Tuesday, September 20, 2016

PROTOTYPE and SINGULARITY

“Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough,
but not baked in the same oven.”
—Yiddish Proverb
Aside from the notion of whether it is nature or nurture that shapes personality, and with it, destiny, there is something that every writer must struggle with and every reader must decide whether to accept or reject: how stereotypical can a character be before we call the narrative racist, or sexist, or simply poor and formulaic? There is nothing to make the character singular and thus fully fleshed out.
And the other side of the coin is really the same question, only read in reverse: how unusual can a character be before we exclaim that such person would never do this or say that? Would a twelve-year-old use proper archaic English they could have only glimpsed from Shakespeare? Would a four-year-old remember something that happened when they were two? Both are possible, but not typical, and many would say are unbelievable.
I ask, because I have read enough reviews, given reviews, or gotten feedback, and have seen both reactions. “Formulaic,” and “unbelievable.”

Classical musicians face similar balancing dilemmas when interpreting well-known pieces of music. A piece of music must sound different and new, thus it lives. But it can’t be so singular that the composer wouldn’t recognize it, and the listener would have their expectations smashed.


I like the Yiddish proverb above, because it reminds me of this delicate balance: similar, but not the same. Made of the basic stuff, but formed into a different shape.


A delicate, almost undefinable balance. A good visual is the tightrope walker. I think of her as I dialogue with my characters, and pray I don’t miss a step and fall off.


©Tightrope Walker by Seiltänzerin (1913)



Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ethical Questions



There are places where we don’t expect high ethical conduct, and are pleasantly surprised to find it. (Example: Does anyone expect insurance companies to be driven by high moral standards? The astonishment of positive encounters with such suggests we don’t.)
Then there are situations where ethics are a must, because trust is the foundation of these alliances. (Example: with physicians, therapists, or teachers. The astonishment of negative encounters suggests we had assumed the very best ethics from them.)


Having had, personally and through friends and family, some positive and negative experiences lately, I got to thinking about ethics and the gap between what we say and what we do. I say “we,” because while I am not guilty of most of the mentioned below, I can’t and won’t exclude myself from the abundance of failures, often explained as “that's how it’s done,” and “this is the real world, darling.”


But it got me wondering, and questioning. No reasoned answers in this post, just questions. I would love yours: the questions and the answers, if you’re so inclined.

These are all examples of things I have come to realize happen all the time.


*Is it all right to play editors against each other in a bidding war for manuscripts?

* Is it all right to look for a job while you still have a job?

*Is it all right to look for an agent while you have an agent?

*Is it all right to look for a spouse/partner while you have a spouse/partner?

*Is it all right to say publicly you are an in-network provider but say privately you will only treat privately “on the side,” for much more $$?

*Is it all right to take a friend’s confidential confessional life story and publish it without their consent?

*Is it all right to ghost-write and for $$ let the payer put his name on it?

* Is it all right to promote a friend’s product/book while having a less than high opinion of it?

While most are legal, I’m not one to see any as truly ethical.  What do you think?



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When the Universe Sends a Message…

After the dry spells, the rain must-needs-come.  
(Paraphrasing Matthew 18:7)


This August I got some revision work done, and critiques for others. What I couldn’t manage were original stories. I was as dry as a California summer, which also happens to be where I live.
But September, and its promise of rain, did not disappoint.

Walking with a friend, we chanced upon a group of lady-walkers. I suppose we were a group, also. A group of two to their five.

My walking companion recognized one of the ladies, and a lively hello and a series of introductions followed. At some point the fact of my writing for children was mentioned, and the next thing I knew, one of the newly introduced ladies exclaimed, “Are you THE writer of the wonderful….” 

That book was published five years ago and had a very limited release. The publisher closed its doors shortly after. I hand-sold copies to bookstores close by, and they always sold out. I also gave a few to friends. I still have some left, as do a couple of the local stores, and Amazon.


I confess I was surprised. I don’t expect, nor do I get, my name recognized. Especially in connection to this modest release.
The lady proceeded to tell me she read it to her grandchildren many times, and it’s one of their favorites.
 All right, now I should be blushing. But instead, as soon as I got back home, I felt inspired to start a new story.
A chance encounter broke the dry spell. The party’s on, and I’m back! 

Sometimes I just need to know someone is reading what I wrote.

Welcome September, and welcome rain.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Accentuate the POSITIVE

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene…
©1944 Johnny Mercer

This old song typifies the approach some take in their social presence, and these days Facebook may be the face of this sentiment. Grinning with thumbs-up, “look how wonderful me and mine are faring,” and “smile, smile, smile!”

The other side is simply called Headline News. This accounts for most of what we consume as news-worthy: terrorism, spectacular crimes, the public disgrace of famous individuals and the general cries that the sky is falling. That’s the “pandemonium” that walks upon the scene.


I have concluded that the reason I often feel out of place is that I am, congenitally, in-between.

When we write stories, a balance brings wisdom and insight. This is where “Mister-In-Between” is sorely needed.

I love Mister-In-Between. I’m his Missus, or his Miss, or whatever goes in between. Ms./Miz?

Maybe we can start the In-Betweeners movement. You know, for those whose homes are neither squeaky clean nor messy. For those who like their food neither bland nor super spicy.
And most of all, for those who seek balance.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) called for moderation in all things. This centuries-old guidance still holds.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Writing Trough the Hard & Dry Patches

There is a  of video showing Ellen DeGeneres crying at the intro to her (otherwise upbeat) talk show, saying that “today is a bad day.” She tells her audience that she’s been asked how she can go on when she’s sad.
Some days, some weeks, some months, are just like that. The show must go on.  Ellen did.

For us, functioning on a less glamourous plane, this state is still familiar. What to do when there is no contract, no deadline set, and no external reason to go on? Creative folks have all encountered this. I sure have.

I've heard writers tell others to go for a walk, or set a manuscript aside for a time, or do something nice for themselves. Some swear by chocolate. Coffee works better for me. But then, I start my good days with it anyway.

Some think talk therapy is part of the answer, and there are therapists who specialize in plowing through and out of creative dry spells. I never had the budget for such, but I wouldn’t hesitate if I had.

There’s a third way, and it’s the only one that has worked for me. I call it “write anyway.” I have also told progeny, when they hit a wall, that you only know how to get out of a ditch by actually climbing out, a.k.a. doing it.

Something about grinding the wheels and suspending the critic inside (and the sabotaging voices outside) while creating, has been therapeutic for me.
It doesn’t actually matter that the results are not golden, the process is.

You’re back in it, and the stalled engine is starting to rev up.
 Vroom--- vroom, go!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Nest… Never Know What’s/Who’s in It

Allow me this frivolous empty-headed meditation on the empty nester in summer.


It is summer, and the heat makes me lose more than a few IQ points. Summer also means that my kids, not quite children but not quite adults, (though technically they can vote and sign documents, but that’s another thing) come and go. I frankly don’t know from one day to the next “who’s for dinner.”

When they were really kids, and really lived here, it was “what’s for dinner.” Things change. But only slightly.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the notion that Mom can be interrupted at any time, because she is, y’know, MOM.

Not conducive to meditation, drafting, or any task that requires earnest focus. Heat doesn’t help, either.

In other words, these days should be cherished and respected for what they are good for.

Like—



And taking a brain break.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Was I LUCKY?

In the middle of June, I was a victim of crime.
It happened like this:
Before eight, still in my nightgown, the doorbell rang. I peeked through the curtain in my room to see a tall, burly, African American man, wearing a dark hoodie and holding a brick in his hand. I realize it reads like a bad-dude cliche, but I tell it as it was. I went to get DH up from his downstairs office. Something about the doorbell ringer felt “wrong,” somehow. 

Before DH had a chance to even stand up, BOOM! —a loud thud, the house shook, and the door upstairs was kicked-in.

I, always leery of guns, said, “he’s IN,”  and then I added, “get the gun!”
 DH managed to get his gun and run upstairs as loudly as he could. I heard a scuttle. I called 911. I let them know it was ongoing.

I was too scared to go upstairs, but when DH came down they had run away. (I only saw one, but DH confronted two.) The first was in our bedroom, and ran out with “something.” Only after the police arrived (within minutes) I realized the burglar had taken my pocket book.

They escaped in a car that was waiting for them downstairs, a Subaru-like gold or gray SUV with a sunroof.

I have alerted the bank, and the credit bureaus, and something called ChexSystems. (This last one recommended by my bank.) All accounts were closed. As they took all my seeing glasses, (those were in my pocketbook) I couldn’t drive until I had an exam and glasses made. My address book with many addresses that I still wonder how to retrieve, was also in the robbers’ possession. Not that they can get much from it. Some of the people in it are not living anymore. It was that old.

Weeks later, we were notified by a check-cashing service that someone tried to cash one of my (by then canceled and account closed) checks. They provided a phone number where someone pretending to be me said she indeed wrote that check. They have the crook on camera. The police have a detective on the case.
These criminals are not just brutes, they’re not very smart. In the end they got nothing they could use.

I have had friends and neighbors tell me we were lucky. It could have been so much worse. That brick could have been used to bash my head. They could have gotten more stuff. They could have had a gun.

So why do I feel so unlucky?

Too many people are victims. As I shared the story with dear friends, they opened up about their brushes with brutality. We made jokes about the difference between outlaws and in-laws. You know, the first burst in and leave quickly, the second burst in and… you get it.

Suggestion: do not tell crime victims they were lucky. It is well-meant, but let time convey this, seeping in as all experiences that awaken us will do.


The physical damage is relatively light. The emotional will take time to absorb. It took me almost two months to write this post.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

August Days

Nothing much happens in August.

August is when the Parisians leave Paris for calmer grounds.
August is when the well-heeled English go to the country to do little other than drink gin-fizz.
August is when school children sit by the lake and learn to throw stones that will skip the water’s surface. Any other learning will wait.


August is HOT.
I remember coming for a family visit to Israel in the summer of 2005. I was greeted by my sister at the airport, and her second sentence was, “you have a lot of courage to come in August.”


It was hot.


So, dear ones—let your minds rest, let your feet up, and keep the chocolate in the fridge. Don’t struggle; let August be August.


 It’s what it is, and then it’s over.




Tuesday, July 26, 2016

WHY Won’t They Publish…?

There are a lot of websites and blogs that offer nice checklists to go through and make certain a manuscript is ready for submission or publication. Just internet-search any variation of this post’s title, and you’ll be amazed. Help is there.

The thing is-- none of these checklists, handy-dandy though they be, really tells you if your offering will get published. You may go through these point by point and remain frustrated.

Here's a typical, and sensible, list to consider:

*Is the story properly classified? Have you submitted to the right publishers/agents? Check/Check

*Have you taken care of typos and other pesky technical things? Check

*Is the premise unique? Check

*Is the premise not so unique that no one knows what to make of it? Check

*Are the stakes high enough? The plot riveting enough? The characters engaging enough? Check/Check/Check

*Have you run it by good readers who would tell you the truth? Check

And so on, and so forth. Now what?
---


I don’t have the answer. But the single thing I find most helpful, inspiring and encouraging— is go to my local bookstore. (Yup, I’m lucky to still have many nearby.) There, I read recently published books aimed at the same readers I am working for.
© By Karla Gudeon

Inspiring, because the level is generally high and the examples push me to excel. Encouraging, because some of the books are not nearly as good as they could be, and I believe I can do as well or better. Helpful, because the best checklist is to simply read good books that made the bar, and try to understand why.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Pesky Typo…

…and the Homophone that Snuck by L


Despite having been read and re-read by the author (me) too many times to count, and three beta readers, (one of them a retired editor) and three editors at the publishing house, there is a misspelling in one of my published books.  Nope, not telling where or what. But it served to remind me that only G-d is perfect.
I found a list of the most common typos, and you might recognize one or more as your recurrent oopsies. —
 https://www.onlinewritingjobs.com/writing-tips/the-most-common-typos-your-ultimate-guide/
My no. #1 is in there. Even if I tried to post anonymously, I’d be recognized by it. For reasons only G-d knows, my “from” always insists on appearing as a “form.” Is this a neurological hick-up? I can’t rightly say. But, fortunately, it’s one I catch in proofreading. Well, most of the time.

The excellent advice to read out loud when proofing does not help with homophones. If anything, it tends to push them deeper into the basket. It sounds all right, and, phew, it must be.
Na-ah.
Case in point: I scoured my current WIP. Then it was read by three beta readers, one of them an editor. It was the fourth reader who caught this one: BROACH and BROOCH are not the same thing. The first is a verb and the second, which is the one I intended, is an old-fashioned piece of jewelry often worn on a woman’s lapel.

OUCH. I just got stung by the pin of a brooch.
And I also witnessed, again, the elusiveness of perfection.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

THE WAY WE WERE

memories…
light the corners of my mind…


A  few weeks ago, reunion fever spread amongst my classmates. I’m talking about my high school class, my youth-movement group, and my old scout troop. I don’t recall large get-togethers in previous decades. All at once, there was a “come-now-or-miss-this-once-in-a-lifetime-event” sentiment.




I grew up half a world away, and managing a trip was not to be. But this electronic and global age has a solution for this. Internet video-chat, sharing photos, and instant communication anytime/anywhere, bridge time-zone differences that turn night into day. Unlike me, some made the actual voyage back to Jerusalem, and the parties went on throughout the month of June.

But for all the merriment, there was a troubling aspect: familiar names I couldn’t quite place, and aged-faces that drew a blank. I am certain my name and face was a blank for some.

I started wondering about the corners of my mind.

Then I got a few urgent (if embarrassed) emails from old friends I have kept in touch with. They needed my help to remember others. I actually remembered at least as much as they had, maybe more.  

It wasn’t early dementia setting in, it was the ephemeral aspect of memory, that store-if-you-need-it-for-later, and then lose-it-if-you-didn’t-use-it.

Seeing images of the faces from our youth, all was restored. I just had to join names to the young faces, and then attach them to the faces of today.


This got me thinking about how I write characters and their memories. In fiction, people remember a whole lot. It’s a device necessary to convey back-story or make sense of a plot. But I now see how unrealistic it is.

What I once considered to be fantasy, The Bourne Identity, where a character with a partially-erased and fractured memory is globe-trotting in search of who he is, turns out to be closer to reality than the standard realistic stories I thought I was writing.



Misty water color memories of the way we were
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind…


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Real Independence

Now that we have just marked our nation’s 240th year of independence, I got to thinking about what it means. Not only the national, but the personal. What does it take to rightfully call oneself independent?
 
There’s independence of thought. How influenced am I by the current winds?
There’s independence of action. Do I do what others think I should?
There’s independence of the sacred inner-self. Have I sold out?
 
I’m inclined to see myself as rather dependent on many things. Inter-dependent is probably the way to describe it. True independence requires clear vision and immense courage.
While I am too proud, too stubborn, and too quick to opine, all these negatives are remnants of what streak of independence has not been squashed.
We celebrate “independence,” but do we mean it? Do we really celebrate it?
I’ll think about it not only today, but the next time I witness real courage. This is what flying the flag will mean to me, and this is what the national anthem will stand for; after a long battle, our flag was still there.
May your flag still be there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

About Author Branding

The world of commerce pushes brands. Now, I hear, we must even brand ourselves if we want to make it in any arena.
If you haven’t heard of author branding— don’t believe me. Just internet-search these two words. We are no longer artistic vehicles for good literature; we must write and continue to write the same kind of stories. Or, put another way, we can write what we want, but being successful depends on writing the same sort of material.
We’ve heard of actors lamenting they are offered the same sort of role over and over. Some famous authors say they are deemed capable of one genre only, and we chuckle at these poor successful souls who have what many desire: success in an impossibly competitive field. But at the same time, we shudder at the rigid educational tracking of a child, or the stereotyping of a person by race, or the judging of an individual by nationality. Now that is just awful. Right?
Fact: In 1900, L. Frank Baum published two books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors. Yup, the very same L. Frank Baum. Good thing he didn’t know about branding.
 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

This Way—NO—That Way

What to do when trusted critics give advice that contradicts your sense? Anyone who’s ever asked for opinion on their work has been there.
Early on in my writing for publication I turned down an offer to revise and re-submit from a small publisher. Reason? They wanted a different ending to the story. A perfect and happy hanky-dory ending didn’t suit the story, I thought. It wound up being published by another publisher who asked for revisions, but saw the merit of the ending as it was.
Although I don’t regret staying with my vision then, I would do it differently now. This is how I approach revision suggestions today: I try it.
It’s painful and even feels wrong at times. But I have learned that trying to re-fashion per others’ suggestions is never a waste.
Best case scenario: you love the results.
 
Worst case scenario: you, and maybe even the suggester, wind up agreeing the re-direction was a dud. I have learned a lot about my stories when revising, even with clenched teeth.
 
 
Most likely it will be some combination. But like the Green Eggs and Ham fellow, you will know a whole lot more if you try it.
 

 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Teach Our Children Well

On this day, June 14, in the year 1642, the first compulsory education law in America passed by Massachusetts.
There are some amongst us who believe the laws should not interfere with parental choices, or that our government should not be invested in general education of the young, but they are outliers. Most of us recognize that the difference to all our lives, and the future of our societies, lies in support of education. Some of it must be done communally.
Let’s put it this way: without compulsory public education, communally supported, we will find ourselves where some third world countries are: parents paying daily to send their young to be schooled, and if one week the family’s short of puls (Afghani pennies) or Tambalas (Malawi pennies) – children must stay home that week.
Private education should always be a choice, just as we strive to make the public education as good as we can. But leaving it to the whim and sometimes meager pocketbook of parents should not be an option.
Obviously we who write, and cannot imagine a full life that doesn’t include reading, want a society that values this.
So today calls for a celebration. This day three-hundred and seventy-four years ago, (let me think… that’s eighteen score and seven years ago. Now doesn’t that sound learned?) some of our nation’s founders, before there was even a notion of becoming a nation, started us on the road to something truly grand.

So as the summer vacation starts all over the land, we rejoice that there is what to have a vacation from.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why We Write*

*--Otherwise known as the other Big W Question

I’m re-reading a lovely collection of successful writers’ accounts, called WHY WE WRITE. It serves as a nice break between revisions, and for some reason I believe I deserve a break.
 

I enjoy the take of these incredibly talented and phenomenally successful folks on why and how they do what they do. From my humble perch, I recognize the process, and feel closer to some than to others.

It was something Armistead Maupin said about the “why” that struck not only a nerve, but turned the light switch to illuminate, at least for me. I quote:

I write to explain myself to myself. It’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it.”

Life’s journey is understood in stories. In fiction we can organize the twists, and make the hairpin turns be more than pointless moments of extreme anxiety, but part of the whole. Everything fits, all for a reason, and endurance is heroic.

I also love that Maupin used the word symmetry. I’m a sucker for symmetry. I had spent many years working with traditional textiles, and getting comfort from their use of symmetry.


18th Century embroidery from Karabagh



I have a writing friend who is a master puzzle-maker. Puzzles work this way as well; everything fits, and one thing ties to another. The anxiety of solving a puzzle, persevering while mulling the clues, can be exasperating. But in the end every square is filled, everything in place, and, to use a famous quotation from Robert Browning—

God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A House Divided

You won’t find me making many, or any, political statements. Once I passed my younger youth, I no longer found sustenance in that arena, nor much deep wisdom in political discourse.  I’d go as far as to say that I watched good people become unkind and even senseless when they took to the barricades.
Unless you count love of country, you won’t get me clicking on likes or re-tweeting statements from politicos. They’ll have to have their revolutions without me.
But this is the season here in the U.S.A. So my one forage into the minefields is to suggest the absurdity of a statement I keep hearing variation of from many directions: “The country had never been more divided.”

HEHHH? We had a civil war, people!

In the Civil War of the 1860s-- 2% of Americans died. That would be the equivalent of six and a half million people today. That’s not counting the maimed, or the homes destroyed and the fields burned.
 
And the vitriol that is hurled with regularity every election cycle has, even in recent times, been more pungent. I suffer from many things, but amnesia isn’t one of them.

My only antidote is, in my personal and public conduct, to affect and maybe effect calm thoughtfulness.
We may have to wait until December for the next wave to pass.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

WINNING and LOSING

Or—
Now, be Nice

In this election cycle, the word “win” and “lose” are ubiquitous. One of the candidates, in particular, is fond of framing the world in those terms.

This got me thinking about what feels like winning or losing to me.

In worldly terms it’s only a bit complicated. The only distinction that seems to require discernment has to do with relationships vs. material gains, and which brings the greater sense of achievement. Steve Jobs, nearing the end of his life, said this:

I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.
In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.
However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.from work, I have little joy. Finally my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.
Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends...
Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbours.
Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends…
Treat everyone well, and stay friendly with your neighbors.

At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley imparted this simple wisdom:
We should be nicer to one another.”

That does not take away the wish to win worldly prizes. But it puts it in some perspective.

It’s also empowering to sense that I can be a winner by my own choices, and what I can control.

Like I say to my cats when they swat at each other, “be nice.”
~NICE IS NO VICE~


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Success by Blitz?

The question comes up now and then on kid-lit chat boards— when is it right to follow-up on a reply from an agent or editor, when the reply was a rejection?
 
It’s simpler than simple: when the rejection included an invitation to submit again, either a revision or other work. And then, ONLY if you made the revision per the suggestions, or the other work is at least as (or even more) right for this house or agency.
All other follow-ups are not welcome.
 
My agent has had to close her doors to unsolicited subs because people "followed-up," when not specifically invited to, with a barrage of "more work from me, since you were so nice" variation.
 

I confess that I’ve been guilty of this, with some too-nice editors, when I was a newbie. My excuse was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Specifically, I’ve never seen a slush-pile in person. They are so high they could hold the second story up like pillars, pushing up against the ceiling. I’ve never opened my Email to have a thousand emails pour in.

But that was then, and I’ve learned. By the time I started approaching agents, I knew better. No one got a follow-up unless they asked.
 
There are stories of success, in the uber-competitive professions, that involve unbridled blitzing. But, for the most part, these are urban legends. Mostly such have succeeded in closing the gates to self and others.
 
 
 
I know it’s hard to get in the door. If it were easy, everyone would have their starring role in a movie and their published novel. It’s hard, and discouraging, and if only…
 

 
Here’s the deal: life is better spent perfecting the craft, and following the golden rule. Worldly success may or may not follow, but one’s contribution to the general pot would have been good, regardless.
Save your wits—do not blitz