Friday, August 31, 2012

Poetry Friday--Remembering Neil Armstrong

I am old enough to remember sitting in front of the television at my parents' home with half the people of the world simultaneously watching the moon landing from their homes. These shared experiences are not nearly as common in the era of personal electronic devices.

Neil Armtrong belonged to another time, one in which we shared common experiences and common goals, sadly, both Neil Armstong, and that America, appear to be gone. The implication that Armstrong "appears to be gone" and is not really gone, comes from an idea I have that he is now among the stars. Unfortunately, if NASA loses funding, continuing the spirit and legacy of Armstrong may be an impossibility.

Sylvia is hosting the Poetry Friday Round-Up today at Poetry for Children. Have a happy Labor Day weekend.

Please note: if you click on the image above, it will open larger in another screen for easier reading.

Photo courtesy ESA/NASA; manipulated by Diane Mayr.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Women of Wednesday – Writing Mentors

 Thinking about book recommendations for writers on Monday got me thinking about mentors -  the wonderful writers who have chosen to be mentors to generations of children's book writers – and they are, it seems, disproportionately female.

So here’s a completely biased, totally non-exhaustive list, a thank-you to a few wonderful women:

I think of Mary Mapes Dodge as the prototype of these wonderful mentors. She began working as an editor in 1861 and saw her most famous and beloved book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, published in 1865. A few years later she became the editor of a new, national magazine specifically for children, St. Nicholas. Her vision of stories for children and her encouragement of writers and illustrators, including Louisa May Alcott, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Frank Baum made an incalculable contribution to the newborn industry.

Barbara Seuling For many of us, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get it Published was our introduction to the possibilities of writing for children. Barbara has written numerous books but she started on the editorial side of the desk and brought those insights to her instruction for aspiring children’s writers.

Jane Yolen  joined Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver in the earliest days of the Society of Children’s Book Writers (now “and Illustrators”). For more than four decades, the organization has mentored and instructed hundreds of writers, blazing trails through the mysterious world of children’s publishing. Steve and Lin are the Founders of SCBWI but Jane is its godmother – the successful working writer who opened her storehouse to generations of followers despite the inevitable flood of inquiries (when she took as her email address an awful lot of us thought it was an imposter).

Verla Kay’s story rings familiar to many children’s writers, beginning with the assortment of jobs that she juggled while mothering a houseful of small children and the correspondence course with the Institute of Children’s Literature. Her freelance careers began with magazine sales and broke into book publishing when a manuscript was discovered in the slush pile. Numerous children’s books, including several award-winners, now come up when you search for Verla’s name, but many, many writers will tell you Verla’s legacy is the community she built through the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Chat Board, which has logged over 200,000 messages since the fall of 2003.

I’d love to learn about your mentors, whether they helped you in print or in person. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mentor Monday – the industry’s a-changin’

When I first started writing for children, I went through several years of self-education. This is appropriate, by the way: what makes anyone think they can enter any profession, including writing for children, without doing any professional training? Just because someone read books as a child, or reads to their children now, does not mean they can create good children’s books.

My self-education consisted mainly of four parts, and while the industry has changed, these basic steps have not:

1) Practice, practice, practice. This should be obvious. You get better at writing the same way you get better at playing the piano or throwing a baseball. The main difference is, if you make mistakes playing the piano or throwing the baseball, you know it right away. If your writing is subpar, you may not know it, and you may continue to make the same mistakes. So:

2) a critique group is essential. If the first one you try isn't a good match for you, keep trying until you find one.

3) Conference, conference, conference. Especially in the first years of your career, you can learn so much by attending workshops and conferences. Take advantage of anything in your area – even if they’re not specifically for children’s writers – because good writing techniques translate from genre to genre. And join SCBWI and your local chapter, so you’ll know when there are children’s writers conferences near you, and also learn from their terrific newsletters. (And they can help you find a critique group.) You want to be a professional? SCWBI is your professional organization.

4) Read, read, read. This is critical and has two distinct pieces.

 A )You must read lots and lots of children’s books, particularly the kinds of books you want to write (picture book non-fiction? Middle-grade mysteries? YA romance?) and particularly the most current examples you can find. The classics are wonderful but many, many of the books you loved as a child (assuming you are not still a child) would simply NOT BE PUBLISHED if they were submitted today. The industry has changed.

B) Read how-to books. Lots of excellent children’s writers have shared their expertise in books, and you will learn something from every single one. But – the industry has changed. Recently as I have been working on re-starting my writing career after a long hiatus, I realized that all the “how-to” books on my shelf were 25-30 years old. (even Olga Litowinsky’s It’s a Bunny Eat Bunny World, which was all about how the industry has changed, is 12 years old – and they’ve been 12 dramatic years in the publishing business!) So while Jane Yolen’s Writing Books for Children and Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children's Book and Get it Published will always have a treasured place in my collection, I went looking for some newer instruction. Here are my recommendations for updating your writer’s library (obviously not an exclusive list!):

Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books: a tremendously useful guide (but the 3rd edition is 5 years old now, I wonder if he’s doing an update?) Harold also maintains a very useful website with lot of good articles about the process and the industry.

Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: This is a really instructive little book, with lots of theory and reasons-why: really a course in writing: and most of the points are applicable to any level of children’s book writing.

Kate Messner’s  Real Revision: Kate designed this book to be used by classroom teachers but the “how to” of revision are so clearly presented that it is a book which can be tremendously useful for beginning professional writers as well (in fact, I think the way she de-mystifies the revision process makes this book useful even for someone who has been writing and revising for decades).

Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight: this is a treat, a look at revision through the eyes of an editor. The editor’s job, of course, is to take the manuscript that you thought was absolutely PERFECT at the time you put it into the mail, and find ways to help you make it even better. Cheryl’s observations and examples are challenging but super-helpful as you try to get the manuscript to that “I think it’s ready” state.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Poetry Friday: dying is fine)but Death . . .

dying is fine)but Death...
cause dying is
perfectly natural;perfectly
it mildly lively(but
is strictly
& artificial &


Dori is hosting over at Dori Reads. Get on over there and read something . . . 

For Neal and Ree.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker

I hated that quote when I was a myopic teenager.  Now, as a myopic member of AARP, I appreciate the joke much more.  The line is one of hundreds of Dorothy Parker’s witticisms.

Parker was born 119 years ago today.  Her birth name was Rothschild.  Her professional name came from her first husband, Edwin Parker.

Dorothy began working in the New York magazine world in 1914, first at Vogue and then Vanity Fair.  There she became a well-known theater critic.  She could be tough:

She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” (Speaking of Katherine Hepburn).

In 1919, Dorothy and several other writers began to meet for lunch every day at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. There was no set purpose to the lunches and it’s said the first one occurred because of a practical joke. The group had such a wonderful time that they decided to meet daily. They jokingly called themselves “The Board” and, later, “The Vicious Circle.”  The lasting name for the group, “The Algonquin Round Table” came about after a cartoonist lampooned them in a caricature. The group became well-known when they began to quote each other’s quips in their newspaper and magazine columns.

Dorothy’s writing included plays, short stories, and movie scripts.  In 1928 she divorced Edwin Parker. She lived for some time in Hollywood. The years following included a rough patch of affairs, alcoholism, at least one abortion, depression, and attempted suicide.

“I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.”

During the same period, however, Parker became an activist.  She protested the trial and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. In the 1940s she became greatly involved in the cause of Civil Rights and helped to start the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. She was head of the Spanish Children’s Relief committee. By the 1950s, she’d been blacklisted as a Communist.

Her second husband, Alan Campbell, died in 1963 and Dorothy returned to New York.  She died in 1967 and left her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation.  After Dr. King’s assassination, the estate passed to the NAACP.  The organization prepared a memorial garden for her remains and a plaque that reads: “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker…humorist, writer, critic.  Defender of human and civil rights.  For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust.”  This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people…”

                                                                                    Dorothy Parker                                                         

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mentor Monday: Three Cheers for the Sidekick!

What’s Harry Potter without Ron Weasley? What’s Katniss Everdeen without Peeta? For that matter, what’s Peter Pan without Wendy?

The secondary or minor character plays an important role in a story. His/her appearance allows the protagonist the opportunity to share the problem that needs solving with a peer. The sharing might be in the form of conversation between the two characters or it might be the assistance provided by the sidekick. Either method gives the reader an inside look at what’s going on in the protagonist’s head by showing, not telling.

There are all kind of secondary characters. Some appear briefly (the person at the cash register adding up the protagonist’s grocery bill). Some become an intricate and necessary part of the story. They will not only provide help, they may do the opposite: temporarily thwart the protagonist’s progress.

This type of secondary character—the sidekick—needs to be nearly as fully developed as the main character. His/her back story needs to explain the reason the sidekick behaves the way he/she does.

In an intense story, the sidekick can have another job: to provide comedic relief. Ron Weasley does so with his hand-me-down clothes, his wand that doesn’t work quite as well, his less-than-perfect pet. But Ron is loyal, loyal, loyal to Harry and in the end, his loyalty pays off. He gets the girl.

Having your sidekick be the narrator of the story adds an interesting component. The point of view might be third person omniscient, but may feel closer to first person. We feel like the secondary character has invited us to a front row seat. We are about as close to the action as we can get without being in the main character’s head.

The secondary character can help to explain the protagonist’s motivation. Conversely, he may provide stumbling blocks that the main character must overcome. Say your protagonist is an impulsive person. The sidekick in this case may serve as the voice of reason. He/she may try to stop the main character from over-reacting.

Sometimes, the secondary character is so interesting that he/she graduates to main character in the next book. Beezus and Ramona begat the Ramona books. Anastasia Krupnick’s little brother Sam soon starred in All About Sam and three other “Sam” books followed. Neither of these characters took over the first books, but their personalities left readers wanting more.

The fact that Ron comes from a large, loving family is important in two respects. He is used to welcoming others into his world but being best friends with the infamous Harry Potter allows him to stand out when he’d otherwise just be another middle child. Peeta, we learn, has always had a crush on Katniss. Because we know that information, we look at his early alliance with some of the other tributes as shrewdness, not deceit.  Peter Pan’s story is not interesting unless he can introduce his island to someone who has never seen it before.

Look at your work in progress and examine what you’ve revealed about your secondary characters. If the character is a sidekick, how much back story have you revealed about him/her? Remember to provide enough information so that the reader connects with the sidekick as well as the protagonist.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Poetry Friday: Pity the Beautiful

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.
              --  Dana Gioia

PF is being hosted here!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Women of Wednesday - Linda Schele: Decoding the Maya


In 1968, Linda Schele received her M.F.A at the University of Cincinnati.  She also married her husband David.  Her plan was to teach studio art, but a funny thing happened on her way to her chosen profession.  In 1970, her husband was asked to go to Yucatan in Mexico and take photographs of Mayan ruins.  Linda went with him, and her life turned in an entirely different direction.

"I once was a fair to middling painter,” she said, “who went on a Christmas trip to Mexico and came back an art historian and a Mayanist."

She went on to become world famous and a leading authority in her new field.

Linda’s specialty was decoding Mayan hieroglyphics, or ‘glyphs.’  Nobody had had much luck deciphering them.  Over the years, people had figured out the Mayan number and calendar systems, but how to translate Mayan glyphs into English words was still a mystery.  When Linda managed to decipher a good part of a long list of Palenque kings, it brought new excitement and interest to the task.

By the mid ‘70’s, Linda had deciphered many more of the Mayan glyphs and was writing and publishing papers.  She went back to school and earned a Ph.D in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas.  Her Dissertation “Mayan Glyphs: The Verbs,” was considered groundbreaking and won the “Most Creative and Innovative Project in Professional and Scholarly Publication" award, given by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers.

There she was, a newcomer in the field, and Mayanists who had been at it much longer were looking to her for new ideas and information, which was just fine with Linda.  She believed in collaboration and in sharing knowledge and ideas.  As a graduate student in 1977, she founded the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop in Texas, to do just that. Today, it’s known as the Maya Meetings at Texas.

Linda soon became the go-to-gal when anyone needed an expert on the Maya.  She appeared on Discovery, National Geographic, PBS, BBC and A&E, and even appeared before Nasa to give them her thoughts on the importance of understanding another world view.  She brought the Mayans to life in a way no one had before. 

Her accomplishments as a Mayanist would fill pages.  She taught, gave interviews, chaired committees, wrote papers, mapped cities, mentored students, and even acted as a tour guide at some Mayan sites.  She held workshops for the public and taught them how to read Mayan glyphs, and she worked with modern Maya people to better understand them and their ancestors and, again, she shared her knowledge with them to give them back a bit of their own history.
Linda was only 56 when she died in 1998 of Pancreatic cancer, so she didn’t have a lot of time, but she left an immense body of work and a multitude of students to carry on.  Perhaps someday we'll finally learn why all those Mayan cities were abandoned, and why they were so into human sacrifice, and if that fellow in that famous glyph is really sitting in a spaceship. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mentor Monday - Figurative Language

A lot of people think of figurative language – metaphor, simile, analogy, hyperbole, allusion, personification – as literary, something for the hoity-toity reader and writer. But if you think about it, figurative language is the language most people use, regardless of their educational background. How many times, when describing something to a friend, have you said, “It was like . . . ." And what about those clichés we all use?

Mary flew off the handle.
The rules were set in stone.
Sue spoke in a drawl as slow as molasses.
John ran to the store as quick as lightning.

The list could go on and on, there are so many. What they have in common is they all use figurative language. At one time, they were fresh and original. They became clichés because they work so well. Originally, they made a statement by bringing an image to mind rather than burdening the listener, or reader, with a bunch of literal explanation.

If you’ve seen a flash of lightning, you know how quick it comes and goes, so you can understand instantly just how fast John ran. It’s the image of the lightning flash that brings that understanding. When someone says Tom was as cold as ice, we understand immediately what the person is saying about Tom. He doesn’t have to explain that Tom is unemotional and distant and never talks about his feelings, that he doesn’t care about other people and is incapable of love. We get all that in six words.

The reason figurative language works so well is because images are processed and understood instantaneously, whereas language takes some figuring out. Smile at an infant and he’ll smile back. Frown at him, and he’ll cry. Newly-born and without words, he learns, knows, and understands those images almost immediately. It will be years before he can explain them. An 18 month old child cannot tell you the rules of patty-cake, but she certainly understands them. Two adults, each speaking a different language, will immediately resort to images to communicate with each other. Images are easier than language. That is why a picture is worth a thousand words. That is why we are told to show, don’t tell.

Knowing that, it makes sense to incorporate figurative language – language that creates images in the mind’s eye - into your writing. It helps the reader get things faster and easier, and makes a more lasting impression. Your story will stay with the reader longer if they ‘see’ what is happening, rather than trying to interpret your words.

Of course, when you use figurative language, you want to come up with your own, newer ideas, rather than using old clichés. So, with that in mind, let’s look at similes, metaphors, and analogies. All three are similar in that they compare things, but each does it a little differently.


A simile says something is like something else, and will often use the words ‘like,’ or ‘as.’

Mary’s smile was like a ray of sunlight.
John skulked through the forest as silent as a snake.

You do have to be careful that your simile can’t be taken literally. For instance, if I was writing fantasy or SF and I wrote – Mary beamed like a ray of sunlight. - a reader might wonder if Mary was actually lighting up. In that case, my simile wouldn’t work, but in any other kind of story, the simile would be clear and obvious.


Metaphors are a bit different in that they don’t say one thing is ‘like’ another. Metaphors actually turn one thing into something else.

My pole dangles loosely in my hand as the river ripples past, a honey-colored ribbon wending its way to the sea.

The river has been turned into a ribbon. I could just as easily have said the river rippled past ‘like’ a honey-colored ribbon, and would then have had a simile instead of a metaphor, that’s how close similes and metaphors are to each other. How do you know which to use? It comes down to nuance – the rhythm of the sentence, the slight difference in meaning, the way the words you use sound together. Whether you create a simile or a metaphor is up to you.

In a sustained metaphor, you simply take the metaphor a bit further by continuing to describe the river as a ribbon.

My pole dangles loosely in my hand as the river ripples past, a honey-colored ribbon wending its way to the sea. It twists and turns, tying the landscape into a neat, square package.

You could go on and on as long as you can make the metaphor work. But be careful. The further you take the metaphor, the less impact it tends to have. It can easily turn into overkill and purple prose.

A mixed metaphor is a metaphor gone bad. It’s saying the river was a ribbon and then going on and saying the ribbon was doing something a ribbon would never do. Or it might compare that ribbon to something totally unrelated.

My pole dangles loosely in my hand as the river ripples past, a honey-colored ribbon glowing with the fire of a burning furnace.

The metaphor doesn’t work because I turned my river into a ribbon, and then described the color, rather than the ribbon. I didn’t describe the thing I turned my river into. And a fiery furnace has nothing to do with a river or ribbon. I’ve created two metaphors that don’t relate. I’m comparing apples and oranges.


Analogy is very much like simile and metaphor, and is really just another form of a sustained metaphor. While the sustained metaphor carries on the idea of a river being like a ribbon, it’s a poetical comparison, a way to describe something. The analogy tends to lean toward explanation, to making something clear by comparing it to something else. Here are two excerpts from the same story where I used analogy.

The doctor is trying to explain mental illness to an 11 year old.

“The mentally ill are a bit like the alligator,” Dr. Wentworth said. “Ugly, difficult, and unpredictable. Some are even prone to snap.”

In the next scene, the MC has to decide what kind of relationship she wants to have with her mentally unstable mother. The Dr. is speaking.

“Do you love that old antique vase enough to pick up the pieces and glue it back together? Or, if some pieces are missing, do you value it enough to keep it anyway? Perhaps you’ll take it to a shop where they specialize in fixing things like that, or maybe you’ll stuff it in a closet on some dusty shelf where you’ll never have to look at it again. Perhaps it will have simply lost its luster and you will sweep it up and throw it away.”

The Doctor is comparing the MC’s unstable mother to a broken vase in order to help her understand her options. The point of figurative language is to help the reader see what you are saying, to make your story easier to understand. Take a look through some of your manuscripts with an eye toward the visual, and turn those words that are just telling the reader something into images she can see in her mind.

And remember, writing a story isn’t an English class and there are no tests. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember all the terms mentioned here. It doesn’t matter if you’re not sure which is a simile and which is a metaphor. What matters is that you understand how to use them, and then, actually use them. It’s like patty-cake. You don’t have to know how to explain it, you just have to understand how to play.

Next time, we’ll look at allusion, personification, and hyperbole.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Poetry Friday--Poetry In Unexpected Places

Don't you love coming upon a line of poetry in spray paint on an underpass? Or seeing a short poem on a subway? Part of the delight is in the unexpectedness.

I've posted before on the topic on my library blog, Kurious Kitty's Kurio Kabinet, you can revisit the 2009 post here where you'll find mention of poetry in public toilets among other places!

In that post I didn't mention graveyards! Often a verse will be carved at the bottom of an old headstone. Sometimes you have to get right down on all fours to read it, but it's worth the resultant dirty knees. Here in New England where we have centuries' old graveyards, it may be easier to find snippets of poetry, but no matter where you live enjoy a stroll through an old graveyard, if for nothing else but to relax in the peace of the place.

Here's a poem by Aphra Behn, who lived during the 1600s:

Epitaph on the Tombstone of a Child, the Last of Seven that Died Before

This Little, Silent, Gloomy Monument,
Contains all that was sweet and innocent;
The softest pratler that e'er found a Tongue,
His Voice was Musick and his Words a Song;
Which now each List'ning Angel smiling hears,
Such pretty Harmonies compose the Spheres;
Wanton as unfledg'd Cupids, ere their Charms
Has learn'd the little arts of doing harms;
Fair as young Cherubins, as soft and kind,
And tho translated could not be refin'd;
The Seventh dear pledge the Nuptial Joys had given,
Toil'd here on Earth, retir'd to rest in Heaven;
Where they the shining Host of Angels fill,
Spread their gay wings before the Throne, and smile.

I hope, dear reader, that you don't think me morbid. I find poems on gravestones to be a sign of a great love for the departed left for all of us to enjoy.

Today's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being held at Violet Nesdoly / poems.

Photo by danmachold.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Margaret Abbott, American Olympian

Continuing with the Olympic theme, I thought about the numerous Olympians we have profiled in the America’s Notable Women series. And I wondered who the first woman was to represent the United States in the Olympic games. Turns out to be an unusual story – not one of years of training, overcoming discrimination, or even athletic passion. It is, rather, very much a tale of its time.

The first modern Olympics, Athens 1896, did not include any women. Pierre de Coubertin, the French historian who lobbied for and organized the games, reasoned that since women did not participate (nor even attend) the Ancient Olympics, it would be appropriate to exclude women from the Modern Games as well. (Actually, there are records of women winners in the Ancient Games: like Ann Romney, they were the owners of horses competing in the equestrian events.)

The 1900 Olympics were held in Paris as part of the general celebrations of the 1900 World’s Fair. The games, like the Fair, ran from May to October, and, as an adjunct to the Fair, were more like a collection of athletic exhibitions than a unified event. Several of these exhibitions were of women’s sports: Lawn tennis, golf and croquet (and at least one woman sailed in a mixed yacht crew for Switzerland).

Margaret Abbott was a Chicago socialite living in Paris with her mother for a year of study of art. In October, both mother and daughter entered a nine-hole golf tournament. Golf had become the rage among high society people in Chicago in the 1890s when Charles MacDonald sent back to Scotland for a few sets of clubs and introduced the game to the United States in Wheaton, Illinois. The other competitors in the women’s tournament were also socialites, both American and French: golf was considered an appropriate game for ladies, as it provided for fresh air and exercise without requiring either revealing clothing or unbecoming perspiration.

Margaret won the 1900 Paris tournament with a score of 47, and received an antique bowl (with gold decoration) as her prize. The second and third place winners were also Americans. (Mrs. Abbott came in ninth.) It is very likely that the participants in the tournament did not realize the match was considered part of the Olympic Games; there is evidence that even some of the track-and-field participants considered their events part of the Centennial Exhibition but not “Olympic.” Margaret went on to win another tournament in France that year before returning to the United States, where she married the humorist writer Finley Peter Dunne in New York City. The Dunnes remained in New York and Margaret (and her four children) continued to play golf, albeit not competitively.

In the early 1970s, as the Women’s Movement and Title IX brought attention to women’s participation in sports, Paula Welch at the University of Florida began to research the question of female Olympians, and discovered Margaret’s story. In 1996, at the centennial celebration of the Games in Atlanta, Margaret was included in the program feature on the athletes of the 1900 Games.

This year, for the first time (and only because of pressure from the IOC), every country participating in the Olympic Games sent at least one woman athlete.

Golf has never again been included in the Olympic Games, so Margaret Abbott remains the only winner of a gold medal in women’s golf.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reviewing the Elements of Story with the help of the Olympics

In this week when so many of us have been watching and reading about the Olympic games I’ve been struck by the way the coverage captures our interest by embedding individual stories into the larger story that is the Games. To be honest, I started thinking about this when someone pointed out that NBC has done much less of this than ABC used to do, recalling all those lovely little vignettes we used to see of some athlete’s tiny little village in Finland or Ethiopia or Trinidad and Tobago, which in these games you might not know are even competing unless you catch sight of their uniform in a track heat. And yes, I realized, I do miss that.

Each of those little, personal stories, compressed into a couple of minutes of tape, contained all of the essential elements of Story. There was, first and foremost, the main character, the protagonist, our hero: the athlete who, by virtue of being in the Olympics, was clearly different from other people. These folks we still see, obviously, generally in interviews. The stories, however, almost always include other, secondary characters – family members, friends, teammates and opponents. Each added flavor and interest and insight into the main character. Occasionally these are mentioned, this year, and this piques my curiosity. I miss them.

The next element of story which I find myself missing is setting. It’s probably my particular interest but I loved the peek into the lives of these athletes “back home,” all the more so when their homes were very different from my own. I loved seeing little Kenyan kids running miles up and down mountainsides to get to school, or elite Swiss skiers whose childhood homes seemed straight out of Heidi. Like the background in a painting, setting isn’t just pretty (or ugly), it informs the viewer/reader just as it shaped the character.

The plot of the Olympians’ stories might seem to be obvious and repetitious, and the conflicts obvious, but of course no one’s story is ever exactly like anyone elses, and a skillful storyteller builds the plot slowly, highlighting first one obstacle, letting us see the character overcome or be stymied by it, and then focusing on another, building to the climax of the tale (in this case, the climax is always the event you are about to watch). And the conflicts are not simply against other athletes: all the classic conflicts are possible and most good stories (pacem your high school English teacher) involve more than one: not simply “man versus man” but also versus the elements, versus society, and of course, within herself. We have see a couple of these this year, as there are some athletes who’ve overcome astounding obstacles to reach this level, but there must be thousands of good plot lines going unnoticed in these Games.

The final essential element of plot is, of course, what the Games are all about: resolution, what happens in the end? Someone wins, someone loses. There are cheers and there are tears. For writers, these are often the most difficult bits of the story – describe the resolution in a satisfying way, and then get out. For television, of course, this part is easy – they just go to the commercial. After the break, another character, another climax. Stay tuned.
And we do. Because it’s the Olympics. But I do wish that the next time around, they’d bring back the storytellers.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Poetry Friday--"In the Garden"

Here for your reading pleasure is a poem by Eavan Boland. I will offer it unadorned for it needs no explanations or comments!
In the Garden

Let’s go out now
before the morning
gets warm.
Get your bicycle,

your teddy bear--
the one that’s penny-colored
like your hair--
and come.

I want to show you
I don’t exactly know.
We’ll find out.

It’s our turn
in this garden,
by this light,
among the snails

and daisies--
one so slow
and one so closed--
to learn.

I could show you things:
how the poplar root
is pushing through,
how your apple tree is doing,

how daisies
shut like traps.
But you’re happy
as it is

and innocence
that until this
was just
an abstract water,

welling elsewhere
to refresh,
is risen here
my daughter:

before the dew,
before the bloom
the snail was here.
The whole morning is his loom

and this is truth,
this is brute grace
as only instinct knows
how to live it:

turn to me
your little face.
It shows a trace still,
an inkling of it.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up can be found On the Way to Somewhere...


Photo © Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Women of Wednesday: The Future Olympians

The Write Sisters have written profiles of many women of accomplishment. The America’s Notable Women series always includes stories of Olympic athletes. We’ve profiled such women as  gymnast Nastia Liukin, distance runner Lynn Jennings, swimmer Jenny Thompson, and skier Laurie Stephens.

As I write this, swimmer Elizabeth Beisel is in London participating in her second Olympic Games. She will be featured in our upcoming book on Rhode Island women. Yesterday, Elizabeth took the silver medal in the women’s 400 Individual Medley. So, before the book goes to press, we’ll be adding that information to her timeline. The 400 isn’t Elizabeth’s only competition in the XXX Olympiad. We may be editing her profile quite a bit before the end of the competitions.

When Elizabeth went to Bejing in 2008, she was only 15 years old. She turned 16 on her way back from China. Watching her last night and thinking about how young she was when she competed in her first Olympics got me thinking about the other little girls whose names we don’t yet know but who will be going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Those little girls are probably watching their favorite athletes compete this week. They are watching in between swim lessons, and gymnastics lessons, and track practice. They are eating their meals in the car while they commute to the gym or the pool and in the fall they’ll do their homework on the road. They’ll get up early to swim before school starts or stay after school to jump hurdles.

They will tie their hair back in ponytails and keep their fingernails short. And based on the stories of the women we’ve already profiled, I’m betting they’ll belong to clubs, make time for friends, and keep their grades up so that they get into good colleges. They can do all that stuff because they have self-discipline in spades. And passion. And energy. And the support of grownups who are willing to help them accomplish Olympic dreams.
And when the running and swimming, and practice on the balance beam is all over, they will—like the women athletes who came before them—do some kind of good in the world. They’ll start mentoring programs like track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee or work in medicine like skater Tenley Albright. Because, when it’s time to stop competing, a woman’s gotta do something with all that tenacity, and energy, and self-discipline.

So here's to our Women of Wednesday: our future Olympians.