Posts Tagged ‘chemistry’

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Stage I: Apprenticeship – The Early Part

February 13, 2008

In 1995 I left Glaxo to create my own freelance writing business. So, you leave a good job, a steady paycheck, dig up the information to set up a business in your town, file all the forms, and then, voila, you’re in business. Now what? When does the money come in? And, small detail – from where? Isn’t there some boss who’s supposed to tell you what to do next? On the last – look in the mirror. That’s where the buck stops, or starts.

Of course I knew I wanted to write, but what? Articles? Essays? Short stories? Novels? Picture books? Yes. That was my answer. Yes. All of it. Of course, I would do it all. And succeed. Within the next few months. . . . right. I had to. I had to have that income. That’s probably the same answer anybody gives when they decide “I want to write.” The “I’ll write it all . . . and I’ll succeed.” So you sit down, write a bunch of stuff, send it out, and . . . get rejection notes. There’s a surprise. 🙂

I did have the advantage of having this dream since I was about 10 and tried to write my own Nancy Drew books. I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club in the 70s when it first started – I’m probably one of the earliest members – and I even read some of them. This gave me some working knowledge of marketing and what it was I was supposed to do to submit. I’d even managed to collect a few rejection notes over those years, so I at least had a “glimpse” of what I was up against. Even so, I had to live it, to learn it.

After a number of rejections, it dawned on me that I wasn’t destined for instant stardom and I did the equivalent of that line from the Apollo 13 movie: “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?”

Taking stock, I looked at where could I come up with the quickest income. Given the medical background, I could do medical writing and editing. I had the experience. It would have paid well. And I would have choked. I JUST did NOT want to sit there doing SOPs, business writing, and ripping my hair out while I tried to figure out how to format chemical formulas in my computer complete with all the raised and lowered numbers you see – C6H12O6 and 1.65 x 106 (that’s 10 to the 6th power by the way, not 106) moles . . . as you can see, I still haven’t figure out how to do that. I hope I never do. I wanted to write stories – things with heart, not chemistry. Besides, I’d already done that.

My actual, very first publication ever, had been about 20 years earlier. It was a chapter in a medical Microbiology book, on a then relatively unknown bacteria called Campylobacter. Actually, it WAS known, but as the genus Vibrio. However, the taxonomists decided that certain species of Vibrio really WEREN’T Vibrios at all, and hence needed to have their own genus. That’s what taxonomists do. Change classifications and create new names for bacteria. My job was to write a chapter summarizing all this.

As an aside: If you ever have nothing better to do, check out a book called Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. It has almost EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know, and more that you didn’t want to know, about how to classify various bacteria. Not only that, but every few years the taxonomists change their minds about what boxes to put all the bacteria in and what names to give them, so they come out with a new volume. If you’re REALLY hard core about bacteria, get the Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. It’s a THREE-VOLUME set, soon to be FIVE volumes after the next revision. An editorial review of just the second volume says: “Satisfyingly heavy and a pleasure to handle Volume 2 of the Second Edition of this highly respected work boasts a combined weight of more than 7 Kg. Their sheer size is a testament to the quantity of information contained inside.” So, for all the bacteria geeks . . . or people who need satisfyingly heavy doorstops.

Anyway, I wrote this chapter summarizing all that was known about the appearance, biochemical characteristics, and pathogenicity (how well it causes disease) of all the known Campylobacter species in 1975. If you’re that interested, see my Author journey page for a reference. I’m sure I’m no longer in the book. Some other poor soul has no doubt, long since revised it. Bless them.

It was a fine enough debut for my writing. After all, how many college juniors can say they’ve been published, much less in a respected science reference series? While my appetite was whetted for the world of publishing, I just did not want to write science journals or textbooks.

So what do you do when you have left your job, you don’t want to write science, you’re running low on money, and all your fiction gets rejection slips?

You be realistic and go back to science, but you find something in science that is writing-related, and engages your heart. You also refuse to give up your dream.

COMING UP NEXT: Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over