Friday, November 30, 2012

Poetry Friday--"To the Terrestrial Globe"

To the Terrestrial Globe
by a Miserable Wretch

Roll on, thou ball, roll on!
Through pathless realms of Space
        Roll on!
What though I'm in a sorry case?
What though I cannot meet my bills?
What though I suffer toothache's ills?
What though I swallow countless pills?
    Never you mind!
        Roll on!

Roll on, thou ball, roll on!
Through seas of inky air
        Roll on!
It's true I've got no shirts to wear;
It's true my butcher's bill is due;
It's true my prospects all look blue--
But don't let that unsettle you!
    Never you mind!
        Roll on!

                                      [It rolls on.]

W. S. Gilbert a.k.a. the Miserable Wretch
There's something comforting about knowing the Earth will continue to "roll on" despite us, because sometimes it seems we're doing our damnedest to destroy her. I only hope that while continuing to roll, she'll also heal.

This week's Round-Up is taking place at The Poem Farm!


Image showing the Arctic and high latitudes by Norman Kuring, courtesy NASA.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Right Verb

In my mind, verbs are the words that make stories exciting and real.  Taking the time to find the right ones can be the difference between a good story and a great one.
Verbs are action words.  If you can do it - walk, run, sing, dance - it’s a verb.  And then there are those other verbs am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had.  In my day, we called them irregular verbs or helping verbs.  They are states of being, as opposed to actions, and will do almost nothing for you.  Avoid them if you can.

So let’s look at what choosing the right verb can do for you.
John Smith went to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and John suddenly had the feeling that he was going to be lucky today.

This example is filled with those ‘other’ verbs, the irregular kind you don’t want to use.  
John Smith went to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon.

The verb here is went, which tells us – John went.  But that’s all it tells us.  It’s vague and uninteresting.  So how did John really go?  Did he skip, run, jog, stroll?  Using any of those verbs will not only tell you how John went, they also say something about his state of mind, the kind of mood he’s in.  Changing one word has just added more to this scenario.
The sun was shining and the birds were singing, and John suddenly had the feeling that he was going to be lucky today.

Here are all those irregular verbs that don’t do anything but make the sentence passive and excessively long.  Simply cut the irregular verbs and change the ‘ing’ verbs to ‘ed’ verbs.
The sun shone, the birds sang, and John suddenly felt lucky.

The sentence has been shortened by half, the writing is cleaner and smoother to read, it’s active instead of passive, and because John is no longer ‘going to be,’ lucky, (which doesn’t tell us when, which is why we need ‘today’) we can even cut ‘today,’ because today is now implied.
Which leaves us with

John Smith strolled to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon.  The sun shone, the birds sang, and John suddenly felt lucky.
Now let’s suppose we’re in the middle of an action scene.  John, it seems, was not as lucky as he thought he’d be.

John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him.  Two men entered, guns in hand.  They wore ski masks that covered their faces.  They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.
The above example is informative, but that’s about it.

John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him.
The verb gave is fine here.  John is just handing over some money that isn’t at all important.  But if you wanted to show us a bit of John’s personality, he might slap it on the counter, or count it coin by coin into the clerk’s hand.  The verb opened, however, is too tame for the situation.  Opened says anybody might be coming in, and there is no hint of danger.  But if we change opened to an adverb and choose a better verb—the door burst, or crashed, or banged open—it  makes the moment a bit bigger, it creates suspense, and the reader knows something is about to happen.

He turned.
If the door only opens, then turning is fine.  It fits the situation.  But if we change opened to something stronger, then John’s reaction should be stronger, too.  He might spin around.

Two men entered, guns in hand. 
Entered, like the verb open, isn’t strong enough to suit the situation.  These guys are robbers and the door just burst open.  They might charge, or rush, or barge in.  If they are clumsy and stupid, they might stumble in.  If they are reluctant robbers, they might inch in.  Again, choosing the right verb will not only tell the reader what someone did, it can also tell us something about that individual.  And while ‘guns’ is not a verb, the same holds true for nouns, so we night change ‘guns’ to a specific type of gun.  An AK47 says one thing about your robbers, a Derringer says another.

We might also replace ‘in hand.’  Perhaps their guns are leveled, or threatening.  Either verb makes the scene feel more dangerous.
 They wore ski masks that covered their faces.

Here we have two verbs that basically say the same thing and neither is all that interesting.  We could say, ‘Ski masks hid their faces,’ which lends a bit of mystery to the scene.
They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.

Pointed isn’t bad, but a gun pointed at your face doesn’t seem as dangerous as a gun aimed at your face.  Nuance comes into play here.  Pointed is threatening.  The gun may, or may not, be fired.  Aimed, however, is one step closer.  It gives the sense that the gun is about to be fired.  Or, instead of just pointing their guns, the robbers might nudge or shove John with them.
So now, we might have a paragraph that reads like this –

John gave his money to the clerk and the door burst open behind him.  He spun around.  Two men charged in, AK47’s threatening.  Ski masks hid their faces.  They aimed their guns at John and the clerk.
instead of like this -

John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him.  He turned.  Two men entered, guns in hand.  They wore ski masks that covered their faces.  They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.
Now imagine both versions sitting in a slush pile.  An editor has to decide which one to purchase.  The two scenarios are the same.  The only difference is the few words we changed. Which do you think the editor would choose?   That’s the difference between a perfectly good manuscript and a better one. 

The example used could be improved even more, but the point today is the verbs.  Take out some of your own work and look at the verbs you’ve chosen.  Can they be improved?  Can a different word make your sentence more exciting, or scary, or funny?  Can it add something to characterization or setting?
The competition in this field is fierce, so it makes sense to give yourself every advantage you can.  Take the time to choose stronger verbs and make your manuscript the better one.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Poetry Friday--"Museum Piece"

The following poem is by Richard Wilbur:
Museum Piece

The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.
The poem tickles me, especially the line, "A Degas dancer pirouettes/Upon the parting of his hair." It reminds me of photographs of tourists in front of famous structures. You know the ones--where the Eiffel Tower, or Washington Monument, appears to be growing out of the visitor's head. Sort of like the one below which shows the earth balanced on my daughter's head!

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving Day and that you're going to be spending the rest of the weekend resting and relaxing. Take some time to enjoy the poetry found today at A Year of Reading.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Women of Wednesday: On the Mayflower

Since today is the eve of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to nod in the direction of those incredibly brave women (some of them nameless to history) who stepped into that little ship and crossed the Atlantic in 1620.  They faced both the known dangers of the sea crossing and the unknown dangers of the wild land ahead; the sorrow of leaving behind friends and families; the certain struggles of daily life (not easy for women anywhere in that time) and the uncertain ones of establishing a new community.  Just 29 women and girls sailed on the Mayflower, consensus seems to be that there were 18 married women, a few daughters and maid-servants of nearly-marriageable age, and a few girl-children.  Only four of the 18 wives survived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving - and to maintain the distaff side of the tasks of living in the little village.

Pricilla Mullins gets all the press, romanticized by the story-tellers and myth-makers.  The Mayflower Women memorial, erected in 1920, records the names (if known) of all 29. An ongoing project is attempting to identify and reconstruct the lineages of all the Mayflower women.

Thousands more would follow them, of course - including the four women whose husbands left them behind in England, who came over in 1923 to join their husbands.  And even though more than 10,000 arrived in New England over the next 20 years, and the risks and challenges were great for all of them, none faced quite the dire circumstances of those first "foremothers."

Tomorrow when getting dinner on the table starts to feel overwhelming, I hope I'll remember what that first Thanksgiving was really like, and take a minute to honor women who faced challenges I can't even imagine.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mentor Monday: Knowing your rights

 This weekend one of the Sisters saw the premiere performances of the stage adaptation of her picture book. I’m hoping Diane will share her experience and some pictures soon. For Mentor Monday, however, this wonderful event raises the subject of subsidiary rights.


“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

I think Samuel Johnson was wrong – there are lots of good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with money, but if you’re working on developing a writing career, then publication, and getting paid for your work, are or should be a significant factor. They may influence what kinds of things you write. They should influence the forms you choose and the way you send out your work. And when, at last, your work finds its way to the person who wants to publish it – you find yourself immersed in a question of rights.

The “Rights” in question are the rights to use your work, and each possible use of your work represents a distinctive right. As the creator, you have the right to control the ways that your work is published, until and unless you choose to transfer that right to someone else.

If your work is a picture book and you’re in the US, you are most likely going to be offered a contract for “First North American book rights.” If it’s a magazine article, it will be “First North American periodical rights” – although in either case it might be “English-language rights,” in which case if your work winds up being reprinted in Australia or in the international edition of the magazine, your publisher will receive the payment. (Some publishers will split or pass along reprint rights income, but if you sell “All rights” or “reprint rights” they are not obligated to do so.)

But subsidiary rights covers uses far beyond reprints. Subsidiary rights include adaptations of your work in other forms (like the stage version of Run Turkey Run), translation rights (my “Little Jesus” and “Little Mary” books were translated and published in Poland), and, perhaps most importantly today, electronic or digital rights, from the picture-book-on-the-ipad to a video game version of your book. Some contracts contain language covering “any current or future media or format” in order to try and include technologies not-yet-imagined. (A subset of subsidiary rights fall into the category of licensing – stuffed animals, educational products, breakfast cereal advertising, etc.) For each of these uses, you, the creator, deserve to be compensated or to have the choice of whether to allow the use. So after you get over your excitement over that first contract, take the time to read the fine print. Ask your writer friends about the language. Consider having it reviewed by a lawyer who works with “intellectual property rights.” (If you belong to the Author’s Guild, they have a contract review service – lots of writers first join the Guild expressly for that benefit.) Because you never know!

Fantasy writer Mindy Klasky offers this great list of subsidiary rights on her website. 

And of  course, HaroldUnderdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books addresses the subject in much more detail.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Kathryn D. Sullivan

Measured against a life-time, three hours and 29 minutes is nothing.  In some cases, however, it can be everything.

Kathryn D. Sullivan was born in 1951 in New Jersey but grew up in Woodland Hills, California.  She was the daughter of Donald and Barbara Sullivan. She graduated from William Howard Taft High School, the University of California in Santa Cruz, and received her PhD in geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Kathryn became part of NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978.  The group was significant for including the first six women, three male African Americans, and one male Asian American astronauts. She became the first woman to walk in space on October 11, 1984. 

Her space walk lasted 3 hours and 29 minutes.

Later she said,  “You get a grand, spectacular, profoundly inspirational view of earth from orbit…”

Kathryn entered the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1988 and achieved retired as a Navy captain after 18 years of service.

In 1993, Dr. Sullivan left NASA after President Bill Clinton appointed her Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
On May 2, 2011, Dr. Sullivan was appointed by President Obama as assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Revisiting Natalie Goldberg’s "Writing Down the Bones"

            It’s good for writers to go back to school every once in a while, even if that “school” is an old book on technique. Writing Down the Bones has been around for a long time and has attracted its core of disciples. Natalie Goldberg calls her series of exercises  ". . .the practice school of writing." (p.11) "This writing practice is also a warm up for anything else you might want to write. . .The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir." (p. 13) 

While this sounds fairly practical, there are "out there" aspects to Goldberg's book that I find harder to deal with. The author says things like ". . .writing does writing" and "You accept what is and put down its truth." (pp. 45 and 46)  For the down-to-earth person these kinds of statements might sound a little “woo woo.”

For someone who earns his/her living with the written word, doing "writing exercises" seems like a busman's holiday. Why just play with words when you spend your life working with words?  Why waste time writing things you will never use when you spend so much time re-writing things you will need?

            Rather than attempt to use Goldberg's advice as a series of separate exercises, I used some of her techniques while re-writing  a work-in-process. Goldberg tells us to give ourselves permission to write junk and, later says "Allow yourself to be awkward." (p. 36) 

I have never really suffered from writer's block, but I have suffered from writer's hesitation. I define this phrase as knowing what I want to say while mentally hemming & hawing my way until the right words appear. In the process of a rewrite I decided to allow myself to write anything, not worrying about whether I was making the writing better. I'd been plugging along, a page at a time and wanted to pick up some speed. I knew what the story was. I knew what I had to say and what kind of sensory details I needed to add, but the going was slow.         

            I attempted to let myself write without self-editing. This practice was difficult as I have for years written at a very deliberate pace, constantly adding, subtracting, re-organizing as I work along. I used Goldberg's technique for about three pages worth of text. And, when I reread it, I found Goldberg was right: it was junk. I didn't touch it, however, I let it be so I could continue getting to the end. I'd allow myself to re-write only when I got to the end of the story. Goldberg says we should let ourselves learn to trust our own voice. After this exercise, I thought my "voice" was pretty disorganized and rotten. Still, I've been around long enough to realize that sometimes you have to let first impressions go. More often than not, you can learn a thing or two. I was willing to give Natalie’s methods a few more tries.

            There is a lot of time spent in Writing Down the Bones, discussing Zen Buddhism, quoting this religious thinker or that, and how their method of thought applies to writing. I found this interesting, but not, at first, useful. I didn't want to think about spiritual beliefs, I wanted technique, a cookbook on writing, a set of directions. Natalie Goldberg doesn't look at her writing life in that way. So how, I wondered, could her methods help me sort out the mess I was trying to revise?

            "Writing is not psychology. We do not talk "about" feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. (p. 68)

            "Several years ago I wrote down a story that someone had told me. My friends said it was boring. I couldn't understand their reaction; I loved the story. What I realize now I that I wrote "about" the story, secondhand. I didn’t enter it and make friends with it. I was outside it; therefore, I couldn't take anyone else into it. This does not mean you can't write about something you did not actually experience firsthand; only make sure that you breathe life into it. Otherwise it is two times removed and you are not present." (p. 69)

            Here was the reminder I needed when I revised my non-fiction. It isn't enough to simply re-tell or report a story. I must be sure to bring the audience with me so that the reader experiences the same feelings as the protagonist. In my case, I was writing about a sled dog team attempting to reach the summit of Mount Washington. One sentence could tell what happened. That wouldn't bring my reader into the story. I had to show the danger, the challenge, the adrenaline and, even, the foolishness of the stunt. The first way was just a sentence. The second could turn it into story.

            While doing this re-write, I was also researching a project on forensic anthropology. I found Goldberg's advice about making the story feel "first hand" had made me reading differently. I found new appreciation for the way in which some of the authors brought me into their world. In Witnesses From the Grave, Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover describe various cases forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow has examined. The authors did a wonderful job of bringing me into Snow's story. Here they describe a case in Brazil:

            "While his companions drowsed in the backseat [of the cab], Snow gazed out of the open window at the passing show. In the wide doorway of a shop, boys in sweat-stained T-shirts twisted hot glass for neon tubing into large letters. A few blocks farther on, two bare-chested boys played on a dirt lot by an old church, . . .sending tiny clouds of red dust into the air. . .On either side of the road, new skyscrapers loomed, while at their curbed feet, well-dressed business people and beggars shared the sidewalks." (Joyce, Stover, pp. 166-167)

            The authors added so much sensory detail, they practically gave me a seat in the back Clyde Snow's cab. As you work on your projects give readers a "seat in the cab" too. Golberg says "Writers write about things that other people don't pay much attention to." (p.99)  But it is these mundane details that give life to story. While we might not pay attention to the clutter surrounding us, the color of a wall, the background noise, we are still aware of all these things. The writer's job is to include the mundane enough to give the reader that same awareness.  

 One difficulty I have is "writing through the junk." Maybe this sort of thing happens to you, too. You have an idea for something. You know what it should be like in the end but it takes many, many tries before you get even close to the idea you had.  After so many years as a writer, why can't you go from idea to final copy in one try? Why doesn't your head do all the revisions?  Why do your hands have to be involved with the middle steps at all?  Goldberg offers advice:

            "Don't worry if you come back six months later and the piece you weren't sure of turns out to be terrible.  The good parts are already decomposing in your compost pile.  Something good will come out.  Have patience." (p. 158)

            It’s a challenge to bring your reader into the story.  It’s difficult to be patient with the process.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Poetry Friday: Lodestone

Death came, half a world from here,
and word of it slid
down the meridian
to find me where I hid,
far from the Great Bear and the Little Bear
that lord the northern nights.
I feel their icy shadows
rake the air,
the claws we carry at our throats,
near our hearts,
the axis of a globe
without escapable parts,
no corners: we are never out of reach.
I turn my back,
they seem to disappear,
behind the earth,
as stars behind the sun:
oh but the dangerous Bears
are always near.
They come for us one by one.

                          -- Robin Schectman

I found this terrific work in progress called Ursa  Major and Ursa Minor by Moira Court, a British-but-living-in-Australia artist and children's book illustrator. Check out her terrific blog: Badger Harry Presents

When you're done doing that, head on over to Think Kid, Think! where Ed DeCaria is hosting Poetry Friday

Monday, November 5, 2012


No matter what kind of story you write, no matter what genre, cliffhangers are a great way to create suspense.  This doesn’t necessarily mean your hero has to be tied to the railroad tracks or actually hanging from a cliff.  It simply means ending your chapter at a danger point, or a moment of mystery or surprise.  The trick is knowing at what point to end your cliffhanger.
Suppose your hero is traveling down a dark street in the middle of the night after having just escaped the bad guys.  All of a sudden, he hears a noise.
your hero is traveling down a dark street in the middle of the night after having just escaped the bad guys.  All of a sudden, he hears a noise.  He stops to listen, and who steps out in front of him but the baddest of the bad guys.
your hero is traveling down a dark street in the middle of the night after having just escaped the bad guys.  All of a sudden, he hears a noise.  He stops to listen, and who steps out in front of him but the baddest of the bad guys, gun in hand.
your hero is traveling down a dark street in the middle of the night after having just escaped the bad guys.  All of a sudden, he hears a noise.  He stops to listen, and who steps out in front of him but the baddest of the bad guys, gun in hand, and just a half block away, on the other side of the bad guy, is the hero’s home.
As you can see, each scenario gets a bit more suspenseful.  The reason is because each scenario contains more information than the last.  Withholding information from the reader only causes the reader to wonder about what you’re not telling him.  Hmm.  What’s that noise?  He may or may not turn the page, depending on how curious he is about the noise.
On the other hand, giving him information makes him wonder about all the things you are telling him.  Will the hero get caught?  Will he get shot?  If he does, will he die?  Can he get past the bad guy?  Will he make it home?  And if he does, is anyone there to help him?  Will the bad guy break in?  The reader has far more reasons to turn the page.
But I’m not writing an action-packed story, you say.  I’m writing a much quieter book.
You can still use cliffhangers.  They’ll just be of a different sort.

Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea is a very quiet book. It’s about two girls, Dewey and Suze, living in Los Alamos during World War II because their parents are scientists working on the atomic bomb. Dewey’s mother left when she was a baby, and her dad has been called away to do something secret for the government, so Dewey is placed with Suze’s family at Los Alamos until he returns. Suze and Dewey have just had a run-in with a clique of means girls and have gotten the best of them. Now Dr. Oppenheimer, the most famous of all the scientists there, comes knocking on their door. The girls are expecting to get in trouble for what they’ve done.
"Girls, sit down,” Mrs. Gordon said, and her voice quavered.  Suze had never heard her sound like that before.  They sat, one on each chair, and Suze braced herself for the biggest lecture of her whole life.  Then Oppie spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.  He held up a piece of flimsy yellow paper, a telegram.  “There’s been an accident.”
This is more of an emotional cliffhanger.  Klages doesn’t have to take it any further because the cliffhanger isn’t what’s in the telegram.  The reader can guess that Dewey’s father has died.  They don’t need to turn the page to find out.  The cliffhanger is how Dewey will react to the telegram.  What will she do now?  Where will she go?  Who will take care of her?  How will she react to the loss of her Dad?  Will her Mom come back into the picture?  Will she want Dewey?  Will Dewey want her?  Will Dewey be okay?  Those are the reasons the reader will turn the page.
And the best thing about cliffhangers is that you don’t have to immediately answer the questions you’ve raised.  The following chapter might be from another person’s POV.  It might start in a different place or time.  Eventually, it will come back around to the point where you’ve left your reader hanging, and the questions will get answered but, in the meantime, you can stretch out the suspense for as long as you like or need to. 
So think about how you’re ending your chapters and consider tossing in a cliffhanger or two.  They’ll keep your readers reading.   

Friday, November 2, 2012

Poetry Friday--"Eating Poetry"

Being a librarian, this poem disturbs me slightly. But, if I ignore my librarian side, I can read it and laugh!
Eating Poetry
by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
The dogs are following the trail to Mainely Write where there's plenty of poetry to sink their teeth into!

Photo © Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.