Friday, May 29, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

In these trying economic times, we all need a little lift now and again, a little ray of hope on the horizon. Some of us even resort to games of chance to lift our spirits or improve our lot. I hear the lottery is doing well everywhere. I used to play, when I was a very poor graduate student. I even won something like 64 DM one time. It amounted to roughly $32. A lot of money back in the day.

Writers have their own twist on games of chance to improve their fortune.

You might be a writer if...your version of the lottery is submitting manuscripts to publishers.

You're smiling, aren't you? But think about it, sending off to publishers really is like playing the lottery. Honest. I'll show you.

Let's take the entry fee. Minimal. For a lottery ticket, a couple of bucks. For a submission, 44 cents. Even less than the cost of a lottery ticket! (Which is good because we writers are a poor lot. Poorer than the average lottery player, I'd wager.)

A lottery player lingers long over the numbers, trying to discern which ones might be the winning power ball combination, just like a writer lingers over phrases and plots, trying to create a winning combination that will win the heart of an editor.

Playing leaves you feeling good, happy even. Even if you don't win, if you get the dreaded form rejection letter, for a brief moment, there is that indescribable high that playing brings. That full body rush that zings and sizzles all the way to the tips of your hair when you hand in that lottery ticket or drop the submission envelope into the mail.

While both are games of luck - getting your numbers pulled vs. finding an editor who resonates with your work - you can actually stack the deck in your favor with editors guessed it, good writing. No matter how perfectly you fill in those little round circles on power ball, it's still all up to the gods of chance whether you'll win or not.

Nevertheless, regardless of which game you're playing, there are minuscule chances of winning. Take heart, though, fellow writers. Getting your manuscript pulled from a slush pile, read and then accepted (can you see the looming mountain?) still has a higher likelihood than winning the regular lottery in any state or country. Far fewer people play the publishing lottery.

Be forewarned all you lottery players out there. Playing the publishing lottery isn't for the faint of heart. It takes courage, a certain level of willingness to inflict self pain (via rejection), and the stamina to get up and play all over again.

Still, whether you're putting your money on words or numbers, one universal stands true: hope springs eternal. Next time, you might just win.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Let's Go Fly A Kite

Memorial Day started out kind of slow. I snuck into the office to write. My daughter vegged out on cartoons. Until my father suddenly appeared with a kite.

We hadn't been kite flying in ages. Suddenly, the house was a blur of action. Kite flying. It was contagious. We couldn't get out the door fast enough, despite clouds that threatened rain (and a Ben Franklin kind of kite flying experience should thunder show up too). We were off on an adventure to the park.

Only problem. Not a lot of wind. We were running all over the place trying to get that kite into the air. I was beginning to despair.

Then again, there is nothing quite like the determination of a seven year old. If there was even the hint of a breeze, we were going to find it.

And we did!

The only thing was, once my daughter had gotten a taste of kite flying, there was no holding her back. We stayed until the cows came home (all of them).

Which didn't bother any of us. It was a blast.

Even the ice cream man showed up. There really is something about the ice cream man that screams excitement. I couldn't get the dollar bills out fast enough before my daughter was grasping them in her fist, throwing the kite string to the wind (which I then ran after), while my father ran after her, trying to keep her from zigging into traffic just to stop the ice cream truck.

I think every ice cream driver gets a kick out of seeing how fast he can get those kids running. Personally, I think if they wanted to really break records at track and field events, they should pull out an ice cream truck. American runners at least would be reaching new speeds, I'm telling you. My daughter did.

She got her ice cream.

Then we eased out under a huge, old tree and watched her slurp down a crushed ice, while we built imaginary cities out of twigs, old leaves, dandelions and acorns.

Best Memorial Day ever.

Friday, May 22, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

Some weeks, I can think of at least three things I could write about in this Friday post. Other weeks, I'm praying to the gods of inspiration for, well...inspiration. Of course, I could do the high functioning thing and write down the extra two ideas in the creative weeks, but somehow, it never happens.

The save came this week at the eleventh hour, literally (11 p.m.), as my husband and I were walking out of the movies.

You might be a writer've been told you've got an overly active imagination.

That's what my husband told me. He wasn't the first, just the latest. Poor guy.

We went to see the latest Star Trek movie last night. I admit it. I'm a trekkie. A huge trekkie. It's not my fault. I blame it on bad Sunday TV programming during my formative years as an adolescent. Sunday morning was such a let down after Saturday cartoons. Plus there was all that time to kill before church, the comics read and reread, my brother soundly aggravated and totured. What was a kid to do? Enter, deus ex machina extraordinaire, Star Trek reruns.

The original, of course. It was the 1970s. I watched them all, many times over. The only problem was, my brother and I hardly ever got to see an episode through to its end because we had to leave for church. We used to push it to the very last minute, begging our parents to let us finish.

Maybe it was all that unfulfilled longing that made me such a trekkie. Either way, come movie time last night, I was giggly with excitement. I hadn't read any of the previews, watched few to none of the trailers. I wanted to let the latest script writers do their thing.

It was great for me. I was thrilled, scared, excited, moved. If only my husband had remembered how moved I can get. More than once, the alien coming out of nowhere had me screeching or jumping or...well, I hit him one time so hard, I kind of hurt him. Poor guy. He spent the rest of the movie with his arms crossed, scooched away from me, avoided all contact for fear I might accidentally injure him again.

"You have an overly active imagination," he said as we were walking over. "Big time."

It's too true. I can't deny it because the evidence is overwhelming.

I tried levitating rocks with my mind after seeing Star Wars.

I slept with my neck covered for years after seeing a Sammy Terry midnight marathon of the early Dracula movies.

When my mom had to pull a splinter out of my hand when I was five or six, I got kind of emotional. "Everything is getting dark. I can't see anything. It hurts too much!" (Yes, I actually remember saying that.) My mother: "Open your eyes."

Oh yeah.

The only reason I think I was able to read Lord of the Rings as a child was because I imagined all of its black and sinister creatures more a sort of tarnished grey. And that still had me scared to death. After I saw Peter Jackson version of them, I didn't sleep for weeks.

I have an overly active imagination. I didn't know what to do with the thing, until I became a writer. Now all of those insane ideas can weave themselves into something that makes sense. Whole books come to me in the blink of an eye, and people ask me, "How did you think that up?"

Overly active imagination.

My characters don't just inhabit my brain, they dance around my office. Go shopping with me. Advise me on how to talk to my children.

Overly active imagination.

Bedtime stories for my kids come so easily, maybe too easily. We constantly miss bedtime.

It's a talent now, not an oddity. I love it. I just have to remember to buy my husband some protective gear for our next movie outing!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Double Digit Mania

My oldest hit the double digits this Friday, and oh, what celebrating there was!

I was all ready for that. I'd made one cake, bought another, wrapped the presents, gotten the house ready for the onslaught of ten year who would pour into it the next day. We were ready to celebrate.

What I wasn't expecting was the trepidation. Not mine. Hers.

DD: Mama, should I be excited?

Me: (trying to hide surprise) Sure. You're turning ten. That's a big deal.

DD: I don't want to get older.

Me: Why not?

DD: I like being nine. I want to be nine for forever.

Me: Really?

I didn't totally get it. I was one of those kids who was nine going on nineteen. So come Saturday night, I went into the slumber party/night of silly 10 year old fun trying to catch glimpses not only of the allure of kiddom she sees but of its magic.

You know, I must have been blind as a kid. There was a Jupiter Jump, cookie cake, water balloon fights, sleepover with ten girls, movies - The Indian in the Cupboard, Hotel for Dogs, Marley and Me - gummy bears, popcorn, donuts, swinging, and laughing. Oh, was there laughing!

Most of all, there was abandon. Abandon to swim in it all, in the moment, in the fun, the silliness, the excitement, and the total exhaustion.

What was I thinking trying to grow up so fast??

I understand now why she is worried about getting older. Worried about losing that part of childhood and all that goes with it.

She's a smart kid, smarter than her mom. Hopefully, some of adulthood will eventually appeal to her. But after Saturday night, I get why there's no hurry getting there. There's so much to see until then. I'm glad I get to see it with her.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

Ooh, after the week I've had with babysitter woes, I have really been looking forward to my Friday post where I get to let my hair down, sit back, and ponder the inane, quirky habits of that ecelectic species, writer.

This week's spotlight gelled for me in a dream last night. I haven't had the best luck with working things out in the subconscious before, but man, last night, the stars must have aligned because when I woke up, what I dreamt actually made sense.

You might be a writer swoon for writers like they were rock stars.

I mean the Leif Garrett/David Cassidy kind of swooning, where your heart gets up to some crazy erratic pace and your head feels so hot, you think you might lift off the ground or explode. Yep, that's what great writing does for writers.

Sound melodramatic?

Okay, maybe just a little, but what writer hasn't had that moment when a turn of phrase in a piece stopped them dead in their tracks. Where they sat there, saying it out loud, letting the words roll and bump across their lips as they savored the flavor of great writing.

And then became insanely curious to learn about the person who wrote that. So much so you, say, maybe googled them? Checked out their wikipedia page? Looked for interviews. Driven by the haunting memory of that amazing combination of letters and sounds that became greater than the sum of its parts.

I know. I'm swooning again.

I didn't used to swoon so for writers, not before I became one. I always read a lot, tons, but honestly, I wasn't all that into remembering author names. It was all about book titles, or even more simply, the story itself.

Now that I am a writer, now that I'm constantly working to improve my craft, I've become a closetcase fan of other writers. Then again, it may only be me who thinks my curiosity and interest is secret. I've seen my friends give me that funny look when I start going on and on and on about how I'd love to have Markus Zusak and his family over for a grill party. Kids would be playing on the swing set (I have no idea if he has kids. I do.) Spouses would get along great. And we'd talk about whatever. Not necessarily books, but life. I mean, who wouldn't want to kibbutz a little with the person who wrote:

As it turned out, Ilsa Hermann not only gave Liesel Meminger a book that day. She also gave her a reason to spend time in the basement - her favorite place, first with Papa, then Max. She gave her a reason to write her own words, to see that words had also brought her to life.
"Don't punish yourself," she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness too. That was writing.

Do you have a lighter lit and are waving it in the air like me? I mean, gees, that's just one line. The whole rest of the book is just as strong.

Zusak is just one example on my ever growing list of authors I'd love to meet and talk with. I don't mean interview talk. I mean Paris, early 20th century, Picasso taking on Modigliani talk. I mean, Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald. You know, arguing and debating, chewing and reforming and rewriting what makes good art in a seedy bar with a good French wine. They argued. They debated. They drank. They lived. They created. They changed the world.

God, what a time that must have been. An unending concert of ideas matching pitch and being reworked into something new and brilliant.

I'm swooning just thinking about it.

*****On a very little side note to rising fame and writer fortune, my book, Dragon Wishes, was an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival this week. I feel like a rocker who's finally playing decent venues. Hopefully, one day, it'll be the Met.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What Happened?

This weekend supplied me with countless material for an edgy teen novel, or at least, a realistic one.

It all began when I had to go away for one weekend with my husband. We have two kids, seven and ten. So, we needed a responsible person to take care of them. We asked our really great grad student babysitter who is awesome with the kids. Only hitch was, she was graduating this weekend. We went to option B, a high school senior we've known since age 12, who's babysat for us for about six years. She's been to Europe with me, on author tour. However last year, she went a little teen nutty when she got into her first serious relationship. Still, she's graduating in a few days, and I thought, she's almost nineteen, what sort of trouble could she possibly cause in a day-and-a-half?

I learned this weekend that you never, never, never ask that question when a teenager is involved.

The kids are all right. The house didn't burn down. However, I've had a few eye-opening experiences into today's teenage world.

Said babysitter snuck her boyfriend in for a sleepover of her own. I say snuck because I was never asked. Also, he "left" when the kids went to bed, but his truck stayed parked in front of our house all night long. He "returned" at 7:15 by letting himself in through the front door. And she told her parents he didn't stay over. And I guess she figured no one would ever be the wiser.


Doesn't she realize there are no secrets in a house with children? (Diane Sutterfield made a whole book around that very idea, The Thirteenth Tale)

Didn't she ever see Bill Cosby perform stand up or watch his TV show, even in reruns?
The seven year old is the informant.

Did she forget my husband and I were teenagers once as well?
My husband knew all of the right questions to ask our seven year old. And I did a little around the neighborhood investigative journalism. It was pretty easy to put the pieces together and figure out what went on.

It didn't get worse from there, just consistent. She didn't ask if she could have a girlfriend come over and spend the night Saturday night. She told my girlfriend, who's daughter she took along with mine to the movie, the girlfriend was just visiting.

She call me and didn't ask what she should feed the kids when the glaring leftovers in the fridge, the fresh bread, the milk, the fruit, the cold cuts, the ready make mac and chees, pasta, cans of tomoato sauce, frozen pizzas my husband stocked the fridge with on Friday left her without a clue. Instead, she called her parents and told them I hadn't really left any food in the house for my kids and she needed money to take them out to dinner.

She didn't ask if it was okay to go into my bedroom and use my bathroom repeatedly for long baths.

She didn't bother to refill the dog's water bowl and put the dog outside for six hours, then told me she did refill it when I called and asked.

I was never asked. It was the "better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission" weekend.

I'm ranting. I know. I feel incredibly violated. I feel really disappointed. I feel hurt. And I feel like it's my fault. I should have known, right? What can I say in my defense? She used to be a decent kid. I mean, I've known her for almost seven years. My kids adore her. She's never, to my knowledge, exhibited this kind of irresponsible behavior before when work was involved. And I know kids go through trying times. I was a teenager, however long ago it was, but I remember when I was working, man, I tried to up my game, tried to seem responsible at least.

And this kid, she's almost nineteen. When does maturity and responsibility kick in? My husband said this is teen reality today. They don't want to be responsible. This is their life.

I am so out of touch.

As a human being, I ask myself, where are we going? And, how did we get here? As a parent, I ask myself, is this what I'm going to be up against? As a writer, I ask myself, is this my readership?

Because if it is, man, I've just had an intensive weekend seminar on how some teenagers at least function, what's important to them, and what to write about. It's gonna take a while to process all that. Reams of material.

In the meantime, anybody out there got the name of a decent babysitter???

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

What's your verb?

I love that Nike commercial. Verbs are the cornerstone of good writing. I'm always searching for a better one. Why use walk quickly, when you can say sprint. Or swagger. Or, a personal favorite, sache.

But what about the verbs we writers us to describe our profession?

You might be a writer if...the verbology you use to describe writing makes you at least sometimes sound like a cross between a butcher and, well, an axe murderer.

Too extreme, you say? Let me give a few examples.

When I first started writing stories for children, I had to carve out time from my regular job to write. Steal a few moments here and there. Then hours. Eventually hammering my day into a whole new schedule in which writing took up its own little niche.

Verbology still too kind?

What about revisions? Some authors love them. Some authors, not so much. I waiver between hating and loving them. It's where the real work begins. Where the diamond in the rough story becomes a glittering work of art. So much labor is involved - cutting, slicing, chopping, tearing out in whole, sculpting, and reshaping.

Still not convinced?

An author friend of mine and I were talking on the phone the other day. Yes, real live, person to person talking. I was giddy with the excitement of spontaneous conversation (I was also avoiding revisions). So was she. And we were tired of regrouting the kitchen floor. She was asking me about the first line of her book. She said she loved it. The whole book came out of it. But it was all wrong. It needed to be changed, better, ripped out and replaced entirely, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. I tried my best to help her to step over the edge and cut it out.

Her response: "I know I need to, but I just can't kill my darling."

What comes around goes around. We're all faced with making the ultimate "sacrifice" now and again:

For example, my critique group read my present WIP. One of them was not happy with one of a the male characters. Her suggestion? "Kill him off. It will make the story better."

Now I know what my friend feels like about chopping out that first line of hers. I don't quite have the taste for blood just yet. I want the character to redeem himself. But if I'm unsuccessful, well, I may just have to get out my scalpel.

Now this butcher-esque verbology amongst writers may just be a trend out here in the wild wild west, but I've got a sinking suspicion it transcends state lines, national lines even. I'd love to talk to a non-American writer, like a German one - since I speak German - and find out if they hammer, chisel, cut out, chop off, hack, and sometimes snuff out their favorite characters or lines with such abandon when they're writing.

Do you?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Book Review Club - Alligator Bayou

Alligator Bayou
Donna Jo Napoli
March 2009
Wendy Lamb Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-746540-0

Alligator Bayou is not a fun read. It's not an easy read. But it is a must read.

The story is based upon the hanging of four Sicilians in Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1899. It is told from the viewpoint of fourteen year-old Calogero, who has come to America from Sicily after the death of his mother to live with his uncles and help them run their vegetable stores.

The uncles have a prosperou business in rural Louisiana, miles and miles from New Orleans and the lynchings they experienced there. They believe they are safe here. They hope they are. But safe is a relative term swimming in a sea of prejudice.

Tallulah is far from open to its Italian residents. Calogero and his thirteen year old cousin, Cirone, are not allowed to attend the school for whites, and are dissuaded from attending the school for blacks. "Better to be uneducated." Italians living in the U.S. in the 1800s were treated as a race unto themselves, shunned by whites and warned not to mingle with blacks. So Calogero takes English lessons from a young artist passing through the area, Frank Raymond. Frank also introduces him to the last living member of the Tunica tribe, Joseph.

Calogero's heart, however, belongs Patricia, one of the black girls who passes by the vegetable stand he runs each day after school. He soon become friends with her brothers, who take Calogero and Cirone through a rite of passage, alligator hunting.

Life is starting to look up. The black community invites the Calogero and his family to celebrate school graudation, and the fourth of July. They are finally beginning to make friends and Calogero is falling in love, all this is a sea of hate and prejudice. The townspeople are begrudging toward the Italians and their prosperity. When the whites find out that Calogero and his family are celebrating with the black community, things get worse.

Harsh words fly and tempers flair when Uncle Francesco serves people in the order they come into the store, not according to the color of their skin. The Italians are cheating the whites and giving the blacks special favors. Vioelence bubbles underneath an ever thinning sheen of ice.

It breaks through with the simplest of acts. Uncle Francesco's goats roam free. They bother the doctor. One night Dr. Hodge shoots Francesco's favorite goat, Bedda.

Francesco's brother, Carlo, confronts the doctor about killing the goat, albeit in Italian, and gets his head bashed in. Gusn coem out. The doctor tries to shoot Carlo's other brother, Guiseppe, who himself shoots Dr. Hodge in the leg. Rumors spread like wildfire. The Italians have killed the doctor. A mob forms. They capture all of Calogero's family, except Calogero.

Frank Raymond tries to spirit Calogero out of town, but Cal refuses to go. He wants to help his family. He slips away from Frank to find his uncles, only to watch the mob preparing to hang them. Patricia and her brothers find Calogero and help him escape.

There are no real spoilers in this review. Napoli explains the driving force of the story in the preface, the hangings. She does a poignant job of making the reader care about the characters even though foreboding, foreshadowing and death ultimately hang over their heads. By the end of the book, you yearn for them to escape their fate, all the while knowing, that fate occurred so long ago.

Napoli weaves in fact with fiction to create a searing, eye-opening reading experience. The story reveals and reminds that prejudice is not so long ago in our history, and that it has been directed at people's of all different races and creeds. It also tells the story - that has faded somewhat into the folds of history - of the prejudices that Italian immigrants had to overcome to stake their claim in this country, thereby creating a rich forum for class, reader, book club discussion about not only on the shortcomings of our country in dealing with its immigrants not only in the past but also today.

Truthfully, I dreaded reading this book. Inequalities, prejudice and the failings of humanity hang with me long after I've read about them. They leave a wound that aches. This book and its story are no different. However, the change reading Alligator Bayou wrought in me isn't just pain at the shortcomings of man toward man. The story deepened my understanding of immigration and what my family must have gone through when they came here. It heightened my respect and for immigrants the world around. And it left me with an increased awareness that tolerance isn't about accepting that with which we are comfortable with but accepting that which is new and uncomfortable. Tolerance is the glue that binds humanity together.

It needs to be spread around. Donna Jo Napoli, in telling this story, challenges her readers to do just that. Take on the challenge. You won't be sorry.

For more must read books, visit The Book Review Club headquarters over at Barrie Summy's blog.

Friday, May 1, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

Do people come up to you and ask you to tell their story? Do you walk away from school visits with loads of new story ideas that kids give you like sticks of gum? Do adults drop hints about stories you could work on?

What about your family? Are they the worst of all?

You might be a writer hear "you should write this" A LOT.

"You should write this" comes out of all corners. For a while, when I was still a newbie to writing, I didn't hear it at all. It's like being the new kid on the block. People around you can't figure out if you're in the writing gig for good, or you're goofing off.

Then that first book or article comes out, and whoa, ideas suddenly come flying toward you.

I didn't know what to do with them at first. Listen and nod politely? File them away? Write them out? Where is the advice on this in the writer operating instructions booklet?

What people want me to do, I've learned through trial and error, varies greatly. Okay, they all hope I write the ideas into something, but how those ideas should turn out is what varies so much.

Kids are the best. At school visits, I get all kinds of ideas tossed at me, like so many colorful balls. I try to volley them back because, you know, I might actually be talking to the next William Faulkner or Stephen King. You never know. Maybe all they need is a little push. I've seen some amazing stuff from kids nobody would ever expect had so much writing talent. So, each time a child tells me "you should write this" I say, "what if you did?" (And then there are a few ideas, I admittedly stick in my pocket. I did mention last week we authors like to pilfer.)

Adults are a little trickier. They sort of expect you to write out an idea if they take the time to tell you about it. Some of them are pretty good. A friend of mine met me and my family at our most favorite donut shop on Saturday before soccer. My family and I LOVE this donut shop. Family run. The donut maker is a real artist. He makes donuts into shapes and then colors them. I've never seen anything like it anywhere. And they taste fantabulous. It's worth traveling to Tulsa just to try them. Believe me. So it's probably not all that surprising that my friend suggested (as I was on my 3rd donut) I do an article on the origins of donuts. Now that happened to be a very good idea. Because I'm just itching to get back in the kitchen and interview this donut master, if he'll let me in. Plus, it turns out, the Dutch came up with donuts. So I'm altering my trip to Europe this summer to make a pass through Amsterdam so I can photograph some Dutch donuts. That was an amazing idea. No strings attached.

The tricky part comes when it's family. My immediate family is one thing. They live with me and they've learned that I pilfer, change up, and turn into something new. If they share an idea with me, who knows what it might turn into or where. And if it's my kids, I try to put the idea right back in their hands and challenge them to write something. I don't always succeed. Case in point. My daughter was at the opera this week. Her first time. She came home with three tickets.

Daughter: (Holds out tickets with huge smile on face) "I've got something for your blog."
Me: "Thanks, sweetie. That's really nice, but why don't you write about your trip?"
Daughter: (Face falls. Hand lowers.) "But I got them for you. I collected them off the floor so you'd have more than one. Can't you use them, please???"
Me: (Guilt-ridden and seriously impressed that her journalistic skills are kicking in so early.) "Okay."
Here they are:

When it comes to my extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, things get really tricky. I am my family's memory keeper. Not their story teller because that would mean I could pilfer and pillage history with abandon and then turn it into anything I want. Not when it's family. I'm the historian. The biographer. The living tape recorder (if such things still exist). When my family gives me an idea, they want it transferred to paper exactly as it happened. If I don't, well, there have been some sticky moments. And disppointment. Pencil thin lips and shaking heads. Sigh. Family events mean double duty. First record then take said events back to my secret writing lab and tinker with until I infuse them with new life Buahahahahhaha. (evil mad scientist laugh)

"You should write this". We get it a lot. It's often pretty helpful. Many of us use it. But what to do about the expectations that are attached to it? Maybe we should follow the movie industry, issue a disclaimer: The characters and events depicted in this piece are purely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Can I write with abandon now?