Friday, December 30, 2011

The price of truth vs tact, blarney, and political correctness

On the surface, complete honesty is expected from our partner/friend/child/parent/teacher/boss/government. But in practice, honesty is often cloaked by something else, a need to soften its delivery so it's less blunt and easier to accept. I stink at that. When I'm responsible for the outcome of a situation or if I'm asked outright, I just say what I think. Complete honesty doesn't always sit well with the recipient, but the other choices are - Silence - That works in many situations. But other times silence is absolutely unacceptable, like with the child-abuse problems at Penn State and elsewhere. I can keep silent about truths that don't need to be said - I have that basic impulse control. Unless I'm asked. Then you get the whole truth. Diversion- Q: Does this make me look fat? A: Look at these earrings. Blarney - "the art of telling someone to go to hell so they look forward to the trip." This requires a silver tongue and a fondness for shamrocks, neither of which I have. Political correctness - "tyranny with a happy face” according to Charlton Heston. I can't play that game. The saccharin-speech and namby-pamby feel of our PC country is the reason I yell at the TV during political campaigns. Outright lie - not acceptable. So what's the point in all this? In my journey toward publication, I had questions about a potential contract and publisher. As the author, I want to be proud of the end product so I went ahead and asked my questions. The publisher was not comfortable with my lack of political correctness, lack of blarney or diversion or silence on the matter and now will not be publishing my book. The lesson? I guess they're not the right publisher for me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Revamped and refocused

For months, I have busied myself with submitting my novel to agents and publishers. So when I realized that I haven't posted on this blog for 6 months - yikes! - I knew it was time for an overhaul. I've redesigned the blog and plan to post opinion pieces about, as the heading says, people, freedoms, media, and what's truly important to me. Here goes:
Out of all the people I've met in my life, the one who influenced me most never spoke a word. She was the ultimate teacher, unashamedly showing her joy in the simple pleasures of a ray of sunshine, a forbidden cookie, or a bedtime ritual. In her, in my sister Joyce, I saw humanity stripped of its trappings, without status or clout and without an agenda for the future. Somehow, this freed her and she was truly able to live in the moment. If only I could accomplish that for a single day, a single hour.
My childhood with Joyce affected me profoundly. Professionally, I became a pediatric physical therapist because of Joyce, but on a personal level, Joyce taught me to see the person first then the disability, a philosophy made popular in recent years by 'people-first' language. She also taught me that she didn't need fixing - she wasn't broken - and against her brightness I saw that I, with my intact body and intelligence, needed some work. I still do.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


On Friday, Michael and I leave for the trip of a lifetime- two weeks touring Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland. Michael has wanted to see Switzerland for as long as I've known him, so this is a check off his bucket list. Me, I've been drawn to that part of the world since childhood, and now as I prep for the trip, I've tried to identify why.
I've had the good fortune to travel in Europe several times. The first was in '69 when my grandmother took us to meet her family in Kempten, a charming little Bavarian city. While we were there, we took side trips to Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice, passing through much of Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, and the Italian Alps. But I was thirteen, and my memory was formed from that viewpoint. In '03, Michael and I toured England and Scotland by rail, a totally amazing adventure together. Such beautiful countries and hospitable people. We'd love to explore both again, especially Scotland. Then in '08, Katie and I went to Munich to research the setting for my novel. It was a quick trip, just 5 days from start to finish, but it was enough to study some local maps and photos in the city's archives, and identify a neighborhood for Sophie's story.
All four of my grandparents emigrated from Germany/Prussia during the 1920s, each with a young daughter in tow. My parents were both born here. You'd think I'd have heard a lot of stories about my grandparents' childhoods in the homeland, but I didn't. Neither of my grandmothers spoke much about their early lives; they seemed content to focus on the new life they made in the US. Maybe that's because of the cloud of negativity and shame surrounding Germany when I was a child in the late 50's and 60's, I don't know. But despite the paucity of first-hand stories, I felt the stamp of the old country in our home's food, language, wooden toys, and dolls in dirndls. And the music- Mozart, Beethoven, German marches. Is that why I'm so attracted to that region?
Or is it the books I digested as a child? Heidi, Grimm's Fairy Tales. Or my continuing love of The Sound of Music? Or is it simply the photos I've seen of mountaintop castles surrounded by mist, of green valleys like carpet between snowy peaks splotched with small neat homes and grazing sheep? Or is it the way Europeans blend respect for history and natural beauty with contemporary conveniences?
Michael and I will be in that part of the world soon, exploring the Alps together. And like the other times I've traveled there, it will feel a bit like home.

Friday, June 3, 2011


I sat at a college interview, intimidated by my solo drive through NYC and Long Island traffic to get to the large unfamiliar campus, fully aware of the potential impact of my performance that day. The program director, a smallish energetic man, settled back in his chair, crossed his ankles on his desk, and inexplicably, ate a grapefruit. "Who is your hero?" he asked.
Where did that come from? I was prepared for questions about my education thus far, my chosen career path, my future goals, even my personal life. But a hero? I hadn't had one since Superman when I was six.
Or did I? I answered my interviewer in moments, but the question has been with me for decades.
My hero was and still is easy to identify. It is a person who becomes more than their genetic make-up or social class, who uses obstacles as times of personal growth, who finds joy in the daily rhythm of sunrise, meals with loved ones, and restful sleep. My hero is not defined by the media, the world of sports, or my country's government. He or she is defined by a personal moral compass that somehow points North when all around them head south.
I've found these heroes in the children and families I work with, in my neighbors, friends, and family, in my church, and in my writer's group. And I've found them in stories. I savor the experiences of my literary heroes and try to absorb the lessons so I won't have to learn them the hard way. And isn't that the point?

Friday, May 20, 2011


As I expected, writing presents me with challenges in time management, creativity, clarity, and focus. I hope the payoff comes in the form of a published book, but in the meantime, cool opportunities have come my way.
I've been part of a diverse and ever-changing weekly critique group at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock for four years or so. These fellow writers provide me with support, encouragement, and the obligatory kick in the pants when appropriate. I've learned to listen carefully to their feedback on my work and I often hear an echo of my own thoughts. Interesting how that happens. Hopefully I've helped some of them along the way, too.
In the last few years, my stories have given me the opportunity to participate in several community events. I was invited to read one to preschoolers at a community program called Popsicles in the Park, and I also read one of my stories to my daughter's preschool students- what a thrill that was! I was a guest speaker (to twenty women) at the Tunkhannock Business Women's Association installment dinner, a presenter (to twenty-five 3rd graders!) at Keystone College Young Authors Day, and just this week, a guest speaker at the Factoryville United Methodist Church United Methodist Women meeting. These events have given me an opportunity to share my love of a good story. Hopefully the attendees left with a smile and a nudge toward finding or creating stories of their own.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Since my novel is set in Nazi Germany and not Disney World, any continuation of the story started by Sophie needs to be told by a different protagonist. Rennie has picked up where Sophie left off and I'm writing again, but now through Rennie's eyes.
As a writer, I couldn't remember any series or sequels where different protagonists take up the cause so to speak and carry on to face more pieces of the overarching problem. So I asked other writers. A member of one of my Yahoo groups suggested two books by Gayle Forman, If I Stay, and Where She Went. I can't say enough good things about If I Stay- it's written with an amazing combination of eloquence and brevity. It's told in first person, and for much of the book, Mia the protagonist lies in a coma and tells the story from her out-of-body experience. I just requested Where She Went from the library, and the blurb says the story picks up from her awakening and is told through the eyes of her boyfriend Adam. I can't wait to read it.
Nice to know an accomplished writer can have two books with one story and different protagonists. Makes me think my ideas have a chance, too.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The royal wedding, the media, and what's important

Yesterday morning I turned on the TV to catch the weather. Our local news was pre-empted for coverage of the Royal Wedding, so I changed channels. The Royal Wedding again. And the next channel, and the next.
Maybe we can just sit back and enjoy the moment. Or maybe we've allowed media saturation to form our opinions about what's important.
Yes, our media is free to report, but the news we consumers receive is filtered through layers of administrative oversight. And those administrators are concerned about their bottom line. They'll point media coverage toward whatever brings in the most money. Most times, that's sensationalism, anything that's over-the-top like the Royal Wedding. But the frightening truth is that the media controls the things we see, the stories we hear about, and therefore, the way we see the world.
When does media become propaganda?
Thoughts like those keep pulling me back to the lessons of history. The Nazis had an entire staff dedicated to finding/producing media that showed grand processions, cheering crowds, smiling leaders and in general, stirring the citizens into a frenzy. Look where that got them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What I've read

One of my New Year's resolutions for 2011 was to keep track of books I read. So far this year, it's 17 books-- three memoirs, a couple picture books, two fictionalized retelling of actual events, and two non-fiction for my Nazi-era research. The rest are historical fiction and fantasy/sci-fi novels, my favorite genres. I'm well aware that this is more than many people read in a year.
How do I read so many books when I work a full-time job and volunteer several hours a week in my church and community? Audiobooks, for one thing. I drive a lot, so time in the car is time spent listening to stories. And while others watch TV to relax in the evening, I read. That gives me a hour or two each night to immerse myself in a good story before bed.
But that can be a problem when the story possesses me, like when I recently read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The post-apocalyptic world she created was tangible, with its own twisted internal logic and fascinating characters. That world and the female protagonist, Katniss, occupied my waking and sleeping thoughts.
How YA books have changed. Strength in female characters used to be shown in loyalty, outspokenness, perseverance, intelligence, etc. Collins shows Katniss to be a young woman with all those traits and more -- an amazing aptitude with a bow and arrow, a willingness to risk injury or humiliation for those she loves, and a keen knack for survival.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The impact of stories

At the Pages and Places Book Festival in Scranton last fall, Jonathan Gottschall joined a panel discussion about experiences, stories, and our brains. He described research done using functional MRI scans as people experience emotionally charged events. Their brain scans show distinctive activation patterns with pleasure, terror, sadness, surprise, etc. fMRI studies were also done on people READING about those same experiences, and interestingly, the same activation patterns were seen.

It's taken months to truly sink in - when we read a story and emotionally invest in it, we experience it as real. Who among us hasn't laughed out loud at Ramona Quimby, felt the rise in heart rate as Orcs descend upon Frodo, or felt anxiety's grasp when our literary or movie hero is in danger? The story has become part of us, and we experience every step of it with the characters.

That's a lot of responsibility on a writer.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The critique

Well, I had my long-awaited critique with Dianne Hess, the Executive Editor of Scholastic Press, today. She is a gracious, personable woman who gave me an honest appraisal of what’s good and what needs work in the first 10 pages of my manuscript. She liked the basic premise of the book but had a lot of questions about the believability of different aspects of the particulars. She noted that the first 10 pages were dense, too packed with information and characters to truly let her see what the story was about. I understand that I have failings in the technical aspects of writing - after all, this is my first novel. She didn’t say, “Once you’ve fixed that up, send me the full manuscript,” as I had dreamed.

So I’m disappointed but not disheartened. I will indeed work on the pace in those first pages, and try to disentangle the various story threads. And I’ll hope that the queries and sample pages I sent to other publishers bring a different result.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

While I wait

My last assignment for the novel-writing course is due at the end of March. I need to hand in a cover letter (easy), a query letter (done), a one-page synopsis (a PIA, but done), a bibliography (done as I went along), and a chapter by chapter outline (Grrr). Again with the details.
I know from other authors that once I begin work with an editor, I'll be doing a lot of detailed revisions, so I better get used to the idea that I'm not really done. Notice how I'm saying this as if it's really going to happen? I'm really going to work with an editor? The Dale Carnegie approach to writing your first novel in your 50s.
A month or so ago, I registered for an SCBWI workshop in April. The workshop faculty allows time for a few critiques, so I sent the first 10 pages of my ms with a sticky note. "If possible, I'd like Dianne Hess, Executive Editor of Scholastic Press to critique this." Then I prayed.
A few days ago, I got word - she is indeed going to read my first 10 pages and give me a one-on-one 15 minute critique. It is an amazing opportunity, and I am so grateful.
Many of my beta readers asked me about a sequel. I didn't plan for one. As the kids would say, I got nothin'. So imagine my surprise this week when Rennie's voice spoke to my inner muse and urged me to narrate a continuation of the story from her POV. Warming up my keyboard. :)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The next step

After the initial glut of input from beta readers slowed, it was decision time. How do I get my story into the most hands?
A few years ago, three options existed: 1. Get an agent, and be prepared to split profits but get a possible 'in' at otherwise closed publishing houses; 2. Send it to (often smaller) publishers that take unagented material and hope for the best; 3. Self-publish at your own expense and figure out how to sell the copies you've paid for.
The last few years have brought a number of changes to the publishing industry, and like the music industry, the fallout is huge. Independent booksellers have gone out of business in droves. Even the big chains are struggling, trying to compete with online convenience. These changes add options: 4. Print on demand publishing, and 5. electronic publishing. Probably other options exist too, but my head is reeling with just these.
As a first time author, I have no following, no marketing platform, no network within the industry. If I took option 3,4, or 5, how would I get a potential reader interested in purchasing the book?
Since my book is aimed at Middle-grade and Young Adult audiences, I decided to start with the tried and true. Traditional publishers still have the inside track in the school and library markets, and I think that's where most of my sales will be generated. So, this week I sent out queries and the first 10 pages of the manuscript to 4 different traditional publishers. They all have a 'we'll let you know if we're interested in 3-5 months. If you don't hear from us, we've thrown it out' approach.
So now I wait.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I've never been great at details. I grew up being the kid who throws the pans in the cupboard and closes the door quickly, the one who will mow the lawn but leave the edges untrimmed. That detail work to finish a project feels tedious to me, especially after the exhilaration of finishing the bulk of the project itself.
I've had to learn to make a to-do list that includes the details so I can cross them off as individual tasks. After all, they're just as essential as completion of the bigger project. Discipline, Jeanne, discipline.
So here I am with the book written. Check. Sent out for feedback. Check. Query letter written and revised. Check. Feedback received and reviewed. Partial check. Changes made to the manuscript based on the feedback. Less than partial check. Outline/plot synopsis written to accompany query letter to editors' desks. Not even started.
I need to finish these details so I can move this project along and ready the whole package for an editor.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Beta readers

A number of friends, writing colleagues, and family members have inquired about my book's progress over time, so once I got the thumbs-up from my instructor, Nancy Butts, I asked for Beta readers from that interested pool. About a dozen brave souls volunteered and have taken the time to read the whole story. They found typos and extra spaces; they corrected punctuation. And to the man, they've enjoyed the story. Yay!

A few of their quotes (only the positive feedback here of course, wink):
~Your opening sentence grabbed me and got my interest.
~I was COMPLETELY wrapped up in it and was sorry to see it end. Sophie is such an engaging character and seems so real. I would like to meet her...
~I could easily see everything. I could smell the grass, the rain, the mud.
~The whole last part is so suspenseful I couldn't stop reading.
~I couldn't believe the visceral reaction I had when reading it all at once. It takes off like a runaway freight train.
~Are you planning a sequel?
And this from my daughter Katie: ~I got so wrapped up in the story, I forgot my mother wrote it.

Cool, huh?
I'll tweak my query letter and get that sent out. Meanwhile I'll fix all those mistakes on my ms so it's ready for the big league.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Readers, queries, and critiques

Since my instructor gave me a thumbs-up, I've sent out my manuscript to a dozen people who have never read it before. I'm looking for critique on all counts- plot, character, the way the historical and cultural details weave through, etc. I've gotten two readers' feedback so far (thanks, Brian and Judy!), and their input has been valuable and supportive. I'm looking forward to more feedback so I can get the ms in the best possible shape before I send it out.
Meanwhile, I'm working on a query letter. That's a one-page introduction which serves multiple purposes: hook the editor, summarize the plot and characters, give my biographical info and writing credentials, and offer to send more of the ms. A tall order, and very hard to write.
And get this, the faculty for the Pocono writers workshop has been announced. Dianne Hess, the Executive Editor of Scholastic Press, will be there. Her profile says she acquires and edits many kinds of books, including middle-grade that cross over to YA and history. "It is important to me that a book has an authentic emotional and spiritual resonance, and that it gives readers a richer understanding of their world." How amazing would it be to get a critique slot with her.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stories of those who were there

I've read a number of first hand accounts of the Nazi era in Germany, but none fascinated me more than "Frauen: German women recall the Third Reich" by Alison Owings. The point of view shared in this book is rare in American literature on the era. And the perspective of women, being homemakers, wives, and mothers in that time and place, is completely different than the perspective of victims or soldiers whose stories have been told more frequently.
Ms. Owings is an American, quite fluent in German courtesy of college semesters abroad, who collected the personal stories of over two dozen German women whose husbands, brothers, sons, and neighbors fought during WWII on the side of Germany. Like any other cross-section of people, these women occupied all parts of society and varied by education, economic background, social status, and community type. Some took part in resistance, others looked away in fear and voiced their shame in the book. Some exaggerated their activities and others minimized them humbly. Still others seem to not understand the lessons of history, blaming the Allies for bombing their cities and forcing them to sleep in the basement with wailing children while their homes crumbled over their heads. Fascinating.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What's gotta change

I'm such a slacker. It's been two months since I blogged, and here I am saying I want to become a writer! But enough with the self-flagellation. It's a new year and this is as good a time as any to begin to do things right.
For 2011, I plan two things. One is to create a log of sorts of all the books I read, sort of like making the food diary I made when I did Weight Watchers. I want to make sure I take in good stuff so I don't waste time and energy reading the literary equivalent of Twinkies. And reading good stuff has got to improve my own writing. The second thing I plan is to get Sophie's story off my computer and out into the big world. I'm revising the second half of the novel now and researching publishers and editors who like historical fiction. Since the publishing industry is in a state of flux, the whole submission process will be quite an adventure.