Sunday, January 29, 2006

Discipline Protects The Talent

My very first mentor, Ben Masselink, said those words to me the last time I saw him. I wish he was still here to see that I took many of his lessons to heart. But I have a feeling that Ben knows what I've been up to.

So as I go into lock down mode to meet my February 15th deadline, I want to leave you with the 7 Healthy Habits of the Happy Writer. I promise not to be gone for long, but in the meantime, if you feel like you can't type one more word, or that your work will never be good enough, think of what Wonder Woman would do. Do you think she'd give up while fighting for our rights in her satin tights?

  1. Writes to strengthen her voice

  2. Makes time to write, rather than wait for the right time

  3. Knows an excuse when she hears one

  4. Listens to her instincts

  5. Erases failure from her vocabulary

  6. Writes through the pain

  7. Has the courage to overcome and learn from rejection

Luv & Besitos,

Friday, January 27, 2006

It Never Gets Old

Yesterday was an awesome day! The Little Dude and I went to the mailbox and opened a package of advance release copies of In Between Men! I got all chocked up and tears were in my eyes ... It never gets old seeing my name on a book. But what really got me this time was the page opposite the title page where it reads, "By Mary Castillo" with a list of my two Avon titles. With three books in print, this isn't a dream anymore; I'm a real author, baby!

After that emotional event, I got myself all dressed up and signed at the American Bookseller's Association Winter Institute in Long Beach. The big surprise was on my table: freshly printed copies on In Between Men! So fresh, they had paper dust on them. So thank you to my peeps at Avon Trade - NO ONE does it better than you do!

Okay, now where were we on our list ... Ah yes, #4. On my desk, I have three quotes tacked onto the shelf above my computer. One says, "I pay no attention to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings." - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

That's some tough talk from an artist ... Then again, when you're tied with Beethoven as the world's greatest composer, you can probably say things like that. On the otherhand, maybe that's what it takes to be great; complete focus on your work so that it is pure. The consequence, of course, is the possibility of dying poor and ending up in an anonymous pauper's grave.

Either way, I hold onto the spirit of this quote. With every story I write, I live this awful fear that haunts me: will everyone think I've gone too far?

With Hot Tamara, I worried that the last love scene between Will and Tamara was too cheesey.

With "My Favorite Mistake," I worried no one would respect Isela for sleeping with a man she just met, and who could possibly get her an in with his famous brother.

With In Between Men, I worried that the appearance of Joan Collins as Isa's guardian angel would be way over the top.

With Switchcraft, I have all kinds of worries that I can't discuss right now.

And while that's quite foolish of me to waste so much energy worrying about what people will think, I will admit that I have paid attention to the right people in my career. In the very beginning when I was still finding my footing, I had the good fortune of meeting a man named, Ben Masselink. He taught a writing workshop through the USC Professional Writing Program and our first assignment was to write the first five pages of a work-in-progress. I was terrified. But after I read it out loud, Ben asked me to step outside with him. No one moved, no one looked at me because all of us smelled the scent of doom. Outside, with my backpack slung over my shoulder because I could not have walked back in for it, Ben snapped my pages with his fingers and said, "Mary, you've got something here. It needs work, but keep writing." And I did.

Since then, there are only a handful of people whose opinions I listen to. And even then, I keep my counsel against comments like, "that's great," "no comment," or "are you sure this is English you're writing?"

For those of you who think you need a critique partner/group, or to pay a freelance editor gobs of cash to whip your writing into shape, first hone your instincts. Write for yourself, play with words and make mistakes. Don't rush over to the first person you meet and have them critique your work. Look for the right person. In my experience, I didn't have to look. They came at a time when I needed them.

And now, I'm going to mainline some coffee to wake up. I was out late and Little Dude was up at 4:30.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Excuses, excuses!

This is the fifth day that I've operated on less than four hours of sleep. But as soon as the Little Dude goes down to sleep, I will carry on. You see, even lack of sleep isn't a reason to make me stop writing. Admittedly, when I was unpublished I annoyed and frightened my friends with my determination to write. I wrote during my lunch hour, wrote into my handheld tape recorder in traffic, wrote at work (oh yes I did!) - or, ran into the bathroom at work to jot an idea or a bit of dialogue - wrote through achy shoulders and burning eyeballs.

But then there was Mardi Gras of 2002. I took that first draft of Hot Tamara with me to New Orleans and editted it, so I wouldn't lose any time before I had to go back to work. Yes folks, that was how annoying I was and well, still am.

My plan tonight is to jump back into chapter 11 and work in a great idea I had while I was in the shower. I was going to start chapter 12, but this supporting character is taking a life of her own and I'm trying to tame her.

But I don't want you to miss an excellent, funny piece on excuses and why they just don't cut it. Go read Dana's Reasons Why Not and then get back to work!


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk. Talk! Talk!"

This line is from one of my favorite movies, Sunset Boulevard, when Norma Desmond (played by the brilliant Gloria Swanson) decries how the talkies killed silent films and sent "faces" such as hers, into obscurity. Too much talk can also kill your writing.

How many of you have ever been at a party and told someone that you're a writer? How many times did at least one person reply, "Really? I always wanted to write a book but never had the time."

Someday I'll be brave enough to answer, "Gee, I always wanted to do brain surgery but never had the time." But let's face it, I'm a wuss.

The more we talk about how we want to write a book, or how we just can't seem to get into the characters, or whatever, the more reasons why one shouldn't call oneself a writer. A three- to four-inch thick pile of paper that constitutes your manuscript is the real deal, baby.

And so I don't look like a hypocritical snot, I'm signing off to revise chapter 12.



Monday, January 23, 2006

Are you there voice, it's me Mary.

At the age of ten, my Grandma Margie planted the idea of becoming an author when she snuck me a copy of Hollywood Wives. Jackie became my image of what an author should be: controversial, gutsy, rich, powerful, famous, loaded with fabulous jewelry and of course, those luscious pool boys who'd serve me cocktails.

Even when I made a serious commitment to writing ten years later, I kinda sorta still had that image in mind. I'll never forget that moment, I was in a gift store in Sedona, Arizona during spring break of 1994. I found a tiny statuette of a Native American storyteller for $10.95 and as I held her, I decided that I would become an author and as God as my witness, I would have my pool boy!

Six years dragged on as I wrote one crap manuscript after another. When I finished a book that I intended to sell as a category romance, I realized that I had to stop writing for publication. I know that sounds very odd, but it's true. Writers don't get published because they created a story that fits the new trend everyone is buying. They are chosen because of their voice, their unique way of looking at and making sense of the world.

When I saw where I was going (e.g. nowhere), I turned my soul inside out and wrote the story that became my first book. Do you know how I know I'm writing in my own voice? Well, there are two things.

First, when I wrote Hot Tamara I kept thinking: dear God, my mom is going to disown me. While the character of Susan Contreras is not my mother, there are parts of my mom in her. And while I'm no Tamara - although I always wanted a Karmen Ghia - there are parts of me in her, as well as in Isa (In Between Men), Isela (My Favorite Mistake from Friday Night Chicas) and Nellie & Lulu (Switchcraft - working title). In other words, I know the story is true when it is so honest that someone could get hurt.

Second, the writing is like I'm typing an email to my friend ... but with more drama and a liberal use of SpellChecker. I know the characters are real when it feels like they're talking through me. By the way, that doesn't happen all the time and it often happens when I'm doing other things like showering or feeding my son. However, in revisions it is much easier to tap into what I imagine is an underground river of words. Which is why I race as quickly as possible through the first draft so I can get to the good stuff.

Out of the two screenplays and two manuscripts I had written, Hot Tamara was the first story I wrote for the sake of uncovering my voice. Publication came after the story was told and because it had authenticity, my editor took a chance on it. So when I hear writers at conferences and meetings exclaim that this will be the year she'll get published, I hope she'll come to understand that publishing won't validate her as a writer. If anything, becoming an author makes writing that much harder.

Every now and then I toy with the image of showing up at some massive booksigning in a Bentley escorted by the pool boy who looks like this guy ... a little fantasy never killed anyone, okay?

In all seriousness, what consumes and tortures me almost every day is the writing: am I mining those characters deep enough, am I telling the story the way it needs to be told, and why does this character who I never planned on, suddenly want to be in the story? Writing stories that are true to me and to my readers is what has made me successful.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Seven Unhealthy Habits of Unsuccessful Writers

I shouldn't be posting this because you're probably going to think, "Who does this 'ho think she is?" Well, it all started when I was taking a break from revisions and came up with the following list based on some of the bad habits I've had to undo (yes, me), and the habits I've observed in others.

So before you hate me, hear me out okay?

The Seven Unhealthy Habits of Unsuccessful Writers
1. Wrote to get published when I should've written to uncover my voice
2. Spent more time talking about writing than actually writing
3. Believed my own excuses as to why I never had time to write
4. Needed the approval of others whether it was a contest judge, a "get-published-quick" seminar or a critique partner
5. Said “if I finish a book” instead of “when I finish the book”
6. Couldn't keep my behind in the chair, or worse, played online Mah-jong for "inspiration"
7. Gave up too early

This week, I'm going to talk about these bad habits in detail and when we're done, I'll post the Seven Healthy Habits of Happy Writers.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Is Kelly Clarkson an Ungrateful Snot?

I don't think so. I think she was smart not to give carte blanche to American Idol to use her songs. Good for her that she is negotiating an agreement that benefits her and the show.

When it is now so easy to download music, videos,and books, it is also easier to share it with millions of users. That represents a lot of royalities - the money the artists and authors use to pay the mortgage - gone down the toilet. So if Kelly wants to protect her moneymaker, then I applaud her for being a tough cookie and telling the massively powerful American Idol, "Hold on a minute. What's in it for me?"

Sure American Idol gave Kelly that first boost, but do you think she had a lot of say in, much less receive the majority of royalities from her debut album? (Which, by the way, was produced by Simon Cowell.) Pfft. Please.

When Kelly took hold of her career and image with "Breakaway", that's when her real talent shone through and audiences stopped to listen (and buy more than five million copies, according to RCA Records). Girl, earned her own Grammy nominations and hence, the right to control her work. I hope her example inspires more artists and authors to do the same.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Do They Have Good Books In Heaven?

For Christmas, my friend Dana gave me a coffee mug that reads, "Choose an author as you would a friend. - Wentworth Dillon." I don't always like every book I meet. Some are pretenious, others are real downers and unfortunately, some are just boring. Now that I'm an author, my pickiness is a real problem. You see, I now receive advance copies of books for my endorsement - why anyone would think my endorsement would make a difference, I'll never know! Anyway, when I don't click with a book, I don't know what to do. I want to like every book I read, truly I do. But I can't paste a fake smile on my face and mislead people into thinking I liked a book I didn't like. Nor can I say to the author who sent me his/her book, "I'll pass."

So when I meet a book that makes me laugh or cry (or both), I want to tell everyone about it. (And not just because it's good for my karma.) When I first met Erica Orloff through Diary of a Blues Goddess, I knew I made a new friend. But then she one-upped herself with Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven, which I started yesterday and then had to give to my husband so I would do my writing when we switched baby duty. When I got it back last night after the baby went to sleep, I not only had tears in my eyes for the two and a half hours it took me to read it, chills sped up the back of my neck and I never once tried to read through the book like I normally do. The love story between Lily and Michael swept me up so quickly. Erica's no-bull-shit prose made me believe I was sitting right there with them, feeling warmth of the love they had for each other, laughing at their wisecracks and crying with them in despair. And Erica's wisdom shone so brightly that I couldn't see the wizard working behind the curtain.

When you're a writer, you look for the technique and especially, the crutches some of us use to make it snappy, sexy chick lit. Sometimes I even ask myself as I read books (even those by people I know and like), "How the hell did this get published?" Hey, I never said I was a liar...a bitch, sometimes, but a liar? Nuh uh. But I do keep it to myself!

You'd think that a great author would make a fellow writer feel jealous...Inadequate. Not me. I love books too much. I want aspire to my favorite authors, without trying to be like them. They energize me to write the best to my ability, to write down to the bones of my characters. (I'm not sure who coined that phrase but it wasn't me.)

So while I try to think of a diplomatic way to decline my endorsement of books I don't like without hurting the author's feelings, I want to share my favorite passage from Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven? by Erica Orloff (Red Dress Ink, Oct. 2005).
We shifted gears instantly. Real friendship is like the tide. It ebbs and flows, it fills the little trenches we build in our hearts. It finds our holes and fills them, then it seeps down deep. It washes up starfish and shells and magical things that we get excited about, like pieces of sea glass. And it washes up seaweed and man-o'-war and ugly things we'd rather have stay in the sea. It cleanses, and it goes on forever.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Catalina Magazine named Hot Tamara as the #1 Chick Lit title for 2005 ... woo hoo!!!

Today I'm guest blogging at A Slice of Orange, the blog for Orange County Chapter Romance Writers of America. I'm talking about my first year as a published author and the "learning experiences" that taught me to emphasize my strengths as a writer, not put all of my energy into trying to do something different. You can read it at

Throughout the three decades and two years I've been around, I realized a tendency to want to be good at everything, especially the things I'm bad at. Looking back at some of my favorite authors, I realized that they all started at a very basic level, usually tapping into their own life experience to create those first stories. Have you ever watched those time elapsed images of a plant breaking through the seed and curling out of the soil? That's how I see the careers of my favorite authors and now myself. Like that new seedling, their work slowly eases away from the roots and their stories grow and sometimes branch out into different genres.

I have two of Nora Roberts early novels (I love her and if you don't, I won't hold it against you.) and every now and then I open them up to see her as a new writer. Within the gawkiness and the 1980's style of romance, I can see the beginnings of her greatness. At their publication, those works were groundbreaking, even titillating. But when I compare them against her most recent In The Garden trilogy, I feel a perverse relief that she, too, had to start somewhere and those early steps were uncertain and coltish.

It's an amazing thing watching your own work grow. I'm torn between embarrassment and pride when I read my very first book; embarrassment at my heavy reliance on adjectives and character stereotypes, but pride in the dialogue and the fact that I actually finished the stupid thing. Right now I'm re-reading Swithcraft and seeing the tears and uneven seams in the story. But I also see that I'm growing as a novelist. Within the wreckage of a first draft, I also see those shining moments when at the first try, I got a scene right, or surprised myself when the character seemed to take over for a moment and reveal something very human about him or herself. Nevertheless I have my work cut out for me, but I'm excited by challenge and confident that with two books under my belt, that I can do this.

You'd think that the accolades like having my first book be named #1 in Chick Lit would make this easier. But it doesn't. If anything it raises the stakes because now y'all have higher expectations. I hope if I can't yet exceed them, that I meet them.

With that, pray for me.