And The Mariachi Band Played On

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I wrote this for an anthology last year and then realized that it missed the point of the theme. It’s not doing any good just sitting in my hard drive … so decided to share it. Enjoy! jerjonji

By jerjonji

The eight-foot tall dancing dinosaur skeleton puppet wove and twirled to the sounds of the Mariachi band as the crowd on the sidelines cheered. Children mimicked its steps on the curb as their parents and grandparents goaded them on. Antique cars decked out in vibrant yellow and gold marigold putted down the street. In the hot Albuquerque November sun, the ancient Ford covered in pennies glittered and shimmered while the Barbie art car made spectators laugh, point, and jostle for the perfect photograph of the car covered in naked Barbies. People in Calaveras face paint waved and passed out candy into the grubby outstretched tiny palms. Each white face elaborately done up with delicate frons, hearts, and flowers. None of them gruesome or scary like the older teens begging for candy in the neighborhood the night before with their fake blood masks and ugly criminals, but cheerful and happy in a zany way; it was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Day, November 1st. The day to remember those who’d gone on before, to drink their favorite drinks and eat their favorite foods. A holiday older than the arrival of the Spaniards to the West Coast, some experts said the day celebrating family members who died was thousands of years old.

Maria groaned and shifted in her overlarge soccer chair placed carefully by her grown son in the shade, far from the crowd. “Momma, You can’t see anything back here. All the children want to be up front.”

Maria waved him off. She’d been coming to the parade since she was the age of newest great-grand child, a babe in a modern day baby pack that let the child cling to the mother, similar to the way the women back in the old days carried their child while they worked in the fields picking crops. Not that her granddaughter had spent one day working the land. Maria protected all her children and grandchildren from that experience. Every stray penny went into a jar and when full of change, she dumped it out in the center of the worn quilt her grandmother had made years ago and rolled it into tight cylinders carted to the bank in the bottom of her purse and exchanged for a stamp in a small bank book. Over the years, she filled a stack of bankbooks. When her oldest, Manuel, wanted to drop out of high school and go to work with his uncle at the Brick Factory, she shared her secret.

“Manuel, what’s your secret heart’s desire? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?”

Manuel, tall and dark like his father, with her own father’s eyes, stammered a bit before admitting he wanted to cook- not like his mother, but like the old white woman on TV with the funny voice who made exotic dishes.

“So- go,” she declared. And Manuel was sent off to study culinary cooking, a term she’d never heard until Manuel confessed his deepest secret. Now, he was the top chef at hottest restaurant in the city. They told her that you needed reservations weeks in advance to get a table. She didn’t care much for the food at his restaurant, not that she’d ever admit it to his face, but when he cooked for her at home, using her momma’s recipes, she believed every penny was well spent.

As each of her children came of age, she repeated the experience. The surgical nurse who worked with heart attack patients was on duty the day she had her first heart attack. It helped knowing her child’s hands would be in the room while the doctors cut her apart and put her back together again. Another studied business and worked as a bank manager in the same branch she’d been using all these years. With each success, came more success, and her funds became the family bank. Borrow momma’s money, pay it back with just a little bit more, and borrow it again. It paid for new roofs, new cars, braces, and the occasional family emergency. She hadn’t asked the children to pay it back, but when Manuel offered the first time, she was a little short for paying Jose’s tuition bill and accepted.

Sami, the bank manager, was in charge of the family’s finances now. After her third heart attack, she turned over the little bank books to her energetic and determined child who’d grown into a woman she barely recognized. An independent, freethinking woman with no patience for useless people, Sami was shocked at the amount her poor little mother had accumulated in a lifetime of working in the fields, washing dishes in small restaurants, and sewing sequins on the elaborate Mariachi charro costumes. If family member didn’t pay back the money fast enough, Sami scolded them heartlessly. “Momma worked her whole life for that money. She never took vacations, bought new cars, or spent a dime on herself, and you’re driving what? Who bought that car? Momma! Not another loan until you pay it all back! And don’t you dare go to Momma about this. You know her heart can’t take it.”

Secretly, Maria smiled at Sami’s fierceness. Some of the family needed her toughness. She’d been right to send the girl to get her MBA when everyone said girls didn’t need advanced degrees. It was enough for her to have a college degree. But it wasn’t enough for Maria. She wanted all of her living children to achieve the very best, and if that meant more schooling, go get it! Besides, if that little great grandchild was to reach for the stars, the rest had to pay up. The original money was long gone. It hadn’t been that much when she sent Manuel off.

The strains of the Mariachi tune hung in the air and Maria’s feet moved slightly to the music. “Momma, want anything? I’m taking the kids for ice cream.” Maria waved away her youngest child who was surrounded by a host of wiggling children. She couldn’t hear the music over all their confusion.

The coolness of the shade felt cooler after her mass of offspring disappeared into the crowd. The strings of the guitars strummed and hummed as the men in maroon cowboy style suits covered in silver and gold sequins surrounded her. They tipped their matching wide brim Mexican cowboy hats and flirted with her, smiling and winking suggestively. She laughed in appreciation. She’d attached every single tiny jewel to their outfits years ago and yet neither the suits or the men playing had aged at all.

A child, a tiny skeleton, wearing an old-style cotton dress, pulled her up out of the chair and they danced. One foot, then two, the odd couple spun around and around the invisible hat on the ground. They danced like she’d danced so often in her youth. When had she quit dancing? It felt so good, so perfect, to be out of that chair and letting her body flow nearly subconsciously to the familiar steps and music.

“Oh,” she said, finally recognizing the child. “It’s been so long! I’ve missed you terribly. I cried and cried when you left us.”

The child, silent and grinning, danced another step as the Mariachi band started up again. Maria, lost in her memories, laughed aloud, and grabbed the child’s bony fingers.

“Oh, Momma,” Manuel cried out when he returned to the lifeless body of the woman he thought would never leave him. “Oh Momma!”

The More I Know…

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… the less I know! Anyone else feel that way? I’ve been revisiting writing queries and am beginning to feel like I know the format… and then, I realize that what I really need to know is something else- something completely different!

The same thing happens when I’m researching a topic for one of my novels. I spent nearly a year learning about the Native Americans living in New Jersey before it was New Jersey and then realized that I really needed to study the War of 1812 (and all it’s causes and results)… and then realized I needed to know about the New Jersey Quakers (before and after the War of 1812). Needless to say, that book was late! Very late! (And I have a ton of information I didn’t use stuck in my brain.)

Knowledge is a funny thing. If you meet an expert on something, the first thing they’ll start telling you is all the things they don’t know– yet (if they’re honest). It’s easy to become narrower and narrower in your research and not see the external connections you need to comprehend in order to completely understand the first topic.

So, I keep on learning and keep on thinking and keep on gathering up useless facts and tidbits in hopes that they’ll lead me where I need to go and don’t yet know I need to go there! Oh for a knowledge GPS!

Demons of Doubt

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The demons of doubt roam freely in the brain of creative people. They jeer and challenge until the writer is left in knots, tangled so tightly in their critique that it is all nonsense and stuff that goes poof like a dandelion in the hands of a toddler. Crippled, full of anxiety, second guessing every word, the writer stops- sometimes for a day, and sometimes for forever.

I keep demon slayers on my desk surface, swords drawn, ready to slash to a bloody death any doubt demon that wanders by. Some days, they fight a good fight and lose, exhausted and damaged by the warfare for my work. Other days, their sheer bravado takes the day and I write like my fingers are on fire, the words flowing faster than I can manage to type. Those are good days.

“Finish the work,” we tell new writers. “Turn off the editor in your brain until it’s finished,” we insist, knowing full well that without that control, the story demanding its freedom will be forever enslaved inside the tunnels of your neuron synapses. And yet, there are days… there are days… Fight well, my protectors, you are needed.

Fueling the Creativity Fire

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I unofficially type “THE END” in my mind as I finish the last page of my newest tale… and then I mope and grieve and say goodbye to the characters that have lived in my mind forever and are now gone.

They aren’t really gone. In front of me I face revisions, editing, more revisions, more editing, and then it’s off to the publisher for more editing and then… the magical cover reveal and release date. But the creative part for me ends with “the end” as I finish the story I meant to tell and I free the spirits I’ve held captive during this process.

In the days following, I don’t sit back down at my keyboard and start Chapter One. It’s refueling time. I read… tons and tons of things- all kinds of things. I visit the mall and sit in the food court. I make up stories about people I see outside my car window as I drive to the store. I watch foreign TV and I catch up on all the famous people gossip (who has a new show coming, who is singing with whom, and who was caught in NY last month and why). I watch those stupid Youtube videos with silly babies, cats, and dogs, and I search for new artists. And I read some more. I study a genre- not one I’m going to write in, but a new one so that I can figure out what makes that kind of story work and doesn’t. I carry around a notebook and make new character sketches and story plots. I answer email (and compose mental emails to those pesky spam emails). I fingerpaint with the two year old and make paper dolls with the six year old. I shop and shop and shop… and I’m in the kitchen, cooking and baking and making crafty type things.

I’m filling up- getting ready to write. To the outsider, it looks like procrastination. It may be procrastination, but it works for me. When I sit down to write again, it will pour out like an unstopped dam until the story is done and the vessel is empty. If I try to write before I’m full, I bang around on the keys, distracted and vexed.

Creativity needs to be fed something besides candy hearts and Hershey bars. It needs to feel, taste, and roll around in life. It needs to listen to new sounds, see new places, and touch new substances. It needs words and music and art until the brain is brimming and sloshing out from the overflow. So don’t be afraid to fill it up before you let it! It’s all part of the same process to me!

 

 

Marketing Books 101

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The topic of actually selling your books after you’re published came up at Writer’s Group last night and I shared my “vast, unsuccessful” strategies. They are the following:

  1. Be nice… No, really. My Grams used to say (just like yours did) “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” and while I know my readers aren’t flies (because I’ve never met a fly that could read as far as I could tell though that might explain their attraction to the paper I’m reading in the summer), it’s critical to remember that even those that hate you are human beings fighting their own battles that you know nothing of. Give them the grace you crave as another human being. You are your brand- not your publisher, editor, or writer friend… just you!
  2. Use Social Media. I’m still struggling to get this under control and while it was suggested that I pre-write and time things to post as specific times, I’d rather be a bit more real and sporadic. It’s a painful choice between writing and promotion. If I’m writing, I’m not marketing and if I’m marketing, I’m not… well, you know. Balance… ah, I fight for a sense of balance.
  3. Go where your readers are…. If only I knew where to go! Where are all those YA readers? Sometimes, I just need to go somewhere where people are even if they aren’t my people and be very nice to them! So you’ll find me at conventions that aren’t necessarily geared towards my readers, but I’m there, being real and happy and stepping outside my comfort zone.
  4. Be Professional. Treat everyone with respect and use those manners your Grams whacked into you? Your Grams didn’t chase you around the yard with a broom? Your loss! Mine taught me a lot about being respectful! And Thankful! I’m thankful for every reader, for every person who stops by a booth to talk to me, who takes my handouts happily, who friends me on Facebook and leaves thoughtful comments, and who leaves reviews after they read.
  5. Try new things. Experiment and learn. One friend leaves her bookmarks everywhere. I don’t think they’ve resulted in a single sale, but she’s trying! I’ve given writing workshops, given books away for reviews (which rarely happen), and I keep working on perfecting the craft of writing. I’ve paid for Facebook ads which has generated views (and no sales). I’ve entered local and international writing events (and still no sales). I blog and network and teach… no sales. But I have to keep trying to develop that base of readers who hound me for the next book (it’s in the works!).

So you read all this and just now realized that I have no magic answers (or sales)… yep, that’s right. No matter how well you write, there are no shortcuts that I’ve found that result in sales. But as Grams always said, “Get back in this house and finish your chores before I beat you,” or in other words, “I love you. Keep trying! Don’t give up! Finish what you started!”

Writer’s Group Doesn’t Hate You

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I see you sitting there, shoulders clenched tightly under your bulky coat, papers in front of you untouched, mouth tightened. I know you’re a hot mess underneath that fake calm you’re projecting to the group. Your thoughts are racing, the anger’s rising, and it’s taking all your self-control to stay in the hard metal chair while the urge to fly grows.

Here’s the thing you don’t understand. We’ve all been there- right there in that hard seat- feeling those same emotions- but we’ve returned and done it all over again. The real test is if there is a next time.

Can you hear me yet? We don’t hate you. We don’t even think that you’re a terrible writer. We think you’re brave for sharing it and braver still for sitting there as we take it apart and put it back together again. Some of your mistakes are classic newbie ones that you’ll learn quickly to avoid while others are complex and more of a teaching tool for the rest of the group.

It’s not about you at all in fact. The focus is on the work and how to make it the best work you can write- and in the end, when it’s over, it’ll be up to you to decide which changes to make or reject. Not all our suggestions are on target or meet the needs of your story.

I suspect that you’re used to people reading your work and telling you how great it is, but that’s not our role. We focus on the things that don’t work because we only have a limited time before it’s the next writer’s turn. You’ll know you’re good when silence falls over the group after your work is read. It will happen to you- if you’re still at the table.

Writing is a craft. Every writer who takes it seriously is on a journey. When we critique your writing at writer’s group, it’s to help teach you the craft, not to say your writing is terrible. Everyone’s writing is terrible- all the time- that’s why we rewrite, edit, polish, and beta read it. We are not there to be your cheerleader or friend. We are there to help your journey end in mastery. What we’re trying to teach you are the same mistakes we made until someone taught us. Sometimes, we still make those same mistakes until someone points them out to us. That’s why we go to writer’s group. Check your ego at the door and bring on the work. Your other choice is to listen to the primal need for flight and not return. Please return!

Paying Dues

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You occasionally see photos of authors at book signings with empty chairs and stacks of books no one is buying and before you publish, you’re a bit arrogant, and think, “That won’t be me. My book will sell itself.” Not true.

Part of garnering attention for it means sitting in an arts and crafts consignment shop on a cold rainy Saturday and waiting for nonexistent customers or going to a book signing at a bus stop that’s quit running. It means selling books to all your friends and family and inviting them to signings so the room is full. It requires marketing, more marketing, and yet more marketing, having faith that one day a small miracle will happen and your book will stand out.

As I explore the wonderful world of not selling books, I’m learning what didn’t work this time failed for a different reason than what didn’t work last time. It’s like collecting rejection slips and writing synopsis before you find a publisher- you’re paying dues.

Am I done trying things or thinking outside the box? Not at all. What I am doing now is looking for places where people gather and asking if I can share that space. I’ve banded together with other writers so there are lots of ideas. I’ve done some things that work but I’m open to suggestions. What works for you- on a shoe string budget?

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