Sunday, November 10, 2013

Apologies to All Except Those Who Key Bombed Me

I recently read a memoir called Heads on Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. While this is an engaging tale, complete with crisp dialogue and admirable reflection, ultimately this book changed my perspective on hotel stays.
Hotels are wonderful places; they offer shelter, make your bed, clean up after you, bring you food, provide entertainment, and accommodate your myriad quirks. If I had enough money, I’d live in one. I’ve stayed in thousands of them over the years. As a kid in h sixties and seventies I grew up in a mobile family who enjoyed world travel in some first class hotels, such as The Mandarin in Hong Kong where a console next to the bed controlled the drapes, the TV, the music and the lights. There were phone extensions in the bathroom.
When we lived overseas, my family, along with many Americans in the community hung out at the Hotel Intercontinental. We paid for membership to use the pool, and often dined poolside, where my brothers and I signed the check to our account. We used the conference rooms for school dances and weddings, shopped at the hotel patisserie, pharmacy and gift shops, and made this hotel a western respite from living in a Third World country. This hotel was the ultimate comfort zone.
But the rate for an overnight stay reaches far beyond the list price. I always knew to tip the bellmen, the luggage guys, and the maids. What I did not know is it’s also crucial to tip the front desk clerk.
How could I, a world traveler who had circled the globe twice before her junior year in high school, not know this? There are thousands of front desk clerks out there drawing skull and cross bones next to my name. My apologies to all of you, except those of you who key bombed me. Key bombing, according to Tomsky, is where the front desk person makes you a set of electronic keys but only one of which these works. If you inadvertently slide the dead key in the slot, it will deactivate the working key. Thus, if you are traveling alone, you must shlep your crap all the way back down to check in and get a working key. The clerk will smile broadly and apologize profusely, all the time typing a note about what a cheap jerk you are.
I’m not a fussy guest. I am pleasant to whoever checks me in. I’ve worked in service professions, so I know people are high maintenance. I even worked in a hotel dining room while in college, and drunken solitary males often left me a room key as a tip. Waitresses shared tips with the busboys, who kept the dining room clean. We also tipped out to the bell boys who delivered room service, even though a tip was added to the room bill. So I know about tipping.
If you have woken in the middle of the night to a clock radio blaring at two am, your drapes will not stayed closed, the toilet runs after every flush, your pee stream has more water pressure than the shower, or it looks like someone had sex in that bed an hour before, the front desk knew about it before he or she booked you in that room. You were rude on check-in, you slapped your kids, or you stayed on the phone during your entire transaction, and/or you did not tip the desk person. Think about it; the front desk guy is like the ship’s captain. He or she can decide if your journey will be bumpy or smooth. Handing the clerk a ten or twenty along with your credit card will guarantee an upgrade of some sort, be it a quiet room,
It’s so obvious. Why didn’t it occur to me before I read this book?
From now on, all desk clerks can expect a ten or twenty wrapped around my credit card. More when I become a rich and famous author.

I recommend ALL of you who travel to read this book. You will enjoy it for story as well as information. It will change how you perceive your next hotel stay. And by all emans, tip the desk clerk.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Should We Ban Books in School Libraries?

Here is my final installment of my Banned Books Week posting. This post is excerpted from a section of my Master’s thesis on censorship in school libraries from more than twenty years ago. My opinion has not changed. Some content has been edited and updated, but not censored.

Censorship in schools did not begin with Catcher in the Rye. In The Republic, Plato proposed to banish poets and dramatists for the making the Gods look less than God-like. He wrote that fiction had a band moral influence on the young. This ideology laid the groundwork for today’s justification for removing books from school libraries..

During the nineteenth century, Anthony Comstock, a zealous fundamentalist, penned a book entitled Traps for the Young, noting that light literature, newspapers and artistic works, including literature, were traps. He believed anyone who read “dime novels,” today’s equivalent to Young Adult, was doomed to a life of degradation and Hell.

Censors often have not read the materials which they challenge, or have only read isolated passages out of context. An example of a ludicrous dispute is the often challenged Steinbeck novel The Red Pony. In the 1980’s, the Vernon-Verona school District labeled the book as “a filthy and trashy sex novel.” If the challengers had bothered to read the book, they would learn this particular work by Steinbeck is a clean-cut tale of a boy and his horse. Because Steinbeck, who also authored East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath wrote The Red Pony the assumption is made that this, too contained questionable materials, yet this book continues to appear on banned book lists.

Censors believe book have behavioral consequences leading to premarital sex, violence, and questioning authority.  The two most often censored aspects of books are language and sex, the fear being that teenagers will emulate behavior of the characters in the book such as Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Teens hear this language every day in the hallways at school, or if they have jobs, out in the real world.

These same censors do not give students enough credit for their ability to discern when language is appropriate or not. Students know literature and real life are different. It doesn’t mean the words themselves should be emulated, and students who use an F-bomb or other curse word in class are usually punished, but colorful vocabulary is a part of life. If authors sanitized their dialogue by substituting expletives with phrases like “Oh, fudge!,” or “Drat and  Sugar” they lose credibility with their readers.  Young adult author Robin Brancato states, “…when I employ ‘bad language’ as you call it, and references to sex, it is not because I think these are needed to sell books or hold the reader’s interest, but because the body functions and the names for them, both polite and impolite, are parts of life, and I am interested in portraying life as it really is.”

Almost no literature is without sex. The Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve, is loaded with sex and sexual references, thus making it also a contested book in many libraries.

A distinction must be made between pornography and literature. Pornography is a Latin term meaning ‘writing about prostitution.’ In modern times, pornography has devolved into sub-literature comprising endless repetition, stilted dialogue and is most often anonymously written. Unlike literature, pornography’s intent is not to evoke realistic emotion or feeling; it is merely designed to titillate.

In the not too distant past librarians themselves were the primary censors. In early volumes of the American Library Journal, censorship was encourages through articles written about the dangers of certain types of books, particularly fiction. It was not until the Library Bill of Rights was adopted in 1939 that a clear cut policy was adopted.

The most ironic challenge is Fahrenheit 451, a book about book burning books. Written in the early Fifties about a futuristic world (which eerily resembles us today with our ear buds and wall sized TVs), fireman are dispatched to homes where the owners are known to have books, in effect, destroying all intellectual knowledge.

The purpose of education is to not only communicate factual information, but to teach young people to be critical thinkers who can devise their own value systems. Censorship undermines the students’ ability to discriminate.

Al school libraries have criteria for selection of new materials. Some might argue that selection is a form of censorship, yet school libraries are constrained by curricular needs and tight budgets. It becomes a problem when librarians either enforce their own narrow fields of interest, or when community or administrators question materials available through the library/media center. A library media specialist’s responsibility is not to impose his or her viewpoints on patrons. A colleague once told she weeded the Negro Almanac because the term ‘negro’ offended her. Granted the title is dated, and if one has the budget to replace this with a suitable, updated source, then go for it. But I will defend keeping a book like this on the shelf for the information and historical perspective it contains. Our culture likes to pretend the Unites States does not have an ugly past.

There are no easy answers for the question of censorship. I consider myself open minded, but, I too have limits. I will not intentionally stock an item on my shelves which encourages or instructs a students on how to kill himself.  Nor will I add blatantly graphic works such as Madonna’s Sex book or Fifty Shades of Gray.  However, there are materials in my library which offend my intellect: the schlocky, badly written vampire romances or the ever popular, badly written child abuse memoir, The Lost Boy. Kids love them, and it’s not my place to judge what students choose to read. My goal is that students read, period. Once the seeds for story are planted, perhaps kids will gravitate towards higher quality literature. In any case, they will have the freedom of choice.

Happy Reading and Writing.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Failure Is a Good Option

A friend of mine recently posted a cartoon which represents America’s schoolchildren as the Trophy generation where everyone wins! Failure is not an option is a popular mantra among educators. Here‘s the thing:not everyone is good at everything.

This same principle applies to writing. Anyone with a third grade education has the ability to write. He or she can form sentences, and pen a basic paragraph.. Pretty much anyone who is literate is capable of writing a letter, a Facebook post or tweet (albeit tons of these are misspelled and grammatically incorrect}, but not everyone should be a writer.

The digital era has allowed the masses unlimited possibilities to splay one’s opinions (case in point this blog) or to share their Wretched American Novels and market them on Amazon. Granted, many so called “authors” have become successful, selling their uncorrected first drafts online. Fifty Shades of Gray, an abysmal series of soft core porn novel, made E. L. James a millionaire, but James is not an author. She is someone who put words on a page and sold gazillions of books. For those of us who pay attention to our craft, such successes represent a horror story.

Call me a word snob, but real writers pay attention to the craft. They carefully construct syntax and suffer over using the correct word. Real writers don’t share their writings until they believe the words are right. And I’m not talking about “literary writers, the Virginia Woolfs and Cormac McCarthys; many bestselling authors, such as J.K. Rowling, Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard suffer over their syntax.  Even the prolific Stephen King pays attention to his craft. When you read one of these authors’s novels you are not reading first draft materials using an sixth grade vocabulary. I’m not a Dan Brown fan because his sentences give me hives, but even Brown researches his works and takes time to structure a readable, accurate story which engages people in meaningful dialogue about religious history.

I’m also not talking about Pulp fiction and romance. Beach reads. Well crafted stories, entertaining, good for one read, fairly easy to forget. When I was an undergrad, my advisor told me to read trashy novels because I was too absorbed in academic reading and he feared I would grow to hate reading. Every Sunday I read a Harlequin romance. (One of my roommates had scads of them in our apartment.)I don't remember any of them, but each book took me out of myself for awhile. And I can guarantee the words flowed well enough because even as a lowly undergrad I was a syntax snob.

My bone of contention is schlock like Fifty Shades of Gray dilutes the credibility of the book market by letting ‘fast food writing’ become the norm. Yes, we should “give the people what they want,” but don’t readers want more than trash? I worry that our national IQ is dipping to an all time low because this sort of book gets a trophy. This makes it more difficult for the real writers to get their stories published because the market is flooded with cheese, and movie and marketing deals for such debris make piles of money for the ever struggling publishing companies in movie deals

Am I jealous of E.L James? Hell yes. I wish I had her bank account, but I don’t envy her credibility as a “writer”. In fact, I feel sorry for her. What motivation does James have to write something well-crafted? And if she ever writes serious fiction, can critics take her seriously? I want my books to sell, yet I also want my stories to be appreciated for their well developed characters, plausible, memorable plots, well placed diction, and elegant syntax.  If I am ever to win an award for my work, I hope it is for something I am not embarrassed having out there.

If you want to write, write, and don’t be afraid to founder. Fail, and fail again. Real writing comes from learning from your failures..
Happy writing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Political Correctness or Weeding?

 Another piece from my archive of censorship essays from early in my career.

Moe. L Is it Political Correctness or Weeding? The Book Report March/April 1993

An incident I heard about recently set me to questioning if the motive for removal of a book [in the school’s library] was weeding or censorship. The book in question was published in the early 1970’s when some “research” purported to show blacks were inferior in intelligence to whites. One chapter of the book presented this idea as fact.

A student who was offended by the chapter asked the librarian to remove the book. The librarian refused. Later, after a phone call from a parent, the principal took the book from the shelf and presumably destroyed it.

We all know that removing books in this manner amounts to censorship. Yet, given the date of the publication and inaccurate contents, I have asked myself, would I have weeded this item before it became an object of a challenge?

One could justify keeping the book for historical purposes as an example of ideas representative of the early 1970s. In this case I would have to verify authorship and authenticity. I believe in freedom of information, yet I also feel the information in the school library should be current and accurate.

What would I have done? I don’t know. I didn't see the book, but this incident has given me a push for writing a selection, weeding and reconsideration policy. With such a policy, a challenged book at least has a chance for due process.

Author’s note. Since this piece appeared two decades ago, I have experienced numerous challenges.  In no case was a book permanently removed from the shelves. Some were moved to closed reserve, and others labeled not appropriate for certain age levels books with false information are weeded before they come under question.

Read a banned book/

 Happy Reading and Writing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Who's Afraid of A Banned Book?

In preparation of Banned Books week(September 22-28)  I am recycling some pieces I wrote early in my career as a Library/Media Specialist concerning censorship. Some things never change. As you read this and wonder about the archaic book references, please keep in mind this article is twenty years old.

The essay originally appeared in :
Moe. L. Who’s Afraid of Judy Blume? The Book Report March/April 1993

Funny thing about fiction: it’s the form of writing most often challenged by censors, yet it’s not true. The author made it up. It’s a lie. Never happened. So why are censors so afraid of it? Because in a way, fiction is true. Not true in the sense the story actually transpired. It could have happened, or parts of the story have occurred, such as the case in historical novels. Overall, the story came out of the writer’s vivid imagination. So why is it considered dangerous? Because good fiction is believable.

Fiction lets you crawl into someone else’s head, exploring their life experiences. Take the nocel Are You There God, It’s me Margaret? Along with Margaret, the reader feels the anguish of being different because unlike her friends, she has yet to develop breasts and her family doesn’t have a religion.

Through Scout’s eyes, To Kill a Mockingbird lets you be prejudiced and judgmental only to, after a sequence of events, make you change your mind about Boo Radley.

Fiction demonstrates that friends will come in strange, even ugly packages, such as in Theodore Taylor’s The Weirdo. Initially a friend may be an adversary like Mars Bar in Maniac Magee, and later become your best ally.

Historical fiction teaches facts and dates, but the lesson doesn’t stop there. In Empire of the Sun, you hear the roar of the Japanese bombers and the screams of people seeking shelter. You are hungry along with Jim in the prison camp as he subsists on one potato a day, and you understand how three years of imprisonment can numb you to the point where you don’t recognize your own parents. A good novel can also take you back in time, letting you live as Alexander the Great’s eunuch in Mary Renault’s Persian Boy.

You can explore another culture, as in Light In the Forest, a beautifully crafted novel where a white boy raised by Indians must choose between two cultures that hate each other and decide for himself his own identity and allegiance. Through good writing you can also learn to forgive, as Lee Botts forgave his parents for not being idea in Dear Mr. Henshaw.

Racism and prejudice are rooted in ignorance. That naiveté can be erased through understanding what makes another person tick. Fiction makes you see the humor, diversity and irony of life.

I’ve heard it said that you never fully understand another person’s culture until you speak his language. Through fiction, you not only speak another man’s tongue, you wear his clothes, eat his food and share his dreams. Through novels and short stories your horizons expand beyond the travelogue version of life.

Why is fiction so scary? Because good fiction is powerful. It can disturb your security, open your eyes to another viewpoint, and change your mind. Fiction also reminds us that we are flawed. Those imperfections make stories interesting.

Censors who challenge fiction are trying to protect you from viewpoints and ideas  that may disturb, upset or change you. Some novels will have bad language or rotten characters. Robert Cormier’s work is often challenged because he doesn’t supply happy endings. Life isn’t always fair or pretty. Good fiction is like real life.

As librarians it is our job to provide all viewpoints so that everyone’s story can be told.
Read a Banned Book. Follow this link for a list.

Happy Reading!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Love That New Book Smell

Recently I read a blog post by a writer
 Jill Smolinki,  who says she does not keep many books in her house. I’m stymied. I have never met a writer who wasn’t a bit of a book hoarder.
Granted some of us now use e readers. I read in any format: books, e books, clay tablets. When I was in college, living in a small apartment, I had stacks of books under my bed and inside my kitchen cabinets. Later, when my then boyfriend moved in, he explained the kitchen was for cooking; it was not a branch of the Columbus Public Library. He insisted we place food and dishes in the cupboards. But he and I were both big readers, so the stacks of books doubled. The only solution was to give some of them away.

I often reread books, so I tend to hold onto them. You can tell my favorites by the post-its sticking out from the pages, and the underlined passages. Being in the company of paper books soothes me the way others might be placated by sitting on a park bench on a sunny afternoon. Granted I love that, too, but nothing beats a rainy Saturday in a bookstore, relaxing in an overstuffed chair, poring through a stack of books to choose which will go home with you. But as the photo on Jill’s blog shows, one’s attachment to books can get out of hand without sufficient space.

On a design show once I saw how books can be used a decor by arranging them on the shelves by color. One of my living room shelves has books arranged by tones.
Don't they have a nice aesthetic? They blend well with the family photos. Books are family.

I recently spent ten days on business/vacation in Seattle, where I set aside time to visit Elliot Bay Books. I entered Nirvana: rows and rows of books, real ones, not a dressed up toy shop like Barnes & Noble. Call me old school, but this is what a bookstore is supposed to look like. I was on my way to SEA TAC and had dragged my rolling carry-on bag with me. A bookseller offered to hold it for me at the counter as I browsed. I looked for staff recommendations, and someone named Kenny has similar taste in books, so I picked up a few he liked. (I was hoping to meet him and talk books, but he was off that day.)

I spent two hours (and seventy dollars) inside the bookshop.  I picked out five books (one was a gift for Elizabeth.) Since my bag was full, I had to choose which books to ship home and allow myself one to read on the plane, and had the rest mailed home.

A few days after I got back from the Northwest, the package arrived from Elliot Bay. Inside were two carefully bundles wrapped in craft paper.. I took the parcels out of the box and set them on a bureau in my living room, where they sat for a day before I opened one. The other still remains an anticipated gift. Yes, it’s silly. I know which book is in there, but because it’s still wrapped, I look forward to the jolt I will get from studying its cover and contents.

There is an aesthetic to a paper book not found in digital format. I like the rough hewn paper, the fresh inky aroma of a new book. I like to flip back to the cover and study the cover art, or gaze at the author’s picture. Which can be done with an e reader, but not without jumping though a few fiery hoops. I kept forgetting the title of the book I just finished reading last night on my kindle, so each time I turned the device on I had to hit the home key to see which title appeared at the top. And forget about trying to find the cover illustration or the author pic.

All my kindle book smell the same.

Perhaps instead of new car smell, someone will come out with a fragrance of ‘new book smell’ we can spray around us as we clutch our e readers in our hands in bed at night.

For more on this see related post;

Happy Writing ( and Reading).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Exciting Life of a Fiction Writer

It seems I only update my blog posts when something exciting happens causing me to react, like attending a writer’s conference or reading a good book. Everyday life does not foster good story. For example, here is my day so far; it’s pretty bland.

Get up at 6:30. Brush teeth, wash face and Feed the cats. Have to put Pablo in the garage while ADD senior cat Henry dawdles to finish his meal. If I don’t put the big white boy in the garage he vacuums up all the food. He’s hefty. He can use a few fewer nuggets of IAMS.

Get dressed. I am feeding Elizabeth’s cat today, and need to go spend some time with Pickles. Pablo, perhaps sensing I will be cheating on him with another cat, leaps onto my bed and distracts me with his cute cat poses that beg for me to stop dressing so I can pet him.

Pet Pickles profusely before I fill his bowl. He glances at the food dish, but seeks out my hand for a few more strokes before he takes his first bite. Read from Middlemarch (my book club book) on my kindle while the cat eats.

Stop at Giacomo's to eat and write. I have half a breakfast sandwich (you don’t want to order a whole one unless you are a stevedore or have been fasting for a week. They’re enormous.) with a side order of mixed fresh fruit and a cafe Americano.

Write. I am editing my  dreadful YA draft. Making it less dreadful.

Recognize a couple in the restaurant and try to figure out how I know them. When I get up to refill my coffee I stop and ask them  it turns out their son graduated from the High school where I teach. We chat about his success for a few minutes. His mother shares Facebook pictures of his son on her mini iPad.

I sit down and edit a few more paragraphs. A retired teacher from my school comes in carrying her granddaughter. We exchange chat about her current job and her children.

I notice the sky getting darker as ifa storm will blow in. I pack up to come home so I won’t get wet. Not that I will melt, but a wet computer is not a happy computer..

When I get home:
Go to the basement and dump the water out of the dehumidifier. It’s a daily thing, sometimes twice daily, on humid days. If I don’t, the basement starts to smell like a Florida swamp.

Plug in my iPad to charge it up and also do cloud backup. Eat a tablespoon of peanut butter and share the soiled spoon with Henry who will howl like a coyote until I give him a taste.

Watch The View where they show a video clip of a cat riding a Roomba dressed in a shark costume.

Check my snail mail. I get an advance copy of a new YA novel called brother. Cool! Summer reading. Maybe I will blog about this book.

Turn the volume down on The View so I don’t have to listen to Snookie. Seriously?

The clouds still threaten to storm, but all that rain sits up there like a boil just getting bigger. I’d like to reach up and pop it.

The volume is not low enough . Snookie claims to be somewhat of an expert on motherhood. “I went to high school,” she says. “I know what I’m doing.” Where is the mute button on this thing?

Yes. The sounds of my neighbor mowing her lawn is a relief.Happy Writing.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Pitches at PNWA 2013

I know I have said before I would rather get a root canal than query an agent. I have since amended that after a recent root canal, but this whole selling myself process is way out of my comfort zone. And I’m fairly brave; I teach high school.

As I stand in line for coffee the first afternoon of the conference, a woman behind me says, “Let’s hear your pitch.” Her name tag indicates she’s not an agent, but a fellow participant.  I am hesitant, having never practiced my pitch before, but she encourages me. I give her my best effort as we walk to a bench to drink our coffee. “Your story sounds interesting, but your pitch is a bit long. You have to remember we only get four minutes, and agents want to know more than just the story.” Her well rehearsed, concise pitch includes a visual aide (a photo of what prompted her story.) In three minutes she tells about the book (historical fiction) and her background and allows time for questions. Oh, man, I have work to do.

Throughout the conference, rooms are available to “Practice Your Pitch.” Conference participants have the option to sign up for a Power Pitch Block where you have four minutes to not only describe your book, but your writing background and platform. Writers should be prepared to answer: What is your book about? Who is your reader? Why should I read it? How will this book be marketed? Why does the world need this book?

At any time of day, participants sit down at one of the tables in the room to practice their pitches with one another and give their feedback. In the back of my mind I wonder if any of them intentionally sabotage one another; we’re all competing for the same agents and editors’ attention.  I’m leery of taking advice from strangers, particularly if I find their story-lines weak or convoluted, but several writers I meet give me some great feedback. A woman named Courtney Pierce presents a well crafted pitch in the practice room, so I am not surprised to learn when I run into her after the Power Pitch she got 7/7 requests for pages from the agents she pitched.  

The Power Pitch is the longest and quickest 90 minutes of your life. Imagine American Idol auditions where all the contestants are dressed for a business meeting. It’s the one shot at making an impression on an agent or editor.  A woman I met earlier that day said what helped cure her nerves was to equate each agent or editor’s face to someone she knew, so she could imagine she was just chatting with a friend of her mother’s and not a super agent who can make or break her writing career.

I drink green tea the morning of my pitch so I don’t have coffee breath since we will be in close quarters during the pitch block.  Besides, I figure the Tazo Zen tea might center me; it has Zen in the name. I drink three cups.

Before pitch block C (the largest of the blocks) a hundred or more of us stand nervously outside the banquet room that houses our futures. When the doors open, we stampede inside. (well, okay, we have to stop and show our name badges and Block C tickets.(It’s a little like boarding Southwest Airlines where everyone rushes for the aisle or window seats.)

I am pitching Parallel Lines, my YA novel, and now I don’t remember what it’s about. Oh crap, what’s my character’s name again? What’s my name? Oh yeah, I wrote this stuff down on a card.

I get my first choice of agents for my initial pitch: Laurie McClean. I had met Laurie in two of sessions on The Evolving YA Market and From Middle Grade to Young Adult Fiction. I found her funny and engaging, so sitting in front of her first helps ease my tension, especially after the monitor yelled at the room “Do not pitch yet!” because as soon as we sit down everyone simultaneously begins our pitches. Evidently we need to wait for the bell like at the races. "I feel like we're in the Hunger Games," I whisper." She laughs, and says, "May the odds ever be in your favor."

I don’t remember what I say, but Laurie has time to ask me questions, and she asks for ten pages and a one to two page synopsis.

I have just enough time to meet five other agents. One agent tells me it might work if Nick had a super power of some kind. Inwardly I laugh, but I thank her for the suggestion. John Green’s characters don't have super powers and he’s doing pretty well, I think. Another suggests I change the gender since “girls are the chief readers for YA. Boys won’t read it.”  Hmmm. Why don’t I just write an entirely different novel?

The monitor announces those of us in line have time for one more agent pitch after the bell, but after drinking all that tea I have to pee like a racehorse. I don't walk away empty handed, though; I get three requests for pages.

Afterwards I realize I forgot my elevator pitch: my novel is Catcher in the Rye meets Don't You Dare Read this, Mrs. Dunprey." Oh well.It’s crazy and frenetic, and as Regina Brooks said in the agent panel; chemistry counts.

Happy Writing.

Friday, August 2, 2013

For my Middle Grade and YA Author Friends Who Are Seeking Agents

The Agent Panel at PNWA 2013

There were 23 agents in on this panel. I only wrote down bits about agents who are looking for YA and Middle Grade. I tried to take notes on my iPad but it was awkward without a background surface, (it kept sliding off my lap) so I hand wrote notes and am now having trouble deciphering my chicken scratch. Here is a summary of their advice on pitching and/or querying:

Regina Brooks- An interesting woman who had once been an aerospace engineer and is now a super agent.. Her advice in looking for an agent is the 3Cs: competence, chemistry and character. She looks for hook, platform and good writing.

April Eberhardt- she says ask three things of your manuscript: Who, what and why should we care?

Rachel Eckstrom- There is not much difference between pitches and queries- but she says you can pitch a book your are still writing or revising. In a query, make sure this is a project you have sat with for awhile.  She likes a humorous voice.

Mandy Hubbard- looks for YA. She says don't be humble about yourself.

Susan Finesman- Looks for a story driven by character.  “Work on the first sentence. Be direct and purposefully brief.” (A lovely person. I pitched to her, and she wasn't interested in my work, but she knows where Zanesville is. She’s from Pittsburgh.)

Jill Marr- says show your voice in the query.

Laurie McClean- She’s funny with loads of personality. She says she looks for work that is unique and not derivative, “So don’t send me The Obesity Games or The Titanic in Space.”  She is looking for authors willing to do hybrid marketing- print and eBook titles released simultaneously.

Pooja Menon- Her advice on pitching is to have fun. She is looking for Middle Grade and Contemporary YA

Kathleen Rushall- looks for character driven and voice and wants to know what else you are writing.

Katharine Sands- looking for (something illegible beginning with a d having to do with voice. Drive? Dynamic?) [**SEE COMMENTS] passion, freshness. In your pitch/brief summary think of When this happened…, and now….

Pam van Hylclama Vlieg- interested in YA fantasy. Said if she were not an agent she’d work in forensics

Ethan Vaughan- looking for YA and a narrator who is different. He looks for strong voice.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Query Letters: How to Get an Agent to Beg to Read More.

One of my favorite sessions at PNWA, conducted by agent Marilyn Allen, was Query Letters: How to Get and Agent to Beg to Read More. Prior to the conference, participants were invited to submit their query letters for Allen’s review, and she promised to discuss them.( I missed the deadline and didn't send mine in.)  Like Sands, Allen also breaks queries into three important elements: The Hook, the Book and the Cook.

Hook: The first sentence should answer, “Why should I read this? And why should I read more?

The description of the book should be brief yet compelling yet be no more than two lines. She says to pitch a main theme. And use active verbs. The set up, conflict and resolution. Also use your voice. Allen says she can tell by the letter if a writer has narrative skills.

The cook is also important. Who are you? Why are you qualified to write this book? What do you do for a living (even if it doesn't relate to the book.) she wants to know you are a credible person with a job and not

Marilyn Allen was generous with answering our Q & As, and she outlined the Ten Deadly Sins of Query Letters based on the queries she read from PNWA participants.

1.      Weak hook. The first sentence did not want to make her read the entire letter.
2.      No comparisons to other books. Agents and editors want to know where bookstores and libraries will place you book, and also see that you read in your genre or category.
3.      No platform. If one has a blog, a Facebook fan page. (I asked several agents if they read blogs or look at Facebook links from submissions and they all said if they have an interest in the writer they do. So make sure your web presence is cleaned up. Delete those pictures of yourself throwing up after binge drinking or dancing topless on the bar.)
4.      Too many rambling details. I plead guilty to this. I can talk for days, say 300 pages, about my tale. Note to self; work on this.
5.      No bio information. Even if it is not apparent to you how your experience coaching little league or driving a cab could open the gates, put something interesting about yourself in your letter.
6.      Way too generic. The hook is weak or not memorable.
7.       Technical misteakS. (Guilty!!! I am the typo queen. Note self; make sure Elizabeth AND Cindy read your letters before you send them out. )
8.      Overselling oneself or the book.
9.      Lack of understanding of the business
10.  not enough sense of talent in the letter
11. (She added this one on the fly)Trite words. Use active verbs and specific words.

Allen also had some other tips for good queries.
Understand word counts for the genre. YA books are generally shorter than adult books (50-75,000 words), but some writers describe their YA titles as having 180,000 words.
If you have self published, it’s okay to mention it, but only if you have great stats. If you have sold ten copies to your friends and family, leave it out, but if you have sold 10,000 or more, mention it.
Weak titles. (But if you write fiction, don’t get too attached to your titles; chances are the publisher will change it.)
Allen says she also hates  what agents call ‘shoe-shopping’, where the writer mentions a list of other books he or she has available for sale. Focus on one at a time.

The letter should be 150-250 words. While most agents now take only e-mail submissions, Allen says the letter should still look like a letter. Often she prints these up to read them (staring at a computer screen all day tires her eyes.). Ironically, in these days of electronic submissions, Allen says sometimes she will read paper submissions faster because she gets about 400 e-mails a day, but very few through snail mail.

The bottom line, make sure your work is worth selling before you put it out there.
I liked her a great deal, but unfortunately she does represent YA.

Happy Writing. (and querying.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Business Side of Writing

I just returned from the 2013 Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) conference in Seattle, Washington, so my next few posts will feature highlights of the conference.   In the conference brochure, PNWA president Pam Binder likens a writing career to a roller coaster ride. Unlike other writing workshops and conferences, where the emphasis is largely on craft, the PNWA conference focuses on getting your work published. While there were a few craft sessions, this is not a conference for newbies; it focuses on having polished work ready for market. If you are at the beginning of your writing career, try regional workshops and hone your projects.

On opening day, agent Katharine Sands conducted a session on Pitchcraft. While the stigma of self-publishing has ebbed, she makes the distinction between being printed (self published) and published (traditional.) She points out that too many self-printed books are put on the market before they are fully seasoned. “People are in a hurry, and publishing is a slow business.” She estimates once a book is accepted by a house, it is a minimum of eighteen months before it will be available in print copy. That’s not counting the months or years it takes to secure an agent. So as much of a kick it is to see your book in print, “don’t “publish” something you may later regret.”

When reading queries or hearing pitches, Sands says she looks for three things: person, place and pivot. She wants to know right away who the story is about. She also wants to know the setting, and mostly, she wants the pivot, (the problem).

I know I’ve said this before, but I’d rather write another novel than a query letter or a pitch. It’s easier. Writers feel comfortable in the artistic zone, the creative universe where we converse with our imaginary friends. Many of us have EmilyDickinsoned our manuscripts in a box or computer file because marketing our words (and ourselves)feels like roaming a foreign country without a guide.

But the reality is if we want our books out there, we have to pitch them to agents or editors. Condensing a three hundred page manuscript into two or three sentences is like climbing Mt. Everest with a fork.

I’m a good writer, but a lousy self-promoter. I’m like the two girls I see outside the window at Starbucks as I write this, waving a sign to promote their check cashing business. Traffic whizzes by and few pay attention. I’m not shy, nor am I invisible. As a teacher I stand in front of a lousy audience every day and manage to capture my students’ attention. I even took a stand up comedy class were my final exam was to write and perform a comedy routine for a live audience. I killed them. Granted, most of the audience was drunk, but I got a standing ovation. I’m fairly brave, so why do I balk at pitching my writing?

The object is to describe your book in 2-3 sentences without making it sound stupid. Guy wakes up to discover he’s a cockroach. A man burns books for a living and starts to feel guilty about it. Destitute Family leaves Oklahoma for California to seek jobs and security. See how easy it is? Why can’t I do this for my own work?
In an upcoming post I will share my experience with preparing my (dreadful) pitch, but still scored a couple of mss. requests..
Happy Writing.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why I Am Still Ignoring This Blog

It’s not intentional. Excuse #1 The end of the school year is crunch time for all teachers, but English teachers have the extra task of reading and grading papers. My students’ papers were 8-10 pages long, and I read each one twice. Once for content, and again for syntax and structure.

Excuse #2 I recently came back from a week of being an AP exam reader. Trust me, when one reads essays all day for seven days, you are too tired of words to write.

Excuse #3 (which may be the most valid): I’m writing other things. But alas, I have run out of valid excuses, so here I sit across the table at Starbucks from my writer friend Rita Smith, pecking out this post on the keyboard.

I had entered the first twenty five pages on my current book in a novel contest, which of course I didn’t win, but I received something valuable: judge’s comments. Out of fifty points, one judge gave me 47, and the other 39. Not bad scores. Both judges gave high marks on what I consider to be most important: the writing, characters and dialogue. Both deducted points on my numerous typos. Typos are my albatross. I even had a friend scan the pages for typos, but to be fair to her, she was working on her MFA thesis and was not able to give my manuscript a close read.  So the blame falls utterly upon me.
The lower scoring judge also commented he/she didn’t care for Shelly, my female lead. The judge found her shallow. Shelly tries to portray herself as shallow, but part of the story deals with Michael discovering what lies beneath the surface.

Another issue the snarky judge had was with my synopsis; he/she said I don’t reveal the ending. I allude to the resolution, but do not state it outright. The judge who scored me highly didn’t seem bothered by the vague reference to the ending. His/her only negative comment was I capitalized the names of the characters, which I had read was the proper format.

So…..are we supposed to tell the ending of our tale in a one page synopsis? Are we supposed to capitalize the LEAD CHARACTERS’ names?

I am pleased with my 86/100 score. Having strangers compliment my work motivates me to not only continue working on the novel, but to focus on my improvements. Our friends and family think we are brilliant and will offer effusive praise on everything we do. It’s the strangers we need, those hooded, nameless characters with their red pens who will tell you the truth.

Besides, it’s a good thing I didn't win because I’m not done writing the tale yet. I know how it ends; I just haven't written the final scene yet.

Happy Writing (and revising).

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The cat ate my blog post

To the tens of thousands of you (or more realistically, the ten of you who actually read my blog), I have a litany of valid reasons why I have not been posting.

Take this morning. It’s hard to write with a cat on your lap. Pablo likes weekends because my lap spends more time at home, so I am pecking this out one handed with cat hairs on the keyboard as he head butts my other hand, demanding Pet me pet me pet me.

Blame the weather. It’s been a lovely week, dry, warm, the kind of spring weather that demands one’s presence outdoors. Yes, I’m allergic to most of what’s lurking in that soil, and I pay for it with watery eyes and needing to be in close proximity to tissues.

I have been writing: not this blog, but hard at work on my latest novel. I set a date of June 1st to be finished with the first draft. And the book has steered itself into surprising directions. It may not work structurally, but I am enjoying this bout, so I will roll with it. My main characters nag me all the time. They’re teenagers, and they demand full attention.

But so do my other teenagers at work, especially the ones ready to graduate or skate the line between passing and failing my class. The kids are finishing up a semester long research project for which they (allegedly) written two ungraded drafts. Several have only shown me one draft, some have written NO drafts. The third and final draft is the biggie. Those who have not gotten my preliminary feedback are taking a huge risk. It’s like submitting the first draft of a novel to an editor or agent and expecting a book contract.

The REAL writing is in the rewrites. Initial drafts are fun to write, but revision is re- seeing the work, allowing the pieces to fall into place with more clarity. Here is where you find the inconsistencies (like forgetting a minor character’s name,) holes (such as undeveloped scenes, and glaring errors (your protagonist is blonde at the beginning, but later you describe him as having ebony hair).

This week in class we worked on thesis statements. I projected each students’ argument thesis to check for clarity, stance and warrant. Here is an example of how we fixed them:

Initial thesis:
Television is entertaining and informative, but has a negative impact on teens and society. Teenagers aren’t fully developed making them easily influenced, so partying, bad health, or even carelessness are all being more commonly demonstrated.

With input from me and her peers, here is what we devised:

Television is entertaining and informative, however , the bulk of shows on TV now geared for teens like Jersey Shore utilize partying, bad health and carelessness and do not enhance maturing  young adult brains.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, but we need outside feedback to make us better writers. To paraphrase Stephen King in On Writing, “draft with door closed, but revise with the door open. I frequently torture my great friend Elizabeth with my wretched drafts, and since she stands outside my story, she can find the cracks more easily.

Here is hoping my students are busy this weekend working on their rewrites, just as I need to get back to my novel. Just stopped by to say hello.
 Happy Writing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spine poetry

Take a stack of books, and arrange them into a poem. Here is mine:

The History of Making Books

As the earth begins to end,
What have you lost?

Words under the words,
The art of fact, and one amazing thing.
Hooked on time and materials,
The night parade came passing through.

How do you see yourself under the veil?
The best of it, bird by bird,
lies on the road.
Kiss me goodnight, Pablo Neruda.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Why is the Big Bang Theory important for Novelists?

My name is Laura M and I am addicted to the Big Bang Theory, or as we seasoned viewers call it: TBBT.I have seen every episode more than once, yet I laugh at the same lines  every time. It’s a sickness. Or is it?

Some of my non=addicted friends have criticized the show as stereotypically portraying the quartet of guys as nerds, with Penny representing the token "normal” person. But it’s comedy; it’s supposed to be exaggerated. One of the elements of comedy writing is exaggeration. And Penny is not “normal”. Nobody, from Sheldon and Leonard’s moms or Will Wheaton, and even Stan Lee, gets off that show Scott-free. The characters on TBBT represent human foibles common to most of us.

Okay, at this point, if you are still reading this post, you may be asking, WTF does a silly sitcom  have to do with writing a novel? TBBT is about character, and writers take a full blown character, and mix him or her with another character or situation, place them in peril, and they react. In the case of TBBT, the reaction is funny. Comedy writers take our human frailties and spin them to make comedic magic.

This show has earned its huge success from exemplary writing. After six seasons, (and renewed for a seventh!) the characters, situations and dialogue are still fresh. Like a novel, more than one character’s story is fully developed, and the audience finds surprises throughout the journey. TV, theatre and film are collaborative efforts, and it takes actors, set designers, and directors to produce it, but the story begins (and thrives) with the writing.

In all tales, the audience needs to fall in love with at least one character a little. Even the bad guy. (Who doesn’t love a good villain? Without Beatty, Montag’s quest in Fahrenheit 451 would be beige. And who can’t love a conflicted character like Frankenstein, who is both protagonist and antagonist? When we engage in stories, we hold up a mirror, and someone we know well is one (or more) of those characters.  We watch TBBT to laugh at ourselves and our friends.

Like Sheldon, I like to sit in the same spot on my couch, and tend to gravitate to the same restaurants where I order the same things from the menu. As I write this I am munching on lunch at a local deli where the staff knows my nakme.) I don’t wear ‘bus pants’, but I am cognizant of where I sit in public; I prefer seats that can be wiped down to upholstered ones. You never know what is on the seat of anyone’s pants.

I wipe silverware down with the napkin in restaurants (trust me, I have worked in restaurants; you WANT to do this), and I over-sanitize my hands, likely eradicating any resistance to disease.  While I do not obsess over scientific formulas, I obsess over words. It can take me days before I am satisfied with a sentence or a line of poetry, (and still, it will never be right.)

Like Leonard I over think things, and often say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Can’t let it go. I blame my dad. My father was literal, much like Leonard’s mother. He said what he thought when he thought it, because it was without malice., If my mother or one of us kids did something like pull a sixteen pound turkey out of the oven and drop it on the floor, he’d glance up from behind his newspaper, and say, “Why’d you do that?”

Some of his favorite expressions, said without malice, were , “Have you always been stupid?” and “People have the right to be stupid, but they also need to know when they are being so.”  So yeah, I have some Leonard in me.

I’m a little like Raj, too; I don't like spiders and Indian food, either. My family spent three years on the Indian subcontinent, where, “it’s so hot!”, and I never developed a taste for curry or cardamom. I do like Bollywood movies, though. (I am listening to Indian music in my headphones as I write this.)

And then there’s Howard. Hmmm. No, I’m not like Howard. I don't think there is anyone like Howard. But Bernadette loves him. And so do I.

.I worked as a snarky waitress for awhile. Also like Penny my house often looks like it was recently burglarized, and I have dated a succession of Mr. Wrongs. I’d like to say I am hot like Penny, but that was many, many moons ago. Now I’m tepid. I’m more like a less smart version of Amy Farah Fowler without the sweaters.

But this isn't about me. It's about all of us, and how each of us finds ourselves inside a fictitious character.  I will agree that on the surface each character fulfills a broad stereotype; the guys have advanced degrees and love gaming, and Penny, a junior college dropout, is a shoe obsessed dreamer. But under the layers, each of these people is unique and interesting, just as good characters (and real people) are.

That’s MY story and I’m sticking to it.

Happy Writing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I'm Not a Slob...I'm Just ADD

This afternoon isolated to clean up my desk area. I don't actually have some office. iWeb I moved into my house I intended to use one of the spare bedrooms, but my desk didn't fit through the door. It's a lovely piece of,furniture, an old fashioned roll top desk with a slide out shelf for placing papers. But the desk is also  monstrously large. So a corner of the living room serves as my home office , and that space is almost always cluttered with bad manuscripts of failed novels (my own. Sigh)  writing magazines, books, journals, and miscellaneous loose pages on which I have written stupendous ideas to use later. I also keep a paper bag for recycled paper nearby. This week I am on vacation so I am determined to clean this mess up.

I recycled two pieces of junk mail, then came across a photocopied article one of the Rock stars of Reference from our local,library gave me last week. I sat down and read through it. (Did I go back to cleaning? No. I started writing this blog post. I am hopeless.)

The article, from Book List, is a Will Manley column about graphic novels and their role  in developing young readers. Libraries are undergoing changes with lightning speed, and more of my school library colleagues have fallen into black holes, leaving behind ghost towns filled with lonely books and magazines. Some libraries have taken action to attract clientele by promoting graphic novels for kids who claim to hate reading in the hopes of leading them into more text based stories. Yet, as pointed out in  the Manley piece, "that's like saying you can get meth addicts into a rehab center by baiting them with [drugs] and expecting them to go clean."

If we want to develop a culture of readers, we need to read. And not just in Language Arts classes. The Common Core standards schools are adopting are not new. They are just a new name for teaching all subjects through narrative. (A new fangled name for ancient dialogues in Plato's time, and the Renaissance education.) It's the way I was taught in the late 60s and 70s, learning of the relationship of all things. As my former student Aaron miller once said during a eureka moment, "everything's connected !" 

I'm not sure this post has anything to do with any of the Scintilla prompts, but since everything's related, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Back to my stacks of papers....

Happy Writing.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Scintilla Day 3.5

This poem has a marginal connection to the “singing in the car while driving.” Prompt.  Meh. Not my best, but this time change has my brain addled.
Anyway, here goes.

Strange Days Have Found Us

We are five teenagers scouring
Vancouver streets
in the pink wet light of 2am.
Riders on the storm!
We sing-shout through open windows.
Into this life we’re born!
The bum on the street opens a stinkeye,
flips us a shaky bird,
a streetlight burns.
Into this world we’re thrown
On a runway pointing nowhere,
no flight plan.
The night on fire
Like a dog without a bone.
We are actors, all alone.

Laura Moe

Happy Writing.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Lost Girl On the Road

Scintilla 3.14.13 prompt.

I chose the one where we describe an event as a set of instructions. I have written about much of what appears here in other forms, but as poet Jim Daniels said in a workshop last summer, “writers get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

A Lost Girl On the Road

1.      Have your first kiss on an abandoned runway of an airport never built because of a war. Make sure the night is moonless, yet contains stars.
2.      Let your lips linger over his. Taste the future.
3.      Feel the tectonic plates divide, swallow you whole.
4.      Lie across the front seat of his car. Run your fingers over his bare arms, breathe in the teenaged boy smell imprinted on his white T shirt.
5.      Take a snapshot of this moment. You will not be this happy again for a long time.
6.      Move away to the other side of the world shortly afterwards.
7.      Live in paradise, lost in a lonely ocean.
8.      Walk barefoot and watch men land on the moon
9.      Move to a rainy city in the Pacific Northwest and wear the wrong kind of clothes.
10.  Watch your mother die.
11.  Move to a college town in Ohio and lie to your new friends. Tell them your parents are divorced so you don’t have to say the words,“My mother is dead.”
12.  Read far too many books. Get drunk. Do drugs.
13.  Get a fake ID and go to college bars while still in high school. Date lots of young men who fail to fill the vast crater growing inside you.
14.  Eat. Never feel full. Stab yourself in the leg with a pen for no apparent reason. Leave a scar.
15.  Develop strange phobias: riding in cars, flying, driving.
16.  Move again.
17.  Start college. Drop out. Work a series of shitty jobs. Fall in love with shitty men.
18.  Restart college. Take it slow. Fourteen years. (While you work more shitty jobs.)
19.  Outgrow your phobias. Avoid shitty men. Get a cat. Get a real job.
20.  Forgive yourself.

Happy Writing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mad Dog 2020.

It's that time of year again where crazy people like me respond to a daily prompt. Follow the link above for more information on the project. Enjoy!
Scintilla. 3 13 13 

I was a junior in high school, back in the Pleistocene when guys wore their hair as long as girls. I went on a date with my brother’s friend Mark, a sophisticated senior: an OLDER guy, AND a guitar player in a band. Mark resembled Peter Frampton with a long wavy shag, and he wore a leather bomber jacket. How cool is that? Those twelve to sixteen more months of life provided  Mark with an enormity of experience I could only view with awe. We were planning to go to a party, and  he suggested we begin the evening with a bottle of wine. I was like, wow.  Wine! And he was SO experienced he even knew what KIND of wine to buy : Mad Dog 2020. Double Wow. The name was rad, and the bottle was so cool, square and stout, with MD 2020 blazed across the label. It looked more like a bottle of whiskey than wine ,and it didn't even need a corkscrew. The wine itself  was blood red, 20% alcohol.
We sat in the front seat of Mark’s station wagon on a frigid night in the parking lot outside of Kroger, taking gulps of wine like it was cough syrup. In fact it tasted like cough syrup. This was So cool. Until it wasn't..

Before the bottle was half empty I transformed from the bookish girl in glasses who read too many books into this giddy, silly girl who had trouble pronouncing words.

We never made itto the party because I started throwing up outside Mark’s car. He got worried and took me home. Mark had to escort me inside, where my brother screamed at him. “What the hell? You got my sister drunk?” My father heard the commotion, and came out of his room tying his bath robe, yelling, “what the hell is going on out here?”

I got grounded, Mark and Paul’s friendship was at odds, but I had a new badge of honor; I had tried (and survived) Mad Dog 2020.

"A Writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." Samuel Johnson

Happy Writing.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Bad Query Contests Are Good for the Writer's Soul

Recently I participated in a Write a Bad Query Contest. Alas, I didn't win, but It was a pleasure to purposely write a bad query. It wasn't difficult; all I had to do was channel my litany of bad queries and poke fun at my own mistakes, or rather misteaks. The contest was a hoot, and I enjoyed reading the variety of submissions and comments. They all poked fun at the shared experience of crafting the dreaded yet necessary query letter.
I despise the query process. It forces me to dress up and behave, but the fabric itches, the pantyhose bind my fat, and these shoes are killing me. I’m not good at faking it. When I tried acting in High School, the audience erupted in laughter with each of my lines. It wasn’t a comedy; I had portrayed Joan of Arc’s mother in The Lark. So I wonder if each time I submit a query with a sample, the agents and office staff roar with laughter.  If  they save the best of the worst to read aloud at the annual holiday party, I wonder if some of mine are in that batch.

Here is what I wish I could send:
Dear Agent. 
Here is my book. Hope you like it. Call me.

Unfortunately, the work cannot speak for itself..We have to sell the agent on the idea of even reading the manuscript. .

About a year ago I hired a consultant to help me with the whole wretched query process. Part of the process forced me to analyze my writing history, the successes as well as the failures. Mark helped me recognize my weaknesses, which are many. (He has yet to help me cure them.) Even though I still languish in the dark, scum ridden pool of underrepresented authors, with Mark’s help, my rejections are now gold standard .
Currently I am reading The Fire in Fiction: passion, purpose, and techniques to make your novel great by agent Donald Maass. I am hoping to gain insights into what agents look for in a manuscript. Maass presents several examples of what he deems great openings, and examples of passionate writing  While I do not find every example engaging as Maass, I agree with his statement, "passionate writing makes every word a shaft of light, every sentence a crack of thunder, every scene a tectonic shift." (I plan to print that up and tape it above my work area on my desk.) So far I have only read the first two chapters, but Maass has helped me rethink some thin gs about one of the novels I have been shopping. While I have a passion for the story and the two main characters  my secondary characters are beige. Also, my story starts in the wrong place. So in effect, every agent who has rejected me has done me a favor; my novel needs surgery. (Yes, I know it's not about me, it's about the story, yet it still stings. I care about my characters and it's a little like not everyone adoring your children.)

I’m not a gamer, but it seems like like  D& D or WOW, persistence is the key, and if I don’t give up on this writing gig, the keys to the kingdom are within my reach, even though by the time I make it to gate I will be bloodied, bruised, battered, and hairless, and I will need to hire someone else to pose for my author picture so I don't scare off readers. But it will be so worth it.
Happy writing (and querying.)


Monday, February 25, 2013

One Scene Short of a Hoarders Episode

I’m one paragraph away from being a word hoarder. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but bibliophiles know what I mean; we love books it’s only with great regret that I give them up. At one point in my life I lived in a one bedroom apartment and I had so many books and so little shelf space I filled the kitchen cabinets with them. Barely scraping by working two jobs, if I had to choose between books or food, guess which won? After I started working in libraries, my tendency to squirrel away books abated somewhat; I was surrounded by books all day. I donated some of the books I had outgrown to the school library, since I could still see them and knew they had a good home.

I also hold onto writing magazines. ( Escribus Periodophilus?). I never know when a good exercise will jump out and inspire me. For example, as I was cleaning out a stack of magazines in my office, I found a copy of The Writer from January, 2009. Page 29 is loaded with “Tantalizing Warm-Ups,” which come from the book Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Spend 5 minutes describing….speeding along the freeway in the trunk of a car, a strange experience in a restaurant (I’ve had several of these.

Spend 10 minutes describing:…your first crush, a terrible party, the last time you said something you instantly regretted, a secret from your childhood.

Spend 5 minutes listing….50 interesting settings for stories, everything that comes to mind when you think of stained glass, everything that comes to mind when you think of a park bench, everything that comes to mind when you think of what made you happiest as a child, adolescent or adult.

Spend 15 minutes finishing the paragraph that begins with:
“No one could blame her for trying. The ring was just sitting on the counter, begging to be stolen.”

Spend 20 minutes describing a scene where:
An adult tries to convince his/her 50 something patent not to adopt a baby, a computer disk, a motel key.

What is the common element here? They all involve scenes. Successful stories and novel, and creative nonfiction are scenes strung together. As Les Edgerton writes in his book Hooked.
 ‘ a scene is simply a unit of dramatic action…it means conflict, always conflict.”

Conflict can be internal, such as a character can’t decide between two pathways, or it can involve adventure, such as the protagonist is being chased by a mob of angry bees. In any case, conflict involves a quest, and the story imperils your protagonist out of his /her comfort zone.

As Edgerton says, “…a basic scene requires conflict, a protagonist and an antagonist…the protagonist enters a scene with a goal.”

To create enough detail for a good scene, think cinematic-ally. Your scene may open with a wide shot through the protagonist’s point of view. He sits on his white horse, surveying his ranch, when suddenly, the lens closes in on another man riding up on a black horse in the distance. The music changes timbre and tone, and the lens moves in on his ragged, sneering face. The cinematic details let the audience know this is the antagonist, and we have conflict.

Make a scene. Then another. And another. Eventually you will have a story, or a book.
 Happy Writing!