Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book Memory

In anticipation of meeting Ann M. Martin on Thursday, for the release of her much anticipated prequel: The Summer Before, I started to think about all the things I loved about The Babysitter's Club series when I was a kid.

Despite the fact that I read every single Babysitter's Club book in existence...I have absolutely no memory of any one of them in any kind of detail.

This made me think a lot about my memories of books. They always seem to be small, simple, strange snapshots. A hazy look at what happened once, long ago, in a quick moment. Most of the plots have completely escaped my mind.

So, I thought it might be interesting if I re-capped some of the strange things I remember about my favorite books as a child...

The only distinct memory I have of The Babysitter's Club is Claudia Kishi's phone. Claudia Kishi had her own phone. In her room. This was epic. A lot of girls wanted a phone just like Claudia Kishi's.

The only thing I remember about Black Beauty is that my childhood friend, Mimi, loved this book and had a very melodramatic, romantic image of herself riding across green pastures with her her hair flying through the wind. I hope you lived out that dream, Mimi, wherever you are...

I know the basic plot of Charlotte's Web, but what I remember most is the cover. Charlotte's hair looked like pencil scratches with thin and messy swirls.

The only thing I remember about Heidi is that I left the book in my friends backyard. And it rained. When I recovered it, it had dried up and all of the pages were stuck together. When I tried to separate them, they would rip. All the beautiful pictures were blurred.

I remember nothing about Sweet Valley Twins, another series I devoured. I think one of the twins might have been named Jessica. I feel it would be unfair to google it now. I just remember that when I got to the next level, Sweet Valley High, things got A LOT racier. I actually didn't want to tell my mother I was reading these books and decided to confiscate them from myself before she did. (Oh my goodness, was I that prude?!)

I had a similar experience with Flowers In The Attic. But I was a bit older by this time. My friend Kim recommended it, with the caveat that this had to be read in the library stacks after school, not at home. I knew that everything that was going on in this book was seriously naughty. And now I have all kinds of weird affinities for stories about incest (don't judge.)

My favorite book as a tween (although I'm not sure what they were calling that age back then) was Homecoming by Cynthia Voight. It was about a group of siblings. I don't remember the where, the why, the what. Only the how. They walked, by foot to their destination (I'm talking across state lines.) There was a beautiful sister, who couldn't speak. The themes are shockingly similar to the novel I am writing now.

I think it's interesting that the books I sigh over and remember with such fondness, books that instilled a love of reading and a love of story, books that I could not get enough of and begged my parents to buy for me or take out of the library, told stories I can not, for the life of me, remember. I think it may be time to scour the old bookshelves in my childhood home and figure out exactly why I even like to read. Geeze.

How well do you remember the books you read as a child?

Photo: Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Monday, March 29, 2010


I figure I owe you all an update on what's been going on with my manuscript.

1. Spared is still the working title of the novel. It's stuck around the longest of any title so far and I don't even have room left in my brain to wonder about it anymore. So that's it! For now.

2. I am on the 200th revision of my query letter. I think it's looking pretty good. I have a PR guru willing to look at it. I guess we'll see if the pitch is punchy enough for the publicity peeps.

3. I've received 2nd-hand, quick, more-to-come feedback from a beta reader who said simply: "I love it. I love her style and 'turns of phrases'". That's always good to hear. Especially when the reader is a published writer. (After hearing this, I immediately reverted to middle school and asked, did she say 'like'. Or 'love'? Are you sure it was 'love'? 'Cause there's a big difference between 'like' and 'love', ya know. I was assured it was 'love', but I still don't believe we're going to the dance.)

4. I've also received more in-depth feedback from a beta reader that provided me with A LOT of valuable insight for my next edit.

5. It's in the hands of 2 more readers from my original writing group who were with this thing from the very beginning, when it was in absolute shambles.

6. I'm working on line editing what I have, knowing there may be some additional chapters and re-worked chapters from the incoming feedback. I already have a lot to think about regarding some of the pacing and plot points that need to be fleshed out more. Or the ones that need to take a step back.

7. That's about it on the novel front.

8. In other news: On Thursday I will meet Ann M. Martin, author of the Babysitter's Club series, and consequently die a happy woman.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I'll Drink To That

I am a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. His musicals have always been an inspiration to me. I often sit back and listen to his lyrics in awe. The way he plays with words in 'A Little Priest' from Sweeny Todd is nothing short of delightful to listen too. And his characters and stories are so well developed in a place where big musical numbers and costumes and dynamic staging often take precedence.

'Company' is one of my favorite Sondheim musicals. A friend suggested I see D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about the making of the cast album, which is a fascinating look at the way an album is made. Though I've seen it years ago, one part of this documentary has always stuck with me: Elaine Stritch singing 'Ladies Who Lunch', a powerful song coming from a bitter, judgemental character struggling with alcoholism. Elaine Stritch had a lot of trouble singing the song for the album and the documentary captured her painstaking struggle almost...well...beautifully. It's not easy to capture frustration beautifully. But this does.

In any case, the more takes she tried to sing the more frustrated she grew. Everyone around her dissected her vocals to an excruciating level of detail. The directors, the producers, Sondheim himself, all shook their heads. Take after take. It wasn't right. It just wasn't right. But, what struck me most was that, as hard as the rejection was on her, nothing was more apparent than how hard she was on herself. Literally, ringing her hair out, listening back to her recordings, take after take, shouting at herself, willing herself to get it perfect, settling for nothing less.

I thought about this moment in the documentary today. Because, this whole writing thing... it's really hard. I don't have to give you all the reasons it's hard. You know all of them and you know them all too well.

And, as often as we experience rejection, more of the time we're beating ourselves up. Our paragraphs are just not good enough. Our word choices are not quite right. Our characters are not yet perfect.

It's hard. It's not going to get any easier and, yet, WE'RE DOING IT ANYWAY. No one is rewarding us and we're certainly not rewarding ourselves.

So since nobody else is going to say it, I will. Because I was lucky enough to hear it from a writer friend last night, it's only fair to pass it along. All this work you're doing. It's pretty incredible. This is the hard work of legends, my friends. Just ask Elaine Stritch. And as she said so famously in the now-classic, completed, perhaps perfect rendition of 'Ladies Who Lunch': I'll drink to that.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Time to Write

As the warm weather begins to find its way to the Northeast, I've been thinking a lot about my writing schedule. Or the lack of one...

I value time spent outdoors and when it's sunny, I do not like to stay inside and write. My schedule is flimsy, to say the least, and it is flexible. I don't plan to write every day. I write when I have 'time' to write. I give up activities to write. And I give up writing to engage in activities. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it.

These are the things I will give up writing for (and not feel guilty)
Spending time with Tyler
Dinner or drinks with friends and family
Visits with friends and family
A Bike Ride
A hike
Working Out
Taking the night off after a particularly difficult/emotional/stressful day at work

Here are things I give up writing for (and feel guilty)
Being on facebook
Watching television
Reading blogs
Browsing the internet

Now, it should be said that I don't have the hours from 7:30am to 7pm to write. These are the hours I spend working full time and travelling to and from the office. I like to go to bed no later than 12:30am. And I consider that late.

So, you see, that I have roughly 5 hours per night to do everything else. There are several things pulling me away that make me feel guilty (I have to think about those). And there are even more things pulling me away from writing that I value or are absolutely necessary. I think my priorities are pretty appropriate. But if any of the non-necessity activities become available to me at any given time then the manuscript gets placed in a drawer. And it never. Gets. Done.

This makes me think I need an actual schedule. I'm not sure how it's going to work, but I think something needs to be put in place. The flexibility is great, but perhaps it's getting out of hand. Perhaps the things I value need a more specific time slot (my goodness, has it really come to that?) Whatever the case, I'm mulling it over...

So, tell me, please. How flexible are you with your writing time?

Do you write every day at a specific time no matter what?

Do you give up the things you value in order to write?

What things take precedence over your writing?

What things take precedence over your writing that maybe shouldn't?

Inquiring minds want to know...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Surprise Query Critique

The week that I unplugged, I was the recipient (i.e. victim) of a surprise query critique (i.e. query killing).

A few weeks ago a literary agency was accepting queries for critique and agreed to post the critiques of 7 lucky queries on their blog. I entered the contest on a whim, sent my query out and a week or two later, I was surprised to read the blog and find that my poor, little query was featured!

I nearly hid under a desk.

All I can say is thank goodness it was anonymous. I'm not going to direct you to the post because I'm still embarrassed. But I will give you some query tips:

1. Don't have an awkward opening! My sentences were too wordy. Keep it short and attention grabbing.

2. Sell your character! Not just your plot! The letter did not share enough information about who my character is. I was all wrapped up in selling my plot, I didn't share enough about the person behind it.

3. Make exciting plot points...exciting! Apparently, my plot was considered dynamic, but the telling of it was flat and boring. Use dynamic sentences to explain dynamic adventures.

4. Don't bury your character's psychological struggle! I would imagine this is only relevant if you have a character-driven novel (as I do). Any trauma or struggle he or she may need to overcome should be highlighted upfront.

5. Don't capitalize genres! It's women's fiction. Not Women's Fiction. (Apparently I missed that grammar lesson)

6. Mention your word count! This is apparently the only thing I did right...

7. Mention if it's your first novel! Oh wait, I got that one right too. As if it wasn't painfully obvious based on my pathetic, sickly query.

I'm sorry about all the exclamation points. But, with the amount of agency blogs I read, I'm at the point where I feel every agent is yelling at me. I know they aren't. I imagine that they are really good people. Good people who read a lot of crap. So I don't blame them if they get ornery about the things they receive in their slush piles.

I feel fortunate that I got this query critiqued before I sent it out. They confirmed what I had long suspected: my manuscript would have been rejected. But guess what? It wasn't real! I have another shot! So, the experience is ridiculously valuable. Ridiculously. I told you that was my crutch word (no, I didn't use it in my query).

I urge all of you to try and enter these kinds of contests. I will try and post more of them here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Artist Is Present

I went to the MoMA on Friday to see the Tim Burton exhibit. I thought I would write a blog post about it to share with all of you. But I quickly abandoned that idea. Because, while Burton's work was certainly inspiring, it was not the exhibit that I became obsessed with at the museum that day.
What I did become obsessed with surprised me.

I am not the right person to give you a history on Marina Abramovic's work. I know nothing about her. But on Friday she sat, cloaked in blue, in the middle of a huge open space on a wooden chair with a person directly opposite her. There was a wooden table in the middle. And that was all. When I first walked by, I assumed this was staged. I figured I was supposed to watch two people staring at one another all day and think, "Oh my, how clever these Slavic nations are with their very pale, tall people being all art-tastic."

But as I became transfixed upon their staring contest, I wanted to know more. I learned that the exhibit is called "The Artist is Present" and that it was not staged. In fact, anyone could walk up and sit in the chair opposite her and join in. Anyone. And this really intrigued me. A rotating cast of characters were going to join her at that table all day. For 3 months. And when they did. Anything at all could happen. Or nothing could happen.

Well. This just about blew my mind.

I found myself completely absorbed with what might happen. I waited for one participant to get up so a new one could rotate in. I watched every small movement each one of them made. She moved her hand to her knee! I saw it! I felt like exclaiming. My goodness, ANYTHING can happen. Did you know that? I felt like telling people. Anything! To be honest with you, in my time spent there (and as much as I hate to admit it, it was a significant amount of time) not much happened. But the possibility kept me there. The idea that something could.

I'm sure a lot of people asked, "Why?" I know I certainly did, at first. But it made me think about why I engage in any activity. Why I go to a museum in the first place. Why I travel to a new country. Why I talk to a person I don't know. Why I write. Why I read. Because two people can sit across the table from one another and anything in the world can happen. And that inspired me more than you can imagine.

For more information on Marina Abramovic's work:

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Alternative

The other day, I was walking along Hicks St. to my apartment, a street that runs above the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. I began thinking about the constant noise streaming from this high traffic road and how accustomed to it I've become. When I turn from Hicks St. on to my own street the sound dulls a bit, but it's still there. A steady rush I can hear from my apartment. It's become a part of the way things work in this neighborhood. The way things are.

But as I walked that day, the noise became overwhelming to me. How is it that I function in a city with so much noise? Why is it that when I collapse on my couch at the end of a long day, I revel in the supposed comfort and silence of my home, but the noise is technically still there?

And then, these thoughts began to spiral. Why do I accept the fact that every restaurant I go to requires a reservation six weeks in advance? Why do I have to strategically plan the time of day I leave for any event in order to account for overcrowding? Why do I stand in art museums waiting behind 6 people deep to see a pencil sketch?

And most importantly, why have we all abandoned the things we love to do because there is simply no convenient way to do them in this strange city? Tyler, whose been golfing since he was 3 years old has a bag of golf clubs sitting in a corner collecting dust. My tennis racket has not seen the light of day in 6 years- the same amount of time I've lived in New York City. What a strange coincidence! I've had similar conversations with others in the concrete jungle, Oh yeah, I freaken love to ski, but the skis don't fit in my studio apartment so I keep them in storage and I don't have a car here because parking is such a b%tch so it's not easy to get to a ski resort...so I haven't skied in like 8 years...

When I travelled to Ithaca, NY two summers ago, I remember planning to eat lunch at a state park. I immediately calculated what time we would have to arrive at the park to make sure we got a picnic table. "We should go early," I cautioned, "EVERYONE will be eating lunch at noon." Of course, I arrived at 'peak lunch time' to an empty park and had my choice of at least 100 free picnic tables. Well Toto, we are not in Central Park anymore, are we?

The first time you attend a movie in New York City-- after waiting in line having tried to attend a film at 8pm on a Saturday night, then settled for a G-rated children's film at 11pm instead of the other 6 movies you gradually watched sell out-- you file away the experience, and you ask yourself, "How can I do it better next time?" You think...if I get tickets on moviefone in advance, and I leave right before everyone gets out of work, maybe I'll get to see the movie I actually want to see this rainy Friday night. No, no, no! Better yet, we'll go during THE DAY! And no one will be there. Mwah ha ha! I've cracked the code, I've done it! We'll go to an 11am showing on a beautiful sunny day. That'll show em!

Life in New York is a constant adjustment. I can't tell you how many times I've been on a subway and been told, "Service is suspended" And suddenly, I am leaving the subway platform and heading upstairs to a neighborhood I've never stepped foot in and, thought, Well, OK. Now what? And some how, some way, I figure out. I get where I'm going. Even if it means walking 20 minutes until I can hail a cab. Walking in 3 wrong directions until I get to the right direction of the other closest subway. (OK, really, I will call my human GPS, Tyler, and ask him which way to go.)

I may sound like I'm over-dramatizing but this is truly the way this city feels on a daily basis. Saturday night dinners become a battle, waiting 2 hours to be seated in a cramped restaurant only to find out they've run out of the dish that everyone is talking about. Sometimes you'll turn a corner and find a construction site blocking the building you need to go into, a police officer shrugging his shoulders, "Well, I'm sorry, there's just no alternative."

And yet, we're all constantly searching for the alternative. The restaurant that hasn't been discovered yet. The other entrance the police officer failed to tell you about. The best way to get a picnic spot if you can't find one on the Great Lawn. You can deny it if you want, but I know all you New Yorkers have waited, shivering with your umbrella, in the pouring rain for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets because "it'll be less crowded during a Nor'easter, honey..."

But I'll tell you, I get a rush when it's pouring rain and I catch the bus by sheer seconds in order to avoid a 15 minute walk to the subway. "Haha! I did it!" I shout too soon, manically dipping my card in the automated machine, as it beeps: Expired. "But, sir," I plead with the busdriver, "I don't have $2.25 in quarters." And there's that shrug, and suddenly, I'm standing back on the street, defeated, getting ready to walk 15 min. in the rain to get a new card.

It's true. No matter how far away you get from the highway, the noise is always there. But, secretly, we all love it. Our ability to survive. To adjust. To challenge everything we see, everything we experience. To, always, always find a better way. They say that New York is a city that never sleeps. But, I think it's a city that never settles. For anything. If there is an alternative, we'll find it. We have to.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday Books for Writers! Marcello In the Real World

Marcello In The Real World
by Francisco Stork

Read this if you are writing:
From a young adult male POV
About people with developmental disabilities
About faith
About a difficult ethical decision
A quite/tame legal thriller
A coming of age story

It's been a while since I've done a Tuesday Books for Writers! post, not because I haven't wanted to, but because I haven't found anything I wanted to write about. I don't go into the archives of my reading past for these things, I'm all about living in the moment, writing and recommending as a read. I read a lot of books I think people will like, but to recommend it to a writer has a whole set of bizarro Melissa rules that, honestly, aren't worth getting into (and the head cold isn't making it any easier).

In any case, me oh my, love that country pie, this book makes the cut. And boy does it ever. This book delves into some of my favorite themes as a reader/writer: religion, ethics, faith, and self-discovery. It involves a narrator with a cognitive disorder (loosely labelled as Asperger Syndrome) and part of it takes place in Vermont (my favorite state).

I could gush all day. I finished with a sigh...an ache in my heart...hope in my soul! (Bear with the head cold, people, bear with it!) But that's of no use to you.

So I'm going to talk about character goals. And birth scenes.

I think it's Writing 101 that your novel needs to begin with something new. A new person walks in the door. Your character is charged with a new mission. He or she is dumped into a new place. And the character must cope. They must survive. The moment this is introduced is what somebody once told me is called the birth scene. And I rather liked it being called that. And it's always a birth scene, even if it means somebody died and left your character all alone. No matter what, they have to be born again into something new. And this novel does it well. Marcello is cast out, against his will, into what we all call the 'real world', to work at his father's law firm for the summer. And when you're a person with special needs who has been sheltered from the real world, as Marcello has, this is a rebirth of epic proportions. And, yet, it's done quietly and beautifully in this novel. So, read this book, and make sure your characters have a 'real world' too.

Then we've got goals. This is also pretty basic. Your character has to have a goal. Something that drives the novel forward. I know you're all thinking, yeah, duh, I know that already but I'm going to challenge you. Does your reader know? After I wrote the first 100 pages of my novel I realized, 'er, uh, Melissa, your peoples ain't ever specified a darn here goal'. It's amazing how the basics can slip away when you're in the trenches. The reason this novel is a good resource for goals is because it's very clearly spelled out. Marcello is someone who thrives on structure, order, and rules. Stork spells that out as soon as we're thrust into the novel. This is Marcello's on-the-surface-goal: If I follow the rules of the law firm, I will get to choose what school I get to go to next year. And I want to go to Patterson. Thank you Marcello. You know about goals. I think it's important to write out a character's goal for the reader. It doesn't have to be as blunt and plain as Marcello's (his character warrants a straight forward telling) but it should be there. Even if it's as subtle and quiet as your character shaking fists at the sky and shouting, "I'll never go hungry again!" Thank you Scarlett O'Hara. You know about goals too.

Anyways, there's that. I hope you'll read this book even if you don't care about birth scenes or goals. What a beautiful story. Just the right balance of plot and character drive. And Marcello. A character who will stay with me always.

Has anyone else read this book? Please share your thoughts if you will :-)

Monday, March 8, 2010

All As Read

Last week I unplugged in order to travel down South. The weather was sunny, the trees were in bloom, and I remembered all the lovely green and blue that makes a girl happy. I returned to Brooklyn to a few things:

1. A blue sky and melted snow.
2. The Oscars. I'll admit, I grew bored early on and went to sleep before the good awards. But there were beautiful dresses. And I'm quite pleased about the first female director win. It's about time.
3. A surprise query critique. More on this later...
4. A cold. My nose and head are stuffed. My eyes are tearing. I feel confused, in general.
5. 520 unread items in my google reader.

And you know what I did, my friends? I moved my little mouse and I marked them All. As. Read.

Clean slate. New day. New week. New month. Stuffed nose.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes: Day 5

This is part of a Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes. Because there ain't no reason to feel cranky when there are so many pretty things in the world to see.

I could not...

Would not...

Still can not...

Will never...
Get over the beautiful trees in Savannah, Georgia.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes: Day 4

This is part of a Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes. Because there ain't no reason to feel cranky when there are so many pretty things in the world to see.

I used to live in this apartment in Ithaca, NY when I was in college. It was a typical college apartment and when you sat on the orange and green striped couch, smoke and dust puffed out, reminding you just how old and used it was. I cringe thinking of that now. And yet, I miss it...
Towards the end of our senior year, when the weather finally got warm, my roomate Lynn had a brilliant idea. We dragged the television outside and watched the food network and the Golden Girls which we watched on Lifetime every day at 6pm.
But I took this photo years later when I went to visit. And it made me smile that the television was right where I wanted to remember it being :-)
Update: It has come to my attention that my dear friend Krista is responsible for the brilliant idea. I have no memory of my past (its true). And I must give credit where credit is due. Because it is rather genius to put a television outside.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes: Day 3

This is part of a Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes. Because there ain't no reason to feel cranky when there are so many pretty things in the world to see.

It was probably 20 degrees on a frigid December afternoon when I took this photo in Montauk, NY. The sky was grey. The town was empty. But there was color and life in the wet, rocky sand. For a moment, they waited and rested, before they were snatched up and taken back by the cold bay.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes: Day 2

This is part of a Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes. Because there ain't no reason to feel cranky when there are so many pretty things in the world to see.

These grapes were growing on the side of a rocky, residential road in Montauroux, France. Every time I see them, it fills me with so many possibilities. That things can grow where there is no one to care for them. That the past is quiet, but it whispers to you to remember. That just before the sun goes down the world becomes purple...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes: Day 1

This is part of a Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes. Because there ain't no reason to feel cranky when there are so many pretty things in the world to see.

I love this series of photos for several reasons:

Partly because Tyler's Uncle Mike is one of the jolliest people I know.

Partly because this pot is tremendous.

Partly because this delightful red kitchen is known for producing incredibly delicious food.

Partly because these lobsters are beautiful.

But mostly because there are few things better than lobster, cooold refreshing Prosecco and the company of great storytellers and all around good folks on a night when you look out the window and it's raining and it doesn't matter at all.