Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Get OUT! (of your comfort zone)

I give my Comp classes weekly writing adventures.( They call it homework.) This week’s theme is to get out of your comfort zone.

Writers know this experience well. First off, writing is telling the truth, whether one writes fiction, poetry or essay, and discomfort leads to a change of perspective.

When I was working on my MFA, Leslie Rubinkowski, my first mentor, asked me, “What bugs you? What more do you need to understand?”

I had made a short list of things, and rank ordered them. Number one on my list was the 'tattoo piercing culture thing. '“I just don’t get it,” I said.

“That’s exactly why you need to write about it.”

It was autumn, and there just happened to be a tattoo conference in Pittsburgh coming up. I live about two hours from Pittsburgh, so a friend and I signed up.

As we checked into the hotel, Diane and I spotted crowds of people sporting tattoos; many revealed entire limbs covered in body art. She and I were the only ‘unmarked’ people in the conference, yet after talking to several participants, I soon let go of my trepidation, and met some wonderful people. One young man, who weighed around three hundred pounds and wore intricate tattoos on his chest and arms, said, “I don’t fit society’s standard of beauty, so I wear beauty on my body.”

We all have obsessions our friends and family shrug their shoulders at, yet it’s comforting to be among like minded souls. I go to a writer’s conference every year where the other participants understand obsessing over a single word, so a conference centered on body art provides a comfort zone for people otherwise perceived as unusual. Under the skin, we all worry about jobs, the house payment, electric bills, and getting kids to college whether we use our bodies as canvases or not.

What would you never do in a million years? What scares you?

Try something uncomfortable. It will energize your writing. You can start small, like trying a new food. Try something gross looking, has weird textures, or smells like old socks.(For example, squid, litchi nuts, ugli fruit, sauerkraut, sushi, etc.).

If food scares you, browse and/or shop at a store you were always afraid to go in or were never interested in. (John Deere, AutoWorks, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, a comic book store, a health food store.) Spend at least a half hour. Take notes.

Try on a style of clothes you would never wear in a million years. For example, if you’re preppy, wear something goth, or vice versa.

Get a hairstyle you’d never wear and wear it all day. gel your hair, or try on a new (temporary) color.
Be silent for a day. Only communicate through notes or gestures.

Start a blog and make it public
Go screen free for a whole day. NO TV, cell phone, Facebook, twitter, internet, or any computer. (AFTER you’ve read my post.) Read, hike, clean your house, etc.

Do a Disability Day. Wear a blindfold, walk with a rock in your shoe, or wear ear plugs or a walking boot.

Talk and/or befriend someone you’ve been leery of talking to. Perhaps a a grouchy neighbor or the grumpy cashier at the grocery store. (Really step it up and give them food, i.e. cookies)
Do a random act of kindness, like if you are in the drive thru at Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, pay for the coffee for the person behind you. Or buy a movie ticket for the next person in line.
Wear a temporary tattoo in an obvious place, such as arm, face, neck, leg. Take pix. Wear it for at least an hour in public.

Go to a senior center and read to an old person
Go to a church of a different denomination
If you hate sports, go to the football game
Drive to a side of town you’ve never been and stop somewhere new to eat.
Cook a complete dinner for your family from scratch
Go to a movie you would NEVER normally see. Scary, chick flick, or (very scary!!)a kid’s movie on a Saturday matinee.

Just try something unusual, then write about it.

What scares you or repulses you about the activity? What do you think will happen? Why is this so scary? So foreign? What do you have to lose? How? Why?
At the end, how has your perception altered? Why or why not? How have you changed? How did you feel?
At what point do you think you reached a “moment of truth?” What have you learned?
Would you do this again? Why or why not? Do you recommend someone else do this? Why or why not?
Happy Writing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Odds Are Not Great Either Way

Recently my friend Thomas, a fellow librarian, posted this comic on Face book. I usually laugh heartily at Thomas’s postings, but this one is too true to be funny.

Given the ease and speed of e publishing, more “books" are being published than ever. A recent article by Mike Shatzkin points out, ”half of the bookstore shelves that were available in the US in 2007 are gone by now.”

Handwritten letters are gifts; someone cared enough to sit down and share words of comfort, congratulations, birthday wishes, family news, or mail a postcard from Europe.  Who does that anymore?

Is print media dead?

I'm as guilty as the rest of you. I download books on my Kindle, and use Kindle and Nook apps on my phone and PC. But the nearest physical bookstore is an hour‘s drive from my house and sometimes I don’t want to wait two or three days to get a book in the mail from amazon, Powells or Barnes and Noble.

It's easy and fast to send e mail and catch up through social networking, yet it saddens me how the art of letter writing, handwritten cards and stamped paper envelopes may someday disappear.

Biographers often use old letters to carve out written portraits of their subjects. Through letters, authors are able to reproduce a subject’s voice, and recreate possible dialogue accurately. Imagine trying to track down electronic messages. For the past twenty years I have had numerous email accounts through my university days and several service providers. In the early days of the internet, service providers cropped up and disappeared with the seasons, so thousands of my communications are somewhere in cyberspace under addresses I no longer recall. Not that I will someday be worthy of a biography, but given the magnitude of social media, what will be worthy of existing in posterity?

Interesting how brick and mortar bookstores and libraries stores have only recently changed how they operate. While libraries still boast books as a major source of information, the shift toward multi media has not only oncreased circulation statistics, patrons expect to be able to find moivies, magazines, and music at the library. Similarly, patrons use library spaces for computer space.

For decades, books were the thrust of book stores. In the past few years I have noticed a trend toward games and gifts at the forefront and books displayed almost as an afterthought.

Books are my passion, one of the considerations for where to retire in three years is how many extant bookstores are nearby, yet

According yo Shatzkin, “One thing that will be different but similar in the rest of the world will be the decline of bookstores.”

Linda, another library colleague, suggested that maybe bookstores and/or libraries should have post offices and coffee shops in their lobbies. I love the idea of entities struggling to survive forge a symbiotic relationship. It happens in the natural worls all the time.

Meanwhile, the you can find world’s most interesting bookstores this site. They also sell hand crafted metal bookmarks and have links to lot of bookstore and library related stuff:

Your writing assignment this time is to write someone a letter or a card and mail it using snail mail. Then go visit the library.
Feel free to weigh in on this issue. Of course, you'll have to do it electronically, but there is room for multiple versions of comunication. When TV came out, people predicted it was the death of radio....
Happy Writing

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mastering the Levels of Rejection

In Stephen Kings book On Writing, he claims there are three levels of writers: adequate, good, and great. The same categories apply  to rejection letters.

 Looking for and agent is exhausting; you: sort though thousands of lists, read descriptions of work they want and have represented, and try to find someone whose w tastes match your work. You winnow it down to say, 200, and begin your email quests process, adapting your query letter template so it doesn't sound like Dear Agent  form letter.

You wait.

Sometimes not long. I've had rejections sent within minutes of hitting the Send key

Those are generally form letters where the agent states he or she is not reading submissions at this time. 

But those are not the lowest level or rejection; The lowest level  is when you get no reply. (Actually I had one worse than this. More on that later.)

 Form rejections like Dear Author, This is it for us but good luck in your career, is the next level, lets call it Brass. These often arrive within a few days via email. You will receive hundreds of these.

 The Bronze rejections set your molecules going. The agent would like to see a chapter or two. Something in your letter beyond your summary ignited interest in more than the sample ten pages or so. The rejections are more specific, and occasionally the agent will make specific suggestions to revisions. At least you know they have read your material.

The molecules set off alarms when an agent asks for The Entire Manuscript.
You immediately send off the entire work and wait, chewing on a handful of TUMs now and again,
A day or two later The agent sends a message saying she is looking forward to reading your novel.
More TUMS.
You check your phone several times a day to see if a phone call from NY
Each time you open your email. You scan to see if there is a note from her.
A week goes by. Then another.

On a Saturday morning, during a thunderstorm, you see a letter from her in your in box, and you sense doom. Writers are a bit psychic that way. Or maybe its experience talking. Youve been here before.

Crap. You open it.

This is the Silver State of rejections. She writes, while the character intrigued her she did not fall in love with the story. I know you need and deserve someone who can be 110% enthusiastic about your work.
Well crap, back to the database of the 1100 agents.

 In my hundreds of queries for various writing projects, I've only had one snarky one.. Years ago, when we used snail mail to query, my original enter was turned to me in the SASE with "Not this one!" written across the text.

 My rejections have gotten better. First, I can tell the agent has actually read my query because most often they make specific reference to a character or an event.

And some sound as if they regret passing on me.
Even so, at what point do I give up the agent search? When I have exhausted all 1100 agents ?

In some ways I feel like a fraud writing this blog. You're taking advice from a failed novelist. It's like taking dating advice from someone whose been divorced three times. Yet I keep telling myself I am a rock star since, so far, I have yet to reach Gold Level, which is acceptance.
Happy Writing.