A WFW Book Review: Beach Plum Island by Holly Robinson

Taking Inspiration from Author Holly Robinson

beach-plum-islandAs I’m awaiting edits on my second novel from my editor, guess what I’m doing? Writing another story. Now, that may seem presumptuous. It may seem crazy. Why not take a break? Well, the more I write, the more I write. Does that make sense? It would certainly make sense to author Holly Robinson, my friend, and one of the busiest writers I know. Holly is a novelist, ghost writer, freelancer, and award-winning journalist. In addition to those things, she’s a wife, mom of FIVE, and dedicated daughter. So when I think I’M SO BUSY and my thoughts jumble, I conjure up a vision of Holly doing everything she does. And then I get back to work.

Today, Holly’s second novel with NAL is out for the world to enjoy. BEACH PLUM ISLAND is her second novel with this publisher, but her third novel, and fourth book. Holly’s memoir, THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER was published in 2010 by Broadway Books, and Holly self-published her novel, SLEEPING TIGERS, just as she got a contract THE WISHING HILL from NAL. And, now Holly is working on her third novel for NAL, LAKE UTOPIA, due out in 2015.

But back to BEACH PLUM ISLAND!

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Guest Post: Writing, Rejections, and Going for that Overhead Smash by Author Holly Robinson

My friend Holly Robinson’s novel, THE WISHING HILL (and its stunning cover) will be published by Penguin in Summer 2013. Oh, and she’ll have another novel published in 2014!  So I’m going to make sure she comes back to talk more about all that crazy awesomeness! But today, Holly shares with us why it’s important to just keep on writing, and trying no matter what.  Why? Because you just don’t know the moment that something is just going to go flying over the net. (The tennis pun is weak, I agree, but my intentions were good.) 

Please welcome Holly to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Writing, Rejections, and Going for that Overhead Smash

By Holly Robinson

ImageBy the time my agent was sending out my fifth novel, I figured I’d paid my dues as a writer.  Yes, it’s true that I majored in biology and had never even read James Joyce, but I atoned for that mistake by flinging myself into graduate school to earn an MFA in creative writing.  I even published short stories in literary journals where the payment was two copies.  I collected enough rejection slips that, one Halloween, I dressed as a Rejection Slip, donning a lacy slip with my rejections stapled all over it.

“Are you still writing?” friends and relatives asked, year after year.

“Of course.  And this one is it,” I always answered.

And then came novel #5.  This will be the one, I told myself, just like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryThis will be my golden ticket!

When the rejections amassed that fifth time, though, I lost faith.  That tiny negative voice in my head, the one that was usually like some bee you can wave off, began to sound like a trumpet in my ear.  The voice blared:  You are not smart enough to be a writer. 

“Let’s try one more editor,” my blessed agent said.

I knew the editor he was sending my fifth novel to, and she is one of the smartest in the business.  As a book doctor and ghost writer for many years, typically on nonfiction health books and celebrity memoirs, I’d had the opportunity to work with her on several books.  I desperately wanted her to love my novel.

I waited three agonizing weeks.  Then the editor’s reply came:  “I’m sorry, but the novel just doesn’t work for us,” she said, adding various detailed observations about where the plot flagged and why the characters didn’t ring true.

“Should I get you some wine?” my husband asked when he found me prone on the sofa, the rejection letter crumpled in one hand and a bouquet of Kleenexes in the other.

“Go get me chocolates.  Good chocolates,” I hissed.  “I’m never writing fiction again.”

I was devastated enough by that one rejection to eat my way through an entire box of dark chocolate truffles, drink half a bottle of Grand Marnier, and watch Nicole Kidman attempt to sing in Moulin Rouge.  By now, that trumpeting voice in my head had turned cocky and mean:  Your sentences are dull and stupid.  Your plot lines are insipid.  Your descriptions are trite.  Your characters are flat and uninteresting.  Who would want to read your writing? 

That was it.  I was done with fiction.

With so much extra time on my hands, I decided to do something entirely unlike me:  I took tennis lessons.

I had never played a sport in my life, and I rapidly discovered that practicing a sport means getting yelled at a lot.  My tennis coach’s nonstop badgering nearly made me quit:  “Get up to net!  Come on, don’t stand around the baseline!  Go for it!  You want that overhead smash!”

My problem was that I was too timid and polite.  I got hit on the head with tennis balls more than once, nearly pummeled to the ground by aggressive women on the other side of the net going for their overhead smashes.

I spent hours and hours on the tennis court.  I joined a travel team and moved up the ranks.  Still, I hung back, always playing it safe, until one day my coach lost her temper.

“You know,” she said, “the only person who really cares about whether you screw up out here is you!  Just get up to net and take the balls in the air!  You might miss.  But you might surprise yourself if you try.”

The metaphor here is obvious, and so were the flaws in my tennis playing.  I had to force myself to net again and again.  Until one day, to my shock, I found myself looking for those overheads and smashing them down at my opponent’s feet.  I missed a lot of balls, but I made some great shots, too.

I became more confident at tennis, and that made me start writing again.  What did I have to lose by trying another novel?  Nobody was going to publish it, probably, but so what?  I love writing fiction.  So I started another book.

This is one of those happy-ending stories, but with a twist.  While I was writing my sixth novel, The Wishing Hill, I also revised and self-published that fifth novel, Sleeping Tigers.  Self publishing wasn’t the way I wanted to go, but going to net in tennis had taught me to gamble.  I revised Sleeping Tigers and published it myself.

Meanwhile, I finished my newest novel, The Wishing Hill.  The same editor at Penguin, the one I had always dreamed about working with on a novel, bought it.  She recently bought the new novel I’m working on, too.  It will be published a year after The Wishing Hill.

What’s the takeaway here?

  1. If you are a writer, you will surely get rejected.  Nobody cares but you.
  2. Writing, like anything else, is all about keeping the ball in play, watching for new opportunities, and not being afraid to go to net.

Want to make it as a writer?  You have to fail first—and sometimes many times.  Get to the net and write another book.  Keep going for that overhead smash, and you might surprise yourself.

Image 1Holly Robinson is an award-winning journalist whose work appears regularly in national venues such as Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Huffington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, More, Open Salon, and Parents. She also works as a ghost writer on celebrity memoirs, education texts, and health books. Her first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir, was named a Target Breakout Book. Her first novel, Sleeping Tigers, was named a 2011 Book of the Year Finalist by ForeWord Reviews and was more recently listed as a Semifinalist 2012 Best Indie Book by Kindle Book Review. She holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She lives north of Boston with her husband and their five children.

Moms, Writing, and Guilt – A Year’s End Guest Post With A Message To Take Forward

One of the best things about this blog, for me, is making it work for myself and all of you.  As you have probably realized, this blog focuses on the authors, business and craft of traditionally published women’s fiction. I’ve declined many requests from self-published writers because I’m steeped in the publishing machine and that’s my focus.  But I’m also not stoopid.  (no emails please, the error is for emphasis, it’s a blog, not a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, although if it could be, I’ll fix the spelling). When a fabulous writer/reader offers me a gem-of-a-post I don’t say no even when she doesn’t fit neatly into the WFW box.  

Just read Holly Robinson’s post and you’ll see what I mean. And if you’re not a mom — or a dad — or a step-parent — I believe it still applies.  Because the overriding message is — you must make time for what’s important to you.  Seems obvious, but it’s not always so simple, as we know.

Please welcome Holly Robinson to Women’s Fiction Writers.  

And…see you next year! (couldn’t help it, sorry)

Moms, Writing, and Guilt:  Do You Get In Your Own Way?

by Holly Robinson 

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one:  “When do you write?”

The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow.  They want me to say something like:  “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.”  Or maybe:  “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you’ll have a novel in a year!  Easy as ABC!”

Even people who aren’t aspiring writers ask me this question.  Maybe it’s because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do.  They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in  novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.

“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me.  “When do you write?”

Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there’s no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you’re a mother.  Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we’re doing something else when we’re writing.  We’re burning dinner because we’re working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.

In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success.  I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides.  I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.

My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor.  Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?”  I couldn’t imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.

Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question.  They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids.  “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”

As a mother, I couldn’t crack this secret code.  How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school?  How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?

Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time.  I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the famous novelist said.  “I have a wife.”

I swear to you that this is true, but I won’t divulge this man’s name.  His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn’t already.

Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use:  the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley.  When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”

Day care!  I mulled this over in my mind.  I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing?  How could I justify such a debutante expense?

I couldn’t.  There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter.  How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?

For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life:  while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma.  I had a ritual, where I’d make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.

Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers’ retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day.  Not everyone’s idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.

Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty.  I’d abandoned my family!  I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!

Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me.  I’d feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first.  Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn’t knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.

Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing.  It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.

The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home.  I’d face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I’d despair again because I wasn’t making any progress as a writer.  I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.

My husband, luckily, was supportive.  He urged me to essentially buy those hours.  “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said.  “We’ll get by somehow.”

God bless him.  I lined up extra day care hours.  Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time:  day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.

Amazingly, it wasn’t long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay.  I didn’t sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and then another.  An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I’d like to write an article for them.  From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.

It wasn’t long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work.  I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations.  I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.

Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn’t writing.  Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days.  Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.

When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this:  the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them.  On days I didn’t have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I’d never been able to tap into before.

Okay.  I need to work on that metaphor.  But you get the idea.  Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There’s never a time that I’m not writing, even if it looks like I’m doing something else.”

And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You’ll write best if you pay for day care.  Run away from home sometimes, too.  Your children will survive.  They might even be proud of you.”

Holly Robinson is a writer and comic whose articles appear regularly in national publications such as  Family Circle, Ladies’ Home Journal,  More, and Parents.  She is the author of the novel Sleeping Tigers and The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter:  A Memoir.  To learn more about Holly Robinson, visit www.authorhollyrobinson.com.