We Interrupt this Summer Hiatus to Bring You…

RWAX2016In the time since last I posted in this space, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, both for business, and for family. Travel, predictably, makes me appreciate home and also gives me time to think. I thought I’d share some reflections by way of a mid-summer check in.

marriott-marinaFirst, I’m so grateful for the gathering in San Diego of the Romance Writers of America. This is one place where to be a woman succeeding in the writing game is normal, and the guys are the others, the exceptions, the odd people out (at least for now). I’m all for equality, but until the happy day when we achieve that milestone, the sheer relief of being in a place owned, operated, and celebrated by the ladies was an eye opener. So this is what normal feels like? It’s pretty sweet.

Mom and I, Ireland, 1981

Mom and I, Ireland, 1981

Second, I’m so grateful for family. We gathered this summer to celebrate my mom’s life, and each other, and thus fifty-six people related either to me or connected to somebody I love all got together to laugh, eat, drink, be merry, and mourn. To say good-bye to Mom in Burrowes-style was lovely, and a little less sad for being a shared endeavor.

Third, I’m sad for my father. As a scientist and university professor, my dad often sang the praises of “the life of the mind,” meaning the exercise of intellect. He was never bored, never at a loss for something to study, and his research resulted in substantial contributions to his field.

dylanthomas_do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night_BBut Dad was wrong. Now that he’s failing, now that he’s medicated for “anxiety,” which I suspect is a euphemism for distracting his in-home care providers from their cell phones, now that he’s feeble, needy, and vulnerable, all that intellectual accomplishment means nothing compared to the constant vigilance of my sisters, who are keeping Dad safe and protecting his quality of life.

Fourth, both of my parents lived into their nineties, so I’m warned: I could have a long twilight to deal with. Seems to me what makes that phase bearable is not good insurance (my dad has great insurance, which pays for almost nothing, because he’s not sick). It’s not a lot of letters after my name or plaques on the wall–Dad had a PhD by age 28, and ye gods, the plaques on his walls…

It’s not wealth. Dad can pay out of pocket (for a while) for people to sit with him (as they stare at their cell phones and resent his restlessness).

virtuoso_audioWhat makes that long, hard end of the road bearable is love, which we can all afford, and all have to give. If my dad had known what his life after age ninety would look like, I wonder what he might have done differently.

What are your thoughts about old age, dying well, or living well? To one commenter, I’ll send ALL THREE Windham audio books, in honor of the upcoming release of The Virtuoso.

You Know It’s Nap Time When…

freeXexpressionsI spent last week at a writers’ conference, because–as far as I’m concerned–I will never be done learning how to write. Then too, writing is a solitary undertaking. To spend time with my tribe was a great fun. We all got certain jokes, and we could all commiserate over the manuscript that won’t come right.

voltaireI learned tons, about prose and plot, and also about the writing process as mine compares to that of other authors. I learned about other genres–children’s and young adult, women’s fiction, and thrillers (why is there no such thing as men’s fiction?). I learned a few words of some publishing industry dialects I hadn’t heard before.

I also learned that I’m tired. Physically tired. Whooped. Whamped. In need of many naps.

This revelation came to me about Tuesday afternoon, after a day and a half of class. I was one of the most experienced writers in the room, and I was having trouble wrapping my head around what was presented. Worse, I was getting upset because it should have been making sense. I should have been able to integrate the material into my craft, I just didn’t get it…

cat-sleepingI dismissed the theory that I was tired, because all we were doing was sitting and listening. The whole week was to be mostly refresher and review. I wasn’t under any pressure to pitch new projects to agents or editors–I was an intellectual TOURIST.

I decided to steal a cat nap on Tuesday, and crashed harder than I’ve crashed in years. As the week went on, I realized that what I probably needed was a vacation, not a mental workout. My body is tired, my mind is tired, my imagination is tired. I suspect this has to do with losing my mom in February and my lawyer job in March, and my dad receiving hospice care. I’m doing emotional work that saps my energy reserves in ways I don’t entirely grasp.

sad-puppyFoster kids often come into care without knowing when they’re hungry, thirsty, tired, or upset. They’ve been so focused on managing a challenging environment that they no longer self-monitor. The results aren’t pretty–tantrums, food hoarding, illness, injury, and  trouble in school. We can become oblivious to our own internal states. If I hadn’t seen it over and over again in those foster children, I’d probably not believe we can be that cut off from our own reality.

soldier_audio-1-350x350In any case, I’d like permission to take a break from this blog, for at least the next few weeks. I have a lot of writing to do (I’m looking at you, Asher Fenwick), and I love to write. I always want to be ABLE to write in quantity and quality, and the blog–while great fun for me, and I hope for you–is one demand I can temporarily step back from.

How do you know you’re tired? Has fatigue ever taken you by surprise? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book copy of The Soldier, a story about a guy who needed to reconnect with his own heart.

Getting Out of Click-town

blogXtwoXroses Had lunch with my friend Graham, which is a good thing, because lately, the news feed has me just about shooting around the room backward with frustration, anger, and a sense of betrayal. What’s wrong with our political system? What’s wrong with our media? What’s wrong with our… (blank of your choice here).

Graham made a profound point: We’re nose down in social media, clicking nineteen-to-the-dozen. Our attention spans are getting shorter, our memories less functional. We seem to be both hypervigilant (when was the last time you were more than a mile away from your phone and were OK with that?), and yet, we’re also unable to concentrate.

blogXlilyXofXtheXvalleyThose are symptoms of trauma, by the way, but Graham had another explanation: We’re awash in a sea of content, information, apps, and chats, but at the cost of the sort of wisdom that feedeth the intellect, heart, and conscience. We’re starving for wisdom and perspective. Not rants, click bait, or viral memes that are–at best–a laugh or a groan. The seldom resonate with wisdom, reason, perspective, and relief from the isolation of trying to live a meaningful life and being just one person.

Bet you wish you could have lunch with Graham occasionally, too, huh? His point was timely for me, because I get soooooo upset with what I see on social media, and in the news. And yet, I have been fortunate to have come across some people whose compassion, intelligence, shrewdness, and creativity have stuck with me. I have been given some wisdom, though I haven’t always heeded it as quickly as I should. Some of the life lessons I hope I don’t have learn all over:

blogXtwoXpinksBe kind, tell the truth. (Ram Dass)

Steer clear of people who can’t take responsibility for their shortcomings and mistakes. They are People of the Lie (Scott Peck’s term), and they don’t care who’s hurt while they preserve their myth of competence and virtue, as long as it isn’t them.

Don’t make tough decisions when you’re tired. (My mom.)

When you’re facing something intimidating, try to take it on a little at a time with the support of people who love you. (boyfriend from decades ago)61DdZUdVVcL

If you’re faced with a tough choice, sometimes the best you can do is select the option that you’re less unhappy about, and sometimes, all of your options will stink. (My dad.)

Dream BIG. It could happen. (My daughter.)

There is wisdom out there, and good people, and reason to hope. Share some of yours.

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of “The Heir,” the book that started my Big Dream coming true.

 

 

 

 

Make Hay…. Later

blogXmakingXhayGrowing up in central Pennsylvania, I spent a lot of time on my godparents’ farm. I learned the true meaning of the phrase, “Make hay while the sun shines.”

Making hay is brutally intense manual labor. Summertime is hot, of course, and hay is itchy. If you don’t want to get a zillion cuts and scrapes, or a Defcon 5 sunburn, you make hay wearing jeans, boots, gloves, a hat, and a shirt. Making hay wore me out to the point that I fell asleep standing up in the shower.

blogXcowXhayThe entire farm’s welfare can rest on whether the hay crop is good quality–which means it absolutely cannot be rained on, and must be cut at peak nutritional value–no matter what. I’ve made hay with a migraine, sick, exhausted, and sporting blisters on my blisters.  Make hay while the sun shines, or else.

BUT, today it got so hot in my little farmhouse that my computer went wonky. So I shut off the wee beast even though I was well short of my usual word count, and… recalled something else I’d come across recently, about procrastination.

blogXgoodXexecsProcrastinating is bad, right? Git ‘er done, we’re burning daylight. No time like the present! Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today!  Find me an English language aphorism that celebrates procrastinating and I’ll show you ironic humor.

Except… the English language is wrong. People who are moderate procrastinators are better at coming up with innovative, high quality, results than people who leap right in and get the job done early. There is value in pausing to consider, in allowing the subconscious to take a swat at our assignments, in sitting on a toadstool and watching the world go by even when the laundry hasn’t been folded. (Try telling your boss this.)

Jack-275x413I do a fairly good job of “productively procrastinating” in my writing. I’ve learned that I can’t “make a baby in one month with nine women,” when it comes to writing a book. I have to let the ideas marinate, then let the manuscript marinate. Back-to-back revisions don’t yield anywhere near the polish that the same effort, with breathing room between rounds, will yield, and to heck with the deadlines.

But in life… I’m not as successful at putting off until tomorrow what I might tear into today, just so I can say I got it knocked off the list. What about you? How do you build in time to ponder, or does hitting pause on task drive you nuts? Maybe it drives your boss or coworkers nuts?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Jack–The Jaded Gentlemen, Book IV, a story about people who had to wait quite a while for the right happily ever after.

 

 

 

Home Again, Home Again

blogXdenverI recently spent a couple of weeks in Denver, pet-sitting for my daughter and her beloved swain while they took a honeymoon/ roadtrip to Oregon. I got tons of writing done, like half a book’s worth, and I also walked several miles a day. The trip reminded me of something a writing buddy told me a few months ago: “There are other places to be happy, Grace, besides the place you’ve been happy for the past twenty-five years.”

blogXalbuquequeMy friend had upped stakes and moved from Maryland to Albuquerque, in part for business reasons, but also because she’d always loved the Southwest. For her, the wide open spaces, low humidity, fresh start, and new sights, were a big boost to her creativity and well being. She’s happier than a pig in a dumpster, and a yet, a couple years before the move, her goal in life was to “hang onto the house” in Maryland.

blogXtorreyXpinesWhen my dad was fifty-five, he retired from teaching and moved from Pennsylvania to San Diego, where he had adjunct professor status and research privileges. He was tired of miserable winters, broiling summers, a big/aging house (seven kids), mowing grass, cleaning gutters, and raking leaves.

I love my little property, and have been so happy surrounded by big trees, farms, peace and quiet. My late pets are buried across the stream, I’ve written forty books at my kitchen table, and I raised my daughter in this house.

blogXheatXwaveBut you know what? Maryland has bugs on top of bugs inside of bugs, and I do not like bugs. Maryland can have several feet of snow on the ground at once, and stretches of 100 degree days that are as muggy as purgatory in July. Where I live, the main employers are the school system, the hospital, and… the prison complex. There’s no four-year institution of higher education anywhere in the county, and adult illiteracy is stuck near 20 percent. The only place the homeless in our county seat have to go on a bitter winter day is the main library despite the jurisdiction having more churches per capita than 99 percent of US counties.

Denver, by contrast, does not have bugs on top of bugs, humidity that results in mold overnight, or a lack of cultural diversity. Denver figured out that by dollars and cents, it costs the city far more (about $38,000 a year) to leave the chronically homeless on the street than to find them long-term housing and case management. The proJack-275x413blem is far from solved, but there’s progress.

I’m not moving to Denver any time soon, but the change of scenery got me thinking. Home is home, but it’s not paradise. It was a great place to raise a kid and write the first forty books. Now that I’m not confined by membership in a state bar association, maybe it’s time to look for the next great place to call home.

What is wonderful about where you live? What could you honestly do without? Would you still live there if you could live anywhere in the world? Why or why not? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Jack–The Jaded Gentlemen, Book IV.

Let the Sun Shine

normanrockwell-4Among genre fiction authors, there’s a phenomenon known as “second book slump.” It’s the writer’s equivalent to sophomore slump. That first book was a Big Deal, and because you were a debut author, the publishing house (if you had one), the review sites, and your writin’ buddies all made a bit of a fuss over you. But that after the first book hits the shelves, its rankings usually drop steadily, while your deadlines pile up.

As book one drifts from its opening day heights, you’re probably reading galleys (final proofs) for the next book. You might be grinding through copy edits on book three, and you’re probably writing book four. Some bright-eyed bushy-tailed publicist wants you to write fifteen happy blog posts about book two, and get them to her by Monday. You were thrilled to even have blog posts to write for book one, but now?

burning-the-midnight-oilWhat was great fun six months ago, has turned into… a job, and it’s a lonely relentless job at that, and a lot more work than it appeared to be while you were waiting for book one to publish.

It’s also a sedentary job, and–usually–inside work. I think that contributes to second book slump, and to a lot of other slumps for those of us who don’t get outside much.

blogXheatherIn one recent study, bright light early in the day was found to be significantly more effective than antidepressants in treating major depression (both together were more effective still). We also know that sunlight activates the production of serotonin, which in addition to boosting mood, suppresses appetite, and improves the pancreas’ ability to both regulate insulin output and reduce insulin resistance. One form of vitamin D (the stuff we make when sunlight hits our skin) also aids in the absorption of thyroid hormones and that boost energy too (I’m looking at you, Grace Burrowes).

morningHmm. We also know that schools that add outdoor classrooms show gains in just about every aspect of academics, from grades, to standardized test scores, to critical thinking and problems-solving skills. Even something as minor as increasing the amount of natural light in a classroom strongly correlates with improved academic results. Engaging with nature reduces the symptoms of ADHD in children as young as five.

You don’t have to be a garret-dwelling author to see where I’m going with this. Spend hours and hours and hours hooked up to that computer, watching Netflix, googling Regency underwear, or cruising Facebook and you could be cheating yourself out of a lot of goodies waiting on your own back deck. I’m not suggesting you swear off SPF protection–far from it.

heir_audio-450x450But summer’s almost here. Time to indulge your inner wild child in a little walk to the mailbox or first cup of coffee on the back steps. Picnic in the backyard one night a week. Grow a few porch tomatoes. Move your desk nearer to the window. The results might surprise you in the best possible way.

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of The Heir, a story about a guy who needed to Get Out More. How can you add a little green time or safe sunshine to your routine?

 

The Courage to Talk Softly and Walk Alone

blogXquietI watch TED talks grudgingly, because TED doesn’t pay the presenters. Not a dime, for some of the best ideas on the planet–while TED does quite well as a brand.

And yet, the quality of TED’s content lures me, and this week I caught a presentation by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Susan became a Wall Street attorney, despite knowing that she loved solitude, loved working on her own rather than in corporate lockstep, loved tranquility rather than confrontation. When she realized how badly her life and her needs had disconnected, she spent seven years (hmm) researching introversion and its role in our culture.

686816-002.jpgWhat she found resonated with me from little on up. These days, most of us work in “open plan” offices. The open plan is cheaper to heat and cool, cheaper to build out, and–I’ve heard this from more than one executive–gives management a sense of being able to police workers without even leaving the glass-walled corner office.

Sir Walter Scott's Work Space

Sir Walter Scott’s Work Space

The open plan also promotes collegiality, collaboration, and innovation… according to management. According to controlled studies, it promotes contagion. Period. I suspect some of the sick leave is a function of the fact for the one-half to one-third of the population who are introverted, that open plan is sheer, unrelenting hell. No privacy, no quiet, no protection from gratuitous stimulation, and what do you know, it closely resembles many of our classrooms.

Why are we doing this? Why create environments that can’t work for one third to one half of the workers or students forced into them?

blogXwinXfriendsSusan’s theory is that we went from small towns and frontier communities, where character mattered, and you knew your neighbors and coworkers, to post-industrial situations where you worked with strangers, and didn’t spend much time with your family. In an office situation, the person most adept at persuasion, at being heard, at charming, became the role model. The effective salesman controlled the environment and got the biggest rewards, and those folks are almost always extroverts.

And yet, the extrovert., the good talker, the charmer, has NO advantage when it comes to generating bright ideas, and is actually a WORSE manager than the introvert, in general. The extrovert will get all excited about ideas, and put their spin and stamp on the ones they like, and will squelch the quiet members of a team. The introvert is far more likely to listen, support, encourage, and yield the floor when somebody’s on a roll.

We have an extroverted CEO (from an advertising agency) to thank for the largely debunked group-think known as brainstorming. Brainstorming actually results in fewer good ideas than does working individually–but the guy in the corner office was all for it, so brainstorm, we did. Multitasking enjoyed similarly groundless good press for years because the boss told us it enhanced productivity (it doesn’t).

heir_244wSo we have, in many cases, the wrong leaders for problem solving purposes, and we’re asking people to work in an environment that for many will reduce the quality and quantity of their output. But two-thirds to one-half of the population is not introverted. For them isolation behind a closed door is sheer torment.

What works for you? Is your professional environment designed to get the best out of you, and does your boss listen and encourage or dwell too much in What I’m Gonna Need You To Do mode? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook version of The Heir, a story about a guy who loves peace and quiet, but loves his lady more.

 

Goodnight, Gracie

blogXpuppyOne lesson I have to learn, over and over, is that without adequate rest, my whole house of cards come fluttering down. I had to learn this in law school, which was a working full time/in class five nights a week, four year marathon, and I’ve had to learn it several times since.

Now, we’re finding that sleep is when we get rid of those nasty amyloid plaques that are associated with Alzheimer’s. Sleep is when we shuffle information from short to long term memory. In sleep, we integrate complicated information with what we already know. The brain also uses sleep time to decide what information can be forgotten, allowing us to better grab onto important stuff.

blogXsleepyXkittenI’m still not as skilled at resting as I’d like to be. I tend to have several book projects going at once. If I run out of juice on one, I can switch to another. If I run out of juice on all of them, I have website projects I can work on. Busy, busy, busy… and if all else fails, I can get on that infernal, perishing, blighted, benighted, rubbishing tread desk, and at least walk while I play solitaire.

In the back of my mind though, I wonder at this-near compulsion to be productive. Some of it comes from financial anxiety, some from a mind hitched to a restless imagination, but some of my hamster-wheeling is just an old bad habit.

blogXwheelI want to live a long, healthy, productive life, so I’m making an effort to protect my rest and get the hamsters under control. A few steps I’m taking:

I use the f.lux program to cut the blue light from the computer screen at sunset, so my brain starts getting ready to sleep.

I turn off all devices an hour before beddy-bye, and read a print book to signal that lights out is approaching.blogXeyore

I don’t use my phone for ANYTHING after lights out except to check the time, and if I must do that, I hold the phone as far from my eye-winkers as possible (at least fourteen inches, to keep the blue light input down).

I try not to set an alarm in the morning, if I can get away with that.

My friends and family know that short of a dire emergency, no texts or phone calls after 9 pm MY TIME.

marriage_450During the day, I get up and get out of the writing chair regularly, whether to hit the tread desk, work in the garden, or meet a writin’ buddy for lunch. Sleep is only one kind of rest, after all.

Rest is too important to neglect. Without it, I’ll have no health, no imagination, no progress on my projects, and yet, few of us–women especially–are encouraged to make rest a priority. This is me, encouraging you: Make rest –all kinds of rest– a priority. You’ll be happier, less anxious, healthier, and ultimately more productive.

Are you getting enough rest? How do you recharge? To one commenter, I’ll send signed copy of A Duke and His Duchess, a story about two very tired young parents.

Once Upon a Motherhood

 

motherXduckWhen I judge a romance writing contest, one of the questions I ask some entrants is, “How has your heroine changed in the course of this book? Yes, she rescued her billionaire boss; but inside, how is she a more substantial person than she was 367 pages ago?”

A shorthand way to ask the same question: How will she be a better mother at the end of the book than she would have been at the beginning?

mother-lion-and-cubI don’t think you have to bear children, raise children, or even like children to contribute motherlove to a word badly in need of it. One of the most reliable expert witnesses I’ve worked with in the child welfare courtroom had no children, but was passionately–and successfully–devoted to making the world better for children.

So what do I mean by motherlove?

I mean the difference between the tender-hearted, sweet, passionate protectiveness we all feel for a new baby (provided the diaper patrol has recently been on the job), and the rugged humor of an adolescent’s mother. Any mom raising teens knows that enforcing reasonable boundaries can be noisy, dramatic, and painful, but somebody’s gotta do it or college/steady employment/creative success won’t happen.

rideXonXmomA mother worthy of the name knows that parenting and the body’s anticipation of it takes a physical toll, not only in pregnancy and gestation, but in exhaustion, anemia, inconvenience, and reproductive considerations that include safety, privacy, expense, and discomfort. Whether you’re devoting yourself to the care of your own child, or your brother’s kid while dad’s in rehab, you’re paying a permanent, physical price for standing in the shoes of the mom or mom-to-be.

catXwithXbunnasYou might get a greeting card or brunch out for your troubles, some years. You WILL get–and have been getting for years–wage inequality, loss of career momentum, and greater financial insecurity in old age. These wrongs are largely perpetrated by, and clearly benefit, the same sons, husbands, and dads buying us the smarmy cards and blueberry pancakes. Oh, I could rant…

But, when you love like a mother loves, you also get a grasp of the big picture beyond your self-interest. You make friends with optimism, hope, pragmatism, and resilience. You get some much-needed immunity from the social imperative to always be attractive and nice. You learn–oh, mama, do you learn–that if you don’t take care of yourself, the whole circus tent comes down.

PaddyXXXHeatherX1992_01XX1XAgain, I’m not saying children are the only way to grow a heart capable of these feats, but I do believe that once you’re approaching the world from the posture of a mom as I’ve described her, you’re in a position to make one heck of a big, important contribution.

So thank you, to anybody who has made such a contribution, whether to a child, an elder, a stranger, or a stray dog. We will never have too much motherlove in this world.

To the first twenty commenters, I’ll send the signed Grace Burrowes book of his or her choice. Whose love has changed you for the better or helped you grow?

It’s Only Love

ObsessionNora Roberts has had 191 New York Times bestsellers (and counting) among her 214+ published titles. Her books have spent a combined total of more than 200 weeks at the number one slot on the list (nearly four years), and 58 of her books debuted at No. 1. Her April 12 release, The Obsession, had, at last count, more than 1000 five star reviews.

How many of her books have been reviewed by The New York Times book reviews?

That would be…. two. .

Some of this is because book reviews are largely men reviewing the works of men, even though most readers, authors, and publishing industry professionals are women. There’s a glass wall in publishing, albeit things are slowly changing. I don’t think the primary barrier between romance and the rest of the (publishing?) world is about gender, though. Eighteen percent of romance readers are male, and increasingly, men are represented among romance authors, too.

cowardly-lion-ozI think the issue is courage. Romance novels are about courage, and about how love gives us the courage to be the best people we can be. Not the richest, not the handsomest, not the smartest, not the most popular, but the most highly evolved–morally and spiritually–that we can be, given our circumstances.

You can have a romance novel without sex, but you can’t bring that story to a satisfying happily ever after, unless somebody has dug down deep for the courage to grow, change, and take risks. Very often, those risks involve rejecting the values society embraces–being nice, playing it safe, remaining loyal to the company, clocking that overtime, maintaining appearances.

OfficeXmemeThe need to put romance down, and ignore its enormous commercial success (half of all paperback sold are romance), is because romance sends a scary message: You, little old you, are worth fighting for. Your happiness and your wholeness matter. You are worth sticking with. You are beautiful in the ways that count. You make a difference, taking the grandkids to the park, dragging your spouse to counseling, organizing the bake sale, changing your sister’s tire. That stuff matters, a lot.

Not your IQ, your bank account, your six-pack abs, but your heart.

eve_450If you derive your sense of self-worth from inside, from being comfortable in your own skin, and living by your own ethical standards, you can’t be bought. You can’t be controlled by criticism or shaming, you can’t be intimidated into putting in a sixty-hour work week. You might work those hours, but you’re doing it for love, not wealth or a corner office.

If you derive your sense of power from money, might, or great looks, then the romance novel’s subtext should threaten you. All the money, outward beauty, and power in the world doesn’t stand indefinitely against love.

That’s what I believe, and that’s why I write romance. Why do you read romance? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Lady Eve’s Indiscretion, a story about a woman who tried to hide from love behind a cloak of propriety–and found herself any way.