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When I was a freshman in high school, I took an introductory journalism course. That spring, a girl I’d known from my neighborhood went with the Heights instrumental music program on a trip to Asia, where she contracted a rare lung disease, which landed her in a coma upon her return home. She died on her sixteenth birthday. I wasn’t yet experienced enough to be on the official newspaper staff, but this girl and I had lived on the same street and had gone to the same school since our earliest elementary days, so when nobody stepped forward to write the article on her life, I did.
I sat in on the counseling sessions the school had set up for her friends, furiously scribbling down the conversations between her closest friends and her boyfriend. Then, accompanied by my mom because I must have been nervous, I walked over to her family’s house and sat at a picnic table in the sideyard to interview her parents and her younger brother. It was, to say the least, a fairly intense experience for a 15-year old, as I dug into their grief and then had to craft a story (with a strict word count) that captured all she had been to those who loved her. I was proud of the story I submitted, even though the one that was eventually published had been sanitized and read a little more news article and little less human interest.
But the significance of that experience is not lost on me as I’ve now spent years upon years writing about darkness and sadness in a way that I hope brings a sense of light and comfort to people.
Today, I was asked to write the article for the Heights Observer on Becca Meyer, who died on Saturday, less than twelve hours after turning six.
Sometimes, in our darkest days with Austin, when we thought he might not survive, I would wonder what my life would have been like if our second baby was conceived a day earlier or a day later than Austin had been. Or even a minute earlier or a minute later. What if I’d gone to the bathroom, gotten a drink of water, fallen asleep first and this child with these specific genes never came to be? Would we have been spared our great sorrow, our worst fears, his tremendous suffering? But every time I allowed myself to think that thought, it was immediately replaced by the full and unwavering knowledge that I would take Austin, with all his physical faults and with all the suffering that we did endure and that we may have endured. I would always still choose to have had him, even if it was only for a short while.
I have to imagine, that because Becca was adopted, her parents have had a similar and yet powerfully different set of what if’s to ponder. What if there was one family ahead of them on the list? What if some other child had been born on June 6 instead of June 7 and they’d been called for that one? What if her birth mother had decided otherwise? How different would their lives be? Would they be spared the unthinkable grief they now feel?
But I know without hesitation that if they’ve ever allowed such questions to run through their minds, they are immediately replaced with two unwavering truths.
One: They would always take the joy of having known this spark of a child, the gift of having loved her and been loved by her, … for the enrichment of their own lives, they would always choose Becca.
And, more importantly, two: If the child we knew as Rebecca Alison Meyer was destined to be in this world and if it was written in her genes or in her stars that cancer would claim her life, then who better to entrust her short life to than the Meyers? Who better to surround her with love and laughter and friendship and all things princess than Kat and Eric, Carolyn and Joshua? Who better to hold her, guide her, sing to her, dance with her, kiss her and love her than the family she was given? How lucky were they to have been given the incredible honor of shaping the course of her too short life? How lucky were they to have had the opportunity to fill it with so much joy? How lucky was she?
Loving her so well and loving her so much may well be the greatest burden of their lives. But I do not doubt that it is also their life’s greatest blessing.
I certainly did not mean to insinuate that my child is not being exposed to literature in his current schooling. He absolutely is, and to a lot of it. His teacher has read them fabulous books, many of long-standing renown. She often (and wisely) reads the first in a series, without continuing on, which piques their interest and then allows the children to pursue the rest of the books on their own. That’s how Braedan was turned on to the Little House books, which I had never ever read until this year, and now with the Narnia books, which again I’d only ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Now, Braedan is reading them all on his own, plus I’m following along by reading them aloud at night.
Braedan has also had that wonderful experience of choosing a spot in the room, even under the desk, to enjoy a carefully chosen book. He has done this quite a lot in his English language arts class this year and it has fostered his love of reading in a way I had only dreamed possible a year ago. He absolutely totally loves reading and allows himself to get fully immersed in a story. He said recently that he finds it hard to go twenty-four hours without his book, even (he noted with some amazement) on the weekend, when reading is not so strictly enforced. He — and we together — have gotten to know the characters in some of these books so that we’ll refer to them in completely unrelated circumstances: “Wow, that reminded me of the way Pa always says….” and “I think if Digory were here, he’d ….”
Unfortunately, the reason Braedan has had such wonderful and free exposure to literature is because he’s in the highest reading class. (Of course, no one ever says these things aloud, but it’s true nonetheless…) I’ve seen, both as a teacher and now as a parent, that the lowest performing students (and those, one might argue, who most need exposure to high quality books) are the ones forced to do tedious and repetitive remedial work with little or no literary value. And that, in my mind, is unacceptable. Meaningful learning takes a long time and can be hard to measure, but it is still immensely important.
When I was teaching 6th grade language arts in Cleveland Municipal, I used to allow my students time to write, without specific guidelines, in their journals. I had created a list of possible topics for them to write about, unless they had their own pending issue. The list was stapled in the front cover of their notebooks and they could freely choose from among the nearly 50 topics. Everything from “Do you think it’s better to be an adult or a child? Explain” to “If you could change one thing about your home life/school/neighborhood/world, what would it be?” Students had to truly think and then had to express their thoughts and opinions in writing in an effective and coherent manner.
The journal entries weren’t graded (gasp! today they’d have to come with a 4-point rubric) but I did indeed read them and often responded in writing right in the notebooks. It provided incredible insight into my students’ lives and minds and built a level of trust between us that served me well. But one day I sat in a meeting with some district administrators where we were discussing the various ways to teach reading and writing, and the woman in charge asked who used journal writing in their classrooms. I proudly raised my hand (thinking, my god, who doesn’t?) and was completely shot down. She berated me and my methods because there was no measurable data generated from them and because they failed to correlate with any specific tested objective. Ummm, how about to think? To have ideas and opinions and actually express them?
The very students who most need opportunities to connect, either with literature or through writing, are the very ones whose educational experiences are being made narrower and narrower until the whole of what they “know” can be expressed by filling in a bubble.
And that, in my mind, is shameful.
For the two weeks following my return from the writing conference, I spent every day revising my book (you know, when I wasn’t busy planning one major event or another … or another). I read through the entire thing, revising word by word and page by page. I was feeling pretty good about it and was easily able to submit the first fifty pages to four of the agents who requested that particular amount. Because I had one agent who wanted the entire manuscript, I kept on, digging deep into the later sections of the book. I had a few moments when I’d come across a page or a section and would pause and wonder why I hadn’t already changed that part. There were a few scenes and pages that I thought I had drastically revised, only to find they were the same as they’d been more than a year ago.
But I carried on, making small tweaks and sweeping changes, … until last Wednesday night at 11:15 when I scrolled to page 223 and realized, with a sickening drop in my stomach: This was not my finished book. These were notes. Literally, notes to myself, things like “Add Dec 14 surgery here; rounds with the docs, plans to remove kidney — include Nurse Shannon.” Notes, shorthand, to myself! But I had already finished my book. I knew I had finished it, I had blogged about it, for crying out loud, and that definitely makes it true. I had even printed up a hard copy for my mom and she’d read the whole thing … I remember. But this version, saved on my trusty little Store n Go device, was not it.
It was really time for me to go to bed, but after a few minutes lying there I got back up to check our other computer. I found a slightly newer version and, after quickly scrolled through the final forty or so pages, discovered that it was better than the one I’d been working on, but still not done. This was still not it. I finally went to bed, worried but absolutely convinced that I had another verison, another more complete version. I had to have another version.
The next day, I searched around for a hard copy but knew that I’d probably used it as scrap paper (no blank white side is safe in this house). Finally, I conducted a full search of my computer and … whaddya know? It appeared in an auto-recovery file … from the trash. Holy crap, at some point, nearly a year ago, I failed to save my damn book. But there it was. Thank god computers never really throw anything away.
I quickly cut and paste the last forty-five pages onto the version I’d been poring over and, upon rereading it, was more relieved than ever to have found it. It is good. And good in a way that would have been very hard to recreate. My opening pages I could recite verbatim, I’ve read them so many damn times. But the ending was new to me, the words were fresh, the emotion was raw — I cried all over again as that kidney slowly began to heal itself. It was good good good. And it was finished.
So, after going through to make sure there weren’t other revisions in the one verison that were better than my more recent revisions in the other version, I attached the whole darn thing, all 84, 212 words of it and sent it off through cyber space.
And now we wait.
I’m sure many of you heard the quick clip on NPR the other morning about Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)’s road to publication. It was, for me, extremely timely and another example of being in the right place at the right time.
Dr Seuss had finished his manuscript for And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street about a little boy imagining what he would tell his father about his disappointingly uneventful walk home. He had submitted it to twenty-seven publishing houses, all of whom had summarily rejected it. He was walking down the street in New York City, ready to toss the manuscript and try his hand at another career, when he happened to bump into an old acquaintance who happened to work in publishing who agreed, probably out of a weary sense of obligation, to look at the work. And, well, the rest is history.
Just think for a moment of a world without Dr. Seuss. Sure, you could say he’s just another talented children’s author, but he was also quite revolutionary. He tackled issues of racism (The Sneetches) and environmentalism (The Lorax) long before it was popular to do so. The Lorax, for one, has stood the test of time; as relevant a creed for anti-consumerism and environmental protection today as it was forty years ago. He made reading cool (I Can Read With My Eyes Shut) and gave students everywhere something to reach for and dream of (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!).
So, I imagine that boy, the one from Mulberry Street, standing instead on the same street where some unknown named Theodor Geisel stood chatting with some other unknown, two boring men in suits engaged in a brief conversation. And that little boy would have looked away, searching for something more exciting, more remarkable to witness, never realizing the magic of what was happening right before his eyes.
Our weekend was fabulous. I could save myself some time and just repost last year’s description, which we pretty much repeated, down to the walking, shopping and eating.
But I’ll grant you a few minutes and go through the details of the actual conference.
First of all, my mom and I were both heartened to discover so many repeat attendees from last year. I think we’d both been a little worried that going back again meant we had somehow failed: we were the losers that ended up being rejected by the agents after all that hard work and here we were, groveling at their feet yet again. But right away at the first session, we started to see people we recognized and several mentioned as they asked their questions to the panels that this was their second visit. (And of course, the conference organizers announced proudly that four conference attendees from the past few years have found representation thanks to the Pitch Slam. FOUR. From the last SEVERAL YEARS. Well. Not sure whether to feel relieved that I wasn’t the only one not picked up or completely discouraged that we’d spent all that money and invested all that hope in something that won’t likely lead anywhere.)
But, it is still so rejuvenating to be there, thinking and listening and talking about nothing but writing. I loved it. It had a few ups and downs though. Friday evening, at the end of the last “Perfecting Your Pitch” session, the moderator asked for brave souls to present their pitch for a very public critique. Well, I was feeling very confident and somehow imagined that I could wow him (this man whose entire job is critiquing pitches–critiquing as in criticizing), so I quickly got in line and stepped up on stage to repeat my memorized lines into the microphone in front of 400-plus people. And he just … well, he just didn’t feel it. He wasn’t harsh or anything, but gave me some generic suggestions that certainly didn’t come across as the praise I’d been imagining in my head. Within a mere eight minutes of my moment in the spotlight, the whole session was over and my mom and I rushed out to meet a friend for dinner, never hearing any feedback from the assembled crowd.
And I was completely deflated, suddenly unsure of what I would say the next day or how to present my work with the same pride I’d had in it a half hour prior. (I know, I need a thick skin for this industry, I know.) I tossed and turned through the night, finally sitting up at 3am to announce to no one and everyone that I’d figured it out. I had a new ending in mind that I liked and was again ready to go.
And as soon as I walked into the first session of Saturday morning, I was met by strangers complimenting me on my story, asking how Austin was, saying they’d teared up and thought it was wonderful. I said to one that I was discouraged by the moderator’s response, even though I knew he wasn’t my target audience (he did say in his critique, “Well, I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know what that feels like”) and she said that she was sitting right in front of him and thought he had gotten emotional after hearing me and covered up his discomfort by being extra unemotional. Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly what happened but it did feel good to have the praise of my colleagues.
So we sat through several morning sessions, all interesting but still only a prelude to the big event of the afternoon. Finally two o’clock rolled around and we formed our long and jittery lines outside the various ballrooms for the equally dreaded and coveted Pitch Slam. And again, just like last year, it was fantastic. I loved my pitch, loved it (I gotta admit, he did nudge me along to improvements I may not have otherwise made). But I stood in some very long lines and saw only seven agents, the exact same number as last year even though it was an entire hour longer! (My mom, by comparison, saw eleven agents over the six she saw last year.) They all asked for my work except one, who was very complimentary but she’s repping a writer whose memoir about his son’s death from cancer is due out soon and she didn’t feel it would be fair to him to take on such a similar project.
One asked for my entire manuscript (the one I’d referred to last week and the one whose line was so damn slow) and another asked for my strongest six pages (NO ONE does that; they all ask for the beginning of the book, either ten or thirty or fifty pages, no one allows you to choose which pages so that ought to be fun).
Of course, as an experienced Pitch Slammer I know that this doesn’t guarantee anything except a read (which is pretty big on its own) but I really felt like I connected with the agents. And like I said last week, it only has to work once. I only need one single agent to like it. So I’ve been furiously revising yet again (I swear, I thought it was done) and plan to send stuff out by the end of the week.
There are a lot of ways to get rejected. Some of those ways feel a bit better than others (say I, tentatively embracing my emerging role as something of an expert on rejection).
I got another rejection last week. Yes, the third of five.
But let me tell you, compared to the generic form letter rejections I’ve received thus far, this one felt pretty darn good.
Lines like, “I read this with great interest and your talent is obvious.” Oh my, thank you. “I thought the writing was truly engaging, and the pacing and structure were excellent.” This is good to hear because the structure of the first part of the book is made up of a combination of blog posts and private journal-like entries, peppered with select responses from readers. I’m comfortable with the format and can’t quite imagine changing it (at least not at this point) but have been aware that someone might ask me to. So the fact that she liked it is a good sign.
And then, “This was a very compelling read for me, but (but, but, big ol BUT) ultimately, I worry that there is no place for this memoir in trade publishing.” Ohhhh . . . . ouch. The words “too medical” found their way in there too. (Well, to her credit — and mine –, she said she was afraid a publisher would think it was too medical, not that she thought so.)
She admitted that this was more about her (in)ability to move my manuscript through the stages of publication due to her inexperience, which was actually a concern of mine about her from the very beginning. She happens to be all of about 25 years old and obviously hasn’t established herself in the industry yet. A new agent like that can push another young adult vampire novel through the process because there’s a template for that — it gets done every day. But a medical memoir, which nobody seems to want these days (due in part to the fact that every single person who’s had cancer or whose parent, spouse, child, friend or pet has had cancer is told they should “write a book about it”), requires someone with enough connections that they can pick up the phone and call their friend, who happens to be a respected editor at a respectable publishing house, and say, “Listen, I know nobody wants another medical memoir but trust me, this one’s good.” She admitted that she doesn’t have the ability to do that but reassured me that someone else out there does and that she’s “sure they’ll scoop it right up.”
Well, I hope so.
The rest of the details: The entire conference was good, with many interesting sessions (and some really boring ones). There was a mix of presentations on writing as a craft (how to build and develop your characters) and writing as a business (how to build and develop an online following). I find the former more enjoyable, even though right now it’s the latter that is probably more important.
There was an enormous focus on using social media and blogging (can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “Search Engine Optimization” — perhaps I should go back to my hot titles?) and on the changing face of the book industry given new technologies (e-books, print-on-demand and so on). It was during these sessions that I found myself (and many of those around me) pulling out the draft of my pitch for endless last minute revising and rehearsing.
I had an opportunity on Friday afternoon to practice my pitch with one of the session presenters, the book world’s expert on pitches and queries. He really helped me hone in on the central theme of my work. I had been planning on opening with one of those poetic lines that sounds really lovely but doesn’t actually give the hard facts an agent needs.
My original first line: The Wrong Side of the Window is, in essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.
The first line I ended up using: The Wrong Side of the Window is an 83,000 word memoir about mothering through adversity.
A bit more to the point, yes? I also originally introduced Austin as “the hero” of the book until he said that, because it’s a memoir, the hero can only be me. So I omitted Austin entirely and spoke solely of myself.
But I did change a few words to say that the book “focused on” Austin, without using the word hero at all. Many of the agents really responded to the Braedan parts (with lots of vigorous head nodding): There’s wide-eyed and gentle Braedan, struggling to find his role in the drama that stars his little brother, whom he adores and resents with equal force.
I had been advised by above-mentioned expert to leave the word “suffering” out of my last line, which I tried to do late Friday night and throughout the Saturday morning sessions before I finally decided it belonged there, because, hello, I can’t just go and lie.
Sad but not depressing and hopeful but not sappy, this story is an intimate look at suffering and loving and really, really living.
After my introductory monologue, there were 90 seconds for discussion, during which time the agents inevitably asked how Austin was doing (and I often joked that they had to read my pages to find out). The other topics ranged from questions about my previous writing experience to “I can’t wait to read more about the Braedan and Austin relationship.”
All in all, I left there feeling listened to, respected and validated (never a bad thing). I will send out my pages tomorrow and expect to hear back from them within four to six weeks. The hearing back part is another huge bonus of going to a conference like this and having a face-to-face meeting. Often, due to the high number of blind submissions an agent receives each week, they say that if you don’t hear back from them within a specified amount of time, assume it’s a no. I think that these agents will provide a response, even if it’s a rejection, because it’s material they actually requested. And, if it is a rejection, they will hopefully take a few minutes to say why. And if it’s not a rejection, then they’ll ask to read the full manuscript, which could take another eight weeks. And after that, they would either offer to represent you (or, hopefully, me!) or not.
Then a whole other process starts during which they need to sell the manuscript to a publishing house who actually publishes the book, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!
Everything else about the weekend was great too. The fellow writers at the conference were extremely interesting to talk with and very supportive of one another’s work. I am sure to have lots of new friends on Facebook this week! My mom and I are excellent travel partners because we like all the same things — same kind of food (must include cheese), same amount of walking (lots), same style of walking (fast), same way to spend any free moment (shopping). So, after finishing our long Pitch Day, we walked 3.6 miles in our newly purchased and miraculously comfortable boots to meet up with old friends at a fabulous little Italian place and eat delicious food and drink fat glasses of wine before walking another 3.6 miles back to our hotel. And we never once turned on the hotel room TV.
Alright, let’s see if I’m ready.
Cape, tights, superpowers? Check. (Thank you, Chris, for reminding me to pack those.)
Well-worded oral pitch that clocks in at 87 seconds (thanks to some careful revisions) and that makes me giddy with pride? Check.
Well-researched list of agents, ranked according to best match for my work? Check.
Carefully chosen outfits that are both comfortable enough to wear all day and yet appropriately stylish? (Hey, you gotta look good.) Check.
Three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams? Che….
Wait a minute. The product of my three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams (and blood, sweat and tears) is staying behind. It’s here, this family, this house, this home. Two mostly healthy, mostly happy, remarkably normal children and one super-strong marriage.