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What I Learned On My Fifth Summer College Tour: A Mom’s Survival Guide

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Like most parents with juniors and seniors in high school, I’ve spent some of my summer touring colleges. This was my fifth time around, so I thought it was time to pass on what I’ve learned.

Does It Really Matter Where Your Child Goes to College?
In our experience, not so much. We had three children graduate from private schools—one Ivy, two middle-reach schools—and one from a large State university. All four of our graduates landed jobs and are supporting themselves. Three are working in their chosen fields.

Without exception, our children were hired not because they had degrees or graduated from a particular school, but because they had done other useful things during their college years. Press your children to take advantage of field work, internships, co-ops, part-time jobs, and any other sorts of opportunities that translate into work experience on a resume. For instance, one of our sons earned a film studies degree, and is now working as an art director in Hollywood because he had a summer job as a carpenter. His tool belt helped him land entry level positions and move up quickly from there because of his degree. Another son, an English major, wrote copy for web sites while in school. He was immediately hired by a big PR firm to develop digital copy for company web sites.

And by the way? The child who went to the large (and affordable) State university received the most job-related opportunities after graduation. She’s now in grad school but has easily found work along the way because of her hands-on experiences. Relax. Your kid doesn’t have to go to an Ivy to succeed.

Let Your Child Drive
I mean this both figuratively and literally. Literally, let your child drive the car at least part of the time. Your child is about to feel—and be—independent. Driving will allow your child to “feel” how far away a school is, what the surrounding area is like, etc. That’s all important information. It’s also crucial for your child to drive the college tour process, helping you plot out your journey. The initial list of schools to tour should be your child’s. (Ideally, your child will have generated that list with a guidance counselor who has given him or her a realistic expectation of what qualifies as a “reach” or a “safety” school based on your child’s high school record.) Then you can add a few.

Don’t Judge a School Until You’ve Seen It
Every college will trumpet about “hands-on experiences,” “personal attention,” “topnotch faculty,” and their U.S. News & World Report status. That’s fine, but see the schools for yourself. A lot of teenagers don’t really know what will “feel” right until they actually stand on different campuses. Try to walk around in the city or town the college is in as well as touring the campus. Trust me. Your child will know if a school fits.

Ask Questions
When it’s question-and-answer time on an admissions tour, don’t be afraid to ask questions that might embarrass your kids, like what the freshman advising system is like, the student retention rate, what percentage of students do internships and coops, what the career development office does during the years your child is there, what social activities are offered on weekends, etc.

Eat Your Way Across the Nation
Since our youngest is a boy, I packed lots of food in the car this summer. Yet we stopped every two hours to eat in restaurants anyway. Why? Because eating on campus or in restaurants in a school’s geographic area is a way for your child to visualize what it would be like to live there. Most schools will let you eat in their dining halls, so be sure to do that as well.

If You Miss a School on Your List, It’s Okay
There are only a certain number of days in your vacation, so you might not make it to every school on your child’s list. That’s fine! Encourage your child to apply anyway. If he or she is admitted, you can go to one of the “admitted students” days, where the college will try to woo you with food and information. Many colleges also arrange overnights for prospective students.

No Matter What, Don’t Panic
I’ve had children balk on tours and demand to leave “because the kids here are all posers.” I’ve had children say they’d slit their wrists if they had to attend a certain school, then choose that school and be happy there anyway. One of my daughters told me that a certain dormitory “is begging me to throw myself out the window.”

Two of our children decided to transfer after they’d spent a year or two at their top choice schools and discovered they didn’t like them. They both ended up in better schools—sometimes admission to a top-tier college is easier if your child has already earned good grades at another school.

My point is this: no matter what choice your child makes, don’t panic. Take a close look at the financial packages—be sure there aren’t a lot of loans embedded in the package, and definitely calculate in the cost of two or three roundtrip airline tickets per year if the school is far away—and then, if the school your child chooses is affordable, go for it. Never mind if you don’t think it’s the right fit, or if you really wish you had a good excuse to spend Parents Weekend in Vermont (where I took this picture while waiting for my son to check out a skate park near the University after our tour) instead of New York City. The most important thing is that your child is happy with the choice and ready to embrace the experience of college.

Should You Publish Indie or Traditional? A Hybrid Author Busts the Myths

Yesterday, I gathered with a group of area writers at the Haverhill Public Library Authors Fair. My table was situated between Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, an author who publishes traditionally, and Connie Johnson Hambley, a self-published mystery writer. This was the perfect place for me: I’m a hybrid author who has jumped from a traditional publisher (Random House) to indie publishing and back to a traditional house again. As I start my fourth novel to be published by New American Library/Penguin Random House, I have no contract for the next one. This means that I’m revisiting the all-important question for many writers: do I want to go solo when I publish my next book, or stay where I am?
This is a good time to roundup what I’ve learned about publishing. In the process, I want to dismantle four common myths:

1. Publishers are Out to Screw Authors
MYTH. Publishing companies are businesses that compete in a global marketplace. Their job is to make money—and, in so doing, they will make money for you.
With a traditional publisher, you will get royalties from your books—typically about 25 percent of ebook sales. This is much less than the percentage of royalties you’ll get if you self publish. Rates vary, but with self publishing, you’ll reap about 65 percent of a book sale as your royalty rate.
On the other hand, with a traditional publishing deal, you will get an advance against royalties—anywhere from $5K to $45K for most first-time novelists, though of course there are some pie-in-the-sky whopper deals. You will also get—for free!–an editor, publicist, marketing team, designers, sales people, etc. Your team at a traditional publisher will help you whip your book into shape and get it into the hands of readers.
People who self publish don’t get advances, obviously. In addition, they must shell out money in advance to designers, editors, copy editors, publicists, advertising venues, reviewers, etc.
Bottom line: Yes, I have friends who self publish and make buckets of money. However, the only self-published authors who really make a solid profit are those who are willing to write several books a year; have deep pockets to get the whole business of branding started; and most likely write romances, mysteries, or fantasy novels in series. Most say it takes them four or five books before they start seeing a solid, reliable annual profit.

2. You Have More Control as an Indie Author
SOMEWHAT TRUE. Everything—and I mean everything—is up to you as an indie author: writing, editing (or hiring editors), design, marketing, promotions, etc. You can decide everything from what kind of brand you want to create to how you want to promote that brand. Nobody can tell you, for instance, that you can’t write a paranormal book because your last book was a romance. You call the shots, and it’s a great feeling.
There is also a great deal of transparency. Your sales are visible nearly to the minute, and you can tell with some degree of accuracy whether certain ads or blog posts have caused upward tics in sales. If you’re with a traditional publisher, you probably won’t have any clear idea as to how many books you’ve sold until you get your royalty statement six months after your book is published, because traditional publishers have agreements with bookstores about returns—i.e., the books you “think” you’ve sold might actually be returned, so the publishers don’t want to tell you how many have gone out until they’re sure the books won’t be returned.
The flip side? Publishers are starting to listen to writers clamoring for more transparency. For example, Penguin is now adopting Random House’s “author portal,” which allows writers to see their royalties any time they wish, along with other info about sales, and of course we can also do that through BookScan on Amazon.
Bottom Line: Indie authors have more control both in writing and in the publishing process than traditional authors.

3. Indie Authors Spend More Time Marketing
SOMEWHAT TRUE. With marketing, Indie authors shoulder a lot of responsibility. They tend to be fiercely proactive with social media, and are paying up front for their own ads, Kirkus reviews, and publicists.
Today’s traditionally-published authors should also be building their platforms through social media, as well as meeting booksellers and librarians and participating in conferences and literary festivals.
Bottom line: The only marketing advantage traditionally-published writers have over our indie colleagues is that we have access to wider distribution through bookstores and international sales.

4. It’s Faster to Self-Publish
TRUE. To land a deal with a traditional house, you need an agent, and finding one takes time and a lot of networking. The agent might then ask you to revise the book before she shops it around to editors. This can take months.
Once an editor buys your book, you’re in for another round of revisions, first with the editor, and then with a copy editor, before the book goes into production. This process can take another year or more.
Seems like forever, right? However, if you’re going to write the best book possible, you don’t want to rush it. You’re going to want to show your book to beta readers and hire an editor and copy editor if you can swing it. I’ve seen too many talented self-published authors make the mistake of releasing their books too soon, simply because they’ve self-imposed some arbitrary deadline and don’t want to take the time to revise their books again.
Bottom line: it’s faster to publish your own books, but you never sacrifice quality for quantity when your name is on the cover.

As you’re polishing up that manuscript, consider these two key questions: Do you want to invest money up front and build your brand as an indie author, basically running your own business as you go? Or would you rather take more time and try the traditional route first?
Weigh your pro’s and con’s carefully, and don’t rush into anything. This is your book—you want it to be the best one possible.

How Writing a Synopsis is Like Carving Soap

I just turned in my synopsis to my editor for the next novel, and truthfully? By the end I felt like I did at Girl Scout camp, when they used to have us carve flowers and animals out of bars of soap. (I have no idea why the Boy Scouts across the way got to whittle sharp sticks, but we had to use soap.)

Just as that bar of soap would slip through my fingers until I finally got enough curves and edges dug into it, allowing me to hold it firmly between my sweaty little hands, the synopsis for a new book always seems likely to slip through my grasp. It’s unwieldy and shapeless and feels like it could dissolve at any moment.

And then, suddenly, there is a magical moment where the shape of the book appears, where the characters take life even in the relatively short span of a synopsis and let you know what the real story is. Then I can dig my fingers into it and keep refining the shape until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end—or, if I’m carving soap, a flower, a butterfly, or a polar bear.

Here are 4 tips to help you survive writing a synopsis, whether you’re pitching a new novel to different publishing houses or just trying to convince your editor that your next book will be your best yet:

1. Start out by writing single tag lines for your book. Stuck? Check the descriptions of similar books on Amazon, or Google famous quotes about whatever broad topic you’re tackling, whether it’s chance, hope, family, death, etc. Picture that tag line on your book cover, right under the title. This will tell your editor—and you—what your book’s main question or theme will be.

2. Once you have the tag line, write the copy for your book cover. This should be exciting copy that summarizes what the reader will get out of your book: “In this riveting debut thriller, lawyer Nancy Grace wakes up one morning to discover that she has just been nominated for a popular reality dance show on television. Little does she know that…”

3. The tag line and the book cover copy will probably keep morphing as you write the synopsis, but by now you should know what your book is “about.” Now you can cobble together the basic plot elements of the story. Start at the beginning and just tell the story the way you would describe the highlights of a movie to a friend over dinner: “At the start of the novel, Nancy is working at her desk when the phone rings. It’s a call she never expected…” Move on through the key events in the novel. And, yes, I mean go through the story right to the end—editors want to know what they’re buying, and most of them hope for a solid resolution that will make readers happy.

4. Finally, once you’ve written out the synopsis, offer a couple of sample sections of your book. These can just be brief but key scenes from each point of view to give the editor a taste of what the book will feel and sound like—is the tone comic or dark? Will there be lush descriptive passages, or will the writing be fast-paced and to the point? Again, the main thing here is to show your editor exactly what you have in mind.

That’s it! Despite how slippery, unwieldy, and impossible this bar of soap—oops, I mean this synopsis—feels, I promise that if you trust in the process, you’ll find an editor who will be a good match for your book. Even better, you’ll end up with a blueprint that will make writing the book easier.

Need a Great Summer Read? Want to Avoid a Bad One?

As always, I use summer as an excuse to plow through the books collecting on my nightstand (as well as under it). To qualify as a “great summer read,” I want a book that offers sympathetic characters, depth of emotion, and a forward narrative momentum that keeps me sitting on the porch long after the fireflies have gone to bed.

Here are the beach reads I’ve tried so far that I thought would meet that criteria. Some did, some didn’t.

COVER OF SNOW by Jenny Milchman
This hair-raising book centers on Nora Hamilton, the wife of a cop whose world is turned upside down when her husband commits suicide. It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, and this book, with its fantastic descriptions of small-town life in the Adirondacks and tense emotions, grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Milchman’s muscular prose delivers psychological terror, creepy side characters, and amazingly beautiful (if grim) descriptions of the landscape.

THE VACATONERS by Emma Straub
For something a little lighter, reach for this this astonishingly clever, often side-splittingly funny romp. You think your family is dysfunctional? Check out the Posts, who take a vacation with their children and friends to the island of Mallorca, Spain. There is lust and fighting aplenty, yet somehow Straub manages to make every one of her characters likeable—plus, she has some extremely wise, tender observations about love, family, and friendships to share along the way.

BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is one hot mess of an almost-great book. I picked up BITTERSWEET because it had gotten so much media attention that I couldn’t avoid it. As someone who loves a good Gothic read of any kind, I was really looking forward to this novel because it seemed to have everything I adore: a wealthy creepy family, a gorgeous lakeside setting, and a dumpy heroine looking for love in all the wrong places. I read it straight through in two days, so kudos to the author for keeping my interest. There are plenty of plot twists and enough sex to keep you turning pages. However, the writing is overwrought—a stylistic thing, perhaps—and, by the time I finished this book, I regretted the time spent on it. The plot twists are completely improbable (and yet predictable), one plot line is dropped completely, there were a lot of sluggish paragraphs, and the characters—without exception—were completely annoying. By the end of the book I was kind of hoping some giant sinkhole would swallow the entire family compound.

STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS by Anna Quindlen
I’ve always liked Anna Quindlen for her heartfelt emotions, crisp writing, and the way she approaches topical issues (domestic violence, for instance) without seeming to hit you over the head with the themes. I wanted to love this book, since the themes and bones of the story are good—they deal with a woman artist who is sixty years old and believes her best years are behind her, only to discover, as she spends time alone in a cabin in the woods, that it is, indeed, possible to reinvent yourself—as well as the nature of art and how that defines you when you succeed (or fail). However, much of the writing and story felt underdeveloped to me, and the May-December romance with the hunky roofer just feels tacked on to keep female readers happy.

THE COLD SONG by Linn Ullmann
I’m a big fan of mystery novels for summer reads, especially those set in exotic places. This one, set in Norway, is ostensibly about the murder of a nanny, but its real focus is the family that employed her. Ullmann is extremely skilled at moving between multiple points of view—no easy task—and her descriptions are energetic and captivating at times. She also does a great job when writing about tension in a marriage, incompetent parenting, and writer’s block. However, most of the characters are people you’d cross the street to avoid, and the narrative momentum wavers and finally dies out completely. If you’re looking for a taut, fast-paced mystery, this book is definitely not for you.

WHITE HEAT by M.J. McGrath
Since we have a summer house in Canada, I’ve been searching high and low for great reads set in Canada. This is one of my favorites. WHITE HEAT takes place on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the Arctic circle, and it’s the first novel in a series featuring hunter, tourist guide, and sometimes-detective Edie Kiglatuk, a half-Inuit woman. Here, Edie is drawn into solving a mystery revolving around the death of her stepson and two tourists. The book is rich with geological and cultural details that are almost as gripping as the mystery itself, such as when our heroine downs a bowl of seal blood, builds a snow cave for her husky, or stands still as lemmings race over her feet.

Every Writer’s Nightmare: The Photo Shoot

The singer Lorde recently made headlines for posting “actual” pictures of herself, acne scars and all, when the media ran digitally-altered pictures showing her with a perfect creamy perfection. Her photos were accompanied by a healthy message: “Remember, flaws are ok.”

I kept repeating that mantra as I suffered through a photo shoot recently for my next novel. It didn’t work. The minute the photographer sent me the proofs, I said, “Um, isn’t there a way you can, you know, tweak these?”

Shame on me, I know. But hell. If my author photo is going to grace Amazon pages, web sites, and press materials from my publisher, do I really want to look like Homer Simpson after a thirty-year binge of beer and chips?

I didn’t even want a new author photo. I’m the one in my family who always holds the camera and is therefore never in family pictures. There’s a reason for that: I’m camera-shy. Or maybe even camera-phobic.

Besides, I was pleased as punch with the publicity shot I already had–the one you see on my web site now. This photo was taken by my daughter’s friend, a woman in her twenties who wasn’t afraid to smooth and liquify and do whatever else was necessary to make me look like I must have as a bride the first time around, before raising a blended family of five children, moving four times, weathering health and financial crises, and writing books around the clock—a practice that means I’m hunched in front of the computer for seven hours at a time. Not exactly a recipe for aging gracefully.

However, I hate picking up subsequent books by authors through the years and seeing the same photo over and over. I’m disappointed—I want to see how other people change over time.

When this photographer sent me the unretouched photos, I was—I admit it—shocked by the lines in my face. But that was only because it was MY face. If this were someone else’s face—some other author’s or actor’s—I would love these photographs as art, as portraits of someone who looks intelligent and compelling. Someone who has taken risks, loved, lost, and lived a full life.

Yes, that’s the adjective I’ll hang my hat on: “compelling.” I am not getting wrinkles. I’m gaining character in my face. Those laugh lines were meant to be there. So were the furrows between my eyebrows. After all, you can’t write novels without thinking hard for hours, weeks, months at a stretch about these other worlds you’re creating. Do I want to look expressionless, smoothed by Photoshop or Botox? I do not.

Well, that’s a lie. Part of me really does want to look that way. I want to be as wise as I am now while still having the breasts and skin and knees of a twentysomething. I want to have my family and my husband and my house and my garden, my whole writer’s life—but I want to have the energy I had at thirty.

I miss my youth. But, if I had to choose between author photos of a young woman who has yet to live, and these pictures of a writer who has children and friends and a husband she adores, and work she is so impassioned about that she wants to sit at the computer for hours at a time, then I will choose the pictures of that woman. I want to look like what I am: a writer who has lived and learned, and is living and learning, still, full steam ahead.

I emailed the photographer back. “I’d still like you to tweak those photos a little,” I said, “but just a little. I still want to look like me.”