Monday, November 22, 2010

In the weeks since I blogged last, we became grandparents! Katie and Kyle have a beautiful daughter named Adelynn Joelle. Now 2 weeks old, she's lifting her head so her grandmother the Pediatric PT can applaud appropriately. What a joy!

I watched a movie last weekend called "Akeelah and the Bee," the story of an inner-city girl afraid to show her smarts in school because she's harassed and mocked when she does. Her mentor shares a quote that speaks volumes:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, talented, and fabulous? But honestly, who are we to not be so? We were born to express the glory of God that lives in us. When we allow that light to shine, we unconsciously give permission for others to do the same. When we liberate ourselves from our own fears, our presence alone may liberate others." -Marianne Williamson

So how do becoming a grandmother and a PG movie with an inspirational quote end up on my writing blog? Because writing is all about confronting human fears - fears of getting old, being inadequate, changing roles, fitting in - and being brave enough to push through the fears in the search for truth. The truth is that my granddaughter is a fabulous gift to the world. She has much to offer. And so do I. So do you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Catching up

So I see I haven't posted to my blog since early September. Not that anyone was clamoring for more information about me and my writing trials and tribulations, but it's time I got back on track. Here goes.
I had surgery in late September, and while I was home recuperating I took advantage of my (sporadically awake) time to edit the first half of my novel. I cut out whole passages, whole scenes, etc and saved them in a 'deleted scenes' file on my computer, just in case. When I started, the first half was 148 pages or so. End result? 81 pages of a manuscript that reads tighter and tells a more compelling and engaging story. Here's the feedback I got from my ICL instructor, Nancy Butts: "You've done an absolutely amazing job with this revision. The book has great pace, a good depth of emotion, lots of drama, and it all hangs together so well now. What a long way you have traveled since the first version of the novel."
I took a little hiatus from the book revisions and wrote a short story for a historical fiction contest. I called it "Barbara, Baseball, and The Beatles," about a family in 1965 visiting NYC for a combo business trip and baseball game. At the same time, The Beatles were in NYC to film the Ed Sullivan Show and play the first stadium concert ever at Shea. Contest winners will be announced in February- there's a cash prize, but the best prize is national publication in a newsletter that goes to pretty much every major publisher in the industry. That's free publicity and name recognition for the winner. Had to give it a try.
Now, while we await the birth of our first grandchild, I'll get back to work on editing my novel. The second half awaits.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Editing challenges

What a fascinating process this is, reading pages I wrote a year ago or more. I can see how far I've come as a writer through the practice of writing regularly, reading well-constructed stories, and learning about writing technique. Lord knows I've got a lot to learn still, but honestly the end of my novel is written better than the beginning.
That leaves me only one option. Read and edit and rewrite the first half so it's a good as the second half.
Take the opening scene. In my re-write, I cut the word count and the number of characters in half, and the result is more focus and more tension. I also cut (almost entirely) all adverbs, -ing words, and variations on the verb 'to be'.
Early version: I was self-conscious sitting there on stage. Two dozen of us pledges were in full view of Party officers, their stern faces at the front of the packed auditorium.
Current version: We marched on stage and formed a single line. The audience rose. Party officers scrutinized us from the front rows of the auditorium. I focused on the rear wall and ignored my sweaty palms.
So on I go, one scene at a time. The story will be better when I'm done.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A contest, a diversion, and a thumbs-up

I got a flyer in the mail the other day about a contest for a historical fiction short story, target audience age 13, target length up to 1500 words. There are small cash prizes and the winning entry is published in a newsletter that goes to every children's book and magazine publisher in North America. That's serious publicity for the winner's work! I plan to enter in the hopes of getting my name in front of editors and agents so that when I send my book out, my name might be recognized.
Since I've been researching Nazi Germany for so long, I started thinking about another time and place in history for this short story contest entry. Something light-hearted and fun, please. My thought is to write a story about a kid who accidently sees The Beatles in a NY hotel while they're in town for the Shea Stadium show in 1965. I lived in NYC at that time and remember listening to Cousin Brucie on Music Radio WABC (W-A-Beatle-C they called themselves). I found audio files of him interviewing The Beatles, awarding them the Order of the All American in their hotel room, and introducing them on stage at the show. A good diversion from Nazi Germany, to be sure.
I read my revised first scene at writers' group on Thursday, and it was well-received. Onward and forward.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A hook and some RUE

As suggested by Nancy Butts, my ICL instructor, I've read more books on the art and practice of writing. Hooked by Les Edgerton emphasizes the importance of the opening scene, or better yet, the opening sentence of the novel. He claims that sales to readers (and agents and editors) are made by great beginnings. So, here's my opening sentence, at least until I change it again.

No one who witnessed my loyalty pledge to Adolf Hitler knew I had a note from a Jew in my uniform pocket.
What do you think? Would you want to read further?

In the other book, Self-editing for Fiction Writer by Browne and King, two editors share the marks of an amateur vs a professionally presented manuscript. Although I'm guilty of a number of the basic mistakes they describe, one in particular struck home. They call it RUE - Resist the Urge to Explain. I tend to explain what Sophie is thinking and feeling instead of just showing her actions and letting them speak for themselves. I've got to learn to trust my readers to understand Sophie without spoon feeding them details.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Read and Edit and Edit and Read

I printed out the whole manuscript last week, all 279 pages of it, and read it through in about 6 or 7 hours as a reader would. That gave me a clear idea of where I need to even out the story's pacing, where I need to tighten the tension or add a bit of humor for relief, which characters are superfluous and which need to be fleshed out more, etc. My pencil edits include lots of paragraphs and some entire pages X'd out.
I liked my opening scene of Sophie and her friends pledging to Hitler Youth, but I think I'll make that the second scene. I think my first scene will show the girlfriends at weekend camp and include some characters that become important late in the story. I've got some work to do.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Feedback from my Instructor

My most recent assignment in the Novel Writing course at ICL was to send my instructor, Nancy Butts, the 'last third' of my novel. Unfortunately for her, it ended up being as long as the first 'two thirds' put together. Thank God she liked it.
She gave me some great feedback, both in constructive criticism and encouragement. I tend to pack too many descriptions, words, or scenes into one chapter (that's the story of my life), and I slip into a narrative style that makes Sophie seem emotionally distant at times. Gotta fix those things throughout the ms.
Nancy also gave me terrific encouragement, especially regarding the last 30-50 pages. Get this: " suddenly revealed yourself as a master plotter. I'm serious; talk about magic!" and "Kids will not be able to put the book down from that point forward." and "This is magnificent storytelling."
Holy Cow!
So, now I dig in. I'm going to hole myself up one day this week and read straight through all 279 pages. Hopefully, from that vantage point I'll be able to see what needs to be changed to make the ms more cohesive. I already planned out a couple new scenes that need to be inserted near the beginning and I know there's some wordy scenes that can be cut completely.
My plan is to start editing the first half of the novel in the next few weeks and have it to Nancy before my grandchild is born in early November.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Letting it mellow

Well, my writer's critique group listened to the last 20 pages of my ms last week and had some great suggestions for tweaking the ending. Not changing it, mind you, just switching a few details around so the effect is more of a Pow!.
I'm taking a break from my story for a week or two. Going to catch up on some pleasure reading, finish my last few days of summer program work, go to a wedding, take a couple day trips with my hubby, that sort of thing. That way, when I pick it up again, I'll see it with fresher eyes. I know I need to rewrite the beginning, in part to introduce a character that plays a strong role at the end, but also to better line up the conflict described at the beginning with the resolution offered at the end.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The first draft is done!

It's taken me 2-1/2 years, but I've finished the first draft of my novel. What a journey this has been! My first concepts for the book included fantasy elements along with historical fiction, but I quickly realized that I'm not skilled enough to create something that complex. So I teased the historical fiction story line away and focused on that.
Now that I've written the ending, I've identified at least one scene that has to be inserted near the beginning. It will probably be the opening scene so that the beginning and the ending coordinate, like slices of bread on a sandwich.
The last third of the novel now goes off to my ICL instructor, Nancy Butts, and the last 20 pages will go through critique with my Writer's Group. While I'm waiting for feedback from them, I'll start editing the first 125 pages or so.
Onto the next part of the journey: editing, fixing, tweaking, and making it all make sense. Wish me luck!

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Library of Congress visit

As planned, I went to the Library of Congress on Wednesday. It's a huge place with multiple buildings and security checkpoints, plus rules and regulations like crazy. I could easily have been intimidated there if I wasn't so excited about what I might find.
I had already searched their archive listings on their website and identified about 6 months of German newspapers I wanted to see. I also identified 3 LOTS of photos I wanted to look through, about 300 photos altogether, and I submitted requests via email for permission to access both the newspapers and photos. Librarians in both departments emailed me back the same day, acknowledging my request and assuring me the materials would be ready and waiting for me on Wednesday when I arrived. And they were right.
With my bare hands, I actually touched newspapers from 1938 Germany. I used the LOC's scanner to save dozens of pages of text and newspaper photos onto my memory stick. I had to don white gloves to look through files of photos, and I was able to photograph the photos (sans flash) to save the image to my computer. Plus, I was able to access and print out full-text articles from the Times of London during 1938 to help me understand the world-view of German events at the time. What an amazing resource. What an experience.
I am indebted to Amber Paranick and Jeff Bridgers, Research Librarians at the LOC for their help in accessing and readying these materials for me. I plan to cite both of them (plus Elisabeth Angermair, helpful librarian in Munich's Stadtarchiv) in 'Acknowledgments' when I get this book of mine published.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Focusing for my final research run (I think)

As I'm finishing the finale, I find I have a few outstanding questions to answer in order to accurately ground the piece in place and time. A little more research is needed in primary sources, newspapers in this case, and yet finding newspapers printed in Germany in 1938 has been a challenge. Since the German media was controlled by the Nazi Party, the newspapers went out of print when the war ended and most of the copies were herded into large libraries as part of the 'denazification' of Germany. Lucky for me, the Library of Congress has original copies in bound volumes, and a librarian there will get them from remote storage for me next week. Yay!
I'm very excited to get my hands on them, look at the pictures, and search for specifics of the Day of German Art procession which figures into my finale. Facts like time of day, number of participants, number of spectators, and weather should be there. Random points of interest such as a spectator interview, maybe a photo of a street vendor at the parade, etc. will hopefully add color to my portrayal of the event.
Now if only I could figure out how to save a scanned newspaper file to a Word document so I could run it through a translator.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Everything I need to know...

For Mother's Day, I got "Everything I need to know I learned from a children's book: Life lessons from notable people from all walks of life" edited by Anita Silvey. It's a fascinating read for anyone interested in how people develop character traits, a subject which I find intriguing in both the real world and in fiction. Famous and/or accomplished adults by the dozen contributed their memory of a favorite childhood book and then discuss how the story or its lesson impacted their life.
Among them: William DeVries (surgeon who performed the first successful permanent artificial heart implantation) loved the Wizard of Oz and was drawn to the Tin Woodman, the character without a heart. Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple Inc, remembers how the Tom Swift book series introduced him to creative problem solving using scientific principles. Brad Paisley's favorite book was and is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and its adventurous spirit touched him so deeply that he gave his son the middle name Huckleberry. As a premature twin who had seizures and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, Tiki Barber found inspiration in The Little Engine That Could.
What a wonderful legacy these authors have created. What an honor it would be to touch a developing character in such a rich and lasting way.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Amazing videos

I have a tendency to get lost in my research for the book, and yet finding primary sources (Germany newspapers, diaries, or magazines) from 1938 Germany has been a little harder than I expected. Lots of information is available about the war itself, especially from the American viewpoint, but that prewar period in Germany is a bit harder to come by.
Last week, I spoke with the librarian at the Abington Library about finding some additional primary sources for details I need to set up the historical accuracy of my finale. She had a great suggestion for primary sources: video. She suggested going to the US Holocaust Museum website as well as Google videos and use my typical search terms -1938 Munich- and see what kind of hits I got. I tried it and Bingo. I found some actual footage of parades - in color! Amazing.
Seeing a Nazi-era parade in living, moving detail will make my description of it more accurate. It also helps me see how to fit Sophie's climatic scene into it in a way that will be logical and exciting.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


My WIP (work-in-progress for those of you non-writer folks) is printed out and sitting next to my computer, still missing an ending. I was working through possible endings when my sister Joyce died. Obviously, my attention has been on matters far more important than a fictional story, so I've been drained of story-focus and energy.
This hiatus from writing will be good in the long run, I'm certain, because I'll probably be able to see the story with fresh eyes. Hopefully an ending will be obvious to me- but my biggest fear is that I'll write an ending that's too obvious to the reader. Nothing bugs me more as a reader than investing all that time in a book and figuring out the ending halfway through.
I recently read a book called When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. It was a decent read until the ending- which totally surprised me - which made the book unforgettable. I love the sense of satisfaction that comes from an ending that ties up loose ends, isn't hokey, and somehow combines being unexpected and inevitable at the same time.
Just like life.
Gosh, I hope I can do that as a writer.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Writing my way into the story

I love a challenge and an adventure. I start out with half of what I need and figure things out as I go- just ask my poor daughter Katie who wandered an un-touristy part of Munich with me when I brought the wrong map. To me, that's part of the learning process and part of what makes the whole adventure memorable and fun.
When I started my novel, I had an outline and some ideas and some general knowledge of how to write a book. What I didn't have was a clue that those things would be complete inadequate. It's taken me twice as long as I expected and it's many times harder than I would have thought. I've started and stopped and re-written my outline so many times that the current story bears little resemblance to the original.
What I have basically done is found my voice and my story as I went, what some authors call 'writing your way into the story'. I began with an idea of who my characters were and what path they'd take. What I found was that my structure limited the characters too much. I had to allow them room to grow and breathe and define themselves, just like real people. As soon as I did, they took over the story and I become the recorder-of-deeds so to speak. At times, writing this book has felt like an out-of-body experience. What an adventure. What a learning process. What fun!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Trying to finish all those loose ends

I've read quite a bit about novel-writing technique, plot structure, character development, etc. in my journey to this point. What I haven't come across is a way to keep my mind IN my story when I'm only working on it a few hours a week. Honestly, I typically only write new stuff on Sunday afternoons/evenings, and each Sunday I spend a couple hours just trying to get back into the zone. I reread what I wrote in recent weeks and try to figure out what will happen next. (I've long since thrown out my outline.)
This weekend to the rescue. Today, I went to a "Writer's Retreat" at the Fatima Center in Dalton, where I did nothing but read all 220+ pages of my manuscript consecutively. My goal was to get my head in the story and figure out how it will end. I jotted notes about plot or character seeds I planted along the way, and then I took each character and planned the changes I wanted to see in each of them at the story's conclusion. The final scenes of the plot line became obvious. I wrote down the scene ideas before they vaporized.
I hope to get them in writing - starting right after church tomorrow. I don't want to lose the story again.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ideas and taking risks

If you're like me, you've thought of something while you're taking a shower, an item for your to-do list, or some brilliant and unforgettable scene you want to write down. Then before your feet hit the bathmat the idea has gone down the drain (bad joke, I know). Check out this product.
Seriously, I knew the need for this existed. Why didn't I actually make this and market it? Probably because I'm not a big risk taker. And I haven't got a clue how to take an idea and make it a reality.
Or do I?
The Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction was just announced. It goes to Matt Phelan for The Storm in the Barn, and it marks a first for the award because the book is a Graphic Novel. It might have been rejected as just a comic book, not a piece of literature. But kudos to Mr. Phelan and to the award committee for their open minds and the courage it took to take that risk.
So here I sit with only a couple dozen pages left to write in my novel. Will Sophie take a big risk as I finish her story? Have I succeeded in taking my book idea and making it a reality?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas vacation- time to write!

I leave the house at 7:30 am for work, 6 am on gym days, so by 6:30 or 7 pm when I sit down to write, I'm pretty tired out. For me, that's the hardest part of writing a book- fatigue of my body and my mind.
I am lucky enough to have a job that gives me some time off scattered through the year, and I do get about 10 days off for the Christmas/New Years holidays. I was able to use a few days of that vacation to actually plan the rest of my book and get some new writing done. I sat down and reread the last 75 pages or so of my book (I actually liked most of it) and that helped put me back in the mindset I needed to flesh out the rest of the story. I jotted down about ten scenes that need to take place before Sophie's story is finished and then I put them in a logical order. I wrote a first draft of three of them during vacation.
Now that I have the end in sight and basically plotted out, I can (hopefully) finish my first draft in the next few weeks. Wish me luck!