Archive for The Writing Life

Self Publishing, The Writing Life

Life Begins at 40

03-06-14_KateHilton19-184I remember my dad’s 40th birthday. I had a majestic Lady Di haircut and a red dress made of the finest polyester, with puffed sleeves and a neck ruffle.  My sisters and I sat on the edge of the room in our finery and watched my parents’ friends joke with each other about how old they were.  We agreed.  They were, like, totally old.

My dad got a cool new car that year – a red convertible – and we drove to school with great excitement for a few months until it became clear that the plastic windows in the convertible roof had poor visibility and weak insulation, and that the backseat was too small for three girls keen on personal space. The convertible was kicked to the curb as soon as the lease was up, and replaced with some practical vehicle, suitable for family life and Canadian winter.  My dad still describes the red convertible as the worst car he ever had.  How’s that for a metaphor?

The expression ‘Life begins at 40’ was in heavy circulation among baby boomers back then, the first sign that my parents’ generation had no intention of following the prescribed script for graceful ageing.  As a quietly judgmental tween, this mantra seemed to me an absurd but benign delusion, a mechanism for coping with the inevitable: hopeless old age (i.e. grandparenthood) and oblivion.  As a 38-year old woman, though, with an endless list of responsibilities and a perennial case of exhaustion, I took a different view.

For many people, at least in our particular corner of the Western world, a 40th birthday is a serious milestone, one that offers the possibility of reinvention. If we are very lucky, it is a moment when we have satisfied more than the basic requirements of survival; we are mated, housed, healthy, employed and sleeping through the night.  For the A-types, the self-improvers and the chronic malcontents among us, it’s the perfect time to ask:  What’s next?

I’d always wanted to be a fiction writer.  But I had some serious catching up to do.  I hadn’t written anything creative since high school.  No short stories, no poems, nothing.  A lawyer by training, as well as an oldest daughter by birth order, I took a cautious and incremental approach to personal transformation.  I wrote for three hours a week, on Sunday afternoons, about a subject that was familiar.  (The Hole in the Middle is a comic novel about a woman turning 40, with an endless list of responsibilities and a perennial case of exhaustion.  It is, of course, 100% fictional.)

As I write this, I realize that it’s been exactly five years since I took my first tentative steps as a writer by jotting down some ideas in a notebook.  This January, I’m getting regular missives from readers, who send me photos of my book in stores across the country and tell me that The Hole in the Middle was the highlight of their holiday reading.

Life may not begin at 40, but it’s an excellent time to consider a second (or third, or fourth) act.  Is there something you’ve always wanted to do?  Something you were scared to try, because you’d be devastated if you failed?  Take a deep breath and go for it.  Trust me: it’s way more satisfying than buying a convertible.

The Writing Life

Summer Reading: Lean In, The Fault In Our Stars and The Interestings

Kate Hilton, Best Selling Author, The Hole in the Middle, Book Club, Book ClubsI went to a high school that assigned summer reading.  This was fortunate, since I was the kind of high school student who absolutely adored being assigned summer reading.  Often, I read everything on the list of options provided by the school, although I was only required to read a selection.  Now that I have sons, I recognize this behavior as unusual, but at the time it seemed perfectly normal, part of the natural rhythm of summer.

Upon our return, during the first week of school, we would be asked to write an essay that linked overarching themes of the various, otherwise unconnected novels, together.  This summer, I have midlife disappointment on my mind, since it is one of the themes of my own novel, The Hole in the Middle (coming out in December 2013).  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that my brain has been teasing midlife themes out of all of the books I’ve been reading.

First out of the gate for comment is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.  I confess that I’ve been surprised by the furor that has erupted over the book.  I don’t think it says anything revolutionary, and I very much doubt that Sandberg does either.  If you’ve had even glancing contact with any feminist theory over the past twenty years (and most people who studied liberal arts at a university during this period have), the ideas articulated here won’t surprise you.  The freshness comes from the biographical details of Sandberg’s journey to the top echelons of business, rather than from the social science evidence that she uses to bolster her arguments.

Sandberg has an appealing voice, and she makes some pithy observations that have stayed with me.  For example, I loved her comparison of careers to marathons, where male runners are encouraged to keep going and make it to the finish line, while female runners are told not to push themselves so hard.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told – mostly by people who love me and want the best for me – that I need to relax, enjoy life more and generally be less busy.  But I’m not happy unless I’m busy (see Leah Eichler’s article ‘Is being super busy so bad?’), so my challenge is to find a way to channel enough energy into realizing my professional ambitions without having the rest of my life come crashing down.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Sandberg’s book has been the reaction to it.  Sandberg doesn’t think that her advice applies to all women.  She is speaking to a specific demographic: highly educated and ambitious women who choke off their leadership potential through their own choices – choices that Sandberg argues are often premature or unnecessary.  These years matter to whatever legacy you want to leave behind you, she argues, and in this she is absolutely right.  Yes, they are hectic and overwhelming and defined largely by other people’s needs.  But if women consistently curtail their own ambitions, they are likely to feel unfulfilled and resentful by the time their kids need them less (which may be never, according to people I know with adult children).

What legacy do you want to leave behind you?  This question is central to The Fault In Our Stars, a young adult love story about kids dying of cancer.  I don’t normally read YA, and I’m glad I didn’t realize that this novel was classified as such before I picked it up, because it’s just a very good book about the big ideas that matter at every stage of life.  Hazel and Augustus have both had close brushes with death when they meet in a cancer support group.  They are both startlingly intellectual and unsentimental about their experiences (in contrast to Augustus’s parents, who decorate their home with embroidered ‘encouragements’).

Hazel is living on borrowed time.  Augustus, on the other hand, is in remission.  This gives him the luxury of worrying about the mark he wants to leave on the world.  Hazel, on the other hand, is only concerned with doing no harm.   She won’t eat animals, in order to minimize the number of deaths she is responsible for.  She resists a relationship with Augustus, since the parental grief she will leave behind is already more responsibility than she wants.   Hazel insists that a small life can be a life well-lived, and that the only mark that matters is the one we leave on those who have loved us.

But not everyone is a Hazel.  In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer introduces a group of talented teenagers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a summer camp for the arts.  All of them are special, even gifted; and all of them long to stand out as ‘interesting’ in the wider world of adulthood.  Alone among them, Ethan Figman, a cartoonist, will enjoy artistic and material success.  His wife, Ash Wolf, will benefit from his status and wealth, which she will leverage into a respected career as the artistic director of a feminist theatre.  But Jules Jacobson, the central character of the novel, will abandon her dreams of becoming a comedic actress and instead become a psychotherapist married to a depressive ultrasound technician.

As the characters age, and enter the difficult territory of middle-age, Jules is tormented by envy.  She is smart, witty and driven, but she realizes that these qualities aren’t enough to set her apart.  However large her dreams, it is obvious now that they won’t come true, and she is crushingly disappointed.  Her life is a small one, and unlike Hazel, she cannot be satisfied with it.

I think Sandberg might say that Jules needs to lean in, to let go of the unrealistic dreams of youth and invest in a career that plays to her manifold strengths.  Her patients think that she is a good therapist, we are told, but Jules seems oddly disengaged from her job, resigning it entirely at one point to return to Spirit-in-the-Woods for a short and ill-considered stint as Camp Director.  Undoubtedly, she has not had the luck that her friends have had (Ethan’s genius, Ash’s beauty and wealth) but neither has she pursued professional success in the way that Ethan and Ash have done, and it is this failure that has made her life less interesting.

All in all, I think these books would make for a kick-ass essay, if I were returning to high school this fall (with extra points assigned for providing a midlife interpretation of a YA novel).  And now, I’m going to cleanse my palate with a little genre fiction.  Happy summer reading!

The Writing Life

What it Takes to be a Writer

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsWhen I started writing my novel, I was truly terrified.  This was partly because I had worked briefly in the book business in my twenties and had enough knowledge about the industry to see that the likelihood of publication was remote.  Also, I had enough self-knowledge to recognize my intense aversion to failure and rejection, both of which are the constant companions of aspiring writers.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this.  I was rejected a lot, and not always nicely.  I was raised right, so I’m not going to name names, but among the many indignities I suffered, one agent declared: “Some people have difficulty writing in the first person.  Perhaps you are one of those people.”  He then proceeded to read to me (for half an hour) from several first-person writers on his list, in the hope that I might benefit from the example of their superior writing. It’s a measure of how much I wanted to write my book that I persisted.

If you are going to be a writer, you will need to be resilient.  You will need to cultivate self-knowledge and as much objectivity about your writing as you can muster, so that you can make wise assessments about the criticism you receive.  You will need to have faith – and I use this word deliberately – that your work deserves a wider audience.  Many days, this faith will seem irrational and misguided.  Nevertheless, you must nurture it.

I am a lawyer by training, so faith is not easy for me.  I am, however, good at assignments.  As part of my women’s networking group, I was assigned a personal manifesto.  The one I created is a collection of statements that remind me how I want to live and who I want to be.  I referred back to my manifesto many times throughout my book project, and it reminded me to finish what I’d started, to be courageous, to enjoy the process, to share my writing with others and to be proud of my work.  So in that spirit, I share my personal manifesto with you.  Use it to create one of your own, and see where it takes you.

  1. Do what you say you are going to do.
  2. Joy is not a luxury.
  3. Be honest, with yourself above all.
  4. Count your blessings.  They are many.  Be grateful.
  5. Connect.
  6. Remember: Courage is not the towering oak that sees storms come and go; it is the fragile blossom that opens in the snow.
  7. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  8. Be generous in all things.
  9. If you aren’t scared, you aren’t growing.
  10. Breathe.
  11. You have time.  The rest is still unwritten.
  12. There is only one true inner voice.  Trust it.  It has never let you down.


The Writing Life, Together

How About We All Stop Dumping on Genre Fiction?

A young woman reading, RomeI read a lot.  This year, I’ll read at least 150 books, and I’ll enjoy most of them.  I’ll read literary fiction, certainly. I’m in a book club that reads novels by Booker prize winners and those shortlisted for the prize.  In addition, I’ll try to sample a good selection of critic’s choices from the New York Times and various other ‘best-of’ lists.

And I’ll read a ton of genre fiction.  Mostly, if you ask what I’m reading, I’ll tell you about the literary fiction.  I won’t tell you about the raft of paranormal romances, young adult, police procedurals and adult contemporary titles on my e-reader.  That’s because you’ll judge me.  Admit it.

As for you, you’ll admit to checking out Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, just to keep abreast of popular culture.  You’ll tell everyone who asks that the writing in them is terrible and you can’t understand why they took the publishing world by storm.  Secretly, though, you’ll stay up late devouring every page, just like the rest of us.

I get it.  I’m fairly impervious to the judgments of others on most things, but not on matters of literary taste.  But since I started writing myself, I’ve started to appreciate the unique talents of genre writers.  So let me make this argument in defense of genre fiction and the fine writers who produce it.  Literary fiction is designed to make us think.  Genre fiction is designed to make us feel.  There are excellent writers in both categories, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying both.

Let me make an analogy to food, which is the only art form, other than writing, where I can boast any personal talent.  At one of America’s great restaurants, I once ate a tiny cube of distilled cucumber gelatin that made me view the delicate flavor of the vegetable in an entirely new way.  It was an amazing culinary experience.  Great works of literary fiction do something similar.  They make us see our familiar world in a new and fascinating light.

But I don’t want to eat cucumber gelatin every day.  Sometimes, I’m in the mood for a gutsy lasagna or a roast chicken or a gooey chocolate chip cookie.  These foods are predictable but never disappointing.  They nourish and comfort without surprising us.  And this is what great genre fiction does.  We don’t have to worry that the boy will get the girl, or that the murderer will be apprehended or that the sex will be hot.  We know and that’s part of what we enjoy.

So go ahead.  Devour fiction in all its many forms.  I won’t judge you.


Mid-Life, The Writing Life

My Secret Life as an Indie Writer

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, The Scar Project, Book Club, Breast CancerI didn’t set out to become an indie writer.  I’m not a particularly ‘indie’ person.  Although you can probably tell that by the way I just put ‘indie’ in quotation marks.

For the most part, I’ve led a fairly mainstream life.  With the exception of some angst-fuelled years as an English Lit major, this has suited me.  My CV impresses people.  I have a couple of good degrees, professional qualifications and a title that looks fancy on a business card.  I have the best marriage I know of, and some lovely kids. I am proud of these things.

I was therefore extremely surprised when I had a midlife crisis.

It hit with a vengeance right around my thirty-eighth birthday.  I didn’t see it coming.  I’d noticed that some of my girlfriends – notably the ones edging into their forties – seemed angrier than usual.  They were taking on self-improvement projects, such as straightening their teeth and training for marathons and getting therapists.

None of these projects were on my bucket list.  I suffered through many teenage years of hideous orthodontics.  I almost pass out if I run for the bus.  I have an innate suspicion of any stranger who wants to talk about my feelings.  One day, however, leaving coffee with yet another friend high on the power of midlife transformation, I wondered silently if I harbored any such goals.  You want to write a book, my inner voice screamed.  It screamed.  It stopped me dead.  I could not have been more surprised.

Despite my general pragmatism, I am a big believer in the inner voice.  Undoubtedly, I read Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within at an impressionable age.  Which, if you were not in a Women’s Studies program in the early nineties and somehow missed it, ends on the following note:

We are so many selves.  It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms.  What brings these ever-shifting selves of infinite reactions and returnings is this: There is always one true inner voice.  Trust it.

My own inner voice is very selective.  It rarely makes an appearance.  When it does, I am generally on the precipice of an extremely bad decision (like the time I nearly moved in with someone who didn’t understand the difference between a cathedral ceiling and an attic) or a major life change (like the time I chose law school over grad school, or the moment when a friend became my future husband).  I consider its advice to be infallible.  To say I was shocked to hear it weigh in on the book issue would be an understatement.  I took it seriously.

I started scribbling ideas in a little pink notebook that I carried around in my purse.  I filled it.  I ripped out an old kitchen in my house and turned it into an office.  I asked for a used laptop for Christmas.  My very nice husband gave me a new one.  I got a babysitter to come on Sunday afternoons and I started writing for three hours a week.  I wrote on the subway.  I wrote after the kids went to bed.  I wrote on vacation.

I produced a first draft, and gave it to a few trusted friends to read.  They told me to keep going.  I produced a second draft and gave it to more friends to read.  They told me that they dreamed about my book, that it made them laugh and that they forced their dinner guests to listen to passages from it.  I started working four days a week so that I could write on Fridays instead of Sundays.

And the whole time, I was absolutely terrified.  An alternate version of my self – one that I had abandoned years ago in the long march toward sensible adulthood – was waking up, and it was taking charge.


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