Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cover Art

Everybody knows the old saying: You can't judge a book by its cover. Both literally and figuratively, however, we do it every day. Psychologists (or at least mine - I'm married to one) say that you have 30  seconds to meet someone and make an impression. At a writing workshop, a speaker said much the same thing about book covers.

We choose a book by checking out the cover, flipping to the back to read the "blurb" about the story, then, if we like what we read, we read a few sentences on the first page. A quick decision that seems to work for most of us. We know pretty fast what appeals to us and what doesn't.  I know I've bypassed books that are purported to be great, but I just can't help my little biases and gut reactions, and I don't think many of us can.

Looking at this design, you might ask yourself questions. Does the main character literally fight the elements in a storm? No. Does she have the gorgeous blue eyes depicted at the top? Hers are actually brown, but it isn't about telling the whole story in a picture. The cover is about that first impression, and this one, appeals to me, of course. I like the image of a girl, alone, facing a snowstorm. It opens possibilities to me - wondering what her status might be. Is she lost? Has she run away? Is there shelter around? Will she survive?

Snowstorm is about being a teenager with problems. It describes the choices we all have to make, but with added challenges for these characters. No vampires or wizards make an appearance. Nobody can fly or shape-shift. So, I think the cover is a good reflection of the plot - a girl in trouble. 

Now, if the writing is as pretty as the picture, on April 1st Ill be all set!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An old recipe for an old English dessert

While we're all taking a holiday break, I hope you'll enjoy this recipe that has become one of my favorites at Christmas.  We'll talk next week. Happy Holidays to all!

FIGGY PUDDING        Serves 8       Prep Time: 30 min.        Cook Time: 60-75 min.

3/4 c. dried figs
1/4 c. orange liqueur (such as Cointreau, triple sec, or Grand Marnier)
1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 c. fine dry bread crumbs
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. chopped dates
1/4 c. raisins
1/4 c. coarsely chopped almonds

1/4 c. walnut pieces

1. Soak figs in orange liqueur at least 1 hour. In a bowl, beat together butter and brown sugar just until combined. Add flour, baking soda, salt, allspice, and pepper; beat on medium speed until bombined. Stir in undrained figs, bread crumbs, eggs, milk, dates, raisins, almonds, and walnuts until combined.
2. Butter or coat with cooking spray a 1-quart heatproof pudding mold, bowl, or casserole. Spoon batter into pudding mold and cover the top with a double layer of aluminum foil. Press foil firmly around edges of mold to seal. Place pudding mold on a rack in a deep kettle. Add boiling water to a depth of about 1 inch. Cover the kettle. Bring to a gentle boil and steam for 60 to 75 minutes or until a long wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Add more boiling water to the kettle, as needed.
3. Remove mold from kettle. Cool pudding for 10 minutes, remove pudding from mold. Serve immediately with Hard Sauce. (To store, cool 30-40 min, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store up to 2 days. To reheat, return to same bowl or mold and steam until warm.

To make Hard Sauce: In a small mixing bowl beat together powdered sigar, butter, and brandy (or vanilla) with mixer on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Cover and chill to harden - about 30 minutes.. Makes 1 cup.

1 recipe Hard Sauce:
2 c. sifted powdered sugar
1/2 c. softened butter
1/4 c. brandy (or 1 tsp. vanilla)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Release date: April 1st

I finally have a release date for Snowstorm. The April 1, 2011 date came in a e-mail from my editor.  When I read it, I gulped and sat there for a moment staring at the screen before I told my husband the news. For ten months I've waited for the release, and now, for the first time it seems very real.

I knew, as I digested the information, it was what I asked for, but that fact didn't make it any less disquieting. People I know and people I don't will look it over and decide if they like it or not. Maybe some kind soul will think I write better than s/he expected; someone else will likely be (ouch) disappointed in my ability. Either way, my own little project, after years of belonging just to me, will actually be out there.  Only a couple of minutes after the initial nerves, I broke out in a smile and didn't stop grinning for about 48 hours.

Now, with the initial "hooray for me" phase over, I remember the reason I wrote the book in the first place.  After years of listening to my husband (the psychologist) speak of the misery some teens endure, seeing it on the faces of some students, and observing the abuse and neglect foster kids suffer, I wanted to try to tell their story. I hoped I might give some kid, going through the same troubles, a little kernel of an idea about how to muddle through. If that doesn't happen, perhaps some kid will have a little better understanding about the problems some of their friends might be coping with at home. 

In the end, it was never about me at all. This one was about the kids.  

Saturday, December 4, 2010

En franc,ais, s'il vous plait

This week I find myself humbled in more ways than one. I've been down with a virus, and the bug I had is about as humbling as they come, but I don't think anyone wants to hear about that.

More daunting, in its own way, is the process of editing Snowstorm, the novel and labor of love to be published in the spring. I must have communicated my apprehension in emails to my editor, because she referred me to a colleague's blog from more than a year ago when he was feeling the same things.  Dave Anderson (author of Killer Cows) did a great job of describing the "happy dance" ( did around the house after getting a book contract. I will admit to doing my own, though I would say mine more resembled the frolic of woodnymphs in spring. He also put very concisely into words my own dismay at finding how much work would be necessary to get the manuscript ready for publication.

What strikes me though is the similarity of my reactions to those of my students struggling to learn French. I see those who pick it up easily, others have to work it, but can make sense of it eventually, but some students, no matter how bright, just don't get foreign languages. Often they study for hours and seem not to have gleaned the basic concepts. More than once I have discovered a resistance in these students, who are, sometimes in spite of themselves, unable to accept the differences in grammar, phrasing, pronunciation, or sentence structure. Many of them want the French to say things the "right" way, like we do in English, and this insistence somehow appears to prevent them from remembering what they consider "wrong" concepts.

Languages are not finite, however, and neither is writing in your own language. Now I find myself facing the same dilemma as some students. I know very well, after rewriting the book several times, rephrasing and restructuring can vastly improve your message. But see, those were my revisions. I even realize the changes the editor, Jenny Turner, has recommended will improve the work, but doggone it, it's just hard to accept.

When the next semester begins, I vow to have more compassion for my unyielding students, because I see, much to my surprise, I am a kindred soul:  stubborn and defensive of my own way of saying things. Funny, I always thought teaching teenagers improved my writing. Maybe writing can make me a better teacher.

And if any of those students ever read this, I give them full permission to say "See? It's not so easy, is it?" (Though I'd prefer they say it in French.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

If you want to be a writer, think about this

After a couple of moonths of absence, I'm getting back to blogging.  I promise to faithfully blog here in the future.

I started this blog to describe what it's like as I work toward being a writer.  I've been told a few times now "if you write, you're a writer," but I think everyone will know what I mean.  I've had several short stories published, but I'm still waiting for the publication of the novel I wrote (called SNOWSTORM). Actually, I could tell you what it's like pretty quickly. I kind feel like I've been on a roller coaster for about six years now. 

For me, it started in front of computer screen with an idea and a nagging belief I could birth a book. Cross my heart, if I'd had any idea how hard it was going to be to do this, I'd never have believed I could do it. Anyway, I wrote and wrote and wrote...and behold, I finished something I thought was pretty good, and I was up there at the top. 

Then, in my case, I started attending writers' workshops. Yes, I know that's a little backwards, but that's how I seem to do things.  Unfortunately, when I started to study writing and the publishing business, I found out how much I needed to learn, and down, down, down I came, thinking: it's too much, it's too hard, it's too late in life. But I couldn't let it go somehow, so I was off to a conference and had my first critique with a professional editor, who said something like, "This is pretty good. You have some real talent, now you just need to take it to the next level."  Talent?  Whoosh - up I go. I can do this, I just have to study this thing, learn the jargon, fix the things I've been learning about.  

Thus began the rewriting period. Lasting something like three years, and I won't even go into those peaks and valleys. Through the four or five rewrites I have more critiques that are gradually more positive, just feeding me enough sugar to keep me begging for more. Finally, I think the book is actually ready to market, yea - rah, feeling good...until the rejections come in one after another. Argh, is my ride over? This time when the conference rolls around, I actually get an offer from an editor at a well-know publishing house to send the full manuscript. Wow - flying high again - and I send it in, and-and-and- nothing. Nobody calls, nobody writes. Oooh, ooh, but then I find out the editor got laid off two weeks after I shipped in the book. I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I'm not dead yet.

Long, long story short, I finally found Echelon Press and its owner Karen Syed, who said "yes, we want your book." Let the celebration begin! Tell your friends, tell your family! Which brings me to the last few months, when I started to wait, and although it has been a sweet time anticipating the book's release in the spring of 2011, it is also a torturous period during which I've become lethargic with the waiting, neglecting this blog and failing to update on facebook or Linkedin. So what's next? I began the first round of editing with Echelon. For the last two weeks I've done little else, but work on getting dreaded "weak" and overused words out of the story. So, I've been soaring again, happy to be working toward a release date.

I don't know if I'm manic or just impatient, but I can't help believing this is the pattern all new writers must face. What are you supposed to do while you bide your time ?  Sigh, I've been writing another novel. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Someone Else's Head - A Scary Place to Be

In an hour I'll be leaving for my bi-monthly writers' group.  This time the passages I will read are a little bit different.  When I write, I try to take on the mindset of the character so that what I'm having him say or do is appropriate for that person with his or her particular personality.  If I can't get into that persona, it just reads like a writer telling a story.

In the new book I'm working on, there is a serial killer.  So you see the problem.  I have to sort of think like a killer.  If you know me, you're having a laugh about now.  If not, you're wondering what kind of crazy I am.  I don't know if I've accomplished the right attitude or not, but I can tell you I came out of the room after my last writing session feeling pretty down.  To go to that place I had to imagine a lot of anger and resentment. I worked for about three hours and maintained a pretty hateful attitude toward most everything and everyone in the killer's world. I had a depressed feeling for hour after I'd put it all aside. 

The experience started me thinking about the many people who truly have suffered difficult lives.  If a person grows up watching or receiving constant hatred and rage, s/he must internalize a lot of that.  The abused often become abusers, after all.  I'm not saying everyone subjected to regular mental or physical violence is a potential killer. 

I'm actually wondering just the opposite.  How is it so many people rise above it?  I have to ask myself what someone finds within to become a successful human being. For some it seems to be the strength of religious faith.  Others attribute their success to hard work or education.  I wonder if anyone knows?  Psychologists continue to debate whether it's "nature or nurture" that influences our development more profoundly.   They do know, however, as all of us do - love and kindness always helps.  

For a while I don't plan to go back to that twisted killer mentality.  I think I'll spend a little time extending a hand to a kid I know.  She's stuck in a tough situation, and maybe a hand is all she'll need to climb out.  And if not, maybe she'll remember someone tried.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Minimum Sufficient Level of Care

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I've been training to be a Guardian ad Litem. In classes, we discussed what is called the Minimum Sufficient Level of Care.  The term means, in case you don't know, the basic needs of the child are met in the home.  In other words, children will typically be left in a home that offers adequate and essentially safe food, shelter, clothing, and faciliities for personal hygiene. 

I have to admit that I have had some difficulty in believing such a low standard as acceptable.  Maybe it's because I know of homes in which this is exactly what the the children receive from their parents:  the minimum.  I understand not everyone has the same financial ability to provide for his or her family.  That's not the issue.  The house being large or small, mansion or log cabin isn't, in my eyes, important.  What does seem to be vital to a child's care is having an involved, interested parent making an effort to guide and protect his son or daughter.  For me, when that isn't available to the child, the standard of care is not minimal. 

However I maybe feel, I do realize that my personal feelings are irrelevant.  I must understand and comply with the established definitions. I believe I can do this, but I will ask the program's supervisor to keep an eye on me.  I don't want to be judge and jury.  A child who has been removed from a parent suffers from the separation.  He or she nearly always wants to go home to be with their mom or dad, and I would never intentionally want to make a kid's anxiety worse.

So what do I want?  A change in our standards, that's all.  Is it really asking too much for parents to spend time loving and teaching their children?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Voices for Children

     A Guardian ad Litem, in my area, is a volunteer who is appointed by a judge to represent a child removed from his/her home by social services.  In my second week of training to do this work, I find myself with a lot of thoughts andmotions about what I will be doing.

     I have wondered what it is that attracts me to troubled kids.  As the lucky daughter of a stable home, I never experienced first-hand the domestic upheaval some kids have to live with.  I was aware of some problems in the homes of friends, but really had little knowledge of any major abuse or neglect.  Now, of course, I admit, like in every community, more of my friends than I knew suffered tough home situations.  Maybe I simply feel guilty to have had good parents who provided a good home, I don't know, but I wrote a book about a teenager from a problematic home, so there's some reason I feel drawn to the subject.
     Whatever my motives, the training has brought me a better understanding of children who face daily problems at home.  Various types of abuse, poverty, neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, and a litany of other troubles create a home life that is both depressing and dangerous for kids.  Children from these families respond in as many ways as there are personalities.  Often blaming themselves, their guilt and fear and anger may go in any direction.  I know of kids who turn all of it inward, essentially denying themselves any happiness or success.  Another response is to strike out at the people around them, feeling better, however briefly, for releasing their frustrations. 

     Today, we have daily shows and articles describing ways to make our children smarter, safer, cleaner, happier, and more fulfilled.  The differences between these well-loved kids and those who struggle to find food each day is so profound it is difficult to consider.  Maybe the lucky ones, like me, will reach out to less-fortunate children.  Whether it's out of guilt, compassion, or simple kindness, I don't really care, because in my county alone there are dozens of kids in foster care who need someone to speak for them.  I only hope I can do it right.


Friday, July 23, 2010

A Book Review - The Eye of the Virgin (by Frederick Ramsey)

I've been a little lax with my blogging.  I really have been busy with a worthwhile endeavor.  I'm training to be a Guardian ad Litem in my county.  I promise to get back to regular work this weekend, but in the meantime here's a book review for you by one of my esteemed Echelon colleagues, Carl Brookins.  Enjoy!

The Eye of the Virgin

By Frederick Ramsey

Pub. Poisoned Pen Press                                                                           June, 2010 Hard Cover                                                                                                254 pages.
ISBN: 9781590587607

Review by Carl Brookins

Sheriff Ike Schwartz is in it again. Some odd break-ins have occurred in the area around the town of Picketsville, Virginia. What were thieves looking for in the studio of an iconographer? Why is an unknown individual discovered dead of gunshot, but in a chair in the Picketsville clinic? Are these incidents related? And who is the mysterious woman Abe Schwartz has been squiring about?

Sparkling dialogue and a whee of a climactic scene distinguish this crime novel. It's the xxx in Ramsey's continuing saga of the home-town adventures of ex-CIA spook Isaack Schwartz. He's retired from the international scene to become the elected sheriff of the aforesaid Pickettsville, Virginia. He's bright, sharp, aware of the ways of international espionage so when he sees it, he recognizes it. As the elected sheriff he has to deal with a loose collection of varied and interesting characters. Some of them make life quite interesting; the president of the local college, Ruth XXX for instance. Others, inept contract spooks and burglars, for example, are dangerous. Schwartz and his deputies manage to keep the peace and solve crimes in interesting if not always legal ways.

They are aided, in their tasks, as are readers who find their way to this lovely novel, by carefully thought out if sometimes complicated plots, good pace, and crackling spot-on dialogue. Threaded through the cleverness and the funny bits are thoughtful musings on the state of world affairs today in which enemies become friends and friends enemies.

An excellent enjoyable novel
Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Computer Crazy, but not in a good way

My blog is about what is happening and what I am doing while I work toward the publication of my novel, "Snowstorm."  So far my posts have been pretty positive, philosophical even, but today - not so much.

The biggest part of what I am currently doing is establishing myself on the internet.  Because my book will come out as an e-book, it's pretty important for readers or customers to be able to find me on the web.  Even if the book was not going to initially be an e-book, the internet has become such a major factor in our daily lives, it would still be vital to have a website and to maintain  memberships in various networking groups.  I get it.
Even now, when my eyes are burning and my head is pounding, I understand it.  When I started all this, I expected to have the usual glitches, but I thought I could use a computer well enough.  Apparently, I fooled myself. 

Is there anyone else who doesn't have a clue what WWAN is?  Does your computer crash every time it downloads updates for the security program, requiring a restart, disk scan, system restore....twice?  Do you spend hours trying to set up your page on a network?  Does your system just disconnect for no apparent reason when you're 2 minutes from completing a 45-minute download of new software?  And then, do you have to explain the situation to the support people in India, the technician in Omaha, and finally the guy on the other end of the 1-800 number just so you don't have to pay for the program again? 

I know my publishing company, Echelon Press, probably thinks I'm not working on this stuff.  No doubt, the owner and editors think I'm sitting on my hands while the other authors they've signed are burning up the web with their thousand-follower blogs, state-of-the art websites, on-line interviews, and all the rest.  The trouble is when you spend two hours figuring out how to install a link between facebook and your web page, you don't get a lot accomplished.

Cross my heart, I have tried and will keep at it, but in my own defense, I come from a technology-challenged family.  Nobody in my immediate family even has a computer at home.  Hard to believe, I know, but my mother, father, and two brothers are all computer-illiterate.  My mother-in-law and brother-in-law also do not use computers.

Whew!  I just had to get all that off my chest.  And, after all, it is what's going on with me today - and everyday.  Do you think if I press the "escape" button, I actually could?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A friend is a friend - even 30 years later

Recently, I had the pleasure of going back to my hometown to see friends.  I knew the women when we were all young girls who went together to church and school for twelve years, then, as usually happens, many of us scattered as we chose different kinds of careers and colleges, married and made homes.

After more than thirty years, having reconnected on-line, we wanted to meet in person, and were actually able to make it happen.  Coming from Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, we made our way back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where we convened for dinner.  Each of us was a little older, a bit wiser, slightly weathered by the twists and turns of coping with daily life.

What surprised me, however, was not the changes in our looks, but how unchanged everyone's basic personality seemed to be.  Not only did I feel immediately comfortable and content to be back in the company of my friends, but I still knew these women.  They were, after decades, still the strong, solid people I knew as a kid.  I found it gratifying, yet hard to believe, that everyone at the table has been successful at what we chose to do.  Each person seemed confident and poised to one degree or another.

I never read Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village, but I wonder if she included friends in the influences considered important to a child's formation.  As I looked around the table at my childhood friends, I knew they had helped to shape my values and attitudes.  Although my parents were the central figures in my upbringing, no one can deny peer pressure and opinion is one of the strongest motivators in our lives as we muddle our way through the teenage years.  It wasn't hard to remembering lessons I learned from one of my friends in sharing; from another, I developed a sense of compassion; a third showed me a thing or two about humility;  another taught me the importance of letting go and having some fun. 

For all of these gifts, and more, I owe my friends a giant "thank-you."  I was lucky, and I hope my readers were also blessed with good friends.  I also hope you will check on your children or grandchildren and their pals.  It's a cliche that a kid can "get in with the wrong crowd" and get into trouble; it is, however, quite true!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Compassion for Teens?

My book, Snowstorm, is about the struggles of an angry sixteen year-old girl in a mental hospital.  She is not, according to a couple of people who have read an excerpt of the novel, a lovable character - at least not in the first few scenes of the book.  In my opinion, however, Carly and other teenagers like her evoke a great deal of compassion.  I suppose that's why I chose troubled kids as my subject matter.

I can never quite understand how adults who found the antics of a toddler endearing, suddenly have no tolerance for the same kinds of foolishness in an adolescent.  Now, I do get that the teenager is larger and can do more damage, but it seems like so many people miss the point. 

When Mom is talking on the phone to a colleague, and her four year-old taps her on the shoulder over and over, Mom understands that the child wants attention.  She also knows that if she doesn't deal with her son in some way, he will escalate to crying or screaming. Why then do Mom and Dad not seem to understand that if they've been working late every night of the week, their teenage son may call them at work a dozen times in an effort to connect.  And like the little child ten years ago, if the parent just gets aggravated without giving the young man some time, he is likely to escalate his efforts by going out with friends without permission.

I guess I just expect adults to see that even in an almost-adult body, a teenager is just a larger version of that same little girl or boy who needed his mom or dad so much.  It's the same child, still asking for attention, and to me that young adult needs more understanding than ever.

Of course, I happen to like teenagers.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Childhood: fodder for an author

A friend mentioned to me that annother person, we'll call him Rumplestiltskin, seemed to be trying to prove something.  We speculated that his highly-successful parents must have made him feel less than special as a child.  After a couple of minutes of bemoaning Rumple's inability to "let it go," we realized none of us is very good at doing that. Most of us have a difficult time getting over whatever slight we suffered as a child.  I have a few friends and acquaintances who suffered various degrees of abuse and neglect.  Many more had a sibling who was Mom's favorite. 

My husband, the psychologist, is, frankly, surprised I am only now discovering this basic premise of the human psyche.  Well, certainly I know about psychological theory, but doesn't it seem weird that we can live to be 95 years old and still find thosefirst eighteen years important enough to spend time discussing them.  How many times can you question why Sister Sue got the Betsy Wetsy doll for Christmas, yet all you received was socks and underwear?  These stories are useful for more than just entertaining Sister Sue; you can always blame your faults on past injuries.

Just think about the novels we read and write.  If half the book doesn't entail a description of the character's childhood, the villain's evil intent is explained by a truly hideous mother and/or father.  It's almost a universal requirement in every good story. Now there's a thought - if childhood was perfect, what would we write about?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Out of Classroom Experience

A couple of weeks ago, I said good-bye to my students and wished my colleagues a pleasant summer.  Yesterday I went to the gym, then ran a couple of errands before I headed home.  I had, at least, blown my hair dry and straightened up a bit.  I have to admit, however, that with no makeup and wearing shorts I presented a decidedly less put-together image than was usual for classes.  In this casual state, I ran into a student.

"Oh. Madame. Bonjour," he said, using his usual classroom salutation.

"Hi Mark.  How are you today?" I said and reached in my purse as I prepared to pay him for my purchase.  "You work here, huh?"  When he didn't response I glanced up and found him staring at me. "Something wrong?" I asked.

"Uh, oh, uh," said my "A" student quite clearly.

And then I realized he was having the "out of classroom experience."  The rules are teachers don't supposed to show up in other parts of your life, right?  Indeed, they live in their classrooms where they do nothing but read and study in their fields.  And, above all, your French teacher talks about arts and literature; she doesn't show up at the Home Depot to buy dirt.

So, I chuckled and told him not to worry.  "When the fall semester begins, I'll be back where I belong, all neat and clean," I assured him.

Mark had recovered a little by then and laughed a little with me, and we talked about how we all see people in a certain context. Then as I left, just for fun, I did a little soft-shoe on my way out. 

I can still see the horrified look on his face.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect: critique groups

I'm one of those writers who enjoys working alone for hours. And so, for the first year or so, that's exactly what I did.  The problem with that was the only feedback I received was from my husband.  My spouse is a fine psychologist and writes professional reports competently, but  is not much for creative writing.  His criticism was unfailingly on target, but there was just very little of it.

I suppose I was afraid someone would tell me I was hopelessly untalented and should give up on writing.  Maybe I just didn't want to do the work I knew was coming to rewrite the book.  Unfortunately, I couldn't escape the fact that, like playing tennis or learning the piano, I would need lessons and practice.  Finally, I went in search of a group through which I could receive constructive, yet gentle, criticism.  What a surprise when I actually found exactly that kind of support.

For about six years now I have attended the twice monthly meetings of the South Carolina Writers Workshop.  When I began reading the first chapters of SNOWSTORM, I knew they didn't particularly like my tough, teenaged character.  Looking back, some of their advice was of the most basic kind.  They had to start somewhere, of course.  A recent glance at my first draft made me wince, so I can easily imagine my fellow writers wishing they could cover their ears. They didn't, however.  Then and now, their critique is gentle and helpful.  Their sincere encouragment meant a great deal when the rejections were flowing regularly to my mailbox.

So, for any aspiring writers reading this, I hope you will find some folks like this to give you honest opinions and sincere support.  I was very lucky, because I don't think such people are easy to find, but when you do find them, don't let them get away!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Being a bulldog can be a good thing

I'm currently reading South of Broad by Pat Conroy.  Like all his fans I'm sure, I find his use of language to be rich and beautifully turned.  Another of my favorite authors is Lee Child.  Because Mr. Child writes thrillers, his style is completely different from Mr. Conroy's, but his own prose creates the tone for his work with just as much impact.

If these and others simply sit down and the words flow fully polished onto the page, then I am certainly lost as a writer.  When I started Snowstorm, I never would have done it, as they say, I'd known then what I know now.  Instead, I blissfully trusted in a decent vocabulary and a story I wanted to tell.  I think I was slogging through my third rewrite when it finally dawned on me that every sentence mattered.  I thought seriously about "accidentally" erasing the whole manuscript. I mean, who could blame me if I didn't start over, right?  My husband would understand if I never finished, after countless hours pounding a keyboard while a dozen other things went undone.  Wouldn't he?  No.  He wouldn't. 

So, I used my left hand to pry my right away from the "delete" button, sat back, and eyed the screen with more than a little malice.  Then it got worse.  What if, I thought with horror, what if every word mattered?  This isn't poetry, after all.  Even as I had the thought, I remembered noticing the metaphors, similes, imagery, alliteration, and all the other techniques used so gracefully in novels I'd read.  Lee Child used in one of his books: "as cool as the other side of the pillow," and conjured up the feeling perfect for that point in the story.  As I read South of Broad, I stop occasionally to jot down things like the "Age of Alas" and "in the country of dreams."  Poetry in its way.

Alone in front of the computer keyboard, I folded my arms over my chest and drew on my inner bulldog.  I bet I even growled a little, but I finally got over it.  Finally I understood this would be hard work - a job - a craft.  I thought I'd already figured that out, but somehow I didn't believe it.

Now, as I contemplate Snowstorm being published next year, I know the day if quickly approaching when my editor at Echelon Press is going to call about " a few changes."  This time, though, I almost welcome the process, because every word I improve will make the book better, and that's what's important to me.  I even think I can do it without chewing any furniture.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Seize the Day!

I've just learned of the death of a fellow instructor at my college.  He was a man who I believe cared about his students and took his work seriously.  A nice man, whom I only knew slightly.  I know, though, that he had some close friends on the staff and that he had a wife and children he loved.  They will, no doubt, mourn him more than I can imagine.

For me, however, his death has reminded me once again of the fragility of life.  I will remember Tony Principe with fondness for his playful personality and friendly attitude toward all of us, but more than that I will remember him for renewing my sense that I must profit from every day.  Most of us fall easily into routines that allow us to take our lives for granted, but the loss of a friend or a life-threatening illness usually serves to remind us that we don't have forever here.

When I started to write my novel, I questioned whether I had waited too late to begin such a venture, and I'm so glad I didn't listen to that little voice that often tells me "you can't."  I have since been able to complete the book and find a publisher.  I look forward to the release of SNOWSTORM, but I am, today, simply grateful for the chance I've had to write it. It is an accomplishment for me.  I have learned that "I can" do many things I never imagined I could.

I know it's an old sentiment, expressed countless times. I just think there's a reason that so many poets and philosophers tell us in so many ways to "carpe diem" or "gather ye rosebuds while you may."   We just forget how important it is to "live like you were dying." Poetic words aside, here's one more reminder - one more excuse to do something today that matters to you.  I'm on my way to tell someone I love him, then I'm going to write, write, write!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Changes in Publishing

For the past few years editors, authors, agents, and book retailers have struggled with the changes in the publishing world. As I attended conferences or read industry magazines, I've found many theories about the market. Everyone agrees that selling books has become a less profitable business than it once was. The large publishing houses have worked to merge, streamline, and generally revamp their ccorporate structures. Many small bookstores have gone out of business entirely, and even the chains have suffered. I was personally affected when an editor at one of the biggest houses requested my manuscript and was then laid off about two weeks later. Ah well, such is life. I wonder what ever became of my novel? Maybe it was recycled into scratch pads, I don't know, but as far as I know nobody ever took a look at it.

Some in a position to know believe the economy has affected the public's spending, but even before the current recession, industry professionals worried that consumers were finding their entertainement and information in other forms of media. I don't know if studies have actually shown younger generations to be less interested in reading, but it does seem logical given the amount of time people now spend on computers, video games, and television. Many feel that storytelling must simply adapt to the technology through the e-book phenomenon. And they may be right - e-books are showing significant growth and gradually becoming a more sustantial part of publishing.

A few weeks ago, however, one of my new colleagues at Echelon Press called my attention to a video that deals with a young person's view of books and publishing. I'm not sure the film is any kind of answer to the future of publishing, but it does, at least, present an interesting way of thinking about the field as it may be seen by teens. Just be sure to watch it all the way to the end.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Relearning my lessons

I find that my students give me a lot to think about. This week I had the opportunity to attend an "Open Mic" session at the technical college where I teach. Ten or twelve people read for a group of about twice that many. As I listened, these students taught me a lesson I have learned many times: never underestimate the brains and talent of your students.

Teachers, and no doubt others who work with kids, find it easy to attribute failure to a younger person's lack of gumption. I like that word. Gumption, to me, alludes to willingness, initiative and courage.

My colleagues and I have bemoaned the diminishing quality of education when I have felt work had to be "dumbed down." Instructors have an excuse, of course. Students play their part when they offer a variety of silly excuses students often give for their work being late. You know, like three grandmas' funerals in a single semester or telling you his computer crashed in an e-mail. Lumping them all into that category is way too easy. The perceived laziness or self-serving attitudes of the new generation lets us off the hook for searching out better ways to teach the material.

Not all the students who read poems yesterday were enamored of the process. There were a couple, however, whose eyes lit with energy as they read. They cared if the rest of us liked their work. Teachers can content themselves with motivating even a single student in a class of twenty-five; the trouble is, he or she can never know which student might care about the instructor's opinion. In my first year of teaching I had a high school student so quiet I noticed little about her besides the fact that she was a beautiful girl. After the school year, when I moved on to another state, she tracked me down to thank me for being such a good teacher and for interesting her in French. I learned this lesson way back then. Undervaluing a student by rolling my eyes at a comment or ignoring his progress can easily crush the very enthusiasm you want to nurture. And yesterday it all came back to me through the nervous giggles and rhyming verse.

So, my hat's off to the creative writing teacher, Lane Hudson, who organized and hosted the event. His students taught him well.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who wants to be a writer?

Anybody can write. Really, it's what it took me most of my life to learn.

When I was a young girl and came to sample the great authors like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Buck, and so many others, I thought these people were the geniuses who came along once in a generation. To me they were superhuman beings who were born with the talent to compose great literature. Okay, maybe acclaimed writers like them have been blessed with special powers. On the other hand, there are hundreds of really good writers who tell compelling stories through their work in newspapers, books, magazines, e-zines, blogs, and every other form of the written and spoken word.

I was reminded by an artist friend of mine that painting demands a lot of hard work. Talent is an important element, of course, for any creative art; learning the craft and working at it is the rest of it. In my teenage years, I loved to play at writing poems and stories. Studying English and French in college allowed me to expand my understanding of language and literature, but I never imagined I might actually write something anyone else would want to read. Until, that is, I found myself able to leave a full-time career and work part-time. I decided I wanted to write. Whether anyone read it or not, writing became important to me. I dove right into that pool, never realizing how much I still had to learn. Now, more than six years later, I have somehow fooled Echelon Press into publishing my young adult novel, Snowstorm.

Snowstorm will come out in 2011, and in the intervening months I will be blogging about it. The journey thusfar has been a brain-stretching, eye-opening, head-pounding struggle, and I have loved every moment. In the next year I expect to chug slowly up the hills and slide wildly down the other side. I just hope I land on my feet.