of 2003, about a  month before my book came out. And you know what? It worked.

Thirteen years later, I still take regular breaks from drinking.

All the symptoms of my addiction are gone: I no longer feel shame or guilt about my drinking, I don't carry wine with me everywhere, I don't have angry blackouts. But most importantly, I'm no longer depressed all the time!

Charles Bukowski

I believe many people are at least mildly depressed from alcohol misuse without even knowing it. I also believe the entire syndrome is simply and naturally reversible. Because that's what happened to me. 

At the time I devised my plan, I didn't consider sharing it with anyone. But it has helped me so much, I just published a book about it. It's called CONTROL YOUR DRINKING: WITHOUT A.A., REHAB OR QUITTING FOREVER. 

Control Your Drinking Without A.A., Rehab or Quitting Forever

Like Knapp's classic, CONTROL YOUR DRINKING is part memoir, part textbook. It contains all the latest addiction research - including concrete evidence that regular 'breaks' from drinking can improve not just addiction, but many other aspects of your health and life as well.

I've learned a lot about being sober part-time over the years. So the book is full of tips and tricks to help make cleansing easier and more enjoyable for people who - like me - have spent most of their free time drinking over the years.  

The book also carefully and clearly explains why you feel depressed all the time, whether you're drinking or not.

And what to do about it.

The Algonquin Round Table
If you're concerned about your drinking - or know somebody who could use help - please check out CONTROL YOUR DRINKING: WITHOUT A.A., REHAB OR QUITTING FOREVER.

Thank you so much for bearing with me while I've been editing it! I've missed you so much!! I'll be back to my writing blog very soon! And I have a new book coming out about my experience publishing two books with big New York houses! Because getting published is nothing like you'd expect! If you're prepared for it, you'll have a much better chance of succeeding as an author!

By the way, I brought three small bottles of sparkling wine to my indie author photo shoot last spring too. Only this time, I didn't hide the bottles in my bag.

I shared them with the photographer and makeup artist!

At my indie author shoot. (Mostly!) sober and much happier!

Thanks again for checking in! Here are links to the books!

CONTROL YOUR DRINKING: Without A.A., Rehab, or Quitting Forever

DEVIL MAY CARE (That author photo was for this novel - Simon & Schuster/Atria 2003)

THE WITCHES OF ASHFORD PLACE (My first indie release in August 2016)

Sheri's photo credits: Upper (c) Helen Tansey; lower (c) Vanessa Heins.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

#19: Book Deal Secret - Great Platform!

As I started blogging this week, I realized there's a real secret to getting a book deal! And nobody ever talks about it. But it's the most important thing I learned on my book deals - and the most important thing you can do to make yourself more appealing to publishers.    

And that is improving your PLATFORM!

But there's a big difference between how that term is used in traditional vs. self-publishing. If you're an indie author, 'platform' almost exclusively refers to your online presence. How many Twitter followers or Facebook friends you have, or how many people read your blog. This is good, don't get me wrong! This kind of platform is important to publishers too.

But when a publisher, agent or editor talks to you about your platform, they're referring to something other than your 'social media platform.' It's a term that predates hashtags and Instagram. And if you want a book deal, it's very important to know the difference. Because having a 'good platform' is probably the best thing you can do for your career.  

In publishing, a platform is a 'hook.'

Not the 'hook' in your story! Although you need one of those too! What I'm talking about is an interesting 'hook' about you as a person that agents, editors and publishers can use to get people interested in reading your book. 

Basically, a "platform" is something that will attract reviewers to write about you.

Because everyone at your publisher wants people to write about you and your book. That kind of publicity is what they need to start 'buzz' about your book. So a platform (or simply platform because it's called that in the biz too) is something that reviewers can build an article around. If there's nothing interesting to say about you as a writer, reviewers are less likely to write about your book itself.

There are lots of different kinds of platform. 

So this is going to have to be a multi-post deal. But let's start with your job. That can be a great 'platform.' Let's say you've been practicing criminal law all your life and now you've written a legal thriller. There's a "fit" there - and probably lots of experience you'll have - that reviewers would be interested in. Any professional background that relates to your book will be helpful, especially if it's an interesting job.  

Say you're a cop who's written a police procedural about a case you worked on.

Or a psychologist who's penned a psycho-drama about a client who's a serial killer. Or a professor who's written a romance about the forbidden love between a teacher and student. Not only does this personal experience give your novel more heft and authenticity ... 

But you'll have something interesting to talk about during interviews.

That's platform. Even if a journalist simply writes a review or article about your book, your publicist will have included that interesting 'hook' about you in the press package. So a reviewer can build a story around that. But if there's nothing to say about you as a person, chances are reviewers will ignore your book - no matter how great it is. In fact, if you don't have a good platform,

...publishers probably won't be interested in you in the first place!

I know this is hard news to hear. But it's the truth, so we all might as well face it now. An average writer with a great platform is probably going to get a book deal more quickly than a great writer with an average platform. So if you've been having trouble landing an agent, it's probably because you haven't made yourself more appealing to them.

In very rare cases, being a first time writer – or making your "debut" – can be enough.

But usually only if you write literary fiction. In those cases, authors almost always have lots of letters after their names to garner them respect among the literati. An MFA in Creative Writing or a PhD in English - especially from a revered university - can be a 'platform.' And, in most cases, it's mandatory for literary novelists or intellectual non-fiction writers.

So if you want to be a literary writer, time to get to night school!

Non-fiction authors in general have a much easier time getting attention from publishers because these are generally books that relate to a person's expertise. An entrepreneur who writes a book about starting a new business. A cancer survivor who writes about how he pulled through the toughest challenge in his life. 

Or a popular mommy-blogger with a million followers who cashes in on her posts.

All of those things - these personal stories about you - give you great platform. But generally, if you don’t have a platform, your book is going to get ignored by agents and publishers.

Now don't despair!

As an author, you can always improve your platform. And even without a great platform, miracles do happen. I had absolutely no platform, but I still got two book deals: with Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press!

My only claim to fame was that I'd been writing novels since I was ten. Which seemed like a pretty great achievement ... in my family.

But trust me, it's not very impressive in the publishing world.

Where everyone's been writing novels since they were ten ... while fighting poverty in developing nations, getting a PhD in English ... and sailing around the world with their spouse.

It's a sobering experience for a new author to step into the halls of a big New York publisher - with all these wild expectations of being 'A Published Author' - only to realize you're at the bottom of the barrel. But that's what happens! 

Remember, getting a book deal might make your mom proud.

But don't expect that to impress anyone in the publishing world. That's just the entry fee. You have to do something else to stand out - before, during and after you sign your book deal!

So if you want a book deal some day ...

... just wrack your brain for ways to make yourself more marketable. Start developing hobbies and sidelines that relate to your book. Enter writing contests, work with a related charity, take night courses, start support groups for your cause. Blog your heart out. Get an interesting part-time job. Go back to school for your MFA! Sail around the world!
Just do something - anything - to support your book and give it a solid foundation – a 'platform' – to rest on. It'll make you more desirable and marketable as an author in the long run.

Because if you want a book deal, your platform is your biggest asset! 

I have LOTS more to say about platform because there are many different kinds - and ideas that might help you improve yours. But it's a really important aspect of your whole package as an author, so it deserves some more attention and focus.

btw I think I finally have a 'platform.'

"I'm a traditional novelist who's gone indie on her third book!" ;) Hey, you work with what you've got. If you're into witches, style, sex, violence, spirituality, friendship, family or fate ... check it out!

The Witches of Ashford Place

Thanks so much! See you next time, for more talk about PLATFORM!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

#18: Bestseller Beware!

Is it possible to be too successful as an author?

I'm afraid so! And here's why ... I was in my editor's office in New York, discussing some changes to my book. (btw if you have a chance to meet your editor, you should do it! It will help you make a more personal connection with him or her! Plus you'll feel pretty cool!)

At one point, her assistant leaned in the door.

"Sorry to interrupt, but Joe Bestseller's on the line," she said. Obviously, the person's name wasn't Joe Bestseller, but I recognized him. His second novel had been that rare gem:

A critical and commercial success.

An international bestseller, the book was already being considered a modern classic. Some day it would be made into an award-winning film too. In other words, this author had made it. "Sorry," my editor said, reaching for her phone. "I have to take this." She picked up the phone, smiling broadly.

"Hello, Joe! How are you?"

By the way, this is something you're going to have to get used to as a new author: getting brushed aside for your agent's or editor's favorite clients (i.e. bestsellers). No matter how important the topic you're discussing, if that star calls, your agent or editor will always interrupt you and say:

"Sorry! I have to take this!" They'll also usually tell you who it is.

I guess they're doing it to sound impressive, reminding you what powerful editors or agents they are. But no matter what, it will make you feel like a jealous schmuck.

"So, have you finished?" she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

But then her expression changed and her brow was scored with worry lines. This was clearly not good news. "Why not? ... Well, Joe, it's three months late. If you don't get the final draft in soon, we're not going to be able to publish it ... Don't worry, I'm sure it's brilliant ... Don't say that! You're a genius! Everybody thinks so!"

I'm embellishing a bit here. But you get my point.

I was definitely witnessing a panicked bestseller being coddled by his New York editor. I was on the edge of my seat. "Yes ... really, Joe, you have to get it in by tomorrow ... Tomorrow, for sure, okay? ... No, I said --" Sigh. "All right, then, day after that." She hung up the phone and looked at me, wincing. "That was Joe Bestseller," she said.

I nodded casually, as if I wasn't salivating for more details.

I had to interpret the story based on what little she was willing to share, but here's the gist of it: nobody had expected the novel to do so well. Especially Joe himself. The intimation was clear: the book had been so unexpectedly successful that Joe had ... kind of freaked out.

I know. Poor dude, right? 

But it's a sobering thought. He had everything most writers dream of: money, success, literary fame, a NYT bestseller, a great publisher and a devoted editor eagerly awaiting his Next Work (which is what your follow-up book is called in your contract). But he still couldn't finish his book. The terrifying truth was hanging in the air of that office like a dying spider plant. It was the same truth that hung in every Manhattan editor's office since Simon met Schuster:

For writers, success can be just as debilitating as failure!

I'm not exactly sure what happened to that manuscript, but about a year later, his bestselling novel was re-issued. I wonder if that's what they decided to do to fill the hole left in the schedule when he didn't deliver his Next Work. Whatever the case, he hasn't published another novel. (At least not yet!) 

However, several years later, he did go on to direct the film adaptation of his book!

I checked IMDb and I cannot count how many awards the film won or was nominated for: most particularly, for adapted screenplay, an award Joe was able to collect himself. He's actually gone on to have a flourishing career as a movie director and writer.

So it's not all bad news for Joe. ;) 

But it's definitely something to keep in the back of your mind when you think hitting the bestseller lists will make all your troubles go away. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes.

"There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it."  - George Bernard Shaw

Sorry for being scarce the last few weeks!! I've missed you! But I'm in the middle of 'soft-launching' The Witches of Ashford Place (formerly Hunter's Moon). I'll explain the title change in another post!! But I'm so excited to hear what you think! Let me know when you get the chance! Thank you SO much!

Just click to pic to "Look Inside" on Amazon!

The Witches of Ashford Place

Sunday, June 5, 2016

#17: Deadlines Schmedlines! Part I

If you've got your sights set on a book deal, you've come to the right place. I've been through the process twice - with Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press - and I made so many mistakes, I started this blog to help other writers be prepared for their first book deal. Because it's a lot more grueling than you'd think.

Next on the agenda: the truth about publishing deadlines.

"Deadline" is a pretty intimidating term, isn't it? Check out the second definition of 'deadline' below:

  1. 1
    the latest time or date by which something should be completed.
    "the deadline for submissions is February 5th"
    synonyms:time limitlimit, finishing date, target date, cutoff point
    "the deadline for manuscript submissions is February 14"
  2. 2
    a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot.

You've probably heard a lot about deadlines in the publishing world, too.
Because they seem to be taken very seriously. They're outlined specifically in your contract. When your first manuscript is due. When the final draft ("approved manuscript") is due. When the publishing date will be, etc.

But here's something I learned about deadlines at big publishing houses that may surprise you: DON'T WORRY ABOUT THEM!

When I say 'deadlines schmedlines,' I'm not kidding. You won't look like a real writer if you do. Because real writers are usually too drunk, bored, lazy, insane, cool, stoned, depressed or drunk (oh, I mentioned that) to take deadlines very seriously.

And if you do meet every deadline you're given, you're going to look like a wannabe, wet-behind-the-ears, goody-two-shoes hack.
And nobody in the publishing world wants that from you.

They want to work with REAL writers. I made every single one of my deadlines on both of my book deals. My editors waxed poetic about how "easy I was to work with" that way. I was just so eager to please that I nearly killed myself (literally because suicide was definitely on my mind!) meeting my deadlines.

I even loved telling everyone that. The way you're going to love telling people that:

"Sorry, I can't go to your barbecue (or birthday or bar mitzvah). I'm on deadline!"

I don't know why it took me so long to learn that editors would rather you act like a real writer and be a little late on your deadlines than actually make them. I could almost see the love evaporating in my editors' eyes when I turned my manuscripts in on time.

"Oh. Thanks. That's ... er ... great?" Yawn. Cue the crickets.

As a result, I don't think I gained everyone's respect at either of my publishing houses. Because, as I now know, real writers don't give a shit about deadlines.

Books - like babies - come out when they're ready to come out.

Btw this labor/birthing analogy is appropriate because when you submit a draft, it's called 'delivering the manuscript' and the day is the 'delivery date.'

Anyway, to give you an idea why you shouldn't take deadlines too seriously, the first draft of my second novel was due in early October.

I had already booked a celebratory trip to Vegas, so I actually delivered the manuscript a couple days ahead of time.

I was sitting around the pool at the Bellagio, imagining all those people out there holding my book that same time next year (ha!), so proud of myself for making my deadline.

But after the trip, I went home, eagerly awaiting any news on the book.

I didn't hear a word until my editor emailed me - two months later! - casually asking where the manuscript was.

When I told her I'd already turned it in - and was able to quickly forward the original email with the manuscript attached - I don't think she was impressed. (Btw, that's another hint: if you want to get taken seriously as a writer, don't be too organized. Don't find and forward old emails in the blink of an eye.)

Because that's not acting like a real writer.

And all anyone wants to do in the biz is discover and work with 'real' writers.

Having said that, don't be too late submitting your manuscript! Say you're delivering in June. If you submit the manuscript three months later in September, that doesn't mean your publishing date will only be moved by three months.

Publishers have carefully arranged schedules far in advance.

Not only that, but there are many people involved in the process of publishing your book: copy editors, production editors, jacket designers, typesetters, PR and marketing peeps, printers, shippers. Even the bookstores themselves are expecting your book at a certain time. If you're too late, you could actually lose your place in the schedule and the publication will have to be pushed to a whole new season, even the following year, when they have another opening. 

So if you want to be a successful author, be cool, but not toooo cool. ;)

A week late? Maybe two or three? Try that at first. When they go from polite reminders to actual yelling, get that manuscript out the door.

On the topic of deadlines, I missed mine for HUNTER'S MOON.

But that's a good thing about being an indie author: you don't have to take your deadlines too seriously either.

Thanks so much for checking in! Subscribe to the blog and help make the most of your first book deal!