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.