Posts Tagged ‘writing’

The Post – The Dear Departed Meatloaf……

January 19, 2011

Let us have a moment of silence for the dear departed meatloaf…..one should never do a meatloaf in a crockpot without “other things” and liquid – it’s juices do NOT constitute liquid…..windows open in the house on a cold mid-January morn……eating out tonight. By then I might be able to pry the meatloaf out of the pot….. for whatever talents I have in oil painting, writing, studying sea creatures and finding odd facts to share here….that talent does NOT translate to cooking skills….the kitchen is a no-man’s land this morning…..

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The Gift

May 7, 2008

“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

Maya Angelou

The Post – Twenty Years of Marriage

February 27, 2008

A time out, today, from both my writing journey posts and my fiddler crab posts. No new info on the latter yet, by the way. It’s like pregnant women past their due date – you just wait and don’t ask if the contractions have started yet.

Today is a special day. It is our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is a milestone, and worth taking time out to honor. The years have gone quickly, sprinkled with child-raising, dogs, sick parents, near-death experiences, heart-ache, joy, aging. A good mix for life I’d say. As I’ve noted, we are both geeks in our own ways, and as such, we understand each other. I just wanted to take a moment today to honor my best friend, and I figured he would enjoy and understand the movie reference below. He and I speak in movie references – lines from movies that capture the emotion of a moment for us. Over the years we have accumulated a collection of lines from hundreds of movies. They have become a kind of coded communication between us.

This particular movie is called 84 Charing Cross Road. Anne Bancroft stars. Her husband, Mel Brooks, purchased the rights to produce it – his gift of love to her, knowing how much she loved the story.

It’s the true story of a New York City writer, Helene Hanff – a person kind of like me – no bullsh–, doesn’t mince words, very “unglamorous.” She has a sharp, but kind sense of humor and a great heart. Helene LOVED English literature, but in late 1940s New York City where the movie begins, she could not find any English literature books except at the library. Then she discovered Marks & Co. and began a decades-long correspondence with them. The story is told through her letters. From the opening of the movie:

“October 5, 1949, to Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2, England. Gentlemen, Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate antique with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions. I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have any clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, would you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”

Thus begins her relationship with the very proper bookseller at Marks & Co., “FPD.” FPD, over letters and time becomes Frank Doel, then simply, “Frank.” It’s a love story, but not the usual kind. They live an ocean apart, have different lives, and he is married with daughters. Happily married. So no, there are no hot sex scenes, the crutch of most modern movies. Yet it is a love story, anyway, because true love at its deepest is about caring, generosity, and the connection of souls. It is not limited by the relationship but can be felt for spouses, friends, relatives, neighbors. Their friendship enlarges their lives, expanding to include his wife, neighbors, daughters, other workers at the bookshop, her friends. Their love is about adding something to each of their lives, not taking things away or destroying things. It is about understanding each other, and that is the quality of love that sustains it, whether in marriage or friendship, well into old age. And frankly, a marriage that lasts well into old age is as much about friendship, as anything else.

Throughout the movie, she revels in the old books she buys, books better for having been owned by someone else first. Again, it is a love of connection to others, even those she never met. She says: “I love inscriptions on fly-leafs and notes in margins. I like the camaraderie-sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.” She can’t get enough of the books. Frank finds them for her.

By the end of the movie, he is “Frankie” to her, and she tells him, “You’re the only soul alive who understands me.” It’s a sentiment that reflects a bond where you are known deeply, valued, and most importantly, accepted. Your truth is safe in the hands of another. Whether two people are the same or very different matters not if there is acceptance. When someone knows our deepest places, our vulnerabilities, and accepts us, they give us the best of gifts. The wish to be understood and accepted is one of the bonds that links us all. These are things I have felt for and from my husband.

At one point a friend of Helene’s made it to England and visited the book store. She wrote Helene with a description:

“It’s the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens. You would go absolutely out of your mind over it….It’s dim inside. You can smell the shop before you see it. It’s a lovely smell. I can’t articulate it easily but it combines must and dust and age and walls of wood and floors of wood…The shelves go on forever. They go up to the ceiling and they’re very old and kind of gray, like old oak that absorbed so much dust over the years they no longer are their true color.”

Such a visceral, sensual description. It was a description both my husband and I fell in love with immediately when we heard it. It is a place we hope yet, to be.

At one point in the movie Helene writes to Frank:

“I require a book of love poems with Spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley. Send me poets who can make love without slobbering. Wyatt or Johnson or somebody. Use your own judgment. Just a nice book, preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.”

Late in the movie, Frank is shown, reflecting on her as a Yeats love poem runs through his mind. The moment, and the poem, are my gifts to my husband, my best friend. Thank you for these last 20 years. They’ve gone so fast. I’d like 20 times 20 more, and if time allows, I’d like yet to walk into 84 Charing Cross Road with you.

So to “Eddie,” all my love, and to you and all romantics out there, a poet who can make love without slobbering:

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). The Wind Among the Reeds. 1899.

The Post – How Do You Take Three Picture Books and Make a Novel?

February 22, 2008

In writing this post I feel the same amount of confusion and struggle as I did when I was trying to get my head around how to set up the novel. Where do I start? There’s too many thoughts and ideas, too much to wade through or convey. My brain feels overwhelmed and I want to give up and go have hot chocolate at Starbucks instead.

Back then, I was surrounded by papers…drowning actually. I had a binder full of hermit crab story versions from all the different submissions I’d sent out, as well as their rejection letters. I even filed each rejection letter neatly alongside the particular story version sent to that publisher, and the binder was organized in chronological order. That way I could see the not only the history of all the submissions, to whom, and the result, but also, the evolution of the story itself as it changed for each new submission. So in reality, for that one picture book, I had about 20 versions of that story as I tweaked, changed, revised, and resubmitted it.

I had another binder with the multitude of revisions (and rejection letters) for the Max and Jamie un-picture book. Then there was that third short story whose revisions and versions filled, first a folder, then a box. Climbing Mount Everest would have been easier. That journey of a thousand miles seemed shorter than whatever it was going to take to wade through all that stuff and find the story that needed telling. And worst of all, here I was, this very goal-oriented person who lived to finish things fast and cross them off the to-do list. The thought of what this job was going to take to start it, never mind finish it, seemed too daunting to face.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to find the exact perfect place to start or the exact perfect way to work. In fact, I don’t think either exists. As far as getting started, you just have to pick a nipple and get going. It’s like Billy Joel said about the songs in his dreams never matching what he created. Nothing will be as perfect as our dreams and visions. So you can either give up right then because you can’t have perfection, or you swallow your ego and create the best you can. Even the imperfect can move souls. But you still have to write it. Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, noted in an interview in Writer’s Digest magazine that, “…fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. Your expectations are never gonna jive. …But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success.” So you put your butt in the chair and start somewhere, working through it all, somehow.

This is where going through Stage 2 helped – you have to know yourself. If you do, you have at least 2 things going for you: 1) you have at least some idea of the questions in your heart that might need to be answered in a book; 2) you have a pretty good idea of how you work best.

How you work defines what your processes and tasks will be. Some writers just sit down and start writing. They write several hundred pages until they finally discover their story and characters. Then they throw away those pages and write the story. A few, like Isaac Asimov, can sit down and organically know where they’re going and just get it right the first time out. And then there’s us plodders. We think, percolate, plan, research ….plod.

Tabitha King said that she likes to research “the living crap out it” before entering the story. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of 14 novels, said that often she spends more time on research than writing. Why? In her June 2007 column, “This Writer’s Life,” for Writer’s Digest magazine, she said, “…fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research.” She said that research allows you to write with authority so readers can trust you to get the facts straight, and it gives you the “chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own.”

I knew I wasn’t Asimov. I also know that to meander aimlessly through hundreds of pages before knowing where I was going, would drive me crazy. I need order, organization, planning, research. You should see how I plan a road trip. After all, my natural tendency was to be General Patton. Generals assess what they’ve got, research their enemy, plan their strategy, then execute the battle. That’s me.

So, first I assessed what I had:

1) I knew now what kind of book it should be – novel.

2) I had LOTS of raw material. I knew the setting, the time of the story-current day – and had some ideas about characters and plot points because I had MANY versions of each story to choose from.

3) I finally knew about what age my own child was inside, 11 or 12. That sort of tells you what age the reader of your book might be. Also, knowing about what ages you and your readers are points you toward what kinds of story questions you can tackle.

At least for me, writing is all about questions and choices. As you ask, you learn something. As you learn, you make a choice about something in the story. Another question comes up, another choice. Before you know it, characters appear, setting, time, places, problems. Others are excluded. The story evolves. So at this point, the question for me became: What is my story about?

I came out of childhood with scars and resentments and issues. So has everyone else. If my own life has depth and there’s more to ME than meets the eye, the same is true of everyone else out there. This means there’s lots of potential for conflict and issues and depth of characters, quirks, oddities, and unexpected twists and turns. No need for clichĂ©s, stereotypes and superficial stories when you have some real meat to work with under the surface.

The very story you tell comes out of a choice when answering the questions – Do I write what I know? Or what I want to know about? Sometimes you choose a place or character or issue that you know personally. Sometimes you choose something you have no experience with. You could even choose something that repulses you, but you want to explore it so you can stretch yourself and grow. George C. Scott did that when he portrayed General George S. Patton, Jr. in the 1970 movie, Patton. In this quote from a special features documentary included on that movie’s DVD, one of the former executives at 20th Century Fox, David Brown, spoke of all the issues they had to deal with in making that movie. One was casting an actor for the lead role:

“…of all the critical decisions made for the project, perhaps none was more crucial than the casting of George C. Scott as Patton. George C. Scott was not very fond of General Patton. Why he accepted it was because it was a good script and it was a reach for him as an actor.”

Jodi Picoult noted that she’d grown up happy in the suburbs. Everyone in her family liked each other, there were no dark secrets in the family’s closet, and she worried that she was doomed as a writer before she even got started. “Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about.” She came to the conclusion she had to alter that “write what you know” rule a bit to “write what could be learned.” Tabitha King said most people assume that “write what you know” means “tart up your autobiography.” Her feeling is you should “know what you write.” All of these things come back to…questions.

But which question do you start with to unlock the answer to “What is my story about?” For my money, if I was allowed only one question, it would be ‘why’? That’s the one I used most heavily in getting this novel going.

Why write this book? Why have these characters and not others? Why does someone do what they do? Buried in the answer to why, is the story of that whole character: flaws, strengths, wishes, dreams, disappointments, crimes, family background, personality traits, likes, dislikes. Ask “why” and you’ve opened the can of worms. Everything is folded into “why?”

People act a certain way. Pretty girls, tomboys, shy ones, party girls. They each have their personality and behaviors. Why? Were they born that way? Did something happen to cause them to act that way? Both? What was it that happened?

Why leads to more questions:

– Where do they live? What’s their environment like? Why are they living in that environment? Are they rich? Poor? Brilliant? Anti-social?

– Who do they live with? Why? Do they get along? Why or why not?

– What’s the story behind the people they live with? Work with? Go to school with? Why do THOSE people act like they do? Who is or isn’t in their lives? What happened to them if someone, say a parent or spouse, is missing?

It’s like spinning a web. You start with one thread, one character. Give that person one trait and ask why. The minute you do, other pieces of the puzzle pop up. You choose a few pieces. More questions come up. Add another trait. Exponentially, the character expands before your eyes. Things you didn’t even know about your character show up on the pages. And so far, you just have the one character.

Now. Want some real complications? Add in another character. The minute you add in another character, the possible choices for how they interact, what they are like, what’s going to happen when those two collide, expands. Then add in a third, a fourth. Add in the environment. Add in the weather, the teacher, the dog down the street, whatever. The minute you add ANYTHING to that one solitary person, you get a reaction. It’s like adding a second chemical into a solution with something else – chances are, you get a reaction. That reaction is based on the properties each chemical brings. And why does a particular chemical have those properties? Because of it’s structure, it’s formation process. So, mix two people together and based on their structure, formation, properties in the form of their birth, environment, personality, etc. you get a reaction.

If you haven’t had enough, add in the question “What if?” What if one character jumps off a bridge and the second one tries to save him and the first one lives but the second one dies? What does that do to the person who tried to kill themself in the first place? Questions multiply the possibilities.

With all these questions and answers, your story seems to be beyond your control, right? It’s not. It’s messy, but that’s good. For right now, you want your right brain to just explode with the possibilities and get it all down. This is still part of the “what have I got” stage. You want to have as many options as possible, as rich a palette of colors as possible, to choose from. Save controlling it for later. Right now just throw all the mosaic stones on the table and see what you’ve got.

You will have to reel in the storyline at some point. Your story will need a road map – the plot, and its soul – the premise. Premise is a one line summary of what the real heart and soul of your story is. Premise may take time but it is percolating in the background as you go through assessing, researching, and planning. It may even change after you put your first stage wild ideas through the research and planning process. But all of this can come later. Right now, just keep throwing things on the pile of “what have you got?”

So how do you do all this? I’ve thrown in all kinds of theoretical process information and questions. But you’re me sitting in that room with these folders and binders of pieces of stories all around you. You’re not sure how to put them together, if to put them together, which characters to keep, create, jettison . . .

I don’t know about anybody else, but the way through all of this for me, was to journal. I have a couple of binders of journaling. Maybe those journals were my “couple hundred pages to find the story” that other authors write then throw away.

I picked a version of each of those three stories and used that as my starting point. If there were scene variations, better wording, or different events in other story versions, I cut and pasted those into my journal or made a “list of possible things to add later” to the version I started with. The point is – I had to pick a version to begin with, then journal from there. I might in the end decide a particular version, scene, person didn’t work. In fact, I know I did. But at least, I had a starting point. You can always add, take away, or start over. But you have to pick that one nipple and just start journaling.

Every day I sat down and did a piece of a scene here, a character description there. I wrote up thoughts about what if you mix these two characters in that setting with this problem – how that might play out? I did sample plot lines. Again and again and again. Dialogue samples. Setting descriptions. List of things to check on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made to-do lists.

It’s a messy, imprecise process, but what I was doing was slowly working my way to the soul of the story and its characters. I was pruning. Refining ideas, discarding others. For me, it’s a gut, organic kind of process, like baking bread. You mix up this mess of ingredients, knead it, set it aside. It rises. You come back, push it down. It incubates some more, then you come back and roll it, stretch it, bake it. You eventually end up with a concrete product: a loaf of bread, that you can hold in your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose and taste. The same happens with your story and characters. By the end of the journaling, you have this concrete mass of information about the story structure, who’s in it, you may have even answered that one line premise question. The reality is, if you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two, you don’t know the story and need to go back to the journaling. At least I did. Once I could write that sentence or two, it was time to put up the scaffolding. It was time to run all of it through the concrete tests of research and planning. Construction was on the horizon.

Next: The scaffolding – index cards and binders. LOTS of them. And maps. And lists. And books and….

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. 🙂

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

The Post – Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over

February 14, 2008

As I mentioned, I had reached that place in my Phase I apprenticeship where I had grasped that it takes a long time to become an overnight success. There is no way around paying your dues and learning your craft. You can’t short-change apprenticeship. I knew I did not want to give up my dream to write, so that meant going back to the drawing board, taking classes, and starting at the bottom, all of which would take time. This also meant I had to find some way to bring in an income while pursuing my goal. The most marketable skill I had was that I was an extremely detail-oriented anal-retentive, par excellance. As it turns out, not such a bad skill to have.

I don’t think I was born with that skill. It became second nature from the 15 years I worked in a hospital lab. In a hospital, there is no acceptable margin of error. You have to be right. No matter what I did in the lab, whether it was a crossmatch for someone’s transfusion, a glucose level for a diabetic, a blood count for a leukemia patient, or a drug level for someone’s medication dosage – I knew that the results I reported would directly affect someone’s life. A doctor would base a decision to treat, or not treat, change a dosage or a medicine, based on what I reported. If I was wrong, their lives would pay the price. That training deepened when I worked in the pharmaceutical company. There I validated hundreds of thousands of pieces of data with an allowable error level something in the neighborhood of 0.01 %. The bottom line – details mattered – and in becoming a writer, that wasn’t such a bad place to start.

I decided with that kind of skill, perhaps I could find some editing jobs. Phase I was supposed to be about going “out there” and experiencing, experimenting, and trying new things. So I searched both locally and nationally. I cold-called countless managing editors in all of the publishing houses to let them know I was available for work. I was so terrified on each call, I had my “script” written in front of me while I talked. I sounded assured and confident, even as I sat there rapidly skimming every book on copy-editing, proofreading, content editing, and freelance editing that I could get my hands on. This was survival. I HAD to make this work or I had to find another 40-hour, 9-5 job. If I had to go back to that, I had to give up my writing dream. That, to me, would have been failure. I had given up good jobs, and good income. I just couldn’t give up the dream, too.

I did a few copy-editing jobs for major publishers. That was an interesting time, including the one publisher who didn’t like my work because the editor in charge of that project was a semi-retired person who liked stickies with notes in brown colored pencil . . . ONLY brown-colored pencil. I used the wrong color. No one told me about the colored pencil thing. They later acknowledged that that particular editor was a little “persnickety.” Whatever. I moved on.

A local vanity publisher hired me as their editor – copy-editor, substantive editor, press release writer, you name it, I did it. The money was terrible – flat rate no matter how long the job – but it was money, and it was training. I learned a LOT. After a while I could quote sections of the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and knew it inside and out. The trouble with that local publisher involved getting paid. When their cash-flow stopped, so did mine. It took an attorney to collect from them, so I vowed, no more small self-publishers.

In keeping with experimenting, I answered an online position announcement on the copyeditors email list, for a “native speaker of US English who had experience with other cultures.” It turns out that Bloomsbury, a publisher in the UK was doing a “Global English dictionary.” They needed someone to review all entries to make sure all definitions were there for each word, that they were culturally correct, and sounded “American.” I didn’t expect much but went ahead and sent a note indicating I grew up in a very multi-ethnic community and had just spent 4 years in a British drug company. They gave me an online-test and I passed, so my next title became “lexicographer.” I am listed as one of the lexicographers in the Encarta World English Dictionary, as well as in a thesaurus. They were GREAT to work with and I recommend the experience highly. It was all done by email and overnight overseas deliveries of work, and they paid well . . . and on time. Their Barclays Bank checks were so beautiful that if I hadn’t needed the income, I would have kept one just to frame.

During this time I also became associated with a medical ethics board that would be the mainstay of my freelance work for 10 years. I reviewed the research study documents, and edited, and often rewrote the consent forms that the research subjects would sign. This job spoke to my heart. It used every bit of my medical and pharmaceutical background and then some, REQUIRED someone picky and anal-retentive, and it tapped something else in me – the strong desire to protect. My job was to protect these people by making sure we gave them consent forms that told them fully, what the research might do to them, good and bad. I was well-suited for the work, well-paid, and the job did not require a large chunk of my time each week. That meant – I still had time to write.

I went ahead and did the other direction for Phase I: get outside knowledge. I took courses through the Duke University continuing education program. Classes in essay-writing, picture books, fiction, and how to run a freelance business. I also took and completed two children’s writing courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attended their conferences. I joined writing groups and paid authors to critique some of my work. And of course, collected more rejection letters.

I started to have a few successes in my writing efforts. I sold an essay to two parenting magazines about the heartbreak I felt every morning dropping my son at day care. I sold an essay to The Writer, and articles to Boys’ Life magazine. I even wrote two CliffsNotes – a result of one of the cold calls I’d made a year or two earlier – one for Dickens’ Great Expectations, and one for Michael Shaara’s, The Killer Angel. I still collected more rejection letters, but the quality of the rejections were getting better. 🙂 Busy editors took time to write personal notes on the form letters. Sometimes they even requested another revision or two before they said no. Overall, a good sign.

All in all, Phase I had taken a turn for the better, and I was learning a great deal very fast. My goal of seeing my name on the cover of a picture book, however, kept eluding me. Yes. Like many others, I had the idea that I should write picture books. They’re short, easy, quick to bang out, and besides, isn’t that what children’s writers write? I banged my head against the brick wall of the picture book writer idol for a long time before I finally surrendered to the truth that even my husband pointed out: I do NOT have a voice for picture books. He also noted I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe I should stop trying to be something I’m not, and focus on what my real strengths appeared to be . . . longer stories. When I finally accepted that truth, I also came to accept another set of truths: a good picture book writer, like a good poet, is rare. It takes special talent and voice, and writing a picture book is about the hardest, at least for me, of all children’s writing. Don’t let short deceive. Like the Tao Te Ching, those short entries are the hardest to do well.

UP NEXT: FINALLY, I GRADUATE TO PHASE II – FOCUSING THE LENS

 

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 Gift – a writer’s extra

February 10, 2008

Just an FYI. Every day, even if I don’t post, I try to put up a gift of some kind. This new group “a writer’s extra” has evolved. I put these up in addition to the regular gifts. Whenever I come across something of interest to writer’s – web pages, books, blogs, whatever – I post them as extra gifts.

I’ve been mentioning blogs of various writers. There is one I have to mention, Anastasia Suen’s blog and website. It is a wealth of information on the writing business, including information on editors, other authors, agents. etc. She is the author of 106 books, a children’s literature consultant, former elementary school teacher, and writing workshop instructor. Her blog also has a gold mine of “author blogs” listed under alphabetical headings. If you’re looking for an author blog, chances are, she might have it. She also has two of her own blogs. Everything can be accessed at Anastasia Suen’s Blog Central.

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:
<<http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2008/02/agent-interview-emily-van-beek-of.html>>

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.”

The Post – As Promised, What Photography Teaches You About Writing

February 6, 2008

As I mentioned earlier, photographing fiddler crabs helped me to “be one with them.” Armed with the heart of a crab, maybe I can get that across in the book.

In a broader sense, there are some similarities between the arts of photography and writing:

1) Narrow the topic:

The viewfinder of a camera sets the limits on how much you can fit in the picture. A photo is a one-moment slice of an event. You can’t show everything, so you have to choose. What will you focus on?

Good writing, especially essays and short pieces, needs limits too. Start with too broad a topic and the piece runs too long, lacks focus and depth, and leaves the reader wondering it’s about. You can’t say everything, so you have to choose what you will say. Choose a specific slant and give the reader depth for that one topic.

2) Composition – Create the Scene:

Part of the art in a good photograph is its composition. What did you include and why? How did you choose to portray it? What angle was it shot from? Lighting? Shadows? Contrast?

In a good story, “show don’t tell” is done with scenes. You’re the director. How will you set it up? Who will be in it and who will be left out? Why? What will they say and do? What are they holding? Wearing? Where are they? Is it frigid or tropical? Are they scared or serene?

3) Detail is the life of the creation:

The camera’s eye doesn’t miss much and often sees more details than the photographer did when taking the shot. The details that show up in the picture bring it alive, especially in things like still life and macro photography. The details ARE the photo.

In writing, specifics are the spice that creates the picture. Something doesn’t smell good, it has a licorice herbal aroma that wafts through the sunlit cottage and makes you salivate with anticipation. Something doesn’t feel rough and hurt you, it has a gritty surface that grinds against the tender flesh of your palm until it strips the skin raw and bloody. Specifics create the image.

4) Deliver the vision:

You can see the image you want in your mind’s eye, but if you can’t work the camera, all you’ll get is a dark blur. Master the technology.

The most amazing story may run through your mind. Yet if what appears on paper lacks organization, moves too slowly, leaves out needed plot points, has poor sentence structure, bloated dialogue, or no sensory details, no one will get it. Master your craft.

5) Know what you want to say:

A photograph may be wordless, but it will still speak to the viewer if the photographer knows what he’s looking for.

In writing, you may have a 500-page novel but you still need to be able to sum it up in a line or two. If you can’t do that, you don’t know what your story is about.

In the future, 10 or so things an oil painting taught me about the writing process. Stay tuned.