Monday, January 30, 2012

Mentor Monday--What's All This I Hear about Ebooks?

Ebooks are here, and if you're not aware of that fact, you'd better get your head out of the sand and start learning about them!

A good place to begin is at ereadable: ebooks made simple.

What does it all mean to you as a writer? Lots! Where before all you had to worry about was whether or not your audience could read, now you have to worry about what kind of devices your audience USES to read and how to manipulate your text and/or images to fit those devices. And then you have to figure out how to sell your ebook. Not even the big publishing houses have it all worked out, so you can't depend on them anymore! You may be on your own if you expect to make any money at all from your writing.

To get an idea of how complicated things are getting, check out this article by Anne Hill. Or visit, a children's writers/illustrators' blog devoted to the topic of producing ebooks for kids.

If you're not already a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, it's probably time you joined. It's a whole new world out there and you're going to need help in navigating it! Check out this article on a recent announcement by Apple and you'll quickly realize you're going to need all the help you can get.

Finally, if you have zero experience with ebooks, I'd suggest visiting your local public library. I'd be very surprised if your local library didn't offer ebooks, either through a service such as Overdrive or 3M, or if they didn't have some preloaded ereaders available to check out, so that you can try out one before buying. It's probably time to visit your local library if you haven't been there in a while!


One thing more: Here's a trailer for a newly released nonfiction ebook app: I can definitely see the appeal! I just wonder how many families can afford an iPad for each kid?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Poetry Friday

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the Januay sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

Today's Poetry Friday is over at Hey, Jim Hill where you'll find more great poetry.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hedy Lamarr: Not Just Another Pretty Face

‘On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab’s drug-store.’

Thus begins the autobiography of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood film actress and, unknown to most of the world, the woman who created the patent that would lead to cell phones, WiFi, and other wireless technology.

Unfortunately for Hedy, few people were interested in her brain power. All they cared about were her looks. As a teenager acting in Berlin, she was dubbed, ‘the most beautiful woman in Europe.’ During her reign as a Hollywood actress, she was known as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ Hedy had a different take on it. "My face has been my misfortune . . . a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it." Her words sound almost like lines from a B movie.

Hedy was born on November 9, 1913 in Vienna, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Her father was a banker, her mother was a pianist. Hedy studied piano and ballet, but it was her face that made her fortune. Even as a teen just starting out in film, she landed major roles, and then along came Ecstasy, a film in which she did some nude scenes and, using only her face, portrayed a woman having an orgasm so well, many people thought it was real. Hedy claimed it was simply her director ‘poking her in the bottom with a safety pin.’

That same year, at age 19, she married a 32 year old arms manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl, but marriage didn’t turn out the way she imagined. Friedrich kept her a virtual prisoner locked up in his castle. He put an end to her acting career, and bought up every copy of Ecstasy he could, to prevent others from seeing it. Hedy had little contact with the outside world. Her social life was curtailed to the lavish parties Friedrich threw, where she played the charming hostess to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, and to being dragged to his business meetings where the talk was all about military technology.

Unknown to the men at those meetings, Hedy understood everything they talked about. While they may have imagined her to be nothing more than the pretty young thing Friedrich was obsessed with, she was sitting there listening and learning. Hedy was a high school dropout, but she hadn’t left school because it was too difficult. She had a natural talent for math and science and had always been a tinkerer. She left school to become production assistant to Max Reinhardt, a famous German director. It was quite an opportunity, especially for a teenager, although one has to wonder at Max’s motives. It was he who dubbed her the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Needless to say, Hedy wasn’t happy in her marriage. After five years of being squashed under Friedrich’s pressing thumb, she knew she had to get away. She disguised herself as a maid and slipped out of the castle. She made her way to Paris and got a divorce, then headed to London where she met Louis B. Mayer. He signed her up and changed her name, and her life as a Hollywood actress began.

In the summer of 1940, Hedy met her neighbor, George Antheil, a concert pianist turned film composer, who had been experimenting with the automated control of musical instruments. He was known for his Ballet Mecanique, a musical score in which multiple player pianos and xylophones were all synchronized to play at the same time. As they chatted, the conversation turned to the war and weapons, which Hedy knew a lot about, thanks to her controlling ex-husband, and before she knew it, they were talking radio controlled torpedoes, jamming, and frequency hopping.

Hedy went home and her and George’s conversation went with her. She couldn’t get it out of her head. After thinking about it for some time, she returned to George and told him about this idea she had about protecting radio controlled torpedoes. As it stood, all the enemy had to do to make a torpedo ineffectual was to jam the radio signal that operated it. And with only one signal being used, it was easy to find. But if multiple radio frequencies were used, the enemy would have a harder time finding the right frequency, which would make jamming much more difficult.

Together, they worked on Hedy’s idea and came up with a piano roll that changed between 88 different frequencies (the number of keys on a piano). They submitted their idea to the patent office in June, 1941 and received a patent for it (US patent 2,292,387) in August, 1942. They presented their idea to the Navy, but it was shot down. The Navy felt ‘it was too bulky and unreliable to use with a torpedo,’ even though Antheil told them it could be miniaturized to fit inside a watch.

"In our patent Hedy and I attempted to better elucidate our mechanism by explaining that certain parts of it worked like the fundamental mechanism of a player piano. Here, undoubtedly, we made our mistake. The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen in Washington who examined our invention read no further than the words "player piano."

"My god," I can see them saying, "We shall put a player piano in a torpedo."

Twenty two years later, after the patent had expired, the Navy used the idea during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1998, Wi-Lan Inc., an Ottowa wireless technology developer, ‘acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr (Antheil had died) for an undisclosed amount of stock.’ They didn’t have to give her anything. Her patent had expired. But they chose to do the ethical thing. Hedy and Antheil’s frequency hopping was an early form of spread spectrum communication technology, which brought us cell phones and WiFi.

After filing her patent, Hedy tried to join the National Inventors Council but was told she could do more by selling war bonds. They didn’t take her seriously because she was not only a woman, but a beautiful woman, and if a woman had any brains at all, they would have to be in the head of someone far less attractive. So Hedy went and sold war bonds, bringing in $7,000,000 at a single event. It’s said she sold kisses at $50,000 a smack.

Hedy continued on in her acting career and, in nine years, made eighteen movies. She married five times and had two children, and was twice arrested for shoplifting, once in 1966, after her career had fizzled, and again when she was 78 years old. It seems this multi-talented woman could not manage her own finances.

After her autobiography came out, (which may have been written because she needed the money. It came out a year after her first shoplifting incident) she sued her publisher, claiming her ghost writer had invented several anecdotes, including one that claimed she’d slept with a man in a brothel during her escape from Friedrich. She lost the case. On another occasion, she threatened to sue the producers of Blazing Saddles because Harvey Korman’s character, Hedley Lamarr , was constantly referred to as Hedy. They settled out of court. And in the mid ‘90's, she sued Corel, who had used a Corel-drawn image of her on their packaging. They, too, settled out of court.

In 1998, she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in recognition of her patent, to which she replied, "It’s about time," and in 2003, Boeing ran recruitment ads featuring her as a woman of science. They did not mention her acting career at all.

Hedy had gained instant fame at the age of 19 for being beautiful. She would be 84 before the world acknowledged her intelligence. She lived only two years after being recognized for her contribution to spread spectrum communication technology, and died of natural causes in her Florida home on January 19th, 2000. She was 86 years old.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Narrowing Your Focus in Nonfiction

One of the quickest ways to get overwhelmed when writing nonfiction is to try to cover a subject from top to bottom, especially when your word count is only 500 words or less. Let’s face it, you can’t include everything there is to know about pigs in a children’s magazine article or even a book. The subject is just too broad. In fact, most subjects are. And while you can certainly tackle a broad subject, keep in mind that the broader the focus, the less room you have to spend on any one idea. The result is generally either a big, fat book - the kind you don’t see very often in children’s publishing - or one that is merely a list of facts and general information that reads like an encyclopedia entry.

So if pigs are what you want to write about, consider what you already know. Well, they snort, have curly tails and make mighty fine bacon. While bacon is always a tasty topic, we probably don’t want to talk to kids about butchering pigs, and the other two choices are just meh. It’s time to do some research.

As you pore through everything you can find out about pigs, you perhaps learn they are intelligent animals, that they’re used in medical research, and they have a talent for sniffing out truffles. Consider the information you’ve gathered and choose a topic that interests you. If you decide on truffle hunting pigs, that’s your focus. Everything you write should relate to truffles and the pigs who sniff them out. No matter how much cool stuff you come across, if it isn’t about truffle hunting pigs, or can’t be slanted toward truffle hunting pigs, it doesn’t belong in the article. Save the info and put it aside for now.

If your choice was pigs in medical research, you may have to narrow your focus again. Find out what kind of research is done with pigs and choose one area. Maybe you’re interested in experiments on aging or cancer. Maybe it’s on the unethical use of pigs in experimentation. Again, pick the area that interests you most. If that area is still too broad, like cancer research, you may have to narrow your focus once more to a particular kind of cancer. And if you find that something extraordinary came out of one particular experiment, you may want to narrow your focus yet again to just that one experiment.

A narrower focus will give you a more compelling, reader-friendly story every time. It allows the writer to concentrate on just one aspect of a topic instead of five or seven or ten. It allows you to give a topic some depth. Consider The History of Horse Racing vs Seabiscuit, or How Medical Cures are Found vs Lorenzo’s Oil.

The narrower focus also allows readers to come away from the piece with an understanding of what truffles are and how pigs sniff them out, or how this one particular experiment saved millions of lives, whereas in a broader article, the reader may see just that one line - pigs are sometimes used to sniff out truffles, or experiments on pigs have saved many lives. If they want more information, they have to look elsewhere.

Another advantage of the narrow focus is that it can do much more for your writing career than writing broad. Let’s say you write that big fat book, All About Pigs. How long did it take you to research? How long did it take you to organize all that research? How long did it take to write that big fat book and sell it? And in the end, what do you have? One pay check and a dead topic. Now you have to go research something else, and by the time you finish that, the editor you worked with on the first book has moved on, or has no interest in your next topic.

Compare that to a narrowly focused book. Let’s say you write The Truffle Hunting Pig and the research, organization, and writing time takes just as long as the fat book. In the end, you have a book that’s easier to sell, and once you sell it, you can immediately pitch your editor - still there, still interested in pigs, and still remembering who you are - if she’d be interested in another pig book, this one on how a special pig saved millions of lives.

Another book, another paycheck.

And remember all that cool information you had but couldn’t use in the truffle book? It’s all fodder for future pig books. As long as you keep that narrow focus, you can write about pigs as long as you want to. You’ll end up with a nice backlist of books, (hopefully earning you some nice residual income,) and you’ll have carved out a niche for yourself by becoming the woman who writes about pigs, or strange moments in history, or volcanoes, or Hispanic musicians, or whatever it is that you like to write about. You become, in effect, an expert.

So if you’re considering writing nonfiction (and you should, because it’s easier to break into print in nonfiction than it is in fiction) forget about the big picture for awhile. Limit your perspective. Be specific. And think small.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Chaos

A delight for those of us who love words, and anyone who has ever struggled with English spelling and pronunciation! This brilliant poem* was originally written by a Dutch teacher and amateur linguist, Gerard Nolst Trenité, as a part of his book Drop your foreign accent. The book went through eleven editions; the poem appeared as an appendix to the fourth edition and then continued to grow and change –you can easily imagine how new verses must have presented themselves to him once he’d gotten started on the project. There are apparently a number of regional variations as well and I suspect others may have contributed their own bits of inspiration to Trenité's original.

I’ll include just a couple of stanzas here to give you a taste of it.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tearin eye, your dress you'll tear;
Queer,fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Diesand diet, lord and word.

I hadn’t heard of this poem until someone started sharing iton Facebook a couple of weeks ago. In case you missed it there, here’s a link to the whole poem and detailed notes about its origins and the development of this particular version.

Libravox, bless them, offers multiple versions of the poem, a downloadable file of the entire book, and several audio files so you can enjoy different readers’ approaches to the poem. Great fun.

*Purists will argue that this is not actually a poem, as it is devoid of any kind of metaphor or other imagery, and that a rhyme, no matter how clever, does not a poem make. Which is of course true, so The Chaos is perhaps better termed a brilliant exercise of doggerel. But then there is an argument about whether doggerel, done intentionally, is not a form of poetry?

Poetry Friday is being hosted this week at Wild Rose Reader.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Funny grammar gurus

Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Lynne Truss

As I have been obsessing a little about grammar and such, I am reminded of two of my favorite writers – Karen Elizabeth Gordon and Lynne Truss.
If you are uncertain about your grounding in grammar, punctuation, or usage (and if you went to school between the late sixties and the 1980s, you probably should be), you should seek out the works of these two clever women.

Unlike the inimitable (and insufferable) Elements of Style, Gordon’s and Truss’ books are funny and encouraging. 

Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire: a Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed came to my rescue back when I was struggling to teach that which I had never been taught. It has since been released in an updated edition, and joins her other books exploring the English language in all its unruly glory.

Twenty years after Gordon’s Vampire created a subgenre for funny grammar books, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves burst on the scene to amuse and convict all of us about our increasingly-casual approach to punctuation.

Gordon’s books address a broader range of issues and have the distinct advantage of indices, while Eats, Shoots and & Leaves is more of a “why” than a “how” book and may inspire the reader to taking up a crusade (the chapter on Apostrophes inspired Kathy and I in our surreptitious attacks on posters and signs in a number of Boston hospitals).

You should probably still keep a copy of the AP Stylebook on your shelf, but spending some time with these funny Ladies of Grammar will almost certainly make you a better – and happier – writer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mentor Monday: Revising, Part 2

For this exercise in editing I’d like to suggest that you pull one of those old manuscripts we all have stashed around the house to use for practice. You can work on whatever your most recent WIP is, of course, but chances are you’ll be more aware, and more willing to be ruthless, with a piece you’re more removed from.

There are, essentially, two kinds of editing to consider. Both are important, and to some degree you will probably do them simultaneously, but it is worth noting the differences between the two.

First is the editing we do to clean up the manuscript. This includes searching for and correcting actual errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as editing to improve the style and flow of the work. We want the manuscripts we submit to be the very best representation of our work possible. We don’t want any distracting conflicts or awkwardness to draw the reader’s attention to the words instead of the content. This is the kind of editing that these exercises will focus on. 

There is, however, another critical kind of editing, and that is the editing we do to make our manuscripts conform to the requirements of the publisher. If you are writing on assignment, your publisher will have given you specific guidelines for the work you are doing. If you are writing on spec (“speculation,” meaning that you are going to submit the manuscript without the publisher having made any commitment to buying it), you need to figure out what the guidelines are. Many times publishers have printed guidelines which you can find on their websites or request by mail (one of the places where the old fashioned Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope, or SASE, is still appropriate). With or without written guidelines, you will also want to analyze other works in the series or imprint you hope to sell to. 

Editing for publisher’s requirements includes such details as word count and reading level. It may also involve subtleties such as how often a key word repeats on a page; stylistic preferences such as whether “Black” and “White” are capitalized when they are being used as race-defining adjectives (and indeed, whether the publisher uses those terms or not); and such content-preferences as whether there are an equal number of male and female characters in a story or examples in an article. (You should also notice style points like whether the publisher allows or discourages complex sentences, such as that last one. Many publishers would never print such a thing, although it is grammatically standard.)

I recommend that in your first edit you target those publishing requirements. There’s little point in investing time and effort perfecting your parallel structure if your publisher is going to require only simple sentences in the final draft, and if your manuscript needs to be cut by 15% to make the word count, you don’t want to be doing that after you’ve lovingly coiffed each phrase. So do the cutting, trimming, and rewording you need to do to fit the publication first.

Next you want to look for the kinds of grammar errors that often slip past us when we’re writing. First and most important step: Read your work out loud. Really. Go in the bathroom and close the door if you need to, but read it out loud. This does two things. First off, it slows you down and makes you notice each individual word. You will be surprised at the things that leap off the page when you’re reading aloud that slip past when you read silently. The leftover “ing” from when you changed the verb structure. The doubled prepositions. The hanging bits of dialog tags. They all become obvious when you stumble across them as you pronounce those sentences you’ve crafted so carefully.

And speaking of stumbling, the other advantage of reading aloud is the number of places where you discover that a phrase is awkward or a sentence ungrammatical because it doesn’t sound “right.” You may or may not know the name of your error, but you can hear it – and, oftentimes fix it, without ever actually identifying its species.

There are, however, species of errors you should be aware of and search for. Dangling prepositions, for example, which are a particular weakness of mine (as you will have noticed in this post, if you are sensitive to such things.) Dangling prepositions are not the bugbears they once were, as many grammarians have conceded that they are, in fact, indigenous to the structure of English and were only considered “wrong” because they don’t work in Latin. Nevertheless, in formal writing they are still to be avoided when possible, which generally means flipping a sentence around (or just dropping the preposition – I could have said, “flipping the sentence” and you’d have known what I meant.)

Agreement is another common problem to look for. Plural nouns require plural verbs, while a singular noun requires a singular verb form (see?). Collectives can be tricky (and are handled differently in England than in the States) so pay particular attention to those.  And don’t rely entirely on your word processor’s grammar program. As I write this, Word is insisting that in the sentence above I should say “is a particular weakness” rather than “are,” presumably because it is a singular weakness, although possibly because it thinks “example” is the subject, rather than “prepositions.” If you strip out all the intervening words, it becomes more clear: “Prepositions are my weakness” not “prepositions is my weakness” (which deliberate error, ironically, Word is ignoring). The use of “their” and “them” to avoid saying “he/his” or “she/hers” leads inevitably to mismatches, and highlights the other big area of agreement issues: pronouns and their antecedents. (The antecedent is the thing the pronoun is standing in for. If it was singular, then the pronoun needs to be singular. If it was male, the pronoun is male. But what if it is neutral or unknown? Standard English says "male," modern sensibilities say "Ack!" Simplest approach is to make the antecedent plural, if you can.(But see this great post about the "singular they."

While you’re inspecting your verbs, check for tense consistency. If your account is in the present tense then things that happened previously are past tense, and if your account is written in the past tense, previous action is in the past perfect– but then when you come back to your account, did you come back to the correct tense? These kinds of inconsistencies often creep in during rewriting.

Parallel structure is another thing to check while you’re scanning the verbs, although it is a nice stylistic touch that applies to adjective phrases as well. “After Johnny ate lunch, washing his hands and playing with his toys it was time to go home.” “Susie’s favorite dress had pink bows and gray kittens but was woolen. “ Read aloud. . .

Double check uses of the verbs “to be” and “to have:” while both are obviously very useful in their own right, each also gets a great deal of work as an auxiliary verb, and auxiliary verbs tend to lead to weak expression. Everyone has heard “don’t use the passive voice” (say, “Johnny hit Mary,” not “Mary was hit by Johnny.”) Other auxiliaries are similarly weakening: “he has gone” vs “he went,” “she may be lost” vs “she is lost.” If you want to mitigate the impact, then use the auxiliary, but do so intentionally.

Adverbs and adjectives are other words that can be used to fill in details and make a story more vivid – or that can just be filler. In general if you can find a single word that conveys your meaning, it will be stronger than a pair of words. And shorter, which is a good thing when you have a strict word count!

It’s best to go over your work looking for just one of these kinds of correction at a time. You will focus more sharply on the text that way. (Think of it as having several different fine-toothed combs, each of which pulls out different kinds of nits.)

Over time (and with the help of your critique group) you will doubtless discover YOUR particular weaknesses. Be sure to do a final sweep looking for those.

If you’re uncertain about your grammar, there are some helpful websites you may find useful:

Purdue has great info for their students.
Grammar Girl has a light approach and a very handy search function: 
The University of Northern Iowa has a “Dr. Grammar” page with lots of good things – and a great links page.

Next time (Finally) proof-reading!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Literary Sibs

One of our readers, Rose King, alerted us to a post that discusses literary siblings "9 Coolest Literary Siblings." We thought we'd we share it with you, too. Click here to read it.

I was happy to see Lucy and Freddy Honeychurch from E.M. Forster's A Room With a View mentioned. I love the book, and the filmed version is excellent, too (as a matter of fact, it is my #3 all-time favorite movie). A book discussion group I once belonged to read the book and then met to watch the video version. It was practically word for word the same--a rare thing in filmed adaptations.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Poetry Friday: Canis Major

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I'm a poor underdog,
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

                        -- Robert Frost

Tara is a sixth grade teacher in NJ, and I'm sure she's happy as heck it's Friday. Check out today's PF offerings at her blog A Teaching Life.

I know this poem has made appearances at Poetry Friday shindigs before. Still, it's always good to review! For a cool analysis, check out Kelly Fineman's Canis Major post here.

That's my boy, Cooper. He and I are happy it's Friday, too. Tonight, we'll be doing our share of leaping, dancing, barking, and romping . . .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Amy Beach

Many of the women we feature on our Wednesday blog entries are chosen because they triumphed over fate’s challenges. The story of Amy Beach is different. The renowned composer’s success can said to have come in spite of having too much of a good life.

Amy Marcy Cheney was born on September 5, 1867 in Henniker, NH. She had fair hair and large blue eyes and, as a child, was said to be small for her age. Amy’s mother, aunt, and grandmother were all musically talented and Amy soon proved that she would surpass them all. By age 1, her mother wrote that she could hum 40 different tunes. She was extremely sensitive to sound and pitch. Loud noises frightened her and if her mother did not sing songs as Amy had first heard them, she fussed. Later, when she had learned to talk, she would admonish her mother to “sing it clean.”

Clara Cheney was a strict disciplinarian who intended that her daughter continue to love music but also grow up to be a proper young lady. She feared that if she pushed Amy too soon, she would tire of her gift. She did not allow the child to touch the piano. So Amy played the songs in her imagination, pounding her fingers on a table.

Clara’s sister, “Aunt Franc” as Amy called her, was not as strict. During a visit, she sat Amy on her lap and allowed the little girl to play. Amy played the songs she had heard her mother perform, leaving out certain notes her stubby fingers could not reach but still managing to create appropriate chords. Clara became her daughter’s piano teacher.

The Cheneys moved to Roxbury, MA, and Clara, feeling that she had taught Amy all she could, looked for a more advanced music teacher. In those days, wealthy musical talents went to Germany to study. Clara would have had to split up her family in order to accompany Amy to the continent. Also, studying in Europe would imply that Amy was preparing for a career in music. Proper young Boston ladies did not have careers. Instead, Clara did the next best thing and hired a piano teacher who had studied in Germany.

Amy formally debuted as a pianist in October, 1883 at the Boston Music Hall. For the next two years she performed solo concerts throughout the Boston area. Following an 1885 performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Amy was invited by conductor Wilhelm Gericke to attend any BSO rehearsals so she could study the scores. But Amy’s life took a slight detour.

In August, 1885, the Cheneys announced Amy’s engagement to widower Dr. H.H.A. Beach. He was a year older than her father. They married in December and Amy moved into the wealthy doctor’s Commonwealth Avenue home where servants handled household chores.

Amy ‘s husband allowed her to perform as long as she donated her honorariums to charity. By 1887, Amy’s concert schedule was deeply curtailed. She turned her attention to composition. She could not go out to study. It wouldn’t have been proper. Instead, she became self-taught.

Five years later, she performed her Mass publicly with the BSO and the Handel & Hayden Society. It was the first such composition presented by a woman composer in the United States. Amy was only 25 years old.

In 1893, at the Chicago Columbian Exposition (Chicago’s World Fair) Beach’s commissioned composition, Festival Jubilate, was performed at the grand opening of the Women’s Building. One year later, performances of her work by singers and orchestras outnumbered her own concerts.

Beach’s work was becoming popular all over the U.S. and Europe. Her Gaelic Symphony debuted on 1896. “All Beach” concerts were held and clubs were formed in her honor. Amy was not yet 30.

Amy’s husband died in 1910 and her mother one year later. The two had handled every aspect and decision of her life and career but now Amy insisted on taking over. After her mother’s death, Amy went to Germany.

She toured and studied in Europe until the beginning of World War I. By now, she did not consider herself a concert pianist but instead a composer who occasionally performed her own music and other standards in public.

She continued to play for charity and during the war auctioned some of her original manuscripts to benefit the Red Cross. She became friends with Edward & Marion MacDowell and spent summers at the MacDowell Colony. (See photo, left) She eventually sold her Commonwealth Avenue house and lived portions of each year in a Hillsboro, NH rental, a Cape Cod house, and the Colony.

In 1928, the University of NH awarded both she and Marion MacDowell honorary master’s degrees in music. (Evidently, women weren’t eligible for even “honorary” doctorates). The president of the college later apologized for the gaff.

Her brilliant Canticle of the Sun debuted in 1931 to rave reviews. The next 13 years would mark a slowing of Beach’s number of compositions, a decline in her health, and finally death in 1944. She had successfully worked around the rules set by her mother and husband, contributed large amounts to charity and the arts, and left the world richer for her compositions. The poor little rich girl had done well.

To listen to some of Beach’s work click on the links below:

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mentor Monday - Adjectives: Sticking to a Fair-Weather Friendship

So the kids gave me the book I wanted for Christmas: Judy Collins’ autobiographical Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

I love Judy Collins and her music. I grew up during the folk song craze when television networks actually devoted weekly programming hours to shows that featured the likes of Judy, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, etc. So, I was prepared to love the book. Unfortunately, I forgot that being a writer makes me a pain-in-the-neck reader. The book is generally very well-written. The stories Judy shares about her life are as interesting as I’d hoped. But, I’m sometimes distracted in by her over-use of adjectives. Here’s an example:

“Outside my window, there was a small emerald lawn sheltered by a Russian olive tree whose pale lavender flowers gave off an exotic scent.”

I find such highly descriptive phrases tend to throw me out of the story. My mind does not briefly alight in that place described and use it as a springboard to the following sentence. Instead, I question why I have to know the lawn was emerald-colored instead of just small, and then I think that I’m not familiar with Russian olive trees and wonder what they look like (should I try Google Images?) then I begin to wonder what is meant by an exotic scent (boxwood-like? patchouli maybe?) and on it goes… I realize that I’m no longer in the story because I’ve been told too much about something of little consequence.

Those gods of the written word, Strunk & White, make a point of discouraging the overuse of adjectives. They state: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place…In general…it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.” (pp. 71-72, The Elements of Style)

William Zissner agrees: “Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. This is adjective-by-habit—a habit you should get rid of.” (pp. 70-71, On Writing Well)

Become a fair-weather friend of adjectives. Use them only on an as-needed basis. Make accurate nouns and verbs your BFFs. A lawn is a lawn is a lawn and unless it has been dried by drought or burned by a kid with a magnifying glass, we’re going to assume it is some shade of green. Does it matter if it is emerald or kelly or jade? Only if the color alters the story line. Does the smell of the tree’s flowers need to be described? Only if that scent returns later on to help a plot point. e.g. “The exotic scent of the blooming olive tree reminded Evan of the night he’d witnessed a murder in his own back yard.”

Often, writers get stuck in their elementary school writing lessons, when teachers explained how to make descriptions more accurate by using adjectives. But remember that in those days, your vocabulary was still limited. You know a lot more nouns and verbs than you did in the 3rd grade.

Use ‘em.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Poetry Friday: Dishwater

Slap of the screen door, flat knock
of my grandmother's boxy black shoes
on the wooden stoop, the hush and sweep
of her knob-kneed, cotton-aproned stride
out to the edge and then, toed in
with a furious twist and heave,
a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands
and hangs there shining for fifty years
over the mystified chickens,
over the swaying nettles, the ragweed,
the clay slope down to the creek,
over the redwing blackbirds in the tops
of the willows, a glorious rainbow
with an empty dishpan swinging at one end.

                -- Ted Kooser

I think Dishwater is one of the BEST POEMS EVER. To find some other candidates, stride on over to Teaching Authors where JoAnn is hosting today.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Isabella Bird

Isabella was ill. Again. It seemed like every time she returned to England, she was soon suffering from one thing or another. There was only one cure. She had to pack her bags.

Isabella Bird was born in North Yorkshire, Great Britain in 1831. The eldest daughter of a minister, she was a sickly child. When a doctor suggested that a sea voyage might help Isabella find some relief, her father gave her £100 and allowed her to travel to America to visit relatives. She could stay, he said, until her money ran out. Isabella managed to make the gift last for nearly two years.

Unwilling to let this be her only respite from the confines of life in England, Isabella decided she must find a way to fund more travel. Women in the 19th century had few options when it came to making an income, so she wrote a book that detailed her trip to America. The Englishwoman in America was published anonymously upon her return in 1856. Her writings would continue to make future trips possible.

When her father died, Isabella, her mother, and sister moved to Scotland. Isabella visited the Scottish Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) and was shocked at the plight of the tenant farmers there. In later years, she donated some of her writing royalties to help the farmers move to America.

In the following decade, Isabella visited Australia, Hawaii, and Colorado. There she was pursued by “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, whom she would refer to as a “dear desperado.” He was a man, she wrote her sister, that any woman would fall in love with but that none should marry.

Instead, she returned to England and married a doctor, John Bishop. The couple was happy enough (though of course, Isabella again became ill) but Bishop died only five years after their wedding.

Isabella’s next travels included the Asian countries of Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, China, and Malaysia. She wrote books and travel articles about her adventures. Isabella began to feel that her travels and the books she’d written had done little to benefit mankind. She decided to become a missionary and established two hospitals in India, one which she named for her late husband.

As she became more and more famous for her travels, the Scottish Royal Geographical Society made her a fellow—the first woman invited to join. Her next trips included Korea and another visit to China. Her final journey was to Morocco in 1901. Isabella died in 1904.

Was Isabella really sick or did she use illness as an excuse to travel? One writer felt that it was not uncommon for “high-spirited girls” like Isabella, who were “thwarted by…social conventions” to suffer from poor health. Others have suggested that her illnesses were all in her head. Either way, Isabella left us a terrific legacy of information about life in the 19th century world.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mentor Monday: New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

Happy New Year! The Write Sisters wish all our fellow scribes a creative and successful year in writing.

It’s traditional to make resolutions each new year. I’ve collected some common ones and have included them here, with a twist for writers:

1. Get organized
*Clean your desk.
*Focus on one or two writing projects and plan to complete them in the upcoming 12 months.

2. Change a habit
* Write every day—even if it’s only for 15 minutes. 15 x 365 / 60/ 24 = nearly 4 full days of writing. Admit it: you spend more time watching TV.
* Create a trigger that will start the writing process e.g. a certain piece of music, a second cup of coffee, etc. and use it every day.

3. Read at least one book - or professional journal - a month
* Read picture books if that’s what you like to write; read books on writing and continue learning from the experts; subscribe to a writer’s magazine.

4. Get enough sleep.
*’nuf said.

5. Take charge of your finances.
* Keep tabs of the money you spend on writing supplies, software, books, etc.
* Look for ways to make money as a writer so the IRS doesn’t consider you a hobbyist. Start with fillers or puzzles for magazines while you wait for that first big sale.

6. Fit in Fitness
*Walk away from your desk. Keep walking. Take your dog.
*Do some gardening, some laundry, wash a floor.
* While you’re walking/gardening/washing, think about your writing.

7. Spend more time with your (fake) family and friends
* Some writers like to learn about their characters by letting the characters reveal themselves. Others like to develop entire back stories for their characters. What works for you?

8. Learn something new
*Technology is not going away. Deal with it. If you don’t have a web site, why not? Start a blog and use it as a daily warm-up. Learn how Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can help your career.

9. Lose weight
* Go through your story and cut, cut, cut. Mae West may have said that too much of a good thing is wonderful but in writing, it’s just annoying.

10. Make new friends

* Network, network, network. It truly is who you know.