Monthly Archives: March 2013

Why do writers spend money?

It’s expensive to be a struggling writer; there are organizations to join, dues to be paid, subscriptions to maintain and conferences to attend. And the earlier you are in your journey to the holy grail of publication the more you tend to spend. In the beginning, I spent money to learn the craft, with classes online and at local writing enclaves like Grub Street. Then I started to attend conferences sponsored by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) so I could learn more about the business of publishing and broaden my network. After several years of that, I am reasonably confident that my work is solid and that I understand how the publishing game is played. You would think that would mean that I could save my money and stay home, but you’d be wrong. Writing is a lonely job, and the best way to combat that is to get out and mingle with other writers.

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a small conference in Rhode Island called Whispering Pines. The conference is sixteen or seventeen years old and is run under the auspices of the SCBWI and managed, in recent years, as a labor of love by an author named Lynda Mullaly Hunt. One of the many things she does to make the retreat a success is entice industry folks, agents, editors, authors and illustrators, to attend as mentors. Each attendee submits pages ahead of time that are then shared with one of the mentors who arrive at Whispering Pines ready to provide a critique. Every newbie hopes that they will have been assigned to an agent or editor who will love their work so much that they will sign them on the spot—until we discover that the best critiques come from the authors.

Agents and editors read hundreds, thousands, of query letters, first pages and partial manuscripts every year. The chances are that even if they started their careers as warm, nurturing, idealists, they’ve been worn down by the sheer volume of material they are bombarded with daily. As one editor explained, she can tell immediately if she’s interested in a submission—immediately. She scans the first paragraph and, most times, hits the delete key. Now, that doesn’t mean that she can’t give an excellent critique, but explaining why a non-agented submission isn’t good enough is not typically part of her job.

Authors tend to have a more empathetic approach. I assume that’s because they remember being on the receiving end of rejection. And that was certainly my experience at Whispering Pines when I had the opportunity to spend half an hour with Leslie Connor, the author of the picture book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel (illustrated by the incomparable Vermont artist Mary Azarian), and middle grade novels including Waiting for Normal and Crunch. Her demeanor was warm and friendly, and her critique was thoughtful and thorough. I clearly still have work to do, but I left our meeting armed with all kinds of good ideas, encouraged and eager to get back to work.

And that is why writers continue to spend money on conferences; to remind ourselves that we’re not alone; to commune with people who understand what we’re going through; and to build up our creative reserves until the next time we can all come together. I consider it money well spent.

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Curing metrophobia

When we visited the middle school the spring before my daughter was to begin, the head of the math department asked, “Who here is afraid of math?” Naturally I raised my hand.

“That’s the last time I want you to admit that out loud,” he said, embarrassing those of us who had raised them into dropping our hands. I understand why he did that, but in hindsight I’m wondering why the same wasn’t done for poetry, because let’s face it, there are a lot of people who are afraid of poetry, too. There’s even a word for it, according to this recent post by Kim Rosen, metrophobia.

I was aware, growing up, that poetry had its place. I knew that my father had wooed my mother with A. A. Milne poems and clearly she thought that was winsome because she married him. She, however, was a fan of more traditional poets, Emily Dickinson being one of her favorites (as evidenced by my sister’s middle name), and I, too, found Ms. Dickinson reasonably accessible. But as I got older and was forced to study more complex poems in high school and college, my fear grew. Then I met my future father-in-law who enjoys reciting entire poems, including The Tiger by Blake, of which Wikipedia says, “Much of the poem follows the metrical pattern of its first line and can be scanned as trochaic tetrameter catalectic.” That sounds scary—and dangerous!

Recently, I’ve been trying to overcome my fear. Two members of my critique group write children’s poetry, and one of them, Cheryl Lawton Malone, is currently engaged in a March Madness tournament for kid’s poetry. Her first entry, which beat the competition, was called The Giving Tree? (which you will recognize as a riff on The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein). With her permission, here it is in its entirety:

“Malarkey,” said a nearby tree.
What nonsense! Are you kidding me?

Your apples could have fed all types
of millipedes and worms with stripes.

Your branches could have given rest
to turkeys who’ve been dispossessed.

And now he slumps against your stump?
That boy of yours. He’s quite a chump!

On a more grown-up note, another friend, writing under the name Valerie Ann Prescott, has just released a book of poetry called In Gratitude, published by Finishing Line Press. Reproduced here, with permission, the title poem:

In Gratitude

Auntie Mame said:
“Life is a banquet,
and most
poor suckers
are starving…”
I am privileged
not
to have
gone hungry
for a minute
my whole life.
Every
moment
is
pregnant
with
meaning.
There is
no time,
no need,
to give birth.
We each
hold
children
of infinite number
and scope.
I do
not even
choose
a pen
without
a reason
(large
or
small)—
for ease
or comfort
or propinquity—
or because
it is the pen
you
gave me
with such
sweet grace
and kindness.
And I
note
every reason
(small
or
large)
often
smiling
at the
simple pleasure
of
making
a choice.

That poem is not scary, even though it doesn’t rhyme.  It made me think; made me pause; made me appreciate what I have. And it made me want to read another one of her poems, none of which rhyme.  The second half of this slim volume is a series of poems that tell the story of a relationship, starting with “First Meeting.” I read through those holding my breath, feeling the tension, the joy, the pain. In those few poems alone, I got my twelve dollars’ worth.

948Prescottcov

You may still have time to vote for Cheryl Lawton Malone’s next entry in March Madness, and I know you have time to buy Valerie Anne Prescott’s book, so banish your metrophobia—read a poem!

The meaning of meme

The world moves at a dizzying pace (although sometimes I get dizzy when I get out of bed too quickly, so maybe it’s just me). Nowhere is this speed more evident than on the internet, where words have to be invented to keep up with new phenomena. One such word is meme. It’s not really a new word anymore (in internet or dog years), but it may be new to some of you. According to squidoo.com, “An internet phenomenon or a meme is an image, video, phrase or simply an idea that spreads from one person to another seemingly for no logical reason at all.” In the old days, a meme might have been considered a fad. For instance, squeezing twenty people into a phone booth might be a meme today—if you could find a phone booth, fill it with people, and take a picture of it.

Squidoo says that lolcats is the number one meme, as of this writing anyway, and it’s true that lolcats are hysterical. (I gave you the link, but don’t go visit it now or you’ll never finish reading this post; lolcats can keep you occupied for hourz.) If you peruse squidoo’s list of Top Ten Internet Memes, you’ll notice that there are no dog memes there. That’s because, at the risk of starting a flame war (look it up), dogs are not as popular as cats.

I have two cats, Boo and Scout. They’re not particularly funny cats, but the potential is clearly there, as evidenced by Scout, below, doing her impression of a ferret.

scout as ferret

A couple of years ago, my husband shared a story from his job.  Someone had made the unforgiveable mistake of hitting reply all to a company email, thereby informing the entire company of his personal opinion. Immediately, the problem was compounded by many people replying to all that comments such as that should not be sent to everyone. Recognizing that this situation, which happens with alarming regularity, can cause normally sane people to become apoplectic, a clever employee tried to short-circuit the thread with his own reply all that included the photo below, and the subject line, “A picture of a cat with a pancake on its head.”

cat with pancake.jpg

I discovered while writing this piece that the original animal sporting a pancake was actually a rabbit named Oolong. Again, according to squidoo, “The rabbit was famous for the ability to balance various objects on his head…The picture was made into an image macro – much like with lolcats – and frequently posted on various online forums. The caption said: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, so here’s a bunny with a pancake on its head.”” You can read Oolong’s complete history at Know Your Meme.com.

When memes spread “…from one person to another seemingly for no logical reason at all,” it’s called going viral, something I’ve been hoping my blog would do, but I clearly don’t have enough friends on Facebook to make that happen. Can you help? Share this with your friends. If they like it, maybe they’ll tell two friends about it, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. Now that was a meme!

Puerto Rican dining; from the sublime to the ridiculous

If you are planning a trip to Puerto Rico, make a reservation for dinner at Marmalade in Old San Juan before you go. Better yet, make a reservation now, and then plan a trip around it. Reservations can be difficult to get, but a colleague of my father-in-law’s was able to secure one for us in exchange for whatever it is that a chef could want from a chemist with a Nobel prize.

Now, I’m not a foodie, and as such it’s possible that I’m being overly enthusiastic about this restaurant, but the family members who shared this meal were equally effusive. The setting was what I would call elegant chic. I borrowed a photo from the Internet to illustrate, below; it doesn’t do the restaurant justice, but you get the idea.

marmalade2

And the service was spectacular. We hadn’t been seated more than a few minutes when the chef-owner appeared at our table. We knew that’s who he was because he was wearing a white chef’s jacket with his name stitched on it, Peter Schintler. He welcomed us and said, “I understand that one of your party has a gluten allergy.” Normally, that would cause said party member (my daughter, Hannah) to recoil in horror, but not this time. Chef Peter charmed her (and the rest of us) immediately, assuring her that he was going to cater to her with special dishes. Hannah’s meal was a gluten-free Cinderella story; she was treated like a princess – and she loved it. And she wasn’t the only one. We all ate like royalty.

The appetizers we shared, of which there were at least half a dozen, were all to-die-for. My favorite was a hand rolled, black truffle, tagliatelle pasta. I don’t remember ever having tasted a truffle before, but it instantly became my favorite flavor in the world, reinforced by a serving of the chef’s signature dish, an espresso cup of white bean soup, scallions, black truffle oil and pancetta. The cup was too small to lick clean, but believe me, I tried.

marmalade bean soup

All the entrees were fabulous, judging by the fact that not a speck was left on anyone’s plate. And then came desert, which was served the way the appetizers were; there were many of them and we shared them all. It was the adult equivalent of being a kid in a candy store.

Ironically, the night before, we’d eaten at PK2, a Peruvian restaurant a few blocks from Ocean Park, where the experience was at the opposite end of the taste and service spectrum. We were greeted with the announcement that “the system was down,” and they could only take cash. We agreed that we would be able to pay for our meal the old-fashioned way, and then waited half an hour before the first entrée emerged from the kitchen. A few minutes later we had all been served—except for Hannah. Her uncle and I, the two diners closest to her, refrained from eating in solidarity and waited with her for another half hour. In the end, my dish was not only lukewarm, but way too salty, and hers was just blecch.

After we settled the bill, I demanded to know why my poor daughter had had to wait so long for her meal. The answer, in short, was that they’d run out of supplies and had to go buy more in order to complete her dish.

So that’s dining in Puerto Rico, from the sublime to the ridiculous.