Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No fame or fortune but Nanc and I are stoked to try again!

A few weeks after Mother’s Day, Nanc and I retrieved all the copies of PLEASE STAND BY – YOUR MOTHER’S MISSING that hadn’t sold in bookstores, as well as the money from those that had sold, and made our way home to sulk. Obviously, we hadn’t set the literary world on fire. When all was said and done, though, we really had had the time of our lives!

I continued writing my newspaper columns and fiddled around with ideas for a new mystery to write (turns out there were a couple more rooms in the house that needed new papering with rejection slips), but working on my own just didn’t do it for me. Not after the ride Nanc and I had just been on. Not much money, oh but honey, we sure had fun!

Turns out my neighbor felt the same way. After talking it over, we decided that we’d learned so much our first time out of the gate, that we really owed it to ourselves, not to mention the reading world out there eagerly awaiting our next production, to give it another try. But we were determined not to make the same mistakes twice. This time, we were going to very carefully plan our strategy.

Happily, we went back to snatching brief periods of time whenever and wherever we could find them, and played around with new book ideas. While driving our kids to doctor appointments, soccer and baseball practice, ballet lessons and dozens of other excursions, we finally came up with a fun storyline for a new novel that we tentatively titled: WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK.

The novel was about an elderly woman who is mistakenly declared dead by computer error at a large funeral home. Only the ruler of this powerful undertaking empire can reverse the mistake and he refuses, realizing that altering the program would expose his real business, which is shipping caskets of cash to secret overseas accounts. When the government cuts off her Social Security payments and Medicare coverage, she is determined to reclaim her life. Gathering together a motley crew of misfits, the 76-year-old firebrand comes up with a strategy to take on the seemingly invincible undertaker. After two unsuccessful attempts to undo him, the “little old lady” and her straggly gang finally hit on one last plan to put him out of business --- for good!


Saturday, August 28, 2010

We learn the book business the hard way!

Although I've never self-published a book, I think I have a pretty good idea what it must be like. When the publisher sent us our first copies of PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING we were so disappointed! It was nothing like we had imagined it would be. The story, although dealing with some serious issues, was written in a fun, self-effacing, lighthearted manner. Nancy and I thought the book jacket should reflect this style. Instead, the publisher went with a black and white cover depicting Nanc and I as negative images, to represent the fact that in the story we both go missing. We understood what he was aiming at, but the final result was just way too depressing. At this stage of the game the publisher wasn't about to go to the expense of redesigning the book jacket just to pacify two disgruntled authors. So, if we wanted to see the cover changed badly enough, clearly we would have to do it ourselves!

Naturally we hadn't the first idea where to begin. But as they say, "Fools rush in..." We spent several days playing around with different ideas, finally settling on a picture of a clothesline, with the clothespins spelling out each letter of the book title: P--L--E--A--S--E.....S--T--A--N--D.....B--Y...--...Y--O--U--R.....M--O--T--H--E--R'--S.....M--I--S--S--I--N... The letter "G" from the last word "missing" has fallen to the ground next to a spilled clothes basket, as if whoever was hanging out the wash had suddenly disappeared. This was all done in bright colors, just the way we'd imagined it. I still think it was a pretty good idea. I just wish we'd had the money and the know-how to make it look more professional!

Since it was obvious the publisher wasn't going to do much by way of distribution, we asked him to send us about 500 books and set out to place it in bookstores ourselves. Hauling around a car full of kids, we hit every store we could in San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bay Area. The biggest thing in our favor, I'm convinced, is that it was about a month before Mother's Day. Because of this, we were able to get the book into far more stores than we might otherwise have expected. What a thrill to see copies of our "baby" gracing bookshelves and, in several cases, prominently displayed in store windows and even by the cash register. Nancy and I were ecstatic. We were finally real, honest to God authors!

(Next: No fame or fortune but Nanc and I are stoked to try again!)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No need to hold the applause, we finish our book!

PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING was finally finished. Since by now I'd had considerable experience submitting manuscripts to publishing houses, I volunteered to start the process. One by one I sent out the book pages, and one by one I received the rejection letters. Really, after three go-arounds at this, it was getting downright discouraging!

Finally, after six months and forty-some-odd rejections, it finally happened! We received a letter from Libra Publishers in Roslyn Heights, New York, that PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING had been accepted. Hurray! Please, everyone, don't hold your applause. Nancy and I certainly didn't. We were walking on clouds.

Unfortunately, our contract with Libra didn't exactly make us millionaires. In fact, it barely classified us as thousand-aires. But at least we were going to be published. From now on the sky was the limit!

Which, of course, goes to prove the old saying that "ignorance is bliss." Not that the publisher didn't fulfill his promise to print our book, but other than that we were left pretty much on our own. By that I mean we were forced to do most of the distribution, publicity and bookkeeping. Not exactly what we'd had in mind.

(Next: We learn the book business the hard way!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Our families react to our new obsession with writing a novel!

Nanc and I were on a roll! Aside from our smaller boys painting her couch in bright yellow enamel paint -- and taking advantage of our preoccupation to climb on top of the kitchen counter in search of cookies and leftover Halloween candy -- things were going swimmingly. At least we thought so. Evidently our husbands, and my six older children, were not quite as thrilled with our exciting new project.

At first, both families tended to regard our writing efforts as the new "hobby" their wives/mothers had taken up. But as PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING took up more and more of our time, the natives began to grow restless . Although my older kids were fairly good at helping out around the house, the rule was that school and homework came first. Consequently, loud complaints began to be heard in the morning regarding a shortage of clean underwear and socks for school. Later than usual dinners were also a bone of contention, as was our "hogging" the phone in the evening when their friends were supposed to call. (I know it's hard to believe, but remember this took place before the emergence of the cell phone and email). Clearly it was time Nancy and I remedied the situation before the troops staged an all out rebellion!

For those of you who read PENNY PINCHERS back in the day, this will explain the new spate of "How to fill your freezer with homemade dinners" that began to appear in my columns along about then. I had developed a new respect, and deep sympathy, for mothers who spent their days working outside the home, and was determined to make life easier for all of us. Instead of preparing a single dinner at a time, why not double the recipe, freeze the leftovers, and reheat them a day or two later, I thought. It was truly amazing how many meals could be prepared ahead of time, including desert, then alternated with other pre-cooked meals to create variety.

The dirty clothes issue was solved by moving our "office" into one of our laundry areas when necessary (her back porch, my basement), the busy phone by resolving to make no more calls after dinner. We began jotting down new ideas in notebooks, and repressing our enthusiasm to share our latest brainstorm until we could do so in person.

(On Wednesday: No need to hold the applause, we finish our book!)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Nancy and I have the time of our lives!

Cigar box notes!

After we'd established the premise of our book that mothers are going missing all over the country, we brought in the heavy artillery: the ten children we shared between us! In chapter two of PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING, the phone service goes on the blink, forcing Nancy and I to attach a cigar box on top of the fence between our backyards in order to communicate. Soon our kids are adding their own touches to the box in the form of "loving lavender" paint from my son Steve, and doll house carpeting compliments of my daughter Lisa.

When my old-fashioned Aunt Gertie descends on us for her annual Mother's Day visit, complaining non-stop about any and all my activities that don't actually take place in the house, it opens up a can of worms. Nancy and I compare our respective backgrounds and upbringings, and realize that we've each been raised with diametrically opposed philosophies. While good old Aunt Gertie insists I'm spending too much time outside the home -- even when it's to drive the kids all over the countryside -- Nancy's friends and colleagues badger her to leave her three preschoolers with a sitter and return to her college teaching career. My neighbor and I both begin to think that we women can't truly satisfy anyone anymore!

And PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING takes off from there. It wasn't long before Nanc and I were having the time of our lives! The chapters were flying off our typewriters (Yes, we actually worked on those old black machines that required erasers to correct errors and carbon paper to make copies. OMG!!!) But this drawback did nothing to dampen our fun. We drove my kids to swim meets, baseball and soccer games, then set up our typewriters and worked in my VW minivan in the parking lot. We met for picnics, at doctors' offices, in her house, my house, our respective garages and even, I swear this is true, from atop my washing machine and dryer when our 3-year-old sons threatened to take over the house while we worked. One day at Nancy's house, while she and I had our heads together working through a thorny section of the book, Chris and Tommy decided to try their hand at home decorating by painting her family room couch a vivid, oil-based canary yellow. Ouch!

(On Monday: Our families react to our new obsession with writing a novel!)

Nancy and I set out to re-write HIS-story from a woman's point of view!

Once we'd made the decision to write a book together -- which we'd already titled PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING -- Nancy and I tried to figure out the best way to pull this off.

After writing weekly newspaper columns for over three years, as well as draft versions of two mystery novels, I realized I hadn't the foggiest idea how to meld my literary style with someone else. Neither, evidently, did Nancy, although I think she was a lot better at it in the beginning than me. After a number of trials and just as many errors, we finally settled on a style that suited us, as well as the book. Drawing upon episodes in our own busy lives, and incorporating the ten children we shared between us, we set to work.

Chapter One set the premise for our story: A corporate executive is on his way to a church where he is to meet a talented communications physicist. When he arrives there, however, all he sees is a young mother and her two small daughters sitting on the steps. The executive settles down to wait, scrutinizing everyone who passes by, but sees no one who looks as if he could be the noted scientist he is scheduled to meet. Without this important physicist, the man knows the project his company is planning is sure to fail. But he has a another pressing appointment he must keep. Finally, he pens a brief note requesting the scientist contact him on his home phone (Gasp! Horrors! Please keep in mind that this was book was written before the widespread use of the Internet or cell phones. Yes, hard as it is to believe, there really was such a time!)

The man approaches the young mother, hands her the note, and asks her to give it to the physicist if he should appear. The woman examines the note, then after he leaves, tears it up.

Of course the scientist never contacted the man, although the two did talk in front of the church that morning. Unfortunately, the executive missed the chance to save his troubled project because he failed to see the physicist. All he saw was a nondescript young mother and her children, and for our corporate world shaker that was not enough.

An observer, had there been anyone interested in the little domestic group on the stairs, would have been startled to see that there were now only two young girls standing by the church entrance. Their mother no longer stood with them. She had disappeared, the first of such happenings to be reported.

(On Saturday: Nancy and I have the time of our lives!)

Monday, August 16, 2010


Over the months, Nancy and I frequently discussed women's place in the world, and where we each fit into the scheme of things. Although I now considered myself a feminist, I stood firm on my decision to remain a stay-at-home mom. I talked about this to my husband and, bless his heart, he said he'd stand by whatever decision I made, whether it was to continue to be a homemaker, or head out into the business world. Looking back on it now, I think if he had opposed the idea of my going back to work I probably would have done it just to prove that I had a right to follow my own path. But he was so darn nice and understanding about it, that I didn't feel put upon or isolated by my decision. (Of course it would be pretty hard to feel isolated when you're caring for seven children, busy with PTA, coaching Little League, acting as class mother, teaching guitar, writing a weekly newspaper column, and playing in a church folk group!)

Then something happened to change my life forever -- an event I think back upon as my "Aha Moment". One morning a vice-principal from my oldest kids' high school came to our house to discuss some volunteer work I was doing for the school. I didn't know the man very well, but I thought it was a little strange that from the moment he entered the house he never once looked me directly in the eye. In fact, I received the distinct impression that I was just another housewife he was forced to deal with because the principal had placed the job on his desk. As I served him coffee and homemade coffee cake, he still didn't make eye contact, instead rummaging through the pile of paperwork he'd pulled from his briefcase and describing the part I was to play in the project. This went on for so long that I was beginning to get distinctly hot under the collar, to phrase it nicely. I knew that if my husband were sitting there at that dining room table instead of me, it would have been a very different story.

As he was returning the papers to his case, I decided to put my theory to the test. Keeping my voice casual, I mentioned that I wrote a newspaper column titled PENNY PINCHERS, which appeared in a dozen newspapers throughout the San Francisco peninsula. His reaction was totally amazing! He suddenly sat upright in his seat, raised his head, and for the first time since entering the house stared me straight in the eye. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Why was it that as a housewife I was the invisible woman, but as a newspaper columnist -- one that he claimed his wife read religiously -- I was all of a sudden a real honest to God person?

I couldn't wait to tell Nancy about this remarkable experience. We had a good laugh at the vice-principal's expense, but it also touched a deeply sensitive nerve that we couldn't ignore. Over the following weeks, we spoke to other women only to discover that they, too, had similar stories to tell. The more we thought about it, the more the idea for a book began to take shape in our minds. What if this was happening to women all over the country, women who appeared as shadow-figures rather than viable, self-actualized individuals? And what if, because of this, women were suddenly and mysteriously starting to disappear all across America?

(On Thursday: Nancy and I set out to re-write HIS-story from a woman's standpoint!)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nancy and I discover we come from two different worlds.

I felt as if I'd known Nancy (my playwright friend from the guitar group) all my life, which was a bit strange since we came from very different backgrounds. I'd been raised at the tail end of an era that preached that a women should be a homemaker, while her husband brought home the pay check and was revered as the undisputed king of his castle.

Nancy, on the other hand, grew up in the vanguard of the Women's Lib Movement. She and her peers were expected to launch successful careers with the goal of finally breaking through the glass ceilings that had until now prevented the fairer sex from competing in a man's world.

So, here we were, the feminist and the homemaker, each from vastly different backgrounds, yet slowly discovering that we had more in common than either of us could have imagined. To better understand Nancy's world, I started reading every book I could find on the subject: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Adrienne Rich, along with many other authors. I even helped Nancy with workshops she periodically conducted as part of "sensitivity training" for various corporations. According to her, I was one of the fastest learners she'd ever met, taking roughly three months to learn, process, and absorb feminist philosophy. I was pretty proud of my rapid evolution into the modern world!

Yet something bothered me about both of these philosophies. It was all well and good for a wife and mother to stay at home if that was what she wanted, as I had. But what if she didn't? What if she were drawn to a profession: doctor, teacher, scientist, writer, artist? Who had the right to tell her she was failing her husband and family if she followed her passion? Or what if taking a job provided her family with a higher standard of living, college for the kids, a better retirement some day? Wasn't this the kind of decision that should concern no one but the couple involved?

Conversely, who had the right to tell a woman that she was a failure if she truly desired to be a full-time homemaker? Did one size really fit all as Friedan and Steinem preached? Bottom line, why was everybody trying to tell women what to do with their lives?

(On Monday: Something happens which leads Nancy and I to co-author a novel)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Playing in a church guitar group changes my life!

My PENNY PINCHERS column was a success, but I wasn't sure I wanted to syndicate it as my editor was pressing me to do. To be honest, I was growing weary of using my kitchen as a laboratory to try out new recipes, driving to speaking engagements all over the Peninsula, and answering dozens of letters every week. All for very little pay and a great deal of invested time! Although my first try at writing a murder mystery novel had provided me with enough rejection slips to paper my office, I couldn't quite squelch the desire to try it again.

I think I mentioned earlier that I taught folk guitar through a local adult education program, and in my basement home studio. A love for music was a close second behind a passion to write. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing when I joined a guitar band that played folk masses at my church. There were about five or six of us in the group, including a young woman who would become my best friend and writing collaborator: Nancy Hersage. Have you ever met someone you immediately clicked with, like you've known them forever? That's how it was with my husband, Bob, and with the newest member of our guitar group. It didn't hurt that Nanc had a little boy the same age as our youngest son, Chris, and that the two toddlers bonded as instantly as did their moms, or that she was dedicated to writing plays. We quickly got into the habit of meeting at each others' homes every week to work on various writing projects, while the two boys played and got into every conceivable sort of mischief.

As Nanc worked on her plays, I devoted most of this time to writing a second murder mystery, this time featuring a Gestalt psychiatrist with a Freudian-minded side kick. When Nancy became pregnant with twin girls, however -- and I was rapidly acquiring enough rejection slips on the new book to paper yet another room -- we started to play around with the idea of writing a book together. This venture, which no one took seriously but us, miraculously went on to become our first published work of fiction!

(Coming Friday: PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING. Literally!)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nobody ever told me how hard it was to sell a book!

I had written a masterpiece of mystery literature, I was sure of it. The characters -- especially the heroine (mother of seven, writer of a weekly newspaper column, stealthy detective) was cagey, curious and open to adventure. When a dead body is found in her garage, she has to find the real killer before the police arrest her husband for the crime. With the help of her children, our feisty homemaker defies incredible odds -- and quite a few laws of nature -- in her quest for justice. The exciting, action packed climax of the novel is nothing short of miraculous! And, according to the numerous rejection slips clogging my mailbox, impossible to believe.

Any of you who have poured your heart and soul into attempting that first novel, will understand my disappointment and feelings of failure. Firmly entrenched on my pity-pot, I contemplated the injustice of it all. After all, my newspaper column had been an almost instant success, which had foolishly -- and far too prematurely -- led me to consider myself a professional writer. A humbling revelation!

As ever more rejection slips arrived in my mailbox, my newspaper editor continued to pressure me to agree to syndicate my PENNY PINCHER column. It would mean more money and more exposure. But did I really want to make this a full-time career?

(Tuesday: Playing in a church guitar group changes the direction of my life)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Penny Pinchers column inspires a mystery novel

My Penny Pinchers column seem to be a success; at least my editor thought so. And judging from the amount of mail I was receiving every week, the readers did, too. I was now being asked to speak to groups all up and down the San Francisco Peninsula, describing how to clip newspaper coupons, the best way to choose fresh vegetables and fruit at the supermarket, how to cook wholesome yet low cost meals, and how to pack nutritious, yet hopefully fun, lunches for the kids. I was happy to share what I had learned, but it was beginning to take up an inordinate amount of time. Don't forget I had seven children at home, was teaching four guitar classes a week at the local night school, as well as volunteering at school. And I'd turned my kitchen into a food discovery zone, trying out new recipes nearly every day of the week. It didn't require a rocket scientist to figure out why my husband began to complain that I was turning into the invisible woman!

When my editor approached me with the idea of syndicating my column, I was forced to think long and hard about what I wanted to do with my professional life. To be honest, after three years I was getting tired of writing the weekly column. While it was true that I loved writing, I increasingly longed to write something different. Dare I say it? Maybe even a novel? This was even scarier than when I'd first thought of writing my newspaper column. I finally decided that before I burned any bridges, I'd try to see if I could even come up with a book idea.

Since mysteries had always been my favorite genre, I figured that would be a good place to start. What if my story featured a heroine who had seven children, taught guitar, was chief cook and bottle washer, drove her kids all over town, and wrote a weekly newspaper column? Now there was an original idea! (Oh, well, they did say to write about what you know, right?) Fired with inspiration, I once again pulled out my mother's old upright typewriter and set to work. I still remember the intense satisfaction I felt as page after page of text collected in a neat, ever growing pile beside my ancient machine. This was it. I'd found my life's calling. Look out world, here I come!

On Sunday: Nobody ever told me how hard it was to sell a book.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I write my first PENNY PINCHERS column

At my publisher's suggestion, we used those first half dozen sample columns to launch my career into journalism -- yes, including those bogus letters purporting to be from eager readers. (I promise you that after these initial articles ran, I used only genuine letters received from REAL readers -- and there were lots of those!)

My publisher informed me that he wanted at least six new columns from me on his desk at all times, so that he'd always have a ready PENNY PINCHERS article to run, just in case -- God forbid! I should come down with the Black Plague or some other debilitating illness. In my zeal to prove my worth and professionalism, I provided him with a dozen. Thankfully, before I could run out of ideas, letters from readers began to pour in. It seems I really had stumbled upon a vein worth mining!

The initial PENNY PINCHER articles focused on subjects such as planning meals before shopping, tips on buying fresh vegetables, fruit and meat, the soup pot, what to pack in your child's lunch bag, and how to entertain on a budget. Turning my kitchen into a research center, I began trying out every low budget, yet hopefully tasty and nutritious, recipe I could find. Unfortunately, the results were not always a success -- especially in my kids' eyes, or perhaps I should say their stomachs. The first time I served homemade soup, salad and French bread for an evening meal, my oldest son demanded to know when the main course was going to arrive. My answer was to begin making my soups very nearly as thick as stew, and adding good, filling deserts such as homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, rice pudding, and low-sugar carrot cake. Every recipe that passed the "cranky kid test" made it into my next PENNY PINCHERS column.

(Coming Friday: PENNY PINCHERS becomes a full-time job with very little pay)

My first hesitant steps into the world of Journalism

Once I had made up my mind to write a newspaper column, the next step was to figure out where to start. I began by combing through San Francisco and Bay Area newspapers. A few featured cooking and special occasion menus, but none addressed the specific theme of feeding a family, nutritiously, on a limited budget. I gave myself a mental high-five; I was beginning to feel more confidant about this insane idea I'd hatched.

Second question: Where should I try to sell my column? I was way too intimidated to approach the larger San Francisco newspapers, but there was a local network of about twelve to fourteen newspapers that published weekly issues on the San Francisco Peninsula, as well as in my current home town of San Jose. This group might provide me with better odds for making a sale.

Titling my column, PENNY PINCHERS, I wrote three sample articles, including contrived letters purporting to be from enthusiastic readers which I -- in all my housewifely wisdom -- went on to answer. Composing a short cover letter explaining why I felt I was qualified to write such a column, I crossed my fingers and submitted them to the newspapers' headquarters. To my astonishment, an editor got back to me requesting I send him three or four more sample columns to demonstrate that I could sustain the weekly flow of ideas. Shortly after I'd submitted the additional pieces, I was hired! The pay he offered me was pathetic, but the important thing was that I had taken the first step toward my goal: I was a professional writer!

(Wednesday: I write my first PENNY PINCHERS columns)