Saturday, December 21, 2013


I love the idea of Santa.  I love even more the idea of being his helper.  This year this helper sat down on Cyber Day and found something for everyone on her list, assisted in the stocking department by the natural body oil/butter/cosmetic company’s warehouse sale three blocks away.

A few moments ago, as I organized the gifts in plastic bags to make the midnight Christmas Eve distribution easier, I discovered I had a theme going that I didn’t plan on:  everyone in my family will either look good or smell good or both.  That includes my sons and husband, their packages containing silk boxer briefs, four cedar/patchouli balls tucked cunningly inside each waistband.

I’m not sure they’ll catch the joke.  My granddaughters, being teenagers, will.  We’ll have a Merry Christmas laugh and a few, “Grandma Joie,” rollings of the eyes in disbelief.

The thing is, I’ve been smiling, laughing, and not believing for more than a week. My Christmas present arrived on December 15th with the announcement that Grandma Graffiti was named to the 100 Best Books 2013 list by Kirkus Reviews, shocking Graffiti Grandma, aka Ellie, and me into speechlessness. We both recovered enough to get organized, notify a few friends, have a glass of white wine or so.

And then I bought Ellie a present, a big one. After discovering that I’d sold four more copies of the book since the announcement, I took the plunge.  I bought three ads in several of the Kirkus Review editions.  Like many gifts, once handed over, those ads may drop into a bottomless black hole.  But last night, in the midst of a late what-have-I-done wakefulness, Ellie whispered, “At least I apparently smell good to some folks, and you’ve got the balls to do something about it.”

As for the silk boxers, they look wonderfully comfy.  I’m hoping a son or husband will return a pair to me because they are not his style.   I’m pretty sure they are mine.

Jo Barney Writes

Friday, November 1, 2013


So, I did all those things my To Do list told me to do and I’ve ended up with three book club presentations/readings, three readings in pubs (handy for enticing friends to show up), two workshops in retirement residences, and a possible multiple-meeting workshop booking with the local library. Amazing what a starred review can do, energy-wise.

I presented my first workshop this week at a fine retirement residence, attracted five folks much my age, who have either written in the past or who may now write with the encouragement of a writing group. It took me a while to understand that those folks didn’t give a hoot about Graffiti Grandma; they were there to begin writing.  Several weren’t sure what they’d write, several knew but were stuck at the first sentence.  I shut up and listened, finally, and I may now belong to a writing once again.  I hope so.

I quit my other writing group a few weeks ago when I realized that I was too old to hand out twenty pages of my novel each month. I would be senile before we ever got through it. My writing partners seemed to agree. So, for the first time, I have hired an editor who will take a look at Edith, line-wise and arc-wise, and tell me (for a fee, of course) what she thinks I should do with this story––a new experiment backed by my latest idea of trying new things as long as my PERs check will stretch cover them.

Then, just as I was deciding how many pairs of pants, tops, jackets I should take to my trip to India, a trip planned eleven months ago (thanks to PERS), I get another email.  Graffiti Grandma has gotten another starred review, this time from Publishers’ Weekly.

Shit.  Just when I thought I was finished with her, Graffiti Grandma rises again.   I get an email from a New York publicist, anxious to help me use this great news to sell my book. I respond, intrigued, and learn that they charge about $6,000 a week for their services, which they reveal that when I explain that I’m a retired school teacher with only PERS to back me.

But then Publishers’ Weekly checks in. They carry advertisements, all shapes, all sizes, all prices, for their starred books. A starred review is really important, I’m told, an important selling point. An advertisement might be okay, I say, since PW sells to libraries and big buyers like Hudson airport stores.  Maybe?  I have a few days to decide if GRGR will be in the Best Books section in November. 

I also have three days to decide how many pairs of pants, which shoes, do I wear a fleece or my quilted jacket, and how does all this fit in a small bag that can’t weigh over thirty-three pounds.  And is a skirt really necessary even if many of our toilets will be the squat variety?

Too many decisions.  I tell my PW guy that I love to write, don’t expect fame or fortune from the activity, that I think I need to develop some sort of marketing plan besides going to retirement residences, and besides, I won’t be here for a month.

My new editor says five pants, five tops.  I’m listening to her--and dreaming of the Taj Mahal in moonlight.. 

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Graffiti Grandma Earns Starred Review from Publishers Weekly

Graffiti Grandma

Elderly antigraffiti vigilante Ellie Miller finds that teenage street kid Sarah Jansen resurrects her long-dormant maternal instincts in this gritty yet heartening examination of the significance of family. Fearing the increasingly malevolent Jeff—who uses brutality and murder to dominate a family of runaway teens—but loyal to her friends, Sarah's conflicted yearning for guidance and friendship impels isolated Ellie into re-engagement with everyday life. Barney weaves a multifaceted narrative with quick shifts in time and focus to show how flawed individuals overcome, or are destroyed by, failed relationships. The destructive impact of alcohol, drugs, and sexual abuse on children is abundantly displayed—and made stronger by the absence of graphic or exploitative portrayals—but the struggles of policeman Matt Trommald, who care for his autistic son, and Ellie's fragile, evolving commitment to Sarah reveal that even dedicated parents face difficulty in maintaining positive relationships. The grim, understated scenes of young people coping with the seamy side of life ensure that this is no lighthearted read, and Barney's convincing portrayal of ambivalent teen psychology prevails over the perhaps too-pat ending to provide a powerful glimpse of an underground world unknown to many, whose inhabitants are capable of transformation through love and acceptance.

Link: Review on Publishers Weekly website 

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Sometimes we get so buried in our worries and To Do lists and doubts of our sanity that we can’t see past the glass of white wine in our hands. No, change those pronouns.  I, my.  No use playing Wise Woman to the world.  No use not admitting that I found myself in a really deep funk for a couple of months, a period that included self-medicating to no good end, just morning headaches.

I blamed my bad outlook on the completion of a goal, the paperback publication of Graffiti Grandma, not necessarily a good thing, it turned out.  Because what was next was the ghastly marketing siege that occasionally brought on nightmares involving flaming computer keys and missing fingers and daymares of me tossing my onerous efforts into a bottomless internet abyss, hearing, “Shit. Here she comes again.”

So I explained to my friends that what I loved most was writing, not the marketing.  I didn’t really, really, care that Amazon had sold only four copies of Graffiti Grandma, probably a record of some kind. I began Edith and inched my way through a first draft.

I sold a few more copies to Rotary club members who responded in their helpful ways to my husband’s description of his clever wife’s accomplishment. I think what inspired his support was the box of books he stumbled over every time he walked into our clothes closet. The box emptied. But then Createspace, in some kind of perverted promotion, surprised me with twenty free Graffiti Grandmas. The box remains in the closet.  Rotary can only do so much good.

However, last week something kind of miraculous happened. Trolling through my emails I found one that seemed to be saying that I and Graffiti Grandma had been chosen to be spotlighted in the Kirkus Review publication. Would I be interested?  “Will it cost me money?” I asked.  I am suspicious of out-of-the-blue miracles.  “No. This is for the promotion of your book which, as you know, got a very good Kirkus review.  In fact, the reviewer will be contacting you soon.”

And he did.  And he’s writing the piece as I write this blog, my first in months.

But the miracle is what the miracle did for me. Yesterday, in a surge of self-confidence, I started a list of ways I could promote my book--locally, not to strangers in the ether:  Readings in coffee shops, discussions at book clubs, gatherings in retirement homes, classes in writing at Senior Centers.  I would approach the books stores that have Graffiti Grandma on their shelves and ask to be included on their readings schedules.  I would ask for reviews from the readers of the book who could give it at least three stars.  I would spend the money I’d save by eliminating my medicinal wine to purchase reviews from publications that charge (like Kirkus ) for the privilege of  critiquing it to thousands of people.

Well, maybe not the wine part.  The reviews cost a lot more than the wine and I do like a celebratory glass once in a while, after a busy day of checking off items on this new To Do list.

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


So this is what it feels like––to set a goal for oneself and meet it.

I’ve set lots of goals in my life: learn French; stop automatically saying NO to my children; walk 10,000 steps every day; lose the new-baby pouch; learn to wear make-up; stop pronating; be a school principal;  be unenvious of my sister;  become a Master gardener:  build a house with Habitat in Zimbabwe. The list of unaccomplished goals goes on and on, despite the fact that, as I recorded in my personal journal, I truly believed I could do each and every one.

Life intervened. I didn’t go to Paris again, my sons grew up, my knee got iffy, the pouch became a paunch, mascara makes my eyes water, my ankles stayed crooked, I wasn’t hired, my sister’s life isn’t that perfect, I live in a condo, Zimbabwe needs a new government, not an old woman in jeans.

Then, three years ago I set yet another goal, to publish Graffiti Grandma. Self-publish, since twenty agents either said ‘Not for me,’ or didn’t answer my queries at all. My progress, complaints, new skills, depressions were all recorded in this blog, which I called Breakout Novel, A Race to the Finish: .A seventy-five year old novelist chronicles the mulling-over, editing, sharing-with-friends stages of the push to get Graffiti Grandma, her fourth novel, read and then published. This is not the first time she's taken on this task. Perhaps this time? Or will senility win the race?

The few of you who have followed this long process know that Graffiti Grandma is, as of this month, officially published as a paperback. Kirkus Review, very positive, came in one day before the launch party, which made the champagne and hors d’oeuvres even more festive since my husband made a huge, laminated poster of it and hung it over the table.

As I wrote in my emails to friends, when the book is launched, and so will I be, out of my chair as a marketing executive.  I have met my goal, not terribly graciously, these last months of internet fishing warping both my body and my personality, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not senile yet.  Or maybe I am.  Perhaps that is why tomorrow I will set another goal:  to finish that fifth novel, the one about the old lady who wakes up one Christmas morning lying next to her dead husband. Finish, not publish.

And, perhaps I’ll create a new blog, someday, about the joys of writing just for oneself.  Until then, thanks for reading this one.  Jo

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, March 26, 2013



Like Patti years ago, I walked out of that dark silent room and squinted. 

I could breathe. My head was no longer swirling. My mouth felt like smiling, the first time in days. I did. And my husband sighed with relief. I was back, no longer captive of the obsession I named my Stockholm Syndrome, and which drove us both a little nuts, for different reasons. Me, because I could never do enough no matter how long I sat and poked at the computer; him, because he wondered if we’d ever have another conversation that didn’t begin with almost-tears, “I hate this!” and a blank, faraway stare when he attempted to talk to me.

I walked out of that room with two friends whom I met this Monday, a morning I woke up unable to even glance at the lists on my desk without nausea.  Even my knees were nauseous, threatening collapse as I made my way to the kitchen for my coffee, definitely seriously wobbling as I made it to my maroon mohair chair next to my bed. My reading chair.  Has been for many years, in my life way before my worried spouse. A tulip chair, not meant for a man. At that time, I thought I wasn’t meant for a man also, so it seemed just right.

I keep magazines next to the chair, and one of them is The New Yorker, March 25th edition. I’d already looked at the jokes. Maybe an article before I treated myself to the fiction? That’s when Benjamin Anastis takes my arm, leads me away from the room that has been sucking the life out of me. The review of his book, Too Good to Be True, by Giles Harvey, told of a first-time-successful author for whom the rejection of his latest book ends up with  him cheating on his fiancée-about-to be wife followed by a baby, a divorce. And, incidentally, a nicely NYT reviewed memoir.

 He’s not alone in the failure memoir, Giles writes. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind (The Crackup), and Norman Mailer’s broadside details his nervous breakdown after rejection of The Deer Park. Jonathon Franzen describes “the deafening silence of irrelevance” that followed the publication of his second novel. The point of Giles’ review, I think,is that young writers writing about their failures may become a new route to success.

I am old, so this is not entirely on point. Failure, the feeling of it, is, however. I read the article and tell myself that I have very good company–a number of good-looking young men. How much does it matter that Graffiti Grandma, guy-wise, sells three copies?

Then, a note, scribbled on a sticky during my frenzied period, leads me to a book which a blogger says is the best, and only, book on writing a writer needed.  I look on the shelves above my computer and there it is, unread, like a number of the books I’ve bought and hoped to absorb by osmosis. If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.  I open to the author page. Two pictures, one of a wild-haired young woman in l938 and the second of an old crone in a striped jacket, l983.  I love the old lady. She was 91 when the book I am about to read was published.  I have a few years to go.

I read it in one sitting, my “yesses” hissing through the late hour air in the maroon chair.  She frees me up to be truthful, to not depend on the opinions of others, to write just to write, to not write to the current trends (dystopia comes to mind, and vampires and ghouls) but from the scrapings of my life, the feelings, insights, angst and love I know as truth. And not to think about publishing and success. I begin to believe I can be such a writer. Maybe even am. Maybe.

A quote, difficult to choose among the many that has led me out of the door and into the sunlight:  “ . . .you must write freely and recklessly make new mistakes–in writing or in life–and do not fret about them but pass on and write more. Active evil is so much better than passive good, which is just docility, feebleness, timidity.”

So, forget you, reviewers and other folks trying to control me. I’ve got yet another story to tell.

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Today I finally understood that I’m a prisoner.  I’ve been kidnapped and thrown into a silent, locked room. I’m given coffee to sustain me; nondescript food is shoved at me once in a while. The most shocking thing about this incarceration is that I’m beginning to feel that isolation is normal, at times even so comfortable that I don’t spring for the door when it opens and offers freedom. The Stockholm Syndrome comes to mind. My jailors have become my friends even as they demand more and more from me, whispering, slipping notes into my computer.  Do this, finish that, stop dawdling, get a grip, write that synopsis, call that bookshop, get that press release shaped up. Now.


I am being held prisoner by countless pages of advice, warnings, and annoyingly cheerful, uplifting stories of others who have gone through this and come out successful, selling their books as fast as the POD company can put them out.  And, just as worrisome are the other reports written by soreheads kvetching about monster publishers and corrupt earning reports. Upon reading them, fright overwhelms, pinning me to my desk.

Now, in my still, coffee-scented cell, I sit at my computer, gathering whatever courage I have left, and I feel the lashes of the twenty-point marketing plan in front of me. I’ve checked off two items:  set a launch date and change my picture on the Amazon author page.  When I finish, I am encouraged. This might be doable, I think.  However, following this optimistic moment, I send out tens of requests for reviews, set dates for giving lucky persons free books, and blog my fingertips sore, making succinct and erudite remarks on other writers' posts, hoping to make helpful contacts. And I’ve had no replies.  None.

So, why don’t I stop? Shut down Firefox. Call it a night. Retreat to the novel at the side of my bed. Because  I’ve got a bad case of S.S.  I am beyond thinking of anything else I might do or any reason to give up the dream that has enveloped my life.  Me and Patti Hearst, learning to love our captors, both doomed to rob a bank.

Well, maybe not a bank in my case, but maybe my retirement account.  It wouldn’t really be stealing, would it? Just borrowing until I make it big after hiring an expert publicist who knows what she’s doing? Perhaps then I’ll manage to recover my senses, run through that open door and head straight to Edith, my patient heroine who waits for me in the bottom drawer of my desk. 

Jo Barney Writes