Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Post – Nature humor

February 26, 2009

For years now, I’ve collected nature articles, everything from monkeys in the zoo, to whale fall carcass ecosystems, to little kitty cats stowing away on an airplane. I don’t know why, I just love them. I feel like I’m supposed to do something with them, but haven’t been sure what. Yet I expect it will make itself clear eventually.

I do know that I will spend more of my time in my blog focusing on interesting nature tidbits as that is my real love. After working on the Under the Pier novel, I have set it aside because I wanted to take a break from fiction, and focus on the nonfiction, nature aspects of life. When I decide to create a new story, I’ll know, but for now, I want to explore and indulge my love of nature. In fact, what reinforced that was all the research I did on Narragansett Bay creatures for that novel. That always just lit a fire in me. So….for the time being, I will focus on nature.

In fact that brings me to the other aspect of my blog – my art. That is the other thing I’ll begin to focus on because that is the other love in my life – my oil painting.  In a nice sense of synergy, all my research on sea creatures has led me to begin developing a collection of sea creature paintings, as well as seascapes and such. I want to build a full collection of those creatures to eventually put on display. I’ll continue my detailed seascapes and landscapes and such, but the sea creatures paintings have a slightly freer, more impressionistic quality (at least as impressionistic as I’ll ever get 🙂 ) than my usual work.

Oh, and re – nature – still waiting for my ant farm ants. 🙂


The Post – Under the Pier: Creature Features – Introduction

July 27, 2008

As mentioned previously, one strong theme in my book is the sea life of Narragansett Bay, a deep deep love of mine. Many critters are scattered throughout my book and the only dilemma is that people may not know who they are.

In an effort to solve this problem, I am creating a “visual glossary” of the sea life. I will provide some text from one of the sea life reference books to give some background on this fish, and an illustration. I am trying to decide which medium works best to create this illustration – either an oil painting or a pen & ink drawing with watercolor wash. So in the following entries, I may provide one or the other, or both.

Coming up next – installment number 1 of Under the Pier: Creature Features

The Post – Update Time – Fiddler Pregnancy and Book “Delivery”

March 22, 2008

Well the fiddler crab, Scarlett O’Hara’s pregnancy progresses well. I am through “labor and delivery” with Under the Pier’s second draft, and we had an RIP moment for my laser printer, which died trying to print the last two chapters of that draft.

Now, to expand on each just a bit:

Scarlett O’Hara is busy eating or just sitting behind the air filter, in the main fiddler crab tank. Her pregnancy progresses with no odd happenings. Her “nursery” tank is doing well – water parameters are fine and salinity was down to 1.012 when I diluted the water, earlier in the week. I will recheck water parameters and salinity tomorrow in the nursery tank. If they are fine, I will most likely move Scarlett over to that tank Monday or Tuesday. We first noticed her carrying eggs on Monday the 17th. On Sunday the 16th, we saw no evidence of eggs, but that’s when she was spending days living on top of the water filter, sitting in the water currents. So best guess here, is that Monday will be one week. The last time she delivered her babies, it was just about two weeks. So I will move her to the nursery early this coming week. Also, I will shut down the water filter again and just leave the air bubbler running.

I picked up eggs and supplies to hatch brine shrimp and will talk more about that tomorrow. I also picked up a liquid food geared toward larval invertebrates, that is a good brine shrimp substitute. NO MORE LIVE PHYTOPLANKTON. I’m hoping that sticking to the zooplankton food approach will work better and not end up with high nitrites that kill off the babies. So more on this tomorrow and this week.

I spent most of the day on Good Friday, polishing the last chapter of Under the Pier’s second draft. It is finished. Of course it needs more work, but at least now it is a real book. There are no giant piles of fix-it cards or empty places in the chapters where I still had to figure out something or add in a description. Next up in the project:

1) Continue on with the posts about writing Under the Pier – I left off on location as character and Part II of that coming up this week will be more info about specific locations in the story — which though fiction, are amalgamations of real places, as well as how I researched them.

2) I will be putting together the submission package for a couple of editors from last year’s Carolinas – SCBWI conference. These packages include three sample chapters, chapter summaries, and any other info I want to include. At least according to one editor. I have a “map of my story’s town,” a schematic of the diner and the diner area, a smaller map of the area around Max’s house, a schematic of Max’s house, a glossary, probably a bibliography of some of the sources including research papers and the researchers I talked to….and of course, this blog’s address. 🙂

3) Start draft three. This time, I can now read through “completed” chapters, and listen out loud to their rhythm, see where they bog down, see where they need more “sensory details” and also go through the large “revision” charts I made up to see if I’ve covered everything. A later post will cover what I compiled for those revision charts.

Re the demise of my laser printer – FRUSTRATING!!!! I was halfway through printing the last two chapters when it seized up and died. Now I can’t really complain. I’ve had that printer almost 7 years and have printed thousands of pages. I got my money’s worth out of it. I was just hoping not to have to a) deal with buying a new printer just to finish printing my book and b) spend the money now. But…. c’est la vie. We now have a new HP Laserjet P3005dn. I need to make it my friend. 🙂

Anyway, that’s the state of affairs here. Oh, and also, given the impending draft three of the book, I need to get going on “Creature Features” So stay tuned!


The Gift – A Writer’s Extra

March 21, 2008

I came across a great blog, done by one of the local SCBWI-Carolinas (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) writers. It’s such an informative site with tons of information and instruction in writing. So my Good Friday Writer’s Extra Gift is:

Writermorphosis: The Process of Becoming a Writer

Her own description, along with recent activities:

“Writermorphosis, this is not a book review website. It’s a site by and for Children’s/YA writers, where we can learn tips and techniques from each other, and encourage each other in our writing.

So, during the month of February, and for a week or two in March, we are doing what may look like book reviews. We’re critiquing “from a writer’s perspective,” some of the 10 books that were short-listed for this year’s CYBILS Awards in the category of fantasy/science fiction. We’re looking for techniques that we can use in our own fiction writing.

Last week, we looked at two books from the CYBILS list that are good examples of how to weave two different stories or plot lines together into one book.

This week, for those interested in writing about history and culture, we’re looking at two books that would NOT be considered historical fiction. One is Sci-Fi. One is Fantasy. But both of these books clearly incorporate (and sneakily even teach) history to the kids and adult who read them.”

There are several other writing blogs I’ll be mentioning in the coming weeks, from fellow writers. Stay tuned.


The Post: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

March 5, 2008

If you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, conducting research is pretty straight-forward. If you have a real person, you can find books, movies, articles, people who knew them or experts to interview.

How do you research someone who doesn’t exist? With fiction characters, a lot of times you first decide what your story is about and who needs to be in it, then you start hunting. A lot of the work is really character “construction.” You have to build the characters and give them a life to know what facts you need. Some research might go on as you craft the character, but for me a lot of it came after I had some idea who the people were.

For starters, I had to decide just what kind of characters this story needed – superficial or deep. If this was a plot-driven adventure story, the main change and action would take place outside of the characters. That means the characters, even the main ones, remain the same from beginning to end. So they just need their framework – looks, personality, talents, some backstory. It’s the adventure, the plot action, that changes.

Under the Pier is a character-driven novel. The real energy, drive and purpose of the story take place inside the characters. They will grow or regress, change for the better or worse, due to their personality and circumstances. It’s not about the story actions or problems, but how they REACT to those story problems. So this meant my characters had to have depth, history, psychology, family, emotional wounds, unanswered questions.

Before I could research anything, I had to pin down some concrete things about each character. As much as I hated to have to start picking traits and family backgrounds because to choose things is to exclude others, it’s the only way to have a true-to-life character. Nobody in life can have blonde, red and brown hair (unless they dye it that way), three different colored eyes, be both young and old, and do EVERYTHING you ever dreamed of doing. Neither can your characters. So for both sides of the story, animal and human, I had to create a character, build their life, and then relate their life to others in the story. Robert Frost said “way leads on to way.” In writing, character leads on to character.

For the human side I wanted more than just birth date, physical description, or the meaning of their names – yes, I selected names that matched some aspect of their personality, but I also wanted sections for things like: strengths, weaknesses, goals, fears, driving needs. I took a lot of the information from my extensive journaling and wrote up personality profiles that gave each person a life story – traumas and triumphs, parentage or lack thereof, marital status, family dynamics, issues, problems, glaring flaws.

And by the way, for well-rounded, true-to-life characters, it’s important that the heroes be jerks about some things, and the villains be saints about others. NOBODY in real life is all good or bad. If you do that with your characters what you end up with is a stereotype or a caricature. At the very least, what you end up with is dull and boring. I read somewhere that when police interrogate suspects and witnesses, they expect some discrepancies between the various versions. That’s normal human nature. Everybody sees different things. When the stories match up too perfectly, the officers suspect the story being told isn’t real. The same is true with characterization. For example, General George S. Patton, Jr.’s grandson shared this observation about the man:

“My grandfather once commented that in his view a gentlemen should be able to curse for three minutes, non-stop, without repeating himself.”

At first glance one would never figure a gentleman would use such language, but flesh and blood human beings are full of inconsistencies. So create a character that “overall” is true to his nature, but do sprinkle in some unexpected traits. It makes for more real, interesting characters, and adds to the story action possibilities.

In any event, when writing my characters’ biographies, I started with the simple date of birth and description, then went on from there. For Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner in the human side of the story, the physical description went something like this:

She is relatively thin and wiry, but solid-boned, strong from years of physical work, with short whitish hair that used to be black. She’s about 105 pounds, in good condition overall from walking up and down stairs to her apartment behind the diner. Some arthritis and she is slowing down, but still is healthy and strong enough for being almost 80. She does have high blood pressure and sometimes forgets her meds.

That gave me enough of a picture in my mind – one of those strong old women who worked hard all their life, like many old women I grew up around in my very ethnic hometown. The thing about pinning down part of a person, though, is that it provides the bridge to the next piece of their puzzle. For example, just talking about her life of hard work suggests a need to explore areas like her background, level in society, personality, and attitudes toward life.

The beginnings of personality start to show in the additional information I put down:

She was born on October 29, 1929. If you know any history – this was Black Tuesday – the crash of the stock market and the beginning of The Great Depression. Unless she was born rich and lucky, which she wasn’t, this tells you how her life was going to go. To continue with my description, I decided her parents were immigrants from Italy, arriving just a year before her birth. Her mom died giving birth to her, something not uncommon for the time. Her father wasn’t around much, either looking for work, drunk or simply gone for long periods. She was shifted from family member to family member, often not a happy situation. She had to work from a young age and got out of her aunt’s house as soon as she could. She started working in a place called the Midway Diner, run by this handsome young guy named Frank Santelli, his grandmother, and his maternal uncle, Angelo Campelli. Uncle Angelo started the diner in the late 1890s with a horse-drawn cart and built it up from there. She fell in love with the diner and Frank, almost immediately. She married Frank by 18, revered Frank’s grandmother who took Rosa under her wing, and spent the rest of her life preserving the legacy of that diner, even after Frank’s death. She had 4 children – a daughter who died as an infant, and 3 sons, all still alive.

Okay. Right in this section, by picking the particulars of Rosa’s background, I’ve set up not only the rest of her life, but set up the bridges to the stories of her husband, his grandmother, his uncle, the diner’s history, her children, and raised questions like, why did she revere Frank’s grandmother, where was Frank’s mother and father, and what happened to Rosa’s infant daughter? Just by picking certain details, you create the thread to more questions, more characters, more life situations, conflicts, and relationships. You create….a real person with a real life. MOST importantly I’ve set up the question in the reader’s mind.. Why is all of this important with regards to Rosa’s relationship with Max, the story’s 12-year-old female protagonist? That’s the ultimate thing to remember. Not everything the biography will be part of the story, but if you make it part of the story, it better have a real good reason for being there, ie, how does it relate to the protagonist and the story’s main question?

Now. Research on Rosa. Well for one thing, I looked for anything I could find to “validate” her personality traits so a reader wouldn’t think I was overdoing things. I spotted an article in a Rhode Island newspaper about a woman in her 80s who would go out after snowstorms and not only shovel her driveway and sidewalk but those of her neighbors as well. She shrugged off the effort as “exercise” and viewed it matter-of-factly. She was home, her neighbors had to go to work, so she just took her time and shoveled everybody’s sidewalks. So, Rosa rings true to life. (If you want more of a feel for her, click here for the January 24th, 2008 post where I included a bit from the book describing Rosa)

Other people in the story. I know a bit about diners growing up in New England, and what the people were like who worked in them and ran them. I grew up in an ethnic town full of those early 1900s immigrants from Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Ireland etc. and knew the rules of the culture: hard work, no wimping out, not very much money, family and church were everything. Those people survived the Depression and World War II by helping each other even as they fought with each other and drove each other crazy. They didn’t mince words, but put it right on the table, usually in colorful language. For holes in my knowledge base, I researched books on diners, history, New England, did Google searches, and talked to people.

For example, Rosa’s son Vince, her eldest son, a war hero from Vietnam who is kind of a mystery character with a shrouded past, finally returns home after many years away. He works nights at the diner making doughnuts. I interviewed a number of people who worked in bakeries at night making doughnuts, so I’d get my details right.

For other characters in the book, I did the same thing – wrote the physical characteristics, figured out ages, started linking them to other characters in the book, and creating a “web” of relationships and lives. The more you added to the people and the web, the more possibilities for story action and conflict.

For example, the human protagonist, Max, lives with her grandmother, who also works at the diner. Max’s grandmother is dating Vince. For a number of reasons this both disgusts and scares Max. And Max views Vince’s shrouded past with tremendous fear and suspicion.

Just setting up that scenario, suggests questions like: “Why is Max living with her grandmother? How long has this gone on? What happened to her parents? What IS the deal with Vince’s shrouded past? Why does Max fear him and fear his dating her grandmother?

Then throw in a quirk. Here is Vince, a mysterious character Max fears, and a still strong and burly man. I gave him a small poodle as a pet. Not exactly what you would expect is it? And then there’s that pendant he has around his neck that he never takes off. Just what happened all those years he was away?

If I ran into problems or a block, I “talked to the characters.” You interview them, start a conversation, ask them a question about school, politics, the person they hate the most and why, anything. But having a conversation with a character is like talking to someone at work. The more they talk, the more you learn who they are. Most writing blocks come from either not knowing who your characters are and hence how they would react, or not knowing where the story is going. So…interview and journal, then go back to writing the biography.

The minute you put down one trait on a character then add a second, you set up a chain reaction that leads to more questions, decisions, more characters, more background, more dark secrets in closets, whatever. By the time I was through, I had two binders of character biographies. Some of the characters are background ones. For example, Rosa runs a ladies’ poker game in the corner booth of her diner – her booth – every Friday night. ALL the area ladies who run businesses along Main Street play, and even Sister Rita Luke from Our Lady of the Seas up the street shows up to win money for her outreach programs. Father Steve is the “chaplain” As one of the old ladies in the group puts it: “First we pray, then we play.” So I needed some cursory description of who the ladies were and what stores they ran.

Once you’ve got the real people, the research part is easy. For medical problems I did Google searches, hunted through medical textbooks, talked to an ER physician, and even pulled details from the book, The Perfect Storm. For a legal issue involving Max, I talked to a lawyer. For emotional problems, again, there was Google, psychology books, and a psychologist. I researched Catholic history, and ethnic superstitions, both very big themes in that culture. I researched the fishing industry and what kinds of research post-doctoral students were doing in Rhode Island for either universities, the military or the environment. And yes, I got books on the meanings of names, so I could accurately name my characters, not just pick something out of a hat. In the course of the research, I looked for interesting tidbits or colorful facts that I could incorporate to give my characters the “authority” of that life.

Finally, I looked for things to use as character tags. Character tags allow us to quickly identify the character, tell us something about their deeper personality, and raise more questions for the reader to answer. Vince walks a poodle and wears a mysterious pendant. Rosa has her certain superstitions, Max walks around in the middle of the summer wearing a paint-stained oversized flannel shirt. Almost immediately, we associate certain things with certain people, then begin our quest to find out “why?”

Up Next: Under the Pier: Research – Animal Character R&D


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 – A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

February 16, 2008

Before I start talking about the Under the Pier process, I need to address the one side that calls to me in a big way – essays. I’ve sold a couple already and I yearn to do more. While this blog is a collection of all the bits of me, perhaps the one area of my soul most fed, is the ability to “speak in essays.”

I have spent most of my time over the last 12 years calling myself a children’s writer, though I have noticed that a lot of my focus is geared toward adults. Is this a contradiction or betrayal of a certain writing path? I don’t think so. Perhaps Madeleine L’Engle handled it best. She used to hate it when she was referred to as a children’s writer, as if that was all she was or it was a special category considered “not quite a writer.” She insisted on being referred to as a writer and considered her children’s writing just one aspect of her career, though certainly not the easiest or least important. Her observation there was: “If I have something that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

So in the same vein, I am first drawn to writing for children as there is the very alive open child within me who wants to speak. However, like everything else in my life, I do not fit neatly into categories. The label “children’s” writer is not totally accurate because I find, I just write. Who it fits, I leave for the readers to determine.

As to my essays, they run the range – spiritual, humorous, nature-based, flippant. One current essay is a list I keep of irreverent things to put on my tombstone: “But it was HER fault, really!” “But I had the right of way!” or “But the bus NEVER came up this far on the curb before!” – the last one from a moment at Colonial Williamsburg where my husband and son expressed concern at how close to the bus stop curb I was standing. When I reassured them the bus never comes that far up, they offered to put that one on my tombstone. 🙂

I love to write essays because my right brain revels in being able to take a single quote or line of dialogue, a comic, photograph, painting or a life question, and just write. Something that starts in the specific and ends up at a universal truth. A journey where I start with the concrete and wander around always surprised where I end up, usually someplace emotional.

In a lot of respects, though I’ve started this blog in the midst of writing a novel for upper middle-grade/Young adult readers, a lot of it so far has been more essays, journaling, unearthing the soul of the writer, rather than a lot about the Children’s Writing business. That’s okay. I need to have that soul of the writer to do that novel. The reality is, that novel has been a journey to answers in life. Maybe in a way, novels are just one long essay because the characters in those fictions worlds still ask the same life questions we all do.

This blog is also my “raw material” that I can mine at will for whatever projects come along. It’s my toy box of thoughts that I can spin into something for adults or children. Truth, is truth.

My “internship of the essay craft” has involved continuing education classes at nearby Duke University, as well questions. Always, questions. They are the catalyst for life, for growth, for wisdom. At least to me, if I stop asking questions, I stop growing. I lose the path to peace

The internship has also included reading countless books. Fiction, philosophy, spirituality, nature guides, and of course, books on essay writing. One in particular is my favorite, and has been the most useful for seeing how to first collect, then transform life experiences. I recommend it highly:

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal – The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories, by Alexandra Johnson. She teaches memoir and creative nonfiction writing at Harvard and has been published extensively. The book is divided into three parts. It’s possible to only use one of the three at a particular time in life, or ever. The first is about having a journal – creating one, the various types, what raw material to collect; the second part is about transforming your life – finding the patterns and meaning in what you’ve collected; the third section is called “Crossover: Moving a Journal into a Creative Work.”

Whether you just collect raw material, mine it for meaning, or use it to create fiction and nonfiction works, the process changes you. Like that overly used cliched example of a rock thrown in a pond, change one thing and it touches places unseen. Even keeping a list of favorite phrases over a lifetime does something deep inside to your soul and alters your outlook on life.

So I am a writer for all ages. I love to write essays, whoever reads them. They are my journey to answers. They are the playground of the right brain, and the compost pile that fertilizes the rest of my works.


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


The Post – Okay, So Now That You’ve Met My Fiddler Crabs, Who is This Deb Bailey Writer Person?

February 12, 2008

I’ve been promising the “where have I been, what am I doing, and where am I going?” piece. You’ve met the fiddler crabs and know that I’m doing some kind of strange book involving crustaceans and humans. And since it’s fiction, not nonfiction, God only knows what it’s about, right? You’re aware I am interested in everything from Nancy Drew, photography, and Tonka trucks (the old metal ones only!!!) to borescopes, poodles, and Buddhism. So, you know I’m odd.

My story as a writer – short version. Plan A: I had a dream. Left a job. Wrote a bunch of stuff. Submitted it. Waited for the money to roll in. It didn’t. So I was forced to move to Plan B: Take a step back. Scratch my head. Get a grip, then do what every writer since the cave man has done – learn my craft and build a business. SLOWLY. While earning paychecks to keep the bills paid.

I decided this story might be useful? Or at least entertaining, to any new writers who have illusions about how this business works. Maybe it will either inspire or make you laugh when you want to cry, so you realize you are not alone. Or you will run screaming from the room and say you never want to be a writer. That’s always a fair answer, too. But I have to tell you, writing . . . it’s a life-long affliction.

If you were born infected with the desire to write, you can run, but you can’t hide from that voice pulling at you to put words down. If you are honest, you will admit to secretly ripping a strip off of a paper napkin while driving because you just CAN’T let that thought go by. You might even admit to having torn bits of envelopes, doctor bills, the back of your son’s first draft of a term paper, or your hand, covered in scribbles of things you JUST CAN’T let escape from your brain without being written down. If it progresses to the more advanced stages, you may find yourself living with your walls, stairwells, garage, kitchen table and living room floor, covered in maps, sketches, notes, paintings, story outlines, books, articles, and half-written manuscripts. Let’s not even discuss what’s packed into storage boxes, onto book shelves, under the pool table or in desk drawers. Like I said, it’s an affliction. You just learn to live with it. And like Stephen King said, he’d do this job even if they didn’t pay him.

In any event, I will split this over a few posts. I think that way, it will also give living examples to the three stages of writer development as outlined by author and illustrator, Uri Shulevitz. The man has a tremendous body of work, has won awards from the Caldecott Medal to the Golden Kite Award, and I think, knows a few things about this business.

I have this old faded email from 8/27/96 from the Children’s Writing email group, where someone very kindly shared Mr. Shulevitz’s comments from a conference. By the way, if you want to write for children, that email group is a great group to be subscribed to. The writers range from the famous to the beginner, and the people there are generous, knowledgeable, and good-hearted. Just don’t show up and say – “I want to write for kids. What do I do?” Or the ever popular, “I wrote something. Where should I send it?” Do some of your own homework, first. Get a copy of:

Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 2008 (Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market)  

Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2008 (Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market) Read the beginning pages. They have great basic get-started information about the profession – and it is a profession – of children’s writing. For that matter, Writer’s Digest Book Club has a ton of great writing books, some slanted for children’s writing. Just get or borrow some of these books, read them, then come to the list with your questions. They’ll be happy to help. To subcribe, send a message to:

You can also visit the group’s home page at:

To finish up today’s post and set the stage for the rest of this project, I’ll leave you with Mr. Shulevitz’s thoughts about the process a person goes through to become a writer. Most of us will travel this road I suspect, unless you’re Isaac Asimov, who could write almost perfect first drafts, and over his life wrote or edited over 500 books, an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards, and whose works have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. He missed out only in Philosophy. If you’re not another Asimov, here’s the stages:

The Three Stages of Writer Development (as paraphrased by the email author who apologized for not being as eloquent as Mr. Shulevitz):

Stage One: The Journey of Apprenticeship

Learn about the craft with an open mind. Set aside your preferences. Experiment, experience, try new techniques, look at different eras and styles. Copy other writers to understand their techniques. Survey all styles of children’s books to see what makes the best, good, and the worst, bad. In short: Gather Outside Knowledge

Stage Two: Search Inside

a) Find your own voice and vision. Seek solitude. Be alone with yourself. Seek a sanctuary where you can sort out the voices within and without. Achieve inner silence.

b) Be who you are. You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self and sort out all you have gathered in your apprenticeship. Sort out what you learned from your apprenticeship and learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love. Find themes which continue to repeat themselves within you and your work. Examine what may be to some, unpopular beliefs.

c) You will work alone in the end. Any teacher can only take you to your own frontier. You will have to take it from there.

Stage Three: Joy of Working

After the first two stages, you are ready to begin WORKING. You know yourself so well you can lose yourself in your work. Your work will be free and spontaneous because you know yourself so well, but not yet easy or simple.

And by the way, he notes: Sometimes you might have to go back to Stage One or Two once in a while.

UP NEXT: My apprenticeship


The Gift

February 6, 2008

An interesting interview with an agent:

Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of fiction for young readers and a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults offers an interview with agent Emily Van Beek of Pippin Properties on her blog:

Some tidbits from the article to give a taste of the whole:

“At Pippin the bar is set high. We strive to live and work by the following philosophy:

–The world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work. And this can be painful at times (especially when it means telling a writer that their work isn’t there yet, that a particular story isn’t ready for submission, that s/he needs to try again). Even the best of the best need to write and rewrite.”

In response to the question: What do you look for in a prospective client?

“We look for passion and dedication. We look for a writer who is willing to work really hard. Someone who can keep the goal in sight when we ask for the eighth revision. We are looking for ingenuity. We’re looking for voices that stay with us.”