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Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Victory Isn't In The Song

Yes, I know. I haven't blogged in almost a month. My last post took a lot out of me. I try not to post about things quite that personally impactful--devastating, I should say. In fact, Sharon DeVita's death sucked me dry of words. All words. For a month, I have not written. I could not write.

Not.
One. 
Single. 
Word. 

I haven't even signed a check.

I think when writers get depressed, it's seriously feast or famine. Some writers pour everything into their work, and create these amazing magna opa that live for centuries. Others, like me, turn their faces to the wall and shut the laptops down. When I get into this state, it usually takes a fairly sizable breakdown to get me going again. Well, got that out of the way today, along with the early summer strep that always seems to find my house, and so here I am at four AM trying to figure out where my damn glasses are, where my last writing file went, and how to reignite my writer's mojo. 

Fortunately, I have a secret weapon.


Remember this? Spring, 2009? Britain's Got Talent?

Okay, let's be honest--and I certainly will be as well. When I first watched Susan Boyle walk out on stage, the cold-blooded professional actor side of me immediately began to tear her down before she even opened up her mouth. Yep. I catalogued her faults right down to her toes--frumpy, fussy, social misfit, bad hair, bad teeth, bad dress, stage fright, sensible shoes. I knew, because I used to thrive in the cutthroat world of auditioning, that this woman was about to emerge as one of the most spectacular failures in entertainment history. I knew that she could no more sing Les Mis than she could fly. I Dreamed a Dream is not an easy song. (Ask Anne Hathaway, whose own performance of the song was actually a brilliant way for an actress to reclaim the song from this particular video and association. Totally deserved the Oscar, in my opinion)And so, I settled back to watch Susan Boyle make an ass of herself. Ready to laugh. Just like that nasty-faced kid in the audience, I was waiting to...well...feel superior.

And then she opened her mouth. 

By the end of the first line, everyone watching (including me) didn't care that she was pudgy, or that she was forty-seven and never been kissed. By the end of the first verse, the audience was on its feet. By the end of the song, the most unlikely star imaginable had been born. 

By the end of the fourth time I'd watched it, in a row, all I could think of was "Thank God I wasn't that girl in that audience with the camera on my face before she sang." 

Now it's summer, 2015, and I'm the one who's in my forties, wearing sensible shoes, and confronting my dreams head on. Now I stand where she did six years ago. And in one of those authorial catharses that always end up on writers' blogs, I have to ask myself something vitally important. 

Am I willing, now, to stand up and chase my dreams? At my age? At my station in life? In sensible shoes? (I draw the line at frumpy or fussy, though. I have always been fashion forward. My shoes may be sensible, but they're hot.) 

Conventional wisdom dictates to our society that forty-seven-year old women don't go on a talent search and create superstardom for themselves. Only the twenty somethings can do that, or the fifteen-somethings if you're a home schooled old soul from a farm in NY. In writing, it's kind of the same thing. It' s hard to break in anymore without a real platform--a built-in audience/market for your work. The publishing world is so glutted by self-pubbed, indie pubbed, e-pubbed, and vanity pubbed books that even the traditionally pubbed books aren't exactly flying off the shelves--unless you're a Kardashian taking selfies of yourself. 

Amazing what can get people called "authors" these days. 

We all find ourselves in a moment where we're facing a mirror, trying to analyze ourselves and our chances. How many of us will take our courage and our dreams in hand and head to a nationally televised competition? How many of us are as out and out gutsy as Susan Boyle must have been? 

How many of us can supersede our own self-image, and dare to start over? 

Here's the most important thing, though, for all of us to take away from the Susan Boyle audition video. The salient moment happens at 4:48. Susan Boyle has finished singing, received her ovation, blown her kisses, and before the judges say a word, she turned and headed offstage. I wasn't as impressed by that then as I am now. She was there, ostensibly, to dream her own dream, right? To chase something no one had ever given her a chance to even try before. 

But she doesn't need validation from the cynics at the judges' table. She doesn't need those three yeses. Why? 

Because she'd gotten what she came for. Not the fame. Not the fortune. Not stardom or thirteen and a half million YouTube views. She came to sing. That's it. To prove that she could, to prove to no one but herself that her dreams were as important, as valid at 47 as they'd been at 27. I don't think Susan Boyle went to win Britain's Got Talent--as, in fact, she did not. Susan Boyle went to win Susan Boyle.

She went for no other reason than to prove that she could sing, and only to prove it to herself. So once she'd succeeded, once the audience had fallen in love with her and Simon Cowell had sighed like a fangirl, all she knew was that she'd done what she set out to do. She'd gotten what she wanted from herself, and no one else mattered.

God knows I wish I was more like that. 

As artists, we're always striving to please people-people we don't know. We have to entertain, to challenge, to tantalize, and do so in such a manner that makes total strangers want to know us or, in the case of writers, our worlds, our characters, our stories. As a result, we're so damn critical of what we do that we essentially handicap ourselves. I'm not talking about the large group of writers who are seeking a regular income, writing variants of trope stories or formulaic books designed to please readers who aren't looking for books that challenge them. I'm talking about the ones who have something different to say, who are trying new ideas and trying to create new audiences. I've been both, edited both, published both. I know, as most writers do not, how many authors cripple themselves with self-criticism and either kill off their books stillborn because they're not good enough ever, or that many just write re-visits of the same story with different character names/places/things but the same story elements because it worked and they don't want to mess up a winning formula. 

It's easy to sabotage yourself. What you have to learn, more than anything else, is how to pick yourself back up. How to force yourself to move forward, how to pack up and try something that terrifies you--not because you want to 'win' something, but because more than anything else you have to prove to yourself that you actually can do it. 

Let me put it to you this way. Susan Boyle's victory that day? It didn't happen on the stage. It happened that morning, when she woke up, put on her church dress, got on the bus and headed for the BGT audition taping. Nothing was guaranteed. Nothing was certain. Everything was terrifying. But she strapped on those sensible shoes, got in line, got her audition number, and managed to keep her courage up long enough to actually walk out on that stage. 

It wasn't the song that made her into a star. The victory isn't in the song. The victory was everything that led up to the first moment she felt the stage lights on her skin. The victory was before the song.

There's a lesson in that. For all of us. And then when you consider the actual words of the song, a little chill races down your spine.

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream, I dreamed 

      --(I Dreamed A Dream, Les Miserables-composer:Claude-Michel Schonberg, Libretto: Alain Boubil, English lyrics:Herbert Kretzmer)

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed. 


How very easy it is for any of us to allow that to happen. As I said. Chills, man. Honest to God chills. Think about it.


Monday, May 18, 2015

University of Tennessee's Deal With the Nike Devil

Don't get me wrong: I like Nike. Or I did. Used to wear their tennis shoes all the time before I outgrew sneakers and accepted high heels as status footwear for grown up girls. More Jimmy Choo than Just Do It these days.

But the Nike news coming out of Knoxville is disturbing, and is certainly drawing a lot of attention from University of Tennessee sports fans. It seems that UT is doing away with the Lady Vols designation for all its women's athletic teams EXCEPT for the basketball program. I've had issues with this since it was first announced, but the release of correspondence between UT and Nike have ratcheted my unease up to all-out anger.

Why? After all, you might ask (if you're not from Tennessee or a UT alumni) what's the big deal? The proposed branding change is to create "one Tennessee", with all the athletic teams (except women's basketball) moving to the power T/Volunteers logo.

Well, there are a couple of big deals, in my opinion.

First off, doesn't this proposal completely contradict itself? How is it "one Tennessee" if the women's basketball team continues to be called the Lady Vols? That makes it most definitely TWO Tennessee--the women's basketball team and everyone else. More like a "one Tennessee" with a "one Tennessee-A."

Maybe--MAYBE--if the basketball program was changing its branding along with the other women's sports, I might not be quite as piqued. That would most definitely fall into a "one Tennessee" branding, whereas the proposal most certainly does not.

Obviously, the groundwork for the national recognition and positive focus for the Lady Vols moniker was laid almost in its entirety by Pat Summitt and her basketball team. She literally built the program from the ground up over a span of four decades, and is easily the most revered and recognized coach anywhere in women's athletics--and is the winningest coach in all of basketball, men's and women's. No one can question or deny Coach Summitt's contribution to the Volunteer Nation and women's athletics as a whole, and her teams made the Lady Vols name feared and respected throughout the NCAA as a model athletic program.

But UT has NINE other women's sports teams: softball, volleyball, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, cross country, track & field, golf, and soccer. There's a Lady Vols Hall of Fame.  Lady Vols have 10 NCAA championships--8 in basketball, 2 in indoor track and field, and 1 in outdoor track and field. Lady Vols own SIXTY-EIGHT SEC championships. Half belong to the women's basketball team with 34. Volleyball has 9 titles, track and field 8, soccer 7, cross country 5, softball 3, and rowing 2.

How is it possible for all those other teams to have their logo, their brand, their NAME negated? Why would the university want to restrict the Lady Vols name to just basketball? It doesn't make sense. The Lady Vols name represents championship athletics, high academic standards, and great ambassadors for UT and Tennessee as a whole. Even the United States, as evidenced by the 30 gold medalists who wore the orange and white.

Secondly, when did UT give so much power into the hands of Nike? And why?

In documents recently released from UT regarding the rebranding and published by Deadspin, Nike had the following to say about the proposed change to the Lady Vols designation:

Because your brand has an emotional connection with your students, staff and alumni, it is critical to keep the development of the work confidential and on a need-to-know basis. 

Let's stop and think about that for a moment.

So secondly, where is the LOGIC in changing a brand that the students, staff, and alumni have an emotional connection with?

And what's the deal with the 'need to know basis'?  Last time I checked, the University of Tennessee is a state-funded university, responsible for and answering to the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee and the students, staff, and alumni. The administration is required to consider the opinions and preferences of those individuals, without question. Where does Nike get off telling a public institution to basically keep the brand change quiet so that people don't get riled up?

And where does the administration and athletic department of UT get off going along with such a blatant disregard of the wishes of its alumni, fans, and athletes?

Did Mike Hart stop to consider that the Lady Vols branding that is so easily recognizable because of the basketball program is a benefit to their other women's teams? That the Lady Vols across the chests of our softball team leads them into the super regionals this week automatically confers upon those players the same school pride and aura of invincibility it lent to our basketball team? That we, the fans of the University of Tennessee, cherish and are proud of the Lady Vols as a whole, no matter the sport?

Apparently not.

In the press release from UT announcing the change:

Following significant branding studies by both our University and the department of athletics as well as conversations with head coaches and student-athletes, we will implement the related changes that resulted from this collaboration on July 1, 2015," said Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart.
The women's basketball program was excluded from this transition because of the accomplishments and legacy of the championship program built by Coach Pat Summitt and her former players. The Lady Volunteers nickname and brand is truly reflective of Coach Summitt and her legacy and will continue to be associated with the Tennessee women's basketball team.

Could that have been any more insulting to the softball team? The volleyball squad? All the amazing young women who have worn the Lady Vols name with pride over the course of the last four decades?

 Saturday morning, a group of Tennessee fans, alumni, and former athletes came together to protect the abolition of the Lady Vols name. The purpose of the meeting? To present 23,000 signatures on a petition to the University to keep the brand as it is. According to an article from the Examiner, no one from UT even had the courtesy to show up despite speakers like former Undersecretary of Defense Dr. Sharon Lord.

Lady Vols donor Sharon Lord, who secured the first funding for UT women's athletics back in the '70s, started off the meeting by calling an SOS. "(The University) is dismantling what was once the more revered and respected women's athletic program in our nation," she says.

The website devoted to saving the Lady Vols says this in their mission statement:

The ‘Lady Vols’ is the most successful brand in women’s collegiate athletics.   It’s a name associated with 11 national championships, over 50 SEC championships, and a multitude of Olympians.   It’s a name associated with iconic basketball coach, Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA history and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It’s a name that Lady Vols in all sports are fiercely proud of and are now fighting to keep.

 Diana Moskovitz, in her expose' of the Nike-UT Lady Vols conspiracy for Deadspin, has made the correspondence between the two parties available for all to see--and download. After perusing through more spin and PR-speak than I care to remember, I came away with one strong opinion. Nike talks a lot about helping the University "manage" the "excitement" and the launch of their new brand. And yet, that new brand hasn't generated excitement. It's generated anger, frustration, and the growing sense that the administration and athletic department of the University of Tennessee really doesn't give a rat's ass what anyone aside from Nike really thinks.

Not the athletes. Not the alumni. Not the staff. Not the fans.

Not me, not you.

Just...Nike.

By the way, Ms. Moskovitz's breakdown of the other NCAA programs who've undergone brand redesign is not only hilarious, but sobering.

"The report also notes that Nike wanted to “avoid the mark being demonic in nature,” despite the team literally being named the Sun Devils."

Yeah. Sure wouldn't want the Sun Devils to seem demonic in nature. Who'd Nike pay gazillions of dollars to for coming up with that brain trust of a comment? They'll probably decide the that central color of the daisies on the hill isn't orange enough for UT too. Idiots.

But finally, what's most sobering about this entire mess is exactly how much money and power the athletic apparel companies really have when it comes to dictating the course of NCAA universities and their athletic programs. Who would have thought that a company based in Oregon (whose state university has arguably the most hideous uniforms in all of college sports) would have the ability to come to Knoxville, Tennessee and command what that state-funded public university would do regarding its image, its branding, its fans--and then ORDER them not to let the cat out of the bag because those selfsame fans have an emotional attachment to the original brand?

To be blunt, collegiate athletics and professional athletics really are all part of the same money-generating beast, except that in collegiate athletics the massive profits go straight into the ledgers of the universities and the apparel corporations--money taken from the effort and skills of young athletes and the pockets of fans without any consideration for what either of those parties really wants.

Let's cut this down to the core, UT. If the athletes, fans, and alumni have an emotional attachment to the Lady Vols, then you'd be stupid to ignore that visceral response and try to retrain them to forget that branding ever existed. That emotional attachment keeps donor dollars pouring into your accounts and fan/alumni butts in the seats of your various venues. And if any company, even Nike, tries to convince you otherwise, then you'd best be prepared to handle the backlash.

There won't be any backlash on July 1 when this change is going into effect. There will be rage. And you've earned the right to feel the heat of that anger. As former volleyball player and Lady Vols Hall of Fame inductee Laura Lauter Smith said this past weekend:

My four little girls, they want to be a Lady Vol just like Mama. And it's sad that they ask 'why is the Lady Vol logo going away, Mama?' And I don't have an answer for them.

Unfortunately, I do. It's called greed, and the University of Tennessee administration and athletic department have fallen wholeheartedly into its pursuit.

For shame.

But there are still options for Lady Vols fans to consider, as I learned today when I called to discuss this issue with Paul Finebaum on his SEC Network show. Finebaum, recently named one of the 25 most powerful people in sports media and one of the 20 most powerful people in college sports by two different media organizations had this to say in response to my question:

"...I've been following this from a distance I don't know the details about why this is
 going down the road it's going.like everyone, I like the Lady Vols brand.I thought it spoke about Pat and everything else at the school. I have friends who live there and they don't like it either. I wish I could help you more. Maybe next week when we're down in Destin we can visit with Dave Hart the athletic director and maybe even the President down there and get their views and see where it is."

Stay tuned. Paul Finebaum rarely misses an opportunity to ask the hard questions. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to listen to what he--and they--may have to say. In his dual role as UT alum and nationally broadcast sports commentator about the SEC, his voice may be harder for the UT administration to ignore.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sharon De Vita: Love, Laughter, and her Legacy

A few days ago, the writing community and romance fans lost one of the true greats. Sharon De Vita passed away after a brief illness. Her loss cuts deeply, at least for me. And while writing a remembrance blog post isn't really my thing, I feel compelled to share with you my love and respect for Sharon and my absolute sorrow at her death.

I first met Sharon through Musa. We hadn't even opened our doors yet, and she submitted her novel The Estrogen Posse to me. My first thought was, "No way. Someone's playing a joke on me. There's no way that Sharon De Vita is submitting to us!" I mean, this was THE Sharon De Vita--NYT Bestselling author of over 30 books, winner of the RT Lifetime Achievement Award, beloved of Harlequin and Silhouette readers--why would this writer be sending ME her new novel?

But it wasn't a joke. Sharon, returning from a hiatus after the tragic death of her son, was taking her career down a new path. The Estrogen Posse was a departure from the light-hearted romances she was so well-known for. The manuscript clocked in at a hefty 150,000+ words, with elements of suspense and humor framing a recently divorced woman's quest for herself amidst murder, family turmoil, and a new romance. The first scene was a one-sided conversation between the protagonist, Ellie, and God.

And Ellie won the argument.

There was no way I was going to let that novel be published by anyone else. I'd made such a connection with the story--and its author--that I'd determined we would publish the book within the first hundred pages. We contracted the book within a few days. I edited the novel myself, and The Estrogen Posse was one of the three books we published on Musa's opening day. 

Can't think of another e-publisher who started off with such a writer/book combination, or one with a Janet Evanovich blurb on the cover. But what had started as a business relationship between Sharon and myself, morphed into an editor/author connection that was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I've ever had. By the time Musa opened for business, Sharon had become our one-woman encouragement team and biggest fan. She brought us other authors, who'd been screwed over by their traditional publishers releasing electronic versions of their books and paying them a few cents per sale. She bragged about our way of doing business, our transparency, and our support system.

Sharon was so important to us at Musa. Every time we saw her emails in our inboxes, we automatically felt good.  

What a rare gift that is! Think about it: online communication is somewhat sterile, especially in a business situation. Think of what kind of person you have to be to supersede that cold formality. Sharon was such a writer, such a wonderful person, that even in an email zipped out in two minutes flat she could evoke such warmth and sincerity and such caring that it could make four people she'd never met feel happy with just a few well-chosen words. That's why Sharon's books were so well-loved: she had such a gift with evocative language that her readers cared about her characters with the same kind of intensity that they cared about their best friends. The Kirkus reviewer for The Estrogen Posse saw the same thing: 
While working with these dark topics, the author skillfully weaves in a dose of levity without any heavy-handedness. As a result, readers jump between gasps of shock during the murder investigation and stints of uncontrolled laughter as Ellie’s ridiculous “posse” mobilizes into action. An emotional, fun-filled romp.
You see, Sharon cared about those characters and shared them with us in her books, just like she cared about us as individuals--and she shared those feelings so candidly and with such sincerity that it was impossible to doubt that she meant anything other than exactly what she said. Don't get me wrong: Sharon and I went toe-to-toe several times during the editing process. She could be just flat out ornery if she chose to. And then, once the  orneriness had passed, it was like the sun breaking through the clouds and banishing the storms from the horizon.

It's hard for me to accept that I'll never have that feeling again, that I'll never get another email or phone call from her to brighten a dark day, or that I'll never fall in love with another amazing story that came from her figurative pen. 

Sharon gave Musa another wonderful gift: her daughter, Jeanne, came to work with us at Musa and became such an integral part of the company that it was hard to imagine how we'd ever gotten along without her. Jeanne is another one like her mother--she has the same spunk, the same warmth, the same earnest interest in what's going on around her. When health issues started to come between Musa and me, Jeanne stepped in and I trusted her to do so. 

But now we find ourselves here, heartsick and sad, when the days have dimmed unaccountably and even the sounds of an Ohio spring seem to be muted. Our world of writers and readers has lost a beautiful person, one whose talent made so many people happy and whose personality and loving nature was evident in every message or interaction. But beyond that community of authors, Sharon's loss resonates on a deeper, more personal level. We have lost a member of our family, a selfless lodestone to set our course by. We have lost an advocate, who fought zealously for other writers throughout her career. We have lost an innovator, who was willing to take a chance and make the best of it. 

And I have lost a dear, dear friend. Sharon encouraged me as both an editor and a writer. She cared about what was happening in my life, and she made my life brighter once our paths intersected. Her passing was sudden and wholly unexpected, coming as it did without warning.

Sharon leaves behind her husband, Frank, her two daughters, Jeanne and Annie, and two lovely little granddaughters. She also leaves behind legions of devoted fans, bereft authors, and shattered friends. But Sharon has also left us her books--all those wonderful books, the stories that remain as her legacy--that will always remain, immortalized, like she is now. My grief is for my own sake, because I've lost someone important and dear to me, and for her family, whose pain is just so intense right now. And yet, this particular death has brought to mind something that Leonardo da Vinci once said: "As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death."

Life well used. An apt turn of phrase, and one that so embodies Sharon De Vita and the legacy of love and laughter she has bequeathed to us all. Her life was well used.

God speed you, my friend. You will be--and already are--sorely, painfully, sorrowfully missed. 

(And when I get there, wherever there is, we'll continue that argument about commas that I will, as usual, win. Or perhaps I'll let you win it, and just rejoice in the moment that we'll share.)


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

It's Official! Asphodel Returns!

I've been toying with this decision for a while. 

When my partners and I founded Musa, my writing took a back seat. Hard to be a full time writer and a full time editor at the same time. But now that I'm done with the editorial side of the desk, writing is once again my full time gig. So even as I write my new novel, in the back of my mind the thought of Asphodel kept slapping me. 

After all, the series did quite well considering that it was released only as an ebook by a small publisher better known for erotica and romance. So why not give it another shot? 

And, of course, there were the OTHER books I'd written in the Asphodel world because the story just would NOT SHUT UP. In fact, I had a whole new series written after the original four books. Same characters, different story. So while I was debating the fate of Asphodel, that other bit of information was jabbing me in the skull. Repeatedly. So I had to factor that in as well. 

Did I want to go through all the effort of getting those additional books, at present unedited, ready for publication at a standard that I, personally, would require? 

Hell, yes I did. 

So, get ready! Asphodel returns with the re-issue of the four original titles in The Asphodel Cycle: The Reckoning of Asphodel, The Gift of Redemption, The Temptation of Asphodel, and The Apostle of Asphodel over the course of this summer, 2015. In the fall of 2015, the first book of the new series, The Asphodel Saga: Servant of Dis will be published. 

And that's all she wrote. 

For now.