Friday, December 21, 2012

My most unpopular blog post ever

Today, our country will mark a moment of silence for 'the 26 victims' of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I will join with thousands or maybe millions of others to honor and mourn the loss of these precious lives, but my prayers will be for more than the 26.

I will pray for the families and friends of the deceased. No doubt they are paralyzed right now, filled with grief beyond understanding. Somehow, they must find a way to breathe and move and live their lives again. That's a journey which will take many years and much love and support and prayer.

I will pray for the children and faculty who survived the tragedy, those who heard and saw things which defy words. Their innocence has been stolen, and the stain of these events on their dreams may be permanent. They need years of counseling and understanding and love and prayer in order to learn to trust again. I pray they each find a safe haven somewhere in our troubled world.

Here's the unpopular part. I will pray for the 28 lives lost. Yes, I will include the shooter and his mother in my prayers. We may never know the depths of their despair, the anguish and isolation which burdened a family until a young man broke and took so many lives. But the shooter and his mother are God's children too, and they now stand before Him. May He have mercy on their souls as He does on the souls of the school's children and faculty.

And may He also have mercy on us for our part in a system so broken, a society so warped, that persons with mental health problems fail to get the help they need. I will pray that, with God's grace, my own interactions with people will lighten burdens and spread ripples of goodness and truth and hope, today and every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

-St. Francis of Assisi

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mr. Rogers and heroes

A day after this week's horror in Connecticut, several Facebook friends posted this quote from Fred Rogers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

The quote resonated to my core.
The helpers. The people who somehow keep it together during unthinkable events. The ones who push aside their own fear and take care of the small, the weak, the vulnerable. When every cell courses with panic and adrenalin and survival instinct, these helpers work for a greater good. They are my heroes.

I love heroes, especially unlikely ones, reluctant ones, ordinary folks who find themselves in extraordinary situations. That's why I read so much, so I can find and love characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and seek ways to act with courage.

That's also why I write. Somehow, creating characters who are surrounded by evil but not overcome by it, who keep their moral compass in the face of immorality, gives me hope that I, too, might act as a helper. I just hope and pray I never have to be put to the test.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The voice journal

When asked to recommend books on writing, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell often comes up at conferences, at workshops, and on blogs. I finally read it last week, and many of his 'strategies, tactics, and exercises' resonated with me. One of the most intriguing was his idea of a 'voice journal' for each character.

He advocates a stream-of-consciousness journal of a character's speech, documenting his/her description of self in whatever form it takes. The list format I used for my characters, bullet points describing traits and likes/dislikes, fell short in guiding me to full characterizations. So I embraced Mr. Bell's advice, closed my eyes, and let Sophie speak through my fingertips.In minutes, this is what I had:

Hi, my name is Sophie Adler. I’m fourteen and I live with my Mutti, my Papa, and my brother Klaus in a 5 room apt over our family’s bakery in Munich. I always wanted a pet, but my parents said no; since we have the bakery right downstairs it wouldn’t do to have an animal prowling around. I talked them into a cat, to act as a mouser in the alley behind our house. Her name is Skittle, because of the way she scurries away whenever someone tries to pick her up. Cats are that way; they want you when they want you, and when they don't want you they skitter away...

Maybe I like Skittle so much because she’s stealthy, living her life fully and completely as a cat, attached but not attached, watching and observing and waiting for opportunities to be part of the family, part of the group, but really a loner inside. She's like me... Quiet, observant, choosing who to reveal self to, who to avoid, scurrying away when cornered, making her own life in front of people and having a separate life they know nothing about.

The fascinating part about this? I've been writing/revising Sophie's story for several years, and I never had a pet in her story. And yet the prospect of a cat as her self-portrait is apt,and one that gives me whole new ways to frame her character and her story.

I feel refreshed; creating a voice journal for each of my characters will help me establish them more fully. That'll make my rewrites more fun.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Next time, I'll ...

There will be a second novel for me - the story is already spinning into shape in my mind, on Pinterest, in some basic notes on my voice recorder and on paper. I'll have some time off this fall,so I'll probably start pulling it together soon. But before I actually put pen to paper (or in reality, create a Word document,) I'll apply the lessons I learned from the convoluted journey of writing Risking Exposure.

What I'll do differently:

1. Put more flesh on my characters before I start writing. I'll write a biography of each character before I start - where/when they were born, schooling, friends, family structure, likes/dislikes, beliefs, quirks, personality type, traits, emotional make-up, intelligence, problem solving ability, strengths, weaknesses. That's far more detail in stone than I did before, and hopefully that'll cut down my need for extensive re-thinking of characters after the novel is done.

2. Put those characters in my setting and see how they act before I write a thing.
Each of us responds to circumstances differently. That's what makes us interesting. That's also what makes readers care about fictional characters and ultimately, what draws us back as readers. A good plot drives a story but a book, a memorable one at least, is about characters we care about.

3. Write out the story question and the pitch BEFORE I outline to make sure I stay focused. This means I'll need to UNDERSTAND my characters and what they want before I start writing. Again, this is essential to writing right.

4. Then I’ll outline. KM Weiland has written a well-received book on outlining and will soon offer a Writers Digest Workshop as well. Good timing for me to get the directed help I need.

5. After that's all done, I'll write. I'll let you know how that works for me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What I've done right

That list of learn-as-I-go mistakes begs the obvious question: Did I do anything right?

Of course I did. Give myself a virtual pat on the back.

1. I kept my original protagonist, the setting, and her problem. Sophie, Munich, and the fate of the disabled in Nazi Germany are the foundation of my story, and I haven't strayed from that.

2. I researched my setting and her problem before, during, and after my first draft. I've learned more about Nazi Germany than I ever wanted to know, but the best research I did was tactile - I went to Munich with Katie and walked where Sophie would have walked, explored and smelled and tasted until I felt her heartbeat and heard her voice. I went to the Library of Congress and wore white gloves to examine actual era photographs. I opened the crackling yellowed pages of Nazi newspapers and read first-hand reports of the parade at the end of the novel, saw the way it was portrayed to the people, and photographed columns of text to translate at home.

3. I decided to tell the story in Sophie's first-person voice. As soon as I did, she began to speak.

4. I decided the story I'd originally planned was too cumbersome, too complicated, and the fantasy elements felt forced. I ditched the fantasy and multiple story lines in favor of a straight historical fiction story. Honestly, I still like those fantasy elements but they don't belong in this story.

5. I didn’t set a time frame for finishing the book, just a time frame of writing for 10 hours per week.

6. I allowed myself many many rewrites and didn’t hang onto beloved words, scenes, or characters. But I saved the various versions of my story as it evolved, and I plan to use some of my favorite deleted characters and scenes in future stories.

7. I read a lot about writing, attended the Dietrich Theater Writers Group regularly as a reader and critiquer, went to writing SCBWI workshops and conferences, and read well-written books. As I surrounded myself with writers and works that shine, I absorbed.

8. I took in everyone’s advice. But I took to heart only the advice that resonated with me. I'm not writing this book by committee. It's mine and Sophie's.

9. I loved Sophie and committed myself to telling her story, regardless of how many rewrites it took.

10. I kept practicing, kept writing. I didn’t see changes in my writing skill week to week, but gradually, I have improved.

11. I haven’t let setbacks or (many many) rejections get me down for the long term. When I'm frustrated or stuck, I put the work aside for a couple weeks. That freshens my perspective and increases my objectivity. Then I can tackle it again.

Next up, and the last of this series - what I'll do different next time.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 3

Even though I read how-tos and took a couple courses on how to write a novel, I still floundered. A lot.

More of what I realized once I got going:

11. The novel writing course(s) provided general guidance, but no one held my hand to help me navigate this uncharted territory.

12. Revising a finished novel when my characters needed work was REALLY hard.

13. Writing historical fiction took a lot of research, before and during the writing process. As I revise, the research is ongoing. Good thing I'm still interested in that era.

14. Writing fantasy required me to create an entire world complete with rules of operation. The process was more complex than I thought it would be.

15. Writing multiple story lines which converge took far more planning than writing a single story line with a single protagonist.

16. Writing a single story line with a single protagonist was hard enough.

17. Writing novel-length fiction was nothing like writing articles or like writing non-fiction. And most of the rules my English teachers taught didn’t apply, especially when writing dialogue.

18. I had trouble staying focused on the story. I should have identified, in words out the outset, my story question and my pitch.

19. I didn’t know how to write fiction. My ‘deleted scenes’ and ‘early versions’ files are far bigger than the finished novel. And the novel still needs work.

But I'm learning as I move forward, and believe it or not, I still enjoy the process and the challenge. I've gotten to a point where I can acknowledge what I did right, so that's up for tomorrow.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 2

So there I was, with some basic ideas, characters, and a visual display of my outline. I'd just start writing and the story would gel, right? Like the premise of driving at night - you can only see as far as your headlights allow, but as you move forward, it's always just enough.
Right? Wrong. Reality check.

What I realized once I got going:
1. The short articles I’d written had all been non-fiction. I’d never created a character before.
2. The characters I created were cardboard.
3. I’d never written a plot before.
4. The plot I wrote dragged.

5. I had no idea where to really begin my story and wrote about 10 different opening scenes. Most occurred earlier in the story than the previously attempted opening.
6. Writing a scene from a single sentence on an index card may have worked if the characters had been fleshed out. Mine hadn’t been, and they didn’t get flesh until I started writing about them. Then they got mouthy and demanded changes to the plot I’d planned for them.
7. Writing the plot on index cards might have worked as well, but again, those darn characters took over the action and I had to do their bidding.
I took down the index cards and their long paper framework and burned them.
8. I tried plan B, to write the story ‘organically’, just let it grow from the seed of the story setting and problem.
9. Writing organically takes me a really long time, because it’s mostly false starts and wrong turns.
10. It’s hard for me to discipline my mind and keep it on track when I write organically. I need the structure of an outline, and my outline was crap.

Tomorrow - more of what I realized once I got going.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 1

Malcolm Gladwell famously said that the key to success in any task is logging ten thousand hours of practice. His belief is that perseverance pays off, and I see the logic in that. It jives with the tongue-in-cheek answer to the NY tourist question, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice."

There's an acronym for this concept in the writing world: BIC, butt-in-chair. So as I began to write a novel, I knew I'd need to put in some serious time before I'd have a story worth reading.

I've learned much during these hours in the chair, and over the next few days, I'll share some of the insights I've gained.

As with any new project, I started with a baseline of ideas, assumptions, and skills.
What I thought when I started my novel:

1. I had a good idea for a setting and a problem.

2. I had a couple basic characters and spent a little time thinking about them.

3. That was enough to get me started; I’d work out the details as I went.

4. I wrote an idea for each scene on an index card and stuck them in sequence on a long roll of paper. All I had to do was take down a card, write that scene, and move on to the next.

5. Writing this novel would be like writing the short articles I’d written; it would just take me longer.

6. I’d start at the beginning of the story and write straight through until the ending.

7. I’d write a historical fantasy with multiple story lines and multiple protagonists converging into a climactic whole.

8. I enrolled in a novel-writing course when I started, so that would help me work through the bumps.

9. I knew how to write fiction because I liked to read fiction.

Tomorrow: What I realized once I got going.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lessons and stone walls

As my ideas for another book start to gel, I'm applying the lessons I learned from writing my first book. These lessons were learned the hard way - the best way for me - through mistakes that cost time and effort.

1. First and foremost, I need to spend more time fleshing out my characters before I start writing. Most of the rewriting and editing I've done is because my incomplete character profiles led to confusing character actions or dialogue.

2. I need a more thorough outline, one that integrates the plot and the characters more fully. I developed what I thought was an outline but in actuality, it consisted only of plot points. Once I put characters into those situations, they didn't act as I planned and I had to tear up the whole outline (or in my case, tear down, since I had the outline taped to the wall) and start over. And again. And again.

3. I need to discipline the temptation to get side-tracked from the main point of the story. I now keep the Story Question and the Story Pitch taped over my desk as reminders of 'what my story is about.'

4. I need to do lots of research before I start. This is something I actually did right (!) with Risking Exposure. I read, watched documentaries, traveled to Munich to walk where Sophie would have walked and to study 1930's maps in the city archives, all before I started the real work of writing the story. My research has continued of course, as I needed details to be added to my ever-changing story.

In that vein, I've started some basic research for the story percolating in my head (see my post about Pinterest.) It involves stone walls and the bad news is my knowledge about them could fill a thimble. The good news is the Brooklyn PA Historical Society hosted a lecture on this region's stone walls by Ken Ely, a local enthusiast who teaches about and restores old walls as an avocation. He used dozens of slides to share his passion for these beautiful structures, describing their original purpose (to define property boundaries and keep livestock in), their construction and common features, as well as their restoration and preservation as part of our local heritage.

I learned that beneath the simple beauty of the stone wall that separates our property from the mountain behind lies a complex balance achieved through someone's investment of time, effort, and a vision of the completed task.

Which is also what I need to invest in my stories.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Some irons in the fire

I've read that success in any venture comes only after about 1,000 hours of practice (Malcolm Gladwell, I think.)Given the part-time nature of my writing efforts, I've done well with a dozen or so published articles and stories but I'm still bummed when my inbox dings with the inevitable rejection letters. I guess that's the trade-off: keep my stories on my computer where they'll be cozy and safe but forever unread, or risk sending them into the big wide world and hope they'll find a home and a readership.

I soften the blow of (repeated) rejection by having a number of projects at once, multiple irons in the fire.
I currently have a couple short stories, a magazine article or two, a picture book, and a novel, all in various stages of development and submission. I even have begun character sketches and an outline for another novel, including some Pinterest photos.
That oughta keep me busy while I recover.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Photos and Pinterest and Problems, oh my!

I've been a member of Pinterest for a few months, but I haven't done much with it. The other day, I read an article in Writer's Digest about one author's experience in using Pinterest to create a board of her fictional character's clothing. She then provided a link on her website to the Pinterest board so readers could see the items for themselves.

So I thought - hey, I could do that for my novel Risking Exposure set in 1938 Nazi Germany.. I already had photos of Munich on this blog. Why not pin them to a new Pinterest board and add other photos I got through my research trip to the Library of Congress and several historical websites? Voila ~ the Pinterest board called Sophie's World was born.

To add to the collection, I pinned a photograph of a section of my reference bookshelf

as well as my 1930-era camera that served as my reference for Sophie's own.

Simple, right? Until I tried to link the Pinterest board to this blog. I created a link, but can't get the Pinterest logo to appear, not even after a dozen attempts. ~Sigh~
I'll figure it out again another time.

In the meanwhile, click on the link at the top of the right hand column to enjoy Sophie's World.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trying it on for size

I tend to be a do-er, the kind of person who's happy with a project and not content just sitting around. I've been known to 'find' things to do, especially physical work like washing windows or cleaning out a closet, just to avoid sitting.

My life has changed.

I'm a couple weeks post-op, still unable to use my right (dominant) arm for anything that requires force. I can keyboard if I keep my forearm propped up, I can read when the book is propped in a stand, I can drive a little with my right hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. But working or gardening, cooking or cleaning? Not happening, not for two more months. I've also got remnants of what can only be called anesthesia-brain, times when I zone out or find myself acting without forethought. Not the best time to make huge decisions or attempt new projects.

And yet it's the time I've been given. For a few years, I've wondered aloud and in prayer what to do with my time and my gifts once I no longer can perform or choose to perform my current job. This next two months is God's answer - try a few different things on for size, Jeanne, and see what fits.

Since my current ability to focus limits me to brief periods of concentration, I've spent the last few days pulling old short articles and stories I've written but never published. Some of them aren't worth salvaging, but a few are. So between breaks for naps and old movies, I've worked through some edits and found potential markets for three magazine length pieces. Plus, I've sent out my picture book manuscript with high hopes, sent writing samples to a couple publishers looking for freelance writers on assignment, and started to think about the revisions my novel needs.

The long and short is this - I'm using my time the best way I can: resting and healing my body, exercising my mind, and sowing seeds that may help me grow a new future.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Permission to fail

Newsweek has a great weekly column called "My Favorite Mistake." This one is with Sara Blakely, the woman who invented Spanx (you know, those spandex undergarments designed to keep the jiggles in place.) In it, she describes an embarrassing error during an interview on the BBC - which she apparently handled gracefully. She had been raised to respect the effort she put into an endeavor, not its immediate or ultimate success. As it happened, her mistake opened doors for her, but the reader gets the sense that even if it weren't so, she would have learned from it and moved on.

I was reminded of a quote by Edwin Land, a co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation and inventor of numerous items for the photography industry.
An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.
And one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Billy Joel, said,
Take it from me, you learn more from your accidents than anything you could ever learn at school.
Knowing that failure is part of the creative process doesn't make it any more palatable. Failure is just the side dish, which we can hopefully stomach on our way to the main course.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Do Not Call list?

A couple years ago, I put our phone number on the national Do Not Call list in the hopes of keeping telemarketers at bay. Despite that, every night almost without fail, we get one, two, or last night three calls who come up on the caller ID as 'restricted' or 800, 888, 877, or 866 numbers. We usually let this go unanswered and the caller seldom leaves a message. But last night, already agitated by events unrelated to the poor sap on the other end of the phone, I decided to answer one of the calls.

Me: Hello
Hapless Telemarketer: (long pause while their system figures out they've got a live one) Hello, can I speak with Jeanne Moran?
Me: Who's calling?
HT: This is so-and-so from blah-bedie-blah energy. I'd like to speak with Jeanne about our company's...
Me: Do you know we're on the national Do Not Call list?
HT: ~silence~
Me: Do you know that means you're in violation of the national list's rules?
HT: ~silence~
Me: -> hang-up ->mumble to self -> resume dinner prep

The point is - what's the point? Why does the list exist if companies ignore it? Maybe there's fine print about who can and cannot call despite the list. Maybe there are exceptions.
Or maybe I'm getting a taste of my own medicine. Maybe companies look at that list as guidelines, the way I look at the speed limit 65 sign and set my cruise to 71.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Politics, budget cuts, and the same old same old

Disclaimer: When it comes to politics at a state or national level, I'm a cynic. In my view, few people run for major office because of some altruistic desire to improve the conditions in which we all live; they do it for power and to massage their inflated self-importance.

That said, I think most state and national politicians cater to two groups of people and projects, the ones they're most familiar with and the ones whose advocates holler loudest. The first group is often large business interests, as seen by Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett and the way he limply handed the state over to the natural gas drilling companies without taxing their profits. He acquiesced a bit by allowing local municipalities to tax if they so choose, but that doesn't help the overall state coffers.

Now he's got to balance a budget, so he's doing what the big guys do. He proposes 20% cuts in funding to groups who don't holler loud, who don't massage his ego, and who don't vote. Community mental health and mental disability services, drug and alcohol outpatient treatment, homeless assistance, and child welfare grants are the victims of his choice, in addition to everyone's favorite target, public education.

What vulnerable populations learn by your proposal, Governor Corbett, is that their safety and their health and well-being are less important than the hand-shake deals you make with big business. As Ann Landers said,
Keep in mind that the true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.
Better be careful, Governor. You're character is showing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Non-profits and the price of gas

$60+ to fill my gas tank? I'll whine and moan but I can afford this, grudgingly.
But what about folks on fixed incomes? What about schools and non-profits who are already dealing with state and federal budget cuts - how do they continue to deliver meals, transport people, and provide services? The Scranton Times had an article about this yesterday, and it echoes my own concerns.

On my path toward publication, I've been supported by a number of non-profits. The archivist at the March of Dimes helped me with research about polio. The Dietrich Theater houses my critique group. Members of my church family at the Factoryville UMC have been my beta-readers and I've spoken to the UMW group about my novel and the journey I'm on. I've used the public library sources and inter-library loan services extensively, even getting exercise handbooks from the 1940's from university libraries across the state. These services all require fuel. Costs are up and a stressed economy has pulled incomes and donations down.

I have no answer for the big picture, and I can only do what I can do. So here's what I plan - when my book is eventually published, I want to market it through non-profits and give them a portion of the proceeds. That way I'm supporting those who've supported me, and I'm giving to those who provide services that are near and dear to my heart, services of faith, the arts, for people with disabilities, and for children.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The angel in the marble

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
- Michelangelo

What an amazing gift Michelangelo had (the sculptor, not the Ninja Turtle), that ability to see the potential beauty in a hunk of stone. Those of us mortal types, more human and less divinely inspired, plod and struggle in our efforts to create beauty. I need help to see the potential of my work and I certainly need help to carve it away from its stone base.

To the rescue - the Writers' Group at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock. Our weekly critique sessions center around our collective need for input regarding our latest writing efforts. In 10-page segments over many months, I presented my novel to the group and got their feedback on everything from voice to punctuation, from characterization to dialogue. Many segments were handed back to me with a 'nice try, but fix this and bring it back again' approach. The opening chapter alone was rewritten a dozen times, maybe more. But with each rewrite, with each round of revisions large or small, the angel in the marble began to take shape.

Yesterday, a potential agent suggested changes I hadn't thought of, ones that would increase the uniqueness of the piece and its saleability within a tight publishing market. How wonderful that all along this journey, I've had people around me who see a way through to find the angel when all I see is stone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Turning the familiar into something new

I never saw "Titanic" when it first came out for several reasons. The ads and that whining theme song made it seem like a sappy romance and I'm not a fan of those. But mostly, I didn't go see it because I knew the ending - the ship sank, lots of people drowned, others died of hypothermia. No big surprise ending. What would be the point of seeing it played out on the big screen for over 3 hours?

So imagine my surprise when Michael and I finally saw "Titanic" in 3D last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though it's long, the story's many layers kept the film moving along. There were indeed lots of surprises along the way, and a couple memorable characters. The romance was integral to the story, but not overdone except for that awful song. And even though I knew how it would end, my heart raced as Jack and Rose clung to the deck rail as the ship sank. What an amazing job James Cameron did turning that familiar story into something unique and new.

Stephen King's novel "11-22-63" strikes me the same way. Most people recognize the title as the date JFK was shot, and would assume the story is about that horrible day in American history. In a way it is, but it's more, much more and thankfully it's not about conspiracy theories or other attempts to shed new light on the assassination. King wrote the story as a time travel novel in which a contemporary man is given an opportunity to stop Lee Harvey Oswald before he kills JFK. It's a complex tale over 800 pages long, filled with the struggles of a guy who realizes that the past is now his enemy and that it will do anything to keep him from changing it. Not what I expected, much better than I expected. I should have realized King would work his storytelling magic on something as familiar as JFK's assassination and turn it into a whole new story.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The beginning of the end. Maybe. Hopefully.

With a whole lotta prayer, effort, support, and luck, I was indeed able to finish my revisions and get the manuscript off to the agents and the editor who requested it. It now has a new title - Risking Exposure - which I think better focuses (pardon the pun) on the fear Sophie must overcome.
Now I wait and see if any of them are interested in discussing the project further. If so, great! Let's talk. If not, it's back to the old grind of submit and wait.

I spent a couple hours today working on the 'supplementary documentation' that needs to be part of any historical fiction novel. I updated my bibliography, wrote up a glossary of terms, and started a list of people I'd need to mention in 'acknowledgements' when I get that far. I had 50 names! No kidding. I've been blessed with a great deal of support.

I'd often envisioned writing as a solitary journey, and like most of the arts, it is. But it's also a shared journey, and I'm grateful to those who have shared their time, feedback, and interest with me. Everything is more fun when it's shared! And my efforts have been made easier by the support of family, friends, and colleagues. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Understanding Palin, Everett, and Lincoln by their words

Matt Lauer on Today interviewed Sarah Palin this morning. Palin jabbed at her usual targets, using her pet phrase "go rogue" and more cliches than I could count. This time she added a new catch-phrase, calling the press the 'lamestream media.' Another Palin-ism to be tweeted around the world.

Time for me to use the remote.

I flipped to the History Channel, to a program about the aftermath of the Battle at Gettysburg and the creation of the national cemetery there. It seems that, at the dedication ceremony, the main orator was Edward Everett, former president of Harvard and a respected politician. Everett spoke for two hours - two hours!- delivering an eloquent speech. If his audience was anything like us, his points were forgotten in a communal stupor. Next speaker up, President Abraham Lincoln. He faced his probably glassy-eyed audience and delivered his two-page, two minute long Gettysburg Address, capturing the essence of the sacrifice given by the soldiers at Gettysburg and reiterating the importance of holding true to America as one nation.

The contrasting styles weren't lost on me. Palin's cheeky attempts to create buzz words, Everett forgotten diatribe, and Lincoln's succinct, insightful, and memorable words are writing lessons of the nth degree.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

What a mess I've made

Thank God I'm off work this week. I plan to hole myself up for hours each day, finishing the rewrites on my book.

My original plan for the edits sounded straightforward. Take out this, replace with that. Oh, and strengthen the secondary characters. And get rid of the meandering sub-plot. And while you're at it, remove the extraneous clutter so the readers attention can focus on the real heart of the story - the girl whose disability makes her a target for the Nazis.

The process has not been straightforward. It's been methodical, in that I'm making one large change at a time, then rereading the affected chunks of text. But what's happening slowly and just as methodically is that the story's timeline has been goofed up. So today I looked like a kindergartener with my scissors and tape, literally cutting and pasting bits and pieces of scenes together while continually matching the altered scenes with dates on the vertical timeline I've drawn out and the dates on the 1938 calendar. Quite the unusual writing day, but worth it I hope.

I was able to identify a couple specific scenes I still need to create to connect the great swampy rewrite to the beginning and ending that already work well.

Here's to the pieces fitting together the way I plan.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cries of 'religious freedom'

Front page headlines in today's Scranton Times read, "Crowd rallies for religious freedom." The article describes an event held in Scranton and 100 cities around the country yesterday, in which protesters voiced their objections to the federal requirement that all employers provide health insurance coverage, including birth control.

These folks object to the requirement, saying that religiously affiliated employers should be exempt based on their religious beliefs. They went on to say that use of tax dollars or insurance premiums to fund birth control forces people to pay for something that contradicts their beliefs.

Welcome to America, people. Where have you been?

As Americans, we believe it is fundamentally wrong for one group of people to dictate to another group. It's called supporting diversity, and yes, people who object to birth control must learn to tolerate and even support everyone else and their right to what's legally theirs. That's what we do.

The tax and insurance dollars paid by Jehovah's Witnesses fund blood transfusions, a procedure they object to on religious grounds. Tax dollars of people who object to the death penalty on religious grounds are used to fund the electric chair or lethal injections. Because those things are legal.

Here's my thought - If you object to something being legal, then work to change that. Don't whine that your rights are being violated because you're asked to pay your fair share of what citizens are legally entitled to receive.

Birth control is legal and your dollars fund it. Deal with it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Creative artists

Last weekend, with Addie tucked in a stroller, Katie and I met my sister Judy and her husband George
at the American Quilter's Society show in Lancaster, PA. Unlike me, Judy has a real talent for sewing, and she's been quilting for many years. As her skill grew with practice, her work was recognized in larger and more official venues. That she had two quilts accepted to this international show in Lancaster is an amazing honor.

I'd never been to a quilt show before, and honestly, the only quilts I've ever truly looked at are ones Judy made. So I was amazed by the vendors showing the latest and greatest wares - of course it's an industry Jeanne, there are people in the world who actually enjoy sewing - all the show's different quilt categories, styles, fabrics, techniques, etc. My knowledge on the world of quilting wouldn't fill a thimble. But I know creativity when I see it, and I know how creativity makes me feel - inspired, awestruck, wondering how someone came up with that fantastic idea/design/product. That's how I felt as I wandered through aisles of fabric images, some geometric, some abstract, some artistic and unusual, others traditional and classic.

While Judy and I stood admiring one of her quilts two women chatted nearby, pointing to her quilt and nodding approvingly. When one of them said, "I wonder how she made..." I interrupted them and introduced them to the quilter herself. How wonderful to see that awestruck expression on their faces, much like my own I'm sure. Better yet, I was able to see the ease with which Judy explained her technique, a creative artist in her element.

May we all be so blessed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Driving time

My job requires me to drive to multiple locations, so I spend many hours each week alone in my car. For years, I flipped radio stations, played Name That Tune (I always win when I'm alone,) played my CDs, or just listened to the silence. But honestly, it got boring.

Then I discovered audiobooks from my local library. Wow! Driving took on a whole new pleasure when I could look forward to finding out what my story-hero would do next. I easily doubled the number of books I read, catching up on many titles I didn't find time to read in print.

An unexpected perk of listening to books has been the way it's improved my writing. I can hear the whole story, paced as it's written on the page, without me rushing through descriptions to get to 'the good part.' I can hear the way the author reveals small bits of character through dialogue, the way an action scene is intensified by clipped sentences and powerful verbs, the pacing of the novel as a whole, etc. The words themselves run through my mind longer when I've heard them spoken, so the story and its characters stay with me longer, too.

Hearing stories read aloud has given my own writing more texture and depth. Before I resubmit to the editor and agent who requested edits, I plan to read my entire book into my digital voice recorder and play it back. I hope I don't cringe.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

This blog post has no title.

Apparently, I stink at titles.
On my novel's journey from concept to final edits, I've given it about 10 different working titles. I've tried short titles "FOCUS," long titles "WHAT I SAW AND WHAT I DID ABOUT IT," and everything in between.

The most recent title, "THE LAST PINKY TOE PROMISE," went right out the window with my latest edits. Both the agent and editor who generously shared their insights questioned some specifics of Sophie's avoidance of the truth, including her technique to 'make' promises null and void by crossing her pinky toe inside her shoe. I cut that piece, and the story truly does read cleaner and more focused without it. Too bad; the title was memorable and certainly unique.

So this morning in the shower, I brainstormed for a title. No soap. [insert groan here] Later, I took some sage advice from the Write and Publish Fiction website. I wrote a brief summary and then listed all the nouns and all the verbs. Then I created lots of noun/verb combinations. The result?
I struck out again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Something just turned like, embarrassing

Somewhere in my many hours of self-editing and revision, I read about wordle. The designers call it a 'toy for generating word clouds' from text a user pastes in. Basically, the words are scrambled into a geometric pattern, and words used more frequently in the text appear larger than words used less often. It's a quick and easy way for a writer to check for overused words.

So I took my entire manuscript and pasted it in. Some words figured prominently, as expected: Sophie, photos, Papa, letters. But some seriously weak words were just as large: like, something, just, turned. How embarrassing.

Thank God for the 'find' function on Word, because I found over 100 repetitive, boring, and just plain awful uses of those words and changed most of them to stronger words. For some, I rewrote the whole sentence to avoid those flimsy words.
The result? The new wordle cloud shows predominantly characters' names, plus the words photos, camera, and eyes. That's better, much better.
I hope the ultimate result is an improved manuscript.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The muse speaks, I hope

Advice to writers is everywhere - in books, magazines, on the internet. It'd be easy to spend all my 'writing time' just reading blogs, taking courses, etc. but much of the advice is redundant. Leave it to Lin Oliver, the funny, energetic co-founder of SCBWI to put this at the top of her advice-to-writers list: Take lots of showers.

Lin's point is absolutely right. The muse, the inspired subconscious that tells the story, can't be forced. It speaks during routine tasks, showering yes, but also while chopping onions, driving, etc. It's important for me to remember that while I'm trying to work through revisions on my novel. I can't force the changes, they have to be unleashed from the place where my conscious efforts have tethered them.

Thanks to Bookshelf Muse for sharing Lin's list.

Now I'm gonna go take a shower.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Grand prize winner

My friend Jalinn shared this video with me, and I want to share it with the world. It's the Grand Prize winner of a the Phillips "Tell it your way" competition. Requirements: the film could be no longer than three minutes, contain only 6 lines of narrative, and must tell a compelling story. The winner was "Porcelain Unicorn" from American director Keegan Wilcox.
We should all be such amazing storytellers. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Show don't tell in Sunday School too

As I slog through my edits and rewrites, I continue to live my normal life. One piece of my normal life for many years has been the role of Sunday School teacher. I've taught most every age group, but for the last few years, I've been teaching the Youth class. Yes, teenagers who go to Sunday School, some of them voluntarily.

We have a single lesson for the entire month, which may sound boring, but here's the deal: at the end of the month, the teens have to teach that lesson to all the other kids in the church. My co-teacher Jen and I have 9 teens in class for an hour a week. Our approach is the same as the approach I try to take in my writing life: Show Don't Tell.

First week of the month, Jen and I present the Bible lesson. Then we start a roundtable discussion to get to the heart of the story - what's it really about? What's the take-away message? Once the teens can put the take-away message into a single sentence, which takes between 5 minutes and an hour, they start talking about how to get that idea across to the other kids. They seldom teach the story literally - that would be boring. Plus, it would be telling, not showing. They usually put a unique spin on the message and create a skit for the kids showing how to use that message in their everyday lives at home and school. And I think sock puppets will show up in the next couple of months.

The thing is, Jen and I don't tell them what their lesson will look like. We urge and question and provide encouragement. We ask for camaraderie, respect for ideas, and commitment to the lesson once it's developed. The result is that, hopefully, not only will the kids remember the message, but the teens will too. Because we all remember things better when they're shown to us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The core

Last week, I reread my entire manuscript and made some minor changes, about a thousand words worth. Then I took a couple days to really think through the heart of my story and the characters that populate it. The agent and editor both felt I needed to clarify a couple characters, and both asked whether or not two other characters were even needed. The same input from both professionals. Time to act on their feedback.

So I returned to what I planned to be at the core of the story, that all-too-common human trait in the face of injustice: inaction until we're directly affected. This era quote from Martin Neimoller says it well.
In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew;
And then they came for me .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

I tried envisioning that core concept as the core of an apple. I need to surround that core with stuff that grows organically from that core. Apple stuff, not grapefruit.

So yesterday, I spent about 6 hours cutting grapefruit from my story. Forty pages of text, a meandering subplot, and four named characters - outta here. In a few days I'll reread what's left and see if it's an apple. And maybe someday I'll write a story with the grapefruit.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


This familiar signpost from MASH, now at the Smithsonian Museum of American History spoke volumes to the show's characters about how far they were from home. I feel like that this morning - I can see the signpost and the direction I need to take to get my book in print, but I'm far, far from there. The work required to get there feels overwhelming. It's THERE and I'm HERE.
Before I can do the necessary editing and revising, a focused plan has to be developed. By me. And my protagonist Sophie, who I created and I know well, has been mute about my intended plans thus far. Which is why I'm wearing the T-shirt Michael gave me for Christmas. It says, "Writer's Block: When your imaginary friends won't talk to you."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Collective support on the journey

On my journey toward getting my story in the hands of readers, I've been unbelievably blessed. My participation in the writers' critique group at the Dietrich Theater has been a boon to my skill. Not only do I get honest appraisals of what works and what doesn't work in my stories, I get an opportunity to listen to the developing works of other writers. The critiques offered on each member's work shed light on a story's strengths an weaknesses and I continue to learn from that an apply it to my own work. Collectively, we've grown as writers as we support one another, and our journey toward publication is more enjoyable since it's shared.

I've been submitting my story and I've gotten form rejections as well as some personalized feedback. Disclaimer: Since I didn't get permission to use names, I'll just refer to folks here as 'agent' and 'editor.'

A few weeks back, a literary agent gave me some detailed feedback on my manuscript and offered to take another look at it if I made some changes. I've thought a good deal about her input, letting it settle into my vision of the story. Last week, I had a 30 or 40 minute conversation with the owner/editor of a small press. How generous is that! She gave me detailed personalized feedback on my story and recommended changes. The best part ~ what she recommended matches many of the things the agent recommended. So again, I am blessed. I have been given clear direction by two unconnected sources within the publishing industry.
And it's clear that both the agent and editor believe in the same collective support as the Dietrich writers' group. The improvements in the manuscript are now up to me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stone wall daydreams

While Michael drove to Connecticut last weekend, I got to be that curious passenger who looks out the window and daydreams. In wooded areas near the highways were long intersecting stone walls in various states of disrepair. Some had partially collapsed, their once clean edges blurred by dead leaves and kudzu, while others were still intact. And if I looked through the woods and past the walls, suburbia loomed. Which made me wonder - who built these walls? A property owner defining the boundaries of his/her land? Must have been a couple generations ago, before this interstate highway pushed through, before the land was sold and cleared for the latest greatest housing subdivision. The land, with its narrow ribbon of trees and stone wall separating the homes from the highway, bears little resemblance to how it once looked.

So my mind starts to wander along those stone walls, imagining the large tracts of land they once defined, the folks who built them, the children who hid behind them and walked along their bumpy tops. Sure, the uneven stones provide hiding places for snakes and other critters, but they'd also make a great place to hide trinkets. My imagination is off and running toward a new historical fiction story - with something hidden in a stone wall.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What we eat

I'm a fan of Discover magazine, and this article is one of the many reasons why. It seems that after digestion, genetic matter from vegetables continues to circulate through the human bloodstream. On a molecular level, what we eat becomes part of what we are.

Isn't that true of every part of our lives? What we take in becomes part of what we are. Not the sum total of course, but part, perhaps even a large part. It reminds me of a Star Trek TNG episode called "The Mind's Eye." In it, Geordi
is assaulted with disturbing visual images by Romulan captors. His sense of justice and loyalty are twisted into what his captors want. Of course, since he needs to be a loyal Star Fleet officer in the next episode, the damage done while under this mind control is limited and his friends from the Enterprise help him through his transition back into the fold. The beauty of fiction.

In reality, whatever we fill our bodies or minds with becomes part of us, literally. So the choices become clear - do I want Jersey Shore to become part of me? Do I think celebrity news is worth digesting? Not a chance. I'm continually surprised by the number of perfectly intelligent people who eat that stuff up.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What are those hand-clapping routines called?

A few months ago, I gave Addie a picture book called, "Miss Lucy had a Baby." The book was an illustrated version of the song we sang as kids, the one we accompanied with a complicated hand-clapping routine with a friend. What on earth did we call those routines? Patty-cakes? I have no idea, but you know what I'm talking about.

As with all books, "Miss Lucy" got me thinking... and I went back to the other songs and rhymes we sang as kids. Did any of them have a chance of connecting with kids in this century?

Since I was a city kid, we did a lot of jump rope and those patty-cake (?) games to songs. One of the jump rope songs went like this: A- my name is Alice and my husband's name is Andy. We come from Alabama and we sell apples. B- my name is Barbara and my husband's name is Bob. We come from Brooklyn and we sell bagels. You get the idea. The basics of the song might be fun, but the structure we used was way too rigid for this new generation. So I played around with the structure, my objective being a profile of America that shows our diversity and the many wonderful places and people we have. The resulting picture book out with some beta readers now, and hopefully I'll get some feedback soon. I plan to send it out to an agent in the next couple months.

But I'm faced with a problem. When I write the cover letter to an agent, how do I describe the origin of the story when I don't know what those hand-clapping routines are called?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My energy-expenditure diet

I have quite a bit of energy that I parcel out during the week into my job, my writing, my loved ones, some cooking, my critique group, some more writing, a little housework, teaching Sunday School, church committee work, and - did I mention - my writing. I find that my energy is no longer the boundless wonder it had been in years past. I have just as much drive and ambition, I just don't have the energy to pour into extras.
If I respond to every stimulus that threatens to tax my available energy, I'll be exhausted. Fatigue lowers my ability to focus, and trying to accomplish things while I'm unfocused makes me less efficient. Then I waste even more energy and begin that familiar downward spiral.

So I've learned to guard my energy and only use it for things that matter, things that satisfy me. I consider it my energy-expenditure diet: when faced with the never ending litany of Hollywood/political/wife-cheating/anorexia scandals, I ask myself: is learning more about these people's bad behaviors worth the energy cost? If the answer is no (and it usually is), I turn the TV off, I don't buy those magazines, and I don't give it more than a few moments thought. In the big picture of my life, those people and their problems are nothing to me. They're not entitled to my energy.

That said, I do get passionate about issues, issues involving rights and justice and fair play and freedoms. I just don't put importance on the same things as the media, and apparently, most of America.