Monday, November 29, 2010

Mentor Monday: The Power of a Single Word

When I was about to have my first novel published, the editor asked me to cut 30 pages from the manuscript. The book was about 220 pages long, and it would be included in a series of historical novels. Each book in the series would be about 180 pages.

When I tell school children that story, they gasp. For most of them, putting words on paper is difficult enough. They can’t imagine having to remove the words after such a struggle. But, I explain, cutting words can be fun. It’s like a puzzle. How can I say the same thing using fewer words? I like the challenge.

As professional writers, we deal with this dilemma all the time. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you notice that publishers are looking for shorter and shorter stories. Magazines that wanted 1,000 word pieces now request 900 words or 500 words. They pay by the word, quite often, so it’s a cost cutting thing. The attention span of today’s reader isn’t what it used to be either. Basically readers want us to say what we have to say and move on.

While cutting words is an important skill for a writer, I was thinking the other day about how careful we have to be to keep in just the right word(s). I’ve had personal experience with how important one word can be.

Some years ago, I served on a jury that heard the case of a man and woman accused of plotting the murder of the man’s wife. I’m a true-crime junky and the trial was better than anything I’d seen on TV. The accused man was a former parole officer who had fallen in love with his parolee—the female defendant.

We heard all the sordid details of their affair. (The phrase “stranger than fiction” was invented for these two). We heard testimony about the murder plot. The female defendant had been jailed. The police wired a fellow inmate and told her to get the defendant to talk about the death threat on the man’s wife. The prosecutor entered the taped conversation into evidence and we listened to the tape during the trial.

After closing arguments, we, the jury, reviewed the testimony and evidence. We listened again to the conversation taped by the wired inmate. Here, in the jury room, we had time to listen more carefully and pick out each word. The two women discussed the defendant’s case and the defendant demanded a favor from the wired inmate. Suddenly in the middle of the conversation, I heard the defendant say:

“Do I have to try to kill you, too?”

I asked to have that portion re-played. I HAD heard it: a three-letter word that sealed the defendant’s fate.

As well.

Meaning, the defendant had tried this before. She’d just admitted it.

I couldn’t have written it better if I’d have made up this story.

Can one word make a difference? Sometimes one word can turn a story’s trajectory. It can provide the clue that helps the protagonist find true love or solve a mystery.

It can turn a hero into a villain. It can be the difference between guilt and innocence.

For this defendant, three letters, one word, became the difference between freedom and 10 to 20 years of incarceration.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Poetry Friday--"Winter"

I expect the first snows to arrive any day now. Once Thanksgiving has passed, it seems that winter comes blowing in with a vengeance. Here's "Winter" by Robert Louis Stevenson:
In rigorous hours, when down the iron lane
The redbreast looks in vain
For hips and haws,
Lo, shining flowers upon my window-pane
The silver pencil of the winter draws.

When all the snowy hill
And the bare woods are still;
When snipes are silent in the frozen bogs,
And all the garden garth is whelmed in mire,
Lo, by the hearth, the laughter of the logs --
More fair than roses, lo, the flowers of fire!

"The silver pencil of the winter draws." Great line!

LibriVox has multiple recordings of the poem, click here and give a listen.

The Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Jone, on this "Black Friday," at Check It Out.

Photo by Paul J. Morris


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Women of Wednesday--Women on the Mayflower

Currier and Ives print from the Library of Congress collection

In July 1620, just over 100 men, women, and children boarded the Speedwell, a ship which soon proved unseaworthy. On September 6, after abandoning the Speedwell for the Mayflower, they headed off to the land that was later to become the United States of America.

Of those passengers, 30 were female. They were (all ages are approximate):

Mary Allerton (30)
      Mary Allerton (6)
      Remember Allerton (5)

Eleanor Billington (38)

Dorothy Bradford (23)

Mary Brewster (51)

Katherine Carver (unknown, perhaps 40-50)

Mrs. Chilton (60s)
      Mary Chilton (13)

Humility Cooper (1)

Dorothy [servant girl] (unknown)

Sarah Eaton (20)

Mrs. Fuller (unknown)

Elizabeth Hopkins (35)
      Constance Hopkins (14)
      Damaris Hopkins (1)

Mary Martin (35)

Desire Minter (3)

Ellen More (8)
Mary More (3)

Alice Mullins (45)
      Pricilla Mullins (18)

Alice Rigsdale (unknown)

Rose Standish (unknown)

Agnes Tilley (35)

Joan Tilley (54)
      Elizabeth Tilley (13)

Mrs. Tinker (unknown)

Susanna White (unknown)

Elizabeth Winslow (unknown)

The Pilgrims spotted land two months later on November 9. Most people probably think that once land was spotted everyone disembarked and started building Plymouth Plantation. Not so. It wasn't until late December that the men decided to take over an abandoned Wampanoag village. The Mayflower spent four months in Plymouth harbor, finally leaving for England in April 1621. While the men did a bit of exploring, clearing and building, the women were confined to the Mayflower--the cold, dank, stinking, 'tween deck. In December, Dorothy Bradford, accidentally fell off the Mayflower and drowned in the harbor.

Imagine maintaining a "home" on the Mayflower. Keeping the family fed, dressed, spiritually sound, and healthy. Some women even cared for the children of others--several children traveled as wards of other families.

When Sarah Eaton boarded the Mayflower, she was still nursing her infant son, Samuel. At least three women were pregnant on the voyage. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth enroute, to a son who was named Oceanus. Mary Allerton, also gave birth to a son, in December. The child was stillborn.

Life probably seemed unbearable for most, if not all, the women on board. After her baby's stillbirth, Mary didn't survive long.

Neither did most of the women. Look at the list above. All those in purple died during the first winter. When the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in September or October 1621, only four adult women remained.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Mentor Monday--Magazine Samples (And a Raving Librarian)

There was a discussion recently on the "Nonfiction for Kids" listserv, about where to get sample copies of magazines. I thought that perhaps, there are those who don't write nonfiction, who would also be interested in this information.

I work in the library and we have a fairly good collection of magazines for adults, children, and YAs. I'd say probably about 150 titles all together. The library is well-supported, so, for our size we have a nice selection. My knee jerk reaction was--"duh, check your local library." [Editorial note: you'd be amazed how many writers, not to mention normal people, never walk through the front door of their local public libraries. Preposterous!]

In our current economic situation, though, with magazines ceasing publication, and library budgets being slashed, the number of magazines found on library shelves may be diminishing. So then what?

Interlibrary loan (ILL). Again, this requires actually visiting your library, or at least talking to a librarian on the phone. [Note: we don't generally bite.] Even in the state of New Hampshire, where our population is a little over 1.3 million, an active ILL system has been in service for decades.

Ask your librarian if she would get a number of issues of Fill-in-the-Blank Magazine for you to study. I would suggest: ask for a reasonable number, say no more than five; request one or two titles at a time (you can go back again), don't ask for the current issue.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but if no public library within your library's ILL service area carries the title you are looking for, then perhaps you should rethink asking for it. Is the reason no library carries the title because the quality is poor? Is the topic, and by extension the audience, too narrow? You may need to ask yourself, "Do I really want to write for this particular magazine?"

So, where else do you go to find magazines to study? How about large chain bookstores? They may sell children's titles, but be aware, many of these titles are strictly commercial ventures driven by licensed characters to lure children into tv viewing.

Check a magazine's website, you won't get whole issues, but you will get a feel for the quality of the magazine. Save yourself a little work by going to the commercial site, AllYouCanRead, which lists the Top 10 Kids Magazines and includes links. Click around the site of Highlights and you'll find selections from the latest issue. [Note: writing for the web is probably in your future if you want to remain relevant in the world of kids, so, take a look at as many magazine, and kid-centric websites, as you can.]

It's nearly impossible to get into a public school nowadays, if you're not a parent, but, call the school and ask to speak with the librarian/media or information specialist/whatever-your-state's-current-term is for what we used to call "school librarian." She may be able to get permission for you to visit the library and review its magazines.

Do you have a college or university in your area that has a teacher preparation program? Plan to spend an afternoon at the library there. Or, if you are an alumni of a college or university, find out if you have access to online databases that may carry teacher prep information, including magazines for kids.

Which leads me to online databases. Many public libraries also have online magazine databases such as EBSCO and InfoTrac, and, they can be accessed from your home computer, but, you will probably have to visit the library to obtain passwords. Once you have a password, you can look at individual issues of magazines, but even better, you can put in a subject that you're considering writing about and see if the topic has already been covered, and from what angles. There are two major disadvantages to online databases: there is a lot of clicking involved ☺, and you don't get all the illustrations.

Sadly, online database subscriptions are wildly expensive, and thus, individual libraries, and library systems, have been cutting back. Lack of use is often given for choosing to eliminate a database over cutting book money.

You're paying taxes and you're not even using this fabulous resource in your own town? Hurry on down to the library before it starts cutting hours, or even, horror of horrors, closing its door completely. Wow, and this started off as a simple posting about magazine samples!


Friday, November 19, 2010

Poetry Friday

Years ago, when I first started writing for kids, I attended my first SCBW (no I back then) conference. At the end, after the last keynote speaker had spoken, there was a sudden rush of questioning. Where was Jane Yolen?

I sat up in my seat. I knew Jane Yolen. I had been reading her for years in Fantasy and SF magazines. What was she doing here?

Well, it turned out she was giving a market report, something she was known to do at these conferences, and I discovered that Jane not only wrote SF/F but she wrote for kids, too. Heck, she was (and still is) the Queen of Children’s Writing. After the conference, I went home and checked out her books. Boy, was I surprised.

The same thing happened with Margaret Atwood. I’ve read her SF/F books, I knew she was a big name author, but I had no clue she wrote poetry, too, until I accidentally stumbled across the below poem. Seems she is as big in poetry as she in SF/F, perhaps even more so. Actually, she’s big all over the writing world. Heck, she’s the Queen of Canadian Writers!

So here it is, A Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood. And while you read, I shall be googling a few more of the authors I read. Who knows what’ll turn up?

This Is A Photograph Of Me
by Margaret Atwood

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)

For more of Margaret Atwood's poetry go here.
And for more great poetry of all sorts, check out the round up at Random Noodling, hosted by Diane Mayr.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mentor Monday - Know Your Market

Finally, it’s finished! The novel, picture book, poem or nonfiction piece is done. It’s been critiqued and revised a hundred times and is as polished as it can be. It’s time to submit. So how do you increase your chances of receiving an acceptance rather than a rejection?

The fact is, acceptance depends on many variables, and a lot of them are variables writers have no control over. An editor or agent in a bad mood the day she picks up your manuscript can be the death of your baby. An editor or agent who just hates first person stories may not even look past the first “I” in yours. Your submission may fall into the hands of a first reader who rejects something the editor would have loved.

As writers, we have no control over those things. But there are many things we can control and staying on top of them can make all the difference in the world. Before submitting anything, consider the following:

What Are You Submitting?

Define your work. It’s not enough to define it as a middle grade novel. What genre does it fall into? Historical, fantasy, contemporary? Now go a level or two deeper. Is it a humorous fantasy, an adventurous fantasy, an alternate history fantasy? Is it written for upper middle grade or lower middle grade? Is it commercial (usually plot-driven) or literary (usually character-driven?) Let’s say you wrote a commercial humorous historical fantasy for upper middle grade readers. This information is for you, not an editor or agent.

Where Are You Submitting?

The next step is to find someone who wants a commercial humorous historical fantasy written for upper middle-graders. No one is going to list that in their blurb of needs and wants, which is why it’s necessary to study the market. As you research publishing houses, editors and agents, you might list everyone interested in middle grade books then whittle that down to middle grade fantasy. Once you get to that point, start looking at the publishers left on your list.

Head to your local book store or library, or check out for the latest middle-grade fantasies put out by the publishing houses on your list. What kind of fantasy are they? Wizards and dragons? Time travel? Alternate histories? Cross off the publishers who only do wizards and dragons. Now reexamine the list and eliminate anyone who does only lower middle grade books. Of those left, who publishes humorous alternate histories and time travel books? By now, your list is probably down to perhaps ten or so publishers. These are the ideal candidates for your story.

Who Are You Submitting To?

At this point, start checking out individual editors at each house. Choose the books you’ve liked best of those you’ve researched, or those most like your own, and find out who edited them. You can also check out editors on line. Some may have their bios and wish lists posted on their publishing house’s web site. Some may have their own web site or blog. Learn what you can about what they like and don’t like, and give them a ranking on your list.

Why Are You Choosing Her?

Consider your reasons for ranking the editors as you did. Is she number one on your list because her tastes and interests line up with what you have written, or because she looks and sounds like a friendly person on her bio? Does she often purchase the type of book you wrote, or is she just your dream editor or agent? At this point, you may want to change the ranking of the editors or agents you’ve chosen.

And now you’re ready to submit to the ten or so best editors or agents for your book. My suggestion would be to submit to 4-5 at a time. If for some reason you don’t get any nibbles, you have the opportunity to revise before submitting to the next group. If you submit to everyone at once, you immediately use up all opportunities at once.

For most of us, it’s a long road to publication. If you take the proven, well-traveled road, you’ll reach your destination. The shortcuts might get you there, too, but there’s a big difference between ‘might’ and ‘will.’



2011 Children’s Writers and Illustrators’ Market (CWIM)
2011 Writer’s Market
2011 Guide to Literary Agents

On the web - publishers

SCBWI Marketing List Members only access.
Children’s Book Council (CBC)
Colossal Directory of Children’s Publishers Top Left hand column

Query Tracker

And because not everyone can be trusted, be sure to check the Science Fiction Writers of America, Writer Beware site for a list of publishers and agents you should not do business with. In fact, the whole SFWA site is filled with all sorts of goodies that are useful to any writer, whether you write SF/F or not.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Poetry Friday (late): Elegy for walls

All over town, the road crews are busy destroying our stone walls. Well, they would tell you they are improving drainage on the roads (the stone walls are protected by a couple of laws). But the ditching involves backhoes and the walls are scarred by being whacked and nicked with heavy, unfeeling steel. In many places they've covered the walls with 6-8 inches of dirt, which means the poison ivy will grow up and over and through the walls, hastening their downfall. In other places they've dug the ditch right to the base of the wall, which means next spring's frost heaves will topple them forward. It makes me angry to see the hard labor of our ancestors carelessly undermined. But it also puts me in mind of someone else who, although working to repair the old stone walls, did so with less than enthusiastic intent. So today, New England's bard, Robert Frost:

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Transition Generation

I’m using today’s post to offer a tribute to my mother, who died last summer. I hope this is appropriate, not because she was my mother, but because she epitomized a whole generation of American women.

Nancy Elsa Grant was born in the dark early years of the Great Depression. Her mother was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who had grown up in Boston, sharing a bed with her brothers and sisters (seriously – when they were little her mother put the girls in at one end and the boys at the other) and repeatedly moving house in the middle of the night when they couldn’t pay the rent. Her father had been a student a Boston University, on his way to being the first person in his family to earn a college degree, until the economy collapsed.

That first college degree in the family would be earned by my mother, although her original intent was a career in the theater! She earned a scholarship to an acting school in New York City, but the city proved overwhelming to the 17 year old girl from Melrose. The next year she enrolled at Jackson College and graduated as a member of the first coed class at Tufts University. While there she met my father (he had put up a card on a bulletin board, offering rides to campus. Mom always said she only paid for her rides for the first semester.) Like so many women of her generation, Nancy married quickly after graduation, and was pregnant before my father left for his 6 month deployment to the Mediterranean on the U.S.S. Rankin, although they didn’t know it when they said goodbye. The story is that my father befriended the ship’s doctor, and whenever they were in port he would ask “show me someone who is 5, or 6, or however many months pregnant” – so that when he got off the ship in Newport he wouldn’t be shocked by my mother’s (and my) appearance.

Nancy did the whole June Cleaver mom-in-a-housedress thing, making our home a haven for my father and a launch pad for her three children. Her theater background and English Literature major was expressed in a rich environment of books and stories and creative play which is without a doubt why I am a writer today. Then, as the fabric of American suburban culture unwound in the 1960s, my mother joined the Women’s Liberation movement – not the bra-burning protesting part, but the quiet, determined “I am more than just a housewife” part. This was not without some drama in our home, and in her heart. I recall some struggles in the adjusting of expectation, some guilt and some uncertainty: was she being fair to her kids, to her husband? What did she owe to herself? What was she teaching her children, especially her daughters?

Finally Mom went back to school to update her credentials, got her teaching certificate, and started her professional career. It was a very traditional profession, indeed – early childhood education – but it was who she was and she thrived in it. As her own fledglings left the next, Nancy was passing on her love of literature to a couple of dozen children every year and providing a stable and loving space for the children of younger women who did not, or could not, choose to take a decade or more out of their careers to raise their kids. She rode the waves of educational fads, from Look-Say reading to learning-by-osmosis to phonics and back, but all her teaching was “literature-based.” No child should grow up without Goodnight Moon or Bread and Jam for Frances, Mom believed. So many great books, so few story circles!

After 25 years Mom left the classroom. My dad had died, and she felt she wasn’t a safe driver anymore. (We didn’t know yet that she had Parkinsons.) For another ten years she shared my home, cheering me on and encouraging me with my work, reading my manuscripts and my kids’ college essays. Scrabble games were her great joy, especially when we could coerce one of the grandchildren to join us. Always interested in public affairs and current events, she followed the American scene with fascination and exasperation, and was thrilled to cast her vote for President Obama.

As her body failed her, Nancy filled her days with books – old favorites and new, and classic movies, Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan on dvd. The week before she died, she and I enjoyed an afternoon at the New London Barn theater with an outstanding performance of the Pirates of Penzance.  

So here’s to you, Mom, and to the many like you, who grew up in an old world and retired in a new one, who paved the way so your daughters would have more choices than you had, and then helped provide stability to our daughters in a world where change has become the norm! And here’s to the love of words, of books and plays and hymns and all the richness of human experience they bring to our lives.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mentor Monday: Back to Basics

I'm dragging something out of my old stash today, because I've got this book deadline . . . . but the selection is not entirely random. Over the weekend I was involved in the same basic discussion in several very different contexts. The subject was, essentially, kick-starting. How do I get back to and/or improve my [fill in the blank - writing, decluttering, diet, exercise regimen  etc, etc]?

So when I found this piece about "practicing the fundamentals," it seemed particularly appropriate. Plus it's dreary, wet and cold outside, so thinking about baseball and spring is a pleasant distraction.

And so, without further ado, we bring you back to . . . . February 16, 2005:

The Red Sox just won the World Series (oh my, doesn’t that sound lovely?). Now they’re in Fort Myers, stretching and running, tossing and catching, hitting off a tee, scooping grounders and shagging flies. They’re doing exactly what high school players and little leaguers are doing. Why? Surely they already know how to do all those things?

Spring training is all about conditioning and fundamentals. Like baseball players, writers need to stay in shape, keep our skills sharp, and practice. Here, then, are some recommendations for your Spring Training regimen:

Training camp: Working in a different environment focuses your brain and triggers new thought patterns. Change-of-scenery plans range from taking your notebook (spiral or computer) to a coffee shop or the library to renting a room at a business-friendly hotel (with real desks) for a weekend. If you live near a college, you may be able to reserve a study carrel after exams are over. Packing yourself up and going somewhere for the express purpose of working on your writing is a great stimulus.

Conditioning: There are exercises and stretches we should all be doing to prevent carpal tunnel and swan neck, but the conditioning I’m talking about here is of your mental writing muscles and heart. Writing exercises include the Morning Pages made famous by The Artist’s Way and the writing prompts of the Stop, Look, Write! books. [Note from 2010: Since I wrote this in 2005 I have taught a class using Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which I highly recommend.] Most familiar of all is the journal. Some people swear that exercises only work if the writer knows they’re not going to be read by anyone. Some go so far as to ceremoniously burn their morning pages every day. Others think writing letters or even emails qualifies as an exercise.

I think the key ingredient in an exercise is that you are writing just for the sake of writing: not for an editor, not for a sale, not to finish your poem or make your deadline. I heard a wise editor compare writing exercises to a musician’s scales: you do it because it’s how you warm up, and because you can never over-practice the basics. With that in mind, the exercise can be a discipline that requires you to write a set number of minutes or pages, regardless of content. Or it can be writing that serves some other purpose (letters or journals) so long as their main function is to prime your writing pump.

A different kind of exercise is the writing equivalent of those fielding drills and batting practice. These are assignments you design (or adapt from books or classes) to teach yourself something: Write a devotional that uses no “religious” language. Write a conversation among three people whose voices are distinct enough that you don’t need speaker tags to tell them apart. Describe a sunrise to a blind person. Others provide editing and revising practice: take a manuscript you think is finished, and cut it by 20%. Retell your story from a different character’s point of view. Convert your poem to prose. Each of these artificial projects forces us to use consciously the skills we want to be using unconsciously whenever we write. The practice will pay off when we make that double-play look effortless, or knock one out of the park come play-off time.

Spring Training is in full swing. Opening day is just a month away. Will you be ready?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some revising to get to!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Hay Rake

The Hay Rake

One evening I stopped by the field to watch the hay rake
drawn toward me by two black, tall, ponderous horses
who stepped like conquerors over the fallen oat stalks,
light-shot dust at their heels, long shadows before them.
At the ditch the driver turned back in a wide arc,
the off-horse scrambling, the near-horse pivoting neatly.
The big side-delivery rake came about with a shriek—
its tines were crashing, the iron-bound tongue groaned aloud—
then, Hup, Diamond! Hup, Duke! and they set off west,
trace-deep in dust, going straight into the low sun.

The clangor grew faint, distance and light consumed them;
a fiery chariot rolled away in a cloud of gold
and faded slowly, brightness dying into brightness.
The groaning iron, the prophesying wheels,
the mighty horses with their necks like storms—
all disappeared; nothing was left but a track
of dust that climbed like smoke up the evening wind. 

                     -- Kate Barnes

Today, everyone's hanging out, reciting poetry, and drinking coffee over at Teaching Authors. Stop on by!

I found the photo above over at Marona Photography. Check out their other awesome images here.