Sunday, March 26, 2017

Writing Critique Buddies

I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful beta readers. Some were other writers, and we exchanged feedback on each other’s work. Some were not writers and their feedback as discerning, thoughtful, and articulate readers—can only be repaid by the special place I hope they get in heaven.

But there are some pitfalls I have learned, from my own experience and hearing about others’, which I hope to share here. Rather than couch such in the negative, I decided to phrase the points in the affirmative. You can deduce what not to do from it. Goodness, the very act of a thoughtful exchange is as generous and as positive as can be. Let’s keep it that way.

·         When agreeing to exchange manuscript critiques it’s best to keep the number of helpers who come forward small, so that on your end you can give thorough feedback, the kind you would like to get.

·         Do point every typo, misused word, and spelling mistake. These little escapees from proofreading are often caught by other readers. Although this requires nitty-gritty kind of reading, you should treat the manuscript as your own. You wouldn’t want yours to go out on submission that way.

·         It’s fine to state something reads so perfectly to you that you have no suggestions. This happens rarely, but it does happen. Being a critic will sometimes mean only enthusiastic praise. It's better than coming up with “something” to negate for the sake of it.

·         Apropos the point above^, it’s nice to begin and end with genuine positive comments. It’s even more helpful to be unsparing at the meat of the feedback. The rare times works-in-progress come your way flawless are exactly that, rare. Best help is real help.

·        Yes, that--

Above all, helpful feedback is specific. This old post got more hits than most of my blog posts, and so I point to it, again.

If you are offering feedback not as an exchange, your generosity is legend with me. Books, also, take a small village.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Has Sprung

The word for spring in Hebrew is Aviv. You may have heard it as a proper name, even more in its feminine form, Aviva. You may have heard of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, whose name means Spring Hill. The root  of the word (letters AVV) pertains to a young sprouting plant.

But I so prefer the English word, spring.
It has more energy and connotes active bursting and flowing forward. The sound of it, beginning with constipated consonants jammed together, (SP) and opening to a forward flow, (IN) ending with what feels, to me, a sort of exclamation,(G)-- make it an ingenious sound for what is, really, an idea.

The idea is that we emerge from a bottled up state, a freeze or hibernation of sorts, and like just uncorked champagne we pop, gush and flow, hands stretched in an upward motion that says ---

Do you feel it yet? Spring, officially, just got here.

May creativity and life conquer all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why Do I Love My Cats?

It’s not a state-secret that I like cats. But I LOVE my cats.

I have some dear friends who do not like cats. One doesn’t like animals, period. A second has always had a dog and just doesn’t care for cats. A third loves dogs, but only English bulldogs for some reason, and cats are “aloof to the point of being appalling,” so sayeth he. A fourth professes to like cats a little, but is allergic. 

I don’t have to explain my admiration for domestic felines to avowed cat-fanciers. But I do find myself justifying my admiration of the species to many of my friends. Why do I like cats? They’re beautiful, graceful, smell good, and, what can I say-- are self-cleaning. Most admirable.

Why do I LOVE mine?

Because in addition to all the above, I take care of them.

It was a revelation to discover that at the root of abiding love is the experience of taking care of the beloved. Not what they did for me, but what I did for them.

That explains a lot. We take care of young and very old humans in diapers. We pick up after them and let them scream at us. And then, when they have worn us out, we love them even more.

It isn’t what is most glorious or glamorous; it’s the care they made us extend.

For once, I have some insight into the divine love for creation.

And before I get too sappy and waaaay too lofty here, I’m heading to clean the litter box.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

International Women’s Day

Tomorrow, says my wall calendar, is International Women’s Day.
Blimey if I know what that means.

I mean, I’m a woman. I was born one, and never changed. I’m also inter-national. I hold dual citizenships, and I was born with that, also. I’ve lived in different countries, and I speak more than one language.

So it’s my day, right?

I dun’ know. Why am I not feeling it?
©Noam Nadav

It occurred to me that the powers who declared this celebration could have done a better job to mark it. For the likes of me, who would rather eat soap than go to rah-rah marches, here are some of the celebratory ways I could relate to:

*On International Women’s Day— all stores shall sell all products designed to be used by women at half the price. And you’d have to be a woman to buy such.

*On International Women’s Day— every person who is not a woman will salute every woman they pass. Better yet, they’d bow down.

*On International Women’s Day— it will be mandatory to have free chocolate truffles dispensaries at every street corner for women only, and you’d get fined using it if you don’t, at the very least, look the part.

Now that^ would be a day to celebrate being a woman.

Until, and when, those who declare holidays in the land come to see the wisdom of my suggestions, I will celebrate International HUMAN Day instead.


Don’t mind me. Have fun.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Ever wonder about the backstory of pets or objects in your household?

Where was this antique embroidery before it came to rest on my dresser? Who was my kitty’s mother, and why was he left at the doorstep of the animal-shelter?

If I didn’t witnessed the birth, or in the case of an object— was there at its making, there’s a mysterious backstory I invariably find myself wondering about. And then...

I conjure a story.

Storytellers have this advantage. We can make up likely backstories, and even get so attached to the stories that we no longer know where our conjuring began, and when verifiable reality took over.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that history is filled with the same: someone filled a gap in certain knowledge, someone then repeated it, while citing the source, then a third scholar cited both as verifying each other, and voila—conjured backstory became history.

Bet it happens more than we think it does.

Back to my perch, conjuring backstories, I think how enjoyable it is for writers. We get to leave no stone unturned. We get to explain it all. Everything can—and then does—make sense. Even if I can allow for the unexplained, unexplainable, or unknown— my beta readers will insist I fill in every gap. Otherwise, they’d say, “This part doesn’t make sense.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

RAIN RANT or-- No Gaslighting,* Please

*A term borrowed from the movie GASLIGHT, meaning to make one believe she’s lost her mind and what she sees and knows just isn’t so.

I’m sitting by my window and watching yet another deluge, blessed rain though it is. I’m wondering about reality and perception. What else is a writing person to think about, under these wet circumstances?

The State of California officials tell us we’re still in drought, even with the snow-pack twice the normal average and the rainfall more than twice the normal pre-drought.

So much for trusting these governmental agencies. Brings up the Yiddish saying: you can’t pee on my back and tell me it’s raining. In this case, it is you can’t tell me we’re parched while we’re drowning.

Oh, I know. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve considered them seriously. I tried to respect the experts who said that maybe one percent of the state is still in drought. Maybe the snowpack will melt too early. Maybe April showers just won’t be.

And maybe my cats are not crying for food, but telling me they’ve decided to run for the presidency. Oh, wait. That last one could be true.

It’s never a great thing to manipulate the reality that's right in front of our noses, even for “good” or “noble” intentions.

One such explanation "for the good" is that if the drought-watch agencies say the drought is over for now, people won’t conserve water in the future.
News Flash: California has had droughts cycles for as long as I’ve been here, (that’s a very long time) and we have shown we know how to respond.

What is more likely to happen is that the next time we have a real drought, we’ll not believe what well-intentioned government agencies say.

Even worse, we won’t believe our own eyes.

Gaslighting is only all right in fiction, where it is a requirement. Outside of creative storytelling, it’s not okay. OK?

Tell the truth, Ruth.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Is there anything more beautiful than a heart?

Is there anything greater than giving your heart?

Yes, Sweetheart—

When combined with hearty chocolate—

I’ll be yours
And you’ll be mine
Happy Valentine

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Bio, About Me, and Stuff

Having just read yet another Bio page on someone’s website, it got me thinking.

Confession #1— that page is, invariably, my favorite page when I look someone up. I’m not referring to the people so famous there’s a Wiki page on them and books written about them. I’m thinking about the self-composed, let-me-tell-you-about-myself part of most folks’ websites. I get a lot from the personality of the narration (=voice) and the details chosen. Much more than a list of facts.

Confession #2— I’m disappointed if the page doesn’t contain a photo. Let me see your face, and you get to choose which picture you share. This is not a beauty contest. It is about revealing and sharing. Even what a website owner chooses for a bio photo tells me something.

Confession #3— I’m disappointed if instead of sharing pertinent and relevant information, you choose a list of “fun-facts.” The likes of “my favorite jelly bean flavor is cherry,” and “I once almost met the Queen of Sweden,” and nothing else, is not really a bio-fact, nor much fun. I conclude that you do not intend to give a real glimpse into what matters to you, and what makes you tick.

Confession #4— I’m never disappointed if while you told the truth and nothing but the truth, you didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth includes boring details and really, some things are not my business.

I tried to write a bio on my site that fits what I care to see on others. This, also, doesn’t make it right and the only way to do things. But it helped navigate this awkward task. I wrote it as if I were not the writer, nor the subject. I wrote it as if I were an interested reader.

Come to think of it, it’s how I write my stories and my blog posts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The BEING of the Writer

A friend who is also a writer, maybe the most gifted one I know personally, was lamenting about all the things a writer must have. As she has taken care to have most of these things, her lament was born of experience.

She is, yet, unpublished, although if there is any smidgen of justice in this life, she will be. She has a website, a blog, a backyard cottage with a dedicated writing room, a critique group, and an agent. She has gone on writing retreats, some rather costly. She has attended workshops. She has travelled to conferences in New York (also costly) and has a taken a two-years-long MFA course resulting in a master’s degree.

And she’s got the most germane thing of them all of all— the time and means to dedicate to writing.
And now, she told me, she has realized that while all of the above have given her this thing called the writing life, none of them is necessary. Great novels were written and published without their creators having these.

We broke it down thus:

WEBSITE— Good to have, but not absolutely necessary.

BLOG— Ditto

WRITING COTTAGE— a dedicated space is really nice and helpful, but not a must

CRITIQUE GROUP— this isn’t for every writer, and many never belong to a group

AGENT— Helpful, but, again, not an absolute must

WRITING RETREATS— Lovely and romantic, but the act of writing requires only a periodic inner retreat, not an actual cottage in the woods

WORKSHOPS and CONFERENCES— Helpful for some, not a must

ACADEMIC DEGREES— these never make a writer, but they could make a teacher

TIME and MEANS— many have managed their first books without having either

All these are helpful, and some are immensely so. But not one makes a great or even fine writer. The “business around The Business” will make you think otherwise. But they are selling the above.

As we talked about it, and wound up dismissing one item after another, we found ourselves laughing giddily at the energy expended on the periphery of the creative vortex. It’s lovely and interesting to “be a writer,” but no substitute to, ahmm, writing.

It’s a funny thing about writing. Whether it’s cute ditties or the great American novel, we don’t need much, nor should we use not having much as a reason not to. We only need to buckle up and do it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Game of... What?

I was walking with a friend, for a “walk & talk,” i.e. exercising the body and the mind.  We just had our mid-session coffee and were headed back. On a winding street, right next to their trash, neighbors had put some of their discards for the garbage folks to pick up.

One of those discards was a cat-perch & scratch contraption. I marveled that anyone would throw out a clean, unused looking and solidly built cat dream. I couldn’t afford such a delightful gift for my three humble felines, and they make due with cardboard circular scratch-a-ma-things. They’re happy anyhow, being of humble stock and having spent too much time in a shelter before we became their parents. But this could be a Cinderella story. A mini-palace just for them.

My friend and I carried it for two miles back home. There, I placed it on the porch, shampooed it just in case it contained some hidden vermin, and let it air for a day before bringing it in. As I worked to make sure it was indoor house-proper, I imagined the sad circumstances that might have caused someone to put it with the garbage.

The shortest story, one consisting of only six words, came to mind. Some say Hemingway wrote it when he wagered he could write a complete story in six or less:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

You can imagine the sad circumstances I was conjuring as possible back-story for our “find.”

But this one has a happy ending. You never know with cats, especially ones not used to fancy-froufrou, if our hauling this heavy tower, made of a plywood core, would appeal.

Since then, it’s been a revolving Who’s-on-top—

DD called it “our very own GAME OF THRONES.”

*We honor discards. One kitty’s garbage is another’s throne.*

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Do You Need an Agent?

Do you need an agent to publish?
Time was, in kid-lit, when the answer was that you may want an agent to provide the editorial support, submitting work, negotiating contracts, and general hand-holding, but you didn’t need one.

Do you need an agent nowadays?
Today you can self-publish and even launch a small press at a fraction of the cost of what it would have been in “olden days,” only a generation back. E-books and online book retailers have made marketing a possibility. The stigma of self-publishing is also receding some, and many traditionally published authors have done well moving that-a-way. You don’t need or want an agent to self-publish.

Do you need an agent if you want to be published by a publishing house that pays you?
You don’t need an agent for many of the smaller and self-started publishers who still accept unsolicited submissions directly from writers. Medium and larger houses may still accept submissions intermittently, or through personal contact with an editor after attending a seminar or conference with them. You need a great story and persistence, and an agent would be helpful. But you don’t absolutely need one.

But do you need an agent to get a traditional contract with any imprint of a large and established publisher if you have no contacts or the budget for conferences?

Yup. You pretty much do. You need an agent to even have a smidgen of a shot at that.

Grateful for my agent. She’s the definition of persistence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven

Almost ten years ago, when my daughter (though only ten years old then) already set her path as a pianist, I told her what I wanted her to play at my funeral. It was not a morbid conversation, but rather my way of pointing an exquisite piece of music to her attention.

You can hear it on this link, played with beautiful restraint by Dinu Lipatti—

Fast forward ten years, and DD, back home between semesters, had a recital scheduled in Berkeley for the last day of her break. She had programmed this chorale, J S Bach chorale prelude bwv 639, to be included in the concert. 

She polished it on our piano, and for ten days, it seemed that every time I walked into the room, my funeral music was playing. 

On Saturday January 7th 2017 she played it for the audience, and it was magnificent.

I figured that now I don’t have to go to, or even be at, my funeral. I can skip it, because I got to hear it already.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Letter P

Two-thousand and sixteen has been a challenging year for me. Personally, professionally, and politically.

I got through it with persistence, perseverance, and prayer.

The first two are second nature to me. I’m a stick-to-it person. 
The last is hard. I’ve never had a home with ritual prayer, though the creator knows I’ve tried.
Attempting proscribed prayers left me emptier and feeling like a phony. Personal prayer leaves me feeling like a false friend—one who talks to you only when they have a need. prayer, like this whole last year, has been hard for me.

So here goes, anyway:

May two thousand and seventeen be the year of personal courage, professional clarity, and may our leaders be not clever and smart, (a given, if they got to where they are) but wise.

       * As they say on Sesame Street, this post was brought to you by the letter P *

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sharing Light of Yesteryears, and a HAPPY *NEW* YEAR!

Gather, embrace
sing, and then preen
For all that has been
and all we have seen
Bye and goodbye 2016


Tuesday, December 27, 2016


That was the day before yesterday---

Photo of candle lighting second night taken by DD, so she’s not in it. The guys (DH, DS, and DD’s boyfriend) properly covered their heads and donned hats for the blessing of the candles—
A mad hatter’s party^

The night before that one was the first night of Hanukah. DD is vegan now, so I worried about how eggless latkes would pass for the real thing. I needn’t have. The vegan latkes were successful, maybe better than ever.

DS and DD had just returned from a wonderful all-day hike in Point Reyes. DS then proceeded to put on a Santa outfit and head with a sack of gifts for the little kids in the house next door. He does it at the neighbors’ request, and from the fact they ask him to please do it every year, he must be a good one. Nothing like a Jewish Santa! Only after DS’s Santa duty could we all light the Hanukkah menorah, sing songs, and EAT.

The only thing that went wrong was that DD came back without her wallet. She thought she might have lost it on the second of three buses they took, but couldn’t be sure. It had her bankcard, her ID, her Juilliard student ID card, her dorm room key, and some more things... Oh, and there was money also. All the cash she had.

The office for Marin Transit Bus Company was already closed, (Christmas eve) and would be for the next day. (Christmas day) We thought it might be closed Monday. (Christmas Day observed in offices) We had no way to call their lost & found.
We figured that if it isn’t located by the time we call on Tuesday, we‘d have a lot of work to do to replace everything. What a shame.
As my grandma would have said, “it’s always something.

Now for the rest of the story---

DD called the bus company Monday just in case someone would be there, and a woman answered. DD didn’t have to say much, only that she may have left a purple wallet on bus line #68, when the lady asked, “do you go to Juilliard?”

Yup, they had her wallet. That afternoon we drove to san Raphael to the central terminal to collect it, and everything was in it.

But there’s more---

DD said there’s twice as much cash inside than she had before. All her IDs are there, and someone added some $$$.

Well, that’s our Hanukkah story, and we’re sticking to it.

Here’s hoping your holidays are joyous,

Sunday, December 25, 2016


Although they fall roughly on the same month, only a few times in every century do Christmas and Hanukkah actually occur at the same time. That is-- the first day of Hanukkah (beginning the evening before according to Jewish tradition) is also Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is also the evening of first candle lighting. 
This is one of those years.

If you celebrate both, or either, this one’s for you—

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Bad, the Competent, the Good, and the GREAT

I took the title of this post from Stephen King’s book ON WRITING, a Memoire of the Craft.
Confession: I’m one of the few who has yet to read a Stephen King novel, though I know I have read one of his short stories a long time ago. This very good and uber-successful author writes horror stories. I don’t read horror. Ah, the horror!

But I got a strong recommendation to read his book on writing, and it turned out to be a delight. The writing advice is solid if standard fare, but the memoire parts are a testament to why he is the Stephen King— a vivid story teller of the first order.

Mr. King puts members of his profession into four categories.  He sees this classification much like the government’s food pyramid, with the bottom having a larger mass than the pinnacle top.
At the bottom are the Bad Writers. Mr. King hints that a few are commercially so successful they live a life of luxury in the Caribbean. (Who could he be talking about? I have my list)

Above them, in smaller numbers, are Competent writers, who comprise much of the work-for-hire, journalistic, and other pretty decent writing we encounter. Competent writers have the ear for cogent expression, but their stories lack wings.

Above the competent are the Good writers, and Mr. king suggests he is in that layer. Good writers have solid technique and tell good stories.

At the very top are The GREATS.  Think Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, or Eudora Welty.

Mr. King believes that no amount of teaching will turn a bad writer into a competent one. They lack the ear, or they wouldn’t have been bad to begin with. He insists that no how-to course or mentoring will make a good writer into a GREAT. The Greats are divine accidents.

The teaching and coaching have a place in the middle of the pyramid. There, the competent, who, if they listen well, try hard, and work at it, could become good.

I tend to agree. I see this in all fields, though it’s most pronounced in artistic pursuits. It fits with a certain perception, one divergent from Malcolm Gladwell’s and his ten-thousand hours of work to any expertise.

But then I wonder: how wise or true is it to have rigid classifications? It organizes the mind, and is fun in its way, but how deeply true?

Here is my other confession for today: I really don’t know, and I know that I don’t. Organization and classification (like these pyramids) make for easy, comprehendible and jauntier stories.

I don’t know about the substance of King’s notions, but trusting some of the best readers I’ve known, Stephen King is nothing if not a Great storyteller.  Maybe his system is just another one of his stories, cooked for easy digestibility.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Take the Day

In the Jewish Home, where my mother passed her last eighteen months, I met one of most magical people ever. Ben was a marvel. He was a resident who, by the time my mother moved in, had been there a few years.

On set days and times, Ben played the pianos on every floor for other residents. It wasn’t official, but he had a job—making music for those who were not mobile and couldn’t leave their floor. Sometimes he played the grand piano at the common area on the first floor, right next to his room. He’d shuffle over carrying his sheet music, sit down at the keyboard, and make marvelous music just for himself, with the whole house watching.
He shared my mother’s birthday month, and at the luncheon for all the residents who had a birthday then, he sat next to my mother. She glowed. I did, too. Ben was not only handsome; he was radiant. Ben was beautiful.

Wanting to make conversation, but already suffering from dementia, my mother made a valiant effort to connect with him and make a friend. It must be a Jewish trait, for he answered every question with first repeating it. The conversation went something like this--

My mother: “Are you very old today?”
Ben: “Am I very old? Just old enough.”
My mother: “What is that?”
Ben: “What is that? Ninety-two.”
My mother: “That is too old.”
Ben: “Too old? Yes, it is.”
My mother: “How long will you live?”
Ben: “How long? They give me a day, I take it.”

This last line stayed with me. My mother lived for another year and four months, and passed away eight years ago. Ben still lives. He is one hundred-years-old.

 I try to begin each day by saying what he said. I’ll take it.