I would rather have a tooth pulled without Novocain. I would rather clean the men’s restroom at the rest area without gloves. Oddly enough, I would rather stand before an audience the size of a football field and read my poetry than pitch my novel, one-on-one, to an agent or publisher.

I have pitched one of my books several times, in fact, and I did a lousy job every time. How is it possible for an author to forget the plot of her own book? I spent months thinking of little else but that story. I worked hard to develop the beginning, middle and ending. I wrote and rewrote in my pursuit for the perfect “arc.” I lived inside the story. Then a person across the table from me said, “Tell me about your book,” and I could barely remember writing a book.

Do you know what the rule is? As crazy as it sounds, here it is: be able to describe your book in three sentences, or less. Right. I have written 80,000 words all about the lives and times, the thoughts and emotions of characters as real to me as living people, and now I have to pitch their story in three sentences. Or less? I can’t do it. My mouth goes dry as the Mojave and my tongue weighs five pounds. My hands grip each other for dear life. The worst thing is the breathing, or rather not breathing. And what follows not breathing? Gasping, that’s what. When I get nervous I tend to ramble and I can’t keep my thoughts in order.

I have written and rewritten my pitches until I, at last, felt like I had something that made sense and sounded interesting, if not downright fascinating. Then, I removed all of the unnecessary words … and I didn’t have anything left. I did it again. I read my pitch until it sounded ridiculous. There came a point when I had to say, “Enough.”

I am proud to say (again and again) that my first novel is being published by Pen-L Publishing, but I have another and there will be more, and if necessary a’ pitching I will go. Here are some things I have (finally) learned that will help me do a better job. I think the first and most difficult thing for me to do is read my own words aloud without an audience. Many, many times I have stood before a gathering of people to share my poetry and believe me THAT was not easy in the beginning. But eventually, I began to think of it as giving something to those kind and attentive people who were taking the time to listen to me. Reading aloud to no one is different; it can feel as hollow as an echo. So, I must practice, practice, and practice reading my pitch. I have to read it until it comes to me smooth and natural. I also need to read it in a more conversational manner so that when I look across the table at the agent who wants to hear about my book I am able to sell it in a more conversational tone.

The pitchee’s (my word) manner can make or break a session. I have been lucky to have had agents who knew how to help the pitcher. They asked questions that required specific answers about characters or plot, allowing me to share important points about my story.  Dreadful empty pauses make me squirm and because I feel the need to fill them I begin my rambling.

Speaking of pauses, at one writer’s convention, I signed up to pitch to an agent whom I had researched and believed we would be a good match: she was accepting queries for my kind of writing, she was relatively new to her job and was “looking” for clients. When I sat across the table from her my first thought was that she was young enough to be my granddaughter. I introduced myself and at her request began my pitch. Not one time did the young lady change expression or speak. She sat very still with her hands clasped on the table and peered into my face. When I came to a pause, or the end of my pitch, she said not a word. I waited. She waited. And I began to ramble. When I finally shut my mouth and took a breath she said, “Is this your first novel?”  I dumbly nodded. “I suggest you continue writing until it becomes more comfortable for you. I’m sure you have some good ideas.”

And that was it, folks.  But, it was a lesson. I learned that I should not count on the agent to carry me through the process. I must relax, breathe and tell my story as if it is the best thing I have ever written because I have worked to be sure that it is. If I can do it, you can do it.


When it strikes it is mind numbing. My heart pounds with anxiety, I become fidgety and I prowl my space looking for something to distract me from my gloomy guilt. Suddenly things I loathe doing the most such as filing papers, bathroom cleaning or scrubbing the broiler pan become top priority. Graphophobia wields a power that requires an iron will to overcome … for me, anyway. If you are a writer and you have never experienced this dreadful affliction then I wish I were you, sometimes.

I know there are writers, best-selling authors, who swear they do not believe in writer’s block. That is wonderful and I envy them and maybe that is the key to the secret. A concept can’t exist for you if you don’t believe it exists. “What the heck?” you say. And how about prolific writers who say, “Phooey” or the more common, “Just write for crying out loud”?

Well, it happens to me and darned if it doesn’t feel as real as a California earth quake. I sit, I stare, and my mind wanders off to somewhere or something that has nothing to do with the subject at hand. My usually fanciful way of thinking, the very one I use to get through everyday life, the same one I use to pretend it doesn’t matter if I don’t do the grocery shopping or pay the bills, that imagination hangs an out-of-order sign. Sorry. Come back later. Often times that is exactly what I have to do. I have come to know that it is what I do in the meantime that makes the difference. It is not scrubbing the broiler pan. Nope. It is one of two things.

Reading the prose of an author I admire is always an inspiration to me. While I read a quality of writing that gets the juices flowing I often find myself needing to grab a pencil and jot down words or short bursts of thought that sneak into my mind: Words and pictures that have nothing to do with the story at hand, but ones that very often develop into a new place to go with my own writing.

The second most inspiring act for me is, to get outdoors. Nature has inspired my life since I can remember. Nature rules my spirit and has since childhood. I have fond decades-old memories of lying in the green grass on a hillside and staring up into the sky to watch the clouds scuttle by and just wonder. I still do it during the green of spring-times. I do a more adult version of digging in the dirt, looking for rocks and artifacts. I examine leaves and bugs and birds. I gulp the aroma of leaf mulch beneath the oak trees and I taste the muddy smell of the creek bottom on my tongue. I feel the warm and cool wafts of air touch my face when I walk in the evenings. I have seen thousands of deer and rabbits and my heart still kicks in a double beat at the sight of them.  I can say to you, right here, right now, that simply telling about this inspires me to keep writing.

Graphophobia = the fear of writing.

I happen to believe that fear is the cause of the slumps and stumbles and stalls of my writing. “Writer’s block,” be it real or not, seems like such a worn out phrase. I – personally – and I won’t speak for anyone else here, greatly fear failure. I always have and, by this time in life, conclude I most likely always will.  The negative voice, the one my positive side wants to smother with a pillow, still niggles away at me and my imagination.

Who do I think I am? Me, write a book? Don’t be silly.

Me, a poet? Me? Don’t be ridiculous.

Another book? And another? No way.

The problem isn’t about writing. The issue is about fear of failure. I could go into a long story about some things I lacked in my childhood (boosting confidence and esteem) and bore you until your eyes rolled back in your head.  Don’t worry, I won’t, but could you hand me that pillow.

Voices in My Head

I am never more brilliant than in the middle of the night. I have written my very best poems and prose with my eyes closed. When the night comes a’creepin’, so does my creative wisdom. My characters develop effortlessly and are colorful and witty or evil or distraught, or whatever I need them to be. I come to know each one personally: their ages, where they live, who they love, who they hate.

Dialog is my night-time specialty. My characters’ voices are fitting and true to their owners. Their topics could grab the attention of any reader, pulling them into conversations. I am clever and savvy about how each character should speak and what he or she should have special knowledge of to fulfill a part of my classic, original story, which, by the way, has an unforgettable plot.

Then, there it is, that insistent voice in the background of my brain hounding me, “Get up. Get up right now you lazy bum and write this down. You know you are going to forget it all by morning.”

But, the physical me, the me who wants to keep my eyes closed and finish the story, the me who doesn’t want to ruin the chance of going back to sleep, that me argues.

“Don’t worry,” I tell the pesky voice. “I will remember. See? Right now I am programing this wonderful material into my mind so I won’t forget.”

“Yes you will.”

“No. I won’t”

I do. In the light of morning the drama is gone. Where did the brilliance go? The wit? The excitement and heart of that wonderful story written in the midnight hour? My characters. Where did they all go? I loved them, and I thought they loved me.

“Told you so,” The voice says.

I keep a notebook and pen beside my bed. I even have a funny looking pair of reading glasses with little tiny headlights in them so I can read or write without disturbing my husband. So why can’t I train myself to make note of ingenious story telling that comes creeping in the night? I know other authors do.

Tonight! I will do it tonight.


Remember that song by Kool and The Gang? “There’s a party goin’ on right here!”

The words to that happy song are running through my mind over and over these recent days because I, Janice Gilbertson, novelist, am celebrating. Pen-L Publishing, Fayetteville, Ark. has accepted my book, Summer of ’58 (working title) for publication. I have cradled this baby in my heart for a long, long time and now I will be turning it over to someone else. We, Pen-L and I, will be giving my story its last polishing and then launching it into the vast and exciting readers’ world!

I have been writing Summer for decades. No, I am kidding you but the story did begin several years ago. It is the story of a girl named Angela, and that is how those who know the book (first readers and editors) came to refer to it: Angela. First I wrote a poem about a girl who traveled with her rodeo riding father, which then led to a short story about her (published in my chapbook “Riding In”). Eventually it came to me that Angela had so much more to share about her life and the novel began.

Summer of ’58 is my first novel. I honestly do not know how many times I have edited the manuscript but many, believe me. This novel has been my teacher. Writing it, building it, knocking it down and repairing it, forced me to go outside myself and seek thoughts and opinions from writers, editors and readers. The more driven I became to write a good story, the more I reached out for the knowledge that would help me accomplish it. Along the way, when I thought the manuscript was good enough, I would send out my queries to agents and publishers who I spent hours finding and researching. Rejection began to feel normal as those “Thanks, but no thanks” replies stacked up.

At one point I almost convinced myself that Summer would never be picked up. I remember the day I printed out the manuscript, put it in a file folder and slipped it away in a bottom desk drawer. I went on from there writing my second novel The Canyon House. Some days, I thought I could hear poor Angela calling to me from that desk drawer. Months went by and occasionally I would get another helpful suggestion from someone whose opinion about my writing was important to me. My first readers and editors didn’t want Angela to live in that drawer.

So, out it came. I edited again and again and made some very significant changes. The manuscript read better each time. I knew in my heart I had a great manuscript and if the right agent or publisher read the story it would one day be a book. Then, at the Western Writers of America conference in Sacramento, a mutual friend introduced me to Duke Pennell and he agreed to read my manuscript. He didn’t ask for a query or synopsis. He wanted to read the manuscript. His letter to me said,” Dear Janice, I’ve read over your manuscript and enjoyed it.”

Now I begin the next phase of the journey. NOW the work begins. More edits, decisions about how the book will look, etc. I have so much to learn about book marketing that at first I was nervous and worried that I couldn’t do a good enough job. But that tickle of fear has passed and I am gearing up! I am going to make Pen-L and ALL those wonderful people who have spurred me on and given me the confidence I needed proud enough to cheer.

Oh, You Inspiration You

Picture us sitting in a cafe. You with a friend, say, or maybe a few friends, sipping coffee, eating cherry pie (a la mode) and talking, talking, talking. And me, sitting alone behind you in the next booth, having apple pie (a la mode) and working the crossword puzzle in the evening paper. You probably don’t notice me and if you do it is a fleeting acknowledgment. You don’t know I am a writer. Why would you? You also don’t know that I am an eavesdropper. I hear you or one of your companions mention that Mr. Smith-jones at work is going to be fired the very next day. AH … I lean in just a bit, concentrate so I don’t miss something here. I am inspired! Bang! Just like that. I have been trying to decide what to do with my protagonist in my current story, something to surprise him, shake him up, and move his story on. This could be it!  Tell more, tell MORE.

Inspiration is energy for my writing. It comes from awareness, memories, reading. From living. Years ago, when I first started writing western/cowboy poetry, even if the words didn’t always come easy, the ideas did. I’d lived a ranch-kid’s life, grew up in these mountains gathering cattle, riding the trails, hanging around any place I could where there was a horse or a cow. By the time I started writing poetry I had thousands of miles on horseback and endless memories of events and experiences related to the western lifestyle.

But I was in for a surprise when I put my pen to paper. I would find myself so inspired by a memory I would nearly be in tears. I didn’t only recall what took place, I smelled it, saw the colors of it, felt how the sun or the air or the rain felt on my skin. In other words, I became so inspired my spirit would grasp that memory, that event, that moment and away we would go. And after I started writing, I became even more thoughtful about my surroundings. I didn’t only hear the squeak of my saddle, I noticed its rhythm. I didn’t only smell a first rain with pleasure, I noticed a taste on my tongue and I felt it enter into my memory bank. I lay on the ground on a warm spring day and felt the coolness of the green blades of grass where they tickled my bare arm. I noticed and I was inspired.

Of course, I still had to find the right words. Mastering the language was a whole other endeavor. I had to work hard at that back then and I still do. I am glad I wrote poetry before prose. Poetry writing reminds me to be observant, to pay attention, to really see what takes place in situations that seem ordinary but perhaps are not.

A couple of years ago I traveled over to Sparks, Nevada, to perform a poetry session there. Late one evening I sat in a restaurant alone, hungry and tired; I needed something to eat before sleep. I noticed a couple nearby, sitting across from each other in a red leather booth. He was a dapper older man, silver -haired, dressed nicely, but it was his fancy watch on his strong wrist that really stood out. It flashed in the light every time he lifted his fork to take a bite of his meal. I could hear his steady, deep voice but not his words. The woman across from him was less than half his age. She had blonde hair with one purple and one blue steak down the side of her head that I could see. Her legs were crossed beneath the table and her left foot bobbed up and down up and down, her flip flop snapping against her heel. She ate methodically, bite after bite and never looked up at the man across from her. Her nails were bright blue, peacock blue, and I could see she had a gold nose ring in her right nostril. Here was my thought process:  father and daughter, he is trying to talk her into or out of something. She doesn’t want to give him the impression that she cares, so no eye contact.

Scenarios ran through my mind one after another. He wants her to go to school. She just wants some money. He wants her to come home. She hates her step-mother. He wants what is best for her. He spoke louder, she put her fork down. He reached and put his large hand over her small one. Good, I thought, he’s being nice to her. He reaches back for his wallet, opens it quickly and pulls out a couple of bills. He tosses them down on the table between them and stands up. She scoots out of the booth and stands facing him. He grabs her right arm and pulls her toward him. She steps right up to him and he … leans down and gives her the biggest sloppiest open-mouther kiss I EVER saw. Surprise … not his daughter! Now you tell me there isn’t a story in THAT scene.

Inspiration is where we look for it.